Attachment, a Meditation

Canoe Bay Flower and Veggie Garden Summer 2015
© 2016 Marta C Drew


Each Fall, I kneel in my fading garden, I wrap geraniums, sweet potato vine, and petunias around my wrists, and I pull. A few plants come willingly, bursting from their pots in a dusty shower, but most cling stubbornly to the soil they know. I spend the season’s last sunny afternoons combing through the earth with my fingers, tugging at the roots. I am patient and methodical, but the job is never clean. Each plant leaves some part of its complicated circuitry in  the earth and each wiry root carries part of its home with it when it is pulled. This is as it should be. They have meant so much to each other.


Grandma Betty’s sewing machine is sitting on the floor of my garage these days. It hums and vibrates like a time machine as I pass it on the way to my car or step over it to retrieve a sweet potato from the bin. That sewing machine would carry me all the way to Grandma’s workroom if I let it, pull me right down onto her blue jacquard davenport. It has powers. It has roots. It could tuck me under the long worktable next to the box of fabric scraps from bridesmaids’ dresses, the gown for the Montgomery kolacky queen, somebody’s apron. Even now, years and miles away from where it started, that sewing machine exhales malt and yeast from the basement kitchen next to Grandma’s workroom. It practically speaks Czech. So it stays, though I haven’t used it in years.  It stays, though Grandma is long gone.


The gurus warn against attachment. Attachment leads to suffering, attachment is an illusion, attachment is the root of all grief.


Each plant leaves some part of its complicated circuitry in  the earth and each wiry root carries part of its home with it when it is pulled.


Hanging in the back of my closet –the way back– is my mother’s old full-length fur coat.  I will never wear it, not ever, but I can’t get rid of it, either. When she bought it in the eighties, she was a 5’10” attorney with season tickets to the Guthrie theater and Minnesota Orchestra. She wore it over power suits with shoulder pads. She wore it over Ellen Tracy coordinates to dinner at the Minneapolis Club. My mom and her fur coat were an original eighties power couple: enormous, unforgettable.


She wore that coat to chemotherapy once, a couple of months before she died.  Winter was unrelenting that year and she needed the warmth. She had shrunk an inch or two by then and was unsteady on her feet, a column of fur inching across the parking ramp. I carried our purses, a tote bag full of magazines and food I hoped to make her eat. As we walked I kept a hand stretched out towards her, as if I were an animal handler and she a bear stuck with a tranquilizer dart. If she lurched in one direction or another, I would be ready.  Though she only wore her coat to the clinic that one time, all four months of her illness are encapsulated for me in that stretch of parking ramp. Tense, watchful, carrying too much.


Once we were inside, I lifted the fur from Mom’s shoulders and lugged its extravagant bulk  with the rest of my burden down the clinic hall to the lab, then an exam room, and finally to the infusion room, where it was given its own chair. Nobody sat on it, though open down the front, its sleeves resting on the arms of the chair, it seemed willing enough to perform the office of comforter. A ghost of my powerful, protective mother’s former self. A ghost that lives in my closet. If I pulled it out and got rid of it, how much of my mother would come with it? How much would be left behind for me to keep?


Every person, place, and thing leaves us, yes, but they leave something behind too, threaded through the rest of our lives like strong, fine wires, reminding us how much we have all meant to each other.


According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, The purpose of detachment is to let everything nonessential fall away –material things, our suffering, petty likes and dislikes– until only the purest, truest Self remains.


If I get rid of Grandma’s sewing machine and Mom’s fur coat, pull them from  the garage and closet where they are of no use to anyone, something of their contexts will come with them –maybe  a scrap of taffeta from a bridesmaid dress, a staple from the old davenport.  Maybe a shoulder pad from an Ellen Tracy blazer or an old Guthrie ticket. They can go. The sewing machine and my mom’s fur coat are nonessential, just things. Even my grief for their original owners is ephemeral, like summer flowers. Everything earthly fades, dies back, and is replaced with something new: another machine, another coat, fresh grief, fresh love.


The extraordinary Mary Oliver, my very favorite poet, says:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.


Everything and everyone in this life is temporary, but does that mean it isn’t essential? Can anyone help being attached? Every person, place, and thing leaves us, yes, but they leave something behind too, threaded through the rest of our lives like strong, fine wires, reminding us how much we have all meant to each other. Reminding us we don’t have to be attached to be connected.


English Ivy
© 2016 Marta C Drew

Home: A Collection


Red House First Snow 110613
© 2015 Marta C Drew


If what my dad says is true, I descend from a band of traveling, singing figure skaters. I imagine them –dark-eyed and wild-haired– wandering with their skates and bright scarves through dark Bohemian forests into the gracious little towns where they stopped to make their living. According to my dad they were fed and welcomed. Maybe once, as she carved loops and circles on the frozen lake, one of my ancestors locked eyes with a local carpenter and thought about him every day for the rest of her life. Maybe another dreamed of staying in one of those towns for months or years. Still, my ancestors didn’t make their home in the towns, they made it by traveling together. Home was on the road and on the ice and in their voices. Home was their togetherness.


From second grade through high school, I moved back and forth every Monday between my mom’s place and my dad’s. I took the bus to GramBea and Grandpa Thacher’s house after school once a week, I spent four or five days in Lonsdale with Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek a few times each year, I spent a month every summer at Camp Lake Hubert. When I think of home, I don’t think of a single place. Home is something I have collected.


Mama's Cranberry Bread 112614
© 2015 Marta C Drew


My mom and step-dad believed in orphan Thanksgivings. They invited all of their friends who didn’t have family in town and made a different kind of turkey and stuffing every year. I could smell onions, carrots, and celery sautéing in butter as I came downstairs Thanksgiving morning. Before the turkey went into the oven, Mom and I made cranberry quick bread –lemon and pumpkin too, if we had the time.


As the sun went down around 4:30, Steve built a fire, Mom and I set the tables, and friends started arriving. They brought wild rice casseroles, garlic mashed potatoes, cranberries with orange zest, sweet potatoes with pecans and brown sugar, apple tarts and pumpkin pies. We brought out the turkey and stuffing, the breads we had made and bottles of wine, and stayed at the table for hours. Sometimes we got lucky and it began to snow out on the marsh while we ate. As everyone left, full and connected, the woodsmoke curled up to the starry sky.


My time with Dad was more private, even secluded. The December after our second attempt at family had failed, my dad and I found ourselves alone again in the house on Malibu Drive. I was sixteen. My stepmother and her two daughters had left without a word one weekend when I was with my mom. I was fine with it. I remember bubble lights on the tree, the sharp, blank smell of snow. Each night, when my dad had had enough time alone in his shop and I was done with homework, we sat together in the family room. He lounged in his black Eames chair, looking out at the deck he had built with his own hands a few years before. I lay on my stomach on the floor, drawing or dreaming or writing (bad) poetry.  We didn’t talk … we didn’t need to. As Walt Whitman said: “we were together. I forget the rest.”


When I think of home, I don’t think of a single place. Home is something I have collected.


When Mom had orchestra or Guthrie Theater tickets and Dad had to chaperone a high school hockey game, I took the bus after school with my cousin Jessica to  GramBea and Grandpa Thacher’s house on Cooper Avenue. Jess and I slept downstairs in twin beds with turned wooden posts and yellow quilts. Before we lay down, we rose high on our knees in bed, facing the pillow and pulling the covers around our shoulders like capes. Grandma and Grandpa were frugal and let the house get chilly at night from October through April. Clutching the wad of blankets at our chests, we fell down onto our pillows, turning just our cheeks to face each other in the dark.


Once GramBea had kissed us good night, we played games in stage whispers. Our favorite involved taking turns creating elaborate configurations with our hands and trying to copy the other’s exactly. Lying in the darkness, only a narrow stripe of golden light  at the door to our room, we twisted and laced our fingers in intricate forms.


“Can you do this?”


Jessica made an attempt, seeing neither her own hands nor mine in the other bed. “Like this?”


“No, like this.” We could never do it right and we never would– it didn’t matter. What mattered was hearing another voice in the dark.


I need a solid place, a single place, to feed and welcome those who pass through and decide to stay.


Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek’s house was about an hour south of my house, so when I visited them I stayed for several days at a time. My memories of that house are all taste and scent.  Grandma Betty fed me Malt-o-Meal or scrambled eggs in her basement kitchen while she did laundry and made filling for kolachkes. When I was finished eating, she tied an apron two or three times around my waist. Then she cut dozens of squares of dough with her knife — she was done before I could finish washing my hands–and pulled a kitchen chair up against the counter for me to stand on. We worked well together: she dropped a spoonful of poppy seed or prune filling on each piece of dough and I pinched the corners together to enclose it. When she served the rolls that night for supper, she told Grandpa I had made them all by myself.


Grandpa liked to drive us the four blocks to the Lonsdale corner store in his red Ford-F150, which  smelled of tackle box, tobacco, and sharp-sweet sawdust. He would buy me a tall bottle of Bubble-Up and pretend he wasn’t showing me off to his friends, who all knew he was. They sat at the counter together in a sturdy row of pinstriped overalls and workshirts,  rating tools and machinery, shaking their solemn heads over someone they knew who had fallen from a ladder. I perched on a stool at the end of the counter next to Grandpa in my cords and monogrammed sweater, forcing myself to finish all of the Bubble-Up. I knew what it meant to be included in this.


Until I had children, Camp Lake Hubert was the closest I came to having home all in one place. I spent eight summers there as a camper, experimenting with my character and learning to find my people. When I returned as a counselor after four summers away, I got dropped off one night in the upper parking lot without a flashlight. I walked all the way to Wrens cabin in that straightforward, thorough darkness I will always associate with the Minnesota Northwoods. I have a sense memory of that night, of knowing the trees and steps and buildings so well, understanding myself so clearly in relation to them, that I never even considered the possibility of being lost. I believed I would find my way so I found my way, on that night and others, both at camp and away.


Outdoor Winter Pots
© 2015 Marta C Drew



Maybe I descend from a band of traveling, singing figure skaters who wandered from town to town, maybe it’s just a story. It doesn’t matter …I have never wanted to be one of the travelers. I want to be part of the town. I am not content to wander the way my ancestors did centuries ago. I am not a free spirit; I have always been in search of a place to land.  In all of my traveling back and forth between parents, grandparents, camp and beyond, I never stayed anywhere long enough to feel completely at home.


Home is togetherness, yes. Home is my collection of people, recipes, and remembrances. But I have learned I can’t carry that on my back –I need architecture around it. I need a solid place, a single place, to feed and welcome those who pass through and decide to stay. Home for me is a Thanksgiving table, a quiet room, a bedroom, a kitchen. Home is another voice in the dark.



Time Devoted


Rice pudding 101915


When I was a little girl, I spent at least one night a week at my grandparents’ house. They lived in my school district, so I could ride the bus right to their house and run across the wide, grassy lawn to the open door. Inside, GramBea was in the kitchen, already filling a baggie with raisins and apple slices for my snack. I played outside while she worked on dinner and practiced her piano on the 4-season porch.


When I came back in around dinnertime, I sat at the pretty drop-leaf table in the kitchen and watched GramBea stir a knob of butter into a pot of brown rice, then peer into the oven to see if the chicken was done.  Now and then, she stood still and listened to whatever news Tom Brokaw was delivering from the tiny television next to the stove, nodding a little or snorting in disgust. Dinner, when it was served, asked nothing of me. Everything GramBea fed me was familiar, nourishing, and somehow more than the sum of its parts.


If I was lucky and the weather had been cool enough to keep the oven on all day, dessert was rice pudding –served cold in a white tulip bowl. Rice pudding is still my ultimate comfort food. It has only six ingredients: milk, rice, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. The technique, too, is simple — mix everything together in a deep casserole dish and stick it in the oven for roughly three hours, stirring every once in a while until you think it’s done. It couldn’t be easier, but it’s like any ritual: you have to give it careful, sacred attention to do it justice. You can’t merely spend three hours making rice pudding … you have to devote three hours to making rice pudding. That distinction took me a long time to understand, but I get it now. I am the only grandchild who really loved it, so when GramBea made rice pudding — stirring every 30 minutes for the first couple of hours, then after another 20, then maybe 15, then two 10-minute intervals at the end– she was giving me more than just her time. There was something else in there, too. Devotion.


I want to give my life some careful, sacred attention and do it justice.


A couple of months ago, I bought a little daybook and began keeping a daily log of my activities. One of the reasons for this new habit was to shame myself into being more productive. Once I had been forced to write “8:00-noon: Facebook and whatever” a few times, I picked up my knitting needles again and put myself on a strict cooking and baking schedule.


The other reason, the more important reason I began keeping a record of what I do each day, was to make sure my days are at least partially made up of meaningful work and activities that reflect who I really am (or at least who I’m trying to be). I want to give my life some careful, sacred attention and do it justice.


Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”


That isn’t great news for those of us who spend our days in minivans with bickering children. Anyway, I only mostly agree with it.  On most days, I spend my time: I get my stuff done, I keep my promises, I enjoy myself or I don’t. I suppose you could say that’s also how I spend my life. But there are also days — or at least parts of days– I devote: to nurturing, comfort, protection, love, community, and everything else that matters to me. So that means my life is made up of that devotion, too.


For time to be devoted, not merely spent, I have to give each moment more than just my attention — more, even, than my full attention. The time I devote becomes more than a commodity, more than something that can be spent. Time devoted is me offering my best available self  to a broken corner of the world I can reach: does someone need to be fed? Comforted? Protected? Loved? I am here. I give myself to that need in this moment.


The time I devote becomes more than a commodity, more than something that can be spent. Time devoted is me offering my best available self  to a broken corner of the world I can reach …


I wish there were a widely accepted formula for how to balance Time Spent with Time Devoted, but even if there were, I wouldn’t be able or willing to apply it. Sometimes I approach what I’m doing with the deepest reverence but then can’t sustain it; sometimes my work doesn’t turn out to be worthy of my devotion; sometimes I run to the grocery store, intending to pick up a couple of things for lunches or a rotisserie chicken for dinner, and wind up buying the ingredients for rice pudding. I’m surprised by devotion as often as I plan it, so intention isn’t always what distinguishes one kind of time from the other. I intended to spend last weekend relaxing with my family after a rather shaky start to the school year, but wound up devoting most of my time and myself to supporting a family I have never met, who just lost their little girl. I think part of devotion is reception; if I’m asking the questions about who needs me, then I have to be willing to hear the answers above the roar of my own plans.


And part of devotion is discernment. I can’t give everything I have to everything I do … if everything is sacred, then nothing is.  On most days, I will spend my time: I will get my stuff done, keep my promises, and enjoy myself or not. But on some days I will pour milk, rice, sugar, and vanilla into a deep casserole dish and add a pinch of salt, grate nutmeg over the top. I will put it in the oven, stir all afternoon, devote my best self to it, feed it to any broken corner of the world I can reach until it becomes more than the sum of its parts. Until my life becomes more than the sum of its parts.


Rice pudding Dish 112815



2 quarts milk (2% is best in my opinion, but of course you could make it with 1% or whole; I wouldn’t use skim)

½ cup long-grain white rice

½ cup sugar

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract

pinch of salt

freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat oven to 325˚F. In a deep 2-qt casserole, combine first five ingredients, then grate nutmeg on top. Bake at 325˚F for about an hour and a half, stirring with a wooden spoon every half an hour.  Then turn oven up to 350˚F and bake until pudding thickens to desired consistency, stirring every 10-15 minutes. Cooking time should be between 2 ½  and 3 hours.
Cool pudding to room temperature and then chill it in the refrigerator, at least 2 hours or overnight.

GramBea served it plain, but I add fresh bananas and whipped cream 😉


Begging the Question


Last Day at Eden Lake
© 2015 Marta C Drew


We do all of the laundry. Imagine if the Alps, the Himalayas, and the Rockies were all connected and made out of inside-out sweatshirts, Pixar jammies, and tiny Hello Kitty panties. That’s most of our laundry rooms on most days.


We cook. We spend hours, days, weeks, months, YEARS collecting recipes, then shop for the obscure ingredients, then defend what we spent on them, then prepare the meal, then –most of the time –clean up. This is what we hear if the meal is phenomenal:


“Good dinner Honey.”


Then someone farts, then someone burps, then everyone talks about how AWESOME that was, how they can’t BELIEVE how CRAZY EXCELLENT that fart-and-burp combo was. AMAZING. This is what we hear if the meal was damn good:


“It’s okay, but not really my favorite.” This from our nine-year-old son, who tells us in the voice he will one day use to break up with unstable girlfriends.


Just use the education, the talent, the imagination, style and mind-blowing sexiness that got you here, on this bathroom floor with this pee and these gloves (I hope) and this toilet, and get it done.


We keep the house clean while our people work (harder than they’re ever willing to work at anything else) to keep the place looking like a low-budget zoo habitat. Why is that sticky? What kind of crumbs are those? What is that weird smell? Best not to ask. Just use the education, the talent, the imagination, style and mind-blowing sexiness that got you here, on this bathroom floor with this pee and these gloves (I hope) and this toilet, and get it done.


We civilize:

“That is a sofa, not a jungle gym. Please refrain from jumping on it.”

“If my cooking makes you feel like you have to throw up, please do so in the bathroom. Thank you.”

“I’d rather not see that far into you.”

“I’m afraid you’ll find that fart jokes, like houseguests and fish, start to grow old after about day three.”

“Etiquette dictates that you should not finish your dinner before the person who cooked it for you has begun.”

“The world is not your petting zoo …there are some things and people we need not touch to enjoy.”

“Try not to eat anything you found in your nose.”

“You are not the center of the universe. That position is held by the sun …the exquisitely silent sun.”


This is not an exhaustive list.


We grow people. First we grow them inside of us, then push them out (I don’t want to talk about it) and grow them on the outside. Some of us breastfeed, some of us formula feed, some of us do both. Either way, we’re up several times a night feeding/diapering/burping/checking to make sure they’re breathing.


As they grow, we read article after article about the scientific link between child nutrition and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between childhood depression and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between child stupidity and our shitty mothering. We make our own baby food with fruits and vegetables we grew ourselves (lots of spare time in this job) from heirloom organic seeds we found in the Sundance catalog for $700.00 per envelope. We harvest the vegetables, put them through a food mill, a food processor, a strainer, and finally into a ceramic personalized bowl that seemed like a great idea when we were pregnant. From there, our stupid baby (our fault) throws the whole mess on the floor.


Then we cry and give them a dusty jar of Gerbers, which they devour as if Chef Thomas Keller made it himself.


We agonize over the right friends, the right schools, the right combination of athletics and artistic enrichment. We read to them, make sure they do their homework, sign them up for camp. We douse them in sunscreen and bugspray only to find out in August that everyone else knew in June that the brand of sunscreen we use is full of potent carcinogens. Then we self-flagellate.


As they grow, we read article after article about the scientific link between child nutrition and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between childhood depression and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between child stupidity and our shitty mothering.


We check daily for lice, rashes, viruses, depression, tumors, drug abuse, seizures, eating disorders, anxiety, and whatever else is going around. We volunteer at school (but not too much), we get involved with sports (but not too much), we show up at every poetry reading, tipi-making event, book club, swim meet, hockey game, glockenspiel recital, and gallery opening to cheer and take a thousand digital photos, which we immediately put into custom photo books for the grandparents. We forget to order one for ourselves.


When they’re sick or injured –whether it’s bad or not– we read and sing and carry them, though they’re much too big to be carried and we’ll need months of chiropractic work afterwards, for what feels like miles through schools, across fields, malls, museums, hospitals until they feel better, falling asleep in our shaking arms. We hold them down for immunizations or IV inserts or basic dental work. We crawl in bed with them at 3:30 am to scratch their backs while they cough so hard they almost throw up. We tell them for the thousand-and-tenth time that they’re safe and cozy in their beds; the “funder” won’t hurt them.


We do all of this –or most of it– gladly, grateful for the experience, for the infinite expansion of our hearts and minds. But it does beg the question:


Why, whywhywhy, WHY, when people ask us if we work, do we keep saying no?


Drewlets together Easter 2010


Self Preservation


Marta b&w apple orchard 2006


“The best thing a mother can teach her children is how to need her as little as possible,” I like to tell an imaginary television camera in the car after dropping Lizzie off at preschool. “I am a mother, yes, but also a woman, a person, a soul worth growing for its own sake. If I lose sight of that, I will have failed both myself and my children.” I picture myself saying it to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, and to Barbara Walters (she’d LOVE it) on 20/20. I will wear my hair down, dress beautifully but not ostentatiously, and listen as much as I speak (this last part would most likely be the hardest to pull off).


Then someone honks at me –the light has turned green. I have to stop fantasizing so I don’t start mowing down old people on the sidewalk with my sexy minivan.


Regardless of whether I ever get the opportunity to say it on camera, I have always believed we women must nurture our original selves as we are raising our children, if for no other reason than because mothering demands nothing less than a whole, enlightened, educated, talented, healthy, flexible woman. Still, having as much as possible to give our families shouldn’t be the only reason for preserving and growing our essential selves . We should be our own reason.


If I do my job well, my children will gradually leave me. First they will stop asking me to get them brefgast and Cheery-lows and pisketti. Then they will stop coming to me when the mean stister called the nother stister Cookie Face (they find this SO insulting) or when someone can’t find his Lego Harry Potter’s microscopic hand and wand. Next they’ll start turning to their friends when they have a secret or an idea. Or when they need feedback about whether something is cool or not (even at the height of my powers, I would never be able to help them with that). Eventually, I won’t see them for weeks at a time as they hole up in their rooms listening to mopey music and/or writing poems to boys or girls who don’t know they exist. They’ll go off to college or on tour with their basement bands, calling only to tell me he’s changed his major to celebrity portrait painting or that she needs more tattoo money.


Having as much as possible to give our families shouldn’t be the only reason for preserving and growing our essential selves . We should be our own reason.


This is all as it should be, but then what will happen to me? Will I be able to find myself under all the layers of anxiety, impatience, indignity, and confusion pressing on my tender psyche over the years? Will  I have raised a good, strong self at the same time? Will I ever be able to think about anything else besides what or who might hurt my babies? Once I have the freedom to do whatever I want, will I know what it is?


This weekend, the Drewlets all left for two days and two nights on sleepovers with the grandparents so Brian and I could work on home projects. I returned to my quiet, empty house after the last round of forgot-to-give-you-this minivan deliveries and felt relief, yes, but also a low-grade, buzzing uneasiness –the kind I get when I’m sitting in a movie and am suddenly unsure whether I unhooked my iPod and locked my car. I THINK I took care of everything but I’m not SURE I took care of everything.


Would Henry get enough sleep at his grandparents’ house to recover from his tiny man-cold (the one that had him moaning and keening like a Sicilian widow the night before) so he’d be healthy enough for his swim meet on Saturday?  Would he be as scared as last time? Would Lizzie refuse (again) to eat her dinner and get hypoglycemic in the middle of the night? Did I remember to warn my dad about that? Would Caroline stay in her little bed at my mom’s house all night? Or would she start wandering at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning like she did last winter, maybe get hurt in the big dark house and not be found until morning?


A rich imagination is a great gift for a writer and a horrible curse for a mother. My memory is the same way. You may say my fears are irrational. You may be right. But I have a picture in my mind of Henry in the back seat of my car before a swim meet last winter, tears in his other-worldly eyes, trying to take deep breaths, get on top of his nerves, be brave enough to at least go inside and change into his suit. I have a picture in my mind of my Lizzie, sweaty and shaking at 11:00 at night as we tried to feed her a granola bar and get her to tell us who I was, who Brian was.


I have so many pictures in my mind of my vulnerable Caroline that I don’t even know which one to mention here. In my memory, she always has electrode glue in her hair and is crying “all done that part!” as the nurses try a second time to get the IV in. If I am a pathological worrier, I am forgiven. You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve had to do over the last five years to get my kids, safe and whole, to now, to Grandma and Grandpa’s houses this weekend. Unless you have little people in your care. Then you would believe it — and have probably lived it.


My Empty Nest Preview Weekend reassured me I’m still mostly here, mostly reconcilable with my original self.


I worry about me, too. Am I going to be okay or am I permanently damaged by the particularly intense mothering I’ve had to do? Can my original self and my modern self get along? I felt almost awkward being alone with myself on Friday night, like I was hosting for the weekend a cousin I had been close to in childhood but now barely knew. What did she like to do? How should I entertain her? Would she be willing to eat Cap’n Crunch? (I hoped so, because there wasn’t much else in the pantry.)


What would she think about the obscure reality shows Brian and I like to watch these days, like Storage Wars and BBQ Pitmasters? Would she judge me? SHOULDN’T she judge me? Would she be able to pee without a panel of tiny commentators standing in the bathroom with her? Would walking through a greenhouse or garden center make her feel instantly contented and hopeful like it used to or would it take more than that? What would it take? Was she still likely to skip meals if she was really into some creative or organizational project? I knew her so well back then, but who was she now? How would we pass the time? Would she lecture me about getting some exercise?


Well yeah, she lectured me a little bit (my original self loves to lecture –we have that in common). It turned out that my modern self, the soul I’ve been trying when I can to grow and nurture alongside my children, is mostly compatible with my original self. The me I believed I had abandoned in the Children’s Hospital ICU in 2008 was still there.


I saw her at about 1:30 on Sunday afternoon when I realized I’d been so intent on cleaning out the laundry room that I had eaten almost nothing. We walked through Bachman’s together in search of houseplants, my original self and I, our heart slowing down and filling up; it didn’t take any more than that to restore either one of us. Relief. Yes, of course the Original Marta was willing to eat Cap’n Crunch –I needn’t have worried about that one– and was most impressed with Modern Marta for thinking to eat it at night with ice-cold whole milk, which is way more delicious and superhealthy than ice cream. Peeing without an audience went just fine for us too, thank you for asking.


Begonias August 2011


My Empty Nest Preview Weekend reassured me I’m still mostly here, mostly reconcilable with my original self. I’ve been taking better care of her than I thought –let’s hope the same is true for my kids. She was disappointed to see that I was buying faux-plants, which she considered tacky and unworthy of our green thumb. I explained the house is dark, we need some shots of green, I bought convincing ones, and we could never keep real English ivies or ferns alive in the winter anyway. She couldn’t argue with that.


My modern self woke up at 5:45 on Saturday morning, freaked out about whether Lizzie had fallen out of bed or Caroline had wandered out of her room. The old me reassured the new me that they were definitely all safe, everything was fine, I was fine, and we should go back to sleep. I was glad she was there.


The woman I used to be, before the tumors and broken hearts and vulnerability of my maternal experience, is still around. She’s still the same in essentials, but she’s grown, of course, into this modern self I have now. They’re both me. I’m wholly me –the woman and the mother. I still don’t believe my children are the only reason I’m here; I haven’t changed my mind about that. I’m supposed to remember the other interests and relationships that fasten me to this beautiful, mysterious place and develop them so I don’t start needing my children more just when they have finally begun to need me less.


I am supposed to write and garden and bake and sing and return to camp whenever I can and stay close to the friends and sisters and brothers who will let me. And I will, because I am a person, a woman, a soul worth growing for its own sake.


Yet the soul I’ve grown is a mother’s soul, blooming most fully and miraculously on bathroom floors and hospital beds, in dark hallways and parking lots.  The self I have worked so hard to preserve is first and most essentially a maternal self. There is a woman within the mother and a mother within the woman, nurturing each other, needing each other.




GramBea at Rosses July 4 2009


“I have a low tolerance for chaos,” I complained to GramBea this morning on the phone.


“I know, so do I,” she said.


GramBea raised five children (the youngest were twins) while my Grandpa, a Captain in the Navy, was off at sea for months at a time. She knows chaos. She is also  is the source of all the most consistently reliable  parenting advice. For example, she told me last year that sometimes the most nourishing meal a parent can have is a glass of alcohol and an aspirin. Amen.


I have also passed on to countless friends and acquaintances her trick for sleeping in on weekends when you have young children: “Grandpa and I would just sprinkle Cheerios in the twins’ cribs before we went to bed,” she said. “It kept them busy and fed while we slept in a little longer.”

Why haven’t the baby food manufacturers caught on to that idea?


I knew she would understand when I told her I’m feeling starved for peace and quiet. “You know what you can do, Marta, for a little bit of quiet?  Just stop what you’re doing all of a sudden and say ‘what’s that? Do you hear that? Listen!’ It works. It will only buy you about five seconds, but at least it’s five seconds of quiet.” Small victories, got it. I wrote it down.


She told me last year that sometimes the most nourishing meal a parent can have is a glass of alcohol and an aspirin. Amen.


The most essential element of my parenting philosophy comes from GramBea. When Henry was about two, I called her from Cleveland, feeling overwhelmed. “How do you get it all done?” I wailed. “How do you cook balanced meals and keep a clean and beautiful house and raise children?”


“You don’t,” she said. “Some of it will have to wait. Sometimes you will not be able to pull off a great dinner, sometimes you will not finish the laundry, sometimes the house will get dusty. It can all wait. Your job is to spend time with your babies, to grow them and listen to them and enjoy them. That’s the only thing that can’t wait.”


You should know that GramBea has always kept a beautiful house –I spent the night there at least once a week when I was growing up (I could take the bus to her house after school). The lighting was soft and glowy, meals were nourishing and delicious (minimal sugar and fat –I still don’t know how she pulled that off), her home was beautiful in an effortless, comfortable kind of way. Many times I would come in after school to hear her practicing piano out on the four-season porch. The sheets were crisp and fresh in Spring and Summer, soft and warm in Fall and Winter.


You think I’m romanticizing Grandma’s house, but you can ask anyone in our big family –it’s all true. GramBea is a gifted nester and a practical nurturer. So if she tells me it’s okay to let the laundry go for a little while or serve eggs and hot cereal for a few nights (“watch the salt and sugar, though, Sweetie”) then I listen to her for the same reason I’d listen if Beyonce or Jennifer Lopez told me it was okay to let hair and makeup go for a day or two. Order and beauty matter to GramBea –they just don’t matter as much as kids do.


Which is why she’s still the first person I want to call on a Saturday morning.