this is a project that has been burning a hole in my heart. we all sing our pure and shaky and earnest songs, to ourselves, our kids, our pasts. we sing because we need to hear our voices out loud, because it gets lonely sometimes, because it hurts, because the joy cannot fit in our bodies. mothers are always and never alone. i want to focus on the never part. i want to hear the voices together. i want to start a chorus.
Time has never felt linear. Years and memories and mistakes and love collect in nebulous clouds. I can’t trace it, I fall into it, wet and turbulent, with every color, and smells that beat a pulse. Like Janis Joplin fed out to her crowds, “tomorrow never happens, it’s all the same fucking day man,” and with family we swim in that long day, in communion, wanting the tide never to go out. We become the mythic soup, the love that pulls us under, blindfolded, where we are needed. As alone as it is when the edges are sharp and jagged, we dream the same waking. We are all desperate for each other, and arms form smooth, unbreakable circles.
Coming home to the smell of your own house, after time away; it is as foreign and familiar as your face after anesthesia. Seeing your parents’ lines and angles and fingertips, in the arc of your children’s movements. Fated and gifted are the same fabric in different garments, born of common place: blood and grace and time spent together. All of us like riffs in a jazz ensemble, cadence and chorus, repeated and reworked, woven and fresh, thinking we’ve improvised, come alive because of it. I am already a ghost, scattered in our past, trying to breathe new life like the most stubborn mourner. I am squinting with white knuckles and blind faith into the future, hoping for karma and symmetry. We are known when we know, and if we are lucky, loved when we love. The best families are made up of we. The worst too. The most complicated and fraught. The ones wearing blinders, throwing distance and shade.
The way my four year old uses the word “intimate”, with a preternatural understanding of its context. I listen to what was carried down by hand in lines he sorted in utero, born to poetry in wails. I hear echoes of what I whispered to him about what is beneath the surface of the world; the plans of his becoming, written on his bones in code. A collective consciousness that always seemed so hypothetical and poetic is as real, now, as the full moon eyes the kids and I get from my mother.
Our stories are ourselves, tiny and sweeping, stacked into our spines. My son stands staring at the gallery of his sister’s drawings in our kitchen: “I want to remember,” he says, memorizing her imagination. Like he feels my reverence for my own brother. The way he could crash a car and do it with style, the way he did the best, open hearted drag impressions while being the only kid in his high school class to defend the one openly gay boy, his handwriting – an uncanny mirror of my daughter’s, the laughs he could conjure while we hung from the last threads of our ropes, his work ethic that matched his loyalty and strength, the scare of his brushes with death as a young man, which kept my breath shallow until the final shoe dropped. Our stories, our aches, the everythings of me that were folded into air and atoms when he passed his body on to the earth. There are so many stories I cannot forget to tell. The stories of myself swallowed whole into deep night.
What is left and what is becoming, with traces of that rich soil of being someone’s sister. The way we all speak without an accent, but for the voice of books devoured, my daughter like an old movie star, proper and surprising and deep with words. We make friends in body shops, grocery check outs, passing cars, open and of comfort. The legacy of humanism and never taking oneself too seriously that breeds a kindness you can catch. The inescapable fate of a life overly examined that trips and lifts. A propensity for candor and self doubt. A character my girl describes now as “quirky, wacky, and smart.” Nicknames when we have only just met, songs written to rhyme with new routines, endless words and notes. A vast reserve of patience and pain, gentleness and fight. The ever present possibility of a dance party, looming in love dense air.
And then the way we are caught by serendipity’s net, the same invisible spider web strings that stick to people we choose to love. The friends for whom you were lonely before you knew they existed. The ‘we’ grows like a ball, picking up layers as it spins.
Family is what gives you life. I have been part of a few. Sealed and torn and sewn with sinew and hope, mended and turned inside out. Born, flown away, grown apart, it is a rhythm that circles its way through crowds. When my girl was two we broke off from one, an iceberg of two, free and giddy, scared and sobered. We talked Sesame Street style about what made a family: sometimes a grandparent, a special uncle, two mommies or dads. One person who makes you first in line and get goosebumps watching you be you.
Our family was so tightly nuclear. A tangle of love and limbs and worry that we all still keep in a fist of filigree next to our hearts. No surgery could remove it without taking my life with it.
I tell my daughter with all my belief, “blood is nothing, love is everything.”
Summer is coming undone as tail ends often do.
My youngest says he wants to be a writer. I’ve read enough family memoirs to know I should start scouting for a defense lawyer starting now.
I’m guilty as sin. Of losing my temper, yelling too much, and last week I made them cry. I miss far too many school functions, birthday parties, and sometimes forget to kiss them goodnight. Storming to my room like a five year old, wailing “just go to sleeeep, mommy needs sleep toooooo”
So I melt into my bed and sigh, “what do you like about our family?”
We go on adventures other kids don’t have! Like the trains!
And they recount the stories of the trains, abandoned places, redwoods, caves and climbing the volcano. Except one of them is not fond of the volcano. Causing a short argument over the pros and cons and who did or did not play music with the flute like device pulled out of a backpack on the peak of said volcano and is now claiming it wasn’t fun.
But do you like flying?
Oh yes, we love flying. Flying through storms and watching lightning in the clouds!
Good. Because we are going to do a lot of more flying. A ton of adventures and anything else that gets mommy out of little league sign up or school fundraisers. Not that I don’t care about the American Heart Association or the PTA. It’s just… Baby, don’t forget to write about the trains.
It’s the downtime that means the most to me. The in-betweens. The car ride conversations. The after school hanging out in the kitchen while they grab a snack or ten. The moments when they choose to hang out next to me instead of retreating to their bedroom with the door closed. It’s a balance with my teen and tween girls as they work to separate themselves but yet find they still need (and want) Mom. I’m happy for the stolen quiet times, no screens present, even if we’re only there breathing the same oxygen, soaking up each others’ presence. Contemplating and dreaming, sharing the day’s stories. In the end, I want most to remember those times. The birthdays are great, the holidays wonderful, all those expected predictable “family times” that fill the requisite family photo albums, but in the end, when they’ve walked out that front door into their own lives, I will miss those quiet times together, the unstructured moments that arrived serendipitously. I will miss their warm bodies emanating life and energy into my home. I will miss this. So I soak it all up as much as I can, and when they allow me, I pull out my camera to remember. The seemingly boring mundane nothingness of nothing going on. Except it’s everything. Absolutely everything.
My husband plays classical guitar late at night, when I’m already in bed, sending me off to sleep with Bach and Mozart. My son makes little people out of Coke bottles and I find him buried under books when I wake him in the morning. And then there was that time in the snow, the Sunday mornings watching that news program I like, the walks home from pre-school, the book that made me cry, the first bike ride, the lost teeth, the graduations, the marriages, the adding on of more family and then one by one, we go and all of that is eventually lost because all those pictures we took, trying to hold on to everything beautiful, won’t tell a stranger a goddamn thing about us. I will die, he will die, they will die and then -.
“Families are the compass that guides us. They are the inspiration to reach great heights, and our comfort when we occasionally falter.” Brad Henry
When I think of family I think of them.
Their laughter, support and love.
They are the beginning I know.
They shaped my mom and my mom shaped me.
My kids grow in the love that began with them,
love that will continue for generations.
Truly, they are my compass, my biggest inspiration.
The lake that nurtured and watched me grow has the sweetest earth as its foundation. Its waters gently caressed the skinned knees of my child’s body, seeped through and cooled the burning heat of my youth’s broken heart. It slipped quietly over the slope of my woman’s breasts, rocked my womb in solidarity after I had molded and brought forth my own child. For over two decades of summers, it strung seaweed through my hair, a crown of misfortunes seasoned with savory blessings.
It dreamily lapped at my ankles while I watched, face upturned, hand shielding my eyes, my Nana’s weathered fingers comb through the sand, searching intently for the most pristine shells. Her hands brought with them to this journey three babies’ worth of holding, touching, soothing. The fingers that tucked my hair behind my ear until I crashed blindly into sleep scoured the beach with the same sense of calm practice. This taught me patience; when she found the perfect shell and held it up to the sun, this proved to me that grace was there. You just had to be willing to dig.
My aunt surrendered herself entirely to the sun’s rays. It painted her body with the healing only it could offer; a warming of a scar, a slash, a wound. It melted into the bones that had stood up and refused to yield to a death that had come horrifically close. She had smiled through the tears, through the blood, through the physical ravages. She taught me that when you love someone enough, you get up off the floor. You always get up, and you live your life loudly enough to smother the fear.
My son looks to me to make the world make sense for him. I can only teach him what I’ve witnessed, what stirs my own soul, so I bring him here, to this lake. I bring him home to the epicenter of what is family for me. Each time the tide comes in, my chest swells with new hopes for him; with the possibility of not who he might become, but of what magic he will create by being who he already is. I am filled to the brim with the richest ancestral gifts and it is that peace that lets me give myself over to the water, his tiny hand intertwined with mine, and with all the mothers who have come before.
He landed flat on his back, his head within an inch from the metal
pole that held up the lifeguard tower. That feeling of being 6 years
old, running full force down a hill that ended with the wind being
knocked out of me came into view; that feeling of your lungs
collapsing completely and anxiety quickly settling in as you fight to
find air despite all the oxygen around you. I saw first the fear in
his eyes. And then the tears.
I held him in my arms and looked up at his brother who was still
standing on top of the life guard tower, his hands being the last to
touch his brother’s strong and sturdy but still one-year-old frame. He
didn’t appear guilty or concerned.
“You must always protect him”, I told him on the way home, “he’s your
She shrugged her shoulders at me and told me it would be fine. We’ve been through this before and they don’t really know exactly what it is anyway. It’s more precautionary than anything. No need to be concerned. I would tell you if you needed to worry. I heard her words but the tone in her voice told me she was lying. She and I have always sung the same verse. Part of a strong song that I recognize from the very first note. I am made of her and when I forget the words she spills them back to me so I can remember. It’s always been this way between her and I. Few secrets exist in this space. I nodded and spent the day clearing my schedule and making hypothetical plans. I sat in the waiting room the entire morning that next day waiting for a familiar face to come. He came late that afternoon – smiling and spewing words I heard aloud for the first time. It was a difficult surgery; he said. It took much longer than he thought it would. She will be sore from the length of the operation. But I think we got all the cancer. She slept while I read instructions regarding recovery and follow up appointments. I made phone calls to concerned siblings and unknowing family members. This has always been my job and I did it happily in this moment. She woke and bragged that she already felt fine. A part of her song I was used to hearing. It wasn’t until weeks later that we were both caught off guard at her follow up appointment. Your lab results aren’t favorable. We ran extra tests. Words floated by that pack a strong punch and she and I looked at each other with no words to respond. Chemotherapy. Nausea. Hair Loss. Blood Tests. Insurance. Schedule. Within seconds my hands were filled with pamphlets explaining each drug. I glanced her way and and in that moment I felt her song change. A new verse that I didn’t know. Over the next five months she wrote her new verse and I watched from a chair by the bed while an IV dripped slowly into her. She wrote a strong verse that would make anyone proud, but none prouder than a daughter. A verse where she still showed up to teach her children, even when she didn’t feel like getting out of bed. A verse where hair loss doesn’t win but becomes part of a challenge, even once that last straggly strand fell to the ground. A verse where achy bones and shaky steps didn’t win out to gardening, swimming, and walking. She wrote a verse that I am so proud of I sing it even though it is not mine. That’s the thing about family, though. We are woven together in a way that can never come apart. Her strand and mine are close even when the weave pulls them apart. Our verses change and become succinct all at the same time. Today she has started a new verse and it is even stronger than the last. It’s a verse of new short hair and physically therapy. It’s a verse of weddings and grand children. It’s a verse of growth and set backs all at the same time. These new verses are just as much a part of her as the old verses we used to sing in unison. Now I sing those words to her when she needs to remember and it frees us both – remembering and letting go all in one moment.
Every single moment. Life is happening.
Moments of joy, bliss, amazement, happiness. Moments filled with frustrations, overwhelm, stress, anger. Life is happening.
It doesn’t matter how or what I’m feeling in the moment, life is still happening. Every moment spent being angry is a moment of love lost. And either way I’m spending my time, life is happening.
Life isn’t waiting for when I’m ready. It’s here and now. All we have is this moment.
My kids are growing up way too fast for my choosing. They whine (sometimes). They fight (sometimes). They make life a whole lot more complicated (it’s all worth it). And I’m grasping at all the moments I get to spend with them. Watching their faces delight at the wonder of the ocean, dancing in the waves as they come and go. The giddy excitement that comes from making your own s’more on the beach. Even the simple things of getting dressed up to play ninjas, making masks of paper and stickers and tape. The quiet moments each night as I lay them down to sleep and we chat about what they’re thankful for, how can we give more love to those around us, and what our biggest dreams are. Life is happening. And it’s happening fast.
So I have a choice. I can fight against the nature of things and live closed off, upset at what comes my way, frustrated with the things in life that aren’t going exactly to plan or I can choose to live with an open heart, being a vessel to awaken love in those around me and keep making that choice of love, moment after moment, and showing my family with my actions that love always wins. No matter what choice I make, life is happening.
there is this sweet, little old lady who lives across the street from us. she lives alone. her husband died a few years ago and her children are all grown with adult children of their own. everyday she walks back in forth in front of her house. i sometimes see her out my window and think about my own future. her house was once filled with toys. artwork adorned her fridge. piles of laundry covered her sofa. dishes towered in her sink. the trashcan overflowed with dirty diapers. stacks of books teeter tottered. there was music playing, singing, dancing, stories being told, making believe. so many tears, heartaches, struggles. but there was also laughter, joy, love. that intense love that sometimes fills you up so full that you have to cry just to relieve a little bit of the pressure. we sometimes walk together and talk. although her gait is no longer steady, she seems to have held on tight to her mental capacities. yet, surely many of her memories from those early times have burned out. i have never been in her house and i wonder what it might look like. are her walls covered with photographs? does she have albums filled with photos of her children and her husband, her ghosts? do the photographs help her remember them and those days when family meant everything to her? i want more than anything to believe this.
The freckles, I hated when I was her age but later prayed would kiss her cheeks and nose as a sign to the world that she was mine
The piles of beautiful masterpieces, of chalky toes on my hardwood, milky fingerprints on my refrigerator door, crayon wrapper mounds and fallen down sheet forts that seem like confetti sprinkled throughout our home
Sharing the tiniest sliver of a king sized bed, with him, With them and twenty five of their favorite stuffed animals
The tears and “owee’s” I am grateful to kiss daily. And the big tears that get wiped away by the one that sang and swayed with me in her arms
The unending, overwhelming, irreplaceable love That makes my heart feel perfectly full yet ready to explode All at the same time.
All defined by one simple word… That stays stitched together by our collective memories, each of our hopes and our wildest dreams
But of all the basic needs of life, there is one need that seems grander each and every day.
Teaching my boys to love each other.
My love can comfort and encourage but it can only go so far. My love is limited to an age and a specific purpose. If I can possibly teach my two boys that above all, Love is what will keep them afloat, then they will win.
No greater joy in parenthood so far then watching them bond.
If you’d knew how much I’ve waited to look into the eyes of yours, my growing son. My mysterious child. That look you have, when you look at me. Enigmatic. Clever. I captured it, right there. But what does it means? Are you happy? Do you feel the love I have for you? Do you feel my total devotion for you? Is it too much? Not enough? My certainty, is that I will be giving you my whole until you become a man of your own. And if you allow me into your life then, I will finally know I’ll have succeeded my quest. Until then, I’ll be right there, looking into those blooming eyes of yours. Trying each day to tame your secretive soul, with all the love I have for you. Mom.
there are many. but then there is this. mom in her apron and giggling auntie. encompassing all of us. weary steps and mended fences. good food, hilarity, gaping hearts. hiding and guarding and breaking wide open. many theatrics. top of lung singing. parties with themes. costumes galore. walks and walks and walks at the shore. millions of times where we map it all out. thousands of tears and the warmth of real hugs. things remembered slung out of sling shots of years. leaving the rest in the sand.
my hands are your hands. arms of blood and bone. meant for holding onto and letting go of. all days.
“We think it’s weak to surrender, but sometimes it’s the bravest thing we can possibly do.”
― Toni Sorenson
Sometimes it is overwhelming to us, these things happening in the world. It wouldn’t be prudent to shield our children from reality, while at the same time we have to maintain a level of appropriateness knowing what they can handle emotionally. How can we explain it all to our children in a way that can keep them optimistic about the world, about their future? In a way that is fair?
Like me, my boys have the tendency to absorb it all, and then suddenly feel an incredibly helplessness. “How can we help? What can we do?” We can only try our hardest, and then we have to let go.
Otherwise, it would simply be too much to bear.