Today is Just a Day

Mothers’ Day has always been a day of conflict for me. When I was a little girl, and my elementary school teachers would help us make cards and gifts to bring home for that special day, I always presented them to my mother, heart bursting with pride, hoping she would see how much I loved her by how much glitter I glued on the construction paper. Of course, my mother was an artist, a world-renowned artist. “Thank you, that’s nice” was the best I could hope for, and one raised eyebrow at my stick-figure drawings told me my artwork was not so nice. I recall most of my time with my parents filled with my yearning for a mom and dad like my friends’ moms and dads; parents who enjoyed their children and who wanted to be parents. My parents always reminded us that #1 all three of us girls were meant to be boys to carry on the family name, and #2 my mother was especially careful to let us know that she never wanted children (we interfered with her blossoming art career) but she did it to make our dad happy. My childhood heartbreak gradually hardened in my teenage years, into a resolve to find or make a family that would love me as much as I loved them. I stopped paying attention to Mothers’ Days because the only mothers I ever met who I wanted to thank, already belonged to other people like my friends. Oh, how I coveted their moms. My best friend Kirsten’s mom even let me call her Mom while we lived in Shanghai. For years, that gave me the greatest comfort.

Finally, I grew up and had the baby I always dreamed of loving. The moment our eyes made contact, I felt hit with a bolt of lightning; THIS was what I was meant to do, to be the most loving mother to this baby girl. Every single bad memory of my family took a back seat to my new priority. As a first time mother, I had very little to help guide me. Not only were my parents completely disinterested in being grandparents, I was quite certain any grandmotherly advice was useless, coming from a woman who never wanted her own children. As my baby grew into toddlerhood and her independence grew, little conflicts arose. Tempted to lose my temper in the face of tantrums or naughty behaviour, I always stopped myself with one thought, “What would my parents do?” A very twisted version of What Would Jesus Do…whatever the answer, I made a deliberate choice to do the OPPOSITE. My parents would have spanked a toddler who drew on the walls, spanked a child who wanted to wear her underwear on the outside of her pants, spanked a child who talked back. My father always told us that children were cabbages until they were old enough to carry on an intelligent conversation. I chose to learn about the concept of Time Out, let my child choose her own clothing, and learned how to use my words. I am sure it was much more frustrating and time-consuming to do it the long way, versus the shortcut of beating. But I have very clear memories of the leather belt with moons and stars cut into it, that would beat my bare legs and bottom until those moons and stars were imprinted on my flesh. I will never forget the fear and dread when my father would tell me exactly how many smacks with the belt I would get; most of the time in the double digits. I would know it was coming because if I talked back or lied or did anything wrong in my mother’s eyes, she would screw her face up in rage, point her finger at me, and scream, “Just WAIT until your father gets home!” And when I was a teenager, and the only thing I did was roll my eyeballs, as teenagers do, she didn’t even wait for my father. Her teacup full of hot green tea would come flying at my head. Maybe that’s why I became a goalie in soccer in high school; I learned to not flinch in the face of flying objects, to take the impact on my body, and to keep going.

As the years passed, the negative connotations I associated with Mothers’ Day slowly faded. Gradually, Mothers’ Day ceased being about my mother, a reluctant mother. I started to see that it was a day about any human being, man or woman, who CHOSE to care for another. My own children brought me homemade cards of construction paper, glue, and glitter, on the breakfast tray in bed. I have saved every one of them. My oldest, Emily, ever since she could write, has written silly poems and hilarious rap songs. I cherish every one of them. Even when I went into labor with my youngest, Simon, little Emily made colourful little posters to tape on the hospital room wall to cheer me on, “Laber is Fun!” I still have that little poster, misspelling and all. “Laber” isn’t all that fun, after all, but this family sure is. Last year, my husband cared for me and the children while I battled breast cancer; he became the best example of a mother I have ever known. I look around my life, and there is no more room for bad feelings on Mothers’ Day.

This morning, for the first time, I woke without my husband and my oldest child on Mothers’ Day. Markus is out in Seattle, working hard to make a new home for our family to move to next month. Emily is in Phoenix with her best friend to celebrate her graduation from university. Feeling slightly sorry for myself, I opened my eyes to find my two younger children, Hanna and Simon, holding a tray of breakfast and a coffee in a Love Cup. “Happy Mothers’ Day, Mama, we love you!” A feast of eggs and kale and onions, and their happy faces beaming at me while I ohh’d and ahh’d. Simon told me, “My gift to you is that I am going to scoop poop in the yard and mow the lawn!” And they both promised to help me clean the house for company tonight. That’s a minor miracle right there. I opened my email, and there was a letter to me, from my Emily. Not her usual funny rap or poem, this is what she wrote:

“Hi Mama Bear!

This isn’t my usual rap, because I felt that I had a lot to say that wouldn’t be very easy to rhyme. It’s Mother’s Day! You’ve gone through three “labers,” none of which could have been all that fun. You’ve raised one semi-adult who has so far managed not to perish out in the real world, one sassy teenager who loves to shock us all with her rebellion and independence, but who will one day undoubtedly shock us with incredible success, and also one hilariously weird boy who has the exterior of a hardened thug, but who’s insides are filled with love and an amazing sense of kindness. On top of all of this, you work hard to maintain the most beautiful marriage that I have ever seen.

When I was first processing that you had been diagnosed with breast cancer last year, they were some of the scariest feelings I’ve ever felt. First off, what kind of universe did we live in if someone as caring, sweet, and undeserving as you could possibly be dealt an early entry into Heaven? I realized we had all taken you and everything you did for us for granted; something I still sometimes catch myself guilty of. You are the only constant I’ve had in my entire life and I’ve literally known you for forever. How am I supposed to ever be expected to navigate through this stupid world without you to call and complain to? Without you to cry and scream and vent to, without hearing your 100% honest advice on something as small as what to buy at the grocery store, all the way to making life-changing decisions that I’m too weak to deal with on my own? That’s why when you were diagnosed, I never really considered it an option that you could ever disappear from my world. Nothing was strong enough to take you away from me, because you are mine and I couldn’t let that happen.

This was a very idiotic and naive approach to your newly discovered cancer. Because I wiped away this possibility, I did not embrace the seriousness of your illness, nor how important it would be for me to move back home. Even when I finally did, I look back and see how little I contributed to the family, how much more I could have done to lessen the burden of your surgery and healing. I know I can’t make that time up to you, but I am sorry for being a noob.

I have so many amazing memories of times we have shared. Obviously we have had some really bad times, horrible screaming fights and sometimes deafening bouts of silence. You’ve said before that you have blocked out most of your negative memories from your childhood, because they were too painful to keep around. But I think that the reason I remember less of the bad and all of the good is not because the bad is so bad, but because the good is so great. You and Papa have given us such an amazing life, full of the most love and laughter out of family I could ever imagine. I love when we’re all out for dinner, and half the conversation is purely brought-up memories that make my mouth burst out with laughter, and my heart burst with all the love we all share.

You are the coolest, funniest, most welcoming and biggest hearted mom (and person) I have ever known or even heard about. Even without ever meeting you, my friends give you rave reviews. I’m so sorry it took me so long to realize that I chose the best possible person to not only raise me, but to be my very best friend. I love you the most and I hope you always know that.

Happy Mother’s day Mama!!

Love,
Emmy”

Mothers’ Day is not a happy day for many people. But I believe you do not have to settle for what Life dishes out to you. If you can survive to adulthood, you can make the changes you need to find happiness. Leave the bad behind, or if you choose to keep it in your heart, use it to make your life better. There are some shitty moms out there getting some pretty damn good love from children that deserve more. Stay strong, kiddos. There is love out there, and it doesn’t have to come from your bio mom. If you can’t find it, you make it yourself. The more love you make, the more love just bubbles up and overflows.

This is it. I am here. I made it. I am the mother I always wanted, with the children I always wanted, in the family I always wanted. Dreams do come true. Happy Mothers’ Day to those who can, and I wish a Future Happy Mothers’ Day to those who will make it so down the line.

A Grown Up Moment

Most of the time, I feel the same Sue in my head; the teen that refuses to grow up all the way, who wants to argue with everyone in the world about the craziness that surrounds her. I hate it when my kids force me to be a grown-up and boss them around about their homework or their chores. I really hate it when my furry man reminds me oh-so-gently-and-carefully, of my grown up responsibilities (I have a small iTunes addiction, and eBay occasionally wants to party with our bank account). But there are moments that flash in front of my eyes that make me feel my age. Unfortunately, they aren’t always moments of wisdom or great meaning.

Tonight, for example, I was filing off the ends of my fingernails that I had been too lazy to trim for weeks, down to my preferred length of nothing ( I hate it when fingernails tap on the keyboard – I like the thump of the pads of my fingertips; very satisfying when I’m mad-typing). I had a sudden memory of being in 2nd grade or 3rd grade, in our apartment in Moscow, staring in fascination at the 4-inch nails of a friend of the family, Aunt Linda. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life. They were blood red, oh-so-shiny, and matched Aunt Linda’s lipstick perfectly; she put Joan Crawford to shame. I wanted my nails to be just like Aunt Linda’s nails so badly, my teeth hurt. My mom was very much against make-up of all kinds, and wouldn’t even let us play dress-up with make-up. Of course, I took every opportunity to paint my nails with magic markers at school, only to come home and have my mom scrub my hands raw with a Brillo pad and her trusty can of Comet (“Comet, it makes your teeth turn green. Comet, it tastes like gasoline. Comet, it makes you vomit. So buy some Comet, and vomit, today!”). But that didn’t stop the yearning. For decades, my nail ideal was always the image of Aunt Linda’s glamorous scarlet nails.

Standing in my bathroom, at 9pm tonight, after an exhausting day of detangling hundreds of ornaments and a dozen strings of lights from my dry-as-tinder beyond-dead Christmas tree (that viciously stabbed my hands full of teeny-tiny pine-needle holes), I had to chuckle out loud at the thought of Aunt Linda’s fingernails trying to live my life. Raising 3 kids —who am I kidding, let’s lump the dogs and the husband and round it up to 6 kids— who really has the luxury of 4-inch nails? And now that I have access to the best salons and am able to treat myself to any colour manicure on the planet, do you know what colours I find myself getting? Clear. The aestheticians sigh and shake their heads when I walk in…here comes the boring lady, just thankful to have her cuticles trimmed and a chance at adult conversation…

So there is my daily reminder that I am getting older. This was a little one. I am still severely disturbed by the biggie I had earlier, when I couldn’t read some small print and realized I might be heading to Reading Glasses Land. I’ll write about that one on another day; my newly filed fingers will thump quite satisfactorily on the keyboard for that story, because just thinking about it blows my mind. I might just slip into a post-mid-life crisis moment and have to run to the salon to get myself some 4-inch red lacquered nails…

Tiger for Dinner and Snakes at the Supper Table

When I was in Grade 4, my father was posted to the American Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.  Coming from Moscow and winters so cold our spitballs would freeze into deadly bullets, it was quite a shock to find ourselves in the tropics.  Gone were the roly poly Babushkas selling the freshest baked bread.  They were replaced by riots between races, blazing hot sun, and durian (fruit that smells like the Dead).  In Moscow, we lived in an apartment, and the closest we came to wild animals were the little tadpoles that my big sister brought home from a pond she explored on a school fieldtrip to the country.  The tadpoles grew up and the tiny baby frogs hopped out of the fish tank and disappeared, only to be discovered weeks later behind the couches; desiccated little mummies of despair.  In Malaysia, there was more animal life than we were prepared to handle.

The embassy gave us a lovely large home to live in, with a housekeeper (amah, who we always called Ayii) and a gardener.  Marble floors downstairs, wooden parquet upstairs.  The entire living room downstairs could open up onto our marble patio with sliding doors the length of the room.  Not that we ever did that. You see, there were snakes.  Not just any snakes; poisonous snakes.  Snakes that you see in horror movies — 6 foot cobras just taking strolls through our garden.  Our gardener was a very large Indian man named Gabon.  He was a giant, but he was gentle; so gentle that his religion forbade the killing of any living beings.  So these cobras would be throwing a party in the back yard, and my mom would call out, “Gabon!  Please kill the cobra over there! “And he would smile at her, nod his head, then pick up the cobra by the tail and fling it over the garden hedge.  For all I know, it could have been the same damn cobra coming back into our yard day after day, with Gabon throwing it over the hedge over and over again.

When Gabon was off, my mom would take matters into her own hands.  She’d be talking on the phone with my dad in the middle of the day, gazing out on the patio, see a snake slithering in the grass, say, “excuse me, Dave, I’ll be right back,” put down the phone, go upstairs and get my father’s gun that was hanging on the bedpost (we’ll talk about my dad later), come back downstairs, pick up the phone and say, “what were you saying?” while she took aim and shot at the snake.  It got to where I didn’t even look up from my book at the sound of gunfire.  Just another day at the Hess Residence. 

The snakes seemed to live on the philosophy that what was theirs was theirs, and what was ours was theirs too.  We would be eating dinner, hear a soft “plop” sound of something falling out of the honking big plants my mom insisted on displaying all over our house, someone would yell, “SNAKE” and we’d all jump on top of our huge round dining table, screaming for Ayii to come kill the snake with a broom. 

And it didn’t end with our house.  We lived about 30 minutes from our school, the International School of Kuala Lumpur.  It was 30 minutes if you walked on the road with the other civilized people.  Someone in my family came up with the Brilliant Plan to send my sisters and me through a local rubber tree plantation as a shortcut.  Yes, the walk would take only 15 minutes.  But those would be 15 minutes of weaving around smelly rubber trees with sticky sap oozing into grimy harvesting cups, slapping ourselves silly through swarms of malaria-ridden mosquitoes, and shuffling through underbrush SEETHING with poisonous snakes.  Forget about the modern worries of pedophiles and serial killers that could be lurking in jungles, lying in wait for 3 tasty little girls walking to school…that never crossed anyone’s mind in 1978. 

My sisters and I did our best to protest this dangerous idea: why couldn’t we ever be like other normal kids and have our parents drive us to school???  My father’s response was, “You are not normal, nor will you ever be.”  This sentence went on to forge the 3 of us girls into the absolute raving lunatics we are today.  My mom’s response was, “LOOK!  I found these perfect little snakebite kits.  They have a razorblade and a little rubber suction cup, and directions showing you how to slice open your snake bite and suck out the venom.  Also, here are 3 large wooden walking sticks.  Beat the bushes – that will scare away the snakes.”  Well, there you go.  Problem solved.

15 minutes of terror and dozens of mosquito bites every morning, followed by 15 minutes of terror and more mosquito bites in the afternoons.  The moments when we would burst out of the jungle onto our school soccer field felt like we had reached the Promised Land.  Going home, the jungle would spit us out onto a paved road, and we would silently say a prayer of thanks for one more journey survived.  We knew that the rest of the walk to the house would be safe.

Well, relatively safe.  There was a large Monitor lizard that lived in the coconut trees in the grassy area between our house and the main road.  When the herds of sacred cows were grazing there, he kept to the treetops.  Actually, when the sacred cows were there, we all had to steer clear.  We were forbidden to shoo them away.  We were forbidden to even talk to them disrespectfully – after all, any one of them could have been somebody’s grandma or grandpa, according to the Hindus.  They just wandered all around the city, pooping and eating wherever they pleased.  ANYWAY, the monitor lizard must have been resentful of his house arrest and one day came running towards my big sister like he wanted to eat her for dinner.  This thing was at least 5 feet long, big and green, and his mouth was open as he aimed for her.  Of course we all screamed (and when Hess Girls scream, we make a sonic boom), so he veered off course right before he hit her, and ran up another coconut tree.  The 3 of us shakily wobbled our way home, grateful for the opportunity to live to see another day.

The wildlife was out to get us, the heat and humidity were out to get us, and at times it seemed our own mother was out to get us.  She had some weird ideas.  First of all, the 3 of us girls came to that country with waist-length beautiful hair.  The first thing my mother does is sit us down, put bowls on our heads, and cut off all of it.  I kid you not.  And these were not just haircuts, they were butchering.  She kept muttering, “Oh, that’s crooked.”  Snip snip.  20 minutes later my hair was above my ears, and it was STILL crooked.  A truly awesome look for the first day of school as the fat new kid.  One night, she sat us all down at the dining table and said she had a surprise for dinner.  She told us we had to close our eyes and take a bite.  We were all wary of this.  My parents used to tell us to do that every time they wanted us to try things like sheep’s’ brains and pig intestines, “just try it first and THEN we will tell you what it is!” – With evil grins on their faces.  Anyway, we were gullible (still are) and took big bites and chewed.  And chewed.  Funky meat, tasting slightly ammonia-like…”what is this, Mom?” (even my dad didn’t know).  Her bright grin and the word, “TIGER!” shocked the hell out of us.  Apparently our amah’s family had hunted a tiger (yeah yeah, I know – illegal, horrible, etc) and had presented my mom with some of the meat.  It was a great honor.  However, as my big sister and my dad pointed out, it was also full of feline parasites so we should all “SPIT IT OUT SPIT IT OUT!”  That was another moment when I wondered, “Why can’t I just have a normal family?”

One night our house was robbed while we were sleeping.  The robbers left knives next to my little sister’s bed.  The very next day, while my dad rigged the house with an advanced alarm system, my mom went to the local SPCA and came home with 7 dogs.  SEVEN, yes SEVEN dogs.  Aw, cute, you say?  Guess whose job it was to be the family pooper scooper?  Sue Lin Freaking Hess.  And when I pointed out that I was in danger from snakes in the garden while I was doing my vile job, guess what my mommy did for me?  She came home with 5 full-grown geese.  Not just any geese.  Attack geese.  But did they attack snakes?  No, they attacked fat little girls with crooked haircuts.       

Malaysia was not all terror-filled and deadly.  Well, other than that time when there was a riot and people were chopping each other’s heads off with machetes and we were forbidden to leave our house for days…ummm, where was I?  Oh yes.  There were rambutans – a heavenly sweet juicy fruit that resembled furry lychee.  And there were gentle orangutans.  And ditches next to the roads that were filled with gloriously colored guppies – the kind of guppies that you would pay hundreds of dollars for from fancy breeders in pet stores in North America. We just scooped them up in our hands and ran all the way home to plop them into our fish tanks.  And there was Christmas in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore (the cleanest place on earth), and once a week there was Little House on the Prairie on our tiny little black and white television in our kitchen; commercial-free except for the 5 o’clock Muslim prayer that we would happily sing along to, having no clue as to the meaning of the words. 

For one hour a week, I could pretend I was Laura Ingalls Wilder, living far far away from the poisonous snakes and the dreadful heat, living in the kind of wilderness where the only wild animals were bears and wolves and coyotes and HEEEYYYYYYY, I guess you can call me Laura, y’all.

Rising Bread and Raising Memories

The aroma of freshly baked bread, crumbly crust breaking to reveal soft angel-puffs inside, turns me into a 5-year old in the blink of an eye.  My father was always a strict man, believing that children were essentially cabbages until they became old enough to hold an intelligent conversation.  Needless to say, my sisters and I don’t have a lot of the cozy memories others might have of childhood.  

When I was in Kindergarten, my father took a year of leave-without-pay from the Foreign Service, to earn his Masters Degree from Harvard.  All of a sudden, our young family of five had to rely on my mother’s painting lessons and small art gallery for our survival.  We lived in a big old wooden house with a haunted barn, in a neighborhood full of children, in a tiny town called Groveland.  My father took to baking from scratch.  It served two purposes: we saved money by only having to buy the flour, yeast, and sugar, instead of store-bought breads, and my father had an outlet for his frustrations when his studies were difficult.  As a middle child craving the attention of a distant father, these baking sessions were a chance for me to sneak into the kitchen to be close to the Dad I secretly adored.  Believing that he was instructing me in math, economics, and science, my father was happy to teach me his recipe inventions (dreamy breakfast breads with fresh apricots, heavenly cinnamon/brown sugar rolls, even light and fluffy bread made from potatoes).  He never noticed that my happiest times were when he broke off large lumps of whatever dough he was working on, and passed it to me, instructing me to invent a bread of my own.  I always ended up making a silly-faced head out of my ball of dough – googly-eyed with pokies sticking out of the top of its head, and he would bake it alongside his perfect loaves, giving it the same respect he gave to the food he made for our family.  My father only intended to be practical with his baking, but the lovely smells, the happy clatter, and the conversations that ended up coming out of that kitchen, stay in my heart to this day. 

Now that my sisters and I are adults with children of our own, and my mother has passed away, my father recalls those days of poverty with a note of regret in his voice, sometimes apologizing for putting the family through so much hardship.  But I remember that Christmas as the best Christmas I ever had.  We didn’t have a tree, just a very tall (taller than me!) bottle from Mexico that my mother managed to decorate so beautifully that we could not imagine a lovelier Christmas tree. My mother sewed enormous stockings for us to hang on the banisters of the stairs.  Only my parents knew, with dread, that there would be nothing for the three little girls under our “tree” in the morning.  The next morning the first things we saw were our stockings, filled with oranges and apples and nuts and candy canes.  As we were emptying them onto the floor, the doorbell rang.  We all ran to the door, and there was a cardboard box.  The kind of box a refrigerator is packed in.  We pulled it inside and found it filled to the top with toys.  All of our neighbors, whose children always played at our house and were fed by my father’s sweet baked goodies, knew that we weren’t going to have the same kind of Christmas they were going to have.  They all came together and shared with us these gifts from their homes.  My sisters and I didn’t understand why our parents silently hid their grateful tears in their coffee cups.  We were busy whooping and hollering with joy, opening boxes of baby dolls and cars, a slinky, a ball;  nothing labeled, just gifts from the heart that we would share together.  If I close my eyes, I am there again, the spicy smell of warm cinnamon bread, chewy and sweet, smothered in butter; the nutty smell of my parents’ coffee.  When I open my eyes, I see my Mom, eyes gazing at my father over her cup of coffee, lips murmuring, “I love you, Merry Christmas.” And my stern father, blinking quickly and hiding his gruffness in his moustache and beard, “try this funny little bread-head that your daughter made – not bad, not bad at all.” And I turn away with a huge smile, hiding my pride by burying my face in my new baby doll, the happiest 5-year old girl in the world.

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