It’s been a rough week. Sometimes biology, anatomy, aging and the logistics of bodily fluids management conspire to create hellish circumstances. And so it’s been this week for my first husband and me. Before you put me or him on the pyre for sacrilege, let me assure you that this term has been vetted as completely ironic by the two people it most directly concerns. In fact, when we latched onto it sometime in the course of our dinner last night, it took us both several minutes to recover from the giggles. In the furtherance of medical clowning research, I promise to persist in using it at every appropriate opportunity.
Once we’d recovered, we started riffing on the application process for the next Mr. Collins, and the questions that would be on the application for the position.
Can you list your medications on less than two pages?
Do you sleep through the night? If not, why? Please list these reasons in excruciating detail. NB: I promise, no facts are too small to include here.
Do you ambulate?
Do you use a toy* to ambulate? (*toys are herewith defined as canes, walkers, scooters)
When was the last time you played tennis?
When was the last time you went skiing?
Do you like to travel?
We got really carried away. By now, the only thing distracting us from our ghoulish game was the not-distant-enough and relentless sound of a building’s fire alarm going off. I know it well, because we have the same sound in one of our theatres at work, and when I hear it, I suffer the same heart-clenching panic as the sophomore stage managers who’ve had to evacuate the house because of overzealous haze usage. I walked over to the patio, slid the door open, and looked over the balcony, to find the front steps of the Ralph’s market populated with onlookers and the sound blaring across the street to the balcony. And soon, sure enough, in came the firetrucks.
So we did what any self-respecting hearing impaired couple would do. We chose to have our dessert pudding on the patio overlooking the event. Yes, we rubbernecked with the best of them. In fact, we decided to continue our game playing with a good old-fashioned game of outdoor Scrabble®. Meanwhile, the poor onlookers waited on the steps of the store with amazing patience. I imagined 25 carts half-filled with the makings for dinner, ice cream puddling under the carts eventually because they were there for the longest time. And on and on and on it went.
On our side, things were going rather well on the Scrabble® front. I drew the lowest tile and started off with a few zingers, zit for 24 points followed immediately by buxom for 32 points. I was feeling pretty cocky, until things started to go downhill for me.
Eventually, I recovered, and took the game by a score of 240 to 182, after donating my U tile to Jimmie because I hadn’t seen the Q appear yet. He finished with Quo. (Yes, we play that way).
Anyway, all of these ghoulish games keep us amused and on track even when other things conspire to derail us.
Some people measure years and personal growth with penciled marks on a closet wall next to their child’s name. As the child grows, the marks rise, sometimes inches above the last mark, especially during adolescent growth spurts. This sizing of our tribe is proud, grateful, sentimental, self-referential, celebratory – many of the things that mark our humanness.
As Angelenos were painfully reminded just this morning, the passing of time can also be marked through shared loss, as we read about the untimely passing of Pulitzer-Prize-winning LA Restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, who’s LA Times obituary was one of the most moving I’ve read in some time (Kudos to Andrea Chang). Gold, in addition to being an exquisite writer, was a gourmand, chef, taco-truck aficionado, friend, husband, organizer, someone who celebrated the value of food in building his community and ours. In fact, several of the local annual foodie events that happen in Los Angeles came about because of him.
This building community is a feature that I’ve always appreciated about the theatre. This week, I attended The Humans, Stephen Karam’s breathtaking (and Tony Award winning) paean to our humanness.
Those of you who are diligent followers of my blog (a handful, but nevertheless profoundly appreciated) may remember that I had seen The Humans in New York a little more than two years ago. It was an emotionally draining experience, not just because of the power of the play, but really, because of the physicality of the journey itself, and the resulting realization our connubial theatre attendance was moribund; that was painful and distracting. And with that inviting introduction, if you want to, you can read about it here.
So about a week ago, when I ran into my friend Rob at Ralph’s in the dairy section, I agreed reluctantly to attend a performance of The Humans last Tuesday at The Ahmanson, where the touring production is playing (only this week, so don’t miss it!).
We agreed to meet there, and on Tuesday evening, I caught up with him at the box office window, watching as he worked to negotiate seats together (after booking them separately). Somehow he managed to pull it off, and we entered the lobby of the Ahmanson, immediately accosted by an enthusiastic subscription saleswoman. I made the eye connection, so my bad. Rob headed off to the bar to get us some cool drinks, while I tried to figure out how to get Dear Evan Hansen tickets without mortgaging our condo. Done and done.
Viewing The Humans for a second time with none of the logistical myopia caused by getting my butt in the seat was eye-opening. I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania. However, my maternal grandparents lived in Wilkes-Barre, and we spent many happy trips there while we were growing up. Reed Birney (Erik Blake), bears an uncanny resemblance to my dearly departed Uncle Lou (at least from Row E of the Ahmanson Theatre’s mezzanine), so much of the Thanksgiving gathering and the feedback felt appropriately familial. Like those self-referential closet wall markings, we take in theatre experiences from where we stand. Two years ago, perhaps I related more to the character of Brigid (Sarah Steele), hearing and responding to her parents’ critique of her marital status, her new apartment, her life choices. It’s also possible (and quite likely) that I didn’t adequately hear the play, so wrapped up was I in the emotional reckoning I was having in the balcony of the Helen Hayes theatre, with my husband of thirty plus years.
Two years down the pike, last Tuesday, the play ran through a different emotional filter, as I focussed keenly on the character of Momo, played by Lauren Klein, and the effect her caregiving had on her son and wife, played with stoic durability by Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell. Lately, I frequently find myself mentally marinating in the role of caregiver, caretaker, whatever one calls it. This isn’t the moment to expound, but suffice it to say, any caregiver who cares for a loved one also takes pleasure and privilege from the work, hence my confusion in the use of the terminology.
KL: What was your impulse behind writing The Humans?
SK: I was thinking a lot about the things that were keeping me up at night and that got me thinking about existential human fears: fear of poverty, sickness, losing th e love of someone…Was there a way to actually tell a story that might elicit some of those fears – or provide some thrills- while also talking about how human beings cope with them? And by the time I was done, I had written a family play, or, as I think of it now, a family thriller.
From an interview by Seattle Rep Literary Director Kristin Leahey, Ph.D, and Playwright Stephen Karam (Original transcription by Annika Bennett)
But I digress. Theatre is prismatic. It accords us the opportunity to revisit even the same play over and over again, learning new things about ourselves and our community from the facets of our experiences. That is why a play like The Humans appeals to so many different types of people. It has the ability to mirror back to us that which we project.
Rob and I drove back down to South Park after the show, and a day later, Rob reported that he’d lost his wallet at the theatre. After multiple trips to the theatre, dealing with kindly Christine, the house manager, and searching the areas under our seats, he discovered a slot under the row where he posits his wallet might have fallen into a mysterious pocket, probably unretrievable. Somehow, this seemed a fitting end for a lost wallet at The Humans. We searched my car again to make sure his dreaded trip to the DMV was required. This morning, when I got in the car to go to the gym, I discovered I’d left the overhead lights on from our search, and felt grateful when my car started up.
My re-visit to The Humans managed to remind me about all of the things that make our shared experiences powerfully human, and I’d go so far as to say to remind me why I am so grateful to be alive and living in Los Angeles. I’d encourage you to make a visit to see The Humans while you can to discover what experience you find reflected back at you. Then, by all means, let me know!
We could potentially categorize the entire vacation as a metaphoric trip to the zoo. The baby bouncing on the banquette at breakfast, the too numerous to count feedings that transpired throughout each day – breakfast buffet, pool food, afternoon snacks, dinners at the Harbor Restaurant, Convivo, Los Agaves to name a few. Well-fed denizens of this zoo. Languid lounging poolside in the afternoon. African mud baths in the park.
Watching the toddler groom her mother’s hair with a plastic fork, providing unprecedented calm at the dinner table. It’s really hard to keep a two-year-old entertained any more than she herself can do so by running out the door onto the sidewalk and watching Daddy take chase.
We hatched this plan to vacation in Santa Barbara earlier this spring, after deciding that a trip to Hawaii wasn’t in the cards for Nana and Grandpa. As it is, Grandpa occasionally asks Nana “How far are we from home?” To which Nana responds, “Two hours.” This soothes Grandpa considerably. As does watching TRM Show before they retire at night.
Last night Nana and Grandpa J had a rambunctious visit from the toddler and her parents after dinner. Nana displayed how to do a somersault for Skylar, and her parents laughed and laughed at Nana’s decrepitude. Oh, it was more fun than a barrel of monkeys (apropos given the theme of the week). I ask you, when was the last time you had to do a somersault? Stop reading right now and try one. You’ll laugh too. Don’t blame Nana if you end up in traction. Seriously, don’t.
The only tonic was for 29-year-old-father-of-the-toddler (FOTT) to do one himself. Yes, Nana did capture it on the iPhone, but has decided to hold out for a bigger payout to keep it off this blog.
Nana’s Fitbit has been apoplectic this week, constantly whirring on her wrist: Get Up! Go! The unprecedented spans of sleep are really upsetting the little buzzer.
Yesterday it was placated a bit by their actual trip to the Santa Barbara Zoo, a quaint hillside dotted with small exhibits and a lot of parks and activities for kids. After getting our tickets (parking, entrance, attractions, train, small home equity loan) at the gate, we rushed to the top of the park to the Giraffe enclosure where we waited in line with about 50 fourth-grade summer campers for the moment when we would all get to feed the giraffe. Nana forged ahead to the top of the summit, to see what the excitement was about. One very patient but not-yet-sated giraffe stood at the bottom of a V-shaped ramp – the right side holding campers with handfuls of romaine lettuce, the left side their escape made, usually squealing after feeding the bottomless pit giraffe. Meanwhile, Nana’s alternative but equally desperate need was for a power outlet for Grandpa Jimmie’s scooter, which was threatening to die a horrible death. Grandpa Dan located the perfect power outlet, and while we waited for the feeding moment, we charged the scooter. Small gratitudes.
Tree captured in the upper right corner actually looks like many of the childrens’ faces as they waited
Many other feeding opportunities at the zoo yesterday, first the sheep and goats, then the humans.
Today, Nana finally insisted that they rent one of the surreys-with-no-fringe-on-top to pedal along the beach, her handsome FOTT at the helm, her precious grandchild wearing her bright red helmet in the front basket, facing bravely forward as instructed, but turning impishly to flirt with Nana, and to threaten removing her helmet, the strap clenched in her teeth while giggling in a charming but devilish manner. Her beautiful mother (MOTT) sat behind me, peddling, but also catching clothes the toddler threatened to chuck out of the bags in the basket near her. Hilarity ensued.
It wasn’t until we were well on our way that MOTT and I realized that our steering wheels had no impact on the direction we were going. Leave it to Nana to realize this was the case, and yet, to continue “steering” diligently thereafter.
We rode up the beach past Stearns Wharf, looking for the playground where we were meeting Grandpa Dan and Kathy and Cupid, only to discover that we were going the wrong way. So we turned around, again, much hilarity, as FOTT put his foot down to back us up and get us reoriented in the other direction. And off we rode, going past the hotel again, waving at the bicycle rental man gayly, as we headed off around the bend past the zoo itself.
Then the beautiful MOTT pulled out her phone to check our destination and we realized we had passed the park twice without seeing it, and so headed back past the hotel again, going as quietly past the bicycle rental station as possible so he wouldn’t think us the imbeciles we were without even trying to be.
Nana was happy as a clam, her Fitbit racking up the steps, breaking a sweat for the first time this trip.
Sometimes there’s a synchronicity in things that borders on breathtaking. This week it’s about batteries.
Your alta fit bit battery is low.
Your internet isn’t functioning (four calls and a trip to Staples to buy a new Uninterrupted Power Supply when the old one was fine) only to discover it was indeed the modem. A trip to the Beverly Center where you discover there is no Spectrum Store. A glance out the window indicates that it is at the Beverly Connection, which to the Spectrum technician on the phone was the same thing, I guess. After 15 minutes there, I finally noticed the board where our names were listed in order of being helped. I was #22. I plugged in my earbuds and waited, doing some people-watching.
Jimmie’s scooter battery dies while his niece Stella is visiting and they are in the park necessitating a full tilt push of the device back to the apartment. (I’ve been there before – humiliating, ridiculous, a test of the humanity of others.) God love Stella. When I returned, I found them at home drinking Starbucks beverages, so she pushed him to Starbucks and then home, something that I wouldn’t ever have done.
Anyway, you can see the theme here. Recharging batteries.
Summer is about recharging our batteries. The days at work are shorter in the summertime, and there are fewer interruptions, allowing us to organize the puzzle that is the following academic year’s season.
More time for visits from family and friends. More time to give back. This summer I’ve started recording interviews with some of the West Coast stage manager notables, for the Stage Manager’s Association “Standing in the Dark” series of podcasts. Selfishly, this allows me time with friends and mentors like Jimmie McDermott, and Mary K Klinger.
More time for following our grandbaby’s exploits on the Insta feed.
We had a captivating visit with Stella followed by one from Jen and S. Extraordinary people and we are so lucky to have them in our lives. On the last day, S found a green worm on its way to our tomato pot on the balcony, and brought it inside, where it writhed and danced on her tiny finger like a tiny green belly dancer before finding sanctuary on a full leaf of Romaine lettuce where she proceeded to eat several large holes in the leaf, in a perfectly round shape.
More time for reading the Sunday paper, especially when your internet modem dies a horrible death. More time to discover to your infinite pleasure that Jonathan Franzen doesn’t seem to give a whit about social media and adores birding. I knew I felt a kinship to him.
More time for finding and using the sweat glands, more time for explosive step ups in HIIT class, and more time for fitbit Workweek Challenges posed by former students. I’m coming for you, Ashley S!
More time for reading. I just finished reading Todd Purdum’s book, Something Wonderful, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, a beautifully researched and entertaining dive into the history of American Musical Theatre, a subject high on my radar of late. Apparently high on other peoples’ reading lists as well, as this photo and Guardian article revealed. But enough of that. I’m recharging my batteries. No perp walk for me. I told my husband as I got about half-way through the book,
Lucky you! I’m going to sing all the lyrics I encounter.
Which turned into one of the sweetest pastimes we’ve had. Out of the murky depths of our long fused, long term memory banks came the swells of the live theatrical shows of his youth and mostly televised shows from mine. Granted we sounded a little closer to Archie and Edith on the piano bench than Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae, but nevertheless, it was lovely. We beamed at each other.
Summer brings the crunchy, sweet wholesomeness of cherries, watermelon, lighter evenings and the prospect of summer vacation on the horizon. A week of unscheduled recreation with family. Time to attend book signings by friends, and to go to the movies.
Recently, my cousin Connie sent me an envelope stuffed with photographs, the one above included, as she had recently done a “big purge.” I so appreciated reviving the memories, with photos of my nuclear family at points along our development. It seemed appropriate to focus this week on my Dad, who remains the anchor to our diminishing nuclear family.
I never write about my Dad, though Jimmie says I should, because he is such an interesting man. I don’t know anyone like him, with his memory for details about people’s lives and fortunes and misfortunes. At 87 he only occasionally grasps for the tendrils of a story, (far less often than I do thirty years his junior), but tells them with such conviction that I believe them whether they are true or not. I suspect they are largely true. They are always colorful and a bit dangerous, like the one below which he shared with my brothers and me via email. I hope he will forgive my sharing here.
August 31, 1999
A Short History of Brass Knuckles, by Donald A. Collins
This “pair” of brass knuckles (why is this single, ominous looking instrument of cast brass referred to as a “pair”?) belonged to Alexander Tichnor Collins, born Louisville, KY in 1873, son of Jeremiah “Jerry” Collins, a minor politician and local water company employee and Sarah Collins, who died when young Alex was under 10. Alex was a latch key kid at 12 (e.g. pretty much on his own, coming and going with his own key to the home of his father and the father’s new wife, the latter being someone with whom he did not get along). He went to work for the Louisville Street Railway Co at 16 and became their paymaster by 18, known because of his young age, Kid Collins. Jerry’s brother, Hubbie Collins, was then a star infielder for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, soon renamed Brooklyn Dodgers, and Alex, partly emulating his uncle Hubbie, became an outstanding semi pro player in Louisville.
The knuckles were part of his paymaster equipment, as Saturday paydays could be occasions for trouble. The story most told by my father about Alex, my grandfather, whom I called “Buddy” was about a payday when a robber came into the street railway car used as a payroll car, with windows blocked out and the payor, Alex, sitting at one end, with his bodyguard. The man threatened Alex with a weapon, either gun or knife, but when he got to the desk, the guard took out his Bowie knife, stepped close into the robber and slit the intruder from stomach through breast bone. The guard left town quickly and no charges were pursued in the incident. Justice was a bit quicker in those days.
I was given two of Hubbie’s bats and leather bat case inscribed with his name by my grandfather. In the early days of baseball, the bats were shaped like bottles, not the slim handled beauties of today. Reason: The balls then had less bounce and a solid hit was needed to get the ball going. Hubbie was known for his solid line drives and his base stealing. His club record for runs scored in a single season for the Dodgers in 1991 (148) I believe still stands. Unfortunately, his bats and case were lost in a fire that swept my room and almost burned down our house after a lightening strike on June 1, 1950 in Greensburg.
Hubbie’s lifetime batting average was in the 280s. His team won 2 pennants while he lived. He died of scarlet fever at 26 in 1893 after only 8 professional seasons. His stats are in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
When Buddy married Irene Shupe of Mt. Pleasant, PA, the daughter of one of the town’s leading citizens, after a whirlwind 10 day courtship, the newly weds went to her home town where Alex became manager of the Oliver P. Shupe Flour Mill, owned by his father in law. Shortly, two sons arrived, my dad, Oliver Shupe Collins (1901), and Alexander T. Collins, Jr. (1909).
Alex, a handsome, personable man with a good sense of humor and an ability to speak in public, was twice elected Burgess (e.g. Mayor) of Mt. Pleasant, then a booming mining town and coking center, where 99 open, polluting coke ovens burned constantly, making huge illuminations against the night sky. Having 100 ovens together incurred a special tax, something their clever owner, the famous H.C. Frick, avoided.
There as in Louisville the Saturday night miners could get a bit drunk and Alex often carried a small “blue” steel pistol for protection as his life was threatened several times by the celebrants who ended in jails overnight. Alex sold the mill in 1942 during WWII, having earlier moved his family to Greensburg, the county seat of Westmoreland County, as he was elected County Treasurer twice, beginning in 1936. He retired just as WWII began, hastened perhaps by the premature death in 1941 of his beloved wife of uterine cancer mis-diagnosed by a local quack.
During WWII, my Buddy and I got very close; he was bored and we would go to the movies often and sit in the front row. Or play gin rummy for hours in my house or that of his other son where he had an apartment. Often in the Summer, he would drive me to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play at Forbes Field, some 30 miles distant. I became an avid baseball fan, despite the fact that the team in those years had weak ownership and players were even worse than most of those sad wartime teams. After WWII, I went off to college and he continued to live with his younger son, AT Collins and his wife Sarah Steel Collins until shortly before his death in 1958. However, the brass knuckles, which I now use as a paper weight on my desk, and those bottle bats, though long gone, remind me of my Buddy often.
The occasion above was my Dad’s 87th birthday and his most recent trip to Los Angeles to visit with us. He’s always been good about journeying to see us, even from the days of Jimmie’s and my early marriage, when we were ensconced in the Magic Castle Hotel during the run of The Iceman Cometh at the Huntington Theatre in Hollywood in 1985. Initially quite skeptical of our relationship and the difference in our ages, he has come to appreciate my husband as “the older brother I’ve never had.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a more generous man than my father, both financially and with sharing his opinions, which he does on almost a daily basis through essay writing. Generally, he and I don’t see eye to eye on many of the topics about which he writes, but he continues to write and enjoys it.
The photos that Connie sent tell the story of our happy childhood, much of the summer days spent in the pool behind my mom’s parents’ house in northeastern PA.
This photo captures us frozen in time, me age 7, Larry to my right, age 9, and Don to my left, age 11. Dad would have been a young father of three at 34. He and my mom had just finished building their home in southwestern Pennsylvania, at the base of the hill where my dad’s parents lived. The young plants around the door are just a fraction of the massive planting spree we did over the next five years or so, on our 1/2 acre plot.
When we were home, we had his parents hosting Sunday suppers on the screened in porch up on the hill, and probably about every month or so, we’d head to Wilkes-Barre to visit mom’s parents and her sister’s family who lived nearby.
I’ve learned so many things from my father. That hard work and building relationships are critical to one’s success. He taught us about the value of money and the relationship of money to work, paying us a penny per fly for swatting flies in the summer, and a dollar for every A we brought home on our report cards. You might now call that bribery, but it was motivating, at least until they bought a bug zapper for the back porch. He was a fierce disciplinarian. I won’t soon forget the moment when he discovered a pack of cigarettes under my bed when I was about 14. Or when I lied about pulling and breaking the light cord in the basement during a squeal-inducing game of tag with the Latchaw children. I also won’t ever forget how he and my mother shaped my future by giving me the educational opportunities that I had.
As an adult, he has taught me about getting my affairs in order, living with integrity, how to pick up the check at dinner, and how to speak truth to power. I can’t imagine feeling more appreciated as a daughter. Though he lives across the country, we have a standing date every Saturday or Sunday morning to chat via FaceTime. I wish we could see each other more often in person, but this works really well as a substitute.
Recently he underwent a knee replacement which is no small feat at 87. We were all relieved it went so well. I’ve seen way too much of the progress of healing (I tend toward queasiness whenever blood or stitches is involved). But I hope he’ll soon be able to get back to the golf course and do his 9 holes daily. This, too, he’s schooled us on: the value of daily exercise and good eating.
So, on the occasion of Father’s Day, thank you, Dad, for all you’ve done to make our lives so rich. Here’s to many more!
Nestled in the cradle between Mother’s and Father’s Day, I find myself thinking incessantly about what it takes to help our children grow up into people whom we can be proud of. I am constantly reminded of the perilous journey from teen to grown-up. Our paths are all so different. Both as humans and specifically as parents.
My “high school” class just celebrated its 40th reunion. Without me. Sometimes our life journeys are complicated. Mine involves the latter years of living with a partner 33 years older than myself. Trips are not in the mix right now – at least airplane trips, and my “high school” is located in Concord, New Hampshire.
What is that annoying “” about? My High School was a prep school, one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and not in favorable terms recently as it’s been in the news way too often. But that aside, on Monday, post-reunion, I received a photo of my classmates. After magnifying it to a ridiculous and 40th-anniversary-appropriate-degree, I peered at my classmates’ faces; some of those fourteen-year-olds jumped right out at me; others, I had to scrutinize their name tags to recognize. There were still others whom I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find in my memory. And it was a small class, so shame on me.
I was on a path at that point in my life that my parents shaped for me – a bookish, introspective child, I excelled in school, and my parents sent me to prep school, then an ivy league college, a path paved in privilege. Sure, there were bumps along the way, a messy divorce during which time I relished the distance being in New Hampshire afforded me from my grieving mother. In prep school, I met many teachers who shaped my growth as an adult and participant in the arts. My teenage angst was deterred in a college-like, edenic campus with insane resources. I was buoyed by an intellectual rising tide of students and faculty. I flourished amongst young people for whom the goals were clear and foundational. We all paddled in the same direction, literally, in many of our cases, in beautiful, sleek crafts which we shifted from water to shoulder to rack, a physical manifestation of our parents’ dreams for a better future. Our runs to
the boat house every afternoon conditioned us to press on in the face of adversity or exhaustion. Our studies and extra curricular events trained us in debate, performance, student government, leadership, kindness and contribution. I was oblivious to my good fortune. I was seventeen. What did I know?
In spite of the rising tide of affluence which surrounded me in high school and college, in typical teenage rebellion, I resisted, becoming a stage manager in the theatre. My parents forgave my “squandering my expensive education” (my quotation). They ultimately understood how much passion mattered in a life, and how much I loved the work I’d chosen. They appreciated that the job kept me invigorated and alive. It gave me access to creative collaborators that were life and world-affirming, and they always supported my choices. That’s what good parents do.
My path as a parent was different. I think, or hope anyway, our son will forgive my saying that it didn’t always look so clear that he would survive and become someone we would be as proud of as we are today. I alluded to in my Mother’s Day post, that he was adopted and didn’t find his birth mother until he was in his late 20s.
We endeavored, as my parents had done for me, to provide him with the best education possible. I was always uncomfortably aware of how different his learning needs were from mine, and we struggled in the middle and high school years to provide the resources to support his learning. And from the age of about five on, we gave him the sport of ice hockey, a sport which engulfed our family and which provided a structure and mentoring influences which raised the tide of Chris’ boat. Especially influential were the hockey coaches during his middle and high school years, strong men who spent their work hours as police officers and fire fighters, and their weeknights and weekends drilling our sons into skilled hockey players and collaborative teams.
Nevertheless, strong parenting and influential mentors aside, there are crazy forces at play in young men’s and women’s lives. Pressures from peers, puberty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – we all know what they are. All these things impinge on the patterns that we develop as adolescents, for better or for worse. I’ve decided it’s almost as much luck as it is money or education that we give our children. And we operate in the dark a lot of the time, not really knowing the shadowy forces at play in our children’s lives. I tend to be optimistic about how things are going and for many years for our son, they weren’t going in a way that should have made me optimistic.
I hurry to say I don’t want to pick on my kid as the only one. I’ve talked with numerous parents and friends with children this age who are in what I can now safely and with the relief afforded by healthy hindsight, call the “Black hole of Parenting.”
I think (and can confirm from conversations with him) that at a certain point, Chris, provided only limited information, pre-natal exposure to drugs, and the resulting difficulties in learning that that presented, struggled with the pubescent urge to resist his adoptive parents and become who he thought he was destined to become. That’s a powerful stew. Chris made a beeline towards a target which was self-destructive and painful and certainly was not the path of privilege we’d tried to set down for him.
This was a painful period for us as parents. I remember thinking when he was about sixteen or seventeen that he might not survive. And again in his early twenties. But I think all parents go through that. Jimmie and I clung to the belief that there was something special and unique about Chris that would help him to survive and become a magnificent human, even though, at times, it was difficult to see that that was what he wanted.
I write this not to expose his weaknesses as a young adult, but to tell you and any parent out there who currently finds himself or herself in the black hole of parenting. Here are just a few things I know, having emerged from the black hole of parenting:
Not every child needs to go to college to succeed.
Your child’s decision not to go to college is not a reflection of your failure as a parent.
Young men grow up at about age 26. Work your hardest to keep them alive until then. Make it okay for them to share their failures as well as their successes with you. Keep the channels of communication open. The car is a particularly successful incubator for these discussions.
Sports are crucial to developing the skills and endurance one needs to survive in this world. The gift of loving a particular sport is the greatest gift a parent can provide. The gift, in our son’s case, that keeps on giving, now that he’s a hockey coach. Choose a rink fairly far away so you have lots of incubator time (see 3)
Every traumatic event that occurs along the way through the growth process will influence your child’s life story, both in devastating and healing ways. Chris is such a good coach to young men now because he knows where each pitfall lies and has a keen sense of when someone is close to making that mistake. He can now help them to see it and hopefully make a better choice.
Be grateful every day. Make positive choices for yourself in your own life. You have no idea how impressionable your child is and how much he or she is absorbing your experience. Deal with negative circumstances openly, and with as much integrity and forward positive energy you can muster. That is what your children see and eventually learn to model themselves.
No matter how beautiful every other family’s parenting looks like, yes, even they occasionally feel the presence of the black hole. I remember getting an insane Christmas letter one year from some parents whose children were all heading quickly to being recipients of the MacArthur Genius Award. I responded by writing a satiric yet primarily factual response about what Chris was doing at that same timeframe. In other words, I found a creative and humorous outlet for my despair. (obviously, I didn’t send it to anyone). Later I sent it to Chris as a benchmark for what we’d experienced. We shared a good laugh about it.
Laugh about it, even if through your tears. It’s analogous to picking up your toddler when they fall down hard and brushing them off.
As I said before, I’m an optimist. I’m also aware that not everyone is able to survive this dangerous phase of adolescence. We are reminded of that every day in the news and when we learn about personal tragedies of parents everywhere. The pain of loss is unfathomable and makes my relief all the greater.
When I look at Chris now, and I look at him in those baby pictures from so many years ago, I can see the same joyful inquisitive intelligence he brought to us as a toddler. We just did our best to keep that alive. You parents in the black hole, keep reminding yourself that “this too, shall pass.”
I am soooooo glad you are home. I missed you so much. I’ll tell you why.
I don’t know who that woman was that you hired to come by to check on me but I can just tell you that she was Invasive (note the capital I). Every time I settled into an activity, she was at the door, kicking me out of the way to come in.
Sure, she changed my water and scooped out the litter but she was constantly interrupting me. One night I had a perfectly harmless poker game going on while we ate Russian food and drank some vodka and in she blasted, making me clean up the game and play with the boingy toy with feathers on the end instead. It was really irritating. M had to scurry out the living room window to get back down to her apartment before this Invasive woman went down to check on her. (I hope she made it).
Another time, she barged in and interrupted my reading. I was just reading an engrossing book called “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” with an eye to helping you guys out before you came home by cleaning up O’s toys (which really have taken over the place, don’t you think?)
M’s always after me to mount this campaign (She’s a bit of a neat-freak. She’s Felix to me, Oscar) and she pushed the book with her little paws all the way over to the elevator, then jumped up and hit the 2 with her nose, then pushed the book all the way down the hallway to our apartment. Then she jumped up and rang the bell with her paw (I heard her outside the door thumping up and down pretty actively for about 15 minutes, but waited it out until she connected with the doorbell before I opened the door and let her in because that’s what friends do for each other – they allow them to have their successes and failures). Anyway, I tugged on the string I’d put around the door handle and let her in and I had just made a cup of tea, and was settling in for a quiet read when I heard the key in the lock and that woman showed up again. GRRRRRRR! I was so mad.
Anyway, she eventually left, but not before I gave her a piece of my mind and a good chomp to the forearm. She looked pretty surprised and the next day when she showed up, she was way more tentative in her approach. I give her some credit for actually sitting down on the couch and letting me climb in her lap. But she looked really scared all the while. I think I made my point. Not that I aspire to be a bully or anything, but you know, a girl likes her privacy every now and then to get things done around the house and to let her hair down.
Anyway, all this to say M and I are sooooooo glad you are home again. We hope you had a splendid time and I’m sure it was important whatever you had to do while you were gone, but next time, find someone a little less responsible so we can have some unguarded time alone, okay? In other words, can you find someone a little less Invasive?
Day 2 of checking in on the kids. I discovered the first day that commuting from USC to Kitty Hollow was fraught with bumper to bumper traffic. I decided that W & M could wait for my ministrations until after traffic slowed, so I went home first and came back later. The upside was that Jimmie came with me. I will say W seemed quite skeptical about Jimmie’s scooter. When we came in, she gave it wide berth, retreating to her window perch.
What a thoughtful girl W is. We arrived to discover that she and M had gone to Petco, because there was a bright pink litter scoop on the counter when we arrived. Though she might have utilized Alexa to get it, she and M also might have padded off to downtown to hit the Petco on Hope and 9th.
Also, the kitchen counter was covered with playing cards, two hands laid out, and some matryoshka measuring cups had been displayed on the counter, along with a tiny little hors d’oeuvres plate with a Russian theme. It looked like Russian appreciation night. W looked shocked that we’d caught her and started mewing very loudly, but in all caps – NO COLLUSION! WITCH HUNT! I’m not sure what that was about but she was insistent.
Jimmie stayed with W while I went to see M in her ground floor kitty condo. I must say, M keeps a tidy home. She might want to get a grip on her eating however. She is quite single-minded about the kibble. I had to withhold her dinner for a moment so I could get a slightly different view. She must have been hungry from the shopping.
Meanwhile upstairs, Jimmie was entertaining W with a new white bird which he added to the fascinator. I asked him what they’d talked about while I was gone. He said he’s a little rusty with his kitty conversation.
W & M have known each other for ever. From back in DC where they worked as interns for some Capitol Hill pols, carrying their bosses’ lunches back to the office, purses over their arms, chattering like magpies.
WAIT! Did you say magpie? Where?
No, W & M, it’s a figure of speech. Let me tell the good people the story.
Last weekend, I was assigned the job of checking in on W & M while their parents were away. I think it’s a wedding – unclear. But W & M live in two cozy apartments near our downtown cozy apartment, and we know the “checking-in-on-the-kids-while-the-parents- are-away-for-the-week” deal. At one point, our policy was to only leave a live person in situ so that things didn’t get out of hand. So I’m an old pro at this. I went to check out the lay of the land on Sunday.
Food. Check. Really, they only eat kibble?
K-litter. Check. No scoop?
It’s okay – shakeable tray.
Moms and Dads left last night. So I went to check on the girls after work this afternoon. I opened the door, catching W with the game remote in her paws, cigarette hanging lazily out of mouth, Ark: Survivor Evolved blaring away on the TV. She was busy fighting T-Rex when I opened the door. She dropped the remote like a hot potato, cigarette falling perilously to the floor. I ran across the room and stomped it out, tried to look stern, but she was so nonchalant I didn’t know quite how to handle it. I was completely dumbstruck. Then she dropped to the table like she’d been doing her nails.
You know how tough it is to yell at someone else’s kids, so I just went on checking her food and water, then grabbed the fascinator (I know it’s not really called that, but its such a great descriptor and so current) just to let her know that I wasn’t mad. After all, I don’t set the house rules, her parents do.
I bid W farewell and made my way down to M’s apartment. I am pretty sure W had called her about my coming because by the time I got to the door, M was wailing. I mean on the guitar in the living room. She was wailing. Sounds came out of that guitar like you’ve never heard. I mean I knew she was good. W’s parents had told me, but I had no idea.
I put the key in the door and turned the knob only to find M sitting demurely by the door, no guitar in paw, looking up at me with ennui. Which is hard for a cat to master. Usually they have the imperious thing down, but ennui is a real affect that they have to master. Ennui, that is, until she realized I was her meal ticket. Then the caterwauling started for real and she wrapped herself around my legs.
I scooped her food and filled her bowl and backed away.
What can I tell you? I know they were both up to something before I got there and then when I arrived, almost all evidence was gone. I’ll have to wait and see what other shenanigans they pull the rest of the week. I bet it will be good. Kids always misbehave when their parents are away.
For now, you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that W & M are living the high life.
I always find myself a twinge sad on Mother’s Day. In recent years, I’ve always attributed it to missing my mom, who passed away when I was thirty-six and she a mere sixty-five in the volcanic aftermath of her voluptuous love affair with cigarettes.
My mother was a force of nature. This might surprise anyone who knew the ladylike self-effacing woman she presented to the world, but my brothers and I know her fierce tenacity in all things she did throughout her life. For the first 20 years, she was a loving daughter and sister, growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania in coal country. The next twenty shaped her as a Mom, as she married my father straight out of Wellesley, foregoing a possible career in something that remains unclear to this day. My dad tells the story about how he hitched a ride back to the naval base in Boston after visiting Mom, a senior at Wellesley. He got into the car with one of her professors who went on and on about Shirley’s aptitudes as a student, and became forlorn to learn she would be marrying and not carrying on in some pursuit of the mind.
But she did. She threw herself into mothering; both she and my Dad engendered in all of us a love of learning, of reading, of love of the arts, exposing us to frequent museum outings and a hard work ethic and love of our family.
The penultimate chapter detailed her return to the life of the mind, after her divorce, returning to the work force, a short lived application of her library science degree in an actual library at Wilkes College, followed by the insane application at nearly fifty to the Columbia School of Journalism. She completed that program, and began her subsequent life as a journalist in Bethlehem and Palmerton, PA.
The final chapter was underscored by her tragic demise from lung cancer. The last year or so was predictably sad, and no matter how many good times we had, the residue of the hospice days remains always for me a sober reminder of our obsolescence as humans.
Cut to my own motherhood. Twenty-five years ago, Jimmie and I adopted a toddler through the LA Department of Children’s’ Services. Born in Los Angeles, the fost-adopt toddler came from a medically challenged scenario; he had been born to a young mother, who had been unable to care for him. In addition, there were maternal grandparents were unable to raise him.
Chris was prenatally exposed to drugs. He had an older sibling, born to the same mother. His father was no longer alive, according to what we were told; the exact details were unclear.
The adoption worker explained the upcoming process to us:
1) We would undergo the home study and they would check our home to make sure we would be safe fost-adopt parents.
2) We were not allowed to meet Chris unless we agreed up front to accept him. They described this as protecting the child, which was, understandably, their first priority. We agreed.
3) Through the next year or so, the process to “free” Chris of parental rights would happen and then the adoption could go ahead. I remember being worried all through that first year that his birth mother would be in the courtroom on the day when we were going to complete the adoption – all of which could happen, according to the DoCS.
4) I did a lot of research at the library about pre-natal drug exposure and the sorts of things we could expect in terms of learning delays, behavioral issues, etc. The court offered Chris nine months of rehabilitation through the CHIME program at UC Northridge, where he attended classes once a week and spent time with other children who were receiving state-funded learning remediation. Chris’ vocabulary was extremely limited when he came to us. He had only eleven words. Jeep was his name for anything with four wheels; doggie, ball. He added cat shortly after coming to live with us. He had been in a foster-adopt home in Santa Clarita with an older child who was mute and communicated with sign language. Chris would bang the tips of his fingers together to signify his wish for a bottle. Within about a month in our highly verbal home, his vocabulary had expanded to 50 words. Chris was such a social child that he also thrived at the CHIME program.
Our adoption worker kept in touch with us with home visits to see how Chris was adjusting to our lives together. She continued to warn us that if his birth mother got back in touch and challenged her parental rights, we could lose Chris.
I am sorry to say that her absence was a gift to us. My husband and I were so enthralled with our “son,” though the adoption was not finalized for more than a year.
The day we went to the Children’s Court to finalize the adoption, I looked around the courtroom to see if his birth mother was there. The judge asked if anyone had any reason for this adoption to not move forward; I held my breath, but no one spoke up, and Chris became our son.
We took a picture of the judge with Chris sitting on his lap in the courtroom. The picture has faded to a funky green and orange tint with the passage of time, and Chris has a frown on his face in sharp contrast to the broad smiles on Jimmie’s and mine.
Fast forward to 2015, a Friday afternoon late in March, when, as is the case for many major disclosures from Chris, I received a text message that said simply:
C: I think I just found my birth mother and we just talked.
Whoa. It was a staggering revelation, and the details are his to tell. We shared back and forth extensively the details of his discovery. We were alternately thrilled and terrified. In the days immediately following their online reunion, I thought about all the information she shared immediately with him, and was shocked at how frank she had been. Chris remarked more than once since then how candid she has been with him and how much “like him” that is. And he’s right – he is very candid and so, obviously, is she. Thank goodness. There are so many ways that an adopted child’s finding his or her birth mother can go. She was not only ready to hear from him, but also let him know that she had tried to find him.
The whole thing happened so fast that I felt more than a little overwhelmed by the process. This digitally accessible world made the following inevitable: within a few hours, his mother had posted on FB that she had found her son, followed by her other child, Chris’ half sister, posting that she had found her brother who had been “lost to the system.” As the “system” to which Chris was “lost,” I initially took gross offense to that statement, as I’m sure she may take offense from my description of the details at the time of Chris’s placement with us.
It is offensive because it is, of course, only half of the story. There is so much we don’t know about each other, and of course, we have all made assumptions. The story is important and I hope that we can tell it together with candor and compassion.
A few nights after they reconnected, I received several pictures from Chris’ birth mother via FB Messenger, pictures of her grown child and her grandchild, and a few pictures of herself as a baby. In addition, she asked to be friends on FB. I was nervous that she wanted to be a part of our lives, too, but I understand the inevitable hunger from 25 years of separation. While she didn’t say it, I think she wanted me to reciprocate with pictures of Chris as a little boy growing up.
In 1991, as Jimmie and I got ready to welcome a foster child into our home, they asked us to prepare a picture book of pictures of our family that could be shared with Chris so he could “meet his future family”. We included pictures of the two of us, lounging on the grass at our first home in North Hollywood, and pictures of our many pets then – we had three cats and two dogs. We included some pictures of my parents and Jimmie’s parents. They were, of course, at that time, photos that we pulled from photo albums, some of them taken around that time. Excitedly, we drove to the drug store to drop off for processing, then back to pick them up, slipping them between the plastic sleeves of the small 4 x 6 photo book I had purchased for this precious gift for our new child. Not many of us use photo albums any more. We trust our computers and the mysterious “cloud” to store our precious family heirlooms – I worry sometimes that a simple loss of electricity or connectivity could obliterate lifetimes of images for future generations.
That first Sunday night, when I received those few digital photos shared by Chris’ birth mother, it felt almost like the same exercise Jimmie and I had gone through so many years ago– she was preparing us for receiving the new members of our family. And I was, on Sunday, not ready to receive them, or her into our lives.
The social welfare system is complicated. I don’t remember now when all the details about Chris’ birth parents were shared with us, but I think it was sometime after we had fallen in love with our little boy. Which happened immediately. From the minute when the door opened at the foster home in Santa Clarita, and we saw his two foot high body with a mop of black curls and a little pony tail, that 300 watt smile, and his enthusiastic embrace of life, it was over for us. We were completely smitten. There is probably very little information they could have shared with us at that point that would have dissuaded us from loving him. The little information we did receive came months later during the process of “freeing” him from his birth parents.
Even now, three years after Chris found his other mother, the psychological tsunami is strong. I appreciate every day that a hole within Chris’ heart that has been filled by finding his birth mother. The fact that he hasn’t known about where he came from was always clearly a painful gap in his life which he has always shared frankly with us, not to be hurtful at all, but to let us know it has been missing. Shel Silverstein, “The Missing Piece,” was one of Chris’ favorite books when he was young.
And Chris has found not only his birth mother, but his birth sister, and her children as well. They met shortly after his discovery, and then he met his birth mom. Life is rich and full of surprises and I am thrilled that we know more about his roots. Especially now that he’s a father.
So here are a few photos from the journey together up until today. Because we are all only the mothers that our children allow us to be.