Don’t Look Back (July U.B.C. Day 3)

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Learning recently that a settlement had been reached between the Central Park 5 and the city of New York, I was transported back in time to my senior year of high school and the fights I had with my mother over where I would attend college. Read more

The Things He Handed Down

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Seventy years ago today my grandfather and tens of thousands of other soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy, France.

My grandfather, Ray, survived Omaha Beach, was honorably discharged from the Army, then came home, married my grandmother, and raised his family. His daughters grew up, married and had children of their own – five granddaughters. Ray believed in duty and hard work. He believed in taking and owning responsibility for his decisions, his life, and that’s what he taught his children. Read more

The Stories We Tell

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After participating in the Ultimate Blog Challenge during the month of April, I decided to take a break for a couple of weeks from writing here. A lot happened during April that made me reevaluate some things in my life, and to do some hard pondering about where I’ve been and where I’m going. Read more

When I Ruled the World (U.B.C. – Day 28)

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Cleaning my office, aka the laundry room over our garage, recently, I found a batch of photographs from my first trip overseas. A friend from high school had moved to Paris after college and routinely sent me postcards and letters regaling me with his adventures living the life of an expat. Everything sounded so glamorous, and I knew I just had to get my foot in the door so that I, too, could become cosmopolitan and mysterious, just as he had. Read more

Politics

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My parents were young when I was born. From my adult and parental perspective, far too young to have become parents, but they made it work. In some ways, we all grew up together, discovering ourselves and learning about the world.  However, in all the ways that counted they were most decidedly not friends or compatriots, but PARENTS. They were strict and set exceedingly high expectations for me, expectations that I internalized and pushed myself to exceed. Read more

Shared Experiences? Not.

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I’ve been getting questions about my experiences with particular individuals with whom I’ve had contact or relationships over the years of my life. In particular, whether my experience with people makes a statement about those individuals. It does not.

Any experience I’ve had in my lifetime and about which I may write here is MY experience. Nothing more. My writing about something makes no specific statement about the person or people with whom I’ve shared that experience. It makes a statement about ME, and how I perceived, distilled, and internalized the experience of engaging with that person or those people.

I’ve known and interacted with a lot of people over my lifetime as we all have. And guess what? The person we knew in high school may be the same at the twenty-fifth reunion, but they may also be hugely different because of the life they experienced over those twenty-five years. We may only know a father as a devoted family man who attends all of his kids’ sports and school events, but when we meet an old friend of his from college, we may find out that he was known among his fraternity brothers as a bit of a womanizer.

The girl with whom we shared a cubicle wall when we first started working at age 22 may be just as much of a flirtatious man-eater at 45 when we run into her on the street lo those many years later, or she may be a happily married mother of four who shudders to think of her early dating history. The sweet boy who worked in the office fax room and smiled shyly at you may always stay that shy and unassuming, or he may come out of his shell and develop a thick skin along the way to becoming a successful businessman who treats people callously.

The point is lives have chapters, many chapters. We all have second, third, fourth, and even more, acts to our stories. And that’s just what our lives, our pasts are…stories. Our stories. Not the stories of those with whom we’ve interacted or with whom we’ve had relationships, personal or professional.  Does the experience of the first or second chapter of a life negate the experiencing of a third, fourth or later chapter?  Of course not.

I once had a boss who hacked into my e-mail account while I was going through my divorce because he was sure that I had left my husband for him and was jealous that I was dating other men. Apparently, he thought that violating my privacy and betraying my trust was the ideal way to get me to have a relationship with him. Do I believe that he treated every other woman in his life that way? Of course not. Do I believe that he would treat me the same way now? No. Would I ever again give him the chance to treat me that way? No effing way. But simply because that was MY experience with him, in no way does my relating my experience and my feelings about that experience mean that he was guaranteed to treat the next woman he was with the same way. In fact, I am pretty sure that his later life experience of marrying and having a daughter ensured that he would never do such a thing again.

In my twenties, I had a friend who claimed she didn’t like sex. Years later, when she was in an entirely different situation and different relationship, she confessed to me that she had been so wrong about that. If her original statement had been taken as an indictment of her as a person and her ability to enjoy physical intimacy, she might never have gotten into the second relationship. But the person with whom she shared the later relationship didn’t hear about the statement until she chose to reveal it. Her new partner didn’t take her first partner’s experience and internalize it as his own.

Everyone reacts to different people in different ways. Every moment in our lives is different, and our actions and reactions vary from each moment to the next because once a moment is past, we can never recreate it.

So for anyone who thinks that my relating my experiences says something about the individuals with whom I shared those experiences, do so at your own risk. These are MY experiences, MY interpretations, MY feelings. You might be missing out on something or someone fabulous. Seasons change. Circumstances change. Most of all, people change.

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Confronting the Ghosts

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When I was four years old, my mother and her first husband divorced. Her first husband is my biological father. Since about age seventeen, I’ve referred to him as The Sperm Donor (TSD). Until two months ago, I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years.

When I was six years old, my mom and I moved in with the man she ultimately married, who raised me and who is my sister’s and my father. The man who became and who is my dad. The man I call when I need advice. The man who picked me up from the playground pavement, knees bleeding and unable to walk from the pain after the chains broke on the swing I was riding and I fell from what felt like a height of a hundred feet but was in reality probably 8 or 9 feet.

My dad is the man who helped me with my homework, who listened and gave me advice when I’d had a particularly rough tangle with my mother as a teenager. My dad is the man who intimidated my high school and college boyfriends and who stood proudly applauding when I accepted every one of my diplomas. My dad is the man who taught me that it was okay to stand on my own two feet and speak my truth, even if my voice were nothing more than a whisper when I did that. My dad taught me that even if started out whispering if I believed in myself and kept speaking my truth, eventually I would be shouting it so loudly that the world wouldn’t be able to ignore me.

My dad helped me move out of the house I shared with my first husband after that husband, who had sworn to me and my dad that he would love me and care for me forever, scarred me. My dad, along with my mother, walked me down the aisle when I married my darling Ernie in a fairytale wedding.

But I digress. I divorced TSD when I was seventeen. I was told that he and his second wife were divorcing, and I was told why. Based on that information, I developed an instant and intense revulsion for him, white hot, that followed me through my life.  I never knew anything different from what I was told, and it was only the last time I saw TSD in the early 1990s that I even tried to find out his interpretation of events.

Until last fall. Then curiosity and some deep rooted need of which I was not even aware took over my heart and brain. It might have had something to do with the depression into which I’d fallen and couldn’t shake, or the prescription my doctor wrote me to help alleviate my symptoms, or even the therapist I started seeing every week, but I prefer to think of the mystical rather than the logical explanation. Thinking that way makes me feel a little less like a control freak who willed herself into doing something against all common sense.

My entire adult life I was determined never to acknowledge TSD, never to allow him entry into my carefully constructed and protected world, and since my child came along, never to allow him any access to The Boy. I haven’t changed my mind about my son. I have, however, decided that I am strong enough to allow TSD entry into my life, at least in a limited way.

I reached out to TSD. For years, I had kept tabs on him. I was fearful of him, of what he might want from me, what he was capable of doing to me. After all, I had been told he was a monster. I knew from my own observations and experiences that he had not been any kind of parent.

One early memory I have is sitting on his lap in the front seat of a car, I think it was a convertible, driving through a campground, and I had my hands on the wheel and was steering the car. I have no idea how old I was, but I don’t remember my step-sisters being there, so it was in all likelihood before the age of five. Another memory has me riding shotgun in his convertible on Route I-95, southbound from Boston to Willimantic, Connecticut, Jimmy Buffet blasting, TSD holding an open beer bottle between his legs, gulping as we sped along. I recall riding in the back of a pickup truck he owned at least once until my mother got wind of the riding arrangements and put the kyebosh on it. So from then on I rode in the crowded cab with TSD and his second wife while my step-sisters rode in the open bed. Until that summer everything fell apart, I thought they had cashed in the winning lottery ticket as to fathers.

I remember being left with his older sister, my aunt, on her farm. As an adult, I was told that her then-husband later did some bad things, but I just barely remember him, and only that I didn’t think he was a nice man. I recall that the dog TSD had bought me, a Siberian Husky I named Blue because he had one blue eye and one brown, was clipped by a car, and that we couldn’t get him to the vet because TSD had left me there for an extended period of time and my aunt’s husband had siphoned all the gas out of the second car so that he could go off somewhere, so as a five year-old child I watched my dog die a painful, horrible death. I’ve never owned another dog.

There are a lot of ghosts that have accompanied me through life, but TSD was the pink elephant. I didn’t know what would happen if I extended a branch to TSD. I just knew for certain that no longer could I ignore his ghost. So I picked up a stick and handed it to him, not sure if he would take it or if I would be bludgeoned over the head with it. I was shocked when he took it.

That was several months ago. Since then we’ve communicated via e-mail on an every couple of weeks or so cycle and had an in-person meeting once, at his mother’s funeral. That was the other thing that shocked me. At age 44, I discovered that TSD’s mother was still alive at age 95. Better yet, my request to see her was met with generous welcome by two of my cousins and TSD.

I was fortunate and was able to see her twice between the time I found out she was alive and when she died on July 21. Surprisingly, she recognized me and was able to understand that I had a son. Selfishly, I was glad that she seemed unaware that more than twenty years has passed since I’d last seen her; I didn’t want to have to attempt an explanation of my ghosts with her. She lived a long life, and from what I’m told, suffered her share of trauma and insanity. It’s all hearsay since I never heard any of it from her, but if even a fraction of what I was told is accurate, she deserves every happiness she found in life and more.

When my cousin gave the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral, I found myself crying; not for the life that was lost, but selfishly, for what I missed out on by not having her in my life. I never felt I could have her – or any of TSD’s family members – in my life without also having TSD, and I was always afraid of him, and what he might do or be. I never experienced my grandmother as my cousins and their children did. I never knew her the way they did, never heard all the stories they did, never got to learn anything from her the way they did. Although it would be easy to place all the blame for that at TSD’s feet, I realized too late that the fault lay partly with me; only partly because none of them reached out to me, either.  Perhaps my fears were irrational, but they were based on what I was told, not on anything concrete that I knew for myself.  I never thought about what I knew myself.

Ernie accompanied me to the funeral on July 31. I have only just begun to process what it was like to see TSD and his family after so many years. I was at turns terrified, guilt-ridden, shocked, and heartbroken. I saw bits of myself in those people, and I couldn’t process it. For nearly my entire life, I have observed and been told that I am just like my mother and her mother. On my mother’s side, we were a family without boys until my cousins and I had children. My cousins and I, while various circumstances and geography and other things separate us, are alike in more ways than we may care to admit or may even be able to see.

Yet here I was, confronted with the unalienable fact that I was like the women on TSD’s side of my family, too. TSD’s three sisters, my first cousins, and his mother.  My grandmother apparently was a lifelong writer, a lover of books and music, dedicated to her friends and family. She also had a spine of steel and an indomitable spirit, if even a fraction of what I’ve heard about her life is true. She was widowed in the mid-1960s, when she was in her forties and had four children. As far as I know, she was not college-educated and did not have a career on which she could fall back. Some of her children were adults at that point, some were still young and at home.  She raised those younger children alone and never remarried.  I think she was a remarkable woman who had a fantastic life, and that is what I heard echoed in the sentiments expressed at her memorial.

I held myself together admirably – at least according to Ernie – while at the church, but after we had left … well, all bets were off. I began crying in earnest as we crossed the parking lot, and Ernie pretty much carried me to the car. I often joke with Ernie that he is afraid to drive my car (we call her Christine), but he had no choice that day. I sat in the passenger seat and howled while he struggled with the computer-driven controls. I continued crying all the way home, just continuous tears down my cheeks, the waterworks occasionally escalating into sobbing so convulsive that Ernie had to pull over so I could vomit on the side of the highway.  I was sick at my own misinterpretations, my own failure to know, my own uncertainty.  My body simply could not  hold in the evaporation of the past in my mind.

When I was able to hear Ernie over my crying, he commented that he was glad I’d wanted him to accompany me to the funeral. For most of the time he has known me, I had told him that under no circumstances would I have anything to do with TSD or allow TSD any access to my life or family, so, needless to say, he was a tad surprised when I revealed recent events to him. He was, however, fully supportive, and after it was all over, he expressed that being with me in the bosom of TSD’s family allowed him a window into me that he had never known existed and that he felt closer to me for having seen through it.

I haven’t yet been able to process the whole experience fully as I cannot get too far into thinking without dissolving into a puddle on the floor. Part of me wants for everything I have been told about TSD to be untrue; that part is the four year-old girl who desperately wants all the bad experiences with her father to be nothing more than a bad dream. Another part of me believes all the bad things I’ve been told, but that part is the angry, sullen teenager who does not understand – and doesn’t want to understand – the nuances of a very adult situation into which she was thrust. Still a third part believes that there must be a middle ground somewhere, but doesn’t know yet where to find it or even how to begin searching.

The ghosts of my life haunt me. I have found them at last, but now I need to confront and banish them into the flesh and blood people they are, no larger or smaller than life.

Making It Count

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I was sitting at my desk 27 floors up with my back turned toward my office door, sipping my coffee and gazing out at the mind-numbingly blue sky, when my phone rang. I see it in my mind, over and over as if on a slow motion playback reel. I glanced at the number; it was my then-husband.

Without a word of greeting, he told me that a friend from New York had called and said a plane hit the World Trade Center.

Shock. Horror. “What? You mean a commuter plane? A little one?”

“He’s not sure, but it must have been someone who didn’t know what they were doing. It’s not like you could miss those buildings.”

Relief “But he’s okay? And Annie and the kids? Were there any casualties besides the pilot?”

“Yeah. I don’t know.”

“Call me when you find out more.” The paging system in my office crackled to life, and I could hear people moving in the hallway behind me.

“Okay. Talk to ya.”

Click.

“Love you.” My endearment flew into the abyss.

I was wearing a royal blue silk shift that morning, with a seascape pattern. I loved that dress. I never wore it again.

I was fortunate. Although I lived and worked in Boston, and I regularly traveled the Boston-Los Angeles route at that time in my life, I was in my office, safe and distant on that fateful morning. All of my family members, friends, or colleagues were safe.

I knew people who knew people who’d lost loved ones. There were law firms in the Trade Center buildings where attorneys I had known tangentially worked, and I never heard again from one young associate with whom I had been negotiating a settlement.  I still don’t know what happened to  him, as the entire deal was rendered moot in the horrible aftermath.  That was as close as I got to the tragedy, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

Like the rest of the country, the world, I was shell-shocked. And like everyone else, I struggled with the philosophical, the whys, and the question of if there is a God, how could he or she allow this evil to happen. I knew I had to make my life count for something, and that I couldn’t let pass this opportunity to change my life for the better.

September 11 for me is more than the anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. It is also the anniversary of the day I began to know, truly and well that my first marriage was over. It was reinforced for me in the days immediately following the attacks, but that phone call began the unraveling.

In the days following, my office, like so many others, was closed, and I was at home catching up on all of the administrative duties that so often go undone when billable hours are the be all and end all. My ex was frustrated that I was home; he felt that people were scaredy-cats (a euphemism for the term he used), and everyone should just go back to work.

On the Sunday after the attacks, we watched the “60 Minutes” episode during which Ed Bradlee interviewed a woman whose husband had left for work on September 11 and simply vanished. She had three young boys, and as I watched her disintegrate on national television, I thought that is how I would be if anything happened to my husband.

My then husband’s reaction? That she should stop crying and suck it up. He used much more colorful language, but I will not be as disrespectful as he was by repeating his exact words.

As I sat staring at him, my jaw hanging open, I knew that he lacked a sensitivity chip and that he was simply not someone with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life or have children. We had been having difficulty in our marriage, and to that point, I had held out hope that we might be able to work through it and come out stronger on the other side. That moment crystallized for me I was simply on the wrong path with the wrong person, and I knew instantly I had to jump ship.

When I asked him for a divorce, he told me that I belonged to him and that he would never let me go.  Two and a half months later, after much screaming and crying and throwing and breaking of things, I moved out of my house with my belongings and my cats while he was at work.  Thirteen months after that, on Christmas Day of 2002, the judgment was final, and the nightmare of divorcing him was over.

I will never forget.  To honor all those that lost their lives, it is my duty to make mine count and not waste a single moment.

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Pursue a Passion in September

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September is here. For me, it’s always been the beginning of a new year, despite there being no symbolic cultural or physical turning of the calendar or changing of the year. I have spent so much of my life in school that it’s always seemed natural to me that the year begins in September and ends in August.  I sometimes joke perhaps that is what drew me to Judaism as an adult; it was merely an extension of my pre-existing calendar bias.

Perhaps it’s simpler. I was born in September. I adore the crisp mornings warming into bright sunny afternoons. I adore autumn fruit: shiny red and green and yellow apples, firm and unyielding until baked, cut up and put into a pie or a cobbler, or simply eaten straight from the tree. Cranberries, pears, kumquats, pomegranate fruits. Autumnal vegetables thrill me. I love nothing more than scooping out a pumpkin and roasting the seeds with cinnamon, salt and sugar, or roasting a spaghetti squash and mixing the flesh with butter and salt and pepper for a yummy lunch. Acorn squash cry out to be hollowed out and filled with a turkey-cranberry-bread stuffing and roasted.  During the autumn months, I try always to have my home smell of apple cider or wine simmering on the stove with mulling spices, even if the only way I can accomplish that is by lighting one of the Yankee Candle candles that are ubiquitous throughout my space.

Gretchen Rubin‘s “to-do” list for September tells me I should focus on the following items this month.

a)  Write a novel.

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I’m already working on this. Well, not a novel, but a book. At this stage, I’ve got only notes and the beginnings of a proposal, but it is in progress. See the “Writing the Memoir” tab for more details.

b)  Make time.

Much to my eternal chagrin, I have only recently begun to realize – feel it in my bones and understand, realize – that my time with my little boy is glaringly short. With that dawning has come a covenant to spend as much time “in the moment” with him as possible. By “in the moment” I simply mean I try to let everything else go during that time. I try to forget about the dishes piling up in the kitchen sink, or piles of newspapers and old mail growing on the kitchen table and counter, the thousands of Lego blocks strewn about my house like invisible little IEDs waiting for my unsuspecting and not-yet-caffeinated foot to step down and then explode into a thousand points of shearing pain.

Instead, I focus on his obsession with cars – specifically, minivans and SUVs and me getting rid of my current car and substituting either model. My great concession to stop the never-ending and often loud debate was to agree that if I had triplet girls (never, ever, EVER going to happen), I would buy a minivan. Specifically, the Honda Odyssey minivan with a built-in vacuum depicted in a rather amusing commercial.

I focus on his questions about life and death, which are becoming more and more frequent, and less easily answered. I focus on his questions about the new school year and what it will hold, which belie his anxiety about the beginning of kindergarten and the addition of nine children to his tiny little group of eight classmates. I focus on his questions about me having another baby and his envy over the twins one of his friends is soon to have as siblings.

I focus on all these things because I know that someday soon he won’t ask questions of me and he won’t want to talk to me; he’ll ask questions of his friends and he’ll want to talk to his teachers. I know this is normal, and I know it’s healthy, and I know it’s the way the world works. Children are born and cling to their parents for a little while, but then they move on to their autonomous lives faster than anyone expects and can prepare for. But as I sit here writing this, tears snaking down my cheeks, I know I’m ill-prepared to face that. I cannot conceive of it, yet.

So I make time for all of the things that he wants to share with me, no matter how small, and I hope that by making that time and sharing those experiences, I can keep him close and ensure that he will always want to talk to me, to ask me the tough questions and that even though his friends and his non-mama world will get bigger as he does, he will always save a space and time for the woman who will always love him best.

c) Forget about results.

This one I’m going to have some trouble with as I’m an anal-retentive control freak. A lawyer by training and profession, albeit a happily retired one, I’m results oriented. I’ve had a difficult enough time adjusting my life philosophy to embrace the adage that life is about the journey, not the destination.  My adult life has been about winning the case, beating the opponent, getting the settlement the client wants.  Anything else just didn’t make sense.

I’ve always set goals for myself. I guess it’s been my way of marking off how close I am to achieving my dreams, but now that I’m actually living my dream of a life dedicated to writing, I wonder if I still should be keeping such a strict “to do” list, intent on ticking off items. My tendency to mark off life accomplishments like so many chores hadn’t made me happy, and since I haven’t really had so much time to put into my goals-oriented life plan, I have been happier, more in the moment. Hmmm…..something to ponder.

d)  Master a new technology.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, technology is defined as:  (1) the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area; (2) a capability given by the practical application of knowledge; (3) a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge; (4)  the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor.

When I first read the fourth item on September’s “to-do” list, I scoffed a bit. My first thought was that I could skip it as I’m pretty computer savvy, and our home is filled with just about every new or newish technology available. Then I looked up the definition, and decided to approach this instruction from the angle of learning something new about a subject matter I enjoyed and about which I was already somewhat knowledgeable, namely cooking.

I enjoy cooking, and I know that I need to up my game as it relates to my family’s nutrition as both Ernie Hemingway and The Boy have the palate of a four-year old boy. I can cut The Boy some slack as he’s not too far removed from a four-year-old boy, but Ernie, not so much, as he turned sixty this year and should know better.

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So my technology challenge for September shall not involve computer or other information machines or processes, but shall involve the bookcase filled with abandoned and lonely cookbooks, as well as my forlorn All-Clad slow-cooker, my much-loved Zojirushi rice cooker which gets not nearly enough attention from me, my Cuisinart food-processor and Breadman bread machine which haven’t seen me since the last century (and both of which were wedding gifts when I married my first husband in 1999), my much-loved and well-used Kitchen-Aid mixer (I do actually cook sometimes!), and any other kitchen implements and appliances I might come across in my kitchen.
I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Flashbacks

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Back when we were beautiful…

I had to go to the mall today to buy a birthday present for my friend’s daughter, who is turning 8. Walking into the mall with a five year-old boy is always an adventure, and I usually sneak all such errands under the radar while he’s at school or camp. I couldn’t do that today as I had to be a grown-up and have a mammogram during his last hours of camp, so I was stuck.

We entered through J.C. Penney as I wanted to go the store Justice for the birthday gift. I was told that the birthday girl is into fashion, so I decided clothes were my best option, and from my limited wanderings around the mall, Justice seemed like as good a place as any to get some cute little girl clothes. In we went, my stride long and determined, The Boy skipping to keep up with my pace.

Then we hit the women’s clothing section, and I saw the cute little red blazer with the rolled up sleeves and the cuffed, faded blue jeans with the rose embroidery. I stopped and touched the blazer, the soft silk of the lining showing on the outside of the sleeves where the were rolled. For a moment I was back in college, circa 1989, finishing getting dressed to head out on a Thursday night with my roommate and best friend, our hair curly and pulled up off our faces, cascading down our backs, unruly and sexy and wild.

How beautiful we were, how completely unaware of our own power and the luxury of our lives as undergraduates at a private women’s college in Boston. Our tuition was paid, and our part-time jobs provided enough pocket money to ensure we could pay the cover charge to get into any bar we wanted, where we then would drink for free all night courtesy of the handsome and buff young men who clamored around us. We never felt it, of course, but we held all the cards. We had what they wanted. All we felt, however, was the fleeting loneliness at the end of the night when we would walk away from the bar, arms wrapped around one another to keep ourselves from falling down, laughing at something one of the hapless young men had said or done. We wanted them to love us, and they did. We just never knew, and in our own way, we were as clueless as they.

I came out of my reverie to the sound of The Boy’s whining and tugging at my hand. “Let’s go, Mama! I want to go to the Lego store!”

I released my hold on the blazer and allowed myself to be pulled forward through time to the present, to the exquisiteness of my real life, by the beautiful boy who now owns my heart. As he dragged me along, I mused that fifteen years from now he will be one of the handsome and buff young men in another bar, in another town. He will wait for one of the young women in that bar, so beautiful and powerful, to notice him, never dreaming that was his mother forty-odd years before.  With much bigger hair, of course.