Monday, April 19, 2010

For Jeanine, Because She Holds My Hand

The first time I met Jeanine, she was wearing a bright yellow SuperDance T-shirt, cut-off knee length jean shorts a la "Dirty Dancing" and those pointy-toed patent-leather puffy bow shoes that all the popular girls rocked in 1991.

"This girl is cool," I thought and immediately landed myself a best friend. We were 14 and it was that easy. Nice clothes, cool shoes, same homeroom, let's hang out.

On Sunday, as she sat next to me in St. Clare's church and held my hand while the priest baptized my son, I started reflecting on how many other times Jeremiah's fairy godmother (Erin's words) has held my hand over the past 19 years.

"I love you," she whispered to me on the morning of my wedding, both of us all primped and pretty, mascaraed and hairsprayed, crying like morons right before I walked down the aisle.

"I can't believe I have to go live with a boy now," I answered, turning our tears into giggles, smooshing her makeup back into place with my thumb.

It wasn't the first time we were blubbery, lovey-dovey messes and it certainly wouldn't be the last. Our friendship has survived countless milestones over this two-decade run: weddings, funerals, break-ups and more. Throughout it all, my bond with Jeanine has only gotten stronger.

"She picked on you yesterday, so she can't do it again today," she said to me countless times during freshman year of high school, holding my hair on the bus stop every Tuesday morning, while I emptied my nervous stomach onto Hylan Boulevard in wretched anticipation of being totally embarrassed in Mrs. Gerathy's first period Global Studies class.

"We will definitely be friends forever," she recited to me in poem-form as we stood arm-in-arm in black velvet dresses at each other's sweet sixteen parties, lighting best friend candles, bawling our eyes out over some inside jokes and completely nonsensical 16-year-old stories.

When whatever-his-name-was cheated or dumped or lied, we cried and laughed and then cried again on the phone until 2 a.m. We covered our ears and hid in the bathroom when her mom tried to tell us all about the birds and the bees. We came pretty close to burning her house down when our 15-year-old-selves decided to make pancakes from scratch for the first time without any previous experience. Ever.

We wore white caps and gowns and held hands on line during graduation even though the nuns threatened us with rulers to keep our arms straight at our sides. And in college, we partied and puked and danced and promised to always close down the club - even when we had gray hair and grandchildren.

"Nothing is ever going to be the same," she told me when her mom died ridiculously young 12 years ago, as we both sat Indian-style on her living room floor, sobbing uncontrollably, polishing the cream-colored shoes that her mother would be buried in the next day.

She was right, of course, but every October we hold hands and wear pink and relive some of the happier moments as we walk in a circle at Clove Lakes Park.

"Can you believe we've been friends for this long?" I asked her recently when we connected for one of our marathon phone calls - one of those catch-up ones that covered everything that happened in the previous week or so.

"It's crazy," she replied. "I can't remember a time when you weren't in my life."

In a word, our relationship is intimate. I know why she hates flowers. She knows that from far away, it looks like I have six toes, but I don't. She'll beat up anyone who makes fun of that. Even if she fights like a girl.

When I ask "how's life?" and her "everything's great" has a little squeak at the end, I know for a fact that everything indeed is not great. I also know that if I called her with a problem in a snowstorm, when her house was on fire and all of Staten Island was enduring a massive flood, she would drop everything to come over and make my life right.

We even managed to make ourselves related somewhere along the line - my sister married her brother. We set it up. Mostly so that we could spend holidays together for the rest of our lives.

"So happy you're up here with us," I whispered right after they doused Jeremiah's head and Jeanine helped me pat him dry - both of us naturally tearing up and laughing a bit over little man's outfit. (That seersucker suit and side-cocked pea cap is total proof that the two of us should not be allowed to go shopping together alone.)

"I love you," came her reply as she pulled me in closer and smacked a big one on my left cheek.

"Love you too," I answered, reaching down, grabbing both of her hands tight, my mind racing through all of the laughter, tears and memories that we've shoved into these days, weeks, months and years.

And that's when it hit me: These years that I've spent being best friends with Jeanine were filled with so many wonderful moments. And each one has been so special because she was along for the ride.

Can't wait to see what the next 19 will bring.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hey, Prince Eric, Wipe That Smug Look Off of Your Little Plastic Face

Last week, as Erin played happily and mostly every toy in the house got along with one another, all hell suddenly broke loose in the imaginary world of princesses and dolls.

"Eric was mean to Sleeping Beauty, so she's crying in my backpack," Erin announced very authoritatively, taking me by the hand to witness her favorite blond-haired princess Barbie doll, hands posed over her face, zipped tightly in her Tinkerbell school bag.

"He's in love with Mermaid and he's going to marry her instead," she continued. "That's why Sleeping Beauty is so sad."

I had no idea any such drama was unfolding in my living room. But apparently, it's been brewing for a while.

Let me break it down: At Christmas-time, my mom and dad bought a six-pack of princess dolls which Erin adores. Sleeping Beauty, Mermaid, Jasmine, etc. They all got along famously - playing dress-up, beauty salon and sleepover, you know, all the usual stuff that dolls do - until some additional gifts arrived from Aunt Jeanine.

"It's Prince Eric!" Erin shouted when the plastic-coiffed smug little womanizer arrived, that sly grin of his peering at us through the plastic box.

The next morning, all of the BFF princesses quietly started to bicker.

"Mermaid and Cinderella both want to hold hands with the Prince," Erin said.

There were so many things wrong with that statement, I simply didn't know where to start. I tried to reason a little, asking why the girls no longer played happily together. I got a very real reply.

"Eric picked one princess to kiss and the rest of them are mad," she said.

"Tell me about it," I wanted to respond. "Wait til you're 22 and..." But I bit my tongue. After all, this is my three-year-old innocent daughter we're talking about.

How in the world does she even know anything about kissing and boyfriends? I refuse to let her watch any of those big-kid shows: Hannah Montana, High School Musical, iCarly, etc. Until she's a teen herself, they're off-limits - no matter how much she begs. And I've protected her little eyes and ears from anything risque - we're strictly a happy-slappy, princess/fairy household. Disney movies are the only movies she's ever seen. How could she learn the dramas of dating by watching "Finding Nemo?"

But as my husband and I were hashing out our new found problem the other day - Pat made the revelation: "You know all those Disney movies she watches end with the Prince kissing the Princess, right? And they get married and live happily ever after."

Holy crap, he's right. It all seems harmless, but when everything she sees is focused on marriage and magical, wake-you-out-of-your-sleep kisses, that's what she's going to concentrate on too.

The idea brought me back to a discussion I had with some of my students a few years ago. I was teaching an Intro to Communications class at St. John's and the text devoted a few pages to what they labeled "the Disney effect."

It's a philosophy adopted by many, stating that Disney movies are loaded with gender stereotypes. Women are either portrayed as princesses, queens or homemakers (Cinderella, Snow White - think about it and it starts to make sense) whose main mission in life is to wait around for a prince to come and make their lives complete.

If there's a powerful female in the movie, she's almost always evil (stepmothers, sea queens, etc.) and continually tries to thwart any chances for the princess to reach her main goal of marriage. But in the end, one big magical kiss makes everything OK.

Without even knowing it, I've subjected my daughter to a skewed vision of life. How will she grow up to be a strong, independent woman, when every shred of evidence points to the fact that some prince on a white horse needs to kiss her first?

I know it sounds a little extreme and I'm not one of those crazy, blame-it-all-on-Disney kind of moms, but if the glass slipper fits...

So we've come up with some temporary solutions: Prince Eric is hiding in the trunk of the car for a while, a sort of time-out for all of his philandering. We're weaning Erin off of the books, movies and other princess paraphernalia too, filtering in some non-threatening pals like Care Bears and Dora the Explorer. (She never had any kissing scenes with Boots, right?)

We'll see if any of it works.

But a new player emerged in the saga on Easter Sunday. Mom put Malibu Ken in Erin's Easter basket. He's still in plastic, spending a little time with Eric in the trunk. Once they can learn to behave like gentlemen, we'll let them back in the house.