Mommy, Don’t Go

It was the night before my third birthday, and as my mother sat at the edge of my bed, gently stroking my hair and saying the evening prayer, Shema, with me, I wrapped my arms around her and pleaded with her not to leave my room for the night.  “I have

Mother and Daughter

Image by Brandon Doran via Flickr

to go bathe the baby,” she said, and leaned over to kiss me.  “But we’ll get to spend a lot of time together tomorrow at school.  I’m coming for your party!”

“No,” I said, impulsively uninviting her.  “You can’t come.”  She offered to wear a pretty shabbat dress, or to put on makeup, thinking that perhaps I was embarrassed by her post-partum appearance, but it wasn’t that.  “No,” I said again, firmly.  And she lay in bed next to me while she sang my song of choice, then got up and left the room, leaving the door wide open.  It was too dark to see her face.

It was a daily occurrence for me, feeling the pain in separation as my mother would escort me to my nursery classroom.  I would hold onto my her leg, wrapping my arms around it as if I were trying to climb a tree.  She would inch closer to the entryway, and instantaneously, the tears would begin.  The teacher would then pry my hands off, finger by finger, until I was left grasping at air and staring at the door as my mother escaped behind it.  “Mommy, don’t go,” I would whisper, my voice echoing in her absence.

For a few minutes every morning, the feeling of isolation would hover over me like a ghost, engulfing my small limbs, my tiny fingers.  I felt choked, and my breaths would come in shallow bursts, rapid and sprite.  I missed my mother.  And then it would pass, tiptoeing away to the far recesses of the room, and I could smile again.  I could forget about my longing, until I was safe in her arms in the afternoon.

My mother respected my wishes and didn’t come to my birthday party that year, nor did I let her come to our performances or graduation.  The teachers sent home hazy Polaroid photos of me wearing my birthday crown, blowing out my candles, and reading my birthday book.  My mother smiled at the images, a smile that hid the sadness of her exclusion.

***

I am a mother now, and I visit my children occasionally in school.  They let me, though I sometimes feel unworthy of this privilege, like I don’t deserve it, because I never allowed my own mother to spend time in my classroom.  They also do not cry when I drop them off, nor do they even glance back at me, and I wonder what good deeds I must have done in a previous life to deserve this convenience.  I worry maybe they don’t love me enough.

And then one day I was invited to visit my daughter’s Pre-K class for the morning.  I prepped my four-year-old the night before.  “Emmanuelle, I’m coming to your school tomorrow.  Are you going to talk to me while I’m there?” because usually she doesn’t, choosing to play with her friends instead of with me.  She looks at me and shrugs.  “If you want, I can pretend I am someone else’s mother, like Rachel’s.”  This suggestion makes her laugh.

The next morning, I slide in next to her at the dress-up corner.  She looks shyly at me, then back at her friends, then back at me.   It is like she is 15, embarrassed by her awkward mother who lingers around her posse of friends, gawking.  When we head over to the snack tables for an intermission from a hearty session of role playing, Emmanuelle squeezes in next to Rachel, where there is only one available chair, leaving me stranded.  I feel like I am the loser, the un-cool friend who was shafted at the cafeteria, forced to sit with the nerds because the last seat was taken at the popular table.  And also because the popular kids don’t like me.  I sit alone, folding myself into the nursery-sized chair, my knees banging at the top of the miniature table.  Immediately, Annie comes by, and as I glimpse her mismatched outfit, awkward bow perched on a tuft of brushed out curls, and striped tights, she rests her head on my shoulder and links her arm through mine.  “I want to sit next to you!” she bellows.  Hooray for Annie, but I felt stiffed.  Ignored.  Maybe I shouldn’t have come.

After an hour or so of being shunned by my child, I plop down next to her for some circle time.  During the songs, I whisper in her ear some of our private jokes, trying to make her laugh, and in an almost inaudible voice, she looks at me and mumbles, “Mom, you can go home now.”  And just like that, I am dismissed.  For a moment, I sit blinking.

“What?” I ask, unable to accept my sudden expulsion.  She repeats herself.  And so I have no choice but to disengage myself from the circle of children, sitting and singing happily.  So this is it.  Revenge on my past. I gather my things, and exit out to the hallway.  I pause to look at our family photo pasted on her cubby, and while I am zippering up my coat, I hear a child in the classroom, in hysterics, coughing and crying.  Emmanuelle.

The door opens, and suddenly we are in the hallway together, the small walls trapping and echoing her cries.  “Mommy!!” she gasps, reverberating off the ceiling and shuddering through the displayed artwork on the bulletin boards.  Her hand is stuffed in her mouth, and drool is spilling down her wrist, wetting her sleeve, as she struggles to regain composure, to tame the sobs that wrack her body.  I am surprised at her moment of desperation, at the emotion that courses through her so liberally, uninhibited, after the bravado I had witnessed.  “Looks like she had a change of heart,” the teacher informs me, and I acquiesce, unzippering my coat and dropping my things where they had previously been.

We reenter the class, hand-in-hand, and it is like a foreign child by my side, a newly adopted puppy, clingy and needy, longing for attention and affection.  I try to engage her in activities, to sit her down with some friends, but every few seconds she looks up at me with her tear-filled blue eyes, etched in crimson and gray.  No words are passed between us because I know what she is thinking.  Mommy, don’t go.

Eventually, I do go, as I knew I would, as my own mother did, because that’s what mothers do.  We leave.  And I realize as I am walking home that this was why I didn’t let my mother come to my birthday party.  Because there was the morning drop-off; painful and lonesome.  And then a second leaving after the party.  Unbearable.  Like Emmanuelle, it was a request made out of an overwhelming love.  It was a love so intense that my three-year-old self didn’t quite know how hold it, to peer at it with a discerning eye, and so I wore it quietly, overwhelmingly on my back.

A few days later, I empty out Emmanuelle’s school bag, and it is filled with papers and projects.   Most things I file away in the garbage, tucked under an empty milk carton or some other obtrusive piece of trash, but something she has written on a half-sized yellow piece of craft paper catches my eye.  I’m not sure what it says, as she is just beginning to learn to sound out words, and so I leave it on the kitchen table for the morning.

“I wrote, ‘Mommy, don’t go,’” she explains, over waffles the next morning.    “That’s from when you came to my school and I cried.  I’m so sorry for crying.  I just love you sooo much,” she says, the veins in her neck bulging and twitching as she emphasizes the word “sooo”.  I don’t think that I’ll go back to school to visit for a while because it pains me to leave her in her state of anguish.  That little forlorn child was once me.

My mother stops by for a rare evening visit, and although we only have a short time together, I manage to apologize for my three-year-old self, for my mysterious behavior.  “It’s because I loved you so much, and didn’t want you to leave,” I say.  “It wasn’t because you didn’t wear makeup.”  We laugh, trying to overcome years of a pain I might have inflicted, and I notice she is not wearing any makeup at the moment.  Her eyes look tired, like she is overworked, a paler and thinner version of her youthful self.  And I marvel at how even after 25 years, a few shared minutes of conversation on the couch can still spark my own longing, my lifelong wish for her not to escape, to depart, to leave me on my own.  Mommy, don’t go, I think, as I close the door behind her.  For I am both a child and a woman, a daughter and a mother, pulled in two directions, leaving and left behind.

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Lazy Leah

My medical instrument

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(I can’t really call this non-fiction.  It is based on true events, and some random memories I have, but I wove it all together in a way that made sense to tell the story.  This was a challenge to write, as I tried my hardest to capture the world of a three-year-old.  The language is basic and simple, but hopefully can be just as rich.)

My mother takes Leah to the doctor again.  Leah who cries all the time.  Leah who has been so sick since a few weeks after she was born.  She got sick because we kissed her too much, and they took her away to the hospital.  We loved her, and wanted to kiss her all the time.

When she was better, my parents made a Kiddush.  It was Simchat Torah and they promised to celebrate if Hashem would heal her.  He did.  There were the pink cookies that I liked and a lot of the men fell asleep on our couches with towels under their heads, and threw up into empty garbage cans.

But now Leah was sick again, even though we didn’t kiss her.  We can’t kiss her until she turns one year old.  My mother says she looks like a doll.  She doesn’t really look like my doll, because my doll has hair and Leah doesn’t.  But she moves like a doll.  Her head hangs down and she can’t pick it up, can’t look at the sky or the stars, or the secret place where Hashem hides.  She always looks at the floor.   Sometimes she spits on the floor, and I don’t like it because it feels wet under my feet.  Then I have to wipe them in the carpet, which has long yellow and brown strands on it, like a dirty mop.

My mother takes Leah to a special doctor who is far away, and she leaves us at Bubbi’s house.   Bubbi gives us some jelly on bread as a snack, but that doesn’t feel like a snack to me.  That feels like lunch.  I want a cookie, and she says first I have to finish my whole piece of bread.  Her bread is funny because each slice comes in its own wrapper and she keeps it in a drawer.   Our bread comes in a big bag and we keep it in the freezer.  Probably when my father was a little boy, he would go to school and have a sandwich from the wrapped bread.  One time Bubbi told me that he took the wrong brown paper bag to school, because he thought it was his lunch.  At lunchtime, he opened it up and saw it was a bag of raw noodles.  I guess noodles didn’t come in boxes back then either.  He must have been sad and hungry, staring into a bag of hard noodles, thinking of his freshly wrapped bread in another bag at home. This story makes me want to cry.

My mother comes back from the doctor, and Leah is sleeping on her shoulder.  We are playing on Bubbi’s kitchen floor, coloring with these wide crayons that look like someone cut them in half because one side is long and flat.  They also don’t have wrappers, but are just smooth and waxy.  We use this flat side to rub against the paper, and because the tiles feel rough under the paper, we are able to make designs that look like wood.  I made seven pictures of tree-bark.  I can’t really write my name, so I just make a scribble-scrabble line and pretend it is script writing, and leave the pictures in a secret pile under the table, hoping that my brother and sister don’t take them and keep them.

I look up at my mother, happy that she is here, but not yet ready to stop making bumpy pictures.  “What did the doctor say?” my grandmother asks.  My mother’s face doesn’t look the same as it did that morning.  I wonder where all of her pretty make up went, and why her eyes look wet, and I turn away, back to my picture, because I don’t think she looks good.  She looks like someone else’s mother, not mine.  My hair sweeps over the sides of my face, like a curtain, and I can’t see her anymore.

My mother doesn’t answer my grandmother, but I hear them walking down the long tiled hallway, stepping in places that I need to press my paper on, to see what kind of design the crayons will make.  They close a door to a back room, and my sister Esther who is already five, presses her ear against the door.  “Mommy’s crying,” she said.  “Loudly.”

The next day after my mom picks me up from nursery, she takes me and Leah to the library.  Leah can’t walk because she is little, so my mom wears a red backpack that is backwards, and Leah goes inside, her fat legs sticking out from holes in the bottom.  Her head seems loose and tired; it wants to go everywhere, but can’t seem to pick a place to rest, so mom has to hold it with the soft-skinned side of her hand.  She presses it into her chest, and Leah can see the books in the library without her head rolling away.

“Can you please help me find some books on Cerebral Palsy?” she asks a stranger, with very big glasses.  She probably needs these big glasses to see all the books too, and doesn’t have anyone to hold her head and help her.  I don’t talk to the stranger because I don’t know her name, and her glasses make her eyes look like Cookie Monster.  While we are waiting, Mommy takes me to look at some books for kids.  She takes out some books with rabbits on the cover for me, and while she is bending down, I secretly lean forward and kiss Leah’s leg.  It feels warm and soft next to my lips, and so I kiss her leg again.  And then I try her knee.

“Is this okay?” I ask Mommy, because she has stopped taking books off the shelves and is looking down at me.

“Yes,” she says, “as long as you don’t kiss her face or hands.”

I nod, and continue kissing Leah’s leg, all the way down to her toes.  Her skin is a little wet from my mouth, and so I use my sleeve to dry it up.  The lady with the glasses comes back with a heavy pile of books for my mom, and together we wait in line, each of us holding our things, Leah’s head tipping over, because mommy’s hands were full.

We get into the car and go back to school to pick up Donnie and Esther from their older nursery class.  I am excited to show them my books on small animals and rabbits, and I wonder if Mommy is going to read us stories.  When we get home, we all help carry the books inside, and I take a book over to the couch.  “Can you read it to me now?” I ask.

“No,” she says, “I am busy with Leah, and I need to cook supper.”  But instead she sits on a chair at the table and starts to read her own book, while nursing Leah.

“Can you read me that book?” I ask.  And she quickly closes it, pulls me onto her other leg, and opens the children’s book that is in my hands.  She reads, and if I close my eyes, her voice sounds like it is someone else’s from television.  I wonder what happened to her real voice.

One day after school, Abba is in the car with Mommy.  He is driving and she is sitting in the front seat next to him.  They buckle me in back next to Leah, who is facing backwards in her baby car seat.  “Is it shabbos?” I ask, because usually we only get to see Abba on Shabbos.  He works a lot and is never home, and I don’t know why he is here.

“Leah has a doctor appointment,” Mommy says, “and this time I wanted him to come with me.”

“Another one?” I ask.  “Is she sick again?”

“I hope not,” my mom says, “but we need to take her to one more doctor.”  I’m still not sure why Abba has to be there.  Maybe Mommy is scared that the doctor will give her a shot too.  Or that Leah will become too heavy for her arms and she’ll want someone else to take a turn holding her.  Either way, I am glad Abba is there.  The last doctor appointment made Mommy sad and I couldn’t look at her.  I can look at Abba instead.

Abba pulls open two big blue doors in the front of the building, and we walk inside, our shoes making loud noises on the floor, like we are in a parade, or like my shabbos shoes sometimes do on the sidewalk on the way home from shul.  I tap my feet a little extra loudly, and the noises echo in the empty waiting room.  There is only one woman with two little girls, sitting on the orange plastic chairs, and I try to guess which girl is sick.  I imagine it is the one who is lying her head on her mother’s shoulder, and on our way to our own row of orange plastic chairs, I hold my breath as we pass them by so I don’t catch her germs,

“Thank you for coming,” Mommy says to Abba, in a quiet voice.  “I couldn’t handle bad news alone again.”  He looks at her, but doesn’t smile, and she puts her head on his shoulder like I sometimes do when I am tired.

We only sit in the chairs for a short amount of time, and then a pretty lady with a blonde ponytail calls out “Lee-uh”, and my mom stands up and waves.  Her name is really said “Lay-uh” and I wonder how Mommy knew that the sick girl in the waiting room wasn’t named Leeuh, and that the blonde lady wasn’t looking for her.  Abba takes my hand and we all walk down a hallway that smells like old bandaids, and into a small office.  There is another plastic chair for me to sit in, but this time it is blue.  Blue is a boy-color and so I don’t really want to sit on it, because then people might think I’m a boy.  There is also a   circle-shaped chair with lots of wheels on it, and while my parents are putting Leah on the table and undressing her, I try out the rolly-chair.  I stand on one of the shiny legs, lean my body on the top, and, like a scooter, push myself across the room.  The chair spins while it glides, and I feel like I am on a ride.  I go back and forth a few times, until my mom notices me.  “Sarah,” she says, “that chair is for the doctor.”

“Okay, I’ll give him a turn when he comes in,” I answer.  I think of how lucky doctors are, that they get to have such fun chairs.

When the doctor arrives, I jump off the scooter-chair, and stand next to the blue seats, hoping he won’t mind that I used his chair even though I’m not a doctor.  “How old is she now?” He asks my parents about Leah.

“Six months,” my mother replies.  “And she can’t even hold up her head.  They think it’s Cerebral Palsy, from the Meningitis.”  At these words, she starts to cry, silently, and I look away.  There is a picture on the wall of a sad little girl with a red hat, holding up her doll to a doctor.  The doctor is checking the doll, and he does not have a rolling chair.  I stare hard at the picture, wondering what happened to the doll and how she got sick, especially if she is not real.  Maybe the girl with the red hat kissed her too much on her hands and cheeks.

I look back at Leah, and hope that she gets better this time.  The doctor is touching her, pulling at her arms, then dropping them back down.  He rolls her over on to her stomach and tries to make Leah look up at him, but she doesn’t.  She presses her face into the paper on the table, and she sticks out her tongue, licking the paper until it becomes see-through and it tears.  Mommy and Abba look up at each other.  Nobody looks at me.  I look at the picture again.  I wonder if this doll can hold up her head.

“No,” the doctor finally says.  “She’s not sick, she’s just lazy.”  Mommy starts to cry.  I can look at her because she is loud and laughing, but tears are coming out at the same time.  It is different now, and her face looks like it has been washed and all the dirt is gone.

Abba wraps his arms around Mommy, holding her tight, and I think she probably can’t breathe, he is squeezing her so hard.  They stand there like that for a while, laughing and smiling, and I want to be hugged too, to share in their happiness, so I press my head in the small space between their legs, trying to pull it open with my hands to make room for the rest of me.  A three-person hug.  And then they pick up Leah, who is not sick anymore, and all four of us are hugging.

That night I sleep in Leah’s room, even though when I sleep in my bed there instead of my bed in Donnie and Esther’s room, I have the same bad dream of a statue with only one arm, holding an apple, standing in the doorway.  Her neck is strong and tall, and the top of her head almost hits the door as she comes in.  I don’t know if she is going to eat this apple, or if she is giving it to me, to poison me, to make my other arm fall off, but I want to be with Leah, to protect her from the statue.  Leah, who in 25 years, would become muscular and strong, who would go on to get a PhD in chemical engineering from Princeton.  Leah, who couldn’t hold her head, who they thought had Cerebral Palsy.  Lazy Leah.

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That Which Blossoms in the Space Between Us

Jaap Vermeulen, Jacoplane in a Neonatal intens...

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“This place is creepy,” Yoni says, rolling over on his thin, foamy mattress.  His large black eyes squint at me in the darkness of our hospital room, his lashes thick and heavy beneath his prominent brows.

 

“Isn’t this the kids ward?” I ask, from a perch on my own identical bed, a few feet away.   There is a pale blue curtain that can be drawn between our beds, dividing up the already cramped space, but it hangs open, agape.  “Shouldn’t it be a little bit happier?”  The Mother/Baby unit was immaculate and bustling, full of life, but here, the halls are silent, dark, a road without any little footsteps.  Since pediatric surgical procedures are not scheduled for weekends, the unit is empty, and so the hospital was able to accommodate us, affording us with a complimentary room.

 

I had given birth two days earlier, but because the baby arrived six weeks pre-term and was forced to stay in the NICU despite her birthweight of 5 lbs, 14 oz, the hospital administration made an allowance for us to stay a few flights below in the empty children’s wing, so that I could be there to nurse the baby around the clock, and so my husband could support me.  I was weak, raw, emotional.

 

I hesitantly stepped into the bathroom in our room, and saw that it was even more daunting than our sleeping quarters.  The tiles were all chipped and the toilet was crying out for a good bleaching.  The shower stall had no door or drain, and the exposed pipe on the floor was like a ghoul’s mouth, open, ready to swallow indiscriminately.  I created a thick layer of toilet paper on the seat prior to sitting, and only when I felt the barrier between myself and years of collected germs to have been satisfactorily built, was I able to sit.

 

At 2am the phone in our little room rang.  It was the NICU calling to remind me to come upstairs for a feeding.  I was tired and lethargic, and as I traipsed through the halls of the hospital in search of the elevator, my uterus began to cramp and my head began to ache.   I make it through most of the lengthy feeding, the baby latching on behind my draped corner of the neonatal intensive care unit, and we sat together in the recliner, the plastic coated BOPPY pillow clinging to my bloated bare stomach as it supported her tiny body, my copy of Still Alice, left unopened by my feet.

 

“Stand behind my shoulder,” I hear a woman command her husband.  Like me, she is cloaked by a thin partition, her image rendered private, but not her conversation.  I hear the husband grunt, and awkwardly shuffle around the recliner, to reposition himself.  “If the baby falls asleep, your job is to wake him up so he can continue eating.  And also rub my back because this chair is too stiff.  Don’t forget to take a few pictures for the scrapbook.  Get ready with the diaper…” she drones on.  I am feeling pangs of sympathy for the husband, and want to slip him a script under the curtain, replete with expletives to have his wife shut up.  She is clingy, naggy, and as I think of my own husband sleeping alone downstairs, I am slightly jealous.  Jealous of the overly doting husband a few feet away, of the wife who so effortlessly can share her burden by spitting out commandments, of Yoni sleeping, when I think it should be me, instead.  I want him behind me, breathing his hot breath on my neck, observing my efforts, applauding my skills as a mother.

 

A while later, I emerge, breathing the less sterile air as I head back towards the children’s wing below, anxious to return to my bed and off of my tired feet, emboldened that my time alone with the baby solidified my skills as a caretaker.  “How did it go?” Yoni asks, his voice muffled with sleep.  In the dark, I can see the shape of his body beneath the scratchy blue blankets.  He doesn’t budge.

 

“Okay,” I say, “but I’m not feeling so well.  My head.  My neck.  There’s something wrong.”  He props himself up on his elbows.  “I feel like there’s a bubble of air in my neck.  Maybe from my epidural?”  I had heard of this before, complications with epidurals that lead to severe pain, and I imagine this to be me in my usual exaggerated way.  “A spinal headache.  I think that’s what it’s called.  I have it,” I say authoritatively, as if I myself went to medical school and have suddenly become an expert on epidurals.  I sigh and tenderly lie back on my lumpy pillow.

 

“You’ll be fine,” Yoni says, assuredly, trying to dismiss my concerns.  He knows me and my overactive imagination.  That I think I am on my deathbed every time I get a little joint ache, that I fear my brain might be leaking out with every nosebleed.  I curl up under my own matching blue blanket, the wool scratching at my sensitive skin through the top-sheet, and drift off to sleep, grasping onto his words as I become one with my dreams.

 

But a half-hour later I am up again, the bubble feeling as if it has grown, threatening to burst out of my vertebrae to relieve itself.  I am shivering in the sheets, shaking in fear and discomfort.  Never having felt this pain before, I become nervous, and I feel guilty waking Yoni but I need to tell someone about my symptoms, to come up with a plan of action, lest I die in my sleep.  “Help.  My neck,” I whisper.  And in an instant, he is awake, staring at me across the chasm of our beds, his face transparent like the divider curtain.

 

“Can you move it?” Yoni asks, his voice etched with concern, still hoarse from sleep.  I swivel my neck and it seems to work.

 

“Should you wheel me downstairs to the emergency room?”  I ask, wondering if I need some medical attention.  “I mean, I guess if I am having a stroke or something, I am in a pretty safe place.”

 

“You’re not having a stroke,” he says, his tone gruff and forceful, like if he says it with enough passion, it won’t be true.  He swings his legs over the side of the bed, and in an instant is by my side, his open palm offering me two Tylenol from his overnight bag and a cup of water.  “Here,” he says, “swallow these, and see if that helps.”  When Yoni climbs back into bed, attempting to make himself comfortable in our meager accommodations, he picks up his head, and tosses his pillow at me.  “Take this.  Elevate your head a little.”  And he becomes still on the stiff mattress.  I envy his confidence.

 

Together, we fall back asleep, our bodies facing each other, lips folded in half-smiles, and it’s as if there is no gap, no boundary between us.  He understood that to heal me, to alleviate my pain, I need to be discredited, disproven.  That if he shared my panic, my pessimism, my afflictions would have grown, spreading to my brain, my limbs, down to my toes.  If he coddled me and smothered me, lingering behind my shoulder, I would deflate.  But he gave me an apt moment’s concern, and released it, unable and unwilling to dwell on my fears alongside me.  He believed in me, and stepped away, so that I can figure things out on my own; in my ailments, my relationships, my motherhood.  By creating a distance, he gives me strength to become an individual, to realize my own greatness.  For this, I will be eternally grateful.

 

Yoni went up for the next feeding, excited for his own opportunity to bond with the baby, and he fed her my expressed milk.  I was excited for the opportunity to sleep for longer than two consecutive hours.  And when I awoke, I was swathed in relief and gratitude.  I stretched my limbs and discovered that my pain had dissipated, my spinal headache burst, my stroke, un-struck.

 

Even 18 months later, the memory lingers, hovering over the photos of us embracing our newborn.  In the hospital, when we were stripped to the basics, living meagerly and simply on two thin beds, with thinner sheets, and Yoni tossed his pillow at me.  He gave me his one luxury, knew instinctively that this was what I would need to survive, to recover, and he knew me more than I could know myself.  As the pillow took its flight and arced from his hands to mine, I nestled it beneath my head, holding and hugging, my luck, my pride, my gift.  My husband.

 

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Sarah vs. Mrs. Friedberg (Take III)

Beret

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A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.”  –James Joyce

I did not like my third grade teacher.  Things had been downhill for me after my second grade teacher died mid-year, and our replacement teacher just didn’t quite cut it, didn’t let us pick prizes from the cardboard elephant the way Mrs. Skwersky had.  But third grade, that was the worst.

 

In past years, I had always loved each teacher as a second mother, revered and respected them like a good daughter, but occasionally overstepped my boundaries as young children tend to do.  Mrs. Friedberg did not merit my love.  She was probably in her young twenties, thick waisted with legs that brushed each other beneath her long skirts, when she walked.  She mostly sat behind the desk, tucked in, so all the students could see were her baggy cardigans, close cropped sandy hair, and wool hat, pulled tightly over her head, revealing just the tips of her eyebrows.  She rarely smiled.

 

“Why do you wear those hats every day, even when it’s hot, or when they don’t match?” I once asked her, after raising my hand and patiently awaiting my turn to speak.  I also rehearsed the question in my most polite voice, and it came out sounding proper and sincere.

 

“It’s a beret,” she barked, correcting my limited knowledge of millinery, “And that’s an inappropriate question.”  My cheeks flamed at the rejection, and the innocently intended question went unanswered, dismissed.  Later, my mother told me that it was because sometimes married Orthodox women cover their hair as a sign of modesty.  My own mother was orthodox but did not wear hats.  Clearly Mrs. Friedberg was a fanatic.  And she also smelled like cole-slaw.  She would not be the recipient of my love.  I couldn’t even muster up some “like.”

 

“I hate school,” I told my mother, a few weeks in.  “I don’t like Mrs. Friedberg.  She’s so mean,” I said, not really supplying a concrete reason behind this sentiment.  But my mother just hugged me and later, called another mother to have a whispered conversation on Mrs. Friedberg’s teaching credentials.

 

“You need to fire Mrs. Friedberg,” I said to the principal, Rabbi Burke, the next day after lunch.  “She’s the worst teacher ever.”  My friend Hanna stood by my side, nodding and chiming in for emphasis.  Our shoulders touched as we felt a surge of pride in our mission.

 

“Okay,” he said, nodding his head emphatically.  “When?  Today or tomorrow?”

 

“Today!” Hanna and I screamed in unison.  We couldn’t believe our good luck.  Getting rid of our teacher was as easy as asking a simple question, and the principal had cooperated.

 

But Mrs. Friedberg was back the next day.  I sat stiffly in class, wondering why she had returned, if she was really fired.  Maybe she was working for free, and they had stopped paying her.  Maybe she really just wanted to take revenge on me, and continue to make me so uncomfortable in her class, as a payback for trying to make her lose her job.  I came up with a plan.

 

That day we had indoor recess because it was too rainy to go play outside in the school’s parking lot.  In the back of the room, there were art supplies that were available to us, and I huddled over a desk with a few friends, stapling, glueing and coloring.  On blank sheets of paper, we scrawled, “Fire Mrs. Friedberg!!!” and rolled up other sheets of paper to make tubes.  We stapled these together, the tubes acting as sticks, and made picket signs.  I was their leader.

 

Mrs. Friedberg was up at her desk, going over some homework questions with Yvette, the friendless, petite kid who spent her free time trying to impress her teachers instead of trying to make friends.  We began our march in the back of the room, four of us holding our signs high, and we walked down the aisle of desks out the classroom door to the freedom of the long hallway, where we began to chant, “Fire Mrs. Friedberg!” in case people couldn’t read our signs.

 

We marched all the way down the hall until the water fountain, gaining momentum and followers, then circled back, chanting and screaming, and waving our signs in the faces of passersby.   And then Mrs. Friedberg’s silhouette appeared in the open doorway, first the beret, then the green cardigan, and the black, billowy skirt.  Her hand rested on the doorjamb, somberly stroking the layers of chipped white paint, and for a moment, for a hairsbreadth of a second, the beret dipped down in defeat.  “Back inside!” she bellowed, deflating our parade, our aggressive rallying.  She grabbed each sign from our hands, and threw them in the tall grey garbage can in the front of the room.  Yvette disapprovingly clucked her tongue, and smirked at us from her perch alongside Mrs. Friedberg’s desk, elated that we were in trouble, bumped lower on the hierarchy of “teacher’s favorites,” so that she was inadvertently bumped up.  We stomped back to our seats, exchanging signs of victory with our hands, and recess was over.

 

She was wearing a taupe-colored beret the next day, and it looked like it had hair growing out of it, little unshorn and neglected pieces that had sprouted up without anyone noticing.  I know, because I got up real close.  I stood behind it in the middle of class one day, desperate to get her to leave, to find a new job, or just to go home to sit endlessly on her couch instead of behind her desk.  “Who can tell me the answer to the first homework question,” Mrs. Friedberg asked, sitting lazily on her chair, peering down through her hooded eyelids.

 

Yvette nearly flew out of her seat in excitement, and she bounced up and down, shrieking, “Me!  Me!  Me!”  Mrs. Friedberg looked out into the sea of blank faces, hoping for another volunteer.  I was a shadow behind her shoulder, a ghost at the blackboard, a pair of purple safety scissors from the art supply cabinet pressed tightly in my palm.  There was adrenaline surging in my ears, and I moved robotically, as if in a trance, acting not of my own will but in the momentous waves of our battle.

 

“Mrs. Friedberg,” I said, and she didn’t turn.  My classmates sat frozen, anticipating my next move, waiting to see what genius act I would perform next, to further depose our despised teacher.  “I am going to take off your beret and cut off all of your hair,” I said, waving the scissors wildly in the air.  The beret had a one-inch long piece of material that stuck out at the top, like a little soldier, erect and proud.  It beckoned me to grab it, to pull it off and unveil her, shame her, show the class who she really was.  She would feel naked and exposed, and would never be able to set foot in our third grade classroom ever again.  Without budging from her chair, she turned her head to look at me, and I saw embarrassment swirling in the browns of her dulled gaze, her drunken stare.  Maybe it was a reflection of myself.

 

“Sit down NOW!” she said, her upper lip curling into a sneer, before returning to face the rest of the class.  “Yvette, why don’t you tell us the answer?”  And just like that, the class resumed.  A few kids laughed as I tiptoed back to my seat, returning the scissors to the supply closet before sinking pathetically into my plastic chair.  I felt foolish, shamed.

 

That Saturday night, my father rented a video for us from Blockbuster.  As we sat entranced by “Garbage Pail Kids,” the phone rang, and my mother answered it upstairs.  I suspected it was bad news when I heard my parents start to whisper.  I knew it was bad news when they came down to get me.  “Sarah, we need to talk to you.”  I hastily stood up, relinquishing my position on our floral-patterned couch, and followed them upstairs.  My other siblings barely even glanced my way as they continued to watch the movie in my absence.

 

“What is it?” I asked, blinking rapidly, trying to maintain a face of innocence.

 

“Mrs. Friedberg just called,” my mother said.  My heart sunk, and already I could feel the tears springing into my eyes.  “She said you stood up in class and threatened to take off her hat and cut off her hair.”

 

“Huh?”  I said, pretending to be clueless.  “She’s lying!”  I said, a little too loudly.

 

“Why would she lie?  Why would she make that up about you?” my father pressed on.

 

“Because she hates me!  She always hated me!  She’s the worst teacher ever!”   By now, the tears were freely falling down my face.  I was in trouble because she was a bad teacher.  Just my luck.

 

“You need to apologize to her in school on Monday,” my mother said, ignoring the fact that I had just claimed not to do anything wrong.  “You need to start being more respectful, and I’d like you to write her a serious apology letter.”  I looked down, and slowly nodded my head.  I had no resolve left, no more plans or schemes to get rid of her.  I was bent, broken.  I would try to be good.  But first, I wanted to finish watching “Garbage Pail Kids.”

 

Mrs. Friedberg finished the year in our class.  She taught, and I sat.  We glared at each other.  But she never called home again.  Although we continued to whisper about her behind her back, we never took action again.  On the first day of fourth grade, I anxiously returned to school, checking the doorway of our old third-grade classroom.  Where there used to be a sign that read, “Mrs. Friedberg,” there was instead a new name, “Mrs. Garfunkel.”   She was finally gone, vanished, and I never heard from her again.  I sighed.

 

Years later, I became a teacher, and when I would wear a beret on my own head, I’d feel the shadow of mischief at my shoulder, threatening to reveal itself, to reveal me, but it never did.

 

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Squirrelphobia and Carphilia

Squirrel

Image via Wikipedia

At 18 months old, my son became sickeningly obsessed with cars.  One of the early signs of Jakey’s fixation was his frequent tantruming upon buckling him into his carseat.  He felt sorely misplaced in the back row, imprisoned by his five-point safety harness, and at such a young age, felt more comfortable in the driver’s seat.  Most car trips ended with him poised in front of the steering wheel of the parked car, veering down an imaginary road and banging on the horn, as I unpacked the groceries.  When this play-time would come to an end, another tantrum would always ensue.

The role-playing and imaginary car trips continued on into his twos, when he could no longer be tricked with a fake key for the ignition.  Even my daughter, then four, was vying for her own turn behind the wheel, pushing buttons on the stereo, rummaging for emergency bags of chips stowed in the glove compartment, and jamming DVDs into the player as she patiently awaited being the driver.  I was usually sitting in the back, folded into a cheerio-laden booster seat, pretending to be the unruly child as my “parents” took me on a long road trip.  Other times I remembered to bring a book.

And then, the next year, there was the day when the happy playing became a little less happy.  It was chilly outside, early November, and with my older daughter, Emmanuelle, off at school already, we waited for Jakey’s carpool to come pick him up for the trek around the corner to his playgroup.   He asked to drive in my car.  Knowing that the arrival of the other mother would signify a definitive ending to his activity, and it wouldn’t labor on endlessly for an hour as he was wont to do, I acquiesced.  Jakey closed and locked his driver-side door, as I climbed inside the front passenger seat, pulled the baby onto my lap, and left my door open to allow a slight breeze.  “Vrooom!” Jakey cried, his long, unkempt curls hung across his face as he angled himself over the steering wheel, manipulating over a particularly challenging curve.  “Can I do the horn?” he asked, his fingers inching toward the shiny center of the steering wheel.  “Just once?”

“Just once,” I echoed, figuring everyone was honking for carpools anyway, and an extra beep would go unnoticed.  He happily tooted the horn and went on in his play.  Mica, at four months, was beginning to get restless, and knowing that I needed to get her in for a nap, I tried checking the time, hoping his ride would arrive imminently.  As I sat, one hand wrapped around the baby, the other in front of me, tugging at my thin jacket sleeve to reveal my hidden watch, I saw, peripherally, sudden movement on the retaining wall that flanked the side of the driveway, inches away from where the car was parked.  It was two squirrels, running full speed, playing a friendly game of squirrel-tag, and as I turned, I instinctively felt that something was wrong, had a feeling of dread, like the time a huge black dog jumped into our backyard when I was eight, and chased me all the way home.

One squirrel veered from its course, took a flying leap off the wall and into the car, its gray fur thick and pointed, tail alight and full, and landed on my lap, face to face with my bundled newborn.  I screamed, a full-lunged blow, because I really hate squirrels, because what the hell was it doing in my car, and because I was plain scared shitless.  Squirrels are territorial, and so was I.  Obviously, it didn’t like me too much either, because it jumped from my legs, its claws scratching the exposed skin on my bare upper-knees, and ran onto the dashboard, toward the steering wheel and my fixated son.  I knew there was no way I could pluck Jakey from his seat and over the gear shift while holding the baby, and I had nowhere to put her down.  I leapt from the car, baby in tow, and stood frozen by the open door.  Jakey was trapped alone with the squirrel.  I couldn’t get him out.  At least I saved one kid, I consoled myself, but before I had time to devise a plan to rescue him, the squirrel did a 180 degree turn, bolted back across the dashboard and out my open passenger-side door.  It ran up the wall, and probably up a tree, where he sat down on a branch 50 feet above the ground, shuddering in fright, and cried to his squirrel mother about his fearful encounter with humans.

I ran around to the driver’s side door, yanked it open, pulled a dazed Jakey out, and sat on the floor hugging my two children.  I blinked back my tears, shaking, and whispering, “We’re okay, we’re okay,” into their ears, and held them close to my chest, eternally grateful that we had all emerged relatively unscathed and uncontaminated, save for the bloody claw mark on my thigh.  In the distance, I saw three squirrels climbing a tree, happily frolicking in the flimsy upper branches, and worried that my own severe reaction to the situation would forever mar my son’s view of squirrels.  He would cross the street at every sighting.  He would always fear an attack.

“What a silly squirrel!” I quipped, trying to force a light and airy tone.  “He wanted a turn to drive the car.  Squirrels can’t drive cars.”  I repeated this at various points throughout the week, hoping to impart a feeling of casualness, to erase my innate panic.  I think it might have worked, because over the next few months, at random intervals, he would remind me of the time the squirrel wanted to drive, and would always end with a forced, nervous chuckle.

Almost a year after the encounter, Jakey, Mica and I are heading to the bus stop to wait for Emmanuelle to come home from school.  I usually let him ride in an electronic car my husband insisted on purchasing, and as he careens up the sidewalk, shimmying between a fire hydrant and a car that juts out of the driveway, a squirrel pauses on the road, unsure as whether to throw itself in front of Jakey’s noisy “Stinger” or into the more lethal onset of real traffic.  Jakey brakes.  “Mommy, the squirrel,” he says, his head turning to me, his dark eyes shadowed by his large red helmet.

“Yes,” I say, “I see it there next to you,” and we both pause, afraid to show our fear, afraid to vocalize that perhaps this squirrel, too, will want a chance to drive.  The Stinger has no windows or doors, and is a wide open expanse for any wildlife wanting to hitchhike.  It is a moment, a hesitation, in which I realize his latent fear has blossomed.  I planted in him a seed of panic, and to my dismay, it has grown.

“Make it go away,” he says, an easy enough request, because all I really need to do is pretend to lunge at it and I know it will bolt.  But what if it lunges at me first? The animal unpredictability.  A sudden car coming up the street causes the squirrel to pivot back onto the sidewalk, its beady black eyes pointed our way, but it sees the neon orange of the plastic Stinger, dissimilar to the muted tones of familiar tree trunks, and it stops to evaluate us.

“Just keep driving,” I urge, pushing my fears inward, hoping he can’t read my nervous hesitation, the skipping beats of my heart.  “Go!” I command Jakey, partly because I want to scare the squirrel, but also since I don’t want to miss the bus.  I am not giving into the fear, but hide behind it, thrusting my son in front of me, the squirrel expert, the one who was alone in the car with the giant rodent in the past, and didn’t even cry.  He might be scared, but has had less years to develop this fear.  It is newer, easier to erase than mine.  Jakey leads the way, floors it, and the squirrel ducks under a parked car and jumps across the street, frightened by the grinding of the plastic wheels on the pebbled concrete.  I exhale, breathing freely, and follow in the shadows of my son, in the dust of the Stinger, licking the trail of his confidence.

 

 

 

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Ski Lodged

Lone Skiier in Flaine

Image by Dave Alter via Flickr

It was a cold, icy morning in New Hampshire, and as I stood at the base of the frosted mountain, strapped into my long, boney skis, peering up to where the mountain’s peak meets the sky, I wondered, Can I really do this?

I was nine years old, and although my best friend went on an airplane to Florida for winter break, my parents always took us to New Hampshire.  We were six siblings, and I imagine the airfare alone would have been enough to wipe out the entirety of the trip fund.  And so, we always drove to our vacation destination, rented a nice, comfortable home, and did pleasant day trips.  On this particular day, my mother stayed behind with my three youngest siblings and my father ventured out with the rest of us kids, a friend, and his kids, to experiment with the ski slope at Bretton Woods.

“You guys don’t need lessons!” he quipped, as if he were a pro, ready to teach us every last skill in the emboldening sport.  “Just cross your skis, and take it slow!”  This was it.  The one lesson we’d need to survive the steep slope.  Not to pick up too much speed, and we’d be okay.  Not to lose control.

As my father pushed us all over to the lift area, three teetering children, in mismatched snowpants and jackets, he lined us up in order to embark on the T-bar. I watched as each upside-down T swooped past me, grabbing an expectant passenger in its wide berth, towing him or her uphill.  It looked effortless.  The attendant reached up and pulled the spring-loaded bar down to my height, abruptly thrusting it behind me, and I sat.  I kept on sitting until I landed firmly on the snow, and the T bounced up over my head, buoyant and happy to be free of my weight.

My next attempt was a little more successful.  “You can’t really sit,” my father explained.  “Just lean on it a little.  Let it drag you.”  And he straddled a defunct T that lay next to the lift, to demonstrate the various towing positions.   I made it six feet up before falling again, my ski burrowing itself in the ground.  The attendant pulled me out.

Finally, precariously, I was being hauled up the mountain, and I held my breath.  I knew if I even turned my neck the wrong way, I would fall.  If I got too excited, I would fall.  But I had this nagging sensation that I just had to turn around to check how far I’d come.  I needed to celebrate my uphill battle, to scream, I’m doing this! And so I turned, for a split second, for a hairsbreadth moment, for an achingly impossible glance at the glassy vista and fleecy heads below, when I fell, disembarking from the lift, my ski wedging itself in a large bank of snow in the path of oncoming T-bar riders.

There were a few vacant T’s, and then my father.

“Don’t worry Sarah,” he cried, as the wind carried his voice in its arms.  “Stay right where you are.  I’ll come get you and you can ride with me.”  I nodded, though I was so bundled up, I doubt he noticed my movement.  My savior, huddled in his thick black coat and brown gloves, just a few moments away from reaching out to me, from pulling me out of my state of entrapment.  I sat in the snow and waited.

“Wait for me, I’m coming!”  As I turned my head in the direction of his voice, I discovered that in his fervor, my father had fallen.  En route to rescue me, to pull me from the embankment, he had lost concentration in his footing and a ski had twisted from its straight path uphill, veered a little left, and crossed the other ski, knocking him off the T.  I sat there, a few feet uphill from him, blinking back tears.

“Abba, are you okay?” I asked, worried that we wouldn’t make it down.  A knob of fear crested in my throat as I took large gulps of wind.  He fell because of me.  It was my fault.  Was he hurt? Who would I rely on, if I didn’t have him?

“I think I’ll be all right!  Sarah, you need to try to slide off the path of the lift before more skiers come.  Try to move over this way,” he said, motioning to a row of trees that separated the lift line from the ski slope.  “Take off your skis if you have to.  We can crawl through the trees and put our skis on the other side, and then just ski down from there.”  It sounded like an adventure.  I felt my fear melting away, and in its stead, a glinting, wholesome spark.

Together we crawled off the lift-path until we stood on the open face of the snowy slope.  We snapped on our skis and he followed my lead down the mountain, our knees bent, hunched over, braced against the wind.  And every few feet, I was compelled to pause and look back at him, to make sure he was still in my cautiously slow trail, swift and upright.  When I fell, he would swoop over, and pull me up by my armpits, setting me back on the path downhill.  He trailed me until we reached the base of the mountain, our skis in the eternal “pizza pie” shape, and we exhaled the stress of our excursion as we lumbered over to the T-bar again.

For years, whenever I would get emotional over something, but couldn’t muster up enough sadness to spill forth with tears, I could relive those moments together, etched with fatherly concern in its most primitive form; the two of us in the middle of the slope, passing through the trees like tiptoeing ghosts, slender and elusive, and I could easily cry.  My father, carrying our equipment on his back, then helping me to regain my footing, and sending me off down the hill.  This memory always sets me off.

And perhaps that’s how I’ll always know my father.  As he is.  As a father should be.   An expert, guru, virtuoso.  A subtle leader.   A tell-tale safety net.  He would follow cautiously behind as I embarked on my journeys, and when he’d witness a stumble, he would covertly dive in for the rescue, and we’d continue hand-in-hand, formulating a new strategy for success, before he could send me off again, slowly, cautiously, hesitantly.  And always, at the bottom of the slope, I could turn around and squint against the glare of the sun, to see his awkward shape lumbering down the hill, his face alight with a smile.

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Berries

White Mulberry fruits and leaves.

Image via Wikipedia

“Mommy, look!  I found an acorn,” Jakey says, running over to me, and slowly opening his tiny fingers to show me his discovery.

“Actually, that’s a berry!” I say, bemused by the fact that, at three, he would mistake this soft, pale fruit for a hard nut.  “Where did you find that?”  We walk over to the shady part of our backyard, and he shows me that the lawn is covered in a light sprinkling of whitish-green raspberry-like fruits.  We look up, our eyes catching in the fragmented sunlight, and see that above us hangs a tree with branches bearing these berries.  I wonder why in the three years of living in this house, I have never noticed them, but have only stumbled upon the baby-pears that frequently fall on our lawn from a neighbor’s yard.

“Could we eat them?” Emmanuelle asks, anxious to sample some home-grown produce, as we have spent much time in the yard together planting vegetation that has failed to grow.  Plants that need maintenance, regular watering, or one of those cages to grow in, are not really my thing, and so the wild-berry tree appeals to me immensely.

I bend down to examine them, as the branches are too high to reach.  The berries are strikingly similar to the ones that used to grow on trees that flanked the driveway of the house in which I grew up.  “Elderberries,” my mom once told us.  “They’re delicious.”  As kids, we used to pull on the branches and pick the fruit, placing our harvest in several little sandwich bags, secured by twist-ties, in the fridge, until we were ready to have a sale.  Then, my siblings and I would drag out our heavy wooden crafts table, design a sign that read, “Berries for sale, 25 cents,” and lay out our produce.  At spring’s end, my father would always have to prune the branches, as our frequent pulling made them heavy and droopy, almost willow-like, and it was difficult to park the car.

While the elderberries of my youth were of a deep purple color, the berries that Jakey discovered resembled those that were unripe, still clinging to the trees, sour and tart.  And yet, here, they had fallen anyway, scattered haphazardly in the grass, soft and squishy, but pale and colorless.  “You can each take two,” I say, “But let’s bring them inside to wash them.  If they’re good, tomorrow we can gather more,” because their cheeks were a bright pink from heat, and I was craving some air conditioning.

We wash the berries, and the kids happily pop the fruits into their mouths, excited to have made this discovery in our yard.  “It tastes like bananas!” Jakey says, while Emmanuelle’s face registers some minor displeasure.  I put the baby down for a nap, and sit on the cool tile floor with the kids, acting as a policewoman, as they build together, fighting over who has more Magna-Tiles.

Some hours later, after the kids have been fed and are fast asleep, I find myself recounting the details of the afternoon to my mother on the phone, while my husband entertains several friends with pizza and a boxing match on the big-screen in the basement.  But it is difficult for me to have much continuity in the conversation, as the dialogue is frequently punctuated by Jakey’s sleep-filled cries.  I creep into his room and see that he is thrashing and rolling in his sleep, perching precariously close to the edge of his bed, perhaps another of his frequent night terrors.  Afraid that he might fall off, I tenderly lift him up and reposition him back on his pillow, within the safe confines of his Elmo-guardrail.  I notice his breathing seems ragged, apnea-like, and assume his nose must be stuffed or his large, oversized tonsils are acting up again, disrupting his even breathing and his ability to enter into deep REM.

His deep-set eyes blink open momentarily.  “I need some water.  In my ABC’s cup,” he says, referring to a sports-bottle that has his name on it.  The kids frequently ask for drinks in the middle of the night, perhaps as a tactic to lure me into their rooms, or maybe because they sleep with their mouths open, snoring widely.  When I bring it, Jakey insists that I go get the carrying-strap that attaches to its sides, and only after it is in place, can he gulp down the water, drinking as if he is parched.  I tiptoe out of the room, trying to resume the conversation with my mother, but am interrupted once again.   This time, he requests a visit from my husband, and that his night-light should be turned off, as he is afraid of the vague shadows it casts on his ceiling.  Utter and complete darkness is less of a threat.

“Okay,” I say, sighing resignedly, and head back to the kitchen to speak to my mother in a voice that is only slightly above a whisper.

“So what did you do today with the kids?  It was so nice out…” she begins.  And I know she will be happy to hear that I took them outside, as my whole life has been filled with her emphasizing the importance of being outdoors.  I am secretly relieved that my husband is not in the room at the moment, as usually during these conversations, he lingers nearby, mocking me with his gestures and facial motions, holding up an imaginary checklist of the play-by-play facts I forgot to include, as I enthusiastically recount the particulars in vivid detail, to my mom.

“The funniest thing,” I say, taking advantage of my verbal freedom.  “The kids discovered these berries in the yard, kind of like the ones we used to have in the driveway, and I let them eat a few.  Brought back such memories.”

“But Sarah, you can’t just let them eat wild berries,” she interjects.  “How do you know they’re not poisonous?”  And then it hits me.  I don’t.  “You can’t just assume that they’re okay because they look familiar.”  As the severity of my mistake descends, I feel sick, as if I had consumed a handful of toxic fruits, even though I had not eaten any of the berries myself.  My stomach was heavy, leaden, and my head seemed adrift.  I think she regrets voicing her concern, as she realizes my ensuing state of panic.

Immediately, I run up the to computer and Google, “How to tell if berries are poisonous,” but all I really learn from that is how to eat plants if I am stranded in the wilderness for several days.  I change my search terms, and begin typing in names of berries, hoping to find an image that matched the ones in our yard.

Jakey is crying again in his room, and my instinct tells me that certainly it is the poison from the berries that is seeping into his nervous system.  Emmanuelle is quiet in her bed, but it could have affected her in a silent-killer type of way.  Is she even breathing? I wonder, and decide that I will definitely not be informing my husband of my giant error, my oversight, my accidental poisoning of two of our three children.  I imagine his shock when in the morning, he discovers we are no longer a family of five, but are a more compact three.

White Mulberry. The picture on my computer screen seems to be a good replica for the berries I allowed the kids to eat.  These seem safe.  A tiny breath escapes my lips and for a moment, my rapidly beating heart takes a break from its marathon.  But I can’t seem to eradicate the tiny margin of error that still remains.  Maybe they’re not white mulberries. My picture will be plastered all over the papers, with the caption, “Worst Mother Ever.”  They will probably take me away in cuffs, and the baby will be raised by my husband, who will feed her pizza for three meals a day, because husbands never remember vegetables.

I run downstairs, passed my crying son, passed the stillness that lay behind Emmanuelle’s closed door, into the dark basement, positioning myself to the side of the big screen so that the rowdy group of young men does not notice the frantically flailing woman on the staircase, as I try desperately to catch Yoni’s eye.  He is popping open bottles of beer, and looks up for a moment, offering me one.  I shake my head, refusing his kind offer, as my insides are tight, tense, with no room for any expansive material, and motion for him to join me at the top of the staircase.

“Umm, I might have poisoned the kids,” I confess, breaking my own vow of silence, never my strong point anyway.  He stares blankly at me, unsure as to whether or not I am being serious.  “I let them eat some berries from the yard, and my mom said they might be harmful.”   He rolls his eyes, already used to the tales of negative anticipation I so anxiously weave.  I am a creative storyteller.  The deadly diseases, learning disabilities that I always assume the kids have, that I always attempt to convince him of, substantiating them with facts I have gleaned from the internet or an old medical textbook, always prove unfounded.  He knows this about me.

“I’ll kill you,” he says, resolutely, definitively.  He brusquely dismisses my fears with his succinctness, and I can almost detect a hint of a smile underneath his pursed lips.  Further dialogue would only produce more worry, but he knows how to deal with me, with my nerves.  Yoni sprints upstairs to give Jakey another goodnight kiss before returning to the boxing match and his guests.  I want to pull on his shirt, to make him stay with me and comfort me, and give me reasons as to why they will survive the night.  I want him to be a berry-expert, to know the scientific name of the fruit in our yard, and to tell me that not only is it safe for human consumption, but it is rich in anti-oxidants.  I want him whisper that I am a good mother, even though I might have messed up.

I make it through the night, hanging onto the tail of my husband’s confidence, despite the fact that I am wrought with anxiety.  Usually when I go to sleep with fear in my throat, I sleep in winks, short lurches of shallow rests, but tonight, I manage to pass the seven hours in one blink.  In the morning, the kids are still silent.  My heart skips a beat as my ears strain to listen for noises from their rooms below.  Just the whirring of the air-conditioning, a hum that blasts its steady, calming breath.  Suddenly, the pitter-patter of bare feet on hardwood floors causes me to sit upright in bed.  “They’re alive!” I say, to the figure of my sleeping husband, wrapped cocoon-like under the blanket next to me.  He seems unmoved by this kernel of good news.  I smile, despite our unshared enthusiasm.

“Can I come upstairs?” I hear Jakey call up to me from below, cautious about entering our room without permission.

“Yes!” I gush, never so thrilled to have an early morning visitor as I was just then.  Emmanuelle appears at the door, trailing behind him, and I hug them fiercely, pulling their tiny bodies up over the high bed frame.  Emmanuelle curls up in the space next to my husband, radiant and warm from his sleep, nestled and secure, and I wrap my arms and legs around Jakey, a full body embrace.  “I love you!” I whisper, into his tousled, ashen hair.  I hold him close, relieved that tragedy has escaped us, that the children are mine to hold, at least until the next mistake.

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