• HerStories Voices: Perspectives from the Woodpile

    I love this week’s essay (featuring our April theme of “Life Lessons”) because the writer, Julianne Palumbo, beautifully describes a conundrum of parenting and I can’t stop thinking about her situation. What do we do when we want to tell our children to do something different from what’s considered the right thing to do? And who’s to say what the right thing is? She conveys the angst that we can feel when we get a teaching opportunity with our children – one that can be a huge life lesson. Oh, the pressure! Even after reading this essay multiple times, I still don’t know what I would have done in the same situation. I just hope that I would handle it with the same grace as the author did. – Allie

    HerStories Voices

    Perspectives from the Woodpile: Asking My Teen to Honor His Commitments

    I am standing on our porch in front of the exhausted woodpile. The air bites my hands and face as I scavenge through chips and bark for burnable logs that I can throw into the fire to keep it warming. Although winter passed resentfully, if I close my eyes and listen, the birds sing a different story. I absorb the “berto, berto, berto” of the cardinal and pretend that spring is springing the way spring should be.

    Open my eyes and I stare at the devastation that was our woodpile after five cords of wood warmed our house to a livable temperature. I squeeze my lids shut again. There’s a breeze that breathes both winter and spring into the air. It’s a game now, one I want spring to win.

    So, too, tugs the debate I have been having with my teenage son. It’s about commitment, and there are two sides to the story. Mostly, I sympathize with his side, while I try to hold the line on mine. As of yet, neither one of us is winning. Two perspectives, both based in the unfairness of reality.

    When my son was seven he fell in love with his sport. From that moment, it became the most important thing in his life, affecting how he spent his time, what he ate, and how much downtime he allowed himself. It was practice, practice, and more practice. My husband and I supported him, driving him over an hour to practices and traipsing around the East Coast for tournaments, because he was so dedicated and because having a goal gave him focus in everything he did.

    Over the years, he played year-round. He would go to every team practice and every game, like the postman, without regard to weather, illness, or the homework brewing in his backpack. We gave up countless family events, trips, and down time to travel to games all over the East coast and sometimes beyond. Summer, too, was filled with camps and training.

    As he got older, he failed to grow as quickly as other boys his age. He began to sit on the bench because of his small size, and players who never showed up to practice but who had greater physical strength but less skill would play over him. Still, he kept practicing.

    Once he reached the teenage years, things went downhill. It took seasons before we realized that, despite promises and reassurances that he would be given a fair chance to perform because of his skill, his coach had another agenda that didn’t include him. He became frustrated by the unfairness. Players who never came to tryouts were still put on the team. Players who missed practices played over others who went. Rules were bent and broken, and some players, like my son, were given no opportunity to prove themselves.

    After nine years dedicated to a sport that had given the actual beat to his heart, he decided to quit. The deep joy he had always felt when he touched the ball had turned to anger and frustration. He told his club coach that he did not want to play spring season. Unfortunately, my son was last in a list of boys who had expressed their desire to quit the team, and the coach needed him to stay for there to be enough players. This particular coach had been fair to him, and since he asked him respectfully to fulfill his commitment, my husband and I agreed that he should honor it. But, my son didn’t agree.

    Hence my struggle. How do I argue with a seventeen-year-old who had done it all right, who had given his heart and soul to a sport only to have it stomped on and ripped out by coaches who cared nothing for earnestness or for his commitment? His hard work hadn’t paid off. Many of the adults involved had asked for an abundance of dedication on his part but had failed in their own commitments to be fair and to coach in a way that was best for the players. Now, my son was being asked to hold up his side yet another time.

    I have never stood up so half-heartedly for something. He has never stood so strongly against something.

    If ever I was at a loss for words to support my arguments, this was it. I couldn’t argue that commitment paid off. It hadn’t. In fact, it couldn’t have paid off less. I couldn’t argue that something good would come out of it, because there was no longer anything that he wanted from this sport. He just wanted to be free of it. That was his parting wish.

    I could argue only that it was the right thing to do because a man has to live by his word. It was about the type of adult I wanted my son to grow up to be. But, as much as I believe that and have always tried to live and to teach it in all parts of life, it couldn’t have rung more hollow this time. I truly didn’t believe that he owed this sport anything. All I could think was, “commitment to what?”

    To complicate matters, he recently started playing tennis on his high school tennis team. He loves it and is showing the same drive and dedication I had seen from him for so many years. Fulfilling his commitment would affect his tennis as often games overlapped.

    After days of debate, we agreed to agree that he would fulfill his commitment to the extent he could without adversely affecting his grades and his position on the tennis team. This is where we have left it—someplace in the middle of—shouldn’t have to but will anyway.

    While I think we are holding true to a lesson here, I’m truly not certain what that lesson might be. I keep reminding him when he reminds me how much he doesn’t want to waste the time to go to games, that something good always comes of giving of yourself. Maybe he will call on this experience some day when he’s an adult and he’s faced with something he doesn’t want to do. Maybe his being there will be a positive in someone else’s life.

    But I can’t help wondering—will filling this commitment now make him more or less likely to want to fill commitments in the future? Would it even matter to his character if we let him walk away? With three almost-grown children, I feel I should know the answer to this by now.

    The cool days plod on. I bang clumps of grass from his cleats. I pick tennis balls up off the lawn. The sun peeks a little.

    Spring is winning.


    authorphoto1 (2)Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published in Literary Mama, Coffee+Crumbs, Kindred Magazine, Poetry East, Mamalode, Manifest Station, and others. She is the author of Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. Her essay will be published in the upcoming HerStories Anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine for mothers by mother writers. You can find her here: http://www.juliannepalumbo.com https://www.facebook.com/JuliannePalumboAuthor  https://twitter.com/JuliannePalumbo and http://www.mothersalwayswrite.com .


    **We are currently accepting submissions for our May Voices column: the theme is “motherhood.”

    **Our spring sale is still happening! Sign up for two of our most popular online courses— The Balanced Writer and Publish Your Personal Essay– as self-paced classes offered at big discounts! Details here. Join a fantastic group of women working through the classes as well as our Facebook community!

    ** Have you seen the cover of So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood yet? Our publication date is August 23rd! More information here.motherhood-web1


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  • HerStories Voices: Girl With Headache

    This week’s essay, written by Stephanie Harper, riveted me from the start. After reading about her harrowing experience of living with a headache disorder, which is often debilitating, I’ll never again complain about having to take Advil for my tension headaches. As her essay reveals, our writer never loses her sense of humor. Her story is courageous and inspiring. I hope you enjoy. – Allie.

    HerStories Voices


    Girl with Headache

    By Stephanie Harper

    It’s 7:30 in the morning and I’m warming up with the rest of my choir, as I do on so many Sundays. It’s not a particularly notable morning. I am wearing a purple dress, Simply Vera by Vera Wang, which I bought because it sounds very impressive to say—even though I got it for $20 at Kohl’s. I like it because the fabric is naturally crinkled in a way that looks like I just rolled around in the grass, so I don’t feel the need to iron it. It’s also long enough that it reaches my knees, a major accomplishment for any garment because I am 5’11. That means I can wear it without the awkward bike shorts or leggings underneath. I’d say I feel great in my new purple crinkle dress, except that I don’t.

    I woke up feeling off. Decidedly off. This in of itself isn’t totally unusual. I’ve gotten up every morning for the past 20 months with a headache, one that never goes away. One that sits behind my right eye, the way that pesky squirrel sits on the fence and stares at me, twitches in a creepy way. I hate that squirrel. I used to have recurring nightmares about that squirrel stalking me across my college campus and attacking me while I slept. That’s what this headache is like—a possibly rabid, rodent stalker. That being said, this morning’s feeling is different, something hard to put into words. It’s as though my brain is under water. Not in a gasping for air sort of way, but more like when you open your eyes to try and peer through the blue of a swimming pool. Fuzzy and distorted. Not quite right.

    We start rehearsing our first song and I am looking at my music and I am seeing and reading it but I’m struggling to get the words out. It’s like my brain has been given a delayed start, a mental snow day. It’s infuriating because I like to sing and do it well but I’m flubbing all over the place. The words are so slow. My brain and my body feel so slow. My arms and legs feel as though the muscle has been replaced by jelly and I am sloshing around like one of those inflatable people that dances wildly at the entrance of a used car sale.

    This is not working.

    I tap my mom’s shoulder—she also sings—and then I sit down on a chair, leaving my stand and microphone erect before me. The choir sings on. My mother turns around. She lowers my stand and looks at me.

    “What’s wrong?” she says, though this question is perfunctory, like “how are you?” She knows.

    “We have to go,” I manage to sputter, though I can hear the words rolling off my tongue slowly, the way the smoke of a good cigar might curl.

    She cocks her head. She hears it too, that slight delay. “Home?” she asks.

    I think for a moment. “Hospital.”

    What follows is a blur of concerned citizens rallying to get me from the worship center to the car. My mother escorts me out of the choir loft and plops me down in a leather chair in the church narthex. A friend of ours, a fellow choir lady, kneels beside me. I can tell she’s scared. Her blue eyes are alight with worry, the way a mother looks when her child has climbed just a little too high on the playset and disaster seems imminent. She talks to me, asks me a few questions, but I don’t really hear what she says. Or what I say.

    I try to crack a joke with my delayed words. “Guess I haven’t had my coffee this morning.”

    She smiles. “At least you never lose your sense of humor.”

    My mother comes through the door. She’s pulled the car around to the front of the church for easy access. I’m ushered down the ramp by two tenors, one on either side, as though I am the Queen Mum or someone equally old and important.

    As we approach my Yaris, I say, “my clown car. The guy on my right laughs. He says, “There’s already 12 people in there.” In a few minutes, my mother and I are off to the ER.

    This is not the first time I’ve been to the ER since my headache started. I try not to go often, but it happens—when a flare up is particularly bad or when new symptoms emerge and something seems out of the ordinary. Like today. Sometimes I go because I have convinced myself that I’m having a stroke or an aneurysm. That there’s no way whatever is happening to me is a “normal” part of my headache discourse. Sometimes I go because I want it documented. Sometimes I go because I just don’t know what else to do.

    This morning, I’m going because I’ve never had this speech problem before and it’s genuinely freaking me out. I can tell by the way my mom watches me that it’s genuinely freaked her out as well.

    I have been to several ERs and met a whole slew of ER doctors and nurses. And, it’s almost always the same. I walk in the door. Sometimes I’m wearing sunglasses because my eyes are so light sensitive I can’t take them off. Sometimes, I’m leaning on my mother’s arm for support. The front desk person looks concerned. Sometimes they ask if I need a wheelchair. I always wave them off because I am stubborn and maybe a little foolish.

    When I make it back to the exam room, a nurse asks me about my symptoms, my medications, all the standard questions. Then, the doctor enters. He says some version of “What brought you in today?” I explain what’s going on and try to hold off on the whole headache thing for as long as I can. But it always comes up. I’ve had a headache for three months, six months, eighteen months. I have these flares. They get bad. But this time it’s different. I’m scared. Trying to be vigilant. Just in case.

    Then, the same thing happens every time. The doctor writes a few things down and pumps me full of painkillers like morphine or Dilaudid. He might put me on oxygen for a few hours. Or give me a headache cocktail of Benadryl, Haldol, and something for nausea. Every hospital has its own unique protocol. Someone always sends me home. I’m there for maybe four hours at the most. This is because I am just a girl with a headache. I don’t want to be, but I am. There is nothing anyone can do for me, no magic test or antidote. The best they can do is drug me up and hope that I sleep it off, that my headache resets to its usual nagging but bearable level by the time the drugs wear off. That’s what you do for a girl with a headache.

    This trip to the ER is only slightly different. I have a CT scan, or so they tell me. I don’t remember because the Dilaudid has kicked in and I’m not present. I’m somewhere else. But everything is as normal as it always is. I’m not having a stroke or a brain aneurysm. Nobody seems to know why, on this particular day, during this particular flare up, my speech has been delayed and my motor function stunted, but they don’t seem too worried. Not out of the realm of what can be expected with headache like mine. So I go home and sleep for another four hours. Then, I go to dinner. Business as usual.

    At dinner it hits me again, that weird feeling from the morning. I get up to go to the bathroom and my mom can see it too. She follows me, which is a good thing, because I open the door to the ladies’ room and then I collapse a little, fall in on myself, everything jelly again. But she’s right behind me. She helps me collect myself and I use the restroom, splash some water on my face, and then we go out to the car so I can lay down while they pay the bill. I sit down in the backseat and look at her. I ask her a question, something like “What’s going on?”

    She just stares at me.

    I ask her again.

    “I can’t understand you” she says.

    “What do you mean?” I ask her, even though her face says it all. Jibberish.

    “Stephanie,” she says, putting her hand on my arm. “I swear to God, if you are doing this on purpose or because you’re just too tired to try, I’m going to kill you.”

    The rest of the night continues in a similar fashion. We get home and my grandpa helps me inside, a death grip on my arm that is almost worse than the pain in my head. He lays me down on the couch in the living room. As he gets up to head home, I hear him whisper, “This is the damndest thing I’ve ever seen.”

    My mom tells me I need to go to bed. We make it half way down the stairs before I black out and collapse. My dad comes and helps wrestle me to my feet. They get me to my bedroom, pulling me along like a drunk who’s lost control of her body. I wish I’d had a few drinks. It’d be a hell of a lot more fun.

    My mom gets me ready for bed and tucks me in, like I’m five. “I think you just need to sleep it off,” she says. Then, she turns out the light.

    About fifteen minutes later I realize I have to pee. I get up and go to the bathroom. I black out again, this time while I’m washing my hands. Mom comes to help me. She gets me on my feet and through my doorframe and I black out for a third time. Now, I’m sitting on the floor of my bedroom, staring up at her.

    “Why are you doing that?” I ask her. My speech has come back a little, slurred but understandable.

    “Doing what?”

    “Why is your face like that?” I move my hands up and down, trying to make a dripping sort of action. Her face drips like a scoop of ice cream betrayed by heat and gravity. Neon flashes of light fly around her head. It’s freaking me out.

    “What are you talking about?” She sounds concerned but also a little annoyed.

    “Your face is melting.”

    “We need to get you back in bed.”

    This starts an argument. I want to go back to the hospital. My mental state is, in a word, goofy. Like a small child. I’m frightened and I want someone to fix it. This can’t possibly be normal. I’m going to die in my sleep. I know it. This time, it really is the end. But my mother thinks I need to sleep it off and see how I feel in the morning. She doesn’t think there’s anything to be done in the ER. We’ve already been there once today. At this point, there’s nothing left to do.

    “If I die in my sleep, it will be all your fault,” I tell her, as she helps me into bed one more time.

    “Then, I’ll feel bad,” she says, and moves for the door. “You have to sleep now, okay?”

    “Okay,” I say and roll over onto my side. She turns the light out.

    “Hey, mom?”


    “Will you check on me sometime, just make sure I’m still breathing?”


    I relax a little knowing she’ll check in. I settle into the covers. “I hate this.”

    “I know,” she says. “Me too.”

    In the morning, I feel like a new person. Or maybe not new. More like I’ve been reset. I am tired but back to my usual state of ache, my baseline just behind my right eye, where it always is. This is as close to a rebirth as I can get. And, on a morning like this, after a day like the one I’ve just had, this is good enough.

    I am constantly exploring new territory with this headache disorder. Even as I write now, it’s been two-and-a-half years since the pain started. Two-and-a-half years of waking up every morning feeling a little tired and (hopefully) a little renewed. It’s not ideal, but I have found a way to make every day a new day. Each day, I have a chance to have a good day, one where I don’t get sick, I don’t need to nap, one where I can enjoy my friends, my family, my life, without too many painful consequences. And, on the days where none of this is true, where I can’t get out of bed, or my speech goes awry and I think people’s faces are melting, I can count on the newness that tomorrow will bring. And, that’s that. In this new life of mine, I’ll continue about this day and the next day to the best of my ability, with the hope that love and joy will continue to come my way in the midst of pain. That is really all I can do.

    I am just a girl with a headache.


    Stephanie Harper image1 (3)Stephanie Harper received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Fairfield University with an emphasis in fiction in July 2012. Her work can be found in The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, The Montreal Review, Poetry Quarterly, Midwest Literary Magazine, Haiku Journal, and Spry Literary Journal. She served as Fiction Co-Editor for Mason’s Road Literary Journal and is currently an editorial reader for Spry Literary Journal. She lives in Denver, CO.

    Stephanie’s Twitter is @StephanieAHar

    Stephanie’s Instagram is @StephanieAH27

    Stephanie’s website is http://www.stephanie-harper.com

    **Submissions for May are now open! Our theme for the month will be May, and then submissions will be closed until August as our Voices column will be on a summer hiatus. We will announce our September theme this summer, so stay tuned! For submission guidelines, read more here, and email your submission to our assistant editor, Allie, at herstoriesvoices @ gmail.com.

    **Two of our most popular online writing courses, The Balanced Writer (our newest class, offered this past winter!) and Publish Your Personal Essay, are being offered as significantly discounted self-paced courses for a limited time! Just $40 each or $60 for both! Don’t miss this great deal; sign up now to treat yourself to some inspiration, polish your skills, and connect with a writing community! Details here.

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  • HerStories Voices: Finding Yourself Again After Kids

    The early years of parenthood are grueling for many of us and the more children you have, the harder it can be. Today’s author, Megan Woolsey, is the mother of four, and triplets are part of the equation. It’s no surprise that she lost herself. As a fellow mother of multiples, I could relate to Megan’s struggle and cheered her on as she rediscovered the light within. This essay will resonate with moms who miss the woman they were before they had children. Enjoy! – Allie

    HerStories Voices


    Finding Yourself Again After Kids

    By Megan Woolsey

    When I was in sixth grade I wrote a mystery series at recess while my friends were playing dodge ball on the playground. The heroine of my stories was named Penny Powers and she was a smart, confident, feminist girl just like my mother was raising me to be. Each story was only a few handwritten pages, but captured all of the imagination my eleven-year-old mind could muster. At the end of each story, Penny Powers proved herself to be a successful heroine by facing her challenges head on and solving problems.

    Little did I know back then that I would face big life challenges and have to solve my own problems one day, just like Penny Powers.

    From a very young age all I wanted to do was write. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said I wanted to be an author of books. I still have an image in my head of being  seven years old, an age where you would draw a picture of what you were writing. So I said in big bold uppercase writing “I AM GOING TO BE A AUTHOR” and underneath I colored a picture of a woman writing a book in what appears to be a library filled with books of all different shapes and colors.

    I kept the passion for writing alive, for a while. My writing was strong through college and by twenty-five years old I was working as a freelance writer making very little money, but I had an impressive looking byline in some local print magazines.

    Then my life changed dramatically after I had my first child. My daughter was smart, funny, and spirited, and I enjoyed her every day. But I did what a lot of moms do in our current culture; I gave everything to my child and left nothing for myself. I lost my career, my writing, myself.

    Three years later, I gave birth to triplets. Those first months of raising triplets were an incredible feat. My husband and I were waking up at 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. to feed our infant triplets each night. It would take us an hour and a half to feed, diaper and put them back to sleep each shift. Our middle of the night escapades were met with such exhaustion that I would feed my babies with the wrong end of the bottle, or fall asleep in the middle of my duties. My husband and I would fight and yell profanities at each other in the wee hours of the morning, only because we were too tired to be civil.

    I didn’t exercise or have any hobbies for myself. I spent all of my time around the clock caring for four small children. I began writing a blog about having triplets, but my writing back then was more like unedited journal entries composed after sleepless nights.

    I loved my children with every ounce of my being, yet I was completely disconnected from myself as an individual. I woke up one day and felt that my only value on this beautiful planet was juggling the schedules of my four children, household chores, and managing bills. My life had become a series of mundane tasks; such is life as a stay-at-home mother. Depression set in. There was no value in being me other than routine childcare duties. I didn’t feel attractive, smart, or creative. I could not feel any joy in my life.

    On a beautiful spring day, I received an interesting invitation to attend a yoga retreat in Monterey, California. My cousin was running a three-night yoga retreat and an inner calling messaged me to go. I was tired of saying no to everything. No, I can’t have people over to dinner at my house. No, I can’t go with my friends to a weekend away wine tasting. No, I can’t go exercise. No I can’t, because I have kids. So this time, I said yes. Yes, I will do something for myself. Yes, I will go to this yoga retreat. I will pitch a tent in the woods in a secluded space and have time to reflect by myself. To get ready for this yoga retreat, I began taking yoga classes every spare moment during my week. I realized I was becoming good at something that was just for me. Pitching that tent and attending the yoga retreat by myself gave me a new energy and desire to better myself in other ways.

    I made an effort to style my hair some days, and wear clothes that were a step up from sweats. I set out to make new friends, and found a soul mate. I changed the name, design, and focus of my blog to be more professional. I ate healthy food and took more walks. All of this made me feel good about myself. This made me feel like, while my kids were my world, I mattered also.

    This past year I turned forty-one years old. My children aren’t infants anymore so I’ve found a little more time for myself. I spent my thirties struggling with infertility and raising children. Many days I wondered why I chose this life and if I would ever have enough energy and inspiration to create my own passions again.

    Then I realized that if I look around with an open mind, inspiration is all around me. I began to find that the delights and challenges I found in being a woman, a mother, and a wife created a connection I could write about.

    There is so much pressure on parents today to do everything and be everything for their children. We give everything to our kids because we love them and want them to be successful. We also do it because there is a competition embroiled in our social fabric that is unhealthy and leaves mothers lost and lonely, thinking they aren’t doing enough.

    Most of us are more than good enough. We are too good at being a mom and not as good at being respectful to our own dreams and passions.

    Maybe after all of these years and four kids later, there is still that little girl inside me, the one who was always writing books at recess.

    I have a large family that includes higher order multiples, and it does suck the life out of me. Other days my family fills me with crazy passion and inspiration. Having kids doesn’t have to mean the death of myself as my own creative woman.

    After feeling depressed for years under the pressure of motherhood, I experienced a rebirth to become a new version of the old me who loved to write and followed those dreams of being an author.

    After eleven years being a mom, it is finally clear that I can still have my own life and my own dreams . . . not despite being a mom, but because I am a mom.

    I am Penny Powers.


    unnamed[1]Megan Woolsey is a writer, editor and publisher living in Northern California with a very supportive husband and a wild bunch of red-headed children – a set of triplets and their big sister. Megan has been published in Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, BLUNTmoms, Bonbon Break, Mamalode, In The Powder Room and is an essayist in two anthologies. She began writing professionally for her blog, The Hip Mothership, which she began while in the hospital eating copious amounts of Jell-O on bed rest pregnant with triplets. When Megan isn’t busy writing or blogging, she loves hot yoga, long walks, and dinner with friends that includes good bottles of wine.

    Co-Editor, Multiples Illuminated. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

    **Our April theme is Life Lessons. Email our assistant editor Allie your submissions at herstoriesvoices @ gmail.com. Find out more about submission guidelines here.


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  • HerStories Voices: The Condom

    This week we’re featuring a very funny essay written by Paulina Combow, who’s a comedian. Paulina experienced an awkward moment with her mother—extremely awkward. I found myself squirming as I read this—despite the fact that I was laughing. We all want our parents to think the best of us, but little girls grow up and have grown-up lives. Still, some things between mothers and daughters should remain private. Right? At least Paulina has a good story to tell. Enjoy! —Allie


    HerStories Voices


    The Condom
    Paulina Combow

    “Someone’s going to pay for this,” I declared as I shook the six-foot privacy fence in my mom’s backyard, checking for an entry point where the vile vandals might have entered.

    My mom, Nancy, is a proud Southern woman in her fifties. She feels most presentable after a fresh at-home bleaching courtesy of Miss Clairol, and a crisp blousy Chico’s ensemble crowned with a statement necklace. She’s really into eyebrows right now and is concerned when mine are not on fleek. She loves things to be picture perfect, like a magazine spread in Garden and Gun. Yes, this is an actual magazine to which she subscribes, and eagerly awaits each month. If you think this publication has a limited audience, you should know she and her garden club got concealed-carry permits together, you know, in case they need to shoot away the weeds.

    She’s not only an active member of Garden club, but the Vice President and current title holder of top recruiter in the commonwealth of Kentucky. Evangelizing for Garden club is her tactful, nonracist way of beautifying her community. “Oh dear, the new neighbors have planted Nandinas in even numbers, bless their hearts.”

    Each time I visit, no matter what time of the day, it’s imperative to walk the yard and play her favorite game: “Point Out Everything That’s New or Different.” There’s no clear way to win this game.

    One day we were doing a walkthrough with my pug, Mook, at my heels while she showed me her newest greenhouse or batch of chicks, when she pointed to something across the yard.

    “Paulina!” she gasped. “What is that?”

    We hesitantly moved across the lawn, encountering a slimy used condom in the middle of her perfectly pruned grass. My mind raced to 100 sinister conclusions. This is the kind of thing I would expect to see discarded on the side of the road outside an Arby’s. But not Nancy’s garden! The place she spends six months of the year digging, planting, weeding, and replanting in preparation for the Annual Garden Club Tour, which she herself spearheads. People in our antiquated town pay money to stroll through her flowerbeds and drink sweet tea on her front porch. A porch that comfortably seats the entire Duggar family and is attached to a Victorian Home built before the Washington Monument was completed.

    The skies turned black and the birds shut their beaks, as her backyard was re-labeled the scene of a sex crime. Nancy stood speechless, a helpless victim, as I took action to locate clues and find the repulsive culprit. “Could someone have snuck back here to have sex in your yard?” I asked.

    Nancy’s eyes got wide, “No, no. That wouldn’t happen here.”

    Like any good detective, my first suspects were known enemies of the victim. I cut my eyes to the small building in the corner of the lot we called “The Bungalow,” because my sister moved in there after flunking out of college and refusing to get a job or move out. She had the essentials, but no running water. Nancy had a small deck built onto the front to make it feel homier. She planted bushes, added patio furniture and a couple wagon wheels for good measure, but inside was a derelict twenty-something’s hideout covered in fast food cups and a lingering aroma of BO and Maryjane.

    “Do you think Portia put it here?” I asked. “To get revenge for telling her the yardman can tell when she pees in the yard?”

    “No,” my mom responded. “I just told her that because she was doing it in the middle of the day. I didn’t want anyone to see her and have to add registered sex offender to her criminal record. She’s already banned from the Wal-Mart for stealing that sub sandwich.”

    Another dead end, but my mind was still racing. “Then where did it come from? What kind of monster would do this?” Ruling out my sister as a suspect, I looked over the fence to the indoor pool of the neighbor—who also happens to be my mother’s ex-boyfriend.

    “What about your ex, Randy?” I asked. “He’s still pretty sore about you asking to store a few plants in his pool for the winter, then turning it into a Rainforest Café.”

    A little too quick for my comfort, Nancy responded, “No, Randy doesn’t use condoms.”

    Dismissing the tension, my mom looked up at me and pointed to Mook, my overheated pug, who was panting next to my feet. “He did it.”

    This was too much for me to handle! My poor baby! He brought this over here? “Where do you think he got it? Do I need to get him tested for STDs? Is there Canine AIDS?”

    I still wasn’t getting it. Nancy had to spell it out for me: “He pooped it out.”

    If he pooped it out, then it probably came from the trash. My trash. My faced turned a shade of red that put my mom’s prize-winning hibiscus to shame.

    Even though I was in my late twenties and in a long-term committed relationship, my mom and I had never really had the talk. I’m sure there was a point where she accepted that I punched my V-card, but we never commemorated it. I was raised very conservatively. In 8th grade I attended Christian School and participated in a purity banquet. My mom purchased a gold ring inscribed “True Love Waits.” I remember thinking, “something’s not right about this” when she was presented with a skeleton key during the ceremony to symbolize my pre-teen abstinence. She kept it on her keychain and probably grinned like Sarah Palin on a snowmobile every time she started her car. The plan back then was to not have sex until I got married, just as the Lord arranged, but of course, in 8th grade, getting laid was not on my radar. All I wanted in life was to kiss Leonardo Dicaprio, wear jeans to school, and not have a King James Version of the Bible as my only textbook.

    Interestingly, I kept that vow all through high school. (How did that happen?) I kept the ring . . . in a jewelry box. But like the ring, I pawned my virginity in college to buy groceries. Just kidding. I lost it to a normal dude and it was fine, but yeah, I pawned the ring and hope it was promptly melted down.

    I don’t know when mom took that skeleton key off her keychain. The only significant event was when I won the “living in sin” argument and told my family if they didn’t want me to live with my boyfriend then they could pay my rent. Suddenly the Old Testament wasn’t so literal.

    Nancy and I had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy allowing me to be a fixture in her picture perfect world. I could have gone to my deathbed letting my mom believe my chastity was unbroken, but now that was impossible. She had to know in her heart I’ve knocked boots before, but now she had physical evidence, oozing into her lawn, baking in the sun. The jig was up!

    With the case closed, it was time to clean up the crime scene. We couldn’t leave it there and let one of her designer chickens get it tangled on their wooly talons. These hens are swanky, lay organic eggs, and have a better pedigree than the Kennedys and even better hairstyles. Eager to get the place back to normal, Nancy made the first move: “I’ll pick it up.”

    “Oh God, NO! Don’t touch it.” I ran inside to get a paper towel with the guilty pug at my heels. How could something so pure and innocent ingest something so foul? When I looked in those big black bug eyes all I would see was dirty dirty sin. We buy you name brand food, and Puperoni’s, and this is how you repay us? And you just HAD to launch it out here?

    By the time I came back outside, Nancy had gotten rid of all proof. It was as if it never happened. We didn’t speak of it again until I told her I was writing this story and telling it to an audience. She said she didn’t remember. What had been a moment in time stretched out to defy the laws of physics for me was just a repressed memory for her. Or maybe she was being polite, like when you pretend you didn’t see your friend eat the entire basket of rolls at O’Charleys. At least I know this situation can never repeat itself. We’ve graduated past condoms for birth control in my decade long courtship. As long as my pug can’t squeeze out an IUD, everything in Nancy’s life will remain worthy of a magazine spread.


    PC_099x (2)Paulina Combow is a writer and performer in Nashville, TN. Her comedy points out the insecurities we all share and puts them on display so we can celebrate then (or at least tolerate them). She’s performed in comedy clubs, casinos, bars and moose lodges all over the country, but mostly the southeast. Her mother refuses to see her stand-up, even when she is in the lobby of the venue. Find her on Facebook, on Twitter @paulinagc and on her website

    **We are now accepting submissions for our Voices column, and we have a special theme for our March essays: rebirth. Send your submissions to our assistant editor, Allie, at herstoriesvoices @ gmail.com


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  • HerStories Voices: A Baby Story

    I’ve never seen the show A Baby Story, but I know many people who love it. The births of my own children were unique and intimate experiences. I’m pretty sure I’d feel uncomfortable being “in the room” with someone I didn’t know who was giving birth. I may be wrong though, because when I read this week’s essay, which is a birth story, I was riveted. Emily’s essay is emotional and beautifully representative of the circle of life. By the time I was done reading, I had chills. —Allie

    HerStories Voices

    A Baby Story

    By Emily Page Hatch

     My mom loved watching “A Baby Story,” the TLC reality show that follows couples in the late stages of pregnancy and films their births in detail. She always wept at the end when the baby appeared.

    “Why does it make you cry?” I asked her.

    “They’re happy tears,” she replied.

    “It’s so graphic though,” I scoffed. “How are you not grossed out?”

    “Because it’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “I think of you and your brother.”

    Many years later, as I reclined in a hospital bed in Boston in the midst of a January snowfall, I thought about that show. I was in the thick of my own baby story, about to give birth to a son. It was not being televised. I was being induced on my twenty-fifth birthday and feeling nervous about exposing myself in the loud, messy scene that is labor.

    My husband, Tyler, and I were about to meet the boy we’d been touching and feeling and talking to for months through the itchy skin of my overstretched belly. My due date had come and gone uneventfully nine days prior. It turned out no amount of mall walking could kick this baby into gear. And as impatient as I was to meet my mystery boy, I was also secretly satisfied to have provided such a comfortable home that he never wanted to leave.

    His name would be Cody and I already adored him. He woke me up every morning with karate kicks and he danced the Macarena on my ribs. My heart raced when he rested too long and I couldn’t feel him boogying; I’d tickle my belly until he awoke, and smile with relief.

    The older I get, the more often it seems relief stands in for happiness. The two almost feel synonymous.

    I so looked forward to holding my baby, but wished I could just snap my fingers. I hated that labor could take so long and be fraught with difficulties. I also hated the prospect of shitting in the process, which everyone warned me would happen.

    My gaze drifted from the swirls of white dancing in the gray sky to the framed photo of my mother resting on the shelf across the room. It was the same photo that had been used in her obituary and funeral pamphlet, a stunning photo of her, highlighting her straw blond hair and slate blue eyes that smiled as brightly as her mouth did.

    But the picture wasn’t palpable for me, not anymore at least. I saw a distant idea of my dead mother. I didn’t sense her presence or feel more connected, like I sometimes did when I sipped iced coffee or heard that Crosby, Stills & Nash song, or saw my brother smile. But I wanted to feel her—I felt more human when I did, more like the self I used to know—so I kept this photo on my bureau at home and brought it to the hospital. I figured halfheartedly it could bring me luck.

    “Who’s that?” barked one of the nurses in a thick Boston accent, pointing to the picture.

    “That’s my mom,” I stammered. “She passed away a few years ago.”

    But it was closer to a decade ago, and I hated saying, “passed away.” It’s too nice a description for what really happened, but it makes people feel more comfortable, myself included maybe.

    My shoulders tensed, a familiar frozen stance, bracing for her reaction. People always feel sorry once they find out, but sorry can feel a lot like pity.

    The nurse’s eyes softened as she offered her condolences. Then she pushed a rattling cart of supplies up to my bedside and announced she was going to break my water.

    The next several hours felt like a few minutes. The Pitocin kicked in and my contractions raged. Without much hesitation, I accepted an Epidural that knocked me out cold. I woke up to find that I couldn’t feel my legs.

    The nurses and doctors seemed to rotate so quickly I could never remember their names. I could only recall one doctor named Emily, because she shared my name. She had been on shift when I was first admitted and in she walked twelve hours later.

    “Who’s that in the picture?” she asked.

    The epidural wore off as I dilated. It felt like one of those claw cranes that picks up stuffed animal prizes was scraping the insides of my abdomen. I don’t know how people do this naturally.

    I was given a button to press if I wanted more drugs, and believe me, I did. But I couldn’t bring myself to touch the button, convinced that I’d overdose. So I begged my husband to press it for me and begged him to stop when he did.

    At some point, an unfamiliar doctor entered. He explained that although I was not one of his patients, he wanted to meet me, because he’d heard that my mom died of pancreatic cancer—the same kind that had killed his dad.

    I was touched that he shared his experience with me. It’s remarkable how loss can connect us, as total strangers, through a deep and sensitive understanding.

    He spoke about what an awful disease it is, and I agreed, but felt my face go hot. I had witnessed my mother go through her illness, but most of the time from a distance. I saw her suffer immensely, and yet, I had been disconnected, steeped in denial.

    Did I deserve his empathy?

    When she died, I was there; and I wasn’t. Perched next to her on the bed on a dark Tuesday morning in spring, rain coming down in sheets, I watched her take a last labored breath before I covered her face in kisses. I stared in the mirror at the two of us, and we both looked like strangers, starring in an awful movie.

    I was in another movie then in a maternity ward in Boston, on a bitterly cold evening, the buildings blanketed in white, looking down at myself with my legs splayed open, feeling strangely serene.

    My sheets were soaked in sweat and fluid. I began throwing up cherry-flavored Italian ice that I, of course, believed to be blood.

    Grunting and moaning and making the grotesque facial expressions I swore I wouldn’t make, I forced my baby out of me, gradually at first, revealing a spiral of blonde hair that looked black because it was wet—or so his father told me. Next, I freed his full head of downy hair, big round head and wrinkled neck—he was an actual human, and I was floating on the ceiling, watching this woman I didn’t recognize panting from fear and exertion, exhilaration and pride.

    With sweat and tears streaming down my clammy face and unfamiliar guttural sounds emerging from my mouth, I released my boy’s sweet neck and shoulders coated in fuzzy peach hair, and time did not exist.

    At some point, I pushed one final time, shrieking as I ripped apart in every way possible, my baby sliding rapidly out into his father’s shaky arms, never to live inside of me in this literal sense again.

    Within seconds, my son—my son!—was in my lap and there was a nurse snapping our photo, and my heart had swelled to such massive proportions it was spilling out of my body, exploding into a billion tiny bits that I would never get back, because they belonged now to this boy that was laying in my lap, more real and perfect than I could believe.

    There was the photo of my mother across from us, forever young in a frame, that still made me feel nothing, because a photo is just a thing, because maybe it’s true that our souls leave our bodies as soon as we die, because as I sobbed endlessly at the sight of Cody, whom I’d only just met but had somehow always known, and I leaned down to cover his face in kisses, I felt my mother’s arms wrap around me and she was weeping, too.

    But my son, he didn’t cry. And I didn’t notice that, until he was being taken from me.

    Lifted from my arms in a sudden swoop, he was placed on the warming table, stuck with needles and tubes. Machines beeped aggressively as Doctor “Emily” took out her pager and uttered words no one wants to hear: “We need everyone in here.”

    Medical staff swarmed the room, but no one told us what was going on.

    One doctor had her hand, wrist, and then whole arm inside of me, trying to extract my placenta, which was as stubborn as Cody had been and refused to come out.

    Later I would learn how much blood was pouring out, but by that point all I knew and all I’d ever know for sure was that my son could not die.

    The room was spinning and I was positive now that I had overdosed. The most intimate moments that make and break our lives—the surreal seconds of last breaths and first breaths and gasping for breath—I never thought it could happen like this.

    My eyes darted back and forth from the doctors with my son to the doctor with her arm inside of me. Convinced that I could make a difference in whether my baby lived or died if I put up enough of a fight, I advocated for him, for the first but not the last time, though I was not in my right mind. I wanted to blame someone for what was transpiring. I swore that if he died, I would die right then, too.

    He was taken to the NICU and I pleaded with the doctor to let me go with him. But the placenta hadn’t budged and she insisted it wasn’t safe.

     What did it matter? What good was my body without my heart and my soul, which were leaving with my son?

     His dad accompanied him and I passed out from a fever that had drained the color from my face. I fell into a deep and delirious sleep that lasted until dawn, when I awoke with a start. Had it all been a dream?

    I found out later my baby had aspirated and there was fluid in his lungs. He needed help breathing, which he received from an oxygen hood placed over his head that we would later refer to endearingly as his “astronaut helmet.”

    We were told it was common. And that he would be okay. I can’t imagine my life if he hadn’t been, no more than I can imagine my life if my mom had lived.

    But if she had, I would tell her I get it. I understand now why she loved that show. I know why she used to cry. Baby stories are overwhelmingly beautiful, no matter how they end.

    I gave birth to my son on a snowy night in the city two years ago, but his story isn’t over. Neither is my mom’s. One of the only things we have left of the loved ones that we’ve lost are the stories that we tell—small, but staggering consolations.

    When my baby arrived at last at the tail end of my birthday—forevermore our birthday—something else was born, too, that had died with my mom on that rainy day in May.


    IMG953652 (2)Emily Page Hatch is a freelance writer, therapist, and mother. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Babble, The Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and other publications. You can connect with Emily on Twitter @EmilyPageH and at http://www.emilypagehatch.com.


    **We are currently accepting new submissions for our Voices column! Email our assistant editor, Allie, at herstoriesvoices @ gmail.com. Read our submission guidelines here.

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  • Parting Words: Reading My Mother’s Eulogy

    This week’s essay — “Reading My Mother’s Eulogy” — really resonated with me. Dana Schwartz has written an achingly beautiful essay.

    Unfortunately, as a veteran of writing eulogies for my own family I understand the complicated mix of emotions and pressure one feels when trying to honor a person you love, without falling to pieces in front of a crowd. This essay is so descriptive and well written that I wish I could read the eulogy Dana wrote for her mom. I am certain she succeeded in honoring her mother’s legacy with love, humor, and respect. I suggest you grab some tissues before you read this lovely piece.

    HerStories Voices

    Parting Words: Reading My Mother’s Eulogy

    By Dana Schwartz

    My mother died before dawn on summer solstice, the longest day of the year. I like to think of it as her parting gift, allowing us extra time to plan her funeral, which according to Jewish tradition, should occur the following day.

    There were calls to make, photographs to select, food to order, and a eulogy to write.

    Plus, I needed to buy a dress.
    That’s the thing about death. It does not stop for anything, especially the mundane.

    It’s surreal going shopping hours after your mom dies, because it’s almost exactly like going shopping any other time – you struggle to squeeze into unflattering silhouettes, you almost flash customers when you fall into the curtain, but all the while there is this track looping in your mind, my mom is dead, my mom is dead.

    After trying on a few dresses the saleswoman picked out for me, including one I’m pretty sure was cocktail attire, I settled on a gauzy black dress with tiny white polka dots, three quarter sleeves, and buttons up the front. The perfect summer funeral dress, if there is such a thing.

    We waited while the tailor took it in since I had shrunk a size. During the week leading up to my mother’s death, my husband downed donuts and grazed on cookie trays, but my stomach closed up like a fist.

    By dusk I had a dress, shoes, and a pair of oversized sunglasses to hide my red-rimmed eyes. While the rest of my family went out to eat (again, the mundane) I stayed behind to write the eulogy.

    It was always a given that it would be me. After all, I am the writer in the family.

    Writing a eulogy is big pressure. There’s an unforgiving deadline and a powerful need to get it “right.” Before my family left for dinner, my cousin Ari came to check on me. I thought that was brave of him, or stupid, since I had just sent my father and husband away with glowering looks.

    I was struggling, having written and deleted hundreds of words. It wasn’t writer’s block, more like writer’s tsunami. I had too much to say. How could I possibly pin down my vibrant and loving mother in a few pages? How could I explain that while she may have died from multiple sclerosis, her illness did not define her?

    Undeterred by my stormy mood, my cousin sat down on the couch and told me stories about my mom, his aunt. He reminded me about her spark.

    Her spark. That was it. We had seen it just that week, looking through old photographs, the same twinkle in her eye when she was five and fifty-five. The impish look that came over her when she was about to say something inappropriate.

    The spark that lit up her smile and bubbled out in her laughter. A laugh so robust it could, on occasion, take her breath away. I used to call it her wheeze – she’d laugh so hard she’d gasp and that would make her laugh harder. Sitting in her reclining chair, propped up with pillows, covered with a blanket, unable to move. She moved us all.

    It was exactly what I needed, the centerpiece of my eulogy. Light to balance the dark. I finished it by nightfall.

    The next day was the funeral. I cried in the shower early that morning, wondering how I would read it without breaking down.

    If you cry, you cry, my husband said, practical as ever, but I didn’t want to cry. I wanted people to pay attention to my words, not my tears.

    The rest of the morning went by in a blur and before I knew it, I was up there smoothing down the front of my dress with shaking fingers. The room was filled with family and friends all waiting for me. I took off my glasses, glad for once to be near-sighted, and began to read.

    My voice creaked through the first few sentences, my throat thick, but the words came out unhindered. Though their faces were blurry, I knew every single person in the room was staring at me.

    I froze, struck by the weight of this moment. My mother was dead and I was reading her eulogy, words pulled straight from my heart, never to be spoken aloud again.

    Taking a deep breath, I continued. I’m not a born performer, but something came over me. Instinctively I knew not to rush. I paused to find familiar faces in the crowd. I wanted each person to feel the weight of every, single, word.

    My fear melted away as I read her eulogy with equal parts ferocity and love. I gave a shout out to the hospice nurses in the back row, as if I were on a much bigger stage accepting an award or giving one. I felt like I owned the room in a way I never felt before, or since, until I birthed my children.

    Then all of a sudden, maybe two thirds of the way through, I realized it was going to end – and I didn’t want it to.

    But I couldn’t stop the momentum. When it was over there was no applause. It wasn’t that kind of performance. I slipped on my glasses, grabbed my papers, and found my seat.

    People approached me afterward, complimenting my eulogy, hugging me, and crying. We talked logistics about who would be going to the mausoleum and what time everyone should arrive at my father’s house for lunch.

    My eyes were dry. The tears were there, waves of them, and soon they would come for me, but in that moment I let myself coast on the fumes of my recent triumph.

    Then it was time to go. The words I had practiced and almost memorized were beginning to fade as I stepped out into the glaring sunlight, into a world without my mother.


    Dana Schwartz head shot glasses (2)Dana Schwartz lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. Her short stories have been published in literary journals and she was a member of the Lehigh Valley 2015 Listen To Your Mother show. Her essays have appeared in The HerStories Project on female friendship and Mothering Through the Darkness (November 2015). She is a regular contributor to The Gift of Writing and blogs about the creative process and motherhood on Writing at the Table. She is currently working on a novel.

    Blog: http://www.writingatthetable.com
    Follow Dana on Facebook and Twitter




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