The Step Forward
M once pointed out that I liked making lists, and that instead of daydreaming, I made lists in my head.
A list of things to buy in the supermarket. While living in Vienna, I made several lists. One for the butcher Herr Richter who sold boneless chicken thighs, and thinly sliced meat for sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. One for the Chinese market that sold tofu and green leafy vegetables. And one for the supermarket that sold everything else.
A list of books to borrow for the summer. M’s kindergarten teacher, the Scottish Ms. Whitelaw, once told me that it was important to have books in the home. It encouraged a child to read, she said, and Ms. Whitelaw had a very convincing manner of speaking. I believed her. I filled our home with books. And during the summer vacations, it almost seemed like the school library had moved to our home!
Every summer, before the last day of school, I would make several trips to the school library. The librarians in all of the schools that M has attended knew that M read voraciously. There was always a limit to the number of books for summer checkout, but they always looked the other way when I came to borrow our books for the summer. At ASIJ, I was allowed to take out close to seventy books, and I piled them in neat stacks all over our tiny apartment.
A list of meals for the month. As a cook, I was never any good at improvising. I learned cooking from books, and to this day, I meticulously measure all the ingredients with a weight scale, a measuring cup and measuring spoons. I could never peer into the refrigerator, and create a dish on the spot. I created a monthly menu, and I shopped according to that menu.
When I made a list of objectives for all of us for the next five years, my husband accused me of being the evil reincarnation of the now dismantled Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Making a list was my way of clarifying the issue, and it was a habit that came in handy during M’s difficult first weeks in Vienna.
We were told on the first day of school that about a month after school had started, all of the sixth graders were to go on a three-day trip to Hallstatt, a small village in the Salzkammergut region of Austria that is famous for being a Celtic archaeological landmark.
All the students were excited about the trip. They were going to be free of their parents for three whole days. They were free to make their own room assignments. Four girls to a room, and this spelt disaster for a new student like M. Having no best friend or childhood friend, she had no one to room with, and chances were she would be forced to share a room with Nicey, the other new student, and girls no one wanted in their rooms.
M dreaded the trip to Hallstatt. And I understood perfectly why. I certainly did not relish the idea of rooming with strangers, and I was not the self-conscious new kid on the block.
M was never forced to do anything. It was against my principles on raising her. The trip was part of the curriculum, but she did not have to go if she did not want to. I was willing to make up some lie about a mysterious illness, or a contagious disease.
On the other hand, I had confidence in M’s abilities to adjust and make friends, and my instincts told me that the trip would be the perfect opportunity to put those abilities to test. And should the trip turn out to be a miserable adventure, we could chalk it up to our list of character-building experiences, our code word for all things not nice.
I sat M down to make, what else, but a list. Two lists in fact. One was for all her reasons for not wanting to go. Another one for all the reasons she should go. Predictably, one list was much longer than the other.
Reasons for not wanting to go. The No list.
1) I do not have anyone to room with.
2) I can end up rooming with the most horrible girls in the grade.
3) I have no one to sit with on the bus.
4) I have no one to talk to.
5) I will miss mommy and daddy.
6) I just arrived in Vienna.
7) We are still living out of our suitcases.
8) It is cold in Hallstatt.
9) I will miss home-cooked meals.
And so on.
Reasons I should go.
I asked M to try harder with the second list.
1) It is required.
2) I will learn about Hallstatt.
End of list.
And then everyday, for the next couple of weeks, we reviewed the lists, adding new reasons, or crossing out old reasons. It was slow going. M would cross out a reason in the No list, and add it back on the next day.
In the meantime, I went to buy a mobile phone for M. The Austrians called it a handy. I also started making a list of the things she needed for the trip. I liked making lists. I was also brushing up on my acting. I had to be convincing when I lied to the Head of Year.
As the day of the trip neared, M was reluctantly crossing out the reasons on the No list, and adding what we called “maybe” reasons on the Yes list.
1) Maybe I will make friends with whomever I sit with on the bus.
2) Maybe I will like my roommates.
By then, the rooming assignments were settled. She was sharing a room with who else but Nicey, the other new girl, as well as A and B, the social pariahs of the grade.
3) Maybe I will have fun.
The morning before the trip. As we ate breakfast.
Mommy: M, you’re going to have to decide.
M: I know.
Mommy: Are you going to Hallstatt?
M: I think so.
Very, very reluctantly.
Mommy: Are you sure?
M: I guess.
Mommy: You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I will talk to the Head of Year.
M: It’s OK. I’ll go.
More firmly this time.
On the day of the trip, I took M to school. My husband was in New York helping out with the UN Millenium Summit, and receiving packages from the Gap. (another story)
M kissed me good-bye, and got on the bus. There was someone sitting beside her. Whew. At least she was not beside an empty seat. The doors of the bus closed. She waved good-bye. I waved good-bye, and waited until the bus drove out of the school gates. I looked around for a friendly face. There were none. I went for a cup of coffee at one of Vienna’s many coffee shops. I was determined not to cry.
I called M every night on her new handy. She seemed all right. In fact, she seemed to have little time to talk. I took that as a sign that things were going well.
My husband came back from New York with a suitcase full of Gap jeans and T-shirts for M. I had ordered them over the Internet. She deserved to be spoilt.
When M came back from the trip, my husband and I were at school to pick her up. She got off the bus, and ran to give us both a very tight hug. Mommy first. Daddy longer.
Not everything was right with the world, but M had taken the step forward. She was extricating herself from the pile of horse droppings. (another story) And the sun was shining from behind the clouds.