Dear She-ra. It’s me…Mama.

My dear young philosopher, seeker of truth, lover of the spiritual, emblem of the divine:

I don’t have all the answers. Only some of them. Very few, if I’m being honest. I can’t say for certain if G-d is, what G-d is, whether (S)He likes the name “G-d” or whether (S)He prefers to be called something else. Like, say, HaShem, Allah, Jesus or, your personal favorite – the Princess of Power herself!She-ra.

Yet I was a journalism student once, so I recognize a good question when I hear one. You’re full of those.

We were in the car last weekend en route to the shoe store or the mall, I can’t remember. Daddy and I were listening to talk radio, and you were watching the scenery out the window. Then, out of nowhere it seemed, you wondered out loud: “Where did all of this come from? I mean, like, the trees and stuff?”

They were of the sort that line many a major thoroughfare in the northeast corridor, a natural buffer between the sights and sounds of highway traffic and the residential traffic just beyond, artifacts from the olden days before overpopulation and global warming. Probably nobody planted those trees, and we told you so.

But one thing led to another. You wondered where the first seeds came from (the evolution of ocean plants approximately 450 million years ago), whether the dirt beneath those trees was naturally occurring or manufactured (probably mostly naturally occurring),  whether people always lived in our town (no), whether people always lived on earth (no), how the earth came to be (a byproduct of the Big Bang occurring about 13.7 billion years ago), how that happened (from this thing called a “singularity”), and, hey, where’d that come from (*crickets*).

Because we, your parents, didn’t have a single clue. And it’s not just us. I mean, sure, an astrophysicist would have had an easier time with the question, but even the best of them don’t know really. Because here’s the thing: Nobody does. 

So like every smart parent/politician on the planet, we dodged the question: What do you think? 

And what you thought was this: Somewhere out there, wherever “there” is, a long time ago, there was an idea to grow a place where there wasn’t a place before. Lots of people would agree with you. Some folks call that Great Cosmic Idea-Generator, G-d.

“Oh,” you said. “Like at Passover.” Bingo. Satisfied yet? No? Didn’t think so. 

“Is G-d real? Does G-d live in the bushes like the G-d in the Moses story? And does G-d even like to be called G-d?”

And the answer is…how the hell should we know?! Times three.

What do you think?

No, you said. “‘G-d’s’ boring.” But sometimes, you informed us, when you’re “thinking really hard,” you call G-d something better! You call G-d “She-ra.” The ultimate honorific. She-ra, you explained, is a total badass. She’s super strong and in charge, and often uses her powerful brain to get out of a jam. Plus, you think G-d is “kind of more like a girl,” but, oh, by the way, if we thought G-d was different than all that or we preferred to call G-d something else (in other words, not She-ra), that’d be just fine. “G-d’s whatever you think.”

And that was that. Until tonight. When, again out of nowhere, you asked me if I thought G-d was real.

What do you think? 

“I asked you first.”

Pony up, Ma!

If what you said is true, if G-d is whatever I think, then there are no wrong answers, right? Good. 

So do I believe in the traditional construct of the old white man in the sky? The one who grants wishes like the genie in Aladdin’s lamp while we stand around avoiding the hard work of actually providing for our own families, seeking our own cures, helping our neighbors when they’re struggling? No. I don’t believe that. Not for a second, actually.

I don’t really believe in an afterlife where the ghosts of our loved ones wear white robes and dance on clouds, either. I just don’t. Try as I might, I can’t imagine a single dead friend or relation appreciating the formless white robes.

But here’s what I do believe.

I believe that G-d is the thing that bigger’s than myself: the profound, the unexplained, the little voice that makes one wonder out of nowhere how it all worked out like this. “G-d” is what I wonder to when I wonder how come you took so long to get here, that which I hope to when I hope your little cousin recovers from cancer, the recipient of my gratitude for a family that’s just right for me, a depository for my anger when there’s just no one else to blame. G-d is the completely unfounded peace in those situations when it’s actually only logical to be anxious. G-d is the string of beautiful words we weave together into sentences, into stories, into memories we share with others who share them with others who make it so we and our memories live on and on and on. The afterlife. G-d is the question that just has to be answered. G-d is science. G-d is math. G-d is, indeed, a hell of an idea generator. And then? Then the rest is up to us, Kid.

So here’s how I answered your question, really: I said yes.

Yes.

“Good,” you said. “Me, too. Except I call my G-d ‘She-ra.'”

Dear She-ra. It’s me…Mama. This little girl is my favorite. I feel pretty lucky she’s mine. Thanks a lot. Amen. 

Love,

Mama

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The good tree.

Dear Kid,

Today, we mourned a good tree. Somebody who’s been dead for a long time (or maybe nobody) planted it where it stood for the last two hundred years – that is, until this morning. This morning, you became the last littlest resident of the old, green house to see that tree hanging right above her bedroom window, casting shade from its trunk and collecting woodpeckers in its mostly leafless branches.

Two winters ago, we watched as the snow weighed down a giant limb stretched the width of our neighbor’s garage. It never recovered. In the seasons that followed, we heard the snap of branches splitting as they hit the roof. And the woodpeckers? Recall those? Right. Dead. The tree was dead. And it had become a liability. So we talked to tree doctors and arborists and green-thumbed friends who concurred: For everything there’s a season.

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So, today, we mourned that good tree.

Now, you and me, Elbee, we’ve officially lived long enough together to have made memories from “back when”: Back when you used to be a baby. Back when we lived in a little white house. Back before you had words. Back before you told me how you felt about ev-er-y-thing. Back when I knew anyway.

The thing with memories is, over time, and especially when you’ve lived more than a few decades, they get a little hazy in order to make room for those we haven’t made yet. And sometimes it’s precisely the new memories that make you remember the old ones in the first place.

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That’s what happened today.

We were watching out the window when a man in a bucket lift took a first pass at that long limb above the neighbor’s garage. “I don’t know why it’s so sad!” you said. (I knew.) We headed outside to watch and, by the time they got as far as cutting the trunk, you were sobbing into your hands, and I was crying quiet tears for the third time today. “I’m gonna miss that old tree!” (Me, too.)

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That tree was a part of the landscape of the old green house, the landscape of your early years, the landscape of our family… a part of it. The landscape was changing, leaving us, forever, with nothing but our memories and a stump. We, too, were changed.

That’s when I remembered this. And I knew that, even if you didn’t recall it precisely, you were completely different and yet exactly the same little Lorax as the one who used to talk to the trees as I pushed you in your carriage along that path we frequented for walks when I was a brand new mom.

For everything there’s a season.

The landscape has changed – again. But maybe even if I could I wouldn’t turn back the clock. It’s time to make new memories. It’s time to plant another tree.

Still, there’s a place in my heart for this one.

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XO,

Mama

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I “wemember.”

Dear Kid,

March 29, 2016. A Tuesday. Probably I got up, helped you comb your hair, gave you a kiss and stopped off for a cup of coffee on my way into the office. (I don’t actually recall any of that, but it’s what I do every day, so I figure.) In fact, March 29 would have been entirely unremarkable except for that, on that day, you uttered the word “lellow” for the last time – and that I recall perfectly.

“Lellow.” Yellow. The color preceding green in the rainbow. It was one of only two words in that wildly expansive vocabulary which you pronounced like someone your age…one of only two words that you routinely mispronounced, that tethered you (and your mama) to those fleeting toddler years.

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For on Wednesday, March 30, you said that word so crystal clear I second-guessed whether you ever mispronounced it in the first place, whether maybe (is it possible?) I imagined that I ever had a little kid who had to learn words, struggle with their pronunciation, grapple with their meaning.

Yellow.

And then suddenly you “wemembered” something. (These many months later, I’m not sure what. It’s irrelevant anyhow.)

“Wemember.” Remember. The act of recollecting. The other word you pronounced like someone your age. The one I knew would shortly go the way of “lellow,” leaving me to “wemember,” with some combination of loss and gratitude, that once – for the briefest of times – I was the mother of a toddler.

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In the days and weeks and months that followed, I watched as your running turned to leaping turned to criss-cross walking up the stairs turned to hula-hooping. Your baby fat turned to lean muscle. You learned to write your first, middle and last names. All 20 letters. You started sounding out words on paper. You added, subtracted, identified favorite shapes in ordinary household objects. (“Do you know the top of the toilet is kind of an oval?”) Your impassioned tantrums turned to wordy expressions of profound disappointment. (“You know I could cry right now, right, Mama? I’m all the way back here, and you’re nearly to the Candy House! That’s because you got lucky and pulled that Lollipop Forest card. I want to shake your hand and tell you ‘good game,’ but I’m not sure I can do it. I’m that upset.”) And sometimes profound joy. (One time, we were standing in this long line at the movie theatre waiting for our turn to pay $12 for popcorn. You purported to be having “the best Mama/Elbee day ever.”) You took a keen interest in your family’s stories. You had your favorites. (“Please, Mama! Tell me about the time you looked down and your wedding diamond was missing and you screamed.”) You wondered whether all people were good, and I told you the truth. (Nope. Some of them are flipping terrible, so choose your friends wisely.) You stopped needing a grown-up to join you on your favorite carousel. You just got on up there and waved at your dad and me as you passed us by. I swore for each rotation you were just a little more grown-up. The thing is, I wasn’t exaggerating.

That’s how it goes. The other day, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a wedding photo perched on a shelf. The faces in that photograph were young and relaxed and full of the promise of those whose chief concern is being in love. As I dusted it off, I recognized those faces as ones that used to belong to your dad and me. (In truth, they still do if you imagine really hard. There’s still all that love, but there’s also all that time, all that life.) It happens so quickly.

And so the day I realized you got the hang of “yellow,” I braced myself for “remember.”

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You turned four last week – and, tonight, as I tucked you into bed, you “remembered.”

What’d you say? Of course, I heard you the first time.

“Remember when I was a little baby and you saw me for the first time and you, really, really loved me? Remember that?”

Once I was the mother of a toddler. One chapter ends… Onward. Deep breaths. I’ll miss you, little girl.

Yep. I “wemember.”

Also, I still love you.

Mama

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Rosie.

In all your three-and-three-quarter years, your dad and I have – on only a few occasions – failed to read you a bedtime story. The first time, it was your birthday and it unfolded full of fanfare and your first sugar high. (You crashed before we had the chance to page through A Birthday for Bird, that antique book I gifted you to mark the occasion of having survived your first year on the planet.) The second time, you were battling pneumonia and informed us you might just prefer to go straight to sleep and read together in the morning instead. (So that’s what you did. We read a half-dozen books before breakfast the next day.) And the third time?

The third time I tried. I really did. But I only made it half way through that Puff the Magic Dragon picture book when I found I could no longer contain the tears.

For the better part of three-and-a-half decades (less the part when I was too small to appreciate the reference), I wondered like everybody whether it was a song inspired by a magical puff of the cheeba. And then, just like that, and for the rest of my life, I’d remember Puff this new way.

For there was that beautifully illustrated Jackie Paper, a kid with a mythical creature for an imaginary friend, who wakes up one day and stops make-believing. The dragon (that poor dragon!) “hangs his head in sorrow, green scales [fall] like rain.” Lonely, he “slips into his cave.” In the song, the dragon dies of broken heart (I know, right?), but to make the picture book version more palatable for a young audience, Puff is merely depressed.

Until

The illustrations advance to some future date when a small girl – enter Puff’s next playmate – arrives in Honalee. The girl’s dad looks on lovingly from a distance. It’s (wait for it) the grown-up Jackie Paper.

And that’s when I think of Rosie.

This is Rosie.

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She lives a quarter of the time in your doll house and the rest in the Land of Make-Believe.

She’s one part plastic figurine modeled after a character in some cartoon you never watch. She’s most parts imaginary friend: A mischievous kid whose wayward path you’ve fixed for her and whose voice I supply. (“Mom, be the Rosie! Pretend she got hungry and ate lots of cookies instead of healthy food.”) So, in a pattern of speech that’s a cross between a child and an old lady from Southie with a penchant for cigarettes, I begin: I couldn’t help it! I ate one cookie, and it was really good! So I thought, ‘Meh!’ And I ate all the cookies so now none of the other doll house friends get any! And, as if forgetting that Rosie is a plastic girl – as if choosing to believe she’s a real one, in fact – your face evidences the shock. You look at me, your mother, a third party to The Cookie Jar Rebellion. “Whhhhaaaattt?! Did you hear that?!” I nod. You go on to lecture plastic Rosie about healthy eating habits, bellyaches and diabetes – for a full five minutes. All the while I offer a series of half-hearted apologies in Rosie’s nasally voice. (I’m sorry, but chocolate is my favorite!)

Sometimes, even when the plastic Rosie is out of sight, you talk to her (er, me). You tell her (ahem, me) about your day: the funny thing your friend did on the playground, the way you’re going to go to Disney World in the fall with your mom and dad, how the picture you painted is supposed to be your dad’s face. Sometimes I answer you in Rosie’s voice – Oh, that’s nice, friend! – anxious that if I morph back into mom, you won’t finish sharing that part of you that you’ve reserved just for her.

Look, helping bring Rosie to life this way is exhausting. Each time you make-believe me into your imaginary best friend, I check the urge to insist you don’t have to. (I’m your real best friend. Your very first best friend. Your mother!) The thing is, I recognize that, with Rosie, you have something special. You have something formative. You have something fleeting. So I do my part.

Rosie is your Puff.

And just like Jackie Paper, one day (not tomorrow, but still too soon), you’re going to wake up and stop make-believing. There’ll be no more Rosie. I might well forget the expressions I used, the way I let my voice rise and fall into that strange and strangely familiar inflection to signal I was no more your mom, more your little ginger-headed girlfriend. Maybe I’ll remind you about her one day and you’ll look at me, quizzical. (“Rosie who? Who’s Rosie?”)

That’s how come I never got through the Puff the Magic Dragon picture book that night.

Because even as I never want the era of make-believe and bedtime stories to end, the end is nigh. Because sad as I’ll be to see it go, go it must. Because someday, if I’m doing my job just right, you’ll be so sure, so confident, you won’t need anybody to fill in the blanks of the story you’re telling. You’re just going to tell it, be it, live it. You won’t need anybody – and yet? Yet you’ll have somebodies. You’ll have friends, real-life friends – who aren’t your mom. (Though, of course, you’ll have me, too.)

Now, some of those friends you’ll have for a good long time, maybe even a lifetime. Others you’ll have for a while: the second semester of your senior year of high school, your four years of college, the stint you spend working for the same company. You won’t be able to think to that era of your life without thinking of them, the fun you had and – even if you can’t remember what fun exactly – the way you just plain liked them, respected them, found them funny or interesting. Over time, maybe you’ll forget their names or even their faces. But, I promise you, girlie: Like Rosie, they’re going to shape you. They’re going to test you. They’re going to inspire you. They’re going to teach you how to be with your fellow people. And you’ll be better off for knowing them.

And that’s how come, the next day, I finished reading that story.

Even so, I’m really going to miss Rosie.

XO,

Mama

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A letter to my daughter, on the eve of a brand new year.

Dear Kid,

Last night, I insisted you brush your teeth before bed. You acquiesced, albeit complainingly, to your mother’s lofty demands – stomped off toward the bathroom as I followed, a few paces behind, with the robe I intended to use to keep you warm after your bath. I rounded the corner just in time to catch you: brows furrowed, nose scrunched up, lips pursed around the tongue you’d stuck out at me but didn’t intend I should see. Too late.

We stared at one another with the same wide-eyed disbelief. (You: Oh, no! Me: Oh, noooo!) Then? Giggles. You laughed because you knew you were going to get away with it. I laughed because, in spite of myself, I was going to let you. That face (three-going-on-thirteen) was less a reflection of my failure to command respect as your parent, more a reflection of my success in raising a child who is strong, self-assured, opinionated and unafraid to challenge the leadership.

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I’d see that face again – lots of times – and it wouldn’t always be so amusing. But for now? Now it was new. Now it signaled the end of that blissful chapter when I had a toddler I could boss around without protest, the beginning of the chapter in which I have a kid who prefers to be the boss when along comes her mother. (It’s the lead up to eventual adolescence when you’ll avoid me lest I tell you for the tenth time that week to wear your seatbelt.) In that moment of defiance (and because it involved no risk of bodily harm or death), I was oddly proud of you.

You’re such a big girl, Elbee. You’ve grown so much since first we met. “Grown” like the feet that are 3/4 the size of mine, “grown” like the way you stand to past my belly button, “grown” like you’re starting to understand that shit happens. And, this year? Shit happened.

Last January, your dad was diagnosed with skin cancer. He underwent a series of miserable surgeries that set him on the path to well. With a little luck, you’ll never remember the time your father had a “boo boo” on the middle finger of his left hand. (The irony! Seriously, fuck cancer.) But somewhere in the far recesses of your subconscious, you learned that even your parents are vulnerable.

The following month, your great-grandfather died, and we decided to bring you along to the wake: An open-casket affair in the Syrian Orthodox tradition. Great-Pop introduced you to death, the concept that all living beings have shelf-lives. You asked me whether Great-Pop was sleeping, and I told you it was something like that. It was sleep for people who’ve finished living. When it came to be your turn to approach the casket, you bent your head low and whispered to him to sleep tight. “I’ll miss you.” He wouldn’t be the last someone you’d miss.

Last winter was long. It was cold. It was among the snowiest on record in New England. And it was rife with challenges. You witnessed your parents scrambling to protect the home we made from the ice dams that threatened it: your dad frantically phoning contractors, your mom shoveling a path to the barn so we could access the snow blower. You wondered whether the green house would collapse under the weight of the snow. I wondered the same thing. You learned nice things very often don’t just happen; very often, you have to work for them, work to maintain them. And, sometimes, even when you’re doing your best, you still get water in the mud room. “That’s not fair,” you said. Nope. But it’s life.

Sometimes it’s mean and messy and tough like that turned up nose. Sometimes, it’s simple and sweet like the way your face looks when you’re getting that hug you really wanted, the hug your mother gives you because she loves you no matter what – despite, in spite and because of that sassy face.

Yes, you’re a big girl, Elbee…a growin’ up girl. But you’re also still a small one, who knows not the menace that is the cavity. For my part, I promise to look out for you as best I can, except for the times when I can’t. Then? Then I hope you’ll call on what you’ve learned  and what we’ve taught you, your dad and I, and look out for yourself.

The clock turns on yet another year. It’s another year I’ve been blessed to be that thorn in your side, your biggest fan, your mama. I’m still the most grateful for you.

I love you,

M-

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A brown lady’s legacy: On guts, dreams and being great (already).

Dear Kid,

Everything you have you have because your family before you had not much of anything save guts and a dream.

Just ask Zeidy. Long before he’d spoil you with oversized pink teddy bears and pop-up books, he had this single pair of shitty old boots that was supposed to last him through his first winter in Philadelphia. When it didn’t, he made judicious use of plastic bags and tape. For the couple of hundred bucks Zeidy and Bubbie had between them when they arrived from Argentina, they had other priorities. (They hadn’t accounted for boots – and so boots would have to wait.) Zeidy worked his tail off. He did it for the boots. He did it for Bubbie. He did it for his three kids, one of whom would go on to become your dad. He did it for you, even if maybe he didn’t know it then. You’re a byproduct of that American dream.

On all sides of your family, it was like this: Your ancestors plotted course for the same destination. They pursued the same promise of a better life for themselves and their children; they simply followed different routes to get here. They were steely English Puritans, among the first European settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They were Poles and Russians who set forth for this place only the luckiest of their lot could imagine. And they were folks whose dream started off maybe a little bit like a waking life nightmare: The kind where your country is war-torn, opportunities are scarce, fear is abundant and you have your progeny to consider.

Probably that’s the way it was for your great-great-grandmother, Sithu. I would have liked to ask her about where she came from except she spoke lousy English, I spoke no Arabic and she died when I was a baby. For the brief time I hardly knew her, she was an old woman in a housedress with a tightly-fixed bun in her dark gray hair.  From time to time, I resurrect her memory: a hazy hodgepodge of actual memories of my great-grandmother informed by pictures I’ve seen, stories I’ve heard.

In this woman – one part real, one part imagined – I find a little strength.

Once, when I was barely grown, I boarded a plane bound for Amsterdam, where I’d spend a year living, working and studying abroad. And – Lord, child! – I hate flying. I hated it even before that flight when, at 37,000 feet above the Atlantic and somewhere off the Eastern coast of Greenland, a fellow traveler dropped dead beside my seat. True story.

For the next three hours, I sat across the aisle from his body, covered over with blankets and laid out in front of a row of vacated seats in the center of the plane. By the time we landed at Schiphol, I’d shed so many anxious tears for the dead man – and indeed for everyone who had the misfortune of flying with him on that journey to meet his maker – that I forgot the way that, just a handful of hours earlier, I left my sister and my parents at the end of a long hallway at the international terminal of Newark. I left clinging to the possibility that they might visit and knowing, deep down, that it was actually quite unlikely.

For the duration of that flight, I forgot to be homesick.

It only occurred to me when I landed in that place I’d never been, when I hailed a cab to a hotel nearby the flat that wasn’t ready for me, when I found myself lugging two suitcases the size of three grown men up the steepest steps of the narrowest staircase I’d ever seen, when I turned the key to that room on the fourth floor and it was empty and quiet, when I navigated my way to the grocery store that afternoon using a paper map (no cell phones, no apps), when the cashier spoke Dutch and I didn’t, when I slowly counted out the combination of cash and coins to pay for my purchase only to be told I owed three euro cents more (or had I overpaid, I wasn’t sure), when I meandered this incredible, cosmopolitan neighborhood that evening and stumbled upon a marvelous used bookstore, when – excited – I wanted to tell somebody (anybody!) about my discovery but when I came back to that hotel room it was still empty and still quiet and I was still alone.

That night, as I lay in bed listening to the sounds from the sidewalk below (incomprehensible chatter, bike tires and rain),  I soothed myself with my family’s stories, your family’s stories.

Sithu.

A long time before I boarded that infamous flight, your Sithu boarded a ship and crossed the Atlantic bound for a place she’d never been. She wasn’t going forth in the name of cultural exchange, in pursuit of learning or for a change of scenery like me. She was going because, mostly, she had no choice. Truth: She amassed a stockpile of shitty memories in her home country. She lost at least two kids to disease or bum luck. (That’s twice the number any mother should.) Her country was at war with its neighbors. It was a flipping dangerous place to be. And, what’s more, her husband said so. Let’s go. It was decided. She was going. And she was going to make the most of it.

In the early Twentieth Century, Sithu and her family immigrated to the United States from Syria. She joined her husband’s family for the voyage to America. Some of them never made it to Ellis Island. They were stopped up in France, redirected to Cuba. They had a trunk or two between them. And from those trunks they built their empire. Sithu raised six kids in America: business owners, factory workers, veterans whose kids and grandkids were even more successful than their parents.

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This tattered old pocketbook (which probably wasn’t always old and tattered) survived Sithu’s voyage from Syria to the United States to a shelf in our library, where I’ll cherish it until it becomes yours to cherish.

And while, no doubt, few of your ancestors’ immigration experiences are enviable, Sithu and her lot bore an additional burden. They were brown: Brown like the sea of faces you’d see if your switched on the news tonight…people of ancient pedigree living in ancient cities, which are being destroyed along with their families. Brown like those refugees.

This is a great country, Kid. It was built on the backs of ordinary people overcoming extraordinary adversity, surviving, thriving, living to tell their families’ stories. No terrorist or maniacal xenophobe can trump that. You stand a chance because folks who came before you took a chance and because somebody took a chance on them. I hope you never forget that, that you give folks a chance, that you’re grateful, that you pay it forward. I hope you see yourself in the faces of those refugees, that you see yourself in the faces of people suffering sufferings you’ve never known, sufferings you hopefully never, ever will. I hope you see yourself in those faces because someday you’ll find yourself hurting (that’s a fact) and, when that day comes, you’re sure as hell gonna want somebody to be kind to you. I pray they are. You’ll remember their kindness, after all.

I pray the current events of now are long gone and never forgotten by the time you’re reading me. (Know that your Mama was on the right side of history. Know that I hope you are, too.) May you forever share your ancestors’ guts. Be a stranger in a stranger land and somebody’s arms wide open, and remember exactly how it feels to be both. Then dream your world even better.

Love,

Mama

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Fish tales.

Dear Kid,

What for having read all those books about how to raise children to be the harbingers of crunchy, progressive kick-assery, I, your loving mother, am gearing up to say something absolutely brilliant when you tell me (because, of course you’ll tell me) that you’re thinking about having sex for the first time, smoking pot, getting a tattoo of a dragon on your butt. (Spoiler alert. Two words. Think carefully.) But then shit got real.

Your dad left on this business trip and we were alone together, you and me and my insecurities about getting it all “right” – work/life balance, your routine, the ratio of structured to free play, a healthy, yet satisfying, school lunch. That day, our fish died. That day, I learned there’s nothing like untimely and completely unexpected loss of life to compel a growin’-up kid to start thinking critically, asking all the tough questions.

It was the barrage of questions that, at first, made me wish I had better answers, any answers, something more than sad speculation. (“Maybe ‘dead’ is like the part of sleep you can’t remember. But I don’t know. I’ve never been dead.”) WWYFS? What would your father say? I didn’t know. There was no time to phone a friend, either. So I scrapped “right” for the best I could do, and – so far as I can tell – it worked out just fine.

It went down like this: We walked together toward the back door. My arms were full of an over-sized pocketbook, your backpack and a couple of bags of groceries. Over the top of those grocery bags, I saw it. I saw it just as I heard your shrill scream: Oh, no! What’s happening? Mama! The fish! We have to save them!

The man-made, backyard body of water, our pond, had managed to spring a leak. The family fish were laying sideways in the little puddle that remained at the bottom alongside the grinding motor that controlled the fountain which ceased to flow. And there she was, our favorite fish, Georgine, taking the sporadic, deep breaths of a creature one fin flapping in that Great Ocean Beyond. Despite our Herculean efforts to restore water levels, by morning, when we went to check on her, Georgine was dead. The other fish would follow suit.

What’s the matter with her? Why won’t she wake up?

“She can’t. She’s dead.”

What do we do now?!

“We remember her.”

And we did. I made you turn your back while I scooped her slimy body into the paper cup that would serve as her coffin. And for the whole ride to school and the whole ride home some eight hours later, you wondered whether fish that are dead stay dead. And what about cats? And dogs? And people? (“When they’re finished living, they all die.”) Is dead like dreaming? (“Probably not.”) If a prince comes along and kisses you when you’re dead, does that make a difference? (“Only in story books.”)

The next day – ain’t no rest for the weary – you asked me about my favorite color – in people.

I was too tired to recollect all that best-practice wisdom I amassed while earning my Ph.D. in Self Help and Parenting Literature. My head was full of the latest NPR report about another case of racist brutality toward an unarmed black kid by a white police officer. I thought about the kid, his mother (his poor mother), the officer, the officer’s mother. Did the officer’s mother ever have a conversation with the toddler version of her son like the one I was going to have with my daughter? Was I? Was I really? And what was I supposed to tell you?

“Hmm…” Collect yourself, Ma. And…go! “Why do you ask?”

Because people come in different colors, and I want to know what color you like: Mine? Or Nina Simone’s?

Mississippi, goddamn: Yep. We just had the death talk, and now we were going to talk race. You were swiping through the album art in my iTunes library. And there she was, Nina: whose songbook you learned in lieu of lullabies – young, gifted…and black. You could sing the words to those songs. Songs you didn’t understand. Not yet. Soon. Soon enough. Soon you’d “understand” through the lens of white privilege. But still. It was official. You were no longer “color blind.”

This – this delicate, if mildly uncomfortable conversation – was an opportunity. It was the beginning of an awareness, an acknowledgement of difference, the start of a dialogue about privilege, bias, oppression of black people by white people. We’d get there. This was good. But first I had to answer your question.

“Well, I like them both. You know how I told you I don’t really have a favorite flower because every flower is beautiful? That’s how I feel about people. Every one is so different and so beautiful it’s hard to choose. So in this house, in this family, we don’t pick favorite colors in people. We have some friends who look a lot like us and some friends who don’t look like us, and they’re all our friends, right? Because they tell good stories or make us laugh or because we have fun playing with them.”

One of your best friends is brown, you reminded me – not the same as Nina, more like Buffy Saint-Marie – and you like her because you have the most fun playing dollhouse with her. That’s why she’s your favorite.

“You two are good friends.”

You’re my good friend, too, Mama. Mama, who’s stronger? A girl or a boy?

In the lead-up to bed time (how I worked for bed time!), we had age-appropriate conversations about gender, sexism, economic disparity. I stopped lamenting what I might have gotten all wrong. I started rejoicing in the opportunity to notice, to wonder, to respond, to navigate the messy and the marvelous – together.

Your dad would be home in the morning. A week later, he’d fill that pond with dirt and flowering plants. In reality, a cheap fix. Also, a garden in Georgine’s honor.

“Goodnight, Elbee.”

Goodnight. [Pause] Wait!!!

“What is it?”

Do you think I’m beautiful?

“I know you are.”

That was an easy one,

Mama

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