You can tell by the way his footsteps sound coming down the stairs if he’s having a grumpy morning or not. It’s okay—getting out of a warm bed sucks for you, too. Just don’t talk to each other until you’ve both had your coffee. The stronger the brew, the faster your moods improve. Talking while grumpy is always a bad idea. Kiss goodbye—a good kiss, not one of those ones you give your elderly relatives—when you separate for the day. A pat on the ass would be welcomed, too.
You can tell by the look in your child’s face how much her feelings were actually hurt. You clench your jaw so you don’t call the other kid a bad name. You know the other child’s mother might have done the same. Tomorrow they will be best friends again, and the rhododendrons are starting to bud, and your new kitten is getting so incredibly fluffy, and you plan to make a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting on Saturday. Life always goes on, but your child’s life has been too short for her to know that yet, so you must wrap her in the best furry blanket and cuddle her, until your words and touch permeate her being.
You can tell from the height of the bedside stack that you won’t ever have enough life to read all the books you need to read. There’s a sunny yellow puddle on the floor because you were too engrossed in the Abigail Thomas memoir to remember that you own dogs. Small dirty socks scatter across the floor because your children are real, not model children by any measure but the love they have for you, beyond what you’ve ever imagined receiving. The stately Mount Clean Clothes in your laundry room tells everyone you aren’t a good housekeeper. You smile when writing these words because you don’t care. Your husband is mostly silent when observing the laundry room (or any other room, honestly) so maybe he’s finally accepted that you’re not Marie Kondo or anyone like her. You can tell by your inner serenity in the house chaos that you aren’t willing to waste the life you have remaining on house perfection.
You can tell by your son’s jawline that he will be a man, sooner than can be tolerated, faster than is decent for a mother to have to endure. All you can do is hold him as long as he will allow it, patiently listen to his never-ending stories about things you care nothing about—the bad guys in Minecraft, the desire he has for a pocketknife, the funny thing his friend said which is really not funny at all, the newest Nerf machine guns that shoot foam bullets “ so super fast!” because it’s enough that he cares about them, and walk him to the basement—without complaining—to play video games because he won’t be scared to be alone forever.
You can tell by your daughter’s voice, attitude, face—all of her—that she has more confidence than you had at her age. Fourteen, and when she shrieks in laughter the entire cafeteria can hear and recognize it—no careful tittering for her. Her joy overtakes her and she roars, falls on the floor with its force, her mouth wide as the promise she holds. She stomps up to a boy who insulted her friend—not stopping her stomping until he is pinned to the wall like a fly on a corkboard—and informs him that what he did is not okay with her, and he will be apologizing now, and she claps her hands in front of him for emphasis. She radiates righteous anger. You are thrilled and you are jealous. You hope that she has more of all of it, of everything there is here, because surely no woman ever had as much of life as she deserves.
You can tell by your jeans button that you have gained weight. When you grasp your belly roll in both hands, marveling at its heft, at its rubbery texture, know that goddesses need solidity and heft, something to work with if they want to reign effectively. Just remember, you alone decide if you want to repaint or remodel your dwelling, and you alone can accomplish it. Whether the Venus of Willendorf was a fertility statue, a goddess, or ancient porn, she was made that way for a reason and so are you. Your breasts can and have nourished in more ways than one, and your children fight for your lap because it is cushioned for their needs. Praise yourself for your mightiness, for your strength, for your steadiness in a storm, knowing these things make you a sanctuary.
SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER is a Southern transplant living in Oregon, a spouse, a mother of four children, and an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her essays have been published in Hippocampus, The Bitter Southerner, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. Find her at sbweaver.com or tweet her @sarahbweaver.
My girls like rocking out in the car to “Uptown Funk,” “Shake It Off,” “Insane in the Membrane.” One knows all the bad words now, the other still mispronounces the same words she did as a toddler, her Rs coming out, adorably, like Ws. I worry, worry, worry about them as much as I try to enjoy them and remember how fleeting this all is. I want for them to experience some kind of unorchestrated magic in this life.
When she was alive, my Mom used to complain every year at Christmas that she wasn’t feeling it, wasn’t feeling the magic like she used to. It used to annoy me—why couldn’t she just feel it?—but now I get it. I’m rushing too much. I want it to be all home-made snowflakes and fresh-baked sugar cookies for the girls, for me. But my to-do list is long, my grocery bags so heavy, and I don’t have a plan for Christmas cards yet. It’s not magic, it just is.
I read about this scientist who studied serendipity, that crazy pleasant insight or experience that can happen when you wander off script. She classified people into three categories, from those who were most likely to find happy surprises—the meandering super-encounterers, to those who were least likely, the boring, to-do list-bound non-encounterers. And even though I sound pessimistic and unfun and may be exaggerating a tiny bit to make a point when I say this, it seems to me that many of the skills related to good parenting place me in the latter category.
When you get up each day and say this is how the day is going to go and then your day goes that way, you’re not going to find much magic. And yet, as parents of young children, that’s kind of what we have to do—to measure out our days in routines and activities and downtimes to achieve maximum happiness and flow as opposed to crankiness and someone chucking her bike helmet from the back of a moving bike. It sounds mechanical, but it’s absolutely prophetic.
For those of us who are hard-wired to move through our days with a semblance of organization, to wake up and say, Today I will soak the beans and finish the scarf and write the thank you’s, well, having kids sort of reinforces that tendency. Their nourishment and well-being depends on your ability to keep their dresser drawers in seasonal clothes and to get the burritos on the table at a relatively similar time each day. Which is funny, really, because most kids I know don’t move through their days like structured beings at all. They stop to read every word of the signage and inspect pebbles and stuff oak galls in their pockets and build homes for baby snails. They resist rush in the most wondrous and infuriating ways.
How we let our stories and theirs write themselves while also keeping everyone on some kind of schedule is maybe the best flow. As we hunker down in the grayest, rainiest of indoor months here in Oregon, I find that the most difficult. Wintertime, especially where we live in the Northwest, is when we settle most into our routines.
Sure, it’s easy to be spontaneous in summer or on a vacation. But in winter, I know what our days will be like. There will be card games and mancala and lentil soup. There will be a couple of trips up to the snow, where we will forget something, where we’ll be ill-equipped for the wet cold, and then a damp ride in the car back to Eugene, with our lukewarm cocoa and the girls falling asleep in the safe womb of our rattly minivan. In February, I will desperately Google discount flights to Mexico.
One of my favorite people is my friend Diane, a true super-encounterer. I lived with her during the summer of 1995 while I interned at a small newspaper on Whidbey Island. Diane was in her fifties then, splashed her face with a little rose water every morning, wore charcoal eyeliner, and cut-off shorts, Birkenstocks. She always had red wine on hand, toasted with every fresh glass, quoted Shakespeare, ate chips and salsa for dinner, let the chickens come in the house, which was comfortable, full of dusty children’s art, dog hair, sand everywhere.
I’d never known a free spirit before, but I was drawn, and whatever parts of me that leaned that way were magnified, justified, made sense. Diane’s a vegetarian—a very persuasive one—and so I became one. I wore a batik dress and every morning I gathered the chickens’ eggs in its folds. I took the two unruly dogs to the beach, bought wine and loaves of bread from the Star Store, kissed the reporter from the local alternative paper, listened attentively to Diane’s many, many stories involving serendipity and new friends. Diane and I walked the beach downtown one night to the Clyde Theater to see “Muriel’s Wedding,” which we thought was hilarious. On the way back, the tide had come in, so we had to wade, waist-deep, all the way home. We sang ABBA in the moonlight, and I don’t think I have ever been so happy.
Even meeting Diane was serendipitous. I had applied for an internship at her local paper because I’d been turned down for a more coveted internship in a city that I loved. After moping around in my college apartment for a few days, I applied to Whidbey on a whim, thinking it might be soothing to sleep on an island for a summer. After I got the job, a columnist for the paper told me about her neighbor Diane, who needed a roommate for the summer, and then I found her eating chips and salsa and drinking wine on her sun-soaked back deck with a friend.
I met my husband around then—also serendipitously—and I think he’s sometimes disappointed that I’m not that long-haired girl anymore. Sometimes, I am, too. When I’m on Facebook too much or rushing the girls through errands or spotting a conflict on our calendar that’s three weeks away.
I’ve been trying to remember one of the things found by that the scientist studying serendipity. You can cultivate the magic. You can actually train yourself—and hence your kids—to notice more: to read the appendix or investigate the birds hanging out in the branches of the tree in the parking strip. Or maybe you get small doses of unexpected joy in a mixed tape, a snow day, a Goodwill find. That tall Dad getting down to bhangra in the elementary school gym at the diversity conference—just totally letting go amid a sea of kids and moms. That time when I was passing through Portland and called an old friend to see if she could recommend a family- friendly brew pub in the neighborhood where I was lost and she said, “I’m at a family-friendly brew pub in that neighborhood right now.” A small serendipity, for sure, but if I hadn’t been lost, if I had Mapquested my way through my trip as I sometimes do, I wouldn’t have spent a fun afternoon with my friend.
My girls love a road trip just about as much as I do. They seem to recognize that it means anything is possible, like ice cream in the middle of the day or gum balls at the rest area or pooping in a field of wildflowers. They’re still talking about the time we hung out on a beach in Northern California and when we went to fly our kite and a crow stole some of our picnic bread. We’d also seen the Redwoods that day and had rolled up our pants and jumped in the waves, but that crow is what they talk about when they talk about that trip.
And so, waking up from our winter slumber two years ago, the girls and I got a three-week housesitting gig in San Francisco. We were to watch two dogs, three cats, and four chickens who resided at a bungalow in the Outer Mission. We took our friends Chloe and five-year-old Lucien with us, and we drove all night to get there. The house was smallish, dusty, full of children’s art and games, familiar.
The trip was tough sometimes, especially synchronizing our different parenting styles, and glorious other times: dim sum in a big ballroom, a butterfly exhibit in Golden Gate Park, listening to one of my favorite bands play a concert in an old mortuary, marching the kids up and down hills in search of another park or mural, another ice cream shop. Once I found myself caught in the rain with all three kids as we walked up Mission Street looking for a bus stop. I don’t know why, but they decided to pound on the plate glass window of a wig shop and they wouldn’t stop. The shopkeepers came out and scolded them but they continued to pound more and more riotously until I bribed them with pie, which was very good and gave us a place to rest and for them to poop—the triple public restroom poop being an excruciating specialty of theirs when we were out and about. Our days in San Francisco were like that; there was something wonderful every day and something difficult, or three dozen difficult things.
Not surprisingly, we went a little off the rails. One morning we took the bus to the Gay Pride parade, but it was so crowded that we couldn’t see much of anything—a few rainbow wigs, the back of Nancy Pelosi’s head. After an hour or so, the kids, who’d been promised thrown candy and trinkets, revolted. There was a little scene on the sidewalk where a glass bottle was thrown precariously close to someone’s head. Chloe and I couldn’t agree on a plan and so we split up for the rest of the day. We were all tired, I think, worn out from so many different days, so much wonderful.
At the house in the Outer Mission, we left behind a broken plant pot, a torn curtain, a clogged drain, and a garbage bag full of the siding the dogs have gnawed off of the house. It had been a challenging and surprisingly cold and damp few weeks; I’d gotten three parking tickets. But the next spring, I contacted the homeowner to see if she wanted us back.
JAMIE PASSARO’s articles, interviews, and essays have been published in The New York Times,theatlantic.com, The Sun, Utne Magazine, and Oregon Humanities Magazine, among other places. Her last essay for Full Grown People was “A Mild Suspension of Effort.”
“When are you going to have kids?” my younger sister asks at our family holiday dinner after her third glass of wine. Her drunk voice has a resonant timbre no one at the table can ignore. My aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, mom, and brother all look at me.
“I don’t plan on having kids,” I say. Maybe it would be easier if I got a tee-shirt announcing this, or if I tattooed it on my forehead. A face tattoo is what I’ve always likened to having kids, anyway—you better be sure you want it because it’ll be front and center your whole life.
“That’s so sad,” she says. “I want more nieces.”
That’s when my oldest niece, who’s currently a sophomore in college and identifies as a feminist, jumps in. “It’s not about you,” she says. “And it’s not sad.”
I let the two of them go at it, grateful that my niece has the energy to take up this conversation. I’ve had some version of it with friends, my boyfriend, and myself, more times than I can count.
But I understand where my sister is coming from. Our family is shrinking. My dad died a few years ago, and my aunt died shortly after Christmas; my other aunt and uncle are over eighty. My brother’s kids are fifteen and eighteen. During the holidays, there’s a distinct lack of youthful energy—no one’s too excited to sleep on Christmas Eve, no one believes in Santa, no squeals echo through the house. I’d love to have some kids running around—I just don’t know that I want them to be mine.
As my sister and niece squabble about cultural expectations, my cousin turns to me and says, “That’s one of the upsides of getting older. People eventually stop asking.” She’s fifty and childless, in part for health reasons. I secretly envy that having a baby has always been a nonstarter for her.
I, on the other hand, make a habit of lying awake at night wondering whether I’ll wake up one day in my fifties and regret not having kids. Wondering what not wanting to have a baby means about me.
As much as I want to be present for this family dinner, I descend into the place in my brain reserved for my baby ambivalence—the place that has perfected various ways to beat myself up for my indecision.
On paper, the arguments against having kids are straightforward and compelling.
No more travelling—at least, not the way I like to do it, backpacking for weeks with half-formed plans doing things that would terrify my mother if she knew. I stay in hostels and show up at bus stations ready to decide where I might go next based on departure times, ticket costs, or the sound of a destination name. This freedom changes me by pushing me into a new paradigm—in my home life, I’m not nearly so flexible, and traveling reminds me of my own soundness and strength.
A kid could eventually travel with me, albeit with some logistical alterations. My wanderlust was born during a family Christmas in London when I was twelve. I walked around agape, never noticing the drizzle, not even caring about the walking cast on my right foot. My dad, who socked away money in his desk drawer for family vacations, got as much pleasure from watching me respond to the trip as he did from taking in the sights himself. The travel bug is one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me, and I can imagine how fulfilling it would be to pass it on. But that experience exists only in a parallel universe somewhere, light-years away from here.
It’s the freedom I fear I can’t live without. No more spur-of-the-moment drinks after work, no more eleven at night electronica shows on a Tuesday, no more spontaneous thirty-mile bike rides. No more locking myself away writing all day—at least, not for a long time and probably not without guilt. Even though the absence of these possibilities might be relatively temporary, and even though I might start making other choices even if I don’t have kids, being stripped of the freedom would likely send me spiraling. I don’t do well when I feel trapped, even if the situation is of my own making.
But sometimes I ask myself, even when I’m gathered around a table on a Friday night with friends, whether this is what my life will be like forever. What would be wrong with that? The question itself implies there’s something in undesirable about that scenario. Sameness scares me—what if, despite my freedom, I get bored? Or what if I forget how to use that freedom, or get too old to take advantage of it? One aspect of having kids that both appeals to me and terrifies me is the structure that they impart on the foreseeable future, the parental phases that parallel the phases of their kids. Nothing about life stays the same—that’s one of the few guarantees with kids, for better or for worse. There’s almost always an answer to the question “what’s next?” But if there’s always a relatively proscribed next step, then we’re back to that lack of freedom problem again.
The freedom conundrum is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s the money (or lack thereof), my fear of being pregnant and giving birth, my chronically tenuous job situation, and my anxiety about what raising a child and will do to me and to my relationship with my boyfriend. In the bigger picture, my worries about the possibility of a future technological dystopia make me question how I could help a kid navigate the future and whether I even want to do that to a child. (I teach a seminar on artificial intelligence, so I find myself going down that path fairly frequently). Aside from technology, there’s overpopulation and resource depletion. Even though my mom says I’m the type of person who “should” reproduce—a somewhat troubling concept in itself—the world doesn’t need more people, even if they’re mine.
While these reasons are all obvious and legitimate, the ones revolving around the future of the planet are the only ones that aren’t inherently selfish. As serious as dwindling resources might be, or as terrifying as it is to think about raising a child in an Orwellian world, my recitation of those reasons ultimately becomes selfish too, since I’m using them to support such a personal decision. If I’m so concerned about those factors, shouldn’t I just built a yurt and go off the grid? It sometimes feels like a cop out to recruit big-picture justifications for not reproducing.
Perhaps the Pope is right that not having kids is selfish. Every parent makes sacrifices, including mine. Every childless adult does too, to some extent, yet I can’t—or don’t want to—imagine my life without all the pleasurable activities and adventures I’d have to give up if I had kids. But isn’t the experience of having a child arguably the grandest adventure there is? I want to try everything, so how can I leave this life without having a child? The truth is that I’m more interested in continuing to what I want to do than I am in the adventure of parenthood, which makes me feel like a shallow hedonist. My boyfriend, who has a nine-year-old son, says the selfish thing would be to have a child if I don’t really want one.
My boyfriend is ambivalent about our having kids too, but it’s different for him. He already has a kid, which certainly takes the edge off, and he’s male. I wish gender didn’t matter so much, but it does. If I could be a father rather than a mother, I’d be more likely to have kids. Such a statement is rife with cultural expectations I’d like to ignore or buck, but the role of a father is much more appealing to me. My own relationship with my dad contributes to this view, as does physiology—I’d rather my partner get pregnant, give birth, breast feed, etc. Regardless of how illogical or fraught with gender norms and nostalgia my vision is, if I had to be a parent, I’d want to be a father to a little girl. That’s not particularly helpful when it comes to making my decision.
Most of my current circle of friends used to belong to the “not going to have kids” club. It was liberating to express this preference in like company. In staking our claim to all the good times of untethered adults, we sealed an implicit pact not to succumb to cultural expectations and norms and to chart a course free of diapers, feedings, puberty, and all the rest. Most of my other friends were far more adamant than I in their unwavering desire to remain childless. It’s kind of like the difference between being agnostic and being an atheist—the latter suggests a certainty I don’t have. But I admire those who are more outspoken and certain than I am, especially if they’re women. I feel relieved and legitimized—either nothing’s wrong with me after all, or whatever’s wrong with me is also wrong with them, which at least puts me in good company. People I respect, and people I don’t regard as selfish are making the decision I’m making. Or at least, they were.
Most of these friends, no matter how resolute they once were, have either recently had kids or are about to. What changed? They shrug, as though sheepish that all those people over the years who said, “Trust me, you’ll change your mind,” were right after all. I envy their change of heart because it frees them of ambivalence. I envy their new sense of purpose, which suddenly feels far bigger than scouting airline ticket prices and deciding whether bungee jumping or paragliding will be the next big adventure.
My closest friends apologized when they told me they were pregnant, as though they had violated our friendship. They assured me it wasn’t planned, as though that mattered, and tried too hard to explain how shocked they were and why this ultimately was a good thing. One of them said something about not living the rest of their lives “like overgrown teenagers.” Is that what I’m doing, I wondered? I work, I pay my bills, I participate in the grown-up world, even though I also drink like a fish, stay up too late and can’t refuse a dare. What’s wrong with living like an overgrown teenager? And if there is something wrong with it, why is having a kid the remedy?
I envy people who unexpectedly get pregnant and are suddenly thrust out of indecision. At many points in my life, I’ve said, “I’ll let the universe decide what happens next,” accepting my lack of control and acknowledging that generally, life plays out as it should. But the universe may not decide this for me, and if I wait too long, I will have made a default decision anyway—perhaps ambivalence is a timid no. I can remain uncertain for the rest of my child-bearing years, but if the associated anguish compares to what I’ve felt for the past couple years, that could be the worst outcome. Since I have no plans to get my tubes tied, it seems the only remedy for my ambivalence is to take the plunge. But just as a coin flip can reveal one’s true feelings, this line of reasoning gives me the cold sweats.
My sister’s comment irritates me in the same way I’m annoyed by all the people who assure me I’ll eventually have kids. They suggest this is something I should want, that not wanting to have kids would be unnatural. I’m thirty-seven. Tick tock, they say. The whole concept of a biological clock bothers me, more because of its cultural implications than anything else. Yes, there’s a physiological timeline when it comes to pregnancy (though that window has gotten bigger and bigger), but the idea that a woman should be possessed by this urge and get pregnant—probably after finding a husband—bothers me, as though she’s not a real woman if she doesn’t have this desire. Maybe I could get away with it if I was a movie star. When I was twenty-five and living in New York City, I felt disconcerted about rounding the corner on thirty, but also overjoyed that I still had a decade before I had to decide about kids. That decade was supposed to bring the realization that I wanted them. I’m still waiting.
Here’s the rub: I want to be someone who wants kids. I can’t seem to get past that. If I could take a pill to induce the desire to reproduce, I would.
After we got home from dinner, my mom and I went back to her house, the house where I grew up. Later, I sat on the back deck and watched the effortless way that stars light up the Midwestern sky. I could see the light in the kitchen—the same light I saw flick on at five in the morning on the first truly epic night of my life when the boy I’d been in love with all summer finally kissed me while we sat at the picnic table.
Back when I was growing up, I never really thought about whether I wanted kids. Like everything else about adulthood, it felt too far off to warrant consideration. Yet it’s in the house where I spent my childhood that I am most challenged by the reality that I may never want or have kids. When I come back to visit, I stay in the room that was mine as a kid. My dad built the dresser and the shelves. The bulletin board on the wall has relics tacked to it—a picture of me meeting Hillary Clinton in high school, awards, hockey ticket stubs, a flag from the golf course my dad took me to for an unbeatable view of a meteor shower.
After I went to college, he used my room as an office, adding his stuff to mine. Our keepsakes belong together. I think about how satisfying it must have been to see me grow into a person who enjoyed so many of the same things he did, how much fun it would be to watch your child’s brain develop. I remember the first time my niece followed multi-step directions. She wanted a puzzle, which my brother told her was on the second shelf of the closet in his office. She listened with her eyes closed, visualizing what she needed to do to get the puzzle, and then she did it. I saw the gears turn—perhaps the only more exciting moment for me was when she learned to rhyme.
In the bottom dresser drawer I recently found a little book I made in 1989, when I was eleven years old. It’s called “My Life in 2014,” and it illustrates what I imagined my life would look like in twenty-five years. I envisioned myself as a marine biologist who worked closely with dolphins and whales (a recent trip to Sea World had made quite an impression). The book doesn’t mention a husband or kids. I have no memories from childhood of wanting children, and if I could go back to that state now, I would. I liked dolls for a short time (I grew up in the Cabbage Patch Kid era), but never pretended they were my babies. I had a thing for animals, and still do—my cat appeals to me far more than a kid does. I dote on her and worry about her, but she doesn’t mind too much when I travel or go to the bar after work—after all, she poops in a plastic container.
Over Christmas, I found in the closet a shoebox full of sentimental bits from Dad’s childhood—rocks he’d collected, buttons, a little picture of a deer he’d made from hammered tin. I had seen all of these keepsakes before, but this time was different. I imagined my dad as a boy, his little fingers picking up rocks and depositing them in his pocket. Him working with a mini hammer, making something as innocent as a deer. He was a little kid once, which isn’t a revelation, but picturing him as a kid, as the creature I don’t think I want, stops me short. I wouldn’t be here if not for that little kid and who he became. The photos of my dad as a baby have new resonance; I’m glad his parents weren’t ambivalent.
When my dad was dying, there was one particularly horrific night in the hospital during which the cancer in his lungs made it difficult for him to breathe. Every forty-five minutes or so he’d struggle so much that he’d induce a panic attack, which made it even harder to get his breath. He’d grasp at the sheets and look around frantically, gasping. My brother, sister and I held his hands as the attacks came on. We locked eyes with him and we breathed with him, long and slow until his breath returned and his heart rate slowed to normal. Sitting there with him, it occurred to me that this is the point of having kids. To be able to look at someone and think, I helped make you. I helped bring you into the world, and you’re helping me leave.
When my dad died, I realized how much of my identity revolved around being his daughter. My brother has a different biological father, though he never had another dad; my sister is adopted. I’m the only one with my dad’s blood, the only one with his genetic legacy. If the Renstrom blood line is to continue, I have to have kids. This isn’t a good enough reason by itself to justify having children, but I return to this thought again and again. I’m a big part of what my dad—my hero—made in the world. What if I could make someone who would be a hero to someone else? What if I could make someone who found meaning in holding my hand when I die?
I have no answer to those questions. I don’t know what it would feel like to have an answer, and I don’t know what it would feel like to accept that I’ll never know. All I do know is that the only person I want to talk to about this is my dad. I want him to tell me I don’t need to have kids to be a legacy he’s proud of leaving. I want him to look at me the way he did when I was twelve years old and hobbling across the London Bridge—like the world was my oyster, that I should see as much of it as possible. Yet at the same time, as I look through my dad’s old photos and keepsakes, I think about how no one had any idea about me back then. No one knew that every piece of art, every rock collected, every baseball card filed away, was bringing him one tiny step closer to me. And I wonder who will look through my shoebox, my photos, and my keepsakes and think the same?
JOELLE RENSTROM’s essay collection, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, explores the intersection of life and literature. She also maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen?, which examines the relationship between science and science fiction. Joelle teaches writing and research with a focus on space, artificial intelligence, and science fiction at Boston University. Links to her work and book can be found at www.joellerenstrom.com/
I wear my tall brown boots and short white dress and walk with you like we haven’t been married over a decade and don’t have three children. They are at your parents’ house, baking ginger cookies and picking daffodils and dandelions, for me, because they’re sweet.
We will not talk about the kids tonight, not because we do not love them, but precisely because we love them.
“Just imagine, in four years,” you say, “we could tell Lydia we’ll be back in a few hours and just… leave.” I try to imagine it and can’t.
We talk about anything except upcoming coach-pitch practice, Cub Scouts, and gymnastics. We order two sides and a couple of drinks at The Lockview. It’s our kind of crowd, our kind of bar, hipster, and you secretly love hipster-ish things.
“I can’t pull off hipster,” you say.
“Yeah, skinny jeans don’t work for you,” I say.
“No way, but if big-ass-baggy-short-white-guy jeans were popular, I’d be in.”
“We could market that,” I say, “It has a nice ring to it.” We drink and people-watch. That guy diagonal from us, he could be my grandpa’s cousin. “Maybe he is my grandpa’s cousin,” I say.
Grandpa’s been dead for over seven years. Our middle son, Elvis, was four months old when I sat alone next to Grandpa’s hospice bed and prayed for him to give up his spirit while Mom and Grandma rested, my skin prickling as he sighed one last time and I half-spoke and whispered, “Brandon? I think he’s gone.” You came in quick with Elvis in your arms, our tiny cranky infant who nearly died just four months earlier because he couldn’t breathe as he exited my interior, capillaries sticky and stubborn.
But we’re not talking about them now, because the sun is shining and it’s just us this evening, just us and your Old Fashioned, my Lemon Ice martini. I am determined to take as many selfies with you as you do with the guys when you’re on the road for work. I tag it on Facebook, “Bold and the Beautiful?” and you say, “You mean baold and the beautiful,” because it’s been almost twelve years since we married and you feel bald and old, though you are neither. It doesn’t matter because you feel it, my Mr. Smooth who walks slow sometimes, suave through his back pain, knee pain, elbow pain. Mr. Smooth’s hairline is receding but come on, husband, I don’t notice. You grew out your goatee again, and I love you with a goatee, its bristles against my chin when we kiss.
This is the second time we’re seeing Lyle Lovett and the third for John Hiatt. You raise your drink and toast, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” these tickets a gift from me to you. One Valentine’s Day, we saw a Christian rock group and the next we spent in the hospital for a follow-up miscarriage procedure. It’s April 26 and the second time we’ve been out together this month, with so many road trips and conferences, gymnastics and softball practices.
I have my hand on your thigh and your hand covers mine. Our knees are touching in orchestra row J, seats three and four, and we are keeping time to the beat with our touching knees. John Hiatt finishes singing, “Marlene, Marlene, my love for you’s obscene,” and Lyle Lovett says something to John Hiatt about his songwriting, how he knows Mrs. Hiatt and Mrs. Hiatt’s name isn’t Marlene. Hiatt has been married twenty-nine years, and I squeeze Brandon’s hand. I try to imagine life in another seventeen years.
The guy in front of us is passed out and hasn’t moved for at least an hour. You lean in close and whisper-yell how that happened to you once at a Merle Haggard concert, back when you were dating Devin, maybe? We call that “BS,” before Sarah. The guy in front of us will have a crick in his neck when he wakes up. He still isn’t waking up, even as Lyle Lovett sings, “Some things, my baby don’t tolerate from me.”
Twenty-four hours ago, you asked, “Do you mind if I go play golf with Jerry?”
I stuffed one sock inside the other as I folded laundry and said, “No problem. Do you know when you’ll be back?”
You smiled with your golf gear in your arms and said, “I don’t know.” I grabbed a shirt and folded it the way my mom taught me.
“Well, are you going to play nine holes or eighteen, are you going to eat dinner together? Do you think you’ll go to sing karaoke after?” I replied, the way my mom never replied, and you laughed, “I just don’t know, okay?”
I dropped a pair of Henry’s underwear into the stack of minion-printed briefs, the way you prefer because it’s stupid to fold boys’ underwear. It’s underwear, you say.
“Well,” I said, “I think it’s only fair to give some clue as to when you will be home—it’s not that I care, I don’t,” I lied, trying to negotiate the same space as usual, quality time and childcare and your priorities and my neediness. “I just want to know so I know whether to be excited you’ll be home soon at eight or to settle into an evening of reading, knowing you’ll be back after I’m in bed. Either way is fine. I just want to know.”
“I don’t like these kinds of restraints,” you said, and I started to say, “Then maybe you shouldn’t have gotten married.”
As the words fell out, I remembered our confessions just a week earlier, my blubbering, “Why can’t you just say you think I’m pretty?” at the most intimate moment, when things weren’t working in harmony, in that fragile space. You rolled off of me and sobbed, “You make me feel like such a failure!” How we held each other, how we apologized, how we touched each other’s faces and whispered all our truths into old wounds.
I remember this as the words drip, maybe you shouldn’t have gotten married.
When we hit an impasse, you angry and calling off your golfing, me angry and finishing folding laundry, I carried our daughter’s clothes back to her bedroom to find her with her friend tucked behind the door. “What are you doing?” I asked, reading their guilt.
“Nothing,” they said, “You can leave those on my bed, I’ll put them away,” Lydia said and left. I wondered what she overheard, what she was listening for in between our living room remarks. I thought back to my own ear against the door eavesdropping on my parents as my dad yelled his frustration in the dark of night. “You never…” he said, my ears too young to hear or know what she never did but old enough to know my mom was crying and lying in bed, my dad standing somewhere in the dark bedroom. I wondered if they might divorce, maybe even cried into my pillow and prayed before drifting off to sleep.
“She said they weren’t listening to us,” you told me when I returned to the living room, “‘We didn’t hear one word you said,’ she said.” We rolled our eyes and smiled thin lines. You went out to the front of the house and I went out to the back of the house. Later, we would lean close into each other in our bedroom and forget, but until then, you shot hoops and I cut shrubs all afternoon, one of each of our children by our sides, separate.
But we’re not talking about them now, or that. Like love keeps no record of wrongs, it took me a long time to remember exactly what it was Lydia and her friend might have overheard, and now that I have I’ve remembered, too, a long list of other wrongs dealt and received. I flinch a little because now John Hiatt is singing, “I’ve been loving you for such a long time, girl, expecting nothing in return, just for you to have a little faith in me,” and your fingers are interlaced with mine. This is the song you burned onto that CD you made me a month after we met, along with a dozen others I remember.
I remember it all again in a moment, it’s all here, Grandpa and my parents and your parents and our exes, our vices, our joys, John Hiatt singing, “Have a little faith in me,” all of it is here between us now, held in between our interlaced fingers.
Okay, so our love keeps record of wrongs, but also mercies. After all, we are here. We hold our wrongs and mercies together in careful intimacy. I run my fingernails across the grooves in your big-ass-baggy-short-white-guy jeans and you put your hand on my knee, just below my dress’s white hemline.
At any moment, I think John Hiatt’s voice might splinter and that’ll be it, but he just keeps hanging on to those notes, he just keeps singing, Won’t you have a little bit a, a little bit a, please! Please! Please, now baby! Ohh, won’t you have a little faith in me? By the time the concert is over, the drunk man in front of us is up and clapping. It’s only 9:16—you guessed 9:15 and I guessed 9:30, so you win. We want them to play more, longer, but they are finished.
We slip out the side exit, your fingers grazing the small of my back as we walk through the sheep-shuffle concertgoers. “Want to get a drink and a bite in the Valley?” you ask, even though it’s Sunday and I have to get up for work tomorrow, you have to take our children to school. We are not tired, and our children might not even be asleep yet.
Let’s stay away a little while longer, darling.
SARAH M. WELLS is the author of a nonfiction e-book, The Valley of Achor, a collection of poems, Pruning Burning Bushes,and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce. Her essays have been listed as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays 2012, 2013, and 2014. She recently completed a memoir-in-essay collection about love and attention, marriage, parenting, and desire titled American Honey. Sarah serves as the Managing Editor for the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and as Associate Editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.
1. When I was a child, my family lived in the south of France, in the town of Aix-en-Provence. My father had been transferred there for his job. He worked for Shell Oil and had not yet learned to hate it. Later, when my brother and I were old enough to think seriously about what kinds of jobs we might have, he warned us away from working for anyone; he felt he had wasted much of his life in servitude to bland corporate life. He urged both of us to be our own bosses!, to not get stuck in what he considered the unimaginative hell of middle management.
The advice was mostly lost on me, but that came later anyway. This period in the south of France was before my father’s disillusionment. He was still a young exec in the early seventies and Aix was not an expensive city then. My parents found a second-floor apartment for rent that, while not large, was palatial in its high ceilings, tiled floors, elaborate moldings, and the most extravagant wallpaper in the living room. In photographs, though discolored with time, it is still stunning: a deep green background with bronze vines in vertical lines.
None of this was of much interest to me at the time, though. Instead, for my brother and me, the appeal of the place lay in the gigantic terrace. It still amazes me to think that this was where I learned to ride a bike. It was sized like a mini-mall parking lot. Except it was beautiful and sunny, with geraniums growing out of old planters and a wrought-iron barrier to keep us from tumbling into the street below.
Across from our building was a gated property. Though the house was not visible from the terrace, the garden was, and it had a pool. I heard it said that Alain Delon lived there. The name meant nothing to me then, except I realized it must belong to someone important or famous, because of the thrill I discerned half-suppressed in its saying. It was clear that to have a pool like this, you had to be important or famous or at least rich.
The pool was shaped like an old-fashioned mirror, straight on the sides, and curving in and out at each end. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone swimming in it. It was just there, turquoise and sparkling, inviting but inaccessible.
Amazingly, my father put up a huge blow-up pool on our terrace, big enough for my brother and me to swim in. Now that I’m an adult, I can’t imagine doing such a crazy thing. The terrace was not built to hold the weight of that many thousands of gallons and might have collapsed. Or, if the pool had burst suddenly, I can only imagine the awesome spectacle of all that water gushing out and flooding our apartment and the one below. But neither of these things happened, and my brother and I splashed and shrieked and swam all summer long. It was nothing like the beautiful and stately pool across the street but it was still heaven to us.
Plugging the building’s address into Google maps, I am a little stunned to have a satellite view of the terrace, and, across the street, Alain Delon’s former garden with its cypress trees and Mediterranean pines, and its pool gorgeously intact. It is surprising somehow to see my childhood memories so unambiguously confirmed. We moved away from Aix when I was five so there is much about our life there that I don’t remember clearly. The terrace and the pool and the wallpaper, among a handful of other things, remained vivid to me but it seemed the vividness of a dream.
The convergence of dream and reality in this one memory sends a chill down my spine. Time has passed and so many things have changed, but this thing has remained the same.
2. Fast forward fifteen years. After my French schooling, I went to college in the U.S. My college boyfriend, though majoring in history, was a musician, almost famous at a couple of east coast colleges, including Dartmouth where his band played a couple of times a year and where Michael Eisner’s son went to school. The young Eisner had ambitions to start a record label or a management company—I can’t exactly remember now—and he wanted my boyfriend to be his first client. The summer after we graduated, he arranged for my boyfriend to play a showcase gig at The Viper Room. The club was legendary to me, because only a few months earlier River Phoenix had OD’ed on the sidewalk outside, which broke my heart for his family and friends, and for all that wasted talent and beauty.
I was living in San Francisco right after college, though I felt utterly adrift, struggling to find a job and a place to live. My mother had arranged for me to stay for a few weeks with a friend from her own college days. Instead of being grateful for this generosity, I resented having another parental figure and labored to hide my sullenness. By the time my boyfriend called to tell me that he was being flown out to L.A. by Eisner’s son and did I want to spend a few days with him in a hotel there, I felt desperate to escape the claustrophobia of my own fumblings and failure to get a toehold on adulthood. Yes, I wanted to go! I was too broke to fly and didn’t know how to drive so I bought myself a bus ticket to L.A.
This was by far the longest bus ride I had ever taken. It left at five a.m. from San Francisco and took almost twelve hours, through the Central Valley. No one actually wanted to be on the bus, but it was a fifth the price of a plane ticket, and we all had places to go. We stopped in Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Visalia, Delano, Bakersfield—towns with names that were intriguing and mysterious to me. I was new to California, and the Central Valley presented such a strange contrast to the foggy, winsome beauty of San Francisco. I was gobsmacked by this demonstration of how gigantic California was. In France, a trip that long would mean you had crossed into another country, but here mile after mile after mile under the beating, hard sun and still there was more road between the bus and L.A. With each stop the bus filled more until every seat was taken. Many of the passengers were older, and some were infirm. One or two looked like they might have just been released from prison. One woman spoke loudly to herself the entire bus ride.
When we stopped at the Greyhound depot in downtown L.A., I was relieved and euphoric to see A. waiting for me with a borrowed car. My lust for him woke me up from the grogginess of the journey. We hadn’t seen each other since I’d decided to move to San Francisco, and he had decided to pursue his luck in New York. While not exactly broken up, the distance between us had seemed to contain a resounding finality. And now we were here. Together. In L.A.
It was late afternoon but still very warm. As we drove, I noted that I liked L.A.’s wide streets. I didn’t mind that the traffic moved slowly since I had no particular agenda. I was happy sitting next to A., and I was interested in everything moving past my window—billboards, palm trees, convertible cars with their tops down. I felt calmed by the gentle weight of A.’s hand on my leg. I didn’t know what was going to happen to us in the long run, but here we were together now.
In another half hour, A. and I were in Michael Eisner’s pool. I imagined the dust of the trip washed off by this pure and cool water and was pleased at this image. In the back of my mind I was a little horrified at how rag-tag I must have seemed to the Eisners, sweaty and rumpled and dazed from so many hours of sitting in one place. But this was only in the back of my mind because in the front of my mind was A. We stood in the shallow end of the pool, facing each other, skimming the surface with our fingertips. I didn’t trust myself to touch him, but I could feel the water conducting the electricity between us. How perfect it would have been to fuck in this perfect pool. But the whole Eisner family was inside, and in another half-hour we were going to sit down to dinner, and however bold I wanted to imagine myself, I wasn’t bold enough to do that.
I don’t remember much about the dinner, except it was lovely and generous of them to host me and A. Michael talked to his son, giving him advice about dealing with the music bigwigs who were coming that night. I had no idea how to interact with anyone in this particular situation so I was quiet. All I could think about was going back into the pool with A. and having the whole place to ourselves. It no longer seemed incongruous for us to be there. I didn’t consider us out of place. If anything, everyone else seemed out of place, superfluous. Such a beautiful pool only needed two people, in love with each other.
3. A few years later, I moved to L.A. Despite our best efforts, A. and I broke up, and I made new friends to distract myself. One of them, Jason, was a production assistant on Ted Danson’s short-lived TV show Ink. Jason had become friendly with Danson and his wife Mary Steenburgen, and they’d entrusted him with their house and pets while they went out of town for a few weeks. Jason found a way to insert “Ted and Mary” into his every other sentence, which I liked because I would have done the same thing.
One evening Jason invited me to swim at Ted and Mary’s with a couple of other people. When we got there Jason led us through the back gate to the pool area. He went inside the house to get towels, saying, “You guys stay here.” We hadn’t particularly been planning to go inside, but at his admonition, we teased him by coming up to the French doors. We found he’d locked them behind him. We were faintly outraged at his having done this and teased him—“Jason, we’re coming in!” we shrieked softly, rattling the doorknobs for effect.
I glanced at the interior, which looked cozy in an English-countryhouse-via-Beverly-Hills kind of way. This was a popular decorating style for a certain Hollywood crowd, I guessed, but when I thought of England I didn’t think swimming pool. It was thinking of the south of France, and of Aix, and the mirror of water across the street, that put me in the mind of pools.
Soon enough we were bored of pestering Jason and instead we jumped into the luminous water. At night, pools are mysterious and alluring. With the lights turned on they have an eerie, glowing beauty. The deep shadowy places where the light doesn’t reach makes them a little bit frightening too. Movement at the water’s surface is magnified. Light breaks apart and comes together again. Planar geometry makes its own strange kind of sense in the refraction of moving light. Bodies glow in a way they never otherwise do.
The setting was so beautiful, it seemed to call for some flirtation and it seemed wasteful to pass up this opportunity. I began to banter with a boy in our group.
A few years later, I would marry him, but I didn’t know it yet and just then such a thought would have seemed ludicrous. At that moment we were simply making jokes and observing each other from this new vantage point. We were buoyed by the water and by the sense of having stepped out of our ordinary lives. A few steps away there was a cozy interior but the doors were locked and we were out here in the eerie luminescence.
4. In Santa Monica, right off the Pacific Coast Highway is the pool that Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst built for their beach getaway. Now it exists as the Annenberg Beach House, and it’s open to the public in summer. On Sundays I often go with my guy and our kids around five o’clock. The air is still warm then and the pool is heated to a decadent eighty degrees. What a crazy luxury to swim in the late afternoon in clear water that is almost bathtub-warm, with the scent of the Pacific around us and the entire sky overhead. The pool is spectacularly beautiful, its perimeter tiled in a Greek key pattern and its bottom encircled with mosaics of ocean life. Speckled green and blue and yellow fish swim among the octopi and the billowing seaweed.
The main house, designed by Julia Morgan, was torn down in 1956 but I can imagine, floating in the dreamy water, that it is still there and that Hollywood intrigues are just out of earshot. I think of Marion Davies who is so often reduced in popular imagination to her caricature as Charles Foster Kane’s untalented, complaining mistress in Citizen Kane. Watching the real Davies act, in The Patsy for instance, she deploys her charm and her comedic chops with a dazzling ease. She gives side-eye like a boss, she pouts adorably, and she transforms herself in quick-witted imitations of her contemporaries.
It is easier, though, I suppose, to see Davies as the “mistress.” An untalented hack, in other words, for whom a smitten Hearst bankrolled pictures. It is easier somehow to reduce her to that narrow role, than to take in a whole person and her complex relationships to others. Hearst was older than she was. He was by far the richer of the two. We believe we understand what this means. “Oh, it’s like that. Of course it is.”
As I rise and break the surface of the water, I think of the trajectory of my own life, of my early childhood in the South of France, of the life I’ve made in Southern California, of how, if I were rich or famous of the object of any curiosity, it might be read in this way or that, to make more sense, or at least to make easier sense. My choices so far have been rather conventional, but even so each one was made for its own particular reasons, generated by circumstances and emotions that take root in the mix between the personal, the cultural, and the societal. My life is not scrutinized, but I loathe that famous women’s choices so often are, and then reduced to categories of convenience.
Plunging underwater again, the sound of my own blood throbbing in my ears, my mind wanders. I think of Alain Delon, who said recently about his love affair with the beloved Franco-German actress Romy Schneider, that while he still grieved her death at only forty-three, it had at least preserved her beauty: “It’s difficult to admit, but I wouldn’t have wanted to see her at 70. It’s better she went this way.” I turned forty-three this year, and while far from possessing Schneider’s beauty, the thought that in any universe it would be “better” to die at forty-three rather than to age—as we all must if we are to live, as Alain Delon himself has—strikes me as obnoxious in the extreme. Can there be a starker example of reducing a multi-faceted person to a mere surface? If Delon loved her, how could he not take in that she was more than just her physical beauty? That Schneider had depth beneath her surface loveliness, that she was more complicated, more flawed and more profound, should not be so very difficult to understand.
5. If I ever figure out how to have a pool of my own, it will be like a David Hockney painting. Sparkling and rippling in the sun, a nude figure emerging from its cool clearness.
When my children are teenagers and have their friends over, I will leave them to their youthful splashing. They will be surprised, and a little annoyed perhaps, at how much skinny-dipping there is when my friends are over, though. They will hardly be able to believe how comfortable we are in our middle-aged bodies. At least that is how I picture it all when I daydream my pool into existence.
I think of growing older with M. How impossible this was to envision when I was a young adult—a lifetime spent by another’s side. How easily I picture it now—now that we have almost two decades together under the bridge.
I think of our children growing up and the pools into which they will dip their own toes. The choices they will make, the paths their lives will take, and the nostalgias they will carry with them. I think of us swimming together in Marion Davies’s old pool. I think of the long summers of their childhood and try to picture where they will choose to make their lives. I imagine the possibility of some far-off day holding grandchildren as I wade with them into welcoming waters somewhere—perhaps even in my own backyard. I am wistful contemplating the adventures my children will undertake, and the unguessed ones still ahead for me, for M., for all of us.
LAURENCE DUMORTIER writes essays and fiction. She is finishing her PhD in English, with an emphasis on gender and sexuality. You can find her online at twitter.com/ElleDeeTweets
When a grown woman and her seventy-something mother engage in yearly debates about the existence of Santa, I think we can agree: there’s a problem. Of course, my mother believes the problem is mine, while I tag her as the source of the annual angst. But who’s telling this story?
My mother, a bookish only child, grew up yearning for a house full of kids and a big, old-fashioned Christmas, like the ones Louisa May Alcott wrote about. My father, who had ditched his nominal Judaism by the time he married my mom, was willing to comply with her yuletide agenda.
And so began my mother’s strictly secular, Euro-inspired holiday extravaganza. It started early in December each year, with the cookie baking. Buttery Swedish stars; Viennese crescents, rolled warm in vanilla-scented powdered sugar; gingerbread men; Swiss chocolate crisps; linzer cookies, each with its shiny pocket of raspberry jam. Over a three-week period, with her three children as floury assistants, my mother rolled out as many as fifteen different varieties at our Formica kitchen table, carefully packing the finished batches between layers of waxed paper in tins to be stowed in the basement freezer. By my mother’s decree, the cookies would emerge for the first time on Christmas Eve; sampling them before that date was verboten.
Later in the month, we adorned the house with simple pine cone decorations (no tacky plastic Santas in my mother’s home), and we kids fashioned homemade gifts to stash in secret hiding places. The holiday rituals continued with the tree selection (December 20, not a day earlier) and, on the evening of the 23rd, the decoration: while classical music played softly on WQXR, we took out the ornaments while my mother related the story behind every wooden Waldorf gnome, vintage glass ball, or lumpy, pre-school-made button string. The next night, we ate fondue in front of the fireplace, dunking warm pieces of baguette into the melted Gruyere, before hanging our stockings. Finally, there was the ceremonial, dramatic reading of A Visit From St. Nicholas (that’s The Night Before Christmas for you non-literary sticklers).
Permeating the entirety of the festive season was my mother’s Santa Doctrine, enforced with the rigidity of a decree from the Vatican:
1. Santa Claus exists.
2. Doubters: button those lips. If you can’t believe, pretend.
3. Santa alone fills the stockings.
4. Never thank someone in the room for a stocking present. It came from Santa!
5. Befuddled by an item in your stocking? (A not uncommon occurrence in our house.) Mom will interpret. (“I’m pretty sure Santa would say that’s a do-hicky to put your tea bag on.”)
6. Questioning the existence of Santa is tantamount to Killing the Magic.
I don’t know when, exactly, my mother formulated her Santa Doctrine, but my siblings and I absorbed it early, along with the rest of the holiday rituals, each yearly repetition enshrining our customs deeper into the family bedrock. And it worked. Just as my mom had planned, Christmas was indeed a time of festivity and magic for us kids (who, thanks to my mother, believed in Santa longer than was really quite seemly).
But marriages crumble, and children turn into sullen, cynical teenagers, no longer wonderstruck at the sight of the Christmas tree, glowing in the pre-dawn darkness. My mother figured that our holiday traditions were one element of family life that she could keep the same for us. But everything else had changed, and Santa couldn’t make up for that, not really.
Mom remarried eventually, to a tolerant man who knows better than to suggest alien rituals of his own at Christmastime. We kids got on with our lives. But no matter how much we’ve changed over the years, it’s made clear to us each December that, if we come home, there will be no deviation from the holiday of our childhoods, not now, not ever. When it comes to Christmas, my mother adheres to Tradition! with the fervor of Tevye the Milkman.
Which is ironic, considering that these days, when December comes around, I’m on Tevye’s side of the fence.
Like my mother, I was a solitary, bookish child. Like her, I loved books set in “the olden days.” But while Mom was eager to shed the Episcopalian shackles of her stuffy WASP upbringing, I had a secret hankering for religion, a topic so resolutely avoided in our home that I felt a subversive thrill whenever I encountered it in my reading.
I trace the birth of my Jewish identity directly to fourth grade and the copy of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family that I found on the school library shelf. Here were my two fascinations, the olden days and religious ritual, united in the delectable story of five turn-of-the-century sisters growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. Enfolded in that middle-grade novel was a year’s worth of vibrant Jewish life: Mama, praying over the Sabbath candles in their gleaming brass candlesticks, Papa blessing his daughters; congregants chanting Torah at the synagogue; the Passover Seder (unusually somber when scarlet fever strikes the family); and Purim, with its costumed revelry.
Why, I wondered, was this entrancing world closed to me? My father was Jewish, after all. Why didn’t he do anything about it? His silence made the idea of Judaism all the more tantalizing. My friends all belonged to one faith or another. “What are you?” they used to ask. “Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian?” I could only answer: “Nothing.”
My own kids, I vowed, would be something.
By the time those theoretical kids arrived, I had been a member of the Society of Friends for years. I loved the deep, living silence of Quaker Meeting, the concern for peace and justice, the gentle fun we poked at our rivals, the Unitarians. And I still felt Jewish enough to appreciate that the “inner light” of Quakerism doesn’t mean the light of Jesus, if you don’t want it to.
“So we’ll raise the kids Quaker, right?” I said to my husband.
“Sure, sure,” he replied absently, distracted by graduate school and the fog of sleep deprivation that had descended with the birth of our first child. My husband had grown up in a Conservative, kosher home. He no longer practiced, but he had a strong cultural affiliation with Judaism, the kind acquired automatically when your entire extended family hails from Brooklyn. Still, the Quakers were okay by him.
The Quakers were okay by him right up until our first child was four and I was set to enroll him in First Day School, where every Sunday he would learn about George Fox walking in the glory of the inner light.
“The Quakers are great, with the anti-war and the social justice and all,” my husband told me then. “But they don’t have—well, enough tradition.”
The product of Quaker summer camps, Quaker high school, and Quaker college, I knew that the Society of Friends has plenty of traditions. Much like Quakers themselves, these traditions are plain, not easy to spot. But I wasn’t about to argue the point.
“You want tradition?” I said. “Dude, you come from five thousand years of tradition.” (I married a surfer, a move that results in sentences like this.)
My husband gave me a look. “You’re saying you want to raise them Jewish now?”
“I’m saying I want to raise them something. Jewish works for me.”
“You do realize that we would have to join a synagogue. And actually go. And celebrate Shabbat and all the rest of it.”
We visited the progressive, Reconstructionist shul, where the rabbi assured my husband, who balked at the concept of a deity, that he himself thought of God as the cosmic force of the universe, rather than, you know, God. That my own Judaism came from my father, not my mother, troubled the rabbi not a bit. Did I consider myself Jewish? Did I plan to raise my kids that way? Fine.
And just like that, we were all Jews.
Except for yearly visits at the High Holidays, my husband hadn’t spent much time in a synagogue since leaving home. But when we started attending services, I watched it all come back to him. He knew the melodies, the prayers, and, impressively, he could read Hebrew, a skill I knew he possessed but had never seen in action.
Yet despite my own lifelong pull toward the faith of my forbears—well, half of them—I couldn’t help an initial sense of detachment. I rose with the congregation when the rabbi took the Torah out of the ark, but inside my head a tiny anthropologist was busily taking notes. Observe the tribe ceremonially processing with its totemic object! The language was unfamiliar, the alphabet was different, and while the customs here were intriguing, they felt decidedly foreign.
In other words, I soon realized, it was a situation made for a former Peace Corps volunteer.
With the zest I’d once brought in Morocco to learning Arabic and the proper way to prepare couscous with pumpkin, I now dedicated myself to learning the ways of my people. I signed up for a class in beginning Hebrew (for the record, much easier than Arabic). My toddler in a backpack, I experimented with challah recipes, ultimately achieving a golden, braided loaf that is reliably more photogenic than I am. Self-consciously at first, I lit the Shabbat candles on Friday nights before dinner, experiencing a quiet satisfaction that for my young children, listening to me sing the blessing was simply routine.
I was surprised at first, and a little chagrined, by how easily I’d abandoned the Friends and taken up with the Jews. Just how committed a Quaker had I really been all those years? On the other hand—and I elected to view it this way—my speedy switcheroo was certainly a testimony to the “many candles, one light” theory of religion.
That was over ten years ago. The tiny anthropologist tossed out her notebook long ago and moved in with the tribe, embracing its rituals and community, its scholarly dedication to seeking contemporary meaning in ancient texts and traditions. The holidays that entranced me in All-of-a-Kind Family back in fourth grade have become my family’s, the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, my own: Rosh Hashanah with its apples and honey; the solemn introspection of Yom Kippur; Passover’s festive seder, when we welcome the stranger among us. And in December, the arrival of Hanukkah, with its latkes and candles to warm the winter nights.
Of course, we all know who else arrives in December.
When my boys were little, I gave them the lowdown on Santa, that jolly imaginary fellow, who even grown-ups like to pretend about. Never tell another kid that Santa doesn’t exist, I instructed. Believing in Santa is very important in lots of families, and it’s not your place to say otherwise. This, I thought, was the respectful approach. Unfortunately, I neglected to include my mother in the category of people whose belief in St. Nick must be preserved. And when one of the boys innocently mentioned the words “Santa” and “pretend” in the presence of Grandma—well, the reindeer poop hit the fan.
It was useless to protest that my little band of Jews shows up at her house every December 25th. To remind her that my husband orders the Christmas morning breakfast croissants from her favorite bakery, that I make my share of the cookies, help decorate the tree, stuff stockings. My mother is painfully aware that, really, I’d rather avoid the entire holiday, and my siblings aren’t crazy about it, either. She knows that my family participates only because we love her and she lives seven blocks away. (What are we going to do, stage a boycott?) Nothing could have illustrated this more sharply than my flagrant violation of the Santa Doctrine.
“You actually told them there’s no Santa Claus?” my mother said, her voice rising in disbelief.
“Mom, the kids love celebrating Christmas at your house,” I said. “The presents, the stockings, all that. But I’m not going to tell them Santa is real, or pretend to believe in him myself, anymore. I’m just not.”
“What’s wrong with letting them use their imaginations?” she demanded, adding darkly, “I suppose you tell them there’s no Tooth Fairy, either?”
“Mom, the Tooth Fairy is not associated with the birth of Jesus.”
“Neither is Santa Claus!”
I gave her a pointed look.
“Well, not in our family, as you know perfectly well.”
“Yes, but that’s beside the point,” I said. “Jewish kids don’t believe in Santa. It kind of goes with the territory, don’t you think?”
My mother fixed me with a bitter eye. “You’re just hellbent on killing the magic for those boys, aren’t you,” she said.
A framed passage from Khalil Gibran hung on the wall in my mother’s house when I was growing up. “Your children are not your children,” it read in elegant calligraphy. “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.” I doubt my mother was pondering this sentiment as she orchestrated her Christmases back then; as she carefully cut out those cookies, grated cheese for fondue, told the stories behind the ornaments. She was establishing a beloved tradition for us. That her children would grow up to reject it must have been far from her mind.
Last year I watched my oldest son stand on the bima at his bar mitzvah. In confident Hebrew, he led the morning service, singing the psalms of praise and blessing. Then he chanted from the Torah, his voice rising and falling in the ancient rhythms. Watching him ritually take his place in the community, I knew that I had given my children what I always wanted for them, even before I knew their names. Not faith, which isn’t the point in Judaism—a good thing, for my little atheists—but identity. Whether they practice its traditions or not, they’ll always have a place, a people, a sense of belonging.
That’s what the Santa Doctrine signifies to my mother, I know. Her Christmas rituals are bound up in family and belonging, too. Now that I’ve strayed from the script, she can’t help realizing that it’s all going to end. Years from now, when she’s gone, there won’t be Christmas Eve fondue, or stockings, or a tree, not in my family. I’ll always make the Viennese crescents in December, but we’ll go out for Chinese and a movie, like the rest of our tribe. I wish that my mother could accept that, instead of fighting it every year, using Santa as a proxy for what really saddens her. I wish she could recognize that she’s given me things I consider far more valuable than Christmas: a love of books and literature, the shrewdness to hunt for a bargain, her piecrust recipe. And if, one day, my kids convert to Catholicism, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I’m able to greet the news with equanimity—well, in a roundabout way, I’ll have my mother to thank for that, too.
KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.
The children wriggled and cursed in the old SUV, summoning me to exhortations about proper car-riding behavior. “Y’all know better!” I warned. I turned down whatever music was playing. I did these things while I watched traffic conditions on 30th street, which, if you’re traveling east in Tacoma, has a precipitous, San Francisco-esque drop. As you drive, you will feel your fingers tighten against the steering wheel once you realize that you can’t see beyond the approaching precipice. You’ll slow down, and that’s when you’ll catch a glimpse of it—the entire Puget Sound. You’ve got your bluish water and snow-capped mountains, the old barges dotting the coast. Porch lights wink from houses pushed far into the hills. This view is tantamount to falling in love.
Driving west, though, it’s all uphill. That’s the direction that I was traveling. My Rodeo was, at the time, twelve years old. I liked the vehicle just fine even though its manufacturer was a company best known for making good lawnmowers. As the children teased each other and bucked in their seats, my Rodeo stayed focused on the road. She climbed the hill with all her inelegant noise: a sound like cicadas trapped inside the engine.
“Do not call your sister names,” I said, or something close to that. Perhaps, I told my raucous kids to “Shut up.” I don’t recall. It was late and I was tired, plus my night vision is poor and there was very little light. The sky had a moon so slight that evening, you could say that it wasn’t even there. When we reached the top of the hill, I stopped to turn left onto Union Avenue. I waited and waited and waited. Each set of headlights that passed by blinded me for a couple of seconds. Finally, there was a break in cars and I completed my left turn. This is when I saw the delicate fawn in the street.
The fawn tottered on its pencil legs, froze, then bounded away. The poor thing probably saw us before we spotted it. Nocturnal animals like deer have what’s called tapetum lucidum, a layer of tissue over the eye that reflects light and gives them good night vision. I pounded my brakes and swerved the car. We stopped within inches of the deer. “Ohhhhh!” my daughter said. “Where is its mom? Why is it all alone?”
“I don’t know,” I said. My heart thumped in my chest. “It’s a rough world out here in the animal kingdom.”
According to its website, the state of Washington’s Department of Fish & Wildlife gets phone calls each year about orphaned fawns. People stumble across the fawns curled up in tall grass in the woods, seemingly alone in the world. Usually they are not alone. The mother-doe is hidden nearby where you can’t see her. She keeps a watchful eye on her offspring, but the range she allows her young to roam is far and wide.
After we settled down, I drove my children back to the 1920s cottage that I was renting near the university where I worked. The kids were visiting me for one week. They lived most days with their father, my ex-partner, whose home was just outside of Phoenix. Like the animal we’d encountered that night, my children were seemingly without a mother during most of that year. I’d decided in May to take a two-year, visiting faculty position in Tacoma. My ex and I decided that the kids would stay with him during the first year of my appointment. It only seemed to make sense. From the time I got the job, I had less than twelve weeks to find a place to live, to move from Phoenix to Tacoma, and to prepare to teach three classes. There was no way that I could also uproot my children and enroll them in a school system I did not know.
So, instead of spinning my wheels over how I would bring the children with me, I planned for their year without a mom. We all have certain details about parenting which we covet. I knew the details that I paid attention to might be overlooked by their father while I was away. So before I left, I investigated babysitters and talked with relatives and friends about how they could help us watch the kids. I made sure the woman who braided my daughter’s hair had my ex’s cell phone number. I purchased school supplies for the upcoming year. Even after I was gone, I kept in touch with the kids’ school teachers via email and phone. Although I would not be there in the flesh with my children, I was still around keeping a watchful eye.
Deer are a uniparental species. The father deer, the ones with the big, scary antlers, are around to make the babies and then they’re gone. You will not see them hanging out with doe or fawn. If you spot a male deer in a herd, chances are that every deer in that group is male. Fawn are cared for by their mothers only. The mama deer do everything for the babies, including eating their droppings and urine so that predators won’t catch scent of them.
What surprised me most about my decision to leave my children in Arizona was the reaction of my friends and relatives. You would think my kids didn’t have a working, able-bodied father who loves them madly. “You can’t leave them with their father. Their father? Children need their mothers,” one friend said.
“Why don’t you take them with you? Your students will babysit the kids,” another friend said.
Each person I consulted was well-intentioned. They were expressing genuine concern for my family’s well-being. Still, the tone of alarm in their voices and the repetition of frightful scenarios like the ones my father liked to put in my ear, made me doubt my own decision. For example, my daddy insisted I research the sexual predators in my neighborhood so we’d know who was watching the kids walk to the school bus stop while I was away. I told him that we’d lived there for nine years without such information.
Other people’s fears and doubts became my own. As a result, the hardest part of my year away from my children was not the months when I was on a mountain and they were in the desert; it was having the courage to leave them with their father in the first place. I was trusting that I was making the right decision for everybody involved. The conventional wisdom was that I was the primary caretaker and needed to live in the same house with my children. But I was also a provider, and taking a job that increased my income counted as taking care of my kids, too. I can’t imagine that a man in my position would have been counseled the same way about this transition. I can’t see him being told that moving to a new city while single-parenting and starting a new job was a sane or normal balancing act. In the end, I decided I would not multitask in this way. It was hard to trust my own conscience about this. Then there was the actual moment when I had to say goodbye.
We said our farewells in mid-July, two days after movers loaded my boxes onto a twenty-two foot straight truck. My shipping order included the usual domestic items, like linen and dishware, but also fifty small and medium-sized boxes of books. The only furniture that I took from the Arizona house was a bed and writing desk. Their absence—the way the bookshelves and floor had visible gaps of unoccupied space—was, by the time the airport shuttle arrived, the only evidence that I was leaving. The rest of the house was intact. My ex had even moved back in for this one year. A clear light came through the windows that morning. Its brightness made me hopeful even though the shuttle driver, who was five minutes early, had robbed me of final moments with my kids.
My son was the first to rise from the couch and walk in shiny athletic shorts and no shirt to where I’d paused at the door. At eleven years old, he stood nearly my height. His thin body and sway-backed posture at one time reminded me of an apostrophe. Now, as his shoulders broadened over a small waist, his upper body resembled an inverted triangle or wings. We hugged. My daughter, who was six, ran up and wrapped her thin arms around my thighs. Then I embraced my ex. For a brief moment, we were a family huddled near our home’s threshold. In the next second, I would be through that door and inside the blue airport van. I wouldn’t see my kids for the next three months.
The other difficult part of leaving was accepting that my life could be full of similar curveballs in the future. I had never anticipated divorce; nobody does. Similarly, it never crossed my mind that I would have to take a job in another state in order to care for my kids. Nor did I think I’d be single in my forties, that I’d have to think about my safety at night or how I present at private parties where everyone else is coupled-up.
I’d told my daughter the night we saw the deer that the animal world wasn’t quite like ours, that it was unpredictable and dangerous. “Sometimes a fawn is just on its own,” I’d said. But the truth is that we are just as vulnerable as animals that walk on cloven hooves. This becomes most clear when we’re stripped of institutions like marriage or when we experience health problems or economic insecurity. It’s when our bodily functions fail us or we’re hungry without knowing when we’ll eat; it’s when we’ve been physically harmed by another person that we recognize life’s brutal underbelly. Sure, we erect boundaries between civilized society and the wild side, but these boundaries are easily crossed and civilizing tendencies require our constant attention.
Deer are mostly vegetarian, although they will eat meat on occasions. Some of the vegetation that can attract deer to your yard are dandelion, clover, wheatgrass, mushrooms, and other fungi. If you want to keep deer out of your yard, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests deer-repellant landscaping. Shrubs which deer don’t like to eat include globe thistle, lavender, oregano, rue, pine, birch, fig, trillium, lilac, and yarrow.
A friend in the Midwest recently told me about a family of deer living in her mother’s backyard. She used this story as an example of the way that nature was making its return to this urban area that has been in decline for several decades. It was a way to paint the picture of a crumbling city and infrastructure. “Can you believe it? Living in the backyard!” she said. I was struck by how the appearance of deer were interpreted by my friend and how differently they are seen here in my neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t have deer living in my backyard, but they sure bounce through it on occasion, and I’d wager that my neighbors consider deer as part of the area’s charm. Living close to wildlife means different things depending on a person’s context.
Take the deer I saw this summer in the South on a college campus where I attended a writers’ conference. The deer were considered by most writers as magical and spritely, as evidence that we were in a pastoral setting conducive to ideas, instead of the crammed cities where so many of us live. The deer, for their part, pranced in and out of our view as if the college campus was their world and we were in it by happenstance.
I have summers without the children, now, which allows me to attend professional events like writing conferences. My kids live with their dad in the summer and they live with me during the school year or nine months out of the year. It’s an arrangement that works, but again, it’s one I didn’t anticipate years ago. As I walked this latest conference one night, I saw a herd of deer near a tree. There were at least seven or eight of them huddled together. I’ll admit right here that I was slightly drunk, but I’m pretty certain of what I saw. As I walked closer to the animals I saw young and old deer, mostly doe, and one gargantuan male. As the doe and fawn nibbled the grass, heads down, the antlered deer kept his eyes on me as if saying, “Keep it moving, woman, and don’t step any closer.” I was in awe. The next morning, I told another writer who’s a good friend and poet and he said, “That’s incredible! The males rarely hang out with females and fawns.” He was right. That’s what I’ve read to be true about these creatures of the forest and woods. But stranger things, I imagine, happen all the time.
RENEE SIMMS writes fiction and essays which have beeen widely published. She is putting the final touches on a story collection, Because We Were Miles from Home, while teaching and parenting outside Tacoma.
Cambodia feels like an open wound. Still raw from a scrape with death, still aching from its painful roots. Reminders of the genocide are everywhere: in the eerie absence of the elderly; in the mountains of garbage that clutter the roads and define the landscape; in the pleading tone of the desperate tuk tuk driver, hoping for a day of work; and in the perfectly rehearsed sales pitches of the children peddling baskets of discount Lonely Planet guidebooks on every street corner.
For the second time in five months, I am walking the half-mile stretch to cross the border at Poipet—the gateway into Cambodia and the portal to its poverty. It’s hotter this time. It’s now summer, and the tropical sun rules the land in a brutal tyranny. After eight months of traveling, I’ve grown accustomed to the musty stench of my soiled clothes and the taxing load of my backpack that contains everything I own, but never to the heat. As I walk under the stone archway inviting me into the Kingdom of Cambodia, the black dots of dehydration appear in my periphery like passing planets to a sun-bound astronaut who’s drifted off course. My head is forever trapped in a fogged-up fishbowl.
Poipet is not a coastal town, yet everywhere there is evidence of a shipwreck. Scraps of plastic, cardboard, styrofoam, metal, and human flotsam appear to have washed ashore. The people I see seem like the only survivors, still recovering from this thalassic catastrophe. Families huddle together under facades of crumbling concrete, the remnants of homes. Everyone walks slowly, staring at nothing, myself among them. I can feel crow’s feet forming in the corners of my eyes from all the squinting. One thought raps relentlessly on the front door of my frontal lobe: I need water.
I search in vain for someone who looks like they might be sitting on a cooler, a makeshift minimart that often flanks the streets. But for the first time in Southeast Asia, I can’t find anyone to sell me anything. People are preoccupied, squatting low, on their haunches, with their faces covered and averted from the sun, trying to avoid the heat.
I am jolted from my feverish quest by a tug on my pinky finger. Two deep, dark eyes stare up at me, their depths like the abyss of a cave. A girl who looks to be about three years old stands obstinately before me like an avant-garde performance art piece. The canvass of skin covering her bones appears painted in haste, with sloppy brushstrokes, muddy streaks. She clamps her entire hand around my littlest finger with a firm grip and without the slightest indication of letting go.
“Excuse me, lady, one dollar. I need a dollar, lady. Please, lady, give me a dollar,” she chants.
I have a dollar. In fact, I have 300 of them stuffed neatly at the bottom of my pack. I had stashed them away for this very trip to Cambodia. As my semester teaching in Thailand neared its end, I carefully regulated every saved penny from my salary to fund a final trip around Southeast Asia before returning home to Atlanta.
Never giving money to panhandling children; it perpetuates their livelihood as beggars, I repeat in my head, the way I used to prepare for lessons and study for tests.
I had spent weeks reading and researching everything from personal blogs to the BBC. And every source answered my question of whether to give money to child beggars with a firm and stern don’t do it. They each echoed the same warning: “By feeling pity, giving money and food, child labor—a growing business—is supported and the children are sustained on the streets.”On paper, it made sense. And my response seemed easy.
But standing face-to-face with a three-year-old in Cambodia, my heart sinks and I panic. As a teacher and a student, I have never been as unsure of my answers. I can’t stop myself from thinking: What if they are wrong?
Reluctant to pull my finger from hers, we walk pinky-in-hand for several more steps before I finally untangle myself from her taut grip. I look at her and she expects me to speak, but instead of answering her question or acknowledging her presence, I look away. Our locked eyes make me feel a thousand times heavier than the fifty pounds I am carrying. A weight that recurs continually here, always with the threat to bury me in a quicksand of indecision. Eventually I tell her “No, I’m sorry,” but she follows me, tries to walk in my path, demanding me to notice her. She repeats her haunting mantra as if in a trance, “Just a dollar, lady.”
Ten months prior, I was in Atlanta, sitting on my bed, thumbing the glossy pages of a National Geographic, and fantasizing about the day I would soon be in Cambodia. It was a picture of Ta Prohm that had summoned me. The twelfth-century, tree-entwined Buddhist monastery was the stage for Lara Croft’s adventures in Tomb Raider and is one of hundreds of ancient temples that stand alongside Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. On two full pages, creeping strangler figs and slinking lichens devoured the once indestructible ruins. It was a perfect crystallization of nature’s dominance over mankind. A reminder that nature can undermine even the apotheosis of human creations. I ripped out the pages and kept them in my purse for weeks. I wanted to be here, to feel small, and to stay inside this photograph forever.
When the day came for me to shrink my life into a backpack, I was staying at a friend’s house. Scattered across her floor were the remainders of my purged possessions and the things I would take with me. There were stacks of clothes separated into two piles—one for teaching and one for adventuring. There were labeled Ziploc bags, a diary of Anaïs Nin, a Canon Rebel. An empty journal and a manila folder stuffed full of goodbye cards addressed “Dear Miss Josalin.”
There were fifty of them, actually. One from every kid at SoulShine, the liberal afterschool program I worked at as a teacher and counselor in Atlanta.I picked up a card signed “Love, Emilia,” depicting an underwater scene: blue, squiggly lines for waves, spider-like crabs, swaying palm trees, and a mermaid replica, exactly the way I would have drawn it. For months at Soulshine, there was a mermaid craze, and it all began with Emilia.
Everyday after school, she would rush inside, throw her backpack to the floor, scarf down a hasty snack, and climb onto my lap. I loved the way her crimson curls bounced, giving off warmth and complementing her fiery spirit. I would twirl them in my fingers and she would, without fail, ask “Miss Josalin, today can we draw mermaids?”
I am not an artist, and my drawings were, at best, mediocre. But to Emilia, they were masterpieces. She praised me for them, begging me to teach her every step of my drawing process, eventually surpassing my talent and producing them en masse. The kids at SoulShine started to take notice, and soon every girl and even some boys were bombarding me with requests for drawing lessons. For hours after school, I would show them how two pencil strokes could make a ponytail and how a mix of blues, greens, and gold glitter create an iridescent fin. How a “3” and a capital “E” formed the outlines of a seashell chemise and how long eyelashes make the mermaid feminine.
Flipping through my cards, I saw dozens of mermaids. I closed the manila folder and wedged it alongside the few other carefully chosen items in my pack.
In Poipet, I surrender my quest for water and opt for a beer instead. It’s ten in the morning, but I feel like I’ve been in this city for centuries, and the cold, foamy taste in my mouth provides a refreshing relief. I try to focus, envisioning Ta Prohm, and examining the bus schedule to Siem Reap. Waiting for the bus, a young girl races me to the trashcan to salvage my beer can. She wears a ponytail and shuffles by with shaky, knobby knees, hunched over like an old woman. Her shiny, thick hair whips like the tail of a black stallion, with features both bold and refined, in utter defiance to her demeanor. She holds her t-shirt stretched out like a basket in which she carries her collection of tourists’ trash—her treasures.
I watch her attempt to add my can to the pile and fail. Her shirt collapses, revealing her scrawny frame, and bottles and cans topple in every direction toward the ground. She looks around, eyes racing with the trajectory of launched pinballs. Gathering the bottles, she drops them two more times before scurrying away. In a few seconds, she vanishes from my sight, but her presence lingers in my mind. Sitting and waiting, I wonder: Would these children be forced to sell and beg and scrounge and steal for their lives if their families hadn’t been butchered and uprooted in a ruthless genocide?
From 1975-1979, Cambodia’s government systematically massacred three million of its own people. Promoting a radical agenda of nationwide ethnic cleansing, Pol Pot and his obedient Khmer Rouge regime rivaled the Nazis in organized cruelty. With horrifying gusto, their motive was to purge and reform the population in place of a pure, agrarian Communist society. The entire country suffered, but the Khmer Rouge singled out certain people as the enemy. Among those targeted were intellectuals, city folks, minorities, teachers, writers, doctors, and people who wore glasses. When the Khmer Rouge took power, they captured Phnom Penh, the capital, and evacuated the entire city in three days. Once bustling, thriving cities became wastelands and torture camps. The displaced people met their fate in an orderly fashion: They were herded to labor camps, then torture prisons, and, ultimately, to their death in the killing fields.
My bus pulls out of the station and leaves the forgotten shipwreck survivors to fend for themselves. Poipet disappears behind me in a dusty dirt cloud like the phantasmagoria of strange dreams. I gaze out the window at vast, barren fields and conical tops of straw hats and wonder what the people beneath them had seen and felt and suffered when Pol Pot reigned supreme.
To save cash and prevent scams, I rent a bike from my hostel in Siem Reap at dawn the next morning. Ten kilometers of dirt roads and dodging tuk tuks, and I am finally amid the ancient ruins of the Angkor Empire. It is low season, so there are not many tourists, most of them choosing to avoid the oppressive heat. Normally this would be a good thing, but in Cambodia it means I am an easy target.
I arrive at Ta Prohm temple with high expectations, burning thighs, and half the vigor of Lara Croft. As at many of the popular Angkor temples, the atmosphere is frenzied. Tourists strike stupid poses, snap photos in rapid succession, and discover hidden crevices by way of their own routes. Local merchants cast their well-practiced lines into a sea of unsuspecting tourists and wait to see who falls for the bait. Their merchandise is often handmade: wood-carved finger flutes, jangly jewelry, charcoal sketches of Angkor Wat, and hand-painted clothing. All for one dollar.
Through the chaos and crowded amalgam of flashy new Apple products and sweaty bodies, I see my enchantress. The divine tree fatally intertwined with the ruins from the two-page photograph. Like a comfortable houseguest she sprawls out and makes herself at home in a sacred room of the ancient monastery. I situate myself in just the right place and take the very same photograph, though not as high-res and with an amateur’s eye. I take hundreds more as I explore Ta Prohm. It provides me with endless inspiration, and the ruins invoke my creative spirit. But what captivates me is a pair of young merchants. A brother and sister no older than nine with bright red baskets and stockbrokers’ enthusiasm. Squatting on a mound of rocks that have been squeezed out of place by thick, gnarled roots reclaiming the jungle, they scope out the torrent of tourists entering their domain. They wait like watchdogs, sniffing me out immediately.
“Lady, I have very nice jewelry for you. Come here, lady. I have many, many things for one dollar,” the girl says, arms draped with bracelets from her wrists to her armpits.
I’ve prepared something to say this time. Silence, I convince myself, reveals weakness. I try to appear honest and confident, hoping my answers will suffice them.
“I can’t today. I will be back though. I will come and buy some tomorrow.”
She glares hard at me. Her brother stands behind her with one hand on his hip, the other cradling his basket like a baby. I shrug my shoulders and reveal my empty hands.
“Not tomorrow!” she says, now indignant and miffed by me. “You buy now, lady. Tomorrow, I do not see you.” Wiping the palm of her hand down her face, “All farangs [foreigners] look the same.”
And indeed she does not see me. She sees what she wants to see: a rich, white tourist crippled by guilt who might dish out pity in the form of American dollars. And I try hard, but I do not see her either. I want to see a nine-year-old who runs through the ruins playing hide-and-seek with her brother, laughing and skipping, and free to just be. I want her to hold my hand and ask me about my funny clothes or my pale skin or if she can braid my hair. I want to see a child with the innocence that reminds me not to take life too seriously.
Just then, the wind kicks a slight breeze. A delicate dandelion flower floats by, hovering in the air briefly. The two siblings fall silent and still, their eyes fixed on this evanescent wisp of beauty until it drifts out of sight. And in this moment, they abandon their roles as pushy street merchants and again become children. I snap a photo of their sudden transformation and steal this moment for myself. When the dandelion vanishes, so too does their laughter and wonder. In Cambodia, this phenomenon of children behaving like children surfaces only in glimpses. I take a few more unimportant shots of big trees and crumbling rocks and exit the temple.
To my surprise, my bike—secured with a flimsy, shoestring-sized cable lock—is right where I left it. I try to drone out the cacophony of auctioneers offering me water and make a beeline for my two-wheeled getaway. But I am promptly intercepted and detained by a thin, young boy and eager guide. His hands are callused, and I feel tender when they touch me, grabbing my arm and dragging me along quickly. He seems like he has something to show me, but I soon realize it is me that he is showing.
He presents me to a group of kids of staggering heights and ages. They are his cohorts and his siblings, and it is clear who calls the shots. He points to the youngest, gives her the cue, and she yokes me with her eyes and begins rattling off her ABC’s.
“She can say her ABCs for one dollar,” my kidnapper says proudly.
I look around for an adult, but I see no one. And I remember reading that parents often get their children to do their begging for them. Smaller, cuter, and livelier, they have been proven more successful on the streets.
When he sees me turning to walk away, he runs after me, trailed closely behind by his well-trained posse. They crowd around me, hurling English phrases and fragments, convinced of their ability to sway me.
“Look, I can count to ten! One, two, three, four….How about ten bracelets for one dollar or a bottle of water? You are very thirsty, lady.”
I had seen this business savvy before. The same precocity, but with different motives.
A master of the ocean realm, Emilia soon advanced to drawing castle-dwelling beauties. She was diligent and her hobby easily gained momentum within her circle of friends. She started a drawing club composed of six core members and a handful of transient contributors who came and went depending on the day. After snack, Emilia would dump out every box of crayons into a massive pile in the middle of them, and the others would elbow each other to get a spot at the big picnic table. First attempts at mermaids, princesses, dragons, and castles littered the floor daily. Somehow crayon nubs covered entire pages with fantastic scenes and not an inch of wasted paper.
They drew constantly. And in a seamless transition from schoolgirl to sales executive, Emilia started a business.
“Miss Josalin, look at the mermaid I drew, just like you!” Emilia boasted. “Will you buy a picture?”
“Oh yeah? How much?” I asked, amused.
“You can get one for fifty cents or four for one dollar!”
Of course I bought them. I bought them all, with whatever change I had lying at the bottom of my purse. It didn’t seem to make a difference if I gave a dollar to some children. But these were children who had three meals a day and shoes on their feet. Children who got back rubs for bad dreams, and Band-Aids for boo-boos, and kisses just because. They didn’t need my money. The quarters I gave them would gather dust at the bottom of their piggybanks.
In Cambodia, my dollar holds power. And I’m unsure of how to wield it. Sometimes, I think I came here expecting to watch a performance, like an audience member snug and relaxed in her seat. Instead, with the swift crossing of the border, I am dragged on stage and thrust into the scene. How am I supposed act? What am I supposed to say? The plot is complex, and no one gave me a script. Uncomfortable and blinded by the spotlight, I improvise. I hold my breath, believing that a botched line or a missed cue could sabotage the entire show.
I am constantly torn, thoughts bisected between not knowing how to help and how not to hurt. I struggle to reconcile my heart with my head, my guilt with my gut, constantly. I am suspended in a state of hopelessness and inner conflict, always. Here, I am forced to confront life’s injustices and contradictions. Here, I learn that there is not an answer for everything. The aftermath of genocide is not easily reversed, and the people will go on suffering, creating, destroying, enduring.
JOSALIN SAFFER lays her roots in Atlanta, Georgia, where she received her B.A. in Journalism. She spent the last year living, writing, and working as an English teacher in Thailand and exploring Southeast Asia. This fall, she will continue her journey as a writer and teacher in the Czech Republic. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian Weekly, The Matador Network, and South East Asia Backpacker magazine. To read more of her published work, visit www.josalinsaffer.com.
It’s the Morning Hustle. Five things are happening at once. The microwave beeps with the oatmeal. Lily reminds me she needs a note to go home with a friend after school. Max yodels a nonsense song and knocks over his milk with his elbow. The bus will be out front in ten minutes. In the midst of it all, I’m packing the kids’ lunches. Not for the first time, I wonder why I never do it the night before. Or make them do it themselves, for heaven’s sake. I plunk two oatmeals on the table, toss Max a dish towel, and go back to frantically sectioning apples. Lily pauses at my elbow.
“Be sure to get all the core out.”
“You never get it all out. It’s so gross. The texture.”
“Gotcha, now sit down and eat.”
I secure the apple slice between forefinger and thumb and dig with the blade of the paring knife, trying for that perfect angle where the core will pop out in an intact semicircle, leaving only smooth flesh behind. I’m rushing, though, and instead I hack the section in half. I chop out the middle, do the same to the other sections, and quickly pile the bits into a container and cram it into her lunch bag. Well, they are core-less.
“Eat up! Let’s go! Five minutes until the bus!”
My dad doesn’t like to cook. This does not prevent him from turning out stacks of tender buttermilk pancakes, hearty dishes of spaghetti bolognese, gooey grilled cheese sandwiches with a buttery, crisp exterior that shatters delightfully when you take a bite. He feeds me and the kids lunch about once a week, and as I linger over my chicken salad sandwich, made with sweet pickles and celery the way I like it, he effortlessly cores apple slices for us. He uses the battered pocket knife he carries in a leather case on his belt, his rough, square fingers strong and sure. Pop! goes the core, and he slides a few slices my way along the table.
“Thanks for lunch, Dad.”
“It was my pleasure.”
His eyes glint warmly at me from his weathered, smiling face.
“Now take those kids home. I need a nap.”
Lily’s fourth grade teacher is trying to bring a little hands-on fun to the last quarter of the year, a respite from the rampant standardized testing and flurry of final projects. She asks the parents to come in and help kids learn about fractions in the real world via making (and consuming) an apple pie. Which is how I find myself seated at the center of a group of four nine-year-old girls, passing out vegetable peelers and Granny Smith apples.
“Y’all get started with these, and I’ll use this sharp knife to peel some, too.”
“Mrs. Susen, this is hard. I can’t get mine to go.”
“It is kind of hard with a peeler. You just have to press down with authority. Like this.”
I demonstrate to get the peel started, then hand the apple back so the girl can continue to slowly scrape off tiny, unsatisfying flaps of skin. I hope no one peels a forefinger.
“Why can’t I use the knife like you do?”
“I don’t think your teacher would like that.”
“How’d you learn to peel so good?”
“Oh, I’m actually only okay at peeling apples. See? I’m getting a lot of the flesh. But you know what made me want to learn?”
The girls stop their inefficient scraping to listen, glad for an excuse to take a break.
“There’s this movie called Sleepless in Seattle. Have any of you seen it?” They shake their heads. “Well, it’s a little old for you guys. Anyway, in the movie, the main characters are a boy about your age and his dad. And they’re living on their own because the mother died.”
Lily’s eyes widen. “She died? How?”
I smile reassuringly, a little sorry I started on this topic. “She had cancer, I think? I don’t remember. Anyway, there’s a scene where the boy is having trouble remembering things about his mom. He doesn’t want to forget her, so he says to the dad, ‘Tell me about Mom.’ And the dad starts off, ‘Your mom could peel an apple in one long, curly strip.’ And ever since that movie, I’ve been practicing my apple peeling so I could learn to peel an apple in one long, curly strip.”
Lily says with rising pitch, “So that we’ll say that about you after you die, Mom?”
“Uh, well, just because I thought it sounded cool. Anyway! Who wants to unroll the pie crust?”
Every Wednesday I make lunch for my ninety-three-year-old grandfather. He’s rattling around on his own now in the house that he and my grandmother designed, built, and lived in together before her death a few years ago. At first he was looking after himself pretty well, but the dementia he was already exhibiting at the time of her final illness has accelerated since she died. It’s seemed to me that his life without her is so diminished that he’s choosing to let go and drift, to slip away into memories. My uncles hired a live-in caretaker, but our in-town family still takes turns to provide him with some lunches and dinners each week. It gives the helper a break, and him a little company.
I never spent time with Popi on my own before my grandmother died. They had eight sons together, and I’m one of twenty-three grandchildren, so I didn’t spend much individual time with either of them, actually. Occasionally, though, in her later years, when she tired more easily and was home more often, I would run by to help my grandmother with a project, and she’d make lunch for the three of us. Her meals were ladylike and quaint, and delicious. First she’d offer a pitted avocado half with a pool of vinaigrette in the middle, to scoop up together with a silver spoon. Next a daintyglass sandwich plate cupping a cream cheese and chopped black olive sandwich on whole wheat with the crusts cut off. Finally she’d rummage around for a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milanos and offer two on a china dish along with a cup of weak coffee thinned with skim milk.
When I started bringing Popi lunch, I felt weirdly self-conscious. I didn’t know if he’d like my cooking or my idea of a tasty sandwich. So I’d punt and pick up sandwiches, cookies, and bags of potato chips from the bakery. Popi was the original smug health-food fanatic, culturing yogurt and spreading mashed yeast on toast back in the fifties. But since his dementia has taken hold I’ve noticed that he loves junk food. He’d eat every crumb of the bag of chips, and sometimes eat his cookie before he finished his sandwich. Max scolded him for it when I brought him along to lunch. But then Popi’s edema got worse, and the word went out from my uncle that we should all cut back on offering him salty snacks. One week my ungrateful children had picked listlessly at a nice pot of French lentil soup I made for dinner, so I decided to take the leftovers out to Popi to see if they’d suit. His eyes lit up when I offered the hot bowl of soup, along with a buttered roll and a peeled clementine, and he thanked me extra warmly for the “lovely, lovely lunch.” Since then that’s my lunch formula: soup, buttered bread, fruit, and sometimes a little sweet.
Initially during our lunches Popi would reminisce in vivid detail about his childhood in New York City and Long Island or about his time serving in the Air Force during World War II, but in recent months he gets caught in conversational eddies, pausing a moment before circling through a familiar exchange again from the beginning.
I carefully core and thinly slice apples as we cycle through one of his most frequent conversational gambits.
“It’s a very still day.”
“Yes, the weather’s been nice lately.”
“I had a friend who was very well traveled. He used to say that here in Central Virginia we have ‘the finest climate in the world, outside of the Austrian Tyrol.’”
“So, Popi, what’s the weather like in the Austrian Tyrol?”
“Couldn’t say, I’ve never been.”
We both chuckle, like it’s the first time and not the fiftieth, then pause as I deliver the apples and a shortbread cookie.
“Well, doesn’t this look nice? Thank you.”
A moment as we both take a bite of apple.
“It’s a very still day.”
Morning Hustle. Max’s milk is in a pool on the floor, again. Lily has soccer after school, and I remind her to pack up her shin-guards and a water bottle.
“What’s the sandwich today, Mom?”
“You know I don’t like to talk about lunch. You only complain about what I’m packing. Go brush your teeth.”
“Fine, but I was wondering, can you just put a whole apple in my lunch bag?”
Max perks up. “Yeah! I want one, too!”
“A whole apple? Will you guys eat the whole thing? I don’t want to waste these apples, they’re organic and expensive.”
“Yes, I will!”
“I will, too. Everyone else just brings a whole apple. Apple slices are for little kids.”
“Well. Okay, then.”
I drop two apples into the lunch bags. Easy enough.
“Guys, go get your shoes on. You’re going to miss the bus.”
I always thought one day I’d feel like I’d really come into my own. I’d feel a sense of mastery, of justified confidence, as I strode through my life. I wouldn’t just look like a grown-up on the outside; I’d feel the way that I assumed grown-ups felt on the inside. My father, in his calm competence, personified the adult I expected to become. But he still seems like a grown-up relative to me, even though I now signify adulthood to my own children. And caring for my grandfather, as his edges soften and calm competence fades, just messes with my head. How can it be that I’ve grown powerful in relation to this proud patriarch? That I am woman enough to cut his food into bite-sized bits? Middle age. I’m in the middle of the process of discovery. Won’t I always be here? Even when I grow old, if I should be so lucky, I’ll still be in the middle of understanding who I am.
MILLER MURRAY SUSEN is the most extroverted introvert you know. She acts and tells stories, then holes up at home and sweats about having done those things. She writes essays and plays, then gets bored in a quiet room by herself. She adores her husband and two children but wishes they wouldn’t insist on talking to her so much. This fall, she’s going to try directing her own adaptation of Little Women, plus take on a part time job as Associate Director of Education at Live Arts. She is super thrilled and super stressed!