My apologies for the long silence. When last I wrote here, we had moved to the country and my husband was seriously disabled by his back injuries; he retired and we left the busy East Bay for Wine Country-quiet. I have been working on several projects in that time, namely my historical novel about the Orphan Train mama who lost her children and set about getting them back. That novel is in revisions and needs another deep dive. (Not this week, she said, juggling several pins, but one of these days soon.)
Another sideline has been our cabin, the Crow’s Nest, which we renovated from the studs out, and welcomed many guests, both as vacationers and as creatives, to come stay with us. Check it out on AirBnB here.
We’ve spent the past two years as innkeepers, and that was entertaining; I’ve been revising the novel, then resting (but still innkeeping) between rewrites. In the “rest” times, I’ve been to writing programs or conferences like the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and Associated Writing Programs. I started another book project, a biography of my great-grandfather Luther R. Bailey, Doris’s father, the architect, and have gathered much of what I need for that project, including publisher interest.
I was buzzing along on this project and chatting with an agent about my historical fiction in early 2019 when our world came to a crashing halt. My stepson, who I raised from age 5, our Boy, Austin took his own life in February 2019. And that has changed everything.
We are learning to live without our Boy, and it has been the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. We have lived very small in this dreadful year. It’s felt unbearably sad and riddled with confusion and doubts. I have written little and worked almost not at all.
Meanwhile, racism and politics have raged, children are locked in cages, the earth is burning… The Russian River flooded and marooned us in our cabin-on-stilts; my husband had major surgery in May; fires swept the North Bay and we evacuated in the fall… Our son in law lost his childhood home near Sydney, Australia, to wildfires there in November; a tree dropped a huge branch and damaged our roof just last week. And we’re in the middle of a presidential impeachment crisis that we hope will strangle the ugliness of the current administration and begin to lead us back to center.
It’s been a hard year, friends, neither creative nor productive. I set goals in December 2018 that are laughable now; we lead lives that are so other-focused that “2018 Julia” couldn’t even imagine. But I’m writing this — yes, pretty much the first “thing” I’ve written in months — to say that I will write again, we will keep living, our family is stronger for the terrible trials of 2019, and we are making plans for a different life ahead of us.
Nothing is yet confirmed nor written in stone (I mean anything, anywhere in life — but also, for our current plan), but if all goes as it should, we are looking toward a different view in 2020. We are looking at saying yes to life, a kind of resurrection, grabbing on to what we can and living it wholeheartedly.
Fingers crossed that it will happen. Watch this space.
I waken at about 1 a.m. and stare at the wall, trying not to look at the clock, its white number so stark, so painfully truthful. It’s past midnight. Hours loom before me.
You’re not asleep. This is not your house. This is not your bed. Those are not your children down the hall.
There are no children down the hall. No sighs, no whimpers, no calls for a sip of water. The girls are in their own beds, in the next town. Their father is the gatekeeper. The divorce is not going well and he has decided to keep them all, against their will, against mine, to make me suffer for whatever sins he thinks I’ve committed, most of all, leaving him.
The girls cling to me when I see them, when I turn up at school to catch them before they walk home. The other mothers sneer and turn away. I’m a gorgon, the Medusa who will freeze their blood and bones if they speak to me or smile. Divorce must be a norovirus you can catch by sharing the same bench, standing under the same overhang.
Roll back the tape six months and I was on the PTA, co-chair of the Reading Carnival, helping at Catechism on Thursdays. Girl Scouts on Saturday and dance class on Monday and Wednesday at 4. I took his elderly mother shopping and to the doctor in the mornings, mowed the lawn and cleaned house, whipped up dinner for five each evening. He’d come through the door and pour the first scotch-rocks before he set down his briefcase. It must be a lot, I guess, meeting the endless wants and needs of the wife and three children and the mortgage and minivan he said he wanted.
What he wants is not this. Not us.
I sneak to see them. I promise I will fight. But I don’t know if I can. He’s that powerful, and I’m that weak. During the one year of solitude without my children, I drive back and forth to work each day along the long stretch of road by the airport, around the shorelines of San Francisco Bay. I have to keep my face on for work, as I chase down stories and cover school board meetings. I have to keep it together at my shared apartment, because a weeping woman, especially an older one, is really boring, to say the least. But in my car, each day, I sob and choke my way from home and work, thinking, “I could take some pills,” “I could buy a gun,” or, perhaps most satisfying of all, “I could drive to the bridge, stand at the edge and just let go.” First the terrifying plunge, but then – cold deep water, darkness, silence, an end to everything. I have no idea if I will ever get my children back. I think I’ve lost them forever.
In the middle of the night, the world has stopped for me. There is mayhem and destruction everywhere, not just in my own little life. But I am dead to the world’s events. I don’t care about any of it. I write the news, watch terror and sadness on the television, in the newspapers, with no other feeling than shame, that I am not with my girls, I cannot reach them, I cannot protect them, I cannot mother them, I cannot shelter them, I cannot cry with them, I have become this useless slag, I have failed at the one thing I am biologically equipped to do, I have scorched the earth black with my own misdeeds, so that death and disasters on a global scale mean nothing to me. I’ve been catapulted out of a slingshot on a trajectory I could never have planned, with no way to slow my momentum.
I lie alone in my bed and stare at the black of the wall, the tilted shadows from the street. I think I should pray, but that tank is empty, too, something else to feel guilty for. I lie there counting my failures, my inability to act. Eventually, when the sky begins to pale, I fall into the darkest of dreams, an hour of madness before the morning bell.
(This column first ran in July 2007, right before I became a Mrs. again.)
I drove up to the home county of Sonoma a few weeks ago to pick up one of our girls from a visit to her grandparents. I had some time to spare (shocking but true) and wanted some quality time with my parents, so I hung around for a while.
I picked some plums with my mom and she gave me some geranium and penstemon cuttings for the garden. I gave my parents their wedding invitation and I got to see the latest quilts that she was planning to show at the county fair. We talked and looked at pictures and made plans for later in the summer. After a while, and a glass of iced tea, it was time to go.
As we stood outside near the car, my mom looked at me and laughed a little laugh. “You’re me, you know,” she said.
Now I know plenty of other people who would bristle at such a statement if it were made to them, and plenty of times that I myself would have driven screaming away and never returned, but this time, finally, it is true. My mom raised five kids, and here I am, embarking on the next phase of my life, taking in two more to bring my total of children to five as well.
When I stood there with my bowlful of sweet Santa Rosa plums and my geranium cuttings and my packet of scraps for the next quilt I’m going to work on soon — har de har freaking har — there was a moment, I’m not going to lie, when I did want to scream. Just a little bit.
Because, you know, everyone wants to be themselves, not their mom, or dad, or elder siblings. No one wants to be the apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree, and no one wants to be “junior” anything. We all want to be special and a bit more advanced or evolved — to do better in our generation than our parents did, if that’s even possible anymore.
But how does one do it better? I simply can’t beat the 53-plus years of marriage that my parents have shared, with five healthy kids who all graduated college and made something of themselves. I may never get the 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren (including all the step-grandkids). Maybe our kids won’t even have babies.
My parents worked hard, played by the rules, did the right thing even when it wasn’t their personal choice or even what they could bear. They just did it anyway, for the sake of the kids or the family or the whole shebang, and here we are today: an agricultural water plant manager, an attorney and CEO, a financial analyst, a commercial construction manager and a writer, and our kids are coming up behind us, traveling the world and taking it by storm.
I learned a lot from my mother about how to feed a large family, and it wasn’t just “add more water to the soup.” She was a champion at filling our bellies in even the hardest of times. There were always bread and butter and vegetables and a main course on the table, and we learned our manners and how to say grace before meals, and took turns setting and clearing. We did our homework and got ourselves to school by foot or by bike or by bus, and none of us coasted; we all got jobs and did farm chores and learned to do the right thing, too, mostly.
Alack and alas, though, a daydreamer like me comes along and lives an uncharted life: Unexpected pregnancy in college! Scrimping along as a single mom! Married to a Catholic priest! Divorced! Writing a book about it! Single parenting again! Eek! May I just offer kudos to my parents for keeping the faith? I’m a peach now, but I was a prickly pear for a very long time.
Ah, well. What can I say? My mom says, “You’re me now.” Am I?
We spent the last weekend painting the kitchen what I call “olive,” but let’s be real here – it’s that classic ’70s paint color, avocado. Then I finished up the valance I was sewing, made from a novelty print featuring a cheerful vegetable motif, hung it up and we made ourselves some vodka tonics. The kids were scattered around the countryside but they’d all be back at the dinner table in a few days. We toasted our weekend’s work and got ready for the next week.
My friend Jack Mingo says that writers are middle children who just want to speak uninterrupted. He may be right. I’m a middle child. Can’t you tell?
I’m one of five children. Our mom developed a color code to keep us organized, and that was the color of your beach towel, your swim bag, your cardigan, your home-sewn dress. My elder sister was blue; my younger sister was purple. I was red. (I still am.) My brothers were both green, or else one was green and one was light blue. But my mom had it down, and that’s all that mattered.
We lived in three- and four-bedroom homes, and if anyone got his own room, it was our eldest brother. Later, after George left for the Army and college, little Brian got his own room. But as the middle girl, I either had an elder, a younger, or both sisters in with me. We knew families in the neighborhood who had more kids (the Catholic Buckleys, the Mormon Sorensens; my mom’s best friend always joked that my parents weren’t Catholic, they were careless), so who could complain? We had enough to eat; we had all our needs met.
But whether it was a lap, a hand to hold crossing the street, or time alone with a parent, there wasn’t enough for all of us. And privacy? What was that? With siblings who were either athletic or super-academic, there was competition all around me. There was scrapping, bickering, torture, too. Dogpile? Why not?
But, as it happens, I’m sensitive. I don’t like competition. I like to be quiet and alone.
Today, I have social anxiety that causes me to break out in hives and have the shakes before I speak to a group. I almost always balk at going out to parties or having people over. I’m exhausted by too much noise, sound or conversation. I don’t like to talk on the phone. I much prefer interacting through the computer. Social media is awesome – I get to see lots of people while sitting home alone in quietude. It’s the perfect balance for me – alone, but not lonely at all.
I can see a direct link between a mom with a lap full of younger siblings, a busy dad working two jobs to make ends meet, and the whirl of a full house around me, to the dim space under the kitchen desk where I hid to read. And when the house was quiet when the other kids went out to play, I knew the script already, and played elaborate games happily by myself. Dolls took on adventures that I imagined; my stuffed animals came to life in their own tales. And it wasn’t long before stories crept from my pencil.
With less cacophony, I wouldn’t have had to find a quiet place to read and write. With more attention – more focus on me in a smaller family – I might have already said all the things I still have yet to say.
I’ve been trying to get to work this morning. The key word is “trying.” I have been up since 5:30 a.m., doing laundry, making school lunches, getting a healthy-on-the-go breakfast ready for the girls, doing my nails and all the other myriad things moms have to do. I have makeup on one eye, hair gel on my fingers and am trying to do a last few things before running out the door to get to work early. My youngest throws her backpack over her shoulder and is heading through the living room toward the front door, toaster waffles in hand, when the little maple syrup cup spills on the carpet.
Instead of getting out the door on time, I am on my knees with a sponge, with maple syrup and hair gel and carpet lint all over my hands, watching my manicure smudge and the minutes tick by, knowing I’ll have to say at work: Um, sorry, it was the kids and the carpet and…
Raising adolescent girls is a challenge when all the pieces are in place, when all the parties are vested in the outcome. Raising teens in a single-parent household is a bit more difficult. For one thing, there are the hours between school and when I get home from work that are unsupervised; these are, in fact, leaps of faith that there is no drug dealing or knife throwing going on in my little house while I’m not there.
As a stay-at-home mom, I didn’t used to worry about the empty after-school hours because I was there, at home. My eldest was pretty well behaved, only telling a few fibs in her high school days, and she was a terrible liar anyway, with a blush and a smile and shifty eyes that gave her away no matter how hard she tried.
But as a single parent now, I sometimes feel as if the giant boulder has already rolled down the hill back over me, and I have to chase after it before I can even start that uphill climb again. My middle daughter calls me from home to tell me she’s broken a dish (another one, and don’t even ask how it happened). She asks where the vacuum cleaner is. I tell her to use a broom, for crying out loud. I ask her to do the dishes and when I get home, the sink is still full and the dishwasher just gurgling through the rinse cycle. What happened to doing the dishes, I ask.
”Oh, the dishes weren’t really clean so I ran them through again,” she says earnestly, her attention to quality control and the greater good almost as impressive as her end-run around the job of emptying and refilling the dishwasher.
Getting all the chores done is never-ending, as in every household. The fact is that our lives are busier than ever, with tutoring, sleepovers, yard work, social engagements, other-parent visitation schedules and the odd scheduling quirk like my middle daughter’s desire to be on the JROTC Raiders team, which meets three times a week at 6 a.m. (guess who drives her to school in the dark?). The dishwasher stays full of clean dishes, the mountain of unfolded laundry on my bed gets shoved over to one side and all of a sudden it’s Sunday at 10 p.m. and my daughters remember they have no clothes to wear.
Fortunately I have a co-conspirator, my sweetie, who is also doing the job of single-parenting, and we rely on each other for backup and moral support. My two girls and my sweetie’s daughter are a dynamic trio, who, like sisters or wolf cubs, scrap and bat and gnaw at each other. Last night two of them were in the bathroom, dyeing each other’s hair green for St. Patrick’s Day. They borrow each other’s clothes, texting each other, sleep together and drape themselves across one another in front of the TV and computer, practically chew each other’s food in the way that only adolescent girls can do. It works for me most of the time.
But the dark side of parenting sometimes rears its head. I had an event to cover a week ago and we were out for just a couple of hours. Our three, who are ages 12, 13 and 14, stayed home with a pizza and a movie. We got home at 10:30 and all was well, peaceful, nay, familial. But the next day, a resident of the apartment complex next door came over to tell me, “You got some wild girls there. They were over there screaming and running around last night!”
Wild girls – the idea is like a cold dagger in my heart. After all I’ve done to ensure their safety, their good manners, their reputations – how did it come to pass that I have wild girls? The locks open and the guilt rushes in like water; mother-guilt, Catholic guilt, for what I have done, for what I have failed to do, and what else are they up to, what is the next thing my neighbors, or their parole officer, will reveal to me?
All I want in the world for them is safety, well-being, for them to make it out of high school, then through at least a couple of years of college without any major accidents, traumas or disasters. I want no juvenile records, no visits to rehab and no pregnancies. I want no ropes made of bedsheets dangling from the upstairs ledge. I want no Romeos playing guitar or tossing rocks at windows.
Why can’t I have two or three nice girls who sit properly in their chairs and attend to their own knitting, who look forward to a long summer of sewing their own clothes and scrubbing my floors, and who don’t talk back, only open their mouths to ask how they can help next, in between curing leprosy and balancing the national budget? But no, we have wild girls, it seems, who will soon be wearing leather miniskirts, straddling motorcycles, talking back to teachers and selling heroin to babies.
I go to a class for parents of teens and when I told my tale of woe – I have wild girls! – to the group, they all laughed and said: Um, hey, aren’t you being a little hard on yourself? Is it really so bad? How do you make the leap from your girls getting excited and expressing their emotions to them selling heroin on the street?
How indeed? I think as a single parent I am acutely aware of the perceptions that people have of us, we who parent alone, and want to be doubly sure that I don’t fail. In a nutshell, it’s that same old societal pressure that’s always been hanging over our heads – gotta play Mozart in the cradle or they will be mathematically inept. Gotta put the kids into soccer, violin and French lessons by the time they’re four or else they’ll fail to get ahead. Gotta choose a career by the time they’re 12 or they’ll never get into the right college.
When I actually step back and look at the big picture, I see three beautiful, articulate, creative, empowered young women who know what they want and what they don’t want; they’re not afraid to express themselves and, in fact, demand the right to do so.
When I give it a clear-eyed review, I realize that the girls are just acting like teenagers, with no evil intentions (or not many). And I’m thinking that, considering the alternative – repressed, afraid, bullied, tongue-tied like I was at their age, that it’s good to be a wild girl.
Just don’t tell the neighbors.
(Note: This was originally published in 2005; my “sweetie” is now my Mr. Husband, and the wild girls have all grown up to lead happy, fulfilled lives. They’re still wild, but in a good way.)