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.
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.
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.
Still I can’t really think about her very much, or for very long.
When someone brings her up, in conversation or at church, with or without preamble, I’m not ever ready for it and I can’t breathe and I do nothing but wait for it to be over. There is a word for this, but it is hard to remember, because usually it is used in a sincere but sanitized way, by people in suits who are talking a lot. It’s reserved for big, terrible events that are big and terrible in a way that makes the language about them tinny and robotic. But I remembered the word at some point in these last two years and felt it with the clarity of a key in a lock: Oh. Unspeakable.
Also, this other word: to steel (oneself). Reminded of it by a book last week, haven’t stopped thinking about it. I steel myself; I make myself steel. I do, I think, a little bit every day. I help take care of things.
But now this is how I live, armored and naked in the unspeakable face of her death. Because I am tough, and because I am weak, I think about the others who are mourning her, and not very much about her.
I’m so afraid of how much I miss her, so afraid of her slipping away.
Mama, don’t leave me.
Tonight I am unsteeled. An incomplete list of grief metaphors:
It’s like a spasm. When I see her handwriting on a recipe. When my mind strays so foolishly to those last few weeks, days, hours. Her name on someone else’s tongue. When I have something important I need to tell someone, who haven’t I told yet, there’s someone important I’ve left out, and then I remember who it is.
It’s like an ache. When my dad doesn’t smile for a week. When I think about my new friends and the way they would laugh with her. When I think about my old friends and how much she wants to know about how they are, what they’re up to. When I see her face on my sisters, on me. When I dream and she is there, but sick. When I dream — rarely, rarely — and she is well.
It’s like a hot jagged bolt when I think of bearing my children without her help.
It’s like a desolate scorched plain when I think about the life we could have had, the people we all could be, if she were here. The valley of the shadow of death. That’s what it’s called, isn’t it?
Sometimes for some reason I get the mail and I hope there’s a letter from her, and that is hell.
I look back on my writing from the last two years and you know, it’s pretty upbeat. I try to end on the redemptive. I wonder if that is something I am naturally given to, or if I have learned it or been trained into it. I suppose it is a good impulse. But what am I supposed to say?
The world is objectively worse without her. We are worse, and worse off. There is nothing good about her being gone.
I know I am lucky that she is my mother. I hope I see her again. In the meantime I will keep trying to be brave and strong. But. And. On this anniversary I am brave and strong enough to be sad.
I love yearly book recommendations, so here, QUITE belatedly, are mine. I don’t really read what’s current, so chances are you’ve already gotten to many of these. But then again, maybe you’re like me and you’re still discovering the joys of reading for yourself again after long years of school?
Super Subjective Favorites
(Alphabetized by author, not in favorite order, necessarily)
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie writes as though it is no work at all; she captures both images and emotions with clarity and languorous grace. And aside from the sentence-level pleasure, this book is full of vivid characters, humor, and real wisdom about Important Themes without lapsing into self-seriousness (win!). Recommended for absolutely everyone.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
This is one of those books I heard about a lot while I was in college and just got around to reading. I’m so glad I finally did! If Adichie’s voice feels totally unmannered, Diaz’s comes careening off the page with so much vibrant personality it feels like an audiobook when it’s not an audiobook, if that makes any sense. This is a pretty much unrelentingly sad story written in a way that can only be described as joyful. Like Americanah, it’s also layered and worthy of serious study but feels totally unpretentious. I loved it so much.
The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
This is an ongoing mystery series set in contemporary London (all Muggle, no magic) that revolves around the dynamic duo of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellicott. I feel so much affection for those two, I really do —and that to me is Rowling’s true gift. There are very few authors out there who can do character or dialogue like her, you guys. It’s not just a Potter thing, apparently; her people always find their way into my heart.
Bonus tip: get the audiobooks. We listened to all three of these that way, and I HIGHLY recommend the mode for a few reasons: If you’re listening to an audiobook, it may be because you’re on a road trip, and mysteries/thrillers are a great genre for road trips — they keep you awake, tend to be pretty straightforward structurally (which translates well to narration), and they provide many opportunities to pause and discuss theories with your copilot. Plus, all three of these audiobooks were narrated by Robert Glenister. I have no idea who that dude is, but I love him. He has incredible range and warmth.
One More Thing: Stories and More Stories, BJ Novak
I am normally not a short story person. They’ve started to interest me more as a way to think about writing, but from a purely pleasure-reading perspective, I’m always like, “why would I invest in this (frequently overly mannered) thought experiment when you’re just going to dump me in like 10-30 pages?”
What I loved about this collection was that it felt like a completely casual, lighthearted approach to writing fiction — like BJ just sat down and was tooling around and invited us to join him; the stories feel essayistic. Many of them are very, very short, just the teeniest vignettes, but I loved them for that airiness. The book is full of charm and humor, but it can also be thoughtful and sweet in surprising little twisty ways. I sincerely enjoyed it, and not just because I love BJ (though I do, because, as I’ve documented, I love Mindy, and she loves him. Transitive property).
The Prestige, Christopher Priest
This one made my list of favorites partially because of the circumstances of reading it: we took it on our trips to New Zealand and the East coast, which made it extra fun. When I think of this book, I now get to remember reading it aloud while snuggled up in our campervan beside Lake Tekapo, or in our airstream in Charleston. But this book is also an enjoyable blend of historical fiction and shivery mystery, with just enough creepiness to keep you reading, but not too much to turn off a wimp like me.
Bonus tip: We really liked reading the book and then watching the movie to see the different approaches to the material (compare and contrast—the favorite activity of all English teachers, including this one). Full disclosure: I don’t say this often, but I think the movie is actually a little bit better.
The Revolution Was Televised, Alan Sepinwall
I really loved reading this, but it’s pretty nerdy. Sepinwall’s book is a nonfiction cultural history of when (and which) television shows got really good, and what they do differently than the TV of yore. It was published in 2012, so it’s a bit out of date, I suppose, but the author has great analysis on so many shows that I love: The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Friday Night Lights, etc. Sepinwall also includes interesting interviews and behind-the-scenes tidbits from the creators and contributors—and I’m a complete sucker for that sort of thing, so.
To sum up: If a big part of the pleasure of watching TV for you comes from dissecting it with your friends and bunkmates, this is a great read.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
The Secret History was published in 1992, so again, this is not a current list, but oh my goodness I loved it so much. I could not put it down—like, I read it while I was walking my dog-level of unputdownability. The novel follows Richard, who relocates from a working-class California town to a liberal arts college in rural Vermont to study ancient Greek — and falls in with a group of eccentric classics students who do some weird sh*t in their spare time. Like murder!
I found the book incredibly tense and QUITE dark, but it is so densely layered and strange and absorbing that I really think it’s worth reading. Tartt hangs her mystery plot over a nonlinear structure, which allows us to watch closely as the class tensions, intellectual fixations, and disturbing dynamics within the group simmer and finally boil over.
My one quibble: The lone central female character in the book is a bit of a cipher. Come on, Donna! Help a sister out!
If you’d like to feel super unaccomplished: join me in learning that Tartt published this masterful book when she was 28. Twenty-eight.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, Sarah Vowell
Sarah Vowell is the absolute coolest. Her books are always this amazing combination of thoroughly researched American history and smarty-pants editorializing, with a bit of personal essay thrown in here and there. At one point in this book, she refers to herself as a “historian-adjacent, narrative nonfiction wiseguy.” It really doesn’t get anymore #goals than that, for me.
Vowell is in fine form in Lafayette —she’s got a great story by following Lafayette’s role in the Revolutionary War; she’s got amazing letters from all the major players in the moment; she riffs on all of it with her characteristic hilarity and genuine patriotism.
This was especially delightful to read in 2016, which as I’ve noted, was the year of Hamilton for us. It was so fun to hear a different author on people and events we already had so many feelings about. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t picture Lafayette as Daveed Diggs the whole time.
I liked these quite a bit and I think you might too!
With Child: Mormon Women on Mothering, ed. Marni Asplund-Campbell
The Girl with All the Gifts, M.R. Carey
Zombie lit, but literary AF. Now a movie!
The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
We listened to this as an audiobook during some of our New Zealand drives, and it works really well that way (see above). We enjoyed it! But this book clearly owes a huge debt to Gone Girl, which is the superior entry in the unreliable narrator/missing person mystery/commentary on unhappy marriage genre.
You and Me, Always, Jill Mansell
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
Hamilton: the Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher
A teeny little darkly comic epistolary novel. Especially hilarious if you have ever been part of an English department at a university.
Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, A.O. Scott
The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell
Very Well Done but do not Have my Heart
Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson
See my complaints about short story collections above. I also felt like Johnson was showing off the whole time—deliberately dwelling on pitch-black, disturbing subject matter to be like, “I’m just that cool and edgy.” It did, however, make me want to read his novel. So I guess his tricks worked, which is annoying.
Mystic River, Dennis Lehane
I enjoyed this while I was reading it — it’s suspenseful and engaging. But I resented it after the fact, because this is the type of book that becomes the basis of the ten million movies set in the Northeast about white dudes with goofy accents shooting at each other that pretend to be interesting because “Ben Affleck.” Guess what, Lehanes and Afflecks? I don’t care.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
You guys, this is an amazing book. Mitchell is clearly a genius. He has such mastery of his language, and uses that language to build worlds within worlds. I was blown away by the technical prowess on display here — but for all that, I didn’t find myself particularly attached to his characters. I’m not sure why. But character investment is a lot of what I personally expect from fiction; and I recognize that’s not an especially sophisticated way to read. Oh well.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett
Patchett wrote one my Favorite Books Ever, Bel Canto. She also wrote a book that I consider Extremely Good, State of Wonder. So I was really excited to read this, because it’s an essay collection, one of my favorite genres, from this writer I admire so much. But I read it less than six months ago, and I already can’t really remember the essays very distinctly. It definitely had nice moments, but considering how good she is, I wanted to love it more than I did.
Celebrity Book Category
This weird “reading books by famous people” thing is apparently not just a phase for me, so I guess I’m going to lean in and acknowledge that I really enjoy it. From least to most favorite:
No Land’s Man, Aasif Mandvi
Mandvi was an awesome contributor to The Daily Show for a long time, and I saw him on the street once, so I feel some affection for him. His book is also quite well reviewed. But considering what an interesting background Mandvi has, this book should have been more, well, interesting. I think the problem is that most of his vignettes have exactly the same structure. Change things up, Mandvi!
Talking as Fast as I Can, Lauren Graham
I liked this a lot, and I read it in an afternoon, which was fun. Graham isn’t a great writer at the sentence level, but she is smart and thoughtful and comes across as sane and nice. She also conveys a ton of affection for her Gilmore Girls and Parenthood castmates, which I think is pretty classy. If you’re a GG person, you’ll probably like this, and some of her on-set anecdotes will make you want to WEEP.
The book confirmed my affection for her and made me want to read her novel, so I’d call it a success.
Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick
I think that in real life, I would rather spend an afternoon hanging out with Lauren Graham than with Anna Kendrick—because Gilmore Girls, but also because Lauren seems more relaxed. But I really liked this book, even a bit more than the other! It’s surprisingly thoughtful and conveys a lot of the anxiety and turmoil of being a movie star without coming across as whiny. She is also genuinely really funny.
One editorial note for Graham and Kendrick, because they’re definitely going to read this: both of these women are clearly invested in the “I’m just a regular person! Isn’t it nuts that I’m famous?” narrative. I like that narrative, it’s appealing, but it’s also not particularly true— sometimes Kendrick in particular leans a little too heavily on the self-deprecation. We get it, ladies, you’re regular people—but no you aren’t, you’re exceptional, and your life is weird, and that’s fine.
One More Thing, BJ Novak
See above. Good job, BJ! (I still like Mindy better, though).
It seems everyone agrees that 2016 was the worst—and don’t get me wrong, a lot of terrible things happened. But of course now it looks like 2017 could really be as terrible or quite a bit more terrible. And in this particular household, 2014 and 2015 were genuinely catastrophic, and not in the internet hyperbole way. So the blanket ‘2016 was totally the absolute worst’ thing doesn’t entirely resonate with me.
(And yeah, year in review-type writing was really due quite some time ago. But I feel like posting this a month after the opportune moment has utterly passed reveals something true about me, don’t you?).
Because I have a bad memory, I worry that the good from last year will over time be carried off by consensus or burned away by the persistent acid bad, which, for me, can mostly be attributed to:
The absence of my mother
The presence of Donald Trump
The irrational but inescapable feeling that 1 and 2 are connected, that maybe 1 caused 2. That when she died, the world was stripped of fortitude and sense. That surely 1 and 2 together mean that now we live in a shadow place—the Upside Down—and where is the way out? Where is the crack in the base of the tree?
Here are some of the things I want to remember:
When we made a few of our own plans for the future, the impression of thawing out from a long winter.
Let me remember holding my niece on the third day of her life; her golden head; her perfect softness.
Julia and Jamie and I playing hours of very low tech games, in the car or at the beach or during a different (usually card) game. For example, ‘I’m Thinking of a Movie.’ I’ll explain how to play: you think of a movie, and then the other people playing try to guess it without any clues. Then eventually you give them a few clues, and then eventually they get it.
Watching Gilmore Girls with Jamie, specifically when Jamie turned to me after an episode and said “Are Lorelai and Luke going to break up? Because I don’t think my heart can TAKE IT.”
Buttoning my dearest friend into her wedding dress; watching her laugh her way down the aisle.
Jamie revealing in Durham that whenever someone says ‘ensconced’ he pictures being inside a giant warm scone.
2016, year of Hamilton: the bliss of driving home from teaching with Hamilton to sing to and Coke Zero to drink. The sorrow from listening to Act 2 all the way through for the first time. Lin-Manuel’s delicious words in my mouth. Hamilton in NZ; Hamilton in Colorado; Hamilton in Maryland and Virginia. Shouting along to Hamilton with my sisters on our way to Target.
The insane perfection of our campsite at Nelson Creek in New Zealand. The way we almost wept over the fairy pathways, the bridge over the stream, the shimmering torrent of Milky Way parting an endless field of stars.
Let me remember Flavia chatting contentedly with Jamie and Tyler as they picked blueberries together at the farm in Virginia.
Checking in with Sara about her Parks and Recreation progress, and exchanging quotes and favorite episodes at every opportunity.
The student who gave me chocolate at the end of the semester and apologized for being ‘troublesome,’ though he wasn’t. The students who hugged me at the end of the semester.
Also, so I don’t overly romanticize teaching when I’m old and pretend this was some kind of Dead Poets Society situation, let me remember the male students who helpfully commented that I ‘don’t have to dress so formally,’ because what could be more valuable professional feedback than a dude’s thoughts on my appearance?
Comparing ALL the wands in Ollivander’s with Sara and Julia. Spraying baby Rosie with a mister so she didn’t get too hot. Having an insane amount of fun in Orlando despite the onslaught of evidence that Florida is just a giant swamp not meant for humans.
Lebron crying with his head on the ground after winning the NBA championship even though obviously I rooted for the Warriors.
The accompanying, unexpected realization that I genuinely like basketball.
Dancing at Eric and Mary Kate’s wedding with Sara and Julia and Jamie and Tyler and Flavia, the freaking life of the party.
2016, the year we went to New Zealand. The ten minutes when I floated in a boat in a cave there, with Jamie and 8 strangers, all of us holding our breath and staring at the glowworms above and around us. Pinpricks of bug-stars in blackest rock—people told us it was touristy, but actually it was space travel.
Obsessing over PPAP with my in-laws. Watching my sisters-in-law learn the dance perfectly in about a minute.
The bluest blue blue of Lake Tahoe. The delicious clear gasp of its plunge.
Just a few more.
One evening in Princeton when we walked around the summer-drenched streets and talked about our life and plans. Specifically, when we walked through the graduate grounds, how the fireflies flickered into life just at dusk. Let me remember fireflies at dusk and freshly laid plans.
The brush of an old memory of Jamie coming back to me last summer, when we were in South Carolina playing with a deck of cards. He started to explain a magic trick to me— and I had the odd echo sensation that we had done this very thing before, as kids, way back when we lived in the same Salt Lake City neighborhood and I was 11 and he was 12. The briefest glimpse of kid Jamie teaching me a magic trick that I knew I learned in Utah, but had never remembered that he was the one to teach me. A strange layering of selves; the sweetest feeling of rightness settling into both of me at once.
And this, from October 8th:
Today I felt like I won the lottery. We’re at Tahoe, and it’s October. We’re never at Tahoe in October. We came up for Jamie to run a race here, because we realized we could, and why shouldn’t he, and wouldn’t that be good to have a little something to look forward to in October, not my favorite month. We got in last night, slept in twin beds in the cabin my family has rented for more than twenty years.
Jamie and our friend Susan got ready then ran by while the rest of us — me, Dula and the kids, my dad — saw them off, cheering and taking pictures. Dula and the kids and I caravanned for the rest of the race, hastily pulling over every few miles to get out and cheer as our people came by. “Let’s go, Soo-san!” sang Ruthie. “Let’s go, Jay-mee!” she sang again.
Susan, in training for the Boston marathon, came sprinting towards the finish line as the fastest woman and the second-fastest overall. Lewis and Stewart helped me look for Jamie while we waited right in front, where cheerful seniors cooked hot dogs and handed out beer to the runners. It legitimately thrilled me to see Jamie rounding the corner, 3 minutes under his goal time after a brief and casual training period.
We drove home to the cabin, back around the lake in the sunshine, stopping for drinks at the 7-Eleven. I’m sure there are bad 7-Elevens in the world, but I can’t remember ever not loving them.
Tahoe in the fall is mostly the same as Tahoe in the summer: same water (‘So blue! So blue!’ my mother would croon from the passenger seat as we’d round a bend and see the lake spilling out before us); same cloudless, precious, alpine air; same pine trees crowding down toward the water. But today amid the green, an occasional flash of yellow and gold — slender-trunked aspens standing near houses, near docks. They remind me of dancers.
We got our things and after a bit drove on to the beach where we spend nearly every day when we come in the summers. This drive around the lake: it’s all the best adjectives, for me — beautiful and comforting and peaceable and right. And ours, today, even though it’s October. Our drive, plus the aspens and the slanted autumn sunbeams and REM in the cd player and my dad so glad to be here.
It wasn’t deserted at the beach — there were maybe 30 other people there on the cove with us, wading in the water or lolling on towels. It was warm and quiet. Jamie soaked his tired legs. The kids scrambled over rocks and dug in the sand. The adults played kubb. I read.
My dad barbecued at the picnic tables under the pine trees. He made too many burgers and we ate them and batted away wasps. We drove home to our cabin — again, the water, the light, the trees, music and exclamations about the day, our perfect day.
We played cards and my dad drummed his fingers on the wooden table. The same drumming on the same table, all these years.
Help me remember that 2016 housed this day, and other good ones.
A friend asked me this recently about the aftermath of my mom’s death, and at the time I think I said it was going okay. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the question. How is the healing going? Is that what this is? I don’t think that’s what this is.
It’s not like a hike, where you’re sweating up the switchbacks, but then you look back and see how far you’ve come—the winding path, the boulders, the pines.
Right now, I picture grief as wilderness beyond a wall. I don’t venture here much. There aren’t paths or checkpoints. Is this making sense? I can’t tell how it’s going, because there is no mountain view. It’s wilderness.
All kinds of things are growing here beyond the wall, beautiful and not, and I never know what I will find or when. Like how recently, while we were on vacation in North Carolina, a crashing midnight thunderstorm rocked the house. The storm must have shaken something loose in me, because in my dream that night my mom died right in front of me, on a sidewalk, and for hours the next day I felt ruined and bruised.
Like how a week before North Carolina we were in Orlando, and one night my sisters and I sat up late talking around one of those little hotel room tables. We were at an utterly generic Quality Inn & Suites, but that quiet night, we three sisters pooling our memories of Mama—it felt like a clearing, sunlit and safe and freaking holy.
What we talked about, among other things, was stuff she didn’t like. I wanted to make a list like this because I don’t want death to iron out her personality. You guys, Pamela was not angelic. She was a boss, a legit presence, with a long and storied list of pet peeves. She didn’t hide them or underplay them. If she was bothered by something, you knew. Oh, you knew.
Sara told us about how she recently bought her daughter Calico Critters for her birthday— little animals with little houses and little accessories. They’re really cute; we all think they’re really cute. But for some reason Sara felt this vague uneasiness as she bought them—like she wasn’t supposed to like them. The source of the feeling? Pamela, who did not like them, which was why we only ever played with them fleetingly at toy stores and never owned any ourselves.
This is the force of our mother’s personality, especially if you’re related to her: if she didn’t like something, it sort of seemed like a moral imperative. Liking something she didn’t like—well, it feels rebellious. And maybe a little dangerous.
So here it is, in honor of her birthday: a partial compilation of things our mom did not like. We have tried to keep them to the fairly idiosyncratic (obviously she didn’t like things most people don’t like either: injustice, bugs, people being mean, the patriarchy). Some of the peeves below have been passed down to us, and some we are still mystified by. Some of these are a little brash and a little impolitic.
But if there weren’t a few of those, it wouldn’t be her list, would it?
People using words incorrectly/imprecisely — “I [Sara] remember her telling me once that ‘vast’ means not just large, but large and empty, so using it to describe a marketplace was inept.”
Loud sounds, even when it was good music played loudly.
Losing at games.
Anyone taking too long on their turn during games.
During the Olympics, when the camera follows teenage gymnasts or ice skaters who fell down and are trying not to cry. She would yell at the TV and get so upset that those little girls weren’t being left alone.
Excessively ornate decor.
Runny noses on children and audible sniffling of same.
Baked apples and baked peaches—she disliked many things due to “a texture issue.”
Many, many baby names, which led to “The Supreme Court Justice Rule”: that you should never name your child something that would sound silly if he or she ascended the SCOTUS bench.
Exposed bra straps.
Toys that make noises that drive parents insane.
That one time Sara put purple streaks in her hair.
Planting vegetables when you could plant flowers.
Paving your backyard when you could plant flowers.
Also during the Olympics, when NBC airs a cheesy profile of an American athlete instead of just showing all the competitors, especially when said American isn’t actually that good or likely to medal.
“Some people are good lookers, and some people just aren’t”: When her family members complained they couldn’t find something they’d misplaced when they actually just weren’t trying very hard.
Pie crust, weirdly, because she was really good at making it.
Her daughters wearing shirts or camisoles that used to be white but had become grayish.
Dirty necks— she was always telling us we needed to scrub our necks when we bathed. I’m still not convinced that my neck was ever actually dirty? Parents of the internet, was this normal??
Non-cotton fabrics, especially those she deemed “slimy.”
Nuts in cookies and brownies.
The attitude that having a pet is the same as having a child.
When babies are allowed to cry in a public setting instead of being taken elsewhere.
Clashing, particularly in clothing, particularly multiple patterns worn together.
Teachers who made hyperactive little boys skip recess as punishment.
Rodents, all sorts.
When husbands are said to be “babysitting” their own children (“They’re his children too! It should not be a chore for him to watch them for an hour!”).
Little girls dressing like teenagers.
Adults dressing like teenagers.
The way most teenagers dressed.
Poorly written movies.
Also, movies that were well done but stressed her out. She would moan for hours about how tense her muscles were after being made to watch a suspenseful film.
Windows with aluminum frames.
Windows meant to look like divided lights that were plastic and fake.
Having her maiden name, Bay, abbreviated to “B.” (“It’s only one more character!”).
Having her first name, Pamela, abbreviated to Pam. She would correct anyone about this, at any time. I used to find this embarrassing. Why?
“Desserts that are not chocolate” — this was a favorite phrase that was not actually all that true in practice.
We love you, Mama. Wish you were here. Happy Birthday.
New Zealand is so beautiful and so varied in its beauty. We went there for a week earlier this month, and “wow” and “no way” and “this is UNREAL” were probably the phrases we said most often — in addition to “I’m hungry/I need soda” (me), “go stand over there so I can take a picture” (Jamie), and “look, sheep!” (both of us, constantly).
Jamie made this video about it, and I really love Jamie’s videos, so here you are. It pretty accurately captures how we are when we’re alone (dorky, disheveled, obsessed with Hamilton). If I had known he was planning to take quite so much footage, I might have packed some mascara or something. Oh well.
Thanks so much to the friends who gave tips and helped us prepare for the trip! Everyone had really good advice— and now that I’ve been, I will happily be an NZ advisor/missionary/advertiser to anyone who might be thinking about going at some point, just so I can proselytize (except not about the food. Don’t go for the food).
So I’ve been listening to Hamilton — which I am guessing you have heard, or heard of , probably at length, so I’ll spare you my raptures. Okay, all but two raptures: 1. The First Lady called it her ‘favorite piece of art.’ 2. It has substantially improved my quality of life.
In the musical, Hamilton is obsessed with his legacy. And what, he asks, is a legacy?
“It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.”
Hamilton’s fixation on how he will be known — who and how many will tell his story, what they will say — is not an uncommon American preoccupation, it seems, especially among angsty dudes.
In graduate school, one of our professors tried to tap into the legacy idea in order to make an argument about becoming an academic: that if we became English professors, we would leave something behind after we died. That even if not very many people read what we write, it exists, he said. It’s knowledge.
This idea feels so foreign, and making decisions about my current life based on what might happen after I die is not something I find persuasive. I can’t remember ever giving even a passing thought to what my contribution to the post-me world will be, or in what way I’ll be known or remembered.
But did you know that there’s a word for someone who receives a legacy? It’s ‘legatee.’ Isn’t that goofy-sounding, but also kind of great?
Being a legatee— I do love that. I love to think about the many people who have woven shimmering strands into the tapestry of my life: people I know and people I don’t, living and dead, famous and not. And that just by existing — as a participant of a peculiar American faith tradition, as a once-dancer whose dreams are still packed with remembered choreography, as a graduate of Catholic college, a reader and a teacher and a friend — I might be passing bits of those legacies on to others around and after me. Connectedness, man. It’s cool.
But of course I’m mostly their legatee: my family’s, I mean, and my mother’s. And I wish she was still here to teach me. I think she would like Hamilton’s analogy, gardener that she was, but we wanted her to have more time to see what she grew — we want her here to see her new grand baby, Sara and Tyler’s daughter, beautiful and snuggly, whose middle name is Pamela. She wanted that too.
I’ll never really get the extent that she shaped and keeps shaping me. That’s what being someone’s kid is, right?
Here’s one thing I know:
If we were melting down about a hard thing, our mother would say, You are brave and strong. You’re so brave and strong. It was simultaneously acknowledgment (I recognize that you are doing a difficult thing), assurance (I believe that you can do this difficult thing), and exhortation (buck up and deal with this difficult thing).
Among ten thousand other things, brave and strong is what she was. A woman who did not suffer fools; who moved to Spain at seventeen; who had 2 children by the time she was 27, and then went to law school; who worked hard jobs and put her husband through graduate school, and then law school; who saw hardship in the lives of her family and friends and strode to meet and ease it; who sometimes really scared the crap out of me when she was mad.
I think what happened is that once she said this to us often enough — you’re brave and strong, you’re brave and strong, you’re brave and strong — she made it true. I don’t know what to call this: an answered prayer, a voiced hope, an act of will, a blessing. But she made it true.
Sara is brave and strong. Julia is brave and strong. And so am I, in my way. I feel it reverberating in my bones. I can hear her say it.