Oatmeal Tantrums

Oatmeal Tantrums

heap of oat flakes in a shape of heart shot from above

By Nancy Kay Brown

An animated handful of freshly prepared organic oats, flew across the room splattering every gleaming surface of our newly remodeled kitchen. “No-o-o-o-o-o,” Liza, our twenty-month old granddaughter growled, flinging another scoop of the cinnamon scented stuff that used to be food across the room where it landed on the glass door of my commercial grade stove. A gob of gelled goo whizzed past sliding down the stainless refrigerator. She cocked her arm and slung another that momentarily clung to my eyebrow, slid down my cheek and dropped to my shirtfront. As if summoning a wild rumpus to action, she shrieked a penetrating call. I’d simply asked if she was ready for a bath. Apparently, she wasn’t.

Liza had worked to break me from the day I had taken her and her older brother from my son and his pill popping, toenail painting, Jerry Springer watching wife. I’d removed them from the rain-sodden tent where Liza had learned to walk on mushrooms sprouting from the soggy carpet, where a family of wood rats had built their nest in her diaper bag, where I’d discovered her four-year old brother poking cigarettes and tampon tubes into the woodstove—because someone had to stoke the fire.

Now here I was at 5:30 a.m., a gob of cereal in my eye. After awakening a half hour earlier, changing Liza’s diaper, I’d pushed her up to a small-scaled table in her little red chair. Each day began that way–before the sun rose, before the birdies awakened, while Grandpa and brother slept soundly in the other room–I stirred yogurt into her bowl, the tart sweet scent of granny smith apples and cinnamon steaming my face, she’d sprinkle the wooden table with juice, dragging a finger through it, as if waiting for a pattern to emerge.

Liza growled, “Not mommy.” I slammed my half empty cup on the counter. Right. I wasn’t Mommy. I was a bad grandma, who’d gotten stuck raising a sloppy little girl whose mommy couldn’t stand her, whose mommy could barely stand up most days. None of us wanted it to happen.

“You can’t do this to me,” I may have called out as I cupped a glob of the lumpy gel and flung it at her head. Her face emptied, she reached for the mass plastered on her neck, eyelids retracted, lips peeled back and screeched like a wildcat. Arching her back, she fell backwards with a crash, red chair on its side, pedaling her feet, circling arms as if drowning on my locally milled, wide-planked floor. She knocked her head and thwacked her bony elbows, knees rubbing and sliding. Her eyes grew bigger than the sockets that held them. I didn’t stop. Scooping up a second handful of oatmeal I hurled it at her. Oatmeal dangled in her snarled hair.

Her shrieks grew louder then enormous. She gnashed her terrible teeth, roared her terrible roars. Emptying my tea, I filled my cup with chilly water from the tap and tipped it over her head. Streaming down her face, it slid into puddles around her.

She studied me. I studied me, too, twisting my hands to see each side. Who the hell had I become? Assaulting a baby? The baby I’d intended to save. Even Liza’s incapable mother would not have done such a thing. Oh, the racket, the mess. I longed to be down on the floor, my cheek pressed flat, the water pouring over me, dripping down on the floor, my cheek pressed flat, the water pouring over me, dripping down my shoulders and off my chin; melting away the heat. I whispered to her, “Stop,” and bent low up against her face, “Just stop. ” Then a lot louder, nose-to-nose, “STOP.”

At that, she roiled her forked tail, flipped over, slithered in a slurry of water and oats then stilled. I splashed a shot of whiskey into my cup and gulped it down. If someone they’d spied a crying wet baby on my nasty floor, me sipping something like tea, two of us embattled—toddler-to- toddler–they’d be wrong. Wrong about the tea.

I’d planned to be the kind of grandma that asked the children which exhibit they wanted to see at the local museum. We’d have made a habit of stopping for tea smelling of vanilla, flowers and mint, go by the bookstore and each choose a new book and read them to one another on the way home. I would be the sleep over grandma, extending my invitation to one friend each, teaching them all to cook, to use real tools, to build and supervise their own campfires. Rolling up in our sleeping bags, we’d talk into the night under the stars. After our visits I’d need a well-deserved rest, sending them back home to families that fed them, drew their baths and listened to their stories; families that treasured them and treasured me, the favorite grandma.

Instead at age sixty, I’d fought for custody of two little hellions, then being awarded them, as if that’s what it was, I’d sprouted horns, scaly skin and claws. Along with 2.5 million other grandparents, my husband and I found ourselves raising our children’s children. At first I’d clung to the idea that one day their parents would show up and take care of her after all. It didn’t happen. I was stuck. So was she. Who was I kidding? I’d brought it on myself. They were my son’s children and who was his mother? Me. When he got hard to deal with, (When wasn’t he?) I’d taken on more work. It took courage to face a child everyday. So I didn’t. I was spineless. Now it was his turn to snub his children. The cycle had to stop.

I peeled off Liza’s pajamas and released her into the tub. A simmer of thick clear water, the sticky residue of oats and milk fat floated to the surface. Her scream diminished, like the tottering spin of a top. My wobbly reflection glared at me in the window. The warmth of cinnamon-spiced steam made it almost seem pleasant, a grandmother and a small child captured in a moment. Had I no compassion for a little girl who’d lost her mother? A toddler who’d lost both parents and found herself with someone who would never be her mommy. Slipping underwater, her rubbery knees squealed against the sides of the tub. When a gulp of water slapped to the floor, I drew up her arm to make room and slipped in next to her, fully clothed, pulling her fishy body against mine. Shivering against me, she squirmed. I leaned forward and turned on a warm stream of water. We’d be there awhile.

As she squirmed above me flailing and kicking, Liza hit the soap dish and an instant welt appeared on her cheek, another on her head. Scrambling to manage her thrashing limbs, my knee rammed the faucet and drew blood. Battle scars. She twisted around pinching the fleshy meat of my arm like a snapping crab. I put her in a safety hold. How would I ever tame this child? Teach her to brush her teeth? Use the toilet on her own? Tie her shoes? My nose settled into her tangled hot hair. Dragging her finger along the ring of scum that gathered at the water’s edge, Liza put it to her lips and tasted it. I inhaled the fragrant steam of her scalp, smelled our shampoo, herbal and girlie.

Could I, the old sodden goat lying in that chilly tub of water, dare to think I could save Liza and her brother? What made me think I could change the course of two lives? Of six lives counting us all?

Liza twisted away. My lips skimmed her forehead. I was “not Mommy,” not the one that had birthed her, enfolded her for days at a time in a shared room in her other grandma’s doublewide on the snowy plains of Montana. Nor was I the mommy in the tent, inches away, gazing, nursing then awakening as if nothing else in the world existed. Back when there was no me. Then I was all there was. The one who’d only moments before wanted to send her slippery pink body, off with the gray-water, oatmeal-free and dried, down the drain where it emptied into the forest with the wild animals, where she’d have tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.

“Me do it,” she whispered, pointing at the knob. I exhaled as if my breath was a word in the only language we had left, studied the pipes under the sink wrapped with thermal insulation and the wall below painted the same blue green as my mother’s laundry porch–the undersides of leaves, mint, light wind. My waterlogged clothes fastened me to the tub with the weight of her, still and quiet, dropping as I exhaled then lifting again. Both of us knew that I was all she had.

She pulled from my lap to her knees, tight buttocks, muscled arms, grasping two-handed, knuckles white with the effort, one shoulder to her ear. I sat forward, wrapped my hands over hers and with a slurp and sniff of the flow, it stopped. “Off,” she whispered in a ripple of sound as she lay back and floated free. The black of her eyes spilled into the blue like her mother’s, the jaw line framing her dimpled cheeks, was my son’s. Liza, not yet two, still so small, couldn’t be blamed for any of it. There was no one else, only me, her small shoulders in my hands and hot tears streaming.

Liza lifted a palm of water that trickled through her fingers as delicate as breeze. Patting the water flat handed, slapping lightly she bent to break the surface with her lips, to hum a vibrating underwater melody. So effortlessly she’d returned to play.

Stepping out of the tub, I knotted a towel around myself and gazed at her delicate pink feet paddling. We would be here for a while.

Nancy Kay Brown is a retired Child Development Instructor. Oatmeal Tantrum is a selection from her memoir Grand Mommy. Her short story Burn Pile was published in Fishing for Chickens. Nancy blogs at Letters To Montana





My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

By Shabnam Samuel Thakar

Portrait of Indian family at home. Grandparent and grandchild eating butter cake. Asian people living lifestyle. Grandfather and granddaughter.

As a child in India, the day before my birthday (March 31st) was always a day filled with excitement – it was the day the tailor brought home my new tailored clothes, the day the baker brought home my cake, and the day the household help went shopping for the tea party held in my honor on April 1st. I would sit on the porch steps and wonder who would give me what as a present. Would Mrs. Tucker give me the fourth book on the Famous Five by Enid Blyton? How much money might Aunty Radha put in my birthday card? Why did Papa and Granny insist on giving clothes as presents?

But another thought persisted above all the others: maybe, just maybe, the joke would finally be over. My parents would come to my party as a surprise, scoop me up in their arms and wish me a happy birthday.

Maybe I could finally go to school and not have my friends ask questions about Papa and Granny that filled me with embarrassment and shame: “Why is your father so old?” or “How come your mother wears a dress and has blue eyes?”

The embarrassment and shame I experienced as a child over my parents’ absence made me a person who spun exceptional tales about my life: “My parents?” I would say, “They are spies for the Indian Army and live abroad, most likely London.”

The truth was sadder: I did not know my parents. I had not heard their voices or even seen a picture of my mother and father. I was raised by my bi-racial grandparents, an Indian grandfather and my Russian grandmother, in a small town in India in the 1960s. We lived in a house where, at one time, fifteen people had lived comfortably in their own space. When I was growing up, the only people who lived in the home were my grandparents and me. There was always a sense of emptiness both inside and outside of me.

When extended family came to stay, on most days you would find me sitting behind a curtain or perched precariously on a balcony, sometimes even hiding under the bed to listen. Eavesdropping to glean information from conversations was how I related to my family. I tried to piece together my history from the hushed-tone phrases I could string together: poor childorphanagewhat a trauma… how could a mother do such a thing?

I knew better than to ask – no one would explain anything to me. It seemed that my grandparents’ plan was that the words mother, father, mummy or daddy were never to be mentioned in front of me.

Still, I persisted with my hope of a birthday surprise. I wanted my parents – the young, age-appropriate ones. I wanted a normal dad who would drive a car and take me to school. A mother who was beautiful and ethereal in a sari, who would drop everything she was doing and hug me when I came back from school. I knew other, younger parents did this. I had seen my friends. I carried around a lot of envy and sadness.

But maybe, just maybe, this was the year.

The 1st of April comes, the only day I was allowed to sleep late. Schools was closed on April 1st because it was a government holiday: Orissa Day, a celebration to mark the state of Odisha as a separate province. I wasn’t able to give out toffees to my classmates, as I would have been allowed if my birthday fell on a school day. On my birthday, there was no special breakfast, no phone calls from relatives – mostly because we didn’t have a phone.

All of my focus fell to the grandfather clock in the dining room, waiting for the clock to strike 4:00pm. As the cucumber finger sandwiches were being made and the meat patties were warmed, I would excitedly put on my new clothes. My favorites were a forty-inch wide bell bottom set – I was a real trendsetter in those days. And then I would wait for friends to show up. The ones who came, though, were mostly family friends, hardly anyone in my age group.

One by one, they wished me a happy birthday and handed over their wrapped presents. In my mind, I sized up the package while speculating on the gift. Darn, that is a box of chocolates, why? Couldn’t she give me like a book or a dress or something? This would go on for a little while. In between silly talk and little foods, I would sneak back and forth into my room and open the presents one by one. Always glimpsing out of the window, always with ears perked for new voices, I kept hoping and dreaming. But they never came.

Slowly, year after year, the same old routine became boring. Of course, once I hit twelve, the party was over. “Too old to have a birthday party,” my grandparents would say. The clothes, the sandwiches, the meat patties, the cake – all gone. What never went away was the longing, the hope and the sadness that “they” never came.

Here I am, forty years later, feeling nostalgic for those days of excitement – the moments of being carefree, the future of endless possibilities, the anticipation, the innocence, the dreams.

The one flame that has never died and carries with it a ray of hope: they will come and they will say they are sorry we left you and went away – and they will, at last, finally wish me a happy birthday.

Shabnam Samuel Thakar is a writer, a business coach for low income, immigrant women entrepreneurs and is the founder of the Panchgani Writers’ Retreat in India. She has called the suburbs of Washington D.C home for the last 30 years.

The Never Ending Story

The Never Ending Story

Mother and newborn babyLorri McDole 

With the epidural finally taking effect, Carson drowses, her head cradled by the dark nest of thick hair I tried to tame when she was young. “You’re doing great!” Nurse Sophie says as she places a pillow shaped like an hour glass between her knees. “Just push when I say push. And breathe!” Then she breaks into pop singer Anna Nalick’s song—”Just Breathe”—before giggling and pushing up her glasses with her index finger.

Sophie seems impossibly young, only a few years older than my 19-year-old Carson, and maybe that’s why I trust her. When I had Carson, you were supposed to hold your breath when you pushed. Back then, we didn’t have specially-designed pillows to help turn breach babies. It’s a new, unimagined world—who would have thought my daughter would fling herself so willingly into motherhood at such a young age?—and that I need a new, young guide.

“You too, Mom.” Sophie turns to me. “Don’t you stop breathing. You and I have leg duty.”

“And you,” she points to Carson’s boyfriend, Sam, “are at the head!” She giggles again. “Carson’s, not the baby’s!”

Sam is in position already, squeezing Carson’s hand and whispering encouragement. His tall, ultra-thin body seems even more bent than usual. Practicing to protect? To bow out? That story is just beginning, but I’ve been up for twenty-two hours already and what I’d like is to bow out for a nap.

What I’d really like is to go back in time, before Carson met Sam and fucked with her future. Before she grew too self-conscious to tell me about her crushes or first kiss or to let me see her naked.

Until today, that is.

When Sophie whisks the pillow away and says, “Now!” I forget leg duty, stop breathing, and find myself pushing. When she reaches down to check for the baby’s head, I feel queasy.

Carson grunts and howls through a storm of contractions and then suddenly yells through the supercharged air: “My hair! Get it out of my face!” Sam, who has been trying hard to do everything right, jumps back in surrender, while Nurse Sophie, naturally, looks at me. Come on Mom, her look says, fix your girl’s hair.

But I never could fix hair, Carson’s or mine. Simple arrangements like low ponytails left us both scowling into the mirror, while the slightly more complicated high ponytails sometimes required scissors to get out of. Strange, the things I thought I could gloss over, both before and during the long season of child rearing; humiliating, the mundane things that still scare me. Is this the never ending story, that you never really get away with anything?

“Your hair is so cute!” people complimented Carson often over the years. “Did your mom do that?”

“Oh no,” my six/ten/twelve-year-old always boasted: “I did it myself!” And then, not understanding that it cut me: “My mom can’t fix hair.”

Her mom, comfortable with any art but the domestic ones, couldn’t—can’t—fix a lot of things.

When I told friends about Carson’s pregnancy, I guess I expected empathy. What I got, almost unanimously, was a grief that felt hijacked. As if it were happening to their daughters, to them: college dreams killed or at least postponed; daughters taking on too soon what some mothers secretly wish they themselves had never taken on at all; the fear grandmothers harbor that they might have to raise yet another child. If I had become a teenaged mother, I would have been mortified that everyone knew I was having sex. Today, the shame seems to lie in letting the consequences dictate lives. “She had so many options!” friends wailed, referring to both the pregnancy and her promising future. But the shame passed over Carson, who never wavered in her choice, and settled on me. How did it happen, that the woman who waited until her thirties to get married and have children failed to pass down her twin true loves, learning and independence, to her only daughter?

In the delivery room, I don’t yet know what the next hours and weeks hold—an emergency C-section, Carson’s gall bladder surgery, Sam’s collapsed lung due to some combination of stress and cigarettes and a skin-and-bones body type. I don’t realize that the only easy thing, contrary to expectations, will be a baby who sleeps through the night and smiles even when he’s sick, a grandson I’ll bond with more recklessly than I ever have with anyone before. All I know now is that I have to do something with the beautiful, unfathomable mass of Carson’s hair.

“Mom, it’s okay.”

Between contractions now, Carson’s voice is soothing—knowing—forgiving. A mother’s voice.

“Any way you do it,” she promises, “it will be fine.”

At 52, still bewildered by the things that are supposed to come naturally to me, it’s hard to believe her. But I am her mother, and so of course I step forward anyway.

Author’s Note: My grandson turned one this month. He and Carson moved back home in May, and while he tears around the house, I bounce from one emotion to the other. There are so many joys—his kisses and giggles, the way he lunges into our arms after a triumphant walk—but there is also grief. I worry about Carson being a young, single mother. But my daughter recently started a great job, and like so many grandmothers before me, I’ve chosen to accept my place in the village it takes and rarely indulge in “If only” thoughts anymore. After all, if Carson had waited as long as I did to have a baby, who knows if I would have gotten to spend much time with him or even been around to meet him at all. We are all so lucky in this way, even if I still have to remind myself, at times, to breathe.

Lorri McDole lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, children, and grandson. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Offing, Eclectica, New Madrid, Epiphany, and Brain, Child, as well as several anthologies. Her work is forthcoming in the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny.




By Krista Bremer

Picture 1Several years ago I spent a summer working in a crowded office in Delhi, India. Outside of the city’s rich enclaves, the electric system was overtaxed and unpredictable, and intermittently throughout the day our building would go dark. As our air-conditioning unit came grinding to a halt, my Indian co-workers would stop whatever they were doing and sink to the floor, surrendering to the awesome heat that rapidly engulfed the office. When power was restored—sometimes minutes, sometimes hours later—they’d slowly rise to their feet, rubbing their eyes.

Years later, recovering at home from my second child’s birth in the middle of a sultry North Carolina summer, I was reminded of that summer in India: The hot, thick days blurred together, and my daily activities were constantly interrupted by my son’s insatiable hunger. When he needed to nurse, I collapsed into the nearest comfortable place, surrendering to his demands. Minutes or hours later, I peeled him off me and tried in vain to remember what I had been doing. One day I looked at the calendar and realized that almost two months had gone by. I panicked. Where had my maternity leave gone?

When I heard about a brand-new, state-of-the-art daycare that had only a few slots left, I insisted my husband take time off work to look at it with me. Approaching the office, we could see the children in their classrooms through a soundproof glass door. The school’s director verified our appointment before pressing a button beneath her desk to let us in. As we toured the sparkling facility, she told us about building security, cleanliness, and child development. She explained that the teachers used digital cameras and frequently posted photos of the day’s events for parents to see. While the director gushed on, a child stood behind her, peeling off his clothes layer by layer. Nobody noticed.

With only two weeks of maternity leave left, I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. She offered me the name of a Colombian woman who had kept her son for two years. “She might not be a good fit for some people,” she said vaguely as she pressed a torn piece of paper with a phone number into my hand. She also warned me that the woman didn’t speak English. I barely speak Spanish, but, thankful for the recommendation, I decided to call Señora Maria anyway. My husband and I arranged to visit her on the weekend, when her grandchildren would be home to translate.

Her daughters greeted us at the door and invited us in English to sit down on the couch. The grandchildren chatted and joked in whispers around the kitchen table until Maria swayed into the room, tugging the hem of her shirt into place over her ample frame. She nodded a greeting to my husband and me, and then her gaze landed on the baby in my lap. Her hands came together in a loud clap that silenced our polite chatter, and she began to chant to my son in rhyming Spanish. He froze, his eyes widening to the size of quarters as she swept him from my arms. She handled him the way a baker handles bread dough: patting him, pinching him, tossing him from one hand to the other. She made faces at him, then threw her head back and laughed, her belly rolling beneath him like a stormy sea. My son’s face broke into a broad smile.

It’s funny: After weeks of calling references, reading lunch-menu options, and quizzing daycare staff about child development theories and hygiene practices, I trusted this woman from the moment I saw her with my son. I had never seen anyone but my husband embrace my son with such warmth and confidence. I had never seen anyone play with a child so unselfconsciously in front of other adults. It may seem irresponsible, but without knowing what she would feed him or how they would spend their days together, I knew I could leave my baby with her in this house, where her daughters giggled next to one another on the overstuffed couch and the smell of spices hung over the room. My faith in her had everything to do with instinct and almost nothing to do with fact.

My husband felt the same way. Though he could not speak a word of Spanish, he was assured by Maria’s sparkling eyes, her contagious laugh, the weight of her hand in his. She reminded him of his relatives in Libya, he said. I knew exactly what he meant. When we’d stepped off the plane in Tripoli last year, his brother had gathered my daughter from me before even introducing himself. “Ma sha’ Allah,” he cried over and over, praising God and kissing her plump cheeks. Family, friends, and even strangers on the street delighted in our children, hugging them, kissing them, squeezing them, and loudly thanking God for them. Never once did someone ask permission before picking them up or feeding them or whisking them off into another room.

If in the Middle East children are a public treasure to be shared, in the United States they are a private responsibility requiring professional care. Look up “childcare services” in the yellow pages, and you’ll find innumerable businesses with names like A Bundle of Joy Daycare and Unlimited Love Nannies promising affordable rates and secure learning environments. American women like my own mother often live thousands of miles away from their grandchildren and work full-time jobs, so relying on family to assist with childcare is not an option. My daughter’s years in daycare have taught me that many preschool teachers are indeed well-educated and highly committed to the work they do. But no amount of education or commitment could produce what Maria’s eyes told me she would give my son. She called herself Abuelita—Grandmother.

*   *   *

On her first day of work, Maria welcomed me at the door, taking my baby and handing me a cup of coffee. I sat next to her on the couch and looked morosely at my son on her lap. I had been dreading this day for three months: I was afraid to leave him and go back to work but also afraid to stay home and quit my job. The headlines about the war in the paper that day had contributed to my uneasy mood. When Maria asked me how I was, I replied, “Yo tengo miedo.” I am afraid.

She listened to me closely, and when, frustrated by my limited Spanish, I repeated the phrase, she interrupted: “No. Cancela el miedo.” She wagged her finger, as if erasing my fear were as simple as wiping dust from a window. Pray to Jesus for what you need, she told me. Have faith in God.

Her sudden talk of religion caught me off guard, and I had no response. That night, as I sat nursing my baby in the dark while my husband and daughter slept, it occurred to me that Maria was the only openly religious person in my life. My mom had been a good Catholic until, as a teenager, she’d found herself pregnant with my older sister. Nowhere in her church or her Catholic community could she find Jesus’ benevolent love now that she needed it; instead she nearly suffocated under the weight of the judgment heaped upon her. She fled from New York to California, trading her religion for a vast ocean and warm sand under her baby’s bare feet.

Growing up, I never heard the name of Jesus spoken in our house except in bursts of anger. My childhood understanding of organized religion was similar to my understanding of sex: I didn’t know exactly what went on behind closed doors, but I understood that I should know better than to engage in such behavior.

An adolescent rebellious streak, coupled with an outbreak of piety, led me to attend Catholic church for a while; I rode the bus to church on Sundays and dated boys who quoted the Bible in casual conversation—a far more effective rebellion against hippie parents than having sex or doing drugs.

In college I traded religion, with its oppressive rules and hierarchy, for “spirituality,” which slid off my tongue and sounded sensual and intellectual at the same time. While religion demanded solitude and repetitive rituals, spirituality offered exploration and animated conversations. Like a New Age seeker with attention-deficit disorder, I hopped enthusiastically from Buddhism to Sufism to Taoism to self-help. An essay on The Tao of Surfing earned me an A in a comparative religion course. Driving a rented Jeep in the Himalayas, my boyfriend and I picked up a Tibetan Buddhist monk who was hitchhiking on a dirt road; squeezed between the two of them on the front seat, I swear I felt my heart open as Abba played on the stereo. I spent a weekend at a retreat center in California, where people lounged naked in hot tubs discussing God while their private parts bobbed like fleshy buoys on the surface of the water. I’d joined a Buddhist book club, though I was too busy and distracted to complete the assigned readings and hid my negligence behind vague comments about impermanence and nothingness.

So far, my so-called spiritual journey had proven more entertaining than enlightening. When I tried to convert my adventures into the hard currency of faith, I came up empty handed. None of my experiences had enabled me to look someone in the eye, as Maria did, and say with conviction that God was present in my life. In fact, I hardly ever mentioned God at all. I spoke the words “Jesus Christ” self-consciously, as if they were a foreign phrase I didn’t quite know how to pronounce. Maria referred to Christ daily and with easy familiarity, expressing her impatience with and her love for him as if he were just another lively presence in her crowded home. I was intrigued. She made me want to be that intimate with my God.

*   *   *

Maria lived in a large apartment complex and never locked her door. When I arrived one morning and found no one home, I waited on her doorstep with my son. Twenty minutes later she returned from having coffee with a neighbor and scolded me for keeping my baby out in the cold rather than making myself comfortable inside. I had my morning routine calculated down to the last minute and often arrived at her house with only a few moments to spare. But she handed me a tall glass of colada anyway and insisted that I sit and talk. Life in Colombia was better, she said, because people had more time for each other. Distracted by the drink’s? sweet, creamy taste, I forgot my frustration. (I don’t know her recipe for colada, but here’s my best guess: Heat one cup of cream. Stir in a half cup of sugar. Serve.)

After trying in vain to get Maria to accommodate my tight schedule, I learned to allow for half an hour with her each morning. She bounced my son on her lap and told me in detail about her physical ailments while I thumbed frantically through my Spanish-English dictionary looking up the words for arthritis, cardiologist, prescriptions. She got out her calendar and pointed to her doctor’s appointments, asking me which days I could drive her to the hospital. She gave me unsolicited advice about parenting, rolling her eyes in dismay when she heard my son was still sleeping in my bed. “That needs to stop,” she told me sternly, making the motion of a knife slicing across her throat with her index finger. She asked me offhandedly if I ever gave my son coffee and seemed amused by my shocked expression. When she was growing up in the Colombian countryside, she said, her mother would line up all the children at the table on cold mornings and serve them steaming cups of cafecito, into which they dipped their morning pastry. She insisted there was no harm in this.

I was able to convince her to keep my son away from coffee but not sweets. No matter how many times I asked her not to, she continued to feed my son warm bottles of colada. When I tried to communicate my concern about the dangers of white sugar, she squeezed my hand and called me mija—my daughter—dismissing my alarm as the product of an overactive imagination and pressing sweet buñuelos wrapped in napkins into my hand as I rushed out the door. Later that day in my office, I savored each sweet, rich, greasy bite.

Maria peppered me with rapid-fire Spanish, undeterred by the fact that I didn’t speak the language. I’d imagined us meeting halfway—she’d learn some English; I’d learn some Spanish—but from the first day, she made it clear that I was her student, and that her teaching style was full immersion. I borrowed my neighbor’s dog-eared Spanish textbook from the early eighties. On the cover, Latinos with handlebar mustaches and bellbottoms congregated on the lawn of a college campus under the title Cómo Se Dice? After my children went to sleep, I pored over its dated lessons:

Pablo and Raul sat in a café watching the women walk by.

“Do you think that girl’s pretty?” Raul asked.

“No, I think she’s ugly. I prefer blondes,” Pablo replied. “Say, are you going to Magdalena’s party on Friday?”

“No, her parties are always a complete failure. I plan to go to Irena’s party instead, and dance all night.”

I’d arrive at Maria’s house each day determined to work my new vocabulary into the conversation. Noticing my bleary eyes, she might ask: “How was your night?”

“A complete failure,” I’d reply groggily. “The baby danced all night.” Or, trying to convey how I felt about George W. Bush, I’d point to an image of the president on her television screen and announce, “That man is ugly.” Maria would correct my Spanish often, softening her critiques with compliments about how much I had learned.

One morning I sat on her couch drinking coffee as she played with my baby. “Where is your man?” I asked abruptly. I didn’t know the word for husband.

“He’s in Colombia,” she responded. “No U.S. visa.”

“I’m sorry,” I replied, making a sad face.

She waved her hand dismissively. “No problem.” She went on to explain that she preferred life as a single woman. And then she elbowed me knowingly and added, “Life is very different with a man in the house.”

I had never known a grandmother like Abuelita. My maternal grandmother had died before I was born, and childhood visits to my paternal grandmother’s house were a formal occasion. She lived in a southern California retirement community built around a golf course—the quietest place I had ever been. Golf carts and Cadillacs whispered along deserted, palm-lined streets. When I accidentally knocked the slipcovers off the arms of her couch, my grandmother was quick to pick them up and smooth them back into place. We dined at the country club, where my sister and I made faces at each other while the grown-ups drank gin-and-tonics and discussed politics. When we got noisy, my grandmother smiled tightly and said through clenched teeth: “Oh, you little monkeys!” She took pride in her rail-thin figure, maintained through daily aerobics and a careful diet. She was not the hugging type, and when we embraced briefly at the end of our visits, she felt like a tiny bird in my arms—nervous, small-boned, ready to flit away at her first opportunity.

Maria, on the other hand, was like a proud mother duck strutting about her domain, drawing her grandchildren under her wing or scattering them with her scolding, depending on her mood. I liked to watch her hassle them, joke with them, or ignore them altogether, the way only real intimacy permits. With my extended family thousands of miles away, I’d forgotten how good a full house felt. I began to look forward to my time at Maria’s and to linger there as long as possible. At the end of my workday, when I held my son and kissed his downy head, he smelled of scented candles and empanadas.

*   *   *

The week before Christmas, I arrived at Maria’s apartment in the morning to find the walls covered with synthetic greenery. A plastic Santa Claus waterfall sat on her coffee table, and she had pushed aside her living-room furniture to make space for an elaborate nativity scene. There were barnyard animals, wise men, bales of hay, and a small bowl covered in aluminum foil that held several plastic fish. At the center of it all, Mary and Joseph knelt and stared in awe at an empty manger—a small box covered in green felt—between them. When I asked Maria why there was no baby Jesus, she explained that he didn’t arrive until Christmas Eve.

We sat on her couch while I nursed my son, and Maria asked how I was. I wanted to tell her about the day before, when I’d driven to the mall to go Christmas shopping. I’d parked next to a woman whose crying toddler strained against his car seat. “Why did I ever have children?” she screamed as he sobbed uncontrollably. Inside the mall, my young daughter wanted to speak to Santa, and I stood in a long line with parents who cut in front of one another and talked on cell phones while their children nervously confided in a costumed stranger. In the stores I threw gifts into my cart in a nervous rush. On the way home, my daughter asked me to tell her the story of baby Jesus, and I realized with alarm that I knew little about him. I’d heard a few sermons during my churchgoing period as a teen, but all I could remember was that he was born radiant and homeless.

I wanted to tell Maria all of this, but the only appropriate word I could think of in Spanish was “tired,” and so, my eyes filling with tears, I told her: “Estoy cansada.” She nodded, and we both stared at Mary and Joseph and the empty patch of green felt between them.

After a moment, Maria began to talk rapidly, her nose scrunched up in disapproval. I picked up fragments here and there: “scandals in the church … too many rules … Christmas … too commercial … people forget.” I struggled to assemble the words like a jigsaw puzzle in my mind.

As she slowed down, it became clear what she was trying to say. God is not up in the sky. God is in the heart. Maria said this last sentence firmly, patting her chest with one plump hand for emphasis. She told me that before she’d met me, she’d prayed for a family to come into her life—a family that would need her as much as she needed them. And God had provided exactly that. “Look,” she said, gesturing at the three of us on her couch. “God is right here.” She fell silent, and at that moment I felt God flow between us like the water gurgling through the little plastic waterfall, like the milk flowing into my son as he lay limp in my arms, his eyes closed in rapture.

Author’s Note: Maria sometimes jokingly called me “la patrona,” or the boss, and then squeezed my arm and laughed. I think it was her way of poking fun at the stereotypical roles we played: me, the privileged and neurotic white mother, and her, the warm-hearted and dark-skinned nanny. We tried to build a relationship that transcended those roles—by confiding in each other, by making each other laugh, by spending time together outside of our working relationship. But several months ago, when Maria’s son was suddenly deported, I felt more keenly than ever the different circumstances of our lives: My son remained safe in her care, while her son was detained without warning and put on a plane before she could even say goodbye. Maria was devastated. For many months, she cried each time I saw her. But that’s not all she did: She also saved money and got her son a lawyer; cooked and sold empanadas to hundreds of people to raise money for his appeals; and collected letters of support on his behalf. She inspires me to love better, have more faith, and recognize my blessings. Though my son is no longer in her care, we still visit her often.

Krista Bremer is a writer who lives in Carrboro, North Carolina. Her work has been published in The Sun, Utne Reader, and elsewhere.

Brain, Child (WInter 2008)

A Home Without Dolls

A Home Without Dolls

O Home Without Dolls ARTby Dawn Reno Langley

At Christmastime, Nana takes me to Jordan Marsh, a huge department store in downtown Boston, a place my asthmatic and claustrophobic mother never brings me. But my elegantly slim Swedish grandmother dons her pillbox fur hat and slips into her winter-white wool coat and pulls on her black leather elbow-length gloves over her red-manicured fingers, and we go shopping. It is an adventure made more exciting by the twinkling lights, delighting children like me who eye Roy Rogers snap guns, Tiny Tears dolls and automated window displays of Santa with his elves and reindeer. To my five-year-old eyes, it is magical.

We ride up the escalator past ladies’ lingerie and household goods, men’s suits and children’s shoes, to the top floor: Santa’s Village. Last stop. Home of every toy in creation.

I catch my breath, overwhelmed by aisle after aisle of beautiful dolls. Baby dolls that cry and wet, porcelain dolls with finely-painted black eyelashes and lace dresses fit for Victorian princesses, dolls as tall as I am, and Shirley Temple dolls dressed in costumes from each of her movies. Dolls stacked to the ceiling, so high I strain to see the ones on top.. My eyes widen as I reach out a finger to touch one dressed in an emerald green plaid kilt. Her fiery red hair the color of a summer tomato.


My daughter is two and a half. I’m living in Upstate New York, in a cement block house down the dirt road from a little farm owned by my new friends, Tom and Barbara. Tom is a former lawyer, former professor, now landlord. Barbara is redheaded, wears glasses, and is Jewish, with a laugh as big as her love for Tom. Their house, filled to the rafters with the goods from their antique shop in Cambridge, looks like it can’t hold the winter’s heat within the thin clapboards peeling with age. My cement ranch house holds very little heat itself. A small woodstove sits in the middle of my dining room. I burn green wood that I chop myself in the acreage in front of the house. I’ve never chopped wood before I lived here. Didn’t even know people still did that.

I’m barely twenty-one years old.

There are nights I’m so scared that I force myself to keep stoking the stove, staying awake because the sounds of coyotes and owls and wild cats send shivers down my spine. I am totally incapable of protecting the child who sleeps in the room off the hall, my daughter.


My jealous heart almost explodes because I know that nothing so perfect, so fine and beautiful like those porcelain dolls will wait for me under my Christmas tree. We live in the projects less than ten miles from Jordan Marsh. My father drives a garbage truck for the city; my grandparents live on my grandfather’s meager retirement from his job as a mechanic. At five, I already know what I can have and what I cannot. That gorgeous red-headed Scottish doll is not on the reality list. But I can dream and standing there in the aisles of that toy department, I imagine bringing each doll home with me.

Nana spots her own “toys,” the selection of paint-by-number kits, and momentarily leaves me to marvel at the dolls. In that brief breadth of time, I drift into a world my imagination created—a place I know all too well now as my “writer’s place,” but at five, that place is new to me.

I begin to make up stories about each of the dolls. The Scottish doll speaks to me with a funny accent. The baby dolls find their way to my bedroom, nestle on my single bunk bed, filling the space where there should be a pillow. The huge dollhouse—taller than I with room after room of miniature furniture—becomes my home. The perfect family who are tiny enough to fit on those itty bitty pieces of furniture becomes my family.


I live on Welfare in that cement block house in New York State. I have barely enough money to buy milk and to put some gas in my car so that I can go to the grocery store. I buy yellow-lined paper to write letters to my mother back home in Boston.   She sends me stamps in the cheery cards I receive every other day.   Stamps and a few dollars here and there, a few dollars I know she can’t afford.

I tell her about the words her granddaughter, Jennifer, is learning, how she loves to sit on the old red tractor that rests in my garden patch behind the house, the patch that is now frozen over though it is only October. As I write the letters, huddled at the red wooden kitchen table below the half window where I’ve hung curtains decorated with watermelon slices, I think of home, of the friends and family I left behind when my ex-husband chased me away. I think of the night policemen sat in patrol cars in front of my mother’s house, loaded shotguns in their hands. I think of the night my ex broke into my mother’s house. And though the cries of animals scare me every night on this farm in the middle of nowhere, I feel safer than I did when he knew where I lived. He has no idea where I am, and even if he had my address, he will not be able to find me.


The aisles of Jordan Marsh disappear. My world is inhabited by the fragile porcelain-faced dolls on those shelves. And when Nana calls my name and her voice breaks through that imaginary veneer, I do not want to go home with her. I want to stay where everything is bright and beautiful. I do not want to return to a home where those dolls do not live.

I hide behind a big doll house, and when Nana’s voice follows me down that aisle, I disappear into the next one. Her frantic voice follows me. A nervous giggle bubbles up into my throat. I will not let her find me. I will not let her ruin my game.


I hold my breath against the cold November chill and head out to the mailbox, hoping for a letter from my mother. Jen is in the kitchen. She’ll be okay for the moment it takes to get the mail.

I pull out bills and a couple of flyers for sales at the local stores, stores that I don’t frequent because I have enough money just to pay for necessities, but my eye is caught by one of them. Yarn on sale. Christmas will be coming soon. I could make some sweaters for Jennifer. I tuck the circular under my arm. Then I see the envelope and the familiar handwriting. A letter postmarked Boston. Mom.

Standing in the cold breeze, I read the first page. Newsy. She talks about the weather. My father’s last visit to the doctor. Her battles with asthma. The wind rustles the pages, so I fold them, slide them back into the white envelope, and head back into the house.

In the kitchen, Jennifer is on the floor, singing. In her hands are fistfuls of sand. I must have left the door open. She brought the sand in from outside the front door. She looks up to smile at me. Something white is on the floor mixed with the sand. I take a step closer. Milk. The quarter cup of milk I was saving for coffee and cereal the next day. The last of the milk for this week.

Mail forgotten, I sink to my knees. The fear and loneliness and anxieties well up, mixing with the milk and sand. I cry.

Jen, my baby, my two-year-old innocent, slaps some of the sand and milk on my cheek and laughs. It’s too much. The anger toward everyone else wells up in me, and I stand above her, wanting to slap her.

But I can’t. She’s my baby. My two-year-old. Innocent.

I walk out the front door.


I pass the Shirley Temple display and round the corner where the boys’ trucks replace the tottering display of dolls. Nana’s voice recedes into the distance. I study the mustard-yellow dump trucks and the red and white fire trucks with their movable ladders. They clank and whirr, but my heart remains with the pink and white dolls in the next aisle. Slowly I wander around the corner, head back to the dolls, eyes skyward, and slam into a pair of legs.


“Where have you been?” Her voice shakes. “You scared me silly. Don’t ever do that again!”

One gloved hand grabs my shoulder, the other whips across my face. The sting brings instant tears. My imaginary doll world shatters as if they all had toppled to the floor, their porcelain faces cracking into a thousand pieces.


I’ve left the house and I realize too late that I’m in the middle of the dirt road without a sweater. The gray November sky swirls with hints of snow, and I shiver, but I can’t go back inside. I’m still too angry. Walking a little further, I duck into the woods on the side of the road, thinking that being in the trees might cut the wind. I breathe deeply, calming myself, blinking back hot tears, hating my life. A car slides by, voices; I stay hidden. I don’t want to talk to anyone now. Not now.

The voices become louder. I hear my name. A child cries. Jennifer.

I can’t stay hidden any longer. Crackling leaves and bramble bushes catch my legs as I climb out of my hiding place. I see the rear view lights of an old Buick. The white head of a man carrying a child. My child. I run.

Jennifer calls me as I near, and the man turns. I know him. The Colonel. My friend Debbie’s father. Jen reaches for me, and I hold my arms out. The Colonel and his wife exchange glances, look at me quizzically. Didn’t know why a child would be out alone on the road, he tells me. I reply that I had lost something, thank him, tell him it’s cold, and head for my house.

My terrified heart pounds.


This weekend, I’m taking my two-year-old grandson out by myself. It’s the first time I will have him in the car alone, the first time we’ll go to a store and out to lunch, the first time it’ll be my responsibility to bring him home to his mother, my daughter, safely. He likes to hide when I babysit in his house. Just last week, he started saying, “I see you!” when he plays peek-a-boo. The game is a frightening reminder of the one I played so many years ago with my grandmother.


When I run downstairs on Christmas morning, my little sister is barely a year old.  Every year after that, there’ll be two or three sets of presents (my brother would be born two years later), but for that year, I am the main focus. My sister has no idea what Christmas was all about. That year—the year of Jordan Marsh—is the year my parents asked a special favor of my grandmother. They asked her to travel to Jordan Marsh for the one toy my parents would buy for me that year. Under the tree, in a place of honor, sat a 20″ tall Shirley Temple doll in a red and white polka dot dress. The doll my grandmother had been buying when she left me alone.

Author’s Note:  I know now that the knowledge we are expected to have as parents truly doesn’t kick in until we become grandparents.  I wanted to show that, as well as the insecurities we all feel about raising other human beings.

Dawn Reno Langley is a writer who grew up in Boston and currently lives in North Carolina.  She has written and published in every genre except screenwriting.  She is currently navigating the very warm waters of grandparent-hood.


It Flew

It Flew

By Marilyn A. Gelman

WO It Flew ART

We still wonder at the magic that matched Mark and Lisa with Rebecca. And I, in a closer relationship with my granddaughter than I ever thought possible, am very grateful that she flew home to me.

So many years ago that it seems like another lifetime, my older son, Mark, asked his father about the birds and the bees.

They were sitting on my then-husband’s side of our rumpled bed. Daddy was bent over tying a shoe when Mark asked how the part from the man got to the part from the woman so that a baby came.

Daddy paused and looked at me over his shoulder. I shook my head. Luck had sent the question to him, not to me. I was not getting involved.

Daddy ducked.

“It flew,” he said.

Divorce happened; children grew into adults. Mark and I often joked about his sex education at home. At least Daddy had told him something; as far as we knew, his brother married without even the benefit of “It flew” to guide him in wedded bliss.

Mark went to college and graduate school. He married his college sweetheart, Lisa, and they began to build a life together. They bought a house, got a dog, put up a fence and, in 2006, some thirty-five years after he had been told “It flew,” they flew to China to adopt Rebecca. She was thought to be about two years old.

I knew from the get-go that I would not be a daily fixture in Rebecca’s life. Although I live a mere twenty miles away, it might as well be hundreds of miles because I did not have a car. In addition, I live with disabilities that would make it difficult for me to be as involved as Rebecca’s other grandmother, who lived only ten minutes away. Any jealousy you can conjure up would be right on the mark.

As Mark and Lisa prepared for their trip to China, I prepared myself to be cold. I would look upon the child with scientific interest. I would not become emotionally involved. My absence from the minutiae of the child’s life, and from my son’s life as a father, surely would hurt less if I steeled myself to be only the old lady she had to kiss a few times a year.

Mark called me periodically from China to update me on Rebecca. Like the other children in her adoption group on “gotcha-day,” Rebecca was not in great health. She had bronchitis; she was very thin and weak. Neither Mark nor Lisa spoke Chinese and were confused by the doctor’s explanation of her illness and treatment.

I was happy that they called me from their hotel so I could give them advice like “Don’t pass a sick baby around in the hotel dining room; I don’t care how cute she is,” and “Give me the name of your doctor at home, and I’ll call for advice.” It was so exciting to place my cell phone, with Mark on speakerphone from China, next to my landline phone, with the pediatrician on speakerphone from New Jersey, and listen in on an unexpected medical conference at 11 o’clock at night.

I felt like a mama again. My son needed me. I was involved with my granddaughter’s well-being. And his, too.

But of course I would remain stoic and aloof. Once they got home.

Mark is a veteran of family politics, having kept divorced parents separated at most major life events. He’s learned to weigh and balance honors and create complex algorithms to determine which of four single parents will see him and his wife on holidays. Of course I always figure I get the raw deal.

He needed the wisdom of Solomon to decide who would meet the new family at the airport, who would wait at their home and who would visit the next day. Everyone agreed that Rebecca needed to come home to a calm landing, free of the disruption of multiple strangers making bizarre noises and poking at her with unfamiliar fingers.

I was delighted to be the one chosen to meet them at the airport. Mark hired a car service so I would be the first to see the child and to see him in his new role as father.

I only can imagine the force of the new parents’ emotions when they first saw their child. I was overwhelmed with love, pride and a sense of history when I saw my son as a new daddy for the first time.

How quickly he had learned his role in his infant family structure. He appeared in an archway, directly behind Lisa who was carrying a small bundle. He looked exhausted, yet his calm face shone joy. It seemed he did not notice he was managing a mountain of luggage teetering on a cart. He beamed as his wife spotted me and ran, with Rebecca, down the aisle to greet me.

Our driver snapped a photograph of us, just as Rebecca leaned over and kissed me. I tell people that the airport kiss was my first sign that Rebecca was an extremely sensitive and intelligent little girl. I wonder if Rebecca knew then, even before I knew, that there was something special between us.
We loaded up the car on a parking garage roof deck; artificial lights had turned night into day. Then we began the drive home.

This little country girl was strapped in an unfamiliar car seat in an unfamiliar vehicle, with strangers, and immersed in highway traffic at night, white lights coming and red lights going. She began to wail.

“Li! Li! Li!” she cried.

“I think she’s afraid,” I said. “I think she wants a light turned on.”

Lisa shook her head. “She doesn’t like the car seat.”

“She’s tired,” said Mark, between munches of the first bagel he had had in weeks.

“Li! Li! Li!” Rebecca continued.

“OK,” I said. I feared I was being an interfering grandmother. Mark and Lisa had been with Rebecca for almost two weeks. They had taken care of her in a strange land where they did not speak the language. They had managed her diet, her bronchitis and her diapers. How could I insist to this brave couple that they were wrong, that their daughter—my granddaughter—was expressing her needs to them in English?

“Are you sure she never heard you say to one another, ‘Turn on the light’?” In unison, Mark and Lisa said, “No.”

Just then, the driver switched on the interior car lights, and Rebecca stopped crying and went to sleep. We have understood one another ever since.

I do not speak Chinese, and we don’t know if my darling was verbal before she came to us. Yet, from our first meeting, Rebecca and I could communicate with a glance, touch each other’s sense of humor, and speak to and understand one another. People around us could not figure out how.

By the time the new family had returned from China, Rebecca was an old hand at eating in good hotel restaurants. The Jewish delicatessen, Chinese restaurant and American grill soon became pieces of cake for her.

It was in the deli, during her first week home, that this child, with a lumberjack’s appetite, broke a French fry in half and gave me a piece. She understood there would be more food if she was hungry.

And it was here that I asked Mark not to wipe Rebecca’s face because she could wipe her own, and his, when I asked her to. She touched us all when she removed imaginary crumbs from his chin.

It was in the grill during her second month home that I realized she was calling Mark “Da Da” before he did. And, during a threesome for dinner, the first time mommy stayed home for a long shower and a nap, Mark realized that he couldn’t use the men’s room without my babysitting cooperation.

We were all still unsure how much English Rebecca understood.

A few years earlier, I had attended doggie school with my dog, Buffy. There I was trained to set up the dog for success and to reward desired conduct. Soon after Rebecca’s arrival, I used the same method with her that I had used with Buffy.  I didn’t see anything wrong with it.

“Sit,” I taught the child, using Cheerios as reinforcement. I kept Buffy’s Cheerios in my right pocket and Rebecca’s in my left. Doggie and granddaughter would sit, stay, run, come. The three of us—Buffy, Rebecca and I—had a wonderful time. Lisa was concerned that I was treating Rebecca like a dog, but Mark was tickled that doggie school training worked on his child.

When Rebecca was three, she wanted to be just like me—to wear a coat or not, like me. If you saw us settling down in a Chinese restaurant, it might have looked like a choreographed routine to you. Without words, I would hand her the folded napkins and she would distribute the utensils that were wrapped inside. Then I would pass her the noodles and sauce. We worked as a team: two bodies, one brain.

According to people, in addition to me, Rebecca is beautiful, brilliant, multi-talented, generous and fun. She can own the world. But family and strangers alike are mystified that we appear to have a physical resemblance. Despite small differences in skin tone and around the eyes, Rebecca looked like a photograph of me taken at the same age. People still tell me they see a resemblance between us, although they know it is impossible.

Now 10 years old, Rebecca’s busy schedule—dance class, baseball, Girl Scouts, music lessons—makes it difficult for me to see her as often as I once did. She tells her dad that she wants to visit me every weekend. Clearly, that is impossible. She said she wants a two-week sleepover. That would be exhausting. She wants me at family holidays and vacations. How lovely. I keep asking her if she has her driver’s license yet so she can come visit whenever she wants. I’m still waiting.

Mark regrets that Rebecca and I cannot be together more often. When he sees her kiss my hand and say, “I love you Grandma, I miss you so much,” I know his heart breaks. He says that sometimes it seems criminal that we are kept apart so much. She cups my face in her hands and I cup hers.

Rebecca is extremely smart, sensitive, considerate, capable and kind, always beyond her years. Her joy in life is infectious. If she tells me she is going somewhere and I say, “Have a good time,” she responds that she always does. She moves through life with grace.

If I could, I would put all the health, wealth, happiness and fun that exists in the world on a silver platter for her. I know she would love it and then share it.

So the question remains. How is it that Rebecca and I seem to be from the same gene pool, the one for grandmas and granddaughters, that excludes the man in the middle?

Was my son’s father right, those many years ago, when he described how a baby comes?

We still wonder at the magic that matched Mark and Lisa with Rebecca. And I, in a closer relationship with my granddaughter than I ever thought possible, am very grateful that she flew home to me.

Author’s Note: Rebecca’s life is filled with friends and activities; she is healthy and strong, the best any grandmother could wish for her grandchild. On her Valentine’s Day card to me this year, she wrote, “I will have fun with you every day in my heart when you aren’t around and when you are. Love, your one and only granddaughter.” I expect her to have her driver’s license in about seven years.

Marilyn A. Gelman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, True Stories, Well Told: From the First 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, A Cup of Comfort, and The Paterson Literary Review, among other publications.

One, Lucky Granddaughter

One, Lucky Granddaughter

By Jennifer Reinharz

Gram and me wedding picture

On October 15th, I lost my grandmother to cancer. The disease engulfed Dot’s body almost as quickly as she learned the diagnosis.

Three days earlier, when the doctors assured she still had a few weeks, I returned home from my hospital visit, gathered my notebook, and made plans to capture my grandmother’s unusually talkative mood.

There were so many possibilities. Perhaps, as my husband’s Jewish tradition teaches, Dot could fulfill the 613th mitzvah and write a Torah, a personal 10 commandments thus sealing her life scroll; or maybe, as a member of her church’s quilting guild, she could share patch ideas for a memory quilt.

But by the time I reached my grandmother’s home hospice bedside, she was already in a final sleep. Weeks whittled to hours. Before sunrise, she was gone.

Dot’s death was beautiful; swift, pain-free, and at home surrounded by loved ones. Her last days, passing, and funeral had been a fluid waltz. Everything fell into place as if she was the choreographer.

Without her words, I had to stretch my accordion memory file for tucked away treasures. Two came to mind; Sweet 16 and Oh Definitely.

Each birthday, my grandmother would caw over her candles, “I’m sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” Sixteen was her forever age, the age at which she liked to remember herself.

Any time Dot emphatically agreed with a point, she broke her silence with a high pitched, “Oh, definitely!”

My notebook soon filled up with Dot’s Sweet 16 of Definite-lys.


1. Listen for understanding. When talking with other people, don’t uh-huhright, or yes them. Take it all in. Dot was everyone’s ear—mine included.

2. Visit the sick. My grandmother was not afraid of the fray. She recognized that a friend’s comfort was more important than her own. The key to helping those failing feel alive, she had recently told me, was to talk about old times. Present day connections are less meaningful to a lost mind.

3. Create a warm and inviting home. Dot raised three daughters on the second floor of a modest, two-family house. Even as the family grew, her apartment was “the place to be”; men congregated in the living room, ladies packed around the dining table. A full home filled my grandmother’s heart.

4. Keep an open door policy. Dot always left an empty plate on the table. Crowds of cousins, neighbors, and friends would traipse through the door in search of company and my grandmother’s eggplant parmesan, kielbasa, spareribs, and peanut brittle. Guests knew when Dot’s Westminster doorbell chimed, she would welcome them in. No appointment needed.

5. Talk to everyone and do it with respect and genuine interest. My grandmother was well versed in the art of chit-chatting; she could work any room. From store clerks to politicians, children to commuters, she never categorized or judged. In recent years, however, she became increasingly disillusioned with technology. “No one stops to talk anymore,” she said. It made her sad.

6. Be a good time Charlie. Cut a rug, laugh, quip, banter, sing. Dot loved to tell tales of old boyfriends and reminisce about her young and single watering hole shenanigans.

7. Send cards. I’m convinced Dot single-handedly bankrolled Hallmark. My grandmother sent a card to every grandchild, great-grandchild, in-law, daughter and cousin regardless of age for every birthday and holiday, Jewish, Christian, secular or otherwise. Enclosed was always a personal check and for the little ones, an additional side of cash.

8. Watch your television stories but limit the news; it is depressing and redundant. When my grandmother told my husband she had to check into a quiet hospital room to escape Fox News, ISIS, and Ebola, he couldn’t help but laugh.

9. Take advantage of an opportunity but own up to its responsibility. Although my grandmother didn’t get her driver’s license until she was a mother of three in her thirties, she loved to drive. With a dashboard tap for luck and a tank that never fell below the half way mark, Dot was always on the go. But when her eyes weakened a dozen years ago, she didn’t hesitate and returned the keys.

10. Forge ahead. My grandmother’s limited eyesight was exacerbated by arthritic knees, a temperamental heart, weekly doctor visits, and piles of medication. Not once did she complain to anyone.

11. Volunteer in your community, house of worship, schools or wherever you see fit. My grandmother’s obituary noted her occupation as HomemakerMore so, she was a chauffeur, troop leader, lunchroom aide, caregiver, church elder, and neighborhood sentinel.

12. Say “I love you.” Dot had a hard time saying “I love you”; showing love seemed easier for her. In the hospital, the last time my grandmother heard me say I love you, she still flicked her wrist and squawked, “I know, I know,” trying desperately to fight the tears.

13. Avoid self pity. Dot was a Depression kid with an estranged, alcoholic father. She dropped out of school in the 10th grade to go to work. These experiences never stopped her from embracing life.

14. Communicate. My grandmother didn’t speak to her sister for thirty years and regretted the lost time. “Put all the cards on the table now,” she advised. “Grudges are worthless. Life is too short.”

15. Keep the faith. Dot had an unwavering commitment to prayer and church, attending and sharing a pew with the same senior ladies each Sunday, often offering the young ministers words of kindness and encouragement. She embraced what spoke to her in this universe, and in the end, it was her faith that helped her to let go.

16. Love well. During my grandmother’s final hours, her apartment was filled with family giving to her and my grandfather what she had always given to us: attention, care, support, strength, and comfort. At her funeral, it was no surprise that strangers approached my grandfather saying, “You don’t know me, but I knew Dot.  She was a special lady.”

Before Dot’s death, my five-year old said goodbye to his great-grandmother.

He stood at the base of the hospital bed and said, “I love you, G.G.”

“You do?” she replied.

“I will miss you when God comes.”

God came—all too soon and all too suddenly.

People speak of rocks; Dot was mine. Her spirit and legacy fill me today and always.

I am one lucky granddaughter.

Most definitely.

Jennifer Reinharz writes for children, and blogs for grownups. She is a teacher, CrossFitter, and most importantly, Mom to Bubbe and The Skootch. Jennifer is the creator of the personal essay blog, Red said what? (www.redsaidwhat.com). Follow her on Twitter @redsaidwhatblog.

Object of Desire

Object of Desire

By Tricia Springstubb

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 5.32.07 PMIt reminded me of that period in my life when, if a friend called up with a tremulous note in her voice, I knew her next words would be, “We’re splitting up.” Or, years later, when an urgent request to meet for coffee meant a brilliant son was failing out of school, or a daughter was whittling herself to a skeleton and what, what could you do to stop them?

Now it was our aging mothers who gave our voices a ragged note, that hiss of despair. My friends and I staggered through the long stretch of midnight phone calls, of step-down and rehab, spouting diagnostic numbers we didn’t really understand, comparing tips on home aides. While we struggled to be noble, our mothers remained the pessimists or the optimists, the divas or the earth mothers they had always been. They thanked us over and over, or told us we were doing everything wrong. And then, they died.

After all that, they went into the ground without complaint, heavy seeds that bore no fruit, not any more. But oh, it wasn’t over. Here are some of the things they left behind: boxes of feathered, veiled hats; a collection of pietàs; sweaters; poetry by the shoebox; rooms full of hideous furniture pristinely preserved. A tattered rain coat, thirty unopened sponges, photo albums full of smiling people no one recognized. Without the mothers to pick them up and show them to us, to put them on, or dust them off or gently unfold them on the kitchen table, these things lost their enchantment, the way luminous shapes picked up on a beach turn into unremarkable rocks once you get them home. Standing in my mother’s silent house, I thought of a beekeeper regarding his swarming hive—all that golden dazzle of movement, that hum of wings, and sweet, heavy smell of honey. Then one day the bees are gone. Gone! And he realizes that all he’s looking at is a ponderous box.

Yet what to do with all they left behind? One friend built a pyre, and the hats in their cake-shaped boxes went up in smoke. She couldn’t bear to give them away and what in the world would she ever do with them? Another painstakingly sifted and compiled her mother’s poems, bound them and gave us copies. My siblings and I were lucky, in a way, because our penny-pinching mother didn’t leave very much. She liked to use things up; she was one of those rare people who can throw something away without a second thought. (Something like my original Shirley Temple doll, no doubt worth a fortune.) There was nothing for us kids to argue over, though we wouldn’t have anyway, not if there’d been mountains of silver and crystal. Our parents’ marriage was tempestuous and hard. How well we children get along was one of our mother’s rare, pure pleasures. That, and her grandchildren.

And we were lucky in another way, because one of those grandchildren, my youngest daughter, was planning to move into her first apartment and would need things like colanders and kettles. The mothers’ dying, the daughters’ setting up house—the fearful symmetry of that! The day we closed up our childhood home, my siblings wrapped juice glasses and measuring cups for their niece, gratified that these things would get a second act. It seemed so natural, the wheel of life taking a spin, the baton passing, and we were off the hook about what to do with it all. This was a rainy day in late July, our parents’ anniversary in fact. Just as we were leaving, the sun came out, and condensation rose from the roof. We all started laughing, all thinking the same thing: It was Mom, steamed up over our abandoning the family homestead after fifty-four years.

This granddaughter who was moving out, moving five hundred miles away to New York City, this youngest daughter we still call Baby—this girl once misplaced her cello, which was in a case the size of a closet. While she lived with us, I found twenty dollar bills wadded up in the bottom of the washer as regularly as I did her cell phone (and once her bra) between the couch cushions, her wallet beneath the seat of the car. The floor of any room she occupies quickly becomes little more than rumor. Where her grandmother was thrifty, she is careless, but in the end doesn’t it amount to the same thing? Possessions are their servants, not the other way around.

I, on the other hand, am prone to endow objects with, if not sentience, at least the power to conduct memory and its attendant emotions. Some current scintillates in the weave of that ugly shirt, the first present my husband ever gave me, which he chose with such care and offered with such diffidence and which he’d be astonished to discover still residing in my bottom drawer. This isn’t sentimentality. It’s primitive faith, or else superstition of the purest sort: If I don’t honor you, dear thing, what’s to keep the universe, which after all is mostly composed of things, from turning its back on me? It’s not me converting this bit of cotton into a talisman, but the reverse: The power resides in that shirt, this yellowed prayer book, the envelope of baby teeth tucked in my jewelry box. “I hear the songs the objects sing,” my friend who collects glass and textiles once quoted to me, a line from a German poet. A Siren song, I fumed, surrounded as I was by far, far too much stuff. Possessed by possessions, those treacherous tricksters! After we emptied my mother’s house, I vowed to learn my lesson.

And yet, two months later, a week before my daughter was set to move away, I became fixated on acquiring a dresser. A dresser and a hamper, I told my friends, comrades in this latest stage: the empty nest. If this careless girl at least starts out with receptacles for clean and dirty clothes, her life may assume a new, vertical order. The chaos of her life will fall away, stunned into submission by shining towers of organization. All will be well! My friends nodded. They were busy buying de-humidifiers for basement apartments, curtains for windows that faced brick walls. The song of the objects still sang in our heads, but now, instead of a dirge, we heard a love ballad.

At Target, the Baby glanced at the various dressers, pronounced them all just fine, and drifted toward the jeans department. That night my husband examined the model I bought, which mysteriously fit into a very flat box.

“There’s really a dresser in there?” I’d asked the sales clerk, and she’d murmured something about assembly, and hardware, though maybe she’d said nightmare. My husband returned the box the next day, vowing to take charge of the dresser issue himself.

He came home with a chest of drawers the size of a child’s coffin. It was assembled, yet would fit in the car (a station wagon, a near replica of the one my mother drove). “It’s too small,” I said. He argued it was practical. I insisted it was flimsy. He said look, he’d reinforce the bottoms of the drawers, and tighten the knobs, and while he was at it give the top another coat of varnish. “Why don’t you just build a dresser from scratch?” I cleverly rejoined. Our daughter raised an eyebrow but dutifully filled the drawers—her underwear and half a dozen T-shirts did it. The rest of her clothes went into garbage bags she wedged in around the dresser. Her grandmother’s linens and kitchen things, my dismantled childhood bed—the car was crammed. We were ready.

But sometime between then and the next afternoon, when we were to leave, her father began to have qualms. He e-mailed me from work that the dresser was, after all, too small, and we should take it out of the car. “Are you nuts?” I e-squawked back. He wrote that he was a flexible person, able to admit a mistake. I wrote that the dresser might work out after all, because our daughter said her room was small, and if she said that, it meant Lilliputian. He phoned to say he didn’t want to drag a dresser five hundred miles only to discard it on a New York City sidewalk. I said that would be easier than wrestling it back out of the car at this point.

The dresser stayed in the car, but by now we were both furious and miserable. We left late, throwing off the (completely arbitrary!) schedule he’d set us. He and I, when we spoke at all, continued to argue, all across Pennsylvania, past the signs for Barkeyville and See Penn’s Cavern by Boat and the giant Sapp Brothers Café coffee pot, milestones that in the past always made us happy. Demented, we fought over when and where we should stop to eat, whether we should stay in a Motel 6 or a Comfort Inn. If it had been possible to enumerate the hairs on our daughter’s head, we might have argued over the final number. She and the dresser rode in the back, equally silent.

When I left home for the first time, I moved to a big city, too. I had no job, but a good résumé, friends with room in their apartment, and high hopes. Just like my daughter now, precisely the same scenario. Yet my mother didn’t fret over what I’d sleep on, or where I’d stash my clothes. Surely she never bought me a single piece of furniture, not even a set of towels. By then my father’s drinking was bad. She had four other children, the beginning of her own serious medical problems. Did she believe I’d be better off if, from the very beginning, I understood the price we pay to own things? Or maybe she’d already surrendered, this woman whose homemade wedding dress we found crumpled and yellow in her own dresser’s bottom drawer, surrendered any trust or hope she’d once placed in objects.

The apartment was tiny! The dresser was perfect for it. Where would the rest of her clothes ever fit? That no longer seemed to matter, now that we were standing in her new place, which was so cute, and meeting her roommates, who were so smart and sweet. There was a park at the end of the street, and every passer-by my husband interrogated said the neighborhood was safe, it was a delight, our daughter would love it here. We sank onto a bench, and I leaned my head on his shoulder.

These days when I imagine the Baby’s room I see the little reinforced dresser, a would-be beacon of our love and support. I try not to feel sorry for the poor, stalwart thing, struggling to live up to its task but no match for her usual maelstrom. My friends laugh ruefully as I say this. We shake our heads. What we leave behind, what we choose to give—it’s always so paltry, compared to what we meant.

My mother can’t know (unless she can) that her granddaughter now squints at her Pyrex measuring cup, the red lines all but worn off, or fills her dented tea kettle with New York City water. Thrifty as she was, Mom would be gratified, but more than that. How happy it would make her, what proprietary pleasure she’d take, to know she was part of this new adventure, this blank and gleaming slate of a life!

And when this child uses her grandmother’s things, doesn’t some of that happiness pass through to her? For her, unlike me, these objects are no burden; they make no demands, evoke no regret or sorrow, disappointment, or grief. A single power resides in them now, and that is the magic to make our girl feel embraced, enveloped by something ongoing. Look at her washing the measuring cup, not very well, and setting it on the shelf. Look at her dashing out the door, late, careless, brimming with hope.

Author’s Note: My mother loved to read. Thrifty as she was, though, she never bought books. Stacks from the library anchored every table in our house, and one of my favorite memories is waking in what seemed the middle of the night and seeing, down the end of the hall, her reading lamp shining like a tiny lighthouse.

These days the Baby spends her daily subway ride to work (yes, she found a job!) reading, and has probably endowed a special collection or two with all the library fines she’s paid. How I wish my mom could read this piece about the two of them, and how glad I am that her granddaughter will.

Tricia Springstubb’s fiction has appeared in Redbook, The Iowa Review, and Hunger Mountain, among other places. Her books for young readers include What Happened on Fox Street and Mo Wren, Lost and Found, and the picture book Phoebe and Digger.


Brain, Child (Fall, 2010)

Grandma’s Secret

Grandma’s Secret

mother and children making cookiesby Kate Washington

When she was three, my daughter Lucy was interested in many things: fairies, swimming, “Call Me Maybe,” ice cream, the alphabet, families, death. The last two interests led her to asking questions about my mother, who died when Lucy was a baby.

“Mama,” she said, “Who is your mama?” She asked this fairly often, since learning that Grandpa is my father but his wife is not my mother. My mother was missing.

“My mama was Maga,” I said, using the name Lucy’s older sister Nora invented when she couldn’t pronounce Grandma. “You’ve seen pictures.”

“Your mama is dead?”


“Why is she dead?”

I sighed. “She was sick and her body couldn’t keep working and she died,” I answered, leaving out the fact that my mother’s death was a suicide, by an overdose of antidepressants and blood-pressure medication.

“Because she needed more air in her body?”

“Yes, kind of.”

“Because she drowned in the deep ocean?”

“No, Maga didn’t drown.”

“Because she was eaten by sharks?”

“No, she wasn’t eaten by sharks.”

I think about an alternate reality in which my mother was eaten by sharks. Let’s just say it would not have been very likely to happen. My mother wasn’t the adventure-sports type; she did aerobics. She got seasick easily and didn’t like getting her hair wet in the pool, so it’s hard to picture a shark-infested venue that would have appealed to her. But, for a moment, I imagine my quiet, stay-at-home mother skimming the waves on a catamaran or yacht with wind-filled sails, scuba diving or snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, surfing off of Santa Cruz, or diving in a shark cage and attracting the attention of a rogue Great White.

It’s not a very pleasant scenario. The shark’s muscled gleam thrashing in the water, its gaping prehistoric maws, those many layers of razor-sharp teeth clamping down. That shit must hurt. The last five or ten or twenty minutes of a life that ends in getting eaten by a shark must really, truly be terrible. But the time leading up to it? That sounds pretty awesome, actually, full of the freedom of the waves and the smell of salt air and brilliant sunshine on tanned skin and the lithe loose feeling of a body moving in the water. If my mom had been living a salty oceanic life, surfing a sunny blue wave or sailing the high seas, surely she would not have suffered the kind of gray dark depression that led her to wish to die peacefully, in her bed, after a hopeless muddy season of misery.

My mother was never one to surf a wave, to glide easily over a crash and break of current and foam. She lived in the wave, wiped out hard; her moods crested and crashed and she was pounded into the sand and finally it got to be enough. She didn’t need a shark to eat her alive; her moods did that for her.

I couldn’t give Lucy that answer, not then. I couldn’t, at first, bring myself to tell her that her grandma had taken medicine that killed her. Someday, I thought, I would tell both my girls about that, but I couldn’t find the words that day.

Nora, who was four when my mother died, had also asked how it had happened when I told her of her beloved grandmother’s death. I was in shock then, the morning after the police found my mother’s body, and I simply said that Maga’s body was sick and stopped working.

Since then, I’ve known I would wait to tell my girls the whole truth. But the time had come, after Lucy’s questions started, I began to wonder if my feeling that a small child can’t handle this information wasn’t merely a product of my own preconceptions about suicide; kids don’t know there’s a stigma attached to it, after all.

I thought that death, the bare fact of it, was hard enough for a kid to understand; further explaining that someone might want to die, and discussing mental illness, felt like too much. But I believe in telling the truth to my kids, hard as it might be. Time, and therapy, had helped me to face up to the facts of my mother’s death and come to a fuller, less guilty understanding of it. I worried that as my kids grew—Nora was seven by then—they were apt to overhear, and possibly misconstrue, adult conversations. I didn’t want them to overhear whispers and conclude either that their grandmother had done something to be ashamed of rather than to grieve, or that we don’t talk about mental illness or acknowledge its reality.

Explaining, however, is easier said than done. As Lucy’s line of questioning shows, death makes sense to children only in the most extreme terms: If a person is eaten by sharks, ripped to shreds by a toothy prehistoric fish, even a three-year-old can understand that that person is not going to come back ready to play some more. Regular, ordinary death, the kind that happens every day, doesn’t make sense: how could a person lie down in their bed one night and then just not be the next morning? The body hasn’t disappeared, but something has ineffably changed. Plenty of grown-ups struggle with that notion too, so explaining it to a kid is extra difficult. Layer on the idea that a person would choose to make that happen, and the explanation borders on unbelievable.

Especially if it’s your grandma. My mother loved Nora so much that her adoration sometimes seemed excessive. Every time she saw her, she wanted to be baking cookies or trick-or-treating or doing something extra-special. As a result, we have lots and lots of pictures of my mother doing grandmotherly things with Nora. There are only two pictures of her with Lucy, though: by the time Lucy was born, my mother was deep in her final illness, manic and difficult, and we weren’t spending a lot of time together.

The warm, cuddly cultural space occupied by the notion of a cookie-baking grandmother is about as far from the idea of suicide as one could imagine. Grandmas are supposed to stick around being sweet throughout one’s childhood, right? Sometimes, on top of all the other feelings I have about my mom’s death, I feel angry that my kids have been cheated out of something special, the chance to have a close relationship with a local grandmother. I never expected to live in the same city as my mother; my husband happened to get a tenure-track job in the city my mother moved to after I left my hometown. It felt like a bit of strange serendipity, when we might have moved anywhere. In reality, though, our relationship was not easy or smooth, so my idyllic vision of three generations peacefully baking together is really a wistful one, but still, I wish my children could have had that.

Now, however, she isn’t here, and my children deserved to know why. My mother’s suicide is part of their medical history, much as it’s part of my own. Suicides often run in families. The thought of my girls, my happy, sunny, beautiful daughters, ending their lives terrifies me so much I can hardly bear to write the words. Fear of that possibility kept me from being more honest with them.

Lucy is now five. Several months ago, she asked again how her grandmother died, and I took a deep breath. “She took too much of her medicine,” I said. “And even though medicine can help you, too much medicine can make your body sick and can make you die.”

Lucy looked at me, unfazed, and came back with a five-year-old’s most frequent question: “Why?”

“She took too much medicine on purpose,” I answered. “She had a sickness in her mind that made her very sad and she couldn’t get better.”

Lucy just nodded; I asked if she had any more questions, and she said no. A few follow-ups have popped up, but for the most part she has taken the information in stride. (I’ve also given a similar, though slightly more in-depth, explanation to her older sister.) Occasionally, if a discussion of medicine or doctors comes up, she will matter-of-factly mention that Maga died from taking too much of her medicine. Overall, I have found that telling my girls the truth has been a relief.

I don’t think answering their questions—which will inevitably get thornier as they grow older and gain more understanding—will ever be easy. But by having a fully honest conversation, I hope I’m taking the terror out of the facts of my mother’s death. The fact of her suicide and its roots in her depression won’t be shameful secrets but just the truth. And both my daughters and I can, I hope, come to a fuller understanding that the sharks that ate my mother were all in her mind.

Kate Washington is a writer based in Sacramento, California. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Yoga Journal, Sunset, and the Bellingham Review, and she is a contributing writer at Sactown Magazine. She is a co-founder of Roan Press, a small nonprofit literary press.

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Me’me’ Mondays

Me’me’ Mondays

By Priscilla F. Bourgoine

imageMondays have become my favorite day of the week. This is thanks to my older daughter and son-in-law for asking me to take care of my grandson.

Since last October, I have driven down from New Hampshire to Boston to spend the day with my baby grandson, while my daughter and son-in-law go to work. With the arrival of April weather and his turning ten-months-old, my daughter and I have been brainstorming about events I can share with Jacob.

Outings were a staple of how I mothered my own three children, how my own mom mothered us, and can be traced back at least two more generations. My mom gave my brother and me a kaleidoscope of new activities, sprinkled with the notion that curiosity about life, shared together, created joy. She encouraged us to step out into the world with her and go beyond our fears of the unknown: riding the train into Manhattan to stand in the grandness of the 42nd Street library, hiking mini-parts of the Appalachian Trail, fishing with bamboo rods, at dusk, along the jetty at Stamford’s Cove Beach, and she brought us to the circus at Madison Square Garden. She had a backstage pass. We held hands and stood inches from the ferocious tigers in their cages.

One of my fondest outings was picking strawberries. My Scottish great-Aunt Teen and her older sister, my Gram, visited us during my first summer living in New Hampshire. My parents had shed their Connecticut roots for the bucolic state of pine trees and lakes, during my sophomore year of high school.

That New Hampshire summer, the Scottish sisters decided to resurrect an activity their mother used to do with them. My mom drove all of us in her station wagon to the local farm. Side by side, Aunt Teen and Gram, instructed us in how to snap the berry from its plant. I plunked handfuls of plump strawberries into our bucket, and I popped some into my mouth. Sweet juice danced on my thirsty tongue. The strong sun burned my sore arms, and the berries stained my fingertips deep red. We had begged to stop. Gram and her sister had told us “Aye, just a wee bit more.” Then, they laughed. In the afternoon, at our home, they had taught us how to make preserves with a pressure cooker, a skill I haven’t duplicated, but one I am glad I learned. Since then, anytime I have bitten into the fleshy meat of a berry, I have been transported to that June day where I knelt in the dusty rows of that farm with my Great Aunt, Gram, and my mom. My remembrance of their Scottish voices soothes me with the notes of their faded melodies.

Bagpipes hummed in the distance this Monday morning, April 21st 2014, Patriots’ Day. My daughter and son-in-law and I had agreed today’s parade would make a great first outing. Jacob napped extra-long. He was probably exhausted from a weekend of Passover and Easter celebrations.

Sleepy-eyed, I zipped Jacob up in his teddy-bear jacket and carried him outside. The blue sky covered cool crisp air with a promise of warmth. Fans soldiered along the sidewalk toward the Alewife T- Station to ride downtown to the Boylston Street Finish Line, the battlefield of last year’s bombings; their arms loaded with clear plastic bags, filled with survival blankets and clean, cushioned socks for their Marathoners.

I covered Jacob’s lap with a quilt, and steered his stroller away from the apartment, as if I was on reconnaissance to locate costumed Rebels or band members or clowns, roaming the streets after the parade disbanded. In a few moments, the intersection with the main road was in view. Blue strobe lights flashed from a police car, which crept along Massachusetts Avenue.

“Hold on Jakey!” I said. I turned my fast walk into a sprint and dug deep to resurrect my decades ago skill in the fifty-yard dash. I huffed and puffed. The moment we landed near the intersection, we saw Paul Revere in his triangular black hat with his cape flowing, mounted on a chestnut horse. Two other period-clothed riders flanked Paul. In a flash, the entourage passed us. I found myself running along the sidewalk with the horse escort. Less than two blocks later, my legs ached, my breathing forced, I changed to a walking pace, resigned to the fact that once a sprinter, not always a sprinter. I’m a grandmother now, so I may have slowed a bit. The horses disappeared around the curve at Arlington Center.

While I am pleased I exposed Jacob to a little bit of history today and stimulated his curiosity, I’m not sure whether he enjoyed the man with the funny hat riding horseback or if he was more captivated by the blue strobe lights from the police car.  I’ll take either, because both were new experiences. Mission accomplished. The point was reveling in the joy of doing something new together.

This sunny April day reminds me strawberry season will arrive soon. While it has been years since I took my own children to the farm, when my grandson is older, and with all the grandchildren to come, I will take them strawberry picking and, under the warmth of a summer day, I will egg them on to pluck ripe berries “a wee bit more.”

Priscilla Bourgoine practices as a psychotherapist outside of Boston and, offers web therapy through a Manhattan company. She earned a MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Priscilla lives with her husband in southern New Hampshire. 

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Complicated Grief:  The Death of My Granddaughter

Complicated Grief: The Death of My Granddaughter

By Adele Gould

Tali2“Granny!” my granddaughter would shriek, as she leaped into what she trustingly assumed would be my waiting embrace. Her eyes would shine with joy as she anticipated playtime, Granny-style. We would collapse on the floor, surrounded by dolls and other such girlish accoutrements. Sometimes I got to be the mommy and she the daddy, and when she grew tired of parenthood, she would dump her “children” in a box, and we’d dance to the rhythm of “Old McDonald” joined by her two brothers (one of whom was her twin).

Could there be any greater joy?

My beloved granddaughter, Tal Doron (affectionately called Tali) was just four years old when she died on August 26th 2007. A beautiful child, she exuded both childlike joy and astounding maturity throughout the ten months of her suffering.  Diagnosed at age three with a rare form of brain cancer, her chances of survival were slim. Nevertheless—as she endured the unspeakable horrors of chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation—we convinced ourselves that she would beat the odds.

There was simply no other way to think.

Dazed and terrified, we sprang into action, aided by our wonderful community of friends.  The family needed to eat.  The parents needed clean clothes.  And there were two bewildered little boys whose world had turned upside down and inside out.  My heart broke as I dropped my 3-year-old grandson at preschool—without his twin for the first time in his life—and had to leave him screaming because I was needed at the hospital.

How could this possibly be happening to my family?

With heartwarming compassion, the oncologists devised an aggressive treatment regime, which required my granddaughter hospitalization for the better part of six months.  Each day, after work, I alternated between helping out at the hospital, and spending time with the two little boys at home—until my body demanded an end to the frenetic pace as I found myself crying non-stop—and realized that it was time to take a leave of absence from work.

Tali’s hospital room was a veritable “Dora the Explorer” exhibit—Dora being her all-time favorite character.  She had Dora books, videos, posters, stuffed animals, and stickers. She even played Dora games on the computer, which inspired her parents to set up Skype for her, so that she could interact with her brothers—and other family members—when they were unable to visit.  And for me, it meant extra time with her, reading stories or singing together— activities we both loved.

The second phase of treatment—stem cell transplantation— carried with it a significant risk of infection due to her immune system being severely compromised by the treatment. Only Tali’s parents were allowed in—one at a time.  But if one parent wasn’t well, I became the overnight alternate.

After sanitizing everything and anything in my possession, I would peek in—only to be greeted with an excited “Granny!”— sending my heart soaring to the moon. When she displayed typical 3-year-old silliness, my heart would dance with happiness, and when she was ready for sleep my heart would melt as she lay quietly, her huge dark eyes locked with mine as I sang to her.

Discharged home after the last cycle of treatment, she flourished, quickly gaining weight and looking healthy and robust. We dared to be cautiously optimistic, but soon after her fourth birthday came the catastrophic news of a relapse from which she would not recover.

It was unfathomable to imagine a world without this remarkable child.  Words couldn’t possibly capture the depth of our grief.

Her devastated and devoted parents cared for her at home, where I too stayed day and night, terrified to leave. I remember singing “You Are My Sunshine” to her … until I reached  “Please don’t take my sunshine away.”  I could not go on.

She died two days later.

As I tried to articulate my sorrow, I found myself trying to brush aside my grief, since it was a mere drop in the vast ocean of suffocating agony into which her parents had been plunged. Of what importance could my grief be when the parents were facing a future forever darkened by this inconceivable loss?

Yet I could not ignore the screaming voice inside of me, and I had to keep reminding myself that loss cannot be measured …  that my pain—although markedly different than that of Tali’s parents—was real.

Hoping to somehow quiet my sorrow, I began creating a collection of tangible and touchable remembrances. I put together photo albums and videos, surrounded myself with framed photographs, wrote in my journal and listened to “our” songs.

Gradually I began to notice that time was softening the edges of my grief, allowing me to remember moments my granddaughter and I had shared—how she would give me Dora stickers for “good behavior,” make up nonsense syllables or declare her love for me, arms outstretched to show me just how much. She loved “chicken muggets” and “pupcakes” and needed “mapkins” to clean her face. She offered adult-like encouragement when I exaggerated my struggle to master a task (“Good job, Granny!” or “I know you can do it Granny!”). And she was so proud of her long string of bravery beads, one for each painful procedure she endured.

Tali’s surviving twin is now ten years old. His parents, who never stop grieving for their little girl, must make his birthdays special for him, while simultaneously taking time to remember Tali.  And so, each year the family gets together to carry out a ritual in which we write messages to Tali, paste them onto helium balloons and release the balloons  to drift towards the sky. Tali’s twin never lets us see what he has written.

Adele Gould is a retired social worker. She has five children, three stepchildren and four grandchildren (previously five).  Read more of her work on her blog adelegould.com.

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