Friday, June 21, 2013

My War With Ma Bell

I know I’m the last of a vanishing breed, and a traitor to my sex, but I honestly think I’d be better off without a telephone.

There’s something about the insistent ringing of that infernal bell that can drive even the most modern housewife to drink. It is no respecter of time or convenience. Any imbecile with the mental age of a five-year-old can dial your number at any time of the day or night, and frequently does.

But by far the most popular time to call is between the hours of five and seven, when you’re cooking dinner, bathing and feeding children and trying to get the living room looking more like itself and less like a church basement after a rummage sale.

None of these calls is for me. They’re for the children, or for my husband, who’s a lawyer. Now I have yet to discover the reason for it, but a lawyer’s clients never call him at his office, probably because he’s too smart to be caught there. He’s always in court, or in conference, or having a snort at the nearest pub.

So they call me, outlining the details of a legal problem that would baffle Blackstone, while pots boil over, doorbells ring and children converge from all directions, crying, quarrelling and generally raising Cain. Taking a message is impossible. There’s never anything to write with anyway, unless you count the blood I’m going to shed the minute I get off the phone, because the baby’s diet currently consists of nothing but freshly sharpened pencils.

I admit that the foregoing contains just a hint of exaggeration. Of course not all calls come during the supper hour. They also occur while you’re in the bath, or locked out on the back veranda in nothing but your nightgown, or just as the baby has finally taken the hint after numerous pleadings and announces, “I have to make—NOW!”

I gave up asking my children answer the phone when I was busy after I overheard one of them say, “Mummy can’t come to the phone right now. She’s making a wee-wee. May I take a message?”

The telephone and my children are bound by the same magnetic attraction as the one between a cobra and a mongoose. As soon as they learn to dial a number your doom is sealed. I can stand their interminable shrieking and giggling with their friends. What I cannot stand, is having to make a vital call, such as to the fire department to announce that the baby has locked himself in the bathroom again, only to discover that the other child hasn’t hung up the receiver at her end, leaving my telephone completely out of commission, me in a fuming rage and my baby unrolling all the toilet paper out the bathroom window.

Actually, now that I think about it, that telephone is probably exacting long-overdue revenge for the indignities inflicted on it by my eldest, then aged two. I must say that the telephone repairman was very understanding. He spliced the cord together after a session with the scissors dismembered it, and removed the bubble gum she worked into the dial. He even replaced the receiver filled with apple juice. But he finally told me that he was sorry, but if she flushed the receiver down the toilet one more time, he would simply have to remove the telephone.

Haunted Houses

I was reading the other day about a family who is convinced that their house is haunted. It seems their soap and candy bars keep disappearing, and they keep finding poker chips in the bathroom and gum on the dining room floor.

I know exactly how they feel because my house has been haunted that way for years. There isn’t a candy bar made that could last two minutes around here, and we never have any soap. Not that anybody washes with it—their dirty necks prove that. What they do is carve it up for the art teacher at school, leaving soap shavings all over my living room rug.

This is normal. Things like candy, soap, sweaters and gloves were made to disappear. (We once misplaced every hair brush in the house, but that’s championship stuff and doesn’t happen every day.)

What I can’t understand is how an otherwise perfectly normal little girl could lose her underpants on the way to the grocery store without once letting go of my hand, a fact which was pointed out to me by several perfect strangers we met along the way. Actually, they weren’t exactly perfect, but then, so few of us are.

Naturally, not everything in my house disappears. Some things show up with a disconcerting disregard for logic, like ice cream bars in my underwear drawer and bedroom slippers in the freezer.

What drives me absolutely wild is never being able to find anything to write with. Now I buy pencils the way Howard Hughes buys hotels—without thought of expense or upkeep. Then I hide them from my children, who eat them for breakfast. (They must, because there’s never anything to write with, and there's all that toast and piles of Cheerios on the breakfast table every morning.)

Nevertheless, my pencils always disappear, only to turn up weeks later in the laundry hamper, the piano or the trunk of my car.

That’s why I can’t understand how anyone could be surprised to find poker chips in the bathroom and gum on the dining room floor.

I don’t know much about poker, but my experience with gum is legion, covering a span of fifteen years, three houses, four children and one nervous breakdown. I’ve cut gum out of hair, clothing and curtains; I’ve scraped it off windows, walls and floors; I’ve peeled it off plates and pillows; I’ve dug it out of ears and noses.

Gum stuck to the dining room floor? I should be so lucky!

Monday, June 3, 2013

What Not To Tell The Nanny

I’m in the process of writing a novel. I hadn’t meant to. I just meant to jot down a few notes for the nanny we hired to care for the children while we’re away, but like Topsy, it just grew.

I’m a little nervous about leaving on such a long trip right now. I wasn’t at first; not until I started writing down a few suggestions for the nanny to follow, only to discover that some things just can’t be communicated by words alone.

I mean, how can you write specific instructions on how to work a washing machine that you’ve lived with intimately for eleven years and still don’t completely understand? You know that when it makes that funny grinding noise you have to push the little doohickey on the bottom panel and give it a sharp bang on top, but would a perfect stranger believe it? Some things come intuitively with long experience and can’t be explained by logic alone.

It’s the same thing with my children, who are even more neurotic than my appliances. If a sweater is put in the second drawer of the dresser instead of the third, they become frantic. A wrinkle in the bedspread is enough to bring on complete hysteria. Merely getting them to bed at night involves participation in a ritual that would try the patience of a head nurse.

It took me three pages just to list the vegetables they won’t eat. Then I started on the things they’re not allowed to do, but after I’d covered several chapters, I realized that a twelve-volume encyclopedia would hardly do justice to the subject. The trouble is, that I can’t think of what to forbid them to do until after they’ve done it, and they, like lightning, never strike twice. I simply haven’t the imaginative powers necessary to anticipate disaster.

For instance, they’ve all been given a list of instructions: “Don’t finger paint in the living room”, and “Don’t eat ice cream bars before breakfast.” But who in her right mind would think to tell them, “Don’t take all the shoe laces out of the shoes and flush them down the toilet”?

That bathroom bowl is the focal point of most of my difficulties. You’d be amazed at the number of ordinary household objects that can be flushed down it. The baby is the worst offender, which makes me a little bitter, since he’s still not toilet trained. I suppose he knows that something is expected of him in that department, and since he can’t or won’t oblige, he feels he must offer a reasonable substitute.

And their gourmet demands at mealtime—I simply can’t go on. I’m going to abandon all thought of leaving instructions for the nanny. There’s no point in building up her prejudices before she’s even in the door. We’ll be gone two weeks—ample time in which to discover their little peccadilloes all by herself.


There’s something about impending motherhood that brings out the beast in most casual observers: if you’re pregnant, they’ll ask you why; if you aren’t they’ll wonder why not. There’s simply no pleasing the average busybody.

When I returned from my honeymoon, everyone sat around waiting for my announcement of prospective parenthoold. When I was expecting my fourth, the situation was completely reversed. (I didn’t have to announce this one; all I did was show my pea-green face in public and salacious rumour did the rest.)

My family and friends were horrified, my neighbours appalled at the news. At parties, people went out of their way to talk about overpopulation and the efficacy of birth control.

Strangely enough, they took the opposite tack with my husband. Female friends began eyeing him speculatively, and every male within jabbing distance took to giving him knowing winks and playful pokes.

The questions directed at mothers-to-be are always profuse, personal and in the worst possible taste. Once charmer came right out and asked me whether the baby was planned. Another coyly asked me the ages of my other children, as though I hadn’t already figured out that in five years I’d be sending the youngest off to kindergarten and the oldest to university the same day. I guess when you have four children, unless they’re quadruplets, you’re bound to have them occupy various levels in the educational system.

As the proud mother of three daughters, I particularly resented constantly being asked if I was hoping for a boy. I never knew how to answer this question, and often wished I had the nerve of my five-year-old, who made no bones about the fact that she’d much prefer a Shetland pony.

Why did I have a fourth child? Callous friends say it was to give me something to do. After all, when her youngest trotted off to kindergarten, every mother I know either went to work or bought a dog. I took the easy way out. I don’t know much about dogs, but I have yet to see a child who didn’t eventually mature enough to grow out of diapers.

Actually, the speculators are all wrong. My husband hit on the real reason for my maternal re-awakening. I heard him tell a friend recently, “My wife will do anything to get material for another story.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dress Code

The following is a letter written by an irate mother, namely me, to the principal of my daughter’s high school:

Dear Mr. Smith,

I am writing to inform you that her father and I have been extremely worried for some time about conditions that exist in our daughter’s school.

I can remember, way back in September, when she first told me about her and her friends’ dissatisfaction with conditions at school. She said that for years you’ve made all the boys wear grey slacks and white shirts and ties and the red school sweater with the pink and purple stripes on the sleeve. The girls have to wear tunics, white blouses and sensible black shoes and they all look alike.

She complained about how stifling these dress restrictions were to their psyches, and how repressing they were to their individuality and creativity. I pointed out that I thought proper dress showed a certain amount of respect for the school, and that a neat and tidy appearance helped promote an orderly mind.

But she explained to me how, throughout history, whenever a repressive regime wanted to stifle individual liberty, they put everybody into identical uniforms. She told me all about the Cossacks, the Roman Legions, the Storm Troopers and even the Coldstream Guards, and I was impressed with her logic.

She insisted that in order to ensure complete freedom of individuality, so that the creative talents of each and every student can blossom and flower without hindrance, the kids must be allowed to dress as they please at school. In this way, individual liberty will be preserved, and we will have taken another step forward in our painful progress toward freedom for all.

A group of us parents, who agreed with the kids, got together at a Home and School meeting and proposed a resolution to drop the dress code, which passed unanimously. The children were each allowed to dress invidually, exactly as they pleased.

So I ask you, what went wrong? I looked out my kitchen window yesterday at the children going to school, and they were all wearing identical blue jeans frayed at the bottom and torn at the knees, polo shirts ripped under the arms, dirty sneakers and long stringy hair. Not only do all the girls still look exactly alike, but now they even look like all the boys!

Tell me, Mr. Smith, this is progress?

Designer Dilemmas

Unless you’re fifteen years old, weigh 84 pounds and have the profile of a poultry skewer, shopping for clothing nowadays can be a traumatic experience. This is expecially true for someone like me, because I bitterly resent patronizing any store where the salesgirls are better dressed than I am.

I don’t think designers have taken a good look at the female figure since the Boxer Rebellion. Last year they designed clothing for midgets and ten-year-old boys, but not for women—at least not any women I know—the ones with two arms and legs and a reasonable amount of avoirdupois in between. I know someone who didn’t buy a thing all year because she refused to appear in public looking like a pregnant eight-year-old.

Now, fashion’s fickle pendulum has swung completely in the opposite direction. This year they’ve buried legs behind hobbling swathes of skirt which add ten years per ugly inch to your age, and topped it all off with shoes just like the oxfords Grandma wore back in 1902.

Women even have trouble buying maternity clothes. Fifteen years ago, everything was size twenty, black, and designed for forty-year-old women, which the manufacturers obviously felt was the proper age for anyone contemplating such a serious undertaking as having a baby.

Today, they’ve undergone a change of heart. They now apparently feel that no one over fourteen could possibly attract a man long enough to become pregnant in the first place. Therefore all maternity clothes are size five and ten inches above the knee, which is ridiculous, because none of the pregnant women I know could squeeze into anything smaller than an army tent, and then only if it slept six.

Things don’t improve a bit when you give birth. After starving myself into a size ten (well, maybe a twelve, but a small twelve), I still can’t find anything to wear that doesn’t make me look under ten or over sixty years old. The colours are unflattering, the materials are sleazy, the trimmings are grotesque and everything is beaded or fringed.

There’s only one solution. I’m going to drag out all the clothes I bought sixteen years ago on my honeymoon that I’ve been saving for the kids for Hallowe’en. After I lose twenty pounds so I can get into them, I’m going to be the best-dressed woman in town.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


My children are born losers. This is not my assessment of their character – it’s merely a comment on their total inability to hang onto their personal possessions.

That’s why, whenever I buy anything for them, I try to picture how it will look after being left out all night in a snowstorm, or whether it will go with all the other stuff in the lost and found box at school. The last thing I worry about is whether it will suit the kid for whom I bought it, since it’s bound to disappear within twenty-four hours anyway.

I know there are name tapes created to prevent this, and I sew them on everything not actually physically attached to the child. However, no one around here seems to be able to read, and all I succeed in doing is losing the tapes along with everything they’re sewn on.

Some things were made to be lost. Jackets, sweaters, boots and scarves disappear by the truckload. I have the largest collection of mismatched mitts in the country, all bought to go with hats and coats which have now disappeared. If they’d only lose the complete outfit with all its matching accessories at the same time, I could write it off as a tax loss and start all over again.

There’s no use trying to track any of it down. My children have absolutely no idea where they’ve been for the past twenty-four hours, and even if they do finally remember where they left it, they wouldn’t recognize it if someone waved it under their noses. However, it’s never a total loss: I get a lot of exercise running around the neighborhood looking for their things, and I’ve met some very interesting people.

On the other hand, if something is lost somewhere in the house, I have a fighting chance. After all, it’s got to be in one of the rooms, unless the baby’s swallowed it or flushed it down the toilet, in which case I call either the doctor or the plumber, whichever is cheaper.

If it’s in a cupboard or drawer I’m sure to find it, along with a dozen other things I didn’t know I’d lost, like last year’s Christmas cards my husband swore he mailed. The down side is that I get to clean out my cupboards far more frequently than I want to. The trouble is, I can never find anyplace to put all the stuff I cleaned out, which is probably why my cupboards are a joy to behold, while my house is a filthy mess.

My husband is no help at all. His idea of looking for something is to open a kitchen cupboard and stand staring into it asking plaintively, “Do we have any salt?” until someone (usually me) takes pity on him and goes to get it for him. At least he’s pretty good about not losing things. I think he feels that he has to stem the outgoing tide, so he’s constantly bringing home coats, hats, rubbers and umbrellas that I’ve never set eyes on in my life. I keep telling him it’s a losing proposition. The children outnumber him four to one and they try harder. He never brings home anything that fits anyone anyway.