Posts Tagged ‘single parenting’

Dear Son,

It’s Father’s Day. I’ve never really known what to do about that. It was just the two of us until we got the House Leroy, then it was just the three of us, and he was very clear that you had a dad–however far away he might live–that I was the Parent of Record, and that he was, well, our House Leroy.

The last time we talked about Father’s Day you said thoughtfully that, while your father didn’t really feel like a dad, you hoped that the two of you could be friends. “You’ve really been both my mom and my dad,” you said. And then you insisted that we go to Dairy Queen, where you went inside and explained that to the server, and wangled me a free Father’s Day ice cream cone. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I said “thank you,” and gave you a hug, and tried not to think about all the things a dad might have taught you that I hadn’t.

But that wasn’t true. You had Leroy, who showed  you how to do home repairs, and sat and joked with you, and drove me to all your out-of-town games, meets, concerts, and solo festivals, and bragged to all the neighbors that he wished he’d had a son like you. You have your football, wrestling, and weight-training coaches, men who have taught you about sportsmanship, and about what it’s like to be a man among men and boys. You have Uncle Tommy, who by living his life honestly as a “little person” in a “big world”  teaches you every day what it’s like to be a man in the face of enormous challenges. You’ve had a number of teachers who have seen things to admire and foster in you–and have done both things. And this year, your dad has started helping with some of your musical expenses.

None of those men are–or were–your “fathers” in the traditional sense. None of them were married to your mother (though the House Leroy came closest). None of them left our house to go to work every day, and came home every night and threw a football around the yard with you, fought with you about your hair, and taught you how to drive. Those things matter, but we’ve filled those needs if we decided we needed them filled. Having Leroy live with us taught you that it’s possible for men, women, and children to not only live in peace, but to actively enjoy each others’ company. I work every day. We don’t fight about your hair because, hey, it’s on your head, and it’s clean and you’re not running into “Stop” signs.

So why is it that I feel that there’s still something missing for you? Why is it that when your friends’ dads and grandfathers spend time with you I see a side of you that I don’t see otherwise? Why is it that I look in your eyes I sometimes wonder if you understand that you’re growing into a wonderful man, as well as a wonderful human being? I wish I could say that to you in words you could hear. I’ve tried. And I’ve done a pretty good job.

You know how to mow the lawn. You are a whiz at math, writing, literature, music–just about anything you set your mind to. You’re kind–I love watching you with my friends’ children and grandchildren. You’re respectful, even though you have a mind of your own. When we fight, we fight to find a solution, not to hurt each other. You know how to be part of a family. In a household as small as ours everyone plays an important role. And you play yours well. You’re amazing. I wish I could say that it was my doing, but you’ve always been that way. True, I’ve tried not to screw you up too badly, but you are who you are because that’s who you’ve always been. I just wish I was sure you understood what an incredible person–what an incredible man–you are. Do you? Do you really?

When you were little you worried that  some flaw in you had driven your dad away. “Maybe if I was lean..” you’d say. “Maybe if I liked football more…” “Maybe if my eyes were blue…” I don’t think that my explanation that people are who they are, and that if your dad’s love depended on those things the lack was his, not yours, soaked in. Maybe because secretly I was asking myself the same sorts of questions. Maybe if I were thin…maybe if I were blonde…maybe if I earned more money…maybe if I were better at sex…Maybe if I weren’t so smart…Maybe if I weren’t an artist…Maybe if I were funnier…maybe…maybe…maybe…

Maybe the truth was that some people just aren’t meant to be together not because they can’t be, but because relationships are hard, and they only work if at some point both parties see something irreplaceable in each other. I was with your dad because I wanted to be part of a family, I wanted to be loved and to love, he was funny, and it was better than being alone. He was with me because, hey, money and free sex. The things that made me unique weren’t things that he valued. And so we were better apart. All that happened before you ever came into the picture. The flaws were ours, not yours. He went on and found someone he loves, and who loved him. We went on and found Leroy. We found teachers. We found coaches. We found friends. Each of those good and caring men has helped you find something amazing in yourself. I hope you see those things for the gifts they are. I hope you realize that in our efforts to replace the gap not having a dad left in your life have in some ways challenged you to become more than you would perhaps have been otherwise. I don’t know. Woulda shoulda coulda.

There’s a saying that the people who best know what childhood should be are those who never had one. I suspect that not having a “real dad”–even though you’ve had a lot of good and kind men in your life–has taught you what a dad should be. You will have fortunate children. Happy Father’s Day, son. I love you.


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“All happy families are alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, says Tolstoy in the beginning of Anna Karenina. The same point is made nightly on the news: happy news doesn’t grip viewers like violent, frightening, or tragic coverage–preferably close to home. It follows, then, that an author who wishes to sell is well advised to choose a violent, frightening, or tragic subject.

When I began writing memoirs, I started out like many other people–I was writing to exorcise personal demons, to document my way through a dark and frightening land. I wrote thousands of pages of that journey.

And then I got pregnant, and everything went to hell. Or at least I thought so. But a funny thing happened on the way to Perdition. I kept having these wonderful, shining moments, moments that have come increasingly often as the years have passed.

When people learned I was a single mother the invariable reaction was a sympathetic face, and a pitying, “Oh, that’s so hard.”

But by then it didn’t feel hard. It felt scary sometimes, but mostly it good, and safe, and fulfilling and rewarding. I didn’t want to be rude, but accepting sympathy made me feel like a fraud. Yes, I faced hard times–but doesn’t every parent? Yes, single parenting carries its own set of challenges with it–but doesn’t any endeavor worth the effort?

I am not a fool. I watch the news. I read. I know that not every single parent’s experience is like mine. But neither is mine like theirs. And so I set aside the memoir that might “sell”–the story of sad, dark, and frightening times, and I chose to write my first memoir about something that quite likely will not sell–about my son and myself, and our boring, happy family.

The book doesn’t document every second of every day–or even every year. What it does document are the moments in our shared life that changed me–the moments when my son raised me, instead of the other way around. It holds those moments that I suppose most parents have, when they look at their children and feel grateful, awed, and humbled to have been chosen to share their lives.

It’s not all beer and skittles, of course. The challenges are there. But somehow it feels very right to have my first memoir be not about the pain and the dark, but about the joy of my life.

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Things are very exciting around here. I’ve gotten my proofs back from the printer (it’s CreateSpace, so this also serves as my final proofreading/approvals copy) and the results are mixed. I’m producing this book in two formats, for two audiences. The first format is straight-up text; the second is an illustrated gift version. Why? Because I think it’s smart from a marketing point of view. The illustrated gift version is quite lovely (I’m including the cover below) but all that loveliness costs money. To capture the more penny-wise folks I’m producing a small, economical, text-only version, suitable for tucking into a purse (or a diaper bag).

I still have to get the proofreaders’ reports, but from a graphic standpoint the results are mixed. I really like the gift book cover; the economy model, not so much. So it’s back to the drawing board on that one. The nice thing is that it’ll only cost me the price of a proof (which I’ll need, anyhow, once I make my text changes). The cover on the small book just isn’t gelling for me. And that brings up a really, really good point. You. Cannot. Trust. Your. Monitor. Don’t ever, ever sign off on a print job without seeing a proof–and if it’s a color job, insist on a color-calibrated proof. This cover looked lovely and soft and elegant on my monitor. when I held it in my hand it just looked lame. So, now’s the time to fix it. The gift book version is working, so I’ll go with that look as the basis for the small book art.

The other thing I don’t like about the little book is that it’s not little enough. I set it at 8.5 x 5.5, which I thought would look small and cute. It doesn’t. It’s not big enough to make a statement, or small enough to be charming. It’s just lukewarm, fit only to be spewed out of my mouth. Or re-designed, in this case. Thank goodness this is a short book. I went back into the CreateSpace options and chose the smallest trim size they offer–it’s a bit over 5×7.5–and tweaked my copy to fit that. It’ll increase my page count slightly, and therefore my cost, but by judicious layout adjustments I’ve been able to pretty much hold the length. Here’s hoping the next proof comes out better.

Speaking of proofs, CreateSpace is offering a great new pilot program, and they invited me to participate. They now offer an option to waive your proof. This option should address one of my pet peeves with the CreateSpace system–that they don’t allow me to bleed certain types of graphics off the page. My proofs look pretty good; a few of the images were layered improperly, but I can see them in the proof, and have already fixed them. It’s now a million times easier than it was before, when I just got a terse little note telling me my whole book was unprintable, which left me cursing and trying to fix the problem by guess and by gosh.

So anyhow, it’s been a good, productive day, which brings me to marketing, which I plan to get locked down this weekend. I’m doing something special to market this book. Instead of just selling the book, I’ve developed a line of mom- and baby-related products on CafePress. I’ve put together a gift basket’s worth of samples–a maternity t-shirt, baby shirts, blankets, and hats, coffee mugs, birth announcements, shower announcements, a journal, thank-you notes–all sorts of things geared toward the expectant mom and her baby. Add the memoir, and it’s a gift tailor-made for single mothers and mothers-to-be. I’ve got another book in mind for the baby, but I won’t go into that now.

So, without further ado, here’s a peek at the impending book cover–a literary ultrasound, if you will:

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, it’ll be out in the next month or so.

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“Can you come watch me play?” Alex asks.

“Do you want me to?” I ask, hoping he’ll say ‘no.’

Don’t get me wrong; I love watching Alex’s sports events. The year he took wrestling I went to every meet, even the one at John Day, more than three hours up a twisting, tortured mountain road. In the snow. I went to every track and field day.

This year, though, it’s football, and we’ve had a rocky start. The issue has been the uniform. Alex is Big. He’s nearly 6’4”, and very stocky. Even so, the coach managed to put together a jersey, a pair of pants from the high school team, and pads. But when it came to the helmet, he was stumped. None of the middle school or high school helmets were big enough to fit his head. The coach ended up custom-ordering a helmet from some place in Maine.

And of course, until the helmet arrived, Alex was sidelined for hitting and tackling practice, and all games. So was I.

But the helmet arrived last Thursday, and Alex has had one hitting practice, and today is his first ever game, and it’s his birthday.

“Can you come watch me play?” Alex asks. There’s only one acceptable answer to that question. Which is not to say it’s an easy answer. The game is in Baker City, a hundred and twenty empty miles of mountain road away. And I am afraid.

It’s stupid—so stupid I can’t admit it to anyone, but leaving my house is becoming increasingly difficult. The last few years have been hard, and in hard times I tend to hunker down. The thing about hunkering down is that sometimes it’s hard to remember how to stand up and run again.

There are other, more viable reasons: my car needs work. The road is long. I get sleepy when I drive. I just got a big job in and need to work. There are all kinds of good reasons for staying home. There is only one good reason for going: my son is playing his first football game, and wants me to be there for him. And it trumps them all.

I go home, call Triple A, and update my coverage. Then I call my client and tell her the big job will need to wait. Then I grab a book on tape—my only hope of staying awake for the drive—three hours each way—check the oil and water in the car, top off the gas tank at the station, and head out.

The road is familiar, and, for my family, a constant reminder of the fragility of life. It runs through the Umatilla Indian Reservation and just a few miles from my mother’s house, past the casino, and then out across Mission Flats.

Mission Flats is where my cousin wrecked the 18-wheeler he had, against all odds, succeeded in cowboying from the top of Cabbage Hill. He reached the bottom going a cool 90 miles per hour, thinking he had it made. And then a Winnebago pulled out to pass in front of him. You could see the gouges his truck left on Mission Flats for years afterward. He’s in a wheelchair now.

I navigate the switchbacks up Cabbage Hill, and pass Emigrant Park. Our church used to bring youth groups here in the winter for sledding, until my sister Pam, age ten, hit a patch of ice and wrapped her sled around a tree. She lost her spleen and appendix and had to have her kidney repaired, caught a staph infection, and almost didn’t make it.

I navigate Deadman’s Pass and Poverty Flats, and then I am in the heart of the mountains, and facing my real fear—the one that grew in the days when my memory was just coming alive, and the mountain nights held shame, and pain, and fear. This is the real reason I didn’t want to make this drive. Old fears cut the deepest, even when we tell ourselves to get past them. Given a choice, I would never drive this road. But my son is playing his first football game, and he wants me there, and there is no choice. To fail my son because of old demons would be a failure too great to endure. I flip the book on tape in my cassette player, focus on the story and the car ahead of me, and try not to see the trees.

And then I am past the summit of the Blue Mountains, and sweeping down into the valley beyond. I follow the directions I wrote down before I left home and arrive at the school in good time. The teams are warming up; the stands are empty except for me. I choose a seat at the fifty-yard line, settle down, and open the book I brought. The sun is bright, clear and warm. I am glad I came.

I remain glad well into the third quarter of the seventh-grade game. Then I begin to shift, and wish the women’s restroom was unlocked. But this is a male thing, and I am still the only Mom from our town in the stands, and no one has thought of unlocking the ladies room. On the other side of the stadium, Baker parents are beginning to straggle in. Finally the bus driver offers to stand guard outside the boys’ restroom for me. I rush in and rush out.

Back in the stands, Alex is sitting with the team, hands folded, his helmet, on long before it needs to be, rocking gently. I know he is nervous—and I know that I must stay here, up in the stands behind him. This is not a time when a mother’s arms, comfort, or encouragement will be welcome. So I sit, and I worry. He has only had one practice, after all.

The shadows lengthen and the air chills. By the time the seventh-grade game is over I am shivering. I hurry out to my car, grab the cape I threw in just in case before I left home, and hurry back. And there they are, the eighth-grade team, dropping their shoulder pads over their heads, pulling on their jerseys, and stamping their cleats. Alex is easy to spot; he is head and in some cases shoulders taller than the rest of the team.

The coach leads the team down to the end of the field and begins taking them through their warm-up exercises and drills. They run a quick hitting drill. The coach says something to Alex, slaps him on the back, and demonstrates a tackle. Alex gives it a shot. The coach slaps him on the back again. I huddle deeper into my cape. It is too dark to read, now. I don’t want to, anyway.

A deep, loud horn goes off and the teams jog onto the field. And then it is here, the reason I drove for nearly three hours. Alex takes his position—he hunkers down in the center of the front line, staring down the boy with the ball. And then the ball snaps, and Alex surges forward, and the boy who used to have the ball leaps to meet him, but Alex is big, and pushes by. And then he stops, confused. When he begins to move again there is none of the focus of that initial push. He trots here and there, looking for the ball. The whistle blows.
And back to the line they go. Alex hunches again, surges again, pushes by, and looks in vain for the ball. Over and over it happens. But then something changes.

The ball snaps, Alex surges past the defender—and runs for the boy with the ball. It happens again, and again. Soon the defenders realize what is happening, and when the teams line up Alex faces two, and sometimes three defenders. Still, he surges forward, pushes them back, slides by, and looks for the ball carrier.

By the time the third quarter begins I am feeling sorry for him, spending his whole game pushing, pushing, pushing, and never touching the ball. He does his best. The team fights hard. But they lose.

Finally the clock runs down to the last three seconds. And wonder of wonders, the quarterback hands him the ball. And Alex begins to run. He is not fast, but he is steady. And he is very, very strong. The opposing team falls upon him, pulling, tugging, hitting. And still those big feed advance, one after another, the big shoulders, made massive by pads, push through. He clasps the ball tightly to his belly, lowers his head, and wades forward, forward, forward. His team members cluster around, trying to clear a path. But it is too late, the horn blows, and the game is over. Alex stands with the ball in his hand, smiling, victorious in defeat.

I stand and cheer, alone on my side of the bleachers, so proud I want to cry. The team surges off the field. Alex’s teammates are slapping him on the back, slapping each other, cheering in cracking adolescent voices, whacking each others’ helmet and backs. Off the field, Alex pulls his helmet off and stands, smiling, and I see the man he is becoming, and, once I have hugged him quickly and congratulated him, I ask the question I must ask, even though I can read the answer in his jubilant face. “Are you going to ride home in the bus, or do you want to ride with me?”

“I’ll take the bus,” he says, and smiles, and I know what it has meant to him that I was there to see him play.

“I’ll head out then,” I say. “See you at home.” And I get back into my car, and drive home three hours through the dark, frightening mountains, alone in the light, with no company by the tail lights of the eighteen-wheeler ahead of me and my thoughts. And it is enough.

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