Hello Daddy. Hello Mom.

I wrote this in April of 2015. This was not so long ago and yet eons ago. It was before the current co-opting of #MeToo. It was when electing Donald Trump was unimaginable and so he had not yet rolled the stones out of the way and empowered so much hate to crawl out and infect our nation. It is my story yet it is the story of so many of us then and now who live with both casual and significant wounds as we find our footing in this world. The Daddy and Mom the Runaways were screaming at were not necessarily directly their own as much as all authority and they are certainly not mine (both of whom have my love and gratitude).
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A couple of items entered the news stream this past year and weighed heavily on my mind, occupying oddly similar emotional places. Perhaps, because they have to do with, to borrow a phrase from the fantastically awful seminal eighties rock and roll film, Eddie and the Cruisers, words and music. Much of my life has revolved around those two things.

The first is the revelation from Harper Lee’s controversially published Go Set a Watchman that Atticus Finch was a racist. Yes he was. This is not news to anyone who read the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird and came to know his moral and paternalistic character. The second is that Jackie Fuchs (Jackie Fox) of the Runaways came forward with her tale of a hideous public rape at the hands of producer Kim Fowley. She was sixteen at the time. Both incidents speak of past and present that is so familiar. Both bring to my mind so many memories and so many unrealized hopes, not all of them immediate and not all of them my own. They also make me realize that geography, white privilege, and dumb luck have been to my advantage throughout my life. Finally, they strike me of the common banality of both racism and rape.

Maybe such banality persists because we are living in an era in which fighting against things causes discomfort and takes too much work; during a time when we enjoy a plethora of easily consumed comfort and all work too hard on a daily basis to afford our modest, yet constant, consumer comforts. Also, charges like rape and racism ruin things for the rest of us. A quick scan of comments following credible online articles on either topic gives evidence to this. The rape victim ruins the football game or the party and the victim of racist epithets and acts just needs to relax and “stop playing the race card”. Jackie Fuchs’ allegations, which are quite credibly substantiated, put a stain on the sexually charged persona of the teenage girl band and accepting that the Atticus of Watchman is the same as the Atticus of Mockingbird, puts a stain on a beloved, noble and moral father figure. Heck, it puts a stain on Gregory Peck’s white suit.

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I was born in 1970 into a world in which Richard Nixon was president, the Civil Rights movement was morphing into the Black Power movement and the women’s movement was colliding with the deep misogyny of youth culture embodied in anti-war movements and rock and roll. It was the year of the Kent state shootings, four years before a disgraced Richard Nixon resigned from office, a year before the Attica uprising and five years before the official end of the Vietnam War. Less than a month after I was born former SDS members gone underground blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse. It was also simply 1970, another year in which a young couple, once college students in SDS themselves, in a mistake marriage full of unrealized ideas and ideals, found themselves saddled with a second child. I was born five years before the Runaways formed. Four years before Patty Hearst was abducted and repeatedly raped (something that has become a footnote in her story and wasn’t even considered in her trial). I was born into  a time of seminal sexual liberation and forty-odd years later,  we still haven’t reached the conclusion that women can be sexual beings without being sexual game.

I was born into a family in which family legend has it my father was offered a spot with Blue Oyster Cult (then Soft White Underbelly) but declined it for family obligations. My father and his friends always had  guitars and my mother had a beautiful voice and was forever flipping records over on the turntable. “Just one more side.” Credibility of my own rock and roll credentials aside, I grew up surrounded by it. My best childhood memories include backyard guitar circles and potlucks. Lots of beards and denim and folk song singalongs with hand-churned ice cream, canned beer, and the sweet smell of marijuana wafting in the air.

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I know enough about child development to know that my early childhood shaped me more than any other time in my life so I am definitely a product of the seventies. My cultural and memorial  touchstones, however, all come from the eighties. So while I can harken a fondness for childhood freedom, glam rock, grit, the working class, long gas lines, wide hemlines, truly dirty and dangerous New York City, black power, a more fiscally conservative time, and Jimmy Carter, I can quote Footloose and Purple Rain and the Ronald Reagan of my youth is not the governor of California who went after the Black Panthers with full racist zeal but the soulless and amoral man who led the Iran Contra arms sales. I lead my life constantly confronting my own paradoxical impulses, informed by the contradictory economies of the seventies and eighties. One is frugal and one irresponsibly indulgent.

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Decades are about as defining as political boundaries. They are imposed on something that cannot be contained. In this case not land and sea, but time, evolution, cultural shifts. Like political boundaries, they do encapsulate something that becomes tangibly defined. Still, we can use the boundaries of decades to look at cultural shifts. The Days of Rage helped burn an era of peace and love to the ground and by the time of the 1970 Kent State shootings, myriad new factors were afoot. Drugs had taken hold. Strongly. People were really, really angry and beginning to see non-violent methods as futile. Across the sea, an IRA member said it best some years later when he said something along the lines of, if they will not listen to the force of our words, they will listen to our force. Stokely Carmichael began as a supporter of non-violence but one can only suffer so much hatred and oppression before one fights back.

Some people saw any work toward change as futile and simply focused on themselves. The freedom of the established counter culture looked pretty good to the younger baby boomers who had seen their older siblings join revolutions and they embarked on a decade of enjoying their own freedoms. Jim Jones led a group of hopefuls into the wilderness of Guyana and it really did seem hopeful: a beautiful self-sustaining mixed race community founded on kinship, love, and equality. Plus, in the footage of their origins the gardens are beautiful and bountiful, surely a sign of nurture and health so it is numbing that only a year later that community became one in which members gunned down outsiders on an airstrip and parents felt desperate and hopeless enough to take their own children’s lives. I am incapable of reconciling in my mind the lush glory of the gardens of Jonestown with the profound sadness of its end. The cutlass beans alone were bursting with hope. By the time the eighties hit, we entered a decade of massive backlashes and elected Ronald Reagan and started down a path that put us in a time when Bill Clinton was the best Republican president we ever had and Bill Ayers buys lattes at Starbucks.

The music of the 1970s departed from the folk-infused peace and love songs of the 1960s and the drug influences changed from the warm kaleidoscopic jangling prevalent in songs like Dylan’s “Tambourine Man”  to a more frenzied, angry sound sometimes tinged with a sexual violence. If Woodstock represented the love of the 1960s, Altamont represented the feel of the 1970s – the party had become perilous. The Runaways “Cherry Bomb” is a perfect example of such a song. It is appealing in its provocative form of FUCK YOU. Guitar riffs, distortion, raw lyrics, and a hard-edged androgyny all entered the mainstream music scene.

Racism, quite prevalent, tangible, and viral today was no less present in the seventies. In many milieus it was more accepted and some forms of it were not recognized. I grew up during a time when students and teachers subtly differentiated the “nice slave owners” from the brutal and bad ones. I learned all the acceptable, sacrificed dark-skinned saints: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks. Nobody mentioned Fred Hampton, and scary Malcolm X was just so angry! I also learned that the true heroes were white men like Abraham Lincoln and Atticus Finch. I was raised by liberals and they made it clear to me that racism was bad. We had black friends in both parents and children. One day though, I was at the Kroger with a family member and while looking at another family this adult muttered,  “Well that’s an interesting couple.” Dad was a very dark-skinned black man and mom was a very pale blonde white woman. Their child was a baby. The year was probably 1977 and it was one of the first times I came to recognize hypocrisy and the limits of one’s own beliefs. That is, when ideas collide with reality.

Growing up, I frequently wore railroad-striped overalls and my closest cousin called me Scout. With the Morton Salt Girl bob and bangs that I sported for about 25 years, it was a fitting moniker. Just as Laura Ingalls idealized and romanticized her harsh prairie existence, Lee idealized and romanticized the good in her small Alabama hometown, perhaps striving to elicit the paternalistic do gooding exemplified by Atticus in Mockingbird. Sometimes I think benevolent paternalism as a form of racism is better than real ugliness because it hints at humanity yet is truly uglier and more insidious in the way it maintains a slow boil rather than foments revolution. So thank you Atticus Finch for revealing your true Confederate Flag colors. Perhaps we needed more of Orval Faubus and George Wallace and less of your grace and courtesy. After all, Go Set a Watchman was the story Harper Lee initially wanted to share with the world.

While I have not greeted the discussion around Watchman with much more than a resigned shrug (of course given the opportunity to publish another Harper Lee book, someone is going to do so. Of course Atticus was a racist, a likable, noble, admirable racist, just like Robert E. Lee. And of course my white privilege and comfort have allowed me to love Mockingbird and the characters in it.) The Fuchs story briefly consumed me. When I first saw a news item pop up on Facebook I was about to get in the shower, carrying my Ipad into the bathroom to play some music. Instead I sat on the bath mat and read the original Jason Cherkis Huffington Post article as well as several tangential pieces.  Later, I watched Fuchs interviewed and read the responses of several of her bandmates. Why? I was never particularly a fan of the Runaways or Joan Jett. I was, however, also a Title IX generation girl. I didn’t break ground wearing lingerie on stage, drinking underage, and screaming lyrics at adoring and lecherous fans. I did fight the local newspaper until they gave me a route and then fought customers who protested having a girl as their carrier. I did grow up surrounded by rock and roll, wearing my brother’s hand-me-down Toughskins and my mother’s Jean Nate, and with a very open conception of gender roles and identity.

At the time of Jackie Fuchs’ rape she was a recently turned 16 and her manager rapist was well into his thirties. The rape occurred at a party and most of those present were teens – hopeful, aspirational, drug and alcohol affected teens. It was 1975, or the dawn of 1976. I know what it is like to be that young and hopeful, that full of so many ideas with no clear way to put them to purpose. For me, that was experiences such as lying in the back of a pickup truck parked at a canyon edge in Wyoming and watching the Perseids while sipping cold beer and feeling the electric tingle of proximity with the boy beside me. It was also drinking way too much Bacardi and Diet Coke during a high school theater cast party and having friends simply put me to bed in a guest room rather than take advantage of me. I have been in many moments of terrifying vulnerability and been saved only by luck or momentary good decisions that have resulted in more frequently having good memories to hold and stories to share rather than trauma to pocket or regret and shame to carry.

There were plenty of nights I experienced only tipsy and careless kisses, feelings of exuberance, and stories of brushes with danger. Only a few times did things become vaguely uncomfortable or slightly unsafe and most of the time life felt like it did one night when a friend and I were walking  to the cooperatively owned Del Rio Bar for a drink and she said that she felt like something was going to happen, she just didn’t know what. I had known that pregnant feeling my whole life, the feeling of being on the edge of something big. And things often did happen but because of who I was, how I was raised, my fears and low expectations, I just sort of kept looking for something to happen rather than planning and sometimes, things did happen. Fortunately, what happened was usually pretty good though oftentimes, not as good as it should have been. It was also occasionally frightening.

One late night I was walking home from work, carrying a rolled apron fat with tips, far too late at night for a young person to be walking home alone. Someone with a knife stopped and asked me for help. His build-up was brief. He asked me for money and told some classic story about a broken down car. When I declined to give him money because unrolling my apron and revealing my stash of singles seemed unwise, he said, “But all I have is this knife,” and pulled a blade from his pocket. A police car immediately pulled up next to us and saved the day.

I hitchhiked across Ireland when I was young.  Most of my rides were pleasant and kind. (Well, there was one French couple that I really irritated when I encouraged them to take a shortcut that wound up being unpaved and narrow.)  One fellow, however, was increasingly creepy and aggressive throughout our ride. I gave no indication of my deep unease and instead talked him into dropping me off at my hostel so that I could freshen up and meet him at a bar later. I had him drop me at a hostel other than the one at which I was staying and waited for him to drive away before I walked the ten or so blocks to my actual hostel, one less student-oriented and in a less safe part of town. I haven’t always made good decisions but I can think on my feet. Actually, as I was nearing my real hostel with my pack on my back, a car of two unarmed Dublin bobbies pulled over and asked me where I was going. I told them and they encouraged me to hurry along as night was approaching and I was not in the nicest of neighborhoods. If only they knew I spent my afternoon wondering if I was going to be raped and murdered in the Irish countryside. I never thought again about the bar down the street from my faux lodging and instead enjoyed a night at a pub closer to my hostel and woke the next morning to find breakfast was served in the basement. I enjoyed cornflakes in whole milk and soda bread with marmalade while listening to Highway 61 Revisited at high volume. The basement reverberated with the familiarity of Dylan and I loved watching the young Irish people working in the kitchen grooving to the anthemic American music with the same glee I felt in Galway a few nights later when a young  Australian man looked down at the Blundstone boots on my feet and asked me what, “An American girl in Australian boots is doing in Ireland?” I giggled and later joined him in a pub where, when we walked in, we encountered a group of young Irish lads singing the racist southern American  anthem “Sweet Home Alabama”. So many lines of convergence. What’s an American girl doing in Australian boots at an Irish bar with an Australian stranger listening to a racist American song and planning on returning to a situation in which she is sleeping in a room with strangers? Hoping for the right experience. Waiting for something to happen. Read More

Free Fallin’

When we encounter the sand path from the wooded trail, we immediately decide to take it. This despite the fact that it seems a nearly vertical climb. This despite the fact that my feet and knees hurt and I’m positive this ascent, the possibility of which makes me dubious, will do my joints no favors. But, there it is and so we shall climb it. We know Pyramid Point, one of our favorite spots in northern Michigan, lies upward, and this sudden strip of sand seems as promising as one of the sugary shortcuts on a Candy Land board.

We start to climb and both of my daughters, Frances and Sylvia, quickly outpace me. We finally reach a crest and I see that there are now choices: continue up the razor backbone of sand or cut right, climbing down a bit at first but then ascending by means of much more reasonable switchbacks. The girls choose the former and I the latter. I walk downhill, immediately dropping from their sights but they had not been throwing glances over their shoulders at me anyway because they learned long ago to count on the fact that I would be at their backs. We would rejoin one another at the crest. I moved slowly, enjoying the wind and sound of water, lost in my thoughts.

“Mom? Mom?!” My handle is called out a first and then second time. The second time in a much more urgent voice, filled with disbelief, concern, panic, irritation. It is as though Frances is on Everest and turned to see nothing but rope trailing behind her where once a hiking partner trudged. Oh shit, Mom’s fallen off the edge of the world.

“I’m here.” I assure her, “I just took a different path.” She is placated, though laughing nervously  at her moment of wondering what had become of me. In the slow minutes it takes me to join her at the crest I imagine the thoughts that raced through her 16-year-old mind. She is likely equally enthused and terrified. Eager to be the responsible caretaker and terrified to do it without me. Oh shit, Mom’s fallen off the edge of the world and the car keys are in her pocket.

Fortunately, I  brought my tall wooden cane, the one I bought when my feet were swollen everyday and I was teaching full time. It is actually not a cane but a staff. I considered those canes that the pharmacy sells. There were some exceptionally tacky ones: neon pink with leopard spots or purple paisley. Some had not simply a foot but a solid, four-pronged base. I may one day need one of those canes. It is in fact quite likely that I will but I’m just not ready. They feel like a permanent decision whereas my staff feels like an as-needed accessory. It is the reading glasses of my sometimes not so sure feet. The stalk of wood is an excellent climbing tool as I plant it and then pull myself up, step by step. When I reach the crest I can stand atop this dune like Prospero, gazing out over the lake and perhaps conjuring a storm. Don’t worry about me children, I’m just controlling nature.

When I reach the girls they ask if I am okay. I offer confidence and even mention that the dense, cold, October sand feels really good on my swollen and sore feet. This is true. It is numbing, massaging, invigorating. My sandals have been tucked into the back pocket of my jeans and my toes are quite happily lodged into the packed powder. They even feel a bit wiggly, something they rarely feel anymore. I feel good, happy, relaxed. I am also in a lot of pain and simply weak and tired. My daughters are smart and they know me. They know me well. Still, we all choose to together participate in a fiction we are willing to truth. Mom is fine.

They know me well because I have always been their keeper. Before I remarried and our family suddenly grew from three to five, it was, well, three. Their father moved to another state when they were only four and seven and most of their life experiences have been in the company of  the other two-thirds of our trio.  Our home was small, doors never closed, beds shared, and,  due to lack of childcare funds, just about everything done together . My daughters knew my intensity, my seemingly endless energy, my creativity and productivity, and my fierce love. They never doubted my strength or abilities. I once stitched Frances a small felt tube on a sturdy neck cord so she could carry her lip balm during the winter months. She came home from school asking me to make about 25 more because her friends all wanted them. She had a list of names. Time and energy were of no concern to her. She seemed genuinely surprised at any limitation I showed. Of course Mom can do that. I did not do that but I did stay up until the middle of the night doing many other things. I paid the bills, baked the muffins, mowed the lawn, wielded the power tools, sewed the Halloween costumes and doll clothes, dipped the cat litter, hid the Easter eggs, and in every other way assured those girls that I had it taken care of, that I was up to the task, whatever it was. And I was.

These pilgrimages to northern Michigan were something we did annually when they were little. Our trips are now more sporadic and we all love the sense of coming home they bring us. We visit a friend, a farm, my home state, and the lake that I love. There are hikes and dairy bars. Each summer of their younger years we piled into my old Volvo with no air conditioning, packing a  cooler full of snacks and books on CD and drove north. The drive took us about 11 hours because there were many bathroom and popsicle breaks along the way, but we all relaxed into it as we moved farther and farther north, away from schedules and school and our tiny home and daily life. When we crossed the border into Michigan we all cried out, “Woo-hoo Michigan!” It never occurred to the girls how bone tired those drives made me because we were having too much fun. I didn’t spend much time allowing it to occur to me either because I simply surrendered to the drive and the time with my children. I caffeinated steadily, leaning forward in my seat and slapping my own face when I felt myself fading. This trip, this October trip, is a chance to have another northern excursion before Frances grows up. She is a high school junior; Sylvia in middle school. Their stepdad and stepsister are visiting colleges during the fall break and this dividing of our blended family is not unusual. We take these moments to exist in what was. We all had these lives before we came together and we come together so easily and with so much love that the parting ways is easy and reuniting is celebrated.

The trees were beautiful driving up. It had not occurred to me that we would have such a colorful passage north. We are not intentional leaf peepers and for us these rich fall colors are a bonus rather than a purpose. No longer do we listen to children’s chapter books on CD but podcasts and shared music, which the girls tune in and out of with earbuds and their own musical choices. On this trip, we listen to Tom Petty songs, over and over, because he died only a few days earlier and took with him one of the voices of my eighties radio years. Conversation is balanced with silence and sometimes we share the music, all three of us singing along. I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’. Gonna leave this world for awhile.

It rained heavily as we arrived during the dark evening and we picked up food at the market and then headed to our friend’s tiny farmhouse. She is away, farther north herself, in the leap of land that is Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We slept with the windows open and woke to farm smells and sounds. There were cows outside the bathroom window and horses in the sunshine at the pasture fence across from the porch. The girls slipped their feet into boots and stepped across the muddy drive to talk with the horses. I learned that it was chicken-slaughtering day on the farm and knew that I had to get us, my vegetarian daughter in particular, elsewhere for the day.

On the open dune I walk behind the girls, still feeling the bulk of my rubber Birkenstock sandals in my back pocket. They are the only shoes I wear these days and I have yet to make footwear plans for the winter. The girls are so very different yet so alike and they love each other as much as they irritate each other.  I try to not manage their relationship. I hear the bickering but I see and feel the love. I watch them descend toward the water. The waves slap rocks at the dune’s base and create a ripple of cold color and foam. The water’s edge looks perilous but the girls carefully pick their way downhill, around patches of dunegrass, toward the rocky edge. Please don’t fall because I can’t catch you. I think from my high and solitary perch. But I can or we wouldn’t be here. Despite my physical weakness and loss of self, despite my swollen hands and slow feet, I drove here with you and I climbed this dune with you, and I am watching over you as you sit close to the water’s edge and share this moment as sisters. I will climb down with you if need be. I will drive you out of these woods and feed you dinner and love you because I am the keeper of you; you are not yet the keeper of me.

The previous spring, after a year of confusing and debilitating migrating pain and inflammation, I was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis. I promptly contracted shingles and later in the summer was diagnosed with degenerative spine disease. In short, my body was quitting its primary jobs. Some days my hands hindered me from simple use: holding a mug, pressing garlic, opening a jar. Some days my feet swelled like potatoes and each step was painful. My shoulders sometimes did not allow me to raise my arms above my head and when my elbow was also inflamed, I had to manually lift my arm to a tabletop for eating or keyboarding. Simple tasks like brushing my teeth or hooking my bra became challenges. Sometimes driving a car was a really bad idea because my hands gripped the wheel about as effectively as the mitten hand of a gingerbread man. Candyland again. (Honestly, I hate that interminable game with no room for strategy or skill.) I was slow, far away, and in pain all the time. Inflammation squeezed my nerves and radiating pain that felt like fire ants crawling up and down my limbs kept me up at night. I spent the wee hours pacing out the pain or on our sofa, crying and watching old episodes of Law and Order. Oh, McCoy, you loveable fascist. Please lull me to sleep. Connective tissue hurt; big swollen lumps appeared on the top of my hands and feet. They hurt and then went away. There seemed no discernible causality between food, activity, inactivity, rest, medicine and symptoms. My body was a broken machine with electrical parts that glowed  and buzzed at unexpected times. I was the sick animal in our herd and my tangible weakness spoke of an uncomfortable instability. The girls wanted to help me as much as they wanted to ostracize me from the fold.

They weren’t ready for me to go careening off a dune, however, landing on the tree branches and forest floor behind us or the water and rocks before us. I was the driver, navigator, and banker of our travels. Frances drove part-way but it was highway practice for the relatively new driver. Heck, we weren’t even at the well-signed and heavily hiked Pyramid Point trail. Instead of driving to the trailhead parking lot and hiking the heavily trodden climb to the popular lookout, we drove into the wooded area and picked up a part of the long loop there, immediately finding ourselves in the beautiful beech and maple laden piney northern woods and headed for an open dune area less pristine than the lookout but just as inviting. On this cool and windy fall day the patches of scrubby dune grass and the wind-carved lumps and spines of sand created an interesting landscape. My car waited in the woods on the side of the road where we left it when we abruptly joined the trail until we came across the steep sand shortcut and now here we are, on top of a dune, in the cold wind.

Each of us has those things that make us, well, us and locomotion has always been one of mine. Since I took my first steps I have felt a strong wind at my back. I love the motion and rumination of walking often and for long distances.  Also integral to my sense of self is motherhood. Neither can be cleaved from me though how I employ both is ever-changing. Pain and limitations have not hindered the most important parts of parenting. I can love unconditionally, communicate effectively, listen, teach, care, pay bills, help with algebra, wrap gifts, make pancakes, make phone calls, and otherwise function in a parenting role. There is something else though that we three have built together, it exists among us and is part of each of us. We are makers and adventurers. We are producers more than consumers, and our small family was always a family project. We once drove west, following in the footsteps of Laura Ingalls Wilder. We made rubbings of leaves, one from every tree variety we could find in the Big Woods. We waded in Plum Creek, and camped in a brutal storm in Walnut Grove. We once ventured to Washington,  D.C., leaving on a Tuesday morning and coming back on a late Thursday night. I drove the whole way, straight through on either end. We ate peanut butter and crackers and walked miles every day. The girls were raised to be adventurers and were comfortable carrying their own luggage, sleeping in tents and cheap hotels, and riding long hours in the car from young ages.  I was the foreperson of this great project and now I am weak- limbed and low energy. I feel vulnerable, low ebb, old, and no longer up to the task. I continue walking across the sand.

On our return to the trail we find a fairy crown. Intertwined vines adorned with a few sprigs of greenery sprouting delicate white flowers. The full circle imagery is not lost on me. Here we are, girls, right where we started when you were little people: In nature, in wonder and beauty. Despite age, time, illness, and family changes we still find each other in this place and it is still as lovely, simple, and natural as this forgotten fairy crown.

Sylvia and I sit for awhile, scooping sand around our feet and being quiet with one another. Now is still their time to be children: and I refuse to fall down on the mom job – literally or figuratively. I am still their tether and my feet, swollen and slow as they are, are still firmly planted. I am helping them dig their holes deep and plant healthy roots and if at these still tender ages they think I have become unmoored then so might they. This is the job. It has been the job from the moment I met Frances and her helmet of heavy hair. The job requirements change everyday but the first and foremost of them is simple: be there. This presence takes many different forms and may be literal or figurative. The time will come for the burden to shift and the roles to change but that time is not now. I am not ready to be kept by my children and they are not ready to keep me. Because I am the keeper of you; you are not the keeper of me.

Just the normal noises