“Eventually, at the age of ten, I found myself invited to a party during which reverberations of profanity echoed through the night air of the backyard like tender kisses being blown through the breeze by wood nymphs. With the chaperoning adults inside the house, my fifth grade peers felt a refreshing wave of freedom and power.”
Tag Archives: essays
As challenging a life as I sometimes think I have, it’s nothing compared to the torturous turmoil and ceaseless suffering endured by my six-year-old-son.
Each morning, upon rising from ten or possibly even only nine hours of sleep, he is chronically faced with the devastating psychological trauma of an iPad that was not charged the night before and therefore only possesses four percent of its battery life. Hardly enough energy to power through a game of solitaire, never mind a round of Avengers’ Contest of Champions or even Flappy Goat. Even more humiliating, he is usually blamed for the oversight of not plugging in the iPad and must defend his honor. Loudly.
My son must survive throughout the week on an exponentially smaller wardrobe than the rest of the family due to a debilitating ailment that prevents him from putting away his clothes. This condition causes a category of blindness that only affects his ability to see articles of clothing on the floor, although visualization of other objects, such as legos or video game controllers, is not affected. Tragically, there’s no cure or treatment currently available.
Each day, my son must deal with the tremendous stress of being forced to ‘eat healthfully’, precisely defined in our house as three meals that don’t all include chocolate milk. The agony of being obliged to consume raw carrots is written across his furrowed brow in unspoken sorrow….unless it’s being spoken at full volume and with a slight nasally whine.
Constant physical issues plague my son. Nearly every day, and sometimes hourly, my son must tolerate random aches and pains that seem to materialize without rhyme or reason. Whether it’s a sudden twinge in his pinkie toe or an agonizing but somewhat vaguely described popping feeling in his ear, my son’s only recourse is to provide a detailed and regularly updated report on his latest series of discomforts, punctuated intermittently with vocal validation of his pain, such as ‘Ow! Ow!’ Thankfully, most of these problems seem to respond immediately to chocolate ice cream.
Occasionally, my son will experience violent fits, which tend to occur immediately after being asked to set the table or sort socks. He’ll temporarily lose the ability to communicate except in loud shrieks and exclamations of negativity. Sometimes his state will devolve even further to include writhing and flailing on the floor. This corporeal trauma only seems to abate after desperate pleas and negotiations concerning television privileges. By that time, my son is so physically exhausted, he must drag himself up the stairs while moaning and complaining noisily, poor fellow.
My son is cursed with a vivid imagination and curious nature. He is compelled to inquire about a host of random and trivial subjects which may or may not include a discussion on the potential martial arts skills of adolescent reptiles, a post-mortem on all the flavors of soda he has ever tasted, or a demand for the number of minutes he has been alive. Ironically, requests for information about HIM are typically answered with ‘I don’t want to tell you.’
My son’s remarkable resilience despite the brutal torments he must tolerate day in and day out is truly inspiring to me and everyone else in the household. Despite all his hardships, he typically ends each grueling day with a brave smile. As long as that day ends with chocolate ice cream….For medicinal purposes, of course.
‘“What is that smell?” I will wonder aloud, my nose wrinkling, as I pass through the hallway outside the kids’ toilet and contemplate whether someone has been careless enough to let an alley cat into our home. Perhaps my sons have somehow regressed to the point at which they feel the need to mark their territory, although the cheery pirate bathroom motif should really suffice.’….
Although I am not particularly squeamish about using public restrooms that may be described with a list of adjectives that does not necessarily include ‘sterile’, ‘spotless’ or even ‘clean’, I have recently developed a strong aversion to entering a specific bathroom that is right down the hall from where I live. In my own house. And belonging to my own children.
This space, which USED to resemble a bathroom, but now has taken on a certain post-apocalyptic war-ravaged feel, is the only room in the house that appears impervious to the bi-weekly cleanings I pay someone else to do. Like a haunted attic that just won’t stay cobweb-free no matter how many times you dust, my boys’ restroom seems to revert back to its previously characteristic state of horror seemingly within moments of my cleaning lady’s exit through the front door.
“What is that smell?” I will wonder aloud, my nose wrinkling, as I pass through the hallway outside the kids’ toilet, and contemplate whether someone has been careless enough to let an alley cat into our home. Perhaps my sons have somehow regressed to the point at which they feel the need to mark their territory, although the cheery pirate bathroom motif should really suffice.
I’ve tried ignoring the existence of the bathroom and hoping any visiting guests will do the same, but that’s about as difficult as concealing a crack den in an otherwise tidy two-story suburban residence – you’re just bound to notice one room is a bit…off.
So, on occasion, my husband and I will force ourselves through the threshold and survey the damage. Aside from the distinct aroma, we will marvel at the amount of toothpaste that appears to be growing up from the tile on the sink, like an insidious blue-green sparkly mold that has broken out of a science lab petri dish and intends on devouring our home, surface by surface.
Until we look closely, we’ll assume that something has exploded within the basin itself, as tiny white ricochet marks seem to cover the entire expanse of the ceramic. Upon further inspection, we’ll realize it’s a Jackson Pollack pattern of toothpaste, saliva and tiny bits of whatever else happened to be swirled around in someone’s mouth and then shot out in a detonating eruption.
My husband and I stand aghast for about as long as we can muster up the strength (which isn’t very long), before loudly demanding the presence of our sons.
“What is this mess?!” I will bellow.
“What mess? By the way, I got an eight out of ten on my English test,” the older one will rapidly fire out, as he takes on the persona of a diminutive Jedi Master attempting to supernaturally compel our attention from the state of the bathroom to something else entirely.
“I think the toilet is dripping.” My younger son’s approach is to place the blame on anyone else, especially inanimate objects that cannot argue in their own defense.
“Oh, there’s some dripping going on, but not from the toilet…” I remark, while pointing my finger and furrowing my brow in a way that suggests less television and dessert if matters are not attended to immediately.
Painfully, I coerce my children into cleaning the bathroom. Unfortunately, my sons are about as effective at it as I happen to be, which is why I hire someone else to do it in the first place. Sigh. Perhaps she has a free day this week.
One of the most challenging aspects of parenthood is convincing your child that you have some idea of what you are doing…because you usually don’t.
“I don’t need a jacket today,” my six-year-old will report to me on mornings that I look out the window and observe ice falling from the sky.
“You need a jacket,” I will insist, “It’s freezing, and you are only wearing a t-shirt that appears to be two sizes too small.”
“But, I’m not cold,” he will reason, as if logic is something he uses on a regular basis.
“Put on your jacket,” I will counter.
“But, MOMMY WHHHHHHYYYYYYY?” His voice will go up several octaves and level out in a long whine like a dying balloon looking for a safe place to land on the floor.
“Because,” I will pause and then utter those words that all parents swear never to use: “I SAID SO.”
Providing such rationale is typically a dead giveaway to any child worth his salt that you have exhausted all your ‘real’ answers and have gotten desperate. My older son, aged ten going on 40, is especially salty.
“I really think you should join a soccer league,” I will say on occasion, varying the suggested sport with each season.
“Not interested,” he will murmur from the couch, the glowing reflection of Minecraft dancing in his eyeballs.
“You’ll make some new friends,” I will point out, “And, you could really use the exercise..”
I’ll go over a prepared list of data points and supporting research to validate my position, like a freshman on the first day of debate club, usually getting monosyllabic counter-arguments or grunts in reply.
Finally, I’ll give up. “How do you know you don’t like something if you don’t try it??” I’ll wail, exasperated.
Here, he’ll glance up briefly and inform me, “I’ve never tried having my brain eaten by zombies, but I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t like it.”
Obviously, my children are getting older, and they are becoming more aware of the fact that at any given time, as a parent, I am winging it. “Because,” is increasingly less convincing as an answer for questions like, “Why can’t I have a bowl of jelly beans for dinner?” or “How come I have to wear pants to Grandma’s party?” Really, I just don’t know.
Recently, I overheard my older son instructing his brother on the finer points of a video game they were playing.
“Why do I need to defeat ALL the bad guys on this level?” the six-year-old questioned.
“Because….,” his brother paused, “I said so.”
At least I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
I realize I should probably be promoting my work a bit more. To that end:
Very excited to have a story up on themid.com! Please check it out!
Certainly, one of the most peculiar parts of being a parent is watching the emerging idiosyncratic quirks that slowly bubble up to the surface of your child’s personality, especially when they seem to mirror your own. Here is a person – a separate entity – living outside of your brain, yet somehow seems to have absorbed and reflected so many of your own attitudes and inclinations. If the culprit is nature, you must assume your anxious disposition or pessimistic temperament originated in your DNA and seeped through the membranes into your unborn child as you lay prostrate and pregnant, pondering the ways you might ruin her. If it’s nurture, you have surely laid the groundwork for his impatience and volatility by tapping your foot angrily while you wait for him to clean up his toys. Either way, you seem to have only yourself to blame.
I was faced with this quandary yesterday when my nine-year-old son approached me with tears in his eyes.
“What is it?” I said nervously, my eyes scanning his body for bruises or bumps. Initially, he refused to answer and continued to wrap his tiny arms tighter around my torso.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” I coaxed, “I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”
Finally, he succumbed. “It’s cello,” he admitted, “I don’t want to take it anymore.”
My eldest son, who has the vocabulary and sensibilities of a 40-year-old, refers to me by my first name and reads reference books for pleasure. He breezes through the advanced placement classes we enrolled him in two years ago, politely converses with older relatives and possesses a sense of patience with small children so profound, we’ve lately taken to calling him ‘the baby whisperer.’
“There’s something about him,” more than one grandmother has told me, “I really feel a strong connection with him.”
In some ways, he reminds me of myself at that age, especially when I see him interacting with adults or displaying a soft layer of sensitivity and empathy that one rarely sees in children his age. He has a strong need to relate to others and develop a rapport with everyone he meets. Sometimes his intelligence, coupled with his keen communicative abilities allows him the luxury of capably avoiding or abandoning situations which may require more intensive exertion on his part.
“You want to quit cello now?” I asked, “Look, you at least need to finish out the year.”
He shook his head. “I just don’t have the time to commit to it. It’s just too stressful for me right now.”
I couldn’t help smiling at these decidedly adult words coming out of the mouth of my diminutive son, who is routinely mistaken for a first grader due to his small stature and frame.
“You are supposed to practice 10 minutes a day,” I said, “That’s not so much, especially when I see you spending more than twice that on a video game.”
“But, it’s really hard. And, I haven’t been practicing enough,” he whimpered, his eyes filling up again, “And, now it’s too late to catch up and the teacher is going to yell at me when he finds out I wasn’t really telling the truth about how much I’ve been practicing, and…”
The whole web of deceit spun out from his lips, as he related how he had lied on the practice sheets the teacher handed out. I was very familiar with these sheets which were designed to compel children to track the minutes each day they spend on their instruments, and I signed off on them regularly with the somewhat vague knowledge that I was perpetuating a deception, as I was fairly aware the 70 minutes he professed to playing on a weekly basis was less of an exaggeration and more of a blatant fiction.
These last several weeks of increasing subterfuge had snowballed into a critical situation for my son. The lack of practice was excruciatingly obvious as he dragged his bow painfully across the strings to emit a sound not unlike the rusty creaking of an ancient tomb door. I had been wincing in the other room listening to it right before he had first approached me crying. The cello, my son had obviously decided, was to be categorized in his head of ‘things that don’t come easily’ and rather than choosing determination and hard work, he was desperately trying to convince me to let him ditch it. By removing this current blemish of failure, he could again return to his accustomed reputation of perfection.
The simplicity of the decision he had made – never again return to cello class – to solve this problem was as satisfying and sensible to him as it was maddening to me. Not that I could blame him. Because he got it from me.
Obviously, I am far from perfect, but much of my life has been carefully constructed to avoid inadvertently revealing my analytic inefficiencies. Like many bright children, I became accustomed to being called smart. And, it was only when I excelled at something that I received that praise. If I couldn’t excel, then I didn’t earn the approval. If someone wasn’t praising me, then I felt criticized. And, if I didn’t feel smart, well then, I guess I felt lacking or deficient. And, certainly, that was one of the worst feelings in the world.
Scholastic and academic prowess had always been paramount in my house. No one cared whether you made the team (or even went out for it), but bringing home a less than perfect test score prompted the inquiry, “What happened to the other two points?” My father’s aggressively well-read intellectualism and broad grasp of politics, history and social culture was intimidating but inspiring, and I craved his praise, which seemed to be granted on occasions few and far between. The thick aroma of mildew that sometimes hung heavily in the air of my father’s alcoved office amid the warped wooden shelves that held countless quantities of yellowing books in various states of decay was the smell of intelligence. Even so, my sisters and I learned quickly not to ask my father for help with schoolwork. Instead of answers, you got a stack of dusty, ancient tomes, too voluminous to read and too heavy to carry back up to your room.
As a result of my perceived pressure to stay perfect on my own, I carefully avoided pursuits I felt outside my range of proficiency. I never pushed myself, never set my sights high on the horizon, never took failure as a learning experience, but only as a warning to remove something from my purview. My mother was only too happy to help me in this regard. I was given free rein to quit any activity that made me feel incompetent or frustrated. As a young woman reflecting on my mother’s encouragement and sometimes even blatant suggestion that I give up on endeavors I found more difficult, I remember feeling angry that she didn’t push me to work harder, but today, as the mother of two young boys who would do almost anything to stop their pain or suffering, be it a broken leg or a hangnail, I find myself better able to appreciate her choices, even as I struggle to make different ones.
There is no question the value my father placed on scholarly achievements has been reflected back into my own parenting with my oldest son. It doesn’t bother me that he barely knows the rules of most sports games and has the slight and petite physical build of a spectator. The ease with which I watch him undertake most academic subject matters gives me a thrill. When his acceptance into the advanced placement program seemed in jeopardy, preparing an appeal on his behalf became a critical mission for me. I enjoy boasting about his scholastic efforts to friends and family, and although I try to abide by the current educational trend of avoiding the term ‘smart’ in favor of ‘motivated’ or ‘determined’, I have been guilty of letting the ‘s’ word slip out here and there. Perhaps the pride that I take in his accomplishments is a manifestation of the memories I harbor of my own – the strong need to outshine and out succeed – or quit trying.
As he stood before me, his red, tear-tinged eyes filled with anxiety and fear, I wondered whether he was more concerned about being caught in an embarrassing, lingering lie or if the pressure of needing to feel perfect was weighing heavily upon his tiny shoulders. Had I contributed to his angst? Had I laid the groundwork for a redux of qualities that I recognize in myself and strive to surpass?
For a moment, like my mother before me, I was possessed with the overwhelming need to save him from this cello-induced catastrophe. Call his teacher and explain why he must be excused for the rest of the year. Maybe I could blame it on finances, “I’m sorry, we just can’t afford the 12 dollars a month to rent it anymore,” or the psychological stress of too many after-school activities, “It’s either cello or Minecraft class, and he really loves Minecraft….” or even carpel tunnel syndrome, “A doctor’s note? Is that REALLY necessary…?” Whatever it took to remove this worrisome burden from the brow of my fragile first-born baby.
Instead, I took a deep breath and said, “Cello is not stressful. Not practicing and lying about it seems to be extremely stressful, however. Wouldn’t you agree?”
He nodded emphatically.
“I will write a note to your teacher to explain that you have fallen a little behind and see if there is a way to get extra help. In the meantime, how about we BOTH agree to remind each other about you practicing every day? Because I know you don’t want to go through this again, right?”
While I was not surprised by the initial enthusiasm that went into cello practice over the next several days, I was slightly bemused when it continued. A week later, on a night that bedtime loomed and the cello had not yet been played, I suggested he take the day off.
“You’ve been really good. You can skip it one day,” I assured him.
He shook his head and picked up his bow. “I won’t get better if I don’t practice,” he said, shrugging.
And THAT, really sounded nothing like me.
My journey from borderline atheist to teaching first grade Hebrew School classes was a much shorter trip than one might expect. But, rather than dwelling on the notion that I could radically change my thinking about my own religiosity, I invite you to ponder how easy it can be to alter one’s perspective and allow what might be considered mutually exclusive philosophies to co-exist within one’s brain.
I have always been what I would refer to as a ‘cultural New York Jew’. Much more ‘Woody Allen’ than ‘Fiddler On the Roof’. Growing up, I enjoyed eating bagels with a schmear and matzah ball soup. I liked to say ‘oy vey’ and explain the rules of playing Driedel to gentiles each Hanukkah. (Or Chanukah, if you prefer.) I had older relatives who used Yiddish words that have made their way into more mainstream vernacular; ‘kvetching’ about someone’s sense of ‘chutzpah’ and occasionally helped me wipe ‘schmutz’ off my face, by licking their thumb and dragging it across my cheek.
My family would occasionally and half-heartedly observe major Jewish holidays, with less of a sense of tradition than a need to remind ourselves we were indeed Hebrews. Once every few years, my father’s family would host a Passover Seder which I looked forward to only in anticipation of the copious glasses of grape juice I would be allowed to drink during the numerous wine toasts that occurred throughout the evening. We celebrated Hanukkah, when we remembered exactly what date it was due to start, but typically ran out of candles, and shrugged off the rest of the holiday after we had exchanged socks or books, always saving the more exciting gifts for Christmas. (“We’re celebrating the Santa Claus part, not the Jesus part,” my mother would insist when queried.)
What I definitely did not have is a traditional religious Jewish upbringing. I did not have a a Bat Mitzvah, the rite of passage for girls aged 12-13 as they pass into adulthood. I did not learn Hebrew or the Torah. In fact, I had barely been inside a synagogue by the age of 30, and ironically, any Bible stories I learned were smuggled into my house by my mother’s parents, both of whom had converted to become Jehovah’s Witnesses later in life.
The only official Jewish education I received was several years of attendance at the Workman’s Circle Yiddish School, a socialist organization more focused on culture than religion, which translated locally to weekly Sunday classes that took place in the basement of a Baptist church and featured age-inappropriate and nightmare-inducing lectures about the Holocaust, which we were forced to endure while munching on cheese doodles, a decidedly non-kosher snack.
Despite a sense of informality, I was content with my level of ‘Jewishness’. I enjoyed the notion that I was part of a minority group known for great New York delis, Catskill comedy legends and gesticulating wildly with their hands. Where I grew up in Westchester, outside of New York City, Jews were much more common, but even after I moved into neighborhoods where I became more of a novelty, I didn’t mind. I was different, unique, an underdog; a dark, swarthy ethnic ‘yang’ to the many blond goyim ‘yins’ I worked and played with.
My dating pool wasn’t limited either. After a brief, unsuccessful stint in a Jewish Youth Group during high school (“There are, like, a TON of super-cute Jewish guys there,” I’m sure someone promised me), I vowed not to let religion stand in the way of potential happiness. Who was I to discriminate against anyone based on their beliefs? ‘I’m O.K., you’re O.K.’, was my relationship mantra, as I took up with a myriad of Catholics, Protestants, Hindus and Quakers. In fact, as time went on, I began to downplay certain cultural mannerisms in order to better suit whoever happened to be wearing the suit.
“What I really like about you is that you don’t act Jewish,” a friend from my past once told me. “I mean I wouldn’t have even known if you hadn’t told me.”
Many people, like my mildly bigoted friend, believe that Jews are their own race, and in fact the Supreme Court would agree, ruling in such a manner for purposes of anti-discrimination laws in this country during the 1980’s. This would mean that I couldn’t separate myself from my Jewishness even if I wanted to. And, although my brushes with real anti-Semitism have been few and far between, I began to wonder whether it was because I didn’t advertise who I was as blatantly as I might have.
By the time I was 30, I was married to a non-Jew, living in the South celebrating Easter, which was as far off the map from eating knishes on the Upper East Side as I could be. I dutifully hauled out a few Hannukah candles once a year, corrected my husband’s pronunciation of Challah bread (“You have to feel the ‘cchhh’ in the back of your throat”), and made sure my son was circumcised (albeit in the back room of the hospital somewhere), but my sense of Jewish pride had taken a back seat. I didn’t miss it per se, but what I did miss was the connection it had to my family, who I had left back north with the knishes.
There were many reasons why my first husband and I divorced, and not a single one of those reasons included religious differences. Yet, I would argue that our cultural dissimilarities made a significance impact on our relationship. I am a conversationalist, a debater, a ‘let’s sit here and hash this out until it’s been talked to death and we can move on from it’-er. I grew up in a family of shouters and yellers. My husband would happily let months go by without dipping below the superficial surface of small talk. He and his parents hailed from the land of ‘if we don’t acknowledge the problem, it doesn’t exist,’ a place where my passport had never been stamped. I thought of all my beloved yentas back home and I began to wonder whether my personality WAS more suited to someone who grew up in a similar atmosphere. Did I miss that slightly more nasal tone my voice took on when I talked to my grandparents on the phone? Would I be happier with someone who did that too?
When I reconnected with an old friend who grew up down the street from me, the fact that he was a Jew from New York was on my mental checklist of pros. And, I had to admit as we began dating, there was a certain sense of familiar about the way we conversed, reminisced, and even argued. Perhaps embracing my roots instead of refusing to acknowledge them was indeed a key to relationship success. As I soon discovered, however, it’s one thing to embrace your roots, it’s another to have to grow new ones.
It was no secret to me that my new boyfriend was a bit more ‘Jewish-y’ than I had ever been. He had received a Bar Mitzvah in a fairly religious Congregation. He regularly attended services. He was keeping Kosher when we met and had even considered becoming a rabbi at some point. He didn’t celebrate Christmas – not even the Santa Claus part.
But, I honestly enjoyed the idea of being with someone Jewish. Celebrating holidays, starting traditions, eating more lox, and…..er, doing other Jewish stuff. I even looked forward to hosting my son’s Bar Mitzvah – an occasion I had always secretly felt denied. And, like every other person since the dawn of time enjoying the first blissful months of a romance that felt right in so many more ways than it felt wrong, I was eager to compromise. When he proposed, I said ‘yes’ and his parents said ‘Mazal Tov.’
As much as I would like to end this story with “Dear Reader, I blew the shofar with him,” it soon became clear to me I had bitten off more matzah than I could chew. My new husband’s idea of Jewish family traditions included weekly Shabbat, holidays I had never heard of, Friday night services I didn’t want to attend with Hebrew prayers I didn’t understand. I sat in the new member section of the Reformed Temple during Rosh Hashanah, trying to follow along through the words and motions and felt as much like a phony as I had during any Mass I had attended on the arm of a former Catholic paramour.
My husband reasoned that I would become more comfortable with religious aspects of Judaism, as I became familiar with them. I did not want to become familiar with them, I reasoned, rather loudly, back, but eventually acquiesced by signing up for a new parent orientation at the Hebrew School in which we were enrolling my son. During the course of the discussion amongst the parents assembled there, some with more religious backgrounds, some not, some not even Jewish, one thing became clear – no one was there for the prayers. After several older men in the back admitted that they probably didn’t even believe in God, and I moved my chair forward to avoid any resulting lightning bolts – just in case – the notion that there were as many definitions of being Jewish as there were Jews settled over me like a thick comforting cloud of matzah brei. Many of these people were there for the same reason as I was – to hold onto that piece of themselves that they identify as Jewish and figure out how to help their children do the same. Whatever that might mean to them.
Over the past few years, some of my ideas on what it means to be Jewish have reverted back to the way I was raised, with the understanding that many of my fellow parishioners might feel similarly. My husband’s ideals on the Jewish family he always wanted have relaxed a bit as well. I attend certain religious services, because I know it’s important to him, but I will probably take more pleasure in planning the party at my son’s Bar Mitzvah than pride in seeing him called to the bimah. Two years ago I had a serious discussion with my husband about my desire to celebrate Christmas with my children, something I had not done since we were married. If his sense of Judaism was so strongly tied to the idea of traditions, why are my own traditions any less important? He agreed to indulge me, proving we’d both moved beyond our old definitions of what it means to be a Jew.
I still take tremendous pride in being a Jewish person and to that end, whether or not I was technically qualified for the job, I took on teaching First Grade on Sunday mornings. I enjoy reading and explaining Torah stories, but have been known to use the phrase ‘Well, that’s what some people think,’ when posed with a slightly more complicated religious question. Ironically, I’ve had less of a problem dealing with God in my classroom than with glitter-glue. Glitter-glue is pretty powerful stuff.
I have long been of the opinion that domestic partnerships should be run like organizations, with clear divisions of labor and mutually-agreed upon but separate departments of responsibility. Any job that falls outside those departments should be debated and assigned, perhaps outsourced, or eventually pink-slipped. For example, I make school lunches for our children. My husband mows the lawn. Cleaning the floors gets outsourced, though probably not often enough. And, after a couple of re-orgs, we pink-slipped washing windows.
Although it’s the hallmark of poor customer service, the phrase ‘Not my department’ is increasingly used as a valid explanation in our house, while our domestic corporation has evolved into an ever more sharply-defined conglomerate of varied available amenities.
“Mom, can you play a video game with me?”
“Sorry, that’s not my department.”
“Dad, can you help me find matching socks?”
“That black hole of a dresser drawer is not my department – ask your mother.”
Recently, a corporate cog has been thrown into the works of the finely-tuned machine that has perpetuated a stable level of relative domestic bliss, or at least kept us from a hostile takeover: my husband has taken a position overseas for a year.
Thus, temporarily, I am now managing ALL departments, and never have I been so keenly aware of the need for division of labor to maintain efficiency. Now, instead of passing the buck on tasks that do not fall within my area of expertise, I must add them to my project roster, investing my time and energy, with only a faint hope of being reimbursed at some future date.
Shoveling snow? Not my department…. until now.
Burying family pets? Definitely not my department, but not the sort of task that can be put on hold.
Dealing with frozen pipes? This is actually a new department – that apparently now belongs to me.
Catching rodents in the house? Looks like I’ve just been promoted.
In fact, these new pest control skills were put to the test over the past week; a project that launched less than auspiciously with the damning words uttered by my nine-year-old son, “I think I just saw something crawl under that door.” I fought my initial urge to actually scream ‘Eeek’, like some comic book character and instead presented a facade of calm. After all, this was now my department.
We determined it must be a mouse, although my son insisted he had not seen a long tail. Ironically, until their recent passing, we had been the proud pet owners of two large male rats; one would have thought my sons and I would have possessed softer hearts toward a tiny trespasser looking to take shelter from the cold.
However, one would have been wrong. “Kill it! Kill it!” my nine-year-old chanted, perched precariously on top of the dining room table so as not to cross paths with whatever was in our utility closet.
I immediately piled everyone into the car to drive to Home Depot (a destination that could not be further outside my jurisdiction) to procure the necessary tools for success – a two-pack of Tomcat-branded ‘snap traps’, guaranteed ‘effective, reusable and easy to set’. Sadly, none of these marketing promises were to be delivered on.
Although I was not previously aware that a dollop of poorly placed peanut butter can render a mouse trap ineffective, I tucked away this helpful tidbit of information for future use, or perhaps to include in my summary report when I transferred this position to somebody else, which I hoped would be as soon as possible. Several days, two traps and no mouse later, I began to wonder whether our guest had moved on to better accommodations down the street.
It wasn’t until that weekend during a visit from my mother, her husband and my sister, did the mouse make itself known again. Hearing a faint rustling from within a cabinet beneath the sink in my kitchen, I opened the door to reveal several small piles of rodent droppings….all over the fine china and silverware we keep for special occasions; occasions quite different than this one was turning out to be. As I made a mental note to burn everything in this now obviously contaminated cabinet, I noticed a slight movement within my field of vision. A half empty box of k-cup coffees was shaking. There was definitely something inside it besides coffee.
Had I been alone in my house, I would have had no choice but to find a way to remove the mouse-in-the-box, likely by donning my rubber oven mitts over my husband’s heavy snow gloves over my own gloves and carefully placing the box into several layers of shopping bags and holding the resulting bundle as far away from my body as possible to be disposed of over the fence on my unsuspecting neighbor’s lawn. Either that or permanently move. But, with other adults in the house, it dawned on me that I had another option.
I decided to outsource.
After my sister disposed of the box in the dark of my backyard – in a much more regal and sophisticated manner than I could have mustered – I was certain we had seen the last of the tiny trespasser. So, it was all the more frustrating when my sister informed me the next afternoon that she just saw ‘something slip under the closet door’. “No tail,” she added. Could it be the same creature? Or a similarly handicapped friend?
Although I feared multiple trips to Home Depot within the same week might damage my reputation, we had no choice but to return for more ammunition. I was quickly becoming an experienced purveyor of pest control contraptions – something I did not plan on including in my resume. Along with the additional snap traps and high frequency sonar rodent repellers, I grabbed two humane traps, mostly to prove to my mother’s vegetarian, PETA card-carrying husband that I’m not a cold-blooded killer.
My sister and I arrived back at my house to a scene that would have been comical were it not so rife with panic: my mother’s husband and my older son yelling at my bookcase. “We caught it!” my son squealed, and I realized they had trapped the mouse behind it. Each time the mouse poked its quivering nose out beyond the shadows, my son barked it back. “Hey! Hey! Heeeyy!”
“Quick, get one of the traps out!”
The project had become an outsourced team effort. A team made up of my mother’s husband, my sister and my son. A team that did not require my full participation. I baited the trap, handed it over and took a step back. Any guilt I felt at not taking a bigger role in the capture of a small mammal in my own living room was superseded by the tremendous relief of not having to handle this alone. After months of overseeing all the departments, I was grateful to transition something to someone else in the room and take the equivalent of an emotional coffee break.
As if purporting some evil (but tiny) plans of domestic espionage, our mouse turned out to be a mole, despite the insistence of numerous Google searches that moles do not like to be above ground, scurrying about living rooms and nibbling on peanut butter. We reasoned he was confused, or perhaps was having an identity crisis. (“Maybe he hangs out with mice,” I suggested, “Or covets the life of cockroaches.”)
My sister and I took no more chances and drove several miles away from my house before freeing the tiny mole into the snow. Thankfully, we haven’t seen him (or any co-patriots) since. Unfortunately, without other visiting family members, I’ll be forced to take on the position of pest control alone should additional mice, moles, ferrets or small Chihuahuas invade. But, only on a temporary basis. Because it’s definitely not my department.
When my sister calls me in the morning much earlier than she usually does, I know there is something specific she wants to tell me, and I am proved right as she shares the news of the death of a successful young comedian and writer the day before. She knows his sister well. I am not familiar with his name, but I know why she called to tell me.
It doesn’t quite hit me yet as I talk to her on the phone. “Oh my God, how terrible,” I say, “I can’t even imagine,” which is something that comes out of one’s mouth automatically when discussing these things, but I correct myself when I realize I CAN imagine, because it happened to us. And, then I think to correct myself again, because it happened to HER, our second sister, but I realize I was right the first time, because it’s still happening to us.
I google the comedian and read about his successes. Writing and producing hit television shows. Famous friends and peers. Regular columns on comedic sites and youtube clips of standup shows. I read his articles and watch his clips. He is hysterical and talented. A life to be envied. And I think what I always think – what potential; how tragic; what an unfinished life.
But, I don’t really know him, and I knew my sister, so I think about her. Their lives intertwine in my head and I think about being his sister, too. His older sister. What I would have said to him over the years. How I would have supported him but likely lectured him too. How much I might have known and how much he would have kept secret from me, so as not to hear another lecture.
I look through a series of photos of him; the same ones cycled through and attached to the news of his death. He is ordinary looking, a little scruffier in some than others and his face reminds me of boys I grew up with. He was 30 years old – impossibly young to die – and three years younger than my sister was. He still looks like a boy. He still is a boy.
Briefly, I think about drugs, but not in the way I used to. Not in a critical and judgmental way. Instead I think about sadness. I think about anxiety and pressure and trying desperately to rise above emotions and thoughts and obsessions that are tiny thorned fingers digging into your soul and pulling you down into the dirt with them. I think about finding something that might take you away from that even for a few moments and how desperate you might be to hold onto it and hard it would be to let go.
I think about my own life and what gets me through it, and what a strange concept it is to feel the need to push myself along. I think about not enjoying life most of the time, wasting it, rushing through most moments to get to the ones that I have decided matter more. The next holiday. The next weekend. The next vacation. The next online purchase. The next glass of wine.
I think about being 35 when my sister died and not being able to make sense of it. This doesn’t happen to people like us. How did this happen? How could this happen? I think about blame and a desperate need to place it. And the agony of guilt, which I wear comfortably like a pair of worn-in jeans. I am used to guilt. Guilt proves I care.
What could I have done differently? How could I have saved her? But, I already know the answers.
“There’s nothing you could have done,” says David Sedaris, after I wait on line to have my book signed. During his reading, he mentioned his sister who committed suicide, which makes me think of my sister again, and when he notices a tattoo of a pair of glasses on my forearm, he asks about it and I tell him it’s in tribute to her. I comment that I didn’t know about his sister and say something about feeling upset that I couldn’t have done something, for my sister, which prompts his statement. I admire his ability to not feel a sense of responsibility about his sister, or at least I think I do.
I watch my young sons and try to live in this moment of their innocence, when the hardest part of the day is finding a pair of clean socks. I think about their futures, their inevitable suffering and struggles. What am I doing today to shape their tomorrows? How can I stop their sadness and prevent their pain? What mistakes have I already made? What mistakes did my parents make?
I think about loss. I think about the phrase ‘so sorry for your loss’. I think about how many times I said it before I could possibly begin to understand it. I think about how incorrect it is to use it, because it’s not just one loss, but a series of losses that happen over and over, every time a baby is born, or a wedding is celebrated or a vacation is enjoyed or a birthday is marked or hundreds of other tiny moments that might happen in between. I think about losing things like your keys or a twenty dollar bill that you thought was in your pocket. Things that might be found again. I decide to stop using the word ‘loss’ in the context of death from now on.