by Tanya Ward Goodman
My Grandmother’s death has brought the family together, but my daughter’s loose tooth has given us something cheerful to do. We are united by Sadie’s tooth. When she wiggles that darned thing, we stop thinking for a moment about how hard it will be to sell the house and what a waste it would be to send that antique cameo necklace into a hole in the ground. No matter how we feel about the President, gun control or healthcare, the loose tooth brings us all together. We plot and plan for extraction when wills and accounts and phone conversations with lawyers are the dark alternative.
Sweet Sadie with her big smile and her curly hair is an eight year old in a house full of sad adults. She feeds her virtual Ipod horse and talks to the very real cat. She curls up on the wingback sofa and flips through scrapbooks hoping to find photos of someone she knows. My uncle says we should reach up behind the tooth – get a nail under the raw edge. “Move it sideways,” he says. My brother makes a lasso of dental floss and spends the better part of an hour trying to slip it around the tiny tooth. Sadie chews gum and eats the hardened caramels we find in the kitchen cupboard. She wonders if she started running fast and fell down the big hill, the tooth would get knocked out on its own. When she is tired of grown up conversation, she cries and shouts that it’s not fair to have a loose tooth. It’s painful and keeps her from eating all the things she doesn’t like, though a child at a funeral can get by on only Jell-o salad and soft white rolls. She wiggles the tooth and lets others wiggle it. Fingers yellow with nicotine have touched the pearl of this little tooth. The funeral leaves us soggy with tears and chilled to the bone in the Dakota wind, but the tooth doesn’t come out.
The tooth is wiggly on the plane and in the taxi and keeps my girl awake all through our first night at home. She rages and gnashes and I think perhaps the tight set of her jaw will push the thing right out.
At dinner on our second night home, she asks for pliers. We have guests, but they seem not to mind, so I give her a Leatherman. We watch as she grabs and slips, grabs and slips. Someone suggests a paper towel. Once again this tooth is a project. We’re in it together and Sadie is happy to be right in the middle. There is wiggling and working. There is a ten-minute bout of frustration. Tears are shed. And just when we are all feeling like it should be over, just when we’ve begun to turn back to grown up talk, she pulls it out. Her smile is broad and bloody. The tooth is white and shiny in the black metal pincers.
And then, like that, we’re back on the girl.
by Tanya Ward Goodman
Though they couldn’t be less alike, I am lucky to have two moms: the one who spent 36 hours in labor before I was cut from her belly and handed over to the nuns in the small brick hospital where I was born and the one who wore a dress the color of jacaranda blossoms when she married Dad just before my twelfth birthday. They have both been such strong influences in my life that somehow even my body reflects equal parts of these women. I have the height and lean arms of my stepmother, the woman I call “La,” and the sturdy legs and curving hips of my mother. My hands are square and rough at the knuckles like my mother’s hands, punished by years of gardening without gloves, and like La’s, whose hands ache at the joints from the effort of turning cold clay into coffee cups and cereal bowls on a wheel.
It is not just my body that bears the imprint of these women. Thanks to my mother, I have the ability to identify plants and discern a raven from a crow (the raven is bigger and looks blue in the sun). From La, I get my drive to action, my need to fix things. These forces brought me to New Mexico to care for my father when he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.
Sometimes these two influences are at war. The shyness and insecurity I inherited from my mother battle it out daily with La’s brave and often blind self-confidence. Guided by the force of her will she is often able to muscle through situations that would terrify my mother. She is, for example, navigating the unknown territory of my father’s illness while Mom stands at the edge of the forest and waits for someone to bring a map.
The strengths and shortcomings of my two mothers are tangled up with all that I have been given by Dad. Dad shares Mom’s reverence for the beauty and uniqueness of the world, but his intense drive to create quickened his pace, kept his hand moving over canvases and sketchpads late into the night. That pace is slowing now, which trips up La and me. I have come home to be with him and share this time, and I want to follow Dad’s meandering, but my responsibilities often lengthen my stride.
When I look in the mirror, I see Dad’s green eyes staring back through mine. I see his long torso reflected in my own. If I cut my head open right now, would I also see a faint shadow of forgetting?
Adapted from my memoir, “Leaving Tinkertown” which will be published in August of 2013
By Tanya Ward Goodman
We’ve been on a liquid diet. It’s not a fad. We’re not trying to lose weight. It’s just that we got this new blender and my son has been making smoothies the way I imagine Nancy Silverton once made bread — obsessively, consistently, and with feverish experimentation.
“We need more frozen pineapple,” he says every other day.
More pineapple, more mango, more berries. We’ve gone through so many bananas the clerks at our neighborhood market might suspect we are harboring an orangutan.
Every morning we have a smoothie for breakfast and sometimes, after dinner, a smoothie for dessert. He’s so excited; it’s hard to say no. Making a smoothie is something my son can do from start to finish on his own. He gets to choose the ingredients, operate (semi) heavy machinery and serve us something he created. I get it. It’s powerful to feed people.
I try hard to keep my controlling self out of the kitchen. Sometimes this is difficult. I find it nearly impossible not to wonder at the appropriateness of ingesting ice cream before 8 am. (Though strangely, I’m all for a donut – a contradiction I cannot explain.)
“Where’s the cocoa powder?” my boy wonders. “If I can’t use ice cream, there should at least be cocoa.” I shake my head and will my stomach not to clench as he adds milk and soy milk and coconut water and orange juice.
“Do you think maybe just one or two?” I ask. “That sure is a lot of flavors,” I muse.
My husband shoos me away. He will drink anything. He is not phased by the sound of a week’s worth of groceries being ground into one thick and chilly breakfast. He is taking the high and indulgent road on this one. My husband will choose other battles.
I look for more opportunities to give my boy this kind of autonomy. I ask him to pick out his clothes, run his own shower, bring the garbage cans up from the curb. I show him how to turn on the stove and scramble eggs in a pan. He makes pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches and a Caprese salad with artistic drizzles of balsamic vinegar.
In another life, my son might be herding cows or chopping wood. He is hardwired for this sort of activity, but here in the city, we’ve got only the dog and central heating, so we turn to the kitchen where there are sharp knives and big choices to be made. The blender is great, but soon I’ll teach him to sauté and braise and roast. It’s fall and my boy is nearly ten. I raise a glass of smoothie to his budding independence.
By Tanya Ward Goodman
My belly is so huge, I can only fasten the top three buttons of my shirt. I fold the fabric up and run my hands over the warmth. Under my palm is the little lump that is an elbow or knee. Right now, the boy we have decided to call Theo is curled up inside me. When I close my eyes, I can see him. I can’t wait to meet him, can’t wait to hold him in my arms and inspect all his little parts. I want to put his toes in my mouth. I look forward to reading him stories and giving him his first spoonful of ice cream. I want to show him how to stand very still and look closely for lizards sleeping in the sunshine. I will make up songs for my boy and help him curl his fingers around a pencil.
The phone rings. It is my stepmother Carla, whose name over the years has shortened to La. Her voice is bright and brittle and I know that something is wrong.
“Your Dad’s had a stroke,” she says. “He’s not in great shape. I don’t want you to worry, but I want you to know.”
A little over four years ago, my dad was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at age fifty-eight. Just as the doctors promised, the disease progressed quickly, running like a forestfire through Dad’s mind, leaving only emptiness it its wake. Dad doesn’t know that Theo is about to arrive. In a process the Alzheimer’s literature calls “shrimping,” his body has curved inward. He no longer speaks or feeds himself. Like my unborn son, he is floating in his own waters. Though we find this brine vast and uncharted, I have to believe that he is taking as much comfort and nourishment from these waters as my son is taking from the fluids of my womb.
Theo is not due for three weeks, but perhaps because he knows something I do not, perhaps because he and my father have traveled in shared waters of consciousness, he decides to arrive early. At ten o’clock in the morning, I stand up from my chair and I feel a small pop. My pants are wet and for a moment, I think, great, not only am I huge, but I’m incontinent, too… but then I realize the water keeps coming. Holy smokes, this is it. I’m oddly calm. I change clothes and call my doctor’s office. Then I call a friend to tell her I won’t be able to make our movie date. Then I call my husband.
“Honey,” I say. “My water broke. I’m fine. We have a doctor’s appointment in an hour.”
“I’m leaving right now,” he says. David doesn’t sound quite as calm as I feel.
I am having small contractions, but they are not painful. My belly feels taut like the string on a bow just before the arrow is let fly.
I call my mom. “I’m in labor,” I say. “The baby is coming.”
“But what should I do?” She says. “What should I do?”
“Get on a plane,” I say. “We’ll see you soon.”
I call La. “The baby is coming,” I say.
“Holy shit,” she says. “It’s good timing. Maybe he’ll get to meet his granddad. Hang in there.”
I call my sister-in-law Megan. “The baby is coming,” I say.
“And you’re talking on the phone?” she says. “Geez, Tanya. Keep breathing, just keep breathing.”
And I do. I keep breathing. We all do. A couple of hours later, with the help of David and our neighbor, I make the journey down the steps from our apartment to the car on the street. I have to stop every couple of breaths to bend and let the pain crash over me. Big changes are afoot. I am an earthquake. My boy is on his way and there is nothing I can do but give myself over to the rumbling.
At the hospital, I walk around and I make jokes and every few minutes, I stop all of that and I curl up into myself and let Theo try to work his way out. We are a team. This is a joint project. It is painful and difficult, but we are in it together and I love him already for his courage and his ferocity. As the contractions come faster and faster, I close my eyes between tremors and I see my son swimming toward me. I rest in these moments. I reach out to my boy and guide him through the water. When I open my eyes, I push with all my might.
My boy is swimming toward me. Like a little fish, his body is flying quick and silvery through one world into the next. The pain of this transition is almost unbearable.
“Feel his head,” my husband says and he guides my fingers down between my legs to something damp and wrinkled and fuzzy like a peach.
“You should see your face,” David says. “You look wonderful.”
And then Theo is in the world. He is wailing and I am gasping and all around me the lights are dancing with halos made by my tears. We have a son. We have a family.
When I was nine I realized that one day my father would die. I cried and cried and he held me and dug his big tickling fingers into my armpits and said, “Jesus, Tanya, I’m only 35. I’m not going anywhere.”
Now, I’m nearly 35 and my father is dying and I’m holding my newborn son in my arms and I understand how Dad could be so certain. The kind of love I feel right now for my boy is the kind of love that makes me feel like I could defy death. It’s the kind of love that I will still feel, like the sun on my back, even after my father is gone.
Adapted from Tanya’s memoir, “Leaving Tinkertown” which will be published by the University of New Mexico in Fall 2013.
By Tanya Ward Goodman
Today I put my feet in the Los Angeles River. A school of silver fish the size of paper clips glimmered in the shallows. I felt gravel between my toes. In the distance a cement bridge and the roar of the traffic on Burbank Boulevard reminded me that I was still in the city.
I had signed on with LA River Expeditions, a group whose original mission to protect the Los Angeles River via the Clean Water Act was accomplished by proving the river could be navigated in its entirety. Hoping to further their cause, the group has dedicated itself to providing first hand educational encounters with the river. They figure that the more people who travel the river, the more people there will be who understand that there is something to protect and preserve.
I climbed into a small, lime green kayak and joined my fellow travellers as we headed up river. We paused under a cement bridge where the reflections of the water danced across the graffiti of a shark.
The particular stretch we travelled is one of three sandy bottom sections of the river. Because this section is not cemented over like so much of the river, plants and trees grow thick and wild and birds are everywhere. I saw egrets and stilts and an osprey and dozens of smaller birds I could not name. I maneuvered through the shallow water, around the occasional submerged and rusted shopping cart. I saw a huge tire flocked with thick green algae. Shredded plastic bags hung from low branches, waving in the wind like prayer flags. Despite these traces of humanity, it was beautiful. The water was smooth and green and the sun cast long shadows of leaves over the rippled surface. I dipped my paddle in and out of the water and I felt peaceful.
I had an adventure in what could be loosely construed as my own backyard, but I feel as if I’ve taken a longer journey. Today I saw something that few people have seen. I travelled a waterway that few have travelled. And I did it all with time to spare for school pickup and soccer practice. Next time, I will bring the kids.
By Tanya Ward Goodman
At the tail end of winter, we began a huge yard renovation. We dug things up and moved things around. It would look much worse before it looked any better. My daughter and I took apart the composter where we had been tossing rinds and seeds and smushy ends of fruit and vegetables for nearly three years. We turned the whole mess over with a pitchfork and then shoveled it onto a piece of screen set over the wheelbarrow. My girl shook the screen while I, with gloved hands, crumbled chalky bits of eggshell and removed hollowed cornhusks and banana peels made leathery in the heat. We found huge white grubs, eyeless worm things as thick as my thumb. We found earwigs and shiny black beetles and millipedes as flexible and bright as copper wire. It was messy business this composting, but our labor was rewarded with a nearly full wheelbarrow of fine soil, dark as coffee grounds.
As the work in the yard dragged on, we rolled this precious soil from one place to the next, hoping to add it to new garden beds where we would grow more vegetables and herbs and start the whole composting process again. It took a long time before the beds were ready and with all the rain and sun, small sprouts had begun to grow in the red wheelbarrow. I recognized the jagged leaves of tomato and the lily pad leaves of squash or melon. I thought there might be an eggplant. We transplanted these “volunteers” into the new yard as the gloom of June lifted. As the heat of July descended, we waited for them to reveal their identities.
This morning, I held the hem of my shirt up to make a pocket and loaded dozens of bright red tomatoes the size of quail eggs. In my garden there are also Japanese eggplant and the prickly green mystery pods have turned into melons, which ripen in the sun. Miniature pumpkins rise from the husk of last Halloween. It is magical and wonderful, but also very logical and real. These things went into the compost and so it makes sense that they would come out.
That logic doesn’t detract at all from the magic.
“Why did you cry when we found our dog, but not when we lost her?”
This is a question my daughter asked me today. Our dog had run out of the house and down the street with our dear houseguests chasing valiantly and desperately after. Despite their heroic efforts, she vanished.
My daughter and I had been dropping my son at camp. We returned to sorrowful faces and we began the hunt. We climbed up the trail in the park (the largest city park in the country) and the trees that are usually so delightfully shady seemed ominous and dark. The park, so familiar to us from so many, many rambles, seemed strange and dangerous.
My daughter’s lip trembled.
I shouted our dog’s name.
“Grace.” I shouted for Grace.
Tears the size of green grapes rolled down my daughter’s cheeks.
“Will she be home for dinner?” she asked. “She has to be home for dinner.”
She cried and I shouted. I called for Grace until my throat was dry and my voice was a whisper.
We returned home for better shoes, water, hats, and sunscreen. We returned home hoping to find our small, strawberry blonde dog sitting on our doorstep.
My daughter cried some more.
We drove around the neighborhood. We asked everyone we saw to keep a lookout for our dog and they all promised that they would. The hikers and the bikers and the midday dog walkers joined in our search. I posted our missing dog’s photo online and friends in town and from far away chimed in to help. Dear Grace’s floppy ears and little black nose popped up on iPhones and computer screens across the country.
And still my daughter cried.
We were taking another run up the hill in the park when I got the call. A nice man, a self-described “dog person” had found Grace. I had to ask him repeat his address because I couldn’t hear it over the sound of my own sobs.
The answer to my daughter’s question is this: I cannot cry while you are crying because I have to find a way to fix the problem and if I’m crying it will be harder. Later, when I know it is all going to be okay, I cry to let out all the tears I was too busy and worried to cry. And then some.
Grace is a blessing, a temporary reprieve. Grace is a dog. Grace is what I hope for as a parent. And what, for a time I was able to achieve today. Grace is home safe where she belongs.
By: Tanya Ward Goodman
I am a good cook, but I am not a good measurer. I am not very detail oriented. I sometimes read a recipe like a novel, and realize halfway through that (spoiler alert) the roast needs to marinate for two days or the pie should be refrigerated overnight instead of served to guests who will arrive in half an hour.
On the bright side, because I am not really married to the recipe, I find it possible to veer off the page with ease. I am handy with substitutions, sometimes starting a recipe with only one or two things in the ingredients list. I see recipes as loose guidelines. It could be a thing to do with fish, but it will probably work with chicken or rice or tofu. It could be a salad. I like to think about flavor more than form. It usually works out and I am almost always able to find something in my house to make for dinner.
Recently, I started to bake bread. A friend gave me a gob of starter and told me how to feed it flour and use bits of it to bake new loaves. He gave me a recipe and a series of YouTube links that illustrated how to fold the bread and proof the bread. He wondered if I had something called a “bench knife.”
“Sure,” I said, because I thought I probably had something that would work as a bench knife.
Once I got home, I hauled out the kitchen scale and began to carefully weigh my flour and water while my husband looked on with what can only be called a suspicious eye.
“Doesn’t it seem like maybe I should be the one to bake bread?” he asked.
He is, of course, more by the numbers than I am. He measures twice and cuts once. He always reads the entire instruction manual.
“I’m growing,” I said. “Don’t stand in the way of my personal growth.”
So I measured and stirred and folded my dough. I let it rise and, finally, baked it up into a nice round loaf. And it was good. Not great, but good enough.
On my next loaf, I couldn’t help myself. I fiddled with the flour ratio. I added a little more wheat and a little less white. I may or may not have folded as often as I should have. I might not have formed the boule as carefully. But, once baked and slathered with butter, it was good enough.
So I kept it up and every time, I went a little further off the recipe, was a little looser with my measurements. And although the bread kept getting eaten, it wasn’t getting any better. If anything, it was getting a little worse.
Sometimes I write the way I cook. I let scenes stand even when they aren’t saying what I really want them to say. I give space to experimental riffs and tangents. Sometimes I toss out plot and give into character. I forgive a loose structure or a fragmented narrative. I figure that a handful of good sentences are enough to make it sort of work. Slap a little butter on it and it’s okay to eat.
But I don’t think that it’s the way to do it. I’m realizing that I can do many things reasonably well, but to really, really excel at something, I’m going to have to pay more attention. I need to be more mindful. I might need to follow a recipe carefully from beginning to end.
This morning, I started another loaf. My daughter helped me scoop the flour onto the scale and carefully pour out the water. She’s a lot like me. She builds from scratch and makes up new rules to any game she doesn’t understand. I want her to continue to do this, but I want her to know the rules. I told her why we measure the flour. I related the little I have learned about why the dough rises and what it needs to become bread. I told her we have to take care if we want a good loaf.
The dough is rising overnight and tomorrow we’ll see how this one turns out.
By: Tanya Ward Goodman
Road trips were a major part of my childhood. My dad’s work as a carnival showpainter took him all around the country and often he’d pull me out of school to accompany him. We drove from Albuquerque to Dallas, Texas and Tulsa, Oklahoma and Little Rock, Arkansas and once all the way to Florida. On that trip, we made it a point to stop at every McDonalds we came across, certain that we’d collect enough of their “Monopoly” playing pieces to win a million dollars.
We didn’t win the cash, but we had a few amazing adventures and I saw a lot of the country glide past my window. These trips were fun and exciting and often dull as dirt. I was bored in the desert and in the prairie and through the piney woods. I didn’t have an iPad or a DS or even a decent Walkman. I had the music from my dad’s tape deck (Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Gene Autry) and the thoughts in my own head. Dad and I would talk and sometimes I’d read stories aloud, but on a trip of any length eventually everyone lapses into silence. It was in this silence that I explored the inside of my head. I daydreamed and made up conversations. I conjured stories for the people I’d seen at a rest area, created histories for the dilapidated houses and barns we passed and reimagined my own life a thousand times. I think it was some of the most valuable time I have ever spent and I still look forward to a long drive and this kind of uninterrupted thinking time.
I wanted my children to have this same experience and so last week, I piled them into the car and headed east toward New Mexico. I packed books and colored pencils and drawing paper. I downloaded Willie Nelson onto my iPod, but also Katy Perry for my daughter and Tom Petty for my son (he’s on a classic rock kick). I did not pack any sort of “screens.”
When I mentioned my plan to fellow parents, they were slightly horrified. They wondered if I was worried or scared or just plain nuts. I will admit, I packed the DVD player and a cache of kids’ movies in a secret bag in case they were right, but I thought I could prove them wrong.
And I did. We did. My kids looked out the window and read books and asked questions. My daughter found shapes of people and animals in the hills of the Mojave, my son was thrilled to see the Petrified Forest. We ate road food – Sarsparilla in Oatman, Arizona where wild burros roam the streets, Fig Newtons bought at a gas station outside Holbrook and gigantic ice cream sundaes at the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff. My kids were adventurous and eager and bored and cranky. They told stories, blew bubble gum bubbles, and sang songs. Of course they fought a little bit, but they were game for most everything. Our trip took two days on the way and two days on the way back. I never pulled out the DVD player.
My father gave me many gifts, but I think the one that has stayed with me the longest is the idea that a road trip is a little bit about seeing what’s outside the car and a little bit about seeing what’s inside your head. This is a gift I plan to share with my kids again and again.
By: Tanya Ward Goodman
My daughter needs more girl time. She needs someone to play with her hair and try on makeup. She needs someone to listen to her non-stop (seriously, it never stops) discussion about all things. She needs a partner for secret handshakes and jump rope rhymes. She needs, she needs, she needs.
She needs so much for so long that I run out of time and patience and inclination long before her need runs dry. When I have to bow out of our game or dress-up session to make dinner or call the vet or have a moment of silence, she is angry and sad and accuses me of ignoring her. I feel bad when she says this and when I am feeling soggy in my mothering self-esteem, I wonder if I could be doing more. When I am thinking more clearly, though, I realize I can never do enough. Tough as it may be sometimes, I am her parent. I am not her BFF.
Luckily, my daughter has a bunch of friends her own age and even more luckily, a bunch of friends my age. (Truthfully, they were my friends first, but I am ever so happy to share.) These friends are special in that they are willing to treat my daughter as a peer. These friends inquire about her latest artwork, give her ballet recital the serious attention it deserves and engage in endless speculations about the value of sparkly eyeshadow.
My daughter is able to share things with these friends that she cannot or does not share with me and while sometimes I wish I were the recipient of these whispered confidences, I realize I cannot be her everything all the time. We both need to spread all our energy around.
These friends can drop in to scooter up and down the driveway next to my daughter or cheerfuly wonder, “do you ever stop talking?” and get a laugh not a tantrum. These friends bring wonderful presents like the 1975 Butterick Pattern catalogue or the box of feathers and popsicle sticks or the bag of shiny rocks. These friends attend the funerals of bugs with great solemnity. They listen and they laugh and they give my daughter a place in the world.
I cannot be her best friend. I have to be her mother. As a mother, sometimes I will not be any fun. It can’t be helped. Those are the rules. Thank heavens, then, for these friends.