American Girl


I was born on the fourth of July. In the capital of Texas. Delivered by the mayor (on account of our doctor was the mayor pro-tem, and the mayor was on vacation) at Brackenridge Hospital. For the early part of my childhood, I thought the fireworks were for me. Even after a cousin disavowed me of this notion, I still knew I was special. Something about me, America, the fireworks and the homemade ice cream.

The date of my birth was a funny footnote when I won the Kiwanis club essay contest themed “What America Means to Me" when I was in sixth grade. In my essay, I (mis)quoted Voltaire: “I do not agree with a word you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say it.” (Actually Evelyn Beatrice Hall said it). I read the essay in front of a room full of civic-minded white guys (and I was BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY). We all felt very proud.

“American” as I am — with a Kiwanis trophy and the fireworks to prove it — I’ve never felt especially proud to be American. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a patriot. I know this indifference to being American is the luxury of being born a white child into a middle class family here. But lately, the news about the people who didn’t just get born here has me thinking about the immigrants I have known and the smudged borders that shaped me.

My mother was an accidental ESL teacher. She was a Spanish teacher, but amid the influx of refugees from Southeast Asia in the late 70s and early 80s, her administrators deputized her to teach English as a second language to classrooms full of teenagers from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. She had no idea what she was doing, but she was committed: a few nights every week, our little house was full of teenagers who wanted to learn.

Fast forward to my own adulthood, where I was seeing an orthopedic surgeon who was born and raised in Austin. Of course he knew the doctor who delivered me (I love to name-drop the late Dr. Dryden), but we quickly got to another unexpected connection — my mom taught ESL at the high school his surgical partner graduated from. He held up finger and said, “Wait.” A few minutes later, he came back into the exam room with his partner, a Vietnamese man in his 40s. He said, with tears in his eyes, “Your mother is Mrs. Donaho? She taught me English. And my brothers and sisters. As soon as we had enough English to work, we could get jobs to bring my parents over.”

I grew up seeing the border as a fluid, fractured, lovely place. My dad is from King Ranch country, that last flashing light before you drive down to the Rio Grande Valley. The difference between Anglos and Latinos in his childhood was a literal set of railroad tracks separating where white and brown people lived. Visiting when I was little, I’d hear people say a word that to my ear was “mohow.” It took me years of Spanish to re-hear it as “mojado” and recoil. Mohow. Mojado. Wet. Wetback. This offhand, offensive description of a group of people so closely woven into my family’s community was rooted in how they got here.

My husband is an El Pasoan, Mexican-American (and German and Japanese). Going home to El Paso with him, I feel the grounding weight and welcome of this international city. Although it’s a border city, it existed for hundreds of years before the borders were drawn. It’s a city of migrants and immigrants — whether people who move fluidly back and forth between El Paso and Juarez, temporary residents at Fort Bliss or those who’ve come seeking economic opportunity. It’s a city of cooperation — my husband points out El Paso’s geographic isolation as an important cultural and business factor in the region’s development. “If you’re gonna be El Paso del Norte, the last point of passage into the Rocky Mountains, all of you, you’re gonna have to get along.”

When the news started coming out about the families detained at the border, I felt a new wave of heartbreak and outrage. I’ve had those waves since November 8, 2016, but this was too much. Hearing the cries of those children ripped from their parents, I had the same reaction so many did. This is cruel, inhumane, un-American. I had to think again about “what America means to me,” and found myself feeling, at last like a patriot.

 Patriot. A person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.

Yes, I am ready to support my country: a country of immigrants. And vigorously defend it against enemies or detractors, even when — especially when — those enemies are the President and those who do his bidding. Defend it against the cruelty of separating families at the border, against denying people due process, against treating immigrants like animals.

Because they are humans.

They flee their countries across deserts.

They flee violence, abuse and poverty.

They are desperate. And enterprising. They are saving their own lives.

They show up at our borders, asking us for mercy. And opportunity.

They do the jobs we don’t want. For less than they should. For less than any of us would.

The human impulse to do better for our families is strong.

We used to call it the American Dream.

Help me defend it. Will you join me in an act of patriotism in honor of my (and America’s) birthday? Will you donate to the Dilley Pro Bono project to protect detained immigrant families?

This project is to help with reunification and asylum claims at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, the largest in the US — far larger than the one in Karnes City. Daily, attorneys are working to help the 2,400 asylum-seekers housed there. Please read and consider a donation. 

The Power of the Pencil

Earlier this school year, we got the news that Milo is showing signs of dyslexia. After a school assessment, the dyslexia was confirmed, and we are going down the path of getting a more thorough evaluation. I’ll write about that in more detail when I know more.


Homework is hard for Milo (and us). He charms. He stalls. He eats. He pitches fits. He does everything he can think of to avoid sitting, pencil in hand, facing the blank worksheet. This battle makes more sense now, knowing he has a learning disability. But what is hard about it — getting started? Facing the struggle? Making mistakes?

Last night, I think we got to the heart of the matter. I gave Milo a very special pencil: the Palomino Blacking 602. I explained that this was a pencil used by artists, writers and architects, which got him instantly excited. Then I showed him the special replaceable eraser. "Why do think the people who use this pencil need to replace their erasers all the time?” I asked him. And he said, “Because they have to erase a lot?” “That’s right,” I said. “When you are an artist or an architect, you have to be okay with making a lot of mistakes.” I could see this idea settle in, and we both smiled.

I am not saying a pencil is the answer to the struggles he will face. But if he can be brave enough to make mistakes, erase them and try again, he’s off to a decent start.

The Kids Went Back, the Sun Went Black

Lucy started eighth grade today. She planned her outfit, which after much thought, was effortless and cool. She was upbeat on her way out, fairly cheery when she got to the office. She talked a little more than she has lately, but she still rolled her eyes because I AM THE WORST.

Milo started second grade today. At first, he resisted physically, as in a stiff-bodied "I AM NOT GETTING OUT OF THIS BED." We subdued him with bacon. He wore his skateboard shirt. Later, when asked how he'd rate the day on a scale of one to ten, he said "8000!"

The moon stood between the earth and the sun today. We communed in crescents with strangers on the sidewalk and resisted the risk of blindness. The next time that happens, these children will be 20 and 14. These orbits are magical and relentless.


Family Portraits

I hate seeing photos of myself. For all the dumb vain and self-loathing reasons you would guess. This is why we have never had family photos taken, unless at the behest of some larger family group. And that is just sad.

So when a friend who takes artful, emotional, not your run-of-the-mill "family holding hands in a field of wheat" photos offered up a spot on a weekend shoot, posterity prevailed over vanity.

These are some of the pictures she made. Despite the aspects of my own physical appearance that dissatisfy me, they take my breath away.

There Will Be No Letter Grades

When you are slogging through adult life, when in a single day, you have cleaned the poop of your mom and the poop of the dog, when you wake up and get the kids out the door and want to go back to bed for the rest of the morning and somehow don't...there is no one to give you credit. There is no applause, no gold star, rarely even a thank you. Because you are doing nothing more heroic than being an adult woman of relative means and good circumstance, with a great life and kids and partner, who happens to be facing the same generational pulls as any other upper middle class white lady.

And yet, it is a lovely thing to be acknowledged by your sweet friend. To be seen.



There is paper evidence of her decline. In July, she paid the bills, recorded the checks, marked the bills PAID and filed them. In August, she paid them, recorded the checks and marked the bills PAID. In September, she paid them and barely marked the bills PAID. As the months of summer passed, her handwriting grew wobbly and veiny: written proof of what she was losing. Had I seen this feeble writing instead of her perfect Palmer method cursive, I would have known.

Instead, I found out when we had brunch with her in mid-October, at her invitation, and she admitted she’d fallen the night before and had to call EMS. She was so frail. She proceeded to fall three of the next four nights. We hired help. The help worried. We added hours of help. Her beloved housekeeper Leonor found Mom on the ground the morning of her regular cleaning day, and when I rushed to meet her at the house, we were both in tears: ¿qué le ha pasado? Leonor agreed to stay the night as long as we needed her. Leonor, who calls Mom “mi Dianita.” Leonor, who’d been making her meals and caring for her far more than I’d known.

Over the course of three weeks, we cobbled together 24-hour care. And yet she (we? I?) needed more: more skilled, more consistent, closer to us. I began to look at personal care homes — basically group homes for older people that have some level of nursing and a high level of service.

We found one: a sweet place in our neighborhood, halfway between the office and the house. We see her every day, sometimes more than once a day. It is a miracle this place exists. She is close and cared for, and that feels good.

And yet she’s so far from us. In such a short time, she’s gone from confusion about her September bank statement to not being able to work a phone to being lost about the day’s events and losing words. I can’t reconcile the dragon lady of my childhood with this docile mother I am now mothering. I just can’t.

I am not giving up on her, even though I’m getting little support that there may something acute going on beyond the cruel progress of dementia.

I feel so guilty for all the ways I failed her and am failing her.

And if she wakes up from this fog and sees her hair, which I haven’t had time to get cut and styled amid her many more urgent appointments, she will beat my ass. It’s one of the things I pray for.

At Your Service

Dear Children,

I love you. I made you. I am devoted to you.

And yet.

This is not the White House. While your respective jobs of being awesome 12 and 7-year-old humans and students are super important, you are not running the free world. And you don't have "staff." You have parents.

And today, just one day in the life of this family, one parent or the other (not a staff member)...

...drove carpool, made both your lunches, washed the dance clothes, volunteered at library, came home to find dance clothes still wet, put dance clothes in the laundromat near the office, drove you to get your head re-checked for lice, raced back to the office to deliver the dance shoes mistakenly taken in the car, spared you the horror of gymnastics by letting you hang out at the office, took you to get more dance shoes, drove you to dance class, bought you dinner, stopped at the grocery store to buy your lunch items. Oh, and then did homework and bedtime.

We do a lot for you two. Cut us a little slack.


The Management