oh dear: for my mom part 2

I’ve always been known to be brutally honest. It amuses me when I hear myself described this way because I don’t see it as being out of the ordinary or bad. If I were to receive a diagnosis I’m sure there’d be something about social unawareness/awkwardness. I don’t think I fall “on the spectrum” but my synapses certainly don’t all connect as they should. I’m one of those people who lack a filter. I realize that I am horribly sensitive and terrifically insensitive at the same time. I simply don’t see the harm in honesty but I know it’s there. I’ve been told, and I’ve certainly felt its sting more than once – even tonight when my daughter told me my teeth were yellow.

When I write I can be more careful than when I talk, so I’d rather write. I can blurt and delete and that’s preferable. Write. Write. Write. Delete. Delete. Delete. Delete. Delete. I try to be careful in what I write but my version of careful still seems to fall south of my intentions.

I wrote about my mom recently. I was trying to explain how things went from bad to good in our relationship over the course of the last thirty years, along with an apology for the one-sided way in which I’ve told my little stories. I mixed in some seventies nostalgia and it got muddled.

I read it to my mother as I worked on it. “Wait a day.” she said. Then I wrote some more and called her an hour later, and then again a little while after that. She listened to me read it out loud each time and then suddenly told me it was done and to put it up online. She said it was great. I posted it. Many people loved it but a few days later I realized that my mother’s friends were completely quiet about the piece and I knew I had failed to do what I had intended.

A couple of people have hinted that I had pumped her up and knocked her down at a ratio of 1:1. Ugh. If a person had been reading all along and had the uncluttered steel-trap memory of a two year old then they’d have known that I was bringing up stuff I’d already written about, but this time with an attempt to see my mother’s side of things. As a standalone piece or a first read I can see how it didn’t quite cut it. Crap.

I asked my mom about it. “Well, you could put in something about our relationship now.” she said, though without any complaining or guilt-inducing tone. She isn’t like that. “You could put in what you like about me or why you’re proud of me.”

Yes, I can. My mom is more generous than anyone I know. She shares what she has with all of her kids and with strangers alike. She has helped us buy houses and cars. She helped me with the massive expense associated with infertility and I have my beautiful twins to thank her for. They are my life. Without her help both financially and emotionally I would not have my children, nor would I have made it through some of the harder times my children and I have faced as a family of three.

She comes to visit her grown children when we are in hell (and we are all in hell with some frequency) and she loves us and she loves our children.

She listens to people. She reads what they write. She helps them. She answers emails and fan mail. She’s a good friend. I’ve heard tell that she’s an amazing teacher. She leaves insanely enormous tips.

She has certainly lived through more than her share of hell and here she stands: strong, independent, incredibly well-loved and respected. By me! And by many more.

We’ve both had to work hard to get to where we are now. We’ve both had to overcome hurt feelings and chilly receptions over the years with each other. We’re not so good at talking about all that but we don’t have to. I don’t think either one of us likes staring too long under a rock.

We are friendly and we are friends. She’s the one person I can count on to laugh at the things I find funny. Most people don’t find my humor funny at all. Most of my jokes land with a great big thud. So when I have some hysterical tidbit stored up it’s such a treat to get her on the phone and hear her howl with laughter. I know what will make her laugh.

stuff

Thank you mismatched glasses I no longer liked for breaking. Thank you ugly lamp for falling on the floor. Thank you vegetables I never ate for turning to mush so I could throw you out. Thank you pajama bottoms for tearing beyond repair. Thank you towel for being so scratchy that you’re good for nothing. Thank you mold for growing so fiercely on whatever that was so I could feel no guilt putting you in the trash, container and all.

Thank you contractor bags for holding so much.

little presents

I talk to my mother every day at least five times. She’s my champion and my friend. She helps me sort things out and I need to talk to her as often as I do. Sometimes she needs some time alone. Sometimes she needs to hide. Sometimes this hurts my feelings so I use her credit card to buy myself a small present. She makes me mad so I make her pay.

I admitted this to her this morning for the first time. It has been my guilty secret for many months. She laughed out loud when I told her. Thank you mom for all the cloth napkins, the beautiful Peugeot salt and pepper mills and for the mason jars we drink out of. I love them.

for the record, for my mother

All family history found in my writing has filtered only through me. I am imperfect and so is my memory. I carry wounds but try not to fall into the sorry hole of feeling/appearing a victim. Sometimes I fail. I see that more keenly this morning after receiving an email from an old friend from college who I haven’t seen or even really spoken to in twenty five years. He is reading everything I’ve written. He’s reading it carefully and going back and reading each piece over and over. He’s sending me interesting and intelligent comments and questions. He’s reading it, starting from my very first post, as if it were a book because I’ve told him that I may try to pull it together and turn some of it into one. He’s pointing out the gaps and asking me to fill them in.

He is reading with his own bias created by the memories he has of my stories back when we hung out in the early eighties and is admitting as much. During my college years I lived with Quin, my stepfather, not my mom. My mom and I barely talked but we’d meet every couple of weeks for dinner at the Moon Palace on 112th and Broadway. We’d eat sliced sautéed fish that I can still taste in my memory and something else, maybe sautéed string beans. It was a shred of connection my mom and I held onto when everything else was broken. That shred existed through the darkest times because she is my mother and I love her and I am her daughter and she loves me.

He wonders how she survives reading the things I write about her. I’ve read them all to her before posting with one exception and that piece hurt both her and my sister. I tried to undo the hurt and I hope I succeeded. She has always approved of what I’ve written, though sometimes she has asked me to add or change things. His questions made me realize that I had better start to round out some of my stories a bit.

I am sure I told my friend that she ignored and neglected me because that’s how I felt at twenty. I am sure I said she never once visited me in boarding school or college and I think those parts are true. She was not in a good place and didn’t have much to give. Now that I am older and have kids of my own I understand how that can happen because it has happened to me. Then there’s the fact that I was a sullen and wildly unhappy girl who was very withholding and I probably didn’t even ever ask her to come. Sometimes you need to actually ask.

I have vast periods of years – even decades – that I don’t remember or misremember. Somehow this myth that we raised ourselves became my truth. That neglect was what we suffered and we, the kids, had no real family. We were left to run wild. But guess what? Running wild is good for kids. We played kickball and tag and hide and seek with the neighborhood kids. We played in the mud. We were trusted to walk alone to Hastings to buy Charlestons Chews. I loved those walks and I loved that candy.

When we heard our mother bellowing for us to come home we did. She made brisket and  homemade bagels and bread. There was always a very nice supper waiting. I ate nothing she made. I am not sure any of us did. That can certainly get old for a mom. I know now. She was a good cook and a loving mother when she had the strength to be. Sitting here with my perspective of having been a mom for eight years allows me to see more clearly who she was: a very young and inexperienced twenty-something mom with four kids and a loveless and very difficult marriage, living in a community which she did not feel part of and hated. She was in hell. Really. She gathered her strength and left, for the second time, a man who was not even close to kind to her, and thank god she survived. We fell by the wayside for a bit but at least I can say that I was put in a safe place. The same is not true for my siblings but those are their stories to tell.

I have been realizing that the bad memories are what I am most likely to dredge up even if just in an effort to make peace with them. To balance it all out I’ve been searching for good ones. There was good. Lots of it. We watched the Mary Tyler Moore Show on Saturday nights as a family, all spread out on the sofa and chairs of our living room. We went to our grandparents’ house in East Hampton in the summers. We went to the Amagansett Beach Club where we could request our umbrella and chairs and some scrawny tow-headed boys would scamper after us and set them up wherever we decided to sit, always far to the left, away from the WASPs. We could walk up to the deck when we were hungry and order grilled cheese, french fries, a soda, and later ice cream and simply sign our names on the slip and our grandparents would pay the bill. That was fun. And going to Woods Hole before our grandparents had the house in East Hampton. We’d watch the draw bridge go up and down and eat soft ice cream with a hard chocolate shell. Each summer we’d get to buy a new pair of Dr. Scholls sandals in the store stocked full of buckets and shovels, suntan lotion, bright towels, and all the other summer necessities. We’d walk on Stoney Beach. We’d collect shells. We’d fish. It was lovely. When we were in Dobbs Ferry our mom would take us to the pool at Sprain Ridge. It was wildly crowded but we loved it. We would slather baby oil on our scantily clad bodies and blister in the sun. We’d wait on long lines and order french fries which were crinkled and delicious. They took us to McDonalds. We ate at Sammy’s, one town over, and had pizza. We drove into the city every so often and walked through the exotic streets of Chinatown. They’d give us money to go into the wonderfully bright little stores and buy tiny tea sets or sparklers. It really wasn’t all shit. Some of it was actually quite nice.

The teenage years were bad though. I used to blame all the regret, embarrassment and shame I felt from various things I did in my early teens on my mom but now I can see it really wasn’t her fault. None of it. She couldn’t control me. I was unstoppable. It was the seventies.

In my early teens I hung out on the street with my friends hoping for an 18 year old to happen by and get us some beer. I liked Buds and hated Rolling Rock. I drank a preposterous number of Miller “Ponies” which were tiny cute little bottles in an eight pack. I could drink them all in a night. I drank quickly, and still do, because I hate the warm bit at the end. Drinking quickly gives your warm hands no time to destroy the nice chilly fresh taste.

My friends and I smoked huge amounts of pot, sometimes laced with THC. Sometimes hash was making the rounds. I still like the smell of hash. I did not do harder drugs knowingly at that age though microdot and angel dust were popular. Two friends – brothers – killed themselves after taking angel dust. Many friends from that era are now dead. I am not. I got out.

The random curfews imposed by my parents, whose spirits were already broken by my older sister, were completely ignored. We hung out “down the river” or “down the aqueduct” or in slabbers, which is what we called the pizza place with the best pizza I’ve eaten to date. We made fires in the dead of winter and pushed the snow from the benches we had made so we could sit down. Sometimes the fires brought the cops and we’d run off trudging through the wet snow in our inappropriate footwear. I was only caught once and did a little time in the police station while I waited for someone to come rescue me. I think my dad may have been visiting because somehow I remember it being him.

In the summer we stripped down to boob tubes and shorts. I had no boobs to put in the tube but no matter, fashion was important to follow. I remember changing into mine down by our car so my mom wouldn’t see. She didn’t approve of the look. See? Proof that she cared. She didn’t want me walking around like that.

We carried brushes in the back pockets of our tight jeans. My hair was styled in an attempt to have the winged look of Farah Fawcett but it never quite worked out. My friend Tina and I would ask each other constantly if we had pizza in our teeth (often the answer was yes) or if our hair looked like a “China house.” A china house was actually a pagoda, found in Japan of course, but we didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention in school. Our hairdos resembled the outline of a pagoda when the feathers failed.

I was in love with a handsome boy, two years older than I was, but he wanted the perfect blondes, not me. I ended up with his brother, 18 to my 14, and he was my first real boyfriend. In the winter he’d come to our house and we’d be alone in my attic room for hours. He’d arrive with a couple of skunk-smelling Heinekens in bags and a joint or two. We’d listen to records; Ten Years After, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and the like. He loved the Ramones but I did not, no matter how hard he tried to get me to. Over the course of several months we ended up sleeping together. I still remember bringing my blood-stained comforter down to the washing machine in our scary basement in a vain attempt to wash it clean.

I’ve wanted to write a piece about getting pregnant for a while now. I remember bits and pieces of that time and I know my mom remembers it all differently. I remember going to Planned Parenthood with my sister for a pregnancy test. I was fourteen. I remember telling my mom I was pregnant and having her say something I’ve never forgotten. She assured me, many years later, that she would never have said such a thing and she told me what she remembers saying. I consulted my diary from 1978 and was surprised to see that we were both wrong. In actuality she was supportive and took me the next day to get an abortion. It was nice to be surprised by a pleasant accounting of the events as concerned my mother. My boyfriend didn’t come with us. I was sorry to have found the memories about him to be true because nostalgia sets in and one wants one’s first relationship to have contained at least a crumb of love. It’s painful to read back so I can only manage tiny bits at a time. I don’t think I can write the piece yet.

I’ve asked my mom why she allowed my boyfriend up there in my room alone with me. She said it was because she wanted me to have company. I had had mono and hepatitis that fall and was in bed for a month. She remembers Kevin as the only person who visited me during that time and she had felt so badly for me. She continued to let him visit when I got better because she was worried about me being lonely. I asked her again this morning what she had been thinking and she said we were both babies. We were string beans. The thought of the two of us actually having sex was as far from her mind as could possibly be. Live and learn.

All that to say, shit happens. People hurt your feelings and you hurt their feelings back. If they’re your family and you love them you do your best to forgive. Forget? No. Forgive and try to understand? Yes. Without forgiveness where would we be? Alone, cloistered off in some lonely hell. That isn’t how I want to spend my days.

 

a workaround

(with names changed)

My twins were three years old when we all met. Robert and Flora had three children who were three, six and eight. The littler ones ran naked through the sprinklers at a mutual friend’s house on a hot 4th of July. The mom and I traded cute iPhone photos of them frolicking via email and I think I chatted briefly with the dad.

We ran into each other socially a few more times that summer and by early fall their marriage had ended. With the orchestration of our mutual friend, Robert and I started seeing each other almost immediately.

The girls were fast friends and their boy, six, was as sweet to mine as could be. They all played with Legos, had Nerf gun battles, played video games, watched television, raced around outside for hours in their enormous yard, and had great fun together time after time. It was a noisy happy house full of kids.

At the age of four the girls would cover their eyebrows with bright pink eye shadow and feel fancy. They’d play dress up and make piles of all the stuffed animals found in the house. The boys would talk endlessly, as boys are wont to do, huddled over their Lego Star Wars battles. Their eldest was never keen on all the extra noise and chaos a pair of twins added to the fray but she tolerated them with kindness nonetheless. They were regulars in each other’s lives.

Robert was silly and funny and both played with and listened to my kids in a way that I did not. My kids secretly wished they could call him daddy and he told me he looked forward to adopting them as his own when we married. My kids don’t have a dad so he meant a tremendous amount to them; particularly to my son who more acutely wished for one.

My children and I slept at their house on the weekends when his wife was in her apartment. He slept at our house when his wife was in their home. It’s called nesting: where the kids stay in one place and the parents cycle in and out. They had a lot of overlap.

My kids also slept over at their house on their own when I had to go away and on occasions when I needed a break so very badly. Though a great big handful for Robert, it usually went well, and he was always happy to do it. Sometimes his not-yet-ex wife helped out when the five kids were together since she was so often in and out of the house that was also hers. My kids loved him and they loved her too.

In my twenties I was proud and relieved that my family’s birthday and holiday celebrations included my dad, my stepfather and my second stepfather; no one was ever excluded. Rich, my mom’s third husband, welcomed her exes with grace and generosity.

Robert and Flora spent all their holidays together because it was best for their children and sometimes I was there with mine but I was never comfortable. When the old stories of their courtship and marriage started to come out, I’d take a double dose of my sleeping pills, down some vodka, and head upstairs to the safety and warmth of my children.

There’s a sense of propriety one feels for one’s property, even when discarded, and there was a certain amount of territory marking that went on. I didn’t like it but there wasn’t much I could do other than leave the relationship and that wasn’t something I wanted to do.

We stayed together for three and a half years – half my kids’ lives by the time we broke up.

The relationship ended for many reasons but in no small part because their separation didn’t involve much, um, separation. It was decidedly not right for me. It’s okay that it wasn’t; I don’t feel like a jerk for my discomfort and jealousy and I don’t think he’s an idiot for putting his children first. I eventually put mine first too. The situation made me tense and angry and my children bore the brunt of my frustration. It needed to end so I could be my better self for them.

It has been over a year since my kids have seen him or his children. This was not supposed to happen but it did. He swore up and down that he would always be there for my kids but he met someone and he hasn’t been able to keep his promise.

My son sent text messages to Robert from my phone about missing him and wanting to get together once every couple of weeks or so after our break up. His answers were always surprisingly evasive and non-committal. He offered to meet my son for an ice cream but that wasn’t what Ralphie wanted: he had hoped for a full day in their house with Robert and his kids. He wanted what he had lost.

In early January my son wrote “I’m about to give up on you.” among other things in one of his texts, which often took 40 minutes or more for him to compose and type. A letter arrived in the mail a few days later, addressed to Ralphie, but it said nothing. My kid threw it out in disappointment. I was impressed that he saw that, though two pages long, the letter was just vapor.

I tried to explain to my eight year old son that I had been jealous of Robert’s ex-wife and it made it hard for me to be comfortable in the relationship. I explained that his new girlfriend probably felt similarly about us and there was nothing we could do about it. It was all too bad but we had to let it be. My boy didn’t cry because he doesn’t often, but I could feel his hurt. He stopped asking for my phone after that letter.

A month ago we were in NY celebrating my twin nephews’ birthday. Gooey ice cream cake got smeared up and down the arm of my son’s coat. I asked him to give it to me so I could put it in the wash but he refused. I asked again and he explained that it had been Eli’s and it was all he had left from him. There was no way he’d let me wash it.

I have never seen nor heard any kind of sentimentality or attachment to objects from my son. Never. Not once. I had always thought only about how much they missed this man and I forgot all about the very important friendships that they had lost too, very abruptly. It left a huge hole in their lives.

I despaired but then thought of a workaround. I emailed Flora, who I had been so jealous of and irritated by, and told her about the coat. I asked if Ralphie and Eli could possibly get together one of these days when she had their kids. She replied that they all missed us and that we had been such a huge part of their family. She graciously said she would love it if my children and I would spend a day with her and hers. We hatched a plan to get together a few weeks later.

Yesterday I drove my kids to the town we used to spend so much time in. We hung out in Flora’s new apartment and the kids just picked up where they had left off. Violet held onto Jess for dear life the minute she saw her. Ralphie and Eli talked a bit but their age difference, the lack of Lego in the house, and Ralphie being a bit under the weather, meant for some periods of quiet. Their friendship will build back up again with time.

It was lovely hearing the laughter coming from the kids when they were playing outside in the rain for a bit. The girls were hardier and came in dripping wet long after the boys. It was nice to see Ralphie curled up with a book near Eli who was lying on the sofa, having eaten too much chocolate. Flora and Allie, the eldest, loved our dog Lily, who had come with us, and she got a lot of attention.

It was all completely comfortable. Hanging out now that we are no longer sharing a man was decidedly a lot easier and more fun than it had ever been before. I talked about my writing a bit. I whined about telling so many people that an essay of mine was going to be published in the parenting section of a prominent online news source but it just never happened – it was even going to be featured. The editor hasn’t returned my emails and it’s so frustrating. Welcome to the club, my seasoned writer friends tell me. She talked about the book she’s writing on nesting. “You’re in it, you know.” she said to me. I joked about being the failed relationship that is bound to happen when there’s so much overlap. She laughed. I told her she’d end up in my writing too. Here she is.

We’ll get together again soon.

 

toning it down

A few weeks ago, out of nowhere, my daughter called me a fucking jerk. I canceled the play date she was so looking forward to and she spent the next few hours in her room. She apologized and pleaded for me to reconsider but I stood my ground. “You absolutely can not use that language. Period.”

But guess where she heard it? Me. The mom. The woman who can’t utter two sentences without the word fuck stuck in somewhere even when completely unnecessary. In an effort to change the course of their lives and vocabularies I’ve imposed, with my children’s approval, some rules for myself. If I use a bad word in front of them I lose the privilege of my favorite weekday treat: going out to lunch.

Yesterday the three of us were driving and we were in a bit of a rush. I was trying to turn left but none of the oncoming cars would let me in. I heard myself muttering, as usual. “Mom! You just said seven bad words!” my kids told me. I asked what I had said. “You said six people sucked and the last one was a twerp and a half.” I told them that those words were okay to use and I did think those people sucked for not waiting the thirty seconds it would have taken to let me through. We discussed what a twerp is.

Hours later we were headed home from a day’s adventure. “Can I watch a video when we get home, please mommy?” asked Ralphie. “Me too?” asked Violet. I said sure, as long as we can make it home with no provoking, hitting, yelling, belittling or complaining. They were quiet as could be in the back seat and it was an uneventful trip. We stopped at the field to let Lily romp just before getting home and my kids stayed in the car. I had forgotten a tennis ball so I had to chase her around so she’d get the exercise she needed. I imagined my kids looking on and smiling at Lily’s antics and feeling slightly embarrassed by mine. Lily and I were out there for a good ten minutes and then we headed to the car.

The second I opened the door I heard the sobbing. “She did…” I don’t want to hear it, I told them. “But he isn’t telling you…” I don’t want to hear it, I repeated. I said too bad about the videos but it was close to bedtime anyway. “But she called me a twerp and a half!” Ralphie wailed before I could stop him. It’s working.

reality

You pull yourself together and stop the screaming. You stop over-sharing with your kids and you feel proud and happy and hopeful. Things are changing. You know it. It’s all up to you. It has all been your fault. Clean your house. Give them their own rooms. Pay so much more attention. Engage. It’s working. You’re confident. You’re baking cookies together. You’re giving them fun little chores that boost self-esteem. You’re praising them properly. You’re using positive language instead of negative.

Interesting photography work is coming in. You’re making new friends and doing a better job of seeing old ones. Things are looking up. You’re happy. Your children are getting along most of the time. Spring is on its way.

But sometimes the sun doesn’t shine. You slip on the thick layers of ice sneakily hiding below the fresh snow that has fallen AGAIN. Your fledgling spring bulb shoots get trampled. A dog shits on your lawn. Your house reverts to mess. You get a call while at work. Things are bad at school. You are way out of your league and you are in it alone. You have to leave. Your child is in distress. You walk out, unable to even tell your friends, who are looking on with concern, what is happening. You’re scared. You’re doing all you can do but it isn’t enough. It might never be. Some things can’t be wrapped up tidily with a pretty bow no matter how hard you try.

But you’ll keep trying nonetheless.

friends

When Violet tells me she has no friends, which she does often, I have told her I don’t have any either and I know what that feels like. It is, alas, the default of both my daughter and me to feel friendless. The truth is she does have friends and they’re lovely. I adore her friends and so does she. She makes at least one good one everywhere she goes, which has most recently been school, after school, and winter break camp. I actually have friends too, of course, but it’s just so damned hard to find the time and make the effort to get together. People’s lives are full of commitments, or our kids don’t get along, or we’re just lazy and frazzled, but I wish I had a good pal to hang out with now and then.

I realized yesterday, long after the fact, that I should not tell my eight year old children that I have no friends. It isn’t true, for one, and it isn’t something two eight year olds need to hear. They don’t need to bear the brunt of what I find difficult or lonely about being the only adult in the house and they certainly should hear fewer, if any, of the sad stories I dredge up from my childhood to illustrate, say, what it’s like when a parent really prefers one child over the other.

I remember at times feeling like my mother was more like a friend than a mom and I wished for her to just be a mom. Aren’t parents supposed to rise above the hurt their kids can hurl at them? Aren’t they responsible for supplying and extending the olive branch? Shouldn’t they be careful about what they say? I thought so, but now I see it isn’t so easy and I’ve been doing a shit job of it all. Ugh. I’m slow to realize the harm in what I’m doing when it isn’t something obviously bad like yelling, but somehow yesterday in the midst of a particularly self-pitying morning something changed.

It’s February. It has been brutally cold and we’ve had way too much snow. I’m almost always alone in the office these days on the two mornings I actually go in, and I seem to have run through what remained of the friends I used to get together with for lunch. Of course I am lonely. I know myself well enough to know that this will pass. Maybe even tomorrow. Maybe even today. The black moods don’t linger and the sun will shine. The warmth will melt the snow and the flowers will bloom. If a parent is only as happy as their happiest child, a child is certainly not going to flourish with a parent who has been in the kind of mood I’ve been in. No more droopy sad mommy!

I decided to be singsong-y and positive. I have a lot of undoing to do. I picked my children up from after school last night and told them that I’d had such a good day! Nana had given me a writing assignment and I wrote seven pages and she loved what I wrote! I thought of a way to speed up the switching around of rooms so they no longer have to share! I was excited because I had lunch plans with two friends this week! As much as I could, I chirped and chirped bits of happy news. I exaggerated it all just a bit and I think it worked. We had a pretty nice night and we were all happy this morning.

On the drive to school I often engage in monologues which I know they listen to with at least half an ear. This morning I reiterated my chirpy excitement about my lunch plans and added that I was feeling hopeful that I’d make some new friends soon.

I’ve been actively trying to visualize just what I’d like in a friend because it worked so perfectly with our dog. I envisioned a calm, older, well-trained, hypo-allergenic, un-neurotic dog who would be happy to accompany us here and there but would also be fine alone in our apartment for a couple of hours at a time. A tall order, to be sure, but she’s here at my feet. Lily is as perfect a match for us as I could ever have dreamed up. I did dream her up. True serendipity brought her into our lives, well… luck and a kind woman who needed to find a home for her beloved girl and chose us. Lily is lovely and patient. Calm and zen. Silly and funny. Playful and quiet. She loves to play fetch and my children have even taught her to snuggle in the three months we’ve had her. She sleeps in a big heap in the family bed each night, nestled in as close as she can get. We are all smitten. She is a seven year old poodle. A big, fluffy, soft, cream-colored poodle. She follows me wherever I go, happily flopping down on even the coldest tile floor in our bathroom if that’s where I happen to be.

My ideal friend would be someone with whom it is absolutely effortless to hang out; someone like Lily but without all the fur. Someone with whom the conversation just flows. Someone who has known darkness but carries light. Someone who thinks, reads, talks openly and can listen too. Someone with a good healthy range of emotions. Someone I really like who will like me back.

My mom has counseled me to join a writing group but it’s the last thing I want to do. Our family therapist asks if he should try to find me a support group for parents having a hard time with their kids, but I hate groups. There always seems to be the know-it-all; the steamroller; the clown; and a bunch of wallflowers. I am never comfortable sitting around a table with a bunch of people in the same predicament and I don’t always like what comes out of my mouth under those circumstances. I prefer just one person at a time.

I dropped my kids off in front of their school and called my mom as I drove to work this morning. I parked and Lily and I walked to the nearby schoolyard where we play fetch. My mom started to tell me what I should do to the piece I wrote yesterday. Two women appeared with their dogs and I got off the phone. I didn’t want to be a rude jabberer talking on my cell and I’m always hoping to find a dog Lily will run with, if only for ten minutes.

One of the women walked by with nary a greeting but the other one and I started talking. We talked and talked and talked. Everything she said felt so familiar, honest and real. Eventually she said she was cold and asked if I’d like to come over for a cup of coffee. I was due at work but I said yes and we had a lovely time. She is interesting and smart. She has kids and a husband and lives a few blocks away. Her book just came out and it’s getting tremendously good reviews. I loved what they have on their walls and the way their house felt. I liked her very much. We’re going to get together again.

Our family therapist came by tonight and I told him what had happened: that I had changed my attitude and with it my demeanor. I lightened it way the fuck up for my kids and it worked like a charm for all of us. I even may have made a new friend.

Fake it ’til you make it is what my sister says. Joel said that’s actually, more or less, the laymen’s term for the predominant theory among therapists of what works best for people these days. It’s what CBT is all about. I did it myself with a little help from my friends who, in this case, happen to be my mother and our therapist. Thank goodness for friends, in whatever form they happen to appear.

 

a little mascara

Your eight year old daughter had black smudges around her eyes a few weeks ago and you couldn’t figure out where they came from. She was mute on the subject and you let it drop because she was in one of her moods. You know better than to approach her when she’s like that. She needs space and time, not a grown up’s version of reason.

A week or two later you catch a glimpse of her through the bathroom door which is cracked slightly open. Closing the door is new in the house you share with your twins. Your son has started wanting privacy but your daughter only closes it when she’s doing something she thinks she shouldn’t be. You see that she has your mascara. You say nothing.

This happens again and again. She has lipstick on her lips one day, more black smudges around her eyes on another. You ask her not to leave the wadded up bits of toilet paper she uses to wipe it off in the sink because they will clog the drain, but leave it at that.

Long dark lashes flank her beautiful green eyes and she will never need the help your stubby ones cry out for. But she has watched you decorate yourself. Your deep eyelids need a burst of white eyeshadow to open them up. Your lashes emerge with help. Once in a while you put some lipstick on and it feels good to look pretty. When you feel pretty you are pretty. When you don’t, you blend into the background. It’s nice to have the choice.

You know the confidence the right clothing or makeup gives you. The power looking good offers. You worked for years in a fancy neighborhood and you’d go into the shops on your lunch hour when you dared. The salespeople would stare at you or just look away. They figured you weren’t going to buy anything. Even when you did they weren’t nice.

You didn’t look the part. You were afraid you looked like a bag lady even when dressed in over $3000 worth of clothing and jewelry. Especially when it was your grandfather’s beautiful coat bought in the Engadin, Switzerland and your pearls. You did look a little like one.

One day you get a haircut and they blow your hair straight. You put on some lipstick and feel great. You go into one of those stores and those salespeople were yours. At your feet. At the ready.

She is going to a birthday party she had been talking about all week. You hadn’t heard from the girl’s parents and you feared she was going to be left out. When the text arrived with the invitation the morning of the party you cried with relief. You’ve felt unpopular, real or imagined, for most of your life and you don’t want that fate for your daughter, but aspects of your personalities are so similar.

You haunt the children’s clothing websites for sales, always on the lookout for something that will make her feel pretty. Clothing that will help her fit in seamlessly. Anything to get her away from the mismatched socks and ragamuffin look you had in third grade, and still sport now.

When you were her age you had desperately wanted a matching shirt and skirt ensemble that you had seen on the television program Zoom. Your mother wouldn’t buy it for you because it was an “outfit” and she loathed the word and the concept. You remember being picked last for every team in gym and also when it was time to choose square dance partners; it was the 1970s and the boys did the choosing. You sometimes wonder if it all would have been different had you dressed like the popular girls.

In college you had a somewhat secret affair with someone who fit in easily. Never mind that his fingernails were always too long and a little dirty. Never mind that his breath always smelled of onions. He had it going on. He was in a band and would go on to become a very famous photographer. His on and off again girlfriend got wind of it all and said to a mutual friend in total exasperation, “But she isn’t even cool!”

Two hours before the party you walk into her room. She doesn’t sense your presence as you silently watch her apply eyeshadow in a small mirror she has hanging from a series of hooks under her loft bed. Her hair has pink streaks she has drawn in. Small hairbands separate each stripe so the hair chalk will dry. She turns around and notices you. She smiles. Her eyelids are an alarmingly bright green and she looks so proud. On a different day you might have wiped it off, saying You’re too young for makeup, you’re beautiful just as you are. Or you might have tried to even it out a little. You might have worried what the other parents would think of you when you show up with your young girl wearing eyeshadow. But you let her be. You tell her she’s beautiful and you love her. She goes to the party. She has a good time.

You are slowly learning to let her be herself. Her fate and your experiences are not one and the same.

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the gift

Things are going badly in your house again after a long peaceful stretch. Your children are provoking each other and bickering more than they ever have. Your reactions range from ignoring the squabbles on a good day to screaming bloody murder on the bad ones. It is hard to remain calm and collected and sometimes you forget to try.

There are times that you just can’t stand it and you want to run away. But you don’t.

But you do.

You are glued to your computer. You escape to this quiet space and they notice. You make some changes around the new year. You have forbidden yourself any screen time whatsoever on school mornings. No quick email check, no Facebook, and also no telephone calls. You drink your coffee at the kitchen table while your kids eat breakfast. Check! Another good thing has become habit: you’ve now got family dinners and breakfasts down. Conversations! Fun! Silliness! Family time. You feel like a success. It’s a step forward.

But this past weekend ended in an eruption of what a psychologist would call massive disregulation on the part of both you and one of your kids with the other child trying desperately to calm things down.

You hate me. You have never loved me. I’m bad. You should just get rid of me. I don’t deserve to sleep in a bed. I’m going outside to sleep in the snow with no blanket. It’s where I belong.

It scared you. You are afraid for your child. Are they okay? What’s causing this outburst? Is anything happening at school? You don’t think so. They love their teachers, they have play dates and friends. The reports from the teachers are great. After school? Nope, they’re happy as clams when you pick them up. It’s when they’re with you that they fall apart.

You’re heartbroken so you call your family therapist and he comes over the next morning. You think it’s time for some testing. Maybe there’s something going on that you don’t see. He spends more time with you than usual as you attempt to untangle what led to the upset. After a while you realize that you had written three pieces over the weekend and they were well-received. Writing is calming and you get such wonderful feedback from friends and strangers alike that you are absolutely addicted to the comments and site stats. How many people read this one? Do they like it? Who could they be?

You read what you write over and over, editing the pieces many times after making them public, and you feel tremendous accomplishment. Writing is good for your soul and if it’s good for you it must be good for your children, right?

But then you remember you let them watch too many programs. An entire season of ”Pokemon” in a day as you tap, tap, tapped at your keyboard. You think it’s okay because they also draw and play with Lego while they watch and they have each other. You were getting sick so in between writing things you took a long nap. They break into the leftover Halloween candy and eat an alarming amount. They eat the fruit roll ups and the dried strawberries too. This goes on for hours as you sleep. By bedtime you’ve got a whimpering mess of a child who you can’t help no matter what you try. Exasperation sets in.

The weekdays pass, one better than the rest. It changes just like that around here. It’s  pleasant again and everyone is getting along.

This morning your child says “You’re so hard on us!” when you’ve asked them simply to put their socks on. You start to say “You don’t know what hard…” but they walk away. You missed it. You ignored their feelings. All you needed to say was “I’m sorry you think I’m being hard on you. Can you explain why?” Why does it remain so hard to remember to speak to your children with love and respect? Why are (empty) threats and negativity what pours out of you? Why can’t you make that switch to the mom you wish you were? Or at least a better version of the halfway decent one that you are? One who plays games. One who bakes with her children. One who never walks away mid-sentence. One who is fun. One who stays calm.

You’re in the car driving to school. You made healthy cookies the day before and you offer one to each of your children. One child says they don’t deserve the cookie because they’ve been bad. Because they are bad. You say as you pull up to the curb, “You are not bad. In fact, being honest about having eaten all that candy is the exact opposite of bad! Being honest is GOOD. You are a good and lovely person and I love you. Please eat your cookie.”

You park. Your child blows hot breath on the window, a practice of late, after which they usually draw a heart and write “I love you.” You have a little iphone photo series of these lovely moments but today your child writes, “No, I am afraid of you and your temper.”

The child who never opens up just did and that one sentence answered so many questions you have had about their behavior. The note is a gift. It will take years to gain their trust but you will try. You will do your best. You will print the photograph and carry it with you to remind you. You know what you have to do.

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a treat

You lie in bed amidst an ever-growing pile of tissues, covered with every blanket in the house. You’re cold. You have a cold. You have a fever. You can’t sleep. You’re so thirsty. You drink so much seltzer and orange juice that peeing every twenty minutes gets in the way of a good nap. You can’t smell anything and your nose and eyes won’t stop running. Your stomach is woozy but you eat breakfast.

You call in sick. You’re grateful that it’s a Tuesday because your kids are in school and then an after school program until 6 pm.

You sleep. You awake ravenous. Sick of all your regular haunts, you opt for the Chinese take out place you’ve heard is a notch above the ones that smell like a burp when you walk by.

The empty pizza box on the passenger seat makes a good tray on which to eat. Each container oozes and drips oil as you pull them from the bag and you are thankful for the absorbent cardboard on your lap. You get neither napkins nor chopsticks  but you manage to wolf down four Chinese pancakes filled with food.

You need bread, milk and orange juice. You walk around the grocery store hoping you don’t see anyone you know because you’re mouth-breathing and your face is chapped and raw. You find the pastry-like cheese sticks your son said his friend has in his lunches. He wants them too.

You love shopping. Your treat these days is a tiny key lime pie and today you get a coconut drink too. You ask the check out person to tell you the price on the little cheese pastries because they aren’t marked. $4.99. Too much for a junky gamble you say, so she gives them to you. “Try them for free!” she says. She rings you through and you pay. She notices the pomegranate still on the conveyor belt. She sticks it in your bag and smiles.

You sit at one of the tables to eat your pie feeling pretty good about the treat in front of you and the ones you just got. You see a mom you knew when your kids were first born walk in. You haven’t seen her in five years. When she’s done shopping she comes over to say hi and says it’s a secret but she and her family are moving to San Francisco! She’s so excited she can hardly stand it! You feel a twinge of envy. “I’ve got to dash to pick Jack and Tim up from the airport – they were looking at [private] schools!” she says as she walks away. You lose your appetite.

You drive home in the rain, worn out from your excursion. When you get home your dog greets you at the door and she does her little circle parade to welcome you back. You climb into bed and she jumps up with you and gives you a kiss on the face. The envy evaporates. Hopefully your kids will be glad to see you too. You’ll bring them a treat to sweeten them up.

the mouse

It startled you when you went to the kitchen and you screamed. It was still, but breathing, sitting quietly on the floor. A soft plump mouse.

You had put down poison and this one is dying in front of you. You put the nearest thing – a chipped glass storage container, long and thin like a coffin – over it and go about your business. Your daughter insists on giving it cheese and you reluctantly let her, worrying all the while about germs as she touches the floor it has been walking on. You call your brother, who lives downstairs, for assistance but he’s busy helping a neighbor. You call your sister who tells you to pick it up with a napkin and put it in a box with soft bedding and some food so it can live out its final hours in comfort with a snack. You fill a box with crumpled junk mail flyers, half a strawberry and yesterday’s uneaten cheese. You get it ready but leave the mouse, who has shifted position ever so slightly, under the glass. You know you won’t use anything napkin-like to make the transition but you don’t tell your sister.

You take your dog out for a walk in the warm rain. Her ram’s fur mats down slightly. You go to the church yard she knows as her own. It’s usually dark but tonight the lights are on and the windows open. You see the sandwich board announcing the contra dance. You watch couples, young and old, dance to the music played by a fiddler, their heads visible, then hidden, as they move around the floor. Even the foot stomping sounds quiet.

You notice the man you’ve seen with his dog, the one going through a divorce, through the glass doors on the first floor of their house, the kitchen ablaze with light. He and his wife are contemplating a silicon spatula. Who will keep it when he moves out?

The rain is falling and the ground is soft despite the hard freeze earlier this week. You should plant the tulip and hyacinth bulbs you bought last fall in the morning but your soil is filled with the roots of a tall pine tree and is hard to work without a pickaxe. You no longer see the man who would have gladly chopped the ground open for you.

As you walk home, your dog lagging one step behind, the grey/black snow is slowly melting and the salt dumped in piles after last week’s storm has disappeared. A few Christmas trees ignored by the trash collectors have been blowing from position to position all week. You see three of them on your walk.

You get your kids to sleep and put on the bathrobe your mother gave you for Christmas, the one your children fight over. It’s soft and warm and brown like the mouse. You finally place the mouse in the box and take it outside. In the morning you will bury it amidst the tulip bulbs. The shovel is waiting.

the replacement

Say you meet someone and he’s nicer than anyone you’ve gone out with in a very long time. Way nicer. He doesn’t have a gun and tell you to get the fuck out if you don’t perform a certain act on your first date. (You never see him again, thankfully.) He doesn’t have five or more other women he’s sleeping with so that when he brings you prescription cream to get rid of the scabies he gave you he cuts it with Nivea so it can go further. (You slam the door in his face and blast My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” and then make an appointment to get your own medicine.) He doesn’t tell you he “shot heroin once” when you go in together to get your HIV tests early on when the truth was he shot up, sharing needles with a group of people for days on end, and that most of those people are now dead. (Your tests result are negative, his are positive.)

He isn’t mean. He loves you and you love him. Your early months together involve bonding over a lot of pain from both having had long-time relationships end; his marriage and your job. His marriage and your work both spanned 18 years and ended within months of each other. Say you were treated horribly by a new regime and fired because you had two children who were, at the time, both scarily sick and you missed some work. Say he never got over his hurt and you finally had to forbid him to talk about it anymore; you weren’t the person to discuss it with. You were relieved, once it was over, to be out of the work environment that had turned sour but he was not happy to be out of the marriage. Your life got better as you started to get back to something that made you feel a sense of self and his just got harder and more complicated.

Say you hated your therapist, in part, because she knew you should end it because you were sick of begging for, and accepting, crumbs. No one likes a person to be right about something they know themselves to be true but can’t face. Say he continued to spend a lot of time with his ex and their children doing things as a family. Say the boundaries were never drawn and they shared a house, a garden, and a dog. They thought you should be okay with it but you weren’t.

You thought you’d have him for Christmas because both he and his wife were Jewish but they celebrated Christmas and Easter and any other excuse for presents and chocolate.

Little by little the things you thought would happen didn’t. You thought he’d be a good stepfather to your children but he could never make it to your house before they went to sleep. The weekends he was there you sensed he had a foot out the door – that understandable pull to be in his own home with his own children. Some nights he’d be late or wouldn’t show up at all and you’d be so angry that you’d take two clonipin and just go to bed at eight with your kids.

You’d squelch it all down because he did your dishes and helped with the gardening and in the early days showed up at the hospital when your kids were there again and again. Your children and his were good friends. Your kids loved him and he loved them. You had loved him too. You liked the same things from thrift stores and cooked well together but he couldn’t save you and you couldn’t save him.

Your sister was sick and he never learned to just say “I’m so sorry”, which was all you wanted to hear. He didn’t understand that saying “it will all be okay” or talking about other people he knew with cancer wasn’t helpful. You didn’t feel heard. Promises were made that could not be kept. Over time, the connection dwindled down to obligation.

You stay together too long but the relationship is dead. You feel guilty, sad, and angry. Your skin crawls with a burning sensation just below the surface. You scream at your kids and take your frustrations out on them instead of dealing with the problem. They suffer, he suffers, everyone suffers. Finally a golden opportunity arises and you end it. It feels sad but good. A month later he convinces you to try again, that just being together is enough for him. He doesn’t need the intimacy long gone, he just needs you. You crawl back into the relationship outlining again the ideas and goals to build more common ground but when he comes over on the nights his wife is in their house you each have a stiff drink and fall asleep in front of the television.

One day he tells you he needs to talk. He comes over that night and announces that he is ready to move on. He needs, understandably, the intimacy you can’t provide. You promise to try being friends. You suspect he might be interested in a woman from his past because he spends the next weekend away at her house. You suspect he might end up with another friend who burns fiercely with intensity and ardor. You never suspect that two weeks after you’ve broken up, while eating lunch at an Indian restaurant, that he’ll blurt out that he’s seeing someone new, someone whose name you’ve heard over the years but have never met. You’ve been replaced. She’s 36 to your 49 and it is irritating because you know, once middle-aged, a woman’s pool of interested parties is 1/1000th of that of a man of the same age. You know he didn’t want or need a younger woman, he just wanted love, but it still stings. You aren’t jealous so much as you are lonely. The weaning period you’re used to with other failed relationships is cut short. You don’t feel comfortable calling someone in the throes of early love, who is more than likely to tell you more than you ever wanted to hear.

You start looking frantically online at rescue dogs. You want a lazy housebroken hound to keep you company. You hope you find one soon.

You’ve made it through rough patches with other men you have loved and come out the other side as good friends, at least until they got married and were told to cut ties with you. You’ve grieved each loss but understand jealousy and another woman’s need for a friendship to end. Years later those men are happily married with children of their own. Some read what you write and cheer you on. He will read this too.

[written April 1, 2013 but not posted until now]

history

It’s 1990. You see him in a bar. Long haired and tattooed with a gap in his front teeth. He’s handsome in that heroin way, you think as you see him rolling down his sleeves as he exits the bathroom. Bad news perhaps, you tell yourself but then there’s just that draw. You don’t speak but you go back the next week at the same time and there he is again. You talk. You kiss. You start spending every minute together. After a few weeks you decide to have an AIDS test because you had slept around in the eighties and he had been married. Your fear of actually having the disease has always been epic because of the number of partners you had, many of whom slept with men and women, and you rarely, if ever, used condoms. The fact that you are willing to be tested speaks volumes to the hope you have for the relationship – until now the fear associated with the test eclipsed anything you had known. He says he should be tested as well because he shot up once and had slept with a guy years prior.

You go in together but are shuttled into separate rooms where you work on a long questionnaire. Have you had infections that won’t go away easily? Night sweats? Any swelling of lymph nodes? The list goes on and you answer no to it all except the risky behavior part. You carry your warm blood in test tubes down a flight of stairs to drop them off with the lab and go home.

You don’t discuss the questionnaire but decide to wait the 4 weeks until the results are back before sleeping together. In that time you drive across the country listening to the Cramps over and over. You visit a friend. You drive back. You break the promise but use condoms.

The claustrophobia sets in once you’ve gotten to know him a bit. That insane sensitivity you hadn’t noticed until now makes it hard to be around him. Walking on eggshells isn’t something you’re fond of doing. You wonder how the hell you are going to get out of this one. You’re so deeply in each other’s back pockets and he’s so very needy that it seems an impossibility to extricate easily.

You’re both on unemployment and on the day you return from your trip you take the bus downtown to pick up your check. There’s a pretty girl you can’t stop staring at and you know the relationship is completely dead. You always get crushes on girls when you need to leave a man.

You go in together to get your results. You tell yourself that you’ll break up once this part is over. You meet with the doctor first. You’re negative, thank goodness. They give you a handful of condoms and tell you to start being more careful going forward. You feel lucky. The whole thing takes five minutes and you leave with a huge smile.

He goes in. Minutes pass. Ten, twenty, thirty… Oh fuck. Oh shit. What the fuck is going on? You can’t stop pacing and you know something is wrong. He walks out with a doctor in a white coat who invites you to an office where he explains things to you.

You enter a strange and foreign land of low T-cell counts and doctors appointments. You accompany him to every meeting he arranges to tell his friends. You feel like an imposter standing there by his side because you don’t love him, let alone like him, but you can’t dump the guy under the circumstances. You decide you will stick it out until he dies which, knowing so little, you think is inevitable.

He moves in to the apartment you are sharing with seven others. He sweats through your thickest sweatpants and sweatshirt night after night, which he wears because of the chills he gets. You wring your comforter out in the morning. The lymph nodes in his groin are the size of golf balls. He tells you about an infection he had post dental surgery that just would not go away. You wonder why he neglected to tell you that many of these things were regular occurrences after having filled out the same questionnaire. Had the roles been reversed you would have warned him. You would have known you were sick.

You start to feel angry and used. You no longer want to accompany him to the support groups he attends. The first time you go to one in a church it’s filled with men. You walk in together and someone says “‘Save Our Souls’ meets down the hall.” “We aren’t here for that.” you say as you find a seat.

He’s angry with you because you no longer want to sleep with him. “We can double up on the condoms.” he says but they had been breaking and you’re scared. You feel forced and manipulated. You are forced and manipulated. Your room takes on a bad smell as the mice who enter, night after night, through the gap under your bureau get smacked by the traps you set. Blood splatters. He sweats. You feel like you’re living in the middle of some dreadfully dreary and sordid b&w movie – the kind you’d never go see.

He tells you that “shooting up once” actually meant sharing needles over a long weekend with a group of people who were already mostly dead. He is often mean and the anger just below the surface is scary. You finally realize you don’t have to feel guilty about breaking up because it isn’t the disease you are leaving, it’s the person. You know you would have stayed with someone you loved regardless of their HIV status so you ask him to move out and he does. A week later you wrap up all his leftover shit in the rug he left on your floor and deposit it on the front lawn of the apartment he is now living in. His friends tell you they’re so happy you’ve escaped him.

Your mother and stepfather come up to visit so they can accompany you when you get the results of your second HIV test, six months after the break up, and you all happily celebrate with a hotel Heineken followed by a nice supper out when you are told you’re still negative.

He meets someone and is married within a month; he was the sort that could not be alone. He had charm and charisma until you got to know him so it wasn’t a big surprise that another person was drawn in to his drama. He was attractive until he wasn’t. His marriage lasted less than a year but through the grapevine you learn that he met yet another young woman whom he married and with whom he had a child. You never see him again and you don’t know if he’s still alive but you hope his wife and child are alright.