Sunday, December 11, 2011


Where do I begin?

My mother died on my son's birthday. We were at the House of Air, an upscale reclaimed warehouse turned trampoline palace - very San Franciso. I had taken two hours away from my vigil at my mother's bedside. "You've got a few days" said the hospice nurse. "Nothing is going to happen today" said the social worker. And so Ben and I had loaded six five-year-old boys, two extra daughters, and assorted cupcakes into the mini-van and headed for the city.

It was Veteran's Day and the place was packed to the rafters with shrieking, bouncing children and sleek, slightly flustered, urban mothers. Ben and I, with the aid of his sister Anne, managed to peel off coats and shoes, stow cupcakes and throw small boys onto the vast field of trampolines. I was checking on the pizza delivery when my phone rang.

It was the nurse. I ran through the throng like a quarterback at the Super Bowl to get outside where I could hear her. She was with my mom. My mom was gasping for breath. She was revising her previous assessment. Hours, not days.

Stunned, I hung up and went to find Ben. "Go," he said. "You need to go."

I was finding my shoes and instructing Ben about pizza, cupcakes and gifts when the phone rang again.

"Hold on," I said, running for the door. I could hear someone saying something. The only word I could make out, repeated many times, was "sorry".

Finally I burst into the wet November air.

"I'm sorry," I heard the nurse say. "Your mother just died."

I stood in front of the House of Air, leaning against the giant warehouse windows.

"Oh," I said.

I had envisaged this moment since my mom's Alzheimer's diagnosis years ago. Where would I be when I heard? What would I feel about a death that meant the end of her agony? Would I cry?

Turns out I would. I hung up the phone and stood in the rain, fashionable young parents skirting around me, shepherding children who were turning to stare.

After much maneuvering, Ben and I managed to leave the party in Anne's hands with another Ann, our friend, on her way to help.

I cried all the way from the Presidio to the house in Corte Madera, one of the most beautiful drives there is. I sobbed across the Golden Gate Bridge, through the Headlands, down Waldo Grade with it's picture perfect view of Mount Tam.

We walked into my mother's room. It was empty but for her. Hardly able to breathe for crying, I put one hand on her arm and the other, in the pose of universal grief, over my eyes. She was still warm.

Ben brought me a chair and I sat for two hours, crying like I've never cried before and hope to never cry again, taking my hand from her body only to wipe my face of tears and blow my nose. When I'd touch her again, she would feel the slightest bit colder, which renewed the shower of tears every time.

My mother looked beautiful. She was always an attractive woman but somehow, during these last years, as her body has shrunk, the bones of her face have become prominent again. She looked, as she lay there, like the girl she once was in the picture on the dresser. She looked like her essential self.

The tears finally dried. We left, one last look over my shoulder at this woman who had meant so much. I walked back out into a changed world, a world that is empty of her. I'm still, a month later, trying to reconcile this strange place, this place where I do all the same things - make groceries lists, walk children to school, read novels, make jokes - with the one that was before. Only when I'm sleeping do I feel right. In that dreamworld where everything is strange, where nothing makes sense, that's where I feel at home. There I float with my mother, with my father, in the space between this plane and the next.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


This is what I know about my mother.

I know that she was born to Romanian immigrants in Depression-Era Detroit. I know that her family lived for a time from the garden her father grew behind their house. I know that her beautiful and mythical mother, Valeria, from whom I got my middle name, died of pneumonia when my mother was two. I know that my grandfather, by all accounts a warm and loving man, sent his three children to live in an orphanage while he pulled himself together. I know that my mother’s brothers were housed in one part of the orphanage, the boys’ section, and that she, a toddler, was on her own with the girls, bereft and confused. I know that my grandfather remarried, a woman called Stella, whose very name sent shivers down my mother’s spine for the rest of her life. I know that Stella was abusive, particularly to my mother. I know that all this difficulty, all this loss and loneliness and pain, was impossible for her to set down. She carried it with her through the rest of her days.

I know that my parents met on a beach in Miami. My mother was on vacation. My father was in the Air Force. She was twenty-three, he was twenty-one. I imagine them in their bathing suits though I don’t know it to be fact. They were married six weeks later. The power of bathing suits.

I know that they lived in post-war Germany for two periods, one right after their marriage and the other when my brother and sister were small. I know that for both of them, raised without much means, living in Europe seemed impossibly, deliciously sophisticated.

I know that my mother worked as a secretary to support the family as my father went through college and medical school. I know they moved a lot as my father went from the Air Force to undergrad to medical school to residency. Fabled names for me as I didn’t yet exist – Dover, Chumsford, Boulder, Philadelphia.

I know that after decades of being on the move, they finally came to rest in Marin County. I know that, much to my father’s surprise, but apparently not to my mother’s, I was born, a late baby, at least for those days. My mother was thirty-nine, a woman who was raised without a mother but with twelve years of parenting under her belt – a pro.

I know that she stayed home with me for the first eight years of my life. I remember that time as cushioned in fog – we lived on Mount Tam – her warm hand in mine, answering every question I could pose to the best of her ability. Did she love me better or Casey across the street? Did she believe in God? How did the robin make those eggs in that nest? I know that hers was the most beautiful face I could imagine.

By the time I was born, the family had hit some calm waters, financially, geographically. My siblings were half-grown. She had some time, some ease. She seemed forever interested in my small life, my meandering thoughts. She called me her little friend. She told me I was so smart and so kind. She made it so.

She returned to work when I was eight, running my father’s medical office. I grew up and away. Together we weathered my father’s early death, and ten years or so later, the onset of her dementia.

I know all that, what came before my birth and after my childhood, but what I really know of my mother I know from when I was little. I know that she was perhaps the kindest person I’ve ever met. I know that she was funny, that she had a beautiful delighted laugh, that shy as she was, not everyone heard. I know that she loved her family - her children, her husband - more than life itself.

I know that she, a motherless child, taught me how to be a mother by nurturing me so well, so thoroughly. I know that I speak her words every day to my kids. Treat others the way you want to be treated. What do you think? Tell me about your day. Nice outfit! That book is so good, isn’t it? You are so smart. I love you more than I can say.

This is what I know about my mother. I know that she weathered such heartbreak so young, such difficulty throughout her life, really, raising children on the fly, struggling to make ends meet, losing her husband before his time, watching her world close in with Alzheimers. She had all that inflicted upon her and yet she remained open, so sweet, so willing to unfold her heart, to engage.

This, in the end, is what I know about my mother. I’ll always hear her encouraging voice in my head. I’ll miss her for the rest of my days. I love her more than I can say.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Last Saturday, my mother's already tremulous health took a dip. Her eating and drinking, lately on the wane, has stopped. She sleeps unless interrupted by caregivers, nurses or doctors. When someone does try to change her clothing or take her blood-pressure, my mom has three slurred words for them, dictated, eyes closed, through clenched teeth. They are "Leave me alone." Sometimes, though less now, if she's feeling feisty it's five words. "Leave me the hell alone." One time she told the doctor that she - the doctor - was full of shit. The doctor agreed that she - my mother - was probably accurate.

The time has come to leave my mom alone. No more terrifying emergency room visits, my mother screaming, convinced that every unknown staff member is trying to kill her. No more medication beyond what's needed to keep her comfortable. It's time that she's released.

For the last few days I've been sitting at my mom's bedside. I've got Puccini playing on my Iphone, a jasmine candle burning (which I try to hide when the caregivers come in - who knows if it's allowed), my Big Crazy sweater wrapped around me, my book in my lap and my hand on my moms'. When she flinches in her sleep or - and this is rare - opens her unfocused eyes, I tell her I love her, that she's okay.

When I was a kid, I decided that my favorite thing to do with my mom was to wait. When the car broke down and we had to sit at the repair shop for hours, I was happy as a clam. I had my busy and distracted mother pinned to a space and time. She had no choice but to talk with me, to play with me, to laugh with me. Waiting, I decided, was really the only time I could get her full attention.

I'm now waiting again with my mom. But instead of her being the busy and distracted one, it's me. I've been forced - okay I've chosen - to drop everything and be in that room with her. I tell her stories of when we were young together; when she showed me the bird-nest on our porch complete with small blue eggs and gave a fumbled birds-and-the-bees talk, when we went to Tahoe in the summer and read and ate junk food and stayed up late, when she would tell me I was her little friend. I tell her that it's okay to go now. That Pop will be waiting for her. And her father. And her mother, who she lost when she was so small. The world waits outside, still spinning, still busy. We wait inside, in a stilled moment, breathing in and breathing out, me and my mama, together for a few more days, me memorizing her face, her lost in a dream.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Big Crazy

A few days ago, I was struck with an unfamiliar sensation. I was driving home from the gym, mentally mapping out my morning - the shower, the groceries, laundry, lunch, picking up the kids. This practice, even this plan, was not unusual. What was strange was the energy with which I contemplated it. For the first time in two months, I wasn't viewing what was in front of me from the smoldering pit of anxiety and depression. Indeed, I was anticipating my day with relish.

I've had many moments of laughter, of silliness, of fun, even, in the last long months of depression, but I haven't, for what seems like an eternity, felt okay. Always there has been the nagging feeling that things are not all right, really not all right, that at any time, everything could fall apart - from the world to my family to just my own mind. In the last few days, that feeling, for hours at a time, has ebbed.

Two weeks ago, my new psychiatrist, after much gathering of history and weighing pros and cons, put me on a new medication. My family history, even my own, is complicated. There are shades of bipolar right and left as well as touches of OCD to add to the general palette of major depression and anxiety. Finding the right drug for me was challenging. Some work for depression and anxiety but aggravate bipolar and OCD tendencies. Others manage bipolar symptoms but don't do much for the rest of it. And some, god forbid, cause weight-gain, an absolute deal-breaker in my book. That alone would make me depressed and anxious.

And so finally we reached a compromise, a drug that could, hopefully, quell the symptoms that bother me most without precipitating a mania (something I've only tasted but have witnessed full bloom in my mother). I took the pill and I waited. Days went by, some better, some worse. Anxiety would hit and and I would be anxious that it was back. Depression would take hold and it would make me depressed. I have been trying to pull myself out of these self-perpetuating whirlpools for so long now.

And then, for a number of days, I've felt well. Not manic, not speedy, not hyper-joyful but well. I have energy for something other than trying desperately to feel okay. A couple days ago I cobbled together a sweater-coat out of recycled cashmere sweaters. It's comprised of four sweaters, big patches and small, purple and brown and green argyle. It is a big garment; it reaches past my knees, I can wrap it around me to create a nest of layers of soft wool. Ben has termed it "Big Crazy". I was working on at our weekly stitch-and-bitch and when I was polling my girlfriends about how I should patch a moth-hole on the back, my friend, Ann, suggested the letters "LC" as in Liz Capron. I've been half-heartedly searching for a new nickname because there are suddenly so many Lizs in our parental sphere. There followed a discussion where I referred to myself in the third person as we laughed about how LC rolls. LC is tough, it seems, and decisive; she tells it like it is. And maybe, well, a little out there. A little crazy.

There's something about this article of clothing that speaks of this whole experience. I took apart something that wasn't working - old sweaters in one case and my mental health in the other - and pieced it back together into something that is strange but beautiful and very me. It's a giant, wearable, baby-soft blanket, a form of comfort I've created for myself. This depression has been different than the others in that I've been very public about what I've been going through. I have refused to hide. I've taken what's wrong and I've worn it and made it right. With a big "LC" emblazoned on my back, an emblem of the new me that has emerged.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Little Criminals

I have a general afternoon conundrum. The girls have homework and could use downtime at home. Mihiretu is, quite simply, awful indoors. By nature, he should be running, yelling, throwing balls. Those things don't work so well in our living-room. Particularly when his sisters are otherwise occupied. In an effort to focus all attention forever on him, he steals spelling lists, maims multiplication tables, chucks super-balls at their heads.

In an effort to have our afternoons be all things to all Caprons, I decided to try a round-robin play-date. Every Wednesday, each child has a standing date with a friend. Locations alternate week to week. Yesterday, Lana was at her friend, Ella's. Mae's pal, Ryder, was over here. Mihiretu had Luke here, too.

I've discussed Luke in these pages before. He's a kid very much like my son; handsome, busy, charming, rascally. The two boys match each other's energy - a phenomenon fortunate or catastrophic, depending on the day.

Yesterday, I urged the boys to play outside while the girls designed Ryder's Halloween costume. The girls sat, shiny brown head to shiny brown head, absently chomping pear while they studied their drawing, wondering just what a snow bride would wear. Snow bride? Snow bride.

The boys, meanwhile, circled the house, waving sticks at each other and the occasional passing buck. I would hand a banana or a bottle of water out the front door from time to time but mostly let them be. The lunch dishes were washed and dinner was underway when Mihiretu burst in the front door.

"Luke!" he said, gasping for breath. "Play pano! 'Tole money!"

Luke skidded in behind him. "It was Mihiretu's idea!" he shouted. "He's the one that played the piano!"

Slowly I gathered that the boys had entered the apartment downstairs, the apartment we rent out, the apartment for which we have a signed agreement not to enter without 48 hours notice.

"You played their piano?" I asked, my eyebrows reaching for my hairline, "You stole MONEY?"

Each boy pointed at the other. I ran outside and down the stairs. Indeed, the apartment door was open. Oh my god.

Unable to find evidence of stolen money (for Mihiretu a penny is big money so it could have been minor) and otherwise assessing our tenant's home to be intact, I eased the door closed and pulled them back upstairs.

Admonished and re-bananaed, they headed off again.

By now the costume design was done. I looked it over, made a few suggestions and got to work on a pattern. As we cut shiny blue fabric, stitched and fit Ryder, the boys came in intermittently. Each time, I hustled them back outside. If you don't want Mihiretu inside on a sunny afternoon, you REALLY don't want Mihiretu and Luke together penned by walls and delicate furniture.

Soon I sent the girls outside to occupy the boys while I finished the dress. Within a moment, they were back, breathless.

"They're on the neighbor's roof!" Mae gasped.

I ran out onto the back deck and, following the arc of Mae's accusatory finger, saw two boys, one blond, one curly brunet, balanced below on the Mexican tiled roof of the house downslope.

"Off the roof!" I screamed, my voice cracking. The boys glanced in my direction but continued in their investigation, prying tiles, poking under with their sticks.

"You guys!" I shrieked. "OFF THE ROOF!"

Moments later, thoroughly hoarse, I had successfully cajoled the boys back up the hill. Why does counting work when all else fails?

The boys now strictly instructed to stay off and out of other people's property, I, perhaps foolishly, headed back inside to finish up Ryder's costume. The girls started a game of soccer with the boys.

Soon it was five o'clock, the dress was done, dinner was bubbling on the stove and Kelsey, Luke's mom, was walking through the door. Together we collected Luke and his back-pack, socks and shoes as I told her of the afternoon high-jinks. All of us walked down to say good-bye at the car.

Luke was secured in his car-seat and we were saying our farewells when Mae and Ryder shouted from the other side of our van for us to come. I peeked around the back and burst out laughing.

"Kelsey," I said, "You have to see this."

There, against the side of our van, stood a two-foot round boulder, clearly pushed down the hill by the boys. There was a scratch in the paint but no dent. Kelsey and I shook our heads.

As they drove away, I felt strangely buoyed, curious given this afternoon of boulder-rolling, roof climbing and breaking and entering. Instead of worrying for Mihiretu's future, the jail cell he and Luke would share in fifteen years, I took a deep breath and hefted a sigh of relief that there is a boy out there as crazy as my son. A boy who was not orphaned, not adopted, not transplanted half way around the world. A boy who is active, curious and sometimes bombastic. Just like my son. Boys are, apparently, boys. As the mother of a boy, a testerone-addled, adorable maniac, I do not stand alone.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Comedian

Mihiretu likes to call out to strange men on the street. He waves his arms and shouts, "Hi, Daddy!" These men, these poor men, either offer a bewildered smile and half-hearted wave or simply pretend they don't hear him.

Mihiretu knows these people aren't his daddy. He just thinks it's funny. When I was reading about Ethiopia prior to our adoption, there was a lot of discussion about the Ethiopian sense of humor. It's dry, apparently, off-hand, and ever-present. This is true for Mihiretu, but with him, it's turned inside out. Yes, it's dry but it's also loud. He loves to accost people he doesn't know. He growls at kids, moves in too close and karate-chops the air in front of them. When we're walking to school in the morning, he stands at the edge of the bike path and shouts, "On yo' lef!" to kids as they cycle by. They are, in fact, on his left, they are the ones who should be saying "on your left", but he finds their confusion hilarious.

A couple weeks ago, we were walking down the main street of Fairfax, our funky little town. A restaurant had it's windows opened onto the sidewalk to catch the evening breeze. Two women sat at the window table, having some civilized discussion. Mihiretu yelled, "Hello!", ran at them, and started to scale the window sill. I pulled him off, placed him back on the sidewalk, smiled faintly at their "Well, he's friendly, isn't he?", and then had to run after him through the door of the restaurant because he was coming at them from another angle.

He's not particularly friendly, actually, my Mihiretu. He can be shy when introduced to new people, he clings to me when I leave him at preschool. He just loves to fuck with people.

His ribbing is, of course, not limited to strangers. Today I was riding him to school on the back of my bike. I stood up out of the saddle to conquer an incline and he, with my rear in his face, said, "You got a giant butt, you know." I'm sure, from that perspective, it did seem giant, but I'm equally sure that he loved delivering what he knew was not a compliment. Luckily, my butt is not my problem area - when Lana pokes my belly and asks if there's a baby in there, I hit the roof. Mihiretu had pushed a button, just not one that was wired to anything.

He likes to trick, as in "Momma no find cah-keys. I tick her!" If the girls are attached to any item, a new stuffed animal, a barrette, their homework, he's sure to hide it. Some things, Ben's prescription, highly expensive, eyeglasses, for example, disappear forever. It's difficult to remember that he does mean to be funny. He's not only trying to piss us off - although that, of course, is an added benefit.

And here's the thing. Often, it is funny. When he's yelling "Hi, Daddy!" at some redneck in a truck, the guy looking over one shoulder and then the next in an effort to figure out who this small black kid is addressing, it's everything I can do not to laugh. And sometimes I laugh anyway.

He's not a sociopath. He does love people. He just has, quite literally, a wicked sense of humor.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Adventures in Mental Illness

The depression, unfortunately, has continued. After weeks of sitting in it, I finally got it together to call a psychiatrist.

Though I've had almost as many therapists as lovers (and that's saying something), I've never been to a psychiatrist. Given my collective familial mental illness and my own bad chemicals, it's a little surprising. But I, like many, chocked up my depression to my underperforming thyroid, and my fanatically clean house and trim body not to OCD but to a love of aesthetics. That somehow was easier than taking a deep look at the weird stuff that sometimes goes through my head, than allowing myself a label or two.

I've seen this psychiatrist three times in the past week. Together we've tried to unknot the tangle of behavior and feelings, both mine and what I know of my family's. We've teased out strands and laid them before us like ropes of DNA. There, yes, is my mother's mania, her long deep depressions. There's her OCD. There's my father's impromptu singing in public, his dark anger. My brother's sadness, my sister's - well, as the doctor himself said, it sounds like my sister is a whole story unto herself.

I've been to the lab, been tested for my levels of folic acid, B vitamin, iron, etc, etc. I've even peed in a cup to test for UTI, which, somehow, came back positive? It has been a wholly fascinating journey, a cocktail of intellectual and emotional, medical and psychological. Turns out the anti-depressant I was on amps up anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors, could even push a tendency towards mania - who knew?

The doctor had me map a mood-chart. I chose to look at my whole life. On the vertical axis, my mood. On the horizontal, my age. Together we dissected the highs and lows. The steep drops when I became a latch-key kid, when my first love affair bit the dust, when my father died, when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers. These losses, these abandonments, with which my heart - and my biology - weren't able to cope.

Looking at that chart, that long low line of my twenties, that perilous dip at adolescence, I feel regret. Regret that I couldn't know then what I know now, that I couldn't seek the help that's now at my disposal, in fact that didn't exist, at least not as it does in this brave new pharmacological age. All those years lost in the fog.

With every meeting with this doctor, I have more hope. Hope that I can wake up in the morning - maybe every morning? - feeling well. Hope that I can face myself - my sadness, my worry, my control - and perhaps do something to lessen my pain. Hope that I can shake off these generations of serotonin and dopamine deprived people that came before me, can step away from that dark whirlpool. Hell, I know it won't be perfect but I smell freedom on the wind.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

I’m depressed. Not as in I’ve-gained-five-pounds-depressed or my-favorite-TV-show-got-cancelled-depressed but depressed as in there’s-not-enough-dopamine-or-serotonin-or-whatver-goddamned-chemical-my-brain-is-lacking-depressed.

I come from a long line of depressed people, grim French Catholics on my father’s side and sad destitute Romanians on my mother’s. My father, it seems, had his issues with depression. He died when I was barely an adult so I can only put the pieces together and come up with a theory. My mother was no mystery. She was depressed her whole life, more and more as she aged. By the time my father fell ill, she was having breakdowns. When he died she was catatonic. Ironically, as the Alzheimers has progressed, the depression has waned. She has forgotten to worry. There’s a clinical connection between depression and Alzheimers, however. I think of it as the depression wearing grooves in the brain, sad obsessive thoughts forging pathways and burning them out. Not such a cheery future to imagine for myself. More reason, in fact, to be depressed.

I’ve struggled with low-grade depression my entire life. I’ve been on an antidepressant for the last few years. I went on it when my mother was diagnosed and I could barely leave the house I was so overwhelmed. The medication helped. A lot. Within a week I was waking up every morning optimistic. I no longer had to massage my mood with caffeine, chocolate and exercise. I was just even. I remember thinking, “Oh, so this is what it’s like to have a normal brain.”

For the last year or maybe even two, the medication hasn’t been very effective. I haven’t been deeply depressed but I haven’t been reliably even-keeled either. Instead of increasing my dosage, I decided to come off the medication. For the last three months, I’ve been on a slow and careful wean. This medication particularly can have nasty withdrawal symptoms. Like, ha ha, depression.

The summer was fine but the last couple weeks have gotten rough. Environmental factors have tested me – the stress of the kids starting school, the change of season (my father fell terminally ill in autumn), Ben leaving for ten days, even the anniversary of 9/11. My chemicals have shifted. I move in a fog. My brain isn’t sharp, decisions are difficult. I’m forgetful. I’m filled with dread. It is like a perpetually overcast day in my head.

This depression probably isn’t my own depression. It’s probably the drug leaving my system. Over the next couple months, I will probably bounce back. But that doesn’t mean this doesn’t suck. When I’m depressed I have no perspective. It seems that I will always feel this way.

I’ve told an awful lot of people about my current dilemma. Hell, I’m writing about it here. I spent years pleading with my suicidal mother to get treatment, trying to reason with her that if she had heart disease or cancer she’d seek a doctor’s help, that just because this disease of depression is mental, emotional, doesn’t mean it’s not real. I refused to be ashamed. Sometimes when I joke with new friends that I can’t drink hard alcohol because it disagrees with my antidepressant, I feel their discomfort. But damn it, my depression is a part of me. This struggle is life-long. I’m going to talk about it. Because to do otherwise is to deny a part of myself, to hide, to cower. If I do that, I’m afraid, it’ll eat me alive.

I’ve been drinking green juice, eating raw cacao, sweating it out on runs and in yoga classes. At some point in the class, this particular teacher always says, now is when you can leave something on the mat, something you’ve been carrying with you. I want to lie there and sob. Because I’m not certain I can leave this sadness behind. It’s part of my biology, it’s entwined in my DNA.

I’m parenting alone right now. Here again, I’m treading carefully. I know what it’s like to have a mother who’s depressed. I don’t want that for my kids. But, in fact, at the moment they have a mother who’s depressed. In my hours away from them, I do everything I can to fill my tank. In the hours I’m with them, I try to schedule group activities, mother’s helpers. Yesterday I got desperate and took them to “The Smurfs”. Anything’s better than trapping us all alone in the house with my despondency.

I’m putting one foot in front of the other, walking myself and these kids out of this valley and back to the hilltop. At least I hope that’s where we’re going.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Invisible Woman

School started last week and it's been the usual uphill push to get the ball rolling again. I signed up to room-parent both girls classrooms again (I finally relinquished one position yesterday - the overachiever needs to slow it down a bit) which makes the ramp-up to back-to-school-night slightly crazed. Meeting with teachers, both to give them my take on my children and to drill them for what they want for the year ahead room-parent-wise. Pestering fellow parents for party money and cell phone numbers for the emergency phone tree. Getting into the groove of making lunches and walking or riding the kids to and from school. Transition time. And, as we all know, transitions can be tough.

Last night, as I was headed out the door to back-to-school-night, laden with bags of salami, crackers, cheese and grapes, Lana and Mihiretu grasping my legs, begging me not to leave them (for two full hours, with their favorite babysitter, poor, poor, children) Mae handed me a carefully stapled, fastidiously colored, paper tennis shoe with strict instructions to put it in her classroom. It was an assignment she had brought home to finish but wanted on display for the big night.

I hobbled down our steep driveway in my three-inch wedge sandals (I'm going to wear them sometime, goddamn it). I shoved the bags of food into the panniers on my bike. I rode to school (quite a feat in three-inch wedges). I placed the food in artful arrays in both classrooms. I gave my room-parent speech to Lana's class. As I sat back down in the miniature seat, I realized, with a wave of nausea, that I didn't have Mae's shoe. Then, between signing up for classroom jobs, running to Mae's classroom to do the same, packing up uneaten food and making my way home with Ben in the dark, I forgot again.

This morning, as I was assembling lunches and urging children to eat their breakfasts, Mae asked about her shoe. I froze mid-jelly sandwich and admitted that it hadn't made it to school. She was immediately in tears, understandably so, saying that she would have to make another one and she had spent so much time on that one. I apologized, told her that if we couldn't find it, I'd tell her teacher what had happened and I'd help her construct another. That, of course, didn't appease her. Her eyes narrowed to slits, tears still on her cheeks, and she stared me down, drilling me with fury. This is a specialty of Mae's, one I'm not a big fan of.

I told her that as sorry as I felt and as much as I could understand her anger, sometimes, on my end, it seems like the only thing that's seen are the mistakes. I'm always in motion. The housework is one thing. Then there's the scheduling - after-school activities, play-dates, our babysitting co-op, dinners with other families, doctor's appointments, vacations. Then there's the stuff I do for school, tasks from which my children benefit but are really meant to keep this social fabric we depend on intact. On top of that, the weight of holding the emotional health of these children, doing my very best to insure that they make it through this childhood with as much self-esteem and joy as possible.

I do all these things. I do them happily. I love my job. I'm so grateful I have the opportunity to be at home with my kids. But sometimes it feels like it all goes unnoticed. Except for when I lose the paper sneaker. I don't need to be thanked all the time. If they were thanking me for everything I did, honestly, we wouldn't have time to talk about anything else. But when things do go wrong - and, to my credit, it's rare - I'd love a little more slack.

Sometimes I feel like I'm giving my family everything I have. I try to feed myself, too, but usually I feed them first. And, like mothers and wives for time immemorial, sometimes it feels like I've given everything away. Ben does his job, a job, I'm well aware, that pays our bills, but all the same, a job he loves. The kids will go on to pursue what calls them. And I wash the dishes. And make the phone trees. And get older.

I love these people so much. I can't even come near to putting it into words. If you've loved a child, you know what I'm talking about. I want to give them what I'm giving them. But sometimes I wonder where I am in all of this. Where's the actress, the intellectual, the flirt? Sometimes it feels like I'm the maid, the secretary, the nurse - all honorable jobs - but I do them most often invisibly. This is a selfless job. But when you look at that word, selfless, what does it mean? Without a self? I'm too vain, too egotistical, too flawed, to be selfless.

The job of a mother is to send children out into the world who are the best people they can be. Whole people who can go forth and maybe make a positive difference in the lives of others. I know that I am doing that. I'm doing it well. My work may be largely unseen, now and forever. Most of time that's okay with me. Today I could use a little pat on the back.

This morning, after my talk with Mae, I suggested she take a walk down the driveway and see if she couldn't find her shoe. Moments later she came back triumphant, the shoe intact and unspoiled in her hand. I hugged her and apologized again. She went to comb her hair before we left for school. And then I felt a small hand on my hip. Lana gave me a gentle and wordless embrace. She gave me a little pat on the back.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Our family vacation this summer, beyond the handful of two or three day camping trips in Scout (the trailer has now been christened), is a week at a family camp in Mendocino County. Emandal is a working farm and has seen families come and go for over a hundred summers. The majority of the food consumed by campers is grown right there outside the farmhouse. It is some of the most delicious cuisine I’ve ever had the pleasure of sampling; organic vegetables, homemade bread, granola, yogurt and farm-roasted coffee. In my normal neo-hippy existence, I eschue wheat, dairy, and sugar. Here I have a glass of milk and at least two baked goods with every meal. I plan to gain at least five pounds.

There is no cell service here and limited internet. I haven’t had any contact with the outside world for days and won’t for days more. Cars are unloaded at the 100-year-old cabins and then parked far from view, given a week’s rest. Wallets sleep next to I-phones on the shelf. There’s nothing to buy.

Activities include milking the cow, collecting eggs, picking berries for pies, helping harvest vegetables for dinner, loafing under the apple trees and swimming in the river that snakes through the property. The kids are running free, visiting the rescue kittens up for adoption (if we make it out of here without a kitten, I will be impressed by our parental resolve), catching lizards, visiting sheep and goats and llamas and ostriches, enjoying a bit of independence in this helicopter age. Unlike other family camps, there is no tie-dying, basket-weaving or lanyard construction. Children are left to roam, to create their own fun. They’re given the chance to be bored which is where the delight really begins.

We are here with our friends Elizabeth and Ben, which, as all the other times we’ve vacationed with them, makes for fun introductions. “My name is Liz and this is my friend, Elizabeth. That guy over there with the cowboy hat is her Ben. That one, with the brown boy on his shoulders, is my Ben.” Lana and their son, Hugo, friends from the womb, several times married, have been busy shucking corn and smashing basil for pesto. Hugo’s four-year-old brother, Axel, and Mihiretu are yin and yang, Axel wearing a crown of white curls, Mihiretu with his own riotous brown halo, Axel mellow and contemplative, Mihiretu fierce and ever-moving. Mihiretu, now dubbed “Mr. Yang”, has taken up competitive farming; “Azel, I got mo’ bewies than you,” as he plops raspberries in his cup or “Azel, you no have appoes. I got lots a appoes,” as he places apple after apple in his aproned t-shirt. Mae has (thank god) discovered another nine-year-old girl. Together they spend hours petting kitties (“I like Squeak best, I think. No, maybe Maryanne. No, no, Ginger.”) and “running the rapids” down at the river, which consists of boarding an inner-tube and traveling the ten feet of slightly faster running water. I am getting out for a daily early morning run in a meager effort to counteract the mass calorie consumption, kicking up dust on the long dirt road back to modern life. Ben is riding his bike. I’m actually reading a book while my children are present, a never-before-heard-of achievement.

The kids, ever enterprising, have started a business. It’s called “The Riverside Spa” and it’s located on the shore opposite the main beach at the swimming hole. Mae is the motor of the ferry, a blow-up yellow vinyl raft. She entices clients at the beach, generally adults, lures them into the boat and swims them across. Her new friend, Ariel, sits behind the clients and massages their shoulders as they travel. Once at the spa, Lana, Mihiretu, and Axel start the treatments. The first treatment is free, a “sampler” (these kids know their marketing). Options include exfoliation, which entails gravely sand scrubbed into any available skin. There is also temple massage, which could be dangerous, were the kids better at their anatomy. The temple, according to these small masseurs, is on the cheekbone or the jawbone or, if they’re really having an off day, the elbow. Mae administered a “hot rock treatment” by dropping a sun-warmed stone in Ariel’s dad’s shorts. He had hot rocks, indeed. Hugo, meanwhile, is the manager. He collects payment in shells and secrets them away in his safe, a small opening beneath a mound of boulders, a prime spot for a rattlesnake if you ask me (he hasn’t). He has fired and rehired Lana, his assistant manager. Lana, in turn, has fired and rehired Mae. Mae, the lowly ferry-boat captain, is watching her step.

Last night there was a sing-a-long at the campfire, Ben (Elizabeth’s, not mine) on the guitar. Songs ranged from “Dinah Blow Your Horn” (which my Ben quietly changed to “Dinah Blow My Horn”) to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and finally, delightedly, to “Blister in the Sun”. Lana, after days of practice, performed a solo, her own version of “I Could Have Danced All Night.” She long ago learned the words from a songbook and has composed her own melody, which Ben graciously accompanied. It was beautiful, really. I prefer her version to Rogers and Hammerstein.

Mr. Yang is, generally speaking, a pleasure in this environment. For the most part, we are outside, Mihiretu’s preferred habitat. There is little structure, few rules to follow. He happily shadows his sisters and friends from berry bush to cow. He has become, almost without me noticing, a fairly normal four-year-old. Yes, there’s some yelling, minor tantrums, but nothing that every other four-year-old present isn’t guilty of. No longer are we the unwilling center of attention, the eye of Hurricane Mihiretu. The only semi-stressful periods are mealtimes. He insists on sitting next to me – I love his attachment, it was hard earned, but I could use a little elbow-room. He eats with his hands unless strictly guided to his fork, he uses my dress as a napkin, he chucks half-chewed mouthfuls on my plate if he doesn’t care for something. He shouts “Done!” and grabs his plate and glass and heads for the “magic window”, the portal into the kitchen, utensils dropping noisily to the floor. But then, and here is the essence of the beauty of this place, he goes outside. The kids congregate in the apple orchard, speaking their age-old kid language. They run free and we adults sit at the table and “dine” as Ben’s dad terms it. We sip our coffee and pick at our plates. We talk.

Next week we start school, we dive back into routine. I’m happy for it. Summer is delicious in so many ways; hours of swimming, picnicking at the farmer’s market, free in cotton dresses and flip-flops. It’s also intense; limited childcare, no schedule to cling to, waking each morning to “What are we doing today?” We find out on Friday who the girls have for teachers, which friends are in their classes. It’s exciting. But it’s also so delectable to have this last long week of summer vacation, these slow-paced, food-centered, dual-parented days outside, so very conscious of how lucky we are to be here in this small Eden, snuggling kitties, tucking in to yet another giant farm meal, together, all day every day.

Life here is much as it must have been in 1908, the year the farm was founded by Em and Al. This farm has seen a lot of young families, those long-ago children now parents to other children roaming the rows of corn. It points out our relative youth. The kids are little but won’t always be. Ben and I are young and strong and as beautiful as we’ll ever be. It lends a sepia tone to our time here. Yes, we, too, will age. The kids will grow more and more independent until finally they are out in the world. They need us now, sometimes desperately, but that won’t always be the case. It makes me want to take a mental picture (I’m ridiculously negligent in taking actual ones), to freeze these images, the five of us floating down the river in inner-tubes in the hot afternoon stillness, leaping from boulders into the green deep, Lana shrieking in fear of the fish.

There’s a scene in the play “Our Town” in which Emily, now dead, revisits an ordinary morning of her girlhood. Her mother hustles around the farm kitchen, readying breakfast, shouting to her children to get ready for school while Emily grasps her mother’s arms, tries to still her, desperate to connect, knowing how fleeting this time is. “Oh, Mama,” she says, “Look at me one moment as if you really saw me. Let’s really look at one another!”

There’s something about this time of year, as summer shifts towards fall, that is melancholy. The prime of the season, the bounty of the harvest, is almost behind us. Ahead of us is the dying of the year. I love the shift, I love change, I suppose, but it is tender, it is sweetly painful. We are always changing. Always losing something. Always coming into something new.

Someone else is making lunch, so I’m free to gaze at my children; Lana on a blanket under a tree working Legos with Hugo, Mae lovingly carrying a turtle she found on the trail back through the farm to the river, Mihiretu high on Ben’s shoulders grasping for apples. I can see them, truly see them, in this changing late-summer, early-autumn light.

Friday, August 5, 2011


I went to Los Angeles for a few days, without children or husband. I stayed in a hotel on the Sunset Strip with a view of the smoldering city and a rooftop pool. I drove a rental car, which seemed impossibly adult and un-mommy-like. Ripping around in my Nissan Sentra, not a care in the world.

I came down, ostensibly, for a college reunion. Truly, the reunion was an excuse for me to have a little time to myself, the chance to see not only my college friends but some of the other people I grew to love in my twelve years in that city. I arrived a virginal eighteen and left to marry Ben when I was thirty. They were formative, those years. I fell in love for the first time (and the second time and the third and the fourth). I lost my father. I grew up.

As I drove down Sunset to Westwood Thursday night, memory layered over memory. There's the Hamburger Hamlet where Arty's dad, Big Art, told me, dishearteningly, that Arty would never get married (Big Art was in fact wrong, Arty did get married, just not to me). There's that building where that creepy manager had his office. There's that other building where that other creepy manager had his office. There's a restaurant from which I delivered food, and another one, and another one. There's the quiet Beverly Hills residential street where I'd park between deliveries and run lines for the next day's auditions. There's the turn for Benedict Canyon, where my friend, Serena, lived freshman year. We'd sit on her parent's couch and drink red wine and share cigarettes, skinny dip in the pool, throw dinner parties and invite only boys. And there, oh my god, there is UCLA, scene of so much drama (onstage and off) and delight. I turned off Sunset onto Hilgard and flashed to driving that same stretch of road, my bare arms twined around my twenty-year-old paramour, helmet-less on his motorcycle, the Santa Ana winds whipping our hair, the spring scent of jasmine, the perfume of love.

The reunion itself was informal, a bi-annual, theater department exclusive in the bar of a Mexican restaurant. Walking in the room was like stepping back in time. There were my old friends somehow all looking the same. We just picked up the conversation where we had left it twenty years ago. Yes, we talked about babies and marriages and gigs on TV shows and upcoming performances at the House of Blues but, essentially, it was the same; banter, laughter, frank intimacy. Those friendships, dormant for so long, got the cup of water they needed and promptly bloomed. The concerns I had going in - is so-and-so still mad at me, will blanky-blank even remember me, what the hell should I wear? - instantly dissolved. Jason was grinning at me fondly and saying, "Oh, Liz Lavoie", as he did almost every day of college. Brian was covertly teasing me about the men in the room I had kissed, somehow he had always been the repository for my secrets. Shanee was in the corner with Mitch, as she had been for years of parties, Colin with Cat, Ildy with Brian, Matt with Christina. It was all so lovely and familiar. I was the little sister again in this family. I was back with these people that knew me - or that young adult version of me - so well.

It's all layers of identity, right? Reunions are great for that. Here is a group of people that knew you in a precise time and place. In this case, a time when I was a student, an actor, a girl trying to figure out how to be a woman. It was so satisfying for me to see those people, to remember that self, to (could it be?) accept that naive and hopeful girl, to welcome her into the party where my kindergarten self plays, my high school self, my striving twenties self, my mommy self, me.

I spent the next three days bouncing from friend to friend, from beach to trail to restaurant, catching up, the friendships spanning the decade after college. And I spent three nights alone in my hotel room, sprawled across the king bed, reading, writing, drinking the free coffee from downstairs. I didn't turn on the TV. I don't want to waste a second of it. The longer I sat there in the delicious silence, the more free I felt and, perhaps ironically, the more grateful for those four people I have at home. We'd been talking on the phone, Mae weeping in panic over learning her lines for "The Tempest" while her acting coach (that'd be me) was out of town, Lana telling me plaintively how much she missed me but then cheerfully dropping the phone to welcome Nana at the door, Mihiretu still unclear on the concept of telephone conversation, saying "Hello? Hello? Mama?" until he either ran off shrieking or burst into tears. And a beautiful long conversation with Ben, who I hadn't seen for a week due to overlapping travel. Lying on this big white bed laughing with him, chitty-chatting, like I did so long ago on another white bed in this city, him in Northern California, when it all began. When I'm given a little space, I can choose them again. I have a bit of distance and I can see them. I feel myself, all parts of me present and accounted for, not just the current roles I play - wife, mother, suburban forty-one-year-old middle-class white lady.

This was the first trip away from the kids that I wasn't entirely ready to come home at the end of it. Usually I'm desperate to get back to them. It feels physical, like I've been underwater too long and need a deep gulp of air. But this time, along with that strong desire to see them, was a gnawing I could only identify as homesickness. I was sad to leave this place, the only other place but Marin that I've set down roots. I got in a time capsule, in this case a Southwest airplane, and visited my past, wholly informed by my generally happy, confident, present self. And now it was time to get back into that time machine and return to my beloved family, my incredible friends, the beauty that is the Bay Area. And in doing so, I was, once again, leaving my people, my L.A. people, my 1988-2000 people. But maybe, because of my time there, i was carrying a bit more of myself back with me. That girl, long hair swaying, searching, ever searching, for love, for connection, for satisfaction, twirling to "Blister in the Sun" in a crowded Westwood apartment.

Monday, July 18, 2011


As an undergrad, I studied theater at UCLA. While UCLA was giant and somewhat anonymous, the theater department was intimate. Incestuous, you might even say. We were young, pretty, gifted and well, a little nuts. You know, actors.

My sophomore year, I rented an apartment in Westwood with a few actress girlfriends. It was on Ophir Drive (pronounced O-FEAR) and our male counterparts took to calling it the "House of Phir". We were indeed fearsome. I saw it then and I see it now. We were a whole lot of crazy beauty concentrated in one spot (emphasis on crazy or beauty depending on the day). A Shakespeare-spewing female tornado. We could suck you in and spit you out. We traded boyfriends and even occasionally girlfriends, we had screaming fights heard 'round the neighborhood, we boogied to Prince at three in the morning, tossing our yards of shiny hair. We were fun but, well, a little scary.

We had a private term used only in the house. And here I risk alienating you, Constant Reader. That term was - brace yourself - "cunt". As in, "Come on, cunt, time to go to the party." Or "Cunt, did you eat all the Top Ramen?" or "I love you. Cunt." It was an endearment. We used it as Ben and I use "honey" today. It made us laugh because it was so shocking. It was the worst word we could think of in association with ourselves. We never used this word outside of the apartment and never inside it if there was a man present. It was ours and it was not up for outside interpretation, or god forbid, misuse. It was an amulet we held against the boys club that was the Theater Department, the microcosm of the male-dominated Hollywood just outside the university walls. It was a little like gay men calling each other "Fag" or gay women lovingly addressing each other as "Dyke" or even African-Americans using the dreaded "N" word within their own community. It is owning your own slander - taking the knife out of the hand of the enemy and keeping it safely for yourself.

I so hate the term "stay-at-home mom". It's ridiculous, really. Demeaning. I'm a mom and I stay at home. That's all I do. I never go out, I never do anything that isn't related to my children. Staying at home, being a mom, that's it. Of course, I'm struggling with more than just the term. I, along with most mothers I know, struggle with personal identity beyond motherhood, balancing this most important job with the rest of who we are. I love that question "Do you work?". I always want to answer, "Aw, no, I'm just a laundress, short-order cook, dish-washer, chauffeur, maid, cruise director and personal hygienist for these three screaming people you see before you. I'm on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, I don't get coffee breaks or vacations but it's pretty awesome." For those of us who aren't "working", for those of us "in the home", there is little time, let alone energy for the rest of ourselves - our creativity, our intellectual pursuits, even just our desire to have a little cash that's our own.

So when people ask me what I do, what's the short-hand answer? I've been thinking lately about "housewife". Talk about demeaning. It almost infers other wives. Like a guy has a housewife but he also has an officewife in case he's in need of a back-rub or cup of coffee while at work, or a boatwife in case he wants a cocktail while sailing or, I don't know, a golfwife to carry his clubs. The housewife, of all these wives, probably has the worst job, always stuck at home. But, could I perhaps own the term "housewife"? Could it become my forties equivalent of "cunt"? As in, "Hey, housewife, what's going on? I love those jeans!" or "Housewife, you just gotta tell him you're not going camping again until he buys an air-mattress" or "Meet me for a glass of wine in an hour, housewife, these kids are making me insane!"

When I was in high school, I ran with the most terrific, wonderfully dorky group of girls. There were a handful of us, give or take, depending on the year. We floated in the middle of the social strata. We weren't the self-possessed, derisive girls at the top but we weren't donning renaissance garb, either. Megan, my beloved Megan, was the tallest and loudest of us all (and that's saying something, given the height and volume possessed by each and every girl) and one day one of the surfer boys - the boy that Megan and I had silently worshiped for years - shouted, "Oh, look, it's Megan and her fag crew!" This is just after he yelled at her, apropos of nothing, "You're a dyke - spell it - D-I-K-E!"

The absurdity of the title of "fag crew", given that we were girls, given that calling anyone "fag" by that time (the mid-eighties) in that place (the San Francisco Bay Area) was viewed as totally ridiculous, was, while at first humiliating, in the end, liberating. Really, dude, that's the best you can do? You, king of the surfers, blond bowl-cut Adonis? Clearly you're not as smart as we are.

From that day forward, we were the Fag Crew. We're still close, for the most part, and at any gathering, there's always a toast yelled above blasting Eurythmics, "To the Fag Crew!" We took that name, we took that arrow thrown at us and we loved it because, almost impossibly given our age and hormonal status, we loved ourselves. We loved each other. To some we were second-class but not in our own eyes.

That's what it's all about, housewife.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

White Oleander

Ben was away on and off for a couple weeks and by last Friday I was losing it. I'm generally patient - my patience muscle has been greatly toned by my smallest, most challenging child. But when Ben is gone, I can go from zero to insanity in two seconds. I'll be cruising along, herding children in and out of meals and clothing and bed, all relatively well, when one will push the wrong mommy button, maybe one iota too much sass or ingratitude or, God forbid, daring to slap a sibling while my back is turned, and suddenly I'm hyperventilating, red in the face, shrieking that they've all lost treats and TV for a week.

My friend, Chrissy, bless her, took pity on me and invited us and our friend, Elizabeth, and her kids over for a bar-b-que on Friday night. We put the hot dogs on the grill and went with the kids to search for sticks for marshmallow roasting (my children were on treat probation, the only way they could partake in the marshmallows at the end of the evening is if they didn't give me any shit up until then).

We climbed Chrissy's driveway and found lots of stick candidates. Chrissy was stacking them in her arms when Ben, Elizabeth's husband (yes, they are Elizabeth and Ben and we are Liz and Ben - makes for some confusing introductions), newly arrived, pointed out the flowered oleander above us and wondered if these sticks lying under these bushes were perhaps oleander as well.

Chrissy quickly snatched sticks out of children's hands and we headed to the backyard, where there was no oleander to be found.

The meal proceeded. I spent a total of five minutes in my seat between fetching lemonade and ketchup and non-"burnt" hot dogs for my children. Finally the ordeal of feeding them was over and they moved on to the s'mores. I filled my wine glass, squinted my eyes against the smoke from the fire-pit and recalculated the hours until Ben returned.

Halfway through my chardonnay, I was vaguely aware of Elizabeth examining a roasting stick and Chrissy charging through the patio with that same bundle of oleander. "I don't know how these got back here!" she called as she rushed by.

Soon it was near bedtime - the close to another day, thank God - and, with many thanks in Chrissy's direction, I packed my kids into the van. It was late enough for a snooze cruise, what the girls have coded an "S.C.". I angled the rear view mirror on Mihiretu's drowsy face.

We drove the length of Butterfield Road, the long street that runs the three mile distance of our valley and then, Mihiretu still awake, I turned around to drive it again. Suddenly, half way down the road, I realized that something, digestively speaking, was not at all right. I fought the hot spits for a moment but then pulled the van to the side of the road, mumbled "Gotta throw up" and ran for the weeds.

I knelt there, all three kids dangling out of car windows spectating, Mihiretu now thoroughly awake, cars passing, certainly filled with tight-jeaned, highlighted moms that I vaguely know, and heaved into the grass. Just as I was pulling myself back together, Elizabeth and Ben passed in their car, then quickly turned around and parked behind us.

"What's going on?" Elizabeth called. I shakily stood and hobbled to her car.

"Food poisoning?" I said, wiping my mouth. "I don't know. Vomit. Vomit is going on."

I felt okay to drive again. I assured her that I'd call her if the upchucking continued. I ushered children back into seat-belts and swung around towards home.

Bedtime was ugly. I was making beds - this was not, it turns out, the day to wash the sheets - ordering children into pajamas, sticking toothbrushes in unwilling mouths, while intermittently running to kneel in front of the porcelain altar. Everyone was crying, not unusual for bedtime, but certainly more loudly than the norm. Mae was mad that I had implied she was selfish for insisting on the promised ice cream before bed and was choosing this moment to tell me that I hadn't been nice at all since summer had started. Lana was sobbing in Mae's arms, confused and scared, crying for Daddy. Mihiretu was hysterical, twisting in his bed like a python on PCP while I attempted to read "Goodnight Gorilla" as fast as possible so I could return to the bathroom.

Finally, finally, the children were stowed in their beds. I lay in my own and got on the phone with Ben on the East Coast to try to put together a rescue plan. I briefed him and he hung up to call Elizabeth to coordinate some form of assistance for the next day. I lay back, mixing bowl at my side, breathing in slowly through my nose to combat the nausea.

Moments later the phone rang. It was Ben, now quite concerned.

"Elizabeth told me about the oleander," he said.

I, in my pit of discomfort, had completely forgotten about it.

"I googled it," he said, talking quickly, "and then I called Poison Control."

I took another deep breath, trying to concentrate on his words but now aware of another wave of icky coming on.

"So, it's going to be okay, but the Poison Control guy said that anyone who might have had a marshmallow off an oleander stick should go to the emergency room." He cleared his throat apologetically. "Immediately."

I quickly calculated which of my children were in danger. Mihiretu, thank God, hates marshmallows. Lana probably had one or two. Mae had about fifteen.

As I was trying to envision waking the kids, getting them into the car and enduring the wait at the ER, all while comforting frightened and possibly poisoned children and, of course, vomiting, Ben said, "Wait, I've got another call coming in. I think it's Elizabeth, I'll patch her in."

The caller was indeed not Elizabeth but a doctor from the Poison Center, a salty old monologuer, thirty years on the job.

"You ever hear the story about the boy scout troop being poisoned because they roasted their hot dogs on oleander?" he demanded.

I burped as softly as possible and assured him I hadn't.

"They had FOOD poisoning! Bad weiners!" he chortled. "Urban myth debunked!"

"You know how they killed Socrates?" he quizzed.

I breathed in through my nose, willing my stomach to settle.

"Hemlock?" Ben guessed.

"Oleander!" he trumpeted. "You kids don't know your history. Those Greeks had to boil down buckets of oleander. One lady in Marin tried to kill herself by eating an oleander leaf sandwich. She didn't even get nauseous. Mrs. Capron," he announced, "you have food poisoning."

We finally got off the phone with the doctor. Ben called Elizabeth and I called Chrissy to spread the word that we weren't all dying. Chrissy had me talk to her daughter, Lindsay, who was weeping because she was sure her brother wouldn't ever wake up.

Oleander concern put to bed, so to speak, I finally turned off the light. It was now eleven-thirty and if the good doctor was right, I had at least eight more hours of misery before the tide turned. I slept fitfully, reaching for my bowl in a panic every hour on the hour.

Somewhere around two, Mihiretu woke up. I stumbled into his room, half bent over. The bed was wet, unfortunately, so we made our way to the bathroom to clean him up. I tried to convince him that instead of the usual routine of showering off under the tap of the bathtub, that tonight a wet washcloth would do the trick. No go. He clambered into the tub and I turned the knobs. The entire faucet head popped off and water shot upwards in a three-foot geyser.

The cleaning lady had made her monthly visit the day before and, in her thoroughness, she had loosened the tap. All I could do, between containing my nausea and attacking the spray with a towel, was laugh.

The next morning, Ben's dad and step-mom appeared like a mirage. They scooted the kids out the door and I swerved back into bed. I lay watching the clouds drift by through the skylight, a moment of silence and peace. I caught myself thinking: if the last twelve hours is what it took to earn the right to be in bed in an empty house on a Saturday morning, maybe it was worth it. It was madness, of course. My illness notwithstanding, the momentary belief that my children were poisoned is not something I'd ever, under any circumstances, voluntarily submit to. This stillness, the clouds above, were so eloquent because of what had come before. Sort of like waking up after a migraine, the absence of pain a joy in and of itself. I closed my eyes and didn't open them again for hours.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Pool

The weather turned warm today after a couple days of rain. Why it's pouring at the end of June is a disturbing question. Our poor, confused Mother Earth.

Ben's out of town and the girls aren't in camp (Mihiretu's in half-day camps all summer - I'm not a total masochist). While they're mostly a pleasure, the constant picking of fights and pleading for treats is starting to get me down. We've hit that point in the summer where the delicious sense of freedom has worn off and the whining begins. For them and for me. I've been feeling starved for adult interaction - inundated by children - so I sent out an email early this afternoon rallying some of my favorite pals to meet at the community pool.

We hit the pool when it opened at one. Hour after hour went by and no friends appeared. Mae was irate, threatening, between mouthfuls of nori, to walk the mile home. Lana, too, decided that she was bored. For girls that don't want to go to camp, their boredom threshold is awfully low. I told them we had to stay until four, then we could throw in the towel, so to speak. I can't ever remember being bored with the pool when I was a kid but then again my mother's entire day wasn't centered around me so hours of swimming was unheard of.

At four o'clock, on cue, our friends began trickling in. The girls were already in the shower and though I tried to tempt them back to the pool, ticking off beloved names on my fingers, they weren't into it. We worked out a deal. They would walk home together and I'd drive with Mihiretu later and meet them there.

Mihiretu was in the shallow end, splashing happily with Ephraim (the other Ethiopian adoptee in these parts, you'd be impressed how much they're mistaken for each other). I seated myself pool-side, so happily chatting (okay, bitching) with my friends, Elizabeth and Chrissy. My extrovert tank was slowly refilling.

Then Elizabeth turned to me and said, "Mihiretu just threw up in the pool."

I looked past her and, indeed, Mihiretu was standing knee deep in water on the pool step, surveying a spreading blob of vomit.

I dropped my sarong and leaped in after him, madly scooping nori-ish puke onto the pool deck. Chrissy and Elizabeth were laughing, searching for some kind of scooping mechanism, warning kids to back away from the stairs.

A teenage lifeguard approached cautiously.

"My kid puked in the pool," I said, skimming bile off the surface of the water.

"Oh," he said, stumped, picking at a pimple on his chin. "I'll have to talk to my supervisor about that." He skittered away.

I managed to lift Mihiretu from the pool. I was reaching for a towel when Elizabeth sidled up to me.

"They're closing the pool," she said, stifling giggles. Sure enough, a whistle sounded and forty-some people swam for the ladders.

I wrapped Mihiretu in his towel and led him to the showers, passing clumps of dripping teenagers, moms, and kids murmuring that some kid puked in the pool.

I apologized to the lifeguard, explaining that Mihiretu isn't sick, he just has a hair-trigger gag reflex. He said sweetly, "It's no problem. Don't be embarrassed."

The funny thing was, I wasn't really embarrassed. I'm so used to standing out at this point, as the mother of this child, that puke in the pool seemed like no biggie. He hadn't screamed "Fucka-my-butt" or thrown a spectacular tantrum. He hadn't growled menacingly at another kid or firmly told a lady that he wasn't sorry he had slapped her on the bottom. This was just run-of-the-mill, it could happen to anyone.

Except. There's something about Mihiretu, beyond his tragic beginnings and his transplantation from rural Ethiopia to ultra-wealthy Marin County, beyond the fact that his skin is a different color than his family's, that's unique. He is a kid who lives large. He screeches unreachable high notes, he performs rapid, joyous karate on any near victim, he rides his bike out of the saddle all the way to school, faster than I ever could, like it was the last stage of the Tour de France, he cheerfully wrestles me to the blanket at the farmer's market and manages to pin me, a person who is three times his body weight. He pukes in the pool and he just keeps trucking.

We edged into the communal shower with the crowd and then quickly dressed. I said nothing to these relative strangers that the reason for the disruption of our hot afternoon pleasure was this little naked boy now playing delightedly with his penis. I did pass my friend, Nicole, on the way out, however, and we quietly laughed that I had invited her to join me at the pool only to have my son promptly shut it down.

As we were getting in the car to go home, Chrissy asked if Mihiretu could come to their house for dinner. He enthusiastically nodded his head and unbuckled his seat-belt. I gave him a kiss and gratefully watched him walk away with Chrissy, hand in hand. If I had puked in the pool, I probably wouldn't be accepting dinner invitations, either out of shame or sickness. But Mihiretu is Mihiretu, a force to be reckoned with. Especially if you swim too close.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Bridge

We went camping last weekend with a bunch of friends. It was cold and foggy but perfection all the same. Communal meals over a campfire, kids running as a pack for all their waking hours, parents sitting around sipping coffee or wine, depending on the clock, chatting, reading magazines. When do I get a chance to read a magazine?

After dark on Saturday night, the guitars came out. I would dearly love to have the ability to play the guitar and/or have a confident singing voice. Tragically, I have neither. But I'll happily hum along in the background while others take center stage.

Our friends, June and RJ, are musicians. It seems like I've known them for decades, they're that kind of people. In fact, I met them at a costume fundraiser for the elementary school a couple years ago. I recommend starting a friendship in costume, it lends a certain intimacy and light-heartedness. The theme was "British Invasion". Ben and RJ had matching Beatle wigs. June and I had some serious mod going. In real, non-fundraiser life, RJ shaves his head. Whenever I see him, in some back corner of my brain I wonder where that mop of hair went. That cheap wig was my first impression of him and it seems like it should always be there. Dude, where's your hamster-colored plastic hair?

RJ and June have proved to be full A-Team. They are funny, they are wise, they are more positive than I could ever hope to be. They are so cool they have a band together. At the campfire, they sang some of their songs. The music was beautiful, their sons would jump in on harmonies, it was plenty impressive.

At one point, they played a song called "The Bridge". It went a little something like this:

"Just drove over the bridge
Thank god I can't see
The city from my rear view mirror
Just the car in front of me

I'm going to miss you
I'm going to say your name a lot
Every day"

When we moved to San Jose two years ago, the kids and I drove across the Golden Gate. I had Julie Andrews belting "I Have Confidence" (because I had little), the kids were killing each other in the back seat of the Prius, I was reaching behind me to pull Mae's nails out of Lana's arm, Mihiretu was shrieking. As I crossed the Marin-San Francisco border, right in the middle of the bridge, I white-knuckled the wheel and stared ahead intently. I couldn't look behind me, I couldn't think about what I was losing. I was driving out of my life, into oblivion, but at that point, all I could do was go forward and hope for the best.

My friend, Jan, had said that sirens would go off when we crossed that border, it was so against nature for us to leave Marin. Our beloved, weathered, yellow happy face antenna ball jumped ship at some point on that journey. I have an image of him saying, "Screw you guys, I'm outta here," and leaping to his death off the bridge, a fading "Good luck with thaaaaaaat" as he fell.

I spent a year saying my friends names a lot, my wonderful collection of people, handpicked over years - curated, really - for their grace, their depth, their humor. I'm sure my few, hard-won San Jose friends were tired of hearing about these people they'd never met. And then, one year ago Monday, we drove back across that bridge. Every single day of this past year, I've had at least one moment of pure joy, so so happy to be here, among my people, in my place.

That thing about how you can't go home again is bullshit, I'm here to say. I've crossed that bridge, over that dangerous water, into a foreign land and been able to cross back again. And home is all the sweeter for it. Gazing around the campfire last weekend, the golden glow lighting the faces of the sleepy kids, many of whom I've known since the pregnancy test, the grinning adults, I knew exactly how good I have it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mihiretu Speak

At the beginning of the year, Mihiretu wasn't all that popular at preschool. In fact, kids would run the other way when they saw Mihiretu coming through the gate. On more than one occasion, one small ringleted girl or another would approach me and say shyly, "Mihiretu hit me yesterday." Or "Mihiretu growls at me." I'd kneel down, finger a glossy curl and apologize.

Around this time, Mihiretu met Luke, another high-energy, irascible, adorable pre-schooler. For months, they circled each other warily, two alpha dogs sensing a rival. Mihiretu would tell me, apropos of nothing, "Luke no my fen."

Then sometime around January, things shifted in the dust of that schoolyard. As Mihiretu softened at home (he is forever softening, like a pound of butter taken from deep-freeze and left at room temperature), he must have eased up at school, too. His peers began to sense his movie-star allure.

Now when he comes through the gate, it's like Norm walking into that bar in Boston.

"Mihiretu's here!" one tow-headed boy will crow, running to tell his friends. A tide of children will cascade past me, headed for my boy.

As we walk to and from school, kids, often kids I don't know, will lean out of car windows, waving madly and yelling "Mihiretu! Hey, Mihiretu!"

Things also changed with Luke, that elusive tough guy. Maybe they bonded over glitter or more likely, kicking a soccer ball, but Mihiretu and Luke suddenly and magically became inseparable. They wind their arms around each other as a welcome. They roll on the floor, reveling in each other's company.

Recently, we've been experimenting with play-dates. Luke's mom, Kelsey, will pick up both boys at school and take them home to trash her house, or vice versa. I have to say, when it's Kelsey's turn, it's exhilarating to have a few Mihiretu-free hours. I love the kid, but man, does he take a truckload of energy and patience. Working a puzzle quietly in the living-room with the girls without a shrieking brown blur upending our project is a little bit of heaven.

Last week, it was our turn to have Luke. The boys were in the back of the van, chatting away, as we drove home. I heard Mihiretu-talk, this time sounding like, "Batta-batta-booty! Fi-ah-poop!"

Mihiretu isn't the most verbal of kids. His vocabulary is limited, his pronunciation blurry. At first we attributed this to the obvious factors of being orphaned, adopted and ferried thousands of miles away from the only home he knew. Now, with the assistance of a speech pathologist, we're realizing that even if he were still in Ethiopia, still wrapped in his birth-mother's arms, he probably wouldn't be talking much. Eventually, with some therapy, he'll be speaking the King's English with the best of them, but for now, in place of recognized speech, often he chats in a language all his own. It's playful, it's funny, this tongue: it's Mihiretu. It doesn't mean anything, per say, more just that he's feeling happy and playful. It's often accompanied by a goofy grin and a great shaking of tail-feather.

The weird thing was, this time, the voice coming from the back of the van wasn't Mihiretu's. It was Luke.

"Luke-y," I said, adjusting the rear-view mirror so I could meet his eye. "That sounded just like how Mihiretu talks."

"I know," he said, puffing his chest a bit. "He taught me."

As the afternoon progressed, I eavesdropped on the boys as they dumped baskets of toys on the playroom floor, sailed down Ben's homemade zip-line, and chased chickens into the weeds.

"Whah-ka-tooty-booty!" Mihiretu would say, wrestling Luke to the ground.

"Ka-wa-tay!" Luke would respond, arms and legs akimbo in his approximation of karate.

At one point, as they climbed to the very top of the play structure, Luke caught me listening.

"I like Mihiretu's language," he said, the warmest, softest smile on his cherub face. "I think it's cool."

"Yaka-too!" Mihiretu trilled, jumping to the ground.

"Zaka-soo!" Luke answered, jumping and grabbing Mihiretu's hand in one move, the two of them launching themselves up the hill to the rope swing.

Seeing him enveloped and embraced by his own small people, seeing him cherished by others like he is by us Caprons, is a little like watching the sun coming out one misty June day after months of rain.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Circle It

The other day was Lana's teacher's birthday. Marcia Gunnarson is a favorite of ours. She taught Mae first grade as well and, along with being a terrific and inventive teacher, she is a wonderful mix of sweetness and steel. She's in her sixties, she has long iron-hued hair, she's raised four (count 'em, four) kids, she hikes for miles on the weekends and is a bitchin' gardener. All that and she manages to educate twenty six-year-olds, day in and day out. That alone would strike me down.

Lana made a birthday card for Marcia. It read: "Happy birthday Mrs. Gunnarson! [Then, to emphasize her message, in letters ranging in size from big to little] happy BIRTHDAY! Are you turning 63? Yes or no. Circle it." Marcia, of course, was to circle the answer, revealing to all the world, or at least to Lana, her age. Were she someone else, really almost anyone else, I would have censored the card. But Marcia isn't mired in vanity like some people I could mention (okay, me) so I thought she might get a kick out of it.

Ben and I, perusing the missive on the birthday morning, chuckled over our coffee.

"You want some smoothie?" I asked as I pulled the frozen berries from the freezer. "Yes or no?" Then, gritting my teeth and growling, "Circle it!"

It's very Lana, this demanding precision, particularly in combination with a letter of love. If she loves you, watch out, the demands are sure to follow.

Long ago, Ben starting calling me a schnauzer. As in, I'd nudge him and nose him until whatever it was I wanted was achieved. I can have a laser focus when I fix my sights on something, be it a weekend away, or, say, adopting a child from a foreign land. Lana is a baby schnauzer. She, too, when she's excited about something is unstoppable. I've overheard many play-dates that go something like this:

"You're the baby and I'm the momma. I need to go to work and so the babysitter is going to come - she's a teenager and you don't like her. Okay, cry!"

I can imagine her at thirty, laying down the gauntlet for her boyfriend, much as I did with Ben when I was that age.

"Do you want to marry me? Yes or no? Circle it!"

Monday, May 23, 2011

Gotcha Day

Sunday was the second anniversary of the day we met Mihiretu. In adoption circles, that's sometimes known as "Gotcha Day".

We started the day with a birthday party for Mihiretu's friend, Ephraim. I met Ephraim - and his mom, Chrissy - one September day on the playground of Mae's school. I'd recently been struck with baby fever but instead of fantasies of a growing belly or tiny pink fingers and toes, this time it had crystalized in an image of an African baby boy strapped to my chest in a Baby Bjorn. Somehow, on that fall day, the universe sent me Chrissy, with Ephraim strapped to her chest in a Baby Bjorn. The rest, I'd guess you'd say, is history.

Even though there was over a year and a half between Ephraim's homecoming and Mihiretu's, the boys ended up being just about the same age, Mihiretu actually six months Ephraim's senior. Now that they're to the stage of actually engaging with peers instead of just parallel play, their friendship has deepened. They see a lot of each other, those two. I imagine that when strangers see us at tumbling class or the park or the ice cream shop, they think that Chrissy and I are a couple and these two boys fraternal twins. Lately, we've been spending so much time together that that's almost the case.

Ephraim's party started at 10:30 but somehow the breezy spring weather, the jumpy-house, the good company and the continuing flow of food conspired to keep us (and many other guests) hanging around until well past three. The kids were all pretty strung-out on cupcakes and hours of jumping but we, along with Ephraim's family, decided to keep the party rocking. We climbed in two cars, children alternately wailing, and headed over to an Ethiopian restaurant in Berkeley to fete the Gotcha and Birthday Boys.

It was a new restaurant for us, one that had been recommended by an Ethiopian dance teacher I recently met. The place was packed. Along the window wall, there was a long table of at least thirty Ethiopians, also, it turns out, celebrating a birthday. Ethiopians, in my experience, both here and in Ethiopia itself, are initially reticent, at least to non-Ethiopians. Once, however, you can engage them in the smallest way, I've found them, for the most part, to be incredibly warm. Virtually every time we've gone to an Ethiopian restaurant with Mihiretu, and we've been to a lot of them, we end up in conversation with an employee or a patron. Often we leave with a phone number or a scrawled post-it detailing an upcoming Ethiopian festival. We've yet to meet an Ethiopian who resents our adoption, though, in situations like Sunday's, I find myself conscious of the state of Mihiretu's hair and skin. If we've got any nap or ash happening, I worry they think we don't know how to care for him. If, like yesterday, he's crawling around under the table and screeching, however joyfully, I worry they doubt our parenting skills. As we settled ourselves at the table yesterday, I felt eyes on us, friendly or unfriendly, I couldn't tell.

The food arrived and finally the reeling children settled in to eat. It was, it goes without saying, delicious. Mihiretu, as he does with Ethiopian food, was putting it away. Perhaps there's some visceral memory for him, some part of him that recalls eating this food when he was little and remembers there not being enough of it. Maybe it's just the combination of spices that spells scrumptious for him, speaks home. Whatever the reason, when we put a platter of injera in front of him, small piles of stewed lamb, pureed lentils and collard greens arranged artfully atop it, he goes to town.

Mihiretu was seated next to me and I was keeping a constant supply of ripped injera in front of him, occasionally scooping some delicacy on it for him, though mostly he helped himself. He had just swallowed an enormous mouthful when I scooped a spicy chicken stew onto the bread and put it to his mouth. He promptly spit it out.

"Dat one yucky," he proclaimed. "Weally yucky."

Then, a perplexed expression on his face, he said, "I gotta trow up."

He gagged and then a gusher of mashed food came out of his mouth like water from a fire-hose. The girls said later that it looked like someone had simply taken the beautiful food in front of us and put it in a Cuisinart. Thinking fast, I cupped my hands broadly in front of his mouth. The vomit just kept coming but somehow, as if I was wearing catcher's mitts, a reservoir of Ethiopian soup grew in my palms. Later, Eric, Ephraim's dad, eyeing my hands curiously, asked how big they were exactly. I held them up, large for a girl but no where near big enough to explain it. Whatever saint guards parents of young children was working overtime.

In quick succession, Chrissy threw napkins on Mihiretu and on the table, I dumped my goopy load on top, folded it quickly and threw it in a waiting trash can. Ben, meanwhile, had spirited Mihiretu out of his seat and been shepherded to Chrissy's car, where they found spare clothes of Ephraim's and some very convenient plastic bags for Mihiretu's soiled garments. Before I knew it, I had swiped Mihiretu's chair clean and he was once again in it, tucking in to more food. The girls, on Eric's advice, "changed the topic" and animatedly discussed their favorite cookies. In total, the crisis lasted no more than five minutes. I do believe, even with our prominent otherness, the diners surrounding us and even the wait-staff had no idea anything had happened.

Mihiretu wasn't actually ill. I'd seen this happen before, in the early days when he would gorge himself to sickness unless we took him away from the dinner table. I had thought he was past this remnant of malnourishment, but apparently not.

Later, in the car on the way home, Lana tried to spell "barf" out loud. Mae sang "B-A-R-F, B-A-R-F" as Lana howled that she, Lana, was spelling barf, not Mae. Mihiretu got into the act, shouting, "B-A" but then sputtered out not knowing how to finish.

It wasn't picture perfect, our Gotcha Day. It was, in fact, unequivocally disgusting. If you'd told me before that fateful autumn day in the schoolyard that I'd be catching the projectile vomit of a small brown boy, I'm not sure I would have believed you. But, in a way, it was exactly right. I am this boy's mother. With every passing day, I love him more deeply, more firmly. And I've got some giant hands to prove it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mother's Day

We went en famille to visit my mom at her board-and-care on Mother's Day.

When we arrived, she was seated at the kitchen table finishing her dinner. The room is cheerful, a great improvement on the gloom of the assisted living facility. A large picture window framed blooming roses climbing a wooden fence, the brilliance of the May sky peeking from above. A caregiver busied herself washing dishes in the adjacent kitchen, one eye discreetly on my mother.

She didn't seem to recognize me this time, which is new. The greeting I received was similar to what she might have given a neighbor she didn't know very well, back in the days when she understood the concept of neighbor.

"Oh, hello," she said, unsmiling, unsure.

We sat around the table with her.

"Well," I said, tracing the violet on the plastic place mat in front of me. "Happy Mother's Day, Mom."

"Mother's Day?" she asked, poking at a piece of sausage with her fork.

"Yeah," I said, eyeing Mihiretu as he squirmed in Ben's lap. "It's a day to celebrate mothers." And then, in case she forgot that she was in fact a mother, "We're celebrating you and we're celebrating me today."

She eyed me skeptically. "I'm being celebrated? Well, I didn't know that." Her tone implied that the celebration had not been celebratory enough to capture her attention. My guilt suggested that if perhaps we had brought her flowers or arrived somewhere before dinnertime, it might have felt more like a party.

"Did Jean-Paul visit you? And Tracy and the boys?" I asked, knowing that they, loyal son and loyal wife of son, must of.

"Who?" she asked, folding and refolding her cloth napkin. "No, I haven't seen anyone."

We continued to sit, the kids surprisingly placid, probably uncomfortable with this forgetful old lady. It's rare I take them to see her these days. It's hard to hold up both sides of a conversation with a mother who's forgotten she's your mother when you're simultaneously trying to pull a small Ethiopian boy off the chandelier.

My mother broke the silence. She pointed a wobbly finger at Mihiretu and Lana.

I readied myself for the usual "Is he yours?"

Instead she asked, "Is that boy five?"

I gestured to Mihiretu. "Mihiretu's four," I said gently.

She shook her head. "No," she said, pointing more pointedly at Lana. "That one."

I saw that we were past her even noticing that Mihiretu was brown in a family of whiteys and felt a rock sink to the bottom of my belly.

"Well," I said carefully, "that's a girl. Her hair is short, I know that makes it confusing. That's Lana. She's seven. And this," I pulled Mihiretu onto my lap, "is Mihiretu. He's four. And that," I smiled at Mae across the table, "is Mae. She's nine."

My mom squinted at Mae. "He's nine?"

"Again," I said, "short hair-cut. He's a she and she's nine."

At this, Mihiretu made a break for it, running pell-mell into the kitchen. I saw my chance of temporary escape.

"Hey, kids," I said, collaring Mihiretu, "You want to see Grandma Margaret's room?"

The girls, also ready for a reprieve, followed me down the hall. In her room, we looked at family photos, marveled that the brightly smiling ten-year-old girl in roller skates could actually be that snowy-haired lady in the dining-room, and perused the Mother's Day card that my brother had indeed delivered earlier that day.

While we were gone, Ben later reported, he made small talk, really the only kind of talk one can make with my mom these days.

"Well," he said, revisiting the same old material, "Happy Mother's Day."

My mother returned to her dinner and said offhandedly, "Yep, we have that in common."

Ben was fingering a domino that was on the table. My mother eyed it while she chewed.

"This is really smooth," Ben said, noticing her attention. "You want to feel it?"

She cocked her head like a bird, her eyes raptly surveying the domino.

"Yes," she said decisively. "Yes, I would."

Tentatively she reached out a finger, tapped the domino and pulled her hand back quickly as if burned. She brought her eyes almost to table level and examined the domino from a safe distance.

"This red dot," she whispered thoughtfully as she pointed to a green dot on the domino, "really gets on some people!" This last she hissed vehemently, pinning Ben with her gaze.

The kids and I came back into the room and Ben, now ready for his break, rose to take the two younger ones into the backyard.

I sat and Mae, relishing a moment without sibling competition, plopped herself on my lap.

My mother smiled for the first time in the visit. "You're a good guy," she said to Mae.

I took a deep breath and gave Mae what I hoped was a comforting squeeze. "Mae's a girl," I reiterated. "Except she has a short haircut."

We all laughed. This time, apparently, it was funny.

"Oh," my mom said, wiping a tear of mirth. "I'm sorry." And to further the apology, she reached forward and gently touched Mae's hand. "You're a good guy."

"Girl," I said, sotto voce. Again, we all laughed.

My mom sighed with pleasure at the joke, looked at Mae one more time and said solemnly, "You're a good guy."

Soon it was time to go get our own Mother's Day dinner. We said our goodbyes to my mom and she watched us quizzically as we took our leave.

As the door closed behind us, I think we all, even Mihiretu, took a deep breath of the cool outside air.

I swallowed the usual cocktail of fury and grief. So sad that my mom is leaving me, memory by memory, and so mad that my mom is leaving me. The usual two-year-old piping up that if she really loved me, she'd stay. I swallowed it down because on this day, on my Mother's Day, I didn't want to feel that. I wanted to be with my kids, marvel with them over the cards they'd made me, laugh with them over our Puerto Rican dinner. For that one day, I didn't want to be sad for what I'd lost but joyful for what I'd found.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Family Photographs

My bureau keeps coughing up long-lost relatives.

I'll back up.

When my mother went into assisted living, much of her furniture came to us. It is mid-century Danish teak gorgeousness. Our house was built in 1954 and when we did our superficial remodel upon moving in, we styled ourselves "modern". The furniture is perfect. You walk in the door and it's like stepping onto the set of "Mad Men".

My parents had a set of matching dressers in their room when I was growing up. My dad's was thin and tall, much like the man. My mother's, long and low. We didn't acquire these two pieces until fairly recently, when my mom moved from assisted living to a furnished board-and-care.

Though I hold my mother up as the home-organization tree from which my finely-ordered apple dropped, if you opened a drawer in the house I grew up in, you might get a whole lot of crazy. By the time I was packing up her condo just after she was diagnosed with Alzheimers, those drawers were full-on nuts. Her dresser was crammed with old bank statements, silk scarves, opera programs, control-top pantyhose, magnifying lenses, European coins, love letters from my father (that was worth a good cry, snuffling dust in the failing light of a winter afternoon, him dead, her vacant, his twenty-one-year-old words of devotion scrawled across a yellowing page), and finally, family pictures.

I didn't really know my family. Yes, I knew my father, my mother, my brother, my sister. But my mother's parents were dead by the time I was on the scene. My father's parents, somehow, had no interest in meeting me. Might have had something to do with the fact that my mother wasn't French and Catholic, unlike the zillion generations of depressed and depressing French Catholics that made up my father's lineage. I met my father's sister once, when her Navy husband was stationed in California. Aunt Charlotte informed my mother that I was spoiled and my mother should really give me a good smack like Charlotte did with her two-year-old son (the son that, shocking!, became a professional criminal later in life). My mother's brothers were in Michigan and she and I took a trip there once when I was five. For a week.

My mother grew up dirt-poor, downright hungry, in the Depression. Her parents were immigrants from Romania. Her mother died early and her father couldn't speak English, couldn't get a job beyond being a laborer. My father was born into the lower middle-class, a step above my mother. Though his first language was French (my mother's was Romanian), his parents were born in Massachusetts. It was another generation back that had emigrated from Quebec. Regardless, they were both essentially immigrant stock. And like many immigrant children in American, they shed everything they could of their past and sailed full-steam into the future.

My father joined the military at seventeen. By the time they met on a Miami beach when he was twenty-one, he was a pilot in the Air Force. The G.I. bill put him through college when he was in his late twenties. My mother put him through medical school in his early thirties. Soon, they emerged, fully formed, on the West Coast, a doctor and his wife, two beautiful children (the third beautiful child - that'd be me - not yet in the picture), a new house on Mount Tamalpais above the ever-chic Mill Valley.

They lived their upper-middle-class lives, with no connection to their past. When I was packing up the condo, I stayed true to family form and filed all the old pictures away in storage. But here's the thing. Photographs keep appearing in my mother's dresser.

The first time was a year ago, when I was unpacking after our move from San Jose. I accidentally pulled an empty drawer too far and it came out of the dresser completely. With it, apparently stuck for millenia to the bottom of the drawer, came a photograph.

It was a posed family portrait, circa mid-forties. My mother, about fifteen, stands by a grand staircase - certainly not theirs - dressed in some kind of uniform, complete with a stiff nurse-like cap. Was she a candy-stripper? Some kind of war volunteer? At the center of the photo is her father, looking kind and tired, dressed in a shiny three-piece suit and his second wife, Stella, wearing a giant flowered dress, her face set in a smug, double-chinned smirk. Stella was eventually committed to a mental institution. She was a rabid horder and psychotically messy and abusive, screeching and smacking if my mother quietly cleared the sink of it's piles of dishes. I had never before seen a picture of this woman. This woman, who, it must be assumed, had an awful lot to do with my mother's later obsessive need for cleanliness and order and my own inability to sit down to read a book if there's a speck on the floor.

Also featured are my mother's two older brothers, one round and Romanian-looking, the other, surprisingly, a ringer for my dad, clean good looks in a varsity sweater. A little boy stands in the center, my mother's half-brother, Stella's son, sweet, rumpled and big-eared. Off to the side is the infamous cross-dressing uncle, looking creepy as could be. It's said that he lured my grandmother, my mother's mother, Valeria, to the United States, with a promise of work as a seamstress and locked her into a marriage with my grandfather, twenty years her senior and poor.

Just last week, as I was storing winter clothes and bringing summer clothes out of bins, a drawer in that very same dresser wouldn't close completely. I pulled it out to extract the pair of leggings that had been stuck behind it, to find, along with the leggings, a bank statement from 1981 and a manila folder.

I set the folder on the dresser, knowing it might hold a surprise from my unknown past, a long-dead someone reaching a skeletal finger to find me. I took a breath and opened it. There were five photographs. One three-by-five sepia portrait of a young couple I didn't recognize, peering solemnly into the camera. As I turned it over, I realized it was indeed a postcard. On the left were words that I could only recognize as Romanian, having seen letters arrive in a similar script for my mother when I was a kid. I could make out the word Bucarest, the city my mother's people came from and what could be names, "Elenoi si Surel Dron". It was addressed to Dan Belgoir. My grandfather, Dan Balger. Here before me was his original Romanian surname, a name that had been bastardized at Ellis Island, a name that my mother had never known. A name that, until this instant, had been lost.

The other four pictures were different prints of the same image. My father, probably in his early fifties, sits in his red winged armchair, his eyes downcast at something he must be reading. I believe, actually, that I took this photograph. I vaguely remember taking a summer photography class after my freshman year of high school. These four prints, each having sat in the developer a different length of time, were my homework.

It was good to see my father's handsome face again. His cleft chin that I see echoed in Lana, the slant of his cheekbones that I now see in myself. But as I gazed at this picture, standing beside the dresser, summer and winter clothes in untidy piles around me, what I could see, even more clearly with the wisdom of time, was his disregard for me. His teenage daughter stood above him, not a foot away, taking his picture, certainly on a weekend because he was never home during a weekday, and he continued reading his medical journal. In the crease between his eyebrows, I could see his irritation at my attempted interruption. All this picture says to me is "Go away - I'm busy." Really, the story of my life with him. It's difficult to admit because I loved him so, I miss him still and I know that he deeply loved me. And, to be fair, how many times have I attempted to escape to a quiet corner of the house away from the noise and demands of my kids? Though mine are little and loud and many and one would have to think that one bookish fourteen-year-old girl wouldn't have the same effect. But perhaps he was still so busy striving for greatness, still so busy actively forgetting where he came from, that there was little space for anything else.

There are mysteries in these photographs. Family I've never seen, shades of a relationship I had forgotten or wished to forget. It's a little magical, that dresser. Will a snap-shot of an illegitimate half-sister fall out of a drawer next? Or a grainy picture of Mihiretu's birth mother? Our history keeps on unfolding itself, long after the players are gone.