Jan 23, 2007

The Safe Babies

My baby writhes up against me in bed--a limb flops hard against my neck--her chest pushes up and out and over towards me--her lower body follows a moment later.

“My!...Babies!” she shouts out. Eyes closed, still sleeping. Trapped in that great in between she gets caught in every night. It doesn’t last more than a minute or two but in our quiet horizontalness it can feel like forever.

“My!...Babies!” she complains again. Almost like two separate sentences--each word shouted with the same frequency as the other; the same booming.

It’s 4:32. I think about how pleasing those digits are--4s, 3s, and 2s seem soft to me. The sky is a chocolate brown. Some birds chatter from far away branches; distant teakettles at the just-before-bubbling point. Now a closer one --more persistent. A chirp like a smoke alarm signaling a weak battery.

“My!...Babies!” she pleads again, pushing up against me hard--three times her own weight in this moment--such intensity in her little body.

“Your babies are safe--” I say reaching out to grip her chubby thigh--trying to give her an anchor--something steady to reassure her. “Your babies are all here.”

Her babies are not here.

The soft pink one with the hard rubber face is still lying face down on the bricks in the backyard. It rained hard last night. I’ll have to rescue that one before she wakes up.

The bald baby that always looks like it’s mocking us is still strapped in the doll stroller at the bottom of the stairs.

Po--the green telletubby (really Dipsy I think but Po to her)--is wearing a Barbie pull-up somewhere in the living room. This one we got at a stoop sale two weeks ago. It says something when you squeeze it. But we don’t know what. I found my daughter having a private moment with Po on the stoop. It sat facing her, in her lap. She’d give it a full body squeeze--it would murmur--she’d pull it away and say ‘what?’ Squeeze--murmur--’what?’ Squeeze--murmur--’what?’

I’d have been jealous of all those hugs if I weren’t the recipient of so many myself. She’s the most physically affectionate of my children. The feel of her fists at the nape of my neck melts me. Arms stretched out as long as she can make them, little fingers curled in a tangle in the roots of my hair. Her powdery cheeks smell like warmth and caramel.

Her body begins to relax back into sleep.

“Your babies are safe,” I whisper to her. “You take such good care of your babies,” I say. I’m not lying because she does the best she can.

The sky is lavender now--the color of my bathrobe when I was seven.

“Geg!” she shouts now. One last spasm of need. I draw my knees up towards her and she pokes her feet in between my thighs. She invented this system herself right after she stopped nursing. Geg means leg.

“Must be like putting your feet into a vat of dough,”--a friend offered. I considered being offended at the metaphor--but honestly it’s just about the best sensation in the world--her hard little baby feet squidged firmly in my flesh. It’s so easy to imagine how amazing it must feel to her. Like when hotel covers are just perfect. I like the vat of dough thing. I put it on my list of reasons why I shouldn’t feel guilty for not working out.

It’s Mother’s Day morning. My other kids will be up in an hour or so and they might try to let me sleep in, but they probably won’t. They’ll come pile on me, and then they’ll start to bicker.

“Ah-layyy-da!” she calls out. Pure nonsense this time. She presses her feet against me and draws her whole body upright. She sits for a moment like a little triangle, head cocked back a bit. Looks and blinks but doesn’t really see. Then she thumps back down again hard--pops her feet back into the dough.

“Geg.” she murmurs again, and breathes herself back to deep sleep.

I’ll be exhausted in an hour when the others come in to bed with me. But now I’m blissfully awake.

Jan 22, 2007


I still love my children as much as you love yours and, probably, I love mine more. Mine are easier to love after all. Cuter, more insightful--more mature in their good moments--better brutes (which is powerful) in their bad ones. Let’s face it, mine are the best.

When my son wouldn’t come out from behind my leg, or lift his chin to face the grown up who was trying to engage him in conversation (because you know everyone wants to connect with him because of all that golden-white hair and those cheeks and wide thoughtful eyes) it was a sign of his superior sensitivity and a refusal to conform. He dressed as a ‘regular boy’ for Halloween when he was four--not content to just be a child he watched his own childhood careful not to admit too much, to commit to anything, to show too much enthusiasm. How cute is that? Made all the Freddies and Harry Potters look like a bunch of sheep if you ask me. When he’d refuse to be dropped off at the drop-off birthday party it was a sign of his deep attachment to his mother which everyone knows is a good sign when the mother is as cool and as laid back as I am. When he bit Grace Marenko in PreK because she stole Ian’s Power Ranger, it was a sign of loyalty and everyone was glad that he made such a bold gesture. He’s the only one who didn’t get in trouble--Grace was scolded for stealing, Ian for breaking the no-toys-in-school rule, and my son? Heralded a hero for his great courage and character. That’s a true story.

When my daughter didn’t speak--not even a mama or a dada by seventeen months--she was the best most adorable non-speaker in the neighborhood. All sorts of kids her age that year qualified for early intervention speech therapy (a cluster caused by what? overexposure to infant music-together classes--la da di da da dum la la di da da dum? dust from the 9-11 cloud that hovered over the playground that fall?--who knows?) But she was the quietest--the most creative mute of them all. The best charades partner you could ever hope for, so good was this toddler at getting exactly what she wanted from anyone, any time of day. Everybody admired her. She tied her friend’s shoelaces at three and stopped wearing diapers at twenty months. The best, brightest, most connected to her body, most dexterous of them all.

And my baby? The chubbiest most lovable tank of a two year old--all pink and exaggerated cheeks--gravity defying belly and the toughest of all three. I hate having to break up the quarrels she gets into at playgroup. She picks on kids her own size which means that she picks on three year olds. And if you let them have at it--a lil tikes car for example, or a sesame street pop up toy--they tend to pull with such equal and opposite force that it looks like something from Cirque du Soleil and sounds like Godzilla vs. Mothra. But the Caribbean nannies frown on this letting them have at it thing (so do the parents of the other child if it’s their only or their first). But everyone agrees she’s got the greatest determination and sweetest disposition all at the same time. She’s the best bully on the block.

See how much I love them? See how incredible they are? Good, because this is where the hard part comes. Something is shifting. It’s not a bad thing, just a shift. But a major one--one that enables me to see into the future for the first time since becoming a parent and understand how the rest of this thing might play out.

It’s like I’ve been underwater since the birth of my son almost eight years ago. Fluidful floating feeling fumbling--all else blurred--sort of soft focus. Regular world experiences (Clinton v Lewinsky, Bush v Gore, War) reduced to the noise the grownups made in Charlie Brown. Rare moments of clarity--like when the man at Duane Reade didn’t hold the door open for me when I ran out for necessities in my first solo public appearance when my first baby was eight days old, or when I pissed off Batsheva at work within minutes of returning from maternity leave after my third child was born--made me eager to return to my home where babies and children clung to me, fed off of me, pressed tear stained faces against my shoulder. Eager to return to my underwater life.

It’s hard to describe the shift without picturing that first creature that emerged from the water onto dry land millions and millions of years ago. So let’s just go there. I am crawling onto dry land now. Really, it feels that way. My baby’s two and a half--she quit nursing a few months ago and is working on being potty trained. That might have something to do with this whole wet-to-dry thing. But she tags around after my older ones so much it doesn’t quite feel like it did back when I was all-consumed by my previous two year olds. My older ones are five and seven now. They seem less like precious-flesh-of-my-flesh types and more like people who live in my house. I have glimpses of what it might be like to not recognize my own child--they are so much their own creatures at this point.

After seven years of a pseudo-family bed situation my son now does what the sitcom kids do--heads upstairs and gets himself to sleep after a quick pat on the head (really, I pat his head). My five year old daughter, not content to let her brother own any glory for sudden independence sleeps through the night every night in her own room now. I wake up sometimes and they’re already starting their own days--all by themselves.

This morning 6:15 I heard THUD pat pat pat (loft bed to bathroom)--screek screek screek glog glug gargle gargle spit rinse screw screw screw (mouthwash). Faucet rushes on fumble fumble brushabrushabrushabrusha spit brushbrusha spit faucet off silence. Pat pat --toilet seat lifted--rush of morning pee--toilet seat lowered. Flush. Then receding pat pat pats as this morning dude headed downstairs to...oh I don’t know...I grabbed another 40 minutes of sleep before finding out.

I’m now at an unfamiliar point in parenting where I don’t melt anymore at how cute it is that my son (now 7) can pee (posing like a real guy at the toilet), or thinks to brush his teeth at all, or helps himself to mouthwash when no grownups are around.

I’m on the other side of something. I’m up on dry land--and they’re all here with me, considering me to be more and more human with each passing day. Learning that I make mistakes, lie, mean well, and would manipulate any situation in their favor if I could.

I’m up on dry land now where all the things I said I’d do if I didn’t have small children lurk.

I see moms on the playground who are still down pretty deep. They look sort of goofy but I don’t begrudge them that. Everyone should be blessed with such a watery subsurface sabbatical.

Sometimes I think I may have had my third because I saw the edge approaching--could see all that dry land up ahead and I wanted to put it off a little bit longer, all those new and different pressures. But now that I’m here I’m enjoying the air.

I walk beside my children now. Not behind hunched over a stroller but next to them--standing upright. Another image from the evolution chart. We take classes together at the Museum and I dance to Donna Summer like I used to in college and I revel in embarrassing them. I used to worry about that when we were underwater. I also used to worry about all those lies about Santa and the Tooth Fairy. I thought my kids were so fragile.

I explain complex things to them like what white lies are, and about karma. And I am the mom and they are my kids and I love them more than any mom could ever love her children. Really I do.

But it’s different now.

Jan 19, 2007

Off to See the Queen

Late last night in the throes of a high fever my seven year old son started to ramble. Mommy? he asked in a voice that was measured and grave...You know that country where the Queen of England is? I wanna go there.

England? I said--putting a hand over his heart--feeling the heat and crazy pounding of his little chest through his flame retardant camouflage pajamas. It was 1:38.

That country, he insisted, where the Queen of England is...that country, that country, that country.

His eyes were open but distant. He was looking at me, and through me all at once.

The country is England, I repeated.

Yes the Queen of England, he said. It’s a different country--I wanna go there Mommy I wanna go, I wanna go there Mommy. The urgent beat of his heart mimicked the urgency of his demand. Like drums building up to a big finish.

Honey, we can go there, I promise. I said.

I want another country--can we go to another country? I wanna go NOW.

Honey, it’s nighttime you’re safe--you’re OK.

I wanna go to another country--he was on the edge of crying.

Sweetheart you’ve been to another country. Germany was another country. Ireland was another country. Remember? I’m not sure why I was going there with him. He was just so alarmed and distraught.

We’ll go to England, I promised.

Where the Queen of England is--he nodded.

An hour earlier he had woken me to tell me that children were falling off the bed. By the time I responded he had sort of snapped out of it though and chuckled--oh yeah he‘d smiled--when I pointed out that it wasn’t true.

He was really sticking to this Queen of England thing though and while requesting a trip abroad, an adventure, isn’t out of the ordinary for this inquisitive world-is-my-oyster son of mine, this was a particularly nutty situation. Did I mention he was scratching his wrist manically the whole time? I reached for his hand--the one that was itchy and looped my forefinger into his fist. It was intended to seem loving and motherly but I was really just trying to stop the scratching. To save this little dry hand from the other one. His aggressive hand started to finger my finger. Sort of grabbing it; sort of scratching it. That’s my finger, I said--lovingly, in the kind of regressive mothering tone you pull out when your older children are sick and could use a bit of babying.

I know, he said. He pulled my finger to his lips robotically, comically.

I want to bite it, he said, and started to sink his teeth into it. The comedy was over.

All of my margins turned icy. I yanked my finger away and shouted for my husband--who had squirreled the girls down to the pull-out couches when we realized at 11pm that my son’s temperature was 104.

My son didn’t flinch, just lied there regarding me calmly. He knew what he was doing and didn’t know what he was doing at the same time. It was as if his internal barometer of reasonable behavior had been reset somehow and all of his actions and ramblings were falling well within the new parameters.

When my husband arrived and I started to fill him in my son nodded along, agreeing with my version of events, not seeing anything wrong with them. Eyes open but the energy behind them something other than the usual lights and sparkles.

He wants to go to where the Queen of England is... I explained. My husband listened compassionately--bewildered in his sleepiness in the dark at the foot of the bed. He administered some fever-reducer and returned to the girls downstairs, leaving me alone with the kind of horror movie I don’t like. The ones with cracked-faced dolls and possessed blonde kids.

And what is it with the Queen of England anyway? Isn’t she the person that the total crazies mention all the time? Or is it the King of France? If you want someone you’re writing about to seem like a real nutcase don’t you have them demand to see, or is it be? the Queen of England? I picture someone with an open-backed hospital gown and a Julia Child-like trill of a voice spouting “I’m off to have tea with the Queen,’ in a white room full of droolers and wardens.

My seven year old probably couldn’t pick the Queen out of a lineup--so Disneyfied is his world of royalty.

In a rational moment--a rare flurry of practicality--I asked him if he had to pee.

No, I just did it, he lied. I just took a bath too, he lied, again.

I encouraged him to go to the bathroom and pee--again--I humored him. I welcomed the light from the bathroom, and the familiar back-to-normal sound of him peeing.

We slept with the lights on.

No David! A page-by-page rebuttal

David’s mom always said No David.

David’s mom was a total bitch.

No David don’t reach for the cookies so high on the shelf they’ll surely fall. The precious ceramic jar that means more to us than you do might break and then we won’t have a fragile vessel that taunts you with the promise of chocolate morsels anymore.

No David don’t track mud through the house. Don’t you know that young children should have better sense than that? What do you think the welcome mat’s for? I know I didn’t come when you called me but you really should be more patient. Really. Come on.

No David don’t let the bathtub overflow! I know I did a really stupid thing leaving you alone in the tub and all...but really someone had to clean the mud off the rug and the longer I left it the harder it would have been to do. So even though I know I shouldn’t have left you in the tub alone--because I’m remembering now that that’s, like, rule number one for a mom, you should have better sense than that because now I feel guilty. How hard would it have been to have kept an eye on the water level?

OK do come back please. We all know that suburban streets are like pedophile city--in fact all this safe-feeling sidewalk and front yard business is like candy for child predators. And even though I’m sure that new guy down the block is a decent guy, he seems like such a great neighbor and all, always keeping to himself-- playing video games and tinkering in his garage...you really should get back here. And get some clothes on.

Be quiet David--stop banging on the frying pan. I get that it’s a great cause and effect gig for you but it’s a teflon pan and once the black stuff starts to flake off I’ll be poisoning all of us when I cook and then I’ll have to feel guilty about that too.

Don’t play with your food David! Even though you’re a creative guy doing very clever things and if I could help you channel it we’d all be so well off--it exhausts me to see you lose focus like that.

And about the showing us your food while you chew it? That’s enough David--but wait, what’s that?--string beans, carrots, broccoli, chicken...is that a lima bean?--that’s a mighty healthy mouthful--so sorry, please carry on. I should pick my battles more carefully. Speaking of which...

Go to your room David!--Even though the superhero show is on. The one thing you could have talked about with the other kids tomorrow at school, I know. But it might give you violent tendencies--it might teach you to be impatient, to shout a lot, it might make you less tolerant. So get to your room goddammit. Go sit in there alone and develop a great personality.

Settle down! Stop jumping on soft things. At this point I’m sort of just yelling for the sake of yelling. I’m in a trap. But it’s a grown-up job to stop kids from jumping on beds. See what that superhero show made you do?

And stop picking your nose David! Even though your finger fits so perfectly in that hole and even though you’re not hurting anything right now and you’re being sorta quiet, it grosses me out and the other moms will surely talk about me if they see you doing that.

Yes David--come here and hug me. Make me feel good about myself. I’m the only mama you’ll ever have and you need me. You really need me. Yes David, love me unconditionally. Good David. Good boy.

Jan 16, 2007

Once a Story's Told...

What made me angry today? Nothing. Not even the bugs/nits/eggs whatever I found clinging to Piper’s hair this afternoon. I hardly mind the bugs at this point. The whole antiseptic, paranoid, load-after-load of laundry thing (see Lousy and Proud) just leads to an illusion of safety which, for us, last time, led to two months of sanity followed by another major infestation. We’re back to the frequent comb-outs and I’m rather enjoying all the primate-like picking. I don’t eat what I find but I can see why that would be the most efficient method of disposal for these little nuisances. Pulling out a microscopic dot and then hoping it made it into the plastic Fairway bag but guessing that it might have disappeared into a groove on the chenille of the couch, or that it might be lying in wait in the fuzz of the oriental rug, the one Etta practices her headstands on...just doesn’t feel that safe.

But what is safe anyway? Etta’s classroom is infested. I say hi to all the adorable kids when I walk into the class to pick her up but I don’t look at their faces, I scan their scalps for specks. New families become infested and they call me for the lice-lady’s number. I compare stories with them and shake my head at their predicament, but I can’t match their anxiety these days--the deep dark secret that I’m not even trying to keep is that I’m just not horrified by lice anymore.

I comb, they come back. I comb some more, they disappear, I comb again, there they are. No big deal.

Tonight I did the full-on conditioner treatment to Piper. She squirmed a lot and there’s no way I got them all. Like looking for shark’s teeth in Florida. What are the odds I found every tooth in my path? Is there a chance that my path twisted and turned towards every tooth out there? Did I sneeze and miss a doozie? So existential. If a nit hides in the hair and isn’t found--is it really there? We all know the answer, but you get my drift.

So all this combing makes me itchy which isn’t a bad thing when your’e allowed to scratch. Piper wants to put headphones on and listen to music on the computer. I take advantage of the fact that she doesn’t get the concept of headphones and blast music from the iTunes library into the whole room. Cat Stevens sings ‘Morning Has Broken’ on a CD playlist I made for my girlfriends at Christmas. Elated by the piano crescendo I dump a handful of Tresemme into my palm, rub my hands together, and smooth it--cold--onto my head. And I sing along. Like the first dewfall, on the first grass--carries me into the bathroom to see where the conditioner’s going.

More conditioner, more Cat Stevens, more piano, more singing out loud. Piper busies herself with the headphones and I note that they should be put away (proper procedure would be to bag them for two weeks or wipe them down with something strong), contaminated no doubt by the contact with the nits I didn’t find, but what self-respecting nit would choose slick plastic headphones over the lush forest of Piper’s head? Headphones--schmedphones, I’m not worried. Rita Coolidge is on now for the first swipe of the comb through my goopy hair. Once a story’s told it can’t help but grow old. Tears of joy spring to my eyes. Clearly the most beautiful music ever written, I think as I inspect the first glob of conditioner by smearing it acoss a kleenex. Maybe I should write to Rita Coolidge to thank her--or find out if someone else wrote it and thank him. The song goes on, I keep combing. Piper’s still happy with the headphones. My entire living room glows with warmth and happiness. I have a melancholy moment remembering how we used to sit and gush about music in college--sitting in sofas in circles and celebrating the genius of lyrics and of the choices we made in crafting our own mixed tapes. I crave that kind of contact now. I want credit for this Rita Coolidge song. I want to play it for all of my friends and I want everyone to agree that it’s beautiful.

I smear more conditioner across a kleenex and inspect it--nothing--and stuff it into a plastic bag with the others. Rita Coolidge turns into Fastball. Piper does a little jig at the change in tempo. It’s always summer they’ll never get cold... The music’s all so uplifting. My life feels perfect. I have no nits, and the metal comb feels great. What could be better? Piper’s abandoned the headphones and is lolling about on the chenille couch--her helmet of hardened conditioner hair sticks out comically--like Grandpa from the Munsters. I finish my combout just as Englebert Humperdinck finishes “After the Lovin’.’ And the love on your face is so real that it makes me want to cry. Swells of orchestral happiness surge through my chest. I close the plastic bag and stuff it into the trash. Thank you music, thank you bugs...

I’ve had a wonderful night.

Jan 11, 2007

Third on the Way

The first time I was pregnant my gums bled. I was queasy, exhausted, and I slept round the clock. I had to cradle my hot-sand-filled boobs so they wouldn’t throng so much with pain when I went downstairs and I had to shower backwards to protect them from the painful spray of water. Emotionally, though, I was on a grassy field full of wonder and wildflowers. This was Pregnancy!--this was a typical first trimester, and I embraced it as a new member of a desirable club embraces and accepts membership dues along with some friendly hazing. I always knew I’d have a child (if circumstances and my body permitted it), so there was a pretty firm foundation beneath this slightly uneasy pregnant beginning.

My second pregnancy came a bit sooner than I’d thought. Perhaps the rhythm method isn’t the best choice for someone who can’t even remember what day of the week it is. A few weeks after feeling personally insulted by dog poop on the sidewalk, being unable to look at torn earlobe ads on the subway, and eating saltines round the clock I peed on a pregnancy test during a commercial while watching ER and it pinked positive immediately. We knew we’d have another child--but not quite so soon. There was plenty of guilt for my too-soon-to-be-dethroned fourteen month old (known as the most photographed non-royal child in human history) along with the predictable queasy exhaustion. But again, this was an inevitable pregnancy and there was green grass and beautiful solid soil underneath the entire experience.

Now I’m pregnant with my third and I’m a loony toons creature standing on the nothingness off the edge of the cliff. Nothing but pure air and anxiety below. No earthy sure footing underneath the exhaustion and nausea. Nothing to buoy me up and over the blue days. Stunned confusion clouds my face and I can feel the gravity pulling my body down.

This wasn’t exactly an accident. But it wasn’t exactly planned.

A third child? We weren’t sure. We had a boy and a girl and we were told we were done-- as in ‘oh good you can stop now,’ and ‘perfect! a boy and a girl, now you’re finished.’ I hated being told that. But was that enough reason to have another? Probably not.

I loved giving birth and giving names. I loved being treated like I was ultra super special afterwards--an exquisite brand of attention that lasted until the next neighborhood mom popped out a newer baby. Reasons enough to do it all again? Probably not.

I searched for clues everywhere and the world readily offered them to me. At the age of three, my son made a magic marker picture of our family and it included his sister and the ‘baby brother’ he insisted we’d have. For Christmas last year we sent a picture of Batman that my son drew (have a ‘super’ holiday--get it?)--only the bat logo on the shirt of the superhero was mistaken by friends and relatives to be a baby in a belly and people called me with tentative and expectant ‘is there some special news?’ kinds of calls.

A family trip to the Bahamas made us feel like a tiny insignificant family of four. Only four? They’d say as we’d enter one of the fourteen themed restaurants on the grounds of the large large-family friendly resort. Only four, we’d reply as we’d weave through raucous tables of families of five, six, even seven. We’d sit calmly, quietly, all too orderly amidst the masses of other people’s progeny. And I’d think ‘Eureka! we should have another.’

Years ago when we were considering buying a minivan, minivans popped up everywhere on the highway. I noticed them like never before and got to where I could tell the difference before a Caravan and a Town and Country a quarter of a mile away. I was in the market for one and the world became my minivan superstore. It happened when we wanted a new air conditioner (Frigidaire, Fedders, and Friedrich--words I’d never noticed before--fought for my attention from apartment windows and office buildings), it happened when we wanted a new stroller (there’s a Maclaren plaid! there’s a rubber tire! that one turns into a backpack!). And now it was happening with a third child. The joys of the large family! Why I love being a third child! Five families who have five children! These were the articles that popped out at me from newsstands and dentist office magazine racks. I found successful-seeming clusters of three everywhere. I even let myself be persuaded by Arthur--Look! there’s a well-adjusted boy and girl with a tiny baby sister--if that family can do it why can’t we?

Never mind that they were just drawings of aardvarks. Clearly the world was trying to tell me something.

But, my most convincing argument in favor of having a third was that I didn’t have the finished feeling all of my friends seem to have. ‘Whew!--we’re done!’ they say. ‘ Two’s enough!’ ‘One’s enough!’ Without that definitive feeling I worried that I’d always wonder why we didn’t have another. Despite the fact that I’ve never been known for my ability to make a good solid final decision (just watch me deliberate over a menu), I allowed myself to be persuaded by this lack of finality.
If conceiving a child had required several hours of paperwork--sign here, initial there--we might have talked ourselves out of it midway through. But we make babies pretty easily-- at one point even this seemed like a persuasive argument for making more kids--and all it took was one seized opportunity during a ‘but maybe...?’ moment before breakfast one day. We hadn’t reached a final decision; we just had one lazy crazy moment of thinking we should leave it to chance. After optimistically carrying a tampon around with me for two weeks I began to do the math and realized that those several morning minutes had added up to more than a chance.

Boom, I was pregnant.

Whenever I’ve seen a woman pregnant with her third--or her more-than-second for that matter--I’ve assumed that she was mother earth. Solid, confident, sure of herself and of her abilities. I figured that the first pregnancy was a baffling and overwhelming experience for anyone, that the second was an easier and more assured pregnancy, and that any woman making it to three knew exactly what she was doing (otherwise she wouldn’t be doing it, right?). I’d hoped to gain entry into that confidence club with this pregnancy. I didn’t.

This is the ‘what the hell were we thinking?’ pregnancy. This is the ‘how are we going to manage?’ pregnancy. Turns out, I knew exactly what I was doing the first time around and was similarly strong with the second. This is the wacky uncertain one. People who say to me ‘three’s too much,’ ‘I could never have that many,’ ‘how will you do it?’ or, and I love this one, ‘are you insane?’ think they are talking to someone who can handle those comments. It’s almost like a sport for people--like bouncing rubber balls against a concrete wall. But I’m not concrete this time, I’m nerf, and I’m absorbing the full weight of each blow. I’m feeling off-balance and betrayed. Why did it take becoming pregnant for me to have sudden ‘two’s PERFECT’ clarity?

Suddenly the world only offers views of perfect twos, of messed-up third children, of miserable middle kids. My aunt, the third child in my mom’s family, is single-handedly messing up inheritance issues surrounding family property, several families I know, heretofore untouched by tragedy, have been rocked to the core by the onset of medical problems in their third children, and lately my husband’s older brother and younger sister seem to be fostering a relationship that can feel uncomfortably exclusive--something that couldn’t be happening if his parents had stopped at two. I’m disoriented and dismayed. The superstore I’ve been shopping in just changed all of its happy family of five displays to those featuring families of four.

My Ohio friends --the ones with the moms down the road and the sprawling green lawns insist ‘you’ll LOVE it!” but they’re the kinds of people who can fit happy and chaos into the same sentence and so I don’t really trust them.

My Brooklyn friends are saying generous things like “you’re so BRAVE,” as they pack up their entirely mobile, diaperless kid/s for yet another cool family adventure. I am aware that someday my family will be mobile and diaperless but I do feel bad that my five year old son, whose summer to-do list includes ‘make butter, make paper, and go to Africa,’ will have to wait even longer for his loftier dreams to come true.

Boom, I’m pregnant. What have we done?

I have been crankier than has been necessary--unfairly directing all of my ambivalence and uncertainty into my extra-utero family members. You know the scene in the movie where the woman lashes out at her husband in the delivery room--payback for knocking her up in the first place? I never had that delivery room anger with the first two babies, but I’ve got it already with this one--and I’m six months away from the hospital. The sound of my husband peeing first thing in the morning makes me want to scream.

Surely these are the hormones. Surely I’ve not achieved, through this pregnancy, some crystal clear sense of how unforgivable my husband is. I’m not really meant to leave him because he tinkles loudly, am I? Am I?

So this is what I’m inviting a new baby into. A once perfect family of four with a newly resentful and groundless mom and a urine-filled father. I’ve been asked by franker friends if I’d considered terminating and, while I’d love to report that my answer was an unqualified ‘No,’ the truth is my answer was more like ‘No--because I wouldn’t trust myself to act on any of my wishy-washy thoughts’--again let me reiterate I’d be LEAVING JOE because of his morning pee if I were acting on my emotions these days.

Terrified? Yes. Anxious? Yes. Doubtful? Yes. Excited? Yes. This is clearly the most long-term decision (or nondecision?, you decide) I’ve ever made. I don’t plant gardens because, historically, I’ve never been able to see several years into the future. Plant this seed and next year you’ll have a flower/in several years you’ll have a bush/in ten years you’ll have a tree. Whatever. It’s a good thing I’m not a landscape gardener or an urban planner. I watched those guys plant saplings along the West Side Highway a few years ago and thought yeah, right, dig away you hopeless Sisyphussians. Of course now it’s a lush green and lovely stretch--thank God someone else was making those decisions.

I’m hoping that this is my garden. I am hoping that this planted seed (indeed!) will eventually fill our family with joy and oxygen and fruit and shade. I am not excited about the pruning and the weeding and the watering--all the sleepless watering--that will be necessary to get through the next couple of years. I worry about how the existing plants will handle the changes in the soil and in the gardener’s attention to them. On the other hand, this might work out alright. I’ve done the math and it looks like someday I’ll have a ten year old and an eight year old and a five year old and I like the way that sounds. Someday I’ll have a whole slew of children (you can’t say whole slew if you only have two) who will be fascinating young adults. Someday, it’s possible, I’ll be on my deathbed surrounded by three (count ‘em three!) adoring geriatric children. Or maybe I’ll just have two resentful older children and an impossibly troubled and sickly younger child who I will have raised by myself after having given their perfectly fine father the boot in a fit of irrational rage. Who knows? There isn’t much I’m sure of these days but my guess is that I should just focus on what I can control. I should take this one step at a time, I should try to remain open to what the world has to offer, and if I can’t get my husband to cut down on his fluids, I should work on getting a bathroom door that will prevent me from having to hear them .

Jan 5, 2007

A Rat in the Kitchen

Today was a rare start-to-finish day with all three kids. A hot summer in Brooklyn and no car to make a wild escape to some air-conditioned mall. We spent the morning in the playground, the middle of the day trying for a combination of downtime (baby’s nap, mommy’s attempts at thumbing through some magazines, half-hearted lunch--”sorry kiddo no white bread, will you just eat a bowl of yogurt?”), and the late afternoon helping some friends run a lemonade/cookie/art stand from their stoop on the other side of the neighborhood.

On any other day, this late afternoon plan would have morphed into a dinner with this family, but today it wasn’t possible. That mom needed some quiet time to accomplish some things, and feeding my brood of three in addition to her two wasn’t going to work for her, not this evening.

So we packed it in and aimed for home--about 14 blocks away. My five year old daughter was distraught at the defeat of eating dinner with only family members. I was a bit distraught too as it wasn’t going to be much of a picnic once we got home. Or rather it was going to be just that--a picnic. We were in the midst of a kitchen renovation, a fine dusting of plaster covered all of our utensils, and we’d be forced to eat in the living room--something that was making me increasingly squeamish now that the end-of-July ants had found us again. The baby had just begun to demand to feed herself. Somehow globs of yogurt and macaroni on the kitchen floor is easier to stomach than the same concoction smushed into the oriental rugs in the living room.

Plus, more in-home time with my older two was just more time for them to fight--awful, tearful, whine-filled, transparent (she hates tv but won’t let him watch his show) types of fights. Away from home there was a subtle us-against-them-feeling that always banded the two together. In our house the only ‘them’ available was each other. I’d considered following a friend’s technique and becoming such a frighteningly mean and irrational parent that I would be the convenient enemy and the two of them would be locked together as allies--Flowers-in-the-Attic-like--for the rest of their life. But I’m too much of a people-pleaser (ask my therapist) for this technique to last longer than the occasional heated moment, so that tactic was out of the question.

Twelve blocks from home, and no more excited about getting there so far ahead of bedtime than I had been two blocks earlier, I was growing sympathetic to my daughter’s despair--”can’t you call someone to see if they can have dinner with us?” she begged. But even with our special circumstances, this was tricky territory at 6:15. I still had some dignity to hold on to and calling around looking for dinner plans was probably going to interrupt several meals, and make me feel like a loser which is one thing when you’re alone, and another thing when three sets of hungry eyes are dependent on the outcome of these calls (and keeping track of them out loud just to be helpful--’and Henry’s mom said no, and Jaden’s mom said no, and Lola’s mom said no...’). When you’re looking for company and you’re alone you don’t have to be honest with yourself about how many rejections you’ve had. Besides, the thought that some perfect Norman Rockwell feast (surely that was the scene being played out in all of the kitchens around us) was being interrupted by a ringing phone, and that I would be at the other end with the pitiful combination of cell-phone-crackling-and-street-noise looking for some action made me cringe.

Three and a half blocks into our journey we came across a lively new addition to the neighborhood. A Cuban restaurant with a huge courtyard. An enormous expanse of lime green concrete surrounded by lime green spray-painted fencing filled with unbreakable furniture and garden swings. I did the math and realized that my three kids--aged 18 months to 6-and-three-quarters would blend in and practically disappear among the loud music and foliage. I aimed the stroller that way and seethed a warning to the kids (aimed mostly at my 5 year old)--’if anyone fights or complains or whines one bit I will know that doing something fun like selling lemonade and cookies makes you too tired and cranky and we won’t ever do anything fun ever again.’ Turns out one of the beautiful parts of having all of them out in public is that I can make these nasty threats in a sort of breathy hiss and they have to keep alive the possibility that I’ll make good on them. When they’re out of their comfort zone and I’m making these types of noises--linking their bad behavior to some really wonderful activity--they’re usually just terrified enough to behave beautifully. Even as I’m doing this I’m wondering how they’ll portray me in stories they tell when they’re older--oh sure she always seemed so nice to everyone else but under her breath she was a snake.

Once we hit the edge of the courtyard we were in paradise. My baby penguin-walked up to a sturdy picnic table and began to climb onto the bench. My older two ran to the batman ride-on car and circled it, checking it out like miniature mechanics.

“Can we...?” my son started gesturing towards the car enthusiastically. The version of ‘no’ I use for occasions like this is to indicate that I don’t have any quarters, accompanied by a bewildered look suggesting that I probably wouldn’t be able to get quarters (even if I really wanted to) any time soon.

But as I was preparing to respond, he plucked a quarter out of his pocket--heavy with his share of the afternoon’s lemonade/cookie/art earnings. This was a delightful new development. I nodded a ‘go ahead,’ he hunched over to study the coin slot, and seconds later he was shimmying back and forth to the Batman theme.

A kid in a Batman mask zigzagged up to the car and I watched as my two children (who moments earlier had been preparing to argue over who should go first) bristle together--intuitively preparing to join forces against the stranger who, in costume alone, threatened their places in the Batmobile deservedness category.

As the baby ran off to join the tussle at the batcave, I studied the menu and surveyed the yard. A trendy (that means super-skinny) bald woman in an Orange Crush tee shirt was overseeing the installation of a fountain a few paces away from my table. Some raucous groups of trendy (more super-skinny) people laughed heartily along the fence. A heavy-set woman in a loud patterned shirt sat fanning herself. An enormous camera hung from her neck. A family of four sat in the shade with their dinner. Several adorable busboys husked corn near the open-air kitchen. The cook wore a bandana--Hell’s Angel-tight and down to his eyebrows--and moved swiftly above all the action, flipping burgers, and preparing plates.

The Batmobile/stoop-sale-earnings combination occupied the kids until their food came, and the food was great. Undeniably kid-friendly fare--corn on the cob, hot-dogs, bubbly orange drinks...delicious. All that and a big fat rat.

The heavy woman with the aloha shirt jumped up and started to shout--’Over there! Over there!’ pointing to the wall near a porch swing. No one looked where she was pointing because her multicolored bouncingness was such a spectacle in itself. But then a loud clattering noise came from the wall she was pointing to and all heads moved to find the busboys and the cook slamming shovels on the ground, all bent over and determined like hockey players.

The rat scurried away from the shovel-slammers, and raced along the wall. Disappearing under the free-standing kitchen truck which, until it became shelter for the rat, had seemed like such a cute idea. The bouncing lady with the camera turned out to be a reporter from the New York Times. She bounced up onto a picnic bench, and didn’t come back down again--using the height to take even better photos of the action.

My kids and I pulled our feet up to crossed-legged positions and continued to eat. The rat led the restaurant crew all over the edge of the patio. Shovels smashed down on concrete all around it, but never made contact--which I was happy about, since I’m a very squeamish carnivore and would not have been able to finish my chicken dinner if fresh animal blood and flesh were splattered nearby.

The fountain lady came over to us and cozied up on our bench, leaning in to us conspiratorially. She didn’t seem flummoxed by the rat or by the crazed cooking crew, or by the fact that this might all end up being mentioned, with pictures, in the New York Times.

“The rat came from the subway station over there,” she said calmly, nodding towards Lafayette. I smiled like I understood, like ‘of course there’s a rat in your restaurant and of course it came from the subway and of course it’s just no big deal.’ Did being her confidante make me trendy too?

Eventually the rat proved her right, and disappeared down the subway steps. The cartoon trail of weapon-weilding white-wearing workers screeched to a halt--keystone-cop-style. They shrugged at each other, and went back to their jobs.

The kids and I floated home, lighter than air, thrilled (really) about our new neighborhood eatery. We call it ‘the restaurant with the rat’ (without irony) and aim for it often. The kids said it was like watching an adventure movie during dinner. I thought it was like a comedy. And no one thought it was much of a tragedy.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Jan 4, 2007

The Patsy in Me

I take gorgeous pictures of my children. I zoom in really close, and am as happy to capture tears and screwed up faces as I am smiles. They are Brooklyn babies and I celebrate that in every roll. I click away while they cavort on playground equipment in front of brownstones. They pose for me in front of graffiti-streaked walls, with faces stained red from the Italian ices the man with the horn sells in the park. I have the pictures developed at a professional place where the people know my name and print my pictures with great skill and attention. You can’t always see the tops of their heads but you can always see what they were feeling. I take pictures in triplicate, of everything they do.

It may seem odd, then, that I had been harboring the seedy fantasy of taking my special subjects to one of those mall portrait studios. The thought of someone plopping them down on a carpeted countertop in front of a blue mottled background and yanking a gorgeous portrait out of them actually excited me. The thought of a regular portrait of the two of them--one with a hand on the other’s shoulder, perhaps? both with far away looks?--thrilled me. But we live in a hip, progressive community--proud of art and individuality--so I learned to keep this trashy temptation to myself.

Then one day at playgroup I got a vibe from my new mom-friend Kate. We were comparing secret obsessions with sordid suburban stuff like wall-to-wall carpeting and free parking lots and my lurid longing just leaked out. Kate confessed to having had her own curiosity about the suburban ritual of the wallet picture. Thrilled almost to tears, we patched together a plan.

Several weeks later, awash in guilty giggles, Kate and I plucked our four children from the playground, scrubbed their faces with slobbered-on mom thumbs, dressed them in coordinated outfits, and nudged over the Brooklyn Bridge and through the Holland tunnel into a New Jersey mall to realize our dreams. Our husbands, busy at their artsy jobs in Manhattan, had no idea where we were or what we were about to do to their children.

We were two rivers and twenty-seven minutes from Brooklyn but we may as well have traveled to another country.
Air conditioning flash-cooled my skin; muzak-versions of my prom songs set off tiny bells of memory in my brain that conflicted with the bonging gongs of motherhood; oddly lit store fronts boasting racks of rayon things I could live without beckoned me with red SALE signs.

We stumbled upon the store by accident--having been misled by the color-coded system on the You are Here! map at the mall entrance (Brooklyn is not color-coded). I was disoriented and nervous, but hopeful that something magical was about to happen. Finally! A gorgeous portrait of my kids that would require no exhausting work. Finally! A regular picture of the two of them together, beaming in unison. The pictures I take are candid close-ups. These would be centered, full-bodied traditional poses. Pictures my mom’s friends would appreciate.

In the seventeen minutes it took us to fill out the financial forms our children were plopping themselves down adorably all over a giant baseball mitt on an enormous sheet of Barney-colored paper that was suspended in the air at one end. They were giggling and holding each other and climbing on things and looking sweetly over their shoulders. I was encouraged. Our credit cards were swiped for the sitting fees, and it was time to get started. I was given the option of staying on the purple paper with Tina the photographer-slash-friendly cashier, or following a grubby hallway to another studio with an as-yet unseen alternate photographer. I chose not to trade our store-front spot and clean-cut teenager for who and what were behind Door #2, so Kate and her children were whisked into the back for their session. My kids and I awaited instruction. We were ready for the magic to begin.

Thinking that I wouldn’t have to be involved, I’d brought along a couple of magazines. I assumed that Tina--our teen photographer--was hired for her ability to pull magic from my young children. I assumed wrong. Following Tina’s orders, I spent the entire session millimeters out of camera range, on my knees, begging and pleading and bribing and smiling and talking in a falsetto ‘standing still can be FUN’ kind of clown-voice to my unimpressed toddlers. The film wasn't even in the camera yet and I was exhausted.

In the first pose, three-year old Amos refused to sit on the turqoise bean bag. After minutes of begging, we1 finally put his eleven-month-old sister on it and asked him to stand behind her. While she teetered off the edge (rocking her body to gain momentum sufficient enough to get off the damn thing) we explained to Amos that Etta would fall and be very, very hurt unless he could be a good big brother and hold her still. Snap!

One down. This was a cute pose. Neither was smiling, but Amos was taking the job of saving his sister’s life very seriously. A few more life-threatening scenarios involving cute props, a few more reasons to ask him to save her life, and we'd be done.

Wrong again. As my two precious angels waited in front of the camera, glued to their special spots on the purple paper, increasingly apathetic Tina made an awful mistake:

“If you don’t smile, I’m g-o-n-n-a have to tickle you!” she threatened.

Amos’s bemused non-smile collapsed into a frown. Etta started to make whiny puppy noises and looked at me nervously. It wasn't a hollow threat. A young man with spiky white hair appeared from the back and started to poke at my children with a long stick. Sure, it had a rainbow striped poof on the tip of it, but it was still a weapon and it was weilded by a strange man saying “tickle tickle tickle tickle tickle!”

Amos bolted from his spot and grabbed my leg, Etta started rocking faster and propelled herself off of the squishy sack.

Tina looked at me, disappointed. She reminded me that she’d only taken one picture. I tried not to worry that my kids were letting her down-- but the Patsy Ramsey inside of me knew that my children had failed her and disapproved of the little free-spirited rascals.

While we regrouped, my daughter took her first ever really good steps--but she took them away from the little set, off towards the tumbled mass of cables and extension cords. In an effort to show Tina that I was on her side (and not, God forbid, on that of my children), I made a big deal about being annoyed by this. Even though I was recording these steps in the baby book in my brain, out loud I was saying things like “wouldn’t you know, she’s never walked before and now she’s walking away!” I made heavy sighing noises to prove my disapproval.

After trying and failing with some new props (Amos wanted the wagon, Etta wandered away, Amos didn’t want the wagon, Etta wandered away), Tina conjoured up a wooden ice cream parlour type of chair. She turned its back to the camera and ordered me to ‘lock’ Etta’s legs between the rungs. I snapped into action. I stuffed Etta's doughy thighs down into those spaces and helped Amos straddle the chair behind her. I took a step back and...(aha! Here’s the magic, I thought)... Etta grabbed two rungs and poked her head through the bars and gave Tina a full and glistening beam. Amos cocked his head and looked at the camera soberly, in an adorably un-self-conscious turn-of-the-century-paper-boy/tough-kid kind of look.

I was imploding with anxiety. I tiptoed away until I was curled into a ball on the floor by the register, chanting "take-it take-it take-it take-it take-it" with my fists scrunched up next to my temples. I was peeking out of one squinty eye--the other just couldn’t handle the suspense. Kate--finished in the back room and spectating with her two kids--cheered from the sidelines “quick quick quick quick quick!” Tina took her time adjusting the camera, and then--as we chanted and winced because the pose was just too perfect--she put her hand up in the air and said “look up here, and smile...smile...smile...Amos, woo-hoo, look up and smile...smile...smile...” (take it take it take it take it take it quick quick quick quick quick)....

It never happened. Etta and Amos continued to beam and glower while Tina waited for a smile and my fingernails made sharp dents in my palms. And then they had had enough. Amos backed off the chair, Etta started rocking...it was over. The moment had gone. I wouldn’t survive another pose.

Tina let me know that she hadn’t taken the required number of pictures, but that she didn’t think we would get any more. Kate and I packed up the kids and took them to the food court and then to the Disney store. Despite my inner Patsy’s disappointment with the way he’d behaved, I bought Amos everything he wanted. He had batter and ketchup for lunch, and Buzz Lightyear and the Emperor Zurg for dessert.

We returned to the portrait studio an hour later and Tina arranged us at a table so that we could peruse our packages of portraits. The children frolicked lovingly and adorably on the props on the Barney paper. The portraits were packaged in black folders that served as frames for the 8x10 glossy of each pose, but that held all of the already-printed sizes as well. Behind each 8x10, there were four 5x7s, and a dozen or so ‘wallet size’ portraits. The paperwork we’d signed promised us six poses from which to choose. Kate was handed seven packets, I was handed four. I couldn’t complain since my kids had so clearly let Tina down. Only one of my packets was passable (despite the sheared-off tippy-top of Amos’s head) so my decision was easy. I only had to spend another thirty-seven dollars to get to keep this so-so pose. Kate’s hell was just beginning.

Lola and Eli had posed beautifully--beaming sunflower faces shone from inside wagons, from atop alphabet mats, from underneath piles of yellow fabric held aloft in happy hands. After trying to multiply thirty seven dollars by three and then by four (no easy task) Kate realized she would go broke buying all of the poses; eventually she settled on two of them. I tried to keep quiet about the fate of the unpicked packets but I felt that someone had to speak for them. I asked the spiky guy what time they took the trash out--I thought maybe he’d sneak us the doomed portraits. He didn’t pick up the hint. Kate just wanted to leave.

Our husbands weren’t nearly as excited about the fruit of our surprise outing as we’d pretended to think they would be. My mom’s friends weren’t as impressed by the resulting picture as I’d pretended to want them to be. In it, Amos just looks wistful and stunned and Etta looks earnest and confused. But he is saving her life so it’s a noble shot. Heroic two year old brother and damsel in pink dress.

In some strange way, and despite what Patsy thinks, I thank my kids for their performance. They proved to me that I do take the best pictures of them. Somewhere in a dumpster in New Jersey there is a stack of lousy pictures of my kids. I can live with that. But somewhere in a dumpster in New Jersey there is a stack of amazing 8x10 glossy photos plus wallets of Kate’s kids. I don’t know how she sleeps at night.

My hunger for the portrait studio experience has been satiated. Things in Brooklyn are back to normal. And I can go back to feeling slightly superior about the character-filled riches that my city has to offer. Except, of course, when my friends from the ‘burbs send me the wallet-sized shots of their kids--sometimes three smiling babies in the same shot--and I wonder why I am the mom who has children who are afraid of a rainbow poof on a stick. And I wonder what the teen photographers in the malls in their towns know that our Tina didn’t know. And I wonder sometimes--and the Patsy in me gets really excited when I do--if we should do it again next year.

Lousy and Proud

Etta has brown hair. Amos and Piper are blonde. On Sunday night at 8:17, that meant that the egg sacs showed up in Etta’s hair best--because they’re sort of sesame-seed colored, and the full grown bugs showed up in Amos and Piper’s hair best, because they’re brown--like roaming bits of Uncle Ben’s rice (whole grain style).

A better mom would have picked up on all the itching long ago. But it was disguised as yet another symptom of fall’s dry air: chapped lips, post-bath lotion sessions, staticy fly-away hair, dry nose-insides... And I'm always looking for reasons NOT to call the doctor--to the point where I hardly even track my children’s symptoms at all. Admirably carefree parenting? Laziness? Forgetfulness? The jury’s still out.

Several times over the last few weeks, as I’ve scratched myself vigorously behind the ear Golden-Retriever-like because it feels so good to scratch (Question: Why does a dog use its hind leg to scratch behind his ear? Answer: Because he can!), I’ve wondered why my son was scratching so much. Dandruff maybe? I’d think, checking him out in the rearview mirror. But then I’d forget to look closely once we’d scrambled out of the car and moved on to the next thing. My toddler’s been scratching lots too, but on her it just looks adorable--like whenever she takes a break from being a belligerent troll to do some regular human thing like yawn. And my other daughter had been complaining to Joe about being itchy--but none of this information was ever synthesized because I’m their mom, and that’s not something I do.

Until Sunday night’s post-bathtime comb down (sounds like a ritual but hardly ever happens) when I found myself parting Amos’s hair to check for dandruff (hooray I remembered!) and found the first brown bug.

Joe confirmed that it was a living moving creature--and within three minutes we’d found seven more. A movie-montage of each one of us scratching--something like the Brady Bunch grid superimposed with the pages of the calendar flipping by--snapped into focus in my mind.

I flew to the phone and called my friend Roma who’d been through lice once before and vowed she’d shave them all bald if it ever happened again. I misdialed her three times--got knee deep into my own ‘we’re on the other line’ voice mail message before realizing I was listening to me, called my mom in Ohio because her number has a seven in it too, and then got through. It took Roma several minutes of fumbling around but she finally landed on the holy grail--the business card of a professional nit-picker. A woman Roma didn’t know to use during her own episode, but whose information she saved just in case.

An hour later we were in Abigail’s kitchen. Me and the older two. The baby slept through the entire discovery and was home further contaminating the pillowcases.

“We’re going to see a real Hasidic person?” Amos asked in the car on the way over. “Wait til I tel Nick!” Amos and Nick invented a game last year when the drive to their afterschool movement class took them through Williamsburg. They’d award points to anyone dressed ‘normally.’ Usually Puerto Ricans would win. This wasn’t exactly the open-minded city kid I’d hoped to raise here in Brooklyn, but it was hard to explain much about Hasidic Jews without getting into a muddle that ended up seeming sort of laughable--especially to an eight year old boy newly sensitive to the world of appearance.

“Why do they think God wants them to wear that hat?”

“What kind of God would want them to wear those clothes in the summer?”

“Maybe their God doesn’t like them?”

And so they’d give ten points to a gangbanger with a Bloods bandana, and deduct points from the little girls in the gray plaid dresses and ponytails.

“Yes we’re going to a real Hasidic person’s house,” I answered in a tone that made like it was the coolest opportunity ever. I told them they had to be on their best behavior, and asked them to look for three surprising things. We’d compare notes in the car on the way home.

We were ushered into a kitchen in the middle of Abigail’s home. A mother and her three kids were mid-inspection, and the father of that group looked at us warily. Abigail greeted us warmly, and apologized for the mess in her home.

She called her daughter in from another room. “Shoshi--come get started on this girl’s hair!”

Shoshi arrived looking pissed and whined “but Ma I have a paper due in the morning, I haven’t checked it yet.”

“Shoshi, just do it,”

“But Ma--no...”

“Shoshi--maybe this lady’s an English teacher. You--are you an English teacher?” she asked me.

“I was an English major” I smiled.

“Then Shoshi there it’s done--give the lady your paper and get started on the little girl’s hair.”

Shoshi left, returned with a two-page opinion piece about why physician’s assistants should get involved in politics (which boiled down to: because they should, that’s why), traded it for the Costco-sized bottle of Pantene conditioner I’d been told to bring ($9)--and got to work.

I combed through her paper and found some minor grammatical errors. She combed through my children and found more than a hundred adult lice.

When the other family left we were turned over to Abigail. That mom handed a baby to me that turned out to be Abigail’s youngest. I was in charge of feeding the baby for awhile. Applesauce, I think. At one point I looked over at Amos who was waiting his turn. A brown bug ambled slowly along his hairline. I pointed it out to Shoshi who responded by dowsing him with more Pantene. I wondered if I’ve been looking at my son at all in the past few weeks. What kind of mother am I?

Several of Abigail’s thirteen children poured into the kitchen towards the end of our two-hour visit. Two nine year old boys noisily pulled a chair up to the fridge and heaved a rusty toaster oven down from on top of it. They plugged it in and started to heat up a pizza. Seven year old Miriam plopped down at the kitchen table opposite my son. She asked her mom where the bugs come from, as she watched the wastebasket fill up with bug-riddled kleenex.

“Hashem puts them there,” her mother smiled. And then turned to me and said ‘That’s God.” Then she handed me a xeroxed packet about lice--diagrams, life-cycles, recommendations, etc. The packet didn’t mention God. Shoshi told me I should proofread it too.

While I was being combed my kids played a hand game called ‘homicide’ with Miriam. That a Hasidic girl knew how to play this simulated ammo/shooting game was Surprise Number One in the car on the way home.

That one of the boys stood in the kitchen complaining that he wanted a bongo set from Toys R Us was Surprise Number Two.

“Toys R Us isn’t a good place to buy bongoes,” Amos explained.

We got home at eleven and, under orders from Abigail, woke Piper up to comb her out. I tried to tell Abigail that I couldn’t imagine waking my toddler up and she--with five of her thirteen children still swirling around the kitchen fully clothed at 10:30--looked at me like ‘what’s the big deal about waking her up?’ and suddenly it didn’t seem so reckless after all.

We propped Piper up in front of an Elmo video. She teetered incredulously, delirious on my knees as I mimicked what I’d seen Abigail do with the comb I bought from her ($30), the conditioner, and the kleenex. $75 worth of combing--that’s the going rate for one clean head. I checked Joe too. We all had the bugs, the nits, the works. Priceless.

Joe had changed all the sheets and bagged the pillows while we were gone. At midnight we went to bed. Clean heads on clean pillows--and dreams filled with itchy buggy thoughts. When we were combing Piper out we spoke delightfully of silly bugs having a picnic on her head--”we don’t want those silly bugs on our head” we said. Silly, silly bugs. But it really was an overwhelming thought--the reality of all that wildlife going on in our hair. Eggs being laid. Worse, eggs hatching. Bugs living for ten days, dying. More bugs being born. And all that bloodsucking. To think that I’d had the audacity to move around my life for weeks with all of this going on up above was just crazy. Having road-rage, bickering with my husband, carrying on confident conversation at a book-party, giving advice... All the while with bug-city just inches from my eyes. Millimeters from my brain. Ick.

At one point while I slept, I dreamt that a bug was walking on my cheek. In real life my thumb jumped up reflexively, and I rolled it up against my forefinger. I felt a point of something between my fingers and turned the light on to see what it was. I had caught and killed a mosquito in my sleep. My fingers were bloody. I was grossed out, but totally impressed. A sweet spot of revenge.

If my friends and family were of the kill the messenger mentality, I’d have been murdered long ago. I love the ‘ta-da!’ moment of revealing bad news. And this was no different. My e-mails’ subject headings were all LICE! that week, and my phone calls begin with the question “ask me why I had my children in a Hasidic lady’s kitchen last night at 10:30?”

I worked hard through all of this to do the right thing and call everyone who had been exposed to us in the previous few weeks. I kept the kids out of school the next day, and called the school to report the lice. I called the Shakers, the Dunns, the Miller’s, the Keaver’s, the Angrims...the people we carpool with. The people who’d had the mini-Halloween block party, the family who took turns trying on Etta’s witch hat. I called everyone.

My mother says that the worse thing about lice is the stigma attached to it. I decided that we would be stigma-free. According to Abigail’s packet, lice prefer clean scalps. Hell, for once there was actual proof for the world that my children bathe frequently. Hallelujah. They are often disheveled and their clothes have stains and sometimes holes but look everyone! They’re so clean they have lice--and lots of ‘em! Check it out.

Abigail’s fee includes a follow-up the next day. And while part of me is determined to single-handedly de-stigmatize lice by example, I did draw the line at one thing. The Daily News reporter was scheduled to be at her house at 4:30, and I sort of made sure to go early enough that we wouldn’t be in the accompanying photo.

I also struggled with whether or not to call the Halloween store where we’d spent an hour the night before the discovery trying on hats. In the end I decided not to put them in the bad spot of knowing. Their only proper recourse would have been to bag half of their hat section for two weeks--which would have eaten into their profits significantly since Halloween was only fifteen days away. But if I were you I’d avoid all of the Willy Wonka-style hats in the costume store on 4th avenue in the East Village. Why take any chances?

One stroke of luck in the whole experience was that Vera our cleaning lady was scheduled to come to our house the next day anyway.

She was completely skeeved out--and fully believed that liciness was next to dirtiness. She implied that I should have been washing their hair every day. But her squeamishness meant that she way overbagged all of our stuff--rugs, dolls, pillows, blankets...Stuff that needed to be bagged for 2 weeks anyway and stuff that absolutely didn’t. She worked twice as long as she normally would have and I paid her extra ($80). In that case the stigma worked for us nicely.

And now, for the first time ever, our house has a cool minimalist feel. Wide blank floors--hard edges visible. All softness sealed away. I’m still unclear though as to whether we’re protecting our heads from the soft stuff or the soft stuff from our heads...

The kids were allowed to return to school the next day--after an all-clear from the mightily impressed school nurse. At Abigail’s insistence they wear their hair in ponytails, under bandanas and baseball caps. Not because they’re licey and gross but because they’re the fairest of them all.

When we bought our house eight years ago it was covered in cement; the ugliest house on the block. It wasn’t embarrassing (we hadn’t put the cement on it) but it was slightly apologetic feeling. Sorry we’re messing up your view...

Then when we redid the facade and became beautiful we were instantly annoyed by all the peeling paint and imperfection that surrounded us. Suddenly, we were living among slobs.

When I imagine the truth about my kids wandering around last week I picture them with halos of bugs, like Pigpen’s haze of debris. Trying on hats and wigs, lolling on the pillows at a local restaurant, holding hands with line partners at school. Now that they’re 100% Abigail certified I picture them out in the big world with perfect scalps amidst a sea of contaminated friends (never mind that my children may have been the ones doing the contaminating).

You think it’s gross that we had lice? I think it’s gross that your kids haven’t been combed by Abigail this week.

Things are almost back to normal here. Fifty-nine pounds of laundry ($59) were dropped off at the corner laundromat. Another forty pounds of pillows and quilts were done by me in person (hundreds of quarters but no time to do the math). Pillowcases from the Family Dollar store ($6 for 4) are draped over the headrests in our minivan.

And I’ve told the story about a hundred times. Because I’m proud of this, and slightly energized by it. Even though I don’t want it to ever happen again.

The moment is passing. Amos had an upset stomach the other night and as I helped him to the toilet my concerns shifted away from buggy types of things and towards internal tummy types of stuff. Like a switch just flipped and I couldn’t remember the buggy feeling any more.

And I’ve lost my ability to feel a mosquito land on my cheek in my sleep.

We had one more follow up with Abigail, whom I call Abby now. She was extra concerned about us because our case was so severe and she wanted to see us one more time. She had me write the check out directly to her children’s private school--Yeshiva Something-or-other--and winked at me and told me I could use it as a tax write-off. And then she took my kids into her house and sent me to the corner store with a dollar and 4 year old Victor because he was whining for chocolate. And as we left her living room for good a family was arriving from New Jersey. And Abby ushered us out past the arriving woman and her daughter and made a parting motion with her hands like Moses must have and said to us ‘you’re clean’ and said to the woman ‘and you’re not’--so we’d be sure not get our hair tangled with theirs on our way out.

I do comb my kids out regularly now. It’s a nice spot of time with each of them. And I find one bug every now and then. But Abby says it’s okay. Just change the kids’ sheets and move on, and don’t let it get so bad ever again. And I hope I won’t. But we all know what kind of mother I am.

Jan 3, 2007

Erin Go Zoinks!

Everyone told us we were crazy for taking our toddlers to Ireland. Pubs and cliffs aren’t typical desired destinations for parents accompanied by unrestrained and often unreasonable offspring. Amos was two and a half, Etta was just 9 months old. Amos was a seasoned traveler, Etta had never been on a plane. We were going over for a wedding and when the festivities were behind us we’d be bed & breakfast hopping for seven days in a rental car.

There’s not much you can do to plan for a smooth trip when you’re traveling with such young and volatile folk. I did a few things that anyone could have viewed as wise choices. I stuffed little surprises into pants pockets and extra nylon compartments. I loaded up on familiar snacks and juice boxes. I brought Amos’s favorite pillow case so that each foreign bed could be outfitted familiarly. But there was one thing I did unknowingly that, in retrospect, was probably the greatest single contributing factor to the success of our venture. I allowed my two and a half year old to become a total Scooby Doo junkie.

Every night after dinner in the months leading up to our trip, between ads for “I want this” and “I want that,” Amos was glued to episodes of Scooby Doo. Of course it looked like Amos was just watching the groovy teenage gang meddle and provoke bad guys to say “and we would have gotten away with it, too.” It turns out he was doing much more in those half hour couch potato study sessions. With the help of the whole gang, my little boy was actually honing his castle-creeping and ghost-hunting skills.

It’s hard to excite young children about the gems of difference and culinary treats offered by a new country. I remember my father framing an entire month long holiday in Great Britain with a story about Bonnie Prince Charlie. I was eleven and polite enough to act interested even though I kept thinking it had something to do with ‘my Bonnie lies over the ocean.’ Does it? I’m still not sure, but the song does remind me of Scotland and the sour smell of car sickness mixed with pine air freshener.

How do you get a two and a half year old to be excited that you’re entering county Cork (yippee!), arriving at the woolens shop just minutes before closing (woohoo!), or that the Cliffs of Moher have been enveloped in fog for the last few weeks and we are lucky to be able to see their enormous brown profiles today (yesssss!)? Even the otherwise titillating ‘hoof-and-mouth-disease’ subplot of our vacation failed to spark an interest in Amos who was too young to enjoy my inspired ramblings about the probability of booming success for local doormat and antiseptic manufacturers.

Thatched roofs, spray painted sheep, and green green grass only get you so far--especially when much of these things are barely discernible from the near non-existent vantage point offered by the low plastic car seat contraptions into which our young children were strapped much of the time. Every now and then our car would round a bend and we’d enter the center of a slow-moving herd of cattle. That was pretty good. If it hadn’t been for our stumbling onto the gold mine of Scooby Doo references, we would have been aiming for those unbudging bovine roadblocks every day.

On one rainy day reserved for driving windy cliff roads, the fog helped Joe (husband/navigator) decide that we should stop by the Ailwee Caves instead. Descending into the slippery drippy caves surrounded by smooth blast mark textures and mottled browns, Amos began babbling about it being like on Scooby Doo. When a member of our tour let out a moan that echoed, bad-guy-like, all around us and through the tunnels Amos said “Maybe it’s a ghost pirate.” All we needed were some old abandoned coal carts. We didn’t find any of those (a small metal dumpster came close) but it didn’t matter; he was plugged in and ready for a mystery.

Castles were next. I’m sure there is a lot of fascinating history about territorial disputes and bloody battles and feudal systems, but not for us--not on this trip. We didn’t get to stroll intellectually through castles and ruins, reading explanations and educating ourselves on histories, battles, and various bloody events. But we did get to investigate shadowy corners, spooky staircases, and creaky doors. We considered roped-off rooms, dusty relics, and even peeked behind tapestries. At one point we were in a whitewashed turret with a trap door, and a British woman who thought Amos was cute asked “who do you suppose is down there?” Without missing a beat or picking up on any lack of sincerity in her tone, Amos just shrugged and said “probably Daphne.”

As the Mystery Gang, we were not regular tourists who have to be led around by official tour guides, rather, we were teaching them about their own castles. “There’s no ghosts or pirates or ghost pirates or werewolves” Amos would say to every person with a shiny name tag, shaking his head importantly. The guides were usually happy to hear this. There was no indication that they considered us to be meddling or pesky.

In addition to helping flesh out the substance of our journey, the Scooby Doo phenomenon also helped hasten our transitions. We were able to hurry along every entry into our rent-a-teensy-car by announcing that we were loading up the Mystery Van. We’d do roll call:


“Here!” Joe would say.

“Daphne? ”

“Here!” I’d say.

Of course I always wanted to be femme fatale Daphne, and I wrestled over the title with my 9 month old daughter, who didn’t know the difference yet. I’d encourage my son to decide that Etta was Velma so I could be pretty Daphne even though she’s ditzy and fluffy and generally helpless, and I really wouldn’t mind legs like Velma’s or hair as thick and there was that one Hawaiian episode that had Velma in a bikini top and hula skirt and she really was sort of hot...but I digress. Everyone knows that no one wants to be brainy, four-eyed Velma.

“Shaggy! Shaggy? Shaggy?” We’d say until Amos would allow himself to be buckled into the unupholstered car seat device and would reply “Here!”


“She’s here” Amos would say, helping his sister who was completely oblivious to everything especially the fact that we were dissing her royally.

Sometimes we’d call for Scooby and get a “ruff” in response.

It’s not surprising that Amos was Shaggy. Amos idolizes Joe, who has shoulder length hair and a beard and is fond of birkenstocks and who usually lopes along agreeably. Plus Shaggy is Scooby’s closest ally and there’s that whole kid/dog thing. Cute as it was, Amos’s affinity towards Shaggy did prove to have one major downside:

While Fred wears long sleeves and an ascot, Daphne’s got tights, and Velma has that chunky orange sweater, Shaggy only ever wears a green tee shirt and brown pants.

We were in Ireland in April; a bone-chilly and rainy week. We’d left some pretty mild weather behind in Brooklyn but were loaded with warm coats and hats.

“Shaggy doesn’t wear a hat or a coat” was Amos’s mantra whenever we were suiting up to brave the cold. Shaggy doesn’t wear a hat or a coat, so Amos wouldn’t wear a hat or a coat. Case closed. Silly to think otherwise.

At least Shaggy wears shoes I decided to decide at one point in a gravel parking lot a good distance from our next castle. I was much more relaxed about it after that--even though I kept having to entertain the disapproving you-crazy-American stares of old, tweedy, bundled-up passers-by.

Later on I learned that we were actually carrying the key to bypassing this particular obstacle. Buried deep in the zippered compartment of one of our duffels was a Scooby coloring book I’d packed to bring out if we became desperate for distraction/bribery/silence/entertain-ment. Because things were going so smoothly, most of the emergency gifts were still packed away, so I decided to pull this one out on our second-to-last night to let it earn its keep, so to speak (I didn’t think every gift should get a free round trip journey to Ireland without having to be trotted out at some point).

I should have remembered the parenting advice to flip through and approve of new books or videos before exposing young children to them. Had I even partly done this Amos would have had a much warmer trip. Lo and behold this particular coloring book featured a ski-lodge caper and the whole gang wears hats and coats. Amos’s eyes lit up when he saw this...and he agreed to wear his woolens on our last day.

Am I proud that my two and a half year old child watches so much tv? That’s hard to answer. I can say now that any guilt I have is slowly being replaced by amazement in the ways he enhances his own experiences by meshing his imaginary life with these familiar characters. Isn't television really just souped-up story-telling? (between the commercials, of course). The druids and the leprechauns would have watched television if it had been around then, and so would the O’Whoozits and the McSomebodys for that matter.

I do know this: Scooby Doo prepared Amos for Ireland. I couldn’t have anticipated it, but it did. I’d like to take credit for planning it, but I won’t. We’re taking the gang to Italy in the Summer and I’m hoping the Scooby mysteries will still apply. I’d like another crack at being Daphne before Etta wises up.