50 Stories, Week 7: In brief, my Mom

Short, raw, off the cuff…

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This is my Mom. She was a babe back in 1950, right? She’s 88 years old now and has no big health issues (except a bad cancer diagnosis last year, which she miraculously continues to keep at bay.) She’s been a mother to five, a grandmother to ten, and a great-grandmother to six. She’s had boyfriend the last eight years who treats her very well. She’s got incredible skin – thanks to no sunbathing, smoking, or drinking booze. She was a favorite mother of all my friends in high school, allowing for late nights, sleepovers, and making us fried dough on Sunday mornings. 

She showed me the importance of friendship and community. She and my Dad were always socializing and entertaining with friends and neighbors. And watching her lose the last of these relationships as she ages has been heartbreaking. But she keeps smiling. She is fiercely independent, to the point that she’ll snap at you if you try to help her. I’ve had to remind myself that isn’t about me but fearing the loss of being able to take care of oneself. I understand now the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

When my mother spoke of getting pregnant with me, after losing my brother a few months before and already having three more at home, she would say ‘babies are a blessing.’ We didn’t have a close relationship growing up. I spent most days trying to get her attention and she spent most days, well, trying to get through the day. I know that she did the best she could but I also know that her grief didn’t allow her to be present with me – how could it have? It wasn’t until I had a son of my own that I could fully comprehend what she might have experienced. 

My biggest lessons in mothering came from watching both my sister and sister-in-law raise their babies with love and boundaries. But what I learned from my own mother is that sometimes we have to mother ourselves, heal our own wounds privately, build our own resilience – before we can be present enough to do that for others. Sometimes that takes years, or a lifetime. I’m happy to report that I found a place of forgiveness – to myself – for all the crazy attention-seeking things I did trying to get her to love me. I found compassion for us both, knowing we’re doing the best we can and then doing better when we know better. It took fifty years but I really like my Mom now, for the person that she is, not the person I wanted her to be. And I think (hope?!) she likes me too. I like hanging out with her, I like listening to her tell me what she’s been up to, and occasionally she drops a random tidbit about her childhood that I can’t wait to tell in a story one day.

So, happy mother’s day, Mom. You are loved.

50 Stories, Week 5: SFPD’s Finest

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I was frightened. Ten seconds earlier, I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be standing in my towel, hair dripping wet on the floor, defending myself to a couple of officers. There’s nothing quite like having San Francisco Police Department’s finest on your doorstep.

Jackson had been having a tough time falling asleep and was up late that night. We hadn’t lived in that apartment long, maybe a couple of months, so he was about three years old. He was generally a great sleeper and I would put him down without incident, but that night he resisted and wouldn’t stop wailing. I was exhausted and desperately in need of a shower, so I told him he could sleep in my bed which seemed to calm him down. I tucked him in and told him I was going to take a shower, and that he needed to close his eyes and go to sleep, pronto. Normally, I would shower after he fell asleep but it was a damp November night, I’d had another crappy day at work, and I couldn’t wait any longer. I gave him a kiss on his tangled head of curly blond hair and said goodnight. 

I had just turned off the water when the doorbell rang. I popped my head out the bathroom door and said “Just a minute!” while I put a towel around me. I was about to pull on some sweatpants when the doorbell rang again, along with an urgent knocking. I hurried down the hall to peer through the peephole and saw two policemen, immediately sending a palpable wave of fear through me. How quickly my brain worked, thinking of all the terrible news they could be delivering. My stomach started churning before a word was spoken.

“We’re here to check on a disturbance that was reported. Anonymously,” the first officer stated. I don’t remember them saying their names but I told them I had no idea what they were talking about, that I’d clearly just gotten out of the shower. 

“Do you have any children in the house?” officer number two asked.

“Yes, my son. But he’s sleeping.” My bedroom was right off the front entrance. The door was open and there was Jackson, sitting up in bed, staring at the men with guns holstered to their hips. One of the policemen turned on his flashlight and shone it into the dark room, onto Jackson’s red, tear stained face.

“Are you alright in there little guy?” asked officer number one.

Jackson just stared at them like a literal deer in headlights. I told them he was fine, that he’d just had a hard time going to sleep. They informed me that a neighbor was concerned for his safety, as he’d been “screaming and crying for 20 minutes.” Twenty minutes? I hadn’t taken a twenty minute shower in years. Although maybe I’d lost track of time in there… dreaming.

“Has there been any hitting going on tonight?” Officer number two asked this in a conversational, almost friendly tone. As if to appear like someone I’d be at ease with, and admit to hitting my son. I knew I hadn’t, but was suddenly terrified at the notion they thought I had. Once he laid out the allegations, the pit in my stomach grew to encompass my intestines and I immediately needed to use the bathroom. They were looking at me as if I’d abused my child. That look of disdain. And Jackson was too little to say anything convincing without also crying because at that point, I believe he was more afraid of the two big uniformed men at our door. 

I realized that my breath had quickened and I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. I held the knot of my towel tighter to appear that I had my composure about me, while inside my tightening stomach and twisting bowels were doing battle. I’d watched too many crime shows on television and knew that real panic in this moment wouldn’t serve me. I calmly and quietly asked, “Is there anything else?” They said something about being “better safe than sorry” and began walking to their car. 

I closed the door and ran for the bathroom, barely making it in time. Two seconds later, Jackson began to cry, and so did I.

50 Stories, Week 4: 1969, A Photograph

It is 1981, I am eleven years old and holding a photograph. It is about four by four inches square, glossy, with 1969 written along the white rim. I found it in a box of photos I’d never seen before, in a storage area of the garage I’d never combed through before. I’m doing research for a school project, to write our own autobiographies. While I think the assignment is dumb, I’m wondering how I can make my childhood sound more interesting than it is. 

In the photo, a string of Christmas cards lines the wall behind a young boy sitting on the back of a couch. He’s wearing a patterned two-piece pajama set, happily holding a Jungle Book board game. Next to him is an adolescent girl in her blue nightgown and matching robe, a barrette keeping her hair back, smiling demurely with her hands neatly folded on her lap. In front of her on the couch is a little girl of four or so, grinning widely and holding a Winnie the Pooh board game. And next to her is a teenaged boy with a sleepy smile in a green and blue plaid bathrobe. I recognize the last three children as my older sisters and brother. But I do not know the first child, which is why I am standing in front of my mother with the photograph. 

“Who is this boy, mom?”

“What boy?” she replies.

My mother is not looking at me, she is standing at the stove, stirring an enormous pot of sauce. It’s Wednesday, spaghetti night at my house, and the smell of fried peppers and onions hangs like a fog in the kitchen. When she finally looks down at the picture I am holding, I see a look on her face that first confuses and then scares me. My mother turns back to the stove and begins adding meatballs to the sauce. 

“That was Steven. He was your brother. He died.”

Then she adds, “Set the table, dinner is almost ready.”

After I silently put the plates and silverware on the table, I go back downstairs to the closet where I spend a lot of my free time. It is underneath the stairs of our split-entry house and goes back about eight feet from the door. Inside, there is a mixture of Dad’s old National Guard uniforms and Mom’s special occasion dresses hanging in plastic wrap, not likely to be worn again. Along the wall are a few more storage boxes. I look at these differently now, wondering what mysteries could be inside. I crawl beyond them, to a secret refuge where I spend my free time reading books and licking Tang off my finger, after dipping it in the jar I have stashed there. 

I turn on my flashlight to look at the picture again, this time more closely, investigating. 

That little boy is my brother. Was my brother. And my family had a life with him before they had a life with me. 

Turns out my childhood is interesting. I just didn’t know it yet.

SMKJ XMas (1)

50 Stories, Week 1: A Fistful

Today is my 50th birthday. Many people reach this age and start thinking about their bucket-list. A sense of urgency creeps in with the realization that there are only so many vacations left, books to read, friendships to make, and adventures to have before it’s all over.

I’ve decided to share my reverse bucket-list, or things I’ve done. I’ll do so by way of stories but also a few ramblings. Maybe I’ll also write a poem or sing a song, who knows? Some will be polished and some will be off the cuff. I hope you forgive the format and enjoy the content. 

Every Sunday, for the next fifty (50) weeks, I’ll do my best and aim to get better as I go along.

My first story, A Fistful, goes like this…

When I was 12 years old, my father taught me how to throw a punch with a roll of quarters. We were living in suburban southern New Hampshire, on a cul-de-sac with a dozen families. The neighborhood kids all played together – games of hide-and-go-seek and tag, ice skating on the small creek behind the houses, riding bikes up and down the street all summer long, and also: football. While I played the game every weekend on my next-door neighbor’s lawn, the only thing I have ever known about football is that you want your team to have the ball, and you want to run as fast as you can to the other side of the field. Period. This wasn’t the NFL, it was basic neighborhood tackle football.

One Sunday afternoon, I’m heading out to play and I see all the boys already in a huddle. I run over to get in but they’re tight and laughing while one of them is telling a story. Turns out Tommy Nicholson heard from Eddie Sullivan* that I was ‘easy.’ For a brief moment, I thought this had something to do with the game but then he went on to say that Eddie had ‘felt me up’ and that I was ‘looking for it’ so any of the boys could ‘do it’ with me. My cheeks started to flush and I felt a weird pit in my stomach. I didn’t understand what this all meant but clearly, they must have, because they kept laughing when they turned and saw me there. I ran home with shameful tears and told my Dad what happened. He didn’t say a word but immediately put out his cigarette, put his shoes on, and walked out the front door. I realized too late that he was going to have a word with the boys, so I stood by the living room window and watched, holding my breath and feeling the urge to pee. When he came back inside, he walked toward his bedroom and yelled for me to meet him on the back porch. I thought he was angry at me because I wasn’t always an easy kid. I was super curious and that generally meant trouble. But when he came out with a roll of quarters in his hand, I was just confused. 

“Ok, pretend to hit me,” he said.

“Um, why?” I asked.

“Just throw a punch at me!”

So I did. He caught my fist mid-air and said “Good, now try it with this,” and handed me the quarters. My hand wasn’t big enough to conceal the full roll but I knew instinctively that I could deliver more hurt with this in my swing. 

“You have to protect yourself now. Understand?” 

I nodded. 

“Ok, try again.”

The added weight gave me confidence and I swung hard. He stepped back to miss me but my knuckles skimmed his beer belly and he let out a yelp. (This wasn’t the first time I’d accidentally hurt my Dad – when I was about four years old, I jumped up to kiss him goodnight and broke his nose. But that’s a story for another day.) Then he smiled and left me to go inside and light up a cigarette. 

The real problem with Eddie Sullivan spreading rumors about me was that my mother was friends with Eddie’s mom. She was a real scary lady who was in a perpetual state of sweating, and carried a tall glass of iced tea everywhere she went. They lived across the street from my best friend Laura, and Eddie was a few years older than us. While I thought it was cool that my Dad taught me that secret punch, I knew that I wasn’t going to be carrying around a roll of quarters all the time. So, later that week, when my friend Laura and I were sitting on her front lawn and Eddie was in his driveway greasing his bicycle chain, we had an idea.

“Hey Eddie,” we yelled. “Wanna see something?” We giggled and lifted up our shirts, just past our belly buttons. He looked at us with that pubescent boy face – awkward and excited – and put down his WD-40. 

“Lemme see again!” he hollered. So I took the bottom of my t-shirt and twisted it up to tuck between my non-existent breasts. Laura and I stood up and did a little dance. 

“Why don’t you come a little closer, Eddie?” I asked, more quietly. He crossed the street and approached us. Laura whispered in my ear, then disappeared inside. 

We stood there for a moment, Eddie and I. He wasn’t a bad looking guy, blond, kind of freckly.

“Come on, you gonna show me some more?” he asked while taking a step closer. 

“Maybe…” I put my hands on his shoulders. 

Then with all the might of a 12-year-old girl done wrong, I kneed him in the balls. He fell over instantly, crying and writhing. I’d never intentionally inflicted pain on someone and I felt awful, of course, but oddly satisfied at the same time. I wish Eddie was the last guy who ever said or did an unkind thing to me, but he was just the beginning. So I’m grateful my Dad taught me to protect myself, because no one else could – even if he wanted to.

After Eddie crawled his way home, his mother called my mother and there were words. I’m not sure what they consisted of but you can bet your ass I kept playing football after that (until I got boobs and then it was all over.) 

*names have been changed to protect the ego

 

Be the adult.

I joined a meet-up for Stepparents. I’m not a joiner, so this was difficult for me. I like to try new things, see what sticks, but once I decide to do something with regularity (re: yoga for the last 25 years,) I end up hating the joiner culture that surrounds it. Most would call this community, I do recognize that.

So, last night, I went back and forth in my mind of all the reasons why I wasn’t going to go – I would have to drag my ass at night to Manhattan, it was in a crap part of town, I didn’t know anyone, they would surely be lame, or god forbid, they would think I was lame (I wasn’t, FYI, I was hilarious.) And then, like magic, Jason called from his business trip to ask my what my plans were. I had a choice to lie, which in these circumstances I just call not-sharing-every-detail, but decided to tell him I was conflicted about going. He reminded me, as always, that it is good to push ourselves out of our comfort zone yada yada. He wasn’t the one going into a room full of strangers. But he is my mirror and he was right, so I went.

They weren’t lame. I mean, they were a little weird, some of them, but not lame. I did my brutally honest, self-deprecating schtick and they laughed out loud at points. Over the course of the two hours, though, I realized that despite all of our stories and backgrounds being very different, we did actually have a connection. A feeling of not being at home in our homes. A feeling of selfishness and helplessness. And a desire to learn skills and hear advice to make it work.

One thing that resonated with me was the moderator relaying a story about the conflict between her and her step-daughter. She was feeling frustrated and petulant (the stepmom,) and things were deteriorating, and she had to keep reminding herself of the golden rule – Always be the adult. Be. The. Adult.  I heard those words and immediately got grumpy and defensive. But I don’t waaaaaaant to always be the adult. I am, always, the adult! I had to be an adult before I was an adult, before I had a child of my own to parent. I am independent and responsible (despite what my ex always feared,) and now, at 45, when I’m constantly having my buttons pushed by a 12 year old who mostly hates me (and herself,) I don’t want to be the adult!

And yet. I have to. I will continue to fuck up. My relationship with the girls may or may not get better or worse, but I still have to remember that until they are adults, I have to be the adult. Their mom and dad don’t actually have to be the adults all the time, because they are forgiven for their indiscretions and foibles and even their resentment or antagonism. Its built in, this forgiveness as children. Not me, though, not the stepmother. Even when I apologize, I am not forgiven. It is remembered, and it is shaping our relationship. So, do I continue to start each week with them walking on eggshells? Deciding to see how long I can not engage with them, for fear of saying the wrong thing? Forgetting how to be myself because I know the person I am isn’t the person they choose to be with?

I don’t know. I do know better, though.