Soccer Moms

I first met Paula on the sidelines of our sons’ soccer games. She was short, blond, and mouthy. Like me, she was a screamer on the athletic fields — but louder. When I got to know her better, I told people I’d rather have Paula on my side than the Mafia. I meant it.

Away from the soccer field, our lives were very different. She was a fulltime housewife and mother of three almost-grown sons — and the most scrupulous and exacting housekeeper and household manager I’ve ever known. My family’s household, in contrast, was more like a rattletrap jalopy than a well-oiled machine. I’d always worked outside the home, and “scrupulous” and “exacting” weren’t terms that usually cropped up in the same sentences with my name.

Paula and I didn’t really become good friends till she was diagnosed with colon cancer a few years ago. I’d had my own bout with cancer several years before, and it’s remarkable how a similar diagnosis gives you so much in common. Having a dread disease puts you in a lonely place that almost no one else can understand (which isn’t to say other clueless people don’t give you advice about your illness and your life. They do it constantly.)

But, anyway, Paula.  She had surgery and chemo and more surgery and more chemo. She was remarkable, indomitable. She kept getting slammed by recurrences and metastases, but she kept getting up. When she was well enough, she still ran on the Hike and Bike Trail in downtown Austin. And she still kept her house in perfect order — until she couldn’t.

I had lunch with her on one of those hard days, at a time when the hard days had begun to outnumber any other kind of day. “I can’t do anything,” she said. “I can barely shop for food or cook or clean. I can’t do anything I used to do.”

She went on, and I tried to comfort her. Of course she couldn’t take care of the house. She was sick, she was doing too much already. It was understandable. It was —

But I could tell I wasn’t getting through to her.

Who was she, she asked me, if she couldn’t work nonstop at her home, if she couldn’t take care of her husband and sons? Who was she? She was no one. She was worthless. She was nothing.

Worthless, nothing, nobody, useless. That sounded sadly familiar to me.

“Oh,” I said. “I guess you hear the same voices I do. The ones that tell you you’re no good.”

“All the time,” she said.

Those voices. They sang a shrill chorus every day, starting early, finishing late. Day to day, they could be semi-placated by hard work and some kind of accomplishment — but they were always back the next morning, ready to harangue. They spoke with such authority. They knew you better than you knew yourself. They knew how unworthy you really were.

Maybe everybody in the universe is supposed to be “entitled” these days. But somebody vile sent some of us a different message: Every day, we needed to earn our small foothold on the planet. If we worked hard enough, we could beat back those voices that told us we were no good.

“Jeez, they won’t give you a break even when you have cancer,” I said.

Paula just shook her head. The truth was, she was dying of cancer and we both knew it. But you don’t talk about everything. even in a close friendship.

The weeks and months passed. Paula’s house was crowded with neighbors and friends, with the young men she’d mothered as firmly and generously as she’d mothered her own sons. They told her, again and again, how much she had meant to them and how much they loved her.

“Do you understand how much people love you?” I asked her occasionally. “Is it getting through to you?”

She said it was. Finally.

Paula’s memorial service took place on a hot autumn afternoon. The Lutheran church was so packed that my husband, son, and I sat far up in a balcony. We had to strain to hear the farewells that were spoken from below.

It’s been almost four years since Paula died. Like all of my good friends who have died, she’s still with me now and then. She reminds me of how you never know when you first meet a person how important she might be in your life. I can close my eyes and see the two of us — screaming soccer moms on the sidelines, a little shrill and obnoxious to the outside world, silently harsh and unforgiving to ourselves.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. I see those words, too, in so many forms. For some of us, the greatest battle is to be kind to our unworthy selves.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

You might want to read Aristotle’s Always Hogging the Credit




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What’s Wrong With Men? (The Latest in a Continuing Series)

We were at a birthday dinner, sitting at a round table and passing around peppery Chinese dishes. After a story about a recently retired friend who had worked at Yellowstone for the summer, one of the men leaned forward in his chair and asked a couple of questions:

Wouldn’t it be nice for all of us if we could have two or three different lifetimes so we could do everything we wanted — write more books, work at Yellowstone, climb a mountain, learn Esperanto? Wasn’t it a shame we were all limited to a short 70 or 80 years and could do so little?

Well. I know we were all supposed to chime in supportively about how that was such a great idea and how we’d really love to be a ballerina or an astrophysicist or a jockey at the Kentucky Derby, but this whole single lifespan business just got in our way. Instead, all I could say was:

Only a man could say something like that — getting hoggish about needing another lifetime. I’ve never known a woman yet who wanted more than an ordinary lifespan.

We went around the table and, sure enough, none of the women wanted to re-enlist for another 80 years. I know that didn’t exactly settle the point, but it looked like a trend to me.

Later, I talked to my husband about it. He’s one of those big-time immortality proponents, so I asked him what was wrong with men (I like to begin with neutral questions).

He seemed to think it was all about wanting to secure power and mastery and to leave a legacy behind — so what was wrong with that? Maybe men and women just defined legacies differently. Since men were less connected emotionally, maybe they were more driven to leave behind monuments and buildings and other bodies of work.

“Or maybe it just takes men longer,” I told him. “That’s why they want more lifetimes.”

Then I checked with my friend Brenda, who’s very authoritative about matters like sex differences. Also, she just retired recently, so she has plenty of time to opine about everything.

Brenda is kind of an authority on sex differences. Anyway, she has lots of opinions.

Brenda is kind of an authority on sex differences. Anyway, she has lots of opinions.

“Men don’t give birth — that’s their problem,” Brenda said. “They’re not as involved in the life cycle, with birth and death, as we are. Maybe women are too involved — and that’s why they don’t need do-overs.”

Or maybe we’re just more tired, I sometimes think. Maybe, being more intimately involved with others than men are, women lead lives that are richer emotionally — but they deplete us. It’s what my daughter and I once tried to explain to my husband/her father and son/brother: As women, we have harder lives — but we wouldn’t trade places with them for anything.

I’m pretty sure one normal lifespan is enough for me. I’ve had a great life with people and work I love, and I’m in no hurry to leave it. But you couldn’t pay me to re-live it or start all over. In fact, I find it oddly comforting that life has its seasons. Sometimes I just don’t think men get that.

Anyway, in the midst of all this discussion, we got an email, then a phone call, from our daughter. She and her husband, they just found out, are having a baby girl. After we hung up, I looked at my husband, who had tears in his eyes.

You know, he might talk a good game about immortality and multiple lifetimes and monuments, but when it comes down to it, he and I really aren’t that different: This is the closest either of us will ever come to immortality. This is what we care about more than anything else.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about Women and Men: From Tragedy to Farce

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It’s Only Food. Really

There are insanely adventurous diners in this world.

I’m not one of them.

I mean, I’ve eaten sushi, rattlesnake, hippopotamus, turtle, bear, alligator, and armadillo, so I’m not a total dud as a thrillseeker. But I won’t go near any kind of internal organs, suspicious-looking vegetables (sweet potatoes, eggplant, turnips, to name a few), goat, or goat cheese.

When my husband and I first met, he pointed out I ate only white and beige foods, like that was a big deal. Then, when we had kids, he hinted I was a bad vegetable role model for the children. Blah, blah, blah. Anyway, I’ve reformed and now eat all kinds of formerly dangerous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, and okra, which I like to loudly compliment myself for.

In spite of all my progress and sacrifice, my husband keeps pushing me, which is why we found ourselves at a restaurant called Mystery Cuisine when we were in Paris. I should have run when I saw the name. I like mystery in my books and my movies; I don’t like it on my plate or palate.

mystery food

The server/owner kept bringing us weird dishes and telling us how to eat them and how to drink the accompanying wine. (Did I mention this was costing a fortune, even if the euro had taken a nosedive?) Sometimes, he lit dishes on fire. Sometimes, he showed up in a mask.

“I think this is one of those molecular cuisine joints,” I hissed to my husband.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” he said. “I think this is the most incredible meal I’ve ever eaten — ”

“I’ve always hated the idea of molecular cuisine,” I continued.

” — the way they combine the tastes and ingredients is remarkable — ”

” — and I would have been perfectly happy to die without ever eating the stuff.”

The server came back with a slew of new dishes and bossy instructions on how to eat everything. This reminded me that I have real problems with authority. I could have sworn my husband had problems with authority, too, but you couldn’t tell it tonight.

“I refuse to eat anything in a single bite,” I told my husband after the server left. “My mouth’s too small. And I’m so tired of looking at foie gras that I may join PETA soon.”

“The way they’re combining tastes is extraordinary,” he said. “It makes me think of food in an entirely different way.”

He looked almost seraphic. I wanted to strangle him.

“I hate it when people fetishize food,” I said.

“What they’re doing is pure art,” he said.

Art? Oh, brother. I finally said what I’d been thinking the entire billion hours we’d been there: “You know — it’s only food.”

“That’s a sad commentary,” he said.

“Also,” I added, “foam is not food. I’m a little tired of finding foam on every course.”

We ate seafood, we ate sauces, we drank wine, we inhaled foamy mystery dishes, and — did I mention it earlier? — we paid a fortune. The euro might have been down, but it wasn’t subterranean.

We ate, we paid, we flew home, but in many ways, Mystery Cuisine lingers with us. So far, I’ve had to listen to my husband rapturously recount the whole ordeal mouthful by mouthful. He told our friends John and Helen about it at great length. Helen was intrigued; John was not.

“It’s only food,” I said again, and John agreed loudly. (John and I have decided we were either married in a past life or maybe we were the same person. In our past lives, they probably didn’t have molecular cuisine.)

Helen and John. He has good taste.

Helen and John. John has good taste.

In fact, my husband ended up writing an over-the-top review on Yelp about how Mystery Cuisine transformed him and made him think differently about dining experiences. He may have also said something about a rich cognitive and theatrical perspective, but I’d nodded off by then.

I almost never write reviews for Yelp — but I’m pretty sure I know what I’d say if I did: Just four little words.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about Forgiving Kitty Carlisle Hart




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Leaving it All Behind

(Blogger’s note: I don’t usually write about or review books. But here’s the story of an excellent memoir I recently finished.)

As a Russian aristocrat, Paul Grabbe grew up in a lost world.

His family lived in palatial residences in St. Petersburg and the Russian countryside. They were waited on by a staff of footmen and cooks, maids and tutors — a life so cosseted his mother never even brushed her own hair till they left the country. His father, a famous Russian general, was an intimate of the last Russian czar Nicholas II.

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In 1917, Paul and the rest of his family watched the Russian Revolution begin from their apartment in St. Petersburg. Their world was ending, but they didn’t know it at the time.

The recently released memoir Emigre: 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count is the story of Paul Grabbe’s remarkable life. It follows him from his early years in Russia through his wanderings in Europe, then the United States.

Emigré Front Cover

For years, Paul and his family assume their exile is temporary and the Bolsheviks will lose power. One day, they’ll return to their homeland and their old lives will resume again.

So Paul, young and adventuresome, journeys to Colorado in the 1920s, where he works as a waiter in a TB sanitarium, a gold miner, and a tutor. He goes to California, where he tries to break into the movies as a screenwriter. Instead, he finds work in a plush cemetery, tending the dead and the bereaved. When he becomes unemployed, he’s so broke he almost starves to death.


From job to job, place to place, Paul Grabbe spends his spare time doggedly pursuing knowledge and mastery of the English language. He falls in and out of love. After a while, you kind of give up and fall in love with him yourself — this privileged young man who loses everything, but grows up quickly and learns to make his own way in a harsh new world.

Paul Grabbe died in 1999, leaving behind this manuscript. His daughter, writer Alexandra Grabbe, added photographs and published this vivid memoir early this year. Here, she answers questions about her father and the book he didn’t live to see.

Did your father talk much about his past to you and your family? 

My father did not talk much about his family and past until I was grown up. I think he finally began talking about it when my mom pushed him to write his memoir. Then, they did a project together, based on my granddad’s photos, Private World of the Last Tsar. (My mom was an English major at Vassar and had worked as an editor.)
My kids have had many friends whose parents were from other countries, and I’ve often noticed the difficulties for parents and children who come from both different generations and different cultures. Do you think you can ever completely understand someone from a different culture? (Of course, this raises the obvious question whether you can completely understand someone from a different generation. Maybe you can’t.)
I do think it is difficult to understand someone from another culture, but it all depends, like on where you live.  If you live in the other person’s country, it is harder. I feel as if the cultural differences with my ex were why we broke up, as much as his betrayal with my “best” friend (preview of my novel, if I ever get an agent.)
I don’t think you can generalize though, as it depends on the situation and the people.  Flexibility required.  By the time my parents met, my dad was ready to do some therapy. He still went to therapy into his nineties.
Readers can’t help falling a little in love with your father as he makes his way through this country. He’s amazingly resilient, hungry to learn, keeps pushing on, no matter what. Did he ever wonder what he would have been like — how different — if there had been no Russian Revolution and he had remained an aristocrat?
No, he really never looked back once he was married to my mom. He never made a big deal about his past or having been a member of the aristocracy or having lost a fortune. He was very humble, which comes across in the memoir. (If there had been no Revolution, he would not have met my mom and I would not exist.)
For me, the most vivid writing in the memoir comes as your father tackles life in this country. In contrast, his childhood and youth in Russia don’t seem to have the same kind of immediacy — they’re more like a remembered dream. I’m wondering if this isn’t just the passage of time. Did he not want to remember it too vividly? Was it too painful?
I don’t know the answer to this question. I can theorize that maybe, maybe some of it has to do with my editing skills. I did edit down the manuscript considerably, but touched the first part less, since it was already published, although not distributed since the publisher went bankrupt.
 Your father died more than 15 years ago. Do you feel he’s finally at rest after you published this lovely memoir?
It was important to him to finish the memoir, so I think he would have really appreciated that I got it out there for him. He hoped people could learn from his experience, I think. The part about being an immigrant I found particularly moving.
And your next project?
I’m writing a short story collection about how the Revolution affected the children and grandchildren of members of the aristocracy in their lives outside Russia.
(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)


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The Snowflake

Oh, sure — I can keep a secret. I can hammer my mouth shut for hours, days, weeks, or years, if necessary. I’m tough!

But, you know, some secrets are easier to keep than others.

“I’m pregnant!” our daughter announced at Christmas dinner.

She might as well have lit a pipe bomb. Forget dignity; her father and I went into a loud and deep emotional swoon.

A baby!


We’re going to be grandparents before we’re complete geriatric cases!

We can stop hinting about grandkids!

We can tell all our fr –

“Of course, you can’t tell anyone till my second trimester,” our daughter said. “We want to announce it first,” she added, nodding at her husband, Bennett. (If I ever saw a guy bursting with paternal enthusiasm, it’s Bennett. According to our daughter, he’s already itching to buy some kind of special microphone so he can read to the kid in utero.)


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But the second trimester! That was weeks and weeks away. I got woozy just thinking about the people I couldn’t tell — my sister, Betsy, Donna, my neighbors, my yoga class, my pilates class, my hairdresser Snodene, passers-by, my dentist, total strangers. I might as well give up my whole social world and become a mime.

I looked at my daughter and son-in-law, who seemed to be very firm about this whole early pregnancy omerta business. Oh, brother. For some reason, they also appeared to view me as being the leakiest vessel at the table. Like my husband and son didn’t go around spilling the beans on all kinds of things practically all the time.

Typical. Women always get the blame. I guess my daughter and Bennett had forgotten how heroically I’d kept the secret when Bennett was about to propose and I’d hardly told anyone for days.

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“So — what do you all want to be called?” our daughter asked us.

Our first decision as almost grandparents! My husband looked blank. He said he didn’t know. He’d have to think about it.

“What about you, Mom?” our daughter asked.

“I want to be Coco,” I said.

Well, for some reason, this set off a firestorm of amazement at the table. Coco? Really? Why Coco?

“You sound like you’ve been thinking about this a long time,” my husband said.

Of course I’ve been thinking about it a long time,” I snapped. “This is about my identity as a grandmother.”

It occurred to me they’d all expected me to pick out some appropriately dowdy, self-sacrificing moniker for this very important transition in my life. Well, forget that. For once in my life, I was going for the zip, the glamour, the glitz.

Prepare yourself, baby. You and Coco have a rendezvous in only a few months.


P.S. Thirty-three years ago, the sonograms of our daughter in utero looked like a Rorschach test for potential felons. My husband and I pretended we could recognize the head, but it looked indistinguishable from the bottom — white blurs against a black background.

These days, the tiniest fetus is ready for Instagram. Our grandchild’s first photo traveled thousands of miles to find us in Finnish Lapland. You could see the head perfectly, along with another long, straight body part that I thought was a leg, but my husband felt sure was a penis.

That stark white image against a black background — the first evidence my own dear child is having a child of her own — moved me in a way I could never really explain. I stared at it as I sat near a fire in a distant land of snow and ice and darkness. He or she looked like a perfect little snowflake, someone I would have recognized anywhere.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)


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