Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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It’s hard to remember what weekends were like before we had small children. We used to sleep late, blinking our eyes open to quiet, late-morning light with the cat stretched out beside us. Maybe the day would be spent tangled together on the couch watching TV in our pajamas. As the afternoon turned to evening, we would do whatever we wanted without worrying about time.
Now if we stay up late, we will still be awakened before dawn. The TV belongs to the children, who may watch an hour, then demand doughnuts and a trip to the park. There are no more slow, low-energy Saturdays.
But there’s a unique sweetness to a small person crawling into bed beside you, giggling good morning, whispering, “Tickle me, Mama,” before the sun comes up. Sometimes there are birthday parties where someone else entertains your child while you sip mimosas and chat with other parents. The new Saturday routine is tricycle riding and grilled cheese sandwiches and kid-friendly restaurants, where all the families gather for dinner at 5 PM and sit in the same back room. It’s a crushing sweetness, if you can glimpse it.
Women of a certain age sometimes stop me in the grocery store to tell me I’ll miss it when the kids are grown. They tell me that Saturdays will feel too empty, too slow. Maybe I’ll forget these frenetic ones, the way I’ve forgotten the languid weekends of what feels like a lifetime ago. But for now, like many parents of small children, when I reach the office on Monday mornings, I sigh in relief.
I had known her barely two weeks when a colleague had to forgo his reservation of a beach cottage and offered to let me use it. I asked her if she wanted to go, and to my surprise she accepted. I planned for the trip all week, but when I arrived to pick her up early Saturday morning, she hadn’t packed and wasn’t dressed. She didn’t feel like going, she said.
I was crushed. Her mother, a tall, elegant woman, stood in the kitchen and overheard the exchange. She apologized for her daughter and offered me a cup of tea. I was not really in the mood but thought it would be rude to decline. As we talked, I realized she was a thoughtful, charming person. By the second cup I felt a lot better. I told her I hated to miss using the cottage, and she astonished me by saying she would be glad to come along — if I wanted.
After an agreeable drive, we arrived at the cottage, and she unpacked the food she had brought. We had a superb lunch and spent the afternoon on the beach, swimming and talking. She was easygoing and a great conversationalist. That evening we had drinks, I helped her cook dinner, and we ate by candlelight in the backyard.
The cottage had two main bedrooms, but the smaller one was being renovated. She said she didn’t mind sharing the master bedroom, as there were two large beds. We switched off the lights and kept talking for a long time. I finally said it had been a perfect day for me. Then she made it even better. She silently shuffled over and got under the blanket with me.
I’m a pretrial inmate at a federal detention center. From arrest to sentencing, people like me often spend more than a year waiting. I’ve been here fifteen months already.
Monday through Friday I have legal or social visits, medical appointments, and even some classes. (I teach two and take another.) The workweek moves quickly, but weekends drag. I spend hours in the yard, a tight perimeter of cement, cinder block, and steel. The area is fully enclosed. Still, the fresh air and sunlight are a welcome change. We play basketball, handball, or volleyball; we work out, walk laps, and stand in small groups, bullshitting. Sweat and competition force stress from our bodies.
But we can only distract ourselves so much. Free people spend weekends with family and friends. For us it’s just more time with our thoughts, imagining the outside world, feeling more isolated and less human.
In rural Iowa in the early nineties, my sister and I were routinely left home alone for days at a time. I was driving us to school on a Thursday morning during one of those no-parent weeks when we saw a black shape by the side of our remote gravel road. At first we thought it was a piece of trash, but then we could see it was a dog.
“Don’t be dead,” I whispered.
As we slowed to a stop, the dog leapt up and backed away. He looked like a black Lab with the legs of a basset hound. He reminded me of a broken toy that had been pieced back together.
The green stalks of a cornfield swallowed him up, and we reluctantly continued on to school.
On our way home he was there again, practically lying in the road, eyeing us warily. We brought back bowls of dog food and water from our house, but he ran away again.
We guessed that he was waiting for someone to return, most likely an owner who had left him and driven off — a common method of ridding yourself of unwanted pets in our rural community. We’d found many of the animals at our farm this way. We left the bowls by the road and went home.
The next morning, the dog was still there, so we filled up the bowls and headed to school. That afternoon he was nowhere to be found, and my heart sank a little, but when we pulled into our driveway, he was waiting for us in the yard, wagging his tail.
He wouldn’t allow us to pet him or get too close. We walked to the front door, and he followed a few feet behind, then settled on the porch.
He didn’t seem rabid or aggressive. Our other dogs all sniffed him, and he was instantly accepted into the pack.
We called our parents to tell them about our new “guest.”
“Do not keep that dog,” said our dad.
“Take him to the Humane Society immediately!” said our mom.
We didn’t listen.
On Saturday he let us pet him. On Sunday we let him in the house. When our parents returned home, they were powerless to resist his charms. Jack was officially ours.
Between high school and college I left my home in Scotland and spent six months working as an au pair for an American family in Switzerland. It was February 1973. I arrived in the village of Saint Légier in the mountains above Lake Geneva and moved into a studio apartment above the couple’s garage. In the mornings the mountains glowed pink across the lake above the city of Évian. I thought I was pretty lucky.
Then I met Luigi, a welder with curly hair and soft brown eyes who had moved there from southern Italy to find work. On our first date he drove me around hairpin turns to a disco high in the Alps, where he held me close on the dance floor and whispered to me in French. (He spoke no English, and I spoke no Italian.) I couldn’t wait to spend time with him on my days off.
One weekend he was going to Venice with his cousin and asked if I wanted to join him. I asked Mrs. W., my employer, for permission. She was dubious; I was only eighteen and effectively in her charge. But I assured her that Luigi was a good guy. Reluctantly she agreed, and I packed a bag and sat at my window on Friday evening, watching for his sleek blue car. Night fell, but he never came. I didn’t know whether to worry or be angry. Then embarrassment set in. I didn’t want my employers to know I had been stood up by the “good guy.”
So all weekend I hunkered down with the curtains closed and didn’t venture out to the main house. The family left and came back a few times, not knowing that I was in the apartment, crying so hard that I felt sick. When I showed up to work on Monday, I had to admit the truth. Mrs. W. was kind enough not to rub it in.
A few evenings later there was a knock at my door. It was Luigi. My stomach lurched, and I asked why he hadn’t come for me. He said they had left earlier than expected, and there had been no time to pick me up. I wish I could say I threw him out, but I put it behind me as he pulled me close, and I continued seeing him for the remainder of my stay. I still didn’t want to acknowledge that he was no good. It was many years before I learned to be skeptical of seductive men.
Nevada City, California
I was a Florida organizer with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers in the early seventies. Living and working conditions for migrants were terrible. People labored without toilets, fresh water, or protection from pesticides. Wages were very low, with deductions for what passed for “social security.” Workers were also charged “rent” for equipment and accommodations in crowded labor camps.
The local sheriffs were in the pockets of the corporate growers who dominated the vegetable and sugarcane industries in the Lake Okeechobee region. The cops would often arrest us for distributing leaflets to the workers. The official charge was “trespassing.”
We had a rule to check in with each other by 9 PM each night, and we’d make the rounds of the jails to bail out any missing organizers. Some jails would deny our colleagues were there, causing friends to worry the missing might be dead in the bottom of an irrigation ditch. But the next morning they would go before a judge, who would usually throw the case out.
The cops would sometimes arrest us on Friday afternoon, because court wasn’t in session again until Monday morning. I spent one weekend in the Hendry County Jail. The guard didn’t like that I was organizing my cellmates, who were farmworkers locked up for drinking and getting rowdy. When I wouldn’t shut up, he put me in a separate cell with just an old toilet — no sink. I kept talking to the workers across the hall, so he stopped giving me food and water. I was used to turning down jail food, but water was another story in humid Central Florida.
By Sunday afternoon I was so thirsty that I used my socks to clean the toilet as best I could, then drank from it. Monday morning couldn’t come soon enough.
Hugh “Hawkeye” Tague
When I was in my twenties, I bought a cheap flight from Phoenix to San Diego to spend the weekend with a guy I had met only once. He was a good friend of my good friends, so it wasn’t completely reckless, just a forty-eight-hour first date in another state with no backup plan. Only one friend knew about the trip.
I had a surreal but wonderful time. We even took an impromptu road trip to Mexico for brunch on the beach. I had so much fun that I missed my return flight on Sunday evening, so I called in sick and booked a late flight Monday.
I should have taken the red-eye back to Phoenix. The vibe between the guy and me changed quickly. Instead of flying off and basking in the afterglow of a whirlwind weekend, I was now a houseguest overstaying her welcome.
What I didn’t know was that my father had died that Sunday in Minnesota. My family couldn’t reach me (this was before cell phones) and left urgent messages on my machine back in Arizona. They even got a family friend vacationing in Phoenix to come to my apartment and check on me.
When they connected with my boss on Monday, he said I had called in sick. Concerned and desperate, they told him why they were trying to find me, and he asked my coworkers if anyone knew where I was. One of them was the friend who knew about my trip, including my missed flight. She, too, left a message on my machine: “Call me before you call anyone else.”
When I got back to my apartment, I listened with growing panic to all the vague messages, then called my friend first. I don’t even remember how she told me what had happened. It was just too much.
Though I regret being unavailable at a critical time for my family, I also feel oddly sad for my twenty-something daughters, who live in a world of constant connectivity. They will never experience a weekend of being totally out of reach.
Mary Beth Gilsdorf
Detroit Lakes, Minnesota
After my parents got divorced, my mom picked up odd jobs on weekends to make ends meet. On Saturdays, while my friends from school slept in, my brother and I got up at 6:30 AM to accompany our mom to her various jobs and help in any way we could.
On Sundays our aunt Elaine would come over. She was a retired teacher who’d never really stopped teaching. I struggled in school and was put in some lower-level classes, which made me feel stupid. I’d work at the kitchen table with tears in my eyes, trying to understand my homework. Aunt Elaine would sit patiently with me, assuring me we would figure it out. If I grew agitated and wrote something sloppily, she’d throw it out and make me write it again, and whenever I finished an assignment, she’d give me a reassuring hug. Then we’d spend time discussing what I had just done, so I completely understood it. I felt better not only handing in an assignment I was proud of but also being able to keep up with my class.
Aunt Elaine died recently. I wish I had told her how, for years, she was the one consistent presence my brother and I had. Those Sundays with her taught me that it’s not enough just to complete the task at hand. To succeed, one must take the time to understand.
Yonkers, New York
For my sixtieth birthday my adult children surprised me by renting a condo for a family weekend in the woods. We would hike, cook, drink a little beer, and enjoy the autumn colors. I needed this badly. My husband, Barry, had been diagnosed the year before with frontotemporal dementia. FTD affects the area where executive decisions are made, and it prompts extreme personality changes.
Barry had mismanaged our money, so we were broke. Being a caregiver was exhausting, and I felt I wasn’t good at it. I lost my temper with Barry a lot. But after much discussion, we decided I should bring him along on this trip. It felt wrong to leave him home.
We arrived on a Friday evening, and the next morning, as we got ready for a hike, Barry said the long walk would be too much for him. He had developed the shuffle that people with dementia often get. We left him with plenty of food and a football game on TV, thinking he would be fine for a few hours.
We hiked to a glorious hilltop lookout, took a few pictures, then headed back for lunch. When we got back into cell-phone range, I saw eight missed calls from Barry. He had left a message that he was heading to the nearby hotel to shower. There were three showers in our condo. This could not be good.
We rushed back and found the condo doors wide open and Barry nowhere to be found. I ran to the nearby hotel and saw a frantic person on the phone at the front desk. Somehow I knew it concerned my husband.
Then my daughter called: the hotel had found Barry naked in the hot tub. He was now in a stairwell, sitting with a woman from housekeeping. When I got to him, he had on pants but no shirt. I thanked her, put his shirt on, and stopped by the front desk to explain his condition.
When we returned to the condo, everyone was anxious and upset, but as we thought about Barry walking around naked, we all started to laugh — even Barry. It gave me some hope that we could get through this terrible disease.
Later that evening Barry asked to use our son Patrick’s phone so he could call me. “But Mom is right across the room,” Patrick said. Barry insisted, and I watched as he left me a voice mail: “I love you, Nancy.” I listened to that message often after FTD completely stole my husband’s personality and words.
I grew up in a small town and had high-achieving older sisters. This created certain expectations. Teachers, coaches, and community members would say, “Oh, you’re one of the Kashner girls! Are you more like Danielle or Grace?” I never knew how to answer. Throughout high school I tried to mimic Danielle’s social success and Grace’s religious rigor.
In college Danielle joined a top-tier sorority at a competitive university. She also began going out five nights a week. One night during her sophomore year, she was hospitalized with a blood-alcohol content of .35 percent. Grace, on the other hand, never drank, even when of legal age. She spent her free time on campus with the Christian outreach ministry and attended church every Sunday.
I continued to mirror both of them in college, which meant I led a double life: I went to church and got involved in Christian communities on campus, then partied every weekend. I lived in a cycle of shame and confusion.
One weekend I was supposed to visit Danielle at her school for a big football game on Saturday, then watch Grace be rebaptized at her new church on Sunday. I started drinking at 9 AM Saturday with Danielle. I didn’t realize how drunk I was until I threw up and passed out in a restaurant bathroom.
On Sunday morning I woke up still drunk and fumbled with buttons and zippers as I dressed for Grace’s baptism. I drove to her new church, embarrassed to have to face Grace like this.
When we arrived, Grace was giddy with excitement and hugged me tight, then pulled back, her expression changed. She had smelled the stale alcohol emanating from my pores. She continued greeting guests but kept looking at me with disappointment.
The service was long, and I sat there feeling like a sinner, condemned by God and my sister. I cried as I drove back to college, wondering if being myself would ever be good enough.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
It’s midmorning on the west side of San Juan Island in Haro Strait, the channel between the U.S. and Canada. This is the Salish Sea, the home waters of the world’s most-studied group of orcas.
This group’s seventy-three whales are divided into three “pods”; we know each one’s age, relations, dialect, pregnancies, and births. These whales face several threats: their primary food source, Chinook salmon, is disappearing; toxins from the sea end pregnancies and poison the milk of nursing mothers; and ship noise interferes with their echolocation, which is necessary for finding food.
Today I’m on the deck of an Airbnb, our home for the weekend. Inside are my three adult children, their partners, and my four grandchildren. On the bench beside me is a monitor connected to underwater microphones, humming with sounds of waves and an occasional small boat. I’m waiting to hear the chatter of the orcas. They’ve been gone almost all summer, longer than any other summer. But earlier this week one of the pods returned, so we are on the lookout.
My son emerges from the house and scans the water. He spots the first tall dorsal fin within five minutes, and we scramble for binoculars. The monitor comes alive with loud whistles, squawks, and honks. One grandchild hears the familiar calls, and the rest of the family rolls out of the house.
I watch them more than I do the water. Like the orcas, they move together; the old teach the young, and the young teach the youngest. My lifelong passion for orcas is now a fire inside all of them, even the four-year-old, who spots blows nobody else has seen. The kids know so much already, easily distinguishing sexes by the dorsal fin, identifying behaviors and some of the thirty distinct calls.
Soon we see the first few whales break the surface. The eleven-year-old commands silence. For a few moments we listen to all twenty-two members of the pod in their enormous, black-and-white beauty. They’ve found salmon, and we watch them move in small circles from our front-row seats.
When we first met, my boyfriend and I looked forward to Saturdays. I’d drive over to his house after my daughter’s dad picked her up, and we’d get naked and roll around on his living-room couch before going out to restaurants, breweries, parties, concerts, or festivals. We looked forward to buying a house, getting married, and being together all the time, instead of having to wait all week for Saturday.
Now that we’re married, I dread Saturdays. Sometimes I’ll ask him to go to a brewery with me or remind him of how we once couldn’t wait to be together. But most of the time I’ll watch him deteriorate into depression before falling asleep on the couch, where he’ll remain until Monday morning. I usually end up going out by myself, watching new couples enjoying their time together. I love my husband, but I hate Saturdays.
I’m a night owl, which doesn’t work so well with my day job as an elementary-school teacher. I love kids and I work hard to be a positive role model. I don’t drink on weeknights, but I would go crazy if it weren’t for the weekend jam session.
I played drums in the marching band and in rock bands through high school and college, but drumming fell by the wayside when teaching became a full-time career. Midafternoon on Saturdays the owner of a nearby music studio texts an invitation to a group of musicians. The studio is in a warehouse that has no noise restrictions after 5 PM on weekends. There’s a massive bank of windows, two drum kits, and a slew of guitars and amps.
I’ll leave the house with a backpack full of beer and ride my bike to the warehouse. I can always hear the sounds of people warming up as I get closer, and it’s often so loud in the room when I open the door that I have to yell to announce my arrival. After a quick series of high fives and bear hugs, I’ll crack open a beer and sit down at a drum kit.
Soon after that, one of the pot smokers will light up a joint and pass it around. Then the shot glasses will come out. Things become blurry by midnight.
We usually wind down around two or three in the morning. I often sing out loud on the wobbly ride back to my place.
The next day my head will throb as a dull panic sets in. I have lesson plans to create and piles of work to grade. Why did I stay up so late? Why did I drink so much?
The responsible me hops in the shower and gets to work. Monday morning comes early, and for six days I’m back to being organized and responsible — but I’ll be the rhythm in a song the next Saturday night.
The “L” train in Chicago lurches and halts, with tinny announcements at every stop. I’m headed to meet a woman, and I feel like a high-school boy before prom. After twenty-seven years of telephone calls, letters, e-mails, and a few furtive kisses, we are both finally single.
We met on the telephone in 1992. I fell for her voice: sultry, sweet, and confident. She was a magazine editor in Los Angeles, and I was a publicist in San Francisco pitching a story. We worked together on a couple of projects before we finally met in person. She had a big laugh, dark hair, and the face of a supermodel. She also had a passion for social justice and, like me, had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. I was smitten.
Over the next two years we got together several times. We were both living with other people, and I got engaged. But we still flirted over dinner and on the phone, faxing barely veiled love notes. One night after dinner, gazing at the San Francisco views and sipping coffee while listening to opera, we kissed. The next day she flew back to her boyfriend in LA.
We stayed in touch but were careful to avoid a tangled affair. I had kids, and she’d moved to New York with her boyfriend. Then her relationship ended, my kids went off to college, and my marriage collapsed.
The train stops, and I bolt down the stairs to the street, where she waits in her car. Over a three-hour dinner our chemistry comes roaring back. We walk to my Airbnb in the cool November air and fall greedily into each other. We make love for hours, after years of pent-up lust, of joy deferred.
Weekends become precious as our long-distance relationship grows. We cook for each other on Friday nights. Saturdays we spoon at dawn, walk on the beach in the afternoon, and go out in the evening. Sundays are brunches and a wrenching plane ride home.
Last week we celebrated our one-year anniversary. She will move in with me soon.
On the weekend we go out and party. We make mistakes and regret them.
On the weekend I hear people I thought I knew say things that do not make sense. They brag about the drugs they will do. They tell each other how they feel fat in their size-2 skirt.
On the weekend one friend was roofied, and my other friend was assaulted. A girl might be raped at a frat party, but it’s forgotten the next day.
On the weekend we hear catcalls as we roam the streets. An ambulance sits, waiting to save the life of a freshman who drank one too many shots. A girl cries to her mom that she thinks she is failing at life. Kids starve themselves all day so they will get drunk faster at night.
On the weekend we hold our friends’ hair while they vomit, and the boys look at us like we are a snack.
Then all week long we pray for the next weekend to come.
My mother did not age well. She had a bad hip and refused to have it replaced, because she was convinced it would never heal right. Eventually all the cartilage in the joint was gone, and she couldn’t put any weight on it. She surrendered to a wheelchair.
Neither my sisters’ homes nor mine could accommodate a wheelchair, so we put her in an assisted-living facility close to where one of my sisters lived. That sister had power of attorney and could make medical decisions. I lived almost five hours away, so it wasn’t easy for me to visit.
It had been about six months since I’d seen my mother when my sister told me it was getting more and more difficult to find enough time to be with her. My sister wanted an afternoon off, so the following weekend I packed up my two kids, and we made the long drive. I had not told my mother we were coming; I wanted to surprise her. The look of delight on her face was a gift.
We spent several hours catching up. My mother told us about some of the residents and about her childhood. She was animated and made funny faces, and the kids got a kick out of her stories. We had a great afternoon and afterward talked her into letting us take her out to dinner. I think she enjoyed being somewhere different for a while.
The next morning we talked more and worked on a puzzle together, then had lunch and met some of her new friends. As late afternoon approached, the kids and I had to get on the road.
I couldn’t say goodbye without crying, and Mom had tears in her eyes as well. We all hugged several times before we made our way to the car. I didn’t stop crying for several miles.
Within a few weeks we learned that my mother’s cancer had come back, and she was refusing treatment. I drove up to see her, but she was heavily medicated and not alert.
She died a few weeks later. I regret to this day that I wasn’t there when she passed away, but I still remember that last precious weekend we had.
Stanley, North Carolina