Browsing Tag

mothers and daughters

Guest Posts, memories

My Mom Drives a Red Race Car

May 13, 2024
Traci

When my mother was alive, she never drove a car. She didn’t fly on airplanes, either or climb the slatted staircase to the observatory at the college where my father taught, to see the stars. My mom had severe anxiety and agoraphobia, and throughout my childhood, our one weekly family outing, besides attending church, was a trip to the public library.

But my mother drives now. She wears glamorous black sunglasses and a scarf around her neck as she roars off in her red Pontiac GTO, similar to the souped-up 8-cylinder Mustang I would have bought with my inheritance, if I’d been brave enough to rumble up in such a car to my job as a college professor in Los Angeles.

Recently, when I told my therapist about my mother’s post-death transformation, his face grew still, a noticeable effort to conceal his reaction. I don’t blame him. I’ve had a hard time believing it myself, but the truth is that my daughter Ivy is a medium, and according to her, my dead mother has things to say.

When grief-stricken people come to Ivy for a reading, she senses the personality and sees the faces of their departed loved ones clearly enough that she could draw their picture. The dead show Ivy images in her mind’s eye, and she describes these to her clients, evidence from their lives the dead can see, or items they remember: a teacup set painted with twin cherries, a toddler’s Jellycat sloth, a hidden box of love letters, lilacs that bloomed where a grapevine was planted.

I didn’t know Ivy was a medium until two years ago. She went to Dartmouth and USC, where she now teaches, and if anyone else had told me they could talk to dead people, I would have had the same reaction as my therapist. But Ivy has always been a thoughtful and serious person. After her fiancé, a beloved psychiatrist, drowned in a surfing accident, as she describes it, “the dead became too loud to ignore.”

Thanks to a research study that involved Ivy as a subject, I now understand that mediumistic experiences, whatever they are, often emerge alongside unexpected loss. When she first told me, though, I was skeptical. I teach critical thinking for a living. As a young mother, I’d left the evangelical church in which I was raised and had spent my adulthood as an atheist. To go back to believing there was an afterlife after all felt like reverting to an inside-out version of the organized religion I had years before dismissed.

But I wanted to support Ivy, somehow help her bear the weight of grief. To understand mediumship better, I set an appointment, using an untraceable fake identity, with Traci Bray, a medium certified by researchers affiliated with the University of Arizona. I had heard it suggested to ask a departed loved one ahead of time for a sign, and although I felt sure I would hear nothing of the sort, I asked to be shown the Christmas cookies with pastel-colored icing and sparkly sprinkles my mom baked with me and my sisters every year, a tradition I had carried on with my daughters.

“Hello?” Traci said on the phone. Her voice seemed surprisingly ordinary, and after offering to allow me to record our call, she immediately came up with the name of my high school boyfriend, the name of my youngest daughter, Allison, and an accurate description of our family dog, who had died years before. She also said my mom was there, showing herself, and gave my sister’s middle name as evidence.

My mom showed the specific grosgrain ribbons she’d tied on my braids in girlhood, then showed herself taking deep, relaxed breaths. Traci asked if that meant anything to me, and I thought back on my mom’s last days. She’d been intubated and I’d sat by her side watching the machine artificially, and what had seemed violently, pushing air in and out of her lungs.

My mom also showed herself reaching for a glass of orange juice from a refrigerator, and when Traci made a point of describing the glass as small, my eyes welled up. Many people drink orange juice for breakfast, but my family’s dietary habits were a defining feature of my childhood, which I have often recounted to friends. My mom grew up traumatized by an alcoholic father. She wanted to give me and my sisters lives of stability, and to her that meant a familiar routine. She made us the same breakfast every morning—one scrambled egg, one piece of toast, a large glass of milk and a small glass of orange juice.

Traci then asked if my mom had had Parkinson’s – no, I said, but she did have an essential tremor, which others often mistook for Parkinson’s. Was this coincidence? Just good guessing? Lots of older people have shaky hands. But of the many symptoms a person could have when they are aging, Traci had described the symptom my mom had found most distressing. In the last few moments of the call, Traci asked, “Did your mom have a special recipe for the holidays, some kind of sticky green spread or cream cheese you’d spread on crackers?” It took me a minute before it dawned on me. Was she seeing our Christmas cookies?

I found the conversation remarkable and moving, but later in the day I was surprised to hear Ivy had another message for me. “Gran’s here,” she said, and when Ivy described seeing a name-inscribed, silver chain link bracelet my boyfriend had given me in high school, my mind began to shift. I hadn’t thought of that bracelet for years. How would Ivy know something I’d forgotten about myself?

Still, trying to absorb the surreal possibility that my dead mother could talk to me felt difficult. When I was a small child, my mom sometimes disappeared into her bedroom for hours, leaving me to cope on my own. And although we had cozy times, too, Sunday night popcorn, reading in lawn chairs together in the front yard, and as many presents on Christmas and birthdays as she could manage, much of my young life revolved around her distress.

The year I was a sophomore in high school, my parents and sister and I went on a rare outing to a new restaurant at the mall, which was on the second floor, up a flight of red-carpeted slatted stairs. When we got there, my mom put one foot on the first step and one hand on the railing, but couldn’t get herself to go up. The restaurant was visible above us on an open balcony, and I remember gazing at the people chatting at tables, as my dad searched for the elevator. After we realized it was out of order, and we’d spent a few moments standing awkwardly around, we got back in the car and drove home.

When I was eighteen, my sister and I tried to teach her how to drive on a country road near our home in southern Idaho, but she gripped the steering wheel for only a few minutes before her arms began shaking from fright and exertion. I can imagine how she might have felt, the road stretching out into the distance, impossibly long, open fields all around. When she put on the brakes and the car jerked to a stop, my hand flew up against the dashboard, and she didn’t want to try again. Everyone drove in Idaho—it was the way we got around, and her refusal to take agency over that part of her life felt emblematic of the way fear was allowed to rule our lives.

But we didn’t press her on these issues. We kept silence around them; that was our family’s unspoken pact. And now in this moment, I was finding it hard to accept this new mom, talking to me so openly, as if my childhood trauma had never taken place.

I decided to schedule a follow-up call with Traci, to confide in her about Ivy’s mediumship experiences, and the conflict I was feeling. “They’re showing me your mother’s anxiety came partly from her own unrecognized psychic abilities,” Traci said, describing mediumship as a strange inheritance that often runs in families. Traci said her own family has refused to acknowledge her stigmatized profession and remarked that my open-minded curiosity was a gift to my grieving daughter, who was struggling with self-acceptance.

And whether I believed it or not, Ivy frequently felt my mom’s presence, so I kept listening. “Why does Gran keep showing me a single raspberry and then strawberry shortcake?” Ivy asked me one night.

I was stumped, then remembered the cereal heaped with raspberries I’d had for breakfast. That morning, I’d been thinking of my girlhood, and how fresh berries had been a rare treat. I have so much, I’d thought, feeling grateful. I had said nothing out loud to anyone about this, but through the images she was showing Ivy, my mom was bringing it up.

“We did have strawberry shortcake in the summer. I remember that now,” I said, laughing at my mom’s correction of my memory, a moment that felt like normal conversation between two people.

It took a while after I started hearing messages from my mom for me to say to her, “I know you loved me so much, but I wish you had been more consistently present for me.” It took guts to say that, even to a dead woman.

Through Ivy, she responded, “I’m so sorry. I will say I’m sorry as many times as you need me to.” And then she said, “that’s the reason why I’ve been showing up so consistently for you now, because I want to try to make up for that.”

Her words made me weep. There were regrets on my side, too. I’d felt guilty when she asked to live with me in Las Vegas where I had a teaching job at the time, choosing instead to visit her in Idaho at the assisted living facility where she spent her final months. But now she showed herself to Ivy in what was unmistakably her own sense of humor, flying over The Strip in a cartoon airplane, quipping, “Granny goes to Vegas! Can you imagine? That would have been a disaster!”

I’d also felt ashamed about the amount of my inheritance I’d wasted buying clothes online, but before I even asked, my mom communicated that shopping had been a form of self-care for a grieving daughter. She said she was glad I’d found a way to bring myself joy in a hard time. I hadn’t known how badly I needed to hear that, and a knot of tension released in my chest.

I marveled at all my mom seemed to know about the private moments of my ongoing life, and she responded by showing Ivy the “cone of silence,” the goofy device used on the TV show Get Smart to send secret messages, as if to show me I now have a direct pipeline to my mom with my thoughts. It seemed purely silly, another perfect example of her sense of humor, until I watched a clip of it again on YouTube, and listened to the dialogue in the scene. Max says, “Well, Chief, I appreciate you taking me into your confidence like this.” And the Chief replies, “Max, there is always someone in whom we must have faith.”

My other daughters say I seem lighter now, more attuned and present. I know intellectually from therapy that my wiring from my upbringing has the potential to tip me into fear and anxiety, but as my ongoing relationship with my mom has evolved, I can feel something inside me healing.

Recently, Ivy spoke as a medium on a podcast hosted by two therapists called Love, Sex, and Attachment about how evidential mediumship can help the grieving develop a more secure attachment through the cultivation of continuing bonds. Similar to narrative therapy, Ivy’s abilities have helped me rewrite my own story of loss.

Somewhere I read that healing doesn’t occur outside of relationships; healing occurs inside safe relationships. Perhaps the most convincing evidence that my mom really might be alive and well in another dimension: my relationship with her is finally becoming a safe place to be.

Constance Ford is originally from Idaho, and has earned degrees in creative writing from Hollins University and UNLV. Her short stories have been published in Pif, Switchback, and Brain, Child, among others, and she currently has a novel out on submission. She lived in Las Vegas for thirteen years, raising her daughters there, and now teaches writing at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her daughter, Ivy Sunderji can be followed at here.  

***

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Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Overdrawn

March 25, 2022

The phone rings. Ying-ying takes a quick glance at the wall clock that reads 8pm, tosses the apple core she has been nibbling on into the trash can, and hurries from the kitchen to the living room. She unplugs the phone from the socket but sees only a string of zeros, the kind of call that one makes through the Internet. She wonders for a second what to do, but then decides to answer it.

“Hello?” she greets.

No one answers for a moment, but then an accented male voice starts to bray. “Am I talking to Tan Ying-ying,” the voice asks, “born on June 4th, 1994, current address 355 Yangshupu Road 5-14-1, Hongkou District, Shanghai?”

Yes, yes, and yes. Ying-ying gasps in recognition of her personal details bared by the voice, but his unrushed tempo brings about a tinkling echo: somebody else has announced the same information to her before, and that was not too long ago.

“Yes, this is she,” so she says, with affected calmness, “and are you—”

But he is speaking already. “—Good. And, as of today, Sept 28th, 2017, you’re still working at Primavera Organic Food Import Co., located at 75 Dinghai Road, Yangpu District?”

“Correct. But are you—”

“—Great. And our record shows your mom is … well, I’m sure your mom is still who she is. So, Miss Tan, I am calling from Miles Finance, to remind you that your loan is due tomorrow, at 12 pm sharp.”

She is right, then; she is experienced dealing with his kind. “Yes, I knew the call must be from you guys,” her default self is coming back, “I’ll have the money ready.”

“Wonderful, wonderful. And let me remind you, Miss Tan, that we won’t accept money wired from you directly, coz we use separate accounts to track outgoing and incoming funds. A colleague of mine will meet you at the McDonald’s at 1500 Pingliang Road—near the intersection with Lilin Road, at 11:45am, and he will take you to an ATM nearby, where you can then make the deposit.”

The voice pauses there, as if to wait for her jotting down the details. “Since my colleague has to confirm you adhere to all our terms,” it then resumes with slight relaxation, “please bring your copy of the loan contract. Jus’ to go over the numbers again, your principal is ¥24,050 and your annual rate is 36%, so adding a ¥500 signage fee, the total due for your four-month loan is 27,436 yuan. OK, so my colleague will see you tomorrow, and please remember: there’ll be consequences should you fail to honor our conditions in any manner.”

“Sure, I—”

But he hangs up already. They always have the upper hand, dictating the loans’ terms and nipping off phone calls, but all that power would cease after 12pm tomorrow, when the last cent of her debt is cleared. Ying-ying feels a hope rising inside her, one that heightens and churns out a restlessness, urging her to swipe open her bank app to double-check the money. She does that and ensconces on the assurance that the digits bring about, but the sight of a sidenote stings her eyes and bursts her transient calmness. She finds herself rereading the sidenote, the one line announcing that all the money is transferred in from the account ending in 4591; and as she scrolls down and counts the many more transfers from there, the growing sum pulls her deeper into a flashpoint, where her cheeks burn in shame and embarrassment.

So yes, how shameful and embarrassing this is, because the 4591 account belongs not to her but her mother, a widowed schoolteacher five years away from retirement, withering alone on the outlying Chongming Island. In the silence befalls her apartment, 14 stories above the street noise, Ying-ying pictures her mother making the transfer, not on her old Nokia but over the small village bank’s actual counter, filling yet another form under the teller’s suspicious gaze.

That picture pains her: how much trouble she has caused. She is 23 now and makes about ¥6,000 a month, why does she still rely on monetary help from her mother? She shuts her eyes and retrieves her first day in college, when she and her mother took a crowded bus to the downtown campus, only to find that her three dormmates had all come in by private cars. They were city girls, beautiful with fashionable clothes and exquisite makeup; their fathers looked powerful, their mothers had their hair piled up in towering buns—a banker, an owner of factories, a high-ranked bureau chief. Ying-ying had never been so close to such people; her classmates back home all had peasant, shopkeeper, government functionary parents. And when she introduced her mother and explained her father had passed, she suddenly felt a hesitance, her cheeks unexpectedly blushed.

Her mother sensed it; she became unusually reticent. They sat in the corner of the campus canteen and had their lunch, her mother only said how happy Ying-ying’s father would be to see her attending college, how much she hoped Ying-ying would excel in her chosen major of Spanish (all majors were declared at the time of college application). Ying-ying listened but did not engage. She looked at her mother’s worn blouse draping loosely off her thin shoulders, streaks of white hair sticking out in the thin black layer that hardly covered the skull, and her heart hardened with a new recognition of her mother: an unceremonious, unenviable woman, leading her staid life in a sleepy backwater. She had the sudden feeling that her own life up to that point had not been her destined one; she should have lived like her roommates, butterflies soaring high, or koi floating elegantly about.

She yearned for changes and change she would. Her roommates were willing to lend a helping hand, so before she learned to pronounce y as igriega, she’d already bought her first lipstick on their advice. Later, when she karaoked in her finest outfit, when she sipped coffee with exquisite makeup on her face, she could sense others’ widened eyes fixing on her. She realized she had always longed for this feeling, actually, to be looked up to by widened eyes; she recalled how her second-grade classmates talked about her after her father had died (“she has only a mother but no father”), or how they laughed at their teacher—Ying-ying’s mother—who had patches on her clothes and thus must be poor. She wished they could see her now, all the envy and shame and regret on their faces.

To support herself she economized her mother’s allowance and tutored high schoolers, but still the demand outpaced income faster than she had expected. Unable to bear the mortification of asking her roommates to help but fidgeting on the brink of finance, she reached out to an Internet lender for the first time in her sophomore winter. She thought she had found the solution until she realized how frequently new bills from them continued to arrive, with interest compounded too much and too soon.

She rolled back her splurges and skipped meals, but still borrow new loans to cover the old ones. With nowhere else to turn, she finally sought help from her mother. She would never forget that day, September of her junior year, when she called her mother first thing one Saturday morning (she stopped coming home to save bus fares), choking on hesitation so revisiting again the topic of weather.

“Ying-ying, what’s wrong?” her mother finally cut the chase.

“Mama, I—borrowed more money from the Internet than I could repay—” She let her story all out; she expressed remorse.

The requested amount came in two days later. But as her old debts and new purchases prompted the second, and then the third rescue request, her mother’s initial readiness ebbed and worries flowed. She rode one after another those two-hour-long bus rides to meet and talk; she reached out to Ying-ying’s professors for intervention. Even though in the end, she still gave in to the requests every time, she referred to Ying-ying’s father increasingly often as if she was in this more for his sake than Ying-ying’s (“right before your father passed, I promised him to look after you to my capacity”). And every time Ying-ying heard her talking like this, she couldn’t help but recall that when she brought home a report card with bad grades back in primary school, her father would only pat her head and encouraged her to do better next time, while her mother would go as far as to scold her, deducting a week’s pocket money as her punishment.

She lived through the junior and senior years like that, on the brink of finance and having a tense relationship with her mother, but as she graduated, as she settled into her clerk position at an importer of Latin American fruits, things did get better. With rent and commute added to the equation, with her roommates swanking in graduate schools abroad, she found the life she had once so desired losing its charm, she rolled out longer durations of self-constraint. She paid off more debt with her own salary, but even though she had only one meal every day, even if she bought no new clothes in months, there remained compounded interests, and there was now an empty apartment to be filled. She had been asking much less from her mother, but she could not let go of the credit line of Momma Bank.

That credit line had dwindled. For the most recent, 27,436 due, she had to ride a two-hour bus home, kneeled, and kowtowed—the traditional pose of a subordinate appealing to her superior—before her mother for the first time. “Mama, this will be the last time I ask you for help,” she promised as pain shot up her knees, “consider it a loan, and I swear I’ll pay you back!”

“I really hope so, Ying-ying,” her mother murmured, but it was still loud enough for her to hear, “this would really be the last time I help you as your mother.”

What could she possibly mean by that? Ying-ying looked up to the tears trickling down along her mother’s cheeks. The words seemed meaning she would really say no after this, cut her off from her life even, but the lack of finality in her tone led to the suspicion of bluffing, and the further tiny signs of reconciliation—like she offered the bus fare when Ying-ying took her leave—elevated the suspicion to a make-belief. No need to worry because this is really the last time, Ying-ying thought as she wobbled with the bus heading back to Shanghai, I will save and pay her back.

That was last Saturday. For the past five days, this has been Ying-ying’s working assumption, the foundation of a general hopefulness she had been feeling. She reorients herself to here and now, paces to the window, and props her elbows on the sill and looks at the city lights. Tomorrow: the life of her past three years is coming to its end. The guttering lights expand to the horizon; the superimposed reflection of her lithe silhouette has hundreds of eyes flicking inside. And to that reflection Ying-ying flashes a smile, on the foreknowledge that in about 15 hours, her life will be back in her control.

The money is ready. She has to go to the bank counter, as the amount to be withdrawn is too large for an ATM. She lingers in the bank’s waiting area, picks up a free newspaper, and camouflages the wads before feeding them to her handbag. It is still early. She stands in the sun, checks the time, and determines she can afford to walk to the appointed McDonald’s. This is actually preferred, since she is unwilling to go through the subway security check with the money.

So she walks. The skyscrapers of Pudong District glisten at the horizon, high above and beyond the drab low-rises of her current street. Before her father died, in 2003, her parents had taken her downtown every year, celebrating her birthday with an afternoon in the parks and a good dinner. Her father would also buy her a new toy; even her mother allowed her an extra cone of ice cream. Back then, so many parts of Shanghai looked like this, locked in a past that had never changed. But now, see how glamorous and posh the city has become.

Both she and the city have tried, then, to transform toward some vision of a better self. But while the city has successfully progressed, she finds herself entrapped in her borrowed buying power. Were you even happy back then, the voice that is her mind asks, back in college when you bought so much stuff? She realizes that her sybaritic self is already on the way to phasing out, as her mind is now focused on her freedom, what to do with it once she regains it after 12 o’clock. Treat yourself better, she thinks, treat Mama better also.

The erhu music played by a panhandler brings her thoughts back, so she pauses and gives him a five. Ahead, the appointed McDonald’s is already in sight, so she walks up to it and plants herself underneath a sidewalk sycamore. In no time, a skinny man emerges out of nowhere, his eyes locking with hers for long seconds. Yet before the thought “you are early” materializes on her vocal cords, his figure passes by her and heads to the restaurant, the sight of his back soon disappears behind the doors.

Not him, then. She scans the other passersby, but no one returns her attention, and fifteen minutes later she begins to wonder whether she has misheard the instruction, that she is expected inside rather than outside. So she walks into the McDonald’s and surveys the space, but again finds not the debt collector she has been looking for. Without a better plan, she seats herself down by the window. There is no way to dial back the all-zero Internet number, and Miles Finance’s website lists only an email address. She fumbles her handbag for the signed contract that she was asked to bring along, sifting to no avail for another piece of contact information.

There seems nothing else she could do, then, other than head back. She takes the subway and skips lunch. Back in the office, she tries to refocus on her work but finds concentration has left her. Staring at client orders of Peruvian avocados and Ecuadorian pitayas on the monitor, her mind keeps drifting to the nebulous loan shark that never showed up, all the unknown consequences that might or might not occur.

It is not until past one that her phone rings again, the same flashing string of zeros. She presses the green button to accept it, her questions ready to vault out once it connects.

But the other side is a split second faster. “Miss Tan,” the same accented voice brays, “where are you?”

“At work,” she says, rising and walking into an empty meeting room for privacy.

“You didn’t show up for your appointment.” Closing the glass door of the meeting room behind her back, she cannot believe her ears.

“How can you say that? I waited for an hour, and it was your guy who didn’t show up.”

“No, my colleague says he didn’t see you. He got there at 11, and waited till one o’clock.”

“What does he look like?” she thought of the man she locked eyes with again. “Is he a thin, short man probably in his forties, wearing a white jacket?”

“No, my colleague is a tall guy in his twenties.”

“Are you sure he went to the McDonald’s at 1500 Pingliang Road, near the intersection with Lilin Road?” She still is so confused, her voice starts to tremble.

“Exactly, that’s the one, with a row of sidewalk sycamore trees before its entrance.”

All dead-ends, then. But is it? Suddenly, she sees a way to add up all these contradictions. “You’re lying!” she yells, truculent now. “I waited for over an hour, and nobody showed up!”

“Well, Miss Tan,” the voice slows down a little but soon regains composure, “what matters is that my colleague didn’t see you, and so we’ve not received your funds by the deadline of noon.”

“No, if you didn’t have this stupid rule to meet in person, I—”

“The point is, Miss Tan,” he again cuts her off, “you didn’t repay your debt by noon, so you’ve breached our contract. The consequence is that you owe us 37,436 now, your original due of 27,436 plus a 10,000 penalty.”

Everything dawns on her. “No, I owe you nothing!” She shouts with a sudden burst of energy, “I’ll not pay even a cent of this so-called—”

“Well, too bad, Miss Tan,” the voice sneers, “we can go to court, and you’ll lose, coz we have bank statements showing us we’ve funded your account, while you’re not able to prove—”

But she cuts him off this time. “How many victims have fallen for your scam?”

“Whoa, missy, hold on,” the voice feigns surprise, “you’re the party at fault here. We can go and settle this in court, and we’ll win because our banking statement can prove our funds have indeed gone to your bank account. But if the judge asks you, ‘Tan Ying-ying, do you have evidence showing you’ve paid them back?’ you’ll have none simply because you haven’t.” He pauses there a little, as if to let his logic settle on her mind. “So, think about it, Miss Tan, your best chance is to stick with the contract, and pay back the total by the end of next week.”

“You black-hearted son of a b!” she resorts to invectives, “your guy didn’t show up!”

“Calm down, Miss Tan,” the voice sneers. “The old saying goes: the books must be balanced, and the debt must be repaid. This is the dao of the universe. We know where you live and work, as we know your mother’s name and address. We wish you both well, and we expect you to pay us back by the end of next week.”

And with that, he hangs up.

She deflates in a chair; she is suddenly exhausted. Her mind is all blank, yet still an instinct tells her to call mother. There was no answer, so she tried again. Her arms quiver uncontrollably when she makes the attempt; she inhales and exhales for minutes to stabilize herself.

“Ying-ying?” Five rings after, a lukewarm voice vibrates in her ear, “what’s up?”

“Mama, —I, I got scammed,” it is so hard to bring these words, “I need to borrow from you another 10,000 yuan.”

A sleek bus leaves behind the glistening towers of downtown, crosses the Yangtze through a serpentine tunnel, and ascends a colossal bridge over a distributary. Curling in it and on a window seat, Ying-ying sees Chongming Island’s green fields open up before her, the roofs of farmhouses glistening in the afternoon sun. Merely a week ago, she had promised mother the last bailout, yet here she is again, requesting an even more exorbitant sum. How would her mother take it?

She walks in the direction of home from the bus depot, and the familiar fields and houses somehow relaxes her a little. It was on these same streets that her father and mother took her for after-dinner strolls, she recalls, a time when everything seemed simpler: relationship with her mother, relationship with herself.

She longs for that simplicity, but finds the longing interrupted by anxiety as she gets closer to her childhood home. At the door, she has to pinch her own thighs—her habitual way of dealing with anxiety—to calm her jitters. She counts to ten and lets out a deep exhale, and then starts to knock on the door. Hearing no response, she turns the doorknob and finds it unlocked, so she lets herself in, adjusting her eyes for the dark.

“Mama?” she calls in small volume, “are you here?” Finding no mother in the kitchen, she passes the living room and retreats into even deeper darkness, until she reaches her childhood bedroom at the other end of a corridor. Goosebumps rise over her arms, because of the unexpected sight of a motionless statue sitting on the bed she used to sleep on.

“Mama!” she gasps and strides to the bedside. It is only until this moment, in this point-blank range, that she sees her mother’s tearful eyes, the half-dried watery traces on her cheeks. Backlit by the small window, the pilings outlining her mother’s jacket are all visible, so many of them standing along her silhouette, a miniature army guarding all the latent emotions.

Words vault out of her mouths: “Mama, I am sorry—” But a force of unknown origin breaks them midsentence, and the momentum of it pulls her knees onto the ground. “My last time, truly. You know, I was tricked,” she kneels there and starts a new line, but her confidence is drained, her story sounds unbelievable even to her own ears.

She places her hand on her mother’s knees instead to plead for her last chance, but her mother withdraws from her touch. From under the mattress on which she sits, her mother then draws out a red-covered booklet, and hands it toward her. Even amidst the deepening gloom, the golden-colored characters shine on the cover: Adoption Certificate.

She had no expectation of this, not an inkling at all. She takes the certificate and flips open the cover; spasms are firing all over her arms. Her first glance takes in the names of her own father and mother, their birthdays address and ID numbers; then, beneath a family photo, there is this italicized line at the bottom: This is to certify the adoption mentioned above is appropriately done according to the People’s Republic of China Adoption Law, and is valid henceforth.

Date: July 4th, 1994.

Just one month after she was born.

“Mama, am I adopted?” she asks, a bolt of lightning lances across her entire autobiography, “why are you telling me only now?”

Her mother remains silent. But her body shakes, her tears drip onto the floor. She struggles to stand up and then bends down by the bedside in a prostration position. Her hands then stretch into the narrow space under the bed, yanking out a parcel of cash after some impatient fumbling.

“Mama, I won’t need it now—”

“Ying-ying, take it …”

“Mama, please!”

“… Take it, Ying-ying … I just went to the bank earlier, and this is all the money I have left. You know, from the beginning, it was really your father’s idea to adopt you … He always wanted children but couldn’t, and although I was OK without one, he persuaded me to adopt you when he first saw you … He liked you instantly, you know, at the orphanage. He said, let’s adopt her and treating her like our own …. We didn’t tell you so that you’ll feel no different growing up, and when he passed, I had promised to take care of you to the limit of my capacity … And now, Ying-ying, all that I have left are in this package, so I really cannot help you any longer as your mother…”

Ying-ying inches forward on her knees until she reaches her adoptive mother, then holds her legs as if they were life’s most precious treasure. Her body spasms uncontrollably, her lung bellows out loud sobs. And at that moment, a deluge of myriad emotions breaks the walls and gushes in, overwhelming both the mother and the daughter.

Hantian Zhang is a writer living in San Francisco. He is a data scientist by day.

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Guest Posts, parenting

Playing by the Rules

January 30, 2022
game

Old Maid

Players: One single mom
One daughter, ages 3-8, prone to illness

Directions: Shuffle and deal. Players take turns drawing cards from each other. If you draw a card that matches one in your hand, place the matches face up. If not, add the card to your hand.

Play continues until all pairs have been matched. The player left holding the old maid card loses the game and becomes the “old maid” unless, alarmed by the message this sends, you abruptly alter the rules. Unless you impulsively tell your daughter, “The player left holding the old maid wins! She gets to hang out with this fabulous independent woman who has the pioneering courage to violate tradition and forge her own path!”

Stick to this improvised rule until, at eight, your daughter hoards the old maid card at a sleepover, relishing the moment that she’ll throw it down and win the game. The next morning when you pick her up she will confront you, tone fraught with betrayal and disillusionment and humiliation. She wanted to win, but because of you, she lost miserably.

You used to love games, even the dumb ones of your childhood like Mystery Date. The object of that one was to win one of the cute dates inside the secret door—the guy dressed for a formal dance, a bowling alley, or the beach—and avoid the dud. He looked just like the other dates, except, you thought, cuter, a little scruffier, with messy hair and a five o’clock shadow.

But the ulterior motives of Old Maid and Mystery Date were pretty much the same: to teach players to avoid undesireable people, guys who don’t wash, women who don’t marry. Never mind the messages of other thankfully now-vintage games, like say, Mother’s Helper, described by the copy on the box as “A Real Fun Game that Takes you Upstairs. . . Downstairs. . . All Through the House!”

And so what you once thought of as easy forms of entertainment during endless winter weekends and long days when your daughter is home from school sick all seem like minefields, full of explosive subtexts you must head off about women and girls, about roles and choices, about the very nature of competition itself.

 Candyland

Players: One desperate mom seeking diversion for her

4-year-old daughter home sick from daycare again

Directions:  Draw a card and move your piece to the space matching the color on the card. Continue in this manner along the game’s colorful winding paths, past the peppermint forest and lollipop woods and peanut brittle house, past the blond twins and gumdrop-shaped monsters, until you reach the candy castle.

Experience relief that you can offer this simple, colorful world to your daughter who is prone to asthma attacks that land her in emergency rooms, to fevers that flare suddenly in crowds, to mysterious swellings of knees and lips, to throbbing headaches and upset stomachs. This game might encourage the rotting of her teeth but otherwise carries no negative implications, as far as you can see.

Should this seemingly pleasant innocuous game get tedious—and it will, in no time—try reverse cheating, stacking the deck so that every card your daughter draws will be purple. She’s too young to be suspicious of easy wins, and this method will speed her right along to victory. Wonder: are you doing her any favors? But your pride takes over. Look how fully you’ve embraced motherhood and self-sacrifice! Look at how little you care about winning!

Monopoly Junior

Players: One daughter, ages 5-8, becoming a competitive gymnast and making fewer trips to the ER

One mom

  • who suddenly finds herself having childhood flashbacks, reliving those moments when she sat poised to pounce and crow and gloat as soon as her big brother landed on Park Place. Reliving the moment that her brother, whose jokes about BO Railroad had lost their edge, flicked his Scottie dog game piece across the room and turned on the TV, saying, “I’m not playing with you anymore. You’re too competitive,” and then her cousins all deserted too, enragingly unconcerned that she’d been deprived of her moment of glory. Leaving her feeling caught out, a girl who’d harbored a fierce desire not to soothe other’s feelings but to smash their egos
  • who as a child eventually learned to space out during games like Monopoly, her detachment more acceptable to her peers than her previous bloodthirsty focus on amassing cash and celebrating others’ destitution
  • whose altered approach, while perhaps suggesting a more harmonious worldview, meant that she’d never win another Monopoly game
  • who when young was pleased to take second place in a beauty contest, winning $10 and an imaginary sash and bouquet
  • who was happy to take a trip on Reading Railroad, since she loved to read and pictured herself on a train with a pile of books
  • who joined her friends in cooing over the cute game pieces, the top hat, the shoe, the thimble, the dog
  • who learned to be relieved at cooperative games, like the Ouijia board, which told her when she was thirteen that she would grow up to be a dill pickle
  • who now is happy that Title 9 has fully kicked in. That girls aren’t pressured to be ashamed of their competitive instincts anymore. That girls get to enjoy winning too.

Directions: Get past the sense of dread that overcomes you when Monopoly Junior appears in your mailbox on your daughter’s fifth birthday, the memories of your complicated relationship with competition. Tell yourself that you should instead be relieved to be yanked from a vibrant candy landscape into the seemingly more interesting cutthroat world of shady real estate deals and rent gouging. Be shocked to discover that it’s just as boring. Invent new rules to hurry it along.

Feel burdened by an enormous weight of responsibility: to model the balance between striving for achievement but not basing your whole sense of worth on it. To encourage her to push herself but never feel that you approval is out of her reach.

But when she wins at Monopoly Junior, wonder: are you cheering for her or just cheering that the game is over?

The Game of Life

Players: A Mom, increasingly perturbed at the sneaky cultural conditioning of games

A Daughter, 10, who sleeps a lot but is mostly healthy

Followed by

A Daughter, 10

A Babysitter

The babysitter’s children, 11, 9, and 5

Directions: Travel the Path of LIFE making decisions, building a family, earning money, buying homes, and collecting LIFE tiles. Win by accumulating the most wealth by the end of the game.

First, spin the spinner and move your car forward in the direction of the arrows. If you choose the computer version of this game, it works exactly the same way, except that it won’t move forward until you enter a heterosexual union. If you object, purchase the board game version so that you can exercise choice and acknowledge gender fluidity, the continuum of sexuality, and the range of possibilities regarding social conformity and parenthood.

With the board game, you can resist the official rules and decide whether to be a pink peg or a blue peg or no peg at all should you not be in the mood to adhere to cultural constructions of gender, or should you be feeling that day like a square peg unlikely to fit into a round hole. Decide whether to choose a life partner, and if so, one of the same sex, or one of the opposite? Decide whether to have children, with or without a partner.

But be forewarned that at her babysitter’s house, your daughter, after choosing a pink peg for herself, might land on the marriage square and reach for another pink peg, musing, “I think I’ll be a lesbian.”

And that her babysitter might rear back as if a bullet had just zinged past her head, throwing out her hands as if to cover the ears of her own children, and bellow, “No!”

And that later you will have to come to terms with the fact that not only do the babysitter’s values not remotely align with yours, but you also find rearing up around that babysitter all of those competitive instincts you thought you’d conquered. You’re convinced that she sees parenting as a contest she’s determined to win, requiring everyone else to lose.

Wonder how to respond when this woman makes disparaging remarks about your daughter’s handwriting and spelling; when she corrects (incorrectly) your daughter’s pronunciation of a novel character’s name; when she brags that her kids walked much earlier than your daughter, who had developmental delays but is now a gymnast; or when she criticizes your daughter’s future marriage prospects after your daughter announces that Disney princesses are too dependent on men. You know that heteronormativity is par for the course in your conservative small town. Still, discover that the babysitter’s reaction to your daughter’s choices during the Game of Life adds another layer to your concerns about the childcare arrangement.

Clue

Players:

A mom who can’t play this game without remembering the time when she was nine that Natasha Landers insisted that she was cheating by making out the reflections of Natasha’s cards in her glasses

A ten-year-old daughter, doing pretty well, if a bit confused by her babysitter’s criticisms

followed by

That same ten-year-old daughter, still mostly healthy

That same babysitter

Those same babysitter’s children

Directions: Mr. Boddy is found dead inside of his mansion. The object of the game is to use deductive strategies to determine the killer, the murder weapons, and the room in which the crime occurred.

Expect that your daughter will be entranced by the colorful, cozy rooms and the adorable little weapons—the coil of rope, the cast iron lead pipe. Allow her to remain oblivious to the inherent sexism that the female game characters, Miss Scarlet, Mrs. White, and Mrs. Peacock,  are all titled according to their marital status while the male characters, Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum their professions. It’s best that you not point this out to your daughter, who might bring it up and be subjected to more of the babysitter’s ridicule.

Then make the vast mistake of teaching your daughter how to use the process of elimination to trounce her opponents. Be surprised that as a result, the babysitter’s family will accuse her of cheating. To win, it seems, is regarded as antisocial, though not so much when the babysitter’s children win.

Find yourself troubled by ambiguous messages about female achievement in opposition to the actual rules of the game, the bizarre idea that there is something not nice about logical thinking, that, in order to avoid disapproving opponents, players should confine themselves to random guessing.

Mancala

Players: A daughter, 10,

  • who learned to play Mancala at a museum, where a volunteer challenged her to a game, then, kindly, the mom thinks, allowed her to win ten times in a row.
  • Who then proceeded to beat not just her mom, but her mom’s friend with a genius IQ and her rocket scientist husband

and a mom

  • who gets beat every single time and feels secretly proud of her daughter every single time
  • who is totally okay with losing this one, unlike when she was young and couldn’t ever seem to win games with her cousins, who were sadistically pleased to disqualify her. Like during Scattergories, when the category was “Things that are cold” and the answers all had to start with the letter S, and the cousins jotted down sherbet, Siberia, snow, spritzers, salad, Saturn, then ruled out the future mom’s answers, like Socks in the freezer and then banned her answers again over what they saw as her misinterpretation of Category C, “Things to trim a tree” because they’d filled in words like candy canes, creches, and ceramic angels, while hers made her sound like the family psychopath, someone who’d once again failed the good girl test, a purple peg in the Game of Life, without any place where she fit, and she was convinced that they were just punishing her for her overzealous childhood competitive streak. Her own answers had nothing to do with holiday decorating: cutting tools, chainsaws, the cuticles of Edward’s scissorhands.

followed by

A Daughter, 10

The babysitter’s children, 11, 9, and 5

Directions: Players take turns removing stones from pits along the edges of a wooden board and depositing one stone at a time into neighboring pits, each time adding a stone to a larger pit, or bank, on the end of the board. The object is to collect the most.

“Why are you letting her win?” the babysitter will scold her children. “You’re the smart ones!”

“I’m not smart?” your daughter will ask you that night.

Terminate the babysitting arrangement. Thereafter, keep tabs on every mediocre performance and instance of unoriginal thought on the part of the babysitter’s children.

Apples to Apples

Players: A single mom

  • who basks in compliments about her daughter’s sharp wit or fast tumbling speed, but who runs the other way rather than cross paths with braggy moms in the grocery store
  • who knows that her aversion to boasting parents isn’t just about them, but about the person she becomes around them, reaching back to an insecure younger self, struggling, sometimes unsuccessfully, to resist the pressure to match their boasting
  • who tries just replying to their bragging, “That’s great!” or instead relates anecdotes that emphasize her delight in her daughter as a whole person, not just as a list of activities and accomplishments, or, alternately, asks questions designed to elicit the same sorts of stories about their children, though in response other parents eye her suspiciously, like she’s employing some sneaky technique for finding fault with them
  • who cringes at the fact that the high school honor roll is published in the local newspaper, and upon spotting her daughter’s name, feels less proud than relieved, then tense, knowing full well that her daughter’s increasingly frequent illnesses might knock her out of the running next time
  • who knows it’s unhealthy to see your child as an extension of yourself, your child’s wins as yours, even when she’s beating you, yet lives with a sense of vague dread, wondering how she’ll weather it when, not if, her daughter fails. When, not if, she loses. Because, after all, failure and loss are inevitable. Necessary even.

A daughter, 11-16

  • who has never shown much interest in going the extra mile for an A or seeking promotions to higher gymnastics levels
  • who used to be healthy more than she was sick, but then at fifteen flips that ratio, developing debilitating headaches and severe fatigue
  • who can’t get out of bed some mornings, who suffers from nausea and throws up constantly
  • who is at first sick for a week at a time, then two, then a month, then, in the spring of her junior year, misses five months. Gives up altogether during her senior year. Lies in bed.

and the mom

  • listening to other parents sort their children neatly into categories—valedictorian, prom royalty, champion athlete—fights to get homebound tutors just to keep her daughter from dropping out of school
  • worries her way through those quiet days when her child sleeps in her room, doesn’t pass Go, doesn’t collect $200, doesn’t even go upstairs, downstairs, all through the house
  • drops, or is kicked, out of the world of parental one-up-manship as doctors keep concluding, frowning and staring at their charts, avoiding eye contact, that the daughter’s problems are emotional. Psychosomatic. Stress. What doctors always say when they can’t make a diagnosis
  • is sent into a tailspin, wondering why the daughter would be so stressed that she can’t function
  • lives with a nagging belief that her daughter’s illness must be her fault. That she transformed from unacceptably competitive girl to harmfully competitive mom, that she was only fooling herself when she thought that she was taming and channeling that drive. Why else had she allowed the babysitter’s comments to throw her into such turmoil? Why else had she harbored so many barely-suppressed savage impulses toward this woman? How much had her reactions inadvertently pressured her daughter, allowing twinges of disappointment to show, deep fears of failure to surface?
  • is stricken with guilt that she caused this as her daughter squints at her through pained eyes
  • is convinced that she’d managed to head off the troubling messages of so many games only to send her child the worst one: that winning mattered too much
  • wonders why the braggy moms have managed not to damage their functional children, exceptional children, robustly healthy and energetic children who calmly get out of bed each morning and rake in awards and accolades while she just keeps thinking about more S things that are cold, like the Sorrow of believing that somehow, by enjoying winning, you have ultimately lost.

And then the daughter

  • finishes high school through homebound instruction, and when she walks across the stage, her mom will think about all of the kids not wearing honor cords, not raking in multiple scholarships, who maybe aren’t going to college at all, kids for whom this graduation, despite family crises, illnesses or disabilities, or the need to work to survive,  is a bigger achievement than anyone in the audience can ever imagine
  • eventually also will finish college, and over time her symptoms will be traced one by one to food allergies and other sources, all of them physiological, none of them, after all, related to her mom’s shameful lifelong competitive impulses, her deeply internalized belief that being competitive can hurt people, can cause lasting harm, but will always know that illness may not be a game you ever really win. Even if symptoms dissipate, recovery may not be quick. And then at any moment, despite all efforts at control, they may flare up again.

Directions: Apples to Apples is a game of comparisons. Its title suggests that it’s about comparing things that can be reasonably compared, unlike different children, which is like comparing apples to oranges. In the game, power rotates, each player serving as the judge and making capricious decisions, blatantly favoring their children or best friends, faking out opponents, or leveraging knowledge of others’ psychology.

If, for instance, you’re the judge and the word is boring, and to illustrate it, everyone else throws out cards that say The Shopping Channel, Shakespeare, and Sleepy Cats, your daughter knows it’s an easy point if she plays the Candyland card. Or say the word is sickening and your daughter is the judge: you know that she will choose, over Getting a Shot, Teenagers, and Gorillas, the card that says A Princess.

So often you have no perfect answer in your hand and you just have to select from limited options. You might get Intelligence but have no Honor Roll, National Merit Scholar, or Child Prodigy cards in your hand, but no cards, either, for Quick Comebacks to Any Insult, Ability to Assemble a Bookshelf in No Time, or Skill in Writing a Parody in Response to a School Acrostic Assignment.

For Courage, there is not, but should be, Girl Who Just Keeps Going despite Impossible Odds. For Love, or Pride, or Joy, no cards for the things you’re left with when life won’t let you play by anyone else’s rules. Mom who Learns to be Thrilled Whether Daughter Becomes a Doctor or a Dill Pickle. No cards for the things that are, after all, perfect, despite, or maybe because, of the fact that they’re so improbably miniature, so exquisitely tiny: cast iron top hats, thimbles, candlesticks, wrenches. Or because of the simple pleasure of their smooth, cool feel in your hands, like stones gently lining up in their little slots.

Nancy McCabe’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, Newsweek, Michigan Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. She’s the recipient of the Pushcart Prize and eight recognitions in the notable sections of Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She’s the author of six books, most recently Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir (Missouri 2020). 

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Guest Posts, parenting, parents

Driving With Mom

August 15, 2021
car

by Susan Cohen

The house is bathed in black. There are no lights to guide me.  I move slowly, step by step on the icy walkway covered with snow, clinging to the iron railing.  When I reach the landing, I stamp the snow off my boots and ring the doorbell.

I hear the quiet, gentle, familiar sound of the chimes echoing through the hall and then wait patiently for the lights to flip on and to hear the sounds of footsteps on the carpet.  But minutes later, the house is still dark.

The car is sitting in the driveway covered with a layer of snow, and I don’t see any fresh footprints along the walkway.  My mother never goes to bed before the 9:00 movie.  My heart beats faster, remembering how last winter she was anchored like in her chair, robotically bringing a cigarette to her lips, one after the other.

Reaching into the ceramic pot through a clump of gray snow, I feel the sharp edge of the key and then try to push the front door open with a firm shove. It resists opening as if it’s frozen shut, and I need to muster up all my strength until it finally gives in.  I wonder when the door was opened last.

“Anybody Home? Mom?”

The electric radiator is clicking away, struggling to heat the air through a film of dust. I fight the urge to sneeze.

I am beginning to regret my decision to hitchhike home to retrieve the backdrop for “Midsummer’s Night Dream.”  I came without warning because I didn’t want my mother to get excited, make a fuss, and start shopping and cooking, but I forgot after one year at college that she had a habit of folding inside herself during the cold dark days of winter.

I slide open the kitchen door, and I see my mother surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke.   She doesn’t jump up, shout my name in surprise and wrap me in her arms.  Instead, she is staring at the upper left-hand corner where the kitchen cabinet meets the ceiling.   Deep in concentration, her eyebrows meet in the middle of her forehead, and her eyelashes flutter as if she is dreaming sitting upright in her chair.

The plan was to take her to a restaurant for dinner and then borrow her car to drive to the summer cottage where the backdrop is stuffed in a trunk in her bedroom. But I can’t leave her this way.  I decide to take her with me. Perhaps the memories of sticky hazy afternoons dangling her feet into the lake from the dock will reignite and warm her spirit.

After I rinse and load dishes in the dishwasher and scrub away fried egg glued onto a frying pan, I sit opposite her at the kitchen table.  I push aside a burning cigarette that’s dangerously close to an open newspaper.

She startles when I gently touch her hand.

“You want to drive with me to the summer cottage?”

Her gaze moves down from the ceiling and but she doesn’t look at me. It’s more like she sees through me.

“It would be nice to get out of the house, don’t you think?”

I pat her hand gently. She nods, gets up from her chair, and slowly heads towards the coat closet.  This is a good sign.

I watch her quietly as she slips on the same ankle-length mink coat she has been wearing for over thirty years. Miraculously preserved, it’s still soft and shiny, and I feel an impulse to pet it, just like I did when I was a child.

Thrusting her hands into the deep pockets of her coat, she pulls out a red wool hat with a pom-pom and a brightly striped scarf that I wore when I was in junior high. If she was pushing a shopping cart, she could be mistaken for a homeless person. On a good day, I could tell her I am calling the fashion police, and she would laugh.

In the car, we sit on the icy cold seats and put on our seat belts. I crank the heater all the way up.  A chill from the night air seeps in as my Mom opens her window a small crack and lights up a cigarette.

She blinks as she exhales as if the smoke is stinging her eyes.  I am waiting for her to ask about my studies or ask if I am seeing someone.  As much as I long to hear her voice, I’m not in a mood to answer either question. All I hear is the purr of the fan.

Suddenly she giggles.  I don’t know why she’s laughing.  It’s silly to visit a summer home in the dead of winter, but I wouldn’t call it funny.  My grip grows stronger on the wheel until my knuckles turn white as I drive down the ramp and merge into the middle lane of the highway.

“Hope you’re in shape. We have to hike through the snow to our back door.”

She’s doesn’t turn to face me but keeps her gaze straight ahead at twelve o’clock.

“Have you been to the summer cottage in the winter before?”

I am afraid she has been hypnotized by watching the white lines fly by, one after the other, and is now even further away from me.  Perhaps I won’t be able to coax her out of the car, and I begin to fear we will be doomed to driving forever. I fiddle with the radio until I find a light rock station. Putting my hands firmly on the wheel, I keep the speed at a steady 65 miles per hour.

Then I hear Carole King’s voice.  I see myself, thirteen years old sitting on my twin bed looking at my poster of a fluffy white baby seal taped on my wall, and I begin to sing,

“It’s too late, baby, now it’s too late.”   

“What does this mean?”

She’s speaking!  Her voice is sweet and soft, like a bashful child.   But then I am confused, and I don’t know how to answer. There are several different possibilities.  She might want to know why we are driving to the summer cottage or maybe the significance of life itself.

“Are you asking what the song means?”

She nods her head up and down. Something as simple as being heard feels magical.  My shoulders soften.

“A woman fell out of love and wants to end her relationship.”

“Yes, but what does it mean?”

“I guess there comes a point in a relationship where you just can’t try anymore.”

Then my mother exhales smoke with a loud sigh.  She seems satisfied with my answer for now.

I want to ask her what “it’s too late” means to her.  But I am afraid her answer will bring memories that will force her back inside her shell.  I have memories of my own.  Like the night my father came home late after making full professor; purple balloons strung along the ceiling, a bottle of champagne sitting in a sea of melted ice, cheese dreams with a hard crust from turning cold.  At midnight my mother jumped, thinking she heard his footsteps on the landing was the sound of a tree branch blowing in the wind, rubbing against the windowpane.

A sign announces a familiar exit up ahead, and I panic because I can’t remember if I’m supposed to take it. I try to bring back the warmth from the hot sun beating on the roof, the sound of crickets through the open window to remember if this is the exit l took last summer. Meanwhile, the exit is coming closer.  I need to decide.

I feel a sharp tug on the steering wheel and the car veers sharply to the right.   Terrified, trying to regain control, I grab the wheel and pull to the left. The car begins to skid.  It spins into a circle and then falls gently against a snowbank with a muffled crunch.

I turn towards my mother, looking straight at me for the first time, and I let her have it.

“What were you thinking?  You could have killed us!  If you reach for the wheel again, I am going to put you in the back seat.  Do you want to sit there all by yourself?”

My mother is squished against the car door, looking small and helpless, but now she is looking me straight in the eye as she tries to defend herself, “The exit was coming closer, and you were listening to the radio and not paying attention..”

“Why can’t you speak to me instead of grabbing the wheel?  Why do you have to act crazy and scare the hell out of me like this?”

This is a familiar pattern.  The withdrawal, a blowup, and then the gentle trickle of confessions and regrets.  A slow slide to something that resembles normalcy where you say what you feel, and it’s possible to breathe love in and out.

We drive in silence for a few minutes.

“Sorry I yelled at you.  But you could have killed us.”

“Why are we going to the summer cottage, anyway?” Her voice is stronger, challenging me.  Only now she realizes how strange it is to go to a summer cottage in the dead of winter.

“I want to get the backdrop for our production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Ah, yes, it’s stuffed in the antique trunk in my bedroom.”

I sigh and take a deep breath. Although the spell is broken, there are more challenges ahead. I haven’t thought this through.  The snow might be so deep or icy that it is impossible to hike to the back door.  I didn’t even think to bring a shovel.  The door could be frozen shut.  Even if I succeed in prying it open, it would still take a miracle to hop through all the lawn furniture stored in the hallway, find that trunk, pry it open, and drag out that backdrop.  Even if I can set it free and reclaim it, it might be stained by mildew or, even worse, became a nest for baby mice or squirrels.

As we approach the lake, there are fewer and fewer street lights, just an occasional spot of yellow between long dark corridors.  When we reach the road closest to our house, there is a windy ribbon of snow leading to our back door. The snow has a slight crust on it, like cake icing.

Before I can take the key out of the ignition, my mother opens the passenger door, and a blast of cold air comes into the car.

She places her right boot on the snow, and she manages to stand momentarily when suddenly the layer of ice beneath her foot gives way with a loud crunch.  With one foot six inches below the other, she begins to lose her balance but manages to steady herself with her two hands extended out on either side. Images flash in my head of her twisting her ankle, me trying to lift her back into the car, looking for an emergency room back home late at night.  But she’s filled with energy and isn’t discouraged in the least bit.

She laughs, “I ate too many cookies.  I am just an old fatty.”

“Mom, it’s not you. The mink coat weighs a ton.”

I walk around the car and have us swap coats so that she can wear my light down jacket to reduce her weight. As I slip on my mother’s mink coat, there is the faint smell of sweat mixed with a hint of Channel Number 5 that I give her every year for Christmas.

“I will hug you from behind to help you keep your balance. One, two, three march!”

We sink just a little bit. Thankfully the edges of the ice aren’t sharp.

I start chanting a song we sang together when we hiked through the woods in the summer years ago.

Left, left, I had a wife, but she left.  My wife left me with 36 children, and there is no gingerbread left.

Crunch, crunch, crunch,  our feet keep pace with the beat. The snowdrifts form a peak reaching up to the roof.

“Oh my Lord, where is the door? Mom, I need to set myself free so I clear the snow.”

I release my arms from around my mother’s waist to walk around her from the left.  At first, the ice supports my weight, but then after just a few seconds, my foot crashes through.  I grab onto my mother for support.  We stagger and fell to the ground giggling, making two small craters where we lay side by side, our backs on the snow, our eyes to the sky.  The snow isn’t wet but instead squishes under our bodies like a soft cushion.  There is a grounding feeling of being flush with the earth.

I look up to see a long band of stars packed so close together they form a swirl across the sky.  I feel like I am a child again at the Planetarium, seeing a black field filled with lights.  There is awe in seeing the width and breadth of forever.

“Mom, look at the arm of the Milky Way.  It’s beautiful.”

“Did you know that there is a whole generation of children that have never seen the big dipper?  New laws are forcing businesses to shut off their lights so people can see the night sky.”

Ah, here is the mother I love, quoting US News and World Report, a river of words traveling through topics all over the world and through time.  There is that opening of the chest, the spark to the brain, the rapid exchange of thoughts and ideas, insightful, thoughtful, and rational.

“Mom, we could talk all night.  But if we don’t move, we’ll freeze to death. How can I even find the door through all this snow?”

My mother chuckles and then laughs.

“No need.”

“Mom, why are you laughing? You’re scaring me with this laughter of yours.”

“The backdrop is back home in the attic.”

“What?”

“I brought it back last summer when we closed the cottage. I thought you might need it for college.”

“And you just remembered now?”

I reach over and place my gloved hands on my mother’s neck as if I want to strangle her. We wrestle in the snow like we are two little kids.

We follow our footsteps back to the car.  This time separately, my mother leads, and I walk behind her, putting my feet in the same impressions in the snow.  After we settle in the car and fire up the heat, I hear about my cousin’s wedding and my uncle’s retirement.  After half an hour, she snores lightly.

I open the door to my home that this time surrenders to my touch easily, tuck in my mother, and place a kiss on her cheek.

Lying on my childhood bed staring at the wallpaper with vines running up and down the walls, I think about the patterns of my shared life with my mother;   the laughter, silence, withdrawal, absence, hospitalizations, medications, and her homecoming to start the cycle again. There are no facts but only theories about what triggers her slow disappearance; a bad gene, chemical imbalance, poor nutrition, failed marriage, empty nest, boredom, loneliness.  Perhaps it’s all of these things, or maybe it’s something simpler. Her spirit is searching for the calm that comes from having a witness, a caring soul to exchange her thoughts and feelings, the positive energy that comes from breathing love in and out.

Susan Cohen has had her work appear in Cyclamens and Swords, All Things Girl, Adanna Literary Review, Six Hens, and Chaleur Magazine and has been shortlisted twice for Glimmer Train short story awards. She is also the co-founder of a PR firm located North of Tel Aviv.

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Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, pandemic, Relationships

Building Mom A Bridge: How To Cross Over Seas and Pandemics

August 12, 2021
mom

by Amy Challenger

Connecting has never been easy, my overweight rescue coonhound reminds me with his fervent stare. He once refused eye contact when I found him at a dusty Northern California farm nine years ago running in circles as if entirely disconnected from other beings. This disconnected feeling has become one most of us have suffered with this year. We’ve had to find a way out of our own little heads, seeking a thread to others in strange ways — squishing eyes over masks, staring through screens, and waving at mouthless friends in parking lots or at bonfires. I found a way to build a bridge to my sick mom and other women this year, all the way over the Atlantic, in a way I wouldn’t have imagined without the pandemic..

In March 2020 after lockdowns began in Switzerland, where I live with my husband and children— my asthmatic then 78-year-old mother coughed heavily on her couch in South Carolina. She struggled to breathe on Facetime causing even her fox terrier Harry to point his long nose to the side. I was petrified. I’d just returned from Northern Italy where crowds of masked passengers packed my train, and truckloads of dead bodies appeared on my Ipad screen. To me, the pandemic was no distant myth like it still was for many of my American friends. So when my mom hacked, I said, “Get tested.’’ Naturally, she brushed me off. I’m the family worrier, afterall, and people were still spreading the ridiculous myth that only those who’d traveled to China could have COVD-19. A week later, her symptoms had made her so weak she could hardly walk. So she finally got to the doctor who diagnosed her with pneumonia. And due to a lack of access to COVID test kits, she still didn’t know if she had the virus.

At that point, my mom and I started connecting daily face-to-face, online. I felt helpless watching her suffer in her floral patterned bed. She listened to me jabber about home learning challenges and the risks of spreading COVID. My father who suffers from Alzheimer’s roamed nearby, peeking at the screen.  Thankfully my mother’s friend made arrangements to stay with her, and my nearby sisters visited regularly, but I wanted to do something too. Even if I could afford to fly to the US, leaving my husband working from home with my three kids home-learning— travel was unwise especially with my flaring autoimmune condition.

So aside from sending my mom pizza dinners, Amazon gifts, and Facetiming regularly, I needed a more meaningful way to reach her. What about writing together? I thought. My mom and I are both painters and writers. And years before, she’d attended one of my creative writing workshops originally designed to connect women in crisis through writing. I’d been trained to lead these sessions by the New York Writers’ Coalition in Connecticut to serve struggling moms of neurodivergent kids. After my mom visited a workshop, she’d said she loved the method inspired by Pat Schneider, a poet who created a format for all levels of writers to gather and seek what Pat called “the original voice.’’

So one morning my dogs and I had an idea as my mom flopped like a five foot pale doll in her dimly lit Carolina bedroom with Harry perched nearby, his eyes pooling with worry. She’d just become breathless trying to fix breakfast.

“I might start an online writing workshop— to supplement my normal Zürich workshops,’’ I remember saying.… “Would you want to join if I do it?” I kept my tone casual. She might think my suggestion idiotic.

“I’d love it.” Her voice quivered. “You don’t know how much I could use that.” I think my mom needed more than connection. She needed a way to use her creative muscles to heal and find hope. The pen, if filled with the stuff of her powerful mind, could help with that.

And so we started meeting weekly online with a small group of women. My mom woke early, dialing in, along with several writers from Switzerland and some from the US. We gathered from bedrooms, Swiss lakes, and offices to write about feeling stuck, about growing, about finding wellness through dialogue we created in separate rooms, but together.  In these two-and-a-half-hour sessions, we greeted each other, then penned responses to my visual or verbal prompts. We scribbled our bottled up stories into our notepads, and then we shared verses that continued on, for that small moment, into the spaces of others. These connections bound us. Each week we became closer, and I felt more like I was really touching my mom.

“What’s strong?” I asked after a woman read her work. It was a question I’d learned from my former teacher Valerie Anne Leff a fiction writer whose voice I still hear if I try. She taught me to treat everyone’s original words like a newborn. I attended her workshops for several years during a crisis with my atypical boy. This question, what’s strong, was one I needed to repeat even in the midst of my child and family’s pain— to find meaning.  It was also a question I had to ask this year. To my children, my mother, my husband, and workshop attendees, I had to inquire, what’s strong in your words, your work— in you and in others? I needed to identify my power, as I fumbled through my own identity in a pandemic.  When I felt insufficient, I had to dig for strength. This habit was the bridge to my mom then to all the other women who wrote with me, virtually.  Through asking for strength in workshop sessions, I touched the space between my mother’s world that flowed into mine. Her tales of waking as a child in her victorian home in Big Rapids, Michigan; her views on mothering three girls; savoring shades of fern; meeting my naval officer dad— these powerful narratives brought her to me physically.

As she shared, our stories transcended internet boxes, oceans, and expectations. Common threads emerged in verses that had little to do with the prompt, yet pieced our strange pet stories, our favorite flowers, our lonely walks together. My mother wrote poems that slipped under my skin. Her narratives incorporated the feel of a forgotten Christmas ornament, the voice of my grandmother calling her home, the pine scent of my grandfather’s cabin beside a river. My mom waded for her strength like she was in the river fly-fishing with her father, and I saw her emerge healthy while reading her own mind. Eventually, after weeks of workshops, she dialed in from the couch— rosy-cheeked like the mother I longed for, even if still on a screen beside Harry’s twittering tail.

Almost a year later, my mom and I still write online with many of the same women. She and my dad have been vaccinated and are bearing well, all things considered. My cats’ and dogs have become so attached to me, after a year mostly indoors, that sometimes I think I’m a pet too. Though we’ve got scars, we’re closer and stronger than we knew. We’ve survived a pandemic, afterall.

This summer my husband, three kids, and I plan to finally visit my parents. When I’m physically there, I’ll feel their hands and arms embrace me in a way I wouldn’t without our separation and our storytelling over the sea. But in the meantime, I’ll celebrate the power of all the unpublished parts of each of us. In these narratives, if we listen, we’ll find ties that bind us together, even over seas and pandemics— and maybe forever.

Amy Challenger is a contributor at The Washington Post, Newsweek, Huffington Post, International Living, Poets Reading the News, and elsewhere. She completing a novel about an atypical boy and his mom trying to grow and find truth in a work that wants everyone typical. Amy can be followed online at amyaveschallenger.com.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, death, Grief

Breathwork

December 1, 2019
breathe breath

By Nicole Cooley

Now I say mom and I float to the ceiling.

Meaning “ability to breathe,” hence “life” is from c. 1300. Meaning “a single act of breathing” is from late 15c.; sense of “the duration of a breath, a moment, a short time” is from early 13c. Meaning “a breeze, a movement of free air” is from late 14c.

Five months ago in New Orleans my mother stopped breathing.

Now at yoga class in the final pose—savansana— pose I struggle with most because I must sink into stillness– I know it’s wrong but I imagine a lit cigarette between my fingers.

My mother was the first person to teach me to leave my body. She taught me well and carefully and with gifts. In high school, she bought me cigarettes so I would not eat, left cartons each week on my bed.

Breath: Old English bræð “odor, scent, stink, exhalation, vapor” Old English word for “air exhaled from the lungs,”

Now I mourn my mother through breath. Each morning I lie on a mat in a hot room and squeeze my eyes shut and breathe her in. Or breathe her out. Yes, breath is supposed to anchor me in my body but I use it to exit my body, just as my mother taught me. I rise to the celling of the yoga room, alone and untethered.

I lie on the levee in the dirt and gravel. I lie on the sticky mat miles away from the house where she died.

Drown smoke suffocate. What is the difference?

I close my eyes and in my dream my mother is drowning in the river two blocks from her house.

In the dream I shake my mother awake. I ask her, with frustration, if she will go on being dead.

I only practice hot yoga, infrared heat that spills from vents and warms the floor. I love the punishing heat. And the intense heat echoes a New Orleans levee walk, all stifling humidity. I lower my body into plank, crush my breasts to the ground. Think of my mother’s body,

Breath from Proto-Germanic *bræthaz “smell, exhalation” (source also of Old High German bradam, German Brodem “breath, steam).

As a teenager, I’d come home from school to find a carton of Benson and Hedges on my white bedspread. My mother saran-wrapped and labeled all my food with calorie counts. 25. 50. 75. I stood in the refrigerator’s wedge of light and counted. I unwrapped a pack of cigarettes. It will keep you from being hungry, my mother explained. Celery. Grapefruit. Diet bread thin as dress fabric. A silver lighter she pressed into my hands.

Breath: an act of breathing: fought to the last breath

Yoga reminds me of the geometry of the body, the shape the body makes—So then what shape did my mother’s body make on the living room floor? What shape was her mouth when my father pressed his mouth to hers to perform useless CPR? What shape was she under the sheet on the stretcher at the Veterans Highway Funeral Home– who knew a funeral home has a stretcher but if you don’t pay for a coffin you get that? — when she looked so small and thin and what shape was she—altered?—when my sister and my father and I ran back to her to kiss her for a final time?

Drown suffocate smoke.

The irony is that after my mother dies, in the days after, in New Orleans, we eat. My father, my sister and me. And we eat very good food. Friends bring platters and trays and Tupperware, and it is delicious. The kind of meals I would not normally allow myself. The kind of food my mother would have forbidden me. Red beans and rice and sausage. Baked ziti. Cheesecake. Doughnuts. A half-bottle of wine.

Now at yoga class I fill my lungs with imaginary smoke. I imagine I flick a cigarette lighter over and over on and off till my thumb scrapes with ache.

Breath: opportunity or time to breathe; respite. Also, a slight breeze

I’m lying on the mat. I am under the heat vent. I am under the spell of yoga. Or I am just under— as grief’s water closes over my head.

My teenage daughters think the stories about my mother telling me to smoke are very strange. This was the eighties—a different time, I say.

Three days after she is dead, my sister and I clean out my mother’s closet and find 72 cartons of Salem 100s hidden – in boxes labeled “Taxes 2003” and “Family Medical 2010.” And yet my mother often told me, when we were alone: “I’ll never stop smoking.” Then why did she hide her cigarettes like contraband?

Breath—

Mother’s Day yoga is — as I know it would be — the worst. Why did I go? The teacher suggests we dedicate our practice to “your mother or a mother figure in your life” and I feel tears leaking out the sides of my eyes. Later she returns to it: “Think of the mother or mother figure and focus on a happy memory.” I want to ban this language. I want to run from the room. So instead I still just work hard as I can to no imagine it: the crematorium, my mother’s body on a shelf, flames, body who once housed my body, turning to nothing.

For so long I longed for another body—is this my mother’s fault? What could I tell you about my relationship to my body and my mother? What could she tell me now?

A different time, I tell my daughters.

Missing my mother is pain that though it can’t possibly be feels bone deep. My wrists are splintering. My hips lock shut. My jawbone burns.

My mother’s legacy: how I don’t want my daughters to long for another body.

After my mother dies, predictably, all I want is to smoke. Though I have not had a cigarette in more than twenty years. In my mother’s room, I suck on one of her old cigarette butts in the ashtray, set my mouth where hers imprinted, while my sister watches, alarmed.

I want to ban this language.

Putting my mouth where her mouth once was—

Do you want to go in and say goodbye to her feel free to take all the time you need to say goodbye to her—

What could my mother tell me now?

What can I tell my daughters?

Once, I remember my mother taking a photograph of me after a bad break up when I stopped eating, a photo at the edge of a pool while I posed in a blue striped bikini. As my sister and I finish cleaning out our mother’s study, I think about this bikini photo, and my sister and I toss the cigarette cartons in the trash, aware of the waste of money yet not wanting others to have them.

Breath: a spoken sound: utterance. Also, spirit, animation.

Nicole Cooly is the author of six books of poems, most recently Of Marriage (Alice James Books 2018) and Girl after Girl after Girl (Louisiana State University Press 2017). Her essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, Feminist Wire and the Rumpus.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Family

Family Table

October 13, 2019
table

By Kat Read

This was my family table: I’d open the glove compartment and peel a small stack of paper napkins off the pile wedged inside. I’d layer them over one another on the open door and then reach into the paper bag, extract the packets of ketchup, usually three or four. I’d squeeze the foil packets onto the napkins, scraping down from the outside with my fingers pressed together. I’d jostle the fries loose onto the tray. Then I’d take the salt shaker that we kept in the glove compartment and sprinkle more salt onto the fries – we really like salt, my mom and I – and I’d hand her a fry, crisp and kissed with ketchup.

My dad did most of the cooking in our house when I was little, but he died suddenly when I was fourteen. My mom has never liked to cook. “Cooking was never an interest of mine,” she’ll say to me now, but I know that’s not the whole story. After he died, it felt ridiculous to sit and eat an elaborate dinner at our big empty dining room table, like we were performing in a play that no one was watching. Here we are, sitting down to dinner, bravely carrying on. My mom was exhausted. She worked full time, took care of me, took care of our house, all while trying to figure out how to live the rest of her life without her husband. Cooking dinner was just not a priority. I covered the table with my schoolwork and we mostly ate prepared foods and fast food.

We drove an hour and a half together in the car each day, and we’d spend the time talking about my classes, her work, our friendships. We made jokes and we listened to music and sometimes we’d stop for fries. We had our dose of family togetherness in the car, so most nights when we got home, we’d retreat to separate corners of the house. My mom would eat a frozen dinner in the kitchen and I’d sit alone in front of the tiny TV in the living room. Sometimes, I’d make myself a paper plate of nachos: a pile of Tostitos chips and pre-grated cheese melted in the microwave, the whole thing sprinkled liberally with Kosher salt that we kept in a little Pyrex bowl next to the stove. I’d peel the chips off one by one and sink into a crunchy fatty salty bliss. When I was done, I’d head into the kitchen, say hi to my mom, and wipe the plate down with a paper towel before sliding it back into its spot above the microwave. Even now, I love to make a huge plate of nachos and devour them all by myself, luxuriating in solitude.

Is that sad? I don’t know. Sometimes I think it must be, especially when I hear other people talk about their food memories from growing up. We didn’t have shelves of sauce-spattered cookbooks. I didn’t learn to cook from my mom. We didn’t sit down together at seven o’clock sharp every night for a family meal.

And yet: sometimes, we would stop at Whole Foods on the way home from school. She’d helm the cart while I skittered around the store looking at the cheeses and the fruits and the sushi. We always ended up buying the same stuff: a baguette, a slab of good butter, a jug of grapefruit juice, and two cannoli with little chocolate chips studding the ends. We’d eat the cannoli before we left the parking lot.

When we got home, we’d pour two huge glasses of juice and sit on the couch. We’d tear off chunks of bread with our hands and punch the cold butter into the crevices with the tip of a knife. We’d sit beside each other and giggle and chat and watch other people cook on America’s Test Kitchen.

I still crave the pairing sometimes, the fattiness of the butter and the acidity of the juice. It is strange and unexpected, like the life we had to make together after my dad died. But we made it work, sitting side by side, facing forward.

Kat Read is a writer in GrubStreet’s Essay Incubator program, an intensive writing course based in Boston, MA. She recently published an essay on the intersection of therapy and writing on the Brevity Blog and an essay in Coastin’, a weekly arts magazine. Kat works as a fundraiser at GrubStreet and lives with her husband and their dog in Cambridge, MA.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Holidays

The Christmas Tree That Saved My Parents’ Marriage

November 30, 2018
tree

By Julienne Grey

Right before my mother died, she wanted to give me a gift. “I want to give you something,” she’d said. “Anything you want. Something special. What would you like?”

Surrounded by family photos and irises and loving cards from the years, in the room she’d chosen to die in, I wasn’t thinking of gifts. That week she’d been dipping in and out of consciousness. She’d glimpse a photo from her Mykonos honeymoon and say, under the influence of morphine, “It’s beautiful being here on this island.” I’d smile back and say, “Yes, it is.”

What did I want? I wanted my mom alive, alert, awake. But that wasn’t something she could give for much longer. And I didn’t want to make her sad. So instead I said, “Can I have a puppy?” Imagining a sweet little bichon or a shih tzu was the only thrill I could imagine in that room. But when I looked up, my mom had already fallen asleep. Continue Reading…

#metoo, Guest Posts, motherhood

Learning to Say No: #MeToo and Mothering

September 3, 2018
learning

CW: This post addresses unwanted sexual advances and may contain explicit language.

By Lilly Bright

“Mommy, I love this beautiful person staring back at me from the mirror!” my five-year-old daughter exclaims from the bathroom where she stands facing the sink. Inwardly I rejoice, then wonder how many of us women think that on a daily basis, or ever? An honest exclamation, wild joy for the person staring back at us in the mirror?

For the past year, I’ve been contemplating how to make a meaningful contribution to the #MeToo movement, a personal experience that could illuminate, an allegory, some teachable moment. Then last week, walking the streets of Santa Monica, an uncomfortable memory surfaced. One of those that never actually left but that also wasn’t a regular visitor. But there it was- Proustian in the way it overwhelmed my senses and severe in the way it challenged held notions of categorization. The event isn’t murky yet it’s felt this way whenever I’ve attempted to package it. For years I diminished what happened because I didn’t say “no” and the harassment didn’t strike me as apparent. But the truth is, a line was crossed, a red zone rife with sexual power-play and coercion. And it went like this: Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Family

What Reminds Us of Our Mothers

July 30, 2018
mothers

By Amie Newman

What reminds us of our mothers? What do we see, smell, think, hear that tilts us towards knowing? As adults we barely recall – or want to recall. For me, it’s Patti Smith. Her beautiful plain-ness strikes me like the dark murky mix of my mother’s turmoiled young adulthood. Young parenthood between two worlds. Poetic in its sadness. In its realness. Poetic in its young destructiveness.

Yet not without a maternal expression of love. Not without the desire to love, to be present. To be a poet. For my mother, as a young woman, through song. For Patti through song. To express the unexpressed yet deeply felt.

My mother searched for release in a man. In many men. The only place she thought she could find it. The only place her world allowed her to search.

Patti pushed through. Patti found herself and immersed herself afraid and real. Dipped full-bodied into the beauty of truth and pain and brilliance. Patti Smith is strong and smart and deep like my mother.

My mother is not her true self. Or maybe she is more of herself. But she doesn’t know who she is as she did not know decades ago as she did not know years ago as she’s never known. She’s lost herself to a society that told her she was not good enough, human enough, really, man enough — to be worthy.

What reminds me of my mother? The smell of cigarettes in bed, long fingernails and wet cheeks. Depression and laughter. Books and a tamped passion never fulfilled. What reminds me of my mother? Me, in my untamed emotion. Me, in my battles with my body. Me, in my love of people. Continue Reading…