Thursday, March 25, 2010

Nuns and Cringe

Yes, young pious Tracy. 1979.

I cringe when I see a nun. It's not really unique. There are legions of Catholic school children, now adults, who likely cringe when they encounter these costumed women. My husband, who attended Catholic school for twelve years, shudders and exclaims when we pass the religious channel on television that features a heavyset nun named Mother Angelica. Marty's oldest childhood friend and classmate, Rob, claims he was worked over by a burly, bearded nun in a supply closet when he was in the fifth or sixth grade. I'm certain he cringes at the site of a black and white frock and habit.

I was spared a Catholic school education, mainly because of my mother's own post-traumatic stress. Mom has annals of personal nun abuse stories from Brooklyn. There was the cruel nun that made her sit outside on her birthday while the class ate the birthday treats. That meanie threw out her birthday corsage, too. This was punishment for toppling over a window plant. There was the high school nun, Sister Mary Magdalene, who used to mutter, "I'm going to rip your leg off and beat you with the bloody end." My mother can tend to embellish when she tells a story, but I still think it would be hard to make that up. There was the the Catholic summer camp nun in the Catskills who forced my tiny mother to dive into the murky lake repeatedly, stunting her swimming ability. And the ultimate stunt involves my mother's mature height. Mom heard of a study that correlates childhood anxiety in girls to stunted growth. My mother stands four foot eleven. She blames the nuns. So, even though I didn't climb elementary school stairs in a plaid jumper, I heard these stories enough to be fearful of the penguin ladies.

But I did have my own frightening penguin. Her name was Sister Kevin. Sister Kevin is the reason I cringe when I spot a nun, however infrequently that is these days. Interestingly, Sister Kevin has something to do with my fear of writing this blog, and even the fear of actually obtaining success if my memoir gets published. You see, Sister Kevin called me a show-off. She called me out.

She and her sidekick, Sister Raphael, ran the CCD program in town. My mother's post-traumatic stress did not free her of Catholic guilt. We had to make the sacraments; it's just the way it goes. A public school kid spends one afternoon hour each week for eight years in empty Catholic school buildings for religious training. It equates to about a two or three week prison sentence stretched out. I recall the moment of agony that would overcome me when I realized, riding on the bus home from school, that it was CCD day. I don't remember any of the curriculum, but my take-away from the religious training is that BOREDOM SUCKS. It's painful, stagnating, dreary. Boredom can crush a soul.

Back to Sister Kevin. She probably would have made a terrific actress. She may have been so bored herself at 4:00p.m. on Tuesdays at St. Mary's that she concentrated on perfecting the role of stern, vicious, jailer-nun. She waited to pounce like a sinister cat. She loved the disorder of overtired children because it gave her infinite method acting practice. She waited hungrily for late arrivees. She reveled in catching a student with a wad of chewing gum in his mouth.

It was an arduous Tuesday afternoon in sixth grade CCD. The teacher left to take a phone call in the office. Sister Kevin had called up through the intercom and told Mrs. Heinz about the call. We had been taking turns, row by row, reading paragraphs aloud from study bibles. The room was still for a moment. To be left alone was highly unusual. Whispers turned to giggles turned to laughter. I jumped up and took position at the front of the class. Now it was my turn to practice some acting. I started to mimic Sister Kevin. I liked to do impressions and voices. She was easy to do.

I saw Patrick Meehan's face before I saw her. I watched as his look of amusement morphed into terror. She was right outside the door. When I turned to look, her face registered...delight. She swooped in and grabbed me by the shoulder. She pressed her arm against my scared shoulders and ordered me down the stairwell into the school gymnasium.

It echoes in a gymnasium. She practically spat the words at me.

"You're nothing but a little show-off."

Ahhh...I'm cringing now.

I wonder if blogs like this are just a big show-off.

Poop-Smearing and Full Body Cringing

I was blessed with a placid first baby. Little Christopher had his moments, but generally he ate, slept, and hung out. Smiling. My husband, Marty, and I even took him on a trip to Europe when he was eighteen months old. We had friends living overseas, and traipsed around Paris like lovers, with an agreeable little boy in a stroller. On the long flight over we deposited him in the infant bassinet contraption that attached to the seatback infront of us and we all slept. Ahhhh....

I did know, even then, that we were lucky. I was not delusional that his good nature was simply a product of my expert parenting acumen. I am a worrier, and insecure, so to gloat about my part in this wasn't the conclusion I embraced. I had experienced the awful tragedy of losing my only brother when I was pregnant with Christopher. I reasoned that some higher-power was giving me a break. But there was this tiny part of me that looked at beastly children and their weary parents with wee condescension. Why don't they just strap that kid in the stroller and let him cry? Why doesn't that mom just stop giving in to her so much? Why don't they just say no and stick to it?

And then came Brendan. He arrived unexpectantly. No, I didn't deliver him myself, unaware of my pregnancy, like on that fabulous Discovery Health program that I rubberneck. His pregnancy showed its big blue plus sign in the bathroom of a Walgreen's, with calm toddler Christopher in the stall with me, just after I had quit my long-term job to start with a new company. I did not start that new job. Brendan launched me into the world of the stay-at-home mother. When I repeated the Walgreen's stall beginning to a friend who works for a giant retail pharmacy chain, she informed me that drug stores have a big shoplifting problem with girls who steal pregnancy tests and take them in the bathrooms. I might be the only person who learned of her pregnancy in a stall with a paid-for EPT test.

Brendan looked very much like his older brother. Light brown hair, big blue eyes, half-irish ethnicity shining (blinding?) from his skin. At first, it seemed like the sleeping beauty in the crib might be a repeat order. Ahhh, it's so pleasant to watch a baby sleeping.

And then he grew, grinned, crawled, ran, climbed up on tabletops, ripped, grinned running away from me towards traffic, SCREAMED, defied, slapped, dragged items out of cabinets and drawers, LAUGHED, banged into things and kept on running, hid from me in the house, tumbled down stairs, fought any kind of restraint (car seat, stroller, highchair) and threw any book I attempted to read him across the room triumphantly. But the worst...the most cringeworthy....was THE POOP SMEARING.

Calm three-year-old Christopher was by my side when we entered the room after Brendan's nap time and discovered the debauchery. Literally. Shit. Everywhere. Sheets. Crib. Face. Fingernails. He had even created a mural on the flat surface on one of the inside walls. He preened like a peacock. This one-year-old had defeated me and he knew it.

At first we stood in shock. Christopher's mouth hung open like mine.

"Ewwwhhh," he said. "Is that his poop?"

I cringed. It was a full physical clench, the kind that starts in your jaw and radiates up and down through your limbs like some form of electroshock therapy. I wondered if I would ever unclench. It was not merely the prospect of a toxic clean-up. It was that this being was MY KID. What the hell was waiting for me in the future?

There is not an ounce of parental smugness left in me. And, no, I don't want to submit this story to a parents magazine.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Parenting Magazines and Cringing

There is much advice available on the web, and from friends and strangers, about how to successfully launch a writing career. One recurring message is that I should submit articles to parenting magazines.

"You would be so good at writing those funny articles!"

The problem is: parenting magazines make me cringe.

I don't want to be the weary suburban mom who writes self-deprecating vignettes about her stained shirt, her stretched-out yoga pants, and her amazingly witty children. Blech. It is so boring. I marvel at how many people do not understand the basic fact that the only people who actually enjoy running "cute" stories about their children are their spouses and their mothers.

The worst articles are the crafty articles. Use leftover bobby pins to mount your daily decoupage projects. Create your own child harvest birthday party with horse-shaped chocolate lawn ornaments and raffia.

Anything craft-related makes me cringe.

So, I am going to have to find another outlet for submitting articles.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


I'm cringing as I write this. In the last few months, I've made the decision, the real decision, to attempt to publish the memoir that I spent six years writing. Until very recently, it was a floating idea in my daydreams. I daydream a lot and I cringe a lot.

The daydream took on a pretty regular reel: my book with a snazzy cover sits on a bookshelf at a quaint, tiny, bookshop (the kind with featured books hand-selected by the academic looking proprietor). I smile at the book and sigh with a nice content feeling. My book, called THE SHARK BRACELET, is the culmination of my efforts to tell the story of my brother and me. It gives credence to my time as a stay-at-home mom. See, while all of those other gals had perfectly mannered children and clean, organized homes, I actually wrote a whole book! And I think it's really good. So there.

This daydream was uncomplicated before I knew (and am still learning) the tremendous effort it takes to publish a book. It seems the easy part is writing it; the tough part involves securing a literary agent, who then has to secure a publisher, and many steps in-between.

One of those steps is writing a blog. Establishing an online presence. Ideally, I will amass a following of thousands who are so interested in my weekly cringes that they will stampede bookstores (quaint ones, huge mainstream ones, and online ones) to get their hands on my book.

Well, here I go. More about my book later.

Here's my weekly cringe: I rarely get dressed to drive my boys to school. It's early in the morning and it's been extremely cold in New Jersey this winter. I have this huge faux shearling coat that is about eight sizes too big for me. It hangs down to my ankles. Good coverage. I didn't realize that the center two buttons had popped off during this winter school-driving season. I notice this as I am standing in line for coffee. My coat is waved open, exposing my Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown with hearts and white doves on it. I know that I am the only woman under seventy-two who wears this night fashion, and definitely the only person in the world who wears it out in public. The guys behind the counter at Jersey Roasters are amused. The one who takes my order quickly scans my attire as I clutch my big, sloppy, coat closed. I know what he is thinking; he feels bad for my husband. I want to protest that he is wrong--a flannel nightgown is not necessarily an indicator of frigidity. But I just pay for my coffee and cringe as I walk to my salt-covered station wagon.