Mother’s Day

So it’s Mother’s Day. You’re in love with your children. You like your life. You have a wonderful mom and she’s still alive. You have a family and a couple of good friends. Life isn’t perfect but perfect is boring. Your daughter has made you a present and bought you a card. She designed a lovely tableau on the dining room table that she proudly led you to when it was ready. Your son gave you a hug and a kiss.

Your kids settle onto the sofa with their iPods and you rattle around a bit. It starts to rain so the plans you had to drag them outside are dashed. You’re out of butter so you can’t make biscuits, muffins, or even toast.

You log on to Facebook thinking about your friends who wanted, but don’t have, kids. You think about your friends whose mothers have died. You particularly think about an old friend whose birthday falls this year on Mother’s Day. She seems to gracefully hold the unbearable pain of her past with the life she has built for herself and her children side by side.

You know you won’t post anything glib because it’s a sucky holiday for many. You keep your trap shut. You notice others are also being really careful. This year everyone is posting beautiful photographs of their mothers in memoriam or thanks, or both. People are including dog and cat moms in their Happy Mother’s Day wishes, as they should. It’s all quite moving. Everyone is being kind and thoughtful. Social media is allowing us to teach each other, slowly, how to be more aware during the holidays and celebrations that don’t come with joy for all.

You start to feel blue. Even with all you have good in your life, looking at the photographs of flowers and breakfasts in bed and reading the loving tributes from husbands to wives makes you feel a little lonely.

You want houseplants! They’re the answer! You and your kids go to the garden center in the rain. You pick succulents and shade-tolerant plants in different colors and shapes. You crowd the cart with plants and pretty pots to transfer them to. Your son asks if you should be buying so much. Money is tight and your kids know it. You don’t care. It’s Mother’s Day and you can buy yourself a little something.


It was worth it. Your living room looks cheerful and lovely.


a party

You go to a party wearing a Dinosaur Jr. concert t-shirt you recently unearthed in your attic. The host had loved it when she saw it a few weeks ago so you wear it in her honor. It’s in perfect condition. It’s from 1991. It’s a party sure to be filled with hipsters of all ages as well as the parents of some of your kids’ friends and classmates. Many of the partygoers will have been born in or around 1991. You turned 28 that year. You’re glad there will be other people your age there.

It’s a potluck with three bands scheduled to play so you decide to bring your peanut noodles. Mix peanut butter, rice wine vinegar, toasted sesame oil, tamari, sugar, and loads of ginger. Don’t follow a recipe. Put too much of everything flavorful in the mix and whisk it all together. Taste and add bits of this and bits of that until it’s perfect but needs a tiny bit more sugar. Accidentally pour 4 times the amount you planned on adding. Add hot water and mix until it’s pourable. Cook any noodles capable of holding the sauce in crevices and rinse with cold water. Pour five times the amount of sauce any recipe recommends; it should pool at the bottom of the bowl. Cook something green – they had baby broccoli at the store – and scallions in oil. Add a little soy sauce and sesame oil and toss with the noodles. Mix in a little spicy sesame oil for an undercurrent instead of the wallop you prefer.

When you arrive there’s no room for the gigantic bowl of food you brought so you place it on a small table and fret over it not even being tasted let alone eaten. Watch when someone takes a small amount. Smile when they go back for seconds, especially when they take a larger portion. Move it to the main table when the pizza boxes are cleared – there are many kids at this party – and place it next to one of the two tin baking dishes containing chicken wings. Visit it periodically and notice the level going down ever so slowly. People start to ask who made it. They want the recipe but there isn’t one. You tell them to start with the instructions for Mark Bittman’s cold sesame noodles but ramp it up in every way. Someone you’ve never met comes up and asks if you’re the one who made the peanut noodles. You’re pointed to by people asking each other about them. Another mom tells you they’re hands down the best she’s eaten. You feel good.

Generally you feel invisible at parties but your kids are there too, moving as one with the others, so your identity as a mother is solid, and then there’s your food. Early on one twin asks for your iPhone to read on the kindle app. Their good friend has two better friends and they’re both there. You feel bad. The kid’s mom had walked away from you mid-sentence five minutes earlier so you think you know how your child is feeling. Soon enough the phone is returned and all is fine. The band plays in the living room and you see the kids running outside through the window. They’re shouting and playing and having a blast. They come in pink-faced and sweaty to take fistfuls of chips and cookies; a parade of oversized ants storming through having been alerted to the presence of yet another dessert.

You’re talking to someone in the kitchen when your son comes over and asks you to hold the bloody tooth that finally came out. He puts it in your hand. It’s sticky and small and still warm. He fills your other hand with gummy bears and runs off, saying he’ll be right back. You hold the tooth in one hand and the candy in the other until five minutes pass. You ask the person you’re talking to if you can throw the gummy bears out. Has it been long enough? He tells you they’re sour patch kids, not gummy bears. He’s younger and he knows. You toss the candy, shove the tooth in your pocket and wash your hands.

Drink beer and talk to people. Try to remember not to overshare or act like an ass. Sit in the living room when the bands are done playing and talk to a mom and dad of two small boys. The littler one is nursing. Talk about never making enough milk for your twins. You’d get home from work, go straight to nursing and within a quick minute or two they’d shriek and cry in hunger and frustration. Talk about mixing the formula as quickly as you could and watching them suck the bottle dry in two seconds flat, leaving them full and content. Finally she’s feeding me! Somehow you start chatting about how you had to learn about charting your fertility and how surprising it all was. You mean that stuff wasn’t the beginning of a yeast infection? one of your friends had asked years ago when you discussed this with her. You had thought the same thing. Talk about the photographs in the book you read with a woman’s hand showing the different stages of “fluid” and how gross you found it, despite it all being so extremely fascinating. Halfway through the latter monologue realize that the room has gone silent and everyone is staring at you. Do your best to wrap up the conversation. It’s time to go home.

camp mom

Monday morning I race to the computer to finish uploading the documents so I can take my kids to camp. I can’t find their health forms so I call the director to see if I could bring them anyway. “Are they in camp this week?” she asked. “Yup, for the next four weeks.” I answer. She puts me on hold for ages and then tells me they aren’t scheduled until July 27th. I can’t afford camps that don’t have serious sliding scales. All are booked. Time for camp mom.

I hide the power cord to the computer and the charger so my kids can’t spend the day on screens. I have to set up appointments to photograph the last of the participants for a memoir project I’ve been working on for the past two months. I manage to get two scheduled for the afternoon. I tell my children I will pay them to be my assistants. The first appointment is with a woman who lives a half block from the expressway in Dorchester in a small house kept as dark as any I’ve seen. She’s wonderfully feisty and friendly with beautiful clear blue eyes and a devilish smile. She insists on cake and ice cream for all once I’m done photographing her. Out comes a cake with “Happy Birthday Pam” written in icing and two blown out candles announcing that Pam is 50. I tell her she can’t feed us her daughter’s cake before it has even been cut. “I can do whatever I want!” she says. She asks us how old we think she is. Ralphie declines the challenge. “I don’t want to run the risk of insulting anyone so I won’t guess.” Good boy. She tells us she’s fine with her age. She’s 87. She has raised ten children. She has lost count of her grandchildren. We sit in her kitchen and everyone eats cake and ice cream but me. I do the dishes. I say thank you for a lovely time and my kids are at the door in a heartbeat. I ask them to come back in and say good bye properly. “Look Mrs. O’Donnell in the eye and shake her hand.” They come back and shake hands. “Look me in the eye!” she tells them. They do. I go to shake her hand too but she laughs and says “Give me a HUG!” I crouch way down and do just that.


The next woman lives in a beautiful building right on the waterfront by the aquarium. My kids race around the sculptures and laugh as she and I get to work. She’s also lovely to be around and we have a good talk about raising children alone. Her kids grew up on Beacon Hill and went to private schools. “You did better than I’m doing!” I tell her. “He paid for the schools.” she tells me. We hug too.


I’m glad my children get to see why I love this project so much. I’ve been photographing +/- 50 people mostly in their homes in four different Boston neighborhoods: Dorchester, Fenway, Beacon Hill and the West End. I’ve met incredible people. I’ve seen their family photographs and their belongings. I’ve had a private gospel concert, been propositioned and I’ve had dozens of wonderful conversations. I love almost everyone I’ve met. It is a plum job and now my kids see why. Cake and ice cream!

We go home via Chinatown where Violet joins me in eating piles of ginger and scallion lo mein and sautéed pea pod stems. Ralphie eats a fortune cookie.

Day Two. Prints to make. Paperwork to catch up on. Banking to do. Air conditioner to buy. No photography appointments. It’s 10:30 and Violet has been on her iPod since 7:15 am. She has not yet emerged from her room. Ralphie has been stomping around looking for his iPod which has been missing for weeks. He just walked in to demand breakfast. I tell him to get it for himself. It’s sunny and hot and I don’t know how we will get through the day, let alone two weeks.

just shut up

I was walking Lily around the pond recently and I ran into someone I don’t really know. We’ve breathed the same air on a few occasions but we’ve never exchanged more than pleasantries, if that. We’ve gone to concerts together as part of a group. We’ve had dinner together in a pub with a mutual friend. She’s close to someone I hung out with for a bit but there’s nothing there.

She was with a man and she introduced the two of us. No one said anything so I started in. I don’t even remember what I said but once I got going I couldn’t stop. I know she said something about not being chatty or outgoing and I said, of course, that I’m overly both. I think I opined that staying silent is safer. Silent people are either intimidating or boring. She’s the former. I talked myself into a twisted pretzel and walked away horrified and embarrassed.

Yesterday I walked into the better of the two neighborhood thrift stores with Lily. I’ve been cutting her hair and she looks a little silly. A young child lying on his father gestured toward her. They were comfortably nestled into a soft chair, probably waiting for someone. I asked the man if his son would like to pat her. He lay plastered to his dad, cozy but a little apprehensive. No, but thank you, he said. I asked how old his son was. Two. He was a big boy. “My kids were so skinny!” I said, wanting to say something about never having that heavy chubby weight on me but you can’t say chubby without possibly offending someone. I tried to talk my way around what would normally come out of my mouth and suddenly found myself saying “You have a perfectly squeezable package!”

I walked away. Holy fuck. Did I really say that? Oh my god. I went into the back room and composed myself after some cringing and laughter and walked out a few minutes later.

Why can’t I just shut up?

Because talking is too handy. It’s how I get by.

what I learned

Our trip was hard because of the fighting. My children were fighting with each other and I was fighting with one of them too. “We can just pack up and leave today! This just isn’t fun. It isn’t worth spending all this money if we’re just going to fight!” I yelled.



I get so tangled up when this happens. I blame my child. I don’t get what’s so hard about just listening to and following a few rules. Don’t push each other into passersby. Don’t whack your umbrellas at each other and smack me or, worse, a stranger in the process.

I forget everything I’ve learned when I’m outside the walls of our house. When we’re out and about there’s no ability to say “I don’t like it when you talk to me like that. I’m going into another room.” When I’m stuck on a tiny cobblestone street with a wild beast I become a wild beast.

Getting home brought relief. We all have our own spaces. We all have things to do. We stopped fighting or, rather, the fights didn’t last for more than a minute or two. We got back to normal. Boring old predictable normal.

This past Saturday I woke up stir-crazy and a little lonely, a comedown after being away. I’ve been fantasizing for almost a year about picking a new and different location every few weeks and having mini adventures. The idea is to choose a destination (a beach, a waterfall, a small quaint town) with the added draw of a great ice cream store, donut shop, or any treat that might get my children motivated and interested. I decided we’d go to a nearby beach and look at the water. Maybe collect shells while walking along the shore. I did a little research and settled on Revere Beach because of a “hidden gem” of a pizza shop right on the main drag across from the water. I am driven by food and I’m particularly fond of small cheap hole-in-the-wall establishments. Ralphie and I love pizza. I promised Violet french fries and ice cream.

“We could have a picnic!” Violet said with excitement when I told my kids what we were going to do. Then they flagged and whined and said there was no way they were going out. I almost crawled back in to bed but I didn’t. We got in the car and off we went. The beach was empty and beautiful. The sky was blue and the clouds were fluffy and low.


We bought pizza, french fries and chocolate milk and ate in the car because the wind was blowing sand onto our food. We played frisbee and collected shells. We took a long walk and Violet put her naked feet in the cold water. We laughed. We didn’t fight.


Now I know what works: large uncrowded open spaces. Nothing annoying comes out of my mouth. No “Don’t….” or “Stop!” Just freedom and fun. No fighting. Nothing to fight about.

We got ice cream and went home. It was a good day.



a family vacation

Sitting in this room I often dream of adventures I can take with my kids now that the three of us can actually get out of the house and GO places. It’s easier now. Maybe it’s time for a trip somewhere completely different, I thought. Spring break was coming up and our normal destination – my mom’s house – wasn’t a possibility because she was going out of town. What about visiting Paula in Tampa? She was off to London and the flights were crazy expensive anyway. What about an Air BnB on Cape Cod? Catherine and her boys had a great time in March when they stayed in one despite the chilly weather. I looked at a bunch. Everything was too pricey and too close to home to make it very exciting. Drat. Iceland? Yikes on the cost to fly there. Then I remembered the pull I feel whenever we drive to New York and the road forks: left for New York and right for Montreal. Montreal!

A quick web search told me that April is part of the “shoulder” season when hotels are cheaper and the city’s attractions aren’t overrun by tourists. I chose a small and darling hotel in the old port section and booked several nights.

I’ve read that it’s as important to have something to look forward to as it is to have the experience, if not more. We badly needed an adventure  after our dreadful winter but my brand of anxiety comes with panic associated with doing anything out of the ordinary. For the weeks leading up to the trip I wondered who the hell I was trying to fool when I planned this. Just my kids and me? No other grown ups? A completely unfamiliar place? When I couldn’t find my passport I was relieved to have a good excuse to back out but then there it was in a drawer.

I had been trying to wean myself off of Ativan last fall but it didn’t go well. I did it on my own with no doctor’s supervision and the panic that came with the withdrawal was worse than any I’ve known. I decided I’d go back to taking it as needed for the time being. I’ll do it right the next time.

I practice deep breathing when I remember. I am taking much longer walks with our dog. I’m even doing biofeedback, which has been proven to help with anxiety, but I’m not quite there yet. If taking medication means I’m not chained to a small and predictable geographic location it’s worth it. If it means my kids’ lives aren’t tiny because of my panic it’s really worth it.

The day we left I felt a wave of calm. Not a shred of fear, just excitement. We drove all the way to Montreal without incident. I hadn’t thought to print out directions because I have my iPhone to guide me but once we passed through customs we had no service. Somehow we made it to the old port section and drove around for half an hour until Ralphie noticed our hotel. “Mom, there it is!” Violet found us a public parking lot and saved us a heap over what we would have spent on the hotel’s valet parking.

Montreal is lovely. The trip was lovely. The only thing that sucked was how much we fought. Gone were the quick recoveries of late. Gone was my ability to keep myself from getting angry at every little thing. It rained daily and my kids wanted umbrellas. I bought them each their own with the warning that I’d toss them if they used them as weapons. The whole first day they jousted on the narrow sidewalks as I reminded them over and over that there were other people trying to walk too. They hate being told what to do. I hate having to remind them that they are not the only beings on the planet.

We got through and we even had fun. As we were driving home I tried to figure out what the hell had gone wrong with all the fighting and then it dawned on me. Duh. We had no downtime and no escape from each other. We were together in the same space for 24 hours a day without a single break. This was a running monologue I was having with my kids until Violet piped in. “Except the shower!” She and I had each taken plenty of them.

I cried when we entered Boston. This is not my home! These are not my people! I wanted to turn around but when we got home spring had sprung, the magnolias had blossomed and everything was beautiful.

fits and starts

Okay, mostly fits but some starts too.

The winter has been too long, too cold, and much too snowy. Vast mounds of snow and ice line our streets. Both front and back bumpers are hanging off our car after three months of smashing into snow banks to cram the brute into the narrow opening of our driveway. Crash goes the front bumper into the heap on the right of our driveway. Crash goes our rear bumper into the heap just across the street. Crash, bump, bang, slide, skip, spin, crash and finally come to a stop, settled into place against yet another heap o’ snow. Forget K-turns. This is a 20-point turn of tire-spinning madness. Open the door and slither slowly to the sidewalk, snow-skimming on one side, filthy salty car-nudging on the other.

One kid loves to play in the snow and the other stays inside playing with Lego weekend after weekend and for much of the February break. Our dog is patient. I walk her twice a day in this cold and that’s one walk shy of what she needs. None of us is thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

I have no ability to focus. Thoughts slip through my brain instantly leaving no trace of their existence two seconds later. Nothing stays put. I worry that I’ve got early onset dementia. It’s scary. I cry to my mother who really doesn’t need one more thing to worry about. She assures me it’s normal. She is forgetful too. I make lists for myself to show to my therapist:

  • Delivery mix up. I had been working on prints for a neighbor for several weeks. When I finally delivered them I went to the wrong house. I saw the dog at the door and wondered why she was visiting the next door neighbors. That’s strange I thought. They aren’t even friendly with each other yet. Only when the dog’s owner came to the door did I realize it was the wrong house. Wrong dog. Wrong house. “Early onset…” I say as I apologize to the woman for my mistake. “Me too.” she says.
  • Boots. I’m walking our dog at night and my boots feel weird. My gait is off. My pajama bottoms come untucked on one leg and I tuck them back in. Twenty minutes later as we make our way home through the snow I realize I am wearing one boot each from two different pairs. One is 4 inches higher up my leg than the other and also a full size smaller. One is snug and one is loose and it took me almost half an hour to realize what was going on. It’s easy enough to slip into the wrong boots when they’re all aclutter at the bottom of the stairs but still. It’s upsetting.
  • Print orders. I have many print orders to fill from my large portrait commission. It’s enjoyable and predictable work and I’m proud of myself for keeping track of everything via a spreadsheet. Even with all the information I need right in front of me I send invoices for the wrong item to people and print the photographs at the opposite orientation than we had settled on.
  • Words. I am constantly switching my words. It’s either using one that starts with the same sound and has the same number of syllables (though I just typed sentences – case in point) or there’s a little switcheroo in my brain. I say garage instead of yard. Brain scrambles yard and garage because they’re both found often before the word “sale” and god knows I love a yard sale. It’s embarrassing though mostly it happens in front of my kids who glory in pointing it all out. They say it’s only worrisome if you don’t catch your mistakes. I almost never do.

It’s troubling. It’s no fun. I lie in bed with thoughts swirling around my brain like a swarm of hornets. Is my IQ lower than ever? Am I stupid? Am I starting to show signs of dementia? Is it from years of drinking heavily as a teenager? Is it the years of drinking heavily as an adult? I don’t drink much these days but have the others bouts of it caught up with me? Is it the anti-anxiety medication I took regularly for years? Why am I so forgetful? Is it my addiction to the computer? I am as addicted as they come. It gives so much but it also taketh away. It gets in the way. “Let me just finish…” I say to my kids when they want to play with me. It’s hard to unglue my ass from this chair. I’m always awaiting the next juicy tidbit of news or funny or informative thing on Facebook or maybe an email requesting my photographic services. I spend hours reading reviews of LED light bulbs. Weeks are wasted online-stalking the all-clad pot I suddenly absolutely have to have after seeing it in Abby and Gordon’s kitchen. I want it but shouldn’t spend the money right now so I visit it over and over.

It all pulls me in and doesn’t let me go. I let it. I’m weak and put up no fight.

I have a new therapist who I started seeing this past fall when the panic attacks returned. She assures me that I am just extremely distracted and it has nothing to do with dementia. Stress can cause this she says. “I don’t feel stressed!” I protest and then find myself talking about the crushing weight of still not making much of a living five years after losing my job. I dredge up the contents of those five years and remember that I didn’t put work at the top of my list because there were far more important things to take care of like stabilizing my family. If I think about what we’ve accomplished here I am okay. Work comes next. It is okay. I need to tell myself that over and over. It will get better. It will happen. It’s okay.

But still. The brain. What the hell? Do I have undiagnosed ADD? Even if I did I wouldn’t take the medication so why bother with the testing? Would reading help? I haven’t read a book in ages. I read the paper online and, as I said, many a review but I have not held an actual book in my hands and read for the pure pleasure of it in far too long. I started reading short stories a few weeks ago and I’ve managed an hour a day ever since. At night the three of us lie in bed together reading. I am setting a good example and exercising my underused brain at the same time. It should help.

I realized I have almost zero contact with other adults now that my portrait commission is finished. I may have lunch with a friend every two weeks or so but that’s it. The dog walking crowd has been as shut in as we are so there are no pleasantries exchanged while scooping up shit or throwing a damp and slimy tennis ball. I am feeling the effects of cabin fever. I have too little going on.

A few weeks ago I agreed to be part of a focus group at a local hospital. The purpose of the meeting was to find out how patients would want information about breast density presented to them after having a mammogram. A new law has been passed requiring doctors to inform women with dense breast tissue that they have a higher incidence of breast cancer than women with less dense breasts. For the first time in ages I had plenty to say. I was part of a lively conversation! I was articulate! I was one of the more vocal participants and I left feeling helpful and satisfied. I was able to focus! I didn’t jumble my words!

I see a name pop up on someone’s Facebook post and a face flicks in front of my brain. It’s almost always the wrong Lauren or the wrong person with a common last name. Multiple friends with the same name but only one slot in my head for that name. I stop after the first syllable and move on. It’s time to reprogram myself. It isn’t coming naturally but I’m not giving up. I think it’s all about slowing down. If I don’t read the name, the date, the sentence or the paragraph slowly and deliberately my brain will rush in and flood me with bad data.

I go too fast. I rush everywhere I go. I rush myself and I rush my kids as they scramble up the snow mountains pretending they’re Cherokee chiefs or peace keepers. “I found some flint! Let’s make weapons!” one shouts. The other slides down the hill, snow crashing onto the only well-shoveled patch of sidewalk. I have to dig my nails into my palms to keep myself from telling them to hurry up or yelling at them for messing up the sidewalk. What’s the rush? They’re having fun. They’re playing. They’re outside. This is their childhood for goodness sake. Dinner can wait. Bedtime can wait. Let them be.

I am consciously trying to go more slowly. It’s a struggle but I have to slow down. Breathe. Think. Read. Write. Walk. S L O W down.

Today is the first day I’ve written anything in a long time. It feels hopeful to be productive and I know it’s because I had a plan for this afternoon. When I have too little going on I get nothing done. If I have something cutting into the vast expanse of day it all works a little better. I had a job scheduled today at 2 pm and it gave me just the right balance. I did a little organizing in the morning, wrote a little something and then took a shower to get ready for my photo session. It isn’t a shapeless day, it’s a day with something fun scheduled. A family photo shoot with a large and friendly family about a mile away. Their house is spacious, airy and uncluttered. I was headed there instead of shooting here as I normally do. I just texted the woman to say I’d be ten minutes late. It turns out I’m two weeks early. I skipped over the part of the text message that read “Friday, March 27th” and somehow slotted the job for today. Slow down. I may have started but I still have a long way to go.





You stay away at Christmas because Thanksgiving was hard. You did too much sleeping. You hid upstairs in bed and it’s no good for you or your kids and everyone else got mad at you. Never again you say.

You make a plan. Christmas at home, just the three of you, followed by two nights away at an inn and then on to see your family. Christmas at your mother’s in shifts seems sensible. Your mother, her sister and her son, and Catherine and her family on Christmas day. Your brother and his girls for a few days after Christmas. By the time you and your kids show up the house would be calm. No fear of staying too long because vacation is going to end soon. Every group has a chance to enjoy being there without being overrun by too many.

When you told your mom you had booked two nights at the inn she suggested you add a third. You go ahead and do it since this is part of your Christmas present from her. The inn was lovely. A sense of community found in the small outdoor hot tub. The preponderance of 8, 9 and 10 year olds and their interesting middle-aged parents. The huge bathroom with the claw foot tub. Your sister and one of her boys even came for two nights. The museum across the street was just right for your children. It was magical watching their  reactions to the art and installations. The kids had fun and so did the grown ups. It was heaven.

You arrive at your mother’s house and no one was there but her. You have dinner in the yellow restaurant and your daughter clings to her nana, happily burying her head in her chest. It feels good to watch your children have their nana to themselves and to listen to them tell her all about their trip. They need this special time with her like they need food and sleep. You stay awake all day, even watching a movie with everyone crammed into the small side room the next night. You are not hiding behind your laptop and you are not in bed. You know you’ve done it all just right.

It’s the third day. It’s the morning of New Year’s Eve and your mom’s best friend is coming over. You like him these days and it no longer feels like everything he says comes with a barb. You even enjoy his company. He surprises you with a box wrapped in Christmas paper. Last year you had gotten him a present but there was nothing in return so you didn’t bother to shop for him this year. As you open the box you wish you had something for him. Paper and more paper. “Did you give me an empty box?” you joke. At the bottom of the box are three tiny twist off samples of medicine for people with smoke, mold and animal allergies.

Your son has asthma. He is allergic to smoke and animals and he has been very sick at his nana’s in the past. You feel a little miffed by the joke present but you say nothing. You walk away. As you head upstairs your sister calls up to you. You suspect she’s going to tell you not to take it personally – that’s just Chuck. You tell her to go away. You can keep it together until someone notices there’s something wrong – it’s always like that – and you’d prefer this small hurt to remain private. It had all been so nice. No warning that one crappy gesture could undo you like this but there you have it.

You sneak out and have coffee with a friend. You recover. You head back and get cozy on the sofa. Your mother asks you if you’re going to be okay because otherwise it will ruin  Christmas. No one talks to you the rest of the day as you cloister yourself off, dog at your side, in bed. They’re mad at you for leaving your kids with them without asking. You thought they’d understand.

Maybe you’ll package up some dog shit in a nice box and leave it on someone’s doorstep on your way out of town with a little note. Maybe you’ll empty a chocolate sampler and shape fresh shit into the little plastic molds and top each off with a nut or a cherry, or better yet, make shit truffles covered in real chocolate and dusted with cocoa powder. Maybe you’ll put shit in a paper bag and light it on fire, ringing the doorbell before racing to the car. Maybe not.


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 finally 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.

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.

when it is time to go

You want to have a good time but you fold the second you leave your car. The hackles are raised the instant you walk in. Cigarette butts and dog hair feel like a personal affront, though you know they aren’t. It hurts your feelings that she doesn’t clean it up before you get there. It hurts her feelings when you grumble something about the air and your son’s lungs or when you haven’t noticed that she has cleaned. The reality is that she can’t clean it all up. She has a bum hip and it’s too much but reality doesn’t play much into feelings.

You think you’ll stay through New Year’s because your kids love it there. They always have a wonderful time playing with their cousins for hours on end and their joy and laughter is lovely, if not a little loud. Everyone gets and gives nice presents and there’s a pretty and tall wisp of a wild tree in the corner covered in tiny ornaments.

You want to spend time with your sister but she has broken her leg and is in her own private hell. Another sister stays alone on Christmas with her own hurt. The sister who is present says, attempting to be very diplomatic on the second or third night, “I love being in the room with you but can you please just not talk?” You go upstairs and take two or three times your dose of clonipin to dull the hurt and fall asleep. Everyone has reached saturation. No one has an ounce to spare.

You feel like a ghost rattling from room to room, often clearing them. You have nothing to add to the conversations because so often they’re about things that you aren’t part of. You lose the ability to focus or plan. You’re stuck in suspended animation but you stay for your children because family is important.

Your mother promises your kids dinner in the yellow restaurant and it’s the highlight of their trip. Skinny french fries with long fried rosemary twigs and a very thin and simple pizza are their favorite things on the menu. She tells you she’s going to a party for an hour and will be home at 5:00. You tell her to call if she drinks so you can drive her home. “It’s not going to be that kind of party. See you in an hour.” Your kids wait eagerly.

At 8:30 she stumbles in with two friends. They drove her home because she was unable to drive. Your daughter screams that she hates her for not keeping her promise. She wants to go home. “Nana, you failed me!” she wails. Your son can’t breathe without taking albuterol more often than is prescribed and you know it’s time to go. They don’t protest, in fact no one does, when you announce your departure the next morning. It’s good to know when to leave.

You go to the yellow restaurant on your way out of town. She comes along after declining the invitation you have made; your daughter did better with her earnest appeal. Everyone eats a nice meal and it’s a pleasant send off. You drive away after taking her to pick up her car which had been left at the party the night before.

Ten minutes later the phone rings. “I miss you already!” she says chirpily. Uh huh. But you understand. Missing someone is a luxury after having had just a little too much of them.

You get home to your messy house and breathe deeply the calm of home and your cozy bed. You go to sleep in each other’s arms talking about how good it feels to be home together and how much you love each other. Your new dog – an almost seven year old hypoallergenic standard poodle – climbs in bed with you all for the first time and everyone wakes up in the morning smiling.

say something

My mom invited an old friend of mine to our Thanksgiving and I wondered who else I know around here who might not have their kids this weekend or who might otherwise be alone. We have a few people who fit that category join us each year. Another old friend, who I haven’t seen in almost 30 years, lives up here so I wrote to him. His partner of many years died a few months ago. I found out on facebook. I saw posts about Lee on Chris’s “wall” and gleaned that he was well-loved, funny and too young to die. The loss is huge. I assumed that Chris had a good and strong network of friends and would have had many offers but he didn’t. He said people don’t know what to do with his grief and most have slipped away, afraid of what to say. I want people to take care of him in his loss, not leave him alone with it. His sister is coming to town and they are going out for dinner but I am doing my best to get them to join us here. We know from grief.

I have a few other friends, the relationships also entirely facebook-based, who I rarely, if ever, see in real life. One couple who I went to college with teach me important things about loss on a regular basis. Their first child died from a very rare form of cancer when he was two. He died 14 years ago but they talk about him all the time. Karen posts darling pictures and she tells wonderful stories, all publicly, with rare insight and candor. Jeremy had a heartbreaking and powerful piece published in the NY Times last March: A High-Functioning Bereaved Parent.

There’s obviously deep sadness and loss but there’s also life, beauty, joy and love that they experienced with their son and he lives on in every day that passes. I’ve read articles they’ve linked to and the thing that has stuck with me above all is the message to say his name. Jacob.

When I saw Jeremy for the first time in many years at our teacher’s memorial service last January someone asked him how many children they have. I answered for him because he was in the middle of talking to someone else. “Two.” I said. “Three.” He corrected. Now I know.

I didn’t know what to do with people’s grief or loss either, until I did. I’d intend to send a card but would let too much time pass and never do it. I was afraid of being trite or saying the wrong thing but now I know it’s only wrong to say nothing. All you have to say is “I’m so sorry.” Say anything. Acknowledge the loss. The grief doesn’t go away when the person is buried, it just begins. Check on your friends who have lost loved ones. Call them. Write letters. Stick your neck out a little. If they don’t want to talk about it they will say so or if they don’t write back it’s because they can’t.

When my stepfather Quin died all the cards and letters from family and family friends were addressed to my sister Catherine, his daughter. No one thought to write to the rest of us. I considered him my dad too, though not biologically. My own friends, who realized the loss was also mine, sent me cards and it meant the world to me. They taught me the importance of the gesture. It is never trite to say you are sorry. When my beloved pup Francis was killed by a car, my desk was filled with cards and flowers from friends at work. A bouquet of daffodils from my manager Vicky’s garden and cards from suppliers I had forged relationships with entirely over the phone. Somewhere I have a polaroid picture I took of it all. When the baby I was carrying died I made it known that I didn’t want anyone to send cards or flowers or to bring it up unless I did. Vicky sent a small bouquet of white flowers and I will always remember the beauty and kindness in that perfect act performed against my wishes.

I get things wrong. Those of us who tend to feel isolated and alone can forget what all we have. Where’s that best friend? I don’t have one. But I have my kids. And I have my family in all their imperfection and I am surrounded by them today. I wish my mother’s breath hadn’t smelled like alcohol when she hugged me hello yesterday upon arrival. It was 2 pm. I wish I didn’t bristle at every slightly (or not so slightly) aggressive thing that comes out of my father’s mouth. I wish I felt more connected but I forget that I am. It’s my family’s house that is hosting Thanksgiving to many who are alone. I am part of that and I am trying to remember how lucky that is.