Ladies Leave Your Man At Home: Tales From a High School Reunion


Last weekend I attended my 20th high school reunion.

In the week leading up to it, Phoebe repeatedly confused the word reunion with funeral: “Are you excited for your funeral, Mom? What are you going to wear to your funeral?”

“It’s a REUNION, Phoebe,” corrected Emma. “A funeral is for DEAD PEOPLE.” Phoebe just shrugged her shoulders. Tomato, tomato.

I decided to not take this as an omen or read into on a metaphorical level. I had bigger fish to fry, like finding a really hot outfit and getting an eyebrow wax. Because if I have one thing to show for myself after two decades, it’s better eyebrows. Check out those caterpillars:

IMG_8138My high school girlfriends and I decided to not take our significant others, because most husbands fall into one of two categories. He:

A. Would rather wax his chest hair than stand in a room full of strangers, especially the one stranger that dated his wife 20 years ago,


B. Would absolutely love to hang out with a room full of strangers, and become best friends with all of them, find them on LinkedIn, and have beers together the next time they come to town.

Ok, my husband may be the only B guy. But I didn’t feel like driving five hours in the car with the kids, so he had to stay home. Plus you can’t be the most popular guy at someone else’s reunion. It just adds more confusion to an already socially disorienting experience. Sorry Phil.

A few years ago I read an article by Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine called Why You Truly Never Leave High School. In it she discusses the problematic and at times traumatizing “big box” effect of high school. Basically, you fill a big cement building with kids who have nothing in common but their age.

In order to make sense of this chaos and social anarchy, adolescents assign each other labels (Jock, Brain, Dork, Prom Queen). According to Senior, because these roles are assigned at a formative time when your prefrontal cortex is still kind of…mushy, these labels tend to carry over into our adult lives. And like, not in a good way. “Most American high schools,” says Senior, “are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.”

Yikes. So if high school was so traumatizing, why, twenty years later, would I drive five hours to north Jersey to re-live the experience?

Because -for me, at least – that’s not the whole experience. I didn’t love high school, but I didn’t hate it either. I wasn’t Homecoming Queen or Class President. I was a middle of the road marching band dork who used my semi-responsible persona as an opportunity for minor rebellions. For example: the time I told the school secretary I had to drop a tuba mouthpiece off at the local repair shop, when really I went to buy cigarettes and Mountain Dew. Who is going to argue with a tuba mouthpiece?

Senior writes, “For most adults, the adolescent years occupy a privileged place in our memories.” I believe this to be true. My high school was kind of….quirky. A melting pot of two towns on Route 10 in East Hanover, New Jersey. The land of wigwam socks, Aqua Net, and diners. The school itself was a 70’s California style school comprised of separate buildings and covered catwalks….except it wasn’t built in California, it was built in Jersey…on swampland. When it rained, the mud would rise and worms would wiggle onto the catwalks; then when the sun came out, the pavement would be covered with smooshed, fried worms. It just made no sense. And to me, there is something sweet about that.

And while I may have endured my share of high school traumas (like that unfortunate prom alcohol poisoning incident), there were triumphs, too – namely, my girlfriends, who still get me in all my craziness, and look out for me just like they did twenty years ago.


We pre-gamed the reunion at my friend Priya’s childhood home, and drinking wine coolers in the bathroom while experimenting with makeup and jewelry felt like old times. As I sat on the tub while Priya and Helen rifled through a box of bracelets, I was overwhelmed by a comforting sense of deja vu. As the clock ticked closer to go-time, however, I started to feel a little anxious.

“So what do I tell people I do?” I asked. “Like can I say I teach yoga even if I am not teaching yoga at this very moment?”

Priya paused, eyeliner in hand, and met my eyes in the bathroom mirror. “You tell them you are a writer, because that is what you are.”

“Yeah…but is that really true if I don’t make any money doing that?”

Helen looked up from the jewelry box. “No one is going to ask for your bank statements,” she said.

As it turns out, no one asked me what I did. Not one person. They asked about where I lived, if I had kids, but no one gave a shit if I was an astronaut or soccer mom. They were, however, concerned about my hair:

“But why is your hair straight?”
“Uhh, because I blew it out.”
“But it’s still curly, right? Like, underneath the temporary straightness?”
“Yes, why?”
“Because…you were…Jessie Power with really long, curly hair. It was kind of your thing.”

Now you tell me! I had a thing! Other than the prom-alcohol poisoning thing!

At the end of the night we all piled into the car, eager to get started on the post-reunion wrap-up. Many of our female classmates -as predicted by Jennifer Senior – remained the same. The smart girls are still smart, the party girls still party. The girl that hated you for whatever reason still hates you. The guys, however, had blossomed. The skinny boy from Geometry who never said a word is suddenly showing you photos of his three kids. The cool guy who wouldn’t give you the time of day is suddenly pulling you out on the dance floor to Turn The Beat Around by Gloria Estefan. There were some major full circle moments.  It kind of felt like a wacky extended family wedding. With lots of strobe lights. It is New Jersey, after all.

I see Jennifer Senior’s point about high school being dangerously arbitrary. But to me, it’s also kind of the beauty of it. We have nothing in common, yet we have this one HUGE THING in common. And twenty years later, that’s still a bond. You may not see these people ever again, but you care what happens to them. You celebrate their accomplishments. Your heart hurts for those who are struggling. I paused for a moment on the dance floor and looked around at all of us – jocks, brains, cheerleaders and band nerds, eating mozzarella sticks and dancing to Ace of Base…in what alternate universe would this happen other than high school?

It’s a celebration of randomness.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to go blow dry my hair curly. Because you know, it’s kind of my thing.



Lessons From A Former Self

About two weeks ago I was talking to my neighbor, Tosh, about the weather.

“I am drowning in a multi-season heap of clothes,” I said. “Can I just put the damn shorts in a box and declare winter?”

“I wouldn’t, not yet,” she advised. “Remember that blog post when you went swimming with your clothes on? That was maybe late September or early October.”

And just like that, once I got over the ego boost that someone actually remembers one of my blog posts it occurred to me that this blog had a birthday. Two years ago I wrote the very first post.

It took me a few days to actually go back and read it. I am not a fan of reading my own writing. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, like hearing your own voice on an answering machine, (Do I really sound like that? No, seriously, when I talk, is that the voice you hear?) or reading a paper you wrote in college on something you knew nothing about, with a ridiculous title like:  Feminist or Femme Fatale? Sexism and Satire in Wycherley’s The Country Wife. You read it, shake your head, and say: “What the hell was I talking about? I’m an idiot.”

But nothing is more humiliating humbling than reading an old diary. I know this because on a recent attic purge my mom found this gem from 1990, which puts me at the ripe old age of 13.


Here are some highlights:

Wednesday, August 22, 1990
“Well, I am going out with R. (I can’t reveal his name in case this falls into the wrong hands!!) I am glad I am going out with him and everything, but I’m not sure whether he likes me or not – you know? Well, we’ve been going out for about 4 or 5 weeks. I was away for 2 weeks and R was away for 2 weeks. So we haven’t had much time together. Mostly I called him, but he seemed happy to talk to me, but he never calls me. I can’t tell if he is going to dump me or not. Helen is having a party on Wednesday. I can’t wait! He better go!

Friday, August 24,1990
Today I babysat. It wuz boring! I watched 20/20 with Barbara Walters and it was really weird. It was about kids who were in comas and had near death experiences. They say they saw Jesus and dead relatives. Isn’t that cool? I would like to have that happen to me sometime. R is coming home tomorrow! I hope he can go to the party!

August 29,1990
Well the famous party is over. Maybe it wasn’t as great as I thought it would be. It was just ok.

September 3,1990
R dumped me. I am so depressed. He didn’t even do it himself! Geez. Maybe I’ll tell him off tomorrow. Yeah right no I won’t. I don’t really want to talk about it it’s making me feel worse.

I am not sure what I find most amusing/disturbing – the R saga, that I would like to have a near death experience “sometime,” or the fact that I am in 7th grade and watching Barbara Walters on a Friday night by myself.

In any case, going back and reading a blog from two years ago is kind of like reading that diary. It’s sort of funny, but also mortifying, like having a flashlight shone in the face of your most well-intentioned screw-ups.

I know, I know. Don’t think of it as failure, consider it an opportunity! A growth experience! I get that going back and dissecting the past will prevent me from re-creating it. Still, it makes me a little nauseous.

In her book Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron writes about our urge to bury the less graceful parts of ourselves:

It’s a tricky business – not rejecting any part of yourself at the same time that you’re becoming acutely aware of how embarrassing or painful some of those parts are.

Oh, Pema. Exactly.

When I read the blog from three years ago, I feel exhausted by the “me” I find there – by how hard I try at things even when clearly it is the wrong thing, how desperate I am to control things in my own stubborn but well-meaning way. I am frustrated by my default tendencies: to please, to assume that everyone’s happiness is somehow my responsibility, to falsely believe that if I can just do ______(get a job, have more sex, meditate, quit drinking wine during the week, create a budget, practice yoga, stop cursing, be Donna Reed, be Hillary Clinton, be someone other than me) suddenly it will all fall into place and the birds will sing and the sun will shine and I will have arrived.

Yet there was one nugget from that blog that didn’t make me want to stick my head in the oven spoke to me still:

In times of shared stress, you should order a pizza.  Use paper plates.  Kick the underwear under the bed. Create the space to be vulnerable -fragile, even- at the same time.  Then hold on to each other in this middle place.

I am still trying to find this middle place – how to be ambitious but not avaricious, loose but not lazy, free-spirited but not fool-hardy. And the one benefit to going back and rehashing the past is the realization that there is a learning curve to this whole process. I didn’t know that a boy not calling me was a super bad sign until he dumped me. I didn’t know that making monogramed pot pies would not alleviate marital tension until I made them.
We do the best we can with what we know at the time. And in the words of Maya Angelou, “when you know better, you do better.”

Tosh is right. After a few fleece and flannel mornings, Mother Nature gifts us with an almost-70 degree day. Phil’s breakfast meeting is cancelled so we take a morning walk after the kids go to school. We call these our “mobile executive meetings;” we discuss kids and schedule and the orthodontist’s payment plan. But there are periods of comfortable silence, because there is an ease with which we are together now. We decide to run down to the base of the cliff and then walk back on the rocks.


He climbs up the rocks and then extends his hand to me. I hold my phone between my teeth as he pulls me up, shaking his head but smiling. You carry around too much stuff, he says. I laugh. Don’t I know it.

We haven’t walked these rocks in over a year; they have shifted and changed with the storms. The path is no longer contiguous – we need to climb down, trudge through the muck and climb back up. But the element of surprise keeps it interesting, the need to suddenly re-adjust our path keeps us on our toes.

We end on the beach and look for sea glass as we move toward home. There is no swimming on this walk, Phil doesn’t even suggest it. I worry that we have lost some of our passion, some of our go-big-or-go-home-ness. But then I decide that after a year of being pulled in by the tide and bashed up against the rocks, it feels good to have our feet firmly planted on the ground.


Not The Summer Of Daisy Chains and Water Balloons


It was one crazy summer. We moved. Again. From PA to MA. Again. Because we are masochists like to keep things interesting.

Our house in Pennsylvania sold quicker than we anticipated; a good problem to have, but disorienting nonetheless. Then the closing date was pushed up a month. Then, another two weeks. This meant we had to find somewhere to live between July 17th and September 8th.

I won’t bore you with the logistics; I drank my way through most of it and forget the details. I highly recommend self-medicating your way through moving. The relevant data is 7 weeks, 3 rentals, 3 hotels, 3 grandparent visits, 4 beach weekends across two states, and 2,710.7 miles logged.

The summer travel map

Earlier in the summer I read a great blog post by my friend Lindsey on her blog A Design So Vast. It was called “They are Not Long, the Days of Percy Jackson and Nail Art.”

Her post made me think of summer’s past, mostly the summers of my youth, and how each summer did in fact have a theme: a Rainbow Loom-esque obsession, a game we couldn’t get enough, or the one hit wonder song we played, rewound and played again until our ears bled.

I remember the summer of:

  • Jelly shoes and monokinis
  • Collecting the Cruisin’ Classics tapes from the Exxon gas stations
  • Riding my bike to the Florham Park Pool, my towel draped around my neck
  • Lip-sync talent shows with my cousins (We called ourselves “Surfer Bri and The Waves”)
  • Trying to be cool and hang with my older cousins while they played Gin Rummy and listened to Eric Clapton
  • Airbrushed sweatshirts from the boardwalk (Ok, that was three summers. I’m from New Jersey)
  • Jenga competitions and leg wrestling

I remember my summers as a teenager with less specificity. Instead they are defined by one big moment or milestone:

  • My first kiss (which I botched miserably and still wish I could do over)
  • Getting my driver’s license, which lead to a summer of…
  • No-destination driving with my best friend Helen, smoking Parliament Lights and listening to Natalie Merchant.
  • Night swimming in my friend Priya’s pool.
  • Smoking and eating Necco Wintergreen Mints in the PathMark parking lot with my friend Maureen.
  • The summer of fifteen pounds disco fries at the Nautilus Diner. With gravy. Lots of it.
  • The summer of my Uncle Bill dying.

I didn’t want my kids to remember this summer as “the summer of moving.” Which is ridiculous because, really? They were not going to notice that we began the summer in one state and ended in another? But, I have never been one to let the truth get in the way of parental delusion.

So despite the chaotic conditions, I was determined to make this the best summer ever because I have no in-between. Moving isn’t traumatic, it’s an adventure! We are gypsies! We don’t need a house, we have each other! Home is wherever I’m with you! We don’t need camp, or a pool – we can make our own fun! We have beads and a sprinkler and sidewalk chalk!

I wanted it to be the summer of daisy chains and water balloons.

And herein lies the rub of how you want things to be and how they actually are.

This disconnect became clear to me when, moments after filling about seventy water balloons by hand, my children began pegging them at my head. Like, aggressively.

By the time we reached Phase 3 of the move (two weeks at my parents’ house in New Jersey) shit started to fall apart. People were not happy. The girls love my parents but the level of frenetic change and constant togetherness was too much; they were at each others’ throats. The dog’s hair started falling out. I blame the episodic alopecia on Fox News, which blares from the TV all day long. I am pretty sure my dog is voting for Hillary.

So I do what I always do when I feel out of control: I read self-help books. In this case, those of the parenting variety: Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, The Explosive Child, The Conscious Parent...I listened on my runs, in the car, I read in bed, I took notes.

But the books only seemed to backfire. The more I tried to reflectively listen and use my Calm Earth Mother voice the worse things got. Emma called bullshit on my paltry attempts at Zen: “STOP USING THE CALM VOICE! I HATE THE CALM VOICE! I WOULD RATHER YOU SCREAM LIKE A LUNATIC THAN USE THAT ANNOYING CALM VOICE! THE CALM VOICE DRIVES ME CRAAAAZZZZYYY!!!!

Alright-y then. Noted on the calm voice.

After crying in the bathroom I called my therapist back in Philly. She listened to the trials and tribulations of my Mommy Day Camp gone wrong: the crafts no one wanted to do, the games no one wanted to play, the fighting, the backtalk, the tag-team temper tantrums. By the end of my rant, I was in tears.

“What am I doing wrong???”

She was quiet for a moment.

“Well,” she said, “I am not a parenting expert, but maybe you need to lower your expectations. Maybe this isn’t the summer of daisy chains and water balloons. Maybe this is the summer of survival. You know, if everyone is alive at the end, that’s a win.”

I laughed. “So you are telling me to lower the bar.”

“Just a bit.”

So this is the part where I tell you I dropped my expectations and there was a dramatic shift and everyone was happy and peaceful and in-tune with the present moment.

No. The summer in progress continued. The girls fought like alley cats. I yelled a lot. I dropped the F-bomb. In front of the kids. More than once. I cried in the bathroom again. The circumstances remained the same, but my response to the circumstances shifted. My motto went from “It wasn’t supposed to be like this!” to “It is what it is.”

It is what it is.

In her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach writes:

There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.

Acceptance is a concept I struggle with, because I think I associate it with complacency. If I give up my vision of a summer spent reading the classics aloud while eating homemade coconut milk parfaits, then what? I just give up? What do we do then – watch Full House and eat Choco Tacos?

Actually, yes. That’s exactly what we did. And I have to say, those 30 minutes on the couch each night watching DJ tease her bangs for the big dance and Uncle Jessie get attacked by Kimmie Kibler’s ostrich were some of the most peaceful moments of the summer.


Maybe there is a difference between giving up and giving in. Giving up on expectation and giving in to what is. To what is needed right now. Giving in to the possibility of the moment, even when it feels like it’s all going to hell in a hand basket.

So while it wasn’t the summer of daisy chains and water balloons, it was the summer of:

A hiatus from parenting books: Early one morning I sat on the porch reading The Conscious Parent.


Emma, also an early riser, came outside and plopped into the chair next to me. She leaned over to get a peek of the title, her eyes still squinty and swollen with sleep. Then, she leaned back in her chair and said, “Why do you read these books? Can’t you just figure things out? I think you are smart enough. I just think it would be a lot more interesting if you just kinda figured things out.”

I laughed. “Is this a challenge?”

“Um, heck yes.”

So I went to the library that afternoon and got out a novel. And reading it felt positively luxurious.

Getting outside: We spent the summer in close quarters, in homes that were not our own. Things could get tight.

When it all got a little too close for comfort, it was time to go outside and go for a walk.

“Whyyyy,  I don’t wanna go for a walk, my legs are so tired,” was the usual response. But once we got out there, they usually cooperated. It helps when this is the view from the street:


Bribing with ice cream also worked.

Simple Pleasures: sunrises and sunsets,




walking the dog to the lighthouse after dinner,


a ferry ride,




Phoebe sitting quietly on the sea wall,


a drive-in movie.


These were the moments of the summer when I stopped, took a breath, and said to myself:  We will be ok.



We are going to make it after all.


I will remember this as the summer of radical acceptance.


Which brings me back to my original mission statement of the summer:

Moving isn’t traumatic, it’s an adventure! We are gypsies! We don’t need a house, we have each other! Home is wherever I’m with you!

I now see the motivation behind these words, and it goes something like this: I am your mom, and I feel guilty that you are moving again, so I am willing to become a walking carnival in order to distract you from this unpleasant reality. 

And no one was buying it.

I think it’s ok to try and make the best of things. But maybe the “best of things” is actually the whole thing.  Moving is an adventure. We are gypsies of the suburban variety. And home is wherever I am with these three people (and our dog). This is all true. But moving can be a little traumatic, and sometimes a house comes in handy. This is also true.

Maybe radical acceptance isn’t giving up, or choosing one thing or another, but making room for all of it. The reality and the possibility.


Your Place in Space

In early June, our family traveled to Washington DC for the Toshiba Exploravision Awards Weekend. Emma and her two friends – Lola and Lela – accepted first place in the K-3 category for their science project on baby sea turtles.

The fact that they won first place is still somewhat stunning – not because they didn’t deserve it, but because winning was never really on their radar screen. Their project -the S.T.A.R. Sea Turtle Assistant Rod – was borne out of Lola’s summer vacation to the Outer Banks, where she learned that only 1 in 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings survive the journey from nest to ocean. It’s the ultimate underdog story, and we Philadelphians are suckers for a good underdog story. Just watch Silver Linings Playbook.

The all-expense paid trip to DC was a whirlwind event:

The girls met their congressmen

chakkah fattah

and senators.


They had TV and radio interviews with Bill Nye the Science Guy,

bill nye

and presented their project to the Toshiba executives at the National Press Club.


But there is one moment from the weekend that stands out in my mind. The girls were being interviewed at the National Press Club in front of an audience of over 200 people. The interviewer asked each girl a few questions, and then wrapped it up by asking Lola:

“What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you want to do something with animals or sea turtles?”

After a brief pause, Lola answered: “I don’t really know yet.”

The crowd laughed, because Lola is adorable and charming – and of course, why would she know? Such a perfect, honest answer. But when the girls came back to their seats, they put their heads together and whispered to each other. I heard Lola say:

“If they ask that again, what do I say? A vet? No, wait….a marine biologist!”

Then she repeated “marine biologist” a few times so she would remember how to pronounce it. This made me so sad for reasons I couldn’t name at the time. But the sound of Lola’s voice repeating “marine biologist” haunted me. It popped into my head just last week, at a Fourth of July BBQ, when someone asked me the dreaded question:

“What do you do?”

Suddenly I am Lola, up on stage under hot lights with a mic in my face; an audience of brilliant science nerds eagerly awaiting my insightful answer. I go from being in the moment, happily sipping my wine spritzer and enjoying the salty summer air to a state of total panic. My mind is now running the show. It sits in a director’s chair and shouts into a megaphone:

“Plug your blog! Give the yoga spiel! Play the mom card! Say you’re a marine biologist….anything!! JUST ANSWER THE QUESTION!!”

What I wanted to say was: “I do a lot of things. But right now I am here talking to you.” But instead I mumbled some lame answer about yoga and then booked it to the bar for a big girl glass of wine, sans spritzer.

When presented with these future-oriented questions, our mind yells “Action!” – or more specifically – “Re-action!” That is it’s job – the mind reacts. My mind reacts to pretty much everything like a monkey on speed. It is never satisfied with what is happening in the present moment. If I am writing this blog, I should be doing the laundry. If I am doing the laundry I should be writing the blog. It 100% wants me to be somewhere else, doing something else, talking to someone else, becoming someone else.

I am not promoting a life of inaction or navel gazing. But I am trying to take a step back and notice the difference between action and reaction. Lola took action to save the sea turtles because she was inspired to help the hatchlings survive. Thinking she now needs to be a marine biologist just because she loves sea turtles is a reaction to being trapped by an adult’s question and trying to give the “right” answer.

Action = I am doing this because it feels inspired or right for me.

Reaction = I am doing this because it feels like you maybe want me to do this, so it must be the right thing because you are probably smarter/older/wiser/better dressed than me. So…am I doing it right? Is this the right answer? Bueller? Wait…why am I doing this again?

In his book The Great Work of Your Life (a great read about dharma based on the Bhagavad Gita) Stephen Cope writes:

Longing for our idealized images of life separates us from our true selves and from our true callings.

What if we stopped asking our children “what do you want to be,” and replaced it with: “What do you love to do? What is your favorite activity? When do you lose track of time? When do you feel most alive?”

Maybe Lola will be a marine biologist someday. Or a teacher or CEO or fashion designer…or some new hybrid profession she invents all on her own. Who knows?

But the only thing Lola needs to be at eight years old is Lola.

The only thing Lola needs to be when she grows up is Lola.

And the only thing I need to be at thirty-eight is me. Not the future-idealized-finally-got-my-shit-together-me – I’m talking about the me that is sitting here right now, writing this blog. The braless, dirty-haired, no-career stay at home mom who is typing these words to you. And all you need to be is the you that is sitting there reading them.

In his closing speech at the Toshiba Exploravision Banquet, Bill Nye talked about finding our “place in space.”  Perhaps the first step in discovering our dharma is claiming the space we are already in.  Meeting ourselves as we are right now with compassion, acceptance and curiosity.

Maybe at this very moment, we are all exactly where we need to be.







Never Say Never

In my pre-child years, I had a long list of things I swore I would never do when became a mother:

  1. Yell
  2. Scream
  3. Cry in the bathroom
  4. Threaten
  5. Bribe with candy
  6. Power walk
  7. Drive to school in my pajamas while drinking coffee from a regular (not travel) mug.
  8. Wear a bathing suit with a skirt.
  9. Swim Mommy Stroke Style (wearing sunglasses and/or visor)
  10. Lick my fingers to wipe dirt or peanut butter or whatever mystery substance is crusted to my kid’s face.
  11. Extract a booger with my bare hands.
  12. Extract a poop with my bare hands.
  13. Catch vomit in my bare hands.
  14. Pop a zit that is not mine.
  15. Go on a house tour wearing sock booties.
  16. Wear clothes based purely on warmth
  17. Not wear certain clothes because it requires complicated undergarments
  18. Sing loudly to Hall and Oates while grocery shopping
  19. Sing loudly to Foreigner while waiting in line at CVS
  20. Sing loudly (and do the harmonies) to The Cranberries while waiting in the school car line.
  21. Use masking tape and/or staples to hem a Halloween costume

Then there were the things I swore I would never say when I became a mother:

  1. “Watch your mouth.”
  2. “Because I said so.”
  3. “March!”
  4. “I don’t like your tone.”
  5. “Who do you think you are talking to?”
  6. “If I have to ask you to _____ one more time…”
  7. “Excuse me?”
  8. “Pardon me?”
  9. “I am sorry, what did you just say?”
  10. Inappropriate
  11. “Wait until Dad gets home”
  12. “Dad will not be happy about this.”
  13. “Do I need to call your father?”
  14. “Is that really necessary?”
  15. “Am I talking to myself?”
  16. “Is anyone listening?”
  17. “HELLO?”

Now that I actually am a mother, of course I do and say all of these things.  If I were to dissect these lists, I would find some come out of habit, or memory, or a learned behavior/response I picked up along the way. Others are just byproducts of being overwhelmed, cranky and chronically sleep deprived.

But I think even more interesting than these assimilated maternal behaviors are the ones that seem to come out of left field. I am talking about your own personal stamp on motherhood. The way that you are as a mom that makes you unique, because you didn’t learn it from your own mom or read it in a parenting book – it’s just you being you with your kids, in the moment.

My personal parental calling card is humor. Humor at all costs. If I can possibly diffuse a situation by making my kids laugh, I will do pretty much anything.

Let me tell you a story.

It was about 5:00 on Tuesday – a gorgeous afternoon, hot but breezy. I knew I should be making dinner but I REALLY DID NOT WANT TO. Phoebe was playing with her dolls and Emma was doing homework so I snuck out to the hammock with my book. I read a few pages but mostly listened to the sound of the leaves in the tree above me, rustling like a crinoline petticoat.


I was there a whole three minutes when Emma flopped into the hammock with the Pottery Barn catalog. I am not sure if she was tired or hot or both, but she was in a mood. The following conversation ensued:

“I can’t find my Anne Frank book so now I have to read this dumb Pottery Barn catalog.”

“Anne Frank is on the playroom bookshelf.”

“No she’s not.”

“Yes, she is. Did you look?”

“Yes, and she’s not there.”

“I put Anne Frank on the playroom shelf this morning.”

“Ugh! Mom. No you didn’t. I’ll just read about jute rugs and hurricane lamps. Because they are so educational.”

Now I guess this is the part where I should offer to retrieve Anne Frank, but there was no way I was giving up my spot on the hammock I decided that would be parental enabling. So I went back to my book.

Emma signed deeply.

She thumbed through the pages. She muttered under her breath. Then, she started to press her feet into my thigh, hard. Then harder. She was in a full-on leg press when I said: “Can you stop doing that?”

“Ugh, Mom can’t you just go get Anne Frank? I don’t feel like reading this stupid Pottery Barn catalog! Look at this Octopus Embroidered Lumbar Pillow – it’s freaky!” She ripped out a page and tossed into the air.

I could feel myself getting annoyed. Really annoyed. I wanted to say, “I just want five minutes in the hammock. You are ruining my hammock time. You are kicking my leg and I don’t like it. I cleaned up all your books today and you are too lazy to get the book off the shelf right in front of your face.”

But I bit my tongue.

I needed to break up the tension. I looked underneath the hammock and saw that our dog Zoe was now eating the discarded Pottery Barn page. “Zoe thinks the octopus pillow is hideous enough to eat.”

Emma cracked a smile but fought it hard: “Mom! Just go get Anne Frank.”

I opened the catalog. “And looks at all these anchor pillows. I mean, coastal can be overdone, people.” I ripped out the page and threw it to Zoe, who proceeded to rip it apart with her teeth. Emma was now covering her mouth with her hand – I almost had her. “And THIS! I mean, c’mon. Why is this rug $2,000? Does it fly? Is it a magic sisal-seagrass blend carpet?” I ripped out the page and then in half. I threw half the page to Zoe, and the other half….I stuffed in my mouth. Yes I did. And yes I did think about how many germs are on the pages of that catalogue. I am that desperate dedicated to getting a laugh.

Emma’s eyes got huge for a moment, and then she cracked up. She may have even squealed with delight. We ripped out page after page and stuffed them in our mouths. We gnawed, gnashed, and ripped the poor Pottery Barn catalog to shreds. Zoe just sat there staring. These people are bat shit crazy.

In the end I did go retrieve Anne Frank from the playroom shelf. I did this in part because I am also very lazy and understand the joy of someone getting you something you could absolutely get yourself.

I also fear that my hammock days with Emma -now on the cusp of tweenhood – are numbered. So I will do what it takes to keep her in there with me.

And plus, while Anne Frank is a bit heavy for a hammock read, how do you say no when your kid is requesting Holocaust literature? Sometimes the life lessons need to be carefully weighed.

We settled back in to our corners of the hammock. Emma’s formerly antsy legs now rested heavy next to mine, our limbs a tangle of knobby knees and freckles. I closed my eyes and breathed in this moment of perfect harmony: the breeze, the gentle rock of the hammock, the sound of the leaves, the warm weight of her legs on mine.

“Anne’s sister Margot is a little uptight,” Emma said.

WIth my eyes still closed, I replied: “Living in an annex may have that affect on people.”

“True,” she said, then paused. “You’re pretty funny, Mom.”

“Thanks, Honey.”

Motherhood is full of could, woulds, and shoulds; the things you never wanted to do but do anyway, or all the things you thought you would do but didn’t. But then there are the completely unexpected moments with your kids that you never could have imagined or categorized…because they are less about doing or not doing and more about just being yourself.


Painted in Waterlogue If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There’s an initial uprush of relief at first, then -for me anyway -a profound dislocation. My old assumptions about how the world work are buried, yet my new ones are not yet operational. There’s a death of sorts, but without a few days in hell, no resurrection is possible.

-Mary Karr, Lit

Easter has never been my favorite. The big creepy bunny breaking into your home, the Cadbury Eggs with their mystery yokes, the church filled with incense that inevitably makes someone pass out, Charlton Heston as Moses…I find it all a bit overwhelming.

My daughters go to a Catholic school. On the last day before spring break, the upper grades performed the Passion Play for the younger ones. Phoebe climbed into the car after school, buckled her seat belt and announced: “The Passion Play is very disturbing. I am so not into Resurrections.”

Apparently Easter is not her favorite, either.

This year, we spent spring break with my parents in Florida, which was a welcome change of scenery for all of us. It’s been a long year. It felt miraculous to get on a plane in a sea of grayness, and then three hours later step into the sunshine; a technicolor world filled with blue skies and palm trees, the warm air thick with the scent of hibiscus and honeysuckle. Like stepping out of Kansas into Oz.

Painted in Waterlogue

On Easter Sunday we go to church. Phoebe is antsy – climbing all over me, making funny faces at the people behind us trying to get a laugh. I can’t really blame her. I am antsy, too. I try to distract myself with people watching: little girls in pastel dresses and Easter hats, the choir of senior citizens dressed in Tommy Bahamas and golf pants, the ushers in white blazers tending to the poor guy who just passed out thanks to the incense.

Phoebe climbs in my lap and stage whispers into my ear: “How do you feel about Resurrections? Because I am SO NOT INTO THEM.” Then she goes back to stacking missalettes. I guess it is a rhetorical question. But I sit and think about it.

I believe in resurrection, in needing to die in order to live. I believe there is always an opportunity to begin again, if you are brave and curious. I believe in do-overs. I believe in second chances, third chances, 5,000 chances – however many chances you need, I will give them to you. Fool me once, fool me twice, fool me a hundred times…I don’t care. I would rather be foolish than unforgiving.

After church, we all pile into my dad’s car and inch our way through the sea of senior citizens in Cadillacs. Phil reads from the church bulletin: “Wow, two married couples renewed their vows in this church yesterday. Both have been married 75 years.”

The word Resurrection comes from the Latin resurgere: to rise again. I think of the couples married three quarters of a century and wonder how many times they had to die and rise again, to forgive, to create something new from the ashes, to find their way back to joy. Marriage is, in a way, it’s own easter. It is nails and crosses and suffering; it is betrayal and sacrifice and pain that can feel suffocating, almost unbearable.

But then, somehow, you both survive. You escape your tomb of anger and can breathe again. You share a laugh about something – a deep belly laugh that makes your eyes water. You can’t remember the last time you laughed like that; it feels like a lifetime ago. Then, as you both wipe away the tears, you stop and look at each other in disbelief. Holy shit. We are still here. We are going to make it. It is nothing short of miraculous.

After church we go to the pool. I watch Phil play for hours with the girls. He makes up crazy games with tennis balls and plastic cups; he lets them dive off his shoulders. I want to grow old with this man. The thought sneaks up on me, startles me even. I do not typically let myself think that way. I am hardwired for disappointment, for impending doom. Don’t count your chickens and all that. To imagine growing old with someone is a jinx, I have always reasoned. That kind of optimism will get you run over by a Septa bus.

Phil does a handstand in the pool. I decide to let go of my fatalistic superstitions. In the spirit of Easter, I will let that habit die. So I look around the pool, a veritable AARP convention, and wonder which old couple Phil and I will turn out to be.

Will we read silently in straight back chairs, me immersed in a large-print library book and Phil with his nose in the Wall Street Journal? Will he sit on the edge of my lounge chair while I rub sunscreen on his spotty, barnacled back? Will we share a chicken salad sandwich under the umbrella, or float around on pool noodles – Phil wearing cataract sunglasses and me in a visor the size of a toilet seat?

My fantasy is interrupted when a soaking wet Emma plops down in the chair next to me. I ask her, “What do you think I will look like when I am old?”

She tilts her head and shakes water out of her ear. “I don’t know,” she says. “But promise you won’t wear one of those visors.”


The last morning of vacation, Phil and I wake up around 5:30 and drive to the beach for an early morning walk and swim. We walk to the edge of the fishing pier and people watch. An old man fishes off the corner of the pier patiently waiting for a bite; his wife sits at his side doing the crossword. I wonder if they do this everyday, if this is their routine.

Painted in Waterlogue

We leave the pier and comb the beach for treasures. Phil discovers a starfish tangled up in the seaweed.


I find a lightening whelk whose inhabitant has fled it’s home. It is a sinistral shell, meaning the opening is on the left instead of the right. I know it is a lightening whelk because of the vibrant stripes that line the shell like bolts of lightening.


I wonder if this bad luck, I think to myself, a shell opening to the left. The downward spirals probably symbolize death or your life going in the wrong direction or something. Phil and I are both left-handed. I used to think this was bad luck, too, that our kids were destined to be freaks. But they turned out ok (and right-handed), so I let that one go.

We strip down to our bathing suits and dive into the placid blue-green Gulf of Mexico.

Painted in Waterlogue

We float around for a while, I even indulge Phil in some ocean PDA, as the beach is mostly deserted at this early hour. I climb out of the water and notice an older couple sitting under an umbrella in beach chairs that face the sea. They sit side by side, sipping coffee from a red thermos. They keep their eyes on the horizon, but speak to each other in quiet morning voices.


There we are, I think. That is us.

That is the couple we will be, because that is the couple we already are.

Maybe marriage is a lightening whelk. As you get old, saggy and wise together, you shed the baggage that requires too much energy to carry. Like the whelk, you spiral counterclockwise, descending, returning, back to who you really are, to who you were both born to be.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets





It’s terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering seems a Holy thing.

-Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

Last Friday was my Aunt Terry’s birthday. She died over three years ago – it will be four years in October. I can not wrap my brain around that fact.

I remember the last time I saw her in such detail: It is October 7, 2011 in a hotel in Jersey City, at my cousin Beth’s wedding. Emma is the flower girl and I am a bridesmaid; my dress is beautiful, a deep purple, or aubergine.


Aunt Terry has cancer. This is new information, yet to be fully digested by those who love her. But her oncologist has a plan, she is going to be ok, because she has to be. She dances at the wedding, and in my mind this means she will beat this. She is little but mighty.


The morning after the wedding I pack our suitcases before heading down to brunch. Phil is in the shower and Emma is watching cartoons. I want to see Aunt Terry alone, before we all have to put our brunch faces on. I want to go down the hall and tap on her door, I want to climb in bed with her and smell her perfume. We will do the post-party recap; I will be a clown and make her laugh.

But what if she is not feeling well, what if Gary (her husband) is in the shower, what if I am too old to climb in bed with her, what if what if what if. So I don’t go.

I didn’t go. I wanted to take care of her in some small way but I didn’t.

Aunt Terry was the one who took care of everyone else. The summer I turned 16 I was full of teenage angst; my parents and I could not breathe the same air without fighting over it were not seeing eye to eye. It was suggested (by whom I can’t remember) that I go hang out at Aunt Terry’s for a week or three. She taught me how to mow the lawn (which I still love to do) and parallel park (which I don’t).

We sat in her kitchen one night, dipping pretzels in ice cream when she asked: “Why are you so sad, Honey?”

It was the perfect thing to say.

At the wedding brunch I sit with Aunt Terry for a while, then we all gather our stuff to leave. Phil loads the car while I check out. Aunt Terry and Gary are standing behind me. As Gary returns the key cards I turn to her and say: “I am going to come see you in Virginia, I can help. We can lay in bed and watch Modern Family for eight hours straight, ok?”

I wrap my arms around her but she seems so delicate, I am afraid of upsetting the chemo port in her chest. We say I love you and I walk the few steps to the escalator. I can see Phil and Emma through the glass window, waiting in the car below.

The image of Aunt Terry standing in the hotel lobby as I step onto the escalator is burned on my brain. I can see the light coming in the windows, creating patterns on the carpet. The cylindrical shape of the vase perched on the desk. The flowers are autumnal – yellow and orange. Gary runs his fingers through his hair; he is distracted, he wears his fear on his face. Aunt Terry leans into him, letting his body support her, and a feeling comes over me that is difficult to name – an unshakeable chill, my heart sinking into my stomach like a stone.

I wonder if a part of my brain knew this was the last time I would ever see her. That in three weeks, she would be gone. I wonder if my brain bypassed my magical thinking and said, You will want to remember this.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about memory – why we remember some things but not others. Sometimes it feels so random, even bizarre, the things that stick in my crawl: the outfit I wore on the first day of 7th grade, the distinct grape smell of Aussie Sprunch Hairspray, the notes and fingerings required to play “Louie Louie” on the mellophone.

I remember bits and pieces of both my daughters’ births, but they are fuzzy, like pieces of a dream. Yet I distinctly remember Emma coming to the hospital to meet Phoebe for the first time. She was wearing a white shirt with green and yellow butterflies. My mom had put a green bow in her hair, along with a bunch of bobby pins “to keep it in place.”

As she stood peering into the bassinet, her face a mixture of curiosity and skepticism, I remember thinking: Emma looks enormous. Like Alice in Wonderland kind of huge. I turned to Phil and before I could even speak he leaned over and whispered, “Yeah she looks 12 feet tall. It’s freaking me out.”

Maybe it’s the things that feel out of place that stick. The mind’s way of making sense of a new reality, turning it over and upside down like a Rubik’s Cube. Maybe those are the things that float around until the brain finds the right compartment to place it in. But for some things, there is no compartment. So the brain gives up, and the memory just keeps on floating in and out of the consciousness.

This is not a scientific theory. It is a Jessie Theory (which is decidedly un-scientific).

I just finished reading Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. In the essay entitled “Memory and Imagination,” she writes:

We store in memory only images of value. The value may be lost over the passage of time, but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling: This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging onto. And, of course, often we cleave to things because they posses heavy negative charges. Pain has strong arms.

Pain has strong arms.

There is a planet of regret that accompanies my final memory of Aunt Terry. It can be all-consuming, suffocating – crushing all other thoughts of her with its hugeness. But now, almost four years later, I am beginning to feel a shift – a making way, making room for other memories to surface.

Aunt Terry made PB & J on white bread with peanut butter on both sides so it sealed in the grape jelly, preventing sogginess. Her iced tea was perfectly sweet. She loved to play games -Spoons, Jenga, Outburst- and she played to win. She liked to dance, anywhere, anytime. We both snort when we laugh. She taught me how to tie the perfect bow for a Christmas wreath. She could eat just one cookie. She laughed at my jokes. I would do anything to make her laugh. I miss the sound of her voice saying my name.

In her memoir The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke writes about grief:

It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.

As time marches on, I pray that more memories will continue to bubble to the surface. That I will learn to grow around what I didn’t do, or what didn’t happen, of what wasn’t. I want to grow with tall branches toward the light of what did happen. Of what was.