a middle of the night rambling companion piece: what I left out

I tried to write something differently than I usually do. I didn’t first read it to my mother or sister and I wasn’t even sure they’d see it. I wrote it for myself but shared it with god knows who all via Facebook.

Usually I read, badly and too quickly, what I’ve written over the phone to my mom and she offers excellent advice. “This is boring.” she said recently about something I then didn’t post. It was the only time and, of course, she was right. She knows. My mother is the favorite writing teacher of many a writer. And she’s also a favorite writer of many.

But she’s my mom and, as such, our relationship is sometimes imperfect. I am, and will forever be, a middle child. I am overly sensitive. I often feel eclipsed by the things going on in my siblings’ lives. It’s okay to feel that and sometimes it’s just the reality. My hard time is often not as bad as what they’ve got to deal with on a given day. We all have our shit. You, me, and probably most people you know. I just talk about mine more. Publicly. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea but fuck it, it helps me through and god knows I need that.

Before heading to Woodstock my shit got bad again. Fighting with and between my kids, out of control mess, and some hard stuff at work combined with the normal worries and stress associated with the holidays. I work part-time in a Unitarian church in my neighborhood. Having never been a church person and having had a phobia of organized religion for most of my life I find it funny that we go to church now most Sundays. My kids love it and I do too. I just ignore the god stuff. The church has a wonderful tradition of getting wild trees from a farm in NH and they grace the sanctuary in December. I adore the minister and his wife who is the organist and music director, and it has become a focal point of our weekends. My kids love it there and they’re learning interesting things. They sing hymns! Atheist or not, I like what the UU’s curriculum for kids is, especially when they’re teenagers. My children love the minister and his wife too, dearly. It’s adding a richness to our lives. I didn’t want to miss the Christmas Eve service but we’re always in New York by then. I was torn and didn’t know what to do. We stayed. It broke our tradition and it was nice. Christmas morning in our house was calm and easy. Presents from Santa were opened along with the stockings “he” filled and a few presents from me and then we went to New York.

It’s hard to go “home” to your family and not regress. For years I felt that none of them had any idea of who I actually was because they only saw who I had been. In my own life I can be fun and full of life or I can be a bore – and everything in between – but I am not defined solely as the petulant silent one in the corner holding onto every historic or current grievance; in other words, who I was seen as in the bosom of my family. Writing, I think, may have helped to round out who I am in their eyes a bit.

So I synthesized feelings from many Christmases over the years and wrote something. It wasn’t meant to be a chronicle of the holiday but, instead, about finally knowing when to leave and actually acting on it. I knew that it was time to leave a few days early for my own self (overload, worry about my son’s asthma, and wanting the last few days of the year to get our house in order) and seeing that my mom needed less chaos in her house prompted my plan. My mom’s drinking cemented it. For some reason her drinking upsets me above all else. She isn’t a drunk and she doesn’t drink a lot but on the odd occasion when she does I go apeshit. I am sorry, mom, for being so intolerant.

There was a skit on SNL in the seventies called “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave” and it became a catchphrase in my family – no one wanted to be the thing that wouldn’t leave! I used to be the thing that couldn’t leave. I’d sleep 20 hours a day or drink myself silly. I’d stay until the very last minute and then leave reluctantly even though being there wasn’t always joyful. Once, shitfaced and angry at my mother during a visit to her house in Woodstock years ago, I screamed at her to “just go HOME!” She was home. I wasn’t. I slept in my car.

When I wrote the piece in question I kept thinking about my mother’s advice that less is more. I often try to cram too much in so I pared it way, way down. It was intentionally distilled and somewhat distorted because I wanted it to feel relatable by those who, for whatever reasons, sometimes feel like outsiders in their own families. I certainly have but don’t anymore – there’s the fiction.

What I wrote wasn’t meant to blame or hurt or shame, though secretly I hoped it would make my mother stop drinking. I don’t like it when she drinks but we all have our coping mechanisms, faulty though they might be. I hate drinking. I hate that smell of alcohol on a person’s breath early in the day. I hate when boyfriends would arrive at my house at 8 pm half in the bag from an after-work drink. I have had many, many boyfriends who drink too much and it has always upset me. I hate who I was and what I said and how I acted during my many alcoholic binges: in my teens, early twenties, mid-thirties and, alas, on more than just a few occasions while visiting family or with friends, in my forties. I am now able to have only one drink. I don’t like more than that.

I bring groceries and I cook yummy food but I am messy and rarely do any cleaning. I pour my kids bowls of cereal and none of us even think to put the bowls in the sink after the dogs have licked them clean. It’s just like home. The twins squared – mine and my sister and Tim’s – scatter their lego and artwork on every surface and climb and bounce on the furniture. The dogs get exhausted from all the mayhem and so do the grown ups. But we’re giving them each other and that is as valuable a gift as they can get. At one point Violet was upset and Freddy hugged her to make her feel calm. Ralphie and Augie had a hug too. They are all very close and they can play for hours. This past week may have been the best time they’ve had together to date. They barely fought. It was a love fest. Catherine’s boys are kindhearted, polite, precocious and incredibly smart. They are wild and crazy and loud and silly. They are good, good boys.

I love my sister and her family. She gets the best presents for the kids and always goes way overboard because she just loves toys. And she’s generous. She gave them sparklers and the joy and pride on Ralphie’s face as he held his outside in the dark and cold was something to behold.

When my mom agreed to go to the yellow restaurant, Violet gave her a tremendous hug and said “You’re the Queen of Love!” At the restaurant she spilled an entire pitcher of maple syrup all over my mom and my mom didn’t flinch. I can start taking lessons.

I love my mom. I love my sisters. I love my brother. I love my siblings’ children. I love my dad. I love my kids and I love it when we’re all happy and not engaging in self-destructive behaviors. I am sorry I hurt people I love. It happens.

Approved by my mother.

Proof of Life. Proof of Love. Happy New Year.

all_four va_hug mo_v ct_kids socks tree ct

19 thoughts on “a middle of the night rambling companion piece: what I left out

  1. I love it, Jennifer. What a wonderful piece. Have you ever thought of submitting essays to WBUR or GBH? I’ve heard personal essays before, and maybe they’d take one.

    • Paul is right Jennifer, you are gifted in your ability to write such personal stories of your life. How wonderful that you share them with us.

      • Thanks, Paul and Catherine! I had a friend who works at WBUR try to get Ira Glass interested in things I’d written a year ago but there was no arc so it didn’t work out. I am passive about all this and easily put off by rejection but maybe I will try!

  2. Jennifer- I found both your postings bold and the second one (which could not emotionally exist for me without the first) bought tears to my eyes. The love is infused with so much complexity. Happy New Year to your entire, rich, family.

    • Thank you, Liz! Happy New Year to your beautiful family too. You are right that I couldn’t have kept the first one up without adding this. Thank goodness it’s done with now.

  3. This was a hard piece for me to read, Jen. I’ve never had a conversation with your mother but I did meet her in Portland, Oregon, at a writer’s conference. The line in your essay that went straight to my heart was “Her getting drunk cemented it.” You were referring to your mother, and I’m not sure how I feel about you mentioning her drinking in this way. I am a recovering alcoholic myself…just three years sober this month. My son is also a writer and I’ve given him carte blanche to write what he wants about…well, anything, including me. I have a lot of shame about the years when I was less than present because I was too checked out through my drinking to be fully present. So the line about your mother getting drunk hit close to home, hitting fears about relapsing as well as my own embarrassment about possibly being called out by my son. On a deeper level, though, we’re all human, and your acceptance of the darker parts of life runs through all your personal essays. So you are brave. I have a lot of complicated feelings about what you wrote; you hit a nerve. We drink for so many reasons, as you know–loneliness, boredom, sadness, grief, even joy and love. It must be difficult for you to negotiate your own writing path because of the shadow cast by your famous mom. As I examine my desire to want to protect your mother from embarrassment about drinking, I realize the issue is mine, not hers. In this convoluted response to you, let me leave you with two words on this New Year’s Eve: thank you.

    • Hi D’Arcy,
      Thank you for writing what you did. It made me take the word “drunk” out of it and soften it down to reality. It is an accusatory word and didn’t belong here. Good for you to be sober for three years. Congratulations! I know all about drinking and the reasons for it. I am so glad I seem to be out of the drunken gross phases of my life and I don’t see why they’d return. There’s so much shame for me in who I’ve been in regards to alcohol in the past but sometimes you just have to let it go a bit (when you can) and be proud that you’ve made it through to a better place. Not all do, as you know. Here’s to another sober year for you, and a good one at that, and a year where I’m more sensitive to what might hurt before I make public things I write.

  4. Jennifer,
    This is such a beautiful post/personal essay! You have laid bare your soul and all the messy events of life. Such a great story. I agree with the earlier commenter–perhaps you could submit it to a publication or for radio. Wishing you and your family a happy, healthy new year! Oh, and I love your portrait work–you are so talented….

    • Hi Tobi,

      How nice to hear from you and have it be such lovely comments. Thank you! I’m wishing you and yours a happy and healthy New Year as well. I am glad you like my portraits!
      Thanks again.


  5. This is very much the companion piece to the other one and I loved reading about your process and what went into the first piece. You’re helping me, even though that’s not your intention. You really are.

    • You should know by now that my not so secret intention is always to be helpful to people who are very sensitive and don’t always feel 100% at home in certain situations! I’ve told you, you often help me too in ways you’d never expect.

    • Thank you, Manuel, for reading them and still knowing who I am, though tempered substantially over the last twenty years! Happy New Year to you and your beautiful Ligia and handsome sons!

  6. Your pictures are so good they’re freaking me out.
    (Have to come back and re-read the piece later when I have time to absorb.)

    • Even if it’s all we have and it can be tough it’s still pretty great to have them. Here’s to remembering to love people we love through the hard, annoying or upsetting! Happy New Year!

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