Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Thing About Damage

These days I cry at everything. Could be hormones. Could be the news, which has been dismal this summer, with the exception of the royal baby, and c'mon, a woman had a baby. Happens quite often. Could be that lately I've had to revisit some trying family circumstances. Even the ancestry.com fellow who professes to be related to me in some oblique and distant way sets me off with his frequent and obsessive emails. I don't want to trace the lineage of my ancestry. I don't want to think that much about my family of origin. Some people get lucky in family.

Others don't.

I listen to the classical music program on the radio station. A woman is singing an aria so guttingly gorgeous that I freeze. Tears, again, although I squeeze my eyes shut to stop them. Isn't this sad?, I ask my son.

No, he replies, puzzled, and adds, as proof: It's in a major key. He stares at me, scrutinizes my reddened face, searches for signs of tears before finally turning back to Minecraft.

Ahh, I acknowledge. Just me, I guess. This summer I find myself saying that last bit a lot.


Once my family, which then consisted of three of us, not four, my last son not yet a thought or promise, was driving east on a major highway. My husband was at the wheel, and my firstborn was sleeping in his car seat. It was raining, hard, and then harder still. We considered pulling over to the side of the road to wait out the storm, but before we'd committed to a course we were first sliding out of our lane and next off the road and finally as if in a dream flying for a moment before bumping and scraping across an overgrown, rutted field. My husband and I fixed shocked eyes on each other before remembering to turn back and check on the baby, who had awakened and was sucking his fingers thoughtfully.  

We were lucky. Of all the places to go off that particular interstate, ours was one of the least steep drops. So said the man in a truck who drove onto the field to check on us. Our car hadn't even flipped. Only a sprained finger among us three, mine, from clutching the dashboard in a reflexive attempt to protect myself from harm. (I always seem to end up hurting myself in silly maneuvers intended to circumvent pain. A post for another day.)

We'd thought our car was more or less intact, aside from deep scratch marks in the paint courtesy of the bushes and brambles we'd encountered during the accident, until about a month later when we were in the midst of an automatic car wash and water started coming in through the car windows. The closed car windows.

At the repair shop we affected nonchalance as the technician told us that the frame of our car was so damaged, bent out of shape in fact, that it would cost some thousands of dollars to have it fixed.

Funny thing about damage: sometimes it's obvious well past the time when it should have been, and even then, it's obvious only to auto mechanics and musically inclined children.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Piano Lessons

She was tall and thin and pale, with a long neck and spaghetti fingers that frightened me. As a presence she was barely there. Only her clothes substantiated her - large hoop earrings, long skirts, boots, cowl-neck nubbly sweaters. Very seventies, and with a quintessentially seventies name: Denise.

She was my piano teacher, as vague in her teaching practices as in her person. I was twelve; she was thirty. But I had the upper hand, somehow. I didn't practice much, but I'd perfected the art of appearing to have practiced. Which piece do you want to play next?, she'd ask, in a voice as malnourished as the rest of her, and I'd make a show of studying the lesson book, only to choose the easiest piece, the one with no flats or sharps in the key signature.

Oh, that's a nice one, she'd comment, bland as pudding, rubber-stamping my choice every single week, and I'd feel the strongest, most peculiar urge to slap her. Why was she letting me get away with this? Why didn't she see through me?

I had an excellent ear (still do), and she marveled in her slow, absent way at my aural aptitude. She tested the strength and limitations of my ear far more often than was pedagogically necessary. Was she as bored as I was?

I imagined that she had a boyfriend who beat her. One Friday she fainted, right there in our living room. She didn't eat enough, that was clear, but the not-eating seemed of a piece with her willowy self. Oh, Denise, my mother sighed grimly, lacing her fingers together, She's a type. Artiste in her atelier. I nodded as if I understood, but I wouldn't understand until much later, after I'd done more living.

Each week I dared Denise to call me out, and when she didn't, my contempt for her grew, first formless but later taking shape, as if it were a third person squeezed in between my teacher and me on the black lacquered piano bench.

Eventually I decided to quit taking piano lessons. My mother fought with me about quitting. In so doing she uttered the same sentence I find myself spouting to my eleven-year-old, who wants to quit and has been playing at the very same piano that was the stage for Denise and me: You'll regret it someday. 

I do regret that I quit when I did. And I regret having a teacher I could so easily play. But mostly I regret not having compassion for Denise, who was the first adult I understood to be not as smart as I was. What an unmooring feeling it is for a child to recognize that adults, too, are weak and flawed!

Denise did educate me, although not about music, particularly. She taught me about what kind of woman I did not want to be - as important a lesson as any, though whether it's worth forty dollars a week is debatable.

In the fall, I will allow my son to quit taking piano lessons, and I will take his place at the piano. I will be an adult learner, you know the one: overeager, conscientious, driven, ever more aware of the preciousness of time and the sin of wasting it. I will not manipulate, or feign.

I don't know what happened to Denise. I see her fading out, like the money shot at the end of a film. I am sorry that I was cruel, even if that cruelty lived largely in my head. Before Denise, I'd believed myself to be a kind person. After Denise, I knew that under the right conditions, and with the right person, I possessed a deforming ugliness. Like I said: an education, of a sort.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What's Better Not Said

You see, it's like this. When my mother had a stroke, and asked to be taken off IV fluids to die, but then changed her mind, and lived for nine more months, nine months during which she said and did such insanely awful things, things we could put down to the effects of the stroke on her personality, but maybe we couldn't, who could say?, and in any event the wounds she inflicted were so deep and painful we were incapable of using logic to treat them, and she scared her grandchildren, and got herself voted the most devious and manipulative patient that the staff of one nursing home had ever seen --

That? That is something I'm trying really hard to forget. So when a relative calls and says she feels like she had no closure when my mother was dying, because no one told her what was going on, and no one thought to call her (that 'no one' being me), I understand her pain, I do, but when she adds that she wants (needs) me to tell her what happened during those last nine months of my mother's life, and I open my mouth to oblige her, but the words won't voice themselves, not because there are too few but too many, well, that shit is hard.

I could tell her that I nearly went crazy myself. I could tell her that my mother told me I was no kind of daughter at all because I wouldn't take her out of the nursing home. I could tell her that on Christmas my children watched, mouths agape, as my mother crawled on the carpet of her room and screamed, "If you won't get me out of here, Sarah, I'll just have to do it myself!" I could tell her that my family was forced to make a choice between having both my mother's legs amputated and letting her die, and that I continue to be wracked with guilt for choosing the latter. I could tell her about having to wipe my mother's bottom. I could tell her what my mother looked like less than one hour after her death. I could tell her any or all of that.

I could. But I don't want to.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Car Talk

I told you that every important moment shared between my boys and me happens in the car. And it does. Whether that's because we spend so much time in the car as I shuttle bodies to this activity or that, or because in the car there are no screens competing for adolescent attention, I can't say, but no matter.

One morning I am getting ready to drive my teen to a nature camp where he is a counselor-in-training, and he says something cruel and low to me. I've long since stopped being shocked at the words that issue from the mouths of teenagers, so I return, calm but firm, That was unbelievably mean.

On the drive I am silent. I have no desire to make conversation with him. He, too, stays silent.

But in the afternoon, when I pick him up from camp, he waits only until the car doors shut before blurting out, Umm, what I said this morning was really bad, and I'm sorry. I've been thinking about it all day.

Until now, I don't think either one of my kids has ever offered an unprompted apology so many hours after the offense.

So there's hope, and I learned that in the car, of course.


This year the teen has been assigned to a group of first-grade children, the youngest group he's ever had. He keeps shaking his head, stymied by their behavior. But he also finds them hilarious. As do I, I affirm. That's one of the reasons I like working with young kids. He tells me about a girl who on the first day kept complaining that she was starving. Call me 'Starvation!,' she wailed, as she clambered over a log on the trail. So he did, and even now, on day three, he greets her with a high-five and a Hi, Starvation! In return she giggles.

I like that he's listening.  He's also learning:

They really don't want to obey, do they, Mom?!, he laments. They run all over the place and don't switch for stations when they're asked to, and you have to kind of-- Here words fail him, and he makes a circle of his arms.

Corral them?, I supply, amused. Yes!, he grins.

One of his charges (let's call the child John) is unusually inattentive. Today I had a better day with John, my son reports. I sat him down during lunch and talked to him, and afterward he seemed to listen better. I think that's what you have to do, just sit them down and talk to them, not even about anything in particular.  

And hug them, or at least let them hug you, I add. My boy is finicky about his personal space. Do you allow them to hug you?, I wonder. Yeah, except mostly they're tackling me, not hugging me, he answers, slow and careful, musing: They seem to need to do that.

Yes, they do, and I'm glad you let them, I praise. I know that can be hard for you. He nods his assent.

Too soon we reach home. Yet again I find myself appreciative of and sustained by car time, because the minute we open the door to the house my son has applied his sullen makeup.  I might almost believe that I dreamed these conversations, so out of (his?) adolescent character are they.

It is why I write them down: to substantiate themBecause they mean so much more than the space and time they occupy. They may even mean everything.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


If you read this blog, would you, oh, I don't know, offer up a hello or howdy, as is your preference? I'm beginning to feel as if I'm shouting into the wind. It shouldn't matter whether anyone's laying eyes on these words, but it does, to me. Simple as that. I could write in a notebook instead and certainly retain more of my dignity. It's emotionally risky for me to publish some of what I write. That risk may merit reward, however small.

Can't get much more honest than that.

So tell me your most closely held secret, or tell me what your favorite color is, but do tell me something.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

It Could (Not) Have Been My Kid

I am not black. More to the point, I am not black in America in 2013. My sons are not black. They do not wear hoodies, which to my mind are absolutely irrelevant to race in any case. They do, however, love Skittles, and one of them is fonder by the day of iced tea.

I am not black, but I am a mother of sons who fears for their safety when they venture into the outside world without me. Yes, I fear for their safety even if they are now old enough to know what it means to be prudent; I am sure that I will never stop fearing for their safety.

I am not black, but my aunt is black, and my cousins are half-black, and I have observed what being black in America does, and fails to do, for them. I have stared dumbfounded at my 7th grade English teacher, who confronted with my stated desire to write a 3-page biography of my black aunt stammered, “But Sarah: How can your aunt be black?”

I am not black, but I recognize a travesty of justice when I see one. I am not black, but I compare the Zimmerman verdict with the contemporaneous verdict of the jury presented with the case of a black Floridian woman who fired warning shots up into the air to frighten her allegedly abusive husband: guilty, to the tune of twenty years in prison. Huh?

I am not black, but I am outraged: as a mother, as a mother of sons, as a person with black relatives (yes, Mrs. D'Aiutolo, it’s possible), as an American.

Yet I do not fault the Zimmerman jury, not exclusively, anyway. The fault lies far beyond those six women, in laws that permit citizens to own and use guns, and in widespread stereotypes about young black men perpetuated by people who are supposed to serve and protect every single one of us, not only the subset that happens to have been born white.

Trayvon Martin was just another teenaged boy full of bluster and bravado, flooded by testosterone and still learning his way around social mores and dictates. Teenaged boys are a subspecies, to be sure. They routinely make poor choices and often have to be protected from themselves as much as from anyone, or anything, else.

But only black teenaged boys end up paying for their awkward adolescent posturing with their lives.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


Dead family and estranged friends litter my dreams. Am I hoping to brush past peace, to make amends, in my sleep?

One dream: My mother and I sit on a banquette in a diner. On the wall is a painting of my grandmother as she was in mid-life. My mother, bashful, confides, "I always sit in this booth because she's here," and inclines her head towards her mother. Rapt, we study her, beautiful in art as she was in person. Just wait, my mother whispers, and grins slyly. My grandmother starts to undress. She slips off one strap of her bra, offering us a provocative smile. Then the next strap, as she steps closer to the foreground of the picture.  I steal a glance at my mother. She is beaming, her arms extended to welcome her mother into the diner, to offer her salvation. I look away, make myself busy sipping my iced tea.  My cheeks are burning with embarrassment.  I am unprepared to witness intimacy that defies the rules, both of mortality and convention.

Another: My oldest friend, lost to me now during anguished moments of reckoning as my mother lay dying, clutches my hand before breathlessly touring me around her multimillion-dollar Manhattan brownstone. So excited is she that she fails to notice my growing incredulity. My cosmopolitan youth is so far from who I am today that I find myself wondering, without irony, how it is that people live this way.  She stops short at the threshold of yet another room and laughs girlishly, the laugh transporting me and her back to thirteen awkward years old.  This one's for you, she murmurs.  I blink with incomprehension.  It's your bedroom, she explains, her tone slightly clipped by my failure to react in the expected manner. Welcome home

(I remember how tender her touch when she washed my hair in the sink (twice, she ordered, to get it really clean) after I'd broken my leg and had to keep it away from water. I remember her showing up at my door, me already in my mid-thirties, to nurse me, confined as I was to a wheelchair, and I remember her saying, You think I've shown up to rescue you, but it is really you rescuing me.)


Where else but in dream do all my people collide and spill out over their edges, as if Dali himself had painted them? No wonder I am reluctant to be roused.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Loosing the Mother Knot

I dream that I am a weathervane spinning according to the vagaries of the wind.

They don't need me anymore. Yet they do. It's all so confusing. I despair. I exult. I have no idea how to make a graceful exit from this, the job I've held longer than any other in my life.

I slap together lunches. I drive them to friends' houses.  Sometimes I drive one and a friend to a movie or camp.  During such trips I stay silent so they may share whispered giggles and confidences.  I used to make conversation, until I was asked, ever so politely, to stop.

At home I fold laundry, wash dishes, make appointments (braces on, braces off). I dream of Greece. I am barely tethered.  I read a lot.  Greece is still too far away.  Perhaps in five years' time.

I wonder if anyone wants to come with me to the library. (No.) To the grocery store. (No.) I bribe, with dessert out.  Sometimes this works.  More often it doesn't.  I don't know what to do with myself.  I feel that I ought at least to occupy shared space with them.  What if...?

I take long baths.

One afternoon I bring up the possibility of a board game.  They decline, with detestable sympathy in their eyes and voices.

I am disappearing.  Eyes closed, I make more sandwiches.  This I can do.  This they appreciate.

The knots come untied, one by one.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

What a Coconut Bear Cake Taught Me About Parenting

When my first child was three years old, we threw him a little party at a Gymboree-type establishment run by our babysitter. My husband and I decided to make a cake for the party. The cake we chose wasn't your garden-variety cake. No, we were aiming high. We baked one small oval and one large oval, and with those parts put together a teddy bear cake. He had a marshmallow nose and a crooked, impish grin courtesy of an artistically positioned Twizzler. His eyes were brown M&Ms. Most adorable was his fur, which looked like real fur thanks to the coconut we mixed into the frosting. He was spectacular, and we stayed up until 1:30am the night before the party finishing him. My husband would later joke about that bear, how he nearly cost us our marriage, so much did we argue over his preparation.

At the party the bear occupied pride of place at the table, and parents dropping off children and gifts oohed and aahed over him. But then we'd made him for the parents all along (not that we were able to articulate that truth only three years into parenting). When it came time to cut into the bear, I found myself hesitating. He was just so perfect. But cut into him I did, and I served out pieces of cake to the ten or so children in attendance.

Only one child took more than a bite of cake. The kids hated the coconut frosting. They grimaced and gagged, and some even spit it out. Horrified, I took a bite of my own son's slice. I thought it tasted better than fine, but I like coconut, and I've long outgrown the texture aversions common to preschoolers.

So there you have it: one of our most concerted attempts to be 'good' parents completely backfired. Parenting is not always, or even usually, in our control. Nor should it be. It's a messy, chaotic process that involves our children as much as it does us. We must provide certain basics - food, shelter, opportunities for intellectual, social, and emotional growth - but beyond those, it is our children's job to grow themselves as much as, if not more than, it is ours to 'parent.' I could cite example after example of similar backfires or contradictions in my own parenting history - my first child, born in stressful circumstances and with an anxious and depressed mom, is my calm, confident son, and my second child, born when I was at my most relaxed, is my anxious son. Why? Because there are two people in the parenting equation: parent, and child.

So when we treat parenting as something that rises and sets on us alone - as we do (case in point being a protracted thread on Facebook just this morning initiated by me over frustration and guilt about my kids' excessive screen time during the summer) - we are overemphasizing our role in transforming our progeny from squalling newborns into productive, functioning adults. And that does them a disservice, our failing to acknowledge how hard they themselves are working to grow.

Whatever stereotypes people may hold about parents of kids raised in the seventies, it is at least fair to say that those parents did not preoccupy themselves with parenting the way that we parents do in 2013, and by and large we all ended up as productive, functioning adults, didn't we? Let's cut ourselves some slack, and yes, let's cut our children some slack, too. If we can avoid micromanaging our kids as if they are just another of our projects, the success or failure of which rests wholly on our parental shoulders, they will be better for it. And so will we.

As for my concerns about my kids' screen time, I was reminded by a friend that as children we all watched plenty of TV in the summertime. I know I did. (Today I watch fairly little TV.) And somehow, despite all those episodes of All My Children (some seen, I might add, while I spooned bite after bite of Haagen Dazs' chocolate chocolate chip ice cream into my mouth: the sugar, the fat!), I earned a PhD and am a reasonably productive, functioning adult.

And guess what? When our second son turned three years old, we celebrated the occasion with a party, at which we served... a store-bought cake. All the little guest-tyrants devoured their slices and clamored for seconds.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Shooting the Moon

Deep in the Pennsylvania woods, we encounter a cluster of Mennonites camping, as we are doing. Swinging open the door to the park's bathroom I nearly collide with what must be the matriarch of the two or three Mennonite families. Bonneted, her figure concealed by a shapeless floor-length floral cotton dress, this fifty-something woman is aged by a decade or more. Black Reebok sneakers peek out from under her dress. Where the right half of her face should be is a deep concavity. Cancer, I think, reminded of the post-surgical hole where the bottom of my mother's nose once lived. The Mennonite woman looks at me looking at her.  Her eyes are frank, unflinching, and almost defiant. Her head is tilted up, unafraid of me, and unashamed of her face. I flash to Dorothea Lange's iconic Dust Bowl woman, who greets the camera's eye with dignity and pride, despite her dire circumstances.

My mother did not take to life with a disfigurement. Her demeanor in the years after her cancer surgeries was fearful and humiliated, edging toward paranoid (though her paranoia was and would have been quite justified, given people's tendency to stare at her with disgust and a stunning lack of pretense). The contrast between my mother and the woman I meet in the bathroom is glaring. You can rise above your challenges, or they can rise above you. Is there a third way?


Back in the bathroom (it rains throughout most of our trip, so I find myself sheltering there), a little girl, by the sound of her three years old or so, sits on the toilet in one of the stalls. I am at the sink and tending to my teeth. I hear her grunt, and I smile, smothering a laugh. This girl has not yet learned to be shamed by the sounds and smells that issue from her body. She grunts some more, and then her voice, ever so high and sweet: "What's your name?" (Grunt.) "Sarah," I reply. "Mine's Jolene!," she exclaims, still pooping. "Nice to meet you, Jolene," I say. I never do get to see her face.


At the campsite, we play games and games of Hearts, my family and I, while it continues to rain steadily. My younger son has not yet mastered the finer points of the game. Eleven years old is not about subtlety, nor strategy. Eleven years old is all transparent ebullience. To elevate his own interest in the game, he tries to shoot the moon with every hand he's dealt. Gentle reminders about the wisdom of this course of action fail to move him. When that first heart is taken by another player (as it is, inevitably), he turns red and chokes out a laugh before he cries. Each time he is freshly devastated, this intelligent child who refuses to make use of his superior logic. He looks so forlorn that I murmur, "Poor little elf." After we've blown out the citronella candles for the night, after his older brother has shoved off to the bathroom, I grab my elf and hold him tight. I whisper in his ear, "It's so hard to be the youngest. I know, I do." He doesn't answer me, but I know he's heard me, and I hope that he can hold on to this truth during the long years of his adolescence.

Late the next morning, as the rain keeps falling, we are back at the picnic table playing Hearts. And there's my youngest, confident that this time, yes, this time, definitely this time, no question, he's going to shoot the moon, at last.