The Pit

The Pit


There was no reason to tell my daughter that the thrill of the tickets paled in comparison to the very idea that my sixteen-year-old daughter was willingly, of her own accord, taking ME to a concert.

By Ellyn Gelman

I was in Hartford, Connecticut, but I was dressed for Nashville. The country music fans appeared to grow exponentially as the concert start time drew near. Unusually warm for May, spring had finally pushed out winter and was showing off with vibrant yellows and greens. A light breeze carried with it the smell of beer and hotdogs. The concert tickets folded in the back pocket of my jeans were a gift from my teenage daughter, Dayna. I remembered back to a week ago…

The hastily made card had been crafted from a single piece of white paper, folded in half, the scent of sharpie ink still fresh. The card was signed, “Happy Mother’s Day!!!! Love you too much, Dayna.” Tucked inside were two concert tickets.

“Lady Antebellum Mom, just you and me, Darius Rucker is the warm-up band; it’s in Hartford, so awesome right?” Her words spewed forth like a fountain of teenage joy as she danced around the family room.

“Road trip Mom, next Friday, can you believe it; aren’t you so excited?”

“Yes. So excited,” I said.

No reason to tell her that the thrill of the tickets paled in comparison to the very idea that my sixteen-year-old daughter was willingly, of her own accord, taking ME to a concert.

We waited for the gates to open.

“Is it almost time to go in?” Dayna said, her smile full of the metal braces she couldn’t wait to get and now hated with a passion. She was five feet, five inches of beautiful with tight ripped jeans tucked into Frye boot knock-offs. Her small white T-shirt, tied at the waist, showed a only whisper of belly when she moved.

I scanned the crowd. Cowboy hats and denim, short skirts and cowboy boots. Lawn chairs lazily tucked under arms or slung over shoulders. Wait, lawn chairs? I reached into my back pocket for our tickets. No row, no seat numbers.

“Dayna, do we have seats?”

“Uh, um, I don’t think so,” she said. She kicked at a pebble on the ground.

“Do we need lawn chairs?” I said.

“No Mom, these tickets are for the pit.”

“The pit?”

“Yeah, up front, at the stage, you know, you stand in the pit. The tickets were twenty-five dollars each on Stub Hub.”

“I know what the pit is,” I said.

I had been to a few concerts in my fifty years. Foreigner, Cars, Grateful Dead, to name a few, but I had always had a seat. The pit had always been that “place down there” where bodies that were too close moved wildly.

“Are you bummed?” She said. The truth was, I was bummed. Five hours of standing? I looked down at my feet. My toes had already begun to protest their confinement in the points of my brown leather and suede cowboy boots. I had purchased them years ago on a trip in Colorado. They were authentic, hand-made, and spent most of their time in the back of my closet. Don’t blow this. You’re at a concert with your daughter, in cool boots. When I looked up, Dayna’s dark brown, thickly lined eyes wore a veil of worried hope.

“No, I’m not bummed, really. I’m just surprised, in a good way. I’ve never been in the pit before.”

“You’ll love it,” She said.

She wrapped her arms around my waist and laid her head on my shoulder. Her soft brown hair smelled like grapefruit and possibility.

We were among the first to enter with our neon yellow “pit access” wristbands. The theater was shaped like a giant fan. The seats spread out behind the pit, and then fully opened to a green uncovered lawn. Dayna grabbed my hand and pulled me right up to the stage where, like prospectors, we claimed a front-row spot. My chin rose just above the stage. There were x marks on the floor where Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum would eventually stand. A maze of electric cords taped to the floor resembled arteries and veins that would carry the force of sounds and light to the stage. Tiny specks of dust swirled in the light cast off from a hundred theater lights above.

The pit filled slowly with teens and young adults. A slight teenage girl in skinny red jeans and a black Lady Antebellum t-shirt stood next to me with her dad. I was relieved to see another parent in the pit—even better, he looked older than me. We smiled a bit awkwardly at each other. An alert young security guard, whose sole purpose was to scan the crowd in the pit, stood to our left. Behind us, two stocky young women in their early twenties posed repeatedly for “selfies” with cell phone and beers held high. One wore a baseball cap backwards.

The start time approached and brought with it an anxious sense of ‘ready,’ and the crowd grew tighter. Darius Rucker took the stage amidst bright lights and loud cheers. Everyone danced in a tight collective, jumping up and down. There, next to the speakers, it was as if the music made its way through me before it was released into the rest of the theater. I felt connected to everything: my daughter, the music, the crowd, all of it. Dayna was right; this was “so great.”

In an unguarded moment, Dayna and I were shoved to the side and the girls, who had stood behind us waiting for the past hour, displaced us. They danced as if our spot had always been theirs.

“What? That’s so not fair?” My daughter said, pointing at them.

“I know,” I said. Thinking, fair?

“They can’t do that,” she said in the full outrage of a naïve teen.

“Well, they just did,” I said. I had no intention of confronting them there, in the pit, or anywhere.

“No way. Come on.” Dayna grabbed my hand to pull me forward.

Instinctively, I pulled my hand out of hers and stayed put. I simply watched as she slipped around the women and reclaimed her spot. She turned back to look for me. I motioned for her to come back to me where we would be safe. She shook her head.

“Mom, come on, this is our spot,” she said.

I was taken aback by her nerve—or was it confidence? I no longer felt connected. I was hot and sweaty, trapped between my daughter’s boldness and my timidity. Left up to me, I would have done nothing (go ahead, take our spot), drowning all potential for a good time in a pool of resentment. That would have been my story, but I didn’t want that to be my daughter’s story. There she stood in her reclaimed spot, a lone soldier fighting for “fair.”

I pushed my way gently, somewhat apologetically, between those women and stood next to my daughter. I was forced to hold on to the stage for balance with my back slightly bent backwards like the letter C. I waited for something to happen, like a beer can to the head, yelling, something. Nothing. I looked over at my daughter. That is when I saw one of the women jab Dayna in the back with her elbow. The other pushed her from behind. Dayna kept her eyes forward, jaw clenched. She refused to acknowledge their aggression. They pushed her again and laughed. I knew that laugh. Suddenly I was thirteen again, a new girl in a new school.

The lunch lady handed me my change. As I made my way to an empty table, three girls approached me. “Give us your money new girl, we know you got money.” They were like seagulls on the beach and I was a single scrap of food. They pushed me and grabbed at my clenched fist. It only took a couple of hits to my back before I handed over the quarters. The girls laughed as they walked away. It was my first and last hot lunch in eighth grade.

I turned to the two women.

“Hey, stop that. Don’t touch her again,” I said.

“This is the pit, man, everyone gets touched in the pit,” the one with the baseball cap sneered.

“Yeah, if you’re in the pit, you’re gonna get touched. Get over yourself,” the other chimed in. She waved the back of her hand in my face.

Dayna grabbed my arm.

“Mom, if this is going to ruin the concert for you, we can just move back” she said.

“No,” I said.

I turned and grabbed the security guard’s arm.

I explained the situation to him as I frantically pointed out the aggressors. He made his way over and spoke with them. They pointed at me. I stared hard at them. The guard pointed to the exit. Yes that’s good make them leave. Behind me, Darius Rucker continued to sing and the crowd around me danced. I waited for the next move. They did not leave, but they backed up. I turned back to the stage, shaky, still on guard, but no longer afraid.

Darius Rucker sang his last song and yelled goodnight to the crowd. He reached down and touched all the out stretched hands as he made his way off stage. In a sudden move, he stopped in front of Dayna, bent down, and placed his guitar pick in her hand. The crowd roared.

“Mom, that did not just happen,” she said. She jumped up and down, her fist clenched around the guitar pick held high in the air. I jumped up and down, too. Her joy was my joy.

Lady Antebellum was up next. Before the night ended, Dayna was the recipient of three more guitar picks, each one handed to her, none thrown. She gave one to the girl next to me in the red jeans. A teenage boy ran up to her at the end of the concert.

“Oh my god, you are the luckiest girl on earth,” he said.

Dayna gave him a pick, too.

It was after midnight as we made our way slowly to the car.

“Wasn’t it all so great mom?”

“It was perfect, Dayna.”

Author’s Note: Two summers have come and gone since Dayna and I saw Lady Anetebellum in concert. We learned a lot about each other and ourselves that night. This summer, I went to see Chicago in concert at the same venue with my husband and friends. We sat in our own chairs in the upper lawn section. I could barely see the band and I felt disconnected and uncool. I spent the entire concert longing to be in the pit.

Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Wilton, CT. She has been published on National Public Radio “This I Believe” and in Brain, Child.

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A Letter to My Younger Self on My 39th Birthday

A Letter to My Younger Self on My 39th Birthday


rancesca 1Francesca 2A few years ago, Sugar, aka Cheryl Strayed (who has published in Brain Child), wrote a “letter to her younger self” in one of her stunning Rumpus advice columns. As writers and mothers we at Brain Child are trying, in this bizarre time, to show each other (and our younger selves) our similarities and our differences with a new perspective.

With Cheryl’s blessing, we invite you to submit letters to your younger selves.

-Francesca Grossman, Column Editor


Dear 19-year-old self,

Deep breath. I still love you. You are still loved. You will both earn love and deserve love even when all signs point against it. It is for this you will be most grateful.

You are too young to have made any mistakes that matter. You will make so many of them that it isn’t worth being upset about playing strip poker with eight sophomore boys in high school when you are a freshman, or not taking ecstasy soon enough, or sleeping with a first boyfriend who left you for your fourth best friend, or going to the wrong college because it was the best college, or not appreciating the best college for what it was. You will have to forgive yourself for thinking that faking it IS making it, for being “let go” for not caring and then being indignant about it, or for changing directions midstream. Your mistakes will shape you, of course, but they won’t define you, not yet, and maybe, actually, not ever.

You will make mistakes. It is very easy to make mistakes. It’s actually easy to hurt people, even the person you love most, and not just if you mean to. It is easy to look reality in the face and ignore it, not because you don’t believe it but because you do. It is easy to do the wrong thing, even the same wrong thing more than once. But it isn’t hard to be kind. It isn’t. It isn’t hard to forgive or ask to be forgiven. It isn’t hard to apologize, sincerely, kindly, because you know that all of the above is true.

You will be woken up from a gardening trance by a call from your beautiful friend’s beautiful girlfriend telling you he’s dead. You will have to tell your very good man this piece of news and though you know in your heart that you should be more sad than you are you realize that this is the first time this very good man has experienced death this close up and you feel both experienced and grateful that this isn’t your first time. You won’t understand yet that death doesn’t get easier if you know it more. You will never forgive yourself for how you do tell him. When he drops the ground beef you were going to BBQ on the floor in the doorway, dripping bloody juice for the cats to lap up, you will wish you could cry as well as he does. You will find out that your inability to cry then will make crying your full time job years later.

You will learn to be vulnerable. And that vulnerability is not about revealing your secrets. You will not understand this for a very long time. That’s your mistake. Secrets are just the juicy bits. They don’t mean much in the end – once they come out they are usually just regrets. You will learn that vulnerability is not revealing your secrets. It’s being willing to admit you were wrong.

And you will be wrong a lot. You will be with the right guy but think he is the wrong guy and spend a year making sure. Thank the gods for that, and that he came home to you too. Much later, when you break into a million pieces and work to put yourself together with the glue of forgotten forgiveness you will know that he is the partner you need, and the one you need to emulate at all costs. Don’t pretend the things he has done to you equal the things you have done to him. Or that they should. He deserves no less than your whole, true effort. There is no winning in love.

You will have pain, and you will succumb to it. You will have cancer, but not a bad kind. You will have your thyroid removed. You will have nine surgeries, some of them unnecessary. You will have a stomach disease that kicks you to your knees and you might blame it for a lot of things you have been refusing to face, like your ongoing, relentless depression.

You will have two souls enter your life through your body. That’s the way you will learn to think about it – that something you were always afraid of was the thing that gave you this kind of precious joy. Or that something you always expected to give you the greatest joy does not. Because having children does not give you all the joy you need and when you look to your children for all of your joy you will find out that that’s not enough. You will feel guilty for this, and it will etch something new onto you, but you will have to believe it. Otherwise you will stay underwater, and underwater, it turns out, is where the beauty ends, not begins, as you once thought it was.

From a distance you feel is too far, you will watch your sister birth a part of your heart too and you will wish you could slurp up her soft skin and the smell of just starting out.

You will learn, when you are almost forty, that forgiveness is an open palm. It’s in your hand, the light touch of release, the swell of it’s enough. But it’s not so easy to open and it’s not so easy to stay that way. Curling up so that your knuckles face the world is so much easier. But a fist to heart feels quite a lot different from a palm to heart, resting square on your breastbone, staying there, the heel of it pulsing the same rhythm as the heartbeat on your chest, marching your body along in a long trek to some sort of quiet absolution. Forgiving yourself first, that’s the trick, because forgiving anyone else without that is just an exercise.

You will have learned a lot about love the year your parents are hit by a tow trunk in the beginning of the night and the surgeon tells you “we can be hopeful” in the middle of the night. You will learn a thing or two about guilt. And gratitude. You will be lucky because you have seen the underbelly of your own twisting mind, and the glowing, beating hearts of your truest friends. You will judge your friends. You will have to let go of that. You will see your own expectations of how people will respond to you dissolve in the history of your relationship, experiences, love – and spill to the floor like sand. You will see a brain cracked and crushed and growing and healing. Twice. Three times, it you’re honest, if you include yourself. You will see how halves become whole when disaster strikes. You will be so tired your eyes sting, your back will creek, your chest will heave. You will find some peace in the strangest places: the seventh floor sunset at the hospital in a Boston October, when the fall just won’t give into the winter, the easy laugh of your children, those pieces of forgiveness in those forgotten places. You will look forward not to better, because you might not be ready to commit to better. You will look forward to enough. You will work toward enough.

You will work to be strong and you will fail at it over and over again. You will keep trying. Please, what ever you do don’t stop trying.


The 39-year-old you.


Francesca has been published in The New York Times Well Family, Brain, Child Magazine, Drunken Boat, Ed Week/Teacher,, S3 Magazine, and Interview Magazine. She graduated from Stanford with a BA and MA in Education and from Harvard with a Doctorate in Educational Leadership, with a focus on writing education and improvement. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband Nick and two children, Theo and Brieza.

Today is her 39th birthday.


















Why the Heck Not?

Why the Heck Not?

boy-paint-wallBy Katherine Bonn

My mom admitted to me that she hates the color of my old bedroom, a peach like those circus peanut candies, with the air of confessing that she never liked a meal I’d proudly made her for years. I had just had my second baby and she had flown into town to help out. We were walking to the park for some much-needed outside time for my four-year-old. I looked over at her and studied her face, trying to reconcile this information with what I knew to be true. She and my dad had made me paint over my bedroom walls where I’d drawn a mural I loved, and it never felt like home after that.

As my mom’s admission about that ugly shade sunk in, I felt bitter. What’s this? I’m supposed to understand my parents better now that I have kids myself, aren’t I? Sometimes I do, but I often wonder, “what the hell were they thinking?”

Back in the early nineties, I was in high school and desperately clinging to what remained of my creativity that hadn’t been sapped out by conventional expectations. I wrote poems on my math tests and dug through my parents closets despite their offers to buy me new clothes. My dad’s old shop coat was my favorite accessory. It paired well with combat boots and a homemade beaded necklace. I hadn’t decided whether or not I wanted to keep up with shaving my armpits.

That was when my parents decided it was time to update the old shag carpet and mint green walls in my bedroom that had been there since the seventies. It was just the creative outlet I had been looking for. I saw a way I could make the room, that hadn’t changed for years, my own. When the time came to paint those walls, I knew right away what I would do, even if I didn’t know at the time why I was doing it. I would fill them with parts of me.

I knew my parents wouldn’t approve so I started in before I lost my chance. I sat up in bed late at night, after the house was asleep, and created my first doodle by dim reading light. It was tiny, no more than two inches across, and partially obscured by the mess in my teenage bedroom, but it opened in me a perceived gateway to the possibility of a mural encompassing my space. It opened me to the possibility of me as a real artist. For the first time that I could remember, I was prepared to stick with the project from start to finish. This time I wouldn’t get bored. This time I wouldn’t give up.

I practiced my argument in my head and approached my mom in the kitchen. I knew it was unlikely my parents would concede, but I felt the idea needed to be heard and perhaps we could come to some equitable agreement. They could paint over it when I moved out. Or wait until I finished and then decide. I approached my mom expecting a discussion, at worst an argument.

“Mom, since we have to re-do my room anyway, I want to paint on the walls.” I leaned my shoulder against the doorway between the kitchen and living room.

She moved to the cupboard to take out plates and glasses. “Yeah, you can help. We can go pick out a color this weekend.”

“I mean, I want to paint on the wall like a canvas. Like, make a painting on it.”

My mom stopped was she was doing and turned to look at me. To give me a look, rather. That look that said, you’re saying something weird. Don’t embarrass me. That look that often came when I was being myself, always the weird one. The only girl in sixth grade who didn’t like The New Kids on the Block. The one whose teacher wrote, “marches to the beat of her own drummer” on her report card. I know my mom loved those things about me. She loved that I was creative and did things my own way, until it conflicted with the right way.


“But you’re going to paint it anyway. Just let me make something on it first. We can re-paint it later.”


Her tone told me I was requesting something that was not proper. “It’s not proper” being the phrase she pulled out whenever she couldn’t think of a good reason to tell her weird daughter why or why not. She didn’t look at me again. I knew that, to her, there wasn’t a discussion to be had.

Still, I clung to the hope that she would come around. I secretly believed I was a natural artist who would create something breath-taking. They would look at my work in progress and be so impressed that they’d put off painting the walls to see where I was going with the mural. When it was finished, I figured they wouldn’t want to stifle me; they wouldn’t want to destroy something on which I had worked so hard. They’d be proud, like when I tested into honors classes. Maybe they’d shake their heads and smile like parents do when their sensitive child makes a mess bringing worms in from the rain.

I gathered my art supplies, dumped them all on the floor in a chaotic pile and turned to the mint green wall. Late at night, while the rest of the house slept, adrenaline fueled by sleep-deprivation surged me into a creative daze. I tried to put my invisible hurt into images and words. Disappointment became a poem in colored pencil, fear was a drawing of Earth dripping blood. Random expressions like “believe” arched across full lengths of wall. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to believe in, but I knew there had to be something. I listened to angry metal and alternative bands like Stone Temple Pilots and attempted to fill the walls with everything inside of me that I couldn’t explain, least of all to my parents. This was the room where I cried myself to sleep obsessing over overwhelming terrors, some certainly exaggerated, many not and all very real.

They must have noticed the mural growing on my wall, but they never said a word about it. My mom’s response was to show me paint samples, all of which were different shades of white: snow, ivory, baby powder.

Every emotion was so intense back then. My teenage brain with its under-developed prefrontal cortex and those coursing waves of insatiable hormones assaulted me during the cold, empty hours when I was supposed to be asleep. I would sometimes look out the window at the neighborhood, nothing but shadows, my nose pressed against the frigid glass separating me from the dead of Minnesota winter. And that is how the neighborhood looked to me. Not like everyone was asleep, but that they were gone. And I was alone. So I would continue to slip deeper into the damp bog of depression until I was lying on the floor of my room, staring up at those bare mint green walls.

The various shades of white my mom showed me gave me a chill. I couldn’t imagine enveloping myself in another layer of blankness.

The mural became something larger than an art project. It made my room into a place where I could be safe. I could create without the anxiety of making a mistake. The chaos of a mural freed me from the constant worry of being less-than-perfect. The first mark I made on the wall was like opening a prison gate. The wall would be a work-in-progress. If I grew to dislike part of it, I would simply paint over it and wouldn’t worry if it didn’t fit with the rest.

I fought passively to keep the mural I’d created. Night after night I built on to it, hoping my parents would see what it could become and how important it was to me.

They fought with their own ammunition. Silence. And the unspoken understanding that I would lose.

I had been told enough times that decisions were not mine to make as long as I lived under their roof. I was old enough to know that they had a hard time thinking differently. Why couldn’t my bedroom wall be a canvas? Because it’s just not something people do. I did not fight openly with words because I knew it was futile.

For weeks I worked the walls, but I knew nothing I created would lead to a Billy Elliot moment until one night I let myself forget what I was working against and pulled out the acrylic paints. I painted with a passion instead of a plan.


Each piece on that wall felt like my heart pried open and hung on display, but the one that left me the most vulnerable was a representation in acrylic of the song Jeremy by Pearl Jam. It was a human figure, “arms raised in a V”, atop a dark mountain, the mountain dwarfed by the immensity of the person it held aloft.


I felt powerless, like the world was attacking me from all corners and that painting represented the power I needed to keep going. I was teetering on the brink of being in a difficult place in my life and something so much darker. That painting delved into that darkness and showed me how terrified I was of going there. In the end of the song, Jeremy turned the gun on himself. I never did.


That painting represented the battle I was waging every day that no one knew about. I was fighting to be my own unique, dorky self in a homogenous community that didn’t accept outliers. The weakness I felt: crying myself to sleep, the self-loathing, the constant barrage of fear, were all absent from that painting. I stood on the mountaintop. I was powerful. In the song, the metaphor may have represented something violent, but to me it represented a shield that helped me push through the hardest years of my life.


It was the best I’d ever done and to this day has been the only time I’d ever considered I might have a talent for painting. When it was complete, I stood back and for a moment was hopeful they would accept it. That they would accept me.


In the end, they painted over all of it.


If there was one thing my parents stone-cold persistence taught me, it was how to know when I was beat.


They did let me choose the paint color and the carpeting. After all, it was my room. Once I accepted that my room wouldn’t be the space I wanted it to be, I didn’t care anymore. I chose circus peanut peach because it wasn’t pink or white or another boring color that would remind me of how stifled I felt. I chose it because it was warm and bright. Because it would remind me of sunsets, a campfire, or peach cobbler. But I didn’t like it. It was a consolation prize. And now speaking with my mother 20 years later, I find out no one was happy about it.




My current home is the small child’s equivalent of a man-cave. The pillar in our living room is a canvas for a ladder of markings recording the height of our two boys every six months. Pumping supplies have taken up permanent residence on our kitchen counter. A high chair and splat mat reside in the dining room and rare is the day when there isn’t food decorating the floor around them. It’s not unusual for my husband and I to discover that we’re sleeping with a firetruck. And two children. There are toys strewn everywhere.


My home is no longer my own. I’ve learned to relinquish control over how it’s arranged, its cleanliness and, ahem, the decor. That pillar where we mark the boys’ heights? My husband and I are not the only ones marking on it with a colored pencil. Our bathroom door contains the remnants of a red-painted fingerprint. You could say my older son was caught red-handed. Also, that washable paints don’t always wash out. His bedroom carpeting has been glued, colored, painted, and peed on. He even drew a firetruck on his wall.


The markings on the wall and carpeting don’t bother me much. One day our kids will be grown and we’ll clean, paint, repair and replace as we’d have to do with time anyway. And isn’t there a certain joy in feeling the presence of children in a home? I find myself upset only that my oldest is ignoring my requests to keep the supplies at his art table, but I’m also secretly delighted to see him experiment with materials, surfaces and his mother’s patience. Plus he knows not to do it at someone else’s home and he’s supposed to test his boundaries where he feels safe. So we talk about it. He cleans it up himself so he learns about the work that comes as a result of his choices. Maybe when he and his brother are older, we’ll experiment with a patch of wall.


I know my parents did their best. They didn’t like the colors I chose, but they didn’t protest. I wonder how many other times they relinquished control and stood silent, cringing as I went my own way. If you had asked me five years ago I would have said, “probably never”, but now that I’m a parent myself I’m aware of every moment when I bite my tongue and let my older son go crazy. It happens a lot. At least fifty times a day, I’m convinced.


That’s why I don’t freak out when my kid draws on the walls. Because nothing is permanent. Because mistakes he makes do not define him and rules he breaks do not define him and bending conventions can be redefined as creativity. Because accepting him as he is more important than how my house looks.


And I know despite doing my best, there will be times when I will miss clues as to what’s going on in my kids’ heads. I know there will be times, after my little boys grow into men, when they each will think, “what the hell were they thinking?”. But I hope they also remember the many times we said, “why the hell not” and let them be themselves.


Author’s Note: Knowing my parents would read this piece almost lead me to censor my feelings in order to spare theirs. With help from a good friend, I was able to keep it honest. But it has also had the lasting effect of encouraging me to see my childhood memories through a lens of compassion and forgiveness. My parents really did do their best.


Katherine Bonn is a San Francisco Bay Area based stay-at-home mom to two lovely boys. She blogs at A Little Bit of Wisdom ( about parenting, writing, mental health, cooking, and anything else that allows her to procrastinate from writing her novel.




Boy Getting on a TrainBy Erin Sullivan

Home from college a week, and the boy says he needs to go away, to any city, angry in ways the father cannot fathom. The boy’s mind dances around and around and inward and the boy barricades himself in his room. The father knocks with trays of food. Occasionally the food slips in. At night plumbing sounds through the walls. At night all the doors are locked and no one sleeps.

Soon after Christmas his parents drop him at the train station, right in town. It is noon and gray. They will not stand to watch their son ride away against a window, not watching back.

Soon, on official boards, photographs call him missing.

In some anonymous city he pays for a room. Unpacks his only bag. All his things: six pair of socks, four pairs of pants, two T-shirts, a flannel button down, boots. His parents brought him to the train station with all his things in his bag and that boy said thank you, said so long, said no: don’t stay in this car. No point in watching. I don’t plan on coming back. And angry, angry at his mind caving in, said, don’t think I am coming back.

Words haunt the father. Mornings find him digging around in his own mind to find a good reason why. Why put on clothing, go to work, go forward at all? This, he understands, is how a man fails: across an actual life. Not across a collection of minutes that turn to hours and then to days.

That boy, in his room, counting his small stack of cash, arranging his things. His dirty window shows this unfamiliar city writhing and waiting for him. Sorrow hits him, not for missing home, but for his isolation. Hallucinations fill his voids. At night, full of dim lights, bars call to him. A man buys him a drink, chats him up, is back in his small room. Sometimes this man is kind to him. Sometimes he wakes sore, and sick in the mornings, searching his face in the mirror to see if he is different yet, healed yet. If that thing he has been missing has fitted itself into place yet.

A morning in March: his father picks up the phone and finds the boy calling from Kansas. Too much banging, clanging, talking in the city. And now, Kansas, with its rows of stalks and blooms brushing up and against again and again is too noisy. A morning in March his father picks up and finds his son calling to say so long, such a noisy world, I’m out of money.

In his room at such and such a cheap motel in such and such a town an A/C unit clangs and hums and the boy says he will die from it, from the noise. His father, copying down this information, calls bus stations, trains, and calls him back. Bargains. Instructs.

His parents, back at the station in town, standing hand in hand to watch for the approaching train. It is starting again, the mother says. Yes, the father agrees. Again. But he cannot hide his flooding relief, the joy of recognizing the line of his son’s body stepping onto the platform, even in the face of this grim sentence.

Erin Sullivan is a writer who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her work has been published in Salon, Literary Mama, the Independent Weekly, and elsewhere.



How to Love Your Teenage Daughter

How to Love Your Teenage Daughter















By Jennifer L. Freed

Start early, while she is still too young to pull
back from your touch.  Teach her
the language of your eyes, your arms,
your wordless hand brushing along her hair
as she slips past you in the morning
bustle of the kitchen.

Kiss her with the breath of onions.
Close your eyes, if you need to, while she leaps.
Hold your tongue.  Bite it,
if necessary.
Cut her food for her, if
necessary.  Know
that it may be necessary,
even though her teeth are strong.

Let her try on your clothes.  Let her wear them
for an hour, or a day, then shrug them off
with a disdainful gaze. Tell her
why they suit you, and
that they did not always.

Tell her you once tried
to make a fairy’s home of forest moss
and garden flowers, and tell her
that you failed.  Look her in the eyes.

Get two pairs of work gloves, two
shovels.  Ask her where to build
a mountain.  Ask her to help.
When you are tired, climb the mountain
with her.  Destroy it with her. Get
the shovels, and build with her

Give her a Swiss Army knife, and
sturdy shoes, an ocean
stone to fit into the center
of her fisted palm.
These will serve her when she leaves
you. Know that she will leave you. Know
that your job is to teach her how,
and to want her to stay.


Jennifer L. Freed’s poems have appeared in Poetry East, Literary Mama, The Worcester Review, The Christian Science Monitor and others.  Her first chapbook, These Hands Still Holding,  (Finishing Line Press, 2014) was a finalist in the 2013 New Women’s Voices contest. 

photo: the winding road |

Return to the September 2015 Issue

This is Adolescence – Author Q&A: Shannon Duffy

This is Adolescence – Author Q&A: Shannon Duffy

 Headshot Shannon DuffyWhat is it about mothering a 17-year-old that you liked the most? The least?

I suppose what I like most and least about age seventeen are one in the same. I love my daughter’s growing independence and the endless possibilities that she has in front of her. But that growing independence is going to lead her away from me and those endless opportunities, wonderful as they may be, are lined with risk and worry. It is as it should be, and I recognize with gratitude that I have the privilege of watching my child grow up and away, but that doesn’t take the heartache out of letting go.

When did you know your child was a teenager?

My children became teenagers at about the same time I became their chauffeur, dropping them off at the door and then driving away until it was time to pick them up again. Those early teen years were the beginning of the great push into independence. Suddenly, going to the movies with friends no longer included parental supervision. I remember how bizarre and scary it felt to just drive away.

What do you wish you knew before you had a teen?

Three things:

  1. There will come a time when you will be the target for all that is wrong in your teen’s world. Don’t take it personally.
  2. The teenage years are not near as bad as you expected them to be.
  3. Buy stock in a cereal company.

What advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering a 17-year-old?

I wish I could have told myself “Breathe deep. It will all be okay.” There is a lot happening in the lives of 17-year-olds. They are making decisions about who they want to be and where they go from here. As a parent, I want it all to work out just right for her and that leads to a lot of “Did you do this?” and “You better do that.” The advice I would give myself is “Be quiet. Be calm. Take it all in.”

What about motherhood inspires you?

I can’t believe how far we have come. It is mind boggling for me to look at this beautiful young woman about to take on the world and at the very same time remember so vividly the little girl she once was. I listen to her ideas, her opinions, her aspirations and I can’t believe my fortune. I watched her learn to walk, to talk, to read. I saw her grow into this magnificent person. I was given the gift of bearing witness to it all. There is no greater inspiration than that.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece?

I hope the negative connotation we often attach to the word “teenager” will be slightly lessened by reading my piece and all of the essays in this series. Adolescence is tough for kids and parents alike, but there is magic there hiding in the corners of those years. Sometimes it is hard to find. My hope is that we don’t forget to look.

BT 15 Cover web copy low resPurchase Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of Teens, which includes the This is Adolescence Series – Eight essays from America’s leading writers on ages 11 – 18.

Read an excerpt: This is Adolescence: 12

Anecdotes of a Girl

Anecdotes of a Girl

By Jacqueline Maria Pierro

WO Anecdotes of a Girl ART

My Father

It is the dead of winter yet my bedroom window is wide open to a black sky devoid of stars and compassion. Frigid. I’ve removed the screen and pulled back the curtains allowing full entry should Peter Pan find my house and fly me away, enveloped in fairy dust to the Never Land. As I watched the dawn creep upon the dark, my tears fell cold upon my cheek: Peter wasn’t coming. I have only one visitor that night; another visit in which I had to stare with empty eyes at the room’s hideous skin—my posters of innocence were obnoxious now, the cotton candy paint I’d picked out in Home Depot was ugly now. I guess I was ugly. Well, not to him. But I wished I was ugly to him, or plain, or just his kid—the kid that you play softball with in the front yard and read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to at night and maybe build stuff with, like clubhouses or go-carts. I wasn’t that kind of kid though; I am the one who he visits at night, who he makes keep his secrets and then they turn into my secrets.


As my reality becomes unlivable I start to read an endless amount of books. When Peter failed to find me I decide to read about Narnia. Soon I was crying silent tears and waiting for Aslan to roar in and let me bury my small face in his glorious fur. Then I read the Bible and prayed for Jesus, God, Mary, Joseph, any one of the Apostles to appear in a sort of diaphanous manner, speak in magnificent echoes and carry me away on a song to Heaven. Then I read Sybil and tried to convince my psyche to formulate new and stronger personalities to compensate for the frailty that I felt. I was shattered inside yet my skin stayed together holding it all in; I was both the captor and captive of the particles which bound me together. Stuck and lost within endless walls and secrets.


He brought me home presents in his briefcase. I ran down my long block on my skinny legs anticipating his arrival each day. Or I peered out the window and counted cars, trying to guess how many would pass before I would see him stroll down our street in his business suit. His briefcase always held some sort of treat: a cool pencil, stickers that smelled when you scratched your nail across them, a small set of magic tricks. One evening when I was twelve he came in my room after work and opened his briefcase to give me my treat. It was some sort of lacy red panty and bra set. He said I could wear it for him if I felt comfortable enough, like maybe when my mom wasn’t around or something. I took it and crumpled it into my drawer as far back as it would go and sometimes when I caught a glimpse of it I would feel sick, like I was going to pass out or like I couldn’t really breathe too well. I think I just hated that thing. On a Tuesday when no one was home I took it out of my drawer and tried it on and looked in the mirror. And then I felt like I hated myself.


As I walked home from school that day when I was 12 I felt this overwhelming urge to just be normal. And then I saw him standing at the end of our driveway with this smile on his face saying he was happy to see me. I wasn’t happy and I told him that I wanted to be normal and that I wanted him to just stop. To just leave me alone and to love me, but in some other way that doesn’t make me feel bad. He nodded his head slowly and said that he understood and he was sorry, he would never do things to me again, but that of course our relationship would change and he couldn’t be that nice to me anymore. He said he would have to treat me like shit because I obviously didn’t love him and that I better not say anything to my mother.. So I told him that he could treat me like shit then. I walked inside and that began the next few years of him not being nice to me. I guess I was just a disappointment so it was easier to call me names or hit me when he was angry.


When it was warmer out I started to find freedom in running away. I left my house with a backpack full of books rather than clothes. I ran to fields of broken glass whereupon I could escape into tales and legends and words and pages; the words danced and sang to me—they were my elixir, soporific and hypnotic—they gave me temporary amnesia. Some days it was raining and my clothes stuck to me in the most uncomfortable way and I just couldn’t go back to that house to change and maybe open my drawer and see that ugly lacy red thing that he wanted to see me in.


Home was just an illusion that I clung to but I wasn’t going to go there because he was there. Often I watched the night silently turn to day in some random house or another; I was almost 14, the secrets that I had inside had devoured my spirit. So I wandered. I played chess with those old guys in Washington Square Park and explored Manhattan; I could feel its pulse beating under my feet and I had to write the skyline in words, ascribe letters to each smell, to the cacophony of sounds that somehow made sense, and to the faces. I walked across the George Washington Bridge to the familiarity of New Jersey and was drawn to the walkways along the Hudson River where I would sit and write what I saw from afar. But I wanted to go home. To make microwave popcorn and sit in my cozy chair and watch TV shows and see my family. I knew he would be there; I had never told so I was the bad one—the black sheep, the runaway. The difficult child.


When I was 14, I told my mother. It just came out, my mouth was moving and I heard the words but I didn’t feel like I was actually telling her everything; it was more of an uncontrollable spewing of words. Oh, her face. In my wanderings my eyes had seen the unspeakable, things that a child really shouldn’t have seen (was I ever a child?) but her face—that is an image that I can never escape. Shattering (I knew how it worked) starts on the inside and sometimes it slowly permeates the skin so one can actually see the blood drain to make way for the anguish which takes up so much space. I have crushed my family with my truth and soon the cop cars and lights and the guilt and embarrassment in his eyes made it all real. I ate Frosted Flakes as they led him out in handcuffs. They had disgusted faces.

I never saw him again.

Author’s Note: Ironically, shortly after the completion of this essay, my father tried to contact me. Throughout my life I’ve felt this strange, little desire to communicate with him; however I’ve come to realize that I was actually craving to communicate with an “alternate version” of my father. But there is no alternate versionhe is that man whom I’ve written about; he exists on these pages and not in between the lines. And so I don’t think I can pick up that phone call.  

Jacqueline Pierro is a student at Columbia University in the City of NY and single mother to three amazing children. After graduating in May she will continue work on her novel in progress.



FREE eBook with Purchase of Our Special Issue for Parents of Teens ($8.50 Value)

FREE eBook with Purchase of Our Special Issue for Parents of Teens ($8.50 Value)

Purchase our Special Issue for Parents of Teens

and Receive a FREE eBook ($8.50 Value)


BT 15 Cover web copy low resPeanut Butter and Naan Cover














Special Issue for Parents of T(w)eens

This issue features essays ranging in topics from teen friendships, teens and technology and teen/parent relationships, plus hard decisions, addiction, and bearing witness. Also includes a special section featuring essays on every age from 13 – 18.  Featured writers: Catherine Newman, Tracy Mayor, and new fiction from Ellen Lessor. Not to be missed.

Peanut Butter and Naan

Peanut Butter and Naan is Jennifer Magnuson’s hilarious look at the chaos of parenting tweens against a backdrop of malaria, extreme poverty, and no conveniences of any kind—and her story of rediscovering herself and revitalizing her connection with those she loves the most.

Excerpt: It’s odd driving along like this on a Tuesday, heading to the world’s most famous monument. I should be at a PTA meeting filled with overzealous volunteer moms who rabidly sink their teeth into the task of raising their children with the bloodlust fueled by latent bitterness over left behind careers…. Instead, I have left all five of my kids in the care of my husband and several people who scarcely speak English on the Bay of Bengal, over a thousand miles to the south of me.

Your eBook will arrive within 24 hours of your purchase.

$10. 80 pages. Free shipping.




Fiction: Tenley’s Apology

Fiction: Tenley’s Apology

By Marie Anderson

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 9.45.04 AMMary is searching in the fridge for an unblemished apple for her daughter when she hears Tenley scream from upstairs. Mary sighs, finds a perfect apple, and drops it into Tenley’s lunch bag. “Mother!” Tenley shouts. “Come here! Hurry!”

Mary looks at the clock on the microwave. Her heart sinks. In thirty minutes, Tenley must leave for school. Already this morning, her fifteen-year-old daughter has had two crises. What new problem looms?

Menstrual cramps? A forgotten homework assignment absolutely due today? What problem might Tenley manufacture to avoid going to school? If she misses one more day this semester, they’ll have to get a doctor’s note to confirm illness. The school allows only seven parent-requested absences each semester.

*   *   *

Earlier this morning, Tenley had complained of swollen eyelids.

“Hot or cold cloths on eyes?” she’d asked Mary.

Tenley, slim and beautiful in just a tee shirt and shorts, was standing in front of the big mirror hanging in the hallway outside her bedroom.

Mary remembered how she and her husband had carefully carted the mirror home from T. J. Maxx, hung it, and then had fun in front of it. Sixteen years ago, when Mary was still young (thirty-six) and arrogantly confident. The mirror had witnessed Tenley’s beginning.

Mary stood next to her only child, gazed at their side-by-side reflections in the mirror. She saw the wrinkles and graying hair that she usually didn’t notice. The glow from Tenley’s smooth young body was a brutal spotlight.

“I don’t know what’s better for swollen eyelids,” Mary said, “but your eyelids look fine.”

“They’re not fine! Look at them! I can’t go to school looking like this! I hardly slept again last night. I’ve got insomnia, but you don’t care. I’ve been asking you and asking you to make a doctor’s appointment for me. I can’t sleep! I wake up tired! I need pills!”

“Your eyelids look fine,” Mary insisted. “But I’ll Google to find out if you should use hot or cold on them.”

“And I need a private tutor for ACT prep like all my friends have!”

“You don’t need a private tutor for the ACT. Have you even opened that book of practice tests I got you last month? Plus you’re signed up for those after-school prep classes your school offers for free. That starts soon, next month I think.”

“I have insomnia! You don’t care!”

In the mirror, their reflections scowled at each other.

“Have you turned off your laptop and cell phone at night like your dad and I told you to? Are you texting or Facebooking when you should be sleeping?”

Tenley marched to the bathroom. Mary followed. Tenley slammed the door in Mary’s face. “You don’t know anything,” Mary heard Tenley mutter. “What good are you.”

And then, most awful, “Old lady, you are such a be-yotch.”

Mary sighed and returned to the kitchen to make a deli sandwich for Tenley’s lunch. “Old lady,” she muttered. “Nothing wrong with being a fifty-two-year old lady.”

She resolved to battle if her daughter wanted to stay home from school today because of the imaginary swollen eyelids.

But the other battles could be postponed. She opened a drawer at the kitchen desk, took out her to-do list.

There were three items still active on her list.

P-$, code for pay bills.

Sch Col. That item, schedule colonoscopy, had been on her list since her fifthieth birthday two years ago.

Ph-M. She grabbed a pen and crossed that item off. She’d phoned her mother yes- terday, left a message on her answering machine. That counted, Mary decided.

Underneath Ph-M, Mary wrote: Dwt, DoA, code for Discuss w/Tenley, the dignity of aging.

That would have to happen at a more peaceful moment. There was a lot Mary could tell her daughter about why aging should be honored. Why were their only good conversations the ones that took place in Mary’s imagination?

She added a final item to the list. GTA. Get Tenley’s Apology. She resolved to make her daughter apologize for calling her a be-yotch. But after school, not before. Best to avoid before-school drama.

“Mother!” Tenley yells again. “Where are you?”

Mary pours herself another cup of coffee, takes two sips, longingly eyes the two newspapers waiting for her on the kitchen table. Maybe, Mary decides, she’ll just ignore this latest mom-shout. Maybe Tenley’s cell phone will warble a text from a friend and that’ll distract her daughter from whatever the current problem is.

“Muhhhhther!” A screech.

“Tenley!” Mary screams. “What’s the problem!” She slams down her coffee mug, feels the strain on her throat. Screams had ripped her throat during labor fifteen years ago. She’d had no voice for the first four days of Tenley’s life. Was important bonding lost because she couldn’t murmur love or sing lullabies during Tenley’s first days of life?

Mary gets along great with the children who swarm around her at the library where she works as head of the library’s youth programs. They draw pictures for her, tell her long, involved stories about squabbles with friends or triumphs on the soccer fields and sometimes heartbreakers about sick siblings or divorcing parents.

She’d said as much to Tenley during one of their fights, how the library kids like her, talk to her.

“Well,” Tenley had replied, “they don’t have to live with you.”

*   *   *

Tenley’s next shout has nothing to do with illness or angst.

“There’s a dead mouse in my room!”

Mary smiles, relieved. Not a Tenley crisis. Just a dead mouse. Taco must have caught and killed the mouse.

Taco is their fat white cat who prefers Tenley over Mary, though it’s Mary who feeds Taco every morning. It’s Mary who tends to Taco before the coffee is brewed, before the newspapers are fetched from the curb, before the husband is kissed goodbye. It’s Mary who kneels daily before the litter tray.

Taco has apparently caught a mouse, chewed it to death, and deposited the prize in Tenley’s room.

Somewhere Mary remembers learning that a cat considers it a sign of respect when it offers its kill to another. Mary feels a bit resentful that Taco hasn’t deposited the dead mouse in her own bedroom.

From the kitchen, Mary shouts, “pick up the mouse and throw it out!”

From upstairs, Tenley shouts back, “are you kidding me? You do it! It’s too gross!”

“It’s too gross for me, too!”

“You’re the adult!”

Mary rolls her eyes, sighs. As she gathers plastic gloves, a plastic bag, and paper towels, she mumbles all the adult claims Tenley frequently makes.

“I’m almost sixteen! My curfew should be midnight!”

“Stop checking my grades on Edline. School is my business, not yours! I’m old enough to take care of school without you getting so involved. You and Dad are such obsessive helicopter parents!”

“You don’t trust me!”

“I can wear what I want!”

“Why can’t I see R-rated movies with my friends?”

“Everybody in high school drinks. Everybody. You and Dad are the only parents so weird about it. That’s why I never have my friends over…As soon as I turn eighteen, I’m moving out!”

Mary marches upstairs to Tenley’s room.

Her daughter has fled the room. “Ten-ley?” Mary shouts.

From the bathroom, Tenley shouts back. “Tell me when it’s gone!”

Mouse is supine on the carpet by the bed.

Thank you, Lord, Mary thinks. Thank you that mouse is not on the bed, not on the $300 white down-filled comforter from Macy’s which Mary knows Tenley would no longer be able to use if it had been contaminated by dead mouse.

Four tiny legs spike from the mouse’s body, as though it were trying to swim away from death. Its torn belly is a red lumpy mess, like Mary imagines her own belly must have looked after the unplanned C-section that released her daughter into the world after thirteen hours of hard labor had failed.

“Just get it out!” Mary had begged.

Wisely, mouse has closed its eyes to the mess, like Mary closed her own eyes when the squalling frightening slimy creature was placed near her breast, just for a few moments for that all-important bonding.

The mouse’s whiskers, delicate white silk, droop gracefully. Its tail is curled into the shape of a question mark.

How did that squalling frightening slimy creature turn so quickly into a beautiful young girl?

How could such a beautiful young girl be so brutally contemptuous toward her parents, to the two people who love her most?

Except often Mary feels no love for her daughter. Fatigue when she was a baby, boredom when she was a toddler, and now, now when she’s a teen, a simmering soup of anger, bewilderment, frustration, impotence.

She’d been a surprise. Mary had not wanted children. Too risky. Bad genes. Both her parents were alcoholics. Her husband had reluctantly agreed they’d remain child-free.

But accidents happen.

Mary holds her breath, grabs the mouse with a gloved hand, drops it light as nothing into the plastic bag. She hurries downstairs, outside, and throws it into the garbage bin by the garage.

Back in the kitchen she squirts anti-bacterial soap on her hands and scrubs them under the hottest tap water she can tolerate.

She returns to Tenley’s room and sprays carpet cleaner on the spot where the mouse had been, though nothing visible stains the beige carpet.

Ten minutes later, back in the kitchen, Mary hears Tenley telling her two girlfriends about the mouse. The three teenagers sit around the kitchen table, eating cereal. The girls walk together to school every morning.

“You picked it up?”

“Mais non! C’était la mère qui a touche la souris!” Tenley says in French.

Mary decides not to feel hurt that Tenley said “it was the mother who touched the mouse,” instead of “it was my mother who touched the mouse.”

All three girls take French. When Tenley was in fourth grade and still sought Mary’s opinions, she told Mary she had a big problem. The grade school was offering foreign language instruction during lunch twice a week. “Everyone wants to take Spanish,” Tenley had said. “They’ll have to do a lottery. I probably won’t get into Spanish. I need to get into Spanish, Mama!”

“Well,” Mary had replied. “I minored in French in college. French is cool because in upscale French restaurants you’ll be able to impress everybody when you order in French. Plus, Paris visits are so much better when you can speak the language.”

Later, Mary was driving her fourth grade daughter and a minivan full of girl scouts home from a meeting. Behind the wheel, Mary was invisible the way chauffeur-parents are. The girls talked freely. Tenley explained to her Girl Scout friends why she was signing up for lunchtime French instead of Spanish.

Mary’s reasons had become Tenley’s. The next day, so many fourth graders signed up for lunchtime French, the school had to use a lottery to see who could get into the sessions. That was the first time Mary realized how much influence Tenley had over her peers. And how much influence Mary herself could wield.

Until it stopped.

*   *   *

“Tell them, Mom,” Tenley says. “Tell them about the mouse.”

For the next several minutes, Mary has the three teens’ attention as she describes the ordeal of the dead mouse.

She makes it funny, scary, gross. The girls laugh and groan. “Bravo, Mama!” Tenley exclaims.

A warm glow heats Mary’s belly.

For a few minutes, the dead little mouse is making things right, is restoring the proper balance.

Daughter is loving child.

Mother is respected adult. Mouse is martyr.

Taco appears, mewling. “Taco!” Tenley shouts. “Come to us, Butcher Boy! My friends want to smell your mouse breath!”

The friends shriek their protests.

Taco ignores the teens. He stays by Mary. He rubs his fat white head against Mary’s legs.

The friends head for the front door. Tenley doesn’t follow them. She kneels and pets Taco, still rubbing himself against Mary’s legs.

Tenley looks up at Mary. “What’s for supper, Mama?”

Instead of saying baked tilapia, which is what Mary had planned and which she knows Tenley doesn’t much like, Mary hears herself offering, “How about spaghetti and meatballs?” (Which she knows Tenley loves.)

“Bruschetta, too?” Tenley asks.

Mary hesitates. That’ll mean a trip to the grocery store on her lunch hour to get the tomatoes, garlic, lemon, basil, bread.

As if reading her mind, Tenley says, “I can pick up the ingredients after school.”

“Okay,” Mary says. “Will you help me make it?”

Tenley stands. “Okay,” she says. She heads to the front door where her friends are waiting.

“Have a good day,” Mary shouts.

“Thanks, you too, Mom!” Tenley shouts back.

The girls leave. Mary goes to the kitchen desk, removes her to-do list. She looks at the last item. GTA. Get Tenley’s Apology.

She crosses it off.

Marie Anderson is a married mother of three in La Grange, Illinois. Her short stories and essays have been published in dozens of magazines and periodicals.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Homeschool U

Homeschool U

unnamed-5Hey Moms and Dads! Overwhelmed by the amount of glossy materials your high schoolers are receiving daily, begging them to apply to schools they can’t get into and you can’t afford? Pulling your hair out over FAFSA forms more complicated than the Mars Rover assembly instructions?

There’s an easier way: Homeschool U.

In a single weekend, using tools you have in your basement and bull-slinging skills you honed during your own days as a liberal arts undergrad, you can transform your student’s humble childhood home into an institute of higher learning, and upgrade your status from hapless, penniless parent to Assistant Dean of Student Life.

Don’t wait—get “early action” on the domestic renovation that can save you $55,000 a year, minus the upfront investment in a freestanding keg cooler.

Kitchen = “Dining Services”

Install a swipe-card reader, and you’re ready to start staging the same delicious, nutritious, culturally authentic dining experience touted by the top colleges for a fraction of the board bill. Their food is “just like home-cooked,” yours actually is home-cooked. They tout sustainability; you serve the most sustainable meal on the planet—leftovers. Their freshmen pack on 15 lbs., your kitchen comes complete with a Nutrition Coach unafraid to point out the rising muffin top or burgeoning “one pack” on the student body.

Family room = Student Union

Here beats the social heart of Homeschool U, the place where students can kick back, stream Family Guy and scarf Bacon Ranch Pringles while Skyping with their dorm-bound buddies—just like real college. For added authenticity, set up a card table stacked with pamphlets urging Homeschool U students to take back the night, confront their gender-normative prejudices or up their carbon awareness. And unlike real campus unions, you’re free to serve beer—at the for-profit price of $3 per Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Living room = “Library”

Academics don’t take a back seat at Homeschool U—they take the couch. Here, in the living room-turned-library, students are free to study the majors you and your partner pursued in decades past, using the same classic texts (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Women’s Room, and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, the latter in paperback with its cover ripped off for added authenticity). Engage the restless mind of your Homeschool U student with 24-hour access to Google, YouTube and MythBusters reruns on cable; upperclassmen wishing to pursue a more aggressive course of study should be encouraged to friend Drew Gilpin Faust on Facebook or follow Nate Silver on Twitter.

Basement = “Laundry services”

A web cam and debit-card reader are all you need to transform your washer-dryer from cost center to revenue generator. No more hauling baskets of stinky workout wear or Victoria’s Secret hand-washables to the musty depths; simply Tweet “#wshr1nowfree” to your student anytime after 4 on a Sunday afternoon to get your for-profit laundry business rolling. When students get desperate, Just Like Mom’s wash-dry-fold service correctly sorts their clean wardrobe to the proper dresser drawer, just like in the old days, for $15 a basket (cash only, in advance).

Mom = “Resident Assistant”

Before, you were the cook, the carpooler, the signer of permission slips, funder of shopping excursions, supplier of soccer snacks—in short, the mom, lowliest of the socially acceptable, bottom of the fashion food chain, recipient of eyerolls uncountable. Now you’re the Resident Assistant, the knowledgeable “big sister” on campus with the self-confidently retro wardrobe and the frank talk about HPV vaccines, incipient eating disorders, and why hooking up with that loafers-no-socks risk management major is a bad idea.

Dad = “Director, Career Services”

As the father of the household, your pleas to cover up a little more, come home a little earlier and think a little more carefully about that Francophone Studies major fell on deaf ears. As Director of Career Services, you wield a bit more power—namely, a LinkedIn profile chockablock with contacts for unpaid internships and a resume replete with past favors ready to call in for that first job post-graduation. If that doesn’t hold your scholars’ attention, they might dedicate themselves to Homeschool U’s motto—Lux, Veritas, Virtus, Verizon, or Light, Truth, Courage, and unlimited texting on the family plan—to graduation and beyond.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

A Predator In The House

A Predator In The House

computer_2738337bBy Elizabeth Cohen

He was our friend.

We went out to eat, to the movies. We traipsed around our little town together. We talked several times a week on the phone. We texted back and forth about this and that and nothing at all. We laughed about the same things. We were on the same page politically. He hated gossips. He was mad about cuts in social services. He loved Shakespeare. He was appalled by the idea of fracking.

I will call him Tim.

Tim and I did each other favors. When my ceiling sprouted a slow leak in the shape of Australia, Tim came to the rescue with a sander, spackle, drywall and tape. When his car was being fixed, I lent him mine. He housesat for us and fed our cats when we were away. We lent him a little money when he was between jobs. He paid it back. We ate a lot of Chinese food.

When I say “we,” I am talking about my 15-year-old daughter, Ava, and I. Tim was a local drama instructor and Ava took every class he offered. She played the lead roles in plays and short films he directed and learned the nursemaid’s monologue from “Romeo and Juliet,” which she performed with such passion my heart plomp-plomped in my chest and landed somewhere in my throat.

She was nuts about him, asked him for advice and accepted it when he gave it. She thought of him as a father. Her own father is far away and sick, waiting for a heart transplant, and had not given her as much attention in years as Tim did in a single day. Tim played stand in.

Families in our community signed up their daughters for classes he taught in babysitting at the Red Cross. When Ava completed the course, she received an official certificate and a card she could put in her wallet. “I am ready to work now, Mama,” she told me proudly.

Once, I let Tim take her along with another girl for a day in Burlington, Vermont, as a reward for their hard work on a particular play. They went out to eat and to an amusement park.

I want to say here that it wasn’t just Ava and I who loved Tim, it was our whole town. You might say he was considered something of a small town cultural treasure. Like a spring that has healthy and delicious water, we discussed his presence as fortuitous, lucky. We felt sorry for other towns that had nobody like him.

But then came a warning, a text to me from another mother, stating that Tim “wasn’t what he seemed.” She couldn’t tell me the origin of the information or even the details, but it was bad, she said, “really bad.” She was pulling her daughter out of Tim’s acting class and said, “I suggest you do, too.”

I went on the defensive. The unfairness! The audacity! This was the kind of gossip that could destroy lives! With a cadre of a few other moms, I fought back, defending Tim to anyone who would listen.

Then I confronted Tim. Did he know about these rumors? Was he worried or concerned? He shook his head. “Whenever you do good things or are good at something, people get jealous,” he told me. “There’s always a backlash.”

Indeed there is, I thought. History is full of examples of talented, beautiful people taken down by innuendo. And although whispers were flying about Tim, they were vague. I thought of the words of the King James Bible: And withal they learn to be idle, wandering from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.

In the midst of this firestorm, Ava and I packed up suddenly to leave town and travel out west to help care for her father, who had by this time become extremely ill, his sick heart failing. We decided that Ava would attend the high school there and I would help out with his care as best I could, changing out oxygen canisters, shopping, cooking, making glass after glass of fresh veggie juice, hoping that the blood of beets, mixed with apple, ginger and celery might contain just the right curative properties. We knew that time was running out and we were going to make the most of it.

My husband, Shane, and I had lived apart for years, he preferring the west and I employed and active in the east. Now his illness was forcing us all back together. It was a deeply emotional time for our family, which had been limping along for years. We brought minimal belongings and Ava’s cat Carder, of course, her best friend, who seemed skittish and rattled by the long journey. Carder’s mood mirrored our own. We were nervous all the time, wondering what fresh blast of bad news each day would bring. I put Tim and the controversy surrounding him out of my mind.

While Shane and I watched back to back episodes of “Game of Thrones”—a show so violent and brutal it could make you forget, for fifty-minute intervals at least, that you were dying—Ava stayed in her room posting updates on Facebook and occasionally texting Tim with news of her days. He would write back with advice (“love your father as best you can, while you can”; “don’t do drugs”).

By the end of the summer, we had to return home; my job was in jeopardy if we stayed away longer and Shane was being moved to the Mayo Clinic where he would wait for a heart. I charted our course across the country along Route 66. No diversions, no time for exploring or vacation fun. I knew if I stayed on this one straight road I would not get lost and Ava and I could find lodging and food along the interstate. Three highways would bring us home, much of it through flat brown expanses that melded with the horizon like a single seam in a shirt.

The world was changing—I couldn’t help but notice. The chugging oil wells from my childhood vacations, softly yet constantly pumping up crude, had been replaced with wind turbines, silent sentries twirling en masse. But it was in Tennessee, where the flatness broke down into gentle valleys and hills and the pervasive brown melted into green, that our lives would change, in a tectonic way, no less monumental it seemed than the larger world’s shifts.

A text came in with a soft ding as Ava and I walked into a Waffle House. Every town seemed blessed with these small, squat waffle manufactories that promised buttery, crunchy distraction from the miles and eating at one had become a priority for Ava since we had seen the first one somewhere in Texas.

“Maybe they’ll have strawberry or blueberry,” Ava said hopefully as we walked to the counter. “Or chocolate!”

The Waffle House of our choosing, a plain rectangular building that smelled of grease trap and mud-caked boots, the friendly chatter pierced by the buzz of flies, had neither chocolate, strawberry nor blueberry, only plain waffles served in plain rectangles. I placed my phone on the counter and we ordered. Whatever missive was there could wait, I thought, and I had a foreboding feeling about it. Had something happened to Shane? Is this how people find out someone has died?

When we got back into the car, I flipped open the screen to read it.

“Tim arrested,” it read. “Child pornography.”

It was from my friend at home, the other mother, the one who had warned me many months before. Attached was a copy of the FBI report. I clicked and read on.

FBI? Pornography? My tongue, still thick with the taste of bad waffles, throbbed as my brain sizzled with shock.

“What is it?” Ava asked. “Why are we stopping? Is Dad O.K.?”

She pulled Carder to her chest, her practice whenever she was really scared or upset about something.

“Dad’s fine,” I said. “It’s Tim.”

“What about Tim? Is he O.K.?”

“Not really, I said. “He’s been arrested.”

“For what?” she asked.

For what.

I read the report silently to myself. “Read it to me, read me what it says,” she insisted. And then I decided. It was a split-second decision, instinct really. She was fifteen. She was no longer a little kid. And this was something in her life, too. In her life big time. So I read her the affidavit. And as I did I could see her begin to tremble. And then shiver all over. And then I realized, despite the hot August sun pounding down on us on the side of the road, I was shivering, too.

Tim had been caught, red-handed, with a child, and on his phone was an image of the child he had uploaded and traded with other child pornographers in exchange for photos of other children in all sorts of poses, naked, doing unspeakable things. The picture on Tim’s phone was of the child’s vagina in clearly manipulated poses. I realized he had to have touched her in ways no man should ever touch a child. The trembling which became the shivering had become a full scale shaking. The hand holding the phone seemed to be under the influence of a beam of electrical current. My stomach lurched and I felt a sudden desire to throw up as I continued to read aloud.

Tim had an online moniker—I will call it here “TTTREAT”—and using it he had hung around in a chat room of incest aficionados pretending to be this child’s brother. But there had been a sting and he had been caught. As I read I saw Ava sort of cave over Carder, collapse in on her, and then, after several minutes she spoke.

“Mom,” she said, “I have something to tell you.”

I looked at her. She was clicking away on her cell phone, looking for something. Then she found the thing she was looking for. Some months earlier, she told me, she had received texts from a kid at her school, who used the name, I shall say here, “TTNEAT.” And this kid had told her he “had dirt on her,” pictures of her with her first boyfriend. He threatened to upload these pictures on Instagram, send them around via Snapchat and Twitter, perhaps, or maybe write things about her on Facebook if she didn’t send him some pictures of herself. Her reputation and personhood would be destroyed in our small town.

“Mom, I think it might have been from him,” she said, disbelieving. We looked at one another. We could no longer say his name; Tim had become a nameless being, someone whose name could wield evil just by saying it.

“But you didn’t do it…you didn’t do it.. you didn’t do it, you didn’t send…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.

Silence. Shaking hands. More clicking on her phone.

“I did, Mama,” she said, now fully buried in Carder. But the picture she sent wasn’t what he wanted, because in it she was wearing underwear. He became angry. She read me all the texts from “TTNEAT, and as she did, we both began to cry. To cry and shake and cry and bend over, she into her cat and me into the steering wheel. “Oh honey, oh honey,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

“I thought it was some weird kid at my school,” she said.

And then: “I thought you would get mad.”

For a long time we were silent, sitting by the road side. Then my hand crept toward hers, and hers toward mine. And we just sat there, off I-66, in the shadow of the Waffle House, our hands entwined in the horror of the deception. In the sadness of what had come between us and no doubt scared her beyond speech, beyond telling. And now had become even more horrible. The lie that had revealed the truth.

“I love you,” I whispered, “and nothing you ever do will ever change that.”

“I love you, too, Mama,” she said.


A month later I sat, shaking again, in a chair at the office of the local FBI agents in my town, facing two grown men in suits.

“Grooming is what predators do,” the lead agent on Tim’s case was telling me. “They take their time, moving slowly into your life to achieve your trust. They will wait a long time to get what they want.”

It was so hard to grasp, that Tim wasn’t really our friend at all. He wasn’t a drama teacher or a certifier of babysitters at the Red Cross. He wasn’t a man who took care of cats, fixed ceiling leaks, ate Chinese food. That was all a mirage, a ghost image of who he really was. He was a shapeshifter. A thief of images of children, a seller of innocence. And he was the thief of my daughter’s heart. In the aftermath of his arrest, Ava retreated into a silence so deafening I could hear it beat. It had a pulse, like another living thing in our house. This silence.

If the FBI were right, and I had to gather they were—though there was a small part of me that still wanted to protest, “You have the wrong man!”—Tim had been after my daughter. Mine and everyone else’s. And we single mothers, or women without our daughter’s fathers in our homes, were his chief hunting grounds. He saw us as vulnerable, demilitarized countries where his evil intentions could go unchecked. And he was right. We were vulnerable. I was. I had made him chicken dinners with homemade mashed potatoes—lumpy, with extra garlic, the way he liked them.

The things he did shocked and appalled our whole community. We were all damaged. In early September, one month after his arrest, we had a parent’s meeting in the tall grass behind the Unitarian Church in our town, where we compared notes and talked about what had happened. A few people cried. Everyone seemed horrified. And once we compared and contrasted our myriad “Tims,” we came to see, in the light of day, with cicadas buzzing and a breeze tapping about the tree branches, that Tim was not Tim. And somehow, we were not us anymore. We were a different us. A stained and wiser us.

As for Ava, she seemed to harden somehow, as if the soft candy in the double boiler of her childhood had been removed from heat and was stiffening. One day, I noticed she had moved her American Girl Dolls outside her room. They lay side by side in their homemade beds, the covers pulled up to their chins. I stopped in my tracks. She was fifteen after all, it was probably time. But the way they lay there, their glass eyes staring at the ceiling, arms by their sides, seemed to make a statement about the exile of innocence.

My grief and shock slowly transformed into rage and guilt. How had I let this happen? What had made me trust Tim and even defend him when the rumors began to emerge? Was I also guilty here? I thought about the way he had tiptoed into our lives. A class party, a trip to the local pool, activities for kids in his drama program, a “premiere” at a real theater for the homemade films from his film class. He had been so nice and caring and after years of single motherhood and a husband who remained far away by choice, whose health was collapsing, I was hungry for it. I realized I carried some responsibility here as well. I had wanted our little family to have support, to have another leg. That leg, in the end, was not a leg. It was a hand holding a camera, waiting to snap pictures.


Postscript: Today, Tim awaits sentencing at a Federal prison in New York State. He faces eleven counts of the production of child pornography and one count of possession of child pornography. The texts he sent to Ava, using blackmail to get her to send more images, may become an additional charge. For each charge he faces up to ten years.

Elizabeth Cohen is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of the memoir The Family on Beartown Road and the short story collection The Hypothetical Girl, among other books.







My Daughter at the Blue Venus

My Daughter at the Blue Venus

By P.L. Lowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Surgeon’s Words Haunt Me

The Surgeon’s Words Haunt Me

By Joanne De Simone

feeding tube

My husband and I sat in the orthopedic surgeon’s office debating my fifteen-year-old son’s need for hip surgery, and foot surgery, plus a procedure to remove unnecessary screws from a previous scoliosis surgery. I could manage all of that, but when the doctor suggested we first have a feeding tube placed, I lost it.

When Benjamin was just eighteen months old, a geneticist told us, “Your son has a fifty percent chance of living to the age of ten.” Benjamin would need a feeding tube in the near future and, in his experience, fifty percent of children with feeding tubes died within a ten year time period. John and I immediately decided we wanted to avoid feeding tubes. Of course we knew feeding tubes alone didn’t cause death, but no rational discussion could excise the geneticist’s correlation.

To his credit, the orthopedic surgeon made a strong case. “A feeding tube will improve everyone’s quality of life. It will be easier for you to regulate calories. Additional weight gain will improve his overall health. Benjamin won’t have to take his twenty-seven daily pills by mouth. It will be easier for others to take care of him in the future.”

Distracted by my tears, John and I struggled to explain our resistance. The surgeon was calm yet clearly frustrated. “Why are parents so conflicted about feeding tubes? Benjamin will be the same child.” His longing for an answer haunts me.

When we first met this surgeon, some thirteen years ago, John and I had liked him right away. He recognized Benjamin’s total well-being—beyond orthopedic issues—and our daily challenges. Today we appreciated his desire to teach us lessons we might not be ready to learn. But that’s not an easy task.

When you have a child with a rare brain malformation, a fragile lifespan, whose development won’t exceed an infant’s, every decision is heavy. John and I try to gauge Benjamin’s vitality. We look into the future, when Benjamin most likely will no longer be with us. Then we ask ourselves, “Are we making the right choices? If he doesn’t wake up tomorrow, will we still be able to sleep at night?”

We have fought Benjamin’s disorder with seizure medications, orthopedic surgeries, physical, occupational, and alternative therapies. We’ve pushed him to live because we love him and we know he loves us. Not one day has been easy. Nature has not been kind to Benjamin, but he’s alive and he’s happy.

I want the surgeon to understand the depth of my emotions. I don’t want Benjamin to need a feeding tube. It’s foreign, unnatural, and that state of being already holds us captive. It will be a visual reminder of his dependence, as if everything else weren’t reminder enough. It will scar his flesh, the belly I kissed when he was a baby and still do. It threatens a familial social bonding activity, and we have so few of those. It will move us even farther away from normal, and a part of us will always feel denied. It will pin him onto predicted medical statistics, and for the past fifteen years we’ve been fighting for Benjamin’s right to a place in this world devoid of numerical markers.

Every invasive procedure scars my soul, threatens my humanity, my place as Benjamin’s mother. Every time a doctor needs to intervene my fears build like a tsunami after an earthquake. In order to give my son up to a doctor, I have to push myself under the wave. I’m always in a state of drowning. Drowning my motherhood.

One of Benjamin’s doctors suggested that parents harbor guilt about feeding tubes because we feel as if we’ve failed to sufficiently nourish our child. It’s a reasonable explanation, but guilt is so much more complicated for parents like me. When Benjamin is suffering, I feel guilty for giving him this life and with every intervention for giving him the means to survive it.

I don’t imagine these realizations are uncommon for parents with children who have severe disabilities. Perhaps the surgeon’s vision of outcome just differs from ours. He believes a feeding tube improves quality of life. But “quality of life” does not have one static definition. Just because something might seem better, doesn’t mean it will make life better. There is nothing that will make our lives better. Perhaps it will be more manageable once we’ve adopted the new norm. But better? No.

Still, hoping to give Benjamin a chance of greater comfort, John and I decided to schedule the feeding tube surgery. We believe it’s the right choice, although I’ll never be happy about it. These are feelings I am well accustomed to.

Benjamin has a team of eight different specialists caring for him. After all these years of sitting in their offices, I like to think I understand the culture in which medical professionals live. I know I have really only strained to see through the peephole. It is the same for doctors. I don’t expect anyone to “get” my truths because mine are a pair of glasses that fit only me. I can give them to this surgeon, but all he’ll get is the reflection of his assumptions, judgments, and perhaps a blurred sense of my reality.

I am haunted by the illusion of the doctor/patient relationship. There is a tenuous line between clinical provider and compassionate caregiver. I’m not sure how far to nudge that distinction. I expect my emotions to influence my choices. That’s my burden. I need doctors to give me concrete facts and their best medical judgment so that I can make rational decisions. I am thankful that Benjamin’s orthopedist strives to understand the family behind the patient, but I don’t want anyone to obstruct his ability to do his job. Not even me.

Joanne De Simone lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons.  She’s a special educator and writer. After Joanne’s “Bury My Son Before I Die” piece was published on Brain Child, she was interviewed on Huffington Post Live. Click here to watch the video.



By Tracy Lynch

fall2011_lynchThere’s a word in our household that is used rather often. I wouldn’t have thought much of this word even a few weeks ago, but for some reason, its presence has buzzed around my ear lately like a fly-by gnat. Not annoying, but just often enough to get my attention.

The word? “Inappropriate.”

Our family unit has used the word for many moons to describe shorts that are too short, dogs doing their business, the phrase “Shut up,” and the kind of dancing performed by the younger, more-Beyoncé-like daughter. My daughters’ friends giggle it from the backseat of the minivan; my husband utters it when one of his girls pretends to wear half-shirts; I whisper it when one of the girls forgets her manners and comments on the girth of the man in line at the grocery store. It’s a one-size-fits-all term.

When my daughters used this word at a younger age, it was endearing and adorable. The word stumbled out of their mouths whenever something simply wasn’t proper or right according to their itty-bitty worldviews. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a difference—a shift in usage—and that’s the buzzing in my ear. Now that the girls are ten and twelve, no longer does That’s inappropriate refer to something forbidden. Its current translation is now something along the lines of I know that’s wrong or feels weird to me, but I don’t know why and I don’t think I want to know. Or maybe I do. Why are the grownups laughing? What’s going on with my understanding of the world around me?!

My response has shifted, too, moving from adoring to slightly unsettled. The weight of the word seems heavier as their definitions of “inappropriate” evolve from childish simplicity to adolescent curiosity. A few years ago, my older daughter giggled with glee as our new puppy “hugged” her leg “over and over and over.” “He must really love me!” she laughed breathlessly. Fast forward to the present, and the same daughter, now awkward in her own beautiful body and entering seventh grade, stops suddenly one morning to chastise the same dog (who is now also old enough to know better): “Fergus! Bad boy! That’s inappropriate!”

A line has been drawn: the line of understanding. True, it’s a thick line, a foggy patch in the cognitive landscape, but it’s there.  My daughter, thanks to her growing brain, “family life” courses in health class, and television we probably shouldn’t let her watch, knows now that something is just not right. But she also knows enough to know that she has no idea what that is. Something that was once hilarious is now taboo. My daughters may not know why, but they are on the verge of knowing why. And for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, that makes me a little sad.

Once I became aware of this shift, I found myself listening more intently for the word “inappropriate,” swatting at its buzzing with my own attempts at understanding. Finally, I’ve come to this: “That’s inappropriate” is an off switch. It’s a way to stop the conversation, the image on the screen, the dog humping your leg … and thereby stop yourself from thinking too much about something that just doesn’t feel right. If we label something as inappropriate, we stop ourselves from walking through the thick, foggy patch, through the unpleasantness and toward understanding. “That’s inappropriate” keeps us safe. It keeps us comfortable.

For my daughters, and for kids of all ages, that’s okay. That’s called learning your own boundaries. We give children permission to ease themselves into what is and is not appropriate because they are, after all, kids. They are preparing to travel through the foggy patch. Sometimes what growing kids want to label “inappropriate” really are just parts of growing up, like buying training bras, discussing armpit hair and how to work a razor, or talking with your mother about a boy you like in your math class. This kind of understanding can be uncomfortable, but if all goes well, my daughters will emerge on the other side with understanding as their souvenir. Why do we, as actual grown-ups, use the same off switch, “That’s inappropriate,” for any number of situations and in any number of conversations? What are we so afraid of?  For some (like me), political discussions are often inappropriate. So are religious ones. Reflecting on it, I may know why: I get too nervous discussing a point about which I’m not well versed for fear of being called out. Applying the off-switch word—inappropriate—can stop a conversation before it even begins. Of course, perhaps I could benefit from the understanding that broaching these so-called inappropriate topics could bring. Probably. Maybe. After all, turning off conversations has the potential to make us miss out on pretty significant growing up ourselves. If the adults of this world would strive to constantly re-evaluate what we consider inappropriate, we could charge, head-first, right through those foggy patches and toward understanding. Or casually stroll. What’s inappropriate to some is, after all, inspiring to others.

Take the work of David Jay, for example. Jay, a photographer who is slowly gaining respect and world recognition for his The SCAR Project, photographs of women who are on the other side of breast cancer and have the scars to prove it.

I first stumbled on Jay’s photographs on Facebook. They were going viral, and the link was passed around to tens of thousands of members within a matter of weeks. SCAR stands for “Surviving Cancer. Absolute Reality.” The photographs are, at their very basest level, real. It’s difficult to express the effect his photographs had on me, not because I’m quiet about the emotions they brought (and continue to bring) to the surface, but because, for a long time, I wasn’t quite sure what those emotions were or even how to describe them. Here was a man who was putting to print the most secret, private part of me. A part of me that still felt a little too new to share.

Two years ago, on June 12, 2009, I had a bilateral mastectomy to begin my seven-month treatment of Stage III breast cancer. Walking around without breasts has become only a part of who I am, but it’s always a reminder of what I’ve been through: my own absolute reality. I may not know one woman in the series, but everything about them, their bodies, their eyes, reflected me. Reflected what was left of my cancer. Jay’s photographs tore off the clothes I had been wearing to cover my scars and invited others to click “like” at what they saw. To share these photographs with people, as I felt compelled to do, was in a sense to show them myself naked. My family and friends could now see, on the chests of these women, what breast cancer had done to my body and, through their eyes, to my spirit. SCAR is what happens after the chemo, the surgeries, the hair loss. People who view the works have the chance to be informed.

Or to be confused. Or surprised. Or, even, afraid.

After my surgery and subsequent healing, my own daughters were no longer comfortable being with me when I undressed. A nudist by nature, I was profoundly altered by their response to my naked body. Nights spent putting our PJs on together were no more. Instead, if they saw it was time for me to change, they practically ran to their room, often shutting my door behind them lest I forget to do so myself. They were little and could not be casual about their aversion. My younger daughter, nestling with me in my chair one night, once I was healed enough to snuggle, rested her head on my chest and told me she missed my breasts, that I was too boney and not comfy anymore. The same daughter, with her trademark full-disclosure policy, instructed me once to change clothes in our hotel room bathroom, alone, away from them. She waved her hand in my chest’s general direction and explained, “That’s just creepy.”

This was almost a year after my surgery. Time and again, I was crushed by my well-meaning and brutally honest girls. I was less of a woman. I was a mystery. And, the most difficult pill to swallow, I scared them. My body was, to my daughters, inappropriate.

*   *   *

What my girls couldn’t handle in the flesh, many adults were uncomfortable with even just on paper. Jay’s photos, I learned, were deemed to be too real, too honest, and to show too much. There are nipples. There are lack-of-nipples. There are the curves of a woman’s shape. There are the glaring absences where a woman’s shape should be.

This winter, I worked on a writing project about SCAR and I had a chance to discuss this with Jay himself. He told me that only online publications ever included images of his work. Not one print outlet had ever shown a photograph. None would. One Italian journalist told me that her editor would not include his images in their publication because “he says the images are too much strong, that he makes feel bad.”

The editor’s statement, even in its broken English, says a great deal about what we, as grownups, see as inappropriate in the world. Why are the images so jarring? Are they too painful? Is the “absolute reality” a combination of nudity and illness (or the aftermath of illness) that causes a deep confusion—or simply hurts too much? Is it pushing us too far, too fast toward what we don’t understand?

For kids, facing the inappropriate is scary because they’re learning something that they didn’t know before. Is it the same for adults? Was the Italian editor—merely one of dozens made uncomfortable by the prospect of printing the photos—also afraid of that foggy area, the one that would allow him to cross to the other side, to understanding? Did he turn the switch off? I believe he did. And I believe that he and dozens and dozens of other print journalists missed out in the process. Unfortunately, so did their readers.

One evening in November 2010, a few months after I discovered Jay’s photographs, I was re-examining his extensive collection online. One by one, I clicked through the pictures, sucked into their honesty, until I slowly became aware that someone was looking over my shoulder. It was my younger daughter.

“What are you doing, Mama?” she asked, quietly.

“Looking at these amazing photographs.” Long silence. “Do you want me to stop?”

“No,” she said softly, and I continued on. Eventually, we reached a photograph of a beautiful woman, arms stretched high over her head, that revealed penetrating eyes and double-mastectomy scars.

“That looks like you!” my little girl practically gasped. I agreed, and we sat there in silence until my other daughter slowly came over, timidly, ready to see, too. They were safe there with me, computer screen in my lap, and they saw something new in that woman who looked like their mother.

A few days later, getting in my comfy clothes for the night, I gave my usual precaution to my little girl: “I’m getting ready to change, honey.” Our unspoken agreement had, over time, become Yes, it’s okay for you to leave now.

“That’s okay, Mama. I don’t need to go.” So she stayed. And we talked, and we giggled. One night soon after, my older daughter, typically more timid, joined us.

Neither of my girls has looked away since. I can try on clothes in cramped dressing rooms with them by my side again. They are comfortable whispering to me when my shirt is askew and showing a bit too much of my scars. I have been given the gift of time back with them.

Two years later, and we’ve turned the switch to on.

Author’s Note: My husband and I were overwhelmed by the love that came our way during my breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. We used to talk about how we could actually feel it. I continue to be grateful for it to this day, and whenever I need to slow down, relax, or remind myself what I’m on this planet for, I just have to remember all those gifts, actual and emotional, from those who love us. It still strikes me as nothing short of miraculous that a stranger gave me the biggest gift of all. David Jay’s work changed how I viewed myself, absolutely; he’s gotten that kind of moving feedback from women all over the world and is still humbled and surprised by it. What I don’t write about in this piece is how much SCAR helped me to accept my body, to view it as more than just “appropriate.” Beautiful, even.

Brain, Child (Fall 2011)

Tuesdays with Nirvana

Tuesdays with Nirvana

By Heather Dundas

Art_NirvanaEvery Tuesday night at 7:00 I spend an hour listening to Nirvana at top volume. It’s not nostalgia and I’m not at a club; I’m at my 14-year-old son’s drum lesson in a loft in downtown Los Angeles. Teo sits on a platform behind an enormous drum kit and plays along to the songs in Nevermind. It’s loud. So loud that Kurt Cobain’s voice expands like a wet sponge, filling all the space around me and inside me, driving most thoughts out of my head. I love it. This is one of the few opportunities I have to uninhibitedly stare at my son, and every week I give in to the luxury.

I don’t want to embarrass Teo; I bring my laptop along and tap away studiously during the lesson. But he doesn’t need to know that I’m just playing computer solitaire. And watching him. It’s amazing that someone related to me is capable of mastering the ultimate symbols of adolescent machismo, especially since I was the one who hummed along to Tchaikovsky through my youth, who knew all the words to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, who embodied girl geekdom in high school. With his long blonde hair and ripped jeans, Teo is undeniably cool behind the kit.

I watch Teo, and I wonder about the enduring popularity of Nirvana. Why do I enjoy it? Certainly the lyrics with their proto-emo teen angst have very little to say to me – my angst is undeniably middle-aged. Maybe it’s that the wrist-slitting lyrics seem to be undercut by the lively beat? Is it the irony, the juxtaposition? I ponder this as long as I can, but it’s not long until the song reasserts itself in my brain, and I find myself nodding along to the bouncy beat: oh well. Whatever.

Every now and then Teo’s eyes glaze toward me – I can’t tell if he’s actually seeing me or not. As he plays, one foot is visible under the hi-hat; Teo’s sporting his father’s cast off shoes, the ones he’s been wearing exclusively for a year. I gave Teo two pairs of sneakers at Christmas, in an attempt to get him to wear something other than those black clodhoppers. He finally took one pair to school so he could play PE in suitable shoes. But otherwise, he’s wearing his dad’s shoes, now split at the seams because they are-suddenly–two sizes too small. If his father and I hadn’t divorced, would Teo still want to wear these shoes day after day after day? I allow the music to push the thought away.

Dopily, I try to imagine how loud it is behind the drum kit, where Teo sits. It must be deafening. “Hearing loss” floats through my head, but looking at him, skinny shoulders just showing above the snare, his mouth pursed and eyes vacant with concentration, his entire being absorbed into the music, I can’t work up a real sense of danger.

Already he’s had “gigs.” At the first, a middle school dance, girls screamed. At the second gig, another school event, Teo learned to flip his hair around and collapsed at the end of a song in mock exhaustion. Girls screamed louder. Parents came up to tell me how cool my son is. How did this happen? My own son, one of the band.

Teo is my second. His sister, now eighteen, leaves for college in a few weeks. He’s my youngest child, my last. He was my blonde baby, the little boy who loved red cowboy boots, the child who fell asleep next to me on the couch more nights than either of us care to admit. And now – there he is, master of the universe.

There are days when the drum lesson doesn’t go well: Teo’s beat is either a little ahead or behind, and no matter how hard he tries he can’t hit the time exactly. It’s immensely frustrating. I can see his face get redder and redder as he chews on his lips and tries to keep the beat.

“Lower your elbow! Use your wrist!” his teacher yells at him. Chris is closer in age to Teo than me, member of a bonafide band that plays real gigs. From where I sit in the loft I can only see the back of Chris’s head, but Teo is attuned to his every movement. Chris clicks his sticks together and they both nod. Chris beats out a rhythm on his knees and Teo plays along softly on the drums.

“No, man,” Chris says, “you flam it here.”

“Oh,” says Teo, “like that?” They parse out differences that I can’t hear. Some days the lesson devolves into a tedious repetition of a few beats over and over again, as Teo struggles to coordinate his feet with his hands. These are the hardest lessons, when Chris turns the music off and Teo pounds out tom (beat) tom-TOM (beat), tom (beat) tom-TOM (beat) for minutes on end.

Today Chris is sporting a fresh black eye.

“You have to be tough in rock and roll,” he says, as though this explains it. Teo nods, as though black eyes were common in his experience. I want to know more, but I won’t interject too much motherly attention into the conversation. I know I’m only being tolerated here.

I congratulate myself that Teo and I like the same music. I like Nirvana. Teo likes Nirvana. Therefore…what? I remind myself that in Teo’s world, Nirvana is an oldie, on a par with the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. Next year it’s just the two of us in the house…how are we going to manage that? He moans at the thought, hurting my feelings. (Oh, how I am going to miss his sister.)

“Next up is Incubus,” says Chris. I’ve never even heard of them. What I’m trying to ignore is that Teo is learning a completely new language, one that leaves me behind.

Never mind, drones the song. Teo, red-faced and sweating, keeps up with the tricky rhythm. The stage is a boat, holding only Teo and Chris, and it’s pulling away from me. I wonder – is this ship just beginning to sail or did it leave months ago, when I wasn’t looking? When does he stop being mine? Was he ever?

You have to be tough in rock and roll, I think. And like a happy, besotted groupie I settle back to watch my growing son master the shifting beat.

Author’s Note: Teo’s drum lessons were pivotal in his evolution from struggling pre-teen to successful high school student. He played in his school’s jazz band for four years, and his love of one art form gave him the confidence to explore others. Upon graduation from high school, he received an award for his contribution to the artistic life of the school, and won scholarships to study painting and creative writing in college.

About the Author: After a career in theater, Heather Dundas is now studying at the University of Southern California for a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing. Her story, “Trivial But Numerous,” was published last year in PMS: PoemMemoirStory 11. An earlier essay, “Mull Mermaid,” was published in Brain, Child in 2006.