MY SONS AND I were in the food court at Northcross Mall in Austin having a slice of post—ice skating pizza, when Hayes asked how soon my new book, The Lunch-Box Chronicles: Notes From the Parenting Underground, would be coming out. “Soon,” I said, mouth too full to elaborate.
“Is it really all about us?”
“Are we going to be rich?” Vince asked. “Will we get a limo with Coke and Sprite in the refrigerator?”
Before I could shatter a seven-year-old’s dream, his nine-year-old brother raised a more pressing issue. “Mom, did you take out the part about, you know, us in the bathtub?”
“Well, buddy, I have good news: There’s a whole chapter that’s censored in the U.S. edition. ‘Inside Hayes’s Underpants.’”
The blond head shot up. “What? Mom! You wrote a chapter called ‘Inside Hayes’s Underpants’? Oh, Mom, please!”
I started to laugh, so he knew I was only fooling, but unfortunately his little brother had taken up chanting the accursed phrase. Hayes folded his arms and stuck out his lower lip as pizza congealed on his plate. According to my radar, pummeling was imminent.
“Vincent Valdric Winik, you cut it out. Right now! Hayes, you want to know what’s in the book? I’ll read it to you. As soon as we finish The Hobbit, we’ll make it our bedtime story.”
Everyone thought this was a fine idea, and we continued our meal in harmony until suddenly Vincie grabbed his empty paper plate, leapt up from the table to slam dunk it in the garbage, and with a look of maniacal glee, war whooped, “Inside—Hayes’s—Underpants! Yeah!”
As I broke up the ensuing melee, it occurred to me that this might be only the start of my problems with the boys and the book. I thought back to a writing workshop I had taken several years earlier with Grace Paley, my literary hero. On the subjects of being a mother, a concerned citizen, a friend, a lover, and a person who is not much of a saint despite the best of intentions, Paley’s deeply funny stories are to me a Pilgrim’s Progress. Because of her, I know it is possible to make something wise and true out of the seemingly mundane raw material of lives like mine, spent in kitchens, neighborhoods, public libraries, and playgrounds.
But Paley, who writes fiction, gave a troubling piece of advice that week. She said, “Do yourself a favor. Don’t write about your children.”
“Why not?” someone asked.
“Because,” she said, in her matter-of-fact New York squawk, “their lives are private, and they won’t like it, and your relationship with them is complicated enough without adding that to it.”
So here I am, violating a cardinal rule set by my own mentor. I’m afraid I’ve been doing so for quite a while. In my first book, Telling: Confessions, Concessions, and Other Flashes of Light, Hayes and Vince toddled into the public eye through essays on breast-feeding in public, traveling with children in Mexico, raising kids half-Jewish and half-Catholic, and the intensity of the sibling bond. At least they weren’t the only ones in the spotlight—I also wrote about my parents, my sister, my husband, friends and acquaintances past and present, and inescapably, myself.
Why did I do this? I couldn’t help it, really. I kept thinking I would write fiction, but this is what came out. In fact, I began to suspect that we don’t choose what we write as much as what we write chooses us. In other essays in that book, I wrote candidly about drugs and sex and growing up in the seventies and eighties. Sure enough, it was those stories, rather than the ones about lost pets and houseguests and how hot it is in Texas in the summer, that got people’s attention. Soon I found myself sitting opposite Katie Couric, answering the question, “How did a nice girl like you end up doing drugs?”
Yet with all I did reveal in Telling, I kept silent on the most important issue then affecting my life—my husband’s struggle with AIDS. After many healthy years, Tony had begun to slip away from us, and I did what I’d always done in the face of personal disaster: I started writing. After a few months, I shyly gave Tony a pile of pages to read, worried that he might find the story one-sided. But his reaction was the opposite. Until his death, he called the project I was working on “my book.” “Go home and get to work on my book,” he would say, shooing me out of his hospital room.
After he died, I kept going. Somehow, the process was both brutal and healing at the same time, bringing to mind another Paleyism. She told us, “The story you have to write—the only one worth spending time on—is the story that scares you to death.”
As if First Comes Love—a memoir of our marriage and Tony’s death—wasn’t scary enough, beyond it lay a sequel. “Once upon a time in the little town of Austin, Texas, there was a single mother named Marion raising two kids on her own …” Okay, stop right there. Enough with my life. I decided it was time to write a novel—the story of a Jewish assistant district attorney in Manhattan and the sex-criminal gangsta rapper she loves.
My illusion that I could, just this once, choose what I would write about was not long for this world—the project sputtered, backfired, and stalled in a matter of months. I decided to write something to cheer me up, something I knew a little more about. Like why I think it may actually be okay to serve kids boxed-macaroni-and-cheese dinners instead of elaborate home-cooked meals. About my kicking-and-screaming transformation into a Dallas Cowboys fan and a soccer mom. About the terrible breakdown I had with Vincie at a friend’s barbecue, and whether I was, after all, a good mommy or a very bad one.
As usual, my subject had chosen me, and suddenly, those comparisons to Erma Bombeck that