…Here Comes the Bride…And a Reality Check.
I recently attended a wedding in Virginia Beach. Nice, you say. Yes, it was nice. Actually, it was rather spectacular. It was held at the bride’s family home on the Chesapeake Bay, outside in weather that could not have been more ideal. Every detail — the customized ceremony reflecting the couple’s personalities and aesthetic; the strung globe lights and high-end rustic décor; the perfume wafting from the landscape’s burgeoning hydrangea and the florist’s skillfully arranged rose bouquets; the catered spread and the energetic band that featured Motown classics — was orchestrated to perfection. For one evening, I felt about twenty-six again. Instead of my usual two glass of wine limit, I lost track of how much wine and beer I downed. I danced with youthful energy and vigor, hoping that my torso-hugging shapewear would keep my love handles in check under my clinging flowered dress.
You see, the bride is the daughter of my dear friend and college roommate, Kathy. There’s something reality-checking about attending the wedding of a young woman whose mother I have known since we were girls, just eighteen-years-old. It’s not that I’m unaware of the fact that I’ve rounded the corner of my mid-fifties and am sliding out-of-control downhill toward sixty. It’s not that I ignored my 30th wedding anniversary just two days after our trip to Virginia. It’s not even that I’m in denial about my age. I own and brag about every wrinkle, stretch mark, and gray hair I’ve earned through my life.
Maybe I tend not to think about my age too much; maybe I’m not as profound in my assessment of aging as others. Or, maybe I have my own perspective.
I view the passage of time less as a linear journey ending in the inevitable conclusion. I see it more as an amassment of experiences — gathering memories along the way, like precious gems, that I store safely in the treasure box of my mind. Of course, I know that with each birthday, each anniversary, every annual holiday, and each loss of a loved one, time is moving forward. I simply tend to view these events less as markers and more as another reason to enjoy the here and now. I think maybe that’s why attending Kathy’s daughter’s wedding jolted me so. It caused me to step out of my little mindset, unpack some of those dusty memories, and poke through my personal history.
My life’s story is no more remarkable than the next person’s. It’s just mine. Memories, unlike flat photographs, are filled with three-dimensional sensory nudges that can return us to any given event. My treasure box is crammed with a childhood of Fluffernutter sandwiches and Florida Punch flavored Hi-C. The pervasive stench of Sulphur, courtesy of two older brothers whose preteen years were enlivened by setting off cherry bombs in the sewer in front of our house. My dad’s rusty, old Rambler created frequent excitement — could he get it started today or not? Summer nights meant chasing the mosquito spray truck, piling into the car for family night at the drive-in, or hanging out at the local Little League to eat stale concession stand candy and cheer on my classmates.
Throughout my teens, priorities shifted. I was caught up in the usual school work, friends, and boys. I struggled to conjugate the French verb aimer — j’aime, tu aimes, il/elle aime — with Queen’s “Somebody to Love” blaring on my 8-track player for inspiration. Who was dating whom? Where were we hanging out on Friday night? My college days were much the same. I balanced an impressive schedule of Chaucer and macroeconomics with frat boys and Bud Light. I lived in the moment without much thought of my future. Post-college, I floated through various jobs, eventually married, then had children. All the while, I collected my memories.
My father died when I was twenty-seven. I’d suffered loss previously, but this was the first marker that I viewed in those terms. An actual passage of time; a sharp realization that my life wasn’t static. While I continued to create memories — with my husband and children, with my friends, in my career — I was peripherally aware of my own life’s calendar flipping page after page. Still, the years were an abstract to me. A human invention that didn’t hold much significance other than a sudden realization like, “Huh. My kids have moved out, so I guess that makes me an empty-nester.” I’ve always known we were all getting older; I just never framed it formally in my mind.
Until the recent wedding in Virginia Beach. Suddenly, there was my college buddy. The one I’ve known since I was eighteen. The one who could always finish a beer bong faster than I could. The one who, when I picked up the lead singer of a local band, picked up the rest of the band. Despite the 300+ miles between us since college, we’ve shared weddings; the births of our children; trips to see each other in various locations, sometimes with, sometimes without kids in tow; and, sadly, the burial of our beloved friend from school, Samantha. I’ve seen her children growing up through the years, so it shouldn’t have been a shock to see her oldest exchange vows under the flower-draped wedding arch. But, suddenly, my college buddy was the mother-of-the-bride.
Twenty-six years earlier, I’d attended Kathy’s wedding. My memories from that event are crammed with the young faces of our entire college group and their significant others. There were pre-parties and after-parties, abundant food and ever-flowing alcohol. But, as is the case with many of my life’s memories, there is one that stands out from the rest, like a 16×20 portrait capturing the essence of a special occasion. I was privy to a moment between Kathy and her father that remains one of the most poignant exchanges I’ve ever witnessed. Kathy’s dad, handsome in his tux with a smile so proud that it demanded my attention, put his arm around his daughter and asked, “Are you happy?” I can still hear the din from the music and boisterous guests in the background, as she returned his radiant smile and said, “I am, Daddy. I’m so happy.”
I recounted that moment to Kathy’s father when I spoke with him at his granddaughter’s wedding. He chuckled and smiled that same handsome smile. I don’t think he remembered, but I sure do. It occurred to me, as I glimpsed the bride and groom snatch private moments — grabbing a bite to eat, just the two of them; a sweet kiss by the water’s edge; gazing at each other as if they were alone among the guests — that their shared treasure box began when they met six years earlier. They’ll continue to fill it with fiery sunsets as they stroll hand-in-hand on the beach; the bold smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning; the exotic spices of ethnic foods they’ll sample on their travels; the cherished words “I love you” that are sweetest when spoken by one’s partner; the hot sun on their skin as they go for a run together; the pounding of rain on the roof as they curl up on the sofa with a favorite book. Their lives will be filled with their own remarkable moments that become treasured memories.
As the party wound down, Kathy and I had the chance to catch up. We sat and chatted, laughing about times shared in college and, more recently, a trip we’d made into New York City. I invited myself on a future visit to see the newlyweds at their new home in Seattle. We made tentative plans to travel to Sicily to learn Italian cooking. I look forward to storing those future memories along with the ones we were making the evening of her daughter’s wedding.
And, as is often true with old friends, some long-time traditions never fade. Kathy’s son appeared with a smile as radiant as his mother’s, wielding his own beer bong, identical to the one she and I had used for the first time almost forty years earlier. So, the mother-of-the-bride and I showed the rapidly growing crowd of twenty-somethings what would always be true. Kathy will always finish a beer bong faster than I will.
* * * * *
…My Life With The Upstager.
Like all marriages, my husband’s and mine has had its share of joys and sorrows. Over the past thirty years, we’ve raised two amazing children; we’ve lost loved ones — friends and family. Through challenging times, we’ve recommitted to the partnership we vowed to uphold during our wedding ceremony when the priest symbolically bound together the hands of two twenty-somethings. And, like most marriages, we’ve learned the art of compromise. You might fall into the conventional mindset, laughingly assuming the husband makes all of the adjustments, being “trained” by the wife. Well, I take umbrage with that characterization because while, yes, Guy knows better than to raise my ire by tracking filthy shoes through the house or stacking his dirty dishes in the sink instead of emptying the clean ones from the dishwasher, I maintain that I’ve had to make the biggest adjustment. You see, I married The Upstager.
I was born the only girl, the youngest of three, and learned from an early age how to garner attention. I was a champion baton twirler — a bookcase jammed with trophies to prove it; I was a practiced pianist, the result of countless hours of running scales and transposing chords. By the time I hit high school, I had balanced a rigorous academic schedule with weekend parties and keg stands. I basked in praise for my accomplishments while, simultaneously, developing an inflated sense of self. By the time I was twenty-two and met my future husband, I had come to expect that my attributes and abilities would be lauded.
The first time I saw Guy, I was drawn to his disarming smile and boyish charm. I learned that he had that effect on most people. Somehow, he could do and say things that should be offensive, but with his mischievous grin and genuine goodwill, he got away with it. While in college, his friend, Sue, had a motorboat accident during spring break, losing all of the fingers on her left hand. Others pretended they didn’t notice or carefully avoided looking at her injured hand, but not Guy. He cheerfully yelled, “Hey Leftie!” across the quad, causing her to laugh for the first time since returning to campus.
From our early days together, I saw glimmers of Guy’s natural ability to attract attention. It should have been a warning that, no matter what I had to offer, I would be outshined by the irresistible allure of a perpetual adolescent.
Nevermind the wedding gift for friends of a one-of-a-kind serving platter that I commissioned from a local artist, with a hand-painted likeness of the pagoda where they’d gotten engaged. Instead, oh!, the excitement and exclamations over the ditty Guy had whipped up on the accompanying card with a perverse slant on “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue.”
Then came the time we threw a Christmas party and I, two months pregnant and in the throes of morning-noon-and-night sickness, spent weeks cleaning and decorating the house and preparing a lavish buffet, laden with sweets, savories, and rose lemon champagne punch. Guy spent an equal amount of time sweating over a comical poster that he titled “House Rules.” Yeah, it was funny, I’ll give him that. But, my mini quiches, lemon Madeleines, and eggnog cheesecake bars were distractedly scarfed down in between laughter and guffaws at Guy’s singular 36” x 48” creation that detailed punishment for offenses like drinking too slowly or being caught in the master bedroom.
I’m not saying I’ve never had my own opportunity for recognition. It’s just if my husband is within a square mile of my accomplishments, I become invisible. And, it’s not like he hip-checks me out of the way so he can stand center-stage in the spotlight. It just…happens. Let me continue.
After my father died, my mother and I, looking for an activity we could do together, signed up for a beginner oil painting class. I used the painter’s palette to mix colors and learned impressive words like “cerulean” and “viridian.” I began assessing the world around me with my newly acquired artistic eye and snapped photos to be brush-stroked into masterpieces. A corner of our living room was crammed with my easel, painting supplies, and sweeping landscapes and realistic still lifes, stacked on end in rows eight-deep. I was one step from completing my new image with a black wool beret when it happened again. I awoke one morning to find Guy perched in front of my easel, canvas in place, with all of my paints and brushes strewn on the table next to him. He’d been up all night, inspired by my enthusiasm, and decided to dabble in my artistic realm. In front of him rested a completed and, I’ll concede, pretty convincing replica of one of those jet-haired, pasty-faced women made famous by Patrick Nagel. That sort of stylized human likeness was Guy’s aesthetic and, ultimately, elicited gasps of appreciation from our friends and family. By contrast, my sunset seascapes had been met with lukewarm, murmured nods of acknowledgment. I never picked up a paintbrush again.
Still not convinced? Well, then there was the time Guy and I were driving down the highway and slowed when we saw several cars pulled off to the side. There was a commotion which we soon realized was a frantic dog evading capture by a group of good Samaritans.
“Stop!” I yelled, to which Guy responded, “There are plenty of people to help.”
“Pull over right now!” I opened the door, ready to jump out whether or not he stopped. By the time he reached me, I’d already gathered the terrified Beagle in my arms. A quick survey informed us that the dog had run into the road and been hit. Climbing carefully into the car, the shivering dog on my lap, I told Guy to drive to the nearest animal hospital.
“How are we going to afford this? We don’t even know if he has an owner.”
I checked the dog’s collar and found only a tag registering “Monty” with a town in Connecticut.
“It doesn’t matter,” I told him. “He has to see the vet. We’ll figure it out later.”
Fortunately, Monty wasn’t badly hurt, just bruised and frightened. We brought him home with us and placed him in a quiet room to rest. I began making phone calls, trying to get information about dog licensing in that Connecticut town, determined to track down the owners. My persistence paid off. The family had just relocated to New Jersey but had called the township office in their old state to let them know the dog had escaped. I got the owners’ phone number and left them a message.
The following day, Guy was home when Monty’s owners called back, and they spoke at length. Guy learned that the owners had been in a car accident and Monty, traveling with them, had been thrown from the car and run off. They had searched for days but had been unable to find him. Guy assured them that Monty was safe and arranged to bring him home. When we arrived at the house, Monty yelped with excitement and ran to greet his people. They hugged us both then turned to Guy and said, “How can we ever thank you for rescuing our precious Monty?”
I believe my jaw sported a bruise for a month from where it hit the ground. To Guy’s credit, he informed them that I had been instrumental in the rescue, too. Still…
By this point, it was clear a trend was developing. You might try to tell me that these are flukes — rare occurrences. I contend that despite what I do, somehow Guy swoops in and gets the credit. Let me offer more proof.
It was dusk on a hot summer evening. Our car had broken down but, miraculously, we’d managed to coax it into a service station just north of town. This was back in the mid-1980s, b.c.p. (before cell phones), and we used the station’s landline to call our friend, Chris, to pick us up. As we waited, an enormous boat of a car drifted slowly into the station and up to a gas pump. An elderly couple sat in the front seat — the woman in tears and the man shaken. The attendant spoke to them, then told us they were looking for a place to stay overnight. I hurried to the passenger window and leaned in, asking if I could help.
“We are on our way to the Pocono Mountains and it’s taking longer than we thought,” explained the woman. “My husband can’t drive at night and I don’t drive at all. We don’t know where to stay for the night.”
“Not to worry,” I said. “Why don’t you let me drive you back to town and find you a place to stay?” I told Guy what I was doing and that once Chris arrived, to come and find me.
I got behind the wheel and maneuvered the car onto the road. The couple told me they were from West Virginia and going to visit their son’s grave. I learned about their daughter and grandchildren who lived in Maine. They asked about me, and I told them that Guy and I were soon to be married. I kept up the conversation during the drive back to town. The couple was relaxed by the time we got to the hotel.
“Wait here,” I said. “Let me just run in and make sure there’s a room for you.” There was not. I racked my brain for another option and decided on the only other place I could think of nearby — a tiny bed and breakfast. Hoping Guy would think to look there next, I smiled for the worried-looking couple, got in the car, and continued to drive. When we arrived at the B&B, again, I jumped out to check on availability. This time, we were in luck. I returned to the driveway, nodding my head in affirmation.
Just then, a car sailed into the drive behind us. Chris was behind the wheel, but Guy was sitting up on the passenger door, upper body on the outside through the open window. He was grinning, with arms spread wide, and I swear I heard the Mighty Mouse theme song playing somewhere in the background: “Here I Come To Save The Day.” When the car stopped, he swung his legs out and leaped to the ground.
“Please! Let me get your bags for you,” my Mr. Joie De Vivre offered gallantly, pulling their suitcases from the trunk.
As I linked my arm through the elderly woman’s to steady her climb up the steps, she turned to me and gushed, “Honey, don’t let him go! He’s one of the good ones!”
See? Are you seeing what’s happening?
I’ll offer one last story as evidence. This one happened while our kids were in elementary school. I had signed up to be a substitute teacher at their tiny Quaker school and received a call asking if I could fill in for the 4th- and 5th-grade math and science teacher for two weeks. Those two subjects aren’t necessarily my strongest but I figured 4th and 5th grade? Pfft! I could handle that! I arranged to take off time from my day job (full-disclosure — I do the finances for Guy’s business, so it didn’t take much convincing) and jumped right in.
A couple of points to note. First, the teacher I was covering had gone MIA and left no lesson plans, or even an overview, of what I needed to do. Therefore, I was left to fly by the seat of my pants. I spent my evenings reading the next chapters in the science and math books, developing lessons for the following day, and having my own children teach me the math that I hadn’t seen in about four decades. During school, I taught upwards of five classes while having to earn respect and cooperation from the children. I mean, who was I? Some mom? They thought that sounded like party time! The other point to note is that, while I wasn’t aware at the time, I was already very ill with Lyme Disease. The fatigue and headaches alone were enough to make me want to stay in bed and sleep all day. The seven-hour school day with another four hours of planning at night just about did me in.
Those two weeks turned into three months. The teacher had vanished and, by now, the kids were seeing me as a viable replacement. I enjoyed the job immensely but, by the time summer arrived, my illness rendered me nearly bedridden. When the yearbook came out, I wasn’t looking for accolades. I knew I had done a great job and was proud at having watched those children flourish. But, wait. There’s another piece of information pertinent to this tale.
My husband had “adopted” field day at the school. This meant that on the last day of classes, he sprang for pizza, six-foot subs, and cake for the entire school. Additionally, he purchased customized gifts for the graduating eighth graders. Everyone anticipated this day, and Guy was dubbed “Queen for the Day.” (That is a whole story for another time).
Back to the part about the yearbook. Yes, you’ve probably guessed. I flipped through the pages, positive I’d see a picture — just one measly photo — of me in my esteemed role as a teacher. I looked through all of the faculty and staff and did not find one. Oh well, I thought. It’s no big deal. That’s not why I took on the job. As I continued to leaf through the book, though, wouldn’t you know? There, prominently displayed in a section named “Field Day” was my husband! And, not just a single picture, but several. That’s right. One day — that man spent one day at the school! — with his food and his gifts and his cake, while I sacrificed day and night to educate those children. And, he got an entire yearbook section devoted to him.
As accustomed as I had become to my life with The Upstager, that one left me nearly speechless. Until I ran into the Head of School and then, oh boy, did she hear about it! I gave her the complete rundown of what I’d endured for all of those years. With the wedding gift and the Christmas party and the oil painting and the rescued dog and the elderly couple and on and on. That poor woman. She and I ended up laughing about it, but she could see my point.
So, while I’ve spent the majority of my life overshadowed by my husband, I’ve learned to adapt. That’s right; I’ve learned to compromise. It’s something my twenty-year-old self would never have imagined but, I guess there’s always room for growth. I’ve stopped looking for recognition for what I do and, instead, embrace the notion that it is the deed itself that is important. Plus, I have to say that even though I’ve been married to The Upstager for thirty years, I still find his mischievous grin pretty charming.
* * * * *
…You Should Have Asked For Help.
I showed up to the veterinarian with my elderly Spanish Water Dog, Josie. I try to make these trips quick because her shaking and whining during the entire ride to and from the office inevitably get on my last nerve. Racing down the interstate, I was making a mental list of what I hadn’t had a chance to accomplish before leaving the house. I pulled into the parking lot at 9:26 AM, with just enough time to let Josie do her business before going into the office.
Immediately, Josie scooted under the row of chairs in the waiting room, hoping no one would know she was there. I grabbed my phone and clicked open the Notepad app. Rapidly, I began typing out the to-do list that I was storing in my head, knowing it was unlikely I would remember everything by the time I got home. Schedule with the dentist…Call the bank…Start a load of laundry…Check on my husband’s prescriptions…Finish the outline for my next blog piece…
I looked up when one of the techs sat next to me and leaned close, whispering, “You’re an hour early, you know.”
“Whaaa—?” I pushed aside my thoughts and tried to focus on what Heather was saying.
“Josie’s appointment is at 10:30. It’s only 9:30.”
“You sure?” I asked, popping open my phone’s calendar app. I flipped to today’s date and stared: Josie to vet: 10:30. My shoulders sagged.
“It’s okay. Really.” She patted my arm reassuringly. Or, maybe it was compassionately.
“Oh, Jeez. How’d that happen? How could I have done that?” I glared at the trusty phone organizer that had let me down. The truth was, my organizer was correct. It was me who had gotten it wrong.
As I sat there, resigned to losing a full hour out of my already overflowing day, I began to play that familiar blame-game that nearly every woman I know has played at some point. With my lists and my schedulers and my organizers and my reminders and my post-it notes and my…and… I was still failing. If I had it so together, why did I feel so inadequate?
I wasn’t inadequate. I was stressed and overwhelmed. I remembered a comic strip I had read in The Guardian by the French artist, Emma. As I thought about the illustrations, I stopped blaming myself. Emma introduced me to the concept of The Mental Load. It’s when one person in a household, usually the woman, is seen as the household manager. In a work environment, the manager is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operation while delegating the tasks to workers; in a household, it’s that, plus more. The woman often does at least half of the household chores in addition to overseeing the entire operation.
The woman thinks about every detail of the running of the house, from knowing when it’s time to go grocery shopping and what to buy, to maintaining health records for the children, to everything in between. This constant attention to, and organizing of, details is unrelenting and exhausting. Add to that performing at least half the family tasks and the inequity becomes clear. Next, layer on the outside job(s) that many women hold, and it’s obvious why things like showing up to the vet’s office at the wrong time might happen.
I’m not saying my husband and children aren’t happy to help cook dinner, switch the laundry from washer to dryer, or take out the garbage. I’m saying that it doesn’t happen unless I issue the order. This leads to me constantly reviewing the countless and endless tasks, determining what needs to be done and then assigning the job. I assume The Mental Load. The rug needs to be vacuumed. Am I the only one who can see that? The dishwasher needs to be unloaded. Does no one else realize those clean dishes don’t put themselves away? The dog poo needs to be picked up in the backyard. Am I the only one who doesn’t want to clean it off my shoes?
In one sample day, someone let the dogs in without wiping their feet; I spent twenty minutes picking up my daughter’s dirty clothes from her room; my son sat playing a video game as I juggled three dishes cooking simultaneously for dinner; the front doorbell was ringing, but no one was answering; the filthy floor from the muddy dog feet still went unmopped. When I snapped at my husband and he made a joke about my moodiness, I went on strike. All three of my people stood blinking at me in confusion and said, “You should have asked for help.”
The Mental Load. The expectation that I have to ask or instruct what should be obvious. I knew it couldn’t just be me, so I asked some of my women friends who are roughly at my stage of life. Was this Mental Load something that they carried, too?
Buddy One: “Oh, like the time my in-laws were coming over and I had to yell at my husband to get his dirty boxer shorts off the floral-patterned Queen Anne-style wing chair in my living room? He said I should have just told him to move them.” Bingo. The Mental Load.
Buddy Two: “You mean, like when I go away for a weekend with girlfriends and I get a phone call every time the dogs need to be fed to make sure they’re doing it correctly. I write it down in detail, every step of the feeding process, but it’s not enough. I have to talk them through it.” Even on vacation, The Mental Load.
Buddy Three: “When I get home from work and my teenage kids are all sitting around, watching tv. The first thing they want to know is ‘how long until dinner?’ I left the chicken thawing and the vegetables in the strainer in the sink. I ask why no one had started dinner and they just stare at me. ‘You didn’t tell us to start it.’” Yep. Mental Load.
Buddy Four: “My son has been having a toothache. I gave him the phone number for the dentist, but when I asked if he’s made the appointment, he said, ‘I thought you were going to do it.’ My son is twenty-two.” Check. Mental Load (and maybe a bit coddled).
Buddy Five: “The toilet and bathroom need to be cleaned. I ask my husband why he hasn’t done it when he’s the one who made the mess. He says because I didn’t tell him to do it.” Okay, Mental Load and…come on, gross!
Add to the daily list of household chores all the other activities. Planning family vacations. Organizing kids’ birthday celebrations. Overseeing holiday preparations and gift-buying. Scheduling car maintenance. All part of life. All things that need to be done. And, all I have to do is ask if I want help.
Now, to be fair, there is truth in the adage, “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Someone must be the point person. Someone has to have the big picture view. The problem becomes when that someone who is carrying The Mental Load is also doing a large portion of the daily chores.
There is a valid reason why the women I know are exhausted every minute of every day. Having her significant other explain how difficult his day is, with all of the stress that falls on him, only underscores his obtuseness. When he needs some “down time” after work, with a recap of last night’s basketball game on the tv and a bottle of Bud, he forgets that the dinner being cooked also required planning, shopping, and prep. The Mental Load that was carried before that meal was cooked.
What’s on sale?…In how many dinners can I use this massive head of fresh broccoli?…When can I get to the store?…After I finish paying the bills and before I pick up tax forms from the accountant?…I hope the car doesn’t die on the way since I forgot to have it checked when the engine light came on…Do I have enough soy sauce or do I need to go back to the store?
Is there a remedy for The Mental Load? Is it possible for the average woman to be the family manager and delegate all the tasks to the others in the household? Maybe some women assume this role because it makes sense that one person has sweeping oversight. Or, as in my case, maybe there’s a touch of a control issue. I am convinced that things are done more to my liking if I am in charge of everything. I won’t pretend I have the solution to The Mental Load. I just know that it is a full-time, energy-sapping job. And, I know women should give themselves a break when they show up an hour early to the vet’s office.
* * * * *
…By the Hair On My Chinny Chin Chin.
I’m staring down fifty-six – with a box of medium ash blond hair color in my hand, the kind specially formulated to cling to gray hairs. Yep, my hair color and I are staring down fifty-six.
I’ve been toying with the idea of letting my hair go gray. I just watched a video on Facebook of a woman, maybe thirty, having a makeover. Her shimmering chestnut hair was stripped of its natural color, then dyed gray. Why? Why would a young woman intentionally make her hair the color that so many women spend a fortune to cover? I was intrigued, though, when the stylist added a splash of electric blue to the underside of the back. I’m a little envious that these fun, bright colors weren’t a thing when I was a teenager back in the 1970s. I’d have jumped right on that bandwagon. Hell, I’d have been out front leading that band with my baton.
While the future of my hair color is still up in the air, there’s one hair issue that really gets my dander up. It’s those random hairs that sprout overnight on unsuspecting parts of my face. Is this how middle-aged is supposed to look? A cheap dye-job and a three-inch wiry, black hair jutting from my face?
The first time one of those charming little reminders of my advancing age appeared was about ten years ago. My husband, who’s learned to tread carefully when commenting on my physical appearance, began the hemming and hawing that precedes a topic he’s leery to broach.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, watching him squirm in his seat as he steered the car.
“Well, you’ve, uh…”
“There’s, uh, something on your chin.”
I rubbed, thinking it must be leftovers from dinner.
“No,” he said, glancing at me, then back at the road in front of him. “It’s attached.”
I pulled down the visor and flipped up the mirror cover, the sidelights casting a faint glow in darkness.
“Where? Where? I don’t see anything!” I jammed on my reading glasses, another joyful reality for the middle-aged, and began that game of closer-further-closer-further as my eyes tried to focus. “What is it?”
“I think it’s, er, a hair?”
“A hair? What do you mean, a hair?” The shrill in my voice drowned out “Hey There Delilah” on the stereo. I turned my head ever so slightly to the left and there it was! In profile, it stood at a proud and defiant ninety-degree angle from the left underside of my chin.
Using my thumb and middle fingers to form a pincer, I began fishing for it, trying to grab it between my nails. The car mirror was dimly lit; my glasses kept slipping down my sweaty nose; and, that whisker was as elusive as my grasp on the reality that the close-up in the mirror of that chin antenna really belonged to me.
“I can’t get it! I can see it; I can feel it. I just can’t get it!” I sank back against the seat in defeat, rubbing my thumb over the hair, trying to smooth it down against my skin. Maybe it wouldn’t be so noticeable then?
Once I got home, I flew to the brilliantly lit bathroom and found a pair of tweezers. I played that close-far game in the mirror until my eyes focused on the appendage. I aimed the tweezers at it, never blinking for fear that it would run for cover if I weren’t watching. Closer and closer as I angled the tips of those tweezers at the base. I closed them slowly…gently…not wanting to spook it. When the two sides came together, I triumphantly yanked. Where’d it go? It wasn’t attached to the tweezers. I searched the sink and surrounding counter, but it wasn’t there. I touched my finger to the place on my chin where it had been, assuming I’d feel smooth skin.
“Whaaaa…?” I felt a teeny bump that moved when I pushed it. Those tweezers had caused the hair to coil up into a ball, like a three-banded armadillo, protecting itself from extraction. Right there on my chin!
I yelled for my husband and, familiar with my history of self-inflicted injuries, he came running at full-throttle. When he appeared in the doorway of the bathroom expecting blood or a broken kneecap, what he found was his wife holding out a pair of tweezers toward him.
“Here. You get it.” I tipped my head back exposing the wiry curlicue on my chin. That is what I’d been reduced to. When we first met in our early twenties, my big, brawny husband used to watch my young, somewhat cute self with undisguised love and admiration. Now, he stood yanking an errant hair from my chin. I didn’t think any amount of eye-batting the following day could erase the harsh memory of the operation that had taken place under the stark lights in our bathroom.
I figured it was an aberration. A one-time thing. Throughout the subsequent years, my finger would check in with my chin to make sure a regrowth hadn’t happened. I became skilled at plucking at anything that dared break the surface. Never again has a tentacle emerged uninvited under my jawline.
Then came the morning, bleary-eyed from having just awoken, I stumbled into the bathroom and reflexively flicked on the light. I splashed some water on my face and grabbed my toothbrush. Absently, I regarded myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. It took a moment, but suddenly, like a spotlight with laser focus, I couldn’t see anything else except for the antenna growing from my left eyebrow. I knew it wasn’t there yesterday! Who could possibly miss that monstrosity? But, there it was now. Overnight, I’d become The Fly!
One yank and that thing was history but, seriously, is this what life is for me now? Gone are the carefree days of not thinking about skin care and stray hairs. Now, my daily routine includes a shelf of lotions and ever-ready tweezers. I can only imagine the delights I have awaiting me when I move out of middle-aged into the “old” category. Until then, however, I’ve decided to keep up my blond-in-a-box. I also went to the drugstore and bought some Indigo Semi-Permanent Hair Color. I figure a couple of strategically placed shocks of blue in my mane will cause a distraction in case there’s a return of that hair on my chinny chin chin.
* * * * *
…Step Away From The Cat!
I have a cat. There. I’ve admitted to it. Anyone who knows me or follows me on social media knows that I am a dog lover and have three who I refer to as “my pack.” But only those in my closest circle know that a cat also resides in my house.
Before you make assumptions that I’m just a “dog person” or that I am some sort of cat hater, let me stop you right there. I love cats. I’ve spent a lifetime scratching their furry chins attempting to elicit a motorboat purr. I’ve slept with cats curled around my head or perched on my hip as I lay in fetal position. I have a series of urns that hold the cremains of every cat I’ve adopted, cared for, and loved for the past thirty-five years. So, no, I don’t hate cats. It’s just this cat.
When I was fresh out of college and still living with my parents, my first act as a “real” adult was to adopt a cat. I adored Oliver, and he quickly imprinted on me. He followed me everywhere and cried when I left the house. Imagine my confusion when I took him to be neutered, and the vet later called to inform me that the spay was a success. Clearly, I had not been paying close attention but happily brought Olivia home. Soon after that, I met the man who I’d eventually marry and informed him at the outset that I came as a packaged deal. “Love me, love my cat.”
A few years later, my husband and I adopted an orange and white cat, Rex, as a companion for Olivia. Next came Oscar, a plushy gray and white beauty whose tail twitched like Ricky-Ticky-Tavi while I prepared his meals. Roughly two years later, I discovered a colony of feral cats, most of them still kittens, and coordinated efforts with a local vet to capture, spay or neuter, and give vaccines to each of them. While I found homes for many, we added four more to our private collection. That made seven. The following winter, we added Shelley and Leroy to the mix when their previous owner abandoned them in subfreezing temperatures.
Our happy family of nine cats was soon joined by our son, then three years later, our daughter. I remember calling my mother one morning, exhausted from another sleepless night with my colicky baby, and crying in utter defeat on the phone. “My whole life is nothing but cleaning up poopy pants, baby spit-up, and cat vomit.” While she made all the appropriate sympathy noises, I am certain I heard her chuckling to herself on the other end.
One by one, the cats began to die. I lost my beloved Olivia first and bought a bronze urn to enshrine her cremains. Next was Rex, then Oscar. When that urn was full, I bought a second, then a third. As each of my precious cats reached the end of his or her life, my heart would break anew. And, my house grew emptier and lonelier. When we lost our final cat, Cleo, who lived to the impressive age of twenty, my long-suffering husband begged me to let her be the last. While he had loved them all, he wanted a break from the litter boxes and the cat fur and the cigar-shaped hairballs that he’d step on in the dark with his bare feet.
I agreed, fully intending to keep my promise. But, what could I do when I spotted something rustling in the shrubs outside of the restaurant where my aunt and I had just had lunch? I crept closer to see what was there and a tiny, emaciated kitten wobbled toward me on shaky legs, emitting the most pitiful meow I’d ever heard. She was covered in dirt, so I wasn’t even sure of her color, and I scooped her up in my arms. My aunt offered a piece of leftover fish, and the kitten gobbled it without chewing. An employee of the restaurant came out just as I made up my mind that I couldn’t leave that poor creature to fate. I asked him to go back into the building and find me a box, during which time I began to devise a plan to get the kitten into the house without my husband blowing a gasket. By the time the employee returned with a carton that had Budweiser printed on the side, I knew that if I claimed the cat was our ten-year-old daughter’s, my husband would be more likely to relent.
I went to pick up my daughter from a playdate and called to give her a heads up. “Just wait until you see,” I told her with exaggerated enthusiasm as I drew her into the scheme I’d concocted. “I have a surprise for you. A gift!” As I pulled into the driveway, Tara and her friend met my car, bouncing with excitement to see what I’d brought.
The friend peered into the car with mixed confusion and disappointment. “You got her a case of beer?” she asked.
“No!” I laughed, trying to hide my nervousness. “It’s not beer. Here, look inside.”
“You got her a dead cat?”
I peeked into the box and could understand the mistake. The kitten was asleep on her side and looked almost flat from starvation.
“She’s not dead, I swear. I found her outside of a restaurant.” I looked at my daughter, pleading with my eyes. “She’s for you, Tara.”
My ploy worked. Tara was thrilled to have her very own pet, and my husband wasn’t about to rob her of that joy. She named her kitten Cynthia after her recently departed grandmother. We called her Cindy, which became Cindy Lou Who, which became Who, which became Hootie. We bought food and toys and a four-tier indoor cat tree with perches. We cleaned her up, made her an indoor pet, and took her to the vet to begin her on a path toward health.
The true Hootie began to show herself within months. First, she’d squirm to be released when Tara would try to snuggle with her. Then came the hissing. Okay, so maybe she doesn’t want to be held, I thought. We can deal with that. We found that we could hold her for short spurts as long as we kept up the chin scratching. Soon, that was no longer acceptable. But, we could still pet her, so that was what we did. That lasted about six months before she would hiss and smack at the offending hand.
I used to love brushing her long, silky hair but within a year, she’d attack the brush if she saw me brandishing it. Keeping her nails clipped? That became impossible unless I was okay with losing a finger or two. It was about that time the seizures started. After the first, I rushed her to the vet who did the whole battery of tests but couldn’t find the cause. After the second, I tried to get Hootie into a carrier to take her to the hospital again but was met with a menacing growl, hissing, and flailing claws. I backed away.
The years progressed, as did the seizures, as did the increasingly feral behavior. Hootie would hide in rooms and lunge, in full growling-hissing-flailing-claws mode, at passersby. The dogs, who used to think she was another playmate, began giving her a wide berth when walking by her. Even placing her food down became a challenge if she was anywhere in sight. She, quite literally, would bite the hand that fed her. I remember laughing about a story I’d read when a husband and wife called 911 because their cat had them trapped in their bathroom. After finding myself in my own bathroom, with Hootie standing outside of it, wild-eyed, crouched, and growling at me, I no longer thought that story was funny.
With each seizure, Hootie took longer to shake the disorientation, seeming to grow angrier and more ferocious. The vet wanted to see her, but it was impossible to corral her into her carrier. Finally, on New Year’s Day, I knew we couldn’t keep on like this. As our guests relaxed after brunch, the cat came howling into the room, eyes unfocused, and fur going every which way. She seemed confused about where to go. She dashed toward my son who instinctively pulled his legs up on the chair. He’d had more than one instance when contact with the cat left him looking as if he’d been manhandled by Edward Scissorhands. She disappeared under a side table, yowling and hissing. The dogs were panicked, attempting to approach her, then running in terror. I finally managed to help her escape to another room.
The next day I called the vet. I knew it would be impossible to take Hootie in for an exam unless fully sedated, but who could possibly get a tranquilizer down her throat? The doctor listened to my description of the cat’s behavior – the fluctuating moods, when she’d seem perfectly fine then suddenly spitting mad; the occasional confusion, like entering a room and not knowing what she was doing there; her fur disheveled as if she’d forgotten how to groom herself; the yelling and howling. As I heard myself listing the symptoms, I found my heart softening toward her. While the doctor’s distant voice was explaining that, without tests to diagnose, her best guess was a neurological misfiring likely attributed to lack of nutrition as a kitten, I gazed at my beautiful yet misunderstood kitty and felt both sympathy and kinship. I realized that her behavior, minus the seizures, was very similar to my own since I’d started menopause. The mood swings, the mental confusion, the yelling, the unkempt appearance. I knew her cause was neurological while mine was hormonal, but still.
“What can I do for her?” I asked the vet.
“Well, some people might find this behavior too much to handle. It’s really your call. Is she even having any quality of life?”
Quality of life? I knew what the doctor was saying, but I’d never put down an animal unless in obvious pain and distress. How could I do something like that to this cat without pulling out all stops to help her?
Quality of life? Had that thought crossed my husband and kids’ minds when they cowered at my mood swings? When I’d forgotten to brush my hair as I stood in the middle of my living room trying to remember why I’d gone in there?
“Isn’t there something I can give her to calm her down?” I asked, noting the hint of desperation in my voice. “Make her less moody? Maybe help with the seizures?”
She thought for a moment. “Well, since you can’t get pills into her, I’d suggest cannabis oil. We have a formulation specifically for animals. Some pets respond very well to it.”
“Let’s try that!”
Off I went to pick up the oil. I forked out $130 for one bottle and decided my husband didn’t need to know that. Since giving it to her, Hootie has not had another seizure. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I want to believe this is helping her. I think she’s slightly less aggressive, too. For the past week, she hasn’t growled at me when I set out her food. Plus, she’s back to doing some of the cute things that had endeared her to me at the start, like when she comes running if I call out, “Treat!” There she’ll sit, slightly crazy-eyed but so beautiful, waiting for me to put her Cat-Man-Doo tuna flakes out. She still thinks her long, fluffy tail is a foreign agent that she can’t outrun, but it’s been at least a few days since she’s screeched and waged an attack on it.
So, maybe this cannabis oil is actually helping to address the underlying cause of Hootie’s problems. Or, maybe she’s just stoned. In any event, life with her is less stressful, at least for the time being. Now I’m wondering if menopause is listed as one of the approved medical conditions in my state for obtaining cannabis. I may have to investigate. My family would certainly appreciate it.
* * * * *
…Timber! A Christmas Tale.
When I was a teenager, I was a member of Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. As with all churches, the highlight of the year was the Christmas celebration. For us, this included the annual decorating of the tree.
The congregation planned for months. The format was always the same. Our priest read the Christmas story – from Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, to arriving at the stable filled with animals, to the birth of Jesus, to the arrival of the Three Wise Men. As the story progressed, we listened for our cues and, when it was our turn, we proceeded to the massive tree by the altar to hang homemade ornaments. Once the story was over and the tree was bedecked in all its glory, we sang hymns and rejoiced in our shared fellowship.
In 1976, the year Lori attended this beloved service with my mother and me, we were asked to make two angels and the crown jewel, the baby Jesus. My mother took this honor seriously. To the craft store we went, up and down the aisles, hunting and searching. Mom was on a mission, and she’d be damned if anything would stop her from displaying her strong religious faith and her artistic talents. We arrived home; our arms were laden with heavy cardstock, colored pencils, markers of varying thickness, new scissors, feathers, glitter, and a sheet of gold leaf.
Mom looked through old books and children’s Christmas stories, hunting for models for her designs. No, she wouldn’t copy or trace or rip off anyone else’s creations. She was too much of a purist for that. This was the woman who handmade every Halloween costume I’d ever worn. This was the woman who had baked and decorated every one of my birthday cakes. She doodled while on the telephone; she crafted stained glass treasures for gifts; and, she created magnificent bouquets of flowers, each petal made of twisted wire dipped in liquid plastic, dried, then assembled into lilies, roses, and orchids. My baton twirling outfits were of crushed velvet and bedazzled with rhinestones and pearls. Hell, no. This year’s Christmas ornaments were going to be showstoppers, she determined.
The patterns were drawn, nearly a foot high, and laid carefully to the cardstock. The new, razor-sharp scissors precisely hugged every turn and sharply snipped each corner. With a pencil, Mom sketched in the details of the angels’ faces, with wide eyes and rosebud lips, then colored brilliantly with markers. The plump, baby Jesus was in a manger, a crown angled impossibly on his head.
The finished products were magnificent. Scraps of shimmery white gossamer, leftover from an old project, had become angelic robes. Feathers crafted wings. Long, acrylic hair, cut from discarded dolls – one blond, one dark – had been attached to their cardboard heads, parted in the middle in front and flowing nearly to their feet in back.
And, little Jesus – what a triumph! Real hay had been glued inside the manger and, on his head, the crown shimmered with gold leaf. He was pink-cheeked and cherubic, a nod to the Gerber baby. Crafted in loving detail, you could almost hear him gurgle with joy as the angels sang.
Lori and I could barely contain ourselves as we waited for the big day. We filed into church, proudly holding Mom’s masterpieces, but we couldn’t help noticing what the others had made. Skimpy hand-drawn images on paper – colored only on one side, some curling at the bottom – were so pathetic that we found it difficult to hide our ridicule. But, we were in church, after all, so we smiled graciously to the others, reveling in their naked envy.
Entering the nave, we gasped when we saw this year’s tree. It rose higher and higher, reaching toward Heaven in the rafters of the cathedral ceiling. We took our seats, jittery with anticipation for the service to begin. As the priest read the Christmas story, families and friends rose to walk down the center aisle toward the towering tree to hang their ornaments. We followed along in the program, waiting for our turn. At last, it came.
Mom, Lori, and I rose as one, paused as we entered the aisle to allow everyone the chance to see our extraordinary ornaments. A sprinkle of glitter from my dark-haired angel fell like fairy dust as I held her high for those in the back to admire. Lori, with the blond angel, did a similar sweep. But, Mom took the lead as she was carrying the most precious of all. Like a bride approaching her awaiting groom, Mom proceeded reverently toward the front of the church. There were whispers and smiles of appreciation for the gold-crowned baby she held delicately in her hands. Lori and I followed at a respectful distance, our angels reaping equal admiration.
When we reached the front of the church, we turned to face the congregation and, once more, raised our ornaments high for all to see. Then, Lori went to one side of the tree to hang hers while I went to the other. Mom, holding the heart of the entire event, moved to place hers front and center. I struggled to secure my angel to the branch I’d chosen and began searching for a new one. As I reached to loop my angel’s hanger over the pine needles, it moved away from me and, simultaneously, I heard someone from the back of the room yell, “Timber!”
I watched in mixed horror and fascination as that colossal tree tipped, almost in slow motion, toward the congregation. Suddenly, Lori was staring at me, wide-eyed and mouth gaping, over the branches of the fallen tree. I think my face must have mirrored her shock, but then she began laughing. Lori has an infectious laugh that makes it impossible not to join in. Plus, we were fourteen. We found everything funny at that age. We were nearly doubled-over in hysterics.
The priest rushed forward to help Mom out from underneath. She crawled from where she’d been trapped, pine needles sticking at all angles from her hair, a sprinkling of glitter across her fiery red face. Lori and I looked at each in momentary panic as Mom was helped to her feet. But, when she yelled, “Goddammit, Lori! You pushed the tree over!” we pressed our hands to our mouths to hold the laughter back.
The entire church was silent except for the echo of Mom’s words. As we slunk back toward our pew, I glanced left and right from beneath my lowered lashes to see that no one was admiring us now. In fact, they deliberately avoided looking in our direction. As some helpful people at the front of the church worked furiously to right the tree, we kept right on going past our seat and headed out the back door. That was the last time we participated in the yearly Christmas story tradition at our church.
* * * * *
…The Family Dog-Fight.
It’s that time of year again. Predictably, the Christmas catalogs are appearing in my mailbox. Just as predictably, they all end up in the recycling bin except for the ones with cute puppies on the front sporting names, such as “In the Company of Dogs.” I peruse them carefully, dog-earing page after page, marking each gift I intend to purchase. I take note of rawhide bones, sweet potato chips, and winter sweaters for cold days. I drop squeaky plush toys into my virtual shopping cart for my oldest and a tug-of-war rope for my youngest. If I’m feeling particularly lavish, I add tee- or sweat-shirts with printed sayings like “I like big mutts, and I cannot lie” for myself.
My husband, Guy, has long claimed that there’s a family totem pole and that he is so far to the bottom that he’s in the dirt. I take offense at that accusation as I’ve always prided myself on fairness and parity. I have two kids who I go to great pains to shower equally with my love. I remind my husband, nearly daily, that I hit the jackpot when I found him. But my family insists that my dogs rank above them all. First comes Josie, my thirteen-year-old Spanish Water Dog, who follows me as faithfully as my second shadow. Next is Freddie, my skittish Shepherd mix, who’s favorite place is next to me in bed. Then there’s Lula, the baby, a Boxer/Pit mix who joined the family two years ago. Although Lula is 60 pounds of solid muscle, she sees herself as a lap dog – any lap, she’s not choosy. Next are my son and daughter who argue over their place in the hierarchy – that’s a subject for another story. Then, at the bottom in the dirt, is Guy.
My passion for dogs started when I was nine with Maurice, a sweet Bassett Hound that my parents were too lazy to neuter. He loved when my girlfriends would come visit and was quick to show them how much he loved them. Next was Gus, a subpar replacement when Maurice died. He was a nasty, cranky creature that snapped if your hand got too near his food. It was more of a relief than grief when he departed this earth.
Then came Clifford. He was the first dog Guy and I adopted, and everyone who met him adored him. Unfortunately, he was from a rough background and had a host of health problems. On days that his medication was upsetting his tummy, I’d bring home organic chicken and painstakingly cook it, heat up broth, and mix it with Lundberg Jasmine rice. My daughter’s clearest memory of those times is forlornly asking me when dinner would be, and me responding, “You’ll have to wait. I’m cooking for Clifford now, can’t you see? Your father will bring home Taco Bell.”
When Clifford, the essence of dog perfection, died at the age of four, I didn’t think I could handle the heartbreak of losing another beloved pet. After a year, my mother finally convinced me to go against everything I believed in and buy a purebred dog. “It will have guaranteed health,” she suggested. “For once, give yourself a break.” So, for the first time, I didn’t go to a rescue shelter or bring in an animal I found on the street. I bought Josie from a breeder, and her unwavering adoration helped heal my broken heart.
Three years later, we decided Josie needed a friend. I went back to my bleeding-heart roots and found Freddie at a nearby shelter and decided to give him the life he deserved. The dogs’ gourmet meals consisted of Merrick’s premium canned stews, mixed with organic peas and carrots, with a dollop of canned pumpkin for extra fiber. My family got whatever was on sale at ShopRite. Everyone at the holistic vet’s office knew me by first name because the dogs never missed their bi-annual checkups. They regularly had bloodwork, shots, teeth cleanings, acupuncture for sprained muscles, herbs and homeopathy for allergies. At one point, they were both diagnosed with Lyme Disease and got antibiotics, probiotics, home-cooked chicken and rice while they recuperated. My kids went to the doctor yearly for their school check-ups and got some Vitamin C tossed at them if they had the sniffles.
A couple of years ago, my son was living in Vermont and told me about this dog a friend of his was fostering. I said, “Send me a picture.” That’s all it took. I drove seven hours to adopt Lula. Lula had some adjustment issues, primarily centered around her wanting all the food and toys – EVERYONE’S food and toys. Off she went to the dog psychologist and the trainer. She’s now a well-behaved dream dog with multiple offers for taking her off our hands if we find three dogs to be too much. Nope. She’s not going anywhere.
What could be more incredible than walking in the door after having been gone for a week, or even twenty minutes, and being greeted by the yelps and excitement of three loving and attentive dogs? My husband doesn’t greet me like that. Neither do my adult children. Is it any wonder that it’s my dogs who star on my social media platforms and take up 90% of the pictures on my phone?
I don’t know what my kids and husband are complaining about anyway. I say goodnight to them every night. Even my kids, who don’t live at home, get a nightly goodnight text from me. Then, I get Josie into her feather top orthopedic bed, plump up her pillow and place it under her head, and tuck her fleece blanket around her. Freddie likes to hop onto the king-size bed with me where I arrange two body-pillows around him and pull his blanket up to his chin. Lula has a much shorter coat than the other two so tends to get chilly. She’s appropriated the heating blanket my daughter gave me for Christmas last year and likes it under her, then a lightweight satin comforter on top of her, even covering her head.
My family has also become impatient with me because I’m not as flexible with my availability as I once was. While I’m good for a three-hour jaunt, I don’t like to be away from the dogs for much longer than that. My daughter wants me to hang out with her in Brooklyn for the day, but how can I leave the dogs for that long? Someone needs to let them out and dole out their assorted medications on time. My son will be living in Paraguay for the next few years as he serves with the Peace Corps. He’s excited at the thought of us all spending next Christmas with him in South America. I’m already getting a nervous stomach, though, just thinking about who’s going to stay with the dogs. Plus, I can’t leave them alone on Christmas, can I? Or, maybe Guy could stay behind with them.
As of November 26, I finished all my Christmas shopping for the dogs. They each have a new toy, a sweater, some bully sticks, assorted gourmet dog biscuits, and chicken liver treats. Their stockings will be jammed to bursting. I guess it’s time to start thinking about the rest of the family. Hmm…my husband may be right. The dogs may be at the top of the totem pole.
* * * * *
…Meat-free? Dairy-free? Gluten-free? Uh…yum?
The first thing I noticed the other morning was that my kitchen reeked like dirty feet. It took me a moment to realize that the source of the offense was not my husband’s gardening sneakers parked by the back door but, instead, the remnants of the previous night’s dinner-gone-wrong still fermenting in the garbage can. Even with the lid tightly secured, the odor socked me in the gut unlike any smell had since the first trimester of my pregnancies over two decades ago.
That dinner was the most recent installment in my ever-evolving culinary experiments. My husband—my long-suffering, gung-ho, real sport of a Guy (yes, that’s actually his name)—had forced a neutral look on his face as he bravely took the first bite of my latest creation. Over thirty years, I’d become proficient at finding mouth-watering recipes in cookbooks or online, then modifying them beyond recognition to align with my ethical concerns, ongoing health self-education, or doctor-advised dietary restrictions. Over thirty years, Guy has learned to adapt to whatever I placed in front of him.
When we first met, a McDonald’s cheeseburger with a side of fries and a large Coke was Guy’s lunchtime staple and, in his estimation, a well-balanced meal. It had meat, dairy, a bun, lettuce, tomato, and onion (so, basically, a salad), and potatoes. Sure, the Coke was pure sugar, but what’s one vice? he thought, since the rest hit all of the essential food groups. By the time we met in 1984 however, I had just quit an advertising sales job where one of my clients was a beef and pork product producer. I’d only gone once to that advertiser because once was all it took for me to refuse ever to return. Also, I never ate beef or pork again. So, while everything else in my McDonald’s lunch mirrored Guy’s, I opted for the filet-o-fish sandwich instead of the cheeseburger.
Through our early years of marriage, Guy enjoyed my cooking. I mastered quiches; soufflés in red bell peppers; baked lasagnas; even a quick, vegetarian modification of Hamburger Helper. I was a wizard with Salmon en Papillote and could whip up a mean Chicken Cacciatore. I tackled recipes like a defensive guard, and we rarely had leftovers for next day’s lunch. Our weekly restaurant visit was to The Chowderpot on Thursdays with an all-you-can-eat salad bar, including endless pick ‘n peel shrimp and bottomless soup bowls.
While I had given up red meat and pork before we met, Guy continued to satisfy his cravings when we were guests at someone else’s home or if he had a work lunch. When our son was born though, he had a sudden and absolute shift in how he viewed the food on his plate. In one fell swoop, he became a vegetarian. He gave up all red meat, pork, poultry, even seafood. With my husband’s shift in perspective, I chose to eliminate all meat from my diet as well. Since we decided to raise our child as a vegetarian too, I had extra incentive to provide a diet complete in vitamins and nutrients. This is when I began my foray into tofu, tempeh, lentils, black beans, and new, exotic-sounding grains like quinoa. We discovered seitan and a growing number of meat substitutes by Morningstar Farms and Quorn.
By the time our daughter was born, I’d mastered the meatless diet. With a colicky baby resulting in next to no sleep, I had little energy to make the planned, nutritious gourmet offerings my family was used to. A quick pasta dinner with a side of broccoli and a multi-vitamin was about all I could swing. When our daughter was ten, a savvy friend suggested her ongoing intestinal troubles may be connected to the dairy-heavy diet that television commercials had convinced me was essential for my growing children’s bone development. Back to the internet to learn how to safely eliminate dairy to see if that was, in fact, my daughter’s problem. Within days, lifelong symptoms disappeared and she claimed to feel better than she ever had. That got me thinking. Could my own battle with intestinal unpredictability be related to dairy too? A month later, I knew it was. Since then, even a small amount of butter or cream results in noise and pain from my gut that demand I be more careful.
With this recent revelation, I stopped buying dairy. With articles and reports about factory-farming in the egg industry, I ticked off eggs from my shopping list as well. I furiously sought substitutes that my family would find acceptable as I doled out their daily dose of vitamin B12. Soon, my son left for college and scurried to Vermont where he was free to indulge in as much Cabot cheese as he wanted. My daughter mysteriously had “other plans” when I’d announce dinner would be broccoli loaf or spaghetti squash with meatless balls. Yet my husband always chewed his food gamely, nodding in appreciation of my efforts.
Luckily for both kids, they were away at school when my doctor suggested I try a gluten-free diet to address lingering symptoms of Lyme Disease. That added a whole new level of difficulty to my cooking challenge. Finding gluten-free breads without that chalky after-taste and experimenting with gluten-free flours and gluten-free panko crumbs taxed my patience, but Guy kept eating what I produced. What I really, really wanted though, was a grilled cheese sandwich. To most people, that doesn’t sound like a big deal. But to me, it had been a lot of years since I’d indulged in the real thing. No butter, no cheese, and most recently, no bread.
That’s when I had my great idea for dinner the other night. Like a translation app, my mind has learned to read a recipe and automatically make the exchanges for ingredients I can’t use. For grilled cheese, I replaced the butter with Earth Balance. I bought Go Veggie! Cheddar “cheese” slices. And for the bread, I substituted cauliflower. I found a recipe online and followed the instructions for grating the cauliflower, squeezing out excess moisture, mixing with egg (I used Ener-G Egg Replacer), herbs and spices, and Parmesan cheese (I used Go Veggie Parmesan). I mixed it all together and created slices of “bread,” then constructed grilled “cheese” sandwiches. Served next to a steaming bowl of vegan “cream” of tomato soup, my husband eyed his meal with thinly disguised apprehension. I eagerly watched him take his first bite and awaited his verdict. Slightly disappointed that his eyes didn’t light up with surprised enthusiasm, I watched him finish chewing, then swallow.
“Well?” I asked.
“It’s…not bad. I can see what you were going for.”
“Going for?” I blinked rapidly. “It’s a grilled cheese!” How could he not know that?
“I’m thinking that maybe—and I’m not saying absolutely—but possibly the ‘bread’ could have been cooked a little more. It’s just a little under-done in the center.”
I’d show him! I dipped a corner of my sandwich into the soup and took a hearty bite. Instead of the gooey cheesiness enfolded between pan-fried-in-butter crispy toast that my mouth was anticipating, I chomped into tasteless rubber surrounded by foot-flavored granular particles. I couldn’t even pretend in the moment. Two chews later and I spit it into my napkin and threw the remains into the trashcan where it stayed, stinking up the kitchen until morning.
I recently developed an obsession with John Joseph, the lead singer from Cro-Mags and Bloodclot. He is vegan, a triathlete, and the author of a book about vegan nutrition, Meat is For Pussies. He is coarse, foul-mouthed, and deeply knowledgeable about living a healthy vegan lifestyle. I adore him. His video for making a vegan lasagna had me laughing and convinced me to give it a shot. Off I went to Whole Foods with my husband in tow. I was excited as my cart started to fill up with the ingredients to make John Joseph’s recipe. I snagged some plum tomatoes, broccoli, and blackstrap molasses. I skipped over the zucchini that John suggested for his recipe as Guy hates anything that looks remotely like a squash. I found the Kite Hill ricotta, Daiya mozzarella cheese, and Beyond Meat crumbles. I allowed Guy to choose tomato sauce. Finally, I went in search of the lasagna noodles. I scoured the shelves from top to bottom but couldn’t find what I was looking for. Always quick with the substitutions, I snagged a box of manicotti tubes instead.
“Look!” I said, proudly displaying my find. I was already envisioning how I would stuff the noodles with my lasagna fixings and it would still be delicious.
But Guy’s face had dropped. It had sunk so far to the ground that it seemed I had to look down at my 6’2” husband to meet his eyes.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, utterly baffled. “I thought you liked manicotti.”
With his mouth turned down, he jerked his head in the direction of the box I held out. “But they’re gluten-FREE!”
I burst out laughing. My poor husband. I’d sliced and diced nearly every edible pleasure out of his diet. I’d gotten him excited at the thought of a hearty lasagna, complete with fake cheese and fake meat, slipping in some broccoli for additional nutrition, but he’d forgotten my gluten issue. That was the final insult. I hadn’t seen him look that sad since the Yankees lost to the Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series.
I’m not a heartless person. I could see that he had hit his limit on my creative food reconstruction. I had mercy on him and relented.
“Okay. No gluten-free manicotti. I’ll use eggplant instead,” I said, conveniently forgetting his aversion to all purple foods.
* * * * *
…Does Grief Have a Deadline?
My daughter phoned me the other night and, as usual, when I see her name on the caller ID, apprehension kicked me in the gut. It’s not that I don’t hear from her frequently, but an unscheduled call from my twenty-one-year-old living two hours away in New York City revs my mom-anxiety into overdrive instantly.
“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” has become my normal greeting when either of my adult children calls me out of the blue. They find it annoying, yet comfortable. My kids get me.
This time, though, I wasn’t greeted with her usual, “Of course! I just wanted to tell you about my day.” This time I heard sobbing on the other end and a plaintive, “Momma…”
Tara had just finished reading the letters my mother wrote to her on her first birthday. The letters were part of a time capsule I had assembled when Tara turned one, that was to be opened on her twenty-first birthday. It included birthday cards, balloons, the hospital bracelets she and I wore when she was born, a fuzzy blanket, a baby rattle, a memory book, and so on. At the time, I had asked her surviving grandparents (my father was deceased by then) to each write letters to Tara about whatever they felt might be important for her to know twenty years in the future. Those letters, along with the other mementos, were then carefully tucked into the time capsule tin and sealed for two decades.
While Tara’s paternal grandparents are still with us and have watched Tara grow into the bright, funny, compassionate young woman she is, my mother passed away when Tara was only nine. Throughout those nine short years, Tara and her older brother were the center of their nana’s life. She retired from her job to spend more time with them, often relieving me when I was cross-eyed from fatigue. She planned day trips, made crafts with them, played games, and spent hours showing them how to take care of their Sims on the computer. Nana attended all their school events, cheered their triumphs, and held them close when they were hurt. When she became ill, Nana even lived with us for a time.
When my mother died, Tara was inconsolable. Even at that young age, she was eloquent about her emotions. “I’ve lost one of the three most important women in my life.” (The others being her other grandmother and myself). “Nothing will ever be the same.”
I remember that exact feeling when I suffered my first real loss. I was twenty and a week away from starting my junior year in college. My beloved great-aunt, Ellie, died suddenly of kidney failure. She had been an ever-present figure my entire life, loving me despite my often-difficult temperament and giving in to me when my own mother wouldn’t. Her death was an agony I’d never known. Those around me offered comforting words, but it did nothing to ease my broken heart. Friends didn’t understand when they found me sobbing in bed. They didn’t get it when I wasn’t my usual life-of-the-party self and that I couldn’t go on with my life as if a gaping hole hadn’t been ripped straight through the middle of it. For me, it was clear. This woman, around whom my most cherished lifelong memories revolved, was gone forever.
Seven years later when my father died, I was thrust into the role of my mother’s emotional rock. I remember her telling me that well-intentioned people in her life said she should get into therapy and needed anti-depressants. She wondered how many of these suggestions were based on their own discomfort at witnessing her pain. Then, a co-worker, someone she’d never known well, emerged with exactly what she needed at that point in her grief. He began stopping by her office every day to check on her, his presence acknowledging her need for time, human interaction, and patience as she adjusted to the dramatic change in her everyday life. He validated her dread of celebrating Christmas without her partner, of the birthdays and celebrations he’d miss, of the looming one-year anniversary of his death. Despite countless setbacks during the next several years, she found new interests, spent time with friends, and found joy in her grandchildren.
So, when Tara, at nine-years-old, uttered many of the same emotions I’d experienced at twenty and again at twenty-seven, I immediately understood what she meant. She cried. She didn’t want to go to school. She held onto the memories of things she and Nana had done together, reminiscing over and over, as if repeating them would cement them in her very being. On one hand, I was concerned because I couldn’t comfort my daughter, but at the same time, I knew her grief for such an enormous loss was to be expected.
What I found peculiar, though, was the feedback from some of the adults in her life. Several staff and faculty at her school informed me that her reaction wasn’t “normal.” That she should be “getting over it” by now. I received a few calls a week during the month following her nana’s death, saying Tara wanted to come home from school. Her inability to bury her grief quickly after burying her grandmother prompted suggestions of anti-depressants. Her well-meaning peers, while trying to relate to her, told her, “I lost my grandmother too. I know exactly what you’re feeling.” This infuriated Tara, who felt that her level of pain was based on the close bond she had with her grandmother, not the biological connection. Again, a feeling I understood from my own relationship with Ellie. But, when my uncle began expressing doubt that Tara should still be so grief-stricken a month later, I made an appointment for her to speak with a therapist.
“Tara’s response is absolutely natural,” I was told. “She understands the finality of death quite clearly and is heartbroken over losing her grandmother. Wouldn’t it seem odd if she wasn’t grieving for someone she loved so dearly?” She then said that medication could be an option if Tara was unable to function, but we weren’t there.
I was relieved by the professional’s conclusion, and more than a little vindicated with my own assessment of Tara’s show of grief. No, it wasn’t abnormal. No, she wasn’t overreacting. No, she shouldn’t be “getting over it” according to someone else’s timetable. She needed to be allowed the dignity to properly go through the entire grieving process.
One thing that the therapist uncovered, though, was something I had not thought. The loss of her grandmother had awakened Tara’s awareness of the impermanence of life. As children, we are secure in assuming things will never change and that those around us will always be. For Tara, losing her grandmother made her suddenly realize that, at some point, she would lose her other close family members. Most terrifying to her nine-year-old self was the thought of losing her parents. In addition to the loss of her nana, Tara was now weighted under the loss of her sense of constancy and security.
At that moment, I remembered my own feelings when I suffered my first loss. When Ellie died, I had the same sense of being adrift in the world. The people who I thought would be my anchors through life, providing the safe harbor I took for granted, would not always be there. It was that enlightenment that marked the end of my childhood.
Tara moved through the stages of grief, predictably arriving at acceptance. She continued through middle school, high school, and into college. It turns out, she has many of her grandmother’s traits, including a flair for acting, a skill for writing, and a keen sense of humor.
Having grieved, though, doesn’t mean unexpected reminders won’t slice our heart open again. Hearing a song you shared, a sudden familiar scent, visiting a place you once walked with your loved one will inspire dormant feelings of longing and sorrow to burst to the surface.
So, when I got that phone call from Tara, sobbing because she had read her nana’s letters lovingly hand-written all those years ago, my heart jerked with concern for her emotional state. She read me excerpts, sniffling at times, laughing at others. Predictions that Tara would be tall and green-eyed—she is. Transparency about her own fragile health and her belief that she would not live to see Tara turn twenty-one. Her hopes and visions of Tara’s bright future. Background on who she was as a person outside of just being “Nana.” Honest revelations about choices made, paths chosen, and regrets for dreams never achieved. Each word was written in my mother’s beautifully artistic hand; each word was poetically chosen.
Near the end of the conversation, Tara commented on what an incredible writer Nana had been. “You get that from her, you know,” I told her. “One of her biggest regrets in life was that she never followed that passion. She always wanted to be a published writer, but never pushed herself to accomplish it.”
“I guess that’s why you push me the way you do,” she said. “So, I never regret not having tried.” Then, she added, “I’m coming home to see you this weekend. I need to make sure you, Gran (her other grandmother), and Aunt Pat (my mother’s sister) know how important you are in my life.”
When I hung up the phone, my heart felt a little swollen. Not with concern that Tara had renewed grief, but with relief. My daughter has learned to express grief when she’s feeling it, instead of hiding it for fear of being labeled “not normal.” Most significantly, as a twenty-one-year-old, she has learned the importance of showing the people in her life how much she loves them while she has the chance. With my emotions tangled by the revelation, I realized that my baby has left her childhood behind.
* * * * *
…When Will I Get My Life Back?
Mom was the purveyor of all knowledge and sage advice. As a child, I thought she knew it all.
“Girls can achieve as much as boys can; they just need to work twice as hard.” Or, “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor man.” At the age of seven, I found these words baffling, but would smugly repeat them to my wide-eyed friends who were as clueless as I was.
When I was thirteen and past regarding boys simply as adversaries in Mother May I and Red Light, Green Light, Mom felt it was time for the Big Talk. I think I was expecting something characteristically straightforward and clinical. At the very least, an inventive version of the birds and the bees. Instead, as she coughed, cleared her throat, and failed to meet my eyes, she muttered, “Don’t have sex until you’re prepared to have a baby. It will be eighteen years until you get your life back.”
Mom’s parochial attempt at discussing birth control by putting the fear of long-term commitment into me seemed bizarre. My idea of a commitment was putting a flower-power patch over the hole on my favorite jeans that I’d worn at least three times a week for the past year. Now, that’s commitment!
Pearls of Mom wisdom would follow me into adulthood as her way of trying to influence my choices. From my college relationship with Joe, the serious-minded business major who never laughed at my jokes—“You have to find someone with a sense of humor. How can anyone go through life without a sense of humor?”—to my brief engagement to Jeff, who had barely finished high school—“You need someone you can have a real conversation with.”
I must have paid her some heed. At twenty-six, I married Guy, a man who could both keep me laughing and hold up his end of a discussion.
Inevitably, once the ring was on my finger, questions about plans for a family began to flood in. The threat that “it will be eighteen years until you get your life back” was never far from my mind. Would I ever be ready to give up impromptu trips to the Bahamas or late nights at karaoke bars? For the next eighteen years?
At thirty, I decided if I was ever going to have children it had better start happening.
Mom’s added little warning, just in case I wasn’t apprehensive enough, hovered in the back of my mind still. “You’ll be tired every minute. You don’t know what tired feels like until you have children.”
As my husband and I happily celebrated the impending birth of our first child, I secretly dreaded the constant exhaustion for the next eighteen years until I got my life back.
One thing Mom had failed to tell me was how over-the-moon in love with my baby I would be.
Two days after his birth, I dressed in my street clothes preparing to leave the hospital and skipped down the hall to collect my newborn from the nursery.
A nurse stopped me and asked if she could help.
“My baby and I are going home today!” My face ached from its perpetual smile.
“Your baby?” The nurse looked me up and down. “You just had a baby? You mean you’re a patient?”
Once home, Guy and I quickly settled into a routine and I forgot, for the time being, that I wouldn’t get my life back for eighteen years. On day three after my son’s birth, my hormones flew into a frenzy as they attempted to return to their pre-baby state. Mom had prepared me for that very moment. “Three days after giving birth, your moods will be crazy and out of control.” And, oh boy, was she right! Like a swimmer frozen at the edge of the beach watching a twenty-foot wave barreling toward her, I felt it coming. Luckily, I remembered Mom’s wisdom and was able to forewarn my husband.
“I just want you to know,” I began as he looked up from his newspaper. “My hormones are running amok right now. There’s nothing wrong. I’m really happy. But I can’t stop what’s coming. I’m going to sit here and cry for a while. No need to worry.” As he stared at me, I cried for about twenty minutes, then was done.
Over the next months and years, I settled into my new role as a parent. Running up to the grocery was no longer a quick errand. It required planning around feedings and naps, and likely would be hurried in case the baby had a public meltdown. Going to the bathroom now required my twenty-pound chaperone, and showering included playing peek-a-boo from behind the curtain while he chortled from his bouncy seat.
Since our life wouldn’t be ours for another eighteen years, we figured we might as well have a second baby. Two years later, our daughter was born. We tallied it up. We would get our life back in eighteen years from then, a total of twenty-one.
Having two young children brought on a whole new round of challenges. And new gems from Mom:
“Going from one child to two more than doubles your work.” – She was right on that account. I believe evolution should advance so mothers of two or more grow an extra set of arms.
“Get them on the same nap schedule. Otherwise, you’ll never get a break.” – Really? And how do you convince a colicky newborn that it’s nap time?
“Make sure the older one is potty trained before having the baby. You don’t want two in diapers at the same time.” – Again, really? I never mastered the reasoning-with-a-toddler trick.
My second child was a girl, and Mom’s newest advice carried an undercurrent of sexism:
“A daughter will break your heart in ways a son can’t.” – Both of my children seemed equally capable of breaking my heart from time to time.
“She’ll wrap her daddy around her little finger.” – That absolutely turned out to be true. I don’t know how much of it was a father-daughter thing, though, and how much of it was that they share the same raunchy sense of humor.
“Your son is your son ‘til he takes a wife. Your daughter is your daughter for the rest of your life.” I don’t know. I grew up hearing that one. Maybe it was Mom’s subtle way of ensuring I’d be around to change her Depends in her old age. My brothers certainly couldn’t be counted on. As for my own kids, that remains to be seen.
By then, Mom had retired and made herself available to help me when my active toddler and screaming baby had me reaching for the Xanax. One day, as I changed the baby’s sixth or seventh diaper, cleaned up my toddler from his second poopy-pants accident (yes, that’s how I’d actually begun to talk), and picked up yet another cat puke, I had a revelation.
“This is it for me, isn’t it?” I asked her. I felt a heaviness fall on me as I sank into a chair. “There’s nothing more. First you’re born, then you get married, then have children, then you die. Is that all I’m doing now? I’m just waiting to die?”
As I dissolved into a sniveling mess of self-pity, Mom rubbed my back in that tight area between my shoulder blades and said, “You know perfectly well there’s more to life. You’re raising your children right now; that’s important. You’ll find activities and community and, once they’re in school, you should go back to work. And don’t forget, once they’re eighteen, you’ll get your life back.”
I appreciated her wisdom in the moment. Though by then, I had started to wonder what that would look like anymore. Getting my life back. Back to what? I was too tired to even want to go back to a karaoke bar, let alone until 2 AM as we’d done before having children. Maybe back to our island getaways? It was hard for me to envision our hand-in-hand midnight beach strolls or dancing under the stars to a steel drum band when we were in our fifties. Wouldn’t we be too old for that by then? Wouldn’t a nice hot toddy in front of a fireplace be more appropriate for a middle-aged couple?
Through the years, as I kept my eye on the magic mark when I would get my life back, I discovered Mom was right about finding a purpose. Somewhere along the way, I stopped feeling as if I was just biding time until I died. My son started school, then my daughter. I had begun to work part-time in my husband’s business, and being married to the boss afforded me the flexibility to be a room-parent or chaperone on class trips. We joined a church where I taught Sunday school and started a nature-based summer camp. We made friends with other families and planned outings for groups of parents and their children. We bought a house with a pool and hosted summer parties. We vacationed at kid-friendly locations where we could ride roller-coasters and log flumes. As our children entered high school, groups of their friends found our home an inviting hangout. Our weekends involved stepping over sleeping teenagers in our family room.
Suddenly, our son was eighteen and heading off to college. Our daughter would be following three years later. We stood blinking in disbelief that we would soon be empty-nesters. Our goal was now in sight. In just three years, we would get our life back!
I discovered that while the physical challenges of caring for small children were behind us, the emotional challenges were ongoing. With teenagers came first heartbreaks and academic decisions. They began to look toward their own futures as independent adults.
“Will I ever find the right girl?” – I drew on my personal experiences and doled out Mom wisdom. “When you stop looking, the right girl will come along.”
“How should I pick my major?” “Do you think this is a good internship for me?” “What should I do after graduation?” “Will I find a job?” “What if I make the wrong choice?” – I had gained knowledge and insight and a perspective that can only be earned through having done it myself. “There are no wrong choices. Only lessons to be learned.”
And my kids listened to me. That was kind of a scary realization. That you are on the front line when your children want advice. “Be bold and take chances. You don’t want to look back on your life and think ‘I wish I had…’”
My husband, emboldened by my growing arsenal of advice, joined in with his own. “Life is a game. You’re allowed to cheat. Just don’t get caught.”
He’s been benched ever since.
I made my own attempt at injecting humor. “As you stroll through your field of dreams, steer clear of the poison ivy.”
The blank stares told me that I wasn’t as funny as I thought.
Now that both of my children are in their twenties and on their way toward independence, I can get my life back. Only, there’s no going back to being in my twenties as a single woman. There’s no returning to being a newlywed buying our first home. We’ve been raising our children for the past couple of decades, but we didn’t put our identities on pause during that time. We grew with our kids, taught them, and learned from them.
While Guy and I are still a couple, we are also a family. We no longer look for karaoke bars and have found that we’re not the hot toddy kind of folks either. Hanging out with friends or a night in binge-watching Mad Men or Downton Abbey is more our speed now. And we enjoy the company of our adult children on vacations, having wine with dinner, laughing over card games, and watching movies that aren’t G-rated.
I now understand what my mother really meant about “getting my life back” was that once they were grown, my children would no longer be dependent on me for everything. They still need me as a mentor, as a friend, and, yes, as the purveyor of knowledge and sage advice, but they no longer require my full, undivided attention and I can enjoy the fruits of my labors. I’ve also come to realize that I wasn’t treading water for eighteen years, waiting for my children to grow up and leave home so I could wipe my hands of that duty. The truth is, this is my life. It has been my life for the past twenty-plus years.
* * * * *
…One Night in New York.
I was one of the cool kids back in the late 70s and early 80s. I’m quite convinced of this. I emulated Lynn, the girl who lived around the corner from me, and began wearing straight-legged jeans while everyone else was still wearing bell-bottoms. In middle school, my best friend Adrianne gave subtle instruction in the art of flirtation. Seventeen magazine showed me how to apply frosted blue eyeshadow and sparkly lip gloss to achieve that “winter glow.” I could butcher the lyrics to any popular song with confidence, like “I’m not talkin’ ’bout the livin’/And I don’t want to change your mind” from England Dan and John Ford Coley. The Surgeon General’s warning was still vague enough to give me license to light up a Virginia Slims Menthol Light and impress all my friends with perfect smoke rings.
My delusion continued into adult life, marriage, and even through raising children. Somewhere along the way, something happened. Actually, I know exactly what happened. My daughter became a teenager. I’ve come to believe we are granted little blessings in life to bring us humility. Or, as my too-cool-for-anything-especially-her-parents fifteen-year-old would say, she was my “reality check.” I was in my forties when I began to question if my life-long self-image had been built on a lie.
A few weeks ago, I was offered redemption. I’ve always been a theater nerd, a lover of plays and musicals—maybe this should have been my first clue about my cool factor?—and enjoyed all levels of performances from Jack and the Beanstalk at the local community college to A Christmas Carol in the regional theater and Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. I swooned over the music from Jesus Christ Superstar during a 1980s performance in London’s West End. I’ve supported local troupes and attended numerous school plays. So, when pondering a Christmas gift for my husband this year, I logged onto my computer to see if I could get tickets for Hamilton. Discouraged by the $600 price tag, I asked my daughter, now twenty and going to college in New York, if she had any recommendations for a show.
“Well…” She gave me the once over. (At least there was no eye-rolling or impatient sighing.) “There is a show that is hugely popular. It’s all the rage. It’s really not advertised so you only know about it if you’re…connected.”
“What is it? Tell me what it is!” My chance! This was my chance to reclaim my youthful image even more than I’d thought date night with my hubby would accomplish.
“Hmmm…I don’t know if you’d like it. It’s promenade theater. You don’t sit in a seat. You walk at your own pace through the building. It’s all these different rooms that are theatrically designed. The actors move around from room to room and floor to floor, and you can follow them.”
“Ah, I get it,” I said, eager to impress her with my vast knowledge. “It’s interactive theater.”
“No. It’s immersion theater. The audience can interact with the props and walk around, but they have no influence on the story line.” She gave a self-satisfied smirk as she eyed me up and down once more. “It’s really kind of a hipster thing.”
“I can do it! I can be a hipster!” I bought tickets that day.
Sleep No More is based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth with a nod to Alfred Hitchcock and film noir. It was created by a British theater company called Punchdrunk and set in the McKittrick Hotel in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. The hotel is really a block of five story tall warehouses that were converted to give the feel of a 1930s establishment. Having studied Shakespeare’s plays in-depth while in college over thirty years ago, I was intimately familiar with his work. I was set.
I’d decided to forego dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, The Heath, thinking we would meet up with our daughter instead. She was busy that night so that didn’t happen, and instead, I sprung for the upgraded Maximillian’s Guest ticket because this was a gift for my husband Guy, after all. When we announced ourselves, the usher at the front door checked his guest list and, discovering our VIP status, whisked us past the line stretched for half a city block and escorted us directly into the lobby.
As several other couples of our elevated position joined us, it began to dawn on me that Guy and I were the oldest guests in attendance by at least twenty years. I felt my new hipster certainty slip a little.
We were herded into a freight elevator with walls draped in black cloth to give the illusion of a hoity-toity hotel and as we exited on the second floor, we stepped back in time to the 1930s. We were handed white masks before entering the Manderlay Bar, a speakeasy where each employee was in character and period dress. A musical trio accompanied a dusky-voiced singer in a floor-length sequined gown as she sang “Embraceable You.” We were escorted to a table for two where we ordered drinks from a perky young woman. In response to my husband’s request for a Coke, she answered brightly, “Yes, dear, a Coca-Cola it is!”
When our group was called, we boarded the elevator once more. Our guide instructed us to put on our masks, and from that point on we were neither to remove them nor speak. The rest of the evening was to be spent in silent, anonymous observation. As the doors to the elevator opened, the guide informed us that such observation was best accomplished alone, and I was booted out. The doors shut behind me and a momentary panic gripped me as I heard the elevator take my husband away. What if I couldn’t find Guy? My sense of direction is as faulty as my aging memory, and I feared becoming hopelessly lost in the massive five-story warehouse. I was in near total darkness with only faint lights strategically placed and could barely see. All about me milled silent, faceless people behind white masks.
I didn’t want to wander far. I was sure Guy’s first objective would be to find me. At the same time, I couldn’t resist venturing into the first doorway off the endless hallway where I stood. In the partial light, I was drawn to a stark baby’s crib in the center of the room. I don’t even remember if there was anything in it because I was more interested in figuring out exactly what that giant mobile was overhead. The ten or so other white-masked guests were also frozen, heads turned upward. As each identical object on a branch of the mobile floated on the air currents, I finally realized what they were. Headless soft-bodied dolls, each about a foot and a half tall. To make it even more ghoulish, the bizarre structure cast a shadow against the ceiling, doubling its freakishness.
Suddenly feeling as if I was in a drugged state, I drifted back into the hallway, aware of faint dramatic music coming from somewhere. There was a light fog and white-masked people appeared from one room, then vanished into another. An anomaly—a bare-faced man—scurried into a room to my left. I realized he must be one of the actors so as if pulled by a magnet, I followed. As did another twenty white masks. This room was an ancient office with a bulky wooden desk as the centerpiece and a gooseneck lamp providing just enough light. The actor had a purpose as he sat in the chair behind the desk. He opened a drawer and peered into it for a few seconds, then closed it. He studied a letter on the desk blotter, then opened the drawer again. White masks against the darkened room watched every motion.
A tap on my shoulder turned my attention to my own white-masked husband behind me. I nodded at Guy, then in the direction of the actor, and we continued to hang on his every move. The man rose, shut the drawer, and headed toward the door, white masks parting to let him pass. Then, like lemmings jumping en masse off a cliff, a swarm of white masks followed him. Not Guy. He was more interested in what the actor had found so fascinating in the desk drawer. When we opened it, we found a dead crow.
Together, Guy and I spent the next three hours trying to make sense of what we were seeing. It was impossible to know what we should be looking at or where we should go, so we finally let go of the “shoulds.” I was tempted to follow scurrying groups of white masks, knowing they were in pursuit of an actor, but Guy shook his head at me. Breaking the no-talking rule, he whispered, “No, they look silly. It’s not cool.” By this time, I was over the whole “cool” thing and just wanted to know what the hell was going on. So, we explored room after room on every floor. We walked through the maze of a forest; a disorienting fog hovering over a graveyard; and a sanatorium, complete with a waiting room, beds, and a room with bathtubs. It was in the last that we saw our first real action.
An actress in a nightgown, who I soon realized was Lady Macbeth, was scrubbing furiously at the blood all over the sides of the water-filled bathtub. The mime continued as a nurse came in, proceeded to undress her, then helped the nude Lady Macbeth into the tub. The scene continued to play out as white masks peered. (Later, Guy would tell me that was his favorite scene. I’m not sure why.)
After bathing, Lady Macbeth replaced her nightgown, then raced from the room with a mass of white-masked lemmings in pursuit while the nurse went in another direction with an equal number of followers behind her. This would be the theme of the night. Bits and pieces of this 1930s version of Macbeth were taking place throughout the entire building, and it was up to us to decide which way to go. Actors would perform their piece in one room, then off to another room or even floor, often engaging with other actors they met along the way. They would then either move along together or in opposite directions. And always with the audience in pursuit.
About two-thirds of the way through the evening, I was frustrated by my inability to follow the story. It felt disjointed and chaotic; not a comfortable place for my linear mindset. We took a break at the Manderlay Bar so I could clear my head with a few of glasses of wine. The remainder of the night didn’t make any more sense than the beginning.
At the end of the show, many of the actors ended up in the ballroom at a long table with Banquo’s ghost for the finale. It was then I realized how hopelessly lost I’d been through the entire evening because there were several actors I had never seen. I was exhausted from chasing actors and running up and down endless flights of stairs. I was disoriented from hours in dimly lit sets, examining props without context, and atmospheric mist and music. I needed a nap. No wonder the median age of the audience was roughly twenty-five, having been skewed upwards by my comparatively ancient age of fifty-five. Much older and it might have been impossible to navigate the madness.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about it by the end. Guy and I walked back to our car in near silence, which is quite a contrast to our usual chatter after a “normal” show. All the way home, I scoured the internet for more information about Sleep No More. Had I been wise, I would have prepared better before going. I would have reread Macbeth. I would have familiarized myself with the structure of this version and the layout of the building. I discovered that each actor performs on a one-hour loop, repeating it three times throughout the course of the complete event. Guy was sad to find out that even though he’d managed to see the Lady Macbeth in the bathtub scene twice, he missed out on the scene with the three witches dancing topless. Evidently there was a nude scene with one of the male characters, and this bit of news made me think I might need to immerse myself again.
By the time we got home, my physical and psychological discomfort had given way to internal processing. I replayed the scenes again, thought deeper about the effectiveness of the design of each room, and found myself reading more about the production.
When my daughter asked us how we liked the show, my husband’s answer was immediate and decisive. “It was interesting. We’re glad we did it once, but give us a normal Broadway show any time.”
“So, you didn’t like it that much?” She directed the question to me.
“Actually,” I said as I rubbed Icy Hot into my lower back and repositioned the cold pack on my swollen knee, “I think I really liked it. While I was in the midst of it, I wasn’t sure. But, I can’t stop thinking about it now.”
I told her everything from the very beginning when we were whisked past the guests waiting in line because of our VIP status. How we were separated, but then how Guy found me. About the eeriness of the rooms and hallways, and the fog, and the music, and the clutter of props, and the white masks lurking in the darkness, and the actors performing here then racing there, and the speakeasy feel of the Manderlay Bar, and the silence, and the on and on and on. I couldn’t stop talking about it. I realized I needed to do it again. To go back much better prepared and gain an even fuller experience. I realized that even though I’d stepped out of my comfort zone of traditional theater performance, I had fully enjoyed myself. And, I realized something else. I wasn’t as old and stuck in a rut as I had believed.
“That’s really cool,” my daughter said.
“I’m sorry, did you say that I’m cool?” I asked.
She smiled, knowing full-well what I wanted to hear. “I wouldn’t go that far.”