Viki the Friendly Ghost

Viki the Friendly Ghost

“Is Yaya dead?” I heard from the direction of Rose’s carseat.

WHAT? I thought. How the hell does she know that?

“Well, um, yes. One of your Yayas is dead and the other one is very much alive.”

“Where is Yaya?” she asked.

“Remember, she visited us? She lives in New York, where Papou and Aunt Cathi live.”

“No, the other Yaya. Can we visit her?”

“No, Sweetie, not for a long time.”

Rose asked the same questions of Matt as he drove and he explained the situation much more clearly. “Your mother had a Mommy who raised her and another one who had her in her tummy. The one who raised her is dead. You went to her funeral. The other one is alive and she was here a few months ago, remember?” She spared him the follow-up questions. Maybe if I’d explained it better she wouldn’t have asked me either. Dammit.

Clearly I dropped the ball on explaining the story to Rose, but my mind was stuck on how she ever got the idea that Yaya died. Yes, she went to Yaya’s funeral, but she wasn’t even two years old at the time, and it was a closed casket, thank God, so there was nothing creepy to explain. But there’s no way she connected that experience, more than a year ago, to Yaya’s death. She never met my mother because my mom was too far gone with Alzheimer’s by the time Rose was born. I thought if we tried to introduce her to my mom, Rose would freak out at her –a shell of a person unable to connect the outside world.

But now that my mom is free, what would stop her from haunting Rose? Nothing, I concluded. In fact, I think she’d love the idea. She hadn’t seen me, really seen me, for eight years before she died. She wasn’t really conscious for the last eight years. Why wouldn’t she want to visit my house and see her grandchildren? It makes perfect sense.

I don’t delve much into the supernatural, but I do believe in ghosts. I have to. I’ve heard so many stories from people I respect, and I did live in a haunted apartment for a little while. Plus, it’s kind of hard to believe in an afterlife and not believe in ghosts. That said, ghosts scare the hell out of me. I once stayed at a friend’s house and couldn’t let myself sleep because of a ghost they described who visited once a year and then only in the kitchen, a whole floor below me.

Have I felt anything around the house? No. But the events of 2010 could all to point to my mother’s influence on my life. First I got pregnant despite a grim prognosis; then I met my birth mother; then I interested three publishing professionals in my work; I gave birth to a healthy son; my blog readership skyrocketed; then I met my birth father.

I don’t want to get too freaky but couldn’t that be my mother smiling down at me? Although it’s iffy whether she’d want me to meet my birth parents, I think she’d want that mystery of my life solved for me. And as I recall, when the agency gave me some information about my story, my real parents wanted to hear all about it.

I could definitely pin the writing success on my mother. She loved the way I wrote since I was little, and she’d always say, “Maybe you’ll be an author” or “Maybe you’ll write a bestseller.” (Amen to that!) But she hated to share anything personal and I write about her life a lot. Has the afterlife changed her? Is she cool with people knowing her secrets now? And the pregnancy thing – what grandparent doesn’t want another grandchild? I could definitely see her work in that.

But is it her or is it me? I have worked really hard on my writing for years, but last year I spent more time doing it. Plus the blog’s facilitated big improvements in my work, not to mention a boost in my confidence. What about my birth parents? I put my name on the New York State Adoption Registry more than 10 years ago, and my birth father tells me he recently put the impetus on my birth mother to find me. The pregnancy? I can’t explain that away except to say we were looking into adoption so the pressure to conceive was truly off. And every time we’d failed to conceive, I’d said that as soon as the right kid came along, we’d get pregnant. I’ve also long subscribed to the belief that sometimes one extended family member has to die to make room for a new one. Ok, there’s my mom again. And all the time we’d tried to conceive I’d been praying so hard for the next time to work. Can’t discount God’s influence either.

So I guess I have to take credit for some of the good stuff, and give credit where credit is due. I won’t let go of the belief that, at the very least, my mom is watching out for me. But if Rose starts spouting freaky stuff again, I may just have to invest in a Ouija Board.

…And a Happy New Year!

My birth mom, Rose, Christian and me (Clockwise from top)

I tried to kill myself.

Twenty-four years ago, after a shameful bout of promiscuity, drug use and my first brush with manic depression, the thing that put me over the edge was my date’s indifference at the senior prom. After he rebuffed me a few times on the boat that served as our ballroom, I went down to my cabin and took some pills. I hoped that the pills, combined with the half-gram of coke I’d snorted, would do the trick. Fortunately the pills were just cold medicine but they were strong enough to counteract the coke’s stimulant effects. I slept for a few hours and then woke up wondering what I’d done. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to live, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to die. I told one of our chaperones what I’d done and they had me at the school psychologist’s office on Monday morning.

Years later I learned that I’d performed more of a suicidal “gesture” than an “attempt,” but it felt the same to me. I just wanted things to end. I wanted to get out of waking up the next morning and having another horrible day. I didn’t see much of a future, at least one I could enjoy. I went to therapy all summer and once I got to college, away from the shame and the dysfunction at home, I quit drugs, lost weight and began to look forward to a long, happy life.

This year more than any, I’m so grateful for that “failure.” 2010 has been an amazing year for me. I got pregnant after a year of trying, a discouraging prognosis, and giving up on the whole idea. Despite my age, Christian was born healthy and normal in all aspects – and darned cute too, if I do say so myself.

This year I reunited with my birth mother and we’re building a wonderful relationship. She’s giving me the mothering I still need at 42, and I’m giving her the daughter she never had. I finally have a parenting coach. My mother could never do that for me, because her Alzheimer’s disease took her away before my daughter was born.

I just had my first phone calls with my birth father, and that’s been a great experience as well. He’s warm and welcoming, even though he endured so much heartbreak around the events of my birth. He’s my shot at a good relationship with a father figure.

This year I attended my first real writer’s conference, had three publishing professionals ask to see my work, and I got laid off from my day job so I could realize my 17-year dream of working solely as a writer. I’ve seen this blog grow from 100 readers to more than 800 each month, and I’ve received such encouraging feedback from everyone. Let me pause for a moment to say thank you. The publishing industry says I need a lot more readers to sell a memoir, but my numbers are growing so I’m confident I’ll get there, and every little bit helps.

If I had known what this year would bring, maybe I wouldn’t have tried to off myself so many years ago. Then again, I’d have had to wait 24 years for 2010, and 17-year-olds are not patient. That day I couldn’t see brighter days. I couldn’t see how my life would get better, but it did. And I didn’t have to wait 24 years for that.

Had I known how the freedom and positive environment would affect me at college, I wouldn’t have done it. Had I known that I’d finish my college career in Florida, I wouldn’t have done it. Had I known that I’d publish my first essay on the second try, I wouldn’t have done it. All those things were right around the corner for me back then.

My first writing job was doing obituaries at my hometown newspaper. Even though my position was the lowest of the low, I loved that job, and I was so proud that I wrote for the same newspaper that brought me the comics and Ann Landers since I was 6. One thing I learned from being the “Obitch” was that more people die during the holiday season than any other time of year. We didn’t know why. We just saw it happen year after year.

We didn’t get a lot of suicides at the obit desk, at least not that many obvious ones. But so many people get depressed during the holidays that it made us wonder. I used to think that people got depressed about the holidays and just gave up on living. The whole idea made me so sad. Maybe if they knew what was coming up for them, they would have held on.

The holidays used to depress me too. After my divorce, I spent six years as a single girl in Washington, D.C. – a place reputed to host three women for every man. I had a boyfriend during the holidays only once during that singlehood. But I started the plan to bring on better holidays back then. One year I spent 12 hours driving home for Christmas in the snow, and my parents tried to cheat me out of the New York pizza I’d been promised, and then handed me my Christmas present in a wadded-up grocery bag. (See “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for details.) I vowed never to spend Christmas with them again, and ever since I’ve chosen my Christmas “family,” without the fights, without the drama, and without the heartache that Christmas used to bring.

During those single days, I had one date for New Year’s Eve over a six-year span, yet somehow I always found someone to kiss at midnight. And every New Year’s Eve album has pictures of me dancing with a bottle or two of champagne in my hands well after midnight. I would have preferred to have had a date, but just being able to dress up and go out was enough for me.

And I spent the seventh New Year’s Eve with Matt, whom I’d started dating that August. We married three years later. He’d been divorced only nine months when we met, so if I’d met anyone sooner, I’d have missed out on the love of my life. Meeting him was a good foundation for my belief that everything happens for a reason.

The holidays are supposed to be celebrations. And they’re not celebrations unless you actually celebrate. They’re not about drama and they’re not necessarily about family. Spend them with the people you love and choose your holiday company wisely. If your real family doesn’t cut it for you, find people who do. You can always see your real family when there’s less drama and pressure. If the holidays depress you, figure out what you can change to make them better. Then do it. And never forget that you have no idea what might be around the corner. I wish you a very Happy New Year!

Too Much Stuff!

“But now times are rough
And I got too much stuff
Can’t explain the likes of me”
One Particular Harbor – Jimmy Buffett

I’m dreading Christmas this year. Not for the usual reasons – I’m not visiting family or anything like that. We’ll be here with friends we love. That part’s great. It’s Christmas morning that’ll kill me. I just dread the inevitable influx of stuff that Christmas brings.

I am so sick of stuff. Not Matt’s and my stuff so much, it’s the kids’ stuff that kills me. This year we’re enduring a quadruple whammy of gift assault. The first wham came when my mother-in-law visited at the end of August. She lives on the East Coast and only sees her grandchild(ren) once or twice a year. (She still hasn’t seen the baby.) Naturally she wants to spoil them, and she does.

This year we thought we’d try for less stuff, so we explained to Rose and Grandma that we would celebrate Rose’s birthday during Grandma’s visit. So we did. We got a cake and Grandma bought Rose a ton of presents, including “Dora the Explorer” sheets and comforter. Rose was beside herself. I was beside the big pile, shaking my head. We thought Grandma would hold back for Rose’s actual birthday, around Thanksgiving, but our brilliant plan backfired and Rose got a ton more stuff, including “Little Mermaid” sheets and a comforter.

Between Rose’s un-birthday and Thanksgiving, Rose’s new grandmother came to visit. Thrilled to be a Yaya, my newfound birth mother brought gifts and then took the kids to Toys ‘R’ Us where she stocked them up some more.

Then came Rose’s birthday. Again, more stuff, and this time it came not only from both grandmas, but friends as well. Among other things, Rose got three pillow pets. My dad sent his usual check, and for once, I considered it the most thoughtful gift of all. Toys don’t pay for college and money doesn’t take up space.

And all of this conspicuous consumption raged in the middle of a recession. There are people out there who lost their houses and can’t pay their rent, but our kids have more toys than they know what to do with. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for Rose’s grandparents and doubly grateful that they are in a position to buy gifts in such difficult times. And I’m happy that they’re doing their part to stimulate the economy, but the truth is, knowing what’s out there, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for having so much when there are so many people with nothing. I feel even worse now for complaining.

And then comes Christmas. Matt’s mom loves Christmas. Last Christmas, she sent so many gifts that Rose burned out on opening gifts halfway through the pile. Rose, then two years old, walked away from the enormous pile of Christmas gifts that stood pristine before her. We told her to come back – there was more to open, we said – but she decided she’d had enough presents and hopped on her tricycle. She just wanted to play.

So this Christmas, we’ve decided that Grandma will be Santa. We will buy Rose only one gift, and Christian gets nothing. He’s got everything he needs and he’s too young to notice. But we’re still faced with the prospect of too many gifts.

I’d love to give at least half of her gifts away. Sounds simple enough, but what happens when the Grandmas ask her how she likes them? I don’t want to lie to them when all they wanted to do is please their grandchildren. And Rose has an incredible memory for things like gifts. Once she opens a gift and sees it, it’s forged in her brain. If we furtively remove it from her pile, she’ll ask us, “Where’s my Candy Land game?” Maybe not Christmas Day, maybe not the next, but she will ask for it, soon and for the rest of her life. She’ll know she got it and that it’s gone, and that’s kind of a harsh thing to do to a three-year-old. We did it with some stuff last year, and we were able to donate the toys, but she was younger and easier to fool.

This is a great opportunity to teach her about giving, you’re saying. Teach her to give to those who are less fortunate.

Charity is a great idea in theory, but have you ever tried to get a three-year-old to give up her stuff? She’s at the age where everything is “Mine, mine, mine!” A couple of months ago I gave Rose’s bag of Craisins to a woman begging at a stoplight and she cried for two days. I explained to her that we had more Craisins at home and the woman couldn’t afford to buy her own. That argument was lost on her. She has no idea what “less fortunate” means. She just knows she doesn’t want to give up her stuff. We’ve been lucky enough, knock wood, to survive this recession so far, but we’ve been unable to make her understand that many people haven’t.

Her grandmas put a lot of thought and effort into buying gifts for the kids, and withholding gifts would hurt their feelings. We don’t want to hurt them, either. They’d understand more about giving, but they’d want to know the kids enjoyed their gifts before we gave them away.

So you see my dilemma. I can’t refuse gifts; I can’t withhold gifts; and I can’t give gifts away. I even tried to propose to Grandma that she put half of her gift money in an account for each kid, so by the time they graduate high school, they’d be able to pay for any college they want. She laughed. It wasn’t a joke.

I wish I had a solution to this “problem.” I wish we could give more where it really counts and teach our kids to appreciate what they have. Someday they’ll be old enough to understand. When they are, we’ll start a tradition of giving away one (or more) gifts every year. But for now, I’ve got to bite the bullet, clean up the wrapping paper and find a place for all of this freakin’ stuff.

The Pot(s) and the Kettle

Rose not learning to use the potty

“She never learns!” laments my exasperated husband. “I must have told her 50 times and she still doesn’t get it! What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s three,” I sigh. “She’ll get it eventually but it takes her a long time. She’s like a poodle, Honey. Poodles are really smart, but they’re still limited because they’re dogs. She’s smart too, but she’s still a baby. She’ll learn eventually.”

“I don’t think so,” he says.

I can’t help but agree with him on some level. Although I know she’s defiant because she’s three, her father never seems to learn either. Neither do I. We’re the pot, she’s the kettle, and we’re all black. So either she grows up and learns to listen, or she lives her life like us, doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results.

For example, whenever we’re in the car looking for something – a parking space, a house, a road sign – Matt cruises along at full speed and this is what happens:

“Hey, there’s a sp…Oh, forget it, we passed it,” I say.

“You didn’t tell me until I was right on top of it!” he says.

“If you slowed down, we’d be parked by now,” I say.

“I can’t,” he’ll say. “We would have gotten rear-ended. The guy behind us is coming up on me at a hundred miles an hour!”

“If you slowed down, he’d have to slow down too.” I sigh and give up on pointing out spaces. I will just shut up and let him find it on his own, in an hour.

Matt and Rose are more alike than he’d like to believe. This evening, upon leaving a restaurant, Matt ushered Rose into the car. She dawdled, reaching for her Dora the Explorer purse, as Matt pushed. “Climb into your seat, Rose. Let’s GO!” Rose reached for her purse on the front seat. “If you don’t climb up right now I’m gonna beat your butt red.” (An empty threat. It never happens. He’s Southern, from the land of, “Go cut me a switch, Boy! And it’d better be a strong one!”)

“I was just getting…”

“Get up now or you go right to bed!!”

Matt doesn’t move his ass, either. Recently I asked Matt to to get me a tennis ball from the garage. I was still suffering from sciatica and could hardly walk. My chiropractor had recommended I lie down on a tennis ball to work the pressure points on my back. My back hurt so much I could hardly get out of bed.

The tennis balls were buried somewhere in the garage and he said he’d get one. He did not get the ball. I asked for it the next day. He said he’d get it. He did not. I asked the next day. Same story. But I did get the ball. Six days later, when I asked again, he said “I forgot what you wanted that for.”

“My back, Honey. The chiro said to lie on it for my back.”

“Oh, ok.” He went to the garage, and five minutes later I had the ball.

And then there’s me. I’m terrible at learning from experience. When I was young and a boy rejected me, I’d cry for a while, then come back with a vengeance. I’d get completely obsessed, thinking I could make him like me if I tried hard enough. It never worked. I followed this pattern for at least 10 years.

“Never” is a strong word. As I tell Matt, Rose does learn; it just takes her a lot of repetitions for things to sink in. She’s smart, so we think she should pick up on everything right away. But she’s also curious and willful, and those qualities in action tend to throw us off. For example, if I leave my purse or Matt leaves his backpack in her reach, she will dissect it all over the floor, leaving torn utility bills, paper money and credit cards in her wake. For a while, I stored my purse on the closet floor, thinking “out of sight, out of mind.” But then Rose learned to open the closet, pull it out and destroy it. So I moved it to a high shelf. Now she only destroys it when I slip upand leave it where she can get to it.

Matt’s bag is a different story. He leaves it on the floor in the dining or living room all the time. Right in the middle of Rose’s territory. So naturally the curious and destructive three-year-old gets into it, and yanks stuff out, whipping papers through the air behind her like a cartoon. Then Matt comes in, mad, says “How many times do I have to tell you, ‘Don’t touch my bag!’” and Rose looks at him and says, “I was just…”

“I don’t care what you were just doing. You don’t touch Daddy’s bag!” Then he grabs it, attempts to make sense of the maelstrom of papers, all the while grumbling “Rose, dammit, can’t leave my bag anywhere!” under his breath.

Rose then runs to me, and I stand in solidarity with Matt and say, “Honey, you can’t rip apart Daddy’s bag. It’s Daddy’s, not yours.” When Matt calms down, I say smugly, “Honey, if you kept it out of her reach, she wouldn’t do it.”

And he says, “It doesn’t matter. She has to learn.”

Then we have a discussion about unwinnable battles and how the war of the backpack is Matt’s own personal Iraq. No matter how many times he fights it, no matter how much manpower he puts on it, he’s never gonna win.

To her, his backpack’s an irresistible grownup trapping and her interest in it will never wane. To him, it’s his property that his family should respect. That’s not gonna happen now. Maybe in five or ten years, but not right now.

And that’s what I think the problem is. When the Pot and I call the Kettle black, we’re too absolute. “Rose never learns” describes a temporary state in permanent terms. Rose will learn. In fact, she’s learned a lot so far. We never said, “She’ll never learn to talk, or she’ll never learn to walk or she’ll never learn to read,” because we expect her to reach those milestones and we’re well aware of developmental timeframes. But “She’ll never learn to listen,” happens every day, so it seems like it will last forever.

In some ways, it will last forever. She will never stop defying us on some level. Now it’s rifling through our bags, but it will evolve into refusing to do her homework or dating boys we don’t like or becoming a Republican. The thing we have to remember is that we’re the adults. We will always set the limits, and she will always test them. We’re supposed to have the patience and the resources to deal with her behavior, so it’s our job to pick our battles and ensure that we learn how to handle the ones we choose to fight. As for being the Pots, we have to accept that learning goes on forever, and there’s hope for us yet.

Chomping at the Butt

I’m a big believer in letting people learn their own lessons. At least I used to be, before I got married. Now my family’s lessons are biting my ass.

A few weeks ago, Rose’s swim class session ended. Matt takes her to swimming. They used to swim on Saturday mornings but when this session ended, Matt did not sign her up for another session. This was the second time he’d dropped the beach ball. Because signups are so competitive, the pool doesn’t announce registration. Matt used that as his excuse. Rather than run over there to bail him out, I let him take care of the registration process. Well, by the time he called, Rose was shut out of weekend sessions, but hallelujah, weekday registration would start next week. He promised to sign her up.

Well, I thought, This will make him remember to register on time next time. Matt hates to miss work, and now he’d be leaving early twice a week to get to swim class. He’ll learn his lesson.

But what I didn’t realize was how this exercise in restraint would affect me. Matt had been driving to work on Mondays, which got him home earlier than usual. So that’s when he’d watch the kids so I could go to the gym. They have childcare for Rose but Christian’s too young, so I can’t go without a sitter. And I love the gym. I get to read grownup books and work out, and that kind of multitasking always makes me happy. Plus the workouts give me energy – something I haven’t had in nine months.

Well, now Matt and Rose have swimming Mondays, which meant I could not go to the gym. Further, they swim Wednesdays too, so Matt has to drive in twice a week. There was no way I could ask Matt to drive another day. Parking is outrageously expensive and he wouldn’t want to waste the money. I couldn’t go to the gym on weekends, either, because that’s when Matt takes Rose to the gym so I can write the blog.

So now, Matt may or may not have learned his lesson with swimming registration – we’ll see when this session ends. But I’m screwed because in “teaching” him, I lost my gym days.

Come to think of it, letting my family suffer the consequences of their own actions seems to chomp my butt all the time. I do the same thing with Matt’s chores. Matt has two jobs around the house: Dishes and garbage. As a matter of principle, I do not wash dishes or take out garbage. But I’m the one who works at home, so who sees the pile of garbage on top of the trash can? And who sees the counters cluttered with dirty dishes? And who gets more and more resentful each time she enters the kitchen? You guessed it, me.

And if I nag about it, Matt gets defensive and angry. Again, who suffers from that? Say it with me, “Me.”

I try to let Rose learn her own lessons too. She’s three, though, so it doesn’t always work out that way. If she resists wearing her jacket and I insist, it’s a battle of wills that leaves me stressed and angry. If I let her freeze her butt off, I have to listen to, “Mooooommmy…I’m cold.” All day. And then, if it lowers her resistance and she catches cold, I have to take care of her. So because she’s three I make allowances. I’ll carry the jacket and leave it in the car so that the minute she whines, I can say “I told you so” and she’ll put her jacket on.

I learned to allow people to learn on their own in a 12-Step program. But I didn’t need to put it into practice until I got married, long after I’d quit 12-Stepping. So I never learned what to do when it backfires. Strangely, no one in those meetings ever talked about that.

But what’s the alternative? Do I run around picking up Matt’s slack and stage power struggles with Rose every time we leave the house? Let’s say I did. Let’s say I rushed to the swim center and begged the clerk to let Rose into the weekend class. If I got her in, I’d be happy to preserve my gym day but resentful that I had to do it at all, and I’d enable Matt to slack off on registration next time. After all, if he can count on me to do it, why would he ever do it himself? If I forced Rose into her jacket on cold days, I’d come out of it angry and frustrated, and then Mean Mommy would show her ugly face.

I guess it comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils. I can be angry and resentful when I pick up their slack or I can be angry and resentful when I don’t pick up their slack. The truth is, futile as it seems, I still harbor a shred of hope that my actions, or lack thereof, will teach them valuable lessons. And that hope tips the scales for me. Maybe it’s too late for Matt, but I’ve got two kids now, and painful as it may be, all of this practice letting my family learn for themselves will help when the kids get older and I really need to let go.