All the Other Kids

All the Other Kids

By Carol Paik

page53image4288I first noticed that my son Jonathan was a nonconformist when he was very small. He was not yet walking, so he must have been younger than eleven months. At that time, I was so starved for adult companionship during the interminable days at home with my baby that I had joined a “support group” of other new mothers. We gathered each week, and in the interstices between changing diapers, nursing, and wiping up drool we would take desultory, desperate stabs at conversation. The fact that I voluntarily joined such a group is a revealing measure of the depth and breadth of my need. I’ve never been much of a gatherer.

We took turns hosting the group. Typically the hostess would serve a snack and spread a blanket of some kind over her living room rug to protect it from spit-up and coffee and we would sit around its perimeter. Or perhaps, now that I think about it, some people spread the blanket not to protect the carpet from the babies, but the babies from whatever was on the carpet. I myself spread the blanket to protect the carpet. Jonathan was not a “spitter,” but some of these other babies were. “Spitter,” by the way, is not a term that does justice to the thing it is meant to describe. “Spitter” suggests that the child referred to produces small, discrete units—droplets or blobs—of liquid. In fact, from the slack mouth of a “spitter” gushes a volume of smelly tan stuff that does not seem capable of having gone in there in the first place. You really don’t want that on your rug.

One day I noticed one of the babies crawling over to a plant. As it was neither my home nor my plant, I watched the child with some detachment. A crawling child was something of a novelty to me because Jonathan never crawled properly but hitched himself around on two hands, one knee, and one foot. The other mothers said his hitching action was “so cute!” But I thought I could tell by the relief with which they then regarded their own children’s symmetrical scooting that they didn’t think it was cute at all; they thought that it was bizarre and that I should be pretty worried. Frankly, I’m sure I had the same look of relief when other people’s babies “spat.” I began to suspect that whatever we mothers were providing for each other might not exactly be “support.”

The baby crawled over to the plant and reached a fat, damp, ill-intentioned hand out towards the low-hanging leaves. Another baby looked over, noticed the first baby reaching for the leaves, and crawled over to join in. As I watched, one by one, all the other babies crawled over to the plant. I waited for Jonathan to notice and hitch himself over, too. He continued to play with his toes. Eventually he looked up and gazed at the activity in the corner. He watched for a while and then went back to his toes.

That evening, I described this episode to my husband.

“Well, why would he want to do what the other babies are doing?” he asked. “Why would he be interested in some plant?”

Perhaps it is no great mystery why our son is this way, given his genetic composition. With one antisocial parent he might have had a chance, but not with two.

I also noticed Jonathan’s nonconformist tendencies during his weekly music class. It was called “Music Together,” and every week I cursed myself for having paid money to sit in a fetid basement and sing “Eensy Weensy Spider” with accompanying hand motions in a group. Surely, if one felt an irrepressible urge to sing “Eensy Weensy Spider” and do hand motions, one could and probably should do it in the privacy of one’s home, free of charge. And in fact, Jonathan and I often sang songs at home, and that was kind of nice.

But I had found myself the victim of a strange phenomenon: the tyranny of parenthood. Into the beaker of your weary and defenseless mind is poured, in equal parts, your desire to do right by your child and your fear of doing wrong by him and being blamed by him and everyone who meets him in years to come. Some regular old peer pressure is spooned in, and sprinkled on top are all the grudges you hold against your own parents for not doing enough for you. Then you agitate everything all together until the toxic mixture slimes up the parts of your brain that are meant to produce rational, independent thought. Where I had once kind of liked to think of myself as different from the crowd and where I had learned to accept and even embrace my discomfort with what I regarded as mindless group activity, I now feared that I was pro- claiming my individuality a little too energetically and at my child’s expense. It’s fine to be an individual and a loner, but suddenly, when applied to your child, “individual” and “loner” sound like euphemisms for “outcast.” So I dragged myself and my son to Music Together.

At Music Together, we sat in a circle with a few other mothers with uncombed hair and a lot of put-upon “caregivers.” (“Caregiver” is late twentieth-/early twenty-first-century Upper West Side speak for “nanny.” I always wonder if the children should then be called “caretakers.”) The Music Together teacher led the group in songs that we were expected to know because we had been given tapes of the songs at the outset so that we and our practically inanimate lumpish children—who, in some cases, couldn’t even sit up—could “practice” at home. Halfway through the class, the teacher, with a beneficent expression, brought out a duffel bag and shook plastic instruments from it onto the floor. At the sight of all that colorful plastic, the other babies slithered over to the pile and drew out rattles or shakers or strings of bells and proceeded to clonk each other with them or wedge them into their mouths and take them out again, dripping wet, or shake them with gestures ranging from gently idiotic to frenzied. Jonathan sat on my lap, his brown eyes reflecting bewilderment and regret over how he had ended up in an insane world with nothing but a weak, easily manipulated mother to protect him.

I realize one might argue that it was not Jonathan’s antisocial tendencies that became evident at Music Together but my own. In my defense I’d like to point out that I sang the songs, I shook the rattles—he did not. I confess, though, that before long I became a Music Together drop-out. Being the child of a drop-out will no doubt have some detrimental long-term effect on his development, but it was becoming clear to me that I was defeating my own lofty socializing goals: no matter how enthusiastically I shook the little rattles for him, I was sure he was too sensitive not to discern that I hated being there.

At that point, I was able to laugh about his isolationist proclivities. They were kind of charming, just as a crooked baby tooth can be charming because you assume that one day a strong, white, straight-edged adult tooth will take its place. Also, when Jonathan was twenty-two months old, Meredith was born, and he exhibited his affection for her early on. He was plainly capable of establishing a connection with another human child, so I wasn’t concerned about his lack of interest in his peers. But then he started school.

We chose his nursery school with great care. The school we chose declared, most comfortingly, in its mission statement: “We believe that all creation is sacred; each member of the school community is respected as a unique individual.” “Unique” and “individual” were exactly the words we were looking for—they seemed to shimmer there on the brochure. But in spite of the school’s commitment to the Individual, once Jonathan was there, it was difficult for me not to view him against the backdrop of what struck me as disconcertingly homogenous community behavior. Here were the fifteen other three-year-olds in Jonathan’s nursery school class, skip- ping past me on a hot June day in bright stripy t-shirts and cargo shorts, laughing, singing tunelessly, shoving each other. There was Jonathan at the end of the line, perfectly solemn, with his hooded sweatshirt zipped up to his chin and the hood up.

And here was I, in spite of myself: “All the other kids wear short-sleeved shirts when it’s 85 degrees.” I had always believed that I would never start a sentence with all the other kids. But there was that oily substance gumming up my brain.

Jonathan looked at me. “They do?” he said.

“Yes, they do. Aren’t you hot?”

“No,” he said.

“I’m cold. Freezingcold.”

“You look hot,” I said.

“Well, I’m not.”

“You cannot possibly be cold.”

“Well, I am.”

How did I end up with Bartle bythe Scrivener for a son? I could make him, I thought. I could exercise my stronger will or, at any rate, my larger body. I could tear off the sweatshirt, force his little arms into an adorable stripy t-shirt while screeching, “Why do you have to look like a weirdo?” But the kid said he was cold. Did I really know better? Or, the more difficult question: Was his physical comfort really the issue?

Along with school came the torture of birthday parties. The parents of the birthday child would rent out a gym or a basement or some other empty and indestructible play area around which the children would race, trying to fell and then kill each other. Boys, in particular, would stomp on each other with both feet and wrestle each other to the floor with their hands around each other’s throats. The party organizers would take the situation in hand and organize a game of dodge ball. At one party I saw Jonathan settle down, cross-legged, to watch the game. He seemed content, so I just watched him.

“Hey, buddy, what’s your name?” a well-meaning organizer called.


“Come on, buddy, don’t you want to play?”


And then I felt terrible, seeing him sitting there. Suddenly he seemed alone, an outsider. I walked over to where he sat.

“Sweetie, if you’re not having fun, we shouldn’t come to these parties,” I said to him.

“I am having fun,” he said, looking up, surprised.

“You don’t look like you’re having fun.”

“But I am.”

The adults in charge of the party were clearly discomfited by his refusal to participate. At this party, the hired party assistant was so determined to make him have fun that he took his hand and dragged him out into the dodge ball arena. Jonathan promptly got hit by a ball and that’s when he became unhappy. He came back over to where I stood and asked, “Why do people think it’s fun to be hit by a ball?”

“Do you want to go home?”

“No, I want to watch. It’s fun to watch.”

“Okay, you can watch.”

“Why did that man keep calling me ‘Buddy’? I told him my name is Jonathan.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

By the end of the party, as always, I was catatonic with frustration and some other feeling I couldn’t quite name that came over me whenever I saw my son sitting by himself on the side, a feeling that was partly hot, partly sick, and resulted in an over- whelming desire to buy him ice cream, which he doesn’t even like that much. I couldn’t decide whether to blame the world, him, or me. Then, as we were leaving, Jonathan took my hand, smiled up at me, and said without a hint of irony, “I had such a great time!”

“Are you trying to make me lose my mind?” I asked him.

“No,” he said. “Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not in your best interest.”

“I’ll take him to parties from now on,” my husband offered after one look at me when we got home.

On the other hand, Jonathan and Meredith both love adult parties. They mingle, they chat. I asked Jonathan why he seems to have such a good time at adult parties but only sits on the side at kids’ parties.

“Because grownups don’t shriek and run around throwing things and pushing each other down,” he said.

“Well, for the most part, anyway,” I had to agree.

When Jonathan was in first grade, his teacher expressed some concern about his recess behavior.

“He doesn’t play with the other kids,” she said.

“Does he seem unhappy?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “But you know, in a few years, the other children won’t be so accepting. Maybe you could have a talk with him,” she suggested.

I tried. “Do you play with the others at recess?” I asked him.

“Why would I want to play Killer Ball?” he answered.

I told him, “If you want to play, you can just ask the other kids. I’m sure they’d let you.”

“I’m sure they would, too,” he said. “But I don’t want to.”

I asked him until I knew I was being a pain in the ass, and then I forced myself to stop asking. I didn’t want him to think he was supposed to want to play Killer Ball.

I decided to ask the opinion of a psychiatrist whose name I got from the school.

“He doesn’t interact with other children,” I told him. “He does fine with adults, but he won’t speak to kids his own age. Plus, he won’t wear shorts.”

“He won’t wear shorts?”

“No, or short-sleeved shirts. Is there something I should be doing differently?”

The doctor asked me some more questions, about my pregnancy, about doubts I had about my parenting, and then looked at me thoughtfully.

“Your son sounds just fine,” he said. “He exhibits some oppositional behaviors, but they are all well within the normal range.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m glad to hear that.”

The doctor sat back.

“Now,” he said. “Would you like to talk about your own anxiety?”

The children have recess on what is called the “playdeck.” At that time, Meredith’s school day ended at 12:30; I’d pick her up and then the two of us would go to the park until it was time to pick up Jonathan at three. One afternoon I arrived early to fetch her. Her class was still at lunch, so I wandered into her empty classroom and, gazing idly out the window, noticed that it overlooked the play- deck and that I could see Jonathan’s class at recess. Quickly, I crouched to avoid being observed and waddled over to the window. There was Jonathan, watching his classmates hurl balls at each other. But as I watched, a couple of other children came up to him. They stayed for a moment or two each, asked him questions, it looked like, and it looked like he answered. Then they returned to their game. He didn’t look unhappy. He didn’t look excluded. His classmates seemed to treat him with affection and respect—how could they not respect someone who so obviously didn’t care what they thought? For the next few days I made a habit of arriving early so I could spy on the playdeck. And then one day I heard some bigmouth girl shout, “Hey, Jonathan! I can see your Mom! Why is she all hunched over?” and that was the end of that.

On Jonathan’s third grade report card his teacher wrote: “Jonathan is never involved in peer conflicts”—high praise, until you take into account the fact that he’s never involved in peer anything. He received the highest marks in all subjects but two: French and Music. I asked him about these.

The music teacher wrote: “[Jonathan] sometimes shies away from participating fully in music. I hope that he will become comfortable enough with me and the class to participate more actively in all aspects of music this year.”

“I like music class when he teaches music,” said Jonathan. “But he wants us to do all these dumb body movements. How is moving around in some ridiculous way helping us learn about music?”

The French teacher wrote: “Jonathan is focused, attentive, and applies himself seriously to his tasks. However, he is still reluctant to speak up and he is uncomfortable playing unfamiliar roles in improvisations.”

Jonathan said, “I hate skits.”

“Well, okay,” I said. “but … ” and then I realized that I used to hate skits too. I truly believe that one of the greatest things about being a grownup is that I never have to do things like skits. Everybody attributes Jonathan’s non-participation to shyness, but I know it isn’t that. I myself was shy. I would never have done anything to draw attention to myself, and I certainly would never have dreamed of refusing to do a skit. Jonathan, by this definition, is not shy.

“Well, okay,” I said. “In a few years, they won’t want you to do skits and body movements, you’ll just sit at your desk and conjugate verbs and stuff. All right? Until then, can you just do what the teacher asks you to do?”

“Well, I’ll try,” he said. He really is a good boy. “But I’ll hate it.”

In October, we engaged in our annual School Photograph Battle. Every year, everyone else’s children smile for their school photographs. Everyone else’s children.

“Just smile, for God’s sake,” I said to Jonathan. “It’s not that hard to smile.”

“It takes forty-seven muscles to smile,” said the little pedant.

“Look, think of the poor photographer,” I tried. “It’s his job, all day long, to take pictures. He needs to make them look nice so people will want to buy them. Just give him a break.”

“I’d smile if there was anything to smile about,” said Jonathan. “It’s easy to smile if something’s funny. But he just tells some stupid joke that’s not funny at all.”

“At all,” Meredith chimed in.

“Why should I smile when there’s nothing to smile about?” Jonathan asked.

I couldn’t think of a good response, so I tried being honest to see how it would sound.

“I want you to smile because I’m afraid that if you don’t smile, then everyone who looks at the yearbook will notice that only two children in the whole yearbook aren’t smiling, and that those two children have the same last name, and then they’ll look in the cross-referenced last name index and find out that those two children are mine, and then they’ll wonder what I do to you at home to make you so glum.”

“Oh,” said Jonathan. He mulled that over for a moment. “But we aren’t glum. So why would they think that we’re glum?”

“Because you look glum.”

“No, I don’t,” he said. “I look the way I look when I’m not smiling.”

“Never mind,” I said. “Fine. Don’t smile. See what I care.”

“Why should they smile?” asked my husband helpfully that evening. “It’s an annoying American thing. Americans think children are naturally happy. The English think children are naturally miserable.”

Would I prefer it if my children obediently stretched out their mouths in insincere grins? I realized that in all the photos in the newspaper of children who have been abused—scalded or starved or beaten to death—they always seem to be smiling. Beaming, even. So I should know better than to believe in those smiles. But a photograph of a smiling child is something you can hold in your hand, something you can show the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.

When the photos came back from the photographer, all the class pictures were posted in the big glass cases right by the entrance. I took a quick surreptitious survey. Many stretched-out fake smiles, many deer-in-headlights. My two didn’t stand out so much. In fact, their individual portraits turned out very nicely. Jonathan looks dignified and Meredith’s mouth is a little wavy line that makes her look as if she’s making up her mind about some- thing. I ordered many copies and distributed them to the relatives.

Every February the children’s school holds an event called the “Gospel Breakfast” as part of its recognition of Black History Month. The mother of one of Jonathan’s class- mates, a dynamic and widely respected black minister, leads the assembly, which also features performances by the school’s brass band and spirituals sung by all the children. Two years ago the kindergarten class was taught to sing “Jesus Loves Me This I Know,” but here is where “Recognition of Black History” collided head on with “Respect for Jewish History,” and now the kindergartners learn “This Little Light of Mine” instead.

So this past February the whole school and a large group of parents crowded into the gym, which looked like a quintessential American grade school gym, with navy blue pads covering the lower walls and basketball backboards cranked up to the ceiling. The band was playing, with much volume and little tune, and the Reverend was swaying. You could see her enthusiasm beginning to spread through the crowd.

“Let’s see you put your hands in the air!” she encouraged. People laughed and began to do as she said. But suddenly, in spite of my genuinely warm feelings towards the Reverend and the people gathered there, I began to feel unhappy.

“Feel that rhythm!” the Reverend said. Her arms were in the air, and the mostly white parents, singing, followed her lead and waved their arms back and forth. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I had the sinking feeling that I often have in such gatherings that I am the only person on the planet who doesn’t know how to have a good time.

All three hundred-odd students did little derivative dances, which involved a lot of kicking as well as arm-waving—all the students, of course, but two. Two students stood perfectly still with their arms by their sides, quietly absorbing the scene with wide eyes. I happen to know that both those children possess a great deal of rhythm. But they revealed nothing. They were not standing near each other, so a casual observer might not have made a connection between them. They couldn’t see each other, so they weren’t imitating each other. They weren’t enacting some secret pact; the impulse to not participate was born independently in each. But I could see them both.

Suddenly I became aware that only one adult in the audience was not waving her arms. And at the same moment I felt an overwhelming pressure. What should I be demonstrating for my children? Should I stay still to show solidarity? If I chose that route, wouldn’t I be dooming them not to feel the rhythm? Wouldn’t everyone think—especially me—those poor kids, they just don’t stand a chance with such a stodgy, self-conscious, and mean-spirited mother. Maybe there was affirmation and protection to be found in the crowd. If so, I wanted that affirmation and that protection for my children, and I would do any- thing to get it for them. I forced myself to raise my arms and sway. I lifted the corners of my mouth into what I hoped resembled an expression of easy good humor, in case my children were watching me for cues (which they weren’t). I feared for my children because they’re braver than I ever was or ever will be, and even though I knew that waving my arms wouldn’t help either them or me—still, I waved them, just in case.

Author’s Note: It has already been a couple of years since I wrote the first draft of this piece. My son is now thriving in fourth grade, with a wonderful teacher and a great group of classmates, for which I am helplessly, sappily grateful. One of the many reasons I wrote this piece was to try to convey that feeling of helplessness. You can never be absolutely certain you’re doing the right thing for your child, nor do you know whether anything you do actually affects his or her development at all—but of course, that doesn’t stop you from trying.

Carol Paik lives with her family in New York.  Her essays have appeared, among other places, in Brain, Child; Tin House; The Gettysburg Review; Literal Latte; Fourth Genre; and Full Grown People.  More of her writing at  

Brain, Child (Summer 2005)

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By Carol Paik

Paik_ConcertMy mother announced that she was about to give her last solo recital, at Lutkin Hall at Northwestern University. “I’m sixty-six,” she said. “I don’t feel like doing this any more.” She told me this months in advance, to make sure that I—and perhaps more importantly, my two children, her grandchildren—would be able to attend. Meredith and Jonathan were four and six years old, and I thought about what it would be like for them to fly all the way to Chicago and then sit through a full-length piano concert at night. It didn’t sound promising. But if this was in fact going to be their grandmother’s last recital, I wanted them to see it.

So we traveled from New York City to Evanston, Illinois, on an unseasonably warm November Friday. Evanston is a place of significance in my family’s history, but an unfamiliar place for me. My father and mother met at Northwestern as undergraduates, my mother on a full piano scholarship, my father studying engineering. Not far from the hotel where we were staying were the practice rooms where my father used to study lying underneath the grand piano while my mother worked the keyboard above his head.

We arrived at the hotel around four o’clock, the children were hungry and tired, and I was beginning to think it had been a bad idea to come. Then I spotted my father across the lobby, just as he spotted us. He and my mother had flown in from Boston the day before. He grinned and hurried over, taking Meredith up in his arms.

“I thought you’d be getting in about now,” he said, squeezing Meredith until she protested. “I came down to look for you.” (“Ants in his pants,” I could just about hear my mother mutter.) He sat down and the children draped themselves over him.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked.

“Resting upstairs,” he said. “She wants me to bring her a hamburger at five o’clock and then the rest of us can go out for dinner.”

I had almost forgotten these pre-concert rituals. Before a concert, my mother likes to eat, but just a little bit of something to keep her energy up. (“Something high in protein, nothing with milk or onions.”)

“We should probably go soon, if Mom wants her hamburger at five,” I said.

“There’s plenty of time. There’s a Burger King around the corner. It’ll take two minutes to get there, two minutes to get back.”

“It’ll take more than two minutes, Dad.”

“Alrightalright,” he said. “Five minutes to get there, five minutes to get back.”  (I could picture my mother, eyes rolled to heaven. “Have you ever seen such a stubborn man?”)

 *   *   *

On our way back from Burger King, Meredith asked if she could bring Grandma her hamburger, so just outside my parents’ room my father placed the small cardboard boxes in her hands. He quietly unlocked the door for her and sent her into the dark. He and I waited outside, listening.

“Hi, sweetheart,” I heard my mother say.  I realized she thought it was my father who had entered, and that I was hearing the way she speaks to my father when no one else is around. I was surprised by the softness of her tone.

“Sweetheart?” she repeated when no one answered. Then, “Oh, Meredith! Come here my darling! What a wonderful surprise!”

My father and I went in and opened the heavy hotel drapes. My mother was sitting on the edge of the bed with Meredith on her lap, looking happy and calm. Not tense with energy the way I expected her to be. She reached around Meredith to give me a hug.

“Hi, darling,” she said. “I like your hair that way.”

I hadn’t combed my hair since that morning, but I knew why she’d said that. There was a story behind it. When I was in college, in an all-out effort to please her I once told her that for her next concert I would wear whatever she wanted. She bought me a high-waisted, blue and pink flowered dress with a hemline below the knee—the sort of dress no one older than ten or younger than sixty should ever wear. I wore it, fairly confident I wouldn’t see anyone I knew at the concert. I also permitted her to curl my hair. I felt ridiculous, but I was proud of myself for being mature enough to bend a little for my mother’s pleasure. Then, as we were about to enter the auditorium, she turned to inspect me and her face fell.

“I guess your hair really doesn’t hold a curl,” she said.

I had turned to my father then and demanded the car keys. He fished around in his pocket and handed them to me, and I turned and walked out of the hall. I spent the recital in the car, amid the shreds of my newfound maturity.

After the concert, she said she had no idea I would be so hurt by such a comment. She hadn’t meant to be critical, she said. Since then she has only bought me black clothing and routinely compliments my hair. She herself often wears the blue and pink dress and it looks quite nice on her.

I thanked her for the hair comment with a kiss. “How are you feeling?” I asked.

She shook her head and groaned theatrically. “The Rorem is my nemesis—twentieth-century music really isn’t my bag. I’m so glad this is my last solo recital. It’s just too much work! I want to spend that time with my grandchildren! Come, Meredith, would you like to see my gown?”

Meredith nodded, and my mother led her to the closet, where a new shell pink gown was hanging in its plastic bag. During my childhood, in the weeks leading up to a concert, my mother would be focused on her practicing to a point near frenzy, but the concern about what she was going to wear would linger just beneath, occasionally spiking up and sending her to rifle frantically through her closet—and, once I grew to be her size at about age eleven, my closet as well. Sometimes, as a last resort, she’d make a grudging trip to Filene’s Basement. She always came up with something that met her criteria: it had to be dressy enough to show respect for the hosting organization; it should sparkle a little for a festive note; its sleeves had to cover the wobbly underside of her upper arms. It also had to cost next to nothing, for she would never willingly spend money on a dress she would get so little use out of. She would decide that the black wraparound skirt I had sewn in Home Ec and sequined top—eight sizes too big—from the church rummage sale fit the bill. I remember, in particular, clunky silver lamé platform sandals that she got for half price because her size, four and a half, had been used as the floor sample. The dignity, bordering on smugness, with which she always carried herself, no matter what her outfit, confirmed my belief that she and I would never agree. But when I saw the lovely fairy-princess-pink gown she had bought for herself, now that she and my father had more means, I wondered if for all those years her smugness had masked disappointment.

“My dress is pink, too,” said Meredith, delighted. In fact, her dress was almost the identical shade. The bond between my mother and my daughter surrounds them like a force field. They even look alike: large brown eyes, small noses, and mouths that form thin lines with downturned corners when they are displeased. Occasionally, when Meredith was an infant and I was holding her in my arms, she’d look at me in a certain loving yet measuring way and I’d be struck by the impression that I’d given birth to my mother. They understand each other at a deep and strange level. “I always know exactly what she needs,” my mother often says. “She doesn’t have to tell me.”

My mother and I never shared that sort of understanding. She seemed, on the contrary, to have a particular knack for dwelling on irrelevant details of the story I was telling, dismissive of things that mattered to me while praising me for things I cared nothing about, offering “constructive criticism” when what I needed was support. For instance, it was my father, not my mother, who took me shopping when I was in high school and quietly bought me Levi’s jeans when my mother said the ones from Fashion Barn with elastic waists were perfectly fine. As for Meredith—sometimes I felt uncertain how to approach her, standing there with her little lips turned down at the ends. How do I show her how much I love her without annoying her? Did my mother ever feel that way about me?

“Tonight will be a fitting swan song,” said my mother. “Did you know that when I was in college I gave my senior recital in the same hall? Charlotte Gackle and I gave a joint recital. And she’s coming tonight, can you imagine? Of course, she has changed her name. No soprano should be called ‘Gackle’!” She laughed. “But anyway, it’s a nice close to my solo career, I think. Full circle.”

*   *   *

I have seen photographs of her senior recital. They are black and white, so I can’t tell the color of her gown, but from the way its folds catch the light I can tell the fabric had a sheen. I know it was handmade, either by her mother or by her sister-in-law, who also sewed her wedding dress. My mother is seated in the photograph, slender, obscured from the waist down by a large bouquet of roses that are darker than the dress. She always took her glasses off for photographs, and she smiles at some point to the left of the camera, glamorous and blind.

My mother’s relationship with the piano began when she was a very small girl. She remembers playing the piano in her grandmother’s house in Seoul, and she remembers playing the piano on the boat that brought her and her family across the Pacific Ocean to the United States in 1940. When they finally reached Chicago, there was a piano in her new home, or more accurately, in the church that occupied the top floor of the small brownstone where they were to live. On weekdays my mother’s father peddled trinkets to factory workers, but on Sundays he was the minister of that church. The top floor was heated only on Sundays, and during the long Chicago winters, when my mother needed to practice, my mother’s mother walked in a semi-circle around her holding a small electric heater.

My parents were married in June, 1957. “Everyone got married after graduation,” my mother says. “That’s just what you did.”  Within three years they had two sons, and they all lived in student housing in Palo Alto, California, subsisting on my father’s fellowship while he earned his Ph.D. There was no room for a piano, even if they could afford one, even if she had had the time to play it.  After my father received his doctorate, they moved to Massachusetts, where I was born. We moved to Chicago, and then back to Massachusetts, when I was almost three; my parents decided this would be our permanent home. They were able, finally, to acquire a Baldwin upright and my mother began to play again. I had to go with her to her lessons. Her teacher was an ancient French Canadian lady who spoke accented English and lived in a townhouse filled with fragile items. I sat as still as I possibly could in a corner of the music room, but invariably Miss Giguère would sigh and tell me I had to sit somewhere else.

When I started school, my mother began teaching piano at home. She also began to arrange performances for herself. At the public library fundraiser. At the retirement home. Accompanying the church choir. Soloing with the high school orchestra. Any time she saw an opportunity to give a recital, she snatched it up. Performing gave her exposure, she said, and the exposure brought her more opportunities.

“I had to decide what I was going to do,” she told me recently. “And I realized I only knew how to do one thing. I knew how to play the piano. It’s not that I love it so much. But it’s the thing my parents labored so hard to give me, and it’s the only thing I know.”

*   *   *

We needed to let her get ready. “I’ll see you in just a little while, darling,” she said to Meredith, who nodded, took my hand, and came away without any protest. I wasn’t so understanding when I was young. I was already older than Meredith when my mother began to give concerts again, but I remember disliking the oddness of dinner being served by Dad, the percussion of high heels on the floor above our heads, the sight of my mother coming down the stairs two to three inches taller than normal with a hairdo like a helmet and lipstick like a warning.  She would help me into my tights in a distanced, careful way, and she would inspect us all, her mouth turned down, looking right into our eyes and licking her thumb to stick a stray hair in place. She would inspect my father, too, and question him about the status of the tape recorder and whether he had tested the batteries, making him defensive and impatient.

But now she saw us off cheerily without even asking what I was planning to wear, without admonishing my father to come back in time to take her over to the hall. We left to find my husband and my son, and I found myself looking forward to the evening, looking forward to hearing my mother play.

When I was young, and even when I was not so young, I disliked going to her concerts.  I particularly dreaded the aftermath. I would be relieved that it was over, and there were usually some cookies and juice on a table. But there would be a large crowd of well-wishers around my mother—old friends, colleagues from one of her piano associations, as well as complete strangers. She greeted each one with smiles and warm conversation—she never knew when someone who could advance her career might show up. I would want to go to her, but I knew that if I got too close she would introduce me to everyone and I hated that. My father and my brothers and I would stand around at a safe distance. It would be late. We would be tired. Finally, we’d gather up the freshest of the roses and get into the car.

And then she would ask us:

“What did you think?”

I knew there was something I was supposed to say, that there was a right thing to say, but I didn’t know what it was and neither did my father or brothers.

“You did very well,” my father might try.

“That doesn’t mean anything!” she would snap. “What did you think, Carol?”

“I thought you sounded very good,” I might offer tentatively.

“Which piece did you like best?”

“I don’t know. I thought they were all nice.”

“Oh!” she would groan. “Were you paying any attention at all?”

And we would ride dumbly home, where she would be unable to sleep and would sit up at the kitchen table long into the night.

*   *   *

After a quick dinner we dressed and walked the short distance to Lutkin Hall. As I watched my father striding ahead with the children, I noticed that he was not carrying the tape recorder. He had brought it dutifully to every concert I could remember, a dense black rectangular box that wheezed as it recorded. Because of the tape recorder we always had to sit close to the front, but not so close that my mother might be distracted by some slight misbehavior glimpsed out of the corner of her eye. But there was no tape recorder tonight. I assumed the old thing finally gave up the ghost and they had not been able to bring themselves to replace it, unwilling as they are to read instruction manuals. Once we reached the hall, my father seemed quite free about choosing his seats. In fact he changed seats, with the kids in tow, more than once.

Finally, everyone was seated and the house lights dimmed. After a pause, the stage lights went up dramatically, the side door opened and my mother stepped out in her pink gown. She walked briskly to the piano, placed one hand on its side, smiled graciously and inclined her head. I used to think it was funny, when I was a child, seeing her act that way. My children clapped and clapped. She sat down before the piano, half-rose, adjusted the bench a bit, sat, looked up to a spot on the far wall and began the Beethoven.

When I was a child I never knew the composers or names of the pieces she played, but I knew every note by heart from listening to them so many times. She practiced at night after we had gone to bed, after her long day of teaching recalcitrant students, making dinner, and otherwise providing for the needs of three children and a husband. Night after night I would lie in the dark and listen. Just as I would begin to drift off to a particularly lovely part I would be jerked awake by a wrong note, or a garbled passage, which would be followed by an abrupt stop and then several laborious repetitions of the offending phrase. Each repetition would jerk me awake anew. Because of this nightly conditioning, each mistake she made in a concert was almost physically painful to me. The other result of this conditioning was an unfortunate and much unappreciated tendency to fall asleep during her concerts.

But I had left home twenty years ago. I didn’t know this Beethoven. As usual, she was playing new repertory. Although I discerned a few falters, they caused me no distress. The children, taking their cues from their grandfather, held their applause between movements.

The second piece was a Chopin barcarolle, followed by his Ballade No. 4 in F Minor. Chopin has always been my mother’s favorite composer, and she is at her best with him—her affinity for this music obvious from the fluidity of her movements. Gradually I stopped listening for mistakes. I did what I always used to do at her concerts to help me stay awake—squinted at the stage until it became just bright light and two shapes, one large and black, one pink and animate, together producing sound yet disconnected from it.

*   *   *

When I was about six, someone who ran a prestigious piano workshop heard my mother play. He approached her after the recital and encouraged her to apply. My mother was very excited by this man’s attention, and she spent days carefully preparing her application and a tape. A few weeks after she sent it in, she received a letter from the workshop organizers. The letter said they were very impressed with her tape, but, unfortunately, one had to be twenty-five years old or younger to participate in this workshop.

“Isn’t that hilarious?” she said, holding the letter. “That man must have thought I was younger than twenty-five!” We all laughed, for it was a very funny idea. We sat down to eat lunch.

I saw it first, a pinkness spreading from the tip of her nose.

“Mom?” I said, just as she began to cry.

“Twenty-five!” she sobbed. “He thought I was twenty-five! Can you imagine?” My father squatted by her chair and put his arms around her, but I knew there was nothing he could do to make her twenty-five.

*   *   *

By the time I left home for college, my mother had made a name for herself in our town and the surrounding area both as a performer and a teacher. She couldn’t go to the grocery store or the post office without someone stopping her and asking, “Aren’t you Wanda Paik?” She had performed twice with the Boston Pops Orchestra, once under the great Arthur Fiedler himself. After I left home, she continued to expand her repertoire. My oldest brother joined the Foreign Service and she gave concerts at the embassies  where he was stationed, adding international performances to her résumé.  Her students, who now came to her from all over the state, regularly won contests and prizes. They kept in touch with her into their adulthoods, crediting her with changing their lives.

But: “Never be a musician,” she would tell my brothers and me. “It’s a life of drudgery. Most musicians have to teach tin-eared children day and night or else play at parties where people can’t hear you and put their drinks on the piano top. And for what? After all that drudgery, they’re too exhausted to play the music they want to play. So what’s the point of that? I’m so lucky, because I can choose my students now, and I can play whatever I want. But I only have those choices because I married Dad, and he’s such a good breadwinner.”

*   *   *

After the intermission she played the Rorem barcarolle and toccata. She used the sheet music for the Rorem—something she rarely does at a recital. “When you play twentieth-century music,” she had said, “it’s a good idea to put up the music just so the audience doesn’t think you’re making it up as you go along.” But in this case I knew she needed the music because she didn’t entirely trust her memory. I knew these pieces were a reach for her, almost as foreign to her nature as rock and roll. But she has always chosen to play, along with Chopin, pieces that make her reach.

As she began the final piece, a Bartók suite, I wondered about the tape recorder. This was her last solo recital, she had said. I would have liked to have a recording for my children. I would have liked to have something to remind me, something solid I could hold in my hand. We don’t have any recordings of her concerts, for the tapes my father so diligently made had never been intended for posterity. They were for her edification. In the days following the concert she would play and replay the tape, biting her lip over the worst parts, holding her breath through the best. Eventually, after she had wrung all the information out of it, she would reuse the tape.

There was one practice tape of hers that we kept for a while. On it, you could hear her practicing, and in the background the little sounds of my father and my brother playing chess. From time to time you could hear my brother, in his nine-year-old treble voice: “Cheap! Super cheap!” Then you heard him say, a little louder, “Oh, that was so cheap!” Then there was a banged chord and a clatter and my mother’s voice, shrill: “Get out of here!” We called this tape the “Get Out of Here” tape, and we saved it because it never failed to make us all laugh. But even that was gone now.

I was afraid that once she stopped playing I wouldn’t be able to remember what it sounded like. With no recording, my memory would have to suffice. I became a little panic-stricken and tried to listen harder. Perhaps if I somehow listened harder now, I would be able to keep it in my mind. I wanted the music to continue, for as long as it continued it could speak for itself and I wouldn’t have to try to find a way to describe it.

But eventually the music stopped, and everyone was clapping. My mother bowed, exited, returned, bowed again. Someone ran up the few steps to the stage and handed her a bouquet of red roses. My mother disappeared through the side door.

I took my children by the hand and we hurried up onto the stage and after her so we could get to her before the well-wishers. We rushed through the stage door and found her in a small room with a little square table. When she saw us she dropped the roses onto the table and knelt down to gather the children in her arms.

“I think you were great,” I told her.

Author’s Note: Now that I’m a mother who’s trying to be a writer, I finally have some appreciation for my own mother’s struggle to fulfill both domestic responsibilities and personal aspirations. Her energy, determination, and relentlessly high standards are inspirational to me. Not surprisingly, the concert described in this essay was, in fact, not her last. Five years later she’s still going strong.

Carol Paik lives with her family in New York.  Her essays have appeared, among other places, in Brain, Child; Tin House; The Gettysburg Review; Literal Latte; Fourth Genre; and Full Grown People.  More of her writing at  

Brain, Child (Spring, 2006)