My First Turkey

Most years, I am a carefree attendee of a large family gathering on Thanksgiving, yucking it up with other guests, occasionally offering to pass an appetizer, get someone a drink (while I am getting one for myself), or bring an extra chair to the table. Not this year.

After weighing the potential risks of spending the holiday with my parents, I decided it was important to see them and made plans to spend a quiet Thanksgiving at their home in New York. My son and I got COVID tests, packed a bunch of masks, and drove up from Virginia on Thanksgiving morning.

My sister had lined up an entire cooked meal for my parents, my son, and me and brought it over in the early afternoon. After a brief outdoor visit, she and her family returned to their pod across the county. 

I’ve been known to be unhelpful at all of my previous Thanksgivings. My brother once accused me of getting bedsores on my rear end while others scurried around getting the meal together. This year, I felt it was time to reverse the trend.  

Since I’m 52, some might find it a little surprising that I’ve never prepared a Thanksgiving meal. A few years ago I made three side dishes to bring up to my parents’ house (the standard-issue ones from the 70s that all require Cream of Mushroom soup), but the turkey and several other aspects of the meal were taken care of by others, so I can’t take credit.

This time I insisted that I would handle everything. My dad offered to help, but because I wanted to be the hero, I told him to just relax, eat the appetizers (that my sister had brought), and watch football. Plus, how hard could this be?

Here’s what was on the docket of — and this is key — already-prepared foods:

  • Turkey
  • Stuffing
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Gravy
  • Sweet potatoes
  • String beans
  • Turnips
  • Brussels sprouts

The first order of business was figuring out how to reheat all these dishes. The food was hot when my sister dropped it off at 1 p.m., and my parents wanted to wait until 5 p.m. to eat, so refrigeration and reheating were the challenges before me. I successfully use 350° to cook all of my batches of Duncan Hines brownies and concluded that what worked for boxed brownies should also work well for reheating an oven full of vegetables, starches, and meat.

The 10-pound turkey was whole and would need to be carved. I resisted the urge to ask my dad for help, even though he has successfully carved turkeys for 50+ years. I figured my good friends at YouTube would provide adequate instructions for my maiden turkey-carving voyage.

After scrolling through videos with titles like “Your First Turkey!” I landed on a Buzzfeed video called “How to Carve a Turkey.” I liked that it would only cost me 2 minutes and 53 seconds because I was already feeling behind schedule.

I started to become alarmed at their “you will need” list:

  • Two cutting boards (why two?)
  • A very sharp knife (shudder)
  • Tongs or a meat fork (I think there’s one of those around here somewhere)
  • Kitchen towels (to mop up the blood?)
  • Turkey platter (buried deep in a cabinet, I think)

The video helpfully breaks the carving process into steps. Here’s how they went.

I started the whole operation at 4:40 p.m. after promising the meal would be ready by 5 p.m., so there was no time to “rest.”

Use a kitchen towel to prevent wobbling? Wobbling was the least of my worries. 

This is where I completely lost confidence. Surgically extracting the wishbone seemed VERY COMPLICATED. And gross. 


Also, turkeys have wishbones? I thought that was just chickens.

(Side note: the wishbone had already been professionally removed. I just didn’t realize that, so in hindsight, I could have waited until Step 4 to lose confidence.)

Forcefully? That sounded aggressive. 

If there was any forceful sawing, it involved trying to get this plastic contraption off the two legs. The turkey was already dead, so I wondered why there was a need to work so hard to prevent it from running away.

More advice involving joints and cutting with a very sharp knife. Have I mentioned my disgust for anything medical?

More importantly, this seemed like a tremendous amount of work just to get one drumstick. 

I can’t be sure, but I believe this is where I abandoned ship and decided to just go it on my own. I have manhandled many a rotisserie chicken, and the turkey just seemed like a bigger version.

And thus I began the real work, starting with an effort to get the giant drumsticks off the turkey. Turns out Buzzfeed was right – this did involve quite a bit of force and hacking on both sides. I deposited the newly-separated drumsticks in the tinfoil tray and then set out to get the breast meat.

Using the sharp knife, I was able to get breast off on the right side but not cleanly. I made one cut on the left side and concluded that it would just be easier to yank the rest off than to continue using the knife.

Around this time, my son paid me a visit. He surveyed the situation and looked troubled.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I had one hand clamped on the bird and the other hand wrenching the meat off.

“Carving the turkey!”

It felt a little like a Julia Child moment, if Julia Child were wearing a hoodie and speaking in a much lower octave.

I plopped the breast on the cutting board and started to cut. The meat shredded into small pieces.

I remembered what Mr. Mayer had taught me in 7th grade woodshop: always cut along the grain. I kept turning the meat in hopes of finding a smooth grain, but never found one. That’s when I decided to just pull the meat off in big chunks and put it in its receptacle.

Speaking of receptacles, somewhere along the line in this sweaty 30 minutes in the kitchen I realized I needed a container for all of the turkey meat. I went to the cabinet and spotted the platter that has been used for the turkey at all family holiday gatherings since the beginning of time. However, I had already had an unpleasant experience looking for a bowl for an appetizer and decided the turkey platter was under too many other heavy bowls and dishes. I chose one of the ones on the top, which was essentially a small salad bowl.

As I turned my attention away from the turkey, I discovered that things were not going that well with the other dishes. They were cooking in a stubbornly uneven way; some were lukewarm and others were less lukewarm. 

It was now 5:30 p.m. and I felt that it was time to just get this show on the road. I realized that in true 2020 fashion, this year’s meal was not going to be perfect. Attractively sliced slabs of turkey? Not this year! Multiple dishes all piping hot at the same time? Not quite.

I called everyone into the kitchen and informed them that they *might* want to heat their plates in the microwave. I realize microwaving meat is sacrilege to some people, but it was the best and only option as far as I was concerned.

In the end, here’s how the meal looked.

Tongs usually used for hotdogs can also be handy with turkey

Everyone was polite about the quality of the heating job and the less-than-glamorous presentation of the food, and overall it was a very enjoyable event.

The moral of the tale?

I gained a new appreciation for everyone who has ever served me a Thanksgiving meal. I struggled mightily to put out multiple dishes at once, and all I had to do was reheat them.

So to my mom, my sister, my Aunt Adriana, and my former in-laws, I want to say thank you. I’m amazed at how effortless you made a very complicated meal look year after year.

Consider me impressed.

Tiny Bubbles

The day my brother graduated from college, my sister and I got into a car accident. 

We were driving through Connecticut on Route 84 when a tractor trailer traveling in the same direction struck our car twice – once on the front end when the driver accidentally veered into our lane and again after our car spun out in front of his truck. My sister managed to hang on as we spiraled across the road and eventually pulled our car over into the left breakdown lane. We sat there screaming for a few moments after the car had stopped, then realized we were both ok and got out.

We had been driving home from the graduation in tandem with my parents, who were in front of us when the tractor trailer hit us; my mother watched the accident in her rearview mirror. She told us later that she just saw blue smoke moving across the road and kept saying “The girls! The girls!”  

Right after my sister and I got out of the car, two couples traveling together in a car behind us pulled off, got out of their car, and came running over to us, shouting “Praise Jesus! You’re alive!” 

We told them our parents were in a car in front of us and had probably pulled off to call for help. One of the men immediately got back in their car to go tell my parents we were ok. He found them calling the police from a payphone off the exit and reassured them that we were not injured.   

While we waited for our parents and the police, we learned that the couples were from West Virginia and that one of the men was a minister. They told us that when they saw our car spinning, they were all praying “Lord, please save those people!” 

We were raised Catholic, and although we attended mass every Sunday, Catholic services tend to be much less effusive than services in other denominations of Christianity, with very little quoting from the Bible or emoting about Jesus. In our experience, church involved stoically standing up, sitting down, and kneeling, followed by a polite handshake with the priest on the way out and then a dog-eat-dog competition to get out of the parking lot. (Anyone who attended Transfiguration in the 70s and 80s will remember how many of the charitable thoughts from the service evaporated during the race to get up the exit ramp.)

The version of Christianity that these two couples practiced was clearly different and frankly, somewhat uncomfortable to us at the time. And yet, the truck driver who had knocked us across three lanes of a highway never stopped, but these strangers had prayed for us, then pulled over to see how they could help, offering comfort to my sister and me and as well as our parents. Regardless of the differences in how we expressed our religious beliefs, these people could not have been kinder or more helpful at a moment when we were all terrified, and my family has obviously never forgotten them. My mother exchanged Christmas cards with them for years after the accident.

It was a perfect example of the basic good in people. When there is a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or an accident, people tend to turn towards each other, both on the giving and receiving end.

I know that when I am scared, I look to connect with others. It’s why I am very chatty whenever I have a medical appointment. I have a terrible and irrational fear of most things medical, and I’m always hoping a connection with a nurse or doctor will calm me down. It’s also why, when I was awake with insomnia last week and learned at 2 a.m. that the president and his wife had tested positive for COVID, my first instinct was to reach out and talk to people to make sense of this jarring news. 

The world feels scary to me right now, and not just because of the pandemic. There is a lot of talk of the potential for violence with the upcoming election. The toxic racial divide continues. Hate groups are blossoming. 

There is also a level of vitriol on TV and social media that I find disturbing. There seems to be little thoughtful discussion and mostly people separated into clearly defined groups who rage at each other. 

Though I shy away from discussing politics on social media – I don’t see that it changes opinions, and I don’t care for the spewing of bile that often comes with these conversations – I’m also not sitting silently on the sidelines. I tend to stay in a closed feedback loop, watching one cable news channel and bashing politicians in conversations with like minded friends and family.

But between the state of affairs with politics and the pandemic, it’s getting to be too much. It’s been one tumultuous event after the other for a long time now. As a group, it seems increasingly obvious that we all have a need to return to some semblance of balance, calm, and community.

This is probably why a conversation between Trevor Noah and Alexandra Pelosi on The Daily Social Distancing Show resonated with me the other day.

Pelosi has just released a documentary called American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself, which deals in part with how Americans view each other. “The conversation has gone to such low points,” she says. “And everybody’s gone so tribal and into their own bubbles. There’s all this hate speech.”

(In fact, it’s gone so tribal that I wondered if the fact that the speaker was Nancy Pelosi’s daughter would cause some people to roll their eyes and discount what she was saying because her mother is a political lightning rod.)

Trevor Noah asked Alexandra Pelosi if she had been able to create her own filter and lens on how she saw the world, in spite of her mother’s position.

“I’ve gone out of my way in the last 30 years as a journalist and filmmaker to go into what they call ‘real America.’ And it was really important for me because I grew up in San Francisco, in sort of the liberal bubble,” she told him.

“The only way I can stay sane is by talking to people who aren’t like me, that don’t believe anything that I believe in, and just trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. I think there are more purple people out there than we’re led to believe by cable news because cable news is in the business of just making us hate each other. Social media is in the business of making us hate each other. So it’s good to go out there and meet people and try to understand where they’re coming from.”

The idea of leaving my bubble – and I own that I exist in one – and trying to understand where people are coming from makes sense to me.

I don’t know exactly how we got to this place in our country where we have split into sides who scream at each other, and there certainly isn’t a simple answer as to how and when things are going to improve. Whatever led us here, it seems to me that talking with people who hold different views from our own and trying to figure where the common ground is instead of avoiding hard conversations altogether is a start. Assuming the other side is the only one who has to examine their views is like agreeing to go to marriage counseling as long as the other person is the one who has to do all the changing. 

There seems to be a need for healing right now. Many people are worn out by the turmoil. I know that when I have been in scary situations, turning to other people, especially people who are not anything like me, has reminded me of the kindness people are capable of and helped me through moments that would otherwise have been so much harder. 

At the risk of sounding trite, lecture-y, or like I have it all figured out, I am thinking that if we could all leave our bubbles, even just a little bit, things might get a tiny bit better. It feels like we need to start somewhere if we are ever going to return to a place where there is less animosity and more connection.

The September Slide

Every September, darkness descends on me. I’m generally not a person who suffers from depression (anxiety tends to be my mental health issue of choice), but for as long as I can remember, I notice the world looks a lot more somber when fall begins. This September has been no different. Limited social contact for the past six months, navigating full-day virtual teaching, and the fact that the world is literally and figuratively burning down around us have been weighing heavily on me. Actually, I’ve been feeling much of this every calendar month — especially the issues connected to the pandemic — and I’d be surprised to find many adults who have not found themselves overwhelmed at some point.

But September is special, and I find myself swimming in a daily dysphoria that I seem to save only for this month. It feels wholly biological, starting with a sense of dread before my feet hit the floor in the a.m. Even the recognition that many of the issues I struggle with are first-world problems doesn’t seem to lessen a physical sensation that things are not good. It is well documented that the diminishing light in the fall affects some people more than others, and I count myself among those who really feel the impact of the increasingly shorter, darker days. 

To offset all of this, I’ve been following a self-care routine that any mental health professional would likely encourage. I meditate. I write. I exercise outside. I eat lots of vegetables and fruits. I maintain contact with friends and family. I play my musical instruments. 

What’s left, you ask? Well, this fall, I’ve turned to a tactic that lacks any professional endorsements but is nonetheless wildly popular: old school binge eating.  

I’ve become a frequent visitor to a pizza shop in a section of Arlington just a stone’s throw from the parking garage where Deep Throat revealed the secrets that brought down a president. It’s called Wiseguy Pizza, and it’s the closest thing I’ve found to New York pizza in the D.C. area. In my opinion, the mark of a legit pizza joint is whether it sells pizza by the slice. It’s a bonus if you can find customers inside employing “the fold,” the proper, one-handed way to eat pizza – the antithesis of using a knife and fork. Wiseguy passes both tests.

Wendy’s has offered me quite a bit of solace this month as well. I had always planned to detour off my new vegan diet on occasion, but I’ve surprised myself at how often I’ve turned to a Dave’s Single with Cheese and a Frosty to pull me up out of the dungeon lately.

And let’s just say the cashiers at The Sev (aka 7-Eleven) and my local Sunoco are familiar with my fondness for double Snickers bars. Where were double Snickers when I had a faster metabolism? Who cares? They’re here now!

Some level of shame is obviously involved with this gluttony because I tend to do most of my binge eating in my car, by myself. Am I embarrassed to eat a couple of candy bars in front of my 18-year-old son, who can literally eat two or three meals in one sitting? Hard to say.

I’m often speeding down the road at 70 mph on one of my gtf out of the house drives with one hand clenching a fast food product, so keep your distance if you see me on Route 267 headed west. When I want to be more dedicated to my meal, I park somewhere. I still walk near Iwo Jima from time to time but have also discovered that it serves as an excellent place to discretely consume high-calorie fare. The trees provide privacy. I worry that I am probably on a U.S. Park Police watch list because of my frequent comings and goings there. I do throw my trash away neatly in the garbage bins, so they really should delete my license plate number from their database.

Iwo Jima parking lot, where I make sure to drink only the teeniest, tiniest Diet Coke so I can preserve my girlish figure
Pizza Toast Tartare

I eat some homemade creations on my own property as well. A new item on the fall menu (for one) at my house is something I have dubbed “Pizza Toast Tartare.” No, you won’t find expensive undercooked meat on this pizza. It’s simply Trader Joe’s Rustico bread, a dash of Prego, and shredded mozzarella that I am sometimes too lazy to put in the toaster oven, so I eat it uncooked. Delicious!

(This is not to be confused with another delicacy I used to make regularly when I was in my twenties, Frankfurter on a Bed of Shredded Mozzarella. That’s mozzarella melted into a hot dog bun and topped with a Ball Park frank. Again, delightful!)  

The good news is that all this disordered eating is not an unknowing reaction to sunken moods; it’s a conscious choice. There is ample research showing the connection between sugar, salt, fat, and feelings of happiness. My field study work can confirm that connection. A friend suggested recently that my two years of meditating have helped me to “witness” my moods these days instead of blindly reacting to them. As such, I’ve “witnessed” myself feeling a whole lot better immediately following a trip to Wendy’s. 

Happiness is their recipe

Sometimes I worry about how much weight I will gain during this September Slide. This worry is usually followed by the delusion that my exercise regimen is counteracting my binge eating. Then the My Fitness Pal app sets me straight, classifying my trips to Gravelly Point as “Walking, 3.0 mph, mod. pace, walking dog.” I don’t own a dog, but if I did I imagine it would register as middle-aged on My Fitness Pal. And a 34-minute walk at 3.0 miles per hour isn’t going to offset much.

Last week I started mowing my own lawn again after a four-year hiatus (long story) and figured that this chore would at least be decent exercise. Then I got behind my self-propelled lawnmower and realized I was really just supervising the machine instead of burning a ton of calories pushing heavy equipment around. However, by some miracle, my weight gain has been pretty mild.

Mercifully, in previous years, at least, my body seems to adjust to the waning light and to accept the fact that winter is coming sometime around November. I have never loved winter, but I at least feel back to myself by Thanksgiving or sooner. In the meantime, I thank the man upstairs for Wiseguys.

Summer 2020: Crab Apple Pie, Eufy, and Frank Sinatra

Today is the unofficial end of summer, and I couldn’t resist the chance to do to myself what I have asked my students to do each fall when they return to my high school English classroom – write about their summer vacation. Here are a few highlights from my COVID-tinged time off …

Crab Apple Pie

When my local pool announced they would not be opening this summer, thereby squashing my annual summertime lap swimming routine, I felt panicked about not having any outside time for several months. I did a lot of walking this spring, but exercising outside of a pool in Virginia in the summer is out of the question for ladies like me who can’t stand feeling overheated. I realized I needed to find a reason to be outdoors, albeit in short spurts. 

A friend told me that for a small fee, a local garden center would send a landscape designer to my house to advise me on what kind of garden I might be able to plant. What a great idea! As a new vegan, I could grow a vegetable garden and supply one of my main sources of food simply by turning 1/8 of my suburban back yard into farmland! Now I would know where some of my food was sourced, and I could continue my march towards being off the grid. Or something like that.

A few weeks later, I set up the appointment and a landscape designer came to show me how and where to plant some tomatoes and cucumbers, or so I thought. As it turned out, she had something more elaborate in mind, dropping words like “espalier” and “small boulders” as she conveyed her vision. I realized this was going to be more involved than I had originally planned.

I told her what my budget was, exaggerating by double in hopes of impressing her because I thought she was attractive. She proposed that what I really wanted would cost double that figure (if you’re doing the math, you realize we’ve now quadrupled my actual budget). She did say I could cut out any of the plantings she was going to include in her quote if I didn’t want to spend that much. 

The proposal she emailed a few days later confirmed that she wasn’t kidding – her plan was going to cost one-third of my paycheck for the summer school class I was teaching. Well, I told myself, I didn’t expect to be hired to teach the summer school class, so this garden could be a bonus expenditure for the summer. In a moment of whimsy, I opted to go ahead with the whole plan. Or, as Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote would say (the character poised to order every item on a French restaurant menu), “I’ll have the lot.” 

A bunch of men came over a few weeks later and spent the better part of a day digging stuff up and hauling things around. The cute landscape designer had moved out of town just before the garden installation and never came back. So much for impressing the lady.

Here’s the backyard makeover.

Slide the screen to see the before and after

Jack and the Beanstalk action going on as of today (two months after the install):

When I told a friend who is an avid and talented gardener how much I had spent and on what, she could barely contain herself. One of the things she yelled was, “An apple espalier??? The only thing that’s going to grow is crab apples!” 

I said, “Well, then I’ll be happy to have you over for crab apple pie. A la mode.”

I did end up growing one edible tomato, a boatload of rosemary, and enough basil to supply all of the Olive Gardens in Northern Virginia for at least a week. 

I also got my very important outdoor time. I would say I spent an extra 48 minutes outside (total) this summer, mostly turning the sprinkler on and off. No, I didn’t bother to water the garden by hand with the new hose I purchased, or lovingly putz around pulling weeds and fluffing things up. Instead, I mostly dragged that sprinkler around and then came inside feeling annoyed that my flip flops were wet and grassy.

Definitely a win.

The Incredible Edible Tomato
Can you pronounce espalier?
Neither can I
Tower of basil
Now … if only I liked rosemary or used it in my cooking
Dwarf blueberry bush. Only missing one thing: blueberries
A lonely cucumber in the corner on a makeshift brace. I’m rooting for this underdog


Summer highlight #2: getting a robot vacuum.

I began coveting robot vacuums a few months ago after seeing an ad for one. I love a neat home, but I hate to vacuum. A robot vacuum seemed like a perfect solution – a machine makes the room tidy while I watch Hulu.

I only hesitated to buy one because they aren’t cheap. However, after filling out a health assessment survey for Kaiser Permanente for the sole purpose of earning a $100 Visa reward card, I felt justified in buying a Eufy. 

“It’s practically free!” I told myself.

A friend who has owned both of the leading brands (iRobot and Eufy) told me Eufy was the better choice. I followed her advice and ordered one, and in early July, the nice people at Amazon delivered the new addition to my family. It was love at first sight.

All I have to do is move any cords or small objects off the floor and turn the Eufy on. It does the rest, efficiently working the room to restore order.

Cue the Jaws music

I love this photo of the vacuum in action found on the Eufy website, (It’s not just a vacuum! It’s a lifestyle!) Presumably, the point is to reassure you that Eufy won’t inhale your ukulele-playing three-year-old as it quietly cleans your rug. Having watched this thing operate, though, I promise you that it will wake her up. Maybe she shouldn’t nap in the middle of the living room floor?

But I digress.

I started noticing recently that I feel something oddly akin to parental pride when Eufy successfully cleans up some crumbs or cleverly turns away from the edge of the stairs. 

I was disappointed the other day when Eufy tried for the millionth time to climb over the wooden border around the fireplace. I wondered why there wasn’t an algorithm or something that helps the vacuum remember it’s been down this road before and it doesn’t end well.  

Remember? You’re going to get marooned again!

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

I walked over to the fireplace and said out loud, “You know better than that, Eufy!” before gently helping it off the ledge and back onto solid ground.

If you are wondering why I’ve grown so attached to a small appliance and/or why I view buying a vacuum as a highlight of the summer, you have company. I think I need a pet. Stat.

Frank Sinatra

A highlight of the summer that was more meaningful than apples or vacuums was taking a creative nonfiction writing class. Pre-pandemic, I would have searched for an in-person class somewhere in the D.C. area; however, because that wasn’t an option, I took an online course with Gotham Writers Workshop, a group located in New York City.  

It was a six-week course that offered an overview of various types of nonfiction writing: personal essays, memoir, travel writing, profiles, feature articles, and reviews. The class met on Zoom every Wednesday night for three hours, and while most of my 11 classmates were in the New York City area, there were people taking the course from all over the country.

Unlike in college, where I Cliff-Noted my way past many of the traditional readings that did not hold my attention, I found the reading assignments for this course extremely interesting. My two favorites were On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a memoir by Ocean Vuong, and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a profile article by Gay Talese about Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Fly me to the moon

The readings were compelling and the discussions thought-provoking; I also felt I learned a lot about writing. The 500-word limit on each assignment challenged me to hone the skill of packing more description into fewer words. Turns out the “less is more” philosophy I employ in other areas of my life (home decorating, for example) is necessary in my writing as well.

But I think the bigger takeaway in this experience came in the reminder that for me, in order to “live” and not just “endure” life as a middle-aged single mom sharing space with an often-times irritable teen, I need to continue to learn and grow. 

So there it is – my summer vacation. No swirling romances, no European sojourns. Just me, my tomato, my over-achieving vacuum, and a newly found creative itch that I’m scratching. More to come…

So long, summer

A Steady Hand on the Wheel

A portrait of the young man
My mom and dad on their honeymoon
Ten years later, with three kids in questionable bathing suits

To get a sense of who my dad is, take a look at the pictures of him with his grandkids over the years.  They tell the story.  Here he is playing a game of Horsie, here he is teaching kids how to fish, here he is in the ocean, playing a game, reading a book, tying a tie.

Though there are many fewer pictures of my dad interacting with my brother and sister and me when we were children, the story was the same. (The only group photo I have is above – perhaps a function of being part of a generation that was much less documented than the current one.)   

He came to our games, our Back to School Nights, our recitals, our concerts.  He wanted to hear from each of us about how the day went every night at dinner.  He had catches with us in the backyard.  He went in the ocean with us in New Jersey every summer and taught us how to play Chicken, where you have to float with your feet facing the oncoming waves. 

I will admit to wishing he were less involved on the days when I got in trouble at school.  My parents were a one-two punch.  My mom would lecture me in the afternoon, and then my dad would come home in the evening and take the Lord’s name in vain when he heard what I had done.  He had a habit of roughly smoothing out the strands of hair on the top of his head during those conversations, which I fear contributed to his early hair loss. 

In retrospect, he was strict, but not unnecessarily so.  I shudder to think how much brattier I would have been if I had not feared the words “wait til your father gets home!”

As I transitioned from my teen years into adulthood, and especially into my 30s and 40s when I was grappling with issues around coming out, my relationship with my dad transitioned also.  He was less of an authority figure and more of a confidante.  You might not expect a middle-aged lesbian to be turning to a former investment banker in his 80s for emotional advice, but that is just what has happened.  He really listens — with  a calm, clear-eyed way of sizing things up that has helped me find my center time and time again.

The other day I came across a card he sent a number of years ago when I was working through a tough situation.  Age provides some perspective, he wrote, and though he did not want to sound at all Pollyanna, he said he knew that I would have better days.

The man is not just a supportive father.  He’s actually great company.

He loves to talk about politics, sports, business, and many other topics.  He’s an avid reader and is knowledgeable and current on a wide variety of subjects.  And he is genuinely interested in other people, striking up conversations not to make small talk, but because he enjoys learning about the  experiences of others. 

He’s also very funny.  His demeanor is reserved, but when you listen to what he is saying, you realize he makes lots of quick-witted observations and remarks.  He’s a great storyteller and has taken a number of writing classes in retirement.  My favorite story was one he wrote about having to learn how to type at age 60 when everyone got their own desktop computers at work.  He took an online keyboarding class developed for children called “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing!”  His account of doing poorly on the words-per-minute tests, which included alligators chomping at letters as you typed, was hilarious.

All of this is not to say that everything was perfect or that there was never an angry word or an unpleasant day.  But my dad showed up.  There was never a time when I worried that he would not be there or questioned whether or not he loved us.   The pictures remind me that he has been a constant support for my mom and for each new member of his family as they have arrived. I know his steady presence has been especially important for my son through two divorces and a lot of upheaval.

My dad was talking recently about his own father, who passed away before my siblings and I were born, and said he was a special guy.  That’s how I feel about my dad.  He’s special.  I didn’t appreciate him when I was young — I just took it all for granted.  I don’t now.  I just hope this smart, funny, loyal guy who has quietly done so many good things for other people understands how adored and admired he is.

Obliging one of my son’s many requests to play Horsie
Pitching to a young recruit
Teaching my nephews Jack and Will how to fish
Serving as holder of Jack’s first fish
Pretending to be surprised by my niece Jessica
Getting ready to jump some waves
Practicing reading with Kaley
Meeting Maggie, the youngest grandchild
Having a snowball fight
Helping with homework
Raking in the dough with Rachel
Giving some assistance with a tie
Being a good sport about wearing a birthday hat at his 85th birthday party
With my mom at their 50th wedding anniversary party
Yucking it up with kids and their spouses
With all the grown up grandkids

Ode to My Hometown

The village now known as Sleepy Hollow, New York, is an interesting place.  It was settled in the 1600s, but it was Washington Irving who put it on the map in 1820 when he made it the setting for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” his tale of a pumpkin-throwing headless horseman and a skittish schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane. 

Metal sculpture of the headless horseman and Ichabod C.

When I grew up there, it was called North Tarrytown.  In 1996, residents voted to change its name to Sleepy Hollow in an effort to drum up tourism and offset the loss of tax revenue brought on by the closure of the General Motors plant in town.

The rebranding effort seems to have worked – it has become a popular day trip destination for New Yorkers, with an estimated 100,000 visitors between September and November each year.  When you Google “Sleepy Hollow,” there are a number of websites and YouTube videos assuring you that the town is an actual place and encouraging you to visit. 

For $24.99, you can take a two-hour walking tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on a Friday night and hear about the famous people buried there, including Washington Irving (of course), two of Alexander Hamilton’s kids (interesting!), Andrew Carnegie, and in the funnest of the fun facts, IMO, hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley, one of Time magazine’s Top 10 Tax Dodgers, who fittingly used some of the little people’s money to erect a mausoleum complete with Roman columns and stained glass windows.  Talk about a home in the country.

Who knew this place could become a tourist trap?

When I hear the cemetery is now a tourist attraction, it makes me feel nostalgic.  “Aww!  That’s where I smoked cigarettes for the first time!”

All this newfound tourism does not exactly jibe with my memories of the place I still consider home, even though I haven’t lived there in more than 30 years.

There have been times when I’ve told people I’m from New York and they have assumed I’m talking about New York City, with its mass of people, noise, and excitement. The truth is that I’m from a small town measuring only five square miles. The tight-knit community that I was a part of when I was young was anything but bustling and impersonal; it was a place where I felt safe, included, and cared for, and it provided a foundation that has stayed with me all these years.

As a kid in the 1970s, I felt free to explore my neighborhood and have adventures without adult supervision.  One of my earliest memories is being allowed to walk more than a half mile with the “big kids” to the penny candy store just off of Route 9, a very busy road. 

Shirts were optional

We rode bikes all over our neighborhood and played down by the train tracks.  We would put coins on the tracks and let trains run over them, keeping the flattened versions as treasures after the trains had passed by.  Mercifully, no one I was with ever got stuck on the tracks or stepped on the wrong rail. 

There were endless games of kickball, stickball, and tackle and touch football.  We played Ding Dong Ditch (ring the doorbell and run like hell) and Hide and Seek, where people could be tucked into spots anywhere along the street.

Much of this unsupervised time with peers was not unique to a particular town.  It was part of the era to let kids out in the morning on summer and weekend days and call them back in only for lunch and dinner.  Still, there was something magical about spending so much unstructured play time outside with friends.  It is part of what I remember most fondly about my childhood.

Living in a small town also meant being able to participate in a variety of activities.  Before high school, there were town sports leagues like the North Tarrytown Girls Softball League (Honeybees rule!), and during high school, the sports teams and clubs were open to everyone for the most part. We were encouraged to try activities we thought we might like. I started playing field hockey in the fall.  In the spring, I played softball for two seasons, then switched to soccer as a junior.  I ran winter track during senior year.

The idea of picking up a sport in high school or changing sports during junior year would be very unusual now, especially at one of the bigger schools.  We didn’t have to choose one sport when we were 10 or 11 and excel at it in order to participate through the end of high school, and we didn’t have to play that one sport year round.      

Being able to try different activities was important for me. I discovered some interests that I wouldn’t have known about and learned that taking chances sometimes had a big payoff.

Perhaps the most important part about growing up in Sleepy Hollow was the sense of continuity and connection. When I look at my kindergarten picture, I realize that I ended up graduating from high school with the majority of those kids.  Many of the teachers stayed in the district for years as well.

This sign was a generous gift from the Class o’ 1986

The schools were small even though North Tarrytown (aka Sleepy Hollow) and Tarrytown were a combined school district, and many students from Pocantico and local parochial schools also came to the high school. Enrollment at Sleepy Hollow High School was somewhere around 800 students when I was there, and my class had about 160 students.

There has been a great deal of research about the academic and social benefits of small schools, and much of it has concluded that kids feel safer and happier when they feel seen and known, both by their peers and by the faculty. I know this was true for me.

Even though the schools and the town are small, the population is very diverse. The town website refers to the “vibrant mix of cultures that characterize Sleepy Hollow,” and this was one of the best things about growing up in this community.

There are also many shared memories with people when you go through school K-12 together. There were seasonal rituals in town, like skating at the Tarrytown Lakes when it was cold enough to freeze over, trips to Ice Cream Villa after sports games, Memorial Day parades through the center of town, and Saturday afternoon football games at the high school.

There were many local businesses that were around for years whose proprietors were well-known and well-liked throughout the community, like Fleetwood Pizza, Shanghai Inn, Mory’s Army & Navy store (where I got some of my first lesbian outfits without realizing it), and Uncle Jerry’s Deli.

One other aspect of Sleepy Hollow that I have always loved is the location on the Hudson River. I find myself drawn to water. Even now, when I go home to visit, I am struck by the beauty of the views and the sunsets.

There is a saying attributed to everyone from Jonas Salk to an anonymous “wise woman” about how the best things parents can provide are “roots and wings.”  My mom and dad certainly did; my hometown did too, and this is part of why I have such a deep appreciation and affection for the little village where I grew up. 

A very old church with an updated message
Drive by shot of Fleetwood on one of my trips home years ago
Pat! (Now closed, this picture was posted on Yelp by the most recent owner)
A look down Beekman Avenue — the main drag in town that leads to the river
This eagle was originally in Grand Central Station and moved north in 1910
Great place to catch a ride to NYC and also to flatten pennies
My old man and my young man talking things over in 2012
Unfiltered shot of the Hudson River
Leaving town on the new Cuomo bridge
A closing shot of the Tappan Zee Bridge back in the day

A Wider Perspective

I found myself uncertain when I was deciding what to write about this week.  My plan for the next few blog posts was to follow up last week’s entry by talking about things in my life that I was grateful for.  This week was going to be about my career as a high school English teacher.

There are a thousand things I could say about teaching, but I decided to focus only on one aspect of why I’m glad that I’m a teacher.

I am grateful for the perspective and empathy that I have gained from working with students from a wide variety of backgrounds over the past 26 years.

For the last 11 years, I have been a teacher at small alternative high school.  Our student body is heterogeneous; students come from all over the world and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.  Some students have chosen to attend our school because of our smaller student body, and some have been sent to us for disciplinary reasons. 

Being a teacher has allowed me to meet and develop empathy for others whose experiences I will never share.  I was raised in a town that is multicultural and diverse in a number of ways. As I began my career, I didn’t think I had everything figured out, but I did assume I was relatively accepting of all people. However, my work as a teacher has taught me that my perspective was not nearly as broad as I thought it was. 

During my first year of teaching, a ninth grade student brought her sonogram in to show the class.  I watched her struggle with her pregnancy for the remainder of the school year.  Another of my students showed up for school after being badly beaten by her boyfriend.  My stomach turned when I went to talk with her in the nurse’s office and saw the bruises on her face. 

In more recent years, I had to hold back tears as I listened to the personal narrative of one of my students from Central America.  She described one day in her childhood where she sensed something was wrong with her mother and made the heartbreaking discovery later that day that she and her sibling were being left with a relative they didn’t know very well while their mother made the journey to the United States so she could find work and support the family financially. 

A number of students have shared their dangerous and painful experiences of making the journey from their countries to this country on foot.

Another student’s personal narrative detailed how she was sent to work as a child and was not able to fully access education.  After coming to this country, she worked for several years before she was able to enroll in school.  She talked about how she has not taken any of her education for granted.

While I was never personally faced with teen pregnancy, dating violence, racial prejudice, family separation, immigrating to another country, or having to fight to get an education, learning about those experiences from students I have come to know and care about has certainly given me a much broader frame of reference.

I’m also grateful that being a teacher allows me the daily opportunity to do meaningful work that is relevant to what is going on in the world.

This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about a unit I did with a couple of my classes four years ago.  With the help of our school librarian, we looked at well-known incidents of bigotry from the last hundred years or so that were connected to religion, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.  Some of the topics we covered included the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, the Nanking Massacre, the Women’s Rights Movement, Matthew Shepard, and Temple Grandin.  We were looking for the root of the bigotry in each historical example.  “Why is there bigotry?” was our essential question.

There is obviously not one correct or simple answer to this complex question, but a common thread that my students recognized was relatively straightforward: people tend to be uncomfortable with others who are different from them.  Often this discomfort leads to disliking those who look, think, worship, etc. differently, and sometimes it leads people to the point of violence against those they view as “other.”

Jean Kilbourne articulates this point well in her film Killing Us Softly.  “Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person.  We see this with racism, we see it with homophobia, we see it with terrorism.  It’s almost always the same process.  The person is dehumanized and violence then becomes inevitable.”

I would never claim to know what the solution is for eliminating prejudice, but my experiences as a teacher have led me to believe that exposure helps to counter the urge to see someone as other and set down the road to dehumanize.

Final discussion for the bigotry unit

The culminating conversation I had with students at the end of our bigotry unit was extremely interesting, especially in one class, where students came from several other continents.  One student said his big takeaway was that “the uneducated are easy to control.”  Another student, who is from a war-torn region of the world, said of atrocities connected to bigotry, “It keeps happening.  It’s like a routine.”  A third student had very thoughtful questions about why bystanders do nothing to intervene.  Based on their comments in this discussion and a number of others throughout the unit, I felt my students had also made progress towards being understanding and able to examine their own biases.  This was gratifying to see.

The events of the past few weeks have opened my eyes to things I thought I was already aware of. I have certainly learned a lot from my students, but I know I still have more to learn.

It’s worth saying that my profession has cultivated in me a greater sense of humility and gratitude over the years.  I recall a student from 15 years ago.  In spite of significant physical disabilities that brought her daily challenges, she was upbeat and positive, participated in class, and was eager to learn.  She was transferred out of the class because of a schedule change sometime around Valentine’s Day.  Before she left, she gave me this mug filled with candy and a card thanking me for being her teacher.  I still have the mug.  Every time I look at it, I am reminded of all I have to be thankful for and all that I have gained as a teacher.

Gratitude and “The Great Pause”

One of my students wrote something last week that got me thinking.  She said that her family was actually doing much better than they had been before the pandemic; they have more time together to talk, and she and her mom have been making masks for hospitals – something that has drawn her closer to her mom and made them both feel like they are part of what she called “change” during the pandemic.

It was a reminder that perhaps something good could come of all of this.  When a catastrophic event happens, in an attempt to make things more bearable we often look to do something life-affirming. It’s interesting how when a catastrophic event is brought on most of the world, more than a few of us are collectively doing some long-neglected self-reflection.

This brings to mind an article I read in April (along with more than 20 million others) called “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” which touches in part on the same concept — that something good should come from the shutdown caused by COVID-19.  Writer Julio Vincent Gambuto calls it “the greatest gift ever unwrapped.  Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause.” 

Gambuto discusses how the treadmill we have all been on for decades has come to an abrupt stop and forced us to take a look at our lives.  He encourages people to not just mindlessly return to business as usual after the pandemic ends, but to think critically about some of the new behaviors and thought patterns that we want to hold onto, those that “make our lives richer, our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.” 

In an interview after the article went viral, Gambuto suggested people consider this question: What does your new normal look like?

For me, the answer is clear: I need to continue focusing on gratitude and I need to keep writing.  

In her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett writes, “There can be something cruel about people who have had good fortune.  They equate it with personal goodness.”

I am a person who has had more than a little good fortune.  I have a wonderful family and an amazing group of friends, I have always been relatively healthy, and the list goes on.  I don’t equate my good fortune with personal goodness, though.  One of the things I have always liked least about myself is that I have always been a complainer when I have had no business complaining.  

And so I’ve noticed that over the last ten weeks, something is happening naturally to me, for reasons I don’t yet fully understand but I think is occurring as I realize that while this pandemic is robbing so many of their economic security and threatening the health of essential workers daily, I have been spared.  And I’m spending more time with gratefulness, a feeling which has been a stranger to me most of my life.  

I am definitely a glass-half-empty person, I’m almost ashamed to say, especially given the abundance in my life (truth to tell, not only is the glass half empty, there’s usually a cigarette butt resting on the bottom). I’ve come to recognize that some of my negativity is connected to anxiety.  My anxious brain churns over possible calamities.  I am a professional catastrophizer.  But all of my negativity cannot be chalked up to anxiety.  Much of it is just because I have not been in the habit of appreciating the good as opposed to searching for, and dwelling on the bad.  

Since we’ve been home, though, I find myself noticing things big and small that make me feel thankful.

One of the biggest things I’ve been grateful for is a shift in my interactions with my son.   He’s a senior in high school this year, and although missing some of the cornerstone rites of passage – prom, graduation, etc. – has been a huge disappointment, many of the stresses of senior year have now dissipated with the move to virtual learning, especially because we live in an area where there is a lot of pressure and comparing oneself to others.  We are both more relaxed and I feel as though I got back the kid that I used to know. 

I have also been feeling grateful for the time I’ve had to get outside and explore.  When the shutdown first began, being inside made me feel stir crazy, so most days, I spent at least an hour walking somewhere, some days even in the rain.  That led to discovering new places and appreciating some of the sights I already knew.  

I love parking at Gravelly Point right across from Reagan National Airport and walking along the Potomac; I also love exploring Roosevelt Island nearby. When the parking lots were closed for both of those places in early April, I went to Great Falls Park.  When that got shut down, I started walking near Iwo Jima and around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I also discovered that there is a very pretty walking path near Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home.  The habit of getting out and being active almost every day (a pandemic-induced new habit) has been so good for me physically and mentally, and I know it would be good to continue.

You can almost reach up and touch the planes at Gravelly Point
Bridge to Roosevelt Island
TR doing his best Mao Zedong impersonation
Great Falls
Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool living up to its name
Iwo Jima
George Washington probably walked here (pre-asphalt path)

In general, I hope that making a habit of appreciating all of the good in my life ends up being one of the legacies of this pandemic for me.  Studies show that gratitude increases happiness.  And it feels right for me.

The other thing I hope to keep in my life after the pandemic ends is writing regularly.  

In March, in the days after I learned that school was closed for the remainder of the year, I realized that I would be in my house for at least five months before I went back to work.  I noticed I was having sinking, anxious, depressed feelings about having entire days to fill for months on end.  I knew I needed to do something to keep myself mentally occupied.  

I had just finished an eight-week comedy writing class that I loved and had talked with my teacher about the possibility of writing a blog.  I decided to give it a go, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what I would write about.  

As the blog has evolved, several great things have come from it.  Being in touch with friends and family far and wide has truly been a gift and has made me feel connected at a time when I would otherwise feel very isolated.

My writing cove

I have never written this much before, and find that I thoroughly enjoy the process.  I set up a little writing cove in my room.  I love it.  I want to learn to be a better writer.  I’m not sure exactly where this will lead or what form my writing will take, but I know that starting a blog has given me something enjoyable to do with my time and has kept me mentally occupied while giving me purpose.  

Working towards becoming better at something I love has been healthy for me, and something I never approached with such fervor while on life’s treadmill.  I want to continue this long after I return to a school building.

Years from now, I wonder how COVID-19 will have changed us.  Arguably the biggest impact right now is psychological; I am guessing most people have experienced significant anxiety and/or depression.  There has been such suffering, and knowing that everything could change overnight, possibly permanently, if a family member or friend became ill has been incredibly jarring.  I just hope that something good can come of it for each person, whatever that looks like.

An American in Japan

Eight years after I went to Spain, another opportunity to live abroad came up – this time in Japan.  The thought of going that far away, both geographically and culturally, was definitely nerve-wracking, but instead of having to talk myself into it, I wanted to go.

I was in a much different place at 28 than I was at 19, and the circumstances of this trip were exponentially easier than those involved with my study abroad semester. I was married, and my (then) husband had an opportunity to work for a year in Hamamatsu, a coastal city of about 800,000 midway between Tokyo and Osaka. He had lived in Japan previously and was reasonably competent with the language, and his employer would essentially handle the details; all I had to do was agree to go. I had been teaching high school English for three years at that point, and the plan was for me to try to find a job at a language school.

So we did it — put all of our possessions in storage, sold our cars, and rented out our house. As I would have expected, the journey to Japan and the first couple of weeks were a little rocky, but as I noted in the journal that I kept that year, I understood that this early rough stage would not last forever.

(I had completely forgotten that I even kept a journal, and was ecstatic after unearthing it while doing research for this blog entry.  I had captured everyday moments like this: “Yesterday we set up the apartment and fought with the washing machine. It’s pretty hard to know what’s wrong when you can only read a small part of the manual.”)

Shortly after we arrived, I found work at the Four Seasons Language School teaching English in a variety of locations.  Some classes took place at the Four Seasons building, about 15 minutes from our apartment, while others required driving to a wide range of settings: a kindergarten housed at a Shinto temple 45 minutes outside the city, a junior high school about 30 minutes away, and several more local places, including an all-girls Catholic high school, a junior college, and two businesses. 

I got off to quite a start.  My first day I was asked to give a brief introductory speech to the students at the all-girls high school.  When I got there, I was given slippers to change into in the lobby (as is customary in homes, schools, and businesses), and then escorted to the gym, which was stifling hot and packed. 

The nun running the school spoke to the girls for a minute or two, several times mentioning “Susan-sensei.”  Then she motioned for me to come to the stage and said, “Berry clothes.” 

Hmm, I thought.  Berry clothes? 

Oh!  Very close!  As in, speak very close to the microphone. 

Then she said, “In the middle.” 


Oh!  She wants me to move. 

I shuffled to the middle of the stage in my slippers.  Thankfully I didn’t kick them off, as I had already done twice in the previous ten minutes.

I mumbled “Good morning,” then paused and looked at the microphone because I wasn’t sure I was speaking loud enough. 

The gym teacher in the front row must have thought I was waiting for a response because he shouted something harsh, and the next thing I knew, hundreds of girls were bowing to me in unison, saying, “Good morning, Susan-sensei!” I instinctively bowed back, which I’m sure was the wrong thing to do, and launched into my little prepared speech. 

There was no telling how many girls understood what I was saying because I was using words like “colleagues” and “unfortunately” (I’m not sure what I was talking about that was unfortunate, but this is what I wrote in my journal); in any case, I counted the event as a win because I finished without fainting or unknowingly throwing out insults, both of which seemed like real possibilities.

Driving was another intimidating task I faced at the beginning. 

Japanese road sign

My husband and I purchased a used car shortly after we got to Japan, as well as a scooter that I would use to get back and forth to Four Seasons.  I had been practicing driving on the left side of the road, but was far from confident.  I would be doing the driving for work in a car provided by the school, and I was worried about the street signs, most of which were written in a combination of English and three Japanese alphabets: I had mastered two of the three. Attempting to read street signs I had a two-thirds chance of understanding while overriding muscle memory to drive on the right side of the road was, well, exciting!

A few weeks into my teaching job, I got severely lost on my way to a class at a local company. Over the course of two hours, I stopped for directions three times (it was 1997, pre-Smartphones), landed on an expressway, where I accidentally barreled through the entry toll without taking a ticket, headed in the opposite direction from where I needed to go, was chastised by a toll collector, and called Four Seasons twice to get help, once from a payphone on the side of the road and once from the control room of the toll station — chaperoned by the disgusted toll collector. Needless to say, my class had to be cancelled.

Coworkers Rieko (striped shirt) and
Kanami (tan sweater) saved me from
disaster on the highway

Even in trying situations like this, it all just felt so much easier than when I was in Spain. I wasn’t living alone, and I had much more support from the amazing ladies at my school and from the circle of friends I developed there.  Being a little bit older also gave me perspective that any rough patches were temporary and occasionally even amusing. 

As a result, I was able to enjoy what I was seeing and learning, and the rewards of the trip were even greater than they had been in Spain.

I was able to get a window into Japan through my work.  My students ranged in age from five to eighty, and I was teaching mostly conversation classes, so we spent a lot of time just talking about life. We had many discussions about cultural differences between Japan and America that I found fascinating.  There was also a custom for students to throw welcome parties and goodbye parties for teachers, so I had an opportunity to go out to restaurants and even karaoke with my adult students on a number of occasions. 

Overall, the year worked out better than I ever could have hoped. I eventually learned how to speak Japanese well enough to communicate and to get around on my own. We were able to travel some within Japan and saw so many pretty things — rock gardens, temples, bridges, and gates, often times unexpected pockets of beauty in an otherwise dreary, cement landscape. I also found that I loved the simplicity of Japanese design, furnishings, and artwork. But what touched me most, and what stays with me as I look back, were the people. I developed some great friendships, several of which extended long beyond our time in Japan.

Many of the people I worked with, and especially a coworker who I recently learned passed away last fall, represented the best of Japan — they were patient, gracious, hard-working, kind, and soft spoken yet strong-willed. They were curious. They loved to laugh. More than 20 years later, these are the things that I remember and value most about this incredible experience. I can see that more than “kinda clearly.”

Teaching a kids class at Four Seasons with my coworker and friend Keiko
Dinner and karaoke with my evening class
The wonderful ladies in my Tuesday morning class
Kindergarten class at the Shinto temple
Welcome party with Yamaha businessmen
They called me Speed Racer
Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) in Kyoto
Floating torii gate in Miyajima, built in 1168, a mere 800 years before my birth
Visiting cherished Hamamatsu friends Kevin and Ingrid in Canada several years after we all returned from Japan
Keiko visiting us in Boston in fall of 2000
My favorite rock garden

An American in Spain

We were one hour from Seville when the program director walked up and down the aisles of the train, handing out index cards to each of us.  

“You will be living with a married couple with a student daughter,” he said to me.  I took the index card and wondered what my Spanish “family” would be like.  These were the people I would be living with during my study abroad program in southern Spain in the spring of my junior year of college.

I had arrived in Spain three days earlier and was trying to keep my anxiety at bay.  I was tired from the journey from New York to Madrid, trying to adjust to the time difference, and overwhelmed by the prospect of living on my own for four months with a family I had never met.  I also didn’t speak Spanish very well, and all of my classes would be taught in Spanish.

On the train ride from Madrid to Seville, I chatted nervously with the group of American students whom I had spent the previous days with sightseeing and acclimating. We were all embarking on the same “immersion” adventure. When we pulled into the station, I lugged my heavy suitcase off the train and waited for a cab.  This was the moment we would each have to make our own way. 

A little backstory: the truth is, I didn’t really want to go to Spain or Europe. I knew my school offered a study abroad program and was considering it, but concluded it would be too overwhelming.  Then I spoke with a friend of my sister’s who had just returned from Spain. He told me all about his experience and said, “Don’t think about it.  Just do it.” Even though I was young, immature, and hyper-resistant to change (and knew all of this about myself), I understood that this was a one-time chance that I would regret not taking if I let my anxiety do the deciding.  

Hence I found myself in a cab bringing me to the apartment building where I would be living.  After getting my bag out of the trunk, the driver started to leave; I somehow indicated that I needed his help getting in.  He obliged and buzzed up to the apartment number on the index card.

My Spanish home

“Quien?” (who is it?) a gruff woman asked into the box.

The cab driver looked at me.  All of the Spanish words I knew disappeared.  I shrugged my shoulders and gave him a blank look.  

“Quien?” the woman asked again, sounding more annoyed this time.

I finally remembered one helpful word — “estudiante” — and said it to the cab driver.

He said something to her.  She said something to him.  He said something else to her, and then he smiled at me and left.

An interminable ten minutes later, a short, sturdy-looking woman came down to the lobby where I was perseverating.  Angelita, my Spanish “mother,” briskly introduced herself, grabbed my bag, and brought me upstairs in the elevator.  


The apartment was a small two-bedroom place, with a galley kitchen, a formal living room that looked unused, and a little TV room.  

I met Esperanza, my 15-year-old “sister,” and was shown to my room.  Espe, as she was called, announced, in a manner that could never be confused with subtle, that I was taking over her room.  I wondered where her father was, and where she would be staying.

After getting my bags settled, we sat down for a meal.  Angelita served hot dogs, which completely surprised me. We eat hot dogs for a living in New York, I thought, but I had no idea they even had hot dogs in Spain! (Oh, Grasshopper, so much to discover …) I later found out that she had not been expecting me for another week and did not have much food in the refrigerator when I arrived.  That explained her tone when she answered the buzzer.

As the evening went on, I kept expecting my host father to come home from work.  Eventually I asked Angelita about him, and learned that he had been killed in a car accident the year before.  The family had lived in Pamplona, in northern Spain, and after the accident she and Espe had moved to Seville, Angelita’s hometown.

I slowly pieced together that she had portrayed her family as husband, wife, and daughter to my study abroad program, perhaps in order to ensure that they would place a student with her.  It was clear that she needed the stipend the program paid to host families.  In a conversation we had about a month later, she told me that she wanted to host a student to be able to put food on the table for her daughter, even though it meant that she and Espe would share a bedroom.

The hot dogs and the difficult family circumstances were just two of the eye-opening experiences I had that semester.  At 19, I had always lived in an enveloping cocoon of family and friends where there was always someone to turn to if a problem came up. Now, for the first time in my life, I was truly alone. My host family was cordial, but they were in a lot of pain themselves (I see now, looking back as an adult) and so they understandably tolerated more than embraced having me in their home.

La Giralda, the bell tower of the Seville Cathedral

Over the course of the next four months, I got better at being on my own. Because it was often uncomfortable to be in the apartment, and because I was determined not to cling to American friends from my program, I started to learn how to fill my own days, especially on the weekends. It was a struggle at first.

One Sunday in particular stands out, where I had no plans and felt terribly homesick and lonely. I walked to one of my favorite spots, the Seville Cathedral, sat in the back, and cried. After a while, I felt better, took a deep breath, left the cathedral, and went to see other things in the city. I remember that being a pivotal moment. I acknowledged that I was hurting, realized it wasn’t the end of the world, and kept moving.

In addition to being in a number of situations that forced me to grow up a little, there were many other benefits to my time in Spain. I learned much more about Spanish culture than I would have if I were just a tourist. I went home from school for dinner and a rest every day from 2 – 5 p.m., then returned to school for an evening class and socializing with friends from my program.  Many people joked that the pace of the siesta schedule was an indication of laziness, but I felt that the days and evenings unfolded in a way that allowed for a sweet balance between work and play. 

Hanging out at a cafe with friends

I obviously learned a lot about the Spanish language as well, at times by mixing up words. There was the time I told Angelita and Espe that I was pregnant when I was trying to say I was embarrassed.  Turns out you can’t just put a vowel on the end of an English word and Spanish-ize it.  Embarazada is not embarrassed. Another day I told them that my American friend was preparing a dinner of “polla” for her host family. When they keeled over laughing, I discovered an important distinction: “pollo” is chicken. “Polla” is slang for a part of the male anatomy that begins with d.  Vowels are so important.

A highlight of the trip was a visit from my parents and sister.  My dad and I still laugh about some of things that happened, like the time he and I were standing at a bar waiting for drinks and he helped himself to another man’s olives, thinking they were out for the taking like peanuts at an American bar.  That gave me a chance to practice my most deferential vocabulary words. (“My sincerest apologies! My American father did not understand that those were yours!”)

Another day we traveled to the city of Granada and discovered when we arrived that the hotel my father had booked was closed for renovations. My dad kept insisting that someone named Pepe had taken his reservation over the phone, and the cab driver kept telling me “esta cerrado” (it’s closed).  When we pulled up to the hotel, it was a pile of rubble.  On to Plan B.  My mom, whose only Spanish word was “hola,” wandered off while the rest of us were pulling our hair out and somehow got a recommendation for a hotel right down the street.

My mom and sister

I was talking with a friend the other day about my semester in Spain and she asked if it was fun. I told her that there were many fun times and I have lots of fond memories, but when I think back, it was more a time of growth than fun. I left Spain a little more mature, a little more aware of the world around me, and a little more humble, and that was a good thing.

When I got home, I put together a scrapbook. This was the final page.