Column: A Letter To My Younger Self

Column: A Letter To My Younger Self

Letters to Our Younger Selves is a column where readers write letters to their younger selves with insight and perspective.

By Lisa Catapano

Dear Baby Girl,

This is a year of unraveling. Know that there is purpose in your pain. The world desperately needs the wisdom, compassion and kindness borne of your suffering. I promise.

Perfection is a myth. Let it go. There is no right or wrong; no good or bad; no mistake or failure. Perfect is to control as surrender is to flow. Live fully into each experience. Fall and get up many times over. You will discover yourself in your most vulnerable spaces.

Eat more vegetables. Eat more crow. Apologize for the lies you’ve told (“I’m not a virgin”/”I am a virgin”) and for the truths you hide (“I’m a ball of shame”), especially those you hide from yourself (“I’m in over my head”). Humility is strength. Forgiveness is the light.

One day as you walk between the chapel and the library that boundless, blue-eyed man-boy who fills your needy places will declare, “Raisin Bran is my favorite cereal”. With spontaneous delight you will rejoice, “Mine too!” When he fires back “Jesus! Is there anything I like that you don’t?” listen carefully. He’s told you who he is. Believe him. Leave him.

When the mac-n-cheese you’re haphazardly straining gracefully glides into the germy well of the dorm water bubbler, don’t scoop it up and pass it to your roommate. The moment of funny between “the girls in-the-know” will not outweigh the regret you feel as you watch your roommate wretch with food poisoning in the cold and lonely campus infirmary.

Don’t be the girl who skips a semester in Paris for blue-eyed, man-boy. No good decisions are based in fear. Listen to the inside voice pleading “Go abroad!” That is your truth. Your need to be needed is not.

Two thumbs way up for ending your 20th year with a subzero, two mile walk with your closest friends to the local watering hole for $7 pitches of Old Milwaukee and endless kamikaze shots. Nice girls have fun too.

When the rugged, sultry-eyed football player every girl on campus craves walks you home then grabs you by the neck and shoves you up against a wall because you’re not interested, don’t pretend nothing happened. Knee him in the balls. Spit in his face. Call the cops. Women will thank you for years to come.

When you feel misunderstood and desperately alone, wail with reckless abandon. Release your pain. Holding it in holds you back. Surrender brings you into truth. Truth is where love thrives.

Skip the spring break trip to Cancun. No amount of sunshine and cocktails will fill your empty womb. Swallowing your grief looks like this: 5 more man-boys, 3 more devastating heartbreaks, and 12 years of self-flagellation before “her-story” repeats. Know the wiser, braver you will make a different choice next time. You name her Tess after the mother you’ve just lost. Her existence is the love and light you’ve always needed. Your suffering was not in vain.

Thank your mother over and over and over for loving you. Blame her for nothing. Forgive her for everything. She will leave this world having never held her granddaughter and well before the wisdom of time reveals how much you loved and valued her existence.






Disbelief, Suspended

Disbelief, Suspended

images-4By Kelly Garriott Waite

Evenings, just prior to giving each of the three door handles (one front, two back) a final twist and firm tug, to reassure myself that the deadbolts were engaged, I would unplug the coffee pot. As I slipped into bed, my mind would flash with what ifs and are you sures, images of fires and robbers swirling around my head. In order to relieve my brain, I would repeat this procedure, tiptoeing down the stairs so as not to disturb my parents who’d since gone to their room to read and, for my father, to smoke the night’s last cigarette. I’d hear the click as Dad flipped open his silver lighter, hear him thumb the spark wheel against flint. I’d get a hint of butane and know from the faintest sound of burning the precise instant when the end of Dad’s cigarette caught.

Sometimes – not often, for I had learned to be silent – Dad called out after he snapped the lighter shut and inhaled deeply. What was I doing out of bed? I would claim I needed a glass of water, in the kitchen going through the motions of turning on the faucet, the running water blanketing the sound of my checking the back doors one more (quietly twisting, quietly tugging – already I knew that there was something unacceptable about my behavior) before giving the coffee pot plug a glance. Often this wasn’t enough. I would have to pass a hand directly in front of the outlet: Perhaps there was an invisible connection between plug and socket that my eyes had not seen.

After, I would sneak into the den and grab my father’s overflowing ashtray, take it to the kitchen, and turn the faucet on again, watching the cigarettes bob in the rising water. Just before heading up the stairs, I’d give the front door another check, just in case.

Back in bed, I hoped to fall asleep quickly so that my mind wouldn’t force me downstairs before breakfast. If I did have to rise again, my checking turned violent: I would yank each of the door handles and wave the plug before my eyes. Sometimes I would run my thumb against the prongs, stab them against my hand. Here was visual, tangible proof that the coffee pot was unplugged, although sometimes even that wasn’t enough to make me believe.

Growing up, I was uncertain about religion: My mother was Catholic, my father a lapsed Protestant. My sisters and I were raised with a foot in each tradition, a situation that left me divided and confused. But I did learn to pray. At night, I’d repeat Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, an awful prayer – die before I wake? – probably taught to me by well-meaning Sunday School teachers. I prayed as well that the house wouldn’t burn; that the robbers wouldn’t come; that my mind would detach itself from its ever-present worrying. Then I would blink up at the dark ceiling, thinking about the endless black wave I imagined eternity to be.


Shortly after my brother’s birth, my mother nearly died. For days after she’d returned home, somewhat slimmer and with a squalling infant on her arm, Mom complained of a neck ache. The slightest breeze sent her into spasms of pain. She spent hours in our living room, resting her head upon the green card table normally reserved for bridge night. My sisters and I learned to tiptoe. We learned to whisper. We learned how to help care for an infant. I remember watching The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams on television, holding a bottle to my brother’s mouth. As I lifted him to my shoulder to pat his tiny back, my mother turned her head to look at me: You’re going to make a good mother someday.

In the evening of the day that my mother nearly died, my father gathered my sisters and me around him on the couch in the family room while my brother slept blissfully unaware in his bassinet. We almost lost her today. My father swiped at his eyes. It was – and is – the only time I can recall seeing him cry.


Before I turned twelve, I’d convinced myself I had breast cancer, mistaking normally-developing tissue for a lump. I stole the Better Homes & Gardens Family Medical Guide from the den’s bookshelves, reading, under Concerns of Women, about my surgical options. Later, I flipped through my sister’s biology textbook. It showed a breast in the late stages of cancer. For years, I believed I was ill, but I told no one, of course, imagining my slow demise, the horrible disfigurement of my breast eaten away by cancer, and the goodbye note I would write and clutch in my dying hands: I knew it all along. I consoled myself, thanks to Billy Joel, that if I must die young, at least I knew that I was good and so would go to heaven. For years I carried around the fear of breast cancer until it suddenly dawned on me that if I had had the disease, it would have killed me by now.

Every other week, Dad would drop my sisters and me off at the Hilltop Christian Church where we attended Sunday school and then church on our own. I remember newsprint paper and broken crayons. I remember the teacher’s cheeks tinged with pink when she got to the seventh commandment. That’s for adults, she said.

On alternate Sundays, my sisters and I attended St. Joseph Catholic Church with our mother. This, of course, was not church. It was Mass. And the priest (not the minister, nor the pastor) didn’t give a sermon. That long mind-wandering period during which a man stood rambling at the front of the church was called a homily. I remember cushioned kneelers covered in red vinyl. I remember missals with thin yellowed pages. I remember incense and holy water and colorful light slanting through stained glass windows, tinting my legs blue and red, yellow and orang.


After deciding our house was too small for the six of us, my parents bought forty acres of land. We cut down trees and hauled brush. We stacked logs and peed behind the tool shed while our house was being built. We celebrated small victories with takeout chicken dinners, sitting on the plywood floor of the future kitchen of our future home. We worked the land. We made a farm.

We planted a massive garden, too much food for our family to consume: peas, carrots, zucchini and green beans. My mother learned to make strawberry jam, her daughters stirring the pot with a long-handled wooden spoon, hoping to avoid the inevitable splatters. We baled hay. We rode horses. We kept cows and pigs and chickens, whose shit-littered eggs we stole from beneath their warm white breasts every morning.

We walked in the woods, easily jumping across Silver Creek to explore the junk pile, until the beavers moved in, dammed the creek, and made a home of their own.

For a time, my sisters and I exclusively attended a local Disciples of Christ church, my mother having fallen away from the faith of her birth. But after a time, we, too, divorced ourselves from religion. Work and nature had become our altar.


Obsessions don’t just disappear. They metastasize. As soon as my cancer worry was under control, a new fixation began to torment me: Before getting out of bed, I promised myself I wouldn’t overeat that day. But I always did, had already imagined, while still beneath the covers, what I would eat first. A breakfast of sugared cereal, topped with creamy Jif peanut butter and Half and Half, eaten, of course, in secrecy, was immediately followed by a snack: More peanut butter, smeared so thickly on a piece of toast that I could see the imprint of my two front teeth where I’d bitten. I would eat without tasting: A dozen Pop-Tarts, whose empty boxes I would hide until I could safely get rid of the evidence; candy bars from the video store where I worked – I ate so many in a day that I lost track and would stuff the cash register with a handful of singles and hope it was enough; the ten-pound block of Nestlé chocolate my mother kept in the pantry for baking, from which I would hack away hunks with an orange-handled ice pick. After cramming myself with thousands of calories, I was full of shame.

I tracked my food intake, the day’s list always beginning with promise: Puffed Wheat with milk, plum, tea, glasses water, 4. Then cookies, 2 appeared on my list, which suddenly came to an abrupt end. A squiggle appeared across the leftover portion of the day’s page, accompanied by the damning word: binge.

I tracked my measurements, tracked my exercises: jogged 10 minutes with weights on trampoline; 100 jumping jacks; 107 jump rope (not straight). I promised myself a subscription to Shape Magazine, even Glamour if I could reach 125 pounds. I regularly wrote in my journal that I would be totally happy if I were thin, yet happiness eluded me.

I discovered that with Chocolate Ex-Lax, I could eat as much as I wanted and lose weight. I discovered that cigarettes could curb my appetite. I started cooking gourmet dinners for my family and internally criticized them for so openly enjoying food.

Food became my religion. Shame my constant companion.


After eight years of farming, my sisters and I gradually lost interest. We sought boyfriends. Independence. Cars. Whenever I drove home from work, or school, or shopping, I’d have to double back to where I’d just been, so certain was I that I’d run someone over. As the miles passed beneath my tires, I’d check the rear view mirror, picturing body parts strewn about, people standing in the street, hands pressed to cheeks, round mouths around horrible screams. A mile would pass. Two. Five. Even ten. My mind, in this mode, was ungrounded, like a bratty toddler having one hell of a temper tantrum, wailing and kicking the ground, demanding that it got its way. Eventually, I would give in to it, turning around in someone’s driveway, my mind circling as I scanned the road for signs of trauma that I knew I’d never find. Through the windshield, I resentfully watched pedestrians going about their business, jogging, shopping, eating ice cream cones. How could they behave so normally when inside I was falling to pieces?

I kept silent about my driving obsession. There was no easy way to bring it up: Sorry I’m late. I thought I ran somebody over. And there wasn’t a lump. There was no fever. There was, in short, nothing tangible to offer up as proof. Having nothing to poke or prod, nothing to press down upon, I certainly could not be ill.

Eventually, I learned to reason my way out of this driving issue, in the same way I’d reasoned my way out of my cancer fear: I forced myself to drive further…further…further, my mind screaming all the while: Stop!Turnthecararound!Danger! My hands shook. My eyes watered as ten miles stretched to fifteen, then twenty. But then, my stomach would fill with the heavy knowing that the irrational side of my mind was about to take over. I was frustrated and angry and so sick of myself and my stupid life.

Yet I learned to fight back, telling myself that I had not heard a thump or a scream, that I had not felt a lump beneath my tires. I promised myself that I would watch the evening news and if there had been a report of a hit and run, I would surrender myself to the authorities.


Before marrying, I told my future husband I would convert to Catholicism. Religion was important to him. I was kind of half-Catholic anyway, I reasoned, even if I hadn’t been to church in years. I wanted our future children to have one faith. I wanted us to attend church as a family.

At the Easter Vigil, after months of Tuesday night lessons, I was baptized and confirmed and received the Holy Eucharist for the first time, according to the Catholic Church, although my mother had baptized me at home and I’d taken the bread and wine regularly with the Protestants.

My husband and I bought an eighty-year-old house for seventy-nine thousand dollars. Three tiny bedrooms upstairs. One small bathroom. A living room with a hole in the floor and a hideous brown fireplace. There was a dining room with a built-in bench and fabric wall paper. A kitchen with bright yellow tiles, easily dislodged by an incautious tread.


After the birth of my eldest, I thought I had schizophrenia. While my colicky newborn screamed every day from 3 until 6, I put her in her stroller and wheeled her endlessly around the dining room table or sat on the built-in bench, holding her close, praying that she would stop screaming, just for a moment. One day, a clear voice whispered to me: Kill her.

I hadn’t heard of postpartum depression, still wasn’t clear on how to handle my obsessions. I told no one but my husband. I thought that if I sought professional help, my daughter would be taken away from me forever. But I should have remembered the intrusive thoughts I’d had for years.

Sometimes a voice would tell me to drive up on the sidewalk into a crowd of people. I’d grip the steering wheel tightly, press on the brakes, fight the voice inside my head. Sometimes I’d look at a complete stranger, just a sideways glance, and a thought would fill my head: He deserves to go to hell. It didn’t matter if the person was man or woman, child or adult, black or white. My mind chose random targets to mentally condemn. I was a horrible person. I was a sinner. I deserved go to go hell. No they deserved to go to hell. No, I…Back and forth, my rational mind would argue with its irrational partner until my brain felt as if it would explode. But to have such thoughts about my child…I promised myself I’d commit suicide before I harmed my daughter.

I didn’t know the Catholic Church’s stance on this action, killing oneself to avoid harming another. I didn’t care. I would gladly burn in hell to save this infant.


Before my daughters — by now we had two — could get up from their morning naps, I would sweep the floors of the entire house, afraid, if I didn’t, that the girls would get lead poisoning. When I ended in the kitchen, thinking about a cup of coffee and a few moments of reading, I’d tell myself I’d missed a spot and would have to head back upstairs to restart the process. Again and again, while my children slept, I swept those floors, hating myself, hating my brain, wishing for once in my Goddamn life to be a normal human being.

I used to throw away entire meals, so convinced was I that I’d somehow contaminated it with shards of glass or a splash of bleach.

I used to take my daughters’ temperatures. Every. Single. Night.

My husband and I enrolled our daughters in Catholic school at the very church I had attended with my mother and sisters. I continued to wrestle with my new set of beliefs. I confess I have sometimes wondered whether the words of a prophet were actually spoken by a madman, if an angel’s visitation was actually a hallucination.


After we tucked her into bed, my older daughter slipped into the bathroom to wipe down the toilet seat with a tissue. If she didn’t, she knew that a mean man would come through her bedroom window. Every night, she would rid her room of pointy objects and frightening books. She would call down the stairs: Will I be all right? Will anything bad happen? Are the doors locked?

My daughter dealt with her obsessions by constantly seeking reassurances. I gave her what she wanted: A mean man isn’t coming. You’re not having a heart attack.

For a while she was content with this response. Then the obsessions began demanding more. After each reassurance, she sought proof: How do you know?

I just do, I told her. It’s like faith. My own faith was on shaky ground. But still, I told her this. I offered her faith to give her some sort of hope when life felt hopeless.


Before she was in kindergarten, my younger daughter began confessing things: I stuck my middle finger up, which she immediately chased with, Well, I might have. I’m not sure. Later, she developed a strange noise, a high-pitched snort, which she would deploy with regularity. A tic of sorts, my husband and I figured.

Eventually the tic disappeared. My daughter stopped making her confessions. My husband and I concluded that she’d outgrown whatever it was that had been troubling her. We didn’t then know she’d learned to be silent, too.

Because I didn’t tell my daughters I suffered from mental disorders. I told myself that my obsessive behaviors stemmed from growing up in an alcoholic home; that the girls were too young to understand; that if I kept silent, if I didn’t name it, mental illness would bypass them. I told myself, too, I was a bad mother. Sometimes–often–I still do.

Faith and OCD. Both powerful. Both mysteries, one of the brain, the other of the soul.


Obsessions are a set of rules for behavior, different for each person: for me, checking the coffee pot, for one daughter, wiping down the toilet, for the other, making confessions. These rules represent an attempt to gain control over our uncontrollable, uncertain world. Christianity, I’d been taught, also has rules which, if we follow, increase our chances of getting to heaven. Life doesn’t actually end when we die.

But reaching that security requires two different paths. The best way for me to work through obsessions was to learn to apply my rational brain to them. I had to look for proof, or lack thereof: Had I heard a thump? No. A scream? No. Had my tires lifted off the ground? No. Only then could I conclude that I’d probably not run anyone over. Faith, however, required suspension of rational brain: I couldn’t see Jesus in the disk cradled in my palm, didn’t see a flash from the sky as He came down from heaven, but I had to accept that He was there. It was a mystery. There could be no proof.

Obsessions and faith and rationality and mystery and those damned intrusive thoughts that grip the brain. Perhaps, like faith, obsessions require a person to go beyond mere rationalizing. Perhaps both faith and OCD require a person to accept the unknowns, without reassurances; without certainties. Will the house catch on fire? Probably not, but a definite possibility. Does God exist? I can offer no proof. And yet, there is always hope.

Now, when I leave Starbucks where I’ve been writing, I have to return to my table to see if I’ve left anything behind: my computer, my notes, the cell phone I know is in the pocket of my jeans. Clearly, I have not exorcized my obsessions. But their grip has lessened somewhat: I don’t unplug the coffee pot before heading to bed. I no longer drive around the block to see if I’ve run someone over.

I used to hope to become the person I was before obsessions crowded my brain. But I am not certain she ever existed. Perhaps I have always been the person I have, for so many years, tried to escape. Perhaps I have always been the after person. And that’s OK. I have learned to accept the mystery that is my brain. I am learning not to be silent about my history of mental illness. Ever so slowly, I am learning how to speak.

Author’s Note: Six weeks ago my father was diagnosed with cancer. He died this morning. My dad passed on to me his love of hard work. Half of my faith. My respect for nature. He gave me his obsessions, too. The funny thing is, we never talked about it. He suffered in silence. I suffered in silence. Isn’t it time we all started talking?

Kelly Garriott Waite’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Globe and Mail, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. She is currently writing about her search for the stories of both her great-grandfather, who immigrated from Russian-owned Poland, as well as the forgotten owner of her historical Ohio home, an English immigrant who married into a Native American family.

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





Book Review: Are Our Kids Maturing Faster?

Book Review: Are Our Kids Maturing Faster?

The New PubertyBy Hilary Levey Friedman

Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff’s The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls 

Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health 

Joyce T. McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women 

Jonathan Zimmerman’s Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education

Few things in life fill people—adults and children alike—with as much trepidation as puberty. And while the contours of puberty are unchanged, the age at which it occurs and the implications of that have in fact shifted. So how can we prepare our children, and ourselves, to handle these bodily and life changes with grace?

Four books help show us the way, all with a different focus but in the service of helping adolescents develop a healthy relationship with their own bodies and with others. Jonathan Zimmerman’s academic study of the history of sex education gives us a sweeping big picture view of how we got here, Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff’s The New Puberty not only breaks down what happens biologically but what may or may not have influenced young girls’ biology in more recent times, Joyce McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom describes the potential long-term implications of not properly addressing puberty with your daughter, and Robie Harris and Michael Emberly’s It’s Perfectly Normal provide a guide you can have your children read so you can have an open discussion together.

It’s Perfectly Normal first appeared in 1994. Since then it has appeared in 35 different languages and in 2014 its 20th anniversary edition appeared with updates on gender identity, sexting, and social media use. Both Your Daughter’s Bedroom and The New Puberty identify It’s Perfectly Normal as one of the best books to use when teaching your children about puberty (boys and girls alike). When you look at the 100-page book it is easy to see why; it tackles sometimes uncomfortable topics with directness and humor thanks to the beautiful watercolor illustrations, especially the Bird and the Bee who appear on every page. While the authors say the book is appropriate for ages 10 and up, it could also be used for children as young as 8, especially because the best time to talk about changes is before they start occurring.

According to Greenspan and Deardorff, pubertal changes are in fact happening earlier than ever before. But not across the board—and it is one of the major strengths of this book that the authors give lots of detail and measured caveats without resorting to attention-grabbing headlines. The New Puberty explains that puberty is a process much more like a long hallway than a single doorway. What hasn’t changed is that puberty in girls typically starts with breast development, then armpit and pubic hair, often acne, followed by a growth spurt, and at last menstruation. The authors explain that, “Girls today tend to experience breast budding at a much earlier age than girls in the 1970s, but they don’t necessarily get their first period that much sooner than their 1970 counterparts.”

Why does this matter? Greenspan and Deardorff explain, “For girls, puberty is unique. It not only foments a complex array of emotional issues but also heralds the development of visual cues of sexuality (e.g. breasts, wider hips) to a degree that boys just don’t experience.” For these reasons the book focuses on females, though advice offered in The New Puberty about how to build emotional closeness and develop healthy habits can be applied equally as well to boys.

Because of changes in the timing of puberty—to which Greenspan and Deardorff carefully show cannot be attributed to any one change but rather a combination of hormone mimickers in the environment, stress, fat, race and ethnicity, and still other factors (one of the best chapters in the book is Chapter 3, “Nature versus Nurture: An In-Depth Look at Puberty Prompters”)—they argue sex education should start earlier than ever. They offer reassurance in The New Puberty that, “Although you may feel like it’s all happening too fast, maturation is actually a slow process, so there’s time to develop this conversation in a way that feels natural to both of you.” But when breast buds begin developing at age 8 for many girls today, should sex ed really wait until middle or even high school?

Jonathan Zimmerman in his new book, Too Hot to Handle, shows how sex ed has been handled differently across the world and in different time periods. When sex education began the United States was one of the leaders, mainly because of its early investment in public education and secondary schools. Though today it lags behind many countries, especially ones like Sweden, which became the first nation in the world to make sex education required in all public schools in 1956.

Venereal disease has been a driving force behind increased sex ed (note it often goes by different names to make it more palatable, such as population education, social hygiene, human relations, or marriage and family education), like during World War II in the 1940s and in the 1990s following the HIV epidemic. But what has always stifled good sexual education remains true across borders and time: parental resistance, religious objections, and poor teacher preparation. Four topics in particular are seen as taboo: abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and masturbation.

Masturbation is one of the more surprising focuses of Joyce McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom. McFadden, a psychoanalyst, decided to conduct an online survey in 2005 called the Women’s Realities Study. One of the most interesting results of that survey is that the topics women most want to talk about, but don’t always, include masturbation, menstruation, and women’s relationships with their mothers. In fact, McFadden argues, the beginning of menstruation is often the start of distance between mothers and daughters. She wants to enable mothers to feel more comfortable with their own sexuality so that they can pass on that confidence to their daughters. In her own words, “Your Daughter’s Bedroom, is the first book to address the psychological and emotional elements of the sexuality of both mothers and daughters. It offers mothers outward and inward prescriptions for change, because it’s intended to encourage mothers to be introspective and reflect on our own sexuality while learning how to give our daughters the ability to live more comfortably with theirs.”

In talking about It’s Perfectly Normal, McFadden points out that lots of mother’s today give their daughters books about menstruation. However, they just give the books and don’t often have conversations about the contents and answer questions that inevitably arise. So not only does sexual education need to improve in schools, so too does it at home. In order to raise girls, and boys, who are comfortable with their bodies they must receive proper education, support, and guidance from all of the adults in their lives. By being open, honest, and loving about puberty we can raise children who know more about themselves and how to be healthy as they grow and develop over the life course, influencing future generations along the way.

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.


Buy The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls

Excerpt: Nigeria Revisited

Excerpt: Nigeria Revisited

A young woman in the peace corp stays to marry and raise a family in Nigeria.

Nigeria Revisited ARTBy Catherine Onyemelukwe

Chapter 1: Africa Revealed

“Wake up. We’re in Africa.” I nudged my companion Art and leaned over him to look through the plane’s window. “Wake up. You have to see the sunrise.” The vivid red, yellow, and orange were startling.

I descended the steps onto the tarmac. I felt like I’d walked into a wall of heat and humidity. I pulled off my sweater as I approached the shabby, single-story, cinder-block terminal—the Lagos International Airport.

“The American ambassador is here to welcome you,” a man said, guiding me toward a tall, distinguished man standing at a podium on the tarmac.

The ambassador stepped forward, wiping his brow. “One of my proudest occasions as the representative of the United States is to greet Peace Corps volunteers and send you off for service to this great nation.” He concluded with praise for the Peace Corps country director and staff.

I’d had enough of speeches. I wanted to see Africa and Africans.

Palm trees lined the road leading out of the airport. I could have been in Los Angeles, where I’d completed my Peace Corps training two weeks earlier. But when the bus turned onto a main thoroughfare and the trees were replaced by open gutters, which I saw and smelled at the same moment, I could no longer mistake the scene for Southern California.

Some men were in long white robes and skullcaps; others were in open shirts or dashikis. Women wore wrappers and head ties in bright blues, greens, and reds. Several had babies tied on their backs, a few had bundles on their heads, and some had both. It was just like I’d seen in pictures, but it was real, jubilant, and exciting.

And the noise matched the color, with loud voices in Yoruba, English, and other languages. I forgot my tiredness as I absorbed the shouts and laughter that poured into the bus.

I began noticing the ads, not just huge billboards but smaller signs—many handmade—that hung or stood outside houses and along the street, promoting the services of carpenters, dressmakers, tailors, and electricians. “Sew your wedding dress here,” I saw. I spotted, “Consult the herbalist to solve your problem with gonorrhea!”

Then we were on Carter Bridge, the only link from the mainland to Lagos Island, the heart of the city. We were surrounded by bicycles, many battered and worn. Across the bridge, there were more people, more and larger buildings, and all more closely crowded together. Our Peace Corps handler pointed out the Lagos Central Mosque, an impressive concrete structure that dominated a stretch of the left side of the road, with Arabic designs painted on the reddish-brown walls. Its four minarets, tall spires with onion-shaped crowns, stood out.

In another few minutes, the bus stopped in front of a drab, three-story block of apartments. My training roommate, Mary, and I were given a minimally furnished room to share. The whole building smelled of wet cement.

A few hours later, the other volunteers and I were escorted to dinner at the nearby Federal Palace Hotel. Sitting in the lobby’s plush armchair with a cool drink in my hand, I laughed at the absurdity. “This is Africa?” I said to Art.

We were ushered into the dining room and seated at tables for eight with white linen tablecloths and napkins, silverware, and glassware. The waiters, well-mannered and attentive in their white coats, didn’t seem like real Africans. I could still have been in New York.

But the salad made me hesitate. Peace Corps trainers had stressed that I must not eat untreated vegetables. If not cooked, then all vegetables, including salad greens and tomatoes, should be soaked in Milton or another antiseptic solution to kill the bacteria. I glanced across to the Peace Corps director at the next table. He was eating it—it must be safe.

Then came the main course—steak and potatoes—with nothing African about it. I was disappointed but hungry. I had a few bites left when I paused to speak to Mary. The waiter was clearing others’ plates when he leaned deferentially over me and said, “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” I said, thinking how kind he was to be concerned about my health. He promptly took my plate away.

As I watched my last morsels of dinner disappear, I heard the Peace Corps director laughing. He’d seen my chagrin. “Didn’t your training instructors tell you that ‘Are you all right?’ means ‘Are you finished eating?'” he said.

I fell asleep thinking about the contrast between the boisterous crowds I’d seen on the streets and the sophisticated hotel dining room. I didn’t yet know that this was a realistic foretaste of the two worlds of a developing country.

The next morning, we were welcomed again, this time at the American embassy. The Peace Corps doctor took all the men into a separate assembly room while we women waited. Forty-five minutes later, the men came out wearing crooked smiles. They avoided our questioning looks as we went in.

We were warned about engaging in unprotected sex, especially with Nigerian men, which could lead to sexually transmitted diseases. AIDS was not yet on the list, but gonorrhea and syphilis were—the sign I’d seen the day before flashed through my mind. If we were unlucky enough to get pregnant, we should come to him. Given my naiveté, I was sure I wouldn’t need him.

That afternoon, we were entertained at a reception given by Nigeria’s minister of education, Aja Nwachukwu. His home was on Queens Drive, an address that reflected the colonial era that had ended only two years earlier. The reception was outside, with tuxedoed waiters serving drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The minister, elegantly attired in a heavily embroidered turquoise-blue robe and dark-blue felt cap, assured us that we were eagerly awaited in our schools and would be able to influence the direction of education in his country. He had trained in the United States and was very happy to have Peace Corps in Nigeria.

A glimpse of my school, two hours each at the Nigerian Museum and the International Trade Fair, and a reception at the American ambassador’s home filled the next day. In the evening, the Peace Corps country director pulled Roger and me aside. “Your assignments are here in Lagos, but your housing isn’t ready, and your schools don’t start for other week. So you can come with us tomorrow to take the volunteers going to the Eastern Region and the North. The bus will leave at six.”

This was an unexpected treat! I packed eagerly before finding Art, who was posted to the Western Region, to tell him good-bye. He would be leaving on a separate bus the next morning with the other twenty volunteers headed for the same part of the country. With a casual, “See you sometime,” and a quick hug, we parted.

Fifty of us boarded the bus together—Roger and I, the twenty-eight volunteers bound for the East, another eighteen headed for the North, and two Peace Corps staff. I was optimistic about the days ahead and knew I was in good company.

I looked around at my fellow passengers. Most were white, and about half were men and half women. A few already had master’s degrees. The majority had just graduated from college. I was among the youngest at twenty-one.

Peace Corps training at the University of California Los Angeles had been intense. We had classes in the primary language of the region where we were headed and lectures in anthropology, political science, history, and African art. The men learned soccer and rugby, and the women were taught to play netball, similar to basketball. We had psychiatric evaluations, medical exams, and shots against tetanus, yellow fever, diphtheria, and hepatitis, and we were prescribed our malaria prophylactics.

The more I had learned, the more excited I had been to see the country for myself—to experience the political atmosphere of a newly independent country and see the mix of British colonialism and native culture.

Finally I was on my way to hear the languages and see people of different tribes.

Only a few miles from Lagos, we were surrounded by tropical rain forest, dense and lush, just as I’d seen in pictures and from the plane. “At last, here’s the real Africa,” I said to Roger.

“Can you identify the types of palm trees?” he said. I’d forgotten he was a science teacher! He helped me identify coconuts in their greenish-brown husks and oil palms with bunches of red palm fruits. Banana trees had leaves as big as umbrellas.

I was more interested in people than in trees. I stared wide-eyed at the masses of people on the streets of Ibadan, the largest city in Africa south of the Sahara. Two hours later, we pulled into a gas station in the ancient city of Benin. I heard attendants speaking the main language of the Eastern Region. Even though I’d studied Yoruba for my assignment in Lagos, I’d learned to say, “Kedu ka ime, how are you?” in Igbo, and I tried it out, getting big smiles and greetings in return. My language ability was a gift, and I knew it would serve me well for my two years. I didn’t know then that speaking Igbo would help me convince future in-laws that I was a suitable wife.

The sun was dropping below the horizon at seven o’clock when we reached Enugu, the capital of the East. We bade farewell to our friends staying in the East before heading to bed and joined the staff and other volunteers going to the North early in the morning. This time, we went by train, and as we chugged along, I began to understand Nigeria’s size. Almost a thousand miles at the widest section, east to west, and seven hundred miles south to north, it was 357,000 square miles. That’s slightly more than twice the size of California.

I pulled my map out of my bag to see our route. We’d driven almost due east to reach Enugu, crossing the Niger River at Onitsha. Even though the equator wasn’t marked on my map, I knew that Lagos was at about 7 degrees north. Today we would cross the major tributary of the Niger, the Benue River, at Makurdi on our way to Kaduna.

We left the tropical rain forest and dense growth behind as we entered the savannah—fewer trees and more shrubs. Roger pointed out the baobab trees, appearing to grow upside down.

Nigeria’s major cities and rivers (with new capital Abuja)

We saw fewer people. Women were less flamboyant; several had their heads covered.

The city of Kaduna was completely different from the barely controlled chaos of Lagos, with newer buildings and streets laid out in a grid. The volunteers going to assignments in northern towns and cities were happy to use their language skills. Hausa seemed to be easier for Americans; it didn’t have the three different tones or levels of Yoruba and Igbo.

My whirlwind Nigerian tour concluded two days later when Roger and I flew back to Lagos and were taken to the Peace Corps Rest House, or hostel, on the island of Ikoyi, less than half a mile from the ambassador’s residence.

The following day, I met my principal, a tall Nigerian man dressed in an agbada, as I now knew to call the long robe. He greeted me formally in his slightly accented but excellent English. “You will meet the other staff when the session opens in another two days. Meanwhile, let me call someone to show you around.”

An attractive young Nigerian woman in Western dress led me to the classroom block opposite the principal’s office, where I would have my classroom. She was a student and hoped to study German. I was intrigued with her pleasantly accented English. She’d be fun to teach. Was I capable?

The principal gave me the address of the apartment that would be my home for the next two years, Twenty-Five Glover Road. I found Glover Road with no difficulty but couldn’t see any number twenty-five. Since I couldn’t move in for at least another month, I’d have time to find it. For now, I made myself at home at the Peace Corps Rest House. Roger too was waiting for his housing.

With a steward who shopped, cooked, cleaned, and did laundry, we could explore the area when our lesson plans were ready. “We should send our picture to our families and friends,” I said to Roger on our second evening as we sat in our lounge chairs outside, sipping the drinks the steward had brought. I swatted away mosquitoes and said, “We could call this our tropical vacation.” Was this really the Peace Corps?

Read our interview with Catherine Onyemelukwe.

Nigeria Revisited ARTThis is a sponsored excerpt from Nigeria Revisited: My Life and Loves Abroad. Available now.



By Robin Schoenthaler

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 10.24.21 AMI have many strong suits; dancing is not one of them. So the day I nail a complicated backstep on my very first try it’s hard to tell who is more shocked, my dance instructor or me.

My dance teacher, graceful on the floor and off, asks me if I’ve been, um, practicing at home.

Now of course I haven’t been practicing. I’m a single mom with two kids and a job, and it’s everything I can do to get to this one-hour dance class each week. But I blurt out, “Yes, I do a lot of backsteps at home, with my teenager,” and then feel embarrassed when she looks impressed.

Because in point of fact, my fourteen-year-old son and I haven’t danced together in ten years; the very thought of it makes Kenzie break out in hives. Still, everything I know about backing up and backing away and apparently backing around a dance floor I’ve learned while parenting a teen.

When my kids were babies, being a mother felt fully frontal—all that feeding and rocking and cooing. Then, gradually, my parenting became more and more about the side-by-side—walking alongside the kids holding hands, crouching beside them at playdates, scrunching up next to them in teeny tiny chairs at pre-K, sitting beside them at movie theaters and soccer games.

Then along came adolescence, and my side-by-side parenting began to wane. I noticed it first at the mall, trailing behind the kids like a geisha. And every day it happens more: I find myself hanging back or stepping backwards, turning to move behind them, letting them go forward, out in front. I’m becoming a parent who pivots, scrambling to get out of the way.

I’ve watched these kinds of parent/teen backsteps during the confirmations and bar and bat mitzvahs we’ve attended over the last few years, too. They all seem to include a moment when the child moves front and center and the parents pivot and do a backstep. Our neighborhood church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation outside of Boston, holds its own coming of age service every June for kids finishing middle school. As Kenzie wound down eighth grade and began to prepare for his ceremony, I wondered how the church would present this new phase of his life.

I also wondered how I would make it through the day. I’m not very good at these kinds of ceremonies. I’m a world-class weeper, which mortifies my eleven-year-old son, Cooper, halfway to a coronary (the more-experienced Kenzie has come to some sort of grudging Zen state of surrender about mom’s waterworks). Plus I tend to approach these kinds of ceremonies in one of two ways: either endlessly obsess about every aspect of the day to the point of madness, or go on auto-ignore until standing at the local convenience store asking about clip-on ties half an hour before the kid is due to line up.

A couple of months before the ceremony we schedule a family vacation. Just before we leave, all our preparations blow up—quite literally—in our faces. Volcanic ash disrupts travel all over the Eastern seaboard, not to mention a little conclave called The Whole of Western Europe, and my attempts to reschedule flights are flummoxed in the ensuing chaos.

Right as I’m ready to give up entirely and do a staycation week (which will no doubt consist of six days of yelling at the boys to quit playing video games and one day of cyber-surrender), Kenzie takes over. During the course of a single afternoon I watch as he gradually crafts a smart set of Amtrak timetables, sorted by direction, departure time, and price. We pack and depart on a sleeper car for Chicago, leaving old airline tickets in their envelopes on the floor.

When we walk into the train station, Kenz strides ahead, managing the luggage while Cooper and I bring up the rear. It sets the tone for much of the trip.

On the train, Kenzie takes a kitty-corner seat in front of Coop and me; he always does this these days. Does he want me watching his back, or does he want me out of sight? Did this happen with our German ancestors on their Kansas-bound immigrant trains—did they sit kitty-corner or on benches side by side? And did my siblings and I do the same with our own beleaguered mom: Did we cling to her skirts, or did we pretend she wasn’t there?

Kenzie takes to the streets of Chicago like a native, sidling right in with his newfound loping gait. A few months earlier, I’d started to notice a change in his stride, but when I teased him about it (“Quite the swagger, big guy”), he would smooth his strutting out. Not anymore: Wherever we go, his hips go first, rocking and rambling down the street.

In a clothing store on the Magnificent Mile, Kenz homes in on a black rocker shirt. Once he was a boy who wore all sweats all the time, but sometime during the last year he’s become a serious shopper, a clothes hound. At stores I sit outside dressing rooms while he works his way through armloads of shirts. Out of nowhere he has developed his own specific style, and he often knows it when he sees it. There in Chicago, he sees it.

Outrageously priced and über-trendy, the shirt stands in the window and calls his name. Kenz tries it on in the middle of the store and stands with one hip jutted. He meets my eyes in the mirror and after a moment’s pause launches into a soliloquy on all the reasons he has to have it, rattling on about the singularity of this shirt, the way it fits his hips and lifestyle, and how it really is a perfect example of his carpe diem way of life.

His passion (for a shirt!) is irresistible. I end up fronting him the money. I am not a money-fronter (a family motto admonishes that “this is a home, not a credit union”), but I front him the money.

At the cashier’s desk he slides in front of me to chat with the salesclerk about some heavy metal lyrics. Standing behind him I see, as if for the first time, how the soft baby circles of his boy body are evolving into teenage triangles—the base of his neck, the muscles in his calves, the torso tapering more every week.

He wears the shirt out of the store. He doesn’t take it off for three straight days. His arms disappear in the sleeves, the shirt tail bounces with his strut. Every time I see this skinny guy swimming in a big black shirt it takes me a long minute to realize who he is.

He’s still wearing the shirt when we land at the trendy Graham Elliot restaurant our last night in Chicago. It’s got a “bistronomic” menu—haute-cuisine casual bistro food, Kenz informs me breezily, having heard all about it on Top Chef. He orders a never-heard-of-it-before dish. Even before he starts to chew I see his eyes turn inward. He begins to groan with pleasure, and I think for a minute that he is going to swoon right under the table.

The waiter lights up when he sees Kenzie’s response. They chat back and forth about ingredients, spices, cooking techniques. When he realizes that Kenz is both a budding cook and a Top Chef fan, he escorts us into the kitchen (the kitchen!). The chefs gather round to chat with my son; they encircle him. I start to talk a bit about the meal, but then I realize this is all about Kenz and these young chefs; they are there to talk to him.

The head chef—who is wearing a beret in the middle of this high-intensity, high-end restaurant kitchen and is therefore dazzling to us all—appears out of nowhere and steps into the circle to talk to my son.

The light in the kitchen streams down on the tableau—the thirty-something, bereted head chef, the rocker-shirted, hundred-pound teen, the circled tribe of sous chefs. For maybe the first time ever, I consciously step backwards; I want to be in no one’s sightlines. The chef, astonishingly generous, invites Kenzie back for a day of cooking the next time we’re in town. “Help you learn what it’s like,” he offers. “Come on back, work alongside us,” he treats him like a man. He looks him straight in the eye and talks about the unwritten script that is his future.

Kenz floats out of the kitchen. By the time he hits the sidewalk he looks about three inches taller: shoulder blades nearly touching, hips trim and rocking, eyes clear and gazing far ahead. After a pause my boy murmurs, “I can’t believe how long he talked to me,” and the rest of the walk he is silent.

The next afternoon we take the sleeper car back to Boston. Kenz and Coop sleep curled up in the bunks above me; I listen to their steady dreamy breathing from below. Within an hour of our arrival home Kenzie signs up for cooking classes.

Throughout the spring, out of nowhere, he takes over the kitchen. I sit and watch him cook, flinging energy and salt. While he reads his recipes he tosses utensils in the air, flipping the serving forks over and over, then the spoons, sometimes his pie pans. He learns to whisk, and I watch his forearm muscles, every day more defined. He takes to striding outside to yank long stalks of herbs straight from the garden. He tosses half the plant, unwashed and uncut, into his dishes. We find twigs in everything we eat. At least once a week he says to me, “See how my thyme flies,” and I obligingly groan, and then smile and turn away.

Meanwhile, the upcoming coming of age ceremony looms. Our assignments for the ceremony are deceptively simple. Each teen is to write a five-minute speech, and each parent is to present a symbolic object that conveys their hopes and dreams for that child. I begin to speculate about what gift I will offer to Kenzie and what hopes and dreams I want to define.

In May our church holds a special service honoring high school seniors. In prior years I had watched “Senior Ceremonies” with scant attention, soothed by the usual magical thinking that my own kids would “never be that old.”

Now, only two weeks away from Kenzie’s eighth-grade ceremony, I walk right into an emotional pluckfest. The most enervating, chest-clutching, and groping-blindly-for-the-Kleenex moment takes place when the minister cups her hands around the cheeks of each high school senior and says to them: “Aren’t you just something? So now off you go, dear one. Off you go.”

I honestly don’t recall ever seeing anyone outside of a French film touch an eighteen-year-old’s cheek with that kind of tenderness. I begin sobbing, an EmoMom mess, impervious to Cooper’s hissing, “Please don’t sniff so loud!”

Watching those catch-your-breath-gorgeous seniors bask in the heat and light of their transitions, it dawns on me what I want to talk about at Kenzie’s coming of age ceremony: his moment in the heat and light of the restaurant kitchen in Chicago—the first time I watched him carry on a man-to-man conversation outside of our own family circle, the first time I saw him radiant with the potential of his wide-open future, the first time I consciously made myself step back out of his way.

I decide my “gift” should be the restaurant’s eponymous shirt. I can’t buy it online, but in searching for it I locate the head chef’s e-mail address, and I instantly write him a gushing e-mail fan letter. I tell this near-total stranger everything about my son, the restaurant, their food, our church, the ceremony, the kitchen, the light; I believe I also mention his beret, perhaps more than once.

Throughout the e-mail I try to tell him about what it means to see a young son grow taller in a high-end, crowded commercial kitchen, and what it feels like to deliberately move backwards and witness it all.

The moment I press “send,” I am embarrassed. This poor young chef, working night and day, trying to do some nice kitchen tour PR, and what is his reward? A middle-aged mom gushing about some kid he can barely remember. I figure e-mail silence will reign, not so much a guarded silence as a sniffing “weirdo e-mail” non-reply.

But his response pops up in my inbox almost immediately, sweet and touched and self-reflective. He promises to send the T-shirt posthaste. I write back and thank him (for stepping up, for writing back, for not putting my e-mail into the folder marked “fan letter, subtype: geezer”) and settle back to wait. Of course, geezer that I am, I don’t remember to give him our home address until forty-eight hours before the ceremony at which point it becomes a nail-biting FedEx race to the finish.

In the end, the T-shirt arrives safely, as does the appointed day. The kids line up outside the church, skinny, eye-rolling, all dressed up. My boy wears his rocker shirt and truly looks divine. Each boy-child and girl-woman walks up to the lectern and speaks with a clear voice while the congregation listens with sweetness and intent. After they finish, we parents walk behind them, newly stationed in the back.

Each parent steps forward to present his or her gift. One set of parents gives a toolbox, another a Dr. Who action figure. Two different sets of parents choose fedoras for their boys, both exactly the same type, both for different reasons. One mom gives her daughter a prism, a single dad shares a chin-up bar, a couple gives their rangy boy a pie labeled pi.

When my turn comes, I step up beside my Kenzie, in front of hundreds of people, in front of him. I look into the eyes of my rocker-shirted, soft-eyed, skinny-guy son and am rendered essentially mute. Finally my words spill out, contorted, jumbled, the story twists around. I have less than a minute to speak, but I want to tell it all, the train tracks, the dance steps, the rocker shirt, the restaurant, the kitchen, the head chef, the fork flipping, the twigs in our food. I keep repeating the word beret.

I look into my son’s eyes, his gorgeous eyes, glowing part tolerance, part embarrassment, part bone marrow intuition that this is all worth it, part smart-guy grinning at predictable mom (“of course she’s crying, DUH”). I start to sense our new order together. I feel the alignment begin to rotate, and I feel him shifting, too.

From here on out, it’s going to be mostly about that backstep. If he gets a fever, yes, I will step forward. In the car alone we will sit abreast, and with his brother we’ll sit in a circle.

But when he talks to friends I will stand back; and on school trips he will sit behind me, melding into kin group. And when there is a woman—like the girl who pressed her thigh into his during the ceremony’s line-up, don’t think I didn’t see that, you little trollop—when there is a woman, there will be no backness back enough. I will not even be a shadow in the room.

We look out on it together, and then I give him the restaurant’s T-shirt, nervous for a moment that he outgrew it just last week. But it’s fine, and he loves it. We have a quick air hug, and then my mama-babble is over and so is my mama-lead. It’s done.

All I have to do now is what I have to do for the rest of my life: back up and back away. So, I do, I do it, I turn and I pivot. I walk away from him and his rocker shirt, from him and his friends clutching their new gifts, from him and his gorgeous eyes and his smart-guy grin. I go stand in my new place just behind him, while he moves forward, carrying the T-shirt, becoming a silhouette in the light.

Author’s Note: Kenzie still fits in the Graham Elliot T-shirt, just barely, and it’s now got a lot of cooking stains on the front. The rocker shirt from Chicago looks like it will fit for at least another year or so. Cooper’s coming of age ceremony take place in less than two years. I’ve already bought some Kleenex.

This piece is dedicated to Kim Foglia, a fantastic teacher, parent, mentor and friend. Her tragically short life, as well as her premature death from pancreatic cancer, was full of lessons and gifts. On the same day that this essay was officially accepted for publication, I also received word that Kim had, just prior to her death, transferred her “lifetime subscription” to Brain, Child to me. She died two weeks later. She is deeply missed.

Robin Schoenthaler is a mom/physician/writer in the Boston area. She now has two boys in their teens so she is backstepping as fast as she can. Her website is at

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Brain, Child (Spring 2011)


The “S” Word

The “S” Word

By Kathy Leonard Czepiel

For years I dreaded the big talk about the “S” word.

Not sex, no siree. Santa. I feared the awful consequences of confessing to my children that I had fabricated a gigantic lie, assisted by almost every other adult in the world, and fed it to them repeatedly over their most impressionable years.

It all started innocently enough. I grew up in a Christmas-loving family. My father is a minister, so the holiday always began with the four Sundays in Advent and gathered momentum through that dark first month of winter until it reached the climax of a candlelit service on Christmas Eve, at the end of which we’d sing “Joy to the World” and push open the double wooden church doors to the magical night. It was always one of my favorite moments of the year.

Truthfully, my father is also a sucker for Christmas in all its mercantile excess. He begins playing Bing Crosby’s and Nat King Cole’s Christmas albums on Thanksgiving Day, and he actually enjoys going to the mall and being bandied about in a crowd of frantic shoppers. Every year when we were kids, we decorated an eight-foot tree full of chatchkas. My mother wove red and green string around the newel post and through the spindles of the stairway banister. She then hung the more than 100 cards we had received as if they were colorful clothes on a line. On Christmas morning, my father made my younger brothers and me wait interminably at the top of those stairs while he set up his movie lights for the same shot, year after year, of us running down in our pajamas to see what Santa had brought. We never spent a lot of money on Christmas, but it was undoubtedly the biggest celebration of the year. So it was only logical that I would want the same for my own children.

My daughters were born in Denver, far from my East Coast hometown. Our ranch house didn’t have a grand staircase to run down, and we didn’t have a bay window for an eight-foot tree. We didn’t even have a fireplace, but Santa found us just the same. It was quite a few years before it occurred to me that I might have Christmased myself into a tight corner. As my daughter Ellie turned seven, I thought of the summer day when, at that same age, I’d visited my father in his study and he’d taken me on his lap and told me the truth—about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, all at once. I’d cried. Even as an adult, I’d never understood why he’d felt compelled to tell me at so young an age. Until I had a seven-year-old of my own.

Seven-year-olds get jokes. They can tell you obscure facts, like the difference between magma and lava that maybe you knew when you were seven but sure as heck don’t remember now. They understand injustice and feel compassion, though they don’t always exercise it with their siblings. They are fully developed people with their own opinions and their own personalities who just need a lot more life experience in order to successfully navigate the world. To dupe such a person with a story no self-respecting thinker would believe had begun to seem downright deceitful. But I didn’t have the heart to do anything about it. Not when Ellie was seven. Instead, I did what many mothers of my generation do in a time of crisis: research.

I began an informal survey into how people had found out the truth about Santa Claus and whether it had permanently scarred them. I asked the college freshmen whom I teach. Some of them smiled and shrugged. One girl said she was fourteen before she found out. One got a faraway look and said, “Yeah. That was pretty shocking.” I thought I might be sick.

Then my childhood friend Dan came to visit. He has three kids, and seven years more parenting experience than I have. So, I asked him, how did breaking the news about Santa Claus go in his house? “We never really started the Santa thing,” he said. “The presents always came from us.” If only I’d had such foresight.

I persisted and asked how he’d found out about Santa Claus. He and his younger brother, when they were six and eight, wondered how Santa Claus fit through the pipe of their wood stove. Budding scientists, they devised a test. They set a trip wire inside the stove. But Dan is also a philosopher, always considering the cosmic consequences of human action, so he told his mother. She, of course, tripped the wire. And, for extra effect, left a single black boot stuck in the stove. This was her fatal error, for Dan’s brother recognized the boot from their basement. As he told me this story, Dan nodded thoughtfully. “I think he was pretty angry with Mom for a while after that,” he said.

Concurrent with my anecdotal research, I got online and read up on the real Santa Claus. I learned that he was Saint Nicholas of Myra, in what is now Turkey. He is remembered for his many acts of generosity and kindness, particularly toward children, but the story that seems to have begun the Santa Claus myth is about a poor family with three daughters whose father could not afford a dowry for them. As each daughter came of age, Nicholas put enough gold for her dowry into a sack and secretly tossed it through her window at night, securing her future. I thought about how to tell this story to Ellie and bought two beautifully illustrated books to help me. I thought about telling her that Santa Claus lives on in all our hearts, yada, yada, except I knew that eight-year-olds—because by now she was eight—have a healthy skepticism of sentimental metaphors.

That Christmas, Ellie was missing both her front teeth. Aside from the obvious song sung that season, I was terrified of the domino effect. If she found out about the Tooth Fairy, well, it was all over with. I thought she was on to us when she decided not to leave one of her teeth for pickup. But on Christmas Eve, she was heartbreakingly worried about getting to bed on time so as not to discourage jolly old Saint Nick from showing up.

It was easy to ignore the whole thing through the rest of the winter, and into the spring and summer. In the fall, Ellie turned nine, and then it was Christmas again. Surely she must have heard about Santa at school by now. I resolved to tell her the truth if she asked. One morning I asked her younger sister Meggie if she was going to be brave enough to sit on Santa’s lap this year, then offhandedly said to Ellie, “Do you still care about visiting Santa?” My hopes that she would casually shrug her shoulders in that too-cool preteen way were dashed when she smiled shyly and ducked her head and said, “Yeah.” And she did. She sat right up there on his lap with the biggest darned smile full of adult teeth.

I continued conducting my totally unscientific survey while my beautifully illustrated books about Santa Claus moldered in the attic. My cousin Linda, at the age of 37, reported she still believed in Santa. “Have you ever seen a million dollars?” she asked. “Just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” She had recently become a mother herself and had not yet had the illusion-dashing experience of actually placing the gifts from Santa Claus under the tree herself, so I made a mental note to check back later and see how her faith was holding up.

Then, the following spring, Meggie lost her first tooth, and I had a moment of brilliance. We all helped her tuck the tooth under her pillow. When she was asleep, I crept into Ellie’s room and whispered conspiratorially, “You know the Tooth Fairy is pretend, right?” It was dark, and I couldn’t see whether this was news or not. “Come on,” I said. “You can be the Tooth Fairy tonight.” Together we sneaked into Meggie’s room, and Ellie, frightened and proud, slid the tooth out and the money in. Now, I thought, there’s a long summer for this information to stew. If there’s no Tooth Fairy, then there’s no . . .

Towards the end of the summer, we had the beginning of the other “S” talk. Some of the fifth-grade girls were starting to look pretty womanly, and I figured they were going to be shown some thirty-year-old movie with cartoon birds and bees flying around in it. This conversation went fine, but on Saint Nicholas, we hadn’t made much progress.

Ellie turned ten, and Christmas approached again. I was determined to tell her this time, but my calm friend Maureen, mother of four, talked me down. “They’ll figure it out themselves,” she assured me. (She had found out by snooping in the attic as a kid.) I trust Maureen’s judgment, so I let the holiday pass. Again.

What finally did it was the baby stoplight. Ellie and I were spring cleaning. It was the kind of cleaning where you pull out every dusty little scrap of construction paper and abandoned birthday party favor from under the bed and behind the bookcases. On Ellie’s closet floor, I found the baby stoplight.

The December Ellie was three, when we still lived in Denver and hadn’t yet returned East, she told us all she wanted for Christmas was a baby stoplight. At first we thought this was novel and cute, but over the course of several weeks, her answer to the question “What do you want for Christmas?” never varied. All she really wanted was a baby stoplight. We asked every probing question imaginable to figure out what she had in mind. Was it for her baby dolls, or a real baby? Or was it just a “little” stoplight? Was there one at daycare? Ellie responded with unconcerned silence. Santa would know what she meant.

I was eight months pregnant and in no shape to be taking on secret craft projects on the guest room floor, but finally I resigned myself to the situation and got to work. I poked a dowel up the center of a cylindrical oatmeal container and housed it in a slightly larger box with three holes cut in it. After studying local traffic lights, I even fashioned Dixie cups into little sun shades to glue over the holes in my box. I painted the whole thing black, and on the oatmeal canister, I glued circles in red, yellow, and green at different points so Ellie could turn the dowel to make any one of the colors appear in the correct window. On Christmas morning, there it was, the homemade baby stoplight under the Christmas tree.

“Is that what you meant?” we asked. She nodded her head and turned the dowel knob. Damn, that Santa Claus sure was smart.

Now the baby stoplight had been excavated from the darkest corner of Ellie’s closet. She was ten years old, and I’m not even sure she still knew what it was, but it had made the cross-country journey and survived all this time, though quite a bit worse for the wear. I was moved by the sight of it. I sat on the rug and turned the wobbly dowel.

“I want to tell you the story about this,” I said. “It’s one of my favorite Christmas stories. But it might bum you out.” I was in it now. Then I whispered, “Daddy and I are Santa Claus.”

She smiled at me. “I know.”

The kids at school had said stuff, of course. And then there was the website from NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (, for those still mired in the Santa predicament) that tracks Santa’s journey around the world every Christmas Eve. As Ellie pointed out, it’s computer animated.

No need to bring out the books, the “Santa was once a real person” stories. She had grown into the knowledge of the myth herself. I wondered whether later she would have a private moment of sad surprise, but if she did, she didn’t show it. She’d already stepped over the threshold into a world in which she knew a thing or two about politics, race, religion, history, and human cruelties and frailties. I was proud of my growing-up kid, who had sat up late on election night to watch the returns and color in a map, just as I had with my dad in 1976. I was proud of the research she’d been doing on pollution and her insistence that our family be more conscious of its environmental impact. I was proud of the conversations she’d had with friends about differences and getting along and of the questions she was asking the world. She knew it was time to leave pretend Santa behind where he belongs, in the world of “little kids.”

But then I got to thinking about something else that had happened during that baby stoplight Christmas in Denver. And I realized that for the past four years I’d been so worried about the falsehood that I’d lost touch with the truth.

Eight months pregnant with Meggie that Christmas, I’d felt a brand new kinship with Mary of Nazareth, who rode pregnant on the back of a donkey across the desert to Bethlehem, while I wasn’t even willing to get on an airplane. I’d sat in church on Christmas Eve singing those deeply familiar carols as my baby rolled inside me. (That line in “Silent Night”? About “how silently the wondrous gift is given”? A guy wrote that.) The memory from that Christmas which stood out most was of the little party that Ellie’s daycare provider threw. All the children and their parents gathered in her finished basement, and then Santa Claus came ho-ho-ing down the stairs. Oh, the astonished looks on the kids’ faces! In his big sack (usually a black garbage bag) he had something special for each of them. On his way out the door that year, Santa saw me standing there—I was hard to miss—and he reached out his white-gloved hand and touched my giant belly. “Good luck, Mama, with your baby,” he said. In that moment all my adult information fell away, and I felt an incredible surge of happiness as I basked in the fact: Santa Claus had blessed my baby.

Chalk it up to hormones or some powerful psychological hangover from childhood, but for me, that moment was enchanted, as real as the moment when, at five years old, I ran into the living room in the glare of my father’s movie lights to see the baby doll I’d dreamed of waiting under the tree. This is a truth I cannot explain to Ellie, or even to myself. It speaks to the power of storytelling and shared secrets and our ability to inhabit places beyond the purported limits of our world. Being a kid is like that, and who better than Santa to help us remember, even as adults, how to get there? Maybe my cousin Linda, the believer, was on to something. Maybe once in a while, if we let him, Saint Nicholas can still toss a gift through our grownup windows.

About the Author: Kathy Leonard Czepiel’s debut novel, A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster, 2012), was named one of the best fiction books of the year by Kirkus Reviews. The recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Czepiel teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters. Learn more about Kathy at


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