Tag Archives: motherhood

Look in the Same Direction You’re Moving

Upon finishing an MFA, you’re surprised to discover that exactly what you thought would happen, actually does. It’s anticlimactic the same way that, at the end of this week, your teaching semester will end. Students will fall away to summer vacation, grades will post, and life will yawn out before you.

In Fiction Workshop, regarding a story set in a coin-operated porn booth, you say, “I’m sorry to ask this, but what is the climax in this piece?” After a few labored giggles, a student ventures a guess: “Is it when the main character flashes back to when his daughter was hit by a car?” and you discuss if a climax can happen in a flashback, and what does it mean for the story if it does? You don’t know what else to do but to care deeply–almost too deeply–about this.

After class, you and Sam feed the ducks bread that’s not yet stale, bread you could’ve turned into a peanut butter and jelly, but you birdlike the stretchy afternoons when you and your three-year-old dawdle down to the path of the Erie Canal and throw balled-up white bread at aggressive mallards. The two of you analyze the knobs of their heads for brown, looking for the mama ducks, but their babies haven’t hatched yet, so they’re at the nest, you tell Sam. Only the dads swim up.

Confess to your husband that, yes, you always suggest walking to the canal, and Sam’s always game for it, but once you near the bridge, which you know Sam takes entirely too long to cross (a childhood fear that you hope you conceal), you find yourself pulling him along, telling him, Come on, or You can’t stop in a cross walk, or Look in the same direction you’re moving, but inside, you completely understand how a person can be tied to what’s behind them.

Some of your students had been okay with a climax in flashback, but you were not. Then why not just tell the story of what happened in the flashback? you asked. Put more focus on the present scene, you said, sounding a lot like your MFA advisors.

Sammy doesn’t pull you ahead the way Johnny does.  Instead, you find yourself acting the part of child or the poor-mannered mutt. Why are you so eager to get a move on? There is no deadline. Your stories have been edited to the brim and wait for you to forget them so you can read them again and pick them apart like a vulture.

You and Sam sit on the stoop of Java Junction, a spot he’s chosen because there’s an ample pile of bird food surrounding the small tree just in front of the coffee shop and a legitimate aviary in its branches. Sam is happy to sit, watching the birds, so you humor him, taking a picture of him with your iPhone and watching the same car pass three times, its driver having completed a list of errands you no longer have.

Sammy loves birds. He knows the names of more birds than you do. In fact, this is true for all animals. When Sammy is in the bath, and you say, “If you dump that whale-ful of water out of the tub one more time…” he responds with, “Mom, it’s not a whale.”

You coerce him to leave the birds by promising to draw pictures of birds when you get home, but after dinner, when Johnny has come off the bus, and you have fed the boys cheese pizza, and then have promised to play outside, you will not have drawn a picture of a bird. Tomorrow, you think.

At 7, it’s nearly dusk, and you open and close the issue of The Writer that you’ve dog-eared on “Going Postal: A new book helps writers achieve success after an MFA” while trying to drink a coffee in the warm and fleeting spring sun amidst Sam, who is slow-going to understand the logistics of bike pedals, and John, who bikes dangerous circles around your house, so you give up. You crawl on all fours behind Sammy, who lets you cycle his legs until he gets the rhythm of the pedals, leaving your magazine on the porch to blow open in the wind you wish would go away.

The teenager next door, a sensitive thirteen year-old you only hope will stick close to your boys, calls the three of you over and points at what he thinks, at first, is a dead worm on the driveway. It’s too big to be a worm, he realizes.

“I think that’s its heart,” the teenager says.

“It looks scientific,” John says.

You and the teenager agree: it’s a baby bird.

When the three boys bury the bird, you help. You remember burying a bird you found in your childhood backyard not even a block away, and how you wrote about it years later.

Before the burial, Sam had reached slowly for the smushed bird, and you stopped him. He wasn’t sad, as you’d feared. It was a beautiful and gross thing–the colors like acrylics on the black pavement. And by the time you’d finish staring at it, Sam had given it a name.

 

 

 

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Moms Are Like Candy

bubble_gum

bubble_gum (Photo credit: JMacPherson)

One morning, while my mother did her makeup,  I wrote the words ‘Mom’ and ‘Sarah’ under the doorbell on the white molding of my parents’ front porch with a raw umber Crayola as though we were the only two who lived there.   As though the people who visited would be looking only for us, as though they would need to know our names before they rang the doorbell, as though everyone would know my mother as nothing other than ‘mom.’

It stayed there for years.  When my parents repainted the porch, I felt a sense of loss.  I still touch the space where I’d written our names, wishing I could erase the paint and take a photo for my own personal historic preservation.

When I got older, my mother and I would fight over her clothes.  I wore her sweaters, though my bony shoulders left marks like a hanger would in the cloth.  They never seemed right on her again after I wore them, she would say.  Before school, I would sneak in her closet and pull her tops on over my head while she was doing her makeup in the bathroom, and then sit at the table eating Pop Tarts and reading the obituaries of the Democrat & Chronicle when she came in the kitchen.  She’d pretend not to notice that I was wearing her floral knit cardigan from Barbara Moss.

My mother has always worn Maybelline Great Lash mascara in Blackest Black– the flamingo pink tube and the lime green cap feels both young and classic at the same time.  She has olive skin, dark eyes, and wears thick black Revlon eyeliner with the red coating and burns it with a lighter before using.  She used to have Coty powder–the gold, round, cardboard container sitting on her nightstand, next to her ashtray, where she would stow her chewed Extra bubblegum for morning.

Lately, she’s begun an extensive alarm clock collection.  Just in case.  When my boys turn on the alarm clock radio and have a dance party in her bedroom, she will say gently just before they push the ‘on’ button, “Don’t touch that.  It always messes up the alarm,” but then she will forget, entranced in their dancing, smiling with the gum pressed between her back molars.

Though at the age of four, I had all of my top front teeth pulled after days of Tang-drinking and Tart ‘n’ Tiny addiction, my sons are two and four-year-old gum-chewers.  Their brand: Pink Extra Sugarless Bubble Gum.

My mother tries endlessly to teach them how to blow bubbles.  I scold her for giving them gum.  She has a special stash hidden in one of her kitchen appliances for Johnny, so now it’s sacred and I can’t tell her no.  My favorite childhood gum was Fruit Striped with the zebra on the package.  I did my sixth grade science fair project on which brand of bubble gum kept its flavor the longest.  I blow large bubbles that, when they pop, cover my nose so I can’t breathe.  When I do this, my son thinks I’m amazing in the same way I think my mother is amazing as I watch her, kneading her gum between her thumb and her teeth, stretching it long like taffy and then pressing it close again.

When Johnny learns how to spell, I’m going to give him a raw umber Crayola and send him out to her porch, where for now, my two little boys ring the doorbell incessantly before swinging the front screen door wide open, calling, “Gramma!”


Cigarette for Cigarette

Cigarette girl, pt.1

Cigarette girl, pt.1 (Photo credit: Kr. B.)

It will be springtime.  A day warm enough so we can be outside and drink coffee while we’re at it.  I will have the radio with its speakers facing out the kitchen window, and she will slide the ashtray over the beige tiles of her patio table, to me, her daughter, who will light a cigarette. 

I will go cigarette for cigarette with my mother.  A day of binge smoking.  My chidren will not be present to see me do this, though I will take pictures for when they are old enough.    

I can’t stop thinking about it.  I’ve spent years admiring the vintage elegance of a cigarette held between my mother’s fingers.  When she’s mad, the smoke hangs crassly from the crevice of her lips, dangling like a modifier, separated from her daintiness. 

My mother’s not a woman who hides what she thinks, but she says only what needs saying.  Much of what I say is unimportant.  I chatter nervously to fill her silences. 

“That sounds like a horrible idea,” my husband says.

“But I’m going to write about it,” I say.  I wonder what else I can blame on writing.

“What are you going to write?”

“I won’t know until I write it,” I say.

The more I think about it, the more I know that I have to do it, the more I imagine the weight that will sit on my chest the following day, the more it will not leave me alone.


The ‘M’ in ‘MFA’ does not stand for Mother.

 
Play-Doh Retro Canister

Image via Wikipedia

My Vulnerable MFA Adventure

Technically, you could say I’m still in college, right?  I mean, some students even think I’m their fellow student. 

Students older than I am can’t conceive it’s an insult when they say, ” You’re the instructor?  Gawd, you look like a baby yourself.”

No, my nine-month-old is a baby, I think.  But outside, I’m smiling.  It’s an awkward smile, like I just opened the door on a stranger in a public bathroom.  But it’s still a smile.

Yes, I’ve complimented the instructor, they think.

I shouldn’t be complaining.  It’s not that I’m unhappy with my job.  Everyone should be lucky enough to look forward to work the way I do every day. 

This feeling, the need for more–more education, more writing, is an internal tugging at my heels that mirrors my son’s grasps at my ankles.  I can’t shake it. 

There is a place for me still, in this world of motherhood, as long as I occupy it. The young me who needs to write in order to make sense of life, isn’t disappearing the way she might have sixty years ago, when I would have been solely the mother figure.  Mothering, without a doubt, is the toughest and most rewarding job I’ve ever had.  It’s a life demanding of reflection, yet doesn’t offer much time to reflect.

Here’s why I’m writing this:

After years of considering more school, I finally abandoned the notion that I couldn’t.  I am applying to low-residency MFA programs.  Low-residency means I can leave for about ten days every six months, and then work on the rest of my degree from home.

It’s vulnerable to blog this.  Even as I’m typing, I want to delete every word I click out.  There is the chance I’m not accepted to even one of the three programs I’m applying to: Bennington, Goddard, and Warren Wilson.  

People I really care about will know, I think. 

People I don’t even know, will know, I think. 

I am blogging the process regardless, as a promise to myself that I will see it through. 

I almost changed my mind a few weeks ago, when I told my mother.  She wasn’t surprised.  Every time she thought she knew what I would do, I did the opposite.  She always thought I’d do exactly what she would do. 

When I told her, I had to clear my throat and take deep breaths and stutter, all things I thought were clichés of breaking into hard news, the icy sheet we don’t want to touch. 

When I told her, she said, “We are just two different people I guess, Sarah.”

Obviously, I thought.

“What about the kids?”  she asked.  We both looked at Johnny, who was making Play-Doh pizza.  Red caked his nails, smushed up against the pudge of his fingers.  He was oblivious.  His face crinkled.  This blob was the most important fun of his day.

The other morning, I’d asked him what he would do if I had to go away on vacation for a week. 

He’d said, “I’d be sad.” 

I often tell him I love him, and then immediately ask him what it means.  He’s still wading through language.  I want to know when his feet bury themselves in the grain of the sandy floor.  When he comprehends what life is made of.   

“It means you are nice.  It’s hugs,” he said.

That day he said he’d be sad when I left, I couldn’t ask him what that meant.

“Mom,” I said. “Cory will be here.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to watch the boys,” I spat.  I didn’t know where the anger came from.  This is what heartburn feels like, I thought.

“That’s not it, Sarah.  You know I would watch them,” she said.  “You should have thought about this before you had kids.”

 This is the woman who stayed home with me until I went to kindergarten.  She taught me how to (sort of) do laundry.  I still don’t iron.  When I make sauce, I can’t make it any other way than how she taught me–slivers of onions so that my dad doesn’t get chunks, nearly a cup of parmesan cheese, and always more garlic.  She gave me everything she had: brand new sweaters she’d bought for herself from a department store, rings I might never have worn but kept because they’d hugged her fingers for so long, and her nose, I have the wide bridge of her nose, how it flattens slightly as it reaches her forehead. 

 She was smushing her gum, always Wrigley’s Doublemint, against her teeth with her thumb.  She pulled it away, letting it draw out just a little, like mozzarella cheese, and brought it back to her teeth.  This is a habit for her, like biting her nails.  Her other arm bent at the elbow, propping her face away from me. 

“I don’t even want to talk about it anymore,” she said. 

This is how I knew she was really upset.  I’m usually opposed to qualifiers, but I mean really.  I stopped talking. 

My mother is okay with it now, but that’s not the interesting part, so I’m not going to write much other than she’s offered for Johnny to come stay with her when I leave for the 8-10 day residencies. 

In the end, she’d been upset because she didn’t want me to leave for the residencies alone. 

The only time I’ve ever really been alone was when I withdrew into my head. 

I need to do this.

Cory has been so supportive, which is the best part.  He actually is the one who exhumed the discussion from beneath about a million doubts that had sprung up like weeds.  I’d planted them all myself.

So that is the beginning.