Lessons from the Dragon Mother

For the past few days, I’ve been spending what feels like every waking minute hunched over my computer, editing a video of three-year-old Pippa learning to ride her bike. This is my first time, and though it is time consuming and frustrating, like learning another language, it's also weirdly satisfying. I say weirdly because I'm not the most patient or present person when it comes to DIY, especially high-tech DIY (and anything involving speaker wires, hammers, or yardsticks). 

But as of this morning, after a 3.8 magnitude earthquake rumbled my writing loft, doing its best imitation of a furnace about to explode, and after I spent the next hour combing the web for reports of a quake, checking and double checking our boiler room for gas leaks, installing the carbon monoxide alarm that’s been languishing, forgotten, in our closet, I have a quasi-presentable little clip—set to music and not horrendously jittery—to show for my efforts. I taught myself how to do something. How novel. 

And how frivolous. 

That’s because, somewhere across town, right here in Santa Fe, a mother’s baby is dying of Tay-Sachs disease. If the story sounds familiar that’s because the mother, Emily Rapp, wrote an eloquent, devastating essay in Sunday’s New York Times. I began following Emily’s story last winter, after our mutual writer friend, Rob, introduced us on Facebook. She taught creative writing and had new baby and loved to hike, he told me. We should get together with our babies. We should be friends. 

But my father was dying, and I was preoccupied with grieving and traveling—specifically, grieving and traveling with a five-month old in tow. By the time I got around to following up on Rob’s introduction, it was January, and Emily’s Facebook page had a worrisome tone. I scanned back a few days, weeks and then forward, trying to make sense of what I was reading. There were mentions of doctor appointments and missed milestones, encouraging comments from concerned friends. Then, in plain black type, came the diagnosis: Tay-Sachs disease. A rare, fatal, genetic disorder without treatment or cure. Shocking that something so shattering could be laid bare on the screen, seemingly innocuous and unadorned.

I sat at my computer on that Saturday morning, as the world outside frosted over, feeling stunned. I didn’t know Emily. I didn’t know her son, Ronan, but I knew this terrible, final, irrevocable thing about her. I felt as though I ought to know her better, now that I held this terrible news, even while I knew with unequivocal certainty that we would not go hiking or go out for tea afterwards and talk about our favorite writers or new books we loved. Our friendship was over before it began. But what I didn’t know is that I would think of Emily nearly every single day since then, and marvel at her strength and bravery as a mother and weep for her dark-haired one-year-old son who might not live to be three. 

But many days when I thought of her, it was with despair and fear for my own children, for their fragility and mine. How is it possible to keep them safe, to keep us all safe? Last fall when my father was dying, I saw for first time how life hangs in a delicate balance, a spider web of hope, good health, and possibility strung from the ceiling, tenuous and easily swept away. Every irrational fear that could worm its way into my brain did, lodged there like an unwelcome, intractable houseguest. I spent many months in a deep state of anxiety. I had known, of course, that everyone eventually dies. But I hadn’t really known it. And now that I did, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, worrying about it, dreading it. Emily’s story haunted me, a devastating reminder that it happens to anyone, everyone, all the time: to fathers who are not so very old and children who are far too young and to mothers who love them madly. 

All winter and spring, I read her essays and blog posts, and watched as she grappled with Ronan’s illness and her own unscripted role as a mother of, as The New York Times put it, “a child with no future.” Her writing was eloquent and unflinching—reading her stories, I could tell that the act of writing was essential to her, a way to save her own life even if she couldn’t save Ronan’s. There was nothing extraneous—every deliberate word seemed to propel her forward into a new uncertain world, her world, like hands fumbling for a light switch in a darkened room. One step, and then another—words on the page a lifeline from this moment to the next. I felt this, viscerally, absolutely, and was filled with admiration. 

And guilt. How could I write about running or eating peaches or teaching my three-year-old to ride a bike or my one-year-old to sit still in a raft like a seasoned river baby, when another mother, whose baby will never grow to ride a bike, was wrestling with the biggest question of all: How do I help my child live and die with grace and dignity? If I really thought about it, it seemed possible, and perhaps preferable, to stop writing altogether. 

But I didn’t. Emily inspired me. I kept muddling through, even when the hollowness of my own stories, the seeming inconsequential-ness of them, felt like a deliberate slap in the face to this Santa Fe mother whom I didn’t know but who had been generous and open enough to let me feel as though I did. 

Like most writers, I write to make sense of the world, and my own life. Sometimes when I’m very lucky, the world and my little slice of it overlap in serendipitous ways, and I remember again how important it is to always keep my heart and eyes open, that inspiration comes from remarkable places, and that everything leads us to a new place. When this happens, it feels as though we are pieces in a larger puzzle that is slowly forming, fitting itself together, revealing itself gradually, in increments, until we can see a new picture in its entirety. This is how it has felt reading Emily: uncomfortable, terrifying, tragic, humbling, illuminating.

Now, after reading "Notes from a Dragon Mom," I see my fear and self-doubt in a new light, with more patience, acceptance, and compassion. “Parenting, I’ve come to understand, is about loving my child today,” she writes. “Now. In fact, for any parent, anywhere, that’s all there is.” These words are a gift, and consolation, to us all, but at such an unbearable cost. 

So I will keep racing after Pippa as she wobbles around the basketball court on her pedal bike. I will hike on Tuesday mornings with Maisy on my back, up to the same ledgy overlook with all of Santa Fe sprawling out below me. I will spend ridiculous, untold hours editing scrappy little homemade movies, and I will keep writing, about raising my daughters to be fiercely alive, outdoors, in the wind and the sun, crashing their bikes and getting back on again. This is OK. This is more than OK. This is what I do today. This is how I live now. This is all there is. 


Ode to Peaches (+ bonus recipe!)

I have been meaning to post about peaches! Of all summer fruit, a good peach is my absolute favorite. When I was little, my grandmother would arrive at the cottage bearing old-fashioned wooden bushel baskets full of Niagara peaches, the kind with actual fuzz that squirted juice when you bit into them. I could eat two or three in a row, and the only rule was that we had to sit on the front steps with a paper towel tucked under our chin, preferably wearing only our bathing suits, and hunch forward so that all the juice would run off our chin straight on to the verandah, sparing our clothes, because as my mother announced every single time I ate one: “Peach juice stains!” 

Ontario peaches come from the Niagara escarpment, fertile farmland southwest of Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario. This is where Frieda had her farm. Frieda worked as a live-in housekeeper for my grandmother in Toronto in the 1950s and 60s. She was from Estonia but had immigrated to Canada and moved into the sprawling attic in my mother’s childhood home on Russell Hill Road. Frieda bought her peach farm on the Niagara escarpment in the late 1950s, and every August she would take her vacation, move out to the farm’s one-room cabin, and work in her orchard. She did all of the spraying and harvesting herself, and each morning a truck would come by and pick up the day’s harvest and take it to be canned. 

By the time I was born, Frieda had sold her farm, but my family had been spoiled on fat, furry peaches, and it was impossible to eat one without thinking of her. In the early 80s, when I was old enough to have my own memories of Frieda—her blondish grey bun, sensible beige, belted dresses, and her retirement apartment in a balconyed high rise along the highway—Frieda was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died some months later, leaving a peculiar vacuum, though maybe only peculiar to me. She was not family, not exactly, but she had been a fixture in my mother’s for so long that when she was gone the idea of her seemed to shimmer hazily like heat on summer pavement, always just a bit beyond my grasp. 

Ontario peaches ripen in August, so if you are at the cottage that month, you can boat over to Leahy’s farm stand at the marina and buy them by the bushel and eat at least one while you drive home, leaning over, of course, so that the pale pink juice runs off your hands and onto the hot metal seat or, even better, over the gunwale and into the lake. They are as sweet as nostalgia, and too good to waste in pies.

I was at the lake in July this year, not August, so I missed the peach harvest, and missed imagining Frieda on her farm in her dungarees with a kerchief tied over her head. Here in New Mexico, peach season is quite short, and if you are lucky you might have two or three good reliable weeks of peach-buying at the Farmer’s Market, but you have to get there early before the farmers from Velarde and Rinconada and the Upper Rio Grande Valley sell out. A late frost last spring killed most of the fruit. As peach summers go, this one was shaping up to be a bust. 

So I was excited when a friend of a friend told me about Marguerite, a Santa Fe woman who imports peaches from Colorado. Every week starting in mid-August, Marguerite drives seven hours north to Palisades, a farming community on the Western Slope of the Rockies, to buy peaches. She fills a truck with fruit picked that day, or the day before, and then turns around and drives home again. A few years ago, when I was reporting a story about organic farming outside of Aspen, I discovered Colorado peaches. They are huge and sweet and are as close to Ontario peaches as any that I’ve tasted. I called Marguerite to get on her list. 

A couple days later, I drove out to Marguerite’s horsy property just out of town and walked into a darkened, chilly garage filled floor to ceiling with larges boxes personalized with farmers’ names and logos. This was the real deal, a major score. There were so many peaches, it felt almost illicit, like a covert drug den, only not. Marguerite showed me boxes of organic and lightly sprayed peaches, in gorgeous, as advertised, hues, with tantalizing names: Crest Havens, Glo Havens, Sun Crests, Angellus. I bought two boxes for $32 each, less than $2 a pound, and staggered out to the car carrying 36 pounds of peaches. Other people were already crunching up the driveway to get in on the stash. 

I gave one box to a friend, and let ours ripen on the counter for a few days before digging in. They were perfectly ripe, fuzzy, and sweet, just like Frieda’s. We polished off the box in less than a week: peaches on cereal, peaches for snacks, peaches on ice cream, peach cobbler. I made my girls take their shirts off and eat them bare-chested on the front steps. Just as I was beginning to hoard the final few, I got an email from the peach lady, saying she had more. I drove out to her place and picked up my fix. 

This went on for a number of weeks. Steve stopped snickering about the enormous quantities of peaches that kept appearing on the counter. The first week, he’d defied me to eat them all before they rotted, and I’d risen to the challenge. He hadn’t known he was dealing with a professional who came from a long lineage of peach-eaters, but now he did. He shut up and ate them, too. 

Pretty soon it was Labor Day. I began to get ominous emails from the peach lady that peach season was winding down. “This might be the last week,” Marguerite told me one Friday morning when Maisy and I showed up in her garage. The boxes towered over the room, as always. It didn’t seem possible that this ridiculous peach bounty could ever end.

The peaches were so good, they required zero culinary skills. I could slice one and stick it in my daughter’s lunch box and look like a genius. But we’d had so many weeks of peaches, I was beginning to get cavalier with my supply. I brought half a box to a friend’s baby shower. I thought about blending one into a smoothie. Heresy! When Margureite emailed a recipe for grilled peaches, I decided to get creative. Or, correction: I decided to let Steve get creative. He selected a few tender ones from the top of the box and got to work. 

If you’d told me that, by the end of the summer, we’d be eating peaches for dinner, I’d have laughed in your face. But now we’d had so many for so long, it seemed to be the next logical step. I wasn’t tired of peaches, far from it, but the sheer abundance filled me with an invigorating sense of freedom, bordering on recklessness. Barbecue peaches! This was what life had come to. 

Steve put them on the grill with organic chicken breast he’d marinated in olive oil and lemon. Both chicken and peaches came off tender and juicy, the sweet of the peach a perfect complement to the tart lemony-ness of the chicken. We served them with arugula and mustard green salad, harvested by headlamp from the garden that very evening. Frieda, I thought, would be proud. 

A few days later, I called the peach lady to see if she had any left from her last delivery. I’d been fantasizing about peach ice cream. “Nope, sold out,” she said. One lone peach remained on the counter. I picked it up and held it in my palm. It was perfectly round and fuzzy and felt almost warm from its ripeness. It seemed almost sacrilegious to eat it, the last vestige of a wonderful summer. But I could see a small grayish dent beginning to form on one side—it was now or never. I ran it under the tap, took it out to the front steps, tucked a paper towel under my chin, leaned over, and bit into it. If memory has a taste, it would taste like that last peach: sweet and sticky, oozing juice, a dozens of happy summers packed into one perfect bite. Peachy.

Marguerite’s Grilled Peaches:

Cut peaches into quarters and marinate in good balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt & pepper.
Get the grill hot, put them on, and turn down to medium heat until they are beginning to brown around the edges.

Enjoy as dessert or serve with chicken and a salad:
Arugula and fresh mozzarella cheese with a simple lemon juice and olive oil dressing.