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She Hates Numbers

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Dear Mary M. E., Class of 2016, a letter to my youngest daughter

boo and ab upside down nyc

Dear Mary M. E., Class of 2016:

How do I affirm who you are and tell you why I love you? What do I want to say to you as you go off to college next year? Why am I proud of you? What are my hopes, dreams, and prayers for you? What are my favorite memories?

Darling BooBoo, you came to me as a gift. A child I never expected to have, never even dreamed I would have — a gift from God. You helped me become a “real” mother, along with your big sister, just like the little boy helped his velveteen rabbit become “real”… you helped me become who I am today just as much as I nurtured you from birth till now. Your patience, your sociability, your love of other people, you enjoyed being the youngest in a big mob! You helped me learn, really learn the value of a strong will and a compassionate heart. The value of having a silly, infectious laugh, and a serious, contemplative side. You are a sensitive, delicate soul who deeply appreciates the joyous things in life yet is nonetheless strong enough to survive the tough times with grace.


You were born pretty fast, and were tinted blue (now your favorite color) when you came out, because your umbilical cord had been wrapped around your neck, but the second the nurses got that untangled and rubbed you down, you turned pink and opened your eyes. You didn’t cry… just looked at everything with your eyes wide open, for an unusually long time, the nurses said.   And when your big sister, Abigail, came in to see you and reached out to touch you, you grabbed one of her fingers with your tiny hand, tightly, and you didn’t let go!

You didn’t want a pacifier, or a bottle, or to sleep anywhere but on my chest. So we slept like that for a while, barricaded with pillows so you couldn’t roll off the bed. Then you slept in the middle between your father and me for months. Eventually you were okay with the crib.

You wanted to hold your head up so much you insisted on being in a walker when you could barely manage it. You’d push yourself around, looking at everything. The minute you could crawl, you were done with the walker. You didn’t talk much, at first, but when you started it was in full sentences, and you talked a lot, about a lot of things, very curious and with a very big vocabulary… people would hear you talking and take me aside and whisper, “she’s very smart!”

You had the tiniest, cutest little feet! Your toes were like little pink peas. You were a bit of a mischievous rascal, playing peekaboo, hide and seek, chase, you name the game, you were ready. You even put on your big brother’s boxing gloves one time and wanted to play that game!

Something I wrote about you a long, long time ago:

November 5, 2001

What BooBoo said today, at Abigail’s school, where we were to drop off a bag of dressy clothes for A’s French presentation: the sky was gray & overcast, yet there was no rain, it was borderline gloomy but also very pretty in a way — she said “It’s a beautiful day today.” I agreed with her.

Later, I realized that just because the sun was behind a layer of gray, you could still tell it was there, you could still see the disc behind the gray, it still had light, and though you couldn’t see, exactly, the brightness, you knew it was there. As did my three-year-old. Faith is the key to all of this. Trust in this life, trust and god will bring you what you need.

I love you, my darling Mary M. E., and I am honored to be your mother.




Filed under childhood, family, letters, love, nonfiction, parenting, transitions

Beautiful Daughter, Handsome Father, a short story

rjp & ktp august 1971

Beautiful Daughter, Handsome Father

Marlene, her father’s lover, is down on the beach, sitting on the sand cross-legged, nursing the baby.  If Leah looks out the living room window she can see her there, sitting and facing the ocean.  Marlene’s thin cloak is rippling in the breeze, her head held high and tilted back, as though she is worshipping something — her own new status as a mother, perhaps?

Leah’s father met Marlene at the Venice Health Foods Supermarket, where she worked behind the purification supplements counter.  He had wandered to browse, got spellbound in front of the blue-green algae, and left carrying her phone number and a gallon of aloe pulp.  Marlene quit the supermarket a few months later, soon after they moved in together.

Her father has just shown her the videotape of that moment two weeks ago when the baby finally slid out of Marlene’s body.  It took eighteen hours to produce the head and that first shoulder, but then the rest of it — the dangling arms, the loosely curled fists, the puckered knees and feet that seemed sculpted from marzipan — swished free with one last interminable push, followed by a dribbling of translucent fluid tinted pale amber.

He cut the cord himself, took the sterile scissors in his trembling hand and, in between where they tied it off in two places with thick black surgical thread, he snipped.  On the video, he looks like he was ready for it to be difficult — preparing to hack away at it until he passed out — but it surprised him and parted smoothly, like a thick rope of licorice.

After shutting off the tape and pointing out the still figure of Marlene down on the strand, he shows Leah around his new apartment.  The entire layout is visible from the foyer, but it’s something to do to break the ice.  This is the first time she’s visited since high school, when he sold his house.  Before that, from the ages of two until twelve, she didn’t see him at all.

“This is the bedroom,” he says, gesturing to an open doorway off the square front hall.  There is a mattress lying on the floor, sheets and pillows and thick, Mexican-looking blankets tossed in an unmade rumple.  “The bathroom is through there.”  He points within, to a half-open door at the far corner of the bedroom.  “The kitchen,” he says, waving at another doorway with the other arm, his first arm still aloft at an oblique angle toward the bathroom.  For a moment he looks like a ballet dancer, muscles strung on wires.

In the kitchen are two wooden barstools and a commercial-sized juicer.  “This is where you’ll be sleeping,” he says, walking two steps in from the foyer.  “The living room.”  There is no furniture, nothing at all, merely the carpet, grubby beige shag.

Leah says nothing for a moment.  The apartment is cold and damp from the ocean.  It smells clean, though; a trace of peppermint soap drifts from the bathroom.  When she speaks, she tries to sound casual.  “Have you got something for me to sleep on?” she asks.  “A cot or something?”  He looks at her, arms folded.  She stands silently.  At his old house she had her own room and bath.

“Well,” he says, rubbing his chin.  “I thought we’d get a roll of three-inch foam-rubber for you.  A mattress.”

“Oh.”  She is embarrassed, and sorry she brought it up.  She moves to the window, touches the gauze curtains, faded Indian print with fluid girls twirling on their toes.

“I planned to get it today.  There’s an upholstery shop down the street.”

“Oh?” she says.  He has not prepared for her visit, is she that unimportant?

“I didn’t think you’d really come.  Not after the last time.”

“When is Marlene coming back up here?” Leah says.

“She’ll be down at the beach until we go to get her.  I wanted us to have some time alone first.”

“How much did the baby weigh?”

“Nine pounds,” he says.  He stands at the window, gazing at the beach.  Leah fidgets and stuffs her hands in her pockets.

“Were you going to name me Jedidiah, if I’d been a boy?”

“Who told you that?”


“Well, she didn’t like the name in the first place.  I doubt she’d have let me give it to you.”  He sighs.  Leah looks down at the rug.  “Why do you ask?” he asks.

“Just curious.”

Her father takes a step toward Leah.  He touches her cheek and shakes his head.  Then he strokes his beard with both hands, smoothing his hair back.  “Well.  I’m going to make some juice.  Do you want some?”

“What kind?”

“I’m not sure.  Let’s go see.”  He opens the refrigerator and bends down, rooting through the shelves, opening bins.  The juice machine on the table is an old appliance, dull and scratched white with rounded corners and a big shiny metal “GE” logo on the center of the motor.  It goes with the rest of the place — his usual ceremonial shabbiness.

He crouches and Leah’s view of him is blocked by the open door.  “Hello, beautiful daughter,” he says, leaning his head around to smile at her.

“Hello, handsome father,” she says, and sticks out her tongue.

He laughs.  “There are beets, carrots, celery, some apples.  I think I’ll have beet-celery.”  He leans back against the counter, and scratches his head.  “Have you ever had fresh-squeezed juice before?”

“Not this kind,” she says.  “What is it like?”  Her idea of health food is banana yogurt.

“It’s a lot stronger-tasting than the bottled stuff.  We’d better start you off with some fruit, but I don’t think you’d like plain apple.  How about apple-carrot?”

“I guess so,” she says, rubbing her damp palms against her pants.

He stands at the sink, scrubbing the beets and the carrots with a brush.  Rinsing the apples and the celery, he does not peel, core, or seed anything, just cuts it into chunks and lays it on the counter next to the enormous juicing machine.  His off-white fisherman’s sweater is thick and luxurious, a jarring contrast to his dingy ripped jeans and his skinny, emaciated wrists.  She turns away from him and looks out the window at the pale blue, slow-rolling waves.

“I’ve been doing a lot of juice fasts,” he says.  He is much thinner than last time; she is skittish about touching him, feeling the sharp edges of his bones everywhere.  He seems in good enough shape, though:  who else his age can jog twelve miles in wet sand?

Because of his shoulder-length, strawberry blond hair — just a touch of silver running through it — and the leanness of his jawbone, her acquaintances from college flirted with him, sometimes just to measure her reaction, but sometimes not.  They all thought she was lucky.

“Surely you’re not trying to lose weight?” Leah says.

“No, I drink a hell of a lot of juice.  But it’s just that and water for twenty-four hours.  It really cleanses the system.”

“Don’t you get hungry?”

“No, not at all.  See, you have all the sugar in the juice to keep you going.  So you are eating, in a sense.”

“But you’re already so thin.”

“Juice fasting isn’t to lose weight,” he says.  “I don’t lose a pound.  It’s to give your system a rest.  To eliminate toxins.”  He starts feeding the chunks into the juicer.  The beet juice is blood-red, frothy, and then the celery goes through, diluting it to a muddy pink.  “Want a taste?”

“No, thanks,” she says.  “It looks gross.”

He takes a sip of the juice, the froth clinging to his mustache.  Then he feeds some carrots and apples through the grinding machine.  After tasting it, he hands her the glass.  Leah drinks.  The juice is pungent, the earthy sharpness of the carrots drowning out the sweetness of the apples.  As she tilts the glass, a heavy layer of sediment from the skins and peels falls out and settles to the bottom.

“I can’t drink this,” she says, her tongue coated with a cloying thickness, the taste in her mouth like liquid chalk.

He watches her as he drinks from his own glass, sucking the foam from his upper lip.  “Well, it’s something you’ve got to get used to.  An acquired taste.”

Leah puts her juice down on the counter.  Unsnapping her barrette, she tosses her head once to loosen her hair, and then puts the barrette into her jacket pocket.

“I’m hungry,” she says.

“We could go over to the Meatless Mess Hall.”

“Great,” Leah says.  She picks up the glass of juice again, and then puts it down without drinking.  “I’m sure it’s good for you,” she says.  All she can think about is getting out of his apartment.  Her mind races and she can’t even label what she’s feeling.  “Why don’t we go to the beach?” she says.  Her voice is high, her face hot.


They walk downstairs.  The old hallways are dim, smelling of cooking grease, clove cigarettes, and Lysol.  The stuccoed walls are painted a glossy institutional green.  Following him down the creaking steps, she stares at his spindly buttocks — barely brushing the inside of the narrow seat of his jeans — as his legs propel him before her.  When she saw him again, after ten years, he couldn’t get enough of her sitting in his lap.  His thighs were lean, his hipbones sharp, and she herself felt too large, too awkward to be his daughter.

On the beach, Marlene’s face is stark and beautiful, the bones jutting and declining, transforming the clean ocean light of December into a solemn sculpture.

The baby is wrapped in several layers of flannel receiving blankets, striped pink and blue on white, the blanket corners fluttering in the chill breeze.  Leah peers over the edge of the blanket, seeing the baby’s cafe-au-lait forehead, his black, damp-looking corkscrew curls and his eyes, shut tight against the light and wind.

Leah and Marlene look at each other.  The wind slams into Leah’s body like a giant animal.  A few plump gulls glide over the waves.  Her father clears his throat.  “Marlene.  This is Leah.  Leah, Marlene.”  She nods to Leah, one slow, dignified sweep of her head.  Several heavy bracelets, open bangles with knobs like acorns molded at the ends, glow against her skin, the gold dulled by a dense network of minuscule scratches.  “And this is,” he says, holding his arms out and taking the wrapped bundle from Marlene’s arms, “Jedidiah.”  He snuggles the baby against his thick sweater, bending and brushing his lips against the silky fine fuzz on its head.

Leah bends and leans forward, her hair falling into her eyes so that she must twist it to one side, making a thick rope over her shoulder.  She squints up at Marlene, who nods at her like a queen again.  Marlene takes the baby back.  “I’ve got to get him inside,” she says.  “It’s getting cold.”  She turns away, her robe billowing up, punctuating the sweep of her long legs.

“Wait a minute,” her father calls, hurrying after her, leaving Leah alone.  “We were just on our way over to the Meatless.”

Marlene stares at the ground.  Leah’s father looks down, too.  “All right,” Marlene says, looking up and nodding, her face set harder around the mouth.

At the Meatless Mess Hall, they sit at a table in the back corner.  The vinyl tablecloth is stiff and slippery when Leah tries to lean on it with her elbows.  Her arms keep sliding, so she gives up, sits back on the wooden bench and hangs her arms down at her sides like a child in church.  Marlene folds her robe to one side over her shoulder and nurses the baby.  Though Leah doesn’t want to look, she manages to catch one sideways glimpse of the purplish-brown, swollen nipple.  Once the baby latches on, Marlene drapes the robe back into place, covering herself.

“I’ll have the millet casserole and a pot of herb tea,” Marlene says, when the waiter comes.  “And honey with the tea, please.”

“I want grilled tofu and a side order of steamed vegetables,” her father says.

“I’m not hungry,” Leah says.  The waiter has two tiny diamond studs in his nose, and from her seat, Leah can see up his nostrils to the backs of the earrings.

Taking her barrette out of her jacket, she puts it in her mouth and pulls her hair back with both hands.  She reaches behind her head with the barrette and hears the tiny snap of the clasp.  “Is this my half-brother?” she says, glancing over at Marlene with her arms still bent over her head.

Marlene’s forehead crinkles, and then relaxes.  “No,” she says, looking not back at Leah, but across at Leah’s father, her eyes twin chocolate stones.  “I was already pregnant when we met.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that?” Leah says, turning to face her father.  Her elbow slips off the table, accidentally jabbing the waiter.

“Excuse me,” the waiter says.  He sops up spilt tea with a dingy rag.

Marlene’s face doesn’t move at all.  It is smooth and dark, the kind of face where expressions leave no permanent mark, unlike her father’s thin Slavic skin, where a shadow of everything he’s ever done or said or thought still lurks.  He glances at Leah, then turns to look out the restaurant’s long row of windows.

“Why are you doing this, if it’s not your child?” Leah asks.

“Why not?” he says, smiling a small, thin-lipped smile.

She blinks at him.  “I see,” she says.  “Better late than never?”

Leah’s father reaches over and touches Leah’s hair, stroking the side of her head, something she is barely able to tolerate.  His hands, long and slender, feel tentative like a cat’s paws.  When he hugs her, his arms press in, then release, press in, and release — the movement comes like waves, it makes her seasick, but she can’t seem to draw away from him until he’s ready to let her go.

Her father and Marlene sit and eat.  When Marlene is finished, she stands up, drawing the baby out from under her cloak where it fell asleep after nursing.  She cradles it, murmurs to it, and readjusts its blankets.  There is something — a grain or two of millet — stuck to the corner of her mouth.  It looks like a beauty spot against her skin.  “I’m so tired,” she says.  “See you at home.”  As Marlene turns to leave, she puts her hand on Leah’s shoulder, patting her like a dog.

Her father pays the bill and he and Leah walk back to the strand.  She remembers years ago, the first time he brought her here, to see the roller-skaters and the old black man who played scratchy blues guitar.  Leah had picked up a piece of driftwood and scratched words in the sand.  “I love you, Daddy,” she had written.  The wind had been icy cold and what she mourns most of all from that time is the way he felt so big and warm and solid when he hugged her, shielding her from the wind, lifting her up off her feet.  They stood together like that for a long time.  He had smelled so clean, so pure, like the ocean, a sweet yet salty moistness that she’d found nowhere else but on the Pacific.

They turn to go back to his apartment.  “Dad,” she says.  “Would you mind if I stayed with Grandma tonight?  It’ll be easier.  You won’t have to bother with the mattress.”

He takes her wrist, his fingers encircling it like a heavy bracelet.  “You can’t stand being here?”

“No, I can’t” she says.  “I feel awkward.  A fifth wheel.”

“Well, I hope I haven’t done anything to make you feel that way,” he says.

“You haven’t,” she says.  She stares at him.  His palm against her wrist is cool and dry.  She bites the inside of her cheek.  “Didn’t you wonder how I was doing, all that time?”

“I thought about you every day,” he says, holding her wrist tighter.

They walk back to his apartment building.  Leah turns and tilts her head.  Putting his hands on her shoulders, he stands in front of her, leaning on her with most of his weight, pressing down a bit, causing her to bend at the knees, their old game.

When her father gets to the top of the steps, before entering the dark vestibule, he pauses and looks at her.  “Goodbye, beautiful daughter,” he calls.

“Goodbye, handsome father,” she answers.


Filed under short stories

Blind Man’s Bluff, a poem

illustration blind mans bluff

Blind Man’s Bluff

What is this game?  I am thirty-three,

and my eyes are covered up for play.

The world is solid black, my movements


slow & clumsy with fear.  All around

my floating head, voices chatter & laugh.

Tree roots line the ground, dangerous


protuberances, desiring my blood.

At a distance, I hear water falling,

it sounds uncommonly happy, it sounds


like someone peeing.  I could stay

this way forever, or at least

for a few minutes.  My own daughter


giggles when I stumble, and I wave

my hands to catch her hair:  sweet web,

tying my heart to my body


so it dares not take flight.

I don’t know anymore

if the grass is green here; mostly I sense


bare, flaccid soil, decaying leaves.

What chemicals created this relentless

natural discontent?  Is there a cure?


Old desires for wandering flood upward,

through jagged white bone, never coming

to fruition.  This tender moment


of blindness is welcome relief.

Certainly if I were to break an arm,

a leg, I would be taken out


of this awful inertia.  The laws of physics

are absolute, giving no small comfort

to a homeless spirit like mine.


There is nothing like the delight

of a very young child — to fracture

such a short-lived spell


would bring the greatest weariness of all.

Yet, if despair is the only real sin,

I am surely damned.  In the darkness, I reach.


As I grope her small round face, she speaks,

and I feel the soft lips move

under my fingertips:  you found me, Mommy.


Filed under short stories

he didn’t know he would die on december 19, 1979. a beautiful letter, regardless. my daddy. i loved him.


Thurs. 9-27 (1979)

Hello my beautiful daughter,

I haven’t checked my mail at Steve & Etta’s in a couple days, so I don’t know if you’ve written or not.  When I wrote you last and asked to hear whether you’d gotten it, that seemed important.  When I’ve thought about it since, it hasn’t.  That is, if you’re supposed to get my letters, you will; and if I’m supposed to/need to hear from you, I will.  I love you, and one of the things that means is that I enjoy expressing myself to you.  Don’t get me wrong:  I also really like hearing from you, hearing you/listening to you expressing yourself to me.  That’s what I want, and what I get will be what I need.

I hope you’re enjoying yourself and learning and growing.  I know you’re doing the latter two; the first is the only thing I’m unsure about.

Things are really interesting & exciting for me: seeing some patterns in my life, some big ones, for the first time ever.  They are really far out:  mostly they have to do with my history of relationships with women (including your mother & going back further than her) and how I use/have used those relationships to work out my feelings about my mother & her inability to give me love, affection, respect, hugs, kisses, TLC… that kind of stuff.  (I’m unclear about how much of this I “should” be sharing with you… when, if ever, should I relate to you like a peer?  Or:  when a father tells his child about his own emotional/psychological struggle/growth/insights/development, is that OK?  I guess I should go with my feelings and it feels OK to go this far; I’ll go as far as it feels OK to.  Part of my desire is for you to maybe learn a little something about your own psyche, and to know me as well as you can… given our… the way our relationship has gone (off the main point: I want you to know that I am not threatened or bothered at all, any more, by your relationship with your stepfather.  I accept that he was your father, is your father, in many ways.  And I think it’s beautiful that you have two of us.  How many young women have a straight dad and an unconventional dad?)  At any rate, the genesis of this recent big insight was George Oliver, from whose apartment I called you the other week.  I was talking to Geo. about my feelings of longing for Barbara & he told me that what I was saying sounded just like what I’d said & been feeling right after separating the last time from your mom.  That blew me away, because it was real true.  In essence, my largely unconscious/subconscious need/wanting to “get back at” my mother for what some part of me sees as her deliberate refusal to give me what I wanted, love, has led me over the years to play the game with women (who I’ve viewed as mother-surrogates) of “when I’ve got you, I don’t want you; when I haven’t got you, then I want you back.”

All this realization is so new I’m still trying to get my mind around it.  I’m pretty sure I want to stop playing it:  it sure doesn’t feel good for those involved, myself included.  (I realize that, at some level, it had to be satisfying some real deep need in me; otherwise why go on doing it for 30 plus years?)

Exciting and scary times.  The prospect of opting out of the game is exciting.  And scary:  the game-playing part of me says, “gee, what will I do if I don=t play that game?” or “But that’s all I know how to do!”

Incidentally, I have no regrets about having come down to Florida & having been there 3 & 1/2 months.  It all needed to happen, I’m sure of that.  And our time together was beautiful.

And something else that needs to happen is going to the first part of next week: I’m heading south again.  I’ll be driving in the van down Baja California to La Paz & taking the ferry across to mainland Mexico again.  I’m going to revisit some of the places I raced through (e.g. 3 hours in Oaxaca) and visit some of the places I chose not to make side trips to.  And drink in that delicious tropical sun & sea for a while.  I guess I’m feeling that I’d rather go to Europe in the spring, warmer weather.  (Sat.)  A feeling that’s really been reinforced by the last couple days in LA, real cool here, rainy & overcast on the beach today.

My current thinking about my travelling is that I’ll do Mexico again until Dec. or Jan. then go to the Caribbean.  I’d love to visit Jamaica, St. Martin, Puerto Rico, etc.  And then in summer go to Europe.  Rather than going to London now, then immediately to warm weather in Africa then going back to Europe next summer.  But, it’s real hard to stay definite..  I don’t know what this does to our talking about travelling together, but if we’re supposed to, we will.  And I would love to see the Caribbean with you.

I don’t know whether I’ve told you or not: when I came out here in Aug., my first stop was San Diego, where I talked to my Aunt Cecelia (who also was my godmother) & the lawyer that drew up my mother’s will.  Cecelia, after hearing that I felt humiliated, hurt and angry about Mom’s will, said that Mom had felt all those same things & ways about what I’d done in living my life.  Which is no doubt true.  And sad, that my efforts to live & be happy were taken so personally by her, and that she chose to be so upset about them.  There’s a lesson there, for sure.

I will write you from Mexico and I’ve decided to assume you will get my letters & stop worrying about whether Gail might intercept them.

My thoughts are with you a lot.  Know that I love you.  (The thunder outside seems to punctuate my writing with an exclamation point after that sentence!!)  Allow yourself to be who you are; remember that if you were supposed to be different, you would be.


Incidentally, I asked Sheila’s lawyer how long before I get my money from the estate & he said he couldn’t be definite (you know how lawyers are) but he thought it’s be sooner than 6 mos.!

(You can write me in Mexico if you want.  I’ll be stopping in La Paz, in the state of Baja Calif. Sur and mail will be held for me if you send it c/o Lista de Correos, for that city & state.  La Paz is 1000 miles or so south of San Diego so I shouldn’t be there until at least a week or so, more like 2 weeks, after you get this.)  I’ll let you know other cities later.  The next one after La Paz will be Puerto Vallarta, but I forget the state name, but you can just check an atlas.


Filed under notes