40: The tween years of adulthood, minus the braces.

Sometimes, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror while cleaning the toilets, I catch a glimpse of someone who looks slightly startled at her reflection.  There are more grey hairs than I thought, there are faint little crow’s feet that I can see if I lean in real close.  I look tired most of the time.  I can remember bouncing out of bed at 6:00 and going for runs by 6:30 when I was single and in my twenties.  Now, when I get up in the morning, it takes me at least an hour and 2 cups of coffee to limber up.  I’m asleep by 9:00 at the latest.  Ask my friends.

I will be turning 41 in just a couple of months although, I’m not quite as upset as I was about turning 40.   Truth be told, I think I had been having a hard time with 40 for the past few years.  I may or may not have had an early mid-life crisis now that I look back.  I headed toward 40 digging in my heels, kicking and screaming Father Time dragging me by the wrists.  I tired to evade it at every turn.  I didn’t want to be “old”, but wanted to stay “young”.   I remember my own mother turning 36 and thinking she was old.  I remember she married for the second time at 40.  I was there.  I was in college.

A hundred and fifty years ago, 40 was ancient.  You were absolutely a grandmother by the age of 40, if you weren’t already dead.  You were over the hill.  You were worn out and washed up.

These days, 40 is so much different.  Life isn’t over at 40 like it was back then, but we’re not exactly Spring Chickens either.   We’re told “40 is the new 20”.  Is it really people?  Is that why I’m at the gym 4 times a week doing a thousand crunches?  Because I have absolutely no recollection of doing that in my 20’s.   If “40 is the new 20”, then how come when I have more than two or three glasses of wine in one sitting I feel like I have Swine Flu all the next day?  Because trust me, in my 20’s I imbibed way more than that and still made it to classes on time.

My 20’s were all about getting through school and making as many bad decisions as I could, as often as I could.    Check.

My 30’s were all about marriage, babies,completely losing my sense of Self and making all of the best decisions of my life.    Check.

But 40?  What the hell am I supposed to be doing at 40?  I am too old to go to the clubs anymore.  The college students would say “who is that old lady out there?   Why does she only come on 80’s night?   Why does she keep requesting Gloria Estefan?.  I’m also not having anymore babies, so that’s out.  My two boys are old enough now that I’m becoming less of an urgent or constant need for them, which feels good and lonesome at the same time.  Mostly good.

I feel a bit lost I suppose.  At almost-41-years-old, I’m feeling a bit un-moored, like a lot of my 11 and 12 year old clients must feel.  They’re not kids anymore, but they’re also not teenagers.  They’re in this weird in-between place where girls start getting hormonal and cranky and withdrawn and boys get these ridiculous peach fuzz/mustache combos that are embarrassing, but a sign of budding Manhood, so they wear them for far too long; they’re too old to play kids games anymore, but not quite old enough to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Essentially, I guess I feel like 40 is not in fact the new 20, it’s the new 12.  No clubs, no babies, but not yet time for Menopause………so what?

So, I bought myself a camera.  I real, honest-to-goodness camera.  I drove all the way to Best Buy one day, when I was angry at the world (in particular my husband), and told myself I wasn’t leaving that damn store without my own camera.  I told myself that I deserved it.  I had attempted to purchase myself a real camera twice during my 30’s, but was so overcome with guilt and shame at such an extravagant indulgence, that I immediately returned them the next day.  Both times.

But not this time.

I kept the camera.

Each day, after work, and after dinner has been served and eaten, I find myself grabbing my new camera, hanging the strap around my neck and venturing out to my backyard to explore.  It has given me a chance to look at my surroundings in so many different ways.  Before, my backyard was just my backyard, strewn with discarded toys and the occasional chicken strutting around.  But now, I step out onto the cool grass with my bare feet and feel so eager and excited about what I might find.

I look at things more closely.  I walk around my backyard more deliberately now, taking time to really look at things I took for granted.  I’ll look at the same things from different angles.  I’ll alter the focus so that different things are in focus at different times.

For instance, had I ever noticed how lonely the clothespin bag looks, hanging outside all alone, without any clothes?.

Or what about my Barred Rock Ginger?  She’s actually kind of pretty, even if she poops in the very water she drinks.

I’ve learned that when it’s 5:30 am and I’m on my back deck, alone having my coffee, that I much prefer the foggy mornings.

 

There is probably some existential symbolism in there somewhere about how, at 40, you start to look at your life differently, from different angles.  Maybe even relationships and people too.  That your age and wisdom has given you a new lens through which to see everything around you, and therefore a greater appreciation for it.   Sometimes I think I’m just bored and need something to occupy myself.  Who knows.  Maybe it’s both.

 

My older son asked me recently, “Why are you so into pictures lately mom?” (a bit of irritation in his voice, as he himself stands at the cusp of his own grumpy tween years) to which I replied, (my arms spread out wide for effect), “Because it’s all I have for a hobby right now!  It’s all I have that is just mine for nothing but enjoyment!  So please, let me have my pictures!!  And get over here and stand right here for me please because the sun is going to set soon!!!”–He looks overjoyed to be my subject.

I imagine a lot of other moms might be able to relate.  We spend our 20’s “finding ourselves”, spend our 30’s “losing ourselves” to our children and then comes 40 and we wonder what we’re supposed to do next?  Or maybe not.  Maybe other women have figured it out earlier than I have.

A friend of mine, who is decades older than I, posted on my Facebook Timeline last year for my 40th birthday, “Now the fun begins”.

I’m going to hold on to that one.  It gives me hope.  I trust that I’ll know what he means at some point.  Maybe my camera is helping me get there.  All I know is that at the moment, I just can’t stop taking pictures, so I’m thinking I probably shouldn’t.

 

 

We’ve all got our blankets about something.

“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s the place in between that we fear….It’s like being between trapezes.  It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer.  There’s nothing to hold on to”.  –Marilyn Ferguson

 

Maya sat cross-legged across from me, on my proverbial “Therapist Couch”, and fiddled with the long, dark hairs on her leg.  “My cousin came over the other day and said, ‘Ew!  Why don’t you shave your legs?  That’s not very lady-like'”.

Shifting in my rocking chair, I stifled my contempt for her cousin and asked, “What did you say?”.

Maya shrugged her shoulders, “I just said, ‘Whatever.  I like it'”.  She ran the pads of her finger-tips up and down her shin.  She was 16 and looked more like a teenage boy than when I first met her.   I have watched Maya grow, incrementally, into the person she wants to be over the last year.  The changes she has made to her physical appearance, the questions she has asked, the decisions she has made.  I have had the honor of witnessing someone shed who they were told they were supposed to be, and slowly, (often painfully) begin to accept and become who they  have wanted to be.  Who they truly are.

But with each step forward in her accepting ourselves, there is always someone nearby who will not.

“But then”, Maya continued,”my cousin….she caught site of my boxers and said, ‘What the hell are you wearing boxers for?  You tryin’ to be a boy?'”.

I allowed myself the private, fleeting fantasy of me punching her cousin in the throat.    After my indulgence, I swiftly pushed the thought away and again shifted in my seat.  “It sounds like your cousin is a bit scared”.  Maya looked up at me, suspicious and confused.

“Of what?” she asked, “Me?”.

“Not you exactly.  But, maybe your courage to do what you want to do.   Your bravery to be who you want to be.  That’s scary to a lot of people because they’re too afraid to do it themselves”.

Maya and I had been meeting for just over a year.  She first came in with long, thick, hair down her back and a shy and quiet demeanor.  She had sought therapy because of her overwhelming anxiety.  Today, a year later, she wears her hair extremely short, often comes to my office on her skateboard or BMX bike, and fidgets on my couch.   She tells me about her classes and her family and her new skateboard tricks.  She also tells me about the how alone she feels.  And judged.  And scared.

Today, the more we talked, the more restless Maya became.  She would try to say something, but the words would stay lodged in her throat and she would give up and go quiet.  Or, she would contradict herself and then shake her head and say “never mind”.  She leaned forward on the couch and ran  shaky hands through her short hair, rocking back and forth a bit.  “I’m just.  I’m so confused.  I don’t know.  My mom says that I shouldn’t be worried about this stuff.  She makes comments about other people like me that I overhear.  Like my cousin”.

I didn’t know what to say.  I could have lectured her on how ignorant so many people are.  About how fearful they are and how it has nothing to do with her, but I didn’t.  I just sat there with her.  Sometimes it’s all you can do.

I noticed that Maya had stopped rocking and simply sat cross-legged on my ouch, her arms folded tightly across her chest and her head slightly bent down.  Her face had become red.  And her eyes were glistening.  I watched her avoid my gaze.  She seemed to be using all of her strength to hold something in.

“Figuring out who we are– growing into who we are truly supposed to be, can sometimes take a long time.  And sometimes it sucks to go through”.

On the heels of my comment, I watched her tears spill over the edges of her brown eyes.  Her shoulders lurched forward as she bent into herself and finally gave up trying to hold back the glacier that had been coming.  “But when will it stop?  When will I know?”.  And she cried.  And she covered her face with her hands and she cried, and my tiny room was filled with her exhausted voice.

“I think I know more about myself than I think I do”.

**********************************

A few months ago, my older son Silas and I were sitting in the truck outside of Bob’s Meat Market.  My husband and younger son had gone inside to get some things for grilling that night.   After a long week’s work, I’ll admit, I was surfing Facebook on my phone and zoning out when I heard my son from the backseat.

“Mom, is that a boy, or a girl?”.  I looked up from my phone, looked out the passenger-side window, and saw a person getting into their car just next to us, a paper bag full of things for grilling, just like we were.

“I don’t know honey.  I’m not sure”.  I looked back down at my phone.  Figuring out if someone was a man or woman is not high on my list of priorities.  I really don’t care as long as they are a decent human being.

Silas was silent for a few seconds, until he then explained to me, “I bet I know.  I bet that she was born a girl.  But then, I bet….I think maybe she was born a girl, but felt more like a boy on the inside.  I bet she felt more like a boy and so she wanted to start dressing more like a boy so that how she felt on the inside matched what she looked like”.

I again, looked up from my phone yet this time, much more engaged in what he was saying.  I smiled and touched the side of his face with my hand.   “I think you’re exactly right honey.  I’m so proud of you that you understand that”.  I had explained that reasoning to my boys on more than one occasion, but I honestly didn’t think they were really listening to me all that closely.  And then, just like that, just as if he and I had been talking about the weather, he asked the next question on his mind:

“What are asteroids made of?”.   We asked Siri, “What are asteroids made of?” and watched a YouTube video on it because really, what asteroids are made of is far more interesting.

 

linusLimnus

 

A short story for young girls about a boy named Jean-Guy (pronounced Jun-gee). He was french.

My favorite Karate Kid movie in the series was The Karate Kid Part II, where Daniel-san accompanies Mr. Miyagi to Okinawa to see his father who is “veddy sick.” While there, Daniel-san falls in love with the beautiful local girl named Kumiko who has long, gorgeous, flowing black hair (of course). After being taken hostage during her dance routine by the evil Chozen who was all, “You betrayed my honor,” Daniel-san has no choice but to fight him to the death. In true Karate Kid fashion, Daniel-san is able to dig deep and utilize a fancy move, winning him both the match and the girl.

But, my most favorite part of the Karate Kid II movie itself is when Kumiko invites Daniel-san to take part in the customary tea ceremony to signify that she had fallen in love with him. Unsure and nervous, Daniel-san loves and respects Kumiko so much he doesn’t want to mess up the special ceremony, turning the bowl nervously and looking to her for guidance. Finally, in the end, after she’s taken her cascading hair out of her bun and it falls all around her, he gently and lovingly kisses her from across the table, as romance is only romantic when the woman has long hair.

I would not have considered myself a romantic at the age of almost-ten, but boy oh boy, that scene sure did make me have butterflies, especially with Peter Cetera setting the tone in the background. I would go to bed and play “The Glory of Love” over and over, praying to God to send me someone like Daniel-san who would respect and honor me as much as he did Kumiko, and to declare his love for me.

But alas, God does indeed work in mysterious ways and chose, instead, to send over Jean-Guy.

It was the summer after the third grade and finally, my hair had grown out to an acceptable length; no one was calling me “Michael” or ditching me for candy bars anymore. I could put it up into a ponytail with the help of four or five barrettes (to reign in the shorter hairs), but it most certainly did not fall all around my shoulders when I took it out. Being summer time, my Swanton neighborhood was swarming with kids looking for fun. Mostly boys. So many boys. I had no choice but to constantly play sports all day long. It was the kind of neighborhood where kids would simply walk up and down the sidewalks or run across the street looking for each other. You knew who lived where, who had a decent backyard, whose parents were strict or not, and where everyone was (based on how many bicycles lay on the front lawn). I had a decent backyard that was surrounded by fence on all sides, and my parents were pretty laid back so we usually had a few bikes strewn around.

The boys who frequented my house the most were Travis, Tommy, Michael, Chris, and Eric. We would always start a game of soccer, baseball, hide-and-seek, tag, or dodgeball. I had everything we needed in the clubhouse that sat off of our garage, and we would play until dusk—until we could barely make out each other’s silhouettes running through the yard. In 1986, no one seemed worried about where their kids were, or getting West Nile Virus from mosquitoes, or getting poisoned by DEET in order to prevent West Nile Virus. Milling around my backyard trying to figure out teams, my little sister and her rat’s nest would sometimes come out and try to get in on the action. She would be giddy around all the boys, more interested in flirting with Michael or Chris than actually playing the game.

My mom and dad were always milling around the house on the weekends, raking or cleaning gutters, or vacuuming their cars. They weren’t really talking to each other today, but sometimes they did. Sometimes I would see them pass each other without so much as a glance, or I would come in from outside and feel their mutual silence meandering through the house—a stubborn silence. They would each talk to me or Erin, but not one another. Sometimes I’d hear them talking loudly and angrily inside, saying things like, “I’m just trying to make you happy!” or, “Nothing’s ever good enough!” and then they’d stop when I came in, and just not talk at all. I guess that was the best thing they could do when we were around. You can’t always pick and choose when to fight. So the tension was the same, just quieter, and I was glad to be busy outside.

Today, the game of choice was dodgeball, and Travis, Michael, and Eric were all here. They each made their way to my backyard from either next door or across the street, tossing their bikes to the grass as they jogged by my dad, hollering, ‘Hey Mr. Goodman’, or waving to my mom through the porch window. They didn’t see her slamming things around in there, or notice my father spend 45 minutes ferociously trying to fix the nozzle on the garden hose, but I did.

“Where’s Chris?” Michael asked, and Eric shrugged his shoulder.

“Not sure. I think he had to visit his aunt or something.”

Michael was the tallest of the three, with light hair, and he always had on an Adidas soccer shirt. Travis had a swath of thick, black hair, and was much shorter than Michael in addition to having one leg shorter than the other, which caused him to walk with a very slight limp. I thought it was kind of endearing. And Eric wore glasses and had auburn hair, but was still the most attractive of the three—maybe because he was the most polite and considerate to me. The three boys formed a small circle under our gigantic pine tree, assessing who was present and what should be our team formations. Sometimes, I felt less like one of the guys and more like the platform for which they could hang out. I was fine with either possibility.

I was on a team with Michael, so things were even—except when my sister would frolic over and sheepishly stare at the boys. Then we’d have to stop and tell her to get out of the way, although I noticed Eric would always lob the ball a lot less hard when she was around, which I thought was nice. After a good twenty minutes of us getting into our groove with the game, a kid from across the street came sauntering over. Jean-Guy. He wasn’t a regular at my house and didn’t really live in my neighborhood, but his grandmother did, and so we only ever really saw Jean-Guy when he was both visiting at his grandmother’s house and we were all home on the weekend.

A year or two older than me and most of my friends, Jean-Guy was around 12 or 13, which was a big difference in adolescence. He had an older brother, which made him privy to even more mature things, like cars and cigarettes and swear words. I saw him coming through the fence on the other side of my house (not the way everyone else came over), and I had a suspicious feeling that things would be a bit more interesting today. As his name suggests, he was a husky almost chubby kid, who seemed always to be clammy and perspiring, which was made worse considering we were in mid-July. He had a weird tooth in the front of his mouth that (only slightly) stuck out from all the others. He wore a gold chain around his neck that never moved because it seemed to always be stuck in his sweaty neck-crease.

“Hey,” he called to us from a few feet away. “Whatcha doin?”

Travis, the friendlier one of our bunch took the reins. “Dodge Ball. Wanna play?” He walked nearer to him, the ball resting on one of his hips. Jean-Guy was at least four or five inches taller than the other boys and eagerly took the ball from him.

“Yeah.”

Pointing to me and Travis, he declared, “You two can be on a team and I’ll be with Michael.” The dynamic had shifted quickly, with Jean-Guy calling the shots and the rest of us obeying. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Travis jogged over to me and we immediately took our dodgeball stances, ready for anything.

For some unknown reason, Jean-Guy thought he was The Man. He had a conceited strut about him that I can only deduce he got from having an older brother around. We never actually met his older brother, but he talked about him a lot, and from the sounds of it, I’m glad he didn’t come around because he sounded scary. He was old enough to drive and get into fights, and Jean-Guy told us all about those things with great pride, so I guess it was Conceit by Association.

Mid-way through our now lackluster game of dodgeball, Jean-Guy the Stud whispered something to Michael, who looked visibly put out and came jogging over to Travis and me, ball in hand.

“Jean-Guy wants to know if you wanna be girlfriend-boyfriend,” he spit out quickly, probably hoping this intermission would soon be over. He rested the ball on his hip again and looked at me sideways, waiting. Standing there impatiently waiting for an answer so that we might more quickly resume playing, I felt pressured to answer. Throwing the ball up and catching it back in my hands I pondered for several seconds. Jean-Guy stood fifty feet away, legs spread, hands on his knees, staring in my direction, and waiting. Why did I feel like everyone was annoyed with me? I wasn’t the one who stopped the game to court another player!

Folding under the pressure to hurry up and make everyone happy, I replied, “Sure,” but felt annoyed with myself. I wasn’t even remotely interested in Jean-Guy, barely knew him and certainly didn’t find him attractive. I guess I also figured that our relationship would be like any other elementary school relationship I had been in: The boy sends his buddy over to ask me to be his girlfriend, I tell them yes, he goes back and tells him my answer, and then we don’t ever speak to each other again. The End. I think I mostly said yes because everybody seemed irritated with me and also so we could continue playing our game without any trouble. How had I become responsible for that?

But Jean-Guy had something else up his sleeve. Immediately upon entering into our covenant, Jean-Guy decided that I could no longer play dodge ball, but now had to be protected from the ball. He beckoned me—no, he ordered me—over to his side and explained that he would block all the shots himself, and I wouldn’t have to do a thing. I stood against the back of my garage while Eric, Michael, and Travis all took their positions midway through the backyard, ready to fire. In an instant, my role had shifted. Jean-Guy proceeded to wrap his sticky arms around me and deflect any and all balls that were aimed our way by the other boys. Standing stiff and oppressed in him, they took turns chucking the balls. Erin had somehow made her way back out to our game and was retrieving the deflected balls and throwing them back to Michael or Travis or Eric so they could pelt us again. My hero would block them with his arm, and then quickly place it back around me so as not to leave me unattended for even a minute. Or, he would deflect them with his foot, sticking it out just in time so it wouldn’t hurt me. Sometimes it was a close call, which worried me.

Having never been this physically close to a boy in my life, I could smell his dirty pubescent mid-July aroma, feel his clammy arms around me, and hear his breathing as he worked hard to protect his Delicate Little Flower from getting hurt. But most of all, I could feel his vainglory at playing the role of protector. It seemed as though this is what he thought a good boyfriend did: put his girlfriend in the role of invalid and himself in the role of protector. A mere twenty minutes ago I was in the game, hurling balls right at his stray tooth, but upon accepting this role of “girlfriend,” I was not only placed into the role of damsel in distress, but I was expected to play my role perfectly. The worst part was I tried to play it to the best of my abilities. I shrank from the oncoming ball, feigning fear. I winced as his hand narrowly intercepted it, and I stood perfectly still in his sweaty, clammy, chubby arms, while he reveled in his machismo, which I’m pretty sure began to make the other boys hurl the balls our way even harder. So really, he was making things worse.

I began to worry that maybe he had asthma, because all of the physical strain he was putting himself under was really making him start to wheeze, and I was beginning to lose faith in his ability to hold up his end of the bargain. What had I gotten myself into? I wanted to play, not stand here and be treated like some kind of tulip. Besides, I’m pretty sure I could have taken Jean-Guy if I’d really needed to.

Eventually, after yet another very close call that would have probably bruised my face, I could take it no more and pried myself from his grasp. I was tired of this charade. I didn’t need to be protected, so I didn’t know why I pretended that I did. I was doing a lot of things today and didn’t know why. I got back into the game and felt better, but Jean-Guy seemed miffed.

He decided that it would be fun for me and him to go into the clubhouse that was attached to our garage. He said he wanted to try a different kind of game, “kind of like dodge ball, but not really.” He told the other boys to stand near the window while we went inside.

My club house used to be a horse stable way back when, which was so much cooler than what it was used for now—holding things like the croquet set, the Shop-Vac, my dad’s golf clubs, the push mower, and all of the sports stuff we used when we played outside. Additionally, I had hung a handful of posters of Ralph Macchio that I had ripped out of the last few issues of Teen Beat. Like every other girl my age, I was in love with Daniel-san. No adolescent, boy or girl, was free from getting caught up in the romance of Daniel-san and Kumiko. Boys were in their bedrooms practicing their karate moves behind closed doors, and as for myself, I bought hand-held Asian fans and practiced dancing behind them in front of my full-length mirror. With Peter Cetera’s voice emanating from my boom box speakers, I was convinced I could be the American version of Kumiko if I could just catch the fan gracefully when I threw it up in the air. Unfortunately, it rarely happened.

Taking my hand, Jean-Guy led me into the tiny room with just one window. The other three boys were dangerously close to taking off and playing somewhere else, and loitered near the window throwing a ball up and down, weighing their options. What are we doing in here?” I asked, annoyed and wanting to get back outside. I started to make a move toward the door, but Jean-Guy blocked my path and pleaded with me.

“Just wait a minute.”

“No, let me out,” I said. He was being weird and I didn’t like it. I was trapped in my own club-house, shuffling my feet and trying to understand just what the hell we were doing in here. He moved me a little past the window so the boys were out of our view. I was not even ten yet, and was confused as to why he wanted to stay hidden from the other boys. Then all at once, he leaned forward, grabbed both my shoulders in his hands, and put his mouth on mine, trying to shove his tongue down my throat. I could feel it trying to pry my lips apart and I immediately felt like I wanted to vomit.

In an act of pure intuition and self-defense, I cocked my right arm, pulled my head back and punch him in the left cheek, my fist smacking against his flabby and sweaty skin as he fell backward into the corner of the clubhouse against Ralph Macchio, who was staring back at me with his hands clasped in prayer. I was scared, but also very furious. Jean-Guy let out a grunt, wheezed a bit, and had to catch himself against the wall, knocking over the croquet set in the process. Colored balls clanked to the ground, ambling in all directions while the wooden mallets knocked against one another under his weight. I stood there for a few seconds, watching him try to clamor back to his feet, but then quickly pushed open the door of the clubhouse and stormed back outside to where the other boys had gathered. They seemed to have no idea what just took place. I heard Jean-Guy come out a few seconds later, but didn’t pay any attention to what he was saying, as I quickly rounded up the boys and asked if they wanted to play soccer instead. I didn’t want them to leave.  I wanted to quickly forget what had just taken place.  I wanted things to go back the way they had been before Jean-Guy came and ruined it all.

.           At almost-ten-years-old, I’d had my first “relationship” that had lasted a whole 45 minutes. My most confusing and angering 45-minute relationship to date. Just because I was a girl didn’t mean I had to do what boys told me to. Sometimes being “nice” for someone else’s sake, or trying to make them happy and agreeing to do things you didn’t really want to do was the fastest way to misery, and the slowest way to self-respect. I learned that, for the most part, boys are decent enough and are much more interested in knocking your face off with a ball than trying to kiss it, but that once in a while there’s a bad weed. Most of all, I learned that it’s good to give someone the benefit of the doubt and to try to be cordial, but that when they’ve crossed a line with you, there is no room to worry about hurting their feelings or being “mean.” That, sometimes, a right hook is really the only way to get your point across.

Another short-story in which I make a total fool of myself again.

You couldn’t just go about eating a Pop-Tart all willy-nilly, and I wished my little sister understood and appreciated this fact of life. From the corner of my eye, I watched Erin take random, careless bites and then set her Cinnamon Pop-Tart back down on her plate, all asymmetrical and crumbling, for who knows how long. Not only that, but the way she sat on the couch got under my skin as well: not actually on a cushion but on the gap between two cushions, her left sock pulled up tight and disappearing beneath her nightgown while her right sock fell scrunched up around her ankle. The whole haphazard situation forced me to look away and down at my own perfectly rectangular Pop-Tart that had finally cooled off enough for me to eat.

First, I nibbled away all four sides of the flakey, crusty part, holding the plate close to my chin in case any crumbs fell. Then, when all that was left was the smooth cinnamony part, I broke it in half, then took those two halves and broke them in half, and then took those four quarters and broke them in half as well, leaving me with eight perfectly square, bite-sized pieces that I could just pop in my mouth. It was like making your bed: there was a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it and I was just glad I was in the know. My sister (and her arbitrary socks) would have to figure it out for herself.

In the meantime, the two of us sat glued to our 27-inch box TV that sat on our living room floor, enjoying yet another viewing of The Goonies. Having watched the movie no less than 42 times, it had slowly become our morning ritual on the weekends: wake up, make our Pop-Tarts, park ourselves in front of the boob-tube and zone out until one of our parents told us “That’s enough TV! Get outside!” We would start the movie at 8:00 a.m. and loop it all day long if our parents allowed. It wasn’t unusual to come in from playing outside for a quick drink of water, and hear Data yelling “Fifty dawa bill! Fifty dawa bill!” at which point you had to watch for just a few more minutes before you went back out. Erin’s favorite part was Chunk’s “truffle shuffle,” and mine was when Chunk gave Sloth a candy bar and befriended him, even though he was terrified. Despite his lackluster physique and atrocious eating habits, Chunk just might have been the bravest one of the bunch.

            It was October, 1986 and I would be ten years old in just a matter of weeks. I was beyond excited to finally be in the double digits. My sister was only five-and-a-half—

practically still a baby, I thought. During the summer months, we would have long been outside playing, but during fall in Vermont 8:00 a.m. was much colder and more grey. As it was, the sun had barely risen by the time we awoke, what with the days getting shorter and more cloudy. My parents were both early-birds, already having been outside puttering around for a while now.

At five-and-a-half, Erin reminded me of a female Opie Taylor. Freckles and Friendliness. She greeted people who came to our front door with a wide smile and a, “Who’re you?” as she took hold of their hand, the absence of her two front teeth only making her all that much more adorable. Apparently, I was less hospitable, standing in the corner of the room glaring at them, suspicious. Everyone liked Erin better than me. Her strawberry-blonde hair was in a constant snarl—what my mother always referred to as her, “rat’s nest.” The back of it always stuck up in the air as if being perpetually pulled by static electricity, and bobbed up and down whenever she ran, no matter how hard my mother tried to tamp it down—much like Erin herself. Like most siblings, we couldn’t have been more different. She had red hair, I had brown; she was fun, I was serious; she was welcoming, where I was aloof; she was talkative while I was pensive and shy; she was more rational and down-to-earth while I was not so much.

For example, when our beloved cat Boots was hit by a car later that winter in the frigid month of January, my father found her one morning on his way to work. He placed our poor then-petrified Bootsy out back behind the garage and informed our mother, who was given the duty of breaking the news to us. So, as gently as she could, she sat us both down on the brown, plaid couch and told us, “Daddy found Bootsy outside this morning. She was hit by a car last night and died,” sympathy in her eyes. Before she could even finish what she was saying, I screamed angrily at her and ran upstairs a hysterical mess. Erin, on the other hand, remained as still as could be on the couch cushion looking dubious and perplexed.

“Was she frozen and stiff when you found her? Was she hard?”

I was all emotion and she was just about the facts. I would miss her sleeping around my neck at night, her purring lulling me to sleep. My sister seemed to have to fight the urge to poke her dead, frozen body with a stick. The only good thing to come of Bootsy’s death was that we finally both stopped sneezing.

On this particular autumn morning, while getting caught up in the heroic and courageous adventure of a bunch of kids trying to find One-Eyed-Willy’s treasure in order to save their neighborhood, I myself suddenly had the urge to try something brave. Something I’d wanted to try for a long time, but couldn’t, if my parents were around, because whenever I mentioned the idea to them, they always seemed to think it less an idea of bravery and more of stupidity. But they weren’t around.

My sister and I grew up in a moderately old house built sometime in the early 1930’s that sat on what had probably been the Main Drag years ago. Grand Avenue. An old black-and-white picture of the house in its original form hung by the front door and I would gaze at it and want to crawl into it and see what life would have been like back then. It had been surrounded by cornfields on all sides and was missing our garage. A beautiful roofed porch was attached to the front that was no longer there. I imagined all of the happenings that took place in our home back then, like women washing clothes by hand in a tub with a washboard, always donning aprons over their polka-dot dresses and listening to their favorite programs on their radios. Today, both sides of the street were lined with houses 50 feet apart. Everyone knew everyone, and obnoxiously loud Harley Davidsons could always be heard going by, drowning out the six o’clock news on TV, making my dad exclaim, “GodDAMN it, what did they say?” My mom never wore an apron.

In our dining-room, which was situated under my sister’s bedroom, there once sat a wood stove in the far corner. Its chimney pipe had snaked its way along the ceiling, up through my sister’s bedroom floor and through the roof from there. Because of this, my sister always had a big hole in her bedroom floor. Why my parents never covered the potential death trap, I don’t know. I imagined little girls warming their hands by the stove, or a mother stirring soup and asking Gretchen or Matilda to set the table in the older version of our house. In our version, you would often see Erin’s face poke through the hole asking, “Mom! What’s for dinner?” or my dad yelling up to her, “Get down here and pick up your wet bathing suit that I almost ran over with the lawn mower!” It also served as the perfect prop for snow scenes that took place in the plays that we put on for whatever poor souls happened to be in our vicinity that day. One of us stood below the hole in a scarf and mittens, shivering and chattering our teeth, while the other dropped handfuls of twisted-up paper that plummeted to the dining room floor in a matter of two seconds, looking nothing at all like snow. They always clapped for us anyway.

Thinking of yet another use for the hole, I set aside my plate on the end table, next to my father’s scanner, took one last swig of my milk and headed up to my sister’s bedroom. I had always wanted to shimmy myself down the hole in her floor and into the dining room like a graceful acrobat, but I knew if my parents were around they would never let me. I was scrawny, so I knew it would be an easy task. Once upstairs, and sitting on her pink carpet, I perched myself at the edge of the hole and let my gangly legs dangle down below, my feet and ankles peeking out beneath my nightgown, and contemplated how, exactly, I was going to maneuver this. Below, I could hear Sloth mimicking Chunk: “Baby? Ruth?”

“Easy,” I thought to myself. “I’ll just start with my feet, slowly lower myself straight down, and when I reach my armpits, I’ll straighten out my arms and gracefully glide through the hole and land on my feet.” No one would be the wiser. So, with all the confidence of Mary Lou Retton, I began my descent. With both hands planted firmly on either side of the hole, I hoisted myself up and slowly began to lower my feet, ankles, calves, knees, and thighs through the 12-inch-wide opening.

By the time I had reached my waist, I paused for a few seconds to re-adjust my hands, and my arms gave a little tremor. I persevered and lowered myself even further to just above my belly, but quickly realized that “gracefully” may have been an overshot. I hadn’t planned far enough ahead to realize just how far the dining room floor was from the ceiling—it seemed a lot closer just 30 seconds ago. Downstairs, Chunk had just accidentally smacked Sloth in the face with the Baby Ruth. Things were going downhill fast.

The strength in my spindly little arms and frail wrists was beginning to wane and I found myself kicking and swaying my legs in an attempt to keep from falling. I was also losing my breath. Too much weight was being placed on my arms, so that any attempt for me to grab something and pull myself back up through the hole was out of the question. Grunting and panting, I held myself up as best I could by keeping my legs moving.

Meanwhile, downstairs, my innocent and oblivious little sister sat comfortably on the footstool of our ottoman, nibbling away at her cinnamon Pop-Tart, eyes glued to the TV, while a mere seven feet behind her, just over her right shoulder, a pair of jerking and spastic legs dangled from the ceiling in a fit of silent frenzy.

Realizing too late that I had reached the point of no return, and that this was going to hurt, in typical Me fashion I launched right into freaking out. Instead of sounding like someone afraid to fall a few feet, one might have thought someone was actually hacking away at my knees with an ax, as I screamed at the top of my lungs.

“Eeerrriiinnn! Erin help! Help!” Since my parents weren’t around, she was my only hope.

Poor, oblivious Erin, who was simply trying to enjoy her quiet Sunday morning, had no idea about the torrent of bodily convulsions going on behind her—until she turned away from her cartoon to witness two flailing tube-socked legs floundering from the dining room ceiling, accompanied by screams and shrieks for help. Like any loyal sibling, she asked no questions, but quickly sprang into action.

“Help! Help! I’m stuck! Oh my God, I’m stuck! Help! Help! I can’t get through! Help me! Help me, Erin!”

Being more level-headed and less emotional than I, she immediately grabbed a dining room chair, situated it directly below my whipping limbs and climbed on to it. Standing precariously on the chair in her little floral nightgown, she tried to grab a hold of something, anything to get me under control, but was simply met with numerous kicks to the face and head by the discord of feet and knees thrashing about.

“Hold still!” she yelled up to me.

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t even process what she was saying to me amid my own screams of “HELP!” and “DO SOMETHING!” and “I’M GOING TO FALL!” Briefly looking down through the hole, all I could see were my own feet in a windmill of terror and occasionally I would feel Erin’s cheek smack against one. In a valiant effort to avoid any more blunt force trauma to her head and face, and try to gain control of my legs, my poor sister tried in vain to grab ahold of my feet while ducking and dodging them at the same time.

How had our serene Sunday morning of Pop-Tarts and The Goonies taken such a ludicrous turn?

I can’t remember how long she tried to subdue me, as crises can easily skew anyone’s true sense of time, but finally, in what was most likely a Hail Mary move on my part, I straighten my arms up and over my head. My entire body fell through the hole, crashing first onto my sister, then to the floor in a decidedly un-graceful manner and causing both of us to fall off the chair onto the dining room floor in a heap of panting and gasping rosebuds and daisies.

For several seconds, all was quiet as the two of us tried to regain our bearings. Erin warily looked at me, then up at the hole, and back down at me again as I busied myself with putting the dining room chair back in its rightful place so that things did not look like they had been disturbed in any way.

I thought it would be a good idea. Maybe parents are parents for a reason. I sat, going over in my mind what had gone wrong with my execution, yet how lucky I was that no adult happened upon the situation, and Mom came breezing through the dining room holding a pile of clothes that she was taking upstairs. Sometimes it seemed like all my mom did was laundry.

“Whatcha doing?” she asked, fatigue in her voice. “I thought I heard you girls squealing earlier.” Sitting next to each other on the couch, neither one of us breathed a word of what just took place, but simply shrugged our shoulders and shook our heads, feigning confusion and ignorance as we got back to Chunk and Sloth, who were headed down into the caves to help their friends. She continued on upstairs with our folded underwear.

I turned to my little sister and her rat’s nest. “Sorry,” I whispered. I don’t think it even entered Erin’s mind to tattle on me, which was unlike my propensity to tell on her every chance I had. She seemed confused that I would apologize to her.

“It’s okay,” she said, with a subtle shrug of her shoulder, which only had the inadvertent effect of making me feel even worse. I was immediately reminded of the time I sprayed Windex straight into her eyes and thought I’d blinded her for life. Since Halloween was only a few short days away, I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist playing our favorite game outside.

“Hey, you wanna play The Worst Witch outside? You can be Mildred Hubble and I’ll be Miss Hardbroom.” Within minutes we were dressed and shoving our hats and mittens on as we ran to the huge pile of leaves that our parents had raked for us the day before. We jumped in them, and buried each other, and took two brooms from the garage and pretended to be witches at the Cackles Academy. As the first snowflakes of the season meandered their way down to us, I was filled with a feeling I didn’t know the word for, only that it felt so good.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from being part of a family it’s that there is nowhere to hide. We all have to sift through our own stuff right in plain view of each other. Our underbellies are exposed from the start, and there is nothing we can do about it. Every family is one big mess of flawed humanity and at some point, someone always ends up getting inadvertently kicked in the nostrils.