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.
I’ve been driving around with my car uninspected for eight months. My inspection sticker expired last November. I have zero valid reasons why I didn’t just go get it inspected sooner. I’ve been driving around on borrowed time.
According to the State of New Jersey-Motor Vehicle Commission:
“Driving a vehicle with an expired inspection sticker may result in fines between $100 and $200 and/or imprisonment for up to 30 days.”
I’d been practicing my excuses in case I got pulled over. My plan was to do one of those “shocked and surprised” faces. Like the kind Taylor Swift makes when she wins an award. *PLEASE NOTE I LOVE TAYLOR SWIFT!
But yesterday I decided to finally take the drive down the industrial Route 1 corridor to the Department of Motor Vehicles. It’s only a few miles from where I grew up. I pass the familiar fast food places, the Linden airport, the Walmart, and other big box stores. There are fenced in truckyards and factories. It’s not a pretty ride but it is a familiar ride. And sometimes those things are one in the same.
Not only was my 2004 Jeep way overdue for inspection, but I realized my 1968 self was also overdue for inspection. Yes, I just had my physical. Yes, I’m up to date on my pap smear and my mammogram. And yes, I’ll be scheduling my first colonoscopy this year. Honestly, I’m looking forward to the cleanse and the anesthesia.
I’m talking about emotional inspection. As a writer and a mom, I’m in a constant state of introspection. I get lost in my self-doubts and dreams and goals and find myself in a big bucket of wallow mixed with determination. But inspection involves taking a step outside of yourself. And that’s the hard part.
As I followed the arrows to the inspection station lanes, there was only one delay. It wasn’t a long line of cars in front of me. It wasn’t an issue with my license, registration, or insurance card. It was geese. Loud, honking, Canadian geese. A hundred of them blocking the road. Taking their sweet ‘ole goose time, crossing the road at their leisure.
I burst out laughing. Laughing until I was crying alone in my uninspected car. All this time I’ve waited to get inspected and I’m being stopped by geese. It was perfect timing.
I passed inspection. It was a very pleasant experience, in fact. A lovely man who called me “beautiful” and “sugar” no less than five times turned that cavernous garage into a insecurity-soothing party. It took under two minutes and I was on my way.
I was now street legal. No more practicing my Taylor Swift surprised face in case I got pulled over. No more putting “get car inspected” on my to-do list month after month. I finally just did it.
I recently confessed to a friend that I feel like an emotional mess. And that makes me so sad because my daughter deserves a better version of me. My friend’s response: “YOU deserve a better version of you.”
So even though I was driving around with an expired inspection sticker for eight months, it wasn’t too late for me to still pass. And it’s never too late to drive myself in for inspection. I hope those leisurely geese slow me down some days and cause me to laugh out loud until I cry. An ugly cleansing cry.
If there’s one thing that happens to me when I see The Wiggles (yes, the Australian children’s music super group), I cry. Noah LOVED the Wiggles. They were one of his favorites when he was still here. He watched them sing their songs on our giant television in our disaster of a living room -filled with toys, books, stuffed animals, clothes, crumbs of every known food, and laughter. So much giggling. Incessant. And one day he started acting out the songs along with them. Spinning, arms in the air, clapping. Watching our children absorb and mimic is fascinating. Seeing what appeals to them, oftentimes with no rhyme or reason. His favorite song was “Rock-a-Bye-Your-Bear” and it feels so fresh still, watching him nail the motions that went along with the lyrics.
Today, with the daughter we never knew we would have, we went to see The Wiggles. We’d kept this surprise for a few months. We told Miriam about it just two days ago.
“The Wiggles in real life?! In New Jersey?! Is New Jersey far away?”
We thought The Wiggles would be the actual surprise but apparently finding out we live in New Jersey was an even bigger shocker.
Miriam is a very good audience member. She sits nicely and she knows how to shush me. Often. Especially when I’m singing along.
Fueled by a giant lollipop and her all season favorite of candy corn, we watched as the audience filled up with children. And then when the lights dimmed and The Wiggles came out waving, Miriam’s eyes lit up with wonderful disbelief. Hal and I smiled at each other over Miriam’s head. And then Simon Wiggle announced “Let’s start our show with ‘Rock-a-Bye-Your-Bear’. Sing along everyone!”
My tears flowed instantly. They almost sprayed out like a sprinkler. But these were different tears. Not the tears of the early years when every brutal reminder hurt like a mofo. Like a hot knife in my most tender spot. The tears were sweeter than saltier today. The fears I battle of Miriam disappearing like Noah did are still there always. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is real. And it is a constant struggle.
I’ve been thinking about fragments. How fragmented life can be. How sectional. A chapter book. I’m always struggling against that fragment of my life when Noah was here. Watching The Wiggles, eating PB&J Uncrustables, and laughing. Laughing innocently along with him. Never in a million years thinking this could end. Just a fragment.
So I try to see the flow of each fragment into the next. And some days are harder than others. Never did I think I’d have a network of grieving mothers (and a few fathers) from around the world. Never did I think I ‘d need them and they’d need me. Never did I think my life would be anymore than it was. Ordinary. Normal. Without stigma. The joy of an uneventful day would take on new meaning.
Some of my mothers have been struggling lately. More than usual. Anniversary dates. Summertime. Holidays. We text each other and message each other and send heart emojis to each other and that is the best we can do for each other. Because there is no way around this. My heart breaks for their pain.
And I try to back step to the innocent days. But we all know that’s impossible. For any one of us. Whether your child has died or not. You lose your innocence in life with every breath. And if you’re doing it right, it becomes wisdom.
So as I watched Miriam watch The Wiggles on stage “in real life in New Jersey” and I mouthed the words rather than sang out loud, I thought about my current fragment of this life I have now.
I’m a joy catcher, even if that means waving incessantly at Anthony Wiggle from the 12th row until he waves back. I’m a happiness chaser even if that means a trip to the park when I really just want to go home. Even if that means staying up too late to finish a story when I should be asleep. Because writing helps me put these fragments on a shelf for seven to eight hours per night. And then I hope my dreams are kind to me.
The Wiggles “in real life in New Jersey” was a bridge between two fragments. Like two tin cans joined by a string. Noah was one can and Miriam was the other. And that string is long. Some days longer than others.
My husband and I have this thing we do. It’s called “celebrity death”. We text each other as soon as we hear about a celebrity’s death in the news. We give clues until we guess it correctly. Usually it’s followed by sad emojis or words like “awwww” or “I really liked ______ (insert celeb name)”.
We hope they died at a ripe old age and went as comfortably as possible, leaving behind family, friends, and adoring fans. Life comes to an end eventually. Just not always in the way we’d imagined.
The two shocking suicides this week of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have my mind going in a pensive direction. Even more pensive than normal.
Here’s how it goes in my head when I hear of a celebrity suicide:
1. But they had so much success!!?? Why?? So much money, so many fans, so much talent, so much…
2. I’ll miss them. Their contributions to my little world through their music, movies, songs, comedy, words…however they made their mark.
3. They were suffering. Suffering to the most extreme level. To the nth degree. And it was hidden by their talent. That is irony.
Then I think about myself. My own desperate times. The closest I’ve come to thoughts of suicide was after my son, Noah, died. It wasn’t so much actually killing myself but more of an “I don’t care if I live or die” mindset. I stopped short of any serious self-destructive behaviors, like taking too big a dose of xanax or too much alcohol or dangerous driving. But man, I understand being on the edge. The biggest edge there is. And it felt like an out of body experience. You are not in your right mind. Or even in your body. You’re just a ball of desperation, trying to make the pain stop.
I’m not talking about the clinical terms. Because I’m no therapist. And I know there are connections in the brain than can go haywire and lead someone to this decision. I’m just human. And the way I get through is through writing. And talking about the shit no one wants to talk about and revealing the shit no one wants to reveal for fear of judgement. Or being seen as weak. Or frivolous.
I’ve got a list of people in my life that I can call or text or show up at their door, whether I’m wearing pants or not. I can be kept safe until anxieties and bad thoughts pass. And I’ve learned coping skills as well. They don’t always work. But I’ve learned them. I’m lucky.
I know this idiot. She thrives on drama and most of it is made up. She will one-up anyone even attempting to talk about anything in their lives. Big or small, she’s always got a story and it will be more grandiose than anything you can imagine.
When the news of Kate Spade’s suicide broke, this idiot said, “If anyone should commit suicide, I should! With all my problems and my life!”
I was really taken aback at that. And I don’t get taken aback very often. It’s not a contest, you idiot. It’s that kind of talk that make people feel so alone and invalidated. Just more talking without listening.
I hope my friends are ok. Deep down okay. And if they’re not okay, I hope they will always say something.
Because it’s hard as hell out there. And it’s not a contest. Your pain is your pain. And we want you here. Please stay.
As the dandelions turn into “wishers”, Miriam picks them from the grass almost frantically. She blows the white fluff until she’s out of breath and scans the grass for the next one. When I ask her what she’s wished for, she stops to think. She looks around.
“Umm…I wish for a cherry blossom tree!” she says.
We are standing under a cherry blossom tree. If only wishes came true that easily. Can you still wish for something you already have? Can you wish for more of it?
Before I met Hal, I’d make the same wish every year as I blew out my birthday candles. I’d wish that my parents would both still be alive for my wedding day. No matter who the groom would be, I wanted both my parents to walk me down the aisle.
And my wish came true as both my parents walked me down that grassy aisle eleven years ago today.
They walked me to the guy who loves me more than anything…although popsicles are a close tie. They walked me to the guy who works hard. They walked me to the guy who would be loyal and try his best through it all. The guy who lets me cry even though he doesn’t always know what to say to soothe me. They walked me to the guy who will always be dedicated to making this work.
So I’ll wish on a “wisher” with Miriam when we go on our next nature walk or trip to the park. I’ll wish for more of what I already have. We have it all.
Happy anniversary, Hal Landis. Happy anniversary of us. Because just like Nigel says, where do you go from ten…
Yesterday was “Take Your Child To Work Day”. While that would’ve provided Facebook fodder for weeks, my job is not conducive to having a small child with me. It’s too bad, though. Miriam would’ve been subjected to many colorful characters.
She would’ve been amused by my coworker, Melissa, explaining that it was not actually Saturday to a confused regular. She’s always “making penne vodka” as we ring her up for her pint. Every day. Sometimes twice a day. The days of the week are sort of hard to keep straight. There are seven of them after all.
She would’ve enjoyed watching me ring up many teeny tiny bottles during the lunchtime rush. She’d be amazed by my abilities to double bag every thing.
She’d enjoy watching me look up wine after wine that someone had in a small Lithuanian village ten years ago and then watch the shock on their faces when I tell them I don’t carry it. Even though, yes, I’m sure it’s very good. And yes, try the store down the street.
So today, Miriam woke up with a slight temperature and was very sure she didn’t feel well enough to go to school. Today is my day off from my afore described job. But today is when I cram all my submitting, editing, creating, networking, and brainstorming in while Miriam is in school. And while all that writing work goes better when I’m alone, Miriam was by my side as I sent in a draft of an accepted pitch and while I scanned some networking groups for some new opportunities. She knows this is also “mommy working” and I’m proud of that.
So after I came home from a colorful visit to the DMV (license renewal complete with terrible double-chinned picture, of course) and then Daddy left for his later shift at work, Miriam and I sat down at the kitchen table together. Me with my laptop. Her with her tablet. She sang along with her videos and I typed.
She gave me courage to send some applications and story pitches I might not have sent if she weren’t with me. Because…why not? I owe it to her to be as happy as possible. And brave. Because that’s what I want for her, after all.
So thanks for coming to work with me today, Miriam. I’m pretty sure I learned a lot more than you.