A Frable

Framma and Frappa Frantastic had five frabulous children: Freddie, Fralph, Frieda, Frannie, and the baby, Frappucina.

The Frantastic Family
The Frantastic Family

As each child came of age, Framma and Frappa presented him or her with a house. That way, each child learned how to clean and how to cook, and they each had a chance–and a space in which–to develop his or her own skills.

Freddie learned that he loved to work with wood. He made tables and chairs, desks, and picture frames. He taught all his friblings how to measure, saw, and hammer without error.

Fralph found he was a cook. When he simmered his stews, he drew the whole family to his house. He loved having them all around his table. He loved to feed them, and he loved to teach them his culinary secrets.

Frieda decorated! She could make a lovely display out of things she found in the woods, laying on the sidewalk, or in her junk drawer. She had an artistic eye and an imaginative soul. Her family praised her creations, and all of her friblings loved working on special displays with her.

Frannie threw herself into working with plants, indoors and out. She could make a tiny seed shoot up six feet high. She sang to her plants, and she said they sang back to her.

“Teach us those songs!” her friblings begged.

The Frantastic kids had many talents
The Frantastic kids had many talents

When Frappucina came of age, Framma and Frappa presented her with her house. Then they gathered all five children for an announcement.

“Now that you are all grown, and can take care of yourselves,” began Framma…

“…we are taking our long awaited world tour,” finished Frappa.

“It should take us four or five months,” Framma added, helpfully.

The Frantastic children were stunned. Five months? But then they thought, How wonderful. How wonderful for Framma and Frappa. And how wonderful that they know we can take care of ourselves.

The children helped their parents pack, and they waved them off with barely any tearful goodbyes.

It was a little weird at first, living without the tender strong center parents provide, but soon they found they were quite liking the novel sense of autonomy. Every day they worked together, shared their skills, and created new things…furniture or food, decorations, floral displays…

And they were all watching to see what Frappucina’s special skill would be.

So far she seemed to love doing everything, but not to be particularly brilliant at anything.

The days rolled on into weeks. Framma and Frappa sent cards and called every three days. The weather changed, the leaves brightened, and then the leaves fell, and one morning, when they met in the courtyard to plan their day, the Frantastics found fluffy white snow on the ground

They knew what that meant: the Feast of the Fruminaria was fast approaching!

They began to get ready.

Freddie made each of them a wooden frame to put outside their homes. Frieda gathered pine cones and vines and made a very pretty display on hers. She twined twinkle lights throughout, and it was very beautiful.She shared her supplies with the others and they each had fun making a display.

Ralph invited them all over to decorate the cookies he had made. Frieda’s were frilly. Frannie’s looked like flowers. Freddie’s were well-constructed. Fralph’s were delicious to taste, and delicious to behold.

Frappucina’s were, frankly, a little bit odd-looking, but she had so much fun with the frosting and the sprinkles that she made them all laugh, over and over and over again.

It was a good day. They went off to their little houses tired, excited, and happy.

The next day they had a surprise visitor. It was their cousin Drano from Drabulatia.

They all liked Drano, even though he was a little bossy.

They liked Drano despite his bossiness
They liked Drano despite his bossiness

The first thing he did was check out their decorations.

“This is the only GOOD one,” he said when he came to Frieda’s. “Why don’t you let her do all of yours?”

The Frantastic kids looked around. Suddenly they saw their decorations through outsider eyes.

Drano was right. Except for Frieda’s, the decorations were all–well, they were just frappy-looking.

“I’ll be happy to do yours over for you,” Frieda said to all of them. At first she was kind and sweet. Then she got a little crazy. They weren’t all sure they liked the creations she put in front of their houses, but she and Drano insisted they were brilliant.

They had a coffee break and Drano tasted their cookies. He said Freddie’s were clunky, Frieda’s and Frannie’s were too francy, and Frappucina’s were just plain weird. Fralph’s were the only good ones, he said. They looked at each other, then they looked at the cookies they’d thought were so wonderful only the night before.

Each one, when he or she thought no one else was looking, slipped their particular not-quite-right cookies into the garbage. Except for Fralph, of course…Fralph got just a little high and mighty about being the King of Cookies.

Drano decided Freddie had the only comfortable furniture.

He said Frannie was the only one whose landscaping was worth a frit.

And he said it didn’t seem like Frappucina had any special skills at all.

“Too bad,” he said. “I guess there’s one in every family.””

And then he left, whistling and skipping a little, clutching a bag of Fralph’s good cookies.

The friblings sat. They couldn’t think of a single thing to do that might be fun. Before it even got dark, they drifted to their own houses. Each went to bed early, and each tossed and turned discontentedly.

But the next morning brought a wonderful surprise: Framma and Frappa were home—home just in time for the Feast of the Fruminaria!

They had had a wonderful time, and they had stories to tell and gifts to share. Together, Framma and Frappa fixed a big, wonderful breakfast, and as they ate their first meal as a reunited family, the Frantastics all began to cheer up.

The children were anxious to show their parents what they’d done while they were gone. Framma and Frappa admired Freddie’s new chairs,and they asked what the other fribs had made.

They loved Frannie’s planting, and they looked for the plants at the other houses. They liked Frieda’s decorations, but they were puzzled when they looked at the other children’s.

“This just doesn’t feel like it’s yours,” they said to each one.

It was the same with Fralph’s cookies…Framma and Frappa loved them, of course, but they were sad not to see their other children’s creative hands in that fun and tasty project.

“Did we tell you,” asked Freddie, “that Drano was here?”

“Ah,” said Framma to Frappa.

Frappa was quiet for a minute. Then he said, “Let’s open presents!”

What a lovely lot of things Framma and Frappa brought them–fripperies and furbelows, francies, funny faddy things, and frodaciously frumptious frivolities. The Frantastics were ecstatic, and they played together and ate together and laughed together all day.

They had so much fun. It was almost impossible to say who enjoyed it most, BUT–Frappucina had the widest grin and the loudest laugh, and the way she trilled and carried on made them all smile, inside and out.

That was a wonderful day. And, as the sun dropped behind the horizon, each of the Frantastic kids kissed the parents, hugged the friblings, and wandered off to bed—except for Frannie. Right at the end, Frannie had gotten thoughtful; she’d gotten quiet. And she waited.

When her brothers and sisters had all drifted off to their homes to sleep, she went to her parents and asked the question that was fracking her heart.

“Do you think it’s really true,” she asked, “that Frappucina isn’t good at anything?”

“Ah, Frannie,” said Framma, and Frappa gave Frannie a great strong hug.

“Everyone,” said Frappa, “has many, many gifts. Finding them is your life’s work.”

“But,” said Framma, “you are all on your way. Already–

“Freddie is a carpenter; his gift is to shape the wood.

“Fralph is a chef; his gift is to fricassee and fry and to feed us with his lovingly cooked food.

“Frieda is a decorator; she combines elements to make us feel happy and at home.

“YOU are a horticulturist; you coax even the most reluctant plant to grow into glossy beauty.

“Frappucina is going to grow into many wonderful skills and gifts, but right now she has discovered one of the very, very best: she is an enjoyer.”

“An enjoyer,” said Frannie thoughtfully.

“Did you ever notice,” said Frappa, “how Frappucina’s laughter makes us all laugh? How she reminds us how good breakfast tastes or how nice it is to all be together?”

“She does,” said Frannie. “She does do that!”

“Each of you is brilliant at your big thing”, said Framma, “and because of that, we all appreciate those things a little more and a little better. Frappucina’s big thing is enjoyment; she makes us all enjoy EVERYTHING deeper and better.”

That was exactly right, Frannie thought; what Framma and Frappa said was right and true. Frappucina DOES add spice and life to every occasion.

But,– “Why did Drano make us all feel so BAD?” asked Frannie.

“Well,” said Frappa, and he looked at Framma, and he smiled and shrugged. “Drano may be my nephew, Frannie, but when it comes to enjoyment, I’m afraid he’s a little,—a little,— What is it I’m trying to say, my dear?”

“CLOGGED,” said Framma. “When it comes to enjoyment, we’re afraid Drano is a little CLOGGED.”

“Ah,” said Frannie. “I think I see. But if Drano is clogged, do you think he will ever discover his special thing?”

“Let’s hope,” said Framma, “he is lucky enough to spend time with a creator and time with an enjoyer, and to keep his eyes open and his mouth closed. It’s the very best way to get unclogged.”

“I’m glad you’re home,” said Frannie, and she hugged her parents, and she skipped back to her own little house, thinking about the treasures the next day could bring.


Let Go, Let Go, Let Go



I open the back door of the Escort, and Ella peers at me from her car seat.  Her eyes well tears; her bottom lip quivers.

“Come on, baby,” I say.  “Let’s go meet the other kids!”

“No, Mama,” she whispers.  I unbuckle the belts and lift her from the car seat.  She clings to me, clamped on, across the crowded parking lot.

Inside, the hallways gleam with back to school brilliance.  Ella’s preschool starts at 9:15, an hour and fifteen minutes after the big kids start regular school, so there is a buzz, a hum, an underlying energy that vibrates in the very floor as we walk down to the preschool classroom.

We are early, but other children are already there.  The smiling teachers, Miss Claire and Miss Betsy, have a tempting array of toys spread enticingly throughout the room.  There are crayons and fresh sheets of drawing paper and books  on each of the small round tables.

“Look, Ella,” I whisper, “there’s Clifford and Emily!”

“No,” she says into my neck.  A brown-haired, bowl-cutted, boy, rubbing his red crayon back and forth on a yellow sheet of paper, looks up briefly and shrugs.

Miss Betsy comes over.  “Good morning, Ella!” she says, and she peels my three year old off my body. “This is going to be a great day,” Betsy tells Ella, “and you will make new friends.”

“NO,” says Ella with great finality as Betsy lowers her to the ground. With startling quickness, Ella is wrapped around my right leg, and she is into full tantrum warm up.  “No mama no mama NO MAMA NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and she is off and wailing.

Betsy looks at me sympathetically and mouths, “Go quickly.” She removes Ella with seasoned dexterity.

“Goodbye, Ella!” I say.  “I will see you at 11!”

I flee, tears starting in my own eyes, rushing out the door on a tidal roar of, “NOOOOOO, MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

I stand in the hallway for 30 minutes listening to my child wail, and then I go out to the car and cry for half an hour myself.

I pull the Vibe into the parking lot of the middle school and ruffle Ella’s newly cut hair. She turns to look at me; her twelve year old eyes are bottomless.

“I don’t know, Mom,” she says.  She eyes a couple of other girls meandering up the walkway to the big old brick building.  I know she is checking out their clothes–Did I pick right? she is asking herself.

Her little plaid skirt and long sleeved black top will do.  The other girls have very similar outfits.

“We walked this out,” I remind her.  We had come to the open school two days running and followed her schedule–from home room to math class to English to Gym. She knows how to get to the cafeteria. Her afternoon classes are next door to each other.

We have arrived early so she can get to her locker through hallways that are not tumultuous with first day mayhem.

Her hand is on the door handle, her body tensed.

“You can do it,” I whisper.  “You’ll be great.”

She leans over and gives me a quick, self conscious peck; she grabs her not-yet-full backpack, and she bolts out the door.  Head down, she scurries up the walk.  At the big shiny red door she pauses, hand on the heavy metal handle.  She turns to look at me pleadingly.

She looks suddenly tiny next to the massive door, which must be eight feet high, my big girl shrunken and frightened by this new challenge.  She is all long legs, knobby knees, and tension.

“You can do it,” I mouth, and she shakes her head, almost angrily.  Then she pulls herself up, yanks on the door, and disappears.

I sit there for  moment, leaving my twelve-year-old Ella in a nest of strangers.  She’ll be great, I think.  I pull myself up, an echo from a moment ago, and restart the car.


As we are pulling the crisp new blue sheets over the mattress of the bed on the right-hand side of the room–a predetermined arrangement–Abby and her mom Mary come in.  There is hugging and squealing, and the girls dig treasures out of their bags, laughing.

A coffee maker;  I’m learning to drink it!

Oh, very cool–a bagel slicer; we can go to the bakery over on Downing Street on weekends. 

They unpack their clothes neatly, folded things in dressers, hanging things behind the closets’ louvered doors.

They put toothbrushes and soaps, hang towels and washcloths, in the bathroom.

Mary and I hang the curtains we’ve collaborated on, smooth matching duvets, plump up new pillows. We fold afghans over the foot of each bed. The girls flit around, putting books on shelves, supplies on desks, saying tentative hellos to neighbors who poke their heads in to meet them.

This is 210 McHenry Hall: Ella’s new home for the next academic year.  She is 18, still leggy, but the knobby colt-like quality is gone; this is the classy legginess of a young woman.  And this is her dream school; this is where she’ll decide between the physics degree and the writing degree.  She will take her intro physics course, her calculus, her two English classes, and begin determining: Do I want to be a scientist? Or a writer?  Can I do both???

She and Abby, another bright, ambitious, over-achiever, have met twice, corresponded and emailed all summer; she is ready.

But–as Mary and I look around the room, knowing it’s all set, knowing it’s time to go, both girls begin to shimmer just slightly.  I feel Mary doing what just I am doing, girding for goodbye.

We hug our girls hard, we demand that they call that very night.  They roll their eyes,–eyes that threaten to leak.

I pause in the parking lot  as I dig out my keys to the Scion, and look up.  Her face is pressed to the second floor window, a hand flattened on either side.

You can do it, I mouth.  She gives me a thumbs up, peels herself from the window, and I climb into my car and start the ignition.


I love Andy; he loves Ella.  He is kind and good and smart and hard-working.  She glows when she looks at him.

She has lived in the city for three years; she is independent and savvy.  But when she emerges, changed from her tulle and lace extravaganza into a beautiful flowy top and tight and trendy jeans for the start of the honeymoon, her eyes are the frightened, sorrowful eyes of my little girl.

I hug her hard, rock her back and forth, make her giggle.

She and Andy open their Jeep doors–my liberated baby is driving; she looks at me long and hard over the roof of the car.

It’ll be great, I mouth, and I see that little shimmer; then she grins and slides inside, and they’re off to begin a marriage.

They call me when they’re ready to go, and I meet them at the hospital.  Her contractions are three minutes apart; she’s in her fuzzy robe, her long legs hunkered up in the wheel chair, her hands on either side of her big belly.

She breathes like they taught her: Huff.  Huff. Huff.

Andy signs papers and answers questions and a cheerful, motherly nurse pads out in pink and blue patterned scrubs.  The woman at the desk smiles at me and shows me where to sit; the motherly nurse rounds up Andy, deftly turns the wheelchair around, and starts to roll my Ella away.

She cranes her head around, looking for me.  There is panic.  I don’t think I can do this, she telegraphs.

You’ll be GREAT, I telepath back, and she disappears to birth my beautiful granddaughter, mysteriously named Devon after an English river neither Andy nor Ella has ever seen.


Ella arrives at my door; she has just taken Devon to her first day of preschool.

“Oh, my God,” she says.  “How did you ever do this?” and she tells me about the teacher peeling her four year old from her leg and shooing her, (Goodby, Mom! We’ll be fine!) out the door, and about standing in the hallway listening to her baby cry for her.

I do all the right things: I smooth her hair, I cradle her cheeks for an instant; I plant a firm kiss on her tensed up brow, and I take her out for coffee.  I tell her stories about her own stubborn little self until she is laughing shakily.

“Does it get easier?” she asks, and I tell her that it does, little by little.  And that Devon is great, so smart, so ready; she’ll do really well.

I don’t tell her everything, though, as I look fondly at my daughter, a mature woman, a wonderful mother, who is right now surreptitiously stealing half of my warm and oozey chocolate chip cookie.

I don’t tell her that I’ve decided each leaving is like having a stitch removed. If the skin is healthy–if the child is ready–it hurts just when  the stitch is pulled.  Sometimes, in fact, it stings like hell, the sudden pain vibrating up and down my body.  But then under the pain, as what was stitched together starts to separate a little bit, I discovered, there is a tiny glowing orb,  a little pearl-like nugget–a little jot of freedom.

I don’t tell her that in a month, Devon will be bolting out of the car, anxious to see her friends, forgetful of the mama dragging in behind her with a Hello Kitty backpack, a Scholastic book order form, and a signed promise to send in two dozen cupcakes for the UnBirthday Party the following week. Or that she will say goodbye and drive off and feel a rush of joy at having two hours to herself,–two hours in which she can take her tablet to the coffee shop and pound the keys in blissful quiet, or–what luxury–when she can take a deep, sucking-in- sleep-like-a-parched-runner-downs-water, nap.

I don’t tell her that each leaving signals a growth in her daughter…and a little more freedom for her, the mama.  She will savor that freedom, feeling a guilty pang for doing so, and she will help her daughter reach and grow and get sturdy and strong.  And each time they say goodbye, she’ll know: Devon is ready for this. She’ll be great.

If I told her this, she’d be brought up short; she’d think, Mom!  You were GLAD when I was gone???

I’ll let her discover the flip side of the leaving on her own.  Right now, I grab her hand, studded with dots of melted chocolate, and we laugh.  It’s these moments, I tell her, the moments between the leavings, that we savor.

In Story Land


I’m reading Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season, and I’m asking myself this question, “Is Conroy a reliable narrator?”

It’s a question I’ve pondered a thousand times, I bet, from Mr. Durkin’s satire class in my senior year at Dunkirk High School to discussions with Dr. Bob Deming, almost twenty years later, as I pieced together my master’s thesis, to my own reading, forever tinted, and maybe tainted, by English classes.  We were analyzing [some would say over-analyzing; I had a class once that developed an exciting theory about the back story in a book.  Since the author was still alive, we sent off the theory and begged her for a comment.  Her comment was: “You English teachers always over-analyze everything.”] the story and asking ourselves, “Can we trust this narrator?”

Conroy uses his senior year at the Citadel as the framework for this memoir, which is the story of how important basketball has been in his life.  He was a scrappy, smart point guard, but one of the things he tells us in the book is that he was never more than a mediocre player.  Conroy might believe that; his strongest male influences, his father and his coach, were both odd, abusive men who seemed to have absolutely no interest in developing the young people in their charges. They certainly never told him to think highly of himself.  In fact, the mantra Conroy remembers Coach Thompson yelling at him, over and over, every game he played, was, “Don’t shoot, Conroy!”

So one of the tenets of this story is that Pat Conroy loved basketball, ate it, drank it, and slept with it all through college, but that, as a player, he never rose above the ranks of just so-so.

I don’t buy it.  The stories Conroy tells about the games he played, the quotes he includes from sports writers, the fact that his coach, that strange and turbulent man, once reamed out the team but excused the author from the rant–i.e., “You’re all losers and scum–except Pat Conroy,” suggest a very different story.

I believe Pat Conroy was a helluva basketball player.  But I believe, too, that he is convinced otherwise, that he would argue with anyone who suggested his excellence.  “I was a mediocre basketball player,” is one of the key beliefs his book is built upon.

I bet we all have things like that.  So much of our lives is built upon the stories we tell ourselves and others. We are a people of story.

There are stories we believe about ourselves, and a lot of time our first teachers are the ones who impart these tales.  Those can be positive or negative, delivered harshly or lovingly.  So a child whose mother says, “I love that picture!” will begin to believe herself talented, artistically.  The same child, when her mother, surveying her cluttered bedroom,  ruffles her hair and says fondly, “You’re such a little messypants!” starts to think, “I’m kind of a slob.” One telling won’t usually be enough to implant a belief so strong it defines the story, but, told over and over again, we begin to believe and internalize what we hear.

The telling can have enormous–and tragic–consequences.  I think back to when we lived in Ada, and I was going to a library book club.  We read a memoir by a man who had gone from abject poverty to being the Dean of a prestigious law school.  At the same time, a young man was pleading for his life in sentencing hearings at the court where my husband interned.  This young man had lined up seven people and shot them, gangland style; included among the people he shot were a two year old and a young teenaged girl, who both died.  The miracle, I guess, was that the others lived and told the tale.

That young man, too, grew up in abject poverty; in fact, as I read the book and read the testimonies of people who knew the defendant growing up, I was struck, over and over, by how similar they were.  It was eerie.  What was different in the way the men turned out?

In his memoir, the law school dean noted that his father was one of his main tormentors, neglecters, abusers–an addicted, seldom rational man.  But, every day his father told him:  You’re smart.  You can get out of here.  You’re going to college.

Did the other young man have a voice like that in his life?  I doubt it.  In fact, one of the people who testified about the cruelty and despair of his childhood said something like this, “We knew he was gonna turn out no good.”

Simplistic, yes, but still–Those were the childhood stories those men heard; those were the adult stories they lived out.

At my godchild Shayne’s house in Florida, I saw a picture of Shayne’s lovely niece, a beautiful young girl of Nicaraguan lineage, with a tiara on her head, a lovely gown–and my grand-niece Madelyn, with a tiny tiara of her own, happily ensconced on her cousin’s lap.  Shayne explained that the photo was taken at her niece’s quinceanera, a tradition in cultures with Hispanic roots.

I had never heard of the quinceanera, so when I returned home and found a copy of Julia Alvarez’s Once Upon a Quinceanera at a library book sale, I bought it and took it home to read. Alvarez, who grew up in the turbulent sixties and seventies, and never had or considered a quinceanera, became fascinated by the custom as an adult, and so she traveled around the country researching it.  She visited families of great wealth, who had celebrities and over the top celebrations– and families of great poverty, who provided parties that were just as lavish and financially disastrous by their standards.  There is a quinceanera industry, Alvarez reports, sellers of dresses and tiaras, party planners and caterers, who make their livings on quinceanera customers.  It’s a big deal.

Alvarez explores the roots of the custom and its meaning, and she tells us it’s all tied up with the stories we’re telling our daughters. What does this particular quinceanera say to the young woman–is it, “You are now a beautiful sexual being, ready for marriage and motherhood”?  Is it, “Look at you: beautiful, powerful, vibrant! You can do anything you put your mind to”?  Or is there another story behind the glitz and ruffles?

Alvarez writes, “…there are stories in our head about who we must be and what we can do, and these stories drive our lives.”

Do the stories doom us?  I have to think otherwise.  I have to think that there are moments in our lives when the stories we have accepted rise to the surface of our consciousness and we are forced to choose.  Do we accept the belief that we will never amount to anything? Or–do we start the course that will prove those storytellers wrong?  And what can we do to realize what stories are driving us, what beliefs we have internalized that define our choices?

Pat Conroy’s belief is an appealing, humble one, “I was not a very good basketball player…” Conroy obviously has gone on to a dynamic and successful career; he’s a well-known writer.  Heck, he’s a person who worked out his private story on a very public stage.  Would he have been a different person if his belief had been, “I was an outstanding leader on the basketball court?”

I don’t know, but isn’t it interesting to ponder?  And isn’t it fascinating to ask ourselves what stories we play out every day?  How do we bring those stories to awareness, to where we can accept them or reject them mindfully?

That, I think, is the climax of our rising narratives—the point and the path that will determine how our own individual plots play out.  I hope my narrator’s been reliable.


Musing About Food and Cooking, Again: Apron Memories

Quick—who and what first comes to mind when you think of an apron?

I’m thinking about aprons because Terri Mercer, in her role as executive director at a very special organization called First Step, sponsored an activity, asking folks to write and share their apron stories. Terri challenged us, on Facebook, to think of our own apron memories.

(First Step, by the way, addresses domestic violence, but its practice is unique. It works with men as well as with women and children, looking at the family as a unit. It employs female and male counselors. It was the first program in Ohio to design and build a shelter to meet its clients’ needs, rather than trying to adapt a house. It was one of the first organizations to help males who were victims of domestic violence, too. Ground-breaking, brave, fascinating work–I shouldn’t be at all surprised that this organization has fascinating workshops and activities. I discovered they have a great website, too, if you’d like to take a look: http://firststepweb.org.)

But. Aprons.

I am a lover of metaphor, and aprons, in my lifetime, have been a metaphor. In my earliest days, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, every woman needed an apron. As I grew into young adulthood, and the movements of the ’60’s and ’70’s rocked and changed our world, aprons began to symbolize ties to an unfair bondage–as in ‘Untie your apron, Sister, and fling it aside! Embrace your independence!’ I picture a woman going in one door wearing an apron, and coming out the other in a pinstriped suit, her rolling pin traded for a briefcase.

And now…at least in my life, at this stage, aprons are back–not a symbol of a return to some kind of domestic drudgery, but as a badge of practical, protective warmth and nurture.

I remember ratcheting into my mother when I was very young, three or so, short enough that my head bounced against her apron. It must have been a Sunday; I clearly remember Mom’s dress, one I loved–navy blue with white dots, long sleeves and white collar and cuffs. It was classy, and it was protected by an apron because she was, no doubt, cooking Sunday’s chicken dinner.

I got a swat for my careening, and a revelation–bouncing off Mom on Sunday was like bouncing off a basketball. The apron hinted at softness, but underneath, all was firm and bouncy at the same time. It was Sunday, so of course Mom had on her panty girdle. It held up her stockings; it held in her stomach.

Mind you, I don’t think my 5’4″ mother ever tipped the scale at more than 125 pounds in her life; she was not (unlike, sadly, her daughter) in need of that kind of restraint. But girdles and aprons were part of a woman’s wardrobe, and that was what she wore.

I think the panty girdle is a much better symbol of a time when women were tightly conscribed than an apron ever was.

My mother made her aprons, mostly, cranking them out on an old Singer treadle machine, a machine outdated already in my childhood. She said she liked it because it could handle heavy duty jobs, like patching the knees of our jeans. I suspect she liked the ease of it and that it was a piece of furniture, always ready. Unlike a portable electric machine, the treadle didn’t have to be dragged out of a closet, set up on the dining room table, taken down again in time for dinner. Projects in ‘mid-sew’ could be left on the treadle and returned to when a hole opened in a busy household schedule.

Mom’s aprons were of the lap variety, tying in the back, covering from waist down to knees. She made the ties of one color, and the rest from bright prints. She added matching or contrasting pockets. Her aprons were colorful and fun.

I, of course, did not like them then; I wanted a full body apron, one you had to stick out both hands to slide over your shoulders. My Aunt Annie wore that kind. My mind’s eye sees her in a blue calico print apron with navy blue trim–whether that’s an apron Aunt Annie ever owned or one embroidered by memory, I’m not sure.

We moved from my comfortable little home town to the grindy little city next door when I was in fourth grade, and for a time, nothing–especially me–seemed to fit. I remember the art teacher in my new public school telling me to bring in an apron for art class. I brought in one of Mom’s half aprons.

“What’s THIS?” the teacher asked, holding it up by its waist tie, and then, seeing my crestfallen look, she backed off. She got me an old shirt and had me put it on backwards. It was soft with age and covered with paint splots; it smelled of talented, oil-based, creation, I thought. I folded up the apron and put it away at school. At the end of the year, I took it home, unused. My mother washed and ironed it, and used it again immediately.

In junior high home economics, we made our own aprons. Mine was clumsily sewn, but I liked the colors and the style.

And then came high school. I walked into high school in a carefully selected skirt and blouse, with panty hose (still, at that time, a fairly recent innovation) squinching my waist, Mary Janes on my feet, and a purse that matched my outfit slung over my shoulder.

I walked out of high school four years later in torn jeans so long my heels walked wear spots in them, wearing a faded army jacket, and carrying a backpack. Why would I need an apron? My classmates predicted jokingly that I’d take over the reins of Cosmopolitan from Helen Gurley Brown.

Stuck in the kitchen? Please. I had, you’ll excuse the expression, bigger fish to fry.

Funny, though, how Life turns around and smacks one in the head–sometimes with a nice, nerf-y bat, and sometimes with something a little bit firmer.

I will not, I proclaimed, teach or type for a living–I will not be stuck in a job reserved for women by a patriarchal society. I will not go willingly into that oppressive female ghetto.

Five years after college graduation, I was happily teaching middle school Language Arts at a wonderful little intercity parochial school. During term breaks I painstakingly typed final exams on my portable Olympia typewriter, index finger stroke by index finger stroke, for other teachers and for extra money.

But I still didn’t have an apron.

Well, I did have one, but I never wore it for cooking. It was a gift from a friend so close to the family she could have been an aunt, Mrs. Mary Muench; she sewed the apron in a tiny flower print in shades of peach and brown. It fell below my knees and tied around my waist, and was so dress-like it covered my butt in the back. It had ruffles around the bodice, and it looked like a GunnySack dress. I loved GunnySack dresses, and I wore Mrs. Muench’s apron like a funky tunic.

In those days of trendy handmade and repurposed clothing, I could wear that beautiful apron over jeans and a deep brown turtleneck and look like I was making a fashion statement. I would not have dreamed of getting food splatters on that beloved garment.

So there I was, in my ‘second wave of feminism’ passion, teaching school and typing; then I married Mark and cooking joined the list of darned-near daily occupations. We had a close galley kitchen in our first house with an enormous old seventies brown earth-tone stove. In that tight space, on that vintage appliance, I cooked family meals and company meals, baked birthday cakes and everyday cookies, experimented with wondrous dishes like eggplant pizza and a haphazard quiche or two for the real men in my household.

I will not be chained to the kitchen, I allowed, and then I enjoyed the artistic and creative challenge of trying to take our budget and stretch it to feed a family with tasty, attractive dishes. Not owning a single item of daily worn clothing that couldn’t be thrown in the washer, no apron was needed.

Matt grew toward teenager-hood; Jim was born. Time flew. We moved, and moved again. We invited family and friends to celebrate milestones, and I did a lot of cooking on those celebration days and washed a lot of dishes. I remembered my brother Denny, always man enough to help, shlepping into my kitchen on Orchard Street and starting the water for a sinkful of suds.

“Got an apron?” he asked, and I didn’t; he wound up tucking a dishtowel around his waist.

Fast forward to today; if Denny were here now (and how I wish he was!) I could offer him a choice of aprons. Now, Crisanne, with whom I work–although she will retire this summer–has a gift of cloth creation, and thanks to Cris, I have an everyday apron and a holiday apron. They are things of beauty, but I don’t hesitate to let them be splattered with food.

I still spend a lot of time in the kitchen. In fact, when I done with this essay, I am going to try a new recipe in my quest to make a peanut butter cookie as tasty as the ones I can get at Starbuck’s in Erie, PA–a Reese Cup cookie that I really do go far out of my way for–and that the Starbucks in Ohio don’t seem to carry. But today, in 2014, it is trendy to be ‘cook-y’, to think about the food we eat, to craft our meals from fresh ingredients.

Feminism–in its third? fourth? wave– has embraced nurturing…with the stipulation that men can do it, too. It’s okay to cook and bake and play with grandkids, to plan and execute company dinners, to sew, and to decorate tastefully. It’s okay to focus on home.

Of course, all those things always were okay; we may have done them apologetically; we may have gone about them in a clandestine way; but we never once considered not doing them. And the apron is the perfect metaphor for that, so ever present in the fifties and sixties; lost or hidden in a drawer during the social revolutions of the last part of the 20th century; proudly rediscovered in these latter days.

Terri’s simple challenge–tell us your apron stories–delves deep.

I’ll bet you have an apron story, maybe about the early sensory memory of cookies baking and a warm lap; about your first cooking experience; of hefting that turkey out of the oven the very first time you plated a Thanksgiving dinner. Is there, in a drawer somewhere, an apron sewn by hands so dear to you that you just can’t part with it at all?

Oh, here’s to our aprons; to the meals and memories we’ve shared; to the meals and memories yet to come.

If you’ve met one person with autism…

I just learned a catch-phrase often used in the autism community. It goes like this: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Today, on April 2nd–Light It Up Blue for Autism Day, at the beginning of National Autism Month, — I can’t tell you what the autism walk is like for everyone. I can’t say definitively that these are the causes, symptoms, problems, joys, and challenges all people on the spectrum experience.

I can tell you, though, in a mother’s voice, about one autism hero. My son, James, is 24, and on the autism spectrum.

James is a big guy, 6’2″ or so, and broadly built. He has the thick head of hair my mother’s genes so generously bestowed on many of us; the red glints come honestly from both his Dad and me. Jim has Mark’s brown eyes,–eyes just like his brother Matt’s– as brown and glossy, we used to say when they were each little, as M & M’s. Jim’s eyes seem to snap when he is intrigued, compelled, or outraged.

Big guy that he is, Jim has never been much interested in competitive sport; competition is not a language he speaks. Instead, he’ll walk endlessly, pumping his arms, listening to music on his smart phone, writing–I’m guessing–sagas in his head. Writing is Jim’s passion, and he feeds that passion with film, television, role-playing video games, and books. He started reading at an incredibly young age, and the world of story shapes and defines his life.

At 24, Jim is just beginning to find his stance. The transition from a structured school experience–the end of high school–to a life of choices and options and uncertainty has been difficult for Jim. As I read more, talk to more families, and get to know more adults on the spectrum, I learn that this is one of the few things that can be said universally of [almost] all adults with autism.

Education and job-training programs are built with a kind of ‘one size fits many’ philosophy, and they don’t often work for people with autism. In the adult autism community, unemployment is outrageously high; one study I read recently places it at 85 per cent. The college completion rate, too, is much lower than the average, despite the fact that many autistic adults have higher than average intelligence.

When Jim walks in and sits down, people who’ve just met him don’t say, “Hey. Gosh. A disabled guy.” But things that neuro-typical folks would brush off, cope with, or accommodate, are impassable boundaries to him. (This often appears to be laziness or defiance to people who have no training in, or familiarity with, spectrum individuals.)

Autism seems to mean that a layer of protective insulation against sensory bombardment has been peeled away. Jim is particularly vulnerable to sounds and smells; he couldn’t stand one job, for instance, because Top 40 music played, loudly and constantly. The coordinator, very sensibly and fairly, tried to work out a schedule…the folks who liked Top 40 got their days, Jim could pick the music on others. But it wasn’t a matter of fairness or sharing time; the Top 40 songs were a constant battering to Jim, and he soon left that experience.

“C’mon,” people say. “He left a job because he didn’t like the music?” That, I think, is the place where the path of the neuro-typical and the path of the autistic person start to diverge. Most of us would be annoyed, maybe, but we’d accommodate–we’d wear our ear buds, negotiate a different spot in which to work, or find a compromise all could live with.

That compromise, I have come to understand, is not a possibility for folks on the spectrum. The sensory input is not an annoyance. It’s insurmountable.

An example: A friend of a friend has an adult son on the spectrum who is a hard worker, reasonably social, and very bright. He has held a number of fast food jobs and lost them all. It’s not because he is late, unreliable, or inappropriate. It’s because he cannot–and really cannot, although it seems like ‘will not’–wear the uniforms. This young man doesn’t like the polyester texture or the tags. He says he can’t breathe in those clothes. He says he can’t wear clothes with writing on them. His bosses say, over and over, “Sorry, son. You’re fired.”

Sensory rawness marks these adults as different. Their social reactions can also be very unique and difficult to understand. I’ve found that many people on the spectrum are almost completely literal. If they’ve been told something is true, for example, they believe it should be true in all circumstances.

So a lovely young autistic woman, a former student of mine at a different college, seemed to morph into a virago when told she was not going to be allowed to take a make-up test in the testing center. It was 4:45 and the center closed at 5:00; there wasn’t time to take the test.

But Angie (not her real name, of course) had been told, by her instructor, that she could take the test at the testing center. And so, to Angie, the person who said that wasn’t true was a liar, and she told the poor assistant who had to share the bad news that, loudly and unceasingly. The center staff called for help.

Jim has really worked hard at learning to read social cues, and he does a great job, but he will still ask for help in unnerving situations. Looking in at his world, I sometimes think it must be like living in a foreign country, one where he can learn the customs if he works really, really hard. He never completely understands the random-seeming reasons behind the customs, though, and every once in a while, one practice might just loom as being totally intolerable.

But, like anything, there are flip sides. The literalness that makes some situations difficult for Jim and for others on the spectrum also makes some situations very, very simple. Jim believes, for instance, that all people have a right to respect, and he is always a champion for the underdog. He doesn’t care if you have a label of ‘PhD’ or of ‘DD’; if you’re his friend, you’re his friend. He is impressed by your spirit and not by your title. He is moved by photos he sees in the back pages of magazines of babies born with cleft palates ; he is incensed by injustice to marginalized folks–the mentally ill, the developmentally disadvantaged, gay people who can’t get married, the elderly abused in institutions we should be able to trust. Like competition, injustice is not a language Jim speaks.

Jim has arrived at his point in life by a lot of hard work, a lot of frustration, a lot of luck. He earned his high school degree on a normal schedule. Since high school, he’s completed over a year of college–he’ll return to that pursuit this summer–, and he’s taken part in several different job training programs.

He wants, very strongly, to live independently, and he’s working toward that. At the same time, that thought is pretty scary, and we need to help him take the steps to becoming secure in his ability to navigate independent, adult life.

This might sound like the writing of a wise and competent mother, but the truth is, the mistakes I’ve made are enough to fuel Jim’s conversations with his therapist for a lifetime, at least. Here we are, imperfect and impatient, in this unmapped territory, trying to help our intelligent, funny, vulnerable, loving son find a very good route to where he wants to be.

There’s not a route that’s well-traveled enough, though, for Jim to see the landmarks. In many ways, he’s in a rain forest with a machete, hacking away, not knowing what’s behind today’s particular clump of overgrown vegetation. I have no doubt, though, that he’ll create a path; Jim perseveres long after I would have given up. That, I think, is another gift autism has given him.

Jim is just one gifted, challenged, creative, sometimes difficult, sometimes amazing, always cherished, person with autism. Mark and I sit in support group meetings and are amazed by the commonalities we have with other parents and by the rich and distinct differences our offspring display. We hope that through our meetings, our discussions, our support of Jim as he increasingly takes ownership of his path, we can help, in a small but meaningful way, to ease the path that other young autistic young people will have to take as they reach that adult threshold. We hope there will be precedents or models they can learn from.

But we know that each of those young adults will also need, in so many ways, to walk their own walks. There’s not a one-size- fits-all answer–although there are things we can and must do to make life more livable for adults on the autism spectrum. As the understanding of this diagnosis grows, and its scope is defined (the CDC recently released a study estimating one in 68 persons is on the autism spectrum), we need to create opportunities for these individuals to use their gifts to help make society richer.

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. And you’ve also encountered someone who can change your world view. This month, we celebrate that.