The Things Teenagers Leave Behind

The Things Teenagers Leave Behind

By Rachel Pieh Jones

WO Teens Leave Behind ArtMy teenagers don’t live at home anymore and every time they go back to boarding school, every time they check-in under the Kenya Airways sign at the airport, I think, “How can something that is so good for them hurt me so deeply I can’t breathe?”

A silver brush filled with tangled long blondish-brown hairs rests on the IKEA shelf in my bathroom. The hairs are not mine, I have curly hair and never use a brush. There are more shoes at the front door than the three people in the house could ever wear. Candy wrappers are stuck to car seats and there is a load of salty, sandy laundry in the bathroom from our beach campout two days ago.

I walk around the house the day after my twin teenagers return to boarding school and pick up the things they have left behind, like brushes and towels and off season clothes. I fold bed sheets and tip mattresses against the wall so rats or cockroaches don’t take up residence over the next three months. I scrub toothpaste dribbles from the sink and scoop up still-damp bath towels. I rearrange books and replace game pieces from Settlers of Catan.

I pull open the refrigerator door to take inventory. They devoured fruits and vegetables, my fresh baked breads, cereal, cheese. They left dirty dishes in the sink from the quadruple batch of brownies we made yesterday, wrapped in aluminum foil, and packed into plastic buckets for the trek back to school.

Henry likes to drink out of the glassware, so there is a clear glass balanced on the edge of the kitchen counter. Maggie likes to use the teacups she puffy-painted with friends years ago, even though the puffy paint has mostly peeled off. She left one on the table and a damp ring is forming around the base.

They left behind sandals that no longer fit rapidly growing feet, t-shirts so beloved they are torn nearly to shreds, swim suits that they won’t wear in Kenya, far from the ocean that we drive by every day here in Djibouti.

Here in Djibouti, here at home. They still call Djibouti home but since seventh grade they have spent more of their time at the school in Kenya, the vast expanse of Ethiopia stretching between our borders. Every time they leave, at the start of each term after a month or six weeks home, I walk through the house and put back the pieces.

The last time they returned, after summer break, the flight left at 3:00 a.m. My husband drove them and they left behind their little sister, sleeping upstairs. I stood at the front gate and waved until the car turned the corner even though no one could see me in the dark. Then I leaned against the door frame and cried for a while, went upstairs to kiss Lucy on the cheek, and tried to forget that in the morning there would be only one cereal bowl stuck with dried milk to the table, not three.

The days following Henry and Maggie’s departures are foggy, slower, thick. The family members left at home start to shift; we rearrange our relationships with each other. There is less cooking, less laundry, less cleanup. I can return to writing projects that languished, friendships I’ve ignored, and organizational projects I’d only dabbled in during their vacation.

Lucy straightens her bedroom, she likes it more organized than Maggie does and Lucy carefully refolds her clothes and returns Littlest Pet Shop toys to their proper storage boxes. She stuffs the play clothes back into the basket and I am filled with gratitude that Maggie, though thirteen, still plays dress-up and tea party and giggles with her sister, their time together now precious not annoying.

Lucy moves squashed ping pong balls out of her path and rides Henry’s RipStick around the tiled porch. He, too, knows the time with his younger sister is special and he left behind the echoes of hours spent wrestling and hitting one another with padded sticks.

My husband, Tom, doesn’t change his schedule as much as I do while the kids are home, as a university professor, PhD student, and director of our organization in Djibouti, he doesn’t have that flexibility. But now there are fewer arms and legs flying around the living room during wrestling matches, fewer arguments over Wii remotes, fewer heated debates over Arsenal football versus Liverpool.

As I clean up the things left behind and as we transition our routines from life with two teenagers in the house to life without them, I recognize that they have left behind something much deeper and foundational, much harder to pick up and put back together.

They left behind a mother who feels like a failure, like an almost-empty-nester at thirty-five years old which is far too young, in my opinion. No matter that this is what Henry and Maggie want, no matter that they are thriving and excelling at this school more than they ever did at the French schools in Djibouti. No matter that this expatriate life has given them the gift of being loved, of having a home, and of belonging in at least three countries.

No matter that they are smiling, that the ‘I’ll miss you mom’ and the ‘I love you’ are sincere but the eyes are already turned toward school and friends. No matter that I knew from the moment I gave birth via vaginal delivery and c-section on the same day that wise motherhood choices are rarely the easy ones. Thirteen years later that scar is still sensitive, these twins left their mark.

The feeling that I have somehow failed them, or failed as a mother, flow from the lie that choosing boarding school means I have stepped out of the parenting role. But what I know, deeply, is that choosing boarding school is made everyday from that exact parenting role. And while the tears flow out of the feelings, the conviction and the strength to step into the next three months apart flow out of the knowing.

Because these teenaged twins also left behind a mother who knows she is a good mother. This choice isn’t me failing at parenthood, it isn’t me handing off the responsibility and gift of my children to someone else, it isn’t separate from my role as a mother. This choice of sending our children to boarding school is part of our parenting, it is what being responsible for the gift of these teenagers in our context and in our family and according to our needs and values looks like. It is me being the best possible mother I know how to be. And because it breaks my heart and leaves me crying against doorframes and into pillows and at stop signs, it feels like failure.

But just because something hurts doesn’t mean it is bad, wrong, or failed. This is, perhaps, one of the biggest things my teenagers leave behind. And I hope it is something they also take with. The realization that life won’t be easy, comfortable, or pain-free and the confidence that this is okay.

I am the kind of mother who used to look at a skinned knee and say, “Look at your beautiful blood. Let’s clean it out and get back on that bike as soon as possible.” I never imagined I could shelter them from pain and struggle, from what the world will bring to bear with force and grief and aggression. But I can create a shelter, a place for them to spread Legos out wide and to wrestle their little sister and wear clown wigs, a place for them to bring their messes and their gut-busting laughs, a place out of which they can gather courage and experience grace.

Now, with my heart in shreds and knowing that yes something that hurts this bad can be a good thing, I watch my husband drive the kids to the airport. Or, I watch them push their suitcases through security and I hold my hands over my grief and say, “Look at my beautiful teenagers. I want them to stay with me forever. Go with courage, go with grace.”

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

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Apfel2I didn’t see the blood, not at first. I saw the small silver bowl, wheeling through the air, a trajectory it shouldn’t have been taking. I heard the thwack as it hit my two year old’s head, followed by a piercing cry. She was on my lap already, facing away, our posture didn’t have to change for me to start the act of comforting her. It was twenty seconds, thirty seconds before I felt the stickiness between my fingers, before I finally turned her round. And then I saw red. I saw it everywhere.

Next we are waiting. For at least an hour, so says the electronic board on the far wall of the Emergency Room. She is calm now, she is fine. But my heart is still clattering around my ribcage like a salsa dancer. How many months will I age in this waiting room, with my anxiety for company and the stale stench of illness? The cut, just below her hairline, is not long. I can see that now I’ve peeled away the paper towels. Now that I am not panicking anymore and I can tell which blood is old and which is new. The cut is not long, but it is deep. I rest my chin on the top of her head, where the hair is matted and smells like metal.

I’ve been here before. In the Emergency Room with blood on my hands, but also in this place of mind, looking at one of my children’s faces and realizing it will be marked for life. Not terribly, oh I know we have been lucky so far, but permanently just the same. It is the permanence that gets me. There is something perverse about young skin being severed. The buttery softness we marvelled over when they were babies, the supple perfection of it, as we rubbed it against our cheeks. It was pristine and now it is broken. And the worst part is that it will never go back to the way it was.

I have two scars between my eyebrows, a crescent and a full moon sitting together in a lover’s embrace. One is a souvenir from the chicken pox and the other is the remnant of an accident involving my sister and a brass barrier and sixteen stitches. They came years apart, these blemishes, it’s funny how they found the same home on my face. For me, they are but another contour of the mirror’s familiar landscape. For my mother, however, they are something else. I still catch her looking, shaking her head, suggesting I get them “fixed.” The small injuries of childhood might belong to the children, but they are the parents’ crosses to bear.

I understand that now. I feel the same way my mother does, whenever I let my eyes linger too long on my son’s forehead, the scar there gleaming white and wider than it should be. He is oblivious to it, but I can chart the coordinates perfectly: not quite central, not quite straight. Friends assure me they hardly notice it, they probably don’t. Only parents, it seems, know their children’s faces so intimately. Which is why we are the ones dabbing vitamin E oil on them as they sleep, trying to remove, in vain, the evidence that they are capable of being damaged in the first place.

Facial scars are particularly hard in this respect. They are visible to us, always, a constant reminder of the fragility of these creatures we love more than life itself. A constant reminder of how we will not be able to protect them in every instance, how they can get hurt, badly, even when we are standing right next to them. Even when they are sitting, curled in our laps.

My daughter lay still as a breezeless day while the doctor, who looked little more than a child herself, glued the wound closed. A lot of capillaries in the head, she said, that’s why it bled so much. It wasn’t too bad this time, which makes me wonder, which makes me worry, what happens when it’s worse. I keep my cool in many parenting situations, bodily harm is not among them. If these minor injuries are a test of my mettle, of my ability to rise to the challenge of the darker moments of motherhood, I have not passed with flying colors. If scars tell stories, they are not the ones about my children I want to hear.

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Author with her daughters in 2012

            Author with her daughters in 2012

Last Sunday, my oldest daughter left home. She was halfway asked to leave, halfway left of her own volition, in a cloud of ugly and strife, lies and accusations. Her belongings fit neatly into her ragtag car, and she drove away with a piece of my soul clinging to her.

Like the day of her birth, 18 1/2 years ago, she was struggling to be brought forth into this life, to the other side. And this is her struggle now. Getting to the other side, being born again and washed clean, and again not without significant pain on my part.

Unlike her freshly newborn self, this world had its chance to leave scars on her heart. The damage we inevitably do to our children was done, right alongside the repair and comfort. While I attempt to look honestly at myself for mistakes I made, I also know that this life with which she was gifted is hers and hers alone.

This is her walk, with her worn out shoes and desires and decisions propelling her forward. She’s grown now into 120 pounds of heart and skin and love and wounds, along with some pretty questionable choices. She was never mine, she was a gift given to the world, and to me.

I stay in prayer that as she journeys, she finds the jewels that have fallen from her crown along the way. I pray she stops and replaces them with the strongest of glue, a smile on her lips. I pray that she learns to treasure her body, and her mind, and the light that shimmers within.

I have about the same amount of assurance that I had on the day she was born that everything will be okay in the end. On that day, long ago, I knew that she and I were in for a struggle, the long haul, and I knew it was going to hurt before it got better.

This is where we are now. My baby girl is made of the bones of her ancestors and we are people who are strong, and don’t go down without a fight. I know that she will claw her way, if she has to, back into the light.

I carried her inside me through long months while she formed, silent and whole. We couldn’t speak then, except through the threads that form between mothers and children, and can never be broken. This is how we speak now.

Just like then, I do not expect this will be easy, this rebirth—the powerful woman that lives in my daughter bursting forth from a dark chrysalis. I cling to my faith that tells me that as it was on the day she first breathed air, I will hold my daughter close after a long and arduous journey, and our hearts will beat in harmony.

Sarah Green is a wife and biological mother of three, adoptive mom to one, and a foster mom currently on hiatus. She enjoys crafting, chaos, and baking. Sarah is currently working on books about the realities of foster care and an anthology focused on homeschooling. Read more about her daily life at

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My Son’s Home is an Ibo Village

My Son’s Home is an Ibo Village

By Catherine Onyemelukwe

IBOPeace Corps training had not prepared me for motherhood. It wasn’t intended to. My marriage and motherhood in Nigeria were unexpected by-products of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in the country for two years. I met my husband halfway through my second year in the Peace Corps.

We married a year later, and had our first child a year after that. Clem is Ibo, one of the three major tribes in Nigeria, and I am a white American. Our first child was a boy with skin of a lovely light caramel color. He had tight black curls and dark eyes. We settled in Lagos, the capital.

We had talked about names before he was born. “You know the custom is that my father will give the baby his name,” Clem said.

I agreed, as long as I could supply a middle name. So a week after our son was born, I opened the telegram that arrived from Clem’s father. There was the selected name—Chinakueze.

“I know that Chi means God, ku is to grow, and eze is king,” I said, handing Clem the telegram. “But God grows kings?”

“A name isn’t necessarily a literal translation,” Clem said. I could tell that he was grappling with his father’s intention behind this long name. “I see what it is,” he said suddenly. “God is the one who creates kings. I like it.”

“It’s a mouthful,” I said. “Whatever are we going to call him?”

“Why not the whole name, Chi-nakueze?”

“Five syllables for the first name, and another five for his surname? I think that’s a heavy burden for a small boy.”

Within two days we had shortened it to Chinaku. I added the middle name Danforth, my mother’s maiden name and my middle one. “He can use Dan as a nickname when he’s older if he wants,” I said.

Clem called his parents to tell them we liked the name. A few minutes into the call, he turned to me. “My father says we should come for a naming ceremony.”

“A naming ceremony? Is that like a christening?” I said, looking up from the baby in my arms to watch Clem.

“You’ll see,” Clem said. Turning back to the phone, he said, “I think we can come next weekend?” He looked at me to see me nod my head in agreement. I was being pulled deeper and deeper into Clem’s Ibo culture, and I loved it.

I had been to his village, 300 miles from the capital, Lagos, only once, and just for a couple of hours. Now we would spend two nights there, with no electricity and no running water. Although I was thrilled with the traditions, I wasn’t sure how I would manage with a three-week-old baby. But I had help. Clem’s cousin Rosa, age 12, had come to stay with us before the baby was born. She and I were communicating better every day, as I improved my Ibo language skill and she mastered English.

It was already dark when we arrived on the next Friday evening. Clem’s mother, whom I had learned to call Mama, had gas lanterns lit for us and dinner of pounded yam and egusi soup, my favorite, ready.

The ceremony would take place on Saturday afternoon and evening. The whole clan had been invited, so there would be 70 or 80 people. We had to provide a feast.

“Do I need to help prepare the food?” I asked Mama in my faltering Ibo.

“No,” she assured me. “The ndi nutaru di, the women married into the family, will cook.” Ejike, Clem’s oldest uncle and the patriarch, had already slaughtered the goat when we arrived. I caught the pungent smell from the next compound where it was suspended over a fire to burn off its hair. After that it would be cut up and added to the dishes for the next day.

Before we went to bed, I went over to thank the seven women who had begun cooking. They stirred the contents of huge iron pots set on tripods over open fires. I took the baby with me. I had seen two of the women each married to one of Clem’s uncles on my brief visit 18 months earlier, but had not spoken to them or even seen the others who were helping.

“Dalu. Thank you,” I said to one and then another. They were dressed for cooking, in wrappers—six feet of cotton cloth tied at the waist—and blouses that looked well-used. One woman had her baby tied on her back with an extra piece of cloth.

“Nno, nwunye Clement, welcome, Clement’s wife,” they said. Obele reached out to take the baby, holding him so the others could see. “O maka, he’s good-looking,” a younger woman said, and the others chorused their agreement. I thought their boisterous voices would wake him, but he slept on. With their warm greetings and obvious joy at seeing my baby, I felt close to them. I was now part of the extended family and I belonged here.

A few minutes later, I took Chinaku back to our house. Our bedroom faced the compound where the women were cooking. Well into the night I could hear them singing and talking. The aroma of the cooking goat meat was much more pleasant than the burning hair had been.

Benches borrowed from the nearby Anglican Church were put in place in front of the house on Saturday morning. At 3:00 in the afternoon I nursed Chinaku and dressed him in his blue cotton kimono with embroidered flowers. I changed into the fanciest item in my wardrobe, a fitted dress of woven Akwete cloth in blue, green, and red, which barely fit my recently pregnant body. I re-applied lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara which had faded after the day in the heat. Clem wore his suit trousers with a loose paisley-print shirt. Around 4:00 pm people started to gather. Clem and I had seats of honor with Clem’s parents and uncles in front of the house. Mama wore her best wrap- per, a blue print with matching blouse and head tie. Papa was dignified in his long gown of the same fabric. He had added a felt cap of dark blue and a walking stick.

When the space in front of the house was full, Ejike stood up. “Ndi be anyi, kwenu, my people, rejoice.” The guests shouted, “Kwenu.” He turned to his left, then his right, with the same greeting. Each time the response was louder and Chinaku began crying. I rocked him in my arms. “Don’t worry. You’re safe here.”

I knew breaking kola was the first major agenda item of any Ibo event. Ejike reached down and took one of the kola nuts from the plate in front of him. “With this kola I offer thanks to our ancestors,” he said in Ibo as he held up the kola for everyone to see.

“The ancestors have honored us by making our son Clement a chief engineer. They honored us by giving him a wife from America. Now they have blessed us with a son.”

He broke the kola nut he’d been holding into three pieces, took one himself, and placed the rest on the plate. Then he called several young men to carry the other trays of kola nuts to pass to everyone present, men first, then the women. When everyone had a piece, jugs of palm wine and bottles of Star beer were brought out and served. Most men had their own calabash gourds with them. Some, I suspected, had started their drinking earlier in the day. Chinaku stopped crying.

After the drinking was well underway, Ejike took Chinaku from me and held him up before the crowd.

“I have given this child the name Chinakueze.” He poured a libation of palm wine on the ground. “I consulted the Dibia who said the ancestors approve.”

The baby was handed around to all the senior men. Then the women took turns holding him. He was passed back to me as the women brought out and served the food. After everyone had eaten their fill of jollof rice, garri, pounded cassava and okra soup, a men’s dance troupe performed, accompanied by drums, the high-pitched wooden Ibo flute, and maracas. Then the women, the same group who had cooked and served the food, began to dance.

“Bia, gba egwu. Come dance with us.” They pulled me up. Clem held out his arms to take the baby as I rose and joined the circle. I found it easy to follow their steps and after a minute, lost my embarrassment and enjoyed the music, the movement, and the feeling of belonging. This was, after all, my group—the women married into the Onyemelukwe family. The crowd ap- plauded, Clem most of all, as I sat down, sweating and dusty.

The stub of Chinaku’s umbilical cord had fallen off when he was two weeks old. Clem had told me to save it and bring it along for the ceremony. Now Papa asked me to bring it to him.

“I bury this cord which binds Chinakueze to Nanka, to our compound, and to our people forever,” he said. “Whenever he returns he will know that he belongs here. When he is away, he will always know that part of him is here.” He placed the cord in the small hole that had been dug earlier. I felt an incredible surge of emotion for the family that had embraced me so warmly.?I returned to Lagos the next day, leaving a tiny part of my son behind in his father’s village. Would he feel this connection? I knew that I did; it was now my village, too.

Author’s Note: This story is from chapter 6 of Nigeria Revisited: My Life and Loves Abroad, my memoir of my twenty-four years in Africa. The story about my son’s name and naming ceremony is one example of how I was drawn into a culture completely different from the one I knew growing up in the U.S. It reflects my embrace of the Ibo culture not only for my children, but for myself as well. In August 2013 my husband and I took the umbilical cord of our newest grandchild and buried it in the village, as we’d done with our son’s so many years ago.

Catherine Onyemelukwe and her husband now live in Westport, CT. Their children live in London, Philadelphia, and Lagos, Nigeria. Another selection from her memoir is forthcoming in the anthology Love on the Road.

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My Son and Five Strangers

My Son and Five Strangers

By Jamie Johnson

ShadowOne beautiful fall day, when my son Joey was seventeen, we drove through town headed to an appointment we couldn’t miss. As we neared the highway, Joey hesitantly broke the silence. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

I knew that tone of voice: it meant he had something to tell me that I wasn’t going to like. “Is it going to upset me?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, tilting his head to the side, looking right at me.

This didn’t sound like a quick-fix thing. I answered distractedly, “Well, let’s wait until after our appointment. We’re barely on schedule here.”

Joey accepted that for a whole sixty seconds. Then, with a strange, uncomfortable, almost panicky look, he blurted, “No, I don’t think I can wait. I really need to tell you something.”

I pulled over to the side of the road, and waited impatiently.

He tilted his head down, almost as if he was trying to hide from me.

I am sure the look on my face said Okay, if you need to tell me, then out with it. But the moment he said it, I wished he hadn’t.

In a quiet, sort of shy voice he said, “You keep calling me Joey. People have been doing that all afternoon. I take it he is your son? I don’t know who this Joey is, but my name is not Joey.” His face was dead serious.

As I looked at him, my hand came up to my face. My palm rested on my chin, my fingers covered my mouth and nose. “Well…well, who are you then?”

His eyes dropped to his lap and he shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not sure.”

My son had been battling depression for months. The withdrawal from our family, the sleeping all the time, the mood swings—had worried me more than I can express. But this…this was like nothing I’d ever heard of before. Had his mental condition become too much to bear and his mind was somehow taking a break? I was grateful he had been seeing a psychiatrist for depression so we had someone to turn to for help.

As it turned out that day in the car was the beginning of the most challenging year of my life. My son spent those months sharing his body with five alternate personalities. It was during those crazy, exhausting days that I learned about DID. Most people know Dissociative Identity Disorder by its former name —Multiple Personality Disorder. What most people don’t know is that it is a defense mechanism used by the brain to protect an individual from trauma. When it appears out of the blue in a teen, it is usually caused by a stressful event that brings back old buried alternate personalities. Those old “alters” come back from the teen’s childhood, where they were formed, usually as a way of mentally surviving repetitive abuse.

They are a coping mechanism and resurface when the teen is faced with anxiety he or she can’t handle—a trigger. I wondered if Joey’s trigger had been a day earlier that summer when he’d come home from school to find our dog, apparently dying, lying in a pool of urine and vomit. He had sat there alone with her, waiting for her to die. That had probably been his trigger. It was awful to think that my son may have suffered something horrifying in his youth and I hadn’t been there for him. Not only had he suffered some type of abuse, but it most likely would have been repetitive for this condition to develop. The personalities form so that the child can escape from the abusive situation.

For months my mind ran through terrible scenarios. What type of abuse had he suffered? Had it been at school, while he was with a babysitter, at a sleep-over, in the playground? God, I wished my brain had an off button.

I learned that there is no medication for DID. The key to his full recovery, without risk of his alternate personalities popping up again some year, unexpectedly, was to find that buried trauma and deal with it. I wanted so badly to help my son. I vowed to do whatever was necessary to find the solution. I would walk away from his hospital room for two full months, (yes he was hospitalized for it) the whole while desperately wanting to bring him home, to get him away from the stress of the other patient’s attempted suicides and assorted mental illnesses. I would give our family history to doctor after doctor. When he was released, I drove him to appointment after appointment. I would put aside the fear of what the ominous “hidden memories” were in order to find them and work past them. I wouldn’t give up.

That is…unless I was forced to.

Giving up had not even crossed my mind.  But after a little over a year of therapy, Joey’s DID specialist cut him loose. She hadn’t found the original cause of his condition—the buried memories of abuse. She said Joey had better control over his other personalities since they were beginning to come together. She had done all she could do for him by coaching him on stress management, he would be fine while she left for a six-month trip abroad.

I was in so much shock I didn’t even think to ask for a referral.

We had been deserted. I thought about looking for a new specialized psychiatrist. But Joey was sick of prying appointments. And really, it wasn’t up to me. Joey was eighteen by then, and it was his life.

I tried to convince myself that not seeing a psychiatrist was for the better. Once uncovered, his memories might be horrendous enough to plague him for the rest of his life. Would that be better than learning to deal with stress to prevent a re-occurrence? Definitely not.

My son never did see another psychiatrist, but today he has only one personality, Joey, and he is studying to become a support worker. I no longer have to worry about what to do with a strange boy that looks like my son, but doesn’t call me Mom. My only worry these days is how many bags of laundry he will be hauling behind him when he heads home from college for the weekend. He has learned to deal with stress and anxiety better. He is a compassionate young man that understands how complicated life can get. His goal—to help people. What more could a mom ask for?

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Expectations of the Fall

Expectations of the Fall

WO Expectations for Fall art v3By Kathryn Wallingford

My seasons are shapes. The long tunnel of Winter. The triangle of Spring. The four lines of Summer. We all come together in the Fall. My birthday marks the onset of Fall.

Years ago, for my 8-year-old birthday, my three friends and I watched Bette Midler’s Beaches. It is a terribly sad movie about dying, friendship, and heartache. We cried while my mom popped popcorn, and peered inside the family room to watch this remarkably strange celebration.  But even at that young age I seemed to know that Fall had expectations.

Fall is here again but I can’t remember how to rest, say goodbyes, and prepare for Winter.

Leaves know the cue: they produce less, they let go of chlorophyll. They let themselves fall and they come into the earth.

But this Fall I have a lot to put together, to pack, and to store.  I say goodbye to my house of almost a decade. I moved into this old house right after marriage and sobbed over the 2500 square feet. Each foot seemed burdensome and pleaded for domestication. But each room also found a place and we filled the home with footsteps and dog hair. I am okay taking my family elsewhere.  It is time for a new family to enjoy the creaks and cracks, but I am worried about the plants I leave behind.

In April 2006, I cried ferociously as I planted my coneflowers– mad as hell at my graduate professor. When my first son was born, I carried pieces of limestone from the Kentucky River and formed a vegetable garden. And now my two boys run through the lemon mint, catching its aroma with their superhero pajamas.

This new house will have room for new plants. We will also have to make room for this new baby. Another baby, I think?  “It is no small thing that they so fresh from God, love us,” I recite in my head. I think of my friends struggling to have their own and I surrender myself to guilt. But how can I love a third? I know too much of toxins and disease. I left the summer saying goodbye to a friend.

I met this cancer this Summer, my four walls quickly invaded.

This Summer I also planted marigolds and saw a bear. The marigolds came first. I know marigolds like sun. Marigolds keep bugs away. Marigolds are copious. I counted on this-the sun, the growth of flowers, the ceaseless flow of life.

On these summer days when there was no rain, I pulled a blanket from inside and spread it onto the grass. My boys littered the blanket with peanut butter crackers and slices of bananas. Sometimes the bananas smashed like molasses. And sometimes they would pick the marigolds and throw them on top of the bananas. Fruit and flowers.

I would lie down on top of our creation and stare at the clouds. “There is a rocket ship,” I told them. I saw it in the clouds. But their feet were too quick, too busy to stop. So I searched into the sky alone.

When the sky turned purple, I took my boys inside. I gathered the blanket. That is when life began to feel heavy. It was more than the encroaching dark clouds and the June storms, it was the weight of the world.

It seemed to be the end of everything.

The last night she was in the hospital the parking attendant had said, “have a good night.” He said it steadily and calmly. I wondered how he could pass out goodbyes so quickly, so easily? He had not seen what I had seen.  Her colossal-like strength reduced to nothingness. Where was her silent killer? He did not know the weight I carried.

The end of the colossal-like strength and the death of my dear friend and neighbor actually came before the bear.

The day I saw the bear the air was heavy and thick with humidity. Each summer I visit my parents in the Blue Ridge Mountains and wander the woods alone.  I look up into the trees and remember that bark has faces too. The smoothness of beech. The deep-wrinkles of oak. The muscles of hornbeam.

On that day a grey fog covered Grandfather Mountain. The forest was dark. It was only 11:00 in the morning but it appeared like nighttime. The path was splashed with large rock outcrops and I looked downward. I needed my eyes to see the next step. I rounded a curve and followed the path upward, pulling my legs over a fallen tree. And as my eyes searched for my trail I saw her blackness staring at me.

It was a black bear. I had been around bears before. I had worked and lived in various national parks drowning with grizzly, brown, and black bears, I knew what I should do a when a bear was staring at me beneath a chestnut oak tree and a standing in the patch of solomon seal.  I knew I should walk away slowly, but she was the deepest part of the earth I had seen in a long time. I had to stare.

Neither one of us wanted to be looking at the eye of a stranger and wondering what was next. But she seemed to have all the answers and I suddenly wanted my children to be there too.

Maybe the truth of life would come to them in this instance. The quietness that eludes from looking something unpredictable in the face. Something bigger than you. Quiet with fear. What can you hear when you listen? The cry of a towhee. The heartbeat of a hummingbird. Yes, another robin. Or maybe even a bigger voice? What would she say in her wildness. Had the summer rains altered her patterns too? And would she help me explain death, saying goodbye to the ones we love, the myths of heaven, my hopes for an everlasting spirit?

The depths of death are near impossible to explain to a four and 2-year-old, and yet fundamentally easy. Our bodies just get tired. And there are other theories: we are cursed, God has another plan, we go to a better place, or we give up on life. But what if I did not have to provide any of these rationales and just a glimpse of a bear in the woods?

The bear grew bored with my gaze and eventually retreated into the woods. We parted

I think about my bear now as I try to complete my circle of Fall. Hunkering down for the cold months ahead. Preparing for Spring. Planting new life.

Fall will not let me forget goodbyes.

I don’t make the time I once did for tearful celebrations of life, but I need it this year more than ever.

My birthday has come and gone this year. I did not watch Bette Midler’s Beaches, but I did pack boxes. I see those pictures of my college girlfriends: our midnight swims, all-night road trips, and Friday afternoons getting lost in the East Tennessee Mountains. I see a picture of my mom tubing with me near Sliding Rock, North Carolina in the mid-1980’s. I forgot she had a perm, but didn’t everyone? I see my brother and I, once my own sons’ ages, dressed in superhero gear. I see my husband and I on top of a mountain in Montana.

Life lost, remembered, and stored away. I wrap tape around the boxes.

Kathryn Wallingford is a stay-at-home mom in Lexington, Kentucky. On good days, she writes about religion, mothering, and the natural world. Her most recent work has appeared in Literary Mama and Hip Mama. She can be reached at

Barbie in My Shoes

Barbie in My Shoes

By Mindy Goff

Barbie Art 2We began our lives at about the same time, Barbie and I.

She was born in 1959, and I two years later in 1961.

By the time we first crossed paths, I was a 7-year-old little girl in 2nd grade.

She was already a successful young woman.

I lived in a suburban two-story in America’s Heartland.

She lived in a fabulous dream house anywhere in the world.

Barbie was my fantasy. Every year I searched the Sears Wish Book for the newest model to put on my Christmas list. Every week I saved my allowance for the latest Barbie fashions. I spent hours playing Barbie. I spent hours being Barbie. Every year, her life got better and better. Teenage Fashion Model Barbie, Ballerina Barbie, Flight Attendant Barbie, Executive Career Girl Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, Miss America Barbie…

She could do anything!

Who loved Barbie? I did! Who wanted her glamorous life? Me! I would have traded my life for hers in a second! Things would’ve been a whole lot different for Barbie that’s for sure. What if instead of me living my life vicariously through Barbie, she lived through me. What if Barbie had my life?

1968 Broken Home Barbie: Comes with Mom, Dad, and older brother Doug. Also included, extra male and female bodies with interchangeable heads. Who’s dating who? Will Barbie & Doug have a new Mommy or Daddy soon? Exercise your creativity as you split up and reunite Barbie and Doug in all kinds of crazy family scenarios. With seven different houses and six new schools between them, the possibilities are endless. Meet all of their short term friends and acquaintances. Who will be the role models for these latchkey kids? Barbie comes with a suitcase and name tag. Brother Doug comes with a GED and an Air Force Uniform. Optional accessories include, a rusted out Ford Maverick, and the Neighborhood Friends Juvenile Delinquent Variety Pack.

1980 Love is Blind Barbie Deluxe Set: Comes with pink-heart-shaped-bubble carrying case. And introducing Malibu Mike, a California native that knocks Barbie off her feet. He’s gorgeous and sexy, her first love. With Kung Fu grip and super articulation Malibu Mike is more than a doll, he’s an action figure! But Malibu Mike has a temper. Push his button and hear what he has to say. “Shut-up!” “I love you,” ” You make me sick!” “I’ll never hurt you again.” “Get over here…NOW!” “I’m sorry, Baby” “Can’t you do anything right?” Each time you push Malibu Mike’s button it’s a surprise, you’ll never know what to expect. Makeshift apartment comes with breakable furniture and fully stocked beer cooler. Barbie comes with insta-bruise technology, magic ice pack and cover-up concealer. Black and blue marks seem to disappear like magic. Restraining order available but must be 21 or older to order.

1983 Collegiate Barbie: Malibu Mike has been recalled, and Barbie has been redesigned for an independent lifestyle. With eyes wide open and able to stand her own two feet Barbie goes to college. Book Smart and Streetwise she’s got so much to give…But who will win her heart? Enter Dream Date Ken. He’s sensitive, kind and passionate, an Artist. He makes her smile, he makes her laugh, he makes her feel like she can do anything.” Barbie & Ken,” Hmm has a nice ring to it.

1987 Newlywed Barbie and Ken Set: Complete with 2 bedroom bungalow. Ken and Barbie begin their lives as Mr. and Mrs. – Each come with a business suit. Ken has a briefcase and power tie, and Barbie has a pair of killer heels. All business by day and homebodies by happy hour. Also available Barbie brand nightwear by Victoria’s Secret. Barbie and Ken now have bendable waists, knees and elbows. These ultra- flexible lovebirds are easily posed in hundreds of positions.

1992 Mother Me Barbie: While Ken’s off to work, spend the day with the new mom on the block. Barbie turns in her timecard for a library card and her sports car for a minivan. Adorable infants come with many, many, many, many accessories. Bendable Barbie can stoop and kneel, so she can pick up baby’s toys over and over and over again. Programmed to sing 12 different lullabies and recite Dr. Suess verbatim. Eyelids close whenever you set her down. Additional children available.

1995 European Expansion Set: Ken’s got a new assignment. Come along with Barbie as she and Ken and all the kids move overseas. Set includes tiny third-floor walk up apartment and right-hand drive Eurovan, complete with real working horn! Spend day after day with Housefrau Barbie as she navigates the streets of Switzerland, young children in tow. Complete with German to French to Italian Phrasebook. Barbie says “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Please,” “Thank You,” and “MacDonald’s Happy Meal,” in three different languages. Ken speaks only English. Available for a limited time only.

2005 All Creatures Great and Small Barbie & Ken Adventure Set: Barbie and family move back to the States. Welcome home Barbie! Set comes complete with 2 dogs, 2 birds, 2 reptiles, 4 fish tanks, and a dream house full of teenagers! So many things to do, busy Barbie, she can do everything! Taxi driver, referee, child psychologist, animal trainer, housekeeper, tutor, chef, mother, wife, and lover extraordinaire. She’s an all-around domestic goddess! The fun never ends! All-night slumber parties? Early morning sports camp? High School Algebra homework? 24/7 teen-angst management? No worries! With a long-life lithium battery, Barbie can keep going non-stop for years!

2012 The Special Edition 50th Anniversary Barbie: She’s been so many places, done so many things. She’s got a new outlook on life and a whole new look to go along with it Easy hairstyle, sensible shoes, practical wardrobe. There’ll be no plastic surgery for this doll. Each line tells a story. That dream house full of teenagers? They’re all off on their own adventures. Ken is still here, He’s changed a bit too. Still sensitive and passionate, his hair is just beginning to grey, his chiseled physique has worn a bit smooth in places. They’re both a little thicker in the waist, a bit broader in the hips, makes for a lower center of gravity. It’s stable design. Reliable. Familiar. They still fit together, Barbie and Ken, like they were made for each other.

Mindy Goff is an actress, writer, and mother of three living her real-life adventure with her husband and children in a dream house in Connecticut.

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“Special” Sucks

“Special” Sucks

By Jennifer Curran

I lean forward, straining against my seatbelt to catch a glimpse of my little boy’s face in the back of the school bus. His thick lashes rim his wide brown eyes, his mouth is set in a straight line. As the bus rambles along in front of my mud-streaked station wagon, my Mother Vision sees through the rows of bus seats, through the backpacks and bodies of the bustling children, to his uncertainty. I can’t help but be scared for him. I imagine sprinting heroically out of my car and slamming through the bus’s folding doors like a modern day Calamity Jane.

I shake off my protective instincts. Somewhere in the way back of my mind I can’t help but wonder if my child will ever be just a regular little boy whose toughest day includes homework left undone, or choking back green beans to get to the pudding. Some days I would be very happy with average.

Tailing the school bus, I can almost see the noise reverberating off the windows, the hollers and screeches of the other children readying for their first days of first and second grade. They do not make my boy smile. Today, he doesn’t want to smile, play, share, or jump. Not today, maybe tomorrow — maybe not. My boy wants his space, his peace, his toys. He wants his red race car with the yellow flames down the side. It must have “Hot Wheels” engraved in its silver underside because “Matchbox” isn’t his favorite. He can’t read these words, but he knows them by sight. He wants to zoom his cars along the old gold shag carpet of our humble living room with his tinier than average fingers gently resting on their roofs; just him and his metal best friends in his raceway-world.

My boy sits far away from the other kids on the bus, his perfectly shaped nose pressing against the glass as he peers out at the farms rolling by. I wonder if he is looking for the magnificent white horses in the falling-down brown barn we like to wave to, or listening for the dulcet sound of the hoof beats we both cherish. Does he love them only because I do? Does he long to sit on the back of the black-spotted horse with the grey tail and run as fast as the animal pleases, as he leans forward into the wind and observes the world framed by triangle ears?

As I drive behind the bus, I remind myself to call the place — the organization — the non-profit — the one that has riding lessons for boys like him. Special boys.

If the word special doesn’t help on the school bus, it feels irrelevant in the grocery store when I’m carrying my screaming five-year-old over a shoulder out the sliding doors, abandoning our shopping cart that’s almost full with coloring-free, gluten- free, casein- free food — the foods it took me months to discover, whose labels I’ve read, studied, and memorized.

Special is hard. Special gets me scorns and head shakes, and worst of all, patronizing smiles from strangers who should know better. Educated strangers who drop their loose change into the Awareness Canisters and then seem the quickest to judge and remind themselves that they would handle things differently. The enlightened elitists who carry their reusable bags under their arms and are brought to tears when hearing about the autism epidemic on NPR, but can’t bare to acknowledge its truth when it is screaming down the aisles in Target.

I put my pretend blindfold in place so I no longer see the disapproval surrounding us. I crouch down in front of my son and focus my attention on the miniscule chance that he will be able to transition through the suddenness of this change in routine. Fridays are not for shopping. Fridays are for resting and playing. He shields his eyes from the fluorescent glare bouncing back at him from the hard tile of the white floor and the sheen of primary colored plastic wrappings. He focuses on nothing, his eyes wandering the store aisles filled with things he cannot have and all the toys I wish he knew how to use.

Special means appointments, prescriptions that don’t work, wait lists, and therapists. Diets that cost more than rent. Charts, scale ratings, questionnaires, graphs, and independent educational plans. It means late nights scouring the internet for answers and weighing the risks and challenging the chances.

Sometimes I have to put it all aside. Sometimes special boys just need to be boys who revel in a blanket-reinforced fort, boys who dig roads in dirt, and rub their spaghetti sauce-covered hands down their shirts while their mothers feign annoyance.

The bus makes a right turn to my station wagon’s left, leaving me behind a spotlessly clean silver Volvo with the small puzzle piece logo on its sunlit bumper. I stare at it and wonder if the driver has a special boy too. Or if she snatched up the sticker from a convenience store counter because it was free and makes her look compassionate without any actual effort involved.

I approach a stop sign behind the Volvo. I close my eyes and breathe through the urge to slam down onto the gas pedal and smash into the sticker on that bumper. I want to make sure the driver knows my boy is more than a logo, more than a fad or a cause. As I make my solo right turn toward my waiting desk and tiny office, I peer into the rear view mirror and secretly hate the Volvo and its perfectly coiffed driver, a temporary target for my aimless anger. I try to push away my politically incorrect, completely unheroic, fleeting but inescapable, belief: Sometimes, special sucks.

Author’s Note: I wrote “Special Sucks” during a particularly difficult period of time when my son JP was only five years old. I had been on the receiving end of many well-intentioned pats on the head that week and I was aching for some honesty. There are precious few articles or essays that validate the very expected and natural feeling that sometimes, special really does suck. There are days that seem endlessly hopeless, filled with outbursts and meltdowns and exhaustive trips to therapists and grocery stores. Thankfully, there are days of unparalleled joy and hope and progress. Special Sucks was my way of admitting that it’s okay to embrace the bad along with the good, that it’s okay to grieve for “normal” and want to perhaps ram your car into a certain logo or two.

About the Author: Jennifer Curran writes, mothers, works, knits and avoids house cleaning from her little home in Granby, MA.


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