I love Valentine's Day. Always have. Something about the slushy spring-is-coming feeling of the snow and the sun in the sky and the flowers and the fact that my mother always made a Valentine's Day pineapple upside down cake which my husband and son are at home RIGHT NOW putting in the oven. This morning I was remembering an essay I wrote about Valentine's Day when I was 23. I found it on a file marked "really really old computer" (as if that didn't make me feel, well, really really old...) It's from a long time ago. I remember writing it one evening after work in the New Yorker offices where I worked for a time as a fact checker. I remember the keys to the computer, the way it felt to write something so revealing about myself, the danger of it. It was so long ago now and so much has changed....My family has come back together and become a better family for all the pain. BUT, I thought you'd like to read it--the voice is so young, so direct.
Also, as an aside, I'd like to say that I've gotten used to the thrill and recklessness of writing about my own life. Not yet. It's still scary and, yet, I still do it--still try to tell my truth of what happened wherever, anywhere. So now, with my book Made for You and Me about to hit the shelves...it's even more odd to realize so much about my life is about to be...in your local bookshop!
Valentines Day (from 1998)
by Caitlin Shetterly
I will always love Valentine’s day. More than Christmas. Or Thanksgiving. Or any other day that I can think of that is a holiday. Most people associate red with Valentine’s day, for me it’s more yellow. And I think that's because for as long as I can remember my mother always made a pineapple upside down cake on Valentine’s day, and my father was always away, and it always snowed. Yellow because I remember one Valentine’s day in particular when my friend Becca drove me home in her bright yellow Carmen Gia sports car, and it was so snowy the whole bottom of the car was wet from our snow covered boots. But it was not cold, and our noses were filled with the smell of the carnations sent out by the National Honor Society, and our mouths sweet and puckered from all of those candygrams we were passed in History class, because Mr. Dobbs wasn't paying attention anyway. If I remember correctly that was the Valentine’s day Mr. Dobbs came into class looking very somber and announced to the whole class that he had something of grave importance to tell us. And we all just sat there and waited, and he produced from behind his back an enormous bouquet, and proclaimed to the class, our very teacher, that " I am in love with Lisa." And our heads all reeled around to our classmate, the porcelain skinned, heavy dark locked, Lisa, and took her in as she turned the color of our Hallmark Valentines, but her expression belied her flattery, and at the same time her ultimate, horrible shame.
I remember the cake the best. A shining golden yellow round, plopped with a pock onto a cracked china plate, oozing its beautiful syrup to the edge. As I said before, my mother and I seemed, in my memory, to have always been alone on Valentine’s day, at least after my brother went off to college and I was still in high school, and those days my father was away too, because he always had work in Boston. Valentine’s day slips somehow from the cake and the snow to that one year when he was away, and my Spanish teacher Senor Roberto was at our house giving me my weekly two hour lesson--Lorca I think it was-- and the yellow of that cake turns into the green of "verde que te quiero verde," in my minds eye and slides into this terrible feeling at the pit of my stomach where I remember the phone rang and I could just feel my mother's tension from upstairs in her bed room, and I wanted to hurry up and get that class over with because I knew something BIG was happening. I was that nervous. My mother calls me a "highly sensitive person," it’s the title of some book she gave me about that kind of person who is, in her definition, a "sponge," for what is around her and who can never let go of everything that happens. "Highly sensitive person," however, seems to translate awful quick into "highly neurotic person," and I'm pretty sick of hearing that..
So my mother's on the phone. And then it seems like hours until she comes down and her face is all funny and squished kind of like home-made play -dough, and there is this chill that settles over all of us, I mean I'm pretty sure the Senor has caught wind of something BIG happening. Anyway, my mother pays him, and he leaves, and then I ask her what's wrong and she won't tell me at first, and then because as I've learned about my mother, she'll always spill it, no matter the cost in the end, and she says "You're father is in Boston with another woman, your aunt just called to tell me." SHIT. That's all I can think: SHIT SHIT SHIT. And it's fucking Valentine's day.
I'm not sure what happened after Mr. Dobbs actually handed the flowers to Sarah, except I do know that he wasn't around much longer after that, and he just sort of slipped away. Anyway I started going out with this guy who I finally lost it to, but that's another story, and I kind of stopped keeping track of Lisa and Wendy and Cara and Mara and all the rest. Once in a while I'll hear from someone who knows one of those girls that they're doing fine, and they probably hear the same about me.
Recently though things have been weird. I'm no longer speaking to my mother as much as I used to. Things have been pretty tense since Christmas. My parents are divorced. Not really in that order, sequentially I mean. My dad lives with someone else, and my Mom lives by herself.
But, you know, I still really love Valentine’s day. I think of that round yellow cake, I think of the snow, and I think without wincing of those years in high school when the carnations got passed around and maybe I only got one and the girl next to me who wasn't half as pretty, got fifteen, and I still think it's OK. I like the feeling of that made up holiday with the cheesy cards and that whole silly American trivial Hallmark feel. I like it. And I guess I'm thinking about it today because I do miss my Mom. I miss that time of just us together. And I miss who I was before I knew things were that fucked up, and that no goddamn Hallmark card would save us. I miss that cake.
* Some names have been changed.
The first two people who email me will receive an advance copy of my book MADE FOR YOU AND ME: GOING WEST, GOING BROKE, FINDING HOME!
Check out more about the book at www.madeforyouandmethebook.com.
BUY it online here: http://www.amazon.com/Made-You-Me-Going-Finding/dp/1401341462/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1297612951&sr=8-1
It occurred to me the other day, my two-year-old son between my legs as we hurdled down a steep hill in a blue plastic sled, that this was an insane thing to do. My son, sitting bravely face first as we plowed into whatever fate awaited us, might have felt something of what I felt, but, albeit, from his perspective. What I felt, was that here I was, the parent, the mom, and we were flying down a hill and I was trying to hold onto my child but I didn’t know if I could protect him from anything because it was all going too fast. I felt, for that whole ride, impotent.
When we landed in a pile of snow that sprayed into our faces and made him, suddenly, cry, and me laugh—a post terror, ‘we’re alive!’ laugh-- which then made him laugh, I asked him, hopefully, because maybe this hadn’t been as terrible as I thought, “Want to go again?”
“No,” he said without even thinking it through.
“You sure?” I believe in getting back on the horse, I think, don’t I?
“No. Go Home.” I guess I believe more in validating feelings than getting back on the horse, so we went home.
This was one of those parenting moments, where if it were a cartoon, you’d see me, the mom, with my shoulders caved in and I’d be slinking home behind my child feeling like I’d failed an important parenting lesson: Do not terrify your child by taking them down a steep, icy hill in a sled when it’s 10 degrees outside with winds gusting at 30 miles per hour. Who ever told you that was a good idea? And, also, I’d scared the living beejesus out of both of us. Since then, he only wants to go in his small wooden one seat sled, the kind you pull around fields and through woods and down the sidewalk just after it snows. He can control that vehicle better and his Mom isn’t sitting behind him letting whatever happens happen—I’m pulling, which gives me a useful, parental task.
Having a book come out, as mine is about to next month—and a memoir, too boot--is sort of like being in that sled—only in this case I’m alone. But I’m just as terrified of the pile of snow or that thicket of trees or whatever awaits me at the bottom of the hill. Only here, at least, I’m not worried about my son’s fate so much at my hand. I’m just worried about this other child of mine, my book, and it’s fate.
The other day I invited three other women—all from Maine—who all have wonderful books coming out around the same time as mine, over for tea. They are Susan Conley whose memoir about moving to China and getting cancer is called The Foremost Good Fortune; Sarah Braunstein, whose much anticipated novel is called The Sweet Relief of Missing Children; and Melissa Coleman whose memoir This Life is In Your Hands is about being a child of the back-to-the-land movement. It was a lovely tea; I’d made a pandowdy—a custardy cake atop berries--and we all drank lots of strong tea and ate some strawberries and worried about having books come out and laughed about the inanity of selling a book and then we all hugged and they went home. It was nice to have a rare moment with people who are going through almost exactly what I’m going through. Also it was remarkable because, how often does this happen: four women who live within twenty minutes of each other all have books come out at the same time? And three are memoirs? Anyway, I’m so grateful to have them—Susan blazing the trail with her book, which is the first to hit the shelves this coming week—to celebrate and commiserate with; to say I got this horrible review or I got this lucky break with; to have jitters and confidence all in the same sentence and not feel odd because they get it—having a book come out is like, again, being in that sled: exhilarating and, yet, terrifying.
So, in the next few months I will be doing the full court press to sell this book. I’ll be emailing notices of readings and posting it on my blog; I’ll be hounding you to buy the book (or, at least, get your friends to buy the book); I’ll be asking you to order it early as that matters somehow in the fate of how the book does in the long haul. Most of what I’m doing—the harassment---is not personal. It’s what I’ve been told will sell a book in this day and age when our attention spans are so short that all of the effort that goes into making this one little book suddenly gets reduced to whether someone is willing to invest 23.99 in a story, an experience--a private experience, even.
From where I sit, a lover a books, a person who has always believed my best friends were in books, I’d like to say this: My book more than a story, it’s a gift. I hope that doesn’t sound hopelessly self-important. I mean it in the most earnest way. I wrote this book not so much to tell my story, but more so that anyone who’s gone through anything tough and kept going, kept hoping, kept dreaming, could pick it up and find a friend in me. While I wrote Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home, I was listening to Scoot Simon’s interviews on NPR with families in Cleveland—dads who had been out of work for months, grandparents trying to buy one week of groceries on ten dollars. I kept writing for those voices because I wanted, somehow, to give the book to them. To make them feel less alone.
Someone once said to me that falling in love is a gift and when you start a new relationship you might say to the other person, “here is my heart, it is yours to break.” Well, here is my book. I offer it as my best effort of love and candor; I offer up my story to become your story and your neighbor’s or your brother’s. I wrote my book for you and me.
One of my favorite things to hear, talk about and read is BIRTH STORIES. In my book, Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home (out March 8th, 2011), I wrote of the evening my son was born: "I get all that beholding of Jesus that was going on now, the magic of it, the animals and wise men all standing at attention. I don't care who your baby is, when they come out of you, all you want to do us stand there and behold the miracle. It's that freaking special."
One of the things that was the hardest to edit in my book was the part about my son's birth. But believe me, it needed to be edited. It was so long and detailed--not one second spared for the intrepid reader! But I had to remember that the goal, really, was to tell less specifics about my birth in this story about my small family and our journey through the recession and more that would allow the reader to be thinking of her own birth story as she read mine!
What's not in the book, but I will always remember with special fondness is how my my OB, Dr. David Ghozland, sat me down a week before I gave birth and said this:
"Caitlin, I've read your (super natural all the way) birth plan. And we will try to make it happen. But what I need you to do is to trust me. Whatever happens in there, I want you to know we'll figure it out together. And no matter what you will not fail, your body will not fail. I don't want you going in with huge expectations in one direction or another and then feeling like you didn't succeed somehow--I've seen it happen so often. So, together, if we trust each other, we can do this, right?"
When he said that, I felt such a wave of relief come over me. I just gave myself over and did trust him. Which is probably why, after over twelve hours of active labor and no dilation, I was ok when he decided to start Pitocin and an epidural. I was better than ok, I was happy (stone me now natural childbirth gurus!). And it was--really--the most fun, the most exciting, the best day of my life.
My friend Andrea has recently published the birth story of her son Aidan on something called "babble"-- a website for parents. Take a look here: http://www.babble.com/pregnancy/giving-birth/giving-birth-story-long-labor/
She also writes a blog about being a mom called "I Don't Have Time to Write This!" Here's her recent nice mention of my book: http://dreamama.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/made-for-you-and-me-going-west-going-broke-and-finding-home/
Care to share your birth stories? I'd love to hear them.
Dear New Readers,
I'm so glad you've joined the dialogue here on my blog! Thank you for coming.
I'd love to pose a question: As many of you know, my upcoming book Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home will be out on March 8th ('though it's available now for pre-order from amazon.com).
In it, I tell the story of my family's journey west, a new baby, through the recession and back home again. I'd love to hear your recession stories, too??
Maybe it's your story, maybe it's your brother's story, maybe it's a best friend's story or a neighbor's. But we've all been touched by this recession. And, in telling our stories we will help each other get through tough times!
So--dish. I'm here, I'd love to hear from you.
To those I HAVE heard from. I've tried to email some of you back and others I haven't been able to. But I'm here, I'm listening and I'm so grateful you've joined me in this dialogue.