Thursday, January 26, 2012

Mom Goes to Sex Ed

            A fellow parent at the school bus stop had me worried. He told me that he was ridiculed when he was in sixth grade because he didn’t know much about sex and that he never got over the humiliation. Pat had imparted the basics to our then ten year old, Spencer, earlier that year on a vision quest type of camping trip that Spencer thought was perfect except for that conversation Daddy insisted on having. A conversation that, he contended, they could have easily had at home, leaving the camping experience unsullied by words like “erection” and “insert”. Words and concepts that embarrassed him deeply.
            Walking home from the bus stop that morning, I thought about how sensitive Spencer was and about how much he still didn’t know. Such ignorance would make him vulnerable to the same teasing that haunted my bus stop friend. Spencer had a sharp mind but the heart of an innocent who still rotated which stuffed animal he slept with so that none of their feelings got hurt.
What was an interfering, over-protective, over-identifying with her son’s every wince, parent like me supposed to do? Hand him dry tracts from the doctor’s office and quiz him later? Press him into more mortifying conversations with Daddy and Mommy about blowjobs and wet dreams? Write him a detailed letter? Come on, I told myself, I might be over-protective but I was also worldly and hip. There had to be a worldly and hip solution.
            As it turns out, there was. My lefty-you-can-even-be-an-atheist-and-feel-connected-to-each-other-and-the-universe Unitarian Church was offering a ten-week everything-is-natural-and-we-should-love-our-bodies sexuality course to fifth graders. Feeling very progressive, I signed Spencer up at the Education table at church. Grasping the enrollment materials to my chest, I felt not only hip, but excited about sharing this journey with Spencer. I imagined soulful talks about his feelings for girls – or boys, who knew? He would be able to confide in me and I would tell him reassuring stories about my own adolescence.

What struck me the most at the parents’ orientation meeting was how important it was for the teachers to tell us about how much they had already heard and seen. I suspect that they simply wanted to reassure us that our children were in capable hands. But their protestations only made me wonder, what on earth had they heard and seen that compelled them to repeat it so often? And was there, perhaps, something I could learn here?
Our kids were meeting in another room while the adults sat on folding chairs facing Sue, a tall round woman with no make-up and an aggressive manner that evinced a “scared straight” team leader or a charmless Dr. Phil. She was of indeterminate gender persuasion and she went on to display not a scintilla of irony whatsoever throughout the entire afternoon.
            “A lot of the stuff we’re going to be talking about with your kids in these classes is UNCOMFORABLE people. You better get used to it. Because TRUST ME these kids have ALREADY heard and seen it ALL,” she said, parking a big pad of paper on an easel next to her. She picked up a sharpie and wrote, ‘Twat’ on the pad then turned to eyeball us each individually. “Does this make any of you UNCOMFORTABLE?”
            I looked around at my fellow parents. It was a mixed bunch of touchy feely liberals who routinely protested about education cuts, about half of whom probably still smoked pot. We all shook our heads, no. The written word ‘twat’ didn’t make us feel remotely uncomfortable.
            “How about this word?” Sue said, turning her back to us and obscuring the pad for a second. Then she stood back dramatically to reveal the word, ‘Schlong’.
            Nah. That didn’t seem to make anyone uncomfortable either.
            “It’s OK to feel UNCOMFORTABLE,” Sue went on. “When I first started teaching this stuff, I was uncomfortable. But now, nothing surprises me. Because I HAVE HEARD AND SEEN IT ALL. Any questions?”
            Nope. No questions. It all seemed perfectly clear. She’d seen a lot and she was going to teach it to our children.
            “OK, people,” she said after an awkward pause -- the lack of response was like that moment when the entire table of dinner guests refuses seconds, clearly indicating the presence of a culinary bomb. “We’re gonna learn something here. I’m splitting you up into three groups.” She expertly had us count off. “The first group is ‘vagina’. You’re over here,” she pointed. “Group 2 is ‘penis’. You’re over here. And ‘sexual intercourse’ is over here.”
            She quickly explained that each group was to devise a list of slang words for their assigned correct sexual term. I was excited about landing in the vagina group because I could already think of nine slang terms without even straining. We started slowly, but picked up speed, yelling out profanities to an Asian woman who had remarkably neat handwriting. By the time we had exhausted the biggies, we were reduced to ‘na na’,’cha cha’, and ‘vajayjay’.
            Finally the ‘vagina’ group paused and the Asian woman said, “Anything else?”
            “Tool!” I heard from the ‘penis’ group. The ‘sexual intercourse’ group looked finished. No pun intended.
            The vaginas looked at each other.  “Meatwallet?” offered a young mom in braids.
            “Meatwallet,” repeated the Asian woman, neatly writing it at the end of the list.
            When we were satisfied with our lists, Sue gathered us together and asked each group to chant the words on the list. I wasn’t sure where this was all going, but I’ve always liked chanting. The vaginas took a breath and started, “Pussy, clit, snatch…”
            After which the other groups dutifully chanted their obscenities.  The penises seemed the most boisterous lot, possibly because they had more men. And I was glad that I hadn’t been stuck with sexual intercourse. They only had about five predictable words, which made you wonder what kind of company they would be at a cocktail party.
            “NOW,” said Sue, winding it all up. “Did any of THAT make you feel uncomfortable?”
            We all looked at each other and shrugged. No. Not really.
            Then a sandy-haired woman raised her hand.
            “YUP. YOU,” Sue barked.
            The sandy-haired woman lowered her hand and said, “I wish I hadn’t heard ‘meat wallet’.”
            Typical, I thought. She was ‘sexual intercourse’ and obviously hadn’t even heard of ‘give it the business’.  Come on.
            The sandy haired woman continued, “’Meat wallet’. I mean it doesn’t even make sense.”
            “Well, GET USED TO IT,” Sue said to the sandy-haired woman. “Because your kids…” She trailed off and scanned the room to bring it all home, “HAVE HEARD IT ALL, PEOPLE! And now that you’ve heard it here, you’ll be able to talk to your kid without being UNCOMFORTABLE.”
            Ah hah, I thought. That was all a desensitizing exercise. Now, if Spencer came home and talked about a meat wallet, I would be able to maintain a placid demeanor, rather than saying, “What the hell is a meat wallet?” and derailing any more constructive conversation I could be having with my preteen. This was good – all paving the way for those soulful connections that Spencer and I would be making.
Having made her macro point, Sue quickly wound up with some housekeeping about forms and attendance.  She encouraged us to help ourselves to some cookies before joining our kids, who had been going through similar exercises, downstairs. 
            Spencer was bouncing around like nothing was new when I walked in. Chairs were arranged in a big circle and it looked like the kids had just finished up a session with a man who looked a lot like Sue, but wasn’t. He quickly yielded the floor to Sue who created a gap in the circle for her easel and planted it.
            “Parents, I want you to find a seat next to your kid!” she yelled over the din of unfocussed preteen excitement.
            I claimed a chair, eyeballed Spencer, and patted the chair next to me. Spence whapped a kid companionably on the shoulder as if to say, “OK, gotta do this thing,” and settled next to me. I resisted the urge to pat his knee, but settled back in my chair enjoying the familiar feel of him next to me. Even without looking at him, I knew it was him and no one else. After all, he was mine. Mine from birth. Mine and no one else’s in this room. And now we were about to share something profound together. I shifted in the chair, excited to do whatever exercise Sue threw at us. I happen to love manufactured bonding moments.
            “OK,” said Sue, “Parents sit this one out.” My chest deflated somewhat, but I was still thrilled to be sitting at this important event with my son. Sue flipped her pad of paper to a clean sheet. “So kids. You’ve already heard that we’re going to be sharing a lot of personal stuff in this course. Stuff that might even make you feel UNCOMFORTABLE. Can any of you think of any reasons why you might NOT want to share stuff with your group of peers?”
            Spencer’s hand shot up. I smiled reflexively. He was engaged already. Clearly, he was going to flourish in this environment.
            “You might feel embarrassed,” he offered.
            “RIGHT,” barked Sue. She wrote ‘EMBARRASSED’ on the page. You might feel embarrassed to share your feelings. Adults – have any of you ever felt embarrassed?”
            I threw my hand up. God yes. I felt embarrassed daily. Was she going to ask me to tell a story? Sue scanned the room and I followed her gaze. Every parent had a hand raised. 
            “See, kids. Everyone has felt embarrassed,” Sue said, circling the word. “Even adults. You can put your hands down now.”
            I put my hand down. Was that it? No one was going to share more? Surely it would help Spencer, and the rest of the kids, to hear my story of getting a period stain on my white jeans in seventh grade.
            “Now kids. What’s another reason you might not want to share your personal feelings in a group like this?”
            A girl raised her hand tentatively, “We might be nervous.”
            “Of course,” affirmed Sue, writing it down. “You might be nervous.” Then she asked the parents if they had ever felt nervous. We all raised our hands. Oooh. I could tell countless stories of nerve-wracking job interviews, but Sue didn’t ask any of us to elaborate. I get it, I grumped to myself, it’s not about the parents; it’s about the kids.
            Sue petitioned the kids again, “Anyone have another reason why you might not want to share your feelings with this whole group?”
            I looked around. No hands. Seriously? That was all they had?
            Adults and kids looked at each other. Were we done here?
            Finally a kid raised his hand and Sue pointed, “YOU. What’s another reason you might not be able to share your feelings here?”
            The kid shifted and said quietly, “Physical injury?”
            What? I glanced at Spencer who smiled slightly and shrugged.
            Sue repeated to the boy, “Physical injury?”
            “Yeah,” said the kid like it was perfectly obvious.
            Sue stood staring at the kid, betraying that she hadn’t exactly seen and heard everything. This was a new one. Did he mean that someone in a wheelchair, for example, might not be able to get into the room to share?
            I shot a look at Spencer again. He pressed his knee against my thigh. I pressed back. We both looked at Sue but kept knee and thigh pressed tight against each other, sharing the beautiful, comic awkwardness of the moment.
            “All right. Physical injury,” Sue finally said. Spencer and I released the tension in our legs. Sue wrote “Physical Injury” down on her pad. “Let’s review. Reasons why you might not be able to share your feelings with each other in this room.” She pointed to the first. “Embarrassment.”
            I smiled at Spencer’s word being the first. Sue pointed to the second, “You might be ‘nervous’.”
            I glanced at the timid girl.
            “Or,” said Sue, pointing to ‘Physical Injury’ and staring for a moment.
            “Or,” she repeated, then rallied: “Your mouth might not work.”
            Involuntarily, I turned to look at Spencer. Had he heard, what I heard? Sue hilariously wanting to make the suggestion work? Even though she didn’t understand it? A moment so incredibly absurd and beautiful at the same time?
            Spencer’s expression answered mine. Yes. He had heard it too. Yes it was absurd. Yes it was sweet and true.
Later, on the walk home, we reviewed the scene and laughed about the awkwardness hanging in the room. Every parent so eager and proud. The kids all wanting to belong and impress. Sue handling it all, I saw now, with such bravura that the children immediately trusted her. And the boy, so sure of his enigmatic answer.
I grabbed Spencer’s hand to cross a street. We might not have shared what I had hoped, I thought. We hadn’t imparted meaningful confidences about this prepubescent rite of passage, his beginning and mine long over. But we had shared a compatible view of the world as both ridiculous and achingly lovely.
We got to the curb on the other side and I let go of his hand.
Photo by Cathy Mathews

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Brett Paesel writes a Fictional Blog

Meagan McPhee is a fictional character, created by Brett Paesel. 
Meagan will be posting on her site every Monday from her desk at First Lutheran Church in Evanston, Ill. Join her every week as she creates a new life for herself and her son after her divorce (
The first blog starts out:
"The upside of being divorced at age thirty-seven and supporting yourself and a kid is that you hardly give a crap about anything anymore.  The word “hardly” is important here.  Because just when you’re sure you’ve abandoned all feeling about what people think about you or say about you or promise-and-don’t-deliver to you, a teenage grocery store checker says you look tired on a Saturday morning and you burst into tears, drop the bottle of vodka you were buying for Bloody Mary’s and run out to the parking lot, choking on snot and obscenities until your best friend, Diane, pulls the car around to load you in like a wounded dog.  We’ve all had moments like that.  But, really (apart from these lapses) once you’re divorced and on your own, you care a whole lot less than you did before."
Read more at Meagan McPhee AD (After Divorce):
Sign up on Meagan's site, to receive weekly e-mail alerts when Meagan has posted a new blog. And share, share, share. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Christmas Loan -- Part Three (After the Loan)

It was January of 2010. Over our Christmas vacation in Madison, my parents lent us a thousand dollars to float us through the New Year. With that, we managed to pay our rent and some bills. Then, we returned to Los Angeles and waited for a large check that was due to me for work I had completed a couple of months before. 

As soon as the door to our apartment swings open, the boys race past us into their bedroom. Pat and I yank our suitcases into the hallway, making adjustments around each other on the slippery area rug. My suitcase falls over and I pick it up again, leaning it against a broken chair that is still waiting to be hauled down to its final resting place next to the trash bins in the basement. The chair is only one of the mocking markers of unaccomplished domestic tasks that litter our abode like vandalized tombstones. There is the vacuum cleaner without a handle, another chair with stuffing hanging out of its seat, the broken laptop under the desk, and the large rug (dotted with worn beige patches) that never lived up to its indoor/outdoor promise. 
Before we left for Madison, we hired a kid downstairs to watch the cat for twenty-five dollars. At the time it seemed like a steal for two-weeks worth of feeding and litter-cleaning. Now that I survey the soft white hair that floats over everything like a spun sugar confection, I think that I should have gotten more bang for my buck. Would it have hurt the kid to have brushed the dining table a few times? Didn’t he notice that the living room was beginning to look like a scene from a gothic novel? I wouldn’t be surprised to find a skeleton lying in our bedroom next to a withered rose.
My scan of the room stops at the tree next to our entertainment center. It has been in critical condition for years, dropping big brown leaves to the floor at regular intervals. But every time I have given up hope, a green shoot has peeked out from the dry soil in its pot or a leaf will raise itself up when I toss it a dram of water from my glass. This time, however, its mortality is not in question. I cannot discern a speck of green, fallen brown leaves surround the pot, and it lists to one side at a forty-five degree angle.
I hear the kids pulling toys from their places of temporary retirement in their bedroom.
“Whatever you take out, you will have to put back,” I yell to them, my voice betraying more irritation than I intended.
Pat grabs our stack of mail from the dresser, swipes dust and fluff off the top envelope, and plops down on the couch. I watch the debris swirl in the sunlight that streams through a gap in our closed blinds.
“You’re going to have cat hair on your ass,” I say to Pat.
“I’ll live,” he says, tossing a couple of envelopes on the coffee table.
My stomach is tight, but I shrug like I don’t care. I am struggling to resist the urge to start cleaning and then scream at the children and Pat that they aren’t doing enough. This is my pattern and Pat knows it. The impulse is born from my need to control the uncontrollable. Cleaning the house won’t make my check from the studio come any faster. Vacuuming the fur off the rugs won’t pay my parents back their loan any more efficiently. But creating the illusion of domestic order will calm my spirit. At least that’s what I think. Pat disagrees. He claims that the impulse is born from a need to make everyone else to feel my discomfort and resentment as keenly as I do.
Pat throws the rest of the stack of mail on the coffee table.
“Let’s go out to dinner,” He says.
A slight gasp escapes me. We have barely a hundred dollars left in the bank. Dinner would clean us out. Usually Pat is the one to point out the fiscal impossibility of any proposed venture outside the home, not me. I glance at him. He smiles back at me innocently. I feel a flutter in my chest. I like the way Pat’s hair is flopped over one eye.
“We don’t have the money,” I say because it should be said.  But I want to go out to dinner. I really, really do.
“Your check will come in a couple of days,” Pat says.
“I guess…” I say, playacting now. This is my opportunity to abdicate responsibility for a foolish choice.
“Dinner?” Spencer’s head pokes out of his bedroom doorway.
“We’re talking about it,” I say.
“We’re going out to dinner,” Pat says and stands up. He looks tall to me -- standing there, making decisions. I feel an unbidden smile steal across my face. I’m sure that my eyes are sparkling.
“Kids,” Pat yells over his shoulder, “grab your sweatshirts, we’re going to Fiddler’s.”
I can hear the kids whoop like they’ve won something. Drawers are being opened and slammed shut in their room. Fiddler’s is a family friendly restaurant down the street and they know that they will be given free gumi bears after our meal. The boys run into the living room, pulling sweatshirts over their heads. I grab my jacket. Pat strides to the door with a white fluff of hair on his ass. We tumble into the hallway, giggling like kids ditching school.
Outside the air is crisp but nothing like the cold in Madison. I breathe it in, fill up my lungs, and skip to keep up with Pat. The boys jog ahead of us. I no longer feel like the penniless mother with a cat haired living room to clean and a skeleton in my bed. I am free from domestic constraints, free from the judgment of my family in Madison, and free from self-punishing thoughts about how we got into this mess in the first place.
I grab Pat’s hand at the crosswalk and glance at him sideways. His hand is alive in mine, tightening and relaxing. He feels it too, I think. This is rebellion plain and simple. We’ll regret having spent the money tomorrow. But today? Today we’re living fast and dying young. Spencer reaches the door of the restaurant first and flings it open. Murphy slips in behind him. I squeeze Pat’s hand. We have shared moments like this before, watching our children filled with such confidence and complete surety that the world cares about them.
Inside Fiddler’s there is nothing to indicate that the boys’ confidence is misplaced. The staff clucks over them, asking about their Christmas vacation and Pat and I slide into our favorite spot on a banquette.
“I’m going to eat all the green ones first,” Murphy says about the gumi bears.
“The red ones are sweeter,” Spencer says, pulling out his chair opposite Pat and me.
“That’s why I like the green ones. I like some sour in mine,” says Murphy.
The waitress comes over to our table. She’s been working at Fiddler’s since I started coming here six years ago. Her accent sounds Eastern European and she always seems to be in a good mood. I wonder if this is because she’s continually grateful that she’s not back where she came from.
“We’re talking about our gumi bears,” Murphy tells her.
“What gumi bears?” the waitress asks in a teasing tone, her eyes mock wide with innocence.
“The ones you always give us,” says Spencer.
“Oh those,” she says. “We don’t give those any more. Now we give out green beans.”
Murphy’s face drops, but Spencer says, “OK. Then show us the green beans.”
“They’re in the kitchen,” she says. “I only bring them out after you’ve eaten your dinner.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” says Spencer. “It’s not like green beans are a reward.”
“Right,” says Murphy. I’m not sure if he’s following Spencer’s logic, but he has infinite faith in Spencer’s brain. Spencer speaks with such a tone of academic authority that younger and impressionable kids simply assume that he’s right. I wish I had this gift. My voice betrays my every emotion and I rarely run on empty. I worry that the quaver of passion in my lower register is sometimes scary. I’ve sensed hesitance from even casual listeners.
“Well, we’ll see,” says the waitress, rolling her l’s and her eyes.
“That’s right,” says Spencer. “We’ll see.”
He and the waitress smile at each other, the game played out.
“Two chocolate milks, a diet coke, and wine, right?” she says, turning to Pat and me, anticipating our order.
I nod, “Red wine, please. It’s chilly out.”
“This?!” she says. “It’s California. Please. It’s never cold.”
I feel my face flush, imagining her frozen tundra of a homeland. She is, of course, right. California is always warm compared to any spot that experiences an actual winter. What is more, I tell myself, any family who can skip down the street for dinner is living large in comparison to the vast majority of the global population. I know this to be true. I’ve always known it. But I know it in abstraction. I know that I know it in abstraction. How, I wonder, do I make that abstraction, concrete? How do I tunnel through my fear to find gratitude? Not the kind of gratitude you find expressed on greeting cards but the kind that is transformative and indelible. 
Pat’s shoulder is warm against mine as I look out the window at the orange sun dipping behind our apartment building. 
The sun over our apartment complex

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Christmas Loan -- Part Two (To Take is to Give)

My mother’s father quit school after sixth grade to support his family after his father and brother drowned in a lake. Later, he married a beautiful Swedish girl, started a family, and moved into a small two-bedroom apartment on the south side of Chicago. He was a streetcar conductor who woke up at four in the morning, six days a week, to head to work downtown. My mother slept in the living room on a pullout couch that she shared with her sister until she left for college. Her other sister shared a bed and bedroom with her aunt who sang hymns almost constantly and was dying a slow death from untreated breast cancer. All three sisters grew up knowing the price of everything and distrusting credit or a deal that sounded too good to be true. I doubt that any of them ever bought a lottery ticket. No one, they firmly believed, ever got anything for nothing. Frugality was inbred, carved into their DNA. Born in America, their faces were cast by the land their grandparents came from. Cheekbones like bluffs and ice blue eyes. Andersens, Johnsens, Lundquists. The sisters grew up knowing that having enough money meant that they would never have to ask for anything. And if a Swede can die without ever having asked for one goddamned thing, that’s one successful Swede.
            The house in Madison is always cold. My mother says that heat makes you soft, which may be what she’s thinking when she says that I have become, “so California.” It is true. I am soft, softer than my mother. Although her core radiates heat and love so fierce that it embarrasses her.
            She sits at the table in the kitchen, with her calendar. For as long as I can remember, my mother has filled in the squares of a monthly calendar with family comings and goings, along with deadlines for art contests she wants to enter. In the morning, she consults her calendar, adds anything that’s new, and then writes down a schedule for that day, even scheduling her breaks. She does this, she says, to give shape to her day.
            I grab a coffee mug from the cabinet and walk behind her to get a tea bag from the shelf next to the oven. I look over her shoulder to glance at her schedule. Aha. She’s having coffee until she dusts the living room at ten. My pulse quickens. This might be the best moment to ask her.
“Where are Erik and Shona?” I ask. If my brother and sister-in-law are around and might interrupt, I should put it off.
            “They took Kiran to the lake. They wanted to get pictures of him in the snow.” She lifts her head from her calendar and looks out at the lake, “Where did Spencer and Murph go?”
            “Pat took them to the library.” I fill my mug with water and pop it in the microwave, “Where’s Du?”
            “He’s not upstairs?”
            I set the timer and the microwave hums, “I didn’t see him.”
            My mother shrugs, “I don’t know where he is.”
            My father’s comings and goings are puzzling to us all. He disappears and appears without announcing his departure or arrival. Later this afternoon, he will materialize in his rocking chair, reading the newspaper without a word said.
            The microwave bings and I open the door to retrieve my mug of tea. My mind scrambles for something to talk about.  I don’t want to simply blurt out a request for a loan. If it leaps out with no preamble, I’ll seem desperate. Of course, I am desperate. I shuffle though our usual topics: politics; the children; books; clothes, my father; her painting; my writing; my father. Nothing catches. I put my tea on the table, slide out a chair, and sit down. Just ask her, I tell myself. She’s never said no. She won’t yell or cry or recriminate.  She’ll simply pull back. How bad is that? My shoulders ache. My throat is tight, like it’s trying to prevent the request from being voiced at all. Jesus, I’m going to have to write it down on paper and slide it to her like I’m holding up a bank.
            My mother looks at me, her eyes misty; her fine, high cheekbones evincing her younger self.  My throat tightens even more. I don’t dare try to sip my tea. I might choke.
“I’m worried about Muriel,” she says.  I hear her, but don’t take it in. It’s a reprieve. This much I know. A change of subject. A shift in the game plan. My shoulders soften. I pull in a breath.
“What’s wrong with Muriel?” I ask stupidly, because everything’s wrong with Muriel. My mother’s oldest sister has been in the hospital for over two years. After caring for her husband with advanced Alzheimer’s for a decade before his death and enduring a crippling case of rheumatoid arthritis, my aunt barely eats. She sleeps most of the day hoping for death to come soon and lift her up, her corporal self almost ether now, to meet her husband in a world beyond pain.
             “It’s so sad,” my mother says. Her jaw goes slack. She looks past me to the lake. I want to reach out and hold her hand. My reason for coming into the kitchen has evaporated. Now it seems that my only reason was to sit with her like this. Unable to reach for her because she would not be able to bear it.
“I know,” I say.  This is all I ever say, because there is nothing else. And because this is all that my mother wants to hear. She simply needs to know that I know. Until recently, my mother wouldn’t have shared her sorrow at all. Traditionally, she has suffered losses in virtual silence. In this, I am not my mother’s daughter. I am a chest thumper and a copious weeper who can’t get through the opening credits of ET without wailing. At bedtime, my sons try to avoid books that will make me cry and extract promises that they will never leave their mother. With the exception of Pat, everyone in my family hates my inability to marshal my emotions. I have even been told that my emotional displays are intimidating. My mother, on the other hand, was once referred to by Erik as “six feet of Nordic ice”.
She is not six feet tall, nor is she that removed. Neither am I an emotional terrorist. These, however, are the labels we have both borne for years.
I remember my mother’s habitual remove two years ago, when she called to tell me that her sister, Muriel, had taken to her bed and that her daughter, my cousin, Rachel had said that she believed that Muriel would die very soon.
“How soon can you get down to see her?” I asked her then. Muriel was in Kentucky.
            There was a pause on the line before my mother said tightly, “I don’t think I’ll be going.”
            “Of course you have to go,” I said. “You’ll regret it if you don’t see her.”
            “Brett, I can’t go. She wouldn’t…” my mother took a long pause. “She wouldn’t want me to see her like that.”
            Another pause. That was it. Final. She had made the decision. I could hear it in her voice. There was nothing for me to say. I knew the Lundquist women. My mother would be immovable in her belief that Muriel wouldn’t want her baby sister to see her vulnerable, helpless, needy. Any appeals from me would meet with steely resistance and the conviction that I simply didn’t understand.
            But I did understand. As soon as I hung up the phone that morning, I called my cousin, Rachel. Our exchange was pragmatic, but kind. We spent more time together when we were younger and while there wasn’t much that bound us together these days, we were connected through these staid sisters.
            “I want you to invite my mother down to see Muriel,” I said. “She won’t go unless you ask her.”
            Rachel sighed, “I bet Mom would love to see her.”
            “I know. But my mother thinks that Muriel will be embarrassed.”
            “That’s true. She would be,” said Rachel. And so unbeknownst to her mother, Rachel crafted an e-mail to mine, inviting her to see her dying sister. It was an invitation my mother could not turn down because the Lundquist code had always been clear: refusing a request was worse than making one. This was the kind of circular logic Rachel and I had lived with all of our lives.
            Upon her return from Kentucky, my mother said that seeing her sister was good. Muriel’s hand was lighter than paper, my mother said. The soup my mother fed her was too hot for her. But the spoon, Muriel told my mother was too cold.
            “Were you glad you went?” I asked her over the phone.
            “Oh yes,” she said, as if the answer was obvious. “Oh, yes.”
            Muriel didn’t die then and in the months that have followed my mother’s habit of restraint has slightly diminished. She doles her sadness out in small amounts that she thinks I can handle, often by simply evoking Muriel’s name. And each time she gives it to me, I take it. Because I know that sometimes to take is to give.
The emotional landscape in the kitchen with my mother and her calendar and her grief is a topography of stinted impulses. Mine to reach for her hand and weep with her. My mother’s to harden her face into a smile of acceptance, get up from the chair, and apply herself to a domestic task. Hers is the harder job because she has had thirty more years of inculcation.
I wait and she pushes her calendar to the middle of the table.
            “Will you give me pictures of the boys on their sleds yesterday?” she asks. 
            “Of course,” I say, lifting the mug of tea to my lips. My mother has been sending Muriel a package every week. Sometimes it’s an envelope of pictures and sometimes she sends cookies, books for Rachel to read to her, or articles that I have written.
            “Good,” my mother says, with a wistful smile. “I’ll send them to her on Monday.” She stands up, walks over to the sink, and looks out the high window there. Her back tells me nothing.
            “Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?” she asks. “Do you need something?”
            I put the tea down, fighting every synaptic urge to deflect. Instead I hold myself to the chair. She has asked if I need something and I do. It is within her power to help me. She cannot help Muriel but she can help me. And I can help her. To take is to give.
“Yes, Mom, “ I say, my throat catching. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
            This is how the request is made and granted. The mother at the sink and the daughter at the table, her hand resting on a mug of cooled tea. Their words are not important because they do not tell the story of what each of them had to give up to be there.