The first night I spent on the floor outside the whelping box, Eggi thought it was fine—great, even— and spent it next to me, outside of the whelping box, on the dog beds. 

The next night, I did it again, and she was up a number of times, digging. It’s a sign that labor may be coming soon. I dutifully continued taking her temperature, and it did finally drop, and we continued the monitoring every few hours around the clock. 

I was really tired from sleeping on the floor with the dog. Was it Sunday? Or Wednesday?

The puppy’s heart rate was good and strong, but once we passed the due date, it was a little on the low side, and while we could poke at it to try to wake it up, and the heart rate would rise, briefly, and fall again. We all began to be worried. If labor doesn’t progress in a dog, the placenta gets old and the puppy dies. 

It’s not unusual for a singleton puppy to be born via c-section. We had been warned. It’s the puppies that signal the mother to go into labor, I guess. I thought we were ready. We kept in touch with the WhelpWise service, and our reproductive vet, and our regular vet. Everyone had input.

I made a lot of phone calls. I thought about how bitches all over the world get knocked up in the backyard by a neighborhood dog, dig a hole in the soft, dry dirt under the porch, and whelp without so much as anyone even knowing they were even preggers. I thought about the money spent, and the miles traveled, and the people hoping for an Eggi puppy. I thought about the losses of this past month, and of the past couple of years. I really needed this to come out ok.

And then I had to hand Eggi off to a vet tech in the parking lot of a strange emergency hospital in Connecticut. 

And driving home, crying almost every highway mile,  and then, sitting stunned in silence in my kitchen  with my coat still on, alone in my regrets and fears.

And waiting for the call.

The call came quickly enough. Mother and baby were doing fine and would be going home just as soon as Eggi was awake enough to walk out. They didn’t want the baby in the hospital a minute longer than absolutely necessary. When we picked them up, Eggi walked out of the hospital, looking out of it and the baby, a wriggling, kicking boy was carried to the curb in a cardboard coffee bean box with an old towel in it. He was absolutely perfect.

The first night with the new puppy was extra long. Eggi seemed to be in pain from the surgery, and still quite out of it. I knew the clock was ticking for getting colostrum into the lil pupper. She was having a hard time lying down so I had to help, contriving a maneuver where I wrapped my arms around her, forced her back legs to bend and laid her side as swiftly and painlessly as I could. 

All of my memories of learning to nurse came back that night. Dogs that have c-sections don’t always know what’s happened; some refuse to nurse their babies. I stayed with Eggi and held her, supervising and only half awake. I heard the puppy gulping as the milk let down. For a third night. I was sleeping a little here and there on the floor in the laundry room and nodding off in the whelping box. 

As the sky lightened on the morning of the first of September, around 5:30 a.m. Eggi reached for her puppy began licking him intently, and it was like the new software had been downloaded in the night. Here was mother mode: nesting, licking, nursing.

It took a few days for the puppy to start gaining weight. But once he did, he fattened right up. Within hours Eggi could show you where he was if you asked her, “Where’s your baby?”

She had to be walked on leash for short trips only while her incision healed. I found the online support group for people with singleton puppies and made a sling so I could carry the puppy.  There isn’t much to do in the first few weeks, just laundry, and peaceful admiration for a dog who turns out to be a wonderful, attentive mother. I got caught up on some sleep.

I got a text

What I heard: it was a Sunday night in late September. We were headed back to the city after a weekend at the plastic farm house we rented up in Dutchess County, New York, in a town known by locals as Pine Box. 

What I did beforehand: twenty-plus years of parenting, doing my best to raise happy, productive, well-adjusted children, and, sometimes, feeling vaguely that those might not be achievable goals.

What I wore: I don’t know. It was a couple of years ago now. It wasn’t riding clothes or anything fancy.

Who went with me: my husband, known as the Bacon Provider, was doing his normal Sunday night thing, which was working while I drove. Traffic was slower than usual. A text came through on my phone, and though he didn’t normally do this, my husband turned my phone over to see who it was from. He saw that it was our 21-year-old middle son, who lives on the west coast, and it was long, and he began to read it to me. 

hey. i would just like to let you know that i would like to be known as Ruth*, … and my preferred pronouns are she/her/hers. 

*Why the asterisk: I have my child’s permission to do this blog post, but this is a pseudonym.

Where I sat: I was in the driver’s seat. I kept driving.

Things that were sad: my husband continued reading aloud

There are a couple of medical transition-related things that I am seeking and I would like confirmation from you that you are willing to pay for them. 

The language seemed like something she’d copied from a “How to Tell Your Parents You’re Trans.” I wasn’t mad. I was sad that this stuff is so hard to talk about that she had to ask via text, sad that we live in a country where medical expenses can destroy people, and sadder still that I was surprised. Everything I have ever read from the perspective of a parent of a trans child has at least a sentence where they say, “We always knew, somehow.” My middle child has always been one-of-a-kind, wanting to wear a cape and plastic armor or a dragon costume until starting kindergarten where they forbade it. Middle school was a struggle for him**, and so was high school. This was a revelation.

**Why these asterisks: I allow myself to call my child him when I talk about the past. Learning to call someone you are close to by a different name and pronoun is harder than you can possibly imagine. I am doing better all the time.

Things that were funny: the coincidence of my husband reading the text to me meant that I didn’t have to tell him; we found out together.

Things that were not funny: while I had a tom-boy phase in elementary school, I have never doubted being a girl. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be trans, but when I think about it, the quality of being one kind of soul in the wrong sort of container must be impossibly disorienting. How could I have ever met my parenting goals of a happy, productive, well-adjusted kid when she isn’t perceived to be who she feels she is?

What it is: the text goes on for a number of paragraphs, with details about the medical expenses, some stuff about why she wanted to tell me first (!), and this:

I don’t really like talking on the phone about this, I’d much rather just tell you via text and get your response than have a long phone call where I’ll just end up blubbering about it. i don’t really have time for that, I have a drawing to finish. 
have a nice day.

She also said she’d be changing her name on Facebook soon. I said her brother wouldn’t appreciate finding out on Facebook.

Who should see it: it has now been a bit over two years. The following Wednesday I shared the news with someone who had idly asked, “How are you?” I let her have it. It was pretty unfair of me, and I frightened and upset her. It’s an ugly habit, dumping your unsettling surprise on an innocent person who wasn’t ready for it.  I didn’t do that again. 

It did take at least a year for me to stop saying I have three boys. Sometimes, I don’t mention it. Given the ascendence of the forces of racism, misogyny, and hatred with our national election result last week, this might not be the time to tell anyone. 

Or maybe it’s time to tell everyone.

I have told this story a few times, to people I am close to and trust. Most people my age are scandalized that she texted instead of calling. I think she was collecting her thoughts, and if texting your parents that you’re trans isn’t communicating in the lingua franca of the millennial, I don’t know what is. 

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I saw "Juilliard Dances Repertory 2016"

What I saw: “Juilliard Dances Repertory 2016” at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Juilliard, 155 W 65th St

What I wore: black Fluevog boots (the ones I used to teach in), tights, dark wash James Jeans denim skirt, wrinkled ATM blouse, Eileen Fisher long cardigan, woven scarf that my mother gave me in the 90s that might not be charmingly dated

What I did beforehand: ate half a bag of the wrong brand of Mexican Japanese peanuts and some slices of manchego, walked from 45th Street 

Who went with me: the Bacon Provider

How I got tickets: well, they were supposed to be comp’ed, but the night before at like 8:18 p.m. I got this text and he’s all, “I still haven’t gotten a chance to go find the box office—it may be a good idea to buy them instead so it doesn’t sell out! (sorry!),” and I was like, “OK.” So I bought them online, and paid full price.

Why I saw this show: The Graduate was a vocal performance major in college, and because he lives in Brooklyn, when he isn’t working one of two jobs or going to the climbing gym or making beer, he sometimes still sings, and usually tells me about it about a week beforehand.

Where I sat: way up in the balcony on the end, behind my husband. I had no idea if we were going to be able to see our child singing in the chorus of the Stravinsky piece. The only seats left were on the ends. I gambled.

Things that were sad: The second piece, Jerome Robbins’ “Moves,” which is performed without musical accompaniment, carried more tension and musicality than Paul Taylor’s “Roses,” which preceded it. 



Things that were funny: I liked the Stravinsky best.


Things that were not funny: it should not be noteworthy that a dance recital have a real orchestra to accompany them. Live music is better, and live music is a reason to go to the theater. Also, I should not have been distracted with grief at the thought that this talented crop of young dancers will graduate into a world where the organized efforts of certain political forces mean less and less funding for the arts.

What it is: a recital featuring dance students in Juilliard’s BFA program. Three numbers were presented. “Roses” was danced to Siegfried’s Idyll from Wagner and an adagio for clarinet and strings from Heinrich Baermann; I liked the parts where the dancers rolled around on the stage. “Moves” is a tense and muscular dance for men and women, accompanied only by the sounds of their feet, the slapping of their limbs, and one well-timed sneeze from an audience member. The gender norms of their costumes (women on pointe, men in ballet slippers) made me think about the absurdity of shaved armpits (on the women), and the strictness of the long-hair-in-a-bun-for-women/short-hair-for-men paradigm. 
After the second intermission came the piece we had come to see, “Symphony of Psalms,” choreographed by Jiří Kylián. When the chorus filed it, I found that we were in luck, and could see the Graduate standing with the other basses. He is easy to spot these days because he wears the “Männlich bun.”  (someone with a German accent shouted that at him in a NY crosswalk). The Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms and A la gloire de Dieu were performed, and were very beautiful. The richness of human voices added a glorious dimension to the final piece.

Who should see it: proud parents 

What I saw on the way home: a panicked field mouse running across the Saw Mill Parkway

Black Jacket, Yellow Jacket

This summer, when we weren’t looking, a huge, paper nest blossomed and fruited and swelled, large and ripe in the doorframe of the house we’ve been renting. I may have noticed it when it was the size of a plum, but the next time I looked, it was the size of a cantaloupe, and abuzz with life. It’s now bigger than a watermelon. The residents are fat and black with creamy white tiled faces and three matching stripes on their abdomens. I idly recognized them as “paper wasps,” because of their oblong, gray and brown striped paper nest. After a couple of weeks I realized the denizens were fatter than the wasps I’d thought were “paper wasps,” so I did a little investigating. There are perhaps 1,100 kinds of “paper wasps.” Our guests are bald-faced hornets, and actually in the same family as yellowjackets. Some folks call them blackjackets.
Depending on the site, Internet searches will either reveal these busy and meticulous nest-builders as aggressive or defensive. Some exterminators say you can’t safely get within three feet.  Others say they’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone. On sunny days, I like to stand a few feet away and watch them fan the entrance.  One or two guards will whizz past my ears when they’ve had enough of me. I can watch as long as I like from the safety of the inside of the garage and get very close. Inside the great gray-brown striped football are many layers of corridors just big enough for the wasps. I have read that they’ll be all gone after the first frost, in mid-October. Only the new queens will survive, overwintering in the bark of nearby trees.
I am practicing being calm and tolerant of them. From what I’ve seen, the advice that only a professional should remove one of these nests is quite sound; because this nest is against the glass of a window, I’ve peered into the chambers. There are many hornets inside, and they are not asleep at night.
The paper nest of  bald-faced hornets

The sky bright and the afternoon just beginning to wane, we pulled our minivan into the long, single-file line of parked cars to wait for the ferry to Anacortes. There was once a snack bar here, a shack of weathered wood with a small deck in the shelter of a grove of towering douglas firs. The kids had piled into a bench on the far side of the table. The youngest was first in. He was 3 or 4 years old.
Those late summer yellowjackets in the Pacific Northwest sting without provocation. They dive into a can of soda. They eat unattended hamburgers. They land on your arm and sting you while you’re standing at a party and not swatting them. They are a known menace.
As we discussed who was getting rootbeer and who was getting 7Up and how many fries we ordered and whether we’d get ketchup, a yellowjacket landed and lingered on my youngest child’s cheek and was crawling towards his eye. He, like all of my kids, was very afraid of being stung.
In my calmest voice, I said, “Hey, dude, there’s a yellowjacket on your face, so close your eyes and hold very still.”
He closed his eyes and did not move. I promised him, with the certainty and truth of adult logic and the power of all mothers, everywhere, and every mother that ever lived, that if he held very still the terrible stinging yellowjacket wasp would fly away on its own. It crawled all over his sticky little face, its abdomen pulsing as it explored the pale tender flesh and even ventured up and tickled his eyelashes.
My other kids were aghast. They were witnessing their worst nightmare, unfolding slowly next to them. They wanted to scream. They wanted to climb across the table away from their lost brother. It was more than they could bear to witness. One had to pile both hands over his mouth to keep from shrieking.
Even my husband wanted to do something– blow on it or swat it. I calmly and silently insisted that it would leave on its own. My husband and I disagreed so strongly on this point that we exchanged ten thousand angry words and ideas, rapidly, fluidly, and without a single sound.
The previous summer I was stung four or five times by one yellowjacket on Lopez Island; it had flown up my pant leg while I was weeding and it had gotten trapped. I ran to the house, tearing my overalls off as I went. I had swatted my leg without looking, and it was the swatting that provoked the stings.
But then, on the deck of the ferry station snack bar, all of our faces agrimace in the various rictus of frozen panic, while the youngest persisted, quiet, relaxed, calm and serene as the terrible yellowjacket prolonged the threat of a painful sting. And as suddenly as the wicked little thing had appeared, the nasty, venom-filled, late-season yellowjacket finally paused in its pulsing and crawling and tasting of the face of my child, whirred its transparent lacy wings and lifted itself into the air. It flew away. No sting. We cheered.

Budapest #3 ⅖: The dead bird and Gül Baba Türbeje

On the way down the hill from Gül Baba türbeje, as we stumbled on the large uneven cobblestones, I said that we’d found our dead bird. My son heard me, but said nothing. He knew what I meant.
How is it possible I have not written down the story of the dead bird?
A dead bird
When I was in Italy, I told it over and over. The story of the dead bird is a story I tell so often and to so many people that sometimes, I, too, am tired of telling it.
A couple of years ago, in North Dreadful, one of our dogs found an injured bird on the porch; we think it hit a window. He brought it to us, in good retriever fashion, and surrendered it on command. It didn’t last long, but it was put into service as an artist’s model. This dead bird made a nice addition to a still life: lightweight, odorless and capable of maintaining its pose indefinitely, the only real problem it presented was keeping the pets away from it. Well, and I guess not all the people in the house thought having a dead bird lying around was ok. I started writing the story of the dead bird then, but never finished.
I never tell the story exactly the same way.
Once, on a day when I was a working parent at the co-op preschool, we were scheduled to go on a field trip, by city bus, to the University of Washington to look at the cherry blossoms in the main quadrangle. The co-op was my whole life when we first moved to Seattle; we had moved there, knowing no one, and still living the small, busy life of having very young children. Co-operative pre-school gave me and my kids instant friends, a place to go on a regular basis, and scheduled field trips to all the new things we needed to discover about Seattle:  the Woodland Park Zoo, the aquarium, the Ballard Locks, the Flight Museum, the Space Needle, etc.  Being a “working parent” meant I stayed for school that day, and helped with snack and clean-up and generally providing another pair of hands where needed.
A pre-school field trip is a serious undertaking. The logistics of getting a dozen three and four-year-olds safely to a destination and back are numerous. If you drive, most cars only hold two car seats in the back seat (three are usually too wide). If any family forgets to drop off a car seat, it’s an emergency. If a working parent can’t make it at the last minute, the whole trip may have to be cancelled. Some destinations are too hard to get to, have inadequate parking, or are too expensive. 
But most preschoolers love field trips, and while routine is great for them, the break from routine is great, too.  Our co-op was in a windowless church basement with cinderblock walls and clammy linoleum floors, across the street from a nice little park full of broad maples and tall oak trees, providing a reasonable supple of collectible acorns, and an old, sand-footing playground. There was a long slide coming out of a tall metal tower made of vertical poles, with a conical top, meaning it was a rocket or a jail or a castle depending on the imagination of the users. One block beyond the playground was a city bus stop, so field trips by bus were a good way to go.
The two teachers at the school then were Nancy and Teacher Wendy. Teacher Wendy liked to be known as Teacher Wendy, and she taught the younger kids. Nancy liked to be called Nancy, and she taught the older kids. When she was a child, Nancy’s brother used to tease her and call her Child Nancy and she hated it, so we always called her Nancy and never Teacher Nancy, although having a Teacher Wendy made everyone want to call her Teacher Nancy.
On the day of the dead bird, we had the backpacks full of snacks, the folder with emergency medical forms and a first aid kit, plenty of parents helping, and all the kids lined up, their coats zipped, their name tags pinned on with diaper pins. Nancy waited until she had everyone’s attention and then she opened the door. The kids were allowed to go to the top of the stairs, and then they had to wait. A parent always brought up the rear, and I was that parent on this day.
Next, when Nancy said so, the kids got to run ahead to the corner of the building, and then they had to stop again and wait. It was April; the kids knew the routine. Nancy said ok and they ran to the corner. It was a perfect spring day, with a bright blue sky above and green, green grass below. The daffodils were done, but the tulips were up and open. When the lingering parents, distracted by the lilacs, had caught up to the kids, and she had everyone’s attention, Nancy gave word that they could run to the corner to wait to cross the street. 
It was at this corner that one of the children found the dead bird.
I have told this story to adults at a cocktail party, teetering on high heels and trying not to fling champagne on myself. I have told this story in the dark, around a campfire. I have told this story walking in the fog in the Dolomites, to a new friend worried about her life having meaning. I have told this story to high school math students. I have told this story to another friend as we wandered lost in Venice. I have told this story so often my husband and children don’t listen anymore. But I no longer remember what kind of bird it was.
“Look, Nancy! Look!” said one of the children. He was standing on the curb, pointing into the metal grate of the storm drain.
Nancy stepped up and bent to see. She was not tall, but was taller than her students. It was a dead bird, a songbird. Maybe it was a robin, but I think it was small and brown and bland. Perhaps a sparrow.
“Oh, look!” said Nancy. “It’s a bird.”
Another child asked, “Is it sleeping?”
“No. It isn’t sleeping. It’s dead,” she said.
By now all of the children ringed her, trying to see.
Nancy reached into her pocket—a pocket that always had enough tissues—and, cradling it in a sheet of tissue, lifted the dead bird out of the gutter. All of the children pressed in around her closely. The adults stood back. One child wanted to make the bird alive. The other working parents exchanged a glance, already aware that we were in danger of missing the bus.
“Why is it dead, Nancy?” someone asked.
“Everything dies,” said Nancy. “Maybe it was old, or maybe it was sick. It’s hard to tell.”
“Did it hurt when it died?”
“I don’t know. It was probably quick, I think. Like falling asleep,” she said.
They had more questions. The bus came and went without us. The working parents saw it go.
Nancy registered the expressions of the parents over the heads of the children. “It’s ok, “ she said. “We can catch another bus.”
Some of the children wanted to touch it. Some of the other children really didn’t want to touch it. One of them wasn’t sure. “If you touch it, we are going to have to go back in and wash your hands really well,” she said.
The children nodded gravely.
The curious children stroked the quiet feathers with an outstretched index finger, and came away holding up that finger like it wanted a bandage, or needed kissing, or had wet paint on it.
The child that wasn’t sure said, “We have to bury it.”

This, having been said, could not be unsaid.
Soon, we were all back in the classroom, one line of kids washing their hands under the supervision of a working parent, others kids helping to look through the available small shoe boxes for the perfect bird coffin. A group wanted to go back outside to collect leaves to put in the box. Everyone wanted to see the bird once it was in the box, resting quietly on a layer of last year’s dry, brown, oak leaves.
When it was time to take the coffin back outside, the children lined up again and went up the stairs, this time marching seriously and with confidence, the run out of their legs. A perfect spot was found under a bush next to the church. Everyone took turns (except the parents) digging a shallow hole using a large serving spoon borrowed from the kitchen in the church basement. When the hole was dug and the coffin placed, everyone took turns (except the parents) covering the box with dirt. The dirt lay in a mound over the box. Words were said about the bird.
“I’m sorry you’re dead.”
“Goodbye bird.”
“You were nice, bird.”

It was now time to go to the playground and play.
After that, we came in, washed up, and had snack. After snack, we drew pictures about the dead bird, and every child dictated a small story about it. At the end of the day, we sat in a circle and Nancy shared the stories.
We never made it to see and dance in the falling, magical, pink petals of the cherry blossoms at the University of Washington that year. We had gone the year before and we would go the next year. The co-op preschool was an important part of our lives for many years. But the day of the dead bird was always the most memorable day of preschool.
At some point, as we wiped off the tables and stacked the indoor play equipment so there would be room for that night’s meeting in the church basement, Nancy confided, chuckling, “It’s called ‘emergent curriculum.’ Teaching the kids about whatever really engages them that day. It’s so…obvious.”
Just the other day in Hungary, we didn’t exactly know why we wanted to go see the Gül Baba’s tomb; we had ended up there after not being able to see the big synagogue.  And I didn’t have the moment of recognition until we were headed away from it. Because the street below the tomb is crumbling and uneven and impossibly old and beautiful, and except for the woman trapped in her car, it could have been any time at all, here on this street. It could have been 1654. Except for the car.
Why had she driven up so obviously bumpy a road? Why had we walked down it?
The guy next to her, watching as she tried and failed to make the car go forward or back, said, “Én nem tudom hogy mit mondani.”
My husband turned to us and quietly translated: “I don’t know what to tell you.” She looked pretty stuck.

Budapest #2 ⅔: Looking for Váci Utca

There is a story my mother-in-law likes to tell, laughing until the tears fill her eyes, about my husband when he was a young boy. The story took place on the street, in Budapest.

I dreamed about the story a couple of months ago. In my dream, my husband had written down the story, in Hungarian, for his blog.

My husband left Hungary around the age of 5, with his parents and his older brother. After that, they sought asylum in Austria for a year or so and then, received permission to come to the United States. None of them spoke any English when they came; it had been forbidden. Now, a generation later, everyone in Budapest speaks it.

Growing up, the only people my husband ever really spoke Hungarian with was his parents. Among his siblings, they spoke English unless they were using it as a secret language, to say things in front of other people. There was very little danger of anyone overhearing them and knowing Hungarian.

Spoken Hungarian sounds a bit lit people are making up sounds and are pretending to talk. I always thought that the character of Latka Gravas on Taxi as speaking a gibberish resembling Hungarian. 

My exposure to Hungarian has mostly been overhearing one end of my husband’s phone calls with his mother.  I am only familiar enough with this famously difficult and unique language that I know a couple of weird, mild curses, plus, “Én nem tudom,” which means, “I don’t know,” and “Nagyon jól, which is, “Very good.” I am familiar with the stuff of ordinary conversations with Mom, “Good night!” and “Love you!” but that’s about it.

My husband had asked his mother for a list of things to do when we were in Budapest, and it was mercifully short. It was easy enough to buy opera tickets. We stayed near the Szent István Bazilika and went in on the first day; there were art students sitting on the floor, sketchpads on their laps, their heads tilted up, as they drew the ceilings. We stumbled onto the Labyrinth. It was pretty cool and creepy, though I still don’t understand the manikins in renaissance costumes and the piped-in opera music. Still, we did it; we paid the ridiculous 2000 Ft, used our phones as flashlights, got water dripped on our heads, and checked it off the list.

By the second day in Budapest, I was wondering about that story my mother-in-law likes to tell. Where had that story had taken place? My husband called from Budapest to ask his mother if she knew what street it was on.

She remembered it to be on Váci Utca. We had already found Váci Utca on the Pest side of the Duna, a shopping street with souvenir shops, chain stores, and restaurants. Pretty much the kind of street where you weave between the shuffling tourists and the restaurant barkers, offering “authentic gypsy music and Hungarian food.”

All I wanted was a picture of a street sign. The three of us fanned out, my husband with his camera, and my oldest son and I with our phones. I take so many pictures with my phone I’ve gotten pretty good at snagging candid shots of random people without drawing attention to the fact that I’m getting a photo of them. But there was one photo that got away completely that morning. It was a man, not too young and not too old, with the flushed complexion of a guy who drinks a lot, but that lean, thin look of a guy who works hard, but maybe drinks more than he eats. He was standing on the corner of Váci Utca and Türr Istvan Utca, solemnly wearing a paper Burger King crown. I really wanted this man’s picture, but he had a wild and terrible look in his eye. My husband saw him too, but took a photo of the street name on a different corner.
Váci Utca, Budapest

The old story goes like this: Kís Otti was walking with his brother and mother and father on a Budapest street when a black market peddler whispered to them that he had chewing gum to sell.

People in Hungary had not had chewing gum before. It was new, chewing gum, yet children knew about the stuff somehow. It is children’s business to know about candy, especially new kinds of candy.

Kís Otti paused and said, in a whisper, “Rágógumit akarok!” which means, “I want chewing gum.”

His mother and father pretended they didn’t hear him, and kept walking.

Kís Otti stopped and said, in a quiet, speaking voice, “Rágógumit akarok!”

His mother and father heard him, but they couldn’t buy him chewing gum. It was too expensive. They kept walking.

Kís Otti would not go another step. He said, in a loud voice, “Rágógumit akarok!”

His mother and father had to stop. What were they going to do? They couldn’t buy him chewing gum. It was out of the question.

Kís Otti began to chant in a small, powerful voice, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! 

Kís Otti’s brother Istvan, who stood to benefit from the purchase of black market chewing gum, stood nearby, not smiling, but not frowning, either. Kís Otti kept chanting, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok!”

One stick of chewing gum was 1000 forints. The family had just 16000 forints for the week. Kís Otti’s father thought they should pick him up and carry him away from the black market peddler with the 1000 forint chewing gum. Kís Otti’s mother thought he would never stop chanting.

Kís Otti still chanted, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok!”

Kís Otti’s brother Istvan, looked from his frowning father to his pleading mother, said nothing.

When we got back from Budapest, I was struggling to write the story of “Rágógumit akarok!” on the grounds that I still didn’t have enough details. Didn’t they live in another town? Why were they in Budapest? How did they get there? How expensive was the chewing gum?

I called my mother-in-law and she was happy to oblige. Her English is very correct, and her accent is gorgeous and slow, with rolled r’s. They had travelled to Budapest because, as she tells it, “We did not want our little sons to be not aware there was a larger world.” They were living in a small town, “quite close to Budapest,” and had a car, a Moskvich. 

It was a terrible, underpowered car, and struggled mightily on hills. She laughed her way through a reminiscence of driving it into the mountains, a long line of cars following as they struggled up, their finally overheating on a narrow shoulder and their efforts to cool it down by heaping snow into the engine. She told me her in-laws had bought it for them, and they were meant to pay them back, but they, “did not get lucky enough to pay them back.”

Of course, if you know my husband, you know that he got chewing gum, and so did his brother: one piece each. They chewed it all day and wanted to save it for the next day.

As for me, I continue to have new questions. Will I really have to call her again to ask, what color was the Moskvich?

Other Vacationers

Some of the other vacationers
We had been here just long enough that we’d grown restless from eating in the hotel for breakfast and dinner, and last night made plans to try the bigger resort next door. Our hotel is a small, quiet, boutique affair on a broad crescent of Caribbean beach, where all the neighboring properties seem larger and louder. Some are teeming with tourists, their stew of folks from all over seasoned with drawling, boisterous, hard-drinking Americans, like that one who tells the waiter, “It don’t matter,” and then makes him explain every item on the menu, because she, “don’t want nothing fishy.”
At the encouragement of several members of hotel staff and cab drivers, we walked down to the community Thursday fish fry, in the park. Nothing is especially cheap on this island, and when we bought two bottles of local beer, it came in big, milky plastic cups and was $10. There were many food vendors, so I guessed the best was the one with the longest line. Even the grilled corn was going to be $3 an ear. We lined up and drank our beer.
“Hey, it’s Missouri!” shouts the big pink fellow ahead of us in line for conch fritters.
He elbows his wife. She’s distractedly humping the air, dancing to the reggaeton blasting from the stage. Her eyes don’t focus on his face, but she peels her lips away from her teeth in a grimace of recognition. Is that a drunken smile? “You know,” she continues, speaking upward into the direction of the other couple in line with them, “Those Canadians are traveling with their kids.”
“Who wants to pay for all that!?” hoots her husband with a vote of support.
She jabs him back with an elbow of agreement, missing his belly and tipping not imperceptibly off balance.
Our hotel is full of people traveling with their kids. There was the tiny gent at dinner the other night in tiny navy topsiders without socks and tiny pressed khakis and a tiny white polo shirt and tiny suspenders. I was really looking forward to seeing him entertain himself with a parent’s pocket full of tiny cars, or a bunch of stickers and a new coloring book, but, no, his mom hauled out an iPad and set him up watching the glowing screen like a zombie, and the parents spoke in hushed tones in Russian without even glancing at him in his stupor. Do they even give out crayons in restaurants anymore?
Then there is what I call the Chas Tenenbaum family: with the nerdy dad in white tube socks and tightly belted, high-waisted khaki pants, the trim looker of a dark blond wife an obvious emblem of his financial success, and his matched set of curly-black-haired boys, the spitting images of dad, never out of arm’s reach, despite being on the verge of properly rambunctious Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sort of ready-for-adventure age.
Contrast these to the French Canadians we hear thundering in circles upstairs whose arrival in the restaurant is announced by their three squealing miniature ruffians. They appear to be five year old brother and sister twins, with a bonus 4 year old brother who can’t quite always keep up but will fling himself forward and over and around and through in every effort to. The father doesn’t stop talking, and the mother doesn’t even glance down to see them kick off and deposit their shoes under her chair at breakfast so they can run tight laps on the patio, tagging each other with wadded napkins clasped in their unsupervised and undisciplined fingers screaming in their own unintelligible blend of French and English. Their breakfast ended in tears as the youngest slipped the room key into a crack in the table and couldn’t get it out.
It’s not just families with small children here. There are a number of older couples, and I am as charmed by the careful escort of the frail wife to the water as I was the young mother with sleeping infant on her chest under a beach umbrella. There is a moment at the water’s edge, where the surf rolls in and out and the footing is rough and loose, where a couple of the unsteadier guests have needed an arm to hold and a word of encouragement.
The day before yesterday, Chas Tenenbaum and the boys took a football to the sand and stood not far enough apart in a triangle tossing it. None of them seemed to have ever tossed a football before, and the younger boy missed every catch. The mother puttered about the loungers and joined them, making a square. The figure formed by the bodies constantly reformed as the ball dropped, the only sound that carried to me was the mother’s apologies.
And then yesterday, at the beach, the Chas Tenenbaums commandeered a stand-up paddleboard as a family and were taking turns balancing on it, mom at the tail and dad at the nose. When the dad took his turn on the thing, the little one pressed on the board near his mother, at the nose, insisting, “I’ll stabilize it.”
“No,” the father shouted. “Get off.”
Soon enough, he lost his balance and fell in again. The parents dragged the board back to its spot on the sand and retreated to their lounge chairs, and the kids swam, bobbing in the swells. In the end, there was just the younger boy left, only his nose and forehead visible, floating purposelessly in the water. Finally, a moment of entertaining himself.

On our way to dinner, we saw the older couple with the fragile wife, trying to take selfies in the pastel light of a beach sunset. She was unhesitant in asking me to take a picture of them, with her iPhone. It’s still one of my favorite things to do: take pictures of strangers for them. We promised her a full report on the restaurant next door.

How I learned to Swim

My favorite swimsuit, a real Speedo
When my mother noticed that I would not tie my own shoes, she attempted to teach me herself, and gave up when I went limp on the floor instead of watching her do it.  At preschool I picked up an over-the-head technique for putting on my winter coat myself, and I thought everything about it was excellent, especially the part where I violently swung my arms trapped in the sleeves up and over my head. My mother hated this.
When my mother noticed that I had not learned to swim naturally and without teaching as all the other children seemed to in the mid-to-late 1960s, she determined that I should be subjected to swimming lessons at the local natatorium.
I am sure I was against swimming lessons before they even began. I had been happy at the outdoor public wading pool in summer, and saw no reason why I, as a very, very small five year old, should give up the warm and shallow area reserved for the preschool set. The water barely got up over my knees! There was no violent splashing! I could crawl in it!
I was removed on a Saturday morning from my hunched spot on the carpet in front of the TV and taken to swimming lessons. The place stank of pool chemicals and especially chlorine, of course, as public pools do, and involved entering a labyrinth of smelly lockers and damp tile and threatening showers. My mother may have attempted to cram my already unbrushable hair into a swimming cap, but I would have squirmed and thrashed away from her.  I steadfastly resisted washing, brushing, and dressing with vigor. In addition to smelling dangerous and wrong, the ceilings were too high, there were too many people, and that pool sounded splashy and sharp, and then, once I was dragged to the edge of the pool, the most profound horror of all was revealed to me: the water was cold.
There was scolding and shouting and I don’t know who was talking to me, but suddenly I was in the water and I was supposed to be jumping up and down, and not screaming or crying. What a perfect misery! Betrayal! Cold water! Strangers! Exhausted and overwhelmed, I relented and allowed the initial purpose of swimming lessons to be revealed: I was meant to put the back of my head into the cold water, followed by my ears.
It was unthinkable.
The swimming teacher wanted, no, needed required me to relax my whole body and let it float on top of the water. The water would hold me up, like magic. All I had to do was let the water hold me up, let the water surround my neck, let the back of my head rest on the water, let the water lap around my ears, let my ears go under the water. It was going to be easy. Ready?
I could take about three seconds of it. One, Mississippi, I was in the water. Two, Mississippi, my head was in the water. Three, Mississippi, I was floating in the water. Four, nope, no way, not doing it. I was standing, gulping, sputtering, and crying.
I did not want to float. The water was too cold. I did not want to learn to swim. I did not listen to the instructor. I screamed and cried until I was allowed to get out of the water. I was happy to sit in the acrid, stinking terror of the freezing cold locker room, shivering until my mother came back to take me home. Anything but swimming in that pool.
There was no second lesson.
By the time I was in the third grade, my mother, had arranged for me to attend a summer camp where I would get particularly well-regarded swimming instruction.   There, we were grouped not by age but by ability, and I, being unable, was grouped with the kindergarteners.  Suddenly, the stakes were very high. They could not have been higher. No, I did not know any of the other kids at this strange new day camp, where the only real highlight of every day was the tiny plastic tub of imitation vanilla ice-cream with ripples of indescribably delicious artificial chocolate given to each camper to eat with a tiny wooden paddle before we boarded the buses home. Even in the presence of strange other children who hadn’t yet learned to make fun of me and all of my obvious flaws, I knew that being in the kindergarteners’ swimming group was social death. I was in the third grade.

And so, dear reader, I put my head in the water. I got water in my ears. I floated on my fucking back. I attempted the crawl with primitive side-breathing. I learned to jump in from the side of the pool and from the diving board. I learned to dive into the water with my hands stacked on top of each other, my upper arms tight over my ears. The next summer I was not required to attend the strange new camp again: I had learned to swim.

"Parenting Your Preschooler"

Sending our kids to a cooperative preschool meant we went to monthly parent meetings and sometimes we had a parent educator. I remember that we had one named Fran and another one who was Not Fran. I don’t remember if this story is about Fran or Not Fran. Fran had short hair and a dry, academic way about her. Children seemed like unwanted and unexpected carbonation in her drink as they bubbled about the classroom, her fingers twitching in reaction. As irritated as Fran seemed by the presence of children, she seemed even more undone by parents, especially those with a lot of questions. Not Fran had a mop of curly hair and warm eyes and a sultry overnight radio DJ voice. Not Fran liked to say understanding things about parents and children having clashing personalities. Both were prone to silences and somewhat grave. They attended every other parent meeting and we received parent education from them. I was a coop preschool parent for many years, something like seven or ten, and I remember well only one parent education lecture.
January-ish, 1991
Taken in the subway in New York City
Me, with my oldest child
Even though this story is about my youngest, it would 
take me weeks to find a photo of me with me youngest, 
if I have one at all. Back then, when we were still using 
film, and it was our third kid, the photo-taking didn’t 
happen very often.

This one evening, I had had a long day. My youngest child was only a couple of months old and had had a whole set of shots that day. He was still nursing so he came along to the parent meeting. That evening, he was uncomfortable from the shots, and very fussy. We did our regular meeting business about upcoming field trips, snack schedule, and changes in classroom procedure, and I had to step away from the group to attend to my cranky infant. Finally, I got him quiet in my arms and I tiptoed back to the group.
The parent educator, Fran or Not Fran sat forward on the sofa, her knees tightly together, her materials in a messy stack on the coffee table in front of her. Parents sat all around her, in the living room chairs, on the sofa arm, in dining room chairs they’d pulled in.
Fran or Not Fran was speaking in a quiet monotone on a subject that had everyone’s attention. All eyes were on her. She was methodically explaining that the technique she proposed relieves stress for both kids and parents, makes for more fluid communication, and models emotional resilience. Because I hadn’t heard what the subject was, I was having trouble following her. She droned on for a while.
When the parents started asking questions, I tried piecing together what she was talking about. I took my attention from Fran or Not Fran to the other parents. They were concerned, serious, reflecting on the topic. There was not even a half-smile to indicate the topic of discussion: they were talking about using humor in parenting. 
I did what I always do in awkward situations: tried to be funny. Just to get things rolling, I asked, “I’m sorry. What are we talking about?”
Fran or Not Fran turned to me, saying gently, “Using humor in parenting.”
“Oh,” I said. “Does it come in a refillable pump spray?”

No one laughed. The other parents looked confused. Fran or Not Fran looked mildly annoyed.

The Wolf That Would Not Die

My family frequently traveled with another, the C____s. This family had two children, a boy and a girl, close in age to my older brother and me.  In the winter we would drive to Colorado to go skiing together. In summer we went on at least one float trip.  Missouri has a number of creeks and rivers that are pretty easily navigated by families in aluminum canoes, fully laden with food and camping gear. I was too young to remember much about where we went and how we did it, but I do remember there was the Current River, and that we floated the Huzzah (pronounced “who-zaw”) and the Courtois(pronounced “coh-duh-way”).
We learned to save our worn out sneakers for river shoes. Typically, I would get the kind of terrible blistering sunburn on my back that we are now warned cause skin cancer. There were supposed to be several kinds of poisonous snakes to watch out for, but I only remember seeing one huge water moccasin, draped on a branch over the water.  I was taught to steer for the “v” in the rapids.
One of my mother’s terribly embarrassing habits was collecting and recycling bottles and steel and aluminum cans.  This was the late 1960s and early 1970s, when these efforts required washing, removing labels, flattening cans and collecting the sorted recyclables in the garage. Trips to the recycling center were humiliating to me; no one else I knew collected and dropped off trash like this. Pulling cans out of the river was another thing, though. You could see that the cans were pollution! Sometimes we saw people floating the same rivers in inner-tubes, six-packs of beer balanced on their stomachs.  If they floated ahead of us, we were probably collecting their cans.
My older brother tells an excellent float trip story about setting off bottle rockets after everyone was snug in their sleeping bags in their tents.  As for me, I do recall waking up one morning and having the water at the door of the tent because it had risen in the night, but I was too young to be responsible for pitching tents.  My main specific memory is of sitting around the campfire and after all the new stories and the funny stories and the standard stories had been told (including “The Giant Purple Ape”), begging Mr. C____ to tell the story of “The Wolf that Would Not Die.”
The story of “The Wolf that Would Not Die” was supposed to be so frightening that people had died both telling it and hearing about it.  We begged for it specifically.  Mr. C____  insisted for years that he had been sworn to secrecy.  Finally, we got Mr. C____ to tell the beginning, but just the beginning, where the leader of a fierce pack of wolves has his head chopped off, but is carried by members of his troop as they sought revenge.  We were never able to convince Mr. C____ to tell the end, though, and while I did not know it then, I am pretty sure now that there was no story and he was winging it.