a good place

I don’t like to write when things are going badly these days but this minute, this very minute, it feels as if we’re finally in a cozy and safe place. I can’t remember ever feeling this grounded. Never before have I felt absolute confidence in who is surrounding us. Never before have I had such hope.

I had wished for a fairy godmother for all of us and we found Terry. So he’s a godfather. It’s just as good. He’s the now retired minister from the UU church where I have a tiny part-time job. My kids adored him from the second they laid eyes on him, and I have as well. He’s generous and kind. He’s thoughtful and chatty. Most of all, he’s incredibly silly and fun. He comes over for dinner and afterwards my kids snuggle against him for movie night.

We lost our in-home therapist a while back. Though we were in a good place as a family, I missed the support for myself. If I’m good they’re good and I need reminders. I called to ask if it were possible to get someone new and a few months later two young women were assigned to us; a lead and one in training. They’re half my age and don’t yet have children of their own but no matter. The one in training is quiet so I don’t know her yet but the lead is whip smart. We took to her immediately. They have ideas and techniques to slowly draw a child out and they have subtle ways of helping us with self-esteem without being preachy or annoying. They’ll hang out with any combination of us every Tuesday night; we can all wander in and out as we please. On Mondays they’ll come to me. I asked what on earth our diagnosis is to have insurance cover all of this. Nothing, she said. “You just need support.”

Ralphie has had a Big Brother for a few months now. He’s quiet and maybe a little scared of me (he’s often late and I may have come across as overly fierce about that) but Ralphie enjoys their time together tremendously. They’ve gone to see the Red Sox, spent an afternoon at the Museum of Science, gone out to kick a soccer ball around and today they’re headed to the Museum of Fine Arts. They always get pizza and ice cream.

Violet’s Big Sister match came through two weeks ago and today they’re on their first outing. We all had to endure a long and boring pledge-giving, read aloud introduction with the match coordinator in the evening after a long day of camp and Violet retreated to her room mid-meeting. She wanted someone younger, she said, but I reminded her that she specifically asked for someone my age. I coaxed her out and once we were done with the signing, reading and discussing, M and V headed outside for ten minutes to plan their first day together. They both came back with radiant smiles. “Violet is FAST!” said M. Violet had challenged her to a race and had won. This morning when M arrived I had been sitting on the porch and Violet was still upstairs. M told me when they went downstairs after the meeting Violet had wanted to show her something. Violet had stuffed a whole lot of purple blossoms from our butterfly bush up her nose. Once M was watching, she exhaled and pushed them all out. M had thought it was hysterical. I would have talked about the dangers of breathing one in. Aspirating. I go too far. I am boring.

M is calm, patient, and soft-spoken. She’s sporty. She gardens. I am lazy, out-spoken and not always calm. Our raised bed is currently a sea of weeds with a few onions that reseeded themselves from last year’s crop that never grew. Violet loves to plant and they are spending the afternoon in M’s two public garden plots. She just sent me photographs of Violet digging and watering and then sitting at an outdoor cafe in front of a lovely bowl of ice cream.

I’ve waited for two years for a large portrait commission to come through. Once I had thoroughly given up on it happening it did. I am making individual portraits of +/- 100 people at a large prestigious medical school. The people I photograph will come from all walks of life and will encompass all professions from security guards to surgeons. I spent three days photographing about a third of them a few weeks ago, accompanied by two of the women who are facilitating the project. I didn’t have an assistant and I have a bum shoulder so they helped me lug my equipment from the garage to the room we were using. We made a good team. It was fabulous to have the camaraderie I don’t get working alone. “You’re so good with them!” they said. “You’re nice to everyone.” I am, mostly. The third day another woman working on this project, one who had been a little chilly during our first meeting, came by for a few hours. She said, over and over, how happy she was to be witnessing the day. She gave me a giant hug when we were done.

I haven’t felt like my best self in ages and I had forgotten there was such a person. Those three days reminded me that I am much more than an under-employed artist and perhaps the world’s worst admin. I’m also more than a mom. It feels good and it’s just what I needed. They’re loving the portraits I’ve done so far.

Our house threw up on itself again but we are slowly teasing out our separate spaces. Violet’s own room is complete as of yesterday, just in time for their ninth birthday next week. Ralphie will have to endure my bed in what will be his room while mine is built. He’s a good sport about it. It’s enough to have a door to close now and again. The zero-season porch (freezing in the winter and scorching in the heat) will become my room. It will be a cozy little space big enough for a bed and bureau. I don’t need more than that.

Lily is by my side sleeping on the mail. The house is quiet. I am done writing and will start to clean. My kids will be home soon.

vanity

Last year I loved both of my children’s teachers. I wanted to give them something special for an end-of-year thank you so I offered them each a photo session. Neither took me up on it. Ditto for a “specials” teacher who seemed quirky enough to love the idea. I saw her this morning and reminded her that the offer still stands, one year later. She does so much and I’d love to give her something more meaningful than a gift certificate. “Can you do something about these?” she asked, gesturing to nonexistent jowls. I told her she will never be as young or as beautiful as she is today. Who gives a shit about the jowls.

I am attempting to stop fretting over my less than stellar body parts. I’ve got enough food to make my stomach fat. There’s extra room in there from my twin pregnancy. These are luxuries. If I wanted to badly enough I could do something about it. That’s a luxury too. When I stop eating bad things (GOOD things) I lose weight. That’s kind of great.

Pictures I hated of myself have become beautiful. Just wait ten years and take a look at the ones of yourself that you pick apart now. You’ll see. The amount of time we all waste worrying about our looks is crazy. Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t because I’m not. Not that I don’t, because I do, but I am on a kick to appreciate what I have right here and right now. The lyrics from “I Got Life” from the movie Hair come to mind:

I got my hair
I got my head
I got my brains
I got my ears
I got my eyes
I got my nose
I got my mouth
I got my teeth

I got my tongue
I got my chin
I got my neck
I got my tits
I got my heart
I got my soul
I got my back
I got my ass

I got my arms
I got my hands
I got my fingers
Got my legs
I got my feet
I got my toes
I got my liver
Got my blood

I’ve told everyone who has dabbed hot wax on my face not to touch the inner edges of my brows. When I was a teenager I used Nair and accidentally removed way too much hair from that spot. I had these sad little half brows starting mid eye and I decidedly looked like a piggie. A crap boyfriend reached across the table at some diner in Allston twenty five years ago and plucked out a hair that was growing mid-brow. I never forgave him for that. That was my decision, not his. I am protective of my brows. They need tending, as they’re unruly and straight – no lovely arch for me – and I don’t care if they’re thin or thick as long as they’re tidy. They’re the only tidy thing about me.

A month or so ago my friend waxed my brows and took hair away from that spot before I could stop her. I glanced in the mirror on my way out and left depressed. It took all of thirty seconds to shake it off by remembering that my sister has only one breast.

Yesterday I helped with a fundraiser my mother had for a friend who needs money to pay for hospice care at home. Many people who came have or have had cancer. They looked great. Even the ones with wispy bits of hair just growing in from chemo looked wonderful. Even the older man with the oxygen tank was elegant and handsome like my grandfather when he was gaunt and sick. People were radiant. They were alive. They were happy. It was a sight to behold.

The other day I asked Ralphie’s teacher if she would allow me to photograph her and her family as a present for her caring about my son when things were going badly. He loves her and he has had a great year thanks to her. I told her I’ve had a hard time convincing others to take me up on the offer but it is what I can best give. She said yes without hesitation. She didn’t say anything about her hair or her weight, or anything negative at all, unlike the preponderance of women I’ve photographed, myself included. She was smiling so much at the prospect of the photographs that she said her face hurt. That’s how I want to live. I can’t wait to get her here. I know the photographs will be beautiful. I aspire to be as happy in my skin as she seems to be in hers. It’s coming. I can feel it.

today’s happiness

Today’s happiness brought by a morning with no fighting. A morning I didn’t have to physically dress my child. A morning brought by (finally) coming up with a schedule of fifteen minute increments, each designated with an action, approved by all, and the stove’s timer.

7:30 – 7:45: play time
7:45 – 8:00: get dressed
8:00 – 8:15: eat breakfast
8:15: get in the car and head to school

I unplugged the internet so none of us would get swallowed up. I told my kids that if they completed their tasks early that block would revert to play. It was so simple and it worked. They got dressed and they ate and they played. We got to school on time. I wasn’t yelled at for rushing them. I will keep it up. I had my own schedule and I stuck to it. Half the time I’m the one goofing off and our mornings can be hell.

I looked at myself in the rearview mirror after my kids got out of the car. My wild and wooly brow would necessitate a call to the salon. I looked to the right and saw my friend walking to work. She sculpts the unruly and unwanted fur on many a human in our neighborhood. She hopped in the car for a ride and I made an appt. with her as we chatted. She can now book appointments on her iPhone for the salon. How handy. I asked after her brother-in-law who has leukemia. He has been in the hospital for six weeks. He hasn’t been able to see his four year old son once in all that time. She told me he gets to go home for a week. How lovely. The coffee shop down the street from their home in Brooklyn hosted a bone marrow drive and he now has a match. This morning’s happiness brought on by good news. The fact that a complete stranger would donate bone marrow to a person in need renews one’s faith in humanity. Not that I ever lost it, but still. It made me weep with joy and hope.

I love this friend. She is open and good-natured and chatty. She is also gorgeous. She stays afloat and remains upbeat when things are shit. She is sturdy and strong and nice to be around. She looked back into our car as she was closing the door and noticed a book “Bone”, which Violet is reading, on the floor in a sea of trash and smiled. “I love the mess of your car.” she said, and I believed her. I don’t let many people into my car. It’s embarrassing. It’s littered and filthy and this past weekend my mom said it smelled like a barn. A year or two ago on a very rainy day I gave a ride to a dad I saw getting soaked after I had dropped my kids off at school. I shoved the stuff off the passenger seat and he got in. I weakly apologized for the mess. After a few minutes he said “It’s not so much that your car is messy, because it is, as it is the striking variety of things you have in here.” I looked around and saw a toothbrush, a headless barbie, a single pink plastic princess sandal and god knows what all. He was right. It is a crazy person’s car. But I’m not crazy.

I got to work and saw the older guy who carries around bottles hanging out by the door. His cigarette butts often litter the steps to the church. One of his eyes wanders and he yells a lot. His hair was surprisingly clean and blowing wildly in the breeze. I’ve never spoken to him and I usually hold my breath when I pass him, just in case. I suppose I wrote him off  but this morning I asked him if he needed anything. He was surprised by my question. “What do you mean?” he asked. I said I wanted to know if he was hungry because I had some food. Did I have any coffee, he asked. I gave him money to get some. Happiness brought by having money to spare and a little kindness as well. Sometimes the latter is in short supply.

 

music

I used to have music on all the time. All the time. Nine years ago when I managed, finally, to get pregnant my appetite for it died just like that. Gone, too, were the late nights out seeing bands. That part of my life came crashing to an end. It had been, along with my job, my entire social existence and a large part of my identity.

An era ended and a new one began with two little beings to take care of. Ups and downs and downs and ups and inside outs. Crazy times and sane times. Awful times and scary times and fabulous times and all the dreary and boring or simply content days in between. But no music to speak of.

The few albums I listened to over and over again, when the stress of being fired slowly and tortuously was high, still make the rounds to calm and ground me when I need that in album form. I like some of the pop stuff my kids like. I secretly love the theme song to Frozen when my kids belt it out. Who doesn’t?  But when I buy records they fall flat. Nothing sticks. Nothing gets under my skin.

And I don’t want a boyfriend. Still. I can’t see it in my mind so it won’t happen. I remain without crush. I remain without that fizz of excitement when you see someone and you just know. It isn’t out there right now for me and may never be. I don’t think about it too much except to wonder why I care so little.

And then there’s the fact that I am fifty, or, um, fifty one. I sit in no man’s land. Under-employed, under-friended and under-inspired. Not young but not old. I live in a body I don’t recognize. A body I don’t know how to dress. I am of an age that looks silly in things I am sometimes still drawn to; clothing for the younger set. How do I dress this body? How do I fix her hair? What should she be wearing? What will make her feel alive? What will make her feel good? I just don’t know.

How do I diet? How do I stop with the key lime pies? How do I eat less pasta? How do I say no to that half stick of butter on said pasta? What about those delicious and cold glass bottles of Mexican Coca Cola made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup? How do I not drive down to the seven-eleven to buy a bunch when I need to make it through the late afternoon until bedtime? I don’t like tea. I don’t want coffee. I want coke. And key lime pie. And attention.

So if I want attention, and not just for the appealing retro sneakers I’ve been buying myself in bright orange and a deep blue, I have to make some changes. I have to eat less. I have to look in the mirror and feel good about who and what I see. I have to take long walks. I have to exercise. I have to try.

My pursuits are solitary. I photograph and I write. I take care of my kids. I take care of our dog. I work in a tiny office eight hours a week and am thrilled when my friends are there working too, but the overlap is sporadic at best. When the folks from the Food Pantry use the space every two weeks I am buoyed by their company for a moment or two. It’s lonely still.

A week or two ago I bought a dress and then I bought some very pretty sandals with nice stacked heels. I can’t usually walk in anything but flats but these are just right. They are a lovely pale grayish blue with eyelets cut into the leather. I needed something to wear that fit and looked good on this body. This body that has eaten less pasta and no key lime pie for two weeks in anticipation of a small opening I had last night. The weather cooperated and many friends came. I felt pretty. I think I looked good. I wore two small pony tails. Fuck the age shit; I like the pony tails and they get my hair out of my face. I wore new mascara too.

One of my favorite bands from two decades ago has a new record out and I bought it. It has been playing all morning and it’s delivering. I’ve started to have the same fantasies I’d have at their shows years ago. He will notice me. He will want me. Something will happen. Things will change. The drudgery will be gone.

Ha. The concert is sold out. Others feeling just like me with better planning skills bought all the tickets. A bunch of 40-50 somethings rocking out like no one’s business. I want a part of it. I want to feel the movement of the crowd. I want to watch the sweat pour off the singer’s face and soak his shirt. I want to be in the front. I want them to play all my favorite songs so I’ll know all the words. I want to feel something different from what I feel right now.

My sister can’t listen to music because she can’t handle the passion it inspires. It gets her too fired up. It makes her want to do bad things. I understand. It’s happening to me.

bob

I’ve called him Bob and I’ve outed him as Joel. He was our family therapist. He left the agency he had been working for a few weeks ago and we had our final session during his last week. His biggest gift was not the time he spent with my children, it was the time he spent with me. He taught me, in the kindest way possible, how to get much closer to who I aspired to be as a parent. He never finger-pointed or blamed. He guided me in such a way that I discovered what I was doing wrong, slowly but surely, seemingly on my own. I am now a consistently calmer and more rational parent than I’d ever dreamed I’d be. He did so much for us on those Monday mornings sitting in the brown chair listening to me and gently making suggestions.

As we stood at the door on his last night, I thanked him for what he had done for us and marveled at the fact that he was able to keep our in home therapy –  something meant to last 3 – 4 months at most – going for a year and a half. His parting words were “I realized the best way to support your children was to support their mom.” Yessir. Exactly. It took a while, 18 months to be exact, but here we are in a much better place. I wish all parents in need had this kind of support available to them.

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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