What If Parents Had To Get Licenses to Have Kids? Interview with Author Kristen Tsetsi

Happy New Year!

It’s been a while since I’ve written here but I’m returning to share a conversation I’ve been having with Kristen Tsetsi, author of The Age of the Child, a novel that got me off to a thoughtful start for the year. In her novel, Tsetsi asks a provocative question: what if those of us who want to be parents had to get a license to do it?

Tsetsi’s novel takes place in a near-enough future to recognize many of the conditions that prevail today with a few key differences. She’s given herself freedom to imagine first what would happen if all forms of contraception were illegal and then to explore the natural response to the challenges that follow. What makes the story compelling, though, is how Tsetsi leads us through this world first through a mother, and then through her daughter so that we see how they struggle to live with themselves and each other within the confines of their world. The most poignant moments are the moments of connection and missed connection between each other but also with others. Tsetsi’s spare, skillful prose lets them struggle in front of us so that we become like people behind a two-way mirror. We can see what is happening, why it is happening, and, hearts rising to our throats, want to call out to these people. But they can’t hear us.

When we are through, though, we are thinking hard about things we’ve heard many say and things we’ve thought or said ourselves about children or parenting. We’re tempted into a conversation that we’ve not had with spouses, friends, or acquaintances. This is a book for those who like to dig into a good story but also to be challenged by “what if” questions that evoke a future that may be closer than we imagine. Perfect for book clubs. If you’d like to invite her to join you and your fellow readers, email her here: kris@kristenjtsetsi.com. If you’d like to enter to win a free, signed copy of The Age of the Child, I’ll be drawing a winner from current and new newsletter subscribers. To subscribe, all you have to do is go here: subscribe.

Here is a recent interview I had with Kristen Tsetsi about her novel, her writing process, and her dog Lenny who inspired the name for one of the characters and who inspires me to smile daily on Instagram. Kristen is smart, insightful, and witty as her followers of her blog, Facebook page, and Instagram can testify. She loves doing book clubs. Learn more about her, The Age of the Child, and more of her work at https://kristenjtsetsi.com/.

Q: You’ve mentioned in your blog that the seed for this novel came from a common phrase uttered whenever we encounter a parents we think are making mistakes or violate social norms, “think of the children.” I confess, versions of this has crossed my mind at times. What is it about this that compelled you to write about a world in which the government actually regulates who can become parents and who can’t?

A: Well, it’s hard not to imagine that world when we’re in a world right now in which many people want the government to regulate the choice to not parent. The idea of abortion—and in some cases, hormonal birth control—is so abhorrent to them that it feels perfectly legitimate to create a tiered system of rights: first rights to the unborn. The personal bodily rights of anyone with a uterus come second. It makes sense to them, because they’re “thinking of the children.”

“But there’s a flip side to “thinking of the children,” and it’s the one that concerns itself with walking, talking, breathing young people.”

Obviously banning birth control and criminalizing abortion pose no problem for those who welcome the choice to have oodles of children, but it’s horrifying for someone like The Age of the Child’s Katherine, who discovers that the clinic where she had an appointment for an abortion, one of the last remaining, has been forced by law to close.

But there’s a flip side to “thinking of the children,” and it’s the one that concerns itself with walking, talking, breathing young people.

This is where we as a society are lacking.

Not only do we accept without question that having kids is “just what people do,” but there’s also a lot of pressure out there to conceive (and then to conceive again).

Take, for one of many examples, Kathleen Parker’s Washington Post opinion piece, On Pleasure and Parenthood, in which she writes, “Parenting surely isn’t for everyone, and those who choose to be child-free probably have made the right decision. Then again, it’s hard to know for certain that one doesn’t want children. Many don’t, until they do.” (My response.)

This implication: “All women should want children. If they think they don’t, they should have one so they know for sure.”

As if inviting millions of strangers to bring innocent, vulnerable, helpless human beings into conditions unknown carries the consequent weight of, “You have to try that hot pepper. Oh my god, it’s crazy hot. Try it!”

In my opinion, that doesn’t reflect much thought for the children.

I wondered, “What would it look like to put the quality of life of children first, before the biological needs and baby longings of adults?”

After many years of trying it one way, the government in The Age of the Child decides, having seen the results of their legislation, there must be a better way. The only way, as they see it, is licensing.

Which is no problem at all for those who don’t want children (or any more children than they already have), but Millie happens to exist in this time, and it’s a terrible time for someone like her to want to be pregnant. 

Q: I’m sure there are as many situations as there are parents. As you developed your characters and their dilemmas, did you draw on parents or people you’ve observed? Did you find yourself having long thoughtful conversations with friends or friends of friends that yielded insights you ended up incorporating into your novel? How much of yourself and your own experience is in this novel? 

A: Two friends I’ve had for years are parents, and I’ve been lucky to hear them talk to me about their amazing kids from the time they were very young until now (one brother and sister are in their early twenties and the other brother and sister are in their late teens).

One of those friends, I’ll call her Helen, told me a story about a work acquaintance she visited one day after work. While there, Helen witnessed the treatment of her co-worker’s son. The father didn’t feed their son food – he fed him candy fruit snacks. Regularly, as meals. The father, when asked by his wife why he hadn’t made their son a sandwich while she was at work, said he hadn’t felt like it and, frankly, didn’t see why anything about his life or his schedule should have to change just because they had a child.

You’ll probably recognize the Age of the Child character that family inspired.

While writing, I had long conversations with the other friend, Danielle (named in the dedication), about pregnancy, childbirth, and the little things babies do that are unique to their personalities. If I got stuck on a spot while I was in the middle of a scene about a pregnant Katherine, I’d send her a text. I couldn’t have written Katherine’s pregnancy, post-childbirth, or baby-tending without her. Or the book itself, really.

I’ve also been someone’s child but not a mother, which might make it a little easier to imagine (or remember having) a child’s perspective, because it’s free from the filter of parenthood. And as someone who’s never wanted children, I had intimate insight into Katherine’s feelings about becoming a parent.

Q: An author takes risks when writing about controversial subjects or a big idea — the ability to balance the subject or idea with all the elements that make a good story is really important. Luckily, you have found a way to marry both — did you find yourself struggling with this at all during the writing of Age of the Child? Did you ever find yourself considering choices that might serve the idea at the expense of the story or vice versa? 

A: Thank you for saying that!

I think consciously thinking about an issue while trying to write a story could make it too tempting to get hung up on everyone’s political or moral arguments. The preaching from all sides would take over and the characters would get lost. I like to keep whatever the issue is – whether “thinking of the children” or, as in Pretty Much True, trying to put a spotlight on an under-explored wartime experience – in the background of my mind and in the background of the story, too, and to concentrate only on the lives being affected. “This is the situation. What would people do, how might they behave, how would they be personally impacted, in this situation?” That’s all I think about.

“This is the situation. What would people do, how might they behave, how would they be personally impacted, in this situation?” That’s all I think about.’

Q: Speaking as a person who became a parent quite young, I shudder when I think of the possibility that an outside entity could have legally regulated my ability to bear and raise my child. As many mistakes as I’m sure I made – and there are many — I still think I did as well if not better than most. But would I have met the licensing criteria in your novel? I’m far from sure. Have you spoken with readers who find themselves thinking about their parents or their children or their decisions in new ways after reading Age of the Child?

A: Because The Age of the Child only released in November, I haven’t received much in-person feedback, yet, but one reader said it generated a conversation with her husband while they were out for a walk. “We make people get licenses for almost everything else,” her husband said…

“Would you have passed? Only the evaluators know…”

There are so many factors considered for licensing…

Q: The mother-daughter relationships in Age of the Child are fraught. I’m struck by the decision of Katherine, the mother we meet in the first half of the book, to remain emotionally distant from the child she feels forced to have and how that impacts her daughter as she takes on the key role in the second half of the novel. I found myself thinking about the legacy we receive from our mothers and how it is rooted in things that we as children will never understand. Can you share a little of how the four main women in this book were born as characters and how they developed? Did they ever surprise you? 

A: This is a hard question. I love it.

One thing I want to point out first is that Katherine’s husband, Graham, isn’t innocent when it comes to the shaping of their daughter. I won’t say much more than that—I just want to clarify that his influence is more than ancillary. I made a point of including Graham and Ernie (the fathers) and their respective involvement in order to present them as just as impactful as mothers in their roles as parents. We put a lot on mothers and dismiss the fathers, in many ways, as a society, but that’s a different, bigger conversation.

I’m fascinated by the different perceptions adults and children have of their connections (or lack thereof). One forgettable hour to an adult —hell, one minute of an overheard conversation—can become an indelible memory to a child. An adult going about his or her life without a thought can unwittingly communicate a very clear, very powerful message to a child. I explored that dynamic in both families’ parent-child relationships, with one taking a negative turn and one going in a more positive direction (Lenny and her mother, as I see them, are very close!).

The characters developed out a desire to challenge stereotypes: I wanted a compassionate woman who didn’t want kids, and a selfish woman who did. I also wanted characters who adored their children and everything about parenthood, as well as characters who never “come around” to parenthood, whatever the circumstances. (“You’ll change your mind” is very big with some people, but only if you don’t want children. If you think you do want them, you’re trusted to know what you want.)

You also asked if any of the characters surprised me. I think Millie did. I wasn’t expecting to have such strong feelings for her adult character. Now and then I just want to hug her.

Q: When I meet with book clubs, I’m often asked about my writing process – do I outline the book or sit down and see what comes? How does a book come together for you? Do you write every day? Do you try not to write until you know exactly where you are going? How, if it all, has your process changed since first beginning to write? (And by the way, do are you available to meet with book clubs either in person on via Skype?

A: I try to write every day, but if I wake up one morning and feel nothing but dread at the thought of it, then I won’t. I see no reason to punch my meager amount of confidence in the face with awful writing. Instead, I’ll do the thinking part of writing, which is usually safe, or I’ll pull weeds or clean the house.

I should probably be working on outlines instead of pulling weeds, but I’ve never been great at outlining. I’ll do it in pieces, usually when I’m so lost in the story details that I can’t seem to remember how to move forward. Writing down a basic “this, then that, then that,” gets me back on track, and some details about plot points will get sloppy notes on a random notebook page, but otherwise I’m usually pretty disorganized.

However, The Age of the Child, while lacking a coherent outline, did get 25 little sticky tabs dividing writing journal notes on things like crime and punishment, licensing guidelines, the state of the country in this near-future time, arguments politicians would have, etc. Anything and everything the public could and would react to or be affected by.

And, yes! I am available to meet with book clubs via Skype. I would love to. How fun would that be?

Q: Finally, I want to know how Lenny, an uncommonly intelligent dog with the most expressive ears in all fifty states —  contributed to this piece. Was Murphy the dog based in any way on Lenny? Is she a good writing partner? Was she wounded when she discovered you had not dedicated the book to her? 

Murphy has a tiny bit of Lenny in her, and no, Lenny is not a good writing partner. She’s the worst. If I try to write on the couch, she sits next to me—on my cushion—and puts her nose between my face and the monitor. If I sit at the dining room table, she stands at my feet like a little hippo and stares at me with her ears. She’s very distracting, which is why I’ve become one of those annoying people writing in a Starbucks. But I only get four hours. The afternoon and evening belong to Lenny, who is the best impulse dog adoption ever, our three spectacular cats, and my husband Ian.

Lenny wasn’t too hurt about the dedication. I told her, “Look. You can have a character named after you, or you can get a dedication. What’s it gonna be?”

Q: What is the question you wished someone would ask that, somehow, no one has?

There’s no way anyone could know to ask this, so I don’t blame them for never having asked: “What do you wish you’d done for a writer that you didn’t do?”

While visiting New York City last winter, Ian and I went to the New York Public Library. There was a man sitting outside in a little metal chair, and (I can only assume) his books were stacked on a folding table in front of him. No one was stopping to talk to him or buy his books.

“You should go over there and talk to him about his book,” Ian said.

I hate small talk and will always try to avoid it, so of course I didn’t go over there. But now I wish I had. One person being enthusiastic about what you’re offering can make up for hours of people walking by without even a glance, and it would have been so easy to do. It would have cost nothing but a minute of feeling awkward and the price of a book.

Which is not to say he needed me to do that. I’m sure he’s fine. But, you know. You want to give to someone what you think you’d like, yourself.

 And, just because this is my blog and I can post whatever I want to, here’s another shot of Kristen’s editor, Lenny and her marvelous ears:

Old Yeller and The Repo Man: Thanksgiving 1986

The movie is Old Yeller and it plays out on the television in the corner of the hospital room. My son, then eleven, watches from the bed through eyes compressed nearly shut by a sinus infection. An IV beeps. Antibiotic seeps into his arm as it has for nearly four days without appreciable effect.

The father and the neighbor are arguing on the television, one of those maddening exchanges in which each person stops just short of the crucial bit of information which would make them each understand each other. I want it to stop. I say this out loud.

“Mom,” my kid says without lifting his head from the propped up pillows. He says it with the bored impatience of the newly adolescent. “There has to be conflict. No conflict. No story.”

I turn to him, stunned. “Where did you learn that?”

His eye flicked from the screen to me. Where did he learn the withering glance?

“School,” he says. “Where else?”

“What else are you learning?”

“Can we just watch the movie?”

So far, the story of Thanksgiving 1986 is playing out with lots of conflict. The whole hospital episode started the Friday before Thanksgiving and his desire to attend a party that he knew he would miss if I knew he was sick. So, he hid this piece of crucial information until he woke up that morning with half his face the size and color of a Beefsteak tomato. I want to keep my job so I give him some Tylenol, make him stay home, and call him every hour from work until lunchtime when I arrive to find nothing changed. Both of us want to spend Thanksgiving at my mother’s table, ten hours away from our one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey where I sleep on a futon in the living room, he sleeps in a bed we found somewhere cheap, and we dine at a borrowed vinyl and aluminum table seated on two borrowed chairs.

By the time we switch on Old Yeller in the hospital room five days later, we know that the crowd around Mom’s table will not include us. Now all I want is for the antibiotic to start working. The infection, the doctor has said, is stubborn and is “dangerously close to his brain.” The doctor is with his family where I imagine he is watching football in a den off the kitchen which is infused with the aroma of various side dishes being prepared for the next day’s feast. He is not watching a movie that will end with the death of an innocent, sick dog.

By the time my son’s father drives from New Hampshire to spell me, my son wants me to go. He wants to leave too, but failing that, wants to watch television with a guy who won’t talk during the next movie he finds. I am tired of conflict, so around 11:30 p.m., I kiss him good bye and try not to tell his father everything he already knows about what to do if our son takes a turn.

The November night slaps me out of the hospital haze I’ve been in for days. My legs freeze under my jeans. The engine is so cold I have to run it for ten minutes before I can drive the eight minutes to our apartment. The route takes me down a broad leafy boulevard lined with houses of people who can afford four bedrooms, two baths, a couple of cars and sloping lawns. The houses of people who can assume certain comforts.

Ahead, two headlights flare. These lights are attached to a tow truck that is pulling away from the curb. A car is hitched to the tow bar. A man appears in the short driveway leading to the curb. He is naked except for the towel he clutches around his waist. The towel is white as is the skin on his back, his belly, and his feet. He runs after the tow truck, one arm clutching his towel, the other raised in a fist. His mouth opens in a shout I can’t hear through my closed windows. In my rearview mirror, I watch the soles of his feet flash in the streetlight as he pursues the truck. He runs a good fifty feet before he stops, drops his fist, and stands as the red taillights of the tow truck disappear around the corner.

I want to stop and go back to him but what would I say? Happy Thanksgiving? It’s only a car? Maybe you should get back inside your nice house before whatever is under that towel freezes off? Then, I think, this is his story. Not mine.

All these years later it still looks like a good one: a great hook, lots of action, pregnant with unanswered questions. Loaded with conflict.

I plan to do something with it someday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Thing

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 “He never knew when it was coming.”

I learned last week that there is one thing about me my husband would change if he could.

Not the size of my breasts.

Not my inability to control myself around a bag of corn chips.

Not the way I start reading his library books before he is finished with them, or try to kiss him when I am still wet from the shower, or my lax attitude towards filling the car’s gas tank. He wouldn’t make me younger, older, or smarter, or funnier — which is saying something because I never get his jokes and can’t remember punch lines.

He would, though, put me in a coma, open up my cranium, and reach deep into my brain to find the switch that is responsible for my sneeze so he could disarm it.

My sneeze, he says, shrieks through him like a three-second hurricane, leaves him shuddering, makes him wonder about me in ways that, if I let myself think about it, might find disturbing.

So I don’t.

I do, however, make an effort now. I not only cover, I run from the room. I try to keep the sneeze all in my nose so when it detonates the only sound he hears is my whimpering as my sinuses implode.

This is a public service message. The marriage you save may be your own.

At least I do not sound like a chicken. Here is a chicken sneezing:

By the way, did you know that…

Sneezing does NOT stop your heart (although it may bring the hearts of those nearby to a screeching halt)?

You can sneeze at 100 miles per hour?

People can’t sneeze in their sleep but some sneeze when they pluck their eyebrows?

For these and other fun facts about the big Ah-Choo click here.

 

 

 

 

 

Life Happens

“It was amazing how you could get so far from where you’d planned, and yet find it was exactly were you needed to be.” (Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye)

What we won't remember

What we won’t remember

If things had been going according to plan, I’d be writing this post from Switzerland, on the last leg of a three-week trip that was to begin with a flight into Zurich, take us through the Alps and into Italy before ending in Geneva.

It was a trip planned with love and care by a husband who can stretch airline miles, find the best deals, and uncover the splurges that make for the kind of memories that shine through the years like slivers of gold at the bottom of a creek.

The kind of trip very fortunate people can plan.

Then, as some like to say, life happened, or as others put it, shit happened. Within forty-eight hours of our departure, a stomach virus hit us both, a loved one was in a frightening car accident, and even though we told ourselves we’d be fine and our kids told us they’d be fine, my husband looked at me hours before we were to board the plane and said, “I just don’t think this feels right.”

We canceled. Our Cairn terrier, who had been watching the packing with growing concern, relaxed. So, for a few days, did we.

Then another loved one got some troubling news and we planned a new trip, one that took us to Burbank where we spent time with him in doctor’s waiting rooms, labs, and keeping him company while he waited for the results of scans and biopsies. The results came. They weren’t what any of us wanted to hear.

When we look back at this time, we will probably remember the shock, and the pain that followed, but we will also remember how we all gathered the night of the day we got the bad news. We will see the meal our kids, still recovering from the car accident, prepared for their uncle and us. We will see the loved faces around the table as we passed the food, poured the wine, shared old familiar stories. We will drink in the laughter that bubbled through our uncertainty and both anchored and lifted us. We will remember how grateful we felt to have each other and to be with each other instead of thousands of miles away.

It is the kind of moment, and memory, that truly fortunate people can have.

Limoncello Lessons…Please!

Okay, foodies and mixology mavens. I need your help. I made my first ever batch of limoncello and it looks like this:

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In case it isn’t obvious from the photograph above, my limoncello is not yellow. A sip sometimes yields hints of Pledge cleaner underscored by notes of blecchh. Although I did try it again today and it was, if I closed my eyes, drinkable. Of course, anything, can be swallowed if one is determined enough. I speak as someone who remembers the days of Boone’s Farm apple wine (99 cents!) enjoyed (although rarely sipped) in the fresh mountain air near the Vermont state line.

Back to the limoncello.

A failed batch would be just fine if I were whipping up a batch of cookies that went wrong, or dropped an omelet on the floor. This, however, was so much more.

This was supposed to be a love offering, a celebration of families across two continents and one ocean. I had BIG plans for this limoncello.

Let me explain.

The idea was born during our visit to Italy last fall to see my husband’s family in Pontecorvo, just south of Rome. The centerpiece of our day with them was a meal that started around noon or one and unfolded with love and laughter for the next three hours. At the end, Roberto asked if anyone wanted some limoncello?

Of course. Out came a bottle made by the father of his wife, Maria-Vittoria. Each sip was as perfect as the sunlight that filtered through the windows and blessed the faces of those around the dining table.

I knew I couldn’t recreate the food, or the laughter, or the sweetness of connections regained after many years, but I could, I thought, try to make the limoncello once I got home. I had all the ingredients: my stepdaughter’s lemon tree would provide the lemons. My son would provide the vodka. Maria Vittoria gave me her father’s recipe. This limoncello would be infused with love and family from the West Coast to Pontecorvo.

I waited for the lemons on my stepdaughter’s lemon tree to ripen.

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I put aside a bottle of vodka made by my son’s distillery.

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I peeled each lemon trying very hard (but maybe not hard enough) to get pure lemon strips, no white zest.

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I found an old jar that was big enough and poured the vodka in over the peels.

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Then I waited. Waited some more. I waited two months before opening the jar and draining out the vodka which, alarmingly, was not as yellow as the peels had once been.

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I made the simple syrup and added it.

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I let it steep. I chilled it. And … well, you saw. instead of this:

I got this:

photo 1I know that at least one mistake was using organic sugar, rather then the usual white refined stuff. That could add a caramel tint. But what about the vodka? Some argue only for 100-proof vodka or grain alcohol. Goat vodka is 80 proof. I filtered everything through coffee filters inside strainers but nothing got any clearer. One thing I can say is this: these lemons were untreated. They are so light and fresh, I can eat the peels (before they’ve been soaked in vodka). They are beautiful, always.

I try to tell myself there are lessons in this limoncello, tart reminders:

Nothing is easy as it looks or sounds.

Patience is the essential ingredient (Maybe I should have waited until we had some white sugar in the house).

Failure is part of everything, even labors of love. The only thing we can do is to understand where we went wrong. And begin again.

The lemons should be ripe again in a few more months. In the meantime, I am open to any and all suggestions.

 

 

 

 

 

A Moment of Silence

Fort Rosecrans Cemetery, photograph by Charles Hansen

Fort Rosecrans Cemetery in San Diego. Photograph by Charles Hansen

On Monday, May 26th, the clock will strike 3 p.m. one time zone at a time. Everywhere across the U.S. people will fall silent, together or alone, to remember those who died at war.

A moment of silence can be powerful. I recall this very clearly when the day after the towers fell, my husband and I were in Italy, trying and failing to get home.

The clock struck noon.

All of Milan came to a complete halt to honor those who had died and to offer whatever thoughts and prayers bubble up in that moment of silence. Traffic stopped. The sounds of horns stopped. Computers stopped. Phones were allowed to ring. A woman helping us in a busy office said, “Excuse me.” She stood with all of her colleagues for five minutes saying nothing. Some closed their eyes. Others said a prayer. We were strangers in that room. The thousands below us were strangers. Yet all of us were bound together in that silence filled with awareness and all our hopes, prayers, fears. We were not alone.

Until last year, I never knew about observing Memorial Day with a moment of silence. I knew parades, picnics, sales. I did it. I want to do it again. I would like to do it this year with others even if we are all in our own homes, yards, cars when we join together in a moment of silence to remember those we loved, lost, or never knew but still lost and should have known.

If you are so moved, please leave names or families we can keep in mind as we fall silent tomorrow. If you have a prayer or a thought to share, please go ahead – you may provide the words that another is looking for and needs at this time.

Here is a link to a list of the casualties of two of our most recent wars. Faces, numbers, names: Faces of the Fallen.

Soon enough, it will be time to leave the silence and return to our days, our weeks, our lives. We can still remember, though. We need to.

Here are some links to organizations that help families left behind.

USO: Families of the Fallen 

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (T.A.P.S) 

List of Charities Supporting Soldiers and their Families (compiled by the US Army)

Monday Letters

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The “Kitchen Sink” shortie: all the essentials in a hurry and with love.

It’s five o’clock on Monday morning and my mother sits in bed, knees up, a pad against her thighs, her second cup of coffee steaming within easy reach. Her pen flies across the page in front of her leaving behind a trail of thoughts that have been on her mind for days, minutes, or take shape as she writes.

I can reconstruct this because on more than one visit home back in the early days of my adulthood, I found her there, often with my infant son tucked into the pillows next to her after she’d swooped him up so that I could have a rare extra hour of morning sleep.

“Happy Monday. Hope between you and the numerologist you had a good weekend.” Monday, 1980

These were her “Monday Letters.” She wrote her first one when I left home at 17. As the rest of us tumbled out of the nest, one or two a year, she wrote more. She has written over 1,500 Monday letters to me by my estimation. Add my siblings, step siblings, her godchildren, and fellow travelers she adopted along the way, and we are talking serious writer’s cramp and the death of a forest or two before the advent of email and texts.

“Dear Betsy, a day late and dull stationery to boot and oh dear a lousy pen. Not a very good way to start the day. It’s 6:15.”

Not long ago, I was rooting around in the garage and found a battered cardboard carton labeled “Mom” in black marker. The seams of the box were worn; the top barely able to contain the letters jammed inside. The letters, survivors of my mother’s weekly correspondence, seemed to be pushing their way out of the box to find me. I forgot whatever I’d been looking for and hauled the box into my office and for the next few days, I read them all.

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I picked up each letter with the same combination of eagerness and trepidation I used to feel mid-week when her letters usually arrived.

“Our conversation was most unsatisfactory – to be blamed in all fairness on both of us. I for my part am sorry I always flunk pretty badly when I attempt to contain myself and unfortunately I’ve been containing my opinions on this for a very long time.”

They weren’t always written on a Monday. They weren’t always written before dawn. She used whatever paper she had and whatever time she had between jobs, errands, doctor visits, or when she woke in the middle of the night with someone on her mind.

“I ‘ve been awake since 3 a.m. Thinking of you.”

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They weren’t always fun to read. The letters I found spanned a chunk of late seventies, early eighties when I moved with a man ten years older to the suburbs without getting married and without a job. I went into debt. My son was hospitalized after COBRA ran out. My relationship with my partner slid into a swamp I couldn’t seem to get out off with my self-esteem intact. She called often. We visited when we could. But her letters never stopped coming. Holding one — even the lectures — was like feeling her hand in mine. She couldn’t pull me out but the letters told me she would be there, cheering me on when I finally emerged on my own.

“Don’t beat yourself up.  Whatever you do, we love you.”

Each letter was at least one, but often a combination of the following:  hello, weather report, family news, a verbal finger-prod between the shoulder blades, a long-distance hug, wistful wonderings, a mirror, warning, atta-girl, “to-do” list, food for thought, how-to make everything from chicken l’orange for eight to how to manage money. There were lots of letters about money, how I handled it; how I didn’t.

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These recipes rescued me when I first confronted making dinner for adults

“Thought I’d try to give you a rough outline of how to make a budget.”

And there were plenty in which she wrote about her own fears, her own anxiety about the future, her own struggles to grow.

“Thanks for listening to me. I’m really in a mess. Trying to control what I probably should do with what I want to do. I know that it will work out.”

As I sift through the letters, though, the content of the letters is eclipsed by the fact of them. They are tangible evidence of who I was, who she was, and how we worked our way through the holding on and letting go between a mother whose nest was beginning to empty and a daughter whose start-up nest was a hot mess.

“You have to get a grip on yourself. You will NOT be alone for the rest of your life no matter what. The hardest thing is when you’re really are trying and you really feel that you are contributing and then you get so lonely and are shot down. I’m speaking from the heart. It just doesn’t have to be. You get ahold of yourself and stay hold no matter what and don’t let your stubborn determination get the best of you. Have a good week, Love, Mom.

In them was the determination to forge new relationships not just with me but with each of her offspring and other loved ones, to help us nurture connections with each other. They were her way of reconciling her determination to make us all independent with her desire that we all stay connected. They show that when she had a few minutes to herself, she thought of me, my siblings, all her loved ones, and got out her paper and pen. She started out more than one with “Just wanted you to have some mail.” We all knew that some got longer letters some weeks than others; some weeks were tougher than others. Sometimes, a letter was meant to be shared as was the case with this one to me and my son sometime in 1981:

“Hi, I love you and I hope your respective lives are moving onward and upward. Happily, Hastily, Mom/Gramma”

Over the years, the letters helped to weave the fabric connecting all who received them. We can lob a standard quote, “Have the courage of your own convictions” to a stepbrother or sister and they can laugh and toss back, “And poco a poco” or “Don’t lose perspective.”

We chuckle, but we hear her. Even now, we hear her.

Happy Monday, Mom. And Happy Birthday.

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mom card 2014

A Mother’s Day collage of Monday Letters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Love a Loquat

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It’s spring here in San Diego. The sky is blue, the temperatures are nudging eighty degrees, and I am working hard to come up with all the ways we can eat our loquats before they shrivel into black hairy clumps.

I realize that there may be those reading these words who are dealing with highs of forty degrees, mud, losing the bulbs they just planted to woodchucks. There are those too who haven’t seen the sun or blue skies for more than a minute since last fall. And there are those who will have absolutely no idea what a loquat is or why anyone would want to eat one.

I occupied all of those groups at one point. These days, I not only know what a loquat is but I love the fruit from our particular loquat tree. How could I not? It came to us nearly twelve years ago, a bare stick poking out of a little black pot half-full of dirt. It was a time of beginnings for us. I was a transplant and my husband was rediscovering all the things he’d loved and missed about California. He still speaks of his time in New Jersey (where we met) as “doing time.” That first spring, he was striding around a local home and garden show with a smile of a man who knows he will never feel snow sliding down his neck again.

We almost passed the tree on our way to our car after seeing all we’d come to see. The folks of the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers Association were packing their truck to head home. We bought a fig tree (another stick in a pot) and then my husband told them he loved loquats. Apparently not many people tell them that. They threw in the loquat for free.

“What’s a loquat?” I asked my husband as we carried our foundlings home.

“I used to pick them with my grandfather. I ate them right off the tree.”

That was all he needed to tell me. The loquat was like the wild rapini he and his grandfather would pick every Sunday back in the California of the forties and fifties, or the prickly pears that reminded his grandfather of Italy. The loquat was wrapped up in all the memories of being with a grandfather he loved and knew, for a time, better than his father who was away at war when my husband was born.

We waited nine years to pick a loquat off our tree and now they arrive every February or so. When someone asks me to describe a loquat, I struggle.

It looks like it started out to be an apricot and then changed its mind. It’s a little fuzzy like a peach. There is a sweet, spicy, sometimes a tiny-bit lemony taste when it’s at its peak. Loquats start to shrink within an hour or two of being picked which is one reason they aren’t grown for commercial use here. Another reason is that four or five pits form the core of each one, competing with the fleshy, juicy fruit for space inside the skin. The upside of this is that you can eat a lot of loquats before you’ve filled up.

There is no dignified way to eat them. Juice runs down your chin, between your fingers. The pits, smooth and glossy as stones in a brook, fill your cheeks. You must spit them out and there is no polite way to do this. If you are outside, of course, this is no big deal. My neighbor, for example, loves to practice her aim. Her husband, who is usually her target, does not appreciate this.

If you are inside, though, here is a look at how to enjoy a loquat fresh off the tree, along with some wonderful links to resources, recipes, and all kinds of factoids that will allow you to vicariously enjoy the loquat. I encourage you to check them out although the closest I will probably come to doing anything with a loquat other than eating it fresh off the tree is freezing it, skins and all. You can take them out one at a time. It’s like eating a bit of spring all year long.

How To Eat A Loquat

Step 1: pick and wash (although when I’m outside, I just brush it against my shirt and stick the whole thing in my mouth, spitting out pits and skin later. It isn’t pretty but it tastes great.)

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Step 2: Peel back the skin so the globe of fruit is revealed.

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Step 3: Toss skin and admire the perfection of the naked loquat.

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Step 4: Take a bite from one side and then work around in a circle until all the fruit is in your mouth and the pits are tumbling from your checks like quarters from a one-armed bandit.

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Step 5: Repeat.

If you’d like to try it out on a frozen loquat, go ahead. When you are ready to enjoy them, take a couple out of the bag you’ve stashed in the freezer. Let sit for five minutes or less. Peel as instructed above and enjoy. The great thing about the frozen loquat is that the flavor bursts through in an icy explosion that immediately makes you want more.

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A few fun links:

For the uninitiated, loquats have nothing to do with kumquats which is a citrus.

According to UC Davis, the loquat in SoCal is usually just there to look good but they haven’t eaten the fruit from ours!  http://fruitsandnuts.ucdavis.edu/dsadditions/Loquat_Fact_Sheet/

There is actually a site called Loquat World! And in addition to all things loquat, it provides some interesting recipes.

A wonderful post in the blog Full and Content: What to do with Loquats 

Finally, an anonymous Full and Content reader provided this handy little recipe for loquat liqueur:

1.75 liters of vodka or rum

Loquats

Pour all of the vodka or rum in a gallon jar and then fill it up with peeled loquats. I cut out the bloom end to expose the seeds. Let the mixture sit for 2 to 3 months and then strain off the loquats. Mix equal parts of the Liquor with simple syrup, e.g. 1 cup alcohol and 1 cup simple syrup.

 

 

About A Boy

Today, April 20, is about Easter. It is also about a boy.

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The boy and his frog.

The boy in this picture came into my life on April 20, 1975. He doesn’t look this way any more. He’s taller, his shoulders sometimes hunch when the world gets a little much for him, there are a few lines at the corners of his eyes when he smiles.

He’s probably wondering where all the time went. I can’t help him with that.

I can however, remind him of the day when he, just turned seven, brought his froggy friend home for supper. He wanted to create a habitat for him even though the obvious habitat was the creek bank just down the hill where they’d both been spending some quality time together all afternoon.

Arrangements were made. The boy took a bath (I insisted), and the tub was cleaned and prepared for the frog. We placed a rock inside the bath for that homey touch. The water was shallow and what my son determined was the right temperature. We closed the bathroom door.

Did I mention there was only one bathroom in the entire house?

Flash forward to the middle of the night. I have to pee. I forget about the visitor. The minute I open the door, and nearly lose it right then and there when something launches itself right at me. Frog is on the loose. He’s taking the steps three at a time, heading for the downstairs, the living room, the creek.

The boy sleeps like the dead or like seven-year-old boys who have spent the entire day outside. When I yell “The Frog Is Loose” into his ear, his eyes fly open and he’s off. For the next hour we pursue the amphibian through the house, under steam heaters, under couches, with paper bags, much frantic worry on my son’s part and some exasperation but mostly held-back giggles on mine.

The good news is that we saved Mr. Frog from himself. My son snared him in a paper bag. We marched out into the summer night in our pajamas. I started the car and the boy climbed in clutching the top of the bag. We drove to the bottom of the hill where the creek burbled.

I watched the boy get out, carefully lift the frog out of the bag and look him in the eye.

“Good bye,” said the boy. The rest of what he said was along the lines of “I’ll come back in the morning but I know you might not be here. I really wished I could have kept you but I know that wouldn’t have made you happy.” And then he let him go.

A moment of silence followed and then the boy climbed back into the car. A little while later, after a little talk and a glass of milk, he was once again asleep.

To the boy, on his birthday, I say “Happy Birthday. There were times when I wished I could keep you just like this, all muddy, smiles, and full of plans for a frog who had very different ideas.”

I have kept this picture though. I keep the memory of that night along with so many others. I persist in the idea that this boy still lives inside the man my son has become. There is some evidence for this. He still loves digging in the dirt.  He still loves animals although the donkeys would not fit in the bathtub. He still has the most amazing smile.

Happy Birthday to the boy and the man. Happy Birthday to Stan, the most recent addition to the menagerie, who turns one year old today.

Happy Easter to those who celebrate it and may all find joy and renewal in this day.

 

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Happy Birthday to Stan, one year old today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Love, Anniversaries, and Burps in the Night

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On February 2, 2012 my husband and I hung side by side at the start of the zip line at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The feeling I had at that moment steals back as I write these words. Pure terror. Pure bliss. The inching forward until the moment arrives in a rush. The platform seems to fall away and there is nothing between us and the earth below us but way too much air and the straps of our sling beneath our butts. He’s laughing. I’m laughing.

We never planned to celebrate our eleventh anniversary by leaping into the air and sailing over the heads of rhinos or giraffes. It was one of those thoughts that just morphed into action after we decided to use our soon-to-expire zoo passes and, while we were at it, celebrate Groundhog Day or, as we also know it, our anniversary.

As our choice of wedding day may indicate, neither of us has any aptitude for event planning. Even if we did, no amount of planning or orchestration could adequately commemorate moments like this:

A belch rips through the companionable silence that accompanies reading in bed before turning off the lights.

Me: “Sorry.”

Him: “That’s okay. As we get older, I don’t expect we will make fewer sounds.” Pause. “On the bright side, as we get older, we probably won’t hear them.”

Or this:

Him: “You know what? I’m sick of you.”

Me: “I’m sick of you too.”

Tense silence. Then both of us dissolve into giggles that nearly make us stop the car.

We are half-way through our three and a half-week drive from New Jersey to our new home in California by way of Charleston, Savannah, and a great swath of Texas. Until that point, we believed we’d figured out how to spend most of our time together. We work together and live together but we’ve never spent 24 hours a day wedged into a car loaded with our computers, bags, china, pillows, soap, a mop, bags, a case full of AAA books, and trepidation about the move we are making.

An expensive anniversary dinner out somewhere would be wonderful but it would never yield the memory of the time my husband finally nailed the art of sautéing baby artichokes. “Try this,” he says, plucking one from the small mound of crispy, glistening baby chokes. I do. I want more. I want to remain in that kitchen and be fed artichokes by this man for the rest of my life. He smiles, turns back to the stove, and says:

“Stick with me little girl, I’ll make you fat.”

A huge party would never drown out the memory of the ringing phone on election day 2004. The doctor’s name shows on the caller ID. I answer but my love is already there in the room holding out his hand for the receiver. I hear the doctor’s words clearly even though my husband clasps the phone to his ear and turns away as if to shield me. Positive is one word. Cancer is another.

We no longer care who wins the election.

Even though we celebrate our tenth anniversary with a trip to Kauai, we don’t need the ocean, the waterfalls, the whales, the coconuts to celebrate every day we’ve had since that phone call and the successful surgery that followed. We celebrate that with moments like this:

Him or me: “Hi, I’m home. Where are you?”

Me or him: “Right here.”

Here’s how our actual wedding went:

At around five o’clock on February 2, 2001, we’re standing in the living room of our condominium in New Jersey at the beginning of an ice storm. We’re dressed to the nines for our two best friends and a minister whose credentials came straight off the Internet. She wears a black judge’s robe although she’d offered to wear a clown suit, or a cowboy outfit, a top hat, or pretty much anything else she had hanging in the closet of her cabin in the thick of the woods thirty miles north and west of us. We saw them all the night we drove up there after work a few weeks earlier to go over the vows she insisted we review with her.

We think we’ve thought of everything. We’ve gotten our kids’ blessings, the rings, roses, the announcements we will drop in the mail sometime that evening. We’ve bought a video camera no one knows how to use.

Then the minister begins to read from the vows – traditional, feminist, with elements drawn from Native American spiritual prayers because we’d never thought about any of this before and, confronted by her menu, thought we’d better try a bit of everything just to be on the safe side.

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As she approaches the section for the first “I do,” my palms grow moist and then I realize there is a sheen on my beloved’s forehead that may or may not have to do with the intestinal infection he developed the night before. There is the moment when we realize that there are no guarantees that we won’t make the same mistakes we made in our previous marriages, that in a few more seconds the only way out will be a path neither of us ever wants to walk again. Then here it comes. “I do.” Fingers twined together, we jump. Our honeymoon is spent in the same living room while he rides out the rest of his bug and I sink into our big white chair with a few novels.

This year our anniversary went like this:

We sleep until our elderly terrier rouses us. We catch up on past episodes of Sherlock and True Detective. We talk about our kids, our family, trips we might take. We eventually get around to washing up and shifting from pajamas to sweatpants. We make breakfast. We make tea. We make lunch. We make dinner. We watch the Super Bowl. We never answer a phone or look at our computers. We find ourselves looking at each other or reaching for each other’s hand and just holding on for a bit.

It couldn’t have gone better if we planned it.

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