If you were to ask me what the best sound in the word is, I would answer without hesitation, “My children laughing together.”
Some of the best moments of being a mom were simply this. I’m in bed, reading. and I hear the sound of matched giggles or outright belly laughs from the darkness of one or the other of the girls’ rooms. Instead of telling whichever one snuck out into her sister’s room to go back to bed, I just listen, reveling in the strength of their connection.
Of course, the laughter of children has a power all its own, think of the videos of a baby laughing on social media. That gurgling, unfettered sound of pure delight that produces fine bubbles in your stomach that rise up through your chest, tickling as they swirl, hooking the corners of your lips and lifting your mouth into a smile before they pop with a sparkle that shines in your eyes.
And that’s just some random toddler. I believe the happiness of our children gives us such a deep sense of joy for several reasons.
One, it means we have done our job and the kids are happy, safe, and most likely healthy.
Two, it reminds us of our own more innocent times. I hear that amusement and am catapulted back, maybe I’m lying on a trampoline with my sister staring at an infinity of stars and giggling at nothing and everything until exhaustion sets in. Maybe I’m listening to my dad’s stomach growl while he lies on the floor watching TV while my sibs and I press our ears to his tummy. Funniest thing ever. No worries, no tomorrow, no sorrow. Just that hysterical moment of swooping, free-falling ecstasy.
Three, laughter releases chemicals that make us feel good. Especially our own. I’ve actually been able to combat depression by just plain faking laughter until I actually started laughing at the whole ridiculous process. Try it, it works.
But whatever the reason, much like the Grinch, my heart grows two sizes whenever I even think of those moments, which I do quite often.
Last weeks, the girls came to visit for Thanksgiving. We hiked, and set off fireworks on the beach, and ate truffles with everything from eggs to soufflés. The boyfriends came with, so Joseph and I were more like a backdrop than the main attraction. That’s what happens when they grow up, they branch out from family, on whom their very survival used to depend, to the peers who will keep them surviving and thriving in life beyond their parents. My girls are loving and attentive and grateful, but the parent-child dynamic changes, as it should, when they head off into the great blue horizon that is their life without me.
I suppose I’m a bit different from many moms, certainly different from my sisters, who feel that their kids are an extension of themselves that they can shape into a certain type of person like human Playdough. I don’t mean to be derogatory, they are both amazing mothers, it’s just a different perspective. I knew from the first moment I looked into my older daughter’s eyes when they handed her to me on the delivery table that she was her own person with her own journey ahead. I knew she was already thinking and feeling things vastly different from my own soaring emotions. I’ve always been honored to be a part of it. I’m here to help row, blow wind in their sails, or even bail out the high water when it’s needed, but ultimately the journey and the experiences belong to them.
It makes me happy just to think it. What remarkable humans they are, compassionate, open, intelligent, funny, caring, everything I could have wanted. Sure they make fun of me, you should see them both doing an impression of my face when I got really mad, it’s hysterical. My views on life are questioned and often argued, which is all for the good. I never wanted carbon copies of me, I wanted originals, and that is what they are. That’s what all children are really, it’s just that some parents don’t get that for a long time, sadly some never do. Perhaps it’s painful for a parent to realize that these individuals to whom you gave everything go on without you, but I bet it’s a lot harder to have to hide who you really are from your own parents.
So when my girls sigh when I make a statement they don’t agree with, or demand that I stop talking about something because it makes them uncomfortable, I acknowledge that truth and shift. Joseph and I spend more time watching them interact with the world than we do interacting with them. We wrap an arm around each other and smile at these young adults, so sure of their knowledge and their place, and we feel good. We’ve done well to teach them to be themselves and to be confident in that. We exchange knowing glances when they question themselves and the world around them, nodding encouragement. Never stop questioning, my darlings, always ask for more.
The holiday was wonderful, we shared so much, including time just spent together without any motive or purpose, only comfortable co-habitation.
And when they sat on the deck after sunset overlooking the moon on Puget Sound we stayed inside, listening to the animated conversation, and when the laughter broke out in rolls and waves, we looked into each other’s eyes and smiled.
There’s nothing better than hearing the laughter of your children in the dark.
Often, when I was in second grade arithmetic, I would look up from my endless worksheets designed to discourage and disinterest would-otherwise-have-become astrophysicists, to wonder at my teacher’s hair. These were the sixties, and the ultimate goal of hair styling was ‘big as you could get it.’ My teacher sported a swept up bun which increased her head size to a degree that I would have recognized as volume times mass squared if that simple math formula had been known to me yet. I often watched her droning on and thought how much it appeared that she was wearing the wasps’ nest my Dad had smoked out and then detached from under the eaves of our house.
The nest, a bulbous, silver grey creation that swarmed dangerously with insects, was a deceivingly stable structure, as big as cotton candy at a state fair, formed by the spit and labor of the insects and built to survive the elements for multiple seasons. Considering that the aptly named beehive hairstyles were achieved at beauty salons once in a blue moon and meant to last out the month, the construction goals were remarkably similar. Both were painstakingly built to last. The nest survived because of a network of hexagon paper shells, formed from spit and wood mulch, the hairstyle resisted gravitational pull with the clever use of ruthless teasing and enough aerosol shellac to make a bed sheet stand up in a heavy wind. And while only one was designed to house insects, the likely hood of entomological habitation in the hairstyle was not so farfetched. It might not have been wasps, but odds were good that something was living in there. I would watch Ms. Whatever-her-name-was take a pencil and carefully insert it deep into the foamy depths of her bouffant and then scratch furiously. I never saw anything crawl out of it, but my desk was near the back, so I might have missed it.
But times were changing and hairstyles were being dragged along. Women began to opt for the down-with-a-scooping-flip-at-the-bottom style. This involved setting the hair on huge, hollow rollers, and then sleeping in a sitting position or baking under a dryer until the polymer set. It required hours of self-imposed torture, all endured for the sake of appearing in public perfectly groomed. To allow anyone other than family or beauty shop operatives to see oneself mid-process was unthinkable.
So imagine the shrinking of my soul when my mom appeared in the doorway of my classroom wearing rollers the size of coffee cans held in place by aluminum clips in a neat row over and around her head, leaving her looking like a load of sewer pipes strapped down by what appeared to be a shrimping net.
As I slumped low, desperate to appear as incredulous as any of my classmates that some loser’s mother was shameless enough to show up in public worse than naked, she crossed to the teacher and whispered an apology. A quick exchange ensued and then, to my horror, I was identified as the unfortunate offspring of this brazen crazy lady and told to gather my things.
My face burning with red-hot shame and unable to meet the eyes of my brutally judgemental classmates, I got my books and coat and joined my mom at the door.
As we walked down the hall, I kept my eyes on the floor. We passed other teachers and even the principle on the way out and I knew that I would be forever branded as the girl with the indecent mother.
My mom said very little but she seemed pleased. I, on the other hand, could not have been more distressed if she had been walking me toward a firing squad.
Now that I’m a mom who has had the opportunity to embarrass my girls on numerous occasions, I have a different take. Over the years I have had to find varied and creative ways to strike fear into their innocent hearts in order to back up a, shall we call it a…behavioral adjustment.
And the worst thing I could ever threaten them with was public embarrassment. Not theirs, mine. I could threaten, yell, give time outs, devise punishments, but nothing ever worked as well as warning them I would do one of two things; sing or dance in public.
So the other day, when my oldest daughter and I were out having lunch and she showed me a little video she had taken of her boyfriend that morning, I had to smile. The two of them share a small house by the beach with three other guys, all of them surfers. Every morning the first one up quickly bikes or skateboards to one of the nearby beaches and gets a take on the wave conditions. Most days are what they call ‘yellow’, smooth, easy waves, but some days, some very special days, it’s orange.
Orange means waves, it means excitement, it means unexpected and unusual fun.
So when he came on my daughter’s little screen, the boyfriend was singing and dancing, “It’ an orange day! It’s an orange day!” as he went from room to room in the hall, knocking on doors. “Get up! It’s orrrraaaange!” and he did a little dance step on his way to reverse peel himself into gortex, or whatever it is they make those suits out of now.
And I thought, ‘How wonderful, an orange day.’ We all get them sometimes, though not often enough. An orange day could be one that brings an unexpected turn of events, weather that sings for a special event, or opportunities knocking on your bedroom door that weren’t even in the neighborhood the night before.
I’m not a surfer, I’ve done it a few times and liked it very much, but I grew up in Atlanta, far from the surging shore. It was unlikely enough that I became a competitive ice-skater. There was only one undersized rink in town until I was around 12, so everyday, up I would get up at four-thirty and go to the rink for a couple of hours before school to train, and every afternoon I was back, practicing falling, and sometimes learning to defy gravity myself for a few seconds. I loved it.
But since skating was not exactly a regular pastime in the heat and humidity of the deep south, we had only one teacher, and no champions to look up to. No Dorothy Hamils trained at my tiny patch of ice and no Nancy Kerrigans ate Milk Duds with me while the Zamboni smoothed the surface.
My childhood hero was Peggy Fleming, Not only was she the former Olympic champion, but she had these awesome TV specials that I watched with rapture, studying both her style and technique. A Peggy Fleming special was every holiday wrapped up in one for me.
So just imagine my amazement when my mom, saying very little, drove me to the rink in the middle of a school day where some of my fellow skate-o-philes were waiting, and then shocked me to my core when the door opened and in walked Peggy Fleming, in the Fleming flesh.
Turns out, she was in town with Ice Capades. She practiced everyday, never missed one, and since the show was at the stadium and the ice wasn’t in yet, she had gotten in touch with my little Igloo to arrange some private practice time. The owner had told my coach and my coach had chosen a small handful of her students to be there.
When she came in, we all burst into applause. Basically a shy woman, she looked completely taken aback, but she said hello politely and then went to change into her outfit and skates.
Needing to use the restroom, I went to the back and pushed open the door. There, seated on a bench, lacing up her skates, was Peggy Fleming, but not just an Olympic gold medalist I idolized, but an Olympic gold medalist who I idolized in her bra.
Her bra. I saw Peggy Fleming in her underwear.
Why she put on her skates before her top was a mystery to me, but I remember walking toward the mirror and smirking to myself, embarrassed but oddly thrilled to have seen the great woman in her skivvies. Later what I mostly remembered was how tiny she was, I didn’t find out until later that I was far too tall to be a skater, at nine, I wasn’t yet oversized.
But even though I was shorter, that was one of my most orange days. I went back to school and faced the taunts of my classmates about my mother’s steamroller hair curlers with Peggy Fleming’s autograph in my hand. When I displayed my golden prize, they were awed, cowed, and envious. Oh how I loved that feeling. A most orange feeling.
Not everyday will come in a strong hue, some of them will be murky and dull. There will be days of blue or rusty brown. I’ve even had more than my share of black ones, but that day still glows with the brilliance of a sunlit field of California poppies.
My mother embarrassed and thrilled me to such extremes in a single day that I leaned a life lesson.
Things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes you have to stop everything and embrace the risk, and sometimes, wonderful things happen when you least expect it, and even when wearing curlers the size of redwood tree trunks in front of a prissy private school classroom, moms can be the coolest ever.
Maybe that’s the reason I still haven’t stopped trying to devise ways to embarrass my girls into living a fuller life.
I probably never will.
I will get up early some days, check the metaphoric surf conditions, find them exceptional, and run dancing from room to room singing, “It’s an orange day!”
Many years ago my father divorced my mom after thirty years of marriage effectively shattering our family’s holiday traditions. Hey, it happens, and instead of trying to force a pale imitation of Christmas pasts, my mom read somewhere that it would help to make some new traditions.
And we, her innocent offspring, were unwillingly recruited to add enthusiasm. This was wishful thinking elevated to new heights. First of all, we liked the old traditions where we did nothing but got great stuff, and second, we were teenagers who couldn’t be bothered.
Her first idea was to go and cut a tree at a tree farm instead of buying one from a convenient lot where expert helpers would cut the trunk evenly so the tree would stand straight, trim the branches, and lift the inevitably soaking wet tree (Atlanta in winter, trust me, it was raining) on to the roof of your car and tie it on the way privileged people like ourselves were supposed to do. For some reason, forsaking this ease and comfort did not appeal to my siblings and I, and we bitched and moaned the entire drive out of our cozy suburb to the tree farm, located somewhere out in nowhere Georgia, a state which, believe me, has a whole lot of nowhere and we were right in the middle of it.
Eventually, though, we arrive in smack-dab, park, and slog through ankle deep Georgia red clay mud to the shack that serves as office and cashier stand. The farmer, with a cheek full of chaw held loosely in place by his two remaining tobacco stained teeth, gives us a small, rusty hacksaw with a loose blade, and we go trudging off into the uncharted acreage. Conscious of energy conservation, namely his own, every four feet my brother would stop, sigh torturously, and say, ‘That’s a good one, how about that one?” but my mom was on a mission to make this an experience, which meant nothing less than committing a substantial amount of time to it, and for this purpose none of the absolutely perfect trees convenient to the unpaved parking area would do. So on we trudged, getting damper and more cynical with every step. My brother and I, the oldest ones, were especially good at delivering pithy, scathing ridicule to express our displeasure, and we were in rare form that day. After circumnavigating the hundred acre wood, Mom finally picked out a tree that looked almost exactly identical to the other six thousand trees we had rejected, with one outstanding feature—an especially thick and gnarled trunk.
For some reason, my sister Steffi, the third born, has always been the one who was relegated the shitty jobs. Okay, the reason is that she bitched the least, was not as lazy and arrogant, and is frankly physically superior to the rest of us. My brother Dwayne, who is now a top television producer, was, and obviously still is, a genius at designating tough manual labor to other people. He was a real Tom Sawyer-painting-the-fence kind of kid, and he’s grown up into a real Tom Sawyer-producing-hit-TV-shows kind of adult. I’ll never forget when he wanted to dig a pond in our backyard, so he told the other kids that no one could do it but him. By lunchtime he was drinking lemonade and supervising a chain gang of underage workers as they dug for their lives while he enjoyed uninterrupted leisure and an egg salad sandwich. Our youngest sister, and fourth in line to the throne, Shawna, was exactly that—the youngest, meaning she was far too pampered to be expected to exert herself, and anyway her arms were the thickness of twizzle sticks. I was probably wearing something covered in sequins, (it was the seventies) so I wasn’t going to do it. Out of habit, we all looked at Steffi. She cursed once, grabbed the shitty saw, dropped, and belly crawled up under that tree across slugs and wet pine straw to start felling.
Dwayne and I provided a constant barrage of criticism that no one but ourselves found humorous, so we fulfilled every expectation, Shawna complained that she was hungry and this was stupid, which was helpful, and Mom told us all to be quiet and enjoy it, we’d thank her later. After about thirty minutes of Steffi’s concentrated attack with a blunt, bending tool that barely qualified as a cutting utensil, the tree toppled and she rolled onto her back panting before coming to her feet, brushing mud off her jacket, sweaty and victorious. She’d shown that tree, and all of us, who was boss.
Now all she had to do was drag it a mile back to the car.
Which, under threat of severe famine from our mother, we begrudgingly helped her do, bitching a moaning all the way. While my mom kept reminding us that we were making memories and forging new traditions, I kept reminding her that pine sap was ruining my satin jacket.
Can’t you just feel the adolescent gratitude?
The tree was beautiful, smelled better than a lot tree, dripped more sap on the floor, and listed dangerously to one side, but it was our tree, there by the fruits of our first hand labor. Well, second hand in my case, but my sister cut it down, so I felt justified in taking full credit, proudly proclaiming, “We cut that tree ourselves,” to visitors. And a tradition was born. Steffi still cuts the tree.
A couple years later, after my own first divorce, (just warming up) my youngest sister and I went with my mom to spend Christmas in Washington D.C. with one of my aunts, her husband, and their daughter Amanda. Amanda is an only child and her parents are two of the brightest people on the planet, so to say she was a precocious five-year old is perhaps a sliver of an understatement. Because she had no siblings, she was excited to the point of hysteria at the idea of a visit with her cousins who she considered her contemporaries, never mind that she was not yet six and Shawna and I were 13 and 22, bit of a gap there socially, but who doesn’t adore being worshipped? And she was a fun, sharp as a whip little kid, so we did have a blast with her. My foremost memory of that trip was playing Trivial Pursuit with Aunt Toni, a PHD in library sciences, and Uncle David the man in charge of the computer archives of the Smithsonian institution. Talk about a rigged contest. My advice if you ever find yourself asked to participate in a game of knowledge with people who essentially have doctorates in information—Don’t do it!! The only category in which they displayed the smallest margin of error was arts and entertainment, and that only because they didn’t waste a lot of precious brain cells on ‘facts’ like ‘What was the Brady Family’s dog’s name?” All other, less important topics, literature, history, geography, you know the boring ones, were locked and loaded for these supreme intellectuals. It was like playing Jeopardy against Wikipedia.
But overall the trip was magical, visiting the museums on the mall, taking my sister to the natural history museum for the first time, cocoa by the fire, discussing books and arts, behind the scenes tours at the Smithsonian, it was all remarkable. And then came Xmas morning. Early Christmas morning.
Now, I know all kids get ramped up by the societal induced hysteria of Santa’s impending arrival, but I don’t think I’d ever seen such enthusiasm as that little blonde fanatic. She’d been promised Barbi’s dream house and she was jonesing for Christmas morning like a junkie waiting for his pusher outside the 7/11 when the methadone clinics are closed.
I remember it snowed on Christmas Eve, we stayed up late sipping wine, laughing, and watching the fat white flakes coat the sidewalks with crystalline beauty. When we finally retired to hunker down under cozy wool blankets, I thought how lovely it would be to sleep in.
But cousin Amanda had other plans.
Shawna and I were sleeping together in a bedroom off the stairwell that wound up the four floors of the brownstone townhouse and the open space channeled voices from the lower floors upwards as efficiently as a P.A system.
It was about four-thirty a.m. when the first transmission came through. “Mommy! Daddy! Get up, it’s Christmas!!””
This was answered with sleepy grumbles, and then, “Amanda, go back to bed or Santa won’t come.”
She must have heeded that dire warning because we were able to drop back off to sleep, but about twenty minutes later we heard, clear as a Christmas bell ringing directly over our heads in a bell tower in which we were sleeping, “Mommy! Daddy! Get up!! It’s Chrissssssmasssss!!!”
Shawna groaned and rolled over, pulling a pillow over her ears.
But there was no stopping the frenzy now. After only a few additional minutes of blissful unconsciousness I was snatched awake once more, this time by the shrill victory cry of, “It’s the BARBI DREAMHOUSE!!” that echoed through the townhouse, which was not made of pink plastic but stone that reverberated every sound from downstairs upwards, effectively funneling the delight directly to our sleepy heads.
Did I mention that sound really carried in this house? Okay, just so you didn’t miss it.
Mind you, it’s pitch black outside and nowhere close to dawn, so Shawna and I wait out the initial sonic blast of joy then cautiously resume our fitful slumber.
Then the cats began to fall.
Forbidden by her thoughtful parents from waking us, our young kin decided she would let her cats do it, so she would take one, and then the other, sneak into the dark bedroom, and toss one on the bed. We’d wake with an ‘oooff’ as one landed on our stomachs then scrabbled for traction on the soft skin of our tummies with their claws, hell bent on streaking to temporary safety until the hopped up six-year old could locate them and resume tossing. Confused and befuddled as the cats, we raised our heads to peer into the gloom after each onslaught, in the doorway we could make out a small silhouette, watching hopefully to see the fruits of her efforts, if we might, possibly, be just about up or if she needed to muster the felines for another push toward the front. The clever little darling. I told you that family was smart.
After the fourth such assault, I was treated to what I will always remember as the defining moment of that Christmas visit.
My little sister, all of thirteen and not prone to composing literature of any kind, especially in her sleep, was suddenly motivated to memorialize the situation in verse.
It was still a couple of hours until dawn, and the streetlights outside sent only the slightest glimmer seeping through the curtain covered windows. Still mostly asleep, I became aware that my sister was climbing out from under the covers, she moved to the foot of the bed, and as I watched this vague gray blur in the dark room, outlined against the pale glow of the window behind her, she assumed a presentational stance and proceeded to recite the following words in a strong monotone:
“A poem, By Shawna Shattuck.
Get up, get up, before it is light.
Open all your presents in the middle of the night.”
Then, without another word or explanation, she climbed back in bed and passed out.
I was laughing too hard to go back to sleep.
It’s my favorite Holiday poem of all time.
And it, and my extended family, made that one of the best Christmases ever.
You never know what will become a new tradition. It might be a recipe, a song, a game, a poem in the darkness, or even an annoying trip with a bunch of ungrateful adolescent cynics to a tree farm in the Georgia countryside, but when you find one, treasure it, repeat it, or hell, let it go and make a new one.
Can’t wait to see what the holiday will bring this year.
Even if, like myself, you don’t celebrate any religion except the magic of mid-winter, you might find yourself enjoying or even laughing at some ridiculous aspect of the shared, vast, human experience, exaggerated by the ridiculously high holiday expectations we unrealistically demand of ourselves. Those laborious feasts and decorations will most likely end in indigestion and a rush to Big Lots for more plastic bins to store this useless crap in. But if we’re lucky, holidays and family time can offer us more than their original intention, they can make us laugh together.
Is there anything more worthy of celebration?
And now that Amanda is grown with kids of her own, I can finally pass along a little secret for getting mom up early on Christmas morning to her kids.
It’s a lovely day in Santa Cruz and my husband, daughter, her boyfriend John, and I decide to take Thor from the RV to the ‘dog beach’ where he can run around, trouble is, it’s high tide, which we don’t yet know means we may also get to rescue dogs, people, and ourselves if we’re not careful. Mama Ocean looks hungry today. When we arrive there is maybe fifteen feet of sand exposed where at low tide there is a hundred. The surf is filled with logs, some as small as firewood and some as large as a phone pole and several times the girth. Every time the waves wash in and out, these projectiles are tossed back and forth as lightly as ping pong balls in a blender, but with less stability or direction. The beach here is wrapped with cliffs, and only a concrete stairwell gives us access to the small cove. The surf, the concave cliffs faces, and the shifting tide all conspire to make predicting the strength or direction of these weapons impossible. Caution!
We take off our shoes, our jackets, the dog leash, and put them up on the steps, a couple of dry steps up. The first larger wave washes up hurling projectiles that would make log-jammers nervous, so we stay to one side and have to dodge the water soaked clubs that are bobbing like bomb-shaped apples during a halloween hurricane in a barrel.
They have something here called rogue waves, and thats’s the perfect word. Like some Navy Seal gone psycho with all the fire power but none of the discipline, they come from unexpected directions, are far more lethal than their uniform counterparts, they are bigger, higher, and strike when your back is turned. I’ve heard of them and been warned before, but I’ve never seen one.
But now I meet one up close and personal. All of sudden, I’m hit by a thigh high wall of surf from one side and turn to see that the few feet of sand we had taken refuge on has disappeared. My daughter has lifted our chow, soaking wet, up out of the surf to protect him from the logs, some of which weigh several hundred pounds water-soaked, that are tumbling around in a frenzy of constantly changing directions.
Now thigh deep in water but several yards from the cliff face, I see a huge log, fifteen feet long and at least three feet in diameter rolling back toward me as the water recedes. My brain goes to automatic and I get ready, the water recedes to my knees, my calves, and then my ankles as the steam roller spins crazily toward me, I get ready, then jump it when it flies past, gratefully under me. I struggle back toward the steps dodging smaller flotsam, but take a couple of good shin hits.
As I’m helping my daughter with the dog, I hear my husband and John both shouting. Then I see John running toward the surf. The rogue wave was so high, that it hit over the concrete steps and washed all of our stuff out to sea. Including my husband’s jacket which had his wallet in one pocket and his keys in the other. John snabs three shoes from the ocean’s maw, two of which are are my expensive new hiking boots, which he throws to me, and then he turns back to search for more, as does my husband.
Meanwhile, back on semi-dry land. My daughter and I tie the dog up higher on the steps and run back to help. But this is dangerous. Every time a wave, though thankfully no more rogue waves, washes up, it catapults its’ projectiles in unpredictable directions. John take a hard hit on his thigh, we’re still searching.
Now, new people start arriving, the tide is going out but we’re still having some high waves and precarious conditions. My daughter and I start warning people. The first lady down has two small yappy-type dogs. She ignores us, lets them go, and within seconds they are running for their lives back up onto the steps. She wisely takes them somewhere less like a battlefield to romp.
Then comes the family with five kids. My daughter tells them what’s happening, points out the concussion possibilities and they nod and move a little ways away.
The tide continues to recede with the occasional high wave, and now, soaking wet, I’m walking the shore trying to see if anything will wash up within a few hundred feet of where we are. Mind you, all of this beach is surrounded by cliffs, there are very few ways out, and no high ground if you are caught in the wrong place.
Looking over, I see a man take off his hat, quickly kick off his shoes and start for the water. I’m about to say that he should not leave his stuff there because it will be washed away when I see the intensity on his face. Following his gaze, I realize that one of the kids has gone under and his dad is trying to find him in the churning surf.
I turn and start running too, but before we get there, the dad locates the kid underwater and drags him up by the back of his shirt. We help him struggle out of the sucking surf, where his mother tries to calm the boy as he hacks up saline solution. The kid, maybe ten, is moaning, “I’m never…” pukes up a portion of sea, “going in the ocean…” hack, hack, sob, “again!” He looks accusingly out at the lovely sea as though she did it on purpose, perhaps she did. It’s not nice to ignore mother nature.
I smile at the mom and mouth, “At least not until tomorrow.” And she represses a laugh and nods, doing a great job of staying calm and reassuring.
The family gathers their stuff and leaves the beach. I high five the dad, “Good job!” He smiles at me as though it’s all in any father-with-five-boys’-day-job, and he’s probably right.
Though we search for another hour, we never find the jacket, keys, wallet, or leash, but we all have shoes!
So we head out, every step a salty, slurpy squish, to start calling credit card companies and making appointments at the DMV.
John’s right thigh is twice the size of his left, we all have bruises on our calves and shins and feet, but I always say it’s a good day when nobody dies.
And ah, how beautiful the sunlight on the water.
Gotta go. I have some keys to make at ACE hardware.
One of my earliest memories is of standing next to my sister’s bassinette when she first came home from the hospital. It was Halloween, and in my memory, I can feel the weight of my candy bag in one hand. I was barely tall enough to see over the edge of the low crib so I had rocked forward, up on my toes. In this crystal clear flash of memory, I see the baby so clearly, my new sister, a scrunchy-faced little interruption that didn’t belong there, dressed as a witch.
My mom had dressed her in a witch’s costume and even a pointed little black hat and shoes that curled up at the toes. I recalled this image with perfect clarity in a session with my psychiatrist, who commented, “How darling that your mom took so much trouble to dress a baby in a costume.”
Later that day I called my mom to boast of my razor-sharp visual recall of my spanking new baby sister. She was duly impressed, noting “That’s amazing, you were only three.” I went on to explain how I even remembered the baby costume, hat, pointy shoes, everything, causing her to pause a minute before saying, “Uh, Shari? Steffi was born on Oct 25th, she would have been six days old. I would not have put a newborn in a costume. Especially not a witch’s hat.”
Well that’s not how I remember it. Something wicked had my way come and I’m guessing in retrospect that I didn’t care much for the experience.
Up until that moment I was the baby, I got all the attention and hugging, and then this little hag shows up out of the seventh circle of hell and blatantly steals my mommy.
I was robbed.
My feelings for my sister improved vastly over the years, but apparently I’m not the only one with memory confusion. The demonizing of my sibling, it seems, is not unique to my mental processes, as I found out a few years later when my sister was recalling a different story at the dinner table.
Here’s how I recall the event under discussion. Growing up in Atlanta with lots of trees, we always had amazing rope swings. My dad would tie a thick rope to a high branch, put several knots in the bottom for standing or sitting on, and we would find a thousand ways to create new adventures.
I always loved a show (if only there had been some clue to my future!) and when my sister was about five, making me eight, we decided to put on a circus.
Steffi was smart, strong and flexible. So I set about creating tricks for her to do while using the rope swing. We worked up to her being able to hang upside down from it, holding on with both her hands and ankles, putting her in a position not unlike a human dart, her little body streamlined into an aerodynamic bolt, arms by her sides, legs straight up, and her face, the point, straight toward the ground.
Once she had that down I decided it was time for her to swing in that position, so far we had only done it with the rope dangling. So, with her holding on, back arched, toes pointed, I took hold of the knot and started to pull the rope back so that I could release it and see her fly.
But when I pulled the rope, she didn’t come with it. Instead, it came out of her hands and away from her feet and she dropped like a rocket, like the dart she was, face first, into the ground.
It still hurts when I remember the visual. She landed, nose first, rolled to one side and lay there. My recall is a little fuzzy after that. I remember parents fussing, a trip to the doctor-neighbor, to determine if Steffi’s nose was broken. It wasn’t, but the absence of skin and proliferation of bruising made for a pretty scrappy school photo that year.
I don’t’ remember my sister blaming me at the time. Just her little body sitting patiently on our neighbors’ sofa while the doctor gently prodded at her face and announced that her nose was not broken. I suppose I was relieved, but you know, as a kid there’s always that terrible fear that you’ve hurt your sibling, that you’ve been bad and that will suck because, you know, you get punished. I lurked around waiting to get into trouble, and I do not remember now if I was blamed then or not. Most likely I’ve selectively blocked that part out.
So it was a bit of shock, when, years later, I listened to Steffi tell the story at the dinner table. Except it wasn’t the story of two girls playing circus, rather it was a swift and condemning accusation of how I had deliberately pushed her and broken her nose.
And that definitely wasn’t how I remembered it. At all. Being accused of an action that was untrue hurt my feelings, and I moped about it, feeling the ‘poor me’ of being misunderstood. Or mis-remembered, as the case may be.
The visual of her falling three feet, face first onto the dirt, with nothing to break her fall but her nose, is seared into my memory, so I think I’m right. But let’s look at it from her point of view.
And her point of view was the ground, the earth in all it’s solid mass rushing up to meet her face.
Yep. I think it’s vaguely possible that the same moment might have registered slightly differently in her memory. So why do I keep feeling betrayed that she remembers it differently from the way I do? Why does that hurt my feelings like the child of eight I was when it happened, many moons ago?
Oh woe is me, the loneliness, the alienation, the lack of sympathy and love. No one understands me.
Because I know I’m right, damn it, and I will not concede! No matter how unhappy it makes me, how unreasonable it is, or how valid it is for someone else to feel differently.
The truth is…Memory and subsequent judgment are slippery little fuckers.
Don’t trust ’em.
Alas! The only way to clear my name and soul is to acknowledge that, though I’m not wrong, (universe forbid!) she might not be either. (grumble grumble) Though that’s as far as my indignation will allow me to chill. Which is stupid; human, but really truly stupid.
These days when I listen to someone who views a current situation in a way that I cannot even process, I try to remember that dichotomy of interpretations given by two sisters, who were both actually there, and multiply by infinity. We all remember things differently, each and every human being processes events and memories based on our very unique point of view.
So, even though not one single person’s perspective, in its entirety, will ever be accurately felt and understood by any other single person…
I still catch myself clutching my resentment and pain of feeling misunderstood tight to my chest like a beloved toy, a relic of childhood I should have outgrown. I’ll go on insisting my point of view is the only valid one, that I’ve been wronged, refusing to grow out of the hurt.
Oh, where to begin, when there are so many things at which I excel. I mean I don’t want to brag, but even a quick list would include such rarified skills as—loosing my keys, burning toast, saying the wrong thing at the right time, falling down, smacking into doors when I’m running with my reading glasses on, rendering myself legally blind and my familiar home nothing but a vibrating blur. Really the list goes on and on, I am truly, deeply, wonderously gifted at fucking up.
What can I say? I’m just blessed.
If they gave trophies for misplacing things, I’d need to build a room onto my house to keep them all. I’d have shelves full of little gold cups, one for each of the many times I locked my keys in the trunk. (I’d like to thank the Academy and triple A!) At both ends would be two big-ass gold figurines posed with both hands clutching an empty head which I would have received for those two, (yes two,) times I dropped my keys three miles back on a hike where I had stopped to do some stretches. (I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my agent, my lawyer, and my cat, Yaki!) But in pride of place would be a magnificent championship crystal bowl presented to me when I broke my key off in the ignition while I was driving, effectively rendering the car un-steerable. That last one would be engraved, “We thought it couldn’t be done.”
One of my best honed talents is finding the one single thing in any store, anywhere, in any country, that does not have a price on it. It can be at the Safeway in Sunland or the Vatican gift shop in Rome. Not only will I be drawn like a lemming to that one and only tag-less item among thousands, I will also find that there is a long line of people waiting to pay behind me who can be super annoyed when the checker picks up that intercom and announces to the general public—each and every one in a hurry—‘price check on four!’ I feel my face redden as I turn and smile weakly at the harassed mother next in line trying to contain three screaming toddlers. Behind her is the bank teller with five minutes to get back to his window holding nothing but a redbull and a pack of sushi. Rounding out the line nicely are four or five firefighters with a full cart of groceries wondering whether to ditch and run as their radios scream dispatches to emergencies. They look horrified, and these brave men and women don’t scare easily. Don’t I feel special.
The checker might as well have announced, “Stupid blonde with no consideration for anyone else with an unmarked item, aisle four!” if the glaring and snorting of the people around me is any indication. It’s usually at this time that I say something feeble to clear the static resentment from two dozen angry shoppers clinging thickly to me like dryer lint. I say, oh something like, “Don’t worry, it won’t take long to run my fifty-seven badly printed coupons and clear an out-of-state check. I’ll be out of your way in a half-hour or so.”
People seldom laugh, but at least it gives them the chance to see that things could get worse. I could have asked for a bulk discount.
At this point I always offer to simply not purchase the item, but this, apparently, is unacceptable in a country where the customer always comes first. I picked out that organic eggplant and damn it, they are going to sell it to me! There’s no turning back now baby! Never mind that three alarm fire at the day care center, the firemen can wait while some teenage-bagger with all the enthusiasm and perkiness of a dirt worm takes a round about, lingering saunter to the produce section to check the price, pausing to text a few friends while ordering a soy chai latte at the Starbuck’s counter before shuffling back to register four. By this time, I am watching carefully for other produce, specifically ripe tomatoes traveling through space in the general direction of my head.
“Really, please,” I whisper furiously, keeping my back tightly against the gum racks so no one can stick a plastic utensil from paper goods in it. “Just ring up the total without the eggplant, I don’t need it.” The desperate mom’s eyes cut to the checker, silently pleading with her to cut my lifeline, let the bitch go for the survival of the species, but to no avail. We can wait, the checker has decided, she doesn’t get off until five and she’s union, why should we be allowed to go on our merry way? There’s a profit at stake here! She will send me home with that purple vegetable, or I can damn well sleep on a cot in the frozen foods section until managers are notified, corporate offices are contacted, and a price per pound is fully negotiated with China or whatever scary place our food comes from these days.
So, there’s that. Another special skill I have perfected is leaving a sprinkler or a hose running. All night. Okay, it’s bad enough to waste all that water in a drought, but when the water for your home comes from a well, and there is a limited amount that can be pumped up into the holding tank per day, it’s a sliver more inconvenient. Once that tank is empty, it’s three days until it’s filled again. And during that time, we conserve like we have one canteen left to cross Death Valley. We don’t take proper showers, just quick rinses. We don’t wash clothes, or run the dishwasher. Dishes are cleaned with water bought by the gallon from a machine in front of Rite Aid, and there’s nothing much to do except sit around watching the lawn turn from golden brown to easy-lite kindling.
And falling, I’m really good at that. Part of this special talent is from my ice-skating days were I would fall countless times learning a new double jump or some other physical feat that humans aren’t supposed to do until eventually, on my six hundred and seventeenth try, I find myself still upright, moving backwards on one blade with a feeling of surprise. “I did it. Well, that wasn’t so hard,” my brain would say to my bruised butt and hips. “Those oven mitt-sized black, blue, yellow and green marks will go away in a few weeks. Of course, now it’s time to start learning the triple jump. I comfort myself by believing the lie that I look better in Technicolor.
One time in particular, at a big competition in Lake Placid, New York was super fun. Sometimes, when the seating of rinks are filled with twenty thousand people or so, the space warms up more than it should and the ice gets soft, leaving areas a few feet wide that are actually pools of melted ice water maybe a half inch deep. When you hit these at full speed, your blade sticks, your skate brakes hard, but your body, which was moving along so nicely, enjoying the breeze, keeps right on going.
So I’m at the end of my routine, which is the equivalent of running a mile with tricks thrown in, and, breathing hard, I pick up speed for my big last jump. I turn, launch myself up and off, fly gracefully spinning through the air, land perfectly for one magnificent moment. Then my skate hits that soft patch and I fall flat on my back, sliding through the puddle, drenching my back with ice water that takes my breath away. The cold makes me sit up fast with both legs stuck straight out in front of me, I’m still sliding and turning, making little waves and ripples as I slide through the frigid pond, feeling the wet soak up through my outfit and tights, . It’s the end, you know, that part where I do a really fast spin and then strike a final pose and wait for the applause. But when the music crescendos in a furious conclusion, I’m on my ass, still sliding, still soaking wet, so I just threw my arms out and did the pose there in the frigid little swamp with the water lapping around my thighs and calves.
And twenty thousand people did applaud, but they laughed a lot louder.
And that’s the day I learned that I’m good at a few things I didn’t even have to work that hard on. I learned that being embarrassed doesn’t kill you. You don’t die. You wake up the next day and move on, slink back to the grocery store seeking unmarked items, spend three hours searching for your keys, and then trip over a single stair in Venice Italy, sprawling face first onto a palazzo filled with gracious, beautifully dressed Italians enjoying coffees and wine.
Those people have really nice shoes.
Go fall down, be silly, play the fool.Make ’em laugh. It takes the pressure off of everyone else for a few minutes at least.
It’s a funny thing about beginning a novel. Sometimes you swim, sometimes you’re in over your head, and sometimes you have a slog for a while before you make that splash.
The trick of course, is enjoying it all. Being creative comes easily to me, it’s what I do. It might be cooking, or acting, or planting seeds, or producing a film, or helping my charity raise money—all of them are worthy pursuits as far as I’m concerned. But creating something new, something memorable, and most importantly, something that touches people can be as elusive as the Loch Ness monster. You’re pretty sure it’s down there but you can’t prove it…yet.
I find myself here again. I have an idea that I love, I’m inspired to do something with it. The characters are there, but mostly still in the green room waiting to go on, or trying on outfits in wardrobe. The story is forming and changing and messing with me even as it emerges, but it’s not solid yet. It’s like that dream I have where I’m back on The Young and the Restless, due on set in an hour and no one has my script for the day. And that’s not a bad thing. Without all the floundering around and wrong turns, my story would be a simple repeat of paths and roles I and others have taken before. To find something new, you must wander, you must get lost, you must drown just a little.
The trick is not to panic. I won’t say to just keep your head above water, because that would mean you miss all the colorful coral and currents that run below. Diving deeper is often good, just don’t get indulgent and pass out before you see light again. And here’s what liberates me.
I can delete it all. Or just some of it. I can divorce an idea or a portion of it and keep custody of the kids. I do this often. I must have written a dozen novels that have never yet seen the bedside lamp of a reader or the screen of a Nook, but they are still there for me. They weren’t wasted. There’s no accounting for what an editor will like, or a publisher feel they need in their fall line up, much less what the reading ‘public’ will deign to declare ‘popular.’ If I could guess that, I’d work less and be bored more.
But producing the predictable is a life poorly lived as far as I’m concerned. Long ago I gave up doing what people thought I should do and started living my own life, and since then it’s been brilliant. Sure there are tough times, setting a good example for your kids isn’t always easy in this materialistic world. One example would be a father taking their ex to court to cut his child support, not contributing to his children’s college education, but somehow being able to afford his expensive luxury car and his multiple houses. I can’t tell you how many women go through this kind of thing. I’ve served on enough juries to know that the decisions in any given case has a great deal to do with the judge’s whim. I was sued by a lawyer who hit me on a motorcycle and produced a fake witness, etc, only to find out later that the judge was presiding at the lawyer’s wedding two weeks after the trial! My husband and I have chosen to put money away for college for our girls, and I’m proud and glad to do it! It’s a value that’s more important to me than the showier aspects of life. In spite of all the world’s stress and confusion and profusion of questionable priorities, in the end I’m still able to give my daughters what they need, and I don’t mind what some would call ‘sacrifices’ because I don’t believe I’m missing out on anything. I try to set the example of being the kind of person I want them to be and that’s all that matters. It’s not a hardship to clean my own house, weed my garden, pay my bills, and be the evil, dictator mom when I make my youngest participate in her class trip. I could do without that last bit, but payback is hell. I was a horror at her age.
I love what I do and I choose it, but that doesn’t mean I wander around in a cloud of creative bliss without having to deal with insane legal fees or the not so far-fetched fear that one of my children will be shot while they are at school. It doesn’t mean that projects flow effortlessly from me. I’m in all that too, but I found out long ago that I could do with a lot less. I’ve come to realize that what I really let go of was needing people to envy me, needing to compete with anyone else. Hell, I rejoice for other people now and guess how much more often I get to win? My friend’s book hits the NY Times best seller list, and I feel genuine pride in her accomplishment! A kid in my daughter’s volleyball game tells the ref that the ball was out, even though it costs her team a point, and I rejoice that she has that character. I see someone vastly overweight taking a walk and I’m prouder of them than an olympic athlete. It just makes me happy to root for others.
Recently I had what I consider to be one of my greatest personal successes. My younger daughter is a good student, very bright, exceptionally talented in many ways, but she doesn’t push herself to stand out or excel more than others. She’s one of those whose simple effort gets her good grades and she’ll land in a great college of her choice, but I was raised to excel dammit! Challenge yourself, try harder, be disappointed if you don’t improve!! If you don’t stand out, you disappear, and many other dysfunctional etcs. But at a meeting with a very wise teacher of my daughter’s, I voiced my concern that she wasn’t putting herself forward and his answer was awesome.
When I said I didn’t understand why she didn’t push herself more, he looked me in the eye and said, “Because her ego does not require it.”
Wow. I was miserable and competitive into my thirties, and my sixteen year old already has it down.
I’m gonna’ take credit for that, because…why not? I love winning when everybody does. I’m no longer fond of winning if someone has to lose. That sucks. I want to enable and encourage people, not put them down to feel better about myself.
So, I’ll be patient, I’ll slog along in the ankle deep, ice water of a new story, finding humor and pain in the human condition and a fun way to tell it. And I’ll do it with a smile on my face. I really am happy now, whether the novel comes in this form or another, whether my life takes one turn or several, whether my daughter is exhausting me or exalting me, I’m on the path I want to be on.
And look how pretty the water is when it arcs and splashes, listen to the swoosh and music of the waves and droplets.