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By Nancy Townsley

We had pancakes at the diner down the street from dad’s house two Sundays before we put mom in the nursing home. That’s what mom had, anyway. I had oatmeal with raisins and walnuts. My sisters probably had waffles or yogurt parfaits, I can’t remember. Our dad had two eggs sunny side up, crisp bacon, wheat toast with margarine, and coffee.

Dad cut mom’s pancakes for her because she had forgotten how to do it. She used a fork to stir three packets of sugar into her first cup of decaf. Dad shook them in there himself. It was way too many, but no one said anything.

We didn’t say anything to the waitress, either, when she asked us how our morning was going and wished all the women at the table a Happy Mother’s Day. Her voice was cheery and she wore a fake pink carnation behind the pinned-on plastic badge that said Stacey. We pretended everything was OK, but I wondered whether our guilty faces gave us away. We smiled and ordered our breakfasts. When Stacey circled back around to refill our coffees, we smiled again and watched mom dump more sugar into the hot black liquid.

That’s the way my heart felt on that day. Hot. Black. Liquid.


We all had it written down on our calendars, the day we’d take mom to the home. Twelve days from now. Every time dad wondered out loud whether he could keep on taking care of mom by himself, we’d insist she was not going to get better. It’s not practical, my sisters and I would say. Remember how it’s hurting your back to get her in and out of the shower? How you have to wrestle her into her clothes every few days when you finally cajole her into getting out of her bathrobe? How crazy it makes you that she keeps you up half the night either laughing or crying, and you never know which it will be? How you wonder if you’ll ever get any rest ever again?

You’re almost 80, dad. This is not working. We know the two of you have lived together for more than five decades, since you were married in the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Algona, Iowa, the weekend after Thanksgiving in 1954. We know it’s hard for you to imagine yourself here in your cozy, familiar house, and her there in a sterile, silent room without you by her side. We’re so sorry it’s breaking your heart. But you really have to let go.

It was the only time I can remember, in all the years we’ve been dad’s daughters, that we were so adamant and unrelenting. All our lives we had lined up, like little tin soldiers, whenever dad exhorted us. Our family was not a democracy—we marched unflinchingly to dad’s drummer—so it surprised me when he acquiesced. But there was a sinister secret in the deal. We agreed not to tell mom we were planning to move her out of their house because her needs were too big for dad to manage. She would not have wanted to discuss it even if she could understand, dad said, which she most definitely could not. It seemed deceitful and Machiavellian and downright wrong, but still we did not tell mom she was going. Or when. Or to where. Instead, we plotted behind her back and convinced ourselves it was all right to keep her in the dark because our decision, cloaked in whispered conversations, was what was best for her.

And also for us, though we couldn’t bear to think about that.


The day before mom was supposed to go to the dementia care facility—a clean, well-appointed place we’d all toured and approved of—she had a heart attack. Not a serious one, the emergency room doctor said, though she’d have to stay overnight for observation. It felt like synchronicity to me, as if her body had ginned up a cardiac event in order to foil our plans. Lying there in her hospital bed, the crisp white sheets tucked up to her neck making her look so small and frail, mom blinked and her wide eyes leaked—a sure sign, I thought, that she knew something was up. That everything was going to change, and she couldn’t do anything about it. Drip, drip, drip went her IV. Beep, beep, beep went her heart monitor. Dab, dab, dab went the handkerchief I used to catch her tears.


It was a mistake not to bring mom to the care home in an ambulance. That would have been much more official and tidy. She went in a car sent by Cedar Crest Alzheimer’s Special Care Center. Emerging from the hospital in a wheelchair, mom complied when the orderlies started to fold her rag-doll body into the front seat of the sedan, taking care to place her fuzzy sock-covered feet just so and guide her shaking hands into her lap, one over the other. My younger sister and I scrambled into the back and told the driver to follow our dad, up ahead in the navy blue Volvo. It was funny because of course the man in the sedan knew exactly where to go, but dad was going to lead the whole sad caravan 10 miles up the road to our destination nonetheless. With dad ceremony was important, even when the mission felt impossible.

Two other cars, my older sister’s and my husband’s, followed behind.

It took us much longer than it should have to get there. Felt like it, anyway. We passed a McDonald’s, a Taco Bell and a Long John Silver’s on the way. Also a 7-Eleven, Jo-Ann Fabrics and a Shell gas station. When we finally arrived, dad looked somber, stoic, fearful and ashen, all at the same time. My sister and I popped out of the back seat just as our driver, whose name was Travis, came to a stop under the covered area leading to the care center’s foyer. Mom stayed put. She stared straight ahead. This was a bad sign.

Like an earnest hotel valet, Travis sprinted around the rear of the car and opened the passenger-side door for my mom. He smiled a nervous smile and disappeared into the building, leaving us to our private moment of transition. Like a battlefield blueprint, we had our next move figured out. We’d walk mom to the reception desk, sign her in, memorize the week’s keypad code to gain entrance to the locked common area, then find a nice alcove for the family to hunker down in. We’d get mom a cup of coffee, maybe, and reassure her everything was fine. That she’d like it here, and we’d visit as often as we could. Dad would promise to come every morning and every afternoon, which I knew he would do, because his word was his bond.


All of this was running through my mind as mom just sat there, eyes fixed on the windshield or the car’s hood or god knows what, maybe a robin in one of the maple trees lining the walkway, and she didn’t budge. Not an inch, not a twitch. We noticed she was crying. With mom we could always tell when the waterworks were under way because her heart-shaped face would scrunch up and get all red, just like it was right then, and she’d make low, soft, guttural noises, the kind a wounded animal might make if it were all alone and suffering. And I thought: she knows. She knows what’s happening and that she can’t control it. She knows that if she gets out of the car and walks through that door, she’s not coming out. She knows we’re betraying her.

I’d never felt more helpless. Dad took mom’s hands in his and tried to lift her from the bucket seat. “Here we go, Lucile,” he coaxed, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you.” He’d take a break, rub his aching back and try again. She cried harder and stared at him with pleading eyes. He broke down. He walked to his car, got in and drove off, “to pick up her prescriptions,” he called out the window. It was our turn to convince mom everything was all right, to convince ourselves it was. How do you do that when it isn’t? She wept hot, bitter tears. They rolled down her cheeks and dripped from her chin onto her pale blue cotton blouse, the one with two miniature Schnauzers embroidered on the pocket, just like the dog she had at home, her home, the one she was leaving for good. Her nose ran, and mucus mingled with the tears, making a mess we tried to clean up with tissues and platitudes and frantic murmured prayer. Things were that dire and intractable and confusing and dreadful—until Ann, the center administrator, came to our rescue.


She was wearing a long, white cardigan over a tailored red dress, and her hair was done up in a breezy French knot. As she approached our mother I thought she resembled Florence Nightingale, or even Joan of Arc. It was that important for someone, anyone, to do something to fix this. Ann crouched down beside the car door. She cupped mom’s forehead in the palm of one hand and swept a soft cloth across her soggy face with the other, chatting her up with stories about the people she’d meet inside. There was Marilyn, her roommate, who was very quiet but friendly, too. Judy, who loved to wear colorful bracelets and had taken a fancy to Marty, who clapped his hands a lot. And Joyce, who could be crotchety and sometimes swore in German, but danced gracefully around the dining hall with imaginary partners whenever they played Frank Sinatra.


Mom sniffed and stopped crying. She looked at Ann through the swollen slits of her eyes and saw the same thing we did: salvation. Ann put her arm around mom’s shoulders and mom leaned into her, enough that her body slowly rose from the car, and together they shuffled over the threshold into Cedar Crest, mom’s new and forever home. In almost a single deft motion, Ann had bound up our hearts and our spirits, not with gauze or liniment but with confidence and empathy and kindness, doses measured in magic and love. We were floored and amazed and thankful. We slumped down on a sofa in the TV room with mom until dad reappeared, a white paper bag carrying a half dozen vials of pills tucked under his arm. “You all right, ‘Cile?” he asked, brushing her sticky bangs aside. “I love you,” he soothed. “I’m here.”

And he was, morning and afternoon, for exactly three years and nine days, until mom stopped eating and drinking and the hospice nurse said she was “actively dying,” so we all gathered around her bed to kiss her cooling brow, sing to her, read to her from her bible and tell her it was all right to go.


Later, when we returned to dad’s house, 50 years of memories hung in the air as conspicuously as the walnut-framed wedding picture on their bedroom wall—she in her beaded tulle gown, he in his handsome white suit—and I noticed a new addition. A large calendar, with artwork by Renoir and oversize spaces for recording significant dates and appointments, sat on the kitchen table, open to the month of May.

Two squares were outlined in magenta marker.

“Lucile to Cedar Crest, 2010,” read a notation on May 21, accompanied by a sad face drawn by dad.

Under May 30, the day mom went to the peace, he’d scrawled a tribute to the span of their marriage—”58 years, 190 days”—and added a bright pink heart.

Author’s Note: Since my mother died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in 2013, my heart has lurched every time I’m unable to conjure up a word in conversation. I wonder if succumbing to the ravages of plaques and tangles is my destiny, too. But mostly, I reflect on the meaning of her life, its serendipitous connections with mine—and I smile at the memories.

Nancy Townsley grew up as a Navy “junior” and rode horses bareback in the Puerto Rican sun. Since moving to the Pacific Northwest in 1973, she has forged a career in community journalism. Her fiction, nonfiction and essays have appeared in Brave On The Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (Forest Avenue Press), NAILED Magazine, Role Reboot, and BLEED, a literary blog by Jaded Ibis Productions. She lives, writes and runs in St. Helens, Oregon.

Ground-Level Memories

Ground-Level Memories

By Jennifer Fliss


When I ran a search for “parents with disabilities,” all that came back were articles and experiences on raising a child with disabilities. Scores and scores and scores and probably not nearly enough if you are the parent of a child with special needs. But still, it was not what I was looking for.

I am a full-able-bodied new mother. However, my own mother, who lives nearby and wants to play a visible role in her granddaughter’s life, is not. She is 62 and walks, not very well, with a walker. What started as a limp when she was young has degenerated to an almost lack of mobility in her legs. As a child, I was bullied and only one of the frequent taunting refrains was about my mother being a “cripple.” As if that made her less of a person. As if that made me, her child, less of a person.

It is true that it has made things difficult. For years I’ve had to help her with stairs, walk her to the bathroom, provide the sturdy arm that I always thought should be the parents’ responsibility to their children. It is something I struggle with. Often. But it is also something I’ve had to just get over. Be okay with. Not easy.

When I moved from New York to Seattle, my mother followed. When I had a baby, naturally she wanted to spend time with her grandchild. Isn’t that what so many grandparents want? But how would this work? What would she do? There would be no bouncing on the knee, no pushing in swings (as I remember my mother doing for me, while singing Elvis songs), no walks to the duck pond (as I had done with my beloved grandmother), and later, no bowling or trips to amusement parks.

Of course, going through my mind were frustrations when people would say “Oh, it must be so nice to have help nearby.” The thing is, I couldn’t trust my mother to hold my daughter. In her thin and shaking arms, I was sure she would drop her. I certainly couldn’t get a breather while grandma watched over a sleeping or crying newborn. When out of my mind caring for my colicky girl, I desperately needed the help I thought a mother should provide. But, I couldn’t get it. Yes, she wanted to help. She bought us a stroller, a car seat, and myriad other baby items. But I wanted more than that. I wanted what money could not buy. I wanted someone who would hold me and tell me I was doing a great job and here, why don’t I watch her and you get a break, some sleep Sweetheart. But those fantasies never came to fruition. If my mother came to my house, I had to watch over my baby and my mother. And in that selfish time, I just couldn’t.

So, that led me to my Google search. There had to be parents or grandparents with disabilities and challenges like my mother’s. What did they do? How did they do? Surely there was some kind of online support network with resources. Here is a little game Grandma can play with an eight month old. Look at this new gadget that makes it easier to hold a baby for someone with such little body strength. Read this story on this fantastic parent and her experiences and how wonderful her children turned out. Nothing. The digital version of crickets.

What do I do then? I still struggle selfishly, but as a parent, my selfishness must be put aside for the benefit of my daughter. So, I do what I can to foster their relationship. I bring my now thirteen month old daughter to Grandma’s apartment. I set her on the ground, at the same level as her grandmother. And they laugh together. I’m never very far away. If I’m lucky I can sit up on the couch, check my email, read a book. We have gotten a wheelchair for my mother that allows us to go on walks with her. Baby in a carrier or baby backpack, or if my husband is with us, in a stroller and granddaughter and grandma tour the park next to each other, laughing at the ducks or pointing out the resident elusive heron.

I am never going to have a fully-physically able-bodied mother. It is still going to bother me sometimes; the unfairness of it. But I’m also an adult, one that, I think, turned out pretty well, despite my mother’s declining difficulties. Maybe it’s helped me learn compassion. Maybe I understand that others have situations that are worse. I have a mother. And she lives just up the street, less than a mile away. And walking doesn’t mean loving and holding doesn’t mean laughing. She cannot walk. She cannot hold her granddaughter. But she can love and she can laugh and together, they’ll make wonderful ground-level memories.

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based new mother, writer, reader, runner, and has been known to do the flying trapeze. She has written for book blogs, including The Well Read Fish and BookerMarks and other publications.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Questions and Answers

Questions and Answers

By Margaret Elysia Garcia
questionsandanswersI grew up with a mother who answered all my questions before I’d even asked them—and gave explanations that could send most kids into a depression. At age six, when asked whether I could have ice cream before dinner, I got to hear about how my mother just read Diet for a New America and how ice cream might lead to my premature death.

When my mother came out as a lesbian, I was in junior high, and made the mistake of asking how long she’d known. I expected the answer to come in a sentence with perhaps a numeral in it. Instead I got a complete blow-by-blow description of the last 30 years of her life.

I fared no better with my father, a biologist, who couldn’t fathom that a child might ask a simple question like ‘what kind of bird is that?’ and not want to know the Latin name, all its classifications, its possible position on the endangered species list, its last known sighting, and whether ranchers were responsible for its demise. I vowed that when I had my own kids, I would give them straight and to-the-point answers.

But genetics are a tricky thing. My seven-year-old daughter has already had one or two existential crises in which she’s exclaimed, “Playing? Eating? Sleeping? School? Is that all there is?” My nine-year-old son was caught explaining the history of film to bewildered third graders on the playground.

We watched the original Godzilla together. Then came the questions. What’s radiation? What’s a Geiger counter? These were easy to field. Channel my dad, don’t channel my mother and tone it down. Next questions get harder. Why would people want to test bombs and blow them up in the ocean? Don’t they know there’s fish down there? Why do we have nuclear weapons if we know they could kill? Because we’re human. We can’t help it. I don’t have an answer. Okay. Too many questions. Too many answers. Mommy is tired now.

But for all their questions, the children never asked about the obvious—their surplus of grandmothers. Every Saturday morning their lesbian grandmothers pick them up and take them to their house for the day. But lately they’ve been making observations. “So Mommy, if Papa Dennis is our grandfather and Grandma Lydia is our grandmother how come they don’t live together? How could you be born if they don’t live together? How did they have you? Did they divorce? Where does Grandma Lynn fit in?”

My daughter has come home from school crying that she feels left out—all her other friends have stepmothers and stepfathers. When is she finally going to get some? Again, I have no answers. I think about exploiting my mother and saying, “Paloma, you guys are the only kids on the block with lesbian grandmothers—that’s way better than stepmothers—now go outside and play!”

In 2008, when gay marriage was legal in California, my mother and her partner of 20 years decided to get married. I still worried about fielding those questions. I figured we’d just never make anything a big deal and there’d be no questions. I sat them down and told them over after-school snacks.

“The grandmas can’t get married,” my daughter said. Oh no. All my liberal, progressive parenting out the window. Did I not answer questions correctly along the way? Should I have given more detailed answers she never asked for? Would that have transformed her into an accepting individual? I heard my mouth open and some sort of this-day-was-coming speech fell stumbling out of my mouth.

“Paloma, when two people love each other and are ready to make a commitment … commitment is when … you can marry a boy when you grow up or a girl … or no one … you can stay single …That might not be a bad thing for you, actually—.”

“Mom. I’m not asking for an explanation; I’m just telling you it’s impossible. I want them to get married, but they can’t.”

“Actually, in California, now they can…” I heard myself rattle on about court decisions, extremists, fascists, freedom, and the civil rights movement. A red light flashed above my eyes and I knew I’d done it! Information overload. I had become my parents.

“You don’t get it Mom,” she sighed. “They don’t have any dresses. Have you ever seen the grandmas in dresses? I help them clean their house and closets. I’ve never seen one. Weddings have to have dresses.”

She threw my resolve into a bit of a spiral. I had at least four paragraphs left of my speech about how you fall in love with the person and not the gender. But instead I was forced to explain that, despite having no fashion sense whatsoever, her grandmothers could and would get married.

The grandmas can’t help themselves, Paloma, they’ve bought stock in Land’s End and L.L. Bean.

“No turtlenecks, please!” My son laughed. Poor kid. My mom has been dressing him like a middle-aged lesbian for years now. My daughter asked if they’d at least wear dress shoes instead of sneakers.

“One can only hope,” I said. “But I wouldn’t hold out for it. You don’t need dresses or nice shoes though, you just need love.” Paloma shrugged.

“Okay, Mommy,” she said. “But they’re going to have a cake, right? Everyone? has cake at weddings.” She looked to me to confirm customs and for a second I thought about explaining veganism and a gluten-free diet but thought better of it.

“Yes on the cake,” I announced, happy to finally answer a simple, direct question.

Author’s Note: I knew I was going to write something like “Questions & Answers” for a while. It occurred to me that the fear of the general population towards gay and lesbian parents is always sexualized. I thought it would be fun and much more realistic to show what kids are really concerned about—dresses, for example. I submitted the story to Listen to Your Mother—a national spoken word Mother’s Day show and performed it onstage at Cowell Theater in San Francisco in May 2012.

Margaret Elysia Garcia writes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and memoir. She was a Pushcart nominee in 2011 for an excerpt from Coming Out Too, her memoir in progress about growing up in a gay military household. She was also a Glimmer Train finalist in 2011, and her short story manuscript 605 Freeway Stories won second place in the 34th Annual Chicano/Latino Literary Award in fiction. She blogs at

Brain, Child (Winter 2013)


Till Death Did They Part

Till Death Did They Part

By Molly Krause

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When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.


My dad was a man who was careful with his words. He was bothered by the incorrect use of ‘excuse me’ when someone should have said ‘pardon me.’ And don’t even get him started on overusing the words ‘you know’ as I did in the 1980s as a teenager. He had the habit of introducing my mother as his ‘former wife’ never his ‘ex-wife.’ Given his precise use of language, his word choice seemed deliberate. It was as if he was saying, “In my former life, back when I was trying to be straight, this was the wife I chose.” When he moved back to Kansas to die, his former life and his current situation intersected.

When I asked my dad in the early 1990s what he thought about research to discover the ‘gay gene’ I’ll admit I was trying to probe into his inner dialogue about his own homosexuality. As usual, he didn’t give me much.

“We all make our choices, we just have to live with them,” he answered.

This was his answer after he came out during a therapy session so many years before, after he chose to leave his own marriage to my mother, after he left his three young daughters behind, after he lived his own life in the big city, after he contracted the HIV virus.

This was his answer before he lost his vision in one eye, before the lesions appeared first on his hands, before most of his friends died, before he started walking with a cane, before he returned to the landscape and family he had once left behind.

Love is a choice, a decision on some level, he was telling me. He didn’t choose to be gay, but he did choose to leave. And while the cultural tide of 1972 may have given my mom a nod to stay in a marriage with her gay husband, as he was willing to do, she wanted him to leave. She wanted to choose love, too.

He stayed away most of my childhood, leaving my mom to struggle with raising three daughters. She never remarried and my sisters and I managed to run off any of her serious boyfriends. My dad was spotty with child support, forgot birthdays and spent time in rehab. She had every reason to feel bitter and to pass that along to her children. She never did. And while my father was prone to being critical, the only judgment he had about her was that she failed to teach us how to make a bed properly. Taking my mom’s lead, I didn’t act angry about my dad’s lack of time and attention. I smiled and tried to be lovable, all the while nursing a hidden wound of abandonment.

As my dad’s health was failing in 1995, his relationship was too. He and his partner lived in Key West when, at age twenty-three, I flew down for an extended visit. I was hoping for a suntan, sleeping in and shooting pool at the neighborhood-drinking hole. What I walked into was not a respite; it was a war zone.

My dad and his partner hardly spoke to each other, and when they did, they screamed. His partner drank a half a bottle of Bombay gin nightly; my dad self medicated with his pain pills. “I can’t stay here,” my dad whimpered to me. “No,” I agreed. “I don’t want to die down here in Key West,” he confessed.

Whose idea was it for him to move back to Kansas with me? Did I suggest it, the grown woman still searching for her father’s affection yet half hoping he would never do it? Did he bring it up as an option, trying to feel me out for how it would be received by my mom and sisters? Or did he just ask me directly, desperate to escape his unhappy situation?

When we decided he would come back with me, I felt full of purpose and determination. This would be the situation where we would finally get close, the barriers removed, a satisfying closure to the buried pain of years of distance.

My focus didn’t last long. Quickly overwhelmed sharing the same house with him for the first time since I was a toddler, I disappointed him by staying away. Away from the Vantage cigarette-tinged fog of the house, away from his moaning that could not be alleviated, away from his biting sarcasm and sharp tongue. My hidden resentments began to bubble to the surface—he feels bitter, does he? I stepped away; my mom showed up.

She drove him in her Volvo to his many medical appointments, singing the lyrics from their favorite musicals together. They huddled over the Sunday crossword puzzle. He defended the use of a pencil in all forms of writing, preferring the textured feel of its scrawl; she tried to convert him to the fountain pen, with its smooth delivery. Bickering over what was correct grammar, she inevitably ended the conversation with an eye roll and “Honestly, John, you can be insufferable.” She emptied his overflowing ashtrays, picked up his prescriptions and bottles of Insure, found someone to come over to cut his hair. They were competitive over Wheel of Fortune, my dad holding his magnifying glass up to see the TV. Yelling out the answer, their voices on top each other, they looked to me to make the call. “Marie Antoinette! Marie Antoinette! Molly, you know I said it first!” my mom shrieked. I raised my hands in surrender and walked out of the room.

I found a photograph as a small child, loose in a box among other forgotten objects. A black and white image showed my parents gazing at each other on a boat, a strand of my mom’s hair loose on her cheek, my dad holding a smoke between his thumb and forefinger. They were laughing as if a joke had just been told. Although I imagined an exotic far-away island, it was likely a mud-bottomed, coffee-colored lake. They looked like a couple in love. I clutched at it, unable to stop looking at them. Evidence, the only I had really, of my parents’ one time love for each other. The sadness I felt for my mom after spending time with the photo caused me to bury it back in that box.

I had never seen my parents fight, but I had never witnessed this new, almost domestic scene, after he returned, either. I always knew they liked each other, but as he lay dying, this affection was amplified. When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.

The last person my dad reached out to was his former wife. He called her; his voice filled with panic in the middle of the night, and told her he didn’t know what happening. His last moments of lucidity were spent with her, but there was no singing together on that car ride. That was the last time he entered the hospital. It was my mother who called me and my sisters to come quickly. We all arrived in time as he continued to make his gasping breaths, clawing at his oxygen mask. His three daughters and his former wife surrounded him in his hospital bed after the mask was removed and he was allowed his peace.

As my mom reassured him, stroking his hair, remarking how little grey he had, I realized for the first time that us girls were not the only ones losing someone that day. We were losing our dad, but my mom, such as he was, was losing the only husband she ever had. The family that they had created together was all he had left at his end. And when that time came and his suffering was over, none of us cared, my mom included, that he preferred men over women.

When I thought about that picture later, it no longer made me feel sad for my mom. Seeing her stringless love made me aware of my own tethers I held to my dad—unmet expectations, unsaid words, unrealized intimacy. Unclenching my fingers and releasing them expanded my view of love. It is bigger than I had thought, too big to be contained to a greeting card, Hollywood movie or perhaps even a marriage. It is big enough to see someone for who they are, who they want to be and forgive them the difference.

We all make our choices; we just have to live with them.

Molly Krause is a writer and restaurateur living in Lawrence, Kansas with her husband and two daughters.

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Solicited Advice

Solicited Advice

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How has parenting changed since our mothers’ days of parenting? Can research help defend our parenting choices?

A friend recently asked for my advice in dealing with her mother’s disapproval of her parenting. She asked if I knew of any good articles about why today’s parents do things differently than their own parents or research she could use to defend her parenting choices.

I was flattered by her request. I’m not typically the go-to girl for advice. My own children ask me to fact-check my answers to their questions on Google. Being approached for advice made me want to be worthy of the challenge.

But, the challenge wasn’t finding articles that addressed generational shifts in parenting paradigms or research to back up a particular parenting philosophy. The challenge was pointing out what my friend didn’t want to see—that articles and research would not provide the defense she was seeking against her mother’s criticism. Research is useful in convincing ourselves that we are making the right choices but there is, in my experience, little we can do to convince others to agree.

Today’s parents are raising kids in the shadow of an ever growing parenting industry. There are parenting books, seminars, magazines, and blogs. And marketing. Oh, the marketing. Like all good marketers, the marketers of parenting do their best to make us loyal to a particular brand—mindfulness, hands-free, emotional intelligence, natural consequences, etc. Our brand loyalty often manifests as a superiority complex. We dismiss other brands as outdated, gauche, or ruinous. For evidence of this phenomenon, just go to your neighborhood park and start a discussion with a stranger about the right approach to sleep training or the appropriate amount of supervision for first graders.

Yesterday’s parents have seen a lot of research come and go in their time. They have seen children flipped from front to back, suffered whiplash from the changes in formula vs. breast milk marketing, and seen a mom arrested for letting her kid walk to the neighborhood park alone. They are as comfortable scoffing at Dr. Sears as we are scoffing at Dr. Spock.

When strangers criticize our parenting, it gets our hackles up. It’s worse when our own mothers pass judgment on our parenting. So much worse. It’s personal—in both directions. Their disapproval of our best efforts is especially hurtful and our dismissal of their best efforts is equally so.

In these things, I think the best approach may be a heaping dose of gratitude for a job well-enough done, a sprinkling of empathy for just how hard of a job it is, and a bright red unconditional love and acceptance cherry on top. Our moms did their best. We are doing our best. They messed up. We mess up. The biggest difference between them and us is the verb tense in which we describe our efforts.

I grew up in a flawed family. My childhood marched to the irregular drummers of addiction and marital strife. There is plenty I want to leave behind and not repeat with my children. But, it wasn’t all bad. I’ve tried really hard to sort through the legacy of my family of origin and make sure I don’t throw out the good in my desperation to avoid the bad.

I want to throw out the harshness and judgment, but keep the high expectations. I want to throw out the violence, but keep the passion. I want to throw out the inconsistency, but keep the adventure. I want to throw out the fear, but keep the respect.

Today’s parents owe yesterday’s parents that level of analysis as we grow our families. Otherwise, we risk swinging the parenting paradigm pendulum too far just to be different, forgetting that different and better are not synonyms.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

The Children’s Ballot

The Children’s Ballot

By Jacob M. Appel


I vote in the same suburban elementary school building where my parents cast their ballots during my childhood. Every November, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday, I make my civic pilgrimage past the tiny plastic desks where I once studied phonics and long division, joining dozens of neighbors to wait my turn in the gymnasium where, not so long ago, I displayed my ineptitude at dodgeball. Now we all feed our picks into soundless laser scanners. During my childhood, the county still used mechanical voting booths. When my parents pulled the colossal red lever that rendered their preferences irrevocable, you could hear the magic of democracy in the whir and jangle of the retractable drape.

Election Day was serious business in my house. We voted early, as a family, rising with the dawn to ensure that we didn’t miss our opportunity. After all, the ensuing day might bring a toothache or a fender bender or countless other minor yet pressing distractions hell-bent on keeping us from the polls. Could we take such a chance, my father asked, when Poles and Hungarians risked their lives for such opportunities? Needless to say, I strove to make my six-year-old self worthy of all the little boys behind the Iron Curtain who could not accompany their parents into voting booths. Much as each adult was permitted one vote, precinct rules allowed each child to escort only one parent through the process. Invariably, whether through deceit or plea or willful criminality—on at least one occasion, I crawled beneath the drape—I managed to accompany both my mother and my father.

By the late 1970s, I recall my mother permitting me to pull the mystical lever. To my chagrin, she did not let me select among the candidates. I distinctly remember feeling indignation that the nation did not offer a children’s ballot akin to the children’s menus in restaurants.

My father, in those days, was a registered Republican. He admired Nelson Rockefeller, believed in “good government,” and embraced the twin values of tolerance and hard work. If anyone seemed suited to chase a man like my father out of the GOP, it was Ronald Reagan, whose conservative Presidential campaign in 1980 ultimately pushed him off the party’s yacht. Of course, that didn’t make the inept and unctuous Jimmy Carter any more appealing.  By the morning of the election, my father had determined to cast his vote for Congressman John Anderson of Illinois, a good-government-Rockefeller-Republican-turned-independent with zero prospect of occupying the Oval Office. I approved of his decision. I’d seen a photograph of Anderson on the cover of Time Magazine—in a tiny bubble, below larger photos of Carter and Reagan—and he struck me as somebody I’d like to have as an uncle.

And then pandemonium broke loose.

“Are you out of your mind?” demanded my mother. We were riding to the polling station in her ’72 Dodge Dart, a vehicle perpetually belching out leaded exhaust. I rode in the passenger seat, a rare treat. My mother breastfed my brother in back. “You do realize you’re throwing your vote away, don’t you?”

“I’m voting my conscience,” replied my father. “I like Anderson.” You’d have thought he’d confessed to liking Attila the Hun.

“You like Anderson? You’re going to vote for him because you like him? And what are you going to do when Reagan wins the election by one vote and blows up the world?

My father said nothing:  Arguing with my mother was like pouring words into a sieve.

“Well?” she demanded again. “Please don’t do this. You don’t want your children to get blown up, do you?”

We pulled into the school parking lot. Each of my parents held one of my hands as we crossed the asphalt and entered the gymnasium. The matter had still not been decided.

“If Reagan wins by one vote,” my mother warned, “I’ll swear I’ll never forgive you.”

Instead of speaking, my father pointed at a paper sign taped to a nearby post: No politicking beyond this point.

“That doesn’t apply to me,” snapped my mother. “I’m your wife.”

And so they stood in line, waiting to vote, my puny body between them, and the future of the free world hanging in the balance.

Jacob M. Appel is the author of the novel, The Biology of Luck, and a physician in New York City.  More at:

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Raising Children in an Interracial Family

Raising Children in an Interracial Family

By Bethany Pinto

This is the second post What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

image-2“What are we thinking?” She must have asked him in the quiet of the night. They were finally alone after the excitement of the news they had received earlier that day. The social worker had called and confirmed they got a baby girl! Their sleeping three-year-old was beside herself with excitement when she heard she would have a little sister soon. She was singing and jumping around all day. They’d called everyone, overjoyed with the news that before the end of the year, they’d be parents again. “Who are we to think we can do this?” she asked again. After all, it was 1976. It was a small town in middle America, and the baby girl was Black.

“I thought you said you wanted another baby?” he asked her, gazing at the top of her head in the crook of his arm. A single warm tear, laden with an overwhelming, full and present love.  “More than anything,” she responded quietly. “Then we don’t need to think. All we need to do is feel our way through this. We’ll know what to do.” Daddy kissed Mommy’s head and sealed our fate.

*   *   * 

Now it is 2013 and we are living happily as an interracial family. My niece and nephew are lily white with red hair. I proudly display their pictures on my Facebook page and they tell their classmates their aunty is a Black person. My other nephews are biracial, like my brother, and my own little man looks Puerto Rican, thanks to me and his daddy’s multi-ethnic backgrounds. Yup, Mom and Dad have a beautiful and colorful family portrait of grandbabies they are more than willing and quite eager to share with the world!  What they must have gone through in the mid-70s, consciously choosing to raise Black children in a time when interracial couples and babies were not always accepted in society. They must have known what they were facing. Blacks and Whites were not getting along, or just barely tolerating each other’s cultures at best. Some of our family—on both sides—tried to discourage them from adopting us. And I know that some people turned their backs on these two determined young school teachers—neither of whom had much exposure to the Black community—who both believed love was more powerful than cultural boundaries. How did they manage to raise two biracial kids and one White child together in the same family in the 70’s and 80’s?

Mom and Dad refused to make color an issue. They dressed me and my (blond, blue-eyed) sister alike for pictures. Whenever people stared at us, my sister would encourage me to smile and give a friendly hi. And when people in our small town asked my mom whose kids she was watching, she would proudly say we were her babies!

I was quite aware I was Black from a very young age so my parents never had a problem telling me I was adopted. My mom helped me explore my natural curiosity about the Black culture. She exposed me to such books as Alex Haley’s Roots (which I read the summer before 7th grade) and Autobiography of Malcolm X. She bought us African masks and sculptures and made sure my sister and I played with both black and white baby dolls. When I went away to college, I tried pigs feet for the first time, I learned the Black National Anthem (okay, I don’t actually know it—but I learned of its existence for the first time), and started greasing my scalp. Instead of playing the victim or focusing on the negative, my parents taught all three of us to be loving and accepting of others (including ourselves) despite our differences.

While I can see now what my parents took on by choosing this lifestyle, I was confused about my cultural identity throughout my childhood. Our small town seemed like a realistic representation of American diversity at that time: predominately White with smaller numbers of the Black, Spanish and Asian populations. I went to school with mostly White kids and by high school, my group of close friends nicknamed ourselves the United Colors of Benetton after the diverse models shown in the clothing company’s ads. My best friends were Chinese, White, Jewish, Iranian, Korean and I was biracial.  I felt most comfortable with these girls because I didn’t feel totally “in” with either the all white crowd or the all black crowd. I never felt Black enough to meet the Black kids’ approval; and the White “popular clique” was never going to fully accept me as one of them (one particular comment I heard in high school that I’ve never forgotten, from one of the cute popular White boys was, “You know, you’re really pretty—for a Black girl.”)

I had a lot of issues feeling ashamed of being half and half. On the one hand, I didn’t know what it was like to be Black American any more than I knew what it was like to be Italian or Chinese. I didn’t identify with the culture or the people. At best my knowledge came from what I saw on tv—hip hop music and Black athletes or an occasional fashion trend. But I didn’t know how to be Black American. And, at the time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be.

My parents encouraged me to never deny being Black. Yet, as a teenager and young adult, I couldn’t get the Black thing right.  Even worse, I felt I was betraying the Black culture, and all the rich history and pride that went along with it.  But even when I would act “White” I couldn’t allow myself to completely embrace it.  How did that make any sense?  I went away to college feeling embarrassed to be from a small White town, from a White family and have so few Black friends.  Where was my place?  Who was I meant to be?

While I didn’t understand it at the time, now, as an adult, I recognize the discrimination my parents faced during our childhood. Whenever I would ask why people were looking at us, my mom would tell me they were staring at us because of my beauty.

My family accepts me.

I’ve become a Black girl because of the freedom my parents have given me to explore my culture and the unconditional acceptance of my lifestyle choices through my adult years.

I’ve become a White girl because of my own acceptance of all the love and happiness I’ve experienced as part of the culture.

I’ve become biracial. And I will always embrace my White as well as my Black heritage. Thanks to the colorblind love that led a young White couple to act in enormous faith, I’ve grown up to learn that we’re all one, created in God’s image. If I can replicate this quality from my parents, then I will be all right. Because I’ll finally understand, better yet, live, their example. And that means so much to me.

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Square Pride

Square Pride

By Kathy Leonard Czepiel

Square Pride ArtMy neighbors’ teenage daughter thinks I am square just because I have never heard of her favorite TV show, The O.C. And, okay, I may have said something about her beautiful, backless prom dress. Something like, “I never could have worn a dress that revealing in 1982.” (We were wearing floral print dresses that looked as if they came off the set of Little House on the Prairie.) She just smiled politely, but I knew what she was thinking.

All right, all right, so I’m square! Big deal. I grew up square; to deny my squareness would be to deny my cultural heritage. In my twenties, I’ll admit, I drove some big, fun circles around my squareness, in my second-hand Nissan Sentra wagon. Now I’m married with two children, and not only am I nouveau-square, but lately I’ve begun to feel Square Pride.

I realize this may be hard to believe, especially for all those who remember the annoying, stupid, or downright humiliating things their own square parents did to them. Like having to wear a snowsuit until you were in fifth grade that went swish-swish-swish when you walked and plastic bread bags in your boots to help them slip on and off more easily.

My parents did that stuff, and more. They have four certifiable ninety-degree angles apiece. My father, for example, sings show tunes in the car, and not just when he’s alone. A favorite game of my brothers and mine in our adolescence was to tell my father the title of a current song—for example, “Our House” by Madness—and let him butcher the lyrics for us. Our house / in the middle of our street became, Our house / in the middle of the road / where cars and trucks will hit it. / Our house is in the street / not the sidewalk, not the lawn. My father also has the squarest occupation in the world. He’s a Protestant minister, which made me hopelessly and irreparably square by association. My mother, a retired elementary reading teacher (note the second-squarest profession), didn’t teach me how to apply makeup because she hardly wears it herself. She sewed matching outfits for us when we were kids. I distinctly remember her wearing a swimming cap with a chin strap and big, floppy rubber flowers glued to it.

My parents, because they were square, never let me go to PG-rated movies, wouldn’t buy me the Grease album (too risqué, and Barry Manilow wasn’t much better, singing about “making love”), wouldn’t indulge my passionate desire for designer jeans because fashion is pretty much meaningless, and made me go to bed halfway through The Waltons because bedtime was bedtime. My parents drive at or below the speed limit, barely know the difference between a cabernet and a chardonnay, never swear in front of us (even though we’re all in our thirties now), and, although they were only in their twenties when the Beatles showed up, were among those who thought they needed haircuts.

My parents have also been married for forty-three years, and every full-blown argument I call recall happening in our house was between us kids and them, never between the two of them. They can hold an intelligent and interesting conversation on a wide range of subjects—politics, religion, history, literature, education. They live in Woodstock, New York, which is about the least square place you can live in this country. They both distinguished themselves in their careers as people whom others came to respect and admire for their intelligence, courage, patience, and selflessness. And they raised three children who look forward to visiting them.

All this is not to say that growing up with square parents was easy. Despite the little annoyances, life was great in elementary school, but throughout junior high and high school I found myself in an often unbearable position. I was mortified by my parents’ squareness, yet, at the same time, appalled by the ridiculous things my classmates did simply because everyone else was doing them—a reaction which, of course, came from having been raised square. So it’s no surprise that going away to college felt like being launched into the beautiful, wide-open sky, where no one knew a thing about me.

The fun began when I landed in a freshman dorm that, in a moment of what must have been administrative insanity, had been plunked down in the middle of the hard-partying fraternity quad. Sophomore year I lived in the Arts House, and from there I set off on the road trip of my twenties, which took me through Europe, New York City, and the undiscovered back streets of my home territory. It may have been a wilder ride for my parents than it was for me. I’m sure they feared I had broken through the guard rail and plunged into the abyss when I moved in with my boyfriend three hundred miles from home and stayed for a year and a half, but I survived that fall to ride a few more hairpin turns, some of them more fun than others.

The proverbial road trip ended with a real one. I married a guy with a ponytail and a pickup truck, and a couple of years later we drove west to spend a few years in Denver and the Rocky Mountains. While there, we became parents ourselves, but squareness didn’t re-enter my home right away. When it did, it came not through my parents two thousand miles away, but through a beloved day care provider and my new job teaching high school. Donna, who cared for our older daughter, insisted: “If you don’t teach her to be respectful now, when she’s sixteen she’ll grab your car keys and take off.” I was teaching sixteen-year-olds for a living, so I heard this loud and clear. I had already taken a position of authority at school, wasting no time becoming The Teacher after my first day, when my sophomore boys stood on their desks and screamed and pounded their chests. Now, apparently, I was going to have to take a position of authority at home, too. I was going to have to become The Parent.

I was probably destined to be a square parent in the end. After all, how many of us, whether we admire our parents or not, have managed to sever all ties and create brand new parenting styles of our own? But I don’t think I could have been a proud square parent without my twenties. I imagine I would have been always craning my neck, wondering whether I might have missed something. My parents and I still disagree on a few of the finer points (snowsuits, bread bags, driving big circles around one’s squareness), but there’s no doubt that we were drawn with the same ruler, though I’d like to think of myself as more of a parallelogram.

Eventually, my husband and I came back East to settle down and raise our children within driving, rather than flying, distance of family. It’s no accident that my husband was behind all this. The longer we are married—eleven years now—the more he reminds me of my father and my brothers. Today we uphold square rules similar to those of my parents. For example: You can’t wear flip-flops (or, as our three-year-old calls them, “thlip-thlops”) out of the house until you’re five years old. Before that age you’re likely to trip all over yourself, and, at any rate, you shouldn’t wear a fashionable item of clothing if you can’t pronounce it. And it’s sneakers only on the playground, or you’ll fall and crack your head open. You can’t go to PG movies at the age of seven even if Hollywood is marketing them to you. And you can’t have a later bedtime because, if you do, you’ll be cranky tomorrow, and anyway, we need a couple of hours to ourselves, thank you. Nail polish? You’re three years old! Oh, all right, but not until you can keep your fingers out of your mouth.

A few years ago, I even found myself objecting to a production of Grease at the high school where I was teaching. Why would you want to immerse those young actresses in a story in which the happy ending is the result of a girl’s allowing her friends to turn her into something she isn’t in order to get the boy she likes, who’s already interested in her for who she really is? That’s supposed to be a triumph? I like “You’re the One that I Want” as much as the next person (I’ve even been known to sing it in the car), but please!

It seems to me that what being square is really about is having your own compass, one that isn’t drawn to popular opinion, so that you don’t become Sandy letting her friends mess with her looks and her love life. What’s hot and what’s not is constantly changing, but if you’re square, you prefer stability. When you do make a change, you’ve usually thought it through carefully. You expect it to stick. And whether you’re conservative or liberal, you’re likely firm in your principles—which is why, once in awhile, you might actually find yourself on the leading edge of social change instead of resisting it. My father, for example, repeatedly preached against the war in Vietnam to a mostly hawkish congregation long before public opinion began to sway in an anti-war direction.

This kind of fortitude plays itself out as steady, predictable parenting, probably the greatest gift my parents gave me. Their seemingly boring constancy gave me the confidence that I had solid ground under my feet so I could eventually go out and see the world without fear that the ground would shift beneath me.

The hardest part of being square is dealing with the fact that many of my current friends and acquaintances have only known me as square. One day not long ago I wore a funky old pair of cowboy boots to work. “I love your boots,” a colleague said to me. It was clear that she was surprised to see them on me. When she heard I’d bought them while living in Manhattan, she was downright shocked, and my heart sank. Do I really seem that square?

Still I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m committed to being the same steady, predictable base for my girls that my parents were for me. It’s not so hard; I never cared much about the whims of the world anyway, and once in a while, when our convictions tell us to, we square parents even get to be risk-takers.

My parents were. In 1982 (year of the prairie prom dress), I was sixteen years old, and they figured it would be the last summer for a big family trip before I abandoned them. They had always wanted to take us cross-country, but money was very tight. Still, carpe diem! My parents spent their entire life savings on a used motor home, and we embarked on a six-week cross-country adventure to places chosen by each member of family.

After we got home, there were several tense weeks. The market of people in our small town looking to buy a used motor home at the end of the summer was tiny. But in the end, a buyer came through, and my parents nearly replenished their savings. I was old enough to realize how close they had cut it, how seriously they took that vacation—and, by, extension, how seriously they valued our time together. It wasn’t their most practical move, but it was one of their greatest.

As adults, my daughters will no doubt remember the cool stuff I wouldn’t let them have and the dumb rules I stood by. But, just as I have, I think they’ll come to understand why. Maybe someday they’ll even find themselves doing some trapezoidal parenting of their own.

Author’s Note: I didn’t ask my parents to read this piece until it was accepted for publication. I sent the essay to them via e-mail, and then I waited with some anxiety. I wasn’t sure whether they’d be offended or flattered or both. They replied the following day. My mother admitted her swimming cap was “pretty silly” and wrote, “My square parents drilled it into my head that no hair was to be left in the pool. Why didn’t I question that it was okay for the men not to wear caps?” This made me wonder how far back through the generations our squareness goes. My father wrote, “What is the difference between cabernet and chardonnay?” He also pointed out that he does speed if he’s late for a meeting, and he’s done eighty-five in the California desert (where that’s the speed limit). Then they started forwarding this essay to other family members. That is such a square thing to do.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the author of A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster), named one of the best books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews. She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, Brain Child, and elsewhere. Czepiel teaches writing at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Learn more at her website,


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