Going The Distance

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Mother
By Helen Black MOTHER’S DAY OUT,Vol.2,No.8 September 25, 2010


Fig. 1. “She conked out, but her hair held up” (remember those Clairol ads from the ‘70’s?)

Greetings, gentle readers! The title for this piece comes from the fabulous last track of Cake’s album Fashion Nugget, which Swoosh is listening to lately in an endless loop. Like father, like son; it was practically the only album Daddy played during the entirety of 1997…he was even playing it as he drove me to the hospital, on the one occasion (Scriblet #2) I agreed to deliver a baby in that most bizarre of settings…which biophilosophical standpoint actually lent new and enhanced meaning to the opening words of the song (reluctantly crouched at the starting line). I have a feeling Swoosh filched the disk from Old Father. I’m amazed it’s still intact and playable. Album of the year for1996 was Southern Culture on the Skids’ Dirt Track Date and that one bit the dust long ago. As for the subtitle, it’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s impossible to be lonely in a house literally TEEMING with vast quantities of children! Curiously, the additions seem mainly to be boys, which I don’t mind because their amusement value, on average, is slightly higher, and I mean that in the best and kindest way. Slapstick comedy is just what the doctor ordered for the year 2010. Besides Blondie, the hitherto nameless hungry teenager immortalized in Vol 1., No.1 (“Why Women Write”), we’ve now got Spike on retainer as well. Spike selected his nickname himself –these kids are onto me now. The moniker is intended to refer to his track stardom, but also applies to his hair. Spike is the youngest in his family, so he thinks it’s an absolute hoot to sit around the dining room table and have fish-shaped fish sticks with the young -uns before he and Swoosh embark on their almost daily spider-hunting expeditions. I am NOT making this up. Yes, these almost-seventeen-year-olds think hunting spiders is, like, the best activity ever invented, and YES these are kids who have driver’s licenses…and girlfriends. After supper, they take old spaghetti jars or sawed-in-half plastic soda bottles and troop off into the dripping underbelly of the forest behind the house (trailed, of course, by all the young-uns with THEIR jars and bottles) and catch spiders, and maybe a few other little critters. Then they divvy them up in different combinations according to some complex and mysterious equation, like the square of the child’s container divided by the root of his height in inches. The young-uns are agog, and there are no complaints. Then they accessorize, adding little sticks, and moss, and leaves, and moss-covered sticks, and leaf-covered moss, and stick-covered leaves, and so on. The ringleaders leave the little ones to their own devices and retire to Swoosh’s cave upstairs, where they listen to Cake’s Fashion Nugget and Facebook on their spider psychology observations. These are intricate and, apparently, quite neatly suited to analogy on all aspects of teen culture. I know because they shared some of

this enthusiasm with me (those of you with teenagers will know this is the ultimate compliment), and I said it looked like this was turning into a magnum opus and could it possibly become their junior thesis so they could get some credit for all this time, but they said no, junior thesis had to be about a BOOK, and anyways, you have to do your OWN junior thesis, they couldn’t do it together. So I said, well, how about gunning for extra credit, and Swoosh rolled his eyes, so I said “Hey! Workin’ for you, baby!” which was always Old Father’s joke, but I have appropriated it, because I am now the only adult living at Nueva Casa Lucila, which is what I have just decided to name my house, for reasons which I may divulge in a later issue. Or…maybe...Hacienda Helena. Old Father and I always had a penchant for naming things. For example, the basement was the Nether Regions. The living room was the Grand Salon, or the Drawing Room, depending on whether we’d been watching French cinema or Masterpiece Theater on DVD after the most recent baby had fallen asleep. And the porch was the Ramparts, or the Lido Deck, if we were having a cocktail under full moon while waiting for the most recent baby to fall asleep. Listen when you have three children in four years you don’t get out much. You have to make your own fun. Anyways. What I said was, I said: “Workin’ for you, baby!” and sashayed out of the room, so the teenagers could make fun of me behind my back in peace. Meanwhile the little ones stay outside (outside is good!) and get totally into the terrarium aspect of the whole deal. They get pretty inventive, but I recently outlawed water features unless we were dealing with a tightly-lidded container, even though my dining room rug has this earth-toned pattern ideal for hiding mud spots, which was actually why I bought it because I had three children in four years and knew which way the wind was blowing, housekeeping-wise. So where was I? Oh yes, the brief introduction that goes on for pages. It must be hormones. Where I was, was this: I have so many MDO’s in the hopper I can’t think straight. There’s Part 2 to “Ah, Wilderness,” and I bet there are SOME of you out there who haven’t forgotten about the long-promised “Sex and the Suburbs,” among other catchy titles. But what I really wanted to do with No.8 was just take an intermission, like they used to do in super- long movies, like Gone with the Wind, or Ghandi (actually, refresh my memory, didn’t we have to go to the movie theater for two consecutive days on that one?) and give you a little update on the Scriblets, whom over the past year you have grown to know and love, which is easier for you because you don’t have to be with them 24/7 just kidding!! and we’ll start with the chickens.

THE CHICKENS Are now down to one Arakhana and two Rhodies. None of the gals is really laying right now, although I try to give them pep talks. If Old Father were here, he’d know the right thing to do, like give them 3 ¾ teaspoonfuls of oyster shell in their breakfast every third day if it starts with a T, but he’s no longer here, so I’m just giving them the pep talks. We did have a rooster. He was a Rhode Island Red, and quite handsome actually. But when he escaped, and I chased him around the fence and then lost him, and then the next morning found him hanging out (of course) as close to the girls as possible, i.e. on the other side of the chicken coop under the grapevine- entwined blue spruce, and tried to flush him out—when that happened, he ran in the OTHER direction, across Trapper Jim’s driveway, and was chased by Trapper Jim’s Alaskan huskie, continuing on across into Evelyn’s yard, where the huskie for some perverse reason lost interest, which is the only reason that rooster did not meet his maker that day. BUT at that point I realized that because of the dog, it was kind of a crossingthe-Rubicon type situation for this rooster: he wasn’t ever going to wander back in this direction where I might be able to lay hands on him, but would be continuing to infinity and beyond, and we would never see him again. So I told the kids the rooster had gone to live in the forest, and the youngest ones believed me. Watching that rooster flap and squawk across the unpaved driveway with the dog at his heels kind of reminded me of Little Nell hopping from ice floe to ice floe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because actually Trapper Jim lives in a cabin, yes, right next door to me, and he heats it with a woodstove, and yes we DO all live seven minutes from happ’nin, world-class, downtown Portland, and that’s the beauty of the Pacific Northwest for you. Anyways I digress. The whole poultry-capade achieved the same goal as the Rooster Relocation Project run by the yuppie urban feed store on the other side of town, but in a decidedly less genteel manner. Which fits our profile. Our neighborhood is kind of renegade. SWOOSH was on a self-imposed sabbatical from romance last year due to Honors Biology, however this year having new-found confidence, despite two more honors courses and AP U.S. History, came into the dressing room (see illustration, above) two nights ago with a big grin on his face, held index finger aloft in the manner of Old Father, and declaimed: “Mother! I am here to tell you! That I am courting a fine young vixen.” He has also taken to wearing retro-preppy funky plaid shorts to school.

PENROD Has survived his first romance brilliantly. The first little girlfriend arrived and departed in amicable fashion with no emotional bruising or Facebook backlash on either side, which bodes well for the future, doesn’t it? We had the coconut-smashing-on-the-driveway event, and we had the homemade Tiki torch event (see Vol.2, No. 7, “Ah, Wilderness”) among other summer hijinks with Blondie (hey that’s how I tell him apart from my own, as in, “It’s time for the blonde kid to go home for dinner”). They spent the last days of summer catching crawdads out of the creek at night by the light of, not flashlights, but iPhones, which can serve the same function. They also allow you to photograph the crawdads and send them to Old Mother when she is trying to relax at eleven at night thinking her children are all tucked up in bed until she gets nighttime photos of moonlit crawdads from the forest across the street. (Let me know if you need me to draw a map; there are two forests, the one Behind the House, and the one Across the Street. They don’t call Portland “Stumptown” for nothing.) Anyways. I digress. Now that school has started, young Penrod has been reduced to enthusiastic participation in the great spider-hunting expeditions and then carefully carrying them to school to show the new seventh grade teacher, trying to persuade him to craft a whole science unit around them. Over and over. The new teacher gets high marks from Penrod because he is cool, a guy, and a scientist. He gets high marks from me because he’s patient. This needs to be cross-referenced under Scriblet #5 as well, but Penrod was planning recently to lower ForeverBaby down the laundry chute with a homemade bungee-harness contraption, but I nipped that one in the bud, warning him that I might change his subsidiary nickname from “Band-aid Bobby” to “Borstal Boy” which he didn’t mind until I explained to him what that was, and also threatening to confiscate his “flashlight.” Which he did understand, and minded immediately.

MISS LITERARY OMNIVORE JR. (Miss O) As her sixth grade year begins, have discovered that she writes poetry jarringly similar to Garcia Lorca. Is displaying a predilection for tree-climbing, maybe just to get the best apples. Last weekend we went on a pet-scouting expedition (her gerbil needed to be replaced, after the appropriate period of mourning). We went just the two of us, which those of you who hail from large families know is an unusual event. As we were examining all the cute little glass boxes full of seven-dollar dwarf hamsters and suchlike, she was distracted by a large, I mean large, glass case on the endcap. “Mom!” she exclaimed. “Can I get a chinchilla?”

I turned the corner and clapped my hand to my chest. “Honey, they cost A HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS!” “Oh, MOM!” She put one hand on hip, the other against her head. “Can’t you employ that redheaded charm and get the 20% discount?” God help us. An actress with a vocabulary! SPARKLES Is busy working on her Halloween costume already. She’s sewing the tail herself with a small bolt of black cotton I found in the closet and she’s doing well. She’s good with a needle and thread. We’re also having a grand time playing cards, and she loves the new warm-up pants I bought her for gymnastics. We have also started doing each other’s makeup, just for fun. I always do her first, and then, after making a show of picking and choosing, she selects exactly the same colors for me. We did this last night. After she finished (mascara comes last), she capped the container and stood back. She said: “Mom. I want you to go on dates and have some fun.” I said: “Oh, honey. You’re my date!” Then we squeezed our faces together and took a picture with my iPhone. FOREVER BABY Is adjusting to first grade. He has to do homework, and this blew his mind, but only for the first week. He’s pretty adaptable. He has also taken to wearing a book sock on his head (for those of you who are unfamiliar, these are store-bought cotton/lycra book covers, so that parents don’t have to take butcher paper or old grocery bags, scissors, and tape and actually cover the school textbooks by hand). The book sock is reddish-brown and has basketballs printed on it. When he puts it on his head, it looks like a skintight cap, with the corners peaking up like animal ears or little horns, and then a flap going down his neck. I’m sorry but it’s just indescribable. He wears it day or night. I mean literally. He sleeps in it. Other than that, I herewith cross-reference the aborted laundry chute descent (see Penrod, above). OLD MOTHER It’s hard to compete with a book sock, but I’ll have to try. My most scintillating news recently is that I BOUGHT A BLUETOOTH! Faithful readers of this column who know my notoriously Luddite reputation will demand some sort of explanation. The story is simply this: my earbuds went kaputt, and my eldest son told me I could get perfectly good cheap five dollar replacement earbuds at the radio store at the strip mall. So I trotted down to the radio store at the strip mall, and requested the perfectly good cheap five dollar ear buds, only to be met by

the clerk with that all-too-familiar look (i.e., who is this crazy redhead and what can she be thinking?) and the information that the LEAST expensive earbuds I could purchase for MY device cost thirty dollars. And therefore I might want to consider an upgrade to the sixty dollar mid-grade Bluetooth which was on sale for forty dollars. Which I did, immediately racing home to confirm with Chief Tech Support that I had not been had, and when he said I hadn’t, I charged the thing up and spent a blissful thirty-six hours folding laundry and cooking while talking on the phone. It was heaven-sent, because let me tell you Old Mother Sr. and I have been burning up the telephone wires since I became a single mom last Spring, or even earlier depending on how you calculate, and I haven’t been getting a heckuva lot done. It was great to be able to wash the dishes while reassuring her that the kids were fine, that my home life was tranquil and harmonious, and that my friends kept telling me I looked ten years younger. These are, as you might imagine, important things to convey to your mother under these circumstances. You may wonder why I said “thirty-six hours.” That is because that is exactly how long I had this miraculous tiny device before losing it. I scoured the house, even turning out ForeverBaby’s pockets, but to no avail. So I put out an APB on it, promising an entire carton of malted milk balls to the lucky finder, and at this point just have to sit it out. So much for joining the 21st century. It was good while it lasted! I went swimming yesterday. I don’t swim as much as I used to, and when I do, I can’t swim for as long as I used to. But yesterday I just kept going. After awhile I remembered I used to be able to swim a whole length without taking a breath. It felt like forever ago. I thought I’d give it a whirl. Instead of taking a breath every three strokes, I went for five. It was difficult, but I persisted, and after several laps had made that the new normal. Then I moved it up to eight strokes. I was surprised by how challenging it was. It didn’t used to be hard, or even require work, and now it did, which was almost scary, which in turn scared me into not giving up. I pushed for ten strokes, which is halfway: it gets you down to two breaths. By now, I couldn’t swim without stopping but had to pull up at each end to catch my breath and let my heart rate go down. The first time I made it with only that one single additional gulp halfway, I really had to pause. I turned around, and hooked my elbows on the wall, letting my legs float. Suddenly, immediately, I felt something that made me straighten out and bring feet down to touch bottom. There was something inside me that wanted to come out. It was in a deep place, like the place where babies grow, at the very end,

the very heart of me. The ice was thawing and it was jumping from floe to floe up the river of my body until it emerged as a dry ragged sob, to which I cannot yet attach words. But when I do, I’ll let you know. That’s what I do. I’m a writer. I’m also a mother, and a housewife, and I used to be a wife, the most loyal and devoted one a man could ever hope for. Now, I am my own wife. Old Father crossed the Rubicon, so I’ve had to cross it too. I am my own wife. And the kids are all right. Together, we’re going the distance.

Helen Black is the author of “Seven Blackbirds,” a Highly Entertaining and Inspirational Work of Literary Fiction about a young mother rebuilding her life after an abusive marriage, and is the top-subscribed female author on Scribd, where she publishes a humor column MOTHER’S DAY OUT. She lives with her family of five children and four chickens in Portland, Oregon, and is often seen lurking around Powell’s City of Books in her favorite t-shirt, emblazoned “I travel for book groups.” She is also an active advocate of domestic violence prevention. Okay, make that THREE chickens. And come hear me and four fellow Scribd authors read at San Francisco’s Litquake XI on October 9, 2010!