Memories from Wombtown

The obvious but important takeaway from pregnancy is that the world is extremely unfair. First, the biological facts — after their initial (um, not difficult) contribution, men do literally nothing to assist in the baby growing process. That is insane. This is not a Jamie slam; Jamie was and is the world’s most supportive husband and was awesome to have around during my pregnancy. But the growing really was all me. How is that the system?

Of course the injustice doesn’t end there. Among women who want to bear children there is so much dumb luck involved. Some women have a terrifyingly easy time getting pregnant; some women try and try and try and it takes years of heartbreak and/or thousands of dollars; or it doesn’t happen at all. Some women have easy pregnancies and cruise through 40 weeks with barely a swell of the ankle. Some women are miserable. Some end up in the hospital from any number of scary complications.

The unvarnished truth: I got pregnant quite quickly and proceeded to have a very easy and uncomplicated pregnancy. I can(‘t) imagine how annoying, frustrating, and potentially painful that could be to read about, so by all means pass this one by if you are having those extremely valid feelings. But I need to try and capture some aspect of this experience before it’s completely vanished from my mind (it’s already hazy), so I’m going to include some memories of my pregnancy here.

But first, a video by Jamie, on this topic:

 

And now some words. For me, the experience of pregnancy was all paradox.

All the Responsibility | None of the Control

Before I was accustomed to the idea of having a baby — not that I ever got accustomed to it, am still not — but when it was especially new, one perpetual feeling was that surely we were evading some important rule-following procedure. We had decided to bring life into the world and then we just sort of went ahead with it. Now it was happening, and nothing at all had been asked of us. Didn’t we need to see a judge? Sign some forms? Visit a notary?

Wanna take one hot yoga class for one hour? You must read and sign a waiver. Wanna have a kid? Knock yourselves out!

And once the decision was made — speedily, so speedily, it now seems — things just sort of started to happen. Someone, somewhere, had flipped a switch and now my body was running a whole new program utterly foreign to me. By 28 I had a pretty good sense of what my body was like, when and why it felt good or bad. Then suddenly, not so much. It is resoundingly disorienting to encounter that much unknowability within your own literal self.

Sometimes, especially after I started to show, I sort of felt like a superhero. Look what I’m making!

Sometimes, the phrase that came was – my body is a savage jungle. My body is. A savage. Jungle.

One aspect of pregnancy I truly hated: that I was housing a living thing, charged with its care and well-being, beholden now to something small and helpless and essential — but I couldn’t see, hear, check on it. I assume this is hard on all pregnant people; for those of us in the worrywart club, it sucked. The roiling worry of trimester 1 is vivid to me: when I wasn’t that nauseous in the 9 to 11 week period, instead of rejoicing in my good fortune I worried that I had lost the pregnancy in a silent miscarriage. In fact I convinced myself that I had. I lay curled around my phone some Saturday mornings, clicking through heartbreak on miscarriage forums.  

Ultrasounds helped, dopplers helped, but the certainty in the OB’s office was so short compared to weeks — months — of constant, low-grade anxiety. Was she okay? She started kicking, which helped, but was she kicking enough? What if she had a terrible disease that was all my fault? I had gone in a hot tub very early on in my pregnancy, a big no-no; maybe I ruined her nervous system. I did. I did. I did. I tortured myself about that hot tub almost every single day.

4am to 6am was the darkest time. If I woke up to pee, I would just lie awake and think about everything I was doing wrong and all the ways I could be hurting my baby.

The fears had changed by the last trimester — the hot tub, still, niggled at me. But now I thought about stillbirth. Would it happen because I accidentally slept on my right side, inadvertently turned that way in my sleep? I made Jamie promise that if the baby was stillborn we would leave the country for a month, get away from our house and the little clothes, the changing table.

So Private | So Public

I’m not much of a secret-keeper, and this one was so big. Not telling my sisters while we were in Hawaii together (we found out on Boxing Day on Maui)  was the greatest feat of self control I think I’ve ever displayed.

It was mostly thrilling, keeping the secret; the intimacy of it. Though I sometimes wanted to tell people for purposes of disclaiming my body and/or behavior. There’s a really good reason why I’m wearing these pants! Pringles and ginger ale for breakfast at work again? Really good reason!  

The disclosures to loved ones: truly some of the most densely concentrated joy I have ever, ever felt. Adrenaline zipping up and down my veins every time. That pulsing secret, trapped in my rib cage for so long, volleyed at last into the air and caught so tenderly.

A professor walked by my desk one morning while she was kicking. I must have been smiling because he said, “There must be something good on your screen.” “I’m pregnant!!” I answered, surprising us both with my candor and exuberance.

Once I started really showing, it felt like privacy was at a permanent end. I’ve never felt so on display. Everyone had something to say. For example, a male colleague who said I was “looking ripe.” ICK. For example, the lady on the train who recommended I drink cornsilk in hot water for my swollen ankles. UGH.

This was not always bad: “Baby…woman?” Asked the man in halting English running the boutique in Torri del Benaco. “Baby Girl!”  Corrected his shopgirls laughingly.

At Tahoe, looking truly absurd in my bathing suit, I passed a woman in a high ponytail. “Almost there,” she said. “You got this.” It was one of the most wonderful things anyone has ever said to me.

Pregnant Forever | Never Pregnant

Around 32 or so weeks it seemed as though I had always been pregnant, for my entire adult life, and would always be. I couldn’t remember what it was like not to have that peculiar silhouette. I couldn’t remember the experience of easily staring down at my toes. I marvelled at women who lay on their stomachs at the beach, who bent down and picked something up from the ground. How sublime, to have that level of ease.

It hasn’t been so long since then, but already my body has almost entirely forgotten the feeling of being pregnant. The last remaining sensation I can still call up is that grinding in my hips after trying to sleep on my left side all night. The feeling of perpetual internal bruising.

Rigidity | Gentleness

Pregnancy has lots of intense rules, which was stressful. (see: Expecting Better). I worried every day that I wasn’t eating enough fruits and vegetables; then when I ate them, I worried that I hadn’t washed them thoroughly enough.

That said, I did love the way everyone around me — people on the Bart train, my app, my family members, my friends — encouraged me to treat myself with gentleness. Pregnancy was a sustained period of kindness to my body. The delivery guys for whom I signed off on packages, each and every one gruff and burly, showed me startling sweetness. “How’s that baby?” They asked. “Is your husband rubbing your feet?”

Prego,” I said to the guard manning the handicapped bathrooms at Boboli Gardens. “Incinta,” I explained, a word I had looked up on Google translate before we left. He let me in. We had a friendly, smiley, semi-signed conversation about my pregnancy, boy or girl, how far along I was. It was genuinely lovely.

At some point I realized that as a woman I had been granted this new beneficence toward my body only when someone else was living in it. That seems telling.

Must Plan | Yet Cannot Plan

We did so much prep. I had such a long google doc. Labor classes, breastfeeding classes, postpartum classes. We watched the goofy DVD of The Happiest Baby on the Block (which side note: I do recommend). We cleaned out our garage. Julia helped me organize all her little clothes, then organize them again. I packed our hospital bag. I nested like the completely batty mother hen I had become.

But we could also recognize that we really didn’t have any idea of what was to come. And even wilder — we didn’t know when it happen. How often can you say that in modern life, let alone about something so earth-tiltingly new and strange? It is weird to live in the world of order and information and also be suddenly very tied to animal reality. At any moment of the day I could click around in my phone and know the time of our staff meeting, the weather at my sister’s house, Emily Blunt’s highest-rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes.

But no one—not my phone, not my spouse, not even my doctor—could tell me who my baby was and when she was going to come.  

All August long I wondered: Who is steering this ship? WHO WHO WHO?

Wicked World | Wonderful World

Every day on our walk to the train we passed the middle school, and the tweens in their gym uniforms on the blacktop, and I would remember anew that by birthing this child I was condemning her to seventh grade P.E. How could I do that to her. Why did I get pregnant.

How could we bring her here, when so many things have gone so wrong.

And also while we walked to the train, and on Saturday mornings in bed, and in the car, Jamie and I would talk about all the new things she would do, feel, see:

The trees and the wind.
The moon and the stars.
Harry Potter.
Standing at the water’s edge — the whoosh and grasp of receding waves.
Mulan.
Christmas, and Christmas lights, and a first crunchy step into snow.
Sleepy car rides.
Music.
Dancing.

 

(20)18 Books.

Here are 18 lil book reviews of 18 books I read in 2018! Partially because that symmetry pleases me, partially because I didn’t read that many more than this — stopped reading pretty much entirely after September 4 — and partially because most of the other ones I read were for Publishers Weekly reviews, which means I read them a) in one night, b) complaining bitterly the whole time, c) now can’t remember a blessed thing about them.

verona
Pregnant in Italy! I have aged SO MUCH since this picture!  

Top 5, Baby Edition

I spent two-thirds of 2018 pregnant, which is, you know, a kind of intense way to be alive. So the books that I truly loved from 2018 were all in some way related to pregnancy. I’m sure they were especially resonant for me, but I think I can confidently recommend these to you whatever your procreative status.

Expecting Better, Emily Oster

Okay so this one is definitely most relevant to pregnant people; its subtitle is Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong — and What You Really Need to Know. But if you or someone you love will at any point in the future become pregnant—Get. This. Book. It’s written by a University of Chicago economist who, while pregnant herself, got frustrated by doctors who would give her stern but hazy rules for behavior (about caffeine intake, weight gain, foods to avoid, etc) without explaining the research that supported those recommendations or the risk level of each individual choice. Oster looks at each conventional recommendation or practice related to pregnancy (from conception all the way through labor) and combs through the studies that support those recommendations to determine their soundness and level of applicability. She then provides careful and up-to-date suggestions on behavior for and during pregnancy—and, importantly, how to make those assessments for yourself—helpfully summed up at the end of each chapter.

I highly recommend reading this early on in pregnancy, because it is remarkably reassuring—my friend Taylor, who loaned me the book and is also an economist, summed up what she learned from Expecting Better very well: that basically, smoking is definitely a bad idea if you are pregnant, and pretty much everything else is probably fine. It also reinforces the idea that in pregnancy, as in the rest of your life, it is important to do what is right for you personally. How freaking great, and how freaking different from my horrible app that gave me a heart attack several times a week because it told me something new and potentially devastating I screwed up on.

And Now We Have Everything, Meghan O’Connell

A subtheme of this top 5 is: books given to me by very smart friends. My friend Kelsey sent me this one. I read it about halfway through my pregnancy, in about half a day. It’s a quiet memoir, and that one adjective alone makes it notable, I think: so often we read memoirs that are about people who have had insane lives (see: Educated). Those are often great, but I always feel a little bit like I’m rubbernecking to check out a crash on the freeway. This book is not a car crash. It’s about O’Connell’s semi-accidental pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenthood. She is in a committed relationship and leading a generally happy and stable life. But it is every bit as compelling as a typical crazy memoir, because O’Connell’s writing is easy and nimble and very, very funny and also very, very honest. So honest that it was a little bit scary to read while pregnant: I remember getting to the chapter about her labor while at the beach (I was at the beach, she wasn’t at the beach), and crying from the intensity and also from terror at what I had gotten myself into. But it is so, so enjoyable and worth reading: three cheers for honesty about women’s experiences!  

Bring Back Beatrice, Jennifer Griffin

Another book from Taylor! Hooray for Taylor! I hesitated to list this one, because it’s a baby name book. So, light on plot. But I did in fact read it 100% cover to cover, in the middle of the night, more than once. The reason why this baby name book is preferable to others is because the author is a funny, opinionated, and perceptive guide, explaining why it’s not a good idea to name your kid something trendy; why it’s not a good idea to name your kid just a nickname (want something like Mimi? She’ll have a helpful sidebar of all the real names you can use on her birth certificate that will open the door to Mimi); and why it is a good idea to take into account the sounds and syllables of your middle and last names. She offers an extensive alphabetical list of names both classic and rare (with nickname suggestions!). Naming your kid is a big deal, and it was fun for me to feel like I had a witty and no-nonsense aunt and/or English teacher type of person whispering in my ear.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

This one came from my friend Eva. Thank you, Eva!!

This book is nuts. I am looking at the Amazon listing right now and apparently it is subtitled A Memoir, but truly it is uncategorizable. Nelson does write about her life — her relationship with her nonbinary partner Harry, her pregnancy and childbirth, her family and career — but she also incorporates literary theory and philosophy, blending thoughtful arguments about how to approach concepts of life and family alongside her memories. Normally, the word theory is shudder- and eyeroll-inducing for me. But I kid you not, this book is a page-turner. I read it in just a couple of days while on vacation in Italy! The language is incredibly beautiful and the intellectual prowess on display is just staggering. Nelson reminds me of Zadie Smith in her refusal of dogma of any stripe; she takes ideas apart with rigor and care and left me with approximately one million things to think about. Plus it has a great labor scene. Favorite line: “I’m sick of these clowns who aren’t in pain.” INDEED.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

Okay so this one really isn’t about pregnancy, and I don’t think it was a gift (if it was, and the gift giver is reading this, I am so sorry!). It’s a beautiful, harsh, heartbreaking novel about mass migration told on an intimate scale, following one blossoming relationship in the context of crisis. The sentences in this book are staggeringly lovely, long and dense and full of ideas that wriggle all the way into your heart corners. The two central characters are vividly rendered and their relationship feels palpably, achingly real.

I’m including it in my ‘baby edition’ because I read it early on in my pregnancy and found something I needed: a great character named Nadia. Jamie and I were already considering Nadia as a name for our baby (if she turned out to be a girl)  but, as I’ve written about, it was important to me to choose a name with a literary connection. This Nadia is a worthy and lovely book sister (though my Nadia will be MUCH older before she’s allowed to read Exit West).

I Liked These Ones Too, Though These Reviews are Admittedly Pretty Shoddy

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

I have barely scratched the surface on Atwood, but I’m glad to have read this one. It’s a slow burn — a bit too slow, for the first couple hundred pages — but it gets pretty fascinating. And creepy! I’m amazed by how lightly Atwood can leap between genres. This one’s part historical fiction, part mystery, and extremely dark.

The Summer List, Amy Doan

One of the few Publishers Weekly-mandated reads I sincerely enjoyed. Romance slash coming of age slash friendship drama with a hint of mystery. It’s not mind blowing from a literary standpoint, but it completely held my interest and didn’t make me think about being pregnant at all. Win.

Turtles All the Way Down, John Green

Oh, John Green. Why are you so extra? Why can you not be chill for one single moment? Why do you cherish cleverness above all else? These questions crop up for me every time I read one of his books. But I always read them quickly, and I almost always enjoy them, which does demonstrate considerable talent in spite of all the affectation. This one has some stuff about anxiety that I think is really rather effective.

Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng

This was an interesting reading experience, because I completely tore through it and loved Ng’s sentence-level writing; she reminds me a bit of Ann Patchett or Karen Joy Fowler. But at the end I was left thinking there was going to be a bit more to the characters—their motivations felt more simplistic than I expected. But this was Ng’s first novel, and I’m eager to read her other work.

Dispatches from Pluto, Richard Grant

A highly educated British journalist moves with his girlfriend to the Mississippi Delta and befriends local rednecks; (nonfiction) hijinks ensue. This was a pretty fascinating portrait of a part of the country I know nothing about, though Grant himself didn’t come across to me as an especially excellent dude. It did reinforce to me that I am not cut out to live in the South—the anecdotes featuring giant bugs, snakes, and armadillos (?!?) alone. Shiver.

What It Means When A Man Falls from the Sky,  Lesley Nneka Arimah

A debut collection of short stories that were funky and cool! Short stories rarely stick with me the way novels do, but I liked these.

How to be Famous, Caitlin Moran

Another fun fluffy novel. Caitlin Moran is incorrigible in the best way. My only quibble was that this book is set in the 1990s, but a lot of the dialogue sounds straight out of Me Too-era 2017. Anachronism is annoying!

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Maria Semple

Funny, biting, playful, ultimately pretty weird. I liked it. I liked it more because we listened to this one as an audiobook and the narrator was excellent. Fun fact: the narrator also plays Luke’s sister Liz in Gilmore Girls. Good job, Liz!

A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett

I read this one to prepare to write the essay for my mom’s birthday last year, so I had a very particular purpose/lens and read it very fast. I find it lovely at the sentence level because I have such fondness for this genre, and I think I’ll be excited to read it to Nadia. My other main takeaway is that British fiction has a long history of depicting adults being extremely cruel to children. British kids’ books: childhood is terrifying and violent and the class system is rigid and important!

Heretics Anonymous, Katie Henry

An excellent, thoughtful, funny and effortlessly readably YA novel written by a friend. Way to go, Katie!

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sanchez

Another thoughtful YA. This one was written from the perspective of a Latina teen striving to escape her Chicago neighborhood and mourning her sister. It’s a painful book on a number of levels, and could have been edited a bit more tightly, but the narrator is vivid and arresting and I still think about her.

Educated, Tara Westover

So much has been written about this book that I don’t feel I really have anything new to add. It’s completely bananas and harrowing but/and worth reading.

In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri

This was the only 2018  book I read after Nadia was born (thank you, lovely Leslie!). It’s a memoir of sorts written by Jhumpa Lahiri about learning the Italian language as an adult. The crazy thing is that Lahiri wrote it in Italian — she even refused to translate it into English herself, so she wouldn’t inadvertently polish her Italian; she has stopped writing fiction in English entirely. The book is a collection of brief essays about the experience of learning a new language and reinventing herself as a writer within the confines/liberties of that language. It’s interesting and instructive to read about writers’ relationships to writing, and even in her third (!) language Lahiri is elegant and perceptive. Mostly this book confounded me, though, especially in my extreme  postpartum haze: how could anyone have the intellectual curiosity and stamina to stop writing in the language for which they have been celebrated just to basically try something out that’s extremely demanding and frustrating? Whyyy? Amazing but crazy. I definitely did not relate. But I liked it!

There you have it! Many words! Hope this leaves you with some potential reads for the year of the pig.

Hasty Notes on 2017

Soon, I will remember nothing that has ever occurred in my life. Quickly, before I forget and before I have a baby, some things happened to us in 2017:

  • I started a new job at UC Berkeley and stopped teaching
  • Jamie learned to be a programmer and stopped teaching
  • We moved out of the studio in my parents’ backyard into a duplex palace, meaning now sometimes I’m in one room, and Jamie is in a different room.

Additionally:

  • We encountered some seriously intense familial upheaval, which resulted in lots of good things but also permanent departure from our family home and the most traumatic trip to Costco ever
  • Jamie looked for a programming job for a long time, which he handled like the total champion he is, but like every human did not enjoy
  • Also we drove to Utah and spent the last day of the trip tearing all our stuff apart looking fruitlessly for our car keys, which by hour 4 or so led me to conclude that life truly has no meaning.

We saw quite a few beautiful things, including:

  • the wide skies and charmingly Seussian trees of Joshua Tree National Parkjoshua tree
  • the view of San Francisco from Treasure Island: particularly lovely one day in March because we stopped there to turn around and go home after I successfully petitioned Delta Airlines to change Julia’s flight when she had a fever over spring break. I consider this one of my greatest accomplishments of 2017.

  • My nieces’ faces at Disneyland, particularly baby Rosie’s beatific smile while waving to us from the carousel and Flavia’s giddy wonder after the Finding Nemo ride. “It was real,” she said. “It was REAL.”

  • the Mad Menny (Man Mennish? Mad Mendom? I just mean mid-century modern)  delights of Palm Springs.palm springs
  • Some of our favorite water alongside some of our favorite people: the Provo River and Silver Lake; Lake Tahoe in summer and fall; and the Calistoga community pool, not a long-term favorite but a stumbled-upon oasis on a blistering day. We swam and lay out on the grass. For a few minutes, dazed but maybe also awakened by sun and comfort, I could feel my mom there with me, saying hi.

  • Rosie at my birthday dinner, completely drenched  in curry and noodles, flinging tiny strips of lamb into her mouth with abandon.

  • Three Great Dance Parties and Our Own Christmas Tree (title of my memoir?)

  • A beautiful, white Christmas Eve Eve in Utah, and a beautiful, green Christmas Day on MauiChristmas2017-805

The next day, Boxing Day, I learned of my pregnancy.

I had brought a pregnancy test and prenatal vitamins on the trip, stuffed way, way down in my backpack. I had been feeling the tiniest hint of symptoms for a few weeks, but figured I was just making them up due to hope or (and) panic. I had told Jamie just a few days before, “Just so you know — I’m not pregnant. I’m definitely not pregnant.” “Okay,” he had said in his imperturbable way.

On Christmas Day I was late, but still feeling the familiar low back squeeze of menstrual cramps, so I figured things were just off. That night I lay in our hotel room and decided I would take the test early the next morning to confirm that I was not at all pregnant, so I could stop thinking about it and drink as much Diet Coke as I wanted to during our week in Hawaii.

Did you know that cramping from uterine expansion in early pregnancy feels the same as menstrual cramping?

Like I said, my memory is bad and getting worse. The days and weeks run through my fingers like water. But I hope so much to remember this:

  • My hand gripping the towel rack in shock, crouched on the sandy bathroom floor and staring at two pink spider strands on a plastic stick.
  • His face when he opened his eyes to see the present I told him I had forgotten to give him the day before.

 

hotel view
The view from out hotel room

 

My Sisters’ Sisters.

When Pamela was grown, she married, and some years later, her first child was born. A girl, a beautiful baby girl, with round cheeks and lots of hair. Her name was Sara, spelled without an “h.”

Sara without an “h” was an important distinction, for Sara was named for Sara Crewe of A Little Princess. Pamela had read it when she was a girl. On the inside cover, she printed her name, address, and phone number as carefully as an eight year old could; and though the letters sloped down more than she’d hoped, anyone who found it missing would bring it back to her. She knew very early that her own daughter would be named Sara.

Sara Crewe, like all the best heroines, possesses both goodness and pluck. She, like Pamela, loves books and stories. And though she is an orphan, and has a period of great suffering at the hands of fate and Miss Minchin, she is honorable always and happy mostly, even in adversity. And, of course, she triumphs in the end.

It was not that Pamela thought Sara — her very own sleepy, milk-soft Sara — would be gifted the precise qualities Frances Hodgson Burnett gave the little princess once her name was printed on her little hospital wristband. But she did think that to name her daughter for a good, brave girl from a good, loved book was probably the right way to start off her life.

When Sara learned of her namesake as a little girl, she was terribly proud to have been named for a princess.

Pamela’s Sara began to grow, and as she grew Pamela read her many books. She read her The Big Red Barn and Blueberries for Sal and The Runaway Bunny. But Sara’s attention span, like her namesake’s, was unusually hungry, so Pamela read her longer and longer books. When Sara was approaching three years old, Pamela read her The Little House in the Big Woods, and it was around this time that Pamela learned that she was again pregnant.

As Pamela read to Sara about Laura Ingalls’ simple, industrious life, the food they prepared and the games that they played in the beautiful Wisconsin woods, she pondered the name Laura for her second daughter. Laura Ingalls, too, has goodness and pluck. She too works hard and is mostly happy. It was a good name, Pamela decided, should her baby be born a girl.sara&lo

She was, and so Sara and Laura were a pair for many years. When Laura was old enough to be read the Little House books, she pictured herself as Laura without any trouble at all, for Laura Ingalls is also small for her age, and also possessing a dignified older sister with blonde hair. Pamela’s Laura often forgot that the sister in the books is named Mary and not Sara. Laura dressed as her book sister for Halloween, and when she turned six, requested a Laura Ingalls birthday party. They played old fashioned games. Pamela made everyone a bonnet. It was a great triumph.

Sara and Laura slept in bunkbeds in their small apartment. Sara sang in a chorus and Laura went to ballet class. They had friends and they each had a sister, and mostly they got along.

Always Pamela read to them, and in time they read to themselves. In the evenings, when they snuggled up under a blanket on the couch with Pamela, they heard the adventures of their other sisters: Sara Crewe and Laura Ingalls, yes, but also Anne Shirley (Anne with an “e”), and Mary Lennox and the March sisters, the Melendy children (some of whom were boys, it couldn’t be helped) and the Fossil sisters and many children without last names: the children in E. Nesbit’s stories about magic, and the children in Edward Eager’s stories about magic. Sally Watson’s heroines, with their fiery sense of justice and complicated family tree. Pippi Longstocking, and Ronia, the robber’s daughter. Sometimes Pamela took Sara and Laura to see plays, and here they discovered even more sisters, though these were grown and beautiful and fierce, with names like music: Viola, Rosalind, Helena, Titania, Celia, Portia.

Though the books Pamela read to her daughters were not always old-fashioned — and, indeed, the books she read in her own bed, late into the night, were mostly, it must be confessed, grisly murder mysteries — they had often been written fifty years before or more. Pamela was drawn to their sweetness and perhaps not put off by their occasional didacticism, for she wanted her girls to be good and polite and hardworking and brave. And Sara and Laura loved the strange little windows into the times before. They loved the peculiar words and expressions that sometimes made sense and sometimes did not: they learned what a “frock” was, and a “scrape,” arms “akimbo” or ears, savagely, “boxed.” After reading books like these, the girls would sometimes hear a warm, old-fashioned narrator in their head as they went about their business, which would wrap them in a puffy little cloud of storytelling for some time, even after the last page had been turned.

Sometimes when Pamela read them these stories, the girls did not even notice that things had changed. Sometimes it seemed that girlhood was always the same, for their sisters in the books seemed quite like them: they too were wounded by embarrassment or indignant at an injustice. They too had golden days outdoors and awful, boring, or unbearably lonely days. They too had chores, good adults and bad adults, the exhilaration of cold air in their lungs and the hard little nugget of determination in their stomachs to outshine the boys in their classes.

One day Pamela sat down with Sara and Laura at their little round table and told them they would have a new baby in their family. Everyone was pleased, even Laura, who would no longer be the baby. This time they discussed the baby’s name as a family. Abigail was considered. Madeline was considered. No one took seriously the idea that the baby was a boy.Laura wedding-67

She was not, and Pamela named her Julia. This was a bit of a departure, for the Julia-from-a-book was not her story’s heroine but rather the heroine’s dignified, beautiful, and talented sister. Pamela thought her a suitable tie to the Ray family’s house, which is full of tenderness and mirth, and the Betsy-Tacy books, which were particular favorites for them all.

When Julia was a bit older, she learned that her sisters were named for girls in books, and Pamela was quick to assure her that she, too, had a book sister, a good one — who made her own decisions, who was brave and good.

When Pamela’s Julia was still a baby, she and her family moved for the first time to a house, and there Sara and Laura got to hear all the Betsy-Tacy books, even the high school and grownup ones. When they read Betsy and the Great World, they came to a scene when Betsy watches a stream of young men in England march off to fight in the Great War, singing a song with great boisterousness. Laura was disturbed to see Pamela crying through this scene, and Pamela explained how terribly sad it was, for most of these boys would never come home.

Pamela’s girls grew and read and read and grew, adding sisters to their wide constellation of girls with goodness and pluck. Soon Sara and Laura were almost all the way grown, though they still read aloud with Pamela often. Julia read most of all, with her legs tucked up and her fingers plunged into her ears.

Sara and Laura are grown and married now. Sara has two girls of her own, and each has a book sister: Flavia has a girl scientist who also solves mysteries; Rosalind has Rosalind, funny and wise, of As You Like It.  

Pamela’s daughters have not read the old books in a long time. Julia — now a young woman herself — remembers them best. But Pamela has died and it hurts their hearts to read them without her voice. The sloping letters in the old copy of A Little Princess are almost too much to bear, and fill each daughter with a thundering grief.

But now when Laura wakes each morning she feels the happy twirl and wriggle of her own little girl within, and remembers her sisters’ sisters. She wants to gently tether her baby to a girl in a book — but who? It feels terribly important to keep the pattern alive, to show Pamela that Laura, too, believes in the power of the book sister.

It is true upon consideration that the pattern is not strict, that there were other considerations for Pamela as well: the taste of a name on the tongue, the lilt of syllabi from first name to middle to last, the other meanings and associations that cling to a name — the good ones like sunbeams, the others like bats.

Laura lies awake at night and thinks about her daughter, and her mother, and books, and names.  

Is this one all right? she asks Pamela,

and how about this one?

 and thank you, Mama, for my sisters

and please help me be okay at this

and please please please

A Feast for April 12

How does it all feel today, at three years? The same as before. More so, maybe. But this year I want to honor her pragmatism. “As a practical matter,” she would say. (She really showed where the italics were, in this and other phrases).

Since she’s been gone, I will come across a trait— pragmatism, and others— she embodied so effortlessly (embodied: gave it shape, life, voice) and I  

swallow it greedily, spit it back out mangled
try it on like a department store hat
brandish it (borrowed superhero cape)
hurtle toward its center on a roller coaster track — I’m becoming her, I am her, how did this happen
unearth it from a hidden corner, stow it in my backpack
notice it rising, tamp it back down
notice it missing, cobble a vain and clumsy copy
roll in it like dough in sugar — cover me, cover me

Would it always have been like this, even if she was here? Would I have done this anyway, because that’s the age I now am?

As a practical matter, it’s happening, regardless.

In the name of pragmatism: suggestions for a feast in her honor, if you’re reading this because you miss Pamela and you’d like something specific (and practical!) to do. If you’re reading this for some other reason, I can still vouch for every menu item. My mother was a gifted cook who loved food without affectation and without shame (and what a gift that is and has always been, to her daughters. I think about that almost every day).

mama and baby
The couch indicates this was either Sara or me, but this exact pose is captured with all three babies.

***

Appetizer: Roasted Feta

Why: She made it often, brought it to gatherings of friends, her book group, her game nights; it’s easy, and very good.

Cut a block of feta in half; drizzle in olive oil and sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Slice red and yellow peppers and place on top of the cheese block. Wrap the whole thing in foil and roast at 425° for about ten minutes. Serve with baguette or seeded flatbread.

Alternate appetizer if you don’t want to cook: a good of loaf of crusty bread

Salad: Have One – seasonal ingredients advised

Why: she was very committed to salad (not in love with it, per se, but committed). I assume this was partially to instill good habits in her children, partially because she liked the taste of a good salad. The other reason was aesthetic — she wanted some color on her table. Salad is pretty.

Persimmons and pomegranates in fall; orange slices in winter and spring; candied pecans; in summer, try one of those great salads of black beans, corn, tomatoes, and avocado; in summer, tomatoes. All the tomatoes. If you can get them: dry-farmed early girl tomatoes with burrata cheese, fresh basil, and olive oil.

Main Dish: Argentine Empanadas

Why: When we lived in Argentina for a year when Sara and I were little, her Spanish was so good that everyone in Buenos Aires thought she was Argentine. She loved it there and learned to eat dinner at 10pm, to buy ice cream by the kilo, to make delicious empanadas. Even though I was only 3 when we lived there, and we didn’t eat them very regularly after coming home, they taste so profoundly familiar and wonderful to me every time. She made them for Sara’s wedding — many types, to accommodate vegetarians and different preferences—but these are the classics. We spent hours at our dining room table, scooping, folding, crimping. She bought a full size freezer for our garage to house them all.

The filling:

empanadas
(My dad’s writing; to be clear he was always very involved in cooking and frequently did all of it)

Then:

While you can technically make your own dough, Maza (and I discovered a recipe for it in her ancient blue recipe box), she usually just bought it pre-cut, as Tapas (her brand: La Salteña, I think these are the ones). Place a scoop of filling in the middle of each tapa, fold and seal in a half moon shape and try to crimp the edges (swear a lot when the crimping doesn’t come out how you wanted). Paint each empanada in egg wash and place on a cookie sheet. Bake at 400° for 5-8 minutes. Make a LOT.

Alternate main dish if you don’t want to cook: In-N-Out Burger, with which she had an improbable but genuine love affair

Dessert: Lone Ranger Cookies

Why: There are so, so many iconic options to choose from (some of Julia’s suggestions included: “homemade ice cream, the Meghan Éclair Incident, the Summer of Grilled Pineapple, the Mexican Chocolate Cake”). But these cookies don’t even have a recipe in the blue box, because she had it memorized. These cookies were exclaimed over by visiting friends far and near, by college friends tasting them for the first time, by teen ballerinas and delighted toddlers. When she stopped eating sugar for a whole year, but took her birthday as a cheat day, these cookies were what she ate (all day. It was amazing).

Cream together 1 cup butter, 1 cup brown sugar (packed), 1 cup white sugar. Then add: 2 eggs, 1 tsp vanilla. Mix together separately: 2 cups flour, 1 tsp soda, 1/2 tsp salt. Combine dry ingredients with wet. Then add: 2 cups oats, 3/4 cups flaked coconut, 12 oz chocolate chips. Bake at 350° for 10-11 mins. Argue with Bay siblings over how long to bake for ideal texture.

Alternate dessert if you don’t feel like baking: Häagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream (“cold brown medicine,” her drug of choice during her pregnancy with Julia, and also after).

Beverages:

Flat water, Sparkling Water, Coke Zero (the real thing, NOT Coke Zero Sugar)

Decor:

You know this one. Flowers, of course flowers. Tulips preferred.

***

These are just ideas, of course; do what feels right. Fellow Pamela missers, make today holy.

girls
CHUBBY JULIA! 

We love you, Mama.

 

2017: Mostly Garbage, Some Good Books.

Books! They are great. I didn’t read as many of them as I hoped to in 2017, but as always I have plenty to say anyway! And as always, this is way past the appropriate time to post about this! La la la!

IMG_5908
My favorite bookshelf in our house, which I organized by color like a trendy person! 

You’re the Top (5), You’re the Mona Lisa:

(in the order I read them)

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood: So, you’ve probably heard about this one way too much at this point because it got turned into a (very good) prestige TV show. And the book is all of those things you’ve heard: terrifying, relevant, terrifyingly relevant, foundational for many a dystopian world in the last thirty years. But you should also know that the language is beautiful, shiveringly beautiful. Maybe you, like me (and especially like my mother), scoff when something becomes a little too zeitgeist-y. But you guys, this one is really, really great. I read this very quickly in April and I still think about it a lot. Read it.

Swing Time, Zadie Smith: As you may know (although, why would you, unless you talked to me a lot in 2014?), I wrote my Master’s thesis on Zadie Smith. I’ve read a ton of her fiction and nonfiction, I’ve seen her speak live, I’ve read and listened to many interviews, and last year Julia — in a stroke of sisterly genius — bought me this book and got it signed by the author at an event. Thank you, Julia! (And thank you, Zadie Smith, if you ever happen to find this, although why would you? I adore you). So I’m saying I’m not unbiased. But I loved this book. The language is impeccable, the relationships deeply compelling, and the details so incisive and thoughtful they really are breathtaking. Smith is a person who pays acute attention to the world, who takes it apart and shows you the innards with precision and curiosity and also compassion. So good.

Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman (audiobook): Deeply, purely enjoyable. Funny and tender, propulsive and unassuming. For context, Jamie and I ended up listening to 4 different Gaiman novels on audiobook this year — and if you need an audiobook, he’s a pretty safe bet — but we liked this one the best. Hearty character development, vivid world-building, effervescent dialogue, and an excellent narrator. A great stretch of car hours! (If you’re curious, my ranking of all our Gaiman audiobooks: 1 – Anansi Boys, 2 – Coraline, 3 – Neverwhere, 4 – American Gods. All great, except American Gods, which I thought was just okay).

Commonwealth, Ann Patchett: So it’s sort of like with Zadie Smith. Not that I’ve written any papers on Patchett, but I’ve loved her writing since I was sixteen, so I go into reading her books with an already happy and expectant mindset. As I mentioned this time last year, I didn’t love her essay collection quite as much as her fiction, but this novel has me firmly back on the Patchett train. Very few people can write a sentence like she can. As in Bel Canto, here she inhabits a wide spread of characters, but this time spreads them out in different cities and over a sizeable swath of time, though each is part of an extended, blended, dysfunctional, fierce, flawed, achingly realized family. She grants every single one of them that impossible gift: humanity. Gobbled this book, already looking forward to reading it again. (Thank you for the wonderful birthday present, Susan!).

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler: So I got this one in Salt Lake City (thanks, Peggy!) and read it on Maui, so I associate it with our joyfully bipolar holiday season, which I admit is an unfair advantage. But this book is such a great read! I couldn’t stop. I also had the remarkable experience of somehow not reading, or at least not at all processing, the blurb on the back of the book — so I was totally unprepared for the major reveal that comes about one-third of the way in. Audibly gasped in public. If you can, read this book without reading the back! The one downside is that towards the end it tramps a bit too far into Didactic-town, a terrible place for fiction. But it was so inventive and strange and compelling, with a great narrative voice and so many moving passages, I still loved it.

Pretty Pretty Good, in 5 words or less:

The Wonder, Emma Donoghue: Not Room (masterpiece) — still interesting.

Someday, Someday Maybe, Lauren Graham: Fluffiest fluff! Yay.

The Bees, Laline Paul: Watership Down-ish, but bees.

Carry On, Rainbow Rowell: more fluff, plus Potter sendup.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline: will be a good movie.

Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance: not life changing; still good.

Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang: WISH I HAD HIS BRAIN

The Wanderers, Tim Pears: Young dude walks around Cornwall

You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson: she funny; better as podcaster

I Don’t Get It:

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss: Listen. So many people I know and love — including many family members! — loved this book and its sequel and couldn’t put it down. And yet I barely made it through the first one! The narration to me felt super overwrought and indulgent — like we had to hear every single solitary thing in Kvothe’s mind and body. Kvothe makes a joke. Kvothe walks 5 steps. Kvothe scratches his nose. Convince me why I should stick it out with this goofy dude and I’ll gladly give it another shot.

Most Fiction, It Turns Out: This year I started reviewing books for Publisher’s Weekly (thanks so much for hooking me up, Hannah!). They sent me a handful of books, and I got to write a couple hundred words of summary and analysis. Fun times for this English teacher! (Former. More on that soon, if I can get my act together). I really like the gig. But my main observation is this: by all accounts it is incredibly difficult to get published, but a lot of books that do get published are just lame.

 

In conclusion: reading good books is the bomb.edu! I hope you get to do it lots.

Her House.

My parents bought our house in 2002, when I was thirteen, Sara was sixteen, and Julia was five. They offered much more than the asking price, because the house is in Albany, and that’s how things are here. It is small, about 1500 square feet, if you include the little cottage in the backyard. It is the only house our family unit ever lived in for more than two years.

When we bought the house, my mom was working at a big law firm on a big case that lasted, awfully, for the first few years of our time there. But she had a master plan for the house, and she managed to put a lot of it into action; my dad is perfectly happy to maintain that all* the house improvements were her ideas — he served primarily as her willing manual labor.

When they bought the house, she liked the high ceiling in the living room. She liked the hardwood floors. She liked that she had a little yard in the front, and a slightly less little one in the back. She didn’t love the colors of the original tile in the kitchen and the bathroom, but she could live with it. She also didn’t love the scalloped wood trimming in the rooms on the main floor: she called it “muck,” because it gummed up her clean lines.
 
The first thing she did was bolt the house to the foundation, because California has earthquakes.
 
The next thing she did was replace the flimsy metal windows with double-paned wooden ones, with divided lights, because she hated the look of metal windows, and the new ones would improve the insulation anyway. She added special blinds to the windows — springy creamy blinds that you can adjust from the top or from the bottom, for maximum flexibility. And to let the light in. She added plastic hooks to wind the blinds cords around, so little kids who came over wouldn’t tangle themselves and their precious necks in the length.
 
She tackled the cottage quickly; it was to be her teenage daughters’ bedroom, and she gave it a new bathroom — a sink with drawers, a little shower with excellent water pressure, a bright coat of paint.

cottage
This is the cottage in its iteration as Jamie and Laura’s dwelling, 2014-2017. 

When we bought the house, the backyard was wood chips and a cement walkway to the cottage. Wood chips would not do. She planted sod. Before it had fully taken root, when the raccoons would lift it up and hunt for grubs, she foiled them, ruthlessly, sticking skewers all over the yard to poke their paws.
 
To replace the cement walkway she made a little path of flat grey stones, purchased from the improbable but real rock store. The path had a little bit of a curve to it. Once, in high school, a whole slew of my ballet friends stayed over in the cottage because we had a performance in Berkeley. They mostly had bigger and fancier houses than mine. But they cooed over the little pathway to the cottage, and its little wooden beams, and the big window looking into the flowers. I felt so proud.
 
The flowers — she bought so many flowers, and tended them so devotedly. She gave the backyard a palette or pinks, purples, and blues; “grow!” she said to the rose bush, the delphiniums, the foxgloves, the corncockles with their graceful spindly necks. “Grow!”
 
Inside the house, down the half-flight of stairs, was the family desktop and the TV, because she hated TVs in living rooms. That room had a purple couch and a red rug — and, for her, this was quite the funky palette. Funky palettes, like TVs, belonged in TV rooms.
 
When I was fifteen, everyone was gone from the house except for the two of us. She decided that together we would paint Julia’s bedroom as as a surprise while she was away — lavender, her favorite. We painted during the day and at night we watched some DVDs lent to me by a friend. It’s my favorite show, she said, so we gave it a try. It was “Gilmore Girls,” season 1. Painting all day, hours and hours of Lorelei and Rory at night. This week is sort of holy to me now.
 
A couple years later she enlisted a huge group of friends to help us paint the outside of our house a deeper tan. Then she enlisted a smaller but scrappy group of friends to move a piano she bought (impulsively, since no one played) into our living room. It was heavy. They almost broke their backs. Such is the devotion inspired by Pamela.
 
Not so long ago she had a skylight cut into the cottage roof — the ceiling has a lot of dark wood, and she wanted some more light in there. It really helps. When Jamie and I moved in some years later, our bed was beneath the skylight. The raccoons scamper over the roof with some frequency; I sometimes imagined looking up directly into their eyes.
 
*They added a little shed to the backyard, for more storage. This was the only house project my dad claims as his own idea, so I’m noting that here.
 
A few years ago the living room was repainted. Initially she wanted a muted blue. But she walked in one day, and it was finished, and it was a cheerful, pastel, robin’s egg hue. And  she hated it so, so much that it had to be repainted pretty much immediately. It’s now a buttery yellow.
 
The front yard used to have a big tree. She didn’t love the big tree. She had it cut down, and then she had my dad painstakingly hack at and dig up every root in the little plot. She couldn’t have those roots disrupting her flowers. This time, her palette was brighter: reds and oranges and yellows, punctuated by startling dark purple and black.
 
My dad keeps up all of the flowers. People walking their dogs stop to admire them, especially when the tulips bloom.

christmas

 
Our house is for sale now. We will miss it so much, because it was ours and it held us and it welcomed our friends and our holidays and our little dog. Because the high ceiling in the living room means every year we have a big freaking Christmas tree. And because every room is hers, hers, hers.
 
Happy birthday, Mama.