Wednesday, January 28, 2015


The baby did not blink as creamy white milk thickened with stomach acid cascaded over her lips and down her bare stomach. The vomit coated her mother’s breast and fell onto the couch as she straightened her elbows. That was when the baby shrieked. She was dangling midair, naked, shivering in her own spit-up. She peed her diaper. Then she stopped crying. She always calmed down after a good pee. The sweet release of pressure in her stomach made her placid. Until the damp made her itch. Then she simply whimpered. Relief of one kind led to discomfort of another degree. And now her stomach, a greedy walnut, echoed across its emptiness. A groan only she could feel. A groan it would take years to put into words.

The mother set her down on the changing table and dangled a toy within her grasp. They both had the motions memorized now: the wet cloth diaper removed and tossed in the diaper bucket, the lid quickly replaced. A wipe gently eased around the babies soft, plump folds. A dry diaper velcroed into place, a tab on each side.

The mother didn’t bother with a fresh onesie and instead swaddled her firmly and put her back to the breast. Left breast, ten minutes. Then right. Then left. Right, left, right. This time the mother would fall asleep, her head angled backward into the couch’s corner, before the baby. Soon the baby would follow, still latched to the left breast. It was the sleep of exhaustion. The kind that controls you. The sleep that has no regard for hour of day or night. When the body stops, sleep takes the mind. Sleep is supposed to allow the mind to process new information and make sense of the world. This sleep cannot rise to that function. This is the sleep of the parent with a newborn. It is the sleep of the body. The body gets to reclaim itself. It is work. There is no rest. Even sleep becomes labor. Even sleep is not solitary. The baby’s sweet pucker is latched to her breast; they are still one body.

The mother remembers her panic when the baby’s cord was cut. Her husband severed her flesh with surgical scissors. She felt nothing as the scissors shut, except her heart skipped a beat in the moment after it was done. They were two. She took a deep breath and gathered the hot, slippery baby to her chest.

Now, months after the birth, the mother’s body is still the source of the baby’s every ounce of nutrition. The mother is fucking growing a human being, even now, outside her body. Yet not outside. Attached. And this connection is terrible. It is fundamental. It is the irrefutable definition of humanity. It is who we are. It is what a woman can do. It is singular. It is universal. It is the beginning. It is the future. It is tiresome. It is one long paragraph that lasts for three solid months, so far.

The mother woke from the pain in her neck and let her head roll to the other side, then down to her chin. She breathed in the air her baby exhaled. The baby made gurgles in her throat. The mother will not wake her. The baby has fallen off the breast, her face gone entirely milk drunk. The mother stared. She reached for her phone and fumbled with one hand to take a photo of this adorable baby. The mystery of her silence, her inert happiness fills the room with a giddy electric buzz. The baby will sleep for a few hours. She can see that now. She eased the baby out of her arms and into the deep cushion of the couch, placing a pillow next to her. She stood and looked at the small bundle, swaddled and serene.

The mother would fix a sandwich, a weak cup of coffee. She might dare take a hot shower, the hottest water good for her milk-heavy breasts. She will wait. And see. And scroll through the hundreds of photos on her phone since the birth. And she will be proud that this baby, her baby, exists. It is almost more than she can bear.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

bouquet of first lines

They asked her her name and said that was a lovely name when she told them.  Violets were held out to her to smell.  They said where they’d picked them.  A dell they called the place, near the fingerpost.  They could have picked an armful.
“We hoped we’d see you,” the taller woman said. “For you, my dear.”
Again the violets were held out, this time for Cecilia to take.
“We’re not meant to pick the flowers.”
Both smiled at once.  “You didn’t pick them, you might explain. A gift.”
---from The Women by William Trevor


Daniel stands in the funnel, a narrow path between two high brick walls that join the playground to the estate proper.

He hasn’t talked to anyone today. I haven’t talked to anyone today.

Madeleine and I are waiting at the bus stop at the bottom of Beech Grove in our school uniforms:  green print dresses, short white socks and sandals, blazers.

Growing up in the listless 1980s, Cecilia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all.

I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town.

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.

While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. 

For the heart, life is simple:  it beats for as long as it can.

At dusk they pour from the sky.

The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.

The moment builds; it swells and builds—the moment when I realize we have lost.

Empty, vast, and cold were the halls of the Snow Queen.

‘Get out, you cunting, shitting, little fucking fucker!’ were the first words I ever heard.

We made our vow on a windy night in 1962, by the light of a full moon, three young women, with a priest as our companion.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Humor Project: Baseline

Wanted:  Sense of Humor

I have known for years that I lack of sense of humor.  Proof:  I married a Hungarian physicist.  And he has a better sense of humor than me. 

His Hungarian humor, however, often made my heart shrivel a little.  Yet he knew countless jokes.  And I did not.  Late at night the Hungarians start to sing or tell jokes.  The jokes usually come first.  After several more rounds the singing erupts.  Do we do that in America?  I can say with certainty that we never burst into song at a party in high school or college.  (Well, my choir friends in college did occasionally burst into Gregorian chant.  It was a Catholic School.)  I didn’t grow up around joke-tellers. Maybe it was because drinking was taboo in our family.  But I will argue that my upbringing was humor-defiant.  We are not a joke-telling people in central Kansas.  But humor is more than jokes.  And we did enjoy a sense of adventure and fun. However, fair play was valued above all.  And humor relies on violating the rules of fair play.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

Back in college I first clearly articulated my lack of humor.  Yes, identifying the problem was the first step in acceptance.  The problem was that once I knew my disorder I was content to see myself as disabled, or differently-abled.  I was not the girl at the center of the room. No one hung on my every word or couldn’t keep their eyes off me because I fascinated them with my slapstick tales, my clever commentary about pop culture, or riffs on modern dating.  I was the one who got us there on time and arranged for a designated driver, most often, me. 

I discovered my lack of humor because my college roommate had the sharpest wit in the room.  Friends would gather in our dorm room to enjoy her endless zany ruminations about life.  I was the straight guy, as it were.  I was skinny and serious and went to class.  She was curvy and hilarious.  If she needed to stay home from class for a week to lounge in her bed and reread great books, particularly Jane Austen, her professors called the room to find her because they missed her lively presence and astute contributions to class discussions.  Another straight friend of mine marveled at her stories, sense of adventure, and her mesmerizing verbosity.  There was a fateful moment when we both realized:  that verve, that zing, that sense of the absurd that she has, we don’t have that.  We are not funny people.  At least there were two of us.  I was so unfunny that I wrote a paper on the theology of humor (now lost).  Seriously, does it get any sadder than trying to compose a cogent essay about the deep metaphysics of humor?

It was in college that I confessed my pathological lack of humor.  But looking back, there were symptoms much sooner.  For example, there was the dreaded questionnaire.  At the start of a new camp or the end of high school—there were multiple painful occasions—I was asked to respond to a series of questions.  What is your favorite food?  French Fries.  Your motto?  Be Yourself.  If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Rome.  What is your favorite class?  World History.  Inevitably the questionnaire contained the following item:  What is your most embarrassing moment?

It was easy and even enjoyable to provide answers for my favorite food, favorite memory, or greatest accomplishment. It was a way to simultaneously discover and invent myself.  I don’t know who concocted those prompts.  Were they used to elicit material for the yearbook?  Maybe they were used as icebreakers at camps or in college dorms?  At any rate, the one question I abhorred was, What is your most embarrassing moment?  It was painful because I could never, ever, think of one.  Of course I embarrassed myself.  I made mistakes. I said the wrong thing. I wore the wrong thing.  But I didn’t find these incidents embarrassing.  I found them shameful. 

Why did I feel shame? Maybe it was because I was Catholic?  Maybe it was because I was a girl with a sharply honed case of perfectionism?  No.  It was because I lacked a sense of humor.  If I could have laughed at myself, those experiences would have been funny and thus embarrassing.  Instead, there was no laughter.  There was a thorough examination of the antecedents, the event, and its consequences. There was problem solving.  There were long hours of self-examination.  Instead of pink cheeks from laughter with my friends about it, there were hours of journal writing.  I had no embarrassing moments to list on my get-to-know-me icebreaker.  I left it blank.  That was my greatest embarrassment.  I should have known then about my lack of humor.  But I didn’t understand the problem yet. 

Now I understand the problem.  And I want to develop my sense of humor.  What’s a bookish grown-up straight girl to do?  Research the topic. Write about it. Exercise my humor muscles. 

Why do something about it now?  I need my humor.  I am a parent now.  Parenthood makes it clear that my lack of humor is problematic.  When my son launched a filthy plastic triceratops across the kitchen and it splash-landed in the steaming hot pot of broccoli soup I was stirring, what was the proper response?  I did not laugh.  I should have laughed.

This is the beginning of my humor project.  I want to explore my personal humor history and hopefully develop some humor skills to help me as a parent, teacher, and fiction writer.  Along the way I will explore larger questions about humor. 

At the beginning of this project, I thought it might be helpful to take stock of my current joke repertoire.  Baseline humor assessment:

Q:  What is the difference between roast beef and pea soup?

Punchline:  Anyone can roast a beef.

I have two jokes.  I can't remember the other one.

Both of my jokes (one now lost) came from Garrison Keillor.  I taped an episode of his radio show Prairie Home Companion, a special joke show, in approximately the year 2000.  I listened to it repeatedly.  

What are your stock jokes?  Where did they come from?  How long have you had them?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Let her Live her Life

Pamela Druckerman first introduced me to the idea of sleep-away camp for nursery school children in her book about raising kids in Paris, Bringing up Bebe. French parents routinely send their little ones off for a week in nature with their nursery school teachers. This concept was new and shocking to me, as it was to Druckerman. She didn't dare send her little one. I just put mine on the bus. And I feel good about it.  I am confidant that she will be fine. More than fine.


Iza left on the bus for camp this morning. Today it is Saturday. She will return on Thursday. She has never slept a single night away from home without me. When my husband is out of town (he spends every other month in America) she and her brother bedshare with me. What I told her:

I love you.

Have fun. 

It will be six days, five nights.

What she asked in the past several weeks:

How will she get her meals?

Who will she sleep with?

I told her that I would call her at least once per day. (This is a rule set by the teachers). She pointed out, “But, mama, I don’t have a phone.” I explained that I would call her teacher and the teacher would let her use her phone.

We were instructed to write five postcards. They will have a mail delivery each day and read the cards to the kids. I labored over the postcards.  It was an intensely emotional writing task. I drew several little lopsided hearts, a few ice-cream cones, even a little crooked rainbow. 

I also prepared a collage of family photographs for her to keep under her pillow.  I printed off several photos and laminated them.  The teachers had asked us to provide one family photo.  The truth is that we don't seem to have a photo with all of us.  So I made a collage.  Lamination was the natural finishing touch.  It will withstand rips and pillow drool.

We were also instructed to make a plastic bag for each day with an outfit inside. I found purple bags. I cut out little paper hearts and labeled each bag with her name and a number for each day.

When she saw the size of her suitcase, she said, “How will I carry that?” I assured her that the teachers would take care of it. (I didn’t have a smaller-sized bag to use.)


What I said to her as we stood in an excited crowd of parents and children on a busy Budapest street:

I love you.

Have fun.

If they have ice-cream everyday, that is okay. Enjoy it! (Normally we limit treats to Saturdays.)

If you need anything, ask your teacher.

What I didn’t say:

Brush your teeth.

Use sunscreen!

Wear clean underwear.

Don’t be afraid to flush the toilet in public restrooms. 

Listen to your teachers.

Behave. Be nice. 

Brush your unruly wild abundance of a tangled horse mane in the morning, for the love of god.  Wear a barrette to hold back your bangs so that they can grow out gracefully.  


Leo, who has never been separated from her for a single night in his life after he come home from the hospital, buried his head in her shoulder.

Iza said, “I love you.”

Leo said, “I love you.”

Iza said, “I need to go now.” Her voice was suddenly maternal, gentle but firm. The decision to take the trip had already empowered her before she said a final goodbye.

She boarded the enormous white bus. We waved furiously at the big windows where their heads barely cleared the lower sill. We didn’t see her, but we waved and blew kisses. Then it was time to let Leo cry on my shoulder before the walk home to a quiet house.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Get on Board

I have decided to skateboard.  I turn forty this year and it is time to make some firm decisions.  Implicit in choice is my decision to eschew stilts.  For several years I ruminated over learning to walk on stilts.  It seemed the ideal idyll.  It earns you a right to parade in extravagant costumes.  It elevates you.  It can’t be that hard, right?  Yet my intense lack of depth perception due to my nearsightedness held me back.  It seemed like the equivalent of a tone-deaf person who wants to learn to sing opera.  The drama of it, however, still enchants me.  You get to be a clown and delight the masses with such elegance.   It is time for me to table the stilts, however.  Maybe I will write a poem about stilting to get it out of my system.  It would have to be a long, tall poem with colorful scarves and butterfly wings.  There would be a gypsy band with a drummer to escort me and a rainbow.  They might be a fall from grace.  (Not sure about the rainbow, but there is room for revision.)  

In the meantime, I have moved to Budapest's urban landscape.  I walk everywhere.  The kids recently mastered bicycles, leaving me half a block behind if I am lucky to be that close.  While I am confident that they will wait at the corner for me to cross the street, there will come a day when they decide that Mom is too slow and they are capable of crossing on their own.   They are four and six.   I trust them to look for cars.  I do not trust the cars to look for them.  There is no doubt that I need to increase my sidewalk speed. 

My husband owns a foldable bike that is cute and adequate for the job.  It is also quite heavy and cumbersome.  The constant lugging it up and down three flights of stairs is tiresome.  There is always the fear of a bike thief.  We once caught a thief cycling away with the bike.  My husband was valiant. I screamed maniacally in poor Hungarian.  We got the bike back.  We do not speak of the incident in front of the children and we have since purchased a heavy-duty lock (which is also heavy to lug around).  Yet I still worry as I go about my day that I will emerge from a delightful cake shop (it is Hungarian thing) and not find my bike.

Here in Budapest it is not uncommon to see adults using scooters—a baseboard with wheels and an attached handlebar.   They are foldable and lighter than a bike.  Instead of locking it on the street, you take it with you inside whatever store or café you visit.  As you go up and down curbs you just step off the scooter and hold it by the handles.  It is by far the sensible choice.  I should get an adult scooter.  

Yet I just don’t find it cool.  I can’t fully explain it.  The truth is that it does not have sex appeal.  It is too practical.  It is boring and easy.  What I need in my fortieth year is a little spice, some danger, and an excuse to ride without brakes.  The skateboard is the answer.  Now, how does a lady of my vintage acquire street cred?  I have do idea where to buy a board or what kind I need.  There must be all kinds of considerations—wheel size, board size, and materials.  I need to hire a young person who is in the know. 

There must be a guidebook: Skateboarding for Old Ladies.  

If not, I may be able to write one by the end of the year. 

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Kids are Not Dumb: What a Boy Learns from Fashion

Mama, why don’t you ever buy me beautiful clothes like Iza?  

 (He means the silk floral dress she wore for her end-of-school celebration.  He wore black formal pants, a white dress shirt, and a black vest with his sneakers.  He was adorable, with a hint of hipster.)

I try to buy you colorful clothes, but they are difficult to find.

Why don’t they make beautiful clothes for boys?  

They do.  They are just a different style.

They don’t make beautiful clothes for boys because they think all boys are bad.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Grocery Home Delivery in Budapest

Parenting Secret Power Revealed:  Grocery Home Delivery in Budapest
By Janet Kelley

I am not a super hero, but I do have one or two parenting secret powers.  I am happy to reveal the first one:  grocery home delivery service.

I was thrilled to discover that Budapest has multiple home delivery services for groceries, including household goods, baby items, and office supplies.  As a mother of two under two in Boston I discovered that I could shop online and have my groceries carried into my kitchen.  Now that I am a mother of two under six in Budapest I still rely on the service.   While it is easier to shop now that the kids are older, we live in a third floor walk-up in the heart of the city and don’t own a car.  For no delivery fee in some cases, I can have all my bulky items carried up three flights of stairs!

If you have never used the service, you might have some reservations. The idea of a stranger selecting your chicken breasts is a bit nerve-wracking, I agree.  For that reason I mostly use the service to buy heavy items:  economy-sized clothing detergent, cleaning supplies, bulk amounts of organic milk, twenty four rolls of toilet paper, and the occasional summer watermelon.  When I have ordered fruits and vegetables, I have been pleased.  I suspect the person selecting my kiwis does a better job than me when I have two little people demanding my attention.

Pagony Közért
The Pagony Közért offers free home delivery in all districts within twenty-four hours of your order (for a minimum order of 4000 forints).  They offer a variety of payment methods.  In addition to food and drinks sections, they offer a baby section (with diapers, soaps, food), an international section, a pet section, and an organic selection of foods.

G’Roby’s delivery is free with a minimum order of 50,000 forints, under that price there is a sliding scale.  They have a very detailed explanation of their fee scale, a variety of payment methods, and delivery options on the website.  G’Roby has a similar range of products compared to Pagony Közért.  In my experience it has a better selection of organic products, which they list under a tab called “Health Shelf.”

Tesco’s service fee ranges from 600 forints up to 1200 forints and depends on the time of the delivery.  Their selection matches what you can find in any Tesco store.  In contrast to Pagony Közért and G’Roby, Tesco only accepts online payment.  The delivery assistant does not accept cash and they are not allowed to accept tips.

Szayorbolt is an alternative to the standard big-box grocery store, offering locally sourced products.  While you can shop from their range of products, they use the weekly box concept.  You can choose from various sizes and types of boxes filled with seasonal fruits and vegetables and you can swap items if you don’t need onions that week.  They offer several pick-up locations around town.  Their website suggests that they will deliver only by bicycle.  While I have shopped in their store, I have yet to try delivery.  Still it might be worth keeping on eye on this business and offer your support for their environmentally friendly model.

Neked Terem
This company offers another alternative to the big-box store.  They specialize in locally grown products and offer delivery on Fridays.  The delivery fee ranges from 280 to 850 forints determined by your address.  Similar to Szatyorbolt, Neked Terem uses the weekly box concept.  Currently their website is only in Hungarian.

Have you tried grocery home delivery in Budapest?
Please share your experiences in the comments.

Follow Janet Kelley on Twitter @hutchkelley5