When my friends started having children, as much as I thought about what role I'd play in their kids' lives, it was as the sort of friend of the family who, when you're teetering through teenagerdom and your early 20s, takes you out to lunch or dinner (often arriving, fortuitously, when you're most off course and down-at-heel), gives you Rilke and Asimov and the Brontes at the junctures when they can do their most good, takes your ambitions seriously, lets you be yourself while providing some calibrating sense of what the world at large will eventually expect from your conversation, etc. I had a couple such 'aunts' myself, my mom's best friends; they were essential to me. Not that I considered any of this too closely (I spent as much concentrated time guessing at the number of jelly beans in the jar during the baby showers); there was only a hazy assumption of future lunches and dinners, future me, breezy and perfumed and self-contained, like an older Colette character, the future kid at some gawky, giraffed stage of impending adulthood. If I had turned out prosperous, I would get to say extravagant things like: "Here's plane fare for Andalusia!" And if I had not: "Here is a copy of Steppenwolf. When you're older the memory of how much you loved this book will make you cackle but never mind that now."
How would we arrive at these meals on terms of familiarity and confidence? I didn't think about it.
At age 3, Sofia, my friend Angela's daughter, was sitting next to me at a party when, after a half-hour of steadily downing crackers, she began choking. First she turned red, then she turned purple. One adult swept her up; another adult hooked a finger down her throat and scraped up the approximately nine pounds of cracker paste stuck there. I was, it seems important to note, neither of those helpful adults. I remember having absolutely no idea what to do.
There's a scene in Experience where Martin Amis describes the little ritual that would conclude Philip Larkin's visits to see his father Kingsley when he (Martin) was a child. Before departure, Larkin would stack coins for him and his brother on the kitchen table. This was called "tipping the boys" (marvelous Larkin/Amis Elder-ism). The two kids, after some urging, would shyly rush forward and nab the money as Larkin looked on "mournful and priestly." The older brother (Larkin's godson) received fourpence, Martin, three. The amount increased as they got older, but never by much—Larkin was miserly.
For some reason I've always pictured Larkin as wearing a mackintosh during these proceedings. (Above the coat, his face "an egg sculpted in lard, wearing goggles.") Maybe in addition to the mack, he was also sometimes juggling a bottle of wine and standing around awkwardly as the family thrummed around him in its post-dinner routine and he hoped the kids would be sent off to bed soon because he'd just remembered a great piece of gossip and wanted to tell Kingsley privately; maybe he stared into the kids' faces and felt genuine affection but could think of nothing to say and consoled himself with "wait till you are older and I can tell you where all the great restaurants in Andalusia are"; maybe he sometimes heard himself asking "how's school?" and thought, "Sweet Jesus, kid, sorry about that." Or maybe he was only sorry to be shaved of the 7d. I don't know.
Larkin, of course, famously disliked children. In a footnote to the tipping anecdote, Amis writes: "As a child himself, he has said, he thought he hated everybody: 'but when I grew up I realized it was only children I didn't like.'" Then Amis adds: "I take this to be self-stylization."
I used to work at an ad agency and I've stayed friends with many of the people I knew there. One of them was Angela. (It was her job to tapdance back and forth to the clients. Now she's a nursing assistant on a neurological unit, while getting her nursing degree.) Another was my friend Connie, who was an art director. I was a copywriter. Our other friend was a client. (Oh the famed advertising merchant guilds of the Appalachians! How secret and privileged that sorority!) The four of us like to meet up for wine every couple months, even though only one of us has the same job she used to.
The week after our last date this spring, Connie got a bad case of allergies. Her eyes were bloodshot and she had to wear sunglasses to her daughter's soccer game because it was so embarrassing, these bloodshot eyes. Then she started getting nosebleeds. She went in for tests and was admitted to the hospital the same morning. She stayed in a hospital in Asheville and then one in New Jersey for the next eight months receiving treatment for leukemia (intense rounds of chemotherapy and then a bone marrow transplant)—that is, she spent most of spring, summer, and fall in a hospital bed, in various levels of pain and discomfort, with the continual sound of footsteps and voices in the hall outside her room, with nurses and techs coming in every hour, and the incessant beeps of IVs and monitors, and the meals on trays, and the recirculated air. (Many of our phone conversations this year have been about weather. "It's hot today." "It's raining a little, it feels nice," I would report from three miles away.) She is out now and doing well. Let's draw a superstitious circle around that.
Once this spring, I was visiting her at the hospital and, the hallway being very long, I had time to forget why I was there while I was walking down it, and when I turned the corner to her room and saw her sitting there, very pretty, looking up to say hello like we were back at the agency and I was swinging into her office for afternoon coffee, the hospital bed and the equipment around it seemed so incongruous and surprising, I thought, "What are you doing here?"
Same hallway, another week. I was taking her daughter to get a popsicle from the family room fridge. Ella was wearing Connie's sheepskin slippers. We picked out treats. When she wanted to pick out a third one I said, "No, two is plenty," and she nodded (being around kids: it turns out, you get to make up rules!). We headed back for the room. Ella veered off down another hallway at a trot. We did one lap around the floor. She was screeching and marching and swaggering like a demented Sweathog majorette, looking back every now and again to make sure I was following and admiring. She wouldn't come back but she would modulate the screeching. We did three laps, then four, then a couple more, until, eventually, she decided she was ready to go back to the room and took off at a full run, leaving the slippers in the hallway behind her.
Both girls are 8. Ella is an only child. Sofia has two younger siblings. I will tell you briefly about these younger two, although they do not figure into this story much. The five year old, a boy, has recently reached a new age of confidence. On a recent Christmas Eve visit, he was full of declarative statements, although the emphasis of each sentence would leapfrog from place to place: "I am five." Watching his mom set out a stack of plates: "We are going to have a party." It was like talking to a very short vineyard proprietor who knows all that is growing in his fields down to the last vine, where all his workers are and at what jobs they are busy with, feels immense satisfaction in all that is produced there, and has also recently mastered how to tie his shoes. To me, after opening his gift: "I knew you were going to give me a book." "This"—to another guest, motioning to his younger sister in whom he takes great pride—"is Audrey." Audrey, the three year old, knows herself essentially comic, hilarious, because of the steady observation and admiration of the older two. Feels little need to speak, is more silent movie than that. "We were brushing our teeth," Sofia told me, "and a piece of candy cane shot out of her nose and into the sink. I thought it was snot at first but it wasn't. It was a candy cane."
Sofia has skipped a grade and that sounds meritorious, but she still gets in trouble at school for overriding the teacher's instructions and "helping George too much with his work." Poor George, whoever you are! Poor teacher! Sofia has a raspy sister-of-Marge-Simpson voice and a very quick assessing gaze, both with her since infancy and both of which can make you feel when you're talking to her as if you're talking to a peer: "I like those earrings," she might say and you wait for her to add, "Where did you find them, Etsy?" until you remember she's eight. One night last summer, when she was very anguished and beating her head against a chair and crying, her mom asked her what was wrong, and she wailed, "I don't knoooowwww."
Here are two pieces of advice that Angela has given Sofia this year that I've found helpful too:
• Do not tell your friend's secrets even if one day you are extremely mad at her. You will feel terrible later. (This advice would not have been that helpful except it was given preemptively and before any occasion for regret. It's the one I most wish I had learned at a younger age.)
• When people are mean to you it often has little to do with you and more to do with whatever position on the ladder they are trying to maintain or get to. (This was said in reference to a sixth-grade friend who's rude and aloof when friends her own age are around. It also will, I imagine, someday explain a lot of what happens in the professional world to Sofia.)
Angela told me that Sofia took in both bits of advice with a very serious face. She seemed to understand.
And here is the third piece of advice, not given to Sofia but related to her. It happened at a party to celebrate the end of the school year. For that party, Angela, against the counsel of friends and every parent you could ever ask, had invited ten girls over for a sleepover. She had ceded the master bedroom to the group so they could watch movies. (Her husband was out of town.) It was now maybe 11 at night. She was lying on Sofia's bed, and we were talking on the phone. Five year old pops up, wants to be with the girls. Three year old follows, crying. Are returned to their beds. Outbreak of upset and fighting from the girls in the bedroom. Quelled. Five year old reappears, hopeful, is returned to his bed. Second outbreak of fighting at the sleepover, this time louder. Argument rumbles at high volume down the hallway toward Angela for adjudicating. Loud knock at the door from disputants requesting audience. I heard my friend breathe in and out. I could picture her lying on that undersized kid bed. She whispered into the phone—and it has been the only time in nearly a dozen years of acquaintance I have ever heard her admit anything remotely like this—"I do not know what to do."
And then she put down the phone and got up and went into the hallway. And her voice as it came back to me was a mom's voice, an adult's voice: Controlled, calm, Decider-y. If I had been a kid I would have had no idea that Sofia's mom had just been holed up in that room wondering if she could escape out the window.
Now, probably, I should not have been so astounded by this incident, but that phone call felt like it contained the most important advice I received in 2012: That sometimes not only you, but every other single person you might look to, has absolutely no idea what to do. No one. If you're past a certain age, there is no authority to whom you can go caterwauling when things go wrong. I would have anticipated this would frighten me, but it doesn't; I find it reassuring. It makes you feel gentler about the world, about other people's imperfections, about the degree to which a hurt may or may not have been intended. (This realization is similar to what was being written about here and here.) None of us knows what to do! We are all only doing our best! It would probably do us well to be kind to each other about that. I had thought, as I got older, some better, more perfect self would emerge. Someone who would write great books and take friends' kids to lunch and know all the good places to go in Andalusia, and be a brave, swashbuckling Joan of Arc in the face of any adversity. And instead there is just this self; confused, misapprehending, wearing a sad gob face and sad mackintosh, asking kids how school is (Christ!) and making dumb small talk about the weather and… that is just the best I can do some days. And if that is the best you can do, that is fine. Come here and stand beside me. Take my grubby coin.
Previously in series: Advice Is Futile
Photo by Kathy Mackey.