Tag Archives: motherhood

A Real Job

Twice now, I have overheard my husband talking to his family and implying that I am not gainfully employed. “If I died tomorrow,” he says, “Jules would have to go and get a real job.” He’s right and he’s wrong. I do have a job; two, in fact. I am a mother and I teach middle school Humanities. The latter arrangement is purposefully part-time.

Several years ago, I was killing myself working full-time for a supervisor who delighted in disparaging me, taking credit for my writing, and making me cry. Other people were raising my children, witnessing their accomplishments and milestones while I reported daily for the abuse of my self-esteem. When my mother died unexpectedly in 2010, I experienced the type of enlightenment that comes from sudden shock: in my case, a crushing loss that gave me the clarity and strength I needed to change. I quit my job to become a freelancer and occasional tutor.

I have not regretted my choice to be present for my children or the pay cut that came with it. I drop the kids off at school each morning, and I greet them happily when they return home. I sign the permission slips; I help with the homework. So, yes, my husband is right: a significant downturn in life would force me to secure a more lucrative paycheck. But he’s wrong, too. Parenthood is my foremost imperative: a job I perform with diligence and pride.

*

My son, Kai, keeps a journal in his fifth grade class, and we trade off writing entries to one another every day after school. He writes about what he’s been learning and how he feels. The journal provides a complex synthesis of his innermost thoughts and perceptions. He tucks in stickers and inspirational quotes. I delight in giving him wacky responses, just to see if he notices. (He does.) I cherish these little conversations.

Third grade Kai.

Third grade Kai.

Kai is the reason I transitioned into teaching. I knew that I wanted to be involved in my children’s education. When I saw an opportunity four years ago, I applied for the job, eager to work with middle school minds and perform the unspoken requirements needed to work with my own kids in the future.

Fifth grade Kai. The conversation only gets better.

Fifth grade Kai. The conversation only gets better.

*

At work, I channel the outspoken individuals who taught me in junior high: Mr. Homer, Mr. Goldberg, the Highlands, and Miss Becker, who revolutionized my ninth grade world by welcoming me into her AV girl squad. I remember small details about them: the way Mr. Homer adapted 60s song lyrics and serenaded his students; the talk Mr. Highland gave science class about “bowel massage.” Mr. Goldberg administered well-timed hugs, and to this day I envision Mrs. Highland’s prodigiously-lined eyes widening in admiration, chiffon sleeves billowing: “They called him Seurat, the Dot.”

I often wonder how those teachers did it. What compelled them to work with a bunch of foul-mouthed, loosely disciplined, pimply adolescents who weren’t even their own kin? And how did they contribute so much of their hearts without certainty that the investment of their time and energy would be returned or acknowledged? They provided light along the path to individuality.

*

Once, I asked my students why they thought I came to work every day. “You got the job because of your husband,” guessed one. “You really like working with kids,” said another. A third, barely looking up from his handheld technology, offered: “It’s your dream job!”

It isn’t, and I don’t always love it. Sometimes middle school students are obnoxious and gross. When one of my boys mutters something – usually a dirty joke or song lyric – that makes all the girls collectively gag and recoil, I roll my eyes and question if this is how the universe truly wants me to measure the worth of my days. Is this the work I’m supposed to do? Because I remember my teachers so fondly, and because my co-workers seem to thrive at what they do, I sometimes feel like the odd-person-out who views teaching as a job, rather than a passion.

*

Students in my classes probably won’t remember what a dependent clause is or why an Oxford comma makes a difference to the reader. They could not care less about plot lines, context, or hubris. They might remember that I treat fictional characters as if they are personal friends and stammer when I speak too fast. With any luck, they’ll intuit the broader lesson: that whether they’re creative or cranky, flippant or funny, they matter. They can live, talk, think, and act authentically, even if it takes them some time to put all those connections together. Those who have found their voices should help those who haven’t.

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*

At the end of the day, my reach in the classroom is finite and comprises only a fraction of potential influence. I strive to do well, though as summer break approaches and my students’ attention spans grow shorter, success is difficult to gauge. The work I do at home, however, offers immediate, enduring results. It is never far from my mind that the two students I care and advocate for most are the ones who share a roof with me.

Kai is one grade away from middle school. It’s greedy to covet his time in the classroom and at home, but there are so many books to read with him and so many writing prompts I’d love to learn his responses to. I have no doubt which job holds the greater value.

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© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

*****

With sincere gratitude to all of the teachers – in middle school, before and

after – who lit the way with love and support.

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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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Mad Love

No pressure.

“Do you hate me forever or just for a little while?” I pose the question to my daughter, Rory, in earnest. She is fixated on a local organic food vendor, who advertises free kittens along the walk home from school. Rory stops at the shop every day, obsessed. She wants “brand new twin kittens,” despite bringing home her very own kitten, Ginger, a year ago.

Rory starts to argue her case, then pauses. She gazes up at me with brimming eyes. “I could never hate you.”

I shake my head and say, “Honey, it’s inevitable that you will hate me at times, but I can only hope it will be for small pockets and not forever.”

Rory sniffles against the back of her hand. She pushes honey-blonde hair away from her teary eyes and sighs. “No, mom,” she says. “I love you.”

*

The Girl Who Didn’t Particularly Envision Having Children has evolved impressively over the last decade. One day I was a numbers whiz at a state university, and the next found me covered in souring milk and a dusting of cornstarch. Every stage of parenting has been a coup: Kai feeding and going back to sleep in his tiny car seat each morning; the lump stage; the Darth Vader phase, each thick breath issuing from deep within; toddling! Such a visually satisfying verb.

Then came Rory, a gift of more delight. Kai’s social cognition blossomed at the boarding school where I work; Rory, born into the joyful chaos of communal educational coexistence, flourished with minimal encouragement. Kai learned to read, and could hardly be suppressed in his eagerness to learn more. He manifested sensitivity; his roots grew strong and resilient in the physical, sensory world. Rory assumed her place in somewhere in the atmosphere, her mind wrapped up in clouds, channeling her grace from solar flares and stars. In between days, they grew into little people of their own mettle.

I often reread the notes I scribbled into journals for their later years, remembering each step of their development. Each phase was my favorite phase, but this time, right now, is the best yet.

*

One morning not long ago, Kai, a habitual early riser, entered the kitchen, clutching the back of his neck and sobbing.

“It hurts, Mom!” he wailed. “Every time I move my head, it hurts!”

Kai never complains and he rarely cries. I calmed him down as much as I could, though my own thoughts raced. He suffered through a bowl of cereal, whimpering each time he moved his head. Rory pushed away her cereal bowl and looked at Kai, her brows knit.

I gaped in awe as Rory started to cry too.

*

It happened again a few days later. Rory fell off her bike, scraping a centimeter-wide patch of skin from her finger. She ran into the house, wailing, with Kai following closely behind. Kai stood in the bathroom doorway as we cleaned and treated the wound, his expression serious. Huge tears fell down Rory’s cheeks. She exhaled raggedly. When we were done, Kai patted Rory’s arm and said, “I’m sorry, Rory. I wish I could take this for you.”

*

The days are not all joy and wonder, but the proportion of joy largely outweighs the arguments and occasional hurt feelings between Kai and Rory. They empathize and laugh with one another, but are also remarkably adept at picking petty fights and pressing the “buttons” they know will aggravate the other. So I divide my time between them and measure my good fortune by moments.

The other day, Kai and I shopped for sunglasses. I tried on an oversized purple pair and waggled my eyes at him. “Yes?” I asked. He shrugged. I picked a different pair: “How about these?” He grunted a little. The third pair won. “Mom!” he said, grinning. “You look like a beach babe!”

Exploring the lighting section of a home improvement store, I ask Rory to pretend she’s building her own house. What lights would she choose? She points to the Tiffany-style pendants, the biggest chandeliers, the pinecone sconces, and a floor lamp that looks like a four-headed lily on acid. I watch her as she dashes among the aisles, her eyes fixed towards the ceiling. What a bright place her mind must be.

*

Over breakfast, Kai says, “I wish I had another blanket.” He is so matter of fact about it. The weather’s been getting colder, and I realize, with a pang, that he’s still sleeping in summer bedding. Though the seasonal clothing and bedding swap is one of my lesser-loved parental responsibilities, his bed receives flannel sheets and oversized comforters within minutes. For undemanding, sensitive, wonderful Kai – anything.

I’ve had girlfriends ask my opinion on having children, to which I reply that it is a deeply personal decision – not one for everyone – but add that it has been the most rewarding experience I could imagine. I did not anticipate the full force of this wild affliction called motherhood. I would do anything for my children. Just tell me where to set the moon.

*

My practical mind knows that more kittens will not complete our household in the way that Rory imagines, but my heart fights a strong desire to let her adopt one more cat. Kittens are gateway pets, and I must not acquiesce for fear of sending Rory entirely the wrong message about the economics of needs and wants.

This does not stop us from visiting the shop on a brisk Saturday morning. Four kittens mew in a wire crate on the front steps: a pair of larger white ones, and a tiny pair of grey-black tabbies with luminous sapphire eyes. Rory addresses them each by name. She eyes me as she wriggles her fingers through gaps in the crate. I envision Rory and the kittens frolicking in some magical, twilit meadow, enshrouded by rainbows and butterflies. Only a heartless monster could say no. “Let’s see if they’re still here next weekend,” I say, hurrying back to the car.

My resolve returns once I am freed from the influence of the kittens. I tell Rory as much when we get back home, and am relieved when she says she does not hate me. As she walks away, I marvel for the millionth time that this intelligent, hilarious, compassionate individual who stands almost as tall as I do started out in the universe as one microscopic egg and sperm. In this moment, I am proud and humbled and so very in love.

Ginger, the gateway kitten.

Ginger, the gateway kitten.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Starter Pack

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New life comes to friends around me. In the last month, I’ve congratulated parents-to-be and anticipated the purchase of adorable children’s clothing and, particularly, children’s books: Knuffle Bunny; Where The Wild Things Are; To Market, To Market; Love You Forever; A Sick Day for Amos McGee… I could, I think, recite these books by heart. My spirit surges with joy for my friends, now in the place in which I found myself ten (almost eleven) years ago. Yet their exuberance, this newness, evokes conflicting emotions. I feel a bit like a member of the Senate of Established Parents: What advice should I share? How honest is too honest? How much do I even remember? The resulting list comes from a late-night gathering of “Senators” who wish we’d known then what we know now.

Just Sign Here… And Here… And Here… And….

In my limited experience, it was much easier to contribute another human being to the gene pool than it was to obtain a driver’s license. (Friends who went through hell to conceive understandably disagree.) Most legal procedures require tests, forms, money, and unflattering photographs prior to initiation. When, for example, a person invests in something important, like a new appliance or car, the purchase usually includes an operation manual. With pregnancy, it’s Have Fertilized Egg, Will Travel. The authorized paperwork occurs later. Parenthood is absurd in that we enter it completely untrained and ill equipped.

Here’s Your Beautiful, Darling Miracle… Good Luck With That.

I attended the prenatal breastfeeding class that the hospital offered. I have the certificate and the detailed notes to prove it. Breastfeeding is lauded as the most natural and beneficial way to feed your child. Doing so seemed like such a no-brainer. And yet, one week into Kai’s early life, sleepless and exhausted from feeding him 10-12 times a day, my nipples sore and bleeding (apologies for the mental image), nothing I learned in the class applied to feeding the wailing child in my lap. Dear Parents, don’t be a stubborn wretch like me. Don’t wait until it’s too late and the nurse seated across from you says something hurtful, like, “You’ve been doing it all wrong” or “What in God’s name took you so long to come in?” If you plan to breastfeed, schedule a consultation with a Lactation Specialist as soon as your baby is born.

On Lobotomies

Maybe you’re the type of person who listens to classical music in your down time. If you are, please skip this section. If you aren’t, RUN – do not walk! – as fast as you can from those cutesy collections of baby composers. Run to save the last remnant of your adult sanity. Run to save yourself. It’s fine to stay away. I raised my children on Billy Idol and the entire 80s oeuvre, Madonna, Eminem, the Beastie Boys, and Chevelle. Kai and Rory both love music today; they adore Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, singing, and wild dance rumpuses. The mathematic, mind-enhancing properties attributed to rhythm and meter prevailed. And I spared myself a lobotomy.

Sexy Time

For a while, there might not be any. That’s okay, because:

  1. Parenthood is sexy and empowering.
  2. You start to notice sexy new habits with your partner, like how he wakes up to feed the baby in the middle of the night or the way she consistently slam-dunks dirty diapers.
  3. Um, maybe sexy time takes a brief hiatus. It’s still okay.

Disclaimer: I, Julia Moris-Hartley, do solemnly swear that I never use the term “sexy time” in real life.

Keep Calm and Parent On

Millennia of procreative pursuits have shown that humans are fairly resilient. We withstand drought, plight, famine, mass migration, war, pillaging, diabolical dictators, journey by chuck wagon, scurvy, stomach flu, diaper rash, and plagues of Biblical proportion. Your little one is a testament of endurance. S/he will not break.

Time to Make The Donuts

Heretical and methodical as I may sound to the feed-on-demand faction, putting your baby on a reliable feeding schedule makes you both happier. Babies develop the understanding that life follows a pattern: wake up, eat, play, snuggle, rest, repeat. The number of daily feeding cycles decreases as your child grows. Your baby starts to sleep for longer stretches. You feel almost alive again. If you choose to adopt a schedule and one morning find – miracle of miracles! –your baby sleeping in, make yourself a coffee and enjoy every sip. No need to wake your child up if he/she sleeps past feeding time. Babies need sleep.

Peas Before Pineapples

When baby graduates to solid foods, members of the Parenting Committee recommend introducing vegetables and savory foods well before sweet ones. The rationale: it’s much easier to cultivate an appreciation for pureed beans before baby knows that applesauce might be an alternative.

Haters Gonna Hate

You are not a bad person if the only baby you like is your own. Being the epic, unique creation of your union with your partner, your baby is obviously superior in every way. You will love your child so much that it physically hurts. Show baby some affection by cuddling often. Kiss your little one so much s/he smells like you. Try not to be offended if other mortals fail to celebrate baby’s perfection, 100 percent of the time.

The Take-Away

Most of all, trust that the Maternal Order of Parenthood makes converts of everyone – once you see your baby’s face, that’s it. You’re imprinted. You love the “pilgrim soul” in your child forever. And one day, too soon, memories of the hurdles you faced will dim, perhaps prompting you to start again. Savor every precious minute.

*

A special note of thanks to Senators English, Austin, Roth, and Quackenbush, and Honorary Speakers Brinkley and Ryckman, for their participation in the January Symposium on Parenting.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Little Owl

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If I knew then what I know now…

My son, Kai, cried incessantly as a newborn. He breastfed around the clock, never satisfied by the milk I produced: his begonia pink lips suckled the air in his rare moments of sleep, and begged my knuckles for more while he was awake. I slept little during his first few months, withering under Kai’s wakeful, insistent hunger, feeling at times more like a cow than a woman. Sleep-deprived, I cried constantly… just like Kai.

Kai didn’t – wouldn’t – sleep in his crib, so we converted a second car seat to hold him after we finally cajoled him into slumber. I fed Kai in dimmed lamplight before work each morning, while outside coyotes rustled in the pre-dawn respite from Tucson’s heat. I placed Kai back in his seat before leaving, worrying my thumb across his forehead, over and over, to soothe him. His eyelids slowly drooped until flaxen eyelashes fanned his plump cheeks and I made my escape, creeping out the front door like a sour-smelling thief.

I’m embarrassed now by how long it took me to pinpoint the source of Kai’s newborn restlessness. My husband and I initially attributed his discontent to colic and our glaring inexperience. Over time, though, I began to notice small hints of something else.

Kai is sensitive. Not sensitive in the cruel, soft-bellied way that society attributes to weakness and “wimps,” but, rather, emotionally astute. He “reads” people’s moods and implied nuances the way a gardener knows the veins and freckles of his plants – the health of the crenellations in tender green leaves, the direction in which new shoots might unfurl. He understands the intersection of physical and spiritual the way a baker works a fragrant loaf from bubbling, yeasty starts. Kai is intense, deep, and, most tellingly, tactile. He touches everything. Hugs release the anchors from his soul. If I’d made the connection when he was a baby, I would have cuddled him until he levitated.

Kai turns ten this week. He’s almost as tall as me, and wears one shoe size smaller than I do. Where once he embraced my knees, now his hugs cradle my shoulders. Kai’s thoughtful brown eyes widen as he talks: “You know, mom, I think…” His hands emphasize his words. If there’s a stairwell, he reliably jumps the last steps, his lanky limbs clattering to the ground. Lately, he’s developed a dancing streak.

Kai struggles with his sensitivity, though I insist it is a valuable strength, reminding him of the many ways in which it helps him build relationships with others and showcase his empathy. Our dog adores him for the constant affection he shows her. Kai is the first to offer help. His friends smile the goofiest, sweetest grins when he’s around. His laughter is a fine thing.

There are a handful of things I wish I could do over, knowing now what I wish I knew then. Those early months with Kai top the list. I am so grateful that, with Kai, every day is an improvement from the one before. The trajectory of our relationship arcs upward, marked by a broadened sense of understanding. Seeing him develop as a young man has been worth every tear.

Happy birthday, little owl.

© 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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Love Song

Isn't she lovely?

“There!” says Rory, pushing flaxen strands of hair away from her face and waving a sheet of paper in the air. “My birthday wist is done!” I have been watching Rory work on this list for half an hour, divining birthday inspiration from the air with a wandering pointer finger, her tongue poking out sideways from between her lips.  She turns five in April. Her wish list includes happy face balloons, a “Barbie Girl cake from Target,” bowling, Angry Birds (the pig is worth 105 points, she adds; the bird, 109), a scavenger hunt, pizza and Cheetos, Wuggle Pets, and a 6-volt battery-operated princess convertible. “And that’s all I want on my birthday!”

Rory was born sweet, almost preternaturally so: communicating her pleasure with the wiggles and flexes of her toes, pressing herself into the tucks of our arms, asking to sit in our “waps” and begging to be tickled.  She surrenders herself to mischief and joy; she laughs with her entire body.  Her latest infatuation is tricking my husband into looking away – usually by distraction – and then punching him in the face. (I warned him not to encourage her, but he finds it endlessly amusing and so, apparently, does Rory.) Her sweetness makes it difficult to deny her of the objects that captivate her, which typically involve bright colors, princesses, Hello Kitty, or sparkles – sometimes all at once.  Financial necessity demands that I be strict, though I don’t want to be: I love to revel in the radiant glow of her smile.  When I turn her down, her eyes brim with enormous tears.  Her shoulders slump forward as she walks away, slowly dragging her feet along the floor, the picture of defeat.  But even then she remains sweet to the core. “I wuv you, mom,” she says, curling into my lap at the end of the day.  “I wuv you even though you didn’t get me the Wuggle Pets at Target.”

*

My mom used to tell me that I was a sweet little girl.  I wish I had pressed her for specific details.  Did I sing the way Rory does: a soft birdsong that warbles and flaps like a little finch in the spring?  Did expressions light my face, eliciting enchantment from anyone lucky enough to witness the flutter of bright golden green eyes or the freckles I adore so much in Rory?  Did I cup my thin fingers over my mouth while giggling, or waggle my elbows while doing the chicken dance around the dinner table?  Did I smile to wake up each morning?  Perhaps, as with many things, the overriding impression supplanted the precise details and mom wouldn’t have remembered.  But I should have asked, because now there isn’t anyone to answer these questions the way my mother would have.

*

Being able to stay home with Rory is a treasure for which I am immeasurably grateful.  I missed an important chapter of my son’s youth while I worked full-time, precious years of Kai’s toddlerhood I can’t ever recapture.  I remind myself of this whenever I start to feel guilty or anxious about my decision to be, first and foremost, a mom.  Staying home allows me to celebrate Rory’s lovely, tender beauty.  I get to witness her kindness: how she tucks in her stuffed animals each night; how she treats her favorite toy – a tattered grey-blue Eeyore hand puppet that she’s had since she was born – like her child, eagerly ascending the stairs to see it and calling out, “Oh, Puppet Eeyore!  I’m hoooome!” I see Rory as an emissary for good: delivering hugs, high fives, and muppet-like cheer (in her inexplicable New York accent) to the students who attend the school where my husband works.  I live in a blessing.

I’ve kept a journal for Rory, committing myself to actively remembering the details I know I will forget.  (I also keep one for my son, Kai.)  I’d forgotten how, as a baby, Rory smelled like French bread.  She gave me such powerful cravings in utero that I referred to her as the Barracuda.  I forgot that she was born on Good Friday and slept through the night at two months.  She flapped her arms like a bird for the first time at seven months and hasn’t stopped since.  I forgot that Kai used to refer to her as “Beddy Woody” (Baby Rory), and that Rory used to call her Eeyore “Yeye.”  I don’t want to forget that this morning, Rory lifted the edge of the living room rug, found a penny, and exclaimed, “Hey, mom!  Wook!  I’m a wucky ducky!” I don’t want to forget that these ordinary, seemingly uneventful days will become the deeply rooted memories that shape their growing lives. The journals help me remember.

*

Rory has been picking out her clothes and dressing herself since she was three.  I usually do not intervene because I respect how she chooses to express herself.  She coordinates her clothes by color and theme, and she is quick to compliment others on their fashion choices.  Rory knows how to rock a look.  Last week, her preschool hosted pajama day.  Rory opted to wear her two-piece, neon pink, button-down Dora pajamas, though she has several other pairs of pajamas that are much easier to put on and are more comfortable.  She accessorized her pajamas with blue and white snow boots and a pair of purple Hello Kitty sunglasses.  On that day, her clothes did not match, but it didn’t matter because she didn’t care… and neither did I.  Rory strutted.

We went to the grocery store after I picked her up from preschool. I handed Rory one of the store’s wheeled baskets.  She pulled it behind her as we shopped, backing it up (“Beep, beep, beep!”) and maneuvering it from side to side.  At checkout, she almost toppled over as she lifted a gallon of milk from the cart, insisting: “I can do it, mom.  I can do it!”  She placed the pork loin, basil leaf, blueberries, and sliced provolone on the conveyer belt.  The cashier smirked at me over the register.  As we left, Rory said, “You carry the milk, and I’ll take the bags.”  I dutifully carried the gallon of milk.  She hoisted a bag in each of her hands with a Schwarzenegger-worthy grunt, and carried the bags out to the car.  When we arrived home, she brought in the bags, set them down on the beige kitchen floor, smiled up at me, and said, “I’m a good shoppa, right mom?”

“Yes, dear, you’re wonderful,” I said, reaching out to smooth her hair, which wisps in a perpetual shroud of static electricity.

“I’m a good cooka, too, right mom?”

“The best,” I said, smiling.  “You keep cooking with me and you might become the next Julia Child!”

Rory nodded.  “Okay!”  Retrieving her apron from where we’ve tied it to the pantry, she put the apron on and said, “Okay, so first we put our hair back and wash our hands, right?”  Then she went to the bathroom to get her step-stool.

We assembled the necessary ingredients and made small cheesecake-inspired fruit tarts to hand out to students and faculty at the school.  The tarts were a hit, but it was Rory’s response that pleased me the most.  She licked the cupcake liner clean and gathered the crust crumbs that had fallen on the table.  “Mommy,” she raved, “this is the most dewicious cheesecake you’ve ever made!  I can’t bewieve how good this is!”

*

My mom didn’t have the luxury of staying home with my sister or me; as a single mom, she did everything she could do to survive.   Now that I have had the opportunity to work from home and be present in the lives of my children as they grow, I understand what a luxury it truly is to view life as a celebration of emotional and spiritual well-being, a repository for memories that I would never dare erase. Rory reminds me everyday.

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Flurries

Unlikely lessons from a vagabond cat.

The morning is grey.  Clouds and a haze of snow obscure the mountains that flank the valley, incising them from the landscape.  Snow has settled in the ridges of the giant oak tree on the west side of the house.  Frost crusts the windows on the deck.  Across the street, Mr. Speakman and his family have just pulled their blue minivan into the icy road on their way to church; the roof of their small saltbox house, a doll’s dream in mint green and white, is tufted with fresh snow.  This sort of morning doesn’t announce itself.  Usually, sunlight pours through the east-facing windows in the bedroom.  Today, the bedroom is dark, all blackout thermal curtains and muffled silence.  Lily rests by my husband’s feet at the corner of the bed, a warm, purring mass of white fur.  My children are still asleep, judging from the silence of the floorboards upstairs. I shuffle into the kitchen. Ethel, a mottled longhair tortoiseshell with sharp green eyes, waits on the back steps for food.

Ethel chose us.  She appeared last May, her fine coat thickly entangled, fur falling out in handfuls.  At first, she annoyed us with her low, aggressive mew. Lily eyed her, twitching.  Our town has a problem with feral cats.  We live near a feral colony hangout, but somehow Ethel didn’t come across as wild: she was too eager to be petted, too comfortable in our company.  We assumed she was probably dumped.  My children, Kai and Rory, imitated her bawdy mew as she weaved through their thin legs.  I distracted her with treats as I cut the mats from her fur. We mused about a good name for her, settling on Ethel, because I enjoyed hearing Kai and Rory say her name.

*

Effel!” calls Rory.  Ethel materializes from somewhere in the garage, flopping over at Rory’s feet and rubbing her whiskers against the driveway.  Whatever her name was before, she’s Ethel now. “Who’s a good girl,” asks Rory, puffing out her lips and petting Ethel on her matted belly.  “Who’s a good girl?”  The house shades the driveway from the morning sun as Rory and I play with Ethel.  The weekend’s snowstorm has moved on; the sky is a rich, promising blue above the western hills.  Rory’s face pinkens in the cold air.  She smiles at me, revealing an appealing line of rounded teeth and her singular dimple.  When I look at Rory – tiny hand patting Ethel, blond hair falling over her face, the flit of mischief in her golden-green eyes – my focus sharpens, makes a clear, precise picture, and sets right an unbalanced frame.

Two years ago, I decided to leave my full-time job in order to stay home with my children.  I’d lost my mom, and her loss dramatically restructured my priorities. My husband and I also lost our children’s caregiver (not to death, only fate).  The small town in which we live has no daycare providers and the elementary preschool, officials informed me, was only an option for special needs children over 4 years of age.  The logistics grew too difficult.  I quit.

Switching gears between career and family presents challenges that I grapple with nearly every day.  For the first few months, I felt a steady nagging sense of guilt about not reporting to work, to some physical place where I had a documented set of responsibilities, an order, a reachable goal.  For me, the hardest part about not working in a ‘proper’ workplace is its attendant sense of isolation.  Entire days pass when I don’t see anyone other than my family; on a cumulative level, this lack of social contact suffocates.  I find ways to deal, even if it means going to the grocery store to buy a single kaiser roll from the bakery.  I have not regretted my decision to be with my children, to be present in every moment of their lives… and every moment in mine.

*

The differences between my children astound me.  Rory is a telegrapher.  Her feet have communicated her state of mind since she was two months old.  If she is not singing, she is mid-conversation.  My son, Kai, who is two years older than Rory, is a heavy kettle that releases only an occasional cloud of emotional vapor before returning to a steady, quiet boil.   We call him the Professor.  Perhaps we should call him the Situation, since he finds it important to continually define what “the situation” is.

Kai loves first grade; he can’t wait to tell me about his day when he comes home from school.  Sometimes, he flails his legs and skips, a young Gene Kelly.  Once, when Rory and I painted our toenails, Kai asked to me paint his as well.  I said, “Boys don’t usually paint their toenails…” He persisted, so I painted his nails; it seemed like a harmless way to make him happy.  He wiggled his powder blue toenails with pride at his winter gymnastics performance.  Rory loves preschool like Kai loves first grade.  She adores her teachers, and their goofy, indulgent smiles confirm that they love her too.  Rory occupies herself for long stretches with drawing, painting, and bedazzling, usually while singing or telling jokes.  She has a perplexing habit of suddenly losing touch with gravity, though, tumbling sideways at random moments.

When Rory eats something that pleases her, her body dances a small, unconscious rumba of appreciation at the table.  She might have learned this by watching me, or perhaps it’s a basic human trait: good food = happy.  Kai is a beanpole who wears clothes intended to fit children half his age.  When he finds a food he enjoys, predominantly sweets, he inhales it, just like his dad does.  His eyes hone in on me if I so much as crinkle a wrapper.  “What’re you eating?” he asks, the tiny synapses in his mind firing in anticipation of something sweet.

“It’s cheese,” I say, perhaps a little too perversely.  “Would you like to try some some?”  He doesn’t want to try my cheese.  It isn’t made from sugar.

*

At breakfast, Rory says, “Hey, mommy! Why did the refrigerator talk to the other refrigerator?”

“I don’t know,” I say, staring blearily at my water glass and wishing it was a triple espresso.  “Why?”

“Because the refrigerators wanted to get refrigerator married!”  She cracks herself up with this joke; tiny blueberry muffin crumbs splatter across the table. Rory weaves a forked piece of cantaloupe through the air.  She builds towers of muffin and scrambled eggs on her plate.  Daily chores start to tick off in my head: laundry, sheets from suspended student, dishes from earlier this morning, dishes from last night, four students coming over for tutoring today, mop the floors, edit the essay I wrote a month ago, find Zen place for once.

Though I cherish the time I spend with Rory while Kai is at school, I can’t wait to drop her off at preschool so I can go for a run. I embrace the solitude; solitude embraces me. Running helps me enlarge my world on days when it feels too small: it lifts the ceiling of small town insularity and demolishes the self-imposed walls that I have built around what it means to be a good wife and a good mother.  My legs sing with pride when I get home.  I shower in silence.  I get dressed in silence.  I am ready once again to un-pause my world.

*

After I read the children their bedtime stories and tuck them in, I turn on their lamps and nightlights.  I say, “Goodnight!  Sweet dreams!  I love you!” as I descend the stairs.  Kai and Rory chirp back: “Goooood ni-ight!  I love you, cupcake face!  Sweet dreeeeeeams, dear mother of zucchini!  Farewell until tomorrow!”

Though people frequently tell me how sweet and funny my children are, I berate my parenting skills.  Every other word from Kai’s mouth is an apology.  “Sorry, mom,” he says, sighing into his shoulders, when I ask him to zip his winter coat because it is freezing outside.  “Sorry,” says the bony hunched figure playing his Xbox in the wicker chair upon my suggestion that he move to more comfortable seating.  Loving observations turn into reproaches that prompt the inevitable: “Sor-ry.”

Rory’s catchphrase is: “K, mom.”  I can’t deny the charge I get from her agreeability.  She has independently dressed herself for over a year now.  If I compliment her outfit, which is as likely to match as it is to mismatch, she beams: “Thanks, mom!”  The other day, she played with a garbage bag, pretending it was her cape.  As she twisted the bag over her shoulders, she inadvertently knocked over a picture of my mother and me.  I gasped when the frame clattered against the wood floor.  Rory’s eyes brimmed with tears.  “It’s okay, honey,” I stammered, rushing to hug my terrified child, whose face clearly telegraphed her fear of my rage.  “It’s okay,” I said, hugging her, massaging her back.  “It was an accident…  Accidents happen all the time…  It’s just a picture.”  But insecurity flooded me: How did she think I was going to react instead?

It is my responsibility as a mother to encourage the individuality of my children and bolster their confidence as much as possible in preparation for the grueling adolescent years. I want to build them up, because I know that there will be plenty of people trying hard to tear them down as they grow.  It’s a shame, but that is the reality of life.  I can’t control what other people do or act or think or say, so I build and build and build, controlling what I can.  But I can’t shake the fear that, no matter what I do, it won’t be enough.  It breaks my heart to hear Kai say “sorry,” to see the look of terror in Rory’s eyes.

*

Cats exhibit a total responsiveness to touch.  They don’t know the meaning of subterfuge; you know without doubt when a cat likes you.  This may be why I identify more with them than I do their domesticated canine counterparts.  I know all of Lily’s pulse points: she likes to have her chin scratched, and she presses her head into my hand when I flatten her ears and pet the sparsely covered patches above her eyes.  She finds me irresistible in my smelly, panting, post-run state.  She does not like it when I tickle the muscles of her hind legs.  Ethel, on the other hand, likes to be petted simultaneously on both sides of her rib cage.  She skooches just beyond reasonable petting distance and is prone to flopping sideways when spoken to.  Ethel responds well to manhandling.

I worked full-time when Kai was a baby.  My husband worked towards his PhD at the time, which allowed him freedom to stay home with Kai while I worked.  I got myself ready for work, and then I woke Kai for his morning feeding; that is, if Kai didn’t wake me first.  I fed him in the dark, burped him, changed him, and returned him to the car seat in which he slept when he was very little. (He didn’t sleep in his crib, so my husband and I made do.)  If Kai didn’t fall back to sleep right away, I rubbed his forehead with my thumb in soft, soothing motions: my beautiful, little owl-eyed worry stone.  The more I rubbed, the glassier his eyes became and the heavier his eyelids drooped until, finally, he went back to sleep.  I placed him, car seat and all, next to my husband still sleeping in bed, and crept out the front door to work, making as little noise as possible and praying for Kai to return to sleep.

*

Ethel was still here, encamped under the giant shrub in front of the house, when we returned from last summer’s three-week vacation.  Though we had arranged for someone to provide care for Lily in our absence, no one knew what to make of the furry vagabond: should they feed and encourage her, or should they ignore her and hope she wandered back into itinerancy?  They ignored her.  She remained.  We found clumps of her fur discarded randomly around the lawn. She was thin, the sides of her body freed of hair, a bodyhawk in feline form.  I grew fond of Ethel’s multi-colored whiskers and delicate paws.  I smiled when I sometimes caught her creeping around the neighbors’ yards.  She became dear to me.

I tried to lure Ethel indoors throughout the summer and fall, despite my husband’s protests and a wicked adult-onset allergy to cats. I left trails of treats leading inside the house and left doors open for longer than necessary.  I even physically placed Ethel on the living room floor.  Her rear end twitched; she sniffed furniture.  But she found the nearest exit and sat by it, looking outward, until I relented and let her back out.  Ethel settled in the hay-filled cranny underneath the unused chicken coop adjacent to the garage.  We’ve seen her slinking out of it on cold mornings.  Now that the snow’s arrived, she’s a little more eager for her morning bowl of food and she’s bolder about coming into the house for small stretches, but she seems to have found her true home somewhere in between the chicken coop and the crannies of our lives.

Ethel leaves us love letters in the form of dead farm mice.  The ragamuffin persists.  Her winter coat has come in thickly, and her belly has rounded.  I am not sure what she sees in us, but I see her in vivid detail: an announcement, a warning, a challenge to memory, an enigma.  Sometimes you have to add members to your family who aren’t related by genes or blood, but feel entirely right to you on a metaphysical level.

Every day is a lesson.  When I open the back door and see Ethel, I place my hands on the small bowling ball of her body, lift her front paws off the ground, and kiss the top of her raggedy little head.  She chose us, but I want her to understand that we choose her right back.

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