Shearn is the author of the novels The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. She has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and currently lives in Brooklyn.
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Shearn is the author of the novels The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. She has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and currently lives in Brooklyn.
Get the free Otherppl app.
It seems to me that Dear Lucy is a novel about, among other things, all the different ways there are to make a family. Lucy has been sent away by her struggling single mother; pregnant teenager Samantha is considering giving up her baby for adoption; Mister and Missus themselves are revealed to have had a rather unusual method for obtaining children. When you began, did you know you were writing about family?
Great question! No- in the beginning of the Dear Lucy process, I was not aware that I was writing about family. The piece began as a study of Lucy’s strange, idiosyncratic voice. In the early stages, my primary conscious motives were language based.
I love the title of your new book!
Thank you! I didn’t think of it. It was originally called–
I just love mermaids.
It’s actually a rusalka, which is the mermaid of Slavic folklore. They are these kind of spooky, spectral siren figures that are the souls of wronged women – illegitimate mothers, brides left at the altar, pregnant suicides. So the mermaid in the book is a kind of a spirit. In my first draft I didn’t even mention the word “mermaid.” I had this idea it would be like Zone One, that great Colson Whitehead zombie novel that never once says zombie in it. But then I remembered I’m not Colson Whitehead.
April 28, 2013
Before I died the first time, my husband left me broke and alone with our two tiny children and it made me feel very depressed, etc. It’s the same old story: He went to buy cigarettes and never came home. Really. Wouldn’t you think you’d want to pack a bag or two, leave a forwarding address? Couldn’t he have at least taken the dog? These were the things I wondered in the beginning. Not: was he having an affair, or: was he mixed up in something nefarious, but: I can’t believe he wouldn’t bring his datebook, his favorite loafers; I can’t believe he didn’t change the lightbulb in the hallway before deserting us. He knew I couldn’t reach that lightbulb. The whole thing was unlike him. Then again, I was the one who died, which was unlike me, too.
In New York? We hope you’ll come out to TNB editor Shya Scanlon’s big event on January 26th. The line-up is amazing–including TNB contributor Amy Shearn–and for the pre-order ticket price of ten bucks, you get a free copy of Shya’s debut novel. That’s half-off the cover price! A great event, and a book that Peter Straub has called “a bright, dazzling world that might have been plotted by a consortium of William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, and Don DeLillo.”
Here’s a link to more info about the show, and to pre-order tickets. The event is at the beautiful Le Poisson Rouge on Bleeker. Come party like a literary rock star!
See you there!
I’ve been thinking lately about something our pediatrician told us: that toddlers are sort of like teenagers. As my twenty-month-old daughter Harper begins to precociously behave like a textbook two-year-old, this has started to seem more and more true to me. Now, I’ve never parented a teenager but I do vaguely remember being one, and I often see them milling about our neighborhood pretending to be unprivileged and pissed off. And I think it’s really true, that toddlers really are a lot like them.
After putting the baby to bed the other night, feeling exhausted and oppressed by my household duties, I cleaned the entire apartment. By this I mean I put away the baby’s toys, washed the dishes, wiped down all three inches of countertop, swept most visible sections of the floor, and palmed a tumbleweed of dog hair off the rug. The entire process took about fifteen minutes, and was by far the longest stretch of housework I’d done all day. When my husband came home from whatever it is he does all day, I made him dinner. By this I mean I boiled some pasta. And THEN I had to WORK. By this I mean, I put on my pajamas and sat on the couch with a glass of wine and some student stories. I do everything around here, I thought, self-pityingly. Sheesh! And, as a non-New Yorker friend said recently in amazement, “I bet you don’t even have a dishwasher! How do you do it?”
“Well,” I responded, “My life is horrible.”
But it has occurred to me of late that housekeeping used to be a much more odious thing, and to remind myself of this I read Susan Strasser’s excellent book Never Done, a history of American housework. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who has ever had to do a modicum of housework. There is nothing like a perusal of pre-industrial housekeeping practices to make sorting the recycling feel like a day at the spa. Seriously, did you know that everything used to suck way worse than it does now?
Exhibit A. Cooking.
Sometimes I have the thought, Greasy old unevenly-cooking, partially disabled rental apartment stove, I hate you. But you know what really sucked? Cooking over an open freaking fire, all sparking with burning cinders and scorching gates, using cast-iron utensils that weighed 8,000 lbs each. Labor-intensiveness aside, just imagine all the ways an underfoot toddler could injure herself in such a kitchen! Wait, don’t actually. It’s too gruesome. And then even coal or wood stoves, once they came along, still took at least an hour a day just to maintain, what with all the fire-tending and coal-carrying and stove-blacking. I can totally relate to this because every few months or so I have to relight the pilot light on my stove, which takes an entire match and sometimes dozens of seconds.
Strasser’s book also reminded me how once upon a time food arrived in the kitchen unprepared. No, really unprepared. As in, each ingredient had to be processed by hand – chickens plucked, hams blanched, coffee roasted, spices ground, flour sifted, oatmeal soaked, and so on. By way of contrast, I was once reduced to tears by the thought of all the work involved with heating up a premade veggie corn dog in the toaster oven. Granted, I was pregnant and very tired, but so, I imagine, were many of our great-grandmothers while they were nurturing yeast.
Exhibit B. Laundry.
I live in an old brownstone without a washing machine, which has led many a person to gasp in protest, “But you need laundry with the baby, right?” Well guess what I found out from this book? No one used to have a washing machine! And one wash used fifty gallons of water, which of course had to be moved and heated by hand. And oh yeah, they hadn’t invented detergent yet. Remember that chapter in Little House in the Big Woods where they describe making soap from pig lard? Ewwwwww.
No surprise then that Strasser writes, “Of all the household chores that depended on hauling water and building fires to heat it, laundry earned the most complaints … it appears that women jettisoned laundry, their most hated task, whenever they had any discretionary money at all.” And here’s a little tidbit for you: in the beginning of the 20th century commercial laundries became popular and the task seemed to be on its way out of the house right along with making your own clothes and shoes. Then the invention of the electric washing machine plunked the act of laundry right back into the lap of the housewife, a development Strasser calls a “raw deal.”
So guess what this means? This means I have ingeniously bucked the housewife-oppressing system! Laundry doesn’t isolate me in my basement OR take up two days of my time a week OR actually any of my time, since I drop it off at the Laundromat and pick it up some hours later all neatly folded into a tiny space-puck of mathematically impossible dimensions. Do you see what this means? I am living the dream of the pre-industrial housewife. Thank you, Crystal Clean Laundromat!
Exhibit C. Extra Credit.
Back when the only out-of-home “daycare” was the “orphanage,” cash-strapped nineteenth century mothers cared for their children while tending the home fires (literally) and often taking in work they could do at home – extra laundry or mending for example. In other words, they did what I do – take care of baby, take care of household, work a little from home – but in long skirts and without running water, manufactured soap, or baby toys that light up. Or lattes. Or mom-tot yoga.
In conclusion: suck it up, me. Things are pretty awesome! Now if you’ll all excuse me. I have a stressful night ahead: a bathtub full of un-lugged, un-boiled hot water, and then off to sleep in sheets washed, luxury of luxury, by somebody else.
There was semi-recently an internet kerfuffle on the topic of babies in bars in Brooklyn, which I have been thinking about a lot but, because I have one of these babies, have not had time to properly respond to until now. Yes, I realize that the world has been clamoring for the response of me, an eminent Park Slope literary mama (by which I mean, of course, the author of an under-read novel, the mother of a one-year-old and yet NOT a member of the Park Slope Parents website and thus obviously not much of a mother at all, and a lowly renter rubbing elbows with the owners of million-dollar brownstones).
And so I will tell you, dear readers, that there was something about the story and ongoing response to it that really got me. What on earth is wrong with people? I thought every time I read some vitriolic comment from a non-breeder who no doubt had time to compose the perfect snarky retort after sleeping until noon and then reading the entire newspaper. Babies are wonderful. Babies are the best things on Earth. I take my baby everywhere, because what, am I meant to hole up in my apartment all day, everyday? Thus is the joy of having a baby in Brooklyn, after all -– there are tons of entertaining places to go. We can walk to any number of growing-brain-stimulating places, the baby and me. I can plop her in the carrier or stroller and take her to a coffee shop, or an art museum, or even, yes, a bar. And I have, a very few times – always in the middle of day, mind you – taken her to bars, the kind of bars that serve food and, you know, have high chairs. (Holla, Bar Toto!)
After all, we were all babies once! And babies are people too! Adorable, lovey, magical, sweet-smelling tiny people! What’s more, I maintain that adults who hate babies have something seriously, sociopathically wrong with them. I mean, sure, it’s true, sometimes babies cry. But the sound of a baby’s cry is about a tenth as annoying as most of the conversations you overhear in places like bars. I mean! What is wrong with people?
Anyway. As awesome as my baby is, I admit that sometimes I need a break. After all, I am with her all day every day without any childcare, and my husband often works late nights and weekends, which means, you know, A LOT of uninterrupted time, just babe and me. So the other night after a particularly grueling bedtime, I excused myself for some mommy-me-time. I strolled down the block, and threw some baby clothes in a machine over the laundromat (I’m not that self-indulgent after all!) and then wandered into my quiet neighborhood bar. There was candlelight. There was inoffensive indie rock. I ordered a beer – a beer! – and settled in with a novel – a novel! For a few amazing moments, it was just me and my pals Stella and Mary. I could feel my shoulders untensing. I hadn’t had a moment like this in months, and this moment would only last about thirty minutes before I had to retrieve my laundry and go back home.
And then I heard it.
A giggly coo.
A baby, I thought. In the bar. You have got to be fucking kidding me.
This baby was mega cute, and having just learned to walk was toddling around on her chubby legs with the drunken strut of a 13-month-old with places to go. She sidled up to me and commenced to play peekaboo behind my table.
The problem is, I love babies, always have, and have always been the one to, yes, entertain someone’s baby in a random public setting. I wanted to indulge the little girl. And I wanted to provide her parents a moment of peace as they ate their fancy meals. But also, I really, really didn’t.
I was tempted to explain myself to her father who came to retrieve her once it became clear I wasn’t going to play. It’s just that this is the one half-hour in like a year that I don’t have to entertain a baby, I wanted to say. And anyway, also, what the CRAP man, it is 9pm! Why is your baby even up and out and nowhere near going to bed? A side note: I hate when people judge each other’s parenting. I judge people who judge other people’s parenting. But also, I was feeling very, very judgmental. “She’s so cute,” I managed, weakly. I offered a very small smile. She grabbed at my book. “Oh, ha ha. She likes Nabokov?” NabAHkov, I said it.
The hipstery-facial-haired be-courderoyed father had a smile that resembled a wince. “Oh, yes, she just loves her NaBOOkov,” he said, inflecting my beloved author’s name with an exaggerated Russiany pronunciation.
And then you better believe it was on. No help for you, buddy! I tugged my book away from the pretentio-tot and willed my smile to vanish. I pulled out the big guns. “Okay, bye-bye!” I said. I covered my face with the book, like a bad spy in a movie. “Bye-bye,” said bar-baby.
She toddled back a few more times and I worked hard to ignore her every time. I even tried not to notice her loitering near the bathroom door and almost getting knocked out every time someone came out, though the mother in me was dying to hop up and usher her away, or at least warn her parents, who were busy ordering dessert. But the heartless bar-fly in me (she’s small, but she’s in there) enjoyed ignoring the baby in peril. Even when she finally bit it and began to howl. I didn’t even offer a sympathetic look! In fact, I GLARED! I can sort of hear that baby’s crying above the jukebox and chatter, I meant my mean look to say. And I am not pleased! The now-harried-looking parents scooped up their little drunken sailor and scooted. I looked around for someone to toast, but no one else seemed to have noticed the whole drama at all.
In conclusion: babies in bars are totally fine and obviously everyone should be nice to them and their parents. But only if they happen to be my baby. All other babies should be tucked in bed and kept out of my goddamned sight.
After an extended period of contented real estate monogamy, my family and I have outgrown our one-bedroom Brooklyn floor-through (it’s not you, it’s us!) and so, despite its great location, lovely landlords, double exposures, and adorable mice, we have been looking for new place. And by that I mean, we have looked at about fifty places. At least. Over the course of this search I have come to two conclusions: 1) There are no deals in New York realty, and 2) Apartment-searching is a bit like dating. I say this having never really dated, and so I am open to the idea that this analogy might be absurd, but follow me, if you will:
Because we are not desperate to move, we (much like serial daters in New York) have the luxury/curse of getting to be really picky. You look at a place (go on a date). You think, eh, it’s okay. It has some slightly ridiculous problem as most NYC apartments, and people, do – no tub, or no closets, or it’s on the fifth floor (real estate equivalents of an annoying laugh, or being too short or too tall– all things you could overlook if you were really in love, proving that you aren’t). So you think, eh, I’ll wait. Something better might come up next week. And you look at some more places (go on a few more dates). You start to forget that you yourself are not perfect either. After all, you want to receive a lot and give a little. But it’s easy to forget this because you are in New York City after all, and while there are a lot of duds (dank basements for $2500 a month/drooling hobos peeing into milk jugs on the subway) you know that there is also the possibility of perfection (gorgeous brownstones with jewel-box backyards/surprisingly humble models who really just want to work with children).
And thus, we have become the real estate equivalent of the dater who just can’t settle down because she always suspects there is something better right around the corner. Because there probably is. There must be! There just MUST be a non-crappy, large 2+ bedroom in a decent neighborhood near the train within a young family’s budget…right? With room in the hallway to store a stroller? And if it could possibly not be a directly beneath the freeway/adjacent to a housing project or live poultry shop/actively on fire, that would be super sweet too.
(Dear non-New-Yorkers, know that what I am asking for is roughly the equivalent of hoping to see a unicorn making love to a liger while sliding down a rainbow. Realtors have literally laughed at me.)
(Oh, and by the way, Dear Realtors. Please stop telling me that a “cozy little room” is a “perfect nursery” when it is clearly a closet. And that door-less “bedroom” leading into the kitchen? That’s called a dining room. I’m not that stupid.)
If only I could cobble together bits and pieces of the 50-some places we’ve seen. The windowed sunroom of the Windsor Terrace tempter; the two large, separate bedrooms of the wackadoodle co-op; the backyard with cherry tree of the crazy people’s place in Kensington; the elevator and pristine laundry room of the Ocean Parkway condo; the PS 10 school zone of the livingroom-less wonder. The most perfect apartment would rise like Frankenstein’s monster and shuffle-step over to our current abode, gathering into its guts all of our belongings and placing them just so. Then it could lurch back to its quiet, tree-lined street with ample parking and a cute, never-crowded, baby-friendly, inexpensive café/bookstore/organic fruit stand right by the park. “Dang,” we would say to each other, “it’s almost too sunny in here!” And, “Sheesh, what are we going to do with all this closet space!” And, “Darn this spare bedroom, now everyone we know is coming to visit us.”
On the upside, house-hunting does provide a unique treat for a writer and/or nosy person: the opportunity to boldly snoop where you would otherwise never go. How else would we ever have visited the Sunset Park apartment with the room dedicated entirely to collections of crystal and its bedroom display of hardcore gay porn? Under what other circumstances would we have seen the Queens haunted-house foreclosure with its friendly squatters, or the Crown Heights edifice that’s become affectionately known in our household as “the murder house,” or the dramatic decorative stylings of Alexei, he of the space-ship-Jacuzzi-shower, circus-tent-ceilinged-living-room, and belanterned “wine cellar” closet with its brick-veneer-wallpaper? We’ve dated oh so many homes and though we’ve had our hearts broken more than a few times at least, like a commitment-shy ladies’ man (or man’s lady), we have some stories to tell.
There is no fairytale-wedding-style-ending to this tale–not yet, anyway. But the other we did measure the baby’s crib to see if it would fit in my office. Which is really a closet. And you know? It just might.
[Ed Note: But then that night a leak busted a hole through the ceiling of that room, breaking the plaster and ruining many books! It has not been fixed! And to that I can say only: HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!]
My parents have always been for the most part caring, compassionate, and relatively non-abusive, but there was one notable episode in my childhood so shocking, so inhumane, that people are often rendered speechless when I gather the inner strength to discuss it. Sensitive readers may want to stop here. Because what happened was: My parents took away Christmas.
That’s right. Up until I was in second grade, we were one of those happily confused inter-faith families, or as the terminology in our largely Jewish Chicago suburb had it, “Both.” My brother and I merrily celebrated a liturgically incoherent mess of holidays. We had no problem with a brightly colored Easter egg nesting on the Passover seder plate.* Christmas tree and Hanukkah menorah peacefully coexisted, a harmonious fire hazard. None of this troubled us. We were psyched, as all self-respecting gift-greedy children would be.
And then it happened. My mother converted. To Judaism. Our family joined a synagogue and enrolled my brother and me in Hebrew school. Hebrew school! Sundays, plus Tuesdays and Thursdays after real school! Just what kids want: more school, less Santa.
You can tout the “eight nights of celebration” angle all you want, but it is a fact held self-evident by Jewish children everywhere that there is nothing like Christmas. Nothing like a fragrant tree decked in glittering ornaments, strung with tinsel and topped with a star, sparkly as the cosmos on a clear winter night in some storybook woodland scene. Nothing like the fairy lands of shop windows, or street gangs of carolers in sweaters and fur muffs, or the zany secular mythology of the North Pole and elves and reindeer. The Nutcracker and The Island of Misfit Toys and Frosty the Snowman. Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Elvis singing Blue Christmas. Ham pink as a newborn baby; spiced grenades of clove-studded oranges studded with cloves; egg nog, nectar of the goys. Twinkle lights clogging gutters like accumulations of luminescent leaf mulch. Padding down the stairs in footie pajamas (this has always been a key element of my Christmas fantasy, though never in my life have I lived in a house with an upstairs) to a wonderland of stuffed stockings like felted sausages hanging from the mantel and a pile of presents gathered beneath the tree as cozily as boxy woodland creatures seeking shelter from a snowstorm. Let’s face it. Christmas is amazing.
My theory is that it is because I was given a taste of this superior mid-winter festival of lights, only to have it brutally taken away at around 7 or 8, arguably the age when Christmas is the greatest, that I am now so obsessed with it. I love it. Luckily for me, I married a gentile, who I make carry home a slightly-oversized-spruce from the stand in front of the CVS every December. We listen to Christmas music and trim the tree and then I curse while digging knobs of wax from the Hanukah menorah. I watch It’s a Wonderful Life at least once a year – at least – and weep every time. I have done crazy things in the name of Christmas. I have gone to the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. My husband and I went with another “mixed” couple – she is Christian, her husband is Jewish and of course loves Christmas as much as I do. The Jewish husband and I sat with goofy grins frozen on our faces all the way through the Rockettes’ toy soldier number, the Nutcracker suite and the ice skaters and the 3-D flying Santa. Children in the audience were not half as amused as we. Then, suddenly, at the somewhat-less-than-spectacular end of the show, there is this strange number involving robed nomads, live animals, and…baby Jesus in the manger?
The Jewish husband leaned over to me and said, grimly, “We’ve been tricked.” I have to admit, this whole “reason for the season” finale was sort of a buzzkill. I felt faint with guilt, and looked around sheepishly, as if the Congregation Solel choir director Roz Epstein were about to leap out of the orchestra pit in order to lecture me on the persecuted Jews in Russia, or the brave Maccabee children, or worst of all, the H-word. Then we visited the tree at Rockefeller Center – CHRISTMAS!! – and stopped at the Edison for matzoh ball soup and latkes.
Now I have a child of my own, and I am looking forward to raising her in the same cross-cultural, multi-region, theologically-nonsensical way I was almost raised. Kids in New York don’t need religion anyway, do they? Aren’t they all sort of intellectually inclined, automatically agnostic and slightly Jewy by default? Perhaps we’ll celebrate Purim with a fat hamentaschen from a Hispanic-owned Manhattan deli (why DO they always have hamentaschen anyway?). Surely we’ll take her to see the huge Menorah being lighted via forklift in Central Park. But no matter what else may happen over the course of her childhood, even if her irreligious parents turn to Allah or Buddha or Scientology, even if her most fervent desire is to celebrate Kwanzaa, even if she should spontaneously become a devout Hasid, that little girl is having Christmas. Whether she wants to or not.
I come from a long line of unenthusiastic housekeepers. My maternal grandmother was known for blowing up kitchens (a particularly awkward situation as my grandfather was a clergyman and they were therefore always residents in church-owned homes). My paternal grandmother’s culinary ambitions began and ended with Jell-o mold, albeit the dressed-up variety with fruit cocktail bits suspended within like edible gems. Growing up, my house was a preferred place to play among my friends because you could make a mess, which made it ideal for craft projects of all sorts.
So perhaps it’s unsurprising that I have turned out to be the kind of stay-at-home mom (I mean, I work but let’s face it, I’m at home with the baby all day) whose attitude towards housework could be best described as “fatalistic.” I’ll be on knees flaking shingles of dried squash and baby oatmeal off the kitchen floor and think, Meh, this is just going to get dirty again later, leaving an opaque ghost of the original mess. Because, I mean, it is. Whether I do a stellar job cleaning it or a crappy one, tomorrow the baby is just going to joyfully fling more food onto that same floor. Lying on the floor playing with Harper I’ll go into a kind of a trance looking at the inch of dust underneath the couch. Man. Gross. Someone should really sweep that. But the kind of cleaning that involves actually moving furniture is just completely beyond my capabilities. I will passionately vacuum the living room rug, because I hate linty rugs (aesthetically speaking – our colorful Iranian rug that does a better job of camouflaging dog hair goes basically untouched), but every time I look at the couch and think, Nah. Because, I mean, I just moved the couch and mopped beneath it in, um September. Last September. How I wish I were exaggerating here for comic effect.
The sad part is, I actually like things to be clean and tidy. Maybe this is true of everyone, although I am pretty sure I count among my friends some slobs who truly don’t mind their own slobby piles and clutter. I hate open cabinets. I hate crumpled pieces of paper and stacks of mail, to the point that, much to my husband’s dismay, I would rather stow mail in a closed drawer or send it straight to the recycling rather than actually go through it. I hate an unmade bed, but I do not much enjoy making beds either. I love a sparkling clean countertop, but I also tend to scatter water glasses and mugs around the apartment to the point that when my husband comes home it looks like I’ve had a rollicking tea party.
To me, one of the mysteries of life has therefore always been, does anyone actually like cleaning? And if so, would any of these people like to come over and wash my city-dust-dimmed curtains? (Just kidding! I washed them. Last spring. No, the last last spring.) I always suspected that no, no body likes cleaning, and that some are just more disciplined than I. Then I met my mother-in-law, who seems to actually enjoy it. This woman’s house is spotless, and she knows tricks like how to get out weird stains using only baking soda and positive energy. I know she reads this blog, so maybe this is as good a time as any to find out once and for all: Ellen, do you actually like cleaning? If so, do you think it is possible to learn to like it? If not, how do you get yourself to do it?
Luckily for me, most people seem to expect very little of a household containing a small baby. I rarely have many people , anyway – the weird exception being a writing workshop I teach out of the apartment one night a week. Fortunately this class is at night, and the room is not terribly well-lit, and I’m hoping most of the people are too preoccupied with their life’s work being dissected in front of them in that inevitable, wonderful, dreadful manner of workshops to examine very closely the tops of my bookshelves, which I have never personally seen but which I expect might be quite dusty.
In the end, I feel that is a kind of curse to both like tidiness and feel overcome by a lethargic sense of hopeless when performing the Sisiphysean task of cleaning the toilet (which, I’m sorry, but is just going to get crapped in again anyway, probably sooner rather than later). My only hope is to strike it rich and get a cleaning lady, or maybe to hypnotize my husband, or possibly to wait until Harper is old enough to bribe with allowance. Then I’ll be sitting pretty, reading a novel with my feet up while she wipes down the refrigerator handle blackened with fingerprints. I’m pretty sure this is how it works once babies become children, and I’ll thank any parents of older kids not to disabuse me of this delicious notion.
1. There is this photograph of my maternal grandmother holding baby-me. I’m maybe 8 or 9 months old, decked out in a pink jumper and a stunned expression, as someone off-camera were dangling a particularly baffling toy, or warning me about junior high. I’m sitting on my grandmother’s lap and she has one hand around my waist and the other delicately supporting my right hand. We look poised for a dance. Her eyes are closed, the look on her face one of pure, dreamy contentment. Someone told me recently that there is no less-complicated love than that between a grandparent and grandchild. My grandmother’s face certainly suggests this. She looks like an angel.
2. When my brother and I were small, my grandmother would make us picture books. She wrote the stories (I remember placing orders over the phone, Illinois to Texas – “The main character should be named Samantha, and I’d like it to involve an elephant” – and then the moment of unbearable excitement after it had arrived in the mail but before I’d read it), drew the illustrations, and stitched together the pages made from wallpaper samples. I suspect this is what inspired me to want to write in the first place, what made me think of books as things that people I knew made, that anyone could make.
3. In the photograph, she wears on her left hand, which circles my fat baby waist, a green jade ring I always admired. When she was dying they cut her rings off her swollen hands. Her hands had always been so delicate. My strongest sensory memory of her, next to her powdery scent of Chanel No. 5, is the feel of the silken skin on her soft hands, her tidy nails always filed into little tips. After my grandmother died, my mother had the stone from the jade ring reset and gave it to me. I’m wearing it now.
4. My grandmother always wanted to be a writer, or perhaps I should say was always a writer. When she died, my uncle (a writer) sorted through her things and excavated some of her work – breezy gossip columns she wrote for a Kansas paper under the name Betty LaBette, a humorous radio play, a dramatic short story about young families living in New Deal housing in 1940s St Louis, type-written letters and journals. She corresponded with the journalist (and ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway) Martha Gellhorn, who encouraged her to continue with her writing. Her stuff is good, too – lucid, smart, funny in a self-deprecating, vaguely Erma Bombeckian way. (From a letter: “I always feel the less you know about the man you marry, the more interesting it will be to get acquainted with him afterwards, which has amply proven so.” Ha!)
5. Shortly after my grandparents eloped in 1936, my grandfather (who had been a journalism student when they met) found God and decided to join the clergy. His first gig was as rector at an Episcopal church in Alma, Michigan. My grandmother, who had loved the bustle of St Louis, where she was involved in local politics and the Women League of Voters, was now, as my Uncle Jim writes, “sort of the local mad woman of Chaillot, locked away in a tower in the tottering castle next to the church banging away at an ancient portable typewriter and emitting blood-curdling whoops and hollers whenever she thought she had written something especially funny or blood-curdling. She was very bright, truly eccentric and certainly had never bargained for the life of a middle western small town preacher’s wife loaded up with brats, scoured by the shrewdly appraising eyes of parishioners whenever she left the house.” He adds, “when we were small, the penalty for interrupting her at her writing was often a wildly unsettling outburst, even if one were bleeding, especially if one were bleeding.” I love this.
6. I think of the photograph when I see my mother hold my daughter, her first grandchild. I am awash with nostalgia for something I didn’t quite experience, for a moment impossible to remember. It’s part hormones, part exhaustion, part overwhelming, crushing love. My grandmother has been gone for a while. She never got to see me publish my first book, never got to meet this baby, who, I think, has her forehead and nose.
7. I am writing this in a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, surrounded by other people tapping into their laptops, their faces moonily lit by half-written screenplays and novels. I picture my grandmother riding her bike around some small town, books stuffed in the basket; toiling away at a story after the kids are in bed. There are all these connections between us — the writing thing, but also weird things like proclivities towards reading in the bathtub, or swimming, or eating avocados plain. I often think, If only she were alive today! We have so much in common! But do we, really? I think she may have been braver, better at ignoring what people thought of her. She was an eccentric in times and places where eccentricism was not nearly so accepted or expected as in current-day New York City, where I have landed. She read a lot and wrote a lot for her own pleasure, just for the sheer joy of it, because she couldn’t not. She raised four children and when she finally had a moment to breathe, instead of devoting herself to writing she took up teaching poor kids how to read. In the end, her greatest work was her family, her long love affair with my grandfather, her life. When the days with the baby seem long, or I am feeling sorry for myself because I haven’t had a moment to write, or haven’t achieved some level of success, or something, I think it serves me well to think of her – to look at this picture and try to access that contentment, that happy, dreamy moment of almost dancing.
Having been pregnant for some 38 weeks now (this leaves 0-4 weeks to go, for the non-mathematically inclined among you), I have gathered many a suggestion for the suggestion box I imagine one encounters at the end of this little exercise. I assume the labor nurses bring it by in the hospital as they’re foot printing one’s squishy new babe. And I want to be ready, so I’m compiling some notes here.
1) First things first: there really ought to be an indicator light of some sort. As all the books will tell you, those first few days and weeks of a pinhead-sized-fetus’s life are very important, development-wise. This is when you need to be taking folic acid and not slamming tequila shots and other important things. So why should a woman not have any idea when it’s go time? I saw on tv that unfixed female wolves act pregnant for a few days everytime they’re in heat, whether or not they are actually pregnant. Not a bad idea, but not so practical for the human lady. And thus, why not an indicator light? You wake up in the morning, check the light — maybe stowed discreetly beneath an armpit or on the inside of a thigh — and voila, it’s glowing blue and you know to lay off the sushi.
2) Evolutionarily speaking, doesn’t morning sickness seem like sort of a bad idea? Now I’m no scientist, but again, those beginning weeks and months are important to baby’s development, so why are so many mothers-to-be curled up nibbling saltines for so long? Shouldn’t we be robustly craving spinach and liver? I’m just saying.
3) Whoever is in charge of such things really ought to do a better job of matching up babies and mothers. It’s just sort of silly to place a 10-lb baby in a tiny-hipped lady and then tell her to push it out. Similarly, those tall women with room to spare and miniature little babies? Waste of real estate. There has got to be a more efficient way to deal with this.
4) While I don’t love the sleeplessness of the third trimester, I can at least accept that it sort of prepares you for the interrupted sleep of life with a newborn. I get it. I don’t condone it per se, but at least it sort of makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, however, is how one has no idea when the baby plans on being born. Did you know that only 5% of babies are born on their due dates? Being born at anywhere from 38-42 weeks gestation is considered normal, which gives you a ONE MONTH WINDOW, people. One month. And let’s not forget that many of the so-called signs of early labor are things that you just feel normally at this point: back ache, cramping, spaciness, restlessness. Pah. Meanwhile, the mother-to-be tosses and turns, wakes up thinking “Did I pack enough socks in my hospital bag?,” pees every eight minutes or so, wonders how many plans to make or projects to start or how far to be from home at any given moment… you get the idea.
On the up side, there is plenty of time, during these waiting stages, to work on suggestions for next time.
This was actually the second time I’d gotten such an email, and in case you’ve never gotten one, here are the distinguishing characteristics: it is sent around 11:30 in the morning by the editor-in-chief’s assistant; it reads something cryptic like “All-staff meeting in the conference room NOW; there is often a red exclamation point attached to it. This is probably the only email you’ll ever receive that actually warrants that plaintive little symbol of distress.
Then there is the meeting itself, in which the editor-in-chief rushes in near tears (if you work at a women’s magazine anyway, I wonder how the male EICs do it? They probably act more grumpy than sad, if I may make a totally unqualified guess) and makes her announcement. “X Magazine is over!” or else, “Z Magazine has ceased to exist,” making it sound almost like a biological process that simply couldn’t be helped, as if the glossy publication had just turned over and sighed and stopped breathing and no one could resuscitate it.
If you are 34 weeks pregnant, don’t get your health insurance from said job, and were ready for a change anyway, I have to admit, being laid-off isn’t all that bad (besides the whole paycheck situation). A neighbor told me that the German company she worked for didn’t even let her work in the last two months of her pregnancy, insisting on beginning their generous and humane maternity leave package then. Germany, people, thus proves itself to be a thousand times more civilized than we are. Because I have to say, these last two months of pregnancy are a terrific time to not work. I can now safely admit that I wouldn’t have been terribly productive in an office right now anyway (but a very productive freelancer please send leads), spending most of my time futilely seeking elusive comfort from that torture device known as an office chair, getting up to pee every twenty minutes or so, distractedly looking at car seats online.
Now that I’m home all day, my day goes a little something like this:
1) Visit the Y, where the swimming lanes teem with whomever else doesn’t work on a weekday — Fellow fireds? Nightshift waiters? –, where the prenatal yoga classes overflow with out-of-work freelancers who congregate afterwards to bemoan the sudden dearth of clients, where the elliptical machines swish soothingly behind the dire news bleated out by mini-screens of CNN. Pregnant ladies: swimming and yoga really help those lower back pains!
3) Look for work, which means sending out pitches (here was last week’s winner – an idea for a story about the city’s newly unemployed, which was answered with the news that the pitched publication was going out of business and that the editor whom I had contacted would soon be among us), trolling the strange terrain of Craig’s List gigs, getting distracted by some increasingly bizarre idea for a career change — Maybe I’ll research Library Science School, I’ll think, or else, NYC Police retire at 55? Hm! – and finally finding myself on a site about cloth diapers, blinking and confused and missing chunks of time like an alien abductee.
5) Meet another unemployed person for lunch or coffee, share complaints, panic over having spent $6 on soup and water.
6) Start to feel guilty and unproductive, work on novel. Or else, start to work on novel and then realize that the kitchen floor is disgusting and must be mopped THIS SECOND or that a certain cabinet NEEDS to be cleaned out, etc.
7) Greet gainfully employed husband when he comes home with the unbridled enthusiasm of a puppy who needs badly to pee. Which I do.
Employed people, I’m not trying to brag.
Also, please send money.
On New Year’s Eve, a friend asked if we were doing resolutions. “Well,” I answered, “I think mine is the same as it always is — to not be so easily annoyed with people.” She responded that hers was to be nicer to people. “But I guess that’s kind of the same as yours, isn’t it?”
“Oh, no no no,” I answered. I’ve read all those articles about how you should make your resolutions things that are actually possible, so as not to set yourself up for failure. Therefore, as I told her, “I don’t actually have to be any nicer to people. I’m just going to try not to get so irritated by them.” If I’m really successful at keeping my resolution this year, no one will ever even notice.
On New Year’s Day, I went to my local Y to go swimming. (I’m a big fan of forms of exercise that don’t make you sweat.) Since I’ve had a week and a half off work, I’ve been visiting the pool quite frequently — I would go every day, but I feel the need to take a day off in between to allow the skin on my legs some time to grow back after being chemically singed by the high dosage of chlorine. Anyway, I figured this was the perfect time to test out my resolution, since a great many behaviors irritate me at the gym.
Test 1: Locker room nudists.
Entering the locker room, I was greeted by a pair of shirtless middle-aged ladies chatting about their holidays. One was blow-drying her hair. I understand the need to take off one’s clothes in order to put on different clothes. I can even get, sort of, why one would prefer to stalk naked from the showers back to one’s locker — though the locker room, especially on such a frigid day, is never all that warm, so I don’t really understand why one would shun even the meager warmth of a thin gym towel, but whatever. But once you’re at the hair-drying stage, why not at least don a bra?
But I soldiered on, suppressing my bafflement and irritation, even when one of the shirtless ladies asked, as I was tugging on my bathing suit, how far along I was. I swallowed the temptation to say, “Why whatever do you mean?” and told her that I’m due in March, making an effort to make eye contact and not stare at the drooping display of my post-breast-feeding future. I even reminded myself that this was friendly of her to ask, and smiled at her as I headed to the pool.
Test 2: Splashers.
I am a vision of loveliness by the time I reach the pool, with my pregnant belly stretching my non-maternity bathing suit to its limits, my bright orange bathing cap revealing my head’s slightly conical tendencies, and my mirrored goggles lending me the look of a curious insect. It makes no difference to me, as I can barely see a thing without my glasses. I mean, I can’t see how many swimmers are in my lane until they are two feet in front of me, and that is no exaggeration. I can’t see the clock on the wall, though I can sort of remember where it is. So I walk cautiously, mindful of the twin hazards of near-legal-blindess and slick tile, and lower myself into the slow lane.
There are many ways in which my faceless fellow swimmers can annoy me. People who swim too fast in the slow lane are particularly loathsome — a few weeks ago a lanky teenage boy practically grabbed my ankle as he menaced me down the lane. One memorable irritation was a big, sloppy swimmer who reared out of the water once to ask the lifeguard how many laps were in a mile. “Oh,” he said loudly, “so I’ve already done a half-mile. Not bad!” As if everyone in the pool might start Hoosier-clapping to his success. He then proceeded to breaststroke down the center of the lane, so that the other three of us had to dodge him on every lap. All of this is made worse by the fact that I can’t even see anyone — but today I remind myself that they don’t really know this, and it’s not exactly fair to be annoyed about that.
My most enduring irritation are the splashers. I don’t know much about swimming, and I’m not a particularly skilled one, but at least I keep my splashing to a minimum. Is there some reason for excessive splashing that I don’t know about? Possibly. This is what I tried to imagine on New Year’s Day, every time I came up for air and instead inhaled a mouthful of water released into the air by the exuberant kicking in the next lane over. Nothing to be annoyed about, I told myself. You are in a pool, after all.
I was feeling pretty good by the time I’d showered and was ready to leave. I had talked myself down from two great ledges of annoyance. I was on the path towards New Year’s Nice Persondom.
Until, that is, I stopped by the grocery store on the way home. Guess how many items the person in front of me in the “12 items or less” line had?! Just guess!!
Well. There’s always next year.