March On!

Yesterday I marched in the San Francisco Women’s March to secure our future with the future: my 20-something daughter and her friends. Last year my husband and I went to the march in Oakland, but this year he was at a climate conference all day. So I asked Ally if I could join her group as an unobtrusive mom.

“Sure,” she texted. “Just don’t wear like five fanny packs.” (Apparently, Valley-Girl-Speak is still an essential feature of women’s empowerment.)

I promised to wear only four, so I was in. Such delicate mother-daughter negotiations must have been rampant: Not only were there many two-generation duos at the march, but this sign:

(Hmm. I assumed my daughter’s sign referred to Trump, but perhaps she meant her mother?) Other signs read:


1. Smash the Patriarchy

2. Brunch

Ally and her friends had their priorities straight, though, and began with brunch. I huddled in the kitchen with another unobtrusive mom while the millennials spilled all over the living room, munching on fruit and making their signs. Finally, we were ready to go. The sole young man in attendance took the obligatory photos on the doorstep to mark the beginning of our march:

Then we headed for the Civic Center, the younger generation dancing and singing to the music on a portable sound system.

It was a gorgeous day in San Francisco, and the crowd was exuberant. Ally and her friends took selfies and pictures for their Facebook feeds (“You can tell it’s a millennial march,” she remarked to me):

I squeezed through the throngs checking out the signs. There were a jillion references to body parts—ovaries, uteruses, dicks, and two certain nether-regions made famous by the President himself: one to describe what he felt entitled to grab and one he used to demean places mostly inhabited by brown-skinned people. Here are some of my G-rated favorites:

A couple of enterprising men had set up a table on the fringe of the plaza, and were inviting everyone to sign their petitions. I recognized the sponsors and the cause (anti-tax) as Republican-based, but the pussy-hatted women adding their names apparently did not. I approached a couple to ask them if they knew what they had signed. They were shocked when I told them; one went and scratched out her name and told me she would alert her friends. Score one for the Resistance.  Score one also for Mom Lesson #1 (an extension of everything we told you about Stranger-Danger!!): Don’t assume that everyone hanging around a friendly gathering is friendly—some of them are out to hurt you, and will take advantage of your trust and goodwill.

After the rally, we marched down Market Street to the Embarcadero. It was fantastic to see not only so many of us marching, but so many lining the sidewalks cheering us on. It has been an exhausting and destructive year, but we’re still here, stronger and more determined than ever. Not only will we march, we will organize and vote all over the country to stop this administration and its enablers.

As my favorite sign put it:


adviceMy mother dispensed some puzzling advice: “Don’t grow old,” she was fond of saying.

This always brought me up short.  It seemed hard to imagine that the woman who thought I was God’s gift to the universe was advocating my early death.

Less morbid but equally impossible was another one of my mother’s favorite sayings: “Don’t be like me!”

This is like asking a duckling not to imprint on the first living creature it sees. For better or for worse, we women bear the stamp of our mothers.

My advice to my own daughters is more pragmatic:

  • Pay off your credit cards on time and in full every month.
  • If you want to save money, never order alcohol at a restaurant.
  • The secret to delicious cakes, cookies, and brownies is to always under bake them.

What I’m really saying to my daughters, of course, is DO be like me—sober, responsible, with no greater vice than a sweet tooth. That way, assuming your sugar consumption is under control, you’ll be sure to grow old, with a measure of financial security to boot!

My daughters, now in their mid-twenties, roll their eyes at my advice. They find it hilarious that I’ve never had a hangover.

“Have you ever had ANY fun?” they ask.

“I have fun!” I protest. “I hike, go to the movies, listen to NPR . . . “

I’m beginning to see how I sound just as impossible to my daughters as my mother sounded to me. The difference is that she tried to warn me away from the trap of similarity, while I’m inviting them in.

I’ve attempted to heed my mother’s advice not to be like her, determined to escape the black hole of despair she sometimes fell into. Taking to her bed in the middle of the day, my mother tried to fill that void with cigarettes and Agatha Christie novels and Hostess cupcakes. I do not smoke. I do not read mysteries. I never nap. The empty calories I consume come from artisanal breads and flourless chocolate cakes, not the bologna sandwiches and stale baked goods my mother favored.

Still, she pops up within me, having seeped into my pores despite my best efforts. I, too, embarrass my children by chatting up the grocery store clerks in the check-out line or fulminating against those with different political views. Unlike my mother, however, I never hurl ashtrays at the TV screen when politicians I loathe appear. But that’s only because I don’t smoke.

My mother followed her own advice—she did not grow old.  Done in by three packs a day and all those Hostess cupcakes, she barely squeaked past 70. I hope to defy her particular counsel about aging. But I’ve long stopped fighting the fear of becoming her. Now that my mother is gone, I wish I was more like her. For one thing, I realize there’s a whole genre of detective fiction I’ve missed! And how I’d love to hurl invective if not ashtrays right along beside her at various presidential candidates. I’d give anything to tell my mother how glad I am she passed on to me her politics, her humor, her intelligence, her passion for social justice, and her deep, deep love for her children.

My daughters still fear turning into me, just as I once feared turning into my mother. They can’t imagine a worse fate than the dull, safe life I have mapped out for myself and seek to impose on them. They don’t yet know that such a life might be worth emulating.

Since I never co-signed for my daughters’ credit cards, I do not know if they are now paying exorbitant interest and late fees to banks, or how many expensive cocktail bars show up on their statements.

But already they make a mean chocolate cake. I guess there’s hope that they’ve been listening after all.


What’s the best and worst advice your mother gave you and/or that you’ve given your kids?




Wishing Well

Wishing Well JPG

The picture above is a wishing well in San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden. “Wishing Well” is also my title for an essay of mine that just appeared in the Washington Post. That’s a terrible title for our Internet age of tags and clicks and not caring whatsoever about clever titles with double allusions that mean nothing to anyone who hasn’t read the essay. Which why would they because what the hell is it about, anyway? Why take a risk on something that sounds confusing and suspiciously literary?

So the Washington Post’s title gets right down to it: “My legacy to my daughters: BRCA and cancer?” That’s right: My essay is about an unwelcome legacy in our family; what it’s like as a mother dealing with the fact that I might have passed on the gene that greatly elevates the risk of breast and ovarian cancer to my daughters; and how they feel about getting tested for the BRCA mutation. If you haven’t read my essay, you might want to do so now before reading the rest of this post. (In other words: “Spoiler Alert!”)

The essay ends on an ambiguous note, which prompted a Washington Post reader to ask, “But where is the ending? What about Emma?”

What about Emma, indeed? It’s so hard not to know what happened! At the time I wrote the essay, and at the considerably later time when it was accepted, we did not know Emma’s BRCA status because she did not want to know. Those of us who dwell in the BRCA land of No Good Choices in the Face of Risk swing back and forth between twin slogans: “Knowledge is Power” and “Ignorance is Bliss.” Emma chose the latter, as did I for a while, until my own uterine cancer forced me to come into knowledge I did not necessarily want to possess. So I understood Emma’s decision, even though it made me anxious. (If she had decided otherwise, I also would have been anxious.)

This is how things were for three years. Then Emma changed her mind about testing. Partly time softens us for readiness. But what really made the difference for Emma was an NPR report about how women who work with someone with breast cancer are less likely to get their own routine screenings because they are frightened seeing the disease up close and personal. Their denial snapped Emma out of hers (another reason you should support NPR).

Less than two weeks before my essay was published, Emma learned her test results. She does not have the BRCA mutation. We cannot believe our good fortune that both daughters have dodged this bullet. The wishing well granted my wish!

I debated long and hard about whether to contact the Washington Post editor to add an epilogue. After all, as the reader’s plea reminds us, we like to know how things end. We especially like a happy ending, and I feel a bit churlish to have withheld it.

But it so easily could have gone the other way. I had also seriously debated whether or not I would ask the editor to pull the essay altogether had Emma’s news been bad.

In the end, I decided to leave the essay as it stood. The point, after all, is that legacy is multi-faceted, we rarely know the ending of anything, and we must bear the anxiety of not knowing (especially as parents). The flip of the coin went our way this time, but it won’t for many facing the same dilemma, and it won’t for us other times. That’s just how life goes.

But for you, dear Shrinkrapped reader, I’m happy to provide a happy ending to this particular story, and happier still to have one to provide!




Out of the Box

Recipes spilling out on counterMy daughter Ally says I’m a hoarder. She may have a point. As I search the cupboards for a spanakopita recipe gone missing, hundreds of loose clippings cascade to the floor.

Not one is from my mother. She’s bequeathed many wonderful things, but heirloom recipes and a deft hand in the kitchen are not among them. What tumbled from my mother’s cupboards were boxes of Cheez-Its and Ring-Dings. Mostly they brought private relief from the black hole of suburban housewifery. But every afternoon when I came home from school, my mother shared her stash while I shared the ins and outs of the day. I loved licking the salty orange dust from my fingertips and how the glazed chocolate shell yielded to the cake’s soft interior.

Since my mother’s cooking skills were limited to sprinkling onion soup mix atop a cheap cut of beef, most of my childhood meals came from a box. We had almost no cookbooks. Just an ancient Fannie Farmer and a pristine Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the latter a gift from my father laden with hope and rebuke. One prized paperback summed up my mother’s culinary philosophy: Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book.

But I loved to cook, or at least to experiment, and my mother loved to indulge my whims. Perhaps hoping to someday palm off the task of feeding us night after unending night, she never minded the spills on the counter or the mess of bowls in the sink. My first made-from-scratch cake had the heft and taste of a hockey puck. Yet my mother and I delighted in the rainbow frosting magically created from just four squeeze bottles of food coloring. By high school, I had graduated to fancy-dress dinner parties for my friends featuring Boeuf Bourguignon. Julia Child was at last put to good use. Still mastering the art of baking, I also served an inedible Apple Harvest Cake as cloying as marshmallow fluff.

I have been collecting recipes ever since, and am renowned for my cakes–chocolate-espresso tortes, lemon bundts that pucker the mouth into permanent ecstasy, an apple-walnut cake that lays to rest the ghastly sweet ghost of its predecessor.

My daughter and I have continued the ritual of sharing gossip and snacks in the kitchen, with one crucial difference. From the time Ally could stand, she’s been folding wet ingredients into dry, absorbing my preference for food made from scratch. Once she even pulverized Cheez-Its, reconstituted the crumbs with water, and baked the soggy mass in a quest for home-baked goodness. When Ally left for college, I hand-copied her favorite recipes into a scrapbook. Like my mother, I enjoy the fruits of my encouragement, and of Ally’s labor: she gladly cooks for us every time she’s home.

Ally has a lot of recipes to choose from: The Joy of Cooking competes for shelf space with whole volumes dedicated to soup, chicken, pasta, chocolate, every world cuisine and passing food fad. Weight Watchers and vegetarian cookbooks stand ready in case I ever follow through on my good intentions.

But the books are nothing compared to big manila envelopes stuffed with recipes culled from magazines, newspapers, and the mothers of ex-boyfriends. So I’ve hired my daughter, who’s looking to earn some extra cash between college and a real job, to tame the mess. True to her generation, Ally seeks a technological fix.

“Haven’t you heard of the internet?” she asks.

I have. But online browsing can’t compete with sitting down surrounded by stacks of books and clippings to plan a dinner party, a week’s menus, or how to use the odds and ends at the back of the fridge.

Ally is right, though: It’s gotten out of hand. So I set her up with scissors, double-stick tape, and notebooks to organize my recipes, most of which I’ve never tried. Like every hoarder, I hold out hope that someday I’ll put everything to use.

“When are you ever going to make Buche de Noel with Meringue Mushrooms?” Ally inquires.

I swear that this year will be different from Christmases past. But Ally lacks faith that my plans for show-stopper desserts will no longer fall victim to last-minute wrapping. Nor does she appreciate the value of multiples. Otherwise, she wouldn’t bother asking, “Do you really need another recipe for dal?”

Hmmm. Letting go is hard, but I suppose not. One for the “Discard” pile.

“How many different kinds of chocolate cake do you plan to bake?” Ally persists.

All of them. Chocolate has its own special “Keep” pile.

Now I get why hoarders go psychotic when well-intentioned relatives trick them into leaving the house, then move in with dumpsters. Since Ally clearly cannot be trusted with sorting, I must discern my own treasure from trash.

Sifting through 40 years’ worth of recipes is like an archeological dig. Excavating the layers uncovers a civilization once heedless of time and cholesterol—1 cup heavy cream, ½ pound grated cheddar, ½ pound ham, just to make a noodle casserole. Or Duck Gallantine, which involves boning a duck and rendering fat for many hours. I have rendered a lot of fat in my life, and most of it is on my hips. I prefer a faster route, via scrumptious chocolate layer bars.

The dig also reveals an era of unexecuted dinner parties that would have led to insurrection by Downton Abbey’s kitchen staff: Roast Saddle of Veal with Mushroom Sauce for 12; Ham Braised in Port with Brown-Sugar Crust for 20. My early browsing exposes a period of sheer fantasy: enough time and money, matching china and crystal, and a couple of Masterpiece cooks on loan from BBC.

This by-gone epoch is overlaid by the reality of young family life, with lots of hidden-vegetable recipes. Next comes the modern era of chicken every which way and grains previously known only to ancient Incas.

Finally I am ready to turn over the clippings that have escaped the recycling bin. Ally sets to work as I hover nearby to make sure she doesn’t jettison my multiple cheesecake recipes.

Now we are cooking! In no time at all, Ally has brought order from chaos. She is also salivating. “Let’s make Portobello Bourguignon!” she exclaims, echoing my youthful pick with a vegetarian version sure to win over Julia Child.

And so we do, working side by side, peeling, chopping, sharing the ins and outs of the day. I imagine my mother, Ring Ding in one hand, saluting us with a box of Cheez-Its in the other.

(Originally published in skirt! Magazine)


What are your family’s food and cooking traditions? How do you organize your recipes? Any favorites you’d care to share? (I’ve cheated and found some links for some of the drool-worthy ones I mention, but of course they are missing my tweaks and all the stains on the page. And alas, I could not find Tart’s chocolate-espresso torte recipe, so you will have to come paw through my tattered index cards.)



Cleaning Up Our Act

SolesIt’s time. Past time, actually. Emma is 26 and has been living in Brooklyn for the last 18 months. She’s graduated not just from college, but to full independent living, not counting the occasional Trader Joe’s gift cards I send her. I do this when I become too anxious that trying to make it on $12 an hour in the Big Apple may force Emma into dumpster diving. (Possibly it is not the threat of starvation that might drive her to this, as you will see.) Also, Emma’s still on our Verizon family plan. I am convinced that when the stages of human development are revised for the current era, getting your own phone account will replace marriage, mortgages, and having children as the signposts of adulthood.  Still, aside from these minor caveats, Emma’s grown up. Gone.

Her stuff isn’t gone, though. True, she did a major purge to mark her graduation from college. But I might have been a tad too optimistic when I chronicled the demise of Emma’s hoarding days. She really just scratched the surface. One thing unearthed during that earlier excavation was that I am a hoarder by proxy, and I didn’t demand that Emma dig deeper. I believe that closets and basements were invented for hanging onto things until we are ready to let go.

Apparently, I haven’t been ready. Although I’ve professed a desire for a guestroom for years, Emma’s partially denuded bedroom has retained its status as part shrine, part dumping ground. The one thing we did get rid of after she left is her loft bed, so now even nimble guests (or returning daughters) have no place to sleep.

My husband and I finally got a new mattress, which provided the impetus to move the old one into Emma’s room and turn fantasy into reality. It is not quite the guestroom of my dreams. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to a dumping ground with a bed in the middle of it, surrounded by junk. Emma’s junk.

I wish I were the kind of mother who could just start tossing, confident that the appropriation of kids’ former space no longer induces trauma once they are old enough to fall off your health insurance under Obamacare. But I can’t. I’m an enabler.

It would probably be better, I think as I riffle through high school term papers and ugly glass figurines, to adopt a version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Don’t tell Emma about that mysteriously disappeared fake hand we got for Halloween one year, and she won’t ask. Or care. Or even know! But perhaps I have never gotten over the box of stuffed animals my mother tossed. More pragmatically, I regret that the baseball Jackie Robinson autographed for my husband when he was a boy did not survive a major move by his unsentimental (and financially unsavvy) parents.

I don’t want to make such mistakes, or make Emma’s decisions for her.So I hit upon the brilliant idea of taking iPhone pictures of stuff, then sending them to her so she can decide. Plus, if I succeed in the time-honored trick of substituting photos of stuff for the stuff itself, we’ll already have the photos! Cyberspace is such a vast new wasteland to clutter up, our humble collection will barely make a dent.

Hopeful, I arrange scarves, trinkets, purses on the bed, and send off my first batch with the subject line “Keep or Give Away?” I am careful to avoid the word “discard,” which sounds so dismissive and final. Maybe “give away”  might stimulate some deeply buried philanthropic urge.

“Save!” Emma emails in response, the act of hoarding itself apparently a rescue operation. This is not working. But then, a different response to one of the four pictures arrives: I am allowed to get rid of—sorry, give away–two hats.

So I send another photo, this one containing a pair of shoes and a pair of cowboy boots with holes that the Marlboro Man could ride his horse through. I’ve appended a message: “HUGE holes! Be brave!”

Emma writes back, “I really like the strange compositions of these photos you have been taking! But unfortunately I will have to ask you to retain this pile (it took me so long to find cowboy boots—I will get them resoled).”

And I will need to get re-souled into a different kind of mother, if I ever hope to have a guestroom.


Where are you on the spectrum from minimalist to hoarder? How do you deal with your grown kids’ stuff? How did your parents deal with yours?

Mom Rules

My mother gave me some impossible advice: “Don’t be like me.” (My essay of the same title was just published in skirt! Click here for a funky link to the issue’s pdf and find page 31). I don’t know many women who don’t fear discovering—and then finding–aspects of their mothers in themselves, do you?

Another of Mom’s gems was, “Don’t grow old.” This puzzled me as a child. Was I supposed to look forward to an early death? As a person who was diagnosed with cancer a year and a half ago, I can tell you that there is nothing I look forward to more than growing old.

I have tried to take a more pragmatic approach with my daughters. Here are my top tips to them:

  1. Pay off your credit cards in full on time, every time.
  2. Try to have a job where you don’t have to wear pantyhose everyday (I dispensed this tidbit before it was acceptable for people to leave the house in their pajamas).
  3. If you want to have children, try to have a career that allows you to work part-time.
  4. If you want to save money, don’t buy alcohol at a restaurant or bar.

When my eldest daughter, Emma, was experiencing a difficult time in college, I recommended that she figure out one small thing she could do each day NO MATTER WHAT—brush her teeth, put on lipstick, do the dishes, get dressed. “For me, it’s making the bed,” I added. Emma now makes her bed religiously, and says this is the most helpful thing I’ve ever said. I only wish I had thought to say it before she left home for college, leaving behind her a bedroom that looked like it had crossed paths with Hurricane Katrina.

Who knows what bits of mother wisdom and folly will lodge in kids’ brains?

Actually, my mother gave me some very valuable advice on top of the impossible:

  1. If you want to read good writing, read The New Yorker.
  2. If a man hits you, even once, walk away and never look back (I passed this one on to my girls).

Here’s what I really hope I’ve passed on to my girls from my mother. She didn’t write it–I came across the well-worn clipping in her drawer. It wasn’t even published until 1972, when I was almost out of the house. But my mother could have been the author–it was the air I breathed growing up. Take it and pass it on; you could do a lot worse:

Children Learn What They Live

By Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.

If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.

If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.

If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.

If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.

If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.

If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.

If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.

If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.

If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.

If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.

If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.

If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.

If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.

If children live with fairness, they learn justice.

If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.

If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.

If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

Copyright © 1972 by Dorothy Law Nolte

Thanks, Mom. You rule.


What was the best and worst advice you got from your mother? How about the best and worst advice you’ve given your kids?







Travels in Siberia


Missing my daughters a lot today, so here’s one of my old favorites:

Emma, my 22-year-old daughter, has long dreamed of Russia. Its exotic onion domes promise delivery from the dull safety of her suburban upbringing. At last she is there, studying for a semester in St. Petersburg. It’s not Siberia, but the vastness that separates us feels like a kind of exile.

Thousands of miles and eleven time zones are not all that keep us apart; Emma has always required her space. Her penchant for privacy was coupled as she grew with a vigilance against usurpation. Once I made the mistake of lavishly praising a picture she had drawn. Emma savagely scribbled all over the paper, destroying her creation but also any attempt to appropriate what was hers. I often made such inadvertent incursions.

Eventually, I learned to heed the “No Trespassing” signs Emma posted from an early age. When she withdrew further into the interior, as every adolescent must, her natural reserve had already prepared me for the unrequited longing all parents must bear. Growing up is always an act of exile, a necessary escape from the soft smother of love.

My friend Leslie recalls when her teenaged son skulked away from their once-close bond. She said to him, “I know you need to do this, but I’ll miss you, and I’ll be glad when you’re back.” A decade later, he put his arms around her when she was doing the dishes, and said, “I’m back.”

Emma is far from being back, and I miss her. When I take the dog out at night, I look up at the sky and travel light-years to her through the star-strewn blackness. It helps to know we are under the same canopy.

Still, it is not enough.

I read in the newspaper that the writer Ian Frazier will appear at our local bookstore to read from Travels in Siberia. If I venture through the portal of his book, maybe I can sneak into Emma’s territory without tripping the alarm. My friend Roberta tried something similar. She hates baseball, but learned all about RBIs and earned-run averages so she could talk with her son throughout his adolescence. Their bond is deep, as is her grasp of baseball statistics.

Hoping to emulate Roberta’s success, I drive to the bookstore, buy Travels in Siberia, and take my seat. Maybe I will find Emma along the way, or at least understand her case of what Frazier calls “the dread Russia-love.”

Ian Frazier sports a middle-aged paunch, but he and Emma have a lot in common. For one thing, they are both lousy photographers. I am charmed by Frazier’s out-of-focus slides of dreary horizons, his low-key intelligence, and boundless curiosity. Frazier is infected with a fever for “the incomplete grandiosity of Russia,” relishing, as does Emma, its simultaneous greatness and brokenness.  I go home eager to travel the miles through his prose to my faraway daughter.

I feel like a trespasser, though. This is Emma’s journey, not mine, much as I want to accompany her. What if she needs the vastness between us now more than ever, and regards me as another marauding Mongol sweeping across the steppes? I do not want to force her again into scribbling out what she has created to protect against invasion.

But Frazier reassures me; setting out on his epic road trip across Siberia, he marvels at the absence of fences and “No Trespassing” signs. Encouraged that the unbounded landscape is spacious enough to absorb both Emma and me without crowding, I press on.

Commenting on the loneliness of exile in Siberia, Frazier writes, “Longing and melancholy worked their way into the very soil.” So it is with parents and children of a certain age. Standing now on the opposite end of a lengthening road that takes Emma farther and farther away from childhood, I feel the sorrow of exile as she goes down the road without me.

It has not been easy for Emma either. Her once-sure trajectory unspooled erratically as she zigzagged in and out of different colleges and half-baked plans. “All who wander are not lost,” I tried to reassure myself. But what if she could not find her way back? It looked like breakdown to me.

Frazier, too, encountered breakdowns on his journey across Siberia in a rickety van. Initially he fretted that it kept sputtering to a halt, just as I fretted about Emma. Over time, though, Frazier came to see the fits and starts as essential to the pleasure and genius of discovering what to do when things go wrong.

I have come to see the same about Emma.  Eventually I learned to trust that her breakdowns and detours were not so much obstacles, but the road itself that would take her where she needed to go.

Right now Emma needs Russia, with its convulsive revolutions. How could she not? It is every adolescent’s job to overthrow the tsar, and every parent’s job to surrender the throne. The old order gives birth to the new in benign or violent spasms, but there is no stopping the transformation.

Emma on the cusp is drawn to places in transition. Like Frazier, she savors crumbling Soviet-era housing blocs, babushkas hunting for mushrooms along busy highways, the ubiquitous trash. Russia, stubbornly insistent on remaining itself despite the homogenizing onslaught of progress, offers a bulwark as childhood edifices give way to Emma’s relentless induction into adulthood.

Siberia is no longer synonymous with the disappearance of exile. Frazier freely comes and goes after the Iron Curtain is lifted, and Emma, too, is less shuttered. In fact, she’s back. Not in the arms-around sense of Leslie’s grown-up son, but back from St. Petersburg and the need to keep us at arm’s length. Our mouths water as Emma describes fat dumplings stuffed with minced beef and onions. She is thrilled that Russians mistook her for a native. No wonder; her face, bright-eyed again, reflects her great-great grandfathers’, who fled the mother country in their own passage to adulthood.

We ask Emma to show us her photos, and she reluctantly obliges. My husband and I sit next to each other at the dining room table as she positions herself on the side. Emma removes certain photos before carefully placing each of the others at an angle where we must twist our heads to see them properly. We politely ask her to set them straight before us. She politely ignores us, allowing only an oblique glimpse into her edited world.

Emma’s pictures are terrible: A shot of sky with an onion dome in the corner, a kitten that’s only a speck in the foreground. They are as blurry and without context as Frazier’s shots of the endless horizon.

But they are hers. And she is ours again, if we let her set the frame.


Originally published In Underwired, July 2012


Friend Me

I never thought this day would come. But there it was on my timeline:

“Hi, Mommy. Let’s be facebook friends finally.”

The last time I had been privy to Ally’s social media life was when she was 12 and let me look at her MySpace page for a dollar. Reading about her Harry Potter crush was no different from hearing about it face to face for free. I wondered why I had wasted my money, and quickly lost all interest in cyber-sleuthing. My children were born and mostly raised before technology made childrearing a living hell, so this is not as negligent as it sounds.

Now Ally is about to turn 23–independent enough to no longer need to prove her independence.  And so she’s accepted my Friend Request, sent so long ago I’d forgotten I’d ever committed the faux-pas of asking in the first place.

“Mom,” both daughters had protested when I first got on Facebook and naively proposed that we become friends. “Are you out of your mind?” I think they may have phrased it more diplomatically, but I am skilled at discerning the subtext behind polite demurrals.

What is the subtext behind this sudden confirmation of my Friend Request? (And when will my daughter Emma follow her sister’s lead?) Ah, I get it . . . Ally, an aspiring writer, is trying to build platform. As an aspiring writer myself, I know that’s what I should be doing, too, inviting everyone in the world to be my friend and “Like” my page (which I have yet to create). Somehow, though, I can’t get past thinking of platforms as 70s shoes to be avoided, and the time in college someone stole my wallet on the platform at the Philadelphia train station. Perhaps I could have chased the thief down had I not been wearing those damn shoes.

Now I can communicate with my new friend about how to set up my writer’s page. After all, what are friends for? Not much, I’m afraid, at least not the eye-rolling daughterly kind. My preliminary request for help resulted in Ally’s telling me I could figure it out in five minutes if only I would google it.

At any rate, I’m not sure how I feel about being Facebook friends. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was terrible policy for the military, but it turns out to be pretty serviceable as parenting advice for those with older teenagers or young adult children. So far I’ve been relieved to find that Ally’s Facebook life is about as racy as her MySpace page. Do corporations really pay people to troll through prospective employee’s pages looking for embarrassing and illegal revelations of youthful folly? If so, they are not paying them enough.

The real problem is that now I have to think about my posts and whether or not I want Ally to see them. Since all I post are political petitions and my writing, I’m not too worried. Except that Ally is the child who said, when I asked if she minded what I wrote, “I don’t care what you write about me as long as I get a cut of any money you make.”

What price, friendship?


Are you friends with your kids on social media? Pros and cons?


The Stranger-Danger Generation Goes Couchsurfing

dog on couch

Beware of men with cute dogs and couches!

My wonderful writing group, The Write on, Mamas!, performed at San Francisco’s Lit Crawl last weekend. Our theme was “Let Go Or Be Dragged.” As the mother of 20-somethings, I have a lot of experience with this. I read this piece (originally published in the now-defunct Underwired Magazine). What have you needed to let go of to avoid being dragged?


My daughter Ally is studying in Spain for the year, meaning she occasionally attends classes in between jetting around the continent. Recently she emailed that she and her friend Amy were off to Belgium, where they planned to save money by couchsurfing.

Parents lucky enough to dwell in a state of ignorant bliss might not know about couchsurfing. It’s no longer a euphemism for being one step away from living on the streets, but a new social networking sensation among the young. When Millennials tire of tweeting about revolution, they log on and find people willing to put them up for free anywhere in the world.

Ally was excited because a 41-year-old man had offered to host them.

I curbed my impulse to scream at her before alerting the State Department. Instead, I did what any normal mother would do: Googled “couchsurfing,” and immediately clicked on the “bad experiences” link.

First up was a Facebook page subtitled “The Dark Side.” It read like a plot-pitch competition for the sequel to Taken, a movie about college girls in a Paris nightclub who are picked up by cute guys. “Picked up” as in kidnapped, since it turns out the cute guys are really working for Albanian sex traffickers. Luckily, one of the abductees has Liam Neeson for a father; a former CIA operative who proves to all that he is not so much paranoid as prescient. And pretty skilled in dirty tricks.

Ally’s mother and father, alas, are not so skilled. Like a lot of parents these days, our talents consist of hovering and fretting about our children’s happiness. We belong to the generation that wouldn’t let kids play in the woods lest they stumble into the creek or an outpost of perverts. Our preschoolers’ circle time featured picture books about green, red, and yellow lights to inoculate them against stranger danger.

So like all good parents, my husband and I drilled Ally to run away from the hypothetical nice man with a litter of puppies in the back of his van. No, she declared, she would never go see the puppies, no matter how cute he said they were!

“How about a man who wanted to show you a litter of kittens?” I quizzed.

“What would be wrong with kittens?” Ally asked, perplexed.

Having reached the limits of generalized thinking rather quickly, it seemed pointless to expand the horizon of potential danger to include 41-year-old men with couches.

Particularly to a five-year-old.

Now the Stranger Danger Generation is all grown up. And going couchsurfing. Who says irony is dead?

I clicked out of the “Dark Side” and went directly to the source: True, this is a bit like relying on Big Pharma for advertising failed drug trials, but what’s a mother to do?

Couchsurfing International’s motto is “creating a better world, one couch at a time.” The website* features a large map festooned with pushpins, creating the impression that you can track your far-flung child the way politicians track every last voter in every last precinct. “The World is Smaller than You Think,” proclaims a headline. This subliminal leap to Disney’s “It’s a small world, after all” induced a nostalgic trance, and I felt myself being lulled into a more trusting state. No matter that predators are equally skilled in setting up their prey.

As I read further under “Safety isn’t one-size-fits-all,” I encountered the same conversation about stranger danger that I had attempted years earlier. It wasn’t so much about puppies and kittens as checking references, trusting your gut, paying attention to the internal red, yellow, and green lights. This time, the target audience had the cognitive skills to make such assessments.

I recalled a service trip to Mexico Ally had made a few years earlier with a church group. Before our teenagers embarked, the minister tried to assuage parents’ anxiety about drug violence. “The world is a risky place,” she said. “I worry each time my own children travel to faraway countries. But then I realize that the far greater risk comes from never leaving home.”

Now as then—as with every stage of parenting–I had to swallow hard and trust in the universe and Ally’s judgment. From crib death to solid food to sleepovers to dating to driving to leaving home—couchsurfing was just one more thing on the list of stuff I couldn’t control.

Ally returned from Belgium an ecstatic and avowed couchsurfer. Their host had taken them ice skating, handed over the keys to his apartment, and prepared a feast of mussel stew.

Thank you, universe, for taking care of my daughter.

And thank you, kind stranger, for making her feel at home.


* The website has changed since I wrote this a couple of years ago, so you won’t find the same verbiage or graphics anymore.


Ending Summer

Ally and Me

“This has been the summer of my dreams,” I say to my daughter Ally.

“That’s pathetic,” she replies.

Maybe. But it’s true. In the three months Ally’s been home between graduating from college and leaving for a job teaching English in Spain, we’ve been each other’s best companion. Long walks, picking blackberries, lattes, massages, cooking side by side, a mani-pedi to mark the dwindling days of flip-flops and of our time together. We’ve even managed some good conversations until I inevitably mess up with questions like, “What if you fall in love and decide to stay in Spain forever?“

I dreamed of such a summer four years earlier, in the fleeting weeks between high school and college. But back then my dream was Ally’s nightmare. So she stayed out late with friends, sleeping in till the coast was clear from my incessant offers of ensnaring lattes.

Four years away have allowed Ally to come back not only with a college degree, but with an independent identity that makes our bond less threatening. Free lattes? Bring them on!

Our first separation was a dress rehearsal. This time’s for real. Ally’s going off to adulthood, not college.

Songs from Fiddler on the Roof keep coursing through my mind:

“Is this the little girl I carried?”

”May the Lord protect and defend you.”

Mostly I feel like Tevye on the station platform, seeing Hodel off to Siberia. I know it’s not as dramatic as “God alone knows when we shall see each other again.”  For one thing, the shtetl lacked Skype. But the pang still runs deep.

The day of Ally’s departure arrives. She navigates the ticket counter, hoping the agent will turn a blind eye to her bag’s extra weight. It’s hard to move abroad for under 50 pounds. The agent waves Ally through, and we sit awhile, steeling ourselves for goodbye. I repeat something I heard on the radio, about imagining someone you sorely miss in the next room. “I’m going to think of you in the next room,” I say as we hug. To distract ourselves, we search out one last latte. It helps wash away the lump in my throat.

Last free latte!

Last free latte–at least for awhile!

I watch as Ally goes through security. It’s hard to see through the plate glass that separates us. Between the throng of travelers and the reflections of people waving goodbye, I soon lose track of her. Suddenly I feel the same panic that overwhelmed me when Ally was three, and we lost her in a museum. As my husband and I frantically searched the nearby exhibits, I glanced from the balcony into the lobby. There was Ally, calmly talking to a guard, unaware that she was lost.

She’ll be fine now, too.

I hope I can say the same for myself.