I Buy My Parents Underwear For Christmas: 1998

Kelley took loads of pictures of my family. Here’s one of my parents, probably around the time I bought them underwear for Xmas.

Picture by Kelley Stevens. My cute parents.
Picture by Kelley Stevens. My cute parents.

I am in the Point Mall because I am in the school chorus and we are having a holiday concert there. This is a strange place, I think, to have a concert, but we go early enough to shop. I go into a boutique shop full of expensive, ugly, decorative things, and spend one of my hours for shopping rearranging words on a metal display in vague, surrealist streams, as is my present style. I have a drawerful of poems at home with streams of unpunctuated lines like, “…and the window in my mind is growing teeth…”

I get a brilliant idea. Are you ready for a nonsequitur?

I will buy my parents matching leopard print nightwear for Christmas. I am, after all, their oldest child, and I have never been grossed out by the idea that my parents have sex. I have walked in on them more times than I care to count. I want my parents to do it. I do not want my parents to get a divorce, and as far as I can tell, the only real perk of marriage is sex.

The rest of it looks like a dreadful strain: cleaning, washing stuff, taking sick kids to waiting rooms full of other sick kids so then everybody in the house gets sick, and doing it all while your husband works 80 hours a week? My parents should be encouraged in the realm of carnal pleasures. I know about the birds and bees, and have since I was five. My brother was three. The whole business is the forbidden fruit, the exquisite privilege of adulthood, and when God sends my mate, a reward for being good. It does not even occur to me that there is something a bit demented about living vicariously through my parents in this way.

Mom’s is easy. I pop into the Vickie’s Secret, and after a moment, I locate the perfect nightie. It is short, strappy, and leopard print sateen. I spend my own money, which I have earned being a hostess at a restaurant.

Dad’s proves to be more difficult. I begin a frantic tour in pursuit of gaudy men’s undewear. I start with the obvious choice, Spencer’s. My older, worldlier friends have told me about this store, and I am titillated. Spencer’s is full of mysterious and sinful things that get my heart going pitter pat and my belly dropping and churning. I can’t look away, even though I know I should. Is that a plastic penis? In a box? Oh my.

A week later, I find a pair of silk leopard print boxers in Kmart in Carlisle. I am relieved, for the force of my gift will be lessened considerably if there is only pervy nightwear for my mom.

The Seriousness of Coloring

from Flickr user apdk

Child turned 7 and became a whole new person with a sophisticated set of social know-how, a dazzling sense of humor, and the attitude of a 13-year-old girl.

So, before getting in my face and saying, aggressively, “Mommy, I want to go with Lydia!” in this clenched-teeth voice that was legitimately almost frightening, we had this conversation:

“Mommy, I think I know who’s going to win the coloring contest.”

“Oh yeah? Who?”



“Nuh-uh,” shaking her head with earnestness, “but it’s not going to be Connor, either.”



“Then who?”

Her voice got low and conspiratorial, “MaKenzie.”

Then she snapped out if it and said, “Anyways, I just think she’s going to win.”


Every other day it’s, “I don’t wanna be friends with Monique anymore.  She’s mean.”

and “I want to be friends with Monique, I forgive her.”

Or out of the blue, she’ll look at me with big, dewey eyes and say, “Mommy, I just really miss BombBomb and JuJuBee.” (man I wish we really had friends who named their kids BombBomb and JuJuBee).

I remember changing my mind about who my friends were, but not till middle school.

Sudden Tastes

Child wouldn’t be conned into having a “chapter book” read to her little by little for anything.  But suddenly she’s thrilled to receive Bunnicula a little at a time (and I’m thrilled to read it).

She asked me to buy her a coloring book this morning.  This is a child who has had dozens of coloring books purchased for her by every breathing person in her life, and has never a single time agreed to color with me.  Just now, she is coloring the second picture of the day, including a love note to grandma and pop pop.

Yesterday, she changed her list of favorite colors from (no joke, I just confirmed with her) pink purple red orange yellow blue black white, to pink purple black white. This new list is lightly revised from two days ago when it was “I’m thinking about changing my favorite colors to pink black white.”

All this to say that interacting with a seven-year-old is often like interacting with a bipolar cartoon character.


Rainy Mornings And The Working Poor

Child in her rain gear.

Child goes to a school that is full of poor kids.  Child is a poor kid.

I am proud and resourceful, so Child’s experience of being a poor kid is different from some of the poor kids she goes to school with.  We are also not always poor.  We are never rich, but we are sometimes lower middle class instead of poor.  It is the way with freelancing.

Child’s first grade teacher told me that she typically loses about half of her students to moving for reasons of financial hardship.

That totally blew my mind.  When I was little, we got maybe one new kid a year, and occasionally kids wouldn’t show up for the following year, but they NEVER left in the middle of the year.

Another thing that blew my mind?

Last year, Child was in a special reading program.  So every day, we did the hour’s worth of homework Child got from her reading help and from her regular class.  Her reading teacher thanked me repeatedly for helping her with her homework, for holding her accountable.

I thought, “but that’s what parents do.”


I take child to school every morning because we live too close for her to get bussed.

And every morning, we working poor people kiss our kids goodbye in our work outfits, some of us are in our pajamas.  Some of us are incredibly young, pushing strollers, or pregnant, or too skinny, or too round, or wear clothes that were obviously somebody richer’s castoffs.

A lot of the parents’ voices rattle from smoking too much. Have kids whose backpacks smell like stale cigarettes. A lot of the parents have stringy, unwashed hair.  A lot of the parents leave the dropping off to the grandparents.  A lot of kids come with somebody else’s parents.  But there’s a real feeling of community and teamwork in these moments.

They feel like home to me.  They feel like moments full of people coming together in a ritual.

Yesterday morning, it was raining.  I often think it’d be a fun view from the air, all the bobbing umbrellas, then the clusters of them at the entrance to the school while people keep themselves, their kids, other people’s kids dry.

When I was little, I barely had to go ten feet from my front door to another dry spot.  I was released within inches of my elementary school, under an awning.

The kids at Child’s school know about trekking for blocks, and they see the value of an umbrella, which is something I had no concept of until I was in my 20s.

And as I crossed High St. on the way to the Pajama Factory, I saw a dad on crutches, getting drenched, shuffling five kids across the street, and I thought, “maybe it’s anecdotal, but there’s a guy who recognizes the importance of getting his kids to school safely & on time.”  He stood, impervious to the rain, watching the kids, made sure they got onto school ground safely.

And as I thought more, I think it’s not anecdotal.  The poor parents I see interacting with their kids obviously love them.  They obviously care about the education.  The trouble is, it takes a lot more hours at $7 to make a living than it does at $30, $100.

And all this ridiculous rhetoric about how poor people are lazy, and Romney’s denial that he’s dismissive toward Americans who don’t pay taxes make me crazy with anger and frustration.  I wonder how many times Romney, not his hired people, helped his children with homework.

How is there any universe in which somebody parenting multiple children and working full time for minimum wage–regardless of the choices, circumstances, etc that led them to that life–could be considered to be lazy?  Working part time for minimum wage and parenting a single child is a greater task than anyone sane would take on outside of parental love.

The fact is that the working poor do not have the time or energy to deal with their kids’ homework.  When the greater pressure is making sure the kids are dressed and fed, who gives a shit about a math worksheet?

It’s not right that our world is like this.  It’s not right that anybody would complain that people who live in poverty don’t have to pay taxes.  It’s not right that there are individual humans who receive enough money annually to pay for private educations for every single one of the underserved kids in my county.  Or that those same humans are pointing their bloated, greedy fingers at the poor–of whom they possess no realistic conception–and saying, “You’re the problem.  You are.  You’re the reason America’s broken.”  How can a group with no voice break America?

But people–even the working poor–listen.  Why?

I would love to understand.  Please help me.  Do you understand how it happens that the filthy stinking rich people who hang out in their luxe mansions, summer homes, golf courses, race tracks, and order more food get to blame and criticize people who have so little they can’t even see to their kids’ educations properly? And why anybody with a modicum of sense would agree?

Parenting Chronicles: The First Whatever

Public Domain Image

Maybe you know or have figured out that the man we live with is not my daughter’s biological father.  He looks the part, having fairer hair than I do, and a cherubic head shape like hers.  But trust me when I tell you that’s not why I picked him.

He is part of our family.  And Child, when she forgets herself, calls him dad or parent.  She refers to us as a unit as her parents.  She thinks of him as her dad, tells him she loves him (and means it), kisses him before bed.  The two of them have a man-to-child relationship that sometimes distresses me in its high levels of kinetic energy and loud laughing or squealing, but seems really normal and healthy.

For a while, she was calling him her “male role model” at his suggestion, but she seems to be at a blissfully content stage right now about her understanding of the nature of her family.

She asks every few months about her “fahder.”  I suspect she’ll pronounce it correctly before she’s ready for the uncensored version of the story.

And maybe, when she gets pissed at me about it when she’s a mouthy teenager and writes some sobbing, heartfelt SpaceFace note about not knowing who she is and how I’ve lied to her all these years, I’ll shoot her computer and record it on video for all the world to see, because I’ll be embarrassed at my kid’s indiscretion and that she’s outed me  for having had her under circumstances it’s not safe to discuss with all age groups.

Whenever she asks, I emphasize that it’s important to understand that there’s no “right” way to have a family.  That families have any number of configurations of parents, men, women, grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc.

So I’m kind of delighted to report that Fella had his proper initiation the other day.

Here’s the conversation:

“Mommy, can I watch TV?”

“Is your room clean?” Fella asked.  I love how native he is about this kind of stuff.  

“Is your room clean?” I asked.


“Then go do it.” Fella again, and after.  I tend to shut up and bow out, feeling grateful that someone else cares to have these combative conversations.

“I don’t want to right now.  Right now I want to watch TV.  May I please watch TV please?”

“No.  I think mommy and I were talking about going to Target.  Do you want to go to Target?”

“That’s okay.  I’ll stay here and watch TV.”

“Child, you know that’s not how this works.”

“Ok.  Can I buy a toy at Target?”

“No, but you can go get dressed.  And then maybe when we get back, you can spend the whole day cleaning your room.”

Sigh.  Whatever.” And she stomped up the stairs.

I’d wandered out of the room, or to another place in my mind, so I didn’t hear the last bit.  Instead, Fella walked up to me an poked my arm and said, “Hey Girlfriend, did you hear that?  I got the first ‘whatever.'”  And his chest puffed up like he would explode with triumph.

“Ha.  That’s great.”

“Yeah.  You might’ve gotten the first ‘I Hate You,’ but I got the first ‘Whatever.'”

The Facebook Dad Who Shot His Kid’s Computer Is Wrong.

Myriad friends who are parents shared this video on Facebook.  I tried commenting in one of the threads, but there’s not enough space to say all the stuff I want to say about this douchebag, and frankly, I found it to be completely disturbing how many people believe that this passes for good parenting.  I got a little bit sicker every time I read some wrong-headed parent reacting with some gleeful platitude about how “kids today” need to learn respect and how this dad is doing a great job.

I beg to differ.

First of all, parents have to model respect.  The easiest kind of respect to model–and the one so many parents get wrong–is self respect.

My mom, who’s preternatural about parenting (really–it’s admirable) said, often, that getting embarrassed by us was giving us power over her that we should not have.

I extrapolate that letting your kids’ behaviors cloud your judgement to such an extent as you proceed to be boobish in your actions or manner is also giving your kids power they oughtn’t have.  Tell me, what is more boobish than shooting a gun at a $500-$2000 piece of equipment with recently installed software valued at $130, in a video, on Facebook?

Parents have to be parents.  They cannot be petulant, and should maintain a healthy sense of confidence and humor at all times.

Like when your 4-year-old says, “I hate you,” you can’t hit her or say, “I hate you, too.” She doesn’t even know what the hell that means.  You can’t tell her it’s okay, but you have to remember that you’re her guide to the world, and she needs you to say, “I know you’re not very pleased with having to pick up your toys, but you should not say ‘I hate you’ to mommy, ever.”

My friend Sue gave me a really wise piece of parenting advice: Always consider your kid’s developmental stage when explaining things or selecting a punishment.

Here are some things, because I’m still so amped up over this that I can’t form prose, plus people who give advice about blogging say that people like lists, so here’s one for you.

  • Doesn’t this guy remember being 15?  Seriously, we all said ridiculous things about our parents and had an inflated sense of ego and persecution.  It’s part of the crisis of being a teenager.  It’s normal.
  • In what universe do parents get to be self-congratulatory about providing a home and life’s necessities for their children?  It’s our obligation.
  • Shooting expensive stuff is wasteful.  The dad was so hot-headed about his daughter’s public display of normal teenaged angst, that he failed to reason the whole way through his actions.
  • Putting her in a position where she has to earn enough money for a laptop quickly, when she should be doing the work of being a student, is irresponsible.  Teenagers are still children, even if they have a different idea.
  • What message does he want her to get from this video?  That when you are wronged, you make yourself a public display of self-righteousness?  That it’s okay to be wasteful and disrespectful of yourself and others if you’re angry enough?
  • A parent’s job is ALWAYS to take the high road.  Letting your kid’s mouthy nonsense drive you to your own mouthy nonsense, in video, on Facebook is completely insane.
  • It seems to me that he has a pretty good kid if she is doing her chores, which you’ll note he never says she doesn’t, he just says she exaggerates the scope.  I’d be willing to bet that dad bitches about his job just as much as anybody else.  Giving a kid chores is good parenting.  Not letting her express normal, human displeasure–on pain of public displays of absurdity from dad–is not.
  • What’s the big deal if the daughter smears the dad on facebook?  A bunch of 15-year-olds know that a kid is pissed at her parents. So what?  Is her dad going to lose clients?  Is he going to be arrested for poor parenting?  No.  Any other adult who would encounter his daughter’s note would think to themselves, “Ah yes.  I remember those days.  Good luck Bob, I don’t envy you your willful teenage daughter.”
  • Parents need to explain (and provide) appropriate venues for bitching.  She was trying to keep it from her parents, her dad sought it out.  I’m sure on some level she knew that she was being ridiculous.  I feel like a lot of the purpose of the video was so that everybody would know a) this dad works in IT, b) this dad knows how to fix computers, and c) this dad owns a handgun and knows how to identify exploding bullets d) this dad has $130 laying around for software updates.

Okay, okay.  I know some of you are saying, “but that kid was wrong, she shouldn’t have posted on Facebook those disrespectful things about her parents.”

Maybe not.  But children need to be allowed to have their own private lives that are sacred, safe, even from their parents.

Yes, I am talking about frustration and anger and lust and sorrow and romance and masturbation and all of it.  Kids need to reckon all of that out for themselves.

Teenagers need this especially. They are battling with the responsibility of autonomy and the tandem frustration of helplessness–I would venture that 15 is the age at which this is most intense.  And of course they’re going to get it wrong sometimes!  They should be allowed to!

They should also know that they can count on their parents to listen to them if they’re in trouble or worried about something or considering doing something more adult than chores, like sex or drugs.

What kind of teenager will feel safe going to her loose cannon of a pubescent dad for advice or guidance or birth control when he flies off the handle at her for being a normal, healthy, developing teenager?

I will now propose some healthy, responsible responses to that angry, teenaged note on Facebook.

  1. Increase her roster of chores to match the one she described on Facebook (all floors, all laundry, etc).
  2. Express disappointment and sorrow to an extent that child notices.  Ask child what she thinks her punishment should be.
  3. Explain that she will need to repay the $130 of software from a summer job, or work off that value in additional chores since she clearly does not understand the value of work.
  4. Restrict access to phone, friends, computer, for a specific amount of time.
  5. Restrict access to some other big deal event or some other activity, or if she takes lessons of some sort, have her work off an exchange rate in chores.

Hyper Productivity, Sleep-deprivation, Shit parenting, and Sex!

We had one of those hell-parenting nights last night.

I sleep like a boulder, and Fella sleeps like a feather.  Child gets nose bleeds in the winter, and every year I talk myself into believing that this’ll be the year we’ll make it through without the humidifier.

I am always wrong.

But at 3 this morning, when Child had a nosebleed, she wandered into our room, and poked me for at least 45 seconds before getting bored or exasperated and giving up, laying down on the floor next to our bed–god bless her–and waiting.  For somebody to acknowledge her nose bleed.

I didn’t put that together until dinner, when Fella gave me the run down of our interrupted sleep.

What I remember hearing is, “Child, why are you in our room?”  This from Fella, who asked in his rarely disoriented by sleep voice.

“I wanted to tell mommy I have a nosebleed.”

I had an argument with myself in my not-sleeping-sleep brain about whether she said she wanted to tell me about her nosebleed or that she loves me.  She is always traveling from one end of the house to the other to tell me she loves me.  It is her procrastination/avoidance tactic.

Still, I could not rouse myself from my sleep coma.  In my brain, I knew what to do.  But my body would not cooperate.  I sometimes also have this problem when I need to pee in the night.  I estimate that it takes me an hour to make my body move with my brain’s commands.

At one point, Child was in the bed with me.  I did eventually get up, but I don’t remember if I did anything for my kid.  Fella asked me if I had my phone.  It was confusing and surreal.

But today–even though the amazing traffic to the Blue Lit blog, this blog, and my email inbox has kept pace with yesterday–I have had difficulty maintaining my energy and focus.

I should have proofread at least 100 pages today.  I did 40.

I was as distractable as a mosquito.

I was productive, but on a rapid succession of small projects, not with the focus and intensity with which I am happier.

But I met a new writer.

And I made this happen.

And I read stuff my friends wrote.

And stuff my fellow community volunteers wrote for the Williamsport Guardian which I am assistant editing in case our regular editor has to run away to her snow-covered hill and be a ski matriarch.

And I did one of my Zumba DVDs.

Now, as the day is nearly over, and I realized with panic that I’ve forgotten the awesome post idea I had early today, I’m jabbering on about being a crappy mom and a sidetracked social entrepreneur.

But maybe you will feel heartened by my disorientation, simpatico with a fellow over-extended, self-employed parent, or just an ambitious, writerly person.

Thanks everybody, for following, for visiting, and for your overwhelmingly positive response to and support of the Blue Lit project, this blog, and the literary community.

And oh yeah.  Sex in the title?  That was bait.  Worked, didn’t it?

Buck up, Penelope!: an essay for Penelope Trunk

I want a big sister like Penelope Trunk.  Or maybe I want to be a big sister like Penelope Trunk would be, if she were my big sister.

I feel like I’m pretty useless to my sisters and brother.  I feel like when I should’ve been getting to know them, I was busy getting away from them.

But we are still really happy and like each other, see?

This is me, my sibs, and Child. We are at a funeral which is sad, even though we don't look sad.

But something I’m learning as I grow older and and more open to the vigors of youth and the wisdom of the aged, being somewhere in the middle myself, is that sometimes, little sisters have to pretend they’re big sisters and provide insight.

One of my sisters did this recently by sending me piles of info and links to webinars about starting a nonprofit, which is something I’m working on now, and the field in which she’s in her second year as an intern.

It’s easy to forget that little sisters are people in addition to being annoying brats, even though my sisters were never especially bratty and have not been annoying in some years.

I think this is true for children and mothers, too.  Sometimes, instead of thinking about Child as a whole person, I think of her as an exhausting accessory.  That is wrong, and I know it.  I also know that I have done and will do a lot of wrong things as a parent, partner, sister, daughter, friend, cousin, niece, employee, businessperson.

So Penelope is having a rough patch.  A seriously rough patch.  A rough patch that if any of my siblings were in, I would be in their faces, imploring them to do something differently.

I think anybody would want to help Penelope out of her rough patch.

Penelope, are you listening?

My parents love me.  They are (and were) not always perfect parents.   They did not hit me too often or think I was a psychopath, but they did tell me–without saying with words–that I am of lesser consequence than other people, and that I probably shouldn’t get too attached to any plans I make or ideas I have because they’ll probably be wrong or bad.

For example, while repeating “actions speak louder than words,” my parents affirmed extremely poor behavior by grown ups who were supposed to love and encourage me back when I was a teenager.

That event really fucked with my self perception and my ideas.  I think I’ve worked through it in some good ways, and it’s an event for which I am now mostly grateful. I’m working on a novel about it–or inspired by it.

The short version of the story is that when I was 16, I wanted to start a drama team at church.  My folks sent me to a meeting with the Worship Commission on my own because I told them I didn’t need them there.  I told them that because I thought that was what they needed me to say.  They had two small children, my dad was a business owner, and I was very competent for a 16-year-old.  But I was still a 16-year-old.

What I hope I do better than my parents did is to identify when Child is not capable of doing something, even if she thinks she is, and to be there to catch her if she falls–not to do it for her, but to provide appropriate input and/or intervention if it is necessary.

After the pastor left the Worship Commission meeting, about half way through, one of the committee members said things that made me cry.  As a grown up, I believe that these things were probably sane and reasonable, but I do not believe that they were encouraging or designed to edify a person who had a pile of energy and enthusiasm and just wanted to be involved.  Of course, I cried and blubbered in the meeting and then I gave up on that church.

My parents kept going to it, though.  They told me it was because my other siblings were very happy there and they couldn’t justify moving the whole family because I was miserable, even though they said with words that they thought it was horrible that I was treated so badly.

At the time, I expressed understanding because I knew I had to.  But that was hard. And I was extremely angry.  In fact, I still feel like my siblings’ success and happiness are more important to my parents than mine is.

Anyhow, I was sixteen and I could drive, so I went to a different church not too long after that.

Not too long after that, I gave up on church all together.  It was after reading Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, which I would recommend for any adolescent.  It’s not about sexy bondage, it’s about spiritual, personal, philosophical bondage, about the quest for self.  It is a beautiful book.

My point, Penelope, is that parents fuck up.

Once we become parents ourselves, whether or not the timing or circumstances are ideal, we have to try not to fuck up.

Staying in a house with a man who hurts you is fucking up.

What will hurt your kids more: having to adapt to change, or watching you be hurt by someone who claims to love you?

I guess there’s no sure answer to that, but the best thing a parent can give a kid–and a thing I wish I got from my folks–is the knowledge that they are whole people who deserve love and happiness.  Neither of my folks believed this about themselves, which is why they couldn’t show me.  But we do.  We all do.

I am still shocked when I have success, even though I run around chasing it pretty constantly.

Maybe you can identify with that.  I suspect you can.

So buck up, Penelope.  Get an apartment and hire tutors to give your kids reading and math and logic and geography.  Get your work done and realize your potential.  Spend time alone and think about yourself, just yourself, and not about how you can propel a larger construct.  Cry.  Sleep.  Read a book for pleasure.

Even though I don’t really know you, Penelope, I admire you.  I think you’re really smart and I like the way you write.  I tell people to read your blog.  I find you to be inspiring.  You deserve to realize your potential.

You are a whole person, Penelope.  And you deserve love and happiness.