Feeding Vanessa the Kudu breakfast


One of the tribe

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


[This posting started as one thing and seems to have ended up another. I was trying to capture the homicidal feelings that affect most mothers in terms of their children, often driving them to what one of my best friends calls Mother Rage. “It’s frightening what buttons the kiddy monsters can push at times,” she says. “Never in my life have I experienced rage like I did when the children were young.” The not-so-surprising thing about this dark side of mothering: few people will admit these kinds of feelings to themselves, let alone to others. Too dark? Yes, we can come close to betraying our own with a slap or spank or worse, but an animal instinct, what they call the reptile brain steps in, I believe, so that we turn ultimately to protecting them, even from ourselves.

Even though I’ve had my own close calls, hair’s breadth really, I can think of nothing worse than harming or losing my son. Yet in light of having a child, what’s really eluded me here is how much we depend on language to define, reveal, contain and explain ourselves; how sometimes it comes through, harbors us and gives us sanctuary from ourselves. And how at other times, it utterly fails us.

There are no words for certain things. Loss is inexplicable and perhaps should remain so. A hear an a half ago, my darling friend Lizzie died of breast cancer and the language, it just won’t come. There’s no one else in the world I equate so with treasure. (Now there’s a word.) Perhaps it would soothe me to talk about her and that cannonball-sized hole through my chest. Perhaps not. The heart knows what the heart knows; it speaks a different tongue, whether we are honored or horrifed by it. And does reliving things by speaking them out loud really console us in the end? The dead, the young before their time, are still gone; we can only speak longingly to them in our dreams and hope they hear us.]

Last night, I was nestled in bed, trapped by mosquito netting and combing my favorite cookbooks (both SILVER PALATEs, NIGELLA EXPRESS, LA DOLCE VITA) for Christmas recipes. I felt like some sort of culinary mothership about to make an auspicious landing. Whether it would be hard or soft, I wasn’t certain. The mosquitoes hummed and hawed.

All afternoon long, some sort of word had been niggling at the underside of my forehead, a word I wasn’t sure existed (and there are those). Something unsavory, quicksilver, not right. And then it came to me and I was duly horrified by its release. Infanticide.

You see, off and on for several weeks now, my son has been nearly unrecognizable to me. A solemn, wary nine-month-old when I met him in Kazakhstan, upon his release at 11 months from the orphanage he burst into being, an unfathomably joyous gift, completely beribboned. I put my hand out, he cupped his cheek in it. We went outside, he squealed and jumped into the arms of the nearest neighbor. I woke up in the morning, he shrieked with delight. We had dinner, he gobbled every bite. I took him to school, he couldn’t wait to get in the door. We went everywhere together, his arms flung out in welcome, his smile never fading.

For months and months, for nearly a year, I was astonished by my good fortune. No one else could believe it either; Tiger was the most engaging child they’d ever met. And then he turned two.

Believe everything you hear. Hell hath no fury like a toddler scorned. Forked tongue, blistering eyes, wailing walls. Stubborn as a Soviet bloc, furious as bees without a hive, scheming as an underworld spy, black as a bat cave. Who’s going to blame a mom if she snaps a little? Or even a lot.

You read about it nearly every day. Mothers -- good mothers, calm mothers, church-going mothers -- who lose it all in one fell swoop while their children are in the bathtub, near the oven, in their hair, out at play, in the back seat. They pick up the nearest thing, an every day sort of thing, and do the unthinkable, the unspeakable. Spending the last of themselves as if they’d never had a beginning.

Of course, there are words or ideas that don’t deserve to exist, schemings and surrenderings and such; the above is one of them. But there are also events and experiences that refuse to be named, one of the things I both love and loathe about language. It is imprecise, slippery, changing just as you have it within your grasp. Our mother tongue, such as it is, is never meant to be held, close or for long. It slips from us in moments of horror and triumph, at the best of times and in times we cannot bear.

Not long ago and because of Tiger, I thought about the nameless, the happenings we cannot put our finger on, and one of them came to me, once again unbidden. What do you call yourself when you lose a child? Certainly, there is a calling for every other kind of loss, isn’t there? Widower, divorcee, motherless, orphan. But once you have been a parent and your son or daughter dies, what and who are you then? Childless? Minus one? Or by far the cruelest, child free?

Tiger tears at the world. He slams inside of his high chair, demonic and desperate, riding it like a rocking horse, rattling the kitchen’s bones. He slaps at Sandy, the Ridgeback from next door, yelling “Stop it!”; she continues to lick his hands, no matter what. He screams and rails and stamps his feet and bangs his fists. He throws his supper plate, full of food, like a Frisbee across the porch and laughs wickedly and wisely. He hurls himself against my embrace, banging his head on mine. And it hurts like hell.

Later, as I change Tiger into his pajamas, my son goes, “Owie,” and rubs his crown. “Do you want me to kiss it?” Yeth, he says and I do and I ask him if it’s better. Yeth, he says again. “My head hurts too. Can I have a kiss?” He lights up, yet serious as all get out, and kisses my forehead. Better, I say, that feels better. “Again!” he shouts, diving into me, giggling, willing to give everything he’s got. To the world. To me.

And there you are, suddenly found, maybe even found out. You are knocked sideways and upright and, best of all, together.

And I know what I have been afraid to know, whether it is in a word or a paragraph or pages. That this thing, this thing called love, this motherhood about which I have felt so clueless and will probably often continue to be, it is so not for the faint of heart. But oh, how fierce a heart can become. If only I let it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


At Stepping Stones, my son Tiger’s pre-school, there’s a special class called Monkeynastix. A couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d let him participate to get a gander at what this African version of gymnastics was all about. And it’s pretty much what you would expect. The kids sit on little pea-pod pads in a semi-circle around the instructor, doing yoga-like stretches and curls; jiggy-jiggy jumping up and down to music with singing mixed in; hoop hopping; tumbling; and committing, in general, very varied monkey business. (My son’s two-and-half year old girlfriend, Zoe, has mastered the somersault like no little girl I’ve ever seen.)

Yesterday, I was walking home from Mwitu, a compound not far from my cottage where several high-powered politicos live after collecting a recipe for spicy tofu salad (see recipe below, absolutely delicious) from my friend Anja. As I went through the gate, Danda, a very talented glass artist and the head of the artists’ colony Kuonatrust, drove up and motioned me over to come to her house for chai and a chat.

Even though Karen is quite developed in areas (interspersed with horse farms and cattle-raising ventures), the animal life can be stupendous. When Elizabeth, my erstwhile sister/mother here, first moved to the ex-pat community eleven years ago, she could see giraffe from her back garden set against the Ngong Hills, their beautiful heads bobbing on long necks as if giving everyone the royal wave.

Now Danda has a monkey in the house. He’s a Sykes, a forest monkey also known as the White-Throated Guenon. A beautiful, stormy gray, these apes sport a gorgeous white ruffled collar that runs down the chest, completing itself in a mask around the nose and ears; the effect makes their cheeks appear puffed, much like Santa’s. The allure is further enhanced by soft, brown, questioning eyes.

As for Danda’s monkey, he’s taken to making himself at home whenever the back door to the kitchen is open. His purpose: To open all of the drawers and cupboards in search of bananas. Last week, he found the hidey hole where the housemaid had placed his precious treasure and was very pleased with himself, munching away on the kitchen counter as if he’d been invited for lunch.

The housemaid took extreme measures in hiding the bananas in a new safety hatch. Mr. Monkey helped himself to the kitchen yesterday as he’d been doing for a week, but despite a thorough search it was suddenly clear to him that “we have no more bananas”. When Danda went into the kitchen to make a sandwich, she found the Sykes sitting in the sink looking extremely puzzled and put out.

I, too, have monkeys making their presence felt at my place (lest I forget I’m in Africa, for Pete’s sake). Although they supposedly sleep at night, there can be no other explanation for the galloping across my metal rooftop. I often hear these ladies and gents after I’ve gone to bed, thundering away, jiggling with window handles, driving the next-door neighbors dogs into a frenzy, Ridgebacks and Shephards and mixed-breed terriers that bay like bloodhounds. Oftentimes, I listen and wait, and within minutes am rewarded with monkeynastix which, while they keep me awake, are also a comfort in this country that will not be tamed.

Anja's Spicy Tofu Salad

450 grams fresh tofu curd
3 T plain flour, sifted
2 T sesame seeds
1 T chili powder
1 T white pepper
2 T onion powder (you can substitute garlic powder and/or garlic salt)
1 egg beaten with 3 T milk
500 ml vegetable oil for frying
3 heads of gem lettuce, shredded
Chopped fresh coriander and chives, optional garnish

Slice the curds into wedges about 2 cm or 3/4 in thick. Mix flour, sesame, chili, pepper and onion powder. Dip curd in flour, then in egg mixture, then in flour a second time. Heat oil to about 180 degrees C/350 degrees F. Fry two mins on each side and drain on paper towels. Place on bed of lettuce and serve with the following dressing.

Ginger Sesame Dressing

1 T pickled ginger (or fresh if you can't find pickled)
4 T rice wine vinegar
4 T dark soy
2 t chili sauce
4 T sesame oil
6 T sunflower oil

Whisk together all ingredients. Can be stored up to one week in the fridge.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Gladys, my aya (nanny), has taken to calling my son Mr. Boy. It seems a perfectly proper nickname for Tiger who, in the throes of the terrible twos, often vascillates between being a petulant Russian prince (his birth parents were from Russia) and what the Irish call a typically playful and popular boy-o. (I almost get a kick out Tiger’s tantrums, SO hard not to laugh, they are SO cartoonish in execution – the stamping of the feet, the flailing of the limbs, the darkening of his sea-green eyes to a stormy, steel gray, the coming of tears as plump as grapes. His histrionics are oft accompanied by “Mine!”, “This one!”, “My car!” and the universal “NO!”.)

Most of the time, my son is something to be around. He wants to collect every dudu or insect on the porch. He climbs all over Sandy, the Rhodesian Ridgeback who lives next door (well, now she lives mostly with us) as if she were a jungle gym. He chases the big yellow ball around the backyard, possessed with possessing it. He drapes himself over Gladys as she teaches him words in Swahili. He wants the keys to the Land Rover so he can just sit there and drive into two-year-old territory. He climbs fences, about to swing a leg over but not quite yet. He hides from the pikis, the mini-motorbikes that my neighbors’ teenagers roar around the compound in. He likes popsicles in every flavor, and peanut butter on baby bananas. He follows John all over the garden, carrying a rake with a purpose and passion I long to feel consistently myself. He hangs over the edge of the water tank where two giant goldfish live and points them out to me. He eats Cheerios and “gogurt” (yogurt) with relish every morning. He sneaks back to the staff quarters to hang with Ben and Phillip and Naomi and Elizabeth, putting wash buckets on his head and stomping to some secret music. He colors on my grocery lists, usually with my pens. And at the end of the day, when you come home or resurface from your own silly world, he runs to you with a smile that spells happiness in every alphabet you can dream of.

Today, Mr. Boy had a big surprise. Santa was not only coming to town but, because one of his reindeer had a cold, he arrived at Stepping Stones by a most exciting one-horse sleigh: a helicopter. “Plane!” Tiger shouted. Still, he followed the other boys and girls hesitantly toward welcoming Father Christmas, and I wondered a bit if he would always be one to hold back, or if this was just a moment of curiosity mixed with caution.

It seemed he was determined not to be part of the crowd, my independent-minded, self-sufficient child who rarely clings to me, having made his own way for 11 months in a Kazakhstan orphanage. Instead, once inside the chopper and in the front seat no less, he will not come out. He will not follow Santa to the conference hut like everyone else. He will not come out of the neon orange plastic car that’s ready to be driven into two-year-old territory. He will not sit with the others on Masaai blankets while presents are being handed out. He will not.

But he will watch and listen and laugh. He will hold his package up to me and crawl into my lap and ask me “What dat?” about all the decorations on the silvery wrapping paper, Santas and snowmen and red-nosed reindeer and polar bears. He will turn my face to him so that I pay attention. He will suck his thumb and put his head against my chest and sigh. He will open his books with a glee bordering on the startling. He will turn to me, his almond-shaped eyes that Irish sea-green again, with a smile that spells happiness in every alphabet you can dream of.

Mr. Boy, he will.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Our first week back in Kenya, our first week of living here for the foreseeable future. Wild, to say the least. Tiger has taken to the wide open spaces, the lush, tropical, desert gardenscape of Karen, the ex-pat community in which we’re living, like dust to a bunny. If I had any doubts about moving here, they all vanished on Saturday watching him “make rake” with the gardener, Philip, around an overflowing jacaranda tree. (The blossoms are a heady purple.) My son has made fast friends already with the crew who manage the grounds and oversee the comings and goings of the main house and our little cottage.

The first couple of days, I felt assaulted somewhat by the plainness, the dirtiness, the richness, the colors and washed-outness; by the starving cattle in the middle of the main roads; by the dark, open, hopeful faces walking the long way home; by the brick-red earth that gapes and gulleys seemingly everywhere. Such rawness all around. And, going back to my Irish roots, I wondered about how our frailties might be reflected, altogether kindly, in the color of our skin. Darkness is the strength of black blood; white lies become the blossoming of truth; brown belongs to the giving earth; pink peril means newborn; and yellow is a fever that opens doors. That’s where I am right now, caught between overwhelming obligation to myself, my son, my new home, and a giddiness of adventure and hilarity that startles me.

On a lighter note – and there’s plenty of that – Tiger is in pre-school two mornings a week at Stepping Stones, where his girlfriend, two-and-a-half-year-old Zoe Rose, also attends. (She is the beauteous daughter of my good friends, Lisa and Niklas, who, along with Lisa’s mother, are guilty of getting us to relocate here from Dublin.) I’m thinking about enrolling him in one of their special offerings, Monkeynastics, just because it sounds like the way we live. Joseph, our driver and erstwhile Jack-of-all-trades, is helping us to settle in on every front. I’m hiring a fabulous nanny tonight whose laugh is merrier than any I’ve ever heard.

In the evenings, we sit on the porch, an old-fashioned porch that looks out over the forest and onto the Ngong Hills. Tiger runs his truck all over the grass and chases birds, usually ibis; the wasps whisper in the trees; the frogs hymn deeply; tree hyrax, much like giant guinea pigs, screech to one another; vervet monkeys gallop across the rooftop of our little home; and the sun, at setting, is a surging belt of orange sherbert. It rained this week, the first time in months, a great, alive wetness that surged in the mornings and afternoons. Joseph said that I had brought a blessing from Ireland with the weather Kenya so needed. Not I. I am blessed, and feel all around me in the colors and shapes and persons and scents and hum of life, that this is a forgiving place.

Just what the doctor ordered, especially when you’re not certain if you’ve been leading the life you were meant to live.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Elizabeth and I are on a turkey shoot for all things Thanksgiving. We head first to the dukas (shops) in Karen to hunt for sweet potatoes among the small farm stands that loiter right outside the gates. Mama, as Elizabeth is known far and wide (she even books flights throughout Kenya under just that), is pretty sure she’s got her man for the mission:

“Robert, did you get my sweet potatoes?”

“Yes, Mama, I have them just here.”

“Well, let me see them, I’ve gotta take a look at them first.”

“You know, Mama, they are the best sweet potatoes!”

“Go get ‘em, Robert. I don’t have all day.” A two- or three-minute beat.

“Here they are, the sweetest ones!”

“Are they orange? I can’t tell.” (Dirt aplenty covers the highly-desired gubers).

Robert picks at one. “They are yellow inside, Mama.”

Turning to her granddaughter’s African manny, Clement, in the back seat, Elizabeth: “Clement, are these sweet potatoes?”

“Break them open!” shouts Robert.

“You don’t have to do that,” she counters, “just give it a good scratch.”

“You know, Mama, I don’t know these potatoes,” Clement says softly with a big smile. I don’t think he ever stops smiling, and talk about sweet.

Elizabeth rolls her big blue eyes, the color of the inside of abalone shell when the sun shines right on it. “Are these enough, you think,” she asks me, “if they are sweet potatoes?”

“No, not for twenty people.”

“Can you get me some more, Robert? Okay, bring them to me.”

“What a fuss over sweet potatoes,” I sigh. “You never know what you’re getting here,” Mama adds.

Robert is back quicker than a bad penny. “Here, Mama, here are six kilos of sweet potatoes.” He hefts the bag dramatically into the car and I pass them over to our red-headed driver.

“Okay, how much?”

“That’s a lot of sweet potatoes!”

“Robert, how much?!”

“Sixteen hundred.”

“Sixteen hundred shillings! (“That’s almost twenty dollars,” I slide in.) “I’ve never paid twenty dollars in my life for sweet potatoes. Clement, take a look at these, what’s that worth?”

“You know, Mama, I don’t know these potatoes,” Clement says, smiling softly again.

“Well, I won’t pay it, Robert, I just won’t. I’m not going to buy them,” shoving the bag through the car back at him.

For a moment, I think she’s bluffing because she’s laughing so hard. “Twenty dollars!”

“Mama, these are the best. They grow wild!”

“No, Robert, I’m going to just see what sweet potatoes are at KPS (Karen Provisions Store).”

“Mama, wait, 1500.”

She shakes her head, still laughing, and we head into KPS for some basics. Clement goes straight to the vegetable and fruit section run by the darling Juliana, and returns to our cart in the dairy with a sweet potato sack, nearly the size of Robert’s. Mama and I gape at the price tag: Ksh 250 (about $3 to you and me).

“I’ve been here eleven years,” Elizabeth laughs, “and they still think I was born yesterday.”

(When we get back to the jeep, we make a point of pointing out to Robert our sweet potato booty at a fraction of his price. Mama even offers him 500 shillings to take the lot off his hands -- after all, there’s no such thing as too many sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving – but he insists on their unique value and turns away, shaking his head. A sweet-potato millionaire lacking only a sack of marshmallows.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

SAVAGE GRACE, Part 1: Catch a Tiger (or Leopard) By the Tail

Having always been interested in wild things, I asked a dear friend, a doctor in Seattle, why he’d dubbed me Savage back in our college days. “All the Irish were savages until the Danes came and civilized them, and built all their cities for them,” he emails. “Some remain so.” (I take heavily into consideration that this fellow hails from Denmark, a country known only for its pasty and porno, as he has often been teased.)

I guess he doesn’t call me Savage for nothing. For here I am a few years ago, hurtling down the A2 or Nanyuki Road to Corey & Jo’s Camp in the Samburu National Reserve. Liesl is driving and she drives like a trucker. Well, we are in a truck, so that figures, but it feels like we’re riding a mechanical bull going at full throttle. (Liesl and I have enjoyed a fast and lasting friendship for the past two decades, thanks to many an escapade in Manhattan and beyond. A ten-year veteran of East Africa, she co-owns VirginBush Safaris with her closest pal, Cindi, and they’ve made a great success of it.)

We buck, careen, skittle and soar along the ruts and ridges, heading north and narrowly missing a roadside collision course of farmers, donkeys, trinkets spread out on red blankets, pop stands, gas canisters and acacia trees. “Keep your eyes out for guys with AK 47s,” Liesl cautions me as I rattle and roll in the Land Rover. Huh? “Somalis.” Apparently, warlords and vagabonds are looking for some action across the Kenyan border.

The camp is worth the ride, mostly for its setting along the Isiolo River where marabou storks idle and for the weathered family affair that it is. Everything is a bit musty and dusty, including us. Everything except for Corey and Jo, the husband-and-wife team who run the show.

The British-born, plummy-voiced Jo strikes a pose in a floppy hat and flowery silk tea dress, calling to mind a garden party with the royal family at Windsor Castle. Tall, dark and quick on his feet, Corey is picture-and-pitch perfect as the rugged safari guide who knows about every bird, bush and wildebeest in the area. The couple home-school their son and daughter, both sandy-haired, tawny-skinned, blue-eyed and eager to show off their pet goat, Nigella. Nearly every night, intriguing visitors from the neighboring Elephant Watch and Intrepids Club swing by for sundowners (happy hour), so Corey & Jo’s is alive with personal color.

Yes, we soon find, everything in the camp is a bit raggedy around the edges, especially the surprise that awaits me in my bed (and we’ll get to that shortly). But that feeling of being in the bush, unadulterated wind, river, sky, flora, fauna, everything so close to how God made it is the relief Liesl and I have been looking for. And roughing it a bit is all part of the parcel.

At the heart of this very parcel is Ndgewe, a smooth operator if I've ever met one. He is Corey and Jo’s Jack-of-All-Trades, a stately African man who makes a mean martini and knows everything there is to know about wildlife and, I dare say, the wild life. Ndegwe’s got a knack for making us feel at home and for plying us with sensational stories around the campfire.

Nothing gets me going like well-spun yarns about what to do in the wilds of Africa, especially when facing natives of the four-legged variety. My friend, Anthony, a one-time big-game hunter turned safari guide and conservationist, speaks the law of the land: “If you get hurt by a wild animal, it’s your fault, not the animal’s.” Yet aren’t we all perversely preoccupied with such peril? Think of that exhilarating scene in the film version of OUT OF AFRICA where Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are out hunting only to encounter a hungry lioness.

“Okay,” I corner Ndegwe in the care-worn lounge with faded Persian rugs, a dusty chandelier and a bamboo, tropically-themed horseshoe bar. He is mixing up a batch of Jo’s Juice, not a whisper of fruit in it. “A tiger is coming at you,” I blurt, “a big, fat tiger.”

“First, madame, no tigers here in Kenya.” He smiles indulgently and Liesl let’s out a hearty roar, safari veteran that she is. “But a leopard. Now, there is a beast, you need to show him exactly who you are!” I edge closer to Ndgewe, as bewitched as a five-year-old. “You get behind him, and then you grab his tail like this, swing him around and around until he is so dizzy, he can’t see you!”

Rolling my eyes cartoonishly, I am captivated nonetheless.

“And an elephant, she charges towards you, you must run between her front legs and dive out from under her belly.” For some reason Ndegwe is wearing a turban and its gold tassel is shaking with mirth. “Stop it, I can’t take it,” I sigh. “No, no, the buffalo, he’s the most dangerous of all, madame! I can say, you cannot be too brave with the buffalo.”

I have already heard tall-but-true tales about Cape buffalo, considered by many of those in the know to be the most lethal of the Big Five (game that’s the most dangerous to hunt and also includes lion, leopard, elephant and rhino). My friend Moeller tells a riveting account of a bull buffalo goring him in the side, yet he managed to beat it away with the butt of his rifle while diving into a thorny bush that ripped him further asunder.

Narrow escapes – they set our imaginations on fire and our hearts thundering. Still, all this time I’ve been going to Kenya, more than ten years now, nothing has settled in my being so vividly as Ndegwe’s tall tales of rules to live or die by when encountering Mother Earth’s wildest of natures.

Meanwhile, after a particularly loud night with residents from nearby Buffalo Springs, Ndegwe escorts me to the tent with a flashlight as our only weapon. I toodle off to bed only to be attacked in the night by an extremely dangerous and damaging creature. Chiggers. Chiggers in my mattress have surfaced to cover my legs with bright red, welt-like bites.

Those wee little savages.

Friday, October 9, 2009


“He’s such a gorgeous, gorgeous boy,” says Patricia in her heavily Polish-accented English, spoken softly. “Tiger Boots. We like him very much, he’s serene (she pronounces it seren), happy all the time, and I can see the two of you, the hand of God brought you together.”

We are at One of a Kind, the pre-Montessori neighborhood school where my son spends three afternoons a week, and Patricia, who resembles a beautiful young gypsy with her long black curly hair, is his favorite teacher. Upon listening to her, I’m on the verge of crocodile tears as I gather up the object of our affection, a young Russian prince, for our walk home on a shy summer evening.

I don’t really know how much to believe in fate or destiny, but odds are that, yes, something divine did have a hand in Tiger and I finding each other, late in my life and early in his. Who could have guessed or imagined or designed such a fit between us? Me, a single, 51-year-old, frowzy and frisky blonde Irish-American writer with ample attitude and adventuresomeness; he, a wary, blue-eyed, nine-month old child of unemployed, unmarried, Russian teenager-parents who’d relinquished him at birth to Baby House No. 2, one of three orphanages in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Only magic accounts for this match of mother and son…and a welcome surrender to the elements. Earth, wind, fire, stars, water, sky, sun -- all the glory be’s to which our passionate and pagan selves are indebted. Tiger is that elemental to me now, a two-year-old boy who takes on sunrise with cheer and chat, gleefully conversing with Coco and Spencer (his monkey and teddy) as he throws them at my bed. Who loves Cheerios and gogurt (yogurt) and coloring and perfumed lotion and Wellies. Who never leaves the house without a ball and book in tow. Who considers apples his most precious companion -- in a pocket, in the stroller, in the car, on the move.

Joy, joy, joy, that’s what Tiger lives and breathes. I am lying on the couch; he comes over to me, opens my hand and puts his cheek into it so that I am cupping his face. He nestles into me, sighing and giggling. He never gives up on me.

But I nearly panicked the first time Tiger came at me; I had never been party to anything like it. We’re in February; my son is 16 months old. He’s been attending One of a Kind for a little over a month and, although accustomed to crowds of kids from his orphanage days, is suffering a bit from separation anxiety whenever I drop him off. Squeaks, some hot tears, but nothing too heart rending.

The first Dublin snow is on the ground; the evening is dry and crisp and stirring. Having just arrived at the school to pick Tiger up, he sees me from another room, shrieks like some creature being drawn and quartered, limb by limb. He cries and claws his way to me, nearly clambering over the child gate. Patricia tries to lift him over and he cries even harder.

I am standing in the hallway, maybe 50 yards from Tiger, and I freeze. It’s a hot-and-bothered freeze; I am flushed and melting and sweaty. I can’t seem to move, for all of a sudden, my heart has literally dropped through the school floor into the basement. I want to run away and run to him; I need to be right there and anywhere but here. No one has ever needed me like this and I am aghast…and in awe. It is horrifying and heavenly; frightening and fantastic. And when we reach each other, my heart is back up where it belongs, ticking and humming, no longer underfoot. I hold Tiger close.

As for being a mother and beloving a son, I have since, and quickly, let go of any squeamishness, but not at all my sense of the sublime. Sweet surrender.

Friday, October 2, 2009


On Sunday, Larry burst into our local (pub) as if his pants were on fire and boomed, “Where you’ve been, you beautiful creature from hell?!” Everyone seemed to feel he was talking to them; even Tiger reached up to be swooped into Larry’s arms, but it turned out he had eyes only for Tanya. Tanya who, in her fifties, has but six teeth to her name.

As I watched their reunion unfold at Kiely’s, though, I was taken by how Tanya’s demeanor and body language changed. Suddenly, I glimpsed the fetching girl she must once have been as she giggled and shied away from and slapped at the veteran hands Larry offered. Quite a pair.

Just around the corner from where I live, Kiely’s, a famous rugby bar in Dublin that’s just down the road from the Leinster Team and the Bective Rangers Club for which my father played, boasts many a colorful character. Most of whom prefer the old-style Ciss Madden’s, a traditional pub which serves as Kiely’s sitting room.

On any given Sunday afternoon, Tiger and I head to Ciss’s for the papers, cappuccino, a Ribena and toastie for my son (black currant juice and a melted ham and cheese special with tomatoes and onions), or an Irish coffee for me on a particularly brutal winter’s day. (And winter lasts a long time in Ireland. Wet as Lake Michigan and bone-marrow chilly, the cold so permeates your entire being, your senses cloud over, frosted. It’s no wonder whiskey is the country’s preferred elixir; nothing else will melt you.)

Back to Ciss’s. It’s a classic neighborhood haunt and Sunday is no exception. Vera and Ian, a widow and son duo with a love of lattes, are usually stationed in the corner and eager to visit with me and Tiger, as we are with them. We talk cruises, house happenings, work, family and a smidgen of delicious Donnybrook gossip. (Long ago, Vera and her husband had a favorite table at Ciss’s. When he passed away, the pub gave the table to his wife as a keepsake.) A true Gentle Ben, Benny often comes in, fumbling for a bit chat. According to one source, Benny had a twin who got all the brains and “he got none of them.” But I find that Benny possesses a certain and solid knowingness. Last week, Tiger wasn’t with me. “Where’s Timmy?” he asked. “What do you mean?” queried Vera. “Oh, he means Tiger,” I replied. “Taidgh is the Irish for Timothy.”

“Tiger, Tiger, come here boy-o and give us a hug!” chimes Stephanie who often works the bar. With her sleek black hair and huge green eyes, she’s a fetching colleen and has become one of Tiger’s favorite babysitters. In fact, she’s now one of our favorite people in Dublin. Then there’s Jonathan, the pub manager, known for his warmth and jiving and over-the-counter freshness with the locals. He’s also known for his inimitable ways with danger, always narrowly escaping death himself while leading others to near-destruction. Last spring, in the Wicklow Mountains, our friend Scorch took a mad tumble off a bicycle when Jonathan braked unexpectedly to a full stop. Scorch hit a tree, flipped over a ditch landing upside down, and broke assorted pieces as Jonathan looked on innocently.

And on an early Friday evening, many of my neighbors and shopkeepers (the cobbler, the barber, the beggarman/thief) can be found toasting life as we know it in Ciss’s nooks and crannys. Adam also hangs out during happy hour. A Ryan O’Neal lookalike, he’s got a way with the ladins (Irish diminutive for lad, of course). “Howza (How are you?), you little beast? What’s your mummy done to you now?” he wants to know, dangling a ripe set of keys in Tiger’s face. My wee one leaps with particular joy.

I won’t go into it here right now, but fair warning: When a rugby match is on, whether it’s an All-Ireland game or a European match, Kiely’s and Ciss’s are what my friend Teresa calls “heaving.” Bursting at the seams with boys and girls, men and women, in a frenzied state of hullabaloo. They spill, just as their pints do, into the mean streets, assuring the entire neighborhood of ruckus and rawhide.

Yes, Ciss’s has been home to many a scene in the years I’ve lived in Donnybrook. This past year, Tiger has often been with me. But before he was with me, about 18 months ago, I was talking excitedly to Jonathan about my impending trip to Kazakhstan to adopt a son. The father of two young boys, he nodded and smiled, adding, “Ah sure now, if he’s any trouble, just bring him ‘round here and we’ll rare him.”

Hmmm. Tiger being reared in our local? That he is, in a way. The locals have so welcomed him to the neighborhood, embracing him with gusto and good cheer, fuss and fondness, casting Tiger under their spell once and for all. My ladin who came from so very far away to become family.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Kenya, Here We Come...or Irish Logic is an Oxymoron

Here's the rub: In seven weeks, my adopted two-year-old son Taidgh, nicknamed Tiger, and I will be moving to Kenya from Dublin, Ireland. This blog, which I plan to update weekly, is really a toddler's tale of all the adventures/misadventures which ensue for us and those, for better or for worse, who surround us. (As for the subtitle, From Kazakhstan to Kenya, that is also my son's domain: He was born in Kazakhstan to Russian parents, holds both Kazakh and U.S. citizenships, currently resides with me in Ireland, and has already traveled around Europe, America and East Africa.)

Back to the matter at hand. Such a trip! Crazy, you say? Crackers? Nuts? Leave the first-world amenities for third-world chaos? That's what my good pal Mark in Mt. Kisco, NY, thinks. And, I admit, he's one smart cookie.

Here's a recent email exchange:

Mark: Buying a fuel-efficient car makes sense. Locking your doors at night makes sense. Taking vitamins makes sense. Moving to Africa? Doooo tellll...

Susan: How's this: Limited income; great way of life; full-time nanny $150/month; fab friends of 20 years; gorgeous country; wildlife; dashing safari guides; terrific weather (sun, sun, sun vs. rain, rain, rain -- and some of it horizontal!); fluent, Swahili-speaking son; more than fun for visitors; adventurous for me; time and means to write a book and more; perfect cottage on secure grounds in which to live; learning to drive Land rover stick shift on heinous roads; African culture; being a minority (good lesson for anyone); beautiful people in general...not to mention, time to get outta here.

M: Sign me up.

A week later in a phone conversation, Mark reneges. "There's famine and civil unrest in Kenya right now!"

"Well, I guess that's why it's so affordable," I insist.

"Affordable! That's quite a rationale. I don't get it."

I then explain patiently to my pal that Irish logic just doesn't exist (my father was from north Tipperary, so Ireland is half my homeland). One of my favorite gems from a man of the sod is, "Just because it isn't true, doesn't mean it didn't happen." Having lived here for six years, that sums up the nation's thinking for me.

"Besides," I confide in Mark, "Taidgh will have a magical childhood there. And so will I."

He snorts, somewhat appreciatively.

As for my darling son, Tiger's new favorite word these days is Hello. I believe that he extends that welcome every single day to the world at large, wide and wonderful and willing as it is.

Watch out. Here we come.