Tag Archives: daughters

You Are More Than Your Ponytail

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Dear Rory,

The other evening, we stood in the bathroom, brushing our teeth and getting ready for bed. I watched you pull your silken brown hair back into a ponytail and study yourself for several moments. Then you turned to me and asked if you looked good. I rushed to tell you that your ponytail was very becoming, but that you are always lovely no matter what hairstyles or clothes you wear. And I mean it. I can’t tell you the countless times I’ve glanced at you only to marvel at the way your hair falls across your face, or your long, flaxen eyelashes and freckled cheeks, or the graceful, delicate drape of your arms or legs. How many times have you floored me with your quick, irrepressible sense of humor; or your innate understanding of the things others show on the outside as well as the emotions they hold deep within?

I am here to remind you that you are so much more than your ponytail.

Our friends call you a changeling; I agree. You strike me as a gift from some other, better realm. I never anticipated having a daughter, let alone one as wholly wondrous as you. Which is why that moment in the bathroom broke my heart a little.

You’re almost nine and soon approaching your teens, when insecurities plague even the most confident. I see these uncertainties and trials unfold every day with the girls in my classes. My duty as your mother is to help you realize your best you, even during the years ahead when you might not believe that is possible to be amazing or even “good enough”.

My mother didn’t instruct me in my girlhood. She was born during a war, and fended for herself from the age of fourteen on. She either did not know or did not believe in talking about the female anatomy or issues that might affect me as a girl. She did not see the necessity of training bras or the practical use for tampons; she flew into a rage when she learned I’d visited a gynecologist at age sixteen. Sexuality was a non-existent issue, because “a good man would wait years” to be intimate with me. I spent so much time trying to navigate my life while absorbing these lessons that I missed a lot of opportunities to learn what it meant to be myself. I’m still filling in the gaps as a grown woman. I will not subject you to the same education. It is my duty to teach you the vocabulary of womanhood so that you are equipped with the knowledge to make your own informed decisions.

You will face adolescence with your eyes open to the fact that this life holds many excellent people and lots of pretty great people, but also, unfortunately, lots of jerks. People will say stupid, hurtful things. There will be trash talk, backlash, and gossip. Trusts and friendships may be ruined. I wish I could shield you from heartaches as you grow. But because I can’t, because there are so many variables in the intricacies of human existence, I must instill in you the wherewithal to identify and outwit the jerks of the world and the courage to silence the haters. You will trust your voice.

No matter what you wear or who you love or how you choose to express your ideas and opinions as you grow and change, you are an asset to this world, worthy of respect and kindness and consideration. Your wellbeing is crucially important. You are not that expensive pair of blue jeans, those gem-studded boots your friends are wearing, or this season’s hot nail color. You are not your ability to draw a picture or earn the next belt in Tae Kwon Do. You are not the likes on your social media feeds or the number of partners you attract. Validation like that is just another form of judgment. You are a complex composite of strengths, talents, and vulnerabilities far greater and more valuable than you can imagine. When you forget, I will remind you.

Love, Mom

© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley. All rights reserved.

 

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Curses and Choices

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Now that both my parents have passed on, I find myself drawn to the histories they left behind. I am learning that what I thought was my story represents a small part of a much bigger family narrative, which I am compelled to document in order to understand. I recently heard that I may have the opportunity to visit my place of birth for the first time this spring via a service trip through the school where I work. If there are connections to make, I must uncover them now and share my parents’ stories so that they do not die with me.

* * * * *

My mother defected from her native Ukraine to Uganda in 1971. She was 31. She and my sister, then almost four, moved in with my sister’s father, N. Together, the small common law family relocated to an outlying town near Arusha, Tanzania, in December of that year. While N (whom my mother refers to strictly by last name in her journals) began to carouse and spend increasingly more time away from home, my mother befriended the neighbors and sought solace from her loneliness among their company.

The friendship initially bolstered my mother’s spirits. She writes in her journal of joyful early encounters with her neighbors, a married couple also new to the area. But soon, there are hints of unwelcome advances that she cannot bring herself to elaborate upon even in her own writing. It was the wife, not the husband, who tried to seduce my mother: first with words (“You like your body, don’t you? I like mine too”); then with “no good pictures” and movies (margin notes, scribbled over and crossed through, say “porno”); finally, physically locking herself and my mother in the neighbors’ bedroom at night. To my mother, the daughter of an Eastern Orthodox upbringing, the insinuation of sexual impropriety, especially with someone of her own sex, must have scandalized her. “I must confess I never even thought about love [emphasis hers] with another woman. For me she was just a very good friend and I was very devoted to her and her husband as well.”

When my mother resisted the woman’s sexual overtures, the woman, whom I’ll call W, threatened her with dark magic (such as mind control and the ability to “spiritually perform abortion”). My mother notes a strange abdominal pain, cured by the recommended insertion of an egg-shaped sac filled with something like “decaying grass.” She confronts W, at the time her best friend, standing outside a bathroom doorway, manually rewinding a cassette tape backwards, as if, according to Mom, conducting some sort of psychological manipulation. My mother began to behave strangely in W’s company. “I did not give a thought that time, that it was actually somebody’s wish to make me a fool and crazy like in people’s eyes,” she writes. “I did not suspect that somebody was watching me and actually I was already possessed by that time.” Mom’s journals document mental ‘conversations’ with W, and dissociative lapses where she felt that someone was using her body and speaking through her. “I was not in my mind, was obeying them in everything like a small child, whatever they wanted me to eat or to drink.”

Mom later speculates that W drugged or hypnotized her, but, regardless, my mother fell into a cycle of self-fulfilling despair over life’s disappointments that would plague her until her death. “When she said, ‘If you don’t love me, you will be in trouble… and it might be for the rest of your life,’ she knew what she was talking about. And her promise became true.”

My mother left Africa convinced that she’d been cursed by her best friend and next door neighbor.

*

Misfortune followed when Mom met my father in 1975. They dated and moved in together after a brief courtship, and I was born soon after. Dad “became completely another man” before my arrival. “It was like a devil changed him completely.” In this part of Mom’s journal, W transforms into a witch, bent on keeping my mother miserable. “I had to lose not only Jon [my father], but my own motherland, my family and friends, and everything I’ve achieved in my life, just because of revenge of one crazy woman-witch… for her own skin and security she put me into this butchery… to lose everything, as she told me that I will.”

Mom walked out of the maternity home, a single woman with a howling, red-faced infant swaddled in wool and a sullen ten-year-old daughter whose father had forsaken her for a new family of his own.

*

Letters exchanged between my father and his parents reveal they were very unhappy with the choice, however temporary, he’d made in Mom. They looked at her and saw – not incorrectly – a deeply troubled woman. My grandmother especially disliked Mom. (She likened her to a parasite.) And yet my grandparents rallied to sponsor us all – my mother, my sister, and me – until we became American citizens, paying hefty application fees to international welfare organizations in the process of relocating us to the States. My father was, according to various letters and journal entries, hands-off in my early childhood; it was his parents who invested in our future, despite their disgrace over their son’s unwedded pursuits. They also cared for me while Mom worked and became my beloved surrogate parents.

Moving across the Atlantic to Boise, Idaho, mitigated Mom’s compulsion somewhat, though my mother continued to hear W’s voice in her head. At my mother’s first job in the States: “When I got my first salary, here [W] started to demand from me to buy gifts for her, it was like she was inside me, looking by my own eyes, watching me, knowing everything what I was doing, talking with me…” Mom held (and was soon fired from) a number of bank jobs in the Boise area, where we lived in my grandparents’ fourplex. (My mother bitterly notes that she had to pay rent to Dad’s family for this ‘privilege’.)

Several factors informed my mother’s experience as a single parent and immigrant. She did not drive, which, in 1980s Boise, was social suicide. (Mom writes how it embarrassed her to be seen walking everywhere.) She had a limited grasp of spoken English, despite a written aptitude. One can imagine there was not a huge community of Ukrainian immigrants to befriend. Nearing her 40s, she had never used a computer and often notes her frustration with learning new technologies. She also felt demeaned by her co-workers and struggled to conceal her emotions. Despite a laundry list of hurdles, she continued to attribute her experiences to W’s ‘control’. “My head was always spinning around like in… a magic hellish circle; I felt it every minute, something was holding me alone by myself, somebody did not want me to get friendly with people around… Sometimes I was even saying some things that I never wanted to say… it was like somebody talking by my mouth.”

*

My paternal grandparents lived and worked in East Africa for most of their adult lives, serving in various capacities for the Lutheran Mission. My grandfather, a practicing physician, documented in his memoirs his continued exasperation with the patients he encountered who believed, despite all appearances otherwise, that they’d been cursed. My dad and grandfather both address the prevalence of bewitching and magic – uchawi – they observed around them at the time. My grandparents did not believe in curses. They believed in God. So, naturally, when confronted with my mother’s conviction that a curse had ruined her life, they questioned the stability of Mom’s mental state.

They tried to help her anyway. They brought her to church services, where she received counsel and prayed for God’s mercy. In a letter from my grandfather: “She decided to go to communion on her own… in so doing she made a public confession of her faith and there was no lack of evidence that she received joy in this fellowship. It meant something special to her and it will bring continued release from her past burdens as she continues on.” By 1980, even my grandmother had softened a bit: “When one has been wounded many times by many different people the healing takes time, and patience, and she is one of these… After these months with us we have healed many smaller wounds, but the mind is still without peace… it needs to come soon, or her mind will crack.” I hope that eventually Mom saw my grandparents as benefactors, rather than participants in her affliction.

At times, my sister and I perpetuated the curse. “Last night was awful, my eyes never hurt more. I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and couldn’t sleep till almost 5 a.m. I slept for a couple hours and at 7 Julia woke me up asking for breakfast.” (I was five.) Mom developed insomnia in Boise. It would allow her three to four hours of sleep per night for the remaining 32 years of her life, less still as my sister and I became adolescents and tested our own boundaries. Growing up, I remember thinking that adult-onset insomnia was Mom’s real curse, the actual reason she never felt right, though I never dared tell her that.

I cannot confirm or deny my mother’s beliefs beyond her written legacy. The perceived curse was simply part of who Mom was – the foundation of our story, a dark, lurid fixture in the imagination – as was the woman who issued it. It’s impossible to approximate the extent that this belief affected the choices Mom made or the interpretation of the consequences that followed them. The human mind is powerful. I know she believed the curse was real, and used it as a lens through which she construed all things. It is clear from my mother’s journals that she believed the curse would end with her; that she alone was chosen to suffer the sustained abuse of an aging woman halfway across the world. Whatever it was – curse, choice, or something complicated in-between – I hope that Mom is finally free from her torment.

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© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Dear Julia Next Year

IMG_2111On the morning of May 29th, 2015, my cousin, a longtime supporter of my writing, sent me a message telling me that he missed me – Eater Provocateur, aspiring MFK Fisher 2.0, the woman and writer I dream to be. I did not have the chance to write him back or lament how much I missed me too. I’d planned to put together a book on Blurb this summer; I hoped to send off essays to journals. I was going to travel my small Utah world and write about the people and pioneers in local food production. I would take thousands of photos, and throw myself into research. After giving so much of my energy to my students, this was EP’s summer to shine.

Instead, that afternoon, I received a phone call from an emergency room in southern Utah, notifying me that my father had been admitted for a heart attack and possible stroke. The doctors could not stabilize Dad’s blood pressure, so they arranged for him to be airlifted to Salt Lake City. Not yet grasping the severity of Dad’s condition, I inquired whether I should drive to Salt Lake that evening or wait until the following day. They said, “Go now.” I went. CICU surgeons operated on his dissected heart throughout the night. Though the surgery successfully repaired the aortic tear, a scan the next morning revealed a massive stroke in Dad’s brain and no hope for recovery. He was, effectively, brain-dead. I hugged the hull of his body and authorized permission for the removal of life support. In the span of twenty-four hours, on a sunny day at the start of summer break, my father died.

*

In the intervening weeks, I learned more about my father than I ever wanted to. I scanned every credit card bill, finding pages and pages of online book purchases, and several unpaid balances. I sorted mortgage bills from utilities, three heavily indebted properties deep. I filled garbage bags with remnants of his last meals and pieces of his life that only held significance to him. I culled a biographical narrative of his youth from epistolary threads and salvaged forget-me-nots. But death is mainly business and arithmetic. In death, my father amasses a debt of $200,000 and rising.

My father was generous to a fault, and he attracted “friends” who found ways to manipulate and capitalize on his generosity. My siblings and I had often wondered why our tenured professor father lived like a pauper. Now we know – we have the calendar notations and check stubs to prove how he shared his salary with several others: current, past, or potential paramours; graduate students fallen down on their luck; renters he felt too guilty to ask for rent… and went so far as to pay their utilities to spare them from financial duress. Some of these “friends” received money from Dad for decades; one seemed especially distressed to learn that she would no longer be receiving handouts from Dad’s non-existent estate. Generosity was clearly Dad’s high.

It is not my intent to smear my father’s name, but I struggled with fury: at Dad for being such a tender-hearted idiot, and, moreover, at those who took advantage of his kindness. I will say that I did not hesitate to close accounts without notifying the parties waiting for their “paychecks.” I have also collected as much of their personal information as I can with the intent to press charges if the need arises.

As a counterbalance, I also learned that my father was loved and valued beyond measure by people who were not bleeding his bank accounts. Emails and letters poured in as news of Dad’s death reached farther and farther into his social and professional circles. All expressed genuine shock and concern; all were kind. The volume was overwhelming. I dreaded checking my email for fear of the inevitable raw and heartfelt messages within. In a way, after my mother’s laughable funeral attendance, it felt validating that so many people cared for my father, people who did not take advantage of his generosity but instead expressed their gratitude and devotion to him. I cannot remember which of these dispelled the fury, at least temporarily.

*

I still find it hard to drag myself out of bed. I do, but it takes a very long time and a lot of internal negotiation. My biggest motivations are letting the dog out and making breakfast for my family. I haven’t been running, though I know I should. I’ve been drinking too much, though I know I should not. My appetite is gone. But I believe that hope is slowly returning.

Over the weekend, I officiated Dad’s memorial service for the family. I did not pass out or collapse in grief. I held my chin high, kept my voice and my eyes level, and honored my Dad the way children must sometimes do.

I give Dad one hour each day: to make calls, to contest charges, to forward copies of his death certificate. His final affairs sit in a box by the piano; I can once again see the surface of my dining room table.

*

Dear Julia Next Year,

Remember that, at one time, you valued compassion and empathy. You will get that back.
Remember that letting go leads to freedom. Let go.
You will smile and laugh again. It will just take some time to recover.
You will not be – cannot remain – this cynical and foul-tempered. It is not healthy and it is not you.
One morning, you will wake up and want to run/cook/sing/dance/write/ be yourself again. The lengthy internal negotiations will shift from “Should I get out of bed?” to “Why shouldn’t I get out of bed?”
The murderous rage against those who manipulated your father will subside into peevish irritation and hopefully humor that cuts deep.
The world exists outside your door, and you are not done with it yet.
You stand with those who love life. So stand up.

© 2015, Julia Moris-Hartley

 

 

 

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Noodle Soup

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The patient insists that she feels well enough to go to school. She’s dressed in coordinating purple hues, combed her hair, and brushed her teeth. She finishes all of her cereal – an uncharacteristic act of dedication to the cause of attendance. She refuses medication. The doctor, pleasantly surprised, puts away the nuclear orange tincture of ibuprofen, and transitions to her duties as chauffeur. Doctor-chauffeur starts the car, and returns to find the patient huddled over the toilet, clutching her abdomen, tears streaming from glassy, red eyes. The patient cannot go to school. The patient cries more.

My knowledge as primary-physician-by-proxy quickly exhausts itself. An actual physician swabs Rory’s throat and rules out strep, then mono. Rory’s diagnosis eludes. The doctor prescribes medicine, advises apple juice, and hands Rory a purple balloon and a coupon for a free soft serve cone from the gas station. I feel discomfited that he’s determined roughly as much about Rory’s strange condition as I have. Rory and I stop for ice cream before coming home.

Rory requests noodle soup for lunch. We’ve shared many bowls of noodle soup between us, from ramen to canned to freshly made, spiked with lemon and sprinkled with bright green herbs. I happily oblige. We face each other at the table, slurping. Dark broth dots our chins.

“Remember when we used to eat noodles together after kindergarten?” I ask.

Rory nods, a noodle dangling halfway in its ascent. Color has returned to her freckled cheeks. She dispatches the noodle and grins. “Every Monday!”

Memories of those early-out Mondays resurface with warmth, followed by a pang. At the doctor’s office, we learned that Rory will surpass me in height in exactly eleven inches’ time. Too soon, there will be crushes and first loves, arguments and hurt feelings, pity jealousies and tears… so many first everythings. The future materializes like an unwelcome lunch guest. Nostalgia and dread intermingle in my bowl.

I remember how much I loved nursing Rory by lamplight, how she smelled like French bread and sunshine. I study the girl she’s become: her lovely golden-green eyes and flaxen eyelashes; her beautiful, forthcoming smile; her long fingers resting on the table. She is – and I hope always will be – my little girl, for the moment distracted from discomfort by a balloon and the curative power of noodle soup.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

 

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#nofilter

IMG_0261_3Rory, sometimes I sneak into your bedroom and cuddle with your Puppet Eeyore. I inhale his fading, bedraggled fur and imagine when you were just born, when your fingers first grasped Eeyore’s right ear. You had curly black hair then. Each night as you slept, you sloughed away a fine, downy line from the back of your head. This left you with a bald patch. I can’t remember when your hair became flaxen and smooth, but I promise that you were the most adorable bald person I’ve ever known.

*

We named you after the Aurora Borealis, a phenomenon I’ve long wished to see. I saw your name everywhere as you grew inside me: on billboards, clothing tags, toys, magazines…. Graceful Dawn in Latin, I believe that you are an emissary from some celestial plane infinitely lovelier than this one.

*

You recently adopted a kitten. You cried tears of joy after we brought her home. Though you wanted to name her Snowball, I convinced you that Ginger better matched her personality. Vocal, she mews at every provocation; feisty, she lunges at your worm-like toes, scrambles to wrestle our sausage fingers. Her tufted fur and proto-Persian markings render us willing servants. If you continue to care for her as thoughtfully as you have so far, the Ginger Era may turn out to be an excellent totalitarian regime.

*

Your grandmother once expressed alarm about my anti-doll philosophy. She worried that it would deprive you of the opportunity to learn and develop a sense of nurturing. If she could see you with Ginger – her tiny body tucked into the crook of your pillow, your tender ministrations to the purring dictator in your bed – her fear would be allayed.

*

Last night, we walked the town streets discussing art and owls. The power had gone out and we felt restless. You wore your Tae Kwon Do suit underneath your blue fleece parka, a black kitten cap pulled snugly over your ears. We spotted an owl, perched high in a pine tree as the evening sky faded, and watched it for several minutes before it flew away. Rain fell on our heads. We hastened back home. Though we’d only been outside for a little while, covering perhaps eight blocks distance, gratitude alighted in my heart.

*

Over the summer, I found a photo of myself that I hadn’t ever seen. Someone – my dad, maybe – had taken it at Yellowstone National Park when I was eight, just a little older than you are now. The girl in the photo is a riot of 80s fashion crimes. She has buckteeth and awkwardly long legs. She’s laughing. I gasped. How long has it been since I’ve smiled so freely? My wish for you is that you never confront the realization that you can’t remember your last true smile.

So many fashion crimes, so little time...

*

Please forgive me when I am too pensive. You’re growing up so quickly in a world that frightens me. I did not grow up in a generation of self-photographers and videographers. I knew cherry bombs, not photo bombs. I chose with whom I would confide my mistakes and regrets. I underappreciated my control over the contents of my life.

*

When I turned 11 and began developing physically, I begged my mother to buy me a training bra. She did not. The boys at school peered through my shirtsleeves, snickering. In the Christmas show, they caroled about my “chestnuts.” The cruelest tormenters were not boys, however. They were the girls who lived in Seagate. Though my mom eventually realized my need for coverage, the damage had been done. I still remember everything about those girls. I pray that mean girls will not exist in your world. But if they do, trust that I will fight on your side… and punch throats if necessary.

*

Each morning, I paint on the color that time washes from my face. I remember my mother’s pale oleander lips and begin to understand her dependence on lipstick. Did I appreciate my smile when I was younger? Did I ever look in the mirror and think anything other than This is as good as it’s going to get? I sprinted into adulthood, only to learn that there is no race and certainly no finish line. Savor your bright vitality while you can. Wear loud clothes, experiment with your hair, sing at full volume. You’ll grow up all too soon.

*

I am biased. When it comes to you, there is only radiant pride. I can’t protect you from missteps or the wounds left by others, although I would if I could. I can only remind you that I love you. I am your biggest fan. Please, dear Rory, as you grow, be brave, be fierce, and let your every smile reveal the light in your soul.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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The Notorious Nightshades

So happy together.

I love hanging out in the produce aisle of a grocery store.  Baskets of smooth-skinned, waxy yellow potatoes lure me; piles of Anaheim and jalapeno peppers interspersed among papery white domes of garlic inspire an entire week of meals.  I like the cool feel of the misters on my hands as I select nubby carrots and bright radish jewels.  My children, Kai and Rory, enjoy plunging their hands in the tall barrels of shell-on peanuts, cupping the peanuts and letting them drop back into the barrel one by one: Plink! Plink! Plink!

Occasionally, we run into someone we know, which happened last week with a local acquaintance and gifted potter named Joe.  Joe and his wife, Lee, operate a pottery shop in the neighboring town of Spring City.  I have purchased several of their creations since I moved to the area, among them a brown, high sheen pitcher patterned with little bird wings. I use it for serving things that elevate, such as gravy, wine, or sometimes gravy seasoned with wine.  I think that one of the nicest things about where we live is that I know a little about Joe and Lee; I know and admire their daughters too.  They know that I like to write and take pictures of my food to post on Eater Provocateur.  Friendliness is a small town perk.

On this day, Joe and the produce manager, Randy, were engaged in discussion, so Rory and I wandered in their periphery while they talked.  Rory is quickly ascending the kitchen ranks from assistant to right-hand sous chef.  Her duties include offering suggestions about what produce I might like to buy and the supervision of a small, wheeled shopping cart.

“Do you need some tomatoes, mom?” she asked, pointing to clusters of the vine-ripened variety.  I have a weakness for fragrant tomato leaves, so I did need some of those pretty red orbs.  I deposited a cluster in her cart.

“Ooh, mom, how about eggpwant!”  Rory’s suggestion instantly awakened a craving for eggplant parmigiana.

“Look at them,” I said, striding in their direction.  Their skins shone – lovely, deep aubergine, with a top hat of delicate green stalk – but the flesh felt too soft to my touch.  Eggplants should be used quickly (they don’t respond well to extended time in the fridge); these were so close to going bad that they didn’t offer any turnaround time, so I didn’t buy one.  The depth of my disappointment surprised me.

Joe stood on the opposite side of the aisle by the lemons and limes.  He smiled, his eyes crinkling.  “Looking to make something provocative?” he asked, with a friendly wink.  I told him I was definitely scheming.

*

Botanically speaking, eggplants are tropical fruits that originated in Southeast Asia. The Science of Good Food reports that eggplant is “one of the more benign members of the notorious nightshade family” that is “neither addictive nor poisonous like its relatives tobacco leaf and deadly nightshade,” though it does contain “more nicotine than any other vegetable” (or fruit, as the case may be).  Other delicious members of the nightshade family include some of my favorite foods: potatoes, tomatoes, capsicums and chilli peppers (such as jalapeno, serrano, poblano, habanero, and Scotch bonnet), and tomatillos, all of which happen to be fruits (with the exception of potatoes, which are tubers).

Eggplant etymology is equally alluring.  Elsewhere in the world, the luscious meaty fruit is known as an aubergine, which is also the name for the purple color of its skin.  Though it is a fruit, the eggplant is frequently treated as a vegetable, much like its relatives.  In 2008, the New York Times featured an article called “The Misunderstood Eggplant,” which gives detailed instructions for roasting an eggplant, an excellent way to counteract the “heaviness” commonly associated with dishes like eggplant parmigiana or the delightfully named Imam bayaldi, which translates to “the priest fainted.”

Ever scheming, I found a suitable eggplant at a different store the next day.  Using a roasting method adapted from Molly Wizenberg’s ratatouille recipe, I cooked the eggplant that afternoon with halved tomatoes and shallots from a friend’s garden.  It was delicious.

Roasted Nightshades
Serves 2 as a side dish, or 1 for a main course

1 medium eggplant, sliced in ½” rounds
4 medium tomatoes, halved
Shallots to taste, sliced in ½” rounds
Olive oil for brushing
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Spread a thin layer of oil on a baking sheet to minimize sticking.  Arrange eggplant, tomatoes, and shallots in a single layer on the sheet.  Use a brush to apply a light coating of olive oil on all the veggies (or fruits).  Flip veggies and apply olive oil to the opposite sides.  Apply a heavier layer of oil on the shallots to prevent them from burning as they caramelize.  Season the veggies with salt and pepper to your preference.

Roast for 40 minutes, flipping everything once at the halfway point.  Transfer to a serving dish and arrange alternating slices of eggplant and tomatoes for a pretty presentation.  Garnish with shallots and torn, fresh basil leaves.

This dish is wonderful topped with fresh mozzarella and broiled for a few minutes – a healthy, satisfying alternative to eggplant parmigiana.

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Bittersweet

I wrote this essay in 2007.  It was chosen for inclusion in an anthology called Blank: Begins at Conception, a collection featuring about 30 other authors discussing all aspects of human reproduction: fertility, conception, adoption, motherhood, the desire to remain childless, loss – you name it.  The anthology earned interest from several publishers, but due to the economic downturn the project didn’t get picked up for print.  In the interim, my mother died and I realized that death is a highly skilled editor: encouraging sharp revisions in point of view and perspective, deftly calling for updated editions, bleeding red tracking over the page.  I also adopted the philosophy that life is very short, so, though I stubbornly held out hope that the anthology would get picked up, I think it’s time to let go.  This essay is for my son, Kai.  It was originally called “Mother, Saboteur.”

*          *          *

When Kai comes into the bedroom, I am still thick with sleep.  My eyelids have matted together, and my breath burns.  I pull him up and into the bed, whispering Come to me.  For a minute, he obliges, climbing under the quilt with me and placing his head in the crook of my arm, singing Mama mama mamamama.  I breathe in the syrupy musk of his hair.  The flowered quilt enfolds us with the promise of more sleep.

Then, Kai is up and out of my arms.  I will my eyes open to watch him.  He stands on top of the bed and flings himself forward on the mattress, crashing with the vigor of two years, seven months, and four days.  “Wall dow!” he shrieks.  The cat, who has been sleeping by my feet, yelps.  “Kee!” Kai says, and lurches sideways to hug the cat.  “Moww,” he sighs sweetly into her inky fur, “Moww.”  Her tail twitches; she endures his hug just long enough and then bounds off the bed.  Kai is undeterred.   He wiggles his feet at me, beckoning tickles.  When I do tickle him, he giggles and says, “Kull nose.”

“No, honey,” I say, “I’m tickling your feet.”

“Kull nose!”

“Feet!”

“Nose!” he shoots back, sitting up in the space the cat left behind.  He’s quiet for a moment, gone to the place I call Planet Kai, and then he asks, “Warcar?”  I feign ignorance.

“Warcar?” he asks again, a little louder.  War because he’s still working on his f sounds, car because every wheeled vehicle is a car.  What he’s really asking for is his little fire truck, a gift from my sister, with which he eats all his meals and takes his baths.  Fire truck, who he “feeds” and kisses goodnight.  Fire truck, who is sitting on the top shelf of Kai’s bookcase, all the way on the other side of the house.  I look at the window.  From between the slats of the blinds, the faint possibility of sunshine lightens the night sky. All hope of going back to sleep slips away.

“Warcar?” he says, a small panic forming.  If I acknowledge Kai’s request, I will definitely have to get out of bed.  “Warcar?” he asks again, tiny crystals forming in the corners of his eyes.  Something inside me pinches.

“Would you like to get your fire truck?” I ask.  Kai deflates with relief: “Yesyesyes.”  He eases himself off the edge of the bed, his stomach down and feet dangling towards the floor.  When he stands up, he reaches to me and says, “Hand?”  I give him my hand.  I stare wistfully at the warm indentation that I’m leaving behind.

Our day begins.

*

Since Kai was born, I’ve often wondered what it must be to feel so consummately loved.  To have every inch scrutinized, every bump worried over, every runny nose tenderly wiped away (often with the hems of shirts that I once treasured).  To flatten and awe with a single smile.  To have a big person ache at the sight of my tears, and who would do anything, almost even give up her brain, just to make them stop.  This love is not rational.  It’s a stinging pain that won’t dull.

Yet I have offended my fair share of other mothers when I tell people that my mother is my greatest unwitting saboteur, as if perhaps this acknowledgement flaws me in my role as mother.  In my mind, being a daughter is a totally separate thing from being a mother – different roles, different expectations – so I don’t feel like it’s a crime to be direct about her.  Just one disparaging comment from her propels me back into early, petulant adolescence.  When, after the birth of my daughter, Aurora, I decide to grow out my bangs and my hair, my mother says, “But without bangs your face is so long.”  While shopping for clothing, I pick out a shirt in a size that I know fits me (because I have an identical one at home already), she says, “That’s too small. You need at least one size larger.”  Just before Christmas dinner, she casually mentions that after I moved away from New York, I “plumped up a lot.”  And, though I tell myself that she means well and that her criticisms spring from a misguided sense of motherly helpfulness, I can almost feel a tiny piece of myself crumble.  Is my mother ever awed when I say something bright and witty?  Does she ever want to leap to the moon for me?  She’s got a hell of a way of showing it.

*

On Sundays, we go to the beach.  As soon as we arrive, Kai is a blur, stopping only to nosh on watermelon chunks.  My husband, Brandon, an avid and experienced hole-digger who missed his funerary calling, immediately sets in on Kai’s “pool” in the sand.  Kai employs my assistance in fetching endless buckets of water for his pool.  Rory, who is still at the age where it’s Zen to hang around like a lump, relaxes contentedly in her car seat on the sand.

Kai flings himself into my arms, coating me with wet sand, his breath tropical against my cheek.  He drops mighty hunks of sand into the shallow pool, drenching my husband, who is folded in on himself, digging away.  “San woks!  Ka boom!” Kai shrieks.  Kai’s confidence singes me.

As Brandon hacks into the sand, wielding his stainless steel, garden-grade spade, my mother’s voice comes on in my head.  “You shouldn’t dig holes in the sand,” she warns.  “Someone could get hurt.”

Kai leaps into the pool, falling backwards, small driblets of watermelon on his chin.

“Well,” I retort in my head, “Hopefully they’d be able to see a hole as big as this one.”

“But what if they’re walking at night?” she imaginarily persists.

Kai careens down the shoreline chasing a hapless sandpiper.

I snap back, “The tide will have filled the hole in by then.”

“But what if they’re blind?”

By the time we pack up to leave, we’ve dug a formidable rift in the sand.  I stare back at the constellation of sand clumps that we abandon – an archipelago of sand islands, abutting the skyline of our small city by the sea.  Kai is humming, Rory snoring, and all I want to do is get my mom out of my head.

*

The Florida shoreline just recovered from a red tide.  I find the red tide fascinating, both because of its suddenness and its entirety: the ocean’s fine and lovely and then, abruptly, it’s not.  Acres of red algae bloom, suffusing the coastal region with toxic emissions and suffocating the shore for weeks.  These toxins make it very difficult to breathe, cause skin irritations for swimmers (although, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would want to swim if they couldn’t breathe properly), and kill off local sea life.  The suddenness of the red tide is jarring and immediate, and it’s a palpable relief when it recedes.

During this last red tide, we visited a friend who lived along the beach.  As soon as we got out of the car, our eyes stung and we began coughing and gagging for air.  Inside the house, we breathed freely again, but it was strange to look through the window, knowing that just on the other side was something so menacing and so entirely beyond control.  Sometimes when I speak with my mom, I feel as if I’m looking through the window at something so fond and familiar, but can’t grasp it because of the toxicity just on the other side.

*

With two little ones, a parent is forced to become a master of logistics. Between the tangled straps of the car seats and the whining about who wants to sit where and who wants to buckle themselves in, even a simple trip to the grocery store requires strategy and patience. Weekends, when Kai does not attend his daycare, require marathon planning and at least a gallon of coffee.  The kids get bored and invent new forms of torture with each other.  Kai delights in standing inches before Rory and blocking her every move as she shuffles around on the floor.  Rory steals Kai’s water when he isn’t looking, only to hear the inevitable reproach: “No, Wowy, my water!”  But there are also other moments, like when Rory falls down and starts to cry, and Kai rushes to her, gives her a hug, and says, “No cry, Wowy, I sorry,” even though he didn’t do anything wrong.

I think that my mother could have benefited from bearing her children closer together (this wasn’t in her cards and I don’t fault her for it; it’s just an observation).  Perhaps if she had, she might be better attuned, more sensitive, to what she says and how she says it.  She wouldn’t compare me to her dead, alcoholic friend (who died a long, protracted death from cancer) when I have a glass of wine with dinner.

I do have a sister.  She’s ten years older than me.  Because of our age difference, I have few childhood recollections of her.  My sister worked incessantly when she wasn’t in school.  We had our first memorable conversation when I was eighteen.  Our only similarity is in how we evade our mother, though even there we splinter: she becomes haughty and snappish and then she avoids mom for a few weeks, until her temper has receded, while I try to erase myself, searching for an exit in a house without doors.

*

If the adage is true and I am to become my mother (dear God, please let it not be true), then I can not decide the safest course of action for raising my children.  Should I endear my children to patterns wholly unlike those I grew up with, or should I mold their childhoods from memories of my own?  Or should I adopt a unilateral approach to mom’s old age and my children’s youth: ignorance coupled with hope (and possibly lobotomy)?  What level of futility must I reach in trying to ensure that my own children might want to live in the same state as me?

*

When I found out I was pregnant with a girl, I experienced terrors.  It wasn’t that way with Kai.  Aside from the usual first-time parent neuroses, I felt completely comfortable with having a boy baby.  I suppose I believed that my son would be made of tougher stuff—and to some degree he is—although he’s also quite sensitive.  I was certain that my second child would be a boy too, because somehow my body would know that I would never want to repeat the seemingly female-based pattern that I have with mom, that I love her but that I can’t be around her without either withdrawing into myself, saying something regrettable, or hating myself for another little thing.  But I had a girl, and she turned out to be preternaturally sweet.  My mother reminds me that at one point I used to be unabashedly sweet to her.  She blames the change in our relationship on “the hormones.”  If, by hormones she means puberty, then perhaps she is correct, because that was when I learned to think.  It’s a skill I prefer to keep.

*

Kai developed a terrible ear infection sometime in his second year.  He woke up especially early one morning, banging the bedroom door against the wall in his customary fashion.  He even cuddled customarily.  I stroked his cheek and felt hard, dried something.  He shrugged my hand away in the dark, whining.  When Brandon and I brought him into the light, we found that the hard, dried something hadn’t come out of his nose (my assumption, owing to three preceding weeks of allergies and croup) but rather his right ear.  We knew how to contend with croup, fevers, overactive sinuses, and disgruntled personalities.  But how to handle this?

We dealt with it as calmly as we could, though we were terrified.  I brought out my essential Guide to Raising a Toddler (Volume: Most Recent), while Brandon scoured the Internet for the search terms “pus ear toddler.”  We both arrived at the same diagnosis, an outer ear infection, so we nixed the trip to the ER.  Later that day, after timely administration of children’s pain reliever, we put Rory to bed and Kai returned to practically the same lightning bolt he always is, I sat back with Brandon wondering, How the hell did we survive this one?

It turns out we didn’t.  The next morning, Kai woke up whimpering.  I sat down on the floor and he folded himself into my lap, twisting and scrunching until he became a pathetic origami tree frog, his heartbeat like thunder.  For the next six months, Kai awoke well before dawn, fussing and irascible, no longer a toddler but a grumpy and annoyed patient grown skillful at evading medical care.  We made numerous trips to specialists and the prospect of surgery on Kai’s ears materialized.  One year later, Kai’s eardrums have been surgically perforated and he’s an entirely different (and amazing) child, but I can’t do it.  I just can’t raise any more children, or a mother for that matter.  I don’t know how to repair the rift between my family’s generations.

*

Parenting is about damn hard work, then eventually releasing your child into the world and hoping that the choices you made were the exact right ones to help your child thrive on its own.  Being a child is about getting all your needs met with the barest of returns or contributions, then skipping out and doing a lot of crazy things until you get tired of it and becoming the person you’re meant to become.  But there are children who return the collateral, who give back to their parents even after they’ve moved out.  It’s not as if my mother physically abused me or lent me out to a pimp.  Why am I such a disloyal daughter?  I haven’t even given my mom my cell phone number.

*

In 2005, a large dog bit me on the face.  Because the attack coincided with my mother’s birthday, I waited several days before telling her what had happened.  I wasn’t going to drop a bomb like that on her birthday.  When I finally told her, I fuzzed the dates, because I wasn’t sure whether she’d be more upset by the incident or by my deliberate lapse in communication, despite all good intentions.

I credit my mother with superhuman restraint.  She expressed great sympathy over my face for almost a minute before saying, “What did you do to that dog?”

How about: I petted a leashed dog who, like his owner, seemed perfectly friendly?  How about: I spent three hours in the emergency room getting my nasal passage reassembled – four heavy sutures to the cartilage; thirty-three stitches spanning the widest part of my nose; and countless shots of lidocaine, seeping down my sinuses and bitterly burning my throat?  How about: Mom, I’m just happy he didn’t take the rest of my face or, even better, I’m just happy it was me and not Kai?   I bit my tongue till it bled.

I have since struggled with my own culpability in the incident, as well as that of the dog owner.  I still envision that morning – the closet-small ER room, door shut, lights off except for the magnifying light over my head, Brandon sitting nearby (facing the wall because I couldn’t bear him to look at me) – settling down on the crinkly paper and snapping my eyes shut tight.  For a brief while the doctor had no idea which way the skin should be put back, shuffling and muttering and moving flaps of tissue this way and that, and I just lay there, willing my eyes to stay shut.  I don’t know what haunts me more – remembering that split second when I looked into the dog’s eyes just before he lashed out at me (I knew better than to do that) or the fact that my mother – my own mother – took the dog’s side.

*

My mother visits a few times a year, mainly to see Kai and Rory.  She stays in our house for about a week and takes pains to make her presence undisruptive, tucking her small suitcase into an unused corner and folding her bedding into a neat pile each morning before we all wake up.  She always brings presents – Ukrainian sausages, nuts and dried fruits, chocolate, and clothing for the kids – and often she finds surreptitious reasons to slip me $50 or $100 (which I accept, but then send back to her under the guise of helping to offset her travel costs).  When her train arrives (she refuses to fly), we meet her at the station and gamely stop at the farmer’s market for produce and boiled peanuts, a delicacy that doesn’t sound nearly as delicious as it tastes and for which mom, Brandon, and I share a fondness.

It’s always a surprise when the insult comes.  During a recent visit, the critical moment didn’t happen until the last day, a Sunday.  On the weekends, frankly, Kai gets bored, so sometimes he expends energy by “interacting” with Rory.  My mother plainly favors Rory, which is great for Rory but makes me sad for Kai.  I prepared dinner in the kitchen.  Brandon sat at the computer in the office.  My mother had been following Rory around the house, engaging her and talking sweetly, but she shifted her attention briefly to the television.  During that brief moment, Kai presumably interacted with Rory in a way that made her cry.  But we all missed it.  No one saw anything.  My mother yelled out to Kai: “Kai, you are a bad boy!  What did you do to your sister?  She’s just a baby!  You are very naughty!”

I could have ignored the outburst if she’d left it at that – fighting her required more energy than it was worth.  I could have absorbed how she accused Kai without merit, assuming the worst of him.  But she didn’t leave it.  An hour later, as we ate dinner, she sulked at the table.  She again told Kai what a bad boy he was.  When Kai finished his food – not much appetite, imagine – and got down from his booster chair, she lingered at the table and reiterated his badness to me at a volume that he could hear in the other room.  I asked her to lower her voice and explained that if she hadn’t seen him do something to Rory, she shouldn’t assume he’d done something.

“But he did.  I know it,” she snapped, loudly.  I then explained that it’s important to scold toddlers once with immediacy and move on, because of development and self-esteem, et cetera.  This failed to placate her.  She ignored Kai for the rest of the night.

*

My relationship with mom has direct parallels to the red tide: everything is fine and nice, and then suddenly it’s toxic.  Even my response is the same – I recede inside.  As I see it, my role as a mother is to encourage my children to be good citizens, show moxie, and not hate me.  What I can’t see is how to successfully accomplish that last bit.  I don’t want to dampen Kai or Rory’s development with sudden noxious blooms of vitriol.  I want so badly to be their recovering shore, their retreat amidst abrupt changes in the landscapes of their lives.  My mother doesn’t erupt with negativity on purpose; she just doesn’t have any thought-to-mouth filter and she’s had enough in life to warrant a few unchecked moments of outburst.  Things would be so much better if she learned to say sorry.

When my mother’s visit ends, the house breathes a palpable sigh of relief.  Rory cries less, Kai’s mood and appetite improve, and Brandon and I laugh again.  “It’s like you’re a ghost when she’s here,” Brandon says.  “Why do we keep inviting her?  It’d be one thing if you enjoyed having her here, but you’re miserable. Everyone is miserable.”  She’s my mother.  She gave birth to me.  How can I tell her not to visit?

*

When the red tide dissipates, I’m compelled to go to the beach (as if I need an excuse).  The dunes crackle, the sea beckons.  Kai and I kneel in the tidal pools searching for hermit crabs and colorful shells.  Rory plunges her hands into the wet sand.  Brandon wades into the shallow waves and squeals, then says, “This water is great!”  I’m so grateful to feel the blueness of the sky on my skin.

My mother and I used to love going to the beach at Coney Island.  We lived half a block away; our bedroom window had a full ocean view.  We’d go really early in the morning and leave by ten, just when the beach started filling up with people and boom boxes.  My mother and I luxuriated in the sun like a pair of seals.  When we came home, we ate watermelon.

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Chef Rory

Chef Rory's ensalada

Rory roams the playground wearing a green polo-style dress, purple sandals, and a white paper bag on her head. She stole the paper bag from the doughnut section in the town’s grocery store.  Ruth, a tall, white-haired clerk who always calls me ‘kid,’ eyed the bag in Rory’s tiny hands.  I think Ruth wondered if Rory was stealing donuts.  But then Rory, with great panache and immaculate timing, loosened the bag’s creases and popped the bag on top of her head.  “Rory, you look just like a chef,” I said and Rory smiled.

We come to the playground after Rory’s grocery store performance.  Rory is in full chef mode when we arrive.  She starts taking “orders” from the others at the playground as she wanders through the grass and sand.  “I am Chef Rory,” she says.  “May I take your order?”  The bag slips jauntily against her silken golden hair, forcing her to keep pushing it out of her eyes.

“Egg soup?” she says to a confused toddler by the short slides. “Calamari?” she asks a freckled boy by the water fountain.  “I am an excellent cook-ah,” she pronounces, which is helpful because everyone needs to show credentials in life.  Once she has taken the orders of everyone at the playground, she marches towards the bench where I’m sitting, sits down next to me on the bench (plops, really), taps my shoulder – I am reading a book – and asks, “And what can I make for you, lovely lady?”

Rory is the byproduct of my not-so-small obsession with cooking and food writing.  “Can I help you cook, mommy?  Let me go get my stool!”  Before I can answer, she runs to the bathroom, picks up a large blue plastic stool, and places it on the floor near where I’m working.  She climbs the stool, peers up at me expectantly.  I can feel the heat of her skin against mine.  “So, what are we cookin’, mom?” she asks.  At age four, there’s not much she can actually help me with in the kitchen, but I try to include her in the process of making meals: she does a lot of stirring, dumping, and taste-testing.  I didn’t discover my passion for cooking until well after college; I don’t remember ever helping my mother make a meal in my youth.  It might have been a space issue –kitchens in New York City apartments tend to be small – or perhaps it just wasn’t something mom thought to do, because she learned to cook for herself at age 14 while enrolled at one of the Ukraine’s then-ubiquitous polytechnical colleges.  I obviously didn’t think to ask.

It’s important to me that I let Rory participate in the kitchen.  Thus far, she loves food, so it only seems logical that she gains insight about its production and maybe accumulates some serviceable skills in the process.  As we work, I think about the moment in the hospitalwhen the midwife placed Rory, still coated with afterbirth and blood, onto my chest and something inside me flooded with joy.  I remember how dark her hair was, how she gradually wore away a long horizontal patch on the back of her head while sleeping in her crib; I remember blearily breast-feeding her, sitting in the sturdy rocking chair in the middle of the night.  I look at her now, all bird legs and wild hair, and think, God, she’s growing so fast!  And then I pretend that I’m crying because I’m chopping onions.

Today at the playground I order Elizabeth David’s ensalada from Chef Rory; I have been craving it ever since I read her collected essays in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.  Rory’s golden green eyes widen and she says, “En-saw-whatta?”

“It’s a simple salad with tomato wedges, raw onions, salt, olive oil, and vinegar,” I say.

“Ohhhh,” she says, her head bobbling underneath the white bag.  “Now I get it!  I wove tomatoes!”  She takes a few steps away from me, then stops and turns.  “You got it, Toots,” she adds, her hands cupped against her lips, suppressing a giggle.  When we go home, we make ensalada for lunch.

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