Kids Without Horses (2022)


Kids Without Horses
by Jennifer Spiegel

“Kids Without Horses” was originally a short fictional story that appeared in The Gettysburg Review in the summer of 2006. For years now, I’ve wanted to write the DEFINITIVE piece on my complicated relationship with my mother. (When I say “definitive,” I mean “definitive for me.”) That original story was actually pretty good, and I didn’t include it in my first book—The Freak Chronicles—because, I think, I had other intentions, even then. I pictured a novel by the same title. The original was a barely fictionalized account of our 2003 trip to Ireland for my friends’ fantastic destination wedding (Bob and Julie!). My dad had died in 2002, and we were venturing out. Later, I wanted to turn it into a novel, envisioning myself as some kind of David Sedaris/Elena Ferrante/Oversharing Writer-Maverick, tackling a difficult relationship. I tried a few times, and failed. Problems persisted. The Biggest Problem: She’s No Tim. My husband really lets me go wild; I’ll say whatever. Tim blows my prose off. Rolls his eyes. Shrugs. Can I do that to my mother, though? Can she handle my unruly prose—uncensored? I’m left with this . . . The new “Kids Without Horses.” 

We’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die.


This is the timeline to know for this very long essay . . . 

In June 1998, I suffer a brain stem injury when a tour bus rolls on a safari trip in South Africa. I’ve been living there for around four months, and I’m headed for Namibia. I’ll never make it. I’m twenty-eight-years-old, and I will never be the same woman again. My mom is fifty-two (about my age now), and she literally has to fly from Phoenix to Cape Town to retrieve me, broken. My lifestyle is not so great. It’s a profound disappointment to her (I’m a profound disappointment to her). I’ll spend a big chunk of the end of June in a rehab hospital in Chicago, wheelchair-bound and very angry. My mom will be there. She’ll spend hours with me in that hospital, walking me around and around the nurses’ corridors, the entire floor—me, learning to walk again. 

From June 1998 until August 1999, I live a new and unhappy life. There is rehab, physical therapy, speech and occupational therapy, figuring out how to pay for enormous medical bills, seeing miscellaneous psychiatrists that I don’t give the time of day to, getting my driver license again along with a spinner knob in my car, and applying for disability (I am rejected). My father sinks into a depression that he hides from me, and we will never discuss it. My mother plays endless board games with me that she supposes will help my coordination, and she doesn’t reveal her fears or sorrows. 

In the fall of 1999, I return to grad school to get an MFA in Creative Writing and start teaching college English. I got into the program before the Accident (The Accident), so ASU really couldn’t turn me away. They give me the best writing chairperson to work with—probably as a charity act—so I am pretty much set. (He later ruined his life in a #MeToo scandal—but first he taught me to write.)

It’s ironic and wild and a bad joke that I, brain-damaged, am teaching college kids. It’s also ironic and wild and not a bad joke at all that my writing abilities were not only intact—but better than before. I can freakin’ write!

My first new friend post-Accident, Julie, tells me that I introduced myself to the other Teaching Assistants in some weird, awkward way. Both of us are middle-aged now and don’t actually remember the details, but it was something like, “Hi. I’m Jennifer, and I have brain damage.” Everyone squirmed uncomfortably. How does one react to that? (Julie is the one who later marries in Ireland—read further.)

In the summer of 2002, I am what I am. I work full-time, I drive, I write. I can do this, I guess I think. I’m about to put a down payment on a small house, because I’ve been living with my parents and I’m still brutally unhappy. I fake normalcy well, but sometimes I mess up. Also, 9/11 happened, and the world is different. I’m thirty-two.

In July 2002, on a morning when I’m teaching Freshman English at a nearby community college, my dad is in a fatal car accident on Bell Road in North Phoenix. He had been driving home from the gym.  Police say that he died “instantly.” As the years go by, I wonder if they say that to everyone, as a kind of cold comfort. Do we really want to hear that it was a slow, agonizing death, and they tried to resuscitate him but failed? We do not. My mother, only fifty-six, meets me inside the front door, weeping. She clutches me in the hallway (I hear other people in the house) and she cries, “Please don’t leave me.” 

So I don’t. 

I stay. 

This is the crux of the whole story.

I do not leave.

I will resent this impossible mother-daughter moment for the rest of my life. 

What if that had never been said?

In the summer of 2003, I finally move down the road (this does not constitute leaving), buying a small house that seems New England-y. (This is another ironic moment in my life, this faux-New England décor—for I will eventually marry a New Englander.) I teach college full-time. I get two cats and start living as single career woman. It’s a big joke, because I’m STILL feigning normalcy. I’m this big, huge fraud. 

I never feel normal. 

I can’t hear out of one ear. I walk funny. I type with one hand. I physically don’t cry, and I live with low-level constant depression. Sometimes, I say weird shit. Half of my body is what they call ataxic. 

But I can write like a motherfucker. 

In the spring of 2004, I meet Tim. I think it’s safe to say that we are both desperate.

In August 2004, Tim and I marry. I had not expected to ever get married. 

From 2004 through 2012, my marriage is horrible. I cannot fully express the depths of my misery. Or Tim’s, for that matter. It turns out, though, that I can totally have children—and we have two. Many, many lousy things happen. I know that during this time, besides the kids, a few things relevant to this story occur: I make a very huge mistake of doing what every marriage book tells you not to do, which is to tell your mother how bad your marriage is; I publish two books; my mother has hip surgery—maybe more than one—and it is botched, rendering her unable to ever really be active again.

Whenever this hip surgery is, I’m utterly not there for her. I couldn’t even tell you when it was or what happened. In my own life, I wanted to kill myself but I never would because I had two beautiful daughters, though every waking moment is unhappy and I am confident that I will either die soon or destroy my children—or both. I see no end in sight. It is during this time that my mother has her botched hip surgery, which results—more or less—in her immobility for the rest of her life. I know, at one point, I sit in a rehab hospital room in Scottsdale with her in a bed and I’m on my laptop, and she accuses me of not being there for her, but just doing my own thing. Though I protest and deny it, it’s true. I just want to get away from life and sit in a rehab hospital while my mother suffers her devastating injury, and I want to be left alone.

I want to be left alone.  

What I don’t know then, is that, in the same way in which I’ll forever resent her plea to not leave her, I’ll forever feel guilty for not being there for her because I was too preoccupied by my own sorrows. 

I will never apologize for this, because I am brain damaged and not-the-same-person person. I’ll just live with that guilt. 

I’ll never be able to give the reader the chronology of the hip surgery or surgeries, and I don’t even fully know what happened. 

I was too sad. 

She walked again, but was not the same. 

It was then that she became an Old Lady.

In 2013, in another story altogether, my marriage works out! It’s not for this piece. All I can say is that I’m obviously not a good person, so I probably have very little to do with it.

In the spring of 2015, my family (husband and two kids) moves into my childhood home—the one I moved out of—and my mom builds an addition with its own door (which she humorously locks on us for the first few years) and she moves into it. She offers this arrangement, which really binds all of us financially and involves a lawyer, as something that’ll “work out for all of us.” With this arrangement—Tim and I and our children will be in the “main” house (where I grew up), and my mom will be in the addition—we’ll get out of debt, and she’ll downsize with her beloved grandchildren close by. 

Secretly, she sees this as taking care of me and my kids in case my marriage implodes. 

In the future, I will see this as an arrangement that she used to unintentionally trap me by making sure that she, an aging widow, is taken care of till she dies in some lay-your-head-down-to-rest death in which her grandkids surround her. 

So, basically, she thinks she’s taking care of me, and I think I’m taking care of her. 

This is also how we’ll shape our own narratives

Her friends will see her as the caretaker, and my friends will see me as the stronghold. Her friends will see her as a mother who loved too much. My friends will see me as a wondrous daughter keeping her mom out of a wretched nursing home. 

We craft our own stories.

In June 2015, I’m diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, so all bets are off. 

In November 2016, Donald J. Trump becomes president and I’m in remission and neither of us vote for him and my marriage is good. I’m no longer even bothering to feign normalcy. Who wants that? (My kids do!) My mom is aging, and I was there for it but not there too, so I never adjust to that thing, that distance, that other people seem to have with their elderly parents. Even Tim has it with his mom: separate identities

What does it mean to have a life all of one’s own? 

We never had that proper separation. But we are strangers too. My life is now wrapped up in other people. I’m no longer sharing myself with her. I think she still tries to share herself with me. 

But I’m gone. 

Though we are living—basically—in the same house, my childhood home. 

By November 2020, our relationship is miserable. Trump can be a symbol of our divide. When she supports him the second time around, I feel betrayed—and my hurt sticks with me, an open wound. I take it personally. When I reject her form of Christianity, she feels that I’m a heretic. My lack of orthodoxy is rebellion, death, a downfall. There is literally nothing that either one of us can say that pleases the other. The pain is too much. We might only agree on pets and the decline of The Walking Dead

In the summer of 2021, her hip is seriously infected. She is now elderly. I am now middle-aged and a mother, like other mothers are mothers. I Am Mom. Tim and I made it. Tim wants to move to Massachusetts after the girls graduate high school. 

Now, my mom and I are who we are. 

This is where we are. 

*          *          *

My mom is a lover and a fighter.  


When my dad dies, she rises to the occasion. I literally cannot remember one instance of bitterness—not a hint. No Why Me? came out of her mouth. 

She wept, and she got to her feet. 

Too young to be elderly, too elderly to be young, Marilynn Spiegel got a classy job in a gallery in Old Town Scottsdale, selling upper-crusty art to rich people in the desert. She was the one who told me never to match art with my couch—and I’ve held onto this. Even today, I know she knows shit about a bunch of topics she loves to pontificate about, but she knows Art

I give her that. 

In her widowhood, my mom let young church women flock to her, offering them good advice on marriage—which always cracked me up a little. It seemed to me—still single, totally hopeless, and COMPLETELY bitter—kinda nutty that my mother, a powerhouse of a woman who pretty much bowed to no one—had a bunch of groupies listening to her on marriage when my mom had not exactly been the picture of Submissive Wife.

(The groupies were girls in white, flowing, linen dresses with green garlands and yellow daisies wreathed around their heads, and they sat at her feet and asked her to pour out her godly wisdom on their meek and modest souls. Meanwhile, I brain-damaged and orphaned and planning on a lifetime of being alone, combed through my father’s old rock n’ roll cassettes. Eager to reclaim my boogie shoes—stop laughing—I think I was trying very hard to feel okay at rock concerts. It didn’t fully work, but in a very short period of time I saw Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Nicks. I never—not once—included myself in the company of those girls at her feet. I was, like, I’ll be damned if I’m putting on a garland.  

Somehow, early on, my mom’s counsel was demarcated as something for other women, not me. 

My mom paid many tributes to her late husband, such that his memory was cherished and his faults were glossed over. Some bad things about him died with him. She took her wedding ring and engagement ring, and designed a new piece of jewelry that she wore on her finger (I was never happy about this). 

My dad was here for September 11, though it’s like he missed its permanence, its mold. He never took his shoes off at an airport. 

My dad missed Hurricane Katrina.

My dad missed the birth of my kids, his grandchildren.

My dad missed the deaths of Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Robin Williams.

My dad missed the publication of all of my books. 

My dad missed Facebook. 

My dad missed the election of the first Black man as President of the United States. 

My dad missed my cancer.

My dad missed the aging of my mother. 

My dad missed the Trump Presidency.

My dad missed The Office

He didn’t get to see how Wendy looks just like him. 

My dad missed every complication of my real life, the one where I became this real woman who had her own family, her own sensibility, her own virtues and crime streaks. He would never see me step out of my insecurities as a young and damaged adult. He would never know that I’d climb mountains again or get a little bad ass in tight situations. 

He’d never know that I’m not really bitter anymore. 

Damn, dad, you’d love my dog. 

*          *          *

We’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna

die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die.


This death mantra. Why is it relevant to our trip to Ireland in 2003?

I will tell you now.

Were we death-haunted, the two of us, my mom and I? 

I mean, we were

Of course we were.

This was all before social media and, maybe there were smartphones, but I didn’t have one—so the details are pulled from an unruly, brain-damaged memory. It was the summer of 2003. (Apparently, the smartphone got crazy popular around 2007. I doubt we had flip phones on that trip.)

My dad had been dead for almost a year. 

I was thirty-three, single, and Tim was not in the picture yet. 

My mom was fifty-seven, which is only about five years older than I am at this very moment. Hard to imagine. Widowed for one year, going to Ireland with her daughter to attend her daughter’s friends’ wedding, because, yes, death haunted us both, chased us: the bell possibly tolling behind us, over us, like a boulder rolling on our tails as if we were Indiana Jones. The bell tolled so loudly, and we had to run. She never imagined this life, nor did I. 

It’s hard to imagine either of us any more alone than we were then.

I will only speak for myself. (I’m sure her inner sanctimony would now demand that she say that she was never alone. She always felt the presence of God.)

I was so alone. I’d buy a house down the street, but I did so out of resignation—not with joy. I’d move into my rightful place as an adult, accepting my fate and its isolation. As I think back on my teaching profession, I realize I never had any passion for it. Never. I taught to write. That was what I really was passionate about. (Career ambition entirely eluded me. I just wanted to write.) Marriage would never happen, I assumed. It wasn’t in my realm of possibilities. I’d get some cats. Which I did.

My friends stuck with me. Two, especially. But I can’t imagine that I was much fun. I can’t imagine that I offered much of anything, frankly. Not great conversation. They certainly couldn’t share their woes with me. How do you bitch about single life or your love life or your professional path or even your rent with someone living with her mom who just got her driver license again? I wasn’t confident or witty or interesting or adventurous or sensitive or even a “good ear.” I was their “good deed,” a philanthropic act of humanity.

(For the record, I’m still friends with these two . . . and I think that I eventually resumed personhood—but there were years of toddling along. Did we go out to eat? Did we see movies? Did I tell a good joke?)

Julie, the bride in Ireland, was my first post-Accident real friend. We had gotten our MFA degrees together at Arizona State, and that was the only true arena in which I stood on equal footing with others. (Elsewhere: I was the Lesser Christian, the Lesser Woman, the Lesser EVERYTHING.) 

Julie and I were writers together, and, um, I was pretty good

But so was she! 

Yeah, we’d go to Julie and Bob’s wedding In Ireland. I’m a little floored now at our spontaneity, which seems to have eluded both of us nowadays. 

But we went. 

We’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die.

*          *          *

Oh, Marilynn Spiegel had other moments of spontaneity!

Sidney Poitier died as I was writing this, in January 2022. 

My mom and Sydney went way back. 

The story goes that my mom suntanned on the Bahaman beach in Nassau next to Poitier during her honeymoon with my dad in the late 1960s (Poitier would’ve already been in his late forties and he apparently was still hot). . . Like, my mom saw him there in the golden sand, and she spread out her beach towel next to him. . . 

Who could muster up the vim to spread out their towel next to Sidney Poitier?

To stand in the warm sand—maybe casting a long shadow—right next to his gorgeous brown bod by the ocean, whipping a hotel beach towel up into the air like a sail, gently smoothing it over the coast, spreading her undoubtedly bikinied body over it, right next to Sydney Poitier?

Who could do that?

My mom could.

My mom would. 

*          *          *

No, actually, there’s a reason for that death mantra. I saved a New York Times article dated November 13, 1996 that I must’ve clipped in Manhattan, because I was living there then (pre-Accident, dad alive). It was about the wild horses in the Dublin projects; the horses would soon to be prohibited and confiscated. 

The Ballymun Flats were the Dublin projects, the ghetto, and seven towers stood in the Ballymun Flats, each named after a 1916 Easter Rising leader. At the Rising, Ireland had sought independence from England but the rebellion had been unsuccessful. No independence for Ireland. I see seven towers, but I only see one way out, U2 sang on the 1987 song, “Running To Stand Still.” Seven towers, Dublin poverty, a heroin epidemic—and wild horses, cared for, by the impoverished Ballymun kids.

An unforgettable image, really.

There was criticism surrounding the removal of the horses, even though the horses were often abandoned and bony, starved or impoverished like their makeshift owners. 

What would happen to those kids without horses?

The heroin epidemic raged.

I recently tried to find out what happened later. I couldn’t find a thing. The Ballymun Flats were torn down between 2004-2007. I know nothing about the kids. 

That was one of the origin stories of the mantra, “Kids Without Horses.”

Something about this made me call the fictional story by that title. 

*          *          *

What had I been thinking? Was it the unsuccessful bid for independence at the heart of The Rising? The refuge that hopeless children sought in caring for wild beasts, their cold comfort?

But there was another story too, another origin story. I had saved clippings of that one as well. I had clipped out a story about kids beating an old horse to death with sticks and bats in Silbee, Texas on September 14, 1995, leaving the dead horse in a mess of a barbed wire fence. The horse was named Mr. Wilson Boy. In my fictional version, barbed wire was threaded through his nostrils.

A true story about a horse killed. 

Even writing this down in 2022 still makes my heart pulse oddly. 

I don’t know what happened to those kids in Texas, just like I don’t know what happened to the Irish boys. The news was carried all over the place. Were their lives destroyed? Do I want for them to have been destroyed?

Somehow, in my mind, the wild horses of Ballymun Flats and the dead horse with the barbed wire in Texas worked together and led to “Kids Without Horses.”

We’re gonna die

*          *          *

Before I publish this, must my mom be dead? 

Please note that she was the one who said it first, Publish it when I’m dead

The truth is this: I’m not expecting to live long myself. I’m a bit of a time bomb. 

If it’s not brain damage, it’s cancer.

If it’s not cancer, it’s a meningioma.

Shockingly, as of this writing, I still haven’t gotten Covid. 

(Wait. I got it while revising in July 2022!)

Nonetheless: I made my peace with a short life

I’m putting my house in order. 

But with my mom. No peace as of this writing.  

What I believe is that the end really matters. It matters so much. And I’m not sure that I’ll actually ever make peace with my mom. It might not happen. (I was just reading Ann Patchett’s new book, These Precious Days, and she was talking about her friendship with this woman dying of cancer, and how she cared for her—massaging her legs. And I was thinking how I want to be there for my mom. I want to be able to take care of her. I really, really do—but could I massage her legs?) I’m not sure I’ll stop being the person I am with her, and I don’t really think she’ll stop being the person she is with me.

Something happened.

Something in that exchange at the door right after my father died instantly. When she said, Please Don’t Leave Me.

Something that built upon another tragic moment when the fifty-two-year-old woman flew across the world to pick up her twenty-eight-year-old daughter from an international hostel, where the daughter was living. 

It was before Trump. (He was just the nail in the coffin.) 

We had upset the natural balance. We had upset the mother-daughter equilibrium one too many times.

Let me go all James Joyce, all Stream of Consciousness, for a bit . . . 

We had upset the mother-daughter equilibrium one too many times. 

First, when my adulthood was snatched away from me in South Africa in 1998 when Nelson Mandela still reigned. 

First, when she found me, when she was beckoned onto foreign soil to take her brain-damaged daughter home. 

Her daughter, not exactly bloodstained but bruised nonetheless, childlike but entrenched in this weird, faux-expatriate life, this endless summer camp, this Cape Town White Girl Melodrama set to the Verve singing “Bittersweet Symphony”: I’m a million different people from one day to the next . . .

That daughter

She found me there, damaged permanently, in the arms of a hot guy who was, like, Yeah, please take her out of here

My mother found me, a twenty-eight-year-old expat adventurer, forever rendered messed up

Hot Guy, Be Gone! Expat No More! Get Thee Home! 

Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world, and I’ll always remember you like a child, girl. 

We had upset the balance.

Second, when I was on the cusp, the edge, of reclaiming my sense of self, my personal Stevie Nicksness (I’m full of rock n’ roll venom today), my Writer Badge, my father died instantly in a car crash on Bell Road and my mother said, Please Don’t Leave

We had upset the balance. 

Mother-daughter, daughter-mother, friends, enemies, needy, independent. 

But neither of us was going to succumb, neither of us was going to go down without a fight. 

She would mother me, smother me, beam with pride at my accomplishments, cower in shame at my indiscretions, talk me up to strangers, make excuses for me to her friends, never let me go. 

I’d rely on her, call on her, let her in on my secrets, and cut her loose when I was done. 

We had upset the balance. 

Now, decades later, it’s all shaky ground. 

Holy Ground?

We are not nice people together. 

But maybe I’ll reconcile myself with my mother. Can I do it before I actually lose her?

*          *          *

So we went to Ireland in July 2003. Of course—but of course!—we stayed at The Clarence on 6-8 Wellington Quay, the Bono-and-Edge-owned hotel (at least back then).  Minimalist, outrageously expensive, stark but chic, with a fabulous location along the River Liffey in the Temple Bar district. What I remember about the hotel was that it was uber-metropolitan, we were jet-lagged and slept wildly, and we ate dinner at the Clarence in a posh dining room. It was sparse, clean, with cute Irish guys at the front desk. I’ve always been a sucker for cute Irish guys, both before my brains were bashed in and after. 

Oh, Ireland!

My mom and I would have two international trips before I married Tim and before I slowly but surely disassociated from her. First, Ireland. We had an amazing time. I only think of her in Ireland in a good light. My memories are not harsh. She is young and thin, and she drove the whole time because there was no way in hell I could drive on the wrong side of the road. (At what point, I wonder now, did I start being the one who insisted upon driving us places? At what point, I wonder now, did I tell her that she wasn’t allowed to drive my kids anywhere?) She drove on the wrong side of the road, the two of us laughing, sometimes on absurdly narrow two-way streets on steep cliffs with sheep crossing the road or on a slice of rugged coast on the Beara Peninsula near a fishing village—sometimes seriously just having had Irish coffees with Bailey’s in a pub minutes before. A drink of whisky for us? This sounds so absurdly unlike either of us, her anxiety-ridden and law-abiding and a venomous-hater-of-reckless-abandon, and me—high-strung, a control freak, and a full-fledged teetotaler. Who were we back then, two decades ago? And how did we ever get along?

And then we went to Cuba together, as part of my job at a small college. I took my mother on my educational visa. We had a blast.

What happened?

I can’t even go out to breakfast with her without feeling like shit.

*          *          *

This is the part that I can’t let her read, the part that requires me to publish the book after she dies. Knowing her, she’ll live well-past one-hundred.

I’ll write her a letter.

Dear Mom, 

What happened? What happened to us? 

I’ve cooked up a theory in my head, and I believe it to be true. I’m so sorry. I believe it is true. 

I left you, and you didn’t leave me. 

Sometimes, I think it was at the side of your bed in the rehab hospital after your botched hip surgery. When I sat there on my laptop, not even interacting with you, because I just wanted a rest from my sad, sad life. Maybe it was then, then, when you saw that I was there but absent. 

I left.

Maybe it was another time, though. 

In the beginning, when Tim and I were just married and everything was so horrible, I had a sense that he’d want to move out-of-state at some point. I knew I had to keep him in Arizona. I had to, because I never wanted to go anywhere alone with him. It was unimaginable. That he would be my only friend? That I’d rely on him

I was still dependent on you. 

My mother.

Later, though, at the married-for-a-while point, when the sorrow had passed, the co-dependency kicked-in. The you-are-my-world psychosis took over in our marriage. 

When he brought up moving with more vigor later, I thought, Yeah, that might be fun!  

Yeah, that might be fun!  

By then, he was my world. 

I’d go with him. 

My friend. 

My tragic soulmate who I couldn’t possibly live without.

Had I squeezed you out?

(You see, mom, I am not like you. When dad died, you carried-the-fuck-on. But I am terrified of outliving Tim. Even writing it down frightens me. I’m afraid that God might hear me and want to show me how to deal, how to rise to the occasion, and I don’t want to. I don’t want to deal. So, God, I think, let’s forget I mentioned it.) 

But there’s another part of my theory. I’ve been married now for about eighteen years. I know I’m crazy. I know I’m a Type-A person who likes things in a particular way. The dishes in the dishwasher need to be loaded just so. I only put my keys down in one of two places; I don’t lose my keys. I probably have OCD, though I’m undiagnosed. I don’t maniacally count or color coordinate closets and my bookshelves are a nightmare to behold, but I wash my hands a lot. You never need to worry about whether or not I washed my hands after going to the bathroom. (I did.) My craziness is multi-layered. I can burn, I can rage. A brain injury was an insult to my intelligence. Do you think I will kowtow to a little cognitive damage? I think not


I know that marriage tempers me. I’m not allowed to be as crazy as I might be. I have a built-in crazy odometer called Tim Bell (also crazy, but differently). 

This is one real function of marriage: one doesn’t get to be as crazy as one might be.

You gotta keep your cool, when you’re married. 

You don’t get to let loose.

Marriage tempers you.

That other person—even if he’s nuts too—is there to, figuratively speaking, move you off the crazy stove-top burner and place you on the other burner. The cooled-off one. 

You know what I mean?

Through no fault of your own, mom, you don’t have that. 

There is nothing to stop your crazy

And, Dear Lord, your intemperance is staggering. 



There is no one in your house 24/7, saying, You can’t say that . . . or Well, I don’t know if you’re right about that. . . or It might actually mean something else. . .     

That human buffer.

The person who tells you, Calm-the-fuck-down . . . 

Keep Your Shit Together. 

There are things you, mom, say that no tempered person says.

Is it standing up for what you believe, or raging against the machine?

Is it being full of vim and vigor, or burning down the house?

Is it telling-it-like-it-is or gossip? 

Is it a Christian revival or reckless abandon? 

Is it the local news report or doomsday rants that are antithetical to post-mil eschatology? 

Is it a belief in things not seen or reckless abandon?

And, at some point—I don’t even know when—I said to myself, Enough is enough

Enough is freakin’ enough.

At some point, I said to myself, I’m not a child.

I remember, once, being in your house and I was, like, in my forties, and there were a bunch of old church friends present, like a reunion of sorts, and you scolded me for not sharing the Doctrine of Exclusive Psalmody anymore—and I paused, wondering if you thought it was cute to banter like that in public. Like, did you think it amused people? And did you think I was simply wrong and you were simply right because you were clear-thinking, while I subscribed to—what?—a Social Gospel? 

Did you still have a job to do—the job of correcting my thinking?

Dear Lord, it was at that moment. 

That moment.

I knew the women who were there, but my affection for them waned (I’m afraid.) 

I wouldn’t accept that scolding, and I wouldn’t be in the posture of a child. 

It wasn’t cute, and I wouldn’t accept that ever again. 

I do not remember if I stayed there for the rest of the get-together or not; I only know that I decided not to attend any social events with you again. I was middle-aged, and I wasn’t going to be treated like a child.

That’s what happened

And, no, no, I no longer want to see our onetime mutual friends, because I can’t. I just can’t. I had to step away. I had to get away. 

We are kids without horses now, the both of us.

*          *          *

Our trip was well-documented in photos and maps, but very little in writing. From Phoenix to Newark, and from Newark to Dublin, we arrived on June 27, 2003—the day before my mom’s fifty-seventh birthday. We would fly out from Shannon on July 3 for our return trip. I had all kinds of U2-centric plans. We’d go to the Bonovox Hearing Aid Store on Earl Street North, just off O’Connell Street, because that was the inspiration for Paul Hewson’s name-change. (We made it.) As of this writing, it’s still very much in business. We would look for Bono’s house, the Edge’s house, and Mount Temple Comprehensive School—where they met as teen boys. (We never made it.). We had boxty pancakes—potato pancakes—which we were into because we are Jews when it comes to food and Irish latkes sounded like a plan. We drank plenty of Irish coffee with Bailey’s because, well, it really worked

I created a page in my photo album of the trip that has just a few itinerary notes on it. In the cab from the airport to The Clarence, I asked the cabbie about The Ballymun Flats. I couldn’t understand a word he said, except that he told us they were being torn down. He possibly said, I noted on this itinerary, If we can live with the Protestants, we can live with anything, and he possibly also said something anti-Semitic. 

I didn’t tell him that we were Protestants and Jews. Too confusing.  

*          *          *

Am I making this part up?

Aging 101: Humor and the World Wide Web.

She is already past seventy-five—long past her Irish coffee days on the hunt for U2 in Dublin. We had always laughed together, always. Growing up, we were this off-color blend of a Christian household, a Jewish household, and a dirty joke or two. I grew up on Woody Allen, till even we had to turn away with a look of disgust. But we were the ones laughing at fart jokes, mildly obscene stories, Blazing Saddles, and Eddie Murphy. 

But as my mom aged, I noticed a subtle shift. 

I’ve thought a lot about this.

First, her humor gradually changed. 

I noticed it initially with, of course, The Office

Yes, The Office.

I love The Office. I love it dearly. Obsessively. Abnormally. Everybody knows this about me.

And I get that there are non-Office people out there; I do. 

(I mean, I get it but I don’t.)

But my mom wasn’t supposed to be a non-Office person. 

She was supposed to love The Office

But she just didn’t.

And, yeah, it hit me.

What was this? 

A loss of irony?

Why did my mother, who once loved all that edgy stuff, now crave sweet drivel like Call the Midwife or the sedate pageantry of Downton Abbey? (I like Downton, don’t get me wrong—but I prefer a little Better Call Saul, if you know what I mean . . . )

What happened to her love of weirdness? Was her Absurdity Barometer on the fritz? 

Nowadays, she might suggest a sanctimonious disaffection of some sort, an estrangement from the Twisted. Her Moral Compass can’t stomach my favorites. 

(Curb Your Enthusiasm makes her anxious, though she admits that my dad would’ve loved it.)

But I also know she’s into the local news with its daily body count, and she could you tell you about every serial killer, pedophile, and petty thief within the vicinity. Plus, despite any piety she might pour out on me, she really likes Succession and Peaky Blinders and Ozark

So it really couldn’t be sanctimonious reasons for her non-Office habit . . . 

Why The Fuck Did My Mom Not Love The Office?

In my heart of hearts, I thought it was a loss of irony. Yes, so subtle. The nuances of the weird. 

That was a sign of aging.

Yeah, some memory stuff was happening. No biggie.

Yeah, she’s not especially hustling across any dance floor singing “Stayin’ Alive” anymore. No biggie.

Yeah, she’s intemperate and thinks she’s subtle about her attempts to evangelize to my children. But that’s not really an aging thing. She’s always been like that. 

Yeah, she’s a Harbinger of Doom. Aging? Kinda. 

But it was really the Loss of Irony.

And the Internet.

The other sign of aging that crept up on us unexpectedly had to do with, of all things, the Internet.  

While her humor shifted with aging, so did her relationship with the World Wide Web. 

I know we’re all addicts, getting increasingly dumber, destroying what little attention we have so that every single one of us needs ADHD meds, losing our ability to have real relationships with other human beings, and sowing the seeds of Civil War in America. 

That’s not an aging thing. 

(And that’s not even Trump’s fault! It’s Al Gore’s!)

But something unique happened to her when the Internet went down in January 2022 for not more than four days. 

During a supply-chain shortage, due to Biden or Trump or Covid or Inflation. 

It took a while to get everything repaired.

No Internet!

Stop the streaming!

Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime: gone!

Facebook: gone!

I sent my mom a text on the morning after our first night alone, “Did you make it?” I asked, jokingly. 

“Did I make what?” she responded, not jokingly.

And then I got so sad.

(I remembered when she got nervous about talking in the same room as Alexa. Maybe Putin was listening. Then again, Tim—trying to remember the word Alexa—asked, “What’s her name? Lady Google?”)

The temporary cessation of a global connection took this jarring toll on her. And we were witness to it.

But also largely immune from it: Tim rigged up a hotspot so we could still work. 

However, my old mom suffered. 

Her life had already become very stationary. She was no longer going many places. She watched a lot of TV. She met friends for brunch, but there was downtime.

And she, well—this is the tragic part—lived on social media.

I always knew that my mother very much enjoyed the role of matron saint, the role of religious pundit, the possessor of Wisdom and Truth. The disapproval I had always felt from her was built on this. 

It came from a particular place in her. 

She was, undoubtedly, a good Christian woman. 

Now, an old woman, widowed, mostly immobile, she couldn’t help it. 

What more could she do than share the Gift of God?

On Facebook!

Social media became her pulpit.

Facebook sermons, Bible verses, and righteous politics. Eschatology, Exclusive Psalmody, Doctrine (you name it, she’s got it). 

Her very identity was threatened by the loss of the Internet.

The lack of the Web was not easy on her.

I wouldn’t say that she crumbled.



Was humbled?

We were there for her, okay? 

We were there.

We were there, but . . . she was a bit lost.

Was it my imagination or did she become more frail in those few off-the-grid days?

How much did she age?

Was she, after all, more like Tim’s elderly mom—secluded in her bedroom watching TV reruns of the Andy Griffith ilk and avoiding the ice on the steps—than I knew? 

What did it feel like to be her? 

To feel that community she had on Facebook dry up instantly, so that all that she had was her reprobate daughter and her loony-tunes son-in-law upon whom she really had no other choice but to depend? 

The community with their affirmations and her pontification platform had slipped away.

It was just her, an old woman.

And her daughter, who was worldly and went grocery shopping on Sunday and voted for Biden. 

*          *          *

Dublin was a mad dash. The Clarence was luxurious. Trinity College and the Book of Kells. Bewley’s Oriental Café, established in 1840 (I think they dropped the Oriental part). St. Stephen’s Green, Fitzwilliam Square, Merrion Square. Rainbow-bright doors and walk-up flats. I pictured myself as an Irish Bridget Jones, dating eligible bachelors with accents, living in an adorable flat, wearing short skirts (I’d be taller, slimmer), carrying a slim brief case (more professional—or someone else altogether). An afternoon Bailey’s Irish Coffee (the very first one) at Café en Seine and a stroll along Grafton Street, crossing the River Liffey on the Ha’Penny Bridge, wandering around the Winding Staircase Bookstore, and taking pictures at the Bonovox Hearing Aid Store off of O’Connell Street. Apparently, I bought a CD of U2-cover songs at Mojo’s Records in Temple Bar. I do not think I’ve seen that CD in my possession since that day.

(I guess I wanted to meet Bono in order to be permanently destroyed by the havoc visited upon those who meet their heroes.) 

Where did that CD go? 

Along with my relationship with my mother? 

We visited Christ Church Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Parnell Square/Garden of Remembrance, a modern art museum, and some kind of Vegas-style Riverdance show. 

After two nights in Dublin, we picked up a rental car and drove all day on the wrong side of the road, stopping at Powerscourt Gardens. I wrote of Powerscourt: A beautiful spot, nearly worth risking our lives to get to. The plan was to head over later to Kilkenny.

We got absurdly lost trying to get there. The story goes that we pulled over at a random little cottage somewhere in Southern Ireland, where I walked up to the door of a home along a lush and winding pathway, knocked, and said to the puzzled Irishman who answered, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I wonder if you could tell me how to get to Kilkenny?”  

This was about as weird as someone showing up at one’s Phoenix condo and asking a random dude how to get to Reno. 

*          *          *

When Y2K was approaching, I didn’t really give a shit. It was only a few years after “The Accident,” and I lived with my parents—I’d turn thirty right before the world ended—and maybe I welcomed cataclysm. 

My dad was still alive, and I think he cared about Y2K a little more than I did. 

My mom was obsessed. 

She filled the hall closet with food that astronauts ate.  

Gallons of purified bottled water lined the shelves in the laundry room. 

She had a clean blue recycler bin filled with more water and sealed up in the back shed—specifically to be used for bathing later, in the new century, when it would be scarce. I never knew what happened to that blue bin later—I never asked her—but I know that the astronaut food was still there in 2015, when my mom finally moved out. (Did she still have some in the addition?)

Before the clocks turned and the apocalypse possibly began, my parents had gone to bed around ten at night—despite imminent danger—and I had watched the Gin Blossoms perform downtown on a local Phoenix TV channel. I had lounged on my parents’ couch in my childhood home, where I still live now in some kind of warped non-Oedipal Shakespearean tragedy. I had worn a bulky mauve robe to bring in the new century, I was in an MFA program doing the only thing I have ever done well, I was a woman devoted to “ER” and “Third Watch” because the Television Renaissance had only just began and I was unawares, and I was wholeheartedly cynical about anything happening as exciting as all the computers of the world shutting down and the planet going black. 

As the epoch gave way, I—prone, alone, and a stereotype—stretched my toes in my socks, and thought, Nothing’s happening.

Hey, Jealousy! sang the Gin Blossoms.

I was already your basic Kid Without a Horse. 

*          *          *

At some point, we switched to Decaf Bailey’s in our Irish Adventure, which cracks me up. We gave up the caffeine, but not the whiskey!

We toured the Waterford Crystal Factory. 

I have no clue why there are no photos of us at Blarney Castle (where we, at least, stood nearby while others kissed the Blarney Stone). No proof exists. 

There were other castles, as well. 

We went to Kinsale, where there were two pubs we liked: The Mad Monk and Jim Edwards’. We both bought expensive art that I still have (and love) at Gallery Catoire

From County Cork, we headed to County Kerry. We went around the Beara Peninsula, and what I called the beautiful but treacherous Healy Pass in the scanty itinerary notes. Mountain goats peppered the terrain, often with blue paint marking their heads like baptismal splatters to indicate ownership. We detoured to Castletownbere, a coastal town on the Peninsula, a past haven for smugglers. There was none of the sophistication of The Clarence, and none of the Emerald Isle Charm of the cottages-on-the-road-to-Kilkenny. The sky was beautiful but gray; and the fishing trawlers were rusty and smelly.  

In Castletownbere, we found a pub. There were women there, and we heard Gaelic. We watched, fascinated by the locals. The Irishwomen laughed a lot. They were mostly a plain bunch with hair pulled off their faces, occasional chipped teeth, blue jeans, strollers, cigarettes. Had they ever been outside of Castetownbere? Did they long to be somewhere else? 

And where did they get their strollers?

Were they like me? Did they long to be Irish Bridget Joneses, working at fashion magazines, dating eligible bachelors who had rock star fantasies, living in adorable flats, having single female friends, wearing short skirts, carrying little brief cases?

There were children with these women. Boys, little and tough boys. They climbed on top of the picnic tables and stomped on its surfaces. They were into trucks and they pushed each other while their mothers laughed nearby.  

My mom and I loved it all.

We were like that. People who watched.

Then, onto Kenmare, our destination for the wedding. 

That first night there, I ate Monk Fish in Goat Cheese Sauce at The Horseshoe. It sounds great, but I’m too old now to remember what it was like. 

We stayed at a place called Tara Farm, and there was nothing not beautiful about the place called Tara Farm, somewhere near Kenmare. While we did wedding things, we also went to Muckross House in Killarney. 

A guide told us how the family living there during the reign of Queen Victoria had been given six-year’s notice for a two-day visit by the Queen, and the owners spent the next six years preparing—in expectation of a title endowment. 

Queen Victoria came and had a lovely time in Kerry. When she left, though, her husband, Prince Albert, took ill and died. 

Preoccupied, the Queen forgot about giving away any titles. Financially in trouble after the Muckross renovations in anticipation of the Queen, and without the virtue of being Sirs or Lords, the Muckross owners were obligated to sell. 

History, made.  Never what’s expected.

Bob and Julie were married in a little Irish church; there was dinner at The Lime Tree Restaurant (the menu still looks awesome), and they had their first dance in a pub. 

Can you say perfect?

Why they actually chose me to be there, I’ll never really know; I do know that I think of it as a treasure.  

*          *          *

My mom and I don’t seem to have much in common anymore. We both love animals. We’re both OCD (she’d disagree—but, Dear Lord, we are). We’re both kinda, like, It’s-My-Way-Or-The-Highway (again, she’d disagree). We both like Art. We’re both pretty intense about our lives as moms, even if neither of us is the best (I suspect that she thinks she really is the best). We’re both not racists (though she says outdated things, I know she’s not a racist). We both romanticize the epic-ness of our lives. We’re both City Girls. We both like chocolate.


I suspect—I know—she thinks me a heretic. Even though I was raised as a staunch Calvinist with the Right doctrine, I somehow embraced a social gospel, she’d say. Sometimes, when she’s mad at me, she tells me that her friends ask if everything is okay with me, like maybe I’m off my rocker. 

I usually say, Fuck ‘Em

She thinks I married well (though Tim is nuts, we match). She loves my kids. She loves my dog. She asks me for TV recommendations. 

She wishes I dressed nicely. I’m a schlub; something happened to make me not care. She wishes I was more genteel and I liked nice restaurants. I no longer see the value of seared asparagus and other seared delicacies. She wishes I went to Bible studies and church potlucks. She thinks Tim and I live it up and waste money. She imagines we eat tons of fried food and pasta. She tries to deliver messages under the table to my kids about Christianity. Hopefully, they’ll see the Light!

She eats dinner for breakfast. (She always has!)

She buys potato chips, on the lowdown. 

I think I got my rock n’ roll and book-love from my dad, but I think she’d say the literary thing is from her. She did attend a Bruce Springsteen concert with me after 9/11, but I never hear her listening to music. 

We are different, and I suppose she’d attribute the differences to my lack of religiosity. 

I’d say that I just grew up and became me. The epic-ness of my life did its work on me. Profound injury created a before and after.  

*          *          *

The early death of her husband caused her to skip middle age.

I, too, skipped middle age.  

We have that in common. 

*          *          *

After the wedding in Kenmare, we were off again!

We stopped in Limerick to pay tribute to Frank McCourt.  

Somewhere on the road, we got food. My mom ordered “Linda McCartney’s Vegetarian Breakfast,” which she swore was good, despite what looked like canned beans and tofu sausages.  

Bunratty Castle stayed with the both of us. 

When one thinks of Bunratty, one thinks of Vikings and a fortress and the whole moat thing. A drawbridge.

History exists there in a way that just eludes American Me. First, it was a Norman fortress in 1250. Then, in the 1400s, after wreckage and strife, it became a castle—because medieval castles were all the rage. Earls were involved. Three main floors, I think. Four towers. 

I was mostly interested in how they used the toilet—like feces, like what happened with poop

Hadn’t I heard that royal people just peed in the corners of Versailles? 

No toilet paper? 

No incessant handwashing? 

I mean, what does one do if one is three floors up, it’s in the middle of the night, the stairs are cold blocks of rock, and the halls are dank echo chambers which smell moldly or like the zoo? Did one really toss the shit out the window and try to hit the water in the moat? Really?

Let’s not even talk about B.O.

(But we can, if you want.)

I remember us climbing spiral staircases between floors, huffing and puffing, red-faced, trying to catch our breath, laughing so hard, because we couldn’t believe this medieval life—This Wild Medieval Life!—and I had to go to the bathroom like I always do, but we kept laughing and I said, I’m Going To Pee In My Pants If We Don’t Get Out Of Here, though the only way down was through Banquet Halls and Chapels and Kitchens Containing Dead Rabbits For Stew and the many, many staircases undoubtedly leading to a dungeon or a River of Shit. 

We were laughing so hard.

And I never peed my pants because we found Durty Nelly’s, a pub dating back to 1620, that had seafood chowder, soda bread, and—for sure, for sure—Bailey’s and Coffee.  

Always, with the Bailey’s and Coffee

Wildly, ironically, on that very same day, we went to the Cliffs of Moher, in County Clare. This place of ravishing, pure beauty. 

It’s the site where we took the only existing photo of us together in Ireland.

*          *          *

My mom did amazing things over our lifetime together. She never grew bitter. I wonder if she knows that this is the thing—not her wisdom or ministries or the purity of her faith—but this that I admire most. 

I know I’ve been cripplingly bitter at times in my life, after a lousy relationship, post-Accident, during my marriage, over my lackluster book sales. 

I know that she also taught me how to survive. She mourned; I saw profound sorrow. But she literally picked herself up off the ground. She looked at her life. She said, “Okay, Lord,” like Abraham or Moses (no joke)—and she got to her feet, got a job, started walking the dog since my dad wasn’t going to do it, morphed into a new role in her church circle, and got savvy on the Internet (relatively speaking). She edged into the Scottsdale Art Scene. She hobnobbed with artists. She was closer to her sister. She ate expensive Thai.

She never once held me back after “The Accident.” Disapproval came later. 

She stood by me in pursuing a writing career (like, is that even done anymore?). 

She stood by me when I bought a new house.

She came over at ten p.m. (the new midnight) when my kitten broke his leg and I was flipping out.

She gave my books to her friends, beaming in pride, even though I wrote crazy stuff with bad words.

She threw me a wedding when I married on whim. 

She rushed to the hospital to see my first baby, and she came over to take care of my toddler when we went to have our second baby.

She tried to be there when my marriage looked like it would collapse.

She loved my husband when I said, He’s good to go again

She lives in her little “casita,” wondering why I don’t text, and she loves her cat as if Scout were a Deity, and she eats salad for breakfast, watching Masterpiece Theatre. She still gets the mail every day, and shops at Safeway, even though it’s so overpriced that I’ve literally dropped my bottle of body wash and headed out the door in protest. She has friends for brunches and games and fancy early dinners, and the Facebook algorithms suit her style. She doesn’t recycle, but she might use an ATM machine now. She could probably teach the police a thing or two. 

But she never got bitter. 

Not once. 

*          *          *

On that last night in 2003, we went to Doolin. 

The town to go to for traditional Irish music. 

And there we were, loving every second of it. Doolin was rural, and I wrote: Closest thing to the Transkei in South Africa that I’ve ever seen. Ireland was like Africa! That isolated, hushed, vast, beauty . . . 

My mom may have been one of the oldest people on the streets of Doolin after dark. 

We spent an afternoon writing postcards, drinking more Bailey’s and Coffee, talking to farm animals, and eating fish ‘n’ chips in Gus O’Connoll’s Pub on Fisherstreet. When it was late, we listened to live traditional Irish music. There were traditional instruments like the fiddle and someone bringing-down-the-house with a zither.

I think it was a zither.

Some backpacker from Calgary brought his drums.

Sweet, sweet Doolin! 

I miss it, as I write it. 

We flew out of Shannon in the morning. 

*          *          *

I do not think that my mom and I will ever have our Moment of Truth. She will never get that thing she hopes for. She will never get what she craves, that moment I look her deep into her eyes and finally—finally!—say, You Were Right All Along. Thank You! 

She will imagine me arriving at Heaven’s Gate, and it won’t be Saint Peter welcoming me—since we’re Protestants—but Jesus Himself, who will beckon me over with a kind but firm word: Your Mother Knew What She Was Talking About. 

And I will never get my moment either. 

I never got it with my father. He never survived to see any of this, my real life. 

Dad, I passed on our toe-thumb to one of my daughters

Oh well. He’s with Mr. Rogers and Johnny Cash now. 

I think my mom, though, lost both of us. She lost my father. Then, she lost me.

I’m still here, mom. 

But will either of us ever see beyond the Ballymun Flats, the seven towers, the trash caught in weeds, the wreckage and glass shards and relics of sorrow?  

So, I end here. With drama. With the image of the kids without horses. 

What became of them? 

They were only children.   

Did they grow old, the images of those beautiful beasts fading? Do they only see the wreckage? How strong are their memories?

At the end of the day, we are them. 

Kids Without Horses.



Jennifer Spiegel is the author of four books, and she hopes that this is the title essay of her fifth. Her personal favorite of her own stuff is the novel And So We Die, Having First Slept. For more info, see

Image: Annika Treial/Unsplash

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