Jennifer LaRue

I write it as I see it.

I am flabbergasted on the daily. If anyone, stranger or friend, had told me in March that I’d be living in social isolation for months, maybe a year or more, well…. we all share THAT experience.

But if that same person had also told me that the universe would deliver unto me a beautiful black kitten whose presence would ease my pain, make me smile, give me new purpose, and otherwise make this whole thing a bit more bearable, I wouldn’t have believed it.

But here I am, sharing my life and my tiny apartment with the delightful creature variously known as Bathsheba Everdene, Jack White, Katniss, and sometimes just “Baby.” She almost literally dropped into my lap. I never planned to have her around. But, OMG, am I grateful that she’s here.

Bathsheba makes me laugh. Her physical presence is comforting. Her affection is rewarding. Her beauty is inspiring.

This afternoon I relaxed with her on my belly; she kneaded and purred and stretched her lanky legs. And I thought, as I have so many times in the months since she came to live with me, “Who knew?” A lifelong “dog person,” I just had no idea what having a cat could mean to me.

I am grateful every moment for so many things in my life, Bathsheba among them. And today, when she curled her tiny head into the crook of my elbow to take a cat nap, I (drifting off myself, to be honest) wondered, “Who knows? What else might be out there, waiting for me to discover its role in my life? What else do I not know?”

Yet.

My mother still lives in the 1963-built home in which my brother Michael and I grew up. My family was the first owner, and, so far, the only one. Though my brain knows that the day will come when that house no longer is ours, my heart can’t wrap its head around that fact. I’ve never honestly confronted the commonplace fact that houses change hands, and life goes on.

Today I was honored and delighted to spend a perfect summer evening with the lovely family that bought the house in which my (now ex-) husband and I raised our two wonderful children. The young mom of the family and I were introduced to one another by a mutual friend not long after they moved in, and we have been in touch ever since.

A week or so ago, she contacted me to ask whether I would like to have the cement blocks in which my children had impressed their names and hand-prints when they were tiny. When I said of course I would, she invited me to come over for a swim and a bonfire. So, this evening, I hopped in the top-down Jeep and drove back to what used to be my house, but now is not.

I was looking forward to it — but also apprehensive. I left my marriage and my house in a hurry, and I never had a chance to say goodbye to the place or to properly grieve its loss. I knew that visiting — visiting! — would likely stir emotion.

This was the home in which we experienced and celebrated Christmases, birthdays, the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic (which somehow became a major holiday in our household), sleepovers, movie nights, the baking of thousands of cookies/cupcakes/foccaccio/pizzas/baguettes, Thanksgiving meals, The Simpsons and The Office and Arrested Development and countless other family favorites, the New Year’s Eves, the basement door on which we marked the kids’ heights….So much happens in a house.

This particular house had a long history before we ever met it. It was built in 1875 to accommodate dairy workers at a farm that was located down the street and across the street from where the house stands today. The people we bought it from had rescued it; recognizing its quirky Victorian beauty, they had it moved to a 3-acre plot with a swampy yard, a verdant meadow, and a wooded stream. They restored it and made it a beautiful home, even installing an in-ground pool. But it was, and is, a home with many challenges.

From the moment I saw a real-estate photo of the house and grounds, I was smitten. Against all logic, I pressed to purchase the place, despite abundant evidence that it was a money pit and a poor investment for us. But buy it we did, and we spent more than 20 happy years there.

Among so many other things, we planted a weeping mulberry tree, under whose canopy the kids played; Sophie made a heart-shaped sign to hang from the trunk: “Home Sweet Tree.”

###

When I talked with my son Charlie about how apprehensive I was, he said, with his characteristic wisdom, “That house was another family’s home before it was ours, and it was lots of people’s home before that, and now it’s another family’s home. We’re just part of that house’s history.”

I thought about that as I floated in what used to be OUR pool, enjoyed the blaze emanating from what used to be OUR firepit, watched new dogs and children race around the yard OUR dogs and children used to race around. And Home Sweet Tree? It’s grown three sizes, and the little boys who live there now have a proper fort therein!

What an incredible legacy to be part of. How grateful I am to have been invited back, this time as a guest in the home of this family that clearly loves our home as much as we did.

A chilling thought occurred to me: my beloved kitten, Bathsheba Everdene, by all rights should be living life as a stray under the porch of The Mark Twain House & Museum.

This incredibly beautiful, unspeakably affectionate, shockingly intelligent creature could very easily have lived her life without having any of those traits recognized.

But here’s what happened instead. My colleagues Bridget and Grace conspired to rescue Bathsheba’s mother, to take her to the vet, who confirmed that the young Bambi was in fact pregnant. They swapped cats, made elaborate arrangements, and spent lots of time, energy, care, and money to oversee the birth of Bambi’s four offspring and to raise those little kittens, teaching them how to use the litter box and otherwise behave like civilized creatures. And by some stroke of fate, blessing, and good luck, one of them came to live with me.

Bathsheba (whose original name, when it was thought that she was a male, was Jack White) has been a source of joy, comfort, laughter, and calm during these trying months. I am so very grateful for her presence, company, entertainment, and affection.

I am also so very grateful to Bridget and Grace. They did a really good thing in this world. They didn’t get on social media and brag about it. They didn’t draw attention to themselves or their good deeds; they just did what they knew in their hearts was good and right.

The world needs many, many more people like Bridget and Grace. And lots fewer people who talk loud but do little.

Did you watch HAMILTON yesterday? I sure did; I set my phone up on my tripod and watched from my hammock on the balcony last night. What a treat, and what good timing for such a treat. I was and am grateful for it and for opportunity to experience those amazing performances so intimately. (Though I was gratified to learn that I wasn’t the only viewer caught off guard by the amount of, er, moisture exuding from King George’s mouth!)

I am also grateful that I got to see the show in person, on Broadway, just over a year ago. (Which might as well have been a century ago, life has changed so much.) My dear friend Elizabeth and I made up our minds we were going to see it come hell or high water; we paid exorbitant amounts of money for our tickets, got soaked by rain as we got into and out of our cab, and braved the throngs of fellow humans flocking up the theater stairs to find our seats, where we sat cheek by jowl to watch the show.

The thought of that close proximity to other people now seems frightening; it’s impossible to believe that it once seemed merely inconvenient or annoying or, lord help me, part of the fun of participating in such a popular activity.

I yearn to experience that sensation again so very, very much.

###

I have long been on record: summer is my favorite season, and the 4th of July is my favorite holiday. I love everything about them both, and fireworks make my heart go boom.

Today I woke up determined to still enjoy my Independence Day. Because, for me, it really is about my finally being independent in a personal sense, and I don’t take that for granted for a moment.

But it’s sure been a different kind of Fourth. The condo association board made the (in my opinion, lazy and cowardly) decision to close and cover the swimming pool, despite the fact that other pools in the area are open, with COVID-19-safety rules in place. My neighbors and I live for our pool time — and pay good money for it, too. I’m sad and angry, but I do recognize that if that’s my biggest problem during this whole crisis, I’m in pretty good shape.

Instead of focusing on what I CAN’T do, I enjoyed what I can. I put on my flag-themed bikini and lounged on the hammock, sipping a nice, dry, summery rose and reading a financial-planning book that my neighbor loaned me and that put my mind at ease about some decisions I have to make in that area. I practiced my guitar; I took a nap (or two). And when I finish writing this, I’m heading back out to the hammock to start re-reading FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD for the umpteenth time. I might just fall asleep again.

And, with any luck, there will be fireworks displays tonight. In years past, I’ve seen as many as 22 displays going on at once from my south-facing balcony. For the past month, there have been at least two or three such displays almost every evening. I’d settle for, and be thrilled with, just one.

###

The first half of 2020 has brought so much misery and stress to so many people. For me, it’s mostly brought loneliness. Other than at my daughter’s wedding at the end of May, I haven’t touched another human being since mid-March. My bedroom is now given over to the care and feeding and entertainment of my delightful kitten, Bathsheba Everdene. It has become the room where nothing happens. Certainly no fireworks…

Except it’s also where I write and daydream and plan and read and play with my cat and play the three chords I’ve learned on the guitar — and where I can watch fireworks from my bed! So, I guess you could say it’s the room where pretty much everything happens. It’s all in how you look at things, right?

Happy Fourth, my friends!

I have, I suddenly understand, spent far too much of my life trying to fit in, trying to be part of one group or another, going along with other people’s ideas about how I should behave and be and live my life. Always reacting, always nervous, always insecure

Not any more.

It occurred to me the other day that every single assessment of personality/leadership style/potential I have ever taken has placed me in a very small and rare category. Instead of celebrating that and running with it, I have, until now, tended to apologize for it, hide it, pretend I’m just one of the cool kids.

Not any more.

###

My mother chose to name me Jennifer after the actress Jennifer Jones, because she was so beautiful.

Think about that.

I am not Jennifer Jones beautiful.

But I AM smart. I AM talented. I AM funny. I am kind and big-hearted and serious in my quest to be the best person I can be.

But my name doesn’t necessarily reflect any of that — or even an aspiration toward any of that.

Over the course of my life, I’ve tested out a number of variations of my name, which equated to my testing out a number of identities and personalities. I was Jenni with a star above the I. I was Jennie. I was Jenny. I was, when I was feeling the need to be mature and professional, Jennifer.

But now? Now I’m Two-N Jenn. Two-N Jenn is bad-ass. It feels right to ME, right now. Because, you know what I’ve learned after all this time?

I’m pretty freakin’ bad-ass, myself. I just never shut out the other voices long enough to notice.

Today is my second-favorite day of the year.

My first is the winter equinox, the moment within the dark days of winter that the days begin, inexorably but suddenly noticeably, to grow longer.

And today? Well, today bears the fruit. The longest day of the year, filled with more hours, more sunshine, more hope, more productivity — or freedom to produce nothing at all, more potential than any other day. This phenomenon is all the more meaningful in 2020, with so much time, experience, and understanding having been lost to the crises we’re all enduring together.

###

I was a weird kid. (Surprise!) Most others couldn’t wait for the school year to end. But I loved and felt secure in the routines and rhythms of the school year. Lacking such security and structure at home, I felt, on the last day of school, like I was stepping off a cliff.

I’ve always been pretty good at taking care of myself, though, so every summer I’d devise routines and rituals to keep me occupied. I loved to swim and play badminton and hang out with my best friend Mary. But those occupations all required the presence of others, and often others were busy.

I tried, for a time, to join in the neighborhood-kid hijinks. I know a band of kids from my street and neighboring blocks played together all the time. But when I tried to join in, I always felt like an outsider, someone looking in, from outside. Kind of like a novelist, I later realized. Huh.

If you keep reading this blog, and I do hope you will, you’ll read a lot about loneliness. But, for now, and on the occasion of the summer solstice, I choose to focus on a happy antidote to my summertime blues: sleeping outside.

It did not occur to me until tonight, while I relaxed on my hammock on my condo’s little balcony, that sleeping outside has been a theme and a recurrent balm in my life.

When I was a teen, on my family’s annual summer vacation to Ocean City, Maryland, I declined to sleep in the hotel room; instead, I slept, cocooned in a flannel sleeping bag that I still have and can still smell in my dreams, on the hotel balcony, where I could feel the sea breeze and hear the waves crash.

At home, in Rockville, Maryland, I’d string our sturdy rope hammock between two trees at the top of our little hill and sleep there as many nights as I could.

On the balcony and in the hammock, my young mind raced with possibilities, plans, and promises. Everything and anything was mine for the taking.

And then life took over. It has, in almost every way, been a great life. I have the world’s two most wonderful kids; I’ve had a terrific, rewarding career; I have awesome friends, a perfect home, a beloved Jeep, a beautiful kitten, and lots more to be grateful for.

But tonight, on the longest, fullest day of the year, I lay on my hammock and felt the summer breeze and smelled the flowering trees and suddenly, jarringly, felt like that girl on the backyard hammock and the Ocean City balcony 45 or 50 years ago.

The solstice is about balance. Neither the past nor the present nor the future is more powerful. Unless you choose one to be so. Most powerful of all, of course, is the present.

So that’s where I’m trying to be. Perhaps you’ll join me there.

Happy Summer Solstice!!

I’m not going to belabor this, because I’m too happy to want to get into the weeds of past unhappiness.

Today I woke up, showered, had my coffee on the balcony, played with my cat and dog, read, drank a smoothie — and then ventured out in my beloved Jeep, took the top down, and just DROVE. The weather was impossibly perfect, and my mood…. well, it shifted along the way.

Those of you who know me well know that I’ve been suffering for far too long over the breakup of the relationship I experienced right after my divorce more than four years ago. I was hit hard, and I have had a difficult time moving forward, despite my intellectual understanding of how bad and damaging that relationship was for me. Hearts like mine aren’t always too smart.

But this morning the full weight of it finally made sense to me: he was and is and will always be a narcissist, and the only way for me to move forward in life is to be done with him, once and for all.

So today I drove my Jeep, instead of letting him have the fun of driving it, as I customarily used to do. I listened to my own playlist (not his radio station) and sang along, without worrying whether I was embarrassing anyone. I got a Happy Meal at McDonald’s and drove in the sunshine and fresh air. When I got home, I played with my delightful new kitten, practiced guitar, read True Grit, napped on my hammock.

My life is, for the first time EVER, my own life. I have no regrets; every experience, good or bad, has delivered lessons. But now I am rarin’ to go. I have lots to say about narcissists and their damaging effects, but, for now, I am way too happy and excited about my prospects to focus on that stuff.

My Amazon playlist included several songs I associate with my ex. Rather than skip past them, fearing the re-opening of wounds, I decided to listen to and reclaim them: I refuse to give him power over what music I choose to enjoy. As I drove and listened, I realized that a number of the songs were actually emblematic of what was wrong with us and, I imagine, what is wrong with lots of other relationships. I will write lots more about this later, as it is huge. But, for now, just a sample: Fucking Willie Nelson and “You Were Always on My Mind.” NO, Willie, you don’t get to get away with making me feel second best. I deserve always to be treated as the most important person, and second best doesn’t cut it, ever, no matter how fetching you make your music. Charm only goes so far.

#####

My Happy Meal came with a toy, and I just can’t believe how perfect it is: an Astronaut Barbie. You GOOOOO, Barbie! You are a beautiful woman, for sure — but you didn’t get to be a Happy Meal toy because of your looks. You are a ROCK STAR.

And so, in my own, simple way, I finally realize, am I.

For many more years than I care to report, I’ve had in mind to learn to play the banjo. I have no interest in bluegrass or the clawhammer style; I wanted to learn Victorian parlor, or classical, banjo and to play and sing the good old songs of that era. (I am all too aware that this is itself a racially fraught topic; I will likely write about that aspect of this situation one day soon.)

The other night, having made up my mind to rededicate myself to this ambition, I was tuning my Deering Goodtime banjo. I as I tried to get the 4th string to sound something kinda sorta close to D, I could feel what was about to happen the moment before it actually happened: the string snapped — PING! — and flew across the room.

As I hung the poor, four-stringed instrument back on its hook on the wall, I noticed, as if for the first time, a perfectly good guitar that has hung right next to it for years. My parents bought it for me when I was a teenager, but they didn’t also offer lessons, and, in those pre-YouTube days, I wasn’t resourceful, or driven, enough to find a way to learn to play the thing. My ex-boyfriend played it pretty often, and my very talented son picks it up and delights me with a song or two whenever he comes over.

Why it never occurred to me to try to learn to play that guitar as an adult, I’ll never understand (though it might stem from the trauma of my childhood piano lessons, about which I’ll write another day, too). Once the idea struck me, though, it seemed obvious. Being a bookish sort, I ordered a few instruction manuals and songbooks via Amazon, and tonight I sat down with them and tuned my guitar. No strings were harmed in the process!

For some reason, tackling the guitar seems fun and relaxing, whereas the banjo was always a source of stress and a reminder of my long-standing lack of self-confidence — and my lousy fine-motor skills. By picking up the guitar — and, fair warning, my friends, I also intend to learn to sing! — I thumb my nose at my long history of believing myself to be not good enough, of believing so many experiences in life were meant for others and not for me, of not taking risks for fear of embarrassing myself or others.

Those days are gone.

I’m going to make some music. And if that means you have to put your fingers in your ears for a while as I learn, well, so be it.

You’ll live. As for me? I’ll feel alive in a whole new way.

And before you know it, I’ll be taking requests. I can’t wait to sing and play for, and with, you all!

One cannot be a thinker, a writer, a blogger, or even a casual tweeter or Facebook poster without reckoning with the issues surrounding racism that are simultaneously tearing the country apart and bringing people together to talk about things that have needed talking about for far too long.

As a lily-white thinker, writer, blogger, casual tweeter and Facebook poster, I’ve been struggling, like most everyone else, with my feelings, my understanding of my own role in the systemic racism that’s defined our country since the start — and with my honest evaluation of myself and my complicity in that system.

But I refuse to blindly and mindlessly accept and repeat the slogans and mottoes and pat phrases that have become ubiquitous in the past few days, just as slogans, mottoes, and pat phrases always become ubiquitous when serious personal thought and self-examination are in order.

I know you’ll roll your eyes here, but I have always had black friends. I have dated black men. I have worked with black people throughout my various careers. I have learned from black teachers and professors. I lament and despise that any of those friends, lovers, co-workers, and sharers of knowledge exist in a different America from the one I live in. And I will try my best to do what I can to help change that.

But systems start with people, and people are shaped by their personal experiences. I’ll share just two of mine here. And, before I do, I’ll just say it: I know I’m going to get raked over the coals. All I can say is that writing this down and sharing it is part of my own process of sorting things out. If you want to be mad at me, be mad at me. It won’t, as you’ll see, be the first time.

When I was in college, at the University of Maryland, College Park, I defrayed a huge chunk of the expense of my education by becoming a resident assistant in my junior and senior years. I was assigned to one of the larger dorms on the old campus, an all-female residence perched atop Route 1. I ADORED the University of Maryland, I ADORED Montgomery Hall, and I ADORED being an R.A. I think I was really good at it, too.

I had strong and positive relationships with pretty much all the students whose dorm life I oversaw. Like UMCP itself, it was a diverse group of people, which was one of the reasons I loved it. I planned programs, had my shoulder cried upon, responded to medical emergencies and academic crises, and did my best to help everyone in whatever way my position and personality allowed.

But try as I might, there were two women who just didn’t like me. They were juniors, both of them black, who’d secured, through the luck of the annual room lottery, prized places on the top floor of of Monty Hall. In the spring of their junior year, I reminded them, as I reminded everyone, to register for the lottery for next year’s rooms. I put up fliers. I knocked on doors. I held meetings.

As the date drew nearer, I noticed that the two had not registered. I went to them to make sure they understood that if they didn’t register, they would lose their rooms and would have to spend senior year living elsewhere. My hands would be tied. Please register, I asked them.

But they didn’t.

The room lottery came, and they lost their rooms.

Next thing I knew, all hell broke loose on the top floor. I was on duty that night and had to go see what was going on. I was met with a palpable wave of hatred such as I never felt before or since. The women, who had rallied their friends — including other black women who HAD registered and retained their rooms — got in my face and screamed that I was a “fucking white racist.” I was terrified and at a loss for words.

Looking back, I guess maybe I got a taste of what it feels like to be on the wrong side of racial prejudice that night.

Many years later, I was the p.r. director at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the oldest continuously operating public art museum in the nation. Among my responsibilities was editing all museum publications, not so much for accuracy and content, as the staff who wrote the material could be counted on to have done their research and get their facts straight, but mostly for grammar, punctuation, and style.

I edited EVERYTHING, from the membership magazine to the annual report and much of what our executive director wrote. Everything, including exhibition catalogs. Without exception, the curators whose catalogs I edited expressed appreciation for my having made their writing clearer and more compelling.

Until it came time for me to edit a catalog written by the curator of African-American art. She protested: as she told our boss, a white person such as myself couldn’t properly edit this catalog because white people lacked sufficient sensitivity to African-American culture.

Let me point out that this curator and I had, I thought, a sound and respectful working and personal relationship; I was not aware of my having ever offended her or any cultural sensibilities.

In the end, I edited the catalog, and life went on. Years later, I edited, without conflict or controversy, an acclaimed book called African American Connecticut Explored, of which I am incredibly proud.

But I have to admit, at the time, I felt insulted and misunderstood.

Again: probably what a lot of black people feel all the time.

Let me be clear: I don’t bring these experiences up by way of saying I remain aggrieved, and I of course know that they pale (sorry) in comparison to the experiences my black friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and colleagues endure all the time — all too often at gunpoint.

I only share them here by way suggesting that the ONLY way to make progress is for each of us to face our own facts openly and honestly. If we all commit to break past the slogans and mottoes and really look hard at and think hard about the complexities behind them, the likelihood of our finally finding a way forward, together, has to be greater.

It HAS to be, right?

Right?

When I was perhaps 9 years old, I received for Christmas — from Santa Claus, presumably, though I already knew better, and even if I hadn’t, this gift would have clued me in — a child-sized version of a buffet set. Made of cream-colored plastic with gilded flourishes on the handles and other opportune spots, it came with fancy plastic plates, teacups, saucers, and silverware, a silver-plated plastic teapot, and, worst of all, silver candlesticks with horrible plastic candles that never seemed able to stand up straight and that could not safely be lit.

I had no idea what to do with it.

I was devoted to my Liddle Kiddles and to the elaborate Kiddle community I had co-created and fostered for years with my best friend, Mary. I loved to read, and I had organized my library according to the Dewey Decimal System. I loved The Monkees and The Partridge Family. I had no use whatsoever for a plastic buffet set.

But I recognized, even at that tender age, that the buffet was really a gift for my mother. A resilient child of the Great Depression, she could never have imagined owning such a spectacular item. But she damned well made sure HER daughter had one.

I got to thinking about that buffet after my own beloved daughter’s wedding, which happened, blissfully and beautifully, this past Sunday. Sophie had always, since she was a little girl, told me she intended to elope, if ever she should marry, so I never, ever spent time envisioning a big wedding or my own role as mother of the bride.

I didn’t play a leading role in planning my own wedding; I tried to make everything convenient for others, and while I wanted to have the ceremony at the chapel on my university campus, I allowed myself to be talked out even of that. Instead of finding my own perfect dress, I wore my mother’s wedding gown — and worried up till the last moment that it might not fit. On my wedding morn, a HUGE zit appeared on my cheek. When my father walked me down the aisle, he lifted my veil, kissed me — and then lowered my veil again! The whole thing was slapstick comedy, and I don’t remember feeling for one moment beautiful.

###

As it happened, Sophie and Ryan chose to have a small ceremony, just his family and hers, with my son, her brother Charlie, officiating. Everything was to be low-key and low-stress. Yet Sophie insisted on my buying a special mother-of-the-bride dress instead of falling back on my go-to mode, a dress from Target.

Both her dress and mine, ordered online, fit like they were made for us. I loved seeing my daughter all dolled up as a bride, and I enjoyed my appropriate maternal attire. I didn’t get all worked up over the wedding, and I enjoyed it all the more for that. In fact, it was one of the best, happiest, and most relaxed days of my life, and I am thrilled that Sophie and Ryan found one another and have embarked on their happy journey together. I am confident that my level of involvement and excitement was precisely in keeping with Sophie’s needs, hopes, and expectations.

For some reason, though, I woke up the next morning imagining the day my mother got rid of my buffet set. Did she sell it? Did she handle the pieces, one by one, and imagine what it would have felt like if they had been hers? Did she wonder why I had never played with them?

And did she ask herself, I wonder, who is this oddball daughter of mine, who shares so few of my dreams and desires?

###

Congratulations, Sophie and Ryan!!!! I love you both very much!