Tag Archives: memories

Yuletide Blues

Christmas-time is a difficult time of year for everyone, it seems. All of the togetherness, peace, and good-will toward men comes with a grand helping of isolation, sadness, and guilt. Without meaning to, the holiday season does its damnedest to remind us all of what we’ve lost.

Christmas was a big deal to me when I was growing up. My mom was positively possessed of the holiday spirit. Every inch of our five-bedroom house was decorated; the banisters festooned with garlands, mechanical singing-and-dancing merry-go-rounds on the landing, and an eight-foot-tall tree front and center in the living room. Our hand-made stockings were hung with care o’er the fireplace with limited-edition stocking holders care of the Disney Store. Special towels and holiday-scented soaps were strategically placed in the bathrooms. Stuffed polar bears, reindeer, and Mickey Mouse in a Santa hat were my once-a-year friends. These artifacts became integral to my experience of the holiday season. Without them, the holiday felt pale, lackluster, deficient.

The year I turned eleven was the last of the great Christmases of my childhood. You just can’t stuff a two bedroom apartment with yuletide glee the same way as a two-story home. Being a child of divorce made it happen that Christmas time was more “hum-bug” than “ho-ho-ho”. As I grew, I came to realize that this meant there was no home-base to return to. No childhood bedroom filled to the rafters with relics of my past. No safe-haven to return to after a bad break-up or a fight with the roommate. There was no longer a place to safely store the artifacts my my childhood until such a time came for me to pass those things on to children of my own.

Things disappeared gradually, so much so that I didn’t realize they were missing until it was too late. I assumed the ubiquitous storage units my parents each rented when they moved separately into sad-divorcee apartment blocks would be kept in perpetuity. I assumed that both my mother and father knew, instinctively, that I was counting on keeping my great-grandmother’s china, our family albums, and other assorted pieces from around our home. I assumed that my mother’s horde of Christmas decorations was just as sacred to the adults around me as it was to me personally. In retrospect, perhaps it was all wishful thinking: I wanted these things to be true.

Things were jettisoned over time, in part out of necessity. When my mother and stepfather moved from California to Hawaii in 2003, they could only afford to ship so many things with them, and my grandmother only had room in her garage for so much. Again, I assumed that the things that were being saved and stored were the things that mattered so much to me. In the end, I won’t ever know for sure if that was true.

I came to live with Mom and Al in November of 2004. By Spring of 2008, they were both gone, consumed by separate but voracious illnesses. When Al went, we kept everything. A closet full of aloha shirts, a silver menorah, and a baby grand piano neither of us could play. When Mom got sick two years later, the decision was made that she would move back to the Mainland for treatment and stay with her mother. The piano went with her, but a great deal of Al’s other belongings were passed on to his daughters or donated. We boxed up our whole apartment, including most of my journals, photo albums, and knick-knacks — I was going to live in a much smaller place with a roommate and I wouldn’t have space for it all. I assumed (what was that thing your mother always said about assuming…) that everything would be stored at Grandma’s house, next to great-grandma’s china and Mom’s Christmas Horde. After Mom was gone, it gave me comfort to know that once I was a real grown-up, I could go retrieve those vestiges of our shared past.

We lost a great many things in that fire that consumed my mother’s life. She was more than just the person that gave birth to us. She was our home and the lynch-pin that held our family together. Our greatest cheer-leader and supreme boo-boo kisser. When she went, I lost my friend. My siblings and I, we lost our memory-keeper. And in the intervening years between losing my mother and having a family of my own, I lost my history.

It’s all gone, you see. Every journal I kept from age 13 until 20. Every note and token of love from my first love, which I saved in a (literal) heart-shaped box. Crappy candids of my friends and me in school. Baby-blankets and a sweater knit for me by my Grandy. All of the tangible pieces of the first twenty years of my life. Great-grandma’s china. And all of my mother’s holiday collection.

I frequently force myself to remember that these are just things. Things are not love and they can’t replace the people that you’ve lost. I try to remind myself that I don’t need to cling to these fragments of my past or of my family, because I’m making a new family and building new memories. But it’s hard. It’s hard to decorate a Christmas tree with my daughter and think of a legacy of joy that I won’t be able to pass on to her. It hurts to sit around a table of my in-laws and listen to them tell stories about my husband as he was growing up, knowing that I can’t reciprocate by sitting him down with my mother and having her relive my history for him. It’s sad that so much of what we all seem to take for granted as being permanent and unchangeable, is in fact completely fragile.

I have had to let go of a great deal, but I carry on with traditions and hold my new family close. I’m M’s mommy now. I’m her history-keeper, and I take this appointment seriously. Her stories are written down in baby books and documented in photos. We are building a life and a foundation for her to jump off from and I will make sure that it persists in case she ever wishes to return. Every year, we buy a new ornament and add to our Christmas collection, rich with fondness for what we have and bittersweet joy for what we lost.

image
Wrong. All we can do is learn to float.

 

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Don’t Call My Baby Fat

Look, I get it, all right? I have cute aggression, too. I can’t resist those chubby thighs, those chunky cheeks, the little Michelin tire rolls ‘round ankles, bellies, and wrists.  I mean, let’s just face it: skinny babies just aren’t as cute as the rollie-pollie kind.

GAAAAHHHH!
GAAAAHHHH!

But so help me God, if one more person calls my baby a “chunky monkey”, or squeals with joy  while pinching her delicious little rolls between their forefinger and thumb, I’m going to lose it. God bless my girl friend who heard this from me recently after telling me she, “loved Moira’s chunk.” “Don’t call her that!” I said, a little snappily. My girl friend was chagrined, but listened kindly as I tried to dismantle my aversion and explain my reaction. Yes, Moira is chubby. She is rounded in all of the delightful ways a healthy young child should be. And unfortunately, I am a product of a society that equates “chubby” with “fat” and tells us that fat is just about the worst thing a person can be, so I’m a little sensitive to comments about my child’s looks. Until “fat” ceases to be synonymous with “lazy”, “unhealthy”, and “frumpy”; until “fat” is no longer antonymic with words like “beautiful”, “healthy”, and “attractive” — don’t call my baby fat. In fact, why not praise her for all other salient reasons for which she ought to be praised, rather than her looks? Her intelligence, her kindness, her joyfullness, her curiosity? Praise her being, not her body! But, that’s another blog post.


Before Moira was born, I made a pact with myself that she was going to grow up different than I did. That promise entailed a great many things, but chief among them were the lessons I learned about food, body image, and self-esteem. After I learned I was having a girl, I began to anticipate what an immense responsibility I would have in addition to being this child’s mother — I was going to be responsible for stewarding this perfect little girl through a world that would gladly strip her down to flesh and bones, both metaphorically and in body, to meet their idealized and unrealistic standards. I was going to have to fight for her right to be and do everything that made her heart feel right, damned what the world thought, because who is going to teach a girl how to be a healthy, happy woman, except her mother? Since she was born over 18 months ago, I’ve been increasingly defensive about my daughter’s body. It began with the acknowledgment of my own insecurities and a solemn promise to never share them with Moira. I can directly trace my own insecurities back to observations of my own mother, who would constantly poke, prod, and abuse herself for her plump physique. I recognize that if I don’t learn to put a cork in it (or, better, actually start loving myself), I’ll be hurting my daughter. As far back as I can remember, I was concerned about body image.  I distinctly recall being no more than seven years old (SEVEN!) and sucking my tummy in as I walked past boys in the supermarket because I wanted to seem appealing to them. But why? Where did I learn that behavior, those values? Yes, I was rounder, less lithe, than the other girls in my grade school, but I definitely wasn’t obese by any stretch of the imagination. So tell me how my self-image became so tarnished? My mother, I think, failed to realize how her example would affect me. Every time she talked down to herself, admired another woman’s thin athletic build while simultaneously degrading her own, I listened and incorporated her perspectives into my own world view. Every time she went on a crash diet, eschewing meals for “milkshakes” and killing herself on a Stairmaster for hours into the evening, I watched and I learned. When she would criticize herself in photos and compare her thighs to my grandmother’s while sighing mournfully, every time she took me with her to shop for clothes and berated herself in the dressing room, I logged it away for later use against myself.

Mothers, you are your daughter’s first mirror. She will look at you and see herself. If you tell her that what she sees in that mirror is ugly, no amount of praise or compliments will prevent her from tearing herself down.
Mothers, you are your daughter’s first mirror. She will look at you and see herself. If you tell her that what she sees in that mirror is ugly, no amount of praise will reestablish her ability to love herself.

There are probably many more reasons for my low self-esteem and my lifetime struggles with weight. I wasn’t raised to be a healthy eater. I wasn’t raised to be especially active. I had a negative self-image from very early on, but as I got a little older and started to fill out in ways that weren’t considered healthy, I was subjected to a lot of criticism, both at home and at school. I don’t recall my pediatrician ever commenting that I was overweight, but I remember my parents scolding me for what I ate, and when, and how much. Our home was emotionally fraught and sometimes violent, and I began eating as a way to self-soothe. I would binge eat and hide it from my parents, and they would become effusively angry when they busted me (Tip: if your child is an emotional-eater, there are way better ways to confront that issue than shaming them about it. See “opposite of intended effect”.) Somehow, it never occurred to them to change their own habits in order to set an example for me to follow.  People aren’t born thinking that being fat is a bad thing — we have to be taught to hate ourselves or each other, and I definitely was. I was taught by two adults who didn’t much care for their own bodies how to hate my own. I don’t think they ever considered how their well-intentioned criticism, or their own self-hatred, would influence me. I’m a parent now, and I keep my mother and father’s example close to my heart. Not because I want to follow it, but because I want to avoid it. All of the wrong decisions my parents made, and all of the wrong decisions I later made for myself, I’m using those lessons to concentrate on making the right choices for M. Still, people allow their distorted perceptions of beauty and health standards color their view of our family and even our parenting choices. Yeah, I’m fat — does that mean that my daughter will be, too? No, of course not. I suspect that many people look at me and assume that a.) I’m unhealthy, lazy, irresponsible, etc., and b.) assume that I will graft my flaws on to my daughter. However, nothing could be farther from the truth: my husband and I make very careful, conscientious decisions regarding food and activity choices in order to set her up for life-long health. Note: health, not thinness, because we’ve got our priorities straight. Does she still eat pizza? Sometimes. (“My monkey, my circus”, remember?) You see, I don’t want to take all that I’ve learned about being healthy and run to the other end of the spectrum, counting calories and obsessing over what goes into our bodies. In the end, that attitude would defeat the purpose of what I’m trying to achieve: raising a healthy, intelligent girl who is able to appreciate all things are best in moderation. Regardless of the size of her dress or the number on the scale, she will know that she is beautiful, valuable, and important, even if she does keep her chunky-monkey rolls all the way into adulthood. Eff your beauty standards — those thunder thighs are a family legacy. And we are gorgeous.

Some days

One year, my brother sent our mom a birthday card that really made her smile. It wasn’t one of those Hallmark deals with corny poetry and glitter — it was just a cheap little card. It had a photo on the front of a little boy sitting on the steps outside of his school, with his lunchbox beside him and his head on his lap, as if he were crying. Inside the card it said: “Some days, I still just want my mommy.” I think she loved it because she loved feeling wanted.

I think about that card a lot, particularly the sentiment printed inside: I just want my mommy. That thought wandered into my head the other night, as it often does, when I suddenly realized the date. March 8th. March 8th, the absolute worst day that ever was, ever.

In the seven years that have passed since she died, I have never gotten into the habit of honoring the anniversary of her death. March 8th is not the day I choose to remember her. It isn’t the same as those birthdays, Mother’s Day, or Christmas. Or any of the other happy occasions that bring her to mind and make me wish she were with us. The anniversary of her passing is a black mark, a day that got knocked off the calendar in sheer repulsion. A day too sad to commit to memory.

A pattern has emerged in the last few years. The anniversary goes by without my paying any mind — no more than usual, that is, because I think of her every day — but I don’t think about holding her hand in the hospital bed, listening through the night as she struggled for breath and the morphine slowly stole her life away. I elect to avoid that place whenever possible. It is as if I am walking down memory lane, the branches pulled aside to clear the path ahead. The coast is clear and then smack! One of the thin, springy branches snaps back and whips me in the face. I often feel guilty for having forgotten: I mean, here I am years later, still locked in a prison of grief. Should I not have kept count of all the awful days that have gone by and how many times I have needed her? I am forever affected by her death, but somehow, I sometimes forget that she died.

When the realization hits me, I count on my fingers — how long has it been? Seven years? Seven. Years. How it that possible? How I am still walking around with this hole in my gut, like the umbilicus that once tied me to her never healed? But then, maybe it didn’t. What is the shelf life of a mother-daughter relationship after the mother is dead and gone? At what point do I cease to be hers?

When shall I no longer wish to curl up beside her warm, soft body, my head in lap as she strokes my hair? When does a child no longer want or need their mother? I can’t fathom it, and I don’t want to. I don’t want to let go, because she was mine and I was hers and whatever wrong she did — and there were wrongs — and whatever I took for granted — and I did so, regretfully — she is mine. And I am hers: a mournful child crying on the front stoop, waiting for my mommy to pick me up and make me feel good again.

The aftermath

When I was young, a terrible thing happened. The teeth of that event, jagged and complex as they are, shaped the contours of my personality in a number of ways (though I think it can be argued that I never stood a chance of escaping childhood without at least a few neuroses). Be that as it may, it was a short time after the deaths of my friends that my personality underwent a severe and startling shift. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. I feel like I continued to be pretty normal in the first few months after their deaths. It wasn’t as if I didn’t receive counseling afterwards. My parents talked to me about what happened, and they took me to see a nice lady in a tidy little office who asked me questions about my friends while I drew them as stick-figure angels with bright yellow halos. That lady must’ve thought I was handling the trauma all right, because I only remember seeing her once. In the meantime, my dad took a few pieces of leftover fence posts and some primer paint to make a roughly hewn cross that he hammered into the grass outside of their deserted home. They took me to the funeral — closed casket — in a starchy plaid dress. I sat, not internalizing anything that was said, as I contemplated with horrifying clarity exactly why the caskets needed to be closed and large portraits of their young, smiling faces be displayed instead. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Steadler I think her name was, was especially compassionate in the wake of the event, inviting me to speak with the class or with her if ever I needed to.

All told, I think I adjusted with the same easy acceptance that all children employ when synthesizing a terrible event with their reality: It was bad, and it happened, and I’m sad that it happened. And then you move on because you’re a kid, and without sustained, repeated trauma, chances are the catastrophes you witness aren’t going to define your personality like they would in someone older. Such is the extraordinary capacity of children to heal and to love, so effortlessly.

But eventually something changed. In what now seems to be an overnight shift, I lost all feelings of safety and comfort. I was afraid. All. Of. The time. Like, can’t-sleep-with-the-lights-out, must-have-the-doors-and-windows-barred, TV-on-and-blaring-or-else-shit-your-pants-in-fear kind of afraid. I had night terrors in which my deceased friends would come to me and tell me that the afterlife was lonely and they wanted me to join them. In my dream, I would start to suffocate, then wake to find my face in a pillow.

Prior to this constant fear, I quite distinctly remember sleeping peacefully in my bedroom with the lights out, window open to the breeze, moon light streaming in. Then a change happened, wherein I became so utterly terrified of the darkness that I never opened my windows or blinds unless it was light out. I kept the overhead lamp on my bedroom’s ceiling fan blazing all night long, and if my parents tried to exchange the 100watt bulb for something dimmer, I’d throw a fit. Not knowing or not understanding why I needed to sleep with the TV on, my parents would remove the set from my room if I had done something to incur a punishment. This lead to some explosive tantrums during which I tried, with a child’s inadequate articulation, to explain why they just couldn’t take that away from me. It wasn’t about entertainment — it was about survival: bad things would happen if I were left alone in my bedroom overnight without the television on.

I would scream if left in the darkness. Maybe they thought that, if left to my own devices, I would tire and fall asleep, but the fear kept me quivering and awake. Once, my mother stood in my bedroom door silhouetted by the hallway light as I cried and begged her to comfort me. She answered, unequivocally, that she would not, because I was a big girl and I could sleep in my own room. The dreadful thought that I was disappointing her, that she was ashamed of my behavior, only made me cry harder.

We weren’t a particularly religious family — we never went to church or anything like that — but I knew there was a God, that he had something to do with the gold cross my daddy wore and Santa Claus, and he could protect me if I played my cards right. This was the beginning of my ritualized behavior: I believed that if I said my prayers at night exactly the same way, in exactly the same order every single night with my hands clasped dutifully in front of my chest that God, like some combination of watch dog and genie, would keep me safe from whatever frightened me and also grant me wishes. If I forgot some line in my prayer speech (it was probably a few minutes long), I would have to stop and do it over again, because if I didn’t stick to the script, it wouldn’t work and any number of ghosts, goblins, or aliens would come attack me in the darkness. I went to one of those jewelry vending machines in the grocery store, stuck in my fifty cents, and got a cheap nickel-plated crucifix to put on my teddy bear. From then on I worshiped him like a fuzzy false idol, convinced that he was ordained BY GOD to protect me while I slept.

Like this, but more like a cleric.
Like this, but more like a cleric instead of a knight.

I still have that teddy bear, by the way. His name is Joefas, and now he guards my daughter while she sleeps, sans religious armor of any kind.

Looking back, I think this was the period of time that planted the seeds of mental illness that I continue to struggle with today. The beginnings of my irrational anxiety. The genesis of obsessive-compulsive, ritualistic behavior. The foundation for my fear of abandonment. All of those threads can be traced back, not necessary to Cheri and Nick’s deaths, but to what I experienced directly afterwards. Due to my sieve-like memory, I can only speculate on what extenuating factors precipitated my descent into minor madness. My less-than-Leave-it-to-Beaver upbringing, some kind long-buried abuse, or perhaps, just the small, seemingly insignificant watermarks of everyday tragedy, built up over time. Were my irrational fears, my gruesome visions of dead friends, all symptomatic of some other long-forgotten trauma? I don’t know, and I don’t especially want to go digging for those answers. All I know is that while the Terrible Thing is one of the only things I remember, it isn’t the only thing that changed me. The rest, since it wasn’t reported on and can’t be searched on the internet, will just have to remain a mystery. Truthfully, I think I prefer it that way.

A terrible thing happened.

Memories are funny things. Inherently fallible, malleable, and extremely subject to influence, but even knowing this, we are convinced of their truth. Even those moments that seem to define us, to shape who we eventually become, are potentially corrupted. There are a great deal of things that I simply do not remember: not a single birthday party, Christmas, or happy schoolyard memory exists clearly in my mind. Instead, I have memories of photographs of these moments. My dad was an avid family photographer and I recall going through the credenza in the downstairs hallway and seeing pictures of the costume party we had for my birthday (Mom was a clown, Dad was a werewolf) or the Christmas when I was literally buried in gifts (imagine, 9 year old me grinning widely, a floating head emerging from an insane number of colored packages). But I don’t remember any of those events from the view of the camera behind my own eyes. They were happy times, and I’m grateful we had them. I wish I could remember those things instead of the awful times. The bad and the ugly.

Early this morning while my daughter was asleep, I found myself tripping down that manhole of memory. My mind was on my child, the absolute picture of beauty and all that is good in the world, and what would I do, how could I live, if anything were to happen to her? Bad things have been known to happen to children, regardless of how much love or care or protection their parents try to give them. There are very, very few vivid memories of my childhood that survived into my adulthood, and one of them is witnessing this dreadful truth first hand. Knowing how imperfect memories can be, I did something today that I’ve never done before: I took to Google to dig up some facts that might corroborate the film in my head. I searched, “1994 Antioch California Souza Murders” and there it was: “SOUZA V. THE CITY OF ANTIOCH, Plaintiff’s husband, Joel Souza, shot and killed their children on July 11, 1993…”

I had the year wrong. I had tried to calculate it based on my recollection: I always thought that I was seven years old the morning that I came downstairs to see swarms of policemen buzzing around my cul de sac. But in July of 1993, I was only 6. I was 6 years old when, on a lazy summer morning, I walked into a day that would fuck me up good, for many years to come. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that this is not to say that I am a victim of what occurred that day. I am so blessedly and completely removed from the horror of those deaths — it was not my children, my niece and nephew, my brother, my son, or any other family member that died. But they were my friends, and their deaths touched me.)

This is what I’ve retained: I came downstairs and saw from the front windows a flurry of activity quite unlike the average Sunday morning at Hunter Peak Court in Antioch, California. My mom and dad were reading the Sunday paper on the living room couch, and they didn’t seem to know about what was happening outside. I ran up to the window and spied my friend’s mom, Jennifer, standing on the sidewalk in front of our house. Two doors down, my friends Cheri and Nick lived with their mom and dad in the biggest house on the street. They had a great backyard — huge swing set. Even as a little kid, I didn’t have a lot of friends and Cheri was special to me. I was worried about seeing her mom, so clearly distraught, standing on the sidewalk outside my house with policemen and other neighbors milling about.

I asked my parents if I could run outside for the newspaper — you know, the one they were already reading. Once on my front porch, I strained to get a better look. Through the open door of their home, I could see police officers inside Cheri’s house. I went back inside and told my mom and dad that something was wrong.

After that, my memory gets hazy. Reading this lawsuit from the California Court of Appeal (trigger warning: reading that will severely depress you), I learn that the stand-off between Joel Souza, Cheri and Nick’s dad, and the police had been going on for many hours by the time I woke up that morning. I think I remember my mom going outside to speak with Jennifer. I think I remember a lot of the moms from my street gathering around her, trying to comfort her. I know that, at some point, my parents decided I had seen enough and barricaded me in their bedroom at the back of the house. They unplugged the television so I couldn’t watch the news coverage of what was unfolding just a few hundred yards from our home. They called my friend Ashley’s mom and asked her to come pick me up and keep me at their house for a while, but when she got to our street, it was closed off — the police weren’t letting anyone in. I think I was still in my parents bedroom when the shots rang out. I remember thinking it sounded like three firecrackers popping, one after another. I didn’t see the EMTs bring my friends out on stretchers, but I saw it later on the news. My dad said that, “they were still working on them” when they brought them out of the house. The FACTS section of the lawsuit does not corroborate this: it says that the SWAT team entered the bedroom where Joel had barricaded himself and his children to find all three of them shot dead.

It doesn’t matter, really. They still died.

Eventually, my parents were able to get me out of our neighborhood. That’s how I eventually managed to see news coverage of the event on TV: my parents had unplugged the set to prevent me from watching, but at my friend’s house, she had a set in her bedroom. I watched it there. I can still see in my mind’s eye the television screen that held the moving pictures of the worst day in my young life. But of course, memory is highly subject to influence. Who knows what I actually saw and what I imagined to have seen based on the adult conversations going on over my head, planting pictures in my mind that would eventually coalesce into memories. Either way, I knew then with childish certainty that it was a terrible thing that happened, and that it would shape me in ways that I still don’t entirely understand.