Happy Birthday, Jeffrey

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Dear Jeffrey,

I think you were six the first time I wrote you a birthday letter. Today, you are fifteen. You just texted me from your first day of school (which you are exceedingly bummed landed on your actual birthday) to tell me you are sitting in Driver’s Ed. Here’s hoping that surprise makes up for the fact we had to celebrate your birthday a day early.

In measurable time, it’s been a few years since you surpassed me in height and I started having to look up to you. The truth is, my son, I have looked up to you for much longer than that. There are sweet details of your life and our journey together as parent and child in many of your birthday letters- your entry into the world, enchanting copper eyelashes only a hint of what was to come—your sturdy legs and first determined steps, your arms that never (ever!) hung at your sides, but were always (always!) held out, ready to grab the world and wrestle some joy and happiness.

Today, I watch you move through the world, still sturdy and determined, but also touched with a wry sense of humor, a kindness that comes from knowing pain, an empathy that comes from knowing loss and sorrow. The path you have had to walk has not been easy, especially not for someone so young and still tender. I do not believe the colloquialism everything happens for a reason. Some things simply have no reason. But what does matter is what we do with the hard, painful things. That’s where we find grace and mercy. Do we let things embitter us? Or do we learn, tucking those lessons away so we can better care for others, to ease and lift the hearts of those we love? That is where we punctuate life with joy and happiness, and where the windows of heaven open and rain down.

I watch how you care for your siblings, and for Bean in particular. You have always had a grand, hero-heart. You have always cared for the underdog, and wanted life to be fair, even as you struggled with your own natural desire for the lion’s share. The beauty was (and is) in that struggle, son. You are generous with your affection, your laughter is boisterous, easy and natural. You are kind. That’s important.

It’s a very strange thing as a mother to feel our roles adjusting, turning softly and perfectly in-time, like the well oiled gears of a clock. I recognize this as right, even as I can do nothing to stop or change it. Your whole life I have guided, protected and sheltered you, and I can feel you ever so gradually stepping into your own light. It’s a slow dance; beautiful, and bittersweet, and the just order of life. I am proud to call you my son.

In the meantime, I am still the mama, and I can still take your phone away if I catch you on it after hours, or if you have a sassy mouth and forget to say you’re sorry.

Keep your grades up. Go to college. Call your mama.

Happy birthday, darling boy. Mama loves you.

Day 6: Games

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Six.

My knee-jerk reaction? I don’t like games. I have good memories of playing card games with my grandma, and I did enjoy a good game of hide-and-seek with the neighborhood kids when I was little. I have one particularly happy memory of playing Kick the Can when my mom and aunts joined us. Other than that, I really don’t like games. I am about as non-competitive as it gets. I just don’t care about winning- I’d rather curl up with a book, or have a discussion about philosophy or song lyrics, or Rilke or Stephen King. I’d rather cook some delicious food or organize the filing cabinet. I’m not even kidding about that last one. I never played a sport. I never understood the desire to compete- it just made no sense.

As I grew up the games moved from the dining room tables and front yards into our heads. That was even more perplexing- why would anyone say or do something they didn’t mean? Why would a person be passive-aggressive, or dishonest, or disingenuous, or give someone the silent treatment? Not only did I not understand it, I didn’t know how to play, and like the other games, I usually opted to sit that one out. A book was a much better companion. The drama was at least contained.

As a grownup, this still perplexes me. While I have moved beyond the playground games and adolescent circus, I still am baffled when I encounter other adult humans who do not take responsibility for their own actions or feelings. It’s exhausting interacting with a person who insists others do their emotional lifting. I am not interested in relationships with people who play games. Full stop.

At least attempt to know yourself. Try and understand what you are seeking and need, and then find a way to communicate. Owning your own perspective doesn’t mean disregarding kindness or manners, or being dogmatic in your view.

And I eye my book on the table longingly…

Day 5: Little Things

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Five.

Tucked away in a lavender-scented wooden box, amid letters and curl-edged photographs, is an antique cotton hankercheif with a crocheted edge. Folded up carefully in the soft cotton is a woolen star, hand dyed in a gentle rainbow hue, with a small pocket. The pocket holds a tiny doll, no bigger than my thumb, crafted in the manner of German woolen puppin, simple and featureless.

Over time, the wool felt of the star has frayed, but the baby remains perfect, nestled in its pocket, wrapped in soft cotton.

No one looking at this would think it was anything at all. It’s moth-eaten piece of wool with a lumpy, nondescript doll. It’s meaningless. What is it? Is it a necklace? Is it a toy? Is it for a child?

I swallow hard. Yes, it’s for a child, but not a child you’re thinking of …

This is my memory alone.

Day 4: Adventure

Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Four. Write about a time you had an adventure. When you did or said something unexpected.

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It occurs to me that I’ve had a lot of adventures. I haven’t followed a predictable path, except perhaps in it’s unpredictableness. I graduated young. I left home young (too young, looking back) and I moved to the beach. My first apartment was in a tiny beach town south of Santa Cruz, and my roommate was a one of the Beach Boys’ daughters. After that, I picked up and moved to Seattle on a lark, to go to art school. Some friends followed me and we lived as starving students in the Seattle where Nirvana was still playing small clubs. I couldn’t wait to get back to California after a year in the Seattle gloom and sodden skies.

I worked odd jobs, took some classes at the local college, and got a job as an art director. I flew back and forth from Seattle working for a company up there, and I followed the Grateful Dead for a while, bouncing up and down the west coast, hitting as many shows as I could – I only remember spending one show in the parking lot. Most of the time I got in. I had a boyfriend who rode Harley Davidson motorcycles, and one summer we packed up the bike and rode from San Francisco to Sturgis, South Dakota. And back. We camped along the way, except for showering in truck-stops. It’s not for the weak of heart, traveling that way. I never want to do it again, but I’m glad I did it once.

By my mid-twenties, it was time to settle down a bit. I got a real job working for a company in Palo Alto, and I lived alone for three years, ditching the roommates and practicing being a grown-up. It was a whole new adventure and a radical departure from my past. I worked for several years for a small company, managing importing toys and children’s goods from Germany. I learned a smattering of German, and even got to spend some time in Germany, where I traveled alone, made friends, and vacationed in Austria. I’ve snowboarded in the Alps, and had homemade schnapps made by an elderly war veteran while sitting on the side of a mountain.

My next adventure was bucking custom among most of my friends and getting married. I had three babies in four years, and then things got really interesting. That’s another story though. <insert all of Dandelion here> Against my liberal, hippie San Francisco roots, I joined a very conservative church, and have been struggling to reconcile my beliefs, which are deeply held and seem to inhabit different worlds, but which actually don’t have to, for more than a decade now.

I went back to school as a divorced woman in her late thirties with three children, and I did so surprisingly well at college that I got into one of the better universities in the country for graduate school. That was scary, leaving home, after the previous years, but I took a deep breath and leapt.

Years ago, I read something in a Joseph Campbell book- I don’t think he wrote it, but I think he was quoting someone else. “As you go the way of life, you will come to a great chasm. Jump. It’s not as wide as you think.”

Those words have been my draught of courage more times than I can count. And maybe my saving grace—it’s just a lot more fun when you’re doing it because you want to, and not because the land behind you has turned into an inferno.

So basically, I couldn’t decide which adventure to write about on the fly.

Day 3: Billboards

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Three.

I have no idea where the hostility comes from in my resistance to “billboards.” I read the topic over and over, wondering what I was missing. Not only do I have a vacuum with billboards, but I am kind of pissy to be asked to write about something so seemingly random after two personal prompts.

Growing up, there weren’t many billboards in my part of the world. I don’t know if they’d been banned or we just weren’t in a target-rich environment- but my only memories of them are on long road-trips, and never (ever) in my town.

What we did have was a water tower that was painted like a vintage Libby’s can of fruit cocktail. I loved it when my grandma would drive past it. I didn’t actually like the fruit cocktail, with it’s insipid chunks of indistinguishable fruit and neon plastic cherries, but I loved the giant can towering in the air.

On family road trips, once we’d leave the safety of the west and head east, the billboards I do remember all told me I was going to hell. I was a heathen, and unless I embraced that billboard’s particular religious genre, I would burn, I would die, I would be in misery, and I had to be like them. It left a sour taste along the back of my throat, even as a child. Why would anyone spread messages like that, I wondered.

So I would avert my eyes, hope they were all wrong, and sing along with Alabama or Willie Nelson as my dad piloted our Volkswagen van, sans air conditioning, down the hot interstate. We were headed east over the sage-brush hills out of the safe haven of California, where no one ever told me I was going to hell or to prepare to burn for eternity.

Eleven Years and a Day

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Eleven years ago today, I sat down and I hammered out a response to something I read on the internet. I needed somewhere to post my response, and to do that, I needed a URL. I knew how to type and how to use Google, and within minutes, I had a Blogger address. On the fly, I had to name the blog, and I glanced over at the dandelions ringing the well of my basement window, and a blog was born.

At the time, I had two tiny boys, redheaded and wild, and hadn’t even dreamed of the next baby yet. My life was ordinary and quiet, I had recently joined my church, was a stay-at-home mom after being a professional for years, and was looking up some questions I had about faith and motherhood. I struck the motherlode.

At the time, I there was no way to have even the faintest inkling of what was coming.

I didn’t know I was a writer. I didn’t know I could write at all, let alone write well enough for anyone to want to read about my ordinary, quiet, life. When I started, I was imagining going through my grandmother’s journals—which never existed—and how fascinating I would have found it to read her thoughts and struggles as a woman and a mother, and about life when my own mother was a child. I wanted to preserve some of the ordinary days of my own children’s lives, so someday, perhaps, a granddaughter would look back and find it interesting. Without realizing it, I was valuing and observing the material culture and invisible work of women, and yearning for insight into my foremothers. So I started to write.

It’s impossible to adequately summarize what followed. As Marissa has said before, “If I wasn’t there with you, if I didn’t see so much with my own eyes, I’d never believe it.” Yeah. Me either.

A few weeks back, I got a package from Marissa, with the gorgeous, pregnant note “It’s time…” The book was The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Mo had no way of knowing I had been listening to an interview with Karr on NPR a few days before, and had sat in the car shaking. Like so much in this glorious, messy life, the ribbons change color and weave together into new patterns all the time, even while the greater picture remains hidden.

Today, I find myself having moved worlds, and been moved myself by tides and waves I never fathomed. I am forever away from that window-well basement, but it is still right here, I can see it. I want to bend down close to that young mother, fervently hunting and pecking out her first essay with all the sincerity in her heart, and whisper across the years, across the country, across time, “It’s going to be okay. Hold on tight, but know when to let go, too. You’re going to be okay. I promise.”

And then I wonder who is whispering in my ear, now.

Day 2: I Don’t Remember…

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Two.

I don’t remember much at all about Abby’s first year of life. And if I’m honest, there are large swaths of time missing thereafter, too. I remember small things, bright shining moments- I remember holding her newborn self, new baby smell intoxicating my sleep-addled brain. I remember someone else changing her and spreading baby lotion on her perfect skin, and erasing that new smell, and crying for hours afterwards. I remember the sense of loss, knowing deep in my soul that she was the last baby I would have, even though I wanted more so badly.

I don’t remember her first birthday at all. I don’t remember her first steps. I don’t remember her first words, but I know she was silent for a long time, and talked late. Everything from those years is warped and distorted by the lens of addiction and pain and loss and fear. When her age was counted still in weeks, her father floated away from us on a tide of prescription narcotics, and that wave swamped the whole family until my memory returns about three years later. I wonder at the trauma that is erased, I wonder what happened between the puddles of light memory. I know I cared for them, protected them, survived. We survived.

Not all of us survived. Their father is dead.

I don’t remember what it’s like to live in that kind of fear now. Those memories have been carried away, mercifully, on the waves as they went back out to sea after the destruction. I don’t remember the countless hands that reached out and down to help us up, but I have the profound sense of their reality, of their carrying, abiding presence, as I made my way over the jagged rocks with my three babies strapped to my aching body.

Maybe it’s enough that that’s all I remember.