Leftovers

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer D. Munro

“It’s too soon,” I hissed at Richard, on the phone with his mom.

Millie planned to fly in for Thanksgiving, less than three months after six-year-old Ben had been placed with us. We were still navigating a precarious new existence as a nuclear family. Nuclear bomb was more like it. But Millie had waited two decades since our wedding for us to produce a grandchild and her ensuing visit was inevitable, like ptomaine after eating undercooked poultry.

“Sure, you can stay here,” Richard said to Millie.

I waved at Richard like the guy with the light wands on the airport tarmac, trying to prevent a jumbo jet from crushing a baggage handler. “Where?” I mouthed.

Richard and I took turns sleeping on the daybed in my office next to Ben’s room so that one of us would be near if he woke up disoriented. We were his twelfth family. He’d recently fallen asleep in his booster seat on the way to see Kung Fu Panda, and when I nudged him awake in the theater’s parking lot, he wailed in terror, having no initial remembrance of who I was: his newest mother.

Richard turned his back on me to finish the phone conversation, then hung up and faced me. “She’ll cook the whole Thanksgiving dinner. She’ll make Ben his own special pie.”

“You know what we were told in all of the foster-adoption training sessions, over and over, about new families and holidays.” Keep it mellow and uneventful, trainers droned around their ubiquitous cough drops. We’d practically been tattooed with Beware the Holidays, as full of triggers as an NRA rally. Had Ben eaten turkey or ham for Thanksgiving with his most significant foster families? Said a prayer or made fart jokes? Football game on or off? Canned or fresh cranberry sauce? Sat at a formal table like Richard’s family, or, like mine, eaten off doubled paper plates balanced on our knees?

“Look how relevant the rest of the training’s been,” Richard pointed out. True, I never referred to the training binders. Instead, I scrawled WILD ANIMAL TRAINER in my notebook and jotted down techniques after coming across a nature article and thinking: That’s what I am. Not a parent. I’m that killer whale trainer who gets seized by her ponytail, pulled into the tank, and worried to death.

But the adoption trainers were onto something with their dire predictions about trip-wired family celebrations. After a dinner out for my October birthday, Ben had refused to get in the car with us. He’d stood on the sidewalk between the car and the restaurant and hocked loogies at the windshield in front of my face. Nothing had gone wrong to set him off: I was simply the most recent in a long line of mothers, being honored though I, too, would surely send him packing. Only time would show him he wasn’t going anywhere.

“What should we do?” I’d asked Richard as Ben paced, working up more spit wads, swearing like a Pulp Fiction character while the diners inside looked on. My heart rate had escalated and my margaritas grandes had blared in my bladder like a mariachi trumpet as I’d prepared to exit the car and navigate a public scene without getting arrested.

“Hit the wipers.” Richard, slouching, had flipped the switch. Not reacting came easier to him than to me. Provoking him was like trying to get a rise out of a thermometer with no mercury. He was so laid back that a doctor once told him his blood pressure was so low he should be dead.

The rubber blades had swished the ooze trails across the safety glass—would that our fragile new family hold together as well under impact.

We’d laughed—surprising Ben. Our mixture of pragmatism and gallows humor enabled us to survive each day and face the next. All of Ben’s other parents had caved in or kicked him out in response to his behaviors. We were the first to put a replacement pair of eyeglasses on his face within twenty-four hours of his snapping the first pair in his fists, and he knew he’d lost that battle. The first who kept a patch on his lazy eye, like keeping a cone on a feral cat. To deny him dessert until he ate his vegetables; we learned that Brussels sprouts float after he tried to flush them. Unconditional love, maybe, but with a steel backbone. Ben needed boundaries. He needed parents, not buddies. I would have failed had I not had a spouse as unflappable as a manatee.

Ben had seen us laughing and got in the car.

Now Millie—a mother who had let her children roam safely free in their Midwestern suburb every afternoon until she rang the dinner bell, who never disciplined her kids, whose teeth I’d never seen behind her close-mouthed smiles—was going to land in the middle of our Pythonesque reformatory.

Land mines littered our upcoming Thanksgiving tableau, and who knew which one a corncob might set off? I needed more tension in the house like I needed a bucket of gasoline to douse a fire.

But Richard could not refuse his mother her visit. We both knew that. He continued placating me, repeating her promises to him: “She’ll do all the cooking that whole week. And watch Ben during the days so you can work.”

I hesitated. Another ugly parenting surprise had blindsided us: the local schools shut down for the entire Thanksgiving week. I was telecommuting while on partial maternal leave, a complicated arrangement; Richard worked late several nights per week; we were both wracked with deep, hacking coughs but had no time or energy to manage a doctor’s visit; and I dreaded the fifteen-hour stretches alone with Ben. Much the same as I felt about being alone with Millie. Over the decades, we’d managed to overcome our embarrassingly clichéd history of discord by keeping things as shallow as a cookie sheet. Living two thousand miles away from each other helped.

Richard shrugged. “It’ll all work out. Don’t worry.”

Easy for him to say. Millie liked to say that her pet peeve was turning off light switches. I refrained from correcting her that her pet peeve was really people leaving lights on. The problem was that Millie turned off lights when I was still in the room.

Millie had raised her firstborn alone for a few years after leaving her first husband and returning home with a newborn to the Midwest and her grim mother. In his mid-forties, Richard still could do no wrong in her eyes—other than having married me, her only palatable explanation for his living his entire adult life on the other side of the continent.

I would be sandwiched between Millie’s and Ben’s hostility like slaw in a shredded pork grinder.

“And she’ll hem Ben’s pants,” Richard added.

“Dirty pool.” I’d begun to hope that saggy-pants, with resultant dragging hems, would last through Ben’s adolescence, so I wouldn’t have to learn to work the borrowed sewing machine, as perplexing to me as busy moms looking stylish at PTA meetings; shaved armpits and clean underwear meant a presentable day for me.

I sighed, defeated with that last bit of blackmail. When I first traveled to Millie’s house as a newlywed, she commanded me to scrub off my hand lotion; she was allergic to the smell. With a long arm and pointed finger, she sent me from the room, which she aired to erase any trace of me. She’d never learned to spell the last name I’d kept when we’d married.

Yet here was an olive branch in the form of domestic help, of wanting to be a grandmother. Millie’s highway anxiety had grown so pronounced that she could no longer drive except on her suburb’s local roads, so this was no spindly peace offering, this offer to fly solo, cross-country, to welcome her newest family member.

•••

In advance of her arrival, Millie began shipping low-fat, low-salt, special diet ingredients for allergies I’ve never understood, such as adverse reactions to all ice cream except Haagen-Dazs. At a restaurant once, she ordered plain spaghetti—no sauce, no oil, no cheese, just coagulating noodles.

With no holiday planning of my own to do now, I came around quickly to the idea of a handy mother-in-law underfoot, and I readjusted my attitude to look forward to her arrival. After all, she had managed to birth and raise a pretty decent fellow I called my husband.

We rented a bed for her and used rugs, curtains, and wall hangings to soften and decorate Richard’s den, which had once been a garage. Quirky, makeshift lodging symbolized risk and adventure to Richard and me. But Millie’s home décor was beige and could pass as a dentist’s waiting room, lovely in a nondescript way.

Millie arrived with massive amounts of baggage for a stay of less than a week.

At a glance, she diagnosed Ben as having her same food allergies. I didn’t protest, figuring her bland ingredients wouldn’t hurt him for a week. The cook got carte blanche on the menu, as far as I was concerned.

We muddled through the days pleasantly. I was a mother now, a visible person with substance. Millie was Ben’s grandmother and great with kids. Two decades of sandpaper relations had worn down our splinters. Maybe we weren’t lustrous mahogany, but veneer would do.

I gladly shopped for everything on Millie’s list and chewed (and chewed) her spice- and additive-free dinners, where the color and taste of all three food groups resembled tree bark. I loved and appreciated every morsel and frequently requested seconds. Ben learned to say, “Yum,” before asking, “What is it?” To be fair, he asked me this question nightly, remaining suspicious of anything that didn’t come from a McDonald’s bag, and I’m no Julia Child.

Hell, I would have adopted Charles Manson years earlier if I’d known it would bond me and Millie. I’d finally discovered the hidden plus-side to in-laws. My only job was to keep out of her way as she took over my kitchen and complained about my pans and stale sage, which didn’t bother me. No less than a birth mother with a newborn, I welcomed her gift of sustenance and nourishment, and her presence was a relief rather than a thorn.

But a few days after her arrival and the day before Thanksgiving, Millie woke up and declared that she had a sore throat and was staying in bed. No cooking. No Thanksgiving prep. No childcare. I placed a distress call to the community center where Ben now went after school so he could work on social skills and I could roll out my yoga mat but watch hockey highlights on my laptop instead. The community center took Ben for the day. Ben had never been there for a full day, and I didn’t know I was supposed to pack him a lunch. The other kids and counselors all shared their food with him, a scene straight out of a TV holiday drama.

Millie would never have made such a mistake.

When Richard got home from work early that afternoon, Millie announced that she was packing her bags and taking the first flight home, possibly before Ben got home from day camp to say goodbye.

Richard took me aside. “What happened between you two while I was gone?” he yawned.

“Nothing! I liked having her here! I was working! I left her totally alone except when I asked her if she needed anything from the drugstore.” I thought Millie preferred me invisible. “I was in the canned food aisle forever yesterday trying to find that special salmon she asked for.” I had come home with the wrong thing, but she still had been gracious.

She told Richard that she missed her husband, who had stayed home to care for the Shi-Tzu-Poodles, and hated her bed and room. It was cold in Seattle, and she needed the Florida sun (their snowbird home) to recuperate. She needed The Price is Right, which she called The Drew Carey Show, but we’d gotten rid of our television when Ben moved in, to keep a calm and quiet environment. She repeated that she had a sore throat.

“Sore throat?” Richard shouted at Millie. “Sore THROAT? SORE THROAT? Boo-fucking-hoo! I’ve been sick for three months and it doesn’t fucking matter! You’ve been promising Ben his own pie, and you’re going to stay and bake him a fucking pie!”

Boo-fucking-hoo? Ah, bittersweet moment. I’d been waiting since the Bee Gees were at the top of the Billboard charts for Richard to stand up to his mother, too much to expect. It’s difficult even for me to voice concerns in my loudmouthed family, and Richard’s family doesn’t quarrel. Millie leads a quiet family discussion, and then everyone does what Millie decides. No voices raised, problem buried—except that cow patties continue to emit methane. Easy to criticize, yet Richard is one of the few people I know who describes his childhood as happy.

Richard’s crazed yodeling to his mother continued: “This is about Ben, not you, you got that? You are not going to let this child down! He’s had too much of that already from too many people! He’s six, and you’re sixty-six. Grow the fuck up!”

Suddenly, Richard had a button. He’d never had one, much as I’d tried over the years to sew one on. He was now a Dad: Do not mess with his kid.

But then the world tilted further on its axis when it turned out that Millie’s problem was not me, nor Ben’s troubling behaviors.

The problem was Richard—no longer the easygoing man often mistaken for The Dude, but the strict disciplinarian he had become in order to keep ourselves and our son safe. A black-and-white-rules parent—the parent his child needed, not the parent he’d always thought he’d be.

When Ben weakly punched Richard’s stomach at a party, Richard moved out of reach, reprimanded him, and followed through with the consequence of immediately leaving a party barely started.

When Ben threw a scooter at us, Richard confiscated the scooter.

When an angry Ben took a crayon to the table, Richard handed him cleaning supplies.

I was as firm as tofu and would later be sent to specialized parenting training for wimps, but Richard had a monolith spine.

When Richard told Ben’s therapist about the lenient, lackadaisical kind of dad he’d like to go back to being someday soon, with a motto of love them and let them be—the kind of parents he had—the therapist shook his head and said, “I find that kind of parenting just does not work at all for these kinds of kids.”

Millie called Richard a dictator. She called him Hitler. She phoned her husband to say she was being held hostage. She got two digits in to 9-1-1 to report a domestic violence incident though Richard had come nowhere near her. Downstairs, I pressed myself flat to the wall (okay, sort of bow-shaped, since my fanny won’t quite allow flat) to stay out of it.

Richard had never in his forty-five years spoken an unkind word or raised his voice to his mother. Although I had longed for—and sometimes insisted upon—this moment, there was nothing joyous in finally hearing Richard tell his mother off. That he was this near to the edge was no victory. He backed down and apologized to her, immediately, sincerely, and repeatedly. He moved her into our bedroom.

When Richard and I flew to the Midwest for Christmas one year, Millie spent three days cooking the holiday meal, filling the entire upstairs and downstairs refrigerators, pantries, and freezers. Millie’s mother sampled her dinner plate, then pushed it away, saying, “My daughter never could cook.”

Her gesture symbolized her feelings for a fatherless baby she can’t have wanted—“She doesn’t talk about it,” Millie cut me off when I once asked them for the story—and never demonstrated loving or appreciating. Yet that daughter took care of her for years, all through a slow, aggrieved decline, dropping everything, time and time again, to respond to her needs.

Millie broke the cycle of bitterness by bestowing unconditional love and nary a critical word upon her children, instilling in them a strong sense of confidence. A self-assurance that allows her son to follow his unerring instinct on what is best for his child, for whom unconditional love is simply not enough.

•••

Millie awoke early Thanksgiving morning to make Ben his pie and salvage the meal. She blended and boiled, the salt can nowhere in sight. Swamp water under the bridge, I thought with relief, but she and Richard tangled again, this time in hushed shouts over what I think was a pan of gravy, though it was difficult to distinguish from the other dishes. Ben was home, so they kept it down.

Still, the tension transmitted itself through the house like the urine fumes that soon followed. Our Labrador peed on the floor. Ben peed on the floor. They peed upstairs, downstairs, and on the stairs. I dashed between them with rags.

I inserted myself between Richard and his mother. If I never expected Richard to give his mother a piece of his mind, I expected even less that I would stop him if he ever did. “You two need to stop. You’re traumatizing Ben.”

“You will not do this to my family,” Richard hissed at his mother over my head. “You need to leave. Right now.”

Richard’s “family” had always to him meant his birth family, the people he’d grown up with and then left at age nineteen, never to return. Unable to have children despite trying for ten years, I insisted that he and I were a family, nonetheless, but he could not agree. “We are a couple, not a family,” he maintained. Pets didn’t count. No amount of crying or arguing could dissuade him from this belief. I couldn’t change his feelings, and he couldn’t change his feelings, although he knew they hurt me. We’d been round and round that mulberry bush multiple times.

Now, suddenly, Ben and I were his family, and I knew he would protect us with his caveman’s club even if he died in the attempt.

For that I was thankful.

Millie’s last words to Richard as she wrestled her baggage out the door was, “Well, your wife didn’t want me here, anyway.”

“No, wait! I wanted you here! I liked having you here!” I wanted to protest.

My words wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. She punted her words of reproach to my corner of the triangle rather than finding fault with her own child—which her mother had done too much of.

She cherished her kids, even when she’d brought her first baby back home without its father—exactly repeating her resentful mother’s young single motherhood scenario but choosing to adore her baby instead. Reading Ben’s two-thousand-page case history that filled an entire IBM box, I had a clear understanding of how hard it is to break family cycles, but this she had done. Just as Richard was now a different type of parent than the limp-noodle variety she’d modeled.

“What do I say to Ben?” I asked instead.

“Tell Ben I’m dead,” she said.

But something else had died: the notion of the parents we thought we’d be, the type of children we had once been, and the parents we thought we had.

Richard drove his mother in silence to the airport Hyatt while I threw her turkey in the oven and tried to figure out what the rest of the tan dishes were supposed to be.

We told Ben that Millie left because she was sick, but Ben knew better. Everyone in Ben’s life had left him, and now Ben’s new grandmother had left him, too.

I’d always gotten bone-deep satisfaction from sucking up drippings with the turkey baster and squirting hot fat over the browning carcass, a primal urge straight out of the Iliad’s sacrifice scenes. But this year, I never opened the oven door. I didn’t interfere in what was best left with me out of it.

Millie’s bird was perfect. Crisp on the outside, succulent on the inside.

That evening I set out the salt shaker and my grandmother’s plates, and my family sat down to give thanks.

I always regretted not stepping to Millie’s defense that Christmas when her mother criticized Millie’s meal. I had waited for someone else in her family to say something, but nobody had.

I wish she could have heard the praise for the meal she prepared for us before flying the coop.

I steeled myself for Ben’s certain meltdown, but he seemed newly centered. Someone else had been sent packing, but Ben stayed. His father had stood his ground to fulfill the promise made to his son.

We let Ben eat his pie first.

•••

JENNIFER D. MUNRO is a freelance editor whose blog, StraightNoChaserMom.com, is the First Place Winner in the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists blog competition (under 100,000 monthly readers category). She was also a Top Ten Finalist in the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her work has also been featured in Salon; Brain, Child; Literary Mama; Best American Erotica; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. Her humorous stories about sex and the sexes are collected in The Erotica Writer’s Husband. Website: JenniferDMunro.com.

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About a Ring

By Gautier Poupeau/ Flickr
By Gautier Poupeau/ Flickr

By Nikki Schulak

“This essay doesn’t have to be about our affair,” my boyfriend, who’s also a writer, told me.

This can just be a story about a ring.

•••

My son Max turns fourteen next month. He was sprawled on the couch watching a YouTube video—that viral Bruno Mars lip-dub marriage proposal that took place in Portland—when my husband and I came in from walking the dog.

David and I were in the middle of having the Why Don’t You Take Drum Lessons bicker. This is the one where I nag at him to find a hobby, and he says, “It’s not your responsibility to organize my life” and then I say, “I just want you to get out more, and be happy,” and then I get pouty, and he gets mad, and then I get mad that he’s mad.

Max looked up from his phone like he’d just realized we were in the room. “How did you—you know—propose to Mom?” he asked.

David and I stopped our bickering and collected ourselves.

I answered Max’s question even though I knew it was meant for David. “He got down on his knee. He gave me a dozen roses.”

“Yeah, everybody does that,” Max said. “I mean, what did he do that was special?

“Knee bending and roses are romantic,” I explained.

David spoke up. “Well, son.” He lowered his voice in the name of drama. “I chased her—from the Upper East side to the Upper West side—by cab.”

“You did?” This was more the kind of story Max had expected. Put some music behind it, and you’ve got a YouTube video.

Our whole engagement story is in fact special, but not the kind of special I’m ready to share with my teenager. I didn’t tell Max, for instance, that I’d bullied David into marrying me. Maybe “bullied” is too strong a word. I’d said something along the lines of, “David, we have to get married as soon as possible.”

And he said, “Why?”

And I said, “Because my parents are going to die soon, and it’s important to me that they see me get married.” My father had late stage diabetes. My mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her bones. Then I added, “I love you, honey. But if you aren’t ready to get married, then we’re going to have to break up because I need to find someone who is.”

After that, our conversation went on so long, I had to take a taxi to my psychiatrist’s appointment on the West side instead of the cross-town bus.

When I told the psychiatrist about my marriage proposal, she said, “Sometimes women are ready to get married before men are. Give him a little time.” My session lasted another twenty minutes. And, sure enough, when I walked out of the building, there was David waiting on the sidewalk. He did get down on a knee and handed me a dozen roses and said, “Nikki, I realize now if I don’t marry you, it will be the biggest mistake of my life.”

Then we walked along Central Park West holding hands until we found a pay phone and I called my mother. “Mom,” I said. “David and I are getting married!”

“Oh, Nikki, thank God!”

Then she asked, “When?”

“This summer, I think, Mom. On the farm.”

And she started to cry.

When we called David’s parents, his mother said, “Oh my goodness.” I couldn’t tell if she was excited or appalled.

•••

A few months after we’d announced our engagement, David and I gathered in the dining room of his Grandmother Kaska’s house with his parents, Anton and Margaret, and my parents, Bernie and Esther, and David’s sister. We couldn’t gather in the living room because it was full with two grand pianos. Kaska had trained at a conservatory in Switzerland before the war, and had then taught piano in Queens for more than forty years.

The china cabinet in the dining room was filled with ivory figurines from China and silver sugar bowls with silver tongs and bottles of liquor dating back to the fifties. On the walls were oil painted scenes of Paris, and Brussels, and also a few dark portraits.

I hadn’t expected an engagement ring. David and I had never discussed it, and it wasn’t something I had ever dreamed about. So when his family gave me the diamond, I was surprised. My hands are not beautiful. I garden without gloves and at the time I worked with animals, cleaning cages, and my nails are thin and tear easily and I bite them. After I started wearing the diamond, I tried to take better care of my hands. I’d quit biting for a while, months at a time, but then, I’d be at the movies, and the film would be suspenseful, and before I knew it, my nails would be raw and my cuticles would bleed.

Grandmother Kaska sat at the head of the table. On the wall behind her was a portrait of a woman who could have easily been mistaken for a man. Kaska said, “Nikki, I’m going to tell you a story.

“This”—she turned and pointed to the portrait, her eighty year old fingers bent and swollen from arthritis—“was Vera. Vera was my mother-in-law, Rajmund’s mother. She was the first to wear the ring.” Everyone in the room looked at the portrait of Vera, who looked back at us. “Vera’s husband worked in the diamond industry and he made the ring for her, in Amsterdam.

“When I became engaged to Rajmund, Vera took the ring off her finger and put it on mine. I wore that ring to Cuba when we couldn’t get into the United States. Three years later, I wore it to Ellis Island.” Kaska took a sip of tea. “When Margaret got engaged to my son, I took the ring off my finger and put it on hers.” Now Kaska looked at the ring on Margaret’s finger, so we all did.

My mother once told me, “Remember, when you get married, you’re marrying a whole family.”

Then Margaret got up from the table. She came and stood between David and me, and she took the ring off her finger. “I have to admit,” she said, “I thought I’d wear this ring a few more years.” She handed the ring to David, and he slipped it on my finger. Actually, he didn’t slip the ring on my finger, because it wasn’t a perfect fit, although by the time we got married in August, and I’d lost my bride pounds, the ring did fit just fine.

Margaret sat back down. “Go ahead and get a new setting if you don’t like this one,” she said. “I know you’re hard on your hands.” Everyone at the table looked at my hands. “But then, of course, with a new setting, it would no longer be the same ring.”

David’s sister, who was in high school at the time, said, “It’s weird to see it on your hand, Nikki. I’ll always associate it with my mother.”

My mother said, “I can’t believe my daughter is going to wear a diamond.”

I told this story to my girlfriend Penny. Penny has many diamonds, and I told her how the ring on my finger is ceremonially passed from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law in each generation, and that the expectation is that someday, I will give this ring to my son’s fiancée. Penny, who’s husband recently gave her some $2500 Kiki de Montparnasse pearl restraints and the accompanying 24K dipped handcuffs with key and chain for Mother’s Day, said, “Give your diamond engagement ring away to your daughter-in-law? Darling, I think that’s assuming an awful lot.”

I do wonder, though, who will I give it to? Because my son and my daughter both currently date girls, it’s possible I’ll have more than one daughter-in-law. Then what? Does it go to the spouse of the child who marries first? Or the one I like best? This is confusing, perhaps, but the important thing is this: the ring has been handed from one generation to the next, from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law for over one hundred years; it was on my finger that the ring broke.

•••

When I had the affair, then came out about it to David, I explained to him that I didn’t want to end the relationship with my boyfriend and I didn’t want to stop being a wife, either, and that was the beginning of our open marriage.

The transition was not elegant. David was hurt, and angry, and surprised. I became the family pariah, which of course, every family needs. David and I went to counseling, first just the two of us, then, my boyfriend, too. We called it tri-therapy, and it went on long enough that we couldn’t afford to rent a place at the beach that summer because our entire vacation budget was going to the therapist.

Near the same time we were becoming a truple, we had a step-niece who was divorcing after four years of marriage. Our kids had been in the wedding—a big wedding, at a vineyard in the Willamette Valley. The family opinion was that the divorce was unfortunate, especially given the twins, but still, much more socially acceptable than what David and I were choosing to do.

“It’s not like they get to vote,” David said.

“An open marriage?” David’s mother said to us. “What the hell am I supposed to tell people?”

“Tell people we love each other,” I answered. “And tell them that we love parenting our kids together in the same house.”

“But you cheated on him,” Margaret said.

“Tell them our sex life had irreconcilable differences. Tell them David’s dating lots of nice women. He’s doing just fine for himself.”

She considered this. “Why didn’t you come to us sooner? Maybe we could have helped.” Then she bestowed some advice: “Lots of married couples don’t have sex. After a while, in a marriage, sex doesn’t matter.”

“For me it matters,” I said to her. “It matters to me. And believe me, it matters to your son.”

What I didn’t tell her was that David hadn’t gone down on me in twenty years; that he’d confessed in couple’s therapy that he’d “never been that attracted to me,” but he thought it didn’t matter. I had tried to make myself more attractive to him. I lost weight, I dyed my hair, I wore sexy clothes and lingerie, but nothing I did made him want me the way I wanted to be wanted.

•••

I asked my step-niece out for lunch. Sadie is the one member of my family who didn’t treat me like a pariah at the family gatherings we still got invited to. I admired her, and I trusted her to give me the straight story.

“Sadie, I feel a little paranoid. It’s been more than a year since you got divorced, and I came out about the affair, and I get this sense like everybody in the family is still just talking about me behind my back.”

“You aren’t paranoid. Everybody is still talking about you behind your back.” She took a big bite of her turkey reuben. “We have parties you aren’t invited to.”

“I know about the parties. What are they saying about me?”

“I knew you’d ask, so I brought some notes.” She took her Smart Phone out of her purse. “Do you want me to read them to you now, or do you want me to send them to you in an e-mail?”

“Oh my God, Sadie. Just read them.” The ice was melting in my tea.

I’ll never get over that she lied to us. It’s shameful.

I can forgive her for the affair. It’s the fact that she hasn’t stopped with that boyfriend.

If her parents were alive, they would be embarrassed by her choices.

She should take off that family ring and give it back to Margaret. Of course now no one will ever want to wear it.

And my personal favorite:

They should take their daughter out of St Mary’s and put her in the public schools.

Sadie closed her phone and finished her sandwich. “I’m sorry, Nikki. I’ve got about five more minutes and then I have to head back to the office. Let’s have dinner soon.”

“Listen. I don’t want to have to explain about us anymore. Neither does David. We’re always on the defensive. I want us all to be able to be in the same room at Thanksgiving this year. I really want to know: What do you think we should do?” Sadie freshened her lipstick. She took her keys out of her purse and set them on the table.

“You’re the ones who’ve chosen the morally ambiguous path. You owe them more education.”

I know Sadie hated selling their bungalow after the divorce. She hates the shared custody. She hates the way her kids come back from weekends with their dad all tense and frazzled.

My boyfriend is a good man. He and David get along. The kids like him. So does the dog. He makes homemade burgers that our son describes as “the best he’s ever eaten.” He was our daughter’s preferred driving instructor this summer.

“What we’re doing isn’t destructive,” I say. “It’s not simple, or easy, but it’s working for us.”

“Don’t tell me,” she said. “Tell them.”

•••

I did not take the ring off out of shame or as a protest. The shank split just as we were preparing for a big family trip, and when we got back, I was busy and it sat in a box on a shelf in my bedroom for six months. The jeweler I took it to for repair called the split a “stress fracture” and told me it wasn’t my fault. He said the solder line had worn down from years of rubbing and normal wear. He asked me when I’d had it resized.

“Never. I think my mother-in-law had it resized when she gave it to me—more than twenty years ago.”

The jeweler nodded his head as if that explained everything, and he studied the ring with his loupe. “This diamond isn’t particularly brilliant, but it’s charming. I’d estimate it was cut sometime between 1790 and 1820.”

“1790? It’s older than I thought.”

The jeweler looked up at me.

“Old?” He kept a straight face. “This diamond was formed in the earth more than a billion years ago.” He looked back at the diamond and added, “This is an old European Cut. It’s got a high crown, a small table, and a large, flat culet. It also has a circular girdle, and—take a look here—it has fifty-eight facets.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “The family tells a different story.”

He shrugged, then he pointed out that there was some prong failure. He got out a little envelope, dropped the ring in, and wrote out a claim slip. “I’ll have it done by next Saturday.”

When I got back home from the jeweler, I texted David.

Me: The ring was made by Vera’s husband and given to her, right? Because the according to the jeweler, the diamond is actually older than we thought. Can you ask your dad about this?

David: Actually, I think the ring was originally forged by Sauron. In Mordor.

Me: And can you ask your dad what his grandfather’s name was? And what year did he and Vera marry?

David: Why don’t you just ask my dad yourself?

So I sent my father-in-law a quick, casual e-mail, asking about the ring. He still hasn’t replied.

•••

When I picked up the ring, the band sparkled in a way I’d never noticed. The jeweler asked if I’d like my other rings cleaned as well. I didn’t know that gold needed to be cleaned. I handed him the two other rings I wear: my mother’s wedding ring, that I’ve worn since she died nineteen years ago, and my wedding ring, which I’ve never had cleaned in the twenty-one years I’ve worn it. He didn’t comment on my mother’s simple gold band, but he admired my wedding ring. “This is old, too,” he said, impressed. “I’d estimate 1820s—because of the Lily of the Valley pattern, and the quality of the gold. Is it eighteen carat?”

“I don’t think so…”

“Is it English?”

“I don’t think so…”

He looked inside the band and found the inscription “David and Nikki 1994”. David’s wedding band has the same inscription as mine, except in his ring, my name comes first. We had asked the woman who designed the rings for us to copy an old pattern. We wanted them to look seasoned, like they’d seen a lot of love.

The jeweler shrugged.

Despite the family’s opinions, I don’t have any intentions of returning the engagement ring early. Partly, this is because I like the way it looks on my hand now that I’ve discovered a good gel manicure holds up for weeks, and partly because my boyfriend whispers sexy things in my ear when I’m wearing it, and partly because I won’t be shamed. I want my kids to associate this ring with my finger. Someday, I want them to reflect on the fact that I didn’t take it off.

•••

NIKKI SCHULAK writes and performs comedy about bodies and relationships. Her work has been published in numerous journals and websites. Her essay “On Not Seeing Whales” (Bellevue Literary Review) was chosen as a Notable Selection in Best American Essays 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her teenagers, her husband, her boyfriend, and her beloved dog, Calvin.

 

A Mild Suspension of Effort

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jamie Passaro

You are always searching for something that is somewhere in your small house: your keys, your cell phone, the other shoe, the cap to the marker, the library book, the salt. You spend so much time guiding your children—to wipe their mouths with napkins and not sleeves, to not write on their foreheads with Sharpies, to wear underwear (We always wear our underwear, you hear yourself saying singsongily)—that you are feeling a bit lost yourself. It is a rare day when you don’t wonder if it was dumb to quit your job.

It turns out, you are not so great at householding. The dust, the cobwebs, the splatters, a losing battle. The canning of summer’s bounty, time consuming and scary. The sewing of buttons and minor repairs to clothes? You are ill-equipped for this, let alone for teaching these skills to your daughters. Wouldn’t you rather read the New Yorker with a late-afternoon glass of wine while they build a fort out of toilet paper?

You have the garden, but more and more it seems a weedy embarrassment. With help from friends and cheered on by Michael Pollan, you and your husband tore up the tiny front yard and put in raised beds. It looked like you knew what you were doing, but you hadn’t much practice, hadn’t grown up the way some people do, these people who seem to have it in their DNA when to prune the blueberries and what to add to the soil to make it less cloddy. That first year, the garden was a beauty. It must have been all that fresh compost, all that weedcloth under the pea gravel surrounding the raised beds; it was all so tidy. The kale grew waist-high and stayed on through the winter. The basil—you couldn’t give enough away. Every year since then, you’ve had diminishing returns. Year five brought tomato plants with fungus, lettuce and kale and chard starts mowed down by snails at every turn. The kale that did grow was gray with aphids. Weeds busted through the weedcloth, more plentiful than anything, so many you could mow them. And it’s all on display, right there in the front yard!

You find a blob of peanut butter on your watchband. You have memorized the bulk food code for lentils at your grocery store. In other situations, words waver on the tip of your tongue. The name of one of your favorite actors? Gone the other day in an ordinary conversation. Later you Google the names of his films to get it back.

The newly scuffed-up back-to-school shoe. The My Little Pony you actually threw in the garbage because you were tired of stepping over it on the front porch. The crescent of blood on your husband’s nose from where he picked at a piece of peeling skin. In the morning rush, you forgot to tell him it was there. The autumn light is so perfect, it puts a little catch in your throat. Your fortieth trip around the sun.

You are a consumer of something that you like to call magic but is really just the suspension of effort. These small, unexpected moments. The conversation with a stranger in the produce department. The cigarette shared with a friend while your children sleep in your minivan at the trailhead to a hike you will not take. Riding your bike across the Ferry Street bridge on the Fourth of July, the warm night air on your bare arms while fireworks crackle in the distance. That was years ago. The magic, it’s getting rarer and rarer, you think. Your therapist says that you are getting in the way. It’s probably true.

Thus is your mood when your mother-in-law comes for a visit during the last week before school starts. Your mother-in-law is a cheerful and sprightly eighty-three, a member of the Tea Party, an attendee of the same Methodist church as Dick Cheney’s sister. She’s an expert knitter and is knitting a prayer scarf to donate to a hospital. Dick Cheney’s sister taught her the technique.

Your mother-in-law’s visits always remind you of how bad you are at talking—small talk or big talk. You are more a listener and a nodder, more of a spend-time-in-your-head-so-you-can-think-about-the-thing-you-said-yesterday kind of person. You are in awe of people who can talk at length about anything. The other day you heard someone give specific directions to a complicated destination, and it actually gave you a shiver.

Your mother-in-law is losing her short-term memory. Your husband’s brother has phoned ahead to let you know. In the first two hours of her visit, you talk about the weather six times. Yes, it’s usually this hot at the end of August in Eugene, you hear yourself saying again and again in the same voice you use with your children. You are exhausted already. And sad.

The plan is that your mother-in-law will move from her home in Boise into an assisted living facility that’s across the street from her church. She seems to be on board with this, and you talk about it many times during your visit. A part of you thinks that it’s heartbreaking to spend the last years of your life with strangers and that it would be much better to have her move in with your family, but another part of you knows that this would be difficult for you. You know you’re going to feel bad either way.

You’re meeting a friend for a coffee date while your kids are at a morning camp. You feel reluctant to leave your mother-in-law alone, but you need time with your friend. As you leave, you tell her that you’ll see her in a few hours and then you have a worry in the back of your head the whole time that she has slipped on a colored pencil and broken her hip. You hurry back home and it’s like you’ve been gone five minutes. How was the drop-off? she asks. It’s so hot outside, she says. Is it always so hot here?

Your daughter has been promised a kitten for her eighth birthday. And so on a Saturday during your mother-in-law’s visit, you all go to the local humane society to pick out the pet. The cat room manager takes one look at you all—ages five, eight, thirty-nine, forty-nine, and eighty-three—and directs you toward a room of energetic but tolerant kittens. Your daughter picks out a black and white four-month-old named Tia, and you receive the half-off senior discount because of your mother-in-law. She keeps referring to the cat as a dog, probably because your family has always had dogs for pets.

You decide to throw a small potluck for a few neighbors for Labor Day. It is something that your mother-in-law will enjoy. News of the potluck spreads and it becomes six-family affair. Your husband moves the grill and the picnic table into the front yard and your next-door neighbor does the same. You put out all of your silverware, all of your plates. You bring out the old crank ice cream maker and then make the same joke to different groups of neighbors: We’ve got a kitten and home-made ice cream; we’re running for the neighborhood association!

The neighbor children parade in the house to meet the kitten, who has already worn a dress, already been given a bath. She lets them cart her around like a baby. She lets them hold her up so she can walk on two legs. Sometimes she lets out a mew, but she never scratches.

There is watermelon and Caprese salad and Caesar salad and artichoke dip and lots of beer and wine. The grills are cranking out sausage and veggies. Everyone is talking happily in the front yard, drinking beer and wine from plastic cups. Your mother-in-law is re-meeting everyone she has already met, asking them where they’re from and where they live and what they do. She looks happy and you bring her a glass of the rosé she likes.

Into the chaos, your daughters appear on the front porch wearing the new roller blades that their aunt bought them recently. They’ve not yet mastered the roller blades, and for a moment you shake your head, No. But something, maybe the wine, lets you let them. Their dad helps them down the porch stairs and they make their way through the crowd to the sidewalk, your five-year-old in a kind of crawl-walk. Everyone is cracking up and saying thank goodness for the kneepads and watch out for the grill. Your next-door neighbor, who’s in law enforcement and is an overcautious dad, is cringing; he actually can’t look at them. His wife jokes that we should give them hot sharp sticks, or maybe the kitten. And you let go and laugh harder than you have in a while.

In the middle of the party, you notice that the doors to the room where you have been keeping the kitten are wide open. The kitten is … gone. You alert your husband and he searches the house, confirms that, yes, the kitten is gone. One by one, the kids find out. Two of them are in tears. The adults start searching, drinks in hand. Your party has turned into a search party, and the neighbors are parting through the weeds in the garden and are inside on their hands and knees shining tiny flashlights into the very dusty areas under the couches and beds. Here, kitty, kitty. Your mother-in-law is wondering if we might hear her bark.

Two neighbors have made their way to the kitchen, where the sink is piled with dishes, the counters cluttered with bottles and miscellaneous bags, caps, and lids. They are doing the dishes and you are grateful. You must continue the search, but you’ve run out of places to look. You walk around with your flashlight and a worried look on your face. She’ll turn up, the neighbors say as they leave in small groups. She’s probably curled up in a ball asleep somewhere. You agree, but you also wonder how you could have allowed this to happen. Maybe not such a great idea to have a party the day after you got a new kitten.

Everyone is gone by ten and the kitten is still not found. Your husband puts the reluctant girls to bed. You remember that the kitten is wearing a bell around its neck. In the quiet, maybe you will be able to hear it tinkle. You sit cross-legged in a patch of weeds in the garden. It’s the most still you have been while awake for as long as you can remember. You hear the snails munching, the crickets chirping, the pea gravel shifting under your weight. Every few minutes, a car roars by on the street and you worry again about the kitten. But you look up at the stars and feel lucky that this is your task tonight.

After ten minutes of your quiet vigil, you start calling again for the kitten. You hear a vague tinkling from the backyard and tiptoe around to the side gate. Kitty? The bell again, in the makeshift wood pile. You shine your flashlight back there behind it and see a flash of green eyes. She tries to squirm away, but you’re able to grab her. At first she wants to get back to the woodpile, get on with her outdoor adventure, but then maybe she realizes you are not one of the mauling children and she stops squirming away. She nestles into you. The two of you sit in the moonlight on the back porch. Her purring is the only sound you hear.

•••

JAMIE PASSARO’s articles, interviews and essays have been published in The Sun, Utne Magazine, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Oregon Quarterly, Forest Magazine, Culinate.com, and NWBookLovers.org, among other places. She’s at work on a collection of essays.