The juiciest turkey I ever made was Thanksgiving 2001, though it came about by happenstance. I was preparing the meal at my mother’s home in Florida and was supposed to cook the bird for three hours at 350 degrees. Once the plastic meat thermometer popped up, I was to put the bird back in the oven for about 15 minutes at 500 to crisp the skin. But when the alarm rang after three hours, I looked at the turkey and saw the thermometer hadn’t yet popped up, so I left it in the oven longer to continue to cook.

About half an hour later, I checked the bird again and still the thermometer had not yet popped. Thirty minutes later, same thing. This went on for about two and half hours. Finally, my Aunt Gloria came into the kitchen and said, “Caren, it’s almost 8 p.m. The thermometer must be broken. It’s got to be done.”

And sure enough, it was. What I didn’t know about my mother’s stove is that when the timer rings, the oven automatically shuts off. I had been cooking a bird for hours and hours in an oven that was no longer on. The result was a bird that was so moist, it was downright juicy.

My mother didn’t tell me about her oven because she had gone upstairs, locked herself in the bathroom and sat on the side of the bathtub all day. She had refused to come out because she was upset and angry, on account of the fact that my father was dying of cancer. He was so gaunt and withdrawn at that point, we knew it would be his last Thanksgiving.

Given my father’s rapidly deteriorating condition, we’d actually had our Thanksgiving a week earlier, with lobster instead of turkey, because we’d always celebrated birthdays and Mother’s and Father’s Day with lobster. The gravity of my father’s condition was clear even then when he asked me during the meal to open his can of soda, not because he was too weak but because he didn’t understand how the can worked.

When actual Thanksgiving rolled around a week later, it seemed silly to sit there and do nothing. So I went out and bought a turkey and began to cook a meal with all the fixings. But no one was really interested. I’m not even sure my father knew what day it was.

My father died two weeks later, on December 4, 2001. It’s been 11 years, and my life has changed quite a bit since then. I became a full-time freelance writer, bought a brownstone in Harlem, got married and gave birth to a son, whom I named Eddie, after my dad. But every year at this time, as I prepare a Thanksgiving dinner, I remember that the best bird I ever made was the year no one cared about the meal.

My son had his first Thanksgiving today, at school. All of the classes congregated in the church’s Fellowship Hall for a dramatization of a Thanksgiving meal and then grace. They ate Chicken McNuggets and macaroni and cheese. When I dropped him off in the morning, the spot where I usually park was blocked by orange cones. I figured it had something to do with the children’s feast, or even the Thanksgiving dinner the church will be serving to the needy on Thursday. Perhaps it was for a delivery of food. I double-parked, grabbed Eddie out of the car and carried him inside to his classroom. When I got back outside to my car, a hearse was parked in the spot where the cones had been, and soon, I saw several people dressed in black heading toward the church. It saddened me because I knew that like me, not a Thanksgiving will go by that they don’t associate with a death.

While cleaning my apartment in New York City last weekend, I found a box with some old VHS tapes. I got excited because I’ve been searching for two particular tapes since my father died. One is a movie he made of the 1970s that was like a time capsule of events going on at the time: the hairstyles, the clothes, Nixon and the Vietnam War. My father included some animation in the film that he made himself by drawing on pieces of clear plastic with multicolored Sharpie markers and moving the pieces up and down to simulate movement. He made someone talking, for instance, by drawing a mouth, and he filmed a few frames of it open and then a few frames of it closed. In another part of the film, he filmed a map of Asia with little flags on it to show viewers what was going on at the time in Vietnam. Much of the film was set to Simon and Garfunkel’s soundtrack for the movie, “The Graduate.” When people hear the song “Mrs. Robinson,” some probably think of Dustin Hoffman banging on the windows of a big church yelling, “E-laine! E-laine!” as he tries to stop her from marrying another man. I think of plastic pieces of acetate moving around a white background, showing the U.S. Army’s move into Cambodia.

But the tape I was really hunting for was a recording my father made in the final months of his life. Knowing he would be dying, he sat down in front of the camera and spoke into it. I watched it once, not long after his death, and shockingly, I can’t remember what he talked about. I was still too grief-stricken to absorb it. Since then, I’ve been wanting to watch it again, but I can’t find the tape.

I’m actually afraid to watch the recording. I was so utterly shattered by my father’s death and overwhelmed by the loss of him that I’ve buried the memory of him to avoid the pain. I didn’t cry at his funeral, and I seem to have lost a sense of him, the specifics of what he looked like, the sound of his voice. I’m afraid if I see him talking on the tape, it will bring him back to life, and I will then have to experience his death. You can’t lose something that you forget you had, right?

I brought the bag of VHS tapes into my son’s room, where we have an old VCR player, and sat down on the floor. With Eddie on my lap, I inserted the first tape into the machine and braced myself. There were a few frames of fuzz as the tape was “tracking,” and then the movie began to come into focus. It was a recording of Ken Burns’ epic series, “New York,” the episode where the sewing factory downtown catches fire with the workers inside.

I stuck the second tape in. It was a recording of Peter Jennings covering New Years’ Eve in Time Square, December 1999. The third tape was my accountant, Alan Brachfeld, being interviewed on ABC News. I’m not sure how I came to possess that one.

I braced myself before inserting the final tape. Bored from sitting on my lap, Eddie had started playing with his train set but then went over to the bookshelf which contained his own VHS tapes, plucked out an episode of the Australian group, the Wiggles, and started trying to jam it into the tape machine. I grabbed his tape, put it on the floor and picked up my tape. It had a sticky note taped to it that said, “Jitters” in my mother’s distinct cursive handwriting. I ripped the note off and stuck the tape into the player.

The screen was blue for a while. My heart began to pound. At long last, I was about to be reunited with my father. Suddenly, the picture came on. It was a woman with big wide eyes standing in front of a meat counter. She was flirting with the butcher, who appeared to be an old flame. I was disappointed but relieved. I ejected the tape and threw it in the bag with the others. I’ve gone 10 Thanksgivings without my father now. One more wouldn’t make a difference.

I picked up the Wiggles tape and put it into the player. I then grabbed Eddie and sat him in my lap and wrapped my arms around him, a little more tightly than usual.


July 11, 2015 Camp

My son, Eddie, started day camp last week, and the first thing he said the morning of his first day was, “I don’t want to go. I don’t like it.”

“You haven’t even gone yet. How do you know?” I asked.

“I don’t like it,” he said.

“You’re going to love it,” I said. “Camp is great.”

I was lying. I hated camp. I was so filled with self-loathing at that age, I was socially awkward and self-conscious. It didn’t help that I was not very athletic. I remember one particular game of newcomb, a variation of volleyball but instead of hitting the ball back to the other team, you simply caught it. I was standing in the middle of the court, filled with dread that the ball would come near me, when the ball flew over the net and hovered in the air above my head. I made a half-hearted attempt to catch it, but I missed and the ball fell to the ground right in front of me with a thud. “Frosted fleas!” cried one of the more athletic girls on the team, referring to my t-shirt, which had a picture of a box of Frosted Flakes cereal but instead of flakes, the box contained fleas. It was part of the Wacky Packages line of trading cards and t-shirts popular in the 1970s that parodied everyday consumer products. But having just missed the ball so blatantly, I felt like it was I who was covered with fleas. Every day that summer, I prayed for rain so we could do arts and crafts instead of sports.

As we neared my son’s camp, I told him he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to, and he didn’t have to talk to anyone if he didn’t want to. It was the same deal we had with intramural soccer, where he was afraid to go out on the field. I saw no reason to force him. The world is a hard place for people who are socially awkward and bad at sports. I figure he’s allowed a few pressure-free years before being subjected to the cruelties of school and gym.

When we arrived at the camp, I got out of car and opened his door. He climbed out and latched on to my leg like a clamp. I couldn’t move. A counselor and one of the owners of the camp had to peel him off. I wanted to cuddle him but knew that once he was pried off, if I reached out for him, he’d latch on again. As the camp owner carried him off, I could see the corner of his face, and it was red, and I knew he was crying. I shouldn’t have looked. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, you leave and don’t look back. Children need to grow, to leave the womb, to separate. It’s painful but necessary, like ripping off a Band-Aid.

I walked back to my car, and a counselor handed me a sign with our last name on it, to display in my windshield when I picked my son up. When I looked up at her, I started to cry.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, knowing I was making it clear from whom my son inherited the character trait, ‘weakness.’

To make matters worse, I realized I forgot to bring his camp bag, which had his towel, sun block, swimming goggles. I had to drive all the way home to get it. I also forgot to put his name on everything. I had tried to do it with masking tape and a sharpie marker, but the masking tape was so old, it no longer stuck. I tried writing my son’s name directly on the tags on his clothes and towel, but the marker bled, and instead of saying, “Holmes,” all the labels said, “Hams.”

When I arrived back at the camp, the owner greeted me at the gate and took the bag from me so that I wouldn’t get out of the car.

“I don’t want him to see you,” he said and walked off.

Interestingly, there’s another child from my son’s pre-school attending the camp. When I got home, I saw the girl’s mother had posted a photo of her on Facebook. In it, she looks like a cadet: hair quaffed, a magenta backpack that matched her magenta sandals, and she’s carrying what looks like a new plastic lunchbox. The caption said that her daughter had woken up at 4:20 a.m. and said, “I’m ready for camp.” At our house, my son woke up at 6:55 a.m., climbed into bed with me and my husband and announced that he did not want to go to camp. I said, “Oh, please, let me sleep five more minutes,” I said and handed him my phone to occupy him. He pressed each button so loudly and deliberately, I rolled over and gave him my back, resenting the three minutes of sleep he had stolen from me. As for his outfit, I was afraid to comb his hair because he’d fallen this past weekend and had a scab on his head. His sneakers fit so poorly, I have to tell him, “Push your foot toward the front,” every time we put his shoes on. And his lunch bag is oversized and a bit tattered because it was the one my late father used to fill with snacks to take to his chemotherapy appointments, and I refuse to throw it out.

When I picked up my son, I asked him how it went. “Good,” he said, halfheartedly. What did he like best? Swimming. And the Popsicle.

“They had strawberry or blueberry,” he said.

“And you picked strawberry?” I asked.

“No, they said ‘You get what you get, and don’t get upset,’” he said.

Later, he talked about a hockey game similar to the tabletop soccer game we have at home, but the one at camp was medical, he said.

“Metal?” I asked.

“No,” he said adamantly. “Medical.”

He may not know a lot yet, but it doesn’t stop him from having conviction.

When I dropped him off the next morning, he latched on to me again but not as hard. By the end of the week, we had a system. I’d pull in and remain in the car while a counselor took him out of his car seat and carried him through the gate, saying, “Your counselor, Mr. Dane, has been asking about you.”

We’re on week two now, and yesterday, when the counselor came to take my son out of car, he launched into his customary whimpering, saying, “I want Mama,” but then the counselor said, “Eddie, do you know what they found yesterday?”

My son’s eyes widened. “What?”

“A baby turtle,” she said. “You wanna see it?”

“Yeah,” my son said, excitedly, and the two of them walked off.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I could see my son’s car seat in my rear view mirror. Usually, when I angle the mirror toward the back seat, it’s so that I can see him when I’m talking to him. Now, I saw only his seat, and it looked so empty.

July 6, 2015 The Birds

Life is like a minefield, where we are forced to make decisions again and again with every step we take. Do I go left at this junction or right? Do I use my coveted free time away from my son to go food shopping, or do I wait until he gets home from camp and suffer the consequences of shopping with a tired, petulant four-year-old who wants something in every aisle and doesn’t mind having a tantrum in order to get it? And if I take him shopping, will he like his father better than me because with daddy, he plays basketball and goes rollerblading while with mommy, all he ever does is run errands and go food shopping? Which is how we ended up in the bird store in the first place. I thought if my son is going to accompany me food shopping, I should give him something in return.birds in cages

When we walked in, there were bird cages everywhere. There were big bright red and blue parrots, parakeets, and finches, blue jays and canaries, big birds with big beaks and little birds that moved so fast, you couldn’t even see their beaks. Some birds were in cages while others were in one of the rows and rows of plastic compartments that lined the store like condominium complexes.

I was struck by all the signs listing what you could not do in the shop. Do not feed the birds from crumbs on the floor. Do not touch the big parrots. Do not take photos or use camcorders. There was so much negativity, I was surprised to see a gumball machine filled with bird food that one could buy for a quarter, like you might see at a petting zoo.

I bought my son a fistful and turned to the man behind the counter.

“So what do we do? Put some food into our hands, and the birds will just eat out of them?”

“Put a piece between your fingers and put it toward his beak. He’ll take it from you.”

I naturally assumed that if the storeowner allowed people to do this, the birds were friendly. I imagined the bird would gently remove the piece of food from between your fingers without even touching you, like someone playing the board game “Operation” might pluck out a bone or a heart with a pair of tweezers.

Which is why I put a piece of food in between my four-year old son’s small fingers and pushed him toward one of the bird condominiums and said, “Go on. Put it toward his beak. He’ll take it out of your hand.”

The bird leaned out toward my son’s hand and grabbed on to his finger with his beak and bit. My son howled and dropped the food, and tears started streaming down his face.

“He bit me!” my son wailed.birds in cages bib beak

I began rubbing his finger and feeling like a heel. Why did I not try it first, before thrusting my son in front of a cage with a wild animal.

“Oh, buddy. I’m so sorry,” I said.

The storeowner didn’t even look up from his book, as my son wept in front of the counter.

“Does this happen a lot?” I asked.

“You’re not supposed to put your finger too close to his beak,” the man said, matter-of-factly.

You’re supposed to put your hand close enough for the bird to pluck the food out, and yet you’re not supposed to put your hand that close? It would take a protractor and a fancy algorithm to figure out precisely how far one’s hand needed to be to avoid being bitten.

My son was still crying when a woman emerged from the back of the store and attended to some business behind the counter up front. She looked up but didn’t say anything. They must be used to this, I thought. I also thought if my son had a choice between rollerblading with his dad and getting his finger bit with me, he’d most assuredly choose the former.

I still had a fistful of food in my hand. I was beginning to understand why there was food on the floor of the store. People probably drop it after they’ve been bitten. Perhaps it was penance or an attempt to teach my son to get back on the horse from which he’s fallen, but after having thrust his small hand into a vulture’s cage, I felt obliged to feed one of the birds myself. I put a small piece of food in my hand and looked for a bird with a smaller beak than the one that had just bitten my son. I held my fingers out, close enough for the bird to reach me but not too close. As the bird approached, I let go of the food, and it dropped to the floor. I tried again with a longer piece, and as the bird came toward me, my heart started pounding. The bird grabbed the food out of my hand, barely touching my fingers. Salvation accomplished. I threw the rest of the food on the floor and took my son’s hand.

As we walked out of the store, I looked at the sign that said, “No photos,” and I was about to pull my camera out of my bag out of spite, but I remembered I’d left it in the car. So I did the next best thing: I left the store without saying goodbye. That’ll teach him, I thought.

When we got back to the car, I inquired about my son’s finger.

“It’s fine, mommy,” he said and then went on to talk about the birds. “I liked the red one by the door, and the one that bit me.”

“You like the one that bit you? Why?” I asked.

“Because he was so cute,” my son said. “I can’t believe it.”

“You’re not mad at him for biting you?”

“He’s just sort of like a silly guy. He’s a silly guy. Sometimes, if you put your arm out like this, they fly onto your arm, and when you’re really, really loud, they fly off your arm,” he said. “I think he’s a baby one. So maybe he doesn’t know any better.”

At that pivotal point in the minefield, my son had to choose between love and hate, and he chose love.

At the local park where I take my four-year old son, Eddie, there is a swing made out of a tire. It hangs from the swing set by three thick chains, but instead of moving back and forth like a regular swing, it rotates, like a top or a carnival ride.

We were meeting two of my son’s friends at the park, and as soon as we arrived, my son ran over to the tire swing. He was soon joined by his friend, Peter. As the two of them climbed on, a third boy walked over whom none of us knew.

“Do you want to go on?” I asked.june 12 2015 iphone 007

He didn’t answer but started to climb up on the tire. Once he was seated, I began to spin the tire around.

“Last time I was here, I got sick on this swing,” he said. He was a little older than my son and his friend, old enough to complain about maladies.

“Oh,” I said, trying to slow the ride down a bit, lest the boy get sick again. I didn’t want him throwing up on my watch, particularly with his mother seated nearby.

“You know you can spin this one around AND push it back and forth at the same time,” the boy said, speaking with the authority of someone who wants to overcome frailty.

I continued to spin the swing around and around until I suddenly felt resistance. I looked at the ground and saw the boy who had gotten sick had put his feet down to stop the ride. He quickly began to climb off.

“You okay?” I asked.

He didn’t answer. He headed back to his mother.

Soon, the third boy we were supposed to meet at the park, Jack, approached the swing.

“You want a ride?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said and started to walk away but then changed his mind. He came back and climbed up on the tire. I began to spin the swing around and around, but after a few turns, I again felt resistance. I looked down and saw Jack’s feet on the ground. He started to climb off before the tire had stopped spinning. He looked pale.

“I want. I want,” said Jack’s younger brother, Cade, who is always standing nearby wanting to do what the older boys are doing. But after a few revolutions, even Cade, who will throw his body onto anything without even putting his hands down, wanted to get off the swing.

“Down,” he said.

I helped him off.

Now it was just my son, Eddie, and his friend, Peter, left on the tire. “Spin it fast, mommy,” Eddie said.

I spun the tire around and around.

“Faster!” Eddie said.

As the tire spun faster and faster, I watched Eddie and Peter lean backward and laugh with glee, their mouths wide open like fruit slices. I was happy to see my son smiling, but I also felt proud, the pride of a mother whose son has achieved something. In this case: the bravery to spin. I’ve always known the world was divided into those who can tolerate fast, scary rides and those who can’t, and I was proud my son was among the former. There’s a certain amount of courage afforded to those who can go on scary rides, and a cowardice associated with those who don’t. My son made me feel like our family has balls, like we were bad ass. I felt courageous, by proxy. And it felt good because me, I’m mostly yellow. I remember going to an amusement park in eighth grade with my then boyfriend, and as we went around and around on a ride called the Paratrooper, I started to feel queasy. It’s not a fast ride, but it has just enough up and down and round and round to shake things up in your stomach. By the fourth or fifth revolution, I threw up all over my shoes and that of my boyfriend, and I’ve been skittish about scary rides ever since.tilt a whirl

I continued to spin my son and his friend faster and faster, but I suddenly feared that going too much in the same direction would make them sick. I let the swing slow down enough to stop it. I then gave it a big push in the opposite direction. I continued to push it around and around, faster and faster, and as I pushed, I could see Peter’s face begin to smile again. But this time, my son, Eddie, didn’t look so good. I stopped pushing and let the ride slow down and as it did, I could see my son’s face growing pale. Soon his feet were on the ground, and he was trying to climb down before the swing had even stopped.

“One second, one second,” I said trying to stop the tire before he fell to the ground.

“I feel sick,” he said and stumbled over to a bench. He suddenly belched. “I just threw up,” he said, though I didn’t see any signs of it.

“Just relax. I’ll get you some water,” I said.

As I walked over to our cooler, I felt a tinge of disappointment knowing that my time among the brave and the courageous, however brief, was now over.

It was going to be a nice day: breakfast of challah French toast topped with fresh picked strawberries, a trip to a warehouse full of shabby chic furniture, a pit stop at a garage sale that had fishing rods and tackle, and then renting a boat on a local reservoir so we could take our son out fishing, his new favorite pastime.


But there’s the description of the day and the reality of it. From the minute we got to the warehouse, my son kept saying, “Mommy, when are we going to the yard sale?” “Can we go to the yard sale now?” “Is it time to go to the yard sale yet?” “Mommy, it’s time to go now. Let’s go to the yard sale.”


We bought an old farm sink and headed over to the yard sale but found it wasn’t really a yard sale. It was a guy cleaning out his garage, and he had lined up all his old fishing rods and tackle by the roadside to see if he could get any nibbles, so to speak. We bit. Thirty dollars later, we had a freshwater rod, a new tackle box – we probably paid more for it than it would have cost at WalMart – and got a fishing lesson on how to set up a line with sinkers and fishing swivels. We then headed out to the reservoir to put our new knowledge and equipment to use.


On the way there, my husband said, “My cell phone is out of juice.”


“Do you have a charger?” I asked.

“In my car,” he said.

“Oh,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why? People should always travel with a charged cell phone,” I said.


“I have a charger in my car and one in the house,” he said, defensively.

“Fine, but that’s not what I asked,” I said. “I just wanted to know if you had a charger on you.”


“I usually charge it at home, but I couldn’t find my charger last night,” he said. “Remember, I asked you where my charger was?”

“Why are you getting so defensive?” I asked. “All I wanted to know was whether you had a car charger on you, so you could charge your phone right now, in the car.”


“Well, then why did you say, ‘People should have charged phones on them.’?”


“Because when I asked you if you had a charger on you, and said, ‘Why?’ So I answered,” I said.


“I didn’t ask you ‘Why?’ “ he said. “Why would I ask you, ‘Why?’ That doesn’t even make sense.”


“You’re kidding me, right?”


Our son was in the back seat as we argued. Sadly, he’s accustomed to it. Perhaps there was a time when he thought all the arguing and animosity was his fault, but by now, he probably understands his parents are just asinine and that in between all the discord, they sometimes like each other.


We arrived at the reservoir and rented a row boat for an hour. They handed us life jackets and sent us to boat #14. We walked down to the dock, and the three of us piled into the boat, along with our two fishing rods, a canvas bag filled with boxes of bait and tackle and a couple of long sleeve shirts that we clearly didn’t need as it was really hot. I like to be prepared for anything.


The oars were attached to the boat through metal rings that swiveled, though there seemed to be something tenuous about the way they were attached. Every time my husband rowed, the ring on the right side of the boat side would jam for a moment before moving forward, as if the ring was being forced to swivel in a direction it didn’t want to go.


“I want to try something,” I said, and reversed the oars, thinking maybe the last renter had put them in backwards. The swivel mechanism worked a little better initially but after a few strokes, it began to jam again. The problem wasn’t that the oars were inserted into the wrong holes. It was that the swivel mechanism was broken.


Despite the clunkiness of the oars, we made it out toward the center of the reservoir and began to fish. As time went on, my husband noticed how far we had drifted from the boat house, and he suggested we start rowing back.


“I’ll take care of it,” I said. “You fish.”


I tried to row the boat toward the boathouse but I couldn’t turn it around in the right direction. The broken swivel mechanism made it difficult to turn the boat back around toward shore, and every time the oar got stuck, the boat would turn back in the wrong direction. There was a light breeze making the boat drift farther from shore, and the longer it took me to turn the boat around, the farther we drifted.


Frustrated watching my efforts, my husband said, “Let me row.”


“I got it,” I said.


I continued to try to right the boat, to no avail.


“I don’t know why this is so hard,” I said.


I could feel my husband breathing down my back. “Fine. You do it,” I said, moving out of the way.


My husband handed me his fishing pole and tried to turn the boat around. He managed to row a couple of feet. I was watching so intently, I didn’t realize I wasn’t holding the fishing rod he’d handed me until the line snagged onto something in the water and as the boat moved forward, the rod quickly went overboard. We were so focused on getting back to shore, the loss of the rod went largely unnoticed.


With every row, the swivel on the oar continued to jam, and with the wind, we were barely making any headway. My husband gave a few strong heaves and suddenly, the metal ring snapped in two.


“Great,” he said. “Now we’re never going to get back.”


“Don’t say that!” I said. I was beginning to share my husband’s despair.


“Mommy, can I fish?” my son asked.


“We can’t use the oar like that?” I asked my husband.


“I was having trouble getting us back before, and now, we have a broken oar,” he said.


Realizing we were going back, my son said, “Mommy, I don’t wanna go back! I want to catch a fish!”


“Eddie, we’re trying to get back to shore,” I said. I was beginning to panic.


“But I don’t wanna go back to shore!” he said.


“We’re stuck out here,” my husband said, throwing in the towel.


“I wanna catch a fish!” my son said.


“Will you both shut up! Just shut up!” I said.


“Don’t talk to me like that!” my husband snapped.


We are clearly a family that handles stress with decorum and composure.


“I’m going to call the boat rental place,” I said, pulling my cell phone out of my pocket. The number was so clearly stamped on the inside of the boat, it made me wonder just how often these boats break.


“We’re stuck,” I told the man who answered the phone.


“Where are you?” he asked.


“I don’t know. The middle of the reservoir.”



“I’ll find you,” he said.



The man on the phone was soon approaching us in a motor boat. I waved my hands wildly to make sure he saw us. The man tied our little boat behind his, and as we headed toward the shore, I hung my head in shame as we passed the other boaters, because we were having to be towed back. But I also felt a little satisfied, knowing that no matter how defensive my husband got as we argued earlier in the car, my underlying point was right: people should always travel with a charged cell phone.

The thermometer in the car read 91 degrees as my four-year-old son and I headed out to the strawberry patch. It was the orchard’s last day for picking strawberries this season. I was not going to let the heat deter us.

imageI remember going out there last year with a credit card but just six dollars in my pocket, and the farm owners accepted only cash.

“How many berries can I get for $6.00?” I asked the woman behind the counter, feeling around my pockets for any stray coins.

“Well, you have to buy a family pass in order to pick, and that costs $1.00,” she said.

“Okay, how many berries can we pick for $5.00?”

“About 10. Twelve at the most. It depends on how big they are,” she said. “But you better keep it to 10, because you can’t go over $5.00. And once you pick them, you have to pay for them.”

“Okay, pal, we only get 10 berries,” I told my son as we walked out to the patch. “Let’s go out there and pick 10 of the most perfect berries they have.”

This year, I didn’t want to drive all the way out there for 10 berries so I stopped at a gas station on the way there for an ATM. Once we stopped, my son had to poop, I wanted coffee, and he wanted gum. Twenty minutes later, we were on the road again, though my son complained for about a mile about wanting his gum, and I said he couldn’t have it untimageil he ate his sandwich. He’d been in the pool all morning for his swimming lessons, and I didn’t want him standing outside in a hot strawberry patch with no nourishment, even if it was just half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“I don’t waaaaaaaannt it! I want the gum,” he whined.

“You’re not getting the gum until you have the sandwich,” I said. I always feel funny in these situations, forcing my son to eat something that’s not particularly healthy simply because it’s what I made him for lunch, when in another form, something as sweet as peanut butter and jelly could be considered dessert.

“Daddy gives me gum,” he said.

“Daddy’s not here. Eat the sandwimageich,” I said. “No sandwich, no gum.”

“Fine!” he said, and literally growled.

He nibbled at the sandwich, but about half a mile later, he started screeching. “Bugs are biting me!” he yelled. “Bugs are biting my penis!”

“They’re biting your what?”

“They’re biting my penis,” he said. “Mommy, bugs are biting me!”

I reached around while I was driving and tugged on his bathing suit, thinking maybe his penis had gotten caught in the cloth mesh of the suit.

“They’re still biting me, mommy! Bugs are biting me!”

“There are no bugs biting you!” I said.

“They’re biting my butt!”

“We’ll be there soon,” I said.

“It hurts! It hurts! They’re biting my butt!”

“I said we’ll be there soon!”

“Mommy! They keep biting me!”

Suddenly, the heat and the incessant whining, the driving back and forth to his swimming lessons in summer traffic, the fact that my laptop broke, the story deadlines I have looming and yet have little time to work in order to meet them, the fact that my taxes are due and I haven’t had time to get everything together and the accountant keeps writing to me, “When are you sending me your stuff?” the filthy house with sand and toys in the rugs because the cleaning woman quit on me a year ago when she got a job, the laundry that doesn’t stop no matter how many loads I do, the body that won’t stop aging on me and no matter how much I run, it just doesn’t get any easier, it all erupted inside of me like a pot beginning to boil, and I yelled at the top of my lungs, louder than anyone should shout in the small space of a car, “Stop it! Just stop it!!”

My son grew quiet. I felt regret. It’s a common pattern. He whines. I yell. He stops. I feel regret. And then I take stock of what kind of mother I am. At times I’m the best mother, better than most – fun, witty, engaging. We do crafts, we read, we sing, we dance. And other times, I’m the worst mother, worst than most — impatient, stressed out, yelling. I’m like the girl in that poem, “There once was a girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her head. And when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was rotten.”

“I’ll pull over as soon as I can,” I said. “I’m about to get off the highway.”

I suddenly feared what if there really is something biting him, like a bee or a little crab. What a terrible mother I am. I felt like a heel. As soon as I exited the highway, I pulled into the first driveway I could find. I got out of the car, opened my son’s car door and unbuckled his seat belt. He had bits of peanut butter and jelly sandwich on his lap and some jelly on his stomach. He stood up in front of his car seat, and I pulled back the elastic on his bathing suit and looked for whatever may have been biting him. There was nothing in the back of the suit or the front, and I couldn’t find anything on the seat.

“Bud, I think it was these tags here,” I said, showing him the three tags in the back of his bathing suit. “They were probably scratching you.”

It didn’t really explain what might have been biting his penis, but I didn’t bring it up. Still feeling regret for having yelled so loudly, I handed him a piece of gum.

We got back into the car and drove to the strawberry patch. As we got out of the car, you could feel the heat. It was oppressive. I grabbed our bottle of water. I should have taken two, I thought. We went to the counter to get a basket for our berries and headed out to the patch.

The paths in between the rows of strawberries were narrow and the dirt was hard and uneven, making it difficult to walk. My son nearly fell a few times in his plastic sandals.

“Try to find really red ones. Like this,” I said, holding up a berry that was deep red.

“Like this, mommy?” he asked, pulling a berry off a plant.

“Darker,” I said.

As we moved down the dusty row, the heat in the patch was stifling. The only respite was the occasional light breeze that would blow by and feel cooling because your body was wet with sweat. It reminded me of Budapest, where my husband and I lived for a year, where there were few air conditioners and people just allowed themselves to sweat, and that was okay. The oppressiveness of heat can be grounding, like one of those heavy jackets they put on you before taking an x-ray. There was no point in fighting the heat so I relaxed and gave in, and it felt good. I walk around all day stressing out, frenetic. It felt good to be ground into the earth, to do nothing more than sweat and hunt for berries. Even the hunt was therapeutic, the search for the perfect berry. It’s like fishing, or hunting for deer, or looking for the perfect seashell. Out in the hot patch, there’s nothing else out there but you and the berries, and so you search for the perfect berry, and everything else just falls away. And in that moment, you are in the moment, and that’s all there is, right?

I went running yesterday, and near the edge of a small park by my house, I spotted a lone blue flip-flop. My first thought was the obvious: Where is the other one? My second thought: my son is going to seize on that. And sure enough, we had a play date that afternoon and as the two boys walked through the park, they saw the blue flip-flop from ten feet away and were on it like a hawk that’s spotted prey. They picked it up, tried it on, and inspected it from every angle, as if it were an alien species, before throwing it at each other.

Children have an attentiveness to small things, perhaps because they’re closer to the ground or they simply don’t have all those files and data and embedded cookies taking up valuable storage. They have the same senses we do, but times ten. They’re like chameleons, who can rotate and focus their eyes separately to look at two different objects at the same time, or like ants, with their microscope antennae that transmit a 50-fold magnified view of the world  around them. A few days ago, I threw a mini-milky way bar, which is about an inch long, into our kitchen garbage pail, and with debris covering it almost entirely, my son spotted it and said, “Hey! You said I could have that.” I left my son in the living room the other day to walk into the kitchen, and hearing my rustling around near the window, my son said, “Mommy, what are you getting?” He heard me lifting a peach. Try opening a candy wrapper in a kindergarten classroom. Twenty heads will turn around sharply, as every child looks for the origin of the sound.ant

But they don’t just see and hear things more keenly. They seem to marvel in these sights and sounds. They have an appreciation of them that we can only barely remember. Every morning, my son will carefully choose which color straw he wants to use in his breakfast smoothie. When we go to the bank, he takes his time choosing the flavor lollipop he wants from the large bowl on the counter.

As I went running this morning, I again passed the blue flip flop at the edge of the park. I met up with my running partner, and she started talking about a trip she’d recently taken to Philadelphia with her daughter’s fifth grade class. She said every child had a cell phone. As the children descended the bus and walked out into the streets of Philadelphia, their teacher told them to pay attention to everything because there’s a lot to see and observe. My running partner said the kids were so engrossed in their phones, texting and taking selfies, they didn’t see anything. Apparently, children are only hyper attentive until they get their first iPhone.japanese yew

I was walking down the street with my son the other day when I did something I’ve been doing since I was young: I grabbed a couple of sprigs of young growth off of a Japanese yew bush, those green shrubs with the red berries that are typically used as hedges. I like to grab the soft little branches and rub them between my fingers.

“Mommy, what are you doing?” said my son, who was walking a few steps behind me.

“I’m picking a piece off the bush,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because it feels good in my fingers,” I said.

I was surprised he even saw me do it. But that’s the beauty of a child. They see everything. And it’s wonderful to be on the receiving end of their observation. You feel like someone is paying attention to you, in a way no one else in your life does. Someone cares what you’re doing. My husband barely notices if I get my haircut.

We passed another Japanese yew, and I grabbed a couple of soft branches and rubbed them in my fingers.

“Mommy, stop it. You’re going to kill the tree,” my son said.

Perhaps a little less observant wouldn’t hurt.