Category: Creative Non-Fiction

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 pour 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.

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.

 

Sasha of the White Boots

She had a pair of white leather boots with fringe around the top, and she wore eye shadow. We were in seventh grade. I was twelve and she was thirteen and a half; it was enough to endow her with mystery and charisma by itself, but the boots and the swagger cinched it.

We lived in a small town in Colorado, where the houses were set far back from the streets and into the mountain, everyone had four-wheel drive, and some of my classmates lived thirty minutes away. Sahsa Winters moved into a rental house within walking distance from mine, just over the hill, around an enormous boulder we called “the thinking rock,” and down a little dirt path. The little house was low to the ground and had a sloping roof and one window, and changed tenants every six months or so. In November, when she showed up in Mrs. Jeffery’s seventh-grade homeroom with her flame red hair, olive skin and high cheekbones, wearing those amazing boots, it was all the girls talked about. A couple days later, when I’d taken my blue diary with a silver key to the thinking rock, probably to write about how badly I wanted a puppy or my unrequited crush on John Lambert, I heard a girl yelling at someone, “Move your ass!” I looked through the aspen trees to see Sasha kick the tire of an old jeep as it pulled, screeching, out of what passed for a driveway. She turned and our eyes met. I froze. I didn’t know any other girls who used the word “ass,” especially directed at someone old enough to drive. Possibly even a parent. I could see that it was the mysterious, beautiful new girl from school, and she was walking toward me.

“Hey,” she said, folding her arms over her chest. Her right hip swung out when she did this, a gesture that was both juvenile and womanly but seemed unconscious.

“Hey,” I croaked, pulling my diary closer to me to hide it. It had butterflies with little smiling faces on it, and My Dairy printed at the top. I had liked it until this moment, when it suddenly seemed ridiculous.

Sasha jerked her chin up at me, almost imperceptibly. “Whacha doin? Writing somethin?”

“Um, yeah. Just…a journal sort of thing.”

“Huh. That’s cool,” she said. She kicked at a rock for a moment. She was wearing the white boots again, those beautiful soft leather boots with the swishy fringe. If I owned those boots, I thought, I’d never kick at the dirt. I’d keep them perfect. I’d wipe them down every night with whatever you wipe leather down with, and walk gently at all times. She looked up, tossed her wavy red hair behind her and said, “You wanna come over?”

Thus began my friendship with Sasha Winters, the most fascinating girl in the seventh grade. I sat on the single bar stool at the peeling counter in her kitchen, and she sat in a tattered arm chair eating potato chips, though it was nearly dinner time. We talked until she looked bored, and I said I’d better be getting home. Her house had green shag carpet and dark paneling and smelled like cigarettes, but because it was hers and so different from my own, I found it thrilling.

Sasha didn’t come to school every day, and when she missed a day and was asked where she was, she would shrug and say she took a day off. Surprisingly, the teachers never pressed her for more information. She was so good at math, she could do the class work in half the time it took the rest of us, though she never seemed to pay attention. When Mrs. Jeffery tried to stump her by putting a problem on the board from the back of the book, the part with long algebra equations, Sasha sauntered up and did the equation with bored indifference, getting the right answer. And when our language arts teacher once said, “Sasha, can I see you at my desk, please?” Sasha barely lifted her eyes from her notebook, where she was doodling a picture of a girl standing on a rock, her wild hair blowing in the wind, and said, “Just a sec.” The room went silent. It was public school in the 1980s, hardly a bastion of deference and respect for authority, yet there was something about the way she said it: just a sec; as though they were peers. As though she were doing Mrs. Davis a favor. More amazingly: Mrs. Davis waited. There was a flash of shock or annoyance in her eyes for a split second, but she waited.

Sasha’s jeans were tight and her hair was so long it grazed the bottom of the back pockets on her Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. She wore no makeup except a fat Bonnie Bell lip gloss in strawberry surprise, which she applied often and violently. Everything else, she did with a kind of slow, deliberate ennui. And though she wouldn’t lower herself to having a best friend, or doing any of the other things seventh grade girls did–wearing friendship pins on the laces of their sneakers, giggling about boys, singing the refrain of Peter Cetera songs in groups at recess for no apparent reason–she seemed to have chosen me for her one friend. I was her sidekick and lunch table companion, and it was a role for one. By unspoken agreement, I gave up my other friends, for the most part, even Susan Peters, my best friend since second grade. At the beginning, Susan once said, “Why do you like her?” “She’s interesting,” I said. “She’s really smart.” Susan was smart, too; it must have stung. I couldn’t say, I don’t know. She’s cool. She makes everyone else seem boring. But I thought it.

“Well, I don’t like her,” Susan said. “Her hair is greasy. She won’t talk to most of the girls in the class; it’s snotty. And I think she’s poor.” “Her hair is not greasy,” I said. “And she’s not poor. Her parents are…artists or something.”

I had never actually met Sasha’s parents; they were never home. I imagined they were artists because the house smelled like cigarettes and the green shag carpet struck me as bohemian, though I didn’t know that word yet. Usually no one was home at Sasha’s house, except the man in his twenties who came and went, sullen and silent, except to tell Sasha to do this or that small chore. I had no brothers, but this was within the range of behavior for brothers, or step brothers who fell within that murky no-man’s-land between teen and grown-up.

My own parents were charmingly pleased, in a detached sort of way, that I had a friend and classmate just a short walk away. Playing with Susan and Tracy and my other friends required our mothers to coordinate the driving. My mother was glad I often went to Sasha’s house now, and often told me to ask her home for dinner. I never did. By some tacit understanding, we always hung out at her house, and I did not include her in my family life, the way I had with Susan and the others. She wouldn’t have wanted to eat dinner with my parents and sister, talk about her own parents and what her favorite subject was. Sasha was somehow above all that.

She did come over once, on a rainy late afternoon when the wind was whipping the pine trees around. It was not the kind of weather to be out in and my mother fussed over her at the front door, taking her coat and hurrying her into the foyer, offering her something warm to drink. Sasha mumbled something about needing to look at my geography book, and we hung out for a couple hours. She borrowed my Roses & Romance nail polish and painted her fingernails in stripes and polka dots. I had never seen anyone do that before. “Is anyone home at your house?” I ventured. I thought maybe she was getting bored. She looked at me strangely for a second, then said, “Just Derek. He’s in a foul mood.” So, he had a name. Derek. It suited him. Maybe he was yelling, and she wanted to get away. I was flattered she’d chosen my house, though there was really nowhere else she could go on foot. Hesitatingly, I asked her if she wanted to eat dinner with us. Maybe she heard the insincerity in my voice; she blew on her nails a few times and said she had to go home. She never asked to see my geography book.

Months went by, and my mother did eventually register some concern. Why did Sasha never come over here? Why had I not seen Susan in a while? What was Sasha’s mother’s name, again? I had no idea. She was casual in the way she asked, but I knew it was now on her agenda to find these things out. For a week, Sasha and I continued to sit together at lunch, go to her house on the days when I didn’t have choir practice or a piano lesson. We’d flip through magazines and talk idly about the pictures. Sasha had a tattered spiral notebook she kept under her mattress. She never let me look at it, and once when she was in the bathroom I pulled it out quickly and opened it. Her loopy, childish cursive covered each page with what appeared to be poetry. Sad, strange poetry, with titles like “Smash the Glass” and “Obsidian.” I didn’t know what the word meant. Some were less dark; one of them went The moon was high, the wind was warm, I  drank the tears of the summer storm… I heard the bathroom door open and hurriedly stuck it back under the mattress.

In April, just as the grass was peaking up through the crusty, melting snow, I went to Sasha’s house. She hadn’t been at school, and I was curious. She was alone, taking clothes out of her little cardboard dresser, piling random objects into the boxes on the floor.

“We’re moving,” she said.

“Oh,” said. “Where?” I tried to sound casual.

“I dunno. Durango, maybe. Derek thinks it’s cool there.”

“Oh,” I said. I couldn’t imagine why Derek’s opinion mattered that much. Just then he opened the front door and yelled, “Sasha, hurry up already! I’m freezing my ass off out here!” She rolled her eyes elaborately.

“Nice brother,” I said. Sasha went to the small closet–it had no door but she’d hung a sheet across it like a curtain–and pulled out a shoe box, laid it carefully on top of some clothes.

She laughed. “Derek? He’s not my brother. We’re married.” She turned and began to take down the closet curtain. “Help me,” she said.

“You’re…married?” I said. She only nodded.

I didn’t ask any more. My mind was reeling; inside I did an enormous double take and felt the sting of shock, but I quickly stifled it. I filed away this information with other things I once thought were true but turned out not to be: koalas are not actually bears, the moon does not get bigger and smaller. Apparently, people did not have to be adults to be married.

“When are you leaving?” I asked. Sasha shrugged. A couple days, she said, but she never came back to school. She was gone the next day, and if anyone knew where, I never heard about it. I never told anyone what she’d said, either, but I am convinced it was true. I don’t know what state she’d been married in, or with whose permission, or what she was escaping that made her do it. Maybe she loved him, or thought she did. Maybe she was forced, or felt forced. She never seemed particularly happy, but few girls do when they are fifteen. We’re married, she said. Then: Help me. Did she mean just with the curtain?

I never really said goodbye, just see ya, as usual, as I headed home. I ran all the way this time; the sudden, exuberant run that children break into for no reason. I ran into a small branch of a pine bough that scratched my cheek a little. It stung, and the pain felt oddly good. I burst through the door to my own house breathless and windblown.

“Oh, good, you’re home,” my mother said as she took pork chops out of the oven. “Susan called. She’s having trouble with the social studies homework. You’d better call her back.”
I took the stairs two at a time to the phone in my bedroom, with the selfish relief of someone who has seen someone else’s boat capsize in a storm. I smelled the pork chops and laid my head down on my old Holly Hobby pillow, looked up at my blue canopy bed. Relieved.

I have thought of Sasha Winters many times since then, and once heard some eighth grade boys talking about her. My brother heard the weirdest thing about that girl–he heard she was, like, married. The other boys laughed. I’d marry her one of them said. That girl was HOT. It was all anyone ever said about her.

I wonder now, why I didn’t tell my mother, and what would have happened if I had. Maybe I knew my mom would make a big deal out of it; social workers would be called, Sasha brought in for embarrassing, personal questioning. Maybe I thought Sasha was too good for all that, or maybe I thought she’d blame me, hate me. But maybe she was waiting for me to tell. Deep down, hoping I would. I wonder what damage I might have caused by not knowing until it was nearly too late, and not telling when I could have, even after the fact. Maybe I’d have done more harm than good; I’ll never know.
Help me, she had said. I am ashamed that what bothers me is not that I could have saved her, but that I’ll never know if she wanted to be saved.

For Goodness’ Sake

I wrote this for a contest in Real Simple a year ago, and then forgot to send it. The question was: when did you truly know you were a grown-up? This is a tribute to my mom.

My grandmother stood by a window in her retirement community, on the assisted living floor, her gnarled hands clutching her walker. Yes, tennis balls on the bottom, and yes, a little calico bag on the front to hold magazines she could no longer read. She was wearing a floral summer skirt with plaid winter pants underneath, a green woolen blazer that had been her father’s, and her pajama top. The nurses had given up telling Dorothy Rinehart what to wear. She’d been waiting for me, like so many other “white heads,” as she called them (though her own hair was white as snow), who were waiting for a visitor, or else for the shuttle bus that would take them to the drug store.

When I came inside, she clutched my still-young hand in her freakishly strong one, and immediately began to tell me how her room was too cold and the food was terrible and the nurses were stealing from her. Specifically, her bras. She was convinced that the nurses in this lovely, expensive retirement community were stealing her underwear and bras. Probably wearing them when they went “out on the town.” I listened, because I’d learned that trying to make her see things as they really were was pointless, and all she really needed was somebody she trusted to listen. Eventually, she would let out a big sigh and change the subject.

But on this Saturday in September, she did not change the subject. To my horror, she cried. She’d never done that before. And they weren’t the tears of a senile old lady, confused or tearing up about stolen brassieres: for a moment, she was completely lucid. “I miss her so much,” she said. She was talking about my mother, who had died two years before in an accident. She’d been hit by a bus; all the more horrific because it was so Chaplinesque; the way a minor character dies in a bad comedy. My mom was only 54, and she was vacationing with my father. It was sudden, tragic, and as devastating as anything could possibly be for our family.

That is why, on a beautiful fall Saturday when I didn’t have to be at work, I was at a nursing home, where I would listen to my grandma talk for a while, then take her out for lunch, and return to her apartment to clean up and check her supply of Depends. My sister and I did this every weekend, because my mom couldn’t. We also went to see my now-single dad more; left soups and casseroles in his fridge, dropped in on him at work, and called him every single night.

My grandma and I talked for a while about my mom; about what a “character” she was. Our perspectives were so different: my grandma spoke of how my mom had been so mischievous as a girl; how she could outrun all the boys, how she was a better dancer than “all of them,” even little Nancy Spencer, who’d had lessons. And how brave she’d been to marry my father, a weapons officer on his way to his second tour inVietnam, and

how strong she’d been when I’d had terrible asthma as a child. (It was the ’70s. There was some talk of having me live in a bubble, literally, to which my mother said something like Oh, fiddlesticks! I’ll have her get some exercise and learn to play a wind instrument, and she’ll be fine. And I was.)

Mostly I listened, assimilating this version of my mother into the one I had of the feisty, funny secretary who loved her morning coffee, sang too loudly in church, sewed every school play costume I ever wore (as well as my clothes, until sixth grade, when I begged her to stop), played a fabulous game of racquetball, and was my biggest fan. I still missed her, too, and wore a blanket of grief around my shoulders constantly. Back then it was so heavy, I could scarcely lift my head.

After a while, I noticed that we were still inside. An hour had passed, and it was beautiful outside. “C’mon, Grandma,” I said. “For goodness’ sake, come outside and get some sunshine.” That was it: my moment. I knew absolutely, right then and there, that I was a grown up. I was twenty-seven and married with a baby on the way. By all rights I had been an adult for several years. But the prosperity of our culture allows most of us an extended adolescence, in which we work and play and decide what we want to become, and until my mother’s death I was in that miasma of my twenties. I did not realize I’d become an adult until I uttered the same words my mom used often on my sister and me, when some childhood drama had upset us. She’d let us have a good cry or tantrum, and then she’d say for goodness’ sake, come outside and get some sunshine. If it wasn’t sunny, she’d say for goodness’ sake, dry your eyes and help me with the salad, or for goodness’ sake, let’s bake some bread.

She really believed in this force called Goodness. She believed in God, too, but more apparent to me was her belief in noticing what is good and pointing it out for others, especially others who were hurting. It didn’t matter if it was a childhood pain or an adult pain. I can remember her comforting a neighbor I played with, Libby Landry, when her Easy-Bake Oven broke and we all knew that her parents could not afford to replace it. I can remember her comforting another neighbor, years later, when she’d just heard her husband’s diagnosis of cancer. There was the time I didn’t get the part of Daisy Mae in my high-school production of “Lil’ Abner,” the time I didn’t get the teaching job that a fancy private school had all but promised me, and all the less-than-perfect grades, deceased pets, and unrequited crushes in between.

My mom was a comforter, always pointing her friends and neighbors toward what was good or might offer them hope or comfort: a cup of tea, a walk in the fresh air, the comfort of some tangible act of labor like baking bread. It wasn’t in the absent there, there way of a stout English nanny or a character in a Rosemund Pilcher novel, either; her advice was that of a true friend who sees you are drowning in quicksand, and doesn’t say take it easy, but instead says I’ll get a rope. I learned to say For goodness’ sake… so well that I could say it to myself, speaking in the royal “we.” It served me well when I lost the baby, when I was home with two babies only a year apart, when my husband left me eight months pregnant with a fourth baby to go fight in a war, and many times since. To be able to get up, to breathe, to put one foot in front of the other and do some small thing, and eventually to reach out to others, is a life-preserver in a storm.

That was my mom’s legacy to me: that belief in moving forward; in going out into the sunshine for the sake of its goodness and for goodness’ sake. Stuff happens. Life hurts. You grieve, you mourn, you shout or rail against the heavens, but then, when you are a grown up, you step out of yourself and serve others in any little old way you are able. You drag them out into the sunshine, and if you cannot say Follow me, you say, C’mon, we will do this together.

So as I let my grandma take my arm (my mother taught me that, too: you never take an old person’s arm, you let them take yours), and walked slowly with her out into the fall air, I knew I had crossed that threshold into the land of grown-ups. A land where you try—you at least try, for goodness’ sake—to put others before yourself. A land where you notice the small, good things. Sunsets. Brisk walks in the fresh air. The deep purple of a perfect eggplant, even if you don’t especially like eggplant. The sturdy legs of toddlers, holding their mother’s hand; your own kids laughing. Homemade bread. You notice them, and you try to help others see them too. I was a little sorry to have left the land of childhood, but I would do okay here. I had a good teacher.

 

 

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