My brilliant niece Carly wrote an essay in high school about how their family’s animal hierarchy suffered a seismic upheaval every time a new feline entered the household. When a new human being joins an existing family unit, the reverberations can be – and usually are – far more extreme.
In the case of S and CD, not so much, unless both of them have successfully hidden their trauma for years. In my mind, the seven-year gap in their ages was as responsible for the smooth transition as their respective temperaments. CD was more engaged with his peer group, less dependent on his parents, therefore less inclined to resent her intrusion.
However, just because sibling rivalry didn’t rear its ugly head doesn’t mean our home avoided an earthquake. I’d repressed all memory of 3 AM feedings and dirty diapers but total recall returned with a vengeance. We all rose and slept to the rhythm of a baby. Sometimes the sheer exhaustion was overwhelming.
What I wouldn’t give to live through those golden days again…
There’s a bittersweet quality to seeing my oldest son do what I once did – albeit, in an entirely new way. Naturally, I’m proud of him (see my October 14, 2006 blog for details of his torturous – for his parents, anyway – journey from sophomore high school drop out to valedictorian in his film school major at UCLA. It was for real – we heard him give the speech. He thanked his father, who majored in poli sci at USC, instead of me, a fellow UCLA film school alumni. Go figure.) As happy and proud as I am, part of me longs to stand where he now stands. It’s less about envy than nostalgia.
These feelings became acute the night John and I attended the screening of his Project 1 equivalent film. Melnitz Hall looks the same, at least from the outside – and the Jakes Bridges theater where I screened my Project 1 film is oh so familiar – but look closer and everything has changed. I don’t recognize a single name on the faculty roster. Different people occupy all of my old professor’s offices.
During another student’s gory film, I took a breather and went into the lobby. Sitting there, by myself, sent me reeling through decades long gone. Memories of hours spent between classes in that very spot – albeit on funkier couches – flooded me. I half expected a classmate from my past to stroll up and say hello but that didn’t happen. As an old Madonna song might put it, Melnitz Hall used to be my playground. Now, although it holds a place in my life and my heart, it’s not my world and it won’t be again.
On the bright side, writing – my area of specialization – remains essentially the same, at least in terms of skill set, despite technological advances such as computers instead of an IBM Selectric, printers instead of carbon paper, script delivery by email attachment instead of by messenger. (What happened to the messenger industry? Are they out of business?) I got on board with word processing early and it hasn’t been hard to stay on top of the curve.
I was faced with another transition shortly after CD graduated, when I was offered an opportunity to teach screen writing at Columbia College Hollywood. I’ve always identified as a student – in part because I enjoy and take frequent writing workshops to stay current – and now I’m on the other side of the desk. So far, I enjoy it. Spending hours mentoring millennials is as close as I’ll get to re-experiencing my heady undergraduate days (albeit vicariously, from a different POV). There’s a palpable rush of creative energy that comes when I cross the threshold of a campus like UCLA or Columbia. It’s not a time machine or the Fountain of Youth, but it’s close enough.
“Grief doesn’t have a plot. It isn’t smooth. There is no beginning, and middle and end.”
A year ago today, we lost Crescentia Yolanda Hernandez – known as Yolanda, Yoli or Nana, never her given name Crescentia which she hated. Technically, her death wasn’t unexpected – she suffered from a rare, unusually virulent cancer. Statistically, her odds were poor but Yolanda – who came to the US from El Salvador in her early twenties and earned her citizenship – was a fighter. She wanted to live so desperately she endured chemo, radiation, experimental treatments, anything for a little more time.
There were so many things she wanted to do. She voraciously collected, clipped or copied recipes to cook someday, unaware she was already almost out of time. She longed to visit her family in El Salvador but postponed it until she completed her current course of chemo, when she was in better health. She didn’t know – none of us did – it was already too late.
Not a day goes by that my family – who embraced Yolanda as a vital part of that family early in the 32 years she lived with us – doesn’t want to share something with her. She wouldn’t be happy the Clippers traded Chris Paul and Blake Griffin but she’d definitely want to know. I’d like to say things I should’ve said more often and sooner. How she changed our lives for the better, how much we love her and how we’ll always miss her. There’s an empty space in our lives where Yolanda lived. Her bedroom is always, only, Yolanda’s room to us. As long as we live here, it will be Yolanda’s room.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not get over the loss… you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, (emphasis mine)
We offer this video as a constant reminder of the love and joy Yolanda brought to our lives.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago although – mercifully –it’s been eons since I swabbed another human’s barf. (Dogs and cats on the other hand – yesterday or the day before. One of our seniors has a delicate stomach.)
We still celebrate our children’s birthdays, but rarely on the actual day. They usually make plans with their friends. I don’t begrudge them, after college I did the same thing – partied with my peers instead of my parents. As wonderful as my parents were, party animals they weren’t.
Celebrating on the correct day – and emphasizing the birthday person’s precise age – seems less important every year, at least to me. Besides, if we want the extended family to celebrate together – aunts, uncles and cousins – the logistics become more manageable if we select an adjacent weekend instead of a Tuesday or Wednesday night.
As challenging as this particular birthday was – and it was far from the only time the birthday child hurled over a birthday cake – my memories are warm, now that the vomit isn’t.
In the early years of our marriage, John and I alternated holidays between my family and his – Thanksgiving in Fresno, Christmas in San Diego, reversed in the following year. Gradually we spent more holidays with my family because my parents and sisters all moved within five miles of my home.
I don’t recall when both of our mothers stopped volunteering to host Thanksgiving but they powered through longer than I could’ve. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve hosted Thanksgiving at our house, largely because when the question arises – “where are we doing Thanksgiving this year?” – I’m hiding in the bathroom.
Fortunately, my failings as a cook and hostess are compensated by my sister Janet and her husband Jim McCann, who do Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas ninety percent of the time. They are an indefatigable team, toiling from dawn till dusk to present the perfect meal without complaint (not entirely without complaint – but within civilized limits.) My contribution? Diet Coke and sparkling water.
Their house is well-suited to entertaining, with its vast rolling dog-friendly lawn. Singles and stragglers are always welcome. A good time is had by all.
Although I have a thousand photos of Thanksgiving at Jani’s, this blog is ostensibly about Thanksgiving in 1993, the first and last time I hosted the Rowell clan at our house. I’m posting those photos today to prove it.
I remember this dinner, which might be impressive if it was more than 4 years ago. It was one of the last relatively healthy celebrations of my mother’s birthday. There was no way to know it was one of the last although the fact it was an 88th birthday might’ve raised a red flag for some.
Not me. The prospect of my parents not being here was too unbearable to consider. Would occasions like this be sweeter or more painful if we knew it was the last time?
In 2013, my mind was on more mundane matters than mortality. I noticed how differently my children act in restaurants compared to my sisters and I. My parents never suggested we couldn’t afford to eat out, but all three of us intuitively ordered the cheapest entree on the menu and requested water instead of an expensive soda. How did we all receive the same explicit message without words?
My children didn’t receive it. Two out of three never so much as glance at prices. Apparently, they feel worthy enough to order what they want to eat or drink. No crisis has ensued. On the contrary, my father smiled and picked up the tab for the whole group (usually numbering 16 to 20 depending on how many significant others accompany their grandchildren.) He probably would’ve been equally accepting if my sisters and I ordered appetizers, drinks and other extras, but even today I’d call myself a cautous diner. Other people might call it cheap.
It would’ve been fun to rehash these silly observations and memories with my parents, now that it’s long ago and far away and we’re all adults. I wish.
I was the same age as my mother when she gave birth to me when I gave birth to CD (a month after this shower, 16 months after J and I impulsively got married, in case anyone’s counting). Since I was an infant, I cannot testify to my mother’s state of mind or level of maturity but I strongly suspect she was more responsible and together than me at the same age. Living through the Great Depression– as opposed to the Summer of Love– would tend to mature people quickly.
John and I always planned to have children, just not in 1976. He was in his second year of law school and before learning I was pregnant I quit my job at USC, leaving us no health insurance. I doubt many people pay cash to give birth in hospitals today but it was possible then. These financial issues paled next to John and my psychological readiness to be parents.
Our parents made it look easy; we thought we had it wired – even though we lived in a world without children (unless you count USC students as children). My friends from college were appalled when I told them I was having a baby – “Are you crazy? You’ll ruin your life.”
It did cost me the life I’d led until the birth of my son – because the world and my place in it shifted – but my life wasn’t “ruined.” That said, I’d be lying if I claimed things got easier – for a while, everything – including our marriage – suffered from an overload of change and stress. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. No regrets.
My children aren’t rushing into things like I did. My youngest is older than I was after my third child. Statistically, you’d think my odds of grandchildren would be high, with three adult children, but my youngest sister Joyce will soon have two and I have none (Waaaa!). Not that I’d ever want to pressure my children or anything.
This was the first and only time I traveled to the set of one of the MOW’s I wrote (other than shows that shot in LA, in which case I might drive ten miles – to Occidental, for instance, where they shot “She Cried No”). I’m not complaining – it’s boring on set unless you’ve got a job (and maybe even then, just saying). I was excited about a trip to Minnesota, especially with Joe Maurer, Brad Wigor and Felice Gordon, three producers who became friends. The fact they issued the invitation to me at all speaks volumes about how well they treated their writers.
In Minnesota, I sat through a table reading of the script – an extremely high-tension exercise for me. It’s mortifying when a line I wrote – especially a line intended to be funny – dies in front of the full cast and crew. There’s no ambivalence; it’s not a judgment call. Lines work or not and the thud is deafening when they don’t. I say nothing, draw a skull beside the clunker in the script, and slink down further in my folding chair. If I don’t die of humiliation, I’m expected to fix what I failed to get right the first time – fast. This close to production, every wasteful delay bleeds money.
After the reading, I accompanied Joe, Brad and the director – Bill Corcoran – on a location scout. By sheer coincidence (or cosmic design, you decide), we drove past Bethesda Lutheran, the hospital where I was born. In honor of this karmic connection, Corcoran insisted I leap out of the van and pose for a historic photograph (see below).
I sat by Felice on the return trip to LA and – along with other fascinating facts – discovered Felice was Jean Shrimpton’s manager when Jean was the ultimate supermodel girls like me longed to look like.
As if this wasn’t enough excitement, my youngest hit double-digits and turned ten. Too much was happening, too fast. And I loved every minute of it.
In my diary blog two days ago, I congratulated myself for being a good mother and exposing CD to new things. It’s ironic that in today’s entry, I chastise myself as a bad (let’s revise that to less good) mother even though I did essentially the same thing for different reasons. In the ‘81 entry, I was all about cramming CD full of life experience and knowledge. In ’07, it was more about getting myself out of a life experience by foisting it on my daughter.
In my defense, treating an adult child to spectacular seats at a Genesis concert hardly qualifies as child abuse and apparently Sam had a good time. I might’ve enjoyed the show if I’d gone – why not give it a try?
Sometimes I hit social overload and fear I’ll die without alone time. In the above entry, my urgency leaps off the page – “couldn’t stand” “just unbearable.” Looking back, it was a weird over-reaction to a rock concert and dinner. Unfortunately – for Sam, not me – she’s even less extroverted than me but at least she’s a better sport.
In the spirit of true confession, my youngest recently recalled my most egregegious bad mother moment. Alex and I were outside when we spotted a demonic possum drinking out of our dog’s water dish. Beyond phobic and hysterical at the sight of anything with a rodent tail, I shrieked, vaulted inside and double-locked the door behind me – stranding Alex on the wrong side of my barricade, face to face with a hissing possum. Alex hurled himself at the door, pounded it with his fists. “Mom! Let me in! Let me in!” I was too distraught to do so until the possum departs.
Alex emerged unscathed, aside from the psychological damage of believing his mother valued her personal safety above his life. First, his life was not in mortal danger. Possums don’t kill suburban homeowners and their children (yet). Second – I’ve got nothing. (Other than sheer terror shot my adrenalin up to fight or flight levels which disabled my higher brain functions. Otherwise, I would’ve remembered possums can’t jimmy a lock.)
CD was four, going on five, at the time of this entry. I thought he’d be mesmerized by the dinosaur bones but his attention span splintered in a million different directions. In my efforts to be a perfect mother and raise a perfect child, I exposed CD to as many cultural experiences as I could find – and there’s a lot of them in LA. In addition to museums, I took him to profound films which we discussed on the drive home. I signed him up for sports and science classes at the local YMCA and sent him to Lutheran school to be grounded in religion.
Unlike me, J worked 40-60 hours per week, so he wasn’t available 24/7 for our cultural outings. In these cases, I recruited one of our friends – usually without children (because those with children couldn’t be suckered into this stuff) to stand in.
This was my one and only visit to the La Brea Tar Pits in my nearly 50 years in LA. I’m not a dinosaur afficianado – I think that tends to be a guy thing – but it was fascinating. Who would’ve guessed one of the world’s most famous fossil localities – displaying Ice Age fossils including saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and mammoths – can be found on Miracle Mile in Los Angeles? The Carnation restaurant (product placement, anyone?) used to be within walking distance but – like so many other LA institutions – it’s gone the way of the dinosaur, replaced by trendier restaurants and food trucks.
They’ve excavated significant new material since my visit 36 years ago. Maybe this time I’ll drag J along with me.