Happy Birthday Baby

Happy Birthday Baby

By Candy Schulman


This year felt empty, her absence just another reminder that she was no longer our baby, hadn’t been for a long time.


It’s the first time I’m not sharing my daughter’s birthday in person, let alone on the same continent. She is studying abroad, drinking sangria in Seville. I’d imagined watching her get carded ordering her first legal drink, 21 years after 31 hours of labor. I’ve exalted in every developmental milestone—until now.

Alone, my husband and I toast to the six-pound-eleven ounce newborn who has evolved into an adventurous young woman. He still refers to her as “the baby” as in: “When is the baby coming home for spring break?”

Not this year.

On her first birthday she couldn’t yet walk. Birthday #2, while a music teacher played songs on his guitar for her friends, my daughter stomped her feet in my kitchen—overriding the music with a wailing, “I want a bagel!” I caved in, quieting her tantrum with carbs.

By four she was a pink partying ballerina who jeted gracefully one minute, exploded into a chaotic game of tag the next. Subsequent birthdays took over my living room with crafts projects. I’m still picking up confetti.

Then came years of sleepovers. Truth or Dare, late-night gab fests, cranky faces over breakfast pancakes. Guiltily I sent them back to their parents with sleep-deprived hangovers.

As a teenager, she went out with friends—no parents invited. We set aside family time before she dressed up and trotted off. In college, she was three hours away. My husband and I used her birthday as an excuse to save her from dreaded dining hall slop, to see if she dusted her dorm room (she didn’t), or ever did her laundry (dutifully once a week, even though at first she didn’t realize that bath towels had to be washed too).     

My mother never made a big deal about my birthday. She slapped together tuna sandwiches and invited a few neighborhood kids for lunch on our porch. No magicians, clowns, or gymnastics. The most extravagant bash was venturing to Jahn’s, the lure of free sundaes served with birth certificate proof. The first time I got carded.   

My 21st birthday, a surprise affair thrown by my grad school roommate, found me weeping in my bedroom because my boyfriend was breaking up with me. Nobody gave me a bagel to assuage my tears.       

The day before my daughter’s 21st, a new driver’s license arrived in the mail. Her official permanent ID no longer screamed UNDER 21 in bold letters. I texted her a photo. I skyped her, afraid she’d be too busy to talk on the actual day. Like a film director she narrated the panoramic view from her terrace, over cobblestone streets and terra cotta roofs.

“One of the world’s best ice cream shops is a short walk away!” she enthused.   

She sounded as innocent as the little girl I used to take to Ben & Jerry’s. We’d sit in a booth with squirming kids whose ice cream tumbled off their cones and had to be replaced, whose mouths had to be wiped again and again, who stirred their cookie-dough and sprinkles into revolting soup even though their mothers admonished, “Finish up. We don’t have all the time in the world.” They did; we didn’t.

“I want to be nine forever,” she once said, anticipating double digits as if eligible for Medicare. “Eighteen sounds so…old,” she claimed nine years later, mixed with the thrill of registering to vote. I’ve loved watching her leaps into maturity, sounding like a law school graduate one minute, a sticky tot the next. But this year felt empty, her absence just another reminder that she was no longer our baby, hadn’t been for a long time. There will still be tears to soothe and tantrums to forgive, but our on-call schedule will be greatly reduced.       

I was surprised yet pleased when she asked to speak again on the Big Day. It was 1:40 a.m. her time. We smiled simultaneously when her face emerged on my computer screen. Her hair was wet from a shower. “Squeaky clean,” I used to remark after giving her a bath.     

“You’ll remember this birthday for a lifetime,” I said.     

Nodding, she sounded melancholy. “It was awesome, but I face timed all my friends back home. It’s weird being so far away today.”   

I didn’t confess how unnatural it was for us too, how much we missed her but knew her separation and independence meant we’d done a good job as parents. As hard as it is to let go, it’s even more difficult to pretend we don’t still yearn to share every aspect of her life—but know we can’t. 

Instead my husband and I broke into an impromptu version of “Happy Birthday,” harmonizing off-key, jumping around like embarrassing parents, our images transported across the Atlantic. My daughter rolled her eyes but didn’t want our connection to end. Usually she rushed off, too busy to chat; tonight she lingered online. She threw kisses into the camera, and we reciprocated. After her image faded, all I could picture was my three-year-old blowing out her candles, as I knelt beside her tiny chair. She placed her palm on my cheek and stared lovingly into my eyes for one brief moment. Soon enough, I was wiping icing from her upper lip, as she protested and tried to escape my grasp.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

Photo: gettyimages.com

My Flight From The Empty Nest

My Flight From The Empty Nest

By Wendy Biller


Nothing really prepared me for the day when my child would go off to college, and I would join the dreaded “empty nester” club.  

We do everything in our power to try to brush it off like a bad case of dandruff, but the term gets slapped on anyway. One day you are a parent. The next day, an empty nester. It takes you back to your most primal self. We birth our children, protect them in the nest, and then they are yanked away from us, leaving behind a path of blood and regrets. No matter how we prepare ourselves, there is nothing natural about their leave-taking.  

Friends and family try to be hardy and forthright and write you emails with the subject line HEY EMPTY NESTER! The exclamation point being the clincher. But I was determined not to fall into the “empty nester” stereotype. I would accomplish this by making sure I did not have a moment to breathe. I would drop my daughter off in Oklahoma City, where she was beginning college, and then immediately segue to New York City where I was fortunate to have my play in rehearsals. I had already experienced this with my other child, saying goodbye, four years earlier. Weeping unabashedly for weeks, venturing off to the supermarket for the first time. Joining the ranks that clutch that box of Honey Nut cereal, knowing that it might never get off that shelf. Discarded, because it was a kid’s favorite cereal but he is no longer around. And you don’t think the others can smell your despair? It’s like a scent that permeates through the supermarket. The scent of the lost tribe of motherhood.  

But when there is a remaining child, you do not join the empty nester club. You are spared from that title. In fact you parade the remaining child around, reminding everyone that your membership in the club is years away. You shower the remaining one with gratitude and chocolate and neediness until they want to kill you. In fact, they can’t wait to leave the nest, almost throwing it in your face. “Ha ha, you will soon be an empty nester. Get used to it sucker!”

I vowed not to let my sentimental side get the best of me when we arrived at the college. That would mean doing things I hated. I hated going to Bed Bath and Beyond where I’d have to feign enthusiasm over a garbage can. And let’s not forget Target, for the rest of the billions of necessities for dorm living like posters, and special tape to hang the posters that wouldn’t damage the walls, or make the paint peel. I feigned enthusiasm for meeting all the other dorm gals, from the sullen hipster from Westchester, NY to the perky church gal from Texas. Back again at Target, I faked excitement for picking out towels, and a mesh shower caddy holder. But then something strange happened. As I clutched my huge bag of popcorn that I secretly bought for comfort, I forgot I was in Oklahoma. The layout of the store was exactly the same layout that was back in Los Angeles, my hometown, with one minor difference. The people seemed kinder and gentler.   

And then I glanced up, and saw my daughter down the aisle. She waved to me. I waved back. The realization hit that she wouldn’t be coming back to Los Angeles with me but staying on that prairie where “the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.” For one fleeting moment, there was a pit in my stomach. But I brushed it off burying myself in the popcorn.

The day finally came to leave. We said our goodbyes, mine behind a humongous pair of black sunglasses. I headed straight to New York City, got on the sweaty trains, headed to Long Island City, to watch the actors rehearse my play. Not one actor knew where I had just been roaming. I even spent two nights in Brooklyn with the first born, who made the mistake of saying “How does it feel being an empty nester?” I wanted to smack him. I was fearful of sleeping with this thought in my head. Luckily my thoughts were diverted when a mouse darted out from the closet. I began screaming and tripped over a rug, pulling a leg muscle. The rest of the trip was spent in pain, which I strangely welcomed.

Two weeks passed quickly. I felt like a vagabond with a suitcase filled with filthy clothes. But I was determined not to get back to LA. Six hours later on a Peter Pan bus, one ferry ride, I arrived in Martha’s Vineyard to talk shop. “Hey Ray, maybe you would consider directing a play I wrote?” I exhausted everyone with my non-stop chatter.  Three days later it was time to leave. Bus and ferry back to New York. There were no more places to crash. No more rehearsals. People stopped answering their phones. There was no other choice. I willed myself to Kennedy Airport where I booked a flight using frequent flyer miles. Sadly the flight left on time.

That night I stumbled in around 1am. The house smelled dusty. Like it had been hibernating for weeks. I finally figured it out. The smell of childhood was gone.

I set my alarm clock. Morning came. I opened the door. Dirty underwear under the butterfly chair, papers and candy wrappers, and a stuffed teddy bear with one eye. But the bed was empty.


Wendy Biller is an award winning screenwriter and playwright. She has written and produced projects for Showtime, TBS, Fox and won the Writer’s Guild of America award for best family film as well as the Andaluz jury prize for her play The Refrigerator that was produced as part of The Seven (Cell theatre, New Mexico).

Photo: gettyimages.com

A Change in Seasons

A Change in Seasons

Putting Winter Away ARTBy Diane Lowman

I am putting winter away with a wistful mixture of joy and sadness; this may be my last winter in the house I’ve called home for 18 years, where my children grew up and my marriage fell apart.  Where I now live, alone, banging around in a too-big space like a ghost, haunting only myself.

I am putting winter away with a ritual I relish.  When I sense the temperature start to change, it’s time for me to put away one set of scarves and welcome the new season with another. I wear a scarf every day.  Rain or shine, hot or cold.  I keep them in a set of macramé-wrapped hanging rings in the front closet for easy access.  At the last frost and the first crocus, I take the warmer, bulkier ones down, admiring their hues and recalling how I came by each one.

The winter scarves will go in the wash together; the swirling soapy rainbow washes the season away.  This relentlessly harsh winter brought snow and subzero temperatures that beat down even the hardiest of us.  I am not sorry to bid it adieu and welcome the seemingly reluctant spring.

Still warm, I fold the scarves carefully.  Symetrically.  And stack them, colors coordinated, all ready to go in the enormous Ziploc bags currently holding their lighter counterparts hostage in the cedar closet in the basement.  When I retrieve those diaphanous spring scarves I imagine they have their own stories — they are happy to be out of the dark; ready for action in the cool spring air.  These scarves, which have enveloped me for 18 years, have born silent witness to my stories.

My mother and I found the light blue one with yellow feathers during our trip to New Orleans to celebrate her 75th birthday.  We could not know then that she only had two birthdays left. “Is it too much?” I had asked her (I count myself amongst the women who need conspirators to shop).

“Not at all!” — She loved it. “You can hardly see the skulls when it’s wrapped around your neck.”  She always loved to have time alone with me and my sister, and it made her happy that I asked for her opinion.  She bought the scarf for me; I knew she longed, like I do with my own children, to take care of me still.

The long, silky teal and purple scarf is from Rue La La.  I never wear it because it’s “special.”   It was expensive for me, albeit deeply discounted.  I have been saving it.  For what, I don’t know.  Maybe I don’t feel I deserve to wear it.  It feels so “grown up;” so fancy.  I have been primarily a mother for so long that it’s hard to see myself as anything else.  With the boys grown and gone, I know I need to try on new roles, but every time I put that scarf on I feel I’m playing dress-up.

Mom bought me the black and grey silk oblong one from China.  The red characters that run vertically up and down its length may offer up some fortune-cookie wisdom about life, which I could use now.  Perhaps the characters outline what the next chapter of my life will look like, but the message is shrouded in mystery. I can no more decipher them than I can make my future out in my mind’s cloudy crystal ball.

After I put the winter scarves away, I arrange the light spring ones by color as well, fold them into thirds and hang them in the woven rings in the front of the closet, ready for spring.  I am well aware that when the next crisp fall chill fills the air I might be storing these wispier wraps in another home, another place.

At each transition I shed scarves that no longer serve me like a snake molts skin it outgrew, and does not look back.  I try not to get caught up in the sentimentality of their stories.  I wish I could look toward this new phase of life with such serpentine aplomb.   I try to adhere to the adage of “If you haven’t worn it in a year, toss it.” But for each one I jettison, I buy a new one, and create a new story.

As I will have to when this house sells; already there is an offer to a new family to buy the space we’ve largely vacated and I’m mostly just heating and cooling.  I wander through the rooms now, scavenging for items I can donate in an effort to lighten the load.

I have made so many trips to Goodwill of late that they know me. “Thank you for supporting our mission,” they smile and wave as I drive away, sure that I’ll be back soon.

What must they think of my life’s leftovers?  My items are junk to them but each speaks of my life’s moments. Of the endless hours I spent building K-nex creations with the boys  when their dad walked out, to distract them and myself.  Of fingers that bled sewing the gold and brown toile cushion covers and matching pillows of the small bench myself, that I love, but no longer need.  There’s no one to sit on it any more.

I don’t donate my scarves, I will keep my stories; they are inside of me, not forgotten in this house. I look to that moment when the house sells with an ever-changing combination of liberating anticipation and crushing dread. And as I sit on the floor folding and stowing, I wonder what these lighter scarves and the years to come have in store.

Author’s Note: Facing the empty nest can be challenging, emotional, and exhilarating, especially when you are doing it as a single person and not a couple.  Selling a home, moving and having your children leave home really add up on the stress scale.  But such change can also present wonderful opportunities for personal growth and development.

Diane is a single mother of two young adult men, currently living in Westport, CT.  In addition to writing, she teaches yoga, provided nutritional counseling, and tutors Spanish.  She is looking forward to what’s next.


Our Tearless Graduation

Our Tearless Graduation

Start-Making-Necessary-Preparations-for-Graduation-600x338By Jennifer Magnuson

For several weeks I have scrolled through a Facebook feed teeming with high school graduation announcements and party planning as all around me friends and acquaintances prepare for their teenagers to matriculate soon. Parents post sepia-toned pictures of pig-tailed toddlers, little faces painted in first birthday cakes and slightly blurred evidence of inaugural attempts without training wheels, all complete with nostalgic commentary and cries of My baby is leaving us and Where have the years gone? Those with younger children comment, supportively echoing the sentiment to freeze time—to keep their own small children in situ—in an effort to avoid the looming empty nest. Amidst the festivities, upcoming barbecues and open houses hangs a heavy cloud of grief, a palpable mourning for an era that is gone, or near as much, and can never be replaced. I hold the invitations to graduation parties in my hands, some more thoughtfully curated than the ones for my wedding. My friends and neighbors host parties and post mini-movies on social media where I watch video montages set to tear-jerking songs; all of this makes me feel as if I am reading obituaries of childhood.

I live among friends who have chosen a life that has held their families in one place, instead of moving around the country—and world—as we have done until quite recently. I too have the photos from preschool, birthday parties and school concerts to post, but don’t feel a part of the pack because our players and backdrops haven’t been the same from milestone to milestone as we moved, from Washington to Idaho, Georgia, Tennessee, Arizona, India, Abu Dhabi. It never bothered me before the way it does now, looking at split-screen Instagram pictures; on the left, twin gap-toothed grins from the first day of kindergarten, on the right, a shot of the same friends in the same pose, caps and gowns signaling graduation day. The biggest indicator of the passage of time, aside from the obvious, is the significantly larger flowering hydrangea in the background. While I celebrate that my kids have endured the obligatory snapshots taken everywhere from the mountains of the American West to the sands of the Middle East, right here and now I wonder what it would be like for them to have known the same friends, neighbors, and yes, even the same hydrangea bush, for all of their school years.

Here is where we get to my soft spot. The tender place where I feel most conflicted, where I, too, feel sentimental and bittersweet about the looming transitions ahead. I also wonder how something that I once felt would remain forever can up and disappear. There remains, however, for me a disconnect as I reflect on our unique path to graduation.

The oldest two of our five children, Chloe and Maddie, will graduate this month. In a few short weeks they will finish high school—Chloe a year early—after having spent the bulk of the past five years being educated overseas. Chloe chose to spend her last semester here in the United States, enrolling in a local school after our return from the Middle East. Maddie completed her final three remaining classes online so that her diploma still bears the name of the international school she attended in Abu Dhabi. For Chloe, her decision meant spending less than six months in a school surrounded by people who grew up together; their journey more of an unbroken, straight line to the finish, Pomp and Circumstance marking the finite “end.” In this setting, Chloe felt unmoored and disconnected, her first taste of being the square peg.

Because we chose a non-traditional path, our lines have been more circuitous than linear, sometimes veering toward the chaotic. As we moved from state to state, then country to country, for my husband’s career, we’ve counted the stamps in their passports as a tradeoff for not having roots that extend deeply in one place. While in India, we homeschooled the younger four. Maddie was the first to attend an International School and spent her freshman year of high school with kids from all over the world, learning Norwegian from her best friend, an expat from Oslo. Chloe, still in middle school, completed her work from home, dutifully hammering out her assignments in the morning so she could spend the rest of her day sketching skirt designs and planning forays into Chennai’s rich textile markets. I viewed our rickshaw-driven excursions along the Ana Salai as the lessons that stuck with her most that year. Within a few months she had forged a working relationship with a tailor who spoke a smattering of English, just enough for her to jab authoritatively at her sketches so that he could stitch together her designs using fabric she had carefully chosen, a heady experience for a thirteen year-old girl. It typically makes me feel special to stand out in this way, but now that we have returned to the small town where I was raised, I wear the shroud of an outsider as we near the graduation ceremony.

Perhaps because they have already spent large swaths of time away from me as we transitioned back and forth between two countries, perhaps because of the nature of being a “Third Country Child”—a term used to refer to the children of expatriates—perhaps because the International School our children attended in Abu Dhabi routinely sponsored lengthy trips to other countries for Habitat for Humanity builds or Model United Nation competitions (I shed my first tears of separation when Chloe was barely 15 and off to Romania for a month), or perhaps because we lived among families from other cultures who viewed this kind of separation as normal, I am not grieving in the way I feel I am supposed to. In addition to not posting old pictures of the girls with friends who have been with them from kindergarten through high school, I have no song planned for a memory-filled slideshow that I will play for family and neighbors, primarily because both girls have insisted on wanting minimal fanfare for this transition. In Chloe’s case, she has little desire to celebrate her departure from a school she hardly knows, so we have come to view it as a box to check. Graduate early: check. Volunteer or work until turning 18: check. Leave for college: the check she is most excited to make. Maddie is equally blasé, and while most of me has come to understand and accept that this is the inevitable result of our choices, I can’t deny that I want to join in, not be still where others are busy with the purposeful movement of choosing party themes and planning post-commencement celebrations. As much as I value our unique experiences and the feeling of having lived a special life, I also want to join in with the people around me. I want to be the same.

When we lived in the United Arab Emirates, my son Jacob had a best friend, Alec. Soon after he turned eleven, Alec’s parents announced that he would be attending boarding school in England, as his older siblings and parents had done before him. At first, I was shocked. Who willingly parts with such a small child? Nearly numb with sadness for my friend and Alec and thinking about such a separation from my own son, I wondered how she was coping. Aside from the obvious—it was a family tradition, his older siblings had done the same, he would visit home regularly—her answer was the first of many lessons gifted me on the practice of letting go of the people who are born to us.

“Of course we will miss him, Jennifer.” Her tone was kind, which helped as she added, “Once I stopped believing my children were mine, it became easier for me to make the choices that were best for them.” The implicit “as opposed to best for me hung between us. Her words were like a small trowel, gently loosening the earth around the bedrock of control I believed I could maintain.

I try and remember this lesson as I struggle to let my daughters’ graduations pass with just a small family gathering. If I am being honest, I realize that a large part of my angst is because I want to have a big party and make a big deal out of things like everybody else because that is the currency I trade in now. I’m no longer a far-flung expat living exotically, posting travel pictures for my friends back home to admire. I live in a comfortable, quiet town with Little League and swim team and moms who cry when their children graduate from high school.

But if I allow myself to look into the hearts of my daughters, I know I would be doing that for me. The instructions from them are clear, if partially unsaid. Dont. Don’t pretend it was the same for them. It’s weeks before the realization of the motivation behind my girls’ insistence hits me: my desire to grieve and celebrate in the same way as my friends is a tacit admission that our life choices were somehow wrong. I need to let them finish this leg the way we started—a little differently.

So a small gathering it is, the money formerly allocated for the entertainment of people they scarcely know spent instead on plane tickets taking them to visit friends in other countries and states before returning to me, where we will begin preparations for college the following year. And when they are on the plane, I will allow myself a good cry and wait for them to come home.

Author’s Note: My new tribe of rooted friends and neighbors continues to flourish. While I experienced the sting of feeling like an outsider during the peak of graduation festivities, I am happy to report that as both of my girls prepare for college this fall, our connection to our new community is growing. Maddie will be attending university here in Oregon, and while Chloe is off to the East coast, she will be attending the same small university as the daughter of one of my new friends and neighbors.

Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson is the author of the travel memoir Peanut Butter & Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East, which is currently an INDIEFAB Book of the Year Finalist. She has also written for Writer’s Digest, Bitch Magazine and Nickelodeon. You can find her at jenniferhillmanmagnuson.com

Fiction: Quarry

Fiction: Quarry

EmptyNestBy Molia Dumbleton

It took her a second to recognize him, coming at her with a glass of champagne, but just as she was about to open her mouth, he said “I thought that might be you.”

Kenny must have been all of eighteen the last time she’d seen him, and sweeping Judith off somewhere, the way he had almost every day that last summer, before he and Judith and all of their friends had packed up and left for school. She had loved that summer. It was the last time things felt right. She looked at him now, in a suit, almost thirty, and said “Kenny, my god, honey, look at you.”

She thought he might hug her, or offer a lingering handshake—but he waved instead with his glass, so she waved back, and then they stood there in the bright light of the outer gallery, searching for details they once knew, buried in these new, older faces. Eventually he laughed, and she crossed her arms, and they turned to look out over the cocktail hour at Judith’s rehearsal dinner.

“I was sorry to hear about your mom,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Sorry about Mister Janney, too.”

“Yeah? Well. Thanks.”

Allen had died a few years ago, after the divorce and more than a few years of not speaking, so she still felt guilty when people expressed their condolences as if she were a proper widow. Still, the one consolation of being back in town was that at least people here had known them then—so no matter how things ended or how they felt about it, here, at least, they would be forced to look at her and face what had been lost.

She smiled and tried to will a tray of champagne to pass. “I guess you and Judith have both had a hard couple of years,” she said.

A swell of jazz pushed out from behind the door to the main gallery. Kenny tossed his head in that direction. “Art history, this guy.” He bottomed his champagne and set the glass precariously on a windowsill. “What a prick.”

She hadn’t made it to the main room yet, hadn’t yet faced Judith. She hadn’t even gotten a drink. It was only minutes ago that the airport shuttle driver had flicked a hand toward the building and said “Modern. Can’t miss it,” and been right. The perfect, glowing gallery had appeared around the corner: tidy and geometric, with nothing left to chance.

It wasn’t hard to guess what the wedding would be like, nor the boy. He would look the way he was supposed to look and say the things he was supposed to say, and later tonight, he would tell Judith the things she would need to hear about how hard it must have been having a mother like that, and how brave it had been to invite her after all these years, and of course, sweetheart, of course, princess, how much better it would have been if her precious father could have been here instead.

The gallery was just so. The music was just so. And the boy would be just so, of course—and she would love him, as she loved Judith from the instant she’d conceived of her. But looking around, she also knew. No matter how the weekend went, she would never again be allowed to know Judith the way she once had, or share her secrets, or watch movies with this young man under a blanket at their perfect house, or be invited to breakfast on Thanksgiving.

“Smoke?” Kenny used two fingers to reveal a pack of cigarettes in his jacket’s handkerchief pocket.

That last summer, sweet, lovesick Kenny had come by almost every day, just to sit on the couch with Judith arm-to-arm in the heat, with thick course catalogs or lists of dorm room supplies. He’d come almost every night, too—to fetch Judith out to a party, or down to the quarry, where the kids did god-knows-what, except everybody in town knew what. Had known for generations.

And then they’d gone. All of them at once, leaving their tidy rooms and beds empty behind them.

And how could a mother not miss the nights of worry when the kids snuck out, with their tangled hair and their beautiful skin, reeking of youth, as the short hours of their perfection ticked away?

And how could she not be surprised to find herself tiptoeing into those rooms to smell the t-shirts of the children she had lost, and the prom dresses and baseball mitts left behind in their closets.

In truth, it was only Allen who had turned away, and only he who turned the children.

Couldn’t they see: it was only heartbreak that could cause a mother, of all people, to start going down to the quarry. Only love.

But by the time Allen asked her to leave, the quarry had gone cold anyway, and the buzz in those old rooms had gone flat. And by the time the children finished and came home from college, nothing smelled right anymore, not even them.

She hesitated, eyeing the door to the reception, and Kenny’s sweet fingers in his pocket.


Molia Dumbleton’s fiction and poetry have appeared in New England Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Witness, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, and others. Her story, “The Way They Carried Themselves,” was awarded First Prize in the Seán Ó Faoláin International Short Story Competition and nominated for a Pushcart. Her story, “If She Were to Lay Down,” was featured in Huffington Post’s “Read 15 Amazing Works of Fiction in Less Than 30 Minutes.” Her website is www.moliadumbleton.com.

Just Breathe

Just Breathe

By Donna Maccherone


Contractions of the womb are nothing compared with contractions of the heart, and the labor that comes post partum lasts much longer.


I will give away the Beanie Babies, the Ninja Turtles, the plastic pails and shovels still smelling of sand crabs and the sea. Out with old report cards and “I Showed Up” trophies. I’m decluttering. That’s the fashionable phrase, but what I’m actually doing is trying to empty the nest. I should be at least a bit wistful. I’m not. I’ve got a deep well of memories, but not enough storage. I want space.

What I am keeping is the tee shirt, men’s size medium, with the iron-on letters: BREATHE. Bright green, all caps, flocked, like old-school kindergarten flannel board letters. This is the shirt my husband wore in the delivery room when our daughter was born in 1986 and again in 1989 when our son came along.

The one-word command blazoned on the shirt was to remind me through the contracting and the pushing and the pain to do what would establish a rhythm for the contracting and the pushing, and ultimately assuage the pain. Did I breathe? Was there a rhythm? A lot of pain or a little? I honestly don’t remember. I mostly remember anticipating some great discomfort and not being happy about it. Twice.

The huff-and-puff strategy, intended to alleviate both mental and physical unease, was proffered during childbirth classes, which my husband and I dutifully attended together, but where he was much more engaged than I was. I just wanted it to be over, but first I wanted an epidural. I had an inkling that pain would eclipse any transcendence, regardless of how hard I panted. Maybe that was my problem. We were to breathe easily and calmly, drawing in awareness and blowing out pain. In with awareness… out with pain. In … out. Just like that. If only it could be that easy.

When I pulled the BREATHE shirt from the box of dusty mementoes, which included a hazy ultrasound photo that looked exactly like no one and nothing, I recalled the childbirth class in vivid detail: couples sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the hospital conference room, the pear-shaped women wobbling slightly; birthing coaches, spines aligned, breathing like practiced yogis. Of course the partners were better than the pregnant women, their diaphragms weren’t distended up into their throats by the bowling balls just under their rib cages. Nonetheless, we with the bloated bellies and swollen feet tried to maintain a modicum of dignity until one hyperventilated and had to be escorted out. “Exactly what not to do,” chirped the labor and delivery nurse in the teddy bear printed smock. “Don’t let your nerves get the better of you. Just breathe.”

What the inordinately cheerful nurse failed to say was that the word would become our mantra after the babies came into the world. As they screamed through endless bouts of colic and we wanted to scream right back at them but instead we thought, “Breathe.” When they blithely let go of our hands to get on the school bus and we knew what they were embarking on (life away from us) would often be anything but carefree. We smiled and waved and took that deep breath. On those days they came home crying over messing up, fouling out, failing a test, or losing a friend and we said to them and to ourselves, “Just breathe.”

Driving home from the pediatrician, the teacher conference, the counselor’s office with a scary diagnosis, questionable report, or trouble ahead.  Breathe … breathe … just breathe.

Years later, they called home and we heard regret or remorse or simple uncertainty in their voices. Perhaps we couldn’t tell them what to do, but we hoped they were drawing in awareness and blowing out the pain. The respiratory pause wouldn’t always make everything all right, but it could steady the nerves and allow time for some perspective.

Decades ago as I awaited motherhood, I feared the pain and doubted the transcendence. No matter. I got both. Even though—for all the classes and books (which only my husband read and then reiterated every chapter and verse to me when I least wanted to hear a word of it) and prenatal vitamins—I couldn’t be guaranteed fortitude for what lay ahead. Contractions of the womb are nothing compared with contractions of the heart, and the labor that comes post partum lasts much longer. Most of the time there’s not much a parent can do except breathe. Whether we do it with our eyes closed or open, sitting palms up in the lotus position or gripping the steering wheel with knuckles gone white, if we’re lucky, the transcendent moment follows exhalation. I know. My husband has the shirt to prove it.  We’re hanging on to that. Everything else is going to Goodwill.

Donna Maccherone is a mother, teacher, and writer who is still looking for some breathing room.



WO Leaving ArtBy Nina Sichel


I have come full circle, and it is nearly time to leave.  I arrived here two decades ago, just months from the birth of my first child, and now the youngest is ready for college, my husband has moved ahead of me into a new job and a new city, and I am left to stem the flow of twenty years in Tallahassee.  I want to contain our time here neatly in a cool, clear bowl.  I want a lake we can return to, and gaze into, and see, in the depths, ourselves.  I want this tumble of remaining time to pause, so I can make sense of its passing, so I can choose and gather the markers by which to remember our years here.  But time rolls perversely on, and it carries me dizzily along.  I pan for memories, trying to net the flow, but everything rushes out of grasp, and all I gather are glints of time past, not its essence.

I look at my children, grown into adulthood now, and think of what this move must mean to them, how it will affect them.  This has always been their home.  This is where they were born and raised and their ventures out have always led to returns.  There are whole lifetimes to be sorted through and wrapped up, identities redefined as we slip into new skins, evolve into new creatures, our circumstances and surroundings and self-images shifting with time and the need to move on.  And I wonder, what will my children keep as they find their new places in this world?  And what will cling to me?

I feel a creeping nostalgia for what might have been, sorrow and loss for a place I might have allowed myself to become attached to.  But I was raised with no real roots, an American child in Venezuela, growing up moving from house to house all through my childhood.  I believed I’d find home in another place, another time.  Resistance to settling became part of who I am.  I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else in my life, but I still won’t root, and for all these years, I’ve been ready to leave.

Until now.  Now I find myself unprepared, and questioning this turn in feeling, this wistful desire for belonging I never had.  It is only now, knowing I am leaving, that I begin to wish I had sunk more of myself into this place, lived more fully and deliberately in the time I had here.  Is nostalgia anything more than an attempt to hold on to a place or time that is being pulled away from me? What am I afraid of losing?

I know there is much I will miss.  I love the languid lift of Spanish moss on a balmy breeze, the magnificent spread of live oak branches, their generous shade.  The rhythmic rise and fall of the land, and its gentle slope to the sea.  The slow-moving tannic rivers, flashing sunlight, the egrets starkly white against the dark brush.  The transparent aqua springs, so cold on torrid summer afternoons.  The beaches, with their wide and blinding sands, unpeopled, the dolphins arcing the waters, the hot salt air.  The sky, constantly rearranging its constellations and its clouds.  Floral palettes, picked from my springtime azaleas and placed on our round oak table.  Nostalgia is a gentle pull, though its hold is strong.  I am as wary of entrapment as I am of letting go.

Fiercer attachments bind me here, too, heartholds which are ripping apart as the time approaches for my departure — my children, splintering away to different colleges and new lives, the friends I’ve grown to love as family, the people I will leave behind, histories I have shared.

The births and deaths and cycles I’ve been a part of, forever tied to this place, receding into memory.  Mothering.  Nursing my babies, watching the stars move through the trees as I rocked, rocked, rocked.  The warmth of my infant children, bundled close, their slackening mouths, their drift to sleep.  As they grew older, the splash-pool, the tree house, chickenpox, Girl Scouts, soccer practice.  Music lessons, art lessons, summer camp.  Stitches, broken bones, fevers.  Formal dances, broken hearts.  The pets we’ve buried. The crisp air at the Christmas tree farm, where each year we have brought the children and the dogs and stomped through row after row of trimmed Virginia pine, looking for just the right tree.  Returning to the car for spiced apple cider while the tree is shaken to free loose needles, and then wrapped and tied onto the roof.  Driving lessons, the first time out alone, the first time in a storm, my held breath till they were safely back in the driveway.  The way I still ache with the memory of their long walk down the hallway to kindergarten, alone.  Their slow move toward independence.

This is a yearlong transition, and another one will follow.  This year my husband is gone, starting his new life while I try to wrap up our old one.  We meet on occasional weekends and fake normalcy.  Days and nights spin on.

If I tell you that I wrap myself around his pillows at night, and that I won’t wash the pillowcase he slept on till he returns, will it seem sentimental and silly?  Overblown?  If I tell you that his worn shirt is hanging on the hook by the door, and that I sink my face into it when I pass, breathe in the scent he left — if I tell you that I tried to wear it once, but something twisted inside me, and I couldn’t — will I seem obsessive?  If I tell you that I store up my anger and my stress till it explodes on his few weekends home, will I seem selfish, mean, unbalanced?

There are piles of papers to go through — children’s artwork, old bank statements, letters, Christmas cards — fragments of a settled life.  Where to begin?  Each drawing carries the memory of the time in which it was made, the life-stage of that child, that parent, the family.  I think, this is silly emotionalism, it isn’t the real thing.  But it might be.  Without those markers to bring me back, will I be able to remember?  I find a series of mermaid pictures my daughter drew with her bright, erasable markers, each one slightly different, each telling a different story.  How do I choose only one, to be representative?  And what, exactly, can one picture represent?  I look at them and see my daughter’s mind at work, her playfulness, her inventiveness — which aspect am I asking myself to sacrifice?  Can there be any part of her that does not deserve memorializing?

There is a book of basic numbers.  My daughter taught my son to add and subtract before he attended his first day of school, because she already knew how to do that and thought it was important.  They are only numbers.  They are an entire relationship, frozen in a place and time that I do not want to forget.

Here are mementos of trips we’ve taken, here are the games we played, unused craft supplies, musical instruments.  A toddler’s rocking chair, a puppet theater, the gown I made for my daughter’s eighth grade dance.  A softball glove outgrown, cleats left to gather dust in the back of a closet, jewelry and trinkets.  Junk.  The sand dollars we collected once, at sunset on St. George Island, as the water calmed in the shallow places and the sky shimmered and my husband peeled shrimp to boil.

How do others do this?  My mother periodically ransacked our closets, cleaning them out, keeping them organized.  I’d come home to find my clothes or toys had been given away “to the poor children,” she’d say, so I could feel good about it.  But I missed them.  What is there now to trigger memories of my childhood?  The only thing left are photographs.  Albums and albums of them, organized chronologically, and my mother and I pore over them every time I return.  But they only tell part of the story of my childhood.  And they tell it from my parents’ point of view.

Will my children miss their things?  Do they mean more to me than they do to them?

How, in the midst of such confusion, such conflicting emotions, all the daily obligations — how can I make the decisions that bring order and sense to all this?  There is my son’s prom and graduation to plan for, a new apartment to rent for my daughter, the dogs need their shots.  I don’t have time to stop and figure all this out.

I decide I can’t do this, I won’t, I’ll pack everything up and take it with me and sort through it before putting it away in the new place.  Wherever and whatever that might be.  I am brought up short by the fact that there is no new place, not yet, and whatever new place we find will surely be much, much smaller.  After all, there will only be two of us, most of the time.  I cannot contemplate that thought too closely.

Here are years of calendars, with the doctor and the dentist and the orthodontist appointments penned in — with reminders to myself about meetings, reunions, trips — with quickly jotted notes to remember the cute things they said — it’s only another box, it won’t take up that much room.  Baby blankets, stuffed animals, bedtime books.  It isn’t the item, it’s the memories it dredges up that I’m afraid I’ll lose if I discard these totems.

And if I do?  If I lose the memories?  Am I afraid I will lose myself with them, my family?  What is it I am clinging to?

What do we owe our memories?  How much of our souls do they contain?


Our listing realtor tells me I should leave the house when prospective buyers come to look it over.  They will feel more comfortable, she explains, they will look in your closets, they will feel free to comment.  In all my moves, so many before the children were born, it has never occurred to me to peer into someone else’s private space, not while they’re still using it.  I feel invaded, forced to flee my home and give up my time for someone else.  I am made foreign in my own space.  I put away the pictures of my children.  I did not teach them to smile at strangers.

Another realtor tells me it is fine if I stay home, I can share some of the problems of the house.  Problems?  This has been my home for twenty years, this is where my children had their birthday parties, this is where they were raised, I want to scream.  I hurt mental missives at the realtor — the house has character!  It has quirks!  It has personality!  It has no problems!

I strip wallpaper.  I paint.  Neutrals, I am advised, stick to plain, unexciting colors.  Clean your counters, get rid of the clutter.  Wash out the bathroom stall, it has mineral deposits.  Oh, yes, and get a good rug deodorizer — the dogs, you know.

I am doing more for strangers than I ever did for us.

My home is beginning to retreat.  It is becoming a house again.  I try to be cool and distanced.  I try not to judge the people who come to look.  I have no control over their decisions.  I have no control over the sales process.  I have no control over its outcome.

I spend hours every day poring over electronic listings in the metropolitan Washington area.  Costs are four or five times what they are here, and the competition to buy is vicious.  I select some interesting-looking sites, and my husband visits them on evenings and weekends.  Nothing suits us, everything is too expensive.  We panic, retreat, worry.  The real estate market has spiraled out of reality, the prices are fantastic, but, we are assured, this is no bubble.  This is the way it is.  We imagine another year of a commuting marriage, and quickly reject that option.  We will have two children in college and we are already stretched beyond capacity.

People come and go.  Our realtor assures me the house will sell, but this only leaves me feeling more pressured, more stressed.  We need to locate something else soon.  My husband has spent every weekend riding the metro, walking the neighborhoods, trying to find something affordable.

I travel north to spend a few days with him in Virginia.  We visit houses well above our budget, hopeful that something might miraculously become possible.  They are matchboxes, crowded one next to another with hardly space to breathe, a strip of lawn for the dogs.  This is a market of escalator clauses — you put a bid on a house and the price climbs and climbs and you tell your realtor what your absolute limit is as you enter a bidding war.  What kind of way is this to look for a new home?

We know we will have to downsize.  We begin to consider a townhouse.  We cannot duplicate what we have here, our three bedrooms, our deck, our woods with their wildlife, quiet nights broken by the call and response of barred owls.

I fill the back of the SUV and bring another load of household goods and clothing to the Goodwill.  I stop replenishing the cupboards of food.  I don’t stock for this year’s hurricane season.  When I drive by the places that meant so much — the children’s schools, parks, playgrounds, the library with its Tuesday toddler time, the bagel place where my writer’s group meets — I wonder if it’s the last time, if I should bid farewell.  I am in a strange limbo; I have no idea how long we’ll be here, I have no idea when we’re leaving.


One day, the house sells.  Our bid on an Alexandria townhouse is accepted.  The pace picks up as our time here draws to a close.  Months of preparing for this, but it still feels strange.  The remaining days become disjointed, dreamlike.  Soon, my Florida life will be only a memory.

Packers come to box up our lives.  All those books, all those papers, all those souvenirs.  We are told not to let them take our valuables — birth certificates, passports and other documents, jewelry, silver.  I stuff our photographs into containers and decide to take them myself.  They hold memories beyond value.  They are more precious to me than those documents, that silver.

Our memories are the part of life we get to keep and take with us.  They inform us, shape our characters. These pictures are a gateway to memory, one of its languages in translation, and I want them safe and close.    They are a fixative — of time, of place, of history.  One day, they will help me remember the stories of our lives.  I can’t face the thought of losing them.  Who would I be without them?


My friends plan farewell lunches, last get-togethers.  I tell them not to.  I do not like parting.  The world is full of too many goodbyes.  I tell them I’ll be back.  I tell them to plan a reunion party instead.

They are good friends.  They ignore me.  There is a lovely last non-farewell dinner.  My daughter comes, and brings her close friend.  It is our last night together in Florida.  My son and his girlfriend are there, and several people I have grown close to.  The party goes late into the night, with much wine and laughter.  Next morning, a surprise breakfast send-off.  Feted with song, surrounded by friends I love, I am captured crying on film.  We hug and weep and they trickle away, into a rainy morning.

The cars are loaded.  There is nothing left to do.  The papers have all been signed, the keys turned over.  We’ve said our goodbyes to this place and this time.  There is nothing left to do but leave.

We have one last and lingering moment, arms wrapped around our hosts, and then we buckle ourselves into our seats and drive away.  The rain pours down in thick, heavy sheets.  Canada geese crowd the grassy slope on the ramp that leads to I-10.  I try to find them in my rear-view mirror, but the rain has swallowed them up.  There is no looking back.  I fix my sight on the road ahead and drive.

Nina Sichel is co-editor of two books about cross-cutural, international childhoods, Unrooted Childhoods:  Memoirs of Growing Up Global (2004) and Writing Out of Limbo:  International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids (2011).  They include her reflections on growing up American in Venezuela.  Her work has also appeared in The American Journal of Nursing, Among Worlds, International Educator, The Children’s Mental Health Network, and elsewhere.

She currently resides near Washington, D.C., where she is a freelance editor and writing coach.  Her memoir workshops are offered through the Northern Virginia Community College and at community art centers and other settings in Virginia and Maryland.

Photo credit: Mark Silva

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