Songs for the spirits

We’re supposed to be at a chorus concert right now. There’s one underway at my kids’ school tonight and Annabelle, who recently received an award for being an “Outstanding Music Student,” steadfastly refused to go and perform in spite of a pretty heavy guilt trip from me.

The guilt trip was Tuesday night. I got home from work after staying late at school to work on a project with some of my own students. One kid didn’t show up. He talked to me about it later. Something had come up. I understood and all, but when I got home from work on Tuesday evening, I started thinking about how, since Annabelle is an Outstanding Music Student, her music teacher would probably appreciate it if she showed up for the Thursday night concert.

I walked in the door, sat down at the table, and began contemplating my evening. It was a bath night for the kids and a big laundry night for me.

“Mom,” Annabelle asked, “can I do your makeup or will you play Barbies?”

Lately she’s been giving me these choices. I’m generally more inclined to let her do my makeup and put jewelry on me because I can be more passive in that role. I just sit there as she cakes blue eyeshadow from my lashes to my eyebrows and smothers my lips in gloss. I think about all the stuff I have to do, which is more relaxing than making Barbie talk while I think about all the stuff I have to do.

Once she had finished my makeup, Annabelle informed me that she tried to make me look younger, “so you don’t get kicked out of the ball.”


Well, I don’t suppose I do look 16.

Not too long ago, I walked into another teacher’s classroom to talk to one of my students about making up a test. As I left, I heard a couple of other kids ask her, “Is that your mom?”

I took this as a major compliment. I figured I was having a really good day if they thought I was her mom.

At any rate, I am Annabelle’s mom, and I had this discussion with Annabelle and my whole family on Tuesday about how we should really go to the chorus concert at the kids’ school because it’s important to show up and be accountable.

“But I don’t want to go,” said Annabelle. “I don’t like the songs we’re singing. A bunch of other kids aren’t going.”

I still thought I was going to win.

After I read her bedtime story, I asked her slyly, “What are you going to wear to the chorus concert on Thursday?”

“I don’t want to go,” she said again, her eyes tearing up. “I don’t want to go.”

I was so mad.

“OK, then,” I said, “I don’t feel like doing your backrub tonight.”

“Is it because of the concert?” she begged. “Is it?”

The answer was yes, but somehow I knew that I needed to say no and leave the room, so that’s what I did.

As I walked back downstairs, I thought of the student survey I’d collected in one of my classes that day. Then I thought of the kindergartners at Annabelle’s school, talking smack about how they didn’t like the songs they were singing and saying they weren’t going to attend the concert. Oh, I was mad.

I finished folding laundry.

“Are you pissed at me?” Dan asked.

“I’m pissed at the world,” I said. Then I went to bed, too exhausted to even enjoy Facebook.

The next day, our little calico cat Rainbow went missing.

Dan and I don’t really like having cats, because they eat a lot and poop a lot and get hair everywhere. But we’ve had them for a couple of years and they’ve become family members.

Dan kept checking the doors to see if Rainbow was waiting to come in like she does every night. She wasn’t there. We both kept thinking we heard a cat meowing. We looked everywhere we could think.

This is Day Two of Rainbow Missing.

Annabelle’s taking it pretty well. She keeps saying Rainbow is a spirit now. I haven’t given up hope yet. I still think the cat may come home.

Yesterday, Annabelle asked me for a picture I had taken off the fridge. It was a photo of her a few years ago with my mom’s dog Mackenzie, who died. I didn’t know why she wanted the photo but I found it for her.

She put it inside a book beside her bed and told me that I couldn’t read the book, that only Mackenzie and my brother Troy and my Aunt Mabel and the other spirits could read the book.

I used to think like that, too, when I was her age. My mom taught us to believe in reincarnation, so at that age, if I lost a pet, I was comforted by the idea that he would come back as something else.

My parents had lots of pets, and sometimes, they died. I think that’s one of many reasons I stopped having them. As I got older, I wanted to limit my emotional liability.

When I was Annabelle’s age I felt so much closer to the natural world and the spiritual world. Everything seemed so real and vibrant and alive and it still seems that way now in my memories.

Maybe middle-age mental malaise is just an extension of the dark cynicism that creeps up during adolescence, dulling the senses. Maybe as we move into old age and lose more pets and loved ones, that sad worldliness fades away and we get closer to the spirit world again, because we have less to lose here and more to gain there. And maybe then all this petty stuff, like kids refusing to go to chorus concerts, doesn’t matter anymore.


Between coffee and Coke

How do you like your coffee? More specifically, what do you put in it? When a friend posed this question on Facebook, I saw it as more than just a question. To me, it was a writing prompt. I couldn’t wait to respond. Then I saw the many other responses. What is it about food that gets people talking? What is it about coffee that so many can relate to?

This week, I’m using Coffeemate’s hazelnut creamer every morning. It has 35 calories per serving and is made with sugar, vegetable oil, and carrageenan. What is carrageenan?

All I know is that it’s like having Starbucks for one five-hundredth of the price. Or something like that. Math isn’t my strong suit. Also, with Coffeemate, I don’t have to stand in line behind a group of middle-schoolers staring at cellphones and talking about, like, really banal stuff, while they wait for strawberry frappuccinos. What is it about waiting in line that breeds misanthropy? Or maybe it’s just waiting in line when you’re thirsty for a $5 coffee, hating yourself because, you know what? You are just like them. You have nothing better to do than to wait in line for coffee.

Hook your reader with a rhetorical question. That’s one of the things we say when we teach writing. I’ve been doing it for so long I didn’t know it was officially a technique. I can’t say I never met a writing prompt I didn’t like, but I can say that food is a topic that gets people going. Food. Weather. Traffic. Animals. Probably in that order. You want to turn everyone off? Start talking about taxes.

In creative writing, we traded prompts. A teenager threw in, “a day without coffee.” When I was young, teenagers didn’t drink coffee. I didn’t start until after college. I attribute coffee’s rise in popularity among the hip and trendy crowd, locally, to the opening of a number of Starbucks stores. They never would consider drinking the mudwater their tired and stressed out parents make at 6 a.m. every day. But put some flavored sugar in it and serve it with a cake pop. Now that is something special.

Presentation is key. I can’t cook, but I can serve coffee and cookies. With enough notice, I can serve coffee in a pretty cup with a saucer to match. I take great solace in that, because sometimes, I can imagine getting lonely.

I told my mom I was turning into her. I’m up in the middle of the night with leg spasms.

“Stop with the caffeine,” she said.

I knew she was right.

So I’m back down to one cup a day. But I cheat a little with tea and sometimes even Coke. Isn’t that horrible? I. Drink. Soda. Sometimes.

Another one of my Facebook friends posts a healthy recipe. Thirty-five comments in response. What does it say about my peer group that we get all excited about healthy food? Does it mean I’m where I’m supposed to be now? Does it mean I’m with the good people, who try to do what’s right?

Don’t tell them I drank a Coke.

The plague

I knew I was in trouble when, on Thursday night, Annabelle announced, “I’m cold and my tummy hurts.”

For the past week, a stomach virus has been among the evils tormenting the city of Winchester. Some kids have missed a week of school, which I assume means their mothers, or fathers, as the case may be, have missed a lot of work.

Second to the stomach virus, among the invincible outside forces afflicting our region, is the weather. It has snowed again. Only eight inches this time, but that is enough to cause widespread misery here. It snowed all day Thursday, and on Friday, secondary roads were still covered with thick chunks of snow and ice.

When Annabelle said she was sick on Thursday night, Dan was out plowing driveways for the neighbors. He is a member of a group of men in our neighborhood who do this, and for some reason, they feel the need to work until midnight to ensure that the driveways of Whittier Acres are passable as soon as possible after the last flake has fallen. Some of the ladies here have hair appointments they can’t miss, even when it’s snowing.

Because she seemed in good spirits and kept playing after the “my tummy hurts” declaration, I thought just maybe it was kind of like all the times my tummy hurt when I was in daycare at the Little Me Great Me preschool in Yellow Springs, West Virginia. In daycare, I often got a tummy ache when the other kids were going for a walk or swimming and I didn’t feel like participating.

So I gave her some Tylenol and put the kids to bed, hoping for the best. Dan was still out plowing snow and I’d been answering phone calls from people inquiring about whether he was available to plow more snow in the morning.

Sometimes I wish I was a man, with tools. Then I’d be in demand, like Dan. It’s so unfair. All this started way back when we were coworkers. Before Dan and I were even really friends, I had to listen to our bosses go on and on about how great he was. It was terribly annoying.

Once, long after Dan had left one of the newspapers where we worked together and where I was still working as a reporter, one of the editors said to me, “You know there is an opening for an editor here.”

I thought he was implying that I should apply for the job. I didn’t want it, but before I could politely decline, he told me that Dan would be a great candidate for the position.

Yeah. So then we both decided to become teachers. Dan got a job like two weeks after he got his teaching license. No one ever asked him in a job interview, “What are you going to do when your children get sick?” No one ever said to him, “Maybe since you have two young children, subbing will be enough work for you.” And if they had, I bet a little voice inside him wouldn’t have said maybe they were right.

But I’ve digressed.

So I got two hours of sleep on Thursday night before I awoke to the sounds of retching in Annabelle’s bedroom. I always get a little paralyzed in these situations. My mom once told my sister about me: “It’s like she goes catatonic.”

I walked into Annabelle’s room and saw her sitting up, vomiting in bed. I said something to her, I can’t remember what, and she responded.

“It’s going to be OK,” I told her, and then walked back into the hallway to get some towels.

Just then, Dan walked in the door. It was midnight.

Some things about coming home here: Never walk in hungry. Do not anticipate solitude, even at midnight.

Dan is aware of both of these rules, so I think he was only mildly surprised when he came home to a disoriented wife and vomiting child.

“I need to get something to eat,” he said, and stomped downstairs.

This is another difference between us that I think has a lot to do with the fact that he is male and I am not. Whenever one of my kids is crying, heck, whenever any kid is crying, I get this frantic feeling. Sometimes so frantic that I go catatonic as a defense mechanism.

A few years ago, I was at the gym trying to leave one of my kids in the daycare there and the attendant had to call this other mother in because her baby was freaking out. The mom stopped her workout and came into the daycare, but then she started doing stretches because, she said, “I don’t want to cramp up.” Meanwhile, the baby was crying.

I was thinking this is really weird. Why isn’t she getting undressed so she can start nursing the baby like I would, because you can’t just sit there and stretch while another woman holds your crying baby?

Maybe stretching was her way of going catatonic, her defense mechanism.

And I realize that story was about another woman, not a man.

So anyway, Dan got some food and I cleaned up the barf. We all went to sleep. Annabelle didn’t throw up again until morning. Now she’s been throwing up off and on for two days. Dan has been plowing snow and I’ve been grading papers and making plans for the sub I’m afraid I may have to call this week.

Her small body radiates heat, yet she is loath to take the medicine.

We, the people of Winchester, Virginia, are sick of snow and sick of viruses. We are prepared to work a five-day week if it means an end to this claustrophobic madness. The only thing worse than being snowed in is being snowed in with sick children crying because they can’t stop vomiting AND they’re bored. How can you be bored while you are barfing?

So Dan and I make more coffee and we wait, because unlike Prince Prospero in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” we have no false security. We know that all the probiotics in the world may not protect us from what is likely coming our way. I’m going to try to eat and drink light for the next couple of days. It isn’t easy, what with the weather, and the boredom, and the crying …