Today is my father’s 74th birthday, and because I can’t be there to feast him, I will write about him (which I hope will make up for the fact that I have not yet sent him a birthday card).
He lives too far away: all the way across the pond in London, when really he should be close by, ready to babysit my daughter at a moment’s notice (ha ha, just kidding…sort of).
I miss him. And I have too many friends whose fathers are no longer with them not to realize how lucky I am to have him still.
He is a child of war, born in Geneva as his family fled Poland in 1940, during the Second World War. He was a refugee and was defined by that word even at the very posh boarding school he went to in England at the age of 3. Strange that after all these years of living around the world, he ends up in England.
He is a fantastic soup maker. I suspect that my daughter is part lentil because I consumed so much of his lentil soup when I was pregnant. When I was a new mother in Dublin, he would fly over to take care of my newborn daughter and I for a week every month, because my (now ex) husband had to work late. He did everything he could to help and even ironed my husband’s shirts. He souped us, he made us go for walks, and he hid his insomnia in order to help me get through the days with my new baby sleeplessness.
He and my mother split when I was 7 years old, so spending time like this together without a special occasion - without Christmas or Easter to justify it - meant a lot. When I took my first trip alone with my 1-month old baby to visit my family in Paris, he came from London to meet me because I was terrified to go alone (these things are scary when you’re a new mother and your breasts are your child’s only sustenance). I remember thinking, wow, so this is what it’s like to have family.
He’s a true Virgo and follows recipes to the last detail, unlike me. Not a pinch of salt will be forgotten. My dad is a black and white kind of man - the in-betweens, the greys have never been his thing, and although this drives me nuts, it’s taught me to be less that way, and more accepting of the grey areas of life.
My father should weigh 300 pounds, because he is a gourmand. He is incapable of eating three After Eights and putting them away. His style is eating half the box and then putting them down til next time - this is perhaps why he also makes the best brandy butter at Christmas time. The oinky gene runs strong in our family, so guess where the other half of the box of After Eights ends up?
He loves to walk and drags the family on long walks that we whine about for the first kilometer or so, and then enjoy. Now I do the same to my child. Through him I learned that I need to move often to be myself, rather than a cranky wench.
My father was a journalist and covered many wars in many places. My brother and I spent crazy holidays with him: if he was posted somewhere dangerous, his company would fly us to meet him in the destination of his choice, like Sardinia or Zermatt - a luxury which has ruined me for all-inclusives forever. But if his posting wasn’t so bad we would inevitably spend family holidays in places others would avoid, like Communist Poland or post-war Lebanon.
(This is us in the forests of Kashmir, India)
I admire him for being so fearless about exploring wherever we ended up - not for him the planning ahead - he would simply pack us up, open up a map and drive until we hit a village he liked the look of. Tourist towns were avoided like a rash and so I feel lucky to have seen the tiniest villages of the Turkish coastline, and to have spent one New Year’s Eve dancing in a Lebanese mountain chalet, mortified at the fact that ohmygod, my dad and stepmother were dancing.
(Central Beirut, 1994 or 1995)
Less fun are moments like when he took our Jeep along a cliff road overlooking the sea in Cyprus until it narrowed to the size of a goat path, with nowhere to turn around in order to come back. We still talk about that one, and he still gets annoyed that we do.
He has made me curious about the world outside my world, and the intelligence I see in him makes me want to heighten mine. He taught me to love reading by reading to me whenever we were together and by sending me books from wherever he was - Daphne du Maurier blew my mind, and Princess Prune Face will forever be a favourite of mine. Now I do the same for my daughter.
(and he still does it for my brother and my kids)
I love that despite his intellect, he feasts on silly action films. The more monosyllabic Arnold Schwarzenegger is, the more my dad enjoys the film. The more bullets and bulk, the better he rates it.
My father is a beautiful man. Inside and out. One of these he has had to work for, the other he didn’t. It has paid off. Happy birthday my grand poobah. Stolat.
I called my grandmother last week. She’s 93 years old, so she’s getting quite fed up with this life of hers. When I ask how she is, she usually responds ‘oh, I’m surviving’.
But this time she cut me off halfway through our conversation, ‘Sophie, will you help me get ready to die?’
Yes, I will. Of course I will.
Many of you know that it’s been a rough few months for my wonderful 92 year old grandmother. She walked out of her lovely Connecticut home one day last September and went to the village to have lunch, and never went home again. The house has since been sold, and my Abwe now lives in an assisted living facility in Vermont.
If it were me, I’d have done my best to overdose on Ensure, but she is braver and more resilient than I am, and somehow finds a reason to get up every day, put on her pearls, and continue.
My daughter and I decided that it might help if she had a cat to keep her company. My grandmother sometimes forgets what she has agreed to in the past, but she has always been clear that yes, she would really love a cat. She was excited at the thought, and we were happy to give her a pet to care for and be loved by more regularly than we can.
Two weekends ago, I took my daughter to the SPCA to find the perfect companion: a loving, older (less hyper), fatter (slower) cat that simply wanted some peace and Cat Chow on a regular basis. It proved harder than expected, because finding a good cat is like online dating: an anxiety-inducing exercise in knowing too much (really, 5’5”?) and not knowing enough, but at least with cats, the picture matches the animal. Yes, that cat’s file says she miaows a lot. What is a lot? And what triggers it? And do I really want to bother with a guy who thinks the Lord of the Rings is a religion?
In the end, we chose Chanelle, a purring 10-year old tabby who had the advantage of being declawed (I know it is a sin, but it was a selling point for my grandmother’s furniture). We picked her up from the SPCA, paid the adoption fee, swore under all religions to treat her with kindness and care, waited for a microchip to be inserted into her body so that even Nasa could track her progress, bought cat food that costs more than my posh face cream, and drove it to Vermont.
Abwe was thrilled, even though the cat hid under her bed almost from the moment she arrived, coming out only occasionally to eat and use the litter. After a few days, the staff began to worry, but I had been told that declawed cats are extra anxious. I was sure that Chanelle would eventually bond with my grandmother, even though Abwe regularly forgot her name.
And then yesterday I received an email from my mother, with this subject line:
My relationship with her is so bad that I assumed that she was being sarcastic, or lying, or had run the cat over herself. I called my grandmother, “I have some very bad news,” she said. “The cat died in my arms this afternoon”.
She sounded so sad. My daughter burst into tears. She told me that Chanelle had died of massive kidney failure at the vet’s office, sedated and without pain.
In cat terms, we call this a tragedy. In car terms, I believe it’s called a lemon. I call it the cat that lasted 10 days, and I hope it felt loved, because I know my grandmother did. Chanelle kept her busy: even worrying about something made my Abwe feel useful and needed, so she has earned her place in the great kitty litter in the sky.
I’m officially the worst chooser of adoptive cats - the ones I fall for are as sweet as they terminal. The last cat I adopted had such major health issues that the left side of her head would squirt horror movie amounts of blood and pus once a year.
But we will try again, for the sake of an older cat that deserves a loving home, and for the sake of a grandmother who deserves to feel she is at home.
Am I wrong to suspect that this doesn’t bode well for online dating?
One hot day during our Greek holiday, the family decided it was time to get up off our beach chairs and explore the treasures of Crete.
The 11 of us piled into two cars and found our way to Knossos, a lovely pile of rocks which is described by Wikipedia as “the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and considered as Europe’s oldest city…The palace of Knossos was undoubtedly the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture.”
Yay, said we. Stefan, what are you doing?
I convinced many of my family to jump like crazed lottery winners…
…in spite of the fact that it was hotter than the surface of the Sun.
And despite the hordes of tourists swarming around.
The truth is, people don’t care what you do.
Except these men, who seem to care a lot about the possibility of Tor’s dress flying up.
I think the Minotaurs would have appreciated our jumping.
I miss each one of you, my fantastic family.
“Hello Sophie, this is Mum. I need to talk to you. Abwe isn’t doing well. The people at the Lodge want a family meeting with us - apparently she is treating the staff badly and telling them she used to have servants”.
Things are not going well.
I took a day off this week to drive down and visit my grandmother at her assisted living home. She has not lost the frantic sound in her voice for weeks now, and says her teeth chatter non-stop if she lets them. I’m worried she may have another heart attack, like the one she had 8 years ago.
“This place is a prison. I’m here to die. I don’t even look presentable, this is not who I am”, she said.
She has not had her hair done, and doesn’t have many of her own things with her. My brother and I will go fetch them in Connecticut where her home stands alone, like a living museum to a past life.
She doesn’t have anybody to confirm that there are no spills on her shirt, and that her clothes are well ironed. She can’t tie her own shoelaces without help. This is hard for anyone, let alone a woman who was known for her independence and sense of style. Her sight has been getting worse and worse, and only last year I wrote down an exchange we had that indicates her hearing may be going too.
- Is that my 8-year old? I called to my daughter, across the house.
- Did you call someone a negro? said my grandmother.
- No, I said “my 8-year old”.
- Well I heard negro.
We giggled a lot at that one.
The truth is that she can be hilariously snobbish. Like the time my ex-husband told her that his father likes to wake up at 5am every day.
“Why? Is he a peasant?”, she asked. That was the day I found out that yes, you can spit orange juice through your nose.
She was brought up in Paris, along with her five siblings. Saying goodnight to her father meant being brought before him by the nanny, kneeling down to kiss his ring, then being ushered out - yes, like the Pope.
She taught me which fork to use, how to address one’s elders, that one should not actually clink your wine glass when you toast (“it’s not done, Sophie”), and all the things I need to ensure I don’t shame myself unintentionally - at least not with my etiquette.
She has always been chic and even breaks her own etiquette rules to remain so, like putting on lipstick in public. It’s just that she hasn’t worn lipstick in weeks, which tells me everything I need to know about her state of mind.
Last Thursday my grandmother left behind her life as she knew it and moved into an “assisted living” facility in Vermont. Much like giving birth, falling ill or dying are life events whose impact on our lives we witness rather than choose, she feels powerless.
She spent her life snubbing her nose at her age, even volunteering at the local nursing home in her late 70s, to “care for the elderly”, as she put it. She kept driving, attending Mass, listening to the news, all the while slowly slowing down. So slowly that she couldn’t see the need for proper help every day. So slowly that we, her family, preferred not to see the need either because it was easier than forcing her to admit she needed help, and to organize it from afar.
A month ago she fell flat on her back in the main street of her little town and ended up in hospital, alone. That fall slapped her life out of recognition, and fast-forwarded her straight into her true age of 92.
She fractured her back, and faced physiotherapy that she never received, because my mother whisked her out of her rehab facility in Connecticut and took her to her home to Vermont.
"I was lying on my back and she came and she said come on, get up, we’re going. And four hours later I was here (in Vermont). A real kidnapping." said my grandmother.
This is how she sees it, fair or not. It is true that her independence was taken from her that day, because she has not been in charge of her own life ever since. She hasn’t seen her home, her things. Her housekeeper calls, her neighbor calls: “Where is L.? I’m worried about her. When is she coming back?”.
My grandmother doesn’t want to return home to Connecticut now, not even to visit - it would hurt her too much she says, she is heartbroken. But when she lived there, she was heartbroken by the loneliness she faced. Either way I share her heartbreak, because there is no happy solution, and I know now that the most important thing she has lost is her peace of mind.
I knew this day would come, just as I knew also that the closer my grandmother got to the end of her life, the more difficult things between my mother and I would become, and that’s saying something. My mother worries that the closeness I’ve shared with my Abwe all my life will interfere with her inheritance.
I’m quite sure that if she cooked for me in the next few weeks, the main ingredient would be rat poison. Thankfully, she doesn’t cook, unless you count the frozen duck she once tried to microwave for Thanksgiving, still in its plastic wrapping.
It has now been five days since my grandmother moved into the surprisingly nice assisted living home that my mother found. Her back door opens onto a green garden, it is spacious and light. But to her, it is a place she didn’t choose, in a state she doesn’t know, where she depends on people who don’t know her.
It may be that the price she is paying to have her physical self cared for will destroy her inner self - the will to live that she needs for all this to have been worth it.
Tomorrow we leave.
I will miss this place, and it’s decadent pace, the 10am wake-ups, the 3pm lunches, the 10pm dinners, the 2am bedtimes. I will miss the late night conversations, the morning efforts to get everybody into cars and somewhere else. The love I’ve received and had the pleasure of giving. The teasing.
Even the ritual hurts that come with being with family are a fair price to pay for such pleasures.
I will miss walking into the pomegranates hanging by the front door, the scent of the jasmine tree, the lemon trees, the olive groves and the curving roads. The hills melting into sunshine, the evening run through the countryside. The long lunches, yes even the omnipresent Greek salads.
I can’t help but wonder why these breaks, holidays, vacations are such small blips in our lives, why we devote the majority of our lives to work, to waiting for these moments.
For now, I’m just hoping I’ve absorbed enough of the above to hang on till the next time.
If you’d zoomed in on our villa hidden in the folds of the Cretan hills a few nights ago, you’d have noticed eleven bodies, aged 5 to 72 years old, stretched out on the ground under the night sky. That was my family, watching for shooting stars.
It was the 12th of August, Ferragosto. In my real life, that wouldn’t mean anything, but now on vacation and here, on this island floating in the middle of my favorite of all seas, the Med, it meant a lot. First, we celebrated my niece’s 8th birthday, as well as all the birthdays we’d missed with gifts, drinks and too much food.
Then we took cushions off the couch and lay on the ground in the front courtyard of our villa to watch the Perseid meteor shower. I was surrounded by some of the people I love most in the world: my two brothers, my sister, my father and beloved stepmother, my sisters-in-law, my niece and nephew and my increasingly defiant little girl.
We chattered while we waited for the sky to shower stars on us, and when it did, we shouted in victory. It was magical to lie there, tipsy with bad Greek wine and the knowledge that I was living something very special. These are the sweetest moments of our togetherness. They make the cost, the trip, the frustrations of family life worthwhile.
We have those too - the frustrations. Because we don’t do anything by half measures: when we get along, we do so with gusto, making almost constant eye contact, hugging each other, listening to each other’s stories without interrupting, sort of. Traditionally this describes the first 24 hours of our family holidays, during which we walk around in a glow of familial love, like those maniacally grinning families in TV commercials for washing detergent, floating in a fog of Tide-scented bliss.
By day 3, we have all overdosed on this orgy of togetherness, and we cope in different ways. My father goes into heavy silences, and inevitably finds a huge hill to climb in order to escape our chatter. The rest of us break into small groups and grumble about it and everything else, and inevitably there will be a row (yes, I’m often involved).
It’s like we’re unconsciously making up for the past three years of family ups and downs in the span of 10 days, so it can be intense at times. But the fact that we come together as often as possible means that we love each other better than we hurt each other.
Today is day 5, and we are back to being a Tide commercial. This afternoon I drove us back from visiting a pile of ancient rocks in a foggy haze of heavy sunshine, my hand on the clutch, weaving through sunshine on mountain roads high above the sea. The hills were layered in light, greys sliding into the blue sea. So beautiful. The car radio didn’t work, so we sang anything we could remember the words to, from Hotel California to Justin Bieber, from Let It Be to…Hallelujah.
I miss this already.