Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Room of My Own

My new office has a view into the backyard, overlooking the deck and a deep thicket of bamboo. The walls are painted light gray, and I have a new, spacious desk. A reading chair and an ottoman sit in the opposite corner. Black and white pictures from T's trips to Italy hang on the wall. Just sitting here gives me profound pleasure.

I've never had a special place to work before. Sure, I've had a desk, but it has sat in my various homes in the bedroom or a hallway. Working remotely before, most of my time was spent in the kitchen or at Starbuck's with my headphones. With two kids and three bedrooms, we didn't have the square footage, so I made do and got things done where I could. It seemed like an extravagance. Or maybe I just needed to be in the middle of things.

For two years after my daughter moved out to stay at her dad's full-time, there was an extra bedroom sitting empty. My son moved into her room, leaving the space at the back of the house empty, save for the cat. Last summer, we used it as a holding spot for the contents of the kitchen, as we gutted and rebuilt it into the beautiful heart of our home.

The cat was problematic. Beautiful, jet black and deeply affectionate, Midnight was terribly lonely when my teenaged son was away, as he increasingly is, even when he is staying at our house. She didn't love being outside, having been beaten up pretty badly by the band of ferals that overran the neighborhood when we first moved there. Inside, when left to her devices, furniture got scratched, and the big furry toddler that is our dog skirmished with her. The litter box smell was overwhelming. I dreaded dealing with it, and got tired of nagging my son to handle it. She took her loneliness out on the room, tearing up and soiling the already aging carpet. Midnight was a holdover from the divorce: in the process of the split, she showed up, a sweet young cat, and bonded with my little boy. I couldn't say no.

We told The Boy it was time to start looking around for a new home, as it wasn't fair to the cat. He nodded, but didn't say much. T made the rounds at assisted living centers to see if perhaps she could find a home being a loving companion to residents. We got one phone call, but it didn't go anywhere. I asked at the vet's office, and they gave me the number of a no-kill shelter. I couldn't dream of doing it. We decided on a Craigslist ad. T's daughter placed it, and said it was good that this wasn't Halloween, as people kill black cats around that time. I was clearly a terrible person.

T got a text one Sunday afternoon, and talked to a woman who wanted to know all about the cat and wanted to come over right away. I wanted to wait; T said no, she was ready now, and we needed to go for it. My heart was heavy as I gathered up the cat's toys, scratching post, food bowl, and vaccination certificate. The Boy was at his dad's, to be picked up the next evening. He wouldn't even get a chance to say goodbye.

The car was old, but it was clean. She was maybe in her early thirties, but the circumstances of her life were etched in her face. She was in sweatpants and an old t-shirt, and had a wild-eyed, squirming toddler by the hand as she approached the door. As she sat in the vacant room and held Midnight, who relished the attention, the woman got tears in her eyes. "I have three kids," she said, "but she's not for them. I want someone who will cuddle and love me." She wore a wedding ring, but there was such sadness in her voice.

Just like that, the cat was gone. Her new owner was thrilled that Midnight was spayed and had her shots, and we had a carrier that T put in the car. I was in the kitchen, crying. As usual, my man understood and gave me solace in his quiet way.

The pickup after Midnight's departure made us both apprehensive. The Boy knew something was up. "What?" I think he thought he was in trouble. We gave him the news, and he said, "Okay. I know we weren't spending enough time with her." A couple of hours later, we got a text from the lady, who said the cat was happily settled in her lap.

The painters came and pulled up the carpet. We got it replaced, and then T's furniture arrived from California, assimilating wonderfully into the space. I sat at my new desk, looking out the window and at the fresh flowers I'd put in a vase. T came in, beaming. "You deserve this," he said. "I am so happy you have a place to write."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

When Your First-Born Leaves for College

It's the scene I've dreamed about since the day she was born. My daughter, delighting in showing me around her new home, a college campus. She is talking a mile a minute, giving me historic details of the beautiful grounds at the University of Arkansas, nestled in the Boston Mountains in the charming town of Fayetteville, and dating back to 1871.

Two weeks ago, her dad and stepmom did the hard stuff, driving a loaded car six hours and saying goodbye. I would have cried all the way home, and was grateful they took on the task. Instead, T and I got to see her settling in; our excuse for a visit, her birthday. Her boyfriend of a year--a bright, capable, and (best of all) calm, young man--is also attending, and when we met them for dinner the night we arrived, it seemed we were socializing with an adult couple, and that she had grown up in a fortnight. I remembered her summer before kindergarten, a time I thought I might reach the end of my parenting tether, only for her to grow into a delightful little girl after a few weeks of big kid school.

--Old Main, University of Arkansas

Not long ago, I visited my alma mater after almost two decades away. As T and I walked around the ivy-covered campus at Queen's University, I recollected how anxious I had been; as a kid from the sticks and holding a keen sense of the social pecking order, my status was surely that of an imposter, and it was only a matter of time before I was found out. It was exhilarating to be around all of these brilliant people, though, and eventually I realized that just reading and writing all day was a luxury I might not enjoy for a long time to come. When my years at school came to an end, I grieved it deeply. The time was coming to face the real world, and fear reared up again with a vengence.

Talking with my daughter over the weekend, I saw a woman with a plan. She said that people look at her sideways when she raises her hand in class to ask a question. Oh, you're the girl I was so in awe of, said I, truthfully. (This elicited a proud smile.) Her confidence has always awed me, as she's been in possession of it since she was a toddler.

On Saturday, the kids decided to go to a football watch party, as the Arkansas Razorbacks were playing Auburn. T is much better-educated than I, but he did it the hard way and didn't get the idyllic undergraduate experience of my youth. College football in the South is a thing unto itself, though, and Texas has taught me what little I know. But I love the game and find the tribal customs behind it fascinating. We decided to hit the sports bar near our hotel to catch a bit of it ourselves.

From a quiet parking lot, we entered a riotous, noisy sea of red. The second quarter had just started, and it looked as though the underdog Hogs, as they are called in local parlance, had a chance. Hope was in the air, and it was making its voice heard. We managed to find one seat at the bar and procured a weak Margarita. The drive began, and so did the call. "Soooey. Sooooooey." T had that wide-eyed look he gets, the one that makes me hysterical with laughter. Watching all of these fans in the grips of the fight song, he was like Anthony Bourdain on location, a stranger in a strange land.

At my daughter's birthday dinner that night, she was telling us about friends who are off at other colleges, and wondering aloud about some of their decisions. "She doesn't know what she's doing," said my daughter about one. I looked askance. She smiled. "Well, maybe I don't either, but at least I act like I do." Fake it 'till you make it. If only she had been around to give me this wisdom when I was eighteen.

The world of work offers us very few clear victories, and on a daily basis, parenting gives us even fewer. Sometimes, though, our children give us moments that rival a Nobel Prize. Watching my girl this past weekend, I know I must have done something well. Until the inevitable bumps ahead, I am going to rest on my laurels for a bit.