I Lied. There Is One More “Stories of My Mother”

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When Heidi went into heat the next time, my parents arranged to have her spend a number of days with the breeders where we got her. They had selected a mate for her. We all drove out to drop her off. The house lay at the fringes of land that were well past the suburbs, but not quite rural. There seemed to be dogs everywhere, some in large cages set around the enormous yard, and others who roamed the house freely. I wondered if the same dogs always got to live inside, or if the breeders rotated them inside and out, following some schedule. Their immense pride in their dogs was evident. Both the man and the woman went on at length, telling me each of the dog’s names and several of their predominant character traits. I got the feeling that I was actually supposed to remember all this, because of their joy and the weight they gave to every detail they imparted.

It was a confusing mess to me, despite the good cheer. I wanted to know if Heidi would have to be outside in one of the cages, and I was told that she would, because she and her new male friend would need privacy and time to get to know one another. I could not understand the convivial good spirits everybody seemed to share. We were abandoning Heidi with strangers who were going to make her live outside all the time.

The body of a female dog makes a complete puppy from the original fertilized cell in about 63 days. The average size of a litter is 5-6 puppies, although the variation is enormous. It’s rare to have just one puppy in a litter, but it does happen. A couple of months after we fetched Heidi from her exile, my parents once again got the wooden pen ready for her in the basement. The same old blue bedspread and dingy pink blanket that her first litter had been born onto lay on the floor. Heidi occasionally scratched at the blankets, rearranged them with her nose and paws, and circled around and around as she waited.

One afternoon, Heidi squatted down in a corner of the pen and stayed in the same position, motionless, and staring straight ahead. She looked like she was trying very hard to poop. I wanted to ask my mother if this was true, but she had already told me that I needed to stay completely quiet if I was going to watch. Heidi let out a long, low moan. She inched her rear end closer to the floor, so slowly, and out came a translucent thick balloon with a puppy inside of it.

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There was only one puppy, which was an enormous surprise. My parents decided that we should keep her, and that she should be named “Elf,” the German word for eleven. She was to be the 11th dog that my family had. They counted the dog that my father’s nurse had gotten for us unannounced. We visited him where he was chained at the far end of our back yard until my mother couldn’t stand it for another minute. I’m not really sure what happened to Toby. They also counted the black puppies that had not been viable.

I don’t think my parents realized that Heidi had been a relatively compliant, trainable dog until Elf. Looking back, I think Elf was most likely just dumb as a box of rocks. Even in photographs, she has a wild, glassy look in her eye – an animal with unbridled enthusiasm, absolutely no comprehension, the brute strength of an ox, the stubbornness of a mule, and a bad bad case of ADD.

I thought having two dogs was great fun.

My grandmother (the good, good one) was visiting us, and my mother had planned a big dinner. An eight pound beef roast sat on our kitchen counter, thawing out for the upcoming feast. My grandmother heard a commotion, and walked in to find Elf with the giant slab of meat clenched firmly in her jaws. My grandmother shouted “NO NO NO,” and reached out with both hands to rescue the meat. Elf snapped at her. My grandmother called out for my mother, who came running into the kitchen and immedaitely understood the situation. My mother spoke firmly to the dog and reached for the roast. Elf snapped at her as well.

I didn’t see any of this. I came in at the part where my mother told me that my grandmother was going to be in charge for a little while, and that she would be back soon. She put Elf on a leash and left. When she returned, Elf was not with her.

The only thing that was ever said about it was this: “I will not have a dog that snaps at its owner.”

We sat around the dinner table that night as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, though my father seemed unusually quiet.

I understood that we were not supposed to talk about it, but I was sick with sadness and confusion. I remembered the time when Elf was brand new, her eyes still closed tight, her body squat and furrowed with newborn puppy wrinkles. I was sitting inside the pen holding Elf on my lap, and somehow she slipped off. I picked her up, horrified at my clumsiness, and saw a tiny bubble of blood at the side of her nose.

After dinner that night, after my mother had finished the dishes and turned off the kitchen light, I said, “Mommy, do you think it’s all my fault? Do you think Elf was such a bad dog because of the time when I dropped her when she was a tiny puppy?”

“Maybe,” my mother said. “Maybe.”

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Artwork: Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Mary Cassatt

Stories of My Mother: The End

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My mother loved to tell the story of when I was sick with the chicken pox. I came downstairs in my pajamas, miserable with pain and itch, wretched with a high fever. I stood in the kitchen and cried.

Our beloved family dog Heidi had recently birthed a litter or eight tiny, squiggling black puppies. My father had built her a small pen in our basement, and filled it with old blankets, so she would have a place to birth and raise her pups.

When she heard my sobs, she left her pups in their basement pen and came up to see the situation for herself. My mother never stopped delighting in telling how Heidi nuzzled into me and began giving me gentle but insistent pushes towards the basement staircase. She was trying to herd me down the stairs, so I could join the rest of the babies that needed her.

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Heidi did love me best of our family of four, but I thought it was mighty generous of my mother to say so, and to delight in it, considering that she had done the lion’s share of the hard work of housebreaking, and training, and feeding and slogging the big dog inside and outside since the day we had brought her home. I was three years old then, and therefore instantly and deeply in love. I held the sleeping puppy for hours. I examined every square inch of her as she grew, so I would know her dog body as well as I could. Til the very end of her life, whenever I would sit on the floor in front of a heating vent in order to shake off winter’s bitter chill, she would lie down next to me, resting her head in my lap. I spread her ears out across my thigh and stroked them, and reveling in their unequaled softness.

I have no memory of the chicken pox incident myself, but I heard it so many times growing up that I have formed a clear picture of it – Heidi’s expression of alertness and concern, my flannel pajamas with faded yellow flowers all over them, so small on me that my 5-year-old belly showed in the space between the tops and the bottoms. My only memory of the chicken pox is watching my mother pour nearly a full box of cornstarch into a steaming hot bath and telling me that it would help with the terrible itching. It didn’t. She told me that I had an unusually bad case. In a state of scientific wonder, she decided to count the pox on my face one day, but she stopped just past the bridge of my nose, when she had already reached 100.

I was past the worst of it. The pox were scabbing over, and though I was still sick, I felt so much better than I had that I was filled with a kind of giddy exhilartion when I woke up that morning. I bound into the kitchen and told my mother that I was going to the basement to play with the puppies. She turned from the kitchen sink to face me, and told me that one of the puppies had died during the night. “Why,” I asked.

“You never know about these things,” my mother replied. “So many things can be wrong that we can’t even see.”

“Where is the puppy?” I wanted to know.

“It’s gone,” she said.

“Gone where?” I wanted to know.

She didn’t answer.

“Was it a boy, or a girl?”

“It was a boy.”

The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual. My mother stood in the kitchen, wrapping a tiny, still black thing in a sheet of newspaper.

“You’re up early,” she said. “Another puppy died last night.”

“I want to see it.”

She unwrapped a corner of the newspaper, and I could see the fat, adorable-looking puppy that I had held and played with the day before. It was completely limp, like a rag doll. But otherwise – perfect. “How do you know it’s dead?”

“Because I know,” my mother said.

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Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Every night, another puppy died. My mother said that Weimaraners were special dogs. A highly pure German breed. We had intended to breed Heidi with a carefully selected male, but she had gotten knocked up in the back yard before my parents were sure that she was in heat. My mother explained that often times, when Weimaraners bred with other breeds of dogs, the puppies were not viable. It was a new word. Viable.

One puppy remained. A male. Each morning I woke up, and he was still alive. I studied him, trying to figure out what possible magic he possessed that allowed him to live. My parents found a young man who wanted to adopt him. My mother told me that he was going to come to our house in a couple of days and take the one remaining puppy to grow up and live with him.

“Are you sure he’ll be able to stay alive,” I asked. “Are you sure he’s viable?”

“I’m sure,” she said.

Now that I know the truth, I sometimes try to picture it. I wonder how my mother made her decisions about which one she would choose. I picture her carrying a wriggling puppy in her two hands, up the basement stairs and into our darkened kitchen. I see her plugging the drain, and running a sinkful of water. Or did she run the water in advance, I wonder. Warm, or cool. What goes through your mind when you are cradling new life in your hands, feeling that life drain away, watching for those last tiny bubbles of air to rise to the surface.

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Photos: William Wegman

Tales from the Gym #4, The Speedo, part 3

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If you had told me, ever, that there would come a day when I sat in the privacy of my own home and watched instructional videos on YouTube where former Olympic coaches discussed the proper technique for the freestyle swimming kick, I would have been sorely tempted to administer a mental status exam right on the spot. You know, where a caring and concerned professional asks certain basic questions to determine whether you have lost your orientation as to person, time, and place – which is a fancy clinical way of saying that there are some very big holes in the screen door, the lights are on but nobody’s home, bats have taken over the belfry, the deck is no longer full, and you remain permanently with the fairies. Can you answer such simple questions as: what is your full name; what is the day of the week today; who is the current president of the United States of America. Of course, it’s most likely that there are members of my immediate family who could not answer at least one of those questions. Let’s say, perhaps, a family member who I gave birth to. Honestly, it’s highly likely that this person would miss 2 out of 3 of those questions; and the third could lead to a lengthy philosophical discussion about identity, power dynamics, and the assumptions we bring to bear on our understanding of such concepts as “life” and “self” in the first place. She’s a graduate student.

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ANYway, I am getting ahead of myself. When we left off, my brand new Speedo was still constricting the blood flow around my knees.

Once I have had my trip down memory lane regarding the gym locker room, it then occurs to me that in order to cadge this wonderful, zero-gravity swimming experience, I will have to actually wear a swimsuit. In public. With the very real possibility – no, certainty – that I will run into the people that I see in my private practice of therapy. While wearing a Speedo. Don’t get me wrong. The people who come to see me possess the motivation, and the courage, and the sheer guts, to examine their lives and themselves in the service of having it be better. They are my heroes. But mostly when we are all fully clothed.

Let me just mention that I am doing battle with my little black Speedo right after I have come from a Gym Workout. I have had all kinds of helpful digital readouts telling me that I have successfully maintained an average heart rate of 138 beats per minute for 40 minutes. Lights flashed at me regularly, alerting me to the digital opinion that I was overdoing it, and was approaching the heading-for-the-light zone. Still, by the time I manage to wrestle, wrench, twist and tug the Speedo, and install the material so that it is mostly covering those body parts that are supposed to be covered – well, I am lying on my bed, spread-eagle, drenched with sweat, in a state of exhaustion that 40 minutes on a treadmill could never hope to duplicate.

Once rested, I am so damn proud of myself for having gotten this swimsuit on that I immediately take some selfies. Which exactly two people will ever see. My daughter, a longtime swimmer who knows the drill, and my boyfriend, who has seen it all before. I’m so lit up with my accomplishment, and so not-ready to even consider what will be involved with getting the Speedo off again, that I decide I will just hang out in my house and do some pretend swimming, going from room to room demonstrating what I have learned on those helpful YouTube videos.

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Stories of My Mother #9

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My mother brought every bit of her training and rigor as a scientist to bear on her duties as a mother and homemaker. In particular, she approached the task of preparing three meals a day for growing children with fervor and precision. Everything that was put in front of us, every meal, contained a meticulously constructed, well-rounded, visually pleasing combination of food and drink that also held an appropriate calorie content in a nutritionally perfect amalgam. The chewable vitamins that I was so fond of were entirely superfluous I’m sure. In fact, I was in such glowing good health, not to mention full of bouncy energy as a young child, my grandmother suggested to my mother that perhaps the vitamin pills were not such a good idea. She was the mean grandmother; my other grandmother tickled my feet all day long, if I wanted, and would never have said such a thing. Why it was only when my parents repeatedly questioned the endless bruises on her legs that she broke down confessed to my brother’s regularly kicking her. Nice grandmother.

Not that my mother wasn’t a big believer in The Treat – she was. We regularly went to the local bakery, and always had a well-stocked supply of beloved cookies in the house. We were allowed to have one, and only one, if we finished everything on our plates. I grew up in the time, and in the household, where this was a non-negotiable given. You ate what was put in front of you, and you ate it all. My mother maintained this policy with a complete zero tolerance stance, even though my brother would regularly throw up stuff he genuinely “didn’t care for,” in the parlance one used to describe that whole mess.

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As early as I can remember, my mother said of her painstakingly-planned meals that we simply must eat it, because it was good for our Mr. Man. I have no idea where she came up with this, er, concept, but you just don’t question the things that you hear from your parents from day one. Mr. Man. Once my mother had made clear the extreme and immeasurable importance of Mr. Man, she was rather vague concerning follow-up details. I sort of understood that there was some… entity… inside of me that demanded satisfaction; after that, I was pretty much left to my own devices.

I was very young. I knew that our bodies are warm inside, way warmer than the air around us. I also had some idea that once we chewed up our food and swallowed it, it went somewhere deep down inside of us. It seemed natural and reasonable to me that there must be a fire deep in my belly, and that fire needed to be fed on an absolutely regular basis or it would go out. (We had a fireplace in my house, and once in a while my parents would let me feed pieces of paper into the dying embers, making a game out of waiting to see how long I could wait and still get the next piece of paper to ignite. Wait too long, and poof, done, out of luck, fire out.) Well, of course I didn’t think there was a nice suburban home fireplace inside my body. I thought it probably looked more like a brick oven.

And Mr. Man? Well, I watched a lot of cartoons. He looked pretty much like Wimpy from Popeye. Except without the suit – he wore a plain white t-shirt and working-man pants. After all, it was hot down there, and he had a ceaseless and essential job to do – you need to be comfortable for that.

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Stories of My Mother #8: Pierced Ears

79767-5515780-IMG_5637neu_jpg2CULTURAL NOTE:  I am writing this from Berkeley, California, where there is no such thing as a dirty car, and where the locals complain bitterly as the temperature approaches 70 degrees.  To quote from my daughter’s landlady: “We don’t move to Berkeley to be hot.”

Like most girls of my age, I longed to get my ears pierced. to complete my ideal hippie self with an array of long, dangly, shimmering, beaded, bangled, silvery earrings.  Alas, my mother did not share the sentiment that this was a wildly great idea.  She was from a different era, and more importantly, a different social stratum.  For her, pierced ears conjured up images of…immagrants.  Women straight off the boat cradling tiny infant girls whose tiny infant ears had been brutally stabbed in order to place tiny bits of stone on their lobes.  Never mind that every single infant boy of the time was circumcised, a sizable portion of skin lacerated from his newborn penis.  One was clearly a sign of the success of public health to ensure progressively better hygiene, the other a horrifying pagan ritual.

I begged, pleaded, cajoled, litigate, and prepared essay-structured polemics as to why it was absolutely necessary to have pierced ears, lest my truest and best self never be fully realized.  By the summmer that I was 14, I had worn her down.  She took me to a local physician, an Italian (cough*immigrant*cough) who was a colleague of my father.  He pierced my ears the old-fashioned way, with a surgical suturing needle and surgical thread.  I had heard the folklore that ear lobes have very few blood vessels in them, and therefore hardlybleed at all when pierced.  Ha. Haha.  One of my ears obeyed this rule, the other gushed forth in a truly impressive fashion.

In no time at all, I developed a raging infection in both of my earlobes.  They bled, oozed, and pussed in an even more impressive array of textures and colors.  My father prescribed one round of antibiotics, then another; one kind of antibiotic ointment, then another.  The infect remained undaunted.  I was forced to conclude that the only reasonable alternative was to allow my hard-one holes to close up and heal.  But I am not one to give up easily.  I tried again.  But like the world’s worst deja-vu, the entire infection calamity repeated itself.

When I talked my mother into making a third (and, I was sure, final) attempt, she thought: “Oh, for heaven’s sake; I’m doing it myself this time.”  She got her own suturing needle, her own surgical thread, and took me into the downstairs powder room of our house so I could direct her aim and watch the amazing rivulet of blood spring forth.

It was one of the rare moments that I was awake before my mother.  She padded into the kitchen in her sleippers and robe to fine me wide awake, fully dressed, and crying.  “Did you hear me talking on the phone?” she asked.

“No,” I said.  The tears were in free fall by this time. “I’m gonna have to let it close up.  Again.  It’s a mess.  A total mess.”  I had awakened to a number of different colors and viscosities of goo and blood crusting and running from both sides of my ear lobe.  “What do you mean: did I hear you on the phone?”

“I was on the phone.  I thought maybe you heard.  Your Uncle Steve died.”  She stood there in her robe and slippers, her eyes clear and dry.

I thought of the time when I was a very little girl, 5, maybe, or 6.  I was playing in my room and heard a faint sound coming from down the hall.  I followed the sound down the hallway and into my parents’ bedroom, where my mother sat crying on the bed.  My world was turned upside down.  I had never seen my mother cry before.  I believed that feelings were something that children encountered, sure.  But just children.  That they were something that you grew out of — like skinned knees, and teeth that fell out, and homework — things your bore in childhood, but never after.

My mother continued.  “He died last night.”  My Uncle Steve was her baby brother.  “Now let’s take a look at that ear.”

Photo from Flickr by David Uzochukwu

Tales from the Gym, #3: The Speedo, part 2

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I know this Speedo is the right damn size, and yet, by the time I have figured out which holes to put my legs through, and gotten it up to approximately my knees, I am reminded of the deeply humiliating times that I have tried on jeans that are too small – way too small. You move around in ways you didn’t even know you could accomplish, and yet you know those babies ain’t going nowhere. I guarantee this experience makes even the most body-confident woman (wait – is there such a person?) immediately visualize a mental list of at least 623 things that are tragically wrong with her body, her life, her entire place in the universe.

As the brand-new Speedo hovers around my knees, I silently thank my lucky stars that I decided to try this little fucker on in the privacy of my own home, rather than – oh my god – the gym locker room. For now it occurs to me that there was one other excellent reason that I was so gleeful about abolishing the health club experience from my life for that wonderful 15 years: the locker room.
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While I was still busy avoiding the idea of swimming (and waiting for my eBay Speedo to arrive in the mail), I got a free trial week at a different local “Athetic Facility,” where I stuck my toes back into the fitness club waters by arriving there in my full regalia of workout clothes, hanging my ground-length down parka on a hook, and trying to convince myself that as long as I was going to sweat in the service of my health, I may as well have a very nice view of Lake Michigan. Forty minutes later, I put my parka back on and went back to the private confines and comfort of my own home to shower and change. I was delighted to see how many scores of other people did this same thing! Scores of students from the Affiliated University of this Athletic Facility walked right over in the full brutality of winter, wearing their shorts and running shoes!! And hung up their coats, did their thing and left!!

Alas, if you’re gonna swim, you’re gonna have to find yourself in the locker room.

Sigh. I recall a woman from my old gym. I can picture her standing in front of the mirror, doing her entire routine of hair drying/styling/coifing, and then skin care regimen, and then multiple layers of make-up – stark naked from the waist up. Showing off what was obviously a state-of-the-art boob job. Those girls were expensive, carefully planned and deeply tanned, and she wanted them to be seen. I never actually saw her working out, come to think of it; and for all I know, she just stood there in front of the mirror and did her routine over and over, all day.

Then there was the time that the mother of a teenager I worked with accosted me in the locker room at the precise second when I had emerged from the shower, returned to my locker, an let the towel drop. I was stark naked. She wanted to talk with me about her bill, the fact that she owed me a great deal of money. And she was crying.

 

 

Tales from the Gym, #2: The Speedo

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Ok, ok. I will try swimming. For more than 2 years, my doc has been gently asserting that this activity would be a wondrous way to get an all-around workout with the least amount of strain on my degenerating joints. I steadfastly ignored him, for what I thought were a number of excellent reasons: first of all, I live in an inexcusably cold climate, and jumping into a giant pool of cold water in the roughly six or seven months of the year when it is unlivable here – well, that’s just crazy. Secondly, as I mentioned, snipping up my old gym membership card remained a glorious memory; and swimming would obviously require a pool that was located in one of those…places. And last but not least, well, I can barely swim.

The thought of it immediately brings to mind a friend who is Very Serious Athlete, the type who can not only do, but excel, at nearly everything. She tells the story of how one day, when in the pool doing her effortless laps, she decided she would try the butterfly stroke. Just one pool length, she told herself, as she hadn’t done the fly for years. She made it close to one length, but not quite, and when she gave up and poked her head out of the water, she found herself nearly eye-to-eye with the lifeguard on duty, who was crouched at the end of my friend’s lane, a hair’s breath away from making the rescue dive, with her full regalia of lifesaving gear and devices in hand. Yep, I think to myself. That’s gonna be me.

However, I am of the very firm belief that it is critically important to take on challenges throughout one’s life that stretch one immensely, are therefore appropriately and deeply humbling, and where simply living through it indicates complete success. My children seem to have inherited this trait, which I suppose is how they found themselves walking 2,173 miles a number of years ago, brother and sister together, the full length of the Appalachian Trail.  They began at Mt. Katahdin, Maine and ended five months later at Springer Mountain, Georgia,  where they walked from the woods, casual as could be, into my sobbing arms.  I was standing in a parking lot holding two bags, one containing 3 bottles of champagne, and the other — 6 cans of whipped cream (for whipped cream high-fives, of course).

I’ve done very little swimming for exercise in my life, but I’ve done enough to know that you simply cannot swim laps in a regular bathing suit. Even the most comfortable, favorite, well-fitted suit you may own will be in your way in a hundred different places once you are actually trying to swim, and that’s if it stays on at all. Which it quite often does not. I need a Speedo.

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Anyone who knows me will tell you that I never try anything on in stores. I know what size Speedo I wear; I log on to eBay and feel that deep sense of customer satisfaction that comes from nabbing a $70 Speedo for a mere $20, AND there’s free shipping. From my days as “Equipment Manager” of my kids’ youth swim team (equipment consisting of, um, team swimsuits, period), I have watched a large array of children and teenagers putting on brand new racing Speedos. So I am not surprised when my my shopping triumph arrives in the mail, I take it out of its plain white Speedo wrapper, and am confronted with a crazy mishmash of material that has holes and straps and openings everywhere, but is no more than 2” x 4” in its entirety. The brand new wonder has no less than FOUR tags describing the technology that has been brought to bear on the Speedo Endurance Flyback Training Suit that I am holding in my hands.

I put both hands inside the Speedo. I pull it in every direction with all my might. I will sum up: a suit that is designed to hold up through a minimum of 10 hours a week swim training (as I learn from the tags!) in a miasma of chemicals under conditions of constant friction is a garment that comes out of the box with absolutely no stretch whatsoever. Suddenly the mental picture of all those girls doing the most amazing and jaw-dropping gyrations in order to try on their team swim suits comes back to me. I always thought it was just because competitive swimmers have this folklore that you cannot swim your fastest unless your suit is at least one size too small. Preferably more. This made a certain amount of sense to me, as I watched elite girl swimmers in suits so unbearably tight, they were pulling their straps down before they were fully out of the water. Well, sure, who wouldn’t want to get out of the water as fast as you possibly could before losing all sensation in your fingers, for god’s sake.

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