Monthly Archives: October 2015

Coping with Halloween

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, Photoshops her daughter's face painted as a cat, into the mouth of a carved pumpkin.“Mom, I wanna be a cat,” my daughter said, the year we saw the musical, Cats, on Broadway. Marika loved dressing up. Halloween was her favorite holiday, and every year I’d sew gowns and paint her face. She’d sit stock-still-serious with only her eyes roving, occasionally meeting my own eyes as I painted whiskers or pink clouds of rouge across her pristine porcelain cheeks. There were only a couple of years out of twenty that I did not transform her into a fairy princess, a garbage-monster, a witch, a genie…. After she died, it took a long time before I was able to apply makeup or wear a costume myself.
Saturday, friends invited me to carve pumpkins. The same friends had had my family over for holidays since our children were little. But four years out from the death of my daughter, my heart still sputtered when confronted with holiday traditions.
“Do you remember if we carved pumpkins when you were a kid?” I asked my son, hoping to extend the invitation.
“Mom, I’m sure we carved pumpkins,” he said, and buried himself under his blanket, uninterested. Alone, I joined my friends and two of their grown children, aware that I had only vague memories of drawing faces on pumpkins.

The old familiar kitchen table was covered with pumpkins, bowls for the seeds and scrapings, and tools for cutting and scooping. After drawing on the bumpy orange surface with Sharpie markers, I picked up a tiny serrated pumpkin-carving knife.
“How cute,” I said, turning it over in my hand. That’s when I realized I had no idea what to do next. Someone else had always taken over for me at that point. Squeamish around knives, I’d always let a husband, or a friend, or a friend’s husband do the carving. But now, my friends were busy with their own projects. With quivering hands, I made a hesitant stab and started to saw. Before long I surprised myself, gouging and sawing the pumpkin’s flesh with vigor.

I carved my own pumpkin.

I am free, I thought. I’m strong. I can do this. No one would need to carve for me ever again. Maybe I could even carve a Thanksgiving turkey.

Last year I wore a costume. This year I carved a pumpkin. Who knows what I’ll be able to do next! But I’m pretty sure I’ll never, ever be able to paint on a child’s face again.

 

Cheers to my friend’s son Andrew whose cat-pumpkin was much friendlier than my own. What stresses you about Halloween? How have you surprised yourself lately?

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Making Connections

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, walking the dog at night.There were two Karens and two Robins in my sixth grade class of 1963 at PS94. We met in Manhattan last weekend for our second reunion.
“Who else is a cancer survivor? Who became a teacher? Who went into medicine?” Fifteen of us threw questions across the huge table at the Lincoln Square Steak House. “Who’s retired? Has anyone filed for social security yet?” We noted who was gay, who was single, and who had “not changed a bit” over the fifty-two years since we graduated. In the corners, we whispered about who had died. And also, probably, about who had lost her daughter.

My claim to fame in grade school used to be that I was voted the best artist. Now, many of us had art and writing in common. I would always be the only one with a sibling who was also a classmate, but I was not the only one who had married and divorced more than once. In how many more ways were we connected? How were we different? With my eyes, I stroked the familiar faces that yet contained the smiles of the children I’d grown up with. It was like coming home to long lost cousins.

“We should have asked if anyone else has a living parent,” my sister said later, still trying to find connections.
“Or who has a tattoo,” I added. “Or who’s Republican and who’s a Democrat, maybe.”

After the dinner, several of us walked the few blocks from the restaurant to an apartment owned by one of the Karens. I would never live in the city, I thought as I trailed the others down hallways and into the elevator of the thirty-floor building. But we soon opened the door to a beautiful space with large windows, artwork all around, and a serious but comfortable area devoted to work. The TV had been left on for the dog. A fuzzy white Westie greeted us. It looked like my dog. The place looked like my own home.
“Entertain yourselves while I walk my dog,” Karen said. But I grabbed my coat and followed her back down the elevator and hallways, and out into the streets of New York City where, like silent magic, from all directions, solitary people walked their dogs under bright streetlamps.

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6 Helpful Tips for Surviving a Party

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photographs an apple cider pressing party.My best friend’s annual cider party was taking place on Sunday afternoon. All week she’d been cooking and preparing for it. There would be five fabulous Finger Lakes Feasting soups. There would be cheeses, homemade cookies, and lots of apples to hand- press into cider. This was an event my children and I always looked forward to each October. Indeed, my grown son would be showing up for it this year. So a part of me really wanted to be there.

But I hate parties. I’m not good at small talk. Going alone to a party takes more courage than I can usually muster. And I never know who or what I’ll meet up with that could trigger an unattractive emotional meltdown. A thousand reasons have stopped me from attending joyous events in the past. I’ll go for a short while, just to make an appearance, I told myself this time.

So here are my 6 tips for how to survive a party when you’re alone, shy, grieving, or simply a perpetual party pooper:

  1. Pretend you’re the maid. If you can’t be sociable, be helpful. Serve food or wash dishes. A really brilliant idea is to bring something that needs to be cut up or prepared, so you can be there busy, with a purpose.
  2. Hang out by the food and reward yourself for showing up. Since it may be the last party you ever go to, you might as well enjoy the fixings.
  3. Walk around pretending you’re looking for someone. Find another shy, solo guest and ask if he’s got any pets.
  4. Take the resident dog for a walk around the block.
  5. Check the messages on your cellphone and then, in a not-too-inconspicuous corner, in a posture that conveys cool indifference to the surrounding scene, make your weekly call to your mother.
  6. Pretend you’ve been hired to take photographs.

At the party on Sunday, by the time I did everything on this list, I’d overeaten, used up the battery on my camera, and hit my head on the cider press in the process of being helpful. But I ended up staying for the after-party, which is really the best part of any party anyway, when only the family and closest friends sit back with full bellies around a campfire, gaze at the stars, and tell stories about animal encounters and food.

 

Got any other ideas? Please share.

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Creating Rituals

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, makes rituals and toasts with sisters on their mother's 90th birthday.“What kind of rituals did you do?” a friend asked, peering at me from the corner of one eye, like I was talking about voodoo or séances. But there’s nothing mystical about rituals. They are simply small acts done to honor someone or to remember an event. We do rituals all the time. Like lighting candles on a cake and singing happy birthday. Like raising the flag. Feasting on Thanksgiving. Graduations and marriages are rituals. Rituals can be private or public acknowledgements. They can follow age-old traditions or be unique responses to mark a special moment. There are rituals of joy and rituals for healing. To create a ritual, you just do something to make a meaningful connection to whomever or whatever you want to commemorate.

“Well, the whole trip to the Rocky Mountains was a tribute to my daughter who died,” I told my skeptical friend. “I threw her jewels off the highest cliffs I could find, sang her songs, and blew bubbles into the wind. I read my manuscript aloud to her, a few chapters each day, by a lake. There were chocolates. Candles. And on the last evening, I stood watching the sun set over the elk field as I listened to the CD she left me.”

Long before my daughter died, my first rituals were funerals for dead birds. The neighborhood kids shared solemn words as we wrapped small creatures in Kleenex with shriveled dandelion buds, and buried them in the tiny space between the back of a garage and my mother’s rock garden. Later, rituals focused on the changing seasons. In the fall there was apple picking, pumpkin carving, the annual cooking and freezing of hearty soups, and traveling the countryside to view the fall colors.

The beginning of October is the time for the bittersweet annual ritual of closing the season at my mother’s summer home. My sisters and I gathered in Massachusetts the past weekend. I packed up the old philodendron plant that lives on the porch during the warm months and returns with me to Ithaca for the winter. My sisters raided the closets for cold-weather coats. And then we all made the rounds to say goodbye to Hoadley Gallery, the Shear Design Hair Salon, and Chez Nous Bistro. Until next summer.

“Cheers!” We raised our wineglasses and clinked them heartily. For three days we feasted and toasted. It was our mother’s 90th birthday.

 

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