Thursday, August 31, 2006


“Mommy, you need to sign this sheet on our ‘Drug and Alcohol’ unit,” Grace says, shoving a piece of paper in front of me and nearly knocking my martini over.“Hey, hey, watch my cocktail there!” I say. Grace giggles and I’m grateful she isn’t one of those self-righteous kids who protests if you have a drink.

It’s common knowledge around the ‘hood that once they hit the “Drug and Alcohol” unit in fourth grade science you may have to go underground with your cocktail. I have one friend who started hiding her vodka tonic in a coffee mug. Can you believe she does that? It’s barbaric; the only thing one should drink from a coffee mug is coffee. A good cocktail deserves the proper glass. Are they teaching that in the drug and alcohol unit?

I look at the worksheet Grace has dutifully filled out for today’s assignment. It covers the dangers of using someone else’s prescription drugs. Well, I’ll drink to that. I peer at the paper,looking confused.“I don’t get it, Grace. This isn’t teaching you a thing about drugs and alcohol. Like how much Vermouth is in a dry martini? Where to go to score some smack? Now how are you supposed to learn that stuff?” I ask her.

“Mommy,” she sighs then peers over her cat glasses at me and shakes her head in exasperation. She’s an old soul and deserves a better mother than the one she got.I sigh too. I long for the days before someone told us to just say no. I prefer to just say, “Sure why not,” and “You can just freshen this up”. The sad truth is that I was born several decades too late. I want to go back to the days when mommies were encouraged to have cocktails while playing bridge and daddies had three martini lunches. When doctors handed out Valium like mints to harried housewives. Nowadays you have to see a specialist just to get Prozac. Hell, my doctor wouldn’t give me antibiotics without a full physical.

Instead of all that, I'm left with a paltry five o'clock cocktail. It does the trick, I suppose, but even that some people frown upon. They should know, I didn’t always have a cocktail at five o’clock, but then again I didn’t always have kids.

As any mom knows the five o’clock hour is known as “the witching hour”. Like the perfect storm there are many forces at work that converge at once to form the witching hour. They are as follows:

1. Playdates, formal or informal come to an end as most mommies start to gather their brood for the evening.

2. The kids start to melt down: regardless of age, from infancy to teen-hood this is the time of day the child realizes he has not had enough of something. Not enough sleep, food, social interaction, time to get homework done…whatever; he hasn’t had enough and it’s time the universe paid for this injustice. He decides to take his frustrations out on the universe by (depending on the age of the child) wailing inconsolably, whining until his mother’s ears bleed, or sulking conspicuously (which isn’t noisy but does have the effect of sucking out all positive life-force in the room).

3. Market forces begin to take effect: the value of the TV sharply declines as PBS Kids winds down causing the value of the Play Station II to incline sharply. The result is that all the children in the household will begin to fight over the PS2.

4. The mommy realizes that, yes, once again, she has neglected to figure out what dinner might be. This is because after months or years of trying to feed her children properly she has lost a wee bit of her enthusiasm for this task. In fact, despite the fact that she is resourceful enough to come up with a Halloween costume that doubles as a winter snowsuit she can no longer think of a single meal that simultaneously meets her criteria and the children’s criteria for a proper dinner. Her criteria are that the foods must be healthy, contain no refined sugar or flour, no trans-fatty acids, be pesticide-free, and ideally be served with three vegetables. The kids’ criteria are simpler: no vegetables and all food must be white. Now if you draw a ven diagram of these two subsets you will see there is no overlap whatsoever. Oh, and I forgot, it should be something her husband likes to eat too, on the off-chance that he may get home in time for dinner. Which leads me nicely into item number 5.

5. The daddy calls from work to say that he will be late. By late he means later than his usual 7:00 p.m. time. He means well after the wild and chaotic time of day that the family euphemistically calls “bedtime”. He also does not mean he will be toiling at his desk through dinner, snacking on a banana and a glass of skim milk. He means he is headed somewhere for cocktails, adult conversation, and a meal prepared, served, and cleared away by someone else. This makes the mommy a bit resentful.

These five things almost always happen at just around 5:00. Together the fine balance of order that has been established since the children returned from school collapses like the house of cards it always was. Children begin screaming, mommies begin slamming cupboards and pots and pans, pets howl, and potted plants wither as an evil wind blows through the household. It was at just such a moment as this on a Tuesday in February (is there anything drearier than February?) that I had an epiphany. I was dumping the Kraft Mac-n-cheese into the pot (the creamy kind not that powdery stuff, what kind of mom do you think I am?) when I thought to myself, “If only it were Friday, I’d have a beer.” Then I thought, “Wait a minute! I’m not pregnant. I’m not nursing. I’m over 21. I could have a beer on a TUESDAY!” and I popped open a Sam Adams and began a new tradition.

Now when the witching hour starts winding up I simply walk over to the fridge and say hello to my good friend Sam. He takes the edge off. I’m able to concentrate on whipping up a healthy meal (like homemade macaroni and cheese) and calmly and quietly referee the melee around me.

I have shared this revelation with many friends. Most are already aware of the medicinal effects of the nightly cocktail. Some are a little concerned that it is a slippery slope that could lead to substance abuse. It is my job to reassure them that there is nothing wrong with a single cocktail. Look at the French! They have wine with lunch and dinner and have you ever seen a more relaxed country? They can’t even muster the energy necessary to fight back when invaded that’s how relaxed they are. I’ve become sort of the Dali-lama of the drinking mom set. They come to me with their concerns.

Isn’t it wrong to drink alone? Hey, you’re not alone, your kids are home (remember they’re the ones who drove you to this to begin with).

But I look so forward to having my cocktail, isn’t that wrong? You look forward to a cup of coffee and a good dump too, does that mean you need to cut them out of your life? Christ, we live in a puritanical world when you go hunting for reasons to give up the things you love.

Besides, after having given up booze for the last decade when you were trying to get pregnant, you were pregnant, and then you were nursing, you’ve got some catching up to do. Remember that wedding you went to with your office mates when you were eight months pregnant and the only sober one at the wedding (besides the flower girl) was you? Didn’t you have to watch as your friends, co-workers, and husband did the conga line through the kitchen, leaving you to waddle to the bathroom, sober as a judge. What you’ve seen sober no one should have seen. You’ve earned that drink.

My husband has no problem with this habit of mine. In fact he encourages it. On the nights when he does come home early enough, he and I have a cocktail together in the living room, threatening the children with the following: “You may not disturb us unless there is blood, vomit, or broken bones involved,” (which is exactly what we tell them when we take our Saturday afternoon “naps” too).

Even with this threat, our youngest has managed to inveigle her way into our ritual. She found my collection of tiny martini glasses; the ones I stuffed in my purse after I sampled a half-dozen Apple-tinis that those cute little girls from Absolut were serving at a fundraiser. She likes to fill them with apple juice and join us in the living room. She never interrupts us so we let her stay.

Recently, we had friends over for drinks and Lilly went and fetched her mock-tini and sat down. Our friends, parents of a newborn, looked at her slightly amused and partly horrified.

"What is that?" asked the mother.

"It's from her 'Barbie Cocktail' collection," I said smoothly. They didn't know if they should laugh or call DCFS. I ignored their faces and called Grace into the room.

“Grace,” I said, “Look at your sister. Now she’s going to do well in the fourth grade when she gets to the ‘Drug and Alcohol Unit’.” Grace shakes her head and walks away but Lilly, who is in first grade, raises her mock-tini in salute.

“Cheers, Mama,” she says.I raise my glass in return.

“Cheers indeed.” It’s nice to know a mother can pass on her wisdom to at least one of her children.

By Judy Zimmerman


This first appeared in The Chicago Tribune on May 14, 2003, under the name of “Daughter’s illness becomes mom’s growth experience”

“Face it, you are not a hair person,” my sister once said to me. I had just been complaining about the glob of hair I’d found clogging her shower drain. She has three girls, all of whom have preposterously long hair. She’s right, I am not a hair person and I keep my own hair short and sassy to minimize the nuisance of caring for it. In fact, I have always thought hair was just a bit icky, getting in food and clogging drains.

I have not had hair past my chin since the 8th grade when I had a shag, complete with bangs that I was supposed to “train” according to my friends. But I couldn’t train them; they were recalcitrant and instead of looking foxy, like Laurie Partridge with soft, feathered hair at my temples, I looked goofy like Emily Elizabeth from the Clifford books. I got a pixie cut and never looked back.

So it comes as a surprise to me that lately I’ve become obsessed with hair. I think about it, worry about it, talk about it and recently I even dreamed about it. I dreamed that I had long flowing hair down to my shoulders, but every time I combed it big chunks of it fell off.

I don’t need Dr. Freud to explain that dream to me. It’s because Lilly, my 4-year-old baby, is losing her hair. Some days when she comes down to breakfast and the morning sun slants into the kitchen, it illuminates the hundreds of strands lying in piles around her shoulders like a stole. When I see that, I rise quickly from my cup of coffee and give her a big hug. Then I go get the wide roll of masking tape and tear off a foot-long piece. The tape, which I press to her shoulders, quickly fills with loose hairs. Then I get a brush and I work on the hair until the brush is full and I’m convinced there isn’t much left to come out right then. I go through this morning ritual because I’d rather have some control over it than find it floating around the house and making nests in the corners to mock me.

It’s not all gone yet. But when she’s hatless, and the breeze moves it away from her face and reveals the huge bare patches and the few wisps that remain around her face, she looks nearly bald and that, along with her pale, pale face and her nearly white lips, makes her look as sad and pathetic as, well, as a kid with cancer.

It’s taken a long time to fall out. It didn’t start in earnest until about the sixth week of chemo. We were at Walker Brothers having pancakes, one of the few foods she has an appetite for, when I noticed a stray hair hanging down. I reached across the table to pull it out. But when I did, I was horrified to find an entire clump of hair in my hand. I had visions of all her hair falling out right there into her plate of syrup. I rushed her through the rest of her meal and drove to my friend Martha’s house.

“It’s just her hair and it will come back. Her beauty shines through with or without her hair,” she said reassuringly as I cried briefly. Of course I know that. Hair is definitely the least of our worries with Lilly. I remember asking the doctor that first day, the series of questions he must be so used to. What is the prognosis? Will she need chemo after the surgery? Will it make her sick? Will it make her hair fall out? The last question seemed so trivial after the others. But still a mommy never expects to have to watch her 4-year-old lose her hair.

I have a box labeled “Danger! Toxic chemotherapy drugs enclosed” in the back of the refrigerator next to the pickles. It’s there for the days when we have home chemo. I had to cross off “gymnastics” on the calendar and write in “chemo”. And the other day I walked into the playroom and heard Lilly tell her playdate that she had “cansuh”. So you’d think the hair thing would be the least of the changes I’m getting used to lately. But right now it’s bothering me. I think because it’s such an outward and visible sign that my baby is indeed a cancer patient.

I used to see bald kids and wonder vaguely if they had cancer or something else. Now I know. It’s most likely cancer. There are very few other explanations for it. There are a lot of things I know now that I never wanted to know. I know that the oncology department is on the fourth floor of Children’s Memorial. I know that pediatric cancer is on the rise but thankfully, so are the cure rates. Pediatric cancer is not the death sentence it was when we were kids. Thank God. I know that if you have to have cancer, the kind Lilly has (a Wilms Tumor) is the kind you want. I know that kids who are bald from chemo are just regular kids stricken with this at random. I know that the hair falls out because the chemo kills all fast-growing cells and hair is a fast-growing cell too.

I know all this and I know this too: I have been wrong about hair all along. It isn’t a nuisance or an inconvenience. It is something really quite wonderful. Hair is a beautiful soft frame for a tiny face. It’s a sign of health and normalcy, two of the most valuable blessings anyone can have. I know I wont’ take it for granted when Lilly’s hair grows back and I’ll never resent having to wash it or comb it again.

When this ordeal is all over, we are taking a tropical family vacation to celebrate. Yesterday I asked Lilly how long she wanted to grow her hair out when it comes back and she said, “All the way to Hawaii.” I’m thinking about joining her in celebration. I might just grow my hair out all the way to Hawaii too.

By Judy Zimmerman
Lilly is four years cancer-free and did grow her hair out--not quite to Hawaii--but well past her shoulders. I’ve grown mine over my ears, which is long for me. I’m happy to say that I am back to complaining when I have to comb the tangles out of her hair—a lovely sign that our lives have indeed returned to normal.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


This first appeared in The Chicago Tribune under the title of “ Chronicling the strangest of relationships: Period" on April 21, 2004

I was talking to a good friend the other day and she told me that her daughter had just gotten her first period. My friend had been prepared for this momentous occasion and she got out the necessary products and helped her daughter with them. About an hour later her daughter came in the kitchen and said, “OK, Mom, can I take this off? Am I done yet?”

Oh honey, if you only knew. Her daughter is embarking on a very long relationship that lasts from puberty to menopause with her new “friend”. If I were to tell her what I’ve learned about this relationship (which I wouldn’t, there’s no reason to send her screaming back to her childhood) here’s what I’d say.

It will be a strange and dysfunctional relationship but it will follow a fairly predictable chronology. First, you will start out hating and loathing your new friend. No filmstrip or book or talk from mom can convince you that this is “beautiful”. It’s uncomfortable, painful, messy, and embarrassing. It requires the use of mysterious, unwieldy products you have never even seen let alone know how to use. With the help of a best friend shouting directions through the door you will finally figure out how to use the more challenging but effective products. Eventually, say in 5 to 10 years, you will even master said products so that you are not totally uncomfortable with your new friend. But then you will do something to mess up this relationship. You will become sexually active.

Now, instead of loathing her, you look forward to seeing your friend every month. She is a reassuring and visible sign that you have not made the biggest blunder of your life. Even if you are exceedingly careful, you will not know real relief until you see concrete evidence of her return. Cramps are not enough. You need proof of your freedom.

There are times you are less cautious than others. On these occasions you will not be just glad to see her, you will fall on your knees and thank God she has returned. You will reassure her that next time you will take every precaution necessary to ensure her timely return. The relationship will continue along like this for some time.

Then one day you will hear the unmistakable ticking of your biological time clock. Now you will find yourself in an upside-down world in which you will try, very, very hard to achieve a physical state that you have tried very, very hard to avoid for a very, very long time. This will seem very, very strange.

Most of us will be in this phase for what seems like an eternity even if it is in fact only a few months. Each month you will not only hate the mere hint of your friend’s return, you may actually be moved to tears of bitter disappointment at the sight of her. You will resent that the pregnancy tests are placed so closely to the sanitary products at the drugstore.

The longer this phase goes on, the more you will come to hate her. Sadly, because of the vagaries of life, some women will find themselves in this phase for many years without a happy resolution.
If you are fortunate enough to reproduce more or less when you want to, you will finally rejoice at your friend’s absence. If she is even a day late you will run out to the drugstore and purchase your EPT kit and wave that magic wand around in glee.

For the next several months your friend will be replaced by a myriad of bodily changes that are absurdly taxing, but you will not wish for the return of your friend’s relatively gentle presence. One day, quite suddenly, you will remember her for a few nostalgic moments as your labor begins. But your friend is to labor as a chimp is to King Kong and you will soon forget her again.

Nursing will keep her away for a few more months and then one day, she will return and you will be happy to see her again. She will remind you that your body no longer belongs to another tiny being but is in fact returning to you.

Now you will be back to the days of welcoming her every month, glad to know that at least for now your body is your own. Until you decide your child needs a sibling, then you can revert to the days of dreading the sight of her again.

And so it goes. Until one day your house is full of children and you realize you are done. But strangely, your body does not. Though you are mentally and physically past the optimal age to reproduce, your body keeps trying to. You do not want to be like someone in the Old Testament and you return to the days of fearing her presence. Even if your husband has been “fixed” you know that mistakes can happen.

These days stretch into months and years and your old friend will visit with less and less regularity. Sometimes she’ll stop by for a brief unexpected visit and other times she will hunker down for an extended stay. And then one day, without any word of warning, she will disappear for good. Like all old friends, you will not realize that her last visit is her last.

As my friend’s daughter begins this relationship I am fast approaching the end of my relationship. I don’t know how I’ll feel when I realize my friend has left for good but I suppose I’ll be as conflicted about her departure as I’ve always been about her arrival. I’ll be relieved she’s finally gone but no doubt a little regretful to see her leave forever.

By Judy Zimmerman, who is still being visited,albeit erratically, by her friend

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Spring 2005

“Faye never swears but Gary, he’s got a goddamned foul mouth on him. Jesus Christ, he can hardly finish a sentence without swearing. I don’t know where he gets that from,” my Grandpa Kellogg used to say without a hint of irony.

I come from a long line of foul-mouthed people, most of whom come from my mother’s side of the family. I don’t know when I really became aware of the foul-mouth gene I’d inherited; perhaps it was when I was about six years old. I remember a weekly ritual of my mother unloading the groceries. We had an old Frigidaire (old even then) with a bottom-drawer freezer. Unfortunately, the freezer drawer would come off the tracks easily, rendering the whole contraption useless. My mother would have to drop the frozen foods she was lugging (a large quantity considering it was the 70s and most of what we ate was frozen) and struggle to put the heavy drawer back on its tracks. This never worked and her frustration level would escalate until finally she would get a hammer out of the kitchen drawer (kept there just for this purpose) and begin whaling on the thing saying, “Goddamnit, goddamnit, GODDAMNIT!”

That was my earliest memory of my mother swearing but certainly not my last. My mother was and is a classy lady who dresses well even when running errands. As I was growing up she wore pearls to bathe us and gloves and hats to church. She never smoked, seldom drinks and has no tattoos that I’m aware of. But here the dissimilarities between her and a longshoreman end. If you commit an egregious act upon her house like dripping candle wax on the shag carpet or spilling a particularly large quantity of milk on the dining room table and then wailing as you watch it slip away between the leaves, then be prepared to hear her utter a most unladylike string of curses.

Yes, I’d have to say I get the swearing mostly from my mother’s side of the family. Her father, the Grandpa Kellogg mentioned above, used the word “goddamned” as conversation filler. When he spoke, nearly every noun was preceded by the word goddamned: goddamned tractor, goddamned dog, goddamned Nancy (my aunt), and most especially goddamned Anne, my grandmother and his wife of 70 years. He seldom said any of this in anger; it was very matter of fact. He’d say, “I went to get the goddamned truck fixed and goddamned Anne went with me and ran some errands while I waited.” It’s quite possible his wedding vows were, “I Buell, take you, goddamned Anne, to be my lawfully wedded wife, goddamn it.”

Goddamned is, not surprisingly then, the swear word of choice for my mother, and I admit, in times of stress and provocation the one you’re most likely to hear from me.

My father on the other hand, seldom swears, though he too had a father who laced his conversation with profanity. I was only two when my Grandpa Zimmerman died so I have no memory of his foul language. My father tells a story though, that addresses the issue: Once, while my Grandpa was driving my father, who was about ten at the time, to the movies, Grandpa got annoyed with a slow driver in front of him who kept his blinker on but refused to turn. My grandfather pounded on the steering wheel and shouted, “Make up your mind you asshole!” to which my father meekly said, “The Main Street Theater, Dad.”

Even with all the swearing I’ve grown up with there are certain words my parents and grandparents never uttered. The “see-ya-next-Tuesday” word for one and the “f” word for another. That is why those words still have the power to shock and amuse me, especially if they come from unexpected places.

Val lives down the street from me. She is the mother of three, soon to be four, children. She is a dark-haired, Italian beauty who loves her children fiercely and has no patience with parents who shirk their familial duties. Before she became a mother she was a social worker at the high school and she has deep insights into the development of children and the importance of family, all of which she shares with me over coffee.

I chat with Val every morning as our children wait for the bus to come. This morning, we got to the bus stop before she did and as we waited, I could see the front door of her house open as she shepherded her kids into their boots and coats and mittens. Her very pregnant self was silhouetted against the morning sun and she made a lovely Madonna-like figure. I smiled at the sight. Then, I heard the rumbling of the bus as it started down the street and I heard her voice rise in panic as she screamed, “Hurry, HURRY UP! The FUCKING BUS IS COMING!” she screamed loudly enough for most of the street to hear. Nice.

Of course as parents, we of the foul-mouths have to be a little careful. Some parents frown on children who swear a lot. Surprisingly, it hasn’t been much of a problem around my house. Though my children hear me swear frequently and matter-of-factly every day of their lives, they are well aware they are not allowed to curse. I do have to remind them from time-to-time as I correct them. “No, you can’t say ‘shit’, you have to say ‘shoot’,” or “Mother-fucker isn’t nice but you can say, ‘son-of-a-gun’.”

My use of creative and colorful words has even morphed into a game the kids ask to play called, “Foul-Mouthed Polly Pockets.” If you are not familiar with Polly, let me enlighten you; she is a tiny, Barbie-wanna-be made out of plastic and her entire wardrobe is rubber. This is a bad combination. She is very tiny—minute even and it’s very difficult if not impossible to dress her. So though she is made for the “seven and under” set, there is not a single child who can actually dress her without a lot of adult help. As a parent, if you have Polly in the house, eventually you will find yourself struggling with a tiny rubber mini-skirt the size of a postage-stamp and tiny rubber boots no bigger than a paper-clip as you dress Polly, who like all other little girl dolls dresses like a Vegas hooker.

When this happens to me, I will invariably find myself providing an imaginary monologue from Polly that usually goes like this: “I can’t wait to go out on my date tonight, as soon as I get these goddamned pants on. Now who the hell would invent rubber pants when I’m made out of plastic? The only thing worse would be if they made my ass out of Velcro and my pants out of flannel,” which I say in a wee-little Polly voice. This slays my six-year old who begs for more. I suppose there are those who wouldn’t really approve of this kind of parenting. Fuck em’.

I recently read that Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is rather well known for her salty language. If one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century swears a lot; surely I can toss off a curse word now and then without it reflecting too badly on me. In fact, the next time someone tells me that “swearing is the sign of a limited vocabulary” I’m going to point out this fact about Harper Lee. It’s much better than my usual witty rejoinder of, “Bullshit.” And if they don’t like that, they can take it up with my goddamned mother.

By Judy Zimmerman

Thursday, August 17, 2006


I originally wrote this in the summer of 2002. For those of you who know my family history, you will see it's a different take on a familiar theme for me.

You know that saying “You can get used to just about anything”? I’ve been living it lately as I adjust to my new life. I’ve gotten used to pretty much all of it since our annual idyllic pilgrimage to Sanibel Island was decimated by the discovery of a lump. We were all there, standing next to the pool we’ve visited for the past ten years when I first saw it. It was 11:00 a.m. Monday, March 25, 2002. It took only twelve hours to learn that the lump was a tumor and the tumor was cancer.

“I don’t know how I never noticed it before,” I said to the ER doctor in Florida who first diagnosed it.

“It grows up in the rib cage then when it gets so heavy it drops down and ‘boom’ you notice it.”

It took some getting used to the whole idea of cancer. It doesn’t run in our families. Not that no one has had it but until now no one under the age of eighty has had it. That’s a whole different thing isn’t it? Getting cancer when you’re nearing the end of your life is one thing. Getting it now is unthinkable. Sometimes I know my parents are thinking that. Thinking, “Why is this happening to her and not me? I’m the one who’s lived a long full life.”

Despite the shock it caused us all, you do get somewhat accustomed to living with it and being able to talk about it. I’ve noticed I’m much more casual about throwing the big “C” word around in conversation. At first, when I’d run into friends and neighbors I’d just say, “Well, there was a tumor on the kidney. They had to remove the kidney but the other one will compensate for it.” Now I just say, “Yeah, it’s cancer.”

At the same time I was trying to get used to the idea of cancer I had to write down the chemotherapy appointments on the family calendar. This was not easy to do. It was that first week after the surgery and I had to cross out “Gymnastics” and write in “Chemotherapy” for the next ten Fridays. My sister, who had come to help us out, found me crying over the calendar.

“I can’t do it. It’s just too hideous,” I said.

“Just write the word ‘Cure’ instead,” she suggested as she held me. I did. But now I can write “Chemotherapy” as easily as I write “Class Picnic”.

There are other things you have to get used to. There’s the port, a device about the size of a stack of three nickels that they inserted surgically just under the skin below the clavicle. They use this so they don’t have to fish around for a vein every time they draw blood or administer chemotherapy. It’s a useful device but one I was unaware existed until three months ago.

It took a little longer to get used to the box in the refrigerator behind the pickle relish that reads, “Caution: Toxic chemotherapy”. The visiting nurse uses it for the times we don’t have to go into the city for treatments. At first it was rather startling to see the Styrofoam box in there when you’d go in the fridge to grab a yogurt. But I barely notice it now.

There are the physical changes to adjust to like the inevitable hair loss that goes along with chemotherapy. I’m not so bothered by it now. It’s been fairly gradual. It’s almost all gone but I keep rearranging the last two wisps in denial and desperation like a middle-aged man with a horrendous comb-over. I just brush it out several times a day so I won’t find piles of it accumulating in the corners trying to mock me.

I’ve gotten used to the scar too, which runs from just below the nipple to the pelvis. I remember asking the surgeon, “Will it be a large incision?”

“Yes,” she answered unflinchingly. There were a lot of unflinching answers to our questions that first week. “Will there be chemo?” “Will the hair fall out?” “Will it be a long surgery?” Yes, yes, yes.
But I barely notice the scar now. Today I forgot about it completely until I saw a look of horror in a visitor’s eyes when I answered the door while I held Lilly in my arms. I quickly threw a shirt on over the bathing suit to cover it up.

We’re all getting used to this new life. My husband is back at work, back to normal. Of course he was there in the hospital the whole time and for the first few treatments but then I said, “Look, you have to go back to work and let me handle this like it’s just another doctor’s visit. For all our sakes we have to get back to normal.” So he went back reluctantly.

The kids are all pretty used to it. They know they need to get off the bus at the neighbor’s house on the days we go downtown for chemo. They use the terminology like chemo and radiation comfortably and knowledgably. Not that you want your eight, seven, and four year old children to have to have a working knowledge of cancer treatments. But when it’s in the family what can you do? The denial and secrecy that surrounded cancer in our youth served no one well. So we try to be open about it and answer any of their questions.

Still, it’s unnerving to hear your four-year-old say to her playmate, “I have cancer.” Or more accurately , “I have cansuh” since she still has her preschooler lisp. Yes, it’s Lilly, my baby who has cancer. And though I’m used to a lot of it; the worries, the meals from sympathetic neighbors, the hats piling up in her bedroom, the endless waiting in doctors’ offices, the curious stares at the little balding head, I am not used to waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, “My baby has cancer.” And I don’t think I will ever get used to that.

by Judy Zimmerman


Nov. 2003

The other day I was at a dinner party and the proud mother next to me was going on and on about her twelve-year-old daughter who is an ice-skating super-star. The girl is a whiz, she told me, the next Oksana Baiul (thank goodness, the world needs more anorexic girls whose self-worth depend on their ability to do a quadruple lutz, but I digress).

“She gets up five days a week at 5:00 a.m. to practice and never complains,” the lady said over crab cakes.

“Slacker, what does she do the other two days?” I mumbled.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“I just said, the only thing that would get any of my kids out of bed at 5:00 a.m. would be Krispy Kremes on the front lawn and a fire in the hallway.”
“Oh, heh, heh,” she laughed weakly not sure if she should be amused or give condolences.

It’s true, I will never be the mother of an athletically-gifted child. I’ve seen it coming for some time but I had to face it as an immutable fact last fall when my youngest, the five-year-old came home from the last game of her last (and only) soccer season. “I am never going to play soccer again,” she said as she pulled off the oversized knee socks and tugged at her shin-guards in frustration. She flung her jersey across the kitchen. With this gesture of finality any hope I may have secretly nursed of having a super-star was dashed along with the jersey.

All three of my kids have tried soccer and all three have chosen not to go on. By “tried soccer” what I really mean is all three have whined, complained, and whimpered through a pathetic, tortuous for all, season of chasing a black-and-white ball around a field, killing time waiting for a snack. Not one of them actually touched the ball with his or her foot unless you count the time my eight-year-old fell over the ball. All three have ended their seasons declaring they will never play the game again and all three have concluded that soccer involves “too much running.”

We have also had similar experiences with tee-ball (too boring), flag-football (too rough), floor-hockey (too late in the day), ice hockey (too much equipment), and karate (just too darn hard). I don’t know where my kids get this bad attitude about sports. Their father was a star athlete in his day, playing baseball and football through high school.

Of course the other half of their gene pool is a bit weak in this area. The only “C” I got in high school was in P.E. and when my friends played softball my job was to bring the Diet Coke. I did join an intramural basketball team in college (lured by the promise of beer at the end of each practice) but I had to quit because it conflicted with “Hill Street Blues.” It was before VCR’s so you can see I really had no option.

Now I’m not complaining (wait yes I am) because I’m pretty happy with the fact that my kids go to school, go to church, and each do a little something on the side. But it doesn’t do much for the bragging rights. I mean no one sits next to someone at a dinner party and says, “My eight-year-old attends Brownie meetings fairly regularly.” Or, “My ten-year-old son is interested in musical theater.” No, this is not going to cut it in my circle where some people cannot even fathom the idea of a non-sport playing offspring.

When I told one mom that my middle-child doesn’t play any sports she looked at me incredulously and said, “But what does she do?”

“Umm. You know, she plays. Like kids,” I said. “But she plays really good and I never have to remind her about it."
“But with whom? Aren’t all the other kids in sports?” she asked.

Well no, not really. A few of the kids in the world still hang around the house after school but their moms don’t want to admit it. We’re keeping this shame to ourselves.

So if I’m not a soccer mom anymore what am I? I have the minivan, I have the kids but I don’t have a title. Now I’m not even a demographic. Pollsters are not talking about whom the “Thespian Moms” will support in the next election. I guess I have to go back to being just “a mom”. Which when you think about it, isn’t a bad title after all.

by Judy Zimmerman

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


This essay originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune as "A generation ages early courtesy of Baby Boomers" on September 24,2003

It's getting very difficult to ignore the fact that the Baby Boomers are aging. The signs are not subtle. Ads for Maxi-pads have been replaced by ads for Depends. Women at cocktail parties no longer discuss episiotomies, they're all comparing notes on colonoscopies.

Well, what did I expect? The Boomers are after all the noisiest, most self-aggrandizing, hey-look-at-us, generation to ever walk the earth and now that they're growing old they are telling us all about it every chance they get. From "Oprah" to U.S. News and World Report, from my sister to my friends who are (ahem) a little older, all I ever hear about any more is menopause, perimenopause (a totally made up thing just to drag me into their aging process) and postmenopause. Yes, the signs are inescapable, and the same generation that once embraced LSD is now clamoring for its HRT.

I am not, as you may have guessed by now, a Boomer myself. I am part of a little-recognized generation sandwiched between the Boomers and the Gen-Xers. We were born between 1960 and 1970. Oh, technically those of us born between 1960-1964 are at the tail end of the Boomers but whom are we kidding here? If you can name the members of the Partridge Family (Keith, Laurie, Danny, Chris 1, Chris 2, and Tracy) you have little in common with those who can name the Mouseketeers (Annette….ummm, were there more?). We are a generation without a moniker so let's just call us the "Shadow" generation.

Being just behind the Boomers has had a weird affect on me. First of all I've always felt like I was trying to catch up. After all, they got to do everything first, and better, and with more meaning (just ask them). They had hippie clothes, dropped acid, listened to The Beatles, and protested the Viet Nam war. When it was my turn I was stuck with preppie clothes, pot, The Bee Gees, and the only cause left to protest by the time I got to campus was apartheid.

Living in their shadow has left me feeling like I'm forever out of synch. When I was twenty-something the hot show was "thirtysomething." If I tried to discuss the dating habits of yellow power-tie wearing young men, my Boomer sister and my Boomer friends rolled their eyes at my shallowness and extolled the virtues of giving birth to a new life. By the time I wanted to talk about my newborn, they wanted to discuss the exhilaration of having the house to themselves again as their children left home.

For years, I bought in to their propaganda and was eager to catch up to them, to live the next phase of life that was obviously so much more fun, more challenging, and more meaningful than the phase I was currently in (just ask them).

But time has marched on and no monarchy, even a cultural monarchy that has outlasted disco, grunge, and Britney can last forever. To quote Boomer icon Bob Dylan, "The times they are a-changin'," and the Boomers are being unseated by Father Time. Though they are loathe to admit it, the Boomers have turned into the Geezers.

Now, for the first time in my life, I find I no longer want to catch up to them. No, you Boomers go right ahead and age without me. And now, also for the first time, they're trying to include me in their new phase. They act like I'm just as old as they are.

But I'm not of their generation. I never have been and I never will be. Why are they trying to include me in their newest phase when they never included me before? Chin whiskers, sagging jowls, stress incontinence, osteoporosis, and memory loss are just a few of the things I know way too much about considering I'm only 42. And the hormone replacement therapy debate: DoI really need to know about that yet? Excuse me but some of us still have our own hormones thank you very much and we don't want to hear another word about your vaginal dryness! I'm begging you Boomers to clam up and grow old gracefully like our parents and their parents before them.
Of course asking the Boomers to grow old gracefully is a complete waste of breath. They would have to stop fighting the aging process, and with role models like Goldie Hawn and Cher that’s not going to happen.

They will continue to obsess, botox, tummy-tuck, Aapha-hydroxy, and glucosamine themselves right up to and all the way through their "clipping-coupons-for-the-early-bird-special" years.
No, they won't stop talking about it and they'll continue to talk to us all as if we're right there with them, ignoring the fact that a large part of the population is indeed younger than they are. But I'm not there with them and I plan to enjoy what's left of my relative youth, so from now on I'm not listening to another word on their aging process.

Of course in ten years when I'm finally experiencing hot flashes I'll turn on "Oprah" looking for some information and solace only to hear her say, "Next up, tips on choosing the perfect nursing home!"

by Judy Zimmerman

Monday, August 07, 2006


First appeared in The Chicago Tribune on February 12, 2003 under the title of "Widow takes control of life's steering wheel"

My mother-in-law stoops over her kitchen table and leafs frantically through a large road atlas. After a flurry of page turning she finds the Chicago map and studies it. She writes a tiny, cramped note to herself on a Post-it, which she will soon lose in the sea of Post-its that covers her counters. She does all of this in a rush as if she were about to run out the door and jump in the car this very minute and not two days from now as planned. Everything she has done for the past four days has had this crazed, unfocused look to it. It occurs to me I have not seen her sit down except to eat in the past four days. Not since the day my father-in-law died.

She's looking for driving directions from her home in Michigan to her childhood hometown in central Wisconsin where we will bury my father-in-law. She has surprised us all by announcing she will drive herself there.

The reason she's studying the atlas is that although she has made this trip three or four times a year for the past 30 years, she has not once driven even 1 mile of the 650 mile trip. My father-in-law always drove and she always navigated and as far as I know they never switched places, even when he broke his arm last summer and could barely use his right arm.

At last, satisfied that she knows the route, she starts to close the atlas. But the book, instead of closing, flops open to a different page revealing a small stack of computer-printed sheets with the word, "Mapquest" at the top. She picks them up and examines them and smiles sadly.

"What are those?" I ask
"Oh, maps to North Carolina. Dad was planning a trip there."

My eyes sting and a lump forms in my throat. I find these moments the hardest to bear. The constant reminder of a life interrupted. The doctor's appointment card tacked to the refrigerator. The unopened Fathers' Day gift. This stack of maps for a trip he will never take. He was only 63. It was a stroke. She pulls the sheets out of the atlas and stacks them neatly.

She has spent the past 44 years with her husband and now he is gone. Theirs was an old-fashioned marriage built on the values of 1950s America. Their roles were so rigidly defined by their gender that I was appalled when I first met them. But I came to appreciate how it worked for them. He provided for her financially and she provided for him domestically. He took care of the finances, the cars, the lawn, and he always drove. She made the meals, cleaned, did the laundry and took care of family obligations, including phoning his mother weekly. They loved and admired each other. He made her feel safe and cared for and she made a comfortable home in which he took refuge.

Today, I am having a hard time imagining what her life will look like without him. We all are. I am certain she is too. She studies the stack of maps, then makes a decision.

"I don't have to throw these out now," she says and tucks them back into the atlas.
"No, no," I say reassuringly. "Of course not. You shouldn't throw anything away until you're good and ready."

Throwing things away is a difficult task for my mother-in-law. She is a pack rat. In this kitchen we are surrounded by her usual stacks of newspapers, magazines, bills, junk mail, maps and cardboard UPCs saved for contests and giveaways. The counter is littered with stuff she cannot bring herself to throw away: a toothpick, plastic wrap saved for a second use, a bottle cap, an assortment of plastic containers that cannot be burned in the barrel out back and, somewhat mysteriously, half of the handle of a fly-swatter. No, she should not throw anything of my father-in-law's away until she is good and ready. And that, I think, may be never.

She scoops up the atlas to return it to the stack in the corner, the pile where she keeps phonebooks and maps. As she does, the large cardboard cover separates from the atlas and flutters to the ground. She stoops to pick it up and lays it on the table with a grin.

"Judy," she says pausing for emphasis," He always drove and I always held the atlas. Of course after the atlas got to be a few years old the cover would come off and he'd give me a hard time for being careless."

We both smile as we imagine the conversation. He frequently chastised her for a long list of real or imagined indiscretions. It was sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying, but a constant ritual.

"And then, he'd never let me throw the cover away."

Never let me, she says. He was also a man who was used to making rules, both fair and arbitrary, and having them followed by wife and children without question or challenge.

"No, Judy, I don't have to throw anything away until I'm good and ready."

Then she picks up the cover of the atlas, walks across the room and does the most surprising thing I've seen her do in the 20 years I've known her. She looks at me, smiles mischievously, steps on the pedal to open the cover of the wastebasket and drops the atlas cover in.

"And I'm good and ready."

She loved him dearly and passionately for 44 years and she will miss him every day of her life. I've been wondering what things will look like for her without him. But suddenly, I'm not so worried about it.

By Judy ZImmerman


First appeared on December 2000

My 5-year-old daughter is my little clone. We have the same fair complexion, the same brown eyes, the same super-short haircut (her suggestion, not mine), and I'm told, the same temperament. Last summer we wore matching sundresses to a barbeque and some drunk was following us around and calling us twins. I call her my mini-me and she just beams.

Mini-me gets mad at me. A lot. Yesterday, for example, as she was in her room getting dressed, I heard her familiar wail. "What's wrong, honey?" I called up the stairs, bracing myself for some new doppleganger confrontation.

She appeared at the top of the stairs, hands on hips, brow furrowed. "Mom," she spat at me, pausing between words to gain steam and emphasize her disgust, ""

As usual, I hadn't a clue where they were, but that was irrelevant. In the laundry, under her bed, it didn't matter. Nor did it matter that she has about 23 other pairs of pants she could wear. Grace wanted those green sweat pants, and the fact that they were not there was clearly the fault of the mega-me, me.

It's my daughter's role in life to yell at me on a regular basis. Knowing this after all these years, I remained calm, cool, and mature in the face of attack. Certainly, I am the grown-up. In my most mature voice I yelled back, "How in the world can everything that goes wrong with you be MY fault?" And then I sulked.

Later that day I ran into my friend Julie. She too has a mini-her. She and her 7-year-old have matching, long, thick black hair, olive skin, and exotic brown eyes. They both talk a mile a minute without taking a breath. I confided in her my latest mini-me battle. Julie sighed, "Jillian yells at me from morning to night. Everything that is wrong in her life is my fault."

I burst out laughing, relishing a sudden and clear vision of every mother-daughter pair in our town having a shouting match, the younger twin yelling at the older one over some egregious transgression, real or imagined. The two of them looking like some sort of time-machine altered mirror image. Somewhere in India, I thought, an 8-year-old is yelling at her mom in Bengali because her mega-me forgot to wash her favorite sari.

This scenario is not merely one of my generation. Last year at Christmas I was peeling potatoes in my 67-year-old mother's kitchen while she and her 86-year-old mother prepared the rest of the meal. My mom was unpacking a bag of goodies that my grandma had brought over. "Mom," she said in a sharp voice, "Why do you bring all this candy when you know we cannot possibly eat it all?"

My response? Naturally, I yelled at her, "You can't talk to your mother that way!"

And so it goes, from one generation to another.

Maybe we talk to our moms this way because--well, because we can. You can pretty much say what you want to your mom and she's still going to love you unconditionally. That's part of the motherhood contract. I mean, my son doesn't talk to me this way. I've never heard my brothers talk to my mom the way my sister and I do. Maybe all this yelling is part of what makes moms and daughters so close, a sort of secret, high-strung code we share with each other, the subtitles of which really read, "I love you. We have a much stronger bond than a polite and genteel relationship would foster." The proof seems to be there: my sister-in-law (a yeller) and my mother-in-law (a yellee) talk daily and see each other a couple of times a week. In contrast, my husband talks to his mom monthly at the most.

My mini-me is the first to yell at me, but she's also the first to give me a hug and a kiss. Aboslutely, our yelling makes us closer. Otherwise, why would she be the first, and sometimes only, one to notice when I'm feeling sad, and the one who always tries to cheer me up by drawing me a picture or giving me a hug?

We're so much alike that we have to fight to remain separate. But we're so much alike that we'll always be close.

So take heart. The next time your little mini-you puts those hands on those hips and starts to shout just remember you're not alone in this. Nor will this communication phenomenon stop some day. Not in 5, or 10, or even 60 years. You and your mini-you are in this for the long haul. And isn't that nice to know?

by Judy Zimmerman

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


A while back I was sitting around a hotel pool in Scottsdale drinking Heinekens with my sister-in-law from LA. This is one of my favorite things in the world to do and at the end of the day I had a 'gossip burn' on half my face from turning my head toward her for so long.

Anyway, she was busy telling me all about a wild Hollywood party that she and my brother (her husband) had attended the week before."Paul was taking pictures and when we got them developed he had one of this girl who was twirling on the dance floor and her skirt was completely up."

"You mean you could see her underwear?" I exclaim. Those things never happen at parties I go to. Hollywood is so exciting.

"No, I mean she wasn't wearing underwear," Lisa says.

"Wow, that must have been embarassing."

"And," Lisa says, leaning in for dramatic effect, "She was completely shaved."

"Well of course she was shaved, she was wearing a skirt," I say. I mean I may be provincial but even I know you have to shave your legs when you go to a party.

"No, she was shaved --down there," Lisa says with a sly grin. She loves to shock me. It worked.

"WHAT!" I mean I know those sluts in "Sex in the City" do that and Victoria Secret models, and probably Angelina Jolie does but real people?

"I tried it," Lisa says, gulping her beer and waiting to see my reaction.

"You mean you waxed?" I couldn't be more shocked than if she told me she had made out with George Clooney.

"No, that hurts too much, I just shaved."

"Well, don't you have to cut it with scissors or something first?"

Here my brother chimed in.

"She started with the weed whacker, moved on to the lawn mower, then scissors, then finished up with a razor."

Well. I couldn't wait to get home and share this revelation with my coffee girls. They are 10 years younger than me and know all about the latest trend but I was sure they'd be surprised by this.

"Oh, lots of people do that," Coffee Friend 1 said.

"People you know?" I said."Oh yeah. Most people. I do before I give birth," Coffee Friend 2 who was pregnant with baby 4 said. "I like to tidy up for the doctor as a sort of courtesy."

Uh, oh. Someone owes her gynie a fruit basket.

"You mean they wax it ALL off?"

"No, they usually leave the 'landing strip'," Coffee Friend 1 said.

I mulled this all over for some time. I finally decided I wanted to give it a try. I thought it would make a good anniversary gift for my husband. We were going to be celebrating our 21st and I really didn't know what to get him. You know, 20th is china so the 21st must be, well you fill in a joke here.

Waxing was out of the question as it involved too much pain. So, on the morning of our anniversary I went into the shower armed with a pair of scissors and a new razor. After 20 minutes I still could not see skin. Another 10 minutes and my mission was accomplished.

I revealed my gift to Jeff later that night.In the interest of protecting a tiny bit of our privacy I won't say much more than that but he did like it. And he did comment that it looked very friendly and not angry any more.

I decided to keep my new look. It turns out that much like other personal grooming issues once the intitial work is done there isn't a whole lot to do to maintain it.In short, I would recommend this to my friends. It's free, it's easy, and it's legal.So fire up the weed-whacker ladies, this trend isn't just for LA anymore.