American Horror Story: Hotel worries about these kids today, with their Instagram and their entitlement and their Oedipal fixations, when it should really be worrying about the adults’ misguided efforts, and also American Horror Story: Hotel just wishes you would just call if you’re going to be out late, that’s all, it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, but AHS: Hotel doesn’t like to make a fuss so if you can’t be considerate it will just sit over here and not complain, not even a peep.
“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.
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!”
“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.”
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.”
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.]
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.
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.
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 this 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.
Happy 40th birthday to Sesame Street! In celebration, I suggest you take a one-minute dance party and shake it to the pinball song.
I was babysitting my young friend L., who was just on the brink of three years old*. Her parents wanted to spend a grown-up afternoon together, after which we would all gather for dinner. At the end of of the afternoon, L. suggested we get ice cream cones.
“Oh, we’ll have to do that next time, L.,” I said. “We don’t want to spoil our dinners!”
“I don’t mind,” she said, reasonably enough.
“Oh, but your mom** wouldn’t like it, would she?”
She said nothing for a moment, her little face pursed in wry understanding.
Then, suddenly… a light dawned on L.’s face. It was the light of revelation, of a world-altering discovery. It erased those wrinkles of displeasure, smoothing them over with wonder. In the spirit of innovators everywhere, L. had found a solution, a way to keep everyone happy. She bounced on her plump little legs, swept up in the delight and sheer novelty of the idea she was about to share.
Breathless and utterly guileless, she looked up at me and gasped:
“We could… not tell her!”
*I think — this was several years ago, and L. is now in middle school.
** Not to reinforce the all-too-common trope that Mom = responsibility and green beans, Dad = ice cream, ill-advised wackiness, and skateboarding injuries, but in this family… well, yeah.
At a post-Thanksgiving family gathering, my almost-18-year-old niece A and I are watching 3-year-old K play tirelessly with her blanket. K lays the blanket on the floor, lies full-length in it, and rolls herself up like a little burrito. She sits in the center and folds the corners up around her, over her head. Standing, she rolls herself in it head to toe and jumps with all her wobbly might. She lays it out on the floor, climbs onto a chair, and launches herself out into space, landing with a striking thump in the center of her blanket.
I turn to A and say speculatively, “I just want to sit her in the blanket, wrap it up over her, grab it by all four corners, and swing it around over my head.”
A nods sagely and says, in a considering tone, “We learned about that in my psychology class. It’s called giving voice to the id.”
I vividly remember my sanctuary in the lilac tree. It grew in the corner yard of our old house, the house we left shortly after my seventh birthday. Low on the tree where the many branches met there was a small hollow, a recess just the size of a tiny child. I would curl up there warm in the wooden heart of the lilac. The canopy of leaves screened me from view and the fat bumblebees droned and looped around me.
From my little haven, I could peep out sleepily on all the ruckus of our street, the kids whizzing by on their bikes, the high-schoolers jostling past, all elbows and bookbags. The scent of the buds dropped over me like a sweet blanket, and I would drowse and muse for hours, snug in the tree’s embrace.
Memory is so slippery, such a
greased weasel soapy little runt, squealing and skittering out of grasp glossy and chimerical beastie, that to ponder it too long invites madness… or philosophy, madness’s respectable cousin. But childhood memories are particularly complicated constructs, deserving of special meditation. Most children find the distinction between the fantastic and the concrete blurry at best, and are already scrambling frantically to make rough sense of most of the realities that cascade around them, much less of the phantasms that flit through their pliant and voracious minds.
But my lilac tree…
A few years ago, I mentioned this peaceful retreat to my oldest sister, and she replied, puzzled, that it couldn’t be so. I can’t remember now: did the lilac tree have no such hollow, or was it simpler still — that there was no lilac tree in that yard? Either way, in a moment I came to realize that one of my fondest memories (and one of the only secrets I had in that big, busy house) was perfectly and flatly untrue, a childhood fantasy.
The second oddest thing about this memory: the instant I told my sister about the lilac hollow, before she even had time to crinkle an eyebrow, I found myself thinking how unlikely it sounded. A hollow in the tree trunk just my size? I crawled into it with no fear of worms or centipedes or bees? No one ever saw me there, or found traces of bark or dirt, or scrapes on my tender little legs? I slept there for hours, and no one looked for me?
The very oddest thing: even as my sweet, fragrant memory disintegrated in the telling, its sweetness remains undiminished. I remember the heady scent, the rough kiss of the bark on my shins, the green of the heart-shaped leaves swimming around me, the dozy bees dipping and humming. I remember the deep peace I felt, cradled there between the branches. It wasn’t real, but it was real.