The College Decision, Postmortem

It’s January, so high school seniors everywhere are finished with college applications and are now just “waiting to hear.” That’s how their parents will phrase it when they bump into friends at the grocery store and church and are asked where Sally or Jack is going to college: “Well, she’s applied to blah blah blah and now we’re just waiting to hear…” Depending on the subtle inflection in the words, there’s hope in them, or exasperation, or desperation, or smugness, or false modesty. When a parent of a high school senior says that one sentence, we are just waiting to hear, so much more is conveyed. There’s, “We are just waiting to hear, but she got Cs and Ds in high school and there were those two incidents with the police so it’s not looking good,” and there’s, “We are just waiting to hear, but what with the four-point-eleven GPA and the National Merit Scholarship and the charity work and the nuclear reactor she built in the garage, we are confident she’ll get in somewhere.” And everything in between.

When decision time is near, the brag factor is real, especially in an area where having parents with graduate degrees and bulging investment portfolios is as common as having a family pet. The kids aren’t the ones doing the bragging, it’s the parents, and though it is born out of pride in their child’s hard work–and the parents’ surviving it–it  catches you off guard, masquerading as chit-chat that sounds like something in a Meg Wolitzer novel. As in, “Cornell is her first choice, but if she doesn’t get in, she may have to settle for Vanderbilt, and we’ve told her life will still go on if you have to go to Vanderbilt…” Or “He got into Stanford, but the scholarships from Duke and Northwestern are so big, one of them might make more sense, you know?”

The brag factor is not only real, it’s strong enough to propel people into decisions so financially unwise, they’re painful to hear about. Parents taking out a second mortgage to pay for Swarthmore, grandparents taking out loans to pay for Amherst, or even students taking on decades of debt to pay for Brown, all because Swarthmore and Amherst and Brown are not only great schools that might give your child a leg up on getting a really good job someday, but because they are all so freaking fun to say when someone asks where your kid is going. Not just fun, but, in some circles, almost necessary to really be a player in the game of smart, sophisticated, suburban parent who shall be taken seriously. At parties or work events, when you are with people who on the short list to become a federal judge, or just sold their third book to Simon and Schuster, or are head of Coronary Care at Hopkins, and someone asks politely where your eighteen year old might go to college, it’s a tough pill to swallow to say a state school or community college.

Besides the “good school” pull, there’s also something we don’t talk about, because it’s overtly snobby and there’s no way to say it without sounding like a character in a British play but we just can’t help it: we parents want our kids surrounded by the right kind of people. They don’t have to be rich, and they don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be smart. And ambitious. Preferably kind, but mainly shiny and polished and going somewhere, and while these type of students exist at any university, they are in abundance at the really good ones, and we’re often willing to pay through the nose for our child to be one of them.

The kids fall into the trap, too; they intuit early and clearly that going somewhere with wow factor in the name automatically imbibes them with a cool sapience they are suddenly ready for, and is a sure defense against anyone thinking they didn’t work their butt off in high school. Four AP classes junior and senior year, two honors with labs and final projects, and that stupid on-level class that might as well have been AP, the teacher was so tough. In their minds, they worked so dang hard, they sure as hell aren’t going to settle for some lame-o state school like a dumb jock. Then what was the point of all that?

Only here’s the rub: the schools with wow factor are getting too expensive, even for the upper, upper middle class, so their smart-as-hell kids are flocking to the state schools that impress with a smaller price tag–the Universities of Virginia and William and Marys–making those schools even harder to get in to. So now students with a four-point-five, memberships in clubs and on teams and glowing letters of recommendation can’t necessarily get into their state schools, at least not the “almost-ivies,” making them wonder why they worked so hard and slept so little in high school. Straight As and being team captain might not be good enough if you didn’t also build a nuclear reactor in the garage, and unless you lost a limb in an accident or a parent in a war, you’d better have a disabled sibling or some charity work in Haiti to write about for your essay. (If you don’t, write about something so mundane it’s barely worth mentioning, like being a redhead or playing Monopoly, and maybe the sheer quotidianness of it will impress them.) Even then, the top-notch state schools might be out of reach.

About a year ago, I visited my alma mater with my daughter for “accepted students day,” walking her around the quad and showing her the English and history department buildings, my old stomping grounds. Unexpectedly, a former professor of mine was sitting in his office, eating cheese and crackers for lunch, so many books and papers surrounding his bow-tied self that he looked like a professor in a movie. He remembered me, congratulating me on life in general and my daughter on getting in. “Honest truth,” he asked her, “Where do you think you’ll go? Is this your first choice?”

“I don’t know,” she said, earnest and blunt as ever. “I didn’t get in my first choice, or where I thought was my first choice. There are pros and cons to everything, and I don’t know exactly what I want, like I think I’m supposed to. So I don’t know what to do.”

My professor smiled at her like a grandfather and chuckled. “You know what? It doesn’t matter,” he said. I felt the corners of my mouth turn up into a smile as he said what no one else had ever said to her said to her, certainly not someone with a PhD and decades of teaching and scholarship.

“Almost any school will give you a good education if you work hard,” he went on. “It just doesn’t matter that much. Pick one because you like the size, or the area, or because you can afford it. Then go enjoy it. Study hard and don’t party too much, make some lasting friendships. Just go, and be happy. It doesn’t matter where.” She laughed, and I swear she seemed a little more care-free the rest of the day.

It would be interesting to take a photograph of a college senior and her parents every day from the day they submit their first application to the day they commit to a university and send in the check, and put those photos together in a time-lapse video showing the whole–dare I say it– journey.  I’m not sure pictures would capture it, but if you could film the hope and the uncertainty, the surprise and pain of rejection by a school your child was sure she’d get in, the surprise of acceptance from a school he thought was a stretch, the humbling moment of hearing someone else rejoice over their child’s acceptance to a school your child didn’t get in to, it would be a fascinating movie, but from the distance of a few years, all that drama might ring a bit false, as reality TV usually does.

Like so many events in parenthood, the whole process and decision seems huge at the time, so absolutely critical to your child’s development and identity and future, but years later you can’t help but think, oh, it wasn’t that big of a deal. As long as you love them and listen to them and help them make a wise decision with the tools they’ve been given, it just isn’t that big of a deal. It’s good post-college advice, too: we should all just go, and be happy. It doesn’t matter where.

 

Magical Jumper

I have felt big my whole life. Not fat–although I have often felt fat, too–just big, which is odd considering I am not tall and never have been. I think it may have started when I was four or five and people told me I was a “big girl,” meaning grown up of course, but I took it to mean large. In elementary school, my friends happened to be a bit younger and much smaller than I, those tiny little girls with ski-jump noses and frail limbs whose doctors are forever asking if they are eating enough. I was robust and ate plenty. Also, I had an obsession with cute things–the small forest animals in my books, the small glass animals I played with and made tiny houses for, even the tiny shoes of the babies I saw at church made me swoon, and I felt enormous in comparison.

In high school and college I felt big, even though I weighed about 115 pounds. I remember weighing 115 pounds, and thinking I should not try out for the cheerleading team even though I could do handsprings and flips–not that I would have, I didn’t have the cheerleader personality, but still, here was another reason–because I would look big in that tiny skirt. I’m sure there were actual cheerleaders on the team that weighed more than I did and were taller and more ungainly, and they looked fine to me, but when I imagined myself in that outfit I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.

But I had a magic outfit, when I was seven, and it changed everything.

It was a dress, made by my mom as most of my clothes were at that time. She called it a jumper, and it was sort of like dressy overalls that finished out into a skirt instead of pants, and she made it out of blue velour that was sort of a cross between cobalt and turquoise. The most shocking, bright blue, velvety fabric you have ever seen, and even though an overalls-dress sounds ridiculous now, it was the height of little girl fashion at the time. I know because my mother made it from a Butterick Girls pattern and those, I felt, were very stylish. It draped beautifully and swished when I twirled and didn’t stick to my legs or tights, and the color looked great on me. People always said so when I wore it. People stared at me when I walked by, for real. There was nothing quite like it in any store I’d ever seen, and I imagined I looked like some kind of almost-royalty in it, like Sarah Crew in A Little Princess, mixed with a dash of the very sophisticated Nancy Drew, the version in the books where she is older and wears lipstick.

No outfit ever came close to that jumper in making me feel beautiful, though some have come close. There was a purple sweater I wore in high school that caused a boy I liked to say, “You, um, you look, um… wow.” There was a pale blue wool jacket I wore as a newlywed that was expensive in an understated way and inspired an Italian waiter call me beautiful lady with pretty eyes, and there was a maternity dress my husband bought me because I complained when I was seven months pregnant that I had nothing to wear, that dress somehow took my hilarious beach-ball body and hung in such a way as to look a tiny bit sexy. I have no idea how.

But there was never another outfit like the magical blue jumper, maybe because I was never seven again. I learned to doubt myself even when I think I look great. And this is not because of anything society has imposed on me about female beauty, this is just because of an inner voice that is analytical and critical and finds humor in everything, which also makes me a good writer, so I guess I wouldn’t give it up. I do try, though, to conjure up that feeling the blue jumper gave me; that light-as-air, pretty, not-big feeling that swooshed down me as soon as I put it on. And I hope my daughters had that feeling in some little dress from their childhood, or have that feeling in their wedding gowns and in many outfits they will wear as grown up ladies. I wish it for everyone, actually; I think we’d all be a lot nicer, a lot more benevolent and magnanimous if we felt lovely in our clothes. Not powerful, not sexy, not “on trend,” just light and air and possibility, of all that we might become.

Christmas Mood Swings

In the magical weeks before Christmas, I seem to have the mood swings of a fourteen year-old girl, and I wonder if it is my own weird cross to bear or if it is common. Christmas is so freaking beautiful; white lights twinkling on trees that line the sidewalks, colored lights on the houses up and down my street, Christmas music in the stores, wreaths on the doors and anticipation in the air that is palpable. It is as exciting and wonderful as the songs say, and I still get a warm fuzzy, excited feeling in my chest like a kid.

But there’s a part of me that might, in the midst of all this happiness, think to myself: But the trees have no leaves! They’re just bare, and they look a little mournful! Or: Some of those houses on my street with lights on the roof have people in them who are SAD or have CANCER or are getting DIVORCED and it makes my heart ache to think of it! And sometimes the Christmas music in the stores is not the Bing Crosby and Andy Williams that I grew up with, but Ariana Grande or some awful group called 5th Harmony belting about having a sexy Christmas. (These may not be the actual lyrics of their songs but it is definitely the message.)  Instead of making me think of holly and sleigh rides, I suddenly think: How will my daughters’ generation ever reconcile the fact that we tell them they are not objects, but the pop music of their time tells them a woman’s role is to be both promiscuous and victimized? To demand both equal treatment and special treatment? To look and act provocative and be angry that it works?  Holly and sleigh rides would be a much easier thing to think about. 

Sometimes, right in the middle of making gingersnaps, (see recipe for life-changing gingersnaps here), I might hear Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and I’m overcome with melancholy. Or, worse, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, the saddest Christmas song ever. I have to fight it like a soldier, strapping my apron strings tighter and switching the song to, say, Michael Buble’s version of  White Christmas, the catchiest Christmas song ever, and refusing to be overcome. I have to shake my head a little like a boxer between rounds and think like a winner: Okay, Christmas, BRING IT, we’ll see who’s boss.

My mother once said to me, “Oh, kid, you feel too much. It’s gonna be a rough road for you.” (She grew up in 1950s Hollywood, literally, and talked like it sometimes.) I wondered about that, and years later realized I must have gotten my over-sensitivity from her, but she’d toughened up a little. Motherhood’ll do that to you. I can’t help it any more than I can help having allergies; I just feel things too much. As I kid, stray dogs and homeless people and even trash on the street made me overcome with a wave of sadness, like nausea. When ET nearly died beside the creek, and when Luke Skywalker had to hide in the body of that dead yeti-thing called a Tauntaun, my sister had to carry me out of the movie theater and drag me back home, sobbing. (I didn’t really care about Luke but I cared deeply about that poor dead Taunton.) If I saw an old person eating dinner alone in a restaurant, I couldn’t eat my food. My mom once found me watching Bambi on a rented VHS tape and shouted at my sister like someone in an action scene, “Stop the movie! Stop the movie! SHE’S NEVER GONNA MAKE IT!”

I don’t know if other people feel this way. I know Christmas is hard for many people, that depression rates are higher than any other time of year. But I am not depressed, and “sad” isn’t even the right word because I’m also immensely happy; I’m just experiencing great joy and deep awareness of the painful beauty in this world. My teenage daughters call it having “the feels,” which is awkward and apt.

It occurs to me that God intended for us to feel all those pangs of joy and sadness, sometimes even at the same time. I probably do feel too much, and it is a bit of a rough road, but everything about Christmas is both ends of bitter and sweet: the king of the universe, highly anticipated with great joy and some fear, but also in danger from the moment of his birth, outranking every king and emperor in the world but born to peasants and raised to work with his hands, rising to some fame for his holiness but destined to die like a criminal, only to be raised from the dead in the most fabulous, glorious event in the history of the universe. You’d have to be made of stone to not feel an emotional roller-coaster just thinking about it.

I knew a poet once; a philosophical, brilliant, long-haired actually-published poet  who forgot to tie his shoes and carried around a pocket-sized works of Rilke. His name was Hansi, which he said was Sri Lankan, though he was not. He was whip-smart and odd, and he intimidated me because he spoke in riddles and threw around grad-school words before the rest of us had learned them: tautological and Proustian, hermeneutic and hegemonic, Derridian, dystopian, and dichotomy. One evening after class when it began to snow, another student remarked that the snow was really pretty, except that it just turned to gray slush in the streets. Hansi waved to us, walking in the direction of some other parking lot or place, and said over his shoulder, “Love the dichotomy, man! Love the dichotomy!”

The weird poet was right, all you can do is embrace it. Get the feels and love the ups and the downs for their particular beauty. It’s probably exactly what God intended when the King of the World was born in a stable and laid in a manger.  

 

If I Could Eat Anything for a Day

 

If I could eat anything–if calories didn’t matter and the normal laws that govern human  stomachs were revoked–I’d start my day with pie. I don’t know why Americans are so rigid about breakfast food. We seem to have acceptable breakfast foods, like eggs and toast, various meats and very specific starches, but not, say, a hamburger. A hamburger makes a very good breakfast, but it’s not acceptable to ask for one at seven in the morning. Pancakes, waffles, danishes and doughnuts are fattening but acceptable breakfast foods, but not, say, snickerdoodles and milk. Snickerdoodles and milk can’t possibly be as bad for you as some of the garbage at iHop and Taco Bell, but nobody ever serves cookies for breakfast. The thing is, my snickerdoodles are light, fluffy pillows with Madagascar cinnamon and just a dash of nutmeg; they are so lovely that they really ought to be given to people with clinical depression, just to help raise their endorphins. They would make a very encouraging breakfast, but not a culturally acceptable one. Lasagna is also taboo in the morning. Eat cold lasagna for breakfast and your husband, all smug with his greek yogurt and coffee, looks at you like he found you at the kitchen counter picking lint out of your toes.

Pie, though, seems to me to be a perfect breakfast food. Sweetened, baked fruit, cuddled by a buttery blanket and served warm! On a fantasy day, I’d start with pie and a cup of tea. Not a store-bought pie; this would be homemade pie I would eat when I woke, up, the peach pie I made the summer my husband built the playhouse. It was 2003, we had two small kids and a baby on the way and he spent several weekends in the heat, building a playhouse in the backyard, the kids fluttering around him and in his way every moment while they pretended to be Peter Pan and Wendy. I made a peach pie without using a recipe, crust and all, sprinkling in turbinado sugar and nutmeg on instinct. I sat outside and fanned myself while it baked, listening to them chatter (“Come on, Wendy!  We can fly to the lagoon and see mermaids and alligators!”), named it Peter Pan Peach Pie, and then served it to everyone with cold milk. It was the best peach pie in the history of the world, made even better by my fondness for my strong, clever husband and outrageously winsome children.

I’d follow up the pie and reading with protein: grilled salmon, the way my husband does it. He is not a “foodie,” though people sometimes call him that. He enjoys food and cooking but really dislikes name “foodie” because foodies are often people who class-signal by advertising their affinity for branzino or truffles or anything with the word “confit” in it. People who own cookware that costs as much as a mid-size Toyota, and have their dairy products delivered by an “organic” farm so that they can feel virtuous and slightly better than the rest of us without actually admitting they feel this way.

My husband buys groceries at Walmart so he can buy batteries and lighter fluid at the same time. His favorite pot is a cauldron in which to make jambalaya over a fire, and he named the pot Adalida, like the George Strait song. His grilled salmon is the best salmon in the world. He seasons it with salt and pepper and honey, then grills it on an old garage sale grill til it’s perfectly moist and golden, and I like to eat it a couple hours after pie. With a caesar salad. And a diet coke.

After the salmon I’d be temporarily full, and I’d do some things, like go parasailing. I went parasailing once, and it was one of the more memorable experiences of my life, up there with bringing home each of my babies, seeing the Pieta, and going on the To Fly! ride at Disneyland.

Then I’d take a short hike near a waterfall of some size, maybe read a little more of a great novel–I might re-read All the Light We Cannot See or Bel Canto or begin Jane Smiley’s Hundred Years Trilogy, and then it would be time for a snack. I’d snack on honeycrisp apples and potato chips. Potato chips are terrible for you, if you’re going to eat them you might as well start smoking and drinking too, so I would pair them with apples. I don’t normally buy honeycrisp apples, since they are roughly five bucks per apple, they spike your blood sugar as much as Skittles (it’s true) and are about as addictive as crack. But they are sweet and crunchy and beautiful. They are the pretty, popular, rich cheerleaders of apples, and I tend to buy the band geek apples that cost less, but honeycrisp are my fantasy apple; biting one is like taking a bite of happiness.

Then I would go see a Broadway musical.

I have a friend who thinks musicals are so weird they are surreal, what with the characters bursting into song and dance, and this friend is beautiful and cool and wears clothes from stores that aren’t a chain. She is witty and casually sophisticated, and if I’m honest, a little jaded about everything, and she cannot stand musicals. I think they pain her a little with their dorkiness. But I like the bursting into song, the goofy, unapologetic old-fashionedness of it all. And Broadway isn’t our parents’ Broadway anymore, they’ve modernized. Now there are musicals where famous colonists rap about the Declaration of Independence, and musicals where the plot revolves around a suicide, but somehow it’s funny and uplifting. But I would go see a classic, one where you laugh and cry and get transported back in time, like Carousel or Camelot. I want to cry a little when Julie Jordan’s ghost is singing You’ll Never Walk Alone to her daughter, or when King Arthur tells the little boy to go tell everyone that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory that was known as Camelot. And if I can’t see it on the actual Broadway, I want to at least be at a performing arts center where the soprano lead is so good that I can’t even be jealous.

Then it would be dinner time, and I would eat Vietnamese infusion food. American food is where my heart is–I’d be fine with a great burger, or chicken pot-pie made with herbs and white wine, or maybe a garlic-rubbed, roast pork loin with peach-rosemary gravy. But if I’m going to pay for dinner at a restaurant (which I probably will after seeing a Broadway show), I want to be wowed. I want to eat something I would never make myself, and that would be something like  “Bo Xao Vit,” or “flank steak and scallops with gingered haricot vert and cilantro-peanut sauce, served with coconut rice and caramelized onions,” which is served at a local restaurant called Sunday in Saigon. I like that name, and Vietnamese food is so yummy, I think if our soldiers and Marines had been introduced to it during Vietnam, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad. I’m never going to make bo xao vit, but I would love to have it served to me with some not-too-minty green tea, in a restaurant with soft, pretty music, sitting on a cushion that is not under the air conditioning vent.

I’d be full at that point, so I’d go home, get into pajamas, and curl up with a movie about time travel or space travel or aging backwards; a movie that really grips you and takes you on an emotional journey and has you still thinking about it the next morning. Interstellar, or Benjamin Button, or A Beautiful Mind. Something like that, where I am completely sucked in, and I’d watch it with a warm homemade brownie (the things you make from a box are not as good, don’t fool yourself that they are) with a small scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and a cup of earl grey tea. Decaf, but black, not some herbal nonsense.

That’s it. That’s how I’d spend a day where I could eat anything. If there was time, I might squeeze in a couple more things: a bowl of gnocchi from a restaurant we discovered in Florence,  the “Duke of Windsor” sandwich like the one my aunt bought me at the mermaid bar in Neiman Marcus in Dallas when I was nine, or a cup of warm “vanilla milk” like my mom made me when I was thirteen and came home crying because John Lambert, the class heartthrob, did not want to go to the dance with me. I think it was just a mug of warm milk loaded with sugar and vanilla extract. It was comforting, and my lady-like mother served it to me on a saucer and said John Lambert was “kind of a butt-head anyway,” which was also comforting.

 Of course I can’t eat anything I want, I’d weigh three hundred pounds and I’d fall into a glutenous rut wherein I wouldn’t appreciate food anymore because I’d be eating whatever I wanted. But a girl can dream. People who think food is just fuel and should not be tied to emotions has never eaten Peter Pan Peach Pie for breakfast. 

Birthday Pedicure

 

I get a pedicure about three times a year: once on my birthday, once when summer is beginning and my toes are about to start going naked, and once or twice on some other day when I declare myself down in the dumps. Today I got my birthday pedicure, and it was a disappointment. I didn’t get the girl I wanted, I got the mean woman instead, and I didn’t ask to wait for the girl I wanted because I don’t know her name and felt awkward about saying I’m waiting for HER and pointing like a five year old, and also the girl I wanted was doing someone else’s toes; an old lady with crazily bent toes and thick, yellow toenails . I like pedicures, but not enough to wait thirty minutes before even starting.

The mean lady is the owner I think, and I don’t know how since she’s so bad. She gave me cold water in my foot tub and seemed  annoyed that I wanted it hotter, she clipped one of my toenails crooked and used the razor thing on my heels without even asking me. I hate the razor thing, it scares me. Also, she never brought me the hot towel like the other ladies do. Plus, they were playing a soap opera on four TVs and she seemed interested in that, not my feet. (I watched for a while and was amazed that there were characters named Marlena, Beau and  Hope, so they appear to be the exact same characters, played by the same actors, as when I briefly watched that soap opera in high school IN THE LATE EIGHTIES. Even creepier, they do not seem to have aged.)

Also, the massage chair wasn’t relaxing this time, it did this thing where it jiggled my upper back violently, so in the mirror next to me I noticed that it looked very much like I was having a seizure. I couldn’t find the remote to try to change the settings, but I didn’t look very hard because of the mean lady. How can I be in my forties and still be irrationally afraid of the mean pedicure lady? (Incidentally, I am also afraid of my hairdresser, and I always tell her I love my hair even if I don’t.)

But then it occurs to me that from where she sits, literally below me and clipping toenails for twenty bucks even though she’s older than I am and owns a business, maybe the only way to have a little dignity is to be kind of mean and aloof. Because maybe this was not her dream.

Years ago, I used a gift card at a very fancy spa to get a pedicure while pregnant, and the eucalyptus cream they rubbed all over my lower legs caused itchy welts that made the proprietor call an ambulance, probably so the pregnant lady wouldn’t sue him. But he was also mad at me for having an allergic reaction in the first place, and he was so mean to me, in that disdainful, Frenchy way, that I cried. This pedicure wasn’t as bad as that one, at least. At nobody had to call an ambulance. Which is really a good way to think of anything mildly disappointing.  

Magical Jumper

I have felt big my whole life. Not fat–although I have often felt fat, too–just big, like Sully the Pixar monster. I think it may have started when I was four or five and people told me I was a “big girl,” meaning grown up of course, but I took it to mean large. In elementary school, my friends happened to be a bit younger and much smaller than I, those tiny little girls with ski-jump noses and frail limbs whose doctors are forever asking if they are eating enough. I was robust and ate plenty. Also, I had an obsession with cute things–the small forest animals in my books, the small glass animals I played with and made tiny houses for, even the tiny shoes of the babies I saw at church made me swoon, and I felt enormous in comparison.

In high school and college I felt big, even though I weighed about 115 pounds. I remember wearing a size 4 pair of jeans, having gone up from a size 2, and thus thinking I should not try out for the cheerleading team. I could even do handsprings and flips, but I didn’t have the requisite cheerleader personality, and now here was another reason–I would look big in that tiny skirt. I’m sure there were actual cheerleaders on the team that weighed more than I did and were taller and more ungainly, and they looked fine to me, but when I imagined myself in that outfit I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I did not have an eating disorder, I ate plenty and didn’t think of my weight very often, I just felt mildly goofy and awkward in clothes for humans. 

But I had a magic outfit, when I was seven, and it changed everything.

It was a dress, made by my mom as most of my clothes were. She called it a jumper, and it was sort of like dressy overalls that finished out into a skirt instead of pants, and she made it out of blue velour that was sort of a cross between cobalt and turquoise. The most shocking, bright blue, velvety fabric you have ever seen, and even though an overalls-dress sounds ridiculous now, it was the height of little girl fashion at the time. I know because my mother made it from a Butterick Girls pattern and those, I felt, were very stylish. Jeniffer Connelly modeled for them, though I didn’t know her name at the time or that she would grow up to be a famous actress.

Jennifer Connelly modeling for a Simplicity pattern, circa 1975. My sister and I wanted to look like her. This is kind of like my jumper, but mine was shimmery and blue and more wonderful.

It draped beautifully and swished when I twirled and didn’t stick to my legs or tights, and the color looked great on me. People always said so when I wore it. People stared at me when I walked by, for real. There was nothing quite like it in any store I’d ever seen, and I imagined I looked like some kind of almost-royalty in it, like Sarah Crew in A Little Princess, mixed with a dash of the very sophisticated Nancy Drew, the version in the books where she is older and wears lipstick.

No outfit ever came close to that jumper in making me feel beautiful, though there were a few that made me feel sort of pretty. There was a purple sweater I wore in high school that caused a boy I liked to say, “You, um, you look, um… wow.” There was a pale blue wool jacket I wore as a newlywed that was expensive in an understated way and inspired an Italian waiter call me beautiful lady with pretty eyes, and there was a maternity dress my husband bought me because I complained when I was seven months pregnant that I had nothing to wear, and it somehow took my hilarious beach-ball body and hung in such a way as to look a tiny bit sexy. I have no idea how.

But there was never another outfit like the magical blue jumper, maybe because I was never seven again. I learned to doubt myself even when I think I look great. And this is not because of anything society has imposed on me about female beauty, this is just because of an inner voice that is analytical and critical and finds humor in everything, which also makes me a good writer, so I guess I wouldn’t give it up. I do try, though, to conjure up that feeling the blue jumper gave me; that light-as-air, pretty, not-big feeling that swooshed down me as soon as I put it on. And I hope my daughters had that feeling in some little dress from their childhood, or have that feeling in their wedding gowns and in many outfits they will wear as grown up ladies. I wish it for everyone, actually; I think we’d all be a lot nicer, a lot more benevolent and magnanimous if we felt lovely in our clothes. Not powerful, not sexy, not “on trend,” just light and air and possibility, of all that we might become.

Surviving Joshua

I once spent four days with peanut butter in my hair and cabbage in my bra, while wearing a pair of overalls made for a husky little boy. It was a bad week. But when I think of that week now, a tiny little smile always shows up at the corner of my mouth, just the tiniest of smiles, because honestly, despite the grief that smothered me like a heavy, murderous blanket, the whole event also had an I Love Lucy quality to it. I was a sad Lucille Ball, shuffling around my weird little apartment in clothes meant for a child farmer, with my hair sticking up and the leaves of a cruciferous vegetable stuck to my boobs.

In July of 1998, my baby died in utero. I have to say it that way, “my baby died,” as part of my ongoing therapy assignment (I am my own therapist) for two reasons. First because it irrationally annoys me when people die and we say they were lost, like they went to Ikea and took hours finding their way out. (This is a real issue that we need to open a national dialog about at another time.) Second, because that’s what people always say when you have a miscarriage: she lost the baby. Again, a weird little semantic difference meant to sound softer, less painful than the truth, and more acceptable in public, but instead robs the person grieving of even getting to say the terrible thing that happened. Also, I did not have a miscarriage, I had a fully formed 30 week old baby boy with a name in there, and he died because the cord was in a knot and nobody knew it. He had blond hair that stuck straight up and a round face and he could wear clothes, so that was not a miscarriage. In some ways that would be  harder than what I went through; it is hard to fully grieve for something teeny-tiny, especially if you don’t know if it was a boy or girl and may not have named it and cannot really hold it. That would be harder for some people than what happened to me, I acknowledge that.

But that is not what happened to me, and this is my story, and if modern culture has taught me anything, it’s that when people tell their sob stories, you gotta butt out and let them blab and respect it. And then you have to talk a lot about their journey, and make a big deal out of the thing that happened even if it’s not a big deal. But this kind of is.

I was twenty-six, newly married, and living in an apartment right over a massive freeway. The apartment we were renting was not the apartment we were shown when we signed the lease. Whether this was deliberate deceit on the part of the shifty lady with crooked lip liner in the leasing office or some miscommunication due to the language barrier, we do not know, but we were shown a quiet two bedroom facing East, and when we went to move in, we were shown that our key was actually to a noisy, one bedroom directly over the Capitol Beltway. And the boiler room. Meaning that for the first six months of our marriage, we were feverish and shouting and sleep deprived. It was 88 degrees in the apartment, the noise of tractor-trailers whizzing by on 495 meant we couldn’t hear each other sometimes–our pillow talk was screaming–and drifting to sleep was like trying to sleep while hovering over the Jersey Turnpike.

We were both working full time and in grad school, we both had terrible commutes, and it turns out pregnancy makes me really, really sick, like Kate Middleton gets, only she gets to be pampered when she has it and I had to wake up at 5:30 and drive an old Corolla to Rockville Maryland to teach high school girls. (They were sweet and full of concern when I periodically puked in a trash can while explaining the importance of the Magna Carta.)

When I was six months pregnant, we’d only been married about seven months, but this baby was wanted. I had maternal instincts oozing out of every pore in my twenties: I stared at babies in restaurants and named them in my head, I teared up at adorable pampers commercials, I tried to take in stray animals whenever possible. I loved my husband and our cute little life, despite the horrible apartment and old cars and bad commutes and tight budget. So this baby was anticipated and talked about and yearned for, and the nursery was decorated with denim and gigantic sunflowers. (It was still the 90s.)

And one day at about eleven in the morning, on the day of a grad school final presentation, I realized I hadn’t felt the baby kick in a couple days. I remember delivering my presentation anyway, in denial about my fear and hoping to feel the baby kick while I showed a powerpoint on Victorian realism. When it was over, the professor told me in front of everyone that the content was okay, but the delivery was a little dull, which she found “very disappointing.” I remember nodding and walking out, and that she called for me down the hallway but I kept walking, went straight to the doctor, alone, where he did an ultrasound. (I didn’t call my husband and tell him to meet me there, because if I was wrong, he’d lose time at work and I’d seem a little hysterical, and I wasn’t ready to believe I was right. Also, this was in the days before young married women made their husbands do every damn thing that has to do with child raising, including baby showers and routine OB GYN and pediatric visits, in the name of co-parenting, which I think is a stupid modern way of thinking of parenting, but that’s another article for another time.) I remember my own doctor wasn’t there, so I got the other guy, and I watched his kind face go from I’m just going to humor this worry-wart to Oh…crap… His eyes did a slow blink as his brain composed what he was going to have to tell me, and I knew. He told me it was a fluke; that I could still have other children. Unfortunately this well-meaning man chose these words to say to me: “You can try again, it’s going to be okay… we’ll get you a good one next time.”  I hope he heard the way that sounded coming out his mouth and never said that to anyone again. Ever.

I will spare you the details of the next forty-eight hours, and jump to the part where I had cabbage in my bra. But I will say this: I believe every women in the world needs either a mom or a sister or a best friend, preferably all three, but at least one of them. Because that is who you call when you are in shock or your grief is so acute that you cannot even speak and you are unable to move your limbs or function. You call the people who knew you when had braces and a crush on Ralph Macchio, the people who stayed with you when there was a really cool pool party but you had chicken pox, the people who encouraged you through that rough audition for the town musical when you were fourteen and sang Second Hand Rose and your voice cracked. I normally cringe at anything that smacks of girl power, it’s so corny and demeaning, to both women and men, but there is something to that sisterhood thing; that camaraderie in those movies about quilts and magnolias and traveling pants. There is something strong and real and tough and binding about moms and sisters and girlfriends, a bond like Navy Seals must have. So after I called my husband at work and broke him into a thousand pieces with my sobbing, I called my sister, who called my best friend, and I don’t remember anything else from that day.

I had to wait a couple days to deliver, because “the hospital schedule was real tight,” and I cried a river. I mean I literally got dehydrated and salt-deprived so I had to have an IV, and the little narrator in my head went “damn, that’s impressive.” And I will say that my sister became my hero all over again when she marched into my delivery room and took charge, insisting I get as much pain killer as I wanted, which for some reason they were being stingy with. Anything I wanted, my sister the Naval officer made it happen. And when I looked up at her and said, “I don’t think I can do this,” she leveled me with her navy blue eyes and said, “Yes. You can.” Because she knew the stupid way younger sisters believe older ones, having learned from convincing me I could lay an egg when I was five. And so I thought, “Oh, okay, I guess I can.”  

There was a funeral, and I am grateful to this day that there was. Since I was pretty much a zombie at the time, walking around with glazed eyes and only eating or showering when told to, I’d have skipped a funeral if someone had told me to. But my dad, still grieving for my mom (as was I, which is a whole other story), told me we must have a funeral, for my sake, and our kind, wonderful priest agreed. My husband had to go pick out a little coffin, a thing which I could not have done and still could not ever do, for any child, ever. But he is a Marine, so he put on his battle face and did it, and we found out it had already been paid for. By our church, meaning our priest called them up privately and said, “It’s on me,” as was the plain but lovely marble gravestone. Whatever we wanted it to say, we were to just tell the church and they took care of it.

Some things a person must do when someone has died are hard beyond hard, and associating them with a cost is repugnant–much less taking out a wallet and slapping down a credit card like you’re paying for a sweater or a cheeseburger–and so when the grieving person hears the phrase “it’s been taken care of,” it is a balm. That priest, who then gave a homily about how our little Joshua was  tiny like a sparrow, but beloved by us and by God more than sparrows or riches, and how even though he didn’t get to live on this earth he mattered so very much. He didn’t say God had a plan blah blah blah or even remind me that I’d see my son someday in Heaven, he must have known those platitudes are not especially comforting to a stunned, grieving parent. When your child has died and someone tells you God has a plan, you kind of want to say screw you, even though of course God does have a plan and probably disapproves of that phrase in general. (Be careful what you say to the bereft. When my mom–who happened to be gifted at sewing– died in an accident years before, a friend of the family told me “God needed an angel in Heaven to make clothes for all the other angels.” It was stupid–the creator of the universe couldn’t make some freaking robes himself? Did He have a factory up there? Were the wages good? And it was theologically unsound, since people do not become angels when they die. I had to cut her some slack, since she was grieving too, but when you are raw and someone tells you something stupid, it’s like lemon juice in a million paper cuts.) This priest, though, said my baby was small but he mattered, his life mattered as much as a king or a prince, and he was beloved by God and knew that we loved him. I want to find Father Stanley Krempa and thank this kind man who knew what to say, and what not to say.

But back to the cabbage.

When you have a baby and your body goes through the bizarre miracle that is producing another human, your milk comes in. Nobody thought to prepare me for this, not even a nurse. Maybe someone thought of it but didn’t have the heart to tell me. So when I woke up after that first night of sleep, it was bad enough to realize it wasn’t just a horrible dream, but I also discovered my boobs were the size and texture of cantaloupes. I got a lot of weird phone calls that day that would later strike me as funny: someone from the development office of the school I taught at, appointed to call and express sympathy for my loss and say something like “by the way we do hope you realize we cannot offer you your position back, we filled it, but maybe someday you can apply here again,” and I said thank you when what I thought was screw you; a nurse at the pediatricians’ office I had chosen for the baby, calling to say they deeply regretted my situation, and I said thank you when what I thought was you don’t even know me, and the obgyn who’d told me we’d get me a good one some day calling to ask how I was feeling. “Fine,” I told him, because I am a pleaser, “except I think there is milk or something in my boobs and I’m not sure what to do about that.” He got off the phone quickly.

It’s a catch 22, see, because if you “express” the milk with a machine, it’ll just come back like crazy, so you essentially have to wait it out, lugging around two leaky cannonballs. My doctor said one homeopathic remedy to dry up the milk is to put cabbage up against your breasts in your bra. He gave no real scientific reason for this, he even said there was no proof it would work, but he felt compelled to let me know about it, and since I was in horrible pain and my husband has the need to try to fix problems, even unfixable ones, I put cabbage leaves in my bra.  

Cabbage is itchy, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t even taste good, not even when it’s served with bourbon chicken and fried rice, but it definitely doesn’t dry up milk in your boobs. So the physical pain I was in was considerable, and my clothes didn’t fit. Not even maternity clothes, which are big around the waist but not in the boobal area. What did fit were a pair of overalls my friend Aimee brought me, which belonged to one of her brothers but she wore all the time with a tight t-shirt. It was sort of a 90s, Jennifer Aniston look when she wore them but more of a fat-lesbian- construction worker when I did.

I wore those overalls for about four days, days I barely remember. My husband took off work for three of them, and I slept a lot; we took walks and went to see movies in the middle of the day. I craved peanut butter, for some reason, a food I normally dislike, and at some point on about the fourth day I got peanut butter on the counter, bent down to pick something up and banged my head on the counter, smearing my bangs with the peanut butter. I didn’t have the energy to wash it out, and a shower would have made the milk flow freely and negate the cabbage benefits, which I was still holding out hope for. There was a knock at the apartment door; a friend had stopped by to see how I was doing. Not a really great friend, but a well-meaning, well-dressed, wife of a colleague of my husband’s who “heard about my situation.” She was holding a casserole, as one does. Chicken, as it always is. I saw her look me up and down, take in the overalls, the huge boobs and wet spots down my shirt, something gooey in my hair, and the slippers. (And she didn’t even know about the cabbage.) I saw it register that she was dealing with a crazy person here, and I saw the effort it took to compose her face into cheerful sympathy instead of horror.

I said something, she said something. I don’t remember. She asked me what I needed and I said nothing. If’ I’d had other children, maybe somebody would have made a meal train, like they did years later when my husband got deployed. If I’d had surgery or was undergoing treatments, maybe somebody would have organized rides to doctors. But I was young and healthy and, though sad and jobless and a broken, slimy mess, I was essentially okay. Nothing really to be done. So a few days later when I got home and there was a small gift bag on my doorknob containing earrings, I thought it was a mistake. Two days later, a loaf of exquisite banana bread on the doormat, and a few days later, a scarf with small pink flowers and a sympathy card that said you are stronger than you know. I don’t even wear scarves, I look like I’m auditioning for Driving Miss Daisy when I wear scarves, but I love the look and feel of them and the point is, somebody got me a present. It continued for a couple of months.

I think it was the friend of a friend who gave me the earrings, possibly the older lady in the apartment upstairs who made the banana bread. I’m not sure, and they clearly didn’t want or need to be thanked. (Which just shows you, in the case of the well-dressed colleague’s wife, that people can be really good and nice, and you shouldn’t judge them for being decked out in Lilly Pulitzer and Gucci and looking like a human country club.) And I guess my point here seems to be that we should all give presents when something has gone wrong, but what I really mean is this: Give. Don’t judge, just give. Whatever. My sister gave the gift of bossiness when I needed her to in the delivery room, and in the weeks to come when she called to make sure I’d showered that day or got a sitter to come take me to lunch. Our priest gave funds for something we didn’t have the heart or to pay for, and the exact right words to say. My friend Aimee gave the gift of showing up with overalls and making me laugh–letting me laugh at how bad this thing was that I was going through. I wanted to laugh–it was ridiculous! The grief! So, so bad, and so close to the tragic loss of my mother (see, I couldn’t even type “death,” I said “loss” after complaining about the word) that it was funny in a dark way, and Aimee got that. And some people I will never be sure of gave me earrings and banana bread and a scarf, and the gifts were like tiny shots of an antibiotic to my sadness infection.

My point is that I hope I remember to give. I’m not naturally as good at it as some people, I think because raising four kids is a constant exercise in selflessness, but I forget to give to people who don’t live in my house. But it seems to me to be what we were put here for. And also this: grief can be funny. We feel badly about that, like noticing humor in tragedy makes us kind of wicked, kind of evil and disturbed. Our culture is so judgy now, you can’t react to anything the wrong way or you’re insensitive, even your own grief. But I say embrace it. If it’s funny, laugh. If it’s doubly funny because it isn’t supposed to be, laugh harder. It’s okay. In everything there is a season, a time to laugh and a time to cry, and sometimes the seasons get all mixed up; it’s raining when there’s a blue sky, or we’re in a hurricane with the sun peeking in and surprising us all, and those are the healing moments. We should savor them.

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