Month: May 2014 (Page 1 of 2)


I heard a fact today. The scientific world who has just discovered that human’s capacity for both sympathy and empathy increases as we age. I would like to say I read this fact, but the truth is that I heard it on the Today Show, because I have turned in to one of those women who watches about 25 minutes of the Today Show or Good Morning America while loading and unloading the dishwasher in the morning, after dropping off the kids, and before throwing in a load of laundry and taking a quick shower and going about my day. I have turned into my mother. But whatever. She was great. Anyway, the study and resulting discovery were discussed in the surprised, awe-filled tones usually reserved for a major scientific breakthrough, and I kept thinking I’d missed something. They were not talking about a discovery of a nutrient that prevents cancer, or of a daily habit that makes us live decades longer, it was simply one study that suggested that, as we age, our capacity for compassion increases. I stood there, scraping a plate of uneaten scrambled eggs into the sink, thinking (and I don’t like this expression, but) well, duh…

 Years ago, I taught high school, and was sometimes mistaken for one of the students. Their mothers seemed old to me, or, at least, formidable, simply because they had kids, they had life-experience, they had cool clothes and husbands and knew what they wanted in life. I did not. But I had flawless skin, and was mistaken for a teen-ager, and in a world that values youth above all else, I had currency. I worked in a school where most of the faculty was over fifty, and knew much more than I about the world and teaching. But they also had poochy tummies bags under their eyes and big mortgages and grown children with problems. I had none of those things, and I had a small waist and my whole life ahead of me. I was twenty-eight, and forty seemed old.

James Thurber said that women deserve to have more than twelve years between the ages of 28 and 40. It does seem too short. Such a short time between when you are young enough to be mistaken for one of the students, and when you are old enough to be one of their parents. Between the time when you have no wrinkles, cannot even imagine having them or where they’d be, and the time when you spend $38 on a one-ounce bottle of something promising to fill the deep gashes around your lips, where apparently you smiled too often. Between the time when you saw older women with skinny, spindly legs and flabby, puffy stomachs stuffed into their comfort-waist pants and thought how did they get that way? and the time when you stand in front of a mirror and suck your tummy in but it puffs out anyway, despite the crunches and the diet, and you think it begins. Twelve years. You’re young and then: poof! You’re buying Activia and you’re tired by 9:30.

But here’s the thing: I have things now that those other, older women must have had when I was younger, but I couldn’t see. A currency I didn’t know about. More compassion, the study says, and I know this to be true because when I was in my twenties and heard about someone else’s problems, I would think, oh, bummer for you, that really stinks. I would like to say I was a better person than that, but I wasn’t: I was busy and tired and preoccupied. Now, when I hear about other people’s problems, my heart aches for them and I think what can I do to help? If possible, I actually do it. Here are some other things I have more of: more happiness than I used to feel when I see a smiling baby or a sunset or a nest of bright blue eggs. More excitement than I used feel over small things, like knowing the kids will all be home Friday night and we can make chili and play games in front of the fire, or watch a movie together. More pleasure than I used to feel when I smell baking bread or see the first crocus of spring or feel the sun on my face after a long winter. I think it comes down to joy; our capacity for joy must decrease a little after childhood, but then increase aftern age forty. I’m sure somebody will study this at some point and then confirm what we already know.

Yesterday was my forty-second-and-a-half birthday. When I washed my face,  I looked a little longer than usual in the mirror at that person who has been looking back at me for four decades. I didn’t think man, I look great!  I didn’t think gosh, I look terrible! And I didn’t think wow, look at all those lines, the big nose, the slightly sagging upper eye… I just thought, Hello. S’up? Good to see you. I guess that’s the difference: not that I care more or that I’ve stopped caring, but that my main reaction is sort of a happy-to-be-here moment. Like when you see an old friend, you might notice that she’s getting gray hair or looks a little heavier through the middle, but it doesn’t affect your affection for her. Mainly you just think Hi! So good to see you! A little rush of endorphins, because she knows you so well, and you can’t wait to see what happens.  


The Spectrum Club of West Jefferson High


The air conditioning vent was behind and above Dr. Berger’s head, so Katie could look at it instead of at the bearded school counselor who was looking at her too intently. Another bonus: there was a small piece of paper wedged between the metal bars of the vent, which flapped wildly when the air conditioner came on, making a comical whizzing sound, and then went limp when the air conditioner turned off. Dr. Berger didn’t seem to notice this, so Katie didn’t mention it, but she watched the little piece of paper when it did its spastic, solo dance. It was surprisingly entertaining. Outwardly, she pretended to listen, to care about what Dr. Berger was saying, her expression thoughtful one moment, earnest the next. She had perfected what she called her “session faces.” She ought to win an acting award, she thought, although nobody won acting awards for faking out their psychologist. A psychologist. She couldn’t bring herself to think of him as hers in any way.

He was asking her again about the colors, and if her difference was getting any easier to “assimilate,” and whether the teachers were accommodating her sufficiently. That was what he called it: her “difference,” something she possessed, like a ball or a cup you could hold in your hands. It must have been intentional; “different-ness” sounded more like a bag of bricks you’d drag around.

Katie knew that Dr. Berger’s use of big words and clinical language was intentional. He didn’t say, “Are you getting more used to your weird problem?” Or, “Are your teachers letting you have extra time and bring your colored pencils?” Instead he talked about assimilation, synthesizing information, and teachers accommodating her. It was both an affectation and an implicit challenge: understand me, he was saying, and of course she did, so perhaps he was complimenting her, too. But he was weird, with his little eyes, like a mouse, she thought, or, no, a gerbil. Dark brown eyes that looked brilliant and calculating one moment, lifeless and dim the next. The gerbil effect was  magnified by the bushy beard with the streak of white running through it. Katie imagined it was white paint, or milk, dried on the coarse, wiry hairs of his beard. Dr. Berger was a short, thick man who seemed to be lacking a neck, and when he sat down, his collar pushed into his cheeks. His jowls, Katie thought. He was not unkind to her, exactly, but he asked question after question, and then gave no reaction to her answer, except “Hmm-hmm.” He didn’t even write anything down, like a psychologist in a movie, he just sat with his small, thick hands folded as if in prayer, but with his fingers facing into his palms. It made Katie think of the little rhyme here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up, see all the people… She vaguely recalled liking that when she was very little. Or maybe she imagined she had. That moment, when you could drop your elbows and turn your fingers up to wiggle them, always a small surprise. Open it up, and they all run away. Only Dr. Berger never opened his hands, he just sat there until the period was up, which, in Katy’s case, was study hall.

The minute hand on the institutional clock jerked upwards with a loud, mechanical sound, followed by “the bell.” It was not a bell at all, but a sustained intercom beep, indicating that third period was over. Funny that someone, at some point, had decided to call it “the bell,” as if it were a pleasant sound, or as if it’s predecessor were a chime of steel on copper. But West Jefferson was a relatively new school, and there had never been an actual bell. Katie was already standing up when she saw Wally at the door, knocking with two knuckles and leaning in, which struck Katie as a terribly grown up gesture. Wally always came, ready to walk with her to lunch because they were going the same way anyway. She thought she saw, just for a moment, a shadow of disappointment cross Dr. Berger’s face as he said what he always, unfailingly said: “We’ll continue this next week.” Was it possible that he liked these sessions? Katie had no idea, and thinking about it was vaguely uncomfortable, so she slung her backpack over her shoulder and shot Wally a look, something between exasperated and grateful, and stepped out into the crowded hall.

Of the six members of the spectrum club of West Jefferson High School, Katie McDonald was, in her own opinion, the only one who was average. She was not beautiful, like Dagny and Natasha, and even Joss and Cullen. She was not ugly, like Wally, who could get away with his looks because he was brilliant and nice, and enormous. His un-handsomeness somehow suited him. She was not rich or named after somebody famous, and even her “difference,” which, last year, earned her an invitation to the spectrum club in the first place, did not set her apart. She could not instantly multiply several five digit numbers in her head, she was not a musical genius, a fabulous writer, an aspiring movie director, a famous mathematician, or an science prodigy. Katie McDonald’s “difference” did not give her slightly slurred speech or social problems, and it did not enable her to do anything at all. It simply got in her way.

Katie saw colors. All the time. In places where, she learned, others did not. Not in the air, or in objects that had their own color, but in words. Letters had their own color in Katie’s mind, and objects had a rightful color even when a particular object was not the correct color. A blue table remained a blue table, though table was a brown word in her mind, and a green ball was a green ball even if balls were red. It had proven particularly problematic in early elementary school, when students spent much of the day coloring and arranging things that were, in Katie’s mind, already colored. Katie had learned to read in preschool, with the help of her own picture books and a box of colored plastic magnet letters. Possibly these things forever printed her brain with what color things ought to be: it was true that BALL in One Hundred First Words! was red, and that CUP was blue, colors that Katie would forever associate with ball and cup. But she still had some of those plastic letters in a little box of toys from her early childhood; the H was yellow, which was correct for H, but the A was green, which was clearly incorrect.  In Katie’s mind, the letter A would always be red, B would forever be green, and C a pale goldenrod. Her plastic letters were not to blame for what would, years later, be diagnosed as severe synesthesia. Eventually, the guidance counselors would know that synesthesia affects one in every two-hundred-thirty-seven people, causing them to unintentionally assign colors and personalities to letters and inanimate objects. But in elementary school, they knew nothing.

In Kindergarten, on a naval base in Norfolk, Katie un-learned to read, so confusing was this world of wrong-colored letters. Mrs. Camden didn’t notice, since most of the other children could not read either, and only thought Katie showed a quiet, passive-aggressive streak when it came to coloring. But Mrs. Camden had twenty-seven five-year-olds in her care and only a part-time aide, so Katie’s difficulty with colors went largely unnoticed. In first grade, she had regained some of her reading ability, but she was in the low reading group and was so bored with Biscuit books that she stared out the window much of the time. Miss Gillespie, her earnest, newly accredited teacher, thought something was a bit “off,” and talked to Katie a few decibels louder than the other students but made no other real effort to help her. Second through fifth grade, in San Diego, were much the same. By then Katie could read well above grade level, though her scores on standardized tests were below average, and she was prone to near paralyzing panic in situations involving math homework, particularly fractions, or coloring maps.

It was Katie’s eighth grade English teacher, at a DOD school in Naples, Italy, who first noticed Katie’s “way of thinking,” as she called it. The class was called ILA there, not English, and there had been an assignment on Johnny Tremain. Katie’s notes were left on top of her desk when the students had to suddenly go outside for a fire drill. Taking her purse out of the file cabinet and walking to the door behind her students, annoyed that her lesson had once again been interrupted just when the students seemed at least mildly interested,  Mrs. Houser happened to notice Katie’s notes; entire sentences shaded in different colors for no apparent reason. It looked intentional, not like doodling, and in fine black pen she had written odd phrases to the side: “Whigs NOT BAD–ignore mean letters. Torries liked England. Ignore R and I.”

It was Mrs. Houser who would eventually encourage Katie’s parents to “have her tested,” an experience they all resisted. Katie imagined sitting upright in a chair with electrical wires coming out of a band around her head, her hands tied down, while a scientist like Dr. Doofenshmirtz cackled nearby and planned the demise of the planet. Her parents worried about the results: what would it mean? Wasn’t Katie doing just fine, getting As and a few Bs? A few Bs was better than being someone who needed to be tested. Katie’s parents were people who succeeded, and they were positive she would be, too. Testing was not necessary. She was sort of melancholy; slumped shoulders and mild panic in her blue eyes, but wasn’t everyone like this in middle school?

But they acquiesced, at Mrs. Houser’s near insistence, and Katie’s diagnosis of “significantly above average IQ, presence of both graphemic and ordinal-linguistic personificatory synesthesia” was something of a relief, at least to Katie herself. It confirmed what she already knew: that letters do not have personalities and colors to other people. Letters and numbers are, apparently, generic things that simply come together to form words or equations, and most people think of them as no color at all, or black. And this: other people do not find contradiction when two letters or numbers who do not get along must sit side by side, or when they are told to “color Indiana blue” when Indiana is pale gold. Not that it would be pale gold if you got on a plane and actually went there, but on a map. To Katie, the shape of Indiana is gold, not blue.

Briefly, she was something of a celebrity.

There was a faculty meeting at McArthur Middle School with an entire agenda item called Synesthesia: understanding the needs of our students, and “our students” meant Katie McDonald. She was to be given extra time on tests, something that nearly 80 percent of the student body’s IEPs entitled them to for one reason or another anyway. Most teachers simply let every single student have as much time as they wanted, even letting them take the test home to finish if necessary. But Katie was also to be allowed to use her colored pencils at any time, and to have teachers re-word test questions if anything about the phrasing was difficult for Katie to understand. She was entitled to a private tutor in any class at the location of her choice, the use of a computer at any time (no reason was given but it seemed the right thing to do), and weekly sessions with a school guidance counselor. Katie politely declined every accommodation except the use of colored pencils.

Later, when they had lived in Italy and California and finally moved back to Virginia, someone occasionally arrived from the University of Virginia, or John’s Hopkins, or, once, Madison Wisconsin, and asked to have Katie be part of a study. This  meant meeting with them during school hours, under supervision of the school counselor, to be asked questions. Katie readily complied if it meant getting out of a math test, and declined if it meant missing art, her favorite subject, or social studies or chorus, her favorite classes because her friends were in them. Katie went to regular public school for seventh and eighth grade, her father having received orders to the Pentagon, and they were apparently going to stay for four or possibly six years instead of two. She prayed for six: to live in one place for six years would be heaven. To not have to pack her belongings, leave her friends and adjust to a new place; it would be almost normal.

Katie’s main friends in middle school were Abby Gately, whom she’d actually known a little bit when they were living on base in Naples and Abby’s father had been stationed there too, and an assortment of other girls. They were all nice, average girls who stuck together out of a tacit understanding that they shared a similar social status (average), values (don’t be too mean, don’t act like Heather Andrews, the head of the popular group, and don’t cheat on tests), and socio-economic status (white and middle class, their parents called it, but it was really very upper-middle class and they all knew it). They went to each other’s birthday parties and dutifully hosted sleepovers and called each other for homework help when needed, but none of them seemed to be best-friends-forever, soul-mate kind of friends, and they accepted this. It was particularly true for Katie, because she’d only just gotten there in the last part of seventh grade, and was used to having temporary friends.

The summer before high school, Abby Gately’s father got orders to Guam, and the school board voted in favor of a proposal that would divide the school zone yet again, splitting Katie’s neighborhood in a seemingly zigzag line for reasons having vaguely to do with racial equality and diversity. County test scores suggested the zoning needed to be fiddled with a bit to even things up. The proposal, passing,  mandated that the left side of the zigzag would attend Sandburg High, and the right side would attend West Jefferson. (There was no East Jefferson. No one knew why.) Katie’s not only lost Abby, her best friend and the closest thing to a sister she had, but her friend pool was drastically reduced, so on her first day at West Jefferson High School, she had the clean-slate look of a girl who was available for friendship. This was certain social suicide unless you happened to be beautiful and extroverted, like Cassidy Miller, or downright sexy  and mysteriously introverted, like Shea Moran, or very, very cute like Megan Becker. Or, if you had total confidence in your entitlement to popularity, like Heather Andrews. In Heather’s case, very expensive clothing and accessories helped. Having none of these, Katie adopted a look of industrious seriousness, always walking around with a book she could instantly look at,  as if she had other things on her mind than high school or friends, unconsciously hoping this look would insulate her from perceived loneliness. Freshman year was spent in one long attempt to look busy. She sat at a lunch table with Beth Peterson and a few other kids from McArthur Middle School, who clung together that first year, masking their fear of aloneness with casual indifference to each other.

But sophomore year, in the second week of school at the club fair, Katie noticed a table with SPECTRUM CLUB written in big letters on the supply room paper they all called ‘butcher paper’ even though it wasn’t. She had been told, back at McArthur Middle School, that her synesthesia placed her “on the spectrum of Autism,” though it did not make her autistic, but Katie didn’t immediately connect “spectrum club” with the word ‘spectrum’ in that context. Her decision to casually wander by the spectrum club table had more to do with the presence behind the table of a junior named Joss Silverman. Joss lived near Katie; she had often seen him rounding the corner in his BMW, as she had just this morning while waiting for the bus. Katie hated the bus. There was something demoralizing about standing there in the heat or the cold with an assortment of freshmen and a few others: the skinny girl who wore all black and picked her nose, the angry-looking boy who wore his hair braided in the back in an homage to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Salvadoran boy who carried an old battered brief case and would not speak. Katie tried to be nice to them all, but it was impossible to make much headway, and she longed to go to school in a car. A heated, baby-blue BMW would be even better, and it could be driven by a boy who looked like the one who drove that car, even better.

The first time she’d seen Joss driving, it occurred to Katie that a sophomore could not be driving himself to school unless he repeated a grade, and she mentally filed this away under “facts about Joss Silverman.” But it did nothing to diminish her fascination; Joss was beautiful. Startlingly, disarmingly beautiful. Green-flecked eyes with lashes any girl would kill for, a square jaw and perfect, never-needed-braces teeth, and the dark, shiny curls of a pop star. He was a junior now, but looked about twenty. He wore a tiny amulet of some kind on a leather string around his neck; whatever it was, it looked perfect on him, the way a hummingbird egg looks in a nest, or maybe a pearl in an oyster. Or maybe that would be gross and covered with slime, but still. Katie had not known many boys growing up, only the sons of her parents’ friends, and Joss was a far cry from those boys. They repulsed her, with their runny noses and crooked teeth, their wild laughter and their creepy songs about greasy, grimy gopher guts, sliced monkey meat and chopped parakeet. Boys were awful, and their high school counterparts not much better. Katie knew that this was simply the genesis of males, that her own father might have started out this way and outgrown it, but she had no frame of reference for a boy with some elegance, some class. So when she saw the owner of the blue BMW sitting at the “Spectrum Club” tale at the activities fair, Katie casually walked by that table with, she hoped, a look of only mild interest, as if she had somewhere else to be and was only waiting, killing time.

Joss Silverman glanced up at Katie from a worn copy of The Art of Cinematic Storytelling, and said, “Hey. Take a brochure if you want. You need to be seriously deranged to join, but we’ll consider your application,” and then he looked back down at his book. By “brochure” he meant a paper with “Spectrum Club” printed hastily at the top in Times New Roman–Katie had become something of an expert on fonts, and had disdain for the boring, default font of computers–and the description “We meet when we feel like it. Talk with your guidance counselor to find out if you qualify.” Nothing more.

Another, rougher voice piped in: “What my colleague means is, we’d love to have you, but you have to meet certain…qualifications. Which most people don’t. But feel free to join us if you’re able.” He smiled sheepishly and stuck out his hand.

It was an enormous junior named Wally Cooper, whom Katie knew by sight because his head stuck up about a foot above everyone else’s during passing period and she’d asked Beth Peterson, “Who’s that?” “Oh, that’s Wally Cooper,” Beth had said, as though she’d known him all her life. “Isn’t he huge? He’s like, an oaf.  But totally smart.”

So Katie had some knowledge of Wally Cooper, and shook his hand with a smile that she hoped conveyed friendship and not pity. He wasn’t exactly fat, though you most certainly couldn’t say he was slim either; just wider and taller than anyone she knew, with a broad nose and an unfortunate case of acne on his cheeks and neck. She had never shaken a boy’s hand before, that she could recall. Wally was clearly being funny but the gesture still struck Katie as…mature. Suave, even. It spoke of a sophistication that this group must have, a cool sapience Katie hadn’t even known she was craving until this minute. She was so tired, suddenly, of girls who only talked about boys or their hair, and boys whose idea of wit was fart jokes. Here was the beautiful Joss Silverman reading a book about movie making or something, and the huge and brilliant Wally Cooper had used the word “colleague” and shaken her hand.

As it turned out, having a rare form of synesthesia was, indeed, “on the spectrum,” and when the club met during “activities period,” the un-inspired name given to the final hour of the day on Wednesdays, Katie went to the “guidance cluster” to see if the club of Joss Silverman and Wally Cooper was a real club. It had occurred to her that this was odd: a club dedicated to kids who…who what? Were autistic? Joss Silverman was sort of aloof, and apparently had a driver’s license since tenth grade, but if he had traits that were “on the spectrum” Katie couldn’t tell what they were. Of course, no one could tell hers, either, if it counted at all. And there was nothing autistic-seeming about Wally Cooper. It was a real club, albeit one of the more vague, purposeless ones. They weren’t putting together a yearbook or raising either money or awareness, because there was no need for money and all the members were well aware of why they were there, and didn’t particularly want others to be.

Besides the beautiful Joss, whose Tourettes Syndrome may or may not have contributed to certain personality traits common in a boy his age, (aloof unless particularly interested in something, prone to both sudden detachment and ‘over-focusing,’ fidgety), and the disarmingly nice Wally Cooper, there were two other old members, and two new, if Katie included herself. The old members were Dagny Brooks-Pierce, the sophomore star of both the music and theater departments, and Natasha Mori, whom Katie had never seen. Dagny had a mane of dark blond hair so thick, it really did remind Katie of a mane, and an alarmingly womanly figure for a fifteen-year-old. She seemed to be all hair and lips and boobs. That first day, she’d been wearing a low-cut tank top and a tweed blazer, and…were those jodhpurs? It was an outfit that would have looked ridiculous on Katie but was perfection on Dagny Pierce-Brooks. Katie averted her gaze and looked helplessly at Natasha Mori, who regarded her back with cool orange eyes. Her eyes were Asian in shape, but almost literally orange, a color Katie had never seen in a human eye, and her long black hair and high cheekbones did not make Katie feel any better. There was beauty everywhere, and she nearly walked out, it was all so disconcerting. But then Joss Silverman walked in behind her, saying, “Well, look who came. Rainbow girl. The human color-wheel.” He’d been the one to read her “application,” such as it was, and the thought of Joss Silverman sitting alone somewhere–his room, maybe?–reading about her, made her neck flush. She stayed.

“Guys, this is Katie Something-or-other. She’s got this thing where she sees colors in letters, or numbers, or something. It’s legit. Katie, we welcome you,” Joss said with a little flourish, and then, as if he’d used all his word for the moment, he sat and bent over a notebook.

“Oh, my God. She’s adorable,” Dagny Pierce-Brooks said, flapping her hand almost spastically, motioning for Katie to sit by her on the file cabinet despite several empty chairs. Katie thought: adorable? There was a note of condescension in it. But then the immediate thought: oh, well, that’s pretty good. There was nothing else you could hope to be when up against this girl, whom Katie’s mother would call buxom, and about whom Katie’s father would only say, Yikes in a parental sort of way, and when up against this Natasha person, who looked like a princess from a far away land. ‘Adorable’ was going to have to be fine.

The other new member turned out to be Cullen Jones, who walked in with several binders, sat down heavily in a desk, and began to do what appeared to be homework from another planet. Katie noticed that his papers were covered in numbers, but with symbols and squiggles she had never seen before.

“Hey, Cullen. Going to join us this year, huh?” Wally Cooper said, and Cullen grunted in the affirmative. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled at him, like indulgent parents.

“Cullen’s our resident math genius,” Wally said, obviously for Katie’s benefit. “I’d show you, but he doesn’t do parlor tricks.” Cullen was a student of un-specific graduation year, because he’d arrived at West Jefferson High in fifth grade to take math courses, then continued on to college math courses in what should have been seventh grade. His lack of social skills and astounding mediocrity at any academic subject other than math prevented him from simply going to college at age fifteen, but the teachers and administrators at West Jefferson gave Cullen a wide berth. So advanced were his mathematical skills, (he’d been asked to co-author books on both string theory and quantum modular forms, and had been in Time Magazine’s ‘child prodigy’ issue), it seemed almost indecent to give him the label of “sophomore” or anything else. He was always just Cullen Jones. He, too, was beautiful, for lack of a better word. All the best physical traits of his handsome, Scandinavian father and his graceful, Kenyan mother had endowed Cullen with theoretical good-looks that were very camera friendly, at least in Time. But Cullen seemed to be in a different world, and he was. He might be next to you, but far away and unresponsive, so the good looks were noticed and then forgotten.

So that was it. Three boys and three girls the year that Katie McDonald was a sophomore and Joss, Wally, and Dagny were juniors, and the next year, though no one knew why, they did not advertise their club in September. By then, it had become something almost sacred, though none of them would have called it that. They were just a group of friends who started as a club and became something else entirely. By then, they couldn’t really open it up to others. By then, they were, (literally, Dagny would have said as a joke, because people were always saying ‘literal’ when it wasn’t literal at all, and they enjoyed light, disdainful mocking of their peers), carved in stone.


White Lie

They saw it coming. They said it was going to be the biggest snowstorm in twenty years. Just as the blue-white flakes began to fall, I gingerly climbed into the car, cradling my pregnant belly in my hands, and headed into the storm with my sixty-two-year-old father at the wheel.  It was what Google now calls “The North American Blizzard of 2003,” and it began on Valentine’s Day. As my father drove me to the hospital to have my baby, my husband was 6,500 miles away, on the deck of the USS Ashland, in Kuwait. As I went into labor, he was reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, waiting until he could make a phone call to me (a very rare thing, only allowed because I was having a baby). After the call, he would step off the ship and onto the dessert sand to await orders.

Having a baby while my husband was deployed was not the bravest thing I ever did. Neither was enduring the dramatic events of the birth itself. The bravest thing I ever did was tell a lie.

In 2003, I had been married for six years, had  two small kids, and was expecting a third. My husband worked for a newspaper, producing their website, but he was also a Reservist in the Marine Corps. He’d enlisted after high school, despite a high GPA and SAT scores, because he loved his country, and he wanted to do something different. Something hard. Enlisting in the Marines was bold. Rebellious, even. He had no regrets: he still went to college and eventually grad school, and served his country one weekend a month and two weeks every summer.

We were accustomed to phone calls late at night: if the servers at The Times went down or a story broke that had to be covered, he would get a call. But when the phone rang at ten-thirty, and I heard my husband saying, “Yes, Sir. Yes, Sir…” my heartbeat quickened. Colonels and Majors don’t call up enlisted guys at ten-thirty on a Monday night. Unless…

He was gone by Friday. Forty thousand Marines, including the 4th Civil Affairs Unit of the Second Battalion, were being deployed to Kuwait, hours from the Iraqi boarder. Spouses were not told the details. Enlisted Marines did not take cell phones with them or have access to email. I was eight months pregnant, with two little kids, and on a tight budget about to be made tighter by my husband’s sudden pay cut.

Watching him go wasn’t the bravest thing I ever did, either. You don’t have a choice about that. Reservists sign a piece of paper saying if they are called, they will go. Period. And my husband wanted to go. He loved me, he loved our kids, and there was  pain in his eyes when he let go of my hands and walked away, but he wanted to go do what he’d been training to do for a decade, and serve the country that he loved so much.

Twenty-nine days later, I was thumbing through a magazine with my feet in stirrups, a warm blanket over my lap as snow fell outside, waiting for Pitocin to work because it had been nine hours and I was only three centimeters dilated. My doctor came in sipping coffee, to offer me some words of encouragement before he did a scheduled surgery down the hall. He decided to check on the progress of the baby one more time.

He never finished his coffee.

His eyes widened, then locked on mine, and he said to me, “I need to make a decision, and there isn’t time to talk about it. This baby has a pro-lapsed cord, meaning the head is pushing on it, cutting off the oxygen. You need to have a C-section, right now. Do you trust me?” I said a weak “Yes,” and within sixty seconds I was on an operating table, nurses buckling my wrists and ankles down and an anesthesiologist telling me they were moving as quickly as they could, and I would be “out” in about twenty seconds. There wasn’t time for an epidural; they needed to knock me out. My doctor gave me a look of pity, and I saw in his eyes the moment he made his decision. He had delivered my other children, and he knew me. He knew what I would want. He said, “We don’t have twenty seconds.” I felt that first cut. Completely.

That wasn’t the bravest thing I ever did either. Again, I didn’t really have a choice; the decisions were being made for me. Neither was the recovery, or taking care of a newborn and two small kids. Alone.

The bravest thing I never did was lie on the phone. It was during the phone call my husband got to place from his ship, that same evening. The time delay and background noise of an international call did not help the conversation, but I was thrilled to hear his voice and be able to tell him we’d had a boy. I’d named him Christopher, after the patron saint of safe journeys. When my husband asked, “How was the delivery? Are you okay?” I had a moment to think about my answer. I didn’t know where he was, or what he’d be doing the next day. We’d been told he’d be gone for about a year, and it had only been one month. No matter what was going on with me or the baby, they were not going to send him home unless somebody died. So I didn’t tell him about waking up from the surgery in my own vomit, or the fact that our son may or may not have been without oxygen for a while. I didn’t tell him that the baby was blue, at least from what I could tell; they’d whisked him off to the NICU before I could hold him. I mentioned that it was snowing, but not that they were predicting another two feet, the power had already gone out in much of the area, and the roads were closed. I didn’t tell him that when I thought about the months that lay ahead, I felt so lonely that my chest and arms ached. Instead, I swallowed, and said, “I’m fine. The baby’s…beautiful, and we’re…we’re fine. Really.” I heard the relief in his voice when he said, “That’s great. That’s so great. Happy Valentine’s Day…” The line went fuzzy, then dead. I had no regrets. There was no point in worrying him. It would have distracted him from the job he had to do, and my own need for catharsis wasn’t as great as my need for him to be happy, and, well, alive.

He had to spend a month in Kuwait, waiting, just in case Saddam Hussein decided to play nice and let the U.N. weapons inspectors back in. For four weeks, my husband had too much free time, and he spent it fiddling around with coding web sites. He told me in a letter that if he came home, he wanted to make a Shakespeare search engine, like Google for Shakespearean actors and scholars. He thought maybe it could be his Master’s thesis. By the time I read the letter, he was in Nasiriyah, trying to evacuate villages before they were bombed by the Saddam Fedayeen. Sometimes people died. So I am glad I lied. I’m glad that when he thought of me, he probably pictured me and the children in some scene of domestic tranquility: me cradling the new baby in a rocking chair while the others looked on, a soft glow around my face as the baby slept. The reality was exhaustion, Cheerios on the floor and my hair unwashed for days as I watched Kerry Saunders on the news and bit my nails.

Christopher is ten now. He plays soccer and the piano, and has a fondness for card games and butter-pecan ice cream. Miraculously, he had no brain-damage at birth. Even if he did, I would do it all again. My story is like many, many others that will never get published or even told. In the big scheme of things, it is not a story of remarkable bravery,  just everyday bravery, when you put aside your feelings to do a job that must be done, or to put someone else’s welfare before your own. Soldiers and Marines do it every day, so other people don’t have to. Parents, doctors and rescue workers do it every day. Grown children, taking care of their parents, do it every day, and anyone who hasn’t had to be brave in this way will have to at some point. I will probably have to be brave again soon, but for now, I am happy to sit listen to the sound of my kids downstairs, playing blackjack and talking about Shakespeare with their dad.


Amazing Grace

I am sitting at a McDonalds on Rt. 1, because I made the mistake of telling my four year old that if he did not complain at Home Depot and the shoe store and the sewing machine repair place, I would buy him lunch anywhere he wanted. So I am at a McDonalds on a Tuesday morning with my two youngest kids, picking at my salad and wondering how many extra calories are in the crispy chicken versus the grilled, and hoping no one reports me to social services for letting a 23 month old eat French fries.

My four year old is playing happily with his American Idol Happy Meal sunglasses, which have glow in the dark stars on them which can only be seen if he climbs under the table where it is relatively dark. I’m sure it is filthy under there, but he is so happy in his little under-table world, popping up only to take a bite out of a nugget or ask me something about the largest possible size of a t-Rex or the speed capacity of a rocket. I know the answers to neither but guessing will still pacify him, so I reply and tell him not to touch the floor with his hands.

It has been a long morning; the kind of morning where juice was spilled on the last remaining clean uniform shirt, I was late for carpool and the baby fell down the stairs during my shower.  The tree service came to take out a large oak that may fall on my daughter’s bedroom at any moment, only to tell me that their estimate was slightly off, it may be closer to a thousand dollars, and someone named Ray cannot appear with the right noisy equipment until after lunch, which is when the baby naps. So it going to be a very long day.

I am aware suddenly that we are being watched; I feel eyes on me and look up, instantly defensive the way mothers of young kids are: is my baby flinging food? Is my pre-schooler eating fries off of the floor? Is my blouse buttoned crooked? What? But I see only a little old lady, at least eighty and roughly the size of a thin ten year old. She is watching my kids and me, smiling the wistful smile of the very old, incongruously holding a Big Mac in her small hands.

To her left at a table in the corner is a gentleman in his seventies, a retired-Admiral type in a regimental-stripped bow tie. He is sitting ram-rod straight except for his head, which droops slightly, though his gaze is up. On me. He, too, looks wistful and, I think, a little lonely, and I realize that I am the entertainment here. There is another elderly man to my left with half an egg-McMuffin on his tray, and it is past noon, so he’s been there a while. It dawns on me that all of these older people have come here for lack of anyplace else to go, just to get out and be around other people.

“Your children are beautiful. Just beautiful,” the Admiral tells me. It is such a delicate, feminine word for such a large man, masculine even in his fragility. I thank him, marveling that he would say this when one of the kids has ketchup in her hair and possibly a dirty diaper, and one is playing on the floor of a McDonalds. “It does a heart good,” he finishes, and slowly collects his things and walks to the door with more dignity than most statesmen.

The man with breakfast still on his tray has fallen asleep and I am planning my exit strategy, so I can go change the baby, when my son grins up at me and says, “Momma! You should come down here! Seriously! It’s really cool!”

“No, get up sweetie,” I say. “We have to go in a minute.”

His face falls, almost imperceptibly, and he tries again, “But Momma, it’s neat down here!” ( He still pronounces “here” hee-oh.) His happy meal sunglasses are on crooked, his hair is sticking up on one side, and his pleading smile digs at my heart.

“You should get down there,” a voice says. I turn to see the small old lady, penetrating blue eyes staring right at me. I laugh uncomfortably and she repeats herself, “Go down there with him. He’s asking you to.”

Her vocal chords are weak but there is strength in her presence and her accent. She is a  Tennessee Williams character. She softens a little and says, “They-ah only little once. You can’t ev-ah get that back.”  She probably weighs less than a hundred pounds, she is a total stranger, and she has the power to make me climb under a table in a seedy McDonalds. It is kind of cool down there, in the way that spaces can be interesting only to children; the way my ceiling was when I was six and lay in bed wondering what it would be like if I could walk around up there and look down at my bedroom. It is dark under the table, and the empty space under the booth next to us is like a secret compartment. I do not fit, but Christopher is beaming at me from back there, and all I can see are his chicklet baby teeth and the stars on his ridiculous glasses. In his own funny way, he is beautiful, and I have forgotten to notice that for weeks. What’s more, he has made this day fun and funny and, for about five seconds, magical.

When we have surfaced again, a young woman comes in and calls to the Southern lady, “Miss Grace, time to go.” A caretaker of some sort, who wipes her mouth and helps her up and to the waiting car, and Grace (of course her name would be Grace) also leaves with a quality of dignity I’m not sure I will ever possess. But she pauses first to grab my hand in her wiry, strong one, and say, “Gifts are meant to be taken.” She leaves me speechless and stunned. I seem to have had a life-changing experience on a Tuesday morning in a McDonalds on Route 1.

It has been a few days now, and it has got me thinking about Grace, both the person and the concept. St. Paul spends most of his letter to the Romans explaining Grace, and it seems to me to be one of the fundamental points of all the Gospels. But I only understand it superficially: that grace is that by which I am forgiven. Chesterton called it “God’s favor.” C.S. Lewis said it is the thing that sets Christianity apart from other monotheisms, in terms of content (as opposed to truth); that is a gigantic gift, given so constantly that we forget to notice it.

I am thinking of going back to that McDonalds on subsequent Tuesdays. While I know you can’t re-create any moment in time, I am having fantasies about befriending an eclectic group of old people. Maybe we need each other; somehow I could work them in to my life between baseball practice and brownies and explaining fractions, and they would not have to go to McDonalds for entertainment. On second thought, perhaps not McDonalds. Maybe I could start a book group; the kind where the point isn’t really the book, it’s the conversation and the dessert. I would make lemon cookies and serve them with Earl Grey. Decaf. Because these people? I think they might have a lot to teach me, about grace, and joy, and accepting gifts when they are given.


The Soup Whisperer

Life-affirming soup. I used noodles in this one because that’s what I had. It looks even prettier with wild rice. You can throw green veggies in there too, but then it looks like you have an agenda. This way is more comforting.

I make this soup. It’s not really one kind of soup; it’s any; it’s many. It starts out the same every time, but it ends up different if I want it to, and I know how to make it because my mom died eighteen years ago.

I had to count up those years in my head just now because I can’t believe it’s been that long; it seems like just a few years ago she was walking around in a Lands End down vest and jeans (still a good look, I might add), and chatting with me, sewing, watching re-runs of Newhart. Laughing, at everything I said. She thought I was so funny. She died in a freak accident that I wasn’t there for and left us all pretty broken. And no good came of it, either. All those aphorisms about how something good comes of everything, how we will see the wisdom in God’s plan years later; all those do not apply. No good came of losing my mom, period, and definitely not one large enough to make up for the gaping, yawning hole that was left in my family. But if I had, I mean absolutely had to think of something good, or sort of good, that happened in the years that followed that might not have happened if I hadn’t lost my mom, there are two things: I became a little more compassionate, and I learned to make soup. Seriously good, comforting, delicate-yet-substantial soups that warm the soul literally and figuratively.

I’m a very competent cook when it comes to weeknight dinners and sweet breads. I make great pot-roast, decent pot-pie, and adequate quiche, but I’m gifted at soup. I don’t like to brag, but I am. No recipe, just me and the contents of my fridge and pantry, no matter what they are, and I can make a soup that is amazing. My husband names them after me: there is ‘Paigestroni’ and “Paige-sta e fagioli,’ and my favorite, “Myrtle-ini.” (Don’t ask.) The guy is a bit of a foodie, too, and holds the culinary world to very high standards. He recently called me ‘the soup whisperer.’

Here is how it happened: my mom died, I lost eleven pounds in three weeks because I couldn’t choke down any sort of food, only nobody noticed except my roommate and my boyfriend, and then I learned to make soup. One night as I sat grading papers, because life just marches on in your face and you have no choice but to do what you’re supposed to be doing, my then-boyfriend stopped by with chicken parmesan from the Italian place downstairs that I liked until I stopped eating. I loved their chicken parmesan, and he tried to coax me into taking some bites. He held them out on a fork for me, like I was a toddler, begging me to just have some, because I needed to eat. I was teaching full time, six different classes with five different “preps” because the school I taught at was using me as a workhorse, and I was driving home to Alexandria three nights a week and leaving food for my dad. Casseroles, mainly, that he wasn’t eating. The boyfriend sat back on his haunches and asked if there was anything that I would eat. Anything that sounded good, and he’d go and get it for me, or make it for me. I came out of my stupor for a minute when I realized he seemed about to cry. (And by the way, it’s not that I was too thin–I could stand to lose eleven pounds then and I definitely could now. It’s just that my rapid weight loss was such an obvious symptom of my sadness, he thought if he could at least fix that, he’d have done something good. It wouldn’t have fixed the sadness, it was pure man-think, but he meant well.) I thought a minute and said, “Soup. I could eat soup. But…I think I want to make it myself.”

He was so pleased. I hadn’t wanted to do anything myself, let alone anything involving food, which he believed holds near-sacred qualities if prepared in a way that gives glory to God and food itself, and is consumed with family or friends. Really, I just wanted to make it myself because I wanted to make extra for my dad so I could skip a couple days of casserole-making. And I kind of wanted to be alone in my grief, because I was miserable company and knew it.

My boyfriend and my roommate got all excited, fluttering around arranging spoons and spatulas and cutting boards for me in the tiny kitchen of the hugely overpriced two-bedroom apartment. It was a crummy little place with peeling paint and stinky, sticky carpet and raccoons in the attic, but it had a kitchen with gas burners and a long countertop. “Do you need anything?” they kept asking, so I sent them to the store for chicken broth while I got to work chopping the one little onion we had. They said they’d get more onions, but I didn’t want more. We were on a tight budget, all of us, about half a shoestring each, and I wanted to see what I could do with what we had and very little else. The self-denial was strangely cathartic.

In the 20-year-old fridge we had some boneless, skinless chicken breasts, (my roommate had a touch of carnaphobia, or at least wouldn’t buy any meat that looked too gross in supermarket cellophane. We pooled our money for groceries sometimes, and I went along with her need to buy more expensive cuts of meat because they had less fat), two carrots, and some milk. In one of the 1975 cabinets, we had a box of Corn Pops and a single can of cannellini beans with an expiration date that was two weeks in the past.

I got to work. I began with a recipe on a recipe card in a recipe box that had been my mothers; the recipe was attributed to her friend, Sue Schultz, a neighbor in the late 70s. The recipe card was yellowing with age and had roosters on it. It was a recipe for “Anything Soup,” and the first thing it had you do was chop onions. Then it had you sauté them, then add flour, right to the onions, making a weird, chunky paste in the bottom of the pot. Then it had you pour broth on the weird paste, slowly, until there was a lot in there. Then you brought it to a simmer, adding things. I didn’t know I was making a roux, or that this could be the base of many soups and sauces. I only knew I was cooking, really cooking, and despite the grief over my mother and the crummy apartment and the job that was exhausting me and the fact that my father didn’t like my boyfriend, whom I wanted to marry, (quickly if possible, because of the grief over my mother and the crummy apartment and the job), some tiny part of me felt happy. My roux smelled good. It is really hard to be totally sad if you are working with your hands and smelling sautéing onions.

I started making soup instead of casseroles. There is a place for casserole, but it not on the table of someone who is grieving. At least, not too often and not unless it is a really great casserole. Great enough that the sad person can overlook the fact that they are so sad, somebody gave them a casserole. But soup says I understand. It says Here, try a little of this, you’ll feel better. Slowly, glacier-time slowly, I did feel a little better and so did my dad. And my roommate, who had troubles of her own, ate well for a while until I married that boyfriend and she married hers and I learned to make a few other things.

Here is the point: you can make tons of soups with no recipe if you just learn the basics. Here’s how you do it:

1. Chop up an onion or two, and is possible several cloves of garlic.

2. Heat up a pot with a Tablespoon of oil and a Tablespoon of butter. When bubbling, put the onion and garlic in there.

3. Wait three or four minutes, stirring sometimes, until onions are tender. Then sprinkle roughly 3 Tablespoons of flour on there. It makes a weird chunky paste.

4. Cook about 3 more minutes, then pour on 3 cups (or so) of chicken broth or stock. If you don’t have it, use bullion and make it first, or use some combination of water and broth and wine. Beef or vegetable broth will work, white wine, something. Broth or stock is best but do what you can.

5. Bring to a boil. Turn down to simmer. Now, ADD STUFF.

Meat: (already cooked). Anything you have. Seriously. Chicken, beef, turkey, sausage, ground beef or turkey, leftover pot roast, whatever.

Herbs, (rosemary goes with chicken, thyme goes with beef, sage goes with turkey, and oregano makes anything taste Italian. That’s all you gotta know.)

A starchy thing: (already cooked). Pasta, rice, brown rice, beans, corn, peas, potatoes, etc.

Stuff from your fridge: leftover tortellini, quinoa with herbs, whatever. If you need to get rid of a leftover savory item and don’t want to eat it alone, you can probably add it to the pot. Unless it’s, like, a dessert, or has a bun on it, or has a really distinct flavor that doesn’t go with your delicate soup. Don’t put leftover chipotle tacos in chicken and rosemary soup, for example. No, wait, that could be good.

Seasoning: do this at the end, just in case the meat you added already had so much salt that it has seeped into the soup and you don’t need to add as much salt as you otherwise would. Try salt and pepper, garlic powder, dried oregano, a pinch of paprika, etc.

Sauces: to make your soup Italian, add leftover spaghetti sauce and tortellini, or a can of tomato sauce or paste and a bunch of dried oregano, even a dash of red wine if you want.

Let it simmer for ten minutes. Set the table, toast some bread, grate some cheese to sprinkle on top. Relax. Eat your soup.

A Doll Named Jesse Rose

I wrote this for Molly when she was eight, mostly while waiting in the carpool line. She has been in love with both clothes and dolls since she was a toddler. She loves clothes themselves; the colors and textures, the history behind them; the statement a garment might make about a person (or a doll.) Molly particularly liked old fashioned rag dolls when she was eight, so this little story is about a doll who gets passed down through generations, and eventually acquires

A flour sack dress, a little red apron
a blue Christmas dress and a dress for vacation,
a party dress with satin and lace,
a play dress to wear all over the place,
a nightgown of white and shoes of brown leather,
and a fuzzy pink coat to wear in bad weather.

A Doll Named Jessie Rose

 There once was a time in America called the Olden Days, when families traveled west in wagons covered by fabric and pulled by horses. They came to find land in the west, and when they arrived, they built homes and farms on the land. They called it “settling.”

In one of these families, there was a little girl named Susanna. Susanna wanted a doll for her birthday more than anything in the world. Folks who settled did not have much money, and there were not many stores, so little Susanna did not have many toys. But she had this: a mother. Susanna’s mother was very loving, and very clever. So she made Susanna a doll.

She used strips of old muslin for the little doll’s body, and light brown yarn from an outgrown sweater for the hair, which she braided and tied with lavender ribbons she had been saving for a special occasion. Two black buttons from an old coat made happy, shiny eyes.

From the lining of the pocket of an old pink dressing gown, Susanna’s mother cut small circles for cheeks, and with a single strand of her best red thread, she sewed a small smile.

Now Susanna’s birthday was just two days away, but it was late summer, and there was much  work to be done canning the fruits that had grown in the summer garden, and planting fall vegetables. Susanna’s mother simply didn’t have time to make the doll a dress. “I’ll do it later,” she said with a sigh, hiding the little doll in her sewing basket. But Susanna also had this: a big sister.

This sister, Abby, was old enough to use a needle and thread, and she wanted to give Susanna something for her birthday too. So, when her chores were done, by the light of a candle, Abby took scraps from an old flour sack and made the doll her very first dress. It was white, with faded red stripes, and a little red apron to match.

On the apron, as a finishing touch, she sewed a small rose, because it was Susanna’s favorite flower. Then she carefully put the doll back in the basket, blew out her candle, and went to sleep.

Oh how Susanna loved her present! Never, never had she had a toy so beautiful and wonderful, of her very own. Not just a toy, but a friend with shining eyes.

“What will you name her?” her mother asked, smiling fondly. Susanna thought a moment and decided on Jesse, for she had heard that name in a story long ago. But, seeing the tiny pink rose stitched on the apron, she said, “No, wait: I think I’ll call her Jessie Rose.”

And so it was decided.

Susanna grew up, and Jesse Rose remained her favorite toy. She was played with in the corn fields, and in the pumpkin patch, and in the wagon on the way to town. And Jesse Rose sat faithfully by Susanna’s side when Susanna had measles, and lay in her bed for two weeks with fever. Jessie Rose, in her little red dress, was a loyal friend.

But all little girls must grow up, and Susanna, of course, did just that: she grew up , and had a little girl of her own, and named her Becky. And guess what? Becky loved dolls too. One day Becky’s mother said, “Here is my favorite doll: my mother made her for me when I was your age, and my sister, your aunt, made her little dress.”

Becky loved Jessie Rose. Susanna had taken good care of her, and the little red apron was only a little bit faded. As she handed her to Becky, Susannah said this: “Give her a name she already knows: be sure to call her Jessie Rose.”

Becky played with Jessie Rose every bit as much as Susannah did. Becky had only brothers, so she pretended Jesse Rose was a beloved sister, telling her stories and playing with her in the cornfields, because Becky’s daddy was a farmer like her grandpa had been.

Things were changing in Becky’s time: it was a new century, and train tracks ran across the prairie, so a little girl and her family could travel from one state to another. Becky was going to see her grandparents, who lived in the place where her mother grew up: a place called Boston. She would be spending Christmas with them.

Just days before the trip, Becky asked her mother if perhaps they could make Jesse Rose a new dress, to wear for Christmas. “Let’s make two dresses!” her mother replied, because her mother still loved Jessie Rose very much, and loved Becky even more. So, together, Susanna and Becky took some scraps of deep green velvet, and cut out a Christmas dress for Jessie Rose. It was the softest thing that Becky had ever touched, and her mother showed her how to carefully make small stitches in the sleeves and hem. When it was finished, they tied a white ribbon at the waist to brighten it up.

“It’s a lovely dress for Christmas, but it’s too fancy for the train trip,” Becky said. She looked in the scrap bag, and found some blue calico with tiny rose colored flowers. Carefully, all by herself, Becky cut out a little dress and stitched it together just in time for their journey. Now Jessie Rose had

a flour sack dress and a little red apron,

a green Christmas dress and a dress for vacation.

It was a lovely trip, and from that day on, Becky visited her grandparents in Boston every Christmas, until she was all grown up. (For she grew up, too, as all little girls do.)

Some hard times fell Becky’s home inKansas: dust storms came, every day for months and months, and the crops were bad. No one played with Jessie Rose, and no one went outside to play at all.

But Becky married a kind doctor and moved to a place calledVirginia, where the summers are hot and the winters are cold, and Jasmine blooms in the spring. She had one child: a little girl with nut-brown curls, and she called her Katie-Lynne.

Katie-Lynne was an only child, without a single friend her age to play with on the whole street. So one day, her mother, Becky, opened the old trunk that had been her mother’s, and had traveled from Boston to Kansas and then to Virginia, and took out her beloved doll for Katie to play with, saying, “Give her a name she already knows: be sure to call her Jessie Rose.”

Jesse Rose became Katie-Lynne’s most favorite toy: more than the expensive china dolls on her shelf that were too nice to be played with; more than her rocking horse or jacks or tin soldiers; Jesse Rose was a friend. Jesse-Rose played with Katie-Lynne under the magnolia trees, went to church in a fancy carriage, and sat on-top of the piano while Katie had her lessons.

One day, there was to be a party, for Katie-Lynne was turning eight years old. Katie-Lynne said to her mother, “Mamma, I do love Jesse Rose’s little apron and dresses, but do you think we could make her a party dress, to make her feel special and new?”

Of course Katie’s mother knew how to sew, because she had make Jesse Rose the blue dress with roses, and watched her mother make the soft velvet dress long ago. So together, they made Jesse Rose a beautiful party dress, out of pink satin that shone in the light, and cream colored lace. It was the most beautiful dress Katie had ever seen, and when she put it on Jessie Rose, she was just sure she saw the little doll’s eyes twinkle. Now Jesse Rose had

a flour-sack dress and a little red apron

a green Christmas dress and a dress for vacation

and a party dress with satin and lace.

Many birthdays came and went, and Katie-Lynne grew up, too. She became a teacher, and moved to a place calledCalifornia, where the sun shines nearly all the time, and thePacific Ocean crashes on the beaches. She had three children of her own: two little boys and a little girl, and she named the little girl Julia.

Julia was a spunky child: she liked to race with the boys, ride her bicycle, and climb trees. She had no time for tea parties and playing princess, so her mother didn’t know if she would want a doll. But one day Julia stayed home from school, sick, without her brothers to play with and with nothing to do. “Would you like to see my old doll?” her mother asked, pulling Jessie Rose out of the trunk. “Be gentle with her; she belonged to my mother and to her mother.”

“Oh…” Julia whispered, “she’s wonderful!” For even though she’d never loved dolls before, there was something about Jesse Rose’s sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks that made her instantly love the little doll.

“You may keep her,” Julia’s mother said, smiling, “but give her a name she already knows: be sure to call her Jessie Rose.”

Julia spent the whole afternoon, and many more, playing with Jesse Rose, pretending she was the patient while Julia took her temperature or wrapped her arm in cloth like a cast, for Julia wanted to be a doctor like her grandfather.

“Mother,” Julia said one day, “Jessie Rose’s little dresses are great; I especially like the soft green velvet one, and the pretty pink satin. But she needs a play dress to wear on regular days–one that isn’t old, and isn’t too fancy.”

So together they made Jesse Rose a play dress, in yellow checked gingham, with a small pocket. An on that pocket, Julia stitched a tiny red rose, just as Abby had stitched one for her sister Susanna long ago. Now Jessie Rose had

a flour sack dress and a little red apron,

a green Christmas dress and a dress for vacation,

a party dress with satin and lace,

and a play dress to wear all over the place.

Julia did grow up, as all little girls do, and she became one of the finest doctors in all of Virginia. She had no daughters of her own, but one of her brothers, who was a grown up now, had a lovely little girl named Grace, who loved and admired her Aunt Julia very much.

Grace lived in the west, in a state called Colorado, where the mountains stretch up to the sky and the air smells like pine trees. One year, for her birthday, Grace got a package in the mail, from her wonderful aunt: it was a darling doll, with clothes of her very own. And in the package was a note, telling Grace that this very special doll belonged to her grandmother, and great grandmother, and great-great grandmother. At the end it read: “Give her a name she already knows: be sure to call her Jessie Rose.”

Grace took Jesse Rose hiking in the mountains, and on picnics in the meadows near her house, where she would weave wildflowers into garlands for Jesse Rose’s hair, which was very soft and delicate now. Grace made Jesse Rose a soft night gown from an old flannel sheet, and fashioned some small leather shoes, so Jesse Rose wouldn’t get her feet dirty on their adventures, for the doll was getting a little too delicate to put in the washing machine! Now Jessie Rose had

a flour sack dress and a little red apron,

a green Christmas dress and a dress for vacation,

a party dress with satin and lace,

and a play dress to wear all over the place,

a night gown of white, and two shoes of brown leather.

When Grace grew up, as all little girls do, she had one daughter, a lovely child with bright blue eyes, and named her Molly. Molly could not run and jump and skip like many other children, so she had time to learn to sew and knit and paint and play the piano with great skill. When she was just six years old, her mother gave her Jesse Rose, to be her friend and companion. Of course she said, “Give her a name she already knows: be sure to call her Jessie Rose.”

Molly was given the little trunk, with all the beautiful little clothes, and she said to her mother, “These are wonderful, but there is one thing she needs that she doesn’t have: a coat!” It is cold in Colorado in the winter time, so Molly took her smallest, best knitting needles and her softest, brightest blue yarn, and made Jesse Rose a warm jacket that fit over her dresses. Now Jesse Rose had

a flour sack dress and a little red apron,

a green Christmas dress and a dress for vacation,

a party dress with satin and lace,

and a play dress to wear all over the place,

a night gown of white, two shoes of brown leather,

and a blue knitted coat to wear in bad weather.

When Molly finished the coat, she laid it over Jessie Rose’s lap and went to bed. As Jesse Rose drifted off to sleep, she thought of that first little flour sack dress that Susanna’s mother had made her back in Kansas, with the Rose on the pocket that Abby had sewn, and how they had played in the corn fields on the Kansas prairie. She thought of the soft green velvet dress that Becky had made her for that Christmas, and the blue calico she’d worn the very first time she ever traveled, and how big the streets of Boston looked. She thought of Katie-Lynne and the pink satin party dress she’d worn while they played under the Jasmine trees, and she thought of  Julia and the yellow-checked dress she’d worn while they played in the California sunshine. She thought of Grace, and the care she’d taken to make her some little shoes to wear while they played in the Colorado wildflowers, and dear Molly, who was sleeping beside her, and who made her the lovely blue coat.

One nice thing about dolls is that they live nearly forever, and as Jessie Rose drifted off to sleep, she dreamed of all the little girls who had loved her, and she couldn’t wait to see who would love her next.

The Way Home

What she would remember, years later when she thought about that time, was the synthetic smell of watermelon.  The occupational therapist who came to her house weekly to play with Ben had suggested water in a bottle, which Ben could spray into the air to eliminate monsters, dragons, or people he did not like. It was supposed to give him a sense of power over the things that made him feel powerless. But water was not potent enough for Ben; he needed something he could smell, and in the end, they settled on an environmentally friendly room scent that smelled like Jolly Rancher candy.

What she says now is, “Not in the car, Benji, honey. Remember? You don’t need to spray it in here.” She can’t stand the smell of it in confining spaces. This is the thousandth time she has told him this, but that is how it is with Ben. She can see him in the rear view mirror, still in his high-back booster seat, the spray bottle resting between his legs. It’s as if he is relaxing only for a moment; finger on the trigger, ready to spray with lightening reflexes if the need should arise. But he looks absently out the window and seems calm. His face is moon-round, blue bedroom eyes and ridiculous lashes. A mop of blond hair that is not quite curly. She is not one to put kids in movies, but really, if he didn’t have Asperger’s and the sensory thing, he could be a child star.

Josh has headphones in his ears and is reading a Harry Potter knock-off of some sort that he claims is better than the J.K. Rowling ones. Do people even call them head phones anymore, she wonders, and then feels a pang of knowledge that she is getting older. It feels something like a menstrual cramp, but more vague. Not that she has ever wanted to be “cool” or “in,” or even young. But still.

Katie is chewing on a pencil, reading from a textbook with a cover made from a brown paper bag. Tess used to know how to make those without tape, so that the front and back covers fit into flaps on the book cover. She is sure she could not remember it now. There is no doodling on the cover, just the crease that was once the bottom of the grocery bag, and KATIE RYLAND written in block lettering as tidy as the name itself. They are on the way home; school let out a mere fifteen minutes ago and Katie is already working on her homework. Tess knows she should be awed and proud of this, but she considers it something of a betrayal. A second-grader with the work ethic of a serious graduate student should probably be a good thing, but it just makes Tess feel vaguely rejected.
It is quiet except for the white noise of the tires spinning, and Ben’s constant mum-mum-mum-mum noise that he makes when he is “reading.” Surprisingly, it does not annoy her. It was the first near-word he ever said, and they have all grown used to it, even though he speaks now. They call it “mumming,” and when Ben is mumming, he is happy and relaxed. And Tess is growing more and more sure that he really is reading. He is only four, but children with Asperger’s are nearly always highly intelligent. It is possible.
“Hey, do you guys want to go to Popeye’s?” she asks them, a little too brightly. They are always bugging her to go to Popeye’s. This will be good: she will not have to cook, and it is uncharacteristically spontaneous.
“No, that’s okay,” Katie says lethargically, not even looking up.
He takes one ear plug out and raises an eyebrow, just like his dad.
“Hmm?” Ah, he will want to go.
“Do you want to get some Popeye’s?”
“Oh. Naw. No thanks.” Ear plug back in. Tess can’t for the life of her figure out why they’ve said no. She will have to cook after all, and they won’t like that either. Just as well, though. Josh is chubby. The last thing he needs is fried chicken and fries.
She tries not to let Josh’s weight bother her, but it does. Her best friend Maggie says it is because our children are a reflection of us, and on some level a chubby child is hard on the mother’s ego. But that’s not really it; it bothers her because she cannot fix it. She doesn’t let him have coke or candy, doesn’t let him have sweets except for birthday parties and an occasional scoop of ice cream after dinner. He eats fruit or vegetables at every meal and she doesn’t buy all the processed things his friends eat. The pediatrician just shrugged and said put him on a soccer team and she knew what he was really telling her was chill out, get your chess playing chubby son here some exercise and he’ll be fine. They did exactly that, and though she was prepared for Josh to resist, he joined the team, won an award for most improved player, and said he loved it and wanted to play next year. And gained five pounds.
Katie?” she tries again. “Did you decide about choir?”
“Yeah. I don’t really want to do it. If that’s okay.” There it was–the essential Katie. Considering something fun, something she could be really good at, and then backing down at the last minute for no apparent reason. Then worrying weather that was okay or not.
But what Tess says is “Sure, that’s okay. I’m just not sure why you don’t want to do it. You have a really nice voice, Sweetheart. You might want to just…try it, you know? You might like it.” It was a children’s choir, for goodness’ sake, at a church. It’s not like you had to audition, anyone could be in it, and Katie probably had a better voice than at least half of the kids in there.
“No, thanks. I don’t really want to.”
Silence, except for the wheels. Mum mum mum mum mum from the back seat.
What was Katie’s problem, anyway? Most mothers would be so glad to have a girl so interested in math and science at such a young age. All the other mothers always said she is so bright!  It was meant to be a compliment, but Tess suspected they couldn’t think of anything else to say about this shy, serious girl who rarely smiled, at age seven. Already there was an unmistakable “in crowd” in the second grade and Katie was not in it. Not that Tess would want her to be, but still. Shouldn’t she have a group of giggling friends around her? She was pretty but the prettiness was somehow canceled out by her eclectic clothing ensembles, and her tendency to wear headbands straight across her forehead. It reminded Tess of a character on Star Treck: the Next Generation, which her older brother watched in the late eighties. The guy’s name was Jordan or Jordie or something, and he was blind, but wore glasses that made him able to see. And Katie’s hair, though a beautiful blond, was somehow…fuzzy and unkempt. She didn’t like to wear it up. It was too bad those girls at school didn’t see what Tess saw; those beautiful eyes! The kind heart. Katie wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Still, Tess secretly wished Katie was just a little more like Anna Nolan, their spunky, red-headed ten-year-old neighbor, who loved shopping with her mom and organizing neighborhood snowball fights, and was president of everything a ten-year-old can be president of. Anna was always rolling her eyes and making “Mom” into a three-syllable word, but it was affectionate. She did cartwheels on the lawn and was always saying, Hey! You guys wanna… and then coming up with fun things to do. Katie often stared at Anna, gaping. Last year, she used to follow Anna around and would have walked off a cliff for her, but lately she didn’t even want to play with her on Saturdays.
They are nearing Riverside Lane; it would only be another five or ten minutes now, depending on traffic at the light. Tess realizes she has been driving by rote, not even thinking about the turns or stops. Does this constitute careless driving, she wonders? To not even pay attention to where you are going because you make the drive so often? Or is it somehow safer, because you are relaxed you don’t even need to think about it?
She wonders how she even got here, to the road that leads all the way to her house, save one turn. She remembers the time in college that her class had a guest lecturer, though it was a small seminar class on writing and the lecture was really just a discussion. At the time they were all preoccupied with “the art” and “where we are as writers,” and her real professor encouraged them all to ask the guest meaningful and insightful questions on becoming writers. Tess had casually raised her hand in the way of college students, like signaling for the waiter, and said, “So, how did you get here?” meaning, here, to this place in your life of meaningful art and general enlightenment. She thought it was deep. The famous person, whose name escapes Tess to this day, said in a tone both baffled and irritated, “I, ah, took 22 East and then Kingston Road.”
Mum mum mum mum mum mum
            Maybe they should take a vacation. That’s what people do when they need something to look forward to; to break up the monotony that is real life. That’s what Maggie said. But Maggie didn’t quite know their situation.
 Mum mum mum mum mum
            She looks at their heads in the rear view mirror. Katie has fallen asleep, her head back, mouth slightly open. Perfect lips, like Sleeping Beauty. What did everyone call her before she fell asleep? Didn’t that girl have a name? Or has Tess just forgotten it? Josh is staring out the window, absently. His profile looks older than ten; the ghost of the man he will be someday is there. She can just see the top of Ben’s white-blond hair. It occurs to her that their lives are in her hands, and they are all so used to it they take it for granted. They look so vulnerable, like that baby bird she found on the driveway, fallen from the nest. Alive, but nearly bald, papery skin drying out in the heat. She had panicked; the mother would not come. She took the bird inside in her bare hands; it weighed about as much as a nickel. Less. She set it in a box while she googled some avian protection society, and three phone calls later she found someone who would come. The bird was dying, but maybe they could save it. A man showed up. Just a boy, really, with thin hairy legs and the obligatory Birkenstocks, and took her bird away. She never knew if it lived.
There is just the sound of the wheels, and Tess can feel the weight of depression crushing in on her, like the heat blanket they put on her the one time she went to the chiropractor. Heavy. Presumptuous.
“Mom? Mom!” Josh is craned to his right in his seat belt, leaning over Ben, shaking him, hitting him on the back with his fist.
“What? Jeez, Josh, why are you–?”
But now Josh is screaming “Pull over! PULL OVER!” and he is shaking Ben, and she can see in the mirror that Ben’s face is bluish, terror in his eyes, his mouth open and silent.
She pulls the car over on the shoulder, right at the spot where you should never pull over.
“Josh! What does he have? What’s he—here—” she is climbing over the seat—“sweep his mouth with your finger—” but Josh is already doing it, Ben’s chest hanging limply over his arm.
There is a gurgle and a cough, and then Josh is holding something orange in his fingers, and Ben is taking deep gulps of air, crying.
“What the hell is that?” Josh is asking, wide-eyed with disbelief over the thing in his fingers, covered in Ben’s saliva. But Tess can’t talk, she is shaking. She doesn’t care what it was, it is out.
“It’s the garlic thingy,” Katie says, awake now, pale and alert. “You know, that bean-shaped thing you clean the garlic press with after you use it. He likes to play with it. He likes how those little prickly things feel.”
Josh places it in the cup holder, wipes his hand on his jeans.
Tess is kneeling in the well between the middle seats, too small a space, so she hugs Ben tight and climbs back to the driver’s seat. She has to get them off the shoulder.
It is quiet for two or three minutes, except for Ben’s crying, which is a mewling that Tess usually finds both heart breaking and annoying. Her knees are weak, but her grip on the steering wheel is firm. They are almost home.
“Ben, you okay buddy?” Josh is asking him. He’s got his chubby arm around his little brother, Ben’s head on Josh’s chest. “Seriously, buddy, you scared us. Don’t put junk in your mouth, okay? Benji, buddy, hey, stop crying, you’re okay. C’mon. You’re okay…”
Tess is suddenly awe-struck by her oldest child. He is so good with Ben, it amazes her. He will be such a good father. Katie keeps looking at them with concern over her shoulder. She snaps her book shut and puts it in her bag with a sigh. Takes off her glasses. Such and endearing gesture.
“Well,” Tess ventures. Her voice is shaky. “What do you guys want for dinner?”
Katie catches her eye in the mirror.
“Do we have to have, like, a normal dinner?” Katie asks. “Like, with meat and rice  and a vegetable?”
“Well, what do you mean? What do you want?”
“Like, could we just have that honey toast you make? And some strawberries, and, like, hot chocolate or something?”
“Well, sure, I guess—”
“Yeah!” Josh takes his arm off of Ben, it is forgotten for now. “Maybe just peanut butter sandwiches and a big bowl of strawberries, with chocolate drizzled over them like you did that one time!”
They all look happy, animated. She is rounding the corner of Riverside and turning onto Willow.
“Ben?” she asks. She likes to include him, though sometimes he doesn’t answer.
His beautiful face lights up for just a moment; a flicker. “Marshmallows,” he says. He likes them in hot cocoa. The small ones, just about six or seven of them. It can’t be more.
Josh and Katie smile, start to gather up their bags.
“Yeah, okay. Sure. That all sounds really good.”
The garage door is opening, and she feels light as air.

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