28 08 2010

When I started writing My Imperfect Truth I began with the assumption that anyone reading would either be a friend or family member and would already know that I’m gay. Somehow starting a blog with a great big “hey y’all did I mention I’m a lesbian” essay seemed disingenuous and a little attention-grabbing. After all, I reasoned, other writers don’t provide any back story that begins with “so I’m straight…” Being gay is just one of the many things I am, along with freakishly tall, bad at math, a snazzy little dancer, Irish-Italian, and a mom. Besides, every gay person has their coming out story and most of my close friends know mine. Well a glossed-over version of it anyway. I had also made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going detail my coming out story here because it involved the end of my marriage, which was an understandably painful event for my ex-husband. I have too much affection and respect for him to publicly revisit that time. So, to save time, the answers to the questions I invariably get in odd places (cocktail parties, business events and recently a friends wedding reception) are: A) yes I suspected my sexuality from a young age, B) no I didn’t get married hoping it would make me straight. I loved my ex husband and in spite of the marriage ending there were some really terrific times and a pretty spectacular daughter along the way. And, C) um, no I don’t plan to ‘go back to men.’ (I was recently asked that question with Kelly sitting right next to me. Dude really? ). And really that’s always been the end of that. After nearly seven years with Kelly, the most recent of which has been spent happily co-habitating, building a great family home life, traveling together and planning a wedding, I thought I had finally leaped over most of the coming-out hurdles and could sit back and enjoy our happily wedded life. After all, it’s been a long time coming.

When I first came out, my life was a combination of outright terror and tentative excitement. Moving on as a single mom (although one blessed with a supportive and involved co-parent) was scary, and there was some rough water to navigate. My coming out changed my role in many of my personal relationships. I was no longer the straight tag-along to my gay friends and in many ways those relationships required the most care and feeding. Some friends gay and straight felt a bit betrayed by this secret I had kept, others felt I was just being trendy and wasn’t “really” gay. There were some harsh words, some misunderstandings, and the loss of one very dear friendship completely. And then there was my parenting life. Suddenly I was very different from the other moms dropping off their new kindergarten-ers at the local Catholic school where we had decided to send Liza.

I know. This is where I get the inevitable. “Wait a minute, you’re gay but you’re sending your kid to a Catholic school?” question. And my short answer is this: “Yes.” My relationship to my faith is complicated and it’s very personal to me, but at the end of the day it is my faith and I wanted my child raised in that faith, for even as the politics of my church turned its back on me, the prayers, rituals, and hymns comforted me at a time I needed it most. I wanted Liza to attend a school where the academics were rigorous, where the emphasis was on respect and personal responsibility, and where she could be fully a part of the school and parish community. It was absolutely the right decision for her but I was understandably nervous enough about being welcomed as a divorced mom at a Catholic school, let alone a divorced gay mom. For nearly five years I kept that part of my life quiet when dealing with her school. Kelly wasn’t living with us then and aside from a few of Liza’s friends who spent enough time with us to know that Kelly was usually around, no one “officially knew.” But as I grew to trust that the moms and dads of her friends were o.k. with the situation, and as Liza matured, I finally felt comfortable enough at the end of her fourth grade year to ask my friend in charge of volunteers for a school fundraiser if Kelly and I could volunteer together. We were greeted warmly and enthusiastically as we handed out pizza and desserts and Kelly’s joking demeanor was a big hit with the kids. That was the first time I introduced Kelly as my partner to other parents and teachers at her school. And after that we never looked back. Kelly has been there at concerts and plays and when she picks Liza up at her after-school program the teachers never have to ask what child she’s there for. Last spring, when I read of a boy in Massachusetts being denied entry into a Catholic school because he had two moms, it made me doubly thankful for the warm and supportive environment we had found at Liza’s school. This week as the start of sixth grade was upon us, and as our wedding draws closer, I let out a sigh of relief that surely the biggest coming out hurdles were behind me. I was wrong.

There’s an expression in the gay community that you don’t come out just once, you come out over and over again each time you meet someone new. I hadn’t thought until this week how that expression would also be true for my daughter until the night she burst into tears and told me how embarrassed she was that I was gay, and how afraid she was of having to tell new kids at a new school next year, how she was afraid she’d be teased for it, that when we go places as a family she wonders what other people are thinking. The rawness of her emotions slammed into me and I found myself grappling for an answer. I took a deep breath and told her that the people who matter will accept her and her family and the people that don’t are not going to be the people that matter. That we don’t live our lives in secret as if we’re ashamed of who we are, and that by living honestly and openly we are taking away the opportunity for others to use our life as a weapon against us. I told her that sometimes I wonder what people think of our family too, but then I remember how awesome our family is and I remind myself that what other people think is their business. She listened tearfully and said she was done talking about it. I gave her a hug, went into the bathroom, got into the shower, and cried. My coming out had been over 30 years in the making, but Liza had gotten dragged along on my ride and now it was finally catching up with her and it was killing me. Suddenly I doubted everything. Had I handled this the wrong way? Should I have remained closeted at her school and around her friends? I’m used to parental guilt but this one was a doozy. For the next week I proceeded to tread Ilightly and didn’t force the subject. I held my breath that Liza wouldn’t be embarrassed when one of her teachers inquired about what caterer we were using for our wedding and wished us well. Although she was a bit more scowly than usual for a few days by the end of the week we were back to sitting on the deck laughing at wedding scenarios (like Kelly’s suggestion that we have the guests greet each other by rubbing noses) and I hoped that the storm had passed at least for the moment. Kelly thinks I’m naïve to think that my sexuality will never be an issue for Liza with her friends and peers. I continue to maintain that the only way to change minds is to simply live our lives and by doing so show that there’s nothing unusual about our family (well other than the fact that Kelly likes to eat pretzels with taco seasoning sprinkled on them but that’s another blog post entirely). I know most kids are embarrassed by their parents at some point in time and I know Liza wishes I wasn’t so fat, that I could cook, and that I would never again do any show with the local teenage actors who are her friends. But I hope that she can find it in herself someday to be proud that I finally found that courage not to hide who I am. That she can be proud that I’m out.


The Blink

18 07 2010

A dear friend and her husband just welcomed an adorable baby girl to the world and are happily embarking on the adventure of parenthood. As I look at her photos of that teeny baby snuggled and cuddled and loved and coo-ed over I feel that tug that so many moms of older kids feel. That “where did the time go?” feeling. And of course my friend is now hearing what all moms of newborns hear, “don’t blink or you’ll miss something!” Or “you watch, you’ll blink and she’ll be grown!” I steal a glance at my 11-year old sprawled on the couch in her pajama shorts and tank top, fully engulfed in a Lady Gaga video and ponder that parenting phenomenon known as “The Blink.”

Now let me make something clear. I am not one of those sentimental moms that saves every lock of hair, charts every milestone, and has saved every school project or drawing in a colorful bin labeled ‘precious memories.” I’ve chronicled on these pages before that I have never been a great mom and at times never even been a good mom. But even I was blindsided by The Blink. I started thinking about The Blink the other day when trying to remember what summer we took Liza to Storyland. It was then I realized that I don’t think in years. Rather, I think in terms of what grade she was in, what dance recital or play she was doing at the time, but rarely, if ever, by how old she was or what year it was. Looking at a photo of Liza at the pool the summer we moved to my condo I struggled to think how old she had been and was stunned to realize she was just five. FIVE ! A lifetime ago! Yet, at the same time, a mere blink in the endless cycle of back-to-school shopping, Christmas concerts, Easter masses, and Fourth of July fireworks that make up our lives. Here’s the thing, I don’t really remember Liza being any specific age except for four, because that’s the year we first took her to Disneyworld and also the year my marriage ended. (Ok, I also remember the year she was 9 if only because it was a singularly difficult year for both of us and I wasn’t sure we were going to survive it intact). But ask me what she was like at 7 or 3 or 5 and I’ll look at you blankly and then I”ll do my “let’s see…7..that would have been um… 2nd grade? The year she did Jungle Book? Or was she 8 when she did Jungle Book? Hmmmm….” routine.

Here’s my next confession. I vividly remember Liza’s birth, but I don’t remember much about the long hot summer that followed other than my complete inability to effectively parent an infant. And the toddler years after that? One big blur. I was blessed with the world’s greatest daycare providers who surrounded Liza with love and support and guided her through those first steps, toilet training, and her ABCs. To some moms I know this is seen as abandoning my child, for me, it gave me the support network I needed. I didn’t take to motherhood easily. It blindsided me. I was ill-equipped to deal with long days on the toddler swings, nap schedules and Barney. My personal life at the time was troubled and I wasn’t present physically or emotionally in the way I should have been, I call them the lost years. This gap in time is not helped by the fact that I possess photos of Liza as an infant and scores of photos of her from ages 5-11 but nothing from ages 2-4. I think I left those photo albums at her dad’s house – and rightfully so as he should have his share of photo memories of her. But that lack of a visual record does make it hard for me to remember what she was like. It’s almost as if I went straight from that squalling irritated infant to the tween I just bought size 9 adult ballet slippers for. From folding onesies to picking up a tank top in the laundry and wondering if it belonged to the girl or to me. From preparing bottles for her at 2am to asking her to refill my coffee while she’s in the kitchen. From holding hands with a little girl on the beach, to putting my arm around a young woman nearly as tall as I am. The Blink happened.

As I smile as I read my friends exuberant Facebook posts about those heady early days of motherhood, yet my heart aches a little for the baby Liza was and for the kind of intuitive mom she never had. I love being around new babies, I love holding them and smelling that awesome new baby smell and seeing those little faces so full of promise of the world ahead of them and I love seeing those new moms so in love with them and so sure that they will memorize each moment, that they won’t be a victim of the Blink. I look at Liza and search for reminders of her chubby toddler face where the blasé face of a confident young woman now lives. I stop her suddenly in the supermarket and kiss the top of her head so fiercely she pulls away from me with a horrified “MOMMMMM!” I can’t bring that toddler back, that 5, 8 or 10-year old back nor, honestly, would I want to. Liza has grown into a young woman whose company comforts me, whose humor delights me, and whose talent humbles me. But in this moment when I feel that I finally have a handle on this whole mom thing, I hold on to my 11 year-old with all my might because I know. I know soon she’ll be gone on her way to a future bigger than we can imagine. And I’ll be wondering when I blinked.

Life Upon the Wicked Stage

31 01 2010

The scores and books of classic musicals are full of the warnings: “Life upon the wicked stage ain’t never what a girl supposes…” sings a winsome young gal in Act Two of “Show Boat,” (widely considered the first American ‘book’ musical).   An aging chorine in Sondheim’s brilliant masterpiece “Follies”  remembers “walkin’ off my tired feet, poundin’ 42nd street, to be in a show….,”  Margot Channing, the heroine of “Applause” (the musical version of the classic show biz story ‘All About Eve”) welcomes Eve to the theater with the warm lines ‘welcome to a life of laryngitis, welcome to dark toilets in the hall!”  The daughters of that stage mother of all stage mothers in “Gypsy” lament how normal life could be if only “Momma was Married” rather than bellowing “Sing out Louise! Smile baby!” from the back of countless vaudeville theaters.   And truthfully, what sane responsible parent would want this for their child?  A life of constant competition, a merry go round of dance, voice and acting classes, perennially cold rehearsal spaces, scratchy costumes, far-too-late-for-your-age bedtimes, throat lozenges, and homework done while spread out on the dusty musty floors of theaters and studio spaces?

The answer of course is no sane parent.  What responsible mother would say to their child “why yes it’s a fine idea to spend all of your formative years learning skills that if you’re supremely lucky and are in the right place at the right time and know the right people and look exactly the right way possibly maybe could one day net you some unreliable and low-paying work!”  This isn’t exactly what the stuff of sensible parenting is made of.  And yet, when theater is as much a part of your world as your morning coffee, when words like “blocking,’ “off-book,” and “downstage” are as much a part of your vernacular as ‘bread and milk,” when “call” is not something you get on the phone and “house” is not the place you live, how could you deny your child the chance to also learn about, live, move and be in that world?

The love for theater runs deep in my family. My  father grew up in New Haven in the 1920s and 30s when all the major Broadway shows had their out-of-town tryouts.  He and his best friend Keith Brown were classic stage-door Johnnies, even one time sneaking into Katherine Hepburn’s dressing room only to be thrown out when she found out they were not in fact Yale men.   From this world my father carried his love of musical theater into the rest of his life as a husband and father taking my mother to New York for their honeymoon to see the original production of “Guys and Dolls,” and, years later, singing his youngest daughter to sleep with medleys from “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” and “Anything Goes.”  (Although I do need to point out that my father knew about 5 lines of every show tune ever written he never seemed to know any song in its entirety.  Only in my adulthood did I discover that not all of these songs shared “la de dum dum” as a lyric).  This early exposure to Rogers and Hammerstein, Hart, and Porter, instilled in me a love for and fascination with the world of musical comedy and an often unsettling feeling that I should be ‘doing that.’  My parents indulged my interest, taking me to five shows a summer at Maine State Theater ( formerly the Brunswick Summer Music Theater) where I insisted we sit in the front row so I could be as close to the stage as possible.

When I was in the fourth grade a troupe from the Children’s Theater of Maine came to visit my elementary school.  At the end of their riotous performance they invited any of the students to come sign up for their summer theater camp.  At ten I was pudgy to put it politely, awkward and quite shy but I remember marching up to one of the actors and announcing I was going to go to their camp, then praying I could convince my mother to let me.   Well of course she let me, if anything my parents were probably overjoyed I was finally venturing out a bit from the safety of the cocoon of my family life.   I will never forget that summer, the long hot days spent in a dilapidated warehouse doing odd acting exercises and playing a court jester in a show about the princess who wanted the moon. To this day I still remember the lesson one actor taught me about how to make it look convincing on stage when you’re drinking out of a cup with nothing in it.   To say that summer changed my life might be a bit of an exaggeration but it was the first time I felt truly at home, truly with people who understood what I knew – that there was no better place to be, no better way to spend your time.  And my parents gave me what was quite possibly the greatest gift ever.  They never tried to talk me out of it, to tell me it was a foolish pursuit, or I should spend my time studying something more practical.  They never missed a performance – even the edgy experimental student written shows in college that they didn’t understand. And at every show my mother would cry tears of pride and my father would announce ‘that’s my daughter” to everyone around him.  After college my inherent cowardice and fear of being able to navigate a big city kept me from ever making a full-time career out of acting,  but I  have been able to carve out a satisfying life working in arts management by day and occasionally treading the boards at night.

Flash forward thirty -our years from that summer with Children’s Theater and now I’m the one driving my ten year old to theater camps, rehearsals, dance classes, and performances.  When Liza was a baby I used to say I didn’t care if she ever set foot on stage I just wanted her to grow up loving the experience of going to the theater, nothing else was important.  Then, one fateful night as I was bathing three year old Liza she sat up in the tub, looked at me, frowned and said “momma, this is how I look angry…!”’  Then she laughed and said “this is how I look happy,” after making a wide-eyed faced she announced “and THIS is how I look surprised!”  I knew in that moment it was hopeless.  It was in her blood.   At first I humored her, not really ready to believe that maybe there was something there in her.  But after nearly eight years of dance classes, acting classes, summer theater camps, she continually surprises me with her tenacity, her drive, and yes her talent.  Believe me I’m no Mama Rose, (much as I would give anything to play her).  I never seem to have the right makeup or hair accessories for a given recital or performance,  I never embellish her costumes so she’ll stand out on stage.  I run errands or do crossword puzzles during her rehearsals rather than watching her and the chubby shy girl I was as a child keeps me from fully entering into conversations with the moms around me.  I don’t enroll her in the glitzy programs at better equipped theaters where local Baby Junes smile from the stage in sparkly outfits at their clapping moms, but rather in a comfortable challenging program in a run down old church basement where her teachers embrace the funny, smart, quirky girl she is while pushing her to try a little harder, reach a little higher, and soar on her own wings.  Where she comes home spouting about Chekhov, Sondheim and “the fourth wall” and “realism.”  Where she has found friends that are closer to her than her school friends. Where she is home.

I often hear from other moms, “I can’t believe how much performing she does!  It’s unreal.”  I wonder sometimes if my co-worker with the two children on multiple travel hockey teams and soccer teams hears the same thing.  If that children in sports are granted a pass that children in the arts may not be.   I hear that surely Liza must need more “down time,” and yet when she has that precious down time she spends it singing, dancing and putting on shows in our living room.  Our conversations in the car and at bedtime are about the plots of musicals, backstage goings-on, and what colleges offer good theater majors. She pores over my Broadway books, my sheet music collection and obsesses about what part she could play in Chorus Line or Wicked someday.

I’ll admit I do worry for her,  worry that my sensitive, funny girl will be lost in the shuffle of a business that all too often is based on looks.  (And let’s face it, we don’t exactly grow ‘em tiny and blonde in this family).  But mostly I worry the opposite of what the women on the ivillage messageboards think I should worry about. ( On ivillage, to publicly admit you have no qualms about your child pursuing a degree and career in the arts is right up there with admitting you didn’t breastfeed and that your child watches Family Guy – both also true in my case).  I worry that she’ll repeat my pattern and be too timid to really give it a shot.  Yet as Kelly points out to me time and time again, Liza is not me and her successes are not mine and her mistakes and triumphs will be different than mine were.   So for now, I drive her where she needs to be, I never miss a performance,  I hug her when she cries because a show is over,  and I cry tears of pride when she sings, and tell everyone in earshot she’s my daughter.   And somewhere, my dad is smiling as the tradition continues.

Sing out Liza.   We’re all listening.

The Anxious Parent

24 09 2009

In August Liza, her dad, and her stepmother welcomed a beautiful baby girl to their family. I’m told she sleeps nearly all day long and posesses a calm happy demeanor. The few times I’ve seen her I’ve been awestruck by her flawless infant skin, big eyes, and adorable rose-bud of a mouth. I’m delighted for Liza and her family and love seeing my ex husband practice his patented “one –arm baby holding” pose. But I can’t help but be struck by the difference between this baby and Liza during her infancy. Where her baby sister is calm and placid Liza came screaming into the world as a red faced ball of fury. Nothing seemed to pacify her – not slings or swings or toys or walks in the stroller. The only things that would calm her were sleeping on top of one of us, her pacifiers, or music (although even the she could be finicky – eschewing soothing ballads she seemed to prefer patter songs such as “Pick a Pocket or Two” or “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight” ). The hazy blur of her first year is punctuated by moments of utter exhausted desperation as I searched vainly for something to make her happy. I became convinced that the problem was not my fussy frantic baby – it was me. Why were other moms so good at this when I was so very very bad? This notion that resurfaced last weekend when I commented to my ex husband how lovely his sleeping baby daughter was and he jokingly replied “yeah, I guess we know where Liza’s fussiness came from huh?”. I know he was teasing but there exists a grain of truth in every jest and the truth here was clear – I was the anxious parent and I had given birth to the anxious child.

When I was pregnant I imagined myself taking to parenting like a duck to water. I’d lovingly sing my baby to sleep, we’d stroll the neighborhood where passersby would comment on how cute and good she was, I’d manage it all, going back to work handily and still finding time to come up with creative and educational ways to bond with my daughter.

Boy did reality dope slap me “upside the head’ (as we say in Maine).

My maternity leave passed in a blur of days when I could barely get myself showered, of crying hunched over my screaming child as I heard my ex husband’s car pull out of the driveway on his way to freedom each morning. “What do you WANT?” I would wail , wondering what fates had given me this baby when clearly I was supposed to have the happy smiling babies in the pampers ads. Even bringing her on simple outings gave birth to fits of worry – how far could I drive before she started screaming? Days at home stretched endlessly – could I make it through a shower without her wailing? Would she sleep more than 30 minutes at a stretch? The days and nights blurred together and I remember especially sitting with her at midnight in the rocking chair of the nursery watching the lights of my neighbor’s houses go out one by one and feeling so utterly totally alone. I tried to return to my beloved jazzercise classes, taking advantage of the free babysitting, only to get called out of class after class to retrieve my furious baby. My return to work was full of calls from her daycare a block away “she’s still crying can you come get her/hold her/ rock her? ” Honestly looking back on that first year of Liza’s life I don’t know who cried more, me or her. We tried gas drops and different formulas, let her sleep in her vibrating bouncy seat and held her until I felt as though my arm would literally fall off. I reached out to a dear friend who had a baby just two months older thinking we could spend our time commiserating about the trials of new motherhood. What a shock to my system to discover not only had she morphed into an uber-mom but her daughter was nothing like mine. While her baby spent literal hours examining the wonder of her own hand, mine discarded every new discovery within minutes as if to say “is that all you got? Come ON I’m bored here!” Instead of a comrade in arms all I found was the puzzled stare of a woman unfamiliar with the utter terror I felt at being a mom. My anxiety around Liza’s temperament grew stronger with each passing year . Surely a better parent would handle her better. Surely a better parent would be calm. Surely a better parent would not have slammed the wall over the changing table so hard in frustration that the photos on the other side of the wall came crashing down. Surely a better parent was anyone other than me. Other parents talked about bringing their children out to eat with them at any number of restaurants – I had a child who shook and hyperventilated if you brought her anywhere she “hadn’t been before,” a child who at 5 ran screaming down the block outside a bagel shop because she was convinced the steam from the bagels meant the shop was on fire. I”d love to tell you that I handled her anxiety with aplomb, calmly guiding her through new experiences and soothing her fears. I didn’t. The worse her worries got the worse my anxiety about her worries got. Like the worst kind of relationship between addict and enabler we fed off of each other in a vicious cycle. I grew used to the tightening in my chest every time I had to navigate another experience that could lead to one of her meltdowns, and the resulting sigh of relief as we got through one unscathed. Years later Kelly would tell me that one friend even expressed her sympathy that Kelly had to ‘spend time with that child.” That friend isn’t in our lives any more.

That horrible first year is now a decade in the past. Liza’s grown into a funny, talented, sarcastic young lady who shares my love of Sondheim, a passion for ice cream, and a budding fascination with HGTV. We share the same thighs, the same belly and the same walk. Together we’ve weathere d ten years of tears at the onset of new experiences — tears on the soccer field, tears at the rock climbing birthday party, tears at clowns at the circus, tears on countless school mornings , worries about fire drills and thunderstorms , tests and gym class. Ten years of crying behind my sunglasses on the way to work wondering what I’d done wrong, why all around me were parents with kids who moved easily from one thing to another, parents who didn’t live with a tension in their chest all day. Ten years of waking up praying that the morning would go smoothly. To Liza’s credit she’s worked hard, grown up, agreed to some outside help which has been a huge benefit, found her niche in acting and dance thanks to encouraging and nurturing teachers and directors, and come into a calmer more confident place in her life. Her dad and stepmom created a warm secure home for her, extended family has wrapped her in love and Kelly and my friends have hung in there with her time and time again with love and patience even when it’s been hard to understand. I’m often seized with a desire to clutch her fiercely to me as if to stop the relentless march of time . As Liza grows more mature and calmer she’s helping me do the same and we’ve found our way to a better place. But as I coo and exlaim over her adorable baby sister I’m seized with a longing to go back in time – to hold that angry squalling baby one more time and murmer in her ear that it would all be alright and that Liza and momma would get through it all and that most of all …there was nothing to worry about after all.

Peas in a Pod

Peas in a Pod

Chasing Ghosts on the Beach: A Family Vacation Story

24 09 2009

Hazy dawn greets me our first morning in Maine. The familiar smell of salt marshes at low tide and the promise of sunny humidity makes me grin with anticipation of a day on the beach with my family. Liza wakes, all tusseled hair and eyes that suddenly seem to belong to a 20-year old. Uncharacteristically she makes her bed, straightens her room before joining me at my perch on the screen porch. “I think this seems weird momma, but I feel like it’s home here, she says.” While she’s been traveling to Maine with me her whole life her visits had mostly consisted of long days in nursing homes and hospitals during my mother’s last few years of life. This is her first bona fide Maine Vacation. But for me, it is home.

The night before, after a long sweaty day of packing, traffic, unpacking, and grocery shopping we finally arrived at the promised land – Higgins Beach in all its glory. The three of us plunge into the waves and the cold Atlantic washes away every ounce of heat-induced irritation we had been feeling. Nostalgia has already begun battling with reality on this trip – every mile of Route 1 (for I insisted we take the ‘real road” not the turnpike) brings memories “ there used to be a make-your-own sundae bar there… now it’s a hotdog stand!” “I remember our 8th grade science class trip through Scarborough Marsh…” “Oh boy,” groans Kelly, “Here we go.” And she and Liza roll their eyes at each other in their favorite pastime of “let’s make fun of momma,” but I ignore them. My trips to Maine are always nostalgic but this one especially so. With both parents and my sister gone and my brother living in Rhode Island, my tether to the state is tenuous at best. “I’m one of you!” I want to say to the locals in the Hannaford as we stock up the beach cottage kitchen. “Ignore my New Hampshire plates, I belong here!”

Higgins Beach is the beach of my youth and around every corner lurk the ghosts of the family I’ve lost. My mother, sitting low to the ground in her beach chair as the water laps around her feet. My brother, my only surviving family member, in boogie shorts, hanging out at the end of the beach where the river flows through the marsh to meet the sea, hot- dogging it and diving with his buddies. My grandfather, gone nearly 30 years now, sitting in dress pants and a button down shirt in his beach chair, binoculars at the ready to ‘watch the fishing boats,” but really following that circa 1970 bombshell in the bell bottoms and bikini top as she strolled down the beach. I drag Kelly and Liza through the narrow streets on a hunt for the house we rented for three weeks one summer. I think I’ve found it but am shocked it’s now yellow. “ But I remember it RED,” I say, not thinking that nearly 40 years has past since that summer and of course it would be painted many times over by now. I remember its outdoor shower, the back bedroom I shared with my sister, and the spiders in the corner. My chest aches the way it always does when I call Marie to mind but I feel a strong need to tell Kelly and Liza these stories, to name them as if to prove that we were here. That once I did have a family that made this same journey to this beach. That there once was a mother who held her daughter’s hands and shouted ‘Jump the waves!” Could I ever have imagined then – a chubby four year old, fat eight year old, awkward teen – that I would one day hold my own daughter’s hands and shout the same thing? “I’m getting really good” shouts Liza as she body surfs a wave to shore, and suddenly all I can see is my father – barrel-chested, with thatches of white hair — teaching me how to hit the waves at just the right moment to carry me in. I expected this visit to Higgins to be glorious, the stuff of summer dreams. I didn’t expect to come face to face with the ghosts of my dead family members in the process.

Monday morning, Liza and I sit on the porch for what has become our vacation routine, talking quietly – me over coffee her over chocolate milk – as the neighborhood awakes and Kelly sleeps. She asks why I always refer to my mother as “grandma’ but to my father as “daddy’ in stead of “Papa Joe” which is what she has learned to call him. I explain that she knew her grandmother so it seems natural to refer to her as such. But for her my father exists only in stories and a few photos. To call him anything but daddy rings false to me. “Would he have liked me?” she asks. “Oh my darling…” I start to reply…but can’t go on. I swallow and continue, “…he would have adored you.” She beams, secure in the love of a man she will never know but who would have sung her to sleep and walked the beach with her in search of sea glass if he’d had the chance.

On our afternoon trip to Old Orchard I tell Kelly and Liza how we used to take my mother there to play ski-ball on Mother’s Day each year – some years it would be cold and near freezing but there we’d be at the beach, as it if was a great treat for her to spend her Mothers Day at Palace Playland. “Uh huh” says Kelly and I’m momentarily crushed by her reaction. I want all of this to mean as much to her as it does to me. “Tell you what,” she says a bit sarcastically “someday we’ll do this same trip but in downtown Lawrence and I can tell you about MY childhood.” I look around and realize that now Old Orchard is interchangeable with Hampton, Salisbury, Weirs or any number of summer beaches where girls in swimsuits drip water onto arcade floors while playing Guitar Hero.

Later that evening after a much-needed cooling dip in the waves, we head to the Lobster Shack, where Liza has pledged to try her first lobster. So many family Christmas card photos were taken here on the rocks of Two Lights State Park. We reminisce about my mom in her last year of life so determined to make it up the long steps to the red picnic tables for one more meal of clam cakes and French fries. After dinner (where Liza professed to love the claws of the lobster but be ‘freaked out’ by the tail meat), we sit on the rocks and watch the waves crash down on the same rocks I’ve climbed my entire life. We sit in companionable silence until Liza says suddenly, quietly, “momma, I like your stories.” At the gift shop we chat with a man visiting from Lennox, MA and Kelly and I tell him about this vacation-cum-trip down memory lane but he doesn’t laugh. Instead he regards me seriously and states “that’s so great. That’s so great you’re doing this.” I no longer feel I’m clinging foolishly to a past and a family that are no more but that I’m preserving that time for me and for my new family.

Every visit to Maine brings me face to face with a certain type of woman I’ve known my whole life- one I’ve always tried to be with dazzling failure. We see them everywhere – at the beach, the lobster shack and the ice cream stand we stop at afterwards. These are the women so many of the girls I grew up with have become – tan, slim, athletic, in tennis skirts, khakis, or tiny denim shorts with perfectly faded J Crew Sweatshirts. I feel as I often do, too big for my surroundings. Marked by my rolls of belly fat and oversized hips that barely squeeze into our beach chairs, by my spiky gray hair and ensemble-a–la Target. As a child I longed to be one of those tanned young goddesses and now as a middle aged mom I’m once again plunged into their midst, still an outsider. My legs are lumpy, thighs doughy not toned from tennis or running the Beacon to the Beach marathon. Even Liza seems different from their children who sit at the neighboring picnic table in Life is Good t-shirts and board shorts with the white blonde hair of children who spend entire summers on the water. I laugh at how after a lifetime with people like this I still get it wrong. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m happy with who I am but as surely as the ghosts of my family haunt this trip so too do the ghosts of my childhood self, a fat girl in purple Tough- Skins from Sears surrounded by the golden goddesses of privilege in my hometown.

A friend of Liza’s arrives to spend a few days with us and the decibel level in the house skyrockets. We all head out to lunch with my godmother (my mothers’ best friend) and other family friends where more stories are shared and swapped. We make a quiet pilgrimage to visit my parents graves in Falmouth but I feel empty there, as though they are with me more at the beach than in this cemetery backing up to the 13th hole of the Country Club Golf Course (the only hole my father was ever able to play with any skill). We end the day telling stories on the porch and laughing long into the night. It was the kind of night I’d been waiting for – the kind of vacation I’d dreamed about giving Liza since she was born. Where she could run free on he beach, live in bathing suits, grow tan, and sleep like a rock at night. We take the girls to Funtown where I launch into more stories – my brother holding court in the batting cages, my mom ruling the mini golf course, my sister going so fast down the super slide she ran into the chain link fence at the end. These attractions are all gone now – the only one that remains is the old helicopter kiddie-ride. I’d never let my father push the silver bar down to make our helicopter fly higher so we always stayed barely bumping above the pavement for the whole ride. “Figures,” laughs Kelly as she hugs me. What an apt metaphor for my life – so often afraid to really fly I stay in my safety zone just above the ground. Liza, fortunately, is not me reincarnated as much as I sometimes would like her to be, and she takes off for repeat rides on flumes, roller coasters and the Pirate ship. I close my eyes and hope for her that she always finds the courage to push down on that silver bar and fly her helicopter as high as she can.

No matter where our vacation travels bring us my morning routine is the same – arise before anyone else, usually no later than 7:00 a.m. (not by choice, I’m usually unable to sleep later than that and Kelly, a more sound sleeper than I, can usually slumber for a few hours past that at least). So I make the best of it and get up to read, write, or simply watch the world wake up around me. As usual, the morning brings an endless parade of joggers and power walkers. Kelly and I like to joke about saying “yeah run pinhead run” while we take another bite of our bagel. This morning we’re preparing for a visit from two families of Liza’s school friends for the day. After getting everyone packed and sun-screened I grow resentful of my role as mom-organizer. Kelly and Liza’s friend have taken off ahead of us for the beach leaving me and Liza to make sure we have all the towels, boogie boards etc. Liza asks why I look frustrated and I burst out petulantly “maybe I’d like to walk on the beach while someone makes me breakfast- maybe I’d like to sleep late once in a while, maybe I”d like someone else to make sure everything is ready for the beach maybe I’d like to feel like I’m on vacation too!” Liza takes my hand and says in a small voice “momma I’ll walk on the beach tomorrow morning with you if you want.” And a marvel at how such a simple gesture has the power to make me realize how foolish I sound for griping so much about a role I usually willingly assume.

When our friends arrive with a grand total of three girls and three boys between them I’m struck by how different boy energy is than what I’m used to. The kids take over the beach, body surfing, exploring tide pools where the boys exult over the find of some eels and hermit crabs, snacking on grapes and brownies, sandwiches and chips they come and go from our blankets tanned, happy and sandy. Predictably, Liza’s friend who has been staying with us finds a new friend on the beach, an older teen much more interesting than “our “ gang of kids and promptly ditches everyone for the new girl necessitating a least one full out man hunt of the beach. When we find her, not at all where she was supposed to be or said she’d be I give my first hardcore “I’m very disappointed in you young lady’ speech to someone other than my own child which, judging by the surprise on her face, might have been a first for her. Later that night after pizza, backyard volleyball and big thank-you hugs, our company departs for home bringing our teenage guest back home with them as planned. Liza and I walk the quiet streets until dark and I listen to Liza rant about how hurt she was by her friends actions, how angry she felt at being shunted aside for someone older. For the first time I hear a difference from the usual childhood “she won’t share” complaints that arise among her friends and realize I’m hearing for the first time the confused and hurt sentiments of a young lady who has just come face to face with the ugly truth that we can love our friends and they can still let us down. I encourage her to try to remember the great parts of having her friend visit and not focus on the events of the last afternoon. “Maybe,” she says, “but not right now. I’m still too angry.” We stop and hug for a long long moment. I smoothe her hair and we turn the corner back to our cottage where Kelly is waiting.

We spend the next day taking a break from the beach – visiting Portland’s shops and museums and saving our walk on the beach for early evening. A sudden thunderstorm drives us in and we head out for dinner on our last night in Maine. It’s high blueberry season and we grow hysterical at the endless offering of blueberry specials on the menu – from blueberry martinis to blueberry glazed chicken to blueberry pie. “It’s blueberry palooza!” we laugh. I love the dynamic of the three of us when we’re at our best like this. I want to freeze this moment forever. Later, while cuddling on the couch with me and Kelly, Liza says “I’m glad it’s just our family now.” Just Our Family. I may have come to the beaches of Maine to confront the ghosts of my past but in the process I was able to send them back out with the tide that retreats further and further from the shore in the late afternoon. Turning my back to the sea I see the family I have now right in front of me and realize that while I may have thought I was “coming home “ to Maine, in fact I had my home with me all along.

Let Us Make Bread Together

24 09 2009

Wednesday afternoon, picking up Liza from afterschool, my mind already racing on what lies ahead the quick-get-in-the-car-or-we

‘ll-be-late-for-your-ballet-class-have-you-finished-your-homework-wait-I have-to-call-the-office” cycle that all working moms will be familiar with. All sorts of perky essays on motherhood call this “the balancing act” or”the juggling act”. I call it life. I don’t have time for self examination or for cheery magazine article titles On this particular Wednesday, Liza emerges from the school carrying not just her backpack and lunchbox but a large heavy plastic bag. “Momma! We had a demonstration on making bread today and they gave us enough flour to make two loaves of bread and we’re supposed to keep one and bring one in for the food pantry on Monday! When do you want to make our bread?”

What? Bread? What? It’s as if she’s speaking Farsi so far removed from my reality is this request. Most working moms I know live in dread of those school projects that consume our precious nights and weekends — the giant posters about Ireland , the Tri Folds that have to be informative AND “colorful!” the dioramas on the habitat of the snowy owl — these are not our friends, but they are at least manageable. But bread? BREAD? You see from the time Liza was a toddler I have impressed up on her that there were three “C”s that momma should not be expected to do: “cooking, crafting, and camping”. Don’t ask kid…ain’t gonna happen. So far we’ve been able to navigate class parties by always being the reliable mom who brings the paper plates. We’ve avoided having to go to Michael’s crafts for anything other than stick on letters for the aforementioned tri-fold. And fortunately the child shares my innate dislike of sleeping anywhere we can’t handily plug in a blow dryer. But now as I look at that exuberant face as she eagerly clutches her bag of flour all I can think is…

“How. Can. I. Get. Out. Of. This?”

You see Liza’s stepmother is a championship cook, an amazing baker and crafter before whom I regularly bow down in humble admiration. All I can think is “is there a way she can do this with Jess? Jess knows how to bake bread.” I don’t want Liza to be that kid who brings in the lumpen blackened mishapen rock of dough that I am sure will surely arise from our efforts. And I want to spare us the anxiety I’m sure will arise should we try to navigate this flour laden mine field together. But the girl will not be dissuaded. “NO. Momma. I want to do it with YOU!” Sigh. OK. We decide that Mother’s Day is a good day to try this since we have no plans and can be home for the necessary three hours this project will take. I call Kelly and ask her if she can help us before she goes to work that day — figuring that if we’re going to fail at least we’ll have some laughs while we do it.

A few days later while volunteering at the pizza table at a fundraiser for Liza’s school I hear the other moms talking about the bread project and at least am relieved I”m not alone in my worry. One mom vows to us her bread machine. Another has a secret plan of using frozen bread dough instead. Kelly and I glance at each other — this DOES sound hard — yikes. I wonder aloud if I should call in my friend Susie, who can bake anything but Kelly finally says “oh how hard can it be? Let’s do it. We’ll have fun.” and Liza insists she knows what to do from the demonstration at school so off we go.

Mothers Day rolls around. After a delightful brunch prepared by Kelly and Liza we decide it’s time to face the music and give this a shot. We read and re-read the direction, Kelly runs out to buy the plastic wrap we don’t have but need to cover the dough, Liza and I set everything else out, I can’t find a one cup measure but we do find a 1/2 cup measure and figure that will have to do (such is the state of my kitchen — we have wine stoppers a plenty but nary a measuring cup in sight!). Finally we are ready. Liza decides I will read the directions, she and Kelly will measure and pour and I will stir. Here goes nothing.

“Yeast is an organism” Liza tells us confidently as we pour the packet into the bowl. I realize I’ve gone 43 years without ever making anything that calls for yeast. Finally the dough is ready to knead — we take turns pushing it out as Liza gives instructions — “Press, push turn — just once momma! Now Kelly’s turn” Something is happening in my kitchen, we’re laughing, we’re flour covered, (so is the floor at this point) but we’re doing it. We’re making bread. Together. As a family. We set the dough to rise and I say a silent Hail Mary on this Mother’s Day morning that for once let this culinary project work. I’m the mom that burns pancakes, drops hot dogs on the floor and barely manages Shake and Bake. Please Mother Mary — for Liza — let this one work. While the dough rises we work on another of Liza’s projects — a poster “All About Me” and she points out that on the list of “my family” she has included Kelly’s name for the first time. I turn away so she doesn’t see me tear up.

By golly the bread rises. We grease grandma’s old bread pans and pop it in the oven and something magical happens. The house is filled with an unfamiliar aroma. The smell of fresh bread baking. Baking, not burning! The timer dings. Liza yells “Don’t open the oven without me!” I say another silent prayer and open the door. It’s. Perfect. Golden, crusty, warm and perfect. Liza FLIES into my arms and we jump up and down — we did it! We did it! Her laughter is infectious and consumes us both. We did it as a family. Without help! We cool the bread a bit then cut some slices off our “keeper loaf” to bring to Kelly who has by now gone to work. When we deliver the still warm bread we keep exclaiming “we made BREAD! I can’t believe it!”

To lots of moms out there. This is nothing. This is a regular occurrence in their lives. But for us this was more than baking a loaf of bread. This was overcoming our worries, trusting each other, working together and amidst all the stirring, flouring, and rolling taking a big step toward becoming a real family.

Liza with our bread...

An Every Other Week Mother

24 09 2009

Thanksgiving week for most moms of nine year olds most likely includes a flurry of shopping and cooking. Perhaps board games with the family, visits from grandma, another trip to the movies for a second or third viewing of High School Musical 3, or decorating the house for the holidays. Most of my daughter’s friends have moms who are there every day of every week doing what moms do – whether they work outside the home or not — they are there in their lives every day of every week. Not my daughter. My daughter has an every-other-week mother.

Liza lives with her dad for a week at a time and then with me for a week at a time, changing houses after school every Monday. Don’t misunderstand. I am grateful beyond words that Liza is blessed with a father who packs lunches, and signs permission slips. Who can finesse a “ballet bun” in her hair on dance class days. Who takes her to the dentist and shopping for winter boots. I am grateful her stepmother provides a warm and loving home for her with the home-cooked meals that I seem incapable of producing, and craft projects and shopping trips that were truly designed to meet the mercurial whims of a tween girl. We are amicable and friendly – helping each other out when our work schedules intervene in the afterschool pickup/dance class drop off/ soccer game-to rehearsal carousel of Liza’s schedule. We have forged a new kind of family from our divorce. A family so strong that I hesitate at times to even call myself a “single mom” since I rarely if ever feel as though I am raising Liza on my own. I’m not. I’m just an Every Other Week Mother.

In high school and college I was awkward and shy. Fat and clumsy and completely baffled by the social mores of my peers I sequestered myself in the theater department where my social life consisted of the occassional cast party. But in my thirties and forties after surviving a divorce and coming out of the closet I found myself experiencing what one friend called my ‘second twenties’ On the weeks when Liza is living with her dad I find myself living a life I never lived in my all-too-serious youth. I go dancing at Women’s T dances in Ogunquit. I work a delightful second job in a friends bookstore where I’m not haunted by any major responsibilities other than correct change and ability to alphabetize. I sleep late on Sundays and read the paper over coffee with Kelly. I hit the gym at odd hours and eat meals of cheese and crackers instead of proper dinners. I send text messages to my new twenty-something friends from my “Company” cast and stay out until midnight on a work night. I put up the Christmas decorations alone with only the company of George Winston’s “December” on the cd player. I tell myself how great this is. This break. This quiet. This freedom. This….stillness of a house without Liza.

I find myself in two worlds, straddling the life lived by my childless or single friends and that lived by my friends with children. Some of my married friends with children say “I’m so jealous! I”d love a break from MY kids sometime. what fun you must have!” Others say “oh I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t go a week without my child. I can’t see HOW you can do it.” Yes. I do have fun. Yes. But every day and every night of those “off weeks” I feel a niggling in the back of my mind and an emptiness in my chest and I think “what is she doing now?” Does she miss me on those weeks when her life more typically resembles a traditional family? Does she wonder what I’m doing? How I am? Did she pass that test on state capitals? Did she practice her clarinet? Did she show her dad her loose tooth? How is her cough? How. Is. She? Every other Monday I tell her “you know you can call me ANYTIME right?” Yet the phone remains silent. I should be happy. This means she’s happy, she’s content and after all that’s what any mother wants for their child. Yet every day I hope for a call from her to show she needs me. Every day I battle with myself about calling her. More often than not when I do I call I’m often greeted with her relctant “what?” My calls intrude on a life she lives without me. A life I can not claim or encroach upon. I am unwanted and in that moment I feel like a lovestruck girl begging her crush to acknowledge her.

I’ve never been a great mother. At times I haven’t even been a good mother. But I’m her mother. An Every-Other-Week Mother. And I can only hope that, for Liza, that’s good enough.