UM: If Walls Could Talk

Born to two teenagers, the first place of my life was in a small, duplex rent on Victory Drive (which is now the fringe of the ghetto in New Haven); I have no recollections of this home, as we fled before I turned two, but my associations of it are fear and a sense of bewilderment.

From there, we moved to a house on Augur Street at the lower end of Hamden (the Putnam Avenue district), also a rent, occupying the bottom floor for about four years. Consequently, my first memories are of this house. Light-hearted, fun-loving, innocent years when it didn’t matter that our furniture was a mish-mosh of unmatched, hand-me-downs, or that my two siblings and I shared the same bedroom, practically sleeping atop of one another, or that we’d walk to and from school in even the harshest conditions (because we only owned one car) and supervised by an adult the year that the pedophile loomed. Mary was my first friend. I peered across the street watching her and her siblings running wild in their yard from behind the chain link fence that enclosed mine. A big Irish family, warm and welcoming, I recall my own mother regarding theirs as a mother-figure to her too, for mine was young and still finding her way. When I look back on Augur Street, I regard us as a family of five children playing house, growing and learning together.

New Road quite literally marked a turning point for our family. It was the first home we’d own and the place where the realities of life and growing up caught up to us. While upon the first introduction, which seemed like a castle or a haunted house– big and dark and mysterious, we ran through the uncut grass that was above our knees and made a club house of the abandoned, chicken coop in the back yard. Hardly noticing, our parents, tearing down walls and making repairs to a house that had been neglected, in order to make it a home for us, we took in stride all of the changes in our lives: a big enough home, perhaps over-big, rooms of our own, even a playroom in the basement (instead of the corner of the living room, which we’d been used to). Unaware that the space would be a metaphor for the events that would come to separate us in the following years.

But, at first, it was a home– the first real home we’d had. Together, my parents planted lovely gardens to pretty our yard with dahlias, irises, lilies, and daisies; inside, they installed a Franklin, wood-burning stove to keep us warm. The smells of cheesecake tarts, French toast, sloppy joes and grilled cheese wafted through the open layout of the first floor where a sheen of newness could be found within the four corners of every room. Upstairs, my sister and I shared a room, under a dormered roof adorned in rainbows. Although our beds were on opposite sides of the room, we began our time here, crawling into each other’s as we’d been accustomed to. Sometimes, our brother, from across the hall, would be found sleeping at the bottom of one of our beds when we awakened in the morning. This is how we’d begun, but it wasn’t how our time, here, ended.

I would consider Hamden High School one of my homes because it is the place I sought solace when home became stressful. Unaware of the moment, if there is a moment, that we began to unravel, I felt each of us on an island. Suddenly, my sister was different, my brother was difficult, and my parents ceased to be friends. Latching onto my friends and eventually my boyfriend became a necessary coping strategy leading up to my parents’ divorce when I was seventeen, an event that would turn my life topsy turvy.

Guilt made me succumb to leaving w/ my mother and sister to move into an apartment on Highland Avenue in Cheshire at the beginning of my senior year of high school. The agreement was that I’d continue attending HamdenHigh School, driving my mother to work and my sister to HamdenMiddle School on a daily basis because we could only afford one car. When that became too much, I’d return home to live with my father and brother on New Road. Only this time, instead of living under the roof of rules and curfews and do’s and don’ts, to which I’d become accustomed, my father’s state of mind prevented him from instituting any guidelines at all. My brother and I were free to do as we’d pleased, and, for any teenager, that’s like opening Pandora’s box. It’s exhilaratingly exciting at first until you come to realize exactly what it means.

After narrowly escaping my father’s home w/ the new wicked Stepmonster, Maryann, and her demon children, Debbie and Mark (who only managed to bring me strife, but it wasn’t their fault; they’d had a tumultuous upbringing) I moved into Fitch/Warner, a college apartment complex on Fitch Street where other S.C.S.U. students resided. My roommate, Patty, was a girl from Cheshire, just a town away from me– someone who was randomly assigned to me because I hadn’t come in w/ a roommate. While we were from neighboring towns, we could not have been more different. Patty and I flip flopped from being bosom buddies to strangers for the entire year we’d live together. We’d had some interesting experiences, primarily in the midst drinking and pot smoking– more me drinking & Patty pot smoking. I tried to calm down her wild side, while she tried to release mine.

After a rollercoaster of a year, or three, I chose to find solace living at my grandparents’ home on Gilbert Avenue, only a 5 minute drive from college. This would mark another turning point for me– one in which I’d decided to become grounded. I needed peace, quiet, security and stability, and that’s exactly what I found. After living there for a year and a half, it came as a shock to me when I returned ‘home’ to find my grandfather had put their home on the market because it had become too much for him to take care of. While I was angry and somewhat confused (the sign and the pending sale of their home had come as much of a shock to me as to my grandmother), it enabled me to make amends with my mother, who had, in the past three years, moved on, married a wonderful man with whom she’d bought a house; they lived on Sharon Drive w/ my sister and brother, so the three of us were together again– and in a much better place (physically and mentally). I took the spare room in the basement which allowed me some independence and privacy, something I’d grown accustomed to since I’d last lived with my family.

I purchased my first official home, along with my then-fiancé, at age 23, months prior to our wedding. It was a new construction, town house condominium in Waterbury, just on the Cheshire/Waterbury line; ironically, while I had begun my life living in the city, I began my married life doing the same. Hitchcock Road would be the beginning of a whole new life for me, one I’d anticipated for seven years. It was there I would have my first two children and establish the foundation of our married life. Since it was new construction, we had choices in the model and its contents; we had the opportunity to see it’s flourishing from breaking ground to move-in day. It immediately felt like home, which it would be for the next five years. While I was sad to move, it had become small for our family of four. We longed to have a yard for our dog and our boys to play and space enough for our family to grow.

While, at first, we looked in Hamden, initially hoping to return to our roots, it was in Cheshire — a lily white suburban community with child-friendly neighborhoods of sidewalks and cul-de-sacs and a good school system– we would find our family home. And so we found this place, a block away from the elementary school my children would attend, nestled in a cluster of streets that housed young families. While the house had all of the amenities we hoped for– a farmhouse colonial, four bedrooms, 2 & 1/2 baths, a finished basement, a two-car garage, good-sized yard with an in-ground pool– it was certainly NOT in move-in condition. It had been a foreclosure our realtor wanted to check out before it ‘officially’ went on the market. We arrived and could hardly see the front of the house, with all of the overgrowth hiding it, and, when we walked inside, the musty smell gave way to a kitchen of unhinged cabinet doors and mouse droppings, a 70’s rust, shag carpet in the too-small family room, and bathrooms with floors that had rotted from water damage. My husband and I tip-toed, room by room, taking it all in. My father is a carpenter and his a handy-man, so as we took in the imperfections, we verbally noted the possibilities aloud, almost in unison. While our realtor waited in the kitchen, on the phone to his next client, we looked at one another, sharing each other’s thoughts. We’d concluded that if the bank would stop the re-furbish they were planning and would come down on the price, we were eager to place a bid. The realtor replied, “Wow, you two have vision.” And we did. After closing on the house, it would be nearly two months of gutting and renovating, mostly on our own, with the help of our fathers– in order to make it in move-in condition. It felt foreign the first night we’d slept here, as if we were in someone else’s home and I’ve often wondered what they’d think of the transformation. As the unfamiliarity of our surroundings waned, almost immediately, we felt a belonging, as we befriended our neighbors whose children befriended one another and we became a chosen family.

This is where the memories of my family have been made, one additional child later, and so many life experiences in between. With in these walls mark the growth of my own family and the lessons we have learned.

Often, I wonder, if walls could talk, what stories would come from them.

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UM: Sunshine

I touched my cheek to hers to feel the softness of her skin just the way I had so many dozens of times since her birth, nearly two weeks ago. Heat radiated from her young flesh. It was too warm for her little body. I knew.

                We drove through the dark of night. “Don’t we ever do anything in daylight?” my husband questioned – referring to the births of our three children. Alexa and both of her brothers came through the darkness into the light and into our arms.  He was trying to distract me, make light of the situation, but I ignored him and caressed the softness of her skin and the heat. My eyes gazed out of the window onto the highway. We were alone on the road, just my husband, Alexa and me. He was driving at an unusually high speed which seemed in sync with how my thoughts were going.  I saw a tiny, white coffin, opened and empty.  I thought perhaps I would bury her in the outfit she wore home from the hospital. No, I recanted, I want to keep that a happy memory. In fact, it was one of the happiest of my whole life. A daughter. Mine. I thought about God and now I realized why some people christen their children right away. I thought about the boys and what could I ever say? When I was pregnant with my first, I told my mother I couldn’t wait until the baby was born so I could just know that he or she was okay. Then, I would stop worrying. My mother gave the look she’d given me when passing on some wisdom that she had acquired from her mother and those before her. “Once a mother, you never stop worrying. You always envision the worst and pray for the best.”  Just then, a car sped past. I can remember myself thinking about her words and using them  as an affirmation, “ I’ve envisioned the worst, now it’s time to hope for the best.” I began humming , “You are my sunshine … when skies are grey …” a song I had hummed to her brothers. I looked up to God the whole rest of the way as I whispered the words through a broken melody. I believed they were written for just the two of us.

                The first nurse was all business. “Sit down. What’s the problem? Who’s the doctor? Do you have insurance?”  God, I remember wanting to scream, “This may be your job, lady, but it’s my life! Get the doctor, now!” Instead, my husband answered the business questions. Bless him. He was being strong for me – letting me drift with my thoughts and just hold her as close as possible. But I could see his fear. I could see it behind the glassy curtain in his eyes.

                Placed in a green, grey and cold room, we waited. A male C.N.A entered about, I don’t know, eons later. He began prepping the table. “The doctor will want the works,” he stated, referring to the amount of sterile supplies he was placing on the table. He offered his statement as an explanation, in an attempt to make me feel informed or  better, I don’t know which. “Because she’s so young,” an afterthought, as if it would help. I wondered if he had children, because surely, if he did, he would know that nothing could help short of me waking from a deep sleep in my own bed and realizing it was all a nightmare.

                Alexa slept soundly on the hospital bed, flat and hard, metal frame and white sheets. She looked most peaceful in the midst of all the medical supplies that would soon disrupt her peace, make her cry,  and quite possibly and ultimately save her life. I wanted to continue to hold her, but the C.N.A. had hooked up several monitors to her tiny body. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten to ask him if I could hold her. Instead,  I caressed her soft thin hair. I watched her lips quiver with each breathe she took.

                The doctor, a resident, entered. He introduced himself and firmly shook both of our hands. He pulled no punches with us; he was a very matter-of-fact, bottom line kind of guy. “With a fever like this, in a child so young,” he paused between each phrase.  “We worry about,” pause, “a bacterial infection,” pause. “They spread rapidly,” pause, “because infants do not develop an immune system until about three months.” I remember thinking how generous he was to talk parent speak versus medical jargon. “The very worst,” pause, “spinal meningitis. It could be fatal.”  And there I stuck. My mind trying to get beyond those words to the hope. “Hope for the best,” I screamed at myself. Only then, I returned to what he was saying . “If she were my daughter…” There was a softness about him; I’m sure it was not anything he learned in medical school. His eyes looked straight into mine, “I would have it done, all of it.”

                The second nurse came in. She was dark skinned, Indian, I supposed. Her necklace was made of  plastic, colored beads, and I surmised that a child had made them. I wondered if it had been one of her patients. And she wore friendship bracelets, several of them, on her wrists. She had a warmth in her eyes as she looked at my little girl. She took hold of her hand. “She’s beautiful. Is she your first?”

 I  shook my head, “Two boys,” I replied.

                “Oh, she’s your first girl.” She smiled. “We’ll take care of her for you.” I knew that before she even said those words. I knew that she would do all she could.

                First there were the x-rays, then the catheter, then the bloods, then the I.V. drip… and, following, the curdling screams from my baby. When the nurse inserted the needle into her hand, she moved it around under her flesh. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, “her tiny vein moved.” I wanted, from the core of my being, to haul off and punch her. Feel the sting of my fist against her face; I  had never before felt that depth of rage in my life. But I could only hold onto Alexa’s hand and look away.  After a long deep breath, I prayed non-stop through the cries and my husband stood stoic beside me, rubbing my back.

                During the quiet time, after the pain, after the nurses had left the room and finally it was only the three of us again., Alexa fell asleep in my arms, exhausted from the fight. “Alexa,” I whispered, my mouth breathing closely to her ear,  “my sweet angel, you’ll forget all of this. It’s this incredible thing when we’re little; we don’t remember these times. But God will remember. He knows how strong you are. And I hope this is the worst pain you’ll have to endure for your whole life.”

                The doctor returned with the male C.N.A. He looked at me, straight on, as the C.N.A. prepared his supplies. “It’s time for the spinal tap,” he announced. His words seemed to echo off the coldness of the walls. “Do you want to stay for this?” he asked. I nodded. “Are you sure?” He was giving me permission to leave. My husband reiterated, “I’ll be here.” And for an instant, I thought … No, she may not remember, but I will never forget. I, an adult – I  reminded myself, can and need to be strong for her. I will hold her hand and be, at least,  a presence for her. And all the while, I will pray. The doctor talked us through the procedure. “ He,” referring to the C.N.A., “ will hold her back, curved like a “u”. This needle will go into her back and will drain the fluid.”  I nodded and looked away. Holding her hand and sitting beside her bed, I could not look. I did not want to see what they were doing to my baby. I had to rely on trust; I had to rely on my husband, who stood beside the doctor and watched his every move. I bit my bottom lip and closed my eyes each time I felt the tears welling in them. I took a deep breathe as he inserted the needle, in fear that he would miss and cause paralysis. I relaxed once he said the needle was in. The fluid came slowly, three viles of it, in between the bareness of her cries. She stopped crying, my eyes widened and looked frantically at the doctor. He shook his head to reassure me. “She fell asleep,” my husband clarified. It seemed forever, but when they finally finished, I pleaded to hold her. That motherly thing kicked in, as if I could make it better. Well, at least, I could try. I cuddled her. She felt slightly cooler now as I touched her forehead to my cheek and caressed her cheeks with my finger. I began singing “… please don’t take my sunshine away” in my of key and crackling voice, right there in front of the doctor and the C.N.A.. I didn’t care who was there. I just wanted her to know I was there with her. My husband walked over to us and wrapped us up in his arms. His eyes were glassy red and his skin pale, and I’m sure he was very much a mirror of me.

                We remained quiet for a time. The three of us were alone again. Alexa was sleeping and my husband was reclined back in his chair with his eyes closed. My thoughts drifted to our sons who would just be waking up now. I wondered how my mother would explain our whereabouts. I worried what they would think. I remained consumed by my thoughts. They zig zagged back and forth between half full/half empty. And I had just told my  eldest son the other day to try always to see the glass half full. The clock on the wall ticked loudly , and it seemed, as the hours had passed, I had become colder. Alexa, half dressed in the outfit she wore when we brought her in, was loosely wrapped in soft, fluffy, pink receiving blanket. I tightened it around her. Periodically, almost methodically, I kissed her forehead – felt the softness of her against my lips, breathed in the sweetness of her skin. “Please God?” I offered up time and time again. Once, I said it out loud and my husband brushed his hand over mine and squeezed. I wondered if he had been sleeping or thinking with his eyes closed. And I thought how generous he had been in letting me hold her all this time. He knew the depth of my fears. In just the last two years a friend and a cousin lost their babies, both under two years. Any mother hears stories like that and thinks she wears the pain, at least she feels the sympathy. I mean really feels. One doesn’t feel that pain unless she is a mother. But even a mother doesn’t know, absent of the experience: the pain, the anger, the permanent loss, the hole that fixates itself in her heart. Every mother’s nightmare. I witnessed it; I didn’t want to live it too.

                A high-pitched, beep came from one of the monitors on the wall. The nurse rushed in. “What is that noise?” I asked impatiently.

                “Her oxygen saturation level has dropped.” I didn’t really know what that meant until she waved a tube blowing oxygen in front of her nose and her level raised. “ It’s probably all of the congestion,” she reassured me. “Your tests should all be down soon. They’re looking good,” she smiled and scurried off to another patient’s room.

                My husband wanted a girl first. I remember how surprised I was when he said that, now, almost seven years ago. When we were pregnant with our first child, we had chosen Alexa for a girl’s name. Then came baby number two: “A BOY!” my doctor exclaimed in the delivery  room. I think my husband had given up, but I never lost hope. I believed with conviction that Alexa would be our daughter oneday. And in just two short weeks, she had engraved herself into our lives.

                Although worn and evidently in need of sleep, we welcomed the sunshine as my husband opened the doors. The three of us left the hospital together. I sat in the back seat with her again, only this time I smiled as she clutched her tiny fingers tightly around one of mine. She appeared unscathed. I wondered how long it would take her memory of this night to go away; perhaps, it already had. But, from my memory, it will never disappear. I will always appreciate just how close we had come to knowing the fear. She is such a blessing in our lives– our sunshine.

                My husband drove at an anxious speed. We couldn’t wait to get Alexa home to her brothers.

UM: Playgroup

I picked up Tom Perotta’s book Little Children, and, while I loved the book (strictly from a fantasy perspective), I was disappointed by the turn it took. I identified with that playgroup. I lived it, especially the part where the main character forgets her child’s snack, and she becomes the worst mother in playgroup, the one without 2 extra snacks, diapers/clothes enough for the possibility of blow outs, and duplicates of the same toy so the toddlers could “share”(that’s an oxymoron). I too belonged to a playgroup that met every Friday at 9:00 for five years. We had the Barbie doll member who was always dressed to the nines and refused to give up her high heals, we had the perfect Laura-Ashley-mom who all of us strove to emulate, we had the obsessive mom who wiped her son’s hands after each “contact,” and the out-there mom who secretly revealed that the best orgasm she ever experienced was during childbirth. I thought we’d hear about Perotta’s version of what went on during these mommy & me fests, these ritual get togethers that, through the excuse of socializing our young, we were really just holding on to that hour of adult time that seemed to slip like sand through a bottomless hourglass.

Mothers came and went, but our core of three plus one stayed the same. I say plus one because, while Mary Jo was one of us for three years, we have since lost contact, save a Christmas card from time to time. Those Christmas cards are a mother’s showcase. I remember the saying being the focus before I had children. I’d come up with something crafty, perhaps a Charles Dicken’s quote from A Christmas Carole, that I’d fill out all of those square boxes with a friendly closing, post the order of fifty cards, and send it off to be printed with my own personal touch. Details such as this were a priority to me. It said something whether a person designed her own greeting card or picked one up at the local Hallmark. I was one of those women who took the time to put her personal stamp on everything. I called it crafty or even thoughtful; now, I consider it anal and showy. During the playgroup years, however, it was Mary Jo who first turned me onto Christmas cards featuring the faces of our little ones. At first, there was only John, her eldest, two months the senior of my Ryan. Her photograph was taken in her home by a professional photographer. Poinsettias adorned the floor in front of her fireplace where she and her husband, John Sr., knelt down on either side of Johnny, as he was affectionately nicknamed. I bought into the idea, but I took Ryan to J.C. Penney. Relatives loved the idea of the postcard photograph, especially my mother, who still has each and every one, to this day; although, only her favorites are still displayed. It became a competition between me and my friends, both my friends from high school and my new playgroup friends. Who had the best photograph or who received whose first? My first trophy Christmas photograph postcard came when I decided to dress all three of my children in their hockey gear. Alexa couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, at the time, but I schlepped her to the ice rink with her brothers and dressed her up in one of their in-house uniforms for the day the professional sports photographer was there to snap the photographs of all of the youth players. What a racket those photographers had. Photographs of every child for every sport they played, but they took it to a new level when they made photograph sporting cards, or Sports Illustrated covers, magnets, sculptures featuring your child for a mere $56.00 package. That year, Alexa stood in front of Ryan, with his Wallingford Hawk jersey on; only all that could be seen of the hawk was the tips of his wings that looked like devil ears atop Alexa’s head. I received phone calls from those who I sent the picture to asking if we had posed her that way on purpose; of course, we replied, giving way to the future hidden-Carbone’s, as we’d come to affectionately refer to my faux pas, that would ensue on each of our upcoming cards. Renee pulled into the lead the following year, when she had her children, Jamie and Eric, dressed in a velvet and taffeta dress and suit in front of a white backdrop: the first black and white version of a Christmas card postcard. I took the trophy back again when my children were featured in a London phone booth; the hidden-Carbone that year was the revealing college girl photo and phone number on the wall behind them, a detail I hadn’t picked up on before I sent it off to be replicated. The trophy was passed back and forth for most original, most vintage, most creative, earliest in the mail box (I received Karen’s the day before Thanksgiving one year).

Christmas card one-upmanship was among the things I learned to put on the resume of good parenting. Another was the dreaded word: daycare. I was among two of the playgroup moms who worked, who needed to work. It was a status symbol if one didn’t need to work like the Mary Jos and the Kathys and even that woman who ended up moving to New Jersey, her name escapes me now. It was a tradeoff, though; their husbands went away on business trips every other week, it seemed. In fact, the New   Jersey mom’s husband, we learned after the move, found out that instead of traveling for business, her husband was trysting—with another man.

One month after Ryan’s birth, I called my former place of employment, Hamden Adult Education, to ask if I could return to teaching in the fall. My mother had taken time off from work to spend the first two weeks with me as I acclimated to becoming a mom. One of the things I wasn’t prepared for was post partum depression. The second was a colicky baby. This seven pound, scrawny-legged, cone-headed, brown-haired, beautiful boy was an angel with a monster set of lungs. The first night home from the hospital, I called the nursery I had just left eight hours before, sobbing because I couldn’t get my little prince to stop crying. I sat up that first night watching the swing soothe him as it swayed back and forth, something my arms just couldn’t manage. In the morning, my mother would arrive to help Anthony and I. He’d begin to fuss, and I’d reassure them both, “No, I’ve got him. We have to get used to each other.” I’d rock him and sway him. I’d sing to him and try to feed him. I’d make sure he wasn’t wet. I’d pace. Nothing. The moment I handed him over to my mother, he’d stop crying. I’d find solace in my room, upstairs, sitting in the rocking chair, without my baby boy and with tears in my own eyes.

The mother role wasn’t working out the way I had planned.

In the hole of my depression, I’d practically shove him in the arms of my mother or my husband, only to plead to have him back, ten or so minutes later, in my arms to hold. One day, I took my purse, my car keys and my breasts and left the house for several hours to lose myself in shopping. It felt good to be free, again, just me, myself and I. In the car, I practically screamed the words to the song on the radio I was singing so loud, trying to drown out my own thoughts that kept repeating, what did I do? Thoroughly enjoying my shopping spree, two full bags in my arms already, I passed a beautiful linen blouse hanging on the rack that I had to try on. Once in the dressing room, I peeled the maternity top off to see little wet spots forming on my bra. My boobs were tingling beneath them. At that moment, I decided, motherhood was something I wanted, something I had yearned for, in fact, but I needed balance, I determined. I’d return to work. Yes, I’d return to work to teach one class.

The experience of my daycares went through phases with each child I had. My mother was my daycare for Ryan. The pluses: she came to my house and she loved him almost as much as me. The minuses: she spoiled him, rotten, and she felt she could mother me mothering him. With Tyler, I searched for a new daycare, a home daycare with just a few children, but with a woman warm enough to love and nurture him. My husband and I took several days to visit daycares. Not one of them was good enough for my son. In fact, he was even turned down by one because of his tendency to projectile vomit (across the room, projectile) after his feedings. How dare she turn my son down for that was his singular flaw and one he’d grow out of once he began eating solids. Thankfully, Karen, from play group, offered to watch Tyler, while Ryan would come to pre-school in the building where I worked. Playgroup was now taking on a new dimension.

She was wonderful with Tyler and she had a son, Christopher, who was just a few weeks older than Tyler. Each time I’d return to pick him up, she’d have a daycare report card that listed what he ate and played with, when he had diaper changes and what was in them, and when he napped. The funniest report card listed a diaper change with a side-note: he has the biggest baby penis I have ever seen. These were the things we discussed as parents. The report cards became something I looked forward to, so I could monitor his schedule while I was away. Handing over control of a child to even one of her best friends is difficult for a mother.

Playgroup became a drop off for some mothers. Would you mind if I dropped her off while I run an errand? We resented these mothers and they were quickly voted out of the group. One mother joined because she wanted to push her multi-level marketing business, her side-job. We got sick of these mothers who wanted an in as networking device, but we weren’t slackers, we caught on quick. Having babies might have sucked all of the time out of our lives, but it didn’t suck the brains out of our heads.

Max’s mom (her name escapes me, too) was one of those nearly middle-aged moms who waited to have a baby only to realize getting pregnant wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. She would also be the orgasm mom; that story, I will not forget until the day I die. Max was approximately twenty pounds and 3 inches taller than the rest of his playgroup friends his age. He walked like a bulldozer with focus and great strength. Each time he bulldozed one of our kids, his mom would take him sternly by the hand, look in his eye and give him a stern rationalization that he should be careful or he’d end up having no friends at all. The rest of us laughed it off; really the boy just had no concept as to where his body began and ended, a concept he’d surely revisit in puberty.

Karen, Kathy and I (the mainstays) whispered a lot about Mary Jo. She tried to project this perfect persona of being a mom and of her children. Mary Jo denied, with every breath she took, that she was stuck living in a condo in the armpit of CT and that she had just given away her dog to make room for her son. If Mary Jo could have put a picket fence up around the outside of her townhouse she would have for both appearance and to mark her territory. Passat was a word she tossed around as if it were a Mercedes, when I simply referred to my vehicle (now equipped with the latest standard car seat)– a car. Mary Jo banked on her Passat as the lotto ticket that would drive her right out of Waterbury. And that, it did, eventually moving them to her husband’s hometown in Bedford, Massachusetts. Because John traveled so often, his parents could help with the children. Soon, they moved down to Virginia. And then back up to Bedford. We exchanged cards for a few years, simply for bragging rights. At first, all of us received cards. First, Karen was removed from the list, then Kathy, and, finally, me. The truth was that we wondered if John really was traveling around or sleeping around. Probably a combination of both. These are the things mothers come to talk about to occupy their time. The closer our lives got to STAR magazine, the more alive we felt, and a bit closer to the adult world, too. We learned, as mothers, to live vicariously through others. Characters in books, or soap operas, movies or even in our own living rooms.

We met at 9 a.m., at first, for timing purposes, so we could end just before naptime. As they grew older, we’d linger, sometimes stay for lunch or make an excursion out of it by going to the zoo or the firehouse. As the older children’s siblings came, we weren’t as anal about keeping their schedules, so the young ones learned to nap in car seats, on the floor or on the sofa. I’m not sure who became better friends; the three of us or our children. They grew up together virtually as cousins. Their mothers took friendship to a new level; we shared every thing we could not or did not share with our husbands and even some of the things we had. From the consistency of poop to Martha Stewart to new sexual positions; we discussed it all. While playgroup had started as a guise to socialize our children, it became so much more.

Tom Perotta narrates through the main character who was also “sinking into the rhythm of the kids’ day. The little tasks, the small pleasures. The repetition that goes beyond boredom and becomes a kind of peace. You do it long enough and the adult world starts to drift away. You can’t catch up with it, not even if you try.” But we did. We learned that our lives had become subordinate to our children’s, our days would be dictated by their needs and our friends would be the parents of their friends.

Unfriendly Mirror (UM)

I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a memoir for some time. When I talk about my past, people (many, many, many people) tell me I should write a book. I’ve written two (what I would consider) publishable fiction novels. I have tried on three separate, legitimate, occasions to have them published. The first two times, I received blatant rejections. The third, I actually was asked to see the whole novel, then turned down because the publishing house experienced budget cuts. The letter read, “If you had submitted this a year ago, I would have been able to work with it, but now they are wanting submissions that need virtually no editing to work within our budget and timeframe.” I considered that a soft rejection. The letter encouraged me to keep on trying because it had a good story and a strong voice.

I am a writer. I know, as a writer, one needs a thick degree of skin to make it. After each attempt, I’ve taken a period of sinking-in, a hiatus of sorts, to rebuild my confidence. And, now, I’m back on the horse that threw me… my novels are out there, inviting, again, to be published.

Writing a memoir requires a different degree of thick skin. While the line between writing fiction and non-fiction, for me, is a thin one (floss-like), with fiction, I can write based on my experiences, but they can be hidden behind the mask of imagination. A memoir requires bravery. Putting my experiences out there, raw and blemished, is a leap of faith that I have decided to take and hope to rise like a phoenix, enriched and triumphantly satisfied.

I am tentatively calling this memoir Unfriendly Mirror. I will publish excerpts of it here.

Judge me kindly but honestly. I value your response.

UM: finding my religion…

At first, it appeared that it was a matter of chance that we drove by and that Daddy decided to stop. He swung our oldPlymouthwagon, tan with burn marks on the front seat from Daddy’s own carelessness, into the parking lot. He told us in his deep, stoic voice to wait for him as we already had scrambled out of the car. We rarely attended church, once a month perhaps; that was after it took Mom three weeks to convince him to go. But then, Pastor Sanderson needed a contractor to build an addition on the church for nursery andBibleSchoolclasses. The congregation had grown so fast. I don’t know if it was Daddy’s workmanship, price or simply his genealogy that got him the job. Twenty five years before, his father, who was very active in the church, befriended a young minister, and, when it came time to build his own church, he chose my grandfather, an established and reputable contractor in the area, for the job. Hence,ChristLutheranChurchbecame mine by inheritance. Then, I believed one inherited religion, and it just stuck whether you liked it or not. It was black and white; just like you were born the color you were born, and you had no other choice than to die that way.

We stopped before the large, heavy and dark doors like little soldiers obeying their sergeant. On the other side of them was the foyer, large and spacious, so Pastor Sanderson could greet his parishioners after each Sunday service. One Sunday, right there in the foyer, Mr. Polk approached Daddy. He was a nice man and a regular churchgoer, very active like I surmised my grandfather to have been. “So, Don, will we see you at church more these days. What’s it been, three weeks in a row? I bet you feel God’s more apt to be on your side with this project if you’re here more often.” He chuckled and shook Daddy’s hand. I was so embarrassed. Fourteen and impressionable, I thought, God, everybody knows we miss church so much. I thought it was just myBibleSchoolteacher who took attendance each Sunday before the service. Then, attending church wasn’t a matter of celebrating God – it was more about what others thought about me. That was really my religion then. Daddy opened a thick, mahogany door. The four of us entered together and then him.

“Don,” my mother exclaimed. Tears welled up in her eyes. She was staring at a plaque, right there, shiny and new, about eight by twelve in size with shiny gold letters. It was a plaque dedicating the church to my grandfather, Gustave William Norman, in big letters for all of the parishioners to see.

“Pastor called me today to let me know he was doing this. He suggested we take a ride by. They’re going to announce it at the service this Sunday, but he wanted us to see it first. That’s not all,” he added and began walking toward the church.

It was such an eerie feeling to be there at night with no one else in the building. Just us alone with God, I remember thinking. At the back of the church was a tiered area for the choir and the organist. I was in the junior choir for about a year before I realized I didn’t have much singing ability. I decided to try it upon my mother’s suggestion. Besides, I liked dressing up in the white robes with the royal blue collars. But the thing that really attracted me most about it was the daughter of the organist and our teacher. She had just become MissConnecticut. Her name was Mary. She was bea-u-ti-ful—long, brown hair, piercing brown eyes, a ski-jump nose, high cheek bones, and she was just as sweet as she was stunning. She was the whole parishes’ shining star. Her voice sounded like an angel’s when she would sing her solo on Sunday mornings. I longed to be as beautiful and to have a voice that brought people to tears as hers did. That was the closest I had appreciated my church and my religion in my whole young life. Wanting to be like Mary was the first holy thing I could identify with; she was about being beautiful on the inside and out.

The second was the crush I had on Craig, a year older than me, a boy in my youth group. I only agreed to continue going to youth group because I had become friends with Craig and Gary. In fact, I don’t recall a thing we did in youth group except me looking at Craig and the three of us cheating on our confirmation exam. Pastor Sanderson had given out the exams, and we began penciling in our answers rapidly (the first of the multi-hour grueling tests in my life). I remember bubbling in responses that I thought made sense, all the while realizing I had not paid sufficient attention in Bible school, nor had I read the Bible as carefully as I should have. Pastor Sanderson had an appointment mid-test, so his daughter, Karen, just a few years our senior, came in to proctor. I’m not sure who whispered the first question to her, but my ears peeled open to listen to her response. Eventually, she was spewing answers at us. I realized it was wrong, but I thought it couldn’t be a sin, for the Pastor’s daughter was just as if not more guilty than we. Back then, I feared God. I teetered between the fear of the unknown and the Catholic guilt my mother didn’t lose from her own childhood. With the help of Karen, the three of us passed, and we were, indeed, confirmed. The real right of passage of that experience for me was the power to decide when I would and would not be attending church. My parent’s rule was and had always been that they would decide when and if we’d be attending church on a Sunday until we were old enough to make that decision for ourselves, and that would be once we made the sacrament of confirmation. I so confirmed that Confirmation day would be my last day of attending Sunday mass for anything other than a wedding, a funeral or a baptism. And, thus, my decision stuck, that is, until I had children of my own.

We waited at the end of the aisle: me, my sister and my brother. I was awestruck by the lighting. The pulpit was lit by a golden light and candles. It was the most peaceful the church had ever been for me. We watched my father move up to the altar. He stepped up onto the altar. I wasn’t sure if that was acceptable or not, for I had only seen Pastor Sanderson on the altar behind the pulpit. The altar had three tiers. The bottom was where the parishioners would kneel before the railing to accept communion. The next tier had two podiums where guest readers would read from, and Pastor Sanderson would talk about community events from. The top tier is where the pulpit was located, a long, high mahogany table where an enormous Bible sat on a pedestal along with the blood and body of Christ. My father walked up to that table and stood in front of the sculpture of Jesus hanging on the cross which hung from the back wall. Meanwhile, Debbie and Michael were giggling and fiddling. My mother held onto to Michael’s hand and tugged it to shush him. Beneath the golden light, my father folded over the cover of the Bible. What he did next, I will not forget as long as I live; he covered his face with his hand and sobbed aloud. It was the first time I’d seen my father cry. I don’t remember as much what the inscription read, as we did eventually join him on the pulpit and my mother read it aloud to us. It was some kind words about my grandfather, a man who just seemed to pass from my life like a casual friend who moved away.

Religion was defined for me on that day as a love so deep within one’s heart that it never passes; one that lives inside forever. My sense of religion has taken many shapes since then. In college, when I was finding myself, I took a Literature of the New Testament course; I learned more about my religion in that literature course than I had in six years of Bible school atChristLutheranChurch. Of course, I believe that in order to understand and accept religion, one has to be ready.

For a while, I considered myself a New Age hippy. I joined a SETH group on Prodigy (the web before the World Wide Web). There were four of us who formed a cyberspace chat group: me, Phyllis fromNew York, Marla fromCalifornia, andGaryfromChicago. We came to know each other very well. At first, we had Jane Roberts channeling SETH in common. We also moved into the realm of Edgar Cayce and Shirley Maclaine among others. I got to meet the ladies of the SETH group when I invited Marla to come stay with me for a weekend (talk about faith), so we could attend The Whole Life Expo inNew Yorkwith Phyllis. I didn’t realize at the time how special that time together was. We had our auras read and met world renowned psychics like Brian Weiss and Ken Eagle Feather; I also learned what chakras are and the different energies of different kinds of stones. Once, Phyllis, an astrologist herself who has gone on to write several astrology books, did my astrological chart. Past life regressions, dreams, reincarnations, psychics, tarot card readers, runes, rising signs all became part of my new vocabulary. It was a very heady time for me trying to figure out how all of this fit into the religion I had grown up on. I managed, over time, to find myself in all of that: to invest in my own beliefs.

Experiences like this one made me believe that we are intuitive selves. My mother and I were on our way to lunch, something we did on very few occasions—meeting to go out for lunch. We happened to be passing by the Masonic Home, an assisted living home for the elderly. My great Uncle Dick and Aunt Marie lived there together. I remember thinking it so sweet that they were able to retire to a nursing home together. As we passed, I turned to my mother and asked, “Mom, when did Uncle Dick pass away?” She looked at me, awestruck and replied, “Uncle Dick didn’t pass away. Where did you get that from?” I explained that I thought I had heard someone tell me such. The very next day, my grandmother called to tell my mother that Uncle Dick had passed the day before. When my mother asked what time, my grandmother responded at1 p.m.

My son, Tyler, has given me insight into the existence of angels in our lives, or spirits who we love that have passed and are watching out for us. Children are said to be very intuitive until we teach them not to be, and I have listened.

The first piece of evidence. Some time after my mother-in-law’s passing, whenTylerwas about four and a half year’s old, we were laying in bed at night saying our prayers, a nightly ritual. After he said, “God blessGrandmaMo,” I asked, “Tyler, do you miss Grandma Mo?” He said, “No, mommy.” I prodded further and asked him why he didn’t miss her. He said, “because I see her all the time, can’t you see her up there,” pointing towards the ceiling, “she’s with all the pretty white ladies dancing and laughing.”

Since, I have learned to be aware of the angels in my life. On one such occasion, my car nearly missed being in the midst of a head-on collision with a mac truck and another car traveling behind me. I watched it in slow motion from my rear view mirror, where the face of my maternal grandfather appeared. Another, more recently, happened when I felt a presence over my shoulder. When I turned to look it seemed that I watch it disappear, but I felt my grandmother. On another occasion, I sniffed the scent of her talcum powder pass before my nose as I was working in my office when no one else was even home.

My grandmother has spoken to me, too, through the medium Suzane Northrop. She mentioned things no one else but my grandmother could have known like the way she wore babushkas to cover her wig, so it wouldn’t fly away in the wind, and that we baked ham pie and Pinole cookies together over the holidays, or the fact that I inherited her rosary beads and had one more made from the flowers I ordered for her funeral.

Tyler, the old soul amongst my children, asked me as a young boy, much before I had even had a conversation with him about reincarnation or afterlife, asked me if in the next life I would be his mother again.

I witnessed my first act of God when my grandfather passed. He had been fighting cancer for over two years, much of that time, I helped my grandmother care for him. I stayed up with her during the night while she tended to him, I held a bowl for him to spit the endless stream of yellow bile after his chemo treatments, I wiped his behind after my grandmother had given him an enema because he had been backed up for days. I held her hand, cold and wrinkled, when she tried so hard to cry, to let it out, she said the tears had all dried up. We’d been through a lot. I was sleeping at her apartment when she got the call from Hospice (he had just agreed to be admitted the day before) that the time was near. We met my mother and my uncle there. We flanked around him in a circle, holding each other, holding him. I found myself mustering up the courage to be strong for my mother and grandmother. We whispered to him to let go, that we’d be okay. For hours, endless hours, we remained by his side. And suddenly, he breathed deeply in, a breath so strong, unlike the labored ones that had come before it, and that was it. He never exhaled. I felt his soul rise from his body at the moment.

The other acts of God quite obviously came with the birth of each of my children. I remember thinking when my eldest, Ryan, was born that here we all were in this room (the nurses, the doctor, Anthony, the baby and me) all experiencing the same act, but differently. Each of us endured a completely different experience. For the nurses and the doctor, it was a day in the life of a job. For Anthony, it was about awaiting the birth of his first child while witnessing his wife going through a great amount of pain to deliver him. For me, it was terror and joy, pain and anticipation, equally and all rolled up in one. For Ryan, it was a rush of fluid and movement, then light and cold, and who knows what more?

I often come back to that moment and all of the moments that have followed in each of my children’s lives, and I ask, “How could anyone conceive of a child and not believe in God?”

Anthony and I married as Catholics. Pastor Sanderson was supposed to perform the ceremony, too, but he said he had forgotten and double-booked (chances are he was back in rehab for alcoholism). Anthony grew up two houses from the neighborhood church, and, coupled with having attended Catholic school for ten years, his family practiced religion much more routinely than mine. At that point, however, I had learned the differences in the Catholic and Protestant religions, a fundamental difference being the Protestants do not believe in original sin; therefore, there is no confession in a protestant church. I decided not to accept communion as a protest to the Catholic belief in original sin. At one point, my mother-in-law refused to come to our wedding unless our ceremony offered communion; I compromised and asked the priest to make communion available at the rehearsal for anyone who wanted it. Secondly, the money rolling in and out of that church became very apparent to me during the pre-Cana process. We were told to buy a certain size of flower arrangement, so they could be seen well from the back of the church, and the caveat that we had to leave them there for mass on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Also that we needed to rent a runner made of material versus plastic because the plastic one looked too cheap for their church. And lastly, the thing that really put me over the edge was the fee, not the donation, for getting married (much higher than some of the other churches because they had just put in a state- of- the- art organ and were saving for an elevator).

I baptized my boys Catholic in the same church we were married in simply because we didn’t decide what to do about church and religion in our family, at that point. After we moved into our house inCheshire, we decided to make a decision about belonging to a church. We chose theFirstChurchon the green. It is quaint, understated, and Congregationalist (a form of the protestant religion). Our daughter, Alexa, was baptized there. Although, we intended to attend on, at least, a semi-regular basis, life took over. Well, we allowed it to. I think my husband was so entrenched in religion his whole life that he has rebelled. I felt I wasn’t getting his support coupled with not being sure of shoving religion down my children’s throats at a young age, as I felt at the time, was the way I wanted them to find themselves in religion. So, in hindsight, I’m not sure that we did the right thing by not bringing our children up in an organized religion. I have made it a point to talk them about religion and God and the Bible, to say prayers at night and in times of need with them, and to show them I believe by my actions. Only time will tell. Perhaps this is one of the ways we will have scarred our children, but we won’t find out until they are too old for us to do anything about it. I have told them, if at any time they want to attend any kind of church, I will take them; not one of them has asked.

I believe religion is something that is part of each of us, not something we necessarily have to practice by attending bible school or mass. Some need organized religion, and this is where these things have their places. I believe in God, and that we, with God, create our destiny—our perfect state of grace, and I believe we may need to incarnate ourselves many times before we achieve it. I believe in soul mates, those who travel with us through lives, and angels, some of our soul mates who look out for us on earth when they have gone before us. I believe that there was a Jesus; I believe he was the son of God, just as we all are the children of God. I believe the Bible is symbolic of the way we should and should not live our lives. I believe the church is a place of wisdom and peace and spirituality.  I cannot pass an old church without wanting to go inside. Once I am inside, I light at least one candle for those in need. The architecture of some churches I’ve been in from Westminster Abbey to The Cathedral of Notre Dame speaks volumes of voices that live within their walls. I find myself mesmerized by the candlelight and the stained glass, the sculptures, the statues the catacombs. I feel completely at peace in these places of worship; I can hear the voices of those who have passed who whisper the miracle of God in my ear. And each time I pass ChristLutheranChurch, a small protestant and modern, brick church, I cannot help but see my father’s tears and remember the first time I contemplated religion.