Global Mom: 1st World Stress, Like Owning Stuff

From Global Mom: A Memoir

global mom final cover

 

(Cont’d from last post, “Le Chef Makes A Move”)

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Then someone down on the road cleared his throat. “Madame,” Le Chef called up to me, in French with a Breton accent, “Uh, it’s maybe best you get something to write with.”

And after several hours of unloading a container that had not only been somehow partially submerged in water, but had been tampered with somewhere during its thousands of miles in transit, after those patient hours of watching these men fish out our waterlogged belongings from deep in this container, I filled seven full pages of legal pad note paper. Line upon line of damage, disappearance, and loss.

All eight beds and bed frames including headboards and bunk beds, trashed. Two vintage leather chairs from the Marché aux Puces, wedding gifts to each other, rotten from prolonged exposure to moisture and punctured with . . .bicycle handlebars? Lamps, crushed and bent around . . .a basketball? A couch, gored through with . . .fireplace pokers? Clothing, boxes of what we had planned on wearing the next week, rank and fuzzy with mildew. And in the end, a personal visit and apology from the global moving company’s owner and namesake.

Somehow, our Norwegian long table, shipped in a separate and smaller container, made it to France unscathed.

An email to a friend:

Unpacked 17 days straight. All the damaged stuff has to stay here so insurance folks can come by (when?) and verify damage. Moldy mattresses, broken bed frames, incinerated treadmill, everything, stacked against walls in an apartment one-third the size of U.S. home. Only clothes are what we had for summer vacation, we’re trying to clear a path through piles by taking stuff down into the communal cave beneath the building, the greasiest, dustiest dungeon in Paris. Borrowing towels, inflatable mattresses, essentials from church friends who schlep them here by Metro. Incredible folks! Haven’t had a chance to stock up on food which takes forever here, so I’ve been eating mini yogurts from the grocer’s down the street and handfuls of pretzels. R is “floundering”, he claims, totally consumed because his job is 100 percent in French every day. Works councils, labyrinth-like French legalese; he had to appear in court and testify in French last week, oh-la-la. P and C have long school days with a forty-five min bus ride both ways. D adjusting, which means, yes, I’m losing lots of sleep over him. (Can you lose “lots of sleep” from four hours of sleep? Do that math for me, will you dear?:-) Luc in sweet bilingual Montessori preschool across the street: saves my sanity. Living in the middle of Paris decidedly different experience from Versailles, and of course a universe apart from where we’ve just been. Intoxicating, energizing, really. At least. . . I hear it is, because I can’t get to it for all the piles and the work of replacing the piles and all the details of just getting settled, like finally getting working Internet, voilà! When I die and have that Life Review, the whole film’s going to be a vast landscape of moving boxes. Come visit when I have a few square inches for you to stand in.

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Global Mom: Le Chef Makes a Move

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Cont’d from last post: “Our Daughter With The French Name”)

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The head of the moving team, a burly guy you’ll remember from earlier, [in the Foreword of the book], a man I call Le Chef, stood in the middle of Rue du Colonel Combes in Paris’ seventh arrondissement brandishing a huge pair of industrial clippers in his hand ready to perform the ceremonial Cutting of the Lock.

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In theory, our forty-foot moving container had not been opened between locking in the U.S. and lock-cutting in France, so I wasn’t paying too much attention as I leaned out of the second story window, eager to just get this move moving.

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Le Chef cut the lock. One door creaked open a couple of centimeters, and with it, a quick swish of water spilled out of the bed of the container and onto the street. All the moving crew threw quick glances up at me. I was cool. Imperturbable. Blithe-lite.

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The second door creaked open a bit, held back by a man who watched me, not the door. More water. Then two men swung both doors wide open, their eyes squeezed shut, and as those doors swung, a veritable waterfall gushed out onto the road. These men, former fishermen from Brittany, literally hopped out of the way as one mattress after the other, eight in total, slumped out of the back of the trailer. Like enormous slices of pound cake soaked in an ocean of coffee, every bed we owned was moldy and saturated with brine, and fell limply one after the other onto the street. I remained immobile. Blithe-less.

(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Our Daughter With The French Name

From Global Mom: A Memoir

The following I wrote in my journal:

The hardest moment was in our bedroom tonight. We’d already told P by himself, which was a good move. We knew he’d be ecstatic. But C just finished doing Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man” and just last week we promised her a dog. Finally, the dog she’s waited a decade for. For D and L, we would just announce the choice when we’d make it, not discuss it, so we didn’t involve them at first.

Claire as Marian

Claire as Marian

Claire living her dream: horses

Claire living her dream: horses

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Piano teacher down the street

Piano teacher down the street

Big yellow American school bus also down the street...and a 6 minute drive to school

Big yellow American school bus also down the street…and a 6 minute drive to school

Free range living

Free range living

Did I mention a cottage and lots of open space. . .for a dog?

Did I mention a cottage and lots of open space. . .for a dog?

...Or for a little brother?

…Or for a little brother?

P and C were sitting on our sofa. We told them we had big news but wanted to discuss it. This isn’t final, kids, we said. Want to get your reactions. And when we told C, she immediately glazed over then her eyes welled up. P put his arm around her, and she just started crying, crying. “I don’t want to go back to that hard life. This is easy, good, perfect. I want to be here. I want to STAY HERE!” And she fell into P’s arms, bawling. I think I gave R an evil look, and I know I lipped to him, “This means no go.”

We kept trying to reassure her. We haven’t said yes to a thing, we said. We’ve just been asked if we could and we are free to say no, we said. We’ll never do something that makes all of us miserable and that Heavenly Father does not encourage us to do. We walked around and around the back yard, C between us, our arms wrapped around her shoulders, listening as she cried out all the reasons why this was all bad, all wrong. “All bad, all wrong,” she kept crying, stopping to catch her breath, to bend over and then shake herself upright. It broke my heart. I wanted to weep, too, but held it in. I was believing her.

I felt how selfish it would be to pluck them out of such bounty and ease, and I had just hung red geraniums on the wrap around porch, gorgeous! Why would we ever head to where things were, as Claire knew, much harder. The edges, harder. The expectations, harder. The language, harder. The traffic and school and rules and sky and air and everything, she said, HARDER.

Inseparable, these two

Inseparable, these two

What happened when Claire went alone into her room is something Randall and I didn’t ask or hope for. We sat, nauseated and sweaty, conflicted and brokenhearted, hands between knees, rocking back and forth on the edge of our bed. So what? we said to each other, if the company has an “acute” and “special” need? So what if that need is, as they assert, “tailor made” to be filled with Randall’s expertise? So what if this would only be “a couple of years” and then we could come right back to the home and the huge yard and the cul de sac on the hill and corporate headquarters where Randall, having done this, overseeing his function in the company’s largest subsidiary outside the U.S., would be “very well-positioned”, as he was told, to take on the job that his whole career had been grooming him for, the top and final level.

So what? I said.

So what? he said.

So what?

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And Claire knocked on our door.

She wanted to talk. She came with news that became a turning point and a landmark to which our whole family would refer for years to come. She sat with us on the bed and told us she’d run while holding back tears to her girlfriend down the road. That friend, whose parents were in the middle of a horrible divorce, reassured and comforted Claire, and listened as her new friend cried. Claire had then come back home to kneel at her bed and pray. Not for an answer — to move or not to move, that was not the question — but simple comfort in this hurting moment. It was then that she felt warmth and heat wrap around her twelve-year-old shoulders and a voice (she felt it, she didn’t hear it), told her clearly that though this would be really hard at the beginning, over the long run it would be the best thing for the family.

Yes, she should, we should, move to Paris.

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Global Mom: Home Sweat Home

From Global Mom: A Memoir

As we parents were easing ourselves into the American Way, our children were doing what they’d done elsewhere: watching, observing, mimicking the locals to blend in, picking up the language (or accent), and figuring out the jumble of norms and nuances as they went along.

It went on like this for months and for all of us. Misreading cultural cues, not knowing language signals, not knowing T.V. lingo or T.V. personages or T.V. jokes, feeling alien, foreign, and making up for it in each our individual way.

The Yellow American School Bus

The Yellow American School Bus

Parker became a gangsta.

Dalton got frustrated with himself and too easily with others.

Claire buckled down and took the lead in the school musical.

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Randall buried himself at headquarters.

Luc gave me another round of debilitating back spasms.

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To be fair, it was not Luc alone but the house renovations that gave me the back spasms. You see, with everything pointing to the probability of our staying in this place forever, we decided to dig in deeply as if this was it. This is where we will belong.

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This meant buying a home, the first and the only one we’d ever owned – and who knew if we’d ever own one again? – which home became the project into which I invested my energies. That is, when I wasn’t sitting in conferences with teachers trying to help ease along whichever child was struggling with the adjustment that week. I invested myself into making this home just right for our family, invested myself the way I threw myself into just about everything else. Like a windtunnel full of pepper spray.

This meant a total overhaul from replaced floors to painted walls to added closets and woodwork. It meant a split rail fence around the entire property. A Hansel and Gretel cottage on the back of the property. A copper weather vane.

Can you see that weather vane?

Can you see that weather vane?

And Gretel and. . .?

And Gretel and. . .?

Okay. See the weather vane now?

Okay. See the weather vane now?

It also meant jack-hammering out the whole kitchen and putting in a new one. It was eight consecutive months of consuming work that spanned the dead of winter when we had to heat up pizza in a microwave rigged in the meat locker of a garage. And, yes, it was expensive work, work for which we’d been saving up parsimoniously for over nine years assuming that one day we would, with a mortgage and window boxes, pin ourselves permanently on a map somewhere.

We had vowed, Randall and I, to pass no judgments on this new life until these renovations had run their course. In the meantime, I found myself hunting in grocery store lines and around the edges of the local soccer pitch for a hint — any hint anywhere — of a foreign accent. Otherwise, we felt strangely out-of-place, unable to share a great part of ourselves with others.

One can expect to feel alien in a new or foreign country. But this? Feeling like an immigrant in what’s supposed to be one’s home country? At times, our new existence felt more foreign than anything. I knew less about being a soccer mom than I did about buying fresh produce from local vendors in an open market, less about American sports teams than about Norwegian arctic explorers, less about my native country than I did about ones that, in the end, no one really seemed to want to hear that much about.

This no-man’s-land feeling we tried to counteract by accepting volunteer positions in our church; Randall in the three-member leadership of our 450-member congregation, I in the regional presidency of the organization for all the teenaged girls. We connected with kind, enterprising, talented and patriotic fellow-Americans, whose friendship would accompany us into the years ahead.

But first came March. For ten days we’d been functioning in our new kitchen. I stood in the middle of it and took it all in: hammered copper farm sink and mustardy-sepia granite counter tops and our few select pieces of Provençal and Italian pottery. Norwegian touches. French touches. An antique Swiss cow bell holding back the traditional Scandinavian linen drapes. Modest but tasteful and most importantly, it bore our international imprint.

And the beautiful room made me ache. Relentlessly and acutely, I longed in my bones for France, for Europe in general, for my friends from the world over, for my children’s friends who understood them. What’s more, I was sniffing for the musty smell of a tiny corner market run by a Moroccan, for pungent cheeses sold by someone I knew by name in a shop that closed every day at noon for lunch and every Sunday. But beyond that, I ached for a place where we could be who we all had been individually and as a family, for that special roughness and refinement of a vibrantly textured international setting, and I missed — till-my-throat-constricted, missed — hearing and speaking French.

But that was all over and out. So I was trying to focus on all that was instead of what was not; the great ease and comfort that homogeneity offers, the undeniable traction that a societal system has when there are ample funds and loads of optimism. America’s abundant pluses, including her tremendous energy and enterprising people, the head-spinning convenience and collective casualness, they were not lost on me.

What is there not to love about this?

What is there not to love about this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

Or this?

All that, in spite of my anxiety attack the first time I visited a place called Costco, or the first time I saw a $5.99 burger the size and weight of a French subcompact, which sight gave me heart palpitations and sent me running for cover. Otherwise, I was calmly, steadily fighting to come to terms.

So what do you do when you’re fighting to come to terms? You suit up in chocolate.

I was making chocolate brownies (the first brownies I’d ever made, I borrowed the recipe) for a school function, as I remember. And Randall called.

“Hon, can you meet me at the bottom of the hill? I’m almost home. Come alone.”

And I came alone. . .

And you can bet I came alone. . .

May Day! M’aider!

GLOBAL MOM NEWEST COVER

It’s March. This I know.

And you know about the derivations of the international distress signal.

Nonetheless, I’m here with a sweet linguistic tidbit that might not change your life forever, but could liven up the next nightmare conversation you find yourself stalled in: “Say! Speaking of your Uncle Gilbert’s failed hair transplants, I once learned that. . .” And that’s when you can tell about the origins of the international distress signal.

“May Day” derives from the French, “Help me”, (literally: come to my aid or venez m’aider).

And now you also know how to correctly pronounce words with apostrophes in the middle and random silent consonants at the end.

Now that I’ve helped you with that mini culture capsule, here is how you can help me, if you would, please.

Talk. With me and with each other about this book. How to do this? Come by here for my thrice-weekly posting of excerpts, and let me know what you think. Generate discussion, get a buzz going.

Write. Post about what you like about this book on your own blog. Do you have readers who are interested in:

family
marriage
children
education
culture and travel
language acquisition
motherhood, fatherhood
raising toddlers, raising teens
America’s foreign affairs
international politics
religion and spirituality
women’s issues
expatriate living
Scandinavia (especially Norway)
France (especially Paris)
Germany (especially Bavaria)
Austria (especially Vienna)
Hong Kong
Singapore
Switzerland (especially Geneva)
stress and depression
life with a traveling spouse
tragedy and traumatic loss
acute grief, bereavement and the permanence of absence
finding a community when you live nomadically
music careers
global careers
food, foreign cuisine
fashion
reading
writing
living?

Then refer them to this blog, reblog, post excerpts yourself. . .

Interview. Contact me and let’s do an online interview. I’d love to share details of this journey with a broader audience than I can generate here by myself, and you can help me by inviting me to your virtual neighborhood. I’ll do written or Skyped interviews. I’ll call you on an old fashioned phone, even, I can do that.

Nota bene: You might recall I live in Switzerland, so there could very well be chocolate in the equation. (Not that you need a bribe. . .)

Preorder. Below is a recent email from a wonderful friend:

I just did a quick search on Amazon to see if I could reserve a copy now. Um, apparently not quite yet. When I search on your name, the first hit is “Teen Wolf Season 2,” followed by items such as “Road Trip-Beer Pong” and a baby orangutan doll.

Oh wait, no, I scrolled further down, and there it was! Ok, I am now at the top of Amazon’s list to receive a copy when it becomes available. SO VERY COOL!!! Congratulations…

You can do the same. I will update you on the progress of the publication of Global Mom: A Memoir more often than is rational, here at Melissa Writes of Passage, and I will genuinely listen to your concerns, questions, input and preferences (did you notice the new cover?) And, of course, I’ll even hear your supportive feedback.

Yes. I’ll listen to that, too.

So, venez m’aider!

Global Mom: Going Home, or How to Be Present. Fully.

From Global Mom: A Memoir

We were moving to a Heartland Homeland and in many ways the American Dream Land. A 30-minute drive south from Randall’s company’s headquarters, it is a bucolic, historic swath of Americana with 200-year-old farm houses. . .

Early American home, Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Early American home, Bucks County, Pennsylvania

. . .and snaking stone walls surrounding horse farms and apple orchards. . .

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. . . a place known, as my new neighbor dressed in a Phillies T-shirt told me, for its Blue Ribbon schools and Blue Ribbon beer.

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Despite that appealing description, there were early indications the adjustment was not going to be so easy. Parker was immediately called “Frenchie” at a middle school that had a two percent rotation rate, meaning that people were born there and schooled there and never moved away. Next to zero international influx.

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Our children were mortified when everyone but them knew to stand in perfect unison at the beginning of the school day and recite, “Verbatim, Mom,” Claire said through gritted teeth later, an “Allegiance chant,” Parker cut in, all gluey and glum. “I had to lip sync, Mom,” he went on.

They had never heard it. Never knew it existed. And how would they? But they knew the Norwegian and French national anthems by heart, and I suggested they teach them to their classes as compensation.

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Getting to know Philadephia

Getting to know Philadephia

Then the girls on the elementary school playground were tittering in a tight clump about someone named Lizzy; her clothes, her hair, the way she talked, what she did this week and the week before and what she might do next week. And Claire, a month into this new world, interrupted to ask, “So. . .who’s Lizzy? Is she new here at school like me?” To which all the girls stared. And laughed.

“Lizzy McGuire, Mom,” Claire told me later, not crying, but looking stern, like an anthropologist who’s just spotted a member of an endangered species. “Lizzy, M-C-G-U-I-R-E. We have got to get American T.V.”

Dalton's first ever American soccer league: The Guppies.

Dalton’s first ever American soccer team: The Guppies.

And Dalton was having his own adjustment issues, not spitting at children this time around, thank heavens, but doing other things his teacher was trying to manage. “Twenty-two years as a teacher, Mrs. Bradford, and I have to tell you I’ve never seen anything quite like your dear Dalton.”

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At thirteen, Parker would have probably been riding the plate tectonics of an identity crisis anywhere, but here he was trying wardrobes and body postures and accents in order to fit in. When asked were he was from, he never mentioned a word about his real upbringing, would no longer speak anything but English with us although we’d always hopped from Norwegian to French to English in our home, in our private conversations, to keep secrets as a family when on the streets. It seemed he’d made an overnight decision to be a new person.

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Where, Parker? Where’d you just tell that guy at the gas station you were from?”

“Fully” he tipped his head on which he now wore a flat-rimmed cap tilted strategically off to one side. “Fullydelphia.”

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My son — maybe you remember him from barnepark and the Versailles Club du Basket? — had morphed in the course of exactly 0.6 minutes, into a boy from the hood. From the Fully hood.

After having written an essay for entrance into an honors English course for his school, Parker reported to me later how it had gone.

“So, ça va, mon cœur? How’d it go?”

“’Salright, I guess. I finished the thing. Wrote a good full three pages.”

“Sounds good! What did you write on?”

“Eve.”

“Eve? As in Eve . . . Adam and Eve—Eve?

“Yuh. Eve.” He was adjusting the hat and letting his oversized pants bunch sufficiently around his untied basketball shoes. My boy from Fully. Where’d this kid materialize from?

“As in, you wrote about the Bible story? Or, uh, what?” I kept smiling, taking it easy, knowing that I was now in a country where the separation of church and state is at times maybe a bit smudgy. But. . . Eve?

“They gave me three choices to write on,” he said, “And I picked, ‘Describe the life and accomplishments of your favorite First Lady.’”

“And Eve. . .She was the—”

“The First Lady.”

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Global Mom: Homeland? Security?

The American cemetery of Normandy

The American cemetery of Normandy

From Global Mom: A Memoir:

By November, still keeping a low American profile, and still getting settled into this rented home in the village of Croissy-sur-Seine. . .

Croissy-sur-Seine

Croissy-sur-Seine

. . .Which meant still sorting through boxes to find Christmas decorations I’d barely restacked in a now-dry basement. . .

Still in boxes. . .

Still in boxes. . .

. . .Randall got a call. It was word that he had been selected for an advancement that would put him at corporation headquarters. In New Jersey.

In the U.S. of A.

Could he move immediately?

Let me pause. Let me allow that to sink in a spell.

Home for almost 10 months...

Home for almost 10 months

This scene is not all that atypical in expatriate life. You move to a place — to Moscow from Minneapolis or to Mumbai from Moscow, let’s say – and you just begin figuring things out when a call comes. The call might ask you to repack your boxes and head back to where you just came from, (to the home you just sold, to the school you just forfeited your children’s slots in. . .

Claire and friend. . .

Claire and friend

. . .To your spouses’ practice/studies/firm/office he or she just closed or sold off), or to repack your boxes to head to another place altogether, (where you must find a new home, school, a new life track for everyone), or to repack your boxes because the company is sorry, there is no job anywhere for you in the brand new corporate structure.

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Imagine the scenario where you have uprooted because you’ve accepted an assignment in Cairo or Stockholm or Bangalore where you in good faith are digging in your roots and drinking from a new soil. . . only to be Rubrik-cubed back or away or out of a job all together. Most of the time employees are given the option to keep their job, but sometimes that means the job is in one country and the family stays in another.

Our youngest two

Our youngest two

It is a less-known and less-appealing side of the international life. But given the backdrop of 9/11 and a subsequent military invasion in Iraq, such professional dramas are, we certainly must agree, mini-dramas, even picayune.

Still, they aren’t easy.

Last bike ride before Dad leaves France

Last Sunday bike ride before Dad leaves France for several months in the US

Besides, I was writing about Randall’s offer for a new job.

“No,” he said, “We can’t move right now. We’re just moving in right now. But,” he eyed me for the no-go grimace or the go-ahead nod from across our bedroom where he was receiving this phone call from headquarters. . .

Saying goodbye to Montmartre

Saying goodbye to Montmartre

. . . “But, ” he said, “I can move in the new quarter. I’ll move. Melissa and the kids will finish out the school here year and follow in the summer.”

We did this for many months, Randall in the U.S., the rest of us in France, which time it took for us to get our heads around the prospect of reentering The Homeland.

Montmartre, Place du Tertre

Montmartre, Place du Tertre

Global Mom: 9/11 in Paris

From Global Mom: A Memoir:
Luc we called the Luminous One. Or Lucky Luc, from a French comic strip. Or, most often, The Luc Factor because this luminous, funny boy was also a force of nature. And this factor didn’t make the several serial moves that followed in quick succession any easier.

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Sooner than we’d planned, the Versailles landlord returned to his home and we were out house-hunting again. We found a place being built in a village called Croissy-sur-Seine. The fact that the day the moving van pulled up to the house and the house was yet unfinished, (that is, if you consider a house with no glass in the spaces intended for windows to be “unfinished”), was the first concern.

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But in Versailles I’d weathered fire ants and bats and no parking for our two cars and four basement floods and the destruction of the Tempête de 1999, which uprooted much of Versailles and her magnificent gardens and landed a 200-year-old tree squat across the front seat of our next door neighbor’s car. Optimist that I am, I figured lack of windows just meant better ventilation. Glass half full. House half finished.

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But then the rains came. By that point, luckily, we did have windows, but we also had a basement and in France, as they say, when it rains . . . it floods your basement. I bailed for hours and hours. That was the first week of September. The next week the entire world changed.

Cidalia, my Portuguese girlfriend, was breathless and crying on the phone, “Faut regarder la télé, Mélissa. Faut regarder maintenant!” I had to turn on the T.V., she said. Had to turn it on right now.

There were images of smoke and imploding tall buildings I recognized instantly. This was New York. It was an earthquake or a detonation. But the French news said it was an attaque terroriste. Within twelve hours, all families associated with the American School of Paris were notified by the U.S. Embassy to go underground, to not visit any typical American haunts (certain restaurants, bars, shops, theaters), to not even step out on the streets if possible, and if that was unavoidable, then at least to not do anything that would advertise oneself as American. The children were brought home where they stayed in quasi house arrest. Our American missionary friends came and hid out at our home. We folded away any clothing that might look American; logos, brands, an embroidered eagle. We waited for word on the next move.

Within an hour, my French friends flooded my phone line asking if Randall was safe, if my whole family was safe, if I had any more information, that they were horrifié, terrifié, bouleversé, that they were praying for us, for the victims, for our country.

That this was un temps pour faire du deuil. A time to grieve.

A chapel full of both French and American church members gathered the next day visibly heavy-hearted and many in tears. There, I stood and sang the American national anthem, which was challenging enough. But when I reached, “and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” I was unable to make a sound.

The children did eventually return to school, but when they did, they passed by security guards with submachine guns and black fighter dogs in muzzles. The campus was in profound hyper security and palpable mourning.

Randall canceled his September 12th business trip to Islamabad. His work in the Middle East changed permanently, the events of September 11th leaving hot tremors across Paris and across our remaining lives.

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Blogueuse Relooking

reloooking 1

Which means, roughly, that I’m a female blogger (French: blogueuse), and I’m going to spruce things up (French: re-looking).

I thought it only fair to warn you.  Don’t freak out.  You’ll still recognize me.

relooking 2

Next time you visit here, you won’t find the lugubrious blue-gray background, the flashy hot yellow-to-vermillion-to-hot yellow strip along the top, the calendar and Goodreads list and other cluttery widgets. Maybe you won’t even find my come-hither grin on the left hand side of the screen, I’m still deliberating.  (Although please, I do sincerely want you to come hither. Or, uh, come here.)

relooking 5

What I hope you’ll find is a brighter, fresher page – so subtly tucked, so gently stretched, with a lift and a plump and still all the warmth and candor and depth and spirit I hope you have come to expect when you click for a visit.

Why all of a sudden this relooking? Age, quite frankly.  This blog is coming up on One Year Old.  In blog years, I think that’s over the hill.

relooking 3

But more salient than the age thing, I’m making a shift.  We have spent two solid months of posting exclusively on my book entitled Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward.  As you know, but as I should probably explain to newcomers, that volume is a manuscript born out of our family’s ongoing experience with catastrophic loss. I’ve written at length here at the blog and elsewhere about the realities of traumatic loss, acute grief and the droning underscore of absence that have been our family’s journey since July 2007.  That was when our eldest, Parker, then 18 years and 5 months old, lost his life while attempting at saving another’s.

While I think a lot and deeply about the experience of loss, (my own and others), and while I’ve researched and written extensively about what major and permanent loss means in our lives, (both intimate and communal), it was the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school that flipped a major switch in me.  I simply had to post on only this topic for a while. I’m certainly not done with it – neither with my own grief and burden of absence, nor with writing about it – but I find it necessary to shift this blog’s focus to other topics for a season.

But first, here is where I want to thank you, my readers.  Some of you have come here loyally without posting comments publicly. Instead, you have written to my private email address.  I need you to know that you have taught me life-altering things in your tender and stark messages.  You’ve confided sacred things in me.  You’ve sent, a few of you, pages of  straight-from-the-gut writing, and I have read them with respect. It is hard to know how to thank you enough.

Others of you have posted comments for all of us, mostly strangers to one another, to sift through. Not easy, especially when the topic singes nerve-endings and cuts right down to the marrow.  I honor your experiences and appreciate your trust in sharing such personal treasure in a public forum.

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As I re-look the blog to something slightly cheerier and hopefully easier on your eyes, I hope the content will follow suit. You know already that my book, Global Mom:A Memoir goes to press. . .GOES TO PRESS?. . .(goes to, gulp, press). . .tomorrow. . .and will be in your neighborhood bookstore (and on Amazon) as of June 1.  Between now and then, I want to return to posting from that manuscript. I will be picking up from where we left off ages ago (does it feel like ages ago to you, too?), in Versailles on our way to Croissy-sur-Seine, a village outside of Paris, where we lived for a while.

Then on to five other addresses/languages/cultures/homes.

Here’s what you can anticipate over the next few months:

-More frequent but shorter posts, mostly excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir. (I’ll try to post 3x a week)

-Lots of photos from my archives (which, of course, will not be included in the printed book. So you get the exclusive illustrated version!)

-Behind the scene peeks into the process of writing and editing this book; what it’s been like working with an exceptional publishing/design/editing team in a cutting-edge boutique publishing house; you’ll meet some of my online writing/cheerleader friends (so you might meet yourself); and you’ll get an inkling of how my family has been (stupendous!) through this all.

-Glimpses into what’s happening now in the real Global Mom’s world, namely: what does spring in Switzerland really look, smell, sound and taste like?

-And with all that, some extra fun travel in and around central Europe.  I envision a little Poland rather soon, some more Italy, probably some Austria, undoubtedly a whole lot of France. I’ll take plenty of pictures and even video footage.

-Speaking of video footage, I’ll be adding much more of it, and will link to You Tube.  I want you and others that you tell about this blog and the book, to get to know Global Mom on the road.

-And then, of course, anything else that happens to pop up on the journey.

This should be so much of fun! Thanks to each of you for being here and for making my world an abundant place worth living in.  With you, I want to dig into it with both hands,  my head on straight, and my heart wide open.

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Praying Like a Good Sport

On a basketball court last week, I made some remarkable discoveries about the human spirit, or better, about humans and the Spirit.
Over one hundred high school basketball players from several international schools from across Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean had just watched the final basketball game of the ISST (International Schools Sports Tournament). It had been a day of fierce, rapid-fire competition ricocheting steadily from one hoop to the other. The Hague had just beaten Vienna. The Bonn, Germany gymnasium (where these finals were being held), was full of cheering and sweating, celebration music and congratulatory back-slapping and hand-shaking. I was playing photojournalist. I’d been doing the same that morning in the Cologne cathedral. If you read my last post, you know I’d been somewhat wrapped up in some thoughts about things spiritual, making my hours there maybe not outright holy, but touched lightly with reverence. Then I slung my camera bag over my shoulder, drove with my family the thirty minutes southwards to Bonn, where I hid myself in the stands overhead to take pictures of all the players. We’d not been told who it would be, but we knew that one player from among the hundred-plus, had been voted by the coaches and athletic directors to receive a special award in the name of a deceased player formerly from the tournament. It was this award that has brought our family to these finals for six years running, because it is the namesake of the award that brought us to any of these tournaments, when he’d played in these games himself. IMG_2096

The Parker Bradford ISST Sportsmanship award for basketball was established shortly after our son lost his life, and by the unanimous consent of the coaches in the ISST. All those coaches knew our son. He’d played two years on the American School of Paris varsity basketball team, and had been co-captain when that team had won the ISST championship.
While we sat in the upper deck watching the final game, Randall and I recalled the previous finals over the years and the other recipients of this award. In March 2008, our family was on hand in Frankfurt to present the first award to a player from the British School of the Netherlands. In 2009, we drove from Munich to The Hague, where a player from Brussels received the award. At that ceremony, the hosting coach spontaneously asked all the players to gather in a circle and put their arms around each other’s shoulders as he read a statement about Parker. In 2010, we drove to Zürich where a boy from that home team was selected for the distinction. Again, all the players stood in a linked circle.

In 2011, when the finals were held in Israel, (and we were living in Singapore), Randall, who was on business in Tel Aviv, arranged to attend the championships in Even Yehuda, a thirty-minute drive northward. Randall stood in the middle of the circle of young players as the statement was read. The recipient that year, a Brit named Logan McKee who was playing for Frankfurt, had noted in the statement about our family, that our daughter was attending Brigham Young University. This detail piqued his interest, and when he and Randall were standing for photos afterwards, Logan whispered to Randall, “Are you Mormon?” to which Randal, still smiling for the cameras, said, “Yes, I am. We are LDS.” “So am I,” said Logan, “And I’m leaving soon to serve a full-time mission.” (A few months later, we learned that Logan McKee had been assigned to serve in the very region where both Randall and I had been missionaries in our twenties, in Bavaria and in Austria. He is is completing his service there now).

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In 2012, Randall and I made a 76-hour turnaround trip from Singapore, and pulled into Vienna just in time for the final ISST game. There, the players ringed around us again, their arms draped on one another’s shoulders, as Nicola Bordignon from Milan was announced as the recipient of the Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award.

2012 ISST Div II Boys B-Ball Award Ceremony (Vienna, Austria - March 10, 2012) Nic Bordignon (2012 ISSTs - Vienna)

And now here we are. Nearly six years out. Already 2013. We are sitting in the stands again, eyeing the players, wondering who of all these kids might receive the award that bears the name of Parker Bradford. The Hague wins, the team huddles, and in the flurry, I take three or four shots for no particular reason of one player. I’ve learned over the years of doing this – of watching young men play this game my son lived for – I’ve learned that in order to make it through the moment without sinking into the quicksand of sadness, I need to quickly adjust my focus. I’ve learned to train my sights on the brilliance (and I can only call it that – brilliance) of others’ happiness. This kid, this #7, he seems to be a good model of that brilliance. So I shoot away.

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In the awards assembly that follows, all of the participating team members receive their medals. Team rankings. MVP. The all-tournament team. The Hague, who’s won the tournament, gets a wagonload of medals.Under all the cheering and applause, I watch closely: the testosertoney swaggers, the sagging sports shorts in blue, silver, red or gray nylon, the long sculpted legs, the too-large feet, the cloddy ankle-high shoes, the mitts for hands, the wristbands and head bands, the shaggy hair, the shaved heads, the coolness of their brotherhood, the looseness of their pop humor. This self-evident, laid-back regard for life as theirs, the future as a given. High school boys high-fiving, bouncing on their tip-toes, heading with squared shoulders or the guttural whoop of triumph or an ironic grin into the Big Life awaiting them. The hosting coach steps to the mic to announce a closing award, “the most prestigious award”, he says, and asks all the players to pay close attention to the film that will be shown.

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I haven’t seen my son on the court for six years to this month. I haven’t even seen him in film on the court for nearly that long because I haven’t been able to stomach it. It’s one thing to see him in still shots: frozen, immobile, caught mid-three-pointer. Or trapped at age eleven, playing in the kitchen or at school with friends or on the beach with his younger siblings. Or framed at sixteen on Christmas morning, face exploding with joy while he helps his baby brother tear open the Buzz Lightyear box. I’ve learned to manage the frozen shots and even the warmth of his movement in other family DVD’s, which we now watch nearly every weekend, at Luc’s insistence. But to watch him running the court. I can’t move. I cradle my camera in my lap, knowing there’s nowhere to hide. No one should see these tears from where I am, seated in a dark corner, high school players to my right, my left, guys sniffling behind me, all of us gone silent as we stare from this darkened gymnasium at grainy images of some kid named Parker, playing ball. <a This is hard. This is beautiful. And this invites something that changes the air around me, around us. I can feel things changing, the dust particles settling and so many hearts slowing and limbs and hands growing motionless, eyes widening, a rustle going across the big room, it seems, in an inaudible “shhhhhhh.”

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After we watch the dead boy play – the boy with the long sculpted legs, the too-large feet, the ankle-high shoes, the mitts for hands, the wristbands and head band, the one who wore #8 when he played once on this very court in Bonn – after we watch him kiss that big championship trophy, we sit in the half-lit silence. “All players,” the coach says quietly, “will you please come up here and form a line? We want you to be together, and we parents and coaches want to look at all of you.” One long line of life in its splendid prime. Every last player has his head bowed. These kids – joking, raucous, gobbling burgers, guzzling sports drinks, limbs all akimbo just a minute earlier – are standing there is if awaiting their rites for the monastery. If you’d come in the gym right then, you’d think we were having a prayer. The sight has got me smiling behind my camera, and my eyes are watering with some kind of pained happiness. I’m struggling to see through my lens.

The Father, Randall, with the Brothers, Dalton and Luc at either side, have taken their place center court. My men will present the plaque. I will hide behind my camera, still smiling and teary, sad and giddy. A statement will be read aloud over the sound system by the coach:

Today the Boys Basketball ISST Division II is proud to present the sixth annual “Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award”. Parker Fairbourne Bradford attended the American School of Paris for 8 years. Shortly after his graduation in June 2007, he began his university studies in the United States. Late one afternoon in mid-July, while attending a swimming activity, he and several classmates were standing in a calm section of an irrigation canal, when a deadly but invisible undertow unexpectedly pulled Parker and a fellow student under water. Twice Parker freed himself from the powerful current, even pulling himself onto dry land, yet both times without hesitation he dove back in to try to save his trapped and drowning classmate. His effort was not in vain, as his friend was freed and with the help of another student survived, but it cost Parker his own life. He passed away on July 21, 2007. In memory of this remarkable young man, the ISST Athletic Directors unanimously agreed to establish a sportsmanship award in Parker’s name. Parker loved and enjoyed sports and music throughout his life. He was a gifted drummer and performed in several jazz bands. He was also a leading member of the American School of Paris’s 2006 ISST Division I championship basketball team and 2007 ISST Division I championship volleyball team. Yet as talented as he was as a player, Parker was an even greater sportsman and person. Following his untimely passing in July 2007, six memorial services were held in his honor (3 in the United States and 3 in Paris, France). A percussion scholarship was established in his name at the university he had begun attending; and two monuments were erected in his memory, one at the accident site in the United States, and the other in Norway, where he lived 5 years early in his life. He was and remains a powerful influence and role model for countless friends, teachers, coaches and relatives. Parker is represented here today by his father, Randall; his mother, Melissa; and his brothers, Dalton and Luc, all of whom currently reside in Geneva, Switzerland. Their daughter and Parker’s sister, Claire, is currently a full-time voluntary representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rome, Italy. The Bradford Family has asked me to convey to all of you athletes, coaches and teachers their deep and abiding love for Parker and their solemn gratitude to see him both remembered and honored today in Bonn.

And now the recipient will be announced. But before he is, reader, I’m going to hold you captive for a few short paragraphs, if you’ll let me. May I ask you something? Would you consider carefully what I’m now going to tell you? Will you please sit long and silently on the significance of what I am going to write? Will you pass this knowledge on in your interactions with others? Will you even pass on this post, so that those already touched by loss and grief and everyone who eventually will be, will have this to reference?

-The nature of one’s living relationship with the one who has passed away influences the nature of one’s grief.

Our two youngest boys and our daughter adored their big brother. He was a loving, funny, attentive leader. To say he was a “model brother” might be taking it too far, but people told us (both before and after his death) that they saw Parker as just that. Imperfect in totality, as every one of us surely is, he was still sweet and caring and uncomplicated in his human relationships. Sibling rivalry? Bad memories? Fights to regret? Flicking away of the obnoxious younger kid? None of those describes Parker. He was a peacemaker and protectorate. In fact, all my sweet surviving children suffered the lost of the one they all called their favorite sibling. They suffer still.

-The nature of the death itself influences the nature of a survivor’s grief. Was it a sudden or protracted departure? Was it inexplicable and untimely, or a peaceful relief at the end of a long life well lived? Was it accidental? Violent? Self-inflicted? Did the survivors witness it? Did it implicate family members or a larger community? Was it fraught with legal complications? Are details of the death as yet unresolved? All of these factors and countless more color and intensify the grief experience.

Parker was in the full bloom of perfect health. Dalton had laughed with him and hugged him goodbye while standing in a sunny parking lot outside a college apartment on Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday night, Parker lay in a deep coma. On Saturday morning, Dalton stood next to the gurney as we turned off life support. Dalton, then eleven-years-old, watched his big brother’s body heave its last breath. His death came from nowhere. There was no preparatory time, no chance to absorb on either a practical or a subconscious level what death would mean, what life would be like, what the earth would feel like, who we would all become without him. When the blow of death comes from nowhere, and when it involves intentional violence or when it is a self-inflicted death, the complications and contours of the grief are markedly different, and research notes that the grief experience is, (these are the experts’ words, not mine), “more intense.” My son’s death is of one sort, and it carries, if I dare say this, a certain bitter beauty of meaning. He sacrificed his life for another. But what about the man I met whose daughter choked to death at a family reunion barbeque? Or the other woman, whose daughter was stabbed to death by an intruder with an already-lengthy police record? Or what about all of my friends – too many of them – whose children have taken their own lives, and sometimes in a violent manner and in their parents’ homes? What about the parents of all the little children lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School? And the nameless and innumerable, lost to acts of genocide?

-The nature of the continuity offered by a community – its ability to mourn and comfort, to offer practical assistance, to listen with compassion and to continue to speak the name of the departed – greatly influences the nature of a survivor’s ability to absorb and transcend and even transform grief into a regenerating power.

What can also make the burden of grief heavier is what I’ve tried hard but fear I’ve failed at conveying in my writings to this point. There needs to be an engaged, open, co-mourning community, whose history involves the deceased and whose continuing narrative includes the deceased. None of my children had this. They walked, dizzy in pain, out of a funeral, onto an airplane, and into a world full of strangers whose dominant language they did not speak. Even if they had spoken the same language, no one knew our children’s tragic story. They had no context in which to understand our children’s behavior. Nearly always, when people did find out about Parker, they chose to remain silent about him. There could be no discussion for the children, no continuing narrative about what was raw and throbbing in their bodies every day; and even now, they remember their brother only privately. There is no everyday community that acknowledges that their big brother ever existed. As Dalton told me recently, “It’s like my brother hangs in a museum. And who my age goes to museums?” They’ve found few – a small handful of exceptional people over these nearly six years – who are able to do something as simple as speak their brother’s name.

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“The Parker Bradford Sportsmanship award,” says the coach into the microphone, while Dalton and Luc cast their tear-filled eyes up and down the line of players, “will go this year to #7, from The Hague.” And there it is: that name hanging in that familiar silence saturated in meaning. I’ve felt it all those times before. It’s not merely my perception, although I thought it was that at first. Maternal overlay. Parental preoccupation. But then so many others have commented to me about it afterwards. There is something happening when a court full of high school jocks goes silent, when they voluntarily bow their heads as if praying, a bit broken or lightly hurt, wiping their eyes over a boy they never knew, about a story that, except for basketball, bears little resemblance to their immediate lives.

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What is it? I want to ask you. What is it that is happening in this moment? While it has something to do with Parker, the moment is only partially about him. It’s about us, I think. It is about who we really are. Our human nature is innately spiritual, and the spiritual within us resonates in ways we can sometimes hardly account for. It swells and warms to things that are true, beautiful, eternal and enlivening. To great music, to fine art, to generosity, to forgiveness, to small acts of kindness, to the Spirit. Part of living well with great loss, I believe, requires a conscious surrender to this truth: that the spiritual continues beyond this material existence and can, in given moments, visit, bless and strengthen us.

I’d even say it can drop in on a basketball court. IMG_2128 With their heads bowed, what are these kids wondering? Some are maybe thinking, “When will this thing be over?” I’m a realist. I know teenagers. I know adults, too, and have seen how plenty of us are physically awkward in moments like these, moments with no distraction, moments of stark sincerity. But who can blame us? It’s a question of exposure, maybe, and our modern world gives us precious little exposure to sanctity, reverence, reflective silence, and the long-quiet-unfiltered stare into sweetness, simple goodness and The Way Things Are. If I could read their thought bubbles, though, what might I find? What does it mean to be part of a team? Why do I compete? What is the meaning of this game? What is winning? What is losing? What is my responsibility to my teammates? To my opponents? To people I’ve known for years? Known for a season? What’s my future? My character? What is my responsibility to my family? To strangers? To folks I’ve known, say, for a week? How much do I value the lives of others?

Do their lives matter?

Does my life matter?

Does life matter?

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The optimist in me likes to think that one of these questions or others like them went through the mind of one of those kids that Saturday. I have hope that for #7, a Dutch/American student heading off to Brown University in the U.S., he’ll have a full, rich life during which those questions might inform his decisions. And that once or twice, he might think about Parker, whose award he received. From a letter of thanks Randall wrote to the hosting coach:

It is a remarkable moment in that setting, after all the ruckus and cheering and yelling and shouting (all of which is appropriate), to witness how that gymnasium goes absolutely quiet, and the whole ceremony ends on this singular note of remembrance. Somehow I feel our Parker’s spirit both in the cheering and in the silence. Your decision to call forward this year each of the eight nominees was new, and I thought it was wonderful that each of those young men knew that their coaches had nominated them and that they were considered “sportsmen”. Since the award was inaugurated, I have been struck each year by the reaction of the recipient. It is difficult for me to put my finger on it—I can best describe it as something I see in the boys’ eyes—but it’s also something I can feel: their integrity, the sincerity with which they receive the award, and the humility with which they conduct themselves, much of which must also come from their upbringing. I saw that again when we later met privately with Winston Kortenhorst , #7, and his father, Jules. It was touching for me to hear Winston tell us that of the 3 awards he received that day—the championship trophy for his team, his selection to the all-tournament team, and the Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award—the one that he was proudest of was Parker’s award. You and the other athletic directors have created a marvelous way of leaving these young men each year with a gift—the gift of knowing that as healthy and wonderful as competition is (our Parker was fiercely competitive, too), it is outweighed by their sportsmanship, reflected in the way they play the game and how they carry themselves.

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“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best.” One of Parker’s favorite quotes, from San Antonio Spurs basketball player, Tim Duncan.