February 5, 1992

The girls just left for school ... I watched them jogging down the street in the fog, Jamie's picture-perfect ponytail bobbing up and down, Kacie's unbuttoned coat flapping open. Jamie is panicky this morning because they're running laps in P.E. today. This morning she begged me to help her get out of it. I said fine, I'll write a note saying you've got a 10 a.m. dentist appointment ... as long as you come home and use those two hours to clean your room. She went to school. Guess the idea of cleaning her bedroom is more horrifying than anything ... even running laps.




February 11, 1992

I'm depressed. February is always a "low" month for me, but this depression is so thick and invasive and tangible, it's like walking around in a cloud of noxious gas. My days are filled with poopy diapers, dirty dishes, piles of laundry, unpleasant phone calls; my evenings are filled with Ray cracking open one beer after another, the girls fighting, Kyle whining, no time to myself. I'm as low and as blah as an old dishrag. I hate my marriage, I hate the stagnant condition of my life, and I hate myself.

And that's all she wrote.


February 21, 1992

It's still February. It's been February for about three months now, and apparently it's going to continue to be February until early 1996.


March 6, 1992

I finally seem to be making my way out of that cloud of "noxious gas." February is over: that fact alone raises my spirits. February wasn't a complete bomb of a month:

Valentine's Day was a lot of fun this year (I threw an after-school party for my kids, Tracy and the "babysitting kids," and then John and Lori came over that night). And last week Barbara and Ric got married in a beautiful formal wedding that included all three of my munchkins ... Jamie and Kacie were junior bridesmaids and Kyle was ring-bearer. I think February just hits me funny each year because it's winter, and money is tight, and it's easy to feel like there's nothing to look forward to. I still feel that way, off and on ... stuck in a rut, without anything specific to look forward to (a vacation, a fun holiday) ... but the worst of it seems to be over for this year.

One thing that has surprised me about Kyle this year is his ambivalence toward school. This is not to say he doesn't like kindergarten, because he does ... he can hardly wait to leave for school each day ... but he never talks about it. You have to drag the details out of him at the end of the day. ("How was school today?" "Fine." "What did you do?" "Nothin'.") Oh well. He's doing very well in school, so far, and that's the important thing.

Kacie and I are at odds lately: nearly-nine is such a powderkeg of an age. Her new thing is stomping her feet when she's mad at me. I'll say, "Dammit, Kacie, put on some sweat pants under that little T-shirt!" (at bedtime), and she'll STOMP, STOMP, STOMP off to her bedroom, muttering at me under her breath.

Kyle is sitting in the living room, munching on an English muffin and watching "Beetlejuice" on our new VCR. I came into an unexpected windfall this month when Aunt Leona paid me $500 for Grandma's Alexandrite ring. We used the money to buy a VCR for the family and some things for the house - a pretty new lamp for the living room, chair pads and a tablecloth for the dining table, other odds and ends - plus I got myself a new dual cassette tape deck, $100 at Silo. It felt so wonderful to just go out and buy what we wanted. Of course now we're broke again, and the phone company is making noises about our long-overdue bill, and Ray is tense and grumpy about everything ... but it was worth it.




March 1992

Kacie's 9th birthday this past weekend was nice. I told her, "No party this year" - we couldn't afford it - but she wound up having four friends spend the night (Saturday) so it was like a party anyway. Lots of noise, presents, junk food and attention!




March 27, 1992

Bright, sunny day. In my usual Friday good mood. Today is "Pajama Day" at Bow Lake School. Kacie wore a bathrobe over her shorts and T-shirt, and after some major cajoling on my part Jamie grudgingly pulled a sleep-tee over her clothes and stuck a couple of pink rollers in her hair. "You can't be afraid to look silly once in a while," I told her.



Kyle: "My feet stink like a skunk."




April 11, 1992

I have just come through one of those lovely "Weeks In Hell" ... otherwise known as Spring Break. A nice vacation for everyone but me. The worst part, of course, was having horrible Jess here every day, all day. I'm very worried about the influence he's having on Kyle.

Other things have happened this week and I'm afraid it's practically all bad news. My mom fell off a stepladder last weekend and broke her foot. Ray and the kids and I went over last Sunday to help her out: Ray did some work around her yard and took her garbage out, and I brought her some books and tapes and a container of homemade chili. Just when we'd gotten over worrying about my mother, disaster struck again ... Peg has been diagnosed with kidney cancer. She and Don were off on one of their spontaneous RV trips, this time somewhere around Port Angeles, when Peg had to be hospitalized with (what they thought were) kidney stones. Soon after that we learned the diagnosis was cancer. I walked into the kitchen Thursday night and found Ray crying. This has hit him - and the girls - very hard. Peg has surgery in about an hour, and we won't know anything more until next week. In the meantime, all our thoughts, prayers and love are with her.




April 22, 1992

Peg sailed through her surgery with flying colors, and four days later we were unspeakably relieved to learn that it isn't cancer, after all. It's a rare form of kidney tumor. She was released from the hospital two days ago and is recuperating at home now. Needless to say, Ray and the girls are out of their minds with joy, and so am I: I have just recently begun to realize how fond I am of my mother-in-law. It's an affection that has been hard won, but runs very deeply now.

I was fighting a serious bout of depression that spring.

... Sometimes I think that if it weren't for my kids, my tenuous hold on being a halfway-normal person would dissolve completely. They are my life's anchor, the only genuine source of joy and motivation in my life. And yes, I realize that this isn't necessarily a good thing. There is something inherently tragic about relying on someone else for your happiness and sense of self-worth. But what can I tell you? Everybody needs to have somebody, don't they? For me it's the kids. I've been a rotten mother lately ... distracted, snappish, self-involved, ready to blow at a moments' notice ... and yet these three wonderful little people love me ANYWAY. Go figure that. They must know that something is wrong with Mom, and they must be worried about me, and yet they don't pry or complain or tiptoe around me. What they do, in fact, is simply love me - unconditionally - and continue to be themselves. Noisy, disruptive, silly, funny, energetic, demanding and wonderful. The distraction value alone is priceless. How can I sit around feeling depressed when Kyle and Kacie are in a death grip, fighting over the last Cherry 7-Up popsicle? Who has time to be agoraphobic when Jamie's softball game starts in half an hour and she's batting the first inning? At least with the kids I feel committed - and connected - to something that matters. Without that kind of tether, I really would be floating aimlessly.

... I just wish ... oh, I don't know. I wish I could get some of the joy back. For myself, and for the kids. They deserve better than a mother who hides behind closed curtains all day.




April 29, 1992

The girls were cute walking to school this morning. All of a sudden they've started wearing their hair in braids ... not Dorothy Gale braids, but one big braid going down the back. (They'd rather die than wear the other kind.) Anyway, at breakfast Kacie said, "Mom, would you French-braid my hair?" Please understand that French-braiding - like wrapping presents - is one of those things that I would like to be really good at, that I should be good at ... but I'm not. I don't know if it's because I've got short fat fingers, or if it's one of those left brain/right brain things, but whatever it is, I stink at French-braiding. Besides that, Kacie managed to get toothpaste in her hair this morning so it was sticky and matted. I tried to French-braid it but it wouldn't work, so finally we wound up putting one regular ("American"?) braid down the back. Then Jamie wanted the same thing.




May 1, 1992

Big night for Jamie: she and Kaleana are going to the Paula Abdul concert at the Tacoma Dome! Jamie was so excited this morning she could barely sit through breakfast. This concert is the culmination of three years' unwavering devotion ... a dream come true for Jay. It's costing me nearly fifty bucks to send her ($28.50 for the ticket, another $20 for spending money) but I didn't hesitate for a moment. How many chances do you get to see your idol in person? Especially when you're ten years old.



STUFF I LIKE

Hot black coffee ... baskets filled with dried flowers ... new pens ... mail order catalogs ... lilacs and baby's breath ... Victorian postcards ... new magazines ... witch hazel ... little boys in blue pajamas ... patchwork quilts ... candles ... collages ... lace ... homemade lemonade ... time travel movies ... lavender soap ...

I wrote what I felt was a very honest appraisal of myself as a parent:

... Actually, when I stop and think about it, I don't really want to be the best damned mother on the face of the planet. Most of the time "good enough" is good enough: some days "barely adequate" suits me fine. This is not an area where I generally feel a lot of pressure. My kids seem to be growing up quite nicely, whether because of me or in spite of me. They're well-adjusted, healthy, intelligent, polite, personable and free thinking. The other day I asked the girls, "Are you having happy childhoods?" ("I'm a woman," Kacie replied.)

Of course I worry sometimes that I'm not like most other moms I know. How to describe the way things are around here? My perception may be skewed. I perceive myself as the free-wheeling, Bohemian Mom I secretly craved as a kid. A product of my beloved 60's. Few hard and fast rules: look both ways before crossing the street, clean up your own mess, no cartwheels in the living room when Mom's playing an album. I have trouble making anything stick, like punishments and lists of rules and "chore charts," although I try once in a while. Being arbitrary isn't as chafing. Bare feet, jeans, meals eaten in front of the TV, no real bed times, free speech encouraged to a point, discipline when necessary, lots of social activities for the kids, freedom to dress as they please, freedom to listen to the music or to watch the TV shows of their choice. Freedom to go to a Paula Abdul concert at age ten!

I hear Grandma's voice in all of this - her voice from the 60's, before she loosened up and became more liberal about things - and it says that what I really am is lazy, permissive and guilty of neglect. It says that what I ought to be doing is getting those kids to bed at a decent hour every night, making them work around the house more, checking their homework, eating dinner at the table every night. For some reason the voice is much harder on me where the girls are concerned: I should be brushing their hair into neat severe ponytails every morning, and as for those clothes I allow them to wear ... It is at these times that I put up a new "chore chart," or lash out at the kids about their dirty bedrooms, or feel a sudden urge to oversee Kacie's homework ...

... I feel inordinately close to them. I don't expect this to last forever - I'm not going to go trailing after them to their Prom - but I'm certain I'll be able to handle the ebb and flow. Just within the past few months I've noticed a change in the way I think about the kids ... a general internal "loosening." I just don't feel as obsessive/compulsive about them, now that they're older ... there isn't that frantic need to know where they are and what they're doing, every single minute of every day. The only analogy I can think of here is the little red tricycle in the rain. Do you remember? Jamie was very young, maybe two or three years old, and she went to spend the weekend at Peg and Don's. It was one of our first separations and I took it hard. Every time I looked out the window I saw her little red tricycle, sitting forlornly in the rain, and I cried all weekend. But now it's different: I can miss her, or Kacie or Kyle, and it isn't that total heart-crunching desolation. All of this by way of saying that we can be close and apart at the same time, something relatively new, and I like that.




The Science Fair

By Mom

It started with a question about papier mache, almost a month ago. Kacie approached me one weekend and asked if I knew how to work with papier mache. I was busy and said I would "check into it later." Secretly, I assumed this was just another one of Kacie's here today, abandoned tomorrow ideas. If I ignored it maybe it would go away. Now I am ashamed of myself for brushing her off like that, but at the time I didn't understand what was behind the question. If I'd known where all of this was going to lead, I might have handled it very differently. Then again, had I gotten involved early on, the whole thing might not have turned out as delightfully as it did. But I dance ahead of myself.

Eventually it began to filter into my brain that the school was having a Science Fair, and that both of my daughters wanted to enter an exhibit. (Separately, of course.) In my own defense I must explain that these final few weeks of school are a flurry of activity ... field trips, Girls Scouts, dance recitals, softball, church, birthday parties, ad nauseum. Our days are a constant juggling act. So it's understandable, perhaps, that the first few times the Science Fair was mentioned, it escaped my notice. Kacie did seem to suddenly be very interested in the solar system: I noticed library books on the subject laying on her bedroom floor, and Kacie began reciting the names of the planets to me while I cooked dinner. "Do you know how the planets got their names?" she asked me one evening, and we had an interesting discussion about mythology and early astronomy. Eventually I put two and two together and understood that Kacie wanted to mount an exhibit about the solar system for the Science Fair. Even then, I was vaguely patronizing: "That's nice, Sweetheart," was pretty much the extent of my response.

At this point Jamie hadn't come up with a project of her own yet. Once or twice I found her leafing through reference books or stacks of old Highlights magazines, looking for ideas.

The day that the big sheets of cardboard came home from school with the girls was the day I realized how serious they were about entering the Science Fair. Jamie had finally settled on a topic: "Plants And How They Grow." She also had a partner, Emily J. Kacie steadfastly clung to her solar system idea, and was working by herself. The sheets of cardboard - three feet high, four feet wide - were backdrops for their exhibits, to be decorated in any manner they wished. On the next hot and sunny Saturday, Kacie spread her backdrop out in the back yard and painted it a vivid, eye-popping purple. Then she painted four big hearts with arrows piercing each, and at the top she painted the words "Qustons" (questions), "How were the planets names?" and "How many wrings dose Satern have?" She worked diligently on her backdrop for most of the weekend; in the evenings she was covered with purple paint from head to toe, but almost maniacally happy.

In the meantime a row of neatly-labeled flower pots appeared in my laundry room window, sporting labels that read "Talk nicly 15 min. every day" and "Listen to rock music 15 min. every day," etc. Jamie and Emily had decided to grow several identical marigold plants under different conditions and then compare the results. It was typically Jamie: organized, ambitious and creative. Emily came home with Jamie after school and they worked on their backdrop together, which - like the rest of their project - was neat and organized. Jamie was definitely in charge, Emily the meek and subservient partner. The seeds in the laundry room began to sprout, right on schedule. There were occasional feverish telephone conversations about the project, and in the afternoons I could hear Paula Abdul music wafting from Jamie's room, played for the marigold whose fate it was to listen to "rock music 15 min. every day." Jamie's Science Fair project was moving along like clockwork, and she was smugly certain a blue ribbon was in her future.

Kacie's purple backdrop, meanwhile, lay untouched and forgotten in the back yard for several days while she worked on constructing "planets" for her display. The papier mache was a fiasco. I had, by this point, adopted a strict hands-off policy about the whole thing. Reports were coming in about parents who had virtually take over their kids' Science Fair projects, and I pontificated about the "injustice" of this. "How fair is that to the kids who do all the work themselves?" I sputtered indignantly. Kacie, unfazed by my reluctance to get involved, stoically plodded along, trying out new methods of "planet construction. She was certain that she, too, was destined for a blue ribbon.

And then disaster struck. The unfortunate purple backdrop was left unattended one night when it rained, and the next day - it was gone. It was assumed that Daddy had hauled it off to the garbage, impatient with what he perceived to be an abandoned mess. That, I figured, was the end of the solar system. Kacie didn't say much about it. I decided that she must not have cared very much, one way or the other. There was no angry outburst, no tears. I chalked the whole thing up to experience and figured Kacie had, too. What I hadn't counted on was Kacie's tenacity, the remarkable resiliency of her spirit. This is one kid who takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. Once an idea is planted in that sweet freckled head of hers, nothing can stop her.

Two days remained before the Science Fair. Emily came over after school again, and she and Jamie put the finishing touches on their backdrop. The marigolds were all lush and healthy (which seemed, somehow, to undermine the hypothesis of their experiment), and they arranged them neatly in my redwood planter. They rehearsed their answers for the judges' interview. Jamie was getting a little tense by now, and she drilled Emily mercilessly. This project was her "baby," and she was determined it go off without a hutch. I made my token suggestion about the backdrop, gently correcting one misspelled word: Jamie took the criticism graciously. She was still sure she was going to win first place, but she was a little nervous now. I reassured her as best I could, reminding her that the point of the Science Fair was to have fun and to learn something. She agreed, but I could tell that deep down inside winning still meant everything here.

I went into the laundry room to take clothes out of the dryer, and glancing out the window I caught sight of Kacie in the garage. She was hunched over the garage floor, feverishly taping several pieces of corrugated together with duct tape. "My God!" I said, astonished. "She's still working on the science project!" At the eleventh hour, yet. Jamie joined me at the window and nodded. "She's been working on it for a few days," she said. Just then Ray came home from work. Kacie looked up at him and smiled at him. "Wanna see my Science Fair project?" she asked him, hopefully.

But Ray didn't hear her. "What the hell are you doing with my duct tape?" he snarled at her. All the joy and hope drained from her eyes; her shoulders sagged, and my heart did a queasy little flip-flop in my chest. Kacie feebly started to explain what she was doing, but Ray clearly wasn't listening ... he was all over her about the tape, the mess, the intrusion into "his" garage. Kacie burst into tears. "No one cares about my project!" she sobbed, and my heart shattered. Here she was, making a brave last-minute attempt at a comeback, and all she got was criticism and harsh words.

"Kacie, I want to see your project!" I shouted from the laundry room, and I flew out to the garage. Instantly, she was herself again, all life and energy. Chattering a mile a minute, she set up her backdrop and began arranging her display for me. My heart sank. It was such a sad-looking little thing ... the pieces of cardboard she'd taped together were torn along the top, and the backdrop leaned to one side. She had crumpled up balls of tissue paper to make the planets, and they hung in a bunchy row from a string: "Satern" threatened to fall off at any moment. Compared to Jamie's neat careful plant exhibit, Kacie's solar system seemed a little ... shabby. I was suddenly terrified that she would be the laughing stock of the Science Fair. And yet, Kacie stood there with an expression of such dignity and quiet pride that I swallowed my doubts. I hugged her and said, "You've done a fantastic job." And then a funny thing happened. At that moment I saw the display through Kacie's eyes, and it suddenly didn't seem shabby at all ... it seemed to symbolize determination, and resourcefulness. It had a charm all its own. No one would be able to doubt for a minute that Kacie did all the work herself! I prayed that whoever was doing the judging at the Science Fair would recognize the value of that.

The day of the Science Fair dawned clear and warm. Emily showed up after breakfast to help Jamie carry that plants and the backdrop to school, and they walked down the street, exuding brisk self-confidence. Kacie struggled along behind them, lugging her backdrop: every few minutes she had to stop, set it down, and regroup. One of the tissue paper planets fell off and rolled into the middle of the street: she picked it up and stuffed it into her pocket, then turned and waved at me with a determinedly cheerful smile. I stood at the window, watching her valiant struggle, and I shot a quick prayer to God: "Please be gentle with her heart today."

For the rest of the day my thoughts were never far from the Science Fair. I knew the judging was scheduled for early in the day, so we'd know the results when they got home from school. I wondered how I was going to handle this. Would Jamie be a gracious winner? Would Kacie handle her disappointment well? How would I congratulate one and console the other? I made an extra-special after school snack, quesadillas and strawberry Kool-Aid, and as the clock moved closer to 3:30 I sat quietly in the living room, preparing for the turmoil ahead.

The kids came in with their usual burst of noise and exuberance, but to my astonishment it was Jamie who stalked through the living room with a tear-stained face and went wordlessly to her room, slamming the door behind her. Kacie joyously announced, "Guess what? I got SECOND PLACE!" I felt a little like Alice, gone through the looking glass. Kacie was utterly radiant, and I hugged her with genuine pride. But I was still confused. With Jamie out of earshot, I whispered to Kacie, "What happened to her?"

"Oh, she got Third Place because Emily messed up," Kacie said. There wasn't the slightest trace of smugness in her voice, no gloating over her sister's misfortune. Jamie stewed alone in her bedroom for a while, and then she came out and flounced onto the sofa. "It's not FAIR!" she wailed, tears filling her eyes. Apparently everything had gone like clockwork until the interview, at which point the hapless Emily choked. In spite of repeated rehearsals of what they would say to the judges (carefully scripted by Jamie), Emily panicked and deviated from the prepared answers. They lost several crucial points as a result. "I hope you didn't make her feel bad," I said, but the look in Jamie's eyes made it clear that Emily J. was toast. I let her pout about it for a while longer, but by evening she'd cheered up a little. I reminded her, in my best wise-and-wonderful-Mom voice, that anyone who looked at her exhibit couldn't fail to appreciate the time and work she'd put into it. And I meant it. Once she managed to get over some of her disappointment, I think she knew it, too.

That evening we walked over to the school and attended the Science Fair. The gymnasium was hot, noisy and crowded, and it reeked of sulfur - the result of six separate "volcano" exhibits. Armed with my camera, Kyle trailing along behind me, we walked up and down the rows of science projects. Here was Jamie and Emily's, with its neat row of potted marigolds and the white Third Place ribbon. I took a picture with Jamie sitting in front of her exhibit, smiling bravely. Then we continued going up and down the rows. A lot of the exhibits should just as well have had signs on them saying "ENTERED BY SO-AND-SO'S DAD" ... they were so sophisticated and professional looking, it was obvious that the parents had done all the work. Finally, somewhere in the middle of the third aisle, I spotted it: "KACIE'S OUT OF THIS WORLD EXHIBIT." It was still leaning to one side, and "Satern" still wanted to fall off, but now the exhibit bore a stunning red ribbon. Kacie fussed over it for a moment, straightening the crooked backdrop, before I took a picture. "Sweetie, it's beautiful just the way it is," I said. And I meant it. Kacie had set out to do something, and she'd done it in spite of obstacles and set-backs. She is one remarkable kid.




Dream

Kyle and I were exploring an attic in Grandma and Grandpa's old house. "Look, Kyle!" I said excitedly, "I've found a secret room!" There was a little room off to one side of the attic that I'd never seen before: it had a bed in it, and a lot of neatly- stacked boxes, and one tiny window set high on the wall. I was thrilled with the discovery. "Now Jamie can have a room of her own!" I exclaimed happily, and I turned around to look at Kyle. He was opening a door I hadn't noticed before, and to my horror I saw it opened onto nothing: no balcony, no railing. Before I could stop him, Kyle tumbled out the door and started falling to the ground below. I thought we were only a couple of stories up -- he would probably break some bones, but he would be OK -- but when I looked out the door I saw we were MILES above the ground. Below me, Kyle was falling and screaming. "Oh God, Kyle!" I screamed, "I'll be right down!" I wanted to get down there and hold him in my arms when he died, so he wouldn't die alone.




Bow Lake had its first-ever kindergarten "graduation" last night ... Kacie and I went and watched Kyle accept his "diploma" from Mr. Gallagher. It was very cute. All those sweet little kindergarteners in their hand-made mortar boards, marching up one by one to the stage; I had my usual camera-in-hand and lump-in-throat. It would have been a perfect occasion had it not been for an unpleasant incident midway through the ceremony. Mr. Gallagher and Mrs. Wagner were halfway through the list of students when this big, angry black guy came bursting through the door of the gymnasium. He walked up to another guy sitting in the audience and began shouting obscenities and threats. Several people asked him to leave, but he ignored them and went on with his wild-eyed ranting. Finally, several burly Dad-types managed to haul him out and locked the door behind him. Mrs. Wagner quietly slipped off the stage and went to call the police, and Mr. Gallagher (with amazing cool) kept the kids distracted and reassured. Still, some of the sweetness of the occasion had been spoiled. I hurried Kacie and Kyle through a piece of cake, shook hands with Mr. Gallagher and then hustled my children home to safety.


Continued ...

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