The Day My Daughter Became a Woman

The Day My Daughter Became a Woman

By Beverly Willett

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The moment it struck me that my daughter had gone from childhood to womanhood.

 

According to my mother, I transitioned from child to woman when I turned 12, the day I started my period.

“You’re a woman now,” she said, explaining that my ability to conceive conferred this new designation on me. With this induction into womanhood, she told me that I now had the potential to create another human being inside myself, to this day the most mind-boggling mystery I know. And yet everyone I knew referred to the monthly inconvenience that went along with being a woman as “the curse.” That hardly made me feel like a woman. But I don’t recall an “aha” moment either when I realized I’d actually become one.

When my own daughters reached puberty I didn’t think about all this in the same way my mother had. We had the sex talk, of course. Thankfully, by then there were feminine products that made the monthly event feel like less of a curse, although I never referred to it like that in front of my daughters. At that age, in my mind my girls were also definitely still kids.

To my complete surprise, years later I had an actual “aha” moment with my youngest. It had nothing to do with her having reached a physical milestone. But at the moment it occurred I suddenly felt certain that I’d just witnessed her crossing over into womanhood.

She’d called from college last winter to tell me that she’d been chosen for the lead in the spring drama. To say that we were both blown away by her good news would be putting it mildly. I’d seen her tackle meaty roles in high school. But her portrayal of Martha in Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour would be her most challenging yet. And she was following in the steps of her older sister who coincidentally had been cast in the same role in high school!

The story is one of two young women who run a girls’ boarding school which is closed down after one of their charges starts a rumor the two are lesbian lovers. The gossip isn’t true, but the lies nonetheless destroy lives and careers. The play opened on Broadway in 1934, and was subsequently banned in several major cities. In 2011, it had a revival in London’s West End starring Keira Knightly.

Excited to see my daughter on stage again, I bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel room.

A few days before leaving, I found an article online about the run. In the accompanying photo, my daughter appeared full-figured in a below-the-knee matronly dress, her usually long flowing hair swept off her face in a tidy demure updo. The physical transformation was so startling that one of my friends didn’t recognize her. I like to think I’d have known my daughter anywhere, but even I can’t be sure if I hadn’t known it was her when I’d first glanced. The female in print bore scant resemblance to the one who’d slept amid a pile of clothes for a dozen or more hours at a stretch over winter break.

But nothing prepared me for my encounter with “Martha” in the flesh.

After my plane landed, I checked into my B&B, grabbed a quick bite, and headed to the theater. I took a seat several rows back in order to avoid catching my daughter’s eye. My heart skipped when she made her entrance. She was poised and polished, as always, and in command. Some people find the play dated, but to me it was riveting to the end, the themes still fresh – the betrayals and heartaches, the struggle of building a dream only to watch it fall apart, the shock of forbidden love to every character in the cast.

The play crescendos when Martha finally confesses her romantic feelings for her best friend, feelings Martha only begins to identify after the lies have been unleashed. I watched the fright and overpowering nature of this realization start to dawn in Martha’s consciousness, spreading over my daughter’s face and body as they stirred in her soul. And as her tears began to gently flow on stage, so did mine.

By now you’re probably wondering whether this was the moment my daughter realized she was lesbian. But no, that’s not it. I already knew she wasn’t but, under the circumstances, of course I felt compelled to ask again. “No, Mom,” she said, as we shared a moment about our preference for the male species.

“You can tell me anything but lies,” I had assured her many times during high school, and again when she went to college. Indeed, my daughter had witnessed the crippling power of betrayal in my own life when I discovered my ex-husband’s affair. I only wanted honesty between us no matter what the subject. And indeed, after giving her the go-ahead, my daughter has told me things I wasn’t always happy to hear. But the unloading was usually a relief and undoubtedly brought us closer.

As I sat in the theater a few months ago, viewing my daughter through the lens of the imaginary character she was portraying, I no longer saw the child she’d once been. Instead, I saw and heard the woman my daughter had become, a person of empathy who so understood the power of truth deep within her own soul that she could convey the real life beating of the heart of another, even an imaginary character, as only a woman who possessed compassion could so convincingly do. And that was the moment it struck me that my daughter had gone from childhood to womanhood. That I had been there to witness it, in all its splendor and glory. And could be proud of the woman my daughter had become.

Beverly Willett recently moved to Savannah, GA. from Brooklyn. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Prevention, Family Circle, Newsweek and The Mid; visit her at www.beverlywillett.com and on Twitter @BeverlyWillett.

Photo: Ludovic Gauthier

What No One Ever Told you

What No One Ever Told you

Little Playing with House

Rebecca L’Bahy

Sometimes you feel a rage build up in you and it is only 7 a.m. You are feeding the dogs, the cats, making waffles, making coffee, making lunches, barking orders: Brush your teeth. Brush your hair. Get your shoes. Get your backpack. We’re late, we’re late, we’re late. You are so close to what you have been waiting for – three kids in school full-time. Your own brain-space. You sit and stare at a wall. There is a bird in your throat, a rock in your ribs. You avoid the kitchen. Sometimes the whole house. Drive around in your mini-van unsure where to go or what to do. Something is missing from your day. From your life. You should, you should…but you don’t. Then 2:30 comes too soon and your six-year-old wants to play house. How about a board game, you suggest. With a board game there is no pretending, there is a beginning and an end. She starts to cry. She wants to play house. Why won’t you ever play house? You yell something at her, something mean. She cries harder. You are her first love and you have broken her heart so you let her: the Disney channel, candy, salamanders in the living room. In the quiet, guilt. Look at her! Do you even see her? How she watches TV upside down in a headstand, her hair spilling out on the couch, her arms vulnerable as spindly tree branches? It isn’t until later, after the final push through dinner, and clean up, and the bedtime routine, after you collapse exhausted into her bed to cuddle that you see her: that hair, those arms, her tiny baby teeth. You were there when they came in. You were there when she chipped one on the driveway, and you will be there when they fall out one by one. You have always been there, even while you were thinking What if.

Return to the October 2015 Issue

The Photograph

The Photograph

SEPT 15 The photograph ART

By Maura Snell

Hey, you, in your tutu,

tulle-decked and plump

with the pots of geraniums

leaf-licked and blooming about you.

Hey, you, there, squat on the cement step,

fingers wrapped in fists, bare toes wiggling,

where did you go little girl?

You surged, opening

the way a new bud might

when placed in water and sunlight

in a fast-frame unfurling.

Will you remember me when I’m dust?

I can feel how the concrete must have made

your bare skin itch, the leotard, thin

against your tiny bottom pressed down

into rough cement,

already a eulogy.

You’ve disappeared into gawk and glasses.

But sometimes, when you’re not looking,

I squint at you and can still see in your profile

that baby girl,

gazing up at me as she squats

among the geraniums.

***

photograph: Werner Images

Return to the September 2015 Issue

Movie Night

Movie Night

By Natalie Singer-Velush

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The movie begins lovely. Somewhere in rural Japan an aging bamboo cutter is working in the forest. Toward the end of the day, the setting sun is spilling, golden-peach, through the bamboo stalks. The sky beyond the grove moves from this peach to honey, to amber, to a sustained pause of breath quickly cooling. In a small clearing, a bamboo shoot pushes up through the earth. From inside, a silver glow. The man peers into the bamboo flower; there lies a tiny sleeping girl, watercolored. Startled, he falls in love. The cutter cups the girl in his palm. He will take her home to his wife, where they will raise her joyfully as their own. As they watch this animated story, my daughters’ faces are open moons.

*   *   *

When I was 10, I loved a book in which the protagonist, a girl on the cusp of moving beyond girlhood, like I was, loved the colors aquamarine, lime and purple. She loved the colors in combination, how, in concert, they satisfied an unnamed need she had to see things a certain pleasing way. Many changes were happening to the girl, things which, out of fear of the unknown, I couldn’t think about directly. But I could hold that wheel of colors in my mind, and I searched relentlessly for a triple-color combination of my own, some crafted palette that could pass as guidance.

*   *   *

The day we watched the movie I overheard my youngest daughter say: If you sat on a cloud and looked through the cloud like glass, you could see. See what, I wondered, knowing as soon as I did that what she meant was everything.

*   *   *

The bamboo girl blossoms under the care of the old couple. She grows quickly, peculiarly so, and in the permissive air of the country she begins to run with the band of nearby children. She laughs; she runs and runs. She whispers to bugs. The blades of grass shift in the summer breezes, paintbrushed in diffuse light, pale greens and lemon. The earth’s dirt a crumbling cake of dried red and copper under the girl’s bare, pinwheeling feet. The air, infused with sweet melon, echoes the chorus of dragonfly wings. She even finds a boy to love. All is as it should be. Until, one day, the father finds a pile of gold glowing in a stalk of bamboo, offered to him in the same way the tiny girl was. He becomes convinced that heaven has shined down on the family, that the girl is truly a princess and must be raised in a mansion in the city, as a noble. The parents shower the bamboo girl with mountains of precious fabrics and silks and take her off to a new life, where she is trained in the ways of docile, obedient, inert princesses. The luminosity leaves her face. A string of wealthy princes come courting, determined to possess her as their own. The girl’s father, enamored with this life of riches, becomes greedy for a lucrative marriage and pushes his daughter to give herself away.

*   *   *

This is where the shouting at the TV begins. Don’t do it, we urge her, we order. Run away! Find the boy you loved from the country. Follow your desires, resist! All of us, the 8- and 10-year-old girls and me, plus my own 10-year-old self, are on the edge of the couch.

*   *   *

When I was young I had an imaginary life at night, after I was tucked in to sleep. My bed became a floating boat on a distant sea, and I rode the sea wherever it took me with a crew of stuffed animals, a white polar bear with a heart around its neck, a nervous gray donkey, a celadon bunny. There were dangers out there, to be sure, but I had jurisdiction over the boat and its destinations: While I sailed, I could do anything I pleased. It was a shame I had to be the only person on board, I might have thought from beneath the sheets (or not), but that was the cost of my freedom.

*   *   *

Can I stay with you forever, my daughter once asked me. I answered yes, yes.

*   *   *

I had checked the rating of the film ahead of time—PG on a trusted website with the emotional limits of children in mind. But there was no warning that the little bamboo girl who became a noble princess would be forced back to the place from which, it turns out, she first came: the moon. That the wealthy princes would all be frauds (yes of course) but that the good boy from the country, in the bamboo girl’s absence—during her time spent bending to the will of others—would marry someone else. That, in the end, there was no way for her to undo the knot of things, to go in reverse. That she would be forced to drift away from the impossible world on a cloud, the memory of her girl life erased, the future an approaching blank sphere.

*   *   *

I tuck my girls in, faces pale, their soft bodies long, brows furrowed. I kiss their cheeks, which smell of pink cherry blossoms. We have talked about the “lesson” of the movie—rich does not make you happy, we work it through and all decide.

What we don’t say is what else: How fast the moon arches across the windowpane. How unready we are.

Natalie Singer-Velush is mother to two daughters and the editor of a Seattle-based parenting magazine. She is also experiencing an acute case of “feeling old” as she returns to school to earn her MFA in creative writing and poetics alongside a bunch of idealistic twentysomethings, none of whom have children. Natalie keeps herself as young as possible with endless cups of coffee and red velvet cupcakes. You can find her on Twitter @Natalie_Writes.

Photo: Jason Ortego

Miles to Go

Miles to Go

Version 3By Priscilla Whitley

It was a late July morning as we drove up Route 22 on our way to Great Barrington Massachusetts. In the front seat next to me my sixteen-year-old daughter, her shoulders slumped as usual, was characteristically silent. The summer sun made the black car hot and I reached over to turn up the air conditioning. We’d made this trip many times each year, in every season, though this time it was different.

“Too cold for you now? Let me know, we just may have to keep turning it up and down until we get there. Want to be in charge of that?” I knew my chatting wouldn’t make a difference but I had to try.

“I’m fine.” She turned slightly toward the window, her long blond hair falling softly down her back. It was all I could do not to reach over to give her a gentle stroke. But my touch seemed to be unwanted these days.

For me the trip to visit this college seemed a waste of time. She hadn’t entered her senior year and her interest in school had vanished. I’d already made up my mind she wasn’t going here, but these days I grabbed any opportunity to be in proximity to her. And so I agreed to make the trip.

It was only the two of us at home, she being my long awaited one and only. Her father and I had separated three years previously. I thought we could settle into a new routine, even envisioning the coming years would make us a true team. Though with her father rarely coming around she didn’t trust him and it was easier to blame me for his leaving. School wasn’t a place she wanted to be for it didn’t hold the answers as to why her life had gone through such painful changes, and only a few friends understood the losses which came quickly these past three years.

We continued our drive in silence. Up by Thunder Ridge where she first learned how to ski, zipping down the hill in an exaggerated snowplow, her little arms outstretched, “Look at me, look at me.” Through Pawling where the boarded up dirty red brick buildings used to house a school for delinquent youths. As a little girl she’d stare at the overgrown grounds, her pretty hazel eyes serious, “Mommy, I promise I’ll never do anything bad to be sent to a place like that.” Then past the intersection where we pulled off on another hot summer day while she threw up on the side of the road and I stroked her back as she cried. After that we’d always point and laugh as we drove by. Now nothing.

The Berkshires, Great Barrington, Stockbridge, Lenox were special to us.  When we were all together we spent one glorious summer at a small cottage on Stockbridge Bowl. A place of my own childhood. I’d take her out in the rowboat to the island, filling her imagination with stories of pirate treasure, her little hands splashing in the wake. As she became more confident of herself in the water we’d swim to the dock where I taught her how to dive, chin tightly to her neck, arms pointed neatly down.

On the lush lawns of Tanglewood Music Center she perfected her cartwheels eventually falling asleep on my chest as the music played on into the night. Everywhere I went she also wanted to be. To the library for books, lemonade on the porch of The Red Lion Inn and lazy afternoons together in the hammock.

Like most mothers I’d read the countless articles on the volatile teenage years and heard the endless discussions of the vanishing self-worth of girls, though I still hadn’t expected it would be this way now. I tried hard to look back to when I was a teen, but those seemingly long, confusing years were so wrapped up in all about me I couldn’t find any perspective. My sweet little girl, the one who used to twirl around the house, sit on my knee, take my hand, now sat gazing silently out the window.

“Horses, look horses!” I said, breaking the silence and slowing the car. Our silly joke since she was little, shouting it out as if we’d never seen one before. After making the turn through Millerton we’d see them in the rolling pastures, their graceful necks reaching down for some grass. Horses were a love we always shared. I think I saw her eyes move slightly to take them in, then withdraw again.

Two summers ago after a night of thunderstorms a fire destroyed the barn where she’d ridden since she was seven. All 31 horses were lost. The pony she’d begun her lessons on, the stunning dark chestnut who’d taken her over her first jump and the horse her father had recently bought her after he and I divorced.

Donner, with his white blaze and dark eyes followed her every move, giving the unconditional love she must have felt she lost with the breakup of our home. At fourteen the barn was her anchor, her community, the one place she felt safe and truly loved. By morning nothing was left but memories and a sad little girl who now had no footing in a swiftly lost childhood. The fire had taken these beautiful animals and her innocence along with it. And neither one of us knew where to begin again. It was as if I stood on one small deserted island desperately trying to keep her in sight as she, on another in the distance, sat weeping by herself in the sand.

I’d thought I could protect my child. As I put on the fake merry smile, not having any idea really how to make this better, she through those past years slipped into the quiet of her own thoughts. I wasn’t allowed in.

We made the turn at Lakeville gliding down the hill into Salisbury where in the past we’d always stop at the White Hart Inn.

“Thirsty, thirsty, thirsty.” Her little girl voice would say it over and over again knowing how it made me laugh. Back then we’d sit on the high stools at the dark wooden bar while she sipped a ginger ale topped with a bright red maraschino cherry, her little legs swaying back and forth.

To my surprise the Inn was shuttered.

“Oh, no, what a shame, our favorite place. Shall we stop at the deli? Thirsty, thirsty?” Another silly phrase we never seemed able to give up.

“No thank you.” Her back still to me. “I just want to get there.” So we started up Under Mountain Road towards South Egermont.

Cleaning up her room one morning the previous year I’d come across some books she’d tucked under her pillow. Books about loss. At first this worried me thinking it would only reinforce her own losses. Quietly though within her own time she had been processing, like we all must do, how to integrate her past with her future. Now last week, as she headed towards her senior year in high school, she wandered out on our deck one evening and unexpectedly said she had something she wanted to discuss.

She looked so tall standing over my lounge chair, startling me as I stared out to our lake, the water smooth, the swans gliding in the dusk. “I made a call,” she said quietly. “And made an appointment for an interview at Simon’s Rock. It’s next week. Please, please don’t be mad, I want to go and see it.”

Bard College at Simon’s Rocks in Great Barrington is a college for those who haven’t finished high school. A neighbor’s child attended though at this point I knew nothing more.

“No,” I got up and started for the house surprised with the harshness of my voice. “You’re not going there.”

“Please go with me and see.” She reached out softly for my arm and I turned to see she wasn’t a little child anymore begging for what she wanted.

“I have to think about it.” The idea scared me and her courage stunned me. How could I say no when for the first time in so long she wanted to try? I pulled her close not able to say anything. Or did I not want her to see me cry?

We turned onto Route 7 into Great Barrington passing Searles Castle then up the steep Alford Road coming out of the thick forest to a view of a plush valley below. For the first time in our two hour trip she looked over to me. “Here it is.”

We’d arrived at this small college campus, an inviting New England red barn on our left, then a turn onto a meandering drive over a small creek. Up the hill we found the Tudor style administrative office. I parked and without me asking she combed her hair, smoothed her dress and together we went in. I walked behind her amazed at how my child, so filled with sadness, now confidently put out her hand to introduce herself.

This small liberal arts college accepts students who have finished the 10th or 11th grade.  A place for those who are ready for college now. But she wasn’t ready. At home she stubbornly turned away from school and could barely get herself to class. I could only see this as an escape from me, her father and her memories?

I waited for an hour, maybe more, wandering outside then back again only to go out into the bright sunlight once more. This was her idea, not mine, and I wasn’t about to let her leave home yet. Now I wished we had never come here today. Finally the door opened and she reappeared with a bright smile I’d almost forgotten was possible.

“Mommy, let’s walk around…please.”

Together we toured the campus, saw the dorms, the classrooms and went into the library.

“This is where everyone ends up, our idea of a student union,” our guide pointed out.  Though there were the stacks of books, there were also sofas, cozy floor pillows and long windows allowing in the bright sunlight. For a moment I could see her here among the books, eager for exciting new experiences again like the girl she used to be. But, oh, was she ready?

We drove back into Great Barrington settling ourselves in a tapestry laden tea room. I still couldn’t imagine any words she could say which would allow me to let her leave high school, to leave our home and take on this challenge. What would I do without her? I didn’t think she’d noticed, but these past few years had also shrouded me in my own fears, sadness and self-doubt.

She took a sip of tea then placed her graceful hands on the table. How long had it been since she’d looked directly at me like this?

“This is my chance,” she said, her voice even and in control. “I know it is. Here I can start over again. I can’t go back to that high school. Then it’s all the same. Every day a reminder of what was. I don’t know how to make it better back there. But here I get to begin all over again. Here is a place where someone will ask me what I think. Please try and trust me. I want to be happy again… and I want you to be happy again too.”

We finished our tea and started back down that familiar drive home, the summer sun dipping gently behind the mountains. Unlike our drive up, unlike these past few years, we now spoke. She didn’t beg or try to convince me, but calmly explained her reasons. And I thought back to another July evening many years earlier. On the day my mother had suddenly passed away, my father had taken me outside on that warm, balmy night. He’d put his strong arms around me. “Everything is going to be all right,” he assured me, “It will be different, but it will be all right.”

By the time we arrived home I’d reflected on my own life and how I learned through experience there are many positives in our world and one, two or even three or more negatives can’t change that. There are so many things we can’t control. But what we can control is what matters. I decide if I win and my daughter decides if she wins. And I decided right there, as I pulled into our driveway, I needed to take that leap into the unknown or no one wins.

August ended and we made the same drive back up to her new school. For the past six weeks it had been like watching a delicate shell splinter and crack beginning to reveal the young woman I would eventually get to know. I had listened to her and decided I needed to let her go. We’d lost our way for a while, but never the love. Now we hugged tightly as she whispered, “Thank you for giving me this.”  And then we were waving goodbye, the sunlight catching her hair as she stood on the top of the same hill where one summer day a choice was made that offered each of us a new start.

Author’s Note: One of the most wonderful surprises I discovered after having a child was how I immediately gave up the all about me. Such a relief to bid that farewell. My life would have been so narrow without my daughter. She’s taught me, inspired me, and introduced me to ideas I would never have encountered, all done with her courage, her determination and now her commitment to those less fortunate. My father was correct, no matter the unexpected changes which occur we do eventually work them out. Different really is all right.

Priscilla is a freelance writer focusing on personal essays. She’s recently been published on Scary Mommy, in Chicken Soup for the Soul and within The Weston Magazine Group. She is also a feature writer for The Record Review in Bedford, NY. Priscilla is the facilitator of The Candlewood Writers Workshop in Fairfield County, CT.

Words Only A Daughter Could Love

Words Only A Daughter Could Love

By Vivian Maguire

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My mother is not the harsh critic that I viewed her as when I was younger, how others might still view her.

 

“Wow, your mother was really on a roll today,” my husband said as we unpacked the containers of food my mother had sent us home with. I knew exactly what he was referring to; my mother had been full of opinions during our holiday lunch. “Is this all the girls are wearing?” she said as she rubbed the fabric of my daughters’ sweaters between her fingers. She squeezed my six-year-old’s hands between her own, “They’re freezing!” she said. Then my younger daughter committed the ultimate betrayal and coughed. My mother’s hands moved to her hips, her eyes saying loudly, “You see?”

Before we sat down at my mother’s table my mom ran her hand down the front of my dress. “Is this lump from the dress or your tummy? You need to do some crunches. Let me show you.” During our meal, my mother pressed me to eat more, forgetful of her earlier comments about my stomach. After we ate, my mother stuffed spoonfuls of food into plastic containers and sandwich bags despite my protests. “That’s more food than we could eat in a week Mom! Honestly, I can’t eat all of that.” I reminded my mother that I hadn’t had much of an appetite lately. She paused momentarily before reaching into her cabinet and withdrawing a suspicious-looking bag of herbs that she pushed into my purse. “This is yerba buena, it will make you feel better. Do you need a tea ball? You can steep these with a small strainer. I hope you have one! Are you taking probiotics?” I told her I was eating yogurt. She shook her head for a full five minutes in every direction as if trying to shake off a stubborn fly.

Back at home, my husband shook his head. “I couldn’t believe when she started rubbing your stomach!” I threw my head back and laughed, my husband’s eyes growing wide with concern as I giggled until I started wiping tears from my cheeks. I knew I was not reacting to her criticism the way I should, the way I used to react.

I remember snapping into a scalding fury early one morning when I was twenty, and still living at home. My mom had come into my room looking for something that she immediately forgot about when my t-shirt grabbed her attention. “Are you wearing a sports bra or is the shirt making you look flat?” She wondered aloud as she peered at my chest up-close as though she could see through the cotton. She raised a crimson, polished finger to poke at my front when I ducked out of her aim. “That’s quite enough!” I yelled, grabbing her by the shoulders and gently but firmly steering her out of my bedroom. “I’m just asking!” my mother said, throwing up her manicured hands in a gesture of innocence. She is always “just asking.”

But I’m not twenty years old anymore, with an ego that can be cut into bits from a few sharp remarks. And my mother is not the harsh critic that I viewed her as when I was younger, how others might still view her. It is easy to listen to my mother, and think that she is just too much. I know how she sounds to my husband when she comes over, hugs me hello, and then starts weaving her fingers through my hair, grasping at the grays like spider webs and asking when I will color again. I know how my friends must have imagined her, when I told them that she would ask almost daily if I was still breastfeeding, and shouldn’t I cut the cord already? I can tell that my husband thinks I am intimidated by my mother, when I am cleaning the house from top to bottom, and even scrubbing out the toaster lining before a visit. “Who is going to look in the toaster, Vivian?” I don’t answer, but I know. My mother, my mother will.

When I behave compulsively like this, or when I talk about the things my mother says, I can see in people’s faces that they think my mother drives me crazy. But, the thing is, she doesn’t. These days, when my mother puts in her two cents, I sigh, I smile, I usually laugh, but I am not angry. And that’s because, she has always been like this, she has always had something to say, but that is not all she is.

When I see that pitying look in people’s eyes that says, “Oh, you’ve got one of those mothers,” I want to give them some of the other pieces too. Like the night when I delivered my first child, I had encountered a series of complications over the course of fifteen hours. My labor was not progressing, the Pitocin I was given pushed my contractions to unthinkable levels of pain that would spike until I would lose consciousness, only to be brought to again by the next contraction—screaming myself awake. When it came time to push, there was one voice in the room that I remember with razor-clarity. “Bear down, Vivian! Bear down!” I didn’t know what she meant, and my husband would later ask, “Was that even helpful?” It was. My mother’s voice was the solid anchor that pulled me down from my heights of terror in that moment when death felt so possible.

Later, my daughter’s squeak-cries filled the room as I lay perfectly still in my stirrups, so my doctors could sew me back together. My body felt melted; I could not lift my arms to hold my first child. But, I knew she was safe in my mother’s arms. My mother held and rocked her, her eyes bloodshot from the long night, and her nose a matching pink from the sinus infection she had been fighting. She was ill and exhausted, but she never left my side.

Eight months after that, my husband was accepted to graduate school in Austin, and we packed up our house for the move. To our surprise, my mother packed her up her house too, “I want a new beginning.” She had said, referring to her separation from my father. A few days later, she was hired as a counselor at an elementary school just blocks from the school that had just offered me a job. She moved into an apartment four minutes from ours. “Call me anytime,” she offered. “I’ll be here whenever you need me.”

I called her when I had to leave work early one day with a bad case of mastitis. “Will you pick Amelie up from daycare?” I whispered, my head throbbing so hard with fever, I could barely speak.

I called her when I was weeks away from defending my thesis. She came to our apartment many times to stay with my daughter, while I studied for hours in hers.

I called her when we had to go into the hospital to deliver my second child via C-section. She washed, fed, dressed, and entertained my older daughter for four days, while I recovered in the hospital with her second grandchild.

Over time it began to occur to me, that while there were things my mother always said, like, “You’re getting too thin; The girls should be taking vitamins; You might want to put on some lipstick,” she never said, “I can’t right now; I’m busy; Can someone else help you?”

At some point I came to understand that my mother’s well-meaning comments were exactly that; she wanted to help me. And when I think about all my mother has done for me, I realize that I can never, ever repay her. So no, I am not angry when my mother makes comments about the things I do, or the way that I do them. She is as hard on me as she is on herself. She is the voice in my head, the strength in my hands, and the mother I dream to be.

Vivian Maguire is an English teacher, a writer, and a parent. She lives with her husband Randy, and their two daughters, Amelie and Penelope, in El Paso, TX. She writes about parenting and teaching on her blog, storymother.wordpress.com

 

Photo: dreamstime.com

My Daughter at the Blue Venus

My Daughter at the Blue Venus

By P.L. Lowe

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 12.03.52 PMMy daughter is a stripper.

From the first minute I knew of her existence, on some preconscious level, when her microscopic sub-cells were still climbing out of the primordial slime of my uterus, dividing, expanding exponentially, I was aware of this incomprehensible joy that seemed to stand on its own, a separate entity apart from both me and this inch-long creature.

I wanted to climb into my own womb like a lover and protect her from pain. I wanted to fight dragons and turn chaos into cosmos. The birth itself was fast. I had the urge to push in the car, so she came in a rush of panting and blank forms to fill out. Too late! Straight from the delivery room. No doctor. Never mind. He arrived in time to stitch me up. Fond memories. I nursed her on the delivery table vowing death to all tyrants who might threaten her happiness.

She tells me ten minutes before I go into a classroom of seventy students to give an hour and a half lecture on the Mannerist artists of the sixteenth century. Enrolled in the college I teach in, she is waiting, as she often is, sitting on the worn carpet outside the door of my office. Most days we go in and she chats about life while I organize my thoughts for the coming lecture. But today she sits down and right away says I have something hard to tell you. My brain immediately pulls up the file of Probable Fates to be Suffered by My Teenage Daughter: 1) you’re pregnant; 2) you were pregnant, but have had an abortion; 3) you have some weird disease, sexually transmitted of course, that the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta wants to study using you as a victim/guinea pig; 4) you have joined a South American cult but they only sacrifice virgins so that you have been spared thank God. I see now (foolishly) that my files have not been updated lately, so this particular fate, the fate of being a stripper, has not yet been added, has snuck up on me unprepared, was never considered. She says her stage name is Jubilee.

We took her home nameless because her father looked at every name on my list as too foreign, too pretentious, too reminiscent of past loves. Only after we received a letter from the state Social Security Office threatening some bureaucratic disaster that would surely befall us if we did not immediately name the afore born child, did we agree on a name.

For the first year of life, my girl child lay peacefully wherever she was put: in her crib, on a blanket in the middle of the floor, on the wooden pew at church, a fact that made her cry when I told her sixteen years later. On her first birthday, she decided she had enough inertia to last a lifetime. She crawled out the door and down the street, to be rescued by a neighbor who looked with complete derision at my inability to keep track of a one-year-old child. When she discovered my make-up drawer she began her serious study of art, making fingerpaints from Clinique eye shadow.

By age two she had decided to study medicine, at least the medicine cabinet, wearing my diaphragm on her head because she had heard a British friend call it a Dutch cap thingy. By three she had organized the neighborhood into quadrants geographically according to the quality of snacks available at each house. At four she began ballet lessons, only to discover on the eve of her debut as a dancer that she did indeed have some talent but invariably turned into a still life in front of an audience. She started first grade full of quiet hubris and practically every teacher after that tells me with knowing nods that she is the Most Creative Child they have ever taught. Their smiles, as they tell me this, reveal a satisfaction that only comes with great discoveries, such as the Holy Grail, Albert Switzer, Queen Elizabeth’s Dutch cap thingy.

We look at each other. I wonder if I have time to cry and still be ready to teach. She speaks first, telling me she is dancing at the Blue Venus. My mind busily conjures up images of Venuses. Titian’s Venus of Urbino: too modest; Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus with Cupid coyly fondling his mother’s breast: too Freudian; Botticelli’s Birth of Venus: yes, rather ephemeral, not even erotic really. Okay. We are on safe ground; we can deal with this. The fact that my daughter looks nothing like Botticelli’s Venus, has cropped pink hair even, has little to do with my relief. She laughs and tells me she is finally losing her fear of dancing.

In middle school she wore a long, black trench coat and read Bukowski. She wrote poetry of such incredible machabaeorum that, Mrs. Verble, her English teacher, sent her to the guidance counselor in order to share responsibility should the strange student decide one day to slit her wrists while conjugating verbs. The guidance counselor (who considered herself in possession of a broad sense of humor as well as a practical knowledge of the pubescent psyche) declared the poetry brilliant but said the trench coat sadly must go as it was frightening the band students.

I look at my daughter in her baggy tee shirt and jeans, remembering the ambivalence her developing body stirred in me over the years. Watching it grow from a pink wrinkled prune at birth into that adolescent vessel, virginal, full of tender erotic beauty unfettered by guilt. At times I could hardly bear to look at her. At times I almost hated her for all that freedom and sensuous energy.

By high school she had exhausted the usefulness of grunge and Beat Poets. She instead became the Student of Fine Upstanding Character. She had the survival instincts of a presidential candidate and was able to act as the moral barometer of the whole freshman class without causing anyone of lesser morals to feel, well, lesser. In her sophomore year she birthed a literary magazine, raising funds by organizing nights of poetry reading and music. If sophomores voted, she would have been voted Most Likely To Do Whatever The Hell She Wanted.

I take a deep breath and ask why. She fiddles with her hair and says she is tired of part-time, minimum wage jobs that require the intellectual capacity of a mentally challenged baboon. She says she has an obligation to strike a blow for Third Wave Feminism. She says she is morally responsible to use her sexuality as a weapon against the property owning capitalist powers that would subdue the proletariat. She says this is something she has to do—to feel in control. She says she doesn’t know why.

In her senior year of high school she discovered Franz, a disgruntled intellectual who had barely begun to shave, but had read more German philosophy than was good for him. He smoked pot that he stole from his father’s secret stash while his father was in court busily defending the rights of juvenile delinquents. Franz was the first addictive substance for the Student of Fine Upstanding Character. It was the beginning of her life as a vortex, like a toilet flushing endlessly, always down. Weeks would go by when she would snarl at anything that challenged her hold on reality. Then suddenly the vortex would reverse, swirling upward, as if she had traversed half the globe in search of Truth. Then there would be whole months when she seemed almost normal; we would talk and laugh and I would think my daughter had returned for good.

I have five minutes now before class begins. She tells me she is not allowed to give lap dances or blowjobs. She smiles kindly, reassuringly, as she tells me this, as if I have been waiting for this exact information, secretly hoping she will divulge such details to assuage my motherly worries. My daughter pauses a moment, then tells me she is terrified. The men … want to touch….

At the end of her first semester of college, Franz had been replaced by a girlfriend named Leslie, a deeply religious lesbian whose parents sent her chemicals through the mail to help with test anxiety. By May, Leslie was history, but my daughter had failed two of her classes due to a lack of presence in the classroom. She said she freaked, while also developing a preternatural fear of leaving her dorm room. In June of that year her beautiful, brilliant, best friend from high school put on her prom dress and drank a cocktail of cranberry juice and Phenobarbital. After the funeral, my daughter began cutting herself. She worked at a bookstore for the summer wearing long sleeves to cover the growing roadmap on her bare arms. In September, she moved in with a slick man, ten years older. A bottle of vodka became the third leg of their triangle. I tried frantic forays into the dragon’s lair, only to find the princess in league with the monster. I had half-hysterical conversations with my husband who nodded and looked at his watch.

Our time is up. I hear savage mutterings from disgruntled students. All dates and places have retreated from my brain. I will have to pull out the heavy guns and threaten a pop quiz. I think of Vasari’s Perseus and Andromeda and see only my daughter’s scantily clad form writhing in front of a squint-eyed businessman in a pinstriped suit, or an aging computer repairman wearing mirrored sunglasses and a hat that says TGIF.

My daughter spent the next few months contemplating the trajectory of a falling body from the bridge that leads into the city. I wanted to weep with relief every time I saw her alive. I finally dragged her bodily to a psychiatrist who mentioned the possibility of bipolar disorder—the Condition Formally Known as Manic-Depressive Illness. Dr. Wise said her behavior was focused on getting her father’s attention. He said she had trouble keeping boundaries with men because they All had become her father—a shadowy figure to be conquered and forced to love her. My husband said I was exaggerating the diagnosis. He had no memory of our discussions about cuts and vodka, and any thought of bipolarity or suicide was ridiculous. Anyone could see how healthy she was.

After the divorce, she enrolled in the college where I teach. I look at my daughter one last time. She smiles brightly, looking like the pink-haired college student that she is. I hug her, tell her I love her, then walk into class and pull up the first slide. Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror stares back at me with a curious knowing. He was the same age as my daughter when he painted this. Nineteen. He looks twelve. I tell the class the artist later withdrew from society and became a recluse experimenting with alchemy. My daughter has finished experimenting with chemicals. Now she is experimenting with life. She is learning to dance without becoming a still life. She is discovering the possibilities of joy. Tomorrow my daughter moves into an apartment with a friend she met in math class. But tonight you can find her at the Blue Venus.

Author’s Note: I recently held my first grandchild in my arms and looked at his mother—my daughter and the subject of this essay. Although we talk constantly, there is a point at which no words can convey what we have been through. My daughter is experiencing her own version of that incredible connection of mother to child. Seeing her as a strong, loving adult fills me with a hope that I want to pass on to other mothers with troubled children. With my daughter’s encouragement, I have submitted this essay for publication.

P.L. Lowe is an art historian living in Staunton, Virginia. She recently spent time in the Middle East and is working on a novel about her experiences there. This is her first published work.

This essay appears in our 2014 Special Issue for Parents of Teens. Purchase your copy today.

Here We Go, Grace and I

Here We Go, Grace and I

By Lindsey Mead

sling2When Grace was nine she broke her collarbone playing soccer.  It happened days after I wrote a piece about how I wanted my children to be physically fearless and push themselves in the world.  When I watched my crying daughter, through a glass window, standing in front of the ER’s x-ray machine in her soccer uniform, I was forced to confront my own biases about parenting.  Did I still believe that, about being physical, athletic, confident in their bodies, even if this happened.  The truth is, I did.

I couldn’t believe how quickly she healed.  The first few days were very painful, especially because she fell on day two and caught herself with the bad arm, pushing the bones further out of joint.  The low point was the second night after the injury.  Grace came into my room around 2 a.m., her face wet with tears.

“Mummy?” she whispered and my eyes popped open.

“Oh, Gracie!” I sat up. “Are you okay?” Matt was away so I was alone in bed.

“Will you help me get back in bed?  I can’t do it.”  Her face was contorted with a mix of pain and shame.  She hates asking for help.  I think I know where she gets that particular trait.

I leapt out of bed and gave her more Tylenol with codeine before lifting her carefully into bed.  I flashed back to lifting her baby self, swaddled in a yellow blanket covered in white stars, into her crib, putting her down slowly, willing her not to wake and begin wailing.  As she lay back in her bed, arm propped up a stack of pillows, she looked at me in the dimness of her nightlight-lit room and I could see that her eyes shone with tears.  I sat down next to her gingerly, not wanting to jostle her body, and smoothed her hair back from her forehead.  It was damp, and she felt warm.  “I love you,” I whispered.

The next morning Grace was dismayed to still be in so much pain.  I helped her get dressed, easing a baggy shirt over her shoulder, trying to move it as little as possible.  Over breakfast, she asked me to tell her about the bones I had broken.  I smiled and told her: an ankle, two bones in one arm, multiple fingers and toes, and several ribs.  Her eyebrows shot up as she chewed her toast.

“Well, I’m not going to break any more bones.  Ever.  It hurts too much.”  She shook her head.

“I don’t know, Grace.  It’s going to happen sometimes when you do sports.  I’m pretty sure there will be more injuries to come in other games.”  I hesitated.  “I think it’s part of the deal.  But I promise,” My eyes swam with tears, but my tone was suddenly firm.  “I promise you it’s always worth it to play.”

Within a week of the break she was just taking regular Motrin a couple of times a day.  Within two weeks she was annoyed with her sling and didn’t want to wear it anymore.  The bones had already begun to knit together.  The doctor told us that while she would always have a bump, it would become less and less noticeable as she grew.  Then he looked at us both and said, with a shrug: “So?  Everybody’s got bumps.”

*   *   *

Everybody does have bumps.  I think of that doctor’s offhand comment all the time.  In fact we have matching bumps now, Grace and I.  I separated my left shoulder just months before she broke her left collarbone, so we both have visible protrusions by that shoulder.

I wrote my thesis in college on the mother-daughter relationship, a detail that now seems full of portent.  It gives me goosebumps to think back to my 21-year-old self, hunched in a small carrel in the library, writing about questions I would intimately inhabit almost 20 years later.  Specifically, I wrote about the mother-daughter bond in the lives in three 20th century poets: Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Maxine Kumin.  I called them the first generation of true mother-poets and asserted that in all three cases their work was both haunted and enriched by the long shadow of the mother-daughter relationship and specifically by the interplay of identification and separation that marks this bond.

I chose this topic for my thesis with what I remember as an almost utter lack of deliberation; I just knew I wanted to study those poets and to explore these topics.  I went directly into the heart of the relationship between a mother and daughter, and spent six months deeply immersed in psychoanalytic theorizing as well as close reading of poetry.  I researched and wrote and felt my conclusions fiercely, a fact which amazes me now because I realize how little I knew about the topic.  Of course I was a daughter, with a mother I loved dearly, but my real understanding of the fertile and complex layers of relationship between generations of women came only after I had my own daughter.  I am struck, not for the first time, by how the perspective provided by the arc of years illuminates choices we made long ago.  From those months of work I understand intellectually that the separation of daughter from mother in adolescence is critically important.  I know how painful and violent it can be, but also how transformational.  Now I am living it.

Grace has begun to wade into the whitewater of emotion that swirls around adolescence.  The uptick in her moodiness and frequency with which she’s mad at me are harbingers, I know, of what is to come.  As is my pattern, I turn to the page; hoping that writing down my experiences, my observations, and my hopes will somehow help me through this period of dislocation and difficulty.  I dread what lies ahead but simultaneously feel great guilt about that very dreading; so far, parenting has surprised me by being better and better every single week, month, and year.  Is that golden uphill climb over?  Have we, now that the summit is in sight, transitioned to a speedier, less joyful downhill slide?  Oh, I hope not.  But the truth is, I don’t know.  There is so much that lies ahead.  I want fiercely to make it through to the other side of this transition with my cord that I know ties my heart to my daughter’s intact, though stretched, of new, different dimensions.

Here we go, Grace and I. 

Read more of Lindsey’s work in This is Childhood, a book and journal about ages 1 -10 of childhood.

Are You Prettier Than Your Mother?

Are You Prettier Than Your Mother?

By Lara Lillibridge

0-7I looked over my shoulder as I was getting in the shower and saw my naked back. I paused for a moment to really look and see what aging is doing to me. The mirror reflected back a younger version of my mother’s bottom.

My body now has that soft doughy consistency that made my mother so pillowy soft to hug. As I lose elasticity, everything is settling lower like a pair of slightly too big sweatpants that I could just shrug off and find my younger body underneath.

I have always thought that I was a prettier version of my mother. Relatives could always pick me out of a crowd as my mother’s daughter, even if we had never met before. When they told me I looked just like her, I always heard their unspoken phrase, “only prettier.”

That was supposed to be how it worked; every generation was an improvement on the previous; daughters were a shade prettier than then their mothers, a hair taller, their teeth improved by fluorinated water. I always felt bad for girls who had mothers who were far more beautiful than they were; it seemed a cruel trick of fate to not be able to live up to your mother’s beauty. I never worried about it myself, because I knew I was prettier, but when I looked in the mirror and saw my mother’s body looking back at me, it occurred to be for the first time that I might be wrong.

It’s unsettling to realize something you have believed to be an absolute truth is wrong, but it is exciting too. I felt like I might be on the cusp of great knowledge, even if that knowledge was that I had lived my whole life as self-centered and arrogant. At least I could come to this revelation before it was too late, as my mother is still alive.

It’s hard to look at someone a generation older than you and appreciate how they looked when they were your age. Bad photography and worse fashion trends mask the natural beauty underneath. I can’t see the lines of my mother’s face in most of the old Polaroids and small three-and-a-half by five-inch snapshots. My mother has the same hourglass figure as I do, but a little more padded. When she was young she had thick straight black hair, which must have been striking and far better than my hair has ever been. It’s hard to sift through evidence of half-remembered photographs; I was always too focused on the once-stylish clothes that now seem atrocious, the cats-eye glasses. I can’t see who she used to be.

If I could see her now how she was then, in modern clothes with non-obtrusive spectacles, whom would I see? Might I see a version of myself more similar than not? When my mother was at my stage of life, she kept her hair short and wore the polyester pantsuits popular for businesswomen in the 1970’s. I can’t remember her wearing dresses more than once a year, and I never saw her with a different hairstyle other than the one she has now. My mother’s hair was salt and pepper almost all of my life, now it is all salt. Although she dyed for a year or two, mostly I think of her as black streaked with white. She always looked older than she was to me, but then anyone over 18 was middle aged in my book. A child can never see an adult as anything but old getting older.

My mother had a bad eye, a swollen red puffy eyelid for all of my childhood. How would she have looked without it? Would I have seen her as a great beauty? I never minded her eye—it had been like that for as long as I could remember. You just looked at the rest of her face and didn’t settle on that one area. It didn’t matter to me, but I know it mattered to her. I know it made her give up on beauty. What if she shaved her legs and had soft, shoulder length hair and wore cute boots? Who would she have been then? Who would I have been, growing up with a mother admired for her looks instead of her brains?

What if I had the mother I thought I wanted when I was a teenager? The kind of mother who cared about clothes and the right hairstyle and taught me how to apply eyeliner properly, instead of the mother I had, who entreated me not cover up my pretty face with shimmery blue eye shadow? Would I have been more popular, prettier, more confident? Or would I have scorned every beauty secret and ran away on my bicycle with unbrushed hair? What if my mother pushed me to sit properly on the sofa instead of reading for hours in the backyard tree, or bought me pretty dresses and yelled at me for getting dirty instead of letting me run barefoot through the grass and hunt frogs in the neighborhood creek? Am I only feminine and pretty because I was allowed to be otherwise, and chose this?

I found an unrecognizable picture of my mother from before I was born. I horde it like the white linen napkins that you only bring out for company; if I take it out too often, other people’s eyes will wear away the image, I fear, with their hungry devouring glares. It is a picture of my parents from before I was born, standing next to my father’s plane. My mother’s hair is dark and shiny, down to her waist. She is wearing contacts and smiling, her figure Monroe curvy in clothes that aren’t mortifying. She is more beautiful than I have ever felt I have been or could be. I don’t recognize her as my mother, but instead as some sort of clone or sister-cousin. Someone I almost know, if I half-close my eyes and picture her with bad hair and big plastic glasses, twenty extra pounds and dated clothing. It is the lurking secret mother I never knew I had, the one that looks like me, only prettier.

Lara Lillibridge is a mother, writer, off-key singer and an occasionally inappropriate dancer. 

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The Gift Of Our Girls

The Gift Of Our Girls

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

0-3“You love Gabriel better than me.” My daughter’s eyes are twin moons of accusation, trying hard to eclipse a bright hurt that nevertheless flares out at the edges.

“That’s ridiculous.” I hold her gaze, concentrating on the anger that brought me here—to the doorway of her room—after driving her inside by the tone of my voice. She is ten years old, her brother five; they’d been battling over a toy and she’d wrenched it away hard enough to cause injury, screaming that she’d had it first. Of course I’d scolded her. She’s older, stronger. She should know better. In truth, my anger has faded; Gabriel’s fine. But I keep my expression stern because underneath the solid mask of righteousness is a creeping fissure of doubt.

Abigail has accused me for so long of preferring her brother that I’m beginning to believe it. I do feel differently about my children. One is a preteen girl, the other a kindergarten boy. One challenges me on a regular basis: slamming doors, stamping feet, talking back, and throwing fits. And it’s not the kindergartner.

Gabriel’s at a golden age. When I was pregnant, my friend—who’s the mother of two sons—told me, “You’re lucky; boys adore their mamas.” I see now what she meant. In my son’s eyes, I can do no wrong. Every day, he showers me with kisses and compliments like, “You are the prettiest mommy in the whole wide world,” and, “I love you more than my whole life.” What’s a heart to do but melt?

Physically, my relationships with my children are worlds apart. Gabriel snuggles with me on the couch, strokes my hair when I read his bedtime story, and holds my hand in the grocery store. Abigail is five feet tall; she requires the whole couch to sprawl out. She’s done holding hands. Sometimes I catch her staring at me when Gabriel’s securely folded in my lap or when I wake him with a trill of butterfly kisses. I feel guilty, wondering when I last held her beyond a quick hug or let a kiss linger on her cheek. But Abigail’s body is so firmly her own; the girl that used to pee with the door open now locks it to brush her teeth, and once when I walked into her bedroom as she was changing clothes, she pinned her arms across her chest and ordered me to leave. Gabriel’s body still seems mine to claim: always angled toward me, always receptive to affection. He makes it easy.

Abigail’s hands curl into fists. “You DO love him better,” she snaps, and I sense the tremor in her voice is not a preteen’s anger but a child’s fear. As a parent, there are times to respect boundaries and times to cross them. I cross the room and take her in my arms.

“Leave me alone!” she twists and shoves but I hold her anyway, closer than I have in too long. Her slim frame thrums like a live wire, but the fall of hair against my cheek is as soft as when she was a newborn. I remember how I was so in love with that baby, I couldn’t sleep. How those early years we lived—just the two of us—on the brink of poverty in tiny apartments, but I felt I would never need anything more than my gorgeous dark-haired girl. How the first time Abbey’s father took her for a week-long vacation, when she was three, I called my friend and said, “I need to stay with you for a week. Because I can’t be here without her.”

As a mother, it’s easy to lose confidence. Oh, but how can I cater to such lazy indulgence, when what my child needs right now is for me to show strength and total conviction? I tell myself, I am absolutely certain that I’ve never loved anyone more than this child in my arms. This child. My daughter. And it’s true. That’s the gift of our girls: they bring us to the center of ourselves, demanding we examine our hearts and face every flaw, making us better mothers. While our sons thrust us on pedestals, it’s our daughters who force us to balance.

Abbey’s resistance falls away and she wraps her arms around me. “Abigail,” I say, “you know how much I love you, and—” I can’t tell her I love her more than Gabriel, and it isn’t enough to say I love her just as much. So I whisper what’s hers that he can never have. “—remember that I loved you first.”

Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website  http://www.elizabethmarianaranjo.com/

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