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
Way back in college, when I was a theatre major, one of my class assignments was to become an animal. I went to the Lincoln Park Zoo and observed the penguins. Imagining that my feet attached directly to my hips, I cultivated the “penguin walk.” I stood contemplatively with one wing held out from my side. I blinked and turned my head. At my professor’s behest, I aspired to “be penguin.”
Now, I should say that, in college, I was a nervous person. I took small, fast steps and was prone to daydreaming. It is very possible that you might have caught me, standing with one arm held out from my side, blinking in the sun with only my thoughts to keep me company. It is very possible that I was slightly penguin-like to begin with. Perhaps we all have a little penguin inside us, but we also have a little lion or crocodile or condor.
My acting professor applauded my penguin and I was happy. For our next assignment, I was to be Blanche Du Bois from “Streetcar Named Desire.” I filled my mind with the fluttering of moth wings and silk handkerchiefs, I looked into the mirror and made my eyes into deep pools of sadness and lost hope. I wore a filmy, pink dress and carried a box of letters from my ex-boyfriend hoping that the residual regret on the page might rise up like a fine dust around my body on the stage.
“You’re still a penguin,” my professor said. “Isn’t she a penguin?”
When we transformed ourselves into characters based on inanimate objects, my “tube of oil paint” was also dubbed “penguin.” “Guest at a wedding,” was “the penguin near the punch bowl.” It seemed that when she looked at me, my professor wore black and white goggles. And, after a time, when I looked at myself, so did I. It was hard to slow my quick pace, my words came in quick bursts or not at all and on stage I retreated deeper and deeper into a kind of blinking trance.
At the end of the year, I transferred out of her class and changed my major. I had found that I enjoyed writing just as much as acting and, in my writing classes, no one ever accused me of penguin prose.
I think of all this now, because I am the parent of two growing children. My son is athletic and strong. His legs are meaty with muscle and he rarely speaks when he can shout. Other parents comment on his outsized energy and his sturdy body. He’s been compared to a bull in a china shop, the Tasmanian Devil and a force of nature. “Fearless,” these parents say. And sometimes “brute.”
My boy named our dog, “Grace.” He is afraid to go upstairs in the dark and is sometimes so filled with his own nervous energy that he chews a hole in his shirt. As much as he pounds on his sister, he always compliments her outfit when she comes to the breakfast table. He can be so quiet and light on his feet that he can observe a lizard from an inch away. He is strong and fast and wild and kind and gentle and frightened. He is cheetah and kitten.
It is almost impossible to resist categorizing people. It helps to look out across a crowded school auditorium or classroom or workplace and see “chatty,” “angry,” “friendly,” “sturdy,” “reliable.” But these simple categories don’t do justice to the whole person. In the case of my theatre professor, I saw her as “crazy” and “harsh,” but she was in the middle of a divorce and so she was also sad and disappointed and heartbroken. Under different circumstances, she might have been warm and compassionate.
I want my children to understand that they can be angry, but that doesn’t make them an angry person. They can be strong in one area and weak in another. I want them to grow without limits and without definition into their best selves.
By Tanya Ward Goodman
A boy in my hometown of Albuquerque shot his parents and his three siblings. Before he his shot his mom, his nine-year-old brother and his two sisters aged five and two, he went to the closet and got out a .22 rifle. Before he shot his father, he went back to the closet for a .223-caliber AR-15.
Five more people are dead because there was a gun in the closet.
It doesn’t take much searching to come up with more news stories just like this one. In fact, today while I was buying groceries and thinking about what to write in this blog there was a shooting at Lone Star College near Houston. Last night, a Las Vegas police officer shot his wife and child, and some taggers near my neighborhood shot a person who asked them to stop writing on things that didn’t belong to them.
People get angry. This boy in Albuquerque is reported as saying he was “annoyed” with his mother. We all have disagreements with our spouses. It might be a bummer to have someone try to stop you from expressing yourself with spray paint. But you get over it. Unless you have a gun. The gun denies you any chance to get beyond anger.
In my closet there are running shoes and raincoats. There is a set of boxing gloves and training targets that my kids will sometimes ask me to put on so they can “punch out some madness.” My yoga mat is in my closet. So is the fire extinguisher.
Every day people are dying because guns are kept “in case” or “for comfort” the way I keep a raincoat or a fire extinguisher or a yoga mat. Guns are being kept as a symbol of safety, but they are not keeping us safe. If there had not been a gun in the closet five people in Albuquerque would be alive.
By Tanya Ward Goodman
Setting the candy house on fire fulfilled my son’s need to burn stuff and my need to clear the house of holiday detritus. It was a win-win situation.
I’ve decided to let this burning candy house be a symbol of all of my New Year’s resolutions. I have resolved to be more fun, to be more adventurous, to trust my children more, to keep a cleaner house and a more creative mind.
When I was a kid, we burned stuff all the time. Of course I grew up in the mountains where some of our friends relied solely on woodstoves and kerosene lamps for warmth and light, so often we were burning stuff just to get by. I have deep sensory memories of holding a lit incense wand to Styrofoam plates, letting the orange heat eat away bits of white. The aroma of patchouli combined with melting plastic was absolutely magical (if not more than a little toxic). My brother and I spent hours lighting candles and letting the wax drip hypnotically from one place to another, pinching the edges of one candle to form a reservoir then slicing into it with our fingernails to let the molten contents spill. We dipped fingertips into the hot wax, braving the sudden heat so that we might then peel off fingerprint castings, each whorl wholly our own.
“You were so lucky,” my kids say. “You nearly died every day when you were a kid.”
We burned piles of leaves and piles of wood scraps from my dad’s workshop. We had bonfires in the backyard and my dad regularly poured paint thinner into the fireplace just to see the burst of flame. On the 4th of July, the grown ups set off illegal fireworks and shot batteries through a plywood target with a cannon powered by M80s – tiny explosives powerful enough to take off a man’s hand.
Once my brother put a pile of firecrackers under a coffee can and the thing blew up into the air and cut a slice across the bridge of his nose. The face bleeds a lot.
“It’s good to do dangerous things,” my kids say.
And it is. It’s good to feel the heat of fire and see how quickly it can eat through a sturdy candy house. It’s good to witness this kind of power and feel like you have a little bit of control over it.
Today is the first day of winter break. I am glad I did not have to send my children to school today. There is so much bad news.
Instead we are home under gray Los Angeles skies – winter to look at, but spring against the bare feet of my daughter and her friend as they skip shoeless across the grass. They have been building a garden, moving rainwater from the leaves of the agaves to fill a tiny Saran wrap-lined pond. They have pulled weeds from one part of the yard to plant in muddy soil around their newly constructed pond. I hear their voices as I type, high and sweet as birdsong.
The boys (both ten) are inside, drawing at the table and I am relieved.
My son and his friend spent the morning shooting each other with a Nerf Machine Gun that they dug out of the closet. This toy (one I had to be talked into in the first place) has not been in rotation for nearly a year. I’m not sure what prompted its return. The toy has a magazine of orange, rubber bullets. It can hold twenty or more in a neon green cartridge. The gun itself is green with bright tangerine accents. It looks like a toy, but the sound it makes when my son slides another cartridge of ammo into place is hard-edged and angry. They were in the middle of a game of “sniper” where one stood in the yard, while the other shot from the upstairs window when I stopped them.
“We’re just playing,” my son said. “It’s not real.”
“I know,” I said. “But it doesn’t feel good to me.”
“Mom,” he said. “It’s not real. It’s a toy. We are playing.”
He spoke slowly as if I didn’t speak the same language.
I wanted to explain why I was so anxious, why this gun and this sniper game seemed so completely wrong, but to do that I had to bring my own worries into the life of my boy. His worries are still small scale. He worries about whether the library will have the next “Amulet” comic, whether he will watch the Jets game when it airs or later on the DVR. He worries about middle school or that as goalie, he will let a soccer ball make it into the goal. But he doesn’t yet worry about being shot at school.
I read somewhere that a strategy for managing anxiety is to have one anxious thought and two brave thoughts. Trying to conjure a brave thought right after an anxious one reminds you that both are possible emotions. Even if you can’t let go of the anxiety, you know you have at least the capability of thinking bravely. The brave thought is always there.
I let my son go back to his game without making a big deal and pretty soon, they moved on to something else. The girls picked up a few stray Nerf bullets and added them to their garden.
“They are torches,” my daughter said.
I imagine them as bright lights, leading us into the peaceful garden. It’s a brave thought.
By Tanya Ward Goodman
We’ve been busy this week. Lighting candles, creating a forest of sugar trees. There’s a snap in the air and last night the fog caught in the glow of my headlights reminded me of snow. I wore a sweater all day, though I crossed paths with girls in shorts and thin skirts, their bare shoulders brown from the sun. It’s winter in Los Angeles. Leaves litter my yard and the days are short. Soup dinner tonight and palm tree view in the morning. Merry and happy.
By Tanya Ward Goodman
This morning I forgot how to thread my sewing machine. I pulled the old, pink thread out and popped on a new, navy spool in its place. And then I stopped. Or I was stopped. The machine looked as foreign as if it had just fallen from the sky and landed on my table. There were two metal rods, a round silver button, a little hook. I knew that eventually the thread needed to get from the top of the machine down to the eye of the needle, but the route was impossible to imagine.
I freaked out.
I don’t sew often. I never make my own clothes or even clothes for my kids. I drag the little sewing machine out of the closet to make Halloween costumes and hem my son’s pants. Sometimes my daughter and I will design clothes for her stuffed rabbit. I like having a sewing machine. It makes me feel industrious even when it’s just sitting in my closet.
In fact, this morning, just before I forgot how to use it, I’d said to my husband, “I love this sewing machine. I love it.” And I meant that.
I tried to figure out how to thread the machine for a few minutes during which time my daughter was shouting for my help with her hair and my son was dancing around the house in his underwear. (I was supposed to be hemming his pants.) The more I stared at the little metal button and the two metal rods and the shiny hook, the less familiar they looked.
“How’s it going?” my husband asked. He was feeling the pressures of our morning. He had been disinvited from helping our daughter with her hair, he was annoyed with the pantsless dancing and the pile of papers that should have been in the boy’s backpack instead of cascading off the edge of the table. The clock was nudging everyone out the door.
“I can’t remember how to thread the machine,” I said through tears. And as soon as I said it, I couldn’t really breathe. I know a panic attack when I feel one and so I made a solid effort to settle my brain. My husband looked worried and I could hear the squeaky, weepy sounds I was making and I kind of crumpled down into the chair.
“It’s just…” I started.
“I know,” my husband said.
My son was still dancing around in his underwear. My daughter called to me from her room. Her hair was not cooperating.
Her hair is thick and curly. In the sunlight, red highlights gleam like polished wood. On a damp day like today, wisps curl romantically around her face, at the nape of her neck. It’s the hair of my dreams. But it is not the hair of her dreams. She wants stick straight, smooth hair. She struggles to control her curls. She combs and combs her hair until it’s almost straight and then she pulls it back close to her scalp and subdues it with a series of small clips.
My daughter is frustrated with her appearance. I wonder if she has inherited this from me. When I was her age, I spent hours trying to coax my straight hair into waves. My son, dancing and distracted, has inherited my short attention span, my quick temper and thankfully, my silliness.
Have I inherited my father’s forgetting?
Every day, I see something of my parents in me and I see something of me in my children. I hear my mother’s voice when I talk, see the shape of my father’s hands in my own. My kids say things like “let’s high tail it out of here,” and “for Cripe’s sake,” not just because I say them, but because my parents did, too.
My father was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s when he was 57. He died when he was 62. I think about this every time I misplace my keys or forget the password to my bank account. I thought of it today. I remember the day he told me he knew the word “knife,” but he could no longer pick it out of the silverware drawer.
This is a scary thing, and one I am usually able to skirt around. I exercise a lot. I eat well. I learn new things. I do the crossword puzzle. But I am my father’s daughter.
I don’t sew very often. Threading the machine is complicated for anyone. There was a lot going on this morning that made it hard to concentrate. I am most likely fine. It is what it is. Like curly hair or straight hair or a short attention span or a love of dancing, this forgetting and this fear of forgetting is just another part of me.
By Tanya Ward Goodman
My daughter has taken up the violin. At her school she was lucky enough to be able to sign up for orchestra and that means that not only does she get out of class on Tuesdays to rehearse, but she also gets to borrow a small violin for the duration of the school year.
She’s had the violin for one week during which she has not had any formal training with the orchestra teacher. She is, however undaunted.
“Would you like to hear a masterpiece?” she asks. She holds the violin against her shoulder and looks up at me expectantly.
I am hesitant. My brother played the violin and I know first hand that when you first start to play the thing all you get for your trouble are the same kind of sounds you’d get if you squeezed a cat really hard.
“I know how to write music,” my daughter says. “AAAGGEEEDDDGGG. All you need to know are AGBDF. And I know that.”
“Give it a whirl,” I say. And she does. The sound makes my teeth want to crawl all the way up inside my skull.
“A masterpiece,” she states.
Here is my opportunity to talk about the value of practice. I can sidestep the meaningless encouragement the parents of my generation are getting so much flak for dishing out and instead be honest.
“Would you like to take some lessons?” I ask. “I would think it might be hard to learn to play when you only have one class a week and it’s with lots of other people learning different instruments.”
Her eyes narrow.
“I can see you are very excited about learning to play the violin,” I say. “I think with some practice you will be a wonderful musician.”
“I know how to play,” she says. “I am writing my own music.”
There was a time that my daughter swore she spoke Spanish. She walked around the house naming objects in gibberish language. She does not speak Spanish, but she has cojones to spare.
I do not want to dent her confident shell, but I do think that ultimately she will be well served by a dose of reality.
I don’t tell her that she is, indeed, writing a masterpiece, nor do I mention the sounds of a distressed feline.
“I like your enthusiasm,” I say. And I do.
I hope that she will come to realize that the ability to play an instrument or speak a language comes from practice and hard work. It is a rare and lucky soul who has a juicy reservoir of natural talent and even the most gifted need to practice and work to be able to use their talents wisely and well.
By Tanya Ward Goodman
On the way to the donut shop, we were filled with excitement. Because the kids were so excited to stuff their bellies with sugar, they’d bounced out of bed even though the sky was barely light. Dressed and brushed and washed, they were cheerful and happy. As the sun pinked up with morning, I was an awesome mom.
Despite the fact that there is a donut shop half a block from school, we opted for the drive-thru donut shop in Burbank. The five-mile road trip from our house added excitement to our adventure. On the way there, the traffic was in our favor. We zipped up the road, the radio on, the wind in our hair, time on our side. I was an awesome mom.
Perhaps because I was thinking about what an awesome mom I was, I missed my exit.
Traffic snarled. Orange barrels and closed lanes clogged our way. The radio station suddenly started playing only news. Bad news.
“Do you even know where you are going?” my daughter asked.
“Did you space out?” my son wondered.
“We’ll get there,” I cheerfully assured.
“We have seventeen minutes,” my son answered.
I tried to keep calm. A few twists and turns later, I found the donut shop.
Donuts are good. Coffee is better. One sip sparked my brain to life. I was on top of this. We were going to make it. The kids, happily tucking into fried sugar bombs, were feeling confident in my skills. I was an awesome mom.
But donuts offer fleeting comfort. The pleasure of donuts is ephemeral. Time waits for no man.
“I can’t be tardy,” my daughter said.
“I need to be there before the bell,” my son echoed.
“I’m glad to see you feel responsible,” I said. “But don’t let it worry you too much. Sometimes things happen.”
“Why did we go so far away?” my daughter wondered.
“Because it was fun,” my son replied. It heartened me to hear that he was still (marginally) on my side.
“Well, it’s not fun if it makes us late,” my daughter said. Her frown, by this time, was permanently set.
And I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my choices.
A mile and a half before our exit, with only seven minutes remaining before the second bell, traffic stopped completely. My daughter’s scowl deepened. My son started to chew his nails. I groped around for a way to simultaneously calm them down and save face.
“So can we do anything about this traffic?” I wondered. “Can we drive the car over all these other cars? Can we fly?”
“I wish,” my son says. He is still smiling.
“Nothing will make this better,” my daughter said. “You shouldn’t have brought us here. Why did you make us late?”
I felt stung. I started to say, “We all decided to do this.” But I stopped. It was my fault. I’m the parent. And I made a bad decision. I had to take the donut and one-up it with a road trip. My need to be an awesome mom suddenly seemed a little desperate.
“I got caught up in what I thought would be fun, but I didn’t think it through,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
The traffic inched forward an inch. My son sighed. My daughter rolled her eyes.
“We can’t change this can we?” I asked. “The only thing we can change is how we react to this.”
I explained that sometimes, even when we try to make everything work, things don’t turn out the way we expect. Sometimes the best-laid plans fall apart and when they do, it is more often than not due to something over which we have no control. We only have control over ourselves.
I took a deep breath and willed myself to relax. I willed the little accusatory voice in my head to stop harping about the dangers of sugar and fat and tardiness. I willed my self-doubt away and recognized that I was trying hard and doing my best and that I’d made a mistake, but not one that was going to impact us for the rest of time.
“If I can only teach you one thing,” I said. “I hope I can teach you to relax in situations like this. I hope I can teach you to accept that there are some things we just can’t change. Some days, stuff happens and all we can do is ride it out and let it go.”
My son nodded. He tried to hear what I was saying. My daughter gave me her best stormy eyes. And eventually we arrived at school. Nearly thirty minutes late. I filled out tardy slips and when the principal wondered why we were late, my son very calmly said, “Traffic.”
And then he turned and gave me the most wonderful smile.
By Tanya Ward Goodman
Last year, a wren made her nest in our birdhouse and hatched four baby birds. Whenever the mama bird would leave the nest, the hatchlings would scream their heads off. The mama bird would dart quickly around our yard in search of insects and rush back to the nest where she was greeted by a chorus of shrieked gratitude, which shifted almost immediately into an even louder chorus of renewed hunger at which point, the mama wren would launch herself off out of the birdhouse in search of more food.
I felt a strange kinship with this little wren. As she flew in hectic loops around our yard, it was not so hard to see myself navigating a shopping cart through the crowded aisles of Trader Joe’s. Her kids were loud and needy and so were mine. She was frantic and a little nervous. Her feathers, like my hair, needed grooming.
This year, a mourning dove made her nest in the rose bush just outside my son’s window. She sat so quietly, and blended so perfectly into the shadows, that the only clue to her presence was the gleam of her black eye. She laid two perfect eggs and hatched two tiny babies. These hatchlings, just like their mama, were still and silent. They sat patiently in the nest and waited for her to return with food. The babies seemed content with what she brought and they didn’t clamor for more. The mama dove was serene. The baby doves were calm. It isn’t for nothing that these birds are a symbol of peace.
Before I had kids, the only people I knew with children were my friends T and A. They had a boy who liked to read and draw pictures and later a girl who also liked to read books and draw pictures. Their children were calm and quiet and polite. When I went over to their house, my friends cooked elaborate dinners and talked of books they had read (all while having two children under that age of five). These same children would later develop a taste for imported cheeses and both the knowledge of and desire for a “salad course.” These children inspired me to have my own children.
My son did not always like to sit and read or draw pictures. He mostly liked to run. He liked to knock things over and jump on the furniture. When we went to our friends’ house for dinner, he took apart their son’s train set and pounded on the floor with the wooden tracks. At the park when other kids sat and played in the sand, my son raced away across the grass. I raced after him at first carrying my post pregnancy pounds, then my pregnant belly and later lugging his newborn sister. I forgot to read books or brush my hair.
My kids are my kids. They are a part of me just the way the wren’s kids are hers and the dove’s are hers. When I wonder where they came from, I only have to look in the mirror. I aspire to the calm serenity of the dove and there are days when I actually achieve it. But I am at heart a wren. My kids are wrens. We are excitable and anxious and filled with energies we don’t exactly know how to harness. It took me a long time to know this about myself. I’ve learned that I need to walk a lot to keep level. I need to skip sugar and keep the coffee to a minimum. I need lots of lists to keep me organized and alone time to keep me sane. I am embracing the thing I am and also the things I need to be calm in the world. I am trying to use this knowledge to help my kids find ways to soothe themselves, to be patient in the nest, to stay calm and certain that food and comfort and love will always return.