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 had so rankled when Telling came out (one review said I was Bombeck “off Catholicism and on speed”) came to mind. I started reading her, for the first time in fact, and found I’d had her all wrong—this was very fine, very funny writing, and if I could come anywhere close to it, I’d be happy.
But what about the boys? What would they think? Aside from a couple of my National Public Radio essays that came on the air when they were trapped in the car, they had never read or heard a thing I’d written. Which was fine with me. Telling was dedicated to Hayes and Vince with a caveat—“Please wait until you are at least fourteen to read this book.” But The Lunch-Box Chronicles was not just rated PG, it was all about them. They had to know.
The first chapter was no sweat. It opens at 2:45 p.m., when I’m picking the boys up from school—the chaotic scene at the schoolyard, the anguished cries of starvation: “Please, just one Slim Jim! Please!” The second chapter took us into deeper waters, as I described how I ended up becoming a single mom in the first place. When I read aloud the part about how much I hate leaving blank the line for “Father” on school forms and applications, Vincie buried his head in his pillow, and soon I saw his shoulders begin to shake.
The chapter moved to a cheerier note, talking about how much less alone we are than I thought we would be, but Vincie never lifted his head. I felt terrible about making him sad. After I snapped off the light, I lay down next to him. “It’s okay, Vincie,” I said, “it’s okay,” even though in many ways it just wasn’t.
Things went from bad to worse. The next night’s selection mentioned the disappearance of Vince’s beloved guinea pig, Sparky, and before I knew it, Vincie was crying again. I stopped reading. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“Vince,” said Hayes anxiously. “Listen. I’ll buy you a new guinea pig with my own money. I promise I will.”
Vince lifted his tear-stained face, amazed by this show of big-brotherly concern. “Will you really?”
“I swear, Vincie. A black one just like Sparky.”
“Mom!” Vincie cried excitedly, sitting up. “Take us to the pet store tomorrow!”
“We’ll see,” I said, touched and relieved by Hayes’ saving the day, but unwilling to reconsign myself to endless cage-cleaning and living room furniture fragrant with rodent urine. “You might have to wait until you go off to college.”
“That’s no fair, Mom!”
The next few nights we sailed smoothly through chapters about dinnertime and birthdays, but the chapter “Our Bodies, Their Selves” raised several red flags. This chapter deals with the issue of parental nudity and kids’ awakening sexuality, and one of the first sentences describes their adorable newborn bodies—including their “fingertip-sized penises.”
“Oh, my God, Mom!” Hayes spluttered.
“It’s when we were babies, Hayes,” Vincie explained. “Just like that part about us getting in her bed and peeing all over her and choking her. It’s not, like, now.”
“That’s right, Vince.” I chimed in, pleased to be defended, but several of the anecdotes that followed—the three of us sliding around the bathtub together when they were little, Hayes’s first inquiries about the female anatomy, and finally an incident on an airplane in which six-year-old Hayes seemed to be flirting with a little five-year-old blonde—did not find favor either. The airplane incident was deemed apocryphal.
“That did not happen, Mom.”
“It did, honey, I swear. You just don’t remember.”
“No, it did not. So far this chapter is sick. It’s too mushy, and it’s very, very sick.”
“Should I just skip ahead?”
“No,” said Hayes. “Don’t skip anything.”
In a matter of weeks, they knew it all—well, almost all. I have to admit I omitted the chapter in which I figure out what I’m going to tell them about my checkered past, and I also drastically abridged the section about Sylvia Plath and the idea of a mother’s committing suicide. But sometimes I got in too deep before I realized what was coming. At one point, for example, I was reading about gender differences, about how in the seventies we thought it was all socialization and environment, and that if little girls played with trucks and little boys were given Barbies, in no time our race would be practically androgynous.
As the chapter explains, I don’t feel that way anymore. Hayes and Vince listened with perplexed looks on their faces as I gave my new view.
“Girls are interested in people, feelings, and relationships,” I read. “Boys are interested in noise, motion, and action. Girls will actually ask a question like ‘Are Mike and Ellen married?’ or ‘Is that guy with John’s dad his friend or his boyfriend?’ whereas boys will not even look up when Mike, Ellen, John’s dad, and his friend come into the room—”
“Who are all those people?” Vince interrupted in a bewildered tone.
“Nobody, Vince. It’s just an example. Now shut up,” explained Hayes, the literary critic.
I sighed and continued. “Put a group of girls together unsupervised and they will talk about everyone they know and tear them to shreds. Put a group of boys together and they will make an ungodly amount of noise and break things. Put it this way: Girls are bitches, boys are assholes.”
Uh-oh. I clapped my hand over my mouth.
“Mom!” Hayes was shocked.
“Which is worse? A bitch or an asshole?” Vince wanted to know.
“Girls are bitches, boys are assholes. Heh, heh, heh.” Now they were getting into it.
“Listen, you don’t need to go blabbing this part all over the playground tomorrow.”
“Oh, we won’t. Don’t worry.”
Yeah, right, I thought. Might as well print the T-shirt now.
After it was all over, while we were playing Scrabble one afternoon, Hayes broached the delicate subject again. “Mom, you’re not going to write about that ‘Inside Hayes’s Underpants’ thing, are you?” he asked, not looking up from his tray of letters.
“Well—I won’t actually give a guided tour, if that’s what you’re thinking, but I can’t swear I’ll never mention it.”
“Mom, promise me you won’t.”
“I can’t promise. It’s my job, Hayes.”
“Can’t you get a different job?”
“Even if I did, I bet I couldn’t stop writing about you. Do you just hate it?”
He said, “No—well, yes—well, I, I—kind of like the book, Mom.”
And then he made the same leap his father had. “Because it’s our book.”
That’s all I wanted to hear.