Resist the Urge to Reach for Blue

by

10/16/2001

W 218th St & Indian Rd, New York, NY 10034

Neighborhood: Inwood

I’m not a PTA mom, and I’ve never hosted a parent potluck dinner. I’ve said no to volunteering at annual school galas and spring fairs so many times that, at this point, no one even bothers to ask me. I adore my two sons, but their time in school is precious. And since it seems as if school is closed every other day, I must make the most of what little time’s left over if I’m going to get any work done at all. Which is probably why my nine year-old, Alex, looked so surprised when, a couple of weeks ago, he handed me a notice from school calling for parent volunteers to chaperone an upcoming class trip to Inwood Hill Park and I said, “Would you like it if I came? I think it might be fun.”

“Sure, Mom,” said Alex, with that admiring look I’ve been seeing a little more of lately.

Call it a return to family values since the September 11th attacks. To me it had more to do with a clearing of emotional space. My husband and I had recently separated. And after all the agony surrounding September 11th—the attacks took place two days after he moved out—time with my sons had come to represent a miracle of simplicity. Not to mention that Inwood Hill Park was located at the Northwest tip of Manhattan, about as far away as you could get from ground zero without crossing the water.

I was in charge of a group that included Alex and two other boys, Xavier and Henry. The teacher headed the line, and as we followed along, I was reassured to note that, while the kids were old enough to be responsible about crossing the street and staying in line, they were still young enough to hold hands without embarrassment. Every once in a while, Alex would look at me, his cheeks reddening to his ears the way they do when he’s moved, and I would feel so grateful to be there.

Not that the trip was without its trying moments.

No sooner had we descended into the A-train station at 14th Street, than we were faced with a sign: “A-train closed from 34th Street to 125th Street due to police activity.” The kids were too busy laughing and giving each other noogies to care much. But given the state of high alert in which we were now living, it was a little more difficult for the adults to take this in stride. A fellow mother rolled her eyes in acknowledgement of the tremendous strain of raising kids these days in Manhattan. She said, “Anthrax?” The art teacher whispered, “A bomb?”

Still, if we’ve taught ourselves anything over these weeks, it’s that somehow, regardless of everything, we keep going. And so we did. After all, the class had been to Inwood Hill Park the week before and the same thing had happened. “We’re going to do what we did last week,” announced Silvia, the teacher. “We’re going to walk to the #1.” At which point our chatty and good-natured little group turned and filed a block east along 14th Street.

The #1 runs local, so the trip to 207th Street took a long time, almost an hour. This was fine with me.

“Do you have the Guinness Book of World Records?” I asked Henry and Xavier. “Alex got it for his birthday.”

“When was your birthday?” Henry asked Alex.

“Last week,” said Alex. He hadn’t wanted to tell his friends, or make a big deal about it in school. He asked if either of them had the Guinness Book of World Records. Xavier didn’t but he’d seen it. He thought it was cool. Henry had two.

“What years?” asked Alex.

“2001, and 2002.”

“I have 2002.”

Alex may be shy about his birthday, but he’s been healthily vocal about my husband’s and my separation. A month or so ago, he’d phoned my husband in a rage. “I’m getting very tired of this,” he stormed. “Why are you in that apartment? When are you coming back?” He cried for a while, then he handed me the phone. I told my husband I’d talk to him later. Then I went to talk to Alex.

More recently, Alex had been confiding in his friends. “Eliza doesn’t think its right for parents to get separated,” he’d told me the day before. “She says it’s not fair to the children.”

“Oh, really? What if the parents are paying more attention to their problems than they are to the children?”

There was a pause. “That doesn’t matter,” he shrugged. But I could tell he understood.

Since my husband moved out, I’ve been making a mental list of things I can do. I’ve discovered, for example, that I can follow complicated assembly instructions for nifty spy cameras and tighten loose hinges and—god help us—take out the trash. Among these newfound skills, the one item that has figured most importantly—and has also given me the most pleasure—has been my increased sense of connection with my children.

The subway filled up with people. When it emptied, Alex’s know-it-all friend, Eliza, was sitting across from me. “Um, where’s Alex’s Dad?” she said, examining her hands, and then me, with narrowed eyes.

“Alex’s Dad?” I repeated, acting surprised. “He’s at work.”

“Where does he work?” continued Eliza, provocatively.

“Rockefeller Center,” I said. “Why, where does your Daddy work?”

She squirmed as if she preferred to talk about others than she did about herself. “Um, Wall Street.”

“And what does he do?”

“Taxes?” she mumbled. “I don’t know. I’m not into it.”

“And your mom?”

“She designs,” then her voice lowered even further, and she looked both ways, “undershirts, underwear—yuck, it’s gross. I’m not into it.”

Then she challenged Alex to a staring contest.

It was a beautiful, late fall day, with leaves on the ground but also still in the trees, with color. I held Alex’s hand and he held Xavier’s, who held Henry’s. Riva, the assistant teacher, suddenly lashed out: “Alex, are you with Henry and Xavier or are you with your mom? You have to decide.”

Alex and I looked at each other. I was surprised. “What’s her problem?” I murmured.

I showed Alex the blue Henry Hudson Bridge that we always take back and forth to Connecticut. He used to think there were separate bridges going and coming because outbound there was “no roof” and inbound there was. “Look,” I said. “See? It’s on different levels.”

Xavier and Henry were talking animatedly. Alex kept putting in his two bits. It wasn’t deliberate, but they weren’t really listening to him.

I remembered that feeling, as a kid, of having something to say, but not having the conviction, quite, to be heard. Xavier and Henry had no doubts that what they were saying was fun and interesting. But Alex’s voice was softer, and what he said took thought to appreciate. I wanted to say to Alex, “It’s okay. You’re great. Just go for it.” Wait until high school, I thought, when the pressure to conform is suddenly off. But this was just growing up, pure and simple. One negotiates such things alone.

Besides, Alex seemed accustomed to his peripheral involvement, and even to like it. All the while, he was looking around, taking in the trees, the river. And once, when he got into the center of the threesome, he moved back to the outside, as if he preferred having the freedom to listen and participate and at the same time, to be alone his observations.

Inwood Hill Park boasts more land than Central Park. It also has the only remaining salt marshes in Manhattan, since the edges of the rest of the island are now manmade. We walked around the marshes to the Ecology Center, taking in the view of the beautiful rock faces of Palisades Park, which we learned, when we went inside, was created by a slow-moving glacier.

The ecology center was small, perfunctory. But our class was the only one there, so the kids could roam around freely, reading about the layers of rock—there was white marble in the hills—and about early native American settlements along the river. I went through the exhibits with one of the other parents and some other kids. When I went to find Alex, he was standing at the doorway of what looked like an abandoned office, peering inside, his hands deep in his coat pockets.

He looked at me and smiled appreciatively. Then he followed me back, and I showed him these phones that, when you held them up to your ear and pressed a button, you could hear all of these facts.

At the edge of the marsh, facing the park’s main hill, the art teacher got out five large sheets of white construction paper, and five big boxes of Craypas. She asked the children to try to see things the way the Native Americans would have seen them. She said, Eliminate anything manmade. No goalposts, no walls.

The water, reflecting the surrounding trees, was various shades of olive, orange, brown, and yellow. The art teacher said, “Nowhere is there blue, except maybe in the reflection of sky.” She said, “Resist the urge to reach for blue.”

I suggested to my group that we split up the page vertically, so that each of the children could do their own slice of sky, trees, meadow, marsh, and then connect them. I said, “Look at how it’s darker along the bank than anywhere else. And the V’s that the geese are making on the water. See how the meadow is golden from the light?”

“Ooh, Mom,” said Alex, “You have some good ideas.”

Then he turned to the others, “My mom’s a great artist.”

Way back when I had gone to art school, but over the course of getting a job, getting married, having a family, I’d streamlined. I began hatching a plan to buy Craypas and take Alex and my younger son, Ferran, plein-air drawing at my parents house in Greenwich, over Thanksgiving.

Henry focused on the trees, making smudges of different color. Xavier made large colorful gestures. Alex’s work was detailed, layered, gem-like. He drew the grass on the edge of the water, the trees above, some branches exposed, some covered with leaves. His classmates came by to admire what he did.

“Do you guys need any help?” asked the art teacher. “Oh, no,” she said, leaning over us, looking emotional. “You don’t need any help at all. You guys are great.” Then she turned to me, thumping her chest with her hand. “They’re so great, aren’t they?”

Alex was in his element, I could tell. He took a pen out of his pocket and began drawing geese, which he colored in red. He picked up another color and blended it. Then he plunked his Craypas down on the paper and just sat, serenely looking.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Taking a detail break,” he answered.

We packed up the art materials, and set out for the hill, entering the landscape we’d just drawn. The rustling leaves reminded me of Greenwich around Halloween. The seasons changed here a little later.

The light was filtered through the canopy of tall, tall trees. There was forest—actual forest—right in Manhattan. We found an odd-looking fruit we thought was a fungus. All the kids started screaming. We climbed up to a cave the Native Americans used for drying fruits and vegetables. After his last visit, Alex had told me there was cave painting there. He’d seen cave painting in his history books. I was thinking Lascaux. It was blue graffiti.

The kids slid down the rocks. They played truth or dare. “Truth or dare, truth or dare,” the girls were crying. The boys started playing, too. Alex kept picking truth, as I used to. Then Alex started picking dare. His friend, Corey, dared him to kiss me. “Well, that’s easy,” said Alex. He kissed me proudly on the cheek. “Oh, how cute,” teased Corey. Alex didn’t care.

We started back toward the subway. We walked down Seaman Avenue, where the Native Americans planted beans and corn, toward the A-train, which now, hopefully, was cleared of police.

“Mommy,” said Alex, “When are we going to do this again? I thought it was going to be fun, but I didn’t know it would be this fun. This was a blast.”

I said I had a friend who’s a vet at the Bronx Zoo and I’d already suggested to the teacher that we take a class trip there some time. Alex was excited and my heart felt like breaking yet again. For the day will come—and soon—that he will no longer want me along on his class trips, let alone hold my hand. And although there will be other magical late-fall days, there will never be another exactly like this one.

“Mommy,” said Alex. “Thank you for taking time off your work to spend time with me.”

I was glad that I had and told him.

There was a parent potluck dinner that night. I didn’t go. Instead I stayed home eating onion dip and comparing stories with the babysitter—a friend of a friend—who had also recently separated from her husband.

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