Watery Diet Cokes and Deadlines

It’s not true what they say. You actually do not have to become your parents.

The thing is, there’s might be a point where you realize it wouldn’t be so bad.

My mother was a journalist. She worked in newspapers for more than 35 years. This is how I attained my extensive swearing vocabulary (sleeping under news desks when you are sick with flu will yield some very entertaining eavesdropping sessions). She’s finally retired after much cajoling and persuasion. She didn’t like the stress or the pay but she loved being a Newsie. I know this for fact. It’s who she is. It’s in her DNA. (It’s not at all in mine.)

She came home every night and took a bath. I’d often draw it for her having memorized the exact position of the hot and cold levers that would yield the perfect tub. She liked them hot. Once she was settled in, I delivered a Diet-Coke-on-Ice that I’d prepared 10 or 15 minutes prior. She liked her Diet Coke watery.

She read the New Yorker in the tub, which is a habit that I now emulate. (Truthfully my favorite tub reads are The Sun Magazine, The Paris Review, ZoeTrope and The Tin House, but my mother could not afford such luxuries – the New Yorker was a yearly Christmas gift from her aunt.)

Sometimes she was inexplicably tense, a trait which I now attribute to several things (strained finances not withstanding) but most often to the threat of the deadline. I never understood this until I experienced myself: the deadline will make you great, the deadline will make you homicidal, the deadline will strip you down to a single, pulsing nerve. The deadline owns you. The deadline is everything.

And then when you hit it, there’s the waking up in the middle of the night. My mother did this often. I remember her curled over our rotary phone in a bathrobe placing frantic calls to the copy desk, “Did I spell this correctly? Did I reference this that way?” Her robe was aqua blue. She smelled like Noxema. Her hair cut in a short brown pixie. When I woke up to these calls I snuggled into her and she placed a gentle hand on my back while she spoke into the receiver. Then we laid in front of the fireplace on the sheepskin rug until I fell asleep again.

I wake up sometimes now in the middle of the night wondering what I’ve gotten wrong. Most often, editors make us better. Way better. They push us to be more critical, to ask more questions, to kill our darlings, to write with intention and precision. But every so often an editor butchers a piece with nary a call or consultation and I have to swallow back a little rage and take it like a big girl. Sometimes something goes wrong and it’s nobody’s fault – just a simple mistake – but it compromises something you worked hard on. Something you cared about.

When the words hit the printed page, nothing can be taken back. Everything is forever. Permanence that is occasionally imperfect. Print is brutally physical. It won’t change. It is unapologetically what you made it, good or bad. In the new world of 140-character fluttering personal whims and snarky or sarcastic editorial, it grounds me in a way that I crave.

I called Mom last night to unload. I was tense and irritated and ready for a hot bath with a magazine. Her voice conveyed, as it has since I started writing in a professional way, an unmistakable camaraderie. I didn’t mean for this to happen, but there it is. If she were here, she’d bring me a watery diet coke (with vodka?), no questions asked.

 

 

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2 comments

  1. That’s lovely. As a Brit I used to read a lot of US coming-of-age novels and there’s that strange (for me) mixture of exotic references and familiar emotions. Reminds me of some very good stuff that captures the retrospective significance of seemingly mundane everyday childhood events, e.g. Mary Karr ‘Cherry’, Joy Nicholson ‘Tribes of Palos Verdes’.

  2. Yes, lovely. I am also becoming my mother and am inspired by you to express that “becoming” in a more positive way.
    Beautiful images, perfect language. Really great article, thank you.

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