I’ve clicked the camera icon on my phone before, inspired by something I hear the girls doing around the corner, an unexpected blossom on a gray day, or by my hair doing exactly what I ask of it. I do it to preserve a moment, sometimes for myself, other times to share with people. What happens after I open the camera is another thing.
Sometimes the moment has passed, the girls have disbanded, their harmonious play nothing but a what was as the camera zooms in on a patch of bare carpet, or the shot has closed eyes or a flash of underwear I don’t want to broadcast. Editing is nothing new, just as staging isn’t new. What does seem to me to be very new and, unfortunately here to stay, are the sweeping attacks of people for what and how they choose to preserve things. I read a piece that basically eviscerated young women for taking selfies, earlier in the day I’d read an article defending the selfie. Why do we care? Does someone else finding contentment in a photo of herself really impact us? Is it tangled up envy and resentment from worrying that finding ourselves beautiful or that seeking exceptional beauty is wrong?
What about the ugly? Does not sharing a photo of something mean that I am denying that it exists or that I am ashamed? Or is it that in this time of sharing we are afraid to share things that deviate from some unspoken normal? Are we really constructing artificial personas, or are we conducting ourselves as we do in person?
There have been times I’ve gone to take a picture of myself and then recoiled from what I saw. Holy gaunt face, mama! An essay that my friend Allison wrote has stayed with me. She realized that she didn’t have the luxury of editing herself out of photos without also eliminating herself from what will become precious memory prompts. Which leaves me wondering, where are we if we’re judged for having things look too perfect and we’re lost if we don’t want to be in the pictures if we’re less than perfect?
I read a post by an author talking about coming to grips with not necessarily being able to alter the incorrect assumptions about her life and choosing vulnerability as her coping mechanism. An alternately resigned and empowered, “Here I am.”
Lately I find myself very drawn to the idea of unfurling my 40 year old self without apology. Here I am, my contradictions and my blemishes, my radiance and my passion. I want to own the strength that comes from knowing what I am capable of as well as the terror that comes from accepting how little is truly within my control.
Last night I wrapped my entire body around my 7 year old as she slept, her breath whistled and wheezed as it made her chest rise and fall. The skin on her face bore harsh splotches, remnants from her violent retching, while tendrils of hair curled along her brow. My other girls were at my feet and My Girl was playing on the tv. Vada was at the point in the movie when her best friend has died, her dad has asked his girlfriend to marry him, and the teacher Vada worships has found love. My heart broke for love lost and found, for little boys dying, and for the inevitable terror of having your first period. The tears rushed out of me and I felt the presence of this emotion that seems to have arrived with 40, sorrow and gratitude laced together with hope and defeat.
I know that any picture I might have taken would not have represented all that was in this moment, but I also know that this pain is something we don’t talk about enough. We hide it from Instagram and we don’t talk about it with friends. I don’t think it’s the selfies that are threatening us, I think it’s ourselves. We are scared and we are bold, beautiful and haggard, each in our own way. We get to choose what we share and what is put out there, and I really want my daughters and myself to know five, ten, fifteen years from now that it, I, we were beautifully messy and broken and wondrous. Because in the end, life is its own kind of picture perfect and you should feel ok documenting any angle of it.
Sometimes when I meet people I have a visceral response, instantly feeling inadequate or unsure, other times there is nothing remarkable to note. I remember meeting Grace, Sean’s paternal grandmother, and feeling completely natural. I never tried to impress her, though she often remarked about things that made me feel grateful for her approval.
Unsolicited praise for your parenting is just something that doesn’t come along that often, and when it does, it can smack of false generosity. Grace was not someone who suffered fools. She could even come across as salty at times, despite being an incredibly religious and kind person. I think it was because of that, when she would laugh or say a kind word, it always seemed very genuine.
“Your girls are just lovely. Polite and sharp as tacks, you are doing a remarkable job.”
She always followed these remarks with a smile and a nod of her head as she watched them. I shouldn’t misrepresent things, we did not see her as often as we should have. You hear this from people so often and yet, still we delay visits, don’t send cards, or let the machine pick up the call.
I only sent Grace something once, it was her birthday, her 90th, maybe? I called a florist in Milford and ordered an arrangement of orchids. Her delight humbled me, “In all my years, I’ve never been given orchids. They are just lovely, lovely. Thank you so much.”
Every visit she’d kiss me on the cheek and put her hand around my waist. “You are so fit. Good for you, having these beautiful girls and staying so trim.” It made me smile, such a generational thing to say ‘trim.’ It wasn’t anything that I was aware of striving for and yet her approval touched me deep inside. She would tell me stories about Sean, her voice laced with a fondness. I loved the way she said his name and the pride she took in him and his accomplishments. Watching her take in the laughter and occasional mayhem of the family that had extended from her five grown children was a thing of beauty.
My mom tells the story that at our wedding Grace held court at a table with Sean’s dad and declared, “I couldn’t have picked a better girl for him if I’d done it myself.”
Grace M. Magee July 22, 1919 – November 30, 2013
Grace was here, a dear part of our life, and now she is gone. She lived with grace, she passed with grace, and in tender memories, Grace will live on with us, echoes of her own amazing parenting.
They were shrieking and screaming with enough laughter peppered in that I knew no one was in pain. Sean was trimming his #Movember whiskers in the bathroom and I was assessing all the magazines I have subscribed to during school magazine drives, but never actually get around to reading. I was reaching for Harper’s Bazaar when I heard the unmistakable siren of laughter that means someone said or did something very naughty.
I walked down the hall as the sounds of laughter and gasping for breath built.
“You hit me in my balls!”
“Look at her, look at her, she can’t move because of her balls.”
I leaned in the doorway, “What did you just say?”
Briar sat ramrod straight in the bed, her hair a staticky crown, Avery slunk toward the wall, while Finley just beamed in the corner and offered, “She said balls, mom. She said that Avery hit her in her balls.”
Avery snorted and Briar flushed. “Is that what you said?” I asked.
She nodded, “Yes, I told her she hit me in my balls.”
The corners of my mouth were quivering, I couldn’t quite figure out how to hold it together. I knew I wanted Sean to be there for it. “Hey babe, can you come in here?” The girls looked at each other and began giggling. When Sean came in he looked at the girls, then at me and raised his eyebrows, “Yes?”
“Briar, do you know what balls are? Do you know what the word means when you are talking about someone’s body?” She nodded and awkwardly did a Michael Jackson swipe at her crotch.
Sean snorted. Avery guffawed, Fin just kept grinning.
“Ok girls, listen, balls are a part of the body,” I looked at Sean, “And only one person of all five of us in here has them. Can you tell me who?”
It was unanimous they all screamed “You” as they pointed at me. “Mom has the balls.”
At this point we were all laughing. “No, girls, dad has the balls, but you shouldn’t say that, they are called testicles.”
“Like on an octopus?” Ave asked.
Sean was shaking his head. Briar again gestured to her crotch and then made a gesture on her head, “Like privates antlers?”
Giving thanks for my nut balls and wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving.
I understand now how quickly time passes once we’ve built our childhood foundation of hazy summers peppered with popsicles, melted crayons, and pennies flattened on train tracks. I am drawn to those days and years that passed like lifetimes. It’s looking behind a two-way mirror—
What is it like over there where/when next year isn’t bearing down on you with ferocity?
How do you start each day without the frustration of the day before?
I want to revisit not fretting over a clock or calendar. As a mom my measure of time has come to be gauged by how long a pair of pants will last before skinny ankles peek through or pearly white belly presses at the waist, or whether I can wait to make the tacos Friday and have the cheese not mold. The dashes from one party to the next, playdates and school conference, work deadlines and another bag of forgotten greens destined for the trash bin swallow minutes that turn to days and then months. It’s unmanageable and I can’t make up my mind between fighting it or hating myself for it.
I always thought that it would be different. I imagined a tidiness to life that would have clearly defined goals and less hesitation. This imagined life didn’t have much to do with material things or titles, it had to do with me. My expectation of this ideal life came around the time that all the kids on the playground figured out attraction. The girls changed between one night’s sunset and the next day’s sunrise, carrying themselves differently. The boys changed too, it wasn’t quite as black and white, but it was still there and I was on the outside in an instant.
It was in the moment that I did not run to the bars to do penny drops that I think it happened. I stayed on the blacktop with the boys in an endless game of 500, singularly focused on the ball. The sounds of the girls giggling and their palms screeching on monkey bars were just white noise. All I knew was the blur of striped shirts and denim, the sprinting one way and then back.
“It’s up, it’s up. Go, go, go.”
I wanted the impact of the ball hurtling at me from high in the sky to land on my chest. I didn’t care that it might sting or glance off of my face, all I wanted was to have the next “Got it!” come from me. It took a while to to get it, both the ball and the new order. Disregarding the natural flow of things had consequences. Until that point I’d been oblivious about not fitting in. I’d known that my clothes were different, but it hadn’t mattered. The girl-boy thing was different and I came to understand that it was a different that wouldn’t be tolerated. It’s also when I learned that girls are not all that sugar and spice that they’d have you believe. It was the end of fifth grade.
The next year I began to hesitate. I hesitated about speaking up, stutter-stepped before walking from my locker to my next class, stammered when asked which boy I had kissed (none!). We began to be shepherded by this new way; the boys spent more time in the wood shop, the girls stayed in the Home Ec room. I mangled a spatula in a blender and made a sweatshirt so woefully misshapen that the teacher just quickly nodded; the mental tabulations of the time it would take to set me (and the neckline) straight against the number of other students just didn’t work. I didn’t want to be in the wood shop, but I couldn’t really hang with the girls. No one played 500 anymore.
Briar is rounding the corner in fourth grade, Avery is in second, and Finley is in kindergarten. I think the switch comes sooner. Briar is already drifting, away from her sisters and away from us. She is quiet when she used to talk, mellow when just a month ago she would have been hyper. A part of me wants to press, but I realize my discomfort is more the newness of her quiet than genuine worry. She holds my hand each morning as we walk to the bus, then chuckles when I whisper, “I’m so glad that you’ll still hold my hand.” Her interactions with her sisters are tender, motivated more by a nurturing instinct than a desire to play.
I wonder about these next few years.I expect in many ways time will slow as we move through a morass of disentanglement, the years of constant touching and mutual adoration giving way to leave me alone and have it your way. Just the other day Avery asked me for a ponytail, a few months ago that would have meant me finding a brush, wetting her hair, and actually pulling the hair through the band myself. This time it meant passing a rubber band to her, which she held behind her head and quietly struggled to fashion in a bumpy, but effective ponytail.
Just like that, “Thanks, mom.” Her need for me shortened from the whole process, to one tiny part that one day she’ll do on her own. I try to focus on the natural order of the parent child relationship—they are supposed to get the hang of things and move in this way that can be excruciatingly slow and then unapologetically abrupt. Laying the memories over the present, imagining the January to June leg of Finley’s kindergarten against those of Briar and Avery, I begin to fluster. Time is moving faster and I want to defy order, clinging to late night cuddles and backyard investigations, maybe even boxing out more instances of “Thanks, mom,” by doing it all. It seems impossible that I can move any faster without sacrificing something or that a desperate grab at keeping us all in an infinite game of 500 won’t have the same consequences it did the first time around, frustrated exclusion.
Even as I write this and express doubt and worry, I know what I have to do; I know that all of these moments we’re living, hectic and bittersweet as they are, will in hindsight look magnificent. My companion through it all is this tricky lump in my throat and the dawning that life never reaches the breezy plateau that I imagined. We are ever more on a playground with changing rules and shifting ground. My girls are going to have to figure things out like I did, with different twists ahead, while I make my way murmuring a different got it.
A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.
One grey night it happened, Jackie paper came no more
And puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.