Significant Others

From 1994 until 2008 Jeanne Marie was a regular, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Magazine, where her weekly “Significant Others” essays attracted a loyal following of readers who now can keep tabs on the latest adventures at Sweetwater Farm on Jeanne Marie’s Facebook page.  To view an archive of many “Significant Others” columns please visit The Washington Post.  Here’s a sampling:

Sink or Swim
He-Man’s Best Friend
Up for Grabs
The Real Thing
Pry, Pry Again


Sink or Swim
Courage can get you into deep water

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, August 5, 2007

The only people allowed on this side of the rope are people on the swim team,” says Sasha, my 6-year-old, escorting me under the temporary boundary between us and them. She wears a team suit, black with orange lightning bolts. “You can pick any lawn chair you want,” she says. “You are allowed to eat. People on the swim team are not allowed to eat until after the meet.”

All of this might mean a lot more if she would actually swim in a meet. She knows how to swim. She has taken lessons for years. You have to be at least 6 years old to join the team, which she did the moment she was eligible.

Plenty of kids her age are big enough, and strong enough, to swim a 25-meter lap. Mostly you see freestyle and breaststroke and, on rare occasion, butterfly. It’s impressive. It’s inspiring. It’s Sasha’s dream.

But at 33 pounds, standing at 3 feet, 6 3/4 inches, she’s the kid you see with the bathing suit that flaps in the breeze, defeating the whole purpose of spandex. She has always been tiny. She always will be tiny. And she dreams of being an athlete. I try to encourage, without pushing, without setting her up for failure, without expecting too much or too little — that web of fine lines any parent tiptoes between.

Bodies need fat to float, and so she is at an automatic disadvantage. Her freestyle stroke is well-coordinated, her kick solid, and even the rhythm of her breathing is on target. She’s good for about 10 yards of this, but then her little body simply loses oomph.

Three mornings a week she shows up for practice, arms and legs flailing, trying to make it to the other end of the pool. With the help of the wall on the side of Lane 1, she takes little breaks and more or less makes it. At the first meet, the announcer explained that swimmers who touch the wall would be disqualified. This was discouraging. “I have to hang on to something,” Sasha told me. “Or else I will drown.”

I tried to imagine being a person in water too deep to stand, forbidden to reach for safety, dependent only on arms and legs that are too skinny to power a bobbing, sinking head.

She refused to swim in the first meet, the second and the third. She doesn’t want to drown. She doesn’t want to get disqualified. And so instead she has become a little pet. At each meet she follows Coach Alex, a woman with bouncy long, red hair. Sometimes she holds Alex’s hand, and sometimes she even holds the clipboard for her, running around in her droopy bathing suit and pink goggles perched on her head.

Tonight I see Alex talking to the opposing team’s coach, pointing to Sasha. They’re both nodding, smiling. Finally, Alex approaches Sasha. “Your team really needs you tonight,” Alex tells her. The two of them are standing just on the other side of the rope from me, and I pretend not to hear. “You’re swimming in Event 17, okay?”

Sasha shakes her head no. “I will drown.”

“You’ll be in Lane 1, and you can touch the wall,” Alex says. “I just want to see you swim. You can just pretend you’re a little fish, okay?”

I don’t know where courage comes from. The atmosphere? The bloodstream? Heaven? Sasha nods. She places her goggles over her eyes, walks up to me. “You might want to watch this,” she says, and heads over to Lane 1. Event 17 is probably a good 10 minutes away, but she stands there, arms folded, goggles in place. Ready. I wonder what she thinks. I wonder what happens to terror when courage takes over.

“Swimmers, take your mark!” shouts the judge with the horn when Sasha’s turn comes.

Hoooonnnk! Sasha leaps like a flying squirrel into the water, lands in a belly flop, starts paddling like mad. Within seconds her competitors are already long gone. She grabs the wall, takes a breath. Another six strokes, grabs the wall. Five strokes, grab. This is going to take a while. Alex and the other coaches gather at the end of the pool, cheering, waving. Her teammates join in. Parents leave lawn chairs, cross the forbidden barrier, congregate. Everyone wants to see the tiny girl with the little bobbing head make it to the end of the pool. I am here with the other onlookers, screaming my brains out. “Come on! Come on! You can do it!” She looks like a little spider. Stroke, stroke, stroke, grab, stroke, stroke, grab. Her face is all panic and determination. She gets closer as the crowd roars louder. “Come on! Come on! Reach!” She takes one final stroke and touches the end of the pool.

Johnny, the strong, teenage coach, lifts her out of the water with one arm. “That’s what I call swimming!” a teammate shouts. “High-five, Sasha!” They are all trying to high-five her, but she is either in a state of shock or simply oxygen-deprived.

For a long time she sits, wrapped in a towel, eyes bugged out. She allows me to sit with her, and I hold her close. Finally, she speaks. “Could you tell I was going to cry in the middle of it?” she asks.

“Not at all,” I say.

“That’s the only thing I was scared of,” she says.



Pry, Pry Again
If at first you don’t succeed in getting answers from a friend, keep asking

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, April 24, 2005

If you ask about it, he might find you intrusive. If you don’t ask about it, he might think you don’t care. When something terrible is happening in a friend’s life, you tread carefully.

You’ve known him for years. He’s a colleague who long ago turned into a friend, although always a somewhat distant one. He’s a guy’s guy, the type to quickly squirm when confronted with talk of feelings or pronouncements of the heart. You’re a girl’s girl, the type who likes to express joy and thanks and togetherness, but you know it mortifies him, so you just do your bonding with jokes and jabs. A big sister, that’s your role. He’s your baby brother who has it all together and whose ears you occasionally enjoy yanking.

The terrible news came gradually; you put the story together in fits and starts. At first it was just the normal complaints of parents. He’s got three kids, and you’ve got two. You’d laugh together about toddler nonsense, swap discipline tips, e-mail pictures that seemed to say it all. So when he complained about his son refusing to eat, you took it in stride and offered your own sound advice: Don’t worry about any one individual meal, look at the nutritional intake over a week’s time. Don’t allow the dinner table to become a battleground. But set rules. No ice cream unless he at least attempts broccoli.

You never figured on anything serious.

Some weeks later, he told you he was taking his son to the doctor because he was getting so thin. He never said what happened, and you didn’t ask, because you figured if he wanted you to know, he would go ahead and tell you.

He started getting a lot of calls from doctors, and family members who live far away. There was talk of a feeding tube.

Respect his privacy. Give him space. It’s none of your business unless he invites you in. Maybe he needs something. You hope he’ll ask.

Now the relationship is strained. You don’t joke the way you used to, you keep your transactions about business. You don’t want to pry. But you want to know what’s going on. Why isn’t he telling you what’s going on? He doesn’t consider you part of his inner circle? He doesn’t think you’re worthy?

Stop it. This isn’t about you.

He put in for vacation time. You asked where he was going; even just plain old colleagues are allowed to ask that sort of thing. He told you about the clinic two states away. He told you about the tests and the theories, and he said some of the worst possibilities had been ruled out.

“Well, that’s great!” you said, far too enthusiastically.

“There are still some terrible possibilities,” he said.

“Right. One thing at a time. Right. That’s all you can do.”

You hated the way you sounded. Couldn’t you have come up with anything original? He was finally telling you something, and all you could think of were canned responses. “I want you to know I’m here for you.” Ugh. “If there’s anything at all I can do . . .” Ugh! You considered sending him a card. Or maybe baking him a cake. Ugh. In an inspired moment you asked him if he wanted to go out after work and play pinball, like you used to do in the old days.

He smiled, then said, “I need to get home.”

After his vacation time, he volunteered news of the diagnosis. “We’re waiting for the final test results,” he said. “We’ll know for sure in a few days.”

It’s been a few days. He has said nothing. You are trying to decipher cracks in his voice, looking for clues in his mood. He’s a guy’s guy, the type who shows nothing. You’re a girl’s girl, the type who longs to slap him and say, “Sit down here, sweetie, let’s put back some bourbons and have us a good cry.”

Tentative. This tentative version of your old stomping self is making you nuts. Treading carefully. Tiptoeing. It’s not you! But you don’t want to be intrusive. And you don’t want him to think you don’t care. You’re waiting for his cue. You’re waiting for him to tell you how to be. This is so often what we do when something terrible is happening in a friend’s life. We wait for them to tell us how to be.

As if they don’t have quite enough on their plates? Why do we hand that horrible job over to the friend? Stop it. Decide. Step up. Trust history and just go ahead and be the person he knows.

So in one swift move you pull him aside and say, “Look. I’m worried about you. If you don’t start talking to me about this, I’m going to have to hug you.”

He recoils in pretend horror. It’s beautiful. You see in his face the friend you almost lost. The boy who needs permission to vent sometimes, if only for a moment here and there.

“I’m scared,” he says, finally. “I’m just so scared.”



The ‘Real’ Thing
You don’t have to be adopted to know that prying into a family’s genetics is rude

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, February 27, 2005

One of the grandmothers, a gentle woman in her sixties, turns to me and says, “Are your girls real sisters?”

I look at her. We’re at a birthday party. It’s a large one, kids everywhere, pizza boxes half-empty, giant cake decorated with Ninja Turtles about to be cut. Noise level: elevated. My girls, who were both adopted as infants from China, are in this mix, the 3-year-old chasing the 5-year-old, who is tackling the boy she calls her boyfriend.

Now, this grandmother. She often shows up at the birthday parties. She’s been a part of this group since preschool, as have I. I’m taken aback that the question I so often get from strangers should come from someone I know.

“Are they real sisters?” It happens at the grocery store and at the mall and at the bank. I get sick of it. You don’t have to be an adoptive parent to know it’s rude to pry into the details of any family’s genetic makeup. It’s invasive. Would you ask such a personal question of someone who has a child who looks like only one of his parents? Would you say, “Hey, did you have an extramarital affair that resulted in that one?” Would you say, “Wow, sure looks like a donor-sperm baby to me! Am I right, or am I right?”

Most of us have filters preventing us from making those sorts of blunders. But when it comes to adoption, very many of us don’t. I speak from lived experience. The real-sisters question is particularly troubling when, as so often happens, it is asked in front of the sisters in question. Imagine yourself a 3-year-old or a 5-year-old and some grown-up is talking to your mom about whether or not your sister is real.

Parents are born to protect children, no matter what it takes. So the natural tendency here is to go on the attack. “What do you mean, real?” I could say to the grandmother. Or, “Mind your own beeswax, sweetheart.” Or, “What gives you the right to question the authenticity of my children’s place in the world?”

Oh, you can get militant with this stuff. It’s probably the same with any group of people who feel woefully misunderstood. Maybe at first you roll your eyes at the numskulls of the world, but at some point you get so frustrated, you decide to crusade.

I may still decide to crusade, but it won’t be at a kid’s birthday party. What stops me is a memory, the same one that usually puts the kibosh on things when I find myself in this situation. It happened very early on in my parenting years. I was driving home Amy, the college student who was baby-sitting for us. Amy, I knew, had been adopted from Korea, along with her two brothers and sister. She was sitting there in that passenger seat, and I don’t know what came over me. “Now, are your brothers and sister your real brothers and sister?” I said. Me, an adoptive parent, with my adopted kid right there in the back seat.

I was curious! I have no other explanation. I was fascinated by the notion of a family of four adopted kids and wanted to know the story. I have no idea why I felt entitled to it.

Amy told me which of her siblings came to the United States first and second and third and fourth, and said there was no biological connection among them. She didn’t color this answer with a defensive, or even romantic, hue. There was no, “But we’re siblings in every way that matters and feel that our souls are forever intertwined.” It was just a straight-ahead factual accounting. Having gathered myself, I apologized for asking, said I should have known better.

“People are curious,” she said, with a shrug. She had many memories of her mother fielding inquiries about her adoption, always casually, and often with a shrug. The facts of her earliest years were, simply, facts. Her mother never treated them as something odd, or particularly interesting, or as a secret to protect, and so Amy never did, either. “No sense getting all worked up standing up for yourself,” Amy said, “when you’re already standing.”

I’ve never forgotten the line. Any parent, any mentor knows this one: It’s all about the example. If I get on my high horse and crusade for the proper use of adoption language in America today, I’m sending one message to my kids. If I forgive the questioner for the invasion of privacy that I, too, have been guilty of, I have the chance to send another.

“Anna was born in the Shanghai region,” I say to the grandmother. “And Sasha was born in the south, near the Vietnam border.” She nods, listens, seems satisfied with the information, but more interested in making a point of her own.

“You know, I just love your girls,” she says. “I can’t imagine our little group without them.”

Now, see, that was important information I might otherwise have missed out on.



He-Man’s Best Friend
A dog disappears, and an owner’s pride soon follows

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, December 5, 2004

There’s probably a clinical name for this, a phobia of some sort, but I just call it “tippy issues.” I get tippy issues when I am sideways on a slope, especially while seated in a moving (leaning!) vehicle. I become consumed with the thought of toppling over, rolling down and down and down, into Hell itself, and that’s basically why I hyperventilate the way I do. Tippy issues.

Would that I had discovered this disorder before I moved to a place of large lumpy hills — and before I got me a husband who so loves motorized vehicles that the sound of his all-terrain vehicle revving up turns him into He-Man, who wants nothing more than to strap his woman onto the back of that thing and haul her off into the tippy sunset.

“Maybe another time,” is how I usually answer these invitations. But not today. It’s dusk. It is not a pretty dusk. It’s raining. There’s fog. I’m hanging on to He-Man’s chest with every cell of my fingernails as we go bounding sideways forth. I’m thinking: tippy, tippy, tippy, tippy. Followed by: Hail Mary, full of tippy, tippy, tippy.

“Can you see anything in those trees?” he asks.

“It’s too dark,” I say, which I’m pretty sure would be true even if I were able to open my eyes. “We’ll have to try again tomorrow.”

“This is a disaster,” he says.

We’re looking for a dog. A large, white, 3-month-old puppy of some 30 pounds. She arrived this afternoon. We named her Luna. We put her in a seemingly secure pen, went inside to eat lunch. I was chopping celery when I saw her outside the kitchen window, bounding with determination up and over the hill, then vanishing. “The dog! The dog!” I yelled, then ran up the hill, while my husband got the ATV. That was four hours ago. Still no dog.

This is a disaster. For him, for me. For very different reasons. My own sense of loss here is less about a dog I barely got to know than it is about the mood of my husband, which, I know, is headed into the dumpster. This is his first new dog in nearly 10 years. It was a project. He actually researched the breed. He is not the dog-breed-researching type. But this dog! This would be a working dog — a special breed that would patrol our fence line. He sat in his office learning the difference between a Great Pyrenees and a Maremma and decided on the latter. He finally found a breeder in South Carolina. The breeder sent pictures when the puppies were born. She gave all sorts of preparation instructions, including a directive for my husband to wear the same undershirt for two days, then mail it to her, so the puppy could get to know him. My husband did all of these things. He was a man with a mission, just like another man who may have entered his deep-sea diving stage or his rocket ship stage or, perhaps, his NASCAR stage. There were, I figured, so many worse stages.

He printed out maps to the breeder’s house, then found a hotel midway back that would take a dog. He left for the two-day trip with a suitcase and a chew bone. He returned proud, accomplished, rejuvenated: a man with a new dog! And then, poof.

What becomes of a man whose boat sinks, whose rocket ship plummets to earth, whose race car doesn’t make it even once around the track?

More to the point: What becomes of his spouse? She may have been able to steer clear of his project up to this point, but now she is in. Or, in my case, on. Any spouse worth her equilibrium would be braving her own tippy issues on this hill. My job is to lift He-Man from his hopelessness. And to hide my own. The dog doesn’t even have a dog tag yet. She can’t possibly have a sense of our place as home. No, that puppy is probably on a futile journey back to South Carolina. I say none of these things. Instead I say, “There, there,” as we make our way back into the house, soggy and depressed.

In the morning I make Lost Dog posters, while he heads off again. There were so many things I wanted to do with my weekend that did not include making Lost Dog posters. I am wondering how far into the future I will need to suspend the forward momentum of my own life, how long it will take him to get over this.

I’m just about to head out with my posters when I see a flash of white up in the woods. The dog? The dog! The dog! I run out in my slippers, screaming as I dash up the hill. “Puppy, puppy, puppy!” I tumble into her, throw my arms around her. She is wet and stinky and covered in burs. “You came back!” (I have my life back!) Oh, I love this dog.



Up for Grabs
When a balloon is loose, you either charge after it or you don’t

by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, November 18, 2006

A father, a daughter, a balloon. They are just now heading toward the car, hand in hand, toddling down the driveway. It is the same way every week. They’re going to the grocery store. They’ll get a free sample of cheese, they’ll get a free cookie, she’ll ride in the cart awhile, then get down and push. He’ll say, “Whose little girl are you?” She’ll say, “Daddy’s!”

It is the same way every single week. Except there isn’t always a balloon. He’s an older dad, well into his fifties. Before she arrived he wondered if he could do it. He wondered if he’d have what it takes.

She’s a younger child, barely 3. She knows she has an older dad. “I think,” she’ll say, “he might be 12.”

The balloon is two days old, practically ancient in the life of a standard-issue balloon. It is red. It’s tied to the end of a purple ribbon. It has fewer thoughts than a household pet, and yet, to a 3-year-old, it is in every way a pet. You have to take care of it, and it won’t last forever. But for the time being it is all yours. The center of everything.

“Would you like me to tie the balloon around your wrist?” he is saying, already knowing the answer.

“I would like to hold it,” she says. “I would like to hold my balloon in my hand.”

“Okay, sweetie,” he says. “Well, hold on tight.”
The balloon has lost a good bit of its helium, and there is no wind, and so the balloon appears to be walking one step behind her, at just her height. A pal if ever there was one.

He is boosting her up into the car seat, they are fumbling with sleeves, straps, buckles. It’s hard to tell how it happens. A slow-motion replay probably could not verify the sequence of events. But the balloon! The balloon gets loose. The balloon is floating in the air, just above the father’s head. “Oh, no!” she is saying. “Oh . . . no!” He reaches into the air, tries to pluck it from the sky, but the balloon at that moment catches an updraft and lifts higher, just beyond his grasp.

“Daddy!” she is saying. “Oh, no!”

He tries again; this time he leaps. But the balloon goes a foot higher, hangs there stupidly.
“My balloon,” she cries, craning her neck so as to make a more direct appeal. “Please, balloon! Please, Daddy! Oh, my balloon . . .”

Another father might say, “I told you, honey, I told you to hold on tight!” Another might think, we have to hurry, we have a long list of groceries. Another might think, we can just buy another balloon at the store.

“That’s my balloon!” she is saying, looking into the sky with longing. “That is my best balloon…”

This is one way a father, old or young, finds out who he is, with no time to decide which one he should be, which one he wants to be, which one might, perhaps, look better. When a balloon is loose, there is no time. You either charge after it, or you don’t.

And so he finds that he is the kind of man who charges after a loose balloon, charges after it with courage and fight. He isn’t aware of his heroism, or his foolishness, he is too busy chasing a balloon. He hops, runs, reaches, trots over the grass and trips into the boxwoods. That balloon is either dancing or flirting or maybe a little of both. It doesn’t have enough loft to go into the clouds, no, it hovers, dragging its purple ribbon just beyond his pleading fingertips.

“Get it, Daddy!” she is saying, cheering him on. “Oh, good job, Daddy!”
It is all he needs to hear. It is fuel. He leaps a few more times until he gets an idea. He’s going to outsmart that balloon. He calculates its direction, like a receiver estimating the trajectory of a touchdown pass, and he runs past it, up a little hill, to the top of a wall, off of which he can hurl himself, and go for the grab.

One, two, three — the timing here is critical — and he leaps! And don’t you know that balloon darts left. Left? The balloon is now over the wall, high in the air. To another father, that balloon would be a goner for sure. But not him. Not yet. He watches it. He shakes his head. He wonders how he might break the news to her. He thinks, “Life isn’t fair.”

Just then the first real breeze of the day kicks in, and the balloon makes a U-turn, an absolute about-face. It drifts toward him, closer now, and closer. He hops at just the right moment. He feels the ribbon like a tickle between his fingers and so he grabs, he grabs happiness out of the sky.

“Aaaah!” she says, her mouth dropping open. “You did it! Daddy did it!”

She can’t quite believe it’s true. Her father has performed a miracle. Her balloon is back. And life, to her, but also to him, has plenty more fairness left.