Reality, Circa 1975

I was born in a hospital owned by a copper mine in a so-called “company town.” My first vision in life was undoubtedly a pair of cowboy boots, worn by the obstetrician who delivered me. He’d come fresh from a golf game and not the annual rodeo or horse races. I’m told he was miffed that his 18 holes were interrupted by the work of catching me. But, if you think about it, I paid for his country club dues.

The country club was owned by the mine, too. So was our family’s house, before my parents bought it on the cheap. Maybe twenty thousand was big money then, but the house—on executives’ row—was modest and small: cream-colored clapboard with white trim, plopped in the middle of a postage-stamp yard. I used to hide under the porch stairs, only slightly less fearful of the cobwebs than I was of being found during hide-and-seek.  I accidentally hanged myself once in the backyard, and I can still see my little friend Darran fleeing as I dangled from the swing set. My mom happened to look up from the kitchen window just then, and came out just in time to slacken the jump rope.

Inspiration Hospital was just up the road, a regular weekly stop for us, but rarely for things as serious as a hanging. We went because my big sister required weekly allergy shots. When the nurse would tell her she’d been a good boy, which was most days, my sister’s eyes stung with tears. She’d shuffle angrily down the linoleum hallway wearing her sheriff star, faded t-shirts, and jeans. Her straw-straight hair was knotted as a spool of thread from the bottom of a sewing bag. Because people often mistook us for twins, and nobody ever called me boy, I wondered what was so special about her.

My sister had chronic ear infections and was, by all accounts, a grumpy child. One day, like many other days, we left from the hospital with a prescription in my mom’s hand. My sister sat slumped against the passenger-seat window with a fever. I happily jabbered in the backseat, anxious to get to the store where the drugs were dispensed. Along with filling prescriptions, Sprouse Reitz also had aisles and aisles of fabric, a shelf full of Barbie clothes, and a row of gumball and candy machines.

“Can I go in?” I asked. My mom was smoked from caring for a sick child, and I was always asking inconvenient questions like that—always talking, in fact. “Please?”

“You can come in.” Her lips were pinched tight. Even at seven years old, I knew she didn’t want to cart me along. Maybe she worried my sister would hit me if I stayed behind in the car. That sort of thing happened sometimes. “Just make sure you stay with me,” she added. “Don’t wander.”

Once inside, I roamed to the candy machines at the front of the store while my mom spoke to the pharmacist in the back. If I looked at the machines longingly enough, hungrily enough, I was sure my mom would cough up a dime. But after what seemed like a few minutes, my reverie was broken by the sun flashing off her car as she drove away. I was pretty sure she meant to do it. I felt this in my gut the same way a seven-year-old just knows her stuffed animals talk at night.

I don’t remember if I whimpered or wailed, but soon a woman with very thin hair and a diameter twice her height came over to help me. Her name was Mrs. Davenport. That much everyone knew. She was almost as short as me but had a chest that went on for days, like two sleeping bags rolled under her blouse. “It’s okay, honey,” she said. “Did you lose your mommy?”

I didn’t want a new mommy, and my gut told me that’s exactly why she was asking. She hugged me so tightly, forcing my head into the dip between her huge breasts. “It’s okay,” she said. “Do you know your phone number?”

Of course I knew my number, but in my panic—and hers—the call was placed well before my mom had a chance to make the 20-minute drive home. In those days, before voice mail and pagers and texting, if someone didn’t answer, it was tough luck. Sweet Mrs. Davenport hung up and stroked my hair with the thick fingers of her small hand. I didn’t want her touching me, but I had no right to say so. I was only seven, and she was going to be my new mom now.

It stuns me as a parent now, how immediately sure I was that my mom meant to leave me there. Wasn’t everything a parent did intentional and deliberate? Each decision perfectly considered? Each choice a reflection of my value? I’d been told not to wander. Being abandoned was the consequence. It never occurred to me it was an accidental one. I think about that sometimes, the omnipotent and prescient power my kids think I have.

Eventually my mom returned to the store—maybe 45 minutes had passed—and scooped me up in her arms. Her voice was calm, reassuring, and wracked with sugar-coated guilt. My sister had known the whole ride home that I wasn’t in the car, but she wanted her bed and some medicine. “Why are you so quiet back there?” my mom had asked, before realizing I wasn’t “back there.”  When she reached me again at the store, still being smothered by my new mom, she looked much like she looked a few minutes after the hanging. It was a false calm, talking a little too fast and smiling a little too hard.

“I want to see my neck,” I’d asked on my hanging day a few years earlier. “It feels funny.” I remember Sesame Street was on the tube, and I was curled up under a blanket on our itchy goldenrod couch. My throat felt funny, like an unshelled walnut was lodged in the center. So much for that game of cops and robbers.

“You don’t need to see it,” she said, stroking my hair. “It’ll scare you.”

“It won’t scare me,” I said. “I want to look.”

She thought for a minute, then walked to the back bedroom and emerged with a hand mirror. I looked at the parallel lines of rope burns around my neck, cherry red and gradually diminishing to a point, like a tornado—and I burst into tears. “It hurts!” I cried. “It hurts so much!”

“It’s okay,” she told me gently. “Everything’s okay.”

I don’t know why I believed her. From the start, there’s been evidence things aren’t that simple: cowboy boots in the delivery room, nurses that call little girls boy, cobwebs in my hiding places. I believed her then, as I’d believe her for years, even though my friend had left me hanging from a noose, behind the fluttering white sheets that danced a beautiful dance on our clothesline.

Home, circa 1975

Home, circa 1975

Posted in Past life, speed-posts | 14 Comments

Swallow Back the Years

I do not want my kids to grow up. There. I said it. I like them little. I like how they smell. I like how my daughter’s voice still sounds about half her age when we talk on the phone. I like how my son says he’s built a Lego structure by following the “durkstructions.” The backs of their heads and their little buns are cuter than any interspecies bonding pic you can throw my way.

A few nights ago, during bedtime snuggling, my 4-year-old son asked me, “Mom, does it make you happy if I’m not growing up anymore?” I didn’t answer right away. I don’t really want my kids to know that I want them to stay little. I don’t think that’s healthy. My cousin suffers from severe anorexia, and last year I read in some old 1970s book on the subject, written by an eating-disorders specialist, that some anorexics seem to have a deep-rooted fear not so much of getting fat but of getting big, as in not a kid anymore.

I don’t need a medical professional to tell me that it’s not wise to try to keep your kids from growing up, though. Kathy Bates makes the most compelling case of all:


But still. When my son asked me the question, he smelled like Mr. Bubble and was wearing his solar-system pajamas and had his tiny fat palms splayed on either side of my face. His eyes were searching mine for the truth.

“Yes,” I answered. “I suppose so.”

“Good! I’m not growing up anymore.”

“How are you going to do that?” I asked, realizing that I should have lied or at least told the other truth. Which is that I do want him to grow up to be a man but to also leave some sort of specter of his 4-year-old self behind, preferrably one that will still come cowlicked and bright-eyed and crunching down the stairs in the morning in his GoodNites protective “underwear” (a.k.a. an XL pull-up, as if we can’t read between the lines, Huggies).

“I don’t do it anymore!” he said. “I stopped growing up! I don’t ever grow up anymore!”

Man, he was really excited about this. Kind of heartbreaking, especially when I think about the comments his 9-year-old sister has made over the past year, about not wanting to turn 10 next year. She’s adamant that all the fun in life is when you’re a little kid, and that the bigger you get, the more schoolwork and life-work you have. Becoming a teenager? Fuggedabowdit. She dreads that. I set a kiss on the bridge of my son’s nose and smiled.

“Well, that’s a neat trick,” I told him. “How are you going to do it?”

“I just swallow it.” He gulped and smiled. “I swallow it down. When it comes up, it goes here [motions to his chest] then here [motions to his clavicles] then here [motions to his throat], and then I swallow it back down, so I don’t grow up anymore!”

“Wait a minute. Are you feeling sick?” I sat up and scrutinized his face. “Do you feel like you need to throw up?”

“Nope.” He shook his head. “Because I swallow it down!”

“Your throw-up? You mean you swallow down your throw-up?” He nodded proudly, giving me his happy-drunk devilish smile with upturned-V eyebrows, a dead-ringer for Jack Nicholson:

A face only a mother could love. And I do, but only on my 4-year-old.

A face only a mother could love. And I do, but only on my 4-year-old.

“When do you do this?” I was feeling sick myself now. “Did this happen today? Have you been feeling sick?”

“Whenever I feel it come up.” God, he was so proud of himself.

“That sounds pretty gross.”

“I like it!” he answered. “It tastes good.”

Ummmm, yeah, kid. You can go ahead and grow up now.

(From the archives, originally published 2012)

Posted in humor, kids say the darndest things, motherhood, preschoolers, sons, vomiting | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

More Depressing than a Sad Santa

From the Momplex archives:

It would be an understatement to say I’ve been a little blue lately. Blue’s such a pretty color anyway. Why don’t we refer to the doldrums with a color like diarrhea brown, as in “I’ve been feeling a little diarrhea-brown lately.” I have.

My daughter, who will be five this week, crapped on her bedroom floor last night. I have never quite understood the root of the expression “do me a solid,” but I can definitely say she didn’t do me one. She did me a liquid, and a lot of it. I am hoping against all hope that it wasn’t some sort of willful act, the giant heap of diarrhea unleashed in the corner by her hamper. It was about an hour after she went to sleep, and I won’t get into all the details, but it appears she was just disoriented. When a little one wakes in the night from a deep slumber with an urgent need to “unleash the hounds,” it seems safe to assume that she might not have the wherewithal to properly navigate herself.

I can’t tell you how disgusting that room smelled. The windows in her room were frozen shut, too. Oh, and we plugged the toilet with all the toilet paper we used cleaning her up. And when I plunged a while later, the splashing poo water went into my face. For those of you who know me well, it should come as no surprise that I didn’t have my mouth shut at the time. (I almost never have my mouth shut.)

Thank God my husband happened to be home for the day/night from his three-week annual training with the National Guard. I am sure he is thrilled that he opted to make the long drive back home for a booty call. (One could certainly argue that cleaning up a diarrhea-butt IS a booty call of sorts, literally speaking.) In that regard, I am secretly thankful my daughter shat on the floor.

“Honey, I just accidentally swallowed some diarrhea” packs a much bigger punch in the frigidity department than “Not now, dear. I have a headache.”

Anyway, I’m feeling diarrhea-brown. I got so desperate today that I even took my daughter to the mall play area just to get out of the house. The mall play area is essentially Hell on Earth: Hyperactive kids with depressed moms spreading germs as holiday Muzak pipes overhead and too-skinny mannequins taunt us from all directions. Also, this time of year there are the Salvation Army bell-ringers dinga-donging ad infinitum next to the acrid-smelling Asian nail salon. As if that’s not diarrhea-brown enough, we took up an invitation to go watch some poor entertainer called the Banana Lady over in the JCPenney children’s section at 11 a.m. She set up shop (which consisted of a karaoke machine) in a four-way intersection of Hannah Montana paraphernalia.

Initially, it was just my daughter and me watching this woman prance around in her banana suit and sing songs about being healthy and doing your own thing. She was horribly, horribly gleeful (seriously, did you click on that link? or how about this one?), and it was horribly, horribly awkward how she was performing to maybe six people total. I felt terrible for her, as people kept walking between us, not realizing she was a show and we were her audience. She’d try to lure them over by trying to ventriloquize the large spidermonkey-puppet that’s sewn to her suit but with her lips totally moving. Few took the bait. When she said, “Come on and dance with me, everyone!” I was the only one who obliged. My daughter and the other sad moms and their kids stared blankly at us.

So, this is my life. Cleaning up diarrhea and dancing with a stranger in a banana suit in JCPenneys in the middle of the Hannah Montana aisle at the mall. Exactly how I hoped things would turn out for me. Exactly.

Posted in daughters, marriage, military life, mood issues, motherhood, poop, preschoolers | 3 Comments

The Latest Post-Partum Depression Fix: Flamboyant Baby Boy Clothes

My baby son is dressed like something out of Brokeback Mountain right now. He’s wearing a plaid flannel get-up that runs from head to toe with mother-of-pearl snap-buttons. My husband almost barfed when he saw it this morning. I purposely dressed the baby in something completely horrid-adorable (there is such a hybrid, you know), because I need a good laugh. There’s one to be had somewhere at this stage, isn’t there? I mean, sure, he can’t fall asleep or stay asleep without gobs of hair-raising crying or being bagged. And sure I basically have to wear him on me 10 or so hours every day. But isn’t there a bright side?

Heck, yeah! It’s the fact that little 12-pound baby boys look downright hilarious in flannel coveralls with mother-of-pearl buttons. They also look pretty funny in fake antennae from Gymboree, particularly when they’re crying. Oh, and a miniaturized huntsman cap with earflaps, like something out of the movie Fargo, is an excellent outfit for babies with colic, too.

He’s crying right now in his swing. He’s been up since 6 a.m. It’s almost 9 a.m., and I’ve been trying to get him to sleep since 7 a.m. His brow, as usual, is all knitted up . (I think the kid’s going to need Botox before he’s four.) His little stiff John McCain arms are shaking, and his mouth is in the shape of a big O, wailing. My nerves are completely frazzled, and I’m so tired and jittery that I’d probably fail a roadside sobriety test. I’ve had the reprise of this song, which I blasted on the radio to lull him to sleep in the car yesterday, running like a broken record through my head for about 18 hours now. I stink like spit-up.

But, man, I still don’t think it’s an emotional breakdown that a size 0-3 fuschia leopard-print unitard with a miniature clip-on bowtie couldn’t remedy. And, after all, it’s not couthe to start pouring martinis this early in the morning…

Is it?

Posted in babies, beauty, humor, mood issues, motherhood, sleep | Leave a comment

Pinterish: Kinda Sorta Making Something You Saw on the Web

I once tried to fix the sole of a saddle shoe using nothing but Superglue. Just eight years old, I figured how hard could it be?  I ended up conjoining two of my fingers and gluing the shoe to the kitchen floor. With a great deal of tugging on my part, the shoe eventually did lift from the floor but so also did the white tile—a couple of quarter-sized pieces at least. My mom arrived home just in time to see me crying hysterically while trying to cover up the bald spots. Out, out, damn spots! I was using white watercolor and a tiny watercolor brush.

Fast forward 30 years, and I am still not a quality do-it-yourselfer. I wish I were, but I don’t have the patience. This is an actual board I keep on Pinterest:


See that teepee to the right? See that bleeping teepee? Well, I don’t know who the hell I think I am, but I tried to make that thing today. I can’t explain why, but something came over me in bed this morning when realized I had a whole day with my 5-year-old to myself. (Normally my mom has him for a few hours on Mondays.) It was windy outside, and I thought, “We should have a kite.” My next thought was, “I could totally make a kite.” But once I got onto Pinterest, my ambition somehow morphed from cutting out a paper-bag square to building a mother-loving TEEPEE.

The crafter who designed this project had me convinced that she made it out of random fabric remnants already somewhere in her house, and that she just had to buy six 1x2x8 planks, tie them together with some jute, and glue-gun a bunch of fabric pieces to the frame. She didn’t spend even $10 on the whole thing! Someone else on Pinterest actually had the gall to refer to this nightmare as a “fun DIY gift idea!”

Let me tell you, I worked my ass off making this ridiculous teepee today. Do you know what happens when a dwelling is designed by a crafter rather than an engineer? It looks great on Pinterest but has the stability of a drunk snow crab. Also, I don’t know how the hell this crafty person defines collapsible and easy to store, but I think she was smoking something. Well, actually the teepee was extremely collapsible until I went rogue with her design, yelled GODDAMNIT in front of my kids, and tied the thing my own way.

While I was trying to put together this hot mess of a teepee, the only way the kids could really help was by cutting some strips of fabric. Once that was done, I was on my own. It took me three freaking hours and so many hot-glue gun burns to my fingertips and wrists to make this unholy mess:


It looks fine. I realize that. But if I had seen a picture of MY teepee on Pinterest this morning, coupled with an honest description, I never would have done it. I’d have made a paper-bag kite. “This overwrought reading nook will cost you only $60, too many hours, and much of the respect your kids had for you before you started it!”

I yelled a lot today, for example when my 5-year-old randomly peed his pants for the first time in probably two years while honoring my request that he find something to do other than beg to reload my hot-glue gun. He did find something to do, in the upstairs bathroom:


Not sure what you’re looking at? I’ll zoom in:


Still not sure? Me neither. Whatever it was, he couldn’t bring himself to leave it for long enough to sit on the toilet RIGHT NEXT TO IT when he needed to pee. And was he ever pissed off when he later discovered I’d drained that sink. He said I’d killed his “little glue man.” What? I don’t even know what. All I could think to say was, “OH. MY. GOD. DID YOU USE MY LAST HOT GLUE STICK!?” I said this as if he’d eaten the last tin of smoked fish on an Arctic expedition, leaving me no other option for my next meal but human flesh.

The sad part is that I was just trying to do something fun with the kids today and had it backfire in the worst way. Instead of making memories, I made a scene. Instead of making dinner or making time to read or making my son put on actual pants instead of his pajama pants with the hole in the crotch, or just anything normal like that, I made a mess. My son and I actually had Home Depot hot dogs for lunch because I was more concerned with building this teepee than making something to eat. Which wouldn’t have seemed stupid at all if this teepee had been as awesome as advertised–not just to look at but to make. As it was, I worked on it all the way until my husband walked in the door from work, late, at which point I said, “Go look in the basement, then in the bathroom. Don’t ask me questions until after bedtime. I haven’t showered. The kids are having frozen pizza. We’re ordering Thai.”

When he came up from seeing the teepee, he couldn’t resist asking just one question, with the slightest hint of annoyance in his tone:

“Is that thing collapsible?”

No, honey. No, it isn’t. But I sure as hell am.

Posted in crafts, humor, motherhood, speed-posts | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Answering Life’s Big Questions

(The following was originally published in 2009.)

My daughter is getting to that stage where she’s starting to ask the Big Questions. Actually, she hit the stage some months ago, around the time I became pregnant again. I’m a fan of Dr. Spock’s advice on these matters, which is to offer no more information than a child is requesting.

At first, the questions about how babies are made were answered with things like, “From a mom and dad’s love.” Oddly enough, she seemed satisfied with that type of Helen Steiner Rice drivel. I might as well have told her that babies are three parts magic, two parts wonder, and just a pinch of heaven.

When the questions got more specific, my answers got more concrete. “Babies are made from an egg that lives in the mom’s body,” I’d explain, “and a teeny little seed that the daddy gives to her.” (She probably imagined my husband handing over a little Burpee’s seed packet to me.)

This explanation only lasted so long. She eventually became concerned about how a baby in my tummy could already have an egg in its tummy, which would in turn also have an egg in its tummy, and on and on down the line. This notion of some sort of infinite set of Russian nesting dolls was torturing her sense of logic, so I finally got down to brass tacks.

Well, hello there, great-great granddaughter!

Well, hello there, great-great granddaughter!

“You know whenever we see grasshoppers on top of each other, or frogs or ducks or any animal, and I tell you they’re making a baby?” I explained. “Well, that’s how it is with pretty much all living creatures, people included.”

I waited for her to process this new information. That took exactly three seconds, judging by the way her expression changed from curious to horrified. I had no idea that I, personally, could disgust her so much.

“Nooooo,” she said with a question mark in her eyes. “You and Daddy don’t get on top of each other, do you?”

Technically, no. No, we don’t. I mean, two people can’t be on top of each other at the same time, right? I’ve been getting by on such technicalities in my explanations for a long time now. And I could have dodged the truth just this one more time. Instead, it finally occurred to me that I don’t have to answer every single question she asks exactly when she asks it. So, this time? This time I said, “Who wants to play My Little Pony!?” And to my surprise, it worked.

Posted in daughters, death, mood issues, motherhood, preschoolers, sexuality | 1 Comment

A Mother’s Day Even Anne Lamott Could Love

Every year my Facebook feed is fed with a piece of writing from Anne Lamott about Mother’s Day and why she hates it. The essay, uncharacteristically bitter, was  originally published in Salon in 2010. I’m a fan of Lamott and always read the piece when it turns up, even though she sounds like Lewis Black instead of herself. In truth, I agree with most of the essay, but her vitriol is off-putting, and I disagree passionately with parts. By the end, I feel like I’ve been served what might have been a lovely soup were it not peppered with flies. It almost makes me want to throw out my dog-eared copy of her wonderful book Bird by Bird. 

How can I explain? Let me try an anecdote. When I was in high school, I was nominated to be homecoming queen. (Please don’t hold this against me. That was nearly 25 years ago, and this will be the first and last you hear of it.) Anyway, when I ended up “winning,” for lack of a better word, I didn’t think I was better than everyone, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good. The first thing my boyfriend at the time said to me when I walked off the football field was, “You can take that crown off your head now.” He looked disgusted.

That boyfriend made me feel foolish. I’m sure that was precisely the intent, to knock me off my high horse even though I wasn’t trying to ride one. Anne Lamott’s essay has that same feel. Don’t get me wrong: That’s not the only thing that bugs me about it. There’s something very modern-age playground about her message that rubs me wrong, too. I see an aspiration of equality that borders on dystopia.

And yet…

I can’t NOT read the piece every year when I see it. I love giant chunks of it, enough that I want to overlook the rest. Why throw out the baby with the bathwater? Here is the part that reads like gospel to me:

“I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure. The non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See’s. There is no refuge — not at the horse races, movies, malls, museums. Even the turn-off-your-cellphone announcer is going to open by saying, ‘Happy Mother’s Day!’ You could always hide in a nice seedy bar, I suppose. Or an ER.”

Sing it, sister. Amen.

The thing is, I don’t believe that the answer is to lay waste to Mother’s Day. Trust me, I’m not just saying this because I can’t let go of a designated day to be woken up extra early by elated kids stomping on my full bladder, bearing undercooked scrambled eggs and wildly inflated expectations for all the fun I’m going to have with them from dawn to dusk. Nor is it because I enjoy figuring out the logistics of both having and being a mother that day. It’s because of precisely what Lamott says: It CAN be done a better way. Why not try?

Motherhood is big, complex, and many-tentacled. It comes in many shapes. It does have dark sides. It can cause grief. But in honoring those who have experienced that darkness and grief, I don’t think we need to diminish anyone else’s light and joy.

This all leads me to the show I’ll be participating in this Mother’s Day. The Listen to Your Mother Show bills itself as “giving motherhood a microphone.” Reading Lamott’s piece, I wonder what preconceived notions people might have about this show. Will they be surprised that at least two of the thirteen cast members don’t have kids? How could they anticipate the anything-but-sappy piece about one cast member’s complex and disconnected relationship with her mother? Lord knows I never anticipated so much of what I heard when I sat in the audience in the past, stories of miscarriage, infidelity, sexuality, faith, travel, hilarity, and all sorts of things that don’t neatly fit into any category or onto a Hallmark greeting card.

I’m happy to be part of such an inclusive Mother’s Day experience. I think it at least begins to answer Lamott’s call for a different way to do this thing (in ways that I agree have merit): It does not pretend motherhood is all one way or another. It does not pretend that those with kids are more important than those without. It shines light on the great mess of paths leading into and out of this THING that is so tangled up in our identities. I don’t know how anyone could feel left out. And that’s the kind of Mother’s Day I can be proud to celebrate.

Posted in motherhood | 3 Comments