“How big should I make it?” I asked my tattoo artist, a fashionably underfed hipster in a tiny, spotless shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was probably ten years younger than he looked—the image I was hoping for with my first tattoo. I had just graduated from college and was living on Avenue C in the late ’90s. I was still far too baby-faced to look the part I thought I was playing. I wanted to look like I had experience, like I had a story.
He said, “Big enough so the people at the other end of the bar can see it when you lift up your shirt to show it off.”
It was good advice for a twenty-two-year-old. Now, almost two decades later, I’m more apt to wonder how it looks as I wade into the YMCA family pool, following my two-year-old daughter and my five-year-old son, where I’m less inclined to show off my body than submerge it from sight. Like most of the fathers in my company, my body is succumbing to the undertow of the parenting years: a slack at the chest, a collection at the waistline—story that I’d rather lose. My tattoos now show not the look of experience, but of inexperience, of youth.
I’ve gotten three tattoos while being only a son, and one as both a son and a father. As a son—which is to say, as someone who has tumbled into the world and seeks his place in it—I still like my tattoos. Getting them has felt as essential as the body they’re inked on. My tattoos have stamped something permanent onto my life, which has otherwise confirmed itself to be uncontrollable—even unknowable. It’s an exhilarating power, and, I believe, the primary allure of getting tattoos. In the face of so much mystery I can say, with this ink on this skin, I know this much—I am this much—at least.
The image itself doesn’t so much matter, which is why so many tattoos appear to be so meaningless. I have a heart with an arrow through it on my arm, and a star on my shoulder: why do I have them, instead of not have them? It is assertion, and assertion alone, in response to some other questions I often ask: why do I have to be so white? Why male? Why such average height, why this mop of hair? I don’t know, but I can say that one day, at the foot of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a young man wore a surgeon’s face mask and, holding my arm, inked perfectly straight lines and acute angles on my shoulder. The tattoo is both the most meaningless and precise thing about me.
Incidentally, it also gets the most attention at the YMCA from the swim-diaper set. Every so often I feel a poke on my shoulder and turn to find a toddler saying, “Star!”
“That’s right,” I say, and smile. The parent glides over to fetch his or her child, and gives a smile to say “sorry.” I smile back to say “no problem.”
We’re all smiles, and mine is the most awkward. When I became a father I felt as though I had re-entered the world—tumbling still, and now holding a newborn. Even now, I don’t know my place in the world, but I know my purpose—fatherhood—and to this purpose, my tattoos are all dreadfully embarrassing. I’m embarrassed for all of us, bobbing into the YMCA family pool with our marks of youthful inexperience, images that look more to the taste of our kids than to the parents we’ve become: dragons, fire, dice, swirly lettering, abstractions in black, and yes, stars. Why have them instead of not have them indeed. Now I often think of the question my own dad asked me when I pulled up my shirt to show him my first tattoo.
“It comes off?” he said.
“No, Dad, it’s a tattoo.”
“But it’s not real.”
“Well…” My stepmom searched for her words. “You’re… expressing yourself.”
My dad said to himself, aloud, “And on Father’s Day.”
So it was. We had all met at the beach for a June family reunion. Instead of letting people notice and say something (or more awkwardly for me, not say something), I thought I’d just make the announcement about my new tattoo.
My parents have been less than enthusiastic about my tattoos, which I can understand, now as a parent myself. A decision like this must look like guaranteed regret. When I showed them my fourth and final tattoo, the only one I have gotten as a father, my stepmom said, “Well, I… I liked your arm the way it was.”
“An illustrated man,” my dad declared, again keeping his distance from voicing an opinion.
Oh, well. You learn to live without approval from your parents. I had hoped that this was a tattoo they might have liked, however, as it involves our family. My sister, an artist, drew it as part of the wedding invitations she made for my wife and me. There is a single-story pagoda-like structure in black, at the edge of water, whose currents are shown by dark grey swirls. Above it, in teal, are tiny check marks, Xs, circles, diamonds, and a crescent moon all appearing to be in motion—a kind of swirling cosmos that corresponds to the water below it. In this swirl there are three small rowboats in black, their oars set in their locks but hanging slack. One rowboat is gliding toward the house, one is at the house, one is headed upward and away, at the edge of the cosmos.
The pagoda to me is home, and the boats show the three stages of a cycle that was apparent to me on our wedding day, held at the farmhouse where my wife grew up, and continues to be apparent as I have become a father: it’s a return home to leave it again, and it’s a departure from home, even as far as the edge of the universe, that foretells a return.
“You can never go home again”—yes, but also true is that I never really left, not in any permanent sense. In raising children, I constantly reflect on my own childhood. In being a parent, I constantly recall my own. Having my own kids has also brought me back to the family I came from because there’s a new relationship I’m now obliged to foster—that of the grandparent and grandchild. My parents want to feel like they “know” my kids, and, being grandparents who spoil them rotten—by which I mean give them junky little plastic toys, dubious gummy treats, and unrestrained joy and affection—our kids want to know more of them.
In our wedding ceremony, the minister gave a “blessing to the parents” in which she said, “They are of you, and now they move beyond you.” What I have learned in the years since is that “moving beyond” doesn’t mean I’m no longer “of.” In fact, being “of” my parents has only intensified in having supposedly “moved beyond” in marriage and parenthood. My past, my upbringing, my youth, my sense of inexperience has all become more vibrant in adulthood, in contrast to the tattoos that represent them, whose colors have begun to fade.
“I want a tattoo,” my son says, looking at the one my sister drew. A part of me is happy to hear it. I’ve learned to live without the approval of my parents, at least as it pertains to my appearance, but now I’m struck by how much I want the approval of my kids. Another part of me, the protective father, is, well … concerned. I don’t want my son to do something he regrets.
“Okay,” I say, “but not until you’re a grown-up.” He’ll be of me and not beyond me for many years to come. “You can get a temporary tattoo. One that comes off.”
My two-year-old daughter hasn’t said much, but in the YMCA family locker room recently, as I wiggled her into her swimsuit, she touched my chest and said, “Daddy, you have a name.”
I smiled. On my left pectoral muscle, just above the heart, where a name tag is sewn on a shirt, in Times New Roman typeface, black, all lower-case, about 40-point font, is my first tattoo, a word that described me then and, sometimes in spite of my most sincere wishes, describes me now: tender.
As a young man on Avenue C I wanted something to show great virtue and great fault, something that shows conflict, and the conflict I have now, eighteen years later, is to determine whether it was an act of virtue or fault to get it. I was—and am—sympathetic, gentle, impressionable: tenderhearted. I also was and am perpetually unprepared for the world, especially in parenthood, as each new phase highlights my embarrassing inexperience with it. I’m not so baby-faced anymore, but I’m as tender-footed as my kids are. As a twenty-two-year-old I was attracted to the irony—what kind of man has “tender” tattooed on his chest? I knew it would be a provocation to my future self, and, duly, as a father I am provoked.
Does all this spell “regret”? Yes, and no, and not simply either. I would never get this tattoo now; my taste for this kind of daring irony has since far softened. Yet, it suits me perfectly, then as now, and I’m glad my former self had the temerity to mark me. As a friend of mine said, “People regret tattoos because they once thought they looked cool but no longer do. This is a tattoo you know you should regret. So you probably won’t.”
“Yes, I do have a name,” I said to my daughter, in that chirpy parenting tone, proud of a toddler’s perception. But I said it under my breath, as I hoped not to explain it further, not while I fussed with the diaper, socks, pants, shoes, shirts, towels, goggles, lock, and the bags, and not with all these other people around.
BRIAN GOEDDE teaches writing and literature at the Community College of Philadelphia.
I tried to talk my sons out of getting tattoos. To me, tattoos seemed like something for circus performers or punk rockers: a way to mar lovely, pristine skin. They were ugly, in design or placement, sometimes both, like the one of a snake I’d seen creeping up the cheek of a man’s face at the beach. I’d been noticing more and more tattoos during our summer beach vacations. Military sayings like Semper Fi stretching across a young man’s shoulders, the black words stark against his sunburnt skin. An intricate lacy sleeve of bright flowers and ivy covering a barista’s arm from wrist to shoulder. The odd trail of pink stars on the calf of the mother holding her toddler’s hand.
Snakes. Someone else’s words. Flowers and ivy. Colored stars. They were all unnecessary and permanent, I told Tim and Sam. What design could you get that you’d never regret? Don’t forget. You have a tattoo forever. But kids are all about the here and now. Tim, who was sixteen at the time, talked about getting a tattoo of Pittsburgh’s skyline or the small black-and-tan outline of our family dog. Sam, who is nearly four years younger, wanted a tattoo of the Coca-Cola polar bear, but with a bottle of Mountain Dew instead of the cola, claiming to be a rebel. I didn’t know if they were serious or just trying to provoke me, but I hoped the urge would pass before they turned eighteen and could get one without my assent.
The idea first came to me while skimming through a small tabloid newspaper while I waited at a restaurant. Maybe it was the colorful ads for punk band concerts and head shops or the small brown tattoo of an owl on the back of the hostess’s calf that my daughter Meg pointed out. Something made me turn to her and say, “I’d like to get a tattoo someday. One of Tim’s birthdate or name or something.”
Meg snickered, then said something like, “Oh you’d never do that.” But my sister Kim said, “Yeah, that would be a nice thing to do. To remember him.”
After getting a haircut one bright afternoon in August, I walked the four blocks to a Starbucks for a mocha, a drink that, in my grief, had become a staple—something about the warmth of it in my hands and its decadence. Allowing myself that indulgence was, in a weird way, a self-kindness that was still hard for me. I had to remind myself I was worthy of it. Like I reminded myself kids with good parents were dying every day. From cancer or car accidents maybe, though not drugs. Maybe I had been a good parent. But despite the number of drug overdoses—in Pittsburgh and everywhere else it seemed—it was still something I didn’t believe.
Kayla was standing beside the tattoo parlor three blocks down from my hairdresser, her head shaven except for a small blue tuft above her forehead. One side of her skull boasted her newest tat: a black tarantula beside the pink open bloom of a flower. Weeks before, I’d seen her photo on Facebook and thought, as a mother would, Oh Kayla, what are you doing to your body? That tattoo was just the latest in a series that spread across her chest and legs and arms. What led her to get one after the other after the other? Wouldn’t she someday regret at least one of them?
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi, how are you?” I walked up and hugged her. I remembered the card she sent to me after. I remembered all of them.
“I’m good. You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m doing okay.” I noticed the blue lipstick around the filter of the lit cigarette dangling in her hand. Blue lipstick looked so natural on her. The tattoos probably helped with that. “Hey, I’m thinking of getting a tattoo. Of my son’s handwriting. Can they do that?”
“Oh, that is so cool. What a great idea.” She dropped her cigarette to the cement and ground it out with the toe of her shoe. “Come talk to Ed about it.”
Ed was tall and in his forties, with a long gray ponytail and tattooed arms. His stencil machine could make an exact tattoo of Tim’s handwriting for just fifty dollars—what seemed a pittance. Before the parlor door even closed behind me, I knew that I would do it. It would go on the inside of my right wrist because he was right-handed. I could peek at it whenever I wanted to. It would be my secret.
I made myself go into his bedroom, hoping to find his handwriting on a school paper in his desk drawer or a page of his Narcotics Anonymous workbook, if I could bring myself to read through it again. I’d read it the day after he was found, but remembering anything from those first days was like pulling something out of the ocean’s center, bottomless and dark. Some memories were just gone. I was thankful for that.
As soon as I stepped onto the dark blue shag carpet, I took a deep breath. This room still held things from his good years, before he got sick, before things went so far they could never be the same. Baseball trophies, bobbleheads from Pirates games with his brother and dad. The faceless brown bear I’d named Bruno before Tim could talk. The thin white poster board covered in pictures of him. Of us all together. After the viewing, I’d propped it up against the mirror of his dresser, unable to pull the pictures off.
And now I wanted the tattoo there on the inside of my wrist. To look down and see it throughout the day and night. We had lost so much of him. He left his belongings on buses or at friends’ places where he’d stayed briefly those days he had nowhere else to go. And items I suspected he’d sold for drug money—his Xbox 360, my favorite Laurel Burch earrings, Meg’s nano iPod. Other things had probably been stolen by roommates when he lived at three-quarter-way houses after rehab, things we’d bought him before realizing just how much shit we were in, things that were cheap but desirable to someone who had little: the e-cigarette we bought him to keep him from the real, more dangerous kind, the black rainproof jacket with the warm fur lining, the silky soft throw because he loved the feel of soft things against his skin. All those things had gone missing, along with the son I’d known.
When I couldn’t find anything with his handwriting in his room, I remembered the Mother’s Day card he wrote to me when he was seventeen and still living at home. It was a bright shade of yellow, an oddly cheerful color for him to choose then; he always seemed to be somber, even sullen. The front of the card read “from your son. Mom, because of you, I grew up a healthy, well-mannered person who always tries to make the right decision,” and the inside read “As far as You know anyway.” Those words mocked me, since I knew he was already smoking marijuana then. Arguments about it had replaced civil conversations between us, despite the therapists and doctors, despite my pleading. Below the typed words “Happy Mother’s Day!” were the handwritten words, “From Tim!” that he’d scratched out and replaced with “Love, Tim!” when my husband Ken pointed out “From” was unnecessary. Tim sometimes needed to be reminded of what was obvious, lost as he was in the outer-space regions of his teenage mind.
My tattoo would be monochromatic and simple: the words Love, Tim! in black ink. What my son wrote to me. His printing. His words. I imagined seeing them whenever I turned over a soapy dish in my hands or spread lotion that smelled like oranges and ginger across the dry palms of my hands. I’d linger in those tasks, seeing the black, block handwriting that wasn’t yet there. I could feel him write the words, his hand twisted around the pen, face tight with concentration. He had hated his handwriting homework, even before the torture of writing cursive letters began, but now those shapes he hated drafting seemed to be all I had left.
On my fifty-fourth birthday, I felt like a switch had flipped inside me. I had to get the tattoo that night. The urgency I felt was a wave pushing me along. I didn’t resist.
“Hey there. What can I do for you?” Ed said. He was the only one working at Jester’s Court Tattoo that night.
“Hi. I was here before. I’m Kayla’s friend. I wanted to have a tattoo made from this card.” I opened it and pointed to Tim’s words.
“Oh yeah, I remember. Just words, right? We can do that. It’ll be fifty dollars.”
We stood together looking at the card, and I explained how I wanted to include the exclamation point but not the thin underlining that Tim had drawn under his name. Meg and I had debated in the car whether to include those extra markings. At first, I thought I’d just include his name, but then decided that Love was an equally important word, since I knew in my heart that it was true. Despite how things had ended.
One of our last phone conversations had convinced me of that love, relieved me of a little bit of my guilt. That talk had been an absolution, a gift, though I didn’t see it at the time. Love, however powerful, was not, it turned out, strong enough to cure or rescue or tame. But love lived on in spite of death, of heartbreak, of a parent falling short. I had learned that much.
Meg liked the punctuation mark because it showed the exuberance and energy he had then. I liked the idea of a marker that showed who he once was, before the addiction took full hold. Thinking of him adding the exclamation point made me smile, although it made me feel sad, too. Every memory had those two opposing sides: happiness and sorrow. Glad to have known him, so sad that he was gone. I lived a dichotomous life now.
“Take a seat here and get comfy. I’ll be back in a flash,” Ed said, walking to the stencil machine. When he returned and handed the card back to me almost gingerly, like he knew its value, I slipped it carefully back into the plastic sleeve I’d brought it in and laid it beside me on the chair. He rubbed my wrist down with alcohol and then a milky lotion to help the stencil ink stick to my skin. He showed me the stencil first, then peeled the back of it off and held it parallel to my wrist, ink side down.
“I want it tilted so I can read it.”
He shifted the paper, waited for my okay, and then pressed it onto my skin for several seconds, rubbing it once with his thumb. When he peeled the stencil back, Tim’s words were left behind.
The needle, when he took it out of sealed plastic wrapping, was longer than I’d imagined and reminded me of the IV needle the nurse had pushed into my skin the night I went into labor with Tim nearly two weeks early. I’d felt so unprepared to parent him.
I watched Ed feed the needle into the top of the small machine and turn a stubby knob until the needle was in place. Holding the gun in his hand like a pencil, he dipped the needle into a cup of black ink the size of a thimble. I heard a thick buzzing noise as he tested the machine, operating it through a small pedal on the floor near his feet. He bent over my wrist and I heard the buzzing again as he began at the top of the letter L. I watched as the needle punctured the skin on my wrist, leaving ink on top of the purple stencil markings. When I asked Kayla what getting a tattoo felt like the day I stopped into the parlor, she said like a cat scratching your sunburn. For me, it was just a subtle scraping, dull and somehow distant, like it was imagined or in the past. Maybe I wanted to feel Tim so badly that I welcomed the feeling of his words being etched into my skin, my body that had held him for those eight and a half months, kept him safe. Maybe the tattoo really didn’t hurt much. Maybe it did, but I was too numb to feel it. Or maybe I wanted to feel pain to feel him again, I don’t know. I only know the needle felt light and quick.
When we left the tattoo parlor, my wrist wrapped with bright purple tape, I was euphoric, a feeling little known to me since Tim’s death. I felt lit and warm and accompanied in a way I hadn’t when I walked in. My skin was now home to a secret kinship, a shelter for a part of my tender, vanished son, suddenly found.
When I’d seen him last, his hair had grown shaggy and wild again like when he first started using. He mostly wore black cotton t-shirts that hung on him like a tent and bore the silhouettes of Notorious B.I.G. or Big Pun. I’d grown used to those XL shirts that swallowed up his five-foot-eleven frame, his narrow hips and shoulders, as if he wanted to hide, his pants so long and wide-legged they billowed up around his bright green and white skate shoes. His clothes were more than a fashion statement: He didn’t want anything pressing in on him.
For weeks, I babied the skin of my right wrist, following Ed’s instructions carefully: wash three times a day with an antibacterial soap, pat it dry with a paper towel, then rub in a fragrance-free lotion and let the tattoo get some air. I enjoyed the ritual of it, the patting dry with a gentle touch, the feel of the lotion, cool and soft.
When I first considered the tattoo, imagined the script carved into my wrist, I kept going back to my penultimate conversation with Tim. I said before it was a gift, though I spent much of the call pleading with him to listen, to hear me, when—I see it now—he was no longer capable of it. The addiction had suppressed his ability to listen, the way that other diseases suppress your immune system, leave you unable to fight. Maybe if I tell you what he said, you’ll understand. Even without having been in my shoes those six years. Maybe it will be enough to recount his words that day.
I had been at my office with a stack of pages to edit, but I was getting little done. Most days were like that for me then. A struggle to focus, to care about work when my son’s life—and therefore mine—was becoming a natural disaster. He’d been texting me for forty-five minutes, seeking my approval, my acknowledgement that his plan for the immediate future held merit.
Here’s what he was planning to do just weeks after his second overdose and week-long hospitalization: move into an apartment with Jake, a young man about his age whom he met at rehab. Two addicts who thought the occasional use of marijuana or can of beer would be no problem. Two addicts still living in denial, unable or unwilling to face the reality of their disease.
When the phone rang, I considered not answering. I had so much work to do, and debates with him took a circular path, his reasoning so illogical there was no possible resolution. Afterward, I had trouble retracing the tangled branches of his thought. It was, I suppose, a symptom of his drug use, his brain struggling to follow its own thoughts, the connections numbed or diverted. But I knew I had to try.
“Hi, Tim,” I said, doing my best to not sound annoyed and probably doing a poor job of it. I was lousy at hiding how I felt, especially with him, especially when I felt afraid or angry—two emotions he always seemed to bring out in me.
“Hey, Mom.” His voice always sounded monotonic, flat and emotionless, his mind forever planted firmly somewhere in the middle of happy and sad. I wondered if he ever felt anything anymore without drugs.
“Tim, I think you need to go back to rehab now. It’s what you need. Not moving in with Jake.” When he didn’t respond, I kept going. “You almost died. Again. Tim, you need help.”
“Mom, it’s okay. I’m done with that shit. Jake and me are gonna get an apartment and it’s gonna be fine. I got my job now, and he’s working. We can afford it.”
“Jake is an addict, Tim. He’s a nice guy and a friend, I know, but he’s not good for you. Remember what they said at rehab? That you need to change your friends, your habits, your hangouts. It’s the only way. You need to find friends who are clean and have been that way for a while.”
“It’s fine, mom. He does a little marijuana now and then, but that’s okay. We can do that. A lil marijuana or a beer ain’t gonna hurt. I’m off the hard stuff, I promise.”
I swung my chair away from my desk until it faced the window. Hearing him talk that way was scaring me. Most of my knowledge of addiction came from the Sunday family sessions at rehab, and I remembered what the counselor said every week: Addicts had to leave their old friends behind. Old friends led to old habits and old habits led to relapse.
“Mom, did you hear me?”
“Yeah. You know you can’t drink at all anymore, Tim. Or use any drugs.”
“Mom, it’s okay. I can do it once in a while.”
“No, you can’t. Mel was clear on that. You can’t. You have to stop it all. And you have to get new friends.”
“Mom, I can’t. And I don’t want to. I have a job now, and I want to be out on my own. I can do this.”
I stood up and looked at the sky, at the single bird gliding toward the building just a hundred feet away. Tonight, when I was locking my door and heading out, the whole flock, black and busy, would be gathering on its rooftop. “Tim, you can’t. It’ll happen again and this time—” My voice fell into my throat and I started to choke up, my voice suddenly thin and wispy. “Tim, you can’t. You won’t survive it again. You…you will die. And I can’t take that, I can’t.” I started to cry. “I can’t let that happen, Tim. I love you. You have to do what you can to stay clean.”
“Mom, I love you too, but it’s my choice. I can’t go back to rehab. I just can’t do it again. I’m gonna move in with Jake, after I get a few more paychecks.” He paused, and I watched the lone bird land on the rooftop, his black silhouette clear against the darkening sky.
“And Mom, no matter what happens…if I die, it’ll be my fault, not yours.” The quiet between us thinned and stretched out, but I was too terrified to speak. I could hear the ticking of my office clock, the blood rushing in my ears. I began to sob openly, holding a wet Kleenex to my face.
“Mom, I know you and Dad love me. You guys are the only reason I’m still alive.”
Looking back, I knew. The way he was talking, there was only one way things could turn out. He wouldn’t go back to rehab. He wouldn’t stay clean. He would make what few choices he could, decide the few benign things that drugs had left him control of, like it or not, without my help.
Today I wonder, was he saying goodbye to me? Did he know it, too? To leave me with those words I’d cling to just weeks later, words full of his love for me and Ken, proof that he knew all we had done to try and save him.
I don’t know the answer. But the word Love—the way he wrote it—on my wrist above and just to the left of his name—is how I remember that call, his words, uttered to me with all the certainty his numbed heart could feel, a mark of his love for me, true.
PENNIE BISBEE WALTERS, who works as a technical writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is currently working on a memoir about loving and losing a child who suffers from the disease of addiction. Her poems have appeared in Voices from the Attic.
I’m fortunate to have a child who shares my aptitude for schoolwork. Before my Yale cohort and I had children, we probably assumed they would all resemble us in that regard. After all, it was our defining characteristic, our common denominator, the reason our disparate selves had been gathered at Yale from across the country and the economic spectrum. But I don’t recall that we thought about children for a nanosecond during our “bright college years” in the mid-seventies, caught up in our studies and each other—not to mention feminism, gay rights, all the rapidly changing social mores and dwindling turmoil of the sixties. Also we expected, as Dylan nasally wished for us from every turntable, that we would stay forever young.
Well, we didn’t, and for most of us, children eventually took center stage in our lives. And in the way of children, they exploded our assumptions and insisted on becoming their own unique selves. By now, three decades later, many are interesting grown-ups, making contributions, passionate about their work, etc., but not all are scholars. I’m guessing from anecdotal evidence that the regular percentage has coped with learning disabilities. But some of us—those who somehow passed down the gene that enabled us to fill in the right circles on the SATs and forgo the dubious thrills of teen social life to stay up late perfecting a proof—open a new chapter in our relationship with Yale: Parent of Prospective Applicant. So we return with the precious offspring in tow and set out on the Admissions Tour. As we revisit the scenes of our youth, compulsively checking for similarities and differences (Did frosh still streak? Was that an actual Women’s Center?), we wonder if the scholarly child would flourish among them as we had. Or had we? Had I?
We all know of alums who center their lifelong identity on their Alma Mater. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, one of those too occupied with family and house and work, work, work to dwell on college memories and youthful folly (the bad boyfriends, the risky behaviors, the squandered time). But on the tour with my son last April, it all came flooding back: I could have navigated blindfolded and backward from Commons to the Sterling Library Periodicals Room, had such a stunt been required. Yet the campus key that I’d illegally preserved as a quasi-religious relic would, in these days of magnetic strips, no longer unlock the quads’ wrought iron gates. I was no longer a native but a visiting ex-pat, anonymous in a mob of photo-snapping tourists and non-alum parents escorting their own high-achieving offspring, who, in the way of teens, were pretending not to know us.
New Haven’s blocks surrounding Yale were all spiffed up. The corner where I remember being pelted with bottles by local youth expressing their sentiments about town-gown relations was now thick with cappuccino bars. But the campus itself seemed unchanged; like the Grand Canyon, the cathedrals of Europe, or The Rolling Stones, it had maintained its aura of timeless magnificence. Here still was the carved, buttressed, and gargoyled no-expense-spared beauty that had long ago promised me, like some shimmering Emerald City, a richer world than the flimsy ranch houses and malls in which I’d spent my childhood. The maze of courtyards, the gargoyles and crenellations, looked genuine, not one of those camp imitations in theme parks and Vegas; one didn’t question what Oxford-and-Cambridge was doing here off I-95. Perhaps that’s because these stately gothic buildings evoked Learning, stood as a solid tribute to an enduring intellectual tradition that bridged the pond. And like Daisy’s voice in Gatsby that sounded like money, their class credentials were solid gold.
However, partway through the tour the skies opened and drenched us, despite the garbage-bag ponchos the Admissions rep passed around, as if enacting a pathetic fallacy of dampened and disposable hopes: So few of those touring would actually “get in.” The residential colleges seemed to turn their spiny, mullioned backs as we trudged the grid of puddled streets to dutifully ogle the next tourist destination—from outside, or at most, the lobby.
Our student guide—more poised and polished in boots and beret than I remember any of us ever being, given our slavish devotion to tees and jeans, which to us warded off Caulfield’s phoniness—kept tossing off astonishing statements: We’re standing over the underground recording studio. If you’d like funding to go count birds in Guatemala, just ask. After your seminar with the former PM of England, you’ll head off to your poetry workshop with the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The buildings might look much the same, but in inner sanctums inaccessible to us hoi polloi, apparently, Yale glittered more than ever. It was the court of the Medici, Versailles under the Sun King, the Manhattan Project, and the Brill Building all in one, an astonishing concentration of talent, resources, and power. The endowment, now a staggering nineteen billion, had mushroomed until it dwarfed the budgets of many countries. All to be expended on an select few, if any, of these ordinary, gawky, blank-faced youths withdrawing into their cell phones. It was unjust. It was obscene. Someone had said callously of the community colleges, of urban high schools, Let them eat cake. But what good to refuse to participate on principle? No sense in making an ineffectual one-person social statement on the back of my fledgling son.
Yale had been rich in my day—but not this rich. Still, even then, Yale with its regal formality had the power to make you feel self-conscious about being ordinary. Somehow a bowl of cornflakes had felt like an insult to the carved beams and proud banners of the magnificent dining hall. How could the mind wander off Plato or Rousseau onto a roommate’s rebuff while you were ensconced in a leather armchair in Sterling Library’s towering cathedral? And of course there was that omnipresent nagging doubt confided in late-night bull sessions: Had the Admissions Office made a mistake? I suspect that insecurity still haunts many of us who have gone on to an unglamorous middle age, who bend double to clean our own bathtub. Have we been worthy of the privilege once heaped upon us? Done enough? We’ve been tattooed on the forehead with a blue Y in invisible ink; it shows only in certain lights. At times it gives us entry into not-so-secret societies of privilege, but at times it’s a mark of difference that we hide, like Harry Potter’s scar, under our forelocks, when we fear accusations of being “elite intellectual snobs” or pointy-headed, Parsel-tongued double agents. Yale’s legacy is a mix of buoying self-confidence and corrosive self-doubt: It’s as if at the end of our lives, instead of having to account for ourselves to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, we’ll face the Dean of Admissions. Did I want Yale’s curious combination of boost and burden for my child?
And what was Yale really like these days? After the tour, when we paused for lunch, Commons, with its lofty ceiling disappearing into shadows illumined by constellations of winking chandeliers, seemed like the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Mounds of food catering to every preference, ethnicity, and allergy appeared as if prepared by invisible house elves. The Hogwarts analogies (as on any Gothic campus) kept accumulating. The place was magically rich. Training the young wizards in the spells that would release power and wealth and happiness. Lumos et Veritas. For wands, they had their smart phones. But there is a Voldemort lurking, and his name is Stress. As I watched the young Hermiones, and doubtless a few Dracos, nourish their corporeal selves, memory supplied a reality check.
A former student of mine, now attending, had emailed that he lives on “coffee-drip life support.” His homework tends to be on the order of, read all of Karl Marx for tomorrow, then War and Peace for the day after. And that’s for just one of his five courses. But how to fit it in? He rushes from tea with The Tiger Mother to a seminar with Gaddis. He churns out articles for the prestigious Yale Daily News, known as “The Shark Tank” and a career pipeline to the New York Times. He added that elsewhere everyone’s very nice, down-to-earth—even if they just bought weed with a celebrity’s namesake or “weekended” with the son of an international playboy…but of course my young friend seldom has time to write at all. Voldemort has him and his cohort fully occupied with training for life on the Dark Side, the high-speed, eighty-hour-week rat race that passes for success.
Was it so different when we were there? The tales of the workload sound familiar—stressful and stimulating in the extreme. I too would have described my friends as down-to-earth, but I felt I’d lucked into an extraordinary sub-group—confident, ethical, funny, accomplished yet unpretentious people—for me, they formed a more enduring and valuable legacy than whatever I absorbed in the lecture halls. (Not that there weren’t pompous pricks around, and, more surprisingly, colorless blobs my parents would have dismissed as “nebbishes,” but these could be circumvented.) During my child’s “application process,” as I compared notes with my friends, I was surprised when one volunteered, “I didn’t take advantage”; another mused, “A smaller school would have helped me personally and professionally”; and, “I should have gone where a professor cared to know my name.”
To the extent it was impersonal like that—is it still? I was bamboozled by the morés of Yale’s predominant upper-class WASPs, whose academic skills, social graces, and stiff upper lips, not to mention sportsmanship and social drinking, had been shaped in private academies with weird secret-lingo names I was apparently supposed to revere but couldn’t pronounce or spell. (Choate?) I still remember my queasy disequilibrium at a reception for incoming students, when I first encountered people with last names for first names, ski-jump noses and lank light hair, smiling fixedly and exchanging banalities around a punchbowl of a yellowish fluid that fumed like Lestoil, but which apparently, unlike the students imbibing it, had a proper name: Tom Collins.
But no one at Yale cared to meet me where I was; no one felt any responsibility for helping a kid like me to adjust, academically or culturally—learn to write an essay, for example, much less eat an artichoke or cross-country-ski. (I would eventually flounder to competence in these vital life skills; by now I bet I could perform them simultaneously.) Yale had an Outward Bound approach, abandoning you in the woods and letting you find your own way, whether or not you’d brought your own internal compass. Maybe that toughens you, teaches self-reliance, but now that I’ve been a teacher for a long time, I’ve come to believe that those charged with adolescents’ development should calibrate the independence dose. I’d like to imagine that Yale’s teaching and advising have evolved in keeping with more nurturing modern values, but again and again, current students, their parents, and college counselors tell me, today’s Yale still works best for students assertive enough to take advantage of it. Otherwise, it can be now as it was for those of us who were unprepared then: overwhelming—and lonely. I recently heard stories of two students who retreated to their rooms for the first year or so, because they just couldn’t figure how to navigate.
Did I want all this for my child? He had the schoolwork gene, yes, but I wouldn’t say drive and initiative were his strong points. Would acceptance at Yale for him be a mixed blessing, a poisoned chalice, the gift of a white elephant, too much of a good thing? Wouldn’t he thrive in a smaller school, where his professors might not be ex-prime ministers but might care to know his name?
The prospective-student tours tout the school and woo applicants to boost the US News and World Report rankings, to earn that coveted acceptance rate of below 7%. One Yale friend’s teen loves to needle his father, You’d never get in now. And it’s probably true for most of my cohort; I’m surprised I “got in” then, and that was before high schools required what for me would have been impossible stunts of physics and calculus, and admissions competition came from round the world. The acceptance rate in my day—not that we were much aware of it, in contrast to today’s applicants—was one in ten, not one in thirteen, and those ten were a much more local crew. Another Yale friend tries to tell people, going there back in our day was normal. You were a smart kid in high school, you got A’s, you applied, you got in. That matches my experience.
You filled out your application in ballpoint pen at the kitchen table. Maybe you doodled through a few questions in an SAT practice booklet—until you got bored and wandered off to watch I Dream of Jeannie or Get Smart. Once there, you studied and you played Frisbee. That contradicts what I wrote above, I know—but both were true. It was a Big Deal—and it wasn’t, not from moment to ordinary moment, and certainly not relative to today. And of course for my father-in-law’s generation of Old Bluesfrom the 1930s, it was entirely different—before the democratization of the student body in my era, you went to a feeder prep school and then—if you weren’t unlucky enough to be Jewish or female, not to mention being labeled, like a paint can, with a color—you went. My father-in-law reports that once there, a lot of studying wasn’t strictly necessary; he enjoyed many a gentlemanly game of dorm-room floor hockey between sailing excursions and cocktails at Mory’s.
On the rare occasions nowadays that I must divulge that long ago I went to Yale, people who are only aware of current admissions standards tend to do a double-take: I don’t look like some combination of Einstein and Bill Clinton. I suspect they conclude I’m like a former child star who has lost her dimples. So how are the current students affected by knowing they are, in this golden moment of their youth, the Chosen, the Select, the less-than-seven-percent solution? Does it make them feel arrogant—or humble? Talented or unworthy? Lucky or intimidated? Does it distort them, like fame did Michael Jackson and Elvis? Do they know how ridiculous it is to measure the worth of a person by high school grades and test scores? How crucial emotional intelligence is—not to mention kindness? And luck?
At first the Admissions Office courts you, plying you with colorful brochures. In the lobby, as you wait for the info session to begin, a dazzling Bollywood-style video plays in an endless loop: happy, beautiful, multiethnic undergrads cavort in unison on a verdant hilltop and harmonize over swelling chords, “And that’s why we cho-o-ose Ya-a-ale!” On tours the guides flaunt the magnolia-hung cloisters, the “cloud-cap’d towers,” of the gorgeous campus. And then the tables turn. They solicit your application so they can reject you. We all know it’s bait-and-switch, seduce-and-abandon. But still, would a rejection of my son from my Alma Mater hurt—or rather, how much? Exacerbate my own lifelong sense of inadequacy over having once, long ago, been invited, for not very evident reasons, to the ball? Even worse, would my son be rejected not for his own credentials, but for mine—because I hadn’t been a “good enough” alum? Hadn’t donated a bell tower or a gym, hadn’t accrued enough accolades that redound to Mother Yale’s glory? That double-edged legacy of security/insecurity, that sick game of ranking self and others, lived on.
Well, rejection was what my son and I expected, given that’s the fate these days of over 93% of the twenty-seven thousand applicants. Of these, Yale accepts two thousand to fill fifteen hundred freshman seats. The odds seem better of going from cardinal to Pope. The Dean of Admissions claims he could fill a second class, and even a third, without a drop in academic “quality.” Although that’s not entirely what it’s all about. You don’t get in just because you are smart. For all the talk of the best and the brightest, the actual selection, for better and worse, as we all know, is controlled by multiple competing factors: athletics, geography, interests, gender, legacies, parental fame, affirmative action: “balancing the class.” Admissions can’t risk ending up with two dozen male bassoonists from North Dakota and no goalie for women’s lacrosse. A friend who is an Ivy professor reports a surprising range of academic ability in her classes, explicable in part by athletes with 550s on their SATS having unseated applicants with scores of 800. I myself interview applicants from among the one-hundred-twenty-five or so hopefuls spawned annually in my small city, of whom maybe one or two are selected. Many of my interviewees impress the hell out of me, having volunteered in senators’ offices, won science prizes, founded Ultimate teams, mastered microeconomics on their own, etc., but Yale doesn’t want to overstock from our outpost, and none of mine has ever made the cut. From them I have a small sense of how impossible the Admissions officers’ task is, making micro-distinctions among these superabundant deserving. Among these meritorious rejected could well be my son.
Fine. But the next step gets complicated. The Admissions Office might or might not choose my bright child to balance out the class in some mysterious way, but should he choose them? Would I even want my son to be tattooed with that blue Y?
Well, of course. Yale is fabulous. Incomparable. If the glass slipper fits, you marry the prince. You don’t look the gift horse in the mouth.
But what if it’s a Trojan horse? What if the prince is a jerk?
Why “choose Yale”? I recall only the Bollywood-style dancers’ conclusion in the chorus but not the supporting detail in the verse. In retrospect, I’m not sure I “chose” it at all; rather, I stumbled into it by dumb luck. My immigrant family had barely heard of it; my suburban public high school, as intellectually barren as the malls surrounding it, offered no college counseling. In a way that seems impossible to imagine now, I was entirely unaware of Yale’s cultural cachet: perhaps I offered Admissions a chance to fill out its ignorance quotient. I picked Yale from the Barron’s catalogue because the SAT scores matched mine, I didn’t need to take a plane, and—this was the clincher—I wouldn’t have to take math. And when I visited, I saw that the campus was pretty. And I was so fed up with being ostracized at school and belittled at home for being a smart girl, that I was pumped to prove that dammit I really was just as smart as boys—so Yale’s newly coed status appealed.
But once admitted, and somehow lasting through to graduation, did I end up reaping benefits from my accidental good fortune? For me as for some of my friends, going to Yale actually held us back professionally. For example, no professor would sponsor my thesis on contemporary women’s poetry, and no campus organization would support my summer research into the effects of The Hyde Amendment. My “women’s interests” put me outside the fold. And when I contacted the famous professor tasked with advising about grad school in English, in a phone call that lasted under a minute, she didn’t feel obligated to find out anything about me, including my name, but just delivered a boilerplate “Don’t.” Well, I tunneled under those roadblocks—found a grad student to supervise my thesis, for example, and had a grand time in grad school anyway—which perhaps was character-building. But it wasn’t optimal— it wasn’t “just ask” or the Old Boys Network or the door-opening letter from a Big Name—wasn’t the one-way ticket to opportunity that a Yale acceptance implies.
Subsequently, has the prestige factor affected my career? “Yale” on the CV has served as a handy shorthand for “smart” and “competent” when needed—maybe when applying to grad school or jobs, or needing acceptance from future in-laws, themselves Ivy grads and skeptical of my “Joisey” background. But it has also been interpreted as meaning “over-qualified” and “snooty.”
Every place I’ve worked—and granted my career had been spent in the un-prestigious, woman-heavy, underpaid lower levels of publishing, academia, and education—my colleagues have gone to a variety of colleges. How well or poorly we do our jobs doesn’t correlate with where we received our diploma. The “Ivy Effect” seems to wear off minutes after graduation—or at least with the subsequent credential of grad school or first job. A savvy friend, however, tells me that if you want to work at Goldman, you must go to Harvard—that certain schools and frats are still feeders for certain firms. So maybe if my son were to undertake a career in such a field, where he went to college might make more of a difference in his work-life than it has in mine. But among his cohort, anybody in the biz knows there aren’t enough chairs in the Ivies for those who on paper deserve them—and that plenty have spilled over into other institutions. Paradoxically, the absurdly competitive admissions rates should make the label mean less and less, since to a certain extent it’s obtained not by merit alone, but by chance.
And yet…you spend formative years with all those bright people, among all that sculpted stone and old leather and leaded glass, with ready access to Old Masters and the Gutenberg Bible; you get fed lines in every speech about how you are a future leader—and without realizing it, you imbibe the brew from the punchbowl—or at least inhale the fumes. A voice you are ashamed of starts whispering poisonous things you want to ignore; on some level you start to believe Yalies really are the smartest. The snobbery has infected you, but you struggle to turn a deaf ear and let the child find his own way.
The Admissions Office’s noncommittal response to his carefully crafted application? Waitlisted. The limbo between the alleged heaven of acceptance and hell of rejection. In which 1001 lost souls are condemned to languish, possibly until the last trump shall sound, in far-off August.
If you’re waitlisted and you want to “get in,” you are supposed to demonstrate your “passion,” your undying yearning for admission. Should he? Should he continue to struggle to find the magic formula, the Open Sesame, that would open the door to the treasure cave? Should I prove I was a loyal alum by walking blindfolded and backwards from Commons to the Periodicals Room, penitently holding my ancient key aloft, since I couldn’t come up with a bell tower? Is this a case of beware-what-of-you-wish-for? On the tour, the windowless Secret Society buildings had looked like tombs. What kind of crazy world even needs Secret Societies? Especially with ghoulish names like Skull and Bones? Should we turn and run screaming?
Yale, I’d wait-list you too; I’m not sure about you, either. Not sure I want to leave my first-born on your temple steps, to be brainwashed into worshipping your narcissistic god.
Given my own experiences, that is. From this great distance, peering back through the thickening fog of years: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was wonderful; it was awful. I felt connected for the first time in my life, at last among fellow geeks, dorks, grinds, and nerds—a whole tribe of my gung-ho people: student council presidents, editors in chief, musical leads, team captains, teachers’ pets, Most Likely to Succeeds.
I also felt miserably alone, as a lower-middle-class Jewish girl in an upper-class WASP and historically-male institution. As an artsy-intellectual dreamer, in a sea of pragmatic, goal-oriented future doctors (forty percent), lawyers (forty percent), and businesspeople (ten percent). I was thrilled, I was entranced; I was anxious and alienated, but in the throes of adolescence, I might have felt that way anywhere. Even if a professor had wanted to know my name, I might not have wanted to tell it; on some days, I might not have been able to summon it up. Even if I’d gone someplace where the professors cared more to teach than profess, where a woman writer or two had been deemed worthy of a place in the English Department intro syllabus.
Elitist, sexist, snobby, cold. On a rainy day like that of our tour, the campus’s stone walls can look like an impregnable fortress, a prison.
On the other hand, when I am with my Yale friends, I feel lit up along all my synapses. How much they love to talk, learn, joke, explore. To extract all possible information out of every conversation, every situation. How much they do, how fully they live. Not that other people don’t, of course—my own non-Yalie husband, for example—but the concentration is high in this particular group. And even in circles beyond them. When I volunteer at the local food bank on the annual Day of Service with teams of Yalies of all ages, the clients benefit from the food, but I’m fed by the talk. While we’re bagging lumpy yams rejected by supermarkets, or stacking sacks of almost-outdated frozen chicken, the talk ranges from local linguistics to firehouse norms to recent biographies to civil liberties to critiques of the flawed food-bank system in which we’re participating. Talk that bespeaks passionate engagement with wide worlds beyond the immediate and personal.
I’d grown up with talk that turned on venting personal grievances, so I’d quickly had to pick up two foreign languages at Yale. I don’t mean the French and Italian I mangled in class: I mean Small Talk and Big Talk. If I’d at first recoiled from punchbowl Small Talk—which I came to understand as the art of revealing nothing while jockeying for dominance—I’d immediately thrilled to Big Talk. I had first basked in Big Talk from the professors, those distant stars shining on their lecture platforms. How I’d thrilled to their precise, informed, wide-ranging eloquence. I took notes as fast as I could, eager to have their brilliant locutions pass through my hand, as if doing so would incorporate even a spark of their energizing fire, their blazing intellectual vitality, into my forming, nebulous self.
But as for what I’d call teaching, there hadn’t been much. It was rather like watching a TED Talk online.
My son’s fortunate facility with schoolwork earned him acceptance at several outstanding liberal arts colleges, where the focus is on teaching undergrads as well as research. I know he could get a fine education and meet wonderful friends at any one of them. We do elite private colleges well in this allegedly meritocratic country; those fantastical, top-heavy, unfair endowments ensure both fabulous resources and financial aid for the fortunate few. From where I sit deep in middle age, it all sounds idyllic: Four years of not having to mow your own lawn or clean your own toilet or even make your own lunch, much less earn your own living. Four years of learning for learning’s sake. Four years of dancing along the Brownian zigzag of your own evolving interests, contemplating big ideas, exploring impractical subjects. Of imagining that the future is bright, that you’ll live forever, that you matter—if being young or some more random catastrophe doesn’t get in the way. (For now I’m averting my eyes from the dark underside—the hook-ups, the frat-party assaults, the beer pong, those toxic side effects of competition and stress, of worries about the future in a warming, overcrowded, debt-ridden, terrorist-haunted planet. On top of dislocation and that state of temporary insanity called youth.)
But despite—or perhaps because of—his mother’s poorly-concealed preference (formed not because of my own irrelevant experience, I keep hoping, but because of who he is) for him to attend one of these smaller, allegedly more nurturing schools, my son has decided not to withdraw from Yale’s waiting list.
“Mom,” he says, “when I visited, I felt like I fit in.” He assures me that he is accustomed from his rigorous prep school to managing a stressful workload and taking initiative. He applied because he was attracted by Yale’s emphasis on service, which my student confirms, writing that “Yale consciously grooms public servants, so that to those whom much is given, much is expected”—which, to whatever extent it’s true, is surely a far better reason than mere prestige, not to mention pretty architecture and the lack of a math requirement. So while we wait, I try to remember that whom you marry, who your children turn out to be, how everybody’s health holds up, how the economy fares, whether history leaves you alone…are all far more important to your happiness, to shaping your life, than your Alma Mater is.
And yet…although I still suspect high-powered Yale would be wrong for my son, despite his assurances and sound reasoning, part of me can’t let go of the idea that if he is lucky enough to get in, he just can’t refuse.
Do graduates of other colleges have this problem—or rather, do they have it this bad? While seeing all the flaws, the occasions on which the emperor has no clothes, can they too still not let go of the brand loyalty, the fatal attraction, the blind patriotism that defies every avowed principle? While it’s hard not to be blinded by Yale’s glitter, I have to wipe the stardust from my eyes. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter so much which of these great schools he attends. It’s really all about match, not prestige—about where he can flourish, where he can most readily locate those nutrients that will help him become himself.
I know that, and yet…
Yale’s a smart place, but it makes you stupid about one thing. The worst of its complex legacy, I realize, is snobbery about itself.
I don’t know if my son will get in, or if he does, what he’ll decide to do. This story ends with a cliffhanger.
JUDITH SANDERS, a writer and former English teacher, lives in Pittsburgh. An update on how it all went down: “In June, my son received a letter from Yale informing him that the incoming class was now full, so his application was no longer being considered. As we discussed this outcome, I mused that it was ironic that he, more academically talented and better prepared than I had been, couldn’t go while I could. ‘Well, Mom,’ he said, ‘different times.’ Wise kid. He’ll be fine.”
My mom is standing by the kitchen sink, squeezing pimples on a chicken. This is the 1990s in Hungary, when chicken still come with remnants of what makes them poultry: feathers, dry skin around the heel, nails that once scratched dirt on a farm.
Behind her on the kitchen table are carrots and parsley and celery root. She is making soup—maybe it’s a Sunday, or maybe it’s a regular Thursday and I just got home from school. It all looks complicated to me and, frankly, disgusting—the gizzards of the chicken in a plastic bowl at the edge of the sink.
“I can’t imagine ever, ever learning how to do this,” I tell her.
She rinses her hands under the running water. “Oh, you will,” she says. “When you love someone and they are sick and all they want is some chicken soup, you will learn.”
I think about this conversation when my son is sick and I am rinsing slimy, plump chicken livers in a colander. He loves chicken livers in his soup, so I buy them in a small tub at the grocery store and freeze them in batches. I feel certain that I would not do this for anyone else, even for myself.
I plop the livers into the water next to the chicken breast and the carrots and the parsnips and the celery. My mom was right: I did learn how to make soup.
My grandmother writes letters to me in college on thin, see-through sheets of paper. Airmail from Hungary to the U.S. is expensive. I get one sheet in each letter, maybe two, filled with her fancy, cursive writing, usually in blue ink. I like getting the letters, I am sure, but I don’t remember them eliciting any sort of emotional response. I might even be disappointed: “Oh, it’s just another letter from grandma.” I keep them anyway.
When I look at them some twenty years after they were written and two years after my grandmother died—still neatly folded in their envelopes—I am knocked off my feet. They make me feel loved—cherished, even—like I never felt back then, not like this, not this explicitly and deeply. I suddenly see everything it took to write them—the process of purchasing the thin wax paper and the airmail envelope and the stamps at the post office, the writing of the letter with her arthritic wrists and fingers—in her armchair next to the radiator, right under her bright window filled with plants —the walk to the post office to mail them.
I can only read one before the tears start—written on my twenty-third birthday, seventeen years ago. She was proud of me. I had a car. And a job. And an apartment.
My grandmother taught me to iron and I used to think of her every night when I ironed my husband’s shirt for the next day. Now it’s all non-iron, synthetic, fake fabrics. And where’s the love in that?
There are people who are clumsy at love. Who say the right words but have trouble putting them into action. Who don’t call. Or write. Or remember. Who don’t think the way I do, that for love you do things—real things: see that action movie, eat at that restaurant, sit with the in-laws at Christmas, listen to quiet fears in the middle of night, scratch the itchy spot in the middle of the back. Iron. Make soup.
That’s the hardest thing, loving someone like that. Someone who lets themselves be loved but cannot return it for whatever reason. They give you little glimpses of what it is like to be loved by them—and it is fucking brilliant and just enough to keep you coming back for more.
I don’t love my baby right away. I know that this is not unusual, but it surprises me. I am happy that he’s here, and that he’s healthy, but beyond that, I feel very little. I don’t let him starve or cry too long or stay in a dirty diaper. I linger with him in the rocking chair and marvel at the fact that he has no eyebrows and the skin on his nose still looks unfinished somehow, almost translucent. I notice his features as if looking at a doll—a strange, antique doll with a porcelain face—that I can just set back on the shelf once I am done.
It’s funny that I don’t remember falling in love with him. It’s not like romance, where you get that initial tingle around the heart. It’s not a lightning bolt or a big spectacle. It happens at two a.m. when you are cleaning up poop. It happens at the playground. In the rear-view mirror of the car when he’s finally fallen asleep. In the middle of a temper-tantrum when both of you are crying and there’s snot on your hands.
Things I love:
Brushing my teeth.
The way the birds go crazy around four a.m. in the spring.
Landing in Europe after a trans-Atlantic flight.
The smell of tomato vines.
Rainy October days.
Skypeing with my brother and not noticing that an hour went by.
The jingle of bracelets on my wrist.
My mom’s soup.
My husband’s first heart attack happens in August, we think. We are in London and he wakes in the middle of the night to horrific back spasms. He has a bad back, but nothing like this has ever happened. He’s sweating and can’t catch his breath from the pain. I call an ambulance. They take him away and I sit by the window of our hotel room, staring at the street below until the morning, until our son wakes.
We take a cab to the hospital in the rain and sit with him as the doctors check his blood and re-check it again and again. In the end they rule out a heart attack. We fly home a few days later. He gets a muscle relaxer from his doctor for future back issues.
After he collapses in November and the surgeon threads a catheter through his arteries, he is fairly certain that what he had in London was not a back spasm.
I guess you can walk around with your heart broken on the inside.
I once ask my mom about how you know that you have found “the one,” that you are really in love. Maybe that wasn’t my exact question, but something along those lines. Maybe I am asking her about marriage, about long-term commitment, what that is like. She says that if even after all the years you’ve spent together it still feels good to cuddle up close together at the end of the day, then you are in business.
I remember this on those evenings when we are both exhausted, when I feel just a tiny bit resentful that he is in bed, listening to music, while I finish up bath time and story time and get a glass of water and give another back rub. I stumble into bed and I don’t really want to talk or be touched or be seen. I want to be angry and stomp around like a child—and sometimes do.
I pretend to read and he reaches over to rub my shoulder. I melt into his touch, his warm palms. I put down my book so that I can be in full contact with his body, smell his chest and the spot behind his ears, to rub my nose in his beard.
I am so mad at him, damn it.
When my son wants to tell me that he loves me, he switches over to Hungarian. That’s our language, our secret love code. The words are sweeter, more melodious, melancholy. “I love you” is such a throwaway phrase. “Mama, te vagy a szerelmem,” he tells me and I know it’s true. That we are each other’s loves. We are walking to my car and I hold his hand and feel him holding on, his palm almost as big as mine.
I like that our love is so uncomplicated.
Isn’t it crazy that you can never really know that another person loves you? That you can keep something like this a secret? Maybe there is someone you see every day—at work or at the playground or at school dropoff—and have no idea that they have a crush on you. That they think about you during their day, when they are sad or bored. That they plan ways to run into you, to talk to you. That they imagine this whole other life with you, with you at the center—as their center. You could have this wild affair, this crazy romance, if only that person would speak up, make a move.
But we never do. Nobody ever does. We shuffle back to our desks, hide in our phones, pull forward in the dropoff line.
We kiss past the crust of the morning. The wet spot on the pillow, the gunk in the eyes, the sour breath. We wipe away sweat and dreams from brows. We dip hands into hidden folds and curves, underneath, where it’s dark and heavy and damp. We lick and swallow and we spread and moan. We pinch and scrape and knead. We release—our hands smelling faintly of love all day.
Things I want to learn to love:
An achy heart.
Being awake at two a.m.
My husband does not like soup. When he’s sick, he wants to be left alone: no juice, no tea, no lemonade or honey. No soup. This is confusing—how can you not want chicken soup? My chicken soup. And if you don’t want chicken soup, what can I do for you? Is doing nothing a sign of love?
I stop making soup for a while. Then just make it for myself. Then for our son. You can’t just make a little soup. I offer it up on cold winter days and on sick days for years. “Nothing against your soup,” he says. But no thank you.
I resign myself: he is a no-soup person.
Fifteen years and four kitchens later, on an average Tuesday he suggests that I make soup for dinner. “But you don’t like soup,” I say.
“I could live on your soup,” he responds and I say nothing to hide my shock. Later there is crusty bread on the table and wine and the cooked carrots and parsnips in a separate bowl from the shredded chicken meat. He adds hot sauce and hot pepper flakes and dips his bread.
He makes my soup his own.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and has published essays in several online and print outlets. She lives in Maine—again!—where her soup-making skills will come in handy this winter. You can read her other works at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin
The scorpion’s name is Cupcake and Cupcake looks pissed.
“Oh, come on,” a zoo official with a walkie-talkie strapped to his waist says. “How scary can it be with a name like that?”
He’s talking to a girl. The girl is on Cupcake’s side of the safety rope. The zoo official is on the other. It’s the girl’s job to pop Cupcake’s carrying case open. Then she’s supposed to reach in and scoop out Cupcake like a gerbil.
From the way the girl is shaking, I’m sure it’s her first time.
I should say, “Honey, are you crazy? Don’t do that.”
I should say, “Sweetheart, how much are they paying you?”
To the zoo official, who is about my age and still wears his baseball cap backwards, I should say, “Why don’t you put your hand in there, dickhead?”
Instead I bring my ten-year-old son over to watch.
How I became this person, I don’t know.
Earlier, I wanted to hang out at the shark tanks. Then on the rickety bridge over Otis the Alligator.
Zoos trigger something primal in me. I don’t pay attention to the cute animals. I’m interested only in animals that, if things were fair and cage-free, would kill me. A zoo visit is about defying mortality, maybe. Most things are. It’s something not to talk about, though, especially with my sensitive ten-year-old son, who worries the snow leopard is depressed, wonders if the komodo dragon is lonely, and likes the penguin house most of all.
We were on our way to check out venomous snakes when I saw the Live Animal Demonstration sign.
How I justify watching:
I read somewhere that most scorpion stings are the same as bee stings.
I convince myself Cupcake is some sort of eunuch, a domesticated nub where a stinger used to be.
I think if someone’s going through the trouble of picking up a scorpion the size of a Pop-Tart, the rest of us should pay attention.
“You’ve got to see this,” I tell my son, who is a more decent person and who would rather not see this at all.
Cupcake’s whole body is a claw. She’s backed into the corner of her carrying case. Inside the reptile house, under ultraviolet light, Cupcake glows like a club kid at a rave. But out here, in the sunshine, she’s so black she’s almost purple, one oil-slick bruise. Her carrying case is pink, plastic, the kind usually reserved for hermit crabs, starter pets. It’s the kind of case kids store Barbie shoes in.
“Look, sweetie,” I say to my son. “She’s going to pick up that scorpion.” I point, like I’ve just said something wise, a life lesson.
I’ve become the muscle-guy from earlier, back at the aquarium. He flexed, pointed to a tank, and said, in a low and serious voice, “What we have right here are fish.” His pretty girlfriend clung to his bicep and cooed.
My son doesn’t coo. He backs up, because he’s not an adult, because the world hasn’t worn his heart to a nub, an overused eraser, because he still feels things.
“Why would she do that?” he wants to know.
The girl is ponytailed, in a powder-blue polo shirt with the zoo logo stitched on the chest. She looks like summer help, an intern, maybe. Maybe she’s getting minimum wage. Maybe this is unpaid life experience and she’s chalking up college credits she’ll have to take out loans to cover.
“Because she’s in training?” I say, and of course it comes out as a question.
“In training for what?” my son wants to know.
I’ve had a lot of awful jobs, terrible internships. “Life training,” people called some of them. None involved handling a scorpion, but still.
Once when I was a flight attendant, a pilot made me hold a door shut during take-off and landing.
There was a mechanical problem—the door wouldn’t lock completely and the handle would start to open on ascent and descent. It was something that would normally ground the plane, but the pilot had a date in D.C. that night—one hot blonde, one strip-club steakhouse, jumbo margaritas served up in glasses shaped like boobs.
The pilot didn’t want a delay.
He said, “Did you bring a parachute?”
He said, “You’ll love the way you’ll fly.”
He said, “Come on, I’m joking.”
He said, “Just don’t let go,” and winked.
I was young. I needed that job. I did what I was told. I pushed my whole weight against the handle and the handle pushed back. I don’t know how dangerous it was really, but I could feel the cold air whistle around the door seal. The steel handle frosted and shook and any minute it seemed the door would burst and I’d jettison out, cartoon baggage, still strapped in my jumpseat and smiling. I’d been taught to smile on the job no matter what. I did that. The door handle inched open and I kept calm and the passengers kept calm. They looked at me like I knew what I was doing and I pretended to know what I was doing.
We went on like that until one guy started hitting his call button. He kept at it through the short flight. He was doing sign language to show he needed a drink, that he might choke and die if he did not get a drink, like this lack of drink was cutting off what little oxygen he had left.
I smiled. He did not smile back. I shrugged and pointed my chin toward the seatbelt sign overhead, which demanded I stay seated, too—sorry, sorry—and that we’d both just have to hold on.
I held on. He kept pressing his call light like a game show buzzer. The door stayed shut. By the time we were on the ground, I was shaking. A red imprint marked my palm from the handle, and the man who wanted a drink was so angry he wrote down my name. He threatened to write a complaint even though I got him snacks and a diet Coke to go.
The pilot heard all of this but pretended not to.
“I think I can, I think I can,” the pilot said. He pulled his pilot-cap low, gangster-style. “Nice work, little engine,” he said, and patted my hip on his way out of the cockpit, off to his margarita-boobs and his blonde and the thick steak he liked juicy and medium-rare.
It’s been a dozen years since I had a job like that, which is maybe one reason I can keep watching the girl and the scorpion now. Empathy is an easy thing to lose, like car keys, like the name of that one actor who played in that movie about scorpions, you know the one.
“You can do it,” the zoo official says as the girl loosens the clasp on Cupcake’s case.
“You forgot what work is,” my father used to say, meaning me and what I do for a living, the way I push words around a page. He meant, watch it. He meant, first you’re on one side of the glass, then the other. He meant, be kind.
He meant, it’s not work if it can’t kill you.
He meant what work does to a body, but work kills people in many ways, I think.
At the entrance to the machine shop where my father worked for thirty years, a sign counted down the days since the last accident. The numbers were flip charts. The numbers didn’t go above two digits much. It was someone’s job to turn those numbers forward and back. Imagine that job.
My father had so many metal shavings in his skin he’d joke that he’d set off metal detectors at airports. He never wore a wedding ring because rings could catch in the machines and take a finger or worse.
“I want to keep all my fingers,” he’d say, “so I can show the foreman where to stick it.”
“I mean, seriously,” the zoo official is saying, “Cupcake?”
It’s a punchline he’s sharing again and again.
When our son was first born, he cried all the time and no one in our house slept much. At first we thought it was colic, but it went on and on and the pediatrician shrugged and said some children are born sensitive like that.
“He’ll get used to it,” the pediatrician said about my son and the world.
My husband worked a terrible corporate job back then. His boss liked to stretch an eight-hour day into a fifteen-hour day too often to count.
Once, after a stretch of six long days in a row, my husband came home and went into the kitchen. He took a serrated bread knife to his forehead. He carved. Blood ran into his eyebrows and down his cheeks. He came out and showed me. He looked proud. I felt sick. But then he called his boss and said he’d been in a car accident and wouldn’t be in to work the next day and maybe the next. I cleaned his forehead with peroxide and we celebrated with drinks and take-out from an Italian restaurant nearby. Everything felt, for a moment, manageable. We remembered we were happy. We remembered we loved each other. Our son slept some. We did, too.
“Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau said.
A knife going across a forehead wouldn’t make much of a sound.
“In training for what?” my son wanted to know about the girl.
The girl shakes even more now, like she’s about to stick a fork in a toaster. Cupcake’s case is open. Inside, Cupcake flexes her tail, her very operational stinger. I look down at my son, who’s squinted his eyes shut.
The girl tries to breathe. She cups her hand and lowers it into the case.
“Okay,” she says to the zoo official, who’s beaming. “Now what?”
“It’s not what you look at,” Thoreau said. “It’s what you see.”
“Things do not change,” Thoreau said. “We change.”
The girl nudges her hand under Cupcake.
She brings the creature out to show us, a heavy dark heart in her palm.
LORI JAKIELA is the author of three memoirs—most recently Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books 2015)—as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point 2012), and several chapbooks. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more. She teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and co-directs the summer writers’ festival at the historic Chautauqua Institution. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their children. For more, visit http://lorijakiela.net.
I see my dead father. Not in dreams, but physically, alive, out in the world. He’s always alone. I’ve seen him numerous times. He seems at peace, not lonely or struggling to understand his fate, his new whereabouts. Not laboring to return to the earthly plane. Problems endured alive, resolved; no longer important. On his own, no one else to answer to, to provide for, or support. Children, ex-wife, and wife number two no longer a responsibility or concern. Mistakes made, unmet expectations abandoned and not rectified. Unfulfilled and incomplete duties not complete and not fulfilled. Pain and sorrow, remorse and apology, lifted. A freedom he didn’t know in life. An aura of wonder surrounding him. He died on April 23, 2009, at age seventy-four, his cremains now interred at a cemetery in South San Francisco.
I saw him while on a Caribbean cruise in 2015. The ship docked at St. George’s, Grenada, and we had a half-day to explore the island. Walking back from Grand Anse Beach I noticed a man sitting on a pylon looking out to sea—my father, Ed. At least, it looked exactly like him. The bend of his back, the slope of his shoulders, the side-view of his face, his gray hair, even the clothes—K-Mart Bermuda shorts, a well-worn tee-shirt, brown leather fisherman sandals; his favored outfit. My father, Edward Willis Thompson. I did a double-take. I stopped and stared, studying, wondering, wanting, and needing. I wanted to go to him, but I did not. I wondered if it could actually be him, knowing—in my rational mind—it was not. In my fantastical mind, wishing it to be truth. I needed the healing that didn’t happen when he breathed.
He sat alone; no one else on the beach or near him. The way he gazed out at the water—as if he was there, on that pylon, permanently. Like he’d found his place to rest, to live out his eternity. Possibly, I was meant to pass him, to discover him there, at his final resting place. So I’d know he was okay, now at peace. The sereneness of my vision of him led me to believe this was the case—a communication from his beyond to my within. And it could have been him. Who’s to say it wasn’t? We don’t actually know where the dead go. Maybe “Heaven” is a favored place from life. The beach—any beach, especially a tropical one—Dad’s favorite place in the world.
Before the Caribbean sighting, I’d seen him a handful of times: in a Home Depot parking lot; in a crowd at the mall; on the street in Glendale, California, where we live. Each time I had the same experience, I thought: Jesus, that man looks exactly like my father. After the third sighting, I didn’t question whether it was or was not. For me, it was. Even if it’s as straightforward as me seeing my father’s corporeal doppelgangers, it was still him. This is not something ghostly. It is something else. Ghosts are fine, I like them, I have no problem with them, but these sightings are not phantasms. And it’s okay. I’m not sure I need to understand or label them. They simply are. I find them soothing and calming. Is he reaching out to me? Possibly.
I was never all that close to my father. My parents divorced when I was five. He left the family and wasn’t around much when my sister and I were growing up. We’d see him on summer vacations, spending a week with him staying at a cheap motel in Avila Beach, California. The days filled with sun, sand, and water—and a whole lot of fun. He seemed to enjoy the time we spent together. He spoiled us rotten by buying us everything we wanted: ice cream at all hours; any toy we pleaded for; cash to spend ourselves. Standard absentee father conduct—making up for ever-present guilt. At the end of the week, he’d drop us off at home, our white skin now a dark brown, temporarily happy, father-sated yet sad all the same. We wanted him to park the car and come inside, return to our mother, to the family.
The vacations ceased when I was eight, the moment he married his second wife, Mabel. She wanted as little to do with us as possible. He went along with what she wanted. A strong-willed, opinionated woman married a weak-willed and lazy man. A mama’s boy, he wanted to be taken care of—the way his own mother had spoiled him. Mabel provided a clean, comfortable home, three squares a day, and her body at night. They had an unspoken understanding. He did what she wanted, and, pretty much—sadly too—only what she wanted. From that point on my interaction with him was sporadic at best.
When he was sick and dying of lung cancer, I visited him in the hospital. A shell of the man I once knew, he recognized me despite his dementia; he knew I was there and was happy to see me. Dying in a hospital bed at the VA facility in Palo Alto, California, his six-foot-four frame, legs twisted yet still gangly long, slid down the hospital bed so his feet dangled uncomfortably off the edge. I only spent a couple of days visiting; there was little to do except be in his presence and pull him back up the bed so he didn’t dangle off—over and over. He’d move, or wiggle, or shift his body, and down the bed he slid. Due to dementia, his stage four lung cancer, and the medications he was on, holding a conversation with him was not possible. Expressing my anger and displeasure for the way he treated us—his two children—would not be happening. Instead, I sat close to the bed and held his hand, or helped him eat ice cream or his lunch or dinner, feeling sorry for him in so many ways. I hurt for him and for myself. I did my best to do the prescribed things a person does for another, a relative, a father, who is in the throes of dying. I told him I loved him. I wish I’d done all of it because I truly felt love for him.
And, I can’t say I felt much either when he died. Mostly, I was saddened by what we were unable to achieve: a loving father and son relationship. A seemingly ethereal idea foisted upon me by societal expectations, out of reach, a dream in our family—but something I still desperately wanted. I didn’t mourn his loss in the accepted ways one is supposed to when losing a loved one. My grief was tied to lost possibility, to what would never be, not to losing my “father,” my “Daddy.” I hadn’t spent enough time with the man for the type of familial intimacy to develop that would warrant true and deep feelings of grief over his loss. To add to my confusion and misery, his wife cremated and interred him without telling my sister or me. There was no viewing, no service, and no burial—at least none we were invited to. Even in his death, we were treated the same as when he lived—excluded like we didn’t belong or exist.
A recent sighting took place at our local Trader Joe’s. Dad was putting groceries into the trunk of a car. I found myself thinking, there he is again. Like before, it looked exactly like him—the height, the build, his movements, the clothes, all Ed Thompson, my father. A rote calmness emanating from him—a task as mundane as grocery shopping joyful. Not a care in the world. Similar to the island pylon resting place, I’m left thinking he’s still in that Trader Joe’s parking lot, still loading groceries into his trunk, over and over, on a continuous, never-ending loop, stuck in time and not unhappy about it in the least. A chore no longer a chore but a happy task. A final resting place or action could be malleable, or exist in multiple places, couldn’t it? The world of the dead not curtailed by human, earthly barriers of time and space.
Observing him, I wondered if he was buying groceries for us. Like this father, the version I saw in the present day, might go back in time, and do the right thing. Was he going to bring groceries to help feed my sister and me? To add to our food stamp-supplied coffers? To remove some of the burdens on my overworked mother? To ease her financial strain? He’d bring the groceries when he came to pick us up for a weekend visit. Like a good father and ex-husband, he’d hand the bag of groceries to my mother and then help us with our suitcases. We’d drive off with him to a motel for another spoil-us-rotten weekend, momentarily forgetting how he wasn’t in our lives. Or, would this be one of the numerous occasions when he didn’t show up?
One of those times, my sister and I, dressed, coats zipped up, suitcases ready, waited patiently by the front door. Then, the allotted time passed and no Dad. Hours went by, still no Dad and no phone call. Our mother tried to locate him by making a series of calls. Her anger with him—for us, for herself—palpable. Coats removed, suitcases stashed, she wiped away our tears, and finally, a phone call came days later. He didn’t have money for gas, or his car broke down, or he had to work, or who knows what the fuck else of an excuse he’d come up with. Not once, but over and over this took place. Our childhood a never-ending, continuous loop of disappointment.
How to explain simultaneous love and hate? Or concurrent joy and anger? Recently, since seeing my dead father out and about in the world, I realized how I felt about him: I loved him and hated him; he made me happy and so fucking mad. I now see my entire involvement with him existed on a yo-yo continuum. He could be the most charming man—father—in the entire world one day—bringing us gifts, taking us to the movies, showing us a good, fun, time. Through a child’s filter he loved us, he brought us happiness, and we loved him back. Followed by a long absence, a cancellation or a no-show when he was supposed to take us for the weekend, or some other equally injurious hurt. After one of these, the tears, the anger, and the hatred bubbled to the surface, polluting the prior felt love. This up and down, love to hate, joy to anger went on all through my childhood, into my adulthood, up to his death.
Buddy—the nickname he earned growing up with four siblings outside Oklahoma City—was a jokester and a kidder; a big, overgrown kid. Bighearted too, generous of spirit, he was kind to small children and animals. Without question, I know a gentle soul resided within the man. Social, he loved people, he loved his family; he had Okie and country blood in his veins. He used to sing Merle Haggard’s lyrics “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” over and over. And he meant it. From him, I learned to appreciate my Okie heritage. The salt of the earth, hardscrabble people my relatives were and still are; survivors. People and a place he evolved from.
But, there was another side to the man that didn’t jive with the Okie-identifying, softhearted big kid version. Life kicked him in the teeth over and over, and he took the hits. He didn’t fight back. His divorce from my mother. His unintended abandonment of his children. His failed career—stuck in middle management after earning an MBA. His second marriage to a horribly controlling woman. A woman who cut him off from his siblings, from his children, from his friends. The parts of him I hated were the results of him quitting, giving into life: his confusion about right and wrong when it came to us kids, his passivity, and laziness in not doing the right thing or allowing others to decide what he wanted, or even what he felt, and the selfishness all of this manifested. He ended up a depressed, inadequate, and indolent wimp, and he knew he was. And I hated him for it.
I now see the hatred overrides any love I may have felt. It is the stronger of the two emotions, and I don’t know if it is changeable. I have often wondered if it would have been easier not to have a father, to not know there was a man out there in the world, living and breathing, who was my so-called “father”—the man who gave me life. The mere fact he existed and ignored us feels more problematic, difficult, and painful than if he simply didn’t exist or had permanently disappeared. The hurting hurt over and over and over, and it still does. And, once dead, no going back. A door slammed shut, hard, in my face. I’d forever believed there would be enough time to fix it. Then, there was not.
I have a French friend who, when she was a young girl, lost her mother to suicide. She once told me a story of walking along the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan where she lived during her early twenties and passing a woman who looked exactly like her long-dead mother. Her mother she hadn’t seen since childhood. She stopped and turned around to look for her, and when she did, the woman wasn’t there.
I understood why she told me the story. It gave me chills then, it still does now. Was the woman she saw her mother, a ghost, something else? Who can say? It’s not important. For her, it was real. Somehow, the woman who brushed past her and then vanished was her mother. I feel the same about my fatherly sightings. He can be real for me, there in the flesh, if I decide he is. He hasn’t ever come to me in my dreams, not that I remember or am aware of—only in these sightings. Unfinished business, it could be. I suppose we have quite a bit. I wanted something from him he could not give, and I know he was aware of failing my sister and me. I know he felt guilty and remorseful but not enough to fix it. That’s the unfinished business.
No matter the explanation or understanding of the sightings, they bring me comfort. These are unanswerable questions. I accept he might be somehow trying to reach me. Why would I ever not? Why would I cut myself off from that possibility, from any possibility? I wouldn’t and I won’t. After all, who truly knows the truth of what is out there, of how these things work? The dead versus the living. We should all be open, like a conduit, to all of it, to any possibility. Shouldn’t we?
C. GREGORY THOMPSON lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes fiction, nonfiction, plays, and memoir. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offbeat,Printers Row Journal, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Every Writer’s Resource, and 2paragraphs. He was named a finalist in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s 2015 Fiction Contest. His short play Cherry won two playwriting awards. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert. He is on Twitter as @cgregthompson.
I take my first shaky step and see my eight-year-old son standing on the same thin rope one hundred feet above the ground as he takes a step in my direction. “Raphael! Are you okay?” I ask, panic edging my voice.
Raphael looks directly at me from what seems like an insurmountable distance across the tight rope. He stands still for a moment, balanced. “Mom, I’m okay. You need to just think about yourself now,” he says.
I see my son’s intent gaze, long eyelashes, café-au-lait–colored skin, the face of my father, the face I know better then my own. I am barely holding steady and realize that in order for me to make it across and hug him briefly, as instructed, for this trust-building exercise, every last part of me needs to be focused. I need to let go and be in my own moment in order to reach Raphael.
We are on a challenge ropes course at Camp Tawonga, near Yosemite, at a special family camp weekend for multi-racial, Jewish, inter-faith families. I’ve tried a couple different family camps and it’s hard to find one that fits our family: LGBT, “Keshet” (rainbow), inter-faith, biracial, single parent. I’m hoping for “spiritual renewal,” to find kinship, perhaps some answers, by connecting to similar families, or maybe just some rest, when Raphael spends time with his father or other kids. But much of the time Raphael is clingy, not wanting me to be far away, often not wanting to participate in the camp activities. So when he enthusiastically demands we do the ropes course, I know I have to go.
We have on harnesses, but for me, it’s still terrifying. I’ve only stepped up because Raphael asked it of me, knowing that this exercise is not something his dad would ever participate in—the heights, the tightrope. His dad and I have been separated since Raphael was eight months old, but he agreed, warily, to travel with us for this family camp weekend. It’s still a time in our lives that we sometimes attempt to be a family, though not together as a couple. Perhaps he too is hoping to find examples of families like ours to look to for a model to co-parent together. He is down below, looking up at us, standing alone.
Raphael and I walk towards each other. I am utterly present; to do otherwise, I’d fall. My worries slip away—financial, mother-son tug of wars, ongoing tension with his dad. The still uncut umbilical cord propels us closer, step by step. With one big step, we meet, hug, and somehow find the coordination to move as if in one graceful motion as we edge past each other to the opposite side, and then go down to the ground. We hug again, longer. “I love you,” we say to each other.
It’s October 9, 2015, about eleven years later after the ropes course we did at Camp Tawonga. In the near future, Raphael will move out of the recovery house that he will have been in for almost two years, since January 2014, when he was just short of eighteen years old. During that time, he’s graduated from a local high school, found his first real job, gotten sober, and managed to turn his life around; he’s excited, following the plan of moving out to an apartment with two other graduates of the recovery program.
I’m suddenly terrified. The scaffolding of the young man’s recovery house, the “New Life House” will still exist as a place to go for support, but in reality it’s time for him to go out and live his life. He’s only nineteen, soon to be twenty, and I’m fucking scared.
I have spent the last three weeks spinning out of control myself, worried perhaps I won’t graduate from school, the long awaited book and MFA maybe not completed. Perhaps I won’t be able to support myself in the world as I get older. Perhaps I’ll lose my mind like my mom. Seeing my mom as we knew her vanish adds to my sense of shakiness, utter lack of control, as I prepare for Raphael to go out in the world.
My mom talks about fairies that might come rescue her from the assisted living residence she calls prison and take her home to the Bronx where she hasn’t lived for more than sixty years. Recently she was questioned by a social worker to determine if she still had dementia and qualified for her long term care plan: “I can’t tell you how old I am. But I can tell this—I do exist,” she said.
Five years ago, when I was fifty-one, I decided that I needed to make a visible statement and get a tattoo. Hineni: I am here. I had the Hebrew words tattooed on me. My brother in his Mr. Spockian way said, “I am here? Is this a map?” (Like “you are here.”) I have a Hamsa (to ward off the evil eye) on my back and Hineni in Hebrew letters is inscribed below. Very tiny Hebrew letters, because after all, I don’t want to be a target.
For years I contemplated a tattoo and went over what I’d want and where. I researched the rules on Jews and tattoos and found out that it’s urban legend about the ban on tattoos, and in fact, in Israel, some very high percentage of people, ages, say, nineteen to forty, have tattoos. And you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I went to a tattoo artist who turned out to know me and my son from a co-op preschool that our kids went to in Sierra Madre many years ago.
The place I went to get my tattoo was called Shangri-La, and it looked like that, vines of bright scarlet, purple, and orange bougainvillea intertwined with Province Blue Morning Glory, and sweet-smelling jasmine. The studio was in the backyard of the tattoo artist, and I felt as if I were walking into another dimension. After I approved a mock up of the tattoo based on my ideas, she started her work, turning her needle buzzing quietly into my skin, while she explained that the natural endorphins would kick in after a bit of pain.
At first I did feel intense jabs of pain. (I’d asked a woman getting a tattoo in Old Pasadena which hurt more—getting waxed or getting a tattoo—and she had said waxing for sure.) But the pain was sharp enough that I gasped and I asked the tattoo artist to tell me a story about herself and how she decided on her profession. Her dad, a biker and also a rocket scientist, suggested it to her as a way of making a living; she’d been trained as an artist and illustrator.
And then miraculously those endorphins did kick in as she was asking me about myself. I told her all about me, about the recent episode getting my nose broken by a sheriff’s deputy when I couldn’t immediately find my metro ticket, and about losing everything because of my marriage break up and unblended family. (I didn’t yet know what more I might lose or have the potential to lose because of addiction). But at that point I’d decided I had survived. By the time, I got to the point in my story where I was saying that I was now okay, “and that’s what happened,” she’d put the finishing touches on my tattoo.
In the last three weeks, I thought that now I had the freedom to go off the deep end myself because my son seemed to be doing beyond well and my step-daughter had stopped talking to me and everyone else for a bit. So I felt free to obsess, agitate, and generally neglect my own wellbeing. I’ve thought about using heroin—for real—and for the first time. I’ve “self-harmed.” I dug a hole in my leg with my fingernails as I tried to feel, to give a face to the pain that wracked me following an argument with my girlfriend. My first cutting like incident at age fifty-six. Is there a support group for older onset cutters?
I’m glad the black and blue mark, the jagged scar/scab, remains so I can remember. I did that. I went there. I knew I was bleeding inside and I wanted the red, the injury, to be visible. Then perhaps the pain would stop: I would be seen. But perhaps I’m only seen as insane. I’ve also contacted my old ex—“mi Chiquita”—via text, and I’ve cut it off, seemingly for good. She’s my heroin and I’ve had to stop.
I started looking at violent Internet porn, something I’ve got control over, unlike my dreams. Throughout my life, I’ve often dreamt of being raped and I have an orgasm while still resisting. It reflects the real-life complications of my sexuality, how many times I have been aroused in my life by what seems to be something, somebody so wrong, and yet some kind of twisted sexual friction is created, a Pavlovian response that I imagine began when I was around eleven or twelve and was sexually abused by my piano teacher back in the woods where the Jewish Temple was being built.
We’d recently moved to the hated suburbs outside of Seattle—Bellevue—from the inner city where I had been a tough tomboy: “Sammy Boy.” Now we were outcasts in the WASPish land of what we called ultra-suburbanite snobs. In those days we stayed out all afternoon and evening playing increasingly complicated games with the local kids where I tried to teach them about spying, starting a gang which was a cross between my “West Side Story” (which I had memorized in entirety) and my old rough playground.
I went back to the woods with another piano student, a girl from the neighborhood who was developing already, popular with the sleazy guys for her breasts and willingness. We walked into the woods with our nineteen-year-old piano teacher, who was crater-faced with bright, inflamed pimples. I can’t remember how we first began these walks out to the woods, the same woods where the older kids would sneak out late at night to play spin-the-bottle and smoke pot. Did we think it odd that our piano teacher wanted to go back into the woods alone with him; did we do this after our piano lessons? We walked through the path in the woods and it was probably already dusk. It gets dark early in the winter in Washington and we must have walked back there, the trail behind our neighbors’ house in the fading light, surrounded by moist, lightly rained upon ground and trees. The hammers of the workman who were building a Jewish Temple could be heard in the distance, but they would soon cut out for the day. Did we take a flashlight?
I remember once out there sitting down with him and perhaps one of us asked him about what was the lump in his pants—or did he guide one of our hands to it? Or did he just start talking about “his handkerchief” as he moved our hands and we felt it through his pants first? I began to get a funny sick feeling in my stomach. “Touch it, it’s soft,” he told us. He moved our hands on his pants where the crotch went from being soft and full to feeling much harder after he moved our hands back forth and then he pulled it out—a big wide fleshy penis; it seemed enormous and swollen, the color reddish purple, not exactly like the large pimples that covered his neck and face. I imagined he touched us too because I remember starting to wonder, to even be curious to see what it would be like to have that penis inside me. “It would bust you wide open, so we have to wait,” our piano teacher told us.” Some days we stayed out there kind of late, almost dark, dinnertime, but I always made it back before my dad would come looking for me.
I can’t remember what happened exactly that last time, only the sound of my dad entering the woods, his flashlight, annoyance in his voice as he called out for me, and the sudden rush of shame and fear as the three of us stood up and walked quickly out of the woods.
I’m guessing I was sexually aroused because I sense that was when those dreams and those feelings started. And thinking about the possibility of having been aroused as a child, when I was being sexually abused—a memory which makes my stomach churn, now even as I picture the bright blistery pimples on his face—offers a clue as to why I might turn to something completely wrong, like the violent porn I had begun watching for the first time.
Until someone more knowledgeable than me said, “Stop—it’s an extremely difficult addiction to break.” After the post-menopausal drought of libido, and the despair I had been feeling but not understanding, my body was beginning to respond to the rough, sometimes even brutal sexual images, almost like a drug. All my past years of being sexual with the wrong” person, getting driven by those intense pulsating hormones and endorphins that immediately turned to shame after an orgasm and resulted in so many twisted, dangerous, near-rape and actual-rape experiences. This was coupled with my inability to keep feeling sexual with someone who felt safe. My feelings changed so quickly to shame and inertia that I’d rather just sit and watch videos, eat, ruminate, or anything else other than try to rouse my shut-down body.
The thing that has held solid for me now for so many years is writing, and I finally thought I’d made the space to concentrate on it. But I found myself focusing on everything else but the writing. I was yanked away by the rip currents of my mom leaving us as the mom we knew. Moving her close to her children in Southern California from where she had lived more than forty-five years in Washington, propelled her into a much more advanced state of dementia. Now we have to wipe her butt, try to get her to take her medication, and leave her as painfully as leaving a pleading toddler.
I’ve just simply been thrashing about. I still long for something that I don’t believe I have—complete freedom to write and the belief I’ll be okay. In reality I could decide to believe that I have that kind of choice and abundance. Then again, I might never write another intelligent word or decent story that anyone will read. Over the years, I’ve painstakingly eked out some writing here and there while attending to the more urgent needs of others: son, step-daughter, work, aging parents. After witnessing how fragile life could be, watching my mom start to lose her mind and my son almost lose his life, I decided I couldn’t put off seizing my time to write. But it’s hard, this business of focusing on and believing in oneself.
For many years, I held an image of sitting in the woods, head leaning against a long-haired woman. She was comforting me, perhaps stroking my hair and singing and our child was in my lap.
I held onto this image as I lost baby after baby and endured rage after rage and suffered my own rages and bouts of craziness flailing about in my desperation to “be seen.” (And what the hell does that mean anyway?) What was that urgent despair that demanded I be a mother, I carry a baby, I create this safe haven, this nurturing and nurtured family? That I didn’t actually create—or rather what I did create was so distorted, it didn’t look like that safe home in nature. But I did create something, something solid, a strength my kids know exists. They know I’m there day after day; my family and my friends know that in my so-very-imperfect mode of being in the world—messy, interrupting, inconsistent at times—I’m a person who loves unsinkably, solidly loyal. Now it’s time to look that love in the mirror.
I’ve felt secure enough in my son’s recovery, his sobriety, to believe that I was free to go back to my old ways, the self-torture, rumination, all the anxiety I was raised with by my family, in particular my dad. Instead I discover I must be vigilant. Lack of gratitude will cause life to simply slap the shit out of me. If I don’t enjoy or at least appreciate every moment I have on the earth with a living, vibrant life-loving son out in the world, well, I’ll get kicked in the butt. Even if I can’t always sing with gratitude, I need to stop this genetically ingrained journey to the hellhole of regret and worry. And when I remember Raphael staggering about with his eyes rolled back of his head, saying he didn’t have much more time, then I need to remember how lucky I am that he does exist, that he’s found a spirituality, a core of inner strength, and support system that I alone could not create for him.
I want there to be some kind of “letting go” ceremony. “It all happened too quickly,” one friends says, lamenting the absence of her two sons finally gone off to live their lives, university and beyond. I remember my son saying to me so long ago on the tightrope walking that rope’s course we did together, “Mom, I’m okay, I will be all right. Worry about yourself now.” I’m not so sure I’m ready to let go. I’m not so sure I’m ready to worry only about myself.
CARLA SAMETH is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in several anthologies and has appeared in online and print publications including Mutha Magazine, Narratively, Pasadena Weekly, Tikkun, La Bloga and forthcoming in Brain, Child. Her story “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which originally appeared in Narratively, was also selected for Longreads, “Five Stories on Addiction.” Carla was awarded a merit scholarship from the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program in 2014, and is currently an MFA candidate with the Queens University of Charlotte in Latin America. She has helped others tell their stories as co-founder of The Pasadena Writing Project, through her business, iMinds PR, and as a writing instructor/mentor with WriteGirl working with incarcerated youth. Carla is working on a memoir of her non-traditional journey as a single mother to two children, born four months apart, now twenty years old.
At six-thirty on the morning of October 1, 2015, I drove a rented minivan down Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, trying to figure out how to get to Brooklyn. I’d taken the red-eye flight from Washington State, where I live, to Newark Airport the night before. I had no internet access, no GPS, no interstate road map. I’d brought hard copy directions for only one route, which highway construction had promptly rendered irrelevant. So, after an unplanned pre-dawn detour through Elizabeth, New Jersey, I blindly picked my way to the Holland Tunnel, subsequently missed the exit for the Brooklyn Bridge, and now hunted for the Manhattan Bridge. On the radio, weather forecasts worried over newly christened Hurricane Joaquin, which could soon make landfall in New York.
I’d grown up in New Jersey and, long ago, had frequented New York City. But now, at forty-four, I felt disoriented by even the few landmarks I recognized. In truth, disorientation had been the leitmotif of my forties. When I was forty-one, Asher, the child I’d raised, moved to Bellingham, Washington, three hours from home, to attend university. Now, three years later, he was a twenty-one-year-old college graduate and had relocated again, this time to New York to begin a doctoral program on a fellowship. He’d initially rented a room in Manhattan’s Vanderbilt YMCA. Today, he began a lease on his own Brooklyn apartment.
After an hour rectifying wrong turns, motorists tailing me, honking, I found the bridge and crossed the East River. Asher had arrived in New York with two suitcases of clothes and books. He needed everything. I had a rented mini-van, a two-night stay at a Brooklyn inn, and $1,500. And, in the next forty-eight hours, Asher and I needed to buy, haul, and build an apartment’s worth of IKEA furniture, procure every necessary household item from cutlery to curtains, and cobble together a grocery larder from merchandise sold at neighborhood bodegas and Duane Reed pharmacies. Still, as I drove the unfamiliar Brooklyn streets, I paradoxically felt newly grounded, about to be reunited with Asher and with my previous raison d’être: day-to-day tasks of single parenthood. Without those tasks, I’d lost my bearings completely.
I got pregnant with Asher when I was twenty-two, too old to be unprepared and too young to be well-prepared. Parenthood gave me direction; like many young mothers, I grew up because of my child. Before motherhood, I’d been a tepid student who did well in subjects I enjoyed, struggled in subjects I didn’t, and spent very little time studying. As a mom, I had a perfect GPA; I earned a bachelor’s degree when Asher was four, a master’s degree in English when he was five, and a Creative Writing MFA when he was seven. Before Asher, I reliably held down dead-end jobs. By the time he finished first grade, I had a profession. Teaching community college English, I designed curriculum, spearheaded committees, and received tenure shortly after Asher’s tenth birthday.
It’s not as if we didn’t struggle. Motherhood, though, made small triumphs seem not only possible, but necessary. Statewide budget freezes stalemated my salary, but I managed to save four years’ worth of in-state college tuition for Asher in a 529c. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune digestive condition, Crohn’s Disease, but I managed to maintain my schedule despite the disease’s erratic flares. No matter how sick I got, I rarely missed work and never missed Asher’s school concerts, back to school nights, fund-raisers, or doctor’s appointments. I was awake at five o’clock many mornings and still awake most nights at midnight. I taught twenty-five to thirty credits a quarter, a sixty-hour work week I organized, as best I could, around Asher’s six-hour school days. And yet, I managed to read and write a lot. Before Asher, my rough drafts remained unrevised and unpublishable. Now, my stories and essays got finished, sometimes got picked up by journals, and, just before Asher entered high school, my first book was accepted for publication.
I approached his adolescence with considerable apprehension, but Asher was a teenager with excellent grades and SAT scores. He fell in love with political theory and read difficult texts, which he could discuss with striking recall. He amassed an impressive vocabulary, played guitar, maintained friendships, sometimes dated and sometimes didn’t, and sang bass in his high school choir. He had no worst-case scenario teen problems—no tendencies toward violence, self-harming, substance abuse, or devastating dishonesty. He had no trouble at school, with his friends, or with the law. And he had no trouble with me. We shared a 425-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment in Seattle. We invaded each other’s space with our music, habits, and moods. During tense, protracted moments, we got on one another’s nerves. But with the exception of occasional, brief temper flares, we got along. We had to.
During those years, we shared certain tastes: Tim O’Brien, Slavoj Zizek, Phil Ochs, and college radio. We saw Neutral Milk Hotel and The Mountain Goats in concert. He taught me to like folk-punk. I taught him to like Stephen Sondheim. My leftist political leanings influenced his until his radicalism far outstripped mine. At sixteen, he marched in anti-capitalist protests and wrote original songs, one of which contained the lyric, “Please don’t call me a socialist. You don’t know what that word means.” Once a week, we’d go out to dinner at mid-priced neighborhood restaurants. One hosted a trivia game, and we’d lose spectacularly in categories dedicated to pop culture or the Beatles. We had favorite servers whom I tipped lavishly, a habit Asher lauded and would later adopt.
It was halfway through his senior year of high school when Asher decided to attend college in Bellingham. He would begin undergraduate studies shortly after his eighteenth birthday. That summer of 2012, fueled and afflicted by an almost unimaginable level of anxiety, Asher and I took long walks whenever time allowed. We walked from our Seattle neighborhood, Capitol Hill, to Ballard, a neighborhood seven miles north, and back. We walked around Lake Washington. We walked the entire length of the cities of Eugene, Oregon and Olympia, Washington. We walked five or six hours at a time, barely speaking except to recycle familiar, longstanding exchanges about punk music, politics, superficial happenings, and light memories. Maybe we were both too terrified of what came next to talk about it. We probably should have talked about it.
The day I moved him to Bellingham, we played Frank Turner’s “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the One of Me” in the car and sang along to calm our nerves. By the time we’d driven through two counties, even singing was too much, and we played that game of finding letters of the alphabet, in order, on billboards, road signs, and business marquis. We seized happily on the Quality Inn when, for several miles, we’d needed a Q.
In his dorm room, I helped him unpack his belongings, putting sheets on his plastic mattress, stacking his jeans and T-shirts in the cramped, musty wooden dresser drawers. I couldn’t identify the lumpy, khaki-colored goo on one of the bedposts and was glad that Asher had arrived before his two roommates so he wouldn’t get stuck with that bed. Even having lived in small apartments my entire adult life, I couldn’t imagine how the room would possibly accommodate three occupants. And, in fact, by winter term, one of the boys would have left school and Asher would have moved off-campus, into an apartment of his own that he’d keep until he moved to New York. But in that moment, I imagined this would be his home for the full year. Before I left, Asher stood just inside his small room, and I stood in the hall. We looked at each other over the threshold. I said, “Well,” and it seemed to occur to both of us, possibly at the same second, that I was getting back in the car to drive three hours home without him. I saw my own panic mirrored in his expression.
Over the next several months, as Asher got increasingly acclimated, and then attached, to academic life, I’d probe the anxiety I continued to feel. Particular fears, I knew, necessarily accompanied launching a child: What if they get lonely? Hurt? Hungry? Disappointed? What if they fail in the very ways they’d most hoped to succeed? What if they begin to regard us—their parents—in our increased obsolescence, with embarrassment and contempt? I shared those fears with most parents, but, like most parents, I also knew these things would happen to my child at some point, that they happen to nearly everyone. So, what was it, exactly, that I was afraid of?
I recalled that, during my years of single parenthood, I’d sometimes optimistically anticipate the roomy, productive life I’d lead after he left for college. I’d exponentially increase my writing and reading; I’d foster animals, go to conferences, make new friends, go to happy hours with colleagues, and join a gym. Instead, my life lost its shape. I went to work and I went home. I carpooled with my boyfriend, a single parent himself with a seventeen-year-old son. We’d say good-bye before dinner-time. He’d go home to the fully occupying duties of parenthood, and I’d regard the long hours ahead of me with alarm. He’d look at me with concern. What happened—he seemed to wonder—to the girlfriend he’d known, to the competent woman who made productive use of her time? I didn’t know. My time, I realized, was now the source of my fear.
I fostered no pets, attended no conferences, and made no new friends. I went to happy hour twice before declining further invitations. I joined a gym, attended briefly, and quit. I couldn’t sleep. Unable to focus, I’d squander hours looking through other people’s Facebook pictures, people who still had at-home children, who smiled with them at dance recitals and family dinners. Or I’d pace my empty apartment, saying mundane things aloud, like, “My goodness, I’m nearly out of shampoo!” Still awake at two in the morning, I’d watch through the window as my neighbor, a woman in her early sixties, staggered to her kitchen sink to pour out the remnants of her long night’s second or third box of wine. I knew she had a grown, far-away child. I worried that, in her, I glimpsed my own future.
I stopped reading and, worst of all, I couldn’t write. I revisited an old manuscript, revised it, re-revised it, and sent it to a publisher. But that was the most I could do. Whenever I tried to begin a new project, the blank document on my computer screen stayed blank. Or I’d write a sentence or two, lose heart, and delete everything. More than writer’s block, I felt the same “blank page” horror about writing as I did about every area of my life.
By late spring of 2013, Asher had been settled at his university and in his off-campus apartment for some time, and—still unable to sleep, read, or write—I started spending evenings in my kitchen, baking. I’d been a competent, though unadventurous, scratch baker when Asher lived with me—occasional cookies or muffins for him, occasional cakes or pies for company. But now, I became fearless. I figured out cream puffs, cake pops, and Turkish delight. I went from someone who knew how to clarify butter to someone who knew how to make butter. To justify the time and money I spent on my habit, I baked for my students. I baked for my boyfriend and his son. I brought goodies to colleagues. I mailed them to Asher and to out-of-town friends. I baked pies for my apartment manager, for workmen coming to fix my sink, for my physician and his staff. I baked all evening, nearly every evening. Then I branched out into meals, doing everything the long way: Manicotti with handmade shells, enchiladas with handmade tortillas, saag paneer with handmade paneer. I bought fenugreek and sumac and saffron. I made meals for anyone I could think of, including a group of women I barely knew, whom I’d met through a Crohn’s support group I began attending because, one evening a week, the group gave me somewhere to go.
More than a year after Asher left for college, a handful of women from the support group began coming to my apartment every Tuesday, after our meetings, to cook with me. They were busy wives or moms with at-home kids, dependent on pancake mixes and boxed foods the way busy people often are. They wanted to learn, and figuring out how to teach them became the organizing principle of my post-parenthood life. No, I couldn’t read novels, but I could read ethnographic cookbooks. I couldn’t write essays or stories, but I could write recipes. We called ourselves the Crohn’s Crones, and we cooked together for nearly two years. At our zenith, we provided make-ahead meals for up to seventy people. For the Crohn’s Crones, I planned menus, disseminated shopping lists, determined the division of cooking labor, cooked, oversaw other people’s cooking, and coordinated packaging and distribution of food. Every Tuesday evening, we’d cook until after midnight, elbow to elbow in my tiny kitchen, crowded so tightly that bruises and burns and broken dishes became weekly expectations. And, every Wednesday, after delivering my portion of the previous night’s food, I’d begin figuring out the next week’s recipes.
Meanwhile, my brainy teen became a true academic. On track to finish his BA one year early, he began to prepare graduate school applications. He applied to five programs, four at others people’s suggestion, and one, the CUNY Graduate Center, which he’d chosen because its faculty included theorists whose writing he admired. I imagined him walking down subway steps in Manhattan, freshly dry-cleaned shirts on hangers, over his shoulder. Compared to his scholarly acumen, my time-consuming cooking project seemed senseless—evidence, I worried, that the productive focus I’d found during motherhood had been permanently replaced by nebulous, dead-end ventures similar to those I’d known before he was born. And as though to punctuate this worry, the very day Asher received his acceptance and fellowship offer from CUNY, the publisher to whom I’d sent my re-revised book, and who’d held it in hand for more than a year, rejected it.
I sent the manuscript out again just before Asher graduated university, Magna Cum Laude, in June, 2015, the day before his twenty-first birthday. He would move to New York that summer and begin his doctoral studies that fall. He seemed delighted, full of hope and excitement. I, on the other hand, lying awake at night, still unable to read or write, anticipated his future with a kind of terrified admiration. Asher had been to New York City exactly once before—a tenth grade choir trip. At just barely twenty-one, he was moving across the country to a city of nine million strangers. He had no housing lined up beyond an extended stay at the YMCA. “I’m figuring it out, Mom,” he told me. “Don’t worry.”
But, during those anguishing weeks he spent at the Y, it seemed perhaps that it wouldn’t get figured out. He answered Craigslist ads for roommates, went to see person after person, place after place. He waited outside a shabby month-to-month basement rental in Queens for a landlord who didn’t show. He’d text me every day. “Moving to New York was a terrible idea,” he wrote once. Finally, he secured a rent-stabilized studio in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and now it was October 1, 2015, and I was here—on a quiet, residential street, outside a charming, old brownstone—enjoying the chance, however ephemerally, to be a mom again. Brooklyn is fewer than thirty miles from Newark. The drive took four times longer than it should have.
We started in high spirits—maladroitly stacking boxes of IKEA merchandise on a flat-bed cart, too heavy for us to push with any accuracy, laughing as we wrangled the boxes into the back of the rented mini-van and then, again, as we heaved them up the narrow stairs of Asher’s walk-up brownstone. We laughed at the municipal, unwelcoming “NO SMOKING” signs in his building’s hallways and at the industrial garbage can his landlord had left behind, a giant in Asher’s 300-square-foot apartment. We laughed as we spent an hour, and then two, and then four, building dressers and bookshelves, and trying to figure out the inscrutable IKEA instructions for his daybed. We got hungry and tired. We hammered our fingers and swore. Just past midnight, we called it a day. Because we hadn’t finished building his bed, he stayed in my hotel room that night. We tried to maintain good humor, noting that one of the room’s beds was a Murphy and that the bathroom’s strange shower, straight from horror movies, had a wall of tiny spigots that looked like grimacing mouths.
The next day, we went to the Target store on Atlantic Avenue. Hurricane Joaquin had blown out to sea, but Brooklyn suffered collateral rains, deep puddles, and strong wind. Crowds filled the store where shelves were largely bare. There were no microwaves, no brooms or dustbins, no curtains, no curtain rods. An emergency exit alarm blared for an hour before someone deactivated it. Later, we would be able to find humor in the young Hasidic children, whose mother was not much older than Asher, tunelessly playing plastic kazoos in the cleaning supplies aisle. Asher glared at one of them and said, “Enough of that,” in Yiddish. The child stopped, looked at him, quickly determined Asher held no authority, and, with increased volume, resumed playing. Later, we would be able to find humor in how the storm blew our cart down the block after we’d unloaded it, about the confused way I’d parked in a taxi loading zone, about my nervous, incompetent driving back to Asher’s apartment. But, at that moment, tense, rain-soaked, and exhausted, we still had a daybed to finish building and groceries to buy. I flew home the next afternoon. We were running out of time.
We finished the daybed at two that morning, went back to the inn, slept a few hours, then spent the next morning finishing whatever we could. We found a small market and bought groceries. Asher would have to purchase and hang curtains on his own. He planned to go to the Bed, Bath, and Beyond in the Village. He said, “But I think I should go with you to the airport first.” And this time, when I got disoriented trying to find the Manhattan Bridge, Asher was in the passenger seat, telling me, turn by turn, how to find my way in a city he was learning, in a life that was becoming wholly his own. This time, the drive between Brooklyn and Newark took forty minutes.
We said good-bye on the shuttle I’d take to the airport terminal and he’d take to connect with transit back into the city. My stop came first. From the platform, I could see him, still on the shuttle. During my visit, he frequently took short breaks from furniture building in order to exchange text messages with new friends. Now, he already had his phone in hand.
I slept most of the return flight. Something had shifted, though I couldn’t pinpoint what. Asher would come to visit in December. By then, I would have gotten engaged, moved into my boyfriend’s house, disbanded my cooking group, and started reading again. But on the plane back to Seattle, I only remembered something another mother had once told me, after her own child had moved away: “The only thing that makes life as different as when they’re born is when they leave.” And now I recalled that, during Asher’s first year of life, when he was colicky and unable to sleep, days and nights blurred. Then, as now, I needed years before I could discern their structure.
The day after I returned from Brooklyn, the publisher I’d sent my manuscript to, and then had largely forgotten about, accepted my second book. And now, four years after the end of custodial parenthood, I’m trying to relearn how to write. For weeks now, I’ve tried to reorient myself by writing these words. Getting here took four times longer than it should have.
CORRINA WYCOFF is the author of two books of fiction, the short story collection O Street (OV Books, 2007) and the novel, Damascus House (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016). Her fiction and essays have appeared in anthologies, journals, and magazines. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, and teaches English at Pierce College.
I held his hand as we crossed the street from parking garage to hospital. The black-and-white lines painted on the asphalt guided us to the automatic door that whooshed us into the building. He was eight years old, and his fingers felt sticky from breakfast, sugar, and sweat. I let go of him only for a moment so I could check my watch. We were on time. Neither of us wanted to do this, though I had tried my best to spin it as a grand adventure.
“You’ll get to see a cool video of your own heart,” I had told him at least two hundred times leading up to this day.
“I know, Mama,” he had come to say. “I know.”
“Don’t you think that will be cool?” I had said it again that very morning at the Dunkin Donuts.
He had plucked a sugar-covered chocolate donut hole from a bag, and said, “Yes.” He popped it in his mouth and licked the sugar from his fingertips. “Very exciting.” He was like this all the time. Even his understatements were understated. He endured me.
I had known what would happen when I told his doctor what Owen was regularly saying. “He says his heart feels like it’s beating funny, and sometimes his chest hurts.” You can’t say those words to any responsible medical professional and not set this chain of events in motion. Though our doctor had said all the appropriate “I’m-sure-it’s-nothings,” she ordered an x-ray, EKG, and an echo, and referred him to a pediatric cardiology practice no fewer than one hundred and ten miles from our rural home.
“Oh, look,” I said, finding the name of the practice on a directory. We had entered the cool and quiet of the medical building. The floor glistened beneath our sandals. “We need to go to the fourth floor. We get to take the elevator. Want to press the buttons?”
“Yes,” he said, scanning the length of the hallway. “I do.” He was carrying Tiny White, the floppy, dirty, white bear with a blue hat and scarf that Santa brought to our house many holidays ago. The bear didn’t exactly go everywhere with us, but he was pressed into service for special events.
In the elevator, he reached up and pressed the four button. The doors dinged and closed and the floor started to rise. Owen smiled. “I like elevators,” he said.
To call our area “rural” doesn’t quite capture the experience of living over a hundred miles from the nearest Starbucks, airport, shopping mall, or franchised restaurant without a drive-up window. In easternmost Maine, we all drive to Bangor to do anything much of anything. We grocery shop, do our banking, and fill our prescriptions locally, but if we need running shoes, jeans from someplace other than Walmart, a roller rink, or to see a medical specialist, we all make the trip across Route Nine, through the dense, endless wild. So to Owen, an elevator was a relatively big deal. A trip to Bangor was a celebration, and I was determined that our day would include some fun to underscore that this was nothing.
We found the right door and let ourselves into the waiting room. The receptionist gave me a clipboard and a pen, and Owen flipped through a Lego magazine while I wrote his name and birthday on at least nine different pieces of paper. Then we waited together in side-by-side chairs with wooden arms and scratchy upholstery. I ran my fingertips across the surface of his back, scratching him through his tee-shirt. He had picked out a Lego Star Wars shirt especially for today. With his tee-shirt, Tiny White in his lap, and the Lego magazine opened across his knees, he looked exactly like who he was, and it was my own heart that assumed an irregular rhythm.
In the first room, where they did the EKG, he told the nurse or the PA or whatever she was that he had an irregular heartbeat. She nodded, looked at me, and said, “He’s right. He does.”
I thought about how our family doctor had looked at me and said, “I’m sure it’s nothing,” and for the first moment since she said that, I doubted. This doubt would not linger past the appointment’s end, just an hour later.
While we waited for the next room, for the next nurse or PA or whatever she would be, I said to him, “Let’s do something fun after this.”
He was looking at something. What was it? The Lego magazine? A book? The television? The floor? I have no idea, but I know he said, “Okay, Mama. Like what?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, trying to think of something we could do in Bangor, something fun, something different. It was summer in Maine. There has to be something.
Something, yes, but this was nothing. It would be nothing.
The echocardiogram was, as predicted, incredibly cool to him, but only for the first ten minutes. “Is that my heart? How is that my heart?”
The black and white, fuzzy images on the screen, constantly in motion may as well have come from a probe on the moon or from distant Tatooine, so unlike were they from any images we understand of the human heart. It was not pink, not red, not even heart-shaped. No black outline, no arrow through it. Its valves opened and closed the way a praying mantis lifts and lowers its legs, and the cross sections were bell-pepper-shaped.
“I don’t see how that’s my heart,” he insisted once more before drifting into the spell of the cartoons on the television high on the wall, strategically placed for viewing from the table. Then he added, “These aren’t very good cartoons.”
The echo tech did her job by not interpreting anything. She didn’t share any reassuring commentary. It was like the ultrasound I had when I was pregnant with my oldest, Abby. Because of her positioning in my uterus, I had a lot of ultrasounds throughout that nine months, and most of the techs were like tour guides of the baby, pointing out toes, elbows, her heart, her little space-alien movements. But one tech was wordless throughout, creating an absence of sound that was louder than any noise I had ever heard. She spoke only at the end when she said, “Do you have an appointment with your doctor this afternoon?” Panic set in, and I went to that appointment already in tears, prepared for a terrible piece of news that was, of course, nonexistent. It was just a tech doing what they are supposed to do: collect, not interpret.
There, next to my son, who was complaining about bad cartoons, I listened to the silence of the tech. She was clicking on her keyboard, capturing measurements, snatching images of Owen’s heart doing various tricks. And I knew. I knew it was bad. I knew it the way I know that there is gravity and that the sun sets and rises each day and the way I knew that I too would eventually die. The scenario spun out in my head—he would need a transplant. This would be our life now. That very day, everything would change and whatever fun thing I thought of to do that afternoon might be the last moment of fun we would have for years, or for months, or maybe forever. This news sank into my bones like a cold front. I checked my watch again. I interpreted, then misinterpreted. We had been in here too long.
It gets hot in July, even in Maine, and it was a day too warm for go-karts. But go-karts were what we decided to do. I drove us across the bridge from Bangor to Holden, following a rush of summer traffic; tourists heading to Bar Harbor, heading to the coast. Owen sat behind me in the back seat, and together we watched for the signs for the go-kart track I had found online. I spotted it. “Is this it?” Owen asked, leaning forward against his seat belt for a better look out the window.
“Yes!” I almost shouted. “Let’s have some fun!” My emphasis on that last word was, perhaps, much more enthusiastic than the situation called for. But he was eight, and I was his mother, and we were going to have some fun.
It was about ninety degrees, and the go-kart track was in full sun. The young attendant who sold us our tickets asked how many minutes I wanted to ride. Rides were sold in seven-minute chunks of time, so I bought three. I looked down at Owen and said, “Let’s ride for twenty minutes the first time. We can go again after that if we want.”
He looked across a grassy expanse that sloped down to the fenced-in go-kart area. A fleet of small vehicles, with lawn-mower-style engines, was lined up, ready to go. Not a single other driver was on the track. We had the entire, squiggly-shaped road to ourselves.
Owen was too small for his own kart, so we were assigned a two-seater. The attendant showed us how to buckle ourselves in, how to steer, and how to brake, then he pulled on the start and the engine noisily fired up. I pulled onto the track, got a feel for the quick, tight steering. With hot wind now blowing through our hair, I stomped on the accelerator, and the kart responded by quickly coming up to racing speed, but there was nobody to race.
Owen gripped his seat. “Mama, I’m not sure you should go this fast.” He was like this all the time: a worried, middle-aged little man in dark-rimmed glasses.
I leaned into a tight turn, felt the tires grip the track. “We’re okay, Owen,” I reassured. “Are you nervous?”
He nodded but was grinning a grin that I took as evidence that I was being an awesome mom in the face of a hard day. We were having fun. His expression proved it, even though his little knuckles were ivory-colored and he had that edge in his voice when he said, “I think you should slow down so we don’t crash.”
I eased off the accelerator and slowed as we took a turn. The breeze stirred up by our forward motion fought the heat. We settled into a comfortable speed, and I steered the vehicle around and around the track. Owen’s body seemed to lighten as he relaxed into the activity, though I did not sense any actual joy. He watched the scenery pass by—the entrance gate, the parked row of karts, the booth where the attendant sat, the highway, the entrance gate again—over and over and didn’t say anything. I sped up and slowed down and leaned over and yelled over the noise, “Isn’t this fun?”
He met my eyes with his, grinned, and nodded, then went back to watching things go past us. His heart, I knew, was beating its irregular rhythm under his Star Wars tee-shirt and moving blood through all the veins in his small body. It ran through the small veins in the fingers he was using to grip the sides of his seat, though his grip had become less fierce. His small heart—how small was it? They say the adult heart is the size of a fist, but perhaps that is an adult fist. Perhaps his heart was the same size as his little, seat-gripping fist that was given its gripping ability by his irregular little heart. Perhaps it was my adult-fist-sized heart that made me grip him this tightly.
Another family appeared at the ticket booth, buying some turns in the go-karts. I thought that this was good, that it would be more fun if there were some obstacles, some challenges, some easy, fun competition. I navigated two turns while watching the group walk to the gate. They waited there. The attendant did not make a move to let them in. I wasn’t sure how many minutes we had been spinning around these arcs, but it seemed that we had a lot of time left.
The other group watched us through the chain link fence, and I felt obligated to pick up the pace. Owen’s knuckles grew white again, but he didn’t say anything. Members of the other group shuffled their feet, glanced at their wrists or their phones, the sun hot on their bare heads. We flew past them, past the parked fleet, past the attendant, letting the hot July wind blow across our bare heads.
“Are we almost done, Mama?” Owen asked me, but I couldn’t hear him over the din of the engine, and he had to say it again. If he had been wearing a watch, he might have checked it.
“I think so,” I shouted back, then added, “This is fun, isn’t it? Do you like it?” I reminded myself to stay in the moment, to experience this summer-in-Maine joy, to stop interpreting and do some more collecting. In a few weeks, Owen would start fourth grade. Summer was short. And here we were, with this new clean bill of health—he did not need a transplant. “A lot of kids have arrhythmias like this one,” the cardiologist had told me. “He’ll grow out of it.”
He will, I know, grow out of all of this. He will grow out of summer and Lego tee-shirts, and go-karting with me. I should be grateful. We should finish this joyous ride in triumph, then go inside the pizzeria next door and order the largest one they make with whatever toppings we want. We should drive home with Owen’s favorite band, The Beatles, cranked all the way up and with both of us singing. We should be awash in summer-healthy-heart joy. I pressed the gas pedal and took a turn as fast as I could. The g-forces pressed Owen into my hip. The wind flattened his hair against his forehead, and he squinted up at me, still hanging on tight to the seat, and I thought, “This is something.”
PENNY GUISINGER’s first book Postcards from Here, published by Vine Leaves Press, will be released on February 16th and is available for pre-order on the 1st. In 2015, one of her essays was named a notable in Best American Essays, and another was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the Founding Director of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. To learn more, visit: www.pennyguisinger.com.
“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.