Mother Love, Mother Guilt

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This article originally appeared in “I.G. Living” magazine, August/September 2013 issue.

Somehow, it always comes down to the mother.

The first person a teacher asks to speak to when a problem arises. The first person a physician discusses a medical issue with. The person the other mothers – at soccer and baseball practice, at Scouts meetings – whisper about when she leaves the room.

That child is too thin!

That child is too heavy!

That child is too short!

Sad, shaking heads. Collective sighs. Satisfied hands clutch their Starbucks cups. Tiny sips of double mocha light foam cappuccinos.
And then….

What is she doing wrong? Why doesn’t she do something to fix this? Surely, she must see The Problem.

Surely.

Surely, the mother sees the problem. She drops off her child with a smile and a wave, heads back to her SUV to rest her head on the steering wheel. She closes her eyes tight, unable to un-see the differences. The Problem. The fact that her child is unlike his peers; there are glaring discrepancies in the size of her child and the size of the others.

What have I done wrong?

Why can’t I fix this?

Surely, she sees what the other mothers see.

And she sees the other mothers. She notices the way they turn their heads – just slightly – when her child joins the group. Are they checking? Checking to make sure their children are still superior? That The Problem hasn’t somehow affected the perfection of their offspring?

She sees them catch one another’s eye; each in turn. A fraction of a second – barely that –but still.

Enough.

She hears the artificial coating in the invitation that comes just a little too late; the unnecessary volume in the equally unnecessary reassurances: “He’s just a late bloomer” or “He’ll slim down, once he hits that growth spurt”.

She hears the words that are implied, but not stated out loud.

“He’ll be fine, as soon as you figure out where you went wrong, and fix it.”

Judge and jury.

They cannot understand how desperately she loves him. How completely she would sacrifice to be able to fix The Problem.

Mother Love equals Mother Guilt.

She knows something isn’t quite right. This isn’t her first child, she knows what is normal, average….and she just knows…something is off.

Not quite sure what it is. Just…something. But…how could that be? She was so careful. No drinking, no smoking. No caffeine. Forty weeks of carefully measured actions. Vegetables. Milk. No under-cooked meats. Never missed a prenatal appointment. No drugs during the birth.

She breastfed. They said that would be better. Safer.

Well-child check-ups are passed with flying colors. Hesitantly, she voices concern to the physician.
Her worries are blown off, like an insignificant kite detached from a string. All mothers worry. You’re just overly tired. All babies are different. Nothing is wrong.

Nothing is wrong.

Nothing.

Except…..she knows there is something. But she lies to herself. She convinces herself all is well. When the worry rears its head in her throat, lodging there like a child’s bouncy ball, too big to move either up or down, just…stuck – she busies her mind. Turns up the TV. Calls a friend to gossip about nothing. Furiously cleans. Invents extra errands.

Until The Event. The Dreaded Something that changes the minds of those who dismissed her initial concerns.

The day the doctor sits her down and speaks to her in slow, easy to understand words. Do you understand? Yes, she understands. She looks him in the eye, forces herself to listen. She listens, but the pain in her chest makes her hold her breath. Oddly, she remembers another time when she felt this way. When was it? She searches her memory.

First grade. On the playground, standing on the swing with daring. Clutching tight at the chains biting into her fingers, she calls fearlessly to her friends, “Underdog me!” and sails away, up, up, up into the sky.

She falls. Hits the ground with a sickening thwack. She lies there, so much pain in her chest and back she cannot breathe. She wants to cry out, but the air in her chest sits heavy as a block of ice. Unmoving. She is frozen.

This feels like that.

Labs. Tests. Appointments. Prescriptions. Journals. Journals! Logging every bite that passes the child’s lips; every new symptom; every night that passes without rest; every unusual behavior. Furiously, she scribbles into the journals…here, she is certain, the answer will appear. A pattern will emerge, and whatever it is that has caused the Dreaded Something will show itself. She will eliminate it, and everything will be okay again. She will be able to breathe again. She misses the way it used to feel, back when she could breathe without even thinking about it.

She cannot find the pattern. She cannot find the answer.

Sitting in the tiny exam room that has become far too familiar, she waits. The door creaks open, the physician enters and takes a seat on the little spinning stool. Small talk. She eyes the folder in his hand. She does not want to talk. She only wants the magical answer, the sword that will slay the Dreaded Something. She considers snatching the folder out of his hands. She smiles. She waits.

Finally, the answer comes. The block of ice in her chest somehow spreads to her shoulders, arms, head. She feels the slow freezing of her entire being. Her teeth begin to chatter.

It is her fault. The doctor says it jokingly. “Isn’t it always the mother’s fault?” He chuckles. It lingers in the air, like hot breath on a frigid day.

Here it is, then. The answer. She has done this to her child; her body, her genetics, have caused the Dreaded Something. She cannot take it away. She cannot fix it.

Doesn’t he see how much this hurts? He laughs and says he should create a Frequent Flyer parking spot just for her family. Does he understand she would willingly give her home, her arm, her leg – her life – anything, anything to fix this?

Mother Love equals Mother Guilt.

Sometimes at night, she hears the muffled strains of guitar strings being plucked and closes her eyes, listening, a smile on her lips. Her child has struggled so much; lost so much; grown so much. Still, her child finds beauty in small things; a brightly colored bead, an unusual sunset; a new song.

She hurries dinner in order to make it on time to school conferences. The teacher laughs as the report card is handed over, “If only I had a classroom of kids like this one, I’d be happy to come to work every day!” She feels a warmth, a melting in her icy chest. She straightens her shoulders and takes a deep breath.

Her heart constricts, her chest hurts as she watches the IV insertion. She rubs her child’s back, watches as his eyes follow the hands of the nurse. Alcohol rub, gauze pad, syringe, bandage. He knows the routine; he knows once every item is in its own place, the poke will come. He sits up tall; back and tiny shoulders straight. He does not blink or turn away. He watches with detached curiosity; he holds his breath, scrunches his nose – there, it’s over. All done. He smiles and cracks a joke, his nurse laughs. She kisses his little head and tells him he is brave. She thinks to herself he is stronger than most grown men.

A child is bullied on the playground. A new child, and something about him makes him stand out. Something isn’t quite right. He has a Problem. She watches as her child leaps in front of him, arms outstretched. Chin up, eyes blazing, her child protects him. The bullies back off. Arm slung about the new child’s shoulder, her son offers to play with him, introduce him to some nice kids. Her eyes water with liquid pride. He has endured great pain, but he is such a compassionate boy. The Champion of the Underdog….he will not stand for hateful words or unkind actions.

She looks at the children she is raising. Kind-hearted, compassionate children. Honest, cheerful. Funny. Creative. Loyal. These things are also her fault. She loves them with an intensity that burns the ice.

Mother Love equals Mother Guilt.

The Liebster Award

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Well ding dong diggity! I’m goshdarn excited, friends! My little blog has been nominated for the Liebster Award. I know the proper thing to say here is, “I don’t care if I win, I’m just so honored to have been nominated!”, but that’s a LIE. I WANT TO WIN! I WANT THAT TROPHY! I NEED IT! Valarie! Settle down! I wont. I can’t. You sound ridiculous, like some desperate, faded beauty queen who hasn’t yet figured out she’s no longer in the running. Why are you so mean to me? Besides, I’ve already had my hair done and my nails painted and my hand is resting, just so on my chest, fluttering with anticipation. Let’s be realistic. You’ve got zero shot at winning this thing. Yes I do so too have a shot! D. Wallace Peach at http://mythsofthemirror.com/ says so! You’re pitiful. Reasoning with you is exhausting. Yeah? Well, you’re mean and I think you should go buy me some ice cream for being such a weiniemeister. And then tell me I’m pretty.

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Oh! This ice cream is GOOD! Know what else is good? The Liebster Award! Know what else? Following the rules for The Liebster Award! WOOT! Let’s do this thang!

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Eleven random facts about me:

1. I feel much more sane if I’m surrounded by trees.

2. I’m a Renaissance Festival Junkie. I’m simply a happier person when I’m surrounded by freaks like me. Plus I’ve got this thing with tricorns. And frock coats.

3. I think in pictures.

4. My mind is often controlled by yarn skeins and crochet hooks. They haunt my dreams.

5. I’ve just finished college, 21 years after I finished high school.

6. I can’t stop reading, and if there is nothing else available to read, I will read cereal boxes and shampoo bottles.

7. I am absolutely addicted to the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series. In a freakish way. Like I can recite long bits of dialogue. In character.

8. I love cooked tomatoes, but I can’t stand raw ones. I keep trying to like them, but I can’t handle the weird texture in my mouth. It makes me feel quite upset all over myself.

9. I find designing costumes to be a fun and relaxing way to unwind. It pleases my soul.

10. I’m a writer who doesn’t drink coffee. I know. I know! Terrible, isn’t it? My caffeine fix comes from Mountain Dew/Monster/Amps.

11. My favorite actress is Helena Bonham Carter.

Questions from D. Wallace:

1. What are you working on right now?
Currently, I’m working on a paranormal short story, “Slither.” I’m enjoying writing it and creeping myself out all at the same time.

2. Where do you write and why?
Mostly, I write in my living room, as it’s our only desktop. This is difficult, because I have a family of six, so I often write with earbuds in and some Hello Dave or Hugh Laurie cranked up to eardrum-blowing volume. In a pinch, I write on my Kindle.

3. What’s the first creative piece you remember writing?
I don’t recall a single piece in particular, but I’d say melodramatic poetry writing started around seventh grade. When I was, you know, very melodramatic. With all the typical junior high melodrama. And lots and lots of heavy black eyeliner. You know, the kind you had to singe a little bit with a lighter to make it spread right.

4. Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere. Nature, a scene in a book, the emotions that play across the faces of people I know, or even those I don’t know but have had the privilege to be near. I find inspiration in life, in the way people handle joys and traumas, in the decisions made in the heat of a stressful moment.

5. Was there a moment in time when you decided to become a writer? What happened?
In high school, I wanted to be a writer, and wrote often, just for fun. Then I grew up, got married, had four children in quick succession, and spent the next ten, twelve years or so making sure they were surviving from daylight to dusk and then collapsing into bed once they were all tucked in. Writing took a back seat. More like I shoved it in the trunk and locked it away. I always planned to do it later. But about five years ago began a series of deaths of people I loved dearly, and it hit me: In ten years, I could look back and say, “I wish I had done it”, or in ten years I could say, “I’m so glad I did it”, or in ten years I could be dead. We can’t always count on later. Three years ago I started writing my novel, a little over a year ago I started this blog, and began sending out pieces to magazines, several of which were accepted for publication.

6. What book(s) has most influenced you as a person?
Horton Hears a Who.

7. What book(s) has most influenced your writing?
This is hard to narrow down! The first that comes to mind is the “Suncatchers” series by Jamie Langston Turner. Sometimes, I remember bits of those books and have to stop and think a minute to recall if what I’m remembering was a book or a movie scene….her characters are that vivid. I would love to have that said about my books one day.

8. Why did you choose your genre?
I truly cannot express how much I hate this question. I’ve been asked this same thing several times, and I never know how to answer. I really don’t have a solid genre. My first book is considered chicklit/romance/drama fiction. The story I’m writing now is paranormal. Most of the articles I write for this blog or for magazines are creative non-fiction. I can’t pick just one. This may have something to do with the untreated ADHD oh hey look a squirrel!

9. Is there a book you would love to see in film?
Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger.

10. What are you currently reading?
The Fabulous Cornwall Sisters, by Teri Cross Chetwood.

11. In 2-3 sentences, give us your elevator pitch on something of yours you’d like us to read!

My novel, Just Hold On, is available for purchase on Amazon:

Determined to live out his life alone and free of the burden of love, Jake’s world is turned upside down when the grief of a woman he hardly knows calls him to step out of his comfort zone. After losing her home in a fire and numbed by yet another heartbreaking tragedy, Marnie is unable to communicate or even function on her own. Can Jake and Marnie overcome the obstacles before them and find love despite the odds?

The 11 blogs I am nominating are:
http://belleofthelibrary.com/
http://grimmreport.com/
http://blog.triciadrammeh.com/
http://maryluceaiello.wordpress.com/
http://ravingmotherfromhell.blogspot.com/
http://shellypicarella.wordpress.com/tag/michelle-anderson-picarella/
http://northmelbournemum.wordpress.com/
http://terribleminds.com/ramble/
http://invisibleillnessbattle.wordpress.com/
http://kellyinrepeat.com/
http://adventuresinjuggling.me/

And finally (Yes! Finally! I know you’ve been waiting, kiddies!), my eleven questions for my nominees:

1. What is your favorite genre to read?

2. Have you ever gotten so angry with a book you’ve read, you quit reading that author entirely? (I have.)

3. When is your favorite time to write?

4. Have you always wanted to write, or did you happen upon it accidentally?

5. Do you write more often when you are angry, or happy?

6. Give yourself a pirate name. What is it?

7. Does your family know about your blog? Why or why not?

8. Do you have a favorite author? Who is it?

9. Is there anything particular you consistently eat while reading or writing?

10. Have you ever dressed up as your favorite book character? Who was it?

11. Have you a horn to toot? Let us hear your song! Leave us your links!

Cut

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Today makes eight months and 16 days since you left us, and I did something today I never expected to do.

I cut my own hair.

I had decided to just let it grow and never cut it again, or at least not for a long, long time.

I guess I thought it would be some act of remembrance; a sign of my mourning, like in the old days when the grieving wore black for a year.

Nobody else but you has cut my hair since I was fifteen, and my friends and I would come up to the cosmetology school for manicures and cut-n-colors.

I was so proud of you, watching my big sister learn these new skills; watching you laugh with your fellow students while my friends and I got pampered at discounted prices.

You graduated at the top of your class the same year I got married.

You graduated at the top of your class while working full-time, raising five kids as a single mom.

You were my hero.

And I remember the way your hands felt in my hair, quick and confident, as you brushed and separated and snip snip snipped at the curly mess on my head.

As you were brushing and snipping, we’d talk about the kids: yours and mine and activities and sports they were involved in and awards they’d won and recent report cards and who the kids were dating now and which kids were learning to drive.

And usually my little guy would run into the kitchen and say something that made you crack up laughing, and you’d have to stop for a minute to sit down or take a sip of your Sunkist or put your hands on your knees when you laughed so hard you started to cough.

You’d always say, “He’s so funny! My little booger-butt.”

Donovan’s first baby haircut was done in your old kitchen, and Brennan’s first one was in mine.

You trimmed the girls’ hair for the first time at my old house, just before they each started kindergarten.

Remember how Brennan would cry and say the tiny bits of hair that fell down his neck burned his skin, and we would need someone to sit with him and feed him fruit snacks until the haircut was over, and then we’d pick him up and run with him to the bathtub and stick his screaming, squirming little self in the water to get the hair off?

We were both so grateful when he finally outgrew that.

You were over to do family haircuts the day we adopted the little yorkie, and you sat on my couch and held her tight, squealing over how small and pretty she was, that wiggly little two-pound thing. You held her up to your chest and rested your chin on her body, closed your eyes and smiled.

The last of us to get a haircut from you was John. You were exhausted and couldn’t figure out what you’d done to make your shoulder hurt so much, but you offered to come cut his hair so he’d look good for his job interview. That was almost exactly one year ago.

The boys had their first haircuts at a barber shop last summer. They were nervous wrecks, and Brennan watched the barber in the mirror the entire time to make sure she was doing it right.

I took pictures of the big event, even though the boys were eleven and thirteen. Still. It was a big deal for them to sit in that chair and have someone else do what you’d always done for them.

The second time I took them for haircuts, we went to a different shop. This one was bigger and a bit fancier than the first, and they had those giant sinks with the space cut out in the front to lay your head, you know? Well, Brennan noticed them and demanded his hair be washed in one because he’d read on the sign out front “Shampoo and cut $15” and he said he wanted Daddy’s money’s worth but really he just wanted to feel cool and have his hair washed in the big sink.

He was so funny. Your little booger-butt.

Savannah bleached her hair blond in the fall because she told you she was going to and you said you liked it. Olivia helped her with it. It did turn out really cute. You were right.

Savannah was almost-sixteen the first time she had her hair cut in a salon, just before school started last year. I took a picture of her in the big chair, too.

She hated the entire experience and said the stylist didn’t listen and it was all wrong and she refuses to go back. So for now, anyway, she has vowed to never have her hair cut again by anyone else.

She’s planned to take cosmetology in Skills Center year after next. She’s always wanted to be like you.

Olivia hasn’t had her hair cut in over a year and a half. She wanted to grow it out for senior pictures and now that those are done, it just keeps growing longer.

I think she is just nervous about letting anyone else cut it. She gets anxious sometimes. More often since you died.

I’ve teased her about it, but the truth is I don’t want anyone else to cut my hair either.

That was your job, and I don’t think anyone else can fill your place.

At first, we couldn’t get our schedules to match up so you could cut my hair. Then you were so exhausted after work, you’d fall asleep as soon as you got home.

Anemic again, you thought, and started taking iron pills.

Then there was the pain in your shoulder, and it hurt so much I couldn’t bear to ask you to do it.

“When my shoulder gets better…..” you said.

We’d get together then.

But it didn’t get better, and now you are gone.

I’m trying to remember, and I think it’s been longer than a year and a half since you last cut my hair.
Probably closer to two years.

So I wasn’t going to cut it, but there are inches of dry, split ends and no matter what I do, it looks a mess and I feel like you’d be disappointed in me if I leave it that way.

I looked up a tutorial on how to cut layers in hair, and it said to just put wet hair up in a ponytail and cut.

That’s what I did. I had to use regular household scissors because I don’t know where your haircutting kit is. It might be down in the boxes in Mom’s basement, or somewhere packed up at Big W’s house.

If it turns out okay, maybe I’ll buy a pair of my own haircutting scissors.

I don’t know.

Anyway.

I was really missing you today when I saw those couple inches of hair hit my bathroom floor.

I wished we were in the kitchen again, drinking Sunkist and laughing about our kids.

The Enchanted Forest

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I’ll be vending at this event in June, so stop out and see me at my Hooker Shop! I’m hosting a book signing there as well, if you’re looking for an opportunity to pick up a signed novel.

It’s always the scent that strikes me first.

Turkey legs, deep-fried pickles, chicken sandwiches and so many other delicious treats are being prepared for the busy day ahead. The aroma drifts on the breeze and mingles with that of leather and incense and fire and trees and dirt and I can taste the beauty of it all on my tongue as I walk in from the lot.

I’m hitching up my long, bright skirts and dragging my wagon filled with goods as I step through the side gates. To my left is King Henry’s camp and the group is sitting around a fire, cooking their breakfast as they murmur about yesterday and make plans for the day ahead, laughing as they begin to eat. Their tunics are tossed over the ropes that square off the boffer fighting pit (No. I won’t tell you what a boffer is. You’ll just have to come find out for yourself.) The stunning and ever-present white husky stretches out on the ground nearby, their blue-eyed guardian.

I step past the Pirate Captain, smile and nod good day to her as I continue down Gypsy Lane. Through the woods I see flames twirling through the air, and know the Fiend Fyre Charmers are lighting up for their act. Further down, the Gypsy Raqs are practicing a dance on their wooden stage, laughing and elbowing one another in jest. Merchants are opening their shops and we wave to each other and remark on the weather as we go about our work. Around the corner, I hear Sir Dan neighing for a snack or a pet on his noble brown head. Children of the cast and vendors are running up and down the lanes, half-in, half-out of their costumes and giggling furiously.

The trees whisper, rustling in the breeze as they reach for the sunshine above.

Sounds are becoming louder, rowdier; the music and laughter and voices blend into one harmonious melody as I turn to look out of my shop.

And – like Alice down the rabbit hole – I’ve fallen into an extraordinary new world.

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It’s 11 a.m. and the gates have opened. Guests sweep in, some in costume and some in street clothes. Long, beautifully crafted skirts swish against the packed-dirt paths. Small children run, squealing to meet the mermaid or the Fairy Godmother. Evil Queen Lilith rubs her hands together, cackling hideously as she chooses the victim of her next spell. Gypsies gracefully shake their hips in time to music, twisting their bright scarves in the wind. Faeries Bloo and Pixx twitter their secrets to the Pied Piper while Klemm Flemm the Troll guards his bridge with a riddle. Oh! And look! Queen Anna and her court have arrived! (Quick! Curtsey!) Oh my! Is that….Prince Charming over there visiting with Pucker-Up Polly? Nelly Newsworthy will have fun with that little bit of gossip!

Down the lane, I can hear the blacksmith explaining his trade to interested passer-by. Guests stop to admire pirate hats and swords, medieval gowns and hand-fashioned jewelry for sale. Some take a crack at spinning wool on the old wooden wheel in the Viking Encampment.

I hear the faint strains of a harp in the distance.

It’s another time, another place. It’s fantasy come to life.

It’s the Mid-Michigan Renaissance Festival, and it’s pure magic.

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Mid-Michigan Renaissance Festival originated in 2008, the brainchild of Vincent and Toni Knoll and two other partners. It is held in a beautiful forest where the roots – pun intended – run deep: this land has been in Toni’s family for well over one hundred years. With the help of many hands from both Toni and Vincent’s family and the Renaissance family, the woods were prepared for the magic to begin.

The first festival was held in October of 2008, and by 2010 Toni and Vincent had become the sole owners. In order to take advantage of steadier weather conditions, they decided to change the festival to June. Heartbreakingly, in the spring of 2011 Vincent became ill and just two days before opening day and at the far-too-young age of twenty-nine, he passed away. Vincent was a big guy with a generous heart, and before he passed he asked his mother to take his money and make the festival the best she could. Knowing how much Vincent hated the noise of generators in the woods during Fest, she used his money to install electricity in the forest. In this and in so many other ways, his memory lives on.

Now, about the festival – what’s so great about it? Oh my friends, I could go on and on. You like food? They’ve got food! Delicious, mouth-watering food! Stop by the Black Dragon Inn for turkey legs and soup bowls, Hickory Hut will be serving up their award-winning barbeque, and the Golden Gryffon Pub will be offering beer and wine as well as entertainment, such as the Pirates and Wenches band.

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Once your belly is happy and full, stop by the various vendor shops filled with marvelous eye candy. From silversmith to stained glass, crocheted creations and beautiful jewelry, renaissance garb and leatherwork, you’ll certainly find something that strikes your fancy. As you’re strolling along the beaten path, pop over to one of the psychic and wellness vendors to learn what mystical secrets are in store for you.

The first time my family and I attended Mid-Michigan Renaissance Festival was the summer of 2011. We were thrilled to find a reasonably priced, family friendly festival so close to home. Walking in, there were signs at nearly every vendor shop paying homage to Vincent Knoll, who had just passed away. My soul was deeply touched to think these people from all different walks of life — many not even local – would stand together to show such respect for this man. But as I’ve gotten to know this little community better, I’ve come to realize they are more than friends, and more than just co-workers. These people have formed an extended family of their own, and this relationship only heightens the easy familiarity between cast members and merchants. Combined, it creates a welcoming atmosphere that draws guests right in to the Ren Fest family. At this time, Toni is the legal owner of the festival, but there are many others who own it in their hearts.

My family: Ren Fest family

This year, the festival will be held the last three weekends in June, and each weekend will have its own theme. The first weekend, June 14th and 15th will be Fantasy and Steampunk, June 21st and 22nd will be Pirates and Wenches, and the last weekend, June 28th and 29th will be Viking and Gypsy weekend. Please keep in mind that just because there are themes doesn’t mean you must adhere to them, or even that you are required to dress up at all – just come out and have fun!

The sun is bright, the breeze is sweet, and your imagination is waiting.

Won’t you come join us?

Just remember…if Evil Queen Lilith catches you and begins to chant, it’s better to just close your eyes and wait until the spell has been cast. You’ll never get away from her….muahhaha.

Further information regarding admission, merchants, and entertainment can be found on the website at http://www.midmichiganrenfest.com.

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