“Mommy, did you know the hardest thing about being a superhero is that you can’t always save everybody?”
“That is very true, honeypie,” I respond to my seven-year-old daughter. She’s learning life lessons from a Spiderman video. She was quoting directly from whatever pensive incarnation of Spiderman she’s into currently. I’m good with that.
On New Year’s Day, my husband left for work early in the morning. When he got to his job, about ten minutes later, he called me.
“Don’t freak out but… there’s a cat at the end of the driveway who may need help.”
I grab a big cardboard box and one of our good towels and race down the stairs of our two-family house. I look around under leaves and see nothing. I’m hoping the cat has run off since my husband made the distress call. But as I turn to go back upstairs with my box and good towel, I see him. A tail is peeking out from a big fuzzy body.
I start speaking to him in that high-pitched voice we use for animals. “Hiiiiiiii! Are you ok, little guyyyyyy?”
And then I notice his tail is striped. And he’s bigger than a cat. And as I watch his body go up and down with breaths, I move him gently to see his face.
I text my husband:
THAT’S NOT A CAT. THAT’S A RACCOON!!
He had no visible injuries. I check all his paws and his body looked fine. I like to think he was happy to see me and just accepting of the help I was there to give. I called the police to ask for the animal control number. But I didn’t want them to just take him away and euthanize him. I wanted to give him a chance to rest and recover from whatever trauma had occurred. I got him into the box and covered him with the towel. He was still breathing steadily as he curled into a resting position.
I went down to check on him every hour, hoping the box would be empty. I was hoping he had run off and felt well enough to go back to doing what raccoons do. But he was still there in that big cardboard box under one of our good towels.
We have four good towels. They’re gigantic and the color of Dijon mustard. I could’ve grabbed one of our more tattered or stained towels. But I wanted this poor animal to have whatever comfort I could provide for him. Even if that comfort was just a cardboard box and a soft towel.
After a few hours of our raccoon’s shallow breathing, I called the animal control number. The lady at the other end asked me what had happened so far that morning. She said she’d be there in about thirty-five minutes. My daughter and I waited by the front door for the white van that came exactly thirty-five minutes later.
The young woman was gentle with our not so little raccoon. She said they would take him back to the wildlife rehab and see what they could do for him. If they couldn’t save him, they would “make their decision” as she glanced towards my young daughter standing there in pajamas and a rainbow patterned coat. The young woman didn’t know she really didn’t have to censor herself for Miriam. We openly talk about death and illness. And like Spiderman says, even a superhero can’t save everybody all the time.
It can be a tricky balancing game. The sad stuff. The uncertain stuff. The times when even the adults don’t have the answers.
I told Miriam we won’t be able to find out what happens to our raccoon. But we decided we’d make up the ending to this story. We both decided that our raccoon just needed a little rest and a visit to the vet. And then he’d be able to go back to the woods feeling much better.
And whether or not that’s what happens to our little friend, we did our part. We showed him kindness and compassion. We hoped for the best that he’d have jumped out of his box. And when that didn’t seem like it was going to happen, we called for help.
Because sometimes that’s all you can do. Accept the situation and ask for help. And as my daughter grows up, I want her to know that things don’t always turn out the way you hope. And that’s ok too.
September 19th is one of those modern silly calendar days known as “Talk Like A Pirate Day.” A flyer was sent home the day before encouraging kids to dress like a pirate. Bandana, eye patch, hat…whatever you have laying around. Costumes are never a problem for our family. My husband used to dress up for a living as a kid’s entertainer. We’ve got everything in the attic closet. Pirates, Mad Scientists, Wizards, Safari Guys, Clown, Magician, and Fez Guy (not really a thing, Hal just really likes wearing his Fez)
Miriam wore an authentic leather pirate hat to school with a blue bandana and a small stuffed monkey in a pirate costume on her shoulder. She saw her friend, Jackson, on the way to school wearing a yellow sash and pirate tunic. “Mommy, I’m kind of excited for this!”
September 19th is also Noahs’s birthday. He would’ve turned eleven this year. For my new readers, Noah died a few weeks shy of his 2nd birthday in a swimming pool accident. It’s so odd, to celebrate a birthday of someone who is no longer here. It’s almost like his death day is easier to get through. The finality of it. His birthday magnifies the loss. That “what could’ve been.”
I don’t spend much time thinking about what he would’ve been like at this age. Maybe it’s just too painful. Maybe it’s too abstract and confusing. I think I’m still working on understanding that he isn’t here anymore. And besides, there’s this six year old little girl name Miriam Phoenix staring me in the face 24/7. She is the shiniest thing I have ever laid eyes upon.
Her smile is nearly constant. Her curiosity, her willingness, her odd accurate statements about obscure sea creatures that I secretly fact check on my phone. She is 99% accurate 99% of the time. Bias aside, she is the most interesting person I know.
On September 19th, Hal got a giant cookie cake and wrote Happy Birthday Noah on it. I scrambled for a candle when I got home from work and we told Miriam to close her eyes. She had wanted a cake for her brother’s birthday. She actually asked if she cold give out goodie bags to her class. I told her that was a very nice thought but we didn’t have the supplies for that. Besides, (Warning: Ahoy Matey, Dark Humor Ahead!) I don’t think goody bags from her dead brother would be a good idea.
We cried and sang Happy Birthday and ate the cookie cake with cold milk. We told her how happy we were that she was our daughter and that Noah picked her out especially for us. This is daily unchartered territory. There is no treasure map guiding our pirate ship. Besides, what would the treasure be? Maybe peace of mind? Impossible. The only treasure we have is Miriam.
I don’t often watch videos of Noah. Video is too hard. Too confusing to process still, too everything… But that night, “Talk Like a Pirate Day” ended with me watching a video of Hal tickling Noah on our bed. Noah was laying on the same blue comforter that I was now under. It was all so disorienting. All of it. The comforter. Noah’s laugh. Noah’s eyes when he looked directly into the camera as I filmed them playing. But I couldn’t look away.
September 20th, went along as any other day. But it’s like I was hungover. Not from cookie cake. Not from alcohol. But from trying to pretend. Trying to be as shiny as Miriam is every day. I was exhausted. Bordering on numb.
I’m so aware of this sadness that permeates our lives. I want it to be as normalized and positive as possible for Miriam. For bereaved parents, with children still to raise joyfully, it’s unchartered territory. Like that pirate ship sailing around looking to interfere in some unsuspecting sailor’s life. Those pirates will take their valuables, shake them up, and scare the hell out of them. I guess we got pirated of our life back in 2010.
So we are sailing again with Miriam. The irony of all these water analogies does not go unnoticed. We don’t know what the best way to keep Noah alive in our family. We are figuring that out every single day. We do know that making sure Miriam knows how loved and wanted and treasured she is the TOP PRIORITY.
Miriam will sometimes see us cry. Or be sad or overwhelmed with emotions. It is impossible and unhealthy for us to hide that fact. But she will see our smiles wider than ever thought. Those crazy-making juxtapositions of emotions. Maybe it’s good she learns early on that emotions don’t always make sense. And we can’t always control them either.
Like that snarled smiling mouth silently saying “Arghhhh” on her construction paper pirate hanging in our kitchen art gallery, we can smile through almost anything now. Whether we should or not…it’s all unchartered territory and always will be.
The patterns were so mismatched that they looked
intentional. So bad, it was good. A simple skirt and tank top. Floral patterns
swirling over my body. Nobody would see me there in my depression uniform. Maybe
a grounds worker. Maybe another cemetery visitor. It mattered so little what I
wore to the cemetery that it began to matter a lot. I applied three quick
spritzes of my mother’s perfume. The bottle of Lanvin Arpege was at least
fifteen years old. It seemed to dissipate within seconds.
Minutes before getting dressed, I’d eaten all the ice cream
in the freezer right out of the half gallon container. I put whipped cream and
chocolate syrup on it too. This handheld, fully disposable sundae tasted like
nothing and everything at the same time. If someone would’ve ripped it out of
my hands while I was eating it, I would’ve just let them take it away. I’d
offer no resistance. It mattered so little. But I kept eating it until it was
The urge to visit the cemetery came over me like a sudden
burst of energy. Not the kind of energy from the sugar overload I was inhaling.
It was a burst of emotional energy. Something I hadn’t had in a long time. I
felt a push to go to where my son was buried. To go back to that day. Those
days. To see how it felt nine years later.
I felt a push to go back to where my mother was buried just
three months before my son. I wanted to see if she would whisper anything
differently to me at her grave. Because I hear her whisper to me everywhere I
I looked around our apartment for something to bring. I looked through my daughter’s toys. I looked through my things. I took a Ziploc bag out of the drawer and filled it with acorns we’d collected from the tree that overlooks our little wooden deck. We’d been cracking acorns at the kitchen table the day before. My daughter wanted to see what was on the inside of an acorn. She’s fascinated with what’s on the inside of everything.
I drove fifteen minutes down the highway that was starting
to crawl with Jersey shore traffic. It was Friday. As I turn into the cemetery
entrance, I lower my radio, but I don’t turn it off all the way. I drive slowly
as I pass through the old Russian section. The gravestones are crowded together
with their fancy fonts of Russian and Hebrew.
I keep driving towards the very back of the cemetery, passing rusted street signs with the names Mt. Hebron, Dinah, and Ruth. I make a right onto Mt. Moriah and drive until I see my mother’s pink speckled granite gravestone sticking out amongst the grey stones and green grass.
Before I even get out of my car, the dragonflies appear. They’re big and bold and flying in pairs. I feel my anxiety flying around with them. The fear of the new emotions that a cemetery visit may bring is overwhelming. Seemingly unmanageable. But I’m surprised to find the opposite feels true right now. No new emotions. Just a calm. I feel a peaceful acceptance of my loss. My daily guilt is strangely soothed here. It’s okay to be sad here. Because this place is all about black and white. Living or dead. No grey areas.
The dashboard says ninety-one degrees outside. I empty the Ziploc bag of acorns into my hat and get out of the car. Noah’s gravestone seems smaller. I rearrange all the toys that have been brought here over the years. I stand up the robots. I line up the cars. I try to make it orderly. Because it’s all so out of order. I pull some weeds that have popped up through the white stones.
I tell him I brought him some acorns. I place three on top
of his stone. I tell him I’ll be right back. I’m going to see Grandma. I count
the steps. Thirteen steps from my son to my mother. I wanted to be sure of the
number so I did it again. Thirteen.
I can hear the hum of the highway traffic. It sounds like
running water and I’m listening closely for any messages the din might have for
me. I expect something magical to happen. Some visual or aural hallucination.
But it doesn’t.
I leave acorns for my mother too. I weed her red stones. I
know she wanted me to stop. It‘s too hot, she’d say. It’s not necessary, she’d
There was a fresh grave a few steps away from Noah. The
marker said the burial took place five days ago. I thought about the mourners
looking around to see what company their loved one would be keeping.
I started to relax into the visit. I wandered through the
gravestones reading the names and tributes. And then I noticed a stone I’d
never seen on my handful of visits. It was a little girl. Just her name and
I thought about her parents immediately. I pictured them
huddled together at her grave as she was buried and all the excruciating pain
that comes with that. I wanted to know about how they fared after. How the
death of their baby girl affected them. I wanted to share that experience with
I’ve been questioning myself lately. Wondering if all this
writing about Noah and death and life after losing a child is self-indulgent.
Or monotonous. But when I saw this little girl’s grave, I knew none of those
things were true. Because I clung to every word I could read from another
grieving parent. I needed to read what it was like for them one year out, five
years out, ten years out…I needed to not feel alone in this. I needed to know I
could survive this. I needed to know what it would be like.
As much as Noah changed shape that day into wherever we go when we die, I changed shape that day too. I needed to know what to expect because as much as I wished we could just get a “do-over”, life doesn’t work that way. Even when you try to fake it, it doesn’t last for long. My new reality comes back to punch me hard.
Before I leave the cemetery, I look back and stare at this untouched spot of green grass where I will be buried one day. It’s a freeing view. No matter what I share or don’t share, no matter what I write about or don’t write about, I will end up here. No one knows when or how.
We recently spent the afternoon at the Liberty Science
Center. It’s a huge museum and planetarium with four floors of kids and
parents. I watched Miriam as she played in a younger kid’s area with all sorts
of hands-on fun for ages five and under. Miriam loves little kids and I love
watching her natural maternal qualities come through. I never take my eyes off
Miriam. This place is big. And crowded. And bad things happen. I know that firsthand.
And even though I don’t want to live on the edge all the time, it’s just how my
brain has been rewired…how I’ve changed shape.
As Miriam collects balls in a basket with a sweet little girl around four years old, I make smiling eye contact with the father as he watches them play too. A little girl no more than fourteen or fifteen months walks past me in that newish walker fast trot. Arms up in the air with a “look at me!” grin on her face. With one eye I watch for a parent to be following behind. There’s no one. I listen for a parent to yell a name and run after her. No one yells for her. I watch her walk right past other parents and parked strollers and employees. No one is stopping her. She’s now in the cavernous center of the building and hangs a left out of my site.
I’m instantly torn between just watching my own child and going after this baby. My heart races and I go after the baby. I quickly scoop her up after everyone she passed by assumed she was with someone. She doesn’t yell, she doesn’t fight me. I race back into the kid area, visually locate Miriam, and then start asking loudly “Whose baby is this!?” No one responds. I break into a cold sweat, my heart races, the pictures in my mind start flashing of so many things.
I go to a group of adults sitting on the floor of the play area, kids swirling around them.
“Do you know who she belongs to?! Is she yours?”
Finally, a young woman answered, “Not really. She’s my sister’s.
“BECAUSE SHE WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PLANETARIUM!!”
She didn’t even get up off the floor. She simply called to
the little girl and said to come here. The little girl happily waddled over. I
never got to see the mother. Maybe her reaction was just as emotional as mine.
Maybe it wasn’t.
It was the lack of alarm that shook me. It wasn’t the fact that someone lost sight of their child. Because I’m far from able to judge anyone as I live out my life in judgement. And kids are fast. But I wanted to tell these people that kids don’t always come back. Everyone assumed she was being watched. Myself included.
I continued to watch Miriam playing as I held back tears unsuccessfully.
My heart was pounding. I’ve changed shape.
We picked out two females. The mostly white one with a tan
head was quickly named LouWho. The other, with her perfect bands of white and
grey, was now called Tina. And home we all went.
We entered Petco as a family of three humans and two
felines. We left with the addition of two guinea pigs. Or so we thought.
We’d had two female pigs when Noah was little. They were
named Naomi and Esther. Black, white and tan sisters squeaking in our living
room. Noah would say “piggies!” when he heard them and we’d lift him up to feed
them treats. I was so busy with him all day long that I can’t say I really got
to know those piggies. They outlived Noah by about five or six years. After he
was gone, I always thought of them as Noah’s pigs. I did love them, though.
I found Esther one morning after she had died in her sleep. But
Naomi held on for another year or so. And when I just happened to see her heavy
breathing in the purple cage, I took her out and held her as she poetically
died in my hands.
About a month and a half ago, I brought the big purple cage
down from the attic and hosed it off outside. I hand washed the ceramic food
bowls. I could hear Noah’s voice saying “piggies” while the water ran. The
sound of running water plays tricks on me sometimes and I always listen closely
for what I might hear.
We created a home for our new pigs and in they went to
explore the grass hut and new fluff. Through the cage, they went nose to nose
with their new cat friends. It’s good to bring new life into a family. Shake up
the dynamic and see how much more love can be multiplied.
Speaking of multiplying…
We noticed LouWho was always a little larger than Tina. We
were told they were both about three months old. Tina was the spry one with
more personality. LouWho seemed shy. Maybe even preoccupied is the right word.
So bigger and bigger and bigger LouWho became while Tina
stayed the same. Was it possible? Somewhere along the way, in her three short
months of pig life, did she meet a smooth-talking male pig? Did they Netflix
and Chill? Did pig nature take its course?
My husband took some pictures of LouWho and showed them to a
very nice girl named Mary at Petco. Judging by the photos, Mary thought it was
indeed possible. It’s not common, but somewhere before the pigs are divided by
sex, LouWho met her Tom Jones. Her Ryan Gosling. Her Bradley Cooper. Whoever the
rat bastard was, she succumbed to his charms and we were now expecting.
We watched her belly undulate occasionally and I started
posting about our impending births on Facebook. We prepared ourselves with
birthing videos. I really started to think it would never happen. LouWho
probably thought the same.
But this past Friday night, as I was cleaning up in the
kitchen and Miriam was setting up her stuffed animals in the living room to
look like a movie theatre, I noticed Tina acting strangely. Repeatedly lurching
back and forth, almost as if she had a hairball, she got my attention. Underneath
the Polynesian hut, LouWho WAS GIVING BIRTH!!!!!!! Two babies had already come
out and a third was on the way.
It was amazing. And bloody. And yucky. But amazing. There
was a white one, a black one, and a stripey one. What a “bonus gift with
purchase” we received.
So we now have a cage of five piggies and we have some
decisions to make. First, we need to determine their sexes. Because, unless we
want another miracle of birth moment, they must be separated. Then we need to
decide on homes for them. We can’t keep all of them.
The same day the piggies were born, I’d gotten some bad
news. A writing gig with a nice steady paycheck abruptly ended. Through no
fault of mine, the execs just decided to put it on hold for now. I was shocked
and upset but I didn’t panic. As I called my husband to tell him, the words
“we’ve been through worse” always find their way into conversations like this.
When bad news of varying degrees comes through our lives, each
time they leapfrog off each other. Each one giving us some coping skills. But
each one, more importantly, gives us hope. Hope that good news will come soon. That
yes, bad things certainly happen in an instant. But good things can happen
quickly and unexpectedly, too.
Have faith in that
leapfrog game of constantly moving forward.
So, I’m hustling for work again and listening to our pigs
squeak in the kitchen. The babies are all nursing and preliminary peeks at their
privates indicate we may have a litter of all boys! So, these little squeakers
won’t be with us for long.
I’ll deep breathe through anxiety while feeding them
dandelion leaves and alfalfa hay.
I’ll hopefully have some new assignments very soon.
I’ll think back to all the times I thought I’d reached an
To all the games of leapfrog I’ve played and will play.
I realized I’d never used a handheld microphone before. Well, actually, that’s not true. Because there’s karaoke, you know. This was a different event. I looked down at my death grip and couldn’t seem to get comfortable with the microphone. I pulled it away from my face as I sniffled. Because nobody should have to hear my sniffles magnified and echoing throughout the James Ward Mansion last Thursday night.
I was asked to speak by the Westfield Area YMCA. They asked if I’d be willing to share how the YMCA has affected our lives as a recipient of their scholarship program. It was my pleasure to support their fundraising efforts by sharing our story of how life can just kick your ass. No matter your best laid plans; despite how hard you work at it all; sometimes you simply need to ask for help. And there should be no shame in that.
Like a great tv show has it spin-offs, the night left me with so many more stories shared with me after I spoke. For all that the YMCA has done for our family, this night was a gift to me. Some new special friends I’ve made and some incredible brief connections. I’ll write more about them soon. There were many hugs and confessions of struggles and loss shared with me in that beautiful mansion. How even in this affluent area with people who seemingly have it all, appearances can be deceiving.
But in the mean time, below is my speech. You’ll have to imagine the magnified sniffles as you read. And sorry you’re not able to enjoy the amazing appetizers passed around during the night. I’m still thinking about that lobster macaroni & cheese in a tiny paper cone.
“All in a split second, our lives were changed. On July 10, 2010, my son Noah drowned in a swimming pool. He was a few weeks shy of two years old.
It was the first day we’d started moving boxes. My mother had died 3 months earlier. We were moving into my father’s house to save money and keep him company. I was in the kitchen for a few minutes. There were no closed doors. I was maybe twenty feet away from where Noah was playing with his Elmo toy camera. I could hear him pressing the button and Elmo saying “Great Shot!” and “Say Cheese!!” My husband was unloading boxes in the garage with my father.
The French doors to the backyard led to the in-ground pool. Noah had silently opened a door I didn’t think he could or ever would. Silently. When I went back into that room he was gone. I figured he was playing hide ‘n seek. I went looking in the house while my husband and father went looking outside. A few seconds later I heard a scream followed by a splash. My husband jumped in, my father called 911 and I stood in the kitchen in shock.
I underestimated Noah that day. He was such a good boy. No more curious than any toddler his age. In fact, maybe he was even a little more cautious. Just that very morning, my father and I talked about how attached Noah was to me.
I say these things because for any parent who thinks “my child would never…” well, I thought the very same thing. I thought this could never happen to us.
We found ourselves in a tornado of grief. My husband needed to take time off from work. I threw myself into a new job that I loved but didn’t pay very well. I’d been a stay at home mom for two years. Noah was our only child. Our tragedy affected us emotionally, physically, and financially.
I was now forty-two-years-old and we found ourselves desperate to have a family again. As a good friend put it “Losing Noah cannot be the end of our story.” The world of fertility treatments is not for the faint of heart. Emotionally and financially draining, we sold anything we had left of value to pay for 4 fertility cycles. And finally, on December 26, 2012, Miriam Phoenix was born. We named her Phoenix for the rebirth of our family. We had so little left, yet we now had everything back again. We had a child.
When she was five years old, the Garwood Branch of the YMCA became Miriam’s first summer camp experience. We loved the diversity and the “family feel” to everyone who worked there. We weren’t ready to introduce swimming to Miriam’s world. Emotionally, it’s a very sensitive issue of course. With the financial assistance of the Y, we were able to introduce Miriam to wonderful new set of friends, teachers, and counselors. And once she began kindergarten, again with the scholarship fund assistance, Miriam truly can’t wait to get on the school bus with Miss Megan everyday to go to aftercare. Even if I could pick her up early, she wouldn’t come!
As we began the conversation of this year’s summer camp, the pool and swimming became unavoidable. Not only has the Y been generous with financial assistance, the compassion we’ve been shown is truly unrivaled. We were offered private lessons early on when we joined the Y. To ease not only Miriam into a pool for the first time, but also to ease me back into a pool for the first time since that day in 2010. And while we weren’t ready to begin the lessons, Bonnie, Susan, Patti, and Sharon always reminded us that the offer still stood. The words “when you are ready” are perhaps the kindest words bereaved parents can hear. Because this grief is forever. And we go day by day.
Miriam will be attending summer camp again at the YMCA again this summer. And a few weeks from tonight, we’ve decided we are ready. With the compassionate and generous offer from the YMCA, Miriam will begin swim lessons. I will be there with her, facing my fears, celebrating resilience, and honoring the memory of our son, Noah.
And none of that would be possible without the emotional and financial assistance of the Y. Thank you doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s not always easy to ask for help and support, but the kindness we’ve been shown at the Y is truly a rainbow at the end of our storm.”
When I told Miriam she couldn’t bring Banana Cat to school with her today, she was understandably sad. So we struck a deal. I told her I’d bring Banana Cat to work with me instead. I’d take photos of who Banana Cat met and what she did. Miriam was excited for Banana Cat’s adventure.
While it may have been an ordinary day for me, Banana Cat added some joy to everyone she met today. I had a piece of my little girl with me all day. And Banana Cat got to spend some time in a liquor store. She’ll never be the same.
I’ve been doing more cooking in my time away from work. As I look down at my hands as they chop and mix and stir and scoop, I think about my mother. Our hands are identical. And I remember the food that made me. The weird combinations. The standard weekly suppers (we never called it dinner) and the special occasion foods. The smells, the presentation, the tastes and textures. All of it has become a comfort to me as I recharge and repair my soul and drop out for a little bit. I’m now my mother’s daughter, more than ever.
Pizza With Tunafish
Friday nights were for pizza and tunafish. I would make the tunafish and prepare the iceberg lettuce leaves on a plate while my mother or father went to pick up the pizza a few blocks away at Two Tony’s Pizza. The pizza was always plain and the craziest the tunafish ever got was onion and garlic powder. We’d make little roll-ups of tunafish and lettuce and then eat the pizza. Before lettuce boats were a no-carb and trendy form of food delivery, that oval orange kitchen table is where the action was. We don’t order pizza very often nowadays, but when we do…I’m that little tunafish mixing girl all over again.
Spaghetti With Salmon Pancakes
Canned salmon mixed with matzah meal and pan fried in an inch of vegetable oil. The fried fish smell was unmistakable, combined with the garlic and onion laden spaghetti sauce. My mother’s hands always smelled of these powdered ingredients as she instinctually checked our foreheads and cheeks for temperatures throughout the day. I made salmon pancakes last week. I baked them in the oven with a healthy spritz of cooking spray. And I ate them alongside Miriam and her spaghetti. When she asked me what I was eating, I strategically told her it was “a different kind of pancake.” She ask to try and I gave her a healthy forkful, trying to hide my excitement at her curiosity. Her review? “Tastes kinda good but also kinda disgusting.” I thanked her for trying and went back to this sense memory of a meal, feeling a soft pat on my back from my mother.
My mother’s stuffing was the stuff(ing) of dreams. I was the crusher. A big stainless steel bowl with a hand crushed sleeve of saltines and a whole box of corn flakes, crushed but not pulverized. Onions, cooked in the frying pan until crispy and blackened, eggs, and the ever present vegetable oil were added and I mixed it all with a giant spoon. The raw stuffing was fantastic and often my mother threw caution to the wind as we enjoyed the raw egg mixture together. It was the 70’s and life was simple.
Mishmosh night was when my mother was a little extra frazzled with us four kids. All cooked in one pan with easy ingredients, only now do I realize why mishmosh night was said with breathless relief when we asked our mother “what’s for supper?” Chopped beef, a can of chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce, frozen peas, frozen corn, chopped onions, and healthy dose of garlic and onion powder. Minute Rice was expertly prepared as the base and supper was served.
Is there anything better than chocolate pudding? How those little rectangular boxes turned into that bowl of pudding was sorcery in my mind. My mother had an electric hand mixer, but these past few weeks, I’ve used a simple wire whisk. The aggressive whisking motion makes my shoulder hurt. But the pudding begins to thicken and turn the most perfect shade of brown. I could hear my mother yelling for me to come lick the electric beaters. What a selfless invitation, I thought to myself, as I licked my wire whisk.
There was matzah brei on Saturday mornings and French Toast on Sundays. Polaner All-Fruit jelly was the game changer with French Toast. It felt fancy. And the pineapple Polaner jelly was often used on Breyer’s chocolate ice cream. Trust me. Try it.
There was meatloaf so dense, it stood up and walked right into my mouth. Covered in ketchup, my meatloaf now is airier, made of turkey and eggs. There was chicken soup with matzah balls. There was way too much dill and celery, but with every spoonful I engineered around the seaweed as I called it, the matzah balls made up for it all. She would shout from the kitchen as she spooned out each bowl of soup…”How many balls??” All of us kids giggled over our mother saying “balls” and I wished to myself I could have just a bowl full of balls with a little soup added in. Because more is more when it comes to matzah balls.
And those foods that made us will always bring us right back to those moments. All the weird combinations, all the edible family secrets, all the flavors and smells that have brought us to our complicated adult lives. And that’s precisely when those memories are the strongest.
We went into town for Tuesday night live music. You wanted to hear trumpets. I said I’m sure we’ll find some. It was sweaty as hell. Still about 85 degrees at 8pm. We brought six juice pouches because you thought the musicians playing around town would like them.
“We could give them to the musicians! Wouldn’t that be nice?!”
Yes, that would be nice. But instead we spent two hours playing giant checkers with a bunch of new kids and their parents. No work and no school and no anything to rush home for.
It was one of those nights where everyone was just friendly. Friendly smiles and friendly exchanges of small talk while the kids all worked together on this giant game board.
Mostly they were just interested in building a tower. In fact, that’s all they wanted to do. Stack it up and let it fall. The laughter was endless. They worked together. They handed off the pieces to taller kids and then got some parents to help. Toddlers even appeared on father’s shoulders with checkers to add to the tippy top. Then we’d all cheer and the toddlers would do that self satisfied clap toddlers do.
In the beginning, not all of the kids were playing nicely. Some were a little too rough with the hard plastic checkers, throwing them and kicking them away from the board. Those kids were eventually shunned by the masses as they eventually shuffled away. But with minimal intervention by the surrounding parents, we watched as our kids figured it all out. They figured out how to play and how to problem solve. They figured out who they wanted to team up with and who it was best to avoid.
They echoed our words we drill into their little heads. You could just hear those adult mantras being shouted at each other.
“Just do your best!”
“Watch out for the little kids!”
And when they each eventually fell onto the checkerboard, they reached out helping hands to pull each other up. It was really quite a little team they built. Build it up and watch it fall. And when their tower collapsed before it was complete, they laughed it off. And simply built it again.
Miriam will be starting kindergarten next week. There will be kids who won’t want to play with her. And there will be plenty who will. There will be games that are tricky and frustrating. I hope “just do your best” will always be what she tells herself.
She will be entering the microcosm of kindergarten with her new backpack. Her last one from pre-k has holes in the bottom from dragging it along the parking lot. Because it was sooooooo heavy. We all know how heavy three pieces of paper can be.
Her new backpack is pink and furry and she screamed “this is SOOOO cool!!!” when she put it on. And I can’t wait to pull all those arts and crafts treasures out of it every night. I’m more than a little jealous. We got it from a ‘tween girl’s (and immature fifty-year-old woman) dream website called iscream-shop.
And to match Daddy’s addiction to sleep masks, she picked out a matching sleep mask as well.
And along with the practical items, she picked out the latest in zen-like relaxation. The color-changing sequined letter “M” pillow is what she holds and strokes as we still read Dr. Seuss in these fleeting moments of childhood. The sequins change colors as she runs her little hand across it and back again. It calms her mind and body down.
Because lady, it’s about to get a little intense. Wonderfully intense. Kinda like that giant checkerboard. But you’ll figure it all out. We’ll figure it all out together as we play this giant game.
It comes in 3’s. That’s how the saying goes. Yesterday came at me in 3’s.
1. She comes in about four times a week. She buys her bottle or two of wine, maybe some vodka. Maybe some beer too. Something summery like a lemon shandy. She’s very tall and very thin. Like a 1970’s supermodel. She brings her two kids with her almost always. A boy about six. A girl about 4. And every single visit, she loses one of her kids. Either she sends them to the bathroom or they just wander around the very large liquor store where I spend forty hours a week. When I see them in the store, I watch them from the minute she walks in. It’s jarring to my core. I’ve stayed with the little boy, while he cried out in the middle aisle that he couldn’t find his mom. She found it all very funny as she emerged from another aisle. I’ve internally argued with the “mother” me, saying fuck it to all “the customer is always right” bullshit and wanted to tell this lady about how it only takes a second for something bad to happen. Something REALLY bad. How leaving her small kids to wait by the front door of the store on the edge of a busy parking lot, on the edge of a busy highway is not a good idea. No matter how much of a free-range parent you may be.
Yesterday, this scenario played out again as she approached the cash register with her daughter and bottles, casually asking, “Have you seen my son?” That sentence alone triggers me into a nightmare. She was not alarmed. She never is. And while I am a strong proponent of not passing judging on other moms, this repeated scenario is so far out of my comfort zone. Infringing on nightmare territory. She called his name a few times and he appeared. But guess what, lady. They don’t always reappear.
2. In eight years of working in a liquor store, yesterday presented a first for me. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner, to be honest. Yesterday, I stopped a woman from walking out of the store after paying and I took the 1.5 liter bottle of shitty wine out of her hand. She is a regular. Usually starting at 10am with a big bottle of shitty wine. Sometimes two. Then she may come back around 3pm for another. She used to give me a story about how her family drank all her wine and they never replace it. But recently she hasn’t given any stories. It’s fine. The stories are for them. Not for me. And as long as you are able to safely drive away from this store, I really have to pace my involvement in these daily customers. Burnout in the liquor industry is rampant. And so is alcoholism. And while I am the first to say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” it is not a world I enjoy being in. And the view from the cash register especially is brutal.
Yesterday I noticed she was more disheveled than usual. And her blank stare was frightening. She will usually at least say hello. But yesterday, she looked like a perfect storm had hit her and to her salvation she came. I rang her up, watching her finish the credit card transaction with unsure fingers on the terminal buttons. I watched her barely able to snap her wallet shut and barely have a grip on her bottle of shitty wine. She didn’t smell of alcohol at all. And as she walked out of her flip flops just a few steps away, unsteady and lost, I stopped her. I had never done that before. Ever.
“Miss, are you ok?” I asked.
And as I took the bottle out of her hands, looking into her eyes, I realized she was even more intoxicated or drugged up than I’d even thought. I told her I can’t let her take this bottle right now. I asked her if she wanted to sit down. I asked her if she was driving. She said no, she’s walking. I called for my manager to come help. I really didn’t know what I could or should do to help this lady beyond not letting her take this alcohol. She left abruptly as I was getting her money back from the register. Then she reappeared again. She put her $8.50 back into her wallet silently and we watched as she got into her car. She wasn’t walking, after all. My manager went outside and told her to just sit there and call for a ride. And from my register, I watched her sit in her car for over an hour.
Should we have called the police? I think in retrospect, yes. If she would’ve been able to slam her car into drive and fly out of parking lot, I would’ve never been able to live with myself. I turn a lot of blind eyes daily. This one was just so hard. Story after story on the news of a drunk driver crossing a divider and killing families. And while I’ve experienced the horror of a sudden death and the impact on a family, being involved in this scenario was a lot to handle. I can’t save her or someone else she may hurt. I can’t do anymore beyond this point. And I hate that It’s not enough.
3. He’s a regular customer that I didn’t realize I hadn’t seen in a while. He doesn’t drink at all. He would come in for his wife. I’d never met her but I knew she loved Chardonnay, just like me. And I would suggest different ones for him to try. He was always so nice. Just a pleasant man with, I’m sure, a pleasant wife and pleasant life.
As I was hanging price tags yesterday in the Chardonnay section, he appeared.
“Hey Eric, how are you?”
“I need a Pinot Noir and a Pinot Grigio.”
And as my mind raced to remember the name of the new Chardonnay I was just about to suggest, I casually said “Oh is your wife off the Chardonnay?”
“My wife died.”
He said it so bluntly. I liked that he didn’t stammer or meander around the best way to say it.
I asked if it was sudden. It was.
When? Back in November.
So since he was not accustomed to being alone after more than thirty years of marriage, he decided he’s going to start dating. His adult children think it’s a good idea too. And the lady he’s been on a few dates with likes Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio.
We picked a few wines as I guided him through buying wine for a lady who was not his wife. For a situation that was very new and scary. For a world that was radically different from what he had known for his whole adult life.
I asked about this new lady friend and as we talked about her, he also told me more about his wife. And in front of the Pinot Grigio shelves, he told me that his wife had committed suicide.
We talked with manageable tears in our eyes. Like two people who have reached their quota of sobbing and uncontrollable tears for a lifetime. He was hurting but surviving. He was crushed but hopeful. He was keeping his sense of humor. He still had an easy-going charm. But it was more vulnerable. Fragile. Afraid.
I walked him to the cash register as we talked more. If this lady doesn’t work out, keep him in mind for any sixty something ladies I may know. I told him I certainly would. We hugged goodbye and I practically sprinted to the back of the store for a cry. I told my coworker Mike what had just happened. We both just shook our heads and let it sink in. And then we simply went back to work.