Training Wheels

We both hate the phone. My mom and I. Always have, even as teenagers, but my phone conversations with her were the longest I’ve ever or will ever have. She listens with 100 percent acceptance, bringing a freedom to ramble without judgement. With no clue she’s doing so, her voice downshifts my racing mind to a calm neutral.

She’s a no-nonsense nurse, and as such, the ultimate purveyor of monosyllable advice. Ideal mom qualities for a hypochondriac, or anyone really. When my mechanically inclined, then first grader pulled the school fire alarm to see how it worked, I called her. She breathed in a serious gust of air, then, without missing a beat, said to bring him to the local firehouse. “He’ll see what happens when someone pulls a fire alarm.” Instantly, I had a plan of action and felt slightly less sucky as a mom.


She suffered a stroke almost a year ago. Her speech was most affected, so our Sunday morning calls are short and frustrating for her. She’s got the same thoughts that want to come out of her brain. The same ones I’m yearning to hear. They just don’t translate through her mouth.

At my parents’ house, mornings are spent swapping sections of the Philadelphia Inquirer. My dad once said if the paper stopped publishing, they may as well put him in the ground. While careful not to disrupt my dad’s piles of read and unread sections, we read the paper, interrupt each other’s reading to comment on what we’re in the middle of, and my dad and son do the jumble together. The morning paper, mom’s banana bread and dad’s fried bologna and eggs are what weekends at their house mean to me now.max and dad 6 19 16 jumble

Someone who would polish off multiple books in a week, my mom now struggles to finish a couple paragraphs from the front page. I try to remember to curb my impulse to interrupt with thoughts on what I’m reading. But, that’s how we connect. She’s one person I can look in the eye and not look away.

She’s still here, and for that I’m eternally grateful. How young people wake up and go on every day after the death of a parent seems a strength that goes far beyond super hero. I can’t imagine the last few decades without my mom to turn to for advice on everything from career, to parenting and now menopause. It’s too bleak to consider.

But, little by little there’s a greater force sliding that landing pad out from under me. I’m a grey-haired, 53-year-old woman riding a bike with loose training wheels. Their screws have come loose, but I cling to them, less ready than ever for them to fall away.

I know I’m not alone in my desire to have my mom by my side for eternity. It just seems such a lonely task flying solo without her. I get that I’ve been blessed to live a lifetime buoyed by support and love. But, the problem with having a mature oak tree to lean on your whole life is that when it’s gone, you’re left naked in the clearing.

My Rant For Young Lincoln and Against Shutting Up

Blurry photo of protesters I stumbled across last Wednesday night. Far too excited to focus.

Feeling pent up with intense mixture of emotions that threaten to burst me from the inside out. So I write. Like Bruce Springsteen and liberal optimists everywhere, I never thought we’d be living in a country where the majority of people prefer a President with KKK ties, who brags about grope-entitling money and power, openly mocks a disabled reporter, picks a climate-change denying Vice President who wants to overturn Roe V. Wade and the legalization of gay marriage. My husband is black and my kids mixed race. So, his selection today of a man with such a vitriolic resume as his chief strategist fills me up with even more anger and emptiness than I thought possible.

I want to scream but I don’t know what to say or who to say it to. Where are we going? Isn’t someone going to put on the brakes? Was Ashton Kutcher in on this? Will we all wake up tomorrow to a meme of his dimple-creased smile with “Pranked You ALL” written over it?

Until that unlikely event, anyone that doesn’t want our country moving to the hard right needs to dig in their heels and fight. F- moving to Canada. It’s a great country with a lovely prime minister, yes. But it’s not ours. This one is.

And we’re not rolling over to ‘accept’ the election result and now Cabinet appointments that feel like a turn signal leading us straight back to the 1950’s. Those years may have been banner ones for straight, white men, but not so much for anyone else.

To those who ask protesters to stop whining because they’re further dividing the nation – exactly what country are you living in? I’m 51 years old. I accidentally walked through a protest rally in NYC last week one day after the election result, and it was one of the most energizing experiences of my life. The protesters I saw were young, fired up, and committed to a fight far larger than themselves. They’re not sitting mournfully at home accepting their fate but complaining to friends. That’s whining. They know they have power.

A friend asked for advice in what to say to her 12-year old son who said the new President “doesn’t like him because he has special needs and makes fun of people with special needs.”

This is a kid that, despite his various challenges, ran for class president last year and has solid family support. If this is what he’s feeling, consider what it’s like to be a child in any way ‘other’ these days with a family that provides no refuge from the stares or snide comments but perhaps encourages them.

Yes, such a family would clearly have their own issues, but that’s a hard thing to grasp as an adult, let alone when you’re 12.

The powerful Lincoln.

I would tell him we all have pain. Every person you see passing you on your tree-lined street has been through some major struggle in their lives. Even Trump. Even Melania.

His challenges are just on the outside, whereas ‘typical’ people tend to store them on the inside. And as such, he’s stronger than the rest of us. He has to be. We can hide vulnerability. He can’t.

It’s kids like him that will show us the way. We just need to listen. Unleash your gifts and insight on the world, Lincoln. And while you’re at it, run again for class president. And again. We need your voice now more than ever. Believe me, it will inspire others to use their own. You’ve already inspired me.


beautiful blog by Joanne de Simone. Please read. Will definitely bring some light to your day. Thank you.

Special-Education Mom

We love Halloween. Benjamin has been known to sport some pretty fabulous costumes.

This year we kept it simple because when I asked Benjamin if he wanted to be Harry Potter, he was all smiles and laughter and because John didn’t have a minute to spare to do his Halloween magic.

Where I live, families gather at a local park and trick or treat on a parade route. My house happens to be one of the first stops. I am not exaggerating when I say a tsunami of children flood the streets. It is the most awesome Halloween experience, although it turns the whole giving of candy routine into an Olympic sport. Benjamin and I stood in the driveway with massive amounts of goodies waiting for the parade to begin.

As each wave of princesses, goblins, zombies, superheroes, and inflated dinosaurs approached, Benjamin laughed and vocalized, “Ahhhhh.” Parents talked to…

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Rape Stole My Soul

rh-ithaca-college-freshman-year-cropped-8-14-14Rape stole my belief in myself and left in its wake a corpse lying in a heap on an unmade bed. Rape took away the little girl I loved and put an actor in her place.

Fall, 1984. After a couple of hours at the college career counseling center my sophomore year, I decided exactly how I would achieve my career goals. It was a rush – a huge, empowering relief. I’d work by day in the editorial department of a magazine and write screenplays at night. It was all coming together. A killer plan that would make my dreams of being a screenwriter with a beachfront house in Malibu a reality while still in my 20’s. I walked out of that counseling center on a cloud-less spring afternoon feeling high, rejuvenated by a new sense of direction.

As luck would have it, my roommates were invited to a happy hour house party being thrown by upper classmen. We set off in our grey 1980’s Ford Escort to purchase our liquid contribution, Steve Winwood hitting the highest high notes on “Bring Me a Higher Love,” while my friends regaled each other with “Bring me another Bud.”

Buds in hand, we parked the Escort facing up a hilly street and followed the drifting sounds of the Grateful Dead. We arrived at a grey Victorian with a large front porch, the sun shining directly overhead. The air felt light. We saw no one we knew, but the stylish upper classmen decked out in Polo shirts and Tommy Bahama shorts were laughing and gently rocking their bodies back and forth – the “Deadhead Bop,” as it was known in sophomore land.  Undaunted, we mingled. Anna flitted here and there, joking with people she’d met for the first time, while Carmina and I hung back, smiling, content to be where we were on what we knew was a rare and perfect day.

Already buzzing with visions of my future deck overlooking the aquamarine Pacific, I got drunk quickly and easily. The day became night. We’re at a grimy underclassmen bar – back with our own kind. A senior from the porch party is there, wearing a light blue Mets cap. Kinda cute. Funny in a snappy, sarcastic way. I want to feel attractive, desirable. I steal his cap, flirting with him. He watches me walk away, smiling slightly. He lopes toward me.

The bed. Unmade double with door swung wide open. My naked body lying on it, head turned toward the door. His long, thin penis inside me, pushing himself harder and harder into me. How did I get here? Why is he on top of me? I want out but stay quiet. He’s hurting me. I lie there motionless. Where did I go and why can’t I speak?

His face never looks down at mine. Never wonders who I am. Never questions if I am someone’s daughter, sister, best friend since pre-school. Someone who played with her Barbie camper on the front lawn, knocked on every door on the block looking for friends when she moved to a new town, taught herself how to ride a unicycle.


Someone with an unshakeable belief in herself and her place in the world.

As he pushed himself carelessly deeper and deeper inside of me, I left her on the bed, in that house, that night, in Ithaca. Never said goodbye. Never mentioned her again. She was dead, but my corpse carried on.

My belief in myself and the inherent goodness of others lie in ruins on the top of that unmade bed. In the 29 years since, I’ve never fully believed in anything. It’s like my soul was ripped out and replaced by a copy – a perfect replica on the outside but empty within.

Gone is the girl with the bounce in her step. Who am I now and how do I get that bounce back?

The girl who whiled away rainy Sundays watching Gene Kelly and Cary Grant movie marathons and loved nothing more than lying on the warm cement at the swim club eating Fun Dip while the sun baked your back. The one who felt strength in her difference when friends called her “flake,” “airhead,” or “FROBIN” (fucking Robin.)  I was sensitive and my brain worked differently, but that’s what made me who I was. And that was good.

I miss that girl, her spunk, and her Barbie camper.  When she comes back, I promise to love her and never let her go.

Summer Camp at 50 or How I Learned to Stop Thinking and Smell the Manure

I’ve never been to summer camp. Always wanted to. In my 14 year-old fantasies, it was a place you sat on a dock at dusk with the best friend you wish you had at home, telling her your deepest and darkest until a sporty, pony-tailed counselor dragged you kicking and screaming back to your bunk. I was Kristy McNichol in all her feathered hair and cut off jean shorts perfection. My best friend a street-wise cross between Blair from “The Facts of Life” and Molly Ringwald.

I’m 50 now and couldn’t squeeze an arm through either leg of Kristy’s jean shorts, but I got a taste of camp last weekend. It was all I’d hoped, albeit without Matt Dillon eyeing my curves from across the lake.

I sent myself to writing camp in the woods of Montana. A retreat actually. Twelve women sat in a circle for three days, warmed by a crackling fire, hot tea, and animal-free food creations that would melt the souls of even the most die-hard bacon lover.

Guided by our leader, writer Laura Munson, we wrote with abandon. Laura gave us “prompts” – a few words to include in what we were writing and ten minutes during which time our pens must move. Mine sailed across the lines, releasing what’s been bottled up for years with ease and joy. I felt freer than I have since I was 12 years old, flying through the air on a neighbor’s zip line.

Twelve is when you birth your inner critic, I learned. That may explain why I’ve always felt 12 – prepubescent pimples erupting within while struggling to maintain the unblemished veneer of normality without.

Don’t think. Trust what’s in there to come out. Let it bypass the “scared, little girl with a megaphone,” as Laura described our head noise. If your intuition, your trust lives, so do you. If the scared little girl triumphs, you’re just one of our many walking wounded.

Writing’s been the one thing I’ve wanted to do since I was 5. Lying on our living room’s blue shag carpeting making up stories to go with the comics I could not read while my sister grew more and more engrossed with Hagar the Horrible, Peanuts, the Lockhorns, and eventually just tuned me out.

I’ve written on and off through the years but never with complete commitment. So, at this point, my scared little girl has morphed into a 300 pound weightlifter with one monstrous megaphone.

“Get out of your own way.” I’ve heard that before. I’ve done Landmark for crissakes. But it wasn’t until I consciously felt my soul running roughshod over my mind did I get the power and freedom in those words.

Way back in third grade, as a new kid, I started editing my speech so no one would notice my healthy vocab and innate weirdness. Unfortunately, what I though was a kind gesture that would make me more likeable was the beginning of a self-esteem sucking journey of dumbing down who I was. By not honoring my true gifts, I’d passed the megaphone over to a little girl hell bent on pleasing others with little thought for her own well-being.

My version of summer camp also offered something called ‘equine assisted learning.’ As someone who’s one horse riding experience years ago resulted in an unplanned jaunt through the Mexican countryside, I viewed horses as stupid, large and strong. “They sense fear,” I learned while sliding off my horse into the pool of jello that had been my legs.


With a now entrenched, sweat-inducing fear of anything horse-y, I had to go.

We didn’t ride them so much as “be” with them. I entered a large field with my camp friend, Melisa (more Tatum O’Neal than Molly R.) where 30 horses milled about. Sections of the field were cordoned off with loosely strung electric wire. My mind flew to visions of my Mexican horse noshing on long, yellow grass, the feeling of my legs clutching his torso, while my mind begged him to get it together and join the others. As we walked into the field, the horses approached, and I felt all the unknown insecurity of speed dating. Would any of them pick me over the much younger and prettier Melisa?

Breathe. Don’t touch the live wires. I didn’t want to let down Bobbi, the independent, salt-of-the-earth ranch owner, or seem weak to her. Two majestic horses noticed me but didn’t stay. And so it went.

Then I saw Star, a gray, slope-backed pony ridden by Bobbi’s 27 year-old daughter, Cedar. Cedar has Down’s Syndrome like two of my aunts, so I knew Star would be gentle and sweet. He was a soft furry bundle of warmth wrapped in an all-encompassing horse hug. I stroked the sweet spot down his shoulders while Bobbie talked about all the times Cedar painted and dressed him.


There were 29 more horses and a wide open field yet to explore, so encouraged by Bobbie, I walked on.

She said horses put their muzzle where they feel you need their energy the most. So far, they’d been nosing around my waist. Muffin top intervention?  Bobbie asked me to look up. I was surrounded by six geldings. One kept pushing his muzzle into my stomach.

“How much do people push your boundaries?”

“All the time.”

She told me to gently nudge the horse with the back of my hand.

“Go ahead. He won’t take it personally.”

I did. He moved his face away but stayed put. They all did. At the time I thought they were showing me that I belonged – a rare feeling for me. But now, I realize it goes deeper. By surrounding me, they were telling me “We’re taking care of you. You’re safe here.”

And my stomach? That’s where we smash it all down like an emotional trash compactor. Decades of bottled up desires, words unsaid left to rot. I now hear what my horse friends were saying: “be like us, live here, now, trust yourself, and most important of all – drop that megaphone, girl.”



Purification on the High Seas; Discovering the Power of Focus from a Whale Watch Gone Bad

I’ve never been much of a meditator. Thoughts flash too fast and furious on a wide range of equally irrelevant subjects. My nails are worn to nubs from picking and biting. But, at age 51, I’ve finally experienced the power and beauty of lack of thought.

Just as I’ve always admired the yoga practitioner and serial meditator, I’ve fantasized about the peace that lies in the calm of the open sea. With dreams of spouting whales and jumping dolphins, I shepherd our family of four to our first whale watch.

What I thought I’d see.

Twenty minutes after ‘take off’ and I’m bent over a silver toilet in what must be the cleanest ship’s bathroom ever. If any of the marine biology students guiding our vessel ever decide to start a cleaning service, I’m in.

Provided just enough room to wedge my doubled-over self between the outer rim of the toilet bowl and door, I brace myself for the impending swells and gastrointestinal upset against my own personal lifesaver – the sink. I’m over-the-moon grateful for its lack of errant, stranger hair and rock-solid sturdiness when all around me bobs and weaves. I feel a connection far beyond what’s normal for porcelain.

The phrase “getting your sea legs” comes to mind and provides some relief. I repeat it over and over. Its future tense implies that use of my legs is just a matter of time. It gives me hope that I will leave this room walking upright and not carried out on a stretcher.

Not me.

When my husband knocks on the door, I can barely speak, but I need to know I’m the only sick one. Knowing that, I’m free to focus on the sweat that pours from me like a water tap at full blast and expelling anything remaining in my belly. Despite the microwaved White Castle burgers my sons ate as we left the dock, I’m the only one taking up permanent residence in a bathroom. Judging from the fortunate lack of sandaled feet visible on the other side of the door, I may be all alone in my love of the sink and scorn for the sea.

Given the knowledge that I’m blissfully alone, I’m free to focus on my current state and all it entails. With everything inside coming out and the ability to stand seeming increasingly like a pipe dream, it’s impossible to think of anything other than where I am at this very second. My mind is a slave to my body.

The churning sea.

After an hour and a half in my own personal purification chamber and missing every whale and dolphin sighting blared with joyful exuberance from the ship’s PA, I stand with my legs of clay, hugging the sides of the ship in search of the first familiar face. I still can’t force words from my mouth, but I fall on the ship’s stern next to my ten year old son, who looks like he’s seen a ghost. Oh wait, it’s me.

I manspead my legs like a frat boy on the subway. No guilt or worry about social propriety. It feels freeing and glorious.

My husband rubs my back. With each movement, the soaked t-shirt and jogging bra move as one, the straps getting caught up with the shirt and vice versa. But with zero thoughts clunking around my brain aside from surviving this journey, I can fully appreciate the affection. Despite lingering flop sweat and Pippi Longstocking on acid hair, I’m being caressed. To me, that’s the best of what meditation brings someone – clearing away the debris to see what’s been there all along.

While my ‘meditative’ experience is not something I’m eager to repeat, it showed me with complete certainty that sometimes you have to throw it all up to see what you have.

A photo by Jeremy Bishop.

Bye, Bye 36B

“Raaaaab. Was it the 34A or AA that was too big?,” my mom yells from across the small, dimly lit family-owned department store whose bras were a rite of passage for local junior high girls. Bra shopping at 12 is cringe-inducing enough, but when the store owners’ son is a boy you know, it’s excruciating. And there, as if on cue – Todd Yaserian, walking toward me, straight from the free-standing racks of off-brand plaid Toughskins. From the way he lowered his head and smiled slightly, I knew I wasn’t the first girl whose red face he’d seen pop out from behind these heavy, brown curtains. Even though I was fairly confident sweet Todd would never reveal my cup details, it’s a moment of deep, pre-adolescent embarrassment I’ll never forget. I wanted to become a puddle on that cold linoleum spot, leaving nothing behind but my white maidenform AA’s.


Thirty six years later, and I’ve still never been fitted properly for a bra. With my 30th high school reunion in a few days and two hours of alone time before the next kid pick up, I tentatively step into a local bra store. With its rows upon rows of designer bras, panties spanning the gamut from high-waisted to something called Commando, and flowered bikinis that look like works of art, I’d unwittingly entered underwear nirvana.


With no previous experience, I’m dizzied by possibility. A woman behind the cash register talks easily, laughing with a customer seated a few feet away. I assume the customer is a regular and came in knowing not only her size but had a favorite make and model.  I begin flipping through the racks, attempting to appear as though I have a plan. But I’ve only got two hours, and mindless perusal is getting me nowhere fast.


“I’m not sure what I’m doing,” I blurt to the first unoccupied sales woman.


“No problem. We’ll get you fitted.” Yes, a plan in place.


My saleswoman, Esther, spends over an hour with me, giving me her undivided attention. We explore underwire versus no underwire, padded versus hello nipples, and sizes ranging from 34DD to 36FF. As someone who thought of herself as roughly a 36B, this sizing comes as a shock. Then my counsel advises against my running favorite – a lacey black underwire.


“You see that, that’s double boob.” Esther’s more experienced colleague Sydney points toward my left arm pit, to flesh that’d been pushed beyond the outer limits of the 34FF. I’m beginning to feel like a patient being observed by medical students.


When I make my final selection known to Esther, she calls for immediate backup. Still wearing the pretty black underwire, Sydney asks me to shake my boobs back and forth while leaning over. I give it my best shot, but there’s a reason I’ve never danced that way. I’m lacking whatever fluidity is required to shimmy. The two women watch intently, keeping their laughter to a respectful minimum as I jerk to and fro. Everything stays put. A meeting of the minds regarding the severity of my double boob affliction results in a reserved thumbs up from Sydney.


There are still more underwear firsts I’d want to achieve. Spanx? But do I have to try them on? A resounding “Yes” from my counsel.  My shoulders fall to my knees. I want a pair, particularly with the reunion so close, but do I have what it takes for another hour of shimmying, squeezing and staring? Plus, I’m growing tired of looking at my no-pack abs glorified in fluorescent lighting – a stark, visual reminder that my pre-dawn exercise regimen has gotten me no closer to wearing one of those beautiful, lilac print bikinis.


I soldier on, limiting myself to three different styles – unitard with legs, unitard without legs, and briefs. Getting them on and off requires slightly less balance than imagined, and I manage to remain upright while stretching leg number two through its illusive hole. After putting the unitard on backward, we agree the brief is best.


I leave the store boobs and head held high. I’d gotten exactly what I wanted and had never treated myself to. I go home to practice my shimmy for my next underwear first – a black lace nightgown.


Random bra and life facts learned:

1)      Moving up from a size 34 to a 38 does not mean that your breasts have gotten bigger, it means you have grown wider.

2)      The existence of double boob, the Commando thong, and bra gap.

3)      Self-consciousness in group dressing rooms diminishes drastically with age

4)      Half-naked shimmying in front of strangers can fun – with the right strangers.

5)      Bye, bye 36B.






“Like me. Like me. Find your backbone or lose yourself”

Robin Hoffman 70's with glasses 2 (2)Sitting in my friend Megan’s wood-paneled den watching “General Hospital” with my 12 year old pals in the late 70’s, a spontaneous poll broke out. Via anonymous crumpled pieces of notebook paper, Pam was voted the prettiest, Patty the funniest, Kate the best athlete, Stacey the smartest, Megan the toughest, Tina the best hair, and I won “the nicest.”

It felt like a slap across my tin-filled mouth. That was the exact opposite of how and who I wanted to be. I felt weak, invisible, too nice to matter. The jig was up. Others knew my secret – I was a pleaser, not a fighter.

I wanted Megan’s votes – the ability not to feel and notice everything so intensely, not to care what other people thought about every minutia of you, to accept without hesitation when another girl “called you out” for an after-school fight on the hill. That was freedom, and as alien to me as Tina’s soft blonde, perfectly feathered hair.

Around that time I remember my mom saying that I treated my friends better than my family. Immediately, I knew it was true. My family was stuck with me, warts and all, or so I thought back then.

I wish I could say that with those early realizations came change, but that’d be a big, fat one. Fast forward 36 years from middle school to last night. My husband said he feels like he and our kids get the scraps of what’s left over after I’ve given the best of myself to clients, co-workers, friends and strangers. Being thoughtful and kind takes energy, and my tank of nice is typically spent by the end of the day.

Case in point – yesterday I picked up my seven-year-old at a friend’s house across town at 5pm when I knew my husband needed to get him somewhere by 6. I’d agreed to the date and time last week when I knew the timing would be tight. In my effort to please my son’s friend’s mom and my son, I’d set up an arrangement that’d add more stress to our family’s already rushed evening time.

When I arrived to retrieve my son promptly at 5pm, he was in the midst of a critical part of his starburst Rainbow Loom bracelet and in no rush to leave. His friend’s mom was warm and fun. She popped open a bottle of red wine, and guess what? I had a glass. I never fully enjoyed the wine because I knew that my husband would be incredibly ticked off when my son and I arrived home late and unfed. Yet I drank, and he loomed.

What’s at the core of this strong compulsion to be liked? If I truly knew, I’d vow to care less.

This morning, I read a news report about 12 year-old Rebecca Sedwick who threw herself off a tower at a concrete plant in Lakeland, Florida last month after months of extreme cyber bullying. Her mother homeschooled Rebecca rather than send her to school alongside her 12- and 14-year old tormentors, but still allowed her to use her cell phone. “I just didn’t want to have her not like me….,” her mom said.

And that’s likely how the 12-year old bully felt about the older girl leading the charge against Rebecca. So strong was her need to be liked by this 14-year-old alpha dog that she beat up her former best friend simply because this broken but ultra-tough girl told her to.

Adolescence and its seeming unending cycle of pain makes things appear more vividly in my mind. I think back to that time and know that if we’d had cell phones and social media instead of Pac Man and General Hospital, there would have been bullies and the bullied. And it would have been brutal.

I would have been bullied.

But I have the luxury of guessing, which is something today’s eager-to-fit-in pre-teens don’t. If someone with power in their social circle posts something mean about them, they feel as though their world is crashing in. And others can be compelled to go against their nature and hurt former friends or do nothing rather than risk being cast out of what seems like the most important group that will ever be.

Are we so earth shatteringly afraid of others’ judgment and looking at the dark places within that we neglect ourselves and those that care about us?

That desire to fit in may begin in adolescence and continue on for decades, but we can chose to end it whenever we want. I’m starting now.

Why I Hate the Word Retarded

Aunt Suzanne
Aunt Suzanne

During a recent visit to my local salon, I emerged from my hair cut to see my eleven- and seven-year-old sons in the reception area with noses buried deep in hard covers of “The Red Pyramid” and “Captain Underpants.” There’d been an all-electronics ban that morning, so my heart skipped a beat when I saw them reading with a focus that only the words “doughnuts” or “free Legos” could disturb. What thrilled me most was that an older, mentally challenged man sat reading over my younger son’s shoulder, tugging at my son’s book and laughing with gusto while spit dropped onto the flipping pages below.

My kid never moved a muscle. He looked wary and didn’t engage the man in conversation, but he calmly stayed put.

For that I thank Aunt Suzanne and Mrs. Vascimini. Aunt Suzanne is our family’s tightest hugger, an ardent fan of “Dark Shadows” and “Touched by an Angel”, and one of the few people I know who says “I love you” every day. Suzanne and her now-deceased twin sister Joanne were born with Downs Syndrome. Mrs. Vascimini was my son’s kindergarten teacher. In her inclusive classroom, one of the many lessons she instilled was ‘everyone has a gift.’

I was feeling a strong need that morning to connect with humanity, and in my experience, it’s easier to connect with someone without pretense.

With that in mind and with my older son’s 3-inch high hair now meeting #1 blade clippers, I begin to pepper the man with questions. What was his favorite Captain Underpants book? Was he getting his hair cut? How long did he think the crowd at the bus stop had been waiting for the NYC bus in the 100-plus temperature? I can’t understand anything he says in response. I nod, smile, and send my eyes back down to the pages of Captain Underpants.

Later that day I’m asked, “What does retarded mean?”

That word always brings me back to the long street where I grew up. I’m about ten years old and walking to a friend’s house. There’s a large group of high school kids gathered at the top of the street, with my friend’s older sister twisting her body spastically and falling to the ground. She hobbles toward me, falling over at my feet, and loudly blurts out the United Way commercial catch phrase of the 1970’s “Thanks to you it’s working – the United Way.” Her friends laugh, except for one who tells her to cut it out because she’s scaring me. My friend’s sister continues twitching and grunting below me. With every rapid jerk of her bent arms and legs, a sharp pain cuts through my body. She must know. I’m different too, just like the kids in the United Way commercials. Half Jewish/half Catholic, unlike my fully Catholic neighbors with five to 12 kids in a family. We have three kids, no Christmas tree, and two Aunts with Downs Syndrome. I say nothing and walk on.

I attempt to describe the word ‘retarded’ to my son. Aunt Suzanne is retarded, meaning her brain works differently, slower than ‘normal’ people. But, as she says, “I’m retarded, but not stupid.” She laughs, hugs, and loves without reservation. She has no filter of looking good. “You’re my favorite,” she says to whoever has just engaged her in conversation or returned a hug. And she means it every time.

“So, who’s really retarded?” I whisper angrily from my lips.

“Everyone has a gift,” he says. The day brightens. My heart overwhelms with love for him, Suzanne, and Mrs. Vascimini.

Suzanne’s gift is her fearlessness. As she sits at my mom’s kitchen table, meticulously filling in the pages of her Barbie coloring book, she’ll gently touch my forearm, look up and smile. She never stops to worry what if I don’t smile back or put my hand on top of hers. There are no such rules for her.

That’s one of the many reasons the word retarded has always pissed me off. Shouldn’t we be more like those that hug with a force that almost knocks you over rather than those of us whose hugs are wrapped in fear and restraint? As we ‘mature,’ we kill our souls with our own insularity, blaming others for our own pain and isolation. Suzanne knows better and always has. The older I get, the more I realize she’s someone I want to and need to emulate. The only fear is the one we give life.