May 30, 2007

Go Fish

Cheddar Cheese Goldfish when I was nine meant that I was sitting at the curved bar in the Lagoon Lounge in Florida with my grandfather, drinking a Shirley Temple, waiting for all of my aunts and uncles to assemble so we could be seated at dinner. The goldfish were the bar snacks, mixed in with nuts in dark-brown wooden bowls, and I remember picking two at a time out of the mix and letting them dissolve slowly in my mouth, in between cool splashes of red maraschino fizziness. Floor to ceiling aqua-colored curtains cast a weird light in the room and muted the cocktail sounds, and it felt very special to be there, wondering what kind of grown-up I’d be.

Cheddar Cheese Goldfish when I was seventeen meant that I was flying on an airplane somewhere drinking Bloody Mary mix from a little yellow can. USAir served the fish in little white pouches, and it was so much more exciting than getting peanuts. I only regretted the Bloody Mary mix on the bumpy flights, and loved the combination of the thick savory slurry and the little savory crunchies. It was especially good on the flights where they’d give me a cup of ice with the drink because, by the time I’d reach the bottom of the cup, the ice had made that part super cold and had kind of thinned it out a bit, making it easy to down every last bit. I was probably going somewhere exciting like Hawaii or Cozumel or Vermont, and I was likely travelling alone, or at least sitting off by myself reading Glamour Magazine, trying to picture what kind of grown-up I’d be.

Cheddar Cheese Goldfish when I was twenty meant that I was in college and that I had the munchies and was probably eating an entire box of Stove Top stuffing mix as well. I’d chew a handful of goldfish up into a warm, wet mushy ball and then remove it from my mouth and eat it slowly. It sounds gross, but it was really really good, and tasted a little bit like buttery mashed potatoes. I got to be really picky about my goldfish then and would memorize expiration dates of the especially wonderful batches so I wouldn’t end up having to suffer through fish that were too salty or not cheesy enough. This was before they stopped using palm oil and I really loved the dense crunch of those fish. There was something special about a brand new bag of Goldfish. You’d have to pry the foil part open carefully so it wouldn’t rip or separate too much from the white paper on the outside. I didn’t spend much time those days wondering what kind of grown-up I’d be. It just felt weirdly liberating to be able to eat anything I wanted anytime I wanted.

Cheddar Cheese Goldfish when I was twenty-five meant that I was babysitting Noam and Eliott on the Upper West Side or Sigmund Freud’s great grandchildren on Sutton Place (and not going to graduate school, by the way). The kids were finally asleep and I could settle on the sofa and drink apple juice and eat goldfish out of the bigger boxes these parents usually had in their pantries, and fold American cheese singles into tiny square stacks and relax. The cheese bits were a nice counterpart to the dry crunch of these palm-oil-free fish, and I often had cheese and fish in my mouth at the same time for optimal mouth-feel. I could hardly believe that the parents paid me to indulge in all those yummy kid snacks and watch movies on HBO. It felt very exotic to eat such kid-centric treats. And when I wasn’t having this wholesome kind of evening I was having a different kind of evening in a bar, or at a friend’s apartment. I thought a lot about what would make me happy on a day to day basis, and didn’t think about the future, or of trying to build towards any kind of goal, because it didn’t seem like I’d ever really grow up like my parents who were married and had already had a baby by now, or like some of the people I'd gone to high school with who already looked like they were middle-aged.

Cheddar Cheese Goldfish when I was thirty-four meant that I was finding old ziploc baggies full of them in all sorts of crevices in the car, in the stroller, and in the diaper bag. I hated the way those crumbly dusty ziploc baggies either disappeared when I needed them most, or multiplied when I was most disgusted by the idea of old, wasted food. We way overfished. The 3-packs of large foil bags I’d buy at Costco didn’t serve the fish well at all. One pouch would rip open too much and force us to store the fish that didn’t cascade out all over the counter in tupperware. One pouch would be opened once and forgotten only to be discovered later, completely cardboardy stale. A possibility that, unfortunately, I’d forget to consider until after I had a handful in my mouth. And by the time we got to the last pouch, we’d recycled the orange and white box, and couldn’t be sure if the now-anonymous foil bag in the cupboard held fish, cereal, or something else. I fell out of love with the fish around this time. We moved onto other non-greasy treats like Veggie Booty and didn’t even care when the fish got faces, got big, or came in purple and green. It was astonishing to me to be in charge of the nutritional lives of my young children--and I breastfed them for the first 18 months of their lives to make up for the lousy habits they’d, no doubt, be picking up from me for the rest of their childhoods.

Cheddar Cheese Goldfish now, at 40, means I’m giving the fish another chance. I bought a bag of them a couple of weeks ago when we were heading into the car for a car trip. I didn’t choose the cereal-sized box that’s probably most cost-effective, and certainly not the overwhelming super-money-saving carton. I bought a regular old-fashioned squishy crumply white bag of fish, with the foil liner. If you pour the fish out at an angle, the corner of the bag acts like a funnel and channels them directly into your cupped palm (the one that’s not on the steering wheel). My three children and I handed the bag back and forth--from the front to the backseat and then back up again for the duration of the trip. They were lucky I shared so much with them. Since my motto is ‘when mommy’s happy everyone’s happy’ (or at least has a chance to be happy), I tend to put my own needs before theirs. I’m a much different kind of parent than I imagined I’d be, partly because I still don’t feel like the grown-up version of me who would look sort of like Mary Tyler Moore and who was supposed to take over for me by now ever showed up. But I don’t think anyone’s suffering too much. The fish taste great. Everthing's fine.

May 17, 2007


The collection of pictures from our Ireland trip could be called “Joe takes the kids to Ireland.” The book of pictures from our vacation in Chile could be entitled “A father and his toddler visit South America.” The smattering of photos from the Memorial Day Parade in upstate New York is, basically, “Joe and the kids and his wife’s sister and her kids watch the fire engines go by.” Our photo albums also contain the following sequences: “Joe and the kids wear orange shirts in a pumpkin patch,” “Amos rides his first horse while Daddy looks on lovingly,” “Large family sans Mommy gathers around Thanksgiving feast,” and of course “Everyone who was at Etta’s first birthday party--except for her mom, who created the invitations, made the cupcakes, planned the picnic, and handled everything including the camera.”

Evidence of Joe’s love for the kids is all over these pictures. There he is spotting Amos on the monkey bars--looking up at him intently, focusing only on his dangling son, hands poised to catch him. It’s a stunning and emotional shot. Here’s a rear view of him, then a side view, then a laughing, twisting picture of Joe swinging Etta around in a circle. You can flip through the small stack of photos and get a peek at the movement, and the joy the two of them shared.

I take beautiful pictures. I am never in them. I am who they are looking at, when the pictures are of smiling full-on faces. I am the one sneaking up on them, when the pictures are candids. I am the one inches away from them, when the pictures are such jam-up close-ups that their sticky faces and personalities explode out of the white borders.

I get credit, I get praise, and I get satisfaction. What I don’t get is ME in any of the pictures.

No matter what happens to my husband, no matter what kinds of people my kids turn out to be, this record of their shared experiences will always be there. And even though they will know, if they pause to think of it, that I was in all of those places too, physical evidence of my involvement just isn’t there. Generations from now, no one will care. I cherish black and white photos of my dark-haired grandmother leaning back sassily on a beach blanket. I study her in them, I don’t think much about my gangly grandfather behind the camera.

“I’m never in enough pictures,” I say to my husband sheepishly. But I know not to say this when the camera is around--since it only initiates an immediate (one-time only) flurry of shots that doesn’t fill the general void in our albums.

“The kids aren’t going to have any sense of what I looked like when they were young. If something happens to me, they won’t be able to thumb through old albums trying to get an idea of me.”

That’s the sort of thing I say.

Here’s how and why it doesn’t work.

Joe can’t ever just take my picture. No one can for that matter. If permission is asked of me, or if notice of an impending shot is given, I often turn it down politely (just like a sales clerk turning down a tip that she desperately wants to keep). If the would-be photographer isn’t insanely insistent--”no, c’mon, please let me take your picture, you look fabulous, please,”--the picture doesn’t happen.

Plus, if I know a picture is being taken of me, I feel obliged to look at the camera and smile. I don’t know how to be the unsuspecting subject. I haven’t had enough practice. I do have a good full-on beam and the picture always turns out to be ok--in a cookie-cutter type of way. It’s the same exact face pulled into the same exact grin every time. Just cut-and-paste and here I am holding hands with Buzz Lightyear at Halloween, here I am at the shooting gallery in the Wild West, here I am in the rug shop in the Andes.

It’s hard to get a genuine candid of me since, as the photographer, I’m always aware of the camera’s whereabouts, and of the camera-readiness of any given moment. No one can take a picture of me that I don’t know is being taken. And that’s the shot I want.

One friend was finally able to put it into words for me, in a way that I feel somewhat comfortable admitting. “You want the picture of Jackie Kennedy and John Jr, the one where he’s playing with her pearls.” Bingo.

I want the impossible. I want someone to capture the real smile I give my kids, or the puzzled look they inspire, or the full on belly-laugh, or the intense tickling session. I’ve tried to act natural in front of a self-timer, but the real stuff just doesn’t come. I end up acting like some tv mom, instead of just being captured being the mom that I am.

Sometimes, my friends and I play the ‘what would you do if you won a million dollars’ game. Over the years my answers have hovered in the ‘buy a private island’ and ‘blow it all on fun creams and lotions’ realm. Well, I’ve got a new wish these days. I’d forgo all of the fancy frills, and pay someone to sneak around in the bushes and document some of my time with my kids. Just don’t tell me you’re coming, and slip the memory stick in my mailbox at the end of every month.

May 8, 2007

Belly Up

Belly up. She went belly up. I sat on the staircase sobbing, with my son at my side. We watched through the stair railings as she twitched and yowled her last breaths. Our neighbor had come to sit with us. My husband was entertaining our daughter in the backyard. At three and a half, my daughter couldn’t have cared less. She appeared at the door everynow and then, looked at our tear-stained faces, and declared “I not sad!” with an emphasis on the ‘I,’ before skipping (her answer to my request that she not run) back outside.

Zoe was an amazing cat. Enormous lettuce green eyes. Plushy velour fur. Gray with creamy peach smears. Six Toes. This dying of hers had lasted about a day. She and I knew she was going to die the morning before. When my feet felt fur under the covers as I woke up on the springiest day of the year I had a hunch it meant something. Her tickling whiskers were our alarm clock; we were never awake before she was. Besides, she didn’t burrow under the covers unless it was the dead of winter. She shouldn’t have still been under there while the Wiggles were singing ‘yummy yummy’ on tv on a sunny Friday morning in April.

I checked on her several times that day. Still way down under the covers. I’d put my hand on the comforter gently feeling for breathing and her body would press back faintly. During a dinner with friends in a different part of town I forgot about my fading pet. Upon returning home I had a dramatic moment of remembering. I told my family about my concerns as I raced upstairs to check on her--yep, still there. I pulled back the covers to find she’d wet the bed. I stroked her gently and whispered to her in a voice that told her I knew she was dying, and she picked her head up and bobbed it around a bit, squinting in my direction.

I’m curious now to know what I was thinking when I left her there--uncovered on the bed--to go to the computer to find an emergency late night vet. Was I really thinking I’d whisk this fifteen year old cat-at-peace to some traumatic middle-of-the-night waiting room somewhere? This cat, who hated nothing more than change--who turned so vicious when taken in a car and put on a steel table and poked at by a stranger that her last vet had a reminder in his notes to don elbow length leather gloves when handling her? I’m not sure what I was thinking. I’m glad now that the only option available was a ridiculous one--an all-night animal hospital (meaning dogs? maybe ferrets? in the waiting room) serving all five boroughs forty minutes away. I remember plotting out the trip in detail one second, then abandoning the plan the next.

I went back to the bed and she was gone.

“Look” my husband called out, “she’s going downstairs.” I ran to the head of the stairs and watched her pause, gallumph down a few steps, mew (she never mewed), gallumph down a few more, until she got to the bottom.

I helped the kids brush their teeth and turned them over to my husband for their bedtime stories before going downstairs to be with Zoe. A flashlight helped me find her half an hour later. She had settled on the bottom shelf of an inaccessible bookcase in the hallway, behind a scooter, a folding chair, a box of sporting equipment. I couldn’t reach her. This was heartbreaking.

I called my cat-loving parents and they reminded me about hospice. Their reminder to accept this as ‘nature’s way’ and to make her as comfortable as possible gave me something to do. I set a towel near her. I brought her water, I brought her food. I decided that she was where she wanted to be, and went to bed.

When we woke up the next morning we checked on her. She had moved herself onto the towel which made me feel useful helpful meaningful wonderful. She hadn’t touched the water or the food. She was still breathing. I crawled up on my side in the narrow space so I could reach her and stroked her fur, told her she was my sweet girl, and cried a bit.

I visited her throughout the morning. I went back and forth from my children’s breakfast needs, to my cat’s dying ones. French toast with confectioners sugar sprinkled on top. You’re my best girl, stroke stroke, my best girl. Cheese omelette. My best girl, sob sob, my sweet cat. A pancake rolled burrito-like around chocolate chips. You’re such a sweet cat, shh shh, my sweet girl.

At about 11:30 she went belly up. I watched as she twisted her body around, arching her back to expose her under-chin and creamy belly. Her famous front paw (her sixth toe looked like an opposable thumb and sometimes acted like one) hung up in the air. It twitched a bit. It was hard to watch but fascinating too. I kept thinking of a cartoon donkey on its back with legs twitching. Or of some children’s theater production where the kid playing the dying guy kicks his feet up a few times to prolong the humor of his pretend death--trying to suppress a smile the whole time--while the other kid-actors try to play the scene out gravely.

While I watched, she cocked her head forward, her large green eyes open but unblinking, unseeing. She was still breathing.

I called my neighbor to come and be with us. He fed our cats whenever we left town (we had another cat--a small easy calico who quarantined herself upstairs knowingly while her sister died). He knew how amazing Zoe was. I asked him what he thought we should do, even though I knew I wasn’t going to ravage the last few hours of Zoe’s life by taking her anywhere. He dragged her towel out a bit so she wouldn’t be so out-of-reach. When he began to talk about her suffering and how it could go on for awhile and how it might be cruel to let her continue like this my eyes glazed over and I hid my face in more tissues. I let my crying change the subject. I wasn’t ready for my resolve to keep my cat home to be challenged. I don’t know why I asked.

About this time I told my kids that Zoe was definitely dying. My son wanted to come sit with us.

Things got sort of weird at this point. She twisted a bit more and her tongue stuck way out. She made some guttural noises, and involuntary growls. There was some violent twitching and jerking. We watched. I sobbed. And then she was still. Nothing.

We stared at her side for a full minute and agreed she’d stopped breathing. Our neighbor said
he’d leave us alone with her and disappeared into the backyard. My son and I sat and watched her for awhile.

An hour later the five of us (including our baby girl who would have no memories of this cat) drove Zoe’s body to the cat clinic--they’d forward her body to the crematorium and then return her ashes to us. She was wrapped in her death-towel in a spring-green laundry basket. Each of us had stroked her fur for the last time. My husband even did that thing where he used his fingers to close her eyelids. It didn’t work as quickly as it does in the movies. Maybe it’s just not as easy to do with cats’ eyes.

My son and I took her body in. He sat on the bench next to me in the waiting room while I held the empty laundry basket and sobbed out our details. A woman coming from an exam room with a healthy cat watched from a respectable distance. She’d be telling her family about us at dinner.

My cat-loving parents cried over the phone with me. I’m from the kind of family who pays close attention to the hows of a death--we know it’s inevitable and search for the parts to be happy about each time. The circumstances of Zoe’s death made my mother very happy and she kept telling me that. I’m so happy she died in her home,. I’m so happy she died with you by her side. I’m so happy she went so quickly. I’m so happy you didn’t have to make any big decisions. I’m so happy she had such a happy life. I’m so happy you gave her fresh water every day. There were many things to be happy about.

Later that day I took the kids to the playground. I told everyone I saw that our cat just died. I was surprised at the deep levels of sympathy we received. I was also interested to learn that what we did--attending her in her natural death--was a rare thing in this day and age of in-office euthanasia.

My son asked me how to spell Zoe’s name. I told him and he started writing ‘Z-O-E’ all over the playground with a borrowed stub of chalk. On the walls, on the picnic tables, on the rubber mats. His Z’s were backwards. It was a beautiful day.

May 3, 2007


We take a lot of car trips. Thank God for trucks. Two year old Etta yells “Uk” when she sees her first truck and then adds a “Mo” for each subsequent truck. Sometimes there are so many trucks around us that she sits as far forward as her car seat straps will allow, points her fingers out in simultaneous scarecrow-like directions, and makes the most serious face she can can as a way of letting us know how important she takes her truck-spotting job. Her serious face involves frowning and breath-holding, so she always ends up resembling the Chinese Brother who swallowed the sea.

From their carseats, the kids pump their arms like superheroes to get truck drivers to blow their horns. When the truckers respond we cheer and howl, when they don’t we send up a unified “Awwwwww!” For our humble minivan to suggest something to a rumbling truck, and to have that truck reply isn’t really like David beating Goliath, it’s like David getting Goliath to sing. (What the kids don’t know yet is that nobody can see them through our minivan’s tinted windows and the drivers are gamely responding to my bearded husband’s sweet air-pumping from the passenger seat.)

Amos, three and a half, wants to know what’s in every truck he sees. A past-time that began as a way to keep him distracted through incessant engaging chatter when we traveled with him when he was a small, unhappy passenger (maybe that truck has chickens maybe that truck has mashed potatoes maybe that truck has ice cream) has become an effective time-passer on our car trips.

Recently I drove alone with the kids for about two hours on the Long Island Expressway (alone with the kids seems like an oxymoron, until you’ve been stuck in traffic with a couple toddlers on the LIE). The truck game was especially exciting because there’s a stretch in Queens where the triple-lane-each-way highway is surrounded by eye-level elevated roadways, many of which have their own exciting truck-traffic jams.

Uk! Etta announces.

Yes I see that truck I reply.

It’s yellow and green and red and I see a boat on it, Amos says. What’s in that truck? he asks.

Probably somebody’s furniture I say.

Why somebody’s furniture? Amos asks.

Well sometimes a family might get tired of living in their house and they might decide to live in another house and even though they can drive or take an airplane to get to their new house they have to have a big truck like that one move their things, like furniture.

Oh Amos says.

Mo! Etta says, pointing.

What’s in that brown truck? Amos asks.

Well, that’s a UPS truck. You know when that nice man in the brown clothes brings presents to us sometimes? He’s a UPS man and he drives a brown truck like that. That brown truck is probably full of presents and packages.

Why doesn’t the truck have a door? Amos asks, as we pass and see the driver’s entire body, perched on his driving stool.

Maybe he has to deliver so many little presents that he doesn’t want to open the door every time.

Or maybe he’s hot in his brown truck, Amos guesses.


That truck has a picture of potato chips on it, Amos says.

What do you think it has in it? I ask.

Potato chips? Amos says, but why does it have potato chips in it?

Well you know how we go to the store to buy potato chips? This truck is bringing new potato chips to the stores so when people go to buy potato chips, the stores will have potato chips.

Mo! Mo!

This goes on for about an hour. And while it may seem tedious, it’s strangely exhilirating for me. When I was young I took everything for granted. If Rhinestone Cowboy was playing on our local radio station, I thought that meant Glen Campbell himself was in the little antennaed building on the hill behind the Big Bear. I was a faculty brat and , until high school, I thought everyone in the world had a summer vacation. That Pete was still behind the window at the post office, and that Abe was still at the deli counter during summer months just didn’t register in my closed mind.

In my mind, trucks were just big mysterious vehicles that had nothing to do with my own royal life. I basically sat back and enjoyed a steady stream of pixie sticks and Christmas presents and didn’t stop to realize that this was only possible because of enormous amounts of organization in the bigger world. I probably didn’t imagine that truckdrivers were doing anything other than living out some odd and exotic lifestyle.

Because I feel like I learned so many obvious things so much later in life than most, it’s empowering to clue Amos in on some of the glorious and sensible workings of the world he lives in. It’s exciting that he’s so curious about it. We continue to learn. Every truck is a teachable moment.

Mo! Etta shouts at an armored truck.

Oh great I think, this one will be fun to explain. That’s an armored truck Amos, I say, making sure to slow down as we pass it. See how strong and protected it is?

Like a knight in shining armor? he says, referring to his Fisher Price castle set. What’s in the truck with armor? Amos asks.

Lots of money, I say.

A lot of a lot of a lot of a lot of money? Amos says.

So much money I say.

Then why does the truck look like that Mommy. Why does it have armor on it? Amos asks.

As the explanation bubbled up in my mind, I realized how absurd this was going to sound to him. How absurd the reality of it really is. I didn't answer because I was still mulling it over myself.

Why does it have money in it? Amos asks again.

Well you know when we pay money to the lady at the store?
I say. When everybody pays money to the store the store gets so much money and so this truck comes to pick up the money to take it to the bank.

But why does it have to have armor on it Mommy?

I don’t know what to say. I’m thinking of saying because someone might try to take that money? But I can’t figure out how I’ll answer the why that that response would get. Because someone who can’t share will want to get all of the money for free? Because the person who decides he wants that money might try to hurt the driver to get it?

And I can’t figure out what to say.

And Amos says again why does that money truck have to have armor on it?

But then Etta says Mo! and we’re back to ice cream trucks, flatbed trucks, cement trucks, and tankers.

And while a part of me is left wondering why we live in a world where the money trucks have to have armor, there’s no time to dwell on it. We’re rolling forward with the trucks. And now it’s time to learn how cement is mixed and how ice cream stays cold and how garbage is mashed.

We learn so much from our conversations about trucks.