Say You’re Sorry: Part 2 of a 50¢ Parable

A few posts ago, I wrote about how, when I was six, I filched a 50¢ piece from my girlfriend, Laura Nieminen. This quaint story was a parable about sin, investigating what sin did to me. How I burned with both adrenalin and shame, with satisfaction and sorrow. How I hoarded my heist and hid my wrong, regretting (and ruminating about it) all the while. How, in the end, doing wrong didn’t do much to Laura (I doubt she ever knew she was robbed), but made me, the thief, burdened, self-conscious, and split from my true self, uneasy, dis-eased.

Ultimately, the whole episode cost me more than I’m sure it cost Laura.  I mean, look: I’m now at midlife, and–– can you believe it?––I’m here on a blog writing about those same rusty copper pennies.

And over 40 years later, you see it’s still there, that stupid coin, lodged in my memory like a token jammed in the slot of a vending machine. It never bought me what I thought I wanted.  Instead, it cost me, and it still does.

So. What’s a girl to do? What can you do about 45 years of dis-ease?

Luckily, criminal minds (like mine) work swiftly. I hopped on a plan. And onto my keyboard:

“Hello, Melissa! Oh my oh my oh my … How did you come to find me on Facebook? I’m glad that you posted your memories of Bloomington, Indiana…”

“Laura, CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS? Do you even remember me? I’ve got to tell you that there’s a story behind all this, and those pictures from Bloomington that I posted on FB were meant for you, hoping that, when you got my FB friend request, you’d maybe remember me, or at least try to figure out who this random person is, by hopping to my FB page, and would then make the connection.”

And that’s how, after 45+ years, I ended up reconnecting with Laura Nieminen, the girl-now-woman I’d wronged. I then shared with her my post, and wrote out the check: 45 years’ interest on 50¢. The burden off my conscience weighed exponentially more than 50¢, and I was also really glad to have reconnected with a childhood friend.

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Would that all wrongs were as measly as a fistful of pennies.

Would that all the offended were as gracious and good-humored as Laura.

And would that all wrongs were as easily righted.

Well, that’s as far from being true as childhood is from adulthood, as Bloomington, Indiana is from Bad Homburg, Germany. I’ve assembled in my life, as I’ll guess is the case for you, a whole hidden collection of stuff pilfered or appropriated: my sister’s earrings; my roommate’s paperback Milton; a well-honed thought from a great thinker; an evocative turn of phrase––oh, c’mon, just three words!!?––from a fellow writer. I have yet to apologize for them all.

Then there have been the countless ways in which I have knowingly or unknowingly caused others harm, thereby robbing them of their sense of safety with me, trust, security, or as psychiatrist Aaron Lazare writes, their self-concept.

Whether we’ve ignored, belittled, betrayed, or publicly humiliated someone, the common denominator of any personal offense is that we’ve diminished or injured a person’s self-concept. The self-concept is our story about ourselves. It’s our thoughts and feelings about who we are, how we would like to be, and how we would like to be perceived by others.

Lazare, in his excellent article, notes that apologizing––throwing down our arms and exhaling a big, long “mea culpa”––while seen by some as a sign of weakness, is really the epitome of strength. That strength is personal, interpersonal –– as in our relationships with family and friends –– as well as intercultural and international ––as in political tensions like those from South Africa’s apartheid struggle, to which Lazare points:

Take a look at what will certainly go down in history as one of the world’s greatest apologies, F.W. de Klerk’s apology to all South Africans for his party’s imposition of apartheid.

On April 29, 1993, during a press conference, de Klerk acknowledged that apartheid led to forced removals of people from their homes, restrictions on their freedom and jobs, and attacks on their dignity.

He explained that the former leaders of the party were not vicious people and, at the time, it seemed that the policy of separate nations was better than the colonial policies. “It was not our intention to deprive people of their rights and to cause misery, but eventually apartheid led to just that. Insofar as that occurred, we deeply regret it.”

“Deep regret,” de Klerk continued, “goes further than just saying you are sorry. Deep regret says that if I could turn the clock back, and if I could do anything about it, I would have liked to have avoided it.”

In going on to describe a new National Party logo, he said: “It is a statement that we have broken with that which was wrong in the past and are not afraid to say we are deeply sorry that our past policies were wrong.” He promised that the National Party had scrapped apartheid and opened its doors to all South Africans.

Lazare’s reference to de Klerk piqued my interest, because I remember vividly when we lived in Oslo and both de Klerk and Nelson Mandela were awarded the Peace Prize there. Both men appeared on the balcony of the Grand Hotel in the Oslo’s old city center, yet the crowds below on the street shouted down de Klerk. Under a shower of boo’s, the South African leader turned, inching back into the darkness of his hotel room.  Mandela stood there, smiling, as the crowds erupted in a stomping, blasting chant: “Man-del-a! Man-del-a!”

(Apparently, some evils are neither easily nor quickly erased from public –– or private –– memory.)

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Mandela’s acceptance speech was gracious, a template we all can follow in our quest to forgive and to be forgiven:

Far from the rough and tumble of the politics of our own country, I would like to take this opportunity to join the Norwegian Nobel Committee and pay tribute to my joint laureate, Mr. F.W. de Klerk.

He had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done to our country and people through the imposition of the system of apartheid….

Another voice risen from the evils of apartheid (and another voice awarded the Nobel), is that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His resonant No Future Without Forgiveness lays forth the necessity of apologizing, be that on micro or macro levels. “Without forgiveness,” writes Tutu, “there can be no future for a relationship between individuals or within and between nations” (italics mine). He urges individuals (and countries) to make the magnanimous decision to admit a mistake and ask for forgiveness:

“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

randomhouse.com

randomhouse.com

As 2015 gets underway, I am challenging myself and my readers to seriously consider the above words of de Klerk, Mandela, and Tutu, and to absorb this hard but vital caveat from Lazare:

The most common cause of failure in an apology–or an apology altogether avoided–is the offender’s pride. It’s a fear of shame. To apologize, you have to acknowledge that you made a mistake. You have to admit that you failed to live up to values like sensitivity, thoughtfulness, faithfulness, fairness, and honesty. This is an admission that our own self-concept, our story about ourself, is flawed. To honestly admit what you did and show regret may stir a profound experience of shame, a public exposure of weakness. Such an admission is especially difficult to bear when there was some degree of intention behind the wrongdoing.

Egocentricity also factors into failed or avoided apologies. The egocentric is unable to appreciate the suffering of another person; his regret is that he is no longer liked by the person he offended, not that he inflicted harm. That sort of apology takes the form of “I am sorry that you are upset with me” rather than “I am sorry I hurt you.” This offender simply says he is bereft–not guilty, ashamed, or empathic.

Whether we have robbed someone’s fistful of cents or sense of self, it is never too late to discover or demonstrate real strength and say that we are sorry. Apologizing requires honesty, generosity, commitment and courage, demands and deepens our humanity, expands our morality, and costs us absolutely nothing.  Not even 50¢.

 

 

Moved Around, Ripped Out, Messed Up: Has This International Life Damaged My Children?

This year it hit me broadside.

Standing in my entryway, eagerly opening up holiday greeting cards from around the world, I held a family Christmas collage from a friend in my hands. There they were: the crowds of folks gathered for one child’s wedding; a smiling circle cheering another child’s academic achievement; lines of friends there for another child’s community concert. I skimmed the lines about neighbors and friends who rushed in when there was a crisis, and wiped my forehead, now pumping hot blood, astonished by my gut reaction.

Pain. Pain for my children.

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I knew my friend was only sharing her normal, everyday life.  What I read wasn’t shimmering with the exceptional, not in her mind, I’m sure.  It was an obviously normal life to her, probably, a life spent in one spot with lifelong connections, familial solidarity and children held sturdy by that kind of  ballast.  Skimming, though, I saw strong, bold lines that plumb through layers and layers of years and years of rock solid support and shared common experience.

Then, as if someone pulled the plug on the parquet floor beneath me, that sensation hit. And I sank.

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It’s there, in that sunken place, that I developed a T.I.C.K.

Or at least I developed the concept of one and made up the acronym for it.

T.I.C.K.? You’ve probably never heard of it, although maybe you’ve heard of a TCK, or a Third Culture Kid. That’s a child who’s spent the dominant portion of her upbringing in a culture/language/geography other than that of her parents.

TICK is something else, and may be a little more complicated than a TCK. A TICK is a Transient International Composite Kid.

That, ladies and gentlemen, would be my bundle.

Of joy.

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Not only are my kids TCKs, (they’ve spent virtually all  their developmental years in a culture/language/geography other than their parents’ native one), but they’re TICKs, too, having spent their entire lives moving and moving. And moving again. And not merely from one side of a city to another. Nor from one side of a state nor side of one country to another.  They’ve moved from one side of the cultural spectrum to another: Hong Kong, Norway, two different locations in France, America, Germany, Singapore, and now Switzerland.

What does that kind of perpetual and far-flung transience mean for a child? For a teenager? For a young adult? It means multilingual proficiency (about which I’ve just written.)  It means adaptability, flexibility, courage, ability to make friends with your corner lamp post. It means resilience. It means, as many TICKs will tell you, an unusually tight bond as a family. (You’ve gone through quite a lot together). It can mean various positives like increased tolerance, motivation, independence. It can mean you know many things firsthand that others know only virtually.

Unquestionably, there’s a lot gained from traipsing through so much diversity and upheaval. But lately. . . I am tallying the costs. And they are painful to me.

What might those costs be?

Let me give you an idea by showcasing just one of our four, Dalton Haakon Bradford.

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Dalton is now seventeen, a “Year 12” in his international bilingual school here on outskirts of Geneva, or, according to the US system, a high school junior.  In these 17 years, he’s attended a Norwegian preschool…

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A French bilingual preschool…

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An American international kindergarten, an American public 1st grade, a French bilingual primary school…

073A German international school…

088a Singapore-based American international school, and now the Swiss bilingual school from which he will graduate a year from now.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m adding up 8 different approaches to academic instruction, and 4 distinct classroom languages. What you can’t see in that tally are all the friends made and lost. All the homes adapted to and emptied. All the programs begun yet suddenly dropped. All the teachers who had to get to know this kid from ground up, who didn’t know his strength or quirks or particular needs. All the opportunities to audition or compete or enter, lost because, whooops, we can’t promise we’ll be here for that. All the essential secrets held under the coat like a vat of churning lava, because there is no gathered context out of which strangers can interpret him.

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

Those kinds of costs. Let’s let our TICK speak about them for himself.

So, Dalton Bradford: What, in your opinion, have been the costs of this nomadic, international life? 

1) I’ve forfeited familiarity and comfort. More times than I can count, I’ve been the only new kid (or one of the few) in my class, and that has sometimes meant the only one not quite yet speaking the language of instruction. Seems I’m always in the figuring-out phase, just getting my mind organized in a new culture, not to mention a whole new school system and student body. This means my ramp-up time to becoming efficient in a new school costs me academic and social ease.

Versailles, France.

Versailles, France.

2) I’ve had to say goodbye to dozens of friends. Over a dozen times.  This is just hard. It’s gotten easier to keep in touch via FB and Skype, but still virtual’s not the same.  They just aren’t here with me. This repeated separation makes it harder to invest in relationships. I always know either I or they will eventually be leaving. OR, I feel I have to invest in relationships super quickly, because I never know how much time I’ll have. In my current school where there’s only a 7% turnover in the student body from year to year, I’m one of the few who hasn’t been here for most of my education, even all 12 years. That’s danged hard to penetrate.

Croissy-sur Seine, France

Croissy-sur-Seine, France

3) It’s so hard to get academic traction. When you’re not certain how long you’re going to stay in a country, it’s hard to plan on your academic curriculum.  When you can’t plan, you can’t count on completing courses or taking them through their end with certain teachers, then you also can’t commit to being around the next year for certain activities. This was so hard when we moved from Singapore, because I’d just made real strides in the theater department, had a fabulous French instructor, was cruising in Mandarin, and then we suddenly left. I’d banked on being  heavily involved in theater, French and Mandarin the next year. There’s hardly a theater department where I am now. And now I’m the one who helps tutor Mandarin.

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

4) Sometimes others hold back from investing in a friendship with you because they know you’ll be leaving anyway. I’ve heard this in church and school, that others who are locals expect we’ll leave soon anyway, and so why get close? Because of this, they sometimes keep their distance.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia

5) Sometimes I question my identity. Am I American? European? International?  Who am I? I don’t know the first  thing about American TV, football, baseball, even a lot of the daily slang. But I carry a US passport and English is my mother tongue.  Where do I fit in, and where can I count on being understood? Where will my life experiences be valued and not criticized or pigeonholed? Some people who’ve never lived internationally assume all sorts of things about this “luxurious”, “pampered”, “exotic” lifestyle, and they also question your patriotism. (Once, I had to explain to a kid that an expatriate was not an ex-patriot. Yeah, like that was cool.)

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

6) Unlike kids who grow up their whole lives in one place, I struggle to advance and establish myself in extra curricular activities. For example, coaches or instructors or music teachers need to have known you from the year before in order to put you on a team or cast you in the play or in the orchestra.  I’ve been the new kid so much, I get passed up and can’t compete with the ones who’ve established themselves with coaches and mentors over years.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

7) Depending on where you go to University, you might get slammed with major culture shock. I remember how disoriented Claire [my older sister] was her first year at university.  She had a great time eventually, but she talked about always feeling she was looking at the experience from the outside-in. There were attitudes and even language usage she did not “get” at all.  After a year, thanks to a great roommate and some key professors, she had a positive experience. I wonder what the adjustment will be like for me.

Nesøya, Norge

Nesøya, Norge

8) You miss on certain maturation experiences growing up like this. Because I don’t live in one place, I can’t apply for summer jobs in the place in the US where I usually vacation only three weeks per year, so I don’t learn about that kind of responsibility like punching a time card, taking orders, reporting to a boss, earning and saving money. I won’t have  a driver’s license until way after the normal US kid has his, so sometimes when I visit the US I feel less mature than all those kids who’ve been driving and holding down jobs since they were 16. Some even get cars when they’re 16! That’s completely unthinkable in my world. (Getting a license in Europe takes private schooling, loads of money, and buying a car is many times more expensive that doing so in the US.)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton's 16th birthday)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton’s 16th birthday)

Dancing through the night of his Sweet Sixteen, with the Maasai

Dancing with the Maasai through the night of his Sweet Sixteen

9) My life experiences – learning languages, working through serial major changes, gaining cultural fluency, whatever– don’t necessarily translate into high college entrance exam scores. And my schools grade much much harder than most public US schools do. The classes are literally like college classes, and getting an “A” is rare, even for top students. What I’ve spent a lot of energy managing has at times been a distraction from the basics of schooling. It takes a lot of work just figuring out your life again after moving to a new country – finding the right teachers, getting the right group of friends, I’ve done math in three different academic styles with their different approaches to graphing stuff, even – and when you slap on top of that the fact that you’re being schooled in a whole new language, it’s…Well it’s just so much more complicated and demanding.  But you can’t explain all that on the SAT.

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania

DSC_5388DSC_5352

Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

10)My major loss is a secret to nearly everyone I know now.  When I was 11 years old I lost my oldest brother, Parker. I was there in the ICU when he took his last breath.  This huge part of who I am was unknown to the kids at the German school I walked into 2 weeks after my brother’s funeral. Ever since then, I’ve carried this loss with me, always among strangers. That is one of the hardest things in my life, and it hurts me every day in some way, even today, almost six years later.

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

It’s just so hard when the people all around you don’t know your story. I think sometimes about other kids who’ve lived in one place and who’ve lost favorite siblings, and what it must be like to just know that people around you know. They understand things about you that are the very core of who you are.  I’m so jealous of that. This thing that’s enormous for me is hidden from everyone in my surroundings. I hate that. An example: This year (another new school, right?), my English teacher announced a surprise writing assignment that had to do with death.  I totally choked. I froze and couldn’t even think straight.  I felt fuzzy and nauseated.  Normally, I’m a really strong writer – it’s my gift, many teachers say – but I went totally blank and cold.  I had to leave the room. Who can blame my teacher, though?

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

Like who can blame the biology teacher that first month Claire [my older sister] arrived at our new school in Germany? He held this big class-long debate on the ethical implications of sustaining life on a ventilator when a patient is in a deep coma. The debate went on and on, with students (who didn’t know Claire or her story) really getting into it. Didn’t Claire have to run out of the class, Mom, and throw up in the closest bathroom?

Yeah. Right. She did. You can say there are hard aspects.

**

Our two children still at home.

Our two children still at home.

It was February when I finally stored away my holiday greeting cards this year. I’d read through them a couple of times, mesmerized by the tokens of those distant, stable lifestyles my children will never know.  I took a breath. I put them away.  And just when that parquet entry floor began feeling a little sturdier beneath my feet, I discovered that what I’d thought were normal adolescent blips, were actually signs that my boys were having significant (read: what have we done moving our kids here?!) adjustment issues. These concerns shook our world so much, my entry parquet floor practically sprouted grooves.

I think I’ll have to write a sequel to Global Mom: A Memoir.

TICK Mom: A Confession

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What else could you add to this list of costs of a TICK lifestyle?

What suggestions would you make to a TICK like Dalton?

What suggestions would you make to the parent of a TICK?

Do any of these costs surprise you? What do they reveal about what we know or don’t know about another’s life?

How To Raise a Multilingual Child: MUSTS, BESTS & BOOSTS

God is German.

At least that’s what I thought when I was four. By that age, I’d heard more prayers in my home in German than in English (prayers over the food, at bedtime), which was just part of my parents’ method of keeping their second language active and inspiring us kids to some day crack the Teutonic code. We all eventually did.

scienceillustrated.com

scienceillustrated.com

Then we moved to Austria the year I turned fourteen. I found myself plunking through Mozart piano duets and small talk in German with an instructor whose German (even my adolescent American ears knew this) had an accent. I just couldn’t pin it down. And I wasn’t nosey (or fluent) enough to get into an involved conversation about where she was from.

It was only decades later, after having mastered German better than Mozart, that I discovered this piano professor had been American (a transplant from Minnesota), and that my parents had conspired with her to make those hours at her Steinway not only about hammering out scales but also about nailing down German verb conjugations.

Mom and Dad knew intuitively what I’ve learned throughout over twenty years of raising four children in eight countries while learning five languages. To achieve close-to-native fluency, you must have three things:

3 MUSTS: Opportunity, Necessity and Community

“Opportunity” can be a foreign residency, as I was lucky to enjoy many times in my youth, and as my children have been given due to our globally nomadic lifestyle.

njfamily.com

njfamily.com

But not everyone has that kind of opportunity. Take heart! There are others: A parent might speak a foreign tongue. Or there are neighbors/relatives/friends who speak another language. There are immersion classes at school. There is someone somewhere in your neighborhood or circle of acquaintances, I promise this, who fluently speaks a language other than yours. “Opportunity” comes in all sorts of variations of contact with another language.

Still, none of these opportunities –  foreign residency included – can guarantee that you or your child will learn the language. Proof of that is seen in every immigrant community where the members stick in their native tongue cluster, never becoming functional in the language of their host country.  Have you witnessed this anywhere? Everywhere I have lived in the world there seems to have been an expatriate “ghetto,” where folks function (sometimes for years, even decades) without learning the language of the people surrounding them.  That’s what we call a lost opportunity.

So clearly opportunity alone won’t unlock the doors to speaking new a language. What else does one need?

Opportunity+Necessity

There must be opportunity + necessity, so that the brain kicks into gear and latches onto a language in earnest. We’re talking a modicum of desperation. Often, if we know there’s an escape from the difficulties and pain and humiliation of learning a new language, we’ll quickly swerve into that exit. We’ll revert to our mother tongue. We’ll wave off the pesky role-play, giggle, and speak English to the piano teacher.  Or we’ll simply go silent and retreat.  It takes the pressure of real need to heat up those brain cells and stoke our motivation to learn. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of language.  Including your or your child’s next foreign one. You’ll need to create a situation where your child has no choice but to speak. That is half your battle.

serabeena.com

serabeena.com

Necessity + Community

I recall smiling so broadly one day, I nearly strained a cheek muscle. We were less than a year into our new home in Norway when I happened around the corner near the play room and overheard a conversation between our five-year-old Parker and Maria, the friend he’d invited over that afternoon to play. I couldn’t tell who was Norwegian and who was not.  Parker had crossed over.  Maria, with her white curls and sparkly blue eyes had been a major language magnet for our boy. Yes, we lived in Norway.  (Opportunity). And luckily, our son desperately wanted friends. (Necessity). Just as fortunately, Maria – along with kindergarteners and teachers, and our church, soccer, skiing and neighborhood friends – wanted to be our on-site language technicians. (Community).  We all fell right into linguistic stride. Parker – and the rest of us at the time – learned to speak fluently, and we’ve worked at keeping that language alive ever since.

Beyond the ideal situation of enjoying a foreign residency as we did in Norway and other countries, what can one do to approximate opportunity, necessity and community?

multilingualkids.com

multilingualkids.com

3 Bests: Parents, Domains, Schools

Inna is Russian and Joseph is French. They live in Germany. Their work requires that they master English.  They are raising their two children quadrilingually, with each parent consistently speaking his or her mother tongue. German, the children learn in school. English, they learn at church.

1) Speak it! If a parent speaks a foreign language as a mother tongue, that must be his or her language with the child. That practice must be consistent and should begin at the child’s birth. Science has found that until the onset of puberty, children’s brains are able to absorb and order several foreign tongues at once. The earlier the start, the easier the acquisition, and the better the chances of learning with greater facility more languages later in life.

2)Earmark domains.  For Inna and Joseph’s children those domains are 1) home, 2) school and the community at large, and 3) church. Seek out or create domains – places (Spanish-speaking grandma’s on weekends, summer vacations to your Japanese family), activities (soccer in Portuguese, flute lessons in Polish), or relationships (the Italian uncle with whom you Skype, the Swedish cousin to whom you telephone, the Korean pen pal) that will be completely and consistently immersed in the target language.

3)Formal Instruction.  Even the very best course isn’t going to promise native fluency. But a great instructor can give your child an excellent departure point.  Insist that your foreign language teacher be a native speaker, and that he/she teaches the natural approach, which emphasizes in those earliest stages especially verbal interaction and listening comprehension over dissecting the mechanics of grammar. Classes should be taught in the target language, not in the student’s native tongue with mere interjections of the foreign language.  Ask about teaching methodology, favoring classrooms with creative and interactive musical, theatrical, tactile and kinesthetic programs.  The more play there is, especially for younger children, the more effective the language learning will be.

3 BOOSTS: Exposure, Media, Incentives

1) Foreign Exposure. Can’t go to a foreign country? Can’t send your teen on that summer immersion to Montreal? Can’t see sending your twelve-year-old to that week-long Spanish camp? Then bring foreign to you in the form of foreign exchange students. Or how about encouraging Skype exchanges with a Beijing student? Or find local cultural festivals where you can sniff out new friends and customs and simply hear the language floating around you.  Scour your local papers for events/connections in the target language.

2)Media. Listen to the target language in music, DVD series and in television programs (especially those with your native language in subtitles. This is a major key to how Scandinavians and the Dutch learn English so well and so early. Their imported television programs aren’t dubbed, but are subtitled in their native language. The French, in contrast, impose French dubbing.) For older children, there are multiple resources via the Internet where your child can actively converse with true native speakers.  I have purchased audio books and the corresponding hard copy, so that my reading children can listen and read along simultaneously.

3)Incentives.  Heidi, whose children have learned Norwegian, English and German, paid them for letters written to grandparents in all those languages.  Irina, who speaks five languages in her home, rewarded her boys for acing their French and English exams.  When our own children have done something as simple as ordering food at a restaurant in the target language, or something as substantial as giving a public address in that tongue, we’ve rewarded them well and openly.

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Whatever your methods of encouraging multilingualism, be prepared for brain fatigue and resistance.  It is enormous mental work to assimilate the complex codes of a new tongue. When Randall and I were newlyweds, we instructed German both on the university level as well as at one of the world’s leading language immersion centers, the Training Center for prospective full-time volunteers for our church, known as the MTC (Missionary Training Center.)  The university setting was a typical academic one, three classes a week, so far from total immersion, although we taught our classes primarily in German.

Our missionary daughter, Sorella Bradford, and other missionaries serving in Italy

Our missionary daughter, Sorella Bradford, and other missionaries serving in Italy

The MTC was closer to a total immersion experience. As of the first week, our classes of young volunteers were challenged to SYL – Speak Your Language (or speak nothing at all) – although they’d only spent a record 76 hours within the MTC walls. Period.  It got very quiet right about then.  And our students got headaches!  It is hard work to pry out the mother tongue (let’s say it’s English) and replace it with another (there are 52 language taught at the MTC).

But what was astounding and gratifying was to experience moments of serendipity and excitement, when the student felt the shutters of her mind and her world being flung wide open.  When you offer this to your child, you will experience along with her the out-and-out thrill when she discovers not just a new language, but a new world and a new self it that world.

firenzemoms4moms

firenzemoms4moms

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What have been your experiences with learning another language? What worked? What didn’t?

How have you offered opportunity+necessity+community to your family so that they have learned another tongue?

Can you share a story that illustrates the agony and the ecstasy of gaining fluency in a new language?

And really. . .Why bother with other languages, anyway?

Judging a Book By Its Cover: A Bit of the Backstory

Cover (3)

How does a book cover like this happen?

First, you live the story.  You move with your partner’s professional positions to several different countries, raising a family all along that bump-‘n’-swerve road, picking up languages and friends and a strange mashup of social codes on the fly, keeping a flimsy grip on your sanity some of the time, discovering depths of experience and breadth of  understanding most of the time, acquiring the kind of training that stretches and reshapes you and galvanizes your scraggly gaggle of a family, welding you to each other, to humanity, to this planet.

This life fits you. You fit it. So much so, you can’t imagine anything else, and you fling yourself again and again into the swirl, even forgetting to wash your hair the week of that sunny Sunday morning when your friend, Parson School of Design student Erin, calls up, singing, “The light’s good today, guys! Want to get some candid fam shots by Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower on our way to church?”

You’re busy writing all these years, of course, because that is what you do. (Far more than you wash your hair, if you really have to know my grooming habits). You’re writing about this life and how it yanks and pumices and oils your soul.  And then you discern, as you approach a decade of this nomadic life, a distinct inner voice that says you need to get this written into a book.  So you begin capturing the first phase of your nomadic family spiel, the move from Broadway to Norway. “Now is the time to write this story,” the voice persists. “You won’t have another chance like this.  Capture your early family right now, in this unfiltered light.”

So you obey the nudge, and you sit and write that book.  On a big Norwegian table placed squat in the middle of your Paris apartment, you sit.  You write so much you feel frustrated because, zut!, Paris is out there! Why crouch with your back to it, writing? (Because doesn’t everyone in Paris do just this? Crouch somewhere writing while the tourists stride around town?)

A band of motley literati friends critiques your pages.  You change things, change them again, change again and again and realize your own written voice sometimes gets on your nerves. You need a major break from yourself. You need to pack that voice into industrial-sized envelopes and get it into someone else’s ears. You send these fat envelope babies to a bunch of fine publishers with offices in big American cities.  Seventeen of them.  Even before you lick the stamps, you’re feeling like a fool, not to mention a misfit in the face of those distant, hard-edged cities and their mysterious publishing fortresses.  They loom and intimidate, those fortresses, leaving you sleepless and self-flagellating, needing as treatment the equivalent of fity hour-long heated eucalyptus oil full body rubs of reassurance.

Not a one of the seventeen publishing fortresses opens their drawbridge.

All the rejection letters are variations on one polite theme: “We wish you only the very best in your future writing endeavors.”

Well, see? What did I tell everyone?  

So, you tuck that manuscript away, way in the bottom of one of the 400+ boxes you’ve packed to leave your several years in Paris for a new life chapter in Munich.

And the next week, three days into a vacation in the States, and one day after visiting your eldest at his first college dorm, you get a phone call.

That call sends your story – all stories  you’ve ever known or written or told – into a screeching spiral which in its blackwash vortex sucks the air out of the universe. Your story – the old one pinned on paper and crammed in the bottom of a cardboard box, or the new story that your body writes as it crawls through coldening tar – feels massively irrelevant.  There is no more story.  There are no more stories.  There is no use in telling. There is nothing. Everything you now know is unwritable. What remains?  All there is, is loss.

**

Four years later, you’re quietly aware that even though you now live in Singapore where the air is as humid as living in the drying cycle of your dishwasher, there is somehow air to breathe. The cosmos has stopped screeching, reeling and jerking, and in soundless streamlets it has begun to fill back up with meaning. Not the meaning it had before. But meaning far more dense, immutable, textured like a freight rope lassoed around the underside of reality.  Though at times inexplicable, there is a story happening, a weighty narrative materializing as if it were writing itself, drawing you onward.  You write it out, riding it out, the story, and as you do, you move with it.

Your husband, the one you feared at times wouldn’t survive the vortex or its ghostly post-ravage landscape, is regaining traction.  He can laugh and joke and walk upstairs without getting winded.  Then one day, from out of the blue, a noted scholar contacts him, asking him to be one of several subjects for her book on lives like yours; nomadic but anchored lives that circle and recircle the globe.

He agrees. He does the interview. The scholar publishes her book, Cultural Agility, and it quickly becomes a seminal work in the field.

Wise and brilliant friends are constantly encouraging you to keep going, keep writing your stuff, keep knocking on fortress doors. When one such friend suggests you might tap-tap on the door of a publishing house that is just that – a house or a cottage literally, and not a fortress – you end up sitting in the CEO’s kitchen. The man is accessible, responsive and committed to producing your work.  He doesn’t just want to publish it (although he’s eager to do that); he wants to discuss it.  He even wants (get this) to take part in editing it himself.  You Skype at all hours from your opposing sides of the planet, discussing both the literary endeavor as well as the business aspects of such a book project.

“You’ll need to do some things,” Mr. CEO publisher says in one of countless Skype sessions, “which might not be comfortable at first.  Like, you’ll need to begin a blog.

Panic sits on your shoulders like a silverback gorilla in full heat, and you say something to the effect of, “Other options, sir? Like, let’s see. . . swimming around the whole of Australia? Through shark infested waters? In a Lady Gaga suit make of raw sirloin?” You’ve fought long and hard to reenter the world. But enter the virtual world?  That kind of exposure? Can you do that and not disintegrate? You begin chanting an Homeric epic saga about all the reasons blogs (and perhaps publishing altogether) are not for you.

“Start a blog right now,” kindly CEO sir says. “No later than next week.  Right when you begin your move from Singapore. And,” he adds, “I’m sending a contract right now.  Get me your finished manuscript in six months.”

Soon you have all these blog-followers, and you are carefully thriving in that connectivity, and these follower-friends begin chiming in on the progress of the book. (They’re even bossy about designing the cover. They simply take over.)

The scholar who quoted your husband in her book? She’s now quoted on the cover of yours.  Her blurbs are enough to make you run for cover, (neither you nor your own children would ever call you a “role model for all parents”), but you’re hoping everyone will overlook the endorsements’ effusiveness and focus on that darling little ISBN tattoo.

And this time around your twelve-year-old takes your photo for the back cover. For which event, thank goodness, you decide to wash your hair.

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Continuing: Aaron D.

Longsuffering. What does it mean?

Aaron, summer 1994, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway

Aaron, summer 1994, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway

Parker, summer 2006, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway

Parker, summer 2006, cranking the ferry to Brønnøya, Norway

In the next few posts, I’d like to share with you some vivid examples from our family’s story of loss that illustrate powerfully, I think, what suffering along with and for a long time with someone can look like.

These are fleshed-out profiles of real people with names and faces and any number of private pains themselves, people who rushed to our need, their own souls ripped wide with loss and love. And then after rushing toward us they stuck with us – they stick with us even today, well over five years from impact – in their quiet acts of contact.

I can only describe their longsuffering as godly.

But they’re gonna be mad as Hades I’m outing them here in a post.

Well? So be it.

I can’t resist sharing these stories because they’re so resonantly, humanly beautiful.  But I’ll only do so with a caveat: this is not intended to read like an Oscar line-up of This Year’s Best Supporting (and Suffering) Actors. It’s not a competition and by no means do I want to incite comparison, guilt or resentment. And I’m not doing this to “pay back” these people. Neither is this to thank them. Heaven knows, I will never in my life be able to adequately pay back or thank them.

What I want to do here is offer images you can hold on to – models, ideas, inspiration. Maybe you’re wondering to yourself, “What can I do to show compassion to my suffering friend?” or, “It’s going on seven months, now, and she’s still not back to her old self. What now?” or, “Who am I to insert myself into another’s grief? Won’t that be pushy? Presumptuous?” or, “I’m not such a touchy-feely gal. Tears? Not me. How can I mourn with someone and still be sincere?”

After several posts on the “Don’ts” (or the “D’s”) of co-mourning, I’m ready to give it to you with both barrels on the “Can’s” (or the “C’s”) of this topic. These stories and profiles might offer answers to those questions and more.

Let’s start with longsuffering, which for the sake of alliterative tidiness, I’ll call Continuing.

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Meet Aaron. (Or re-meet Aaron. You know him already from the Antonini posts, when he took pictures of the tree and plaque in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem.)

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Aaron is my baby brother. In spite of the fact that I changed his diapers, fed him his bottles, helped teach him to eat and walk and do his hair and pick up girls, the nine year gap in our age has become insignificant over time. Today he is in many ways my equal, and in most, my superior. My friend and confidante, my flesh-and-blood balm.

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He was a gorgeous, blonde Viking type as a kid, a small Odin with a Norse God voice, and precocious gifts for music, language and humor.
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Those gifts, clumsy and folksy as they were when he was little, became something well-toned as he matured, and have all congealed to bring our family comfort in our experience of losing our son, his nephew.

Aaron was more excited about graduating to the role of uncle (Parker was the first grandchild in my family) than he was about graduating from high school.

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In fact, a favorite story is about teenaged Aaron waltzing into the hospital where Parker was born, a girlfriend on his arm, sashaying right past the stern-looking security and the white-clad nurses and the stethoscope-toting doctors, and cruising (as you could do in 1989) right into my delivery room. Parker was not yet 5 minutes old. I was in a compromising position, (to put it delicately), when Aaron whipped the curtain right open.

“Aaron?! Get out of here with your girlfriend,” hissed Randall, the protective father.

“Whu?!? [pause] She’s NOT my GIRLFRIEND!!”

I might be wrong here, but I believe there never was a second date with that traumatized girl.

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While we both finished graduate school and Aaron finished high school, Randall and I were living in the same small university town where my parents live.  So Aaron was often asked to keep an eye on his nephew. This mean he often strolled his adorable nephew on a strategically-mapped out path around the university campus in a mega babe magnet antique Viennese perambulator we’d snatched on auction.

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We, returning the favor, kept an eye on Aaron. Aaron watched this, our little Parker, grow into a toddler.

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We watched Aaron grow into a young man. And when he had a serious girlfriend (not the one from the delivery room scene, mind you), he taught Parker his first pick-up line, which was in the answer to the following question: “What do you say when you see ______?” (Insert girlfriend’s name.) The one-year-old nephew’s trained answer? “Hubba, hubba.”

I hope that particular tool didn’t serve Parker well later in life.

At nineteen, Aaron did what many Mormon youth do, and left on a full-time volunteer mission for the church. He was assigned to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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Even today, he can melt kryptonite with a single, sizzling Spanish greeting.

After his two years’ missionary service, Aaron stayed for months with us in Norway, where he fell in love with all things Norwegian. . .

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Aaron, Melissa, and our accompanist after performing an evening of Broadway favorites for a Norwegian audience.

Aaron, Melissa, and our accompanist after performing an evening of Broadway favorites for a Norwegian audience.

. . .and he bonded deeply with his nephew Parker and toddler niece, Claire, and with our own Viking, Dalton Haakon.

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The above portrait Aaron took while babysitting in Oslo’s Frognerparken. As innocent as it looks, the two were crushing ants.

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He married Elise, a Viking-type from Minnesota. . .

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. . .and they had children of their own, who also grew attached to Parker when, nearly every summer, he would attend sports, music and youth camps at the university in their home town in Utah.

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Aaron and Parker were soon so physically similar, they swapped clothing. They also shared a passion for basketball (at Aaron’s invitation, Parker was able to attend Utah Jazz games), and music, (Aaron kept Parker stocked with classic rock singles). They’d reached that fabulous pinnacle where uncle and nephew are friends. The two had their own repertoire of private jokes.

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Aaron with Parker and Aaron’s children

In the summer of 2007, Aaron was thrilled that Parker, who had lived several times zones and expensive airline tickets away all his life, would now be enrolled in college within a morning’s drive away.

Early one day just after I’d arrived on vacation in Utah from Munich, where we’d been unloading moving boxes after leaving our home in Paris the previous week, Aaron sent me this subject line email from a labor delivery room:

It’s a BOY, 8lbs 7oz, 21+”, Thurs July 19 8:23AM, mom and baby doing great‏

Precisely 12 hours later, big cousin Parker would be in a tragic drowning accident. By the middle of that night, I would be at the foot of my comatose boy who lay face down on a gurney hooked up to life support in an Idaho Regional Medical Center. Aaron would come into that room sometime in the middle of the early morning darkness. In one instant his eyes would take in the scene, and in the next breath his big frame would slump with a blow against the heavy door. He would brace himself and call his nephew’s name in one deep, gulping sob. And I would fall against my big baby brother’s chest. Comfort. Compounded pain.

Aaron was with us in the last minutes, and at my request lay his hands on my head to bless me and give me strength. He also blessed his nephew in similar fashion. And when we all gathered and sang church hymns around the gurney, I felt the suboceanic currents of my brother’s voice loosen everything holding my physical body in one piece. We two sang as we’d never sung before.

And when everything was over, it was Aaron, looking 20 years older than when he’d arrived on the scene, who drove us – skinless and imploded – the 5 hours south to my parents’ home.

Had silence ever sounded so crowded?

Then, when everything started up, (and it starts abruptly: funeral, obituary, fielding phone calls and emails, housing out-of-town and out-of-country visitors, outlining funeral sermons. . .) Aaron took charge. Muscularly. Like some Nordic god.

What did he do? And how did he do it? I’m sure I’ll never know a fraction of all my brother did as he actively suffered alongside his sister and her family.  But I do know that he was constant, cautious and tenderly attentive. Here is a sampling of what he offered. For anyone longing to help a loved one in acute grief, these ideas might be a good place to start:

Presence: He came to the ICU, was utterly discreet and reverent – peripheral – and remained there until the end. He came to us later in Munich to spend that first Thanksgiving with us. He brought his daughter as a familiar face for our boys, who, at that time and in that stark new place, had no friends and were starved for someone who also loved and missed their big brother.

Mechanics: He arranged to have poster photo collages of Parker’s life made that were displayed at the viewing and funeral. He put together slide shows of Parker with music for the viewing.  He wrote the obituary, saw to it that it was in several local papers, and delivered it at the funeral. He was our on-site event planner, holding multiple reins and staying one step ahead of every practical detail. And there were  many.

Spokesman: He fielded phone calls and emails, relaying to us information that was to us logistically pressing, and holding on to many other message that were important and useful when the timing was appropriate. He also contacted the reporter at a local television station, whose story about the accident had been written and aired too quickly and was therefore misleading and needed correction. (The reporter and station manager later apologized to us for broadcasting mistakes and did a follow-up story.) Randall and I were scrambling to do so many other things while also trying to protect ourselves in those first days, trying to maintain equilibrium and gain clarity.

Music: Aaron arranged and participated in a male vocal quartet that performed at the funeral. As a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he was able to take handheld (and disallowed) live rehearsal and performance recordings of brief segments of given pieces and send them to us as special, private messages of love. He often sent other musical selections via iTunes or simple email attachments. Early on, he sent gorgeous, classical selections. Eventually, he sent pieces that he associated with Parker – or, as he often confessed, wished that he had associated with Parker while his nephew was still among us, such as rock classics with complicated drum solos, for instance. He knew how important music is to us and that the right music (and lyrics) would give us strength and comfort.

Broadening the Legacy It was Aaron who suggested establishing a music scholarship in Parker’s name at the university where he’d been enrolled.

Emails, texts, Simple Subject Lines: In those early, harsh months after we’d arrived freshly bereaved in a new country, Aaron was ultra-attentive to us via email. For us, emails, SMS and snail mail were literal lifelines. They provided a virtual community in our isolation, allowed us to interact and respond only when we had energy for it, and protected our privacy, which during times of unpredictable and acute pain, can be a vital blessing. Aaron’s weekly and bi-weekly mails since July 2007 number into the hundreds in the “Aaron” file in my email account.

Although some of these emails were epistles, most were not. In fact, many messages have been simple subject lines and an iPhone image. Or a subject line and a You Tube link. Or a subject line and a bootleg recording of a piece of music. Or, in several cases, just a subject line.

What I want to underscore here is that for me at least, the length and artistry of the message, though inspiring and valuable, were actually not what was essential. What was a blessing was simply my sweet brother’s presence – right here on my screen – the realization that his heart was broken, too, and that he was thinking of us once in a while throughout his day maybe, as busy and demanding as his day undoubtedly was. What his messages spoke to me was love: that he loved us and he loved Parker, and that Parker’s life and death mattered. That all our lives (our lives that must continue in spite of amputation) and all our deaths (even the death of hope and spirit that Aaron, with his love for me, was battling against) matter.

**

The last song on the [Tabernacle Choir] broadcast this morning was the Choir’s ‘standard,’ a beautiful arrangement of “Come, Come Ye, Saints” — I was a useless mess during the fourth verse as I could only think of Parker lying there, peacefully, alone, after all the tubes were removed.

**

We’re with you today in our hearts; wish we could do more than that. On the one hand, I suppose that today has been particularly difficult for you — on the other, I know they’re all excruciating. Last night as I slowed at an intersection near campus and turned up the hill, I saw someone unloading a car with bags to take into the dorms — turns out that it was for a conference and not the beginning of the school year, but it gave me a little shudder nonetheless. So I figure that if I double that feeling, multiply it by a thousand, raise that to the 3rd power, grind salt, pumice and shrapnel into it and add a vat of emptiness, I get maybe a glimpse of your feelings.

**

Below are most of the messages I received in the days & weeks following the accident. I believe I mentioned some of the messages to you, but probably not all. This weekend finally allowed me a chance to consolidate them for you. Perhaps they’ll add a modicum or more of comfort for you today. Big, transatlantic hug.

**

I hadn’t expected a response to my last mail. Please don’t feel like you need to respond. I’ll just keep sending you “impotences”– all my attempts to help that, I don’t know, might not help at all – and just to know that you’re getting them is all I need. Stay focused on your incredible husband and wonderful children, and we’ll have oppty to catch up at some point. I love you so much.

**

I can’t be there with you but attached is a bootleg recording (from Thursday’s PM Tabernacle Choir rehearsal) of a new, textless arrangement of “If You Could Hie To Kolob” that we sang this morning on broadcast and will be singing at a big performance this coming week. If you listen really closely, you….can’t hear me anyway, but I was thinking of how much Parker would have liked, well, likes, this arrangement.

**

School starts tomorrow and I can hear the new freshman yelling over at the dorms. Ugh.

**

On the drive home, I heard Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” which, as rock goes, is extremely rhythmically complex and has a phenom drum part. I wondered whether Parker had ever heard it, and started thinking of songs I know with great drum parts that he probably wasn’t familiar with, and how I would have liked to have made him a CD of them — I imagined him with his headphones on replicating, after probably just a few tries, “Dropping Bombs on the White House” (The Style Council — whose drummer, incidentally, was 18 at the time of the recording) and its cool drum solo. And then I realized that with the possible exception of a few beats in the Versailles basement (and I don’t remember any specifically; it just seems likely to have occurred), I NEVER heard Parker play the drums in person, and hadn’t heard him recorded until the last couple of months. My loss.

**

Mel, I biked to the cemetery the other day; as I approached Parker’s monument on the grass, the ah-mazing drum solo coda of Steely Dan “Aja” was playing on my ipod – check it out.

**

Stuck in the typical freeway parking lot for an hour tonight coming home from work, replaced a church talk on my stereo w/ EW&Fire, cranked it, was jamming and thinking how much Parker would have loved the drums on this.

**

We sang “Come, Come ye Saints” as you know, this morning. It was exactly five years ago today that I experienced what I’ve described previously to you, below; this morning I was seeing the ICU throughout the song and as we headed into the final verse had a bit of a tough go of it, although not as pronounced as it was in ’07. It was meaningful to me that you guys were watching the broadcast; I hope it meant something to you, as well. Incidentally, I was asked to give the prayer before last night’s pre-performance rehearsal, was thinking of you specifically and mentioned you indirectly among “those who grieve deeply” at this time.

Seizing up and hoping the cameras didn’t pan to me, at the end of the Sunday July 22, 2007 Choir broadcast when we reached the fourth verse of “Come, Come Ye Saints.” I knew the song and knew in advance that we were going to sing it, but still wasn’t braced for the body-blow dealt by the wide-screen, hi-def Technicolor image that revealed itself to me in that very instant: Parker, beautiful and bruised, lying on his stomach, with Randge at his left elbow, Melissa at his feet.

If you ever see me singing that during a concert, conference or broadcast, even years from now, know that this very image will be in my mind at that moment. I know that you will experience much the same from certain triggers, for the rest of your lives. I’d hug you at every one, if I were there.

**

And finally, a very recent mail:

**

Here’s a photo of the kids lighting candles in Venice for Parker‏:

Love always and from all of us,

Aaron

**

Eliza & Wes lighting candles for PFB in Venice (June 2010)

Freshly Pressed?

Here we are, five of our six. I'm including today a selection of my favorite photographs from my previous posts.  All of them, with the exception of this one taken by Rob Inderrieden, I took. Enjoy! So glad you're here.

Here we are, five of the six Bradfords. I’m including today a selection of some of my favorite photographs from several of my previous posts. All of them, with the exception of this one taken by Rob Inderrieden, I took. Enjoy!

Hello, everyone. It is great to have you here.

Judging by the variety and number of readers this week’s Freshly Pressed incident (and what doyou call it?) has drawn here, we’ve got some rich times ahead. One of my readers suspected that I probably didn’t fully “get” what it means to be Freshly Pressed, but that reader was gracious in suggesting that it was probably best that way.

And I didn’t.

And it is.

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I don’t mind this little flurry of recognition. It would be false to say much else, since we serious writers ache to create something someone will find worth reading. And we’re a bit tired of being that Someone, reading to ourselves. (Oh, the echoing drone of one’s own voice in the caverns of one’s head.)

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So it’s heartening to have you here, reading as you apparently are. Your presence is invaluable to me, and I want to honor it with vivid, meaty material that will invigorate thinking and stir feeling, and open up the possibility of a nourishing connection between us, all of us.

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I write because for me, writing is a physical and spiritual imperative. Is it also like that for you? If the significant happens – in my world, or in The World – I feel compelled to engraven it, pin its largeness down, trap it somehow. Then I lean close and marvel at watching its complexity or simplicity crystalize on the page. My readers, I hope, share in that marveling, not, of course, because I am marvelous (although my husband seems to think I am, dear guy), but because the potential of our human reach irrefutably is. Words stimulate and facilitate that reach. Almost all of us, when we were babies, reached – and touched and connected and established ourselves as a teeny but proud pinprick part of humanity – first with words.

So. Here we are. May I explain some things?

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I write long.
You’ll want to get a drink. And oxygen tanks.

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I write books.
Two are in either the editing or legal approval phases as we chat right here, you and I.

The first to be published (with Familius and later this spring) will be Global Mom: A Memoir, and is about our family’s 20+ years on the international road. I’ve been posting excerpts of that manuscript here every week for some time, now.

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The second book is an anthology (with a chapter-long essay as introduction) on loss, grief, and adaptation. Its title is Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward. Here, I post liberally from its 300+ pages of wise and varied voices.

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I also write short.
I am a published poet and will post some of my (long-ish) shorts here. I’ve posted several pieces already; dig a minute and you’re bound to find them.

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I also write creative personal essays.
Some have been published in journals and other blogs, and one recently garnered an award. I’ll post excerpts of them here, too.

I am beginning a children’s book
It will address loss and living onward and will be done in collaboration with a gifted illustrator. I’ll ask for your input. You’ll meet the illustrator if and when she’s ready to be revealed. Her work alone is worth hanging around for.

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And finally,

I am a poser of a photographer.

I’m learning to blend my newfound wonder for photography with my life-long and hard-core passion for the written word.

That’s this cozy sky blue/ocean blue blog you’re sitting in the middle of right this very moment.

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What else, you ask, can I expect when I come here to visit Melissa? (Besides, you mean, long-ish, probing posts that sometimes leak tears and sometimes crackle with laughter?)

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The last posts, as you’ve perhaps read by now, have treated some “Don’t Do’s” of co-mourning: Don’t judge or preach, don’t disregard or disappear, don’t enforce arbitrary deadlines, etc. Over the coming posts, you can expect me to examine the nature of “Can Do’s” in the face of great grief. In two posts from now, for instance, I’ll tell about the necessity of “Continuing” by introducing you to Antonini, a family friend, who was the last survivor of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Enough to reduce to moltenness any brittleness in our spines, that post should not be missed.

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Through the posts beyond that, and with your help, we’ll delve into the experience of the death of a beloved. What does it mean to a mother? A father? A sibling? Grandparents? A friend? An extended community? Strangers? What are the implications of tragic loss for our faith? For our non-faith? In other words, what can we learn, broadly and specifically, from death and other losses? What meaning do we deliberately or indiscriminately assign to suffering, to “mortality’s primary companion,” as one insightful reader here put it?

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At that point, I’ll update our Table of Contents. By then, Global Mom will be ripe for public consumption and you’ll probably want to return with me to those excerpts and our family’s years living in Paris, (where I last dropped off my readers somewhere on the rainy cobblestones near the Louvre), then continue to Munich, then Singapore and finally to where we live now, in Switzerland.

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There’s plenty to share with you about Switzerland, as there is about Sicily, where our daughter lives as a missionary (really – who’s going to believe this?) among the Mafia.

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And I will faithfully update you on news on Grief and Grace.

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Before we all finish that morning cup, stretch our arms and brush the wrinkles out of our pants, a parting quote from Peter Wehmeier’s, Picasso und die christliche Ikonographie.

If I can claim a personal mantra as a writer, this would be it:

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In the face of death, art’s duty – indeed, her raison d’être – is to recall absent loved ones, console anxieties, evoke and reconcile conflicting emotions, surmount isolation, and facilitate the expression of the unutterable.

**

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Again, thank you for coming here. For all the reasons listed in that quote, I hope you’ll come often.

Global Mom: Dreamcoat

Weddings. Messiah barn burnings. Feminine hygiene product pitching. New Orleans Jazz. Embassies. My own Mormon church.  And then at last, a biblical musical. It seemed an appropriately epic way to end our Norway years.

Josef Og Det Utrolige Farvet Drømkåpet needed a lead narrator.  Barbara, my multitalented musician girlfriend was already directing the musical’s children’s chorus and doing orchestrations from a massive keyboard, working her big circle of local music talent to build the band.  She was overbooked.

Since I’d already done the English version, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, in New Jersey, the producers thought I might be able to do it here. So I said yes to play the narrator in Norwegian.

Then I became the show’s artistic director.

And choreographer.

And even found myself back stage in one of the performances, training dogs. (They were the biggest hounds I had seen in my life, cast in this show as Ishmaelite camels.)

The closing night of Josef, I walked out into the parking lot, costumes in a suit bag, humming one of the show’s tunes.  When I stood next to my car overlooking Oslo fjord, I stopped abruptly in my tracks.  I looked straight ahead.  Had I not noticed before? Across the road and down one block was a small barrack painted barn red. Next to it, a chain link fence.  There was a gravel parking lot and four swings, a simple metal slide, a teeter-totter. I’d known it all first under a meter of snow. And where I was standing that night, still in my stage makeup, congratulatory roses in my arms, was only a few meters from where I’d once hidden behind the steering wheel of my parked car, thermos of peppermint tea in my hand, scouting out this intimidating but undeniably enticing new world, weighing the dangers of a thing called barnepark, considering the foreignness of this cold, impenetrable land.

Somewhere in the middle of the post show cast party we held at our home, I felt the same vice grip I’d had in that dressing room at the television studios.  The whole Bradford clan, Melissa, Randall and their three children, and a dozen of the main players in the cast were gathered around our long Norwegian table, then watched taped footage of our closing performance of Josef.  Claire bopped up and down in the lap of Anita-Marie. Parker was with Tormod and Per Trygve who’d played Jacob’s oldest sons, Reuben and Simeon, doing phrase-by-phrase translation from the Norwegian text to its English original he had learned when I’d done the show in New Jersey and this nine-year-old son, then three, had memorized the whole script. Dalton, now toddling sturdily, raided every last refreshment platter.  Randall did crowd control and video machine duty while dispensing casual Norwegian one-liners to all our guests. 

Here were the faces.  Faces of real people whose language I spoke and whose humor I caught, whose regional accents I could identify, whose families I’d eaten with and worked with and sung with. These folks, they brought me a Thank You gift.  A Thank You gift! . . .?. . .They said they wanted to thank me for helping with their show, for serving them.  I tried to tell them nei, det er ikke lov! And that they forstår ikke.  I tried, but know I never managed to tell them or Johanne or Britt from barnepark, or Bente or Pia or my whole loving church family, or Barbara or Sigrid from Nesøya Skole, or Ellen my jordmor, or Gunnil from barselgruppe, or the nameless conductor on the sinking Yamaha keyboard, or little Karolina or Louisa who’d checked my grammar as well as my sanity, or strawberry-blonde Jesper who’d just needed toilet paper, or my neighbor who’d hiked over my head and shoveled off my roof, or the many nameless but not faceless others who filled our Norway years – I know I never managed to tell them thank you and that nei, nei, nei, I had not done a thing for them. It was they and their country that had done endless much for my young family and for me.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Farm Wedding

Østfold lies southeast by an hour from Oslo’s talk show and television commercial studios.  In the middle of that county is the village of Ski, and in the middle of Ski is a tiny white stucco chapel.

credit: woophy

There, on one of those brilliantly blue-skied late spring days, Sigrid, the daughter of a prominent local farmer, is getting married, and I’ve been drafted to serenade the day-long traditional farm wedding. What will unfold before me, the only non-Norwegian on hand, is like a movie so enchanting I start to feel I’m unfit as the soundtrack.

I arrive early by car, ready to review the program one last time with the church organist who skids into the gravel parking place on his road bike, and who, with no more ceremony than the nod of his head (which he keeps wiping as he continues to sweat) launches us into a break-neck dash through our program, tearing through four Norwegian love songs at the same speed with which he arrived on his bike. “Well now,” he says, slapping the organ bench, “I think that’ll about do it,” and he’s running over a hill to squirt off at a nearby farm. I’m still catching my breath, leaning against a pillar in the choir loft, when I peer down to see a procession.

A thick, inching sea of rich bunad colors seeps into the chapel’s all-white interior. Figure upon figure, couple upon couple, family upon family file in gracefully, cautiously, as if someone had told them the floor was made of the thinnest sheet of glass.

fylkesarkivet sogn og fjordane

There are mostly heavy black wool skirts that swish almost to the floor, barely exposing the occasional edge of white stocking, which meets the black shoes. On the front of the shoes, ornate, pilgrim-like silver buckles.

credit: artemesia1

In some of the many regional versions of bunad, the skirt fronts, as the bodices, are gathered into the waistline with the smallest pleats—dozens of pin-tucked pleats—that make architecture out of wool. They’re encrusted with clusters of embroidered flowers, the sheen of which looks like jewels in the early afternoon light coming in through the high windows.

Everywhere there are balloons of starched white linen sleeves tapering to lace-trimmed cuffs and, on some women, wrist wreaths of silver coins which tinkle and glint, the sunlight flitting on their surface. There are brooches, some larger than your palm, clasped at the top of the bodice near the collar. Some women wear small hats, wool and embroidered too, without brims and close to the shape of the head and in the same color as their dress, tied under the chin with ample satin bows.

And there are small handbags made of matching wool with iridescent embroidery, affixed to a silver chain draped at the waistline.

There are dresses, a dozen among hundred, maybe, that aren’t black or deep red, but are bright cornflower blue.

The men look like they’ve arrived on the last commuter train from Brigadoon: velvet knickers, embroidered vests, white linen shirts, black leprechaun shoes. Some children, just a handful, are there, too.

One mom indiscreetly yanks her Karl-Andreas or Anders-Håvard to attention, and directs him into the pew next to her as she tugs down the bottom of his red vest and re-tucks the bunched hem of his starched shirt.  He’s sullen. Thirteen. Has spent the morning bailing hay or milking his own goat, I fantasize.  Or skateboarding, my inner realist corrects me.

fylkesarkivet

Here is old Norway, but again contemporary, now-a-day Norway, History and The Present, in all its splendid finery and well-mannered neighborliness waiting reverently for a høy tid.

My organist has traded in smelly lycra bike shorts for full bunad regalia himself, and ashamed that I’m just in my best cream silk suit and heels, I slip behind a marble pillar.  At the same moment, the organ opens up all pipes announcing Sigrid’s arrival.  The groom, vigorous-looking with muscles everywhere, (even in his jaw, which he’s clenching, like his fists), waits at the altar.

Sigrid, also blonde, is fresh and freckled, poised in a simply-cut white satin gown.  She proceeds up the aisle: a cool, tall glass of milk. I’m staring at her while I take a deep breath and begin singing: “Kjaerlighet, varmeste ord på jord. . .”  Love, the warmest word on earth.

credit: andersmadsen

When the ceremony ends, the new couple clambers up into a handsome horse-drawn carriage which, trailed by other horse-drawn carriages carrying parts of their bunad entourage, clops over the rolling hills of Østfold toward Sigrid’s family estate.  The parents who’ve invited me to sing, Solvor and Lars, lean down from their carriage to give me road directions, complicated automobile ones, I’m told. It’s much more direct over the fields.  I’m in a tailored suit with stiletto pumps, driving a motor vehicle with a CD player and automatic windows.  I’ve obviously missed a road sign and driven into the middle of the wrong century.

fylkesarkivet

This family farm’s got to have its own zip code. Lars escorts me up to a crest beyond the limits of the groomed property that radiates outward from the central manor house, and there points to a place on the horizon that I’m sure must be Sweden.

“It’s just the easternmost edge of the property,” he smiles softly.  Then he swings his arm in a full arc in the other direction and, those specks over there?  Those prominent mountains several kilometers away?  “Also the edge of the family domain.” It’s deep green the entire expanse of it, abruptly tree-rich in spots, deliciously farmable in general. Lars seems too soft-spoken to own a whole county.

credit: woophy

“It’s my husband’s family’s soil, too, you know,” I tell Lars. “Aamodt, Haakon. Thorkildsen, Christian. Farmers going way, way back. Do you know the names?”

“Then,” Lars reaches down and pokes his finger into the earth, drilling it softly, pinching and rolling its brownness in his fingertips like he’s testing its character, “Somewhere not more than a century or so ago, we were family, your husband and I.”

Back at the manor house people are starting to arrive, leaping down from buggies, off of single horses or out of Volvos. Solvor wants me to see the house, and doesn’t hesitate to escort me, room by room, through its every antique corner.  The place is a fortress with massive oak staircases flanked by oak banisters so big you’d need two hands to grab the circumference, leaded-pane windows dating back 300 years, lustrous floors of wide, worn planks bulleted in place by chocolate-colored dowels, hand-tufted carpets brought from Sweden and hand-woven linens from Denmark.  Huge family portraits with their oily sheen on pallid, stern visages line the walls above a stone fireplace that cuts a garage-sized hole in the front salon.  Everywhere I turn there are signs of The Hunt, and rounding a bend a bit too frivolously, I nearly lose an eye on a low-hanging reindeer antler.

creidt:papafrezzo

The men look ready for a barn raising, but tonight they’re only reinforcing the orchestra pavilion in the courtyard, and moving into rows the long, decorated banquette tables where wine, breads and dried meats are already being laid by a troop of diligent women. I’m handed a pewter platter of cured venison and a wooden trough of sculpted pickles and radishes to put on a table somewhere and make myself inconspicuous (in my twentieth century silk suit and patent leather stilettos) by being industrious like every last body around me.

Suddenly, the farm’s cutting loose. There’s the metallic commotion of cow bell ringing and wild whooping, everyone around me chanting something in unison, something that’s accelerating, something that has us all stamping our feet and clapping our hands at once.  I dive in full-throttle, although I end up almost falling over when I jab all 4-inches of my  stilettos into black-brown farm soil.

The bride and groom have arrived.

A large woman, Inger, red-headed and white-toothed, clinches her fleshy arm around my shoulder and shoves a glass of wine in my hand, hollering and stamping still.  Since I don’t drink, I wrap my arm around the shoulder of the next guy, Ingemar, white-haired and red-cheeked, do a little holler and a light stamp, and shove the glass into his hand.  He downs it in one hearty swig like water, establishing the drinking blueprint for the rest of the night.

People stay primarily sober for at least the first two hours of the four-hour dinner for two-hundred guests, a spread of gelled vegetable aspic, smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and sour cream with dill, crab and coriander salad, cucumber salad in a light vinaigrette, lamb, and tender little new potatoes, all served in a grand hall downstairs in the central house. I sit on the middle table, not far from Lars and Solvor, who are poised under an enormous stuffed black bear head that looks like it’s belting a high note.

credit: US Gen Web

After dinner and under a sky of polished cobalt, we all dance and sing like barefoot children.  Really like barefoot children, because somewhere between the hired band’s Johann Strauss and Bee Gees, I’ve kicked off my shoes like everyone one else.  Has grass ever felt so cool?  Has the moon ever been so close? Have I ever not lived here, not loved these people, not wanted to sing at every single one of their weddings?

Around four in the morning I watch the delicate, black shadows of horse-drawn carriages tiptoe over the far ridges, disappearing in a rising sun: spiders crawling into a flame.  Motors cough and hum, the trumpet player Hermann is packing it in, the lead singer Nils drops another empty Aquavit bottle onto a pile of many other empty Aquavit bottles.  Its “cli-shink” makes the mottled cat dart under a cleared banquette table.  Solvor comes at me from behind and, putting one arm around my waist, strokes my hair, and draws my head to her shoulder.  A mother’s touch. A new sisters’ pact.

credit: woophy

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Winging It and Singing It

After today’s post, there will be two more that  specifically describe some special professional singing opportunities I was blessed to have in Norway. Why do I bore you with all this? Did you come to this blog (or will you come to Global Mom) for a run down of recitals?  I hope it’s clear there are several reasons I hang on this note for so long.  In Global Mom I want to show, not merely tell, what it means to leave a promising trajectory in one geography (New York) and transplant it elsewhere (Norway). That’s helpful, I think, for those who are reluctant to move internationally because they fear not being able to parlay their identity and professional/creative pursuits from one place to another. I also want to share how that very effort knit me– knit us as a family –to an entire people, a people with an exceptional love of all music, and how Norwegians were so welcoming and supportive.

Beyond all those reasons, I’m painting a canvas of Norway in this section of the book, and these intimate stories give that canvas depth, perspective and texture.

So . . . continued from the scene where you last found me singing a Norwegian sheep herder’s song with four lumberjack types and Ole the accordion player under the moonlit mountains . . .

From Global Mom: A Memoir

**

. . .I don’t think it gets much better than this.

Unless you’re doing a screen test for a Norwegian television commercial for  [can I say this here?]  feminine hygiene products:

“Fine, fine, that was just fine, Melissa. Let’s just try it one more time, and this time even more enthusiasm.  All right?”
“No problem. Enthusiasm? Got it!” I responded in Norwegian. I’d gotten the script just that morning from my agent, and had drilled it in the car on the way to this recording studio on the northern edge of town. I clear my throat, mess up my hair a bit (my enthused look), stare deep into the black hole of the camera, and start afresh:

“Now I dare to try on whatever clothes I like on whatever day of the month!”  Beaming, I pick up a small, imagined cardboard box from an imagined counter off to my right, and flirt with the camera, adding, “Always Ultra Feminine pads with wings! So you can really fly!”

“Super! Cut!” someone calls out and the man holding the hanging microphone lets his arms drop with a grunt.

A woman in a sound booth steps out and all I see in the shadows are the hem of her short denim skirt and boots. “Now remind us, Melissa, you’re from . . . let me see . . . Trømsø? Or was it. . .” she’s flipping through some papers, “from Bodø? You’re from the north I can tell, am I right?”

“From the west, actually.  The western States, actually.”

“Hmm? Really? Interesting. Hey, can we put some more on the tape here?” the woman asks. “Like, I don’t know, Melissa. . .Uh. . . Can you sing?”

“If you’d like me to, yes.”

“Give us an American song, is that good?” I can’t tell who said that, but I think the voice has come from the mike guy who is no more than a shadowy shape on top of green Converse All Stars right outside the glare of white spotlight. I shield my eyes with both hands, like I’m looking into a solar eclipse.

“Sure, well, okay, let’s see,” I stall. “What’s your favorite American song?”

Mike guy has a face, I can now see it as he steps to the right.  And he looks exactly like a teenaged Ron Howard.  Reddish hair, fair eyelashes on smiley eyes that make him look vulnerable and also kind to foreigners, baggy dark denim jeans on a pole-thin frame.  I’ve claimed him as my friend. If it comes to it, I’ll get him to sing back-up.

He’s quick with a favorite song and starts whistling it right there from the dark.

By “rainbow, way up high” I’ve taken over because, like millions of people, I know this tune by heart.  I sing it a capella, into the baking but also calming heat of four huge spotlights. I sing it all the way through. All the time from “there’s a land that I heard of ” to “why, oh, why can’t I?” under all that text and simple melody, I’m scratching my inner head, laughing a bit to myself, asking how did I get here? But also feeling like I had fully awakened in this country like Dorothy awakens in her black and white comfort, that there’s no place like this home.

At the same time, my agent was deep into plans for that concert tour the next year.  We’d done publicity photos and a demo CD.  He was contacting venues. We’d had preliminary meetings to pin down calendar details.  “You must bring your husband and children, too,” he’d said, “It would be a great cultural experience for them.  We’ll let that son of yours play on the drums between shows.”

Also at about this same time, Randall’s company was discussing a possible transfer back to the States or a transfer elsewhere outside of the States.  Randall and I, however, were lying next to each other in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering, “Ever thought about. . . just staying here? For good?”

And, “Do you also just want to stay here for good?”

And, “What do we need to do to stay here for good?”

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: An Ambassador

There would be many other singing engagements over the two years that would remain in Norway. There were months when I was learning new music every week, my children wandering in and around the piano or sometimes around other vocalists or orchestra members. I was recruited to sing at all sorts of functions; the library’s opening social, a 50th birthday gathering, the kindergarten’s closing social, the local book club, a corporate mid-year social, a neighboring town’s Late Winter Song Evening, another town’s Early Spring Poetry Reading, a high school’s mid-spring chamber concert, and the frequent American Broadway potpourri.
Breech after flagrant breach of the sisters’ pact.

When invited with three other American musicians to give a private concert at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, I took along nine-year-old Parker. He sat primly in his navy suit and bow tie, his hair parted on the left side and slicked flat like a confederate soldier.

“You have to sit right in that seat, honey,” I told him, pointing to an upholstered chair in the front row, “Because in one song, I’m going to give you the signal like this,” I nodded just once and discreetly, “and then I’ll come get you with my hand just like this,” I took his fingers in mine, “and then I’ll bring you uon front of the audience. Then I’ll sing right to you. Right into your eyes. Kneeling in front of you. Got it?”

“Got it. I don’t have to sing, too, do I?”

“No, you only have to listen. And you also have to help me not mess up, buddy. Can you do that?”
It was “Not While I’m Around,” a lyrical, haunting piece from Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical, “Sweeney Todd.” When I pulled the young boy with a bow tie and confederate hair to my side and knelt on the stage and sang right into his eyes, I nearly abandoned all efforts at composure. I nearly forgot about the respectable audience, the professional distance, I almost forgot about Mr. and Mrs. Ambassador sitting right over my shoulder in a gown and suit. I nearly let emotion seep into my vocal chords, a perilous thing. But I was composed and tried not to feel the moistness of his palms as I held his two hands, tried not to sense a quiver climbing up my sternum. I just kept singing the tender tune a bit baldly, I think; “Nothing can harm you,” I sang to my child, “Not while I’m around.”

And I finished, as I remember, with a smile so totally incongruous with the broader context from which that song is taken – a smile, now that I think about it, like that of a weather channel person waiting for the camera to blink on – I ended smiling with my head tilted, squeezing his skinny suited shoulders, giving him a peck on the cheek and dismissing him with a tap on his rump, clapping the fingertips of one my right hand on the palm of my left,  nodding to him and then to the audience, “Too cute, isn’t he?”

(Some minutes in life you revisit to reinhabit their sweetness. Others you revisit to reinhabit their sweetness and to mentally redo them altogether.)

After a performance with fellow artists. The Great Dane favored us with a solo.  It was in Danish, of course.  And great.

 

 

I didn’t take the children to all of my performances. One such, I described in my Journal:

Flå is a small arts community tucked deep in the folds of Hallingdal. Flå had invited an “American Broadway Singer,” to appear at their annual Arts Days celebration.

I stood in a glitzy American gown on an outdoor stage with microphone in hand and sang three hours of show tunes and big band standards flanked by twenty-five somewhat rigid but nevertheless hearty and well-amplified members of Hallingdal’s civic “Big Band.” The locals, robust and impossibly well-scrubbed, wielding sausages and wearing boiled wool knickers, stomped patterns across the pavilion’s dance floor till all the Aquavit ran dry and the moon peered over the rough ridges of Hallingdal’s towering walls. I went through everything the band had in its repertoire; Benny Goodman, the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller, even Neil Diamond.  Which was a good fun even though I felt strangely like a disco ball rented for a country picnic.

But then there was this last number, a traditional Norwegian Saeter tune I’d prepared just for this event. When it was announced, five band members, rosy-cheeked, woolen knickered, flannel plaid, stood to join me.  Against the evening chill I slipped the bass player’s boiled wool jacket around my shoulders.  Three of us sang tight harmony first with Ole on the accordion, then all six of us sang in a capella harmony, arms wrapped around one another’s waists or shoulders.  We howled like mountain sheep herders under the moon’s perfect spotlight. And on the way home, driving alone down that ancient black canyon, I decided things don’t get much better than this.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.