Browsing Category

parenting

Eating/Food, Guest Posts, parenting

Saving Your Family, One (Complicated) Recipe at a Time

July 5, 2021
cake

by Lee Ann Cox

There’s a 20-year-old photo of me rolling out dough on a floured pastry board while wearing my son in a backpack. I was creating his first birthday cake.

The idea was sparked long before that moment, as I thumbed through the pages of the Martha Stewart catalogue, lingering over a set of oversized copper cookie cutters, a whimsical menagerie that included a bear, an alligator, a donkey, a dove. They were absurdly large, but then so was I, pregnant with this baby. I didn’t yet know what it would mean to balance a food writing career with an infant who merely dallied with the notion of sleep. I only knew the cookie cutters were adorable, a splurge, and I had to have them.

As the birthday neared and my vision for the project crystalized, I was fortunate that my husband’s parents were visiting from California; I had three adults to help distract my son as I set to work. I began by making quantities of sugar cookie dough to the sound of Bay’s chortling from the front room as he knocked down towers of blocks. His mood didn’t hold, hence the backpack.

I chilled and rolled the dough thick enough to achieve a sturdy giraffe whose head would not break loose from its slender neck. Soon an unadorned zoo sprawled on racks around our farmhouse kitchen while I made icing of pale yellow, deep sky blue, sea glass green. I mixed two consistencies of each color, one thick to outline the shape, forming a dam to hold the flood of flawless liquid color. Once set, I piped manes and claws on lions, fluffy wool on sheep, an intricate caparison for an elephant adorned with various colors of sanding sugar I had mixed myself.

Of course, this was to be a cake, so I picked a family favorite, vanilla with the layers split and alternately spread with lemon curd and cream cheese frosting. To achieve my fever dream of perfection, though, I needed two cakes of different sizes to stack, supported by wooden dowels. Over the course of a couple days, I had concocted a child’s version of a tiered wedding cake, graced, not by a spray of elegant flowers or ironic plastic newlyweds, but by a double carousel of handmade edible animals, each unique, one cuter than the next.

“Mom are you high?” my daughter would say now. I must have been undone.

This cake, I need to say, was not the centerpiece of an overdone celebration with too many presents and too many people; no hordes of aunts, uncles, and cousins were coming to admire my two creations. It was just us and a close friend and baby from playgroup. That eases my embarrassment and heightens my wonder at the forces that drive me. The birthday boy was too young to be enchanted by this cake (nor, it turns out, would any confection not chocolate ever achieve that standard). But when my husband held Bay aloft to blow out his single candle, both of them grinning, my camera shuttered on a moment of pure beauty.

*

Time spun out from there. Bay turned 18 having spent equal parts of his life with and without his dad, who died young of a rare cancer. On this birthday, the cake was a basic, rich chocolate number; his dinner request was the two-day cooking festival: the tagliatelle with braised lamb ragu he’d had in New York, helpfully codified in The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual, a book I highly recommend for the recipes and the writing. Even for a dish whose steps are helpfully divided into “Day 1” and “Day 2,” the authors charm you through the process, suggesting a flip of the lamb mid-roast “if you think of it” and, later, to remove the meat from the stock so it can rest and “regain its composure,” suggestions I recommend for the cook as well.

I bought my lamb and bones from a local Vermont farm, filled my basket with onions, carrots, fennel, and tarragon. I roasted and braised. I made the Frankies tomato sauce, a simple affair, demanding only devotion (along with your good olive oil and the best Italian tomatoes). “Take your time—there’s no rushing it… when you’re cooking the garlic, you want to very, very slowly convert the starches in it to sugars and then to caramelize those sugars. Slow and steady.”

By the second afternoon, I skimmed my lamb broth of fat in favor of fresh butter that married the tomato and lamb concoctions, finally, into a sensuous, swoony situation, like the ones that really should come from restaurants.

I will confess how the years have changed me, especially as I was also the one to make the cake and wrap the presents and parent the son and also his little sister. (First, no, she did not get a two-tiered carousel cake, an already preposterous enterprise without a baby, a toddler, a job, and a 130-pound Newfie upending the kitchen for any unmonitored morsel of food, but she has not been denied her share of fanciful cakes.) I dismissed the Frankies’ instruction to make a double recipe of Basic Pasta Dough from page 94, cut into tagliatelle. I bought the pasta.

*

Nearly a year later, I made the ragu again for my son’s farewell dinner before he left for college, 3,000 miles from home. I felt from the tender ache of my own bones as if they were rendered into that stew, an amalgam of everything I put in it, lovingly tended, and every hope I had for what it would yield. I hid my tears and fed the dreams we both shared, of joy and challenge, adventure and a new sense of belonging.

And then, abruptly, he was home. The pandemic put it all on ice, suspended him between two worlds.

With third-quarter finals cancelled and an extended spring break, Bay came to the kitchen. “Mom, I think we should cook something.” His grin suggested that it would not be banana bread.

“Watch this video with me,” he said, reaching for my laptop and pulling up Joshua Weissman’s YouTube page, introducing me to the obsessive food phenom with nearly three million followers. “Making the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich at Home, But Better” was Bay’s fixation; we would hit play and pause on that video uncountable times.

The next afternoon we got started, beginning with the Japanese milk buns (which begin with making the tangzhong). We mixed up our marinade, our spiced dredging flour, and our sauce, albeit without the optional oyster mushroom powder, and, more critically, and ashamedly, the black garlic—it’s clear now we had the time to start aging our own ingredients, since he wouldn’t return to school, but we lacked that kind of patience.

We did choose the largest boneless thighs we could find, properly slice our pickles lengthwise for maximum coverage, and toast the truly amazing buns. I taught my son how to deep fry. And I acquainted him with the fact that, no matter how much you clean as you go, the exalted experience at the table will temper at the sight of a grease-splattered stove and the general havoc wreaked preparing a plated meal. The regret, like the mess, is temporary.

*

For two decades I’ve thought about that birthday cake, wondered if there was an impulse behind it beyond what food writer Tamar Adler, in a recent essay I admired, called “a peacocky presentation of leisure time and skill.” I won’t argue there wasn’t a tinge of that, but if it was for anyone, honestly, it was me. I know it’s more, though, that I wasn’t quite kidding about being undone.

I feel so vulnerable at times, on the knife’s edge of joy and heartache. My infant son turns one, then moves far away. My infant daughter turns two with a party held in a hospital lounge near her dad’s room, then she’s a beautiful, maddeningly sassy teenager. The weave of love, longing, and potential loss is gossamer silk and the instinct to protect is fierce, tireless effort. That takes me to the kitchen. The sense of control is a mirage, but there’s art in the attempt and at the end you have dinner, or, even better, cake.

The crazy thing about COVID is that it upends the promise I made myself years ago to try to keep my anxieties and fears from infecting my kids. What I want—on my best, bravest days—is for them to live big, juicy, connected lives, for their regrets to be few, especially for experiences they didn’t seize. Now we’re told to hide our children at home and mask them from danger. There was a moment’s appeal in that, my deepest instincts sanctioned.

Mid-March was like the first hour or so of losing electricity—candlelight Scrabble and toasting marshmallows over a gas flame—before the melting down, before we met the grief spilling out from every angle of this disaster. There are worse things, to be sure, but I ache for my kids, for everyone’s. Instead of testing boundaries, they’re circumscribed by them.

At the end of the summer though, my son, unable to return to college in the fall, quarantined and then met up in a central location with his would-have-been roommates in an Airbnb for a week. Bay texted a photo of the meal he made for his friends: better-than-Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwiches. He had made the buns himself, crisped the coating on the tender thighs to tanned perfection, slathered on his homemade spicy sauce.

I imagine those big blue eyes gazing over my shoulder from his backpack, absorbing my need, the protective pulse that drove my energy. With food, he would now nurture the fledgling life he’d begun, hoping the web holds through untold months ahead in Zoomland. And sure, I’m guessing there was a serious dash of peacockiness behind it, too. I mean, that was an insane amount of work.

Lee Ann Cox is a Vermont-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon and The Rumpus, among other publications. She is a recipient of the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award for the manuscript of my memoir Beauty Like That, as well as a Vermont Arts Council creation grant. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

Improvise, Stabilize, Stagnate, Repeat

July 3, 2021
all

By Abby Braithwaite

“Mom, let’s go up there!”

“You don’t want to go just a little farther on the flat part, see if we can find the stream, and maybe see some of those frogs making all that racket?”

“No, up there! Hmph.”

My daughter stomps her foot, crosses her arms, and juts her chin at the near-vertical bank to our right. An expanse of loose rock, dead grasses and newly-awakened poison oak leads up to the abandoned mine above us, and beyond to the top of the rim-rock where her dad, brother and beloved babysitter are hiking. But really, it wouldn’t matter if no one was up there. Every time we have hiked this trail over the past couple years, off-roading has been this 4-foot, 9-inch teenager’s path of choice. She huffs again, tossing her pink bangs off her mostly-shaved head and standing firm.

“That way. Now.” It’s amazing how clearly she enunciates when she is mimicking my get-serious-and-listen voice. If only her speech therapist could hear her now.

“Alright, let’s go.”

***

If you want proof that evolution is dangerous, all you have to do is parent a teenager. Or teach one. Or just choose one out of the crowd and watch her move through the world. The fact that an entire species has banked our survival on the teenage brain is a mind-bender, and the ultimate proof that in order to get anywhere in life, you have to be willing to risk it all on a twist of DNA.

That first amoeba family could have just trucked along blob-like for an eternity, comfortable in its amorphousness, and populated this planet with slime. But no, some type-A couple of perfectly good cells had to go and mix it up and complicate the next generation with extra material, and things just went from there.

Improvise, stabilize, stagnate, repeat. Evolution in a nutshell. Sure there’s some loss along the way, but how else is a fish supposed to crawl out of an ocean and walk across the sand, if it’s not willing to take a chance?

***

As I follow Adara up the side of the hill, I keep one hand on the small of her back to remind her to keep her weight forward so she’ll tumble up if she trips, and not topple all the way back to the nice sandy path below us. As I feel her push herself up, muscles tensing under my hand, I notice again that her right glute is about half the size of her left, the result of a long-ago surgical repair on a bad hip, and I wonder if she likes this kind of climb better because it’s a break from the relentless, crooked pound-stumble that is walking when one leg is an inch shorter than the other. Maybe, like the short-sided mountain goats in that old comic, she knows she’s built for side-hilling.

Or, maybe she just likes to do it the hard way.

Either way, I’m glad to be walking behind her in the April sun, grateful I was able to get her off the couch and out the door after the rest of the group headed out on a hike I would have been on if there was someone else to hang out with my kid. And truth be told, I’m not sure I would have been able to keep up with them anyway. I’m probably better off down here where I can collect rocks, listen to the frogs, and watch the clouds roll by while Adara picks her way up this impossible slope.

***

And so, some number of millennia and branches of the tree of life later, we arrive at the human species. Like many living things before us, plant and animal alike, we had figured out that for the healthiest populations, we had to spread out to mate. Trees send their seeds on the wind. Thistles catch onto the coats of the wandering beta wolf, and so propagate new thistle fields on the other side of the mountain range. The scent of ripe berries on the breeze brings a feeding frenzy, and berry seeds are shat out in myriad piles across the watershed.

Travel to make babies. It’s a pretty foundational principle of procreation.

But humans had to complicate things. We birthed impossibly dependent babies that stayed helpless far longer than any other animals’ offspring, and we became programmed to nurture, to tend, to need each other. We created intricate social structures, interdependency, emotional attachment. How were we supposed to get far apart enough to mate safely, to ensure the mutations that would lead to increased variability and strength, rather than the dangerous effects of an insular community?

Enter the teenager, a creature designed to cast out on its own to points unknown, with a particular penchant for pushing away the very people it has depended on most for the past decade and a half.

***

We’re spending a few days at our family cabin on the Deschutes River in central Oregon. It’s on the site of an old perlite mine, where several buildings were converted to a fishing camp after the mine closed in the 1940’s. My husband’s grandparents happened across the place when the mine office building was up for sale, so we have access to a ranging two-story box in the desert that can hold more than a dozen people comfortably. It’s just the five of us this weekend, though. My husband, our two kids, and our babysitter, here off the clock to explore this place she has heard so much about in the years she’s been working for us.

On the far side of the river—you have to take a cable ferry to get here, with everything you need for however long you’re staying—with no internet or cell reception, and stone’s throw from the shriekiest mile of curving railroad track in the West, it’s a love it or hate it kind of place. It’s fiercely cold in the winter, and impossibly hot and dry in the summer. In late spring and early fall, it’s mild and lovely. In April and September, it’s all those things in the span of an afternoon.

Adara’s on the hate it end of the spectrum, but we ply her with salt and vinegar potato chips and let her smuggle her phone over the river so she has her music, and she puts up with it. And every couple days, I manage to get her out for an explore. Every teenager who has come of age here—except maybe my introverted fisherman of a husband—has had a period of hating the place, hating the spiders and bugs, hating being away from friends and stuck with family, hating, over the past decade, the prohibition on technology, which doesn’t really work here anyway. But they come, and they are forced outside, and they learn to take care of the place; eventually keys pass from the hands of one generation to the next. Corwin, my 11-year-old, loves the place still. But given her druthers, Adara would take a pass altogether.

***

A quick Google search on “evolution as risk”—looking to see if any researchers have asked whether evolutionary steps can be viewed as a species-level gamble—tells me I need to spend more time on research if I want to follow this trail any farther. I find hits on Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—the threat posed by the mere concept of evolution to the human understanding of our roots, when the theory first arose—and the evolution of risk, with lots of sub-articles on the evolutionary role of adolescence. And that’s part of what I am talking about here, of course, but my bigger question is about the gamble of mutation itself. Why evolve at all? Why not just stay the course?

A species grows from the mire, defines itself, settles into a niche. All is fine, if not terribly exceptional, to be a lizard crawling around on the ground. Everything is working, comfortable enough. But then one day a cold wind blows across your scales and on some cellular level, some strand of lizard DNA buzzes awake and—bam—scales grow into feathers, feathers grow longer, lizards spend more time on the edges of cliffs, lots of them fall off, and the once stable ground-lizard population is suddenly on the brink, life is a lot more dangerous. And then, one day, instead of falling, a lizard flies. And so we have birds, which never would have come to be if there wasn’t space for just the right mutations to build on themselves, improvising, stretching, changing.

***

“I can’t do it, Mom!” she shouts, after her third attempt at a handhold tumbles down the bank behind us. We’ve been climbing for about half an hour now and, despite frequent breaks, we’ve gotten through the hardest section. It’s grassier here, less rocky, and I notice that there’s a trail beaten by deer that traverses the slope off to our right, taking a gentler approach to vertical gain, following the contours of the hillside rather than heading straight up.

“You’re doing great, look how far we’ve come!”

She turns to look down, scares herself with the sheer drop, and turns back, crossing her arms and harrumphing again. “That scared me. I can’t do it.”

“Well, we can’t sleep here, can we?” I ask, attempting the light humor that will sometimes snap her out of recalcitrance. “And look, there’s the tree we’re heading for. We’re almost there. Look, you’re the leader, and you’re doing a great job, so I want to show you two choices. Either one is fine. We can keep going straight, up this way,” and I point to the rocky draw she’s been following, that traces a straight line between us and a budding oak tree. “Or, we can follow this sneaky deer trail that’s an easier path. I know it looks like it’s going the wrong way, but it twists back around, I promise.”

***

And what greater metaphor for this moment of improvisation, of leaving behind the cozy, safe, necessary known for some new dimension, than human adolescence? A risk-taking, precipice-walking, edge-living phase of our development carefully designed to carry us away from our community, out to points unknown, to mix with others and create new family lines. With the skills, knowledge, and strength to set forth for new spaces and places, but without the wisdom to worry so much about what’s coming; the power to plunge straight ahead to the next thing, without the discernment to think maybe there’s an easier way, around the corner, just out of sight. In order to survive babyhood, we needed to create the attached family unit. But in order to thrive as a species, we needed to find a way away from each other, a vehicle to spread the wings and sow the proverbial wild oats further afield.

***

True to form, Adara insists on heading straight up the draw, not interested in my advice about a so-called easier path. She’s tired now, and can’t make it more than a few steps at a time before she needs to stop and catch her breath, rest her shaking legs. She can see the tree, with the picnic rock next to it, and she’s confident in her knowledge of the best way to get there. Straight. Up. The. Hill. Though the pauses between pushing upward grow longer with each break, push herself she does, and we make our way slowly up the slope.

“MOM, I NEED your hand.”

“Kiddo, if I hold your hand, I’m going to pull you down the hill. Here, I’ll just hold your hi-“

“Fine, I CAN’T DO IT!” And she plunks back down, lifts up her butt to toss a sharp rock out from under her. It just misses my kneecap. “And I’m not a kiddo. I’m THIRTEEN!”

I take a deep breath and look out over the river. We’re so close to the top, where we can sit on a flat rock and eat the salt and vinegar chips and sing songs and tell stories and build fairy houses in the dust on the side of the old mine road while we wait for the rest of the crew to come down the mountain.

I just need to keep my mouth shut, and we’ll get there.

As a teenager with a developmental disability, my daughter perhaps inhabits the brink more precariously than others; she toggles in an instant between a deep dependence—still needing help to zip a zipper, tie a shoe, sneak a pee on the side of a mountain—and a fierce desire to do it her way, on her own, without interruption and condescension. But, then, the more I talk to her classmates’ parents, the parents of so-called typical children, the more I realize that it’s only really a difference of degrees. All the kids her age are doing this dance. She just does it a little more transparently. And she needs a little more help to get free of me.

As we push on up her chosen path, my thoughts continue to circle on this idea that as a species, we have banked our survival on this risk-taking phase of human development. And as we stop again, angry at a piece of sharp grass that pokes into the sock, I remember something our midwife said, back when people were still saying things to try to make us feel better about Adara’s Down syndrome diagnosis. Something about how there are people who believe that Down syndrome—a genetic mutation that causes a triplication of the 21st chromosome, rather than the typical duplication, and the most survivable trisomy, as these triplications are collectively known—is the next evolutionary phase of the human species. That the emotional intelligence that is a common trait in Down syndrome is exactly what we need to survive the challenges in front of us right now.

I never looked the theory up back then, to see if she was just blowing smoke to make us feel better. And now I suspect any discussion of the theme will be rife with stereotypes and platitudes about Down syndrome—about how “those people” are happy all the time, and are pure love, and are just perpetual children who have found some stash of joy and contentment that we should all learn from.

But watching my kid choose the hardest path with a force and determination that I could only hope to attain, I have to wonder. No, she’s not happy all the time. She bridles at her little brother just as much as any 13-year-old should. No, she’s not a forever-child. She’s determined to finish school, go to college, and live in an apartment without her boring parents and their annoying rules and chores. But her joys are deeper than just about anyone I know, and she doesn’t carry a grudge. She has a gift for finding lonely people and bringing them into the circle, and for making them laugh with bad puns and absurd knock-knock jokes. She navigates life’s most challenging moments with a resiliency we all should envy. Maybe we could all stand to move that way after all, or at least to weave a little of the ways of that bonus chromosome into our dealings with ourselves and each other. Perhaps we’ve achieved a place as a species where we can choose some of our next adaptations. Choose to weave a new way.

A new thought to ponder. Luckily, there’s plenty of time for thinking on these hikes we take together.

Abby Braithwaite lives in Ridgefield, Washington, where she writes from a converted shipping container in the woods overlooking the family farm. She enjoys the soundscape of sandhill cranes, coyotes and freight trains trundling from Portland to Seattle underneath her bedroom window. Her essays on parenting, escape, and disability have been published in the Barton Chronicle, the Washington Post, The Manifest-Station and the Hip Mama blog, as well as a handful of non-profit newsletters. In 2019 she created “Contained”, a chapbook of her collected musings. She shares her home with her husband and two children, three cats, and two dogs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

funny, Guest Posts, parenting

Drive Home, Leave Home, Wake Up

June 11, 2021
Johanna

By Dawn Urbont

My breast pump talks to me. Its mechanical sucking noise morphs into language inside my sleep-deprived brain. Vy-vo, vy-vo, vy-vo, drive home, drive home, drive home, it commands in two-four time. Drive home from where? I wonder. I’m already home.

“Did you say something?” Alex shuffles into our dining room turned pump station, where I sit hooked up and strapped in, eyes shut, head lolling to the side. He calls it the unamusement park ride.

“Did I?” the words barely make it past my too-tired-to-talk lips. I right my head and open my eyes halfway. He’s holding a bowl of grown-up cereal and a rolled-up New York Times tucked under his arm. He sports a thick layer of stubble, striped pajamas, a robe and slippers. He’s really going for the whole fatherhood thing. “What did I say?” I ask, unable to remember moments ago.

Alex shrugs and sets the cereal bowl and newspaper on our crummy thrift shop dining table. “Fuck,” he manages as he slumps into a chair and bows forward with exhaustion. The table tilts. Milk threatens to leave the bowl. “I’m tired.”

“You’re tired? Really?” I fix my gaze on him, and he glances at me. I am attached to plastic and valves and tubing and two collection bottles that grow heavy with every painful squeeze of my darkened areolas. Alex knows not to take my bait.

“No?” he replies. We sit at the table, quiet as a still-life. Porcelain Pitcher with Wilting Flowers. Somewhere in the house, our new baby lets out a tea-kettle cry.

Drive home, drive home, drive home…

“Good morning, Mommy,” Johanna, the live-in baby-nurse we hired for three weeks enters holding Mathilda in her thick, sturdy arms. The sight of M makes us smile. She looks fresh and alert with a clean diaper and a onesie that says Girl Boss. “I’m hungry, Mommy. Did you save any milk for me?” Johanna, in her breezy Trinidadian accent speaks for Mathilda as though she were a hand puppet, which I find utterly cloying. I cast a furtive glance at Alex, who remains expressionless. He inhales a spoonful of cereal, and I watch milk dribble down his chin, navigating his stubble like a plinko ball.

Hiring a baby nurse was my mother’s idea. In fifth grade I was cast as a flying monkey instead of Dorothy and reacted by drinking a bottle of rubbing alcohol. After the doctors pumped my stomach, I woke up and said, “Who cares? I’m fine.” And Mom said, “You know what fine means? Fucking In Need of Everything.” The seed of incompetence planted long ago, I ran the baby nurse idea by Alex.

“Hell no. You really want a stranger living with us? I won’t be able to fart in my own house.”

“That’s a pro, not a con.”

“Look,” Alex had said, “live-in’s are expensive. We can figure out our baby on our own like the fucking cavemen. Cavepeople. Whatever.”

“But what if we can’t? What if I can’t? What if you roll on top of M in your sleep? What if I drop her?”

Johanna turns off the pump. Its voice dies out like a short-circuiting robot. Time to feed my girl, but first I unequip. The collection bottles are attached to plastic shields held over my nipples by a garment that’s at once ludicrous and essential: the hands-free pump bra, a zip-up bandeau with two circular holes like cruise ship windows for nipples to—I want to say—look through. Picture the Madonna cone bra circa 1990, avant-garde, fashion forward, sexy. This is not like that. It’s the opposite and quite possibly the beginning of the end of my marriage, I’m thinking. How Alex can sit there and eat food while I pump is beyond me. Is he looking for a way out? Were the delivery room proceedings too much for him to handle? The blood, the excrement, the unshavenness of it all… If this is it, I won’t blame him.

I detach the bottles and fasten buttery yellow lids onto them. I unzip my pump bra and peel away the plastic shields from my damp skin. My breasts hang down like aged-out foster children, worse for wear but free. Three weeks ago, Johanna was a stranger in my house. Now she watches me in my most intimate of moments, all honest and raw. Some people find this act of motherhood beautiful, but I’m telling you, it’s disgusting. I should be embarrassed milking myself in front of a rando and the one person who’s supposed to find me attractive. But guess what? I’m not, and that’s what’s so crazy about motherhood! You just roll with humiliation, because you have to. Because if you don’t, either you won’t survive or your baby won’t survive and neither is okay. I mean, if you had told me I would be so constipated after giving birth that I’d be begging for a colostomy bag, because it hurt too much to crap with stitches in my taint, I very likely wouldn’t have gone through with the whole “having a baby” thing. There is no dignity in child-bearing and the weeks that follow.

“So. How did Bessie do this morning?” Johanna asks holding up a bottle of my “liquid gold” as she calls it. Bessie is not my name. It’s her idea of a joke. A lame one. Alex shoots me a side-ways glance. He knows I hate when she calls me a cow’s name. In my mind, I ask her how she would like it if I called her a genetically-modified-cud-chewing-ozone-destroying behemoth. In my mind, she laughs like I’m joking, and still in my mind, I ask her if it looks like I’m joking.

Then, somehow and without warning, the word cunt falls out of my mouth like a bite of rotten apple. My eyes go wide. Alex nearly chokes on his ancient grains.

“Excuse me?” Johanna says. My stomach tightens.

“My cunt—it still hurts from, you know, third-degree tears and everything.”

“I don’t like that word, Mommy,” Johanna/Mathilda says.

“Sorry,” I say as she transfers Mathilda into my arms.

My little TillyDillyChickenBug latches onto my right breast like a pro. Her sucking reflex is strong, but Johanna tells me that sucking doesn’t equal swallowing, and I worry that I’ve pumped out her entire breakfast.

“What if my funbags are empty?” I ask, my forehead creases deepening with anxiety. Alex explodes into laughter, and my head whips around in time to see bits of cereal splattering all over the newsprint. “What’s so funny?”

“Funbags.” He chuckles shaking his head side to side. My face hardens.

“You think they’re not fun anymore? You think I’m being ironic?”

“No, babe. If anything, they’re more fun now.”

“Then why were you laughing?”

“I don’t know. It’s a funny word.”

“It’s two words,” I snap. When I look it up later, I find out it’s one.

I’m about to cry. Anger, sadness, exhaustion, a body I don’t recognize, a helpless life that’s dependent on a mildly depressed person with a sleep deficit. This is nature’s plan? Is that smart?

“Don’t worry, Mommy. Those funbags are definitely not empty. Look,” Johanna motions toward Mathilda. I look down and see a tiny mammal suckling at my teat. I watch for signs of a swallow– the subtle up-down movement of her throat. Creamy straw-colored milk pools at the corners of her mouth, and my furrowed brow relaxes. “Ten minutes on each side,” Johanna picks up the bottles of milk along with my pump parts and carries them out of the room. In the mirror on the wall opposite me, I watch as she disappears into the kitchen. Alex and I turn to each other and break into huge grins, wide-mouthed and weighted with disbelief. We hear the opening and closing of the refrigerator followed by the rush of sink water.

“You called her a cunt,” he whispers.

“I know!”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know!”

The sink shuts off, and we quickly dummy up. Is this how parents behave?  I kiss my baby’s petal soft forehead and think to myself, We’re the absolute worst.

After the morning feed, I transfer Mathilda into her daddy’s arms so he can burp her; so he can be part of the process. “Don’t pat her back like you see on TV,” Johanna had instructed us during her first week. “Rub her back, soothe her, be gentle,” she had said. I watch Alex bounce around the dining room table, cradling Tils over his shoulder. He raps on her back like she’s a storefront window. Are you still open? Can I come in? I leap out of the chair ready to take her.

“That’s not—” I catch my reflection in the mirror. Who is that? My bottom lip droops, and I gaze at Her with the crazy bed head and squinting, tired eyes. Her with the deflated double D’s, the wrinkled belly fat and that hideous umbilical hernia. I want to burn my bikinis.

“What’s wrong?” Alex asks.

“I’m taking a shower,” I say and walk out.

I don’t make it to the shower. I can’t make it to the shower. My pits reek and my pussy smells like the monkey house at the zoo, but my need for sleep supersedes my need to wash away bacteria proliferating in the warm, damp nether regions of my flesh. Alex might see things differently, but Mathilda’s the one I’m trying to impress, and Mathilda could give two shits what I smell like. I am her warm body, and she loves me in my natural state. Half naked, wearing only pajama bottoms, I sink into my unmade bed and yank the comforter up over this hard to look at mother-thing I have become. As my head falls to the side, I suddenly remember what I couldn’t remember saying this morning: we have to pay Johanna. Tomorrow is her last day. Too tired to yell, I consider texting Alex a reminder, but the fog of sleep is rolling in, and I can hear those words. Drive home, drive home… My pump’s voice lingers in my head, lulls me to sleep. Machine and I, we are one.

At exactly 10AM, Johanna, her flip-flops slapping against the hardwood floor, enters my sunlit bedroom and hands me my baby. I arrange her in a football hold as I shimmy up wormlike against the upholstered headboard, shaking off my dream-drenched sliver of sleep. It doesn’t matter that I was in a sleep so deep I could have drowned peacefully and that my nipples are raw and fissured. This baby is on a schedule, and Johanna, for one thousand dollars a week, sees to it that she will eat, play and nap every three hours until her 7PM bedtime. While Johanna’s daily duties end there, I don’t get to clock out. Ten PM is my daughter’s dream feed, when I will prowl into her black-out shaded room, tip-toe my fingers around her swaddled little body and lift her to my chest ever-so-gently so as not to wake her. Then seated and slow-rocking in a toile-covered glider, I will insert my breast into her mouth as she sleeps. Once, during my freshman year of college, this frat guy, Brad McCarthy, tried to insert his dick into my mouth while I lay passed out in the basement of Psi U. Not exactly the same thing, but similar. After the dream feed, my brain will want to sleep until morning, but my breasts won’t let me. Should I test them, they will punish me with engorgement, hot, lumpy and hardened with milk. Instead, I will wake at 4AM and pump when the house is pin-drop quiet. In those pre-dawn hours when it’s just the two of us, my pump and me at the dining table, cast in the LED glow of my iPhone, and I’m holding my head in my hands, because my hands are free thanks to my hands-free pump bra, my pump speaks in window-wiper rhythm.

Leave home, leave home, leave home

There’s this optical illusion on the internet of a dancer spinning. Most people see her spinning counter-clockwise, something having to do with whether or not you’re left-brained or right-brained. For the life of me, I can only see her spin clockwise, and for the life of me, I can’t unhear my pump speak English. I try to listen from the other side of my brain, to hear machine noise, nonsense, onomatopoeia, but all I can make out is an electronic voice spitting out words. Drive home. Leave home. Last week it said Wake up.

Alex’s heavy footfalls grow louder until he’s hovering in the bedroom doorway. His wavy brown hair is wet from a shower, and he’s dressed in street clothes and sneakers.

“I’m going to the bank. Payday, babe. Johanna’s leaving tomorrow.” He pumps his fist triumphantly until he notices Johanna standing in the corner, where she waits while I nurse. He offers a closed-mouth smile, his hand falling loosely by his side. Johanna shakes her head and mutters a curse under her breath– not a curse word, but I’m pretty sure a curse she’s placing on Alex.

“Want anything from outside?” he asks.

“No,” I lie. I want everything from outside.

“Get a frying chicken for tonight. I’m cooking dinner,” says Johanna.

“A frying chicken?” Alex looks perplexed.

“It’s just a chicken,” I say.

“Make sure it’s organic,” Johanna instructs then turns to me. “Everything you eat, the baby eats.”

“Organic,” I tell Alex as if he didn’t hear. “Go to Whole Foods.”

Alex clasps his hands together tensely. Too many instructions. He can’t handle it. “Anything else?” He exhales audibly.

“Carrot and celery,” says Johanna.

“I should write this down,” Alex grabs a pen from his pocket. Clicking the end of it repeatedly, he scans for paper. The dresser is littered with old receipts, pieces of mail, ValPak coupons, and news clippings from my father-in-law, who thinks we won’t know what’s happening in the world unless he mails us a manila envelope stuffed with articles curated from a variety of print media he swipes from doctor office waiting rooms. Alex starts pawing at papers, sending articles, mail and receipts to the floor. Johanna and I watch as he begins to unravel, his breathing heavy and erratic.

“Babe, chill.”

“I’m very chill.”

“Here.” I find a wrinkled napkin on my night stand. He grabs it and tries to scrawl the shopping list on it, but the tip of his pen tears through it.

“Fuck!”

“Keep cool, Daddy,” JoTilda says.

“Forget it. I don’t need to write it down.” He walks out leaving me tethered to our baby, her caregiver sentinelling by my bedside.

I should be high now. Above-the-clouds high, legs outstretched behind me, airplane arms, head crooning crane-like and strung out on oxytocin, the feel-good hormone released naturally through breastfeeding to make mommies fall in love with their babies. Oxytocin, nature’s secret party favor, that love drug, that bonding glue, that country’s gone crazy glue. Instead, I feel pangs of something akin to road-rage. I’m not big on social media. I don’t put on blast that I ate a muffin, and I particularly loathe those “That moment” memes, but currently I’m having a “that moment” moment. I mentally update my status: That moment you realize you’re being held hostage by a baby.

“Alex!” I yell seconds before the front door bangs shut. I grab my cell phone, touch the facechat icon, and jab at Alex’s name. His oval head appears, moving against a blue sky backdrop.

“Alex—”

“What’s up?”

“You always get to do the errands,” I complain in a voice reserved more for a brother than a spouse. Alex looks at me with a blank stare and stops moving. “I haven’t left the house in weeks. I wear pajamas every day.”

“What are you saying, you don’t want me to go?”

“Go if you want to go.”

He starts to move again, and I erupt, “Why can’t I go to the bank and get a frying chicken?!”

“I’m coming back.”

We both hang up. Within minutes he’s in the bedroom doorway. “You’re in the middle of nursing!”

“I’ll be done in ten minutes!”

“Mommy, Daddy, calm down!” Johanna hollers without bothering to sound like a sing-songy puppet child. “Negative emotions poison my milk!”

“Shit!” I hurriedly slip my pinky between my breast and M’s little mouth. Unlatched, she starts to cry. “This is turning into a bloodbath,” I whimper, my eyeballs tightening as if being screwed deep into their sockets, saltwater tears rising.

“It’s not a bloodbath,” Alex assures me. “Take breathe deep ujjayi breaths.”

“I can’t breathe. There’s no air.” I grip my neck, panicked.

“There’s air all around us,” he says with a forced calm, then he turns to Johanna. “I think she’s having breakdown.”

“Let me take the baby.” Johanna plucks Matilda from my arms. She starts singing a strange little island song, cradling my daughter into a sea of serenity.

“Look at me,” Alex puts his hands on my shoulders.

“No. I’m gross,” I cry into my sweaty palms.

“You’re beautiful. You’re hot. Just, come on, babe, look at me.” I peek at him, certain my ugly-cry will to haunt him for years. “I’m sorry. I thought I was being helpful, but I was wrong. You do the errands.”

“I can’t.”

“It’ll be good for you to get out of the house.”

“You don’t understand, I’m on a schedule,” I sob. “There’s reading time and tummy time and music appreciation– we’re listening to Aaron Copeland today, then the one o’clock feed, and I need to drink thistle tea so my tits make milk, and what about my shower? I still haven’t had a shower, you took my shower!” I catch Alex and Johanna exchanging a look of grave concern. A pit forms in my stomach. What is wrong with me?

“Okay,” I sniffle. “I’ll go.”

As it turns out, anything you do alone by yourself after having a baby feels like a vacation. Taking a dump, sitting in traffic, waiting on line at the bank… these moments of solitude bring with them a sense of escapism for which I feel rescue-dog grateful. Who ever thought a trip to the bank could be exhilarating? I stroll back to my car with a thousand dollars cash for Johanna and a smile that feels involuntary. As I open the door and get into my Prius, I glimpse the words Lick Me etched in dust on the rear window. I look around. A sun-tanned, bleach-blonde homeless woman across the parking lot smiles at me. From a distance, her teeth look like rocks. Perhaps Lick Me was her little idea of a joke. I’ll never know, but as I drive past, I roll down my window and hand her a buck.

“That’s it?” she asks gruffly.

“Yup,” I roll up my window and drive away, delirious with freedom. Sky blue skies peek through the open moonroof, and sunlight warms the crown of my head. Thirty minutes later, there’s a four-pound organic chicken, a bushel of carrots and a bag of celery riding shotgun, and instead of driving home, I’m heading straight for the mall. Tilly’s next feed is in an hour, and I’m not ready to relinquish this intoxicating Me Time.

When we got pregnant, Alex became obsessed with the cost of college tuition in 2038 and started balking whenever I came home with items like re-usable ice cream cones or Gremlins on BluRay. He banned me from Target, where I could lose myself for hours and come home after dark toting bags of future Goodwill donations and a massive shopping hangover. When he found out how much Johanna would cost, a corkscrew-like vein in his forehead stuck out for days. He refused to fuck me for fear it would burst. If Alex knew I was mall-bound, he would have a coronary.

I step into the parking garage elevator cast in its moony glow, my excitement rising with every floor, and step off into a high-end department store, a perfume scented bistro of style and luxury. Drifting through a gallery of oddly-shaped statement shoes, floating up the spiral staircase, running my hands over iconic and classic and iconoclastic fashion stories, I feel electrified. I’ve come back to life. Old me is back, I can feel her, she’s here. I pluck a colorblocked asymmetric plissé dress off a rack, hold it up to my body, twist left then right, the ochre and berry skirt swishing side to side. Suddenly, my phone buzzes, a text from Alex. He wants to know when I’m coming home. Before I can text back, I hear a thin, buzzsaw-like voice behind me, “So, where are you going? What do you need it for?” I turn to find a waif-like salesperson, a genderless “they/them” dressed all cool in black and navy.

“Oh, I don’t need it,” I say.

“That’s the best time to buy, when there’s no occasion. Shopping under pressure gives me a silent migraine.”

“I’m just looking.”

“Oh,” they rub their lips together and part them with a popping noise. “Okay.”

“I just had a baby,” I add, suddenly feeling the need to offer an excuse. “I’ve been going stir crazy. I had to get out of the house.”

“I used to hate babies…”

I smile and wait for them to continue. “But now?”

“Now what?”

We look at each other, decades between us, only to be interrupted by another text from Alex, this time a picture of M with a pouty bottom lip followed by a picture of Alex, eyes closed, hand to forehead as if to indicate some kind of spiritual distress. Drive home. My pump’s voice echoes in my head. Drive home, a portent impressing upon me that wherever I go, I cannot be. Drive home.

“Can I get a dressing room?”

This was dumb. A post-partum body under dressing room lighting in a three-way mirror is the rudest awakening. Cellulite and skin tags and melasma, oh my fucking God. I don’t belong here. All I wanted was to look around, feel like my old self again, but here I stand, staring at stretch marks and the bulge of a sanitary napkin in my panties, while a sumptuous dress on a shiny hanger taunts me. Put me on, bitchDon’t keep me hanging on. Pun intended. A dress with an attitude, I like it. I slide it off the hanger and hold it against my body. The silk feels soft against my skin, and for a moment I feel gratitude for little white worms spinning threads as fine as a baby hair. “I’ll be home soon,” I whisper to no one as I slip the dress over my head, the material parachuting down around me. In the time it takes for a camera to flash, I glimpse who I was before I split in two.

My cell phone rings. Alex’s name comes up.

“What?” I answer abruptly.

“Did you get my texts? M is losing her shit. I think she’s hungry. I don’t know what to do.”

“Where’s Johanna?”

“She’s packing. Should I give her a bottle?”

“Are you crazy? It’s not time yet. I’ll be home soon.”

There’s a knock on my dressing room door. “How’s it going?  Do you need a different size? Bigger?”

“Who’s that?” Alex asks. “Where are you?”

“I gotta go.” I hang up, but not before a glass-shattering wail pierces my phone and hooks me like a trout. My stomach lurches and fills with molten lava. Every cell in my body begins to weep. My baby needs me, and I’m at the mall trying on a criminally expensive dress I have no intention of buying.

“Is everything okay in there?”

Is anything okay in here? I want to fake nibble baby toes and breathe in corn starch air. I want to sing about twinkly little stars and blow raspberries on a teeny tiny tummy. Another knock. Reluctantly, I slide the door latch and show myself. My salesperson looks me up and down with a quizzical expression, mouth twisted to one side, perhaps slightly amused. What does this face mean?

“Someone’s buying a dress today,” they announce before I have a chance to look in the mirror. I shake my head no.

“I’m just trying it on for fun.”

“Well, now you kind of have to buy this dress.”

Have to? I look that good? Suddenly thoughts of my infant daughter turn into a fine mist and get sucked into the ceiling vent. That a piece of clothing without an elastic waistband could look good on me three weeks post-partum makes me think perhaps my stealth detour wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I feel lighter, taller. I turn this way and that, allowing the corners of my mouth to curve into an I-feel-pretty smile. I actually say, “Weee,” as I spin around. “This is such a…” and as I step toward the mirror, my smile fades, “…let down.” My breastmilk has let down. My breasts have let me down. Two wet circles of mother’s milk expand in the silk over my nipples.

The salesperson is sucking in their lips, which I take as their way of preventing their thoughts from reaching my ears. “I’ll be over by the register when you’re ready,” they say and walk off.

I speed change in the dressing room and pay for the dress with cash, the cash meant for Johanna. Alex can never know about this. I can just picture him, eyes bugging, the corkscrew vein popping. You went where? And spent how much? Is that even legal? He gets so crazy, he makes me crazy! With a pounding headache and a dress I now despise, I race down to the garage, jump in my Prius and floor it back to the bank, breasts engorged, nipples leaking and twenty minutes past my baby’s one o’clock feed. As I park, I spot Rock Teeth loitering in a new, more strategic location by the bank entrance.

“What happened to you?” she studies me as I brush past. “You look like horseshit.” I pause and glimpse my reflection in the bank’s tinted glass doors: it’s Her. Her, now an adrenalin-fueled, wide-eyed, wet-chested train wreck looks back at me with an unrecognizable grimace and a plastic hair-clip hanging limply from stringy tresses. When did I even put that in? I turn back to the homeless woman and feel slightly jealous. She can rock this look and get away with it.   

“Wait here.” I hasten back to my car.

“Like I have somewhere to be,” she calls after me.

Moments later I return with a sleek black shopping bag and hand it to her. She takes it without so much as a thank you and begins digging away at the white tissue paper to see what treasure lies beneath. I have no time to wait for a reaction. I don’t need the thanks. To give is thanks enough. I run inside the bank and withdraw five hundred dollars to make up for the cost of the dress, and as I’m rushing back outside, stuffing bills into my purse, I see the sidewalk littered with white tissue paper, the silk dress lying in a puddle of itself, Rock Teeth nowhere in sight. What the hell? Where did she go? Why would she leave this stuff in the street? The questions fly at me like a cauldron of bats, which is what a group of bats is called, and I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Something must have happened. Something awful, and I don’t have time for a mystery. I scan the lot, whipping my head left then right. I hear a car peel out and look toward the far end of the lot. That’s when I see her perched in her encampment transferring indecipherable belongings out of a tattered plastic grocery bag into the sleek department store shopping bag. That’s all she wants? Just the bag? I really don’t have time for this. I snatch the dress up off the ground.

“Hey!” I yell across the lot to get her attention. “Do you have any idea how much this dress cost me?!” I march toward her, my heart hammering inside my chest, my baby’s lunch seeping through my tank top. She doesn’t hear me or chooses not to, her eyes focused on inspecting each item as she transfers it. “Hey!” I call louder. “Woman!” She finally looks up, and I find myself waving the dress in the air like a lost hiker trying to flag down a rescue helicopter. “Not my style!” she yells back then resumes her affairs. This triggers me. I don’t know why. I toss the dress at her, but it’s so light, the mild September breeze carries it down to my feet. I try again, this time twisting it into a rope and lassoing it into the air. It unfurls in the wind. Stretched out like a sail, flapping, dancing, it collides with a moving Subaru, spreading across the windshield in shapeless abandon. The Subaru swerves and hits a parked SUV. A horn blares, a car alarm goes off.

Beep, beep, beep, beep, flee, flee, flee, flee…

People within earshot start to gather, and I can feel something like soapy bubbles rising up inside me, filling my mouth, oozing through my parted lips. Only it’s not soapy bubbles. It’s laughter, and it keeps coming and coming and coming.

Originally from New York City, Dawn Urbont has worked as a television writer of both sit-coms and dramas for over fifteen years. She holds a B.A. in English and Film Studies from Dartmouth College. When she’s not writing, she is an incredibly underpaid chef, chauffeur, teacher, doctor, personal shopper, and event planner for her kids. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two boys, and an Airedale Terrier named Acorn.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, parenting, Race/Racism

Granny Sylvia’s Flag

April 25, 2021
flag

by Shannon Kenny 

“Mummy, could you put this flag on my karate pole, please?” asked my then four-year-old-daughter one Monday morning.

I gathered up the old orange, white and blue South African Apartheid flag that she had neatly laid out on the gleaming parquet floor.

“No, my darling, I can’t. I won’t,” I clarified, and continued folding the fabric till I had a neat square with the Union Jack, the Orange Free State flag and the flag of the South African Republic in the center.

“But why?” she naturally asked.

And thus, began a typical morning before school in our household. She’d wake up – or more precisely, we’d coax her out of bed. Then she’d run down the passage and return to our company with a myriad of complex ideas and questions; or, if she was feeling particularly charitable, just one simple question about a complex subject.

My answer to her question went something like this: The flag was the symbol of the old South African government which, as we had previously explained, was mean, nasty, brutal and whose founders were Nazi sympathizers. That government made unreasonable laws about who could befriend, love and marry whom; who could live and go to school where; and what jobs they would be allowed to do – or not. It was a reminder of the pain and hardship experienced by millions in our country who were subject to those laws. Many good people stood up to the government in various ways. The baddies made every effort – even killing people – to remind us that they were in charge and had the power. Some of the goodies never lived to see the baddies’ downfall. So no, we were not going to tether it to the karate pole so it could be waved about, because it is not a symbol that we celebrate.

Naturally, her next question was: “So why do we have it in our house?”

My husband and I had preempted this question four years earlier – when I was heavily pregnant with this very inquisitor – and endeavored to answer it as accurately and age-appropriately as possible when our daughter would one day ask.

The flag belonged to my late mother-in-law, my daughter’s Granny Sylvia, a well-loved and long-serving Akela in the 10th Durban Cub Scout troop. It had been presented to her – as national flags are presented to well-loved and long-serving Akelas in Scout troops around the world – in recognition of her service to 10th Durban. She had been an Akela during the apartheid era, so that was the flag of the country and that was the flag she received.

“Did Granny Sylvia like the flag?” was the next question that came my way.

I paused while weighing up how best to answer without being presumptive.

While Granny Sylvia was politically naïve and ignorant – as were many white South Africans – of the extent of the evil of the apartheid regime, she despised the lawmakers and enforcers for how, at a very basic level, they exhibited no real sense of decency: they bullied people they considered beneath them and displayed a hatefulness and mean-spiritedness that to her was unconscionable. Her own experience at an Afrikaans boarding school as a six-year-old, blonde and blue-eyed, English-speaking girl who could only count in isiXhosa (one of South Africa’s indigenous Bantu languages), was just the traumatic start she needed for her lifelong disdain for the Afrikaner-led Apartheid regime – and a difficult to hide negative bias towards Afrikaans, Afrikaners and Afrikanerdom.

“I know that Granny Sylvia didn’t like that the flag represented the Apartheid government,” I replied. “But this particular flag had been special to her not because it was the national flag but because it was an acknowledgement by her peers in the Scouting organization of her dedication and love for the boys in her care. Scouting was only for boys in those days. There was a separate organization, the Girl Guides, for girls. That flag would always remind her of some of her happiest times on camps, jamborees and the many meetings in the local church hall where she was able to provide a loving, nurturing, fun space especially for those who came from difficult home environments. She loved the boys in her care and they loved her in return. Granny Sylvia had once dreamt of becoming a schoolteacher but a series of tragedies and sacrifices resulted in the dream never being fulfilled. Her time as Akela made up for this in some small way.”

After a long breakfast, we said goodbye and my husband walked our daughter to school. They continued to discuss ‘the olden days’ (which to her mind is pretty much from the dawn of time to the time of her birth) and how much better ‘the recent days’ are for us. Later that afternoon we spoke about how, though life is much better now for some of us, there are many in our country for whom life is a daily struggle because of the effects of the olden days and the selfishness of some in the recent days.

We keep the flag on an easily accessible shelf, amongst photographs and other decades-old paraphernalia from our olden days, before marriage and parenthood. It helps, I think, that we are theatre practitioners and writers. On a few occasions we’ve had to explain its presence in our home to a shocked guest or housekeeper. We’ve used it several times as a prop in some of our productions.

My husband and I grew up during apartheid, in different cities, on opposite sides of a racial divide that grouped South Africans into WHITES and NON-WHITES.  We met and started dating on 29 April, 2 days after we had cast our votes in South Africa’s first democratic elections on 27 April 1994.

In 1986 my husband, along with thousands of WHITE boys like him, had been conscripted into the South African Defense Force – straight out of high school – as a naïve teenager who didn’t even know what the acronym ANC (African National Congress) even stood for. He left his ‘national service’ two years later with a great deal more cynicism, trauma and information than anyone, let alone he, had bargained for. At the height of the State of Emergency and martial law declared by State President PW Botha, he had spent a few weeks in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, where the brutality of the South African Police they’d been charged with protecting shocked and appalled him so much that he later volunteered to be posted as a signaler/communications operator to Namibia during South Africa’s (illegal) occupation of what was then called South-West Africa-Namibia and its (illegal) forays into Angola. The young man that emerged from the SADF was no political maven but knew enough, thanks to the uncensored, unadulterated information he received and processed daily through his ears and eyes and hands, just how pernicious the Apartheid state really was. And he knew enough to stridently and successfully dissuade his parents from allowing his younger brother, David, to be conscripted. The trick was to enroll at university (in David’s case to study towards a degree in mechanical engineering), study for as long as possible and hope that the political climate would change or that the authorities would forget about you. Fortunately for my brother-in-law, the political climate had changed by the time he had graduated, fully qualified.

I had grown up politically aware. It was nigh on impossible for me not to be: there was the fact of my birth – that I and my family were classified COLOURED (which is apartheid-speak for ‘mixed-race,’ another term that gives me the shivers, but that’s another essay for another day). I could not help but notice the race-based inequalities in our country, evident in everything from city-planning; public amenities that had signs declaring their use for WHITES ONLY or NON-WHITES; and how people of color were portrayed on our government-controlled tv programs. My parents, teachers and other adults in my life openly discussed politics. And my parents made every effort to dispel the falsehood of race-science in a climate that promoted that particular brand of lies all the time. My parents impressed upon us that our self-worth did not depend on whether it was acknowledged by a political system of white supremacy and racial hierarchy that propagated the belief that we were lesser human beings than our WHITE counterparts. We were taught to resist being co-opted into thinking that because we were classified COLOURED that we were somehow better – as a result of our mixed African, Asian and European heritage –than people who were classified BLACK and who were consequently subjected to certain indignities that we were not. That those racial classifications were just that; classifications; and they offered neither dignity nor any insight into anyone’s character. And it was hard to ignore impassioned prayers in church for the safety of those detained without trial for their political beliefs and anti-government activities; or the apartheid Security Branch bomb that exploded at the office of the NGO where my mother volunteered; or that one of my father’s friends had died at the hands of the police.  In 1986 I was 12, and on our way to and from our BLACK friends’ homes in New Brighton township, we’d have our car searched at checkpoints by conscripts (like my husband’s then 19-year-old self) for whom I’d developed a strange mix of pity and contempt. In 1986, on a family holiday in a WHITE town, my parents received calls from the local police to make sure we were the legal occupants of our holiday home (We were there legally. South Africa was very complicated).

In getting to know one another my husband and I have been able to get to understand our country – past and present – a little better. Our individual and collective experiences of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa continue to influence how we view and shape our world in an effort to leave it in a better state than what we found it – for our daughter and those who will live on well after her.

Our hope is that our daughter would continue to ask many more questions and that we would be challenged to answer them truthfully and sensitively – all the attendant discomfort that may accompany some of those discussions and answers notwithstanding. We do not want to burden her unnecessarily with the troubles of this world but rather encourage the deep sense of compassion and justice she seems to possess so she too can help to change the world for the better in whatever sphere she feels called.

The old adage that “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it” is rather naïve in its assumption that if people were informed of their ancestors’ past wrongs and wrongdoings that they would automatically make strides to navigate the path of righteousness, rather than repeat their ancestors’ misdeeds. Many know their history. They just don’t believe that they were wrong and that they should have lost the war.

The Apartheid flag in South Africa, like the Confederate Flag in the USA, is more than an uncomfortable reminder of an evil that has not been fully acknowledged by some and of a not very distant past that still has a long reach into the present. That flag cannot be divorced from the philosophy and people that devised mechanisms to enact a cruelty that resulted in millions of lives forever altered, taken, wasted, scarred, disregarded, cheapened, destroyed; of land taken, divided, wasted; of a nation that never was and one that is still in the throes of infancy and so very desperately in need of healing.

At some point, we may have a flag-burning ceremony with our daughter in honor of Granny Sylvia and what she stood for – decency and kindness – and as an intentional act of recognizing the ugliness of the past, with a commitment from all of us to continue to be part of the building of a more equal world. Because some of us do know our history and we will choose to not be doomed to repeat it.

For my husband and I, Granny Sylvia’s flag is in part a reminder of the complexity of the human condition – a humanity that revealed itself in all its beauty and grotesqueness in the shadow of that orange, white and blue. Sometimes we’re not the heroes we’d like to think we would be. One can abhor an unjust system and what it does to people and yet feel utterly helpless to do anything about it, paralyzed by fear or insurmountable obstacles. There are times that we act beyond the bravery that we think we’re capable of. Sometimes we’re able to muster courage in the face of adversity. A stranger’s predicament can evoke an empathy that enables us to be kind beyond what is expected of us. Sometimes the weight of our own personal problems is so burdensome that we’re nigh on incapable of recognizing anybody else’s pain and desperation. At times we’re capable of forgiving grave political injustices yet choose to harbor personal vendettas. Sometimes we come to realize that just because someone has been oppressed, doesn’t mean that they are a nice person. Sometimes we act purely for our own gain, regardless of ‘the system’ we operate in. We are reminded that two wrongs do not make a right.  And that two opposite ‘rights’ cannot be simultaneously true; that some opinions are just plain wrong and do not deserve equality with the truth. When verifiable facts are revealed, sometimes the truth is that “I had no idea.” Sometimes “I had no idea” is a lie. And that always – always – kindness and cruelty are acts of human will.

This old flag is also a bit of war-booty; a reminder that we, because of the many who had gone before us, had triumphed over a system that in its ludicrousness – and amongst a host of other dastardly schemes – was designed to ensure that a family such as ours – that looked like us, that believed like us – would not and could not exist. We’re so glad that the good people won. And while we will not allow our daughter to fly the flag, she is welcome to stomp all over it. Anytime.

Shannon Kenny’s resume states she is an actor, voice artist, singer and writer. Some seven years ago she was dragged kicking and screaming into parenthood. She and her family believe in the transformative power of Love – and good chocolate.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Racism

Confessions of a Brown, White-Girl

April 11, 2021
school

by Georgena Michelizza

It’s 1993. Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover” plays on 97.3 Kiss FM constantly. It’s my favorite song so I don’t mind. I’ve started growing awkward pointy breasts that are too easily noticed under my oversized t-shirts. Bill Clinton is president; I know this is important, but I’m not entirely sure why. I like the way he plays the saxophone because I also play Alto. I know that Dan Quayle can’t spell potatoes and that there’s a war in Gaza. I’m only 10 years old.

This is the year my dad starts carrying a walnut-stock shotgun around. It must be almost the end of the school year in Taos, or the start, because I know it’s hot. Heat emanates off thick adobe walls as I walk to the plaza after school and floats in illusory ripples above the black asphalt when we drive home. Everywhere my father goes the shotgun goes. It drives to school with us, laid across the two flip-down seats in the rear of our red and gold Chevy. It sleeps on the floor beside his mattress and sits, propped in its beige canvas case, in the far corner of his shop all day. She’s our silent companion.

 ~ ~ ~

“You’re gonna die Nigger. You’re gonna die, boy. Watch your step.” Click.

My dad looks at me with those pleading honey-brown eyes and pushes the blinking green triangle on the answering machine again.

“You’re gonna die Nigger. You’re gonna die, boy. Watch your step.”

“I don’t know Dad. Maybe it was the same voice from the prank call this morning. I’m not sure,” I say, avoiding his needy eyes. Tension ties my jaw in bumpy knots and pulls my lips back in an awkward Cheshire smile; one hell of a coping mechanism freaky smiling is.

“This is serious, Georgea. You need to try and remember.” His voice is deep and resonant, the way he usually sounds after meditating, but the fine lines between his eyes and on his forehead show me he is not at ease. His sense of urgency is palpable, and I want to have the right answer. I want to know what’s going on.

“I couldn’t really understand the guy on the phone this morning, dad. I’m sorry.” I take my yellow Jansport backpack off and lay it behind the long desk that served as a bar for previous tenants. “He just sort of mumbled. I couldn’t make out any words. I thought it was just a prank call, so I hung up,” I keep talking, nervously trying to fill the space between us with words. My dad pushes the blinking green triangle again and sits down with his forehead in his palms, shaking his head “no,” gently, back and forth. A wriggly blue vein bulges beside his temple. I know this vein, it’s his angry vein, but he doesn’t look angry now. He looks sad. Sad and scared. “Do you think it was the same person?” I ask, wanting to show that I appreciate the gravity of the situation.

“I don’t know, Georgea. But, somethin’s not right. Not right at all.” I’ve never seen my dad appear weak or penetrable, and that is distressing alone. I’ve seen him worried when he says he is balancing his checkbook, or “figuring out what to do next.” Money, I know can cause those lines on his brow, “the business” can narrow his eyes like this, but never before has he appeared fragile.

~~~

I’m no longer allowed to walk the short 10-minute distance from school to our rug gallery in the plaza. Instead, he parks on the street directly outside my final class of the day, watching me make my way down the school steps and to his truck. We circle the plaza numerous times, bumper-to-bumper, trying to find parking. Shotgun in the backseat all the while. I don’t ask why she travels with us everywhere; I know the answer, “You’re gonna die nigger, you’re gonna die — boy.” I’m scared of her, both of the irrevocable damage it could cause and of why it suddenly has become present in our lives.

Gone are my 25 cent giant Jawbreakers from the huge glass jar at the candy shop on my way home. Gone is my blossoming sense of independence. I understand I need to be kept safe, but I don’t entirely understand why. My father’s attentiveness is warming, but unusual. “Sometimes you gotta learn the hard way,” was his mantra and that’s exactly how most of his tutelage was passed down; the hard way.

Beyond  the “N-word,” I knew what the caller meant by calling my father “boy.” My six-foot-five-inch father was no boy. He was big and he could be pretty scary. People in town called him, “Big A.” He was the guy you called to haul your 200-pound Mastiff Shepherd down the stairs when he’s too scared to walk down on his own. He’s the guy you call when you need help moving the heaviest couch on earth, or to build a deep-set fence to keep the neighbor’s cows out of your clover field. He’s not a man that many would cross. Yet, someone was not scared of him. Some drawled, barbed voice on the other end of the answering machine knew they had power over him, and they exerted that power with the word “boy.”

~~~

The death threat was not the first time I had experienced racism. Upon reflection, it was the first time I became aware of it…

~~~

“Don’t be offended, Georgea, I’m just not attracted to black girls,” says my 10-year-old best friend, Jessie, in the school-yard when he is supposed to run up and kiss me in some variant of tag we were playing. I’m not offended, but I do wonder if all the other boys I know feel the same.

“My mom told me you can’t wash dreadlocks.” School kids would say. “Gross. Do you wash your hair? I bet it stinks. Georgea’s got dog hair.” All too familiar schoolyard exchanges. I did wash my dreads, and my father also washed his. Oddly, I never registered the vitriol that underscored these comments. I was happy to explain to my peers.

“No, of course we wash them. We just don’t brush them. We pull them apart so that they don’t mat up into one big gnarly Bob Marley dread.” Perhaps they went back and told their parents what they had learned. Perhaps that is why they came back and told me they were no longer allowed to play with me because I’m “black.” Perhaps that’s why I decided to cut off my dreads that year.

Sprawled out in a giant tractor tire in a dirt schoolyard, Nicole looks at me and questions, “Maybe your skin is brown because God pooped on you?”

“Maybe yours is white ‘cause God peed on you and bleached you pale.” I get out of the tire as the recess whistle blows. Feeling self-righteous about my quick-witted comeback, I walk towards the haphazardly forming line to reenter the school building.

I truly did not believe she was trying to be mean. I would go on to have many sleepovers at her house. We’d drown out Rush Limbaugh’s agitated voice coming from the living room big screen with THE Dave Mathew’s Band cranked full blast on her Sanyo boombox until we were told to “turn that racket down.”

Joining some other classmates towards the front of the line, I’m told by a popular girl wearing an athletic-style headband, “Nuggers in the back.” I don’t know what that means. I know nigger is a hate-filled word, but I don’t know what “nugger” means. Does she mean nigger? The dusty schoolyard is chaotic and loud. I just want to get inside.

A big sixth-grade girl appears. She drapes her arm around my shoulder and pulls me in close. She feels like a sister. I wish she were my sister. Her hair is big and curly and she smells like coconut and Dr. Pepper Lip smackers. “Come in the 6th grade entrance with me,” she says, flipping her chin, neck, and hair around in the most confident display I’ve ever seen. Once inside the back part of the school in which I’d never been, she points down the hall and says, “Your classroom is that way. You’ll be OK.” She starts up the green-tiled stairs beside the water fountain when she turns and shouts down the hall, “Just ignore them.” I plant those words in my heart and live them as creed.

The halls are clean and almost empty as the lower grades have not yet been let in. I drink in the peace and try to step in each tile squarely, avoiding the cracks until I reach my door. The poster on my classroom door is a black and white picture of Dr. Martin Luther King with an excerpt from his, “I have a dream” speech.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I memorized those words that year and carried them as truth, my own illusion of colorblindness blinding me to the reality around me.

Heartbreaking as this all sounds now, it didn’t break my heart then. That came later. That came after the message. The message changed the tone the light cast on everything that came before.

~~~

During any one of my father’s empowerment lessons, he smiles that warming, charming smile that turns all the women around him into globby goo. “You can be and do whatever you want. You may have to work harder than some other people, but whatever you want to be in life, you can be. You just gotta play the game.” He looks like a superhero beaming down on me. Anything is possible, you just gotta be strong. Strong and proud; the burden of a black woman.

He tightens his turquoise bolo tie in the mirror and puffs up his chest as he swats the lint off his torso. I love to look at him when he’s dressed up for work. He’s taught me about the black cowboys in Oklahoma where his father is from, and I think secretly he wants to be a cowboy.

“Perception is reality, Georgea.” He always says my name after laying down some hardcore truths. “It matters how you speak, how you’re dressed, how you walk. People are gonna try and judge you, make decisions about you without axing you.” I register the mispronunciation of “ask,” and look up at him. “Asking,” he corrects himself smiling, his gold lateral incisor glistening in the sun. “You can’t change their minds, but you can control how you show up.” He adjusts the denim collar of his shirt, grabs his black wide-brimmed hat, and walks out of the room planting a sweaty kiss in the center of my forehead.

~~~

Raised to believe I had nothing to be ashamed of, I was happy to educate people about melanin in skin, the history of the slave trade, the ancient kingdoms of Africa and the Orient, and how my slightly wider nostrils helped my equatorial ancestor’s intake more air in hot climates. I truly believed that I could educate people out of ignorance, and I felt no shame in doing so.

“They’re just ignorant,” my dad would say. And so, for some time, this was my belief. People are not filled with hate, they are just ignorant. If their lack of knowledge was not elective, that meant I could simply provide them with knowledge and they would be healed, liberated. If they chose not to accept my knowledge, that was their loss. This stance carried me through much of my childhood and provided a cottony bubble of empowerment that burst when I learned that ignorance can be a choice.

~~~

“I’m Georgena. Georgena Tann. My name wasn’t called,” I say to the 5th grade ski club administrator in the auditorium. The words are hard to get out behind my suppressed tears. My voice trembles more than I want it to. She looks up from her scribbling with only her eyes.

“Right.” Eyes back on her clipboard. “I see your name here, Miss Tann. You were absent yesterday. Rule is, you don’t show up to school, you don’t ski the next day. You know that.”

“But it was a holiday. It was Martin Luther King’s day. It’s a holiday. I didn’t miss school. We celebrated.” I plead, genuinely surprised and confused.

“Not here it’s not. Everyone else was in school. Now, go back to your class. I’ll give you a late pass.” She hands me a yellow slip of paper without meeting my eyes.

I forget about my backpack and all my gear sitting in the 5th row. I run out of the auditorium, down the white-tiled halls, past a bumbling teacher, and out through those big green double doors. I run down those massive steps and all the way to my dad’s shop.

~~~

My father and I return to school that afternoon to speak with the principal. We’d been there only a few weeks back when I was sent home for the day for listening to “explicit content” on my Walkman. The song was a “Let’s Get It On” Marvin Gay single I’d stolen from my mom’s cassette library.

This was not the first or the last time my father spoke to a school principal on my behalf; not the only time I would register apprehension in her eyes as she closed her office door looking nervously at the aides on the other side of the glass.

“Big A” was intimidating. He couldn’t help it. He was born this way, brown and tall. The risen, rippling burn marks covering much of his right arm, hand, and body didn’t help diminish people’s concern.

So… my dad, big and intimidating, sat in front of that little principal woman, me beside him, and told her that Martin Luther King Day is now a federally observed holiday statewide and if the school was refusing to observe the holiday he would pull me from school, and — “take it up the line.”

We signed some papers and huffed out of there after collecting my things from the auditorium. The following day I returned to the private, “hippie school” I had attended in previous years. I had begged to go to public school to “feel normal.” My old, new school was directly across the street from Enos Garcis, the public elementary I had just busted out of, and at lunch recess the kids across the street would throw oranges and other fruit over the chain-link fence and chant, “Hippie Kids, Hippie Kids.” Maybe they hurled more intimidating insults, but my memory has kindly kept only, “Hippie Kids.” We had no ski-club, and our 30-person school was housed in an old church, but I was grateful to be back where things made sense. I still might not be kissable, but at least I could listen to Marvin Gaye.

~ ~ ~

I wonder if my father anticipated me not being able to ski and pulling me from that school. I wonder if he had planned the whole thing, or if it really was an innocent mistake. I wonder if he thought about how sad and left out I would feel sitting in that auditorium, while everyone’s name was called but mine. I wonder how I’ll teach my young, white-passing, daughter’s about the privilege they wear on their skin.

The following year Enos Garcia  observed Martin Luther King Day.

~ ~ ~

So what happened with my dad and his 12-gauge? I remember the look of concern and fear in my dad’s squinting eyes. I remember the words on the answering machine verbatim. I vaguely recall tall men in sleek suits standing out against the south-western décor of the hotel lobby, which led to our family business. I don’t why it happened, or if the matter was ever resolved. I don’t know when my father finally stopped toting the gun around, or why.

What I do remember is my father explaining to me what a hate crime is. I don’t recall the exact words, but what I took from that explanation was that people might want to hurt you just for being who you are. Raised to believe I could be and do anything I wanted, safely, this was a potent deviation from all my father had instilled in me. So why does it matter? If I can’t remember any of the details beyond a dreamy blur, why has this memory become embossed into my psyche? Why, as Black Lives Matters protests swelled across the US last summer, did this memory move me to tears and often panic?

This experience subconsciously added a new filter to a little ten-year-old girl’s perceptual reality. The new awareness; we are not always safe in our skin.

Despite being college-educated, having two-passports, and speaking three languages (in sum, being blessed by privilege) the yoke of this awareness chokes me now as  I, like my father 28 years prior, keep pushing play.  I keep watching a black man die below the knee of a police officer. Over and over I watch. “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” I can’t either. Am I safe? My supercomputer intelligence pulls up all the instances in which I have felt unsafe in my skin and begs me to explode into fight for flight. I’m flooded with cortisol and trembling despite sitting safely on my couch, phone in hand.

This is how trauma works, it creeps back up and takes hold of your most primal instincts when you least expect it.

Georgena Michelizza is a mixed-race, German/American dual citizen. She writes about growing up between cultures and skin tones. From the lens of a first-generation American she reflects on race, and wonders how to teach her very fair children about the African blood that discretely runs through their veins. Follow Georgena here

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

 

Guest Posts, parenting, Pregnancy

Yellow Coat

April 4, 2021
cyrus

By Samina Najmi

This is an essay I don’t want my son to read.

When Cyrus first arrived at the daycare center, a handsome two-year-old with dimpled cheek, he refused to take his coat off. For weeks the battle raged. Even when he could be persuaded to walk into his classroom and sit at the communal table, he would not permit anyone to unzip his puffy yellow coat or slide the hood from his head. His teacher, a no-nonsense young woman concerned about the hazards of overheating, insisted. Cyrus would back away, clutching at his chest as she approached, but stronger hands than his pried his fingers away and retrieved the shrinking arms from the yellow sleeves that cocooned them. He’d crumple in the corner, then, his body hiccuping with sobs.

By the time Cyrus was four years old, he was already a staunch creature of habit. Every morning he climbed down from the top of the bunk-bed, one careful step at a time, with a plush animal or two ensconced under his arm, and at the end of each day he gathered his critters and climbed back up the ladder to bed. No matter how late the night or how tired his legs, Cyrus never left his critters behind.

But then his mother accepted a tenure-track position in the English Department at Fresno State. During the five months in which our family of four had to pack up our lives in Massachusetts and move to California, Cyrus sorrowed for what he was about to lose: the bedroom lined with bookshelves that he shared with his older sister, Maya; the swing-set in the sprawling backyard with grass that his father mowed on a mini tractor, sometimes with Cyrus sitting ensconced between his knees; the above-ground pool he would venture into only with a yellow float that resembled a lifejacket; his preschool friends and teachers who had been part of his world for fully half his life–in a word, everything he knew.

I helped as I knew how: by buying children’s books on the subject. Together we followed the Berenstain Bears’ move from mountain cave to tree-house and Tigger’s move to a new home; we read about a human family’s sudden accumulation of cardboard boxes from the perspective of their dog, Boomer. In fact, I discovered scores of stories about animals whose families were about to relocate. The one Cyrus asked me to read most often featured a little boy mouse and bore the title:  I’m Not Moving, Mama!

Ten years later Cyrus would have to move again, this time within Fresno, following his parents’ divorce. I’ll worry about its effect on him, but though he’ll be more tentative about the condo than his sister, he will be surer of it than I. At fourteen, the relief of not having to water backyard trees or skim a pool, and the coolness factor of having the boutique drinks of Dutch Bros nearby will outweigh any sense of loss. This time it will be our four-year-old cat Winnie who’ll spend the first months after the move huddled in a cardbox box in our new garage.

But back then as we packed for the transcontinental move, Cyrus refused to part with any of his belongings, so we paid to have them all–not just the stuffed animals but every building block, every monster truck, every long-lost board-book, old socks, and worn shoes–we paid by the pound to have all of them driven three thousand miles in a big moving truck that sported the word Atlas on a blue wave across its breadth.

On the six-hour flight from Boston to San Francisco, Cyrus sat somber and resigned, like a kitten in a carry-cage that had stopped meowing but couldn’t be made to purr. An enthusiast about every mode of transportation, he allowed himself to be distracted only briefly by the airplane’s wing or the terrain below it. Often I’d look up to find his eyes holding the tears that would neither quell nor drop.

A single photograph captures the moment of Cyrus’s arrival at Fresno airport: he stands with his older sister at the top of the downward escalator in the terminal, a giant “Welcome to Fresno” sign visible above their small frames. Maya looks around her with bright, inquisitive eyes and a smile forming on her lips. Cyrus, on the other hand, wears a wary expression and a navy blue t-shirt with BOSTON in big red letters across his chest.

That first year, in addition to my new tenure-track job, the family had to adjust to the fact that dad was no longer working from home. This was especially hard for Cyrus. “I wish Daddy didn’t have a job,” he said more than once. (Until, within the year, his wish came true.) I arose at 5:00am to prepare or overprepare for my classes and get myself and my children ready for the day. I’d drop Maya off at Malloch Elementary and Cyrus at Kiddie Kare–the preschool he had picked over the more prestigious Fairmont on account of the quality of its playground (and yes, I gave him the choice because he had so few choices). Then I made my way twenty minutes east to Fresno State. I was teaching new courses and adapting to the rhythms of a large public university where the culture differed significantly from the small private colleges I had taught at until then. I was being tested and I didn’t want to fail.

Cyrus added to the challenges of my first year on the job by dragging his feet every morning. The day would begin pleasantly enough. He’d be the first person to awake after me, and as soon as he did so, he’d climb down from the bunk-bed with the stuffed toys du jour and come looking for Mama in the family room. He’d find her predictably reading on the couch, pen in hand. Our unspoken ritual dictated that I set my tome aside for a few minutes while he rested his head on my lap, and together we listened for the birdies. I didn’t know then how abruptly such rituals end or how often I would return to that morning communion between us when the teen years came. There are days now when my son will emerge from his bedroom and walk at brisk, preoccupied pace right past the living room, unseeing. But back then I would have to say, “Time for us to get up now, love.” And somehow as soon as the moment of idyllic stasis was behind us, as it came time to get dressed and head out of the house, the morning demanded some combination of coaxing, humoring, arguing, and reprimanding to get Cyrus out the door on time. Somehow, we managed.

Until one day, six months into the new school year, it got to me. And it was the morning of Cyrus’s fifth birthday.

He had come looking for me in the living room that cold February morning, his footsteps soft against the Mexican tiles of the hallway. But instead of bounding toward the couch, he paused at the threshold with smiling eyes, clutching Pinkie, the plush poodle, in one hand, his slender body wrapped in the fleece robe his grandmother had made him for Christmas. I went up to hug him before we returned to the couch together. That morning at the breakfast table he laughed at everything, the Birthday Boy, his dimples deep with the giddiness of turning five.

I don’t know when it began or how it escalated, but an hour later, the scene had shifted. Maya was dressed and ready, as was I. Also ready to go was a half-sheet marble cake for Cyrus’s classmates with strawberry filling and a miniature Lightning McQueen parked atop the icing. Then Cyrus was protesting–was it about wearing a sweater? putting his shoes on?–and I was trying to reason with him. Next thing I knew I was shrieking at him in a voice I couldn’t recognize as my own. It wasn’t even the worst of his procrastinations, but I couldn’t scale back. My words, whatever they were, bounced off the dark Mexican tiles and resounded throughout the high-ceilinged house. Maya stared. Six months of practiced patience at home and nervous diligence at work had erupted in unaccustomed volume that terrorized the five-year-old boy before me. His shoulders shook from the force of his sobs.

I like to think I didn’t let him cry for long. That I recovered my sense of proportion, abandoning whatever had seemed important to insist upon a few minutes ago. I held him until the sobs subsided, led him to the bathroom to wash his face and pat it dry, my fingers smoothing his dark hair.

I load the Lightning McQueen cake into the minivan. We drop Maya off at Malloch and within five minutes we have arrived at Kiddie Kare. As I reach for the sheet cake on the backseat, I wonder if Cyrus is a tad too quiet. The teacher takes the cake from my hands and assures me that the children will enjoy it. “Cyrus makes everyone laugh,” she says.

My husband and I had gone all out for our son’s fifth birthday, his first one in Fresno. We even colluded in buying him the big, red motorized All Terrain Vehicle he could only imagine owning. After Kiddie Kare, there was Pump It Up, an extravagant space where brother and sister bounced their hearts out together. The following day we hosted Cyrus’s four close friends from preschool, all of them boys who displayed good-natured envy of his new ATV and took turns driving it around our backyard. Photographs show Cyrus and his playmates with exuberant expressions, intent on their fun. All evidence suggests a happy birthday.

So why has that morning been on my mind these past few weeks of summer? Cyrus and Maya appear to have no memory of it. Does that mean it didn’t happen? That I didn’t ruin the day–didn’t make my son cry on the morning of his fifth birthday?

Moments after that moment, six-year-old Maya had said quietly, “He wasn’t really arguing with you, Mama. I don’t know why you got so upset with him.”

Maya has always been communicative–to a fault, her teachers might say. “Why not try to sit with silence?” I’d ask her at the kitchen table sometimes. “It’s not the same thing as nothingness, you know.” Now, in her last summer at home before leaving for college, she does yoga and we hang out at cafés together, as comfortable with quiet as with our chatter. Our conversations move across varied terrains. She’s my window into contemporary pop culture as shaped by artists of color–Solange Knowles, Childish Gambino (whom I once recalled as “Childish Bambino,” much to my children’s mirth). I can’t get into the macabre crime shows she loves, but Jane the Virgin reels me in with such vehemence that within weeks I’ve caught up on all eighty-one episodes available on Netflix.

Maya was a junior at Edison High when Cyrus entered as a freshman. Many in his class looked up to his sister as part of the cool set, one of those tweeting upper-classmen who have their fingers firmly on the pulse of their times. She made a formidable opponent in debates at Model United Nations conferences and performed in Edison Tiger Theater Company’s productions of The Wiz and The Lion King. She’s also a freelance journalist for The kNOw Youth Media and Fresnans have seen her pictured in The Fresno Bee among a small group of young people speaking up for their right to meaningful sex education in Fresno Unified schools. Maya has an opinion on most things, including high school robotics, which her brother loves.

Robotics. Cyrus’s freshman year, robotics became the wall between us that I couldn’t scale. He’s been loyal to soccer and piano since he was little, but neither of those shut me out like robotics, perhaps because sports and music make room for an audience. By contrast, the robotics club at Edison High gathers in an extension of the lab that is a warehouse–a metallic room cramped with tools that I can barely name, let alone use. This unbeautiful space fires my son’s imagination. During the six weeks of Build Season, he and a few other hardcore robotics students like him spend at least as many hours in the wareheouse after school as they do in class. There they feel the rush of the hands-on, head-on thrill of designing and building a robot that can compete at the prestigious First Robotics regional, national, and even global competitions. A tireless mentor stays with them, including parent-mentors who have both the time and know-how to make themselves useful.

I am not one of them. But sophomore year I spend more money than I should to tag along to Houston when Edison’s team, Mindcraft 3495, is invited to the World Competition, sponsored by major tech companies, including Google. Their robot’s unique four-bar arm design, which Cyrus had worked on with a senior, had won the Engineering Award at the Central Valley Regional and caught the attention of the First Robotics judges. They didn’t win the global tournament, but they were there. And cheering them on, I felt for the first time that I understood something of First Robotics culture, if not of mechanical engineering.

Still, the mother seeks traces of the little boy who loved his stuffed animals and never failed to scoop them up at the end of the day.

Is the boy who held on to his yellow coat there in the sixteen-year-old whose teammates trust him not only to design and build their robot but to drive it in the tense, adrenalin-charged arenas of a tournament?

Maya has her own take on her younger brother. With the vantage point of a graduated senior, she casts a suspicious eye on “STEM kids” as likely robotic themselves. And as an enthusiast of psychology, she has been known, half-seriously, to call her brother a sociopath–as distinct from psychopath, she tells him; more like the profiles of CEOs. I recoil from the noun and admonish her for typecasting. What does she know of Cyrus’s capacity for tenderness, his vulnerabilities, and his loyalties? Mine is the memory.

Perhaps the memories of Cyrus’s early years press on me now because Maya is about to leave home. I have spent the past few years anticipating what her absence will mean for me, for Cyrus, for our home life. We’ve moved twice before, but as a family; now Maya will be moving out. She will be moving on. For the first time in our world, it will be just my son and me. We’ll have only each other to greet first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Until, in two years’ time, Cyrus moves out, too.

As the harsh hand of change reaches toward me, I shrink into my yellow coat. I want to be the critter who won’t be left behind.

Samina Najmi teaches multiethnic U.S. literature at California State University, Fresno. A Hedgebrook alumna, Samina’s essays have appeared in such publications as World Literature Today, The Massachusetts Review, The Rumpus, and Entropy. Her essay “Abdul” won Map Literary’s 2012 nonfiction prize. Daughter of multigenerational migrations, Samina grew up in Pakistan and England and lived in Massachusetts before moving to California with her then-young family.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

The Art of Acceptance

March 15, 2021
jessica

CW: This story contains outdated, culturally insensitive references to individuals with developmental disabilities. Prior to the 1990s, the term ‘’mental retardation’ was used to describe individuals diagnosed with low IQ.

By Cathy Shields

“Your daughter Jessica is profoundly retarded.”

The string of words yanks like an invisible chain, back to that moment in 1988 when the doctor made his decree. Those five words launched a journey I struggled to navigate for twenty-four years. Today I face what awaited at the end of my passage.

I stand in the middle of Jessica’s bedroom. Everything appears the same as yesterday; the same, but different. An assortment of posters hangs on the wall above her bed, most of them, images of the band, the Backstreet Boys. In one photo, the five boys lean forward, arms linked. They smile, and for a second, I imagine they can hear me. I whisper the words like a well-kept secret.

“We moved Jessica to a group home today.”

I turn my attention to the posters Jessica told me to bring. My fingers tremble as I grab the edges. I wonder whether my heart will crack into a million little pieces, like the broken keepsakes she has refused to throw away. Jessica often followed me around the house and repeated the same questions. “Mommy where we go today? Mommy, what we do? Mommy? Why you no answer me?”

What if we made a mistake moving her? Thoughts teeter like a seesaw. We should have waited. What if she doesn’t like it? What if she thinks we’ve abandoned her?

“You’re making that face again.” My husband Chip stands in the doorway. “I can tell what you’re thinking. The staff at the group home said they’d call if there were any problems.” He folds his arms across his chest. “We were supposed to wait a few days. You’re going to call anyway, aren’t you?”

I shrug. “Sorry, I have to.” I grab my cellphone and dial. Two rings later, Nina, the house manager, answers.

“Hi, it’s Jessica’s mom. I know you advised us to wait a few days to call, but can I speak to her?” The words leap from my mouth as if they possess a mind of their own.

“Yes, Mrs. Shields, but we want her to adjust to the new environment. Can you wait? I promise she’s fine.”

A long silence follows. I’m not sure whether to wait or hang up. When I don’t respond, Nina sighs. “Okay, I’ll get her.”

Seconds tick by until I hear Jessica’s voice.

“What you want Mommy? When you come here?”

“Um, I’ll come soon. In a few days.”

“You forget my posters? You say you bring them.”

“No, I didn’t forget. I started taking them down.”

“Okay Mommy. I love you. Bye.”

I hang up the phone and stifle an urge to cry.

“So do you feel better now?” Chip uncrosses his arms, a tiny smile peeking through his graying beard. His green eyes are like beacons calling me home. “What are we making for dinner? It’s getting late,”

“I’m not hungry,” I murmur. “Go ahead and grab something. I might be a while.”

“Are you still worried? Nina just told you Jessica’s fine.” He waits for me to respond and when I don’t answer, he says, “Okay, fine. Do whatever you have to. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

A rumpled pink bedspread covers Jessica’s mattress. I sit, pull her pillow close to me, and inhale. Faint traces of her vanilla-scented shampoo remain. Chip doesn’t understand. He didn’t spend years worrying about how to make Jessica normal. It seemed easy for him to accept. Why couldn’t I?

Stacks of empty video boxes, loose CDs, magazines, and crumpled pictures are scattered over the top of Jessica’s nightstand, and when I straighten the hodgepodge of items, I spot my favorite picture, a photo of me and four-year-old Jessica. In the photo, we smile at the camera. Her saucer-like blue eyes sparkle with childlike innocence. Silky bangs frame her face and her blonde hair cascades like a waterfall of curls. People often said she should be a child model. If things had turned out differently, it could have happened. My finger traces the curly lines of the embossed silver frame. I had insisted Chip take that picture. To mark the occasion.

I slide the photo from the frame and turn it over. In blue ink, I had written the date. April 5, 1988.

Dr. Morgan, the neuropsychologist who headed the program, met with us. He made his pronouncement. My mind reconstructs the scene. Snippets of details; the cold room, the red leather chair, the click of a pen, the tears. The meeting ended. Chip clasped my hand and led me away from the shards of broken dreams. I remember the way Dr. Morgan rose from his seat as I swept past him and headed into the hallway. For one split second, my mind had conjured an entirely different scene. What if I could change the ending? Then Chip opened the door to the children’s activity room. Jessica saw us. Her eyes lit up. She pointed and beamed at us. “That my Mommy.”

The woman beside her, clad in pink scrubs, laughed as Jessica tugged on her hand. “I’m Carol,” she said, “one of the nurses here. Your daughter is so sweet and adorable.”

A second nurse sidled up and stroked Jessica’s hair. “She certainly is. She’s angelic.”

I nodded, barely able to look at Jessica. Perhaps I would never see her the same way again. What then?

Carol touched my shoulder. “Oh, please don’t cry. So many kids come to our center, but your daughter is special. Perhaps she arrived in your life to help you. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

I hated it when people said that. It sounded so condescending. Jessica held up both hands. “Up, Mommy. Pick me up. We go home?”

“Yes. Daddy and I will take you home.”

I remember how I held Jessica, pressed my face against her cheek, and inhaled the fragrance of her skin. A precious, heartbreaking moment. How could I live with the fact there was no cure for her irreversible brain damage?

*

Chip pokes his head through the bedroom doorway. “Didn’t you hear me call you? You’ve been in here for over an hour. Dinner’s ready. Come and eat.”

I steal one last glance at Jessica’s photo before I return it to the nightstand. It might take the rest of my life to learn the art of acceptance.

Cathy Shields is a retired educator with an M.S. Ed in Exceptional Education. She is a member of the South Florida Writers Association and a member of the Memoir Writers Circle. Her short stories have appeared in Ariel Chart International Literary Journal, ’45 Magazine Women’s Literary Journal, Flash Fiction Friday, A Story in 100 words, Spillwords and Variant Literature. Her work “The Phantom Ovaries” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2019. Cathy resides in Miami, Florida where she and her husband raised their three grown daughters.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Kindness, parenting, Self Love

Golden Repair: A Disfigured Mom’s Quest to Raise a More Loving Child

February 8, 2021
god

By Melissa Akie Wiley

She looked at my face with disgust. My infant daughter cooed. I had just placed the baby into a shopping cart when the woman first approached. A stranger. She came too close. Staring at my daughter.

“Your baby is perfect,” she said. “She looks like a doll.”

I thanked her and pulled the cart away. Then the woman looked up at me and froze. She was silent and scurried to her car, as if I might run after her. I stood in front of the grocery store with my daughter. The automatic doors opened and closed but I didn’t move. My baby smiled. Too young to know that she is beautiful but her mother is disfigured.

My daughter is 2 years old now. She has round blue eyes and blonde hair. Her face inspires joy. My face is lopsided and scarred. It was a dog attack. I was five. I am not afraid of dogs. People always seem more concerned about my feelings toward dogs than they do about me. I have had over thirty surgeries and they helped. But my face is instantly noticeable. And the world is bothered by asymmetry and imperfection. I am also part Japanese and part white. My skin is too pale and my hair is too dark. People tell me that my daughter is perfect and then they say she looks nothing like me.

I have never looked like anyone. Bi-racial and disfigured is a cocktail of isolation. In childhood, I left my hometown of Boulder, Colorado every summer to visit my Japanese grandma in Tucson, Arizona. One summer I begged her to take me to a crowded shopping mall to buy doll clothes. I was 7 years old.

“Did you see that disgusting girl?” a woman said then.

She was talking to her daughter and looking directly at me.

The girl met my eyes and glared. Her hair twisted in a tight braid. I dreamed of ponytails but didn’t dare wear my hair up. I looked at the girl’s flawless appearance and sank into shame.

“So gross. I can’t believe she even came out of her house. She’s going to give me nightmares. She’s a monster,” the girl said. She was my age and already this callous.

The mother hugged her daughter and shot my grandma a scowl.

Then she said, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. People should know better but she’s clearly with some immigrant nanny who probably doesn’t even speak English.”

We stood in silence with our doll clothes. I felt devastation that my grandma should suffer due to my deformity. I tried to wedge myself behind stacks of toys to prevent further commentary. My grandma adjusted her glasses with shaky hands.

“I am sorry I don’t speak good English,” she said.

That day she bought more doll clothes than she could afford. She had worked as a hotel maid and saved tips in the form of crisp dollar bills. She set this carefully preserved money aside for me. When we approached the counter to pay for the items, the cashier said, “what’s wrong with her face?”

“Nothing wrong with my granddaughter,” she said, in broken English.

Once I asked my mom if she was mad at God. We were sitting in my grandma’s backyard in Tucson. Looking at the night sky. It’s easier to talk about God’s failings in the dark.

On the day of the dog attack, she had only looked away for a minute. Long enough to drain noodles from a boiling pan. When she turned around, the yard lay covered in blood and my face was gone.

“No,” she said. “Because you are extraordinary. You have shown me what it is to live next to suffering and become truly beautiful.”

People ask how I survived. The answer is my mom.

I want to tell her that I am not mad at God because he gave me her, and a good mom is worth more than a pretty face.  I am thankful I learned this lesson in youth. When I still have more years on the earth with my mom.

Tragedy in childhood is a spiritual offering. Early redemption creates a fast track toward a more meaningful and grounded life. I shed the frivolousness of appearance, money, and status like a butterfly discards a cocoon. Because when the world rejected me, I sheltered only with the tender hearted and my own soul. And if we’re lucky, that is where we all eventually end up anyway.

My daughter will grow up with a disfigured mom.

On my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten, middle school, high school, and college, I will take photos of her and children will stare. After I am gone, they will ruin these moments of childhood by asking what’s wrong with her mom. I know this because these moments were taken from me, too.

I will want to stay in the car to spare her. But I will not. Instead I will show up for everything. And when we hear the comments, I will tell her that the Japanese have a word, Kintsugi, which roughly translates to golden repair. It is the Japanese art of taking broken pottery and patching it with gold so that the imperfection is illuminated instead of disguised. I will tell her that my mother’s love was the glue that made my flawed life golden. And my love will hold her together, too.

This pain will make my daughter kind. It will teach her that the world is unduly harsh because we are all more broken than whole. And she will learn that love is restorative and the only thing of true beauty. She will inherit this wisdom in childhood. When we are both still young enough to walk the earth together.

And when people ask, I hope she says, “There is nothing wrong with my mom”.

Melissa Akie Wiley is a public servant and fierce local government leader by day and a mother and writer by heart. She strives to infuse joy into all aspects of service by living with authenticity and resiliance. After overcoming a disfiguring childhood dog attack, Melissa committed to a life of repair and love. She holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Pennsylvania and lives with her husband, daughter, and dog in Denver, Colorado. She is the director of the nationally-recognized, Denver Peak Academy and is currently working on her memoir.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 
We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, pandemic, parenting

Tough As A Mother

October 4, 2020
tough

By Talya Jankovits

Four months ago, my children came home from school, and they never went back. Backpacks hung hopeful on hooks, until weeks passed, and it was clear that it was time to reach deep into the crevices of a dozen purposeless pockets and empty them of little bits of folded pieces of paper, a solitary cookie, a dried-out stick of gum. Even further still to the tiny colorful erasers hidden in the folds of the lining, these small prizes hoarded from teachers. Treasures of days traveling to and from school, all splayed out on the kitchen counter as I sorted through them like an excavator. What I could sneak into the trash before they catch me, what must get stored for next year. The backpacks went into the wash, then hung up to try before being put in the basement storage with no clear idea of when they might get pulled out next.

When I first faced the realization that we would be bunkered down, myself and my four daughters together as my husband, an essential worker,  continued to work outside of the home, anxiety filled my mornings, my nights and every hour sandwiched in between. I lost myself in the heaps of laundry, the ever-growing pile of dirty dishes in the sink. I sank heavy under the demands of varying ages of children from a baby up to a fourth grader who needed to learn how to write a state paper and all the tiresome math problems in between. Winter was still hovering in the slow birth of spring, and we watched the seasons change as the weight of our outerwear hanging on the coatrack thinned ever slowly into straw hats and baseball caps. Finally, summer had arrived and with that a redemption from remote learning and a rebirth that I had not anticipated.

As a mother, I now have never felt stronger as a result from having never felt weaker. I hadn’t understood the immense value in self forgiveness until I was one of the very few people in my new reality who could offer it. I had never embraced my flaws as a parent until I was face to face daily with the reflection of myself in the eyes of my daughters – all of whom needed me more than ever.  By the time the first tulips poked their heads out of the thawing ground I was slowly gaining awareness of my own metamorphosis. My body was softer than it ever was, fuller than its ever been. But I found that so was my heart. Parenting during a pandemic was, is, the fiercest thing I have ever done in my entire adult life.

Raising small humans was never a small task, but with the onset of a worldwide pandemic which held inside of itself historic happenings towards social justice, there was a surge in my responsibility towards fostering children that are human conscientious, anti-hate and anti-self-serving. I was terrified at all that was being hurled at us as human beings. All my obligations to absorb happenings and seize the opportunity to step up my parenting instead of retreating inside. And something remarkable happened, after months of all of us struggling with the changes, the challenges, the isolation, and the uncertainty, I noticed personal growth inside of our home.

Summer brought heat, sprinklers, frozen treats, and endless hours together to fill in any way we could think up. It also brought dialogue about why we wear masks and who we are protecting. Why we have given up certain opportunities to practice human awareness – the concept of tikkun olam, our part in caring and protecting the world. It brought on conversation about skin color, about systemic hate, about privilege, about standing up, about accountability and kindness and goodness in both large and small scales.

Summer days are hot and our heads hurt with weary happy heat by the time the sky glows pink. The kids fall asleep happy. They thank me. They tell me today was such a great day. And yet there are still times I am feeling totally gutted. As if I have hollowed all of myself out for them to grab and take with greedy fingers. I think of how far we likely are from our old normal. How long it may be until I can see my parents in California. How school may not arrive in the fall the way we want it to. How masked faces are the new face of human interaction. I think these things and I want to crawl into my bed, lay my head down and hibernate until a miracle solution is found.  But then I put on my T-shirt.

The words printed on the tshirt: Tough as a mother. My grey t-shirt, unassuming, unremarkable – feels like a superhero’s cape. I pull it over my head, slip my arms through the holes, and holler for my girls: I am ready to start our day. I feel invincible. It seems inconsequential, almost absurd, that this shirt would have any influence over me. In no time it will be sweat stained, snot marked, sticky from melted popsicles. It will get thrown into a laundry shoot with little consideration after late summer dark finally blankets the sky and the last daughter has crawled into bed. Yet, it validates me. This shirt from the internet, it fuels me.

I am one tough mother. I did it. I am still doing it. Did I get through every day with grace and dignity? At first, no, definitely no. There was yelling. There was crying on cold kitchen floors as a baby gently poked me. There was hiding in bathrooms and there was anxiety ridden nights where I never fell asleep because the dread of the mundanity that morning would bring kept me awake until the first mommy! of the day clawed open my heavy eyelids. But four months have passed and I’m not rough around the edges anymore. I’m undoubtedly tougher. There is still so much summer ahead without any of our usual summer luxuries and indulgences. There is still a fast-approaching school year with so many unknowns. I have given up so much of myself for these four girls, and I likely will be giving up so much more. But I am at peace with that. I am braver and stronger than I’ve ever been and as this virus continues to rage on, as our country sets out to do so much work that needs to be done, I want my kids to reflect back one day on this time of their lives and think, we made it through ok, because we had one tough mother

Talya Jankovits’s work has appeared in Tablet, Kveller, Bartleby Snopes, Hevria, Lilith, Literary Mama, The Jewish Literary Journal, and The Citron Review among others. Her short story “Undone” in Lunch Ticket was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart prize. Her poem, A Woman of Valor, is featured in the 2019/2020 Eshet Hayil exhibit at Hebrew Union College Los Angeles. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and resides in Chicago with her husband and four daughters..

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Mental Health, parenting

All Boys Paint Cows

August 31, 2020
nick

Self-portrait by Nick O’Rourke, age 15

By Miriam Feldman

My husband and I are driving to Paris from the south of France. I am in the passenger seat, writing ideas for a story about our son, on a napkin. Our son, Nick, has schizophrenia.

You see, I am the self-appointed conservator of his legacy. I have no complete poem, painting or song to present. Yet. Scraps of a life, one piled up on the other, form the work of art that is his story. I will continue to document his life and put it into the world for as long as I am here. Perhaps he is stricken, but perhaps he is just too magnificent for this world, a blazing light they don’t have eyes to see. But I see. A mother’s eyes can always see. Super tough, I can look directly at an eclipse without damage. Blindness is not an option.

*

When he was still inside of me, a tiny little tadpole boy swimming around, my husband and I heard his heartbeat for the first time. Back in those days they didn’t do sonograms without a medical reason, so the mystery of an unborn child was a universe of questions. We sat in the doctor’s office as she placed the stethoscope on my belly, and the sound came whooshing through a speaker. It was like the repetitive slap of water on some distant ocean shore. My husband blanched and reached behind him for a chair, then sat down hard. He had to breathe into a paper bag, overwhelmed by the sound of Nick’s beating heart.

Afterwards, we went to a small Ukrainian restaurant to have lunch. I ordered soup. It was particularly delicious, and I tried to figure out why. Staring at the bowl, I noticed the way the carrots had been cut. They weren’t the usual uniform disks, graduating in size from the thick part of the carrot to the tip. They were crazy random shapes, as though the cook had performed a wild cutlery dance, shiny blades flying. There were circles, half-moons, rectangles…little snippets of carrot that defied description. That was why the soup was so good. Something about the constellation of shapes enhanced the flavor, made it more interesting. When something arrives in an unexpected form it holds adventure, interest, mystery.

Nick arrived six months later and filled our world with his own configurations of unexpected stars. Some were beautiful, some had sharp edges that cut.

*

Driving along a grey serpent of highway, we descend into a valley. Immediately, I see the blue and red lights. It is the blue that catches your eye. We are all used to seeing the red, yellow and green of traffic lights, but like the black and white of a police car, blue calls out “calamity!”

“What is going on down there?” I say, sitting taller, my straightest spine. The traffic slows down and I can see people on the median, an upside-down van, personal belongings strewn everywhere.

“Pull over, I need to go there.” My husband knows me well enough not to argue. There would be no way for me to pass and not go see about what I could do. It is how I am wired; I am addicted to trying to help. I need to know I tried. I want to be a hero but I never am. I read about a woman who was electrocuted running into water to help a man stranded in a storm, ignoring the downed power lines lapping creepily at the edges. I thought, “I would have done that.”

Grabbing a water bottle, I open the car door before we have even come to a stop. My husband admonishes, “be careful crossing…” but I am gone.

I can’t decipher the situation at first. First, I see two women attending to…what? Oh, a little dog. “He was thrown from the vehicle,” one says, as she pours water on his head. “I’m trying to cool him off.”

“Do you need more water?” I ask. No, they don’t.

The van is about a hundred feet away from me, several people lean inside, wearing blue latex gloves. Where did they get gloves? The ambulance hasn’t even arrived yet. The air has a very still, artificial feeling as I walk over, through the debris, artifacts of a trip, a life. My foot sinks into a package of mushrooms. I see shoes, papers, a book, an open box of spaghetti that landed like pick-up sticks. A young woman bends over and retrieves a wallet, “Here is his license, now we know his name.” I wish I had been the one to find the wallet. I walk over to the van.

Sound reduces to a muted decibel, wind moves slowly, and I see the two people in the vehicle, roof partially ripped off. I think of an Edward Kienholz installation I saw at the museum in L.A., everything in the whole world shoved into the corner of one room.

Kienholz left detailed instructions when he died in 1994. He was buried, sitting in the front seat of his brown 1940 Packard Coupe, a dollar bill and a deck of cards in his shirt pocket, and the ashes of his dog, Smash, on the seat beside him.

The couple in the van look pale, not just their skin, but the entirety of them is a shade lighter than the rest of the world. Arms and legs splayed out stiffly, they look a bit like big dolls. Blue gloves firmly hold a red-soaked towel against the old man’s head. “Hang on, hang on,” someone says. It sounds to me like they are all under water. The woman with the wallet says, “His name is Fred.” The woman in the car moans it is her shoulder that hurts.

There is nothing I can do, nothing for me to contribute. My fingers moving against each other as if I could feel the air at my sides, I just stand there. The old man and woman, vacation careened terribly off-course, will be tended to by other drivers until the professionals get there. I go back to the car.

As we drive away, we pass the ambulance, siren cutting the day, headed up to help Fred and his wife. The radio is playing one of Chopin’s 24 Preludes and mournful piano chords fill the car. My fingers still caressing thin air, I listen. The countryside condenses as we approach the city.

*

An hour after we leave the accident, we reach Paris and our small hotel. I immediately turn on the television, wanting to see the news. Ridiculously, I expect to find out about the crash. I want to know how Fred is doing.

Instead, I am informed that an abandoned, just born, baby has been found in some bushes by a policeman. The anchorman teases the story before commercials, “Stay tuned to see what the officer first said to the baby. It was captured on his bodycam!” They show a second or two of film, two dark hands reaching into the foliage, an infant’s quiet cry, wind sounds, a man’s voice.

I sit on the awful hotel bedspread and wonder if I can bear the sadness his words.

They return with footage of a stocky officer holding the infant and telling her not to worry, that help is coming. But I heard something else during the lead-in, in the moment he pulled her out of the bushes. I had heard the real first thing he’d said, and it was “I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry you came in the world like this? I’m sorry you came into a world that is like this? I’m sorry this atrocious thing happened to you?

The news media had missed what he’d really said first. They’d missed the most plaintive, simple and enormous apology ever made.

*

The Sacre-Coeur Basilica at Montmartre in Paris sits on a hill surveying the city. It can be seen from almost anywhere. Standing on the top floor of The Centre Pompidou with my forehead smashed against the glass of a floor to ceiling window, I stare. Far away and across the city, the Basilica seems to be lit by its own sun. The eerie light calls up a memory and I am struck, like a blow to the head, by the fear I’ve forgotten something important. I can’t remember the details, but something happened with Nick up there, a decade ago when we came to Paris to paint, just before he lost his mind. What was it? Straining for the memory, I think of the small black moleskin notebook he brought on the trip. I’d found it, and read it, years later. Just prior to his unspooling, he’d recorded a beautiful, unsettling narrative from the cliff. One foot in our world, one foot in his future world, he’d told us what was happening in arduous, aching cursive.

When was the moment? When was the exact second of the shift?

And then I remember what happened. We’d lost him up there. One moment he was next to us, and then suddenly he was gone.

“Where did Nick go?” I’d asked my husband,

“I don’t know, he was right here.”

We began to look for him. We searched everywhere, the building, the grounds, then back to the building. I remember standing at the top of the endless steps outside and squinting at a group of kids lolling around, thinking he must be with them. I was wearing a slippery crepe skirt and flowered blouse that whipped about my body with the wind. Eventually, he just appeared.

“Where were you?” I asked, my voice strident from worry.

“Right here,” he said, “around.”

From my perch at the Pompidou, I see a crack, a split second of light between the truth and what might have been. I want to dive into that space.

My husband walks up to me, leans against the glass, and I say, “Remember when we lost Nick up there?”

His voice low and measured, he says, “You know, I’ve always thought that was where it happened.”

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

“I think something took him, up there on that hill, and gave him back to us altered. I think that is where he went crazy.”

This had never occurred to me and immediately I knew it was true.

“That’s pretty woo-woo, even for you, buddy,” I say because the idea is more than my brain can manage and I have to trivialize it in order to continue breathing.

“I know,” my tall and dark husband says, “but I believe it.”

The sun dips behind a menacing cloud and the Basilica darkens. Its luminous stone façade suddenly looks drab, desolate. My husband wanders off to the contemporary collection, I turn to the modernists.

*

When my kids were small, they used to loll around on the floor of their father’s studio with big sheets of butcher paper and paint while he worked. One day Lucy was teasing Nick because he always made cows and he shot back, “All boys paint cows, and anyway, I’m just starting. I’m going to paint a lot of other things.”

*

Sitting on a narrow bench in the Modern Collection (from 1905 to the 1960’s), I think about the day we lost Nick at the Sacre-Coeur. The area under my jaw constricts and saliva begins to pool in my mouth. There is a quickening of the blood as it moves through my veins. My arms crossed tightly across my chest, like armor, I lean forward and stare at the floor.

We were just walking around and then you were gone. We looked and looked for you, we did. Where did you go? Was it a portal? Can we go there now and find you? Please. Or are you in here? Are you at the Pompidou? Is this where you went? Did you go through a door we couldn’t see and just come here? Are you in the big Fernand Leger, in the corner, with the cerulean and the ochre? I would have thought you’d go to a Picasso, NickNack, but did you decide to trick me with a Leger?

Or was it the perfect little interlocking slats of varied woods of the floor, all different colors, that drew you to the Pompidou?

I’m rocking back and forth now with clenched bones holding in the torrent. I don’t want to cry in public, but now I am convinced some bad magic really did happen and it is true that we lost him here in Paris.

So this is what happens if I let the stoppers out? This is what happens if I think about it?  Unbelievable, unyielding pain? Shredding of intestines? The longing, like gravity, for you? Then bring back the stoppers because I can’t live like this.

My husband walks into the gallery, sees me hunched over, sits down and puts a large hand firmly on my back, just between my shoulder blades.

*

It is 11:06 and I am at the desk in our hotel room, looking at the black night outside my window as if it were a painting. I want to believe Nick is sleeping peacefully right now, across oceans. If I could just know that, I would ask for nothing else. I haven’t gotten any texts from his caregivers, so he must be calmer than last night. I want to believe that with all my heart. I want to just slip into sleep and trust that all is well. Oh, I want.

Then, in the window, I can see Nick and his sisters painting in their father’s studio, the plywood floor a medium gray and the walls pure white in order to contain the colors of the paintings with neutrality. Against this palliative backdrop, my children are exuberant, messy, incongruous. Small pots of tempera are pushed to one side. The children lie on their bellies in baggy shorts, no shirts, legs flopping languidly as they move brushes across paper.

And then Nick looks up at me across time and space, as I sit at my computer in the dark. He smiles at me from his childhood, his cherub mouth so young and new, “I told her, Ma, all boys paint cows. I’m going to paint a lot of other things before I’m through.”

Miriam Feldman is a painter, writer, and mother originally from Los Angeles, California. After her son, Nick’s, diagnosis with Schizophrenia more than ten years ago, she began writing to document and explore the ways this new reality affected her relationship with her children, her husband, and herself. Her blog, https://www.miriam-feldman.com, explores issues of motherhood, mental illness and the politics of our mental health system. She holds an MFA in fine art from Otis College of Art and Design. Her paintings are in collections across the United States. She is represented by Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica, Ca. Most recently, she joined Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn Close’s organization to fight discrimination and educate around mental illness. She is on the Advisory Council and has a monthly blog on the website https://bringchange2mind.org. She is a frequent guest on mental health podcasts including https://player.fm/series/who-lives-like-this/art-and-chaos-with-mimi-feldman and https://www.sheilahamilton.com/category/podcasts/. Find her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/mimitheriveter/ where she is busy building a community of family and loved ones dealing with serious mental illness. Miriam now resides on a farm in rural Washington State with her husband, Craig. Nick lives in the small town nearby. She splits her time between the farm and Los Angeles, painting, writing, and staying active in the mental health community.

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, motherhood, parenting, Self Image, Self Love, Women

The Pink Wig

July 24, 2020
wig

By Tricia Stearns

I have more regrets than Amazon has distribution centers. Still, one regret I do not have: buying a pink wig for my middle daughter.  At age 10, she was the self-appointed influencer for her brat pack, as well as her sisters. If she decided it would be cool to cut up their designer jeans and make them purses, they would have stripped and handed her the scissors.

While I chauffeured them through childhoods I wish I had experienced, Daughter Two commanded the CD selection for the ride to school and taught her sisters backseat dance moves to Brittany Spear. From fashion to food to music, she navigated her world as if she was the CEO of Me, Inc.

Her zest for extra-curricular activities kept me spinning a schedule of dance lessons, theater rehearsals and private singing lessons. I couldn’t count on child support, but I could count on the sun rising and a new performance idea from Daughter Two. Kitchen clean-up doubled as a re-cap of dance class or a reprise of the opening of “Newsies.” Bedtime stories were told with a theatrical flair and always included happy endings.

She scrimped her allowance to buy the acrylic pink bob only to learn that her school dress code banned wigs. After a few rounds of letters to the school board failed to change the rules, she threw it in the Prop and Future Halloween Costume bin.

When Daughter Two decided to wear the wig on a rare outing for pancakes, it did not surprise me. The smell of bacon and maple syrup thickened the air as our waitress sugar-pied us up, and we ordered. We gave no further thought to Daughter Two’s accessory, accepting the pink wig into everyday wear. However, pink wigs were rare in our southern suburb, and breakfasters’ glances soon fell into stares.

The girls and I folded our straws into pretend people and created a story, positioning the ketchup and salt and peppershakers as props. My voice rose trying to drown out the chatter from a four-top of older ladies going to a Baptist bake sale, or maybe on their way to bingo.

“I never.”

“…should know better”

“Bless her heart. ”

Daughter Two’s mouth pursed. She wiggled in her seat. She twiddled her straw.

She stared right back at them. She re-arranged her fork and knife on the menu.

“Why in the world…”

We started a new play; our straw characters already tired. Daughter Two surveyed the restaurant, meeting the looks of a family of four wearing matching soccer jerseys and the chatty ladies closest to us.

She slapped her napkin down and plowed by our waitress carrying a load of pancakes.

She’d be back, we assured the waitress who volunteered to keep her plate warm. We slathered on butter and syrup, and wondered about Daughter Two camping out in the toilet. Perhaps, there was a line.  Daughter Two’s chair sat empty. The glob of butter now melted over her pancakes, cold.

We found no line in the bathroom, just a weary traveler, adjusting her snowman sweatshirt, preparing to wash her hands. Outside a stall, I tried to coax Daughter Two with bathroom humor. The lady nodded toward the last toilet.

The girls and I shifted, peaking through the cracks. Daughter Two perched on the edge of the toilet, her blonde hair flattened, her small hands wringing the wig.

With eyes red and big tears raining, she declared she would never eat a pancake ever again, and to leave her alone. Forever.

“No pancakes for the rest of your life?”

“Can I have what you ordered?” asked Daughter Three.

“Hush.”

“Can I have your bacon?” asked Daughter One.

Elevator music looped, toilets flushed.  Women moved in and out, offering looks and opinions. “Yes, thank you.” “NO, thank you.” “Bless YOUR heart.”

My youngest squatted down in the corner of the bathroom, looking up and under the door begging Daughter Two to come out.

My mom genes kicked in. There was more at stake than a little restaurant embarrassment. I had to get it right.  I felt the weight of the moment: The rock of my daughter’s soul was tumbling down a dark hole and she might never be the same.

I needed time, to figure out how to pull the knife of doubt out of her heart, to stop the bleeding and convince her she could love the identity she created; at the bare minimum to re-enforce her natural strengths and beg her not to question her ability to pull off a fashion statement. She needed assurance it was okay to trust her truest self.  If she couldn’t trust herself then I had failed as a mother, as a fellow female.

No longer was I standing in the bathroom of an interstate pancake house. No longer were we just using a coupon for pancakes before it expired. I was kneeling in a forest next to a hole freshly dug by a beautiful human, my child. She had sunk into a deep space carrying her childhood comforts: cookies, nuts, a blanket. She smoothed out the tattered edges of her childhood lovey questioning her place in the world.

I looked through the crack of the door. Her puffy eyes met mine. And in that moment, she knew I knew that place, too. She made room for me under her blanket.

I wanted to tell her, it gets easier, but judgment is timeless. Judgment is a relentless foe. We all stood in silence. Swoosh, another toilet.

I knew when I gave birth to a bevy of girls what I wanted for them. I also knew it would be difficult to teach. I was still trying to figure it all out: How to be myself in a world ready to tell me who I ought to be.

The real battle, the battle for one female to get it right, was right before me.

“You know, I don’t know a lot, but I do know if you wear a pink wig, you will get stares,” I said, with a calm assuredness. I held her gaze through the crack of the door, leaning on the door.

“ You got to be ready for it. If you wear it, you can’t care.” I paused, not knowing what I was going to say next, praying for the right words to come out of my mouth.

 

“Wear it. Don’t wear it. You decide. But if you do wear it, wear it with guts.

But be ready. You do not need permission to be yourself.”

Stillness. We sat in stillness. No one walked in or out for a moment.  Daughter One sat down and grabbed Daughter Three’s hand. Moments passed into a future memory that I hoped would become a point of reference for my girls.

Daughter Two straightened and smooth out the pink wig and opened the bath room door. We walked out and into the world, feeling altogether different. Altogether better, all together.

Tricia Stearns has been published in Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bloom, Loose Change literary magazine, and wrote a weekly column for five years for  the Fayette Daily News. In this column, Tricia dcumented how she started a farmers market and built the largest community garden in the Atlanta metroplex. She is currently working on a personal narrative essay collection. Tricia can be found on twitter as @tstearns2014 and on instagram as @triciastearns.

On Being Human Online Workshops

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Other upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, parenting

THE FIELD

December 24, 2019
bat

By Maureen Mancini Amaturo

Just ahead is the familiar field, a triangle with rounded corners. I walk up with head down, anticipating that time will drag its feet while I sit and wish I could be attending to other things. But I sit on the aluminum bleachers, surrounded by mosquitoes, gymnastic squirrels, trees full of bugs, and everyone’s dogs. I’m here for my son. My son, who is at his designated spot on the field, crouching behind home plate, wiggling fingers, giving signs to the pitcher, his very handsome face protected by a caged mask. My son, the only baby boy ever born. He is why s-u-n and s-o-n are homonyms.

On arrival, I greet other parents, other fans, address the social niceties, then I dissolve into the book I’ve brought. Some comment that they don’t usually see someone bring a book to a game. But I always do, so the regulars are not surprised. I remember bringing a copy of WIDOW FOR A YEAR by John Irving to Madison Square Garden. The Rangers were playing. While hockey fans bounced in their seats and waved team towels, I focused on my pages until my husband tapped me on the shoulder to stand for the national anthem.

I arrive at the field after the national anthem this evening. I sit between the third corner and home, turning pages, moving through chapters, absorbed in Dan Brown’s words at this game. Being honest here, I’m not interested in the sport, not interested in the team. Don’t even care who is playing. Cannot pretend to root for someone else’s son. I’ll look up when my son is at bat, and I might glance a time or two to see him walk to his position when the innings change. I have no idea what the score is. I don’t know what team my son’s team is playing. I don’t know the inning is over until my husband says, “Michael is up.”

I hold my page with my finger and look at my son, his familiar batting stance. The intensity on his face. I say the “Our Father.” I imagine that Jesus Christ Himself is standing beside my son, and I say, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” The image of Jesus in flowing robes and billowing sleeves standing beside the batter’s box at Disbrow Park at dinnertime does not seem at all strange to me. I imagine that every time my son is up. I have complete faith that Jesus’ robes won’t get in the way of his swing. I say again, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” I know there are cancers to cure, crime and carnage to correct, and at this moment, I don’t care. I don’t care that people in countries with names I can’t spell don’t have clean drinking water. My son is up. This moment is important to my son, so it is important to me. My heart pounds. My teeth clench. I grip my book more tightly.  I am praying in a loop. Jesus is used to hearing from me. I’ve asked Him for many things, big things. I assume many people have. A hit is such a small request. I imagine Jesus shrugs and is amused. I’m still asking, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” As a mother, I can’t bear to see either of my children have anything less than a perfect experience. “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.”

I pray. I pray. I pray.

I hear the ching of the aluminum bat. It’s a double. I watch my son leave home and round the corners, stopping at second. I wish it were a triple, so he’d be standing on the third corner, closer to where I’m sitting, where I could see him better. I tell Jesus, “Thank you.” And I can breathe again. I go back to my book.

And in each inning my son is at bat, my interest will go from flatline to spike. I’ll close my book and focus on my son, praying, use meditation tactics to manifest an outcome, envision him surrounded in white light, picture Jesus with arms outstretched toward my son as if He is sending divine power straight to him like a laser. I conjure images of my son’s bat connecting with the ball. In my mind’s eye, I see my son getting a hit. The emotional effort is almost painful. The intense concentration gives me a headache, even my sinuses hurt. I feel his hits and misses to my very core; my soul vibrates with worry. No, unmeasurable love.

After the game, my son asks, “Did you see how hard I hit that? It was a bomb, right in the gap.”

I say, “No, I was watching you, not the ball.”

“Why would you watch me run? You’re supposed to watch the ball.” He tries to explain why I was watching the wrong thing, but I know I saw exactly what I wanted to see.

Maureen Mancini Amaturo is a New York based fashion and beauty writer and a contributing columnist for The Rye Record. She teaches Creative Writing, produces literary events for Manhattanville College, and leads the Sound Shore Writers Group, which she founded in 2007. Her publications include: two beauty how-to guides for Avon Products, personal essays, creative non-fiction, short stories, and humor pieces published by Ovunque Siamo, Boned, Bordighera Press, Months To Years, Bluntly Magazine, Mothers Always Write, Baseballbard.com, Flash Non-Fiction Food Anthology published by Woodhall Press, a poetic tribute to John Lennon published by Beatlefest, articles and celebrity interviews published in local newspapers and on line. She was diagnosed with an overdeveloped imagination by a handwriting analyst, and has been doing her best to live up to that diagnosis ever since.

Upcoming events with Jen

****

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, motherhood, No Bullshit Motherhood, parenting

Mothering In Heat

November 13, 2019
heat

By Heather Carreiro 

The dread had consumed me all week. 100 degrees on Sunday, with a heat index of 114 or 115. I’m convinced that climate change is going to boil us all alive, and this record-setting July heat wave had done nothing to assuage my fear. And now the day was here. Morning dawned languidly, the air not yet oppressively hot and humid in our un-air conditioned, 1790s-era New England farmhouse. The five-year-old, aka “the General,” was surprisingly content to watch TV, allowing the husband and I to lie on our separate couch zones like middle-aged beached whales. But soon enough, the dog needed to be walked.

The General felt she was up for this mission, and the three of us, dog, child and mama, set off. The temperature at 9 am was in the 80s, but the air was already soupy with humidity. No sooner had we walked to the next house, than it became apparent that this should have been a solo expedition. I had mistakenly thought we were on a short, hot, but relatively painless jaunt, but the General was in the jungles of ‘Nam. There was wailing. There was swooning. There were loud complaints of sore legs, hot body parts, warnings of imminent collapse from heat stroke. (For someone apparently in the throes of heat exhaustion, she had a powerful wail.) All this, dear reader, after walking barely a quarter mile.

“How,” I snapped, sweaty and irritated, “are you going to make it from the parking lot all the way into the water park [easily a quarter mile], when you can’t even do this?” “Nooooooooooo!” The howl was immediate. “Dadda said we could go to the water park today!! I’m going to the water park! Aaaaaagggghhh!” Before this could end in someone sprawled in tears on the blistering pavement (either one of us, take your pick), I acquiesced. “Fine. But you need to show me you can make it home. Let’s go.”

Somewhat rashly (as husbands are wont), the husband had promised the General earlier in the week that he would take her to the local amusement park’s water park on this day. And come hell or high water (and it felt very much like hell), she was going. At the slightest suggestion of postponing to another, slightly less 113 degree day, there were tears, shouting, and bitter recriminations. No suggestions of air-conditioned movie theaters or cool shopping malls filled with toys and ice cream would entice her. It was decided. They were going.

The husband was pleased that he was giving me a “nice break” (i.e., two hours of grocery shopping) while they bonded. I had concerns. Many concerns. I envisioned the husband on his phone, paying no attention to the General, who, in my overactive Mom Imagination, was then drowned beneath a sea of flailing limbs in the wave pool. Alternately, I imagined the husband passing out from heat stroke while the General frantically searched for someone to help her precious Dadda, terrified and traumatized.

But the only thing I wanted less than my child trudging from parking lot to overcrowded water park in searing, suffocating, third-degree-burn-giving heat with endless Mom-imagined danger looming at every turn was to be home with this child, in this heat, with her throwing a tantrum. Yes, dear reader, I am a horrible mother.

So off they toddled, brimmed hat fastened snugly on her head, sunscreen spackled on her face and body, and the husband loaded up like a Sherpa with water and snacks. I shut the door behind them, said a quick prayer, then readied myself to hang out in the frozen food section of my neighborhood grocery store until they (hopefully) made it back. A half hour later, I was perusing the deli case when I got a text from the husband: “This is a disaster. Taking her to the movies.”

Climate change: 1; The General: 0.

And P.S. – Mom ALWAYS knows best.

Heather Carreiro is a mom of one and corporate writer living in central Connecticut. Her world—and writing—at the moment is largely centered on raising a spirited six-year-old and all it entails: mermaids, glitter, public meltdowns, unexpected philosophical pronouncements, and the occasional turd in the pants.

Upcoming events with Jen

****

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

 

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, parenting

Obsessed

May 6, 2019
nails

By Katherine Sullivan

My mother’s pinky toe is her favorite. The nail never grows longer than a quarter inch. She would sit there not in plain view but off to the side of the room. Biting her lip in satisfaction with her knee in the crook of her elbow. Her callused heal gripping the edge of the chair. Thumbing the corners of her toenails, picking at it until she created a small nick in the edge of her pinky toe.

I’d watch her when she thought I was watching Full House or Happy Days. I bet the Tanners or the Fonz, used nail clippers in the privacy of their bathroom. I’d just sit there with her in my peripheral stealing glances of her. Watching how once she was able to grip that nail with her thumb and forefinger she would look delighted. Then she would peel the nail across that little toe, it didn’t matter how far down the angle would be, often times ripping the nail from the flesh causing it to bleed. I assume it caused her great satisfaction because she would do it over and over again. Causing her to walk on her callused heals, hobbling from room to room. Continue Reading…