…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.”