Sunday, July 29, 2012

Day Care Center

Just recently, I came across some photos. Black and white, 8 by 10, they were taken years ago by an art student who had spent his day working on project at the college day-care center my daughter attended when I was a student.
One of the photos shows my then-toddler digging in the dirt beneath the monkey bars in on a platround.. It’s one of those first warm days in February, when the kids are let out to play after a long winder of cabin fever. She’s wearing an unzipped hooded coat, its white acrylic fur trim noticeably grey. She is bent over her task; her coat is dragging on the ground. In another photo, she is one of a group of toddlers, assembled in a circle for a story hour.
I didn’t think much about the photos back then. “That’s what kids do in day care centers,” I figured. “Playing in the dirt, listening to stories.” “Hmmm…” I thought then. “I see how that white trim on her coat gets so grey.”
But looking at the photos now, I am struck by her singular absorbtion. I look more closely. She’s  etching a design with a twig in the now-flattened sand that is often put down in playgrounds to break a child’s fall. It occurs to me that she must have noticed the ground was newly thawed. No longer frozen solid, it was just right for digging. Oblivious to the camera, she has taken some time out to examine her new find. In the blurred background of the other photo, I recognize one of the toddlers and Hank, the teacher in charge, who is reading the story. The camera focuses in on my daughter, seeming to highlight the thoughtful far-away look on her face. Her attention is rapt, lost in the story.
It was in the mid-70s that my daughter and I came to that day care center. I was 22 at the time. She was 2. It was a very idealistic era in our nation’s history, a time of boundless optimism and many new social initiatives. I had learned there were day-care programs for children whose parents were students, a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society Programs” that extended federal subsidies to the middle class. But the slots were all full everywhere I inquired, and the term was about to begin. Then the director of the program, sensing my urgency, agreed to take in an extra child. I was amazed at how simple it was. I was asked to document my student status, my income and my child’s birth date. Fees were on a sliding scale. I was a work-study student and had several scholarships.
I don’t remember much about the college I attended back then. For me, it was an impersonal place, with much the grey, graffiti-covered look of public institutions. I didn’t get to know the faculty or take many courses in my major, my time being taken up with transfer-student paperwork, and meeting the graduation requirements of yet another school. A lot of my classes were in huge lecture halls, where there was little interaction between teacher and student. Since the student body consisted of commuters, I rarely saw my classmates outside of w graduation requirements of yet another school. When I had a few hours free I worked.
But I remember just about everything about that day care center.  For me, that day care center was an oasis, an island of colorful crayon crafts and era-splitting joy, smack in the middle of the college campus. It was nothing like those indifferent places that were mere parking spaces for children. Rather, it was a miniature Sesame Street. The pupils and teachers came from a range of social and economic backgrounds. Here, a spirit of multiculturalism, camaraderie and learning reigned. The child-teacher ratio was remarkable, about 3 to 1.  In ``addition to the salaried teachers who were there all day, early childhood majors would drop by. The parents, mostly students like me or college staff, also got involved. The friendships I established here extended well beyond the program.
Every morning, the lively young teachers greeted my toddler by name. Throughout the day, they were there, ready to pick up a child who had fallen down, offer a colorful band-aid or to coax a smile. At the end of the day, one always took a few moments to chat with me. I still remember some of the teachers’ names: Sally, Anna, Hank, Jim. Several were parents themselves whose children attended the center.
On those cold mornings when my daughter was groggy with sleep and I was rushing to class, I knew she could eat there. In the midmorning, the aromas of spaghetti sauce and brownies would waft across my path as I passed by on my way to class or work. On birthdays, which were celebrated with a clockwork precision, the kitchen prepared a special cake, and I could hear the entire school of about 60 pupils chime in in an exuberant off-key chorus honoring the child of the day.                      
There were no lectures here, but lessons were taught. They were about sharing, mutual respect, responsibility. The kids took turns dishing out the meals, setting tables, handing out coloring or craft supplies. There were rules too, rules that were the same for everyone: The pupils were expected to wait their turn, and to pick up after themselves. They were taught how to settle differences: No fighting was allowed. And no biting. In this small microcosm, an ordered world prevailed.
Here, kids learned that their efforts were worthwhile. Their work was proudly displayed on the center’s walls. “I made this,” my daughter would say at the end of the say, pointing out a crooked oval shape she had drawn or perhaps a backwards “N” and a few unwieldy letters.
That’s “Natalia,” she’d say, echoing her name.
But I wasn’t always aware of the learning taking place there. Those days, I was always running with a toddler in tow – running to meet the bus, running to the center, running to work, running to class. I didn’t have much time to think about what she did there. At the end of the day, I still had studying to do, a task that often ended up hastily done or unfinished when balanced with the more urgent ,matters of getting through the day. Those days I never had time, and much that demanded my attention went unattended.

I will always remember one rainy afternoon, though. Carrying an umbrella, a rain-soaked bag of groceries, and a backpack full of books, I was intent on getting home. My daughter, in an oversized slicker and floppy galoshes, was lagging a few steps behind, criss-crossing the sidewalk, making sure to splash in each puddle. “Mommy! Wait! Wait!” she suddenly called out. “Look! Look! Circles!” We stood in the downpour together and watched the heavy rain droplets create circular concentric ripples as they hit the puddles. She had learned about shapes in school that day.

Those are the images I am left with from those day-care center years, images of me running, of her lagging behind, of me walking straight ahead, of her looking at everything, thinking, dreaming....

Interestingly, when I was in school, I thought it was I who benefitted from that day care program. Without it, I could not have received my degree. Also, the centered countered the isolation I felt, being alone with a child in the city. But only much later did I begin to realize what that experience meant for my child. All through those harried years, there was a place where there was always time for her. Here she had time to relax, to be herself, to be someone special.

My daughter spent two years in that day care program. Then I was off to grad school and she was old enough for nursery school. We were lucky. By that time, daycare for students like me was no longer a mandate. I’ve often wondered since then about parents and children just like me and my daughter who weren’t as lucky.  Unlike me and my daughter, they have had no place to go and no one to count on.

Particularly now, as our nation grows increasingly stratified financially, and so many resources are available for those children who are privileged and so few for the rest, it seems to me that programs like this one from years ago, need to be reconsidered to level the playing field. Perhaps we also need to look at the European model, such as the one in France, that offers quality government-subsidized programs for all children, regardless of income. 
I have an unlikely reminder from those days in those text books that I tried to so hard to keep out of my daughter's reach. As I now look at the crooked oval shapes and unwieldy letters scribbled in my books, I realize she had been practicing drawing a face and writing her name, something she learned at the center. 

Monday, March 19, 2012


It’s getting late, about 11 p.m. on a Sunday night, a few days before Halloween. After several flight delays, I’m still at the American Airlines terminal at Chicago's O’Hare Airport, waiting to board the plane to Dallas, where I have a meeting in the early morning on the next day. 

I pace around restlessly. Then I set down my fold-over carry-on bag, the strap of which is digging into my shoulder, and I wearily drop into the nearest plastic-form chair.

Sitting opposite me is a young girl, about 13, and her older brother, about 17, I would say. They’re wearing jeans and sneakers and look a bit tired and rumpled. They trade banter and tease each other affectionately. The girl is holding a plastic trick-or-treat bag that she keeps rummaging in, perhaps a gift from a grandmother. She takes out a homemade cupcake with orange icing and a chocolate jack-o-lantern face. Then a younger sibling, a sister with long brown hair, perhaps seven or eight, arrives, with their mother in  tow. The girl is carrying an identical trick or treat bag. The mother is a cheerful and sophisticated-looking woman, dressed in business attire. She’s wearing a wedding ring.

For me, the frequent flyer, airports are all alike, and so are the people I see there.  Yet for some reason, I find myself staring.

They don’t stare back but smile good-naturedly at me.

This scene of relaxed family togetherness seems so ordinary, yet to me so poignant. Families, it always seemed to me, are the possessors of happiness. But I wonder if they are aware of their special lot, enveloped in their cocoonlike interiors of closed doors, warm glowing lights. Their secure worlds are all so different from those of parents like me, raising a child alone. “Families, I hate you,” Andre Gide, the French essayist and novelist, once said. But I don’t feel anger or envy as I gaze at that closely knit group, only fascination and some sadness.

Maybe I’m just tired and moody, or maybe it’s just the season, the darkening days of late October with the  promise of the holidays soon to come, or maybe it’s the cupcakes, a reminder of life’s simpler pleasures. Most likely, though, it’s simply the nature of my work, of newspaper work in general. For the past five years I’ve moved six times without the  prospect of ever settling down. Too often I’ve had an assignment in one place, had to leave my child in another. This time, though, I am finally in a position to choose, am in a position where my daughter and I will finally be together. Nevertheless, tonight, I find myself particularly pensive and alone.     

It’s time to board. Passengers begin to line up single file at the gate. I just sit there, not wanting to wait in that long queue with that bulky canvas bag. The family across from me begins to collect their coats and carry-on luggage.

“Wait!” the 13-year-old suddenly cries out. She cannot find her pass. The teen rummages in her purse, in her pockets. Suddenly, her older brother reaches into her Halloween bag and pulls out the pass triumphantly. They all laugh.

As they begin to make their way across the terminal, the little one pipes up – her pass is also missing. “You too!” says her mother good-naturedly. There’s another bout of rummaging and together they manage to find it.

I cannot take my eyes off them, those children so rambunctious and carefree, that mother so indulgent and so patient. Perhaps I idealize, a mere observer, looking on from the other side of the fence. Yet on days when I am rushed and far from home, it seems to me that I see families everywhere, reminders of a lifestyle I have not been able to provide.

“Mom,” you mustn’t be so impatient with me,” my teen-age daughter had said to me this morning.

It saddens me to realize that the patience and joy on the face of this Dallas-bound mother is not an expression with which I have often been able to turn to my child. More often than not, mine was one of impatience and worry. If she would have misplaced her pass, I know I would have said, not without exasperation, “Find that pass quickly. Why don’t you know where you put it?”

She grew up a hurried child, without that cushion provided by a family of two parents, grandparents and siblings. She grew up in a world where I had to make our way, a world filled with appointments and sitters and deadlines and schedules, a world that did not wait.

“Let’s go,” I’d say to her when she was a toddler, “or I’ll be late.” I had to get her up early so I could get to school and work. Drowsy with sleep, she’d dawdle. “Hurry,” I would tell her. “Go eat your cereal.” “Make sure you have your scarf and mittens. Where are your mittens?”

She was often out of step in a world that moved more quickly than she did. “Late again,” the elementary school teacher would say when she arrived, more often  than not still  munching on a slice of peanut butter toast. “You’re always late….” The teacher would tell her. “Your homework is late.”  My heart would sink those many days as I sat helplessly tied to my desk at work thinking about those carefully lettered assignments still on the kitchen table, about her trying to negotiate her way alone to school or back home or taking the bus to her dance lessons.

“Be careful.” "Be prepared." “Be on time.” “The world is a serious place,” I would tell her. 

“But Mom….,” she would inevitably say, explaining about the magical new snowfall that she had to explore, about the stray cat that she had found on her way to school and had to bring back home, about the library book that she had forgotten  and had to return for. Despite all my worry and endless direction, she simply continued to wander on blithely through life, carefree as any child, and simply assumed that the world would love her.

And it did.

Yes, she often filled her mother with much consternation, yet she also won much approval and applause. She fascinated her teachers with her tales of her misadventures, her soaring flights of imagination, and her infectious laugh. She had walked into an interview for her school and on the spot was given a scholarship to attend. She waltzed into a dance audition and was the one invited to stay. She was a spinner of cartwheels, a master of mime, a fount of insatiable  curiosity, always posing her inevitable " but why?" Where, her teachers have often asked me, does all her confidence and spontaneity and joy come from? Where, I have often asked myself, does it all come from?

Yes, I would have thought that this young girl would have turned out to be cautious and careworn like her mother. ‘How,” I often asked myself, “can I provide her with all she that she needs to grow and to flourish.”

Yes, there were many times in my daughter’s life when I could not be there, and there were times when I had to keep her waiting when I was late. When parents talk to me about letting down their kids, they tell of tantrums and tears and slamming doors and recriminations. Yet she never railed or complained or made demands. When an exam made me late  for her school pageant she waved to me in her cat costume from the stage. When a flight delay made me late for her graduation, she stepped out of the ordered procession of mortarboards to greet me. As I look as this Dallas-bound mother, I wonder at the constancy I demanded of my child as I tried to make our way, juggling schools and jobs and schedules

Just this morning while packing, I  had spoken  sharply to her. “You’re so thin,” I had said, my offhand comment couching my concern only as a criticism.  “Giving me more to  worry about,” I  said to her.

As I sit and wait here in this airport, that gentle plaint echoes.

When I begin got think about the life that she and I had, I cannot begin to tally the toll. Work. School. The jobs. The travel. The dislocations. The years she spent in boarding school. The demands of her growing educational opportunities. And I could not begin to fathom how to balance it all. There was simply too much in  her life that I myself could not control. No, the circumstances for her growth have not  been  ideal. 

She is a caring child who deserved to be doted on, who should have had a rowdy bunch of brothers and sisters, a loving father, a few aunts and uncles, perhaps, even two pairs of fond grandparents. But there was nothing I could do about that. Instead I got her a shiny red bicycle that she drove around the campus where I worked, went sledding with her at Riverside Park, signed her up for those dance lessons she wanted to attend, promised on this trip to bring her back a pair of  cowboy boots….

It’s almost midnight when I hear the final  call for boarding. I see the  family with their trick-or-treat bags go through  the boarding gate, those denizens of an  insulated world  where planes can wait and children are cherished. I gather up my raincoat and luggage.

“Cupcakes,” I  say to  myself when I walk onto the plane. “That’s what I’ll  do. When I get home. we’ll make Halloween cupcakes.”

But as our life would have it, as soon as I returned, she gets another scholarship, an opportunity of  a lifetime.

“But the  scholarship doesn’t matter,” she said heatedly to me.

“Oh yes, it does,” I said back to her.

In a way, our life has always been like that O. Henry Christmas story, each one of us willing to sacrifice the things that mean a lot for the other,  but neither one of us willing to accept that sacrifice from the other. As I help her pack, it occurs to me that perhaps in the end, it was simply enough to do all that what one could. As I look back it all, I begin to realize that she has somehow always found her way; and yes, it seems to me, that despite it all, she will continue to find her way.

Yet weeks later, that airport scene still lingers in my mind.  Sitting at my desk at work, I  mention  it  a colleague, a married mother of  three.

“Lord knows!” she  exclaims. “That woman must have been on valium! And those kids, she adds, "they must have been on their best behavior. At home, I’ll bet you that they’re constantly at each other’s throats.” “Besides,’ she continues,  “Maybe they  weren’t even  her kids. For all you know, they might have been her stepkids whom she sees once a year. Or maybe they were kids from her first marriage, living with  her ex.

I consider all the possibilities. I  want to believe her. But  somehow I  cannot.


Wednesday, August 19, 1998

Visit to Ukraine

“Mih vernym. Mih vernym,” my parents would say. We will return. We will return. When the communist soldiers leave, when Ukraine is free, they would say, we will return. Growing up in an expatriate community in New York City, after my parents had been uprooted by the 2nd World War, that is the refrain I will always remember, spoken in the musical voices of the Ukrainians who surrounded me in my youth. 

            Yet this was something that was to never happen during their lifetimes.

And now I am here, in their native land, which has been independent for almost seven years.
            What I see is strangely familiar, somehow linked with memories of my childhood. As I walk from the airport steps and enter the city of Lviv, the capital of Western Ukraine,  I see the familiar blue and yellow flags wave. The country’s national emblem, the tryzyb -- which looks somewhat like two R’s facing each other and intertwined with a fleur de lis -- is displayed just about everywhere. The Red flags are gone. Russian signs have been changed to Ukrainian ones. The airport van and old Ladas rattle over old cobblestone roads. The city’s fading splendor is reminiscent of its more prosperous days; much of the architecture here dates back to the days of the Austria-Hungary Empire, when this part of the country was under its rule.  An old opera theatre with worn plush red velvet seats and gilt booths reminds me of  the intrigues of  18th century novels.

             Though I have never been here, I feel like I live here. Indeed, many of the persons I meet could have been any of the people living in the expatriate community I lived in as a child.

            When I go visit some relatives, my mother’s youngest sister’s entire family gathers to greet me. Though I have never met them, I feel as though I’ve always known them. Their ways are so familiar. As their old ’72 Lada rumbles though the countryside, I think of my mother, of her going to boarding school in this very town, of being driven home for the winter break in a sleigh pulled by horses rushing though the silent snow-covered roads, with sleigh bells jingling.

            Clearly, the times and my family’s circumstances have changed. Warm, hospitable, my newly found relatives offer us a meal. The food is the labor-intensive, familiar food of my childhood, a savory broth, handmade pirohy, and as a special treat, a torte, filled with layers of jam and almond paste. The cucumbers and fresh tomatoes, grown in the country’s rich black soil, are delicious, unlike any I’ve even tasted. Oddly, though, unlike the traditional veal dishes and goulashes I remember being served during my childhood, they have no meat. Like the majority of  the country’s population, they find themselves in the crunch of the country’s current economic crisis. A family of teachers, they each earn about 140 hrivny a month, the equivalent of  70 US Dollars, say they are just getting by from day to day, say they worry about the futures of their children. I want to take their teenage daughter, Maya, home with me, imagine sending her to an American college.     

            The next day, I go with them to visit my mother’s childhood home. But the house my mother lived in has been razed.. The flowers she talked about, the orchard, gone. Still standing is the church where her father was a priest. Recently rebuilt and reopened, it now has a pastor.  An elderly woman who lives nearby and who used to work at the house walks up. “Irina’s daughter,” she exclaims. “I remember Ira (a village version of Irina),” she says. She talks to me about my mother as a lively, derring-do child who used to offer to take her on rides on her bike. She calls the village priest.

            I realize I am on a quest. What happened to my family? I need to know. In Ukraine, what was merely whispered about or not spoken about at all during the days of communism is now being said aloud. Nothing is certain, I find. My grandfather, was murdered, his remains never found. The priest talks of what he has heard, stories of torture that are indeed unspeakable, and my newly found family and I are silent. About the fate of an uncle, a judge, nothing is known. He just disappeared.  And then there is the story of the aunt who was captured while crossing the border. To this day, she has said nothing about what she experienced.   

            The next day, I go to a cemetery that is also a museum. It is a  beautiful place; sculptures abound, and people linger, bring flowers. Some monuments are centuries-old. and elaborate. Others are newly built, remembering victims of the Soviets. Particularly striking is a figure of a young man, a composer, with a draped piano in the background.  I am told he was hanged.

My family history here dates back to the 17th Century. The family, I find, has two crests. I see my great-grandfather’s gravesite. I also see the gravesite of my grandmother who was exiled to Siberia and died soon after. Among the more recently buried is another uncle who taught at the university. “The truth will always live on,” it says on his grave. Rumors abound about the circumstances of his death. Some say he was poisoned. And I see a mohyla, a hilllike mound  that contains the remains of  those who died during the communist occupation of Western Ukraine in 1944.  My aunt guesses that my grandfather’s bones may be buried there, together with those of others found by a river..

            America is a lucky country, it occurs to me. Its people fortunate and optimistic. For the last 200 years they have been spared the horrors of a war fought on their land.

            The next day, I go to the bazaar, but like in Joyce’s Araby, I find many trinkets, but little to buy. At a refreshment stand with outside tables and chairs, I see an advertisement for cigarettes: ”Pall Mall” in American letters is inter-spaced with the nation’s symbol, the tryzyb. Chess players, all men, gather at tables at Lviv’s central square, competing in playoffs. A young boy seems to be winning. I think of my father, a celebrated chess champion, who used to play at the tables of Tompkins Square Park. 

            As I move on to Kiev, the nation’s capital, a hotel clerk tells me my accent is from Lviv, not recognizing me as an American. As I walk around the city, I see an old man sitting on a bench under the trees, strumming a bandura, the national instrument, and singing with a beautiful, haunting voice.  It’s a song I remember my mother singing, about the pain of a mother sending her son off to war.

In an ancient church that was turned into a museum and is now being rebuilt, another aunt gives me a tall thin candle to light. “In memory of your parents,” she says. Amid the smell of incense, the familiar icons, I am suddenly a child again, standing at a sung church service in my rabbit coat and a warm fur muff.  As we go out, we see one shining gold-leaf dome being placed on top of the church. In that very plaza, I have my photo taken under a familiar statue of Queen Olha, whom I learned about in my childhood history classes. My namesake, she brought Christianity into Ukraine.

II near the end of my tour, on the eve of the country’s Independence Day celebration,  I hear the National Anthem sung, Che Ne Vmerla Ukraina, (Ukraine has not died yet, neither has its fame and glory), something my parents would never have imagined hearing in this land. The Head of Parliament gives a speech in Ukrainian. Then comes an amazing display of choral singing, music, and the balletic folkdances I performed as a child.  I fall in love with the voice of a baritone soloist who sings with a band, a voice the reminds me of  the formal dance parties my parents attended, of a tenor singing, of my father bowing and asking me for a dance as a child. I would hold onto his arms tight and we would spin in swirling circles.

And so, at the end of my visit, I find myself standing with one foot in each country.  If not for the war, it occurs to me, I would have lived here, the family line not disrupted.  Cut off from my past, like many Americans, I find my roots in one land and  myself in another.