Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Short Ribs and Coffee

Let me just call a spade a spade. I grew up an upper-middle class, suburban girl. That's a nice way of saying I was a pampered JAP. My mother used the good silver every day, there was a buzzer under the dining room table to summon the housekeeper, and we ate in the dining room every night. We flew to the Caribbean for Christmas, and had season tickets to the New York City Ballet. Parts of my childhood weren't easy, but materially, the whole thing was a breeze.

Fast forward thirty years. Money is tight, and lips are loose. When my neighbors and I walk our kids to school, we talk about "before" and "after." "Before" we all felt comfortable. We went to see Broadway shows, and took car service home. When we didn't feel like cooking, we ordered in sushi. We renovated our houses, invested in granite countertops, planned trips out West. "After" means wondering if we should spend money ordering holidays cards, get our cars detailed, plan vacations.

The glory days of spending freely are over. For now, anyway. Maybe it's temporary, maybe it's not, but whatever it is, contraction is hard and my mood is dark. Yesterday, I went for a walk in the woods with an old friend from high school. We took our dogs, who looked at each other and then went their own way into the woods. My friend and I huddled close. A man with three German wire-haired terriers came along and his dogs gamely tried to play with our dogs. My friend's dog wasn't interested so we kept walking. My friend told me about a father in our community who had had died suddenly over Thanksgiving. He had been laid off from his job at one of the big investment banks, rented a car, bought or borrowed a gun, and shot himself in the parking lot of a hotel in our town. I didn't know this man, his wife or his kids, but I had received an email about his son. My father had attempted something similar once in his car and survived. I've never gotten over it. All I could think to say was, "Those kids will be in therapy the rest of their lives." My friend agreed.

I spent the rest of the morning feeling miserable. In the woods, I stepped in dog poop, but didn't realize it. Some people might say this was lucky, but I just thought it was annoying and disgusting. I went home, picked the poop off with a paper towel, and left the shoes outside to air out. I thought about going upstairs to do some work, but instead got back in the car and avoided what I was supposed to be doing (reading my students' work, finishing up two assignments for a magazine, pitching new stories to a newspaper, paying bills). Instead, I spent the day in and out of the car, buying new black socks for my husband, finding a white button-down shirt for my son to wear to his holiday concert, dropping off two pairs of my husband's shoes at the shoe-maker, picking up eggs, grapes and bananas at Shoprite. These kinds of chores usually cheer me up, make me feel productive and domestic, if not mindless. If I can check four or five things off my to-do list, all is right with the world.

Instead, when I came home, I was still in a foul mood. I tried to cook my way out of it. I defrosted some short ribs and took out my mother's sunny yellow Dutch roasting pan, the sight of which always makes me smile, and sauteed the ribs in olive oil. I covered them with two cans worth of crushed tomatoes, threw in a teaspooon of cinnamon, a pinch of cloves and crushed garlic. I inhaled and felt a tiny bit better. My neighbor called and invited me for lunch. "I can't," I said. "I'm feeling deep despair so I'm making short ribs."

The meat was supposed to fall off the bones. It didn't. My kids were supposed to like the meal. They didn't. At dinner, my kids bickered and bickered. They discussed the Giants and Obama. My older son told my younger son that everything he was saying about Obama were actually other people's ideas---he should try come up with a few of his own. I was proud that my younger son was reading the newspaper and thinking about Obama, and thought my older son was being a little preachy. Then I just lost it. I did not tell my kids about the other boy's father or about my father, I just let them think I was cranky. My older son is almost as tall as I am, and yelling at him has lost a lot of its power, so I squeezed his arm hard, and sent him to sit on the back stairs (a 12-year old's version of "time out.") I yelled at my younger son to get in the bath and do his homework by himself. I went to lay down on my bed. I crawled under the beautiful, snow-white bedspread that our old babysitter crocheted for us and wished I could stay in bed all night. I yearned for my Grandma. Everything felt awful and endless. I ignored my children and went into my office to write. While I was writing, I heard my kids tussling in the hallway. I heard something about "Mom's blanket from college." I went to see what was going on. My children had stuffed a purple blanket from my college reunion into the toilet, added a sock and peed on both. They had also put a football in another toilet and peed on that.

Well, hell hath no fury like a writer who is in the middle of something and gets interrupted, or a mother who is taking some "down" time and is forced to get up. I was both. My children confessed their sins. I yelled at them. I asked them what they thought their punishment should be. They said, "No TV or computer." I added, "No movies, either." My younger son said I could smack him if I wanted. I said I had no interest in that. However, I did tell them both to go downstairs and get a plastic garbage bag, load all their peed-on crap into the bag, and do the laundry. Shame on me---they had never done laundry before. There were wet clothes in the washer, so I put them in the dryer, and made them empty their stuff into the washer, and pour in the detergient. My children seemed intrigued by the process, rather than punished. I took the football and threw it outside and hoped it would rain. It did.

Today is a new day. My friend brought home-made pea soup over for lunch. I made a pot of strong coffee, warmed up some milk, and we gossiped and talked about our "budgets." I started to feel better. I'm a working writer. my kids and husband are healthy, so thank God for that. The trees in our neighborhood are bare but beautiful, my older son lets me kiss him before he gets on the bus in the morning, and walking my younger son to school every morning fills me with joy. We will muscle our way through this, as others have before us. Strong coffee helps.


  1. Once again, you flattened me. I imagine you're speaking for a lot of people.
    -- Marci

  2. Excellent.

    Thanks for sharing your story. When our lifestyle stumbles we feel it, when those around us fall we feel that too.

    Sometimes I wish I was around more people feeling it. One of the perils of being in a professional suburb.