A day (of almost grace) in a life

7:00 am. I wake to the sound of something beating on the wall. I assume it’s Jesse kicking the wall viciously, which I’m used to, but I look over and she’s still sound asleep. Ah. It’s the construction crew getting to work. A few minutes later everyone wakes up and Jesse starts hollering about the noise. I dress and head out the door. 10 feet away, Erick-the-Carpenter is getting things going with his crew. I shuffle in with my morning breath, bed head, and crusty eyes to chat with him about a cubbie that’s going in the master bedroom they’re working on. I try not to scratch in ignominious spots as my body slowly wakes up. I’m vaguely humiliated but the conversation has to happen. Erick manages not to snicker openly at my appearance, for which I’m deeply grateful.

I’ve made a commitment to myself to engage in maximum helicopter parenting for a while. Jesse needs help identifying and foreseeing her flash points, and then managing her reactions. I’m on it today.

8:35 am. We head out the door for summer camp at the Audubon nature center. It’s been a pretty smooth morning. We’re all permanently on edge because of Jesse’s behaviors, but she’s only had one break-on-the-stairs so far, and she and Nick have played well together in our efficiency-apartment basement. I’m all over them, helping them iron out problems with sharing and personal space.

The car ride goes surprisingly well. Jesse doesn’t do anything too awful and Nick isn’t too annoying.

Yesterday before we got in the car, I asked Jesse to first take deep breaths and think about how she would go about not attacking Nick in the car. I saw her standing next to the car door, breathing and thinking peacefully. As I walked over I noticed Nick. He was already in the car. He was pressing his face up against the closed car window beside Jesse and and slapping his palms on the glass, yelling “TAKE DEEP BREATH-ESS! TAKE DEEP BREATH-ESS!”

Today goes better than that.

9:30: I’ve dropped the kids off. They seem to be enjoying my extreme hands-on parenting. They can’t get enough of it. Jesse went into her camp classroom and seemed happy to be there. In fact, she seemed glad to see me go, thus displaying the independence one associates with beautifully parented, self-confident children. Nick refused to let me enter his classroom. He kissed me in the hallway and said firmly, “mommy, you stop right there. Don’t come in!”

During the next two hours, I buy and deliver some donuts for the work crew at the house; hit Home Depot to pick up door handles and start spying out tile tools and toilets; stop by Trader Joes for some basic eats; run by the house to drop cold groceries off and get the dog outside to pee; and do some quick searches about tile on the computer. La la la.

11:45 am: I pick Nick up from his camp class and we head downstairs to find Jesse. She’s peaceful enough that we’re able to stay for half an hour after camp in one of the outdoor preschool classrooms (a play area, really). Other kids are there, including a little five-year-old named Charlie who’s wearing the same taekwondo “board break-a-thon” t-shirt as me. “Heeey!” he exclaims in delight, because we all train at the same academy. We bow to each other. “Pilsung!” He shows us his kicks. Jesse is a perfect senior taekwondo student: she praises him without exaggerating and encourages him with a big smile.

The kids get along really well. Superficially, Jesse and Nick are ideal children. They play cooperatively and without bossing; they watch out for the littlest ones and make sure they’re included; if a big kid takes something from a little kid, they go retrieve it and give it back; when someone’s hurt, they’re attentive and caring. But I have to watch Jesse like a hawk. She veers towards hostile with Nick a few times. I call her over each time I see her swerve and remind her to back off, make distance from Nick, and calm herself. Remarkably, she does it.

12:30 pm: carpenters and plumbers are busy at the house today, so I don’t want to take the kids home just yet. We head over to Qdoba and Noodles & Company. Jesse gets her new favorite lunch, a not-much-cheese chicken quesadilla, and we carry it next door to Noodles. After we order Nick’s lunch, we settle at a table outside. When the food comes, the kids are sweet and well-mannered, and Jesse remembers to say “thank you!” A few minutes later the server comes back with two giant chocolate chip cookies for the kids. “You are such well-mannered children and so sweet! So I thought you deserved a treat and wanted to give you these!”

Jesse’s face lights up — no, her whole body lights up with a brief, radiant moment of pride. She and Nick stare at the cookies greedily.

“Thank you so much!” I tell server lady. “You are so kind!”

And then I have to do the nasty deed. “But we can’t have the cookies because Jesse has a severe egg allergy.”

The kids’ faces collapse. I want to cry. I guess I could just say thank you and let server lady walk away, but it seems wrong to accept her generosity superficially and then throw out the cookies.

Server lady keeps a smile on her face, but the collective disappointment is palpable. Server lady doesn’t give up. “Oh I’m sorry. I wish there were some other treat we had that I could give you!”

I speak up, against my nature. I don’t like handouts and I don’t like asking for free things and it’s hard, but I do it. “Well… They can have your rice krispy treats, and I’m sure they would love it if they don’t have to share this one rice krispy treat that I bought.”

Server lady is on it. She’s back a moment later with a second rice krispy treat the size of a burrito. Jesse fondles it and declares that it is covered in love. It is the most delicious rice krispy treat ever. Jesse can’t wipe the smile off her face for a good five minutes.

1:30: We stop by home ever so briefly to pick up the kids’ iPads so they have something to do in the doctor’s office. Anything to  keep them from playing with the toys in the waiting area. I will never understand toys in a pediatric waiting area. Germs. Why.

1:45: Jesse has two plantar warts that won’t go away, one on the ball of her foot and the other on the bottom of her big toe. Pediatrician Dr. Linsmeier gives those warts a hard burn with liquid nitrogen. Jesse has an extreme tolerance for pain and doesn’t shed a tear. The only evidence of pain is a single twitch and an almost inaudible mutter. “That hurts.”

Dr. Linsmeier shows the kids what’s inside the bottle she was shooting ice from. It looks like water. She does her magic trick and flings the contents across the floor! Most of the nitrogen disappears in an instant and a ghostly fog forms across the exam room floor. A few drops of nitrogen stay liquid and bounce around on the floor. Dr. Linsmeier is the most awesome doctor ever.

2:30: We head home. The construction crew is winding down and the house is a mess. Everyone is a bit tired, and I have to focus on cleaning up. Jesse struggles to keep it together. She spends some quality time outside by herself, and then she requests Alvin and the Chipmunks. Because she knows quality Hollywood when she sees it.

4:00: Daddy’s home!! Anthony has come home early because it’s school registration day. But first he and I discuss the eating bar that’s going in our future kitchen. There’s turmoil over its shape and depth, because the wall its abutting isn’t going to be as wide as originally planned and yadda yadda. I want Anthony to decide, since the bar is his thing, but he’s being weirdly fussy about it. This annoys me no end, and I think he’s feeling cornered somehow. I just want him to make all the decisions, and I want them to be good ones. Is that too much to ask?

4:30: Although Alvin is COMPELLING viewing, we pause the movie and drive over to the middle school where registration is going on. I have remembered that taking school photos at registration is a flashpoint for Jesse. She hates being directed to sit in awkward positions and being told to smile over and over. It makes her all crazy inside. Last year I ignored everything to do with school photos.

This year, I plan ahead. We talk about the hurdle. We see the hurdle, we decide to jump it, and we come up with ideas for how best to jump. No cows are involved.

Nick tries to help Jesse by demonstrating how to smile for the camera. It looks something like this.

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Jesse practices.

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Does she seem stressed out in this photo?

When it’s time to take the photo at registration, Jesse shows masterful emotional control. She grins, she smiles, she laughs, she goes along with the directions to tilt this way and that and turn this way and that. It goes super smoothly. I could not be more proud of her. Baby steps.

Nick also handles his photos well. He puts on his rictus grin and wiggles. Anthony tries to make him smile more naturally by being silly behind the photographer, and Nick responds in kind. He poses with his mouth wide open. He juts his hip and throws his hands up in mock surprise. The photographers are patient. “Let’s try again. Ok. Try again. Yup. Let’s try that again.” Nick is upbeat the whole time. Unlike Jesse, he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the photos or the photo shoot. He truly, completely does not care. He doesn’t care that anyone else cares. He doesn’t care how the photo turns out. He’s just going along because he’s having fun watching all the adults try to make him do something he’s not doing. He’s a school photo sociopath.

5:30: We’re back home and it’s time for dinner. I have some aging thick-cut bacon in the fridge, along with chicken I took out of the freezer two days ago. It must be cooked. I fire up the grill and get the bacon on there on a cast iron pan. Quick marinade for the chicken, camping style: ketchup, soy sauce, vinegar, pepper, lemon juice, paprika. Done. I chop farmshare beets, potatoes and carrots to roast. I’ve also got a big cabbage from last week’s farmshare box, and I have to do something with it. So I make a cole slaw, with some onion, garlic, and grated carrot thrown in. The farmshare box also contained something that looks like dill gone to seed. I pull the seeds off and grind them up with a mortar and pestle. I don’t think it’s dill after tasting it, but I throw it in the slaw anyway.

While all this fantastic cooking is happening, random shit is going on around me. I lose track of interruptions. But overall, Jesse is doing really well. I’m still helicoptering and helping Nick and her manage things. It’s been Jesse’s best day in probably a full month, even though Nick is being more annoying than usual, and I’d like to bring it in strong. But something happens; I don’t remember what. Something Anthony says irritates me beyond reason. I step outside and spend 15 minutes or more wandering around the yard and pulling a weed here and there. Also collecting Japanese beetles in a little bucket of soapy water. When I come back in the house, no one seems to have noticed my absence. Excellent.

8:00 p.m. Watermelon. Everyone wants watermelon.

8:10 p.m. Jesse comes up behind me. I think she’s going to hug me. Instead, she screams as loud as she can directly into my ear. It’s excruciating and vicious. I refuse to accept her apology.

Everything unravels for the next half hour as Jesse refuses to follow directions, refuses to stay away from us, and does a lot of mean things — more screaming in ears, hitting and kicking, and a full-on tantrum that results in me putting her on the front porch. Eventually, she settles onto the sofa in the living room to read some of her book. Nick settles into bed in our one bedroom and watches an episode of Dinosaur Train while Anthony and I clean floors and get water and fold laundry. On one trip past Jesse, I ask her if I can give her a kiss goodnight. She shakes her head no. I’m filled with sadness. i try to hide it as I speak. Jesse, I wish you could come upstairs and be with us. If you can just be gentle. We all want you with us. We want you to share quiet evenings with us at bedtime.

9:00: Jesse comes upstairs. Not exactly meek, but she’s trying as hard as she can. It’s been a long day with a lot of little challenges, and she’s emotionally exhausted. I realize that I am too. She crawls under the covers and watches the end of Dinosaur Train. I sneak into bed next to her and spoon up behind her for a bit. I bury my nose in her beautiful brown hair, close my eyes, and whisper, “I love you, Jesse.” I don’t know if she hears me. I don’t know if she believes me.

There are a few yawps and threats, but Jesse hangs on by a thread and falls asleep in our bedroom with us. It’s the first time in a long time, and I’m grateful.

Baby steps.

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I WAS NOT EATEN BY IN-LAWS.

Now that we’re home, I feel clarity moving into my mind again, at least a little more than I’ve had for the past month. It’s time to start debriefing and detoxing from the vacation. The inevitable result of this process will be some guilty feelings and fresh grumpiness, but I’m okay with that.

After a mostly delightful week at the beach with a gaggle of friends (four other breeding families and a single male), we headed north to New Jersey for a few days at my in-laws’ home. The kids call them Big GrandMa and Big GrandPa. Contact with them is always extremely stressful for me.

Some years ago when I was pregnant with Nick, there was a big blow-up at the home of the BGs, mostly relating to Jesse’s behavior and their inability to cope with a challenging and free-spirited child. BGP blew a gasket and made all sorts of inappropriate comments at dinner one night about our parenting, and both BGs made a painful stink about accommodating Jesse’s egg allergy, and they were generally nasty. It was just another blow-up in a long string of blow-ups over the years, but this time it was about my child. That was truly intolerable. I swore I would never, ever, everrrrr return to their home.

But the kids always want to see the BGs, and I love Anthony, and life is short and full of regrets, so fuck me and my promises to myself. I voluntarily visited the BGs last year, and again this year. I’m a willing participant, but still it gets me all anxious and angry. With last week’s encounter behind me now, I’m realizing that for the past few weeks I’ve been doing exactly what any infantile, poorly-socialized parent would do in my shoes: taking my stress out on my kids.

* * * * * *

The BGs don’t like me. Anthony would beg to differ, but I don’t think this is an issue we’ll ever agree on. They undoubtedly “love” me — because what choice do any of us have after all these years? — but at best they tolerate my presence. Also Anthony’s brother appears to hate me; he behaves in a way that suggests utter disdain for me.

I’m sure the culture gap has something to do with it. When I was getting to know Anthony’s family in my 20’s, I had no conception that “English” is an actual ethnicity. They just looked like white people to me. But they’re definitively not white Americans, and I had no idea of the unspoken, essential strictures that apply to girlfriends and daughters-in-law, or of the bold emotional repression that appears to define the boundaries of relationships in an English household.

Some many years ago, before Jesse was born, the in-laws found the opportunity to tell Anthony (and then eventually me) that  I’m an awful person who has hurt their feelings and offended their sensibilities repeatedly. One important example BGM shared with me fits in the story like this (and I swear I’m being totally objective in the telling here):

Years before Anthony and I were married, while I was still in law school, BGM started talking about children. She wanted grandkids so she could be a better grandma than her own mother had been to Anthony and his brother. She would love to be a grandma. Soon. Before she’s too old to be a good grandma. Like, now. She would like to be a grandma now. Which means her sons need to have children. Soon. Now. ASAP.

After a while it got to be pretty offensive to me, especially since I had already told BGM I wasn’t planning to have kids. But what could I do? I tolerated it.

One Mother’s Day weekend we visited the in-laws. As we were heading back home on Sunday afternoon, BGM hugged me at the car door. I said “Happy Mother’s Day!” one last time.

She answered, “Happy Mother’s Day to you too!” Then she pulled back and chuckled, “OH I suppose I can’t say that yet, can I!”

I took a deep breath inside and answered with my own chuckle, “You better get used to it.”

And that was my great offense. Those six words apparently ripped a hole in BGM’s heart and stewed silently inside her for years and years, until they exploded all over Anthony and me.

Well never mind. I finally gave her grandchildren. My purpose in her life is complete.

* * * * * *

Last week’s visit went surprisingly well, at least if you’re evaluating the BGs’ behaviors.

There was only one classic moment, when Anthony showed BGM a photo of us from about 10 years ago. BGM examined it and declared cheerfully, “Oh what a lovely photo! Look how lovely you were, Cahla, back when you were so young and slim.”

And there you have it. BGM in a nutshell. Lovely, lovely. After 30 years of cheap shots at me, I guess I can’t blame her for slipping just one in.

One day we went to a lake in the New Jersey Pine Barrens to frolic in canoes. Anthony’s brother met us there. He behaved exactly as I anticipated, disdaining to engage in conversation with me, barely saying hello or goodbye to me, and largely ignoring Jesse and Nick and Anthony. He is entirely self-absorbed. But I think I was polite. If I wasn’t, I’ll probably hear about it in ten years, after it has plenty of time to fester.

We had to sideline Jesse for a lot of our time at the BGs’ home, because she was so out of control. I had prepared myself for the worst — grumpy BGs being grumpy about kids doing exactly what kids do, getting nasty about potential harm to all their precious household goods, and being weird tight-asses about eating schedules and tea. But instead the BGs were pretty delightful with the kids, and they were earnestly sad about how discombobulated Jesse is right now.

One day, Anthony and BGM took the kids to the active-adult-community pool down the block. I stayed in the bedroom sulking and being depressed about Jesse. I heard BGP’s quiet voice from outside the door. “Cahla? Ah you theh?” (You get the idea — do the English accent thing.)

I gritted my teeth, opened the door, and stepped out sheepishly, mumbling about having some down time. BGP fell to tears as he spoke. “I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about how hard things have been with Jesse. I had no idea, and I am so, so very sorry. We’re so worried about you, Carla.”

I nodded through my own tears as my father-in-law, who I believe has held me in contempt for all these years, took pity on me. “Carla, can I just give you a hug? I want to give you a hug.”

I could hardly bear it. Why does humanity always surprise us with cruelty and kindness at all the oddest moments? An emotional dissonance brayed short and loud in my heart, and then my own contempt for the man — masked for so long by my belief in his contempt for me — took a step back. I accepted his hug and his love, and something long broken was mended a little.

grumpy about brothers (happy birthday, Eric)

It’s my brother Eric’s birthday today. He’s three years older than me, but at this middle-aged point in our lives we’re practically the same age. I’ve always called Eric my “little brother”, as in, my littlest big brother, but I guess once you’re a big brother, you’re a big brother no matter how old everyone gets. Even if you started out a little cutie like this.

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Eric’s the one in the middle in the feast shot, with our brothers Mark to his left and Ted to his right. That’s mom with the beehive. I don’t exist yet, because this was Eric’s one-year celebration, Korean style.

Here’s Eric with his lifelong best friend, brother Mark, who’s 14 months older than him. Eric’s on the right.eric2

They look like characters in a Maurice Sendak book.

I hesitate to write the rest of this post, but sometimes the heart needs to speak. Eric may well get a bit miffed at me for this, but I’ll just go ahead and say it: he is a first-class keeper of the grumpy flame. There’s a reason we sometimes mocked him with the nickname Mr. Sunshine, alongside my grumpy dad. But don’t think for a second that I’m judging. It’s been some long years since I accepted my place on the list of flame keepers and recognized that Eric and I share a lot of grumpy DNA.

These days I wonder a lot about whether the relationships we remember with our siblings are reality-based or rather figments of the apocryphal stories we’re told over and over again by our parents and other observers. I thought for many years that I grew up in a constant state of conflict with Eric. As a teenager, he was pretty damn hostile and angry a lot of the time, but it wasn’t really that. There were the stories. I heard again and again about how he wouldn’t share his GI Joes with me at Christmas when I was three, so I punched him in the face and gave him a bloody nose, and then there was the time I bit him so hard he bled after he was mean to me. Ha ha ha what a great indicator of our relationship. There were always stories about us fighting and about Eric picking on me. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me stories about stuff we did together that was fun, about the love we shared as siblings.

When Eric went through some tough times in high school, no one invited me to be compassionate, patient, or accepting. My parents didn’t play parenthood that way. They yelled, they threatened, but they didn’t listen or sympathize readily. No one explained to me that Eric’s rage probably wasn’t about me but about something else, something hurting inside him. No one asked me to be bigger than a spoiled little sister. So that’s how Eric saw me, if I have this right. He called me spoiled, bitchy, stuck up, and much worse than that. He would even say, “Mom always loved you best.”

I always hated hearing that last bit. I still remember a particular occasion when that blurted out, when we were nearly adults. It reflected so much insecurity and sadness, and it wasn’t true. I felt terrible for Eric that he felt that way. But I didn’t have any magic moves in my emotional skill set to fill his cup in that moment. They didn’t come instinctively to me, and my parents didn’t teach them to me. My heart told me he needed to hear that he was loved, without any anger attached to it, but I couldn’t find my way there. I just kept yelling back at him.

When I root around in my memories of Eric, without the filters of other people’s stories, I find a lot of good stuff. We played together, we ate together, we watched TV and shared games. Of course we fought, but that’s normal. And Eric supported me in a lot of ways, like any decent and excellent brother. He helped me with homework; he cooked food and treats for me; he played games with me; he defended me; he posed for awful photos with me.

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What more can you ask of a grumpy big brother than to tolerate a little sister with such a dopey look on her face?

Echoes of Eric’s insecurities haunt me to this day, because I always wish I had been more sensitive to them, in all the ease with which I passed through school and college. But never mind. Here and now, I’m laying it on the line with this birthday message to my brother:

Eric. You are and will always be my big brother. Just like our grumpy dad was an anchor that brought our family together, in his stead you’re becoming the anchor that brings our family together. Your grumpy is an important part of it, a reminder of a father who I adored and still miss so much. I love that you’re a devoted husband and father. I’ve seen you apologize to your family for your grumpy behavior. It’s not something our parents taught us to do; it’s BIG that you found the courage to go there. May you always own your grumpy more than your grumpy owns you. I’m working on it too. And no matter how flawed you are or I am, I love you, bro, and I’ll always be on your side. I wish I could have told you that a hundred times, decades ago, when you probably needed to hear it more.

Grumpy about my daughter (Good lord, she’s ten)

I don’t understand how ten years have passed since Jesse was born. I’ve looked at photos. I’ve aged at least 20 years in that time. Maybe it’s because I’ve lost so much sleep; maybe I’ve been awake during the gone decade as much as normal people are awake in 20 years.

Motherhood has been a challenging, emotionally exhausting journey with Jesse, a climb made tougher by our mutual self-loathing and cynicism, her developmental quirks and tics. Some days it feels hopeless, what with the keening and whining issuing from both our mouths. I wonder sometimes if she’ll ever be happy. 

Jesse struggled through her green belt testing for tae kwon do last night; it was preceded by hours of extreme performance anxiety, expressed in pretty extreme  ways. Anthony reported that after Jesse messed up some moves a little during testing, she started crying. She kept crying, and she kept going. So I was proud. But I wish she could have had more fun, like most other kids, and felt more pride.

When this tae kwon do studio gives a child their new belt, the instructor always asks: now that you’re a higher belt, what do you plan to change and improve in yourself? I asked Jesse to consider this answer for when she receives her green belt and has to announce to the class what she wants to change: “cry less, have more fun, and take things less seriously.” She looked at me sidelong with a  contemplative green eye and said nothing.

On Jesse’s birthday, after she and Nick went to sleep, I pulled out the external hard drive and rummaged through a decade of photographs. They tell a different story of Jesse than I tend to remember, one filled less with sadness and more with joy. Maybe I’m the one who needs to cry less, have more fun, and take things less seriously. (I’m looking at myself sidelong right now, with a contemplative brown eye.) Maybe all the unhappiness Jesse experiences is just on the surface. Maybe under it is something deeper and stronger than the bitter pills of Jesse’s anxiety and miserable self-esteem, something more abiding.

Jesse was born just 5 pounds and 14 ounces, a diminutive doll with porcelain skin, eyes of violet and a passionate temperament that could move her from raw rage to uncontrolled glee in a blink of her enormous puddly eyes.

one hour into life

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Dang, she was a cute wee thing.

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Her eyes eventually turned to green

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but not much else has changed.

The photos I looked at showed me a little girl with an abiding love of the outdoors.

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A little girl with loving and connected relationships with her parents.

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A little girl who’s sweet on her baby brother.

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A little girl who’s not afraid of a little magic.

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A little girl comfortable with silliness and individuality.

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A little girl made of strength and sass.

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A little girl who experiences stress, to be sure.

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But who also has courage enough to take risks and partake of triumphs.

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A little girl who knows how to revel in simple happiness.

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And in recent pictures, I can see shadows of the woman she’ll someday be.

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I love so much about Jesse. She has courage without boundaries, and I know this because she soldiers on despite her endless parade of fears and anxieties. She’s passionately altruistic, generous, introspective, intuitive, critical. She has an artist’s eye and soul. She sees what’s beautiful as readily as she sees what’s ugly. She strives. It’s practically trite to say that I’m blessed to have her as my daughter, that she embodies so many qualities that I cherish.

But I can also say this. Even if Jesse was a coward, selfish, shallow, emotionally blind, vapid, unkind, lazy, ugly — even if she was all those things, I would still love her. Because I’m her mother. And that’s good enough for me in this life.

grumpy about death… again (not ready for orphanhood)

Last night I lay awake in one of my morbid moods. I watched Nick sleep peacefully and pondered at large, as I’m wont to do, about the inevitability of all of our demises. Will we live long? Will my children lose me or Anthony before they’re grown? What if, heaven forbid, I were to lose one of them? My thoughts ranged through disease, pestilence, war, famine, bus hits, freak accidents. Nick dreamed as I stroked the hairs on his temple, praying to anything listening that he and Jesse be allowed to live long, peaceful, happy lives.

Last month while I was in California, my mom and I spoke about some estate planning issues. Her ducks aren’t quite in a row.  Now that she’s in her 80’s, it’s probably time to arrange them properly. It felt wrong, somehow, to bring it up. My family has never been open about death, about how to help life go on smoothly here on earth after one of us is gone. But as the only lawyer in the family and a daughter among sons, it makes practical and emotional sense for me to guide Mom through this.

But I don’t want to help Mom plan ahead for her death. I pointed this out to her. I don’t want you to die. I’m counting on you sticking around for a long, long time to come. She held up her hands, fingers out in a counting or quieting gesture. “Ten years,” she promised me, in a matter-of-fact tone as she nodded knowingly.

Ten years. I only get to see her about once a year these days. She seems unwilling to travel since her stroke, so she hasn’t made it out here to Wisconsin in some years. For my part, it’s difficult to get out to California with the kids because of time commitments and the hassle of traveling so far. I could go alone, but Mom wants to see her grandkids. So does that mean I’ll only see her ten more times before she’s gone? My chest and stomach clench in pain when I try to wrap my head around that.

When my grandma died, Mom was of course broken-hearted. It was a different kind of sadness than when Dad died. With him, she waded through the bitter suffering of a lost mate, a companion who was present day after day like the rising sun. But with grandma, her loss was a quiet and soft thing, something deep and young. In the months after grandma’s death, Mom spoke to me almost in whispers about her grief. One day she murmured slowly, “Oh Carla, my mommy is gone. I’m an orphan now.” It felt like a little poem, an elegy.

I heard in her voice, even over the telephone, all the longing and desperate need of a child hunting for her lost mother. Mom was 70-something, and she still wanted and needed her mother on this earth as much my little Nick wants and needs me. I wish I had been with Mom in the body just then, so that I could have held her. We could have cried together; and though I’m her daughter, perhaps I could have stood in the shoes of her mother for a moment and filled her cup with the gifts that loving parents bequeath to us.

But I know a day will come when I’ll never be able to hold her again. And what then?

I’m not ready for orphanhood. I won’t be ready in ten years. I need to remind Mom next time I talk with her. Don’t leave me, Mom. I still need you. I’ll always need you.

Grumpy about iFart

Jesse had a tough morning at her new dentist yesterday. They did a full cleaning, took x-rays, painted sealants on her molars (don’t start in on me about toxicity and all that — rotten teeth are toxic too, and she was born with ’em, so we’re in a balancing act here), took out an ineffective space-maintaining appliance (hence new dentist) between some missing molars, and did a mold on her upper teeth (which took two tries, ugh) for  a new orthodontic contraption that will hypothetically work better.

Jesse handled it like a Marine — tough and pretty grim, but also polite and compliant. Afterwards, she was spent. I gave her my iPhone as I drove her to school. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw her staring blankly at the phone as she tapped away. A few seconds later, I started hearing her iFart remix.

In case you’re one of the rare people who don’t yet know what iFart is, I hope you can guess from the name. It’s a smartphone app. You hit a button, it plays a fart. Many fart options are available, and you can repeat and layer them on top of each other to create rich symphonic effects.

Jesse can knock out a dance mix on iFart like the best house DJ you’ve ever met. She lays down thumpers and high descants, embedding them in repeating rhythmic patterns that leave me bouncing my head against all sense. Fart noises shouldn’t make me want to dance. Yesterday Jesse was all business as she laid down her track post-dentist, her face set in a serious mask. You wouldn’t have known she was having fun. Except for the extensive fart noises.

iFart is, sadly, one of the most-favored apps on my iPhone. It says something so sad and juvenile about me, but iFart never lets me down. When we were in California last month, I sat down one day on the big sofa in my mom’s living room. To my left on a neighboring sofa was my brother Eric — a master scatologist, a keeper of the poop flame, never ashamed of his bowel functions. To my right on a neighboring barca-lounger was his wife Wendy, a mild-mannered and modest-souled woman who I imagine excuses herself from a room to go silent-fart in private. Poor Wendy. I wonder if she knew what she was marrying into, this family of free-farting animals passing for human beings.

I don’t know what came over me. I placed my iPhone next to my right hip on high volume and punched up The Wipe Out, a fart option that lasts exactly five seconds. It doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but trust me: a five-second fart is unholy long.

The Wipe Out sang out.

I looked to my right and smiled. Sweet Wendy, who would never make fun of anyone or call someone out for something embarrassing, looked at me. 1.5 seconds into The Wipe Out, her face screwed up into a mix of horror and revulsion as she cried out in earnest from her barca-lounger, “Oh my God, Carla!”

I looked to my left and smiled. 3 seconds gone. By now Eric was also looking at me in total disgust. “Jeez Carla, what the hell is that??”

5 seconds gone. I started laughing and couldn’t stop. It took just a moment for them to figure out that it was the app and not me, but for that short moment they must have thought my pants were full of crap and I was the most revolting human being in the world.

It set me to wondering. Just how much does it take to fill Eric with a sense of scatological loathing? A lot, really. He’s my brother, after all.

But iFart did it, in just 5 seconds. That’s impressive.

Grandma tales, part 4 (grumpy about the storm)

The words “monsoon season” terrified me when I was little. Windswept storms would rage up in the Seoul summer, knocking out the electricity and filling the air with thunderclaps and rolling roars and the hammering of rain and hail. I would cower under tables and behind chairs in the darkness, my heart racing and my body shaking in raw fear. No one paid much attention to me, other than to mock me. “It’s just monsoon season, Carla,” my mom would reassure me, shaking her head and laughing. Which didn’t help me at all. At least that’s how I remember it, except for once.

It was a special day. Any day when I got to sleep over at Grandma’s house was special. We left the end of Skunk Hollow and marched down the road happily, side by side, my little hand in hers. We hadn’t gotten far when the wind picked up and a few drops of rain started to fall. Grandma was ready with her blue bamboo umbrella.

(That’s what I remember people using in Korea back in the early 1970’s. You’d see them everywhere, these flimsy bamboo umbrella frames covered with blue plastic.)

Just as Grandma opened the umbrella to hold over our heads, a strong gust of wind turned it inside-out and broke it. At the same time, there was a bright lightning strike right overhead and a deafening thunderclap, followed by a massive rolling peal of thunder, and then the storm dumped its load of water on us.

I crouched on the ground in a fetal position, sobbing in terror and unable to move.

I don’t remember Grandma being irritated or angry with me. She asked me to get up. I couldn’t. Then she spoke gently as she squatted down beside me. “Here. Climb on.” I climbed onto her back and hooked my arms around her neck, wrapped my legs around her waist. She clasped her hands under my butt and off we went, the way little kids are carried traditionally in Korea. “Oh-boh-bah,” in America we call it piggy back. Grandma carried me all the way to her home, through the soaking rain.

I was a little thing; I imagine I would have weighed somewhere between 30 and 40 pounds. But Grandma was very small too. I don’t think she ever weighed more than a hundred pounds. Standing as straight as she could, what with the damage caused by polio, back then she would have been about 4-foot-9 — a diminutive woman with bird bones. And if I reckon this correctly, she would have been about 60 years old.

But her granddaughter had need of her, so she carried me on her limping legs, slightly bent over to bear my weight better on her back. It never occurred to me that any of this was a physical challenge for her, as it must have been. She never made anything of it.

Instead, she told me cheerful stories and encouraged me not to be afraid as she trudged along. I felt her strength and courage come into me as my chest pressed against her strong back and my dripping wet head rested on her neck.

I don’t remember being much afraid of storms after that.

Grandma tales part 3 (grumpy about demanding eaters)

“Picky eater” suggests a limited palate, and that’s not what I have. I am rather a “demanding eater,” which is a whole different thing, thank you very much. Jesse, light of my life, daughter of my loins, follows delicately in my footsteps on this front.

She will eat all sorts of foods and appreciates an array of spices and ethnic cuisines. Many kids with food allergies have a lot of food fear and thus a very limited range of willing eating, but I flatter myself that we’ve avoided this syndrome with Jesse. Anthony and I are competent cooks in a lot of different ethnic styles, in our own fusion way, and Jesse’s egg allergy is no barrier to continuing to explore all these flavors. She’ll choke down almost anything we offer her with a courageous heart. But she must have everything fresh. She doesn’t like leftovers. She doesn’t like packaged bread — it must be from an artisanal bakery or home-made — unless it’s a hotdog bun. Hamburger buns? She’s tasted the fountain of fresh, so she demands homemade buns unless we’re at a restaurant. Tortillas are great, as long as I make them from scratch. Meat should come in its original form — a chunk off an animal, cooked in a piece and then cut to bite size (except for fish sticks, which Jesse eats for breakfast because Ian’s makes an egg-free version, a novelty she enjoys). Ice cream? It’s Talenti or nothin’ these days. Avocado? No. Guacamole? Yes (one ingredient: well-smashed avocado). Onions? Yes, if freshly sautéed and caramelized in balsamic vinegar, with some garlic and pepper, a pinch of brown sugar. No other way will do. Cucumbers? Only if served thin-sliced as a spicy Korean quick-pickled salad, which she can rinse off in a bowl of cold water before she eats them, and then she drinks the spicy water afterwards. Tomato-based soup? Sure, but only if it’s Whole Foods’ gumbo made with okra, only she won’t eat the okra and she needs the artisanal French round cut in thick slices to dip in it (her babysitter learned last weekend: cut that slice too thin and all hell breaks loose). Pizza? Awesome. Cheese pizza, only she takes off the cheese. But it has to be baked with the cheese.

An aside here: I’m not talking about Nick because he’s a PICKY eater. All he wants is box-mac-and-cheese, chips, and Pirate Booty. He thinks almost everything I make is totally disgusting. He took one tiny bite of mashed potatoes tonight — yes, I made mashed potatoes! — and promptly vomited. I have no respect for that.

But I do have a great respect for Jesse’s preferences, and as much as I can, I honor them. I may be 48 years old and much more pliable than I used to be, but I remember the days when I was just as demanding as her. I don’t believe she’s being unreasonable. She just has a sense of what she likes best, and she’s willing to forego food unless she gets it. I could be a hard-ass about it, but here’s why I’m not. It’s a little Grandma tale.

One of my favorite meals as a kid was rice-eggs-and-soy-sauce. The original iteration involved a raw egg. You take a bowl of steaming hot rice. You crack a raw egg on it and stir it up. Then you add some soy sauce. Devour. Done in the right kind of bowl, you’re not eating a raw egg. If you use a hot stone bowl and the rice is just-cooked, the egg cooks in all that heat. When I was a wee lass, I didn’t care either way. The raw egg just made the rice a bit more gooey.

I loved this until one day someone made me rice-eggs-and-soy-sauce with a hard-boiled egg. You take the same bowl of fresh rice, unpeel a couple hard-boiled eggs and chop them up into pieces, and stir it all up with some soy sauce. Devour. Oh my god. Even as I type this I’m salivating. I can taste the simple yumminess. It’s one of the few things I really, really miss in our egg-free house. Damn you, egg allergy, damn you!

One fine weekend, I walked on over to Grandma’s house with her and slept there. My mom says that the first night I ever did this (I would have been 3 or 4), I wept and wept and had to be taken back home. I have no memory of that event. I only remember sleep-overs with Grandma as the most magical, wonderful events of my childhood. In hindsight, I guess she was my best friend.

Anyway, a drowsy morning came in Grandma’s house. I lazed in bed. In Grandma’s house, that meant I was snuggled under blankets on a thick cotton bedroll laid down on the heated concrete floor, which was finished with some sort of glazed paper surface. My pillow was a traditional Korean style cylinder-shaped thing. The bed would have been soooo toasty and warm because by the time I awoke Grandma would have already gone outside to add a new charcoal block to the ondol oven, which heated the floors. On cold days, Grandma would put our clothing between the bed and the floor before she cleared the beddings away, so that getting dressed was deliciously warm.

This particular morning, Grandma asked me what I wanted for breakfast. She wanted to treat me to whatever I wanted. “Bhap he-goo geh-lhan,” I answered. Rice and eggs (the soy sauce, or ganjang, would have been assumed). Off she went to the kitchen. I continued to laze. Some time later, Grandma came back and placed a tray of food beside me, so I could eat in the warmth of the bedroom. I looked in the bowl. GAH. The egg was FRIED, not boiled. Ugh. Ew. Yuck. Inedible! I had a whining hissy fit. I announced my feelings passionately. This is all wrong! This is not how you make rice and eggs! This is not how Song-Ja [our housemaid] makes it for me! I can’t eat this! (“Ee-goh moht-moh-go!!”)

Grandma listened silently to me without moving. She stood there and stared down at me as I sat under the covers in a warm bed. She waited until I was done complaining. She never said a word. When I finally shut up, she still stared at me without moving, for another long moment. She looked at the bowl, she looked at me. She didn’t smile, she didn’t scowl. She just looked patient and blank, like she was tolerating a dong-pah-li she couldn’t get rid of. Then she barely nodded. “Gu-leh.” Okay. She picked up the tray and left.

(“Dong-pah-li” literally means shit fly, aka a fly that likes to sit on shit and eat it. It’s an apt image, because that’s what I felt like afterwards.)

I stayed in bed, only I wasn’t lazing anymore. I knew how irritated Grandma was. I was so ashamed of myself for making such disrespectful demands of Grandma, my friend and my elder. I sat in numb silence, wondering what she was doing. I assumed I wasn’t going to get breakfast at all. I still cringe when I remember that day. Right now, at this very moment, I had to stop typing because I literally had to hang my head in shame and fight the tears back. I was such a little piece of shit.

But some while later, Grandma came back and placed a tray of food beside me, so I could eat in the warmth of the bedroom. There was rice and boiled eggs. I don’t remember whether the eggs were fully hard-boiled. By that point, I would have eaten anything Grandma put in front of me. I thanked her sheepishly, shamefully, and ate every bite.

Grandma never remonstrated, never corrected or disciplined me. She never tattled on me to my parents. We never spoke of it again. She forgave me and moved on. Her extraordinary kindness and patience was the worst punishment of all. I’ve never really forgiven myself for that morning.

But now that I’m a mom, I can finally make amends to Grandma. So I meet Jesse’s demands. I make it fresh. I put the food in separate bowls when she needs it that way; I mix it together when I must. And well, let’s be honest, I meet Nick’s picky demands too. I try to work with his preferences. I give him the crap he wants to eat and try to get him to down at least a few bites of something healthier, with the hope that someday he’ll come around. I won’t be a hard ass about food. Grandma is looking over my shoulder, reminding me of the shit she put up with. I can’t let her down. I have to pass on her legacy.

Grandma tales part 2 (grumpy about muggings)

I’ve had Hal-moh-nee on the mind this week. It’s amazing how much I long to see her sometimes. Maybe I would miss her less if I had committed some energy as an adult to seeing her more regularly while she was still alive, but I lived in DC and Grandma was in Seattle and I was a strung-out lawyer. Which is no real excuse. My failure to make time for Grandma in her last years is among the more significant emotional reasons why I’m glad to be out of the profession for good (I hope).

But also I think it’s parenthood that constantly brings her to mind, as I struggle with questions of how to be a functional parent to young children in different situations. Grandma taught me so many little lessons by just being with me when I was small. She was so good to me, a sweet anchor for my grumpy heart. I think I’ll spend the next week or two telling some Grandma tales.

Picture Seoul, Korea in the early 1970’s, a third world metropolis of millions, streets full of stray dogs and crazy drivers and three-wheeled trucks, and here comes the guy pushing a food cart selling beans and steamed rice cakes. I’m too lazy right now to find any photos. Maybe another day. And I guess I should say South Korea, though I wasn’t taught to say it that way. Korea was Korea to my Korean family members, who still remembered a time before the white peeps came and broke it into two nations.

Dad worked as a civilian DOD employee on the Eighth Army base in Seoul. Most Americans associated with the base lived on the base, but many of us with Korean moms lived in the city proper instead. In my child’s memory, the city neighborhoods where nice homes stood were bunkers. Concrete walls surrounded each house. At the tops of the walls were rolls of barbed wire to keep out slickee boys — burglars and thieves. Locked metal gates, topped with vicious spikes and big enough to admit a car, granted entry to a home’s yard.

We lived in a walled-in house at the dead end of one of these bunkered roads, in an area my dad affectionately dubbed Skunk Hollow, probably because of the smell. Grandma frequently walked to our house in the morning, spent the day with us, and then walked home to her own smaller and more traditional Korean home. I have no idea how far it was, but I’m guessing it had to be less than a mile. I used to make the walk with her sometimes, when I got to sleep over at her house. I held her hand tight as we trudged through a claustrophobic maze of narrow alleys, grey walls rising high and tight on either side of me, until we emerged mysteriously at her house on one end or my own home on the other.

One fine day my mom treated Grandma to a new purse and some cash. Grandma headed out in the afternoon with her new purse on her arm, and presently I heard voices of adults sounding very, very unhappy. Grandma had been attacked by two men who beat her up and stole her purse as she walked home. They even broke her false teeth (a full set of clackers, mind you). I imagined my poor Grandma lying broken in one of those bunkered alleys, her body smashed to the ground and broken into pieces by very bad men. I was terrified.

Not long after, Grandma came on over and sat with me in my room. I had questions for her. She was a storyteller and always answered my inquiries. She told me about how two thugs grabbed her purse and threw her against a wall, so that her face hit and her false teeth broke. She rued the loss of that pretty new purse and all that money. The mix of fear and curiosity I felt about the attack must have been apparent. Grandma offered to show me her injuries. She opened her shirt and bared her chest. I had seen it many times before — she wasn’t even remotely body-shy with me — but now the left side of her chest, from her shoulder and down her breast and rib cage, was black as calligraphy ink. I wanted to cry, it looked so awful. I was so upset about how badly she was hurt. But Grandma just laughed gently and told me I could touch it, it didn’t hurt anymore. She explained that it was a healing bruise, and then she assured me she was fine.  And she was. It all healed up just right eventually. She was tough as nails.

Grandma had a way of laughing and shaking her head that sucked fear out of me, but I don’t think of her as a person who lied to me about the risks of life. She took them seriously. She kept me close when we walked around town. She warned me about kidnappers who would want to steal the pretty little blond girl and try to sell me into slavery or, even worse, kill me if my family didn’t pay a ransom. She told me about diseases and shared stories of war. She told me about how my grand-uncle, her brother, was brain-damaged as a child by a Japanese soldier who boxed his head so hard that his ear bled, and then he was never the same again. We affectionately called him “heh-leh-leh sam-chun,” which loosely translates to “crazy uncle.”

For all the scary tales, Grandma always added a touch of humor and made me feel safe about the adventure of life –- and especially about her. Don’t you think kids fear harm to their nurturers more than almost anything else?  A year or so ago, when I had a breast biopsy to see if I had cancer, I remembered Grandma’s way of reassuring me. I tried to emulate her. I played it straight with the kids about what was going on, and I let them see the site of the biopsy, bloody bandages and all. I watched them react, the mix of curiosity and anxiety, and it was like looking down a tunnel into my own past as I stared at my grandma’s blackened breast. I’m glad she taught me not to keep secrets of things like that. Better to share some scary realities with your little ones than to hide it from them. Better to laugh down fear together than to shiver alone in the dark.

Grandma tales (grumpy about vaccines and polio)

Everybody’s doing it, so why not me? Talking about vaccines, that is.

I have a good friend who doesn’t vaccinate her kids. She claims it’s because she has auto-immune issues herself so she wonders what vaccines will do to her kids, but in moments of honesty and clarity she’s admitted the real reason to me:  her oldest child gave her hell at some vaccination visit and the pediatrician was a jerk about it, so she won’t do them anymore. Since she knows everyone else is vaccinated, it’s okay for her kids to skip the shots. Her attitude slays me, because she’s a pretty hard-core Republican and she likes to mouth off about freeloaders. It is so hard for any of us to avoid hypocrisy. All I can do is shake my head and let her be as human and imperfect as me. But also, she’s not opposed to vaccines. She’s just freeloading. She knows it.

I chatted some time ago with another mom who actually opposes vaccinations. She’s holistic and homeopathic and Eastern medicine and all that, and her reasoning was that her kids don’t need the vaccines because she uses natural methods to boost their immunities. Thus, she reasons, her kids are unlikely to be infected even if a vaccine-avoidable disease comes around, and also if her kids are infected they’ll survive just fine because she knows how to treat these things. As far as I could tell, the idea of her kids infecting other, more immuno-compromised individuals wasn’t a relevant consideration. I was recently reminded of how much that bothered me when I came across an Onion op-ed, “I don’t vaccinate my child because it’s my right to decide what eliminated diseases come roaring back.” (On the off chance you don’t know, the Onion is 100% bullshit and 100% brilliant satire and social commentary.)

Then this person had to go and use polio as an example, arguing that many people contract polio but survive anyway because they have strong immunities, so it’s not a disease she’s afraid of even if her kids catch it, and also we shouldn’t be giving any kids a polio vaccine because it’s not necessary, the disease isn’t so bad. I remember seething secretly and ending the conversation as quickly as possible.

You don’t have to dig much at all to learn that polio is an extremely contagious disease that has no cure and also it suuuuucks. In fact, almost all of the vaccinations we’re giving our kids are for diseases that are highly contagious and have no cure. And that are capable of maiming and killing. In the case of polio, it’s certainly true that many lucky people who are infected never even show symptoms. But I wonder how they would feel if they could calculate how many unlucky ones they infect in turn, especially if they could avoid catching polio at all by being vaccinated.

My Korean grandma was both lucky and unlucky. She contracted polio as an adult (before a vaccine was available) but survived. A paralyzed foot was polio’s life-long gift to her. She walked with a pronounced limp as a result, and as a little girl I was fascinated by it. As far as I could tell, her foot was frozen in a flexed position. When I asked why she walked funny, Grandma told me of a terrible sickness that caused the paralysis, and I later learned the pesky disease was called polio.

Grandma was an extraordinary person, a bottomless pit of kindness. When I was very little, she would encourage me to work over her foot and try to make it move. As hard as I tried, I never could. So she always won the game, and we’d laugh together and then I wasn’t afraid anymore of whatever had almost killed her. Now I wonder from the vantage of 48 years, did she also secretly hope that her magical little granddaughter could make the foot come alive again?

Over the years, my mom shared bits and pieces of her memories about Grandma and polio. Mom was a child, too little to understand the danger, when the disease came. Grandma was hit bad. She almost died and had to go live in some sort of institutional setting to recover. This was a time of Japanese occupation, before there were two Koreas, when Korea was still a beaten-down, occupied third-world place. It would have taken a lot of money and resources (which my family had back then) to send Grandma to a place where she could survive and recuperate. She was lucky to receive any medical attention at all.

Grandma had a baby at the time (my mother’s oldest little brother) who was still nursing, so she took him with her to the hospital. But Mom, who was also still a very small child, stayed home with the aunties and servants. Grandma was gone for about two years. Mom felt abandoned, lost without her mother, treated unfairly because her baby brother got to go. I remember her talking about it long into my adulthood. I could hear in the rhythms of her stories the deep, unhealed cuts in her heart, the bitterness she couldn’t let go. It mystified me. The child who survived her mother’s polio, who still lived in my mother’s soul, couldn’t grasp that Grandma didn’t have a real choice. The disease owned all the decisions. So it didn’t just paralyze Grandma. It paralyzed a piece of my mother too for much of her life, just not in the flesh.

Some years after Grandma died, my mom finally told me a story of retrieval, not of abandonment. I don’t remember it perfectly (which doesn’t really bother me – I’m okay with reality becoming mythology, especially when it’s the mythology of connection and love). Mom came home from school and a strange woman was standing outside of the house. Mom got closer and realized with a start, it was her mother! She ran over to the woman. Her mother embraced her hard. Her mother looked at her face, touched her, looked in her eyes. Her mother told her, I’ve come back for you. I don’t want to live in the country anymore, I’m moving to Inchon. I’ve come to take you with me; I’ll never be apart from you again. Her mother had survived polio. Her mother came back for her.

As Mom told me this story, I realized that I was finally hearing the last chapter of her family’s polio tale, which had now spanned something like 70 years. I felt a sense of relief, of thankfulness that my mom could finally forgive Grandma for a parental betrayal that had been beyond anyone’s control — so many years after the disease crippled not just Grandma’s foot, but also her relationship with her daughter.

I always think of Grandma and Mom when people talk about vaccine-preventable diseases like polio. The damage they do isn’t just to a body, but to a family, a community. It’s why we owe it to each other to avoid the diseases together, each of us bearing a little bit of risk via vaccination, for ourselves and for each other.

It’s easy for people in first-world countries, living in the lap of hygienic luxury, to argue in smug ignorance that diseases like polio aren’t that dangerous and don’t need to be vaccinated against. Goody for you. As for me, my kids are fully vaccinated. Jesse gets the shots even though they’re grown in egg whites and she’s allergic to eggs. I give her antihistamines prophylactically and she seems fine. It probably isn’t helping her outgrow her allergy. But if vaccination means she can’t eat eggs for the rest of her life, I’m actually okay with that. I guess I’d rather have her get stuck with an epi-pen now and again than crippled by polio, or killed by small pox, or scarred by measles. For the anti-vacc’ers, know this: if my grandma was still alive and had the means, she might just sneak up behind you and stick you in the ass with a polio vaccine, just so you don’t catch polio and go give it to someone else. She’d probably giggle and say a happy prayer for your wellness as she did it. I guess I’d be laughing with her.