Saturday, December 23, 2017

Dipping My Toes into Short Horror Fiction

Hey all,

I got inspired to write a short horror story about an Elf on a Shelf. It's not graphic or gross, but it is scary (hopefully), so it may not be your cup of tea. If it is, however, read on! AT YOUR OWN RISK!

*****


Elf on the Shelf
Randi Skaggs
She’d avoided the Elf on the Shelf for as long as she could. Parenthood was a much harder job than she’d ever anticipated, and she often found herself failing at at least one task per day. A forgotten school lunch, a permission slip signed but not put into a backpack, the summer camp registration deadline come and gone. How on earth could she manage arranging and rearranging some damned elf every single day during the busiest and most stressful month parents must endure?

But her son, Henry, was in kindergarten, and all the other kids were talking about their elves. “Why didn’t Santa send us an elf, Mommy? Is he mad at us?” He looked at her with those big brown eyes, underneath which lay more love and trust than she’d ever deserve. Her heart shattered for the millionth time, and guilt crawled up and consumed her from the inside out. Of course her kid deserved an Elf on a stupid Shelf.

She had to go to three stores before she found one still in stock. It was December 12th, long after all the good parents had purchased theirs. She’d considered Amazon, but didn’t want to make Henry wait even the two days it would take for it to arrive. She left work a bit early the afternoon after Henry’s plea, battling pre-Christmas traffic, and barely making it on time to pick him up from his after-school program.

It was up high on a shelf, above the one little aisle-end where the lonesome Hanukkah products were stocked. His packaging was a bit ripped, and the box was quite dusty, but he’d have to do.
She didn’t ask her husband, Paul, for help. Their marriage was rocky enough as it was without this turmoil. Paul was constantly annoyed by her efforts to keep up with the other mothers. If he had his way, they’d parent as their own parents had – hands off, free range, throw-the-kid-into-the-deep-end-and-hope-he-swims. If she talked to him about the Elf on the Shelf, he’d implore her not to do it. “Your anxiety is bad enough – even with your medication. Why do you do these things to yourself?” Then he’d go on the internet and look up sports statistics for his fantasy leagues while she prepped lunches and signed forms and emailed teachers. Yeah, honey, she’d think, I wonder why I’m stressed.

She put Henry to bed – after one more story, another story, just one more, PLEASE – and poured a glass of red wine. Where on earth should Blitzen or Holly or Jolly or whatever the hell his name was going to be make his debut? Wait – was Henry supposed to name him? She’d have to Google it. She was supposed to put him in some mischievous scene – making snow angels in scattered flour or lost in mounds of toilet paper – but she’d be the one to clean it up, so she chose something neater. She hid him (or her? Did it have to be a him?) in the Christmas tree, on the branch right above the big gift Henry couldn’t help checking out every day. Tomorrow was a school day, so there wouldn’t be a lot of time to meet him, but at least he wouldn’t go to school feeling neglected.

Paul was already fast asleep – a talent that never ceased to both amaze and annoy her – so she left the tree lights on. He said it was such a waste of power, but she loved seeing its glow when she inevitably woke up in the middle of the night to ease Henry out of a nightmare or pee with her post-childbirth faulty bladder.

She jolted out of sleep. She sat up in her bed, sweating and breathing hard. She’d had a nightmare but she couldn’t remember it. Nightmares were nothing new. She often dreamed that she was driving with Henry when she suddenly became blind and couldn’t figure out how to stop the car, or that Henry wasn’t at school when she came to pick him up and the teachers said some man who did not fit Paul’s description took him, or that a man with a gun was chasing her and Henry wouldn’t budge and she couldn’t seem to carry him. She looked at the clock. 3am. If she went back to sleep right now, she could get 3 more hours of sleep. The electricity flowing though her veins assured her that would not be a possibility.

She crept out of bed and into the hallway, where she could see the warm glow of the tree from the living room. She walked past it into their small, galley kitchen to get a cup of tea, even though she didn’t really like tea, because the almighty “they” said that herbal tea was good for coaxing you back to sleep. It used to be warm milk but now nobody drank milk because milk was supposed to be indigestible for adults, or something. She looked at the tea packet for a full 30 seconds, then put it back and microwaved a mug of milk.

She cradled the mug between her hands, the way pretty women often did in movies, and walked over to the tree.

The elf wasn’t there. She put the mug on top of the mantle and fell to her knees. He must have fallen behind a present, she thought, but he wasn’t there, either. He was nowhere to be found.

Crap. Henry found him. He got out of bed and miraculously did not call for her assistance. He somehow found the elf and brought him back to bed. So much for his grand entrance. At least he liked it.

She stood up to grab her mug and stifled a scream. There, on the mantle, was the elf, smiling maniacally at her.

How did she not see it before? She’d placed her mug on that same mantle, just inches away, but she didn’t see him. How was that possible?

She crept over to her green microfiber sofa – the one the salesperson had assured her wouldn’t be destroyed by her cat – and plopped down on top of the assorted claw marks. Her heart was pounding so hard that it physically hurt. She had to tell herself to breathe. She had to put the mug of hot milk on the end table because she’d spilled it all over her pajamas and burned her thighs.

I’m being ridiculous, she thought. Her daily mantra. But really. It’s just a doll. Paul probably found it in the middle of the night and thought it was a fire hazard and moved it to the mantle.

But thinking of things like fire hazards was her job – in fact, she was surprised she hadn’t considered it before – and Paul almost never woke up in the middle of the night. Henry couldn’t reach the top of the mantle. How on earth did he get there?

As she pondered all this, she kept her eyes on him. What, am I afraid he’s going to leap out and get me? How ridiculous is that?

She’d had to stop watching horror movies after Henry was born because all the bizarre situations that once thrilled her and stirred up delightful, terror-induced endorphins now itched at the back of her brain, a constant irritation of “But what if that actually happened?” Did it matter that she didn’t believe in ghosts or demons, did it matter that she knew that murderous freaks were very rare? No, because now, with the bone-gripping anxiety that was born on the same day as her 7lb, 12 ounce boy, she had to entertain the thought that the crazy, far-fetched thing could happen and it would destroy her world.

He didn’t move – of course he didn’t – and eventually her heart rate slowed to normal, or at least normal for her. She’d never actually put him in the tree. Of course not. She’d chugged that glass of wine and was particularly exhausted from her day. She’d planned to do it, and then forgot to, just as she’d forgotten so many things. But then why could she remember the smell of the pine and the feeling of needles showering her hands as she placed him in there?

A sliver of sun shone through the sliding glass doors, and she looked at the clock. It was already 5:45am. Had she really been sitting here for more than two hours?

“Mommy?” His thin little voice, a hint of doubt, as if this would be the morning she wouldn’t actually show. Is he inheriting my anxiety? Oh God. She’d never considered that. Had she passed these genes onto him, or had he learned to worry about every aspect of life simply by observing her? All she’d ever wanted was to not screw up her child. Had she already failed at that?

She glanced one more time at the elf. He still hadn’t moved, and everything seemed much more normal in the light of day. The mantle seemed like the perfect place for him anyway.

***
Henry loved the elf, of course. He named him Alex, because Alex was his best friend at school. She made sure not to stress that whole “reporting back to Santa” aspect, because she didn’t want to feed what she was now certain was generalized anxiety disorder in her 5 year old. So they focused on how cute he was, even though she thought he was anything but.

She found it hard to concentrate at work. She wrote memos and made phone calls, her mind constantly trailing back to last night. Maybe it was time to talk to her psychiatrist about switching medication. She needed regular sleep and a better memory, both of which seemed to be destroyed by the mood stabilizer they were “trying,” because her symptoms didn’t seem to fall neatly into any prescribed psychiatric box. Her own mother swore that her “symptoms” could be attributed to her lackadaisical husband, modern-day competitive parenting culture, and the fact that she lived too far away from her family and had nobody to help take care of Henry. The older she got, the more she felt like her mother was right about things.

She hadn’t moved Alex before they left for school, because she honestly didn’t like the idea of touching him, but now she worried that she’d messed up. Was he supposed to be in a different spot when they came home? She considered texting Paul to ask him to do it, but his look of annoyance over breakfast as Henry chattered on about the elf was palpable. She knew he thought the elf was stupid and wanted nothing to do with it. He didn’t even want Henry to believe in Santa because he still felt betrayed by realizing how long his parents had lied to him. (But then again, he believed until he was in 7th grade.)

Whatever. On the mantle he’d still be. She’d never be first place in the motherhood department, but at least she could try to show up on the leader board.

Henry bounded through the door when they got home. “Alex? Hey Alex! We ate gingerbread cookies at school today and –“

She trudged through the door, laden with her heavy laptop bag and huge mom-purse and Henry’s backpack and Henry’s lunch bag and the massive holiday poster he’d made, laden with Christmas trees and dreidels and Kwanzaa kinaras and Chinese New Year dragons, the obscene amount of glue he used still wet.

Henry was just staring at the mantle, silent. She looked, and the elf wasn’t there.

There were copious scratch marks, as if Booker (the cat she and Paul had gotten together when they were still dating, the cat they named after their favorite bourbon, back when they did things like have favorite bourbons and do things together) had lost his mind.

Maybe he had. Maybe Booker – who was usually a very chill elderly cat – didn’t like Alex and had destroyed him. She was appalled at the sense of relief she felt at that thought. Henry would be heart-broken.

Booker was sleeping on Henry’s bed, as usual. She knelt down next to him and stroked him. He purred instantly, and looked at her between his slit eyes. Just as she was about to praise him for his murderous deed, she felt someone looking at her.

It was Alex, perched on Henry’s easel, arms and legs crossed smugly.

“ALEX!!!” Henry had spotted him before she could grab him – she’d had an urge to grab that damned elf – and he ran right up to him. He didn’t touch him, because she’d learned that they weren’t supposed to touch him – but he got very close and it made her pulse quicken.

As Henry told Alex about his day, she crept closer. His eyes, which had been looking coyly to the right, were now looking to the left – at her. But that was impossible. They must have been looking to the left the whole time. But she specifically remembered them looking to the right at the tree last night. But she remembered a lot of things that weren’t real.

Paul walked across the threshold and crouched down. “Daddy!” Henry shouted, leaping into Paul’s arms. Paul tussled Henry’s hair, then looked at Alex. “Ah, Santa’s elf came into your room, eh? Guess he’s trying to keep a close eye on you.” He smiled at her, and she felt her chest unclench. Paul had moved him. Paul had softened. He did this from time to time, slipping into his old self, flirting with her, listening to her, treating her ideas and thoughts as if they were valid and even intelligent.

She laughed, a little too loud, and felt her cheeks burn. Gratitude overwhelmed her – gratitude to have Paul’s love, of course, but mostly that the elf she’d purchased to spare her son’s hurt feelings wasn’t actually a murderous fiend. Because of course he wasn’t. Child’s Play was always on her list of guilty-pleasure horror movies; had its ridiculous idea that a doll could be evil actually been processed through her anxiety into the realm of “But what if that actually happened?”

That evening was one of the best they’d had in a while. Paul had a glass of wine with her at dinner and had offered to do the whole bedtime routine with Henry, who only put up a small fight over how he wanted Mommy instead. She successfully fought the guilty thought she always had when Paul put him down: “But what if Henry gets killed in a school shooting tomorrow and you didn’t kiss him goodnight the night before?” She started on a second glass of wine and watched “The Real Housewives of Orange County” with abandon. The routine lasted roughly the same amount of time as a full episode, and she felt calmer than she had in a while.

Paul emerged from Henry's room and walked to the kitchen. He pulled out a bag of tortilla chips and salsa, his usual post-dinner snack, and she came up behind him and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Thank you so much for moving that elf, honey. I thought you’d be mad at me for getting it. I know it seems silly, but Hen—“

“I didn’t move it.” His mouth was full of chips, but he was looking at her with concern. “Honey, I haven’t touched that thing. I thought you did it.”

She felt a chill snake from the crown of her head to her toes. “What?”

“Yeah, I think it’s overkill, but he was so happy this morning. It was cute. You must have moved it. You did it before work, right?”

She hadn’t. She was certain. They’d all met Alex and went over the rules and Henry had barely touched his steel cut oats made in the slow cooker overnight served with a splash of organic milk and raw honey and then she’d had to rush out the door because they were late. She knew with certainty that she hadn’t touched it, because she’d been terrified to touch it after the night she’d had.

She started to run toward Henry’s room but Paul blocked her. “What are you doing?”

“I can’t let him sleep with that thing!”

“Don’t you dare wake him up. It took me forever to get him to sleep.”

“Paul, it moves on its own. It did it last night, and it did it again today.”

“What? Do you hear yourself? I know you get mad at me when I say this, but you sound crazy.”

She shoved past him and he grabbed her arm. “Don’t you get physical with me,” he barked “We’ve talked about this. I thought you were doing better, but look at you! You’ve got to get a hold of yourself.”

“Paul, this isn’t about my ‘symptoms.’ Our son is in danger. This is real. I’ll get him back to sleep, but I have to go in there.”

She wretched free from his grasp – she’d have to deal with his injured feelings later – and burst through Henry’s door. Henry was in his bed, under the Paw Patrol covers, but Alex was not on the easel. She checked the floor, praying he’d just fallen to the floor, but he wasn’t there. She looked under the bed, in the toy chest. She opened his closet and rifled through the clothes. She felt ridiculous, doing this in the dark with only the light of her cell phone to guide her, but if she could avoid waking Henry, she would. There still remained a seed of doubt in her brain – for how could this be real?

When Henry was a baby, she was terrified of SIDS. She’d nurse him to sleep, then place him in his crib like a grenade. She’d tiptoe out successfully, then plop on the couch. Before she could get even 10 minutes into a show, though, she’d creep into his room to test for breathing. She’d try to watch from the doorway, but she didn’t trust her eyes. So she’d creep right up to him and put her hands on his chest. She’d keep it there until she felt at least ten breaths. She did this every 30 minutes. When she tried to sleep, if Henry didn’t wake her up, she’d wake up on her own do test his breathing. She often woke him up with her antics, and Paul’s disdain toward her took root.

She felt just as foolish now, looking in the dark for an anthropomorphized doll. Why can’t I just be normal? Why do I always have to make things more complicated than they are? If I were Paul, I’d leave me. Henry will sit in therapy one day, tugging at his hair and talking about how his neurotic mother made him turn to drugs. This can’t be happening the way I imagine it is. I’ve finally lost my mind in a way that health-insurance-approved mood stabilizers can’t fix.

Just then, she heard a laugh. It was tiny, as if a housefly had been told a dirty joke, but she knew she could hear it. She couldn’t see very well in the dark, but something was moving in Henry’s bed. Had she woken him?

But her gut compelled her to turn on the lights, consequences be damned. She flipped on the light and saw Alex, gleefully making snow angels in the fluff from Alex pillow. The pillow had been slashed open, the fluff mounded like viscera from an animal. The pillow was on Henry’s face and his tiny body was struggling to get the pillow off.

Unlike her nightmares, she wasn’t blind, she wasn’t frozen. She felt her muscles spring before her brain registered what she was doing and she grabbed the pillow. It was impossible to peel away; the tiny elf was holding it down as if he were an anchor. He’d sprouted very real, pointy teeth, and his soft felt hands were replaced by talons.

She punched him square in the face and he bit her arm. Blood began to spew all over Cap’n Turbot’s face. She felt rage well up in her – the rage that had consumed her more than a few times since giving birth. Rage at doing all the parenting tasks by default, rage at never living up to the expectations some “they” had established for her, rage at feeling shitty when she wanted time alone – and she lunged at Alex’s neck. She grabbed it firmly, and pulled him off the pillow. She collapsed to the ground, but maintained her grip on Alex’s neck. She could hear Henry coughing and could see him thrashing in her peripheral vision. She wanted to rush to him, but she couldn’t let go of Alex.

He was so much heavier than he should have been, and he was thrashing about violently. She felt the skin of her hands and arms rip open and the rush of thick, hot blood flowing. She managed to get him through the doorway, into the hallway. Paul stood in the living room, pale white, staring at her with horror.

“Turn on the fireplace. NOW PAUL!”

He didn’t take his eyes off her, and he moved at an infuriatingly slow pace, but he stepped to the gas fireplace and flipped the switch. Instantly, fire blazed. She fell to her knees, beyond fatigued from the battle. She had to slither across the carpet like a deranged snake, all the while holding on to Alex’s neck. Finally, she got close to the fireplace and flung her arms into the flames. She considered tossing him in, but she was afraid he’d escape the fire. She felt the flames tear into her arms and smelled the sickening smell of burnt flesh. When he finally stopped moving, she removed her pathetic arms and rolled on top of them, putting out the flame by singing her torso.

“Mommy? Mommy!” Henry fell on top her body and sobbed. “Mommy, I couldn’t breathe! Mommy!”

And then, just as suddenly, she felt his weight lift off of her. She looked. Paul had picked him up.
“Mommy’s not feeling well, honey. We need to give her some space.”

He carried Henry into their bedroom, and she could hear him making a call. 911. Of course. He was quiet, but she thought she could hear him say, “My wife tried to hurt my son.” Surely not. Surely that’s not what he said.

She stared into the fire, watching the mound of elf melt. Just as she began to pass out, she saw his head turn toward her.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Ghost at Mamaw and Papaw's House



I don't initially strike people as the kind of person who might believe in the paranormal. After all, I'm a big believer in science and I like to base my beliefs on evidence, and there's scant evidence out there to support the idea of the paranormal. 
The thing is, though, that I've had several of my own experiences that leave me questioning. Presented for your pre-Halloween pleasure, here's one of my very own ghost stories. 
**************
Growing up, I practically lived at my grandparents’ house. They were Mamaw and Papaw to me. They never had much money, so they bounced from rental home to rental home in Bonnieville, KY – whatever they could afford and whatever was available – and that usually meant something small and ramshackle.

When I was around 6 (the early 1980’s), they moved into a different home. It had an enormous front yard with a gently sloping hill. There was a beautiful old oak tree with a tire swing. There was an ancient stone stove leftover from the original property that my grandfather cleaned out and turned into a grill. There were fragrant bluebells everywhere.

But inside the house, things were… off. It was minor at first. There would be a faint rustling in the attic, which was odd, since everyone was strictly forbidden from going up there. (Normally Mamaw gave us free reign, so this in itself was odd.) Papaw would check it out, but could never find any animals. We would swear we could hear footsteps going up the stairs, but when we all got quiet to listen, there would be nothing. My aunt, who was around 18 at the time, said she thought she could hear chains clinking when she was trying to drift off to sleep.

Papaw’s behavior changed, too. A typically jovial, easy-going, loving man, he became easily agitated in the house. He’d complain that he was “frozen to his bones,” and couldn’t stop fidgeting with the furnace downstairs.

The dog, Lady’s, behavior changed as well. She was a sweet, mellow girl, but in the house she was anxious. Not long after they moved in, she’d often go to my grandparents’ bedroom and bark at the window, usually at night. My grandfather was convinced that someone was outside, but he could never find anyone. So they started shutting the door to their bedroom to keep Lady out.

As a child, none of this really bothered me. But I remember that I couldn’t stand being alone in any room for any amount of time. I’d trail my grandparents, often making them incredibly annoyed. Mamaw, specifically, tired quickly of accompanying a growing child to the bathroom each and every time.

But things escalated quickly on one particular evening. I’d been out with my grandparents and my aunt, and we pulled into the carport, Papaw noticed that the basement door was slightly open. He quickly jumped into protector mode.

“Y’all stay here. I’ll be right back.”

He descended into the basement and then… nothing. Silence. We stood there, terrified. Eventually, Mamaw yelled out, “LESTER?!”

Papaw came back up slowly, pale and shaking. I’d never seen him vulnerable like this before, and it made my knees give out.

He took a few breaths. “It’s OK, it’s OK. Just don’t go down there.”

Well, if you tell a woman in my family not to do something, we are absolutely compelled to do it. So the three women stepped past Papaw and down a few steps into the basement.

It took us a moment to realize what we were looking at. As if our brains couldn’t actually comprehend the input. But there it was. On the wooden steps leading down, there were footprints. They moved across the cement basement floor and up the cinder block wall. They stopped at the furnace. They were deep red. They looked like blood.

The adults immediately launched into logical explanations.

“The dog has to be hurt. We got to find her. That’s a lot of blood to lose.” Papaw’s voice was barely above a whisper.

“Lester, you know those’re too big to be from a dog!” Mamaw, like every woman in the family before and since, showed her fear through irritation and anger.

“Well then somebody broke in here and is trying to scare us.”

I was just a kid. I stood there, looking at this impossibly creepy scene, having no idea what caused it, but knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that whatever had been in this room was bad. Very, very bad.

We went upstairs to find Lady still in the house, cowering. “See, I told you she was hurt,” Papaw sighed, obviously happier to have an injured dog than to entertain other ideas.

But when we inspected her, there wasn’t a scratch on her. No blood. Nothing. She was fine, just terrified.

After that, the quirkiness of the house no longer cute to anybody. To this day, I don’t know if it was really blood. My grandparents cleaned it, and then stopped talking about it. But every little scuttle we heard from the attic sent shivers down our spines. Every time a door closed on its own, we jumped 10 feet. And when Lady seemed to be afraid of something we couldn’t see, we all silently moved away.

As much as it pained me, I stopped coming to my grandparents’ house very much after this, and I didn’t spend the night at all. My grandparents had a magnetic draw to me. Their very presence brought me peace and contentment, and it was typical for me to beg to go to their home so regularly that it drove my mother crazy. But every time I’d feel that longing, I’d remember those footprints. And I wouldn’t say a word.

Time passed. Creepy happenings happened less and less frequently, at least according to my grandmother. She missed my siblings and me coming around, and she tried to assuage our fears. “Someone was just messing with us, honey. We ain’t gonna let them scare us.”

It was several months later that I came to their house for Easter. The small home was bursting at the seams with extended family, all in our pastel finest. I was around 8 by this point, and I felt tremendously old and wise. I decided this would be my year to hide the Easter eggs.

My two older brothers were not on board with this. “You’re too little. You’re supposed to hunt them.”

Tell a woman in our family that she can’t do something, and suddenly that’s all she can think about doing.

It was a very warm, windy spring day. The tire swing would dance wildly in the wind for a moment, then slow into a gentle rocking. I was very proud of my hiding ability. I color coordinated eggs – putting red eggs near red flowers, green eggs in bushes, blue eggs on the blue car, etc. I hid some right out in the open grass, knowing they’d never think to look under their noses. I was going to get the better of my brothers, and boy would they eat their words.

I was about ¾ of the way through the eggs. I’d made my way to the back of the house now, crossing from the rabbit pen toward the basement door. That’s when I heard the footsteps.

My feet would crunch, and there would be a slightly overlapping crunch, a few yards behind. The overlapping crunch was louder, indicated the large body of one of my hulking, sports-obsessed brothers.

Crunch-crunch. Crunch-crunch. I walked slowly, hiding an egg here and there, not turning around, just to make sure I was correct. If one of my brothers was, indeed, trailing me, I was going to have to get back at him. He – whether it was Jason or Kerry – was probably trying to take note of where I was hiding the eggs, so they would be instantly victorious, showing what a terrible hider I was.

Crunch-crunch. Crunch-crunch. Crunch-crunch. Crunch-crunch. Yes, he was definitely there. Could I hear him breathing, too? I was pretty sure I could.

And then, suddenly, the pattern changed. The footsteps were no longer in line with mine. They were independent, and they were FAST! That jerk was trying to run up and scare me!

Righteous indignation flared up in me. I was not going to be scared by one of my brothers!

I waited until the footsteps were right behind me, then I jumped around, my chin pointed up to where my brother’s face should be.

But there was nobody there. Nothing.

I dropped the basket and bolted to the door. I didn’t have a single thought in my head, just a knowledge that I should no longer be alone.

I snaked through the crowd and sat on the couch. People eventually found out I was finished hiding the eggs, and went out for their hunt. I trailed my grandmother around, obsessively. I refused to tell anyone, because the idea of someone doubting me after getting that terrified seemed too awful for words. And all I could think was, “Was THAT the thing that made those footprints?”

My grandparents moved out not that long afterwards, and eventually stories about their “haunted house” became fun tales we told around Reese’s peanut cups after trick-or-treating.

But I’ve never stopped thinking about it.

I reached out to my mom and aunt (sadly, all of my grandparents are deceased) recently to confirm my memories and see if there’s anything I didn’t know.

And boy, was there.

First off, this wasn’t the first time my grandparents had lived in the house. They’d lived there decades prior, in the 1950’s, when my mom was a little girl. Nothing paranormal had happened in the house, but the experience was still strange.

The previous owner, I’ll call him Mr. Smith, lost his wife in a tragic accident. He became mentally ill afterwards. After the house was sold (probably for financial reasons), he didn’t want to leave. He’d come around the property on occasion, and my grandparents would have to ask him to leave.

The attic? That contained all his late wife’s belongings. Yes – even in the 80’s. That means here things had been up there for 30 odd years. My grandmother was creeped out by this, which is why she forbade us to play up there.

Mr. Smith died not too long before my grandparents moved in the second time. I vaguely remember Mamaw whispering that she thought Lady was barking at Mr. Smith, or maybe those were his footsteps. But I had no idea who he was or that he was dead.

My aunt told me that one night, when I was not there, Mamaw woke up to find a man standing outside their bedroom. She got up to see who it was, and he walked away. She followed him into the living room, where he walked through the front door. The CLOSED front door, that is.

When my grandmother had moved into the house the second time (the time I experienced), she lost one of her favorite shoes. Seeing as she didn’t have much money, she didn’t have a lot of shoes, and this annoyed her greatly (there’s a strong chance she suspected me of robbery, since I loved to wear her shoes). At some point, she gave up the search, even after going through the forbidden attic, and threw away her other shoe.

Years later, after they’d moved out, she came back to the house to give the key back to the owner. She heard a loud rustling in the attic, and assumed the owner was there, tidying up. Then she heard footsteps descending down the attic stairs. She went to meet him, but there was nobody there. Just that lone shoe she’d lost years ago.

About 12 years ago, when I was visiting my mom, she, my little sister, my aunt, my cousin, and I all decided to visit the “haunted house.” No car was in the driveway, so we figured nobody was home. (This is a small town. You can do things like hang around someone else’s property without getting in trouble.)

As soon as we got out, my 5 year old cousin, Kaitlyn, pointed at the basement window and said, “He’s in there.”

“Who?” We all asked, worried it might be the owner, wondering who all these people were in his driveway.

“The bad man. He has blood on him.”

I wanted to get in the car and drive away right then. This wasn’t fun anymore.

But we inspected the property. Did someone move the curtain in the attic? We couldn’t tell if we really saw it, or if it was just a trick of the light.

We peered through the windows, and I experienced the very strange mixture of nostalgia and fear. So many good memories here, yet so much… so much what? Darkness. Not just the way it looked, but the way it felt. Like pure darkness.

As we stood there on that large, sloping yard, the porch swing began to move. This was in the dead of summer, when a breeze in the 95 degree heat would have been a blessing. There was no breeze, though.

The swinging got bigger and bigger, despite the still air. We all held our breath. And then my aunt spoke.

“Mr. Smith? Is that you?”

The swing stopped. Just stopped, even though it was swinging widely just moments before.

I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. No, I thought. It’s just the wind. This is not Ghost Hunters. We cannot conjure up paranormal activity at will.

And then slowly, imperceptibly at first, the swing started moving again. Wider and wider swings, until it looked like someone was making their stomach flip while sitting on it.

“Was that…WAS that you, Mr. Smith?” The rest of us looked at my aunt with a mixture of shock and admiration. How was she not afraid?

And again – it stopped. And it felt – I swear to you – like someone was looking at us. Angrily.

This time, I was done. When you watch a horror movie, moments like these send a tingle down your spine, a thrilling and delightful feeling of fear. What I felt in that moment was doom. This was wrong, very wrong, and I needed to get away from it.

I took my cousin back to the car and tried to enjoy her adorable chatter. As long as we weren’t near the house, she didn’t talk about “the bad man.”

I have no clue what was going on with that house. I find it hard to believe in the traditional idea of ghosts as the spirits of the deceased wandering the Earth.

But I can tell you that I’ve never – and will never – go back to that property again.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mad Love



My handsome lunch date. Hard to believe this gorgeous little man can sometimes make me crazy.

"You'll see. Having a boy is totally different. You won't love him more than your daughter; but you'll love him differently. And will he love you! He'll be mommy's little boy!"

Having one daughter and one son invites all kinds of comments from people, as does having any configuration of children or having no children or what have you. Basically, if you're between the ages of 18 and 50, everyone needs to comment obsessively on your domestic situation.

People love to stress how different parenting will be based on my kids' genders, which, as a progressive person who understands how harmful gender norms and expectations can be to all sorts of folks, irks me.

Basically, if you raise more than one child, the experiences will be totally different. Their gender is not the sole cause for this.

That said, this progressive woman gave birth to two children who seem intent on upholding societal expectations for gender. Stella basically requires that any article of clothing that enters her room be pink. Her Netflix nickname is "Stella the Stylist." Getting a manicure is the pinnacle of happiness for her. When I accidentally woke her up while checking on her last night, she mumbled in her sleep, "I just need an outfit!"

Sam is a rough and tumble boy obsessed with superheroes, trucks, and sports. He turns toys into swords and guns, and loves nothing more than to wrestle. HARD. He needs a villain to defeat in every game we play. He even, I swear, will sometimes say things like, "Mommy, I'll protect you.You're my princess."

In the meanwhile, I'm running around reminding Stella that she's empowered/independent/strong and Sam that he's kind/sweet/caring. If they insist on conforming, they'll at least do so without the harmful downfall of the patriarchy. 

Raising two very different kids has been wonderful and challenging in very distinct ways. And since I grapple with anxiety, I've noticed that each kid triggers that anxiety in opposing ways.

With Stella, it was all about her lack of sleep and screaming. Before she was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I had no clue why she was so sensitive to outside stimuli, nor why she would scream when unhappy, rather than talk about it. But not getting enough rest and enduring blood curdling cries for sometimes hours on end left me hanging on by a thread. (You can hear more about this by listening to either my Moth Story Slam story or my Expressing Motherhood story, if you're in the mood.)

Sam has been a fairly normal sleeper. He yells, but he doesn't scream for hours on end. But his physical roughness pushes my buttons in ways that haven't been pushed since I was a kid.

Sam is freakishly strong. This is not a mom bragging about her son, it's a fact. He's this tiny little guy who is at least as strong as me and sometimes even stronger. Since's he's an oppositional threenager, that means that he resists leaving to go to school, going upstairs for his bath, getting into his bed at night, sitting at dinner. I'm basically a police officer trying to move a very resistant protester several times a day.

But that's not the worst of it. He hurts me daily. 99% of the time, it's accidental. He's fiercely affectionate, so he'll run up to hug me and accidentally headbutt me. He'll climb on my lap and his knees and elbows will dig in sharply to areas I didn't even know I had. He'll grab my face to kiss me and his little fingers will leave marks. He'll kick me in the face - hard - in the middle of the night (because he climbs into our bed and sleeps between us every single night these days).

And then, 1% of the time, he hurts me on purpose. He'll get angry that he's not getting the dinner he wanted or that I have the audacity to tell him to stop making a mess, and he'll smack me in the face or throw something at me or kick me in my side. And as pathetic as this sounds, it hurts. It really hurts.

And that's when my anxiety goes from zero to 100. I dealt with a lot of turmoil as a kid, and getting hit brings me instantly back to a bad time. Yes, I know rationally that this is just my kid testing his boundaries, but part of me feels like a helpless kid at the mercy of a dysfunctional home. That's how PTSD works.

So I either get worked up and scream like an idiot, or I retreat into a corner and cry, or I look (on the surface) like I'm handling it well, but later that night I'll fall into a funk.

It's hard to handle something as big as my kid being violent when that violence triggers my mental health issues.

But I am. Even just recognizing that this is why this is so hard for me helps. It's a tough situation for every parent, really. But teaching him that he can't hurt people - accidentally or otherwise - without consequence is important.

And, inevitably, moments after he hurt me, he'll do something so insanely sweet that will make me melt into a puddle of mom-juice. Have you seen those Sour Patch Kids commercials where the Sour Patch Kid does something mean, then does something really cute? First sour, then sweet? Well, that's exactly what Sam does.


Parenting with anxiety is an adventure, that's for sure. And in many ways, it's made me confront and deal with issues that plagued me my entire life. I'm not saying I love getting physically assaulted on a daily basis, but it's certainly made me look back and process things that I'd buried several hundred feet under the ground.

And those fierce hugs that I get several times a day are healing, too.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

On Being Moderately Fat

My sister recently posted this picture of me on Facebook. My initial reaction was, "Damn, I'm fat. I have to untag myself." My second reaction, after a lot of deep breathing and consciously unlearning and resisting societal norms was, "I'm fat; that's who I am. I'm also beautiful and talented and worthy, and I can't run away from what I look like."

I don't write very much about the state of my body. Mostly because it tends to make people uncomfortable. Especially when I use the word "fat."

My dear friend from New York, Alex, inspired me to call myself fat. We were best friends in our formative early twenties, and we were both larger women. Back in those days, we'd get together and eat whatever food was allowed on whatever diet we were on, complain about our upper arms or thighs, get really sad, drink a little, and eventually say really mean thing about ourselves. We did other stuff, too, but being really down on our bodies was definitely part of our bonding.

Then, Alex took a burlesque class, and eventually mustered up the courage to perform for a real audience. The sheer act of taking off her clothes in front of others helped her feel more comfortable in her body. In fact, she gave an amazing Ted Talk about her transformation that is well worth your time. (She's kind of a big deal.)

Alex, aka Lillian Bustle, taught me that the word "fat" is merely a descriptor. Society tells us it's bad, that it's ugly and nasty. But we don't have to accept that.

I hesitate to write about being fat, because I know a chorus of well-meaning friends will be quick to reply, "YOU'RE NOT FAT!" As if being fat is so horrible, so scary, that we have to obliterate the word before it is fully pronounced.

But I wear glasses. If I say, "I wear glasses," nobody screams at me, "YOU DON'T WEAR GLASSES!" I have brown hair, but nobody ever contradicts that. Nobody tells me I'm wrong when I say I'm white or female or am a mother. Why? Because we don't see anything inherently wrong with those descriptors.

I am fat. Objectively so. I'm not big boned or curvy or chubby. I'm fat. And I'm really OK with it. Or, maybe more honestly, I'm working to be OK with it. Every moment of every day.

Not that it's anyone's business, but I'm healthy. Like many fat people, my body is fat not because of gorging on fast food or lack of activity. I cook very healthy, vegetable-heavy meals most days of the week. I drink enough water. I don't drink soda. I work out regularly. I haven't eaten at McDonald's in so long, I can't remember the last time I set foot in one. My blood pressure is great, my cholesterol is great, my resting heart rate is great.

Was I once unhealthy? Yes. I grew up in a traumatic home, and turned to food for comfort. I've struggled with eating disorders - binging, binging and purging, not eating anything, eating very little and then purging that. I once starved myself down to a size 4. I gained three times the recommended amount of weight during my first pregnancy. I've done the Adkins Diet and South Beach Diet and Weight Watchers and The Whole 30 and the Paleo Diet. I've run regularly and done yoga and taken adult dance classes and done weight training and lived in NYC where I walked several miles per day. I've felt suicidal more than once in my life because of how my body looked.

All this to say, that the current state of my body is not because I'm a lazy slob who let herself go.

But damn it, why do I feel the need to justify that? Why is our society still so insistent that women are SEXY! HOT! GORGEOUS! STUNNING! at every age, in every circumstance? And why do we equate thin with beauty? How did that lie get so much momentum? Our society tells women that if they're fat, nobody will love them. And yet Alex and I and so many others found amazing partners who love us just as we are.

Sorry. This is rambly. What was my point?

I guess I want to join the growing number of fat people who are sharing their stories, so we can finally start to eliminate this stigma. Because, to this day, I'm treated differently because of my size.

Just the other day, I ran on the treadmill and was sweaty and gross. I popped by the store on the way home to pick up supplies for slime-making and cookie-baking, because that's how I wanted to bond with my kiddos. I held a package of cookie dough in my hand, and I felt eyes on me. A thin older woman looked at the cookie dough, then looked at me - a fat woman in workout clothes. She laughed. She laughed in my face and then walked away. "Yeah, you burned 30 calories, so why not go eat a bunch of cookies, fatty?"

Don't tell me that's not what she was thinking.

I've been thin and I've been fat and I've been everything in between. I can affirm that fat people are treated differently.

And the thing is, I still have a lot of thin privilege at my size. I can still buy clothes at most stores and sit comfortably in a regular airplane seat and climb a lighthouse on vacation with a weight limit and live in a house with multiple floors without damaging my joints. I know and love a lot of people who struggle with the way their weight infringes upon their lives every day. The tiny amount of discrimination I deal with is nothing compared to what they go through.

But what I'm tired of, what I'm so tired of, is the assumption that I should do more. That if I cut xyz out of my diet or tried this class or meditated or what have you, I could be thin. The damned arrogance of some really good people to assume that someone as intelligent and diligent and tenacious as me isn't doing enough.

And the crass assumption that it's any of their business.

So, the next time you find yourself wanting to laugh at a post making fun of Chris Christie's weight or chuckle at some meme featuring a fat person or want to recommend a diet or lifestyle change to a fat friend, please kindly remind yourself that we are people and we are fine and lovable and valuable just the way we are. And if we want to take measures - drastic or otherwise - to alter our bodies, that's our business. And if we don't - if we've tried and tried and finally just want to be content and happy - that's our business, too.

And maybe someday I'll get up the courage to watch the Food Network while I run on the treadmill. But right now, I hate the idea of being the butt of someone's joke.

*****
Resources (Including the ones mentioned above)

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Value of Failure

Failure is an excellent teacher.

It's weird, being a mom and a teacher. I mean, I deal with children at the minimum FOURTEEN HOURS A DAY, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK. That's assuming both of my kids sleep through the night. Which is no given.

I'm constantly on, constantly a role model, constantly caring for others than myself. But I'm not writing this blog to vent. (Cue the contented sigh from my microscopic group of loyal readers.)

Before I became a parent, I figured I knew it all. I'd been teaching for six years, and I'd observed what I considered to be parental pitfalls, mistakes I KNEW I'd never make with my own offspring. My kids would never eat fast food, would watch a maximum of 30 minutes of TV per week, would never throw a fit or have a rotten attitude or forget to do homework or leave a lunchbox behind at school.

Of course, the minute I was actually in charge of a small human who had her own personality separate from the one I was trying to cultivate, I realized how naive I'd been. Every "mistake" I'd witnessed other parents making were made by me, plus a million new ones I didn't know existed. This parenting gig is HARD, so hard, and there's no right way to do it.

So I have empathy beyond belief for the parents of the kids I teach. That judgmental vibe I had going on in my early days is gone, replaced by understanding and concern. When a parent expresses shock at their kid's behavior, I believe them (usually).

That said, there is one pattern I've observed as a teacher that gives me pause. (I'm going to say pattern rather than pitfall, even though I really kind of want to say pitfall, but I'm trying to be nice.) Many parents today are trying to shield their kids from all unhappiness and pain, and this tendency is ironically hurting their children.

When a student wastes classroom time and neglects to do an assignment, they'll get a zero in my grade book. A zero is the kiss of death. It can take a solid A down to a C or D instantly. But I'm fair. I accept late work all the way until the end of the term, and I don't even deduct points. My policy is considered too lenient by many. But I've structured it this way so a student will instantly see the logical consequence of their action (I didn't do my work, therefore my grade fell from an A to a C), and then feel empowered to fix it (they can actually watch their grade go back up to an A on their student portal in real time when I put the new grade in).

The ultimate goal is to teach them to be autonomous, independent, tenacious, and not afraid of failure. So they can grow into an adult who has a bad day at work, goes home, dusts themselves off, and comes back the next day ready to make things better.

But what happens more often than not is the minute the zero goes in the grade book, I get an email. Parents can set up the grade book so they get notifications when their kid's grade falls below a certain point. Which is fantastic. I adore when parents are involved in their child's education, and you know I'll sign up for those alerts when my own kids are in middle school. (Because, after all, middle schoolers are not known for always being so forthcoming with information about their school day.)

But the email I get often asks, "Why does Bobby Lee have a zero on that assignment?"

Let's think about this for a minute. If I put the grades in on my planning period, that means Bobby Lee is still at school. Which means the parent wants me to explain his zero before even asking Bobby.

I'm a patient person. I often reply with something along the lines of, "Make sure to talk to Bobby about this, so he can put a plan in place to bring his grade up, but I'll tell you that he didn't complete today's assignment. He can do it tonight for homework and turn it in tomorrow for full credit."

And, nine times out of ten, the parent would reply to me, asking me why he didn't do his work. Had I prompted him enough? Did he understand it? Did he seem sad? What kind of tone was I using?

Sometimes a parent will even scold me for making their kid feel bad by "giving" him a D.

via GIPHY


I have nearly 120 students, roughly 30 per class. As good as I am, I can't always determine why a student didn't do his or her work. And it is never my intention for a kid to feel bad. Ever.

The main problem with this is not that it's annoying or time-consuming for me (I would never, ever complain about such things, ahem), it's that it takes the responsibility of the grade out of the student's hands and into the teacher's and parent's, and it teaches the student to panic when there's a problem.

I get it. When Stella's math grade fell to an NI (the old-school equivalent of a D) on her report card, some mama-bear part of my soul wanted to call the teacher and say, "HOW???" But I knew how. I'd seen Stella's low scores on her math tests, I'd battled my kid to do math homework. The teacher was doing all she could; it was time my kid take some responsibility.

Stella was devastated by her grade. She cried and was upset that we didn't get ice cream like we usually do. We were sympathetic and kind. We didn't yell at her for her low grade, but we didn't offer to make it go away by intimidating her teacher, either. We simply sat down and calmly made a plan to make it better. By seeing what could happen to her grade, Stella had more gumption to work harder at math, and she accepted our assistance more readily. When she brought it up to an S (old-school B) by the next report card, we all celebrated by eating ice cream.

What did Stella learn? Sometimes, we mess up. Maybe through no fault of our own. We stumble, we fall. We can accept the consequences, live through the disappointment, then find a way to make things better.

It wasn't easy when we were in it. It took work on all our parts, and there were days I wanted to magically erase that grade and make her feel better.

But this temporary discomfort is an investment. Someday, God willing, Stella will be in college. Maybe, like her mom, she'll fall for someone who's not really worthy of her, and when that person decimates her heart, she'll fall behind in her course work. And when she sees grades she doesn't like, she won't be defeated. She won't call me up to fix it for her. She'll know she has the power to make things better.

Some day, when Sam is working for a boss he may not really like, he may be required to redo and redo work that he thinks was pretty great the first time. He might get annoyed and even angry, but he'll have the fortitude to do it, without insulting his boss or throwing a fit in the meantime.

Just as we let our kids stumble when they're learning to walk, just as we let our kids get spaghetti sauce all over their clothes when they're learning to feed themselves, we have to learn to let them fail - even in school - so they can learn to overcome it. If we run around and fix all these problems, what kind of adults will they be?

It hurts to watch your kid suffer. But it's our job as parents to teach them that they can withstand bad things, because bad things will happen.

******
I wrote a blog entry geared toward teachers on this same topic that is on the JCPSForward site. I encourage all teachers and parents and pretty much everyone to read it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

In His Eyes

My sweet Alien Cat was not pleased that her camp group was not where she expected them to be.

I saw it in his eyes. It was just a flash, a fleeting moment, but I recognized it and it kicked me in the gut.

Today is “Mummies and Monsters Day” at Stella’s camp. Stella is not a fan of mummies nor monsters, but being the incredibly creative person she is, she whipped up a “Cat Alien” costume that is killer. (That girl’s obsession with cats began from before she could talk and has persisted consistently for nine years.)

We arrived, a bit harried. We were running later than this chronically-early-anxiety-ridden-mom would have liked, thanks to the fact that Stella wouldn’t put down her book at breakfast to get dressed and sunscreened-up until we’d gotten angry at her. (The only thing she loves as much as cats are books.)

It was bright, loud, and crowded. And to top it all off, Stella’s group wasn’t in their usual spot.

I started to panic. I know this kid like the palm of my hand, and even long before her autism spectrum disorder diagnosis earlier this year, I was aware of the problems a cocktail of situations like this could cause.

Stella doesn’t do well in the very bright sun, even with her sunglasses on.

Stella tends to freeze in a large crowds.

Stella has trouble staying calm when there are loud noises.

Stella likes routine and predictability, and her group being moved was not in the plan.

She didn’t have a tantrum, which was good. She’s been going to therapy to help her control her emotions when things don’t go according to her plan. But she looked worried. And she did that thing she does when she worries: she started to crawl into herself, to hunch over and make herself small.

I assured her it would be OK – that I’d help her find her group, but my heart ached for her. I looked around, desperate to find a recognizable counsellor or kid. I asked Stella, “Honey, don’t you see anyone you know?” But she wasn’t looking at anything but the ground, and she was close to tears. 

“No, Mommy! They’re not where they’re supposed to be.”

That’s when he approached. He looked confused, but kind. “Hey there! I’m Stella’s counselor. We’re meeting on the basketball court today.”

Stella shuffled past him, not looking back at me, not realizing I was trying to plant a kiss on her head. In her little Cat Alien outfit, complete with pointy ears and Ugg-style boots in the summer heat, she slumped to the basketball court like a kid going to the guillotine.

And he looked at her like she was different. As fast as it was, as innocent as he is, I know he did. And I know he did because I used to do the same thing.

I’ve taught in public schools for almost 15 years, and I’ve worked with kids all over the spectrum, kids with various learning disabilities, kids with mental, physical, and/or emotional conditions. I pride myself on making accommodations that ensure that each child feels supported, loved, valued, and successful in school.

But when I gave birth to Stella, I had to confront the fact that – as much as I loved and worked for my kids who weren’t neurotypical – I always saw them as different. I hate to type these words, I hate the shame they bring, but the truth is, I didn’t always see these kids as quite as “real” as the rest of us.

When that little boy stood too close to me and talked too loudly, I thought, “He has autism.” When that girl clasped her hands over her ears and ran out of the bathroom at the sound of the hand dryer, I thought, “She has autism.” When that student’s IEP stated that I needed to quietly restate directions to him and break longer assignments into short, manageable bits, I thought, “He has autism.” Sure, I had a positive attitude about helping them. Sure, I cared about them every bit as much as my other kids. But I was so hung up on thinking of them as autistic that I forgot to remember that they were also real people – with real thoughts and real emotions.

Stella has autism. But I forget she has it 1,000 times a day. When we laugh our heads off at something her little brother does. When she crawls into my lap – despite the fact that she’s obscenely tall for her age – and snuggles with me. When she plays with our neighbors’ kids in the backyard. When we sit together on the couch and read our books. When she swam into the fiercest waves on our vacation, refusing to be afraid of their strength. When she cries, worried that adorable kiwi birds will go extinct. When she paints an incredible picture or writes an astounding poem or quips a ridiculously sophisticated joke that leaves her father and me in stitches.

That counselor didn’t see any of that when he looked at Stella this morning. He saw a kid in a strange get-up act anti-social and disoriented because her group was 20 feet from their usual spot.

But I wish he could. Because underneath that quirkiness is a very real kid, with a very real heart and a real but incredible brain who just handles things a little differently than some of us. She is not defined by her autism diagnosis; her diagnosis just helps us know how to speak her language and value those differences.


Maybe someday he’ll get here, too. I hope he does. The view is beautiful.

*****

I'm thrilled and honored that this piece was chosen for the wonderful parenting site, Scary Mommy. Take a minute to check it over there, and follow them on Facebook!

Monday, June 19, 2017

This Time Last Year

I'm really good at hiding my misery for a picture.

My brain has a built-in Timehop. I can't help but think about where I was this time of year last year, or five years ago, or when I was nine. For example...

This time four years ago, I was seven months pregnant with Sam, entering into that phase of pregnancy that makes me want to crawl under a rock and die.

This time 12 years ago, I was starving myself to fit into my wedding dress, not suffering any cold feet. (Nope, none at all.)

This time 14 years ago, I was nearing the end of my first year of teaching, wondering if I would ever survive in this career.

This time 19 years ago, I had just moved to New York City, wondering if I'd made a colossal mistake.

But lately I keep thinking about this time of year exactly one year ago. Because I can barely believe how things have changed.

Things were bad at this point last year. Very, very bad. It was around this time of year that I had my very early yet horrible miscarriage. Despite the fact that I've always encouraged other women to speak out about such events, to stop burying them as if they're shameful, I found that I didn't want say a word. I felt embarrassed. We hadn't planned on another baby, and we kept talking about how we felt "done" at two. It was so early that I didn't ever realize I was pregnant until it was already over, so I didn't feel like I had a right to mourn.

Because I didn't make space for myself, my anxiety got really bad. I felt like nobody cared about me, which dredged up all kinds of memories of my childhood -- when I lived in family that revolved around a dangerous narcissist. I really didn't matter in his eyes, and while my dad is dead and I've long since left that dynamic, I found myself feeling like that eight year old child who accidentally peed in the car because her father refused to stop for her, terrified that he'd beat her for ruining the upholstery.

Dave and I were in a horrible place. Not too many people knew about this, but our marriage was very shaky last year. We'd set up a lot of communication patterns that had hit their expiration date, and we didn't know what to do. We are each other's first major relationship, and we both come from divorced homes that contained multitudes of dysfunction. Although we didn't physically hurt each other or cheat on each other, we both did things that made the other feel like he or she wasn't important, wasn't valued, wasn't loved. And neither of us was sure we were willing to change.

We went on a vacation that should have been fun, but it was pretty troubled. We drove down to lovely Destin, Florida. Sam was two, and not very good at car rides. He spent much of his time taking his shoes off and flinging them at Stella, who screamed bloody murder in return. When we stopped the car,  he clung to my body like a spider monkey. He'd pull on and pinch me, sticking elbows and knees into all kinds of crevices of my body as he tried (unsuccessfully) to reenter my womb. It was hot and sticky and I was so touched out that I proclaimed (more than a few times) my desire to go to a desert island for at least a month.

Stella hadn't been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder yet, but this trip was the catalyst for her evaluation. She had an incredibly hard time adapting to change. For example, if she had her heart set on chicken tenders for lunch but the menu only had chicken nuggets, she'd fly into a tantrum. She threw fits about the heat, about the walking, about not getting ice cream every time we passed a stand. But most of all, she was miserable about the sleeping situation.

We'd (foolishly) reserved just one room with two beds. It was much smaller than we'd anticipated. Stella has a hard time sleeping in general, due to her sensory issues. She needs a pitch black room, a white noise machine, and no other living soul within a 50 mile radius. We finally decided to give her one of the beds, even though there was no room for a pack and play, meaning Dave, Sam, and I shared a full-size bed. I was elbowed and kicked in the head an average of 150 times per night.

Sam woke at least once per night, crying due to his disorientation and discomfort. Hearing Sam cry made Stella SCREAM. Scream like she was being accosted. It was so hard to get her to calm down, and we were afraid the cops would show up.

My anxiety multiplies like Gremlins without sleep, so I was an irritable mess. And remember how I'd fallen back into childhood patterns? Well, that meant that I stopped speaking up about the things I wanted to do on this trip. This trip that I'd single-handedly planned and worked for, suddenly I was just going along, letting Dave and the kids do the things they wanted to do, not taking time for myself and my vacation goals.

And then, on the last day, I sobbed, upset that I hadn't gone zip-lining, that I hadn't eaten at that restaurant that I'd read about, nor had I consumed enough cliched, overpriced, umbrella-laden rum beverages. Dave was perplexed. He didn't know I'd wanted these things. And I was hurt, because I felt like he'd never taken the time to find out what I did want.

When we returned, I played the martyr once more by not putting the kids in camp. I felt that Mom-Guilt that society heaps on us for ever wanting time away from our children, but I also felt financial guilt (camp ain't cheap). So, instead of working on my book or doing yoga or going to museums on my own - all activities that would have fed my soul and made me feel better - I became a stay-at-home-mom, a role that I was not cut out for. Kudos to my friends who make this look easy; it is hands-down the world's toughest job to me.

We'd either lounge around and watch too much TV, or I'd battle tears and arguments to take the kids to the park or zoo or pool. Dave was working on freelance projects, so I couldn't feel like I could ask him to take the kids, even though that would have helped tremendously.

In short, last summer sucked.

But, thank God, things are 180 degrees from there this summer. Dave and I spent a ton of time working on our marriage, seriously looking at our own mistakes and formulating a new path. Stella got evaluated, and now receives services for her ASD that help her adapt to new situations well. Sam is three, which is a different kind of crazy than two, but he is a much better traveler (and less clingy). I went to therapy regularly to work on my anxiety. And I've given up competitive parenting for good, content with the knowledge that I'll never win the "Most Dedicated Mom" award, seeing as both my kids are in camp today while I do housework and work on my book.

We just got back from an incredible trip to the Outer Banks, a blog entry unto itself, and the whole time I kept thinking, "Thank God this isn't last year anymore."

So, the next time I feel trapped by my circumstances or my obligations or even my own mind, I want to remember how, with some tenacity and optimism and patience and profound VERY BIG LOVE, things can always get better.

I didn't have to fake anything here. This is what bliss looks like.