Amazing Love

Luke 6 month old hand

This week last year I was 38 weeks pregnant— full term. Somehow, Luke is already almost a year old. This morning, Zilla said: “I just realized that the first birthday party is really for the parents: We survived! We kept him alive.”

Survival was never on my mind. Waiting for Luke (which took a while—labor never progressed, induction failed, and he was evicted by cesarean when things got complicated, at 42 weeks) I wondered how this giant bulge in my belly would make life change.

Change is only something you can measure if most things stay the same, and nothing has. Having a new baby, trying to find time to work, negotiating child care, being a parent and a partner and still a child—and childish–myself, installing car seats, breastfeeding in public… It has been like moving to a new country, in a far-away time zone, with different hygiene standards and sleep customs and negotiation tactics and a new language and a very messy cuisine where eating involves putting food in your hair.

I am me. I am totally different. You really have to visit. A post-card or Facebook picture, your friends kids or babysitting, everything your mother ever told your, all the books you could possibly read—which I realize makes writing about parenthood comical if not fraught—don’t even begin to explain it.

Practically, friendships have shifted—people I thought would be there have disappeared and many new friends have arrived. I feel more connected to humanity that I ever have. I love people simple because they are someone’s mother or son. And yet, sometimes I feel lonely, but I am never alone: All exercise involves a baby stroller or pack. All sleep includes my little man. All toileting—you get the idea. The rare moment that I am without Luke, the dogs crawl in my lap, thinking that, now, finally, I belong to them. This can also be true of the husband.

My schedule has changed. I work whenever I can sneak in a minute and I guard that time like a rabid animal but feel less certain that it is time well spent. Even when I am so glad to be working, work does not have the same place in my life: being a mom has made me bigger. Work is a smaller part of who I am.

And even though I miss them, and have more time to think of them—while Luke naps, while I push the stroller, while I read Luke an old book my Mom read to me– it is hard to find time to talk to family or old friends. And equally hard to explain why: even though there is so much to say, so many changes in Luke every day, they are also imperceptible, huge and small. And sometimes I am so spent that I feel like I am unable to form syllables with my tongue, and I can’t listen, my ears just don’t hear.

I often hear people say that you need time away, time for yourself. This is true for me too. But it is also true that when I am with Luke, really with him, my problems seem to go away. I am able to let go of those knotted petty fears about the size of my jeans and the size of my paycheck, the state of my book, and everything I think I should do or want to achieve or become, I feel a kind of peace I have never known, and a confidence too. A friend of my recently said that parenting is a continuing education program devised for adults. This sounds about right. I have a lot to learn. But I think I am starting to get the idea: Don’t worry about what worries me. It’s summer! So what if I haven’t washed my hair or the car or the dog. So what if it’s been a year since I posted here and all I can think to write or talk about—oh, the cliché– is babies or motherhood? I have to remember not to try to understand everything or—my biggest temptation–plan too much.

For all its complications, the job can be pretty simple, if I let it: just love.

P.S. Thanks, Laura.

Theft

Photo booth pictures

Once, when I was in preschool, I stole a bracelet from the dress-up box and wore it home, tucked under my cuff. I felt so bad about it that the next morning I took the bracelet back. Ms. Rosell, the teacher, saw me putting the bracelet back and asked if I had “borrowed” it. I’m sure I agreed. But that was not what I intended: if my courage held up, I would have kept it. I intended theft.

Over the summer solstice, Zilla and I went to a friends’ wedding, in San Francisco. Last weekend, we went to another friend’s wedding on Vashon Island. Both times I wondered if I would know anybody other than the bride and groom, and if not, who I would talk to, and what we would talk about. Both times I realized it didn’t matter. Zilla and I were there together. It seemed like no one else was around.

Zilla and I have been married now, amazingly, almost eight years. It has been a long time since our wedding day. We were together a year before that. Nine years is not an eternity, but it is a while. Nine is also a number very close to ten. In ten years, things change.

I think the meaning of family, and love, when you cut the rest away, is to be together as you change. People say you can’t change people. I think this is right, but it is also wrong. Putting it that way it makes it seem like change does not happen, when it does. I say this instead: everyone changes, no one knows how. Love is what happens underneath, what is regardless, what, for better or worse, stays the same.

Watching our friends get married, with openness, and giddiness, and courage and embarrassment and hope as they said their vows, Zilla and I got to steal a little bit of their joy for a few hours, a few days.

Like with most theft, we didn’t really need it. We have our own joy: the kind you work out after almost-ten years. And like with most change, I don’t think I want to undo what I, and we, have become. So maybe we were just “borrowing” some joy. Remembering. Trying it on.

We took this picture at the wedding last weekend. Good friends of the bride and groom set up a picture booth. I think it proves that there is always change, even in what you call happiness and love.

Maybe there was even some interest on the joy we gave back.

 

 

My Parents’ Child

When I told my friend Roxanna, many months ago, that we were expecting, she said. “You are becoming your child’s parent. You will forget how you were before.”

“How was I before?”

“Before you are your parents’ child.”

 

Last week my pregnancy reached full term. This means our child can be born at any time; that his lungs are developed enough to breathe air.

Everyone looks at my belly and says, you are about to pop, you must be so ready, especially in this heat.

Excited, happy, but also unsure. And a little scared. Right now, I know exactly where my son is, and that he is safe. Soon I will be mom for the rest of my life. I am happy to just be Beth for a few more days.

 

My mother says that there is a kind of love that you don’t understand until you are a mother yourself. This always irritated me. It seemed untrue. In ways, it seemed unkind.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if she might be right.

Maybe that love includes some for the birth of your own new self.

An Original Name

A brown labradoodleThe year before last, Zilla and I got a puppy. I suffer from allergies; Zilla likes doting, cuddly dogs. We wanted a dog big enough to go with us on runs. One day we saw a mellow, medium sized, non-shedding, adorable pup we both liked lying behind the counter at a bicycle shop.

“What kind of dog is that?” I asked the owner.

“Oh, her?”

We nodded. There was only one dog in the shop.

“She’s half Lab, half poodle.” I’d never heard of such a thing.

The shop owner nodded. “A labradoodle.”

 

When I was a kid Katie was a popular name. My class had Katie M. Katie K., Katie B. and Katie W., not to mention a Kate and one Catherine with a C and one Katharine with a K.

I like the name Kate. It might be my favorite name ever. But I vowed never to use it. For my child—for my dog–I wanted something unique, original, not the same.

Zilla and I found a Labradoodle breeder, and then a litter, and made a deposit. While we were waiting for our pup we talked about names. The first decision was human name or animal. When I was young our dogs had distinctly dog names, like Bear. Later we inherited and adopted two dogs with bland human names, Maggie and Charlie. One of my sister’s friend’s came over to play and looked at the dogs wide-eyed.

“Those are my parents’ names,” she said. She had long soft dark hair, glasses, and a quiet voice.

She promptly stopped playing with my sister and began yelling rude commands—and laughing—at the dogs.

 

The closer my husband and I got to getting our puppy the harder we found it to settle on a name. All the names we tried on sounded too stuffy or too silly or just plain wrong for a dog.

“Maybe,” I said, “we just need to meet her.”

Then at a dinner party someone mentioned the runner, Zola Budd.

“Zola,” I said.

My husband nodded. It was the most agreement we had so far.

“How about Zoe?” He asked. “It sounds sweeter.”

“With and e or and umlaut or oo or a y?” I asked. Not that it made any difference. I didn’t know any Zoe (ë, oo or y)’s at all.

And then we got our puppy, and then I did.

 

While I maintain that our Zoe is uniquely, adorably, sweet, and clever, she is not uniquely named.

I have met four other Zoe’s, who are also Labradoodles, in our neighborhood so far. One is in our Zoe’s dog class, another goes to the same dog park. One is even the same color. My cousin, my aunt informs me, has a Zoe the Labradoodle in another state.

In the first week, I had two women bend down to pet my Zoe, and ask her name.

“Zoe!” I say, proudly.

“Oh,” they say, a little chagrined. “That’s my name too.”

Three other people have stopped, smiled and asked give my Zoe a good pet.

“What a cute pup!” They say, burying their heads in her curls. What’s her name?”

“Zoe,” I said.

They smile deeply. “I used to have a dog called Zoe too.”

 

The worst time, I was walking Zoe about a week after we brought her home. She waddled—uniquely, adorably—in the grass. An elderly fellow stopped and asked if he could give her a pet. Of course, I said. He kneeled down and spent five whole long minutes rubbing her ears and stroking her tummy. Then he started to look really choked up.

“My wife and I just had to take our old girl in to be put down this morning. She looked just her.”

I nodded.

He slowly pushed himself up and put his hands in his pockets. Then he pulled them out again.

“Look at that, I still have treats. Can I give her one?”

“Of course,” I said.

“What’s your name, little dog?” He asked, as if she just might answer.

“Zoe,” I said.

He gave me the most horrified look.

“Really?” he said, and his eyes started to water.

“Our dog was Zoe too.”

Tears came to his eyes. He stood up quickly and shuffled down the block so fast it was almost a run.

 

Zilla says, and he might have authority on this, with a name like Zilla, that we should give our child a name that people recognize, that won’t be weird, that people will know how to pronounce, and understand. But I don’t know. I can’t stop thinking of Zoe every time we try out a name for our child.

 

Dealing with Death on Facebook

Social Network Art Icon

I woke up about this time last year to a notification that I’d been tagged in a Facebook post by an old grad school friend. I clicked on the link. It was not a school photo, like I expected, but a post that our classmate Gigi, had died. I didn’t even know he was sick. Gigi was the second friend I’d lost through Facebook so far that year.

A few weeks before that, I found out that my friend Dave had passed away through a Facebook. I was surprised as I had been with Gigi. I knew Dave through an outdoor club: I knew he was sick, but still, he seemed strong: all summer long I’d “liked” pictures of his hikes and climbs.

When I read that Dave had died, I didn’t just feel sad, but something harder to recognize, something that felt like embarrassment, or shame. I’ve always believed that we should talk more about death and grief, but is it really appropriate to post someone’s death on their wall? What are the rules of Facebook? Aren’t some things too sad to share? Or too private? And what would my friends have wanted? It’s not like they could remove a post if they didn’t like it. And besides, what was I supposed to say? What could I say? What could anyone? I didn’t understand. How could I have been so out of touch?

The only thing I knew, was that I didn’t “like” it at all.

I still hadn’t figured out how to deal with Dave’s death when I followed my friend’s link to Gigi’s page.  His profile picture showed him bald, smiling wryly from behind a blue surgical mask.

Gigi and I became friends–before Facebook even existed– probably because he’d just quit smoking. When all our classmates went outside for a cigarette, we sat together and talked. About everything. There was a moment of romance and then graduation. I moved to a different country, and fell out of touch. But I knew he’d always be there and one day we’d look each other up. I was wrong. Now it was too late.

Over the course of the day, Gigi’s Facebook page filled with photos and memories, gratitude and hugs, from everyone who had known and loved him, just as Dave’s page had, and I felt the same shame. I didn’t know what to say. Part of me wanted to say all the things that everyone else had. The other part of me wanted to curse Facebook, or fairness or God, to apologize for being a bad friend, to get mad.

I thought about getting off of Facebook entirely, but was already feeling out of touch. But when I logged on my entire feed was @Dave, tagging Dave, thanking Gigi, loving Gigi, showing Dave triumphant, literally, on mountaintops. I should have been grateful that they were so well loved, but selfishly, I wanted the posts to stop. With every post and tag I got upset all over again.

I wasn’t able to go to Gigi’s real world memorial, but I went to Dave’s. After the service, I expected that the Facebook wake would stop.  But for weeks and then months, and almost a year now, they have not. But over the weeks and months, my sense of shame and loss, privacy and panic, turned into a kind of wonder.  On Facebook, Dave and Gigi were not dead. Their memory did not fade. Almost the opposite. As time passed and people dug up old photos they grew healthier, younger. They became more alive.

This morning, I woke up to another email notification. “Reconnect with your friends on Facebook.” There were two pictures, one of Dave waving back down the trail, and another of Gigi, with the smile I remember, on our last day of school. I felt as happy as I did sad. On Facebook, Gigi still has all his brown hair.

Small Miracles

A can of chicken noodle soup

I’m not usually the person to write about the miracles of modern food science. I usually write about its opposites: food heritage, food history, and what has become the cult of fresh, local and organic. Today I want to take a minute to appreciate industrial food.

Getting pregnant, I’ve realized over the last few years, is not always something in your control. It wasn’t in ours. I’d spent so many years trying to avoid getting pregnant that it seemed like it pregnancy would be inevitable, with the precautions removed. It was not. And there was not a lot I could do about it. Well, we could do it, but it, did not always help. I began to feel like something was wrong with me. Maybe I was not healthy enough. Maybe I would get pregnant, and stay pregnant, if, somehow, I was healthier. I decided to eat more kale.

Being healthy is important, but this kind of magical thinking is the result of believing I can control things that I can’t. I didn’t get pregnant, but I did eat lots and lots of dark leafy greens. And omega-3 filled sardines, and beets and tomatoes, and salmon, and organic grass-fed beef. Foods high in good fats and folic acid. Nuts and berries and legumes; delicious, healthy, fresh, local and organic things. I shopped and cooked for my desires and my hopes and myself.  Surprisingly, it didn’t help.

Last fall I’d almost given up. We’d been trying for nearly two years. It was time for more invasive action, or adoption, or a different plan. Maybe I this motherhood thing wasn’t meant to be: I began to taste that thought. I gave up on kale and started eating burgers, and dessert, and put on 5 pounds.

And then, that month, I was late. And then still the next week, and the week after that. But being pregnant—I’d learned—did not mean I was going to have a baby. Things happen, and after everything that happened, I was too afraid to test, or talk about it, or tell. But, some things you can’t hide. I am happy to report, more than happy actually, and also scared as hell, that it is now Week 15, and things are still going well.

Fresh, local and organic are still a great thing, and a good goal, but until a week or two ago, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup was all I could keep down. No kale, absolutely not sardines, nuts, berries, or fruit. Everything I thought was healthiest made me violently ill.

The doctor said this was a good sign. My hormone levels were high.

“And the Campbell’s Soup?” I asked. I was worried I might not be getting the nutrition I needed plus some kind of industrial poison. This was not the perfect nutrition I had in mind. “How hard do I need to push the kale?”

“Not at all,” he said, “just eat what you can. If you’re body wants you to eat kale, you will.”

That afternoon, I ate another can of Chicken Noodle Soup.

I’ve never loved the stuff. It was industrial, commercial: I only ate it when I was ill. But when I could not eat anything else, I could eat Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. It tasted the same way it always had, and it was safe, and sanitary, and I knew I could find it wherever I went.  And that seemed like a miracle as well.

Lemon Meringue Pie Love

Wayne-Thiebaud

A few weeks ago my parents celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. If you count the 5 years they knew each other before they got married, that’s a pretty awesome amount of love. It’s also a little scary. Zilla and I are only on year 5.

I happened to call my grandma the day of. “It’s you parent’s anniversary isn’t it?”

“It is,” I said. At her age, it really was good of her to remember.

“I didn’t call or send a card,” she said. “But I suppose they will forgive me. It was a wonderful wedding. I remember it. I was there.”

And for the first time I realized something that has been obvious but, I’ve just never thought of before: My grandfather was there too. They were in the middle of, or just through a divorce.

“I never liked your meatloaf, anyway,” was apparently what he said as he walked out the door.

That was thirty years ago. I’ve only met the man once, when I was about four. I remember running through an old abandoned grave yard in North Florida with his new younger-than-me son, by his new younger-than-my-mom wife. My “uncle” and I were hunting for tiny, tiny frogs. For years afterward, if my mom talked about that trip, it was to say that the new-wife didn’t cook.

Wayne Thiebaud

When Zilla and I got married, one of our friends gave us a book called The 5 Languages of Love. It is thin and purple and covered in cursive writing. I think there is a couple, holding hands, walking into the sunset. I hate this kind of book. It has sold 5 million copies.

And yet here it is, still, reminding me of important lessons. People show their love in different ways. Some people need to give and get gifts. Some people need space. Some people need to hold hands. The book didn’t say this, I do: some people need to cook.

When I think of my mom, and I think of love, I think of lemon pie (or perhaps her version of my grandmother’s spaghetti, but that’s another post.)

Last week I made a lemon pie for Zilla. I made a graham cracker crust, like my mom always did. I crushed the graham crackers and mixed them with melted butter and white granulated sugar until it was the consistency of wet sand and thought of my mom.

Making lemon meringue pie with my mom is one of my earliest memories. So early, that all of my lemon meringue pie memories involve standing on chairs. I pulled out the breakfast table chair to get to the cookbook above the fridge; I dragged the chair over to the stove to stand on it; I stood on the chair, barefoot, to stir the lemon custard.

Most of the pie making, for me, was about waiting for the custard to get thick. “Is it thick now, Mom?” “Mom, how about now?” “Is this a simmer?” “What about now?” “Mom! Is this thick?”

“Not yet, honey.” “Keep stirring.”

I wore a ruffled half-apron, which was meant to go around the waist, tied halter-top style over what would one day become boobs. I dripped blobs of custard onto the floor when I held up my wooden spoon.

Wayne Thiebaud Cakes

My mom and I used the Betty Crocker—or maybe it was the Better Homes and GardensCookbook, covered in what I would now call Italian tablecloth plain, that, I think, my mom got when she and my dad were married. The recipe for lemon meringue pie was discolored and covered in splotches and glued to and ripped off from its neighbors. I liked this. I could always find it without having to use the index.

My mom always made her lemon meringue pie tarter than the recipe called for—more lemon juice, almost double, and more lemon zest. I don’t remember my mom’s face, or her expression, while we were cooking. I remember her hands, grating zest, cracking eggs.

I was so busy watching them, trying to learn.

This makes me a little sad. People’s hands always do. The shape of their fingers and the beds of their nails are almost as personal as their smile.

When the mixture was finally thick enough, she slowly poured in the yolks in a ribbon. All at once, the custard turned yellow, like the late afternoon sunlight, and the kitchen smelled like lemon.

I started off saying we made lemon meringue pie, but at the standing-on-chairs-age, the truth is probably more like mom made lemon meringue pie despite me. She made them for the people she loved. For my dad, and for his best friend, for whom lemon meringue pie was the only exception to a no-sweets rule.  She made them for my birthday. She made them when my grandparents—my father’s parents—came to visit. I wonder now, if she was ever making them for herself?

Or if I’ve ever made a pie just for me.

I know my mom’s answer to that, or I think I do. What she loved was not so much lemon meringue, but chocolate cream pie, the kind my grandma used to make for my mom’s birthday, when she was little, and occasionally, still does.

I remember a children’s book my mom used to read me called Angel Food Cake for Angela. Angel food cake was not something my mom made, but it was something she loved. In the book, Angela’s mom wrote secret love notes for her daughter in the flour she used to make the cake. My mom used to put real love notes for my sister and me in our lunch boxes. I always had the idea that this was because my grandma wrote love notes in the flour she used for my mom’s chocolate cream pie crust as well.

Wayne Thiebaud Cakes

Meringue comes after the custard. My mother’s meringue is the best I’ve ever had.  One day, when I was about seven, I turned on the electric egg beater, which weighed a ton and used to belong to my great grandmother, who was from Iowa via Ireland, and let a lock of my then much blonder hair fall in the beater. I got the whole two foot long lank zipped up to my scalp in a second. It looked like my hair was in a giant curler, and it scared me, and it hurt.

My mom ran over and pulled the cord out (which was ancient and ungrounded) and kissed me and released the beaters form the heavy handle motor. She sat me down on the chair properly and unwound my hair. Forever more, all cooking adventures required rubber bands. Which didn’t really matter, because I didn’t usually make the meringue. And mom always did after that. She had, and I suppose still does, a way with soft peaks and the texture of beaten egg whites. She can stretch out the meringue on the top of the whole pie and then pull the beaters up to let the meringue flip over so the whole surface is covered in soft little peaks, like the tops of a twenty soft-serve vanilla ice cream cones.

And when she took the pie out of the oven it was golden brown all over. My sister was so tempted she once stuck her finger right in the top.

Wayne Thiebaud

I made Zilla a lemon meringue pie right after we met. He requested it for his birthday. I was pleased. I thought it was a choice that boded well and bespoke good taste. And, he’d never even had one like my mom made it, with extra lemon and with graham cracker crust!

So I made my first lemon meringue pie on my own. I was cooking professionally at the time—pastries no less—so this was not technically hard, but it was strange, strange to realized that this recipe was something I always made with my mom, and that even then, it had been a long time since we’d made one together.  What was essentially my first recipe, even thought I knew it by heart, now seemed strange. No one made cornstarch custard pies anymore, or graham cracker crusts, or meringue topping. The recipe was dated, like wearing bell bottoms, or painting your kitchen orange.

Zilla ate half the pie. He said it was delicious. In the interest of health, he took the rest to work.

So I made this pie for this man I was newly dating and then—oh, the innocence–he came over a day or two later and announced that another woman—who I now call that bitch — had made—of all things!–a lemon meringue pie for him too.

He was elated.

Can you believe the luck, his face said. Two pies for me!

I blinked. I was not elated. This did not feel like luck. To me, this recipe, any pie, is an intimacy, a testament of love. Was he not as free he said he was? “Why,” I demanded, “is some woman making you a pie?”

“Because it’s my birthday?” he asked, though his face had changed. He didn’t know what, but he knew something was wrong.

“You don’t make a pie for someone else’s boyfriend, period.” I said, “and especially, you don’t bring it to work.”

He looked around. He looked trapped. “Yours was better.”

I glared.

“Much better.”

I kept glaring.

“And it was ugly. Her meringue was all messed up.”

Thanks, mom. I thought. And what is that fury? It was the first time I had ever felt jealous. I realized it must be true love.

I nodded. The girl moved out of town. We moved in together and got married.

Last week, six years later, I made him a second pie.

Paintings by the wonder Wayne Tiebaund. I think he likes pie too.