Browsing Tag

mothers

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Hunting for Joy

September 28, 2023
Joy Kitty

Years after we had all moved out and gotten married, my mom bought herself a kitten. A medium-length tabby with soft gray fur named Jazz. Completely smitten, my mother went 100 percent cat lady and quickly decided that Jazz needed a friend. Along came a shorter haired gray kitty named Joy. My mom went gaga over these cats. They have more toys than I ever did growing up. She pays the cat sitter an exorbitant amount of money if she ever has to leave them. She lavishes them with more affection than I ever received. I’ve given my mother framed prints of her grandchildren and she responds with a curt thank you, but when given pictures of her cats she completely lights up.

Now when I bring my own children to visit, Jazz and Joy mostly hide when my rambunctious crew shows up. Eventually Jazz makes her way out of the bedroom and begs for attention, and then completely ignores you in the assholey way that cats do. Joy, the more timid and moody feline, avoids being held or even seen. Jazz sits on my dad’s lap every morning and they watch Perry Mason together. Joy, only shows her face for tuna fish and my mom.

Growing up we had a cat or two and occasionally a dog. There was a short run with a snake, fancy fish tanks and even ducks in the pond. My favorite, an overweight, odd-looking calico named Mittens. Her face and body, blotches of orange and black but all four feet seemed to be dipped in perfect white paint.  I was fond of Mittens. She often slept on my bed but could just as easily be found in the yard stalking prey or wandering off for days at a time. There were no photos of our pets on the Christmas card. Pets were pets. They were reminders to feed and litter boxes to clean. If you were lucky, you could catch one long enough to snuggle.

I’m not completely sure when my mom crossed over from stressed to anxious, but the line has long been crossed. I remember her always working, cleaning or worrying but it has gotten progressively worse over the last several years. She keeps notes on all the doors to not let her kitties out, but I’ve never once seen either of these cats attempt to go outside. They probably don’t even know what grass feels like, but the idea of them running away terrifies my mother. These days, a lot seems to terrify her. Simple things, like a deleted junk email can send her over the edge.

When I visit I hate that I can expect to be woken up by the sound of the vacuum before the sun is up or my mom attempting to wash the sheets while I’m still snoring in them. Lately, it isn’t only the vacuum waking me but my mom calling for the cats long before dawn. Jazz usually turns up, but Joy always hides. My mom searches every room, regardless who is sleeping, turning on lights and looking under beds for Joy. It almost always results in tears.

“Where is my Joy kitty?”

“Help me find Joy?”

“Did you let her out?”

This is not a one- time occurrence. This is every visit. Every morning.  She will not relent until someone gets out of bed and looks behind dressers and in closets never opened. On a recent weekend trip home, my father boiled crawfish that we ate by the pound. My daughter insisted on taking the boat to her favorite island. My son caught dozens of perch off the dock. The weather, food and company could not have been better.  My kids, sunburned and content, had barely argued all day. I decided to reward them with snow cones and returned long after my parents usually go to bed. My children came in laughing with blue raspberry snow cone stained lips and I worried that I’d wake them.  To my surprise my mom waited up, like I was a teenager. She was not worried about us, but wanted to be certain that we did not let the cats out. We watched her check the front door multiple times to make sure it was locked and the oven three times to make sure it was turned off before finally going to bed. She walked upstairs and asked if we could leave the bathroom light on for the cats.

I said yes without asking any questions. My daughter puzzled by this behavior went quiet. Her smile gone, but she knew better than to ask why. She turned to me and you could read the worry on her twelve -year -old face.

“Mom, how do you not have anxiety?” she asked, but what she meant was,

“Will you be like this too? Will I?”

I told her that of course I have occasional anxiety. Just not to that extreme. I reminded her of tools we can use to help and rattled off several examples. My preteen just sighed. “I know how to breathe.”

I want to assure her in a hundred ways that I am not my mother. I want to point out all our differences. That I sing loudly in the car, that I laugh often, I rarely cry over emails and that I run the vacuum even less. The truth, however, is that sometimes I do worry, I will catch “it”, whatever “it” is. This crippling anxiety. This unpleasantness for life.

This complete lack of joy.

And right that moment, I hear my mom calling downstairs. She is close to tears, “ Here, Joy kitty, where are you?”

My mom, forever hunting for Joy.

Michelle Hurst is a writer and educator in Texas. Her favorite topics to write about are faith, chronic illness, hope, family relationships, and middle age. You can read more at www.michellewallishurst.com.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Family

Her Body, At Rest

September 6, 2023
letter, envelope

Mom: I think we were quite young when it really started to kick in heavily. And then she was going every day to see a psychiatrist and we were told she was getting French lessons. We were never told what was so. We were never even told she committed suicide.

Julia: How did you learn that she did?

Mom: I guessed

~

When I go through the mail today, I see I have received an envelope from my mother. I’d know her cursive anywhere, her signature ‘S’– for Sally–a series of loops that used to leave me awestruck as a child.

It will either be a New Yorker article or her mother’s suicide notes. She’s been promising both for months.

I bury the envelope within that day’s small pile of mail where it sits, nestled between a ValuPak and a Company Store catalogue. I pass the pile every time I enter or leave my apartment, adding new mail to it daily.

We are standing in the vestibule a week later, when my husband Scott knocks the catalogues and envelopes to the ground for the third time. The small pile has become an unwieldy stack.

“Sweetie,” he says, with a raise of the eyebrow, “would you like me to go through the mail?”

“Oh,” I say, as casually as I can, “no. It’s on my list for today. I think my Grandma Marjorie’s suicide notes may be in there.”

“Jesus,” he says, with a shudder, and wanders into the kitchen ending the conversation.

As I lean down to pick up the scattered envelopes and catalogues, my daughter Esme looks at me with curiosity and says, “Maymay help?” At nearly twenty months, for her the commonplace is exciting and the trivial consequential. On another day, we might make collecting the mail a game. Today, I panic. She cannot touch that letter. She cannot hold that part of the past in her hands. She will be infected. Her brightness eclipsed.

“No,” I reply, all my usual gentleness disposed of. She looks confused for a moment and then her eyes fill with tears. She says simply, sternly to herself, “Maymay help. No.” I reach for her to apologize, but she is already walking away, managing her disappointment in me without me.

Left alone in the vestibule, my body floods with adrenaline. I have an urge the throw myself between my peaceful life and the envelope; to fling the papers out the window and watch them float to the ground like feathers. Or ashes.

Instead, I follow Scott and Esme into the kitchen to make plans for dinner. I do not touch the mail. The scattered envelopes remain until I restack them later, careful to hide the letter somewhere in the center, where it will not be seen.

The next day, while he is out and she is napping, I take the giant stack into the living room and sort it. Stripped of its pile, the envelope lies alone in the middle of the coffee table. White paper sitting on a black surface, it almost glows. I am suddenly tired. I lie down on the couch to rest my eyes for a moment. I wake up an hour later to Esme calling me.

“Mamaaaa? Maaaama?”

I head toward her room. I’ll open the envelope tomorrow.

~

Mom: What I remember happening in the house is just, I didn’t want to be there. And I translated it as a shame that the house was so big and we were so rich and the lights were always on. It was like showing off when I wanted to crawl in a hole. I remember someone who didn’t usually bring me home from a ballet lesson dropping me off at the house and me telling them I didn’t really live there. I was just visiting.

Julia: How old were you at this point?

Mom: I must have been nine, ten. Before our mother went to the hospital, but things were already really bad.

~

That night I dream I am marched into an arena filled with silent spectators and shot point blank in the back of the head. I feel my body hit warm hard dirt and sand. I feel my heart slow to a dull thudding stop.

I wake, sweaty and flooded by memory. I pad into the living room in the semi-darkness and stand in the doorway looking down at the table where the envelope lies, waiting.

It is eighteen years ago. I am twenty and sitting on the kitchen counter top of my childhood home, legs dangling, fists clenched sweaty on my thighs. Even though I’ve been gone for nearly three years, every homecoming still turns me into an angry child with sweaty palms and feet that don’t quite touch the floor. I hate this place. I hate the unopened moving boxes that have been gathering dust since we moved here ten years ago in 1990, peppered throughout the house like landmines marked ‘KITCH G’ and ‘BATH A’ in my mother’s long capital script. I hate the dust, the endless drafts that seem to pour through the walls, the way that— despite its many windows— the house always feels dark. I hate this kitchen, which was ripped out one weekend in a gleeful torrent of artistic ebullience when my mother’s college roommate was visiting with her daughters in 1992 and marked the beginning of a renovation that just never happened. We painted murals on some walls, others we ripped down to the studding. Eight years later, it’s all still there: the angels my mom’s friend Jamie drew, the multicolored phrase ‘WE CAN LIVE IN HARMONY’ I wrote over the door frame which was of course accented, in perfect twelve year old fashion, with a lopsided rainbow. I am just a visitor now, exiled by choice and obligation from my new life in New York City for this weekend visit, but whenever I come home I always leave gasping, as though I might be boxed up and left in the corner. Marked ‘J’ for Julia and never opened again.

I repeatedly bang my heels into the cabinet behind them— percussive and rhythmic: a pounding, a heartbeat. As if by making noise I will not disappear into the past. As if it will make her see me. The twenty-year-old version of the baby she pushed out of her body and the girl who—at seventeen— pushed her way out of this home. We spiral down anyway, chasing and fleeing. My heels, it turns out, are a drumbeat that drives us farther away from this moment and into the twistable memory of my childhood, of what was and was not.

We are not fighting about the fact that I was barred from wearing a bra or shaving my legs until I was well into high school. Nor are we screaming about the fact that once I reached thirteen and therefore passed the age my mother was when her mother died, she systematically started trying to remove all traces of me from the house by putting any belonging I had left outside of my room in our moldy mouse haven of a basement. KITCH G would last through the turn of the millennium but my Doc Martins couldn’t make it through the afternoon. No. We are screaming about my freshman year high school track meets, to which she made one frowning appearance with my brother and was never after seen again.

“You only came to see me run once! And you never said congratulations! You never said you were proud of me!” I scream, sounding like a rejected script page from Saved By The Bell. Tears are streaming down my face and I have failed us both in this. In addition to never discussing our shared past, my mother and I do not—as a rule— cry in front of each other. Crying is weakness. Survival dictates fury.

“You never said you needed me to! You never needed me that way!” she responds, shock and confusion on her face.

“Of course I did!” I don’t say.

“I still do!” I don’t say.

“After enough disappointment, I learned not to need you at all!” I scream.

I can see this remark land on her like a tidal wave, its weight crushing any idea that still exists that our relationship can be saved, that I understand her at all. She is crying now, in a ragged way that embarrasses me.

“You’re lucky I was even alive,” she says, quietly.

Alive. It is the one thing I cannot contest. The thing she gave that was not given to her; the offering that should forgive all other transgressions.

She looks at me. I look away. She breathes as if to speak but says nothing. I look at her to end the silence, to let her know it’s ok not to say anything, but she has looked down. This is the story of our relationship; we seek but never connect, we reach but never touch.

Then, quietly, she says, “Would you like to see my mom’s suicide notes?”

I stare at her, shocked. At her freckled cheeks and auburn hair. The ‘slipper’ nose she hates. The face I love but cannot tolerate. I do not know how to respond to this new offering. I didn’t know these notes existed, let alone existed in our house. I was seven when I learned my grandmother killed herself and nearly eleven before I saw a picture of her, discovered I had her eyes. I’ve spent my life since then wondering where behind our shared eyes her sadness might reside in me, and how I might scoop it out, a surgical procedure of total removal, always fearful of being eaten from the inside out, a nice snack for the darkness that swallowed her whole. If I read these notes, will I be welcoming something? Opening a door? But my mother has reached. I will reach back.

“Ok,” I say.

We pad upstairs. She goes first. I follow. We pass the boxes and the dusty furniture and wend our way to her room. I sit on the floor next to her bed while she rummages through her dresser and takes out several pieces of folded blue stationery. She shuffles them. She doesn’t look at me.

“These aren’t the originals,” she says, “these are copies Aunt Ellen wrote out for me. The cross outs are my mom’s, though. Apparently at the bottom of the one to us there were water marks that Ellen thinks means she was crying. Anyway, here you go.” I take the pages and perch in a patch of sunlight on the edge of her bed to read. She hovers nearby.

~

Back in the present, three days later, I orbit the envelope, still on the coffee table. When it comes to Grandma Marjorie, I’m a satellite circling a planet I will never catch but cannot release.

In the early hours while the house was quiet, I dreamt I was dying of some unnamed illness and leaving my daughter behind. There was nothing I could do to stop it. I felt myself reach for my life, my child. I felt them both slipping away. I woke in the darkness sure that I was ill, disappearing and spent the morning checking my body for the tender swollen places death might live.

I am angry with a dead woman for bringing her despair into my home. I am angry with myself for inviting it.

I have spent years building walls of safety, relegating the chaos of my childhood to tiny piles. My daughter’s life is peaceful and her joy, infectious. In our home, there is evidence of her everywhere. I want her to grow up never questioning her place in the fabric of our family, never doubting my presence or my love for her. She doesn’t know that darkness is her birthright and I have no intention of teaching her.

I imagine my mother sending me her past, trusting me to hold it so she no longer has to. My mother who has gentled, who has turned her grief and rage into a soft forgetfulness, a longing to connect, to be close; who keeps urging me to take ‘all this pain and make something beautiful’.

I pick up the envelope and turn it over in my hands. There are four sheets of paper inside— copies of the handwritten copy I read eighteen years ago— folded neatly into the pocket of a navy note card from my mother; a golden eclipsed sun and many stars that says simply, in her long, loopy script:

As promised.

Love you

sweetheart.

~

Mom: I mean, there are people who have known me for a long time that don’t know my mom committed suicide. People know Ellen about an hour and a half and they know.

Julia: Why do you think that is?

Mom: I think I would say that I’m ashamed somehow. That’s not what mothers do. That you can’t even…you know…not even for you.

~

After reading, I fold the pages and sit, holding them in my lap. I think of my daughter’s tiny body, asleep in the next room, safe in her knowledge of me. I imagine my mother as a child, suddenly motherless. I remember myself at twenty, sitting with these same pages, my mother just across a patch of sunlight. Through time and space I feel my mother look at me. I look back. We reach.

Julia Motyka

Julia Motyka is a writer, performer, and yoga teacher. She lives in NYC with her husband, two kids, and an ever-growing menagerie of animals. She’s working on a memoir and an essay collection. Occasionally she posts things @juliamotyka_me. Maybe she will tweet someday. That day is not today.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Family, healing

Neverland

June 29, 2022
art

I am wandering around inside The Quadracci Pavilion building of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the building that’s shaped like a giant cruise ship run aground. Or maybe it’s supposed to be shaped like a bird with its wings outstretched or, possibly, a beached whale, its bones bleached by the sun. I am far from home in a lakeside city loved by tourists but I am not on vacation. Instead, I have driven from southern Minnesota to Milwaukee, a drive that normally takes 5 hours but yesterday took me eleven in sleet and snow, so that I can visit my daughter. So I can bring her home.

Yesterday, as I drove the ice-covered roads, I saw car after car after semi after truck in the ditch, and was witness to an accident. I called my daughter along the way with updates, letting her know I was still coming. Letting her know I’d be there soon. But travel was slow. Too slow, it turned out. The last time I called, telling my daughter that I’d be just a little longer, she sobbed that they wouldn’t let me in late. They didn’t have adequate staffing. I missed visiting hours by 15 minutes. They would not let me see her, they would not let me in.

Had she looked out the window of her hospital-like room, she would have seen me looking up for her as I drove my Jeep to my hotel just one block away. So close yet so far. I parked my Jeep in a nearby ramp, wiped away my tears, pasted on a smile so I could present myself at the front desk. Checked in to my hotel. Found my way to the elevator. Made my way up to my room. After eleven hours on the road, bumping and sliding along, with my daughter just out of my reach every mile of the way, my body was sick from motion and emotion. Quaking in my legs. Queasy in my gut. Grieving in my heart. I set down my suitcase and the bag of things I’d packed to bring for my daughter – the soft purple quilt I made for her high school graduation, a book, her favorite lipsticks, some art supplies, a warm sweater – and then, too exhausted to get to a chair or the bed, I laid my body down on the floor.

The next morning, the treatment center staff made an exception to the “no guests at mealtime” rule because I had traveled so far, and they allowed me to join my daughter for breakfast. Arms full with my coffee and to-go breakfast and my daughter’s quilt and things, I was buzzed in and rode the elevator to reception. I signed in, was met by a staff member and told they would not let me bring in my daughter’s quilt because it’s not store bought – regulations of some sort – so I leave it in the locker with my coat, my purse, my phone. Another elevator ride. And there she was. My daughter not looking like herself. Hair buzzed short. Eyes with dark circles. Her olive skin sallow. More like a lost little girl than a woman of nearly 20 years who two months previous was traveling the world, who one week ago was attending college and living on her own.

I pulled her into my arms and kissed the top of her head. She smiled some, but cried, too. She was hesitant. Quiet when she talked. Unsure of her responses. She is not doing well. Sick. Mentally ill. Eating disorder. All sorts of words are used to describe what is going on with her but I don’t see diagnoses, I see my daughter and I can see that she is not herself. Unless this shell of herself is a new normal for her. I don’t know. I will love her no matter what state she is in – physical or mental – but now she is in a mental state that is not a good one and a physical state that is hours away and all I want to do is bring her home.

We had breakfast together. Me food from Starbucks. She a dietician-planned meal on a compartmentalized tray. She was eating fine until I brought something up that made her sad, caused her to stop. Somehow I said something else, trying my best to make it all better, and she started eating again. She finished almost all of her meal. I did, too. Then I was allowed to sit in on a meeting with her dietician and therapist. They are kind and I can tell that my daughter likes them. I wanted to talk about a plan to get her treatment closer to home so my husband and I can see her, support her, help her. But as we talked, it was made clear that this is where my daughter needs to be, that I would not be taking her home.

Meeting done, it was time for my daughter to go to programming. And time for me to leave but I did not know where to go. I took the elevator down to the mail floor. Walked out the glass doors then down the block, into the hotel. I took the elevator up to my room, dropped off Rose’s quilt, rode the elevator back down, stepped out into the cold, cold, air and started walking because I did not know what else to do. I did not know where to go.

I tried to open the door of a historic church so I could sit inside, rest and get warm –  visiting churches during our travels is something my daughter and I like to do – but the door was locked. So I started walking again. I did not know what else to do. Soon I could see the lake not far away. How far had I gone? A mile? More? I saw the art museum, its great ship or bird or whale body beached there. I decided to go there.

I walk into the labyrinthian galleries of art hoping for respite but immediately I want leave. To get out of there and go see my daughter and take her home. But visiting hours aren’t until 4:30. Hours from now. And I can’t take her home. I am wandering in the neverland of parenting a young adult who makes choices of her own. Why can’t I still be the mom who can make the decisions for my daughter who is struggling?

But I’m not. So I am here, here in the belly of the whale or the bowels of the ship or stuck in the gullet of a giant bird. There is beauty all around me but I cannot enjoy it. There are sculptures by Degas, Russell, Rodin. There are paintings by O’Keeffe, Renoir, Monet. Photographs. Pottery. Furniture. Art from long, long ago and art from recent years. My daughter would love this place. If things were different and she was here, she would wander the galleries with me, comment on the pieces of art that she adores.

I wander amongst the sculptures and paintings, wending my way through another of the art-filled rooms when I hear a low thrumming. The noise fills my ears, ebbs and flows like water lapping on a shore. Puzzled, I look around, wondering about the source. Is it the heating system thrumming in the background? That doesn’t seem right. Museums are always so quiet.

I think about what a great semester my daughter was having; she had just switched her major from Chemistry to Studio Art. She has always been an artist at heart. Just yesterday she was a little girl smiling, laughing, pointing at artwork alongside her little brother as we walked through the galleries of the museum near our home.

I continue to wander around the museum, that low and constant sound buzzing in my ears all the while I am thinking thinking of how my daughter has withdrawn from college so she can get better. Thinking of her bravery in knowing she needed help and finding it. Thinking of the struggles she’s had these past three years. Thinking of how I do not get to drive her home.

I stop in a room, the art swirling around me. The humming continues and it is only now that I have stopped that I feel the vibrations in my throat, radiating down to my heart. I am the source of the noise. I, who so often sing and hum to bring myself joy and comfort, have been moaning deep and low, a keening hum.

I begin to walk again, still humming deep and low, and notice paintings of children with their innocent smiles and portraits of mothers and daughters together. These strong young women with bright eyes and steady gazes seem to look out of their gilded frames, right at me, as though to say, “She will get through this. You will get through this.” What do they know of my daughter and her struggles? What do they know of the ache in my heart?

I’m not sure I believe them, these women captured in paint on canvas, but, as I head back outside into the cold and start the walk back to see my daughter, I decide that I must believe them, that I must cling to the hope that, yes, some day my daughter will get better. That some day she will make it back home.

Myrna CG Mibus is a writer and bookseller living in Northfield, Minnesota. She writes articles on topics ranging from aviation to afternoon tea and essays on family, motherhood, and life. Her work has been published in a variety of publications including Feminine Collective, Grown & Flown, Minneapolis StarTribune and Wanderlust Journal. When she’s not writing, Myrna enjoys baking, bicycling, gardening, reading and being mom to her two young adult children.

***

Have you ordered Thrust yet? 


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Trauma

Toodie

May 29, 2022

My father’s mistress was dying of vaginal cancer and my mother went to see her.  I can imagine how disarming Mom was when she entered the hospital room of her rival.  I’m sure she stopped to check her make-up under the harsh fluorescent lights of the hallway, and dabbed Ooh La Pink lipstick over a smile she’d rehearsed in the car’s rear-view mirror. She would have pulled up her girdle and sucked in her stomach before entering the sterile room with a vase of American Beauty roses from our garden.

Mom would have posed the bouquet on a table with the largest blooms facing the bed and paused to admire the flowers. With the same gentle hands she would have touched the shoulder of her rival’s once voluptuous body, now flaccid, rank and shrouded in blankets the color of her parchment skin. My mother probably held Liz in her arms while she cried and begged forgiveness.

The story goes that Liz said God was punishing her for the way she had lived her life,  and Mom said she knew Liz never meant to hurt anyone and only wanted a little happiness for herself, and God wanted us to be happy, and fun and laughter were gifts from God.

They’d shared the body of a man who could not love them, like all the men they’d known who told them what to do, who to be, and never saw who they were. To Dad, they were just “Broads makin’ a comeback.” Defeated by the prize-fighter who had to win each round, the mistress and the wife, the floozy and the saint, probably rolled their eyes and laughed at their lousy taste in men.

I know my mother thanked the mistress for making my father happy and giving me a Madame Alexander doll.  I’m sure Mom kissed the once strawberry-red crown of hair. Liz died one week later.

All hell broke loose. Liz’s death and Mom’s mercy were the talk of the town. Someone gossiped. I bet it was one of the fishwives at church or a customer from Dad’s bar, who derided Liz’s confession and Mom’s benediction.  I would like to pause here and tell the gossips about the upshot of their slander. Fifty years later, I want them to know, my bond with my mother was forever broken.

One night, there was a crash, a thud, a whimper and I ran from my bed to the living room to shield her from him. One of my parents must have said the name that must not be spoken.

The words “No Daddy No,” choke my throat.

Mom screams, “Toodie Toodie Toodie,”

A shadeless lamp lies sideways on the carpet among Mom’s books. The dog yelps in the corner. Dad must have kicked it and a pane of glass from the French door.  My feet might be cut but there is no blood. There is a rip in the frill of my Peter Rabbit nightgown but I keep screaming, “Please don’t hurt her anymore.”

Mom wraps her arms around my fat tummy. There is blood on the yoke of her nightgown.  Dad must have shown her the back of his hand. His brick-red knuckles bulge through leathery hairy skin. My father’s face is demented; a snarling werewolf with vicious hazel eyes stares down at me.  I meet his stare, and love the way my ten-year-old body feels. This is the ugliest part of me. How much I love my own anger.

“Toodie, Toodie, Toodie,” Mom yells.

***

Today, when I replay this memory, my knees still turn to jello. I gasp for breath and do not understand why she used to call me Toodie. Perhaps it was from a limerick or refrain that soothed her like a blessing that became my curse. Toodie never Clare, or any of the other names on my birth certificate, Sharon, Lynn, Hermine. Toodie was an apparition only Mom could see. I was exiled for seeing the truth.

Call it trauma, but either way the wound made me go sideways through life. The sounds of violence revved my amygdala into overdrive. The weight of shame lodged in my gray matter. Call it the curse of the ancestors, passed down in grandmother’s amniotic fluids, but we all know that when the truth hurts—the mind and the body go blank and the soul flash freezes.

Mom spun our response to the scandal like a Public Relations pro, with a stiff upper lip.

She decreed that boarding school would be an enriching experience. Being educated by nuns and living with girls like me would make me strong. After all, Mom had been sent away to British boarding school during her formative years.  I was sent away to protect me from gossip.

The taillights on Dad’s Cadillac disappeared down the driveway of Saint Joseph’s Academy.  I stood beneath the statue of Mother Mary and touched her outstretched palms and prayed to her for her protection. The Blue Lady did not shimmer or speak. Her heavenly dress was faded by the sun. Her smile had faded too.  Our Lady of Grace could not comfort all the sad sad girls who stood at her feet and shared the secrets of their hearts. The Blue Lady did not bless me. I could not feel her touch or the love in her heart for me. I could not feel my breath.

The Mother was mute.

“Stop pouting,” Sister Alice, my fifth grade teacher said, “You should be grateful to be here.”

I had escaped my parents’ marriage. Outlaw classmates taught me to pilfer frosty bottles of chocolate milk from an ancient vending machine, and penny-candy from the nuns’ closets. I was initiated by broken girls like me, who got angrier and fatter each month.We all woke up sobbing at night, and sought salvation in pancakes and deceit.

The rush of escape was an adrenaline high as potent as free sugar.

 

Clare Simons is aging gracefully in Portland Oregon and awaiting further instructions from the universe.  She has been deeply loved by a Guru and by a great man, and has come to understand that those loves are one in the same. Her memoir, Devoted explores faith, doubt and food.   

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Have you pre-ordered Thrust


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, aging, Family

On Aging: Lessons From Mother and Grandmother

May 8, 2022
mother

By Chantal Laurie Below

 

I never knew Gaga without a cane. A drunk driver hit my paternal grandmother in her 50’s while she grabbed clothes from the trunk. Immediate surgery ensued where doctors attempted (successfully) to save her leg by fastidiously cleaning gravel from her flesh and performing skin graft after skin graft. The accident left her with a limp, chronic pain, and a concave thigh. Her wooden cane, hand painted with a chain of flowers by her daughter’s best friend, Millie, then accompanied her everywhere, along with a set of pillows and a floor stool she arranged and rearranged to find mild comfort while sitting. Those accouterments, along with my grandmother’s stooped posture and ever-shrinking 5-foot frame meant she seemed ‘old’ for as long as I could remember. She had skin spots, jiggly jowls, brittle nails, tissues tucked up her sleeve, and declining hearing that made her lean in and ask, ‘Say?’ when she needed something repeated. She had boobs so responsive to gravity’s pull over her 85+ years that she had to bend at 90 degrees and scoop them up in her bra. Her standard attire: cashmere cardigans with a pair of ironed slacks and orthopedic shoes. Her favorite show: CSPAN. These markers reinforced to my childhood self that Gaga must have been born old. She fit the part so well, perfectly cast as a loving, elderly matriarch.

Since Gaga contentedly rested in her recliner by day and exuded delight with a, ‘Hello darling girl,’ whenever I called, my child, teen and younger-adult selves didn’t consider all she’d had and lost over the decades: mobility, health, freedom, friends. But as I hover in middle age, I can’t help but wonder about the complexity of her aging experience.

My aunt and grandmother lived together in Little Silver, New Jersey in a split-level condo with bedrooms on the upper level. As a kid, I coveted the electric chair that took Gaga up the dozen plus stairs morning and night. Getting to ride it was infinitely more exciting than an airport escalator and a thrill just beneath a Six Flags roller coaster ride. ‘Why can’t weeeeeee get one?’ I begged my parents. I never considered that Gaga used to walk up those stairs, and then one day, she couldn’t. The risk of her falling backwards made the activity too unsafe. 44-year-old me now wonders what that chair represented to Gaga. Did she feel defeat on installation day? Or did she gracefully surrender to the reality of dwindling balance and fatigue?

Gaga drank a cup of joe every morning with a prune settled at the bottom. She hated prunes but they ‘kept her regular,’ offsetting the side effects of her bevy of meds. Once saturated in coffee, the taste of them became tolerable.  Did Gaga used to drink prune-free coffee on the go as she raced to drop kids at Red Bank Catholic, I consider now? Did she miss when coffee wasn’t an undercover laxative?

At the end of her life, she brushed her teeth with a Dora the Explorer mini toothbrush, the perfect size for her tiny mouth with bristles so gentle they wouldn’t harm her vulnerable gums. Could her body, years before, withstand a standard Oral B toothbrush? Did she buy a Nickelodeon branded one with humor or a twinge of pain, confronting the humbling interconnection of cradle and grave?

Peeking behind the curtain of Gaga’s more intimate transition into old age discredits my, ‘I’ll juke the curse of arthritis and osteoporosis because I wasn’t born old’ delusion. Being with her memory reveals a shocking and obvious truth: none of us are born old, but we’re bound for it, and all it entails, if we last long enough. 

My mother’s further proof of it. 

Mom used to dog-ear pages of Bon Appetit magazine and experiment with extravagant meals for dinner parties: gazpacho to start, coq au vin for the main, poached pears for dessert. We lived abroad as Americans which meant access to British and Parisian dinner guests for mom to impress over the fine meal and a full-bodied red. Among new friends she practiced foreign terminology with delight, letting ‘rubbish’ and ‘tres bien’ roll off her tongue. Once, at a Thanksgiving dinner she cooked, our rowdy family friends and fellow ex-pats, the Lynch family, helped us move the dining room table aside for a dance party and mom willingly rocked out to Tone Loc’s Funky Cold Medina.

While humble and South Bend, Indiana to her core, mom also seemed to be born glamorous. When The Big Chill came out, people stopped her in grocery aisles for her autograph, convinced they’d confronted Mary Kay Place. She insisted on ‘putting her face on’ every morning, religiously purchased Lancôme anti-wrinkle creams, and got her hair done every week with Aida at Scissors Palace. She wore a fur coat, gold bracelets, diamond earrings and patent leather heels to the Royal Ballet or a performance of Les Mis in the West End with visiting family.

Mom never sought adventure, but she married a curious, restless man in search of a wider view of the world and somewhat willingly served as the Lewis to his Clark. When my dad initiated a purchase of a Stratton, Vermont vacation home in the ‘80’s, she learned to ski as an adult in freezing temperatures where her anxiety tears turned to icicles at the top of the North American run. She boarded my dad’s first sailboat in her 40’s, wearing foul weather gear as they navigated the English Channel in fall; mom’s face expressed terror with every, ‘Jibe ho!’ She never loved skiing or boating, but got on the chair lift and boarded Merocha with an able body and can-do spirit that mirrored her Midwestern roots. 

For her entire adult life, mom never stopped moving.  She stood at attention for anything astray in the home. She noticed a lone mug that belonged in the dishwasher, a tilted painting on the wall requiring straightening, a water glass in need of a coaster.  She kept countertops organized, always found laundry to fold or iron, and ran errands to the dry cleaner or post office with the fervor of an Amazing Race contestant. When she walked multiple city blocks from Cullen’s market to our house on Redcliffe Road – carting grocery bags filled with orange juice, a baguette, and popcorn kernels – she’d grit her teeth, feel her fingers numb, and pick up her pace.

Mom wasn’t born old, but ‘old’ has been circling her for decades, like a mosquito buzzing in and out of her personal space being successfully swatted away.

In 1992, at 47 years old, mom had her first brain aneurysm. It ruptured, a stroke accompanied it, and thanks to quick, excellent care, she survived. She had a shaved scalp, couldn’t drive for months, got labeled ‘tremendously lucky’ and life went on. About a decade later, doctors discovered another aneurysm before it burst. They clipped it and reminded her, ‘You’re tremendously lucky.’ Mosquito swatted.

Then, she started falling. She’d fall on walks with a friend and come home with a black eye. She once fell down a flight of carpeted stairs and, while shocked, brushed it off like the Terminator. She tripped on steps that resulted in bloody knees and bruised shins but insisted, ‘I’m fine’ and hobbled around the house.

As the falls increased over the years, along with mood changes and confusion, mom received a diagnosis of Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH), essentially fluid on the brain caused by head trauma. Six years ago, when mom turned 70, a neurosurgeon implanted a shunt in one of the ventricles of her brain and her symptoms largely reversed within a week. The doctors reinforced, ‘You’re tremendously lucky.’ Mosquito shooed away.

In March, 2021, I think the mosquito bit her.

Mom took a walk with her sister and barely made it a hundred yards before she fell. She somehow ricocheted off a truck’s bumper and then fell backwards on the concrete. She bled from cheek and scalp. A few weeks later, her eyesight began rapidly declining. ‘Optical nerve damage caused by the fall,’ the neuro-ophthalmologist reported, ‘It’s permanent but won’t get worse.’

Then, on Mother’s Day, she lost the ability to walk or speak; my father rushed her to the emergency room. They adjusted her shunt, her mobility and use of language returned, and she checked into a rehab facility for physical and occupational therapy. Dissatisfying incremental improvements led doctors to consider the possibility of a faulty shunt. In July, she had more brain surgery to replace it. Slow and steady progress post-surgery built hope. Then, in August, mom lost her balance in her dressing room, fell, and broke her arm.

Since last March mom’s been so unsteady on stairs she needs a railing and my dad’s assistance to maneuver up and down them. She can’t drive, cook, apply makeup, or read anymore since her sight is so compromised. Activities like emptying the dishwasher or loading laundry are risky now, able to throw her off balance, so she prioritizes wiping down countertops and reminding my dad to pick up her prescriptions. Her processing ability is impaired so conversations with more than one person prove hard for her to follow, determining when or how to interject alludes her. The most banal elements of life that normally live in the shadows as boring or unmentionable are suddenly center stage for her; going to the bathroom, bathing, getting in and out of a chair, and dressing are now time-consuming liabilities. She teeters when she walks, a bit like an overly confident toddler just finding their sea legs and seemingly tipsy off the grog. Those of us watching her are like overprotective parents wanting to honor her freedom while desperate to catch her if she falls. This growing instability means she sits a lot, listening to Gone with the Wind or watching the news and movies on TMC where she can only vaguely make out the blurry figures.

At 76, mom suddenly seems very old, and she’s gone from shooing a single mosquito to navigating a Louisiana swampland infestation of them. Now it’s her sight, balance, cognition, broken arm, and long-time arthritic knee. It’s a multi-front assault that accompanies questions without clear answers: When’s the right time for in-home care? How do we encourage hope? Can she really withstand that knee replacement surgery? Will a wheelchair keep her safe or erode her will? Is it safe to leave her alone?

I know seniors everywhere are grappling with similarly significant and emotionally fraught decisions – with consequences that are often crushing. 

It oddly reminds me of giving birth. After I had my first child, I took sitz baths to promote vaginal healing and walked around our house topless for weeks to give my raw nipples a fighting chance to heal. While nursing my daughter in the middle of the night I wondered with genuine alarm, ‘How is this something most women on the planet do? Why wasn’t I warned?’ While I can see the beauty of the postpartum experience, I struggle to see the beauty of the battle in which my mother’s an involuntary warrior. I do, however, wonder now, just as I did then, ‘How is this is something so many of us will do? Why wasn’t I warned?’

I feel warned now. And, I’m heeding the warning with vigor because ‘lasts’ are coming on a timeline I can’t foresee.

I’ve done ‘lasts’: last high school graduation, last day teaching 4th grade, last time living at 1010 Elsinore Ave. There was an unceremonious last time I carried my now 5’5 12 year old on my hip after years of lovingly, and often indignantly, responding to her ‘uppie’ requests. To date, ‘lasts’ have brought change, unearthing loss and possibility. But witnessing my mother’s decline alerts me to lasts on the horizon that seem devoid of possibility: the last time I leave my house or the last time I recognize my child. Mom and Gaga last walked up the stairs without assistance on a date no one can remember. 

I want to both stave off those unforgiving ‘lasts’ and savor my abilities now. I’m holding Warrior Three just a few extra breaths to strengthen my balance in yoga class. I’m planning a family whitewater rafting trip in Jackson to scratch my ever-present itch for outdoor adventure. I’m scheduling that platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection for my Achilles tendonitis so I can continue running with my neighbor. I’m working over-time to carpe diem while trying to quell the anticipatory distress: my life will one day become a series of unwanted ‘lasts.’

And yet, when I call to check in on mom and ask how she is, she offers an honest and uplifting, ‘Pretty good!’ followed by, ‘Didn’t do too much, really.’ Miraculously, grief doesn’t show up like a layer of suffocating wildfire smoke in our conversations. Instead, there’s gratitude for her physical therapist, (‘He is terrific, Chantal,’ she assures me), and glee over a Notre Dame football victory. Maybe it’s her declined executive functioning or her decades-lived-by-adage of, ‘It is what it is,’ that keep regret and depression at bay. Maybe it’s 76 years of a life well-lived that facilitates the acceptance of slower, simpler, less autonomous living.

Maybe it’s our human condition and commitment to survival. Dr. Diane Meier, geriatrician and founder of Mount Sinai’s Center to Advance Palliative Care, shared in the 70 Over 70 podcast, “It is remarkable how people adjust when finitude becomes visible. Things that our younger selves would have said would not have been a life worth living, we change our minds…We cannot know how we’re going to feel in the future when we might need a wheelchair or cane or dialysis. What seems completely unacceptable to our younger, healthier selves becomes acceptable when the alternative is death.”

I don’t know for sure why my mother’s so seemingly ‘fine’ when her aging process fills me with sadness and dread. I’m mourning the traveler, chef, and host she can no longer be and the identities I’ll lose as frailty becomes me. 

But witnessing her, and my grandmother before her, also offers me intellectual solace.

I passed by a young mother last week on her way from house to car whose journey down a dozen stairs with an infant and two toddlers looked harrowing. As she yelled, ‘Hold on to the railing!’ to a son who seemed more interested in face planting into concrete than heeding caution advice, I consciously noted, ‘I’m so happy not to be her anymore.’ Of course I miss the sensation of a sweaty baby nestled in an Ergo on my chest, but having lived through those days, the freedom of initiating an impromptu date night without scrambling for a sitter and the delight in reading The 57 Bus, not Good Night Moon, with my daughter is intoxicating. Maybe if I live to 76, I won’t miss Little League sideline chatter or our family’s annual hike of Yosemite’s Mist Trail. Maybe I’ll be grateful for the memories and content to recollect, not relive them. That’s implausible to me now but I believe that mom, even with her ailing mind and body, wouldn’t wish to be 44 again with all the chaos it entails. Maybe I’ll accept, even settle into, the stillness and narrowness of an elderly life that my current social and able-bodied-self rejects. Maybe.

Trusting that even slightly brings a modicum of peace.

I wasn’t born old. Neither was Gaga. She grew up playing Jacks with friends in Brooklyn, went to Hunter College at night, taught classes of 1st graders how to read, and loved Rusty, the family’s pet Doberman, as her first born. Mom wasn’t born old either. She was a cheerleader at St. Joe’s, accepted my father’s wedding proposal after the third date, snuggled with me as a 3rd grader while reading Bridge to Terabithia aloud, and massaged the weary hands of hospice patients as a volunteer. They both lived vibrant, long lives and then became old. And as old age descended, they befriended surrender and redefined what constituted a ‘good day’ and a ‘life worth living’ – an unexpected call from a grandkid, a walk on the beach, a pedicure, a brandy at cocktail hour – and found contentment.

It makes me desperate to live a long life, complete with suffering and loss that I can withstand, because I trust that life, even whittled down to its studs, is stunning. But I wonder, can I really become old – likely enduring heart disease, cancer, dementia, strokes – with joy and grace given the magnitude of loss that seems to be aging’s most reliable companion? Can I avoid the torment of regret if I never saw the Pyramids, reunited with a forgotten friend, or wrote that book when my faculties allowed it? Can I really shed the fear of what inhabiting an old person’s life and body means? I begin to imagine I can given the women who came before me. And maybe, just maybe, that will offer illusive serenity as old age draws near.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Posts, Hope, parents

Cake, and Other Necessary Comforts

April 17, 2022
mountain

The cake, with its creamy swirls of orange and yellow, is weirdly magnificent—a sunset in a pan. Banana caramel upside-down cake. I want it, but the list of ingredients and onerous instructions kill my appetite. I text the picture to my kitchen-whiz friend, Yvette.

She replies: “Wow. Are you going to make it?”

“Yes, someday.” And then I add: “Before I die.”

She sends back laugh-crying emojis because she knows me. I love salads-in-a-bag, jars of minced garlic, one-pot frozen meals from Trader Joe’s. Why rinse and chop, dice and blend (and then do all the clean-up) when you can catch up on grading, or putter in the garden, or better yet, sit on the porch with your cat?

I also send the picture to my mother, which I regret at once, because she wants the recipe, and though she would have made a wonderful cake, a sweet sunset like no other, there is no way she can.

And my heart hurts again as I face the chasm between what could be, and what is.

***

When she and my stepdad Mark decided to live off the grid eight years ago, they were in their early 70s, and a working kitchen was one of the loves my mother gave up. They’d used their last $10,000 to buy the tiny one-room cabin on 20 isolated acres, the sloping land so matted with juniper and bitter brush you have to shove your way through. They haul up water in 200-gallon containers and hike up a hill to the outhouse; keep their perishables in a Coleman cooler. It’s like dry camping year-round. Their mountain cabin is so hard to get to that if they were gravely injured, they’d have to be rescued by helicopter.

Yet she still pulls off savory bread in the Dutch oven, and makes pioneer-style cakes on the wood stove. Sometimes she sends me pictures if there’s a good enough cell signal.

***

“It’s like going on a cruise,” my mother says every time she visits my son and me in Reno. From her door to mine, it’s only 135 miles, but it takes her half a day. Their 3-mile road, originally a deer trail, is so steep and narrow and winding, so rocky and rutted that only a 4-W drive truck can manage—and then only at 2 mph. So they get up early and throw in Hefty bags of garbage and laundry in the truck, along with Mom’s duffel and the dogs, and trundle down the mountain.

In the valley, “the flats” they call it, a rancher lets them keep their ‘90 Suzuki Swift on his property. It sits there like a faded blue go-cart in the weeds, attracting mice to its innards, which they scare off with a few thumps on the hood.

After they transfer her bags to the car, Mom waves goodbye to my Mark and the border collies, Jasmine and Teddy, whips on her wraparound sunglasses, and takes off along the two-lane highways that cross the high desert basin of northeast California and into Nevada. Sometimes a highway patrol officer pulls her over for going so far under the speed limit—but at 79, her eyesight is bad and her hearing worse, and what’s the rush anyway. Three hours after leaving the flats, after a stop in Doyle to pee and eat an ice cream bar, she’ll pull into my driveway.

***

Before she comes I clean the house in a flurry. I have no answer to why—she doesn’t notice or care if the place is cluttered or clean, dusty or wiped and gleaming. To her, it’s glorious enough to walk from room to room. To sit at a dining room table or on a couch; to use sinks with running water, a flush toilet. Still, I fluff the pillows on her single bed in the little guest room, lay out new fleece socks for her feet that are always cold. I cut flowers in the summer, buy them in winter. Put a box of Junior Mints on the nightstand because her sweet tooth is legendary.

The two main things I offer that are the most magical in her mind (and you’d think I’d hired a limousine to escort us to the Atlantis spa): ice cream and a hot bath. So I always buy a gallon of salted caramel ice cream and an extra jar of caramel topping. She’ll finish both off in three days.

The bath is less grand, but she doesn’t agree. I live in a small manufactured home, with a crappy, cramped bathtub with plastic walls that bow inward if you lean against them. But on the mountain my parents use an outdoor shower—a solar-heated canvas bag of five lukewarm gallons. In the winter, they wash by the wood stove with vinegar and a basin of melted snow. When she comes here her hands are stained with dirt and wood ash.

At night, during her visits, I light a candle, and set out tropical bubble bath from Whole Foods. She soaks in the tub for up to an hour, reading a book or, I imagine, feeling her bones relax. Now and then I’ll hear the hot water blast as she freshens the temperature, and who can blame her for wanting to make it last?

***

It wasn’t until she met and married Mark, a taciturn, misanthropic man who loves the remote outdoors, 30 years ago, that the idea of this kind of living began for her. Although she’d taught my brother and me to revere nature, we grew up in neighborhoods and apartment complexes, and our times in the “wild” were spent in campgrounds with vending machines and hot pay showers. We never lived on a road that wasn’t paved.

With Mark, my mother moved from a house in a small town, to a farmhouse on 23 acres, to a trailer alongside the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, to the faraway cabin they have now. Each dwelling more rustic, more remote, than the last.

Early on, my mother was worried and went to see a therapist, who suspected their marriage was suffering from “folie a deux,” madness of two. She warned, One day one of you will die from this.***

I mail them care packages between Mom’s visits. Because for them the post office is a 40-mile, 3 hour round trip, I try to make it count, with fun and useful variety. I do what I can afford, and it’s never enough:

Just-Add-Water mixes: pancake, soup, mashed potatoes, tea and coffee
Hand and foot warmers
Waterproof gloves
Hats with LED lights built in
Books
Chocolate, no nuts that can break a tooth
Coconut oil for chapped skin

***

My stepdad doesn’t like comfort and convenience; they are signs of weakness, of capitulation to the bullshit status-quo. (When I got her a pedicure, he rolled his eyes.) But he loves her cakes, even when they’re dense from the 6,800’ elevation, or burnt on the edges. He calls my mother a trooper, which she enjoys. She likes being the only woman who could even begin to live up there.

Their clothes, mostly from the thrift store, take a beating from the rough mountain life, and when they go to town, they look like homeless people, or refugees who have walked across the land for a very long time, in all kinds of weather. As my mother says, it’s futile to try and keep clean on the mountain, what with all the dirt and dust, plus their two big dogs, and water so precious. “It’s just dirt, it won’t kill you,” she’s fond of reminding me. (This from Portland, Oregon’s 1964 Rose Festival Princess.)

One time, a woman walked up to them in the parking lot of Grocery Outlet and handed them a loaf of bread and a $5 dollar bill.
“So funny!” my mother texted, but I tried to picture the scene without crying.

***

When she comes here, I do all the cooking. On her first visits, years ago, I thought she’d jump in with glee to make her favorite recipes with every power kitchen tool I had: soufflés and mousses, Boston cream pies and buttery Dutch babies with a golden surface that bubbles and rises like the surface of the moon.

Yet she only hovers nearby, loving to watch—and, I realize, to rest. At the cabin, she does everything related to food—the grocery list and shopping, the cooking, the cleaning up that is a daunting chore when you have no plumbing. Burying scraps down the trail so as not to tempt mountain lions or other creatures.

For the first night, I buy appetizers, her favorites that are hard to keep on the mountain: egg salad, Greek yogurt, seafood salad in creamy white sauce, which she eats by the forkful straight from the tub, eyes raised to the ceiling in what can only be called ecstasy.

Theirs is a life of such physical work that even the thought of my mother’s day makes me want to go to bed and collapse into a long, warm nap.

***

I try not to show it, but her visits take a toll. After the third night, I get antsy at the work that’s piled up, and my 14-year old son retreats more into his bedroom for the solitude he’s used to. He likes having his bathroom to himself.

I’ll be quiet as a mouse, Mom tells us before a visit, which is impossible, and anyway, my kid and I are introverts, and she’s an extrovert. A flaming extrovert, she once admitted. And that is another love she’s given up to live on the mountain with a man who prefers silence and space. Each morning, if the reception is good, he’ll read fringe blogs on his phone about the New World Order, the dark dangers of the vaccine, chem trails, and other concerns.

Mom told me that she sometimes just talks to herself, which Mark doesn’t seem to notice. “I’ll say, ‘How’d you sleep, Carol?’ And then I answer myself: ‘Well I had to get up six times to squat and pee in the chamber pot, so it was pretty awful! What do you think about that!?’”

Knowing this, I just have to buck up (as my mother would say), but it’s not easy to throw out the routine that anchors my day: I get up at dawn, make coffee, throw out bird seed, and then feed the cats after giving Tiger Bomb his thyroid tablet in a salmon-flavored “pill pocket.” And then, with my son still blessedly asleep, I can return to my room to work. Sometimes, when there’s a lull in the semester, I get a chance to write. When those precious mornings come, the time feels carved out of my life like a vein of gold.

When Mom’s here, she tries. She tiptoes and peers in my door, which I leave open for the cats to go in and out.

“Oh! You’re up!”

That’s my cue to click off whatever I’m doing and tell her, Yes it’s fine, come in and sit here beside me and I’ll get you some coffee. She settles into the teal velvet chair next to the bed, wrapped in my robe. When I return and see her sitting there, like a grateful gnome who’s crept in from the cold wilderness, the pang returns to my chest and I think, to hell with the Forum posts. We sit and sip and chat about the day and I tell her funny stories about my classes. “This student’s title is ‘The Farters of the Enlightenment,’” I say, and she whoops. Haha! I tell her about the girl who wants to be a “pillow in the community,” which we agree is both funny, and sort of wonderful.

“Quiche or French toast,” I ask.

Her eyebrows raise. “French toast? With fruit?”

“How about sautéed strawberries? And powdered sugar.”

She sighs and says, “It’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

***

By the second day I’ve usually blown off my work entirely, and have sent an announcement to my students to text me if there’s something urgent.

“How about we go to World Market today?”

“Could we?” Mom chirps, as if I’d offered to fly us to San Francisco for steamed clams and French bread. I feel a burst of anger because whatever I do or buy is so small, so fleeting, it doesn’t deserve such gratitude. What she needs is not gourmet groceries but a new car, a new wardrobe, hearing aids, solar panels for the cabin and a snowplow and a greenhouse that can withstand the winter storms. The list of what she needs is so long my pen will run dry before I’m done.

Instead we go to World Market and buy Sicilian pesto and German egg spaetzle, and Walnut Scottish shortbread for dessert. She lingers over lingonberry conserves and I say, toss it in. Then I add a jar of Devon cream and butterscotch root beer to drink while she discovers a few more things to try. In line, she says to the woman behind us, “Isn’t this place a kick? What a feast we’ll have tonight!”

On the way home, she inspects the items again one by one, as if these were gifts sent from around the world, just for her.

Each time she comes, she resembles a bit more the trees on the mountain, the dark, gnarled branches of the mahogany, the juniper and Manzanita; even the bitter brush that crouches and grips the earth through the harsh summer winds and the deep snowstorms of winter. She’ll be 80 next spring.

“Can’t you keep her,” a friend asked, after seeing a picture of us on Facebook during one visit. As if my mother were a stray dog who’d wandered in from the desert. It’s her choice to live this way. I tell myself this, again and again. She always tells me what she loves on the mountain—the birds who make their home in the cabin’s eaves, the view clear to Mt. Shasta hundreds of miles to the west. I see that her visits are a way of replenishing herself, and if this is all I can do, then for now, that will have to be enough. Beyond that, the future is a path that curves out of sight and into the dark.

By the fourth day we’ve done their laundry at Mr. Bubbles (with extra wash/extra rinse because the clothes are stiff with dirt and grime), which we fold and stuff back in the Hefty bags, and nestle them in her car. This process takes at least four hours. On top of the laundry we layer boxes of food and supplies from Wal-Mart. We find a space for the used books she’s picked out from Grassroots Books.

The night before, I’d heard her on the phone with Mark for their evening call, telling him about our day, and as always she asked about the sparrow family and the dogs, wanting to know if they missed her. She described all the things she’d be bringing home.

“You won’t believe your eyes,” she told him.

Then it’s time for her to go and my son carries out her duffel bag and we all stand in the driveway. She puts on her cowboy hat and the giant sunglasses and gives us both hugs, and I try not to feel the way her bones push through her coat.

“It’s not goodbye, it’s so long,” she says. Then she backs the car out slow as a tractor into the street, and before heading forward, waves out the window to us and yells, “Tra la!”

***

The other day, she texted she wouldn’t be able to visit any time soon. The Suzuki had broken down, needed to be towed away. It would cost a lot and they’d have to save up.

“When I do visit again,” she wrote, “can we make that cake, the banana caramel one? The one that looks like a sunrise.”

“Sunset,” I started to write, and then stopped because we try to have hope where we can.

Joelle Fraser, is the author of two memoirs (The Territory of Men and The Forest House). A MacDowell Fellow, her work has been published in many journals, including The Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Pangyrus, Crazyhorse, and Michigan Quarterly Review. 

She lives in Reno, Nevada with her 15-year old son and three rescue cats and is researching her next book, NO ONE CAN FIND YOU. Her website is www.joellefraser.com.

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
  • Every other month individual/private meeting with Emily or Gina over Zoom (participants will have a chance to work with both)
  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

 

Guest Posts, Family, memories

Whatever Will Be

March 19, 2022
flowers on table time

Which scene should I begin with?

The time I threw coffee in her face to shut her up? Fortunately, it was a cold cup of coffee and we laughed about it. I haven’t the foggiest idea what we were arguing about.

Or the time she sat across from me and told me about a man who was dying of cancer who forgave and embraced his lesbian daughter after disowning her. I asked her what that had to do with me. (I, too, had cancer.) She said, well, you could forgive your daughters for not shaving their arm pits. (I think she thought she was being funny.) I gave her my most evil stare and said, “Never.” I was serious and she knew it.

How about when I sat all my girls down in the kitchen nook that looked like a diner with its red vinyl booth seating and told them what they needed to hear: that their father was a terrible man, a drunk, an alcoholic, who probably didn’t love them. She was 10 years old. She smiled, sort of a confused smile, and looked out the window and then asked to be excused.

I called her to ask her to come take care of me after my upcoming surgery to have my varicose veins removed. I told her that she should be the one to take care of me because she didn’t have anything important going on in her life. She refused.

She did come at a different time, when I really did need her. She stayed for a week while my husband, her stepfather, was away. I was very sick, bedridden. She asked me if I was afraid of dying. I said no, giving her my famous dirty look. I told her I was afraid of suffering. I made her read to me. I mean she was happy to read to me until we came to this pornographic section of the novel and she said she wouldn’t read it aloud to me and I made her.

When she was in college and needed money, I would sigh deeply, expressing deep disappointment, and tell her to ask her father.

Or how about the time she announced she was dropping out of college, in her last year. I was so angry. I told her I had always wanted to drop out of college but no one let me. Then I screamed at her, what about all that wasted money?

When a son-in-law I couldn’t stand and who I refused to talk to died, she was visiting me. My response to his accidental death: Well, that ends that argument. My response to his large funeral: Well, if you die young, you get a big turnout. I was with her when her father died, my first husband. My response: It is for the better.

She gave me a book that she said changed her life and she thought I would like. It was called, Women Who Run with the Wolves, all about women and creativity and psychology. I could not stand the book. I told her it was a bunch of baloney. I hate goddamn character-building experiences.

I took their father back to court for more child support. The judge laughed at me. My daughters were grown women. He still owed me money, I said. I don’t care. I was right.

I refused to see any of my children at the end. I didn’t want them to see me in my weakness. I refused to accept the fact that I was going to die. If I let them come visit me, I would be admitting defeat. I didn’t want their pity or their new-age, hippy ideas to comfort me.

Someone sent me a guardian angel pin. I opened it and it was broken. I showed it to her. See? I said. See the damage of this guardian angel shit.

***

When I called my stepfather to tell him we were coming, he said we were too late. She died 20 minutes ago. When I heard the news, the first thing that popped into my head was the song: Ding, Dong the witch is dead. I would like to wipe that from my memory.

We sat with a minister my stepfather had brought to their house. The man began by saying, “I never knew your mother.” Of course he didn’t. They weren’t churchgoers. Why was he here? To talk about the funeral service and to be of help in this sad time. I piped up: “That’s it. That’s all there is? That’s her life? It’s over?” There was some awkward silence and I looked around at my siblings and her husband, a bit apologetic. I’m certain the minister thought it was grief speaking but it wasn’t. What I meant was: No goodbyes. No final I love you. No final shared memories or laughter or forgiveness. No nothing. That’s it. It’s over.

This is what I will do. This is what I will try to do. I will go back to the time before.

“There is a time in our lives, usually in mid-life, when a woman has to make a decision – possibly the most important psychic decision of her future life – and that is, whether to be bitter or not. Women often come to this in their late thirties or early forties. They are at the point where they are full up to their ears with everything and they’ve “had it” and “the last straw has broken the camel’s back” and they’re “pissed off and pooped out.” Their dreams of their twenties may be lying in a crumple. There may be broken hearts, broken marriages, broken promises.”   – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves

I will remember a houseful of women, giggling daughters and a divorced suburban mom. She was in her early 30s. Our dancing together to ‘Shall We Dance’ and ‘I feel Pretty’.  I will remember her as the actress she was and that the roles she played, from Rumpelstiltskin to Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I will remember her joy at seeing me on stage and calling me a ham. (Was she jealous of me? Wait, don’t go there.)  I will remember her loyalty to us and her involvement in our school lives. And how we laughed as we imagined the men in our neighborhood as possible boyfriends for her.

When the memories of my bitter, angry mother overwhelm me, I will go back to the time before, the time before she succumbed to a resented life with no regrets. The time when we would sing together, off-key, ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, the futures not ours to see, que sera, sera’.

time

J. Courtney Reid is a playwright, with two produced plays, Don’t Leave Me Just Yet for the Unchained Theatre Festival in Long Island City and Still in Prison, performed in venues in the Capital District of New York, under a New York State Artist Grant. She is an essayist. Published pieces include Learning Through the Ages in the Oxford Journal of Public Policy, and Sarah Orne Jewett in Maine Life Magazine. She has been a Features Editor for a small newspaper in NH and a bookstore owner in Saratoga Springs, NY. An emeritus Professor of English from SUNY Adirondack Community College, she was awarded the President’s and Chancellor’s Award in Teaching. She has, astonishingly, discovered a new love of painting. (Proof is above.)  Follow J. Courtney online at her blog, Opening Up the Valves and on Twitter: @JCourtneyReid1

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Time to (re)invigorate your writing?

Check out the Circe Promptapalooza!

Promptapalooza is the most fun you’ll have in a writing class. Instead of beat drops, we’ll have prompt drops.

Capped at 30 participants and happening only 4 times a year, these three-hour generative workshops, with opportunities to share, will get you motivated, inspired, connected, and curious.

Promptapalooza is great if you’re struggling with writer’s block, feeling adrift without a writing community in these strange days, or just want to laugh, learn, and dig deep.

When: Sunday April 3, 10am-1pm PST
Where: The Zoom Room
How Much: $250/person
Who: Gina Frangello and Emily Rapp Black.

**Anyone who enrolls in the class and later chooses to work with Circe privately will receive $100 off any of coaching/editing packages.**

Email info@circeconsulting.net to enroll now!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

 

Guest Posts, memories

Charm School

February 22, 2022
PBS

In an early memory I’m six years old playing quietly in our family room in Kentucky when I overhear my parents talking in the kitchen. My dad suggests to Mom that I go to charm school for guidance on manners. It’s a vague memory; the context blurred and the topic faded as quickly as it was introduced. I don’t know how or when I learned, even, that a charm school was a place to better one’s etiquette, and it all seems entirely out of place given our middle class standing.

I was not by any standards a messy or impolite kid, but I often disappointed my mother, who was a compulsive neat freak. Play-Doh, scissor crafts, and nail polish were among an extensive list of forbidden items and activities in our house, and she likened me to Ramona Quimby, the messy and mischievous character in my favorite Beverly Cleary novels—though I never felt like I had nearly as much fun. My mom collected figurines that reminded her of each of us. My brothers’ were an infant (my baby brother Chris) and a monkey reaching out to be picked up (my colicky little brother Andrew who always wanted to be held). Mine was a smiling pig feasting on corn on the cob. I was a skinny kid, but I had a skill, that persists today, for hastily devouring buttered corn.

Rather than for my etiquette refinement, the suggestion of “finishing” school was more likely inspired by the constantly shifting expectations of my father. We reflected him, and our goal was to be polished, shiny, smooth on the outside, secrets on the inside. He ruled our house with a permanent scowl and mercurial temper.

“When you answer the phone, say ‘Vititoe residence’ instead of ‘hello’,” he began requiring when I was in my early teens. The idea of such public obedience was mortifying. I could imagine friends calling me and giggling after hearing me recite a formal greeting, and I was only on the verge of achieving high school status mediocre enough that classmates might forget their serial bullying of me in middle school. So, I avoided the phone ring, pretending not to hear, turning up my stereo louder. I think I only got stuck having to execute that order once, answering a phone call in the presence of my dad, and I don’t think he acknowledged my social sacrifice.

“When you come to the breakfast table on weekends, you kids should get dressed and brush your hair first, instead of rolling out of bed looking like animals,” Dad said. So, I’d sleep in on weekends until I heard him busy with activities outside of the kitchen. I became a master in active avoidance and finding rule loopholes. I navigated teenage independence with a tenuous balance of dodging conflict and defining the boundaries of my integrity.

***

When I was five, my dad pointed out tiny pieces of skin peeling from my cuticles, which I’d never noticed. He plucked them and told me to do the same as they appeared. I overachieved. I picked and picked, trying to smooth out everything. My fingers were bloody sometimes from too much skin peeled off in an effort to make everything smooth. Never smooth enough. Never polished enough. Eventually I got in trouble for picking too much, but by then I was addicted to trying to smooth, smooth, smooth and could not stop.

In my memory the entire decade of the 1980s is a panicked string of news warnings about kidnappings and stranger danger. How much of that fear was substantiated, I’m unsure. In second grade we were fingerprinted at school, so the prints would go on record with the Kentucky Task Force for Missing and Exploited Children. I had picked at my fingers so much, going far beyond cuticle terrain and now extending to the tips and sides of each digit, that the people taking prints had to work hard to ink good fingerprints for me. Certain fingerprints were taken further down the finger, as the tips were too smooth. I blushed and held back tears as I registered the concern on their faces. I’d tried to polish myself so much I’d erased parts of me.

***

Before I started sixth grade we moved to a St. Louis suburb, after a brief three years in a small Illinois town. Things weren’t going well at school, I was made fun of relentlessly for different reasons, and I felt incredibly ugly for the first time. When Mom was grumpy and shivering with the flu the night my dad had his company Christmas party at a Doubletree Hotel, my dad asked me if I wanted to go. The party theme was one of those murder mystery dinners with outside actors. I knew I couldn’t refuse my dad’s invitation without repercussion, but I also was intrigued and eager to leave the house.

I wore a dress and some blush. I felt pretty and happy to be included, to feel like an adult, even if it was sort of weird to be my dad’s “date.” There were no other kids in attendance. After the murder mystery act and dinner, of which I remember nothing, I was seated with my dad in a circle of adults. The buffet chairs were pulled from various tables to create a table-less conversation. Were there too many people to fit at a table? I recall a feeling of naked vulnerability, sitting around a ghost table in a cavernous conference room.

The adults in conversation were gracious to me, making small talk as they sipped their cocktails.

What grade was I in? Did I like school?

No, I did not.

My distaste for small talk must have preceded sixth grade, or…maybe its origin was right in this moment. The adults in suits and dresses and sparkly jewelry moved on to their adult conversations about work and…whatever.

A TV news anchor for the St. Louis evening PBS News Hour was present at the ghost table. Slender and glamorous in a suburban way, she had short dark curly hair done well–a hair goal for me. My own short curls were often the topic of ridicule at school because I had no clue how to control them. I think she might have also played a character in the murder mystery. She smiled a lot. My dad instantly liked her and his (nerdy! embarrassing!) love for PBS was an entrée to conversation. My dad inexplicably loved any documentary and subjected us to them on the regular.

I sat, ankles crossed, politely in my tights and dress in the circle. I watched everyone talk and accepted that I was not invited to their conversation. I was a good reflection of my dad. I let him brag about me. I did not pick at my fingers despite fiending to do so. I tried to pretend I was not dying of boredom. I wondered how Mom was feeling at home, sick and caring for my six- and four-year-old brothers. It was getting late. She would’ve put them to bed by now.

Adults began to bid their leave while my dad and Ms. PBS drank and laughed. At some point I began to feel that even though I was being the Perfect Version of Myself, I was a burden just for being there. My eleven-year-old brain detected something that made me uncomfortable, though my dad and Ms. PBS never touched, maybe other than a handshake. In fact, they were seated fairly far apart. But it was beginning to feel like they were the only people really there. The rest of us were fading away like that phantom table. Or extras in a rom-com.

Was she married? How come I don’t remember that—did I not look for a ring? In present-day review I interrogate and pressure my past self for clues. When you felt uncomfortable, can you explain why? Such a missed opportunity, being a fly on the wall at a moment in which I could have dissected how my dad started potential affairs. But all I felt was unease, something in the air I didn’t like and couldn’t label. Can a pre-teen smell pheromones? I would come to have the same sense again, a few years later, when a parent dropped me off after a babysitting job and got her first-generation minivan stuck in our snake-long sloping driveway. My dad offered to turn it around for her, asking her to move to the passenger seat I’d just exited. She seemed rattled when she left after he rescued her, unlike Ms. PBS at the Doubletree. Was this the last time I babysat for her? I ask my past self again and again. Did my dad scare off a coveted employer with his sleazy vibes? I do remember she was very pretty.

What struck me, more than a growing feeling of wanting to disappear or go home, was that whatever my dad was doing—laughing? Telling his dumb dad jokes? Fawning? Complimenting?—was working. He was charming Ms. PBS. This portly man with terribly fitting slacks, you actually like him? You, an attractive newscaster on TV, are falling for my dad? You should see him at home. I’ll give you two days. Count his smiles now, they are scarce when he gets comfortable, and he would find fault soon enough with you, too.

Finally, finally, finally we left. What if we hadn’t? What if they’d gotten a room and he’d made me wait in the car? Like he made my brothers wait when he visited a girlfriend after my parents divorced years later? On the way home my beaming dad asked, “Isn’t she pretty? Look how well she takes care of herself. Isn’t it impressive that she works? Wasn’t she so nice?” I nodded, “Yes!” to all things, in naive agreement. That curly hair she rocked! That alone was talent. And a newscaster! Mom didn’t even have a college degree.

“Would you like to have a mom more like Ms. PBS?” he asked.

My enthusiasm crashed. Unfair question.

He kept talking, comparing this stranger to Mom, home sick in bed, who chose not to work outside the home because he traveled all week, and if she did, she never would have left him alone sick to go flirt at a company Christmas event. And in fairness, my mom could clean up well too, when circumstances prescribed. She’d play up her doe eyes, gloss her lips in Clinique’s Black Honey shade of plum, and put on fashionable boots when my parents had to make an appearance somewhere, and I would be in awe. And she could light up a room with her smile and tell a self-deprecating story that would make you roll with laughter.

I stared out the dark window the rest of the ride home, a nauseous traitor occasionally offering a random chipper acknowledgement to please him.

“Do you want to listen to some music?” I asked at last.

***

Mom was a soap opera fanatic, and never watched PBS. But when my dad was home watching documentaries, I’d exit around 9 o’clock when Ms. PBS might show up on the air. I’d seen her on News Hour before the murder mystery dinner, but now I couldn’t see her the same way. And I didn’t want to be tempted to watch my dad’s reaction to her. I was an accomplice now, with shared guilt.

Decades later I finally admitted the event to Mom. She was neither upset with my “secret” nor surprised.

***

Within four years of the company Christmas party, my father lost his sales job that had forced us to move to St. Louis. We would be moving to Indiana for his new job. He claimed he’d been mistreated, that he said “one thing” to a female employee and she “took it the wrong way and blew it up.” He’d simply suggested that she consider wearing more make-up and “dressing more professionally.”

Mom discovered he was fired for sexual harassment. It was Missouri, early 1990s; not exactly the epicenter of female empowerment. In my adult life I’ve wondered often what he really did. How did my dad affect others’ lives, beyond that which I witnessed firsthand as a child?

***

Growing up, uprooting often and relocating around the Midwest (how many other times was this his fault?), the world outside our family often new, foreign, temporary, and our extended family fractured and geographically distant, the limited role models for living as an adult were my parents. I could be small, submissive and hidden like my mother mostly was, or charming, careless, and harmful like my father. I never fit well into either mold, but something-close-to-hiding seemed like the lesser risk to others.

Emily Schleiger is a writer in the Chicago area. She has studied writing at The Second City, Catapult and elsewhere, and improv and sketch at The Second City and Westside Improv. Her work has been published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Reductress, The Second City Network, and more. She’s also performed at a few storytelling shows and readings. She is a survivor of a short career in human resources, and a mom of two. She is currently working toward her MFA at UCR-Palm Desert’s low residency program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Follow Emily online here. If she has gone missing, please check anywhere hot buttered popcorn is sold.

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Guest Posts, eating disorder, pandemic

Mother Daughter Stew

July 25, 2021
ingredients

by Nancy Crisafulli 

Ingredients

From Mother’s Expansive Garden 

1 cup low-cal self-esteem

For correct blend mix equal parts shame, blame and overripe guilt.

2 cups shredded body image

Tear fresh images into bite-sized pieces, rinse under cold water and drain completely.

8 oz. night-blooming tobacco

Steep tobacco in 7-14 oz of any red wine (see directions below).

1 lb. depressed family history

This ingredient may also be found in Father’s garden and is often mistaken for a bothersome, invasive weed.

From Daughter’s Secret Pantry

1 cup high-concentrate anxiety – Use full strength – do not dilute.

2 cups well-seasoned perfectionism – Straight A+ seasoning is preferred, but type A will also work.

4 oz. flowering fear of failure (FFF)

Note: FFF is a bitter herb that will significantly impact the flavor of your stew -remember, a little goes a very long way.

2 lbs. genetic predisposition – This underrated ingredient can be found at many organic stores including Roots and MoMs Organic Market).

Optional Non-Organic Ingredients

7 Tbsp. expectation to excel in all endeavors (EEE)

EEE grows like a wildflower in suburbia so check your backyard before purchasing.

Multiple shots of reprocessed Insta-Selfies – Adjust lighting, filters, angles and number of shots for maximum impact.

Directions

Step 1: 

In medium-sized bowl, carefully combine mother’s low-cal self-esteem and shredded body image with daughter’s undiluted anxiety. Mix thoroughly.

*Mother: To be sure ingredients are thoroughly blended, pinch and knead the fatty area behind your knee (or any other unattractive body part) repeatedly while chatting heart-to-heart with your adolescent daughter. Adding this personal touch is guaranteed to work better than the most efficient KitchenAid.

Step 2: 

Macerate night-blooming tobacco in red wine and let soak in a tub until all liquid is absorbed.

*Daughter: While Mother macerates, use a paring knife or other sharp object to make shallow cuts in your flowering fear of failure. Cover carefully with a dry cloth and store in a cool, dark place.

Step 3

In a separate bowl, sift together mother’s depressed family history with daughter’s genetic predisposition. Do this slowly, alternating just a bit of depressed history with a little predisposition until you have the perfect mix of these secret family ingredients.

Step 4: 

Place all prepared items from mother’s garden and daughter’s pantry into the domestic cooking device of your choice (see side bar for choices). Sprinkle freely with non-organic optional ingredients to taste and cook as directed.

Step 5: 

Serve piping hot with a side of solitude and regret.

Sans appétit!

Tip

For a less robust stew, slowly introduce one or more tempering agents (Wellbutrin, Ativan, Lexipro) before the stew is fully cooked. See individual packaging for suggested amounts.

Yield

This recipe serves 1-2 but, properly stored, its prolonged shelf life can often under-nourish an entire family for generations! Studies have shown that a sustained diet of this popular stew is almost guaranteed to yield the following:

Daughter

  • Drastic reduction in calories and fat
  • Grinding, obsessive exercise
  • A feast of secrecy and self-loathing
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or actions

Mother

  • Growing dread of family meals
  • Searing, wild remorse
  • Frantic weeding of personal garden
  • Ravenous craving for a shared bowl of daughter’s favorite childhood ice cream

Chef’s Note:

Organic vs Non-Organic? Conventional wisdom suggests that our genes and the environment around us play important parts in the development of eating disorders and other chronic diseases. For people recovering from anorexia, bulimia or other EDs during this pandemic, the combined ingredients of Corona-related stress, grief, lack of structure, and social isolation may be the perfect recipe for relapse.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out:

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support

Academy for Eating Disorders
https://www.aedweb.org/expert-directory

 National Alliance on Mental Health Illness (NAMI)
https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Eating-Disorders/Discuss

stew

Nancy Crisafulli received her BA in English Literature from the University of Maryland and spent the next forty years in the field of instructional design in and around Washington, DC. She did most of that writing in a corporate office. Her other writing has been languishing in her spare bedroom and recently asked to move out. A few of those pieces have been published in Under the Gum Tree and The Sun. When she isn’t writing, Nancy is probably out walking, doing yoga, playing with the grands, or on the co-ed softball field with her husband and best friend, Frank.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

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, Eating/Food

Taking Up Space

July 7, 2021
scale

by Molly Krause

Maybe it’s just the quarantine fifteen. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t weighed myself to get the actual number. I do know that my clothes are tight and some don’t fit. I know that it was sometime after I started weighing my eighteen year old daughter weekly that I stopped stepping on the scale myself. This was months before we were all gripped by the onslaught of all that the novel virus brought to our lives. I couldn’t have even imagined all that at this time. This was when my anxiety rose like a freight train when my daughter said, “I’m struggling to eat enough.”

I flew into action – appointments with the primary care physician, the therapist, the dietician, and I bought The Scale. I ordered it online with some dread as I’ve never had a scale in my house. Shiny and black with a digital display that revealed the number to a tenth of a pound, it was both inexpensive and highly rated. I hid it in my closet.

I bought it to monitor my daughter’s weight but this is not a story of a young adult controlling her life through restricting.

As a serious student of ballet throughout my teens, I viewed my body as a vessel to create beauty through movement. At a yoga class a few years ago I scoffed internally when the instructor said, “If it’s available, reach for your extended leg.” If it’s available? This was not a cooperative relationship I had with my limbs; I would make it available without question. Naturally lean, I did not grow up worried about my weight because I didn’t have to. I was happy with my size and my size was small. My body performed well for me by executing the physically difficult movements of ballet. I wasn’t conflicted about my body image as mine was easily accommodating with what I wanted from it. I never even had to consider if what I wanted from it was reasonable or even right.

Two pregnancies and changing middle age hormones stretched my comfort with my shape. I resolved to stay under a certain number, I even wrote that number down in my planner. I exercised to burn calories and played around with various diets. I only weighed myself occasionally at the gym and used clothing fit as a measure if I was on target. But it wasn’t until The Scale came in my house did I realize the pull the number had on me – what is the numer? Have I been going “good”? Is this water weight or muscle? So I stopped myself from stepping on The Scale, hidden in the closet, every day as a friend of mine told me she did to control her weight. When my daughter entered an intensive outpatient program for eating disorders I gave myself permission not to ever get on that scale again.

But I’ve wanted to and what I’m not sure about is why. To feel better about myself or worse?

When I told a friend that I had gained some weight during quarantine she said, “Really? You look the same to me.” I responded, “I can tell I have but I haven’t stepped on a scale because I don’t hate myself.” We snickered and quickly moved on but my comment stuck with me. Wouldn’t it be better to like myself no matter what the number is?

 I get out The Scale once a week for my daughter. Covid has eliminated in person meetings with most therapeutic professionals, dietitians included. My daughter does not resist The Scale and doesn’t seem fazed by the number it reveals. I still haven’t gotten on it for almost a year at this point. I’m trying out the idea that it’s ok for my body to take up as much space as it wants – whether that’s active on my paddleboard or lazily watching my new favorite station, Acorn TV. The Corora virus has taken away many things from me – from us all – but perhaps it has given me the time to view my shape as something other than a way to project smallness or beauty. Maybe this same body that I happily allowed to grow large to carry two lives will be the vessel to grow new chapters and lives so far not lived, of an unknown and exciting future, of a time that is not bound or defined by a number.

Molly Krause is the author of the memoir ‘Float On’, the novel ‘Joy Again’ and the cookbook ‘The Cook’s Book of Intense Flavors’. Her writing has appeared in numerous locations, including Brain Child, Ragazine and Front Page Review. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband, her grown daughters and a pack of dogs and loves to hike, snowshoe and paddle board.

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emma

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

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen