Category Archives: Ruminations

On Turning 40

40th-birthday-cake

There are two types of people who will tell you that ‘Life Begins at 40’ or ’40 is the New 20’ or any of that other nonsense that people feel obligated to console you with as you approach a milestone which optimistically marks the middle of your life.

The first types are people older than you. They have watched 40 come and go and actually miss it, as they have progressed on to an even more withered and decrepit age than you. These are the same types of people who will tell you things like ‘Cherish each moment with your child because they are precious and fleeting’ as they watch you attempting to disentangle your toddler from a rack of scarves whilst having a meltdown in the Accessories aisle of Target or ‘On their deathbeds, nobody ever wishes they had put in more time at their job ’ as you gripe about changing your work schedule each week to accommodate various PTA meetings, play dates and afterschool activities, or even ‘You’ll know what I mean when you get to be MY age’, which is irritating on a number of levels mostly because you give the same advice to people younger than you.

These may also be the types of people who are eager to share horror stories about various medical procedures they’ve endured that begin to become more common after the age of 40. They can’t wait to relate every distasteful detail of their colonoscopies once they learn you’re due for one yourself. ‘It’s not the procedure that’s bad, it’s the 12 hours before!’ they will chuckle, attempting to be mysterious, as if you haven’t already combed through the online annals (pun intended) of Web MD’s colonoscopy message boards.  They are also constantly trying to one-up you – or one-down you – with their medical conditions. “Oh, got high cholesterol?  Not as high as mine, I bet.” If you have a hernia, they’ve had two; if your knee hurts after running, they are walking around with numbness in their leg on a regular basis.  Oddly, they seem to remain energetically argumentative despite the fact that most – per their physicians – are ‘lucky to be alive’.

The second types are people significantly younger than you. They are either in denial that they will ever reach the relatively advanced age that you are now, or they genuinely feel sorry for you that you are so old and want to express their condolences in a politically correct and socially acceptable manner. These are the same types of people who will call you ‘ma’am’ when they are waiting on you in a retail store or restaurant or ask you if you need help carrying your groceries to the car when all you’ve purchased is a pack of sponges and a copy of ‘People’ magazine or suggest you cut your hair in a more ‘age appropriate’ style with bangs and highlights which is code for ‘you probably want to cover those forehead wrinkles.’

These may or may not also be the types of people who, at an annoyingly young age, have discovered their life’s passion or calling or achieved financial, spiritual or emotional success (or all three) while you still ponder whether you should take that continuing education class on poetry or floral arranging. They may say things like ‘I was just in the right place at the right time’ or ‘I’ve always known exactly what I wanted to do with my life’ or ‘my father is well connected’. They will encourage you to continue to pursue your own dreams by reminding you that ‘age is just a number’ or some other factually incorrect statement and give you a signed copy of their latest book or CD or screenplay before they take off for some fabulous destination while you climb back in your mini-van and try to remember to buy coconut milk on the way home.

There are two types of responses that you can have once someone takes it upon themselves to be the merry messenger of your impending middle age.   You can invest in prunes and granola and Sleepytime tea. You can drop your hemline, raise your neckline and buy sensible shoes.  You can Google ‘hairstyles for people over 40’ or ‘age appropriate highlights’ or ‘pants suits with elastic waists’. You can put your dreams – be they writing, painting or learning to waltz – on a shelf and focus on being an adult, no matter how dull, disheartened or dreary it may make you.

Or, you can realize that today is the youngest you will ever be and whether you have 50 more years or 10, every minute worrying about what age you are is one more minute that you could use in a million other ways. The face in your mirror is the least wrinkled it will ever be. The hairs on your head are the least gray. Your legs are the least veiny and your boobs are the perkiest. And whether you say ‘thank you’ or ‘fuck you’, know that 40 is what you make it – so make it count.

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New Essay on The New York Times Parenting Blog

Being a step-mother is very hard. As much as I have wished my step-daughter was my own daughter many times, I have had to face the fact that she’s not.

http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/stepmother-not-evil-not-perfect-not-mom/

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Familiarity Breeds Contempt

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Back in my grunge days, when wide-lapelled polyester shirts made a brief resurgence in popularity, I found myself routinely scouring the racks of the Salvation Army to secure what, at the time, was the height of fashion. As I rummaged through the one dollar impulse bin near the register, I came across a t-shirt that made me pause. It was a red shirt with a black imprint of two Edwardian-era young people standing apart on two sides of a fence, the young woman looking longingly at the man, who was casting his eyes off in the opposite direction. The phrase beneath the picture, written in block lettering read ‘FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT’. As I held it up I noticed the print had been set on the shirt slightly askew, as if constructed in a slapdash manner by a scorned woman herself, hot tears in her eyes blurring her vision and preventing her from making out a straight line on which to place the design.

Of course I bought the shirt, both for its unusual design and for the fact that it was a dollar, and wore it for many years throughout my grungy/Goth twenties. Each time I put it on, I would examine the faces of the couple in the picture – simple black printed expressions with little detail, fading with each washing but still remarkably expressive about the lost love that at one time existed between them. Lovers once with open eager hearts, but now practically strangers – their hearts and minds covered with cold, hard shellac that had grown slowly and steadily during their relationship. I had heard the phrase too, used in some adult context that I can’t now recall, but it had meant nothing at the time for a young girl with ideas in her head about love that were drawn with straight but somewhat fuzzy lines.

In fact, I might have already thrown the shirt away by the time its concept became more familiar and contemptible to me. It lingered in the back of my mind as I began relationships, always with the thrill and novelty that only new love can provide, and eventually ended them – sometimes my idea, sometimes his, always with bitterness and anger and the seemingly never-ending examination of perceived personality flaws and despicable behaviors.  How could I expect to find long-term happiness when it seemed impossible to quell this need to fulfill a fantasy that only seemed to be sustainable by the unknown ambiguity of initial liaisons? In other words, the more I knew about the real person, the more insecurities, imperfections, and idiosyncrasies that revealed themselves, the less interested I was in hanging around.

To be fair, I expected no less than perfection from myself as well, which added to my dilemma. The idea of someone growing tired of me terrified me and I struggled to transform my behaviors to suit my suitor at the time, sometimes to the point of alienating friends and family. Connecting with a significant other seemed paramount – nothing else mattered as much. My parents’ unhappy marriage and eventual divorce seemed to heighten my awareness of the importance of doing it right.  But, my expectations of love were too high and impossible to meet and therefore…weren’t.

Eventually I decided that I could not have it all and attempted to separate fantasy from a reality that I hoped I could live with.  Ironically, I think my first husband suffered from a similar ailment and our marriage was even more of a disillusion to him than to me in many ways. I had never imagined myself divorced (I suppose brides never do), but starting over gave me an opportunity to re-examine my life, now with a child, and force me to put fantasies aside for good.  Or so I thought.

Reconnecting with my current husband, a childhood friend, was as close as I thought I could get to the vision in my head of the perfect mate. We shared a foundation of knowledge, culture and morality. He was handsome without being annoyingly so, educated and ambitious and seemed to become more physically attracted to me the longer we dated. I was confident I had found what I was searching for.

And if we had moved to a tropical island to spend our days lounging beachside and sipping Mai Tais, I’m sure I would have remained as rapturously in love as I was the first few years we were together.

But, we didn’t.

We combined our families of children and were determined to raise them as siblings despite visitation schedules and challenging exes. We had another child fairly quickly after we were married and began the long sleepless nights of feedings and diaper changes. We suffered financial setbacks and legal woes and argued about money and cleaned up vomit and poop and watched each other get sick and ooze with mucus, bruises and rashes. I spent too much money on frivolous purchases. He lost his temper too quickly. I grew discontent and struggled to find myself creatively. He wrestled with his love of travel and adventure and his responsibilities as a father and husband. In short, we are imperfect. There are days that we struggle through to make it to dinner and moments when we wonder why anyone would get married at all, but my definition of love has evolved and I am the better for it. I am a stronger, wiser and more self-aware person and my relationship with my husband has helped to define who I am today.

I still think the familiarity of a close relationship breeds a certain definition of contempt….sometimes, but it’s up to me to move past it. I could choose to live my life attempting to avoid that predicament, enjoying that first blush of lust, anticipation and excitement before it fades into the mundane and sometimes exasperating series of disagreements, divergences and dissents. But, what I would lose is much more important. The progressing and solidifying of another kind of relationship – one that allows you to release that breath that you have been holding for years, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The feeling of having a partner, an equal, someone who has seen you at your worst and doesn’t look away. You force yourself to tolerate someone sometimes because someone is forcing themselves to tolerate you. Not because they just want to tolerate you, but because they love you.

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Goth, Revisited

gothic-5

Once upon a time, as I found myself maneuvering through an especially thorny patch of my adolescence, during which I was watching too many John Hughes movies and breathing in the fumes of too many fruity-smelling erasers, I decided to become a Goth.  Already on my third teenage year, I decided I had enough angst under my belt to proclaim to the world what a melancholic and morose young person I was.

Not a REAL Goth, mind you – the kind that listens to the Cure and the Smiths and acts a bit deviant by smoking cigarettes and wearing black lipstick, but rather a Pseudo Goth Lite – the kind that watches ‘Beetlejuice’ too often and routinely wears a sweater with a small embroidered unicorn over the left breast pocket, because it happens to be the only black article of clothing in one’s closet.

In order to truly be a Goth, I needed to have the right accessories. The list included black eyeliner, a heavy ornate cross and some sort of shirt made out of black netting.  Oh, and black lace half finger gloves.  And maybe a heavy dark veil, for when the weather was cool. I imagined myself a forlorn Winona Ryder, misunderstood, dark, brooding and in a constant state of sorrow, all while looking extremely avant guard and fashionable.

Without any money of my own, I was unable to buy most of the accessories I needed, so I compromised. Instead of smearing black eyeliner around my lids, I rummaged through my mother’s throw away cosmetics only to find the most intimidating color to be an odd rust-colored eye shadow, which when applied, prompted most relatives and friends to ask whether I had an eye infection.

Being Jewish, I felt like a hypocrite wearing a cross, and worried about being randomly struck by lightning for impersonating a Christian, so I substituted a silver-coated plastic Ankh. (Apparently masquerading as an Egyptian didn’t seem to bother me.)

I attempted to expand my wardrobe of black garb, but the selection in the Junior Miss department of Macy’s -the only place my mother would take me to shop for clothes – was far from ideal for my misanthrope aspirations. Anything black usually came with sparkles or sequins.  I started a heavy rotation of black cardigans and shirts with shimmering abstract shapes of silver.  “Very jazzy,” my grandmother once commented on one Gothic failure of an ensemble, “But, you’re really an Autumn.”

Over the next few years, I kicked my Goth mode into high gear by reading Anne Rice novels and buying t-shirts with spider web designs on them.  I also sighed a lot and tried not to smile.  After I moved out of my mother’s house, I began to collect gargoyles and because I was a less than stellar housekeeper, the resulting dust and cobwebs that began to naturally form across most of my furniture and knick-knacks suited my gloomy attitude quite nicely.

Despite my desire to go full on Goth, I found myself in the predicament of acquiring an office job at the age of 19. The idea of dressing up in mourning garb to file mail in the backroom and answer phones while the receptionist was at lunch seemed a bit silly. I searched for another way to express my inner darkness, even while wearing oxfords and polos from the Gap. And it was THEN that I discovered the art of the tattoo.

To be fair, I already had one tattoo. One half of an arm-band of thorned roses around my right upper arm.  My intent was to go all the way around but I couldn’t afford it. The inspiration for that somewhat generic artwork was a photograph in a fashion magazine of a model with the same tattoo, proving that even the most deviant of acts can be  inspired by the very cultural influences we long to rebel against. I brought the magazine clipping into the parlor as I would a photo of a stylish hairstyle I fancied.

It’s not surprising that the idea of inking myself permanently was something I took more lightly than most. When my mother was in her mid-30’s, already a homemaker and parent to three children, she found herself at the beginning of what would become a decades-long effort to find and/or transform herself. A spoke of that wheel of self-discovery was the decision to tattoo herself – an act of latent rebellion against the traditional path her life with my father had taken and maybe the world. So, one afternoon, my younger sisters and I found ourselves in the surprisingly clean and quiet lobby of a local tattoo shop. The other clientele, far more atmosphere-appropriate, consisted of several bikers and one slightly nervous-looking young man with a nose ring. I’m not sure what anyone thought of the three young girls rifling through the stacks of tattoo magazines in search of a possible ‘Highlights’, but we were undisturbed for the duration of time it took for my mother to have a bird of paradise etched across her chest.

Since, at that point, getting a tattoo myself offered none of the usual thrills of revolt or deviance that one usually associates with such an act, I was free to focus on the art of it all. And, eventually, it was through my body art that I finally achieved the Gothic embellishments I had been searching for during my youth.

I started off small. I finished the half arm band of roses with a flock of tiny bats. Only if you were close enough to grab my arm and turn it over would you be able to notice a difference in the flow of the artwork. Soon after I added two fairly large-sized bat wings on the top of my back. Worried about being labeled some kind of bat freak (THAT’s really what I was worried about?), I added a large winged skull on my lower back.  Much more than the typical ‘tramp stamp’, this was a huge piece of work and was drawn in such a way as to create the optical illusion of growing any time I leaned forward. Whether I thought this would scare off sneak attacks at the beach, the only time anyone might be able to see it, I can’t remember.

As I added to my collection of body art, I learned more about tattooing in general and became an odd Gothic poster child for getting inked. I took multiple friends for their ‘first’ and felt a certain satisfaction in having evolved into an authority on something, even if that something was being able to offer sage advice on the importance of using Aquaphor.

The more tattoos I had, the less I felt the need to express my Goth-iness with clothes and make-up.  Or maybe I was just getting older and the idea of pancake makeup and eternal funeral garb sounded increasingly uncomfortable.  From the outside, I didn’t LOOK like someone who was littered with permanent skulls and bats under her conventional exterior and eventually, as my lifestyle became more traditional, I began to cling to my artwork as the last frontier between my adventurous youth (which was really never all that adventurous) and my future PTA-joining, cookie-baking, errand-running, mini-van-driving self.

My tattoos were not without their trials. On our first date, my future husband asked whether I regretted getting them, in a tone that implied that he sure would have.  I could not help but develop a reputation among the other mommies on the playground – a cool, rock star status that I had no chance of living up to. As a Jew, I was constantly asked whether I was concerned that I may not be allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery now that I was tattooed, as if that point was on the top of my ‘cons’ column on the list I responsibly and maturely put together before I impulsively and impetuously ran out to get a tattoo at the age of 18.

Eventually the rate at which I acquired more tattoos slowed and finally stopped. As my fortieth birthday approaches, I think wistfully about adding to one or covering up another, but don’t have any definite plans to do so.  To be honest, I forget I have them most of the time. My husband, who initially thought they made me look wild and dangerous, forgets they are there, as well. They have become as much a part of me and my person as an interestingly placed birthmark or scar.

Recently, I found myself caught in a mundane errand at the UPS store; my back toward the young clerk, as I filled out some paperwork.  As I turned to pay for my packing supplies, he smiled hesitantly and said, ‘Are those angel wings on your back?’

“Bat wings, actually,” I returned with a slight edge in my voice as I waited for the inevitable quizzical look that usually follows my clarification.  “I used to be a bit of a Goth,” I added, feeling the need to explain myself further.

He chuckled. “And, now you’re stuck with them, I guess.”

“Stuck?” I slowly grinned. “No, I don’t feel that way. I still love every one I have.”

And, with that, I drew down my black veil, clicked my Doc Martens, slumped my shoulders and slowly dragged myself out the door.

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Pet Person (Part 4)

Pets

We had decided to get the rats neutered after one began exhibiting some rather aggressive tendencies toward his brother. I knew this was a possibility and although that meant paying a heck of a lot more for such a procedure than one might think, I made the appointment to get it done. Jake seemed to be living in fear of his brother Finn; I would find him breathing heavily and making soft squeaks every time I took him out of the cage. It wasn’t until a week later that I was hit with the thunderbolt thought that these might be symptoms of something else – something far more serious.

Convincing my husband to bring Jake into the exotic pet emergency room (yes, there is such a thing) on a Sunday night which also happened to be our sixth anniversary was not as difficult as you might have thought. My son sat stoically in the waiting room as a myriad of snakes, hedgehogs and other animals with various illnesses and injuries were carried into the back rooms of the vet’s office. Jake was put on oxygen and diagnosed with a likely respiratory infection, apparently quite common for rats. My husband irritably paid the exorbitant fees for the emergency room visit and the meds and brought home our sick patient.

Thus, our lives entered a new phase. Rat care-takers. How’s the rat today? Does he seem better yet? How’s his breathing? Does he look worse today? Is he eating enough? Administering oral medications into a rat’s unwilling mouth through tiny syringes is about as fun as it sounds. When days went by and he didn’t seem to be getting miraculously better, it slowly sank in that I had to consider another possibility – something that up until this moment I had forgotten about, something that was probably the number one reason I had avoided pets for the past 22 years of my life.

Pets die.

When I was about ten or eleven, our bull terrier got out of the gated backyard and ran full-speed into oncoming traffic on our very busy street. She didn’t die immediately and I remember vividly the seemingly endless car ride to the veterinarian, as her head lay on my lap, and I watched the dark blood from her wounds seeping out into the fabric of my new lavender winter coat.  I had watched her grow from a puppy and now our relationship had come to a screeching stop on the wet night pavement in front of my house.

Every animal that we had owned was now dead, obviously. Animals only live so long and a plethora of accidents, diseases and other calamities can befall them even before they live to a respectable age. There had been other dogs that were hit with cars, a number of cats that went missing, and even a disturbingly sad discovery in the basement by me and my sisters.  There had only been one euthanasia that I remembered – our ancient and blind dog that would drag herself up the basement steps only to slip and fall clattering down the staircase again and again. I remember seeing my mother wince each time she heard the commotion, eventually steeling herself for the inevitable.

I reflected on these sad memories and wondered why anyone would put themselves through the eventual and unavoidable torture of having to part with a creature who had become a loved companion. Jake was only a rat, but he was someone that I took care of, someone who enjoyed snuggling in my arms – someone who was a someone, regardless of his species or size. The idea that sooner rather than later, I would have to watch him suffer towards death, or worse, have to make the decision to euthanize him if he was sick enough brought tears to my eyes. Why put myself through it? “THIS is why I don’t have pets,” I said to my husband.

I worried that my son would become despondent about the decline of our rat and watched carefully for signs he was depressed or overly concerned. I was almost disappointed to realize my mature boy known for being sensitive and emotionally aware seemed to be just fine. Even when I sat him down and gave him ‘the facts’ about Jake’s condition, he nodded soberly, but easily changed the subject to a video game he was hoping to download. Was it because he was a boy? Was it his age? Did he not really ‘get it’ – this idea that his small furry companion would not last much longer?

Children don’t understand many of the grim disappointments and tragedies in life and they shouldn’t have to. That’s what makes them resilient and adaptive and confident in the everyday joys of cartoons, bike-rides and ice cream. While I examine every potentially negative aspect of every choice I am about to make, my sons blithely seek out avenues of pure happiness, not caring whether it might last a moment or a month.

Pets are like that too. They don’t understand bankruptcies or lay-offs or cancer diagnoses. They don’t need to know where ‘this relationship is going’ or how committed you are to providing them with a certain lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. There’s no judging or miscommunications or passive aggressive plays to hurt your feelings. Perhaps that’s one reason why people have pets – to be closer to that part of themselves that they might have lost along the way from carefree child to anxious adult.

Jake remains with us for the moment, although I know one day I may walk into my sons’ room and find him lifeless in the cage. And, I’ll probably cry. And, then I’ll have to move on, understanding that like any relationship, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Maybe.

I still don’t consider myself a ‘pet’ person, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of having another one after our rats pass on. No chinchillas though.  They’re just creepy.

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Pet Person (Part 3)

Pets

I was second guessing myself as we drove the hour and a half home with two very large and rather intimidating rats in a cardboard box on the floor of my mini-van, yet my son seemed to summon a hitherto hidden Dr. Doolittle ability to befriend all members of the animal kingdom, naming them after his favorite television show heroes – Finn and Jake.

The rats themselves were cheap – no pure-bred pedigree papers to buy here – but buying the cage, food, bedding and a number of other ‘must have’ rat items made it clear we were really investing in this venture.

“I hope this isn’t a mistake,” said my husband after the fifth time he cut his hand putting together the $80 cage.

I hoped so too, especially several weeks later when the novelty of having new pets wore off. Insisting my son take out the rats every day to play with and handle them became a daily chore for me. When he complained, I had to remind him that they were HIS pets and HIS responsibility. Unfortunately, the responsibility of cleaning the cage (as well as any random droppings and urine) fell to my husband and me. I began to remember why I had avoided pets for so long. The musky smell of the cage hung heavily in the air of my sons’ room and there wasn’t too much we could do about it, but get used to it. I worried about the rats being bored in their cage, and worried about them not getting enough exercise and worried about them chewing through their cage bars and running amuck in the house. I realized that I was thinking of them as extensions of my own children – well except for the bar chewing bit.

Here’s the problem with letting people know you have rats – they never let you live it down. My family and friends were at best amused and at worst aghast at the notion that we had willingly brought vermin into our home as pets. If I had a dime for every snake food joke or grandmother that declared she would never visit my house again, I’d be a rich woman.  My neighbor told me about one of the houses on her street becoming infested with rats while the owner was away. “Thought you’d like that story,” she smirked.

Despite the reputation we were developing as ‘that family with the rats’, I felt our pets were serving their purpose. My sons were becoming less afraid of animal encounters – even with dogs – and we got used to Finn and Jake crawling into the bookshelf or scurrying behind the toilet when we let them roam out of their cage. I am not too proud to admit that I began to adore them. They both had very distinct personalities and especially Jake was very fond of snuggling. Rats do this odd eye-ball popping thing when they are having a good time and it became a physical manifestation of their joy when they did it while nestled in your arms. Perhaps I was becoming a pet person after all.

And then, disaster.

To Be Concluded….

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Pet Person (Part 1)

Pets

I have never considered myself a ‘pet’ person. Dogs are messy and chew up your furniture. Cats smell and leave hair everywhere. Birds have no personality.  Fish can barely be considered pets. Give me an animal and I’ll give you several reasons why I don’t want it in my house.

My current aversion to pets exists in spite of (or perhaps because of) a childhood surrounded by animals. My mother has always been fond of taking care of things that need her and even before I was born, had a habit of bringing home the most desperate and woeful cases from the animal hospital at which she worked as a young woman. Three-legged dogs or cats with one eye would routinely become semi-permanent fixtures in the small apartment my parents rented in the Bronx.  

Eventually, my parents moved our growing family to a house in Westchester, and from the day I was born until the day I moved out, (probably closing the door behind me fairly quickly so as not to allow something to escape) my household included multiple dogs, cats and even a few gerbils thrown in here and there.  And, most of the time, the pets ruled the roost.

Now, don’t get me wrong – although cumulatively, we probably owned upwards of 20 or so animals, we didn’t own them all at the same time.  An episode of Hoarders we were not. But the animals were treated more like members of the family than pets, which is not a problem as long as you don’t mind your family members peeing on a pile of your freshly washed clothes or pooping on the expensive imported rug you just bought. There was no training, no heeling and no walking. Our fenced-in backyard became a doggy bathroom, which made getting to the swing set a tedious and time-consuming set of careful maneuvers.  And while I was grateful the cats were kept outside, (because I was highly allergic to them), our front porch was quite often strewn with the dead and decomposing bodies of rodent ‘gifts’ and overrun nightly by neighborhood raccoons stealing cat food.   I remember having to yell or bang something while approaching my own house if I was returning after nightfall, in order to scare raccoons away.

Even though I remember enjoying having pets as a child -especially the dogs -I don’t recall having ever seen a single picture of me cuddling or even petting one of our animals. I just wasn’t really into them. The cons just always seemed to outweigh the pros of having them. Sure, they loved you, but that meant getting licked or slobbered on or rubbed until you were covered with sheddings. Yeah, they protected the house, but they barked at friend or foe – in fact, sometimes you couldn’t get them to stop.    They chewed up toys and blankets, demanded (not just begged, mind you) scraps from the table, got sick and retched in dark corners of the room (sometimes not discovered for a day or two) and could even turn family events into disasters. The night my grandmother tripped over our dog gate and broke her leg, I recall feeling very responsible. Pets were just more trouble than they were worth.  

To be continued…..

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