Raising A Child Who Is Like Me

Raising A Child Who Is Like Me

Silhouette of a young mother lovingly holding hands with her happy little child outside in front of a sunset in the sky.

By Tanya Slavin

I wake up to a steady and dull thump-thump-thump outside. I look out of the window: grey sky and a heavy wall of rain. It’s Saturday morning. I breath a sigh of relief.

I put my head back on the pillow, close my eyes and take in the comforting sound of pouring rain for a few more minutes. Saturday indoors? No pressure to get dressed, get organized, and go “do” things? The complete guilt-free permission to stay inside and let the day spontaneously unfold, guided only by our minute to minute desires? What could be better than that? I know, just as I lay there listening, that somebody else in my house is relieved too. Martin, my 7-year-old son, like me, is delighted at an opportunity to spend a weekend indoors.

Martin is a lot like me in many ways. We both enjoy an opportunity to stay indoors on a rainy Saturday. We both, it seems, need to have a lot time to ourselves, doing self-directed activities. We are both slow to warm up to people, but once we have warmed up to them, are ready to be vulnerable and give all of ourselves. We are both very physical – he needs cuddles, I also crave touch. We are both highly sensitive. We get overwhelmed by crowds, we don’t understand the appeal of large loud events, or the pressure to try and ‘do’ things all the time. The drive to constantly try new things is equally alien to us. We both notice and can get hurt by things that other people don’t pay attention to – a slight rise in someone’s intonation, a wrong gaze. We’re both worried that people will stare at us when we have a new item of clothing or a new haircut (well I not so much anymore, but as a child I did).

It’s a great in so many ways to have a child who is so similar to you. We have this connection going. I understand – no, I often can almost see what he is feeling. I know exactly what he is going through. My relationship with him has made me reconnect with young and child parts of myself – a process that has been both painful and healing. I have grown to understand myself so much more while trying to understand him. Every day he is teaching me how to be the most authentic version of myself. And then the best thing of all in my mind is that we never have to go to Disneyland…

But having a son so similar to me inevitably comes with its own challenges, too. Before I had kids, I imagined that being a mother would mostly involve sitting on a bench with other moms and talking about grown up stuff, while happy boys and girls around us played tag, chasing each other and laughing, climbed trees, had fun on slides and swings, and generally enjoyed themselves in a typical non-self-conscious kid way. My main job would be, just like that of other mothers, to kiss booboos and tape band-aid to scraped knees, dispense snacks and drinks, and help resolve occasional kid quarrels. For some reason, it had never occurred to me that I could have a kid who would be like me when I was little, the non-typical and shy child, who would stand there in the middle of the playground not knowing what to do with himself, and after a while come to me and either ask to go home or ask me to help him introduce him into a group of kids. “Mama, I want to play with that boy over there!” he whispers into my ear, meaning that he needs my help to get the interaction started. In such moments, I truly wish that we were different. That I’d be a confident and chatty kind of mom who could easily help him in new situations and interactions. Instead I curl up into a tense ball inside, make up some kind of lame excuse for why I can’t do that, and pray that the other mom overhears our conversation and takes on the task of initiating the interaction between the two kids.

But, perhaps, the biggest challenge in raising a kid who is similar to you is not to project too much of yourself onto him, not to assume that just because you’re so similar, he is like you in every way. I see that in Martin every day, if I pay close enough attention, his own unique ways of being in the world. I see it in his interests, in the way interacts with people once he warms up to them, in the way his energy takes over the room and engages everyone present when there is something he is excited about. He is a lot like me, but he is not me, I tell myself. He is his own person. And I have to keep reminding that to myself over and over again.

Tanya Slavin is mother of two and a freelance writer. Her essays have been published in Brain, ChildManifest-Station and Washington Post. Find her on her website, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

photo credit: © Christin_Lola


When We Were Two

When We Were Two


SU 15 WHen We Were Two Mother and CHild ART 1By Dorothy Rice

There was this time. Friday night and I was getting ready for a date. I plucked at my brows, first one, then the other, then back again to even it up. I sat cross-legged on the gritty orange shag in one of several apartments my son Fred and I lived in after the divorce, my face close enough to a full-length mirror to see my breath, a David Bowie poster taped to the sliding closet door. Fred, three at the time, lay on his tummy beside me, a He-Man action figure clasped in each hand. I would take him to my sister’s house to spend the night before my date arrived.

I had decided, what the hell, I’d have sex with this guy. I didn’t want to. Or not want to. I was ambivalent. But it felt weird not to after so many dinners, clubs and flowers delivered to the office. It loomed. I remember my brows after the tweezers, two thin, peaked lines I reinforced with brown pencil and that I wore a clingy purple dress and pink fishnet stockings. He was taking me to a French restaurant that at the time was reported to be the most expensive restaurant in Sacramento. The bill would likely exceed my monthly food budget, a fact that seemed to underscore the implicit expectation the evening would end in sex.

In anticipation of the rich food, I’d starved myself all day. Seated in the restaurant, I ordered and sucked down the first of several Margaritas. On an empty stomach, the cocktail made me woozy. I excused myself and wobbled to the restroom on six-inch platform heels. There was a girl in the john, early twenties. I was twenty-nine. She was bent forward over the washbasin, studying her reflection, staring at a pimple on her chin. Our eyes met in the mirror.

“You hardly notice it,” I said, lying.

We talked, neither of us anxious to get back to what we’d left. I showed her a wallet photo of my son. She showed me one of her cats.

“I’ll check him out for you,” she said, when I told her about my date and how I figured the evening would end. “I’ll shake my head yes or no.” We left the restroom, arms linked, leaning into one another, laughing. It was unlikely we’d ever meet again yet in that moment we were conspirators and friends.

When I returned to our table my date stood and pulled out my chair. I searched for my ladies’ room friend to give me a sign. She did a ‘meh‘ with her shoulders.

I don’t remember much about the sex. I do remember how fastidious he was. He arranged his creased pants and shirt neatly over the back of a chair. He folded his underwear and laid them on the seat. His shoes, with the socks tucked inside, sat side-by-side beneath the chair. Last, serious as a surgeon, he unstrapped a Rolex and laid it so it nestled on his Fruit of the Loom’s.

Saturday morning I drove to my sister’s house to pick up my son.

Well?” she said, lifting her brows.

I shrugged then stooped to hug Fred. He buried his face in my neck. Soft, blondish hair tickled my nose. He was dressed the same as the day before, and the day before that—a pair of navy-blue tights with superhero Underoos over them.

My sister handed me his magic cape and the black rain boots that completed the costume. She wrinkled her nose. “I think it’s time to wash Superman’s cape.”

He-Man,” he said, glaring up at her, his eyes like two raised fists.

“My apologies, little man,” she said.

“I’m He-Man,” he repeated, muttering softly as he clutched handfuls of my sweater.

Sunday evening I sat on the bathmat turning the pages of a Rolling Stone magazine while Fred whipped the bathwater with an egg beater, plastic bowls of water pudding balanced precariously on the tub’s rim. His costume lay on the bathmat. I reached for it, to add it to a white, plastic basket half filled with the week’s dirty laundry.

No,” he shrieked. He stood abruptly, teetering on the slick porcelain and toppling two bowls onto the linoleum. I tossed a dry towel over the puddle.

“It’s dirty,” I said. “If I wash it you can wear it tomorrow.”

Tears gathered in his eyes. His chin began to quiver.

“We’ll go to the store while the washer runs,” I said. “When we get back, I’ll put the clothes in the drier. When you wake up in the morning, it will be ready for you.”

He cried in earnest then, with a ragged edge to his sobs. His skin was puckered and goose-pimply from the bathwater. I pulled the plug, wrapped him in a towel and lifted him from the bath.

“How about this,” I said. “We’ll get your pajamas on.”

No. Only those.”

“Okay,” I said. “You stay in the towel. Come with me to the laundry room. You can put the clothes into the washer yourself.”

His body tensed.

“You can add the soap and put the quarters in.” He relaxed, a little, searching my face for adult trickery. “Then we’ll go to the store. But you have to wear something. You’ll get cold.”

“If we go to the store, somebody will steal it,” he wailed between sobs.

We didn’t go to the store that Sunday evening. We sat in the apartment complex’s laundry room while the washer completed its rickety cycle. We read books about superheroes and their super powers. I made up stories about a finger boy and a finger girl who could fly. Fred watched my fingers leap on the stage my hand made and for those moments his grip loosened and the fear receded from his eyes. We transferred the damp clothes to the drier, verifying that each piece of the costume had survived the wash. The clothes in the drier thumped and twirled, the laundry room grew warm and steamy, his body heavy on my lap. His eyelids fluttered and closed. In my mind I catalogued the meager contents of the cupboards and refrigerator, thinking what I could possibly pack for his lunch in the morning, what we would have for breakfast besides dry cereal.

Fred was in full superhero regalia when I dropped him off at daycare Monday morning. The mother of a tidy girl with a perfect French braid gave me her best down-the-nose stink eye.

My mother once imparted this pearl of wisdom. It is a parent’s job to break the child’s spirit, she said, so they don’t grow up with foolhardy expectations or with the mistaken notion that the universe revolves around them. In her opinion I wasn’t doing my son any favors. At the time I wondered if she was right. Not about breaking children as if they were horses, but whether embracing his fantasies was a good thing or had I inadvertently made life even harder than it already is. Both, I now think. The other boys and girls teased him because he wore his underwear on the outside. Yet that didn’t deter him. He knew what he knew.

The fastidious guy who took me to the French restaurant asked me to go to the state fair with him the next weekend. It was in my heart to say my son would enjoy the fair and could I bring him. But I wanted my date to be the one to ask. And he didn’t. So I left my son with my sister.

The fair was the fair, a monster agglomeration of all the county fairs, heat rising like swamp gas off the black top, carnies in the midway you’d cross the street to avoid anywhere else, everything battered and fried. Kids ran from ride to ride, tugging a parent’s hand. They watched baby pigs being born and new chicks toddling in the straw. I watched them, the children, not the piglets and chicks, and felt alone, sharing the horrors of the state fair with the wrong person.

That was our last date. No regrets there.

I do sometimes miss the little boy who clung to a pair of tattered blue tights. I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to deep six the underwear and cape. For those few months in 1984 they made the world a safer place than I could.


On my desk was a small album with a padded cover, favorite photos of my son, several of them taken while he slept, covers kicked off, clutching a stuffed penguin. Sometimes it seemed I rarely saw him any other way.


Most of the eighties I worked in California’s capitol building, in an office on the fourth floor of the new wing, as an analyst for a standing committee that heard legislation related to toxic waste, a political hot potato in the wake of Love Canal and countless other chemical disasters. The work was exacting and the hours long. I delivered my son to daycare early each morning. If I had to work late, as was often the case, my sister or mother picked Fred up from daycare and kept him for me.

It had taken me several years to work my way out of the clerical ranks and into the job at the state capitol. Lacking the educational credentials and experience of most of my counterparts, I compensated by researching the hell out of every topic and then checking and rechecking my facts. I never considered myself ambitious, though I may have appeared so. I was responsible for a child and received little to no support from his father. Holding onto my job and advancing were necessities, or so I thought.

Out my office window I watched squirrels leap from branch to branch, and at night the lights of cars bumping down L Street. On my desk was a small album with a padded cover, favorite photos of my son, several of them taken while he slept, covers kicked off, clutching a stuffed penguin. Sometimes it seemed I rarely saw him any other way.

Each year the Legislature worked long into the night in a mad scramble to complete its business before adjourning for the summer. One such night I wore a big-shouldered suit, turquoise with matching heels. It was past midnight and the building was ablaze, the capitol dome an electric wedding cake. Willie Brown, Speaker of the Assembly at the time, had stopped the clock so they could continue voting, though by any other measure it was a new day and the end of session. There was a carnival atmosphere in the halls and offices. The squawk box was cranked up high. Bells chimed to herald when the vote opened and then closed for each bill. The clerk intoned the ayes, the nays and the final outcome with rhythmic solemnity.

The office phone rang.

Our committee secretary answered. Winifred, or Winnie, was a tiny woman with lipstick and foundation thick in the cracks and wrinkles that radiated outward from her mouth. She seemed an ancient relic to me, though she was no older than I am now—this was before sixty became the new forty. Her fingers quaky from going too long without a drink, Winnie scribbled down the numbers of the bills due to be considered on the Assembly Floor in the coming hours. The analysis for each of these bills—which included a description of the problem, proposed changes to the law and who supported and opposed the change—needed to be reviewed, quickly revised and delivered to the eighty Legislators’ desks, all well before the vote was called.

Winnie stood behind my chair and set two tiny Snickers bars on my desk blotter along with the slip of paper on which she’d written my latest assignments. She gathered up the six-inch tail that trailed down my neck—my hair was short and spiky on top, long in the back, my attempt at an edgy rock and roll style. Her yellowed fingertips smelt of cigarettes and cheap perfume. She looked over my shoulder at the photo album in my lap, open to an image of my ruffled-haired, snoozing son.

“You okay, honey?” she said, her voice husky and thick.

I unwrapped a candy bar, ate it in two bites, chocolate, peanuts and caramel blending in my mouth, my gums numb, barely tasting. It wasn’t recreational drug use; given the unforgiving hours and the need to stay at the top of my game, the occasional line of coke was a necessity, or so I told myself.

I opened a document on the computer and pulled the latest amended version of the corresponding bill from a short stack on my desk to see what changes I needed to make to the text. The clock was ticking. The bells chimed to signal the vote on another bill. There was always the sense of an impatient machine, grinding on, waiting to be fed.

“I married the same man three times,” Winnie said, with a throaty laugh. She’d told me the story before. They would bump into one another on a street corner, have a drink for old time’s sake and wind up back where they started. As she reminisced, my fingers moved on the computer keys, one anxious ear tuned to the squawk box.

The backup secretary pulled my updated bill analysis from the printer.

“Want me to run it up to third reading?” he said, referring to the office that churned out the paper copies that would be delivered to the Legislators’ desks down on the Assembly floor.

I said I’d do it. I had energy to burn.

“You’re the boss,” he said, with a cheeky grin, because I wasn’t.

Outside, J, K and L Streets had been returned to the homeless for the night. Under the dome it was Mardi Gras—laughter from open office doors, a buffet spread in one, cookies in another, Irish Cream and Kahlúa for your coffee, big boxes of See’s chocolate, tokens of appreciation from lobbyists, reminders of their sway.

I speed walked in my heels, ankles popping from side to side to ease the friction against nascent bunions. Not fast enough to match the beat of my heart. I shucked the shoes, tucked them under one arm, and sprinted down the hall. The polished floor was slick beneath my stocking feet.. One foot in front of the other, knees bent, I slid the final few feet, light from the bustling third reading office spilling into the darkened hallway. I slapped the paper on the counter, shouted out ‘hey’ to the faces I knew, the faces that knew mine.

Rumpled from the run, a big toe sticking through my stocking, I returned to our office bearing cookies. The backup secretary saluted. Waiting for me, on a clear corner of my polished wood desk, was another line of white powder. I pinched one nostril and sucked it in.

“It won’t be too much longer,” Winnie said, though she couldn’t know.

Fred was four when I started that job, eleven when I moved on. My first daughter, Veronica, was born in between, the product of a short-lived second marriage. It’s been over twenty-five years since her birth but I still recall what my boss, the Assembly woman we all worked for, said the day I brought my newborn baby into that capitol office for everyone to see.

“When the fuck are you coming back?” Those were her words, muttered around a skinny, brown cigarette clamped in her lipsticked mouth. I was back at my desk before Veronica was six weeks old. I added her sleepy-time photos to the padded album.

There’s no reliving those days when the clock stopped at midnight and I left my kids, now as old as I was then, to the care of others, while I pounded out analyses for legislation long forgotten or superseded, flew through the capitol’s hallowed halls as if I owned the place, bantered and bartered with a cast of characters who thought no more of me than I did of them. It was the price I believed I had to pay to get ahead.


I was forty-five and pregnant when I married for the third time. Unlike Winnie, I married three very different men. The wedding was at a rural inn, with a garden-size, rocky waterfall out the tall dining room windows.

I was anxious about the marriage, about having another child at my age and about blending our disparate families. My soon-to-be-husband’s two boys displayed varying levels of animosity towards my kids and I. My son and daughter, seventeen and eight at the time, were resentful at being uprooted from their schools and friends.

I awoke with a migraine and as the hour of the ceremony neared, the pain intensified, pulsing behind my eyeballs, pressing against the sore spot on my skull. My son found me in the bedroom of our rented chalet, standing before the mirror, smoothing my bridal muumuu over my middle, convinced I would never see my waistline again. My eyes were puffy with tears, spoiling the garish makeup I’d had applied at the local Merle Norman. With fat, droopy curls framing my face, I looked like a frowsy, aging saloon girl on an episode of Gunsmoke. Fred was dressed in a pressed white shirt and tie. Though he would turn eighteen and start college in less than a year his cheeks were still round with baby fat.

“You okay, Mom?” he asked.

I dabbed at my eyes, sopping up streaks of black mascara.

“Hey, don’t cry,” he said.

“I’m just scared, I guess. It’s nothing.” I waved a damp tissue and forced a smile.

“If this thing,” he said, which I took to mean the marriage, “if it doesn’t work out, I’ll always be here. I’ll take care of you.” He studied the carpet, digging at it with the toe of a stiff dress shoe.

Which snapped something inside me back into place. It had been just the two of us for nearly ten years. And then, during junior high and high school, while his friends goofed off and did sports after school, Fred had helped me with Veronica. I took a deep breath and blew my nose.


There’s no reliving those days when the clock stopped at midnight and I left my kids, now as old as I was then, to the care of others.


Three weeks before my third and last child was born, we moved into a house big enough to accommodate seven and merged our two families. I started maternity leave a week later. I had parlayed my years with the Legislature into an executive position as the advocate for the California agency that regulates solid waste. A temporary replacement was conscripted to manage my programs and staff until I returned from maternity leave.

When my new daughter, Carolanne, was six weeks old I packed all the requisite baby paraphernalia into the car and drove to the office to show her off to my coworkers. The building was a three-story glass and steel box along the freeway, one of half a dozen cut from the same mold that hugged the exit. On the elevator, headed for the third floor where the executive offices were, one of the clerical staff, a plain woman with an active mouth, beamed at me as though I’d made her proud. She clasped my baby girl’s bare foot.

“It’s so wonderful that you finally took time to have a family,” she said, with a beatific smile. “I’m so happy for you. It’s the ultimate experience. Believe me, you have no idea how wonderful.”

It took me a moment to make sense of her words. “She’s my third child,” I said.

At the second floor, the elevator doors opened with a hydraulic whoosh. The woman stepped out. Before the door closed she turned and with an saccharin smile, said, “Well, maybe you’ll make more time for this one. So busy with your career and all, I just assumed.”

The director came out of his office to greet us. A trim man, he sometimes bragged he was the same weight as when he ran high school track. He was trussed up pretty tight. I was used to that. But it did seem as though his collar was even more confining than usual, his face a more uncomfortable shade of red and his jaw stiff with the effort of holding onto a smile.

“It’s good you’re here. Keith has something to discuss with you,” he said. Keith was our new Chief Deputy, second-in-command. “Better if someone keeps an eye on the baby so you two can talk.”

Carolanne had dozed off in her car carrier. I left her with the secretary. Keith rose from behind his desk. He looked more like a professor—classics perhaps, or philosophy—than a regulator. He wore a jacket with leather patches at the elbows. Wispy hair sprouted around his bald pate.

“Shut the door, if you don’t mind,” he said. “Sit. Make yourself at home.”

I tugged at a blouse button that kept springing open and hoped to God I didn’t leak. He dropped a manila folder in front of me as though it were a hot plate that had singed his fingers. Inside the folder was a duty statement for a job doing something called “data integration.”

“I’m sure the director has told you all about this,” Keith said.

“No he hasn’t,” I said.

Keith blinked behind his glasses. “This will be your assignment when you return.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Well, when you told him you wanted a less stressful job when you returned from maternity leave, I, um, he…”

I cut him off. “I never said that.”

I’d done what Keith was doing half a dozen times. I’d fired staff at the director’s behest. And I’d cooked up ludicrous special assignments like the one I was being offered. “Opportunities to fail,” we’d jokingly called them. It was my turn. I was being banished to the civil service equivalent of Siberia, consigned to the F Troop.

Through Keith’s closed door came Carolanne’s thin whine, working up a cry. I hugged my breasts tight to keep the milk from coming. But it was no use.

It had taken me fifteen years to get where I was in my career. I had charted uphill progress in terms of a growing paycheck, the size of my office and the position of my name on the organizational chart. I’d convinced myself it wasn’t only for me. It was for the kids, who deserved to live in a nice house in a good neighborhood and to go to college.

Clasping the baby seat for the long walk to the car, I felt the weight of those years, the choices I’d made, the many times I missed one of my children’s performances or events because of work. All those lost moments were rendered inconsequential by one swift managerial decision.


The next few weeks were a blur. I roused from bed to feed and settle the baby while the new house and its other occupants stormed around me. When even that became too much, I crept into our dim, walk-in closet and closed the shuttered doors, the baby in a small bassinet beside me, mercifully asleep.

At intervals there were voices at the door—my husband, one of my sisters, my husband again. Their words seemed distant, unconnected to me. Cocooned on the carpeted floor, with a pillow and my robe for a blanket, I drifted in and out of dream-choked sleep.

“Bob says you won’t come out.” It was my son. He’d started college and moved into the dorms.

“I will,” I said. “You didn’t have to come here. I’m sorry.”

Fred nudged the door open, just enough that we could see one another. He sat on the bathmat and hugged his bent knees. His eyes were round saucers of concern, his gaze steady, without judgment. I was simultaneously proud and ashamed. Proud of the young man he’d become, of his solid goodness, of how much he wanted to help. Ashamed that it wasn’t the first time he’d found his mother past coping and dealt with it as best he could, no matter his age.

“He shouldn’t have bothered you,” I said.

“It’s okay. You need me to take you someplace? A doctor or something.” I sat up and lifted the fussing baby from the bassinet. “I’m a heifer,” I said. “A fat, bloated cow.”

He gave me that sad smile.

“I missed your sixth grade graduation,” I said, my voice cracking. “There was some stupid deadline at work. I can’t even remember anymore.”

“You sat through an entire Depeche Mode concert with me and Chris.”

“Two Depeche Mode concerts,” I said, patting Carolanne’s behind.

“Oh yeah, that’s right,” he said, nodding. “Two years in a row.”

“Junior high. I missed that graduation too. Got tied up at work.”

“It’s no big deal, Mom. Remember that one time the sheriff drove me home. Woke you up at three in the morning. That wasn’t the only time. It was just the only time I got caught.”

“And the golf team,” I said. “You should have joined. You liked golf.”

“You needed me to pick Veronica up from daycare when you worked late.”

“You could have at least asked me.” Even as I said the words, I wondered whether the outcome would have been any different if he had asked.

“There are way worse parents out there. Believe me. My friends all thought you were pretty cool.”

“I bet they did.”

I looked at my son. Really looked at him. My mother was right. I’d told her she was crazy when she said he was starting to look like a concentration camp survivor.

“What do you weigh these days?” I asked. Fred shrugged.

“Stand on the scale,” I said.

I put out my hand and he pulled me to standing. I stood beside him, bouncing the baby, as he stepped on the scale. The electronic numbers flickered until he steadied. 117. My son had lost over fifty pounds since the wedding. Fred was skin and bone, jutting cheek bones, jaw and clavicles, wrists and ankles I could have wrapped the fingers of one hand around.

Consumed with getting married, moving into a new home, having a baby and losing my job, I hadn’t noticed.


I stood beside him as he stepped on the scale. The electronic numbers flickered until he steadied. 117. My son had lost over fifty pounds since the wedding… Consumed with moving into a new home, having a baby and losing my job, I hadn’t noticed.


I lay on the unmade bed with Carolanne. Two small, dimpled feet kicked at the air. She found them with her hands, first one foot, then the other and her eyes grew bright with wonder, with discovery, and she gurgled, telling me about it, telling herself, about these new things, attached to her, yet apart too, elusive, challenging her to catch them, and then the feeling when she did, of recognition, of touch that registered in the brain as pleasure and as an accomplishment, one of hundreds of discoveries brought by each new day. Light from the sliding glass door broke into dancing fragments all around us. She reached for it too, chubby fingers closing in fists, again and again, as slippery coins of light eluded her grasp and played on her soft skin and over the bedspread all around us, transformed into a tranquil sea of dancing, sunlit fish.

Though it would take months for me to shake the sense of shame and loss, being demoted within weeks of Carolanne’s birth allowed me an emotional freedom I hadn’t enjoyed when the other two were small. I returned to work after six months, rather than six weeks. I got back on my feet professionally, worked for another dozen years and ended my career as the Executive Director of a different state regulatory agency, yet my priorities had been irrevocably reordered. I never forgot that no matter how important or demanding a job may seem, it has no heart. I hope that I have been a good mother to all of my children, yet I know I have been more present this last time around.


I was a young twenty-six when Fred was born. He seemed to me an older twenty-six when he married. His wife once thanked me; giving me at least partial credit for the man he has become, always kind, thoughtful and empathetic. And with more pride than regret, I wonder, as I imagine all parents, and particularly single mothers, must sometimes wonder, did I just get lucky or did he feel my love and support, did he find what was good in me, in spite of all the rest.


Author’s Note: Fred, my eldest child, is now 35 and, among other things, an amazing husband and father of two. When he was small and it was just the two of us, getting through each day, balancing work and all the rest, often felt like a battle I didn’t always win. In many ways we grew up together and are, I hope, both the better for it. I know that I am.

Dorothy Rice lives in Sacramento with her husband and the youngest of their five children. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Still Point Arts Quarterly, The Louisville Review and The Saturday Evening Post website, among others. Her first book, The Reluctant Artist, a memoir about her father, will be published this year. At 60, following a career in environmental protection, Dorothy earned an MFA in creative writing.

Return to September 2015 Issue

Cold Inside

Cold Inside

Toddler Boy Playing ArtBy Lynn Adams

Before I had children, Autism Spectrum Disorders were my specialty. I reduced my child psychology practice to half time after James came along, and soon realized I couldn’t close the door on autism at the end of the workday, because it was in my house.

I first heard about autism in high school, at a children’s residential facility where I volunteered. Sam was lying on his back and spinning around in circles by kicking his feet, as if on an invisible merry-go-round. He wasn’t brushing his teeth alongside the other children, because he was having too much fun at his own carnival.

I determined to become part of Sam’s carnival, and eventually learned to play with kids whose parents thought they couldn’t play. So 20 years later, why did I find myself on our playroom floor, my back against the sofa, writing down everything James said, while he did his own thing? “You sit on that. You like that. You put it down there,” I transcribed, noting he had his pronouns reversed. I hope I took the time to talk to James as I wrote, but I don’t remember.

My son was a loner. It didn’t come naturally to him to connect with anyone, including – and maybe especially – me. Instead of crying or looking for help in a tough situation, James mounted a noisy protest. Every tantrum was a puzzle. When he started talking, my first sign that he’d hurt himself was hearing him screech, “No ice!” as he ran away from me. If I figured out he had a pebble in his shoe, captured him, and removed it, he calmed down immediately.

By contrast, every time I kissed James’ cheek, he would rub the spot with his hand, looking away, like a teenager. He was unaffectionate. He had sensory issues. Of course. He had autism.

I knew that underlying health issues could be a source of toddlers’ developmental and behavioral problems. So, I arranged a medical evaluation for various thyroid, allergy, immune, and metabolic problems that might have been an easy fix. And the doctor found something. We discovered that one of James’ vaccines hadn’t been effective, exposing him to frequent upper respiratory infections. And all that time I thought he had allergies. He got a booster shot and the colds went away, but the autism didn’t.

That’s right, I’m the mom who thought that a vaccine might cure her child’s autism.

Practically speaking, as part of these work-ups three-year-old James had to have his blood drawn three times in three weeks. Although James freaked out the first time, the second and third times he patiently held out his little arm as the nurse poked around for his tiny veins. She kept looking up at his face, waiting for him to blow his stack. He never did.

The nurse remarked, “This is the best-behaved child I’ve ever seen!” Then she gave him a jumbo pack of Starburst and a full roll of stickers.

Her compliment felt like an accusation. I was still out of breath from forcefully extracting James from under the Lego table in the waiting room, where he’d been holed up catlike for a half hour. Before that, I’d pried him out from under the car seat, and then carried his noodle-like body through the parking lot. Back at home, he’d resisted brushing his teeth, getting into his clothes, leaving the house, and getting into the car. The whole way out to the suburban office he’d looked out the window, exclaiming with joy anytime he saw a construction truck. But each time a truck disappeared from his view, he’d kick the back of my seat.

James was a good boy, just not for me.

As my office became a refuge and I accepted a patient who would eventually become James’ first friend, I began to wonder whether I was ever meant to be a mother. One evening, my infant daughter asleep on my shoulder and a glass of gin in my hand, I made a suggestion to my husband Bruce. Maybe I was better off, and James was better off, and the community would be better off, with me as a psychologist rather than as a mother.

A parent-ectomy. That’s what Bruno Bettelheim proposed in his 1967 book, The Empty Fortress, a book my parents might have read if I’d had autism. Early professionals observed that mothers whose children had autism were cold and distant: Refrigerator Mothers. But sometimes it feels better to focus on doing right by your child, than to interact with him. Contemporary studies refer to “parental stress” and investigate the effects of having a child with autism on the parents.

Instead of condemning me for my cold-hearted suggestion, Bruce appealed to my sense of reason. “Think of your favorite families you’ve worked with, your favorite adults with autism,” he suggested. “What did they all have in common? Good psychologists, or good parents?”

Kids in our town had some choices when it came to psychologists. But James had only one mother.

Around this time, I came across a newspaper article. Researchers at the Yale Child Study Center, my old stomping ground, found that administering oxytocin, “the love hormone,” led to activation in the brain’s social regions in a small sample with mild autism. I wondered where I could get some oxytocin for James, and then flagellated myself for wondering.

James needed a mother’s love, and I was giving him everything but that.

I stopped reading about autism, and started reading about motherhood. I especially liked Erma Bombeck, who wrote, “A child needs your love most when he deserves it least.” At first I took my fondness for this quote as further evidence that I’d become a refrigerator mother, but later I realized how many kids it’s kept alive.

So James didn’t know how to connect with people. I did. It was time to show him how.

Neglecting to tell Bruce where I’d learned it, I pulled out the trusty “basket hold,” a form of restraint I’d used during my internship in a children’s psychiatric hospital. It was the only way to get ahold of James. You grab the child’s wrists, cross them in front of him, and pin his body in your lap with your legs crossed over his legs and his head under your chin. It’s a hug you can’t refuse.

As I held James I would say things like, “I know you’re mad because your toy broke. No biting, though. That hurts me. You’re my boy. Mommy loves you no matter what.”

I was talking to myself, more than James.

Over time, I didn’t have to hold James so tight to keep him near me. When he was really upset, he’d often give up his struggles and sob on my shoulder. Then I really felt like his mother. 

One day after a basket hold I kissed James wetly on the cheek, and he immediately wiped it off. I decided to ask him about it. How did I know why he did it?

“Did you wipe that kiss off?”

“No,” James said, still rubbing.

“Well, what are you doing?” I asked.

“Rubbing it in. That way it makes you love me more.”

Now at this point, James had his pronouns reversed. So, he probably meant, “It makes me love you more.” But who cares what direction he was heading? The fact that the word “love” was in his vocabulary suggested I was on the right track.

Author’s Note: James still struggles with the stresses of everyday life, and our family struggles along with him. But I don’t dwell on the word “autism” as much as I did when I started writing this piece. Instead, I focus on James’ love of guitar and flag football, and on his strong relationships with his family, neighbors, teachers, and friends. I’m proud to say he’s the only member of our family who’s consistently described as “sweet.”

Bio: Lynn Adams is now a full-time wife and mother in New Orleans. Her work has appeared on Salon, Brain, Child, and The Mid, as well as in the anthology, It’s Really 10 Months: Special Delivery. Find more at www.lynnadamsphd.com.


Stealing Dirt

Stealing Dirt

WO Stealing Dirt ARTBy Lydia Kann

Let’s say the phone rings in the middle of the night and you are shocked out of a sound sleep, that just-fell-asleep sleep, pre-dream, pre-restless, pre-subconscious insight, and your hand reaches to find the cordless, somewhere, it’s somewhere on the nightstand, and maybe you knock over the cute little lamp with the blue and green painting of a beach scene, and finally you find the phone, lift it to your ear and go, huh? And it’s the police.


“Hello. Is this Lydia Kann? This is the Hadley police calling about your son. We have him here…”


“Ma’am, we have your son, Mickey, at the police station and would like you to come pick him up.”

Now you, or more to the point, I am up. Woken. Awake. “What?”

“Your son has been involved in an incident…”

“What happened? Is he okay?”

“Yes, ma’am, he’s fine. We are impounding the car…” The policeman must be covering the mouthpiece because all I hear is a muffled, “What is it?” And then he comes back on, all cheery like, “and the wheelbarrow, as evidence.”

“Evidence of what? What happened?” I am hyper alert by now, heart bumping, breath short.

“Ma’am, can you come in to the station, and we’ll explain it then?”

Great. I had been sleeping the sleep of the innocent, assuming my son was safely in bed after an evening out with a friend. Isn’t that what all the parents say after… after horrible crimes are committed by or against their children – I thought he was asleep in bed?

Let’s say you get in the other car, the small sporty vehicle you bought to replace the huge minivan when the boys got their licenses – you get in the vanity car, let’s be honest here, and hustle yourself down to that police station, a place you have never had the occasion or necessity to notice.

And as I drive my sweet little car down the dark abandoned streets – it’s only 1:30 in the morning, but these are small New England towns I am traversing and most folks are happily tucked into their warm beds. As I drive, I scan the possibilities, and know that whatever Mickey has gotten himself into, I am to blame.

I am the mother. Have been for almost nineteen years, since the arrival of my first son. So much has been said about mothers, and yet not enough. Or is it that more could be said about mothering, a godlike state, the wonder, the innocence. There you are, left with a tiny body so fragile that any movement, any decision – shall I carry him in this arm or on my shoulder, shall I go when he cries or wait, shall I let him sleep in my bed or draw a line – each lifted eyebrow of reaction leaving a residue of consequence that will live on until your death. A snake of responsibility lying coiled in the corner, not visible until it attacks, venom, toxic serum infusing your blood, your head, your heart. There is no return from this land, galaxy. And all of it, the whole experience – the anxiety, the decisions, the guilt – is so damn normal. Common. Who isn’t a mother, after all?

The police station is cold and bright on this dark late spring night. Fluorescent lights ricochet off the white cinder block walls. The officer behind the glass window – they’re not taking any chances in this tiny harmless town – stands up when I announce myself and says he will get my son.

My son. Taller than me by a head. Gangly. Is that a smirk on his face or embarrassment? Or are those the same thing? The obstetrician predicted a girl when I was pregnant with Mickey seventeen years ago. The way I was carrying. He put his stamp on it. “A girl for sure.” I already had a boy, my firstborn, his pulsing male nature overridden by a golden temperament – most likely a result of a Leboyer birth – a technique, trendy at the time, of placing the newborn in a warm bath and promising a gentle transition from the womb to the outside world. And therefore, a calmer child.

I had been raised alone by a woman, my mother, and there were no men to be found. Sameness permeated my days. No collision of strange body parts, of voice tone, of scent, no testosterone-fueled exuberance or aggression. Women reflected off mirrors as far as the eye could see.

When Mickey arrived into the cold January light of that hospital room, the most noticeable characteristic visible from my vantage point was the blood red balloon sized sack between his legs.

A second boy. A boy so different and yet familiar. A boy designed by a Dennis the Menace screenwriter to ask of me a kind of forbearance uncalled for previously. A challenge, as they say. Clearly the choice to forego the Leboyer birth here – a decision based on the predictable exhaustion of a second delivery in less than eighteen months – had its projected outcome.

“What happened?” I now ask, for the third or fourth time. The police officer, who has entered the room with Mickey, looks quite serious. He is also young enough to be my son, but he expands himself into the stern demeanor required of his profession.

“Mickey was apprehended at the Garden Center on Route 9, trespassing. An officer patrolling nearby noticed the minivan in the parking lot. Your son was found inside the premises, having scaled the fence, it appeared. He had taken three forty-pound bags of soil.”

Okay. An answer, but not really. I am confused. “I don’t understand. The Garden Center. Huh?”

I sound and feel inarticulate. What is expected under these circumstances? Anger, compassion? What would I be angry at? What did he in fact do? And most obviously, what the hell was he doing breaking into the Garden Center? Dirt?

The officer reiterates that they will need to hold on to the car and the wheelbarrow ‘as evidence’ until the hearing, but we are free to go. He gives us some papers about the legal process and returns to his desk.

We leave in my car, Mickey silent in the passenger seat. “I’m sorry, Ma.”

“What are you sorry for?”

“Sorry you had to come get me.”

“What happened? Why did you want dirt?” I am moving toward a slight hysteria, wanting to either yell or laugh.

“I can’t tell you.” He is staring out the front window and speaks with no inflection.

“Why not?”

And that interchange becomes the template for the many future conversations about the incident. After we found a lawyer to represent him at the hearing and he was acquitted, thanks to his spotless ‘good kid’ record. After months of silence about the issue, then years of refusal to come clean.

I am a mother. I have theories I comb through. Was he stealing dirt with someone else and protecting him or her? Was he planning to grow some pot and read somewhere that he needed clean dirt? But then why wouldn’t he just buy it?

The whole event was symbol of what can’t be found, or understood. A manifestation of the mystery of where I end and he begins. My son.

Years after, many years, my son, now in his thirties, and I stand at the grave of my mother. A raw fall day, rain drenching our flimsy jackets, hands icy from holding umbrellas aloft. It is Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and I suggest we do a little ritual, Tashlich, which traditionally is practiced on Rosh Hashana, ten days earlier, but I had looked it up and it’s acceptable until Sukkot, a holiday a week after today.

None of this matters, in fact, since we are atheists, but we are on a search for something together, a way to make contact perhaps. It is a quick visit for my son, the first in months, and this will be our one chance.

Mickey agrees. According to local custom, one throws bread or food into a body of water to symbolize casting off the sins of the year before. Our version is that we each name three sins of the year before and three intentions for the coming months. We then each take a noodle from a Thai noodle take-out we happen to have in the car, place the noodle on my mother’s headstone and then pour water from a water bottle on the noodle and say a baruch atah adonai facsimile. Cute but functional.

And it’s in this primitive ritual that it happens. A kind of touching. The final sin we each speak is in relation to the other.

“I always thought that I didn’t give you enough credit, Ma, for what you did right. For all the ways you are so able. And that I couldn’t get past your weaknesses, the way you…” He went on to tell me what drove him crazy about me. No big surprises there. But then he said, “I think about what I will tell my children when you’re dead, about the kind of person you are. And I realize that it wasn’t that I didn’t give enough credit – I always gave you so much credit for being strong that I couldn’t forgive you for the times you didn’t hold it together. I couldn’t let you be human.”

If I say I was blown away, if I say I was moved, if I say I wept and then spoke my piece and then we hugged, if I say all that, it wouldn’t be the whole truth.

To be seen – as in vision, as in heart, as in soul – for one moment, by another, to be recognized as worthwhile, as having substance. Is it that there is too little time, or too little language, or too much distraction? Let’s say it’s all of the above and more. Three bags of dirt and the search for an answer.   In the end, it turns out that my son, too, must be human. And the dirt is the ground in which he grew.

Author’s Note: Having adult sons offers a surprising mix of distance and closeness.  One minute they seem like strangers, these grown men with beards and massive shoulders, working, partnering, and so thoroughly independent, but then the next moment something splits open and there we are, as close as when they were tots, and for those brief interludes all the mystery evaporates, and it’s pure honey love.

Lydia writes fiction and creative nonfiction and has been published in literary journals such as Threepenny Review, Nimrod International Journal, and the American Literary Review. Lydia is also a psychotherapist and visual artist.




Stopping for Death

Stopping for Death


WO Stop for Death Art

By Kristen Witucki

“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me”

–Emily Dickinson

On a soft spring morning when sunlight dappled us through the trees, my friend, Anita, and I, both blind, took Langston, my three-year-old sighted son, to the playground at the West Virginia School for the Blind where we worked. I braced myself to cross High Street, the busy street near our house. There are no traffic lights on that corner, so the “rule” is that you wait for a break in the traffic and make a dash for it. This meant that Anita and I listened to make sure there was no traffic approaching before crossing the street. The three of us crossed without apparent incident, but I learned that death had, in fact, occurred. As we continued walking toward the playground, Langston told me, “The squirrels laid down.”

“What?” I said.

“The car came, and it ran over the squirrels. They laid down and didn’t get up. It was on its back with its belly up.”

“He must be making up a story,” Anita said.

“No,” I said, feeling myself hurtling toward an empty space even as I continued to walk in an upright position, my son’s small hand in mine. “He never spoke that way before. He saw it.”

I wanted to ask Langston if the squirrels were bleeding, if any bones were broken, but I wasn’t sure he knew what blood was or if he wanted to stare at or recall broken bones. Not seeing the damage made me reluctant to add extra horror to what he had witnessed, yet not knowing these details made me worry that I was unwittingly glossing them over.

To Anita’s credit, though she is devoutly Christian, she did not talk about death, God or Heaven. Maybe, unlike me, she held onto the hope that Langston was making up a story.

As Anita took Langston on the slides and we sang songs on our favorite swing, the weight of our impending walk home pressed on me; I didn’t want Langston to see the dead squirrels again. Maybe, I thought, one of my neighbors had buried them while we were gone.

No such luck. As we crossed back over High Street, Langston stopped in the middle of the highway and screamed. Just one lone shriek, but so different from the usual cry over small childhood disappointments. And he couldn’t move. I panicked, worried that a car would make a corpse out of him next. “Get out of the street!” I shouted. “We have to get out of the street! Now!” I tugged him to the safety of the curb, all the while thinking, “He is staring down at the face of death, and you’re yelling at him to move. What kind of a world is this?”

When we got home, I asked my neighbors to check out the crime scene for me. “Yeah, two squirrels died,” they said. “It’s O.K., Langston. They’re just squirrels.” On the one hand, I couldn’t help but agree. I had never harbored a particular fondness for squirrels, and I was grateful that Langston’s first encounter with death, aside from bugs, was witnessing the end of two squirrels, not the death of a relative, friend or pet. On the other hand, “just” squirrels? All of the adults standing there valued people over squirrels; only the child truly mourned them. I grieved for all the insects I had killed, the meat I would continue to eat. Yet I couldn’t bury the squirrels myself. I did not have the courage to get that close to the decay.

The day passed more or less as expected—nap, playtime, dinner, bath—but it was peppered with death. Langston kept replaying the scenario, running a plastic toy squirrel over with his tractor. I cringed, worrying that by allowing him to run over the squirrel again and again, I was condoning the violent act. But I was too stunned and fascinated by this development to stop him.

The reenactments led to more questions. “What is dead?” Langston asked.

“The squirrels can’t move anymore.”

“Why did they die?”

“They didn’t know you are supposed to look both ways and listen before you cross the street, and a person in a car hit them.” Was this turning into too much of a cautionary tale?

“The squirrels will be fine soon, right?”

“No,” I said, “they’re dead. They won’t get up anymore.”

I am an agnostic or atheist, depending on the day. In West Virginia, where we lived, our community predominantly consisted of Baptists and Methodists. They would have told Langston that God had wanted this, or maybe even that the squirrels, having done nothing wrong, had gone to Heaven. At the very least, Anita might have ended the squirrels’ story with more than nothingness. I had been raised a Catholic but couldn’t remember how my parents had explained death to me as a small child. Had they ended our cat’s death with a trip to Heaven? As much as I didn’t believe such an ending was possible, I longed to give my son reassurance that it was all going to be O.K. somehow. Breaking my belief in death as an end would have been an act of betrayal on my part, but sticking to my simple story of nothing didn’t make me feel any better.

I emailed one of my high school English teachers, with whom I am still in touch fifteen years after I graduated and who remains one of my life and parenting inspirations. The subject of my email was “Explaining Death to a Very Young Person: a Parenting Qualification I Don’t Possess.” He wrote back with comforting words, reminding me that Langston’s first encounter “with the profound, the existential, and maybe even the ‘void,'” was not an easy concept to explain to such a young person. He recommended we watch an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood as a possible way into the experience. I was flooded with relief at the chance to approach the subject again with more than just my fumbling words.

Langston and I watched the “death” episode together. In it, Mr. Rogers discovers that one of his fish has died. He removes the fish from the tank and places it in a separate container of water with extra salt, explaining that he has heard it is a strategy for reviving a very sick fish. When that strategy fails, he explains that the method didn’t work this time and that the fish is “dead,” and he carefully buries it in the yard.

Langston asked to watch the episode many times over in the coming months. It gave him a definition for “death” to which he would turn again and again. He ran over his toy squirrel a few more times and created a scenario in which his stuffed monkey died from an unexplained cause and then came back to life again. Because Fred Rogers’s website said playing about death was “necessary and appropriate,” I kept my misgivings to myself. But I wondered how he could really learn about death if the story had a happy ending and the monkey lived again?

Two months later, on a visit to my friend Soxna’s house in Maine, Langston fell in love with her chickens. He loved to watch Soxna care for the hens and let them out of their coop and to help her feed them chicken feed, meal worms and Japanese beetles.

A few days after our return from Maine, Soxna wrote to tell me that Buffy, one of the chickens, had died. She had wandered away from the flock and been eaten by a fox. “Don’t tell Langston,” she added. I knew that Soxna was trying to protect Langston’s feelings, but I seized on the opportunity to speak further with him about death, one he didn’t have to witness.

“Langston, remember Soxna’s chickens?” I asked him later that day.

“Yes.” Of course, he remembered. He talked about them incessantly, and his toy chickens were his favorite farm animals.

“One of them died. Buffy died.”


“She walked away from the other chickens and a fox got her.”

“That’s not nice! Why did the fox get her?”

“He was hungry and needed the chicken to stay alive. We eat chickens sometimes to stay alive, too.”

He ignored the possibility that we weren’t any better than foxes. “The fox was bad. I don’t like foxes.”

Langston began a new play scenario. In it, his chickens walked together in a group. Then one chicken walked away and a plastic fox leaped out of his box of animals to attack it. “Run, Buffy! Run!” Langston shouted as the chicken clambered to safety. “She got away!”he told me triumphantly. “The chicken escaped from the fox!”

Langston tossed the toys to the floor and stood up. “Now I’ll be the fox,” Langston said, “and you be the chicken, Mommy!”

In a way, it was exactly what I deserved. Against my friend’s advice, I had alerted Langston to the chicken’s death. Now I was the chicken. The chase was pretty short because, when in pursuit, Langston easily outruns me. When he caught me, he made eating noises. Fortunately, the eating remained imaginary.

That night, while I lay beside him in bed, Langston asked, “What happens to you? Do you keep growing up like me?”

“Not exactly,” I said, “I guess I just get older.” I thought about the way our minds expand as they take in new information, and our emotions stretch as they envelop new experiences, but at the time, I wasn’t sure he would understand that kind of growth. Looking back, I wonder if I underestimated him.

“And then what?” Langston asked. “Do you become a kid again?”

“No,” I said vaguely. I didn’t want Langston to grapple with my eventual death just yet. Wait, I told myself. Wait until he explicitly asks whether you’ll die, and wait until he’s fully awake! Was that inability to face up to the possibility of my own death in front of my son wisdom or merely cowardice?

Day after day, Langston asked if Buffy was OK, needing me to remind him how she had wandered away from the others and had died. The toy chickens became the favorite toy, but Langston didn’t play any form of Fox and Chicken again; the fox had become so evil that it was banished to the depths of his toy chest where he couldn’t find it easily.

Later that month, I found out I was pregnant. I wanted to stop Langston from jumping and rough-housing with me, but I didn’t want to shoo him off with a vague explanation about not feeling well. So despite all the online advice against it, I told Langston he couldn’t jump on me because I was expecting a baby.

Nine days after the positive pregnancy test, I miscarried. As my cramps sharpened and my body removed those few errant cells, I worried about what to tell my son about the baby who was no longer coming.

Sure enough, he asked me how the baby was doing the next morning. “I’m not having a baby anymore,” I told him slowly.


I choked up. “The baby … died.” I wanted to sob. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you about a baby before it was formed enough.”

Langston climbed into my lap and gave me a hug. “Maybe you can make another one soon,” he said.

His childish optimism lightened me. It reminded me that mothering Langston teaches me as I go. I am learning that I don’t always need to end his narratives for him or even construct them. Rather, we will both participate in and observe each others stories for as long as we continue on this fortuitous journey together. Maybe the squirrels, Buffy, the chicken, and that almost-embryo would never be OK, but Langston was still young enough to end his stories—and mine—with the possibility of renewal.

Kristen Witucki earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book, The Transcriber, is part of Gemmamedia’s Open Door series for adolescent emerging readers. Her essays have appeared on Brain, Child, Huffington Post, Literary Mama and the Momoir Project, among other publications. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son. Learn more at http://www.kristenwitucki.com.

Photo: canstockphoto

Church of the Latter Day Sane

Church of the Latter Day Sane

WO Church of Latter Day Sane Art

By Krista Genevieve Farris

It’s just an old white stucco-covered house on North Loudoun Street, greying and overcrowded. There’s no lawn, just an endless pad of cement from street to a cinderblock porch that’s been painted forest green. I see it every day.That’s my view.

The paint can’t mask the drab. It makes me mad.

When our crepe myrtles bloom, purple blossoms dress the view. And I have to position myself just right to see that ugly porch with the mismatched chairs and random residents chewing their nails and nodding to no one.

In spring, the buds bulge.

I peek my head outside to get the mail. It’s always ads and bank statements
these days—nothing personal. And a man in an alb and a tasseled cincture genuflects, kneels down on that hard porch.

Blesses me—

Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Raises a chalice,

a real churchy chalice.

I duck my head and hold-up two fingers “Peace” then double-lock my door.


Summer comes, a hazy blur obscured by ivies, humidity and pollution.  No glorious view of the Blue Ridge.  Just days spent on the porch with my son, his lemonade stand, biting insects and the dander of stray cats that makes me itch and sneeze and leaves me cranky.

The priest guy wants a cup of lemonade, opens our iron gate and hands my 6-year-old 10 bucks.

“Keep the change,” he suggests.

I think he can’t or shouldn’t spare the change.  I don’t want it.

“No,” I say.
My son takes it.

The man sits down.  Dry white flakes fall from the wicker and settle under the chair.  He rambles about God and grad school days and then talks incoherently about God some more.  He flits and drones and eventually leaves.

I tell my son there are too many mosquitoes on the porch the next time he wants to sell lemonade. We wait out the doldrums indoors.  I say I’m scared of West Nile and for some reason he believes me.


Thanksgiving – the leaves rain from the crepe myrtle and cushion our walk. The guy’s cleric robe is grey at the hem from his constant pacing on the treeless sidewalk across the street.  Back and forth and back again – barefoot- he sucks an endless cigarette smoking out one last stand of mosquitos.  He is bald.

Someone yells something indiscernible from a car window.

He screams, “Don’t fuckin’ talk about Jesus fucking Christ like that.”

I slide on the hem of my yoga pants while racing to my window to see.

A woman walking by on the sidewalk asks him

“You O.K.?”

His face is soft and pink.  He smiles a gentle closed-mouth smile,

“Why do you ask?”

He takes a drag off his cigarette nub.  Leaves it between his lips, clasps his hands behind his back, bows his head, turns away and paces.


I’m thankful.

I’m warm




Cigarette smoke hangs over that damn porch across the street like a funky cloud of incense by mid-December.  A barefoot woman with a buzz cut chain smokes in union with him.  I don’t care for her. I really don’t like her being there adding to the haze.

Each Tuesday afternoon at two, after his social worker leaves and the Christian radio station stops preaching on his old boom box and starts playing music, he starts mass.

Every Tuesday he rises from his chair, takes his chalice and walks a few steps away from the porch.  Then he walks back, sits down and lights two cigarettes.  He hands one to the woman.  The two of them sit and smoke- inhaling and exhaling- synchronized for a couple of hours. This goes on for days – this ritual.

Then, she starts rising with him and holds a cup through each mass, following behind him.  She kneels in front of him at the porch and offers the cup.

She trades her jeans for a long dress and the processional lengthens.  Her buzz cut hair is now completely shorn. She’s bald like him.

They cross the street toward me.

I wonder if they can feel my eyes through the window pane.

My son asks me what I’m doing. I say I’m just drinking a cup of tea and tell him to go color in a book.

The next week they come even closer to my home during their processional. They cross the street to the sidewalk right in front of my house, then veer north until they land on the porch of the abandoned house next door to mine. They turn east, kneel together to pray.

I’m a little pissed by the audacity- the trespass.

I’m sure they feel me.  I’ve been staring too long, frozen in my turret window.

I shouldn’t or should look away? I look down.

I see the frayed hem on his robe.  I feel dirty.

My husband asks me what I did today.

Nothing, I say, nothing. Why can’t I say?


It’s a New Year, the beginning of the end of the end of the beginning, and he’s wearing black pants and a black leather jacket and she’s wearing a sweater and a short skirt, her hair is growing, and they’re walking arm-in-arm on the south end of town.   I’m in my minivan waiting for them to move it along at a crosswalk- no chalice at that cross. “Move,  fucking move,” I mutter.

“What Mommy?” says a little voice behind me.

Oh God, did I say that out loud?


Leap day he sits beside her empty chair.

The plastic seat cracked in the cold.

He’s in jeans

robeless, shoeless, sockless, shirtless


He looks toward my house.

I know he sees me

he feels me

sitting at the windows.


A crisp draft breathes at me from under a sill.

Snow dusts the tops of his feet.  He rises,

walks past my house

finally out of my sight.


When I go to meet my son at his bus stop, a neighbor asks if I know anything about a guy dressed like a priest. I shrug. She says the man paused to pace at this school bus stop at the corner of West Avenue and “what’s up with these creeps anyway? Has the whole world lost its mind?”  So she called the police, who followed his footprints down the sidewalk to our alley, into a snow-covered shed.


The man sat in the corner

with some feral cats and

rose peacefully when

they said “come.”

The silence he left is mine

to hear, the empty porch,

my desolation –

his footprints – an order

to witness this gentrification

I think- if it has a pretty,

rational name,  I will be safe from

this purgatory, predatory,

paranoid neighborhood watch.


Krista Genevieve Farris likes the liminality offered by a prolonged sit at a window.  She lives in the Shenandoah Valley with her husband and three sons. Krista has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Change from Indiana University and a BA in English and Anthropology from Albion College. Her recent writing can be found on the Brain,Mother blog, Gravel, Literary Mama, Cactus Heart, The Rain, Party and Disaster Society, The Literary Bohemian, The Screech Owl and elsewhere. Please visit her writer’s website – https://kristagenevievefarris.wordpress.com/


Shorts Story

Shorts Story

iStock_000003843423SmallBy Tyann Sheldon Rouw

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

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

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

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

All of the tags have been cut out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac didn’t respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Birch Whisperer

Birch Whisperer

By Debbie Hagan

iStock_000027977692SmallAbove the black pines, above the rock crags, above the frozen streams I soar.  Eyes shut, I am armless, legless, bodiless, weightless—a spirit cut loose, suspended over treetops. My nostrils fill with the sparkles of mountain air, and miraculously this lifts me so I’m floating higher and higher to a sunnier, more joyful place.

A sharp jerk and I awaken to realize I’m in a chairlift scaling the side of Sugar Loaf Mountain—ascending 1,400 feet. From a small cable, I dangle with my fifteen-year-old son who wonders why we’ve stopped. A pile-up on the off-ramp? A ski patroller loading a gurney? A mechanical failure? I look to the tiny cable that holds our enormous weight, and I think it’ll start in a minute. It always does.

I look to my son. Icicles dangle from his blonde chin hairs. He’s strangely stiff, his ski gloves iced to the restraining bar. I consider poking him just to be sure he’s okay. Then fog rises behind his goggles, and I know at least he’s breathing.

“Are you having a good time?” I ask.

I listen for that Mickey Mouse-high, ever-chipper voice that used to beg me for one more ryn.

He grunts, and his frozen face expresses what his lips can’t seem to say, Yeah right, Mom, I’m lovin’ this—freezing my ass off, sitting in a God-damn metal chair blown about by a Nor’easter.

Two more runs, I tell myself. Then I’ll let him go back to the condo, play his video games—whatever makes him happy. I just want this to be fun.

Then my heart sinks. I see poking out of his left ski glove, his hospital wristband, the one he wore four days ago in the psych ward.  I try to think of something happy, like the time we raced down the slope to see who would end up in the lodge first. We’d hockey-stopped almost simultaneously, defrosted over mugs of chocolate, and then laughed at our whipped cream mustaches. It was fun, wasn’t it?

Now I take my fingers from my gloves, roll them into fists, and think, Oh God, when will this chair ever start?  I can’t stand this endlessly waiting. Finally, I explode, “I see you’re still wearing your hospital bracelet.”

Instantly I want to take this back.

Connor stares at me.

I expect a snide remark, but he just lifts his shoulder. “I don’t know why I wear it. My name’s worn off.”


Minutes drag by. More silence, more waiting. We dangle as I stare at the ground—at least 100 feet below. So close, but so far.

“How long are we going to be stopped?” Connor asks as if he thinks I have a hotline to the lift tower: Let’s see, one minute, thirty-two seconds.

The truth is I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen today, tomorrow, or even within the next thirty seconds. I hope. I wait. I guess. But nothing is certain. There’s nothing to do, but sit here in the cold and wait.

Suddenly the chair lurches, and we’re moving—skimming above trails cut by skiers and rabbits whose prints crisscross as if they can’t decide where to run.

Another minute passes, and I see the off-ramp—and I feel confident, just fifteen seconds and we’ll be free. I push up the restraining bar, which groans as it hits the back of the chair and gives us a good shake. I organize my poles, straighten my skis, and imagine us turning around the bend, sailing down the ridge, flying in the face of all our worries, letting them blow right over us.

But the chair stops again. We bob up and down. I grab the side. There’s fifty-foot drop in front of us.

My eyes shoot to my son.

He doesn’t appear scared in the least. In fact, he looks as if he’s caught up in a dream, staring down at the gnarled birch branches. I follow his gaze. The dark, wind-twisted limbs look like devil fingers curling towards us, coaxing us down.

Connor leans slightly forward, and then cocks his head as if he’s trying to hear them whisper.

He asks, “Do you think I’d be hurt if I jumped?”

Debbie Hagan is a freelance writer with more than 500 published articles and columns, she is also a Manuscript Consultant at Grub Street in Boston, Massachusetts.

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