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The first birthday present John ever gave me was a sewing machine wrapped in a bath towel held together by safety pins. I used it to reupholster his couch, which years later went up in flames when our first house caught on fire. Some other birthday gifts were a Vita-mix, a cookbook, a punching bag, a necklace, a bike, a Border’s gift card, and the cliched dozen roses to which I said, “You shouldn’t have. Really.” The best gift was a pair of tickets to the Kennedy Center to see W;t. I happened upon them when we were in the car, and he told me to check my teeth for food. I pulled down the visor for the mirror, and there were the tickets.

That was when I was in my thirties. I’m in my forties now. Surprises seem to worry more than thrill me. Predictability, although a big bore in fiction, is, in real life, a very good thing. So, I’ve told John what I want and don’t want for my birthdays. No flowers, gifts, alcohol, sweets, trips, or unapproved experiences, please. Let’s keep things simple. Homemade cards from you and the girls. And a meal at a restaurant we’ve never tried that serves ethnic food we’ve never eaten together before.

Today, we ate Ethiopian for lunch at Shagga, a local family owned restaurant in Hyattsville. Kelem, the owner and cook, and her daughter greeted us at the door. They were warm and friendly, and I felt like I was walking into their home. Another family member, maybe an aunt, was also there, and the three talked in amharic. I liked hearing their conversation in the background.

John and I ate with our hands picking food up with pieces of injera, Ethiopian bread, which feels spongy and dissolves in your mouth. My favorites were the collard greens and the doro alicha, which is chicken simmered in onion, garlic, ginger and herbed butter with a boiled egg. John’s favorite was a dish called tibbs, beef cubes sautéed in onions, green peppers, and herbs. We finished our meal and walked out, our fingertips smelling of spices.

In the parking lot, John gave me a kiss and wished me a happy birthday. He drove to work, and I went home. It was a cold, cloudy, rainy day. Driving home, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What surprise did my birthday instructions thwart?”

Kelem.

The food.

My date.

From Ellie.

From Sophie.

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Published in: on March 31, 2011 at 8:37 pm  Comments (6)  

Found #2

When I saw this punch bowl set in the thrift store, I remembered the summer during graduate school when I broke up with words. Frustrated with their abstractions, elusiveness, intangibility, and their fondness for the sublime, I instead picked up pottery. There was nothing more concrete than playing with clay. The hunk of rejected dirt (nothing could grow in it) had to be kneaded, picked through, watered, coaxed, forced into symmetry on a spinning wheel, dried, baked, cooled, glazed, baked again, then cooled again to become a cup or a bowl. The process was time consuming and unforgiving. One falter along the way could mean returning to the beginning. I know the time and care it takes to make a bowl out of clay. And there is nothing quite like the heft, texture, variations in color and the given uniqueness of each piece found in pottery. It truly has the look and feel of being formed by hands.

Signed by Fred in 1990

Published in: on March 30, 2011 at 12:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Retirement

When we first immigrated to America, my dad worked as a welder. He helped build the Clarendon subway station. That job helped him save enough to buy his friend’s liquor store in Baltimore. The hours were bad, so he sold that business and bought a carry-out in DC. He had to leave before dawn, but at least he got home before dark. Then, he started a printing store, which ended up going out of business. Finally, he bought a dry cleaners, and after five years, sold it and was able to retire.

Within our first seven years in America, my parents managed to move us from the basement of a stranger’s home to a two bedroom apartment in Arlington to another two bedroom apartment in Riverdale, then to a four bedroom house in Potomac. If I were to immigrate to a foreign country not knowing the language with two small children, I don’t know if I’d even survive, let alone end up owning a home.

After my dad’s first couple of months playing golf, gardening, and sleeping in, he got restless, bored and a little depressed. This was about the time I was starting my ebay business, so I asked him to come work for me. The pay wasn’t great, but the hours were flexible, and I could really use the help. He was excited for me. The entrepreneur in him coming back to life, he enthusiastically replied, “Oh sure!”

My dad comes over twice a week to take pictures, process them, and make trips to the post office. It keeps him busy, but not too busy. The work itself isn’t that interesting, but I can tell he likes helping me. He also likes talking to John when he comes home for lunch. They talk current affairs. Today, the topic was Japan.

My dad.

Processing pictures.

On his break.

Published in: on March 25, 2011 at 7:36 pm  Comments (2)  

Forsythia

The shrubs near the playground turn
a color I do not care for.
It makes me run slow.
It makes me run out of breath.
While the other girls twist the branches into crowns,
adorning all who would play king or queen,
I, sick from its ubiquity, break
off a branch, strip
off its flowers, and whip
the air.

Published in: on March 24, 2011 at 11:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Made by John

We were at Plato’s Diner having breakfast on a Sunday, when I sketched a dresser on a napkin. Something simple with clean lines, strong, well made, nothing fancy. A couple of months later, that dresser was in my bedroom.

My sketch didn’t give the dresser an overhang, but John insisted on it so that the entire top could simply lift off like a lid. If we ever had to move it, the weight could be lightened and the pieces would easily fit through doorways. He likes overhangs in general because they give houses and pieces of furniture expression, like eyebrows on a human face. It also functions as protection.

The planks across the front of the drawers were three long pieces, which he cut and placed so the grains lined up. The grooves on which the drawers move are also made of wood and waxed with Ivory soap. Because the dresser is unusually long and its center could cave in over the years, John installed a metal beam that runs diagonally across the bottom, as well as a fifth leg. It’s made of solid maple, chosen for its natural color and its hard surface which takes on a nice polish with wear and age.

My husband is not much of a poet, but when he makes something like this for me, my love for language can take the backseat.

The dresser.

The face.

Maple grains.

Published in: on March 23, 2011 at 4:47 pm  Comments (18)  

The Serpent

I grew up Christian, so the serpent was considered the devil’s pet of choice, if not the devil himself.

That notion started to unravel when I learned in what esteem other cultures and religions held the snake. The ancient Aztecs of Central America worshiped it as a life force. The Australian Aborigines associated it with the creation of life. In India, important people were believed to come back as cobras. Greek mythology has given us our medical symbol of two snakes wrapped around a staff. The serpent symbolized feminine wisdom, healing, initiation, and renewal.

It had a pretty good reputation before Genesis.

The subversive nature of Christianity strongly appeals to me. The last will be first; the first will be last. The meek will inherit the earth. God in human form. Love your enemies. Its way of undermining the powers that be. The religion managed to take a despised symbol like the crucifix and transform it into something held dear and sacred. Consider how dramatically subversive it would be to turn the image of a noose or the electric chair into an icon worthy of worship.

I just wish it didn’t do the same inversion on the symbol of the serpent. The writers and editors of Genesis must have been aware of what it signified. Is it possible that they re-cast the serpent as the bad guy to smear the competition?

The Ouroboros ring designed and made by Tina Tang. I love this ring. I asked Tina, why the snake? She said that it was known as the protector of sacred spaces.

Published in: on March 22, 2011 at 1:23 pm  Comments (2)  

Mondays with Mom #4

I drove Ellie to the emergency room last night because she was urinating blood and screaming while doing it. Her fever was back up. John was out of town, so I called my friend Pam across the street. Her husband, Tom, came over to watch Sophie, while Ellie and I headed over to Holy Cross. She was admitted around 8:00 and discharged around 2:00 in the morning. It was a long night of waiting, tests, tests, and more tests.

The tests came back negative. No bacterial infections, no kidney abnormalities, no blood count irregularities. The doctor really couldn’t say for certain what might be wrong, recommended we wait and see, smiled, wished us a restful night, and rushed off to see another sick child.

We came home to Sophie sound asleep in her room, and Tom getting up off the couch. Ellie crawled into her bed and fell asleep. I answered emails, went to bed, and slept a good three hours. I had a very vivid dream last night of meeting an old girlfriend I hadn’t seen in many years. We ate, talked about old times, caught up, and laughed. The company was palpably enjoyable. Having the comfort of such dreams in the midst of a crisis was a gift. I woke up to thunder and rain outside, feeling calm and rested.

Ellie has improved today. Her fever is gone. Her urine is no longer pink. Her screech-inducing pain has been downgraded to a sting.

My husband is not here, but it’s hard to feel alone with phone calls, emails, and facebook messages of advice, prayers and good wishes. Our neighbor took Sophie to school this morning. Another brought her home. And of course, it’s Monday. My parents came over, my mom carrying in her big shopping bag of food.

The food.

My mom’s french fries. The kids love this.

Sesame chicken with potatoes and carrots.

Kimchi.

Radish greens salad with beets. The greens are from my garden.

Tofu and fish tempura.

Published in: on March 21, 2011 at 6:51 pm  Comments (2)  

Found

As much as it excites me to find second hand designer purses, finding original art is what truly thrills. When a piece strikes me from the dusty shelf of a thrift store, the feeling is not unlike love at first sight.

Yesterday, I found an original signed silk screen print from 1967 by Barclay Sheaks called “Skywatcher II.” The woman in pink looking up at the sky, the yellowing paper, the chipped frame, the signature in pencil… all these details open a world for me. They’re like caffeine for the imagination. What stories do things hold? Where did this hang before it found my mantel? Where are the other twenty-four prints? How about “Skywatcher I”? What was she looking at? Who was this woman to the artist?

Barclay Sheaks was a nationally known painter and founder of the art department of Virginia Wesleyan College. He was 81 years old when he died in April 2010. He mostly painted landscapes. I love the possibility that “Skywatcher II” might have been a departure from how he normally worked, his crack at cool and groovy, perhaps an attempt to follow the Warhol trend of the 60’s.

Pond 1988.

Deserted Farm 1965.

Skywatcher II 1967.

Skywatcher II above my mantel.

Published in: on March 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm  Comments (9)  

Chicken Pox

When I was eleven years old, I had a bad enough fever one night to have my parents squatting at my bedside, my dad’s eyes welling up with tears. The next morning, they went to work at their carry-out, while I stayed home alone and slept in, missing school. My dad later left work right after the lunch rush to pick me up and take me to the doctor’s. Dr. Choi, a deacon from our church, diagnosed me with chicken pox. I remember my dad laughing and smiling and rubbing my head, as we left the doctor’s office. He then took me to work with him, where my mom made me a cheeseburger. I ate so much that afternoon I had to unbutton my jeans.

That evening after dinner, my dad went to Woolco and brought home a latch hook rug kit for me to work on the coming week. I’d have to stay home alone. I’d get bored. My hands needed to keep busy so I wouldn’t scratch. Don’t scratch. Scratching scars. I loved that kit. The box included a canvas with the image of a puppy, a hook needle, and pre-cut yarn bundled by color in plastic casings. I got started right away.

My parents couldn’t miss a single day of work. They had to trust me to stay home alone and take care of myself. I felt the weight of their worry and regret. It was heavy. And I wanted to do my part in lightening it by assuring them that I would be all right. The week went quickly. The rug was finished after the second day. Phone calls from my mom and dad every two to three hours. Lots of TV.

I suppose I could remember that week with ambivalence, but I don’t. I remember it very fondly.

I’m home with my kids. I don’t have to work. This is not an immigrant’s life I lead. However, I want to make memories for them that are just as indelibly dear as my latch-hook-kit memory. Otherwise, twenty years from now, they may write: When I was six years old and fell ill with a mysterious fever, my mother transformed into a robot.

Not the actual rug, but close enough.

Published in: on March 16, 2011 at 8:10 pm  Comments (7)  

Fever

Two nights ago, my six-year-old’s temperature peaked to 106.4 degrees. That’s high. The highest we’d ever seen. Ellie was surprisingly awake, lucid and chatty. The girl loves to chat. Our doctor’s visit ruled out meningitis and strep. She had a stomach virus. She was in no real danger.

When my children or husband get sick, I have a peculiar way of detaching. There are those mothers who are naturals at babying, caring, sympathizing, tending, and nursing the sick back to health. And then, there is me. I wish I were a natural. But I am more like Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I kick in to robotic mode. I will water, feed, clean and medicate you, but don’t expect warm fuzzies. And the sicker you are, the more mechanical my care will be. I am this way because I am afraid. When I feel I am edging too close to witnessing the fragility of life, I temporarily shut down parts of me that might debilitate function. And I need to function.

I must learn to strike a balance.

Ellie has gone eleven straight hours with a normal temperature. She’s kept all her food down today. I hear her chatting with Sophie and her stuffed animals downstairs. I want to go to her and give her a hug. She needs a hug. Or maybe I need one.

In recovery.

Published in: on March 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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