19. No Means No
When William was 6 years old he and his mother moved to Indiana so Laurie could complete her first masters degree at Purdue. It was a great situation for the two of them because they could live with her parents, a lovely couple whom I trusted unreservedly with helping her care for William. Laurie’s parents had moved there just a few years prior when her father was transferred just a few years shy of retirement.
They built a two story house with a finished basement on 12 acres of land that had snow in the winter, and fireflies in the summer. William could build snowmen, sled, cross country ski out the back door, run wild in the greener months, and help his grandfather grow sunflowers three times as tall as he was. How could I say no? The catch was Laurie had to promise to move back within two years. It worked pretty well. William would visit Pete and me in California for any holiday that lasted for at least a week, and the whole of the summer. We even managed to visit them for a number of days around William’s first grade back-to-school night.
Of course when the two years were up, as Pete and I suspected, Laurie had a new degree, but no job, and no way financially to move back to California. Since I spend a good chunk of mental capacity obsessively worrying about almost any possibility of any situation, we’d been planning ahead. We converted a ramshackle, and totally useless single car garage into a charming, and practical studio. We’d even designed it to be “Laurie proof”, meaning 100% stain proof, animal proof. Really just pretty much indestructible…not to mention rent free. In fact it turned out that we loved this studio so much that during Laurie’s two year stay we attached it to the house with a custom built patio room so that after she moved out it could become our master bedroom suite. Win win!
William moved back to California during the summer after his second year of school let out, and helped us finish the studio. Laurie moved back just before fall and finished up her master’s thesis living with us in California. The grand experiment in co-habitation started. In the beginning Pete and I figured it would be for a number of months while Laurie looked for a job, but somewhere in her second year of grad school she decided that she wanted to work towards an MBA. So a few months turned into a couple of years. Some people might think this would create a tough situation, and although it wasn’t always sunshine and puppy dogs (actually more like puppy dogs, cats, rodents, and aquariums), the two years, quite frankly, were some of the best times we’ve ever had as a family. We got to have William with us full time, and William got to have all of his parents with him without the pesky back and forth of split household parenting.
We had among the four of us: two large dogs, two cats, a parrot (at some point) and two aquariums; so when William asked me one day if he could have a pet, I laughed and said no, just chose one and it’s yours! Of course he meant one of his very own he replied, but again I said no. When your mother has a place of her own we’ll discuss it I said, but for the moment 7+ beings in this house is plenty.
Life went pretty smoothly for the first few days as we all got used to new routines, and cohabitants. Until one Saturday afternoon…
I arrived home from work, most likely around four or five PM, to an empty house, and an odd gurgling noise. At first I was panicking at the thought of a plumbing leak, or possibly a toilet overflowing, but the noise was too regular, and strangely familiar.
I prowled room to room starting in the kitchen, then the bathroom, and as I reached William’s bedroom door it hit me! Aquarium pump. Oh no he didn’t, I thought. As I entered his room I saw it. A terrarium sitting on his dresser. Oh. My. God. I don’t think I have ever been more angry at him in his entire life.
I spent the next fifteen minutes pacing through the house cursing, slamming doors and generally blowing off some steam, and soon I heard a car door shut. As William and Laurie entered the front door I said calmly to Laurie, “I think you had nothing to do with this, so keep in mind that nothing I’m about to say is directed at you.” “Okaaaay,” she said with a little trepidation. And so I started. “William, what did I say about pets?” “You said I couldn’t have any until mom moved out,” he slowly replied. “William!” Laurie gasped. “Right,” I said. “So you are going into your room, packing everything up, and taking it all back to the pet store.” “Exactly,” Laurie agreed. Pete walked in the front door sometime around here, and with a quizzical look asked what was going on. As I explained I could see Laurie getting a little more peeved at William, and William starting to get the impact of what he’d done. “You will not use us against each other,” I told William, with firm agreement all around. Then began the 60 hardest minutes of our parenting experience.
Laurie, Pete, and I headed outside to the patio to allow William to grieve and pack up in solitude. It was pure hell. We sat in a small circle, looking at each other with silent tears in our eyes, desperately trying not to break under the constant barrage of William’s sobbing and mantra of, “I just thought once you saw them you would think they were so cute you’d let me keep them,” over and over coming from his bedroom. He and Laurie had spent the afternoon setting up an absolutely adorable terrarium of fish and salamanders, and naming each one. Under different circumstances I would have been happy to let William have the joy, and misery of taking care of such an elaborate set up. But as we all sat and desperately tried not to break under the pressure of doing the right thing, we new what this battle actually meant.
Poor Laurie had the sad task of taking William back to the pet store to return it all. She had paid for it on her credit card, and there was no way I was taking on that task, that’s for sure.
From what Laurie told me later, the pet shop clerk was horrified at what mean parents we were, and as I write this with a little of Pete’s input he made a very telling comment, “I keep telling that story to process it, I’m still scarred.”
20. Mother Of The Year
When my husband, Pete, and I moved into the Sacramento house we’ve occupied for the past 22 years, the back yard was mostly a dog run made of gravel a foot deep, and some rather sad looking trees. This seemingly vast wasteland continued with a concrete patio, and a wood deck trimmed with a 3-foot-high, once-cute fence. Who needs two-thirds of their yard fenced off as a dog run?
I couldn’t stand wasting half of the yard, so not long after we arrived, we hired a crew to remove half of the gravel. After that, Pete and I, with a neighborhood junkie we often hired back then, moved 5 cubic yards of topsoil into the back yard to replace the gravel. It remains the hardest work I will ever do – on one of the hottest Fourth of Julys I can recall.
We followed plans I sketched out, which included a nice courtyard, a pond, and a new half fence to mark off the now much smaller dog run. When we started, there was a forest of wild privet trees, a persimmon, and a sad-looking peach. We ripped out the privets immediately. The peach consisted of one sickly branch on a split trunk, so we chose euthanasia for the poor thing. The persimmon tree was a little better, and since it was precisely center, it was a focal point. I decided to give it a few years to heal, which seemed faster than removing it and planting a sapling.
In time, a lovely English garden wrapped around the patio, bordered with broken concrete chunks that Pete and I salvaged from a demolition site. We even added a garish statue for a bit of whimsy – a half naked god proudly standing guard at the back corner overlooking the pond.
Twenty years later, I look back and marvel at the lessons I’ve learned from my back yard. There were the mistaken plantings where we tried for years to grow dream plants that were inappropriate for our climate zone. We made many rookie errors, such as disregarding recommendations, overwatering, under-watering and under weeding. We battled snails, rats, blue jays, raccoons, mice, cats, sparrows, and – worst of all – the pesky squirrels.
I’ve learned when scorched earth policy is your final course for eradicating a “vigorous” ground cover. I’ve learned that when a garden website lists a plant as “robust,” you’d better keep it in a pot or you will soon have it growing through the cracks in the sidewalk across the street. I know that “freely seeds” translates to “Oh, Lord, what have I unleashed?” I’ve learned weed block fabric is a waste of time. I’ve learned how to compost. And, I’ve learned – almost – that patience and a calm demeanor are powerful gardening tools.
But the best lesson I ever learned is never trust your ex-wife.
I remember the day very well. Pete, my ex-wife Laurie, our son William, my mother Betty, and I were socializing in the living room. I don’t remember why; I’m sure it was during the time that Laurie and William were living with us full time. William and I went out back to feed the goldfish. It seems weird now; It’s not like the two of us ritually checked out the goldfish. I doubt the fish ever got fed by us more than once or twice afterwards. They were mostly there to eat mosquito larva and keep the plants in check (plus they add fertilizer, a pond is a delicate dance) so we wanted them hungry.
Unfortunately, by feeding the fish by hand, we were training them to come to the surface whenever they saw a figure coming toward the pond. That’s pretty much dinner on the table for many backyard fauna like raccoons, opossums, hawks, heron (yes, heron), skunks and cats. It’s cute while it lasts, but it always ends badly for the fish.
Our fish were always simple “feeder” fish. You can buy them for $1 at any pet store. Mainly they’re called feeders because they’re given to snakes, lizards and other live feed predators, in place of baby mice or rats. Because of this, I always felt like I was giving them a second chance at life. Sadly, after 25 years, the longest one has lived is five years. Anyway…we were feeding the fish, when we noticed one swimming on its side. I gave it a gentle nudge with a small stick and it fluttered quickly and dove to the inky bottom of the pond to hide. Within a few moments the plucky little critter floated back up. We realized there was something wrong, but we weren’t sure what to do.
After a few minutes of observation, I remembered my ex-wife – the mother of my child, and one of my most trusted friends – was a fish biologist. She was sitting in the living room. Duh, she’d know what to do.
We caught the slippery sucker in a net, and William, age 7 or 8, gently cradling it in the palm of his hand, carried it in to discuss its condition with the expert. He handed it to his mom, and we explained how we found it. We were afraid it might have some kind of infection or disease. Did we need to treat the water? Should we just let them all die?
I remember Laurie didn’t say anything as she gently picked it up by its tail to take a closer look. Laurie’s not the type to ooh and ahh. She’s rather proper and level-headed. She is also one of the most ardent animal lovers I know. Most of what I’ve learned about dog training, horses, birds and animals in general, I got from her.
She held up the fish, turning and examining it in the afternoon light. Its deep gold scales, still wet, twinkled as she slowly took a finger, gently prodding the poor little thing before administering a fast, hard finger flick to its head, killing it instantly.
The room silenced. After a brief hesitation, I turned to William, his mouth and eyes gaping like the fish, and said, “That’s why you never go to your mother when you’re sick.”