Her Canvas, My Son

Her Canvas, My Son


By Terry Cox-Joseph

His eyes, blue to ocean’s depth, stare from canvas, perfect brush strokes with perfect white highlights, perfect lashes, innocence, precocity. I wish I had painted that portrait.

The artist’s brushstrokes kiss the canvas the way I kiss my son’s forehead as he sleeps. She strokes the canvas the way I stroke his hair, caress his cheek.

My son is real. He is mine. He is flawed, something deep within his brain, axons miscommunicating, frontal lobes overworked, chemicals too high or too low. It has taken years for us to teach him not to hit when he’s mad, not to kick holes in the walls, not to spit. He has no buffer for impulse control, no “stop” button. We have hired tutors to teach him at home what he should have learned in school. Still, on many days, he comes home with a notebook blank as his stare.

Her canvas depicts a fantasy child. She gave away the real child, she told me once, sent him back to some institutional cement world. Who would hold him, I wondered? Who would caress his forehead? Who would love him? How could she do that?

As much as I have hated my son, I have loved him. From the moment I first saw him held in his birthmother’s arms, bundled in hospital green and white, a silly, warm, hand-knit cap pulled over his brow, I wanted him. The weight of him in my arms, the softness of his black hair, the tight grip of his fists that defined him. My husband, our daughter, and now, our son. Our family was complete.

The artist’s adopted son lit matches, dropped them on her carpet, lied, covered his lies with lies. Just like my son. He lit matches behind the couch, then dropped them on the wood floor in panic. He lit them in his room, too. Our therapist suggested sitting on the lawn with a bucketful of water and 1,000 matches and making our son light them until he was fed up with it. He only made it to 85 before my husband called it a day, satisfied that this was a lesson learned.

The other artist dismissed him after he rifled her purse for coins. My son went through my purse, too, when he was 14. I learned to hide my purse, even while I was sleeping. But he snuck behind my bed, behind the headboard. He stole my credit card. Stealth seemed wired into his movements. He bought online gaming points. Before that bill arrived, he slid the credit card from my purse not three feet away while I was sprinkling ginger on chicken stir fry. Amazing, his sleight of hand, sense of timing. He shocked us with his audacity, lack of boundaries, ability to thieve without remorse. Once the credit card was cancelled, he figured out how to use his cell phone to buy gaming points. I didn’t know you could do that.

If only he had directed this ingenuity toward school work.

When we disassembled the computer, he smashed two chairs and nearly shattered my eardrums. My heart had already been broken. Only the hope that this was an addiction held me to him. Surely, he hadn’t stolen out of malice. We could make it through this, too.

Her son lied to make her hate him, to prove he was unlovable, proved she couldn’t love him, proved he was a discard, proved he was right, couldn’t, shouldn’t love anyone because all people were liars, he was just one more liar, anyone who told you they loved you was a liar so why tell the truth to anyone? Lying is survival.

Clinically, it’s called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). I call it mental illness and a bruised heart. I call it a process. I have no idea if my son has RAD. I think he’s got Asperger’s and a mood disorder, definitely anxiety issues that send him rocketing past the ozone layer if he senses too much emotional pressure, too much homework, too harsh lights, too much sound, too many transitions. How many times have I slammed on the brakes when he has kicked the back of my seat during a tantrum, cracked my favorite CDs, pulled my hair in the middle of an intersection? How many times have I wanted to open the car door and throw him out right there?

Black markers streak foul words across my son’s walls, X’d out sentences replaced with exclamation marks, wrestlers’ names, and football scores. They mar the pale blue clouds that I once papered his room with in the fantasy world I prepared. There are holes bashed into drywall that my husband I and deliberately never repaired to prove a point, if anyone remembers what the point was the day our son threw a toy truck through the wall. We never repaired the screen, either, the day he whaled a baseball through the inside of the window, shattered the glass into glittering reminders of chaos.

My canvas is never blank. It is never complete. My brushes harden in dried linseed oil and turpentine because I’m checking the toothpaste on my son’s toothbrush, making sure he’s reached those back molars instead of lying and smearing toothpaste on his front teeth with his finger and then reassuring me by exhaling in my face. I check to see if he has scrubbed his face, taken his medicine, sprayed bleach on the mattress to mask the odor of urine for the millionth time. I check his closet for the smell of urine, worried that he may have awakened in the middle of the night again and confused it with the bathroom.

I remind him to put sheets on the bed, turn out the light, and wonder if he’ll plead, “cuddle,” so I have an excuse to snuggle next to his warm back, rub his shoulders, rest my cheek against his neck as his breath keeps pace with the crickets chirping outside. Or if this time, he’ll inexplicably rage, kick me in the jaw as I bend down to kiss him, scream “GET OUT!”

He wonders why I haven’t painted him as much as I have painted his sister, who poses for the camera naturally, chooses perfect lighting that brightens her hair like spun gold, who tilts her shoulder just so, bends to pluck a daffodil, knowing that hers is a world of beauty and charm, and everyone in her orbit is captured by it. I tell him that he won’t sit still long enough to be photographed, won’t sit still to pose for the canvas, scowls when I suggest a pose. I don’t want to paint scowls. I tell him that he broke my last camera, stepped on my canvas in the back of the car, threw my paint across the room. He doesn’t understand the connection.

I have taken pictures of him climbing trees. Exploring the yard in his diapers. Climbing on all fours inside a fiberglass turtle at a children’s museum. I will save these for reference and paint these canvases when he’s grown, when he’s in school, when he’s got a girlfriend, when my paints are inventoried and fresh and my canvases are stacked neatly against the wall. I will paint him when he has grown into another world, the world of order and reason, and even if he hasn’t, the world that someday slots time into compartments, chunks of time that I can claim for my own. Because without this belief, without this goal, I cannot make it through the day. There must be a “someday.”

I will paint him with an overbaked smile, wearing a Hawaiian straw hat, face so close to the camera that he leaves nose prints. I will paint him with wild, loose strokes, shouting colors, globs of paint, because a calm, blue-eyed little boy, staring wistfully through a rain drenched window is not who he is, and I wouldn’t want to paint a stranger.

He is mine, and like an unfinished canvas, I will complete this task. Not all paintings are pure joy. Not all are effortless. I have problems with perspective, and occasionally stumble with foreshortening. But I can always come back to it with a fresh eye, a good night’s sleep and a full stomach.

Imagining my son in some faceless institution is too painful to bear. A hospital stay, yes. A special needs camp, absolutely. But to send him back, to open the fluffy New Parent Package with such desire and fervor and love, and then slam shut the lid and send him back is unfathomable. Therapists, teachers, parents, doctors are part of our team. My husband and I could not do it alone. My son cannot do it alone. But together, we can.

The other artist spews accusations with disgust, fires words like paint splatters: “He stole from my purse!” I asked her if she’d taken classes on adopting older children, if she’s heard of RAD.

“No. What difference would it make? I will not put up with that.”

I feel my heart snap shut on her, just as she closed hers toward her son. There is a finality, a certainty I feel, knowing that while being an artist defines me, I am not solely defined by it. It is one of many roles. I am more than that. I will not be satisfied with less. I will not turn my back on an unfinished canvas. I will study it, learn from it, correct it and in the end, I will take joy in it.

Some paintings are perfect. Some are hyper-realistic, traditional, each stroke so perfectly placed, so studied, so measured, it is like a photograph. The light falls perfectly, the angles are measured with precision. But some paintings are fraught with stress tempered by freedom, a tension of line, juxtaposition of secondary or tertiary color that otherwise would not have occurred in a traditional piece. That is where my artwork differs. My canvasses may never be as perfect as hers, but they will be painted from the heart, yanked from my soul, squeezed fresh from the tube and the palette with vigor and resolve. Where she craves perfection, I crave depth. If I have to, I will dig my fingernails into cadmium red, cobalt blue, viridian and sienna, and smear them where they need to go.

Let the artist keep her perfect portraits. Mine are messier. They are real.

Author’s Note: Raising my daughter was so easy. My son, however, is the proverbial square peg in a round hole, but with strapped on explosives.  Writing and art are my outlets. “What do other mothers DO when they’re at the end of their ropes?” asked an artist friend. I don’t know. But my son is now 19 and no longer lives at home. Take a deep breath and enjoy. 

Terry Cox-Joseph’s essays, articles and poetry have been published in Dog Fancy,  Entrepreneur, and Virginia Builder, among others.

Art: Mary Ann Cooper



Learning To Love My Son’s Southern Accent

Learning To Love My Son’s Southern Accent

A cute little boy in a field of green grass in the park

By Aubrey Hirsch

It didn’t even occur to me as a possibility until my family started teasing me about it. When I told them I’d accepted a job in central Georgia, and after the “congratulations” had dissipated, my mother pointed to my two-year-old and said, “I bet he’s going to get a little Southern twang.”

I smiled, politely, and shook my head. “I doubt it,” I said.

My Cleveland accent had persisted through a decade of relocations to Pittsburgh and Colorado Springs. I’ve come to accept that my high, nasal a’s and sharp-edged o’s aren’t going anywhere. I assumed the shapes of my son’s vowels were locked in as well, perhaps even inherited.

I continued to think that for the first two months we lived in Milledgeville, Georgia, until the morning my son woke up and, overnight, had taken on a melodic Southern drawl.

I recognized it immediately. “I don’t want breakfast,” he said. “I want a snack.” Only the word “snack” had two syllables. “Snay-ack.” When I set his milk down slightly out of reach, he said, “Can I have thay-at?” And then, when my husband disappeared to change our younger son, “Where’s Day-addy?”

I was, frankly, stunned. My instinct was to correct him, to say, “You mean ‘Daddy,'” emphasizing the inland north “a.” I didn’t want him to think he was doing something wrong, but still, the difference was so stark and so sudden, I felt I had to say something. I aimed for neutrality, remarking that he was starting to sound like his friends at school. He ignored me, diving into his breakfast.

On the drive back from daycare, I tried to examine why this was bothering me so much. Certainly it was jarring, to tuck him into bed one night and have him wake up the next morning speaking in a voice I didn’t recognize. It was like some foreign spirit had taken hold of him.

But it wasn’t just that. It wasn’t just the strangeness of the voice, but the particulars of the accent itself. After all, we’d had a Costa Rican babysitter for almost a year when he was small. If he’d come home with her accent, I would have found it adorable.

No, it wasn’t just the change, it was what this accent represented to me that I had trouble with. The speech affect in middle Georgia is not subtle or gentle. It’s deep, rattling. These stretched vowel sounds come from the speaker’s backbone, his gall bladder, his shoelaces.

And here’s where I must confront my own prejudice. Because when I heard my son say “snay-ack,” I heard him say it in the voice of the oppressor. He sounds like “those people,” I thought. Those people who care about success on the football field more than success in school. Who want to regulate my uterus more strictly than semi-automatic weapons. Those who would stifle marriage equality, raise confederate flags and forge purity rings in the stifling fires of gender expectations. People without a sense of justice, without imagination, without ambition.

The problem was that when I heard my son speak, he sounded like that.

It reminds me of when I first moved to Pittsburgh. Growing up in Cleveland, I had two things tattooed into my brain: hard-nosed optimism, and hatred of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers were not just our rival football team; they were the bad guys. It was as simple as that.

I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained in me this had become until I was walking around Pittsburgh. Every time I saw someone in a black and yellow jersey, I had this completely instinctual reaction where I would look at him and think, That is a bad person.

Of course, this is a ridiculous way to think. It’s also ridiculous for me to think that people with Southern accents are uniform in their beliefs and priorities. If you had asked me outright, I never would have said that I bought into these stereotypes about the deep South. That is, until I heard that voice come out of my child and panicked.

But now that I know it’s in there, lurking somewhere beneath my skin, I can eradicate it, willfully. I can remind myself that good-hearted, open-minded people wear black and gold on Sundays and pronounce “snack” with two syllables.

And who better to help me remember this than my kind, curious, whip-smart two-year-old? Whose tender heart I recognize beating through every syllable, every new rhoticity and back upglide and chain shift. Who proves his inner beauty with every single word.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, The Rumpus and The New York Times. She currently writes a parenting advice column, “Ask Evie,” for the website Role Reboot.

When Your Son is Stronger, Taller and Faster Than You

When Your Son is Stronger, Taller and Faster Than You

By Rachel Pieh Jones


Short men make better husbands, and make up in wisdom what they lack in stature, says self-confessed small man, Adam Gopnik.

My son is fifteen years old. He is still shorter than me but for the first time since birth he has passed his twin sister and I suspect I will be next. He has always been thin and wiry and a scrapper and now he is stretching out long and lean.

I spent the first roughly thirteen years of my son’s life being bigger, faster, and stronger than him. And then one day, I wasn’t. Well, still bigger, but barely. I remember the moment it struck me clearly. We were swimming at my parent’s lake and he wanted to dunk me. I had a meeting soon and didn’t want to get my hair wet but I could do nothing to stop the onslaught of octopus-like arms and legs and teenage laughter. Before I knew it, I was under the water and he was victorious.

The other day I told him I have a goal of being able to complete three full pull-ups. He laughed at me. Laughed at me! And then went and did fifteen without even breathing hard.

Now I stare at him in awe. I made that, I think. Obviously not all by myself but I played a major role in bringing this human into the world and now I can no longer physically control him or even catch him.

Now he is the one who carries my heavy suitcase in airports, he is the one who hauls 20-litre water jugs, he is the one who unscrews glass jam jars for me. It is totally awesome.

He is also teaching me new things, like how to throw a rugby ball, and he offers me tips on improving my soccer game. I need a lot of tips.

When women are pregnant and we picture our unborn children, we imagine them as infants. Maybe as toddlers. But we rarely picture them as full grown men. We spend the early years of our parenting shaping them into the men we want them to be but then one day we turn around and they are that man.

A voice comes from the living room and we wonder when a man stopped by to visit, except that is our son and there is hair on his face.

An arm scoops up a bag of groceries and we wonder when biceps grew on toddlers because aren’t our sons still toddlers? Won’t they always be toddlers?

A rugby ball comes hurtling at our heads and we wonder when the infant we breastfed developed such aim and power.

When did this happen? How did he get stronger than me? Faster than me? Bigger than me?

I suppose the past fifteen years is when this happened. I didn’t miss it, I marked every inch on the wall. But somehow I never comprehended what it would feel like to become physically smaller than my son.

It makes me feel dizzy, old, and powerful. It makes me hopeful and humble and inspired about his generation. It helps me appreciate roots and history and it feels like a weighty responsibility – to give a young man this strong to the world in a few short years.

It also makes me wonder, how does he see this development? Will he lose respect for me? I know he wants to be taller than my husband and me, he is aiming at several inches taller, as though by sheer force of will he will pass us.

My husband and I are the same height, 5’6″. We don’t have high height expectations for our children, though I suppose subconsciously we expect at least our son to pass us by. And we would both be happy for him to do just that. Height, especially for men, is fraught with social baggage.

According to this article in the National Geographic, physical height is associated with power, a sense of vulnerability or paranoia (if lacking in height), leadership ability, even financial situations:

“Taller men are perceived as having higher status, stronger leadership skills, and as being more occupationally successful than average or shorter males,” Jackson wrote in an email interview. Men of average or shorter height also suffer in the realm of social attractiveness, which includes personal adjustment, athletic orientation, and masculinity. Her caveat: “What NONE of these studies establish is that it is HEIGHT per se that is responsible for these benefits or characteristics associated with height (strong leadership skills, self-confidence, professional development).”

While it is true that height has been proven in exactly zero studies to actually correlate with these positive characteristics, the fact remains that this is the culture we live in. A culture that values height, that associates height with strength and positive leadership qualities and physical prowess.

While my son continues to hope that one day he will look down on his parents, we are more focused on preparing him for the cultural context into which we will launch him one day. That means developing leadership skills, building confidence, encouraging his academic pursuits. Oh, and we tie buckets of cement to his ankles and drape them over the end of his mattress at night to encourage the bones to stretch. Okay, maybe not. But I do feed him well, if that counts for anything.

And for me, for this mom who is watching my son pass me by? I’m not worried. I’m not worried about him losing respect for me or his dad as he grows. I’m not worried about the physical strength he could exert over me. I’m not worried about him never growing taller than 5’6″.

He is strong and gentle, intelligent and creative and no matter what height he reaches, when he offers to carry my suitcase, I’ll admit: It feels pretty awesome.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. She is a contributing blogger at Brain, Child. Her work has also been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Comments from Strangers Upon Seeing My 3 Sons Out In Public This Week: An Annotated List

Comments from Strangers Upon Seeing My 3 Sons Out In Public This Week: An Annotated List

By Katy Rank Lev


You are a busy woman!” Heard 2 times, both from men, one a passerby on the sidewalk and one, the cashier at Costco, where I purchased $346 worth of diapers and string cheese. These men are right, of course. I feel busy and astounded each time it takes 17 minutes to buckle my sons into my minivan, which I also filled with gas at Costco. Without comment from bystanders.

Wow, you’ve got your hands full!” Heard from countless droves of strangers, mostly women, often in parking lots, sometimes in stores or doctors offices or museums where I am using my foot to kick open a door and loudly instructing my five-year-old to then hold the door open for me so I can back in with our stroller full of sons. Where I sometimes have to shove the commenter out of the way in order to bustle inside an elevator whose door is about to close with one of my young sons inside.

Sometimes, actually, my hands are empty despite this comment, because I’ve got the baby in a sling and the big sons are crouching to stare in wonder at particles of rock salt.

That’s a lotta boys!” Heard from one woman, shouting from the driver’s side window of the school bus she stopped in the middle of the road in order to speak to me as I pushed all three of them up the hill from the school bus stop in my very large stroller, all of us singing “Everything is Awesome.”

Do you need help getting out to your vehicle?” Heard from the blessed, blessed grocery bagger at Whole Foods, who carried my bags to the car while I carried the children. He loaded my grocery bags into the back of our minivan while I forced stiff, protesting bodies into car seats. He lingered just long enough to see my prolonged exhale as the last buckle clipped into place.

He really should be wearing gloves, or a hat. Or at the very least not pajamas.” Zero people in zero stores, even on days where the temperatures never broke double digits, which represents a 100% decrease in such comments since the arrival of the third son. Only in tallying this list did I realize what relief I feel to no longer hear comments about what my children are not wearing.

Ya tryin again for your girl?” Heard from one man in the cereal aisle of the grocery store as we both reached for the multigrain Cheerios, on sale this week. Since the moment I was visibly pregnant with my third son, I’ve been bombarded with comments about the gender distribution of our family. The streak of Y chromosomes intrigues strangers so desperately they seem unable to refrain from comment. Generally on the very edge of panic, I cannot fathom keeping another child safe, nor can I muster any sort of response.

Which one is making all that noise?” Heard from one sort-of-smiling man, working at Target, where my sons are sobbing from the mega-cart that enables me to seat and buckle all 3 of them securely even though I cannot steer around corners on our mad dash for two dozen eggs, which will last our family 4 days. They weep in stores because it takes us so long to do anything at all, and we’re always, always out of bread.

Make sure they wipe their feet.” Heard from one elderly couple selling their home, who fibbed on their listing and said their laundry room was a 4th bedroom. Our realtor tells us the space is technically a bedroom because it has both a heat vent and a door. Though the house is too small for my family of sons, I smile both because they did wipe their feet and because I can imagine them climbing happily around the wooded back yard.

You remind me of a little Russian lady counting all her monkeys in a cartoon.” Heard from one very earnest woman in the halls at school as I took census, trying desperately not to lose track of the carpool kid whose hat matches every other kid’s hat. We just made it inside before the bell, having run from our parking spot two blocks away. With a child in each arm, I feel the burn of my muscles more acutely than my confusion regarding the meaning of her observation.

You guys must be going crazy in this weather.” Heard from one woman, on the morning of the umpteenth day our rhythm was disrupted by a school delay for sub-zero temperatures. I smile and think that crazy isn’t quite the right word to describe what it’s like cooped up with these sons, who ricochet between building ships from cardboard boxes and peeing on each other in my bed.

Can I help you?” Heard from one woman, who gave up her spot behind me in line at Target when she saw my toddler sobbing because he’d spilled his popcorn, because the Chapstick was not blue. Is it possible she saw the creep of my embarrassment over the cacophony? Was it obvious I’d run out of ways to soothe him?

I drove by and saw you, with that baby strapped to you while you were getting your other boys in order, and I am straight up in awe. Praise hands!” Heard from one woman who just moved in down the street, who said so on a day I was home alone with my tiny sons for 13 hours and really needed to read it.


Katy Rank Lev is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. Her three feral sons inspire her work covering parenting, women’s health, and family matters. 

The Demons of Time Management

The Demons of Time Management

By M.M. Devoe

Messy BoyI know I’m not the only mom out there with a boy who can’t remember to bring his homework home, but sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who can’t figure out what to do about it.

I have tried everything: begging, rewards, threats, charts, teacher intervention…everything. My son still regularly comes home, tells me he has reading homework, and then discovers he has left the book at school. Or at piano lessons. Or worse: he has no idea where. He always looks overwhelmed and surprised.

At least three times a week.

So I attended a two-day, ludicrously expensive organizational skills workshop for middle-school kids. It was lousy. They gave no practical advice at all, but they did make up some really long, pointless, and impossible-to-recall names for “creatures”—the voices in your head that keep you from being organized. I had to rephrase everything I learned in a coherent way before I could even understand it. And now I understand it. We are possessed by demons.

So let me save you all $700.

There are four ways kids get in trouble over homework:

The Memory Demon says, “You can remember this; don’t bother writing it down.”

The Clutter Demon says, “You don’t have time for filing and organizing right now; do it later.”

The Gamer Demon says, “You have plenty of time to do both; so do the fun thing first.”

The Time Demon says, “You don’t need to plan; you’ll just do it.”

Apparently, kids like my son have real issues with organization because the voices in their heads are so confident. Demons! Demons! Constantly telling them those lines. So the Memory Demon whispers and my son doesn’t use his planner, doesn’t write down assignments because he’s positive he can remember the first assignment, maybe he’s even excited about it; then the second one comes, and when the third is assigned, there just doesn’t seem time to write it all down, but that’s ok, he knows he’s got three assignments….

“I’ve got three assignments,” he brightly announces after school, slamming an empty backpack on the floor.

“What are they?”

“Uh…” His eyes dart wildly, “History, I think?”

Then the Clutter Demon speaks and he won’t store or transfer papers to the proper place because he figures he’ll do it just a bit later, same reason he doesn’t organize or put away important items in their proper places.

“Hey, Mom,” he shouts across the house, “You have to sign this permission slip!”

“Stop shouting across the house. Just bring it to me.”

“I didn’t want it to get crushed, so I didn’t put it in my backpack. There’s a smushed banana in there.”

“So where’s the slip?”

“What? It’s … I don’t know. Somewhere. I might have left it in the gym.”

Next, the Gamer Demon takes charge: “I don’t have much homework, I’m going to play Minecraft for a while.”

Four hours later …”Are you still up? It’s 10:00!”

“But I’m doing homework!”

Kids do not know anything about time estimation, have no concept of how long something might take, and can’t stop in the middle of a fun activity to take on a really dreary one.

The Time Demon runs it all: kids have no idea how to break down tasks into steps and plan what they need for each step. To them, an assignment to read a book is going to take the same amount of time as a science fair project or a math worksheet. Actually, the worksheet is probably shorter, so they can play a video game first.

See how the demons work?

All of this is normal. These are skills that need to be taught … it’s not instinctive. Some people never learn it for themselves—how many adults stay up late reading a good book and are surprised when it’s suddenly four in the morning? (Guilty!) Who knows a good guy who swears he will take on the short job list … as soon as he watches the game? How many of us run out to the store without a list because it’s just three items—and come back without one of them? Sound familiar? It’s just demons.

I’ll leave you with one piece of practical advice that another mom told me: replace the standard three-ring binder with a tabbed accordion folder with an attached cover flap. Active kids like my son tend to tear papers and then they get lost because what normal mom has those little hole reinforcers on hand, or time to put them on? Our kids want to get it right—and sometimes it’s just about handing them the right tools.

But how do I conquer the Clutter Demon? The workshop said I must teach my son to organize better.

Oh, gee. Thanks.

M.M. Devoe is a NYC-based author whose fiction has won or been shortlisted for 23 literary prizes. She is anthologized alongside Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Pen Parentis and is a Columbia University Writing Fellow and MFA. Find her at www.mmdevoe.com and Twitter @mmdevoe.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Raising Elvis

Raising Elvis

By Allison Gehlhaus

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 3.42.29 PMI am a real New Jersey housewife. I tell my girlfriends that we could start our own show, the Real Tired Housewives. A show without huge earrings or catfights but with a lot of driving and packing of lunches. A lot. I have five children. When I say this (actually, mumble it) people’s mouths drop open, and some mixture of awe and repulsion twitches across their faces. Wow, they say. I can feel them calculating. They do not know whether to bow down in reverence or call for a psych exam. And then comes the part that I really hate. Four girls and one boy, I say.

I wait.

“Is the boy last?” they always ask.

They get this hopeful smirk on their faces, like they have caught me. Like I kept on having kids, until I got a boy. As though the girls were obstacles on my way to getting it right. The Holy Grail, a son. “No,” I answer, with a thrust of my chin. “He’s the fourth.”

That boy, my fourth, is now twelve. His name is Henry. He loves me. Oh no, he hates me. Loves me, hates me. He’s twelve.

*   *   *

It’s been an eye-opening twelve years. A time to examine some preconceived—literally—notions regarding the raising of boys and girls. Especially my own. I had been stunned and hurt by the comments I heard after the birth of our daughters. The nurses at the hospital told me that they hear a lot of women apologize to their husbands after giving birth to girls. Seriously. Right in the labor room. One nurse said, “Don’t they realize that it is the man who determines the sex of the baby?” Another quipped, “So maybe the men should apologize.”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when visitors would say, “Maybe next time,” with a dismissive wave at our little pink bundles of joy. Or, “How soon are you going to try again?”

My brother-in-law actually said, “Three girls. That’s the pits.”

He’s lucky to be alive.

“Another girl? Is Hank mad at you?” a neighbor asked.

And when I answered, “Yeah, my husband’s furious, he’s kicking me out next week,” she didn’t even flinch.

And yet: No one was as shocked or as happy as I was when the doctor held up that baby boy in the hospital.

“I feel like I won the lottery,” I said to Hank.

I’d had three miscarriages after my three girls and before Henry’s birth. I had been flush with grief. I was delighted with my family but had wanted more children—not necessarily a boy or a girl, just another baby. When my body didn’t cooperate, I was stunned, but also ashamed. It’s a feeling my obstetrician said that many women confessed to, but that he couldn’t understand. It had been a terrible time, trying to mother my three daughters with the joy they deserved while being sick with the loss of those unborn babies. Finally having a healthy baby made me gleeful.

But still something nagged at me. People were now treating me like I had finally done something correctly. Did I secretly agree? Was I that big of a jerk?

“It’s about time,” I heard again and again. “Oh, your husband must be thrilled.”

So even while I was telling myself that I was just happy to have a healthy baby, I was thrilled to have a son. Finally. A small voice inside me yelled, You patriarchal hypocrite, as I floated and gloated through the aftermath of his birth.

*   *   *

That aftermath, though, was so thick with sexism that we all noticed it. My girls began to feel assaulted. The line they heard people say to me most often was, “Thank god your husband finally has a son to take over the family business.”

Our business happens to be an amusement park on the Jersey Shore. My daughters and I tried to make jokes about it, anticipating the comments and our snarky comebacks. We began to say, “Yup, the king was born. We’re nicknaming him Elvis.” Our oldest daughter, Meghan, then twelve, finally looked at me one day and said, “What? He’s got a penis so he gets the boardwalk?”

“Right on, sister,” I said, “We never said that. You’re the oldest. Girl or boy, we don’t care, if you want to run the business, knock yourself out.”

Meghan eventually wrote her college essay about how all this made her want to study business to help with the boardwalk. Even if she was a girl. She left the word penis out, for which I was proud.

*   *   *

I had told my friends that I was not going to be one of those mothers who shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys,” while their three-year-old sons beat each other up in the park. There would be no guns. Nor was I going to instantly label him as tough, while my girls were sweet. I had three brothers. My father’s preferential treatment of them had infuriated me growing up. I had read Gloria Steinem. I took sociology of gender in college. I was determined to raise this boy to be a peaceful, loving, non-rock-throwing kid who would grow up to be a fine man, as comfortable in the kitchen as he was in the boardroom. I had standards.

And yet, just last week, we were all cleaning up after dinner while my son was in the other room, killing Nazi zombies on Xbox. My daughter Emily looked at me and said, “Do you realize that your son, never, ever cleans up anymore?” Yikes, I thought—she was right. How did I let this happen? My husband was right in the trenches with us, scrubbing away. Annie, our nine-year-old, was sweeping the floor. My twenty-two-year-old daughter Shannon was clearing the counters, and Henry, aka Elvis, was on the couch, shooting and blowing up people. I had screwed up. I had let myself veer off the path of equality. I had become one of those mothers—one of those “boys will be boys” mothers.

I yelled into the other room, “Hey, get in here—just because you have a penis, doesn’t mean you’re exempt from cleaning up.”

I showed him.

*   *   *

Although I never intended to treat my son differently than my daughters, the reality of who he is, this particular boy, has forced me to. As Shannon said to me, “He is an alpha male with a different operating manual than we have. You need to chill.” And while I can see that my daughters have some stereotypically masculine qualities and my son some female ones, I’ve come to believe that I do need to chill. Even a mother with the best intentions has to concede to gender differences.

I could see this early on. Henry turned Barbie dolls upside down and made slingshots out of their legs. He flushed dollhouse furniture down the toilet. When he was four, I heard him calling me, and when I went down our long, narrow hallway I couldn’t figure out where he was. Finally, I saw him. Flush to the ceiling. He had scaled the wall. His feet were on one side of the wall, and his hands on the other.

“Jeez,” I said, “at least put some pillows on the floor if you’re going to act like Spiderman.”

I never had to utter a sentence like that to my girls. My daughters never asked me to go to the hardware store so they could design and build their own air soft guns. I’ve never said to them, “Wow, that revamped bicycle pump gave you a great amount of pressure.”

Nor have daughters ever called me and asked me to buy potassium nitrate on the way home from work.

“What do you need that for?” I said to Henry after he did exactly that.

“I’m making something,” he mumbled.

“I’m worried that the FBI is going to show up on my doorstep one day because you’ve researched the making of something,” I whined.

“Chill,” he said. “I don’t want to blow anything up, I just want to make my own smoke bombs. They’re harmless.”

The truth is, I don’t really know how Henry turned out to be, as a friend called him, “A boy’s boy in a house full of women.” I have tried over the last twelve years to tease out what is nature and what is nurture. Sometimes I think he is a lot like my father and brothers, and of course Hank, all strong, take-no-prisoners kind of men. It could be also that I am simply comfortable with that kind of male and thus subconsciously encouraged his “boyness.” Or maybe Henry was determined or destined to be who he is no matter what.

Will boys really be boys?

As I try to figure this all out, I am watching the caveman my son evolved from.

Henry grunts instead of answering me. He will knock things off the counter when he is mad. He runs with a pack of boys whose rules of hierarchy astound me. One time in the middle of an argument when he was ten, I said to him, “Instead of throwing my books on the floor, why don’t you say, ‘I get mad when you won’t let me buy a bb gun.'”

He doubled over laughing. “Yeah, right,” he said, kicking my door on the way out. “Like that’s ever gonna happen.”

Once when we suspected our contractor of stealing, we arranged a meeting to confront him. Henry spent three days designing an intricate pulley system so that when the guy opened our door, a small rubber ball hit him in the forehead. He was six. He makes me wish I bought stock in vinegar and baking soda. He plays sports with a ferocity that borders on scary.

As his mother, I find myself also adapting to the changes in our own little ecosystem. Do I love watching him shoot Nazis, design weapons, climb walls? No, not particularly. Am I happier shopping, gossiping, or cooking with my girls? Yup. But it shouldn’t be about what makes me happy. Or comfortable. Although I wrestle with all this, I do strive for some sort of balance between what Henry needs and I need. And that changes day to day.

Hank and I argued once about the way my son threw his best friend out of our house. Just told him to leave. This boy’s mother and I are good friends.

“Your problem,” Hank said, “is that you don’t understand boy world.”

Anytime a husband starts a sentence with “your problem is,” you know you’ve got big problems.

“I have three brothers. I understand way more than you think,” I said.

“Raising a son is different than having brothers,” he said.

“Duh,” I said, because I am such a grown up.

“He should apologize,” I said. “There had to be a better way to handle it.”

“He’ll figure it out,” Hank said. “It’s dog-eat-dog out there. Who’s strong, who’s not backing down—it’s a whole different ball game than with the girls.”

What I should’ve said to my husband was that at least with the girls, I understood some of the ways my daughters and their friends worked out their conflicts—by talking behind each other’s backs, alienating each other, and other similarly lovely tactics. Regrettably, I’d even participated in those kinds of tactics at one time or another.

Instead I said, “Thanks a lot Darwin, I’ll keep that in mind.”

It took months to work out. Henry held his ground, even when the other boy got everyone at the lunch table to get up and move, leaving him alone. There were parties where only one of them was invited because of the rift. Eventually, though, they became friends again when they both played on the school baseball team. Neither one had backed down; they respected each other for it. And most importantly to my friend and me, no punches were thrown.

It was excruciating to watch. Boy world.

*   *   *

We are in a restaurant, or an airport, or at the beach. Someone comes up.

“This was exactly my family growing up, four girls and one boy.”

“How’d the boy turn out?” I always ask, exposing my weakness and not caring.

“He’s great,” they usually answer. “He makes a fine husband. He really understands women.”

And this is the other worry. Besides keeping him alive, I know that someday, some woman is going to be his wife. So when he yells at me that he can’t find his basketball jersey and it’s all my fault because I do the laundry, I go from zero to sixty. I am doubly mad. Triply. I think of his wife. I don’t want her to be burdened with a man who thinks women are his servants. It can get messy, this raising of sons.

*   *   *

Of all the parenting advice I’ve read, the one sentence that has kept me going is from psychologist Haim Ginott: Treat your children as though they are already the people you want them to be. I love this; it encourages you to reinforce the qualities you desire, while subtly ignoring the ones you wish would disappear. This is big-picture parenting, the kind that acknowledges the power of the language we use about and with our children over time. And every now and then, a situation arises and you realize, with a quiet kind of awe, that your children actually are the people you want them to be.

This past Memorial Day, while I was working at the counter at one of our food stands, a customer left without paying. It was ridiculously hot that day, and crowded, and our whole family was working. That was the third time someone had stiffed me in an hour, and I was angry. “Where is that guy?” I asked, steaming mad, looking around.

Another customer pointed to the bar across the way and said, “The guy in the plaid shirt? He went in there.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Henry leave our stand and walk into the bar. A twelve-year-old walks into a bar. He came out a minute later, walked to our cash register, and put a twenty in. He nodded at me, didn’t say a word, and went back to filling up the ice machine. Good boy, I thought.

About half an hour later a woman came up to the counter, apologizing for her husband. “He said you were mobbed—he swears he would have come to pay you later.” She shrugged like she wasn’t so sure she believed him. “But I have to know: Who is that kid, the one that came over?”

“My son,” I said, nervous. “Why?”

“He just came up, kind of quiet, tapped my husband on the back and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but you owe my mother money.’ “

I looked over at my son, who was now sneaking up behind the grill guy, trying to put ice cubes down his shirt.

She smiled and said, “You don’t got to worry about that kid.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” I said.

Author’s Note: Why do I love the story of Henry walking into the bar? Why is it this story I tell? Because it lets me choose from it a combination of qualities that I want my son to have: strength, loyalty, empathy, respect, sprinkled with a dose of good humor. All things that I would want to foster in a good human being. Girl or boy.

When I told Henry that I had written an essay about him, he said, “Of course you did—I’m a fascinating character.”

Allison Gehlhaus’s fiction has appeared in Mothering, and an excerpt of her almost finished memoir, Tough Little B*tch, appeared in Booth. “Raising Elvis” is her first published essay.

Brain, Child (Spring 2012)

An Open Letter to My Son’s First Lover

An Open Letter to My Son’s First Lover

By Abby Sher


Dear Eleanor,

(I’m calling you that in honor of Eleanor Roosevelt because you’d better be smart, daring, passionate about humanitarian causes, and a big advocate for skirt suits.)

I hope you’ll forgive me when I scowl. And I promise I will definitely Google you on an hourly basis. Maybe by the time I meet you, there will be an easy chip implantation method so I can track your every move and thought. It’s not that I don’t trust you. It’s just that you cannot possibly be deserving of my son, Zev.

He is three and a half years old and already has a dozen original knock-knock jokes. Yes, most of them end in the word poop, but they are truly hilarious. He’s generous and loving and ridiculously kind. The other day as we trotted through an afternoon downpour he said, “Mama, whoever made this umbrella did such a great job.”

Eleanor, you are in for a wild ride. This boy is ravenous. He eats and loves with his whole being. He screams and cuddles, wrestles and roars all in the same breath. Then he usually starts singing a new song he’s just composed about his imaginary friend, Marcel. They run the marathon together on a daily basis.

“Go Marcel! You can do it!” he yells across our apartment.

Because everyone needs encouragement.

I know you will treat my son with respect and admiration. (If you don’t, I will hunt you down.) Maybe you’ll see him across the university quads—he’ll be at least a junior by then and have gotten a scholarship for discovering a rare dinosaur bone. He’ll still have that wild hair, turquoise eyes and cinnamon-colored freckles. You’ll think Who is that? What tune is he crooning that makes him so deliciously happy? And how is he comfortable wearing his shoes on the wrong feet?

You will court each other slowly. Remember, I’m watching. All written materials, like love sonnets or texts must be spell-checked. I am okay with you being explicit, but I cannot stand lazy grammar. You will talk about your feelings before, during, and after any intimacy. I also encourage you to consult a therapist because you will be quickly overwhelmed by his magnetism. You must never see him without bringing snacks.

Let me be clear. I don’t resent you, young lady. I envy you. Zev has turned my world (and our tub of Legos) upside down on a daily basis. Even in the heat of a tantrum, I feel like he’s teaching me how to be truer to my emotions. He is loud and unafraid. He is all I want to be. I have just a few more precious months, maybe a year before he’s done hanging out with me, though. There will be shrugs and doors closed and a scruff of beard before I’m done giving away his old diapers.

This is the ecstasy and the agony of loving someone this much. You’ll know soon enough. So get your game face on and memorize the soundtrack to Frozen. This guy is the real deal.

Sincerely, (but not fondly)

Abby Sher


Abby is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn with her husband and three kids. She is available to eat all leftover noodles.

What I Will Teach My Boys

What I Will Teach My Boys

By Shannon Brugh

whatiwilltellmyboysI will teach my boys that they are not entitled, that they are not owed, that they have the power to wait. To stop. To save.


I remember. I remember all the times I felt like I should. Like I had to so he would still talk to me. So he would still like me. So he wouldn’t be angry. Even the times I wanted to… until it was happening, and I didn’t want to anymore. I remember the times I spoke up, and the times I didn’t. I remember all of it. And I see all of it so differently now. All of it is different now.

I am a mother. I am a mother of boys.

So now, I see it all through the eyes of a mother, too. What my mother would have felt like, had she known. What my mother will feel like now, when she reads this. What the mothers of those boys would have felt like, if they had known. What I would feel like if my wonderful, sweet boys did something like that.

My boys. They would never. They won’t. They can’t.

But how do I know? How does anyone know?

I think about what must’ve been missing. What the boys I knew or the Steubenville boys or the millions of other boys who intentionally—or unintentionally—rape or push or pressure people into sex, were missing. What was it?

I think, or hope anyway, that it was because no one ever talked to them about it. No one ever came right out and said, “Hey. You cannot have sex with another person unless you are sure—100% sure—that they want to have sex with you. If there is any hesitation, if you have to “convince,” then it’s not okay and you have to stop.” No one ever said that to them; I’m sure of it. Because really, how often to parents really say that to their boys?

It’s becoming more common, I think. Things are changing and people are becoming more comfortable talking to their kids about the uncomfortable things: sex, drugs, mental/emotional/social health. But I think it’s still new, and I doubt it’s part of the plan for most parents of boys.

Parents of girls, on the other hand, they know they have to talk about it. To talk about pressure and making sure their daughters wait until they are ready. Birth control and being careful. Some parents even go so far as to warn girls not to dress too suggestively or “give the wrong impression.”  Because as all women know, we—the victims of this kind of aggression—are blamed.

But who says to their sons, “It does not matter what she’s wearing. It does not matter if your friends say she’s a sure thing. It does not matter that you want to. Do not pressure. Do not push.  Her body is her body. His body is his body.”

I will. I will say those things to my sons. I will tell them—explicitly—not to rape. Not to pressure. Not to push. Because if I don’t, who will? I will not wait until it’s too late. I will not assume that they know. I will not allow my sons to fall victim to the idea that men are entitled to anyone’s body.

And if I have to, I will tell my boys that once, boys who could have been just like them felt entitled to my body. That one boy tried to take my body. That after I made it clear that I didn’t want what he wanted, he held my body down and tried to take it. That he knelt on my arms so I couldn’t fight. That he sat on my legs so I couldn’t kick. That he touched me and took off clothes and that I fought him as hard as I could. That he only stopped when my friend screamed from the other room. That my friend, who couldn’t fight the other boy off of her, saved me. That I fought my way out from under him and tried to fight my way to her, but it was too late. That then, because we were too young and too stupid to consider alternatives, we let those same boys drive us home. And that then, when he tried to touch me again in the truck, I elbowed him in the ribs as hard as I could, and that he opened the door of the truck on the freeway and tried to throw me out. I remember. All of it.

I can’t change it now. I can’t change anything that has happened to me or to anyone else. But I can try to stop it from happening again. I can teach my sons that they are not owed anything. That their feelings and hormones and urges are not any more important than anyone else’s. I can teach them that they have the power to stop, and that they must if there is so much as a shadow of doubt.

I can teach my boys be safe. Safe with themselves, safe with their bodies, save with others and their bodies. I will teach my boys that they are not entitled, that they are not owed, that they have the power to wait. To stop. To save.

And I will teach my boys to listen. To pay attention to the words of those around them and in front of them. To speak up if they hear something questionable. To step in if they see someone being pressured or pushed around. To help.

I remember, and I will do what I can to stop this, beginning with my boys.

Shannon Brugh received her B.A. in English Lit from University of Washington and her Masters in Teaching from Seattle University. In addition to her contributions at Rattle & Pen, she can be found on her personal blog Becoming Squishy. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two young sons.


The Valentine Paradox: Advice For My Son

The Valentine Paradox: Advice For My Son

photo 1-1Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, son, and the trick to nabbing a valentine is to seriously up your game, player. However, the trick to upping your game is tricky because it’s all about not having a game or any tricks. I’m sorry, but all the best things are paradoxes.

To construe romantic love as a game is to lose before it begins and you’ll inevitably lose afterwards too because there’s no escaping that part where you’re clutching your heart like Reverend Dimmesdale with snot all over your face and hair and your friends will have no choice but to shake their heads at your incoherent babble between all the cataclysmic sobs. It will end badly. Like everything. But no worries, young man. There’s a deep optimism beneath the surface of pessimism. I told you, man, paradoxes.

This is the part where I tell you to just be yourself. But does such a thing exist when you’re 15? To thine own self be true, Laertes. But what’s that even mean? And what in the world does it have to do with valentines?

What it has to with valentines is another paradox. Seek a valentine and she is nowhere to be found. A valentine never appears until you don’t need her. Being yourself, being true to your complicated self, and just doing what you love, however, is a valentine magnet. But, to contradict myself (only seemingly), playing video games all the time is not very attractive. That’s because—I’m sorry—playing video games is not what you really love. Not at all. It’s a distraction from what you love, like looking for valentines. What you love will call you like a vocation, which is actually, of course, a goddess singing to you with her arms wide open in a gale of black chaos. Embrace her. Hear her song. I’d sing it for you but I don’t know the words and neither do you. That’s why I told you to hear her song. Are you even listening? Get over there and embrace the goddess!

It could be anything. You might love to write or paint or play the drums or fix cars or build log cabins or compete in triathlons or read big fat books about Being or wars or wizards and dwarves. But you’ll know it when you find it because it’ll be love and you’ll lose yourself and you won’t need anything else to make you feel whole because you’ll already be empty, gone, lost in what you love, which—paradoxically—is the substance of fullness.

And then—when you are completely satisfied—that’s when you’ll be swarmed by valentines. Be wary, though, of people attracted to the power of your love who seek to be its object. These are vampires whose thirsts your blood will never quench and soon you’ll be arguing about money, the color of towels, and other incomprehensible matters. Rather, your valentine, also attracted by the force with which you love, will love and protect your love, and you too will love and protect what she loves for only those in the throes of the goddess’ song can recognize and love one another.

The desire to play video games will vanish. You’ll look upon your valentine with no small amount of discomfort because your whole body will vibrate with a million things to say but you, in a dazed and blinky stupor, will be dumfounded, speechless, conked by lust. It is at precisely this moment, when what resolutely resists articulation insists on being said, that you will be called to pull up your chair to the table of poetry. Here, don’t waste your metaphors on her physical appearance, on the pearls of her teeth or the crashing ocean wave from her waist to hip. Stay true to love. Make no sense. She is a book in a thunderstorm, a map of fire, a key to the house of ashes and forgotten songs. Like that. Confuse her. Real lovers will find comfort in confusion, joy in ambiguity, and home in the rotation of seasons.

Seriously, write her poems. I’m giving you all my heat.

And this above all: Be kind. Figure out what kindness means to her and be exactly that. Imagine all your conflicts from her perspective, see yourself with her eyes, and be for her everything she desires. Forget yourself. Unflinchingly, unceasingly, with complete abandon. Chase away every thought about getting or not getting the love you want. Just be the love you want and you will find in so doing a paradox about which the very wise do not dare to speak unless it’s the gentle rain on the silent mountain.



A Letter to My Seven-Year-Old Son

A Letter to My Seven-Year-Old Son

BJ sittingDear Son,

I remember when you first entered my life. I spent hours holding you close, smelling your head, and gazing into your eyes. I lived for your smiles; even the gas-induced ones brought me joy.

Seven years later, not much has changed.

I still love the way your head fits perfectly between my chin and collarbone, though the sight of your legs extending beyond the couch sometimes makes me sad. I still love to breathe in the scent of your hair. Not necessarily after a soccer game, but when you are fresh from the bath. Your smiles—even the fart-joke induced ones—still bring me joy.

I don’t spend as much time gazing in your eyes as I used to. Your eyes have always been expressive.  I see the world in them. Lately, I see the weight of the world in them. The apprehension in your seven-year-old eyes makes it hard to look at them for long.  Your eyes are full of questions.  What if you fail?  How much is enough?  When is the right time?  I see you looking to me for answers, but I don’t have answers to give. The answers used to be easy. When you were younger, it was a multiple choice test every time you cried: milk, sleep, or clean diaper. Now the questions and answers are more complicated.

I remember your milestones. Learning to sit. Learning to stand. Learning to walk and talk. I checked the boxes on those easy-to-define achievements. I even charted your pre-milestone progress. I used to sit you upright and count how many seconds it took for you to tip over. Of course, that was proof not of your progress toward independent sitting but of the existence of gravity in our living room. Nevertheless, I soaked it all in and my new mom heart swelled with pride and relief as the evidence mounted that you were gaining the skills you needed to survive in this world.

The milestones from here are less defined. There are no checklists.

It’s no longer about knowing how to sit or stand, but when to sit or stand. Courtesy—easing another’s burden, putting some else’s comfort ahead of your own, offering a small kindness, showing that you see others and deem them to be of value—is a gift the world needs.  You need to know when to offer your seat to another.  But the rules for doing so are not based on a simple algorithm of gender and age.  They are complicated.  You need to know when offering your seat would wound fragile pride. You need to watch for situations where a person’s need to be perceived as capable exceeds the need for comfort. It’s tricky.

It’s no longer about knowing how to walk, but where to walk. Someday, you will sit in class and your teacher will introduce you to Robert Frost’s poem about two roads diverging in a yellow wood. Your teacher will tell you that what Frost wrote is true. Our choices matter. You will think you understand.  It will be my job to tell you that Frost was writing about the best case scenario. Life’s intersections are rarely simple forks in the road with two defined choices. Life’s intersections are crowded and the road less travelled is overgrown and easy to miss. Choices don’t announce themselves. Defining moments camouflage themselves in our daily routine. Seemingly small choices are turns: to smile or not, to speak or stay silent, to stay within or stray from your comfort zone, today or tomorrow.

It’s no longer about knowing how to talk, but which words to use. Words have power and must be used wisely. They have the power to hurt and the power to heal, although those powers are not equal. The hurt caused by words is rarely able to be healed by words. Even sincere apologies can’t fully erase the damage. The best an apology can do is ice the swelling. Apologizing for hurtful words is like painting over graffiti. The new paint never quite matches the original color; the shadow of the vandalism remains.

There are so many milestones to come: wisdom, courage, discernment and more. None of these have clear metrics to let you know when you’ve arrived. But, you will make progress if you practice. Like a baby taking ten seconds to tip over instead of four, you will slowly learn.  You will learn which battles are worth fighting and which are best served by pacifism. You will learn which risks are likely to yield rewards and which are simply an excuse for an adrenaline rush.

You will learn so much in the years to come. Trial and error will be your greatest teacher. You will be bruised. You will be scraped. You will get bumps that swell to an alarming size. That’s part of the growing. Skinned knees mean you’re doing it right.

Along the way, you will look to me for answers. I might not have them.

But, I still want to hear the questions.



Photo by Benton J. Melbourne

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Why I Don’t Think My Son is Growing Up Too Fast

Why I Don’t Think My Son is Growing Up Too Fast

By Aubrey Hirsch

photo (4)My son is growing up at a rate of exactly one second per second. And I think that’s the perfect speed. I don’t want him to be a baby forever. I want him to become the person he carves himself into, at the rate he chooses to grow.

It’s true that I love watching his satisfaction when he balances one block on top of another. But I can’t wait to see him study hard and learn something even I don’t understand. I want him to stretch himself, to work and try. And fail, sometimes. I want him to know the deep pleasure that accompanies triumph after disappointment.

His sweet toddler babbling is like music to me now, but I can’t wait for him to tell me what he’s thinking, what he wants, who he is and not just who I think he is. We often talk about wanting to keep our kids small, to protect them from the less appealing parts of life. But I want my son to have everything life has in store for him.

I want him to experience splendor and grief, summer sun and injury. I want him to lie to his best friend and feel the white-hot rush of embarrassment in his cheeks. I want him to have friendship, get picked on, make a pretty girl laugh, feel so alone he can barely breathe.

I want him to laugh until his ribs ache and cry until his throat is raw. I want him to run fast and skin his knees. I want him to give up on something important. I want him to make wrong decisions. I want him to know that pain and sadness lurk around every corner, under every good thing, and that life is unfair and unforgiving. But that there is beauty there, too. And hope. And comfort.

He should have warm air on his face, but also burning fevers. I want him to feel like no one understands him. I want him to have splinters and sore muscles and heartache. He should have pain. And love. And sorrow. And happiness so pure that it hurts him, because he knows—even as he has it—how soon it will be gone.

I want all these things because I love him and because this is what mothers do: We make our kids eat their vegetables and attend their oboe lessons and apologize to their friends when they screw up. We do this because we know better than our kids that temporary discomfort can open doors to wonderful things. And that sometimes great pain makes room in our hearts for joy to fill.

Even if I did hope to keep him small, if I thought having this child, at this age, made me the happiest a person could ever be, then I’m not so selfish that I would keep him from having his own perfect moment with his own perfect child. So I don’t mind watching him get bigger and watching the seconds tick away. I know those clock hands are moving toward amazing things for him, even the ones that seem terrible at the time.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. She has also written essays on pregnancy and motherhood for TheRumpus.net. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com

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When My Tween Son Doesn’t Love Me

When My Tween Son Doesn’t Love Me

By Allison Slater Tate

907397_10151321959836493_473111420_n“Have a good day,” I said as my firstborn stumbled out of the minivan door, significantly encumbered by a giant Jansport backpack loaded with textbooks and a lunchbox packed with my own hands. “I love you.”

“I don’t love you,” he answered confidently, each word measured and punctuated by his eyes piercing mine. He slammed my passenger door and stalked off toward his friend awaiting him at the end of the sidewalk at our carpool drop-off, his exit less dramatic than he wished due to the way he had to shift his own 90 pounds of body weight to hoist his ridiculous backpack.

I watched his back for a few moments. I saw his friend glance furtively in my direction as he exchanged a few words with my angry son. Finally, I set the car in motion and drove away, down the street, so that we could both start our days without each other. The subject of our disagreement was nothing special; the problem is that these small, tedious disagreements happen almost daily, and they wear on both of us.

This is how our story goes these days. When he was little—when all of them were little—I found myself frustrated and sad because being The Mommy was not very fun most of the time. Once we left their infancies and entered their toddlerhoods and beyond, I felt even less like I was on the same team as my children. I was the bummer, the fun sponge—the one who had to enforce the bedtime, end whatever dangerous activity was occurring that moment, or announce the next transition that would frustrate them. I tried hard to provide discipline and guide them without being their adversary, but in the end, it’s too often Them vs. Me. I am their primary caregiver and the parent most often on duty. And, frankly, it can suck. It makes me feel hard to love.

But it sucks in a whole new way with my tween. I’ve been told these middle school years can be harder than the high school years in some ways, and I am hanging on to that thought—that if I can just eke through these next few seasons of not-awesomeness, it might get better, or at least smoother, afterward. Then I get to do it all over again. (And again. Oh, and again, because I thought once that four kids would be a grand adventure. Woo-hoo! Adventure!)

In the meantime, I have the privilege of being the one to drag my firstborn out of bed in the morning, all the while struggling to remember days when he woke me up way too early almost as if for sport. I have to usher him, however reluctantly, through the morning routine and make sure he gets to school on time. I have to receive him in the late afternoon when he is tired and cranky after a long day in the jungle of middle school. Then the real fun begins: the constant dance of do-your-homework/is-your-homework-finished/I-told-you-to-do-your-homework, with him pulling and resisting the entire time, desperate for just a little more time to play, to decompress, to resist thinking. The truth is, I don’t really blame him. That makes it even less fun to be The Mom, the Enforcer, Buzzkill-in-Chief. I’m on his side, and I can’t even tell him so, because I’m not ready to take on the whole school system and the way it doles out homework.

We still have our moments, and I hang onto them with both hands: when a new book arrives that I ordered without telling him, and he eagerly scoops it up and begins reading it immediately with a genuine, “Thanks, Mom!”; when he comes back to my room a second time before bed because he “forgot to give me a hug,” even on the days that started out with a door slamming and icy words; when my husband is away on business and I let him stay up with me, his nose deep in a book while I finish working on my laptop in my big white bed. He’s fun to be with when our internal agendas align, and I want so desperately to be able to enjoy him more and nag him less. We’re just not always there yet.

He is my firstborn. There is no one in the world that holds his unique place in my life. He is the boy who made me a mother, the boy who has challenged me unlike anyone else. He knows exactly which buttons to push; he knows the nuances and personalities of our little family better than I do. He is still my heart every bit as much as he was the first day we brought him home from the hospital. But sometimes, in hormone-filled (me), puberty-rich (him) moments, when his assertions of independence and will meet my obligatory parental push-back, he doesn’t love me. I have to be okay with that, and I will be, as long as I have hope he will always come home at the end of the day loving me again.

So far, he has.

Allison Slater Tate is a writer and mother of four children. She also writes regularly at www.allisonslatertate.com and Huffington Post Parents as well as Facebook and Twitter. She hopes her writing will make up for a lack of completed baby books when her kids grow up. 

Teen Boys, and Their Mothers

Teen Boys, and Their Mothers

By Anne Sawan
Photo on 2010-12-18 at 17.24 #5When he was small, he would ask me to sleep with him every night.

“Please sleep with me Mom.”

And most nights I would. I would snuggle in next to him, feeling his small body pressed against mine, an arm thrown across my neck as he burrowed in so close our noses would touch, his breath minty and sweet against my cheek, his hair still damp and fresh from the bath. He would whisper his dreams and silly rhymes in my ear as the room slowly darkened, a gently stillness seeping in, his chest rising and falling in time with the soft whir of the overhead fan. All thoughts of the piles of laundry that needed to be washed, the already late bills to pay, the sticky dinner dishes that should be rinsed, floating away as I lay with my arms around my child, both of us drifting into sweet, sweet slumber.

And some nights I wouldn’t. On those long, hard days when I just needed some space to think, wanting some peace and solitude to collect my thoughts and mull over the day. Those nights when all I could dream about was an empty chair, a cup of hot tea and a good book, or a piece of the couch, a mindless television show and a glass of wine.

“No, not tonight. I am busy. I don’t have the time,” I would say impatiently.

On those nights there would be tears and pleading; “Can I just have a glass of water … maybe one more … can you turn on the light in the hall … open the door just a little … now it’s too bright … please can’t you lie down here … just a few minutes” and then, finally, thankfully, he would fall to sleep, alone.

Those days of asking are gone now.


Funny, I remember the last time he asked.

The asking had slowed down, becoming more sporadic over the years as he grew, separating from me, as he needed to, but still, occasionally … after a scary movie, a hard day at school, a lost baseball game, he would ask … and I might.

Then came the dark, dismal, cloudy days of preteen rolled eyes, low mutterings, and out right defiance. Days of arguing, yelling and talking back. He came to me after one of those long days; one of those days that left me still seething hours later from his insolence, the bitter taste of disrespect rolling around my mouth, the heavy buzz of surliness ringing in my ears.

“Can you lie down with me for a few minutes?” He mumbled, his eyes shifting first to the window, then to the ceiling and down to the floor.

“What!” Anger boiled, bubbling and popping inside my chest. I was too annoyed to care that this humble asking was his best apology. Too angry to see that this might be the time he needed me the most. I snapped and snarled, “No! I’m busy! I don’t have the time for that! Go to bed!” dismissing him with a dark glare and a wave of my arm.

He shuffled out, shoulders slumped and I sat, by myself, pretending to look at my book.

Minutes went by. The clock on the wall steadily ticking out the beat of time … passing. I heard him turning in his bed, but he never called out. Never asked for water or a nightlight. Never pleaded for me to open the door just a crack … and the dull space that had started in my head slowly wormed its way down to my heart and landed with a heavy thud in my stomach. The silence of the night surrounded me, and in the quiet, sliding through the anger, I heard the whir of a soft whisper. Not much more time.

I put down my book and shut my eyes and listened to the gentle hum, the quiet warning.

Not much more time.

And alone, in the darkness, I remembered. I remembered the little boy that dragged his yellow dump truck all over the house carefully putting it next to him on his pillow at night as he pulled up the covers. The boy who had me read the same dinosaur book over and over until we both could name and identify the eating habits of each creature. The boy who held tightly to my hand as we crossed the street, readily sharing his vanilla ice cream and always saving the very tip of the sugar cone for me. The boy who showed me the joy of finding worms in the rain, how to collect baseball cards and tried to teach me to like roller coasters. The boy who snuggled next to me, his chubby hands on either side of my face as he whispered about what he wanted to be when he grew up—a baseball player, a rock star, a paleontologist, a dad.

Not much more time.

I walked across the hallway, over the dimly lit space that separated us, and stood near him.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Move over.”

I climbed in next to his awkward almost adolescent body, the sour smell of sweat surrounding him but this time there was no hand thrown across my neck, no noses pushed together or silly whispers in my ear, instead he moved away, turning to the wall, and we slept in uneasy silence, our backs pressed together.

And that was the last time.

Anne Sawan is a mother to five wonderful and aggravating children. She also is a psychologist and an author, having articles published in Adoptive Families Magazine, Adoption Today and several children’s book published by MeeGenuis. 

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Even Tween Boys Need Hugs

Even Tween Boys Need Hugs

By Jack Cheng

0-14My 10-year-old son can be a train wreck.

I know it’s not his fault. His limbs are growing faster than he knows, and his brain is all over the place, from the world of Minecraft to the Marvel Comics Superhero Universe to the Greek gods of the Percy Jackson-verse. Still, excuses aside, he’s simply not that cognizant of his own body.

When he walks down the hall, I cringe, worried that he’ll knock over framed photos hanging on the walls.

When he wobbled his bike down a path through the park, I winced as he passed pedestrians, afraid that he would ride into them.

And he hardly ever seems to walk by his little sister without bumping into her, sometimes jostling her playfully, sometimes just knocking her over.

“What’s wrong with him?” my wife and I would ask each other, after sending him to his room for a body checking infraction.

It took a while, but I think I figured out what was wrong, why he had an incessant need to bump into things, consciously or not. My wife always suggests exercise: “A tired kid is a good kid” is one of her mottos (which, I’ll note, she adapted from something she heard in a dog obedience course). Another dad at soccer practice was telling me his son needed tackle football—that boys this age just needed to run into each other and get some of that energy out. I think my wife and this dad were on to something, but I think there’s something beyond just physical activity.

I thought back to wrestling with my son as a toddler. It seemed both recent and long ago that I would lift him above my bed, throw him onto the mattress and shout “Body slam!” while smothering his body with my own. It’s been a few years since we’d played like that. And that’s when I realized:

He needed a hug.

Part of the reason it took me so long to understand is my experience of my own family. I never doubted that my parents or my sisters loved me, but I also remember how bizarre it seemed the first time I saw my parents holding hands. This is a clear memory since I was probably about 16 at the time. They are fairly traditional Chinese people who are not into public displays of affection.

I wasn’t sure my son would admit he wanted to be hugged, but I tested my theory. The next time he bumped his sister, I got reflexively mad again, but I kept my temper in check and took a deep breath. Come over here, I commanded, and then, to his surprise, I gave him a big squeeze. He returned the gesture and, after a minute, it seemed to make him feel better. He may have just been relieved that he wasn’t getting punished.

Just like anyone, I know my son needs physical affection. The trouble is, he’s a ten-year-old boy and doesn’t know where to get it. His sister hugs all her friends, even hugs her teachers goodbye, but he and his buddies don’t embrace. They race side by side, they climb trees, they sit next to each other playing video games but they get embarrassed when they touch. Once after a brief falling out with a friend, I told my son and his pal to shake hands and I could sense that the physical act was as awkward as the apology.

He’s getting big, and heavy, and frankly, has a bony butt, so sitting on his parents’ laps has long been a rare occasion. He doesn’t hug his sister, but left to their own devices, their games often involve piggyback rides or feats of dual gymnastics that require grappling of some sort.

So now I hug him. I told my wife, when he’s acting up, I’m going give him a hug—the fact that he’s misbehaving is my signal that he needs it.

Then, at dinner last week, I asked, a bit teasingly, “Hey how come I hug you, but you never hug me?”

He asked me a question in response, “How come we only hug when you’re mad at me?”

I was taken aback. I had figured out a transaction—he acts up, give him a hug—but I’m still not a particularly huggy person myself. My social engineering was totally transparent to him. In fact, it was backfiring—he took a hug to mean that I was mad at him. The worst part was, he was right. My heart was in my throat.

“I’m not mad at you now,” I said.

He came over and we held each other tight. When I let go of him, he wiped his eyes, but he assured me that that was just his allergies.

I suffer from the same allergens.

Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Boston, works on archaeological digs in the Middle East, plays music with the Newton Family Singers, and runs the “Daddy Bank” for his kids. Follow him on Twitter: @jakcheng

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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A Mother-Son Sleepover

A Mother-Son Sleepover

Art Mother son drawing

By Lauren Apfel

I never co-slept with my kids when they were little. I was against the idea on principle. Not for safety reasons, mind you, but because I love my sleep and I love my space. One of the guiding lights of early motherhood for me was to encourage in my babies a similar reverence for the beauty of slumbering alone. They were all sleep-trained as a result. They were all placed in their cribs, with that magical mixture of “drowsy but awake,” so they could learn the secret of drifting off on their own. Without my breast. Without my breath. Without my heartbeat.

Fast forward eight years and I wake with a start into darkness, my son Oliver’s thin leg criss-crossed over mine. I am in his single bed, pushed up against the wall. I don’t know what time it is, but I can tell from the fuzziness in my head that I have been here a while. We are on a sleepover night. The irony doesn’t escape me.

One night a week I climb the rungs to Oliver’s top bunk and I don’t climb down again until he is asleep or on the brink. It started a few months ago, this ritual, when something changed in him. He has always needed a lot of rest, he was that baby. The one who could nod off anywhere, anytime. The toddler who took the three-hour nap and then still went down at 7:30 p.m. Even as a seven year old, Oliver’s last kiss goodnight was hovering on the inside of eight o’clock.

Not anymore. Some nights I hear his footsteps on the stairs and it is touching distance to my bedtime. He has finished reading; he has switched off the light. No such luck with his mind. I know the feeling. So when his head appears in the living room window, bobbing up and down like an apple, I smile and wave him in. He approaches me with caution, I don’t blame him: after-hour surfacings have not been met in the past with such warm welcome. But it’s different now. I pause the TV or fold closed my book and we walk back up together.

I don’t resent these interruptions, not really. Maybe because it hasn’t been going on for that long. Or maybe because there is a part of me that feels like I owe him. I am convinced that Oliver’s natural-born gift for sleep colored my first experience of motherhood in the rosiest shade of rose. He slept like the baby of proverb and, in doing so, he allowed me to enjoy him unambiguously, to loose myself from the grip of the newborn period with no scars other than the one across my abdomen. For that I will be forever grateful.

But I also feel like I owe him for the present. I might not be basking in time to myself these days, but that doesn’t mean my kids are swimming in my time either. There are too many of them for that. I read once that you are “supposed” to spend an hour a day with each of your small children: to ensure bonding and proper emotional development, to obviate the cries, literal and metaphorical, for attention. That’s all well and good when you have one kid or two. But four hours a day of tête-à-tête? Even if it were desirable, it’s usually impossible.

Here we all are in the kitchen, a line of dominoes, one need pinging off the next. The first twin is telling me, for the fifteenth time in a row, that his “snail is sleeping, shhhh,” which on the surface wouldn’t seem to necessitate a response, but at two and a half years old clearly does, each and every time he says it. The second twin is asking me an unending chain of questions, from the potty, some of which involve the very existence of the snail itself. Meanwhile, the five year old is weaving in and out, singing “Hava Nagila” at the top of his lungs or throwing a temper tantrum or angling for food even though dinner is half an hour away.

And then there is Oliver. He is the one who can wait, so he waits. He is the one who can sense the chaos, so he retreats. “It’s quite hard for you, Mom,” he says, patting me on the shoulder, his face poised somewhere between concern and curiosity. As the oldest and the most self-sufficient, his need for me is not as immediate as the others’. But that’s not to say it doesn’t still exist.

Does Oliver stay up later now because he isn’t as tired or because he likes being awake when the rest of the house has gone quiet and it is only him and it is only me? Probably a bit of both. Most nights, especially school nights, I return him to bed, with a quick tuck in and tussle of his hair. But on sleepover night, there is no end-time for my attention. There is no “wait five minutes.” There is no “it’s not your turn.”

I lie with him for as long as it takes and, on this night, he knows I am not rushing off to do the next thing. To sop up the milk, to blow the nose, to tie the laces, to answer the email. And I know that if he drifts off to the warmth of my body, it isn’t going to translate into a habit of unwanted wakings the way it might if he were younger.

Often on these nights I fall asleep myself and Oliver is out cold by the time I leave. Sometimes, though, he dozes first. I sing him the round of songs I have been singing since he was a baby and after the last line of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” when his limbs start to jerk, I edge my way out of the bed. He stirs enough to whisper “I love you,” drowsy but ever so slightly awake, and I creep out of the room, just like I used to.


The Bedtime Routine

The Bedtime Routine

By Kelly Hirt
0-13Yesterday, I sent the following tweet:  When I look at my son lying in his bed, it is as if I have forgotten all the rough parts of the day.  That is some Mama Amnesia!  It’s true, isn’t it?!

We could have a challenging morning filled with, “not fair” and “I DON’T want to” and an afternoon of, “you ALWAYS make me…” but somehow at bedtime, my boy looks angelic.  Just hours earlier, the eye-rolling and the “whatever” made it seem as though he had skipped his childhood and entered the land of teenagers!

When my precious boy is getting ready for bed, he begins to get softer around the edges. Once his glasses come off and he’s in his pajamas, he seems to go backwards in years.  For the first time all day, he wants to hug and get close and if I’m lucky … he invites me to lie next to him and talk about whatever is on his inquisitive mind.

Why does it stay lighter in the summer?

Who is God?

For some reason, his questions flow once the lights are turned off and while others can quiet their mind, his is just getting started!

One of our bedtime games that he loves is to remind me how quickly he is growing up.  “In just a few months, I’m going to be 8 years old!”  I play along as if I am truly surprised by the news. “That’s impossible!”

“Do you know what else?”  He leans in close, holds my face in his soft hands and looks directly at my eyes, “In no time at all, I am going to be ten!”

“Are you trying to break my heart?!”

“Oh, Mama!” He smiles.  We laugh and he loves it.  What he doesn’t know is that secretly, my heart really does break a little at how fast this is all racing by.

There was a long time, when I wasn’t sure I would have these bedtime routines.  The homework, the hugs, the unstoppable questions, all the things that come with being a parent just didn’t seem to be in the cards for me.  I was happy being a positive influence to many children as a teacher and then returning home to a tidy house and quiet evenings.

My partner and I were both established in our careers and secure in our relationship when we finally began to wonder if we wanted a family … a larger family than just ourselves and our beloved terrier. After a few years of talking and listening to each other, we decided it was time and we reached out to a local adoption agency.

Our journey was unexpectedly challenging and there were times of true uncertainty.  However, we are so very thankful for the process because we now have a precious boy of our own.  He is quirky, sensitive and intense and his favorite place to be is at home.  He is most comfortable in front of his computer or sitting between us on the couch during family movie nights.

Because I wasn’t sure that any of this was going to be mine, I remind myself of the joy as I do even the most mundane things like visiting a park, shampooing his hair, and the bedtime routine.

Out of the blue, he has recently started playing Pat-a-Cake again.  Strange, I know; but his favorite part is to say, “…mark it with a BB and put it in the oven for Big Boy and me!”  I visibly grimace at the sound of those words and he wants to do it again.  “You know, I’m really a Big Boy!”  One thing that I’m quite confident about is that as long as he calls himself a “big boy,” he really isn’t one yet.

When the talking and reading is complete, the lights turn off and the calm music begins.  He tries to delay the inevitable with more questions, but I say in a slow whisper, “My boy, it is time for bed.”  Most nights, just before he falls asleep, I get one more “Mama, I love you!”

I sit in the darkness and I think about being his mother … all that it means and all that I have experienced because of him.  I am forced to be more intentional with my words and actions since I have this boy watching my every move.  I censor my speech and I try to model the healthiest ways to express frustration and stress.  I must be my own best friend now … instead of my own worst enemy because he should see how to forgive yourself for mistakes and to learn how to celebrate your own strengths.

On this night, after the talking has stopped, I have a new appreciation for how hard it must be for MY parents to see me grown up and independent … making my own choices.  Choices that maybe they didn’t understand, but have grown to accept.

Kelly Hirt is a mother, teacher & writer.  She started her blog http://mytwicebakedpotato.com/ as a way to support and connect people parenting twice-exceptional children.  Kelly’s work has been seen in Macaroni Kids, Huffington Post, and many other sites.  Kelly’s blog was Parent Map’s 2013 Golden Teddy Award finalist for parenting blogs.

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Grieving the Days of Only

Grieving the Days of Only

By Jennifer Berney

Grieving the days of Only ArtThe Sunday after my second son was born, my first son, Harlan, asked if he could shoot his Nerf gun off the front porch. It was bright outside but cold and windy. Storm clouds gathered in all directions.  He had put his new boots on over his dinosaur pajamas. The boots had been a Christmas gift less that a month before. They were navy blue with orange soles, a shade of orange so bright it stung my eyes. He insisted he didn’t need a coat.

All morning we’d been stuck in our new routine: I nursed the baby on the couch while Harlan bounced on the cushions. When I asked him to stop, he’d press his body into me and yell into his sleeping brother’s ear: I love you so much.  I kept a hand on the baby’s head at all times, terrified that Harlan would land on him or bonk him with his own head—a head that suddenly seemed disproportionately large.  So far, having a newborn meant that I clenched my jaw all day long.

And so I said yes, shoot your Nerf gun, silently praying that he could go at least ten minutes without calling for me. But almost instantly Harlan wanted to switch to water guns—never mind the weather. So I wrapped our new baby in a blanket and, with one hand, dug out the water guns from a box in the garage.

But, of course, his favorite one was missing. It was missing because it leaked and my partner had thrown it away, a fact that I didn’t want to reveal, and so I pretended to look for it, poking through boxes and boxes of junk.

“I want you to find it,” he informed me, standing at a distance, watching, and when I told him we’d just have to play with the two we had, he collapsed on the ground and wailed.

This was typical, not of Harlan in general, but of Harlan since the arrival of his baby brother. There was no rolling with the punches, no making do. Every dropped cracker, every wet sleeve was a tragedy. And now, as he threw himself around on the floor, I was stuck: with a baby in my arms, I couldn’t soothe or move or wrestle him. I could only hold my breath and silently will him to quit.


Throughout my pregnancy, as we prepared to welcome our second son into the world, I knew that our family in general, and our son in particular, was headed for a time of transition. That’s all I knew. That word, transition, had been tossed about for some time, but no one had offered specifics. Instead, seasoned parents warned me to brace myself. It will be hard, they said, so hard.

I had waited four months to tell Harlan I was pregnant. In my first trimester, morning sickness crushed me. At the height of it, I spent evenings face down on the couch, moaning, too nauseated even to move myself to bed. Harlan tapped on my back, whispered “Mommy,” until my partner coaxed him away. I didn’t explain what made me sick; I didn’t want him to blame my pain on his unborn sibling.

Later, once the sickness had all but passed, I withheld out of superstition; Harlan himself had arrived after years of trying and false starts, and so I had learned to never treat a pregnancy as a sure thing. To name a baby as a certainty was to endanger it.

When I finally did tell Harlan, I told him this way: my body is trying to make a baby. And once that settled in, once my belly was round, once the baby was actual, he was certain that my belly held a sister. He started calling that sister Banana.

I took this to mean that he preferred a sister to a brother. So, at twenty weeks, when the technician spotted a penis on the ultrasound, I was cautious again about breaking this news.  It was the end of summer then, and when I picked him up at a friend’s house, he was sitting on their sunny front porch.

“You know Banana?” I whispered. He nodded.

“How would it be if Banana wasn’t a little girl?”

Harlan’s eyes went wide.  He gasped. “Oh, I would love it if he was a brother!”

I guess that Harlan too, was cautious, guarded about imagining the thing he most wanted.

As my belly grew, he talked to it constantly. “Hi Baby!” he shouted, stripping away the layers of shirt and nylon that covered my bump. I had to train him not to do this in public. Friends thought it was sweet. But I found myself wiping the spit from too many kisses off of my stretched-out belly, and swallowing a desire to push him away, wondering what he’d do once Banana-boy was born. Would he still talk to him, still love him, still want to be around him?


What Harlan did after the baby was born was rail against me.

I couldn’t feed him. Harlan refused to eat breakfast, and each morning I waited for the inevitable blood sugar crash, the screaming tantrum on the floor. I began to advocate for food at any cost, offering him ice cream on a toaster waffle or extra honey on his toast. But he would complain that I cut the toast the wrong way, or that he didn’t want butter, or he would shriek because the ice cream melted too fast.

I couldn’t touch him. If Harlan walked by and I tapped him on the shoulder, he would fall to the floor and clutch the place I had touched as if I had prodded him with a hot spear. If I were sitting on the couch with my leg extended, he would walk by, trip, and begin screaming, red-faced: “I am so mad at you Mommy.”

Harder still were the moments of grief that arrived in the middle of the night.  The first night we were home, I lay half awake with the light on and the baby on my chest. My partner slept on the couch to give us space. At 2:00 a.m. Harlan cried out for me, and I lay there, still, waiting to see if he’d go back to sleep. I’d done this countless times before the baby was born without any guilt, but now, this time, I held my breath and felt dread. He needed me and I wouldn’t come. I wouldn’t come because I had a new son now, a son whom I would hold tightly and nurse through the night.

The next night he cried again and this time didn’t stop. When my partner went in for him, I could hear his cries through two sets of closed doors. “Go Away!” he yelled at her, kicking beneath the covers. “I want Mommy Jenn!” He cried the way I remember crying as a child, the way I suppose I still cry when feeling particularly lost and desperate: choking on endless sobs.

I got up, leaving the baby alone in the middle of the bed. I held Harlan, my impossibly long four-year-old, and listened to the grief move through his body, his sobs slowing to a shaky but steady breath. I continued to lie there as he moved back into sleep, half of my mind still trained on the baby, picturing him tiny and lost in the sheets.

Harlan’s body, it seemed, had transformed overnight. His head was the size and weight of a bowling ball. When he cried, I could see inside his mouth and up his nose, his tonsils, his spit, his snot. Suddenly, there was something uncouth in his size, his need, and all his human functions.

The baby, on the other hand was dainty with his tiny head and perfect whorl of hair. He breastfed and slept. His breath smelled like milk and so did his poo. Before I had the baby, my worst fear had been that that I would love Harlan less, or see him from a greater distance. Now that that seemed to be coming true, I began to worry that I had made some horrible mistake, that our relationship was all but over and we’d spend the rest of our days alternating between sorrow and conflict. I knew for sure that things would never be the same. And sometimes I thought: who needs this baby anyway?

Our baby, you see, still did not have a name.

From the moment we found out that Banana was a boy, Harlan had stopped calling him Banana. I had wanted to name him Fox, and shared the name with Harlan, thinking he’d approve and that the name might become a special family secret. But Harlan didn’t like the name Fox. He didn’t like any name that I proposed, not Cooper or Vincent or Ivan or Hudson.  Not Forrest or Cedar or Lake.   This was fine, of course; my partner and I would choose whatever name we wanted. But then one day I suggested Andre, and Harlan, inexplicably, fell in love with that sound.

“I hear you picked out a name for the baby,” his daycare teacher said to me a few days later.

“We did?” I asked. Harlan had shared during circle time that we were going to name our baby Andre.

He called the baby Andre until the day he was born, at which point he called him only baby, a choice which seemed to quietly acknowledge that he didn’t have the final say. My partner and I didn’t hate the name, but we liked other names better.  “Cedar’s a good name,” I tried to convince Harlan. “You know Cedar, like the tree.”

“Andre’s a good name,” he answered, almost in a whisper.

We agonized for days.  We set deadlines for ourselves, and then missed them. We wanted to name him Cedar. We didn’t want to disappoint our Harlan. Friends tried to convince us that it was our right to name the baby, but I couldn’t get past the fear that our choice would impact their connection. Harlan had chosen a brother named Andre; Andre was the name of the brother he loved.

There was another voice in my head, a reasonable one who told me this would pass. Name the baby Cedar, the voice said. Be the grownup; be the parent. It’s silly to think that a name will shape their destiny as brothers.

I listened to that voice and acknowledged its wisdom. And then we went ahead and named our baby Andre.

Three days later, on that stormy day in January, I convinced Harlan to remove himself from the garage floor and come inside where it was warm. I thought I could make him hot chocolate, that I could read him a story and nurse the baby and have some sense, for a moment, that everything would be all right. Instead, as I set the kettle on the stove, I heard the click of the front door. The baby was asleep in his vibrating chair. I took a moment to put my shoes on, not eager to venture out into the cold rain.

No more than thirty seconds had passed, but when I stepped on the front porch, there was no trace of Harlan. I called him. He was not in the yard or in the driveway. He was not down the street or in a tree. I called him again. I raced to the end of the block to peer around the corner, then back to the house to check on the baby who still slept soundly in his chair. I called Harlan again. He was nowhere.

I thought I’d look for him in the garage, and that’s when I spotted them: the bright orange soles of his boots. He had wedged himself between two planters in the driveway. It was his absolute stillness that rendered him invisible; if it weren’t for the color orange, I wouldn’t have found him.

I picked him up like a baby, the heaviest baby who ever lived, and carried him inside, his limbs dangling toward the ground.

“Did you hear me calling you?” I asked him. “Did you hear the fear in my voice?”

“I was playing hide and seek,” he said.

I draped his body on the couch and locked the front door. I couldn’t be mad. I didn’t want to be. This was a challenge he’d somehow designed, like the runaway bunny.  If I leave, will you find me? If I disappear, will you see me? When I’m out of your vision, do I still exist?

What could I do to convince him the answer was yes?


Andre is three months old today. Harlan sleeps through the night again. He still crowds the baby when he nurses, and gives him too many kisses. Earlier today I laid the baby down on the sheepskin rug in Harlan’s room and Harlan lay down next to him and showed him a parade of his stuffed animals. In the morning sometimes he asks to see his baby brother, or sometimes when I’m holding him, he asks to see his face. Many times in a day, he greets him: “Hi baby,” he says. “Hi Andre, hi Andre, hi Andre.”

And just yesterday he told me that he loves me, he loves me, he loves me so much. The words reached inside and touched a place that I realized had been cordoned off for just a little while. Those words had been frequent between us, and then for a while instead there was distance, a baby in the middle, whom both of us adored.

I’ve lost my days alone with Harlan—planless days where we’d leave the house to do one errand and we’d let the day run his course from there. I remember once spending over an hour at Panda Express watching him eat Lo Mein, because that was how long it took him. We talked the whole time about whether ghosts were real, and whether the Panda Express Panda and Kung Fu Panda were the same panda.

These days, our time together is interrupted by nursing, by diaper changes, by naps. Most nights, I nurse Andre to sleep while I read to Harlan and they wind up asleep together, Harlan’s mouth agape and Andre’s lips still in the motion of nursing. But there are rare nights that Andre falls asleep with my partner and I have Harlan to myself. On these nights, we snuggle with no one between us and I savor it, this taste of something I once had every day.

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes.  She lives in Olympia, Washington.

The Day He Flew Away

The Day He Flew Away

By Frances C. Hansen

He Flew away artI drove endless miles down the New York State Thruway that Tuesday. Gray concrete roads and overcast skies created the perfect backdrop for my melancholy mood. The honking geese going south resounded loudly. In steady formation they left their places behind the swampy reeds and took flight, leaving me behind on the chilly fall afternoon.

That day, Election Day 2002, my baby was flying south in the same sky with the geese. He was headed for recruit training for the U.S. Marine Corps. I was going home to my empty house, feeling like I was headed to a massive black hole.

The day actually had begun eight months prior when my son announced his desire to join the Marines. After interrogating the recruiters for four hours at my dining room table, I consented to my 17-year-old son choosing this path for his life. Through the following months I pleaded with him not to go and offered alternatives to try and change his mind. I pleaded with God too. No use. My son’s mind was made up.  I told him things his dad never got the chance to tell him. My husband had passed away three years prior. He was an Army medic in Vietnam.

Days arrogantly flew by. My youngest child would soon disappear to a place called Parris Island. I would not see him for his 18th birthday or any special holidays. I couldn’t send him cookies. I was told that sending a birthday card would lead to a “celebration” requiring at least one extra round of push-ups and humiliation from the drill instructor. Prior to his leaving, I became a fanatic camerawoman taping my son coming and going.

On the night of November 4th the moment came. I hugged him quickly. He kissed me on the cheek, picked up his bag, and walked off into a new world.  A half hour later I regained my composure, locked the doors and shuffled off to Buffalo where I would see him get sworn in the next day.

The swearing in was on the 10th floor of the federal building. Blue chairs, lined up like soldiers, faced the television as it blasted the news: “War with Iraq.”  During the ceremony they called my son’s name and I followed with my camera into a red-carpeted room with flags of all services lined up on the podium.

After the swearing in, I tailed my son’s taxi to the airport and cursed the day the terrorists prevented moms from escorting their sons to the gate. I hugged him tight and watched until he was out of sight. Then I ran into the ladies’ room and cried.

Driving back home from the airport, I anticipated the childless house. Feeling like a lost little girl in a forty-eight year old woman’s body, I made several trips into my children’s rooms then fell into a lump on the couch.

Hours later, leaving the hall light on, I retreated to my room and closed my eyes. My son was not there to tell him to lower the TV volume so I could sleep. There was no pile of dirty dishes to complain about and no one to complain to.

In the years to follow, my son was deployed four times. He called me about a week after he got to Camp Pendleton and told me he was getting deployed to Iraq. Three more deployments followed. The first three were to Iraq and the last to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. While deployed, he was meritoriously promoted to Sergeant and received the Navy-Marine Commendation Medal. How proud I am. And how glad that I transformed into a supportive mother instead of the one who originally fought to change his path in life.

Frances C. Hansen has been a freelance writer for fifteen years. She also has experience in the art of digital storytelling. She holds a BS degree in Nursing and an AOS degree in Graphic Design. Her writings appear in several print and online sites. She also has contributed a chapter of her fiction work, “Coronado,” in the anthology, “New Voices.” Some of her articles can be seen at pagekeeper1.com.

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How People React To My Son’s Chemo-Baldness

How People React To My Son’s Chemo-Baldness

By Nicole Scobie

0-6I hardly notice anymore that my son Elliot has no hair. I do notice people’s reactions when they see him, if we’re at a restaurant or a store, and his hat falls off, or he takes it off, since he doesn’t really care. Sometimes, there’s a double-take. I’m not always sure what people think. I guess, looking at him, you would know right away that he’s a cancer kid. Although you see a lot of kids with crew cuts and even shaved heads these days, he has those few little wisps of fur-like hairs that are the tell-tale signs of chemo treatment.

Every now and then the subject comes up when he’s around, but it doesn’t seem to bother him much. His first reaction to losing his hair was how funny it was that he looks like his dad now. I’m not sure Martin was ever so proud as that moment when Elliot saw his reflection and said in surprise, “Hey, I have almost no hair! I look like Papa!” then laughed and walked away. He has been relatively unaffected by the change in his looks. We’re careful, however, when the subject is mentioned and he’s around, to always say something positive about it. He’s only five-years-old, and not yet very aware of the importance people place on appearance, but he is at the age where he is starting to understand the meaning of “fitting in.”

Recently, a friend was visiting and mentioned that it looked like Elliot’s hair was growing back already (a temporary event since he’s still in chemo, sometimes it does seem to be sprouting up again like tiny weeds, then a week later he’s so bald his head shines). Both Martin and I chimed in with our automatic remarks, something like, “Yep, it’ll grow back at some point, but in the meantime, he’s so handsome with those big blue eyes.” Sometimes we talk about how nice a head shape he has, or how great his ears look. And it’s all true, too. We actually find him to be quite a good-looking kid. So we’re not lying or exaggerating his eye-beauty etc., it’s just a clever rebuttal, a re-direct.

But I actually don’t think the baldness issue is about looks, for most people. Even in the non-cancer world — you know, that world we all used to live in, going about our daily business naïvely thinking we were safe from … everything? Even in the non-cancer world I think any negative view of chemo-baldness is really an instinctive judgment about health, not beauty. People associate this type of baldness with being sick. And, to be fair, it is often a pretty accurate instinct. But the fact is, there are many times, despite those rotten cells causing trouble, when a person with cancer does not feel sick. At least not throw-up sick. Any of you out there by the way have levels or categories of sick? Like, throw-up-sick versus just lie-on-the-couch-too-tired-to-push-the-button-on-the-remote sick? Just curious, as I’m not the one with cancer in our home, I can’t judge for sure.

But since I do know that many times, a cancer-boy (or girl) does not feel very sick, we are sometimes out in public. Often I won’t take Elliot anywhere where there might be a lot of people, if the blood count is low. But other times, we do go to restaurants and stores, even the occasional playground if we’re feeling particularly invincible. And recently, that’s when I started to notice them. Well, the lack of them, actually. The others. The other baldies, like my son. I know the statistics: childhood cancer is quite rare, so bumping into another baldy while at the playground is probably unlikely. But adult cancer is really so common, comparatively … so where are you all? Before I hurt anyone’s feelings, I will get off my high horse and say right away, as I have told many people, that if what had happened to Elliot had happened to me I would be tempted to go into my room and hide under my blanket and come out two years later. On the other hand, if I could trade places with him and have this stupid cancer be in my kidney instead, I would do it in a heartbeat. But that’s not possible.

So we head out “into the world” today and I wonder where everyone is. I would love to bump into a bald person. Seriously. I mean, obviously, I am into balding men anyway, but man would I like to see a woman or man wearing a scarf or hat like Elliot. Or just nothing. A nude head, parading around proudly in public for all to see. Wow, would that ever make me happy.

But generally, we never do see other cancer-fighters out there. Until yesterday. When I spotted one. We were at the mall. It was raining out, and we got bored at home (just how many Legos does it take to build the Eiffel Tower, I will never know).

A woman came over and sat next to me on a bench near the kids playing area where Elliot was running around. She was wearing a long silk scarf beautifully wrapped around her head. She did look pale, and maybe a bit thin, but actually pretty good. I didn’t say anything, but was silently excited. How could I convey to her that I am also from “that world?” Damn my hair.

Elliot ran over to ask if we could get an ice cream. He was wearing the blue sunhat with the octopus on the front (by the way, the octopus must absolutely be placed at exactly the correct frontal position or a tearful crisis will ensue. Cancer reaction or normal five-year-old? Anyone?)

With his hat it’s hard to tell he’s bald. He stared blatantly at the woman. Then he turned to me and said, and I am sure he spoke at least 10 decibels above his normal voice volume: “Hey, she’s bald.” I started to feel a bit hot. The woman cleared her throat. She looked at him and smiled quietly. He took that as an opening for him to increase the volume by another 20 decibels or so and asked her, “How come YOU have no hair?”

Now, I knew why he’s asking. He wanted to chat with her about baldness the way he would otherwise chat with a friend about Playmobil. Baldness is familiar to him. If she had a visible scar he would have probably happily lifted his shirt up to show the one that stretches across his abdomen.

But the woman didn’t know that, she just probably thought he was another innocent five-year-old asking an innocent question, and in a show of remarkable patience and probably practice she calmly said, “Well, I have to take medicine that made my hair fall out. But it will grow back after a while.” Then she slowly got up to go while Elliot stared at her with his “duh … I knew THAT” look.

And just as she started to walk away he called after her. “Well it’s good that you have nice eyes!” And she turned and stared at him a bit.

I love him.

Nicole Scobie, mom to three great kids, one of whom is luckily in remission from stage 4 cancer of the kidney.

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Got Boys? What It’s Like to Only Have Sons

Got Boys? What It’s Like to Only Have Sons

By Aline Weiller


Legos.  Lightsabers.  Little League.  Ahhh … the joys of raising boys. While pregnant with my first child and pondering the gender, my mother diplomatically said, “You get what you need.”  Apparently boy-deficient, I gave birth to two, three years apart.

A childhood tomboy, I had a penchant for building blocks versus playing house — a pastime that prompted a call home from my kindergarten teacher, concerned that I was wasn’t engaging in “girl things” at play time, to which my mother replied “And your point would be?”  Early Polaroids feature me with low pigtails, snug beneath a baseball cap, a “Bad News Bears” wannabe.  My most revered Christmas gift was sporting equipment — a prized, wooden hockey stick and matching helmet combo.  I rest my case.

Though now a hair blowout and fashion enthusiast, I skirted the girly-girl cliques until middle school and beyond.  Who knew crashing my brother’s playdates would yield keen insight into all things boys?

When blessed with boys, you discover both the pros and not “cons,” but perhaps, missed opportunities.  There are no fancy bonnets nor fluffy tutus or trips to the American Girl store.  No prom dresses or wedding gowns or donating ten-inch braids to Locks of Love.

But I don’t despair. Boy land has its perks!  There are less bad hair days and clothing wars, save the occasional request for a player-specific jersey on deck in the laundry.  And fewer tears on playdates.  Oh, and boys never get cold, which helps when you’re missing their mitten’s mate.  I’ve become video game literate, know the scariest Halloween costumes, can locate the coolest sneakers, and “get” sports stats.  Of little surface value, this classified intel will win you fans on field trips and sleepovers.  Judging American Idol with boys is also not a bad gig — you’re Mariah Carey’s shoo-in understudy, no audition required.  And being the go-to-gal for that Guitar Hero Pat Benatar ballad is also not too shabby.

Boys’ birthdays and the accoutrements are similarly a plus.  The gift buying, alone, is an all-out adventure even the likes of Indiana Jones would relish.  The gadgets and gizmos, electronics and engines, collectibles and cards.  And who can forget the party stuff?  Simply stated:  boys’ goody bags rock.  Step aside Hannah Montana and High School Musical, our secret surprises are the epitome of awesome.  Take for example, my absolute fave — the squishy, light-up eyeball ring, which I’ve even sported around the house, post-party.  Not to dismiss the beloved parachute guy and the ever-popular Barrel-O-Slime — also perennial standbys.  In addition, cakes sporting super heroes, pirates, and Jedis, in my opinion, beat out Hello Kitty any day of the week.  Just sayin’.

And while we’re talking turkey, shopping highs are not exclusive to those with daughters.  We, too, can get excited about a solid spree.  Snapping up a sweater vest or two can provide a pick-me-up of Starbucks proportions. And let’s not downplay the triumphant rush after finding matching outfits, they will actually don, for the holiday card, complete with beach backdrop.  Not to dismiss the thrill of buying their first blue blazer.  Okay, maybe not nirvana, but still moments that merit a journal entry.

It seems, too, boys are always on a mission — competing in some dire, fantasy face-off.  For reasons unknown, restaurant outings seem to beckon their invisible foes, as breadsticks become makeshift swords and crayons instant torpedoes.  Note:  straws also double as a weapon of choice.

Did I mention boys are fans of water pistols, pools, and puddles, yet less fond of bathing?  I accept their love of action, but their need for entanglement — worthy of Hulk Hogan’s admiration — still boggles me.  What’s more, boys will jump off ANYTHING and approach running and climbing with Olympic fervor.  They revel in play and never tire of the outdoors; inclement weather short of hail ceases to faze them.  Did your survival guide to raising boys also leave out these gems?

But, like Sears, boys have a softer side.  My first-born, and now teen will endure a Sarah McLachlan song in the car, and has been known to unconsciously hum along.  Born in Atlanta and dubbed my “Southern Gentleman,” he’s quick to open doors and tote groceries.  Tall and patient, he waits for me on harried airport treks when I lag behind, bursting carry-on slung on my shoulder.

My younger son shows his affection out of the public eye.  Like any good middle schooler, he’s banned me from the bus stop, but our morning good-byes remain heartfelt, leaving me with a faint mixture of worry and relief.  Privately sweet, he proclaims I’m the “Best. Mom. Ever.” — a thesis he supports with Post It Notes and night time hugs.  We sometimes practice our Mother-of-the-Groom dance in the kitchen, albeit two decades premature.

Loyal and brave, boys are forever protecting the mothership (and their mothers).  Built-in bodyguards, they’re crusaders in khakis — always ready to fight the bad guys.  Valiantly, mine would defend me to the end.  Boys, they do love their mothers.  And we, them.

Yup, I’ve got boys.  They’re just what I needed.

Aline Weiller is a freelance writer/journalist whose work has been featured in print/online publications and blogs.  She is also the founder of the public relations firm, Wordsmith, LLC, based in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Hall of Famers

Hall of Famers

johnny baseball“In here!” my 9-year-old son Johnny says, pulling me into the Babe Ruth room at the Baseball Hall of Fame, pointing at the Louisville Slugger Babe Ruth no doubt used to hit one of his 714 career homeruns. We walk through rows of display cases; Johnny’s enthusiasm building as he examines each artifact.

Johnny’s passion for baseball is an ongoing pleasure for me, a sign of how my father lives on through my son. Johnny is named after my father who died of heart failure five years before Johnny was born. Dad played AAA baseball for the Red Sox; a southpaw pitcher. As Johnny and I walk through the museum I imagine snapping a photo of him with his grandfather; my father’s large arm over Johnny’s shoulder buddy style. Instead, I snap a picture of Johnny next to a life size painting of Hank Aaron.

I wonder what my father would think of my little boy, so much like him, who hits left handed and who can strike out the side in any given game. Though my father rarely talked about his baseball career, I imagine maybe in this setting he would tell Johnny everything, all the stories I heard secondhand after Dad died.

I brought Johnny to the Hall of Fame for spring break, my four older kids home with my husband. Having Johnny to myself was a unique occasion for one-on-one time with my youngest son. I’d booked a hotel with a swimming pool. I wanted to make it all special, squeeze every memory I could from the trip. I’d even told Johnny, just for this weekend, I would be a Yankee fan like him, instead of my usual role as a Red Sox fan. “Babe Ruth played for both teams,” Johnny had said giving me some leeway, “but lets be for the same team Mommy, OK?”

Johnny wore his baseball mitt the whole four-hour drive from Connecticut to Cooperstown, reading Sports Illustrated for Kids on my ipad, reciting some stats  from the backseat. We drove down one-lane roads, through small towns – Cobleskill and Broome, past Hubcap Heaven and the Cob Knob Driving Range, ramshackle houses pinpointing the start of another town.

When we arrived in Cooperstown, we parked near the batting range then walked through low hanging fog down Main Street, past rickety shops that displayed baseball memorabilia in dusty windows. I gave Johnny quarters for bat-shaped gumballs. We reached the Hall of Fame and started our tour on the second floor watching a 10-minute movie in the Grand Stand Theater, which was made to look like Comiskey Park, complete with stadium seating. The show ended with images of baseball cards projected onto the ceiling. My son looked up, his mouth wide, and I imagined my father looking down at him. I felt a combined love for my son and my father at the same time.

My father loved baseball season, and it was baseball season now. Johnny’s Little League had started and I volunteered to be the “lady coach” as the boys called me.  I had stood on the field with twelve 3rd graders wondering why I took this position, but I knew like so many things, I did it for my father, because he had been a coach and taught me what I know about throwing a baseball and keeping both hands down for grounders. And maybe Dad could see me, and my son, together on the field.

After going through 200 years of baseball history in the museum we went down to the official Hall of Fame on the first floor where Johnny raced to find the bronze plaques for his favorite inductees. I took three photos of him in his Yankee Cap next to Babe Ruth’s plaque. After, we went to the gift shop and I bought baseball bat pens for our Little League team and spoiled my son with pennants, pencils and so many packs of baseball cards.

Back at the hotel, Johnny, the only 9-year-old I know who watches ESPN, turned on the TV and opened his baseball cards, praying for Babe Ruth. “Will Grampy be in one of these packs?” he asked, just to please me. The first pack was all duplicates of cards he already had, same with the second and third packs; mostly dupes. “I’ll trade them,” he said, trying to stay hopeful, and I knew I’d be the lucky recipient. I’d long taken to trading baseball cards with my son as a pastime.

Johnny saved the World Series pack until last, frantic for Babe Ruth. He stopped mid-flip. There was Babe, in his Yankee uniform. Johnny looked at the card, it seemed too much for him. He separated Babe from the pack, laid him on the table and took a photo of the card with my camera. I congratulated Johnny on his good luck. It seemed, even with all the museum attractions, this moment with the Babe Ruth card was the highlight of his trip.

“Time to go to the pool,” I said.

“I can’t leave,” Johnny said. “Someone might take my baseball card.”

“Lets keep it in the gift shop bag,” I said, holding the bag open. But he secured the card in a sheath of plastic that had been wrapped around the hotel glasses, and brought his treasure to the pool. Shirtless, in his bathing suit and baseball cap, the two of us took the elevator down. I sang Take Me out to the Ballgame and Johnny sang parts along with me, raising his fingers for the one, two three strikes you’re out refrain.

That night Johnny slept with Babe Ruth under his pillow. I had a dream about my father. Unlike most of the dreams I had of Dad, where he is nettled with tubes as he had been in his final days, in this dream Dad was young and strong in his Red Sox uniform, just like the photo I keep of him on my desk.

In the dream, my father and I played three-way catch with Johnny in the backyard. “Our boy can throw Martie,” my father said, calling me by the nickname he gave me, which I’ve not heard since he died. The dream was so real it was hard for me to wake into the new day; my head foggy, I saw the outline of my son in his Yankee pajamas asleep on the bed next to me, and swore I saw my father there too.