Feral Children

This couplet of sentences was written in response to a writing challenge limited to 50 words, but also a recent article wondering why we’re denying our kids freedoms we enjoyed. I’d love to read a snapshot of your memories of a less chaperoned youth. Maybe together we can muster enough nostalgia to hazard our kids exploring the world a bit more without us.


We raced ten-speeds through three miles of neighborhood streets, screamed down the sledding hill into the flood plains, wove through the horse path leading to more backyards, and pedaled up the hill to find our friends. Mom had no idea where we were, so getting home by dinner was key.

No permission, no helmets, no schedule...

No permission, no helmets, no schedule…

The Boy I Married

Bernie conveniently acquired swine flu before my 20th high school reunion. Sure, he was pukey-feverish-gray-skin sick; but if he was going to succumb to swine flu anyway, it was opportune that it exempted him from a DJ’ed evening at the Holiday Inn, imagining which boozy men might have molested my teenage boobs and dodging women in compression garments coyly seeking cosmetic surgery consults. Even if he hadn’t been pukey-feverish-gray-skin sick, I still would have given him a bye. Only a handful of people could tolerate an entire evening with strangers attempting to chitchat over Def Leppard.

One of the reasons Bernie enjoys married life is because his wife will talk to anyone. I am his social ping-pong paddle, deflecting chitchat away from him, right and left. When he rallies, my husband is really rather charming. It’s just that his default mood is… couch. I largely share this disposition, but on occasion, embrace excuses to stand in fantastic shoes and interact with things without plugs, to enjoy the ceremony of a fancy meal, to share a sofa-less evening with sentient beings. Because Bernie’s stock reaction to all invitations lands somewhere between not-enough-scotch-on-the-planet and rather-put-hot-sauce-in-my-eye, I spring these on him last minute.

Once we’ve arrived at the destination and drinks are in hand, Bernie morphs from Grumpy Couch Troll into The Boy I Married. As Valentine’s Day nears, as lonely hearts compose snarky tweets, and as unsuccessful attempts at reservations and balking at overpriced blooms take away from the swoony fun of it all, I’m listing silly reasons I fell in love with Bernie. Take note, youngsters… it’s the little things that make a boy irresistible.

·               See any movie at all

Bernie saw Crossroads with me. In the theater. Crossroads! Crossroads… the movie starring Britney Spears. Of course you haven’t seen it—it’s dreadful. But I love Britney, and I was in the mood to see her dance around in her skivvies wondering if she was yet a woman. Bernie didn’t mind. Another (wasted) evening, this lovely man accompanied me and my best friend to Duets. Duets! Duets… the movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Huey Lewis. Of course you haven’t seen it–it’s dreadful. But Bernie bought three tickets with untainted enthusiasm: no moaning, no eye rolling, no you-totally-owe-me-lights-on-naughty-stuff. This sort of social sacrifice endeared him to Emily forever, made me even fonder of his general agreeableness, and remains the benchmark for adorable things boys do for girls they love.

Cruisin'. Together.

Cruisin’. Together.

·               Pay attention to other women

I’ve always admired Bernie’s appreciation of women. Perhaps it’s that dorky, skip-a-grade Asian kid lurking inside of him, but Bernie is surprised and genuinely thrilled to be talking to you, pretty girl. He’ll make sure you have a drink, or his place in line, or help with your bags. I love how he’ll deliver my friend’s Sancerre first, that he recognizes all sorts of beauty in all women, discourages you from cosmetic surgery because you don’t need it (and means it), and occasionally is at a loss for words if a woman is particularly Julianne Moore-ish.

Can't really blame him.

Can’t really blame him.

·               Get along with Dad

I knew Bernie was the right boy for me the minute I realized Dad’s approval wouldn’t be a deal breaker. Dad is huge and loud and irreverent and thoughtful and inquisitive: first-time meetings with him can feel like an interrogation. We Stocktons don’t waste time—we want to know (right now!) what makes you do what you do, how you contribute to the universe, why you’re like that, and what you have planned for the future. A bit much for cocktail hour? Well then, go find yourself another cocktail hour. (Ours, however, starts at brunch and continues well past blurry.) All other suitors had been measured by their ability to go toe to toe with Dad. Few navigated this easily: either retreating into stunned silence, or interpreting playful banter as an attack, and many failing to count vodkas and slipping into slurring ridiculousness. It can be a tough room.

But Bernie? He thought Dad was great. More importantly, he thought enough of himself to just be himself, mind the vodka, and enjoy the spectacle. Sure, there was one Thanksgiving Bernie passed out after multiple mimosas, but if you know us well, you’ve probably missed a family meal for being over-served by my father. Today, Bernie plans bucket-list vacations with Dad, Dad’s best friend, and my brother. Although I would have married him even if Dad didn’t recognize Bernie’s quiet humor and confidence, it’s sort of awesome that he does.

When I was young and naive, I was certain Kill All Bugs would be on this list of husband kudos. Alas, my wonderful Bernie’s reaction to a centipede racing across the family room is to curl into a frightened ball of unmanliness. Instead, my husband’s chivalry involves pouring my Prosecco, telling me I’m beautiful, and saving me from a life of beepers and pantsuits by being all talented and whatnot. Occasionally he’ll even stifle his Grumpy Couch Troll reaction to “plans” or “tickets” or “party” for my benefit. But with too generous advance notice, those who prefer evenings holding down furniture to those painting the town conveniently acquire pukey-feverish-gray-skin-sickness. We have reservations for Valentine’s Day… I’ll tell him Thursday.

Happy Valentine’s Day, lovers. Enjoy the little things that make them yours.

Saw it in the theater. Opening night.

Saw it in the theater. Opening night. Was this shirt ever not ridiculous?

The Millers

After all of that depressing rumination on death and disseminated disease, it’s time for some Harold and Maida. Ahhh, The Millers… whenever I think about my ancient neighbors, it makes me smile, or giggle, (and hope they’re not on the floor unable to get up). It was Halloween the first time I met Dr. Miller. He was a spry 92 years when he shuffled across the street to give my boys some early treat-or-treating candy, “we’re too old to have people ringing the bell all night.” He welcomed us to the neighborhood, and reported a happy half-century in his (now crumbling, but still pretty) center brick Colonial. Harold was thrilled we were a family of doctors, and he rattled off his curriculum vitae culminating in his Reagan era retirement from surgery. As he hobbled back home, I just had to follow him to meet his bride, Maida, who was balancing on her tennis-balled walker, sporting wrap-around glaucoma glasses, compression stockings, and boatloads of chutzpah.

From that day, I kind of adopted the Millers (and they, me). I’m fascinated by their sustained marriage, their ability to endure unassisted, their quick minds inside of their failing bodies, their never-ending stream of flattery, and the ever funny predicaments that befall my ridiculously elderly friends.

“Oh, Britta…” (Maida’s pet name for me), “it’s just so nice to have someone pretty to look at over here.”
“Deep down, you really are a good, Jewish girl.”
“Harold had three cocktails…. we spent most of the flight thinking he was dead.”
“Please don’t worry about us, Britta. We’re decrepit, but we can still find the remote.”

Over the years, I’ve spent dozens of mornings at their Formica kitchen set to share my pumpkin bread and little boy news. If the kids request a quick visit on the way home from the bus stop, the Millers can be found having drinks in the living room at 4. They still take the car out for lunching (yikes), and Maida still makes the pot roast on Sunday. If I offer to do a bit of grocery shopping for them, they mostly refuse… or only need vodka. But now (at ages 96 and 89), Harold (but not Maida) has decided it’s time to sell the house.

Maida’s very suspicious of the real estate agent that knocked on their door this summer and offered them a million dollars for a house bought for little more than what we’ve spent on Legos. She’s doesn’t trust this “shyster” who is trying to dupe her out of her home, despite the completely generous offer (and the fact that Maida keeps falling down the stairs). “And you know what, Britta? I think she is going to rip everything out!” I look around at this 1962 time capsule with its sagging ceilings, duct-taped carpets, peeling linoleum, and black-mold encrusted windows… and I see a too-big house that could kill them in a half a hundred ways.

But this is the home of a successful surgeon and his family. Their son was married in the back yard. Maida remains furious that the neighbor’s gardener ruined her grapevines and apple trees—a dispute with the Jacobs that is 30 years strong. And she’s still proud of her living room, draped in cloths in anticipation of some future, uncover-worthy guests. A-Ma has suggested that the house is imbued with a superpower Chi, that it must be a Feng Shui nirvana for these two to keep plodding along like there are so many tomorrows. She has even snooped around the yard a few times attempting to grasp the energy of the Miller Stronghold, and finding it in spades, recommended that we buy this Magic House across the street. But I think Harold and Maida have found the secret to longevity by assuming that there will always be more time; because for them (for nearly a century!) there always has been. It’s hard to ignore the power of this kind of willful naiveté:

“Oh, if Jerry gets that job in Shanghai, we might go live over there for a couple of years…”

Although they spend half of the year living in a more assisted way in California, the Millers still fly back to the house where they began their married life, and spend the warmer months getting never-filled quotes for a Stannah Stairlift, gleefully yelling at political callers that they’re sworn to Obama, and sharing muffins with their butt-inski blonde neighbor who doesn’t bother knocking anymore. I’ve been coaching Maida to say, “yes” to everything: “Sell the house? Yes! Throw things away? Yes! Move to California? Yes! Yes! Yes!”

“Oh, Britta, this is a youthful way to think.”

I now have little doubt that Maida will botch the purchase and sale and hold on to her home until her final pot roast. I think the Millers will probably be our neighbors for another handful of Halloweens during which I will continue to worry about them coexisting with a stove and stairs. But I will butt-owski out of their decision to sell because, well, (in addition to it being none of my business) having them around just makes our life a bit brighter, funnier, fuller. While I’ve been morbidly fixated on “life is short,” the Millers are enduring proof that (maybe?) it’s not. For them, the house is likely a symbol that they still have time. And Maida’s not giving up one second. Not for a million dollars.

Amazing Maida, my funny wonderful friend

Amazing Maida, my funny wonderful friend