Why I Took A Sharpie To My Favorite Kids’ Book

Why I Took A Sharpie To My Favorite Kids’ Book

Litlle girl reading lot of books, sitting above the pile of books. **** All inside the page of the book had been altered/changed. *****

By Emily Grosvenor

When I found out my sister and her Chinese-American husband were going to have their first child, I began scouring my personal library and then my favorite online booksellers looking for books with Asian children in them. Specifically, I was looking for those snuggle-in, mother-baby bonding board books capturing what it is like to fall in love with your child as he grows.

I found nothing.

Tough times for diversity demand subversive measures. Like a Sharpie to your favorite children’s book. So I grabbed my nearest black marker, and colored in the hair of the spiky-haired blond kid on one of my own family favorite, I Love You Through And Through, by Bernadette Rossetti Shustak. I took a special, subversive pleasure on the page “I love your hair and eyes. Your giggles and cries.”

Parents and caregivers with children who have mixed ethnicity face a special challenge when looking for books. The goal shouldn’t be to give them all books that look like them. But rapidly changing demographics of our country have not corresponded to an equally fast change within publishing. It is still difficult to find books with characters of mixed heritage.

Now that I’m writing my own picture book I know how dire the situation is for diversity in the genre. Half of all children reading picture books in America today are non-white, according to a 2013 study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. And yet, only 10.48% of children’s books featuring non-white characters. Latino children make up 25% of kids in public school, but only 3% of human characters in children’s books.

Many books featuring Asian-Americans, while wonderful unto themselves, deal specifically with the theme of having parents from two cultures. That’s great, but there just aren’t a lot of books where the characters just are an ethnicity.

It’s not difficult to see how this happens. Traditionally, publishers pick the illustrators for picture books, not the author. They have power to craft a character based on who they think is the largest possible audience for that book. It’s not surprising, really, that a book about a little girl who hides in the patterns of nature would end up being a little brown-haired girl, or, heaven forefend, a little boy.

My forthcoming children’s book about falling love with tessellations (repeating tile patterns) features a “Chinese-American girl.”

Now a white writer who chooses to make her characters non-white faces special challenges and must do her due diligence to create a story that is culturally sensitive and true to experience. Who am I to write a Chinese-American child into any story?

The organization We Need Diverse Books, launched first as #weneeddiversebooks in 2014 by a group of motivated industry leaders, writers, illustrators and diversity advocates, provides excellent resources for writers looking to incorporate diverse characters in their books. The information flies in the face of every edict to new writers – write what you know – and challenges them to do the research to find out what they don’t know. That means, avoiding stereotypes and making sure they are inadvertently attaching ethnicity to villainy, for example.

In my case, my character’s ethnicity served a personal purpose. I wanted my niece, Piper, to always have a book that looked like her, and I wanted it to be a book that didn’t deal specifically with the issues of having parents from two cultural or ethnic heritages. I also wanted my own sons to read books that looked like their cousins. The message I want to send them is not “appreciate the differences,” but “we are the same.”

But that doesn’t mean I won’t be testing my book with an audience of Asian-American moms, dads and kids from various family constellations before my book goes to print. I want to know what is working and what I may not have thought of, the subtle ways the existence of ethnicity shapes even the simplest children’s story.

As for the kid testers, I haven’t found a single one that looks at my character, Tessa, and thinks: She’s half-Asian! My favorite response to date came from our friend’s four-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter, Lennon.

She said: “I’m Tessa, too. Because she’s smart and I’m smart.”

Emily Grosvenor is an Oregon-based writer. Follow her @emilygrosvenor. Her children’s book Tessalation! is available for pre-order. Follow her @emilygrosvenor.

Photo: @OtnaYdur

Fiction: Skyping for Life

Fiction: Skyping for Life

New York City Manhattan street aerial view with skyscrapers, pedestrian and busy traffic.

By Danielle Ryan

What kind of mother leaves her children to improve their lives? Had it been a mistake? Because it sure as hell felt like one. The ambiguity of the answers to these questions made Sarita’s stomach roil with unease so often that she’d switched from daily cups of coffee to daily pots of chamomile tea, hoping, in vain, to soothe her tired nerves. Sarita pondered these questions as she returned from the corner bodega where she’d gone to purchase that morning’s tea, and had been shocked by the bitter winds howling down the concrete streets. She’d been unprepared for the bluster of the day, dressed only in a fleece jacket she saved for quick errands, and had paid for her lack of preparation with frozen ears, which now stabbed with tiny pinpricks of pain as they defrosted and returned to room temperature.

There had been so many unpleasant discoveries during the adjustment to life here in the United States – though Sarita would argue that there had really been, in fact, no adjustment at all, as though adjusting to being here would be a betrayal to her girls, Leta, who’d just turned 7, and June, who was 9, but one of the hardest things to get used to, other than the hollow, echoing void rattling around inside her when she yearned to hug her children or to see their faces with her actual eyes, rather than through a computer screen, was the cold weather. Sure, there had been chilly days at home, and some of the storms they’d experienced in the Dominican Republic were hide-under-the-bed frightening, but the deep, bone-chilling, toe-numbing cold of New York City in the middle of February was actually physically painful; probably the millionth detail Sarita had been unable to predict about life here in the States. The whole reason she had moved here in the first place, though, was to provide her family back home with basic needs and maybe even some humble luxuries that had not been a possibility had she stayed there. So here she was, on a Sunday morning, freshly woken from a bad dream and contemplating the bad dream of the day that lay ahead. Every day without her family was another bad dream day.

Before Sarita’s move, Sebastian, her husband, had spent all of his time lying prone, unable to move without keening in an agony that terrified their daughters, Leta and June. His pain was the result of a terrible accident from his days as a loyal employee of a tree-trimming service that did work for several of the major resorts around the Dominican Republic. A freshly cut tree limb had swung the wrong way and slammed into Sebastian’s back, mercifully not breaking his spine but doing enough damage to irrevocably ruin his chance at making a living through physical labor, or living a normal life, really. Sarita often wished she could go back in time, find a way to prevent her husband from going to work that day; if only he hadn’t been hurt, they’d still all be together. But it had happened — and after many months of fruitless job searching in an economy drastically affected by the worldwide economic downturn, Sarita finally denied her denial and accepted the fact that her family’s situation would not improve unless she took drastic steps. The torture of starvation, already etched into the faces of her young daughters, was too much for Sarita to bear. She knew she’d do anything to stop their suffering, even if meant she’d never be with them again.

It hadn’t taken much planning to get Sarita into the United States, where she spent her days working at a nail salon, along with the eight other women with whom she shared that cramped apartment in Flushing, Queens. Sarita sent nearly all of her paycheck home each month to her family, and they were thriving as a result of the money. She was able to see how well they were doing thanks to a weekly Sunday night Skype session, made possible by Sebastian’s former boss from the tree-trimming company. He must have felt guilty about the accident, and his supposed inability to offer any monetary compensation for it. Each Sunday night he would stop by Sarita’s family’s home in the Dominican Republic with his laptop and set it up so the family could “visit” with one another. Maybe if he had had any insurance money, Sarita might not have had to move away in the first place and wouldn’t have to visit with her family via Skype. Nonetheless, Sarita lived for those Sunday night Skype sessions. She felt quite certain that if she was not able to see her family – her two daughters, especially — during that weekly session, she would go insane.

These weekly meetings did provide Sarita with a measurable level of serenity. She could see how her girls’ cheeks had gone from concave and pale to full and rosy in just a few short weeks after Sarita started sending money home. Leta and June would twirl in front of the webcam, giggling and falling into one another, showing off the uniforms they wore to the private school they were now attending. Sebastian was able to afford some medicine that tamped down enough of the pain so, on his rare good days, he could help Sarita’s mother, Anna, with the most basic household chores. She’d let him water the plants or roll out a tortilla to help him feel like a contributing member of the remaining household. When his smiling face would fill the screen, Sarita could confirm that he was, indeed, improving – the hurt lines were gone from his eyes and there was a relaxation in his smile she hadn’t seen since the accident. Watching her family through the computer screen gave Sarita the strange sensation that she was watching a television episode featuring her family, so detached did she feel from the goings-on there. And yet, seeing how well they were doing thanks to her hard work and diligent efforts gave her a quiet sense of satisfaction along with the usual yearning to be with them.

Each time she wanted to complain about living in an overcrowded apartment with women she didn’t know well nor particularly like, each time she wanted to cry from the pain in her back after a day of bending over strangers’ feet, every time she walked down a blustery avenue, face freezing in the wind, feeling invisible to the world, she would mutter the same sentence to herself: “I’m not happy, but they’re not hungry. I’m not happy, but they’re not hungry.” She loved them all enough to be unhappy. It wouldn’t be forever, they’d all agreed. And yet, she wondered how they’d ever manage to be reunited. The possibility of that ever happening seemed to move further from her grasp each day; like a helium balloon, she could see it rising into the sky and out of her reach, and when she thought of it, she wanted to cry like a little child, but there was no one around to offer meaningful comfort. Of course, what only made the situation worse was that she was an undocumented immigrant, and because she didn’t have the proper paperwork, there was no way to just go home for a visit. Even if she could afford to do so, there was no guarantee she’d be able to return. She pictured all of the events in her daughters’ lives she wouldn’t be there to see – the school plays, the sick days when surely they cried out for their mother, the lonely nights, the broken hearts – it was as though she were dead already.

The nightmares had started within days of her arrival in the States, and had intensified the past few weeks. In the dream, she’d fallen inside an icy chasm, and there was no way to get out. She clawed at the walls, scraping at them with her fingertips, until they were bloody and numb. Her children and Sebastian were at the top of the chasm calling her name. Sarita begged for them to go get help. After much pleading, they agreed. As though it were happening in real life, Sarita could hear their feet crunch on the icy snow as they trudged away from the chasm. Then she’d sit on the frozen floor, surrounded by the cool blue glow of ice walls, and bunch herself up into a tiny little bundle. She waited, and waited, until, inevitably, at some point, a realization would dawn upon her – that somehow, they’d all died when they went to get her help and in her dream she would weep, knowing she’d never see her family again.

She’d wake confused, heart a-flutter, until she realized that it had all been a dream. With that realization came a moment of relief, quickly replaced, though, by the dread of another day of walking around with an icy chasm in her chest, brought on by the grief of missing her family, and compounded by the dread of knowing there were so many nails – toenails and fingernails, yellowed and thickened and chipped and misshapen and dirty and sometimes even smelly – of haughty strangers waiting to have their cuticles cut and their asses kissed. She had to stay in the moment and breathe, or the mere thought of all of those nails and the faceless strangers behind them would send her into a claustrophobic panic attack.

“I’m not happy but they’re not hungry.” Her mantra was starting to lose its effectiveness.

Still shaken by the previous night’s nightmare, and unable to wait until that evening for their Skype session, Sarita called Sebastian Sunday morning, eschewing her typical Sunday duties like washing her underwear and replacing her meager groceries to instead get some much-needed reconnection with her family. She really just needed to hear their voices. Her call to the cheap pay-as-you-go phone she’d sent them went unanswered and was sent through to a voicemail box they didn’t know how to set up. She didn’t leave a message.

Distracted, she got into the shower, trying to make the time pass a little faster until she could try to call home again. Despite her aching heart, it was turning out to be a pretty good Sunday. For possibly the first time since she’d moved to New York, she had the entire apartment to herself. All of the women were out doing laundry or food shopping. Two of the women – Tiffany and Winnie – had taken the subway over to Jackson Heights to visit Little India. Typically Sarita would have loved to go with them – after all, she was in New York, and there was so much to see and do, and they only had one day off each week — but she had been angling to have some time to herself, and it could be months before the opportunity to be alone would present itself again.

Sarita took a long, hot shower, and for the first time since living in that apartment, she didn’t need to rush, as there was no one waiting to go in the bathroom after her. She washed her hair, put in some conditioner and let it just sit while she shaved. She would never have anticipated that moving slowly could feel like such a luxury. To not be scrambling through the day, to not feel constantly pushed forward by an invisible crowd on their way to important appointments felt like a much needed respite from her hectic days. In her home country, there were so many hardships, but her days there had unspooled without the frantic furor that her days here seemed to embody. Did everyone in New York feel this way? It certainly seemed that everyone else was always rushing to and fro. Only here, it felt like everyone else was on their way to opportunity and promise – to good jobs, good meals, good shopping, good homes, good families – while her days were tedious and back-breaking, and only filled with the promise of more tedious, more back-breaking work, magnified by loneliness and isolation.

“I need to stop feeling sorry for myself,” she said to no one as she rinsed the shaving cream off her legs. “Today, I want to have a little fun.”

She got out of the shower, and forced herself to dry off slowly, to get dressed slowly, to listen to her body’s need to move at a snail’s pace. Before heading out the door, unsure of where the day would bring her, she called home one more time. Still no answer. This time when the call went to voicemail, she did leave a message, though she was certain they wouldn’t be able to figure out how to retrieve it. “Hello,” she said, “It’s me, mommy. I have to run some errands but I wanted to call and say I miss you all so much. I’ll try you again later. I love you!”

She tried to button down the anxiety that was rising in her. Where were they? It was Sunday — Anna might have taken the girls to church, Sebastian was probably sleeping or unable to get up to get the phone. She knew they were having trouble keeping it charged, so that was another possibility. She felt the icy chasm open up in her heart, as wide as the ocean that separated her from her family. She was powerless to know where her family was or what they were doing at that moment. Hadn’t she surrendered her motherly right to track her kids’ every move the moment she’d gotten on that plane? How had she not foreseen the dismay this would cause her?

She went back into her bedroom, put on a pair of jeans, and a black top – but this outfit felt too much like her work uniform, so she kept the jeans on but instead switched out the black top for a flowy, lightweight turquoise sweater she’d purchased before arriving, in anticipation of the cold New York winters. Turns out, it wasn’t nearly warm enough for a New York winter, but Sarita put a long sleeved shirt on underneath it – she simply had to wear that sweater today. On one of her last days before leaving for New York, they’d done a bit of shopping with some tips Sarita had earned from a cleaning job. She had very little money to spend, but there were some necessities that had to be procured, and it was a way to get the whole family feeling like they were helping Sarita prepare for her journey. June had picked the sweater out. “This will look pretty on you, mom,” she’d said, so excited to show Sarita her finding. Anna had seen Sarita’s face fall when she’d looked at the price tag. “I’ll buy this for your mommy,” Anna had said. “So she can think of all of us, and this beautiful, happy day when she wears it.”

Sarita hadn’t had a chance to wear it since arriving, though. All she’d worn were the black shirts that the ladies in the salon were told to wear by Paul, the dictatorial manager of the establishment. During her off hours she wore old t-shirts and sweatshirts she’d brought from home; those, too, reminded her of her family. But the real reason she hadn’t worn the turquoise sweater yet was because she didn’t want the dread of her days to taint the sweater – it was too precious. Today, though, she was determined to break free – if only for a few hours — of the sadness that shadowed her every move. Today wouldn’t taint the sweater.

She combed out her long, glossy black hair as she dried it, curled her lashes and even put on some mauve lipstick. She looked at herself in the mirror and felt that she looked more like herself today – relaxed, groomed, in a colorful top – than she had in the past 8 months. She wished she could Skype with her family so they could see her like this.

Instead she pulled on her puffy black jacket, put fuzzy white earmuffs over her head, eased a pair of cheap black gloves onto her hands, and walked out in the frigid sunshine of a Queens afternoon, feeling her spirits rise as the sun lit upon her face.

Danielle Ryan spent time working as a small town news reporter and writing for a number of well-known websites before turning her attention to creative writing. Danielle lives with her family in New York, and is currently at work on a novel. This story, which earned an honorable mention from Glimmer Train Magazine, is her first published short story.

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.


Follow Me: A Mother’s Day in the Israeli Army

Follow Me: A Mother’s Day in the Israeli Army

BC_FA2013_Final_layoutBy Judy Labensohn

When my daughter Yael was seventeen, I checked out her army, just as I had checked out nursery schools, junior highs, and high schools. Like all secular Jewish Israeli girls, she would be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces at eighteen for twenty-two months.

To check out conditions in the IDF, I pretended I was writing an article for The Jerusalem Post. This was not far-fetched, as I often wrote features for The Jerusalem Post and in the 1980’s I wrote a humorous mothering column until nothing seemed funny anymore. The Army Spokesman’s Office let me accompany a group of new recruits on their first day in the IDF.

*   *   *

Cloudy sky at 0658 hours, December 31, 1996. The parking lot in front of Jerusalem’s Soldiers’ Home is empty, except for two soldiers clutching clipboards.

“Who are you?” asks the lean one.

“I’m my daughter’s mother.”


“So I’m doing a piece about the first day in the Israeli army to see what awaits my daughter.” The fat soldier tells me to open my briefcase. He feels it up for suspicious objects.

“My only weapon is my pen,” I say. They don’t smile.

By 0725 hours, 150 families arrive, park their cars, and empty their contents: mothers wearing over-sized sunglasses; fathers with paunches; hungry boyfriends; concerned aunts; weary grandmothers; younger brothers and sisters wishing they could go to the army instead of school. The eighteen-year-old draftees wear the standard civilian uniform: blue jeans and knit tops. One member of each family unit lugs an enormous backpack, stuffed with everything the new recruit will need for the next twenty-two months, even though she will probably return home for the first Sabbath after induction.

Three empty buses approach the Soldiers’ Home. The drivers make their way to the front of the crowd with difficulty be- cause the field is full of hugging and kissing civilians. Fathers film as 150 Israeli childhoods end in a parking lot.

“No big deal,” says a former paratrooper pop when I ask how he feels. “I know the army.” Mothers sniffle, hold their sunglasses steady, though the sky is cloudy.

At 0729, the heavy soldier stands near a little wooden table and uses a mega-phone to order all new recruits to stand in line with their induction papers and Israeli identity cards. Young women look pleadingly at their mothers, reminiscent of first days at any nursery school.

At 0743, the lean soldier calls out names. “Mia, Adi, Moran, Ruthi, and Svetlana—get on the bus. Good luck to all of you.”

Fathers now don expensive Raybans. Mothers light up Marlboro Lights. When I ask a new recruit how she feels, she says, “Regular.”

The women take up positions in window seats, so they can see their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, boyfriends, girlfriends, aunts, and grandparents. They wave, blow kisses, open the windows to hold their civilian lives, reach for a hand, a face, a bottle of orange juice. Everyone giggles, nervous laughter the best defense in the arsenal.

Middle-aged parents who fought in the Six-Day War or missed that but made the War of Attrition, or missed that but made the Yom Kippur War, or missed that but remember the Lebanon War, surround the bus. Grandparents, who fought the British and then five or six invading Arab armies in 1948, rub their eyes.

From my vantage point on the bus, it is clear as chicken soup that these families are falling apart. The last line of defense sits on the bus. Mothers and fathers—intimate enemies—will now be alone, together. How many couples will stay married?

At 0759 hours, the lean soldier yells at the women to take their feet off the seats. Then he calls more names: “Gila, Galia, Merav, Avishag, Keren.” They climb on the bus. The soldier steps down, but not before saying, “Goodbye and good luck.” He sounds like a flight mechanic wishing the crew a successful mission behind enemy lines.

The driver aims the bus towards the absorption base at Tel Hashomer, an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. Hands and arms, inside the bus and out, flail. Kisses blow into the morning air. Smiles give way, finally, to tears. Tissues replace cigarettes at this quintessential Israeli moment.

On the bus, most of the women sit wrapped in silence, forlorn and dreamy. A few sociable ones climb to their knees and turn around to chat with the strangers behind them. When asked how she feels, Sharona replies, “Pressured.”

“It was hard saying goodbye,” adds Sigalit, sitting next to her.

At 0915, when the bus enters Tel Hashomer, the women are greeted by a billboard:


In June, 1967, when I was twenty-one, I watched the IDF victory on TV from Cleveland, Ohio. I saw the dust, smiles, and tears, heard the speeches, threats, and songs, and I wanted to be a part of that. By September, when I sat with an IDF representative in Jerusalem, I was twenty-two. The army didn’t want me; I was too old. The billboard at the entrance to the absorption base reminds me of my disappointment.

*   *   *

Mature eucalyptus trees line the paths of the base, called “Bakum” in Hebrew. I associate this acronym, which stands for Absorption and Classification Base, with “vacuum.” The base mirrors the vacuum in each new recruit’s family home—empty bedroom, empty chair.

A blonde male sergeant gets on the bus.

“Sit properly and be quiet. When I call out your name, say Yes,” he explains, and begins:







The new recruits giggle.

“Girls, please. Stop laughing. Stop being smart alecks. This is the army!”

He finishes the list of names and then, with his whole being, shouts the most famous word in the Israeli army: Acharei! Follow me.

The women repress giggles and follow blondie, shlepping their enormous back- packs to a tent.

“Stand in a double file. No gum chewing. No smoking.”

The draftees obey, but guffaw and giggle.

“OK, girls, Acharei!”

In their jeans and knit tops, the women march in two parallel lines to a low, white building, where they are led into a pleasant auditorium. There, they are supposed to watch a seven-minute movie that will prepare them for the ten-step bureaucratic maze they are about to enter. Fifteen minutes later, they are informed the projector is temporarily out of order. Is this an omen, like a nursery school teacher’s guitar popping three strings on the first day?

When a female soldier reads off the name of each new recruit, the young woman goes to the front of the auditorium and is handed stickers with bar codes. These represent the new recruit’s personal IDF identity number. At each station of the bureaucratic Via Dolorosa behind the closed double doors, the new recruit will hand over one bar code sticker.

Ready? Jump.

The first twelve draftees walk to the double doors and then, rather than continue, turn around to wave goodbye to the rest of the girls sitting in the auditorium.

“Want anything from the duty-free?” one smart aleck shouts.

Station 1: Each draftee gives the details of her bank account. The army will automatically transfer a monthly sum to each account—enough for gum, soft drinks, and cigarettes.

Station 2: Each new recruit receives the first payment—NIS 100 ($25) as a loan from the Israel Defense Forces, to be paid back in five monthly installments. The recruits are handed a 20-unit telephone card, a gift from the Soldier’s Welfare Association.

Station 3: The girls are fitted with gas masks.

“A mask that fits you will be kept in a warehouse especially for your use, should the need arise,” explains a female soldier. Each woman has her own gas mask in her closet at home, but should Israel be bombed with chemical weapons in the next twenty-two months, the girls may not be close to their closets. Hopefully, the masks, unlike the projector, will be operative and the warehouse will be nearby and open.

Station 4: Each woman dips one hand in ink so veteran soldiers can take her hand and finger prints. Now it is time for photos.

Station 5: When the draftee is in that fertile transitional state, neither here nor there, she has her mug shot taken for the IDF identity card. The first twenty of the fifty new recruits from Jerusalem do not smile.

Station 6: The new recruit is interviewed for five minutes to verify her vital statistics—name, address, family constellation—and to determine who should inherit her IDF income, in case of death. This is the second time in ten minutes that death is raised to consciousness, though in such a way that the horror of it is denied. Death, in the context of Station 6, is a possibility, one option on the flow chart.

Station 7: Is a clinic where the new recruit must extend both arms. She gets two shots, one in each. Some of the women cringe; others take shots like heroes. This is also the venue for reporting allergies and pregnancies.

Once the new recruit is named, numbered, photographed, shot, and presumably barren, she is fit to sign quartermaster Form 1004 at Station 8. This form lists every item that the new recruit will receive as soon as she walks over to the warehouse, located outside across “The New Recruits’ Park.” The draftee signs the form and exits. She is still wearing jeans and a knit top. Even though all the paperwork has now been completed, making her legally a soldier, she does not yet look like one.

Station 9: At the warehouse, she receives a clean, used, olive green duffle bag. Inside, among other things, is a uniform, which she will try on in the dressing room beyond the warehouse. She removes her civilian uniform and puts on the IDF’s Class A uniform: green Dacron shirt and slacks. It fits! She exits with her civvies in the duffle bag. Now the fun begins.

Station 10: She stands in a circle with forty-nine other new recruits, dressed alike. Their duffle bags sit on the ground in front of them, but these children are not going to play Duck Duck Goose. A red-headed male sergeant stands in the middle of the circle and says, almost kindly, “Welcome to the Israel Defense Forces.”

*   *   *

During those days in May and June, 1967, before it was clear that Israel would continue to exist, I came to realize that Israel was worth fighting for. And if fighting for, then dying for. And if dying for, why not live there?

*   *   *

“Oshrat, Rakefet, Olga, Liat, Noa …” The sergeant gives each girl her dog tag and IDF identity card with the photo taken minutes before at Station 5.

It is clear to any civilian onlooker pretending to be a journalist that these sundry eighteen-year-olds form a group. This particular group, though, has no identity. At least, not yet. They need a name.

In the Talmud it is written that all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet were created on Friday afternoon, at dusk before the first Sabbath. Clearly, God’s options were multiplied once He had letters to play with. Given this tradition, it is no surprise that the army of His Chosen People recognizes the profound importance of names. The sergeant anoints the group Platoon G.

“We’re going to basic training camp #12 in Tzrifin, a thirty-minute drive from here. You will stay there for three weeks,” a squad officer tells them, once everyone is seated on another bus. This is the first time the girls have been told exactly where they will be going, though rumors circulated all morning. Nobody giggles.

“I’m usually not even up at this time,” Ronit says, as the bus drives by the last orange groves east of Tel Aviv. Like the other girls on the bus, Ronit has been out of high school for six months, waiting for this day. Esther takes out her cell phone and calls home. When she finishes telling her mother where she is going, she looks sad.

After thirty minutes, the bus turns into Tzrifin and stops near basic training camp #12. The squad officer orders the soldiers to take their bags from the belly of the bus, put them next to the wooden hut in front of them, and arrange themselves in rows of five. When they are lined up, she reads their names: “Iris, Dana, Hili, Lital, Nechama…” The soldiers look as if they expect something meaningful to happen.

Meaning appears in the form of a short woman, no more than nineteen, with a long blonde braid down to her waist. She is their sergeant and stands before them as if a broomstick has been inserted into her backbone, reaching up to the rubber band holding her braid.

“Stand up. Hands at your side. Straighten the ranks,” she bellows. “Those in the back rows, look at the girl’s neck in front of you.” The women obey and, miraculously, Platoon G looks like a military entity rather than a bunch of teenage girls waiting for boys.

“This is how you stand at attention,” the sergeant pounds, “and this is at ease. Now do as I say. Attention. At ease.”

I have seen only one natural wonder of the world—Niagara Falls—but I am sure the others could not compare with the miracle I am witnessing here on a concrete field in the middle of Israel.

“This is how you turn to the right,” the sergeant instructs. When some soldiers giggle, perhaps thinking of steps they would like to do on the dance floor tonight, New Year’s Eve, their sergeant shouts, “Be quiet. This is the army!” She then teaches them how to march in place. “Left, right, left,” she bellows, just like in the movies. “Now march and move forward at the same time.”

Fifty women march across a field as a unit for the first time in their lives. They wear the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces. Drums should be rolling and trumpets blaring, but the only sound is the cooing of pigeons in the eucalyptus trees. At this miraculous moment of creation, the group is differentiated from all other groups by being assigned a second name: Platoon G, Squad 1.

At 1245 hours, G-1 marches towards the dining room.

They stand in formation at the entrance to the mess hall. “Don’t talk. Stand straight. Be proud,” their sergeant shouts. “You must go to all three meals every day and sit at the table for at least ten minutes. Sit together. Never be late for a meal.”

I wonder why I never gave my children such clear messages. Coming from this nineteen-year-old, rules sound beyond argument.

“When you finish lunch, sit at the table with your hands behind your back. No one moves until 1335 hours. At 1345, we will meet in the open space over there and line up in rows of five.” When the sergeant walks away to eat in the officer’s dining room, the new recruits chortle.

The dining room is an enormous, noisy room with windows on three sides. At the entrance is a sink for washing hands. Directly above it is a sign with the words of the prayer that Jews recite while washing hands before a meal with bread. Since observant Jews who serve in the army know the prayer from childhood and since secular Jews don’t pray, the sign is a puzzlement.

The women eat fried corn schnitzel, fried chicken schnitzel, elbow macaroni in oil, purple cabbage salad in mayonnaise, eggplant salad in oil, tehina, and sliced bread. Oranges for dessert. Pigeons looking for crumbs flutter above the green plastic chairs arranged around the square tables. Conversation among the ten women at the table ranges from com- plaints about the food to fantasies of New Year’s Eve parties. Some of the soldiers sit like statues, staring at the full trays in front of them.

During the ten-minute break after the meal, the girls gather outside the dining hall and smoke.

“How’s the army?” I ask.

“Fun,” says Michal. “Like our annual high school outing.”

“My shots hurt,” Adi complains. “Awful,” blurts Esther.?”All my friends will be in discos tonight.”

Ronit says, “and I have to be in this shitty place.”

At 1344 hours, the women walk over to the large, open field.

The recruits fall into formation and start marching. They march past the dining room, past the orange public telephones, the red Coke machines, and halt in front of the clinic.

“Undo your ponytails,” the sergeant bellows. “When you sit at the desk inside, pull all your hair over your face and bend your neck towards the table so the soldier can check your head for lice. When you’re finished, put your hair back in a ponytail at the height of your ears and line up in fives.”

*   *   *

When my daughter Yael was two and I put her over my knees to inspect for lice, I turned the inspection into a game. I called each lice “Shlomo” the Hebrew name of King Solomon. We were fishing for Shlomos. How many Shlomos found Yael’s hair so beautiful they could not live with- out it? I wondered if Yael would remember those intimate afternoons, when she joined the army.

*   *   *

“Now we will march to your rooms,” says the sergeant. The soldiers arrange themselves in rows as if they have been doing this for months. They march to what is called “the Hilton,” a four-story prefab cross between low-income housing and a youth hostel.

“Take all your stuff to your rooms. The third floor is yours. Put all your things under the bed. Then sit on the bed. Don’t talk. Don’t move.”

The soldiers lug their belongings up thirty-five stairs to their new homes. Each room has two rows of seven iron beds facing each other. Yellow paint on the walls is peeling and the wooden bookshelf is empty. Fourteen windows—seven on each side—allow in natural light and air. On each bed is a gray blanket and on the blanket are a canteen, a belt, and a long, black instrument for cleaning rifles. Next to it are a soap dish full of more implements for the same purpose, ammunition, a green army jacket, a green wool sweater, a green canvas visor hat, and two folded gray blankets. White powder covers the blankets and clothes. After the recruits put their belongings under their beds, they sit on the beds. Then they talk and move.

“Quiet!” shouts the sergeant, when she enters, fifteen minutes later. “I said don’t talk and don’t move.” The soldiers move into obeying. “The white powder is against scabeous worms, which cause unpleasant itching. The powder is used at the end of each basic training course. There are no worms now, but you must air out your blankets every day.”

*   *   *

I was the kind of mother who skipped those chapters in how-to-parent books about setting limits and making rules. For me, boundaries are lines discussed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, not mothers and daughters. Consequently, Yael, like me, has no schedule and little routine. Her obligations at home are minimal, due to laissez-faire mothering. I do not admit this with pride. In these barracks I appreciate the consequences of such laxity—scabeous worms.

*   *   *

The soldiers are told to report to the Absorption Room at 1530 hours. Once there, the young recruits look tired and fed-up. They sit on low benches with no backs. Do the eighteen-year-olds notice the sign above the doorway? “And God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and take care of it.” Do they appreciate the irony of this sign, when their eyes survey the chalk graffiti on the blackboard next to it: “This is a horrible, depressing place”?

Yawns replace giggles. In silence they wait.

“Hands behind your backs. Sit up straight. Head forward. Don’t move at all. This is how you will receive the platoon’s commissioned officer. Soon she will enter the room.”

It is said, if the Messiah should arrive when you are planting a tree, you must continue to plant. If a commissioned officer walks into a room, however, you must freeze into a posture of submissive respect.

Now the sergeant is introducing a new vocabulary which the soldiers pick up quickly: “Yes, officer.” and “No, officer.”

“Say, Yes, Officer.” “Yes, Officer.”?”Now, say No, Officer.” “No, Officer.”

“You will have a course on weapons, first aid, and chemical warfare. During the basic training, you will meet with people who will help you decide where you will serve in the IDF, according to the needs of the IDF. Now prepare to meet the platoon’s commanding officer.”

The soldiers straighten up and push their heads forward. Drums roll in my head as through the door strides a thin girl, no taller than 5’2″, wearing black-framed glasses and a visor that hides her face. Some of her hair is pulled into a ponytail; the rest straddles either side of her neck. She looks at the floor, then at the new recruits, as if she were wearing contacts for the first time. Her voice thunders with the authority of one who knows all the answers and is always right.

“There are two basic values here. Camaraderie and Discipline. OK. I expect you to help each other. And I expect you to behave. We do not want to punish you, so do not provoke us. OK. Platoon G-1 will do everything correctly and obey all orders. You are one body and you are the best. You will all cooperate. OK. This doesn’t have to be difficult.”

The commissioned officer paces back and forth in front of the stunned women. On each “OK” she looks at her soldiers from under the visor and behind the glasses. Her “OK” is not like that of an insecure mother who, after suggesting to her daughter that she goes to bed, adds an “OK?” as in Are we going to cooperate tonight? Will I still be an OK mother if I force you to go to bed? No. The commissioned officer’s “OK” says, This is the way it is. No questions. Period.

*   *   *

“Help each other and you’ll all get through this. You have a talented staff who want to teach you. OK. We have a lot to give you. OK. I want Platoon G-1 to be the best. It will be difficult, but we will help you with any problems that arise. OK. If you see that a friend is having a hard time, tell us. This is not tattle-telling. We are professionally trained to help you.”

The new recruits look comatose.

“On Friday you have a military trek and then you will stay here this Sabbath. OK.” The commissioned officer escapes before the tears start rolling. The draftees expected to spend their first Sabbath at home. One soldier is crying loudly.

The crying turns into sobs. The sergeant orders the woman next to the distraught soldier to take her out of the room.

“Get her some water at the drinking fountain down the hall,” she says. When they return five minutes later, the sobbing girl’s uniform is completely soaked.

Groups of five soldiers are called to the front desk, while the other forty-five soldiers are expected to sit up straight on the wooden benches with no backs and keep quiet.

“Are you vegetarian, naturopath, kibbutznik, religious, or from a bereaved family?” each recruit is asked.

The new recruits waiting their turn murmur, much like the Israelites murmured against Moses. The sergeant singles out one woman for whispering to her neighbor and tells her to stand up straight with her hands behind her back for five minutes.

*   *   *

I chose the nursery school with the teacher who could sing in six languages. Each week Etti taught the children about a different country on the twirling plastic globe. Yael sang in Chinese, Arabic, Dutch, Hebrew, English, and Russian by the time she was two and a half. Etti never told any child to stand up straight with her hands behind her back because she was whispering.

In first grade, the choice was between a school that worshipped computers and one that worshipped God. I chose the latter. Computer technology changes rapidly, becomes obsolete quickly. I wanted Yael to learn something lasting. The prayers had been around since the tenth century. For high school, I checked out two schools—one with classes of forty that paid lip service to excellence and another with classes of twenty-eight that paid lip service to socialism. Yael’s education was a litany of sensitivity training in hypocrisy.

*   *   *

At 1630 hours, the sergeant begins her opening speech as if the fifty soldiers have just arrived and have not been sitting on benches for more than two hours.

“My name is Inbal, but you address me as Sergeant. You treat me with respect. I am not your friend. Keep your hands at your side. Respect my rank and do not laugh. I am responsible for equipment, administration, and discipline. Whatever equipment you receive here, you must return. Keep your duffle bags locked. At the end of basic training, if something of yours is lost, you will have a trial and have to pay.”

I stop taking notes, and list only the headings: appearance regulations, guard duty regulations, daily schedule, channels of communication, prevention of fungus in canteens, soldiers’ rights. At 1745 hours, the sergeant raises her voice. “I’m not finished yet, but it’s time to eat.”

Numb, I excuse myself to go home. Might there be another army in the neighborhood I can visit? What will I tell Yael, who always took five months to adjust to a new school? She has no more desire to become a soldier than I do to send her.


The bus comes and I take a window seat. At the next stop a woman soldier sits next to me. I take notes. She asks if I am a journalist.

“No,” I say. “Just a mother.”

She takes out her cell phone, the antenna looped like an umbilical cord.

“I … have no control,” I murmur, “What … happens to her.”

Author’s Note: Yael completed her army service in 1998. She went from tears on the first day to being recognized as “An Excellent Soldier” on the last.

Judy Labensohn’s writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, and Lilith Magazine, among others. Originally from Shaker Heights, Ohio, Labensohn has lived in Israel since 1967. She mothers three Sabra children, grandmothers four, and still writes in English. Visit her at www.writeinisrael.com

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The Magic of Kissing Boo-Boos

The Magic of Kissing Boo-Boos

By Kim Siegal

0My 3-year-old son Caleb came storming in the front door, screaming, mouth contorted into a square shape—the corners pulled down in agony—eyes closed in pain. Of course he was not being chased into the house by mutant zombies sadists, as his display would have you believe. He was reacting like a typical child to a minor knee scrape.

What’s a parent to do in the face of such heart-wrenching but exaggerated hysterics? Well, if you’re an American, you generally (after assessing there’s no real damage), express some loving maternal sympathy and apply a therapeutic kiss. We’ve done it for generations. Kiss the boo-boo and make it better.

“Mwah! All better sweetie.”

After a few gasps of air to settle down, Caleb turned on his heels and ran out the door, eager to rejoin his playmates outside.

Sitting back on my living room sofa, I turned to face my Swahili teacher who had just witnessed this exchange. His jaw was on the floor. “That works?” he asked incredulously.

I could see it now through his eyes—that magic of that kiss transformation.

We’d been living in Kenya for three years and these subtle cultural parenting differences never ceased to surprise me. I suppose I assumed parents kissed boo-boos the world over. They don’t.

But here’s the thing: most cultures have something like this in their parenting arsenal. For my Swahili tutor, it just wasn’t a kiss. Kenyans generally, in the face of a boo-boo induced tantrum, do the following: they forcefully smack the offending thing—the door he bumped his head on, the stick he tripped over or the flat ground he stumbled over—and admonish it saying, “Mbaya!” (Bad!). Maybe they are restoring some kind of justice in the world by yelling at the inanimate object that hurt their little one, or maybe they are just focusing the crying child’s attention somewhere else.

When I first saw this I thought it was silly. It’s not the table’s fault that junior walked into it, so why are we punishing the table? How is this helpful? And why am I defending an inanimate object?

I suppose my Swahili tutor might have thought my kiss was silly as well. Why would you want to put your mouth on that? And how could that possibly make him feel any better?

But you know what? Smacking and admonishing the table works too. And it’s probably the result of a similar principle as the therapeutic kiss. When a little one falls, or somehow gets hurt (as they do half a dozen times a day) the crying is as much about the fear as the pain.  Perhaps they are thinking, “Holy cheese on a cracker! Is this how the world actually works? I can be toddling along, minding my own business, and the corner of a table leaps up and bonks me on the head?!? Why? What did I do to deserve this? Oh, the humanity!” The pain is fleeting, but the anxiety could probably sustain a good cry.

So, they likely just need something. Something to restore their faith that the world is safe and good. Maybe it’s a loving kiss or maybe it’s a reprimand to the offending inanimate hurt-maker. Either approach works equally well to comfort and calm.

My second son was born in Kenya, and his first intelligible word was “mbaya!” He’s internalized the whole thing. Even at one and a half, when he trips over something, he walks back to the site of the tripping, bends his little body over and slaps the ground, exclaiming a satisfying (and adorable) “Mbaya!” And then he toddles on, the justice of the world briefly restored.

Kim Siegal lives in Kisumu, Kenya with her husband and 2 sons. She chronicals her experiences living and raising children in Africa in www.mamamzungu.com.  She has written for the Huffington Post, Inculture Parent and is an editor and contributor at www.worldmomsblog.com.

Barren in the Andes

Barren in the Andes

By Laura Resau
Art Barren in the Andes 3Breathless, I hurry along narrow trails between Quichua family farms, past squawking chickens and curly-tailed piglets. My destination is a shaman who lives in this village on the outskirts of Otavalo, Ecuador. I’m going as a last-ditch hope he can heal me. Back in Colorado, I tried everything—Eastern and Western medicine, herbs and tinctures, weird diets. And now I’m teetering on the edge of bitter despair.

I emerge from the foliage to a vista of fifteen-thousand-foot peaks rising above emerald fields, dotted with red-tiled roofs and grazing sheep. Two of these mountains are said to be ancient Incan gods: the male, Imbabura, and his lover, Cotacachi. When she’s covered with light frost at dawn, locals claim it’s semen from a night of passion. Their offspring— smaller, baby mountains—lie scattered between them. Then there’s the ubiquitous Andean deity, Pacha Mama, the World Mother, whose fertile body spills out in swirling folds, patchworks of velvet fields, silken pastures.

Fertility is a deep and ancient craving, at once visceral and mythical, elemental and universal. This, at least, is my impression as an anthropologist, or, more to the point, as a woman who cannot seem to have a baby.

If my first pregnancy hadn’t ended in miscarriage, my child would be five. And if any of the next years of fertility treatments had worked, I’d have a preschooler, or toddler, or baby. I’d be holding his pudgy hand, or idly tousling his hair, or, what I crave most, kissing his tiny feet.

A few months ago, after years of heart-breaking negatives, a miracle occurred: I got pregnant again, naturally. But anxiety eclipsed the joy; my body felt fragile and broken. Terrified I’d lose the baby, I ate only hyper-hygienically-prepared organic food, let no synthetic chemicals touch my skin. Despite my vigilance, after eleven weeks, I lost the baby.

Now, one month later, my heart still feels as raw and broken as my belly. If my body had functioned, a baby bump would just be showing. I place my hand over the plane of my abdomen, flat except for a smattering of recent bug bites.

After this second miscarriage, I mustered up my scant energy and planned a trip to Ecuador, ostensibly to visit my friend, María. At the heart of it, I needed to get out of my house, with its heavy, empty, childless silence.

The shaman’s curing room is large and high-ceilinged, yet cave-like, with soot-blackened adobe walls holding the scent of candle wax and wood smoke and incense. He positions me smack in the center of the room and gives an instruction in Quichua, translated by María with a suppressed snicker. “Strip to your underwear, Laurita.”

I stand, blinking, taking stock of my body, which frankly, I’ve come to hate more with every month of infertility. Encased in my unflattering beige sports bra are my ever-milkless breasts, six pounds of useless meat, serving only to remind me of what I don’t have. My gaze drops lower, to the faint surgical scar at my navel—evidence of a fruitless effort to restore fertility.

The shaman picks up a green glass bottle shaped like a woman in large skirts—reminiscent of the old Aunt Jemima syrup bottles—filled with alcohol. He chants and whistles a meandering tune as he circles the bottle in a blessing. From the altar, he grabs a pinch of rose petals, sticks them between his lips, takes a mouthful of liquor, and spits it all over me.

I shut my eyes, try not to wince. As the shaman spits wave after wave, I try to imagine myself as a goddess, solid and fertile as the semen-coated mountain Cotacachi. I envision Pacha Mama herself, rising through the earthen floor, filling me. I visualize the gusts blowing away the dark energy clinging to me.

It does require effort, however, to ignore the germ-laden saliva of a strange man covering my body, and I’m relieved when he stops spitting and begins beating me instead. Gently, I should add, with a bundle of healing chilca leaves. It’s actually a nice sensation, my body turned into a drum. He pounds the leaves on my chest, as if giving it a new rhythm, a passionate, strong heartbeat. But now my thoughts are creeping to the distinct lack of heartbeat on the ultrasound last month. That night, I’d lain in bed, staring at the overhead fan in the blue half-light, tear-soaked and sob-wracked. Near dawn, when I was cried out, I found myself repeating, fuck, fuck, fuck, a beating like a heart, a rhythm like a drum. It went on for a long, long time. Hours, maybe. By the time morning light came, I knew I couldn’t bear another month of hope and heartbreak. A few days later, in my bathrobe, with damp tissues spilling from the pockets, I searched online for adoption information. Maybe, I thought, heavy with desperation and shame, if I adopt, then I’ll get pregnant.

*   *   *

My gloomy ruminations continue as the shaman beats me with shell-intact raw eggs (to absorb negative energy), and then (for reasons that remain unclear) blows cheap local cigarette smoke all over me, punctuated with a kind of smoky kiss on the top of my head. He then picks up the Aunt Jemima-style bottle, which he raises to his lips, presumably, to spit on me some more. Still half-lost in mournful memories, and vaguely aware that I already reek of a seedy, late-night bar, I take a deep breath and brace myself for the next round.

But this time is different. This time the shaman, standing about six paces away, extends a lighter at arm’s length before he spits the liquor.

A mist of alcohol blasts through the flame and catches fire. Catches fire!

And oh my God there’s a fireball heading toward me and holy crap I’m covered in flammable liquid.

Fear explodes through me. There is no time to dive out of the way. There is only time to squeeze my eyes shut and pray.

A wave of heat rolls over me.

María gasps on the sidelines.

I open my eyes, look down at my body. I am not on fire. Thank God, I’m not on fire! Chest pounding, I peer closer, at the light hairs on my arms. Unsinged. The fireball must have burned up just before reaching me. I let out a breath. Oh, thank God, my bug-bitten flesh is intact. Thank God my broken body remains whole.

The shaman is already taking another mouthful. I steel myself, shut my eyes, and pray. Another wave of heat. A flash of fear. Afterward, a mental scan of my flesh. Still not on fire. Thank you. And on and on they go, these fire- balls that tug me right into this place, this moment.

By the time they stop, my body is quivering like a plucked string, but now thoroughly warmed. Pulse racing, sweat pouring from my armpits, I wonder what comes next.

The shaman picks up a large, smooth, black stone from his altar. Andean shamans’ stones have personalities, talents, lives of their own. The shaman places his helper stone over my belly, and then, in a powerful voice, as if he’s channeling the wind, shouts, “Shunguuu!” it’s a whoosh, this word, and it whooshes right into me.

“Shunguuu!” he shouts again, with the force of a storm, and any silly thoughts that were not burned up by the fireballs are now blown away. Shunguuu! A perfect word for this focused power aimed straight into my center.

He murmurs something to María, who translates, “Think about what you want, Laurita.”

I am very practiced at wishing. For every birthday and shooting star sighting and heads-side-up penny over the past five years, I have wished for increasingly detailed versions of the same thing: that I get pregnant with a baby in my own womb with my own egg and Ian’s sperm and give birth to my healthy and beautiful and happy full- term baby. There is no room for nasty surprises from the universe with that degree of specificity.

I now prepare to carefully whisper my wish, but then, I stop.

I surprise myself by asking, Laura, what do you really, truly want?

In response, something happens inside my chest. A kind of whoosh of sunlight into my heart. It’s as if a doorway has opened, a passage I never knew existed. And on the other side, in the light, are tiny, tender feet. A baby who nestles into my body, his world. A baby who is not inside my belly, but inside my heart, in this light-filled space that was here all along. This baby, these feet, they are my joy.

This is what I want. This is the wish I whisper.

*   *   *

After the ceremony, I stand, soaking wet in my sports bra, plastered with bits of rose petals, my heart still hurting, but stronger now, encased in this flawed but loved body. I bask inside my own hidden patch of light as the shaman explains that to complete the ceremony, I may not indulge in the following items for three days: chocolate, pork, fish, avocado, milk, chili, and (regrettably) showers.

For the next three days, I’ll be living with a thin coating of alcohol and saliva and smoke and rose petals on my skin. But none of that matters because I’m not thinking so much about my body now, but my heart, and its surprise doorway, and the baby feet, and the glimpse of joy.

Nodding confidently, the shaman tells María one more thing. She beams as she translates, “this mujercita—this little woman—will have a baby very soon!”

Yes, I think, my heart freshly full and newly light, this mujercita will.

*   *   *

Back home, as my bug-bite welts fade, as springtime blooms in Colorado, I embark on a nine-month-long adoption process, not as means to a pregnancy, but as a pathway to this baby inside my heart, my baby. My husband is supportive, but, as is typical in adoptions (and pregnancies), it is the woman who labors, the woman who, one way or another, delivers her child. My life quickly fills with reams of paperwork, long waits in government buildings, and multiple trips to Guatemala.

I deal with these tasks the way a pregnant woman deals with morning sickness and swollen feet and other annoyances that pale beside the monumental and sparkling anticipation of the baby coming. At the three-month mark, instead of an ultrasound, I’m rewarded with photos of the newborn whose spirit is growing inside me. As his arrival nears, something inside me thrums, something stronger than kicks or hiccups—something inside my chest, the beating of thousands of shimmering wings.

*   *   *

Three years later, when he’s old enough to begin to understand, I tell my son I wish my belly hadn’t been broken so that he could have been in it. I wish my breasts could have given him milk. I tell him it made me sad, but that even though he couldn’t grow in my belly, he grew in my heart.

He nuzzles in my lap like a baby animal and tells me my breasts are soft pillows for his head. He tells me, in our whispered conversations, “I always wanted a mommy like you. Out of all the mommies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”

And I tell him, my voice breaking, “I always wanted a little boy like you. Out of all the babies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”

Then, for the ten thousandth time, I kiss his feet.

Author’s Note: During the process of adopting my son, I wrote the novel The Indigo Notebook, about a teenage boy searching for his birth parents in the Andes. This book gave me the chance to explore the idea of looking beyond what I think I want, to discover what I truly want. (It also gave me the chance to include a shaman-spitting-fireballs scene).

Laura Resau has lived and traveled in Latin America and Europe. Her experiences inspired her novels for young people—What the Moon Saw, Red Glass, The Indigo Notebook, Star in the Forest, and The Queen of Water. She lives with her family in Colorado (www.lauraresau.com).

One in 1.3 Billion

One in 1.3 Billion

By Chris Huntington

summer2011_huntingtonOur family endures a weird celebrity. It doesn’t come from being unusually good-looking or accomplished, but just from being odd to look at. My wife, Shasta, has eyes the color of faded denim. She’s four foot ten and only weighs about a hundred pounds. Her tiny hands are pale as eggshells; sunlight is something she likes to read about. On the other hand, because my maternal grandparents emigrated from Guangzhou and my paternal grandparents were Hoosiers, I have a thin, vaguely mongrel appearance one might associate with the Tajik people or the Uzbeks. Shasta’s grandmother, a true New Englander, once asked her why I was so swarthy. Our son, on the other hand, is the color of milk chocolate. He was born outside Addis Ababa and is one member of a new generation of Ethiopians raised abroad. Together, we are an odd trio.

Dagim is a happy human cannonball, a three-year-old lion with a tiny Afro. He spins like a dervish with his fingers fluttering to music only he hears. Some days, he says he’s going to stay little like his mommy. Some days he wants to get big like me. A month ago, we were walking to a hill we could see in the distance, and he wanted to know if I could carry it home for him. He seemed surprised when I said no. He climbs me like a tree; this morning he declared he was cold and tunneled his forehead into my neck. He let me carry him to our back door. His eyes were closed against my chest, and I felt fragile with happiness.

Yesterday, one of my new co-workers came by the apartment. His wife, who is expecting, rubbed her waist and told Dag she had a baby inside. “We’re going to give our son a baby sister,” she said.

Dag repeated this story five times after the couple and their boy left. He also told one of his stuffed animals, “I don’t have sisters. I just have friends.” I could see Dag’s brain considering the new possibilities. He wanted to know if he had ever been behind his mommy’s belly button. He was wondering if he was going to get a baby sister. The words for the questions were lining up to come out, though they never quite made it. I could see Shasta doing calculations of her own. She was preparing her voice, her sad eyes rehearsing; she doesn’t want to sound sad when she answers. I want to interrupt them both, stop the conversation. I want to tell a different story of our family. One that doesn’t start with the word “No.”

One time in the airport, we passed a husband and wife and their four kids, all of whom had beautiful teeth and golden Viking hair. Shasta said, “That family looks like a chess set designed by Abercrombie and Fitch.”

“What are we?” I said.

“We’re not a chess set,” she said. “We’re action figures.”

I was forty years old when I became a father. Shasta was thirty-two. We had tried for years to make a baby the old-fashioned way. High school guidance counselors always warn that it’s horribly easy to get pregnant. But it wasn’t easy for us. We discovered that, unlike the rest of our species, our particular DNA was completely uninterested in preserving itself. We applied to adopt from China. Half my family came from there; I felt a kind of invisible connection—a red thread around the world—but then, that didn’t work, either. We were put on a list that was at least five years long. I borrowed money from my parents, and we saw a fertility expert, a skinny man who once walked past me without a glance as if I were an empty armchair in his waiting room. And then we found this little boy living in an orphanage in Addis Ababa. He didn’t have anyone. He needed us. We needed him.

Until recently, we lived in Indianapolis, and we stood out a bit there. We now live four hundred miles north of Hong Kong where we stand out even more. I took a job teaching in Xiamen, one of the fifty or so Chinese cities with more than two million people. (A friend of mine is fond of saying, “You know that guy who’s one in a million? Well, there are a thousand guys like him in China.”) We moved to Xiamen for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that I was suddenly unemployed in a recession. My wife and I also thought that maybe it would be good for Dag if he weren’t the only one who felt different when we walked down the street. If all three of us were equally unlike our neighbors, our three-year-old wouldn’t have to bear the weight of it all by himself. In retrospect, we might have misjudged what it would mean to stand out in a place where the buses are filled window to window with shiny, straight black hair.

We’ve had strangers here step forward to ask if Dagim is our son. If Shasta’s alone, the stranger will ask, “But his father is black, right?”

Shasta always smiles, “No, not really,” or, “Well, he likes Sade.” Then she continues grocery shopping or whatever she’s doing.

I hesitate when I’m asked if Dagim’s mother is black, not wanting to disrespect either my wife or Dagim’s birth parents. But I usually say no, his mother is white. After all, we’re a family, and Shasta is his mother. But sometimes people follow up with the comment, “But his face is not like yours” and wait for an explanation.

I’m not sure what kind of explanation they expect. Do they expect me to act surprised? To say my wife has cheated on me? To announce that Dagim is an experiment? I stare back, and people smile and blink. Without guile. They’re not trying to hurt my feelings. These are old women who sweep the street with tree branch brooms. Or they’re young people who have no idea that their T-shirts are nonsense (“Bad Groundwater” or “Big Onion Boy”). Or they’re men who lived through the Cultural Revolution only to turn fifty and find the NBA logo on their Tsingtao beer. I think we get asked questions because people are honestly perplexed. One person told me that because many Chinese have heard that Barack Obama had a white mother, the idea has spread that black people can be born to white people. From their perspective, they are suddenly standing on the bus next to a thirty-five-pound Kobe Bryant. Can I explain it?

We hardly know how to explain it to ourselves. We’ve told Dagim the simplest version of the story. Adoption experts have told us that when Dagim asks about his birth family, we should tell him how his birth mother loved him so much, she gave him up. She wanted to keep him, but she was too poor, in one of the poorest countries on earth. There just wasn’t enough money or food to go around. But it seems to us that someday Dag is going to say, “People don’t give up things they love. You love me, and you’re not giving me up,” or he’s going to look at Time magazine and see pictures of poor people clutching babies in floods or wars and instead of feeling compassion, he’ll feel hurt that someone who looks like him let him go.

We’ve been told that if he ever wishes he could have been a baby inside my wife or wishes he was the same color as us, we should say something along the lines of, “We don’t wish that because then you wouldn’t be you, and we love you the way you are—which is perfect.” But the fact is, sometimes I look at him sleeping and I wish my skin were the same beautiful brown. I don’t like being different from him. I wish he could look up and see his face in mine. I wish that we could walk into an Indiana Denny’s together and he would not be the only person of color outside of the kitchen. Sometimes I feel as if this hurt, this longing, is something we need to share. Other times, I think I should just keep it to myself. But why do Chinese people on the bus think I want to talk to them about it?

When we were preparing to move to China, family and friends constantly joked about how we were sure to come home with a little girl, as if Chinese babies were stacked like bags of rice in giant warehouses. Americans associate China with adoption, but Chinese people themselves don’t. In a country of 1.3 billion people, the loss of some six thousand orphans a year is not immediately visible. My Chinese teacher, who has worked in the expat community for years, was ready to argue when I said that a lot of Chinese girls were adopted into American families. When I opened a website, she pulled the laptop from my hands. “Lucky girls,” she said finally, handing it back. It was a ridiculous thing to say about abandoned children, but to be fair: My teacher was taken by surprise. In China, grandparents may raise grandkids while parents work in factories, but adoption, especially from Africa, is not something normal people do. They’re not allowed. There wasn’t even a legal statute for domestic adoption until 1992, and this required that the adopting parents be over thirty-five years old and have no other children. The common observation is that the Chinese government has suppressed its domestic adoption because it believes if couples are allowed to give up girls for adoption (in order to try again for a boy), this will undermine the population control policy. My wife and I struggled to expand our family, but for over a billion people living around us, it’s apparently so easy that the government made one child the legal limit for each couple. Childless families here struggle in their own ways, but they do not turn to adoption the way Americans do.

Adoption here is essentially impossible except perhaps in a paperless way by extended family. Our Chinese neighbors must know or suspect Dagim is adopted, but the knowledge is uncertain and mysterious because a Chinese version of our family could not exist. I don’t think there is a single Chinese family who has adopted from Ethiopia. We’re treated at times as though we came from another world, but I suppose we did.

After moving from our house in Indiana to an apartment in Xiamen, Dagim struck up a friendship with the neighbor’s blackbird. The bird greets anyone on our porch with either dead-on mimicry of the neighbor clearing his throat or the words “Ni Hao!” That’s about all the Chinese Dagim knows; it means “hello.” Dagim thinks of China as “where pandas live” and “the Great Wall.” He sees China as endless bowls of noodles and busy chopsticks and rice. Some days, Dagim likes kung pao chicken.  Some days, he doesn’t. For Dagim, China is also a place where strangers approach him on the bus to pinch his kinky hair. Ever since we got here, Shasta and I have promised ourselves that we would show Dagim a China that he can love.?A colleague told me that he was going to take some people to see panda bears. “Take us,” I said.

I’m not a naturalist at heart. I love the world, but I haven’t slept outdoors much since I became an adult. I knew, however, that there were fewer than a thousand panda bears left in the world. I wanted to show Dagim some pandas from a few feet away. A part of me felt that if I could do that, then maybe someday Dagim’s children would look at him like he’d touched a dinosaur. I wanted to give him that, just in case everything else about moving to China turned out to have been a mistake.

When we arrived at the preserve, the Chinese officials in charge insisted we watch a documentary about the animals we were about to see. We learned that pandas are solitary, spending most of the year without even seeing another panda, and when they come together to mate, they are spectacularly unsuccessful, even in the wild. The documentary went into great detail about the artificial insemination that scientists used to keep the species alive in captivity. “Hmm,” my wife said. “I like pandas. They’re a lot like us. They’re ridiculous.”


“Well, they make easy things hard for themselves, but they don’t bother anybody.”

“The easy way,” I said, and I rolled my eyes. “Who would want to do things the easy way?”

“Right,” my wife said. We watched some more of the video. The pandas, unlike every other bear, limit their diet to bamboo, which means they need to eat about forty-five pounds of the plant every day. Shasta laughed. “Oh, come on. They’re impossible!”

“They’re beautiful. They’re black and white and live in China,” I said. “They’re absolutely us.”

This is what I want to tell Dagim when he asks about a pregnant woman’s waist. “Anyone can make a family that way,” I want to tell him. “Anybody. Except us. And panda bears. And stars. Stars just appear. Sometimes they fall to earth. That’s our family, Dagim. That’s absolutely us.”

Author’s Note: After I wrote this essay, my family, by chance, shared a Chinese taxi with a woman of color from South Africa. She asked Dagim about himself, and he spontaneously told her he was born in Ethiopia and that we’d adopted him when he was little. I’d never heard him tell the story before; he was leaning off his seat, overflowing with happiness. As we said goodbye, Dagim raised his fist and said, “AMANDLA!” just like Nelson Mandela, and the woman rushed forward to kiss him. “How did you learn that?” she repeated, and I was blind with pride.  

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

Chris Huntington taught in the American prison system for ten years before moving to China with his family. His is the author of the novel, Mike Tyson Slept Here. His essays about family and adoption have been anthologized in Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting and This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. His website is chrishuntingtononline.com.

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Dear Drudgery: Xtreme Driving Edition

Dear Drudgery: Xtreme Driving Edition

0-1The latest installment of Dear Drudgery, a series in which we tell parenting tedium what’s what. The story so far: I was a fun-loving young sprite and then there were three children and also being married can be hard, and for a while I kind of lost the plot. Then I made a Commitment to Fun. Now my life is daisies and nothing ever is the matter!  It helped.

My idea made perfect sense to me; I don’t know why everyone acted like I’d lost my mind.

“Sight unseen? On eBay?! In PASADENA? How do you know this car will even drive?”

Well, sometimes you don’t get to know.

My fun program had been baby steps so far, but this was going to be high drama. It had to be, to counter all the emotional unspooling.

You hear sometimes of the breakdown that can happen in a marriage, right around the decade mark. Some marriages survive it, some don’t. But regardless of outcome, an awful lot of marriages tank for a while. Anthony and I proved to be super awesome at the tanking.

That spring was the Spring I Cried. In the kitchen, in the car, in the office. Would I ever not be tired? Did I love Anthony, really, the way you’re supposed to love your partner? Had he ever loved me? Wasn’t marriage supposed to have more movie-montage elation, fewer protracted silences? While Anthony and I were disintegrating, our poor children were busy being ten, seven, and almost three.

I was a wreck, but it wasn’t a job for antidepressants. I wasn’t inexplicably blue; I was blue-with-explication: I was in a marriage, but it felt like it was just me in there. The man brushing his teeth beside me was kind and good, but utterly silent. Well, not utterly.

“Good morning.”


“Can you drive to soccer?”

“Um…sure. Yeah, that works. You can get to daycare?”

“Yep. Have a good day.”

“You, too.”

I loved my children more than breathing, but most mornings I woke up barely able to breathe myself. Evenings, Anthony and I sat on the couch after the kids went to bed, completely spent, not remembering what it was like to have things to say.

Darkened rooms are for amateurs. I demonstrated my ability to fall apart in the chipperest of settings one sparkling May evening. We’d all gone for burgers, then to the playground. Eldest dangled on the swing with her book and Middlest spouted baseball stats and chewed with his mouth open, but Youngest still loved the slide. I put her at the top and launched her with a gentle push – wooosh.

The tears came silently, and without warning or reason. I tried to blink them back; too late. They, too, launched.


And then more. Eldest sidled over and slid her hand into mine.

Over and over. Youngest slid. I cried. Eldest held on. Anthony and Middlest, unaware, talked infield fly rule.

Well. This wasn’t sustainable.

What do you do when you feel the very core of your life isn’t working? You carefully, thoughtfully, examine that core and make changes, right?

That’s a big process. In the short run, could I maybe just keep from losing my shit on the playground?

More everyday joys to get us through, I thought. Big ones, while I figure out what to do with my head and my heart.

I thought about driving, its slogging constancy. Work, practices, orthodontists, school—I covered an endless loop in our ratty used cars, Corolla and minivan, both older than my marriage and about as tired.

I’d never been a material girl, but I suddenly flashed on a way to transform those hours and hours of drive time. It was so out-of-character I knew it must be right. That night, I looked up the bluebook value of the Corolla—$5,000; I could work with that—then drew a circle with a thousand-mile radius, our house dead center… Any location outside the circle was fair game. My driving renaissance would start with a road trip.

I approached Anthony with my plan, explained how it didn’t have to be expensive.

“I think you should go for it,” he said.

(Eventually, I would notice that the quiet I was raging against was simply the frustrating alter ego of this sterling quality: Anthony doesn’t sweat things. Two sides, same coin.)

I opened an eBay account. I practiced entering ridiculously low bids, to get the feel of things. Four days later, when BMWDude456 was auctioning off his – my – convertible, I knew to wait until the final moment.

At 11:29:30 PDT on a Wednesday, I sat in my office with a conference call on mute—just for a minute; it’s not my fault my car was being auctioned during weekly status—and eBay on my screen. I had already typed in my maximum bid of $5,800 and positioned my cursor square on the Bid Now button.

I kept my hand above the mouse, not touching lest I bid too early or start a nuclear war. I held position until 11:29:52, and then I clicked.

Eight seconds later, I was the gasping owner of a 325i. Fifteen years old, condition: “Excellent.” (Cherry red, but fuck the jokes about midlife crisis. I wanted the car much more than I resented the cliché. Anyway, I was only thirty-four. HOLY MOLY! I WAS A MIDLIFE-CRISIS PRODIGY!) I finished my meeting.

When they heard, my friends and coworkers had a collective cow:

“You bought a CAR on eBay?! How do you know it can even make it home? That the guy isn’t a total crook?”

Excellent questions, one and all, I acknowledged, and made a plan to pick up my car.

*   *   *

I’m pretty sure I met BMWDude456 at a Pasadena strip mall, but I don’t really remember him. My car was so red, so cheerful. It even had those wheels with the super shiny spokes. Twenty minutes later, I waved goodbye to Dude—I think—and headed up the California coast. I’d gone to Pasadena by myself, to be alone for the first time in ten years, to fall to pieces in peace. But as my red car and I tootled up 101, I didn’t feel much like falling to pieces at all.

*   *   *

Back home, two weeks after my historic mouse-click, I witnessed a kind of magic: The circuit was still there and still endless, but carpool-mom drudgery was replaced by unalloyed glee. Someone always begged to join me, on errands I no longer dreaded. The sun shone down on our upturned faces as we sang along with The Magnetic Fields, shouting our delight into the blue, blue sky. Just going to the dentist became sun on the water, wind in the hair.

When Anthony and I were in the car together, I felt the wind whipping away the miasma that had formed between us. Yes, we still had work to do. But the space between the bucket seats was easier to penetrate than the exact same distance, sitting on the couch.

The red-car atmosphere was pure and fresh, easy to move through. In it, I realized that the laughing, the fun, the lightness—they’d been available all along, just as true and as real as the confusion and the lonesome. I’d been missing the great while I focused on the hard. The hard was still there too, of course, but this car—a car, how ridiculous—drove me right up to all the good stuff, made me stop and look.

The mood of the red car persisted even when we weren’t in it, and I knew:  People who say you can’t get joy from material objects have never met the right material object. We zipped around our lives, creating montage after montage.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Is She Yours?

Is She Yours?

By Anita Felicelli Is She Yours Art v5-1

One weekday afternoon, a woman hands me slices of pepperoni pizza and asks me if I am my daughter’s nanny. She frowns at me and at the baby in the stroller, so the question seems hostile rather than innocent. We are at a Mountain Mike’s Pizza in Palo Alto, walking distance from my house. “No, I’m her mother,” I answer, paying quickly and scarfing down the pizza so I can get out of the restaurant.

I am accustomed to people of all different races and cultures cooing when they see my daughter or asking how old she is, but I am also growing familiar with the questions. “Are you the nanny?” or “Is she yours?” I get these questions from strangers at the airport and local restaurants, and from unfamiliar staff at the pediatrician’s office. While I remain slightly offended by the questions, I have to admit that within a few days of giving birth, even I thought, Holy smokes! Are you mine? I was struck by how markedly different she looks from Steven and me, and briefly wondered if she’d been switched with another baby. The most obvious difference was skin tone. I am much darker-skinned than my daughter, and, although I am first-generation Indian-American, I have been mistaken for Afro-Caribbean, Mexican, and mixed race. My daughter Illyria (“Illy” for short) has the same fair-gold skin tone as her Italian-American father and eyes that turned from purplish-grey to hazel within her first six months.

At every family get-together after she was born, we all tried to pinpoint who she looks like, everyone voicing different opinions: she looks like me, she looks like Steven’s mother, she looks like my mother, she looks like Steven’s niece, or she looks like the girl on the cover of a Shonen Knife CD. Then, when she expressed a different mood and her face changed, whoever had spoken took back his or her opinion, uncertain again. Although I was born in India, I grew up in Palo Alto, California, before there were many Indians around and before interracial marriages became common. When I was a child, my parents enrolled me in an Indian Sunday school where I took classes in Bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance), Tamil (their native language), and Balavihar (Hinduism). I remember one little girl with very fair skin who came to Balavihar for a few months. She never said a word. All the other kids, including me, whispered about her on the first day. Nobody was unfriendly, but we were all perplexed. I asked my mother who she was, and it turned out that she was biracial—half-Indian. This news startled me because, as a child, I had incorrectly assumed that all Indians had darker skin like mine. I had equated being Indian with a specific appearance.

But my memory of this experience quickly faded and it would be years before I fully realized the immense visual diversity of Indians. As a 7th-grader in the early 1990s, I hated going to the Indian Sunday school, particularly Indian classical dance, which requires females to move and emote in highly dramatic ways. Being bookish and reserved as a child, the class was painful for me, made worse by my sense that the teacher picked on me for being too Americanized, or ‘blasé’ as my father called it. Although Tamil was my first language, we all spoke English at home and it was a struggle for me to see how it was relevant to my daily life to learn more advanced Tamil. Hinduism appealed to me, but my father had been raised both Catholic and Hindu and taken me to a Unitarian Universalist church; by middle school, I had concluded there was no definitive answer to spiritual questions. I did not tie being Indian to being Hindu or to any specific cultural practice. By the time I was a teenager, I’d come to see all of the Sunday classes on culture as obstacles both to fitting in with my peers and developing my own individual taste, which at the time consisted of listening to punk and modern rock, wearing all black clothing and gigantic silver jewelry, and reading Anais Nin and Baudelaire. How sophisticated could you be if half your Sundays were taken up with a culture that nobody except kids who dressed or acted like hippies saw as cool? Since everyone around me noticed I was Indian anyway because of what I looked like, it struck me as far more important to develop chosen interests and ways of expressing myself over those I’d inherited. My parents were horrified when I said I wanted to quit. I found excuses not to go and faked colds until it became clear that it was a waste of money to send me. I felt guilty, of course. They wore crestfallen expressions.

“I don’t know why you don’t care about knowing where you come from,” my father said after he gave up fighting me. I thought I knew enough. I took being Indian-American for granted, but I also readjusted my perception of my cultural background over the ensuing years. Because of my skin color and facial features, many people over the course of my thirty-six years have asked me, within a few hours, “Where are you from?” I also often heard, “I went to India once, and I loved the food!” or “Someone I know went to India, and he couldn’t take how crowded and dirty it was,” or “Isn’t Slumdog Millionaire the best movie?!” India is more a collection of nation states roughly divided into North and South, with significantly different cultural traditions, foods, and languages, and South Indians in America have always been kind to me, recognizing our shared cultural background. Like being black, I didn’t think being Indian was something mutable. When I was in my twenties, my father told me that I was much more American than Indian, but I scoffed. I had internalized other people’s perceptions by then and I certainly didn’t feel “American.” My differences were the first thing anyone ever noticed about me. If I was perceived as Indian by everyone around me except my family, how could I be more American than Indian? While I was pregnant with our daughter, my husband Steven, who has read more novels by Indian authors than I probably ever will, insisted that my parents speak to her in Tamil sometimes so that she could start to learn both languages. I shrugged. How important could it be for her to learn Tamil? My family spoke English at home and if we went to India, most Indians could speak to us in English anyway.

My parents hadn’t even given me a name common to Tamilians—they specifically gave me a name that I could use no matter where I traveled. Steven and I are both writers and so we decided on a literary first name together—Illyria, the setting of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. When Steven asked me whether I wanted to give her an Indian middle name, I couldn’t think of one that had any special meaning to me, so we chose another literary middle name, Kinnell, after the great American poet Galway Kinnell. But I read that babies in utero can develop a taste for particular foods, so I ate samosas, curries, green chilli uttha-pam, and hot sauces in the hopes that the baby would like Indian food. That was the only nod I gave to my ethnic background. When I played peek-a-boo with my daughter, or sang to her, or took her around the park in her stroller, all I focused on was how beautiful I thought she was with her chipmunk cheeks, her curious, solemn eyes, and her jovial two-teeth smile. But as strangers questioned my motherhood due to her skin color, I started to chafe against the implication that my daughter wasn’t Indian-American, wasn’t like me. To me, she was both Indian and Italian, not neither. That’s when I started reading more contemporary Indian authors. I wrote about being Indian-American more than I wrote about anything else. I started to regret not giving her an Indian middle name, something that would tie her to India for the rest of her life, the way I believed I was tied by my physical appearance, my more expected skin tone. Finally, I asked my parents, “Can we do a feeding ceremony?” An Annaprasana is a Hindu ceremony performed at a temple, during which a baby is supposed to get solid food for the first time. I asked them because they lived nearby and I would have no idea how to arrange such a ceremony. Initially my father was reluctant.

“Why? It doesn’t really have any meaning to you,” he said and to some extent, he was right. While religion fascinates me, I have been an agnostic ever since I learned what the term meant. For some reason, however, it seemed terribly important to me that Illy have an Annaprasana, God or not, and I was disappointed that after all our disagreements, now that I was interested, my father wasn’t. But in a few days, my parents did get excited. On a rainy day in early January, we drove in separate cars to the Livermore temple, which looks to me like a giant wedding cake. My mother had packed a giant bowl of pongal (a sweet rice dish), fruits, flowers, and betel leaves. Steven and I wore traditional Indian clothing. “Do I look like a poser?” he asked, both excited and concerned. I assured him he looked good. I dressed six-month-old Illy in a bright-red silk dress with gold edging. Inside the temple, I made awkward small talk with Kannan, the priest, who spoke in a kind of lazy English. Besides my husband and daughter, there were no other fair-skinned people in the temple, but everyone standing in the lines to worship at various altars smiled at us. During the ceremony, Kannan mumbled fast directions in Tamil, forgetting that Steven wouldn’t be able to understand him.

My father and I quickly translated that Steven needed to scatter the red rose petals and throw rice or hold the bowl, moving with his hands around the sandalwood incense. We placed Red Delicious apples and bananas on betel leaves, scrambling to peel the labels from the skin of the fruits, as the priest hurried on to the next part of the ceremony. When my father finally offered Illy the pongal, she squished her pink lips together, grumbling “Mmmmmm” to signal refusal. Finally, my father snuck a fingerful of food into her mouth, and once she tasted the sweetness of the jaggery (concentrated date sugar), she nearly inhaled the stuff, taking multiple spoonfuls from each of us. The last part of the Annaprasana is an optional game in which you set four objects in front of the baby within her reach: jewelry, dirt, a pen, and book. Whatever she chooses is supposed to symbolize what her path in life will be. Although none of us, except sometimes me, is superstitious, we decided to play the game.

At home, we’re always reading and Illy’s obsessed with grabbing the books and trying to chew the corners, so we all assumed she would choose books. All five of us let out a collective roar when she tentatively reached a chubby hand toward the gold bangle and picked it up. Wealth, something neither her father nor I have focused on. “So what did I choose at my ceremony?” I asked my mother after, when we were gathered at my parents’ house eating and drinking wine. I was sure it would be a pen. “Oh, you didn’t have a ceremony,” my mother said. “I didn’t have one?” I am baffled. I was born in India to two Hindu parents. Mom explained, “My parents assumed we wouldn’t want to do one because your Dad was raised a Christian. They didn’t tell us to do it and so we never did.” My parents had married outside their castes and religions and I grew up not with a single unified culture, but one that borrowed from a variety of traditions, the ones my parents chose to follow. The postmodern nature of this upbringing had never occurred to me before, but when my mother told me why they hadn’t bothered with the ceremony for me, an odd realization came over me. My own and Illy’s skin colors are utterly irrelevant to our identities. In that moment, I realized that what my father said was true: I am American. Maybe that seems obvious, but it was only when I realized that Illy could actually choose not to be Indian, that I understood in a visceral way how my parents must have felt thirty years ago.

As immigrants in America, they had tried to convince me that it was important to go to classes and socialize with other Indian-Americans and make an active choice to hold onto the identity I inherited—the one that, based on my appearance, other people would assume I possessed. I didn’t make that choice because I never realized that the ethnic aspect of my identity could disappear. I let go of my cultural background not intentionally, but because I assumed it would always be there—like my skin color, it would never vanish. Now, as a mother, I see I was wrong. How very American it is to watch the identity you inherited— an identity that might have been fixed in another country—disappear into a challenging sea of choices about what traditions are worth holding onto and what may be released as inessential. I resolved to take Illy to those Indian classes as long as she lets me in order to give her more choices in building her identity. If she one day decides, in a fit of adolescent rebellion, that they are not for her, even though it will probably bother me, I doubt I will have any new grand arguments to convince her otherwise. Instead, much as she chose the gold bangle, eventually she will have to forge her own cultural identity from the gorgeous chaos of her own intended and accidental experiences.

Author’s Note: Writing about identity feels scary to me. There are so many questions I continue to have about race, culture, and motherhood (not to mention the potential to inadvertently offend readers) that it is very difficult to commit to an opinion or even description. The language never seems right—”half-Indian?” “Indian?” “Indian-Italian-American?” Does assimilation into one culture mean your child is foreclosed from another culture? Does cherry-picking and choosing elements you like for your child mean you are committing to nothing, or is it a tacit decision to choose the culture which allows you to make it all up? Categories that seemed somewhat sensitive but straightforward when I was single became confusing once our daughter was born. Writing about the aspects of life I find the most uncomfortable is the only way I have of uncovering truths I didn’t even know were contested, surprising myself and readers, too, I hope.

Anita Felicelli’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Babble, Blackbird, India Currents, The Rumpus, and many other places. Her first novel Sparks Off You was a 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year (Young Adult) finalist. Anita lives in Mountain View with her husband, daughter, and two rambunctious corgis.

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Adopted Children’s Cultural Identity

Adopted Children’s Cultural Identity


IMG_7339_3When you adopt a baby, do you take on responsibility for fostering the child’s connection to the culture or cultures of origin your baby leaves behind to join your family? That’s often an issue upon which people take an emphatic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ stance. On the ‘yes’ side you may see white parents at Saturday Chinese schools (or in our case, the local public charter Chinese immersion school). On the ‘no’ side you have parents who plead colorblindness in their households.

In a thoughtful article written by an Asian adoptee is this analysis: “Some people maintain that any cultural loss is unimportant compared to what children gain through adoption. But in both mainstream media and personal conversations about adoption, cultural and racial identity need not be pitted against a child’s right to love, safety, and security.”

In other words, to make race and adoption either/or is to oversimplify (and place burden on the child). How to foster those ties is, arguably, a better question.

It’s one I’ve been asking myself recently.

In this article, the adoptee—photo of her and her white mother circa 1983 is included—looks different than her parent. She begins the piece describing a moment when an Asian child stared at her in a restaurant and how she remembered that exact experience: the intensity identification brought, because she was isolated as a lone Asian in a very white community.

If you read about transracial adoption, how to cope with this kind of isolation is an issue that extends far past 1983. The author mentions a parent of a six-year-old wondering whether the switch from a more white to a more diverse school in Louisville, Kentucky is adaption enough for her daughter or whether a move to a more diverse town is necessary. The mother, Amy Cubbage, describes her daughter’s response to a trip to China: “We have never seen [our daughter] so at ease with herself … we underestimated her need to see where she’s from and see a place where everyone looks like her.”

Not everyone can respond by moving a family (nor would every family argue that a necessity). And not every family can travel to Asia or Africa or wherever else for a “roots” trip. And not every child wants that. What interests me about that mother’s observation of her daughter’s travels is that she (the mom) not only made the effort to expose her daughter to her cultural roots but that she noted her child’s response to that experience. Whatever the family does next happens because the parents believe they are supporting their particular child. Racial identity or exposure to diversity isn’t theoretically motivated in this case.

To move from theory into action isn’t easy. To maintain openness rather than an either/or stance, now that seems to me a delicate and complex endeavor. For my white family, the biracial daughter in our midst has her own list of particulars (and obviously, one reason either/or doesn’t work is that adoption is an entire category of particulars).

Her particulars include that she’s light (light enough to manage to look in some ways more like me than the children I gave birth to, although that, too, is a complicated notion). Her particulars include an open adoption—with her mother’s side of the family (which is to say, the white side). Her particulars include a community that’s predominantly white, but a friend cohort that is diverse and does include adopted children (African American, African, biracial, Vietnamese and Caucasian in her class or various other activities). And while we have some Jamaican friends, they are not in our daily lives. She’s never met her Jamaican family and there’s little chance she will anytime in the foreseeable future.

I don’t want to err on the “colorblind” end of the spectrum. I don’t want to hurdle into “culture” for the sake of exposure in a way that’s intrusive. The detail I return to in my mind is this one: I’ve known many families with daughters adopted from Asian countries. Of those families that offered trips or language classes and cultural immersion of some sort or another, some of the girls liked those experiences and others protested. Regardless of their responses, I’m struck by the fact that some of those girls took their Asian names. I don’t think you can erase identity. More so, I don’t think you should try. That’s my working principle. How we translate that idea into action is the interesting part.

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It Takes a Village

It Takes a Village

By Kim Siegal

IWO It Takes a Village Art sat on the living room floor with my one-year-old, three brightly colored balls atop a plywood box between us.  Perched on my elbows, I watched him raise that little wooden mallet as high as his tiny arms would allow and then bring it down with a satisfying thud onto one of the balls, sending the ball down through the box and careening across the floor.  He reeled at his newfound success at this baby-sized whack-a-mole game, giggling so hard at the commotion he had created that it nearly threw him off balance.  I happily retrieved the ball each time it went flying.

His joy was infectious.  I caught myself reflexively wearing one of those stupid love-struck grins, reveling in the purity and simplicity of his happiness, and thought, “This. This is it. Moments like these are why people have children.”  I almost couldn’t get enough.

And then we played the game another 10 minutes. And I had definitely had enough. The repetition had become simply tedious, and my mind wandered to other more stimulating things I could be doing with my time. Like the dishes.

Not only did I feel my mind starting to numb, but I felt trapped. I knew if I tried to escape, he would cry.   And, anyway, wasn’t this my job as a mother?  Shouldn’t I be enjoying it?  Or at least hanging in there for more than a few minutes?  How did I go from euphoria to bored, trapped and guilty in 10 minutes flat?

Perhaps my impatience was the result of living in our fast-paced, hyper-connected, Insta-Google-face-gram  world, whose myriad distractions were preventing me from being wholly present in any given situation.  Maybe all this was at odds with the slow pace of motherhood.  Even so, I had dreamt of these tender mother-child bonding moments from tweenhood on and was unsettled to find that they could become joyless so quickly.  I had the nagging sensation that my impatience was some kind of indication of my failing as a mother.  We’re made to feel communing with our children is the most natural thing in the world, fueled by the very spirit of motherhood, and so when boredom creeps in so does the guilt.  But is playing with our children the “most natural thing in the world?”

No.  Not really.


I learned this shortly after we moved from Boston to a small border town in Western Kenya – the kind with one main road flanked by small dukas (shops) and ramshackle hotels, cutting through a patchwork of small farms.  We moved to start jobs with an organization that studies anti-poverty programs and with a toddler in tow, the only non-African kid in town.

My first month was set aside for “settling in,” making sure our 20-month-old son was adjusting and finding childcare.  Each day I’d set out, hand-in-hand with our son Caleb, taking in our new surroundings.  We’d walk carefully on the craggy paths, making a game out of stepping over the stones while dodging oncoming livestock.  But generally, I was at a complete loss as to what to do with myself and my son for 12 hours of daylight.

There were no playgrounds and the concept of a “playdate” was as foreign as flavored coffee.  Typically, by 10 AM, we had already had four hours of coloring, reading books, building with blocks, putting together puzzles and I would grow increasingly panicked about staving off a meltdown.  For either of us.  It was around that time, we’d set out to explore our new town.  I wondered: what did local mothers do to occupy their own restless children?

The answers were not readily apparent on our walks.  I saw no other mother similarly looking to find entertainment for her child.  I saw plenty of children.  They would be playing with a makeshift soccer ball, cobbled together with plastic bags and string or walking together with jerry cans on their way to fetch water.   There were mothers all over the place but none visibly attached to these benign Lord of the Flies-like gangs of children, and certainly none directing their play.

The mothers I saw on these walks were often chatting with each other in the shade of a storefront overhang or plaiting each other’s hair.  Others were hidden behind walls, preparing ugali, the local staple, or washing clothes in large plastic buckets and setting them in the sun to dry.  I did see plenty of mom-child dyads — moms at the market with babies strapped to their backs and moms riding matatus (mini buses) with toddlers on their laps — but no mother appeared tethered to the whim of their toddler the way I was.  Their daily rhythms were set by an intertwining of chores and relaxing with other adults, and they seemed, at least from the outside, to be enjoying themselves.

We eventually found some remedy for our boredom with our morning visits to little Isaac and his mother.  Isaac was born the same week as Caleb and his parents owned a duka just across that one paved road.  While his mother was tending to customers and asking me polite questions about America, indulging my nascent Kiswahili, Caleb and Isaac would run around in front of the duka and play together.  They became quick friends despite the language barrier, and a ball or a couple of toy cars would keep them occupied for hours. Every once in a while a man would come along and scoop up Isaac in his arms and give him those universally fun-making rides favored by uncles everywhere.

“Is that Isaac’s uncle?” I’d ask.

“No.” Isaac’s mother would respond, settling the issue.

“But who….”

“Oh. That’s Fred. He just brings the bread twice a week.”

In fact, all of the customer and purveyors of their small shop seemed to know the family.  I don’t know if they saw it as a duty, a ritual, a pleasure or if they even thought about it at all, but each person would tease or scoop up little Isaac or give him rides on the back of their bicycle.  Caleb, as Isaac’s new playmate, benefited from this informal web of uncles and aunts too.  And I simply sat back and sipped my chai.


As my work start date approached, we found a woman to look after Caleb when I crossed the road to head to work.  Rukia was reassuring and warm and had already raised 4 children of her own.  She seemed to possess a protective instinct, constantly worrying if Caleb was stepping too close to a ledge or running too close to the road.   Of course, not having observed a lot of mother-child interactions, I was a bit nervous about how she would entertain him all day.  I showed her the toys, the crayons, the chalk, the books, and told her which ones he preferred most.   But I had no idea how she’d fill those long hours.

I got my answer that first day, when I came home from work to see 8 or 9 children playing happily in our living room.  Caleb was running around beaming.

“Mama mama!  Look see dat!” Caleb declared, pointing a tiny finger to an older playmate who managed to make something relatively sophisticated out of Caleb’s small set of Duplos.  The child looked over at me and smiled shyly just as another child rammed a plastic truck into his knee.  They both ran off laughing, Caleb giggling and following after them.

As happy as Caleb was to see me come home and to fall into the security of his mother’s lap, his face fell when his new playmates left the house.

It turned out I didn’t have to worry too much about how Rukia would play with my son.   Rukia saw it as her job to feed, bath him, find him playmates and make sure he didn’t fall on something sharp.  But not necessarily to get down on the floor and draw chalk pictures and do puzzles with him for the better part of a morning. She simply found people more suited to that task.

And that’s when it all came together: Maybe modern parenting is asking too much of mothers.  We’re their constant companions, playmates, disciplinarians, teachers and main source of affection.  We’re the entire village. It’s draining on us and probably not always the best for them.  Maybe it’s OK to spend more time tending to a mother’s other duties and even pleasures as long as there’s an extended web of loving pseudo uncles and a gaggle of mixed-aged friends to run around with.  It might even be better.

We’ve since moved from that small border town to the Provincial capital.  We live now in a compound of townhouses protected by a guard hired by the landlord.  But we’re still in Kenya, so the guard acts as a favorite uncle, taking my baby from my arms and kicking the ball around with the older kids; and the neighbor’s kids run freely in and out of our houses.

Recently, I came downstairs after my Saturday sleep-in to see my second son, Emmet, playing that same wack-a-mole game and delighting, just as his brother had, in his success. Just as before, I happily ran after that escaped wooden ball and relished in his wonderment at his emerging ability.  But when his interest started to outlast my own, I, without any guilt, left the room to make some coffee, confident that any one of the 3 neighbor children playing on the floor next to him would provide interest and distraction.  When I returned, coffee in hand, I saw Sylvanos, a 12-year-old boy who adores Emmet, carrying him to the window to point at the bright yellow weaver birds just outside.  When I returned, I could be a better, maybe even more playful, mother.

Kim Siegal lives in Kisumu, Kenya with her husband and 2 sons. She chronicals her experiences living and raising children in Africa in www.mamamzungu.com.  She has written for the Huffington Post, Inculture Parent and is an editor and contributor at www.worldmomsblog.com.







The Fur Berry Dilemma

The Fur Berry Dilemma

By Lara Strong

spring2010_strongIn Hungary, where I have lived for ten years, most schools operate with tight budgets. As a result, there aren’t a lot of toys or books in the classrooms for kids to play with or look through during breaks. In the States, the “bring-your-own lunch” concept exists; in Hungary, kids are allowed—in fact, encouraged—to bring in their own toys.

This has never caused much of a problem. My eight-year-old son has always relished the morning ritual of choosing which toy to bring in: Should it be a Lego dinosaur? How about Playmobil pirates or some tiny, plastic animal figures? Now that my six-year-old daughter, Sara, is entering first grade, she is already eagerly anticipating this practice—a stuffed unicorn, perhaps? Maybe a pretty pink pony?

I’ve rarely had an opportunity to witness what happens when my kids actually arrive at school, but I imagine how it goes each morning. They set down their backpacks, take off their jackets, and change into the indoor slippers required in most Hungarian schools. Then they produce their toys. There are lots of oohs of admiration, squeals of excitement. Exchanges are made, deals struck—if you let me play with that at recess, you can play with this and then after five minutes we can switch—and on a really lucky day, My mom says we can swap as long as we swap back tomorrow.

As Sara’s first year in elementary school progresses she spends much of her time talking excitedly about who has what, and long minutes are devoted each morning to carefully selecting her toy of the day. “Tekla likes ponies,” she’ll say, “so I should bring this blue pony with the sparkles, and then maybe she’ll let me play with her white Pegasus with the golden reins, unless Flora brings her mermaid with the sequins, because then I would want …” Occasionally she mentions, “We learned a new letter today” or “We started adding double digits.” With an approving nod, I encourage her to divulge more about her school day, but her response is inevitably “And Athena brought in a ballerina Barbie …”

One day not long after Christmas, Sara comes home chattering eagerly about a new toy that has made its appearance—something that apparently stands out from the now mundane ponies, mermaids, and Barbies.

“It’s a stuffed animal that can transform into a fruit and even smells like a fruit,” she explains excitedly. “A Fur Berry. And there are four, maybe even five different kinds! And Tekla has one, and so does Flora, and Anna, and …” She stops her speech and looks at me expectantly.

“Well that’s great. Lots of Fur Berries, lots of opportunities to make swaps.”

But she’s shaking her head as if I don’t understand. I turn and face her. She is not eager or excited as I first thought, but agitated. In fact, her big brown eyes are blinking hard, fighting back tears. “No, Mommy,” she says with a hint of desperation. “Everyone has a Fur Berry—don’t you see?—everyone but me.” I may have been slow on the uptake, but now the message is clear. Swapping isn’t enough. A Fur Berry is not a toy one merely obtains on exchange for just a day or two at the most. Its importance lies far beyond its transient entertainment value. It will earn her social cachet, and it’s vital that I as a parent understand this. But somehow, I find myself unable to accept Sara’s urgent need for this fuzzy, pastel-colored plaything.

Days go by, however, and the Fur Berry is the only topic she’s willing to discuss, and always with the teary eyes. Eventually she does concede that, okay, not everyone has a Fur Berry. Only the girls. And well, not all the girls either, only a few. But they are the girls that matter. They are the girls who decide who is in and who is out.

My husband and I are dismayed. She’s only in first grade, yet peer pressure and the tyranny of cliques have already reared their ugly heads. Sooner than I expected, I find myself recalling my own painful struggles of early adolescence. I was never a popular child, introverted and bookish, awkward and unfashionable. And this last quality, my lack of style, was the most problematic. I was sadly aware of how popularity was connected to wealth, and that material possessions could impact one’s social standing: all my clothes came from the Sears catalogue, while many of the other girls were wearing trendy stone-washed Guess jeans. “A waste of money,” my mother would say, “and totally unimportant.” But I remember the looks of scorn on my classmates’ faces.

Painful as it was, however, I knew then as I know now, that the lessons my mother was teaching were important. A person’s value could not be measured according to the number of designer labels hanging in the closet. As my mother reminded me repeatedly, friends and social groups were chosen based on shared interests or personal qualities such as a sense of humor or intelligence. Whether someone had the latest velour V-neck pullover was of no consequence. “We don’t buy things just for the sake of popularity!” she’d say.

In a rare moment, even my Hungarian mother-in-law, who tends not to agree with any of my ideas on childrearing, concurs. She grew up under communism, raised her children under communism, and while she despises totalitarianism, she is also disgusted by the creeping materialist culture. “There was never much to buy in those days,” she explains, “so we never had situations like this Fur Berry business. All you could get were the same Czechoslovak paper dolls, East German toy cars, Yugoslav jeans. What was the status in that? Nothing. It was better that way. Now,” she says shaking her head and waving her hands, “everything comes in from the West. Everyone has to have what everyone else has got. A terrible waste.”

I sigh, knowing the two moms are right. Everyone knows materialism is running rampant these days, even in Hungary. With the economy in crisis, the environment in peril, the evils of wanton consumption discussed on every television talk show, the need to resist is more important than ever. I look at Sara blinking back the tears and know that I have to remain steadfast. There’s no time like the present to instill in my own daughter good, solid values. What better place to start than this basic tenet: Material possessions don’t matter, but how you make your friends does. Who could argue with that? I say to her firmly, “No, you cannot have a Fur Berry. You don’t need it, it’s totally unimportant.”

A couple of weeks later, I pick Sara up at school early. A group of little girls are sitting happily in a circle rocking pale-colored stuffed creatures that smell of strawberries, plums, and peaches. Occasionally the girls cast derisive looks back at those few little girls outside the circle who do not possess these strange-looking animal-fruit hybrids. I even hear one girl utter, “I’m not playing with you if you don’t have a Fur Berry.” I feel a stab at my heart and do my best to recall my mother’s words (“a waste of money, totally unimportant, we don’t buy things just for the sake of popularity!”)

But I look again at my little girl, who’s visibly upset. It’s different when you see the hard, real consequences of your decisions played out before your eyes. What does Sara really understand about good, solid values, the right method of choosing friends, or the irrelevance of our material possessions? All she knows is that she is on the outside looking in. All she knows is that the bear-cum-peach is more than just a toy, but an entrée into the coterie of the privileged, her social savior, an assurance that tomorrow she will have someone to play with.

As days pass, she informs me of more and more classmates whose moms have succumbed and purchased them Fur Berries. The number of girls on the outside is slowly diminishing. I begin to see that the story of the Fur Berry is not going to end where I had assumed. Sara is not going to join the ranks of the non-Fur Berry girls and discover those kids—the witty, intelligent ones my mother talked about—who might become her best friends for life. Instead she is coming home each day feeling increasingly isolated.

My opposition to peer pressure and materialism begins to feel less stalwart. What would happen if I did buy her a Fur Berry?

She would certainly take pleasure in the toy itself. This is a point I have resisted considering, since it runs so strongly against my anti-materialist stance, but it’s true: Having nice stuff feels good. My mother-in-law might argue that in the Hungary of the 1960s and ’70s, people didn’t care about material possessions, but then again, maybe her memory is not exactly perfect. After all, communism wasn’t an overwhelming success, and, when given the opportunity, Hungarians had shed it as quickly as possible. I’m sure an evolutionary biologist would probably tell us pretty much every human on the planet is vulnerable to the lure of nice, cool things and their social perks. Sara is experiencing an anguish that is almost universal. The little girls in a first-grade class in Budapest are no more immune to this pull than any child in any American classroom, or any adult for that matter, perhaps anywhere. After all, communism failed because it ignored basic human nature. Even my mother-in-law acknowledges this.

My mother never did buy me the Guess jeans, but one afternoon as I’m contemplating the whole Fur Berry dilemma, into my head pops an image of me at twelve or thirteen. I’m sitting on a school bus, wearing a pair of purple Sassoon corduroys. Yes, designer pants. How could I have forgotten those? I bought them with my own pocket money. Those pants were so elegant and smooth, the legs and pockets fully lined, the corduroy soft and lush like the down of a baby chick. How well I remember them now!

In those pants, I was transformed—no longer the Sears-catalogue ugly duckling, but a radiant swan. I still had a dog-eared copy of These Happy Golden Years under one wing, my flute case under the other, but as I headed toward early-morning band practice, I discovered a new sensation. Airiness. I was rising high into the sky, far above the pedestrian fray. The petty comments, the mundanity of junior high school life seemed so small, like the tiny little specks of cars and trucks you see from the window of an ascending airplane. Triumphant and indomitable, I was soaring.

As wonderful as those corduroys made me feel, however, they were in no sense a social entrée for me, any more than the Fur Berry would be for Sara. The Sassoons did not lead to automatic acceptance in the popular girls’ group. What divided me from them was never those superficial differences—jeans, blue eye shadow, and pierced ears—but a different temperament, a different orientation. I loved books, handicrafts, and quiet contemplation, and disliked parties, alcohol, and all team sports, especially those involving a ball. In retrospect, my mother’s message about what really draws people together, or keeps them apart, was confirmed by my having the cords.

Still, having those pants empowered me. I was a girl who could wear a designer label just like the others. In this way, the pants had lost their power as a tool of social tyranny. The playing field was now even, if perhaps only temporarily. In my set of peers I was among equals, and my lifestyle was of my own choosing, not foisted upon me as a result of some kind of social or material inadequacy. While the designer pants hadn’t necessarily made me wiser, they had given me a much-needed boost in self-confidence.

A Fur Berry might do the same for Sara. My mother-in-law would surely disapprove of my acquiescing, and my mom, too. But how liberating it can be to do something that others might not approve of! After all, how many times a day do I utter the word “no,” to my kids? More times than I can count. I am constantly fighting against their basic human desires—their love of sugar and staying up late, their captivation with TV and any other kind of moving image, their pleasure in potty talk, and enjoyment of overfull bathtubs with bubbles overflowing. I am constantly trying to contain their yearnings in a tiny little box of decorum, good, solid values, and healthy habits that will help them build character, avoid illness and obesity, contribute to society, save the environment, and ensure a successful career and a happy marriage. It gets tiring sometimes. And what happens when it risks the self esteem of a six-year-old child incapable of understanding the virtue of controlling her desires.

At that moment I realize, my mind may not be made up, but my gut is. I stop weighing the pros and cons, and with the feel of those Sassoon corduroys swishing against my legs, I plunge on ahead, certain now of what I am going to do, even if I am not at all certain that it is right.

When I pick Sara up at school that afternoon, we head straight to the toy store. She chooses a furry yellowish, pinkish ball that opens into a bear and has the essence of apricot. Her eyes light up as she dangles the fruit from its string handle, then pops it open into a round-headed bear with floppy arms and legs. She squeezes it lovingly, her eyes brimming with gratitude and relief. I recognize the feeling as she dances down the street, swinging her Fur Berry. After weeks of trudging heavily along, she is carefree, light, and airy, equal to her peers; her destiny is in her own hands. What’s more she has something that just looks good and feels nice to cradle in her arms. She runs, she jumps. She is soaring.

Author’s Note: Shortly after this article was written, Sara’s teacher called a general meeting for all parents. Fur Berries were at the top of the agenda. Shocked by the numerous stories of Fur Berry-induced stress so many of us had to share, we parents took a vote, and Sara’s class became the first in her school to restrict bring-your-own-toy to Fridays only. A second (unanimous) vote banned Fur Berries once and forever from class 1/A. Where Fur Berries had been a dividing force among our children, they became a uniting force among us parents.

Sara is now in second grade. Fur Berries are still banned in her class, and no new toys have since bewitched any of our kids quite the way Fur Berries did. But if one ever does, I hope that we parents will be ready to join forces again.

Brain, Child (Spring, 2010)

About the Author: Lara Strong teaches English language and culture in a bi-lingual high school in Budapest, Hungary, where she has lived for the past fourteen years. She’s a member of the Budapest Writers’ Workshop, an informal group of amateur writers. Her work has also appeared in Literary Mama.

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Turning Black

Turning Black

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Art Turning black v3“We’ll turn black pretty soon,” Maggie told Henry. They sat together on the front steps of our home in Somaliland. Henry tossed pebbles at the neighbor’s goats grazing on the weeds in our yard and Maggie brushed her dolly’s hair.

I was trying, unsuccessfully, to coax green bean plants from the rocky soil beside the house. I beat back locusts, fought off goats and sheep, drenched the soil with bottled water, anything for a bite of fresh green vegetable, but the plants would not grow. I leaned back on my heels, listening to the twins’ conversation.

“I know,” Henry said. “Probably on our birthday.” We had been in Somaliland for five months and they were six weeks away from turning three.

“You won’t turn black,” I said. “You’re white, like Karisa.”

Karisa was another American girl living in our village. Her dad taught history at Amoud University and worked with my husband Tom, a physics professor.

“Karisa isn’t old enough to turn yet,” Maggie said. “She just turned two.”

“White mommies and white daddies make white kids,” I said. “Black mommies and black daddies make black babies.” I pulled the skin of my forearm. “So you are white.”

Henry shook his head. “No. Jack and Negasti are black.”

Jack was Somali-Chinese and Negasti was Ethiopian and they lived two hours away, in the capital of northern Somalia, Hargeisa. They were adopted by Americans, a white mommy and a white daddy. Jack was seven and Negasti was five.

“They turned black on their birthdays,” Henry said. Maggie agreed and in one movement, as if they had read other’s minds, hopped down the steps and began to pick limes from the thorny trees for limeade. Maggie balanced on the edge of the water cistern and Henry warned her not to fall.

I swatted a goat away from my pitiful garden and almost cried when I saw that she had made off with a mouthful of leaves from a tender cucumber plant. Geedi, the guard hired by our landlord and required by the university, leaned against his small cement home, watching the twins. He held his arms out, as if to catch Maggie should she lose her balance. Geedi shot crows with a slingshot and kept a gun under his bed. I had never seen it, but Henry and Maggie had. They called it “Geedi’s toy gun to protect us,” and said daddy told them it was an AK-47. They promised it wasn’t loaded, that Geedi kept the safety on. But they weren’t three yet, still white, and I didn’t believe them.

Henry played football with Geedi and offered him limeade. Maggie borrowed lacy, fluffy party dresses from Deeqa, who lived on the other side of the neighborhood mosque. Once, she got into a pile of lipstick with her friend Hela and they walked around the house together like clowns. Halima, who taught me how to cook Somali food, slipped Henry and Maggie scraps of fried sambusa dough dipped in Nutella. All of my kids’ friends were African and they wanted to look like the people they played with, laughed with, the people who kept them safe.

The morning of their third birthday, Henry and Maggie looked at each other and then in the wavy mirror that made them look like they were in a funhouse, all bubbled and elongated.

“White,” Maggie said.

“Maybe when we are four,” Henry said.

Five years later, in 2008 we were living in Djibouti and Tom was a warden for the United States embassy. Ambassador James Swan invited our family and other diplomatic staff to his home to celebrate President Obama’s victory.

We drove past the Sheraton Hotel, around a sharp curve, and parked a block away, in a barbed wire-protected lot. We showed our passports and invitations to an armed guard, who let us move beyond the roadblocks and two tanks. Inside the second check-point, we dropped off our cell phones and cameras and passports and were given red Escort Required badges.

“Professor Jones,” the Djiboutian guard said to Tom. “Congratulations on your new president.”

The Ambassador’s Residence was directly on the ocean and shaded by towering neem trees. Scratchy grass, weeds, and bougainvillea bushes lined smoothed-stone walkways between offices, a small swimming pool, and a tennis court. The breeze, the magenta flowers, and the prospect of a morning in air-conditioned comfort, watching American television, contributed a surreal element to my near-constant feeling of being an outsider — an American in Djibouti, but the kind who had to hand over her passport before entering American territory. An American, like the diplomats we would join for breakfast, but the kind who wasn’t prohibited from riding Djiboutian buses or visiting the slums. An American, but barely, with both a pink bikini and a black abaya in her wardrobe.

Inside, I greeted everyone, including the Ethiopian chefs whose children attended my English club. Because of the time change, we watched Obama’s election night speech live while eating breakfast; chocolate croissants and pain au raisin. I held our youngest, three-year old Lucy, on my lap, Maggie and Henry sat on either side. Tom and I had agreed this was important enough for them to be late to school.

Obama began.

“Hello, Chicago. If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,who still wonders if the dream of our Founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer….”

He told the story of 106-year old Ann Nixon Cooper, who had been born just a generation past slavery, and people in Chicago’s Grant Park cheered.

Beside Maggie on the couch, an African American woman with silver hair and rings the size and amber color of large Djiboutian prayer beads wept and wiped her face with napkins. A man with a blond crew-cut and freckled cheeks stood in the corner in the wide-legged, stern-faced look of the US military and clapped. Others watched in silence. Henry’s and Maggie’s eyes darted between the television, the faces around them, and each other but they didn’t speak.

After the speech, we thanked Ambassador Swan and left, stepping from the sterile, cool air of the Ambassador’s Residence into the steamy, dusty air of Djibouti.

On the drive to school from the embassy, Maggie tapped my arm. “Mommy,” she said, “why were people crying about Obama?”

“I heard a woman say she was crying because she was happy that a black man was elected president,” Henry said.

I waited, to hear what my eight-year olds would have to say about this historic moment of a nation to which they held citizenship but barely knew. Lucy was the only member of our family with the possibility of future dual citizenship by virtue of being born in Djibouti to American parents, but all three children considered themselves more Djiboutian than American. Or, as Lucy would later attest to a group of African American women at an international food bazaar, “African American, like us.”

“Because a black man is president?” Maggie said. “That’s silly.”

“I know,” Henry said. “Aren’t all presidents black?”

“And Obama is pretty skinny to be a president,” Maggie said. “I hope he does a good job.”

Tom and I struggled to suppress laughter. All the presidents Henry and Maggie had seen, in posters on buses, plaques in airports, plastered over billboards, and in gold-framed photos in every place of business, were obese African men. I knew they overheard conversations about this election around the dinner table, Henry had repeated some of them to friends while building Lego towers. But far removed from the barrage of pre-election news, the impact of Obama’s appearance hadn’t sunk in until this morning.

Black presidents could do a good job. But skinny presidents? They probably would have voted for President Taft, especially after he got stuck in the bathtub. Apparently, my children were more concerned about Obama’s size than his shade.

Later, I would teach Henry, Maggie, and Lucy, about slavery and the Civil War, and about the reverberating effects of American slavery that still haunt our world. We would talk about the significance of a black American president. But the idea that a man would be judged and found wanting based on the color of his skin continued to confound them.

I was going to say that Henry, Maggie, and Lucy were colorblind, but they weren’t. They saw lots of colors. They just didn’t care.

Maggie came home from school and told me she made a new friend. “Can I go to her house to play? Do you have her phone number?”

“Is she Djiboutian, American, or French?” I asked. If I could narrow down where she was from, I could figure out whether or not I knew the family. Because of Tom’s job, we knew most of the Djiboutians in her class; because of the size of the country, we knew most of the Americans. If the new friend was French, I probably didn’t know the family.

“I don’t know.”

“What does she look like?”

“She has a pink Cinderella backpack, a green water bottle, and wore a red tank top with black polka dots today.”

An American friend visited Djibouti and came with me to pick up Lucy from kindergarten class. When school got out, Lucy emerged in a line of friends, all holding hands. Caucasian American, Korean American, Ugandan, Somali, and Chinese. Girls with all shades of skin and pink backpacks and worn flip flops, giggling.

“It’s like heaven,” my friend said, tears in her eyes.

“When I turn five,” Lucy asked one night, “is that when I turn black?”

“You aren’t going to turn black,” I said, remembering the conversation with Henry and Maggie in Somaliland. I was surprised Lucy would ask the same question, surprised she took her cues from peers and not her older siblings who had obviously remained white well past their fifth birthdays. I tucked Lucy’s blankets tight to make a Lucy Hotdog.

“But Lilan is five and Lilan is black.” Lilan was Lucy’s best friend, a Djiboutian Somali. Lucy held her breath and waited for me to run my fingers up and down her legs, putting on the ketchup. I took a big bite out of her belly and she squealed.

“Lilan is Somali,” I said. “She has always been black. Her mommy and daddy are black and they made her.”

Lucy turned to face the wall, then back to me. She grabbed my face between her two pudgy hands, and her wide, honeyed brown-bear eyes seemed to swallow me whole. I kissed her palms.

“I’m sad about that,” she said. “About waking up on my five birthday and not changing colors.”

Author’s Note: I wrote Turning Black as a celebration of an expatriate childhood. My children’s worldview, understanding of themselves, and perceptions of humanity have been fundamentally changed by more than a decade in the Horn of Africa. The names, places, and colors in this essay, however, have not been changed.

About the Author: Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti where she swims with whale sharks and loses to her children at hula-hoop battles, foot races, and anything craft related. She has written for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Literary Mama, Running Times, and Relevant. Visit her blog at: Djibouti Jones, follower her on Facebook or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones. 

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By Dawn Friedman

fall2007_friedmanEvery morning I turn on Max & Ruby and sit down in the blue chair with the red cushion. My three-year old daughter grabs a little chair for herself and places it between my feet. I have a wide-toothed comb, a rat-tail comb, and spray-on conditioner. I also have a box of barrettes, cloth-covered rubber bands and little plastic snaps.

First I separate Madison’s hair into sections and spray it liberally with the conditioner. Then I use the wide-toothed comb to smooth the tangles from her curls. Next I use the rat-tail comb to make parts. Sometimes I divide her hair into a dozen little squares to braid. Sometimes I give her two fat pigtails down low behind her ears to leave room for her bike helmet. Other times I pull back the top and braid it to keep the hair out of her eyes and leave the rest down to froth around her shoulders. Depending on the style, our morning ritual can be as short as twenty minutes or as long as an hour.

My daughter’s hair is rich, chestnut brown touched with auburn. It bounces around her ears in silky corkscrew curls. It is the kind of hair that captures attention in the grocery checkout line.

“Look at that gorgeous hair!” the observer exclaims. “Wherever did she get it?”

They don’t really need to ask. Underneath that mop of glistening curls is a café au lait face. It’s obvious that she got her beautiful hair from her African American ancestors. But people ask this because I am white, and clearly there is some story to our daughter’s arrival to our family. “Where did she get that hair?” is a question that comes from white people. Black people simply say, “She has good hair.”

It’s what her birth mother said at one of her visits. “I hoped she’d have hair like this,” Jessica said, twisting a curl around her fingers. Our daughter’s first mom, with whom we have a fully open adoption, has kinky hair that gave her fits when she was a child and that she now wears in a soft afro. “She has good hair.”

“But isn’t it all good hair?” I said, quoting the title of a book on African American hair care (It’s All Good Hair) that’s widely recommended in transracial adoption circles.

Jessica snorted. The snort said, “Spoken like a white person.”

Madison is not tender-headed–she never yips in pain when my comb hits a snarl–but getting her to sit (mostly) still has been a matter of training. I started having her sit for hair time before she had much hair at all. We both needed the practice.

“Do you want braids today?” I ask Madison. “Do you want your dragonfly clips?”

“I want to wear it foofy,” she might say. She means in two fluffy ponytails. If her hair was in braids before we sit down to style, her ponytails will be soft ripples. If we mist them with water, the curls will bounce right back. Sometimes she wants twists, two strands of hair twisted around each other to make a sort of looser version of a braid.

“Like Rudy,” she says, because she admires Rudy’s hair on old Cosby Show reruns. For twists we might use tiny clasps called snaps at the end of her hair. We have flowers and jeweled hearts and little opalescent butterflies. Madison fiddles with them and by the end of the day her hair is still in twists but empty at the ends. I find the clips scattered around the house and I pick them up to put back in our barrette box. Replacing snaps can get expensive.

Our babysitter Jaime is a young African American woman with inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm who wears her hair in natural short twists, which she usually covers with a pretty scarf. Every morning she greets Madison by commenting on her hair. A neutral, “Look at your hair today!” means I could have done better. An enthusiastic, “Look at your pretty-pretty braids!” and I can tell I’ve done a good job.

I knew that this was her ever-polite way of guiding me while I tried to figure out the social mores around my daughter’s halo of curls. One morning I asked her outright how I was doing on Madison’s hair.

Jaime seemed relieved I had asked. She mentioned the products that would work best on Madison. She checked out my comb and cautioned me against over-conditioning.

“What about this?” I asked. My daughter has little flyaway wisps that escape around her face. “Do I need to do something to keep them down?”

“No, but if her hair was really nappy, that would look like a mess,” Jaime answered. She paused to cup Madison’s chin in her hand and tilted her head up to see her eyes. “But we know our children’s hair comes in all grades. We know that her hair just does that and it looks just fine.”

There are other words for nappy. There is “textured” or “kinky” or “coarse.” My black friends have instructed me not to say nappy because this is a word that in the mouth of a white person has the dim, lurid overtones of hatred.

“I can call a child’s hair nappy,” explained one of my former co-workers. “But you can’t. Don’t even go there.”

After we adopted Madison, one of my white friends asked, “Can you say it now?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. To make sure I asked a black friend. That’s when I learned the word “textured.”

When I took my daughter across the country to meet her extended birth family, I was nervous about her hair. She didn’t have much then, being only about fifteen months old, but what she had was a soft blur of curls. Left alone it was cute but messy and there was barely enough to style.

“Just get the parts straight,” said a black friend. “It’s all about having a good part.”

Now I practice parts the way I used to practice my tennis serve. I try to put style, grace, and accuracy into my daughter’s parts. If the line wavers at all, I comb her hair out and start again. I’m finally getting the hang of it and now I can make complicated parts at an angle to each other. I’m proud of my parts.

I’ll admit it, I was scared to adopt a daughter. Once we knew we would be adopting a black child, I read books about hair care and felt worried. I’ve never been good with my hands. I hate to sew and crochet; even writing a letter by hand makes me groan. How would I manage her hair?

Most of my white friends don’t understand the fuss. They have daughters with long hair or with short hair and sometimes they send them out looking like they’re wearing a bird’s nest on top of their heads.

“Well, she won’t let me get a comb through it,” they shrug.

One day I was talking to a white friend about Madison’s hair and about trying to figure out how to keep my daughter walking between two worlds with her head held high.

“I just want her to look right,” I said.

“She’ll look right because she’s your daughter,” my friend said.

I found her assurance well intentioned but frustrating. When my white friends argue that I shouldn’t “have” to adhere to black standards in styling Madison’s hair, they are refusing to acknowledge that this is a response driven by white expectations, created by a culture where the texture of black hair is considered a problem, an anomaly. When they say, “Would you do this for your biological child?” they ignore the fact that my bio son is white.

When my white friends’ daughters leave the house with uncombed hair they subvert ideas about shiny neatness and little girls. My feminist friends smile easily at their tangled-headed daughters playing princess. But this is not a privilege extended to children with brown skin. I know that my daughter–like any child of African descent, boy or girl–carries the weight of racism on her curls. The cultural image of the unkempt black child–of Buckwheat and wide-eyed pickaninnies–is part of a racist legacy used to argue that African American parents didn’t care for their children and that their children weren’t worth the care.

White people, like my friend, usually assume that my whiteness protects my child. It’s a dangerous assumption. My daughter cannot escape racism just because she is my child. I don’t want to send my daughter out into the fray without the visible respect of her mother. I do her hair to send the message that her curls are worth the trouble because she is worth the trouble. I’m telling the world that she is valuable and loved and protected.

None of this is a burden to me. I look forward to styling Madison’s hair every morning. I enjoy the closeness, the quiet focus of my mind while I sift through the barrettes. I mist my daughter’s hair with water and prepare to unknot the tender place at the base of her skull, the place that my black friends tell me is called “the kitchen.”

At the end of our styling sessions I always say the same thing.

“You look beautiful.”

“Thank you, hairdressing lady,” my daughter says formally. “Thank you for doing my hair.”

Then she’s off to go look in the mirror and I put the comb away.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

About the Author:  Dawn Friedman lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, son, Noah, and daughter, Madison. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Yoga Journal, and Greater Good. She was an editor at Literary Mama and blogs at thiswomanswork.com.


Beltane Flowers

Beltane Flowers

Beltane FlowersBy Brit St. Claire

I didn’t know there would be so many flowers. Flowers line the tables, bubble from vases, and encircle handmade crowns in pearly explosions. Later, there will be a giant maypole studded with blossoms like jewels.

Beltane is an ancient Gaelic festival. It was my first pagan celebration. For several years I’d wanted to meet people in this alternative spiritual community. But I didn’t start making an effort until giving birth to my son eleven months ago. His birth awakened in me a spiritual restlessness that had been lingering in the periphery of my mind.

My search led me to the Craft and Wicca, which is a relatively new nature religion, reconstructed from old British-pagan witchcraft traditions. I’ve pursued these subjects from the comfortable silence of what’s known in the neo-pagan world as the “broom closet,” and I’ve become hopelessly intrigued. Hopelessly because, although society has come a long way from burning suspected witches in the town square, witchcraft in general is still mostly misunderstood and feared. I don’t know anyone else who shares my interest.

I’ve always prefaced my studies behind a wall of vague mainstream-religious skepticism. I’m unsure of how to discuss the extent of my spiritual wandering with Christian family members and reluctant to step into what I imagine could be blinding glares of judgment.

There’s also the matter of my son. The little being that inspired my search for spirituality is the one I worry about the most. I don’t know what I will share with him about my quest, how it led me to a group of witches. I can barely explain it to myself.

My husband Jim*—now an atheist—and I were raised with Christianity, which we have both left behind. We have to create our own roadmap of where and how to guide our son spiritually, and that process is evolving. We know we want to educate him about various world religions, to nurture a sense of God in nature, to teach compassion for others, and an appreciation for science. Ultimately we want him to choose his way for himself.

Stereotypes about Wicca are triggered by the vocabulary involved: witch, coven, magick, spells. These words conjure creepy Hollywood images of pointy black hats, bubbling cauldrons, and warts, or teenage misfits who turn to Satanism (which, to clarify, is a direct rebellion against Christianity and not related to Wicca).

The actual definitions and purposes of these terms are surprisingly simple. A spell can be described as a focused prayer with visualization and props, such as herbs and candles, which are thought to lend energy and focus intent. A pretty good definition of magick is the movement of energy directed by the will toward a goal. The idea is not to cultivate power over others—magick should never be used to control another person, but only over your own self. The concept of karma is a close relative.

Several Wiccan concepts are beliefs I hold firmly, beliefs I held before discovering they are also embraced by Wicca. Things I would teach my son anyway: find divinity within the self and nature; practice meditation for strength and balance; spirituality is individual, personal; don’t proselytize, but help others less fortunate anyway; examine your intentions; harm none; feel free to view a symbol like “God” or “Goddess” as just that: a representation of a creative life force energy we can’t possibly understand.

When I get past my own misconceptions, I find nothing to fear in these earth-based practices of spirituality. They are mystically compelling. They invite me to tune in to myself and my surroundings, as though the universe itself were tapping on my shoulder with a secret—if only I would listen.

That’s why I’ve come to Beltane tonight. I’m ready to listen, to find what’s right for me. I’ve pursued my interest in the Craft cautiously, one crumb at a time, like Hansel and Gretel finding their way home through the for- est. And so far, instead of leading me to an ugly, wart-nosed witch hungry for my flesh, it has led me here, to this local Wiccan coven’s celebration of spring fertility—Beltane—in a room bursting with flowers.

In spite of overcoming some doubt, my reservations still followed me here.

Everyone in the coven house bustles, chattering and laughing, but I hold back. I remind myself about the reassuring meeting I had with the high priestess and priest, who met me for coffee before I decided to attend tonight’s open Beltane ritual. They were delightfully normal, friendly, and thorough, answering my flood of questions with warmth and patience. But still, I wondered, what if my positive impression of the group were crushed? What if they do something bizarre? Maybe they’d sacrifice a chicken. Maybe the ritual would end with everyone getting naked. I was reassured—with amusement—this is not that kind of group.

I recall Jim’s joking, yet half-serious words of caution before I left him and our son home for the evening.

“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” he’d said.

Snarky comments are usually a welcome part of our banter, but I flinched at this. I was somebody’s mother now; what business did I have gallivanting off to spend precious time with a group of witches?

I police the room for suspicious activity, but the atmosphere insists on festivity. The crowd is dressed with surprising diversity; some folks are bedecked in Renaissance-style costumes while others wear jeans and casual tops. Several elementary-age girls frolic around like spring fairies in white dresses and flowered headbands.

Watching them, intrigued, I think about my own childhood experience with Christian Lutheranism. Churches that were somehow at once stuffy and over air-conditioned; long, boring sermons; the tranquil yet somewhat ominous tones of the pastors which instilled both calm and fear in the parishioners; the focus on sin and redemption, forgiveness, and judgment, which so often led to an emotional and spiritual roller coaster from which I quietly disembarked so long ago. It had been years since I let go of my childhood religion, with its powerful concepts of hell and Satan. Still, those images and the fear they fostered are about as easy to shake off as head lice. And despite how far from Christianity I’ve gravitated, alarm sluices through me when I notice a man at Beltane wearing what appears to be a headband with horns.

Until, staring at this horned man, I remind myself that these horns symbolize the pagan god of the hunt, a positive image of strength and fertility, not the dark, better known Christian villain. In fact, there is no “devil” figure in Wiccan symbology.

While a small part of me continues to analyze the room, looking for some- thing objectionable enough for me to abandon all this nonsense, I will myself to relax. When I do, my hypersensitive mental radar registers nothing more negative than my own anxiety, picking up instead on an infectious sense of cheer and goodwill emanating from this group of people who happen to identify as witches. Maybe it’s simply difficult to keep worrying about rejection and hell- fire in the face of so many flowers.

When the crowd is called to order, several coven members welcome every- one and begin to speak about the evening. When my gaze lands on a familiar face, it takes a full minute to absorb. I blink in surprise as a memory snakes through my mind: a dinner at Whole Foods, one of my husband’s friends from law school—is that him?

Couldn’t be, I think. Must be some- one who looks like him. But when the man is introduced as one of tonight’s ritual leaders, the name is the same one I remember. Kevin*, attorney-at-law, friend of my husband’s, respectable and functional member of society, appears to be a witch.

Flabbergasted and delighted, I can hardly keep from leaping over the crowd to say hello. It’s not the right time; ritual is about to start.

We venture into the night, following a tea-light studded path, winding around a grove of trees to the ritual space. Flowers blanket the circle. A large sculpture of blossoms stands behind the altar, upon which a Goddess statue appears to have been caught dancing in a shower of petals. Sweet incense perfumes the humid air. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fairy landed on my shoulder.

The priestess and priest of the evening speak, representing the god and goddess, forces of nature and the seasons. They engage in a poetic, dramatic exchange: winter is checking out, summer is arriving, and now is a time of fertility, they explain.

I wonder what the kids in the group are thinking, and what their lives are like. Are they bored standing here in the circle, the way I used to be during sermons? Or do they enjoy the feel of the cool grass beneath their feet, the breeze gently brushing their cheeks, moonlight peeking over a cloud overhead? Do they tell their friends that their moms and dads are witches? And if they do, how often are they greeted with acceptance? How often with scorn? What about Halloween—do these kids go trick-or-treating along with celebrating Samhain, the ancient Gaelic ancestor- honoring harvest festival that most Neo- pagans recognize today?

And how many parents here practice this spirituality in private, quietly excluding their kids?

What would I do?

During the ritual, we are encouraged to think about goals we want to manifest this summer, and then we jump over a bonfire at the center of the circle in an old Beltane custom to invoke blessings and abundance. I hold back at first, worried about my jeans catching fire, but Kevin grabs my hand, and we jump together. I feel the fire’s heat on my feet and legs, then the cooler wind sweeping over my face and through my hair. As we sail over the yellow flames, it’s as though we are literally leaping into summer. I can’t help but laugh with exhilaration. Next we raise energy, clap- ping our hands and singing, faster and faster, finally lifting our hands overhead in release. It’s a strange, but satisfying activity.

In the silence that follows, under the dark sky and bright moon, I think about where I am in life and what I want to accomplish, enjoying this aspect of the ritual. I can’t deny a sense of detachment as well; the theatrical component makes me feel like I’ve been involved in some kind of interactive Medieval play rather than a genuine spiritual experience. Maybe group ritual isn’t for me. Or maybe fewer verbal theatrics, or getting to know the people here, would make a group experience like this more meaningful. I simply don’t know yet.

After the ritual we move to a field next to the circle space. While singing and performing a weaving dance, several couples wind long thick ribbons around a tall, flowered maypole the size of a tree trunk, as everyone sings— naked. Kidding. This really isn’t that kind of group.

A potluck feast is next, so everyone heads back to the house. Plates of food appear and cups of homemade mead are poured.

When I spot Kevin, I make my way through the crowd, wondering if he’ll recognize me. We only met that once at dinner, and I spent most of the meal walking around with the baby.

After we exchange pleasantries, Kevin says he did remember me: “When I saw you I was like, oh shit.”

We laugh, and I’m happy to know I’m not the only one paranoid about being found out. “If you don’t want me to tell Jim I saw you, I won’t,” I say, although I’m thinking Oh please let me tell him! My husband is supportive of my finding a spiritual practice that works for me and open to discussions about what I’m studying, but he’s still suspicious of the Craft. Learning that one of his own friends—someone he respects—is involved would be nothing short of a revelation.

“Oh, you can tell him. I generally try to keep all this on the down low at work, though.”

I nod knowingly and ask him if he’s out of the proverbial broom closet with family and friends. He tells me most of his friends know, but while his family might suspect, he hasn’t directly informed them, instead deciding it would be better for them to know and love him without worrying about the fate of his soul. I also learn that Kevin’s spouse isn’t pagan but attends rituals once in a while.

A young woman with a pixie cut, Lena, joins the conversation, and my curiosity is piqued when I learn she has a young child. Tall and slender, with short curly hair, Lena has calm green eyes and a long, graceful neck. She works as a research analyst. With a laugh, she waves away the idea of anyone judging her spiritual choices. I ask if her family and friends know, and she tells me that in fact they do. With a laugh, she says something like, “My mom thought I was crazy at first, but I think she’s starting to come around a little.”

During the conversation I also learn that Lena does bring her daughter to circle once in awhile, although her plan—like mine—is to let the child ultimately choose her own path.

I can’t help but notice that Lena and Kevin—both intelligent, friendly, self- assured, funny—embody the opposite of any negative witch or Wiccan stereotype I’ve encountered (think Fairuza Balk from The Craft). Their confidence is so inspiring that my sense of guilt and paranoia begins to fade.

When I head home to my husband and son, I feel much calmer than when I arrived. Although I don’t yet know whether Wicca by itself will define my spirituality, or if it will end up serving as a jigsaw piece in a larger, eclectic spiritual puzzle (I suspect the latter), this night marks a shift; it suddenly feels like much more of an option to pursue a mystical path while still being a good mother. Being in the presence of Lena and Kevin—people my husband and I would consider peers—has encouraged me to embrace my path, however it unfolds, trusting that when I become comfortable in the skin of my own spirituality I will know what details to share—or not share—with others. Possibilities blossom before me.

Double Take: Read another perspective on this topic: Believe It or Not

Author’s Note: I’ve been toiling with this piece for over two years now, both compelled and terrified to share it. Compelled to help expand the very concept of what’s okay to do and be as a mother (that we often impose on ourselves and others); terrified to reveal myself. But the deal was, send it out there and if it gets pub- lished, the time is right to be more open. So here I am, exhaling a long-held breath, ready.

About the Author: Brit St. Claire writes, raises a family, and remains fascinated by esoteric topics in Atlanta, Georgia. Her pieces have appeared in Sandiego Babies, Western New york Family and Wired magazine’s parenting blog Geek Mom. To learn more visit her website at www.britstclair.com.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Hola, Jerry! Donde esta George?

Hola, Jerry! Donde esta George?


Hola Jerry!The year we lived in Costa Rica, our kids’ school had a year-round calendar. Hannah, Harry, and Ivy got a month off at Christmas and one in June; the rest of the year, school ran in six-week sessions with a week’s break between. This worked out brilliantly for traveling purposes, getting us down the mountain and out to explore Central America at regular intervals.

We’d been in Monteverde six weeks and a day when, in early September, the kids, their dad, and I headed out of Costa Rica for a week of intensive Spanish in Nicaragua. My criteria for selection had been “the least expensive school in Nicaragua that we can reach by bus in a day.”

By then, we’d lived in Monteverde just long enough to get a blast of what many Ticos—a friendly, non-pejorative term for Costa Ricans—feel toward Nicaragua and its people: disdain at best, hatred at worst. Ticos we knew seemed to feel that Nicaragua, with its poverty and its dictators and its poverty and its lack of infrastructure and its poverty, poverty, poverty, was an embarrassment to all of Central America. They wished Nicaragua would get its shit together. They wished Nicaragua would educate its citizens, brush its collective teeth, and stop being so poor all the time. They despised the Nicaraguan immigrants who sneaked across the border to steal the crappiest Costa Rican jobs, use Costa Rican social services, and molest Costa Rican women.

The kids’ Spanish tutor in Monteverde, provided by the school to help them until they were fluent enough to get by, scolded anyone she caught lazily dropping the terminal s from words:“No somos Nica!”

Ticos say “Nica” the way Arizonans say “wetback.”

We’d come from Seattle, where two full-time jobs plus three full-time kids had equaled a joyful yet frenetic life. My husband Anthony and I wanted to slow it down. Plus, there were things we wanted our kids to know that our current life wasn’t going to teach. Everything from “happiness is attainable without Select Soccer” to Spanish. A few months back we had quit our jobs, crossed our trembling fingers, and jumped. The money part wasn’t easy but it was surprisingly doable. Cost-of-living differences worked in our favor, and we were able to rent out our house for more than our mortgage payment. If we could keep our expenses to that difference, we’d come out of the year even (jobless, yes, but even). And here we were.

Going into the year, I’d wanted us to learn, learn, learn. Our vacations would be fun, natch, but also educational; we’d use these one-week stints to learn the history, current events, and culture of Central America. We’d see what needed changing in the world, and we’d be on fire to start. Possibly, we’d have Central America fixed right up by the end of the year. Nicaragua seemed like the perfect kickoff.

And so, against the advice of our new Tico friends, we went.

We left Monteverde at dawn. A rickety public bus bounced us down the rocky mountain road, dropping us at a small, unlabeled bus stop along the Pan-American Highway. We waited there for the air-conditioned, higher-end coach that would take us across the border at Penas Blancas. With the help of a boy about ten years old, we negotiated the border process and changed our Costa Rican colones for Nicaraguan Cordobas. As soon as our bus got under way, it was clear we were somewhere else. Nicaragua seemed hotter. Dogs ate garbage at the side of the road. Back among the trees, we could see houses constructed of tarps and scraps of tin.

Ivy had climbed on to Anthony’s lap. “Look! Doggies! They’re so cute! I want to pet them!” she said. Anthony looked at me, but I didn’t know what to say, either. The dogs looked exactly the way I’d always imagined the rabid dog that Atticus shoots, just a little to the left of right between the eyes.

“Sorry, Sweetie,” Anthony told Ivy. “But the bus doesn’t stop for another little while.”

We arrived in Masaya, in Southern Nicaragua, in the late afternoon. From there a taxi took us to the school. Harry had just enough Spanish to tell the taxista where we wanted to go.

The main school building turned out to be a large wooden house that overlooked La Laguna de Apoyo, a creepily warm, pondish kind of thing.. A concrete outbuilding would house our family for the week, bunkbeds in a bunker about twelve feet square. Given that the North American school year had just started, the school was virtually empty, and our family would be the major voting bloc. For the first two days we shared breakfast with another couple, who were replaced toward the end of the week with three backpackers.

Each morning, we practiced Spanish with individual tutors for four hours—although for Ivy, at five, “tutoring” was mostly learning perro and gato and getting piggyback rides around the grounds. In the afternoons, we went on school-sponsored excursions to see artisans and living conditions in the surrounding area. (The school either shared my vision for how rich tourists should experience Nicaragua, or they got a cut of whatever we spent.) After field trips, we swam in the awkward lake, or visited the sprawling mercado in the nearby town of Masaya. I had an uncomfortable moment when I encountered Danilo, my teacher in the morning, selling Chiclets outside the market in the afternoon.

On the first day’s field trip, we watched a twelve-year-old girl make a basket out of dried palm fronds in twenty-two minutes. She sat on a stool in the family’s living room, an area bound by corrugated roofing lashed between trees to form walls. I hated to think how long it had taken to gather the fronds—the surrounding area was largely denuded, most trees having been sacrificed to cooking fires. I watched Hannah watching; our eldest was exactly this girl’s age. If the girl noticed Hannah at all, I couldn’t see it. She finished her basket, set it aside, and picked up more fronds. Her brother was toddler sized, but he didn’t toddle; he sat quietly at her feet, scratching in the dirt with his hand. A fellow student snapped his picture. The boy seemed used to it. Ivy, who never met a small child she didn’t want to play with and generally treat like a doll, moved behind me.

That afternoon in the mercado, we saw we could buy a palm-frond basket for less than a dollar.

In the evening, an almost-cool came on the breeze, and for half an hour we were almost-comfortable. We lay in hammocks and marveled at the bats, swooping black shadows against the darkening sky. We cheered them for eating the mosquitoes.

But then the breeze was done. At bedtime, the five of us tossed and turned stickily in our sweltering bedroom. We stayed on top of the sheets. We tried to think about popsicles, and the chill of Lake Washington, even in August—and not about the spiders and geckos that would, if we snapped it on, scurry out of our flashlight’s beam.

Ivy whimpered all night, her eczema inflamed by the heat. Anyone thinking about what we’d seen that day didn’t want to discuss it, although Hannah alluded to it, once.

“At least this will end,” she spoke in the crawly darkness. “For us.”

In the morning, Ivy told me she’d dreamt about feeding people.


After the week of intensive language training, educational field trips, and the awareness of sweat pooling in our bodily creases twenty-three and a half hours a day, we taxied to Masaya and caught a bus to Nicaragua’s tourist gem, the colonial town of Granada. Not to be confused with Grenada, the tiny island off the coast of Venezuela that the U.S. “conquered” in the eighties, this Granada is the oldest European settlement in Nicaragua, established in 1524; it seems to have been conquered about twice a week during the Somoza/Sandinista troubles of the 1970s and ’80s. It is, even after those years of war, a beautiful town. The face Granada shows tourists is so darling you almost forget how hot you are. Granada is famous for meticulously restored Baroque and Renaissance buildings. Narrow, pre-automobile streets meander toward a central plaza filled with fountains and flowers.

As we got off the bus, Hannah said, “It’s like the rest of Nicaragua, but not.”

By the time we got there, the kids were so overheated, so exhausted, and their minds were so blown, we couldn’t bring ourselves to keep exploring. So instead of hauling them—or ourselves—through the Sandinistas’ network of underground tunnels, or learning about Francisco Cordoba, the Spanish conqueror who founded Granada and then later got his name on the currency, Anthony and I surrendered.

We gave up on history and architecture. We led no thoughtful, age-appropriate discussions about privilege and power and how we could justify our lives in the face of all we’d seen. Instead, we hung out at our hostel, a converted Colonial beauty with fountains and courtyards and air conditioning, and played in the pool. The kids shrieked and splashed. We dripped our merry way across the charming courtyard to the blissful cool of our two (!)  rooms and watched (missing one quotation here) “La Vida de Jerry Seinfeld,” a weekend-long marathon hosted by the Nicaraguan equivalent of Nick at Nite.

It wasn’t bad parenting, though. For every episode they watched, Harry and Hannah had to write down three Spanish phrases they learned from the episode. (Estos bocadillos me hacen sed! = “These pretzels are making me thirsty!”)

There were bats in Granada, too, and as they began their mosquito-eating swoops, the only movement on our walls were the flickering shadows of Jerry and Elaine, George and Kramer. We lay between cool, smooth sheets. It was bliss, yes; but we were no longer ignorant.


Wherever we went that year, people were forever asking me about our motivations for moving to Central America. When you get the same question over and over, you tend to develop talking points. One of my favorite talking points was that I wanted to eliminate some of the lectures. Lectures are the absolute worst part of parenting. But if you don’t find ways to get the important messages across, you’re sunk and your children become awful.

Hang up your backpack. Manners matter. Here’s why we share.

My parental lecture series had many installments. In moving to Central America, I hoped to dodge a few, living them out instead of yammering on. First up: You guys have no idea how lucky we are.

Nicaragua did the trick.

Nicaragua was an onslaught. The troubling images and the huge questions were so numerous and so upsetting that my weak, defensive brain ended up blending them into a single desperate muddle. So much so that the only question I could muster was How was it that everyone we met there was so clean?

I never did figure this out. By no means did we get a complete view of the country, but the parts we did see were a living, groaning, sweating, Alan Alda­-narrated PBS special on poverty. No running water, unless you count the rivulets through the living rooms when the rains came hard. Kitchens were outside firepits or cookstoves, and everything we saw seemed to be coated in children, chickens, dogs, garbage, and flies. Yet our teachers sparkled when they arrived at school each morning, their jeans dark blue and pressed (never shorts, no matter how thick, how hot, the air), hair still a little damp, shoes perfect and dust-free.

Back home in Seattle, our family was armed with two showers, a washer/dryer, and unlimited hot water. Our paved streets and sidewalks meant most of our dirt lived in the garden, parks, and the occasional sports uniform/detergent commercial. Nonetheless, at least one of our Seattle clan was as likely as not to start the day with a crunchy spot on some bit of hair or clothing.

But when we were taken to peer into classrooms at the elementary school near La Laguna, not a single white shirt had a smudge, although their owners had as likely as not walked a kilometer or two on unpaved roads to get here.

In English I have a decent variety of words at my disposal, but I still couldn’t form any of them into a tactful execution of my terrible question: How do you manage stay so clean when your country is so hot and so dirty, your house has no floor, and there are dogs everywhere?

In Spanish, I mostly smiled, nodded, and tried to tip very, very well. But by the end of the week, my tutor Danilo and I had covered enough topics in the course of our sessions that I thought I could broach the subject.

As I asked him about it, I shook my head and gave a slight laugh at how trashy many of the tourists, including my family, looked. I wanted Danilo to know that I had the sense to be embarrassed.

He spoke slowly, as always, so I could pick up the Spanish.

“When being clean is the way you can show your dignity … when being clean is how you show that you are worth something,” Danilo told me, “you pay attention to be clean.”

That made sense to me. I and mine, we had a lot of ways. My children never questioned their innate worth, and nor did anybody else—we didn’t need to worry about crunchy spots.

The desperate muddle of Nicaragua reminded me of what I already knew, what we all know: As a country, and even in recession, America is ridiculously wealthy. And Northwesterners are, by and large, ridiculously wealthy even for Americans. And while Seattle does know poverty, my family did not. If Harry needed new cleats, we bought them. We lived less than a mile from a library, but I’d buy books for Ivy four at a time for the convenience of not tracking due dates.

But our incredible wealth rarely resonated down to my bones. Lord, pretty much everyone we knew had a nicer house than ours. Friends went to Italy and the Galapagos and on safaris for their vacations; our family went mostly to the Oregon coast. Our lack of an island retreat or a yurt in the Methow valley set us apart among our closest friends.

Seattle, of course, had been packed with the so-legendary-they’ve-become-tiresome-even-though-many-of-them-are-lovely-people-high-tech jillionaires. Our family lived, quite literally, in their shadow—on the bottom slope of the hill that many of them live atop. We schooled, soccered, played, and worked with perfectly normal people who had amazing resources. If you hang in our circles in Seattle, having a very reasonable amount of money can feel downright poor.

The unreality of our situation had been driven home to me a few years back. Through the tireless work of many parents (many of them the at-home wives who spent Microsoft millions), the sweet little public school in our neighborhood had recently become attractive to the many high-high-high-end families in the area.

One spring day, Hannah was invited to play with a new classmate. In our ancient but entirely serviceable Toyota Previa, I drove her up one of the curvy, leafy streets whose homes overlook Lake Washington. Stunning Colonials and Victorians mixed with glassy ultramoderns, but even the diverse architecture came in just one size: Efuckingnormous. Azaleas and rhododendrons bloomed among Japanese maples in the artfully artless front gardens. Hundred-year-old oaks presided in the expansive parking strips. It was the kind of neighborhood you want to drive to just to take a walk. Birds chirped. Joggers were toned and tanned, and they wore fabrics that wick moisture.

Hannah had reached the age when I could drop her off rather than doing the whole mom-chat inside. I double-checked the address and drove into the circular driveway.

I leaned over and kissed Hannah on the head. Such a big girl, all of a sudden. “Have a great time, sweetie. I’ll pick you up at six. Be sure to help pick up.” I ducked down to see out the passenger window so I could wave a quick hi/thanks at whomever answered the door.

Hannah didn’t move. “Okay, but which one?”


“Which one do they live in?”

“Honey, it’s right in front of you. You’re sitting ten feet from the front door.”

Hannah’s voice took on the edge that meant she was being very, very patient with me. “Yes, but which apartment do they live in? I need to know the number, to push the buzzer!”

Oh, right.

I explained that just Maddie’s family lived in this house. Hannah looked up and down the street.

“In all of these? No apartments? Every single house on this street has just one family?”

It’s one thing when your kids are surprised by that kind of wealth. More insidious, for me, was when mine started taking it in stride. Hannah was embarrassed by her mistake that day and would never make it again.

When your children think they come from a needy family because two of them have to share a bedroom, it makes you think a minute. At least, it did me. I’d been proud of the way we’d been able to live; still, in our neighborhood we mostly wore cotton T-shirts to go jogging.

I might feel middle class in the States, and even in our new home in Monteverde, where our growing community of friends included many who lived beautifully but hadn’t worked for years—expats one and all. But I could not avoid the truth in Nicaragua. Nicaragua launched a full-on truth assault until I couldn’t take it anymore. I hid away with my kids, from the flies and the dogs and the sadness and the air that you have to do the breaststroke through. Eating pretzels and watching Jerry Seinfeld reruns in an air-conditioned room, I hid from the truth of the poverty in which too many people live. And I hid from the truth of my own, unimaginable wealth.


I think that most of us who never go hungry (unless it’s on purpose) do know how fortunate we are. But I forget. Why do I keep having to remember and re-remember this thing I know I know? On the sweaty bus ride back from Nicaragua, I swear to God, I caught myself whining because we wouldn’t be able to afford to get to Ecuador at Christmas.

I’m confused by issues of having and not having and I’m not sure what to do. I know I want to raise conscious kids. Our Seattle was a dream world, where wealth was assumed and want was nonexistent. I would see it as a failure on my part to not expose us all to a bigger reality. But I want my children to be aware of suffering, not inured to it. What a terrible backfire it would be to raise children who have seen so much poverty that they think it’s unavoidable and unaddressable.

I’m pretty sure even Jesus had some class issues. On the one hand, He was clearly very big on feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and so on. On the other, there’s that one disturbing story, when Judas got so snotty about Mary Magdalene—that slut!—anointing Jesus with oil. Judas thought the oil should have been sold, and the money given to the poor. Jesus defended the extravagance, saying “The poor will always be with us.” I’ve always thought that was a fairly dickish statement on His part.

But I understood it better, in Nicaragua. Being anointed in oil was the Jesus version of an air-conditioned hostel.

So I don’t feel bad about letting my kids laugh at the television that whole weekend. They had seen a lot, and they couldn’t fix any of it. They’d lived the lecture.

What we saw in Nicaragua will percolate and distill, and become part of who we are. I want us to have the will and the energy for baby steps, and then bigger steps. Sometimes we’ll give deeply, and sometimes we’ll give ourselves a break. That one weekend, I surrendered my plan to learn and grow and be educated citizens of the planet, every damn minute of the trip. I shut up, and we all ate pretzels.

Author’s Note: Publishing this piece terrifies me. Is it nothing but a big fat rationalization? Sometimes I think the best thing I can do for the world is to grow loving, caring people who will enter and transform it. And sometimes I think anything short of giving all we have is a crock. And sometimes I think—this should come as no surprise—What’s for snack? I settle at last in a place that’s very centrist. Between hedonism and abstention, between fruitless navel-gazing and militant benevolence; that’s where I live, and where I want to raise my kids. With gratitude, humility and things that go crunch. There is nothing more perfect to me than a line in the Wendell Berry poem  “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts. Yes. Exactly. I start there. I move outward.

Brain, Child (Spring 2012)

Margot Page’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain, Child and the Huffington Post. She is the creator of the popular “Dear Drudgery” column on the Brain, Mother blog and writes about Pope Francis, travel, and things that amuse her at www.margot-page.com . Follow Margot onTwitter, friend her on Facebook, and check out her memoir Paradise Imperfect: An American Family Moves to the Costa Rican Mountains. Margot lives, works and writes in Seattle.

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