Tag Archives: family

Autumn Chill

The October night is mine to fill. My parents have long since gone to bed with our cat, who knows something is wrong. I’m left alone with my paperback copy of Never Let Me Go, purchased yesterday during our weekly trip to Costco. Never have I been so invested in a fictional friendship. I let the drama absorb me; it’s an effective distraction from the death that looms outside.

Autumn lies on the top step of the stoop. Once a swift jumble of insatiable canine exuberance, tonight she is quiet and still. The cool concrete seems to give her 13-year-old body some relief. A year ago Autumn was overweight for a shepherd-lab mutt her size. The growth in her lung that announced its presence in March has siphoned away much of her muscle, leaving a scrawny, dull-eyed creature whose every breath seems to cost effort she doesn’t have to spare.

It’s brisk outside. I put down my book and rise from the couch, opening the heavy wooden screen door to check on her. This is the third or fourth time I’ve done so tonight. It is a ritual I will reenact on several evenings before we let her leave us.

“Do you want to come inside, baby girl?”

Autumn does not raise her head at the sound of my voice. I crouch and lay a hand on her greying brow. We have to be gentle; sometimes she flinches when we pet her. I watch her ribs rise and fall under the mottled brown coat that inspired her name.

The humans in the family have realized that we should take her to the vet for the last time. We’re still not sure when. No one wants to decide. Soon is too close to now, even as now extends her decline. We’re watching her, waiting for a definitive sign, but Autumn doesn’t give us one. She simply fades, often imperceptibly. Eating less, sleeping more, weighing less, hurting more. There is no marker, no metaphorical cliff over which she can fall to let us know that the time, her time, has arrived.

We cannot discuss this with her. We do not ask, Have you suffered enough? Do you want to die? When should we kill you? but we have taken it upon ourselves to answer for her.

Inside, Ishiguro’s codependent characters await reactivation. They will endure intimate betrayals and paradigm-shifting revelations under my watchful gaze until one character enables the others to slowly disconnect from life. Even fictional mercy requires consent.

I stroke Autumn’s torso, my palm barely grazing her. We look into each other’s eyes and she seems to sigh. I tug her collar and again suggest that she come indoors, lay on her soft bed, let the cat cuddle close.

She won’t move.

Unwilling to wait, to be with her stillness, I stand and return to the house, to the couch, to the book whose ending is probably as dismal as our family’s current reality. How long do we let her endure this lessened life? Even after we make the call, we won’t know.

Autumn never tells us.

The essay above is a dispatch from 2010, written for a 2016 creative nonfiction class.

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Filed under Animals, Power

Half-Baked Motherhood: Compromise & the Dough Boy

There’s a Pillsbury commercial that has been nagging at me to rail on it since late 2014. Here we are, three months later. No time like the present. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a clip of this commercial, so a description based on my memory of having seen it once will have to suffice.

A Commercial Mother encounters the three members of her family as she makes her way through the house. She tries in vain to get the attention of each:

  • Child #1 cannot hear for the headphones that keep him glued to the TV screen on which he’s playing a video game.
  • Child #2 charges down the stairs, nearly running into Mom as she texts on her smartphone.
  • Husband is changing the channels on the TV in the kitchen.

Instead of snatching the devices away from these rude family members like a sane person would, Commercial Mom sighs with an exasperation meant only to underline her infinite maternal patience. There’s even a smile creeping into the corners of her mouth. Oh, family members–can’t live with ’em, can’t get ’em to acknowledge your presence. 

Suddenly, a solution!

We see her pull a steaming sheet of something presumably delicious out of the oven. One by one, each family member unplugs themselves, the irresistible aromas drawing them to the dining room. The closing shot sees them all sitting together, face to face at last. “Nothing brings them to the table like Pillsbury.”

My eyes almost got stuck in the back of my head. I’m really glad I only saw this commercial once, or Feminist Rage and also a very high ophthalmology bill.

As alluded to previously, what I had hoped this mother had done was confiscate the offending devices that were turning her family members into offensive people. Nothing brings ’em to the table like dropping all their technology down the garbage disposal. Also, if we’re being reasonable about things, maybe they could have had a family discussion about why it’s a problem when you don’t acknowledge someone who is trying to talk to you. But no. Commercial Mom gives in to the socio-technological forces swirling around her and tries a different tactic to reach her goal of familial engagement.*

The message of the ad is if you can’t beat ’em, bake for them. Sacrifice. Work harder for what you want. Embrace your family’s foibles. Aren’t people these days a riot, with their technology and lack of interpersonal skills? Why, we should reward them with baked goods–and not just any baked goods, but par-baked goods that make your life of thankless sacrifice a little easier, more palatable. To get what you want–which is, apparently, not respect, but rather the physical presence of your family–you need to meet them more than half-way. You need to meet them half-baked.

What might be most troubling about the existence (and persistence) of this representation of American motherhood and winking maternal “wisdom” is

  1. Many mothers (parents, really) must identify with this representation
    and
  2. These women haven’t yet pushed back to a degree that would manifest itself in market research

Ads are not a mirror of the real world, instead tending to lag slightly behind cultural trends and social mores. But they also serve to reinforce kernels of truth in the collective lived experience. Too much money is riding on the ability of this ad and its representation of modern family life to resonate with its target market for it NOT to have sufficient market research behind it. Market research that told the Pillsbury executives that a significant chunk of American parents feel like the mother in this commercial. A feeling of futility that only our product can alleviate!

Parents in general will likely identify with the mother–so the market research would have shown. You want to be a close-knit family, have quality moments with your children, but modern technology is getting in the way. Luckily, Pillsbury is here to save the day, offering up a product as a solution to the problem the ad offers up on a platter.

This convenient confection is just the sticky substance that will keep your family unit together. If you value your family–if you’re a good mother–you will buy it. Motherhood is a goldmine of social anxieties,and Pillsbury knows it as well as we do.

So instead of the mother laying the smackdown in this commercial–which wouldn’t really present a problem that a Pillsbury product could solve–and teaching her family about the importance of NOT BEING RUDE and RESPECTING OTHER PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY THE PEOPLE WHO GIVE YOU THE LUXURY OF A MIDDLE-CLASS EXISTENCE…we get get the tired trope of sacrificial maternal compromise, repackaged & refrigerated for those struggling to parent the iGeneration.

*I am not making judgments about real-life parenting decisions. In situ, I’m sure plenty of great parents pick their battles and exhale their anger instead of making every moment a teaching one. In this deconstruction I am taking issue with the way the mass-media represents motherhood and family life as a social structure in which the mother is disrespected and then rewards her family for their rudeness. A representation that holds up motherhood as self-sacrificing and somehow still rewarding. A representation that holds up as relate-able, emulate-able, and Good a person who takes shit and bakes it into cookies.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Technology