Like many of us in our forties, my childhood and teenage memories are full of hazy family vacation images. My father going the wrong way down a one-way street in Philadelphia as we tried to find the Liberty Bell; strolling Fisherman’s Wharf with my mom in 1977 while a girl on roller skates tried to sell my dad hashish brownies; my brother and my cousin Joey showing off in the surf of Nags Head while my Uncle Wig patiently built another sand castle with me; buying a Confederate Hat in the Gettysburg gift shop for my Arkansas-born grandfather; my sister and I somewhere on a lake in a paddle boat, the location long-since forgotten; and most treasured memory of my mother teaching my father how to properly put my hair in ponytails before he took 8-year old me to Disneyworld – just the two of us.
When I became a parent, I knew I wanted to give Liza those same kind of vacation memories, and I’m fortunate to be married to someone who is one of the best trip-planners around. Over the past ten years our family trips have ranged from quick weekend getaways (from Storyland for then six year old Liza to touring the mansions of Newport last summer) a week at a beach house in Maine; Florida, New York City, Hilton Head, the mountains of New Hampshire, and, this past week, Washington D.C. My wife’s penchant for making lists of attractions and consulting guidebooks and maps has led me to dub us “the Gay Griswolds,” after the family in the classic Chevy Chase “Family Vacation” movies. We’ve had some bumps along the way like any family on the road together, but for the most part our yearly vacations and getaways are the highlights of every year.
This year’s trip was sorely needed. The longest winter ever had compounded our stress levels to the point where going on vacation felt like more work than staying home. A staff member’s sudden resignation early in the year had left me short-handed with twice my normal responsibilities, and I had grown short tempered with everyone and everything at work. Kelly had dealt with particularly difficult situations in her work as a psychiatric nurse, and Liza was feeling the pinch of the last quarter of freshman year with papers and tests coming a lightening speed every day on top of the demands of a challenging theatrical role. We needed to get away, and remember how to be a family of three again rather than three individually stressed-out women. So in the darkness of a pre-dawn Saturday morning we set out, bleary-eyed and silent to catch the train that would take us away from it all for five days.
We had picked DC and Williamsburg partly due to Liza’s interest in government and politics, partly because most things there are free, and partly because I hadn’t traveled to that area for over 30 years and was interested to see how things had changed. The trip in most ways was like all our others, lots of food (let me reiterate: LOTS OF FOOD), lots of laughter, a few frustrated moments of teenage angst, and morning conversations about who had snored the loudest the night before. But this trip, with Liza’s fifteenth birthday hurtling at us with breakneck speed, seemed different. Along the way I found myself keenly aware that the coming years might hold more for Liza than trips with her old moms. Finding a part-time job, a possible school-sponsored Europe trip, and the allure of the company of friends over the company of moms all compete for her attention and her time and these family vacations would be fewer and farther between. Finally under way and weary from rising at 4am to catch a 7am train, Liza and I grow drowsy on the long ride to DC. Her head rests on my shoulder, growing heavier and heavier as she falls into a deep sleep. For a moment I am reminded of the weight of a sleeping baby on my shoulder and how I used to be afraid to move lest the sleep be disturbed. The next seven hours are a blur of passengers getting on and off the train in Providence, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore. They come and go, and with each stop, each change of scenery, I shed another layer of stress until we emerge into the chaos of Union Station and the humid D.C. air.
Our first full day in DC we take a ‘hop on hop off” trolley tour and ‘hop off” to explore Georgetown. Liza has an interest in the college so off we go to get gloriously lost on campus for an hour or so. The longer we spend in the area though the more uncomfortable and self -conscious I get. My size and modest means suddenly seem to define me even more than usual. All around me are the people I went to college with but never associated with– wealthy, skinny, blonde, sleek – dropping money on Kate Spade bags and brunching over Bloody Mary’s, their oversize sunglasses perched atop shiny beautiful hair, wearing near identical looks of bored disdain. My ‘plus size’ cheap jean capris, oversized gap outlet sweater, sandals and bag mark me as a fat tourist from the boonies and I want to grab Liza and say “not here! Please not here! Not with these people, not all over again.” She and Kelly are oblivious and suggest stopping in a coffee shop for iced treats. I take a step inside and instantly turn around and leave. The tiny tables and short ceilings compound my clumsiness and I can’t breathe for fear of knocking something over. I wait outside in the sunlight fascinated by an older woman with red hair and a thick accent lounging with her coffee as a much younger man stands behind her rubbing her head. “But what will he doooo eeeen Brazil?”, she woman asks her companion. Kelly and Liza spill out onto the sidewalk before I can hear his answer.
Cities always make me keenly aware of my size. Not just my weight, my ever present companion on every journey, but my height, my frame, the amount of space I occupy. I work with a very, very tiny slender person who casually commented that, “you can really drop a lot of weight in DC from all the walking you do.” Really. Really? We are staying in Dupont Circle, (which we came to call “hot gay boy central”), and every street seems full of athletic men and women in running gear, or on bikes, or going to or coming from the gym. Every restaurant or café seems manageable only for the tiny and I consciously try to take up as little space as possible. The clothes I thought might be reasonably breezy and summery back in New Hampshire seem frumpy, faded and old among the sleekly dressed DC denizens. It’s only when we are doing something typically touristy such as walking from monument to monument, or piling on to the trolley with a tour group from Kansas clutching take out boxes of chili dogs and chicken tenders that I feel I can blend in again. I laugh at the irony that the chiseled gay boys of Dupont circle make me more self-conscious than Midwestern tourists.
After three days we pick up the rental car and head to Williamsburg in the rain. The forecasted rain has us briefly wondering if we should just try to head home. Traipsing around a historic site doesn’t seem appealing but off we go determined to make the best of it in spite of the weather. Far from the tony bistros of Dupont Circle we grow ecstatic over finding a Sonic, unheard of in New Hampshire, and dive into hot dogs and peanut butter milkshakes with abandon. Yeah, yeah I know. I was complaining about my size in the last two paragraphs. I never said I made sense.. or had an ounce of willpower. In spite of a weather forecast that promised everything from rain to tornados to plagues of locusts, the sun peeks out from a blanket of clouds for our day at Williamsburg and we enjoy speculating about future careers as historic re-enactors. Later in the afternoon, when feet and interest were waning and I was ready to throw in the towel, Liza suddenly insists we tour the original capital. I’m fascinated by how engaged she is in learning about early courts and political processes. I am continually fascinated by this child of mine, part theatrical diva and part political aspirant wrapped in a 5’11 package of mascara and lip-gloss. The day ends with a torrential downpour of truly biblical proportions that leaves us breathless and soaked after a mad, puddle-filled dash to the car.
Our vacation draws to an end when three-hour drive back to D.C. takes closer to five hours in rush-hour traffic and includes my wife’s frantic search for a bathroom that leads us to, of all places, the Pentagon. But the train is made on time and we are safely ensconced again in our seats settled in for another 7-hour ride. As the scenery rolls by, in between helping Liza study lines and reading and napping. I think of the family vacations I went on as a child, and how I wish my parents were here to hear the tales of our adventures. But as the long day ends with yet another traffic jam just miles from home we find ourselves helpless with laughter as we relive every funny moment from the trip in all their hysterical glories. And I know that no matter where we travel, where we go, and how much of the world we see, there is no better place for me than laughing with my girls. I can’t wait to see where we’ll go next.
To say that 2013 got off on the wrong foot for me is an understatement. To say that it ended on a spectacular high note is also an understatement. A friend of mine sent me a message a few weeks ago telling me that he was expecting a triumphant “end of year” piece on my blog, because things had turned around so dramatically for me. I wanted to oblige him, so for the past week I’ve started and stopped roughly a dozen pieces trying to find the right words, the right tone. Nothing seemed to work, and everything seemed awfully self-serving, boastful even. Then it struck me. At the beginning of the year when things were going so horribly wrong, when I was faced with disappointment after disappointment, writing about it was cathartic and helpful, even offering the opportunity to make a joke or two. And, to be honest, at the time I fully believed that everything that was going wrong, every fractured friendship, every hurdle, was somehow cosmically, karmically justified and it was my job to just get the hell through it all in one piece. Writing helped me do just that.
So why weren’t the words coming to me now? Why couldn’t I find a way to say in a witty and two-adjective-phrases-worthy way, just how content and happy the end of this year has made me feel? For someone like me, bred and firmly rooted in Northern New England sensibilities this feels boastful and arrogant. The setbacks I faced in early 2013 called for action, for a grit-your-teeth-and-just-get-through-it attitude, for sarcasm and self-deprecation. The good fortune of the last few months seemed to call for modesty, humility and some more self-deprecation. I wrote, deleted, started again. Wrote, deleted, started again.
Started again. Start again.
That’s what this year has been all about, starting again. In fact that’s what life is about, starting again. Ten years ago I lept off the cliff and started again as a single mom newly out of the closet. Three years ago I started again when Kelly and I got married. Sometimes we start again, out of necessity because to remain still is to suffocate. Sometimes we start again because we have no choice. Early 2013 remains a six-month blur of slammed doors, angry words, broken friendships, and frustrated tears. An ‘annus horriblus’ as Queen Elizabeth once said, seemed to be in the making. But all those hackeyned sayings about doors opening and closing? Turns out they’re right. Yes, the friendships that had been hurt were ultimately repaired, but in the interim new people had found me and had begun to fill the spaces. Yes there were days I felt terribly alone, and then someone unexpected would turn up asking “how can I help?” Yes, I wondered if anyone would ever cast me again. Then they did. And they did again and again, and again. And I ended 2013 sitting in silent disbelief as I looked back on some of the best if not the best work I’d ever done. Work that had been recognized and appreciated. Work that challenged me and rewarded me in such personal ways that my chest ached from it all. And greeting each opportunity, each new part, each new cast, was as if a beautiful blank book had been given to me to write in and fill the pages with a new story. An opportunity to start again. Not just on stage but in the way I greeted each day, loved my family, connected with friends, and tackled my work. Start again. The very phrase even showed up in as an oft-repeated line by my character in the last show I performed this year. It was as if even my scripts were telling me it was going to be ok. That in fact it was going to be more than ok.
It’s well into the first week of 2014 now. And I can’t help but marvel at the difference between the start of this year and what I was feeling a year ago. Before me lies a whole glorious year, maybe this year I’ll finally get my act together and get rid of that extra weight I carry around. Maybe I won’t. Maybe this year I’ll find some more wonderful shows to perform. And maybe I won’t get cast in anything. Maybe I’ll be diligent about putting more money away in savings. And maybe I’ll squander it on weekend getaways, drinks with friends, family dinners out, and trips to the ice cream stand. Maybe I’ll write my book. And maybe I won’t. But no matter what happens I’ll remember this feeling, this feeling of being totally whole, totally at peace. Proud, satisfied, surrounded by my adorable, supportive and hysterically funny family and friends new and old.
And ready to start again.
Happy New Year.
“You won’t like it…”
“I really want one please, it sounds so good!”
“I just think you’re not going to like it…”
“I think I will!”
My daughter and I are having an intense conversation about the unfortunately named Red Velvet Latte at Dunkin Donuts. She feels this sounds delicious and nothing I can tell her will persuade her that this is actually a coffee drink that will you know, taste like coffee. At 14, Liza is at the stage of liking the idea of coffee, even flirting with drinking coffee by consuming concoctions that may have coffee somewhere far down on the ingredients list but are really closer to hot chocolates or milkshakes. My warnings that this deliciously named Red Velvet Latte will not, in fact, be like drinking a cupcake fall on deaf ears.
The drink is purchased and we pull away from the drive up and head home. The first sip is taken. Silence. I drive. A second sip, a wrinkled face and a slight shudder follow. I drive. Silence. “It has a strong um…aftertaste,” she finally admits. “Like coffee?” I ask? A sigh and silence answers me. Then, an outburst: “This latte is like my life!” she exclaims, “I keep thinking I’m going to like certain things and then when I try them they’re not what I think they’re going to be at all!”
Planted squarely between the safe excitement of middle schoolers entering the teenage years and the effortless sophistication of 16 or 17-year old high schoolers, life as a 14-year old Freshman can seem a minefield of decisions large and small from which language to study to where to sit at lunch. And from the painful decision to say goodbye to ten years of dance study to allow for more time for theater and extracurricular activities to the choice of a homecoming dress. Every option is scrutinized, studied and discussed. All the possible outcomes are weighed and more than a few tears are shed. Everything seems monumental when you’re fourteen, even a red velvet latte.
I continue to drive, wondering if I should say something and risk making the situation worse. It had been a rough week for us in mother-daughter land. My four months of rich acting work (back-to-back shows with two of the best parts I’ve ever played) came to a close and I was left feeling as though I’d had a limb amputated. I missed my rehearsal process, I missed my cast-mates from both shows, I missed my characters, I was restless and grumpy at 7_30 each night, and the coming year loomed in front of me with the near 100% certain knowledge that no acting work was out there for me. (On a tangential note, I’m ready to declare a moratorium on casting notices that only feature parts for 20-30 year olds, but I digress). My family was thrilled that I was “home” and that our lives could return to some semblance of normality, yet I was at odds with everyone and everything. It was not my finest hour, and it was made all the more difficult by a certain 14-year-old’s inability to see that I was, as I reminded her in a fit of pique, “an actual person, with actual feelings.” To say I was testy with her dramatics was an understatement. But since she had to put up with my moods it was only fair I put up with hers.
So, I took a deep breath (when you parent a teenage girl, I highly recommend a cleansing deep breath before saying anything… seriously…anything), and I told her sometimes that’s what happens when we take a chance. Sometimes the latte doesn’t taste good. Sometimes we burn our tongue. And that it doesn’t mean that the latte won’t taste delicious in a few years when her taste buds have acclimated to coffee. (Although between you and me I still have doubts about this whole Red Velvet flavor). Just as toddlers stubbornly insist, “do it myself!” teenagers have to find out for themselves as well what fits them, what suits them, and what challenges them. She took a chance, and while the outcome wasn’t what she had hoped, she still took that risk, the same way she took the risk to run for class office, to audition for a new show, to speak up in class at a time when girls her age fall notoriously silent, to be herself, to be this loud, goofy, slightly klutzy, thoughtful, stubborn, emotional tempest, without sacrificing her self on the altar of teenage conformity. In that stupid Red Velvet Latte I suddenly understood all that she had been feeling, and just as I had implored her to see me as a real person, it was incumbent upon me to do the same.
I thought back to my own Red Velvet Latte moments, the risks that paid off and the ones that didn’t. I thought back to my parents who never said, “don’t bother,” but instead said, “Well, try it and see!” I thought about my wife who pushed and pushed me to audition for a role I was certain I’d never get and who never stopped beaming with delight from the moment I was cast to the moment I took my final bow – even amidst all that she sacrificed so I could shine. And I thought about a line from one of my favorite Sondheim songs, “The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not.” At 14 every choice is fraught with peril and potential. At 47, it’s not much different. But still we choose and still we risk, for the alternative — stasis — is simply unbearable.
We are much alike, my girl and I, full of big feelings, and deep currents of emotion that can cloud our reason and elevate simple things to critical importance. And as we mirror each other, we are often impatient with each other, unwilling to see our similarities even as they stare us in the face. Maybe the next time I find us at odds with each other, clashing over little things and biting back our tears, I’ll take another deep breath and ask her if she wants to take a break and share a latte, and try again.