Living Backwards

Early this morning I drove with my kids, gazing out my window at the soft green fields flanking us and then up at the sky, knitted thick with white clouds. As we crested a hill, I saw the sky brighten as the sun pulsed through.

“Look,” I said to them, “it’s turning into a sunny day.”

My daughter peered out her window. “Yeah, it started out all cloudy like last week and now the sun’s coming out.”

I nodded. “Greedles (our word for my dad) used to say the sun is burning off the clouds. It happens a lot at the beach.”

Then, just like that, I was on the beach behind my father’s house, the one he sold last summer. I felt an ache so deep, and unexpected, it almost knocked me over like a wave.

beach view

Last summer, around the same time we sold our Brooklyn apartment, my father sold his house. I mourned both losses, feeling them acutely, as I tend to do with any kind of change, big or small. The beach house wasn’t my childhood home, but it was the place where my mother died and partly where Emma grew up.

The summer after she turned one, we moved in with my dad for nine months while we decided on the fate of our Brooklyn geography.

Me, my dad, and my girl, shortly before we moved in 2009.

Me, my dad, and my girl, shortly before we moved in 2009.

It was a hard gestation, despite the absolutely stunning backyard beach access and three floors to explore. Emma was a challenging baby, nursed around the clock, and slept terribly. My husband, who was having health issues, slept in the basement level with the cats while I night parented her on my own.

In some respects, I’ve never felt lonelier. But I had the beach to turn to, and the tide soothed me, as did the sunrises I witnessed almost every morning when my daughter woke in the dark.

Despite the long lonely winter, I felt grateful to be living with my dad in his big beautiful house, decorated on every level with my mom’s pottery, and on every level a gorgeous view of the beach. We filled up his house with toys, laughter, and tears, until we returned to Brooklyn the following February.

My girl grew up a lot in those nine months.

My girl grew up a lot in those nine months.

When he sold it last summer, I boxed up my sadness and sealed it shut. I didn’t have much room for beach nostalgia since I was overwhelmed by our upcoming life-altering shift from city to country.

I did quietly weep when I walked through the house for the last time. My husband found me on my knees in my father’s room in the spot where my mother had died on her hospital bed. That sacred spot where I witnessed the depth of her strength, and felt glimmers of my own.

After she died, I couldn’t walk through that room without dissolving into tears, but as the years passed the intensity lessened. I had one child, and then another, both who loved to run into my father’s bedroom after their baths. They rolled around on his thick white duvet, giggling and squealing as I diapered them up and slid on pajamas.

Molecules of sadness shifted to make room for joy.

I still visited the spot. Sometimes during a hectic moment, I’d go and just sit right where her bed had been. Where we once held a vigil for her death had become a place of peace for me, but now it’s only a memory, tangled up with so many more.

As I witnessed the sun burning off the clouds on our drive this morning, I longed to be on my father’s beach. My absolute favorite times of day was during transition – dawn or dusk, but I preferred early morning, when the wide expanse of sand was filled with only a handful of seagulls and nothing else.

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We’d come down early, sometimes with our coffee mugs in hand, forgoing sunscreen for the kids, just grabbing a bucket or two for shell collection. I loved foraging through the piles of smooth wet rocks on the shore, picking out shards of shell that made me think of sunsets, faded purple and gray smudges on pearly white.

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When the sun had risen higher, and one or both of the kids started to whine about being hungry or needing to pee, we’d trudge upstairs as the first beach goers would be coming down. The best time of the day had been ours to savor.

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Enjoying the view on one of our last visits.

I will miss those mornings, and also the memories of mornings before my children were born, the summer after my mom died. My father and I each had our preferred “rocks,” big gray slabs that made up the old jetty that is now buried in sand.

His looked like a chair with a straight back. Just like a shiva chair, I realize now, and that’s what he used it as. He sat shiva for my mother there, mourning her loss and the end of their life together. My rock was higher up, flat and smooth, where I stretched out with my sadness and journal.

That house belongs to another family now, and that particular beach is no longer ours to enjoy, but I’m so grateful for my memories. The sweet and the bitter, all swirled together like the soft serve we loved to get at the day’s end.

beach view 2

As we continued on our drive, my eyes damp, my daughter asked me to remind her of Grandma Susan’s favorite flower. I was so taken aback by her question I could barely get out the words.

“She loved orange tiger lilies,” I finally answered.

“I knew that,” my daughter said, and I could hear the smile of pleasure in her voice.

Then off I went, the thread of memory unraveling further, back to my childhood home where I am fairly certain the tiger lilies she planted still bloom.

My childhood home in Middletown, NJ

The bulbs she planted are coming up, still.

Memories live on in our bodies and minds, and often it only takes a phrase, a lightening of the sky, an innocent question to unravel the whole messy ball, or open an abandoned box.

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Change of Address

In July it will be a year since we packed up our Brooklyn lives and moved to the country. After a summer hiatus in upstate New York, we landed in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

The night before school started.

First day of school. You wouldn't know we barely moved in.

First day of school. You wouldn’t know we barely moved in.

It seems unimaginable to me now that we slept in an empty house on air mattresses the night before taking our girl to her brand new school. We were winging it, for sure.

Nine months later, here we are. In the span of time it takes for a baby to grow, we have settled in, more or less. The school year is nearly over.

Yet I am still catching my breath. I am still mourning my old life. At night when I should be sleeping I retrace my old walking routes. I miss the cracked sidewalks, the wisteria lined walking bridge, the casual run-ins with friends on the street, at school, in playgrounds. The intimacy of city living.

When people ask me if I miss Brooklyn, I sometimes tell the truth. I try to explain how I miss the geography most of all. I miss knowing my place in the world.

I feel like in some ways we just disappeared. One day we were there, living our lives, going about our usual business, stopping in the same shops, smiling at the same people, playing in the same playgrounds, and then, bam, the next day we’re gone.

Our last night at the local playground we called "Cutie."

Our last night at the local playground.

We didn’t host a party or send off. I said goodbye to our friends and acquaintances, which had grown thinner over the years after we had our daughter.

There were hugs outside apartment buildings and in playgrounds, a tearful goodbye on the sidewalk. (Anne, I can still see you and Skye strolling off in the opposite direction on Eighth Avenue.) My friend Darla surprised us with this gluten free cake during a final play date with two of my daughter’s best pals.

Thank you Darla!

“See You Soon” spelled out in m+m’s

But for some reason, it still felt like nothing monumental marked this huge change in our lives.

I’ve had a habit of disappearing, of fading away without fanfare. Leaving pieces of myself behind.

I didn’t attend my college commencement, for example. The idea of my parents not being able to attend while being surrounded by other people’s able-bodied mothers and cheerful fathers was too painful for me to accept. So I bailed.

I told everyone I didn’t care, and in some ways that was true, but the day my father picked me up and drove me home, I felt an emptiness spread inside of me, as if there was a hole I could not fill.

Years later I would regret this decision and made a concerted effort to respect and mark milestones in my life.

But leaving Brooklyn happened so quickly. There was the chaos of kindergarten graduation and real estate emergencies (both in Brookyn and New Hope), and the days leading up to our departure flew by.

One day we were there, and the next we weren’t.

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I feel like there is a piece of me I left behind, drifting along those Brooklyn streets. I feel the pang of a phantom limb.

But what I miss isn’t tangible. When I dig deeper, I realize it’s much more than those dirty sidewalks, the comfortable geography. I miss myself, the person I was in my 20s and 30s.

I was 26-years-old when I moved to Brooklyn. Shortly after I met my husband in The Tea Lounge, a Park Slope café, which is now a Vietnamese sandwich shop.

Hanco's, formerly, The Tea Lounge

Hanco’s, formerly, The Tea Lounge

That was the fall of 2001, when the smoke from the Twin Towers had only just stopped smoldering, when the flyers of those “missing” people could still be found, tattered and weather worn, on lamp posts.

That tragedy earmarked the beginning of the next phase of my life. Less than three years later I would marry. Another three after that my mother would die. Less than a year later I’d have my first child, a baby girl, born in spring, just as the cherry trees burst into bloom.

Days before my girl arrived, April 2008.

Days before my girl arrived, April 2008.

Now the cherry trees have blossomed again. In the past few days they have begun to shed in earnest, littering the grass with heaps of pink flowers tinged with brown.

Change has always been hard for me. I am a creature of habit. A Cancer Crab who likes to burrow comfortably in familiar holes (the astrological generalizations of a sensitive homebody suit me).

Part of what I loved about Brooklyn was my comfort there, a feeling of belonging, that perhaps was somewhat forced.

Growing up in central New Jersey in a town called, of all things, Middletown, I never felt a sense of community, or home-iness. I loved my actual house, 80s modern with cathedral ceilings and walls of windows, set up high on a hill in the woods, but not the town.

It was mostly strip malls and movie theaters. The proximity to the beach was the best part, but I could only take advantage of that when I got my driver’s license, and shortly afterwards, I left for college.

I ran away from New Jersey, barely looking back.

Now, I’m in Pennsylvania, right across the river from my home state. On warm nights we walk across the bridge and my children straddle the border while holding dripping cups of ice cream. A tradition we began shortly after we moved here. One that I look forward to continuing.

bridge border

That’s the thing I must remember. We’re making new tracks here, forging new routes, albeit by car and not by foot. My children will not remember much from our Brooklyn life, other than the stories we tell, the pictures we show. But they will remember this house, this foundation of their young lives. They will put down roots that will grow and blossom like the flowering trees in our yard.

flowering tree

I will put down my own roots here, too, because it’s never too late to make a new home.

 

9 Lessons My Mother Taught Me

Despite what Hallmark would lead you to believe, Mother’s Day is not all sunshine and roses for some of us. Even when my mom was alive, I had a hell of a time finding a card for her. None of them were written with the assumption that the receiver might be a paraplegic.

I know I’m far from the only one who feels conflicted about this “holiday.” I have friends and family who have complicated maternal relationships that require cards with less sappiness and more savviness. (Maybe Emily McDowell, of the brilliant Empathy cards, can make an alternative line for Mother’s Day.)

The irony now, of course, is that I’d give anything to be grumbling in the aisles of the pharmacy searching for an appropriate Mother’s Day card. My mom died eight years ago this June and I am still stunned, at times, by my grief.

My first Mother’s Day without her I was a brand new mother, my daughter only a couple weeks old. I refused to celebrate and told my husband to alert the family not to give me any cards or acknowledgments. I wanted to mourn my first motherless Mother’s Day, but the next year I was ready to take part. I felt I had earned it.

But mother envy, and sadness, continues to run close to the surface.

I am careful about what I read, avoiding the cloying mother-daughter tributes that inundate the internet, which is why I loved, How I’m Making Mother’s Day My Bitch on Modern Loss.

Another article that caught my eye was by Alexandra Rosas, one of my favorite writers, who is only on her second Mother’s Day without her mom. Her a post titled, 9 Lessons I Learned From My Mother, inspired this one.

9 lessons I Learned From My Mother

1. Being handicapped is not a handicap.

My mother had a severe form of multiple sclerosis that turned her into a paraplegic in under five years. In high school I learned to drive without her. By college, she could no longer embrace me. But that never mattered. My mother held me with her love when she could no longer hold me with her arms.

2. You can be a nurturing and affectionate mother even if yours wasn’t.

mom and me

With all due respect to my grandmother (see #3), who became a widow and a single mother at a young age, my mom did not receive much affection growing up. Despite this, my mother hugged, kissed, and snuggled me and my brother throughout our childhoods. I believe this was, in part, instinctive, but also a determined choice. She wanted her love to leave an impression. It did.

3. Don’t talk smack about your mom (at least, not to your kids).

My mother never bad talked her mom. While other family members vented, she remained tight-lipped, loyal. Later, as I became older, she divulged some less than flattering details about my grandma, but she always balanced it with empathy and compassion.

My grandma and mom, circa 1953

My grandma and mom, circa 1953

4. Junk food in moderation is not a big deal.

I was a child of the 80s and 90s, which means I was raised on generous amounts of Lucky Charms, Little Debbie snack cakes, and Pop Tarts. For breakfast. I also drank my weight in fruit-flavored Snapple ice tea (which, at the time, was practically a health food). But my indulgences were balanced by healthy choices, and I remind myself of this when I cringe at my children’s snack preferences.

5. Reading is ALWAYS okay, and you can never buy too many books.

My parents let me read anywhere and everywhere. I read at the dinner table, in movie theaters, and even one time when forced to attend a Monkees concert. My mom would turn me loose in bookstores without a limit, which is basically like winning the lottery for a book nerd.

6. Don’t mistake a pharmacy for a hair salon.

My mom once saved me from using a home spiral perm kit (though, sadly, not from an actual perm) and the horrors of Sun-In spray. For those of you who don’t know what Sun-In is (which means you’re either a Millennial or damn fortunate) it was supposed to lighten your hair, but actually turned it platinum and then orange. Sometimes your hair fell out. I held that bottle in my hands, but my mom talked me down like a veteran hostage negotiator.

My mom's blowing the bubble. Check out her gorgeous hair.

My mom’s blowing the bubble. Check out her gorgeous hair.

7. Real friends stick around when shit happens. (So do real husbands.)

We learned this the hard way as a family after my mom’s diagnosis and again when she lost her ability to walk. People dropped like flies. Faded away. Disappeared. They also said horrible stuff, like this:

So-called-friend: “Are you taking videos of yourself walking?”

My mom: “Why?”

S-C-F: “So you can watch them when you’re in a wheelchair.”

Real friends and loved ones stick around through thick and thin, through sickness and in health. They don’t flinch (outwardly) at the sight of a catheter bag, they can handle dark humor and dark times. Those are the ones you hold close to your heart.

8. Have sex before you get married (sorry dad).

I think my mom actually meant, have sex with your fiancé before you get married, but I chose my own interpretation. My mom did not often talk about sex, and looking back, I believe this comment was a sly gift, her giving me permission, in her cautious and careful manner, to do things my way.

9. You make a better wall than a window.

This is not exactly a lesson, but a saying. My mom had lots of them and this was my favorite, often delivered in a droll voice when someone stood between her and the television (which was the her primary entertainment, window to the world, and companion when everyone else was too busy). Now, every time my kids shout at me to move out of their way, I linger for a moment, smiling, remembering.

Last Week at Listen To Your Mother

LTYM books

A week ago today I awoke anxious and aflutter knowing in a few hours I would be onstage reading at the Lehigh Valley Listen To Your Mother show. While my kids watched My Little Pony episodes and my husband frantically cleaned in preparation for his family, who was generously coming to babysit, I headed to the hair salon for a blow out. Something I had never done before.

Somehow, forty minutes later, I emerged with a head full of Shirley Temple ringlets. As I walked to my car, my hands tentatively tracing my springy curls, I started laughing. It should have made me more anxious, this odd (for me) hair style, but instead it released something. Years ago a moment like this might have derailed me. I might have cried in the car like I did in my early twenties when I expressly told the stylist NOT to give me the Rachel from Friends cut and left the salon with exactly that.

But this time, I giggled, only feeling a twinge of regret for the wasted fifty bucks. Nothing could take away the excitement, bubbling up along with nerves, of this day.

After all, I had been looking forward to this moment ever since I read my acceptance email on the phone in the early hour before dawn, tears of gratitude streaming down my face. I cried because I felt like I had been given a gift, a chance to tell the story of my mother’s death, devastating but also enormously powerful, not simply on paper, but to an audience.

Reading my essay: Love, Labor, Loss

Reading my essay: Love, Labor, Loss

Fortunately my hair settled down, thanks to time, gravity, and my cast mate Meghan’s comb. I slipped on the dress I wore to my mother’s funeral, the same as for my audition, this time adding her two red wooden bangles that clanked on my wrist the week leading up to her death.

I slid between my cast mates at the wall of mirrors in the bathroom/dressing room and started to apply make-up with shaking hands. My empty stomach made me lightheaded and dizzy, and I wobbled a bit on my high heels. My cast mate Christine made room for me at the mirror, smiling kindly. Then her eyebrows shot up. “Did you know your dress isn’t zipped?” I glanced at my side and realized she was right. “Whoops! I had no idea, thanks,” I said, and we both cracked up.

Soon after enjoying a champagne toast, during which I inhaled three scones made by our producer Kristina, it was time to file into the theatre. My hands were sweating and my heart slammed against my chest. I remembered reading my story at the first rehearsal, my heart beating so loudly I thought everyone in the room could hear it. I hoped that wouldn’t happen again. I hoped my voice wouldn’t crack or break like it did almost every time when I got to the second to last line of my story.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with crying while reading. Emotion has its own kind of power, and some of my favorite readers on the LTYM YouTube channel choked up a bit or even wept during their performances.

But I didn’t want anyone to miss that one line. The one about my mother’s heart. The one I had jumped out of bed to write the night before the audition, crossing out what I had in pencil, and writing in the words that would knit the whole piece together.

Words that my daughter would one day hear, if only I could get them out in one piece.

Well, I did it. I nailed that line and the whole damn thing.

Thank you to the Lehigh Valley producers, Kirsten, Kristina, and Lauren, and to Ann Imig, founder of LTYM, for giving me this opportunity, for making this dream I almost didn’t realize I had come true. And thank you to my talented and beautiful cast mates for sharing their stories with me and with the world.

LTYM cast silly

 

Steering Clear: Guest Post on The Gift of Writing

This month over at The Gift of Writing I’m advising writers how to avoid pot holes – and I’m not talking about the ones on the road.

You know the kind I mean. You hit a pot hole every time you think you have nothing original to say, when you feel blocked, too busy to write, or bogged down in research. The thing about pot holes is once you know what they are, you can avoid them.

In my article I discuss the four most dangerous ones, including my biggest pot hole as of late, Distraction (I’m talking to you Facebook), and how best to steer clear.

Click on over and let me know what you think!