Archive | May, 2012

Broken Ice

21 May

A few years ago, while taking an adult education writing class, I wrote a short piece about my experiences as a young girl living with an alcoholic father. I’ve used a bit of literary license throughout, but the story is mine and it’s true. The name of the young girl is Francesca, which is the name my father originally wanted to call me when I was born.

Broken Ice

Francesca sits cross-legged on her sagging bed, the dark shutters attempting to thwart the sweltering sun as it tries to bully its way into her bedroom. Her room is dark but for the tiny shafts of light that stream in through the cracks, illuminating the dust particles spinning like miniature galaxies in the afternoon sunlight.

Francesca sits on her bed and waits.

At five-thirty she hears her father’s Firebird roar into the driveway. Francesca hates his car—the paint job is flaking and the upholstery smells like mildew in the muggy summer heat. She always has to ride in the cramped backseat and hates that her bare legs stick to the green vinyl upholstery.

For some reason, her father always revs the engine twice before turning off the car. She’s never understood why he does this; it makes her think of a dog pawing at the grass to mark his territory after taking a pee. The noise frightens her because she thinks that someday he’s going to forget to put the car in park and plow right into the house.

Francesca’s head tilts toward the door as she strains to listen for her father. She stares at the floral pattern on the bedspread that’s been on her bed since she was six. Her mother wanted to throw it away, but Francesca wouldn’t let her. She is not bothered by the shabbiness of the worn fabric, and slides her hand lovingly across the faded pink daisies; the feel of the soft cotton is cool and reassuring.

Francesca’s father comes into the house, slamming the door. The spare change in his pocket jingles like an old fashioned music box as he walks through the living room.  Tendrils of hazy smoke from his lit cigarette creep into her room where it dances a hot, silent waltz with the dust motes.

Francesca is still, her stomach clenching as she waits for the sound of the rubber stripping of the freezer door to crack like the tight seal of a bottle opening. As she listens, the fear she holds inside crisscrosses her back and soaks the waistband of her shorts with sweat.

If she doesn’t hear the freezer door open, she is hopeful. But even so, she always waits for the sound of the ice. The ice is the important part—the ice tells her if it’s going to be a good night or a bad night.

It’s always a good night when she doesn’t hear the ice. Those nights are the best nights—when her father doesn’t fix that first drink. On those nights a heavy weight is lifted off Francesca’s fragile twelve year-old shoulders and she can be a normal girl for a little while.

These good nights are rare—when her father is charming and witty at the dinner table. When the tension disappears from her body and she’s as comfortable as her cat lounging on the tired wicker chair that sits on the front porch. Her brothers may argue and whine, but her father doesn’t get angry.  On these nights, Francesca feels such peace that she can almost fool herself into believing that it’s real, and that it will last this time.

These are the nights when she is safe, like being swaddled in a warm towel after a steamy bath—when the divine love she feels for her father almost blisters her heart.

How is it possible that the simple sound of ice clinking in a glass can turn such love into such hate?

A bad night is when Francesca hears the ice. When her father pulls the ice cube tray out of the freezer and she knows what’s coming—she’s seen him perform this ritual hundreds of times like the priest offering up the sacraments at mass.

He holds the tray under the warm tap and then tumbles the ice onto the scratched Formica like an avalanche of cold, clear rocks. One by one he drops the cubes into the glass, the clinking of the ice resonating throughout the house like Grandma’s antique clock on the mantel chiming the hour. With a steady hand he pours two shots of gin and a splash of vermouth into the cool mist that hovers just above the frosty glass.

The smell of his gin reminds Francesca of the grey-blue berries that she used to pick from the overgrown Juniper shrubs that grow along the front parkway. When she was little, she loved to crush the tiny balls between her nails and hold her stained fingers up to her face, their pungent scent clearing her nostrils like the Vicks Vapor Rub her mother used to put under her nose when she had the sniffles.

After pouring the gin, Francesca’s father stirs his drink with a miniature sword that has been speared with two cocktail onions. She used to eat those tiny white onions right out of the jar. She would fish them out with her fingers and pop them into her mouth, the brine so vinegary that her lips would sting. She would pucker up her face at the sourness and her father would laugh and offer her another one.

Now the smell of those pearly onions makes her gag. She hates that little glass jar with its cheerful red lid sitting next to the ketchup and mustard bottles in the refrigerator door like it belongs there.

When he’s through preparing the first of his many drinks for the night, her father places a perfectly folded tissue into the bottom of the glass coaster to soak up the condensation from the melting ice—because God forbid, you wouldn’t want to cause any lasting damage to the delicate grain of the dining room table.

A bad night lasts longer than a good night. Francesca and her brothers hide in their rooms to avoid her father’s drunken rages, but he comes for them. He always blames them for something.

“Goddamn it—you kids get your asses out here right now!” He gnashes his green monster teeth at them, his breath sour; his tongue white with phlegm.

“You brats are making too much goddamn noise!” he screams. “You’d better shut-up or I’ll shut you up myself—do you dig me?”

The three of them are lined up in front of the blaring television. Francesca nods her head in perfect sync with her brothers. They have been quiet for hours but they know not to argue. They back up slowly like chastised dogs, their tails between their shaking haunches and escape to the illusion of safety behind their bedroom doors.

A bad night lasts longer than a good night because Francesca can’t go to sleep until her father passes out on the couch. She tiptoes out into the living room to make sure his cigarette butt doesn’t fall onto the cushions of their gold crushed velvet couch and start a fire.

A really bad night is when Francesca’s father doesn’t pass out at all, but staggers about the house, and ends up in the kitchen—the place where it all begins with the ice. He sits on the kitchen floor with his back to the freezer, slurring his words and muttering on about how he’s going to sit wherever he damn well pleases because this is my goddamn house and I’m the King and you kids will do as I say!

A bad night is when the hate she feels for her father is so intense it sears a giant hole in her soul. She only wants him to disappear so that she can breathe again. Sometimes her rage is so intense she feels as if her insides are on fire and all she can think about is that she wants her father to choke on his ice and die.

Francesca sits frozen on her bed, the afternoon summer sun burning its way into her room. She pays no attention to the rising heat. She only listens as her father heads into the kitchen.

She closes her eyes and prays for a good night.

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Wordless Wednesday: April Showers Bring May Flowers

16 May

Okay, I’m apologizing up front for my obsession with posting photographs of my flowers. Because the rainy season lasted a bit longer this year,  the flowers and trees seem to be bursting into colors that are far more glorious than I’ve ever seen.

Then again, it just may be that I’m the one who’s opened up and blossomed enough so that I can see all the beauty around me. I feel like I’m seeing the world through “rose” colored glasses!

I love the month of May.

Too beautiful for words…

White Hydrangea

Queen Anne’s Lace

Delphinium

Heliotrope: smells like Vanilla!

Bright Red Phlox

White Cosmos

My all time favorite: Larkspur

Bright Orange Iceland Poppies

A Cottage Life

10 May

This morning, I was pondering my life and thinking about what makes me feel most happy. I decided that quite possibly in a former existence, I spent many blissful years living in an old English Cottage surrounded by cool leafy trees, blooming flowers, and birds that sing all day long.

I could have been Beatrix Potter, quietly spending my days writing and drawing while I sipped good English tea and nibbled on freshly buttered scones. When I tired of my creative pursuits and needed to clear my mind, I would meander along the garden pathway and pick flowers for arranging around the cottage. A leisurely walk in the sunshine would undoubtedly clear my mind.

Larkspur and Foxglove from my garden

I figured this out as I puttered about my own tiny front yard garden this morning, staking up purple and pink larkspur plants that were so heavy with flowers that they threatened to topple over. I picked up dainty foxglove blooms off the ground as the bees hummed busily beside me, probably annoyed that my presence blocked their easy access to the speckled blooms that still remained on the stalks. I listened as the Mockingbirds trilled their infinite repertoire of calls as if they were performing an outdoor concert just for me. I practically swooned with pleasure when I stuck my nose into a newly opened rosebud, its deep burgundy petals softer than the skin on the back my young daughter’s neck.

My favorite rose, “Mr. Lincoln”

Most likely, my obsession with English cottages and gardens began when I was a young girl and I discovered that I could leave the stress and sadness of my own life and escape into a more peaceful one through the reading of books.

One of my absolute favorite stories was “The Plain Princess” by Phyllis McGinley—I must’ve read it over a hundred times. It’s about a young princess, so doted on and spoiled that her true beauty is hidden by her selfish and superior attitude. She is sent away to live in the modest cottage of Dame Goodwit, a woman who is thought to have magical powers, and if all goes right, will be able to transform Esmerelda into the beautiful princess she is meant to be.       There, in that humble cottage, the four daughters of Dame Goodwit help Esmerelda understand that real beauty can never be found on the outside, but only through selfless acts of kindness and goodwill toward others, will it be able to shine forth from within.

Because I never thought that I was beautiful, this message resonated deeply with me. I didn’t relate to the rich and entitled Esmerelda—living in a luxurious palace didn’t appeal to me at all. I wanted to be one of the Goodwit sisters who lived a simple life in a cozy, thatched-roof cottage with knotty pine floors and downy featherbeds. I wanted to sit and read surrounded by shelves stuffed full of books, a fire blazing in a stone fireplace while a spring thunderstorm raged outside. I imagined a hearty kitchen; a savory soup bubbling on the stove, fresh baked biscuits just out of the oven, while a streusel-topped apple pie cooled on the windowsill. I truly believed that if I lived in a quaint cottage with a colorful garden filled with Hollyhocks and Delphinium and Larkspur, I could leave the sadness of my own childhood behind and find the safety and comfort that I craved.

I eventually grew up and moved on with my life, going to college, getting married and raising four children, and I thought I had left my childhood fantasy of living in an English cottage far behind me. But just this morning, as I worked in the garden, I suddenly became conscious of the fact that I’ve created my own version of cottage life right here in my own home.

On any given day, there’s a hearty soup simmering on the stove and freshly bakes scones cooling on the counter for my family to enjoy when they get home from school or work. I have time in the mornings before I start teaching my afternoon piano lessons to work on my writing. If I choose to, I can even sit by my fireplace with my nose in a novel. And most dear to my heart, I can putter about my flower garden, filled with the kinds of varieties that one would find growing in front of a quaint, country cottage in England.

My garden pathway

I have everything I ever dreamed of and never even realized it until right now.

I guess you could say I live a storybook life—and I guess I’d have to agree with you.

Flowers freshly picked from my garden

Being the Best

4 May

A month or so ago, my daughter Isa burst into my music studio while I was teaching a piano lesson.

“MOM!” she screamed, “We’re doing a play at school and I want to play the part of a Nazi!”

A Nazi? What? My first thought was, “Geez—isn’t first grade a little early to be learning about Germany during the war? I didn’t even read The Diary of Anne Frank until I was in sixth grade….”

“That’s wonderful, Honey!” I gushed, hurriedly shooing her out of my studio because I was working with a student. “You can tell me all about it at dinnertime.”

Later after we sat down to eat, I finally figured out that “a Nazi” was really “Anansi”—the name of the lead character in the musical that her class was planning to perform. Twenty of Isa’s fellow first graders were to put on a musical called “Anansi and the Moss Covered Rock,” about a greedy spider who tries to trick the other African animals with the intent to steal their food. I didn’t expect much from a bunch of six and seven year olds—but at this age, anything these kids do is pretty darn adorable. Then Isa mentioned that she and her best friend, Sarah, were both up for the main role of Anansi the Spider.

With that tidbit of information, my ears perked up and goose bumps formed on my arms. I immediately went into MIM (Mommy Interrogation Mode). That competitive spark that had lain dormant inside of me since my older kids were young ignited and began to burn fast and hard. Right then I knew that my seven year old daughter was meant to play the role of Anansi the Spider.

I decided to play it cool and not let on how eager I was for Isa to get this role. With the expert acting ability of a mother who has raised four children, I hid my excitement behind a perfectly crafted mask of nonchalance, and asked, “Okay, Isa—so tell me—did the teacher say anything about whether or not you might get to play Anansi?”

“Well,” she said, picking the bell pepper out of her green salad and putting into a neat pile on the side of her plate, “What we do is sign up for the part we want and then the teacher decides who gets to do it.”

“Do you think you have a chance to get to play Anansi?” I asked, pretending that I could care less about whether or not she would snag the most important role of her lifetime. I tried to hide the insane zeal that was overtaking my body by not squirming too much in my seat.

She popped a piece of chicken into her mouth and tried to explain, but I put up a hand and stopped her before she could get another word out, “Isa—manners! Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

After a subtle eye-roll (a seven year old—rolling her eyes—really?) she finally finished chewing and continued, “Sarah and I both really want to be Anasi but I’m okay with it if she gets the part—I also signed up to be a lion.”

A Lion? What? NO!  My daughter has to get the best part! She’s totally spider material!

Well, Honey,” I said, trying to sound reasonable, “You really should try to get the main part if you can—I mean, you’re a really good singer and dancer, after all.” Visions of Isa bowing to a standing ovation and thunderous applause rolled liked movie clips behind my eyes.

“I know, Mommy. I would be a little bit sad if I didn’t get the part, but Sara’s really good at it and I kind of want to be a lion anyway,” she said. “So I think I’ll tell the teacher that Sara can be Anasi.”

She put her fork down. “I’m done. May I please be excused?”

“Not yet.” I said, my shoulders sagging with disappointment at her indifference. “Eat the rest of your salad first.”

I know—I’m just pathetic. You’d think that by the fourth child, I’d be done living vicariously through my children, but old habits are hard to break. I spent years (with help from my husband) pushing my three older children who are now ages 23, 21 and 17 to strive to be the best at everything in order for them to succeed. And for the most part, every single one of our children tried their best to live up to our expectations. They excelled in school, sports and the arts. They received numerous certificates, awards and trophies that are now packed into dusty boxes high up in their closets. They were popular, had many friends and they never got into drinking and drugs. They were all accepted into good universities.  And most importantly, they’ve turned out to be intelligent, funny, and kind human beings. They even like to hang out with their middle-aged parents sometimes.

But there is one thing they are not:  they are not decisive and motivated about their futures. They are having difficulty trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. They are, to some extent, a little bit lost.

I’m constantly worried that they are not getting on with it.

Now, I can easily blame their lack of focus and motivation on Isa’s cancer diagnosis five years ago—what teenager who has had to deal with a sibling suffering with cancer wouldn’t fall apart after that kind of life-changing experience?

I could blame it on the Attention Deficit Disorder that runs in my husband’s family or on the depression that runs through mine. I could lump my kids in with an entire generation of twenty-somethings who have no idea how to work hard because society told them they were entitled. I could blame it on the fact that they received a fancy trophy with their name engraved on it every single year whether or not their team won any games.

It would be easy to place the blame on anything and everything except where it really belongs: squarely upon my own shoulders.

I do understand that the struggles they are now experiencing are common for many young adults, but I also know that how I raised them has much to do with the difficulties they face today. I can finally admit to myself that their lack of motivation in life isn’t all related to Isa and her illness, nor is it about genes or generations. The problem is that my older children have never learned to really know themselves. They’ve always struggled to live up to what I wanted them to be. Because I’ve dealt with my own issues of self worth for most of my life, I’ve spent entirely too much time worrying about whether or not others thought I was a good mother. To put the pressure on a child of being the best at everything is something I now know is unfair. How could my children possibly have learned be truly passionate about anything when they were always trying to prove themselves to me—and to satisfy some unspecified need that I had?

My older kids are now at the point in their lives when they’re asking themselves: “What do I want to do with my life? What do I care about? And the truth is, because I’ve told them for so long what it was they needed to do to be successful, they never had the chance to figure out what truly motivates or interests them—or what it is they’re really passionate about.

Because I also couldn’t stand to see them disappointed or sad, I over-protected them because I didn’t want them to experience any sense of pain or loss. I never once let them fall on their faces. As a mother of high-achieving children, I always believed that if they succeeded at something, it proved that I was a good mother. But if they failed—I failed —and that was just too difficult for me to face.

My greatest mistake as a parent is in not allowing them to make mistakes and then take responsibility for the fact that they messed up. It’s especially hard on mothers to see their children struggle and not succeed at something because we’re genetically designed to nurture and protect and love our children unconditionally. I now see that I placed way too much emphasis on them being the best at everything, and I tried too hard to control their lives when I should have been more concerned about letting them explore and create and find out who they were inside. I should have let them learn to take more responsibility for their actions instead of bailing them out when they ran into problems. I should have spent more time worrying about my own needs and desires and what it was that I was passionate about instead of solely focusing on helping my children “be the best” at everything.

I should have not cared so much about whether or not they got the lead role in the First Grade play.

Isa didn’t end up getting the role of “Anansi”—it went to her best friend, Sarah—whose goofy personality and energy made her perfect for the part. Isa was given two parts in the play—a lion and an elephant. She was spectacular as both animals—singing and dancing her heart out with gusto. The play was a great success.

Perhaps I’ll be strong enough fight off those competitive demons and allow Isa to experience a different type of childhood than that of my other three kids. I’m older and wiser now so I hope I can guide Isa to become an independent and self-sufficient young adult, and most importantly, to nurture within her the ability to learn and create and give from the heart for Isa, not just to please me.

As I sat in the audience that afternoon, observing Isa and her classmates sing and dance in their play, I was content. Watching twenty first graders romp around having fun just being themselves, I learned another lesson: Success isn’t just about proving that you’re the best at everything and it certainly isn’t about landing the lead role in the play.

Success is putting your heart and soul and joy into doing what you love and knowing it’s enough. We should all take a lesson from first graders.