the mother of all fears

Bunny Lake dolls

“Movies about mothers – mothers’ relationship with their children, children’s relationship with their mothers – can trade in easy sentiment or melodrama. But motherhood isn’t all swaddling and coddling and comfortable archetypes. In the rough terrain where a woman becomes a mother, she can feel she’s been corralled, her personality, her persona, her entire independent self suddenly defined largely by her actual or idealized connection to a child. These three thrillers tap into the poignancy and pressures that many mothers face, digging into the complicated web of social expectations in a world that both mythologizes and devalues motherhood, while translating the everyday tensions of caregiving into the language of the fantastic and the grotesque.”

Today at The Toast, my essay about motherhood as depicted in Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Others, and El Orfanato.

tears

The family was gathering for Thanksgiving, oh so many years ago, when my beloved elderly aunt called from Florida. Her long-planned flight to join us was cancelled in deference to a storm and she didn’t see the sense in trying to reschedule; she’d stay safely home raise a glass to us on the day.

My little niece L. burst out “But what about her turkey?” She didn’t mean a plate overflowing with meat and gravy and stuffing. She meant a piece of paper on which L. had traced out her hand, then lavishly illustrated it in marker, adding feet and feathers and a landscape of spiky green grass and, incongruously, a wide-brimmed cockel hat with shiny buckle jauntily posed on the turkey’s head. She’d drawn one for each of the diners expected on Thursday and written their names on each picture.

“We’ll mail it to her,” the grown-ups assured her. And on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my father (L.’s grandfather) and I went out to do a last errand and took L. with us. We stopped at a mailbox and held L.’s hand as she strained up to drop the stamped envelope into the box.

“Aunt P. will love getting this, L.,” I murmured.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“Oh, yeah. It was sweet of you to draw it for her, and to send it to her. It will be such a good surprise!”

“Yeah?”

“Oh, yeah! Imagine her opening her mailbox to find that envelope in it, and opening it to see your picture! She’ll be so touched you thought of her.”

L. screwed up her face in serious thought, picturing Aunt P. at some imagined mailbox. Then her eyes lit up. “Will she CRY?!?”

Over smothered laughter (and not-so-smothered laughter from my father, ahead of us), I said “… I think she might, a little bit.”

GOOD.”

I’ve been telling this story, now and again, for a dozen years – because L.’s question gets to the heart of what we are often asking ourselves about gestures of kindness and consideration. Is this a big gesture? Is this a small gesture? Will it make a mark in the heart of the beloved? How can we know what word or gesture makes a difference until it does – or it doesn’t?

Aunt P. is gone. L. is a high-spirited, talented young woman at a college halfway across the country from her family. And I am a writer who just finished a film essay about Mother’s Day – a film essay that made me tear up a bit when I wrote it, and again when I proof-read it.

And I understand L.’s question better than ever. Because when I wiped away the trickle of tears, I thought with great satisfaction “Will this make them CRY?” and “Yeah, I think it will.”

GOOD.”

cookie cutters

Let me tell you about my cookie cutters.

Memory is a tricky thing, so bear with me. I was small when these memories formed, and at the distance of decades, it’s hard to tell the difference between true memory, corroborated reconstructions, and childhood imagination.

But I remember the cookies. I’m certain the cookies were exactly as I describe.

My Uncle B and Aunt M (really my father’s much older uncle and aunt, and rather terrifying in demeanor and voice) gave the same gift each year: a homemade cookie cutter shaped out of an old tin can and a tin or box of cookies made from their own collection of cutters. Uncle B made the cutters and Aunt M made the cookies, every year until I turned seven and we moved away.

Their cookies are among my earliest memories, and certainly my very first memories of Christmas. They were rolled vellum-thin, baked ’til they were just tinged with brown at the edges, and decorated with sparse perfection, a dragée here and a sprinkle of colored sugar there, just enough to lend some details to their shapes. The first one I remember is a whole train of sugar cookies – a locomotive, a string of different cars, and a caboose. I think (but I can’t rely on such an early memory) that there might have been a puff of smoke riding jauntily atop the train.

My family accumulated quite a collection of perfectly turned, finely detailed cookie cutters from this unlikely and intimidating source. My mother passed some of them on to me over the years – when I moved into my first apartment, when she moved to a new home, when I baked Christmas cookies in her new kitchen.

One Christmas over a decade ago, I pulled out my cookie cutters and baked and shaped and frosted cookies. And then, overcome with memory, I washed my hands and sat down at the kitchen table, adrift in the faintly sweet scent of sugar and butter, and I wrote a letter to my Uncle B. It was my first letter to him since Aunt M had died a few years ago, and the second letter I’d ever sent him, excepting my childish scrawl on the thank-you letters we’d send for those cookie gifts.

I wrote about using his cookie cutters that day, how these cutters had always symbolized Christmas to me, and of my fond and formative memories of their cookies. I thanked him both for the long-ago cookies and for the cutters, and I let him know they had been long and well loved.

He didn’t write back, not surprisingly. My family isn’t close-knit, and I was one of a swarm of great-nieces and great-nephews. He probably had little idea who I was, probably couldn’t pick me out of a group as a child or an adult.

In fact, I found out this was more-or-less true a few years later; he could only identify me by my remarkable resemblance to my mother. At the reception after a family funeral, Uncle B walked up to me and my sister, looked at my face, and announced imperiously “You must be one of [_____]’s daughters!” I told him he was right, and I told him my name and my sister’s.

His stern craggy face washed over with softness. “You’re the one who bakes cookies,” he said with wonder, and this man – who’d rarely smiled at me and never hugged me or even shaken my hand – pulled up a chair and sat down knee-to-knee with me, his hand reaching out gently over and over but never quite touching me, and talked. And talked. And talked. All his hardness smoothed away; he was full of memories himself, and he found me to share them with. When it was time to leave, he hugged me. And then he did it again.

I’m grateful whenever I have a chance to revisit that story. It’s a potent reminder that those small thanks are always worth sending, because you never know how meaningful they may be to the person you’re thanking. It’s a reminder to be grateful, to be mindful, to be kinder than necessary. It’s a reminder to keep trying – and failing, but trying! – to be my best self.

[This story is cross-posted to Metafilter.]

Dear Dad

Dear Dad, I was thinking about “Macbeth” again this week, and the cat i’ the adage. Whenever I read that, I think of talking to you.

Dear Dad, I got some new cartridges for those pens you gave me when I first went back to school. Thanks for thinking of me, and for knowing how useful it is to have brightly colored pens so classmates don’t walk off with them.

Dear Dad, it might be about time for me to have a BLT. I never have one without thinking of that midnight with you. I wish I could take you to the neighborhood restaurant where I sometimes get them. You’d hate the noise and love the fries, and you would have been as vexed as I was that they called themselves Hot Suppa but weren’t open for supper, and as weirdly relieved as I was when they fiiiiinally started serving during supper hours.

Dear Dad, not too long ago a community member asked for help decoding his late father’s document full of punchlines without the jokes. I was able to explain one of the jokes and to tell a little story about you and me, too.

Dear Dad, I’ve been in pain for a few weeks now — nothing serious, but unpleasant and even scary sometimes. The Fella has been unsurprisingly amazing and thoughtful during all that time. I wish you’d met him. You’d love and trust him with all your heart, just like I do. I think you’d love him for himself, not just because he loves and cares for your daughter so sweetly and unfailingly.

Dear Dad, I’ve spent a lot of years unwinding my complicated feelings about my childhood and the ways my parents coped with (or didn’t cope with) your own grief and heartache before I was born, and how that affected my own adult relationships and my own childless state, and I know that I might never come to the end of that skein.

But it gets easier and easier to reconcile that complex snarl of feelings with the simple love that I feel for you and Mom, and to say it over and over: Dear Dad, I love you. Dear Dad, I miss you.

fancy

My brother-in-law J. had, among his collection of tin toys and keepsakes, a can of… peanut brittle. Uh-huh. A faded, peeling, scratched-up old can, smelling strongly of basement mildew, promisingly labelled peanut brittle.

But when you opened it, did you find delicious peanut brittle, as the label indicated? You did not! When you twisted and pried the stubborn lid from the tarnished old can, HORRIBLE SNAKES would fly forth!

And I mean HORRIBLE SNAKES: musty old fabric, worn away with time, here and there the sharp spikes of the spring ends poking through. Even if they didn’t scratch you when they sprang out, trying to cram them back into the can was a tetanus-tempting chore.

So one Christmas, I bought J. a new set of Snakes in a Can. (Note: I couldn’t find peanut brittle, but apparently the Snake Nut Can company is still doing booming business; I was able to find one immediately at the toy shop across the street from my apartment.)

When I wrapped my Christmas gifts at Grandma & Grandpa’s house, J.’s daughter A., then not quite six, wandered in to help. I showed her my gift for her dad and asked her advice: should I leave the can in its packaging so J. would know it was a joke can?

Or… should I remove the wrapping so he would think it was a can of fancy nuts?

A.’s little mouth twisted in delight. Unwrap it! Take it out of its packaging! Let him open it all unawares! FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS! He’ll never know! Y’know why? Because it doesn’t say peanut brittle!

She even helped me take off the cardboard-and-plastic packaging and wrap up the tin of FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS prettily in tissue and ribbon. When we exchanged gifts the next day, I said “Oh, J., I have something for you,” and asked A. to fetch it from under the tree and deliver it, which she did, snickering and flicking thrilled, guilty looks at me the entire time.

J. put on his best poker face, accepting the present and unwrapping it nonchalantly, taking his sweet time and sparing me only one keen glance as he unwound the ribbon.

A. stood by, hopping from foot to foot, choking back her guffaws. Once, she almost fell over.

And then: “Oh! FANCY SALTED MIXED NUTS. Mmm. I love these, thanks. I think I’ll open them… right now.” J. leaned in toward his little daughter.

She took a huuuuuuge step back.

J. and I both almost burst out laughing. But we managed to hold it in…

… unlike the snakes, which sprang out into the room as A. and J. and everyone else started laughing. “Oh, snakes! YOU GOT ME!”

It was a good Christmas.

time machine

Some notes to my 16-year-old self:

You’re not as smart as you think you are. Shut up sometimes.

You’re smarter than you think you are. Speak up, but thoughtfully.

Be kinder. Be more patient. Be more demanding. These are not mutually exclusive.

You can’t see your own privilege. Listen more, and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Good job with the sunscreen! Keep it up even after your gothy years pass by.

Your parents show their love as best they can, and they’re doing miles better than their own parents did for them. That doesn’t mean it’s enough. The sooner you see that and let it go, the happier and more loving you will be.

grown-up

I recently spent five minutes on the phone pretending to be a proper grown-up. It was exhausting.

I’ve been putting off minor oral surgery for, oh, a couple of years… and the delay in treatment means it’s become a major oral surgery. Yikes. Why did I put it off? Well, it’s a spicy melange of denial, constitutional inertia, poverty, dread of the dental chair (which inevitably sparks my vicious back spasms), and sheer bonechilling dental phobia.

This Mighty Girl post mentioning jaw grafts and cadaver bone didn’t help; the idea is simultaneously fascinating, inspiring (sign your donor cards, folks!), and immediately viscerally horrifying.

So I had to shut up the constant chattering voices in my head that loop around and around your tooth your back your bank account it’s urgent it’s an emergency maybe tomorrow cadaver bone! you have to do this now graft abscess impacted it’s going to hurt you can’t afford it it’s so awful in there OH MY GOD WHAT WILL THEY FIND IN THERE UNDER THE HALF-ROTTED TOOTH and make the necessary arrangements to get it yanked. Well, really what I’ve made are the necessary arrangements to make the arrangements to get it yanked, but anything’s better than nothing and movement is better than inertia.

Just subduing the panicky child inside me long enough to make that preliminary appointment — describing the problem, describing the situation I created all on my own, admitting to my own slack self-care and not getting bogged down in my crippling phobia— brought my heart into my throat and reminded me how often I feel like a child masquerading as an adult.

But then I remember: most people don’t feel like proper adults. (clean all the things?) Most people are making it up as they go along, subduing their fears and laziness and ignorance long enough to make progress, doing the best they can when they can do their best, and muddling along the rest of the time.

Everyone I know is just trying to work it out as best they can. And most of them are doing okay.

Me, too.

Years ago, I was working at friend’s home business during her most hectic season, which happened to coincide with a home repair project that temporarily changed the lay-out… and therefore changed many of her usual processes and procedures. One busy-busy day as we re-arranged the ad-hoc stores of goods while carefully balancing new stock on our hips, she exclaimed in frustration, “This is NOT how the real grown-ups do it!”

And I had a quiet little moment of peace as I realized: of course it is.

Of course the real grown-ups are doing exactly this. They’re frantically trying to balance what they know, what they think they know, what they don’t know — and most frighteningly, what they don’t even know they don’t know — all without dropping the stuff they’re balancing on their hips.

Because we are the real adults. We are the proper grown-ups. What we do is, by definition, the way real grown-ups do it. We set our own terms.

This idea really resonates for me. In our living room, you’ll find a matted print of the linked xkcd strip. I gave it to The Fella as a Valentine’s gift last year, because it sums up so much of what I think is successful in our marriage: we make our own life up as we go along, we never forget to play, and we believe in our own decisions more than in the conventional constraints of mainstream society.