The Summer of Rachel

The Summer of Rachel

photo-1421986527537-888d998adb74By Barbara Solomon Josselsohn

The Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

You wonder what the universe has to say about that.

The Boyfriend

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

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

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

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

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

“When would we go?”

“Saturday morning. We leave at 9:30.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you have to do?” you ask.

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

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

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

You could ask for that little girl.

But you won’t find her. She’s gone.

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

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

Shopping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Final Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodnight, Mommy. I love you.

The Last Goodbye

And then she’s gone.

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

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

And then you say goodbye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Photo: Unsplash

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Breathing Under Water

Breathing Under Water

ART Submerged

By Sarah Bousquet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beach Days

Beach Days

Art Beach Days

By Sarah Bousquet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Mother’s Garden

A Mother’s Garden

Art My Mother's Garden

By Sarah Bousquet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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The Grass Is Always Greener

The Grass Is Always Greener

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

By Nancy Brier

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issues in Backyard Gardening

Issues in Backyard Gardening

Senior woman checking on her raised vegetable food garden

By Emily Franklin

There was something desperate about zucchinis. How they protruded from the stalks in such an obvious and forthright manner, demanding to be picked and huddled en masse in the empty, shallow basket Faulkner carries now, waiter-fashion on one hand. She’d convinced Zvi to organize raised beds for her, worried about growing anything directly in the yard soil because they’d found old gas tanks during the surveying and what with all of the environmental hazards of plants sucking up everything around them, it was just safer, Faulkner felt, to have a dedicated space.Zvi’s math ability only exacerbated his missing social skills, but they came in handy for measuring square beds, rigging up string on stakes evenly so the crook-necked squash had something to lean on and the zucchini plants had enough space to unfurl. Courgette, baby marrow, zucchini, however they were listed in the seed catalogues, their yield was too much.

“In terms of the quantity produced per plant, you have to admit these are impressive,” Faulkner says, thinking if there were a snapshot of her in the garden with her friend right now, it could be in a magazine – accompanied by a healthy recipe or an ad for some medication aimed at women.

“Are you falling prey to that stereotype?” Delilah asks. “Loony vegetable growers who hand out courgettes to everyone they’ve ever met?” She touches the soft nasturtiums Faulkner had planted as a companion plant for the zucchini. The flowers distracted aphids and flea beetles from bothering the squash, protected them just by growing there at the edge of the beds.

“For starters, I’m not… loony. Also, I could sell them, I guess, if no one was interested.” She could set up a farm stand by the driveway’s end; flag down people with her buckets of vegetables or just leave them unattended with a note and a pay box, trusting people not to take what wasn’t theirs.

“Is this one ready?” Delilah asks, parting two wide leaves with her foot.

Faulkner shakes her head. “Not quite.”

It is more than ready, gaudy even, but Faulkner thinks her daughter Charlotte should get to pick it later, paw through the garden at night the way she liked to, looking to see what had grown where when she wasn’t looking.

The zucchini’s yellow flowers started out innocently enough, delicate and soft. But if Faulkner didn’t pay attention, Charlotte would pick the blossoms, dip them in egg and bread crumbs and fry them up as a snack for Zvi as he graded papers or studied symbols and formulae that sat there silent on the page, speaking only to him. You had to wait for the squash to start growing before you picked the blossom or the thing would die, but Charlotte often forgot, so Faulkner kept a careful eye.

“I’ll have to make multiple loaves of bread,” she says to Delilah, who has stopped by under the pretense of wanting any extra vegetables but is really there to check up on her friend after the latest miscarriage. The last one, Zvi had told Delilah. Last. Not only because Faulkner is now forty-six and Zvi’s sperm are, as the doctor had said, low-quality, but because it isn’t good for them anymore, this high-speed chase toward fertilization, creation.

“I love your zucchini bread,” Delilah says, watching Faulkner crouch in the prickly green to twist a heavy, speckled green squash from the vine. Faulkner was careful to line the zucchini up, each one nestled in the basket, facing the same way, long or squat, mouthless alligators.

“The trick is applesauce, right?” Faulkner stands up, holding the basket with both arms circling it now as though it were something much larger. “You can’t just pour a whole bunch of oil and sugar in and hope for the best. The key is starting with the good stuff. The absolute freshest ingredients. And then you substitute applesauce for half the oil.” Faulkner’s coarse red hair blows into her eyes and she uses a forearm to wipe it away. “But I’ve told you this already, haven’t I?”

Delilah nods. Faulkner’s chest is still big, she notices, even though it had been a month or so. How long had it taken last time for her to get back to normal size? Two months, maybe. Delilah had been the one to find her, napping on the sun porch, unaware of the blood around her. “I have time,” Delilah tells her, “If you want me to help grate after this.”

Faulkner shrugs as though she could take it or leave it when in fact she knows she has to get Delilah out of here so the plan isn’t ruined. “You know, I think I’ll leave these for tonight. Charlotte can help after play practice.”

Delilah scripts a text to Zvi in her mind. She seems fine, actually. Not overdoing it. The fact that Faulkner was going to do errands was a good sign; productive, not avoiding being out in public for fear someone would ask when she was due, not knowing that she would never be due again. She looks better, hair neat enough, in her own shirt not one of Zvi’s, the buttons correctly aligned.

Inside the house, Faulkner puts the basket on the counter next to the phone. The landline barely rang anymore; she and Charlotte and Zvi all had their own phones, but there was the message pad ready and waiting, a symbol of yesteryear with its sturdy connected pages, While You were Out written in jaunty blue script on the top of each one. Faulkner sets the squash one by one into a dented metal colander in the sink, water sloshing over the tops.

Delilah crosses her arms. “I thought you were going to leave them for later?”

This startles Faulkner as though she’s been caught doing something tawdry and she can feel the blush creep across her neck onto her collarbone. “Oh, right! I just…” she notices the numbers scrawled on the message pad, and though she realizes they would be as mute to Delilah as Zvi’s discrete math is to her, she flips it over when she turns the water off.

Delilah’s phone buzzes and when she’s busy scrolling, Faulkner slips the message pad under a dishtowel and puts the wet zucchini on top. Faulkner imagines each green body with a tiny knitted newborn cap on top, the ones prisoners made when they weren’t pressing license plates. Yellow raisins for eyes, a slip of red pepper for the mouth. It was like other project sshe thought about doing with Charlotte but never did; Charlotte was like her father, existing less in her body and hands than tucked into a room in her mind, a place Faulkner couldn’t visit.

“Look,” Faulkner says to no one but herself though Delilah assumes it’s to her, “It’s a zucchini person dancing.” She makes the longest, slimmest squash stand upright, twisting her wrist so the thing can-cans across the counter.

Delilah texts while she nods. “It’s a regular zucchini kick-line. You should start a blog. Dances with Vegetables.”

Faulkner laughs. What if she did? What if, right then, she filmed herself and made a cast of characters, suave Mr. Leek with his smarmy goatee asking how may I be of assistance, dowdy Mrs. Eggplant calling all the way from Sweden with good news. She mentions these to Delilah who adds a few more and they banter back and forth, all the while Delilah relieved, her shoulders sagging because here is the offbeat friend she made when Charlotte and Lucinda were in pre-school, before the miscarriage madness took hold, back when having one child was really enough for both of them.

“You’re doing great,” Delilah smiles, car keys ringed on her thumb. “Is there anything else you need?”

Faulkner shakes her head as she stands on tiptoe to reach the grater on one of the open shelves. She needs a stool or to prop herself up on the counter for access but she refuses. Isn’t that just like her? So single-minded no matter what she was doing – writing a grant, making plum jam, darning Zvi’s socks even though no one darned anymore. So methodical in her actions, sure that if she breathed deeply and just kept at it she’d eventually get what she wanted.

Delilah remembers when the girls had an assignment in third grade. Describe someone at home. It was a grammar unit, adjectives, and while most kids had written fluffy, nice, cuddly for their pets or nice, smart, tall for their fathers, Charlotte had carefully printed freckled, determined, not really there. This last one the teacher had crossed out and written absent, which mortified Faulkner on Parent Night but she was visibly pregnant then so other parents around her gave knowing nods as though they understood. “Anyway, you seem good.”

“I am,” Faulkner says. “Really.”

She eyes the clock. The delivery guy would be here any moment and who knows what the package would look like. Would its shape reveal anything? Would some telling words be stamped on the box – refrigerate or keep cool, as if that were at all possible when something as ridiculous as sperm was on its way to her front door. How ridiculous was that? And even more absurd that Charlotte had been the one to show her the sites – proving that you really could Google and then order anything. And now, seventy-two hours later, medical supplies stored in Faulkner’s rubber rain boots, the little paisley creatures were en route, ready.

“You know,” Faulkner says, “There’s a new vegan place in the Highlands.”

Delilah claps her hands. “Great! Let’s go there. Right now. What do you say?”

What could she say? That she’d mentioned it hoping Delilah would scurry off to find tempeh or coconut-coated tofu and maybe even meet Zvi there? How perfect would that be? Her friend and her lousy-spermed husband meeting behind her back ostensibly to confer about Faulkner’s well-being but really wanting to go down on each other under the organic spread. “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly. I just…actually, now that I’m thinking of it…I could use a nap.”

“And lunch. A girl needs her lunch. You have to eat, Annie,” Delilah blurts out, almost angry. Faulkner glares at her. “Faulkner. Sorry. I slipped. How about I bring it back?”

Where was Zvi when she needed him to calculate time with distance with sperm delivery? “I have leftovers. Curried cauliflower soup.” Faulkner pauses. “But not a huge amount,” she adds just in case it sounds like she means you stay here when in fact she is close to pushing Delilah through the closed screen door, can actually imagine the sound it would make, her friend’s face tearing through the weak metal mesh.

“Fine. If you don’t want me here, just say,” Delilah sighs.

Maybe Faulkner wasn’t doing as well as she’d thought. Look at the frantic way she was lining up the smaller zucchini. Or was she organizing them by size, littlest to big? The largest one really did look like an overweight man, a grandfather with pants jacked up way over his belly.

One yellow squash tumbles onto the floor and Delilah bends down for it, noting for the first time that Annie has socks on. Had she worn them outside? She still thought of Faulkner as Annie though she’d gone to her middle name a few years back after the particularly far-along pregnancy that had ended with a hospital stay. “It just suits me better,” Faulkner had explained in a whisper at Charlotte’s play. They’d all gone, sat through nearly three hours of A Midsummer Night’s Dream even though Charlotte wasn’t on stage. Running the lightboard was just as important she’d explained to her mother, everyone depends on you.

“Don’t be silly!” Faulkner keeps the panic from her voice by listing all the items she’ll make from what she picked. Cranberry-zucchini loaf, zucchini-cheddar beer bread, miniature muffins patted with brown sugar streusel.   That was the best part of gardening, having all of it brought inside when it started from nothing, just tiny flecks in your palm. So much possibility right there in the sink or displayed in the yellow and white striped bowl, snug against the fridge.

“I’m grateful, Delilah, really,” Faulkner says and it comes out in a whisper. “It’s just, with Zvi’s end of term stuff and taking Charlotte back and forth to practice and the…dog? Did I tell you we’re thinking of getting a rescue?”

Finally, she’s getting somewhere. Delilah cranes her neck forward. “I knew it. Haven’t I been saying for years? Pets are companions. They seriously are.” Delilah jingles the car keys and takes a few tentative steps toward the door. “Wow. How fun. And it’s the right time of year for it.”

Why did people always say that? Was there a correct season for puppies or babies or quitting your job or selling your house or anything? But Faulkner nods to display her enthusiasm. “Yes. Easy to train outside.”

“Although…” Delilah’s phone sounds again. “If it’s a rescue it might already be trained.”

“True.”

Delilah unwinds her thoughts, looking not just at Faulkner’s busy hands, but also checking around the kitchen for anything amiss. Wasn’t that what Zvi had said, just a general feeling that things were out of place? As though Faulkner were a closet or a silverware drawer sorted by someone unfamiliar with where everything went? “Nicola Battersby got a nine-month old lab-Rotty mix and…well, let’s just say it didn’t end happily.”

“Meaning?” Faulkner questions. Jesus would this woman ever leave? How could she force her? Or should she tie her to one of the high-backed kitchen chairs? Hold her hostage and insist she sample every single baked good made from this morning’s haul?

“Meaning you don’t know what you’re getting. That’s the thing about these shelter dogs. And you have Charlotte.”

“She’s fifteen.”

“Still.”

Faulkner’s breath is fast, her fingers shaking as she steadies the grater inside a large Tupperware container where she’ll store the zucchini. She can hear the clock ticking, the sprinkler hissing at her from outside, Delilah’s phone buzzing again.

Delilah meets her friend’s gaze and gives her a toothless smile as though they’d met a long time ago and couldn’t for the life of them remember where. Faulkner’s arms are in turnstile position, encouraging her friend to exit.

Delilah gives a quick kiss that lands near Faulkner’s ear, the smell of her vanilla shampoo sad and overly sweet, and walks slowly to the door. Faulkner busies herself with the zucchini, getting out muffin tins and milk, pulling the bluff along until Delilah is safely outside and in the driveway near her minivan.

Faulkner’s just about to put the milk away and clean up her pretense when she hears it – the crunch of wheels on the crushed shell driveway.

Her stomach clenches and she grins, bolting to the side door to meet the truck halfway.   She runs outside, forgetting that the sprinkler is on, and sops through the wet grass to the sharp broken shells only to find that the truck is pulling away. Frantic now, and running, Faulkner looks to see if the driver has left a box anywhere. Or a tube. It could be a tube of sperm sheathed in a bigger tube. Surely not an envelope?

But the front of the house is bare. The side of the house has nothing. Ahead on the road, Delilah, in her car, not even looking back as Faulkner limp-runs to the end of the driveway.

Faulkner knows it’s over. That Delilah will somehow have talked her way into intercepting the package. That Zvi might already have found the syringes. That Charlotte, bless her heart, probably hadn’t told anybody anything but would in a court of law because she was just that patriotic. And Charlotte would have to supply details; how they would have done it at night, in the bathroom. One leg propped up on the tub. Made it clinical. And how Charlotte thought this might solve everything, make her mother happy or maybe love her more. Just to do this for her. After all, hadn’t Faulkner explained it that way? You’ll give this to me like I gave life to you. It had made sense then in the dark of the theatre after practice one day, the lightboard spaceship-wide around them, transporting them to a planet where it was natural for a teenage girl to carry a child for her mother.

Faulkner goes back to the kitchen, looks at the milk sweating in its glass bottle. As she stands there, her thick cotton socks damp with regret, she sees the mess of vegetables for what they are. Not characters or potential bread products to be tucked into lunches for children she doesn’t have, but mute green exclamation points, each one clean and ready to be made into something else entirely.

Emily Franklin’s work has been published in the New York Times, Mississippi Review, Monkeybicycle, Word Riot, Post Road, featured on National Public Radio, and long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.

Flash Fiction: Motherhood is Natural

Flash Fiction: Motherhood is Natural

 

ussr-young-mothers-talking-near-a-fountain-at-a-park-ek3h74By Erika Murdey

Jill sits on a park bench at the fountain to rest her feet—she finds it harder to move in her fifth month of pregnancy. She had needed to get out of the house, to enjoy the sunshine and warmth. Other women sit around the fountain too: a woman in a blue skirt with a baby, a woman with red hair who looks eighteen months pregnant, and a woman in a yellow dress cuddling her own infant.

Beside her, the woman in the blue skirt takes a bite of her sandwich, chews it for a moment, and plucks the soggy lump out of her mouth and stuffs it past her baby’s lips.

“Oh, are you baby-birding?” the woman with red hair asks.

The blue-skirted woman smiles. “Yes, it lets my darling Juniper experience new flavors and textures.”

“How delightful!” the woman in the yellow dress says.

“I love it too. Such a natural experience for the baby. Maple loves to baby-bird, doesn’t she?” the red haired woman says to her stomach. Jill starts when a small white face pops out of the woman’s belly, skin damp, red hair plastered to its skull.

“You’re kangarooing?” asks Blue Skirt.

“Yes, I had a pouch cut into my abdomen right after she was born. It gives her the comfort of being in the womb, and she always feels close to me.”

“I did too!” says Yellow Dress. She then lays her infant on the towel-covered park bench. “So much nicer than pushing my little Boxelder around in a buggy. Those things are always being recalled.” The women shudder together; Jill tries to muster a small shake of her shoulders to fit in. Yellow Dress strips the infant of clothes, then diaper. The full diaper disappears into a plastic bag. Jill watches as the woman proceeds to lick the baby clean.

“Kittening?” Blue Skirt asks. Yellow Dress pauses to wipe a greenish-brown streak from her mouth and nods. “I kitten my baby too, but I wonder if it’s too late to kangaroo her?”

“Hard to say,” Red Hair says. “I wouldn’t imagine so. Though if you had wanted to cichlid your child, then it would be too late.”

“Cichliding? I never heard of that.”

“My friend had it done before her baby was born. She made the doctors unhinge her jaw when she discovered she was pregnant so the skin of her face could stretch. Now she carries little California Redwood in her mouth wherever she goes.”

Yellow Dress stops for a moment and claps her hands together, “Marvelous!” Her baby raises its glistening arms as though to fend off the next approach of the pink tongue.

Jill shifts on the bench. “I was thinking of suggesting Sea Horsing to my husband.”

The three women jerk their heads towards her, eyes wide. “What is Sea Horsing?’

“You know, like how with sea horses the male carries the eggs to term? I bet he’d fall flat to the floor if I mentioned it.”

Red Hair sniffs. Yellow Dress raises her eyebrows. Blue Skirt says slowly, “I never heard of Sea Horsing.”

“It’s not a real thing,” Jill says, “I was joking. But didn’t you wish sometimes, when you were feeling all sick and huge, that your husband was the pregnant one?”

The three women turn away, whispering among themselves. Jill sits for another minute, listening to the crashing water of the fountain, before walking home.

 

Erika Murdey is a student of the Central Michigan University MA program in English Language and Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing. No human children, but more fur-babies than any reasonable person could be expected to count.

 

Lessons

By Laura Lassor

I’m driving to swimming lessons.
Late afternoon, summer.
When I think of it now, everything slows
and the sun drips like syrup.

The windows are down,
the day whooshing against our skin.
My son wants to know so many things.
He tries,”You stopped growing, Mom.
So you aren’t getting older anymore.”

We’ve just passed the iron fence of the cemetery.
He is five and knows and doesn’t know
what is sunk below rolling lawn, gracious rows of etched stone.

My voice corrects him: “No, I am getting older,”
but now we are curving past the lake,
where sails sway red and yellow, and if time
could stretch it might be here, in the shallows
where kids’ slick heads bob among the boats
like shiny toys strewn.

Next he asks me, “What’s invisible?”
I say oxygen. He says carbon dioxide.
I say love. He says germs.

The cars flow like rainwater.
There is so much to explain.
I talk about microscopes,
the difference between invisible
and too-small-to-see.
He is happy. He trusts in a machine
or a medicine for everything.

Then we’re at the pool,
and he’s immersed, shivering.
His small limbs won’t surrender
to his idea that he’ll float.
He kicks, coughs, and
behind goggles half-filled with water,
he finds me.

I am on my folding chair, looking back.
There are so many ways we are helpless.
There are so many afternoons like this
invisibly nudging us forward.

Laura Lassor is a lawyer, writer and improvisational parent living in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband Joel and her two sons, Clark and David.

Return to the October 2015 Issue

Clam Chowder Memories

Clam Chowder Memories

100_3816By Vanessa Wamsley

I perched on a porous boulder at the edge of California’s Monterey Bay with my three-year-old son, Brad. The September sun warmed our backs – local’s weather, as it is fondly called, when the summer rain and mist lift after the tourist season quiets down. A huge Styrofoam cup balanced on the rock between Brad and me. We took turns spooning out thick, creamy clam chowder, blowing to cool each bite.

Clam chowder was my son’s favorite food back then, and we visited the Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf every Monday morning for a year to share a cup of chowder, our weekly ritual while his dad was at work. Just my son and I on the rocks. But we were a nomadic military family. We would be leaving Monterey and its chowder soon for the East Coast. And like every other move, home would be where the Army sent us.

From our rocky seat near the wharf, we stared down at some sea lions floating together in the shallow water. Their sleek rich coats shone in the sunshine. Pelagic cormorants, black and shiny as patent leather, preened in the sparkling water before suddenly turning tail-up to dive after a darting fish. Brad pointed out a slick sea otter floating on its back under the pier, hacking a clam open with a small rock.

I lifted another spoonful to my lips. The salty, bacon-laden chowder tasted of sunshine, seawater, and tender clams. I would miss that chowder when we moved. Brad and I belonged in that place with our soup and the salt air and the marine wildlife. Would we belong in our new home, too?

Our family moved six months after that day on the rocks. But that would be just one in a series of moves since I met and married my husband Jake in 2004 while he was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. In the last ten years, we’ve lived in Texas, Alabama, Illinois, California, Maryland, and Virginia, where we live now – that is, until we move to Alabama again this summer. All of these moves have addled my sense of where I belong in this world, even though I have roots like a cottonwood tree reaching deep into the small Nebraska town where I grew up. But I wonder where Brad belongs. His roots might be shallow after all our transplants, and I am afraid they are too weak to support him as he goes through life.

***

Three years and two moves after Monterey, in October of 2014, I took Brad, then six years old, camping at Assateague Island National Seashore off the coast of Maryland, a mother-son camping trip. While I was preparing for the trip, Brad overheard me tell his dad that we could find clams right off the island.

“We have to go clamming, Mama! Please, please, please, please!” he begged, hopping from one leg to the other.

“I’ll look into it,” I promised.

“And we’ll make chowder, right?” he asked.

“Um, sure,” I answered.

I didn’t know what I was promising since I had never been clamming. But I wanted to give Brad good chowder again. In the three years since we left Monterey, I had tried to make his favorite dish a few times. But my chowder never reminded me of the sea on a sunny day. It tasted more like a muddled lake in the rain, a poor imitation of the chowder my son and I ate on those rocks next to Fisherman’s Wharf. I suspected that canned clams had ruined my previous attempts to recreate the Fisherman’s Wharf chowder. Fresh clams could be the answer.

Two months after promising my son clam chowder, we went clamming on Assateague Island. We rented equipment and got basic clamming instructions from a man at the rental shed on the beach. The rental man handed me a clam rake and a basket.

He told me to look for a spot with a nice mix of plants and sand covering the bottom. Too many plants would tangle up the rake. Too much sand meant the nutrient mixture in that area wasn’t right for clams. He stepped out onto the beach to demonstrate how to drag the rake behind us.

“When you hear a clink,” he said, “you’ve hit a clam.”

I imagined us shuffling around in the cold October water for an hour, struggling with the long, heavy clam rake. I pictured opening the canned clams I’d brought so we could make chowder even if we failed at clamming. This chowder might taste like disappointment, I thought.

We carried our equipment to the edge of the marsh about 100 yards from our campsite on the western side of the island. Rake and basket in tow, we waded into knee-deep cold water – almost waist-deep for my son.

Assateague Island is a 37-mile long barrier island between Sinepuxent Bay and the Atlantic, one in a chain of islands draped along the East Coast like a long string of beads from Maine to Texas. As wind, waves and storms constantly buffet the chain, the sand on one beach slides to the next island, a process called longshore drift. Each island constantly moves south, its sand no more a part of any one place than Brad or I was. We visited, we drifted along the island’s surface, and we moved on.

At my feet, the deep blue bay flowed into vivid green cordgrass. Salt marsh stretched back into the island for about fifty yards before hitting a bank that rose up into a forest. Loblolly pine trees reached gnarled branches over a thicket of wax myrtle and bayberry.

We dragged our rented rake and floating basket behind us with the edge of the marsh on our right.

When we stopped and the water cleared, we could see our toes wiggling. My toes looked just like they did under the clear sapphire-blue water in Monterey Bay when Brad and I used to wade in the surf. But Brad’s toes seemed to have doubled in size in three years. He wasn’t a toddler running from the waves anymore. He had grown into an inquisitive boy.

Around our feet under the brackish water off Assateague Island, small patches of plants clung to the sand around us, just like the rental man had described. My son pointed out little holes on the bay floor. He claimed the holes meant crabs were filter feeding under the sand.

“It’s the perfect spot!” Brad said.

We crisscrossed the area, the rake leaving ridges behind us in the sand like those Zen sand boxes some people groom in their offices. Clink! Brad and I sank our fingers into the sand, feeling blindly for pay dirt. Or pay clam. My fingers curled around something flat and hard, a clam the size of my palm, almost two inches thick. We leapt in the water, nearly soaking ourselves in our enthusiasm. A pair of kayakers decked out in jackets, paddling gloves, and thick hats stopped at the mouth of an inlet in the marsh to watch us, the lone clammers wading through 65-degree water on a chilly fall day.

“It’s our first clam!” I shouted to them, sharing our exultation. “Ever!” They laughed and saluted with their paddles.

Excited by our success, we covered the area in rake tracks. We found a couple more clams but threw them back because they were too small. A keeper has to be at least one inch thick. We decided to try another method the rental shack man told us about: searching with our bare feet. Removing our shoes, we threw them into the clam bucket and ground our heels into the muddy sand, twisting like Chubby Checker.

“Feel for a rock with your toes,” I told Brad. We added a couple more clams to the bucket and returned a couple more to their sandy bed.

After nearly an hour of dragging the rake and squishing our feet around in the sand, nine good-sized clams, each a triumphant treasure, lay in the bottom of the clam basket.

We waded back to the shore. I could taste the chowder already.

Back at the campsite, I scrubbed the ridged shells and laid them gently in my cast iron Dutch oven on our camp stove. After pouring in a little water, I lit the gas flame to steam open the clams. Remembering the sea otters in Monterey Bay smashing their shellfish open with a rock, I was glad I wouldn’t have to resort to their technique.

While the clams steamed, Brad and I put on dry clothes. Then I chopped an onion, a leek, and three potatoes.

I checked the clams. All were yawning wide, revealing tender white meat the shell once protected. I transferred them with their liquid into a pitcher to cool and tossed butter into the now-empty kettle. When the butter sizzled, the onions and leeks went into the pot.

I chose a cooled clam from the pitcher, its delicate morsel still clinging to the pearly inner surface of the shell. I had never cleaned fresh clams before, and their tenderness surprised me even as their slipperiness made them difficult to handle.

With pride and hope, I chopped my nine clammy trophies and slid them into the pot along with the broth left from steaming open the clams.

My potatoes went in next. The clam broth barely covered the white cubes. I left the chowder to bubble.

While the potatoes cooked, I built up our campfire. The coals had been smoldering all day, so a few dry twigs under a pyramid of logs started a blaze. Our campsite filled with the scent of our chowder mixed with the salty air blowing in from the bay and the wood smoke wafting from the campfire.

Another camper walked by our site.

“You from Texas?” he asked, eyeing the license plate on our pickup.

“No,” I answered. “We live in Reston, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. We just moved there.”

The man sauntered on, satisfied.

But the real answer was more complicated.

I grew up in an agricultural town – population 244, depending on who is home on any given day – in rural southwestern Nebraska. I changed bedrooms once, but lived in the same house for eighteen years before I graduated from high school and moved away to college. As a child, I knew I belonged to Hayes Center, Nebraska. No matter where we live now, rural Nebraskan culture still shapes how I move in the world. At thirty-two years old, I haven’t lived in Hayes Center for fourteen years. But I drink pop instead of soda and cheer for my home state’s Cornhuskers. I clip my words when I speak, and I still gawk at tall buildings and marvel at public transportation. I breathe more easily under a clear blue open sky. Hayseed grows in my heart.

Since marrying a man in the Army, I haven’t stopped moving. But I am from Nebraska.

Brad was born in a hospital in Iowa, so even though we never lived there, he often tells people he is from Iowa. What else is he supposed to say? He has lived many places. He doesn’t really belong to any one of them the way I belong to Nebraska.

I want what every mother wants for her son: I want him to grow into a happy, healthy, well-adjusted, productive man. But I worry that Brad cannot be any of those things unless I give him more time to live in one place, letting the rhythms of its people and landscape sink into him.

***

Back at our campsite, I checked a potato in my chowder pot, and it nearly dissolved under my fork. Perfect. I turned off the camp stove burner and added the final touch to the pot: heavy cream.

While I worked, a small group of Assateague’s famous horses with their shaggy coats, stocky stature, and bloated bellies wandered toward our campsite. As the horses drew closer, my son became nervous and hid in the pickup cab. A park ranger had told him that in the summer during high tourist season, a horse bites at least one visitor every week. The feral animals protect their territory and their food.

Clicking my tongue and banging an empty cup against a plate, I tried to shoo the horses away from our site. They eyed me warily and moved on.

I ladled chowder into two blue enamel bowls while Brad hovered near my elbow, excited for his favorite meal. We perched on our camp chairs next to the fire and savored a moment of anticipation before tasting the chowder.

“Cheers!” I said, raising my bowl.

“Cheers!” he echoed, touching his bowl against mine.

I grinned at him, my spoon to my lips.

Salty clams and broth mingled in my mouth with velvety potatoes melting into rich cream. Savory onions and leeks lingered at the edges of my tongue. The simple ingredients melded like ripples merging to form waves.

I’ll never cook with a can of rubbery, watery clams again as long as I live.

“How’s your chowder?” I asked Brad.

“It’s the best I ever had! The best chowder anyone ever made ever!” He was as enthusiastic as I felt.

We ate in silence. Finally, I leaned back in my camp chair, having eaten more creamy clammy goodness than my stomach could bear. The fire snapped and crackled. I sipped a beer.

Brad groaned. “I’m so full, Mama,” he told me. “I can’t move.”

He threw his head back and closed his eyes. I let a lazy, satisfied sleepiness creep into my body.

Soon I would have to clean up our dishes. The fire needed another log. Our wet, sandy clamming clothes lay in a pile next to our tent. Always little chores at a campsite. But for a few comfortable moments, I just sat by the fire next to my son with a belly full of clam chowder.

My mind drifted back to another clam chowder day, the two of us balanced on a boulder next to the bay savoring a shared cup of chowder. What makes us belong to a place even when we live a rootless, nomadic existence, like the sand that blows across Assateague Island? In that moment by our campfire, smoky, creamy clam chowder memories anchored us to both the East Coast and the West Coast. My young son’s adventures bring a perspective to his life that my small-town upbringing could never have encompassed. Brad’s roots may be shallow, but they already stretch from coast to coast, held to the earth by the breadth of his experience rather than the amount of time he has lived in any one place.

Tucking the fireside chowder memory away next to the seaside one, I pulled myself out of my camp chair. I arranged our empty clamshells on a log next to the fire like someone else might display awards on a shelf.

We caught them. We cooked them. And they were good.

Author’s Note: I pass my children pieces of my childhood by experiencing the world with them, just like my mom and dad did for me

Vanessa Wamsley writes science, nature and education stories in northern Alabama where she lives with her husband, Jake; son, Brad; and daughter, Nora. Her recent work has appeared in Slate, Modern Notion, and The Atlantic.

 

My Bikini Body

My Bikini Body

By Jennifer Berney

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In front of the dressing room mirror, I tried to decide between two versions of the same swimsuit: the one-piece or the bikini.

The one-piece resembled the swimsuits that both my mother and grandmother wore throughout my childhood, the kind of suit that safely covers the entire bottom, and ruffles at the hips, the kind of suit that knows how to keep a secret.

But the bikini—a modest two-piece that still secured me in important places—made me feel like a different person, one who loved her belly well enough to show it a little sunlight, one who didn’t need to hide. That was the person I wanted to be.

In the thirty-eight years that I’ve been alive, I’ve spent at least thirty-two of them looking down, sucking it in, wishing the fat away. The summer of my first grade year I would snack out of boredom and then do leg lifts on the floor of the living room, trying to burn off the calories I’d just consumed.

But no matter what I tried over the years, I never achieved flatness, and as I approached thirty my belly began to grow undeniably round. Each night when I stepped out of the shower and leaned over to dry my legs, the fat on my belly gathered and hung.

Two pregnancies simply sped the process my body had begun on its own. These days, weight-loss ads in my Facebook feed often feature a belly that looks alarmingly like mine, one that sags a bit over the waistline. Their message is clear: a belly like mine must be tamed.

I bought the bikini. It was the first I’d ever owned. The first time I wore it out, I was on a road trip with my sons. On a Saturday in July, after helping my kids into their swim trunks and life vests, I ducked into the motel bathroom, put the thing on, and looked in the mirror. Viewed from the side, I looked about five months pregnant. As I walked to the pool, I wondered how likely it was that another motel patron would ask when I was due.

As it turned out, we had the pool to ourselves. There were no other eyes to assess me. I could have relaxed, but I didn’t. Instead I stood around feeling awkward, trying to straighten anytime I stooped, to tuck anytime I sagged. My six-year-old practiced his cannonballs. My two-year-old splashed on the first step and pointed to the deep end.

“Do you want me to swim?” I asked him.

“Yeah.” He nodded.

I jumped in. I swam away from him, into the deep end, my arms spreading through the water, carrying me forward, my torso and legs floating and gliding, buoyant. I could hear my son’s voice behind me, reminding me “So deep, Mommy; so deep!” The pool was a small one. It only took me five strokes to reach the other side, but when I turned around, the look on my toddler’s face was unmistakable: it was the look of total adoration, the kind of love I’d spent a lifetime seeking.

My older son noticed and laughed. “He thinks you’re Aquaman or something.”

“Mommy, swim!” my younger son commanded me, over and over, until my fingers had pruned and I shivered. I wrapped myself in a towel and led the boys back to our room.

That night as I fell asleep in the motel bed, I remembered my son’s awestruck gaze and turned it over in my mind. I wondered how anyone could love me with so much enthusiasm. I thought about what he had seen in me—the same smoothness and the strength I felt while gliding through the water.

To my sons, I am not the sum of my parts, the balance that remains once you subtract all my physical flaws. My six-year-old doesn’t love me any less for my acne. My two-year-old doesn’t wish I’d lose twenty pounds. When they look at me they don’t assess me, they love me.

To assess and to love are, I’m learning, verbs that are mutually exclusive. To assess something is to step away from loving it, to decide—from a distance—what has value and what is worthless.

When you love something, you are right up next to it, inside it, you are it. When one of my children coughs my own throat tickles. In the middle of the night, when my little one calls for me and I settle beside him, our breathing finds the same rhythm. When my son watched me swim that afternoon he was all caught up inside the motion of me, the bigness of me.

If I truly wanted to love myself, I would take a cue from my kids and quit assessing. I wouldn’t look at my body with a stranger’s eyes, I would instead just inhabit it, feel the heat of the sun, the coolness of the water, the strength of my stroke. These are the reminders I will whisper to myself the next time I put on my bikini.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

What a Summer Should Be

What a Summer Should Be

By Jennifer Berney

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Because isn’t it true that on a warm summer evening it’s easy to like whomever you’re with?

 

When I was eight years old, in 1985, summer had long arms. I woke long after the sun had risen to a day that no one had mapped out for me. It was my job to map it, and so I read books, I watched TV, I put an album on the record player and spread out across the floor to listen. And when I got bored of all of these things, I cut through the neighbor’s back yard, walked two houses down, and knocked on my best friend’s door.

Our play dates were never arranged by parents or noted on the family calendar. Instead, they were spontaneous and sprawling: they often lasted for days. After an afternoon of play, as dinnertime approached, and the prospect of separating loomed, we inevitably begged for a sleepover.

My parents, who valued routine, were likely to say, “We didn’t plan for that.” But Alison’s parents—who had once been hippies and had an open door policy—were far more likely to say “Sure.” On one of these summer evenings their yes meant that I traveled with them to a party several towns away.

I had never been to a party that combined adults and children. When my own parents wanted to socialize, they hired a sitter and went out, or invited one or two guests over for dinner. So far the only parties I knew involved balloons, a small group of kids the same age, and a table for carefully wrapped presents, but this party was expansive. Grown-ups spilled out of the house and onto the lawn. Alison and I were instantly absorbed into a group of children. There were about a dozen of us, boys and girls of various ages, most of us unknown to one another. We never learned each other’s names, but we played together, easily, for hours. We played tag and red rover. We found big sticks and explored the nearby creek, balancing on rocks and swatting at mosquitoes. If we had gone to school together, we would have been in different grades and different social groups. At best, these other children would have ignored me at recess; at worst, they would have teased me for my bad haircut and crooked teeth. But that evening we were free from all of that.

Back at the house, grown-ups did whatever grown-ups did at parties. They drank and smoked strange-smelling cigarettes. They grilled meat. They sang and talked and laughed their loud grown-up laughs. By this time I was certain that my own parents were in bed, asleep.

When night descended, darkness drew us kids to the light of the bonfire, where each of us settled between the grown-ups we’d arrived with. On the long drive home, Alison lay across the back seat with her head in my lap while I tracked stars in the clear night sky.

As an adult, I’m surprised by how often I remember this party, which marked a rare moment in my childhood where time and social boundaries were fluid. I think of it every time we assemble on a neighbor’s lawn for a barbecue and my sons join games with children of various ages. On these evenings I note how the teenage boys are tender with the younger kids. They are skilled at adapting games of football and Frisbee to include my six-year-old who still struggles to catch and to throw, and my two-year-old who stands in the middle and lunges.

I think of this party when we visit a friend whose twin granddaughters jump up and down at the sight of my sons, and they all run wild together. They take turns sliding on the Slip n’ Slide. They sprint down the hill and do tricks on the swings. Away from school, my son feels free to play with girls who wear pink, and the girls in turn are happy to spend their afternoon with younger boys who can barely keep up. When children form packs, when their friendships leave the restrictions of gender and age, their play becomes timeless. There is magic in that.

The rest of our summer is often marked by the trappings of our era. We listen to audio books on the iPad, watch movies on Netflix. These days, the parents I know aren’t eager to let their children roam the neighborhood or swap kids for days at a time, and so I arrange play dates for my son via text message and mark them in their box on the calendar.

I’m fond of all our summer days, but it’s expansiveness I crave, the flow state of summer where time melts and boundaries blur, where we disconnect from set schedules and slip into our own rhythms of sleeping, waking, eating, where friends become family and strangers become friends. Because isn’t it true that on a warm summer evening it’s easy to like whomever you’re with?

I seek and savor such moments for my children—the barbecues and long afternoons on the lawn—because their school year is so often composed of compartments, of school days and home days, of dinner before dessert and two books before bed, of play dates and swim lessons and designated screen times. There is no greater joy for me than watching these edges soften, watching my children find their identities spread beyond their daily to-dos and into the wilderness of unstructured time.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Summer of Independence

Summer of Independence

By Zsofia McMullin

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It’s still weird, the silence in the house. I wander around the living room, puttering, putting away toys and books and crayons. I make tea and sit by the kitchen table waiting for the water to boil. I suppress the urge to peek out the front door, walk down our driveway and look across the parking lot to the grassy area where Sam is playing with the neighborhood kids.

It’s a recent development, this sudden burst of independence—last year, at four-and-a-half, he was too young to wander far from our front porch. But this year, it’s a regular occurrence. A couple of kids knock on our door and Sam swooshes past me to put on his sandals, standing still just long enough for me to smear some sunscreen on his neck and face.

He usually returns sweaty and muddy, with the names of new friends and tales of new adventures spilling from his lips, as he chugs ice-cold water and kicks off shoes.

We have our rules: You don’t go into other people’s homes. If you see a gun or anyone playing with a gun, you run home like a motherfucker (we don’t use that word, of course, but in my mind that’s how it goes.) You don’t get into anyone’s car. You don’t accept candy or food or drink without asking me first. You don’t help a stranger look for a puppy or a bike. You don’t go out onto the street.

*   *   *

I always believed that something magical would happen to me during the summer. It was during the summer that I read my first novel cover to cover on a balcony overlooking Lake Balaton in Hungary where we vacationed. It was during summer months that I learned to swim, ride a bike, walked to the grocery store by myself, went to my first rock concert. First time at a bar, first crush, first time holding a boy’s hand, first kiss—all happened during warm, perfumed summer evenings.

I always felt more grown-up once summer came to an end, as if all of my maturing and growing was limited to those few warm months. Once school started and my freedom was taken over by schedules and after-school lessons and homework, it was harder to feel that forward movement, that sense I was really changing.

I see that in Sam, too. We are not even halfway through summer and he’s gotten taller and stronger just over the past few weeks. His skin is darkened from the sun, his knees are scraped and skinned, and his body is filling out with muscles. In May he was a baby. In July he is on his way to being a kindergartener.

I watch him run off with his friends and wonder what kind of magic will happen to him this summer, the next, the one after that, and after that…

*   *   *

“You should take a bath by yourself. You are a big boy now,” my husband tells Sam and instructs him on how to wet washcloth, lather soap, scrub toes and ears. “But I want Mama to give me a bath!” Sam protests and I am right there with him. “What is this hurry with independence?” I ask, only half-joking.

Of course, he has to learn to bathe himself. But not yet. Please not yet. He still has baby thighs and soft skin. I can still kneel next to the tub and let the warm water from the washcloth trickle down his neck, chest, and belly. He still lets me wash his hair, the soft slope of his shoulders, his twig-like arms. He has tiny toes that look like shrimp and when I look at his knees it’s hard to tell what is a bruise and what is dirt.

I am already letting go of so much that it seems impossible to let go of more right now. Especially because he gives this time, this moment of closeness so freely, willingly, giggling as I tickle under his arms and at the bottom of his foot. I towel him off and put lotion on his sun-kissed skin, dress him in soft PJs.

Is there a simpler pleasure than a freshly-bathed, sleepy child?

*   *   *

The day camp where I drop Sam off is new to both of us. It came highly recommended, but I don’t know any of the camp-counselors or the other kids or parents. We get there early and the kids are already gathering on a large, open field.

Sam doesn’t hide behind my back as I talk to the camp counselor—what is she? Nineteen, maybe?—and I can tell that Sam likes her long, dark hair and friendly smile. I stand around for a bit, but Sam is already chatting with another little boy. “So, are you ready for me to go,” I ask after a few minutes. “Yes, go!” he says without even turning around.

I walk back across the field to my car and sit there for a moment, watching as Sam and the other boy chase each other with their bug spray bottles. I want to run back and say, “Be careful! Don’t get that in each other’s eye!” But I stop myself.

I drive off wondering if maybe I have done something right with this parenting thing, after all. Isn’t it a good sign when your child separates from you easily? Doesn’t that mean that he is attached to me, that he feels safe and confident? I think I read that somewhere.

I pull over and inhale my ice coffee to stop myself from breaking out in loud sobs.

*   *   *

During the summer I paint my toes rainbow colors, drink beer on the back porch, eat ice cream every night. I wear pants with elastic waists and slip into comfy flip-flops. I pick up Sam early from daycare so that we can hang by the pool or eat snacks and watch TV on the couch together. I make him lemonade with sun-shaped ice cubes. We stay up late, play with the water hose, plant flowers, eat tomatoes off the vine, roll down the car windows.

*   *   *

From time to time, Sam gets scared of his own independence. He hates the conflict of wanting to do things on his own—tie his shoes, ride his bike—and his inability—as of yet—to do so. “I can’t do anything! I am stupid!” he yells as he tries over and over again. He wants to roam farther afield—walk to Taekwondo class from my car parked a few doors down, ride the tilt-a-whirl alone. But some of these are just too scary, so he returns to my arms sad and disappointed.

That’s when I remind him of all the things he can do by himself, that he couldn’t do before: sit up, walk, talk, chew solid food, pee in the toilet, put on his clothes, make his bed, build with Legos, operate the remote control, play soccer with his buddies.

“It will come,” I tell him. And I want it all to come for him quickly. But I am also secretly thankful every time I have to zip his jacket, because when I bend down to do so he is just at the right height to bury his nose in my hair and whisper: “Mama, you smell so good.”

Zsofia McMullin is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Butter, and several other publications. She blogs at zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.

Photo: gettyimages

Should Young Girls Be Allowed to Wear Bikinis?

Should Young Girls Be Allowed to Wear Bikinis?

Yes!

By Daisy Alpert Florin

485204867-1My nine-year-old daughter, Ellie, is going to sleep away camp this summer, and the packing list calls for four bathing suits, but “no two-pieces.” While I understand the likely reason for this rule—one-piece suits might be more appropriate for active play—it still irritates me because it seems to imply that there is something shameful about young girls wearing bikinis, so much so that they are forbidden.

In our house, bikinis and one-pieces are both suitable choices for swimming. I have purposely not drawn a line between the two because I don’t want Ellie to think there is a big deal about choosing to show more or less of her body. Granted, a string bikini might not be the best choice for swimming or cannonballing into the lake. But a well-fitting two-piece suit that gives her room to play and can easily be pulled down for bathroom breaks—well, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

When Ellie was little, I dressed her in one-piece bathing suits simply because they fit her better. If she wore a two-piece suit, I discarded the top and let her run around in just the bottoms. Putting a bikini top on a pudgy toddler chest seemed impractical to me, but I didn’t have a problem with parents who did. For the most part, I think mothers (and it is usually mothers) have fun dressing up their daughters in tiny versions of their own clothing, be it skinny jeans or bomber jackets or bikinis. I did this to Ellie myself when she was small, but by the time she was four she would have none of that, and I had to respect her decision to dress herself the way that made her most comfortable.

I prefer a bikini to a one-piece suit because I like the way it looks on me, plain and simple, so why should I ask my daughter to do anything different? I trust her internal monitor to signal when something feels right for her, and when it doesn’t. I want Ellie to carry herself without shame, and telling her not to wear a certain article of clothing might suggest that there is something wrong with showing a part of herself. I think there is a fine line between modesty and shame.

When they were first introduced in the 1940s, bikinis—which take their name from the Bikini Atoll, a site of U.S. nuclear testing—were considered dangerous, explosive even. Early in their history, they were banned in several countries and declared sinful by the Vatican. This idea of female sexuality as wild and destabilizing might seem silly to modern sensibilities, but forbidding our young daughters from wearing bikinis seems to be an extension of that kind of thinking.

There is something about girls and their burgeoning sexuality that we as a culture—and as parents—still find threatening. We worry about our girls growing up too fast because we feel there is something scary about female sexuality, and watching them step into that murky landscape terrifies us, when it ought to be something to celebrate. But our daughters don’t stay little girls forever of course, so what’s the tipping point when wearing a bikini is suddenly okay?

Nine years old was the last time for a long while that I saw only the good in my body—its strength, beauty and possibility. At nine, I hadn’t yet started to judge my body against some external ideal. Puberty hit me hard and by thirteen, far from wearing a skimpy bikini, I went to the beach wearing an oversized t-shirt covering my bathing suit. Even then I can remember wanting to go back to the version of myself that still felt beautiful and powerful. Now, at 42, I wear a bikini all summer and try to do it with confidence; I hope it sets a good example for my daughter.

Watching Ellie move through the world without self-consciousness about her body brings me a bittersweet joy. I want to bottle that feeling so she can always access it, opening it every now and then for a whiff. Because I know it doesn’t last. The world is hard for girls that way.

But maybe if Ellie wore a bikini now, those two pieces would imprint on her somehow. Maybe by owning her body in all its glory now would help her bank some self-love for later on, for 13 and 25 and 42—for whenever she needs it. Maybe wearing a bikini now would help her love her body that much more for that much longer.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer, editor and mother of three. A native New Yorker, she lives, works and lounges poolside in Connecticut. 

 

No!

By Sharon Holbrook

159626626It was a beautiful, warm June day on our backyard deck, where we were celebrating my daughter’s birthday. She pulled a little flowered tankini out of one of her grandma’s gift bags, and Nana hastily announced, “It’s open in the back, but it’s not sexy!” I sure hope not. It was my daughter’s second birthday.

My mother-in-law already knew my feelings on this subject, and kindly respected them. I don’t care for bikinis, or any other “sexy” clothing, on little girls.

I’m usually hands-off about clothes, almost to an extreme. My daughters dig through their drawers and match or mismatch as they like. I don’t care if they wear pants or dresses or—as on one recent school day—a bandanna around the 7-year-old’s hair, an ankle-length flowered skirt over patterned leggings, and a brown velour bolero jacket inherited from her cousin. “You look like a fortune teller,” her older brother commented, not unkindly.

When I do draw a line about clothing, I like to have a good reason. Icy winter day? Must be warm from head to toe. Special occasion? Be respectful, and wear something a notch or two above the everyday. Dirty or damaged clothes? Just, no. Underwear showing, very short skirt, super tight leggings on the butt? Cover it up, because those areas are private.

Not surprisingly, bikinis don’t pass my modesty rules. Sure, we’re all wearing small, tightish clothes at the beach, because that’s just a practical reality if you want to move in the water. I don’t think anyone in their right mind wants to return to those awful bathing dresses of a century ago.

But a bikini takes it to another level, and its small size has nothing to do with practicality. A bikini is meant to emphasize the breasts, hips, and bare skin of a woman in a sexy way. That’s the whole appeal of it, and it’s why men are such big fans of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, right?

That focus on and sexualization of the body isn’t appropriate for girls. One could argue that it’s innocently silly when a toddler’s little pot belly pops out of a teeny two-piece. Adults laugh and wink and say, “Isn’t that cute?” Amid the attention, the little one learns to vamp for others, to entertain them with her looks, her body, and the way she’s dressed.

Instead, the longer we can protect girls from focus on and display of their physical selves, the stronger and more mature they will be when they meet the full reality of a world obsessed with their bodies.

Their round babyish selves seem to turn lean and leggy overnight, then rounder again with the buds of breasts and the swell of hips and, before we know it, their bodies are womanly in every way. We owe them clothing and modesty rules that are consistent over the years and don’t fixate on or show off their bodies at any given moment—that let their bodies just be their own.

When she’s four, it means we can allow her a little girl body, instead of imitating sexy grown-up clothes and pointing exactly to where she’s going to have boobs someday. She can wear simple, practical clothes that allow her to run, jump, play, and swim with ease.

When she’s eight or nine, it means she can still be a little girl, even if she’s entering puberty early, an increasingly common reality. It means we don’t have to burden her with why she suddenly shouldn’t wear a bikini top that emphasizes her budding breasts, when it was okay before, a conversation that might make her feel her perfectly normal body changes are somehow shameful.

Even when she’s fourteen, though my daughter might argue otherwise, it means protecting her from her own sense that her body is all grown up, and therefore she is too. Just because her body has sexualized does not mean she has the maturity to take on all aspects of her brand-new sexuality. Sure, like all women, she’ll have to learn to sift through the admiration and catcalls and come-ons. But she needn’t come out of the gate into that reality wearing a bikini.

Through all those stages, her body is just as it should be, a beautiful thing, neither to be flaunted for attention nor covered up by shame. And when it comes time for bikinis, if she’s someday interested, it will be when she herself has the adult maturity and sense to know — and handle — what a bikini says: “Look at me!”

Sharon Holbrook is a freelance writer, who lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio. Find more from her at sharonholbrook.com, and on Twitter @216Sharon.

Please join us TODAY, Thursday, 7/9, at 1:00 p.m. EST for our July Twitter party to discuss the issues. Remember to use the hashtag #braindebate

 

Photos: gettyimages

Summers Up To Nature

Summers Up To Nature

By Melanie Rock

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What I remember is my lost, brown self, in a sea of white shirts praying over shiny, puffy, braided loaves of bread.

 

“You’ll love sleep-away camp. I promise,” my mother said. “There’s not enough to do around here once school’s over. I’ll be teaching the first month of summer session. You’ll have a much better time in the country. Trust me. It’ll be fine.”

I don’t recall the anxiety I must have had, knowing I would be separated from my mother for four weeks. I don’t remember feeling unloved or rejected. But at five years old, I’m sure I had some serious reservations about going to sleep-away camp.

My mother grew up in the country, on an anarchist commune outside of Peekskill, New York. Raised among radical intellectuals, artists, and activists in a rustic atmosphere, the natural world was the backdrop of her rich childhood memories. It was important to her that she get her urban child “up to nature” whenever possible. So it was decided: the summer I was to turn six, I would be spared a month of babysitter days stuck in our Bronx apartment.

My mother chose a Jewish Y camp in the Adirondaks for my first sleep-away adventure, which didn’t strike me as strange, because I knew that we were technically Jewish. My mother was brought up by a Jewish family, after her own Jewish mother died very young. According to Jewish law, the maternal bloodline makes us Jewish. But I didn’t think of us as really Jewish. We were atheists. At home and at school, I was taught to respect all religious traditions with equal weight, without subscribing to any one in particular. It didn’t occur to me that camp would be any different. I trusted my mother’s plan. But she had read the brochure. The one that described the weekly Shabbat services.

As instructed, we packed “four nice white shirts” along with the shorts, halter tops, bathing suits and towels, underpants, and ankle socks with my name tags sewn in, and shipped them ahead in an old trunk. At camp, everything got shoved into cubbies except the white shirts, which were hung on hangers in the bunk closet. And everyone noticed that my shirts were too fancy. My mother and I had failed to grasp the conservative formality of “nice white shirts.” Unlike the plain shirts the other girls brought, mine had lace bits and pearly buttons, which stood out along with the rest of me.

I was one of the youngest kids at camp. And one of the very few black ones. A couple of dark-skinned girls stayed in much older bunks, way out of my reach. Surrounded by friends their own age, they seemed unaffected by the fact that their beaded braids and dark complexions made them different. On that first Friday night, those older black girls knew what to do for Shabbat. They seemed right at home. I watched and wondered, while I fumbled through the pre-dinner service in my nice white shirt. Four weeks of Fridays, with the unfamiliar rituals of challah bread and candles, and prayers to God in a foreign tongue. I mumbled along, hoping no one would single me out to light the candles or break the bread. I was sure they all noticed: I was that new little black girl who obviously isn’t Jewish.

I don’t recall any specific unkindness or mistreatment. And I don’t remember having made any friends there, either. What I remember is my lost, brown self, in a sea of white shirts, in the soft glow of candlelight, praying over shiny, puffy, braided loaves of bread. And that lonely feeling of wanting to fit in and not knowing how to shed the Outsider skin.

I was afraid to tell my mother. She had her own outsider stories. I was haunted by the thought of her growing up without her mother. And the hardships of her Depression-era childhood, living with a foster family while her father labored in the city. She was ostracized in high school, labeled “dirty Jew” and “Communist”—names that meant she didn’t belong. She got teary when she shared those memories with me. So I pretended the Shabbat services at camp were no big deal.

But she must have recognized my ambivalence about the place. She readily accepted my suggestion that we try something different the following year, and we rented a bungalow in the Catskills and spent our days together. The next summer, we discovered (and I went to) Blueberry Cove Camp, a small, artsy, back-to-nature summer camp in Maine. It was the ideal respite from the noise of the city and the structured school year. Blueberry Cove became my summertime home away from home, filled with friends from all over, who came back year after year, like I did. We ran around barefoot, embraced our mandatory farm chores, and swam in the frigid waters of the north Atlantic. We connected with the earth, and the animals, and developed a common empathy for the natural world and each other. Our differences didn’t matter there.

My mother, confident that I was happy and secure, was able to spend her summers traveling, or teaching part-time if she so chose. Summertime offered her a break from the stress of single-parenthood.

And I got Maine. Shoeless, godless, and free.

As the biracial mother of two brown girls, Melanie Rock writes about identity, race, and multiculturalism from a parenting perspective as well as her own childhood memories. Raised in New York City, she now lives and works in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Summer Camp For All Ages

Summer Camp For All Ages

By Candy Schulman

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 2.34.48 PMI missed Amy’s first day of sleep away camp. I was in Florida, registering my mother at a senior activity center, deciding if she needed bus service and watching an eighty something man flirt with her—while my ten-year-old daughter was unpacking for camp.

Ever since my mother’s heart attack, I’d been visiting her regularly. At the age of ninety she’d finally slowed down from a busy life of competitive golf and chiseling large alabaster sculptures. Juggling my marriage, child-rearing, and responsibilities as a college professor, I was often exhausted overseeing Mom’s care 1,500 miles from my home.

At first I didn’t think I’d mind missing my daughter’s first summer separation. She’d be gone less than a week, playing soccer on a bucolic boarding school campus. Her dad was driving her up to help get settled; I’d made sure her duffle bag contained everything she needed for six days—enough sweatshirts for a sub-zero plunge, when New England was encased in an unrelenting heat wave.

There are a number of “firsts” that every mother misses: a baby’s first tentative steps that occur while we’re at work, or a wiggly tooth eased out by a school nurse. Momentarily I cheered up when Amy suggested we buy matching journals, and write to each other when we were apart. I predicted that I’d run out of pages, while Amy would document each day with something succinct: “Camp was great.” Or I could write something terse myself, using her vocab: “Life without you sucks.”

Other camps have Web sites with updates and new photos of your child daily. Other camps have e-mail addresses to write to your child. (“Use sunscreen. Eat vegetables. Drink lots of fluids so you don’t get dehydrated and throw up on the soccer field. Love, your nagging Mom.”) But Amy’s camp is only six days­. Although I haven’t yet given in to buying Amy her own cell phone, two of her friends have brought theirs … do I dare call? Or is the whole point to allow your child to experience freedom, responsibility, and independence? I want to call so badly! All I’ve gotten so far is a message from Dad: “Tell Mom my room’s really cool.” I need to know more … would she shower in six days, or consider the daily swim in the pool an act of body cleansing?

On Day Two, after touring and approving Mom’s new Senior Camp facilities and programs, I fly home. Amy calls on her friend Emma’s phone. I lunge to hear her voice, proud that I’ve held off longer than she had.

“Hi,” I say, hyperventilating. “How’s camp?”

“Good.”

Silence.

“What did you have for dinner?”

“Pasta.”

“Lunch?”

“Pasta.”

Silence.

“What are you doing now?”

“Talking to you.”

“Anything else you want to tell me?”

Her voice picks up. “We had a ping pong tournament. I came in second. I had two killers a 12-year-old boy couldn’t return.”

Ping pong? Why did I pay so much money to send her to soccer camp?

“Gotta go.” Click.

On the way to bed, I pass her room. It seems stiller than all the times she’s been to sleepover birthday parties. I empathize with the zoo of stuffed animals on her colorful striped comforter … alone … lonely … abandoned. She’d asked me to watch over her Golden Retriever, a frail yet cuddly “lovey” named Puppy, who’s been in our family since Amy was born. She still sleeps with her every night. We’ve joked that she will take Puppy with her to college. Amy is only in middle school, but friends with older kids warn me how quickly time passes; before I know it we’ll be unpacking her and Puppy in her dorm for freshman year. I don’t want to miss more “firsts” than I have to, yet I know that the older she gets, the less we will share. I place Puppy on my night table, feeling foolish when I tell her, “Good night,” the way Amy always does.

*   *   *

After work on Day Three, I go to the movies, then meet my husband for a late night out. It feels luxurious, almost decadent. I almost forget that Amy is 175 miles away. My husband and I stop for gelato on the way home, like a couple on a date without babysitter curfews. Instinctively we glance at our cell phones and look up, alarmed, when we see two missed calls from the same number: Amy’s roommate’s cell. While we were enjoying our freedom, she was needing us. I dial quickly. No answer.

At home, a small almost quivery voice on my answering machine: “Hi Mom and Dad …. It’s Amy. I was just wondering where you are. I love you. Bye.”

It’s 10:02 p.m. Do you know where your parents are? I want to be there whenever she needs me—but the older she gets, the more often she’ll have to navigate the world without me.

I finally reach her at 10:18. “How’s camp?”

Pause. “Okay.”

“What’s wrong?”

“My ankle hurts.”

“When did it start hurting?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Does it hurt now?”

“No. Only when I put pressure on it.”

“Are you crying?”

“Of course not.”

Of course she is. “Did you go to the nurse?”

“I haven’t told anyone. But I bought some tape in the canteen and taped up my ankle.”

What kind of tape would they sell? Scotch tape? What does she know about taping up ankles? What if she’s sprained it, stressed it, damaged it? What if she’s sidelined for the rest of camp? I picture her, limping on crutches, duct tape holding together her sore joint….

I make her promise to see the nurse the next morning, and then do what any other parent would do: call the dorm mother, who has no idea my kid is ailing. Amy’s school reports always say: “She never asks for help when she needs it.” Tenacious on the soccer field, reluctant to report a serious orthopedic injury. Here I fretted she was going to have heat stroke, when the real worry is that she’ll come home in a full body cast. I lay awake half the night, convinced that freedom and independence are not a good thing … not for my little girl … not for me.

*    *    *

Day Four is interminable. The phone doesn’t ring until 10:04 p.m.—again via Amy’s roommate’s cell.

I grill her, but she says her ankle doesn’t hurt anymore. She talks again about what fun she’d had playing ping pong.

“How about soccer?” I ask.

“Did I tell you about the magic sponge? The coaches have a huge sponge in a bowl of water. Whenever we get too hot, they squeeze the magic sponge over our heads and it cools us off. Like magic.”

I need a magic sponge. Only fifty-one hours to go.

*   *   *

It’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t have to pick up or tend to a child. Each day I accomplish twice as much as I usually do. I cook salmon with wild mushrooms for dinner—something Amy would never eat. My husband and I have a romantic dinner alone. Then we have a fight. About nothing much really, just your average, typical, marital spat that lasts no longer than the next morning, and is indicative of how stressed we both are—by the usual daily burdens of life, coupled by our only child being Gone.

“I don’t feel comfortable when she’s not under my roof,” my husband says, after we start talking again. He, who’s always lax. I’m the overprotective one. He’s the one who went to sleep away camp as a child; I’m the one who never left home until college.

“Why? What do you think could happen?” I imagine bears, disease-ridden mosquitos, her glasses shattering from a hard-hit soccer ball, broken permanent teeth….

“Tonight’s the dance,” he says morosely.

“She’s only ten,” I remind him.

“Much too young for that sort of thing,” he says, shaking his head. I don’t confess about the micro-mini skirt I let her pack for camp.

The phone rings at 12:23 a.m. Is it an emergency with my mother? Groggily my husband misses the call. There is a message on my voice mail, which I don’t hear until morning: “Hi you guys, it’s Amy. Um, we got back really late so I didn’t call you because it’s … like twelve now, but I’ll try calling in the morning. If I have time. I’m gonna fall asleep any minute, I’m so tired. G’night.”

*   *   *

During the four-hour ride to fetch her at camp, I recall my husband reporting his phone conversation with her while I was still visiting my mother. When she said, “How’s M—” he was certain she was about to say, “How’s Mom?” Instead she asked, “How’s Macaroni?” Her hamster. It reminded me of the time in preschool, when she drew an abstract “family portrait,” and she identified the blobs of color on the page: the huge splash of purple was “Daddy,” and, pointing to a tiny speck of brown marker all the way in the bottom corner, she added, “This is you, Mommy.” Was I just a speck of brown in her whole universe?

When I get out of the car in the parking lot, I see groups of kids emerging from the cafeteria. Searching for girls Amy’s size, I soon spot her, but am unsure what to do. At Amy’s age, being coerced into hugging your mom in public will be used against you, in countless future hours on the analyst’s couch. Her roommate leaps into her mom’s arms, but she’s a year younger. Coolly I approach Amy. Gingerly, without much oomph, she gives me a perfunctory hug.

In the car I tell her to put her seat belt on. She rolls her eyes. “Sleep away camp was great—no parents to boss you around,” she growls.

It isn’t until much later, when we are alone, that Amy sits on my lap like a toddler. She plays with my hair. “I missed you,” she whispers.

“I missed you too,” I say. “A lot.”

She gives me a light kiss on the cheek.

I extend the moment, holding my little girl on my lap as long as she allows. Soon enough, she’s off and running again. Away from me, then back to me. I would have to get used to it. And so would she.

Later that night I get a phone call from my mother, documenting her first week at Senior Day Camp. She loved Chair Yoga, enjoyed “Kibitzing with Cantor Jack” and the discussion “Imagine” Bladder Control Therapy, felt foolish playing dominos and bingo, missed progressive bridge because of a dental appointment to finalize her lower bridge, and absolutely hated the meatloaf and mashed potatoes at lunch. She’s a picky eater, just like her granddaughter.

Author’s Note: Similar to many mothers I know, I juggled raising my daughter with the growing demands of looking after my aging mother, who lived 1,500 miles from our family. I saw both humor an poignancy in the parallels they both faced. Even though I wasn’t always at their sides for all the important “firsts,” both of them filled me in on what I’d missed. I couldn’t always be physically present, but they learned to thrive in my absence.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Parents, Salon.com, Babble.com, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

Art: Michael Lombardo

Nearly Drowning

Nearly Drowning

Nearly Drowning ART 2

By Vera Giles

I sat next to the learner’s pool, opposite my instructor for Overcoming Your Fear of Water.

I was 40, married, the mother of an almost-two-year-old boy. A few months earlier, I’d been laid off from my job and couldn’t seem to make myself look for a new one—but for some reason, I was also afraid to be a stay-at-home mother. Instead, Sammy went to an excellent day care, which we could afford thanks to my programmer husband, Aaron. I felt like the world’s worst mother.

I had tried several times in the past to learn how to swim. Now, I thought, since the rest of my life seemed stuck, maybe I could at least learn this one thing.

The instructor, a small, muscular woman, spoke with a friendly German accent. “Tell me why you’re here today.”

I wanted to tell her that when I was six, my mother took me by the hand and walked me into the ocean and kept walking until my aunt stopped her. That my mother was suicidal and eventually killed herself. Instead I said:  “I’m afraid of the water, but I want to learn.”

“Our goal is for you to stay centered in your body. You can’t learn if you are afraid. Are you ready to begin?”

We walked to the edge of the pool.

I shivered in my new black bathing suit. It was morning and the room was cold. Small waves caused by other swimmers slapped the sides of the pool, a metallic sound with a deeper note of water sloshing in and out of the overflow vents. The instructor smiled. “Shall we go in?”

Gray daylight poured through the large side windows. The room smelled clean and wet. Accent plants softened its sharp lines. “I guess so,” I said. Was it really this simple? No fanfare? But it felt right.

“Here,” she said, extending a hand. I held it and felt small and safe. Everything about this woman told me she was there to take care of me. “Let’s walk down the steps, one by one.”

I stepped down and submerged my feet in the water. We stopped. “Remember,” she said, “we’ll go as fast as you are comfortable. You can’t learn if you are not fully present in your body—all the way down to your feet. How are you feeling?”

I felt excited and calm at the same time. Could I feel my feet? Yes, they were cooler than the rest of me, firmly planted on the tiles. My hand was in her warm, sure grip.

“Yeah, I feel good,” I said, wanting to go on but self-conscious about seeming to rush. “Let’s go deeper.”

Down we went, step by step, until the water was at our waists. There were my feet. I still felt them. We walked further into the pool.

A rising anxiety finally surfaced, and I spoke. “I can’t hold your hand,” I said. I knew immediately this was a trigger, the memory of holding my mother’s hand, of being forced to go deeper and deeper into the water that day.

She looked surprised. She thought for a second, then crooked her arm. “Can you hold my elbow? Would that work?”

It felt odd, but I no longer felt coerced or restrained. I relaxed. “Yes, that will work.”

Like blind people walking somewhere new, we continued, navigating through my phobia. I let the water reach the middle of my chest—felt it move my body. I kept checking in with my feet. After a while, my instructor said, “You’ve made amazing progress. Look how far you’ve come! It’s time to get out now. Shall we?” She held out her hand.

This time I took her hand and we began walking to the stairs.

Something broke open in my chest. My eyes stung, and a warm feeling spread through my body. A mother was taking me back to shore, holding my hand to keep me safe.

I wanted to cry. For the first time, some little part of me felt secure instead of scared. I was going to be OK.

The next day, I remembered more of what had happened in the ocean.

 ***

I was six. My mother and I were visiting my Aunt Anni in Israel.

I loved Mama and she loved me. We understood each other. We shared secrets and told each other how we really felt. Some days she was very sad and everything seemed to go away. She just sat there and I felt very alone. But then she came back and she started to smile at me and laugh at my little jokes and I knew again that she loved me. I was very good at taking care of her.

Mama was the most beautiful mother in the world. Everybody said so. Her long blonde hair and beautiful dresses and lovely laugh charmed everyone.

Her older sister Anni was loving and distracted, her dreamy voice low from cigarettes. She smelled like perfume and tobacco and the oil paints she used in her studio. Blonde and the same height as my mother, she looked like Mama’s twin. Anni and Mama laughed a lot and shared makeup and jewelry. I loved Anni, too. She was gentle and safe and acted like I was a wise and wonderful person.

It was sunny and warm with cool breezes near the shore, so we were at the beach. I was playing at the edge of the surf, trying to step into the foam as it dissolved, wanting to feel the bubbles on my feet.

Then I felt Mama standing behind me, staring out to sea. She walked next to me, took my hand, and kept walking into the ocean. I didn’t want to leave the surf, but I was used to doing what she wanted.

At first it was fun, bobbing around as we got deeper, but I didn’t like how hard she was holding my hand and I started to pull away. She wouldn’t let go.

I was mad now. I started whining. She wouldn’t let go.

I got scared. The water was pretty high now. She wouldn’t let go.

She kept walking. It got deeper. I was screaming and panicking now. Some part of me was so terrified that something clicked in my head and I started feeling far away.

Water got in my mouth. I swallowed some. I couldn’t keep my head above water or my feet on the ocean floor. She wouldn’t let go.

I kicked and flailed and screamed, breathing in water and choking and swallowing water and drowning. She held my hand and her arm was stiff against her side and as I floated in the water I kicked her leg, hard, and it felt rubbery and she didn’t react and that scared me even more and I was drowning and I couldn’t breathe and this was way worse than asthma and I started to float high above my own head and watch myself drown, just my head, the crown barely breaking the surface as the water around was choppy with my struggles.

My mother stood there, holding my hand in a death grip, her arms at her sides. The water was at her chin. She was staring out at the horizon, completely gone.

Anni came and got me. She put my arms around her neck and walked back to the beach, as I coughed and hung there limply. I started to shake as she bundled me in a towel and tried to get me dry and warm even though it was a lovely day and the water had been perfect.

I fell asleep, from shock.

 ***

I was able to come to that swim class because Sammy was in day care—even though I hadn’t had a job for six months and should have been taking care of him myself. I felt like a terrible mother.

My friends, my family, and my husband all told me I was doing a great job with Sammy. I was not an alcoholic (like my mother and father). I did not abuse Valium (like my mother). I was not depressed (like my mother and father). I was not mentally ill (like my mother).

I did not commit suicide (like my mother).

She was 38 and a half when she killed herself. Coincidentally, when Sammy was born, I was 38 and a half.

Despite years of therapy, I was still terrified that I would repeat her mistakes. I might hurt Sammy. I might even kill him. This was crazy. Why did I feel this way?

When I was laid off six months earlier, I had been back from maternity leave exactly one year. I was 39 and Sammy was 16 months old.

“At least you’ll get to spend more time with Sammy,” my coworkers said.

***

When I was away from Sammy, I wished for more time than the squeezed hours I had with him. I craved him like a drug. I wanted to be there every morning when I got him, giggling and kicking with delight, out of his crib. I wanted to read him bedtime stories and sing him songs every night. I delighted in his expressive face, when he grinned or rolled his eyes or scrunched his nose with mischief. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his rosy, round cheeks, his enormous brown eyes, and his dirty blond hair. He was perfect.

But I couldn’t stand to spend more hours with him.

“Didn’t maternity leave just fly by?” the same coworkers had asked me a year earlier. My reply—”No, my God, every day was an eternity”—killed their sympathetic smiles. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to discuss what it was like to enslave my brain to someone else’s needs. With Sammy, I was no longer a mind—I was torn and aching breasts, tired arms, a hoarse voice, sore legs. I was chained to his schedule: hovering over him when he was awake; wishing he was old enough to play with toys or even just focus on my face; returning home every three hours to keep the agony of breastfeeding to myself; constantly caught up on the laundry because I was so bored and lonely during his short naps.

By the time I was laid off, Sammy was older, but I still felt like I was failing. Each time he was home all day, I had to get him out of the house or he would drive me crazy and I would begin snarling at him. The kid never sat down. He started walking at eleven months and never stopped. So we would go somewhere we could walk, and walk, and walk. When he napped (thank God he napped), I fell into a stupefied sleep as well. On days when I was alone with him, I choked on my own panic. You can’t leave me, I would think as Aaron walked out the door. I’m an only child. You’re an oldest brother. You’re the one who knows what to do with babies.

There were so many fears. Was Sammy eating enough? He’d been born five and a half weeks early. Every milliliter of milk we got into him was hard-won. Now his toddler schedule of three meals and two snacks a day was grueling. How could I offer him different foods and balanced meals each time? I was a bad mother if I didn’t.

Was he sleeping enough? Everyone knows kids never sleep when you want them to. (Never mind that my child is in fact the most reliable sleeper in the world. Don’t hate me—I have no idea how this happened.) What if he suddenly stopped sleeping well? How could I keep nap and bedtime sacred?

Every mother has these fears, my friends told me when I wailed to them. But the stakes felt impossibly high. What was normal? I once had a mother who let us run out of food and kept me awake at night to talk about her problems. All my fears and worries told me that I was a bad mother like she was.

So many parents said that Mother Love made having kids worth it—but they were wrong. When I first experienced those primal, almost preverbal, feelings—Love. Hold. Mine. Protect. Fight! MINE!—I fell off the platform of sanity I had worked so long to build, into a wild, angry ocean. Even as I craved my son, my fears of all I was doing wrong with him triggered my Mother Love to protect him from the biggest threat: me. I knew I would somehow hurt him. With my inability to care for or feed him properly, I might even kill him. I had to leave him to the experts.

Day care was a better parent than I was. Day care fed him without angst. Day care had playmates he could socialize with, and teachers who were more patient and better trained than I was. Day care had structure and rules and activities, and didn’t get anxious about doing things wrong or rotating the toys or cleaning up messy art projects. Day care hadn’t lost a mother to mental illness and suicide, and didn’t have an ex-alcoholic father who lived mostly in his head. Day care didn’t take years to learn to get along with its stepmother, or spend years in therapy to keep its issues from contaminating the kids. Day care was calm and kind and good and never, ever depressed.

More than anything, I was afraid to lose day care. Because if I lost day care, I would have to be a full-time stay-at-home mom. And then I would have to face the reasons I knew—with a cold, insane clarity—that I couldn’t be a good mother.

 ***

I was 41. My husband, Sammy, and I were visiting with my cousins from my mother’s side of the family in a rented house on the New Jersey seashore. Over several days, I got the courage to tell them the story of Mama nearly drowning me—and they believed me. Some of them remembered her. All of them knew how private their parents were about the past. They knew that Mama could have done this, and that Anni could have hidden how serious it was. Some of them were not surprised.

One afternoon, most of us went to the beach while Aaron stayed behind. We got to the ocean and Sammy, now a tall, adventurous three-year-old, wanted to go in. With me. He wanted me to hold his hand.

I still didn’t know how to swim.

I still didn’t feel like a great mother.

I still didn’t have a paying job. Instead, I had started writing a memoir.

And yet I was getting somewhere. The day before I had stood waist-deep in the ocean, talking to my oldest cousin Andreas about our family and my mother’s childhood. Andreas was at ease in the water. In the middle of the conversation he watched me bobbing with a smile on my face as a rogue wave reached my chest. He said, “You’re doing quite well for someone who has good reason to be afraid of the water.”

Now here we were on the beach, Sammy and I. The sun warmed our backs and the seagulls coasted right and left above us. The surf pushed and pulled, repelling and coaxing.

“I wanna go in da ocean. C’we go in, Mommy? C’you hold my hand?”

How could I let Sammy trust me? Had my mother been so far gone that she didn’t know she was holding my hand in the water, so desperate to kill herself that she almost took me with her? The same thing could be inside me, waiting to destroy us both.

How could she try again and again to leave me—succeeding in her third suicide attempt after I turned eight—when I had loved her so much?

Or maybe I did understand. Maybe I was doing the same thing to my son by running away from him to protect him from myself—putting him in day care, telling myself that Aaron was the one who was good at raising babies.

I looked into Sammy’s wide brown eyes and chose. I chose life.

“OK, Bud. Hold my hand and don’t go in too deep, OK?”

“OK.”

We walked toward the waves, wobbled a little on the shells. Sammy squealed in delight when the surf tickled his feet.

Despite my fears, I smiled back. I could do this. I could hold his hand. I could keep him safe.

I could be his mother.

Author’s Note: I still have moments when it’s hard to stay engaged with my son and to have faith in my ability to mother him. But over time I am noticing little ways that our relationship is growing stronger: more hugs, more play together, even more confidence in the face of his ordinary rebellions. I am struck by how resilient he is, and by those little moments of wisdom that pop out in the middle of being an ordinary loud, funny, defiant preschooler.

I’m accepting that the important thing as a mom is not to get it right the first time, but to learn from my scars and mistakes. It’s when I recognize that I’m going off track that the healing can begin.

Vera Shanti Giles lives with her husband and three-year-old son in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. She is writing a memoir, Crazy Sane Mama, about overcoming the ordinary and extraordinary anxieties of motherhood—resulting from her mother’s mental illness and suicide—to raise her son with joy and humor.

Summer Roses, Summer Breaths

Summer Roses, Summer Breaths

 

White Fence with Roses

I began this summer with a list—and mostly, a wish to take an internal pressured sense of hurry and worry down a few notches. Things had built up, some work, some family, some general “stuff” of life around me and at home. Essentially, I needed to rediscover how to take some deep breaths.

Summer is not over, but the sense that it’s waning has overtaken. Cue: school supply lists, other people’s “first day of school” photos, and the way everything shifted a little cooler, the golden light at certain times when before it was brighter, and whiter.

We have a little bit of time to hang in “family” mode ahead, but not so much. We have some of those back to school things to do, and we have a block party to throw. The time between now and the next will fill up quickly. Like everyone around me, the way I look at all that’s surrounding me is different: the world has pushed in, too, and brings unease and sadness and disbelief and even horror. I listen to the birds chirp sometimes, and feel I should let other worries in more. Yesterday, however, I admit that I shut NPR off in the car. My push and pull to get to deep breaths can’t always involve NPR.

Meantime, there are the summer highlights (the “roses” in the speak of gymnastics camp), like how awesome it is to see small kids glimpse my sixteen-year-old around town and gaze up at him with “my camp counselor” eyes. Certainly, the two weeks of overnight camp for the eleven-year-old-boys were rosy.

Last night, the camp my Saskia attends this week had a Family Night. As she showed me around (I was the proxy for family, as the rest of the crew scattered other places) with her friend, Mattea, who had some family in tow, the first stop was Mermaid Cove (or rock? Or point?). Anyway, the girls climbed on a couple of big rocks by the lake and explained that if you see shimmering on the water that’s where the mermaids are. I can’t tell if this is their idea or the camp’s. I think it was fed via camp (as we are deep into the television program H2O whatever the conduit, mermaids are “in” with us, especially Australian mermaids). Suddenly, Saskia was IN the water. This was an accident, which stunned us all (it was very shallow, but she did manage to get very wet). “Climb out,” I told her—and stunned, she did. Tears followed.

Her ankle was scraped and her shoes (and pants and most of her shirt) were soaked, and her pride was bruised. We skipped the rest of the walkabout and the campfire. We went to the lodge to nab her backpack and painted rocks. In the van, we wrested the wet clothing off and zipped her into her sweatshirt for the ride home. By the time we’d gotten there, she was no longer teary. She drank some milk and calmed down.

“You handled a hard thing so well,” I said as we reached the car. “I’m really proud of you.”

Having been a parent for nearly nineteen years, you might think I’d have known that’s the most important part—not the missing of the s’mores. I have to confess, it may have taken me all this time. In that, perhaps the answer to why the leisurely route through childrearing isn’t boring for me, not at all (there is, between this six-and-a-half year-old girl and her oldest brother about a dozen years).

To learn how to handle hard things could fall under “life lessons,” obviously. By hard, I really don’t mean bad, or all bad. I really mean something different, something about the ability to see “hard” more with prism in mind—how does light reflect and how to do you see the various sides and still breathe? That’s the lesson I went for this summer. I can’t say it’s felt relaxing, this space that had me trying to make room for breaths. It’s certainly not a bucket list item. But I am breathing, raggedly perhaps. And smiling, and comforting, and still in search of a good answer to: “Was it a good summer?”

The short answer: “Yes.” How about yours?

Bare-Bottomed Bliss

Bare-Bottomed Bliss

By Carisa Miller

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In the summer sun, my children shed their attire and along with it, the last of their baby skin.

It is impossible not to smile, watching their bare bottoms bound around the garden. I am desperate to imprint those sweet cheeks on my memory, to hold visions of round little rumps in my mind, long after they stop streaking through the yard to splash in the kiddie pool.

Do children grow faster in the summer? Am I watering and fertilizing mine too much? When their bodies aren’t buried under layers of clothing, their rapid growth is much more evident.

I carry my youngest less often now. Yesterday I leaned over too far when I set her down; her feet hit the ground before I thought they should.

This is full-blown childhood. Little girls with grubby hands and tangled hair shriek and gallop across the lawn. Babies no longer live here.

Life is all giggles and skinned knees again. I feel myself wanting to live this way forever. They have only just gotten here and already, I can feel myself missing my daughters as children. In the heat of each day, I attempt to freeze them in time.

I peek over my book from the hammock as the girls dash between the water and the raspberry patch, becoming wetter and more berry-stained with each pass.

I chase them, as they squeal away from me on chubby legs. I feel a sense of urgency, to catch them before those legs grow long and lanky and are able to outrun me.

We roll into a pile of tickles in the grass. I scatter kisses on warm bellies and pinch those irresistible tushies.

This is the summer destined to become That Summer in my memory. It is this moment in my children’s lives. The summer of an almost-five and two-and-a-half-year-old. The only one of its kind.

They are just old enough to play outside on their own. They are still young enough to cling to me and fight over which one of them is taking up too much room on my lap.

In our world, just being in the backyard is an activity.

Holding still and applying sunscreen are mutually exclusive.

We surround ourselves with bubbles.

Popsicles are our religion.

I marinate in these sticky-sweet moments and emerge more childlike myself.

“Squirt me with the hose, Mommy!”

“Can I pick a flower, Mommy?”

“Look! A butterfly, Mommy!”

Each breath of this passing season counts down to the end of a sacred lifestyle. Kindergarten is coming to force the children back into their clothes. Rain will dampen carefree spirits and wash away our lazy days. Time will no longer be entirely ours.

My arms feel weak and useless when I imagine wanting to fill them with children who are no longer children. When their small bodies exist only in memories, I pray I will be able to look into their grown eyes and see my little girls running naked through the yard.

Carisa Miller is a sarcasm wielding, cheese devouring, nut-job writer and Listen To Your Mother show director/co-producer, living in Portland, Oregon with her astonishingly patient husband, two fireball daughters, and an ill-tempered cat. CarisaMiller.com

I Hate Summer Reading

I Hate Summer Reading

By Anne Sawan

Cooling spray

I am a reader. Walking into any bookstore or the local library physically changes me. I am instantly intoxicated, overcome by the smell…the feel… the sight of all those gorgeous books just waiting to be swallowed up. My idea of a perfect vacation day is curling up on the sofa or sitting on the beach with a good book and reading, uninterrupted, for several hours, transported to far away lands and into the challenges of other people’s lives. I am also a writer and a psychologist, so I suppose it seems as I should be a champion of summer reading for children; but I’m not. I’m not because the biggest, the most important part of me, the part I am trying desperately to hold on to, the fun loving mother part, hates it.

I quit. I don’t want to do it anymore. For ten long months I have been the homework police, demanding my children sit at the table and finish their schoolwork when they would rather be outside with their friends. I worked hard to get them through the mountainous amounts of school projects and studying and I am tired of it. I need a break; they need a break. I don’t want to be the whip cracker anymore. I want to throw my hands up in the air and dash out the door yelling, “Last one in the pool is a rotten egg!”

This year my children finished school on June 25th and they will return to school on August 27th. That gives us only eight short weeks to shake it all off and have some fun.

Eight short weeks to let loose and swing from trees into the deep waters of the lake, run through cold sprinklers and hunt for skittery crabs at the beach.

Eight weeks to learn how to use a jackknife, put a worm on a hook, and build a fort out of broken branches.

Eight weeks to take meandering bike rides, have lemonade stands and chase the ice cream man.

Eight weeks to have a neighborhood game of flashlight tag, go night swimming among the fireflies, toast marshmallows and finally fall down on the bed, or the couch, or the floor nestled next to siblings, cousins and friends, happy and exhausted.

Eight short weeks to allow minds to open up and let imaginations soar as beaches are combed and woods are explored.

And eight short weeks to finish summer reading. Blah.

This short summer our school district has dictated that my middle school children are to read three books. Three books in eight weeks! I know adults—successful, happy, seemingly normal adults—who don’t read that many books in a year. I just spent the weekend with a tween girl who lives near us, in a town with a very well-respected school system and she is required to read one book this summer. One book. When my children told her they were reading three books she frowned. “Too much pressure,” she said. Smart girl.

Now, I know there are many children who, like me, love to read and these children will complete this three-book assignment quickly. To them, time spent with a book is relaxing and even fun. These children will choose to use their downtime sitting on the porch swing, book in hand, reading away. But, there are also many children who do not embrace reading, or who struggle with it, and for them, summer reading is a chore, or worse, a punishment.

I have five children, some are readers and some are not. I didn’t raise them any differently, reading more to one than the other, it’s just how they are wired; one of my children will choose to read as often as he can, while another would rather not read anything beyond the back of a cereal box or a sports magazine. Asking this child to sit and read a novel on a sunny summer when he could be out playing Wiffle ball with his buddies is akin to torture.

I am not even certain of the point behind summer reading. Are these mandated books incorporated into the school curriculum come September? Rarely. Does the school believe that my preteen children will forget how to read in only eight weeks? Seems unlikely. Does the school think that mandatory reading will make readers out of nonreaders? Highly unlikely. I would love if all my children were avid readers, if on a summer day they sat quietly in the shade of our leafy maple tree and read. But this is not who they are. Forced summer reading does not make readers out of non-readers; all it does is build resentment and create creative avoidance techniques.

I resent having to cut into my children’s well-earned, unstructured, shortened-already vacation just so someone, somewhere, can check off a box that states the school has met its summer reading requirement. Downtime for families is scarce these days; childhood is short and our precious time spent hanging out together; laughing, playing and enjoying one another is unfortunately becoming lost as jobs and schools place increasingly high and often extraneous demands on us. I say it’s time we rethink summer and give our families a real break. Let those who want to read, read away, and those who don’t, well let them spend their time, their eight short weeks, as they please chasing clouds and having fun.

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 books published by MeeGenuis. 

Blending Families: When My Kids Met Her Kids

Blending Families: When My Kids Met Her Kids

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You know those swings at the carnival that spin around in mad, sickening circles? You get going so fast that you levitate and you fear, because of some basic laws of physics, that the chains will break and you’ll be hurled off in a straight line to the next county. But you never do. You remain somehow preserved in the rush of that circle, round and round and round. This is how things are.

Summer, as it did last year and the year before it, came again. Spring, if it had a mind to, could just as well launch us into some scary and unknown season, but it, dependably, never fails to slide seamlessly into summer. And with it, summer vacation, the sun, pools and the repetition of contradictory days, boring, fun—days that last forever and end in a blink.

Before this summer, I had met my girlfriend’s kids several times and she had met mine, but this summer brought a whole new experiment. We would for 3 days become a group of 6, going to the Field Museum in Chicago, Lincoln Park Zoo, Navy Pier, and kayaking. What could go wrong except everything?

So, we all wondered in the privacy of ourselves, how is this going to work? One thing is certain. The idea, the prospect of this meeting as an event that loomed in the future, was terrible for all of us. My girlfriend and I were of course concerned about the psychic well-being of our children. I mean, we’re firmly established as crazy in love but how fair is this to the kids? We’re lovers. We’re parents. But now these roles were about to collide into some undefined something and would they be okay? Would they like each other? Are they predisposed to despise each other? Even at the zoo? And even though the kids expressed a willingness to do this, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to surmise that, for them, this whole idea was icky and weird and confusing. The kids they were each about to meet: Who were they exactly in relation to them? I imagined them wondering Will I like them? and, of course, the question that never ceases to haunt us all: Will they like me?

But, as usual, nothing happened that resembled the hopes or fears the 6 of us brought to Chicago. It’s always something else, or maybe, in its own tricky way, it’s always all of it. Meeting new people is as predictable as the seasons. Nervous strangers slip into people with whom you are suddenly laughing and using chalk to draw pictures on the driveway.

At Navy Pier, we bought a 10-Ride Family Pass (awkward). All 6 of us rode the Ferris Wheel, around and around. From way up there, from that perspective, you can see the whole city and the very same city you spent the day walking through is now different and new. With only 4 tickets left, the kids ran toward the spinning swings. My girlfriend and I sat next to a fountain, waiting for them as they stood in the hot sun and long line. It was the first time our kids were gone, together. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job,” she said. I thought so too. The sky was so blue you might cry.

When we finally saw our kids running toward the ride, they had the option to sit in a single swing or a swing built for two. Our two young girls, 10 and 11, sat in a swing for couples. As it began its slow rotation, they looked nervous and by the time it was circling full speed, they were screaming with big frightened eyes. Their initial shrieks appeared to be genuine howls of terror but somewhere in the spinning, in that elusive seamless seam, the screams—like spring sliding into summer—became laughter, though it sounded much the same.

Photo credit: Instagram @mhook 

The Summer I Rediscovered the Virtues of a Walk

The Summer I Rediscovered the Virtues of a Walk

powerwalk3I’ve had episodes of exercise devotion over the years. In the early 90s I tackled Cindy Crawford videos, then Step Aerobics, roller blading, and the Buns of Steel series. Decades later, after my third baby, I got hooked on Pilates. And according to Google, the most popular post on my personal blog is about the year after baby number four when I became an accidental evangelist for Barre classes.

Despite how it sounds, I’m not an exercise fanatic. The effort I exert is average at best. What happens is that I get excited about the next new thing because I know it’s important to do some physical activity. Then eventually I lose motivation or get bored. There’s only one option left when the walls of the gym or the expense of yoga sculpt classes becomes too overwhelming: I walk.

Walking Alone

At the end of this spring I put my gym membership on hold and rediscovered the simplicity of a walk. Right away I remembered the walks I took in high school before I had my driver’s license or my parents’ permission to buy videos. In those days, I’d grab my Walkman and my latest mix tape, then randomly head in one direction or another. By today’s standards, it’s astonishing that nobody knew where I went. I couldn’t text to say whether I was on the Green Bay Trail heading towards Glencoe or heading to downtown Highland Park. I couldn’t tell my mom that instead of the trail I’d decided to meander south on Sheridan Road. Alone with my music and my dramatic teenage thoughts, I was an explorer. I was free.

 

Walking With Friends

Although I like walking alone, I’ve also scheduled many walking dates with friends this summer. I’m convinced that there’s no time with a friend as quality as the 45 minutes or so spent on a walk. The last point in my life when I consistently made time for such a luxury was during my freshmen year of college. In the mid-90s, when we still didn’t have cell phones that left the car, a walk with a friend was an uninterrupted, intensely focused experience. We’d fill the hour with details about our families and high school experiences, returning to the dorm strangers no more.

Leaving the gym for the summer has meant using a good portion of my exercise time connecting with old and new friends. I meet people for walks in the parking lot after a camp drop off where the crowd is different from the one I see during the school year. I’ve also become closer with women who live in my neighborhood as they’re the ones available for a spontaneous night walk after the kids are down.

The conversations I have with friends during these walks would never transpire over a meal. Perhaps the discussions are deeper because we’re trying to forget that we’re exercising. I also suspect that the lack of eye contact as we watch for approaching cars makes it easier to divulge what’s going on in our lives. Whatever the reason, I always feel significantly closer to someone at the end of a walk than I did at the beginning, and that includes my husband. A few times this summer we’ve taken a walk when we have a babysitter, which allows us to catch up in a way that bears no resemblance to the quick summaries exchanged during a hectic weeknight of dinner.

 

Walking With Kids

As a family we’re getting outside more, too. Two of our kids can ride a bike while the other two fit in the double stroller. Perhaps my favorite walk so far was the one I took with my oldest the other day. Sam rode his bike while I moved quickly to keep up without running. (I am not a runner.) Every so often he’d turn around in a nearby driveway until I was next to him. We’d talk for a few minutes, but then the impulse to ride fast would propel him again. In a few days Sam turns 10, yet it seems impossible that a decade has passed since he and I explored those streets as a twosome.

 

Walking For Sanity

During the summer Sam was born, I’d go days at a time without taking him anywhere. Overwhelmed with anxiety combined with a case of the baby blues, I found it easier to stay home so I could feed Sam and change him with as few tears as possible for either of us. “Put Sam in the stroller and go for a walk once a day,” a friend said. She encouraged me to get out for at least 20 minutes, promising that Sam and I would benefit from the sunlight, fresh air, and the change of scenery. My friend was absolutely right, but until this current gym-free summer, I’d forgotten how easily a walk quiets my mind.

My walks alone are less “free” now than they were when I was young with nothing but time to spare. And my walks with friends are sometimes interrupted by various adult responsibilities (and texts). Nevertheless, I still appreciate the way this summer of walking has reminded me of previous phases of my life. When the temperatures drop to typical Minnesota lows, I’ll likely rejoin the gym and enjoy the energy of my favorite teachers, but for now I’m relishing the summer days and nights still ahead of me and all the quality walking I have yet to do.

 

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Digging Summer

Digging Summer

diggingsummerThe most summery of projects ever to begin in our backyard spilled into fall. Here’s what happened: my two middle kids and their friend Kate—I think this was a going into second grader and two going into sixth graders—began to dig a hole. I do not remember why the hole needed to be dug or why the hole wanted to be dug. As they progressed—into the fall—with the dig, I’m not sure the original purpose retained relevance.

What I know is they dug. They dug for hours, and days, and weeks. The hole got pretty big. They could step into the hole, jump into it even.

In fact, sometime during the dig Kate had her annual check-up with her family doctor, who asked what she liked to do after school. “We’re digging a hole,” was Kate’s answer. The doctor, apparently, nodded her head, which was tilted as she did so. “It’s really cool. We are getting stronger digging the hole and we’re thinking about how to dig the hole. It’s really good for us.”

For the barn structure that happened to be perilously encroached upon by the hole, it was a different story. Eventually, digging ceased and the kids began to fill the hole back in at our insistence.

The hole digging project brought the classic Ruth Krauss written, Maurice Sendack illustrated book “A Hole is to Dig” to the forefront of my rotation with the toddler.

If a hole is to dig, then summer is prime time to dig holes. It’s when you can occupy yourself with things you cannot dream up during the school year crowds your days. On the “otherwise occupy yourself front” the former going into second grader now headed toward sixth grade has begun to teach himself card tricks via You Tube. He needed to go to sleep at a sleepover and learned self-hypnosis.

This kind of boredom has relegated my own work life to air quotes, because it’s a pretty direct relationship: kids out of school or camp means a work-from-home mama, unless she had fulltime babysitting, which I do not have at present, isn’t exactly a productive worker. That’s a luxury. I felt grateful for the opportunity to experience a little of my own boredom.

The officially unoccupied period is followed by a three-week arts camp and then he goes to his two-week overnight camp on a little farm in Pennsylvania where one year an entire afternoon was spent in focused attempt to break a resistant-to-breakage stick. There is no You Tube there. He’ll see old friends of the human variety there and the two Alpacas and other farm animals, including a (new) calf, and the farm’s dog and a cat or two.

On the “more than that” front, there can be the wonderful, varied treasure box that is camp. This week, while one starts his groovy three-week arts camp for 11-16 year-olds, the little girl is at its polar opposite: a camp with required t-shirts and backpacks. Beyond polar opposite to her orderly experience is the camp where my 16 year-old is working all summer. That camp works like this: put kids in a van, and go off on adventures that help you get to know the land where you live. There’s hiking and river walking and just experiencing what’s in the Valley (including ice cream)—and in the course of that you might learn about bugs or birds or native plants or rail trails or power plants.

The theme that ties the very different camp experiences, including the difference between camper and counselor, is this: summer is for stretching—and when you think about it, to handle boredom makes you stretch (and perhaps, dig or truly be amused with yourself as you learn card tricks). To handle whatever camp offers (Spanish lessons or carrying three kids’ backpacks on a hike, take your pick) makes you stretch. By gosh, one kid needs new sneakers because his feet have grown and the small girl stretched out such that she’s suddenly shed some vestige of the smaller girl she was before. You can see, when you look at her, where she’s headed. Summer is for that, too. You have time to grow, even literally.

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Shorts Story

Shorts Story

iStock_000003843423SmallBy Tyann Sheldon Rouw

Early Thursday morning, I awoke to a shadowy figure leaning over my bed, wielding a big pair of black scissors. They weren’t scissors one used to cut paper. No, they were the scissors someone reaches for to finish a heavy-duty job, like cutting wire or a chicken carcass. In one hand, my 12-year-old son Isaac held the scissors, the sharp ends pointed down towards me. In the other, he dangled a pair of shorts. My eyes struggled to focus while I gave him instructions.

“Let me cut the tag off for you,” I said. For most people, the first task of the day might be turning off an alarm clock or walking into the bathroom to pee. For me, it’s occasionally cutting a tag out of clothing for Isaac, who has autism. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last. Tags irritate him. Literally. Tags must feel like sandpaper when they rub against his skin.

Still in a daze, I told Isaac it was too cold to wear shorts and watched him set the shorts on the couch in the living room. In typical fashion, he didn’t respond. Isaac struggles to verbalize his thoughts. After he was on the bus, I put the shorts back in his dresser.

A few weeks before, a friend had asked me if we would like some clothes her son had outgrown. I was grateful to be the recipient of such generosity, but when she asked what size my boys wore, I was lost.

All of the tags have been cut out.

After rummaging around in Isaac’s drawers, I found a couple of pairs of pants I’d bought at Target labeled size large. That would have to do.

It felt like Christmas when my friend dropped off two bags of clothes. Isaac was particularly happy when he saw the shorts and tried them on right away. He was pleased they fit. The new shorts were long athletic ones with the Nike swoosh, much more casual than anything Isaac owned. The way he strutted around the living room with his faint smile said it all. He had hit the jackpot.

Every Thursday afternoon, Isaac has respite time at the YMCA. He goes with a caregiver, Lacey, giving the rest of our family some much-needed down time. He never deviates from the routine. Never.

Isaac qualifies for respite services based on the severity of his disability. My sweet blond-haired, blue-eyed boy has gained a bit of functional language in the past few years, but it’s not always intelligible to new conversation partners. He suffers from anxiety. He is obsessed with opening doors, turning on water and controlling meal time at our house, such as who is eating when. He loves elevators and swimming pools. He is particular about listening to a certain song in the van as we turn onto a street near our home. He cleans dishes and watches his favorite TV show every night before bed.

For the past few months, Isaac has been “hanging out” at the YMCA during respite time — eating a snack, watching people and opening doors. He used to shoot baskets, hit the racquetball around, play foosball or walk the track, but lately he hasn’t done anything at all. I tried not to make a big deal out of it. As long as he was happy and didn’t cause problems for anyone or himself, let him be, I said.

Later that day when Isaac returned home, I asked Lacey how things had gone.

“It went well,” she said, as she came inside. “Did you know he brought his shorts?”

“No, we were in a hurry and I didn’t see what he packed,” I told her.

“Well, he changed into shorts, and then he went into the gym and played basketball with a group of guys,” she said.

“You played basketball, Isaac?” I asked, surprised.

Isaac didn’t respond.

“I love it when people are nice and let him play with them,” she said.

“Me, too,” I answered. I bit the inside of my lip when I felt the tears well up in my eyes.

I looked at Isaac, who was grinning from ear to ear as he took a bite of a fig bar.

Isaac doesn’t really play basketball. He’s a great shot, but dribbling up and down the court is not his idea of a good time. If someone passes the ball to him, he might not pass it to anyone else. He might take a shot or leave the game altogether and take the ball with him. He may just laugh hysterically as other players pass, dribble, rebound and score. When he’s interested in the game, however, he wants to be part of the group.

It occurred to me that perhaps he dug out those scissors and woke me up this morning because he wanted to play with the other guys. I bet he thought if he looked more like them – everyone wears these long athletic shorts – he could more easily join the group. Could it be?

I imagine a group of junior high or high school students looking his way and allowing him to join. I imagine him shrieking with delight when someone shot the ball and it was nothing but net. If the students are there playing most Thursdays, they have seen Isaac around. I’m sure Isaac had noticed them. If they’ve ever seen him shoot, they’ve likely witnessed him sinking three-pointers, even when he shoots underhanded, granny style. Although he’s not running the offense or making an assist to someone who can score, Isaac loves to play. He just does it his own way. It makes me smile. He has a lot to offer the world. People just need to take time to know him – and to include him.

I am reminded of a passage from The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, who is severely affected by autism and communicates through typing. The introduction states, “Naoki Higashida reiterates repeatedly that . . . he values the company of other people very much. But because communication is so fraught with problems, a person with autism tends to end up alone in a corner, where people then see him or her and think, Aha, classic sign of autism, that. The conclusion is that both emotional poverty and an aversion to company are not symptoms of autism but consequences of autism.”

Hmmm, so someone with autism might be excluded because of his communication challenges? Could it be that these people want to be included and don’t know how to get involved?

Isaac likes people when they understand how to interact with him. He rarely leaves his brothers alone. He is glued to my elbow most of the time. He sticks close to his dad. When his brothers are playing and interacting with him, he radiates pure joy.

Like everyone, he likes to be left alone at times. Who doesn’t? There are times when he doesn’t want to be involved, but at least we extend the invitation. Sometimes his anxiety about a situation doesn’t allow him to participate. We ask anyway.

Can he communicate his wants and needs to people he doesn’t know very well? Not usually. There have been many times he’s been at the YMCA, watching people play ball. Perhaps he has wanted to join them every time? Sometimes fetching a stray ball and refusing to toss it back to a player might be his way of saying, “I’ve got your attention now. Let me play, too.”

I was reminded of a flag football game a few years back in which Isaac’s twin brother Noah played. (Noah has autism, too.) As we were loading up the van to head to the football field, Isaac came outside wearing Noah’s football uniform from the prior year. While the game was underway, Isaac ran across the field and stood on the sidelines, happy to be there. He stood shoulder to shoulder with his brother and Noah’s teammates. I’m not sure Isaac wanted to play football, but that day he was dressed for the part. He was wearing the right clothes so he could belong, too. He was – at that moment – one of them. When he dressed like a football player and wore the basketball shorts, those actions communicated more than his voice ever could. He wanted to be included.

As I watched Isaac interact with his brothers in our living room, my thoughts drifted to the events at the YMCA. I am grateful to the guys at the YMCA who included Isaac, who decided they were not going to play a basketball game that was too competitive, so they could include the kid who was wearing the bright orange shirt and the new-to-him athletic shorts.

I hope they understood what an impact their kindness had on my son — and how happy we both felt when we realized he could belong, just like anyone else.

I need to grab those giant kitchen scissors and dig through Isaac’s dresser to find the other few pairs of shorts we were given. I have the feeling he will be wearing them again at the YMCA. I need to cut out the tags.

Tyann Sheldon Rouw lives in Iowa with her husband and three sons. Her work has appeared in various newspapers, and she is a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She is an autism advocate and blogs regularly at http://tyannsheldonrouw.weebly.com. Follow her at @TyannRouw.

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Nothing

Nothing

By Joni Koehler

dreamstime_s_40258674I found this game on the Internet. The object of the game is to find three or more of the same colored squares together and click on them with the mouse. If you click, they disappear and make room for other squares to pair with their red, blue, yellow, or green teammates. Each level has more squares, goes faster, and is harder to complete.

I have been playing the game all summer, moving the mouse back and forth at a leisurely pace during the early levels, growing more and more frantic with the mouse as the game intensifies until, at level nine, I am clicking the mouse button in a nonstop motion, arcing the mouse back and forth across the mouse pad. When I lose, I take a deep breath and start over, glad to be back at the beginning, where it’s easy and things move slowly. At the beginning, I don’t have to think, and that is the real attraction of the game.

The game does nasty things to our computer, downloading data miners every couple of minutes. My husband, who knows a thing or two about computers, says that the miners could ruin our computer, that we can’t afford to buy a new one, that I really should stop playing the game. I know he’s right, but the risks have been worth that luxurious feeling of thinking about nothing. If I had to take stock, here are the contents of my summer:

Thinking about: nothing.

Doing: nothing (e.g., watching TV, playing video games).

In my brain: nothing.

What I want to accomplish: nothing.

What I have actually accomplished: surprisingly, more than you would imagine.

Two things startle me. The first is that I have been able to keep up this sort of vacant existence for so long. I said goodbye to my sixth-grade reading students seven weeks ago, and I usually rebound from the need to vegetate much, much sooner. If boredom doesn’t drive me, then outside forces take over. The kids need to be driven to baseball practice, the eaves need painting, someone wants food, or I need to work to prepare for the next school year. All of it is important and necessary and my role in life, and normally after a week or two, I plunge myself into the minutiae of daily life without resentment and with a renewed vigor. This summer, I’ve done all the feeding and the driving and the schoolwork, just as I always do. But I haven’t been there.

The entire time while I was shopping for my son’s baseball cleats, my mind was skimming across the abyss, hoping we could hurry up and finish so I could catch Intimate Portrait when we got home.

At our summer in-service about poverty and diversity at school, I was daydreaming the entire time about what my strategy would be if I were a contestant in The Amazing Race. See, before I went, I’d study all the maps in the whole world and learn how to talk to taxi drivers in three or four Romance languages and a couple of Asian ones, too. I’d make my husband drive places fast, and I would practice navigating from the back seat. We’d drive in downtown Houston during rush hour to practice being civil to one another in high-stress situations. We would be the nicest couple ever to compete and would not do one mean or cutthroat thing to the other people. We would win the million dollars with the power of our preparation and winning personalities. I went to the trouble of daydreaming only to keep myself upright in the chair.

The second surprise is that nobody seems to notice my mental absence. We’re in the car driving to the orthodontist, and my son is talking about dove hunting season, and I’m saying “Uh-huh” periodically, but I’m not listening at all, and he doesn’t know the difference. I lie across the bed and listen to my husband discuss his job, and I barely keep up. He has to ask if I’m listening once or twice, but I don’t think he realizes that even when I’m looking straight at him, even when I am asking pertinent questions, I’m not there.

He never comes home from work at the end of the day and says, “It looks like you sat around all day and didn’t do anything. Is this how you want to spend your summer?” I lose my planner, which I refer to as my brain, and nobody thinks it is odd that I have lost my brain. Nobody says, “Mother/Wife/Daughter, how very odd that you would lose your brain. You usually have your brain together.”

And then I get mad. I tell my husband I’m sad. I tell him I feel disregarded. He says sorry. He makes the kids say sorry. But it’s all a ruse. My anger is a façade; I’ve wielded it to keep them from seeing that I want to do nothing, think nothing, and have nothing to stop me from doing nothing, including people. It’s easy to lash out, because I’m the mom, and they are afraid to call me on it.

My mom can loaf with the best of them. She can spend a whole week doing nothing but eating Wheaties and reading romance novels, with an occasional change of clothing to make people think she is moving around more than she actually is. She can play penny poker with a six-year-old for half a day. If I were playing penny poker with a six-year-old, it would be something. I would have to concentrate to keep from losing my temper and to keep people from knowing that I am not especially patient at poker or six- year-olds. But she is patient at both, and for her, it’s nothing.

She tried to teach me the art of blankness for a lot of years but had never been successful. It isn’t that I’m a bad student. I would have loved to pass the course, but she’s not the only one from whom I inherited traits. The familial penchant for obsessive compulsive disorder, though somewhat muddied by my mother’s coolness, has manifested itself in me as a type A personality with a side of anal retentiveness. So, technically, I knew how to do this “nothing” everyone kept talking about, but in practice I had spent very little time doing it. And I can now admit that for many years I only acted the role when it came time for nothing. Maybe I was still, maybe I was quiet, but on the inside, I was lying on a sunny beach with a scantily clad Viking lad. But now, I’m doing it. And I’m doing it for a lot longer than necessary. I could compete with a corpse.

Mom can dip into nothing at the drop of a hat, stay there for fifteen minutes, and return unblemished. That is her normal pattern. Over the years, though, there were times when I witnessed a prolonged retreat. She pulled into herself during times of extreme stress. When her sister died, she was mentally absent for a year or so. She did the chores, but every spare moment was poured into a Harlequin romance. She read hundreds of them, with the bad grammar, the identical plots. Their mindless drone kept her afloat in the aftermath. It was how she handled her grief.

I usually need a week or two to recover from the previous school year, and I am now five weeks past that deadline. There is a possibility that events of the last year have prolonged my coma. I could add a week of bone idleness for the unwanted changes at work that will add hours to my workload. Two weeks for the letter in the mail saying there is a nodule. A nodule and we would like to take another look before we remove both of your breasts and leave a cavernous maw in their place. Another week for when they sent the next letter saying sorry for the inconvenience, but there is nothing wrong with your breast. The technician thinks she may have dropped an olive from her lunch into your titty pictorial. Add a week for that phone call from my daughter in the middle of fifth period. “My best friend tried to kill herself and I had to stop her.” A day, no two, added on for the trip to the mental hospital, following in the wake of the red ambulance that carried her friend kicking and screaming to that unfamiliar place. My daughter’s frightened eyes, wide and so young. What does that add up to? Almost seven weeks. Three days short.

The other three days? There was extra stress because of the graduation. Have to have the right dress, send the invitations, plan the parties, the thank-yous, the college visits, the imminent leaving of your first child.

The imminent leaving of your first child, off to college, where she will almost certainly forget the way home. Where she will shush off to Vail on the first Thanksgiving with a kid named Rick, while we at home mourn her passing. The day I watched the Real World marathon for eight straight hours in my pajamas, did that have anything at all to do with the imminent leaving?

Am I trying to hold time at the end of my arm because I am afraid, terrified actually, that the wake of her absence will fill with … nothing?

I’ve done everything right. I worked all year to own my feelings, to acknowledge that the last homecoming parade, the last high school volleyball game, the last report card were sad to me. I have done my crying. My husband and son have not done theirs—and will not until she is gone—and I figured I would get a head start so I can help them through it. This is what a good mother does.

But I don’t feel up to helping them. I wonder if it is possible to die from having your kid go off to college. I have friends whose kids are in college. They don’t look dead, but they could be sort of half dead. Maybe all those gray-headed people wandering around the country in RVs are really half dead from their kids leaving. Maybe they sit on far hillsides with powerful telescopes and watch Junior at the office. “Mom,” Dad will say. “Come quick! He’s about to make his presentation!” It’s possible.

Maybe I’ll be the first. Only nobody will know. The local newspaper will write an article about my untimely demise. It will say:

“Joni Koehler died today. The cause of death was heart failure. Her husband stated that Joni was playing a computer game when she gave a sudden cry and collapsed on top of the keyboard. ‘They really should make level nine easier,’ said the stricken widower.”

There is a ring of being pregnant again to all of it. My emotions are all over the place. My daughter and I are walking through the mall, and I say I have a headache, and she says, “Just do what I do and don’t allow yourself to get a headache, because like I never succumb to the folly that is illness.” And I want to have this baby already. I want her out. She’s a bowling ball in my gut. Then, we’re walking through the store looking at bedspreads and I tell her, “That is a dependable bedspread right there. You can use it on your own little girl’s bed. It will last you a long time, so it’s worth a few extra dollars,” and I just want to throw myself on the floor and beg somebody to give me a little girl because I don’t have one anymore. It hits me in a startling wave like morning sickness, and I have to concentrate very hard on the E! True Hollywood Story to look like a normal person, not a forty-four-year-old woman clinging to the sales clerk’s leg, howling about babies.

Her leaving isn’t the only hard thing. It is the change in my role. From the moment she left my womb, my existence as Joni took a back seat to my existence as Amy’s mom. Society saw me that way, and so did I. It was difficult to go from being the one with the beautiful body to the one with the slack tummy and the oversized breasts that spewed milk without my knowledge or permission ten times a day. I grew into motherhood with grace. I endured the days when six of the seven bodily fluids ended up on my clothing, the telephone didn’t ring once, and I lay in wait for my husband to come home from work so I could follow him all over the house and talk and talk just to keep my head from exploding. I talked to my children, I read to them, I praised their childish creations, and I watched hundreds of ball games in which I had no interest. My children have turned out happy, reasonably intelligent, and well adjusted. However, they are about to turn out, both of them, and her leaving has reminded me of this.

I think it used to be enough that a woman raised her children. If she survived child rearing, society didn’t expect much more. She was then free to let her chins multiply and watch squirrels from her front porch. Now I think I’m supposed to do something else. When my son leaves in three years, I will be three years away from my fiftieth birthday. If Oprah and Maya Angelou are any gauge, I’m supposed to celebrate this new age and start sprouting wise pronouncements. I am supposed to grow into another role altogether, one where I know myself, lower my body fat, and achieve something worthwhile in my own right. Only, I don’t know anything about this “new” woman, and sometimes I feel the same sort of wide-eyed fright that I felt when I held my daughter in my lap for the first time, and she looked at me so helpless and trusting. I’m staring down the teeth of a waterfall, and I’d rather not.

So I go to my bedroom, because it’s Amazing Race time. Amy comes in and lies on my bed and we watch together. The contestants race to Russia, where they have to play hockey, drink vodka, and eat two pounds of caviar. The skinny women have great difficulty with the caviar; they say they’re sick and can’t possibly finish. They roll in agony on the floor and cool cloths are applied. The bowling moms suck that caviar down; they’ve smelled and tasted worse than this, endured worse than this. They leave their skinny counterparts in the dust. Amy turns to me and says, “You could do that, Mom.”

“You bet I could, but when Dad and I go, he’ll do all the eating. He’ll eat anything.”

“No, you and I should go, Mom.”

“Okay,” I say.

The contestants reach the pit stop for the day. The older Internet dating couple is last and they get eliminated.

“You’ll have to get in shape, though,” she says.

“Yeah, I will. I can do it, too. But you’ve got to be smart to win this game.”

“Yeah, we could win.”

And we do, every day. I’m sad that she’s leaving but I know it will be okay. I’ll get into shape and jump back into my life, and get smart, and learn the new languages I need, and read the maps, and sometimes we’ll still run the race together. We are the new women, she and I, and we can conquer hockey, whip caviar, and slay vodka. We can even beat level nine, if we want to. And that would be something.

Author’s Note: My daughter is now in her second semester of college. I will not lie. At first, I was glum; I was teary, prickly even. Now, I’m adjusting. Writing this piece was somewhat prophetic. My body fat is lower, and I am determined to accomplish something in my own right. I’m back on the

Joni Koehlerlives in a South Texas town. She is a sixth-grade teacher at the local school, a wife, the mother of two children, and an aspiring author.

Brain, Child (Summer 2005)

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Threshold to Summer

Threshold to Summer

 

IMG_1206It’s that threshold to summer moment. The other day I walked, not to go anywhere, simply to enjoy the air, and composed haiku in my head. I won’t tell you how long it took, although I will admit if you saw me walking yes, I did count on my fingers. Tulips, lilacs, gone/Peonies, irises, go./Next, summer. Roses.

With summer, comes a sense of a season set apart. Without school—and here in a college town, that’s a profound difference not just in a household with school age kids but everywhere—the energy shifts. There are longer days, swimming pools to dip into and ice cream to lick outside. There’s dirt and sweat and a sense that we are supposed to have fun (“supposed to?”). For the past four summers on my personal blog I’ve created a Summer Wish List. I will do it again before the solstice. It’s a little wishes, a little resolution, a little what’s great to do in the corner of New England where I live, and a little bit of a note to myself.

My family, I think it’s safe to say about this particular year, is maxed out on “supposed to.” The school year wasn’t easy for every person and there have been big adjustments, like Kindergarten (love, love, love, but still, epic adjustment). There were challenging work disappointments and frustrations. If I were to characterize our recent months, I’d say we did a pretty hefty amount of coping. So, I both feel the ways we could use the breathy delights of expansion—explore, enjoy, just… be elsewhere—and the balm of rest and relaxation. Even if I write a long list, the truer list will be short. The truer list will be about whatever makes us feel good day-to-day and feels restorative.

Also, on my list will be to read books. The little gal has begun to read (and I have the biggest writer-and-parent crush on Elephant and Piggie these days) and it’s a true delight to watch and listen to her determined efforts and reap the benefits of increased fluency daily. My fifth grader has to be pushed to read—and only sometimes, rarely, accepts the nudge. That’s in stark contrast to the eldest guy, who pretty much read his way through childhood. He retains a physical attachment to books; he reads them and carries them and keeps them. I’ve been very hands-off about reading. For the eldest, I stopped insisting he put the book down every single night at dinner (some nights, just not all of them) because he found such comfort in them. I have been hands-off in the opposite direction too because not every kid loves to read and that doesn’t mean the adult version will eschew reading. Still, with him, I’d like to find a way to reintroduce the idea that just maybe reading can be fun and relaxing and interesting.

And my memories of my bigger kids’ elementary school years included some great read aloud times, either as they ate dinner or at bedtime. I want to find ways to recreate that pleasure more consistently for my smaller gal, despite the frenzy that takes place when there’s more activity around us—and more screens. Because these days, books aren’t as omnipresent in the household as devices with screens (my laptop included), and so I realize it’ll take a little effort to change our family’s current culture—and summer seems to present itself as an opportunity for this.

An opportunity for me, too: I have used my writer hat as a push myself to read, as in read a book and then write about it. This turns out to be a reasonable incentive. The thing is, whether I have to fabricate a little prompt or not, once I’m reading it’s such a pleasant thing to do (duh, I always won the summer bookworm contests in elementary school).

Even if it doesn’t happen often, I am going to hold out an image of us at home, lazing around and reading on a rainy weekend afternoon. The image alone makes me smile. Whether I’ll succeed and what success really means to me is anybody’s guess. I don’t want to attach a number of books or amount of time allotted to reading. I don’t want this to exactly be a list item, a de facto chore. I do want to read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle one more time, though. That radish cure is something every kid should hear at least once no matter how dated Betty MacDonald’s cookie-serving neighborhood seems in 2014.

Dancing Queen

Dancing Queen

WO Dancing Queen ArtBy Daisy Alpert Florin

Last summer, my family and I spent a week in Vermont at the kind of family resort that promises fun for all ages.  It delivered: while our three kids participated in wholesome summertime activities with their peers, my husband, Ken, and I had time to reconnect during long bike rides, canoe trips and swims in the lake.  Each night, the resort offered after-hours activities as well, most of which did not appeal to me.  Bonfire and sing-along?  Too hokey.  Trivia night?  Too geriatric.  But Thursday night’s offering seemed perfect: Dance night with DJ.

I love to dance.  Years of childhood ballet have not translated into a lifetime of grace, but give me a few drinks, blast some pop music and I’m unstoppable.  At 40, the opportunities for dancing are few and far between.  Before last summer, the last time I had been dancing was four years earlier at a friend’s wedding.  I danced non-stop, sweating through my dress, pausing only when the DJ took a break for the father-of-the-bride’s toast.  So any chance to dance, I’ve come to learn, should not be passed up.

Ken and I reserved a babysitter, put our kids to bed and headed up to the inn.  The breakfast room had been transformed into a dance floor, complete with disco ball, strobe light and a mountain of sound equipment.  When we entered the room, a few guests were taking salsa lessons.  I sipped my maple mojito through a skinny straw and watched the sad scene unfold.

“What’s up with the salsa lesson?”  I asked Ken.  “I thought we were here to dance.”

“Calm down.  There’s the DJ,” he said.  “Let’s just wait.”  He patted my hand, trying to keep my tantrum at bay.

Dancing, or the promise of dancing, can bring out my nasty side.  At my five-year college reunion, fueled by several foamy beers and the crush of alumnae dancing around me, I had yelled at the college students sneaking some grooves on the tiny square of dance floor set up on the grass for the class of 1995.

“This is our dance floor, yo!” I’d hissed at them.  “Get the hell off!”  I couldn’t stand the thought of them dancing every weekend the way I used to, traipsing from frat house to frat house in search of the best crowd and the best tunes, while we returned to entry-level jobs in the city, our weekends spent in overpriced bars with nary a DJ in sight.

The salsa lesson ended and the dance floor cleared out.  The DJ started spinning some tunes, mostly unoffensive, generic stuff: “I Will Survive,” “Holiday,” “Dancing Queen.”  All in all, pretty uninspiring.  The crowd apparently agreed with me: fifteen minutes in, the dance floor was pretty much empty.

“This is lame,” I said to Ken, eyeing the middle-aged crowd around us.

“Do you want to go?” he asked.

Before I could answer, the doors opened and a crowd of staff members entered the room.  This could get interesting, I thought and ordered another drink.

The young men and women, released from their day jobs as camp counselors, waitresses and Zumba instructors, sauntered in in groups of four and five.  Having shed the cocoon of their uniforms, they emerged like butterflies in low-slung jeans and baby doll dresses.  All week long, I had been obsessed with the group of young people who kept the resort running.  I invented fictions about them–love triangles, bitter breakups, kinky sexting.  Each morning, as I biked from our cabin to the resort’s main buildings, I passed by the staff’s residence.  It was a shabby Victorian-style house covered in layers of colorful paint and strung with Christmas lights.  I could only imagine the amount of screwing that took place inside.

The staff greeted each other, some affectionately, others nonchalantly.  I recognized the waitress who served us breakfast each morning standing on the periphery of a loud group of girls.  She was wearing a brightly patterned dress, high-waisted and billowy around the hip.  Looking around at the other girls, I noticed they were all wearing different versions of the same dress regardless of how it suited their figures.  They were too young to know how to dress for their bodies, but young enough for it not to matter.

Watching them, I couldn’t help wondering how I had entered this other group, parents–or “guests” as we were known–when deep down I felt like I should be hanging out with the the staff.   Why had I never had a job like this instead of wasting my college summers working at internships in fields I’d never entered?  They got to go dancing.

As Ken and I sipped our drinks and grooved half-heartedly to ABBA and Van Morrison, the staff played out their own dramas, oblivious to us.  My eyes tried to meet theirs across the dark room. Can’t you see? I tried to telegraph.  I’m really one of you.

After a few more songs, I walked over to the DJ.

“Are you going to play anything more current?  Like Katy Perry or Rihanna?” I asked the boy-girl pair parked behind the turntable.

“Yeah,” the girl answered flatly.  “We usually play the older stuff first for the older crowd and then we’ll start with something more modern.”

My eyes met hers straight on.  “Well, let’s hit it NOW, O.K.?”  I think I kind of yelled.

Seconds later, Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” exploded through the speakers.  I ran out onto the dance floor, pumping my hands toward the roof as the chorus rang out.  I twisted and grooved through the twangy horns section and stamped my feet during the final na-na-nas.  The music continued, the songs of summer streaming out one after the other.  I knew them all from listening to the radio in my minivan.  I closed my eyes and felt the music pulse through my body.  I shouted along with lyrics that had nothing to do with my life anymore, stories of love and breakups played out in school yards and on city streets.

After awhile, I gave Ken the O.K. to head over to the bar, and I moved around, unfettered, looking for a new group to join.  I found our waitress dancing with a group of her friends.  Their circle opened slightly and I poked my way in.

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the biggest hit of the summer, came on and the crowd screamed.  It was a song my kids and I had hooted along to during our morning ride to day camp.  Now I mouthed the lyrics seductively in the dark: I know you want it… I know you want it.  The girls and I swiveled our hips and shimmied our shoulders, shouting when Robin anointed us all “the hottest bitch in this place.”

Wanting to end the night on a high, I slipped off the dance floor as soon as the song ended.  But before I left, I grabbed the waitress’s arm and pulled her toward me.

“Listen to me,” I said, my lips close to her ear.  “Go dancing every night you can, OK?  And just, like, own it.  Do you get me?”

And then I was gone, pulling Ken away from the bar and out into the summer night.

“Did you have fun?” he asked as we walked along the dark path back to our cabin.

“It was good,” I said, yawning.  Nestling closer to him, I remembered that all I’d ever wanted during the crazy nights of my youth was a man to walk home with afterwards.  All the primping and preening, the sexy moves on the dance floor, all of it had been in pursuit of the life I had now.  The moon rose high in the nearly black sky, crystalline stars stretching on as far as I could see.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a freelance writer. She lives and works in Connecticut.

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New England Beach Babies

New England Beach Babies

By JoeAnn Hart

Web Only Beach Baby art“What now?” I muttered as my trowel hit an obstruction. “A plastic something.” In the depths of a major garden excavation for my son’s wedding, I kept coming across indestructible bits of our family’s life. Bare tennis balls, bottle caps, keys to cars we no longer owned. This time, though, as I cut away the roots wrapped around my latest find, annoyance gave way to memory. It was a child’s green plastic shovel, and as I turned it over in my hands, years of sitting at the beach with children washed over me.

“What a luxury,” people had always said, “to live within walking distance of the water.” What a pain, I’d grumble to myself. I grew up with suburban sprinklers, not ocean, so I was not a relaxed summer-time mom. Getting the kids ready for our daily beach expedition was like being backstage at a circus, helping squirming bodies into suits and painting faces with sunscreen. Adding up the hours, I have spent a full week of my life searching for sandals the length of my pinky. I could not begin to guess the time spent packing The Bag: Sunscreen, water, box juices, cookies, mini-carrots, peanut-butter sandwiches, towels, more sunscreen, and a blanket. I was exhausted when I finally hit our isolated patch of sand, and it was just the beginning. Clutching a sweaty baby boy while digging a moat with a toddler without taking my eyes off the oldest at the water’s edge was no day at the beach. I did my best to identify the sealife for the two older girls (“that’s a dead crab, honey, put it down”) and answer their questions about nature. “Why is the water blue?” Because it reflects the sky. “Why is the sky blue?” Have a cookie.

We stayed as the tide played in, then out. (“Where does the water go?”) We kept time by an upright stick in the sand, and when its shadow reached a certain angle they knew we had to head back. After packing up camp, an epic adventure of lost and found, we’d begin our forced march, me pushing the stroller with baby and toddler smushed together like sardines, the oldest lagging behind and whining. This was followed by the hose-down, story-time and a nap. That last one more for me than them.

Oh, it got easier over the years. My job became that of lifeguard, albeit one who burned easily and got dizzy from the sun. I sat in a chair, a magazine open on my lap, and watched the kids float like soap bubbles and swim like otters, dark shapes against the sunlight on the surf. Occasionally I’d be called into duty to help steady a kickboard, but mostly they tried to lure me into the water so they could hear me screech like a seagull. My children, true New England beach babies, are unfazed by the sharp slap of the frigid Atlantic. I will never get used to it.

One by one, they reached the age to beach it alone. My oldest girl would run off after breakfast and I’d meet her down there with the two younger ones. In later years, there was just one with me, and then there were none. After that, I’d only go to check that everyone was using sunscreen and staying hydrated. Usually I’d just find them working on their tans, but well into their teens, I’d catch them building kingdoms of sand, festooned with seaglass and bird bones. At the end of the day they’d watch their creations wash away with a shrug. To them, raised on tides, change was the way of the world.

Not so many years later and there I was with a little green shovel. Slipping two fingers into the handle, I could feel the small hand that once wrapped around it, and suddenly I missed the beach. Not the heat or the sand fleas, but the three familiar shapes moving through the water’s brilliant light. I missed their childhoods, and sometimes, I think, so do they. For his wedding, my son wanted a sand castle cake, a clambake at the beach, and silhouette photos against the sun as it dropped into an orange-red sea.

I stuck the shovel in a pile of dirt and tried to guess the time.

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled. Her short fiction and essays have been widely published, and she is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe Magazine. She lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts with her husband and a few barn animals. To find out more, please visit www.joeannhart.com

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Would You Pay Your Child To Write You Letters From Camp?

Would You Pay Your Child To Write You Letters From Camp?

IMG_0040The only way I will get my 13-year-old-son to write me letters from camp this summer is if I pay him. That’s right, money in exchange for letters.

This summer will be my son’s 6th year at his seven-week all boys sleep away camp. To date, I’ve received, on average, two letters per summer, each on one side of a piece of paper with a total of about ten lines (that’s being generous) or less (that’s more accurate—and includes the salutations). One of his letters each summer is simply a list of requested items for parent visiting day three weeks into camp, which sets my maternal instincts into overdrive, and includes a week-long scavenger hunt type of shop for his desired goodies, snacks and some surprises for my boy.

For years, I have watched our mailman, Cliff (that’s his actual name – best name for a mailman ever – thank you “Cheers”) from my office window as he slows down his mail truck in front of our house. The sound of his truck starting back up and slowly pulling away is the signal for my daily walk down our long driveway, hoping that instead of more Victoria Secret catalogues, Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons and bills there will be a small letter-sized white envelope with my son’s name and camp address on the familiar red return label adorned with mini baseballs. And his distinctive messy handwriting, the one I wish was a bit neater during the school year but long for on the hottest of summer days. Because all I want is a piece of him, a sliver of his gregarious personality, the way he looks at me when I tuck him in at night, his freckled face after a day in the sun, his braces-filled smile. But every day it’s the same. No letter.

Whether my son writes me or not, I still make sure to write him every day, either a quick email, a sports clipping from the newspaper, or an actual letter, some days creative, others a summary on what’s happening at home, including our Labrador Tobey’s inevitable daily destructions.

For years, I have stood by the “no news is good news” argument for his lack of letters as well as the “isn’t that a good sign” sentiment. But then, last summer, a good friend boasted about how many letters she had received and how she couldn’t decide which to read first. “Wow,” I said, lingering on the image of my daily letter-empty mailbox. “You’re so lucky to get so many letters.”

“Do you know how much today’s mail cost me?” she said.

“You think he would write me if I didn’t pay him to?” she continued in a matter-of-fact tone, adding, “Yup, he gets $5 per letter. But they have to be good. No two-liners for that fee.” My confusion quickly morphed into a combination of minor shock and horror, with a tinge of envy mixed in. Why hadn’t I thought of that idea? But I wasn’t the type of mother to bribe my kid to write letters. Or was I? How far would I be willing to go for my own parental benefit and maternal fulfillment?

Last month, I was at a friend’s house while she was organizing her daughter’s camp pack. “It’s her first summer,” she said, showing me the selection of flashlights for her electricity-free cabins. I was impressed by her organization. Then she presented her daughter’s plastic stationery box, filled with decorative pens, personalized stamps, stickers and enough stationery for what seemed like the entire camp. As she rearranged the owl-themed pad and brightly colored envelopes, I joked, “you think she has enough stationery to last her through the summer?” She and her daughter gave each other a knowing look, as if I had stumbled upon a secret or an inside joke. “I’m paying her for each letter she writes. Right, Olivia?” “Yeah!” Olivia replied, as her brown saucer-shaped eyes widened. Another friend in the room, who also sends her daughter to camp added, without hesitation, “everyone does that. How else do you think we can get them to write?”

Years ago, when I went to camp, we had to write our parents. The counselors collected our letters daily. And in the afternoons, they placed mail from home on our beds. My mother wrote about her daily routine, her teacher-like script handwriting filling the front and back of her personalized stationery. My father was more the creative type. His letters were riddled with puns and mazes and games. In one, he cut tiny strips of paper and stapled them together, writing one or two words on each piece, creating a long measuring tape with a string of words and sentences. In every letter he ever sent me, he hid the letters “SP” (short for “special princess”) somewhere on the envelope or in the content of the letter, his own personal spin-off on one of my favorite pastimes growing up – counting Alan Hirschfield’s NINAs in the weekend edition of the New York Times.

Maybe I wrote my parents letters because I had to; maybe I wrote them because I wanted to. Maybe I wrote them because I loved receiving mail.

Perhaps the only way I can get my son to write me letters from camp is if I pay him. And these days, a bribe or reward is not out the realm of my parenting repertoire. Yet, there’s something so pure and fundamental about writing a letter. It’s not a text or an email; it’s not an Instagram photo or a Facebook message. It’s pen to paper. It’s writing down thoughts and recreating events.

I send Daniel to sleep away camp, knowing there will be moments filled with questions, discomfort, and uncertainty. And yet, for every one of those experiences, there are so many more “best ever” moments – like the group trip to Cooperstown, NBA day, the rope burn. I just want my son to tell me about it – all of it. But I recognize he can’t. That he chooses not to. That it’s all part of his summer experience away from home. Away from me.

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