The Summer of Rachel

The Summer of Rachel

photo-1421986527537-888d998adb74By Barbara Solomon Josselsohn

The Beginning

It’s an ache that started a few years ago when your son left for college, and you realized that time was passing too, too fast. Your next child was approaching the very same milestone, and you decided you would no longer just sit back and watch. “Okay, that’s it!” you shouted to the universe. “I let David go, but I’m keeping Rachel! Do you hear me? I‘m keeping Rachel!

Okay, you didn’t really mean it. You knew Rachel should grow up, as should her younger sister, Alyssa. But you were upset, because after years of long, luscious child-filled days, you saw that life was changing. Because even when you complained or felt harried or unappreciated, you never stopped loving being the mom of three young kids. You loved the chill of late fall, when you’d send them out to school in the mornings and welcome them back home in the afternoons. You loved when winter approached and the streetlights came on as early as 4:30, and all three would be bathed and in pajamas before dinner. You loved the first warmish afternoons of spring, when you’d stay with them at the park until dusk, then stop at the pizza shop for a quick, late dinner. You loved the searing days of July, when you’d go to the town pool in the mornings and doze at home in the afternoons, sheltered from the heavy, humid air outdoors.

But life had a way of speeding up amid the flurry of school lunches and permission slips, Little League games and school concerts, and suddenly you found that before you even got used to one new thing, you were hurtling toward the next. And now it’s the evening after Rachel’s high school graduation, and soon she’ll be off, just like her brother. That‘s how it goes.

So you tell yourself that as of today, as of this moment, things will be different. David may have whizzed out the door, but you’re not going to let that happen again. You have two months before Rachel leaves for college, and you’re going to make the most of them. You will slow the clock, stretch out the minutes, immerse yourself completely in Rachel and this, her last summer before college. You will fill up on Rachel this summer, and not let college or time or the universe steal even one drop. You will figure out a way to own this summer, and then when Alyssa graduates, you will do it again.

It will be the long summer of Rachel. So that come the end of August, you’ll be ready to let her go.

You wonder what the universe has to say about that.

The Boyfriend

And so the summer starts, and you put all thoughts of Rachel’s impending departure out of your mind. You think about things to do together—trips to the beach, the movies, Broadway shows, lunches at your favorite spots.

You look at your calendar, start to play around with times you can spare from work. Weeks when Alyssa will be away at camp. Weekends when your husband and son are busy.

But you forgot to factor in one thing: Rachel’s boyfriend.

You don’t know when Rachel became old enough for a boyfriend. You don’t know how he became the center in her life. Sure, she’s always had plenty of friends. Weekends during high school were filled with parties and school events. But plans to hang out with her girlfriends tended to be casual, last-minute arrangements, easy to shift around if you were available to take her shopping for new spring clothes or out for lunch. There always used to be time for you.

But today when you open her door and say you’ve booked an outing to Mohonk Mountain House for facials and lunch on what you thought would be an otherwise lazy summer day, she looks up from her Facebook screen and studies you like a complicated math problem.

“When would we go?”

“Saturday morning. We leave at 9:30.”

She nods thoughtfully. “When will we be back?”

“I don’t know. We can stay as late as we want. Why?”

She bites her lip, trying to be diplomatic. Dressed in her gray college sweatpants and stretchy white tank top, with her hair piled up in a messy brown bun, she looks way too young to play the role of adult. “It’s just that Jason and I were thinking about going out to dinner…”

And then a week later you tell her you’ve finished an assignment you thought would take the whole afternoon, so you’re ready to head to the city to snap up some half-price tickets to a matinee.

She nods tentatively. “I have a lot to do. Can we make it next week?”

“What do you have to do?” you ask.

“Well, I wanted to finish choosing my classes this afternoon because Jason’s coming over tonight.”

You love Jason. Really, he’s the sweetest boy in the world. You know about the jerks out there and you’re so glad she’s picked someone wonderful for her first boyfriend. He comes over when she wants him to, stays away when she asks him to without getting defensive, he’s polite to you and your husband, what more could you ask?

You could ask for the little girl who only had time for you, the girl who was always thrilled and grateful when you asked if she’d like to see a movie or go for ice cream. You could ask for the little girl who would jump up from her dollhouse or turn away from her dress-up box, her Cinderella crown still on her head, to say, “You’re the best!”

You could ask for that little girl.

But you won’t find her. She’s gone.

So you won’t groan and you won’t fight, but you’ll learn to consult her about her dates with Jason before you make any more plans.

And you’ll appreciate the time you have together all the more.


By mid-July the circulars show up, fast and furious—in the mail, online, tucked into the Sunday paper—so you can no longer deny that it’s time to take Rachel dorm shopping. Lots of girls opt to do this with friends, so you count yourself lucky that she agrees to include you at all.

You arrive one sunny August morning at Bed Bath and Beyond, Rachel dressed for maximum efficiency in gym shorts and sneakers, her hair pulled back in a no-frills ponytail.

It’s difficult for you to drag yourself from the car. You know that before the day is through, your trunk will be piled high with bedding and bath towels, desk accessories and storage caddies, and there will be no denying that she’s going.

Rachel’s eyes light up at the colorful array of dorm-room accessories inside the store entrance. It’s not that she’s spoiled or greedy or selfish, she’s just excited to be outfitting her new home. She wants the cushy upholstered armchair, or how about the comfy two-person love seat? “Rachel, it’s just a small dorm room,” you say. But she isn’t listening. She’s examining ottomans and multi-tiered shelving.

So you pull her over to the escalator and explain you’d like to start with basics like bedding, to which she shrugs and nods agreeably. “Charlie got a hot pink comforter,” she tells you. “Maybe I’ll get pink too, so our beds will coordinate.”

Charlie is Charlotte, her prospective roommate, whom she met at an admitted-students event last spring. They decided right away to live together, but lately you’ve been thinking it’s not a great match. Charlie says she wants their room to be a hub for friends, while Rachel tends to prefer privacy. Charlie likes to stay up late while Rachel loves a good night’s sleep. You wonder if Rachel chose this roommate too quickly, and you worry about the other decisions she’ll jump into feet first. You need another year to show her how the world works. But you don’t have another year. You barely have a month.

And that’s when you realize that she’ll have to take her lumps, make her own mistakes and learn from the consequences. You can’t stop her from getting hurt, from being disappointed, from misjudging people or situations and occasionally having to go back to square one. You can’t possibly prepare her for everything that could go wrong—and even if you could, she wouldn’t believe you. After all, when you’re on the brink of college, life is a magic carpet ride.

And there’s no room for you to ride along.

The Final Week

Her boxes are lined up against the wall in the living room. The printer sits unopened on the table. The bedding and towels have been washed, folded and packed into a vinyl storage bag. The pink fabric ottoman is close by, next to the poster frame filled with photos from high school.

There’s no escaping it anymore. She is leaving.

Her days and evenings are filled with excited goodbyes, as she meets her girlfriends for lunch or frozen yogurt. There are finals calls from Nana and Grandma, from aunts and uncles, and emails from neighbors and former teachers.

You can stand the boxes, you can tolerate the calls. But it’s her room that gets you. Just walking in at night to give her a goodnight kiss is painful. You can’t help but see the blue fabric bulletin board where she tacked the ticket stubs to her first concert, the wand she bought at Harry Potter World, her full set of Rick Riordan novels on the bookshelf, the bracelet her best friend brought her back from Israel, which she keeps on a pedestal on her night table.

And you start to see that all these years when you thought she was yours, she was actually becoming her own.

And the realization is so in your face, you almost wish that moving day was here already. Because you don’t know how many more times you can walk into this room without completely falling apart.

Last night at home. Goodnight, sweetie. Sleep tight.

Goodnight, Mommy. I love you.

The Last Goodbye

And then she’s gone.

You arrive on campus bright and early. You wave at the cheery upperclassmen in brightlycolored T-shirts who stand on a ledge holding a banner that reads “Welcome!” You follow the directions of other joyful upperclassmen who show you where to stop, where to unload, where to park. You haul suitcases and boxes up stuffy stairwells on that sweltering late August morning. You hang up clothes in an impossibly small closet and layer a puffy comforter and fluffy pillows on a thin, institutional mattress.

You walk back out to the quad to hear the college president speak.

And then you say goodbye.

You hug her and she hugs you, and you tell her you love her, you tell her to take good care of herself, you tell her she can call at any hour of the day if she has a problem, you tell her all the things you are supposed to tell her. And then you let her go.

“Goodbye, Mommy,” she says, which makes you feel you will fall to your knees, right there on the quad. But you don’t crumble. Instead, you watch as she makes her way back to her dorm, where meetings and get-acquainted parties beckon. You watch her grow tiny and then disappear.

And because you’re not the type to cry in public, you press back the tears as you realize that you’re not just saying goodbye to Rachel on this hot summer morning. You’re saying goodbye to all your children. You’ve been saying goodbye for a long time.

You’ve been saying goodbye all along to stick horses and tiny race cars and princess tiaras, to trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving, to first-day-of-school outfits and trips to Staples for pencils and glue sticks. You’ve been saying goodbye to big, crazy birthday parties and sleepovers in the basement, to trips to the zoo or water park, to long evenings waiting for the snow to fall and glorious mornings when school has been cancelled. You’ve saying goodbye to snowman building in the backyard, to peeling off wet clothes in the mudroom and warming up with hot chocolate in the kitchen. You’ve been saying goodbye to evenings with everyone home.

It was supposed to be the long summer of Rachel. But now you realize that like everything in life, it went by in a flash. You didn’t slow it down at all. Of course, you’re still a family. But everything is different now. Two are out. The third one will soon go, too.

You walk back to the parking lot, noticing that all the parents look a little smaller, deflated somehow. Your walk is slower; your breathing heavier; the world is a little less bright. You’ve launched Rachel—your middle child, your oldest daughter—into the world, and now it’s hers to do with what she will. And your one consolation is that you know you’ve done your best. She’s amazing. The world is lucky to have her.

Author’s Note: It’s been almost two years since that not-so-long summer, and Rachel is now a rising college junior. David graduated from college in May, and Alyssa will be a high-school senior this fall. As for me, I’ve learned that attempting to hold back time doesn’t work. So with my wonderful husband at my side, I look forward to the adventures our kids embrace next.

Barbara Solomon Josselsohn is a writer whose work has appeared in range of publications including Consumers Digest, American Baby, Parents Magazine, The New York Times and Westchester Magazine. Her first novel, The Last Dreamer (Lake Union Publishing, 2015), is due out this fall. Visit her at

 Photo: Unsplash


Advice from My Daughters Upon Their Graduation

Advice from My Daughters Upon Their Graduation

High school graduation hats high

By Francie Arenson Dickman

“Focus on how you want to feel when you’re finished.” My daughter texted me these words of advice—a tip I assume she acquired from her time spent dancing on stage—minutes before I took the stage for a show I was recently in called, ironically, Listen to Your Mother. I’d had no problem writing the essay I was about to read, but reading it aloud to hundreds of people terrified me. As I stood in the wings, waiting to hear my name, I marveled at my daughter’s maturity. But just for a moment, because that’s all it took. Not for my name to be called but for my daughter’s next text to roll in. “I need a haircut.”

With that, the wisdom of my daughter was superseded by that of Lisa Damour, author of Untangled; Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. “Teenagers,” she tells us, “are totally competent, until they’re not.” How I love this line. It’s a reminder—if not a wake up call entirely—because I have a tendency to rush to judgement. My girls are fourteen years old, almost fifteen, they are about to graduate 8th grade. Yet my presumption is still that they are my children and I am the adult, therefore I advise and they listen, I know more and they know less. When clearly, this is not the case. They have whole subsets of knowledge and ability and insight that I lack. Not only did my daughter advise me before I went on stage, but my other daughter dressed me.

“You can’t wear that,” she said when I came into her room to check myself out in her mirror wearing an outfit I thought was proper performance attire.

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s a dress. You don’t wear dresses.”

I, in the role of the teenager, said, “But I’m sure all the other women will be wearing dresses.” (They weren’t.)

She, in the role of the adult, told me that I had to feel comfortable on stage, I had to feel like myself. After this, she outfitted me. She even layered my necklaces. Then, her sister came into my bathroom to do my makeup. “I don’t know how a 47-year-old woman could get this far without knowing how to do makeup,” she told me. (I can and do, for the record, apply theirs.)

Also for the record, I should add that they had an easier time dressing me than they did themselves. Their process of finding graduation dresses smacked of insanity. If your UPS packages arrived late for several weeks last month, I apologize. We were monopolizing the delivery trucks. It was embarrassing actually but, as I kept reminding myself, they are teenagers, and teenagers are totally competent, until they’re not.

There is no surer sign of competence than the ability to recognize another’s incompetence, which my kids surely can because I got a self-help book for Mother’s Day. You heard me right. My fourteen-year-old gave me a book called something like How to be Badass because, as she explained after I looked at her cross-eyed—in a who’s guiding who sort of way—she didn’t like my attitude towards getting my book published. She told me I needed more badass.

On the very first page of Untangled, Damour explains that when it comes to raising teenage girls, our default setting is fear and our expectation is trouble. “If you are reading this book,” Damour writes, “someone has already remarked about your daughter, ‘Oh just wait till she’s a teenager!'” This is true. I got this line the minute I started to cart them around in the stroller. “Cute now, but just wait til they’re teenagers.” My mother told me several years ago to take a deep breath and hold it for the next ten years.

I’m not saying the expectation is unfounded, as evidenced by the ill-timed haircut request or the 4,000 dresses ordered for graduation. But I admit that the stereotype and my natural tendency to anticipate the worst has unfairly undertoned my parental assumptions. Much the same way my skeptical mindset about getting my book published has been colored by word on the street that the publishing industry, much like the parenting one, is brutal.

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I was great when my girls were younger, when they were four and spent mornings around the kitchen table and my job was to read and teach and theirs was entirely to listen.    I’m good at the molding and the shaping. It’s the next part, the letting go, the sending of my projects off into the universe and trusting that they’ll fly that trips me up. And so I keep hanging on by talking and teaching and lecturing and advising even though I know and Damour confirms that I am “wasting my breath.” When a teenager nods her head with glazed over eyes, she’s not listening. She’s simply wearing her “veil of obedience.” I imagine that my daughters’ veils are well worn. And they’re only fourteen. Apparently mothers, too, are totally competent until we are not.

Being a badass, according to my Mother’s Day present, doesn’t mean being tough, it means being brave, acting despite your fear, and trusting in the universe to give you what you need. Indeed, at least on occasion, it does. I was—what do you know—preparing to give my girls a bunch of advice upon graduation. Instructions for how to proceed in the next phase of life. Instead, they gave it to me.

So I will sit in the audience as this time my daughters take the stage, in the dresses they picked, in the make up I’ve done, in the hair that’s been cut, and I will graduate, too. I have four more years with my girls, my girlfriends, under my roof. Why don’t I just take a page from their book, and focus on how I want to feel when I’m finished.

Francie Arenson is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her work at:

This piece was originally published in Brain Child in June 2016.



History of David

History of David

Snow on the trees in spring season

By Kris Rasmussen

I know you only from the April showers that always flowed down our mother’s face, but never fully drowned her sorrow. By the lilies she places on the your grave each year;the only evidence of your few  breaths  on this planet.

Tonight, a snowy-mix fills the Michigan spring night, and Mom mentions you to me in a moment of spontaneous reminiscing, the kind she has too frequently these days. “Dr. Frye revived his body three times, you know. He decided that was enough. I always had to hope he was right.”  Then she notices how dirty the front windows are looking.

I, too, notice the smudges and streaks clouding our view of the sturdy maple and the precocious squirrels racing around it. I don’t answer Mom right away, because middle age brings its own wistful wanderings. I list all the ways someone I never met has marked my life.

I would never have been delivered to our parents’ doorstep from the William Booth Hospital for Unwed Mothers.

I would have remained Eleanor, a name I despise but was given to me by my foster mom.

I would have missed Coming Home days, which were, as I smugly told the kids at school, way better than birthdays.

My birthday featured all the traditional trappings of cake, parties, and gifts. My Coming Home Day, January 28 included indulgent after-Christmas bargain shopping for more presents, and permission to gorge myself on macaroni and cheese and Chicken in a Biscuit crackers until I almost puked. One year, I forced my brother to sit next to me while we went to see 101 Dalmatians, just because it was my day. (He  was adopted, too, so don’t worry, he had his day as well.)

Mom never forgot your birthday, but it was marked by screams, tears and, occasionally , broken dishes, not wrapping paper and bows. Every April Mom would say the same thing by way of explanation, “Well, the anniversary of David’s birthday is this month. What do you expect?”

What did I expect? Nothing. Our mother was the only one in my family who even spoke of you. Grandpa and Grandma Smith, Dad, Aunt Paula and Uncle Harold never mentioned you. Hundreds of photos of camping trips, hunting trips, fishing trips still exist, but not one photo of Mom pregnant with you – as if that might have been some sort of jinx.

Yet you lingered along the edges of my childhood anyway.

I felt your breath exhale from our parents’ lungs every time I asked to ride my bike beyond the usual boundary of Jennings Avenue to venture some place all by myself, like to the corner of Myrtle Street. Their response: “It’s too dangerous.” Doctors tried six different times to fix a  chronic condition in my knees growing up. Before each operation, you flickered in our parents’ eyes along with their anxiety. At 21, I was rushed to the hospital after being pummeled to the pavement by a sedan. Despite the searing jolts of pain, I refused to tell the police officers how to call Mom and Dad because I didn’t want to upset them. They had lost one child, but they were not going to lose me.

When my brother rebelled, fought someone in school, shoplifted from a grocery store, Mom hugged me too tightly and said “Losing David was a sign I shouldn’t have been a mother after all.”

You were the one God sent us because you were just what we needed, Dad scribbled on a card to me once.

You told us that before you came to live with us you were walking around in the woods with Jesus, my mom would remind me, shaking her head in amazement.

Surely it was this religious fervor over my “filling in” for you that somehow contributed to my stellar GPA and pristine high school reputation.

Tonight, I press Mom for details about your life. I’m learning almost too late that stories can drown in bitterness, wither from neglect, and vanish from inevitable forgetfulness. If I don’t learn your story now, it will die with our mother. One way I can honor you both is to find out the history of your life.

Mom snaps out of her reverie to tell me more.

Dr. Frye actually forbid Mom to become pregnant. Her high blood pressure and high risk of eclampsia made her a poor risk. “You’ll never make it to term,” he’d warned.  If there is anything you should know about Mom, it’s that she listens to no one when she really wants something. She wanted you more than anything, so you were conceived after years of our parents dodging the shame-filled question, “Why haven’t you started a family yet?”

The two of you made it only to twenty-four weeks. Mom never saw your face. Neither did Dad. Convinced he was losing both his wife and his son, he huddled on his knees in a janitor’s closet. Meanwhile the Catholic nurses, some my mother had worked with for years, refused to participate in the emergency procedure which saved her life – barely – but couldn’t save yours. She never forgave them.

Arms empty, Mom refused to sign a consent to have her tubes tied. Did I mention Mom was – and is – a stubborn woman? But Dad won this argument – in fact, this may be the only argument he ever won – when he told her he would never touch her again if she didn’t have the surgery.

Which brings your story back to me, sitting here in an olive and mustard living room, weary and striving to hold onto one more piece of Mom before it’s too late. I allow myself to dwell on one final connection you and I have. Someday I will likely be buried in a plot next to yours.

I wonder what our stories will mean to anyone else then.

Kris Rasmussen is an educator, playwright, and freelance writer living in Michigan. Her creative nonfiction work has been published in magazines and journals such as The Bear River Review and Art House America. She was a contributing editor for the multi-faith website Beliefnet for several years. In addition, her dramatic work has been by produced by the Forward Theater Company in Madison, Wisconsin and published by Lillenas Drama. She is grateful to authors Lauren Winner and Charity Singleton Craig for introducing her to the work of Brain, Child. You can follow her on twitter @krisras63 or visit her website at






Breathing Under Water

Breathing Under Water

ART Submerged

By Sarah Bousquet

It happens in a flash, my two-year-old releases my hand and dashes off into a crowd. I chase after her, glancing only once over my shoulder to make sure my mother-in-law has the stroller, which contains, among other things, my wallet and phone. My daughter is heading toward the stairs that descend in front of the sea lion tank. I grasp her hand just before reaches them.

It’s hot, sticky August and we’re not the only people who had the idea to spend the day indoors. The aquarium is teeming with families with small children and summer campers dressed in matching T-shirts. Older kids play inside a giant whale-shaped bounce house, somersaulting onto a mat. A large interactive screen flashes with images of fish.

I’m glad my mother-in-law is here with us, that we outnumber the fast and busy toddler. She scoops her up and together they watch a sea lion break the surface of the water. Droplets spray from his snout sounding like a dog’s sneeze, and my daughter says, “God bless you, sea lion!”

We leave the bustle of the main room and enter the corridor toward the first tank, where sea bass swim with giant loggerhead turtles. As we walk through the cool, dim space, watching the rhythmic movement of the sea creatures, there is a sense of calm and peace. A sense, too, of confinement. It reminds me of the primordial waters of new motherhood. The turtle makes his way toward us, glancing ruefully with one shiny black eye, which seems to say, let me out, before swimming away, the heft of him both cumbersome and graceful.

My daughter runs ahead to the next exhibit, a wide column of water cast in purple light. White moon jellies float up and down. Music is playing and she searches for its source, as if the jellies themselves are emitting sound. I think of the amorphous days of lullabies, day sinking into night rising into day while I watched in wonderment, holding her pollywog form, the newborn body curled into itself.

In the next room a wolf fish lies at the bottom of a tank, thick and grey with vacant eyes and glugging mouth, the ghost of sleep-deprivation and delirium. The accompanying anxiety and nervous feeling that my baby, so fragile and new, was not quite of this world. The nights I wished for sleep. The days I willed her to become a little bigger, a little stronger.

A friend once cooed sweetly to my baby, “Don’t grow! Stay small.” And in my exhausted state, I feared it was a hex. Mothers of older children would look at us with wistful smiles and sigh, “It goes by so fast.” But I did not believe them; life inside the murky sleeplessness seemed to last forever. Newborn care consumed me. The constant rocking, singing, holding, was a world unto itself, both beautiful and fraught, where time seemed suspended and autonomy ceased to exist.

I felt submerged, and sometimes longed to come up for air. Whole weeks would pass without having glanced in a mirror. It was as if I were disappearing. Until I began to learn to breathe underwater. My identity became fluid, our connection borderless. Every time I looked for me, I found us.

Then it seemed to happen overnight, a magical night when she slept all the way through, a slumber so deep that when we awoke she was two-and-a-half years old, and now I wonder how I could’ve wished for those slow days to pass a little more quickly. Now I am the wistful one. It’s easy to become nostalgic looking back through the dreamy water. Easy to forget the anxiety and exhaustion, the tedium, the long hours alone. I hadn’t been able to imagine how it floats irrevocably away, the infant blurring into baby blurring into toddler tumbling toward preschool, away and out of my arms.

We are inspecting an octopus when my daughter disappears. My eyes scan the groups of children and my mother-in-law runs ahead to the next room leaving me with the stroller. I hurry after her and call out my daughter’s name, startled to hear the fear in my voice. She can’t be far away, and yet she is gone. It is too many minutes before they finally reappear, before my daughter returns giggling with delight. I hug her tightly, my heart racing, and remember the security of having her strapped to my body in her baby carrier. So different from the slippery toddler hurling headlong toward independence.

We push through the aquarium doors into the thick summer air and bright sunshine, and follow the path to the butterfly exhibit. Flowering bushes fill the tent and myriad wings flutter all around us. Butterflies alight on our arms and shoulders and heads. Here we are in the frenzied world of busyness and light. My daughter, overwhelmed, leaps into my arms. Together we name the different colors we see. She rests her warm cheek against mine, and inside that moment, it is just us. I wish for the impossible: to keep her right here, to capture what’s fleeting. Instead I will hold her as long as she lets me, set her down when she’s ready to run.

Headshot Sarah BousquetSarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.




Beach Days

Beach Days

Art Beach Days

By Sarah Bousquet

In July I take my daughter to her first swimming lesson. We walk from our house down to the beach, where a young instructor and a few other neighborhood 2-year-olds meet. Tiny feet trod the path of my youth, hedge-lined, the bricks sprouting crabgrass. It’s the same beach where I spent every summer of my childhood. The same beach where my dad grew up. A history stretching back seventy years. I never expected, after all this time, to return to my hometown, but here we are, in a house that wakes to salt air and birdsong, a stone’s throw from memory.

My daughter is a little fish, just like me. She runs into the waves unafraid, despite encounters with small crabs, barnacled rocks, slippery seaweed. She is at home in the water, splashing with delight. Plops down on the sand and lets the waves roll over her. I can feel that feeling, when she accidentally gulps a mouthful of seawater. Sting in her sinuses, briny taste on her tongue.

There in the waves, on the ripple-patterned sandbar, I find myself inside my own childhood, a feeling truer than an echo, more vivid than a dream. I am my small self standing under a strong sun, fair skin turning pink-brown, freckled nose peeling. The beach stretches itself out familiar and changing, low tide, high tide, choppy water, water smooth as glass. Blue sky bunched with cottony clouds, seagulls diving at spider crabs, the rock jetty harboring mussels, Charles Island in the distance.

Inside this memory, I see my sister and I running over the hot sand to meet our friends at the water’s edge for swimming lessons. We race each other on kickboards, cut freestyle through the waves. I practice limp-limbed back-floats, water lapping my head, filling my eardrums, soundless, staring into the sky. Lying buoyant, body held in the water’s embrace, I drift into daydream, never hearing the instructor’s call. Eventually, I kick myself upright, unable to touch bottom, surprised at how far the current has taken me.

Midday we flock to the cooler for sandwiches, egg salad escaping the bread with each bite. The juice of plums or nectarines dripping down our chins while we bury the pits in the sand.

At low tide we run Red Rover on the sandbars, build drip castles from the black mud, dig moats, construct tiny bridges from reeds. We inspect razor clams, collect sea glass, bury our legs and wait for the tide to wash us up like horseshoe crabs. Sometimes we find chunks of red brick, wet the surface, and use sticks to draw tattoos on each other’s skin. We stab purple jellyfish, but handle starfish with care. Venture up to the seawall and crouch beneath the sailboats, ready-made forts.

On high tide days we swim. We are dolphins, mermaids, sharks. We swim until our skin is pickled, fingers and toes translucent and puckered; the whites of our eyes pink from salt.

At the day’s end, we walk up the road barefoot, hurrying over the hot pavement, pausing to cool our feet in the shady spots until we reach my grandparents’ house. Then we take turns peeling off our sandy suits and washing up with Ivory soap and Prell shampoo in the outdoor shower, run naked through the grass until we’re captured with a towel. Occasionally, my grandmother puts a bowl of goldfish crackers on the table that we eat one after another while my mother brushes our wet, tangled hair.

Memories roll in like so many waves. Less nostalgia, more a conjuring, a visceral recall that resides deep in the body. Watching my daughter repeat these routines on the same sand grants me sudden secret access to these other versions of myself, the sensation of experiencing new textures and tastes, color and light, learning the rhythms, the ebb and flow. They say you can’t go back, but as my daughter repeats these patterns, I return.

When my daughter’s swimming lesson begins, she clings to me like a koala. The other kids take turns with a kickboard, but she resists. Refuses to dip even a toe in the water. The instructor is cheerful and encouraging, but my daughter is not charmed. In the end, it proves too much, performing in front of strangers, an expectation imposed on her fun. It occurs to me I didn’t begin swimming lessons until I was four. I recall that tentative feeling, the fear and hesitation before trying something for the first time.

That weekend, I show her how to scoop water with her small hands, the first step to doggy-paddle. I hold her in the waves, kick kick kick. We search the tide pools for hermit crabs. Dig in the sand. She sees my dad on the sandbar, shouts, “Papa!” and breaks into a run, that waddle-run particular to 2-year-olds, arms out, sun hat flapping. He catches her and swings her into the air before lowering her into the water. She splashes and paddles and kicks. Little fish. These are all the swimming lessons she needs right now. The wonder of the water, the body becoming buoyant, held by strong hands. In my dad’s smile, I see the same joy reflected, and I know, he feels it too. The repeating, the return.

Headshot Sarah BousquetSarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.



“What Did the Sickness Make Your Brain Do?”

“What Did the Sickness Make Your Brain Do?”

sad woman with hand in head with redhead hair

by Sarah Sanderson

My daughter was six when I climbed into her bed and tried to explain psychosis. A few months earlier, I’d been hospitalized with postpartum psychosis after the birth of my fourth child. I was growing tired of dodging my eldest’s repeated questions about the whole experience, so this time, when she asked, “Why did you go to the hospital?” I decided to attempt a six-year-old version of the truth.

“Mommy had a sickness in her brain,” I replied as I pulled my daughter’s Disney Princess sheets up to my chin. “Some people get sick in other parts of their body, like when you have to throw up or when Jack broke his arm. Mommy just got sick in her brain.”

“What did the sickness make your brain do?” she persisted.

I wondered how much detail I would have to offer before she would be satisfied. “My brain just… made me think some things that weren’t true,” I tried.

“Like what?”

I had to have seen that coming.

I wanted to inform without scaring her. The part about the whole episode being triggered by memories of childhood sexual abuse was definitely out. My religious fixations probably wouldn’t make sense either. Was pressured speech—the compulsion to speak aloud every thought that comes into your head—too freaky? I settled on paranoia.

“Well… I was scared of the computer.”

Abby burst into giggles. No one had ever reacted to my story that way before. “What did you think it was going to do to you?” she laughed.

The truth was that I had convinced myself that my childhood abuser had somehow downloaded keystroke-capturing software onto our computer and could read everything I had ever typed. As my husband and a friend of ours led me towards the car to get me to the Emergency Room, I shouted, “Don’t turn on the computer until I get back and fix it! Promise me you will not turn on the computer!” It made sense at the time.

Now, I snuggled with my little girl and sighed. “I thought someone was watching me through the computer and I got scared.”

Abby laughed some more. “That’s silly, Mommy!”

“Well, it was silly, you’re right,” I agreed. “But at the hospital they gave me some medicine for my brain and now I’m okay.”

“And that’s why you stay in bed,” she pronounced, familiar with this part of the story.

“Yeah, because of the medicine,” I conceded. A side effect of my medication was that it knocked me out for ten hours at a stretch. I had always been the one to jump out of bed with whichever child woke up first, no matter how early or how little sleep I’d logged the night before. In the past months, however, my husband had shifted into the role of morning parent, because I was usually completely unconscious until after everyone else had eaten breakfast.

“How long will you have to take the medicine?” Abby asked. “If you went to the hospital and they made you better, why do you need medicine now?”

Good question. When I was released after four days on the psych ward, I met with a private psychiatrist for the first time in my life. She patiently explained that most women who experience postpartum psychosis also have, or subsequently receive, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. At this, I revolted.

“No,” I explained to my new doctor, “I don’t have bipolar disorder. I’m fine. This was a one-time thing. It was triggered by all this sexual abuse stuff! I don’t have a mental illness!” The idea of me having a mental illness was just ridiculous.

The doctor agreed that I could possibly be in the minority, but I would have to take medication for at least eight months until the threat of manic relapse passed. After that, time would tell.

So as I lay in bed with my six-year-old daughter, still in the initial eight-month window after that first psychotic episode, I told my little girl, “I won’t have to take the medicine for very much longer.”

It turned out to be a promise I couldn’t keep. A few months later, in the process of weaning off the medication, I became manic, verging on psychotic, again. When I saw the psychiatrist back in her office afterwards, she confirmed what I now suspected: bipolar disorder had set in after all. Unlike postpartum psychosis, which is a one-time designation, a diagnosis of bipolar never goes away. I could now officially count myself among the chronically mentally ill.

Talking to kids about mental illness is like talking to kids about divorce, or sex, or any other uncomfortable subject: you have to do it over and over again. It comes up, and you answer their questions at their developmental level, and then a few weeks or months or years later, it comes up again, and your answers change.

As I grow more comfortable with my own diagnosis, I am learning to field these questions more adeptly. On some level, though, as I learn to see myself through the eyes of my children, I find that I am still working through my own feelings. Some part of me still can’t believe I’ve landed in this “mental illness” camp. What am I doing here? When will I get out? If I ignore it, will it go away? Each time I confront the issue with my children, each time I verbalize my explanations to them, I am explaining it to myself.

Recently, my third child, who is now six, started calling other people “crazy” in a derogatory way. For weeks, I kept hearing it and letting it slide, but it rankled me. I finally called him on it.
“We don’t use that word that way,” I informed him. “People have real sicknesses in their brain, and just like a sickness anywhere else in the body, they can’t help it. So we don’t use that word to make fun of people. It’s not nice to people with that kind of sickness.”

He stared at me quizzically. My heart thumped, and I recognized the feeling of shame coursing through my veins.

This child was two when I was hospitalized. We never had a snuggly moment of truth afterwards. He can’t remember me ever bouncing out of bed in the mornings. Maybe he doesn’t know I have a mental illness at all. Was I ready to reveal myself to him?

After a moment I decided now was as good a time as any to step out of the mental illness closet with this child.

“Like me,” I leveled with him. I braced myself for the barrage of questions that might follow.

But he didn’t ask. “Okay, Mom,” he shrugged, and ran out of the room.

We’ll talk about it again some other time.

Sarah Sanderson lives with her husband and four children in Oregon. Find more of her work at



A Mother’s Garden

A Mother’s Garden

Art My Mother's Garden

By Sarah Bousquet

My mother looks up from beneath the brim of her straw hat, her hands patting the dirt around a new tomato plant. “Remember, we come from pioneers,” she says. “It’s in our blood.”

I don’t feel much like a pioneer as I dig into the dirt with my 2-year-old’s plastic shovel. I can’t seem to find the trowel anywhere. I’ve been shoveling and hauling dirt in the wheelbarrow, smoothing the area around the garden so a fence can be staked.

“Imagine growing all your own food? Imagine if that was all your family had to live on for the year?” She’s splitting the basil and plotting it out between the marigolds.

I shake my head. “I think we’d be malnourished.”

For a minute I try and imagine it, growing all the food we’d need to survive, and the staggering amount of work it would require. I’ve barely managed to get one garden bed planted, and wouldn’t have, if not for my mother.

I’d planned ahead and thought I had it so together. Years ago, long before I became a mother, I’d successfully grown a garden, even pickling my own cucumbers and cabbage. Somehow I’d forgotten about all the work.

In the Spring my husband broke down the old garden beds, and together we cleared away the dirt. For a while the wood beams laid stacked under the crabapple tree and my daughter would balance her way across them, finding the spots that bounced. We bought packets of of seeds, from arugula to pumpkin to habaneros. I had good intentions to make starters. Then the rain came and didn’t let up for a month.

Eventually my husband built a new garden bed from cedar planks. We had three yards of soil dumped in the driveway, which took many wheelbarrow hauls to relocate. I bought a few tomato plants and my daughter plucked off all the leaves. A woodchuck made his appearance, and I declared we would need a fence around the garden. My husband sighed, his enthusiasm for the project waning. By then we were well into June and I wondered if it was too late to begin planting.

That weekend my mother surprised me with boxes of plants, tomatoes and fennel, peppers and herbs, straw mulch and bamboo stakes.

“I didn’t have a garden when you and your sister were small,” she said. “It was too much work.” This is how my mom dispenses wisdom, in warm rays of commiseration and perspective.

I am surprised I need all this help. After two and a half years of motherhood, I still need tending.

In the months before I gave birth, a friend shared that old wisdom: when a baby is born, a mother too is born. Though I’d imagined what that meant, I couldn’t know how it would feel. Until I pushed through to the other side like a new green shoot.

At the birth center, my midwife gave firm, direct orders. Someone would need to go to our home and change the bed linens, tidy up, prepare a meal. After 48 hours of labor, I couldn’t recall how we’d left things. Maybe there was still a bathtub full of water. My mother listened carefully to the midwife’s instructions and left to make preparations for our return home.

In the blur of days that followed, sleepless and fragile, lying in bed with my newborn, I was consumed by the tasks of holding, changing, and breastfeeding, staring rapt at her new pink form. My mother’s presence drifted in and out, like warm sun, like gentle rain, giving what was needed. She would bring one-pot meals, chicken and tomatoes or hamburger stews with potatoes and beans, nourishing and simple, meant to show me, soon you’ll be doing this again too.

While I rested, she would undress my jaundiced infant and stand by the window, holding her up to the pale winter light. When I breastfed, she would say, “You nurse her like she’s your second baby. You’re a natural.” I felt a new version of myself, my mother-self, taking root, growing sturdy and determined.

Out in the garden, I water the plants while my daughter runs through the spray sending a misty rainbow into the air. She wanders with her shovel, digging in the dirt, her wet dress becoming caked with mud. As I round the raised bed with the hose, I notice the first green pepper hiding in plain sight, ready for picking.

I hold the stalk while my daughter plucks the pepper, biting into it like an apple, then offering me a bite. It’s mild and crisp, warm from sunshine, an altogether different taste from a store-bought pepper. We even eat the small stem and soft, white seeds. A butterfly hovers over a marigold and flutters away. Eggplant leaves sway.

That evening I call my mother to report our first tiny harvest. The garden is thriving with the exception of one stunted tomato plant. The others have grown taller than me, yellow flowers transforming to fruit.

“Remember, it’s an experiment,” she says. “You can see what does well and then decide what to add next year.” My mother’s words seem to be about something larger, and always reminding, in our perpetual state of becoming, if conditions are favorable and the weather kind, good things are likely to grow.

Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.








View of the Roman bridge in Rimini

By Emily Myers

The rental apartment in San Francisco was sparse. Spring sunshine bleached the walls and the linoleum was warm under my feet. My newborn was asleep in my arms and I had the phone wedged between my shoulder and jaw.

I missed my mum and told her so.

“I miss you too,” she said, and the phone crackled as it always did when she moved away from the window. The line between us stretched from damp, rural England to blistering California. Interference was expected. I pictured her in the cottage at the cove, its squat granite walls and small square windows, in a narrow valley spilling out to the sea. I could hear her moving, sitting down. I imagined her in those wing-back chairs, facing the fire, logs burning in the grate, spitting and popping. Dad would be out with the dogs.

“I wish you were still here. If only you were here, I could nip over and help you.” She sounded baffled. “What are you doing over there?”

I swayed, looking down at Max, three weeks old, his lips blistered from nursing. My whole body ached.

“Dom got a job, remember?”

I wanted to say it felt like I was standing alone in the middle of a rainstorm. I could see the water making rivulets all around me, my feet in the mud. The water was moving with such speed, and yet surrounded by this torrent of rain, it felt like nothing would ever change. I would always be here, watching this kind of water, on this kind of river bank. What I wanted to say was I missed the geography of my childhood, its familiarity, and that a nostalgia for it had crept in uninvited and was sitting heavily on my chest.

My mother told me about squabbles in the valley. There was a dispute about who should get the firewood from a fallen tree. Dad and Francis were going head to head with their camellias in the Penzance flower show. Eamon was back in hospital and Penny and her three grown daughters were up at The Nook with Val, who was now bedridden. “You know how close that family is,” she said.

I waited for my personal rainstorm to pass, slowly piecing together the jigsaw of my child, pulling genes from here and there; the dimples, the turn of his mouth and the curve of his nose, trying to make sense of things.

“It feels like you’ve been away thirty years,” said my mother during one of our long-distance calls.

“A lot has happened,” I said.

I wanted to say that my love for my child felt like a giant peony had bloomed in my throat and sometimes it was hard to breathe.

Max’s head got heavier and his eyes brightened, and he chuckled and sought me out. Every day the picture of my child, the character, became a little fuller.  I knew the eczema on his thumb and the milk spots under his chin. I knew the smell of formula on his breath and how his eyelashes had grown. I knew how he hiccupped when he laughed. He loved his bath, I found out, and I noticed his feet were the length of my thumb. I saw how he pulled his socks off and sucked them and looked startled when he rolled himself over, and how he marveled at his hands and gripped my hair when I leaned into his crib. I knew the feeling of his cold fingers and sharp nails on my chest, and how he’d sleep in broad daylight, tolerating the fact that I hadn’t put up curtains in his room. I found that the rainstorm had created a river. Familiarity just took time.

My mother came to visit. She came alone because Dad didn’t like leaving the cove. There was no one to look after the dogs or the chickens, he said. Mum made it clear she had come to see me, that I was the priority. She meant it with love, but it felt like another kind of suffocation. The line between us should have been clear, but still it crackled.

“She is your mummy,” she said to Max who was, by then, a toddler, “But she is also my child.” She hugged me awkwardly with one arm. Max ran off, squealing.

“You’re not coming back,” she said when she left. She looked exhausted. We were both tired by then. And perhaps she was right. By now, I was pregnant with my second child.

I have always thought of the cove as the sediment of my being… something about the permanence of the granite, gray-pink and flecked with quartz. I loved the story of Great-Granny Favell seeing the valley for the first time, scorched with daffodils. She came from Sheffield with her sickly husband and bought the one-story stone house by the river. Slowly she acquired farmland and outhouses and became a plump matriarch, dogs at her heels. The war brought her daughters and a daughter-in-law back into the cupped hands of the cove, where grandchildren ran to the slip and played in the tide pools. A safe haven. Now, men lean on their boats and talk of the past. When the old lady died, she handed the valley to the National Trust to preserve its torpid beauty and her descendants hang on to what was left. Nothing changes now. No one wants that. It is wonderful and stifling, like another peony blooming in my throat.

After my mother went home, we resumed our weekly phone calls. It was hard for her to find reference points.

“How is that lady we met in the park?” she’d ask.

“Oh, I haven’t seen her again.”

“And Max’s soccer games?”

“They’ve finished.”

I’d recently befriended someone with a son the same age as Max, but to tell my mother would make me seem sadder and lonelier than I was. I was pulling away, finally coursing my own river. The storm had broken, letting me take big gulps of air. But when I spoke to my mother, I was pulled back to a place that didn’t allow for change. We fell back into what we were both missing: each other. In the end, it seemed easier not to call.

My mother had her own interpretation for my silence. “I can’t bear to think of you being unhappy,” she said.

“I’m not unhappy,” I said. “I need you to support me.” My words felt urgent. “Dom and I are together. We have healthy children. These are things to celebrate.” What would she prefer, I wanted to say, me sleeping on their couch?

She was slow to reply. “Yes, I get it.”

Later, she called it her “Rubicon.” Perhaps it was mine too. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed a watershed called The Rubicon and committed himself to war. I like to think that in our case, the territory was emotional and put us on a path to peace.

Emily Myers is happiest working out life’s complexities with her three sons. She has worked for the BBC in London and for the arts education group, A Little Culture, in San Francisco. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.




Waiting for Lilacs

Waiting for Lilacs

lilac flowering at the springtime

By Andrea Mullenmeister

A swath of springtime sun filtered through the curtains and bathed my mom in dust motes as she rocked back and forth in the chair. Her yellow skin clung to her cheek bones, and she smiled.

“I’ve decided to put the hospice bed here so I can look out the window and see the lilacs bloom,” she said. Every morning, she looked out to the gangly bushes with anticipation, and every morning their stubborn buds failed to burst.

“Hopefully tomorrow, mom,” I told her, pretending I thought she would make it.

Five days after she decided to live for the lilac bloom, she surprised me.

“Let’s have a party,” she announced. She could barely get out of bed. She hadn’t eaten for days. Her skin was grayish now, and her cheeks were hollow. It really didn’t seem like the best time to host a party.

“Well, we do love parties in this family,” I conceded, “but I don’t know…”

“We’re doing it,” she interrupted. I think she was afraid that the cancer that was killing her body was also killing her legacy – she needed to know people hadn’t forgotten about her, that she still mattered.

So, I began planning my mom’s final party.

We invited everyone she knew to her “living wake.” Would anyone come? Not many people are comfortable with an obvious manifestation of death, and here death was, laying in a hospice bed waiting for lilacs and parties.

The morning of the party mom’s eyes were slits, and her body was motionless. I stared at the long list of RSVP’s and I got nervous. Did we really want 100 people in our house right now? “Are you sure you still want to have the party?” I asked.

“Yes. Party,” she said. Her voice cracked and I sponged water on her lips.

Those were the last words she ever spoke to me.

Long afternoon shadows climbed through the window and the dust danced. Visitors poured through the door. The sound of jokes and laughter mixed seamlessly with quiet reminiscing and tears. Her wake was exactly how she had lived her life, filled with people and activity. But instead of fluttering around, laughing and talking with her friends, mom slept on the hospice bed, breathing but unresponsive to the party that was happening in her honor.

Early the next morning, my brother and sister and I sat next to our mom’s bed. Mom had told us over and over that she wasn’t afraid to die. She was only 53 years old, but had made peace with her early demise. She had lived her bucket list and made amends. During the two years since her diagnosis, she had made the journey to God. She believed in Him and in angels. She felt safe.

As we sat around her, each lost in our own thoughts, she suddenly sat up for the first time in days. Her arms reached towards something we could not see. She frantically grabbed and clawed at the air around her. Was she afraid now that death was closing in? She moaned and reached towards the window.

The lilacs. They hadn’t bloomed yet.

Mom slumped back in bed, defeated. Her labored breathing began to slow…gurgle, huhhh…just when we thought it might be the end, her chest would rise again in a futile rally cry of “please, just one more day.”

I whispered “It’s ok mom. We’ll be ok. You can go now if you’re tired.”

The gentle spring rain splattered the window and eventually, she just stopped. We didn’t realize it at first because it was so peaceful but then a thunder clap rattled the windows and the skies opened up and it began to pour. She was gone. Gusting wind ravaged the budding lilac bushes outside and the curtain of rain couldn’t compare to our tears.

The next morning, I awoke exhausted and red-eyed. I looked out the window and stared at the brilliant purple flowers that bounced lazily in the breeze. The goddamn lilacs had bloomed. I threw my pillow at the window. Once my favorite flower, the lilacs were mean and ugly in the wake of my loss.

Cancer robbed my mom, and me, of so much more than just the lilac bloom.

Four months later, on my wedding day, I laid a white flower on my mom’s empty chair as I walked down the aisle.

Three years after that, I slumped next to my son’s incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit. The sounds of the NICU pierced my soul and a nurse elbowed me out of the way while she tried to convince my one-pound baby to breathe. I slunk into the background and stared out the window wondering if my child would ever feel the sun on his skin or smell the lilac bloom.

I haven’t held you yet, little boy. I haven’t even loved you.

His tiny chest rose and fell with mechanical precision now; the ventilator was doing the work of living for him. His labored breathing…whoosh, wheesh…filled the room and I wished I had ear plugs. I didn’t want to listen to another person die.

The sharp sting of grief scavenged my emotions, tricking me into believing I wasn’t worthy of being a mother anyway. “You can’t do this,” said Fear. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” Doubt chimed in with a vengeance. Even if my son lived, how would I raise him without my own mother to help?

I glanced into my son’s incubator, a tangle of wires and tubes hid his face, but each heartbeat lit up his transparent skin with the bright reminder of blood and life. His tiny foot kicked a tunnel through the wires and flailed into the air.

“Just one more day!” his tiny body screamed with a force that knocked the wind out of me. My son was alive. This was not that rainy spring day where life lost. This was a bright summer day where life was winning.

Just yesterday, that same little boy bounced over to me, laughter bubbling from every inch of his healthy, strong body. The gold flecks in his gray eyes shone like the rays of sunshine that streamed through the window. His tornado-like entrance stirred up all the dust and the particles twirled. His pointy chin jutted proudly like mine does and like his grandmother’s did.

Mom was worried people would forget about her after she died. But no one has forgotten, least of all me. The dust settled on the window sill and I ran my finger through the thin coating, leaving a lasting impression.

Butterflies danced in the springtime breeze and fluttered in and out of our view. Even though they disappeared from our sight, we knew they were still there. “Look mom.” My boy pointed to a branch, bursting with fragrance and color.

The lilacs had bloomed.

Andrea Mullenmeister writes about her family’s story of love, hope, and survival at Her essays about motherhood, prematurity, and parenting a child with extra needs have been featured nationally.

















Milk and Cake

Milk and Cake

beauty child at the blackboard

By Sarah Bousquet

Last week it occurred to me, I’ve stopped counting my daughter’s age in months. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just tapered off, which I suppose is typical after age two. This morning I measured her height on the pantry door frame. She’s grown an entire inch since we last measured her on her birthday in January. Then I started counting days on the calendar and discovered her half-birthday is exactly halfway between her dad’s birthday and mine. I told her we’ll bake a half-birthday cake.

Her legs suddenly look so long. “She’s stretching out,” my mom says. That’s what it feels like too, stretching, both of us. Drifting from our perfect dyad, stretching toward autonomy. The evolution of nursing newborn to nursing toddler-the dramatic growth and change, the intimacy and beauty-is almost impossible to capture. From balled fists to dexterous hands. From curled toes to toddler feet flung in my face. It feels like only months ago I sat glassy-eyed and thirsty, nursing my newborn, so voracious, it felt like she was sucking milk from the bones of my back.

There is the magic of that transition from cut umbilical cord to latched breast; nine months of nourishment invisible, now suddenly right before your eyes. And you see how perfect the design. For us, breastfeeding was that easy. Instant and harmonious. Nursing my baby evolved almost as unconsciously as my heart pumping blood.

The triumph of a body doing what a body does was packed with meaning. After nearly three years of struggling to conceive, I became pregnant naturally, much to my surprise and elation. For months and then years I had worried, wondered, researched—why wasn’t my body working? My pregnancy was an answered prayer, but one fraught with anxiety. The act of breastfeeding, just moments after giving birth, my daughter’s perfect latch, allowed me to see my body in action. It was the assurance I was providing everything she needed, the empowerment of a body at work.

When my daughter was six months old, a hyper clarity bloomed. I would listen to conversations, observe the behavior of others, and have sudden insights, new depths of understanding. I remember saying to my husband, “It’s the strangest thing, I feel like I can almost see right through people.” I called them popcorn epiphanies, these realizations that came in quick succession like kernels popping in the pot. I tried to write a few down, but they felt indescribable and came too quickly.  The lactating brain is plastic and creative; new neurochemical pathways are forged during the process of breastfeeding. I felt the changes in myself as surely as I saw the changes in my daughter. As she awakened to the world around her, taking in sights and sounds, babbling and laughing, intelligent eyes holding my gaze, I too became more alert and aware, both of us growing together.

I more often use the term nursing, which feels all-encompassing and true. Because breastfeeding is about much more than nourishment. It is medicine, comfort, bonding, security. You have only to nurse a toddler who has just finished a breakfast of banana pancakes to understand that nursing is pure contentment. Pure peace.

And sometimes pure hilarity. When she’s in her father’s arms calling out, “Goodnight, Mommy! Goodnight, milks!” When she charms and cajoles, “How about milks on the couch? Sound like a plan?” Or when I step out of the shower, and she’s there handing me a towel, her face so full of glee, calling out, “My milks! My milks!” Such celebration of my body. Such love.

I’ve been reflecting as it begins to taper. I’d never set any specific goals around nursing, no timelines or numbers. I have followed my baby’s cues and my body’s cues. And I will follow that wisdom into the next phase, as we grow together, celebrating the glittering increments, marking the door frame, baking half-birthday cakes.

Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.


The First And The Last

The First And The Last

Young Mother and Daughter Enjoying a Personal Moment

By Alice Jones Webb

My first child has a thick baby book. I started keeping it as soon as I discovered I was pregnant. My odd food cravings, the first stirrings of movement, and the onset of labor are all recorded in neat printed letters on pastel pages. I was so enamored by my first child, even before I had met him, that I wanted to record every detail of his existence. I didn’t want to chance forgetting anything.

After his birth, I continued to write down every one of his “firsts.” I was meticulous in recording each event. Dates, day of the week, even the time of day are all printed cleanly and evenly in the pages of his baby book. I was so afraid of the details of him slipping away as he grew. Perhaps I was afraid that he was too good to be true, that if I didn’t get every single part of him down, he would slip through my fingers.

The first time he said, “Mama” is one of my favorites. I cried fat tears. I remember exactly what he was wearing when he took his first tottering steps. The first time he laughed, the first time he used a spoon to feed himself (and the patiently waiting family dog), used the potty, rode a bicycle, drove a car, they are all chiseled in deep grooves across my memory.

He was my first child and so many of his firsts were firsts for me, too. As he was experiencing newness in his world, I was experiencing it in mine.

I shouldn’t have worried about forgetting. I haven’t needed the pastel pages of that baby book at all. It sits on a shelf collecting a layer of fine dust. Even though my first child has slipped away from me, leaving home and pursuing his own adult dreams, my memories are still incredibly clear and vivid. Each of his “firsts” are burned into my memory, because each of his defining moments also defined me as a mother. They are part of me. They are who I am.

My youngest child has had a very different experience. There is no baby book, no pastel pages, no dates or times, no meticulous list of “firsts.” Caught up in the busyness and chaos of raising her and her siblings, I was more concerned with keeping the house standing and the children alive than printing her accomplishments in neat even script. Most days I didn’t even have a moment to brush my hair, let alone write anything down. Unlike her brother’s “firsts” which I recall with stunning accuracy, hers have slipped away from me, lost in the pit of oblivion that was folding laundry, tending house, and feeding babies.

I cannot remember them. Not a single one. Not her first smile, nor her first words, nor her first steps. No matter how many times or how hard I try to conjure up the images of her “firsts” from the caverns of my memory, I come up empty every single time.

It’s not her fault. It is mine. I had already been through the tiny little miracles of a child’s “firsts” three times over. She is the youngest of four, her “firsts” didn’t dazzle me the way her older brother’s had. Instead, they seemed more normal, more expected. I didn’t pause to savor them. At the time, it seemed like so big an effort to step over the unfolded laundry, to walk across the room, sidestepping the toys as I went, to record her accomplishments. My hands were too full of her and her siblings to even consider holding a pen, let alone print anything cleanly and evenly. I will admit that I am rather ashamed of my negligence.

So the memories of her “firsts” have been lost in the swirl of time that streams behind me. I’ll never be able to grasp them again. I can’t remember them and there is no dusty baby book to remind me, either. But there are other details of her that I remember with painful clarity. I remember her “lasts.”

For the same reasons I remember her brother’s “firsts” so intensely, I have her “lasts” cut with the same deep grooves through my memory. His firsts and her lasts, the whole of my experience of motherhood is sandwiched between them. They are the bookends. He was my first and so many of his firsts were my firsts. She is my last child. Her lasts will be my lasts, strung out like a long farewell.

I remember the last time she nursed at my breast. The last time she slept in my bed. The last time she sat on my lap. The last time she called for me in the middle of the night.

Even now, every time she runs to me, hairbrush in hand after a failed attempt at a self-implemented ponytail, I wonder “Will this be the last time I brush her hair?” And it crushes my heart to think that it might. So I take my time, my fingers lingering on the soft strands of her hair. It might be the last time. I want to remember it. Every last bit.

Alice Jones Webb lives with her husband and four children in small town North Carolina. Her work can be found on her blog, Different Than Average ( where she writes about parenting outside of mainstream culture, as well as sites such as Scary Mommy, The Mind Unleashed, and Elephant Journal among others.

Mothering My Way Through Her Milestones

Mothering My Way Through Her Milestones

Mother and daughter holding hands while walking together

By Estelle Erasmus

When my daughter was two, we took a short family cruise. Our last night on board, I packed up our luggage and left it in front of our door to be picked up. By the time I realized I had stashed away all her diapers in our oversized suitcase, they’d already collected it.

“I can’t sleep without my pull-ups,” my newly potty trained toddler cried.

“You’re able to hold it in during the day, honey, maybe you can do it in the night, too,” I said.

“I can’t,” she wailed.

With my daughter listening closely, my husband and I investigated where we could get pull-ups. Unfortunately, the shops had closed for the evening.

As I placed a mound of towels in her crib, in a makeshift effort to avoid the flood that was coming—and not just from her eyes— I felt torn with guilt. I reassured my anxious child that she’d make it through the night dry, while my heart ached for her knowing she wouldn’t.

Then her small voice piped up.

“We have to go to the camp on the boat, mommy.”

“You’re not going to the day camp downstairs now. You’re going to bed.”

“No,” she insisted. “The camp has pull-ups. I saw them.”

Racing down three flights of stairs, I was grateful to see a cavalcade of little ones watching a movie. The understanding counselor responded to my plight by donating a few diapers. But the real gift was how my sweet baby had solved her own problem.

It started me thinking about the steps we had taken the first time we tried to toilet train her. First, I bought Once Upon a Potty, which I read to her, and then I got her a potty of her own that I let her decorate with stickers. Finally, I showed her the illustrations from the book to demonstrate exactly how it worked. My Princess sat on her “throne” and did nothing but look at picture books. After a few weeks of trying with no discernible results I was frustrated and gave up.

Shortly after, we attended a party, where the tiara-topped birthday girl in a tutu proudly pulled out her “seat” and filled it to the brim. I saw a light of recognition flash in my toddler’s eyes as she connected the deed with the device. After that, toilet training was a breeze. Just as important, I realized that my child does best when she can model her behavior after someone.


Soon after, I had the chance to help her when I noticed that she came on strong with new friends in the playground, following them around, or reaching out for her pal’s hand, then becoming upset if the girl pulled away.

One day after another incident that left her full of ire, I hugged my frustrated little one.

Mommy’s going to help you. I’ll show you what to do.”

She hugged me back.

Let’s pretend I’m your new friend,” I said. Go ahead and take my hand.”

When she did, I pulled it away from her.

No, I don’t want to hold hands,” I told her in a child’s voice.

“But I want to, mommy,” she said.

Don’t grab her hand again,” I said. “Just tell her, ‘it’s fine’, then walk away.”

After a few practice sessions—which had her screaming with laughter when I varied the pitches of my voice— she stopped acting desperate for friendship.


The summer she turned five, during a weekly play date three girls battled over who would wear the one sparkly gown for dress-up. It ended up my daughter’s prize, infuriating one of the girls who told the rest not to play with her.

Though we were both upset, I calmed down.

“Listen, sweetie, not everybody is going to get along, and not everybody is going to like you and that’s okay.”

She nodded with rapt attention, brushing back the tears brimming from her eyes.

“If it happens again, say, ‘It’s a free country. You don’t have to play with me and I don’t have to play with you’. Then find something else to do.”

We practiced for a week until she had the words and the attitude right. The next time someone tried to shun her, my girl was ready with the script we’d worked on. The result was minimal emotional collateral damage.

As she grows, I’ve noticed that her friends are exerting more influence on her, particularly when it comes to achievement.

For example, last summer, she was tasked with the deep-water challenge at camp in order to be allowed to paddle boat on the lake. The challenge was to hold her breath underwater for twenty seconds, float on her back for two minutes, and swim four laps without touching the sides of the pool. A few of her friends had already passed the test. At first she was fearful, but I pointed out that everybody starts at beginner levels for any challenge in life.

“Yesterday, your friend Ellen didn’t pass the test, but today she did. She worked hard to do that—it didn’t just come to her. You can pass, it, too. But you have to practice.”

“I will,” she said. And she did.

She came to show me her medal, when several weeks later she aced the test.

“I’m so proud of you, but more important, you should be proud of yourself,” I said.

“I am mom.”

My seven-year-old is eager for more challenges.

Right now, I’m teaching her how to cross the street with me as she carefully observes how I look to the right and the left, and watch for cars turning or backing up, before we start walking across.

“Mom, when I’m older, I’m going to cross the street by myself, and I’m not going to hold your hand at all,” she shares, flush with the power of her future.

If traffic were a metaphor for life, I would say that for now, we’ll practice together navigating the quiet streets of her childhood, in preparation for the busy thoroughfare of her teen years.

Because one day, instead of being steered by me, she’ll need to be the one doing all the driving.

Estelle Erasmus is a journalist and writing coach. She has been published in Brain, Child, The Washington Post On Parenting,, Vox, Salon and more. You can read more of her work at:






Short-Term Memories

Short-Term Memories

mighty old tree with green spring leaves

By Donna Brooks

You went down on August 26—my 29th birthday. That’s what the doctors and nurses kept calling it, anyway. It didn’t take long for me to understand that this is one of many ambiguous terms medical practitioners use to speak without saying anything.

Jack and I got the call around 9 p.m. and drove through the night; buzzed on the champagne and bottles of beer we drank to celebrate the last year of my twenties, despite it being a Wednesday. In the middle of nowhere Iowa, your doctor called to ask my permission to use life-saving measures while they transported you from the VA hospital in Des Moines to the neurotrauma unit at Mercy. I gave it, even though I promised you eight years earlier that I’d never let you live in a vegetative state. DNR you had me repeat to you over the phone. Do Not Resuscitate.

I found you drenched by the rising sun, entangled in a menagerie of machinery. Fate found us together again at Mercy, as we were on that very day 29 years before; the hospital I was born in.

Black circles of dried blood ringed your nostrils. When I asked why they hadn’t bandaged your engorged, bleeding ear, which had nearly tripled in size, a blonde nurse said, “She was down for a long time. Maybe eight hours. The blood coming from her ear is the least of our concerns.”

I had an overwhelming impulse to slap her, but buried my fingernails into my palm instead. My little brother is on his way for God’s sake. I moistened a paper towel and eased the blackness away.

A machine blew air into your lungs. A machine cleaned your kidneys—the first organs the body lets go of in an attempt to preserve the lungs, heart, and brain. Your body was the most impressive machine of all.

The neurologist and nephrologist told me to go get some rest—I’d need it for making big decisions. Big stroke. Big sister. I drank instead.

Your MRI showed what they called Shower Emboli; twelve strokes at once. The glossy photograph of your brain looked like a series of constellations mapped in a wrinkled galaxy. The doctor said your heart collected these shooting stars for years, maybe decades before the big bang. Blood pumps in quicker than it can pump out, sloshing and coagulating in the meaty basin of your left ventricle. Atrial fibrillation, he called it, a result of habitual drug use.

His tone carried a tinge of delicate inquiry, just in case the news he was delivering might come as a surprise. As if we could have possibly overlooked the last twenty years of our lost childhoods. Or maybe missed your propensity to, repeatedly, choose meth over motherhood; prison and halfway houses over our upper-middleclass suburb; crime over comfort. Dallas and I nodded. He looked relieved.

I wanted that image—my brother and I sitting there, hunched and raw, on the couch in your hospital room—to be used in D.A.R.E. programs across the country. Particularly in the Midwest where methamphetamine continues to turn mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends into the poison it’s made of. The message: Meth will come back to bite you. Sometimes, years after you quit using it. It destroys everything, inside and out.

Meth changed the beat of your heart.

I prayed for the first time in years. Prayed for your recovery. For your forgiveness. For relief from my opaque guilt for casting you out of my life. Jack read to you from your worn and heavily annotated bible Cousin Angel brought from Spring Hill. His voice was low and soft, a relief from the sterile, rhythmic reminder that you were not breathing on your own. Your bookmark was a picture I’d sent you from the night Jack asked me to marry him. It held the place of Corinthians 13:4-8. Love keeps no record of wrongs.

For ten days this went on. Sooner or later, the doctors said, this stroke will kill your mother. Don’t talk to me like I’m a child, I snapped, and immediately felt guilty, because I am a child. Your child. We agreed to extubate.

She may not breathe on her own, they said. You did.

She will be paralyzed on her left side of her body, they said. You are not.

She will have substantial brain damage, they said. You do.

You’ve lost your ability to create new memories—anterograde amnesia—which is pretty much on par with the cruelty life has shown you. What if, I thought, you awoke with a blank slate? Unburdened by the abuse of your childhood. The suicides of your brothers. The manic depression. What if we could meet between the wrinkles of time and start again.


Donna M. Brooks holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She was a 2013 finalist for the Iowa Review Award in nonfiction and a finalist for the Santa Fe Writers Project Award in nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Mamalode. She lives in Sioux City, IA with her husband and daughter.


The Grass Is Always Greener

The Grass Is Always Greener

Blackberry plant with berries and green leaves in the garden and on the field.

By Nancy Brier


Lauren and I toss down our bikes, shade our eyes with flat hands. “This is a good spot,” she says, and we start to pick.

“You get the high ones, I get the low ones, right Mom?” She squats, scanning thorny branches for clumps of purple.

Blackberry juice trickles down my arm, sticky and sweet. Lauren, crouched on the pavement, looks up at me, and laughs, her lips already stained, her bucket empty. “Put some of those berries in your pail,” I chide, “or we’ll never have enough for pie.”

Summer is in its final glory, the sun still warm but not too hot. Pear pickers drop skinny ladders in nearby orchards, the last of the soft fruits to be harvested. But there’s another crop ready to pick too, the crop that keeps me up at night, its fragrance hanging in the air wet and pungent.

My husband and I moved here from the Bay Area as soon as we learned I was pregnant. Entrepreneurs, the two of us worked all the time in those days building businesses and transforming worn out properties into beautiful living spaces. We liked our life but knew it would be impossible to maintain with a baby in tow.

One day, he found a walnut orchard on the internet. “How hard could it be?” he asked.

We sold our business and moved to a town we had never heard of in a place far away from city life.

Lake County has the largest natural lake in California, the cleanest air in the nation, spectacular mountains and small towns untouched by consumerism. We bought the orchard and a run down farmhouse with space to spread out.

Our walnuts flourished, but within a few years, that other crop did too.

Within the past several years, people have flocked to Lake County from all over the country to grow pot, and the cleanest air in the nation started to smell.

“I think you have a skunk problem,” a visitor said to me tentatively while he was visiting our home. I had to explain that the skunk he smelled was pot.

When I did a Google search, I counted 47 outdoor pot grows in backyards that surround our home. More cultivation takes place in doors. In fact, PG&E, our energy provider, said that Lake County uses three times as much electricity as an average community this size.

Growers come here because the climate is perfect for cultivating their crop. A patchwork of local, state, and federal laws ensures that pot will be a lucrative commodity for years to come. And law enforcement in this rural, mountainous area is stretched, a guarantee that only a fraction of rule breakers will get caught.

Some people think of pot as a victimless crime. But living here has taught me that it comes with guns, dangerous dogs, other drugs and lots of cash.

A mile from our home, a young man was shot dead on a Christmas morning, one pot farmer robbing another. Emergency vehicles raced past our house, and my husband and I exchanged glances as our little girl and her elderly grandmother, thankfully unaware, opened gifts by the tree.

Ten miles away in the other direction, a teenage girl was imprisoned in a small box at a pot farm. And on the other side of our county, a woman was killed in a car crash as deputies sped to the site of a grow.

Pot has made our little community dangerous. When teenagers ride their horses down Main Street to get cokes at the corner store, I marvel at the old fashioned charm all around me. But when I see other teenagers with vacant stares and marijuana leaves emblazoned on their tee shirts, I see a different picture.

The most dangerous time is during harvest, when that valuable cash crop is poised to be turned into cash.

Home invaders broke into our neighbor’s house but found a frightened, elderly woman. They had the wrong address; the pot they sought was across the street.

Are we next?

Lauren and I plunked berries into our buckets, talked about the kind of crust we’ll make for our pie. “Let’s grind up chocolate cookies,” Lauren suggests, “or make a criss-cross pattern with short bread.”

I smiled, but my eyes were trained on the slats in the wood fence that divided our berry patch from a field. Tell tale bright green jagged leaves shined brilliantly in the waning sunlight.

I hadn’t realized that our berries were a fence board’s width away from a pot field.

“I think we have enough now,” I said, walking toward our bikes.

We pedaled home and set our buckets down on beautiful new countertops. Pink sunlight streamed in from perfectly placed skylights, and my favorite color palate surrounded us in our spacious refurbished kitchen.

Lauren and I decided to go with a cobbler, buttery and delicious, the last thing we baked in that fabulous oven.

Nancy Brier lives with her husband and daughter. They recently relocated to Palm Desert, California where they are restoring their new desert home. Find her at:

Losing Winnie

Losing Winnie

11024684_854780187922320_708784403179556261_oBy Robin Lentz Worgan

I pick up my 14-year-old daughter, Winnie, at school after her play rehearsal. She slides into the car crumpling empty granola bar wrappers with her foot. I begin my daily mantra of questions: “How was play rehearsal? …Did you meet with your math teacher? …Is Sarah feeling better? Win…Winnie, stop texting and answer me, please.”  With her neck bent forward and long blond hair hanging down, a natural tent is formed around her virtual world.   This is our usual routine for our 25 minute ride home every day, unless of course she has something to ask me about her upcoming social plans, and then there is an immediate conversation to make sure they happen.

After my final pleading: “Damn it, Winnie! Put down the phone so we can talk,” she looks up at me. Her lips, pursed one over the other like Lincoln logs, slowly unfold into a slight smile. “Mom, I’m going to Allen’s house on Friday, OK?” I take a deep breath knowing that Allen may be a boy she likes and that she often wants to go to different boys’ houses instead of her girlfriends’ and also knowing that I prefer her to hang out in a co-ed group. I respond, “Oh, we might go out to dinner Friday.” Out of nowhere, Winnie, usually light and dreamy by nature, glares at me with her crystal blue eyes and barks, “You always try to control my life. You would let me go if it was a group. “

We continue to talk in a strained manner. I am not ready for her instant anger and I am trying to calm her down by telling her that I know right now she does not understand all the things I do to protect her, but before I finish she bursts in and says, “You know I hate you and I have hated you since I was… about 8-years-old.” Winnie then turns her head straight as we slow to a stop light. Before I know what is happening I hear her open the car door and say “Let me out. I’m outta here.” My heart is beating fast as we are on a main road. A car slides up next to us and I convince her to close the door for a moment. I immediately lock all the doors. We are on our way to a doctor’s check- up. She turns to me and says, “I’m not going in to the doctor. I’m leaving.” Dazed, I call my husband and ask him to meet us at her appointment. As we drive along and circle the doctor’s office parking lot twice, I feel my heart dangling from my chest, her words radiating throughout my body.

My husband comes and calms her and says he will take her to the doctor. I drive home gripping the steering wheel tighter and tighter needing to control something. As I walk in my older son sees I am upset. He is the one who used to say, “I hate you!” and then storm out of the house. He hugs me close and says, “You are a good mom. She’s just going through a phase.” That night I sit in the bathroom and cry. I cry because my little blonde haired, zany Winnie who used to wear a blue hat every day is growing up; I cry because I feel disconnected from her thoughts and feelings; I cry because I think about a game Winnie and I used to play every day after preschool. She had named it Danny and Tommy. We used two wooden figures and a bunch of wooden animals. We would set up all the animals within other blocks like they were in a zoo and then she would be Danny and I would be Tommy and we would visit the zoo and have adventures. We played it every day. I cry because her needs were so simple then: Lunch and a game with mom and then a nap, but now I am not so sure what she needs. I cry because I gave up my career to be home with my children. “Mom” has been my main identity yet I don’t feel like a good mom right now.

The next afternoon I invite Winnie to sit by the fire and talk with me. We sit cross-legged across from each other. I am hoping for a peaceful conversation, but she still has streaks of loathing in her voice when she says, “I just want to leave here. I am ready to be on my own and I want to travel.” I explain to her that travel is a great goal and that many people want to travel and that she will have plenty of time to travel later after school and college. I even bring up the idea of a gap year to fulfill her wanderlust, but we are just not connecting in our communication. She skips to her next argument and points out that I make her hang up her cell phone every night before bed and do her computer homework at the bar in the kitchen and that none of her friends’ parents make them do that, and, that when she does something wrong in her social life, I get too involved. She sits up straight and looks at me, no through me, and says, “I just want to make my own mistakes and make my own life choices. I don’t need you.”

Winnie repeats again that she does not like me. I can tell our conversation is not going anywhere and I want to end it. I decide to tell her the story I told her every night until she was about 10-years-old and stopped asking for it. “Win, when you were born, I had lost your older sister, Margaret; she was stillborn, and so when the doctor put you on my chest and I felt you breathing and saw your pink cheeks, I burst into tears and clasped my hands in prayer and said, ‘Thank you God ‘over and over again because I felt so, so lucky to have you. So you may hate me right now, but I will always love you because I am your mother and mothers always love their children, no matter what. “

I leave her and go in to my room to take a break from this mess. I know I will react and yell at my other children for anything they do because I feel vulnerable after my conversation with Winnie, so I shut myself up in my bedroom and open up my book, Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan and begin to read. I read to calm down. It takes me somewhere else away from my problems. As I read, tears drip onto my page, but I keep reading for a while. I know I should make dinner but I am not ready to resurface into my life. After about 45 minutes, Winnie comes in red eyed, hands me a note written on notebook paper, hugs me and leaves. She has never been one to talk about her feelings or tell me about her day at school. She did not cry at her beloved grandfather’s funeral a few months ago though all her siblings did.  I read her note, “I have so many emotions inside of me. I don’t know how to communicate them. I don’t hate you. I love my family. I don’t really want to leave. “

The next night I decide to ask Winnie for an art lesson. She has just spent several nights sketching amazing pictures of Adam Levine and Kurt Cobain. I cannot draw at all. We decide I will draw a mermaid. I expect her to give me simple directions for drawing a mermaid. I am waiting for concrete directions like “First draw this line,” instead Winnie begins by telling me about light and how the act of drawing all has to do with finding the point of light. She shows me the point of light on my page. She also says, “Mom you always draw what you think you see, but you are supposed to draw what you really see. Don’t guess what the side of the chair looks like, draw where it curves on the one side. Don’t guess the shape between your eyes and your pencil. Draw what you see.”

After the lesson, my picture is ready for the trash. I do not understand the light and I cannot see the way Winnie sees. I lie in bed that night and begin to think that maybe I see Winnie the way I want to see her instead of how she is. I put on a fresh set of lenses and drive her to Allen’s house the next night. Winnie texts the whole way there, not talking, except when she gets out to turn and say, “Thanks for the ride, mom.” (She smiles). I think I see a 14-year-old that needs lots of protection and is going to a boy’s house by herself and is impulsive because she has ADHD, but what I really see at that moment is a happy, artistic teen girl who loves her mom and is trying to figure out her path. I wave to Allen’s mom and drive away.

Robin Lentz Worgan is a second grade resource teacher and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in ADDitude Magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She is also the author of Journaling Away Mommy’s Grief, 2010.  She blogs about loss on her book website at

Art by Linda Willis

Pink Champagne

Pink Champagne

Black and white photograph for background, tourist girl in swimsuit standing with happiness on the beach and sea at Koh Miang Island, Mu Ko Similan National Park, Phang Nga province, Thailand

By Harriet Heydemann

“Let’s send her picture to Dr. Doom and Gloom,” her father said every birthday. That’s what we called the doctor who told us she wouldn’t live past the age of five or ten, or maybe, if she was lucky, she’d make it to fifteen. The doctor’s prognosis was the worst we had heard. Most of the experts we consulted scratched their heads. Ariela never sat up, or crawled, or walked. No one knew what was wrong or why she was the way she was.

“Look how well she’s doing.” We said this every birthday past fifteen, knowing we were being smug, knowing we might be jinxing her luck. We laughed about Dr. Doom and Gloom. “She doesn’t know Ariela,” we said. “Ariela’s a trouper.” Sometimes we used the word “miracle.”

Every birthday, I relived her birth, just as my mother did with me. “What was it like the day I was born?” I’d ask my mother. She would tell me the story. How she was sedated. When she woke up, she had a baby.

“No sedation,” I said to my doctor who told me to take Lamaze classes. But the Lamaze teacher never said, “In and out of distress” and “No progress.” After hours that felt like days, I was rushed to the OR for an emergency

C-section. I couldn’t feel a thing or watch her birth.

I admit. I spoiled Ariela. After all, she was an only child. Ariela could have just about anything she wanted any day of the year. It was a challenge to make her birthday special.

At least a month before her birthday, she would decide what kind of event she wanted, who would be on her guest list, what food to serve. Whether she’d have a chocolate, white or carrot cake. But that’s where her power ended. She had little control over anything that mattered. She held court over her party from the seat of her wheelchair. She smiled and laughed with her friends and understood everything they said. But she was never able to speak. We read her facial expressions and her body language. She answered our questions with “yes” and “no” cards or a blink of an eye. By her eighth birthday, she used a computer with a digitized voice, a child’s version of Stephen Hawking’s device.

There would be more than one celebration. If her birthday fell in the middle of the week, she’d have a few close friends over for cake. On the weekend, another cake and another party for a larger group. Then, because her birthday came right before Thanksgiving, we’d celebrate when family came into town for the holiday. She liked being the center of attention, all her friends surrounding her, singing “Happy Birthday.” They filled our home with constant banter, interspersed with squeals of laughter and whispered secrets.

By the time Ariela turned sixteen, she could no longer eat the cake or anything else. Her food, a nutritional supplement, went into her stomach by way of a long, skinny tube. Sometimes I put the tiniest taste of strawberry jam in her cheek, washed down with a few drops of pink champagne, her favorite drink. We celebrated every year, like this year would be the best, like she would live forever.

I wanted all her parties to be perfect; the kind that linger in your memory for days after, where everything goes smoothly and no one wants to leave. Her friends still talk about her twenty-first birthday in a downtown nightclub. But the last one, a bowling party, was far from ideal. I chose a Sunday instead of a Saturday, and a few of her friends couldn’t come. The street was dark, and people couldn’t find the place. Almost everyone was late. The music was too loud. The bowling alley was slow serving the pizza. The strobe lights gave Ariela a headache. Her bowling ramp and lucky pink shirt, both previous birthday gifts, didn’t bring the usual show of strikes. I should have checked out the place beforehand. She looked at me with an expression that I knew too well. Roughly translated, “You really fucked up this time.”

“You’ll have a better party next year,” I promised.

As Jews, we mark the anniversary of a death, but what about a birthday? Is a birthday sacred? Or does only a mother hold that day sacred? My mother used to tell me, “You may not know the father, but you know the mother.” Sedated, anesthetized or awake, the mother was there.

My missing her is the same lonely, painful, deep hole every day. Her birthday is not different, except it is. It feels strange not to have a party, and feels even stranger to have one. We can’t have a cake with candles, and we can’t sing “Happy Birthday.” I worry that her birthday will become just another day. It’s a challenge to make the day special.

Her friends text and email, prodding me to do something. On the day of her birthday, about a dozen young women congregate in our house and reminisce.

Many of Ariela’s friends came into her life as caregivers, attendants to help with her personal needs and accompany her to medical appointments, classes, movies, concerts, bars, wherever she needed or wanted to go. For the last seven or eight years, she hired millennials, women close to her in age. Over time, their relationships evolved into friendships. Her friends went on to become physical therapists, nurses, speech pathologists, social workers, and teachers.

“I imagine her sitting in her chair next to the couch.

She’s grinning along with them.

This was the first birthday party she missed.

She would have been twenty-seven.”


“She changed my life, the way I think about disability and ability,” one friend says.

“She inspires me everyday,” says another.

“She didn’t want to be an inspiration. She made fun of people who patronized her.” They all nod at this.

“She made me laugh.”

We eat pizza and drink pink champagne. We gather around the TV and watch a video, a photomontage of Ariela’s life. Her friends point to themselves in the group shots.

“We’re at the Embarcadero in that one. We went to watch a flash mob.”

“That one’s from her trip to Israel. Dig the hottie she’s sitting with.”

Everyone laughs at Ariela dressed as a zombie, her eyes blackened, mouth smeared a bloody red, her Halloween costume two years ago.

The sounds of young women laughing, joking, teasing fill our home. I imagine her sitting in her chair next to the couch. She’s grinning along with them. This was the first birthday party she missed. She would have been twenty-seven. So there, Dr. Doom and Gloom. She beat your prediction by over eleven years.

Surrounded by Ariela’s friends, I understand why she said the “L” in her name stood for “lucky.” I think of the lasting impressions she made on their lives, and I know her birthday will not be forgotten.

I mark her friends’ birthdays in my calendar. I’m not crazy about pink champagne, but I raise a glass to all of them.

Harriet Heydemann’s work has been published in The Big Roundtable, Huffington Post, and A Cup Of Comfort for Parents of Children With Special Needs.

My Daughter’s Silence

My Daughter’s Silence


By Megan Nix

When I found out that my month-old daughter Anna was deaf, I felt like my feet had floated away. I was sitting down, but the ground was gone. I think, for a moment, sound disappeared for me, too. Between my ears was a speech-ceasing buzzing, a grayness, a feeling that already, my past life was a remnant.

I was in an audiologist’s office in Seattle while my husband was somewhere out on the Alaskan sea and my 3-year-old daughter was picking up black crabs with friends on the beach. I had flown from Alaska down to Seattle for 24 hours to see how much Anna could hear. As it turned out, she could hear nothing.

My mother-in-law was there, too. We’d been eating licorice together. When the audiologist said the words, “no repeated responses in either ear,” I put the candy down. The audiologist brought her finger to the bottom of a chart, below images of a faucet running and a bird chirping and a lawn mower mowing. “Anna has profound hearing loss. Which means she cannot hear anything at the limits of our machinery. She could not hear a jet engine if she were standing next to it.”

“Are you saying she’s deaf?” I asked. I had not heard the word yet. I was starting to tear up. I wanted to hear it clearly, I wanted to hear the sound of our future, hear the word deaf, hear the way it would sound when I told family members and friends what she was.



From May to September, my husband salmon fishes on a small island in Southeast Alaska called Sitka. We rent a house there with seven sea-facing windows that are always punctuated by rain and beyond those drops and the navy blue water are the many mountainous islands that jut up, sharp and tree-covered, from the fog-rimmed horizon. Sometimes we camp on an adjacent island and we won’t see or hear another human for days. Luke has fished there for 13 years. Sitka is a place of great beauty and great isolation and great amounts of precipitation. The summer Anna was born, the rain killed three people after it took part of the mountain down. I struggle there, having come from Colorado—a state with 300 days of sun and lots of close-by people and stable ground.

Last summer, Alaska meant danger. Not only because of the deadly landslides and the fact that we live at the foot of the tallest mountain, but also because we didn’t know if we could get Anna the care she’d need. We had never needed any medical professionals in Sitka till last summer after Anna was diagnosed with CMV—a random virus I caught while pregnant that crosses the placenta and can cause deafness, blindness, neurological delays, and total devastation to an infant’s central nervous system.

After the revelation in Seattle that CMV had taken Anna’s hearing in totality, I returned to Alaska and called the early interventionist team to come over and assess my baby. At that point in the summer, we didn’t know anyone who was deaf besides our daughter. The early intervention team didn’t either. The Orthodox priest in town and a friend of mine are the early intervention team. I served them tea and store-bought cookies and we sat on the carpet and talked to Anna like she was any other baby. The priest’s long white beard shook as he cooed to her and looked into her gray-blue eyes. Zaley, my older daughter, handed out Pecan Sandies dutifully. Anna was the only deaf person on the island. I was the only mother to a deaf child on the island. The priest said he didn’t know much about deafness. The one woman he knew who spoke sign language had moved to a bigger city where she could communicate with other people like her.

I thought of how Luke and I had decided he’d fish in Sitka indefinitely. I thought of how Anna’s aloneness might be indefinite.

Sitka has 14 miles of drivable road. For the rest of the summer, I didn’t feel it had any drivable roads. I felt like I had lost one of my senses.


When I feel overwhelmed, I read. Luke is not inclined towards research and cautions me to draw the line, but I thought then that to know all is to be surprised by nothing. Within a week, I’m sure I knew everything a lay person can know about CMV (which isn’t much, so under-studied and under-publicized cytomegalovirus is). I knew that if we came away from Anna’s diagnosis with just hearing loss, we were incredibly blessed. I conference-called with Children’s Hospitals and alternative movement therapists and friends who came out of the woodwork because of deaf family members and acquaintances. My parents’ neighbor had taught deaf children for 30 years. A distant friend was fluent in sign language because her uncle was profoundly deaf. Another friend’s cousin was finishing her PhD dissertation on the difficulties of hearing parents in choosing whether to cochlear implant their deaf children or not.

Never having heard of a cochlear implant (despite the hundreds of YouTube videos documenting the first time deaf children hear), I looked them up online. By way of a surgically embedded magnet, the implant bypasses damaged cochlea—tiny hair cells—and sends a signal directly into the auditory nerve. If you see a person with a cochlear implant, it looks like a large hearing aid connected by a chord to a suction cup on the back of their head. The hearing aid part is the microphone, which changes sound to electrical impulses.

On a day when the rain was coming sideways through the front door in Sitka, we stayed in, and Zaley and I watched the YouTubes of cochlear implants being activated. I cried. She asked what the wires were sticking to the kids’ heads. I didn’t understand yet. I thought sound would sound the same through the cochlear implants. I thought it was a miracle. I thought, why am I crying if Anna won’t always be deaf? When I look back on my summer self, I look so fragile and unknowing to myself even though it’s only been six months.

Having a deaf child changes your world quick. You notice the pitch of the wind. You notice the way your other child speaks, her shh‘s just perfect, how many letters are in a sentence like “I don’t know what extremely means, Mom.” You see that other children don’t wear anything on their ears. That every child you know—squealing on the slippery playground and petting octopi in the Science Center and slowing down on the dock when their mom calls “walk!”—can hear.


I was so tired. I took a two-hour nap every day while both girls slept, the quiet baby tucked into the nook between my heart and my ears. The auditory-verbal therapist we’d end up working closely with in Denver told me over the phone that choosing to do auditory-verbal therapy (AVT) was like being a mom times ten.

Being a mom times one was hard enough. Splitting time between Alaska and Colorado was hard enough. Now I found myself straddling so many worlds, my legs had not only returned from the initial announcement of Anna’s deafness, but I seemed to have too many appendages. One foot in the hearing world, one in the deaf. One foot planted in sign language territory, the other stuck on teaching her spoken language only. One foot was at home and one foot was in this new, forever place of confusion where I was an outsider to my own daughter’s experience.

Underneath every minute of cooking or speaking or driving or swaddling was a current of inadequacy.

When you’re seasick, you’re supposed to look at the horizon because it does not move. On Luke’s boat, I had memorized the outline of the trees on Biorca Island and rimming Salisbury Sound. When we tied up for halibut, I could always think, soon, soon, we will be home and there is a hot shower and I won’t have to look at the horizon because we live on it.

But having a child with a diagnosis you didn’t expect takes away your horizon and your experience of even the shower. In the shower, I could hear the water, I had the words for hot and cold. But I did not have even the simplest of signs for everything in Anna’s world. There were so many of them to learn (or not learn if we threw ourselves fully into the spoken language camp), so many choices to make unaided. Simple shampooing became a question of language. Language was confusing now, and confusion became anxiety. Anxiety became an issue of self-worth, of questioning myself as a mother more than ever. If Anna could not hear me, could she know me? It was like being seasick all day long.

Even though Luke drives his truck to the harbor every morning and then drives it back up our gravel road each night, there was one day I was online more than I should have been, and I left him a message to leave his truck at the harbor when he was done. At 5:00 pm, he unloaded his fish and called me. A friend came over to watch Zaley for an hour. I put Anna in the back of our old Chevy Suburban and prayed she would nap. Then I drove the long way to the harbor, past Totem Park then the cathedral then the old Russian cemetery nearly overtaken by ferns. The baby was quiet, and at the stop light in town, I listened to the gentle, puffing miracle of her breath. When Luke got in, I told him what I’d read.

“CMV is like, a really big deal.” I didn’t know how to bring him deeper than the stability and optimism I’d married him for. “It’s more serious than we thought. These kids are in wheelchairs. A lot of them have cerebral palsy. Some of them have eyes that don’t open.”

Any time in our marriage I’ve had trouble, Luke’s first resort is to calm the waters. I love him for this—for his ability to see way beyond the initial hurdle, and for his ability to plot the steps to get us over it. It’s how he got to Alaska in the first place: a Colorado boy whose dream was to be a salmon fisherman, so he left home, worked hard, bought a boat, started a business.

But this day, this time, as we took Anna from one end of the island to the other, he just looked out the window at all the wet green going by. I could tell that he couldn’t comfort me out of this one, which meant there was no salve for him in what we knew or in what we could or couldn’t do, either.

There was rain and rain and rain and we drove through it and under it and over it. An eagle left a tree and flew back to it. A friend passed us and waved, with no idea that we were driving around with our deaf daughter in the back and thinking about the rest of her life, the rest of Zaley’s, the rest of ours. At Mosquito Cove, we did a U-Turn through the fog. There was nowhere else to go.


Even though the rain was intense last summer, we would have three-day stretches of glorious sun. Out came the shorts and the coolers and the excited flurry of Zaley naked, running the hallway, and screaming “Beach day! Beach day!” My friend Jenn and I would text each other, “Did you see this sun?!” We would meet at her house and walk down a rocky path to the private beach.

Sitka’s tides swing to the extremes, the sea fluctuating sometimes up to 12 feet. At low tide, Zaley and Jenn’s son, Jake, could run out to a forested island where there are boulders to climb and plump mushrooms bordering an old and hidden rope-and-wood swing. At high tide, the ocean eats up the spit connected to the island, and then we are left to our big island with a long log the kids balance on as we eat our crackers and smoked salmon and drink our seltzers, the seltzers switching to beers as the sun gets higher in the sky.

After Seattle, I had stood in front of Jenn on that beach and sobbed. She held me there, on her shoulder, sobbing, too. “I just can’t believe it,” she said. She lifted her head and looked at Anna. She said it again. I said I couldn’t believe it either. Part of me still can’t, every time we enter a sound booth and I put earplugs in because the sound they are pumping into the room would damage my hearing.

“Nothing,” the audiologist says.

Each time, because I love Anna, because I think Anna is a genius, because everything is getting better and she is changing physically, I believe that Anna will somehow, someday, of her own accord, without a device on either ear, hear some of this. I know it’s delusional, but there’s nothing I can do about the way I ascribe hope to physicality. It’s the only way I can get through our seasons in Alaska—the physical beauty is what makes me believe we can be there happily, unlike so many separated fishing couples we know.

One day, when the sun was high enough to be crossed by the float planes bringing people over the island and the kids were clambering towards the old swing, Jenn said she didn’t want a beer. After years of trying for a second child and a miscarriage last year, she was pregnant. She was over 40, she was worried. If there was anything wrong with the child, her husband wouldn’t want to keep it.

I looked at Anna in my lap. I wondered if a deaf child would be considered a case in which something was “wrong with the child.” For the first time since I’d found out, I didn’t wish away her deafness. I wanted it. I wanted her. I told Jenn not to have tests run, that they would love any child, and maybe an unexpected child even harder.

A week later, Jake and Zaley were taking swim lessons together at the indoor pool when Jenn told me her ultrasound had showed a slow heartbeat. We were sitting in the bleachers, both of us crying then, while Anna’s steel eyes scanned us left to right, like she was reading. I told Jenn to keep celebrating that she was pregnant, that we would pray for a pick-up of the heartbeat. Jenn said that she didn’t know if her marriage could survive a complicated pregnancy or the revelation of circumstances you might call “special needs.” I couldn’t imagine her grief, and I had learned that it was better not to pretend to—that genuine sympathy, or even reverent silence (or, sometimes, disbelief, at best), is much better than pretending to understand. In fact, it was Jenn who had taught me that.

I didn’t know what to say. Sometimes, I fill my silence with quick little prayers. I picture them like tiny birds darting upwards from cupped then opened hands. But in the dim, white noise of the roaring indoor pool, I didn’t know what to pray for. At a Wednesday morning rosary group with other women and their children the next morning, another mom prayed for acceptance of all children with illnesses. Two days later, Jenn texted me. She didn’t want to dwell on it. She had lost the baby.


Because I knew Anna was different, I scrutinized her unlike I did Zaley, my hearing child, whose every early milestone and sound I took for granted. I learned to be slow with Anna, to study the patterns of her white-streaked irises as they scanned my hands making the “mommy” sign and the “I love you” sign over and over. I learned from the auditory-verbal therapist to turn her body when there was a sound she may have felt as a vibration. The only person Anna would take a bottle from was Jenn, and Jenn would sit with her on the couch, with the light coming in the long windows, the baby pulling the milk from the bottle and her wide eyes looking straight up at Jenn, and I would stand in the kitchen, my back to them for a few minutes to stop the start of tears.


Outside of fishing season, we live in a small, once-farmhouse just west of Denver. We have speakers in the dining room for listening to music while we’re eating at the table or playing on the deck. We have a doorbell. We have a TV and a CD player and a three-year-old who loves to sing. When we returned home in September, our home was as we’d left it, but it was as though even the air had changed. On my desk was a beautifully illustrated book I had ordered in Alaska for Anna before we knew she was deaf. It is called Symphony City. It is the story of a girl who is lost in a city, but then she finds music and she is not alone.

I look back on this past summer as though it was a wound. Every memory has a rawness to it: the first time I played music, months after finding out Anna was deaf, and bawling in front of Zaley who asked me, calmly and over the sound of the fiddle, if I would like to play with some beads. Or, finally gathering the courage to hear what it will be like for Anna to hear when she gets cochlear implants, and again, deteriorating when I heard the metallic, nearly toneless version of music we will be giving to her when we give her the thing we call music.

Wounds are a mystery. We cannot know their depths. We cannot gauge which elements of our pain will last, just as we never know which memories will remain the sharpest. I assumed music was ruined for me, not that it would be better than ever when I tried listening again a few months later.

It is winter now and Anna is over half a year old—over half the distance to her cochlear implant surgery. You could bisect the length of her life into deaf and being able to hear. Music fills our home—Luke on the banjo, Zaley singing “Let it Go” an inch from Anna’s face—and only on snowy days when we are stuck inside and my rainy summer emotions creep up, do I feel the inching up of a sadness for my daughter. But I have learned it is important to investigate sadness: am I sad for me? Or am I actually mourning something in the life of my daughter? Usually it is the former.

I grieved a choking kind of grief this summer, but this summer is over. Anna has more at her doorstep than at any other time in history as a deaf child. Technology will bring sound into her brain, and we will create its meaning. We have world-renowned therapists who are teaching me how to place consonants in the middle of words (piggy instead of pig) so she can hear or feel them through her rose-colored hearing aids despite the fact that her deafness—which is of a rare severity—is as profound as it gets. The virus that used to devastate children seems to have passed her over and left in its shadow an amazingly happy baby who chuckles when you put her arms in her sleeves.

When I cry, I cry for the loss of the life I expected, not for the losses my daughter has so far suffered. When I begin to go to what Luke calls “the general sadness department,” I turn off the music. At some point this year, I realized it was important for me to leave behind my immature, idealistic expectations and grow into acceptance at the same time as I’m trying to teach it to a toddler. My daughters should not have to carry the sadness that comes with being a parent to any child when we watch our children change in ways we did not expect.

Plus, I see now the surprise in Anna’s initial diagnosis and what all my online searching could never tell me: Anna merits nothing close to pity; she has given my life, and Luke’s, and Zaley’s, an unusual and special excitement. Every time she makes a loud giggle or a new noise or begins to look like she’s signing something to us, we become giddy. And, our audiologist assures us that the brain adapts to the sound it is given through cochlear implants, that what we hear as a simulation of their sound is not nearly as nuanced as it will be in Anna’s brain.

Here we are, heading towards a surgery that will bring back a sense she never had—something that still seems to me like a miracle, even though I know the science behind it, know the amount of electrodes that will be threaded into her miniscule cochlea, know her brain will have to work overtime to decode sound. I want Anna to learn any language she likes. But I love her with a fierceness that is beyond language—spoken or signed—and this keeps me from feeling that I have to decide which one we prioritize.

This is what I didn’t know last summer: that the best way to research Anna would have just been to love her.

I look forward to Anna hearing her sister’s voice go dreamy and husky when she’s telling a story. I look forward to reading Symphony City to Anna and getting to the last page when the girl hears her mother calling her home. I look forward to the last thing at night—or anytime Anna wants to, really—when she reaches up, and can take her cochlear implants out.

Anna’s cochlear implant surgery has been set for April. They will activate her devices just before Luke leaves for Alaska, and I’ll go up with the girls a few weeks later.

Part of me dreads next summer. Every summer in Alaska presents us with new unknowns: when should we find renters in Colorado, when will I have a baby, when will I go up with the girls, when will we stop expecting that we can expect everything? Also, I dread the rain, I dread having to do auditory-verbal therapy remotely by Facetime, I dread the absence of Target on the hardest days.

But part of me wants to bring Anna back to Alaska to hear it. Zaley loves the sound of the eagles (a gentler burble than you’d expect) and the raven that frequents our roof (making a “potluck” noise, like a jack-in-the-box being punted). There is the sound of the surf coming in over the gray, finely spread gravel and the purr of Luke’s engines as he turns them on and we sneak out past the no wake zone and into the hum of the open ocean.

In Alaska, there is also the loveliness of silence that only Anna can access—a flip of a magnet from the back of her head, and she is in a sanctuary I will never know.

When I picture silence, I picture Alaska. When I picture silence, I picture my Anna.

Megan Nix’s work won the 2009 Fourth Genre Editor’s Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has been published in The Iowa Review, South Loop Review, The Denver Post, DiningOut Magazine, and elsewhere. Her blog at details the journey of raising a deaf child and a hearing child in Colorado and in Alaska. She is also a teacher at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.



Thirteen, Now and Then

Thirteen, Now and Then

Art Thirteen 1

By Christine Green

Last week my daughter asked me to help her edit and revise some poems she wrote for class. The theme was a rather advanced one: the Bosnian refugee experience. She is anxious and a little sad by nature, and I sensed her nervousness. I didn’t want to upset her so I chose my words carefully. Usually, when I help her write, she becomes prickly and uneasy, quick to be offended by any suggestion I make. But not this time. She listened as I critiqued and nit-picked and corrected. She even smiled, I think.

She worked on the poems for the next couple of hours despite the fact that there was no school the next day and the rest of the family watched a movie and ate popcorn and dozed on the couch.

I read her poems the next morning. I don’t ask permission and felt a little ashamed about that. They were good but sad and dark. I was proud and confused and heart-achy. She can channel so much sadness and beauty in just a few lines of eighth grade poetry. Her melancholy and anxiety transmutes to art that is incandescent. This child, this girl-woman, is such a different animal than I was so many years ago.


Art thirteen 2Thirteen, 1986: I am small, much smaller than most of the girls in my class. My white uniform shirt falls limply against my chest. I don’t need a bra but wear a trainer because you can see right through the flimsy polyester. Knees, knobby and sharp, poke out from underneath my plaid skirt. I wear my hair short, which was a huge mistake. My thick, straight tresses look best when I leave them long. But a picture in some glossy magazine convinces me to cut if off. I look weird.

I am reading books I’ve taken from my father –Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant and Saki. My science teacher catches a glimpse and asks if I really understand what I’m reading. I do understand and tell her so. She believes me, and I tuck the books away feeling embarrassed but not entirely sure why.

I may be smart, but I am naïve beyond words. Once I am asked to light the candles on the class Advent wreath. The idea of lighting a match terrifies me and my natural anxiety peaks to panic. When the flame ignites, I hastily drop it… right on the pine wreath surrounding the purple candles. The teacher looks at me with disbelief. It is clear that she—and the rest of the giggling class—think I am ridiculous for not knowing how to light a match. I feel ridiculous. But my soul is all air and water. My head is filled with Ideas and Notions. My heart is somber and easily bruised. I am quick to cry, and am continually scared of the world. I can’t even use the stove at my house. I rely on others for heat.


She got an A on those poems as I knew she would. But I worry about all that sadness. It’s a sadness tinged with anger, confusion, and anxiety. She is too young to be so somber.

This makes me think that the coming years will be hard, much harder than I am ready for. Already we can come at each other with an intensity that startles me.

I cry. She yells.

Water. Flame.



Thirteen, 2014: She is fire through and through. She can light a match, of course. And she can bake bread and walk home from school alone. She wears black and doodles on her sneakers. She hates gym class and is a voracious reader. Books litter her room and I often find them tucked in her bed sheets and even in the laundry basket. No magazines, though. Fancy fashion spreads hold no interest for her. Instead she studies Shintoism and researches the ins and outs of cardiac surgery. The affairs of the heart fascinate her on every level. She thinks about heaven and death and loss and takes on the sorrows of the world. Those sorrows are tinder for a blaze of anger that glints in her hazel eyes when she tilts her head.

She talks back and mouths off and teases her little brother. She has perfected the eye roll and slams doors in such a way as to shake the whole house.

Sparks fly.

She is so hot headed at times I want to douse her in cold water. Occasionally, when she is walking in the snow, I watch the steam rise from her heart and finger tips and the tip of her nose. I watch it rise into the ether and mix with the stars.

Christine Green is a freelance writer and columnist in Western, NY. She also organizes and hosts a monthly literary reading, “Words on the Verge,” at A Different Path Art Gallery in Brockport, NY. She is a Californian at heart and dreams of once again living near the beach.

photo credit: Courtney Webster

Someone to Watch Over Me

Someone to Watch Over Me

Mom Dad Me Provincetown 1957 Edited (002)

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

“A tasket, a tisket, Joan will make a brisket.”

My mother’s friends serenaded her with those lyrics at my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary party. Mom was famous throughout Flushing, Queens for her brisket.

As soon as she heard someone was facing illness or surgery, she’d call the butcher. Then she’d cook and deliver that person a braised brisket so delectably tender you barely needed a knife. Easy to freeze, it tasted even better the second day. Her brisket served with mashed potatoes was the ultimate comfort meal. Food is the mamaloshen – the mother tongue – of Jewish families. Mom didn’t speak Yiddish, but she understood it, just as she understood the healing properties of food. When there was a death, my mother took over the job of setting up for shivah. She’d lug out her 50 cup electric coffee pot, hard-boil the eggs and start slicing the bagels.

As a child I thought I lived in a boarding house, because there were always so many people at the table. Cousins, aunts, and uncles spilled in and out the front door in time for meals, and my mother’s friends, many of them elementary school teachers, showed up at 3:30 most afternoons. She served cinnamon coffeecake, cigarettes and conversation. Her phone rang incessantly. There was always the sense of something exciting about to happen: a faraway guest about to arrive unannounced, a meal, a bed, a welcome for anyone who needed it. My mother thought nothing of cooking dinner for twenty. She was less than thrilled, though, when in the midst of frantic Passover preparations, the kitchen steamy with chicken soup and simmering brisket, Great Aunt Rose and Uncle Babe from Brooklyn arrived four hours early and sat expectantly in the living room, waiting for mom to serve them cake and coffee.

There was dancing in that house, and noise. The brown velvet loveseat was pushed aside for a child’s impromptu ballet recital, or for my mother to give a clumsy cousin waltz lessons on the eve of his marriage. Guests revolved through the front door in an ever-changing nightly cast — that same great aunt and uncle from Brooklyn who often showed up uninvited on Sunday just in time for dinner; the former landlady from Provincetown who came for a weekend but stayed six weeks; my pot-head boyfriend my father despised even as my mother kindly welcomed him.

We moved into the Moorish-style brick colonial in Queens in the spring of ’56. The plumbing, circa 1927 was original; the radiators distressingly large and clanky. But the level back yard was just the right size for children’s birthday parties, and the low limbs of the crabapple tree just right for climbing.

And there was music. Show soundtracks on the hi-fi, like Gigi. Camelot. Fiddler on the Roof. My Fair Lady. The musical parodies of Alan Sherman. Benny Good man stomped at the Savoy, and Artie Shaw began his beguine. Best of all, my mother played the piano. She was innately musical, able to play a song after hearing it only once. As a child of the Great Depression, she was entirely self-taught; her parents were too poor to waste money for such frivolities as piano lessons. As an adult, she would sit at the Baldwin spinet that had been her mother’s, an ancient dark wood instrument tucked up against the stuccoed wall of the sun room. Her favorite piece was a wistful bit of music she played for herself. “What’s that called?” I asked once.

“It’s just a little something I wrote for my mother,” she said. “It’s called ‘Liane forever more.'” Her mother had died young; I was named for her. Often she’d segue into a second, hauntingly lovely melody that evoked a yearning sadness in me. She’d sing softly to herself, “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see….” She played it so movingly I thought she’d written that one too. Only years later did I realize it was George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Every evening before my bedtime my mother and I would peer out at the moon through the window on the stair landing. She would sing me a song that years later I sang to my own children: “I see the moon and the moon sees me, the moon sees somebody I want to see. God bless the moon, and God bless me. And God bless the somebody I want to see.” The somebody for her, of course, must have been her mother. As young as I was, somehow I understood that she was sad in a place my kisses could never touch.

That house was my mother’s domain, comforting and safe. I basked in the warmth of her sustaining love.

Still, she was a slapdash housekeeper. Clean, but not neat. She was too busy making books of Braille for the blind, editing newsletters, running the temple bazaar, driving people to doctor appointments or reading to the geriatric residents at the local psychiatric institution. Years later and all grown up, my brother and I would periodically check the back of the kitchen cabinet to see if she’d thrown out the packet of yeast which had expired in the early 1970s. “Still here,” he’d announce with satisfaction.

“You need Carbon 14 to date it,” I said.

But the mess was oddly reassuring. “I wish I could be as sure of other things in this world as the fact that this housework will still be here long after I’m gone,” she often said.

When I moved into my first apartment, she packed me off with a set of Marimekko melamine plates and the Temple Beth Sholom Sisterhood cookbook, Home on the Range. I was single, working, living alone. She didn’t call to check up on me. She never asked when I planned to get married. “Other mothers like to bother their children,” I complained.

“I don’t like to pry,” she said. She especially hated having to disturb me at work. She didn’t want my boss to think I was getting personal phone calls on the company’s dime. If she absolutely needed to telephone me at the office, she’d leave a pseudonym. I’d return to my desk to find such messages as, “Call Margaret Dumont,” or “Maria Ouspenskaya returned your call.” She knew I’d recognize the allusion to our favorite old Marx Brothers and Lon Chaney werewolf movies.

“Mostly I just like saying “Ouspenskaya,” she admitted. “It’s so satisfying.”

She wasn’t the only one with an alias. When I was a high school senior, I answered an ad in the back of a magazine for the Famous Writers School correspondence course. “Do you have a restless urge to write?” it asked. I did. I ordered the free copy of their “revealing” aptitude test, but hesitated to use my real name. Mom and I had recently watched “Citizen Kane” on late night TV, so I said I was “Rosebud Kane.” Months later, a man rang our doorbell. This was still the days of Fuller Brush salesmen and Avon ladies making house calls, so it wasn’t unusual to find a salesman on your doorstep. “I’m from the Famous Writers School,” he said. “Are you Miss Rosebud Kane?” Mom instantly knew. With a straight face, she said, “She’s not available. I’ll tell her you called.”

The cliché has it that some people will give you the shirt off their back. Along with the shirt, Mom gave the skirt, the shoes, the pants, the purse and money for cab fare. I once gave her a beautiful sky blue silk robe she said she loved. She packed it when she flew down to Florida to stay with Aunt Jeanette, who was very ill. When Aunt Jeanette’s nurse admired the robe, Mom gave it to her. I asked her why she had done that. She said, “because I hope she’ll take extra good care of Jeanette.

She took extra good care of everyone, except herself. I was in my late 20s and newly married when she began to have worrisome bouts of coughing. Shortness of breath. Bronchitis that lingered too long. I nagged her to stop smoking. She laughed it off.

The house too showed signs of neglect. The rickety piano bench bulged with tattered sheaves of music she no longer played; issues of National Geographic and The New Yorker magazines piled up, unread. The gold wall-to-wall carpet once so plush it held the trace of her slippered feet each morning oxidized to dirty mustard. Like an aging aristocrat, the house still got by on good bones, increasingly shored up by the scaffolding of my memories.

Eventually that carpet bore the indelible indentation of a tall tank of oxygen. It loomed large against the living room wall, a giant metal canister susurrating ceaselessly. Plastic tubing snaked from room to room, the translucent umbilical cord tethering her to that tank. Increasingly she turned to watching game shows and old Fred Astaire movies.

That Thanksgiving, I cooked the entire meal at my house, packed it all up and brought it to her, but she could only manage a few mouthfuls. “Everything is delicious,” she apologized, “but it’s just too hard to eat and breathe at the same time.”

Cigarettes were her undoing, but that miasma of nicotine also contained the life breath of my mother’s laughter. Ten days after I gave birth to my second child, she was rushed to the hospital. We got a call at 3:00 a.m. to come say goodbye. Gathered around the bed, we held her hands and stared at her, our eyes filled with unshed tears. Finally, she spoke up. “Sorry it’s taking me so long. You shouldn’t=t have rushed. You know I’m always dressed too early to go places.”

She revived. The doctor sent her home with only weeks to live.

“Promise me one thing,” she said. “Don’t let the rabbi do that ‘Woman of Valor’ speech at my funeral.”

I knew what she meant. Every rabbi reads the psalm about “the woman of valor” whose “price is far above rubies.”

Through tears, I said, “I swear.”

Valor. The dictionary says, boldness or determination in facing great danger. See also, courage.

“There’s a song I want you to play at my funeral, she told me. Nothing too sad. It’s from The Fantastiks. It’s called Try to Remember.”

The day after she died, Aunt Adele brought us a brisket. It wasn’t as good as Mom’s.

Mom showed me that making a home is a journey, not a destination. She taught me to love Gershwin, Big Bands, Beethoven and the Marx Brothers; to use clear nail polish to stop a nylon run, to take care of others, and yes, how to braise a brisket.

Author’s Note: Last fall I was asked to contribute to an anthology of essays on women and food, and to include a recipe. I wrote about my mother’s brisket. But when I shared the piece with a colleague, she said, “This isn’t about food. It’s really about your mother. Send them a different piece.” Which I did. I haven’t been able to write much about my mother since her death 19 years ago — until now.

Liane Kupferberg Carter is the author of the memoir Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishers.) Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Parents, Literary Mama, Brevity, The Manifest-Station, and in several anthologies.


Lighting Up

Lighting Up

Art Italy

By Beverly Willett

Four years ago, my youngest daughter and I flew to Italy to celebrate her 16th birthday. I’d been saving up frequent flyer miles for a decade. She’d been setting aside birthday and Christmas money from her grandmother to buy clothes. We couldn’t afford the couture houses, but my daughter wanted to shop in Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, before we took the train to Venice.

As our trip grew closer, I realized I’d never gone on a mother-daughter trip with my mother. Back then I never even heard of anyone taking what has become de rigueur today. But those were different times: My mother was born during the Depression; I was a late baby boomer. Unlike my citified daughter, I grew up in a family of modest means in a small rural conservative town. Even now, the rigid roles of parent and child are occasionally still evident between me and my own mom.

In fact, I didn’t even know she smoked until the week after my father died. It was the year I turned 30, and I’d stayed on after the funeral to help my mother organize papers.

I’ve got a secret, she blurted out one night as we picked at leftovers from the covered dish supper held at the church hall after the funeral, my mother breaking down to tell me she needed a cigarette.

How long have you been smoking? I asked, astonished.

Since I was 13, she said. A total of 43 years. My father had been a chain smoker, and Mom hid her smoke behind his during my growing-up years, lighting up only at night with a cup of coffee after I went to bed. Then again while I was in school.

“I knew smoking was wrong,” my Mom had explained. “I didn’t want you to do it.”  Back then, whatever was considered dirty laundry was kept well hidden. And if not, it became a scandal. But Mom was distraught over Daddy’s death that night, and so desperate for a smoke, that she came clean.

When she did, I sat there transfixed, realizing for the first time that my mother was undoubtedly a more complicated woman than I’d ever imagined. She’d given me an opening by sharing her secret so I suddenly unloaded mine.

“I like to drink,” I said, spitting out the words. Drinking was against our Southern Baptist religion growing up, and I didn’t have my first taste of alcohol until college. I’d kept that fact from my mother, too. And although she still adhered to her childhood faith, I eventually became an Episcopalian, where drinking is allowed.

So that night I told my mother I had a bottle of wine in the car, and minutes later, we sat at her kitchen table breaking bread, Mom with a cigarette dangling from her lips, puffing and exhaling through her nostrils, me sipping wine from her crystal dessert goblet. Me, feeling closer to my mother at that moment than perhaps I ever had. Stunned that she’d taken my revelation equally in stride.

Both full-fledged adults, it had nevertheless taken alcohol, cigarettes and death for us to fully let our guard down. It was a turning point in the slow evolution of our relationship.

I flashed back to this moment more than two decades later as I stood with my 16-year-old daughter in the shadow of the Duomo, the magnificent 14th-century white marble Gothic cathedral in Milan.

Should we go in? I said.

Can we sit outside in one of the cafes first? she asked. The piazza in which the Duomo sits is the city center, and the squares porticoes are lined with shops and cafes.

“Sure,”I agreed. We’d just gone shopping, and I’d snapped photos of her in the dressing room, smiling even as I struggled to rein in my sadness. My daughter was on the cusp of womanhood. The full transition was inevitable, and once it occurred, irreversible. I was savoring my daughter’s last days of childhood.

“You know I’ve had this dream since I knew we were coming,” my daughter said as we stood in the piazza, hesitating before she continued her confession. “I thought it would be cool for us to sit in one of those little cafes and have espresso and smoke a cigarette. My daughter knew how I felt about smoking. The scientific research had become indisputable. And more than a Marlboro pack-a-day had undoubtedly contributed to my father’s too early demise. Maybe my own mother had even somehow saved me from a lifelong habit I might have come to regret.

I drew in my breath as I formulated a response in my head for my own daughter. Somehow I figured this moment in the piazza was a turning point for us, too. I was petrified to make a wrong move. This girl with her still developing brain needed a parent for the many transitions ahead. I would always be her mother and she my child. But one day I hoped I could also be her good friend. And that it wouldn’t take as long for us as it had between me and my own mother.

Mine had been a difficult divorce, too. As the custodial parent who attended to the nitty gritty, I was concerned that I fell into the role of bad cop all too often. It was hard saying no when part of me wanted to say yes.

“Sure”I finally said to my daughter. But you know smoking’s not good for you.

I’m not going to be a smoker like Grandma, my daughter said, giggling as she skipped over the cobblestones and into a tobacco shop to buy cigarettes.

After she returned, our waiter led us to a table. A soft breeze blew through the square during the several attempts it took for my daughter and me to light up. I coughed and mostly pretended to inhale. My daughter looked as expert as Marlene Dietrich as she held the cigarette between her index and middle fingers. “My friends are never going to believe this,” she said. I had to smile. Caffeine and cigarettes (and perhaps a bit of shopping), and for the moment we felt as one.

Beverly Willett lives in Savannah, Georgia after nearly a lifetime in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Salon, Family Circle, Prevention and Woman’s Day. She’s a proud member of the Peacock Guild writing group at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home.










My Mother and I

My Mother and I

Summer children and happy family concept. Mother and daughter little girl in heart shaped sunglasses, having picnic playing in park outdoors.

By Charley Karchin

I adored my mom the way a child loves their favorite superhero. When I was in elementary school she volunteered to chaperone every field trip. One trip, our last field trip of 5th grade, she was the chaperone of my group – four of my closest friends and me. We took a charter bus with multicolored seat cushions and tiny little TVs that they never played movies on to The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. She let us enjoy it the way we wanted to. This meant; we spent loads of time in the sports science room seeing how fast we could throw a baseball, or spent all the money we had on dehydrated astronaut ice cream and silly putty from the gift shop.

She ran with us from exhibit to exhibit, laughing and playing just like we were. She told our teacher we were well behaved, even if we got a warning from the staff. I always had fun with my mother.

Within weeks of watching her laughing at me tripping over one of my friends and falling into a staff person, she was in her bedroom, screaming and crying. She was gasping for air and rolling about on top of her covers. My grandmother held on to her with the help of another person. They yelled over her screams, telling her to take deep breaths. She didn’t listen and continued to thrash, kicking my grandmother in the legs. My mom pulled at her own hair, tearing strands of knotted blonde from her scalp. Her eyes never connected with mine but I could see that hers were red. My grandmother turned from my mom to shoo me from the room. When I woke up the next morning my mom was gone.

While my mom was being given meds to take and puzzles to do in the psychiatric unit I lived at my grandmother’s house. Every day when I got out of school we would visit my mom.

She wore starched blue pajamas with the name of the hospital printed on the chest pocket. Everyone there did. While the front desk checked us in for visiting hours she’d wait for us through a glass window on the locked metal door. Inside, Mom walked me around to show me to the friends and crafts that she made out of tongue depressors and crayons. Some of her friends came up and pinched my cheeks,

“Oh! What a beautiful girl, Deb!” or something similar to which my mom said, “Say thank you, Crystal.”

How was I supposed to talk while a stranger had half of my face pinched between their fingers?

But, my mom wasn’t screaming or crying anymore. So I smiled, and so did she.

Each time my mom came back from the hospital she was different from before. She didn’t want to chaperone anymore. She didn’t want to play games with me. She didn’t want to watch movies or hear what I did that day while I was out with my new middle school friends.

She dated. She brought home men of all types that she met on dating sites. One was closer to my age of 15, another was wanted in 4 states, and one had us move in with him because he wanted to be closer to me. She only smiled when she was with them.

We fought often, then. In high school, the fight would start while she was in the living room sitting on my deceased grandfather’s favorite green upholstered chair. She had the legs kicked up and her laptop perched on her thighs, playing an online version of scrabble on the Internet. She began playing games online after one of her relationships ended in a cancelled engagement. She could sit all day and all night on the computer. I entered the room one afternoon and asked her to play a game with me.

“Mom. Do you want to play Nintendo with me tonight?” I asked, “We almost beat it.”

She didn’t take her eyes of the computer, but she sighed and grumbled a bit in her throat.

“Crystal, not right now. I’m busy.”

I wasn’t going to let her just brush me off like that, so I asked,

“Okay. Well, when? When the time runs out on that game?”

She still didn’t take her eyes off the screen but nodded and agreed.

When I returned hours later she was still playing. I knew she ignored her promise. I yelled and told her that I only wanted to spend time with her. She yelled back and said that I wanted too much from her. Many of the times we fought she cried and said, “If I’m such a terrible mother, go find another one.” For the remaining three years of high school, I only tried to do an activity with my mom once every few months. Our longest conversations were one sentence long, “Crystal, walk the dog,” Or “Mom. I’m home.”

I was eighteen when my mom began working again after over ten years living off of disability. She was a cashier at a hardware store to supplement her disability checks. Within only a few weeks of starting she was helping with managerial duties. At home she wasn’t playing on the computer as much and, instead, started watching TV in her rare free time. As a way to try and spend time with her, I tried to watch them with her.

I learned that my mom likes terrible TV. She likes the kind where groups of people get put together to compete in some game or competition to win a grand prize. She liked having an opinion about the contestants. She began to look different. She gained weight and it was very hard to get along with her but she almost glowed.

She turned on the singing competition.

“It’s the last four,” she said to me. The intro played showing the names and faces of each the contestants. As each one flashed by she gave me her opinion. She pointed and grinned, and looked at me for my reaction.

“Look at his hair! He’s hot.”

“She has a really pretty voice. The judges like her.”


“I think he is going to win. You like him. Right, Crystal?”

She sang along to the songs she knew, and if I knew them, I joined in too. She closed her eyes and I could see the deep crows feet around them. She tilted her face towards the ceiling and let out a painfully off-key version of the song. The lamp lit up the blonde hair that draped around her shoulders and she looked so happy. I tried to match her volume and sang with her. When I got to see her joy, I could clearly see her pain.

I watched her withdraw into Scrabble when her relationships failed. I watched her not eat for weeks just because she ‘didn’t feel like it’. I felt how hard it was for her to get to where she was. She still didn’t want to do any of the things I remembered her doing when I was a kid, and we couldn’t spend more than 3 hours together without fighting. But, I watched her go to work every day. I watched her buy things like groceries with money from a paycheck.

We grew up together. I could see it in her eyes how hard life had been on her. I noticed that, even when she was at her worst she was trying her hardest. She accepted her single parent status, took all of its consequences and found a way to stand up on her own.

Author’s Note: It took me a long time to write this story because I couldn’t make sense of my relationship with my mom. I was worried that she would be upset with me for writing it, but she cried and told me she loved me.

Charley Karchin was born in Queens, New York, and raised in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. In her familial relationships she has taken the role of teacher, friend, daughter and supporter. She is currently a writing student in Boston who works with developmentally disabled adults.


The Joyful Mysteries

The Joyful Mysteries

Woman with Rosary Beads

By Maria Massei-Rosato

Prayer beads are used by many different religions, including Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Catholics use a form with 59 beads and pray the Rosary.

I don’t remember owning a set of rosary beads when I was young, although I’m sure every Catholic girl did. My memory of rosary beads is of a cranberry colored glass “necklace” resting on my mother’s nightstand. I rarely saw her pray with them, but when she did, she fingered each bead with eyes closed, in silence. I wondered what she was telling God. At some point I understood that when you held a smaller bead you recited a Hail Mary, and when you held a larger bead you recited The Lord’s Prayer: the mother and son duet first taught to Catholic toddlers.

Later, I learned about the “Mysteries,” vignettes meant to focus the Rosary recitation on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There are the Joyful Mysteries which begin with the Angel Gabriel telling Mary she would conceive a son of God, and end with the young Jesus teaching in the temple; then there are the Sorrowful Mysteries representing the pain and suffering of Christ culminating in his crucifixion, and the Glorious Mysteries that exalt Jesus’ resurrection and Mary’s ascension into Heaven.

If I had attended Catholic school, these Mysteries and the recitation of the Rosary might have been performed by rote quickly breeding contempt and contempt breeding rejection. Instead, twenty years later, I was intrigued to discover something familiar yet unfamiliar. I found a particular connection to Mary, mother of Jesus, mother to all, perhaps because her prayer is the dominant force of the Rosary: ten Hail Mary’s are recited for every Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps, I also felt connected to Mary because I became a mom.

Joyful Mystery #1: Humility

Originally the rosary had 150 beads, the same number of psalms in the Bible. In the twelfth century, religious orders recited together the 150 Psalms as a way to mark the hours of the day and the days of the week. Those people who didn’t know how to read wanted to share in this practice, so praying on a string of 150 beads or knots began as a parallel to praying the psalms. It was a way that the illiterate could remember the Lord and his mother throughout the day.

Sue, my mother-in-law, died in 1999, the year my son was born. At sixty-six it was unexpected. She had broken a hip. Then the doctors discovered bone cancer and told her she’d live because they had caught it in time. But when you don’t want to live, your body listens to that desire. She recovered from hip surgery in a nursing home – a rehab center with overworked nurses’ aides and a community of residents parked in wheelchairs along the hall waiting for visitors, the next Bingo game, Jell-O dessert, death. She felt old, her mind stifled by years of living with a man who floated through jobs, leaving them with no pension, no hope, no desires, and no money. Her voice had been muted, her life force sucked out.

My husband and I bought Sue a clear set of rosary beads in a gift shop at the legendary New York City, St. Patrick Cathedral’s. We brought it to the nursing home thinking they’d provide a sense of peace while she waited. But she insisted on using the white plastic set provided by the nursing home. “I don’t want anyone to steal my rosary; you don’t know the people here.”

Soon after, I coordinated the details of her wake so my husband and his father could grieve. I searched Sue’s closet for the rose colored chiffon dress she wore to our wedding, the matching pumps, her glasses. Wanting to bury her with the sparkling translucent beads, I searched for them in the two black Hefty bags sent by the nursing home stuffed with her personal belongings. A pair of sneakers, a silk jogging style jacket interlaced with gold thread, a well-worn cardigan, a bunch of nightgowns. I searched the bags three times but never found the beads. I thought, maybe Sue was right; maybe someone had stolen them. She was buried right hand on top of left, holding the rosary beads provided by the funeral home.

A day later I opened one of the garbage bags. I froze. The beads lay atop a sweater, cradled by the gentle folds of the fabric, in plain sight. I sucked in a deep breath and knew with certainty that these rosary beads were meant for my daughter, a daughter yet to be conceived.

Joyful Mystery #2: Love thy Neighbor

The Rosary gained popularity in the 1500s, when Moslem Turks planned a raid on the coast of Italy. While preparations were underway, the Holy Father asked the faithful to say the Rosary and implore the Blessed Mother to pray for the Lord to grant victory to the Christians. Although the Moslem fleet outnumbered that of the Christians, the Moslems were defeated.

When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I decided to learn how to say the Rosary. I purchased a pocket guide and began carrying Sue’s beads with me. I learned that the smaller beads represent rosebuds—each prayer like a rosebud being lifted to heaven. Ten beads represent one mystery or one decade, and each decade begins with reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I tried to begin each day praying one mystery: one Lord’s Prayer, ten Hail Mary’s and one Glory Be.

I work two blocks from the World Trade Center and when my son was a toddler, I dropped him off at a daycare center nearby. On the morning of 9/11, I exited the subway station with debris raining from the sky and I realized it was not a day for daycare. So I found myself in the bowels of my office building pointing to comic book characters to keep my 2-½ year-old son from realizing the danger we were in. I didn’t remember that the rosary beads were in my bag. I didn’t remember as we stepped into the white powder of death that lined the sidewalks. I didn’t remember as we walked to the Brooklyn Bridge, hardly able to breathe through the soot that permeated the air and shrouded the trees. I didn’t remember I had them as we sat on a bus that took us across the bridge. It wasn’t until we were on the commuter railroad, on our way home, staring at a woman who was uncontrollably crying that I remembered the beads. I could not comfort her because I feared I would end up crying just like her and I had this toddler who didn’t understand how difficult the world had just become.

“Mama, we’re taking the train. Is this the 4 or the 5?”

“No honey, this is the Long Island train.”

“I want to sit next to the window.”

I took out Sue’s rosary beads. “Anthony, let’s pray together.”

He pulled the beads.

“No Anthony, they’re not a toy.” I tugged back.

He laughed. He was testing me. I didn’t want to be tested. I just wanted to pray.

“Anthony, please let go of the beads, or they’re going to break.”

I pulled gently, and a fragile silver link broke, yet the beads remained intact.

Joyful Mystery#3: Detachment from Things of the World

When England and Ireland were severed from Rome under Henry VIII, Ireland maintained a separate allegiance to Rome. Practicing Catholics carried small, easily hidden rosaries to avoid punishment, sometimes as severe as death. These rosaries, especially the smaller ring-type, became known as soldiers’ rosaries because soldiers often took them into battle.

Mom had been widowed at the age of fifty. When I married, she began her empty-nest stage and then nine years later she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her nighttime routine: eat dinner in the living room on a snack table watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, turn off the television after the Mets lost the lead in the bottom of the ninth and mumbling to her empty rooms “Oh they stink!” climb the stairs, sometimes brush her teeth, change into a flannel nightgown with white anklets so her feet won’t be cold, and reach for her rosary beads on the nightstand as her mattress enfolds the body it knows so well.

At seventy-nine she suffered two heart attacks and congestive heart failure. One of her nurses remarked, “Her breathing sounds like a washing machine.” For the nineteen days of Mom’s hospital stay, I arrived in the mornings elated to see her alive. Her hands were a bruised plum and mustard map of the IV needles and blood tests. I placed her frail hand in mine so her fingers rested gently over my palm. “How are you doing Mom?” I knew she couldn’t answer, but trying to create normalcy was a habit I had developed during the Alzheimer years. I silently thanked her for hanging on overnight, and then, as if I had split personalities, I prayed for her death. I would settle into a stiff hospital chair to begin praying the Rosary on a set of wooden beads. I savored the mysteries – Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious – as part of a routine that would get me through the hospital day.

The set was a miniature version, only 10 Hail Mary beads—the soldier rosary. A woman from my church had given them to me a few months earlier. I didn’t know her name. I recognized her in the emergency room of our local hospital when I had to be intravenously hydrated because a parasite had made its home in my intestines. The woman was lying on a stretcher just across from me, her arm extended over the gurney, her face distorted in excruciating pain. She had dislocated her shoulder and cried in agony even after she had been pumped with painkillers. All I could offer was my prayer card – the one I had searched for before leaving my house for the emergency room; a Saint Anthony’s prayer, the saint of miracles and the saint my husband prayed to when, before his birth, my son was diagnosed with hydronephrosis, a swelling of the kidney area. The saint had delivered on our miracle six months later when the pediatric urologist announced, “I looked over the latest CAT Scan and I don’t understand it, but it’s gone.”

I reached over and handed my prayer card to her husband. He took it, whispered something to his wife and gave her the card. She looked at the portrait and immediately placed the card under her face, clenching it tightly. The next week at church when mass was over we exchanged, how are yous. We both were better. Then she lifted my hand and placed inside the miniature rosary with a wooden cross and beads and a Padre Pio medallion. In her broken English, she said “Pray for Saint Padre Pio.”

I had heard of Padre Pio, something about the stigmata, but the beads prompted a bit more research. Born in Italy, he became a priest in the early 1900’s. He suffered various illnesses most of his life. The stigmata, bleeding from wounds similar to those caused by crucifixion, began early in his priesthood and lasted for 50 years until his death. He believed in the power of meditation, often meditating with the rosary. He is quoted as saying: “Pray, Hope, Don’t Worry.” He died holding a set of rosary beads in his hands.

Mom outlived her rosary beads. On day seven of her hospital stay, the link connecting the cross was broken and the cross was missing. On day twelve the Padre Pio medallion had disappeared. Both times I searched the sheets, the floor, the drawers next to her bed. I asked the nurse’s aide. “I saw them last night after I changed her.” Then she proceeded to look in the same places I had. The day before her death, I walked into my mom’s room and after I kissed her forehead, I searched the usual places for what had been left of the rosary, ten wooden beads held together in a circle. I came up empty. This time I asked the nurse. “Oh, yes. I remember seeing them next to her pillow. Maybe when they changed the sheets…I’ll check with Laundry.” She returned ten minutes later to say nothing had been found. That day I prayed the Rosary using my fingers to keep count.

Joyful Mystery #4: Obedience

In 1917, Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared before three children in Fatima, Portugal, telling the children she was “Our Lady of the Rosary” and asking them to pray the Rosary to help save the world.

A week into Mom’s hospital stay I became extremely ill; severe diarrhea, like hemorrhaging of a life. My husband visited my mom while I slumped on the couch and my 4-year old son alternated between concern and helpfulness. He handed me the thermometer: 105! I took it again, 104.5. Again 105.2! In a flash of panic, I remembered a vision I had had two days into Mom’s hospital stay as I was folding myself into a hospital bedside chair, half asleep: Mom, dressed in a red and white flowing robe was standing, which was remarkable since she hadn’t been able to lift herself to an upright position in years. She was talking to me, also something she hadn’t done in years. “Maria, I want you to come with me.”

At the time of the vision, I rationalized its meaning. Since my father’s death thirty years ago, it had just been the two of us. Perhaps the reason she had been defying the expectations of doctors, nurses, and me was because she was so worried about me; leaving this earth meant detaching from the bond we had shared for so long.

Processing the vision with a 105 fever, my panic deepened and I found myself offering a silent plea: You can’t take me with you. I need to be here for Anthony. You need to do this on your own.

“Can I read it?” Anthony asked for the thermometer. His concerned face mirrored mine. He walked over to the mantel, opened a red wooden box decoupaged with pansies in search of his children’s rosary beads. Colorful oversized wooden beads; they were a Christmas gift from a very good friend. Ever since receiving the gift, our bedtime ritual had begun with Anthony and me reciting the Rosary – one mystery every night before bed – accompanied by a CD version of children praying with an Aussie accent. It was a bedtime routine unconnected to illness, so it surprised me that he was searching for the rosary beads. He walked back over to the sofa, beads in hand, and said, “Mama, you’ll feel better. I’m going to pray the Rosary.” With that my 4-year old began, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

Joyful Mystery #5 True Wisdom

Christians believe that those that recite the Rosary are promised during their life and at their death the light of God and His graces, and at the moment of death they will participate in the merits of the saints in paradise.

Mom died in the hospital without her set of rosary beads. I held her hand as her breathing became shallow until there was none. And in that moment, a chilled gust swept through me as if her soul had passed through mine on its way to heaven. On the day we buried her, standard issue funeral rosary beads were placed in her hands.

Author’s note: I don’t attend Sunday mass as often as I used to. I don’t pray the Rosary every night with my son. I believe God loves me even when I don’t show up to mass and even though I don’t pray the Rosary as often. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I found Sue’s broken set of rosary beads and asked my husband to reattach the links. He did. Then I placed them in my 5-year old daughter’s jewelry box.

Maria Massei-Rosato has taught poetry workshops for adults and children with developmental disabilities and currently teaches a writing/yoga workshop in NYC and in Maine. She bicycled across the country in 1995 and completed manuscripts of a memoir and screenplay depicting how the journey, which began in Seattle and ended in Brooklyn, New York, taught her valuable lessons about caring for her mom.


Disbelief, Suspended

Disbelief, Suspended

images-4By Kelly Garriott Waite

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Food became my religion. Shame my constant companion.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All God’s Children

All God’s Children

Worried young woman in pyjamasBy Amy Roost

My brother remembers that I never picked up after my kids when we came to visit mom. He remembers that after we left, the cleanup fell to him.

I, on the other hand, remember that nothing brought mom greater joy those last few years than spending precious time with her precious grandbabies.

Between visits, I remember taking her to the oncologist and pain specialist on my “days off.”

During these same years, I remember the empty Stoli minis in our neighbor’s side yard next to our driveway tossed there by my husband who passed out on the sofa most every night whilst I made airplane noises so my infant son would “open the hanger” and eat his peas.

I remember every detail of my firstborn’s spindly body after we brought him home from the hospital. I remember the surgical scar on his chest running 180° from front to back, the hole where feeding tube was, the red abrasions from tape that held in place the tubes that kept him alive those first three weeks.

I remember carrying 115 pounds on my 5’10” frame and friends telling me I was too thin, for once.

I remember the sound an epipen makes when I’d inject it into the thigh of my two-year old son who has just ingested a Valentine treat containing peanuts.

I remember the improbable phone call I received from my brother whilst dropping my dog at the groomer, informing me that mom had fallen, was on the kitchen floor and would I call an ambulance.

I remember dropping my kids at a neighbor’s who was preparing a meal for her father-in-law who was dying.

I remember getting to my mom’s house and finding her lying on the Italian tile in a fetal position, moaning.

I remember finding my brother in his upstairs bedroom shaking nervously as he raised a cigarette to his lips and his protestations that he couldn’t deal with mom because he was suffering from a poison oak rash.

I remember the beautiful hunk of an EMT grabbing my brother by the front of the shirt and ordering him to get his ass into the ambulance with mom because he had treated broken hips and he had treated poison oak and he guaranteed my brother that my mom was in far greater pain than he was at that moment.

I remember going to gather my children before heading to the hospital only to learn that my neighbor had left for another hospital with my son. He’d touched a tabletop that had traces of shelled peanuts on it. Ones the dying father-in-law had eaten earlier in the day.

I remember not knowing which hospital to go to first, the one where my mother was or the one where my son was being pumped full of prednisone and epinephrine.

I remember the broken hip was the beginning of the end for mom and I remember visiting her at the rehab center in Golden Hill.

I remember the enormous centerpiece I won at a dinner auction and took to her on my way home. I remember standing outside the locked sliding glass doors after visiting hours in my eggplant-colored cocktail dress and high heels and the kind orderly with a thick Jamaican accent who let me in.

I remember the smile that spread across mom’s face when she opened her eyes and saw me, and the flowers.

I remember her staying with us after she was released from rehab and a well-meaning friend telling my three- and four-year-old boys, “your Nana is dying.”

I remember the boys sitting on the side of her bed, my bed, and asking “Are you dying Nana?” And her telling them “Yes” and asking them if they would keep and care for her two beloved cats after she died.

I remember them both earnestly shaking their heads ‘yes’ and I remember thinking they had not the first clue what the word “dying”meant.

I remember mom’s last trip to the hospital when the doctors told us that the cancer had spread everywhere.

I remember my evangelical Great Aunt Edith trying to convert mom, asking her to accept Jesus Christ as her Savior. And I remember mom saying in her weakened voice there was no way, and Edith persisting and my having to ask my once-favorite aunt to leave the hospital room.

I remember my brothers and I gathered in that same room at Harborview Medical Center making confessions to mom about things we’d never told her, but somehow she knew anyway. Who knew that the night she came home from her job as a banquet manager at the Kona Kai Club and found me praying to the porcelain god, who knew as she stroked my back and held my hair, who knew that she knew I did not have the stomach flu, rather had been drinking fruit daiquiris all evening with my girlfriends?

I remember the hospital bed in her dining room that hospice delivered. I remember the round-the-clock vigil we kept, her brother, sisters, friends and children.

I remember being thankful she had a few days to say her goodbyes before losing touch.

I remember crawling into her hospital bed, spooning with her and whispering into the curve of her ear how much I loved her, how I was going to miss her so, and the boys were going to miss her. And how all would be okay, somehow. And that it was okay for her to let go.

I remember her restlessness and distress at 2:00 am, despite the Fentanyl patch and morphine.

I remember the hospice nurse arriving at 3:00 am and checking mom’s vitals. I remember her telling us that mom was attempting to leave her body and that for some it was more of a struggle than for others.

I remember knowing then that soon she would die.

I remember waking the others camped out on sofas and chairs and I remember someone saying “where’s Bobby?”

And I remember calling Pacer’s strip club and asking the bartender if my brother Bobby was there and would she please ask him to come home because his mother was about to die.

I remember the shot of morphine the nurse gave her being twice the normal amount.

I remember during those last long breaths praying but not hoping for the next inhale.

At 4:12 am there was no next inhale. I remember that. And holding her hand as it turned cold.

I remember my boys and their dad arriving before the sun and before the coroner. I remember taking them to her bedside to say their goodbyes.

I remember my three-year-old turning to me and asking in a somber voice he must’ve sensed was appropriate, “did Nana die?”

“She did,” I told him. And I’ll never forget his response: “Yes! We get the cats!”

I remember a few days later peeing in the powder room off the living room at mom’s place and my four-year-old coming into the bathroom and asking “what are all of Nana’s things doing in the bathroom?”

I could tell by the way he asked the question that he still didn’t understand what dying meant. So I explained what I had resisted explaining. “You understand that when people die they don’t come back?”

“Jesus came back,” he said plaintively.

“Yes, honey, that’s true, but Jesus was God’s son, you understand?”

“But mommy, we are all God’s children.”

How do I tell my four-year old that Jesus was God’s favorite? I just told him, “That’s true. We are all God’s children, but Nana’s not coming back.”

I remember a few weeks later while packing up mom’s closet finding a tiny white eyelet dress stashed in the back corner of the top shelf. I asked my mom’s sister who was helping me sort, “whose dress is this?” For I knew, having been 12 pounds at birth, that it couldn’t have been mine.

“That was Rebecca’s,” my aunt explained.

Rebecca. The baby girl my parents adopted before adopting me. The baby girl my mother loved with all her heart. The baby girl she and dad did not learn was half black until weeks after they brought her home from hospital. The baby girl the social workers pried from my mother’s hands so she could be placed with a black family for “her own good.” The baby girl my mother never talked about except that one time when my brothers had teased me mercilessly that they’d had another sister before me. And so I asked mom if it were true and she said, “I’m only going to tell you the story once.” And so she did. And kept her word.

And because our church pastor advised her to relinquish Rebecca, that it was in everyone’s best interest to do so in 1960 suburban Chicago, she never went to church again. Nor did my son, who still hasn’t forgiven God for playing favorites.

I remember all of that.

What I don’t remember is not picking up after my kids. Perhaps it just didn’t seem a priority at the time.

Authors note: Memory is the main character of this piece because as with any main character, the reader must grapple with its nature its malleability and fickle tendencies, how it can be manipulated to subjective favor, how it clashes with another’s memory and somewhere in the unattainable middle is the truth with the capital T. One capital T truth is that my son never forgave God for playing favorites, never returned to church–not even for the donuts.

Amy Roost is a technical writer living in San Diego. She recently won a call for podcast proposals sponsored by NPR and is currently working on the pilot episode of Finding Rebecca, a serialized account of the early civil rights movement, adoption, abandonment, and redemption due to air in Spring 2016. She has written for, and Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Ritual and Healing (Motivational Press 2013). You can find her at Twitter at @sweetsweetspot.



Too Much Stuffing

Too Much Stuffing

Thanksgiving+2009+559By Rachel Sarah

Ten years ago, on our daughter’s first Thanksgiving, my ex walked out the door on us. It had taken me a long time to move past this day, but I’d finally done it. I’d remarried and my daughter was thriving. I was pregnant with a little girl due on her 12th birthday, and my new husband, Chris, couldn’t wait to be a dad.

This year, as the holiday approached, I’d made myself a promise. I wouldn’t let the holiday snatch my heart and jerk it around again. I was, I decided, Officially Over It. As the sun flickered through our window, Chris and I snaked together under the blankets like the electrical cords tangled next to our queen-sized mattress on the living room floor. But that old angst twisted inside me where his fingers trailed.

We were remodeling what used to be Chris’ bachelor pad to turn it into our home. The place was covered in a thin layer of dust. I pushed down the lump in my throat and angrily told myself to keep it together. Don’t let your past ruin your life. Chris was 10 years older than me and had just turned 49. He’d been married once before, briefly, and thought he’d missed his chance at fatherhood, just like I thought I’d missed my chance at love again.

I twisted my wedding ring as Chris kissed me on the lips, got up, and went into the kitchen. I could hear him sharpening a knife, the blade grinding against the stone. He was in charge of the turkey today and I’d volunteered to make the stuffing, a family recipe with fresh chestnuts, leeks, chicken broth, and lots of butter.

I padded into the kitchen as the milk steamer shrieked. Chris smiled at me, and I forced myself to smile back. I didn’t want him to know how wound up I was. We’d been married for a year at this point, but had only been living together for six months. I opened the fridge, pulled out the butter, and shut the door hard. It was like I was ready to fight.

I should have seen the signs eleven years ago, when I’d met my daughter’s father on an airplane and he’d ordered his third beer before noon. Our relationship was passionate and impulsive. When our daughter was seven months old, he’d changed his mind about coming with me to celebrate Thanksgiving, telling me he was going to join his family instead. He’d escorted us to the train, given us each a quick peck on the cheek, and stepped away as the doors closed. Then he’d emptied my bank account and caught a flight to Europe, where, as far as I knew, he still was, living under the radar.

This morning, my daughter tramped into the kitchen and wrapped her arms around me. “You okay, Mommy?”

“Uh huh.” Her ability to read my emotions astounded me. After so many years together, just the two of us, she was incredibly perceptive of my moods. I hated to pretend, even though I knew she’d probably try to cover up her feelings in a few years, as all teens did.

I waited for my daughter and Chris to leave before pulling down the loaves of bread, which I’d stashed on top of the fridge the day before to get them out of the way. The truth was, some part of me didn’t want him to see that I’d come home yesterday with not one, not two, not three… but six loaves of bread. I knew he’d tell me I was overdoing it. A little part of me worried he was right.

I put a pot of chicken broth on the stove to simmer. The kitchen filled with the scent of sage. I liked the crunching sound the knife made as I drove it through the crust of olive bread.

Ten minutes later, Chris leaned in the small doorway of the kitchen and pointed to the chunks of bread scattered on every pan in the kitchen. “You’re not making all that.”. He rubbed the spot between his eyes, like the sight of the mess exhausted him. The kitchen, the only space untouched by the remodel, was his sanctuary. He was always asking me to keep it organized and clean.

“I just want to make sure we have enough.” I couldn’t look at him. I knew six loaves had been too much. Still, my fingers gripped the handle of the knife.

“Enough? We’re only six people. You’re making enough for 20.”

“You don’t have to be such a control freak.” I mumbled this, even though I was the one who wanted so badly to control everything.

“I’m going to find the cooler in the garage.” He stomped away.

“Yeah, hopefully, it’ll cool you off.” I was desperate to get a handle on this awful feeling, to stuff it down. I considered slipping out of the kitchen and walking up the hill to clear my head. Still, I’d have to come home at some point.

Someone had to eat all this stuffing.

A few minutes later, Chris was back. He glared at the four enormous metal trays of cut-up bread, now toasted. The sight of the filthy kitchen annoyed him the way some men get riled up at the sight of bumper-to-bumper traffic. “Who’s going to clean up all this mess?”

“I am.” Little did Chris know that the real mess was inside me. “You always say you feel like you’re all alone, getting everything ready. Well, I’m helping.” The hot water scalded my knuckles.

“This. Is. Not. Helping.”

I pressed my elbows into my sides, trying to make myself as small as possible. Because maybe I was going overboard. I bent over the huge metal pot, my little baby bump rubbing against the edge of the counter. I wouldn’t blame him splitting up with me. I can’t stand being with me. My pain clouded every thought.

I shoved the bread into the broth, pushing it below the surface of the boiling liquid. The chicken broth boiled angrily. I wanted to submerse myself in it and drown. Anything to stop my thoughts. He’s going to leave me. I’m going to be a single mom again. It was a spinning wheel inside my head.

Chris took a step forward. “You have to listen.”

“No, you have to–“

“Stop fighting you two.” My daughter stood in the doorway, barefoot. Her nightgown fell loosely around her knees. She swept a curl from her forehead, waiting for me to say something.

I was afraid that if I told her what was really going on, how this pain surged back every year at this time, I’d fall apart. If she thought it had anything to do with her, she’d blame herself. No matter how much it hurt, I had to hold it together for her.

“Mommy?” She didn’t blink.

I wrung my hands together and hoped she and Chris would walk away. Neither of them budged. The hot trays of stuffing steamed up the windows It was humiliating, standing there as they stared at me. Chris took two steps towards me and rested his hand on my shoulder. “I’m here, if you want to talk about it.”

I held my breath. I’m here. No man had ever said these words to me before. He was here.

“It’s just that–” I sucked in a breath. “Never mind. I can’t really talk about it.”

If I did, my shame would speak and blame me for my ex leaving ten years ago. I had to keep quiet. But this feeling hung onto me, persistent.

“Mommy?” My daughter’s eyes caught mine. She walked up and put her arms around me.

Our silence filled the kitchen, mixing with the vapor rising from the pot. For so long, I was sure something was wrong with me. It had to be my fault.

I am here. Chris pulled me into his chest. I could feel his breath on the top of my head. Maybe, I thought as I leaned into him, it was time to let this shame go. A tear slid down my cheek, and as my daughter pressed against my back, I surrendered to all of it.

Rachel Sarah is the author of Single Mom Seeking (Seal Press). She’s the proud mother of two daughters who are 12 years apart.




Blink If You Can Hear Me

Blink If You Can Hear Me

eyeBy Jennifer Fliss

“Blink if you can hear me,” Mo says. She’s dressed in black and leather. Half her head is shaved, vulnerable and bare. The other half is a dark and silent waterfall of slick black hair.

I can hear you, daughter.

“Mom, blink if you can hear me,” she repeats. Yes. I can hear you. I can smell you—vanilla and cigarettes. Mom. She hasn’t called me that in ages. She calls me Kate. One syllable. Hard consonants. Kate. Particularly striking when spit in anger.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” Mo is saying, sibilant ‘S’s lisping together. Behind her, beeps and pneumatic sucks, distant PA announcements: the cacophony of a hospital.

Mo, short for Maureen, was always horrified by my quick tears. I remember walking her to class on the first day of school. She put a stop to that as soon as the torrent of tears descended. Mommy, why are you sad? It’s school. Weeping, I cheered for her soccer games. When she and a friend came home after school and ignored my how was school today? I tried to keep the rush at bay. If only your father were here, I had said. Embarrassed she grabbed her friend’s hand and dashed up the steps.

Mo’s angry hands are rubbing at my arm where the IV is held in place. The beeping in the room is getting faster, but she keeps kneading me.


“I’m so sorry,” I am saying at her face. She probably can’t hear me. But the doctor said she might, even if she can’t respond.

“Remember when I really wanted bomb pops—those red, white and blue popsicles—from the Good Humor Truck and you’d say honey, we’re pacifists? I never got it, and chipwiches were better anyway. I loved twisting the two cookies and sitting on the curb to split it. You always let me have the half with more ice cream. Anyway. Pacifists. I get the joke now. Please? Mom? C’mon…you have to wake up. This whole thing is freaking me out! You’re just staring.”

Before Dad left, we’d sit around the table and Mom would watch as we ate the meal she’d been preparing all day. Sometimes she never ate. But then there was late night yelling and the early morning yelling and the over-the-phone in the middle of the day yelling. Then it went quiet. You could hear all the sighs and coughs and almost-silent cries from every part of the house. And then, there was just the two of us with three white stick figures on the back window of the Subaru. The happy family sticker. Why did you force him out!? I had yelled. Of course, how could he love you!? I tried to remove that sticker, pushing a thin blade between the glass and the adhesive. I only succeeded in beheading a parent and cutting my thumb. Blood smeared the window; I left it there.

It was stupid, really. Typical teen stuff. Rebellion. Drinking. Smoking. Piercings. If I spoke to her at all it was to say how awful she was. And how ugly I was, since she gave birth to me. I knew, somehow, that by insulting myself, I’d cut right to her core. But, she constantly reassured me that I was the most incredible thing. And even though I didn’t acknowledge it, I think I said those things just so I could hear her tell me I was beautiful. I knew she hated what I had become. At least on the outside. But she never said it. Not once. She only said she loved me. Over and over and over.

How stupid we are, in our young naiveté, our brains working double-time just to keep up with the world around us and so we ignore the people who created us. We go through that rite-of-passage. The be-mean-to-your-mom rite. It’s expected. But it must be heartbreaking to commit your whole life to someone and then have them say such hateful things. Mom. I need you. Come back. As I stared at the flaccid skin hugging the nose tubes and tape, I unscrewed the small ball in my nose. I shed my smoky vest. With tissues from the table, I rubbed at my eyes, leaving behind thick threads of black makeup and a life I vowed to be done with. If she woke, I wanted her to see my eyes. She always said they were my most lovely asset. “Right through those alpine lake blues into your soul,” she’d say.

“Blink, if you can hear me,” I repeat. And then, a quivering of eyelashes. Slow shuttering of an eyelid. A smile. A horrible rictus of a smile. Right upper lip puffs out, her eye bulging. It is beautiful. And I sob.

Jennifer Fliss is a New York raised, Wisconsin schooled, Seattle based writer. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in diverse publications including, The Establishment, The Manifest-StationZelle/Runner‘s World, and The Citron Review. More can be found on her website,

Why the Heck Not?

Why the Heck Not?

boy-paint-wallBy Katherine Bonn

My mom admitted to me that she hates the color of my old bedroom, a peach like those circus peanut candies, with the air of confessing that she never liked a meal I’d proudly made her for years. I had just had my second baby and she had flown into town to help out. We were walking to the park for some much-needed outside time for my four-year-old. I looked over at her and studied her face, trying to reconcile this information with what I knew to be true. She and my dad had made me paint over my bedroom walls where I’d drawn a mural I loved, and it never felt like home after that.

As my mom’s admission about that ugly shade sunk in, I felt bitter. What’s this? I’m supposed to understand my parents better now that I have kids myself, aren’t I? Sometimes I do, but I often wonder, “what the hell were they thinking?”

Back in the early nineties, I was in high school and desperately clinging to what remained of my creativity that hadn’t been sapped out by conventional expectations. I wrote poems on my math tests and dug through my parents closets despite their offers to buy me new clothes. My dad’s old shop coat was my favorite accessory. It paired well with combat boots and a homemade beaded necklace. I hadn’t decided whether or not I wanted to keep up with shaving my armpits.

That was when my parents decided it was time to update the old shag carpet and mint green walls in my bedroom that had been there since the seventies. It was just the creative outlet I had been looking for. I saw a way I could make the room, that hadn’t changed for years, my own. When the time came to paint those walls, I knew right away what I would do, even if I didn’t know at the time why I was doing it. I would fill them with parts of me.

I knew my parents wouldn’t approve so I started in before I lost my chance. I sat up in bed late at night, after the house was asleep, and created my first doodle by dim reading light. It was tiny, no more than two inches across, and partially obscured by the mess in my teenage bedroom, but it opened in me a perceived gateway to the possibility of a mural encompassing my space. It opened me to the possibility of me as a real artist. For the first time that I could remember, I was prepared to stick with the project from start to finish. This time I wouldn’t get bored. This time I wouldn’t give up.

I practiced my argument in my head and approached my mom in the kitchen. I knew it was unlikely my parents would concede, but I felt the idea needed to be heard and perhaps we could come to some equitable agreement. They could paint over it when I moved out. Or wait until I finished and then decide. I approached my mom expecting a discussion, at worst an argument.

“Mom, since we have to re-do my room anyway, I want to paint on the walls.” I leaned my shoulder against the doorway between the kitchen and living room.

She moved to the cupboard to take out plates and glasses. “Yeah, you can help. We can go pick out a color this weekend.”

“I mean, I want to paint on the wall like a canvas. Like, make a painting on it.”

My mom stopped was she was doing and turned to look at me. To give me a look, rather. That look that said, you’re saying something weird. Don’t embarrass me. That look that often came when I was being myself, always the weird one. The only girl in sixth grade who didn’t like The New Kids on the Block. The one whose teacher wrote, “marches to the beat of her own drummer” on her report card. I know my mom loved those things about me. She loved that I was creative and did things my own way, until it conflicted with the right way.


“But you’re going to paint it anyway. Just let me make something on it first. We can re-paint it later.”


Her tone told me I was requesting something that was not proper. “It’s not proper” being the phrase she pulled out whenever she couldn’t think of a good reason to tell her weird daughter why or why not. She didn’t look at me again. I knew that, to her, there wasn’t a discussion to be had.

Still, I clung to the hope that she would come around. I secretly believed I was a natural artist who would create something breath-taking. They would look at my work in progress and be so impressed that they’d put off painting the walls to see where I was going with the mural. When it was finished, I figured they wouldn’t want to stifle me; they wouldn’t want to destroy something on which I had worked so hard. They’d be proud, like when I tested into honors classes. Maybe they’d shake their heads and smile like parents do when their sensitive child makes a mess bringing worms in from the rain.

I gathered my art supplies, dumped them all on the floor in a chaotic pile and turned to the mint green wall. Late at night, while the rest of the house slept, adrenaline fueled by sleep-deprivation surged me into a creative daze. I tried to put my invisible hurt into images and words. Disappointment became a poem in colored pencil, fear was a drawing of Earth dripping blood. Random expressions like “believe” arched across full lengths of wall. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to believe in, but I knew there had to be something. I listened to angry metal and alternative bands like Stone Temple Pilots and attempted to fill the walls with everything inside of me that I couldn’t explain, least of all to my parents. This was the room where I cried myself to sleep obsessing over overwhelming terrors, some certainly exaggerated, many not and all very real.

They must have noticed the mural growing on my wall, but they never said a word about it. My mom’s response was to show me paint samples, all of which were different shades of white: snow, ivory, baby powder.

Every emotion was so intense back then. My teenage brain with its under-developed prefrontal cortex and those coursing waves of insatiable hormones assaulted me during the cold, empty hours when I was supposed to be asleep. I would sometimes look out the window at the neighborhood, nothing but shadows, my nose pressed against the frigid glass separating me from the dead of Minnesota winter. And that is how the neighborhood looked to me. Not like everyone was asleep, but that they were gone. And I was alone. So I would continue to slip deeper into the damp bog of depression until I was lying on the floor of my room, staring up at those bare mint green walls.

The various shades of white my mom showed me gave me a chill. I couldn’t imagine enveloping myself in another layer of blankness.

The mural became something larger than an art project. It made my room into a place where I could be safe. I could create without the anxiety of making a mistake. The chaos of a mural freed me from the constant worry of being less-than-perfect. The first mark I made on the wall was like opening a prison gate. The wall would be a work-in-progress. If I grew to dislike part of it, I would simply paint over it and wouldn’t worry if it didn’t fit with the rest.

I fought passively to keep the mural I’d created. Night after night I built on to it, hoping my parents would see what it could become and how important it was to me.

They fought with their own ammunition. Silence. And the unspoken understanding that I would lose.

I had been told enough times that decisions were not mine to make as long as I lived under their roof. I was old enough to know that they had a hard time thinking differently. Why couldn’t my bedroom wall be a canvas? Because it’s just not something people do. I did not fight openly with words because I knew it was futile.

For weeks I worked the walls, but I knew nothing I created would lead to a Billy Elliot moment until one night I let myself forget what I was working against and pulled out the acrylic paints. I painted with a passion instead of a plan.


Each piece on that wall felt like my heart pried open and hung on display, but the one that left me the most vulnerable was a representation in acrylic of the song Jeremy by Pearl Jam. It was a human figure, “arms raised in a V”, atop a dark mountain, the mountain dwarfed by the immensity of the person it held aloft.


I felt powerless, like the world was attacking me from all corners and that painting represented the power I needed to keep going. I was teetering on the brink of being in a difficult place in my life and something so much darker. That painting delved into that darkness and showed me how terrified I was of going there. In the end of the song, Jeremy turned the gun on himself. I never did.


That painting represented the battle I was waging every day that no one knew about. I was fighting to be my own unique, dorky self in a homogenous community that didn’t accept outliers. The weakness I felt: crying myself to sleep, the self-loathing, the constant barrage of fear, were all absent from that painting. I stood on the mountaintop. I was powerful. In the song, the metaphor may have represented something violent, but to me it represented a shield that helped me push through the hardest years of my life.


It was the best I’d ever done and to this day has been the only time I’d ever considered I might have a talent for painting. When it was complete, I stood back and for a moment was hopeful they would accept it. That they would accept me.


In the end, they painted over all of it.


If there was one thing my parents stone-cold persistence taught me, it was how to know when I was beat.


They did let me choose the paint color and the carpeting. After all, it was my room. Once I accepted that my room wouldn’t be the space I wanted it to be, I didn’t care anymore. I chose circus peanut peach because it wasn’t pink or white or another boring color that would remind me of how stifled I felt. I chose it because it was warm and bright. Because it would remind me of sunsets, a campfire, or peach cobbler. But I didn’t like it. It was a consolation prize. And now speaking with my mother 20 years later, I find out no one was happy about it.




My current home is the small child’s equivalent of a man-cave. The pillar in our living room is a canvas for a ladder of markings recording the height of our two boys every six months. Pumping supplies have taken up permanent residence on our kitchen counter. A high chair and splat mat reside in the dining room and rare is the day when there isn’t food decorating the floor around them. It’s not unusual for my husband and I to discover that we’re sleeping with a firetruck. And two children. There are toys strewn everywhere.


My home is no longer my own. I’ve learned to relinquish control over how it’s arranged, its cleanliness and, ahem, the decor. That pillar where we mark the boys’ heights? My husband and I are not the only ones marking on it with a colored pencil. Our bathroom door contains the remnants of a red-painted fingerprint. You could say my older son was caught red-handed. Also, that washable paints don’t always wash out. His bedroom carpeting has been glued, colored, painted, and peed on. He even drew a firetruck on his wall.


The markings on the wall and carpeting don’t bother me much. One day our kids will be grown and we’ll clean, paint, repair and replace as we’d have to do with time anyway. And isn’t there a certain joy in feeling the presence of children in a home? I find myself upset only that my oldest is ignoring my requests to keep the supplies at his art table, but I’m also secretly delighted to see him experiment with materials, surfaces and his mother’s patience. Plus he knows not to do it at someone else’s home and he’s supposed to test his boundaries where he feels safe. So we talk about it. He cleans it up himself so he learns about the work that comes as a result of his choices. Maybe when he and his brother are older, we’ll experiment with a patch of wall.


I know my parents did their best. They didn’t like the colors I chose, but they didn’t protest. I wonder how many other times they relinquished control and stood silent, cringing as I went my own way. If you had asked me five years ago I would have said, “probably never”, but now that I’m a parent myself I’m aware of every moment when I bite my tongue and let my older son go crazy. It happens a lot. At least fifty times a day, I’m convinced.


That’s why I don’t freak out when my kid draws on the walls. Because nothing is permanent. Because mistakes he makes do not define him and rules he breaks do not define him and bending conventions can be redefined as creativity. Because accepting him as he is more important than how my house looks.


And I know despite doing my best, there will be times when I will miss clues as to what’s going on in my kids’ heads. I know there will be times, after my little boys grow into men, when they each will think, “what the hell were they thinking?”. But I hope they also remember the many times we said, “why the hell not” and let them be themselves.


Author’s Note: Knowing my parents would read this piece almost lead me to censor my feelings in order to spare theirs. With help from a good friend, I was able to keep it honest. But it has also had the lasting effect of encouraging me to see my childhood memories through a lens of compassion and forgiveness. My parents really did do their best.


Katherine Bonn is a San Francisco Bay Area based stay-at-home mom to two lovely boys. She blogs at A Little Bit of Wisdom ( about parenting, writing, mental health, cooking, and anything else that allows her to procrastinate from writing her novel.


Fisheye View

Fisheye View

dreamstime_l_16843751By Jody Keisner

On my lap is a small plastic bag filled with water. Three neon tetra fish dart around inside, their six eyes glowing like cat’s eyes in the dark car. The fish can’t be well, not after the mistakes I’ve made. Yesterday I consulted an aquarist, trying to undo the harm I’d done, and she referred to the fish as “babies.” This word has done me in. Not my almost four-year-old daughter, Lily, saying the neon tetras’ blue iridescent stripes are like butterfly wings. Or her seeing in the half-moon betta’s fringed blue- and red-tipped tail a parade float. Not the time I saw her tapping on the fish tank, asking, “How do you swim? Is your tail like my arm?” Not these small moments of magic that happen when she observes her world in the most unadulterated way. But this word: babies.

Last night the first snow of the season fell in eastern Nebraska, and while the sleet has been cleared, outside the car it’s ten degrees. Will the fish freeze once we’re out of the car? Brake lights turn bright red in front of me, and when I ease up on the gas pedal and press the brake, the plastic bag slips from my lap and lands on the seat between my legs. What if I slam my legs shut? I used to worry about dropping Lily down the stairs when she was a baby. Now I worry about smashing fish with my thighs. I have baby fish in a plastic bag of water between my legs.

“What did you say, Mama?” Lily asks from the back seat. I can’t see her eyes in the rear-view mirror, but I feel her looking at me—the familiarity of cars after sundown.

“The fish are worrying me,” I say.

“Why?” she says.

Where to begin?


The fish were my idea. Weeks before, Lily had asked me for a dog while staring through our glass patio door at the dachshund chasing squirrels in our neighbor’s backyard. But my husband Jon’s allergy to dander precludes Lily from having a childhood like mine: we had seven cats, six dogs, three rabbits, two hamsters and a duck. Most of our animals slept on smelly blankets in our heated garage, but—oh! the delight!—they spent their days at my side, me and my menagerie running through our neighbor’s farmland in search of a squirrel, a sunset, a snail. I desperately wanted Lily to have a pet. Caring for a pet would help her learn, I believed, patience and kindness. I didn’t vocalize it, but I also wished for Lily to learn about loss, to understand and accept that dying was part of living, and maybe to learn so in a safe way, like when she studied the ant-riddled cicadas dying on sidewalks this past summer. I knew she would learn about loss in a not-so-safe way soon enough, as all children do.

Jon, Lily, and I went to the pet store one weekend afternoon anticipating the selection of our new betta—”Hardy fish,” said Lily’s preschool teacher, who kept one in a bowl in her classroom—but once there, we followed the lead of the young, ponytailed fish enthusiast who suggested we choose a few more. “They’re easy,” she assured us, and so we added three tetra fish to another plastic bag.

At home, I rinsed the three-gallon tank in the bathtub as instructed, then added (also rinsed) gravel, silk plants (plastic plants would shred the betta’s tail), a decorative bridge (something to hide under), a filter, light, de-chlorinated water and good bacteria. The betta and three tetras watched me from the two separate bags of water propped against the side of the tub. Lily watched me, too, a little, but mostly she played with the plastic orca whale she had found in the tub. “Bubble, bubble, bubble, pop,” she sang. Jon moved the tank from the bathroom to the top of Lily’s dresser. After adjusting the fish to the temperature of the water by lowering their bags into the tank and letting them bob for a while, we set them free. Jon and I knelt in front of the tank; Lily used her blue step stool. She named them: the half-moon betta was Freddy, and the three neon tetras, Hans, Anna, and Elsa (yes, from Frozen). The tetras swam together in schooling formation, first heading in one direction, and then turning in unison. Like underwater dancers. Like underwater dancers with butterfly wings. The betta hid behind a silk leaf, flaring its regal tails and fin. Lily blew the four of them a kiss before climbing under her covers. Good night new friends, I thought.

As sunlight snaked in through the slats of her blinds the next morning, Lily dropped a tropical fish flake through the small opening at the top of the tank. The betta was resting on a silk leaf, hardly visible; the three neon tetras were no longer swimming together, instead separated from each other by silk plants and the betta, but did that matter? The food was caught in the current created by the filter, eventually floating to the gravel at the bottom, untouched.

“Maybe they don’t like their food,” Lily said. “I don’t like eggs.”

“Maybe,” I said, though I didn’t know what else to feed them. Why weren’t the tetras schooling? And why did the betta’s fins look so droopy?

“Do you like your new home?” Lily asked the fish. I looked at the fish tank before I realized that she meant her room. Could they see her walls, the pink and green borders? The birds Jon had drawn, then painted by hand? Her toys, a tangled nest of furry limbs and glass eyes? Did they “like” all this pink or was their range of color limited, like a dog’s? Lily was asking questions I hadn’t thought of, already a more attentive fish owner than me.

I wondered what else I hadn’t thought of. I never kept fish as pets, but growing up, I had cared for plenty of animals. While my family gave them food and shelter (and the occasional bath with the garden hose), we mostly let them roam free. My parents didn’t worry about their safety and neither did I. Perhaps as a result, most of them died unexpectedly and in ways that seemed more suited to the Wild West then the 1980s. A dog shot by a half-blind farmer. A cat infected by a parasite found in cow pies. A hamster flattened under a wheel. In some ways, my parents’ philosophy of caring for animals extended to their philosophy of child rearing. My younger sister and I tumbled out of our house most mornings and did what we pleased. We were allowed to cross streets by ourselves and play unchaperoned at parks. We didn’t wear seat belts or fret over strangers. I eventually learned about stranger-danger and the necessity of seat belts, but still, as a new mother, it was a shock for me to learn that the world held so many dangers. I felt ill-prepared for them all, and so I fretted. But now I was prepared, wasn’t I? I could keep these fish alive, right?

After I dropped Lily off at preschool, I found an online forum for tropical fish lovers. How far can a betta see? I typed. A member replied immediately: They have superb eyesight but can only see a couple of feet in front of them, if that far. They would see Lily practicing basic ballet moves for them, then, inches from the fish tank but would not see her yanking books from her closet shelves. Curious, I asked about our tank set-up. Three gallons is too small for ANY living thing! Their organs dont grow properlycalled stuntingand they die, one reply read. Bettas are the most mistreated domesticated fish, read another reply. Neon tetras must be kept with at least five others to feel safe and secure, wrote another. Were our fish insecure? Did they sense danger? Feel stress? A three-gallon tank is good only as a temporary fish hospital but your little guy wont be happy in it for long. A fish hospital? What could possibly happen in our tank that I would need a fish hospital? Was it really that bad in our tank? And perhaps more importantly, what did a happy fish look like? My questions were beginning to feel familiar (and slightly alarming), though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

I took Lily into another pet store a few days later. She trailed behind me and then stopped at a terrarium, where a bearded dragon appeared to be waving. It stood on a rock, moving one spiky leg—or was it an arm?—in the air in a circular motion. While Lily spoke to the lizard, standing close to the glass, I waited for the resident aquarist. “I’m PETA radical about fish,” she said by way of introduction, adjusting the hemp bracelets on her wrist. I confessed my errors—our tank was too small, we had too few tetras, the fish were hardly eating—and her eyes grew wide. We would need a larger tank right away, she said, at least a five-gallon tank for the betta and a ten-gallon tank for the tetras if they were to have room to swim in groups. Three neon tetras weren’t enough for the fish to feel secure. Six would be better. None of them would survive a nitrous cycle. (What was that?) Tropical fish needed no less than 75-degree water to remain healthy. (The thermostat in our house was only set to 67 degrees.)

“The tetras will grow a little over one inch. The ones you have are just babies,” the aquarist added.

The word startled me. “Babies?”

“The technical name is fry,” she said.

“Fish fry reminds me of Friday nights at the Eagles Club during Lent. All those fried catfish,” I joked. “I’m a lapsed Catholic.”

“I’m a vegetarian.”


I studied the fish in the aquariums around me: the black- and yellow-striped body of the veil angelfish, the eager waving tail of the red wag platy and the chubby tummies of the balloon belly mollies. When I placed my fingertip on the aquarium of the telescope eye goldfish, they gathered around it, yellow- and orange-colored fins and heads waving back and forth. I stared at the large, perfectly round eyes, stubby pectoral fins and puckered, pouty mouths and saw, suddenly, the features of young children. Instead of goldfish, it was as if Lily’s preschool classmates were clamoring around me, sticky fingers and hands touching my legs. Baby fish. Baby people. What was the water temperature in the tank? What were we supposed to set the thermostat at when Lily was a baby? How could I tell if the fish were happy? How could I tell if the baby was happy?

I remembered, standing there in front of the aquarium, the helplessness I used to feel when Lily was an infant, both of us crying during those twilight hours that Jon, trying to lighten the mood, called “the witching hours.” While Jon was at work, I would come undone with fear and love, occasionally sitting in the bathroom to sob through my anxiety, morbidly imagining what would happen if I slept through Lily’s nighttime cries or drew her bathwater too hot. I suddenly felt like a new mother again, afraid that someone—or something—would be harmed because of my wrong choices, all the things a mother doesn’t intuit about caregiving but must learn. The fish were the first living things we had brought into our home, under our care, since the winter day almost four years earlier we had brought Lily home. The feeling of new-mother anxiety rushed back at me; I inhaled sharply. I couldn’t bear to let anything die in her room: plant, fish, or other. Especially the other.


I remembered, standing there in front of the aquarium, the helplessness I used to feel when Lily was an infant, both of us crying during those twilight hours that Jon, trying to lighten the mood, called “the witching hours.”


I wasn’t prepared to set-up a ten-gallon tank before taking some measurements, so we left the store with only a tank thermometer. At home, conditions in the fish tank looked worse. The tetras hid behind the silk foliage; the betta rested on a silk leaf, inactive. None had eaten any of the food we’d offered, and I was beginning to see that the small tank I had plopped the tetras into was the equivalent of asking an adult to swim laps in a kiddie pool. The new thermometer in the tank read 70 degrees, several degrees too cold for tropical fish. One forum user said our fish would be miserable in this temperature, like how it felt when, on a dare, I had cannonballed into a lake in April. I studied the inhospitable tank. I didn’t want to return the tetras to the pet store; I had begun to secretly refer to them as The Pips and the betta as Gladys Knight. I couldn’t separate the band. But what if Lily found one or two floating at the top of the tank? What, exactly, would that teach her about thriving in her mother’s care? The closest pet store was already closed for the evening, so I slept on it and went to work the next day.

“We’re taking the tetras back to the pet store,” I announced that night. If the tetras couldn’t thrive in our tank, then I wanted them to thrive elsewhere.

Jon thought I was overthinking—the tetras were $1.50 a piece and just fish!—but I wasn’t overthinking, just over-feeling. Lily shrugged, apparently unfazed by the thought that Hans, Anna and Elsa wouldn’t be swimming in her room anymore.


And that’s how I ended up in this strange situation, the kind of situation that seems more and more likely once you become a mother. I have baby fish in a plastic bag between my legs. Becoming a mother opens you up to the world, all of it, good, bad, and long-snouted, in tender and sometimes astonishing ways. You feel not just the large injustices of poverty, child abuse, disease, war and hunger, but also the small injustices that fill a normal day, like a male cardinal flapping his crimson wings from a fence and frantically chirping while the neighborhood cat pins his orange-crested mate to the ground, and you arrive just a few hurried footsteps too late to stop it.

We make it inside the pet store without any tetra deaths and I find an employee, a young man, to help us.

“What happens to the fish that you don’t sell, the ones who are no longer babies?” I ask him. I visualize the tetras being dangled before the open mouth of the bearded dragon.

“I adopt some of them. We advertise the rest on fish forums.”

We watch him return The Pips to a tank filled with fry, and then Lily and I select another tank, this one a five-gallon. We buy a heater, too, and some dried blood worms, a treat for Freddy, the smallest carnivore in our home.

At home, I finally see what a happy fish looks like. In his new tank, Freddy swims slowly from side to side. He spreads his fins. He watches us watching him. Reading stories to Lily that evening, I sneak peeks at him, alive-o! I did it. Me. I have kept him alive. I kept Lily alive, too, through her first winter, when I was afraid that I might not be able to, when I understood that loving her so wholly exposed me to the possibility of losing her, and losing myself, too. Lily the infant was like Freddy the fish: two delicate bodies surviving in ecosystems balanced by another—by a mother.

Authors Note: Since writing this essay, we have added a mystery snail to our tank. Lily watches as it eats algae off the glass with its tiny O-shaped mouth. Both it and the fish provide plenty of learning opportunities for our family, especiallyand surprisinglyfor me. Becoming a mother has awakened in me a contemplation of many living things (except spiders).

Jody Keisner’s most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Brevity, Hunger Mountain, River Teeths Beautiful Things, and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing. This is her second contribution to Brain, Child.

Return to the October 2015 Issue

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.


The Gorilla in the Room

The Gorilla in the Room

dreamstime_l_19750880by Vanessa Phillips

I killed my mom when I was 11.

My mom was a beautiful woman. When I was young she had blonde, bouncy hair, 70’s feathery type. In later years, she wore it short and sophisticated. She was attractive with any length of hair, but her pixie cut was sweet and polished and complemented her fun and lively personality. She was 5’7″, slender and though her teeth weren’t perfectly straight, she had a smile that filled any room she was in. Everyone adored her.  She was kind and compassionate, generous and nurturing.  She was a preacher’s wife and an advertising executive at a firm in downtown Columbia, Missouri. She’d done well for herself and family and balanced her duties as mother, wife and career woman with the help of a weekly cleaning lady and a great after school babysitter. Mom was doing it all.

I loved her more than anyone in the world.

When I was 10, I auditioned for the Nutcracker and was cast as the mouse that carried the white surrender flag in the heart-stopping battle of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Mom and I were excited not only because I was in the ballet, but because she and friends could easily identify which mouse among so many on stage, was her little girl. Performing in front of a paying audience, she told me, meant I had made it big time.

Every time I went grocery shopping with her, she gave me a quarter to put into one of the toy or candy machines at the front of the store. One day I put a quarter in and hoped for a key chain or a shiny necklace as displayed on the machine’s front, but instead got a pink car with wings, smaller than the size of the coin I used to buy it. My mom and I thought it was ridiculously funny looking, but so was wishing for a gold necklace for 25 cents.  When we got home, I asked her what I would do with this weird toy as throwing it out was not something I considered. My mom had taught me through her own actions to be grateful for all gifts no matter how small or how big. After quickly surveying our newest gift, she responded, Fly it, of course. And she took off across the living room, holding it in the air yelling, zoom zoom zoom zoom! She flew it over to me and I took over, adding the dining room and kitchen to its flight path. We laughed out loud as we did so often together and named it our zoom zoom car; a silly name for a very silly car.

I recollect a menagerie of memories about my mom and me, but the one I recall most often is the memory of all that was Saturday February 23rd 1985.  You see, that was the day I killed my mom.  It was a day I remember in great detail, for it was also the day King Kong was killed in our living room.

The room was dimly lit where my brother Philip, 9, and I, 11, sat entranced too close to the TV, our fists propping up our chins, elbows delicately balanced on legs crossed Indian style.  In the rain-darkened room, King Kong climbed the South Tower of the World Trade Center.  He gently released Jessica Lang from his grasp as she begged him not to.  With bouncy blonde hair and a slender build, how much Jessica reminded me of my mom in appearance.  As I was a mirror image of my mom, I felt a bit like Jessica too.

King Kong ignored Jessica’s pleas to hold on to her and he released her.  Immediately after, just as Jessica had predicted, bullets pelted against his leathery skin from the plane circling above.  He bellowed in pain.  It was a grisly cry he screamed and tears ran down my face and over my hands as fast as the black gorilla fell from the tower to the concrete ground below.  Jessica screamed and cried onscreen and her pain and grief tore at my stomach.  It was too much for me to handle alone.

I sprang from the floor and ran quickly but quietly to my mom and dad’s bedroom, desperately needing my mother’s comfort, but not wanting to startle her awake on this early Saturday morning.  Whimpering I crept to the bed.   I softly tapped my mom’s shoulder through the comforter and whispered, mom?  She opened the covers knowing instinctually that I wanted to snuggle into the warmth of her body and nestle in her chest.  What’s wrong? She asked tenderly.  As I wept, I explained King Kong’s demise and how unfair I felt his death was.  How Jessica Lang begged him not to let her go.  Why did he let her go, I asked, as I tried to grasp the concept of action and consequence. Her nightgown became drenched in my tears as she said over and over again, it’s ok, it’s ok sweetie, it’s ok.

I begged my mom to take my brother and me to the roller skating rink.  I loved roller skating and I needed terribly to remove the haunting image of a black gorilla falling to his death from the sky.  My mom had no desire to go out into the dark storm that had not stopped gushing rain since dawn, but I begged, and begged and begged.  And she finally acquiesced and drove us to the roller rink and dropped us off. We were to meet her at 3:00 at the front door.

My brother and I skated for hours and I had come close to winning the limbo contest so the afternoon had been a success.   When my brother hollered it was time to leave, I had to have one last go round and then I rolled fast off the rink onto the carpet and plopped right onto the bench to remove my wheels.  Back in our street shoes we walked to the front door and waited.

And we waited.  We waved good-bye to friends as their parents pulled up to the double glass doors to take them home.

And we waited.  We craned our heads outside the door to stretch our necks to the main road looking for her car coming up the hill.

And we waited. We poked one another and dug into the worn carpet with the toes of our shoes and we got irritable.

And then, when hour two of waiting passed, my brother said what we both felt.

Something happened to mom.  I know it.  She is never late.  I told him to be quiet; she was fine, just late.  When our mom’s best friend Joan pulled in to pick us up, I believed my brother and I hated him for being right.

The road our mom traveled to pick us up was covered in layer upon layer of rain and the ominous black sky kept spewing out water adding new layers to create streams out of winding roads.   A young, newly licensed driver sped towards my mom from the opposite direction and began to hydroplane.  Scared, her passenger grabbed the wheel to stop the car from sliding toward the family car and, in her inexperience, pulled the steering wheel the wrong way.  Instead of removing herself and her best friend from an accident, she created one.

The car with two 16 year olds, crashed head on into my mother’s.

The papers the next day said the first person to the scene, a passerby, tried to pry open the locked door to help my mother, but couldn’t.  Paramedics arrived shortly thereafter and later reported my mom was DOA.  They said no one could have saved her, but they were wrong.

I could have saved her.


Author’s Note: In February of 2013, I gave birth to a beautiful little boy we named Charlie.  In becoming a mother myself, my understanding of that day, so many Februarys before, began to change.  It was not my fault. 

Vanessa Phillips works out of her home as the Department Head of the Client Relationship Team for a small global immigration company.  She.lives in her husband’s hometown of Annapolis, MD with her two-year-old son, Charlie; husband, Brad; and two rescued pugs Mel and Dasha. This is her first published piece.


Cancer Mom

Cancer Mom

WO Cancer Mom ARTBy Kristen Brookes

I am a cancer mom. Like a gymnastics mom or a swim mom, but different.

At gymnastics, we would all huddle around the window into the gym, admiring the strength, grace, and coordination of our daughters. Seeing how hard they were all working. Sharing in the pride and excitement as one child did a beautiful beam routine or nailed a back handspring for the first time. We passed many hours in a very small room with long, rambling chats. We talked about our children together, and we shared stories of our lives. We were friends.

At cancer, although I smile at the familiar faces from weeks spent inpatient on the 8th floor, compliment the cleverness of a dad bringing a futon on the elevator, and show another mom a picture of how great my 13-year-old daughter looks in her new wig, I do not talk with other cancer parents. We are not cancer moms and dads together.

I am sure some people create community around their children’s cancer, but I do not see a lot of parents happy to see one another at the clinic, picking up their conversations where they left off or sharing the mundane details of their lives. I believe we are not cancer moms together because what we have to share may not be very nice. I do not want to know other children’s diagnoses. I don’t want to know how other children are doing because I do not want to be more afraid or experience more pain. I do not want to hear of more bad things that might happen to my daughter. I do not want to know children who might die. And I do not want to know their parents. I do not want to feel their loss. And I do not want the possibility of my own loss to be any more real than it already is.

Rather than connecting with the cancer moms, I google-stalk their kids, hungry, despite myself, to learn about their diagnoses and prognoses, finding out things I didn’t know. I feel a silent empathy for the mother whose child kicks and screams every time she has her port accessed, extending their clinic stay needlessly and aggravating even the most patient of nurses. And I feel both disturbed by and sad for the fifteen-year-old boy who tried to escape admission to the hospital and had to be wrestled into submission by security guards. I feel concerned when “Big Boy,” the tall young man who drives himself to his appointments, looks drawn and hollowed-eyed and even more when I hear a doctor lecturing him about his defeatist attitude. Relieved when I see him again, months later, looking much better.

Being a cancer mom doesn’t mean that you have a child who is a gifted athlete, who makes age group cuts, who has beautiful strokes, or who is still swimming hard at the end of practice when everyone else is slacking off. It doesn’t mean sustaining yourself during long meets with the hope that your child will beat her best time or with the dread that she might actually make finals and have to come back in the evening. It doesn’t mean becoming over-invested in the activity not only because you enjoy your child’s success but also because it is easier to endure six hours of swim meet when you are tracking her times against meaningful markers.

Being a cancer mom means, of course, that your child has cancer. It means that all the fears you ever had and laughed away were warranted. Your absolute worst fear—or maybe even something much worse than you ever dared to fear—has come true.

Being a cancer mom means having ripped from you the confidence with which you faced the world, the certainty that things would work out. And along with it, your ability to tell your child that everything will be okay. It means being left with a heightened sense of vigilance, an understanding that something terrible could happen at any moment.

Being a cancer mom means always having your bags packed, in case you have to go to the ER and then get admitted. Lecturing an alarmist resident, telling him that, for hematology/oncology parents, low hemoglobin is really not “of concern:” it just means she needs a transfusion.

Being a cancer mom means losing yourself in hospital time. It means spending six or sometimes eight hours at the clinic, sitting and sitting as the poison that is to save your child’s life drips into her body. Finding a fondness for the characters in the Disney shows you before disdained. Losing your ability to think, as your mind becomes filled with blood counts, chemotherapy drugs, and countless medications for side effects. And mostly with worry.

Being a cancer mom also means gently bathing your child’s head, gathering the clumps of loosened hair, as one cares for a baby, with love and as a matter of course.

And it means feeling close to and dependent on people you wish you had never had to know and whom you can’t wait to never have to see again.

I do not want to be a gung-ho cancer mom. A mom who takes up the fight, raises funds for research, organizes a team for the fun run for the local clinic. And I pray that I will never be the ultimate cancer mom, who, after the death of her child, creates and dedicates herself to an organization to help find a cure or to make easier the lives of children and their parents going through what her family went through. In her child’s name. To honor her child’s life. To keep her child’s spirit alive.

But I am a cancer mom. And being a cancer mom means being part of the magic of The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. It means wearing a dog tag from camp around your neck as a reminder that joy can happen, along with an orange “positivity” bracelet for hope. Appreciating how beautiful your child looks bald and seeing what a great model she would make as she poses for Flashes of Hope and with a monster truck for a fundraising calendar. Being a cancer mom doesn’t mean a shining moment of pride when she earns an all-around gold medal at the state meet or drops 8 seconds in the 100 Fly. It means a long-term appreciation for how she is handling a horrific experience with as much courage and grace as possible. A gradual realization that she has become more much bold and assertive than before.  It means gaining the sense that so much of what mattered so deeply before is not at all what really matters. And it means the unfortunate sense that the cancer team is not one you can just quit when you have had enough. I am going to be a cancer mom for a long, long time. God willing.

Author’s Note: This essay was written in October 2013, after my daughter had begun the maintenance phase of a treatment that lasted 857 days. She completed treatment this spring and is doing well. I now find myself engaging more with other cancer parents than I thought I would and better understand the incentive to create community (but am grateful not to have needed it). I still follow stories I would be better off not knowing and sometimes google, fruitlessly, for information that would bring me certainty about my child’s future.

Kristen Brookes, a teacher and writer, lives in New England with her husband, daughter, and puppy. In a previous existence, she published articles in early modern studies, on topics such as race and tobacco and gender, sexuality, and colonization. Kristen is currently working on a collection of essays about her experiences as a “cancer mom,” an identity from which she wishes to flee.

Photo credit: Team Photo.


Fiction: Losing Hart

Fiction: Losing Hart

sing Hart ART

By Hannah Thurman

When Brenden calls the hotel, a waiter brings Kelly the phone on a Mickey Mouse platter. She and Hart are alone in the restaurant, drinking orange juice out of champagne flutes. It’s not quite five in the morning but it’s already hot. Across the lobby, automatic doors open every few minutes to let in monorail trains, and in with them comes the humid Orlando air.

“Is everything okay?” she asks her ex-husband. “Why didn’t you call my cell?”

“You didn’t pick up,” he says. “And this is important.”

“Sorry,” she says. “I couldn’t hear it buzz.”

Brenden’s usually even tone sounds a little rushed. “Hey, can I talk to Hart?”

“What about?”

“I’d rather tell her first.”

Kelly hands the receiver to her daughter without saying goodbye. “It’s Daddy.”

Hart takes the phone. “Hi! Yeah, I remember. That’s great. Wow. Yeah, probably. Okay, I’ll tell her. Bye.” She presses a button on the phone and sets it down on the table. “Daddy says he e-mailed my portfolio to the art teacher at Phillips. She really liked it. She said if I decide to go there, I can go straight into seventh-grade drawing.”

“That’s really great,” Kelly says. “It was nice of your father to get up so early to tell you.” But to her, the timing seems calculated. Hart has lived in DC with her for the past four years, but at the end of fifth grade, Brenden got her an interview at a private middle school near his house in Fairfax. Just to see, he’d said. But since she’d gotten in, he’d lobbied hard, sending Hart video clips of the ecology club, skiing field trips, and a remarkable rendition of Anything Goes. Now this. But she wasn’t going to give up without a fight. She couldn’t compete with Phillips’s appeal on academic grounds—Hart had gotten none of her charter picks and would otherwise have to attend Kennedy, the underfunded, overcrowded public school nearby—so she had arranged this trip. She knew it was a low blow, the kind of one-upsmanship they’d promised to avoid. But if Hart chose Phillips, she was left with weekends and holidays and Hart was still so young.

She squeezes Hart’s arm. “You ready to go see Elsa? Do you need anything from the room?”

“Nope.” Hart slides off the seat and pulls a pair of white, wrist-length gloves from the back pocket of her shorts. “Got it.” She tugs on the gloves and flicks a crumb off her chair. “Let’s go.”

Kelly can’t resist. “Don’t you mean let it go?” she says.

Mom,” Hart says, “Please don’t embarrass me.” She shakes her head as she walks up the carpeted steps towards the monorail. Kelly’s tempted to start singing, or repeat the joke louder, but then remembers the mission at hand: show Hart how fun things can be if she chooses to stay with her. So she puts her hands in her pockets and follows her daughter silently a few paces behind.

The sea-foam green train that comes is empty, but two mothers get in at the stop for the next hotel. Their daughters are younger than Hart, seven or eight, and are both wearing blue polyester princess dresses. One of the mothers waves at Hart. “I love your gloves, honey. They’re just like Elsa’s.” She slurps at her drink, a beige-colored coffee topped with a mountain of foam and drizzled chocolate. Kelly smiles tersely. Five days a week, she lobbies for a nonprofit that promotes conservation and healthy eating. Disney seems diametrically opposed to both of these aims, and Kelly imagines the Florida landfills are packed with coffee cups like this one, ripped princess dresses, and discarded mouse hats.

Hart examines her gloves. “Thank you,” she says after a moment. “They don’t sell them at the Disney store so I bought them online. They’re for people who bite their fingernails. I don’t bite my fingernails though; they’re just a costume.”

The two women cackle. “She’s too stinking funny,” one says.

Kelly tries not to groan. The women are wearing little gold crosses on top of their pastel t-shirts. Homeschoolers, probably. Religious nuts. She puts her arm around Hart. “So do you think we’re here early enough?” she says.

One of the women yawns. “Our bellhop told us some moms left before four. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”

The monorail slows into a nearly empty station. Another woman gets on, carrying a sleeping girl wearing a snowflake nightgown.

“Oh, my lord,” the two moms say, turning away from Kelly and Hart. “What an angel. An absolute angel.”

When they’re not looking, Kelly whispers in Hart’s ear. “Take off your gloves, sweetie. I’m gonna need you to use your powers to freeze their vocal chords.”

Hart rolls her eyes. “Mom,” she says again.

“I’m only joking,” Kelly says.

“I know.” Hart turns to look out the window and Kelly folds her own hands in her lap. She suspects Hart frequently pretends to be Elsa, the Disney princess who can conjure snow from her fingertips and freeze water with a touch. But whenever Kelly mentions the playacting, Hart scoffs. Pretend is for babies and she’s almost eleven. She likes Frozen because it has good music and because she wants to be an animator when she grows up. But she still wears the gloves almost everywhere they go, and Kelly wonders who Hart would encase in ice if she could.

When they’re not looking, Kelly whispers, “Take off your gloves, sweetie. I’m gonna need you to use your powers to freeze their vocal chords.”


The monorail glides around a bend and the park appears, bright as a cartoon. Rollercoaster tracks loop behind the castle, which stands uninterrupted against the pale sky. Kelly checks her phone. It’s 5:27. The park won’t open for two and a half hours, but there’s already a line forming against the front gate. The monorail slows.

The doors hiss open and they spring through them, past the rows of stanchions ready for the morning rush, then down the concrete steps to the park entrance. Their footfalls echo across the wide expanse and for a moment, it feels as if they are the only people left in a deserted world. They slow down at the ticket-takers and present their purple wristbands.

“All right, you can go,” the ticket taker says and they run the last few steps towards the line.

The line is less of a line and more of a mass of people, almost all female, pressing towards the enormous gold gates. Kelly and Hart take a spot between an Asian woman with twin girls and a bored-looking teenager in track shoes. When he looks away, Hart whispers in Kelly’s ear that he must be a runner. Apparently some parents have been paying locals to wait in line for them. Once Kelly heard about this, the whole activity seemed even more revolting. Rich, lazy people will always find a way to come out ahead.

Hart asks for Kelly’s phone to look up Frozen facts. There’s an almost unending supply of them online, and through Hart’s recitation, Kelly has learned that Elsa has been the most popular Disney attraction for over sixteen weeks.

“Did you know Elsa is the first Disney princess not to be a teenager?” Hart says, twisting her thumb out of the glove so she can scroll down the screen. “She’s 21. And she’s only the second princess to have magical powers.”

“What about Cinderella?” Kelly asks.

“No, that was all the fairy godmother, remember?”

“Oh yeah.” While Kelly doesn’t mind Elsa as a character, she’s disheartened by Hart’s sudden obsession with princesses. They seem for the most part vapid and anti-feminist.

“Elsa was originally going to have spiky hair. The first time they wrote the movie, she was going to be the villain,” Hart says.

One of the girls in front of them, a chubby redhead who looks like she’s about nine, says, “That’s not true. Elsa’s always been good!”

Hart sighs. “In the final version, she’s good. But when they were writing it, the authors were thinking about making her evil. They rewrote it four times.”

The girl crosses her arms. “You’re wrong. Elsa’s good. That’s why she’s my favorite.”

Hart addresses her with a patient tone. “She’s my favorite too, but it says so right here on Buzzfeed.”

“I’m not allowed to go to that site. It’s for the devil. You’re going to Hell.”

Kelly taps the girl’s mom on the shoulder. She is broad and permed and engrossed in something large-print on her Kindle. “Excuse me,” Kelly says. “Your daughter just told mine she was going to Hell.”

The woman yawns and does not cover her mouth.

“I said probably,” Devil girl says.

“Settle down, Kasey,” the woman says.

“Could you please get her to apologize?” Kelly says. “That hurts my daughter’s feelings.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Hart says.

“Looks like it doesn’t,” Devil girl’s mother says, turning away.

“Of course it did,” Kelly says. “Now I’d love it if you could ask your kid to say she’s sorry.”

“Mom,” Hart says. “Stop it, please.”

Kelly grits her teeth and backs away. These people are exactly why she hates Disneyworld. The mom probably eats meat three times a day, drives an SUV, and votes a straight Republican ticket if she votes at all. They’re the sorts of people she imagines send their kids to school at Phillips, although this woman looks like she’s spent about a semester’s tuition on Coach products alone. Kelly is counting the linked C’s on her massive purse when Hart taps her on the arm.

“You have a text from dad,” she says, handing her the phone. “I didn’t read it.”

“Thanks, sweetie.” Kelly takes the phone from her and opens the message.

Dear Kelly, it begins. For a VP of software, Brenden’s never mastered the etiquette of texting. I hope you are having a good time at Disney. It would be great if you could confirm if Hart wants to go to Phillips TODAY. If we want to lock in that art class, they need an answer tonight. There’s other people on the waiting list. I’ll call you later this evening. Hope you are having a great time. Brenden.

“What’s he say?” Hart says.

Kelly pauses. “He says he wants us to have a great time.”

“That’s a long text,” Hart says, but Kelly quickly deletes it. “Is daddy going to meet us at the airport? If so, you should see his new car. It has a talking GPS and last time I asked it to find my butt.” She imitates the Siri voice. “I’m sorry, I can’t locate ‘my butt’ nearby.”

Kelly smiles. “Maybe. Do you like it better than riding the metro?”

“The metro smells,” Hart says and Kelly looks away. When Hart was younger, she used to love riding trains. She’d always beg Kelly to be allowed to yell up at the arched ceiling of the stations, giggling when she heard her own voice echo back to her. It makes Kelly’s stomach sink to discover she can’t remember when Hart stopped doing this.

A few feet away, a man in a striped shirt is selling a tray full of drinks with purple straws. Kelly’s eager to switch the subject, so she waves to him. “You want a drink?” she asks Hart.

“Really?” Hart says.

Kelly hands the man a twenty. He gives her back four ones—the waste!—and an enormous plastic cup printed with hologrammed snowflakes. Kelly takes a sip before handing it to her daughter. The lemonade is the consistency of a slurpie and twice as sweet. Kelly rarely lets Hart have anything this processed, but she hands the cup to Hart anyway.

“Thank you!” Hart says, wrapping both gloved hands around it. “Oh my gosh, this is so good.” She giggles. “They should call it Frozen-frozen lemonade!”

Kelly laughs, feeling the anxiety subsiding. She checks the time. Just one more hour. She does not reply to Brenden’s text and puts her phone back in her pocket.

The sun rises higher over the castle and everyone begins to sweat, the air smelling like coconut sunscreen. More people arrive by the minute, and it’s clear they’re not Frozen folk, just families who want to be in and out before noon. Most of them have children in jogging strollers. Kelly remembers when Hart was that small and it doesn’t seem like so long ago, like the year before last, but that’s not true, Hart’s almost a teenager. A few more years and she’ll be gone for good. She watches her daughter suck frozen lemonade through the thick straw, and promises herself once again that she’ll do whatever it takes.

“Good lemonade?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Hart says.

Kelly is about to ask if she wants a snack, maybe they sell Elsa enchiladas or snowmen-shaped cinnamon rolls, but a hush falls over the crowd and she turns to see what everyone’s looking at. Staff members in Mickey Mouse ears have begun making their way to the gate. Remember, no pushing, they say. Remember, no pushing. Despite their warnings, the crowd begins pressing towards the gate, condensing into a solid mass of bodies. Sweaty arms keep brushing up against Kelly and she pulls Hart in front of her.

“Are you okay?” Kelly says.

“Yeah,” Hart says, “Can I have your phone again?”

Kelly has to elbow someone just to reach into her pocket. She hands the phone back to Hart.

It’s 7:45, 7:47, 7:50. The little girl next to them begins to cry. When her mother picks her up and wades back through the crowd, Kelly can breathe for just a moment, then people step forward to fill the space and she’s surrounded again. Her heart rattles. She feels like a cow bound for slaughter. She squeezes Hart’s shoulders until Hart tells her to stop.

“Are you okay?” Kelly asks.

“I’m fine,” Hart says. “Are you okay?”

Kelly has never liked crowds and the hot thick air reminds her of a story she heard once about a woman who fell down a stream-filled manhole. When paramedics pulled her out, her skin was loose and red like a cooked lobster’s. But they’re so close. She stands on her tiptoes to suck in a breath of untainted air.

A countdown starts echoing through the crowd. It grows louder and faster as people chant: 51, 50, 49.

“You ready?” Kelly asks Hart. Hart doesn’t turn around but nods, clapping her gloved hands to the beat of the numbers.

35, 34, 33.

Kelly spots Devil girl a few feet away. She and her mother are both wearing hard plastic sandals. She hopes they get blisters. She wonders if Devil girl will cry when they aren’t first in line. Thinking about that calms her down a little.

11, 10, 9, 8.

The gates begin to open, swinging inward on a grooved track. The staff members back into the park and move out of the way, smiles stretched across their faces.

4, 3, 2—

The first people begin running through the gates and the crowd lurches ahead. Kelly grabs Hart’s gloved hand and springs forward onto the pavement. The sun is hot already and Kelly feels sweat run down her neck as she and Hart race past the silent gift shops and empty green lawns. She does not look behind her, but she can hear the rumble of feet and wheels as everyone makes a beeline for the castle. Elsa’s appearance will take place on the left side stage, tucked into a stony alcove called “the chamber.”

Hart’s fingers feel hot through the gloves. A 20-something sprints past them, and Kelly feels a stab of jealousy. One more person in front of them. She pulls them both forward, purse flopping against her side.

The cobblestones end and they jog onto the painted asphalt that surrounds the castle, racing towards a flag that says “front of line.” An arrow points towards a roped-off area surrounded on two sides by artificial rocks. The sun reflects off the high castle windows, splashing Kelly with flashes of light and heat. Her mouth feels sticky from the lemonade.

With one last push, Hart and Kelly careen towards the flag. Only a handful of people stand there already, and they all look like they’re saving places for someone else—most have already gotten out cell phones, breathlessly saying they’ve made it.

“We made it!” Kelly says. She looks behind her as the line grows and grows. She can’t spot Devil girl or her mother anywhere. “Awesome job,” she says to Hart.

Hart nods, sucking deeply at her lemonade. “Those people in the back are going to be waiting for hours.”

“I believe it,” Kelly says. “Hey, do you think it’s the same actor who plays her all day?” She pauses. “Um—”

Hart shrugs. “I know she’s not real-real.”


Kelly wants to ask her what real-real means. Are there levels of realness that Hart believes in, stacking Santa versus angels versus the onstage persona of Taylor Swift? But it seems like a silly question and anyway they’re now distracted by the arrival of children who’ve come to replace the runners in front of them.

“Cheaters,” she whispers at Hart but just as she says that, a woman pushes up a girl in a wheelchair. “Okay, not her,” she says but Hart doesn’t smile. She’s got her eyes trained on the stage, where two men are setting up a cushioned throne and a microphone. They disappear into a door in the rock and Hart leans forward.

“Oh my gosh,” she whispers. The door reopens and out walks a tall, pale woman in a sequined dress. Her white-blonde hair is thick, twisted into a complicated braid laced with tiny sparkling things. She steps out onto the platform and Hart’s eyes grow big.

“Good morning,” Elsa says. “It is truly a magical day!” She clasps her hands. Kelly sees she is not wearing gloves, but that makes sense. She’s Elsa from the end of the movie, after she’s accepted her powers and stepped into her rightful role as queen. “My sister Anna told me I was here to meet my subjects, but she must’ve been mistaken. You aren’t subjects at all—you’re… princesses!”

Children begin to shriek. The girl in the wheelchair in front of them claps so hard she has to bend over.

“Thank you all so much for coming,” Elsa says. “I can’t wait to meet each and every one of you.” Then she replaces the microphone and sits down on the snowflake throne.

Kelly fans herself with her hand. Her cheeks feel hot and she can’t stop staring at the stage. Elsa’s skin is flawless, her mouth painted with perfect lines of red. When she blinks, her eyelashes actually sparkle.

“She’s so beautiful,” Kelly says, taking Hart’s hand.

Hart grins and grins. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I want them to take two pictures. One with just me, then one with you and me. Wait, three pictures and we can do one with a gap so we can Photoshop in daddy.”

Even this mention of Brenden doesn’t slow Kelly down. The excitement has overtaken her. She feels more centered than she does after hours of yoga. It’s embarrassing and silly but she doesn’t care. They’re about to meet a princess. She stares at Elsa’s white wrists, wondering if wearing sunscreen every day would make her skin half as soft. There must be some kind of laser that will peel off her epidermis until only princess skin remains. She’s imagining what a machine that does that would look like when she hears a familiar voice.

“God bless you,” it says. “You’re an angel.”

She turns around. Devil girl and her mother are squeezing into line behind them, and Kelly sees the woman they’ve cut folding a wad of bills into her wallet.

“Whoa,” Kelly says. “What are you doing?”

The mother smiles. “That’s none of your business.”

“You just paid that woman to get in line. That’s not fair.”

“Calm down,” the mother says. “We’re all going to the same place.”

“Yeah,” Kelly says. “But some of us got here first because we’re in shape.” She’s furious that they’re going to have to share space with these morons, that they’re ruining her moment with Elsa.

Hart grins and grins. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I want them to take two pictures. One with just me, then one with you and me. Wait, three pictures and we can do one with a gap so we can Photoshop in daddy.”


Hart tugs at Kelly’s arm. “Mom,” she says.

“What do you mean, ‘in shape’?” Devil girl’s mother moves towards Kelly. She is wearing rose-scented perfume that does not cover up the sour smell of sweat.

“I think it was pretty clear,” Kelly says. The mother lurches towards her but Kelly steps away. The line has begun to move so the disruption goes unoticed, everyone shuffling forward in fits and starts. Out of the corner of her eye, Kelly can see the first little girls approaching the throne.

Hart looks from Elsa to Kelly. “Don’t do anything, mom.”

The woman nods sharply towards Hart. “Looks like your daughter could teach you some manners.”

Kelly turns away to keep from slapping her. “Almost there,” she says. They are now right behind the photographer. Elsa poses with three little girls wearing matching pink baseball caps. Her dark eyes sparkle.

“Are you excited?” Kelly asks Hart, pushing them both as far forward as possible, away from the odious pair behind them. They are now second in line, watching the girl in the wheelchair roll ahead. Kelly and Hart both watch as Elsa bends down to hug her. “Looks like you’ve brought your own throne,” Elsa says.

“She’s perfect,” Hart breathes, but then Kelly hears a thick laugh. She whirls around and Devil girl’s mother is rolling her eyes.

“She’s perfect,” Devil girl mocks.

“No,” Hart says but before she can say anything else, Kelly snatches the cup of lemonade out of her hand. It’s heavy, still half full, and she yanks the lid off with one jerk. The girl in the wheelchair begins wheeling away and it’s their turn, they should be moving towards the throne but she’s struck, paralyzed by anger and the power she holds in the cup in her hand. Devil girl and her mother grin wide, flat suburban grins. Kelly cocks her arm back and hurls the contents of the cup into their pudgy faces.

Their reaction is immediate. Both lunge forward, clawing at Hart and Kelly with dripping fingers. The children around them shriek. Devil girl’s mother lets out a string of growling curses, flinging glops of frozen lemonade off her red face. Blood pounds through Kelly’s hands as she throws herself towards them.

The rest of the line moves back. Elsa gets out of the throne, moving quickly towards the back of the stage, then disappears through a metal door. Kelly sees the sparkling edge of her dress flash once, then it’s gone. She feels a tight grip on her arm. A man in a security jacket and mouse ears pulls her out of the line.

“Stay out! Stay out!” Devil girl’s mom shrieks but then another man appears and marches her away in the same direction. Hart and the other girl pause for a moment, faces white, then follow their mothers as they walk past the line and back towards the park entrance.

The guards do not speak. They lead the group down the Disney main street and out towards a plain door in the back of one of the pink buildings. Devil girl is crying loud sobs and in spite of all of this, Kelly wants to kick her. The guards pull them down a long gray hallway and turn at the end into what looks like a small conference room. Nothing is rounded, nothing is pastel. The only sign that they’re still in the park is faint Muzak coming through the walls, which is playing the theme from Beauty and the Beast.

“Why don’t you take a seat,” one of the guards says. The four slide into high-backed rolling chairs. The air feels very cold. Kelly looks at Hart. Hart looks away.

“We know waiting in line can be stressful, but your behavior out there was inappropriate,” the first one says.

“When you push and shove, you set a bad example for your families and for the park.”

“Excuse me,” Devil girl’s mother says. “We were just minding our own business. This lady poured her drink on me.”

Kelly snorts. “You were mocking us. You insulted my daughter.”

“Jeez, mom.” Hart puts her face in her hands. Her gloves are stained yellow from the lemonade. “I didn’t care what she was saying.”

“See?” Devil girl’s mother says. “Now please, let me and my kid back in that line.” She starts to stand up but one of the guards holds up a hand.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “But we have a zero tolerance policy for these kinds of incidents. You’re all banned from all Disney parks for the rest of the calendar year.”

“We’re going to need your wristbands,” the other guard says, pulling out a pair of long-handled scissors.

Devil girl’s mother sputters. “Are you crazy?” she keeps saying. “Do you know what we paid for this?”

“What about Epcot?” Kelly asks as the guard snips the band from her wrist.

He shakes his head. “You could do Seaworld, or Universal Studios. I’m sorry, I hate-hate doing this.”

Kelly wonders if hate-hate is the same as real-real. The guard’s face is sad and young, he’s probably closer to Hart’s age than to her own. She begins to feel a weight crushing down on her shoulders, back and neck. She has ruined everything.

“Sweetheart,” she says to Hart but Hart gets up. Kelly follows her to the door.

“Wait,” the nice guard says and they both turn. He walks towards them.

“Yes?” Kelly says. “What is it?”

“I need to escort you out.” He puts a hand on Hart’s shoulder. “Come on,” he says. “I’ll drop you off at the monorail entrance.”

Behind them, Kelly hears the other mother start to cry. “I want a refund,” she says. “It isn’t fair.”

The monorail back to the hotel is empty and cold. Sugar from the lemonade glues Kelly to her seat. Her throat is tight. “Hart,” she says again. “I’m so sorry.”

Hart flops her gloves back and forth in her hands.

“I’ll pay someone to wait tomorrow,” Kelly says. “We’ll put up your hair and they won’t recognize you, you can just find the runner and I’ll give you the money. I’ll buy you a new wristband.”

Hart shrugs.

“And today we can still go to Seaworld. Don’t you want to see a killer whale show?”

Hart finally speaks. “You always say it’s cruel to keep them in those tanks.”

Kelly pauses. “They’re already in there, how much more can it matter?”

Hart frowns at her. “I’m tired,” she says. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”

The monorail zips along in silence. It stops at the first hotel but they’re going the wrong way so no one gets on.

“Well,” Kelly says. “Since we’re not seeing Elsa, I may as well tell you, your dad wants you to decide about Phillips today. That art class sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?”

“No,” Hart says. “It doesn’t.”

Kelly blinks. “What?”

“Daddy’s going to be mad but I don’t care. All my friends are going to Kennedy. And Phillips has to wear those stupid uniforms. And they don’t have dances. It’s retarded.”

Kelly unsticks herself from her seat and turns to face her daughter. She’s never heard Hart say that word. Or express any interest in dances. I should feel happy, she thinks. This is what I wanted.

“So you want to stay with me?” Kelly says. “You want to keep living in DC?”

Hart shrugs. “I want to go to Kennedy.”

“Wow,” Kelly says. “Wow.” She slides closer to Hart. “I’m so sorry about today,” she says again. “I was a little stressed out. I was worried you were going to leave me.”

Hart doesn’t say anything. She scratches at her cheek.

Kelly puts an arm around her. “I’ll make this up to you,” she says. “I promise.”

The doors open and Hart stands up. “It’s okay,” Hart says. “I don’t care. Frozen is for babies.”

They step down the carpeted steps of the hotel. Everything smells like chlorine and maple syrup. The doors close behind them and Kelly turns to see if they’ve left anything on the train. Through the wide, clean widows she sees Hart’s gloves on the seat, one folded over the other. She looks down and sees Hart staring too, but her daughter doesn’t say anything and with a whoosh like magic, the train doors close and the monorail begins to move away.


Hannah Thurman is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her stories have been published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Lifted Brow, and others. She is currently working on a collection of short stories that take place in and around airports.

Return to the September 2015 Issue

Our Tearless Graduation

Our Tearless Graduation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreams of Teeth

Dreams of Teeth

3457e11b6ec7feaeca35b87f6e2834acBy Lorri Barrier

I had the dream about teeth again last night. In the dream, I feel something odd in my mouth, and I put my tongue in the place. I feel the tooth move easily, back and forth. I find a mirror and look. It’s true. The back molar is loose. I push it again with my tongue and it falls out easily. My heart pounds. Oh god. What will I do? Ill call the dentist in the morning. I console myself. At least its in the back. No one will see.

I look in the mirror again. This time I notice it’s not the only one. One of my front teeth on the bottom looks angled and awkward. I touch it. The tooth falls into my hand. I can feel how smooth the sides are, like one of my children’s baby teeth, but jagged on the bottom where it was attached at the root. I taste blood in my mouth. I panic. How will I go to work with a missing tooth? How will I afford getting two teeth replaced? I look again, and the cascade begins, teeth like dominoes falling into my hands. I can still feel them like tiny invisible pebbles when I wake.

My eight-year-old daughter has crawled into bed beside me again. I shove her over, and rub the place that aches on my shoulder from where her back was pressed against mine. I get up, leaving my daughter in bed, and make coffee. I am groggy and spill grounds on the counter. I wipe up the mess. I wake my nine-year-old son first by brushing the hair out of his eyes. He is sleeping tangled in covers, his head off the pillow. He mumbles he’ll get up after breakfast is ready. I go back to my bed to wake my daughter. “Time to get up,” I say.  She stands, stumbling, and I turn and carry her to the couch on my back. I have done this since she was three. She flops on the couch and covers herself with the fuzzy throw. I make her brother’s breakfast.

I know she won’t eat, but I ask her what she wants anyway. She has inherited my difficulty with breakfast. I have to be awake a long while before I can eat. Most days, she goes to school with an empty stomach. I yell after her as she gets on the bus, “Get breakfast at school! You have money on your account!” Sometimes she does, but most often she does not. In the mornings my son is ravenous. It is possibly the only time of day he asks for more food.

My husband sleeps through this morning routine. He would get up if I asked him to, but there is a rhythm to the morning, a road worn smooth with years of use. Sometimes I am envious of his extra sleep, but I’ve been getting up with babies since they were born. It feels like part of me.

Once my two younger children are on the bus, it is time for my middle-schooler to begin his day.. I’ve been up for well over an hour when it’s his turn to get up, I only have to call him once or twice, and then I go ahead and turn on the water for his shower. He goes in without much prodding. He always eats a cup of yogurt in the morning, but I don’t think that’s enough. He spends nearly five dollars a day on lunch, so I imagine he is starving by noon. He swears he eats it all.

On the drive to work, I have time to think about the tooth dream again. In college, I took an anthropology course about China. During one class meeting, a woman from China came to speak to us. She’d interviewed hundreds of Chinese women, recording their thoughts on all sorts of issues. The most common dream among the Chinese women she interviewed was loss of teeth.

At work one of my colleagues comes to talk to me. Our community college is small and rural, with many of the instructors wearing various administrative hats in addition to teaching. My office is messy, and I’m embarrassed, but it’s how I work—I like to see everything. She tells me they want me to take on an additional duty, something important. I listen. It is important. I’d enjoy it. She asks if I have any questions. I never know what to ask when people are sitting right in front of me. It’s only later that I think of what I should have asked. But at the moment, before I blurt out yes, I only think to ask, “How will this affect my other duties?” She smiles and laughs a little. “It would only be a few hours a week.” I list my current responsibilities, then make a joke about giving up something I don’t like to do this. As usual in education, there is no mention of more pay. There is always more work, always the expectation of excellence, but never more money. But I do want to do it. Even as she speaks, I have ideas.

I eat my lunch around noon. It’s usually a microwave meal, which I eat at my desk. I figure I can stop grading papers, stop planning my online classes, stop jotting down ideas for this new duty for a little while. I love the beach, and I look at beach homes for sale on the internet. My tastes are not fancy. I look at what we might really be able to afford with just a little more money. Not beachfront, but cute and cozy. We could walk to the beach, or buy a used golf cart to drive around. I imagine how our lives would be different if we had this beach house. I imagine the clean line of sand and aquamarine water next to the shore, my three children floating out on the waves, their distant laughter lost on the wind. It is always summer at this beach house. We are always happy.

By the end of the day, I am mentally exhausted. My younger son meets me at my car as soon as I pull up and asks me if I brought pizza. Pizza? “No, honey. Not today. I’ve been at work.” My oldest son tells me his sister broke the remote and now no one can watch TV or play the Wii EVER AGAIN! I look at it. It isn’t broken, but the back did come apart and the batteries are missing. I find one battery under the couch, squatting, still in my heels and skirt.

I make afternoon coffee before I change my clothes. My husband is working in the study. He still has more to do. “She lost privileges for throwing the remote,” he says as I walk by. “Okay,” I say, already wondering how to keep her out of the living room while the boys are watching TV. “Let’s just turn it off for now,” I say to all three of them, doing exactly what my students hate—punishing the group because of the one. I put on yoga pants and a T-shirt because I need to go to exercise class at 7. I have to go, even though I feel too exhausted to stand. Somehow, I make it through. On the drive home from exercise class, I wonder what I’ll find when I get there. Have the kids been fussing? Is the homework done? Are they ready for bed?

Inside the house it’s eerily quiet. It’s just before 8:30. Surely they aren’t all asleep? I look in on my daughter. She’s reading in bed. She sees me pop in my head and says, “Get out.” I look in on the boys. They are both in bed, my oldest on the top bunk with a book light, my youngest already asleep. “Mom,” my teenager says from the top bunk, “When you go out, close the door.”

“Good job with the kids!” I say to my husband as we settle down on the couch to watch a show. This is the only time of day we spend together, these meager hours once the kids are in bed, both of us exhausted. “They do fine at bedtime when you aren’t here!” He smiles and I know it’s a joke, but there’s some truth in it. They are always talking to me, clinging to my arms, sitting in my lap, wanting a story, even though they read easily enough themselves. They become babies again at bedtime, or close to it, when I’m here.

In spite of my best efforts, I fall asleep during the show.

“We can watch the rest of it tonight,” my husband says in the morning. He’s talking to me through the door while I’m in the bathroom. I’m flossing my teeth, watching for signs of decay, being careful around the one with the crown. I should have had braces when I was younger, but they didn’t do that as much when I was a kid. If your teeth were mostly okay, they let it go. No one expected perfection.

When the woman from China finished speaking, students peppered her with questions. Everyone wanted to know more about foot binding. After a little while, I tentatively raised my hand and asked what I wanted to know. “The dreams of teeth—do you know what they mean?” She nodded her head a little. “It’s hard to say what someone’s dreams mean, but I think,” she paused, trying to find the right English words. “A loss of voice. Like, you have no say, no voice.” I was twenty then.

I look at my reflection in the mirror. The same blue-green eyes. The same fair skin. The same reluctance to be too noticeable, too bold. Twenty-five years later I’m still spitting dream teeth into my hands. I feel like the life-clock is ticking. I want desperately to begin shouting my truth, whatever it is, if I can just find a voice in me loud enough.

Author’s note: It’s been a little over a year since I wrote this piece. Many days I still feel like I’m treading water with the business of parenting, working and being a good partner to my husband. It’s hard to nurture the self in a sea of activity, meeting the needs of others. I have tried to find my voice more at work by starting an LGBTQ awareness club for students. I have also decided to stop dyeing my hair (after 17 years of color) and go gray. That might sound superficial, but I’m learning it is a journey of self-discovery and reflection. I write about my gray hair and my journey at

Lorri Barrier is a mother, wife, teacher and writer. Her other essays for Brain, Child include “Faithfully,” “The F-word,” “Unplugged” and “Idle Threats.


Nearly Drowning

Nearly Drowning

Nearly Drowning ART 2

By Vera Giles

I sat next to the learner’s pool, opposite my instructor for Overcoming Your Fear of Water.

I was 40, married, the mother of an almost-two-year-old boy. A few months earlier, I’d been laid off from my job and couldn’t seem to make myself look for a new one—but for some reason, I was also afraid to be a stay-at-home mother. Instead, Sammy went to an excellent day care, which we could afford thanks to my programmer husband, Aaron. I felt like the world’s worst mother.

I had tried several times in the past to learn how to swim. Now, I thought, since the rest of my life seemed stuck, maybe I could at least learn this one thing.

The instructor, a small, muscular woman, spoke with a friendly German accent. “Tell me why you’re here today.”

I wanted to tell her that when I was six, my mother took me by the hand and walked me into the ocean and kept walking until my aunt stopped her. That my mother was suicidal and eventually killed herself. Instead I said:  “I’m afraid of the water, but I want to learn.”

“Our goal is for you to stay centered in your body. You can’t learn if you are afraid. Are you ready to begin?”

We walked to the edge of the pool.

I shivered in my new black bathing suit. It was morning and the room was cold. Small waves caused by other swimmers slapped the sides of the pool, a metallic sound with a deeper note of water sloshing in and out of the overflow vents. The instructor smiled. “Shall we go in?”

Gray daylight poured through the large side windows. The room smelled clean and wet. Accent plants softened its sharp lines. “I guess so,” I said. Was it really this simple? No fanfare? But it felt right.

“Here,” she said, extending a hand. I held it and felt small and safe. Everything about this woman told me she was there to take care of me. “Let’s walk down the steps, one by one.”

I stepped down and submerged my feet in the water. We stopped. “Remember,” she said, “we’ll go as fast as you are comfortable. You can’t learn if you are not fully present in your body—all the way down to your feet. How are you feeling?”

I felt excited and calm at the same time. Could I feel my feet? Yes, they were cooler than the rest of me, firmly planted on the tiles. My hand was in her warm, sure grip.

“Yeah, I feel good,” I said, wanting to go on but self-conscious about seeming to rush. “Let’s go deeper.”

Down we went, step by step, until the water was at our waists. There were my feet. I still felt them. We walked further into the pool.

A rising anxiety finally surfaced, and I spoke. “I can’t hold your hand,” I said. I knew immediately this was a trigger, the memory of holding my mother’s hand, of being forced to go deeper and deeper into the water that day.

She looked surprised. She thought for a second, then crooked her arm. “Can you hold my elbow? Would that work?”

It felt odd, but I no longer felt coerced or restrained. I relaxed. “Yes, that will work.”

Like blind people walking somewhere new, we continued, navigating through my phobia. I let the water reach the middle of my chest—felt it move my body. I kept checking in with my feet. After a while, my instructor said, “You’ve made amazing progress. Look how far you’ve come! It’s time to get out now. Shall we?” She held out her hand.

This time I took her hand and we began walking to the stairs.

Something broke open in my chest. My eyes stung, and a warm feeling spread through my body. A mother was taking me back to shore, holding my hand to keep me safe.

I wanted to cry. For the first time, some little part of me felt secure instead of scared. I was going to be OK.

The next day, I remembered more of what had happened in the ocean.


I was six. My mother and I were visiting my Aunt Anni in Israel.

I loved Mama and she loved me. We understood each other. We shared secrets and told each other how we really felt. Some days she was very sad and everything seemed to go away. She just sat there and I felt very alone. But then she came back and she started to smile at me and laugh at my little jokes and I knew again that she loved me. I was very good at taking care of her.

Mama was the most beautiful mother in the world. Everybody said so. Her long blonde hair and beautiful dresses and lovely laugh charmed everyone.

Her older sister Anni was loving and distracted, her dreamy voice low from cigarettes. She smelled like perfume and tobacco and the oil paints she used in her studio. Blonde and the same height as my mother, she looked like Mama’s twin. Anni and Mama laughed a lot and shared makeup and jewelry. I loved Anni, too. She was gentle and safe and acted like I was a wise and wonderful person.

It was sunny and warm with cool breezes near the shore, so we were at the beach. I was playing at the edge of the surf, trying to step into the foam as it dissolved, wanting to feel the bubbles on my feet.

Then I felt Mama standing behind me, staring out to sea. She walked next to me, took my hand, and kept walking into the ocean. I didn’t want to leave the surf, but I was used to doing what she wanted.

At first it was fun, bobbing around as we got deeper, but I didn’t like how hard she was holding my hand and I started to pull away. She wouldn’t let go.

I was mad now. I started whining. She wouldn’t let go.

I got scared. The water was pretty high now. She wouldn’t let go.

She kept walking. It got deeper. I was screaming and panicking now. Some part of me was so terrified that something clicked in my head and I started feeling far away.

Water got in my mouth. I swallowed some. I couldn’t keep my head above water or my feet on the ocean floor. She wouldn’t let go.

I kicked and flailed and screamed, breathing in water and choking and swallowing water and drowning. She held my hand and her arm was stiff against her side and as I floated in the water I kicked her leg, hard, and it felt rubbery and she didn’t react and that scared me even more and I was drowning and I couldn’t breathe and this was way worse than asthma and I started to float high above my own head and watch myself drown, just my head, the crown barely breaking the surface as the water around was choppy with my struggles.

My mother stood there, holding my hand in a death grip, her arms at her sides. The water was at her chin. She was staring out at the horizon, completely gone.

Anni came and got me. She put my arms around her neck and walked back to the beach, as I coughed and hung there limply. I started to shake as she bundled me in a towel and tried to get me dry and warm even though it was a lovely day and the water had been perfect.

I fell asleep, from shock.


I was able to come to that swim class because Sammy was in day care—even though I hadn’t had a job for six months and should have been taking care of him myself. I felt like a terrible mother.

My friends, my family, and my husband all told me I was doing a great job with Sammy. I was not an alcoholic (like my mother and father). I did not abuse Valium (like my mother). I was not depressed (like my mother and father). I was not mentally ill (like my mother).

I did not commit suicide (like my mother).

She was 38 and a half when she killed herself. Coincidentally, when Sammy was born, I was 38 and a half.

Despite years of therapy, I was still terrified that I would repeat her mistakes. I might hurt Sammy. I might even kill him. This was crazy. Why did I feel this way?

When I was laid off six months earlier, I had been back from maternity leave exactly one year. I was 39 and Sammy was 16 months old.

“At least you’ll get to spend more time with Sammy,” my coworkers said.


When I was away from Sammy, I wished for more time than the squeezed hours I had with him. I craved him like a drug. I wanted to be there every morning when I got him, giggling and kicking with delight, out of his crib. I wanted to read him bedtime stories and sing him songs every night. I delighted in his expressive face, when he grinned or rolled his eyes or scrunched his nose with mischief. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his rosy, round cheeks, his enormous brown eyes, and his dirty blond hair. He was perfect.

But I couldn’t stand to spend more hours with him.

“Didn’t maternity leave just fly by?” the same coworkers had asked me a year earlier. My reply—”No, my God, every day was an eternity”—killed their sympathetic smiles. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to discuss what it was like to enslave my brain to someone else’s needs. With Sammy, I was no longer a mind—I was torn and aching breasts, tired arms, a hoarse voice, sore legs. I was chained to his schedule: hovering over him when he was awake; wishing he was old enough to play with toys or even just focus on my face; returning home every three hours to keep the agony of breastfeeding to myself; constantly caught up on the laundry because I was so bored and lonely during his short naps.

By the time I was laid off, Sammy was older, but I still felt like I was failing. Each time he was home all day, I had to get him out of the house or he would drive me crazy and I would begin snarling at him. The kid never sat down. He started walking at eleven months and never stopped. So we would go somewhere we could walk, and walk, and walk. When he napped (thank God he napped), I fell into a stupefied sleep as well. On days when I was alone with him, I choked on my own panic. You can’t leave me, I would think as Aaron walked out the door. I’m an only child. You’re an oldest brother. You’re the one who knows what to do with babies.

There were so many fears. Was Sammy eating enough? He’d been born five and a half weeks early. Every milliliter of milk we got into him was hard-won. Now his toddler schedule of three meals and two snacks a day was grueling. How could I offer him different foods and balanced meals each time? I was a bad mother if I didn’t.

Was he sleeping enough? Everyone knows kids never sleep when you want them to. (Never mind that my child is in fact the most reliable sleeper in the world. Don’t hate me—I have no idea how this happened.) What if he suddenly stopped sleeping well? How could I keep nap and bedtime sacred?

Every mother has these fears, my friends told me when I wailed to them. But the stakes felt impossibly high. What was normal? I once had a mother who let us run out of food and kept me awake at night to talk about her problems. All my fears and worries told me that I was a bad mother like she was.

So many parents said that Mother Love made having kids worth it—but they were wrong. When I first experienced those primal, almost preverbal, feelings—Love. Hold. Mine. Protect. Fight! MINE!—I fell off the platform of sanity I had worked so long to build, into a wild, angry ocean. Even as I craved my son, my fears of all I was doing wrong with him triggered my Mother Love to protect him from the biggest threat: me. I knew I would somehow hurt him. With my inability to care for or feed him properly, I might even kill him. I had to leave him to the experts.

Day care was a better parent than I was. Day care fed him without angst. Day care had playmates he could socialize with, and teachers who were more patient and better trained than I was. Day care had structure and rules and activities, and didn’t get anxious about doing things wrong or rotating the toys or cleaning up messy art projects. Day care hadn’t lost a mother to mental illness and suicide, and didn’t have an ex-alcoholic father who lived mostly in his head. Day care didn’t take years to learn to get along with its stepmother, or spend years in therapy to keep its issues from contaminating the kids. Day care was calm and kind and good and never, ever depressed.

More than anything, I was afraid to lose day care. Because if I lost day care, I would have to be a full-time stay-at-home mom. And then I would have to face the reasons I knew—with a cold, insane clarity—that I couldn’t be a good mother.


I was 41. My husband, Sammy, and I were visiting with my cousins from my mother’s side of the family in a rented house on the New Jersey seashore. Over several days, I got the courage to tell them the story of Mama nearly drowning me—and they believed me. Some of them remembered her. All of them knew how private their parents were about the past. They knew that Mama could have done this, and that Anni could have hidden how serious it was. Some of them were not surprised.

One afternoon, most of us went to the beach while Aaron stayed behind. We got to the ocean and Sammy, now a tall, adventurous three-year-old, wanted to go in. With me. He wanted me to hold his hand.

I still didn’t know how to swim.

I still didn’t feel like a great mother.

I still didn’t have a paying job. Instead, I had started writing a memoir.

And yet I was getting somewhere. The day before I had stood waist-deep in the ocean, talking to my oldest cousin Andreas about our family and my mother’s childhood. Andreas was at ease in the water. In the middle of the conversation he watched me bobbing with a smile on my face as a rogue wave reached my chest. He said, “You’re doing quite well for someone who has good reason to be afraid of the water.”

Now here we were on the beach, Sammy and I. The sun warmed our backs and the seagulls coasted right and left above us. The surf pushed and pulled, repelling and coaxing.

“I wanna go in da ocean. C’we go in, Mommy? C’you hold my hand?”

How could I let Sammy trust me? Had my mother been so far gone that she didn’t know she was holding my hand in the water, so desperate to kill herself that she almost took me with her? The same thing could be inside me, waiting to destroy us both.

How could she try again and again to leave me—succeeding in her third suicide attempt after I turned eight—when I had loved her so much?

Or maybe I did understand. Maybe I was doing the same thing to my son by running away from him to protect him from myself—putting him in day care, telling myself that Aaron was the one who was good at raising babies.

I looked into Sammy’s wide brown eyes and chose. I chose life.

“OK, Bud. Hold my hand and don’t go in too deep, OK?”


We walked toward the waves, wobbled a little on the shells. Sammy squealed in delight when the surf tickled his feet.

Despite my fears, I smiled back. I could do this. I could hold his hand. I could keep him safe.

I could be his mother.

Author’s Note: I still have moments when it’s hard to stay engaged with my son and to have faith in my ability to mother him. But over time I am noticing little ways that our relationship is growing stronger: more hugs, more play together, even more confidence in the face of his ordinary rebellions. I am struck by how resilient he is, and by those little moments of wisdom that pop out in the middle of being an ordinary loud, funny, defiant preschooler.

I’m accepting that the important thing as a mom is not to get it right the first time, but to learn from my scars and mistakes. It’s when I recognize that I’m going off track that the healing can begin.

Vera Shanti Giles lives with her husband and three-year-old son in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. She is writing a memoir, Crazy Sane Mama, about overcoming the ordinary and extraordinary anxieties of motherhood—resulting from her mother’s mental illness and suicide—to raise her son with joy and humor.

A Predator In The House

A Predator In The House

computer_2738337bBy Elizabeth Cohen

He was our friend.

We went out to eat, to the movies. We traipsed around our little town together. We talked several times a week on the phone. We texted back and forth about this and that and nothing at all. We laughed about the same things. We were on the same page politically. He hated gossips. He was mad about cuts in social services. He loved Shakespeare. He was appalled by the idea of fracking.

I will call him Tim.

Tim and I did each other favors. When my ceiling sprouted a slow leak in the shape of Australia, Tim came to the rescue with a sander, spackle, drywall and tape. When his car was being fixed, I lent him mine. He housesat for us and fed our cats when we were away. We lent him a little money when he was between jobs. He paid it back. We ate a lot of Chinese food.

When I say “we,” I am talking about my 15-year-old daughter, Ava, and I. Tim was a local drama instructor and Ava took every class he offered. She played the lead roles in plays and short films he directed and learned the nursemaid’s monologue from “Romeo and Juliet,” which she performed with such passion my heart plomp-plomped in my chest and landed somewhere in my throat.

She was nuts about him, asked him for advice and accepted it when he gave it. She thought of him as a father. Her own father is far away and sick, waiting for a heart transplant, and had not given her as much attention in years as Tim did in a single day. Tim played stand in.

Families in our community signed up their daughters for classes he taught in babysitting at the Red Cross. When Ava completed the course, she received an official certificate and a card she could put in her wallet. “I am ready to work now, Mama,” she told me proudly.

Once, I let Tim take her along with another girl for a day in Burlington, Vermont, as a reward for their hard work on a particular play. They went out to eat and to an amusement park.

I want to say here that it wasn’t just Ava and I who loved Tim, it was our whole town. You might say he was considered something of a small town cultural treasure. Like a spring that has healthy and delicious water, we discussed his presence as fortuitous, lucky. We felt sorry for other towns that had nobody like him.

But then came a warning, a text to me from another mother, stating that Tim “wasn’t what he seemed.” She couldn’t tell me the origin of the information or even the details, but it was bad, she said, “really bad.” She was pulling her daughter out of Tim’s acting class and said, “I suggest you do, too.”

I went on the defensive. The unfairness! The audacity! This was the kind of gossip that could destroy lives! With a cadre of a few other moms, I fought back, defending Tim to anyone who would listen.

Then I confronted Tim. Did he know about these rumors? Was he worried or concerned? He shook his head. “Whenever you do good things or are good at something, people get jealous,” he told me. “There’s always a backlash.”

Indeed there is, I thought. History is full of examples of talented, beautiful people taken down by innuendo. And although whispers were flying about Tim, they were vague. I thought of the words of the King James Bible: And withal they learn to be idle, wandering from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.

In the midst of this firestorm, Ava and I packed up suddenly to leave town and travel out west to help care for her father, who had by this time become extremely ill, his sick heart failing. We decided that Ava would attend the high school there and I would help out with his care as best I could, changing out oxygen canisters, shopping, cooking, making glass after glass of fresh veggie juice, hoping that the blood of beets, mixed with apple, ginger and celery might contain just the right curative properties. We knew that time was running out and we were going to make the most of it.

My husband, Shane, and I had lived apart for years, he preferring the west and I employed and active in the east. Now his illness was forcing us all back together. It was a deeply emotional time for our family, which had been limping along for years. We brought minimal belongings and Ava’s cat Carder, of course, her best friend, who seemed skittish and rattled by the long journey. Carder’s mood mirrored our own. We were nervous all the time, wondering what fresh blast of bad news each day would bring. I put Tim and the controversy surrounding him out of my mind.

While Shane and I watched back to back episodes of “Game of Thrones”—a show so violent and brutal it could make you forget, for fifty-minute intervals at least, that you were dying—Ava stayed in her room posting updates on Facebook and occasionally texting Tim with news of her days. He would write back with advice (“love your father as best you can, while you can”; “don’t do drugs”).

By the end of the summer, we had to return home; my job was in jeopardy if we stayed away longer and Shane was being moved to the Mayo Clinic where he would wait for a heart. I charted our course across the country along Route 66. No diversions, no time for exploring or vacation fun. I knew if I stayed on this one straight road I would not get lost and Ava and I could find lodging and food along the interstate. Three highways would bring us home, much of it through flat brown expanses that melded with the horizon like a single seam in a shirt.

The world was changing—I couldn’t help but notice. The chugging oil wells from my childhood vacations, softly yet constantly pumping up crude, had been replaced with wind turbines, silent sentries twirling en masse. But it was in Tennessee, where the flatness broke down into gentle valleys and hills and the pervasive brown melted into green, that our lives would change, in a tectonic way, no less monumental it seemed than the larger world’s shifts.

A text came in with a soft ding as Ava and I walked into a Waffle House. Every town seemed blessed with these small, squat waffle manufactories that promised buttery, crunchy distraction from the miles and eating at one had become a priority for Ava since we had seen the first one somewhere in Texas.

“Maybe they’ll have strawberry or blueberry,” Ava said hopefully as we walked to the counter. “Or chocolate!”

The Waffle House of our choosing, a plain rectangular building that smelled of grease trap and mud-caked boots, the friendly chatter pierced by the buzz of flies, had neither chocolate, strawberry nor blueberry, only plain waffles served in plain rectangles. I placed my phone on the counter and we ordered. Whatever missive was there could wait, I thought, and I had a foreboding feeling about it. Had something happened to Shane? Is this how people find out someone has died?

When we got back into the car, I flipped open the screen to read it.

“Tim arrested,” it read. “Child pornography.”

It was from my friend at home, the other mother, the one who had warned me many months before. Attached was a copy of the FBI report. I clicked and read on.

FBI? Pornography? My tongue, still thick with the taste of bad waffles, throbbed as my brain sizzled with shock.

“What is it?” Ava asked. “Why are we stopping? Is Dad O.K.?”

She pulled Carder to her chest, her practice whenever she was really scared or upset about something.

“Dad’s fine,” I said. “It’s Tim.”

“What about Tim? Is he O.K.?”

“Not really, I said. “He’s been arrested.”

“For what?” she asked.

For what.

I read the report silently to myself. “Read it to me, read me what it says,” she insisted. And then I decided. It was a split-second decision, instinct really. She was fifteen. She was no longer a little kid. And this was something in her life, too. In her life big time. So I read her the affidavit. And as I did I could see her begin to tremble. And then shiver all over. And then I realized, despite the hot August sun pounding down on us on the side of the road, I was shivering, too.

Tim had been caught, red-handed, with a child, and on his phone was an image of the child he had uploaded and traded with other child pornographers in exchange for photos of other children in all sorts of poses, naked, doing unspeakable things. The picture on Tim’s phone was of the child’s vagina in clearly manipulated poses. I realized he had to have touched her in ways no man should ever touch a child. The trembling which became the shivering had become a full scale shaking. The hand holding the phone seemed to be under the influence of a beam of electrical current. My stomach lurched and I felt a sudden desire to throw up as I continued to read aloud.

Tim had an online moniker—I will call it here “TTTREAT”—and using it he had hung around in a chat room of incest aficionados pretending to be this child’s brother. But there had been a sting and he had been caught. As I read I saw Ava sort of cave over Carder, collapse in on her, and then, after several minutes she spoke.

“Mom,” she said, “I have something to tell you.”

I looked at her. She was clicking away on her cell phone, looking for something. Then she found the thing she was looking for. Some months earlier, she told me, she had received texts from a kid at her school, who used the name, I shall say here, “TTNEAT.” And this kid had told her he “had dirt on her,” pictures of her with her first boyfriend. He threatened to upload these pictures on Instagram, send them around via Snapchat and Twitter, perhaps, or maybe write things about her on Facebook if she didn’t send him some pictures of herself. Her reputation and personhood would be destroyed in our small town.

“Mom, I think it might have been from him,” she said, disbelieving. We looked at one another. We could no longer say his name; Tim had become a nameless being, someone whose name could wield evil just by saying it.

“But you didn’t do it…you didn’t do it.. you didn’t do it, you didn’t send…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.

Silence. Shaking hands. More clicking on her phone.

“I did, Mama,” she said, now fully buried in Carder. But the picture she sent wasn’t what he wanted, because in it she was wearing underwear. He became angry. She read me all the texts from “TTNEAT, and as she did, we both began to cry. To cry and shake and cry and bend over, she into her cat and me into the steering wheel. “Oh honey, oh honey,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

“I thought it was some weird kid at my school,” she said.

And then: “I thought you would get mad.”

For a long time we were silent, sitting by the road side. Then my hand crept toward hers, and hers toward mine. And we just sat there, off I-66, in the shadow of the Waffle House, our hands entwined in the horror of the deception. In the sadness of what had come between us and no doubt scared her beyond speech, beyond telling. And now had become even more horrible. The lie that had revealed the truth.

“I love you,” I whispered, “and nothing you ever do will ever change that.”

“I love you, too, Mama,” she said.


A month later I sat, shaking again, in a chair at the office of the local FBI agents in my town, facing two grown men in suits.

“Grooming is what predators do,” the lead agent on Tim’s case was telling me. “They take their time, moving slowly into your life to achieve your trust. They will wait a long time to get what they want.”

It was so hard to grasp, that Tim wasn’t really our friend at all. He wasn’t a drama teacher or a certifier of babysitters at the Red Cross. He wasn’t a man who took care of cats, fixed ceiling leaks, ate Chinese food. That was all a mirage, a ghost image of who he really was. He was a shapeshifter. A thief of images of children, a seller of innocence. And he was the thief of my daughter’s heart. In the aftermath of his arrest, Ava retreated into a silence so deafening I could hear it beat. It had a pulse, like another living thing in our house. This silence.

If the FBI were right, and I had to gather they were—though there was a small part of me that still wanted to protest, “You have the wrong man!”—Tim had been after my daughter. Mine and everyone else’s. And we single mothers, or women without our daughter’s fathers in our homes, were his chief hunting grounds. He saw us as vulnerable, demilitarized countries where his evil intentions could go unchecked. And he was right. We were vulnerable. I was. I had made him chicken dinners with homemade mashed potatoes—lumpy, with extra garlic, the way he liked them.

The things he did shocked and appalled our whole community. We were all damaged. In early September, one month after his arrest, we had a parent’s meeting in the tall grass behind the Unitarian Church in our town, where we compared notes and talked about what had happened. A few people cried. Everyone seemed horrified. And once we compared and contrasted our myriad “Tims,” we came to see, in the light of day, with cicadas buzzing and a breeze tapping about the tree branches, that Tim was not Tim. And somehow, we were not us anymore. We were a different us. A stained and wiser us.

As for Ava, she seemed to harden somehow, as if the soft candy in the double boiler of her childhood had been removed from heat and was stiffening. One day, I noticed she had moved her American Girl Dolls outside her room. They lay side by side in their homemade beds, the covers pulled up to their chins. I stopped in my tracks. She was fifteen after all, it was probably time. But the way they lay there, their glass eyes staring at the ceiling, arms by their sides, seemed to make a statement about the exile of innocence.

My grief and shock slowly transformed into rage and guilt. How had I let this happen? What had made me trust Tim and even defend him when the rumors began to emerge? Was I also guilty here? I thought about the way he had tiptoed into our lives. A class party, a trip to the local pool, activities for kids in his drama program, a “premiere” at a real theater for the homemade films from his film class. He had been so nice and caring and after years of single motherhood and a husband who remained far away by choice, whose health was collapsing, I was hungry for it. I realized I carried some responsibility here as well. I had wanted our little family to have support, to have another leg. That leg, in the end, was not a leg. It was a hand holding a camera, waiting to snap pictures.


Postscript: Today, Tim awaits sentencing at a Federal prison in New York State. He faces eleven counts of the production of child pornography and one count of possession of child pornography. The texts he sent to Ava, using blackmail to get her to send more images, may become an additional charge. For each charge he faces up to ten years.

Elizabeth Cohen is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of the memoir The Family on Beartown Road and the short story collection The Hypothetical Girl, among other books.







Idle Threats

Idle Threats

WO Idle Threats ArtBy Lorri Barrier

My daughter is difficult.  I don’t say this to her, but I feel the weight of it as I bend to pick up the contents of my purse, which she just dumped on the floor. She asked to use my iPod, and when I said no, her anger attacked quickly and sharply, like a coiled snake.  I look into her eyes as she stands over me, little blue springs wound tightly, too tightly.  “That’s it,” I say calmly.  “You can’t go to the sleepover tomorrow.” She struts off to her room and yells back at me, “I will go tomorrow! I will!”

This is a familiar path for us, and I dislike walking it.  It is not my nature to be heavy-handed, yet my seven-year-old daughter demands it of me. The hours between this evening and tomorrow evening will be an emotional bundle of push and pull.  I know without question that her will is stronger–I have always preferred a Zen approach to life, but she insists on pushing me out of my comfort zone again and again.

She begins the following day asking if she can go to her friend’s house that night after all.  I remind her that I told her no, remind her that she yelled at me the day before and dumped out my purse.  She smiles as if this is funny.  “I know you will let me go, Mommy,” she says with certainty.  “You’ve forgiven me before.”

By midday, I’m worn thin. I’m beginning to second-guess myself, thinking that perhaps the punishment is too harsh for the crime.  I actually want nothing more than for her to just go to the sleepover and give me some peace. But if I relent now, my word is worth nothing. Even though the weather has been terrible lately, I think it will be best for us both to get out of the house.

She walks beside me quickly, past the barn, through the old gate, down the hill toward the creek.  It is the first clear day we’ve had in nearly a week.  The fields are saturated and sloshy.  My daughter and I both stop and stare, gaping at the swollen creek. “If you don’t let me go, I’ll jump in!” my daughter blurts.

A breeze lifts my hair. There’s a hint of spring in the February chill.  The sunlight glints off the water and I have to squint.

“I mean it,” she says again and looks at me sideways, her arms crossed.

I stand still, unsure of what to do.  I don’t think she understands the gravity of what she’s saying.  I know she wants to say the worst thing.  The thing that will make me change my mind. I look down into the water, the color of rust at its deepest.  Usually, this is an easy crossing.  Hop one, two, three on large rocks and we’re on the other side. Today, the crossing rocks are nowhere to be found; water spills over the banks and into the pasture. What was a pleasant waterfall, a hidden fairy place, is transformed into a  torrent.

“It looks deep,” I say to her, as calmly as I can muster.  “It’s been raining a long time.”  I am deliberately motionless–she is a skittish animal, and I don’t want to frighten her toward her threat.  I worry that one wrong move from me and in she goes.  Her arms remain crossed.  Her body stiff. “It’s probably cold,” I add, wishing I’d brought a jacket.  We stand in silence a few more moments, neither of us moving.  My daughter is pouting, but she doesn’t lunge forward. Finally, I shrug and walk up the hill away from her.

It takes tremendous effort to turn my back on her,  even though I am angry. I am reasonably sure she will not jump, as much as I’m sure the squishy earth really is solid beneath my feet.  Still, I am her mother.  As I walk, I imagine I hear the splash of her body and her muffled cry against the rush of water.  I see myself running, getting there just in time to pull her soaking and coughing from the creek.  I also imagine getting there too late, and the horror of pulling her lifeless body from the twisting current. I have to look back.

She’s still there at the edge, now squatting, turning over muddy stones and throwing them in.  I sit down at the top of the hill and tell myself she lost privileges for bad behavior. I can’t give in. It was her choice, and now the consequences are in motion.  Even if those consequences are deeply unpleasant for me as well.   There will be other sleepovers.  There will be other good times.

My son has come outside, he trudged toward her. He’s only slightly taller than she is, though he is two years older. He yells up at me, “Mama!  She’s going to jump in!”  I shrug my shoulders, feigning indifference. I lie back in the wet grass, exhausted from the drama.

“Mama!”  He yells again.  “She’s putting in her feet!”  I hear her squeal and laugh, yes, it’s cold.  I close my eyes and breathe deeply, feeling a bit of tension release.  Soon, I hear both of them running up and down, rocks splashing against water, happy sounds.  Sounds of forgetting, sounds of being present in the moment, the way only children can be.

When my daughter was a toddler, we uncurled her angry little balled fists and said, “Hands are not for hitting.”  We thought it would just take time, but we were still doing it when she was three and four.   At five, she kicked her door so hard during a tantrum the knob went through the drywall. I covered the yawning hole with a collage of family pictures–smiling faces masking the evidence of her anger.  Her oldest brother nicknamed her “Tiny Terror,” though she’s not so tiny anymore.

Years of dance have made her solid and muscular.  Years of defiance have made her iron.  I remember the spring she had strep throat just a few days before her dance recital.  I took her to the doctor, and he asked me if she’d take pills or a shot.  “Give me the shot in my leg,” she said, answering for herself.  She barely flinched, and then danced a day later on a bruised leg I knew then (if I hadn’t known before) that she was made of something far different from what is at my core.  She has always been a tornado, a lightning bolt, a surging storm.  She summons her powers easily, without hesitation.  And this isn’t the first time I’ve thought, guiltily, that if she’d been my first, she’d be my only.

I tell myself that her temper will serve her well, if she can only learn to reign it in a bit. She is everything I want to be when I need to stand up, speak my mind, and not back down.  But not now, I think. Dammit, not now.  I want to tell her to save it, save this passion, for when she needs it.  Save it for when it matters.

I sit up, my back damp from the grass.  They have moved from the creek’s edge to a copse of trees.  They are busy in play, jumping, laughing, enjoying the day

“I have to go home,”  I yell to them. “I’m cold.”

“Awww” they say in unison, but run toward me, red-faced and out of breath.  She is carrying her wet, glittery pink shoes in her hands, barefoot in winter.

Barely a minute passes before she asks, “So, can I go now?  I’ve been good!”  I have to laugh to keep from crying.

Later that night, she makes a bed on the floor of her brothers’ room.  I sit reading in the quiet, and unbidden, the tears come. Great wracking sobs of release.  I wake her, or perhaps she wasn’t asleep.

“Mama, why are you crying?” she asks in earnest.  I am sobbing too hard to answer.  She climbs onto my lap and drapes her arms around me.  “You are a good mommy,” she says.  I hear her, but I don’t believe it.  I am plagued by thoughts of what I could have done differently years ago.  This is the psychic work of mothers: try to make sense of things, navigate through the mistakes, create a better reality. I want a rewind button, a replay view.  I want to analyze everything from the day she was born to the present, and see where I first went wrong.

I wonder what memories she will retain of these troubled times, these angry outbursts and the outrageous pageantry surrounding them.  What images will be painted inside her of who I am, and what we are together?  I think of the images now embedded in my psyche: the rushing water, her blue, glaring eyes, the chilly breeze tangling her dark blonde hair, her stiff body poised to jump, the moment I turned and walked away, trusting nothing but my instincts that it would not end badly.  I sigh and hold her close, letting her fall asleep on me like an infant, chest to chest, her heart in sync with mine.

Lorri Barrier lives with her husband and three children in Mt. Pleasant, NC.  She teaches at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC.  Her previous essays for Brain, Child include “Faithfully,”  “The F-word,” and “Unplugged.” 

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“I’m Angry at You!”

“I’m Angry at You!”

By Sue Sanders

WO I'm angry Art v2I lugged the laundry basket filled with freshly washed and haphazardly folded clothes into Lizzie’s room and dropped it on her aqua shag rug. Lizzie was sprawled on her bed, absorbed in a book. A mountain of clean clothes was piled on her desk, where they’d been sitting for the last few days.

“I’d like you to put away all your clothes any time before dinner. And when you’re done, please bring the basket downstairs. I need it,” I said. Lizzie’s room, a Bermuda Triangle for laundry baskets, was starting to resemble a rummage sale.

She put down her book and glared at me as though I’d demanded she drown a litter of kittens.

“I’m angry at you!” she spit out.

“Sweetie, it’s fine to be angry with me. I’m glad you’re telling me,” I said evenly as I left her room.


I’m happy Lizzie feels comfortable telling me she’s irritated. Lately, though, these bursts have been occurring more frequently, almost as if they’re volcanic rumblings, to prepare me for the temperamental eruptions of an older teen. When Lizzie is furious, most of the time I smile and calmly tell her she’s going to be mad at me a lot during the next few years—I’ll love her no matter how she feels. Then I ignore the sighs of exasperation and say something like, “That’s my job: to annoy you as much as possible. . . .

“I’m getting pretty good at it, huh?” I add.


Young teens can be emotional vortexes. I try not to get sucked into the drama. Sometimes Lizzie states her sentiments clearly and other times Albert Einstein couldn’t figure her out. It would be much easier if she were just expressing the usual teenage anger, but with her it’s more complicated. Her biological father and I split when she was three. Jeff came into our lives when she was four. I think a subconscious part of her may still worry about how she fits in to our family—if she gets too angry at me, would I choose Jeff over her? Of course the rational part of her knows this is nonsense, but, like everyone, she’s got bits of her past lodged in her psyche. And I’m sure, locked away in some small cells of her temporal lobe, she’s got to feel some residual rejection from her biological father disappearing from her life when she was so young. We do talk about these things, but although she denies they’re issues for her, I can’t help worrying.

Reading Lizzie is like tearing into a book on astrophysics. I may be able read the words on the page, but I have absolutely no idea what they mean. This is when I have to whisk out my supersecret decoder ring so I can decipher what she’s really saying. What seems on the surface to be normal conversation often has a very different meaning. And at times my words need interpreting, too.

Here’s a translation of a recent conversation Lizzie and I recently had one day after school in our dining room. I was sitting at the table, working on my laptop, and Lizzie had just brought in a snack of milk and tandoori naan from the kitchen.

We said… We meant…
(looks up from computer)Hi, sweetie. How was your day?
Lizzie:(looks down at plate, not smiling, not frowning)“It was good.” “It was not especially good.”
Lizzie:(takes bite of Indian bread and chews, staring into distance)
Mom:”Oh?” “I’d love to hear more. I know that you’re not telling all.”
Lizzie:”Yeah, I didn’t do such a great job on my English essay.” “I’m not happy with it and I suspect you will be even less so.”
Mom:”As long as you’re taking your time and not rushing. Did you understand what you could do differently next time?” “Will she get into college or will she end up working the counter at McDonald’s?
Mom:(his SAVE on laptop and closes it, deciding to ask about an incident that occurred that previous week)“Hey, how was Jill today?” “Was Jill as mean as she was on Friday? I dislike her very, very much.”
Lizzie:(takes a slug of milk before answering)“She’s okay.” “She’s a jerk. But I don’t want to say that because I’m not mean like she is.”
Mom:(quiet, trying to decide exactly what to say)
Lizzie:(smiles, eyes sparkling)“Lunch was good. I sat with Eleanor today. She’s nice.” “Lunch was the best! Eleanor is great!”
Mom:(grins)“Sounds good!” “It does sound good. I’m relieved that awful child is no longer a ‘friend.’ For now.”


The word okay, though short, is long on meanings that I try to translate based on context and inflection. If Lizzie says something is okay, most of the time I know that it’s really not and I don’t want to let it stand. I want to call her on it, but in a way that will allow her to save face. So when she says something like “Jill’s okay,” her father or I might ask: “Is she okay or ‘just okay’?” When Lizzie admits someone is “just okay,” we know they usually aren’t. We keep talking, keep translating her feelings, and let her know that anything she feels is okay and not “just okay.”

Recently, Lizzie became furious at me for no reason I could fathom. We’d been sitting on the sofa one rainy Saturday afternoon, each reading a magazine that had arrived in that day’s mail about a half hour earlier. She had an issue of New Moon and I had one of New York. I could feel the atmosphere in the living room suddenly shift, as if a cold front had arrived unexpectedly. Usually there’s a chore to trigger a mood—a bathroom to scrub, a dog to walk, rules to uphold.

“I’m angry at you!” she shouted, and marched into her room, slamming her door and leaving me mystified. Unfortunately, her room has two doors, one of which is connected to my office and which happened to remain ajar. When I went into my office, I peered into her room through the open door. Lizzie was sitting on her bed, fuming, tapping angrily on her iPod’s tiny keyboard.

“Sweetie, slamming the door doesn’t have quite as dramatic an effect when the other one stays opened,” I said evenly. I smiled, determined to lighten the situation. I wanted to give her an out, if she desired one. Lizzie looked as though she wished I’d be teletransported to Jupiter, and then she appeared to do a quick mental calculation. She tried to force herself to look angry and failed. She laughed. One crisis diverted. Seven more teenage years’ worth to go.


I was an angry kid. When I was a child, we didn’t really discuss our feelings. Instead, my anger built up like a pressure cooker, ready to explode. I think there was a real fear to get emotionally honest in my family. Anger was perceived as messy and something that couldn’t be controlled. And my dad loved control. My theory is that it goes back to his childhood. My dad was four and lived on an army base in New York when his father was killed in the Netherlands during World War II. His father’s death upended his life. His mother became a distant presence, unable to cope with three young children. My father, who was not a difficult child, was sent away to boarding school, in effect to deal with his sense of loss on his own. It’s not unexpected, then, that my dad doesn’t like surprises. He has spent his entire adult life trying to plan for everything. Dinner menus decided weeks in advance; mealtimes like clockwork. And real emotion expressed honestly? Forget it—because who knew where real emotions and unchecked anger could lead?

By the time my teenage years rolled around, my parents and I hadn’t talked, genuinely, probably ever. And I’d built up an emotional Kevlar vest.

I could be, to put it mildly, difficult. I was not a cuddly teen, all rainbows and ribbons, floating around in a cloud of Love’s Baby Soft. I was black concert shirts and tight Calvin Klein jeans, moving about in a cloud of marijuana smoke.

“You’re a piece of work!” my dad yelled after I’d challenged yet another rule. Ping. His shouts hit the vest and ricocheted right back.

We’d been slowly retreating into our corners for years, and when I finally came out of mine, I came out swinging.

“Fuck you both!” I screamed at my parents.

But what a defiant kid says and what he or she means are two different things. I wish my parents had been able to interpret my angry words for what they were—the words of an adolescent who wanted independence but was frightened by it (and pretty much everything else). Because what a furious teenager wants more than anything is to be understood and to be told, “I’ll love you no matter what. I know you’re testing limits, and you can try all you want, but if you break our rules, there are consequences.”

Even if the parent has to lie and force these words out, even if he or she is really thinking, Who the hell is this child? I hate her.

And if the kid says, “Fuck you! I hate you!” she really means, “Yes, I am filled with animosity, but I actually love you even if I don’t and can’t show it right now. I’m trying to assert my independence, and you’re throwing a big wet blanket on my parade.” I wish I could time travel and hand my parents a teen/parent phrase book (or, more likely, throw it at them)—so they could translate what I was saying and what I really meant.


It’s no surprise that as an adult, I also have some unresolved anger. I try to deflect it with humor instead of sending it in a lightning bolt of words toward my husband, but I’m not always successful. I sometimes feel the steam building in that old pressure cooker and still have trouble finding the release valve to let some of it escape. I don’t want Lizzie to have the same frustrations, so I talk to her about emotions, letting her know it’s okay not only to be angry but also to express it. Some family traditions shouldn’t be handed down.

This is excerpted from Sue Sanders’ new book, Mom, I’m Not A Kid Anymore. Sanders’ essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brain, Child, the New York Times, Real Simple, the Rumpus, the Oregonian, the Seattle Times, The Morning News, Salon and others.

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