I want to be alone. I really need to be alone.
I took so long to assemble my lovely family. I did it all a bit backward: first a delightful daughter, then a beloved husband. I went after creating family, like a golden retriever running after a ball—how much does the dog think about what he’s doing? He doesn’t think. He does. He is a doer. That’s me, too. I did it, I do it. I am doing it.
Every morning I get up and hustle. I’m sure this is true for most mothers. It’s true for me, too. This is what I wanted, after all. This was my dream. I’m always on task. I never go up the stairs of our house without looking around for what needs to be taken up. I never buy just one meal’s worth of food at the grocery store. I drive the carpools, I volunteer at the school cafeteria. I wait patiently outside the dance classes. I iron. I clean up the cat vomit. Make dinner. Walk the dog. I work (write) at home and then really work, at home. I quell the rising ire in my roommates. I try to instill harmony, efficiency, and a calm, enabling environment for my fellow family members. I often set the table two hours before dinner. I live by lists. I pick up things in our house and put them where they go. Chiefly, I’m the protector against the chaos that threatens us. I am a good soldier.
I love my job.
Secretly I hate my job.
I love my family.
If only they would disappear.
Why do I sometimes find myself entertaining the enticing idea of entering a witness protection program? Why does the desire arise, when I walk my dog to Lake Michigan, to drop the dog leash and swim straight out toward the Upper Peninsula, then on to Montreal, and then over to the Atlantic and into a frothy sea that would suck me into—somehow—incongruously—some calm tranquility?
I just want this family to go away and leave me be.
And now they are leaving me be.
A delightful convergence of circumstances has occurred. My twelve-year-old daughter, Mulan, is going to sleepaway camp, for a month. And my husband, Michael, is going away to work out of town, to Tucson, to Boston, then to Europe, for a month. Well, Michael will be home for three days at the end of the second week, but mostly I will be here by myself. People! Can you stand it? I’m so excited. In fact, I’m giddy.
Four weeks by myself. No nudging, no breakfasts, no mad mommy and disgruntled wife. Just me in my house.
I act different when it’s just me in my house. I’ve never gotten four weeks—but I have had a day or two, here and there, to bask in the solitude of my home. A muscle relaxes; the mother/wife/hostess mask slides off. I don’t rush around and pick up every little thing. I let the dishes pile up, and the newspapers don’t make it to their designated place. I don’t make the bed.
Oh. Oh . . . yes. The bed.
I’ll get into bed early, around 8:30 P.M. Sometimes even earlier—when it’s still light outside. I’ll watch TV and let the cat rub up against my feet while I eat ice cream. I’ll move all over the bed. It’s just there for me. I’ll wander around the house and let myself get consumed by a random project. I’ll sit on the sofa and listen to the sounds of the street outside. I’ll surf the Web in my office for hours. There’s going to be no need to look, or even pretend to look, productive.
I have big plans for these four weeks. I want to stay inside. I don’t want to go anywhere. Truthfully, this desire has been gathering momentum for a while now. I expected myself to be a careerist, out in the world, living in an urban environment with urbane friends and lots of cocktail parties. But I turned into a woman who doesn’t like to leave her house. If I’d known when I was twenty that I was going to turn into the person I am at age fifty-two, I would have cringed. And laughed. No way!
That twenty-year-old self knew so little about the delicious taste of solitude.
So come with me; let’s spend this month together. If I’m going to be alone, you’re coming too, goddamnit. You’ll be my compatriot, my conspirator, my secret bearer. I’ll tell you my story, and then you’ll help me understand. How did I get here?
I have found myself in another part of the world.
I have found myself behind the wheel of a large automobile.
Thank you, David Byrne and the Talking Heads, for giving me—a head who is often talking—the right lyrics. And speaking of large automobiles, mine is a minivan, a Honda Odyssey. An Odyssey! I laughed when I saw it for the first time in Hollywood, realizing I would be driving to the Midwest, and away from my own Trojan war, after having won a certain kind of peace. Some women recoil at the idea of minivans, but not me, not us, not we in the land of minivans.
However, we’ll only admire this car from the vantage of the kitchen window, because I’m hoping not to drive for an entire month. And yet, metaphorically speaking, we’ll travel near and far. We’ll occasionally gaze upon the car, and its existence will figure into a couple of stories. Let it serve us as an icon of our time together. We’re going on a journey home, while being at home already.
My favorite kind.
Because the pillow that I dream on [is] a threshold of a world I can’t ignore.
—Silver Jews, “My Pillow Is the Threshold”
First things first: Let me bring you in the house, which, you may notice, is quite old by American standards. It’s located in Wilmette, Illinois. It has a history, this house. It used to be the Village Hall and was originally built in 1878. This house was in existence when the Battle of Little Bighorn was going on, a mere thousand miles to the west. Why this fact is meaningful to me, I’m not exactly sure. But this house—the door frames, the old plaster on the walls of the front rooms, the staircase banister—it links me in time to history, however humbly.
My house sits near the wee town center, which has a train station; in just twenty-eight minutes you can be in downtown Chicago. Michael and I bought this house nearly four years ago, after we married. Mulan and I moved from Los Angeles, moving in with Michael, who was already living a mile from here. We pasted ourselves together and formed a family. When I saw this house for the first time, I had that Brigham Young—like sensation: this is the place. I was in love at first sight, but I pretended to consider other houses, like dating around before you get married to the person you know you’ll marry. This house and I were meant for each other. We both knew it. Plus, like Brigham Young, I was really tired and wanted to stop.
The house has been remodeled many times over the years, but the front part of the house is the oldest part. There’s a guest room just to the right of the front door. In the guest room we have an antique double bed and we call it the “grandma room.” This is because it’s often used by Michael’s mother, Norma, or my mother, Jeri, when they visit.
On the bed is a decorative pillow. My mother gave this pillow to me about seventeen years ago—when I was single, living in Los Angeles, and not yet a mother. She had come to visit, and as she bent over her suitcase to unpack, she exclaimed, “I brought you the most hysterical thing!” I was a little frightened. Past experience taught me that the object would not, in fact, be hysterical.
Then I watched as she took a small, navy blue pillow out of her suitcase. She was already laughing. The pillow had a phrase embroidered on top: IF IT’S NOT ONE THING, IT’S YOUR MOTHER.
I immediately hated the pillow for two reasons. One was that it was a play on an old catchphrase, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” Gilda Radner’s character on Saturday Night Live Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say that phrase, after she said, “It’s always something.” The association with Saturday Night Live was slightly irritating because I’d just left that very show, and although my departure was on friendly terms I was feeling slightly wounded. However, many people—I think perhaps my mother is included in this group—assumed that as a former cast member I must love anything even slightly associated with SNL, and I feared that this was part of her assumption when buying that pillow.
The second thing I hated was the rhyming pun (as a rule I do not like those), in which the key word was mother, meaning that it was, of course, all about my mother. I thought, the pillow may as well have been embroidered with MY MOTHER IS A FIRST-CLASS NARCISSIST AND ALL I GOT OUT OF IT WAS THIS STUPID PILLOW.
Come to think of it, there was a third reason I hated the pillow, the true objection at the root of it all. It was that the pillow indicated to whoever gazed upon it that my mother and I conversed in a casual yet intimate repartee of mutual ribbing, a jovial “You drive me crazy but I still love you” kind of thing. I felt that my mother and I did not have that kind of relationship.
My mother held the pillow out toward me and I smiled, forcefully.
“Isn’t it hysterical?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said flatly. “Hysterical.”
As soon as my mother left town I put the pillow into a closet. It only emerged when she came for a visit; I’d prop it up on the guest room bed ahead of her arrival. A few years and several visits went by. One spring, my mother came to visit. She looked affectionately at the pillow. “That pillow is really just so funny,” she said. Then she glanced at me, encouraging me to agree.
“Eh . . . ,” I said.
“Oh,” my mother replied, stung by my lack of enthusiasm. “Well, if you don’t like it, get rid of it.” She picked up the pillow and pressed it against her breast. Her head looked like a flower emerging from the square shape, her neck and face tilted slightly to one side. A tablespoon of liquid guilt dripped into my lower abdomen.
“No, I sort of like it,” I meekly offered.
“Oh good!” My mother sighed, relieved.
Years went by. I became a mother myself. The guest room in L.A. became my daughter’s room, and the closet where the pillow was kept became my daughter’s closet. One day, when Mulan was about four years old, I was cleaning out her closet and I came upon the pillow.
Suddenly, without warning, a flood of emotion came over me. I realized with a start that this pillow really was hysterical. I laughed out loud and thought, This pillow needs to be on my daughter’s bed. Anyone who walks in is going to laugh.
With a thud, I understood that I’d been much, much too hard on my mother. She wasn’t a narcissist! We really did have a casual intimacy that included mutual ribbing. Just like I did, and would continue to have, with my own daughter as she grew older. Of course!
So the pillow’s new home was on Mulan’s bed. And I was right: anyone who came over and toured around the house laughed when they saw it. “Where did you get that?” they would ask. “My mother!” I would say. We would both giggle. See, the humor would escalate.
My daughter grew and years passed. When Mulan was six she came to me with the pillow.
“I don’t want this on my bed anymore,” she said.
“Why?” I asked, adding, “It’s hysterical.”
“No,” Mulan said. “It’s not. I don’t even get it.”
I said, “Well, it’s a play on the phrase ‘If it’s not one thing, it’s another.’ Like if many bad things are happening to you, or like if one bad thing goes away in your life and then another one pops up.”
“That’s terrible,” Mulan said.
“Yes,” I said. “So this pillow takes that phrase, and substitutes the word mother for another. Like your ‘mother’ is another bad thing that happens to you.”
It dawned on me that I was clearly not a bad thing happening to her. At least not yet; I mean, she was only six. In a way, her not getting the joke was a compliment.
Mulan said, “I just don’t like it. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but it’s not funny to me. I don’t want this pillow in my room.” Then she added this, just to twist the knife a little: “You wouldn’t want me to have something I really didn’t like in my room, would you?”
I say “twist the knife” because one thing I want my daughter to be is able to defy and be independent of me, her mother; unlike me, who cowers and does whatever my mother says or wants most of the time. I suppose I have succeeded in cultivating this quality in Mulan, as she has it in spades, and she emphasizes her independence and different opinions constantly. I have vowed to gulp and bear it.
At this point, Mulan sighed wearily at me, indicating that in fact, I was not a totally good thing in her life. Which made me think, “Well, if that was true, why wasn’t that pillow funny?”
Then, I realized: clearly the funniness of this pillow does not become apparent until one actually becomes a mother, and the pillow, resting on one’s offspring’s chair or bed, demonstrates its comic value to all.
My mission was suddenly clear and straightforward: I had to keep this pillow until Mulan did, in fact, think it was funny. That would only occur if Mulan became a mother herself. The pillow went back in the closet.
Through several dramatic reductions of clutter and even a marriage and a move across country, I’ve held on to that pillow. I think of the pillow now like an insect, the cicada. Here, in the Midwest, there is a species of cicada whose larvae live underground. Depending on the species, they bide their time for thirteen to seventeen years. Then they metamorphose as flying adults into the light of day. I feel the pillow is like the cicada—just biding its time, waiting to be funny again.
But then, a little over a year ago, here in Illinois, I came across the pillow in a basement closet and moved it to the guest room bed. The grandmothers come and go, and the guest room is often empty. But the pillow has found a home in this room.
At this very moment our dog, Arden, is draped over the pillow on the bed. He’s an Australian cattle hound, about fifty pounds. His paws cradle the pillow and under his bloodshot eyes you can just read the word mother. It’s hard not to sigh and linger in the doorway when he looks at me like that.
But, let’s go down the hallway and sit together at the family room dining table. I will make us some tea. As you can see, the table has a knitting project on it. Let me explain: Mulan became determined to learn how to knit a couple of years ago. She badgered. Let’s take a class. It’ll be so much fun. I resisted. My resolve began to unravel. When Mulan became determined to knit, it seemed predetermined somehow. Of course I would have a daughter who wanted to knit. Maybe on some subconscious level she understands that the story of our trajectory toward each other has knitting in Act 1.
If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother
While Julia Sweeney is known as a talented comedienne and writer and performer of her one-woman shows, she is also a talented essayist. Happily for us, the past few years have provided her with some rich material. Julia adopted a Chinese girl named Mulan (“After the movie?”) and then, a few years later, married and moved from Los Angeles to Chicago. She writes about deciding to adopt her child, strollers, nannies (including the Chinese Pat), knitting, being adopted by a dog, The Food Network, and meeting Mr. Right through an email from a complete stranger who wrote, “Desperately Seeking Sweeney-in-Law.” She recounts how she explained the facts of life to nine-year-old Mulan, a story that became a wildly popular TED talk and YouTube video.
Some of the essays reveal Julia’s ability to find that essential thread of human connection, whether it’s with her mother-in-law, who candidly reveals a story that most people would keep a secret, or with an anonymous customer service rep during a late-night phone call. But no matter what the topic, Julia always writes with elegant precision, pinning her jokes with razor-sharp observations while articulating feelings that we all share.
Poignant, provocative, and wise, this is a funny, and at times powerful, memoir by a woman living her life with originality and intelligence.