This is Ten

This is Ten

WO This is Ten Art 2By Lindsey Mead

This essay is excerpted from Brain, Child’s book, This is Childhood Book & Journal.

I spent my teenage summers at a wonderful, rambling house on the Massachusetts shore with several families. There was always a tangle of children and we got in the habit of going for swims after dinner. One summer, there was phosphorescence. I have never forgotten those unexpected, bright swirls of light, otherworldly, as blinding as they were fleeting

Ten is like that. Ten is phosphorescence. Ten blazes brightly and vanishes so quickly you wonder if your eyes are playing tricks on you.

Ten is a changeling. In my daughter’s mahogany eyes, I see the baby she was and the young woman she is fast becoming. In one moment she’s still a little girl, clutching her teddy bears before bed, and in another she is a near-teenager, dancing and singing along to Nicki Minaj. She oscillates between wanting to bolt for the horizon of young adulthood that she can see and wanting to shrink from it, nestling instead in early childhood with me.

Motherhood has offered me more surprises than I can count, but the biggest one is how lined with loss it is, how striated with sorrow. I am blindsided, over and over again, by the breathless rush of time. For every single thing that will never come again, though, there is a dazzling surprise, a new skill, a new wonder, a new delight. All of parenting is a constant farewell and an endless hallelujah wrapped together, but ten feels like an especially momentous combination of the two.

Ten is evanescent, liminal, unquestionably the end of something, and just as surely the beginning of something else. As my daughter noted, in tears, the night before her tenth birthday, she will “never be single digits again, ever.”

The only thing ten wants more than her ears pierced is a dog. She still laughs uproariously as she flies down a sledding hill, but she also shrugs nonchalantly at the top of a black diamond slope before turning down it and executing perfect turns, her duct-tape-covered helmet a blur of color against the snow.

Ten wears tall Ugg boots I can fit into and impossibly long yoga pants that I mistake for my own when I am folding laundry. Ten organizes her crayons in rainbow order, and I can see the alphabetized spice rack that lies ahead.

Ten swings masterfully across the monkey bars, dribbles a soccer ball all the way up the field and scores, and plays good enough tennis that we can play actual games. Ten loves board games and Club Penguin, and the door of her closet is covered with posters of Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift. When will these girls be replaced in her affection by boys, I wonder? I hope not too soon.

Ten is streaks of brilliance in the dark sea, whose provenance is unknown, which vanish as fast as they appear.

Ten sat on my lap this week, her toes brushing the floor on either side of my legs. I ran my fingers over a temporary tattoo of a shooting star on her arm, and thought: that is what ten is. Ten is a shooting star. An explosion of light and kinesis that will never come again. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Ten leaves heartfelt, tear-jerking notes for me on my pillow, professing her love, devotion, and thanks. Ten sometimes walks icily away from me at school drop-off, refusing to turn around, angry about something.

Ten is sensitive and easily bruised, confused by the startling meanness that can flare in other adolescent girls, desperate to be liked. Ten is alternately fragile and fierce.

Ten is vehement attachment and lurching swipes at separation. When ten grows up, she wants to be a veterinarian, a mother, and a writer. In the “about the author” section of a book she wrote at school, she said that the author took five years to write the book, because she was also raising her children. Ten doesn’t miss a single thing, and what I do matters a hundred times more than what I say.

Ten kneels in front of the “fairy stream” at a nearby park, breath drawn, and I swear that enchantment still brushes past her, like her heroine, Hermione, running by under the invisibility cloak. Ten caught my eye last Christmas when she said something about Santa, conveying in a single look that she knew he wasn’t real but that she didn’t want to ruin it for her younger brother.

Ten is the child who made me a mother, my pioneer, my trailblazer, walking hand-in-hand with me through all the firsts of her childhood and my motherhood. Ten is grace. Ten is my amazing Grace.

Anne Sexton said, “I look for uncomplicated hymns, but love has none.” Ten is a complicated hymn, a falling star, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in time, an otherworldly flash of green gorgeousness in the dark ocean.

Author’s Note: I studied English in college, and wrote my thesis on poetry and motherhood. After graduation, however, I took a sharp turn into the business world and stayed there for many years. It was watching my children, finally—particularly their here-now stubbornness and simultaneous persistent reminder of time’s passage—that prodded me back to the page. Many things about parenting have surprised me, but none more than how unavoidably bittersweet it is. “This is Ten” is one of many pieces I have written about my daughter and son in an attempt to remember the small, mundane, yet blindingly beautiful details of their (and our) everyday lives.

Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and financial services professional who lives outside of Boston with her husband, daughter, and son. She graduated from Princeton with an AB in English and received an MBA from Harvard. Her work has been published in a variety of print and online sources. She writes regularly at A Design So Vast.

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Things I Remember About My Childhood Home

Things I Remember About My Childhood Home

By Christine Juneau

1_AlligatorWe moved into the house where I grew up the summer I turned five. It was an English Tudor built in 1924 in the northern suburbs of Detroit, and my parents had bought it from the estate of its original owner, a widower who had allowed it to fall into a state of severe disrepair during his last years there. I didn’t then understand why my parents were so excited about this looming, dark place with its dirty peeling walls, piles of broken glass blanketed under thick layers of dust, cobwebs everywhere, and a horrible pea green kitchen. “For heaven’s sake, don’t touch anything,” my mother had said, throwing open the back kitchen door. “You girls go outside to play.” There my older sister Leslie and I discovered a magnificent backyard with sprawling lawns shaded by towering spruce trees, a fruit orchard, and an abandoned chicken coop. That summer before we moved in, my father spent evenings and weekends working alongside a group of workmen who somehow got everything fixed and cleaned up. When we finally did move in, one of the painters who lingered to touch things up told Leslie and me that he had found a dead alligator in the fruit cellar. For years I pictured this as the former owner’s dead pet, a hideous dark green creature about four feet long, with a full set of protruding teeth. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s browsing in a New Orleans Voo Doo shop staring at a pile of small crocodile skeletons that it dawned on me that the alligator in our basement was just a cheap souvenir.



Leslie and I shared a bedroom with matching twin beds that we jumped on like crazy to “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass until our mother shouted, “Stop that!” from somewhere downstairs, not because she was afraid that we might hurt ourselves, but because she didn’t want us to ruin the box springs. At night, after we were supposed to be asleep, we sent our baby dolls back and forth to each other in a shoebox we had rigged with kite string between our bedposts. My doll was a gift from my grandmother, given to me the day my mother went to the hospital to deliver my younger brother Stephen. I was two and a half. It was March and I named the doll Jingle Bells and washed her hair in a bowl of 7-Up causing some sort of chemical burn that made her acrylic hair stand straight up on end like a dish brush. “What on earth happened to Jingle Bells hair?” my mother had asked. “She was in a big wind.” I said.


3_Dress Up

Our house didn’t have a playroom or family room, so we spent a lot of time in our basement. There were almost as many rooms down there as there were in the rest of the house. It was always the perfect temperature — cool in summer and warm in winter. Other than the creepy fruit cellar and the occasional run in with a large spider or small mouse, it was a good place to play. On rainy days we built elaborate forts with old sheets or dressed up in costumes from a large trunk that had belonged to our great grandmother. She had abandoned our mom’s mother when she was ten to join the San Francisco Opera Company as its first soprano. “She just up and left in the middle of the night,” said my mother. “She might as well have run off to join the circus.” But somehow we had ended up with her things—heavily brocaded floor length dresses shimmering with iridescent threads, flowing ostrich feather boas, luxurious fur muffs and mink stoles with scrunched up faces at one end and tiny wrinkled feet with claws at the other—and they were wonderful!


4_Shameful room

As we we got older, our mother fell into the habit of communicating her grievances with us by leaving long handwritten notes taped to our door, the bathroom mirror, or on one of our beds. She would work herself into a slow boil over some minor infraction while we were at school and sit down with a sheet of loose leaf paper and really let us have it. These notes often started something like this: “Girls, Your room is SHAMEFUL! It is disgusting to me.” She always included a lengthy and detailed list of every last thing she had been doing to ensure that ours was a privileged life. Sometimes we would take the note down, go into our room and disintegrate into laughter, poring through it line by line, reading it aloud to each other until we had exhausted ourselves in amusement. Other times we left the note taped to the door untouched and pretended we hadn’t bothered to read it, a strategy that proved equally effective in exasperating her to no end.




5_Waldorf Salad

Leslie and I once enraged my mother to the point that she threw a salad at us. Actually, she threw the salad at Leslie, but that’s only because I had already been instructed to go to my room. I was on my way up the stairs with a perfect view through the open door into the kitchen to see the glob of Waldorf salad rocket by Leslie’s right ear, its neatly cut chunks of apple, celery, and walnuts all carefully folded together with two large scoops of Miracle Whip bonding the mass in flight until it went “splat” on the wall behind her.   “No one wants to eat salad that you girls have been picking at with your dirty fingers,” said my mother as her first warning. What sent her over the edge, however, was not that we had picked at the salad with our fingers, but that we had picked out every last one of the exorbitantly priced seedless red grapes that were her favorite part of the recipe.



Towards the back of our property, we had a large unfenced vegetable garden with everything from hearty, mature asparagus plants to tomatoes and strawberries. We had no trouble with deer, but woodchucks were a big problem and my father lured them into Hav-A-Heart traps and later gassed them in a Hefty bag behind the garage. On hot summer afternoons, Leslie and I helped ourselves to whatever was ripe, savoring the unwashed taste of sun on the warm treats we found. Long after we had moved on to something else we could hear my mother shouting from the garden, “Who ate all the snow peas and left their chewed up shells right on the walkway? You girls come here right now!” When we got back to the garden, we inevitably found our mother, standing with one hand on her hip the other holding a trowel, stripped down to nothing but her Maidenform bra, some cotton shorts and a pair of sneakers. “We were going to have those for dinner!” she said.




Both avid gardeners, my parents spent a great deal of time planning, plotting, planting and ordering around a whole posse of yard boys—all big, strong athletic high school kids —who lurked about the property pushing wheelbarrows, weeding, and spreading mulch on weekends between May and August each year. It was an enormous amount of work to maintain and it was expected that Leslie and I would help despite our lack of interest in anything except the high school boys. We were too young to capture their interest, so to see if we could get their attention, we offered to fix their lunches for our mother, who was astonished at our willingness to pitch in. It was Leslie’s idea to shake a thick layer of black pepper onto their tunafish sandwiches and lace their Cokes with heaping tablespoons of salt. When they stopped for lunch, we watched them wolf down their food from a distance, waiting in giddy anticipation for one of them to gag or spit a mouthful of Coke into the grass. But they didn’t notice anything wrong with their food, and certainly didn’t notice the two of us.


At 8_Rope ladderone point my grandfather brought over a rope ladder—an apparatus made of two thick pieces of rope connected by 20 or so wooden rungs. He and my father, who never once tried to climb it, tied it to the branch of a large red maple and secured it a huge stake they drove into the ground about 15 feet away. It was one of those impossible ladders that carnival people set up as a big profit center, charging five dollars for each futile attempt at reaching the top. It required perfect balance and pressure from both hands and feet applied at exactly the right time to avoid flipping over. My mother was an expert at climbing it. After watching umpteen neighborhood kids flip over on their backs after reaching only the fourth rung, she would eventually emerge from the back door by the kitchen in her Bermuda shorts, penny loafers and knee socks, slamming the screen door behind her and shout, “Let me show you kids how it’s done.” Then she’d scramble right up to the top rung, dramatically twirl herself over and drop to the ground landing softly on her feet like gymnast or a trapeze artist.



My 9_Bird of paradise father always had a big project going. One of his early installations was a greenhouse he attached to the south side of the house built from a kit he had found in a catalog. It was connected to a winterized porch where he kept his marble topped liquor cabinet filled with single malt scotches and gin. In the summertime, the greenhouse was mostly empty, its potted plants all moved outdoors to various patios and decks. In the winter it was humid and earthy smelling, crammed full of fragrant gardenias, brilliant hibiscus and passion flowers, citrus trees laden with fruit, and one moribund bird of paradise plant that had belonged to my grandmother before she died.

“This god damn thing takes up too much space,” my father said whenever faced with the prospect of moving it either indoors or out. “It’s nothing but a nuisance – it has never once bloomed.” But my mother insisted that we keep it despite its apparent deficiencies. “We can’t get rid of that, it belonged to my mother!” And then one day, exactly seven years after my grandmother’s death, without any forewarning, the plant produced not one, but seven brilliant orange and blue flowers, and it continued to blossom for years after.



On my sixth birthday, during my party with sparkly hats, favors and an extravagant scavenger hunt all carefully orchestrated by my mother, my brother Stephen who was three, climbed high into the huge white pine tree zig-zagging from branch to branch until he eventually fell out of it and thumped onto the thick bed of pine needles 20 feet below. The fall knocked the wind out of him, during which time the party came to a gasping halt. There was no blood, but for the rest of the day, my mother could not stop talking about what kind of idiot would leave a garden hoe lying on the ground, its sharp point facing straight up less than a foot from where Stephen’s head had landed.






One summer when I was in my teens, my father surprised my mother by suggesting that she take my sister Leslie and me to Chicago for a girls’ weekend. “I’ve had my secretary arrange for you to stay at the Drake Hotel,” he said. “There’s a Manet show going on at the Art Institute and maybe you girls can do some back-to-school shopping.” The offer seemed suspicious, but wasn’t something any of us was about to refuse. When we returned home we discovered that my father had installed a new balcony with French doors right off the side of my parents’ bedroom and my mother was enraged. Months before our girls weekend in Chicago, she thought she’d put an end to it. “I don’t want a balcony,” she had said. “I don’t want to sit out there in in my robe. You’re just going to make a huge mess.”



12_Short Sheet Bed

One of my father’s early projects was to convert the garage, a standalone structure oddly situated behind the house, into a guest house. He took me with him on scouting missions to find wood siding and hand cut beams from dilapidated barns way out in the countryside. He put radiant heating beneath the flagstone floors, installed a wood stove and set up a stereo system where we kids could play our awful rock music out of his ear shot. The Little House, as we called it, afforded us a level of freedom and privacy we probably didn’t deserve. One afternoon I was out there sprawled across the sofa blaring the radio when my mother burst through the side door with an armful of bed linens. “John McGoff is coming for dinner and to spend the night,” she said. Mr. McGoff was my father’s most important client. So we unfolded the sofa bed and stretched the fitted sheet across the mattress. We spread the top flat sheet over it and as I began to tuck the bottom edge in my mother said, “No, not like that. Tuck in the top edge first. We’re going to short sheet the bed.”




Over the years, my family developed a summertime ritual. Every evening at dusk, just as we finished supper by the pool, we gathered at the edge of my mother’s perennial garden to watch her evening primroses bloom. The plants themselves looked like nothing more than a roadside weed, but in my mother’s garden they were one of the main attractions. As soon as one of the buds began to twitch, my mother shouted, “Look, they’re starting!” as if we weren’t kneeling right there next her and were in danger of missing the show. It took less than a minute for each bud to unfurl itself into a simple yellow blossom. It was like watching a time-lapsed film, only this was in magical, marvelous, real time. And as soon as all the primroses had bloomed, my mother would look at whoever had lingered the longest and say, “It’s your night to do the dishes. I’m going take a swim.”

Several years after I was married and living Connecticut, my parents abruptly decided to sell the house and move to Wyoming. My last weekend there was spent sorting through things, deciding what to do with nearly 30 years of stuff. Before leaving for the last time, my mother helped me dig up one of her evening primroses and pack it in small paper lunch bag to take back to my pathetic, deer-ridden garden in Connecticut. I cried the whole way back on the plane, staring out the window as we flew east into the darkness. When we landed and I gathered my things, I discover that the evening primrose, knowing it was time, had bloomed in its bag.


Christine Juneau lives in Weston, Connecticut with her husband and two children.  She is Brain, Child’s staff artist. A former investment research executive, she now works as a business advisor when not painting, writing and drawing cartoons.  You can see some of her work on her cartoon blog at







005_Zappier_5138 copy

Something about that quiet companionship in the dark was a comfort to us as children, and again as mothers, too.


When you stop sleeping, really stop sleeping except for forty-five minutes or an hour at a time, your eyes have to work harder to focus. Your muscles feel like gelatin. Your hands shake. And when you haven’t slept, and the small vulnerable thing that is your few-weeks-old child settles on your chest, radiating warmth into your sore muscles, whispering tiny warm breaths onto your tired skin, it is really, really hard to stay awake.

Night after night, for Liddy’s first months, my husband and I took shifts holding her up straight and still, to minimize her reflux and let her digest the calories she so desperately needed. When my turn came, I would sit on the couch with my knees pulled to my chest and cradle her there against me, keeping her body, and mine, upright, trying to stay awake, praying she wouldn’t slide off onto the floor or press her tiny nose and mouth into me and stop breathing.

My sister Megan had diagnosed Liddy’s reflux before the doctors, hearing her pained gulps and grunts through the phone. Megan’s own daughter, Corinne, was born just ten weeks before Liddy; Corinne’s reflux was confirmed when she stopped breathing in her car seat and went to the hospital in an ambulance. So the girls shared the same illness, the same long nights. And Megan and I were on similar schedules, up every hour or two to feed, hold, and soothe. We held them for thirty minutes, an hour, or sometimes, for the rest of the night.

This was in the time before texting and smartphones, so first Megan and I tried keeping each other company through email. But it was difficult to keep Liddy upright and still while I typed, and the keyboard’s clicking and the blue glow of the screen made her restless. The murmurs of my voice relaxed her, though, so Megan and I developed a system. We set our cell phones to vibrate and kept them beside us through the night. We could call each other without the risk of disrupting our rare opportunities for sleep.

Our late-night phone calls came to resemble our childhood sharing a bedroom, whispering to pass the time when we should have been asleep. Even after our older siblings moved out, leaving us with our own bedrooms, Megan continued to stay in my room at night. Something about that quiet companionship in the dark was a comfort to us as children, and again as mothers, too.

When Liddy did sleep, I’d sometimes wake to a missed call message, then check my email to find a hastily written message right in the subject line: “HELP. Up all night no sleep.” Or, “To Liddy from Corinne. You up?” OR, “WAIT WAIT do not call. Cannot find cell phone and ringer is on.”

“Daylight savings time is going to screw us,” Megan said once. “We’re not frigging farmers.”

I burst out laughing.

“Stop!” she said. “You are going to shake her.”

We talked about the girls’ health, about our toddler boys’ antics, but mostly we spoke about mundane, silly things. But often, we just relaxed into silence punctuated by the girls’ shallow breathing as they relaxed into sleep.

“Is she asleep?” One of us would say, eventually.

“Yeah. I think I’ll try to lay her down.”

“Bye,” we’d whisper, and hang up. We’d release our finally-settled babies from our tired arms, and fall into our own brief sleep before it was time to start again.

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Megan Dempsey


By Laura Lassor

I’m driving to swimming lessons.
Late afternoon, summer.
When I think of it now, everything slows
and the sun drips like syrup.

The windows are down,
the day whooshing against our skin.
My son wants to know so many things.
He tries,”You stopped growing, Mom.
So you aren’t getting older anymore.”

We’ve just passed the iron fence of the cemetery.
He is five and knows and doesn’t know
what is sunk below rolling lawn, gracious rows of etched stone.

My voice corrects him: “No, I am getting older,”
but now we are curving past the lake,
where sails sway red and yellow, and if time
could stretch it might be here, in the shallows
where kids’ slick heads bob among the boats
like shiny toys strewn.

Next he asks me, “What’s invisible?”
I say oxygen. He says carbon dioxide.
I say love. He says germs.

The cars flow like rainwater.
There is so much to explain.
I talk about microscopes,
the difference between invisible
and too-small-to-see.
He is happy. He trusts in a machine
or a medicine for everything.

Then we’re at the pool,
and he’s immersed, shivering.
His small limbs won’t surrender
to his idea that he’ll float.
He kicks, coughs, and
behind goggles half-filled with water,
he finds me.

I am on my folding chair, looking back.
There are so many ways we are helpless.
There are so many afternoons like this
invisibly nudging us forward.

Laura Lassor is a lawyer, writer and improvisational parent living in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband Joel and her two sons, Clark and David.

Return to the October 2015 Issue

Author Q&A: Mai Wang

Author Q&A: Mai Wang

Mai HeadshotMai Wang is the author of the story of The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy, which appeared in our October 2015 issue.  We connected with her about the writing process. Here are her responses.

What inspired you to write The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy?

I was born in Beijing and moved to Miami when I was a child, where I grew up in a Chinese community. Potluck dinners and late-night poker games were frequent occurrences as people tried to create a “big family” to replace the ones they had lost. Naturally, my childhood provided me the material for this story, though the characters and plot are semi-fictionalized. I wanted to capture both the lively group dynamic of immigrant life and the hidden loneliness of the individual immigrant experience through a young girl’s perspective.

What was the greatest challenge in writing it?

Reimagining parts of my childhood proved to be an immensely difficult task–first, I had to remember how certain foods tasted, how people dressed, and how they spoke to each other. Next, I had to transform those sensory impressions into a legible storyline. Also, since the story is semi-autobiographical, I worried about revealing too much about my own family and our vulnerabilities. But finally I decided to go ahead and risk publication.

How do you balance writing and your other commitments?

I’m currently pursuing my PhD in English at Stanford, where I am in the fortunate position of being able to structure most of my own time. I try to write in the mornings before classes. Every day, I wake up feeling incredibly privileged to be able to read, write, and think with no constraints on my intellectual or personal freedom. Despite the struggles that my family went through, I know that we ultimately made the right decision by moving to the US.

Return to the October 2015 Issue

A Ghost in My Neighborhood

A Ghost in My Neighborhood

A Ghost on the Neighborhood ARTBy Leslie Kendall Dye

Last month the woman was standing in front of the vintage shop a few blocks from my apartment. She was rocking continuously and her back was bent at an alarming angle. I heard her singing—it was a tune I recognized. My own child was dashing down the street, but I called after her—”Do you remember that song? I used to sing it to you!”

The woman turned toward me and I saw a baby—about seven months old—was snuggled into the woman’s chest, wrapped in the secure folds of a wrap made of soft Jersey fabric. She was putting the baby to sleep.  I remember that time, I thought. I smiled at her, trying to tell her that I had been there, and that I envied her the simplicity of that moment with her baby. I envied the waves of oxytocin flooding her precariously tilted frame. She didn’t smile back, because she didn’t see me.

My own child is now close to four years old and in a matter of weeks she’ll enter a society larger than the one between parent and child: preschool. I am so very ready for it, as is she. Both of us need more than each other now to pass our days productively and to be stimulated. Both of us need a few hours not intertwined but sailing toward separate adventures. Both of us want friends our own age. Still, I cried bitterly when we signed the paperwork for school. My daughter will have a teacher and a cubby hole and things will happen to her during the day that I will not bear witness to. In four years, there is little for which I have not been present.

As we rush headlong toward this new era, I luxuriate in watching another woman in the neighborhood who has a five month old. I don’t want to go back—yes, babyhood races by quickly, but it is also slow and exhausting and besides, I lived it fully—as best I could.

We had such fun. We took so many naps together. We jumped in so many leaves. We nursed for so long.

I started seeing the new mother in the neighborhood a few months ago. I can tell this is her first baby. She gazes at the reflection of mother and child as she walks by windows. She points to her baby’s face and the baby laughs and bobs in the carrier. I remember how the little legs kick with delight and the arms flap with expressive glee. Maybe the baby has one or two words by now.

I saw her in a bookstore a few weeks ago. Her child seems to grow unusually fast; she’s already standing up. She was with a friend and the friend tried to walk the baby on her legs by holding up her arms. The mother grew alarmed.

Never hold a baby by the arms to help her walk! She has to build her musculature by walking on her own and only when she’s ready!”

I was surprised, because I too had guarded my child’s physical development ferociously. I’d read that it was bad for a baby’s hips to stand her up and “walk her.” I almost approached the mother and asked if she’d read the same book—she was the first parent I’d heard espousing the same idea—but I didn’t want to seem interfering or crazy.

Instead, I turned to my four-year-old and told her that she had shown no interest in walking until she was thirteen months old; she tore a lot of holes in her pants while crawling at the speed of light.

“Mama,” she said, with a hint of teenage exasperation, “You’ve told me that before.” And then we went back to reading Frog and Toad, because I had refused to read her that awful princess book.

Yesterday I saw the mother in Central Park. The baby had mastered walking. They were by the Alice in Wonderland statue that my toddler and I had visited many times. There was a pile of leaves and the baby was jumping and crunching the leaves and shouting “again!”

I sat on the stone ledge by the boat pond. I called out to the woman “My daughter used to love climbing Alice!”

A cool wind swept by, chilling me. Strange for August, I thought. I then noticed that the mother and child were dressed for an autumn day. Maybe they’d left the house in the cool of early morning and had yet to shed their cardigans. I remembered arriving at the park at five-thirty in the morning, seeking amusement at ungodly hours when my own baby had awakened and announced the start of the day.

Mothers of babies must get so tired of people wanting to re-live the baby days. People are always talking to them, trying to chat with their babies. I wonder if they think: you had your turn. Please stop telling me how quickly it goes. Stop telling me to enjoy my baby. I am enjoying her, can’t you see that?

She didn’t pay any attention to me. She strapped her child into a Beco carrier built for toddlers.  She then gathered a swaddling blanket around the baby’s legs the way I used to do when the wind picked up and we had a long walk home. She walked right past me, in a hurry, talking to her baby about dinner and a bath. I looked back at the boat pond. The leaves must have scurried past as well because the August sun was once again shining on a bare, hot ground.

Occasionally I follow her. She goes down to the playgrounds in Riverside Park. I often guess where she’ll be and I find her, just to catch a glimpse of her playing with her child.

I saw her on one of my favorite blocks the other day. She was standing under a pear blossom tree in full bloom, brownstones flanking her. She was telling her child that it was nap time. Her daughter wanted to nurse right there on the street, but she’d grown too big for that.

I wanted to tell the mother that I often gave in even when my child got big enough to wait; I’d nurse her right on that very same brownstone stoop, because the pear blossoms were so pretty, and because why not? Before I knew it, she would not be interested in nursing so why not slow time by enjoying every moment?

When I got to the tree, the woman had begun packing up.

She’s avoiding me, I realized.

I must have imagined the pear blossoms, because I was standing under the green and parched-brown leaves of midsummer by the time I’d crossed the street. I must have been confused because of a memory of my child standing under the pear blossoms and asking to nurse.

And speaking of my child, I needed to get home. I hurried to our apartment, where she’d discovered coloring pages. I was pleased she’d found occupation, but sad that the structure now appealed to her. A mere month ago she never would have had any interest in decorating someone else’s picture. She would have wanted only a blank page and a crayon.

She’s not a toddler anymore, I realized.

I don’t try to talk to the mother anymore. She is in her own world, her own time with her child, her own stage of life as a parent. She doesn’t need my nostalgia. Before she knows it, her child will be begging for school and friends and climbing to the top of the jungle gym and swinging from the monkey bars. Let her enjoy this time with no reminder that it will pass one day. She already knows. I’m certain she already knows. I can tell by how consumed she seems to be with motherhood.

She is not in a rush, this mother.

Still, when it comes upon her, she will not be prepared. She may know that, but it won’t help.

There will be a rupture, and she will feel it coming, the way labor pains come on to alert you of your first violent separation from your child. She may have a few months to prepare for it—as I do now—watching the summer disappear into the lengthening shadows of summer’s end, counting down the days to the sudden change.

Still, she will not be prepared.

I know why she never answers me.

She knows I am there—or will be there when her baby ages. For now, I am only an older mother in her imagination. But she is quite real to me—I know her every route and routine, every bench she nursed on, every path in the gardens of the park along which she and her daughter have stolen. I don’t just know her routines—I remember them.

It isn’t only streets across which I am calling to her, it is time—and that is a dimension through which only memory, not voices, can travel.

 Author’s Note: I have a seventeenth edition of “Portrait of Jennie” by Robert Nathan on my shelf, given to me by my father. If it were a first edition it could not be more precious. I’ve no doubt that the book influenced my own little tale in which Time doesn’t play by the rules. 

Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress in New York City. She has recently written for Salon, Word Riot, Club Mid, The Washington Post, and Off The Shelf, and has work forthcoming at The Toast, Coffee +Crumbs, and Vela Magazine.  She and her husband and daughter are a family that rarely sleeps in the city that never sleeps. You can find her at twitter at @HLAnimal.


What a Summer Should Be

What a Summer Should Be

By Jennifer Berney


Because isn’t it true that on a warm summer evening it’s easy to like whomever you’re with?


When I was eight years old, in 1985, summer had long arms. I woke long after the sun had risen to a day that no one had mapped out for me. It was my job to map it, and so I read books, I watched TV, I put an album on the record player and spread out across the floor to listen. And when I got bored of all of these things, I cut through the neighbor’s back yard, walked two houses down, and knocked on my best friend’s door.

Our play dates were never arranged by parents or noted on the family calendar. Instead, they were spontaneous and sprawling: they often lasted for days. After an afternoon of play, as dinnertime approached, and the prospect of separating loomed, we inevitably begged for a sleepover.

My parents, who valued routine, were likely to say, “We didn’t plan for that.” But Alison’s parents—who had once been hippies and had an open door policy—were far more likely to say “Sure.” On one of these summer evenings their yes meant that I traveled with them to a party several towns away.

I had never been to a party that combined adults and children. When my own parents wanted to socialize, they hired a sitter and went out, or invited one or two guests over for dinner. So far the only parties I knew involved balloons, a small group of kids the same age, and a table for carefully wrapped presents, but this party was expansive. Grown-ups spilled out of the house and onto the lawn. Alison and I were instantly absorbed into a group of children. There were about a dozen of us, boys and girls of various ages, most of us unknown to one another. We never learned each other’s names, but we played together, easily, for hours. We played tag and red rover. We found big sticks and explored the nearby creek, balancing on rocks and swatting at mosquitoes. If we had gone to school together, we would have been in different grades and different social groups. At best, these other children would have ignored me at recess; at worst, they would have teased me for my bad haircut and crooked teeth. But that evening we were free from all of that.

Back at the house, grown-ups did whatever grown-ups did at parties. They drank and smoked strange-smelling cigarettes. They grilled meat. They sang and talked and laughed their loud grown-up laughs. By this time I was certain that my own parents were in bed, asleep.

When night descended, darkness drew us kids to the light of the bonfire, where each of us settled between the grown-ups we’d arrived with. On the long drive home, Alison lay across the back seat with her head in my lap while I tracked stars in the clear night sky.

As an adult, I’m surprised by how often I remember this party, which marked a rare moment in my childhood where time and social boundaries were fluid. I think of it every time we assemble on a neighbor’s lawn for a barbecue and my sons join games with children of various ages. On these evenings I note how the teenage boys are tender with the younger kids. They are skilled at adapting games of football and Frisbee to include my six-year-old who still struggles to catch and to throw, and my two-year-old who stands in the middle and lunges.

I think of this party when we visit a friend whose twin granddaughters jump up and down at the sight of my sons, and they all run wild together. They take turns sliding on the Slip n’ Slide. They sprint down the hill and do tricks on the swings. Away from school, my son feels free to play with girls who wear pink, and the girls in turn are happy to spend their afternoon with younger boys who can barely keep up. When children form packs, when their friendships leave the restrictions of gender and age, their play becomes timeless. There is magic in that.

The rest of our summer is often marked by the trappings of our era. We listen to audio books on the iPad, watch movies on Netflix. These days, the parents I know aren’t eager to let their children roam the neighborhood or swap kids for days at a time, and so I arrange play dates for my son via text message and mark them in their box on the calendar.

I’m fond of all our summer days, but it’s expansiveness I crave, the flow state of summer where time melts and boundaries blur, where we disconnect from set schedules and slip into our own rhythms of sleeping, waking, eating, where friends become family and strangers become friends. Because isn’t it true that on a warm summer evening it’s easy to like whomever you’re with?

I seek and savor such moments for my children—the barbecues and long afternoons on the lawn—because their school year is so often composed of compartments, of school days and home days, of dinner before dessert and two books before bed, of play dates and swim lessons and designated screen times. There is no greater joy for me than watching these edges soften, watching my children find their identities spread beyond their daily to-dos and into the wilderness of unstructured time.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Gifts From My Father

Gifts From My Father

By Vivian Maguire

gifts from my father

I didn’t grow up poor, but my father did. When he told us stories about his childhood, I almost felt as though they had happened to me.

There was the time his father had found a magnetic screen at the city junkyard. He brought it home, and pressed it against the family television. The television flashed over from white, black, and grey images to glaring red, yellow, green, and blue vertical stripes across the glass. For the first time on their living room TV, they saw a rainbow.

Cambie el canal! Change the channel!” my father and his siblings yelled, believing that he had turned their black and white television into a color TV with his magic screen.

“No, no, no!” my grandfather said, laughing, “No puedo! This is all it does!”

One afternoon, at the park, his mother had forgotten their lunches. They were so far from home, she had had to buy hamburgers at a nearby stand. “The best thing we had ever eaten,” said my father, as he recalled how he, his three brothers, and his three sisters had chewed through the sandwiches of fried beef, mustard, pickles, tomatoes, and greasy lettuce on grilled bread. “When my mother got the bill,” he always paused, “it was for five dollars. She sat down and cried.” I would listen to this story and try to picture my grandmother, sobbing in the playground, with her seven thin children trying to console her, the taste of peppered meat still on their tongues.

My father did not tell these stories as fond recollections; the memories were integral to who he was, and why he worked as hard as he did.

Growing up, I would not know poverty and hunger as my father did, but he still wanted me to understand it. When we were out running errands or stopping somewhere to eat, my father would always hand me a few dollar bills to hand to a homeless person.

“Why don’t you do it,” I would whine. “I’m afraid,” I would say when he pressed me.

“So you’re not going to give them anything, because you’re afraid?” he would reply. I thought he was forcing me to give money to the poor because it made him uneasy. It took years for me to realize, that he was teaching me to see them. He wanted me to be uncomfortable, because he didn’t ever want me to ever be okay with just walking by people on the street, not if I had something to give.

My father found other ways to teach us too. When he bought us presents, he never gave us quite what we had asked for. My father always bought us toys that were close to what we wanted. For my sixth birthday, I had asked my father for a battery-powered car. I pictured myself in my pink, plastic convertible, with all of my friends watching me cruise down the block with matching pink sunglasses on my head, like Barbie. When my birthday came, I didn’t see a pink convertible. Instead, there was a brand new white scooter. “It’s not a pink car,” I told my father.

“Those things are too slow mi reyna,” replied my father. “You’ll be able to keep up with your brothers on this. Get on, try it,” he urged.

I set my foot on the flat base and pushed; it was fast. I thrilled and then laughed at the speed, the convertible forgotten.

Another time, I asked my dad for the Pogo Ball I had seen on television. My father bought me a pogo stick—an almost even trade, except that I almost broke my neck several times trying to balance on it long enough to even attempt a jump. Still, I enjoyed playing with it, until like my other toys, it was forgotten.

But one time my child-desire was nearly unshakable when I saw the Julie doll on television. In the eighties, she was a doll unlike any other that could sense when it was cold outside, her mouth moved when she spoke, she could respond to questions, and knew when she was being moved to another room.

“Are we going to get the Julie doll?” I asked my dad as we walked down the aisle at Toys R’Us.

“I found something even better,” said my father, and my stomach fell. I recognized those words. My father had other plans for me, and I would not get the doll I had been pining after. I had been thinking all morning of questions I would ask her, and now I knew that Julie and I would never speak to each other.

When we walked out of the store, I clung to the doll my father had bought me. She wasn’t Julie. She was Pamela. Her mouth didn’t move, she didn’t know that it was warm and balmy outside, she had no clue that we had left the store, and she only spoke when you pushed on certain parts of her body. “I see you!” Pamela said accusingly when I pressed on her blue, plastic eye.

When we returned home, I hugged my new doll to my chest. I took her to my room and laid her on my pillow. “I see you!” she said, as I pressed on her face, abdomen, and any other parts of her body that would elicit a response. “Muah!” her lips smacked as I pushed my palm onto her mouth. “Hee hee hee!” she giggled as my small fingers explored her belly. “I love you,” Pamela sighed when I pushed my hand onto her chest. I love you too, Pamela, I thought as I pulled her into a loving embrace. Being a child, I couldn’t help but believe that I would be hurting my doll’s feelings if I didn’t return her affection. I squeezed her to my body and whispered, “I love you, I love you,” until I began to believe it.

Over the years, I would receive many gifts from my father that would fall short of my expectations, but like the scooter, the pogo stick, and the doll, I would learn to love my father’s gifts more because of who they came from. Of course, I did not realize at the time that my father was teaching me a lesson that would extend into my adult life. Though I would be disappointed when events in my life did not turn out the way I planned, I would learn how to enjoy myself anyway, and to be thankful for the gifts I received, regardless of the form they came in. Like the gifts my father gave me, my life would not look anything like what I had wanted for myself, not even close. But, when I thought about it, I would see that what I had was even better.

Vivian Maguire is an English teacher, a writer, and a parent. She lives with her husband Randy, and their two daughters, Amelie and Penelope, in El Paso, TX. She writes about parenting and teaching on her blog, 

My First Tattoo

My First Tattoo

By Amanda Rose Adams


I’m healing from the fact that only hurting myself so violently could comfort me enough to survive the darkest years of my childhood. So, in a way my tattoo has nothing to do with who I am but who I was.


For years I joked I would never get a tattoo because I wouldn’t pay someone to poke me with a needle unless it was medically necessary. I’d never considered spiritual necessity might lead me to a tattoo.

My friend Heather had one word, “Worthy,” tattooed on her forearm, and I admired it as a bold declaration in a world that conditions girls to question our own worth until we doubt it entirely. Heather died on November 30th; she was forty-one. While I’d considered copying her tattoo for some time, losing Heather made me commit to it. Yet I wanted the tattoo to be unique to me. On January 1, 2015, I had my first and possibly last tattoo placed on my left upper arm. It is the indelible word “Worthy,” with the addition of one yellow and one pink rose.

Twenty-six years ago, I was fourteen. In the glare of a pink reading lamp I discovered some small bumps on my left shoulder and upper arm. Several hours later, my arm felt like my skin had been massaged by thorns. This began a lifetime of self-harm.

My self-harm escalated to include needles, pins, tweezers, and nail clippers. It spread like an infection to my chest, legs, face, neck and even my stomach. While I inflicted injury, I never hurt. The poking, picking, digging, and scraping was all relaxing. The pain only came when I stopped. I was trying to excavate the thing inside me that made me wish for death. I never found it, but I left a landscape of scars, like strip-mines in the surface of my skin. I’m extremely pale, so most people don’t see my ancient scars, but I see every flaw in my skin, whether I’m looking or not. Each mark is like a glowing diode, a pixel of imperfection.

It all began in my upper left arm, so that is where my tattoo went, covering some of my deepest and widest scars. “Worthy,” shouts bold and dark against my pale skin and scars. My middle name is Rose. My yellow rose symbolizes my friend Heather, but yellow roses were also my mom’s favorite flower during her marriage to my father. Dad always bought Mom yellow roses, but he died almost eighteen years ago when he was forty-eight and I was twenty-two. My yellow rose represents memory and loss.

A pink rose (according to many tattoo websites) stands for healing, among other things. Traditionally pink roses represent gratitude. My pink rose is entirely centered on healing. I’m healing from my self-harm and the ancient pain of sexual abuse and isolation that led me there. I’m healing from the fact that only hurting myself so violently could comfort me enough to survive the darkest years of my childhood. So, in a way my tattoo has nothing to do with who I am but who I was.

Yet, I still am healing in the present, and trying not to pick at my skin at all, but especially in front of my kids. Leaving a pimple alone is nearly impossible for me, and I’m ashamed to admit my children have seen me pick at my skin. Now they are entering adolescence and getting their own pimples, and I’m terrified that my actions will teach or worse—have already taught them to be violent against their own bodies.

My beloved husband doesn’t understand my tattoo or how I could question my own worth. I know he loves me, just as I know my children love me, but the lies we tell ourselves as children are insidious. They haunt us well into adulthood. My tattoo is a rebuke to my doubts and reminds me that I was as innocent as my own children are when other people harmed me and when I began harming myself.

The tattoo reminds me to be honest with my children about their own self-worth and about my own. This tattoo, easily covered by a t-shirt, is not a declaration to the larger world, it is an affirmation and a pledge to myself in the second half of my life to set an example of self-care and self-respect that I deserve and want my children to inherit. Some people think tattoos are mutilations, but mine is the conscious art of reclamation from the true mutilation I did to myself out of self-loathing. My tattoo is the final word on the question of my self-worth.

I may never get another tattoo, but I might have the word “Loved,” with a deep red rose added beneath “Worthy.” In Latin Amanda, my first name, means, “Worthy of Love,” and I am worthy, I am loved, and so are the people I love in return, including myself.

Amanda Rose Adams is contributing blogger for Brain, Child, the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at

Shorts Story

Shorts Story

iStock_000003843423SmallBy Tyann Sheldon Rouw

Early Thursday morning, I awoke to a shadowy figure leaning over my bed, wielding a big pair of black scissors. They weren’t scissors one used to cut paper. No, they were the scissors someone reaches for to finish a heavy-duty job, like cutting wire or a chicken carcass. In one hand, my 12-year-old son Isaac held the scissors, the sharp ends pointed down towards me. In the other, he dangled a pair of shorts. My eyes struggled to focus while I gave him instructions.

“Let me cut the tag off for you,” I said. For most people, the first task of the day might be turning off an alarm clock or walking into the bathroom to pee. For me, it’s occasionally cutting a tag out of clothing for Isaac, who has autism. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last. Tags irritate him. Literally. Tags must feel like sandpaper when they rub against his skin.

Still in a daze, I told Isaac it was too cold to wear shorts and watched him set the shorts on the couch in the living room. In typical fashion, he didn’t respond. Isaac struggles to verbalize his thoughts. After he was on the bus, I put the shorts back in his dresser.

A few weeks before, a friend had asked me if we would like some clothes her son had outgrown. I was grateful to be the recipient of such generosity, but when she asked what size my boys wore, I was lost.

All of the tags have been cut out.

After rummaging around in Isaac’s drawers, I found a couple of pairs of pants I’d bought at Target labeled size large. That would have to do.

It felt like Christmas when my friend dropped off two bags of clothes. Isaac was particularly happy when he saw the shorts and tried them on right away. He was pleased they fit. The new shorts were long athletic ones with the Nike swoosh, much more casual than anything Isaac owned. The way he strutted around the living room with his faint smile said it all. He had hit the jackpot.

Every Thursday afternoon, Isaac has respite time at the YMCA. He goes with a caregiver, Lacey, giving the rest of our family some much-needed down time. He never deviates from the routine. Never.

Isaac qualifies for respite services based on the severity of his disability. My sweet blond-haired, blue-eyed boy has gained a bit of functional language in the past few years, but it’s not always intelligible to new conversation partners. He suffers from anxiety. He is obsessed with opening doors, turning on water and controlling meal time at our house, such as who is eating when. He loves elevators and swimming pools. He is particular about listening to a certain song in the van as we turn onto a street near our home. He cleans dishes and watches his favorite TV show every night before bed.

For the past few months, Isaac has been “hanging out” at the YMCA during respite time — eating a snack, watching people and opening doors. He used to shoot baskets, hit the racquetball around, play foosball or walk the track, but lately he hasn’t done anything at all. I tried not to make a big deal out of it. As long as he was happy and didn’t cause problems for anyone or himself, let him be, I said.

Later that day when Isaac returned home, I asked Lacey how things had gone.

“It went well,” she said, as she came inside. “Did you know he brought his shorts?”

“No, we were in a hurry and I didn’t see what he packed,” I told her.

“Well, he changed into shorts, and then he went into the gym and played basketball with a group of guys,” she said.

“You played basketball, Isaac?” I asked, surprised.

Isaac didn’t respond.

“I love it when people are nice and let him play with them,” she said.

“Me, too,” I answered. I bit the inside of my lip when I felt the tears well up in my eyes.

I looked at Isaac, who was grinning from ear to ear as he took a bite of a fig bar.

Isaac doesn’t really play basketball. He’s a great shot, but dribbling up and down the court is not his idea of a good time. If someone passes the ball to him, he might not pass it to anyone else. He might take a shot or leave the game altogether and take the ball with him. He may just laugh hysterically as other players pass, dribble, rebound and score. When he’s interested in the game, however, he wants to be part of the group.

It occurred to me that perhaps he dug out those scissors and woke me up this morning because he wanted to play with the other guys. I bet he thought if he looked more like them – everyone wears these long athletic shorts – he could more easily join the group. Could it be?

I imagine a group of junior high or high school students looking his way and allowing him to join. I imagine him shrieking with delight when someone shot the ball and it was nothing but net. If the students are there playing most Thursdays, they have seen Isaac around. I’m sure Isaac had noticed them. If they’ve ever seen him shoot, they’ve likely witnessed him sinking three-pointers, even when he shoots underhanded, granny style. Although he’s not running the offense or making an assist to someone who can score, Isaac loves to play. He just does it his own way. It makes me smile. He has a lot to offer the world. People just need to take time to know him – and to include him.

I am reminded of a passage from The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, who is severely affected by autism and communicates through typing. The introduction states, “Naoki Higashida reiterates repeatedly that . . . he values the company of other people very much. But because communication is so fraught with problems, a person with autism tends to end up alone in a corner, where people then see him or her and think, Aha, classic sign of autism, that. The conclusion is that both emotional poverty and an aversion to company are not symptoms of autism but consequences of autism.”

Hmmm, so someone with autism might be excluded because of his communication challenges? Could it be that these people want to be included and don’t know how to get involved?

Isaac likes people when they understand how to interact with him. He rarely leaves his brothers alone. He is glued to my elbow most of the time. He sticks close to his dad. When his brothers are playing and interacting with him, he radiates pure joy.

Like everyone, he likes to be left alone at times. Who doesn’t? There are times when he doesn’t want to be involved, but at least we extend the invitation. Sometimes his anxiety about a situation doesn’t allow him to participate. We ask anyway.

Can he communicate his wants and needs to people he doesn’t know very well? Not usually. There have been many times he’s been at the YMCA, watching people play ball. Perhaps he has wanted to join them every time? Sometimes fetching a stray ball and refusing to toss it back to a player might be his way of saying, “I’ve got your attention now. Let me play, too.”

I was reminded of a flag football game a few years back in which Isaac’s twin brother Noah played. (Noah has autism, too.) As we were loading up the van to head to the football field, Isaac came outside wearing Noah’s football uniform from the prior year. While the game was underway, Isaac ran across the field and stood on the sidelines, happy to be there. He stood shoulder to shoulder with his brother and Noah’s teammates. I’m not sure Isaac wanted to play football, but that day he was dressed for the part. He was wearing the right clothes so he could belong, too. He was – at that moment – one of them. When he dressed like a football player and wore the basketball shorts, those actions communicated more than his voice ever could. He wanted to be included.

As I watched Isaac interact with his brothers in our living room, my thoughts drifted to the events at the YMCA. I am grateful to the guys at the YMCA who included Isaac, who decided they were not going to play a basketball game that was too competitive, so they could include the kid who was wearing the bright orange shirt and the new-to-him athletic shorts.

I hope they understood what an impact their kindness had on my son — and how happy we both felt when we realized he could belong, just like anyone else.

I need to grab those giant kitchen scissors and dig through Isaac’s dresser to find the other few pairs of shorts we were given. I have the feeling he will be wearing them again at the YMCA. I need to cut out the tags.

Tyann Sheldon Rouw lives in Iowa with her husband and three sons. Her work has appeared in various newspapers, and she is a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She is an autism advocate and blogs regularly at Follow her at @TyannRouw.

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The Day I Made Santa Claus Cry

The Day I Made Santa Claus Cry

By Michele Turk

Santa Art“Santa!” my brothers and I screamed, racing to answer the door on Christmas Eve.

Santa Claus stepped into our foyer and handed us each a red mesh stocking filled with sweets. But it wasn’t the presents that we awaited eagerly year after year; it was his presence; Santa right in our home in a small farming town in New Jersey. Santa knew us by name and sometimes even our ages, give or take a couple of years. It made us feel special.

He looked as authentic as any mall Santa with a perfectly rotund belly, except he had the shoulders and gait of a linebacker. It did strike us as odd, even as children, that after he emptied his meager bag of candy, Santa would sit down at the kitchen table with my father and drink Scotch. Their banter seemed familiar. We didn’t question their intimacy or the visits, or how Santa could take time out of his busy flight after dark on Christmas Eve. We believed.

Until the year I was 9-years-old, and poor Santa had so many glasses of Dewar’s he passed out on the floor of the family room in front of the fireplace. When my parents’ were in another room, my 6-year-old brother, Mickey, poked Santa’s stomach. Then Mickey climbed atop the protruding belly and began to surf. Santa didn’t budge. My oldest brother PJ, age 10, and I stared at Mickey jumping up and down on Santa’s belly; our eyes as wide as Cindy Lou Who. Then we all took turns jumping off of Santa’s belly and diving onto the brown shag carpet. We giggled, then howled with laughter. Then, in a daring act of defiance, PJ removed the white beard, revealing what we had long suspected; our annual visitor was my father’s older brother, Frank.

*  *  *

Uncle Frank lived in a trailer park in Vineland, about a half hour from our home, and on the few occasions we did visit him, usually on a Sunday drive, it was uncomfortable and awkward for everyone. His tiny mobile home was a fraction of the size of our three-bedroom ranch house, which seemed like a mansion in comparison. I didn’t understand how he could live like that, while we lived in such comfort just a car ride away.

Every Christmas Day, we joined my mother’s sister and her family for dinner at my grandparents’ house a block away. My grandmother set a formal table and even the children drank from Waterford crystal glasses.

My father was the son of a farmer whose mother died of breast cancer when my father was 6 and Uncle Frank was 8.  My father married the richest girl in town, my mother, and her mother did not approve of Uncle Frank or his lifestyle so Uncle Frank was never once invited to Christmas dinner or any holiday at her house.

“What a shame, what happened to him,” was all I ever heard my grandmother say, shaking her head as she passed bread around the dining room table packed with thirteen of us.

I remember feeling sorry for my dad because he spent every holiday with my mother’s family, but I never dared ask why we couldn’t squeeze one more around the table. I learned later that my father gave Santa a little gift every Christmas, and he “loaned” him plenty of other money over the years. I’m still not sure that made up for allowing him to spend Christmas alone.

When relatives looked at pictures of my uncle, without fail they shook their heads, and said the same thing:  “He was so handsome, what a shame, what happened to him.”

Even now, when I look at pictures taken at my parents’ wedding in 1961, it’s hard to believe that it’s the same man smiling back. It’s still a bit shocking to see the photograph of my parents seated in their car, with Uncle Frank, the best man, on the outside, leaning in. His movie star good looks and seemingly translucent blue eyes, vivid even in the black and white pictures, are what those older folks remember, not the aging alcoholic with a Kris Kringle belly that he’d become.

In my later years, I wondered, how Uncle Frank had turned into that drunken Santa impostor passed out on our floor. My father didn’t speak about Uncle Frank much, and they grew apart, but I think he loved him for the boy and young man he once was—an all-state football player whose college career was somehow derailed. He ended up working construction, never married and didn’t have any children.

I was a senior in college when Uncle Frank died of liver failure at age 55.. My mother always blamed “the bar,” a local watering hole my father and his brother owned in the 1950s. I think it had more to do with growing up without a mother. My father had been rescued by my mother, or more accurately, my mother’s father, who gave him a job at his insurance and real estate company. My parents created a family, one whose children believed in Santa Claus, but knew he’s a mere mortal who enjoys Dewar’s on chilly December nights.

*  *  *

After Mickey removed the beard, Uncle Frank woke up, and began to cry.

“They know who I am,” he said, over and over.

My brothers and I had no idea what to do. We looked at my parents, who were also speechless.

I felt immediate remorse, knowing we had ruined Christmas for Santa.

Michele Turk is a writer and writing instructor in Connecticut. She is co-editor of the new book, Ink Stained: Essays by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Class of 1992.


Stage Fright

Stage Fright

By Monica McGuire

Stage Fright ArtMy mother and I take the elevator to the third floor and make our way down the hall. “You go ahead,” she tells me. “I need to talk to the nurse.”

She says this breezily, completely confident that her thirty-one-year-old daughter knows what to do.  I don’t. I drag my feet. Maybe if I walk slowly enough my mother will somehow get to my grandmother’s room first.

The hallway smells of mashed potatoes, gravy, and mystery meat; nothing like the sweet, yeasty scents of my grandmother’s Kansas kitchen. I feign captivation as I wind my way down the hall, pausing to watch the green birds tweeting in their golden cage, turning to watch the tropical fish swimming to and fro. As I walk, I ponder each hazy country scene secured in a frame as if I might discover the next great artist of our time.

But still I arrive at my grandmother’s small room before my mother. I linger at the threshold, unsure what to do or say without my mother here.  I scan the room: two chairs, a bathroom with the door half open; a window with the curtains drawn (despite the daytime hour); a wooden dresser with framed family photos; and my grandmother lying under a handmade quilt in her twin bed. The quilt is pulled up snug under her chin. I think of greetings past: her wide smile, floured hands, fierce hug and the way she made me feel utterly cherished.

My mother is still AWOL, so I cross the room and sit in the wooden chair next to the bed. It creaks; I cringe. My grandmother’s permed hair is pressed flat against the pillow. Her pale blue eyes, now faded, leave behind a dull and detached gaze. Without her playing the role of grandmother, I feel lost. How do I play granddaughter if she isn’t grandmother?

I need to say something.  “I am Monica Michelle,” I whisper, hoping my grandmother might remember how she used to pray daily for everyone in her family by their first and middle names: John Maurice, Jane Elizabeth, Patrick Michael, Susan Marie, Maureen Ann, Thomas Ralph, Christopher Michael, Monica Michelle…

I press on with small talk, telling her about the weather and the things I’ll do while I’m here visiting our family.

“Who are you?” she asks. “Where am I? Why are you here?”

“I’m your granddaughter,” I soothe.  “Monica Michelle. We are in your room at Catholic Eldercare in Minneapolis. You live here now.”

“When can I go to sleep?”

My mother breezes into the room before I can answer. Like a gifted director my mother coaxes my grandmother out of bed and into a chair, doing her best to infuse my grandmother’s day with activities other than sleep. While I am overcome by stage fright, my mother assumes the role of hair and make-up artist; lovingly combing my grandmother’s hair, then smoothing lotion across my grandmother’s wrinkled face. I wish I knew my role the way my mother knows hers.

The next time I visit my grandmother, I go with my Aunt Marnie. She tosses her winter coat across the upholstered chair and climbs right into my grandmother’s bed, not even asking my grandmother to sit up. She puts her head close to her mother’s and whispers into her ear. After awhile she pulls back the covers, stands up. “Your turn,” she tells me.

I am relieved to have someone tell me what to do. I lie down next to my grandmother and snuggle in behind her. She is smaller than I remember. Boney. Our size feels more similar then it has a right to.

I rub her back.

“Oh that feels good. That feels nice,” she says over and over again like the soft purr of a cat. After a while her foot bumps against mine.

“What’s that?” she asks.

“My foot,” I say, nudging her foot with mine. “Now we are playing footsie.”

She smiles and lets out a small laugh.

“You used to rub our feet all the time,” I tell her.

“I did?”

“Yes. You were so good at it. You took a class in reflexology; you rubbed our feet whenever we asked.”

My grandmother’s body softens as I talk. And though I cannot see it, I know there is a smile on her face. She seems pleased to hear that she was once good at something, even if it is not something she can remember.

We grow quiet and my memories drift. I am 6-years-old again. Tangled in my flannel nightgown, snuggled up with Grandmother on the pull-out couch in my parent’s basement. She knows I am scared to sleep alone and lets me curl in.

I stare now at the back of my grandmother’s head. Taking in each individual strand of her white, not quite curled, hair as if it is a blade of grass, the bark of a tree, or the vein of a leaf.

Lying together my grandmother and I are as close, maybe closer, then the many nights I begged my way into her bed when I was young. But I know this is not one of those nights. I let my mind wander again.

I am eight. We are in Kansas, sitting on her bed. Her long arm slung over my shoulders as her large, farm-girl hand cradles my hip and pulls me close. She tells me stories and whispers in my ear. “I love you,” she says.

Then I am twelve. Lying in bed with her, listening to her advice. “Don’t get married until you are at least 25.”

I took that advice. I remember now that frosty night in January during my twenty-seventh year, the warm flickering glow of the fireplace, and the one hundred guests seated behind my partner and me.

My grandmother wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t invited because my very supportive mother did not want anything to mar our day. What if my grandmother stood up and demanded to know why two women were getting married? I know no one would have thought less of our ceremony if my grandmother had questioned the proceedings, but how would she enjoy it, not knowing where she was and why she was there?

Even now I can feel her absence on that day.  I see the lace shawl I wore; the shawl painstakingly made from the lace of her wedding dress and I try to ease the pain of her absence by reminding myself: I was the only grandchild who wore my grandmother’s legacy on my shoulders.

My cheeks grow red and hot now. I am struck by the reality of my younger, self-centered mind. I wanted my grandmother there even though her memory loss would have made it wholly uncomfortable for her. My ego does not want to own it, but my heart knows it is mine to keep.

Fatigue settles in. Four years have passed since my wedding and I now have a 6-month-old son who demands my presence for multiple nightly feedings. I lie here with my grandmother thinking she has the right idea. Maybe the two of us could sleep, curled up together for a day, or two, or three; my grandmother receiving the human touch she so desires and I receiving the sleep I so desperately need and both of us better off for finding these things together.

The next time I visit my grandmother I sashay into her room; confident that my Aunt and grandmother have modeled everything I need for this moment. I am no longer an extra. I am Granddaughter with a capital “G.”

“I am Monica Michelle,” I say giving her a kiss, “Can I lie down with you?”

She smiles, rolls to her side, and moves over a bit, so happy to be allowed to stay in bed.  I climb in, breathing in the slight scent of hairspray. I rub her back and she snuggles into me.

“What’s wrong with me?” she asks.

“You have memory loss,” I tell her.

“I do?”

“Yes. It is okay that you don’t remember.”

She sighs and moves closer, perhaps happier now that she has an explanation for the terrible feeling that has taken up residency inside her. I start talking, telling her about all the wonderful times we’ve had together, doing my best to fill her memory with mine.

Monica McGuire is a mother and writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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