The full text of the rhyme is like this, and I don’t think I learned it from the playground; I think I learned it from my excavations into books set in the fifties from our local library. They’ve cleaned out those books now, and the kids these days only read books about glossy, poreless vampires having dramatic sexual encounters with that brainy girl from high school, or something, but back in the eighties, my mythology was of a bygone era of jell-o molds and cream sodas:

My mother, your mother,

live across the way;

Fifteen, sixteen,

East Broadway;

Every night they have a fight

And this is what they say:

Icka bicka backa soda cracker

Out goes she!

That’s what those little girls in their knee-length skirts and ankle socks would chant while playing jump rope or hop scotch or whatever. With their pigtails and their Mary Janes and their “It Smells to Heaven” casseroles and their powder-blue convertibles (now I’m thinking of a particular book, Fifteen by Beverly Clearly. Was I the last girl alive to have read that book? The one where Jane wouldn’t eat that casserole even though it was her favorite because “It had onions in it and she did not want to breathe onions on Stan at the movie”?).

Probably. Hopefully. Because although I can’t attest to the feminist cred of poreless vampires, the message of Fifteen pretty much sucked. Jane orders a dish of vanilla ice cream rather than her favorite (a chocolate coke float) because she thinks vanilla ice cream sounds more “sophisticated.” Jane spends, in fact, an inordinate amount of time worrying about what Stan will think of her, and she frets and frets about whether he likes her as much as she likes him, and when he gruffly, charmingly asks her to go steady at the end of the book, she is over the moon, because that is the apex of happiness, apparently. In all, it’s a pretty sick manifestation of the whole Father Knows Best mentality, from the point of view of the willing subjugee.

I often wonder why I didn’t internalize these models more. My own mother, while no doormat, was also not a champion of positive self-assertion; she was also certainly not the economically empowered member of our household, and she didn’t get her master’s until I was in grade school (in a typically female field, teaching). She spent our early years home with us while my dad made the big bucks working for a tech firm. Perhaps it’s that he (apparently) would show up on the dot of five every day, throw off his suit jacket, and take over all household duties until bedtime and beyond, demonstrating that the labor of householding and domesticity was shared, period. Perhaps it’s that the one thing I remember about when she went back to school was him remarking to me that she got straight A’s, and that she always got straight A’s, and that it was clear when he said it that he, Stanford PhD., admired that and thought she was smart (I later learned that, during the one semester at Berkeley when they were dating — they dated three months before getting married — he got “terrible grades,” although “terrible” is a relative term). Perhaps it’s that my dad is the one who taught me how to sew. Whatever it was, something about my upbringing saved me from internalizing Jane Purdy’s wistful sighs as a model for my life, and I’m glad. I felt (relatively) free of those fetters — the fetters of having to be pretty and having to behave myself and having to be “nice;” if there’s anything that happened as my teens solidified into twenties, it’s that I had more agency and behaved more and more as if the way to succeed in life was to be a caustic iconoclast whose love life was completely independent of her activities or self-worth.

But part of that feeling was a subterranean conviction that motherhood was not for me, that if motherhood got its tentacles into you there was no way to have agency, no way to be free, and no way to get out from under a mound of laundry and postponed goals. I could say that it’s because my mother was like that, and she might think it’s true, but what was more true was that as a child, I saw my mother’s activities as threatening to me, and in my teens she basically disappeared entirely in the name of Finding Myself and Doing Something I Want to Do for a Change, and I wasn’t ready for that and so the age-old “good mother vs. fulfilled human being” dichotomy was once again in play.

Or maybe it’s the fact that my grandmother, married and the mother of two by age 22, ended her life with a shot to the head, and that my mother always attributed this to her having been trapped and powerless in her life, in her marriage, in her motherhood; my mom’s childhood was spent bouncing from relative to relative while her mother was in an out of mental institutions prior to the big, er, bang. And so motherhood just never seemed all that appealing to me. Womanhood, okay. Motherhood? Eh.

That was then. Now I’m a mother of two, and I’ve come to see womanhood and motherhood as mutually inclusive terms, from a biological standpoint. We are designed to reproduce; most of us will. While one of the triumphs of feminism is validating the choices of those who choose not to reproduce, another is supporting the viewpoint that just because a woman has children doesn’t mean she no longer can string a sentence together unless it involves the words “diap,” “bibby,” and “num-nums.”

Though I’ve seen it happen. Which is why I avoid baby showers.

Anyway, all of this is a way of approaching the idea of Mother’s Day. It wasn’t a holiday much celebrated in our house (pick a reason! And did I mention that my father grew up motherless?), so I’m pretty new to it. In early adulthood we started a loose sort of brunch tradition, but that was before my sister decided that she might catch a fatal case of the Normals by hanging out with me. When I was pregnant with Thing One, K. gave me a Playstation Two and Tekken for Mother’s Day, which I thought was weird, but I spent a fair amount of time kicking video ass and worrying that my unborn child would be negatively affected by all the adrenaline (stay tuned). I don’t remember if anything happened last year, or the year before, but if it did it probably involved an undesired, grocery store box of candy.

This year we didn’t plan anything, and I spent the day frantic with mundane tasks, from a dawn scrubbing the porch on hands and knees to a dusk grading papers until I finally collapsed in a heap. I didn’t get a Mother’s Day card or a Mother’s Day brunch or a Mother’s Day present, and I barely managed to call my own mother. Which is OK. I think Mother’s Day is kind of a fake holiday, anyway. Not that I don’t honor mothers; I just think that Mother’s Day, as it’s manifest in contemporary society, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Secretary’s Day: it’s a time to say, Here. For doing all the dirty work, for never getting a night off, for tying up all the loose ends: here’s a card. Or a box of chocolates. Or a brunch where you can try desperately to keep your kids in check/away from allergens/from screaming down the house, while your male benefactor eats Eggs Benedict and beams. Knock yourself out. Here’s a vacuum cleaner so you can clean up after me more, or a gift card so you can end up buying somebody else something, or a “pampering spa day” so you can look pretty for the men in your life and feel slightly less bitter about scraping the poop off the dirty diapers. You’re a peach.

Yeah, there’s something intrinsically disingenuous about Mother’s Day and its trappings, that’s for sure. I can’t think of a single typical “Mother’s Day gift” that doesn’t involve either facilitating the unfun parts of mothering or offering token compensation for them. As a holiday, it’s pretty far behind the times. Or so I’d like to think.

If we are to really celebrate mothers, we need to think about what the meaningful work of mothering is, and recognize how much unmeaningful, but very necessary, work goes along with that. What would I like to see?

Next mother’s day, make the mother in your life a meal and clean it up. Weed the garden. Write her a letter sharing something from childhood that she doesn’t know you remember. Upgrade her software. Fill up her car. Tell her you’ve noticed how much intelligence and forbearance and heart she brings to mothering and how her children are lucky to have her. Talk to her about the other things she does that enrich her mothering (my sister may be batshit crazy, but the nicest thing she ever said to me was that I was a poet and a writer and a professor and spoke fluent French, and all of those things would be gifts to my children. I hope she was right).

In other words, I’d like to see people showing their mothers and the mothers of their children exactly how far motherhood as come, how far womanhood as come, because I know there are people out there who still haven’t been able to shake the nagging voice that says women are nothing but the sum of the men in their lives. And I know I’m not the only one who still remembers the last line of Fifteen, which pretty much sums up a too-long era of gender attitudes:

“She was Stan’s girl. That was all that really mattered.”

So think about all the ways the mothers you know are role models, intellects, and inspirations in addition to being nurturers, tenders, and factota. Ask them what really matters, and let them know how much what they think matters to you.

Then get down on your knees and scrub the front porch.

When I wrote this post about how Thing One had become an Avenger of the Meek at his preschool, I was pretty pleased, because he was on the side of justice, even though his actions (tipping over a play kitchen on the class bully) spoke of an incipient might-makes-right attitude and, frankly, I’ve always been more of a Jeremy Irons than a Robert DeNiro type of girl (see The Mission, in which Irons’s character utters the immortal “If might makes right, then love has no place in this world,” to Deniro’s before promptly getting shot). So I was okay with Thing One slapping down the brutalizers of smaller, less aggressive children, but now he seems to have transcended that realm, gotten a taste of what it’s like to subject others to the reign of terror, and gone from vigilante for justice to just plain gangster.

The change was abrupt. Even at the last community meeting (we are a co-op preschool, which means that we have monthly meetings in which people talk about their kids’ issues, or filter their issues through their kids), we were able to sit smug in the knowledge that our child was the only one there who never hit anyone. But the honeymoon is over: K. came home from the school yesterday to report that Thing One not only hit, he had kicked and shoved. A sampling of incidents:

1)”Chad,” a frequent pusher, was playing in the vicinity of Thing One when Thing One hit him. It’s unknown if there was provocation. Chad burst out crying; an adult nearby rushed to Chad’s comfort and aid, whereupon Thing One hit Chad again.

2)A melée of violence occurred in which “Cornichon,” a frequent biter, and his cohort “Buzz” pinned down Chad by sitting on his body while Thing One sat on his head. Chad’s muffled cries were eventually heard by a horrified adult.

3)”Neville” was lying on the ground crying, reason unknown. Thing One proceeded to kick him while commanding, “Stop crying!”

Disturbing incidents all, particularly the first and last, which speak of a Marine Corps-esque shut-up-and-take-it (and indulge in some homophobia and jingoism while you’re at it) attitude. Not the kind of thing we want to hear about our children. So disturbing were these incidents (and these are only the ones involving MY kid; apparently the day was a free-for-all of unrestricted violence, an orgy of assault) that one parent — Cornichon’s mother — wrote the rest of us to suggest that we AVOID AT ALL COSTS having that many children in the same room at once. I wouldn’t go to that extreme, but I confess that I was completely unfazed, in a you-got-yours kind of way, to see that Thing One had sustained injuries resulting in fingernail-shaped purple marks on his face.

When I tried to talk to him about it, here’s what happened:

Me: “So, did you hit anyone at playschool?”

T.O.: “I bonked Chad!”

Me: “Why did you bonk Chad?”

T.O.: “Because he was crying!”

Well. Okay then. That clears things right up.

Actually, I don’t think that Thing One’s actions are that surprising, mostly because he’s been dealing with a baby sister who cries a lot, and occasionally he finds this so trying that he yells from his car seat, “STOP CRYING! I’M GONNA HIT YOU!”, which is disturbing but not that shocking, as anyone who’s ever been driven to distraction by a howling baby can attest. Their cries are, after all, supposed to really jerk our chains, that being evolution’s way of making sure they get addressed, right? And I, for one, find a crying baby extremely enervating. I immediately become like a cross between Stalin and a Mexican jumping bean: steely-eyed, jittery, unable to sit still and willing to sacrifice the masses for my cause, which is getting that kid to SHUT UP already. So I can’t blame Thing One if it bugs him too, even though the prospect of his hitting his sister really fucks with my wiring, since I don’t know whom to protect (although she usually wins — evolution again, I’m sure). And him not wanting to listen to another two-year-old crying is par for the course, because a toddler’s sobbing is almost as enervating as a baby’s and, besides, doesn’t he go to school to get away from that crap?

Our conversation continued thusly:

Me: “Were you mad today at playschool?”

T.O.: “The gnome was mad. He was really GIANT. He bonked everyone down and kicked them again. He shouldn’t do that. That’s not nice. The gnome was screaming. He was screaming really loudly. He was hitting everybody. He smashed them down.”

Me (silent): Craptastic.

So the gnome is back again, the Crazy Wild Gnome, only instead of avenging the little people he has now grown to gargantuan size and is dominating the ring like Hulk Hogan in his heyday. On the one hand, I have to give the kid points for imagination (and did you notice he used TWO ADVERBS??? And he’s not even two and a half!), but on the other, this seems disturbingly like a “Mistakes were made (but I didn’t make them)” speech.

The other piece in this unpleasant little puzzle is that Thing One has been wearing underpants for a week now, and although he’s only had accidents on one day, I think he’s feeling just a teensy bit tense about it, even though it was his idea, and on the day he did have two accidents he woke up from nap swinging — screaming and hitting and howling, “I WANNA CRY!”

I could see how being fearful of disappointing every adult in your circle of acquaintance by peeing your pants could make a person a little aggro.

I don’t know how to explain the actions of the Cornichons and Buzzes in the mix. But it is the holidays — we’re gearing up for the big Dongzhi party, trying to make it hugely fun for Thing One while fielding the incredulity and skepticism of our secular Christian extended family and friends, and presumably their families are also dealing with, if not censure and a lack of respect for decisions of religious practice, huge amounts of stress in the way of finding enough presents and making enough turkey or ham and dealing with unpleasant, drunken, and/or dysfunctional in-laws and getting the children to behave themselves.


Not that I’m condoning the return of the Aggro Gnome. But I can kind of understand where he’s coming from.

I probably would have posted this earlier in the week, but I’ve been trying to sublimate the dread I have for Thanksgiving. You could say I’m a party pooper, and you’d be right, but I have no use whatsoever for Thanksgiving, except perhaps as an exercise in self-flagellation.

Anyone with an interest in American history can tell you that the Native Americans have gotten a pretty shitty deal. I was reminded of this recently, when my husband forced me to watch the heinous Colin Farrell-mobile The New World, in which scores of sweaty, grimy colonialist goons exemplify the ethos of the title, i.e. that This World is New Because We Didn’t Know About it Before, in a plodding celebration of the white man’s mental limitations. Not even the presence of the talented Christian Bale, here totally emasculated by a role that shows him slavishly lapping up Farrell’s leavings (in the person of Jewel’s Peruvian cousin), can redeem more than two hours of this kind of self-congratulatory drivel. But I digress. This movie is only relevant to Thanksgiving in the sense that it gives a pretty accurate idea of what Thanksgiving celebrates, which is that Europeans came to America and fucked it up and the inhabitants saved their asses anyway with a gift of corn and beans before being rounded up and herded off to Oklahoma.

Are you hungry yet?

So anyway, somehow Thanksgiving just doesn’t give me the urge to stuff myself full of massive quantities of stuffed bird swimming in greasy gravy filled with giblets, and since I spent eighteen years as a vegetarian before succumbing to the lure of foie gras on the Ile St.-Louis one spring afternoon, I don’t fully understand what giblets are, anyway. I think they come in a clammy, string-wrapped bag. I suspect them of being gristly. Or maybe just gummy. I must admit I’m not quite comfortable with them. I have no quarrel with giblets, but they should keep to their own.

My personal history with Thanksgiving doesn’t help this aversion. Since my parents’ divorce when I was in middle school, all holidays involved splitting the day in half; a noonday meal at Dad’s followed by a chilly trek down to the 54 bus, which was running on “holiday” schedule and inevitably made me wait an hour, followed by a grimy ride with an assortment of bums, crazy ladies, and other odorous folk reduced to bus-riding as a survival tactic, followed by having to shove down a second holiday dinner at Mom’s. Of course, not eating was not an option either place; Dad is, of course, Chinese and would have found it massively insulting had I not eaten Herculean quantities of his over-salted meal, whereas Mom, occupying second tier as usual, might have felt slighted had I not done her undercooked Brussels sprouts justice (and for added guilt, it was usually her birthday).

So having to convincingly dig in to two Thanksgiving dinners is probably enough to give any adolescent a dislike of the process, but there’s another piece to the puzzle: the hereditary eating disorder. Those who have experienced this know what a scourge it is and how difficult it is to escape: you spend your early childhood watching your mom act out her bizarre relationship to the refrigerator, sometimes even implicating you in it (in my case, her refrain was, “Oh, Honey, why did you make me eat so much?” — as if a six-year-old could make a thirty-five-year-old consume an entire half cheesecake). You watch your mother glance in mirrors and moan about how fat she is, and when you hit puberty you decide that that’s what womanhood is, it’s a cycle of self-loathing and guilt-mongering, and you also become convinced that you are fat, so fat that it’s repulsive to even look at you. Even if you are 5’4″ and weigh 86 lb., because (thank God) you take after your dad’s side of the family. Even if the other half of your heritage involves competitive speed-eating. With chopsticks.

So that was my Thanksgiving: two dinners, lots of guilt, the trauma of the parental schism reenacted viciously (he wouldn’t so much as give us a ride in her direction, she couldn’t mention him without tearing up). And then there was my sister.

I’ve written about my sister in these pages before, and I think it’s only fair to get a third party description of her, um, unique character. So I’ll give you my dear friend Grant’s assessment, in the context of a conversation we had some years ago. I had apparently told him about something my sister planned to do that, to me with my skewed vision of reality, didn’t seem that outlandish, and he responded,

“Yeah, but your sister is ka-RAZY.

Out of the spirit of generosity, I should say that in this case, we can lay the blame for my sister’s insanity directly at my parents’ door. Not only did they pass on the twin streams of Chinese eating duty and hereditary Body Dysmorphic Disorder, but sis was a little younger than I when the Iron Curtain of Hatred fell down between our parents, so maybe it wormed its way deeper into her subconscious. By the time she was fourteen, she was subsisting on a diet of water and lettuce. Every three weeks she’d indulge on a Roman scale and eat a whole loaf of bread in one sitting, and then presumably hate herself, but her net daily calorie intake was still probably only in the double digits. She was all too eager to walk a mile through frigid rain to the bus stop (having been kicked off the track team), and she didn’t even mind the hour-long wait, which gave her the opportunity to jog in place in the little ditch on the side of the highway while we both got hit with sheets of rain churned up by passing cars, but once we sat down at the table, she was no picnic.

My parents were united in their bafflement at her refusal to ingest food, so they tactfully ignored it and urged me to eat twice as much to make up for it. And, well, my sense of self-preservation wasn’t so strong in those days. So by five o’clock on Thanksgiving Day, I was usually either lying on the floor as my bowels rioted in protest, or trying not to throw up in the ditch by the bus stop.

Once I moved away for college, I never came back for Thanksgiving. I spent a lot of happy holiday afternoons strolling around upper Broadway, eating Tasti D-Lite and loitering in the Barnes and Noble when the weather got bad. But now I have the great misfortune of living in my hometown, and we’re invited to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving (I am thankful that my dad has since moved away; does that count?), and, the pièce de résistance, my sister is now living with my mother (having fled her latest fucked-up relationship once again), and so we will all be together.

I can barely contain myself. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to commemorate the day, except maybe being forced to march a thousand miles in bare feet and smallpox blankets.

What are you thankful for?