Can Wild Boar Save the Suburban Mall?

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

THERE’S NO DOUBT ABOUT IT—THIS IS MARC VETRI’S OSTERIA. It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, with a 45-minute wait and good-looking people standing three-deep at the bar. Ever-present beverage director Steve Wildy hustles in his ever-present dark gray suit, uncorking the second $75-plus bottle of red for two beefy guys who loom over a Lombarda pizza, which Food & Wine deemed the restaurant’s “signature” pie. Chef and partner Brad Spence, his whites strangely clean, surveys the dining room, which is tight and loud and thick with the aromas of braised rabbit and dry-aged rib eye and that magical wild boar bolognese. It’s exactly what we expect Osteria to be.

Except for one little hitch—the giant blue neon sign shining in through the front windows: SEARS.

Because here’s the thing: We’re not on North Broad.

We’re in a mall.

And not the swanky King of Prussia mall, or even the newly Nordstrom-ed Cherry Hill Mall.

We’re in the Moorestown Mall.
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Making Friends in the Suburbs

Book clubs and making friends in the suburbs

Photograph by Clint Blowers. Styling by Melanie Francis

A year or so after my husband and I moved from 13th and Pine to the quaint South Jersey hamlet where we planned to start a family, I realized that in order to be a happy and fulfilled suburban grown-up, I needed one thing I didn’t have: a book club.

It was odd to yearn for a book club. It was particularly odd since I had never in my life actually been in a book club, though I knew people who were who frequently made offhand remarks like “I went to happy hour with Shannon from book club,” or “When I had a baby, my book club brought dinners for a month!” or “If it weren’t for book club, I’d probably murder my husband in his sleep.” So it was most definitely a yearning, which I felt most intensely when my as-yet-unmurdered husband and I sat having dinner at P.J. Whelihan’s, as we often did, and saw groups of other couples our age laughing and buying rounds as we picked through our Loaded House Nachos, alone. Inevitably, on the car ride home I would announce, “I need a book club.”

“I know, Vicki,” Thad would reply, patting my thigh. “I know.”

What I was really saying, of course, was “I need friends.” But that phrase was just too pathetic to utter aloud, even to my husband, so I substituted “book club” as code. Like, “I get by with a little help from my ‘book club.’” Like, “All you have to do is call, and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ve got a ‘book club.’”
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Keeping Santa Alive in the Suburbs

Photo by Vicki Glembocki.

Photo by Clint Blowers.

I had no idea that my daughter was watching me, that she’d followed me into the attic, that she was standing right there.

I’d gone up last fall to wrap a gift for a birthday party she’d been invited to. Without thinking, I dragged out the tall plastic container where I store rolls of wrapping paper, lifted off the top, casually thumbed through the various options the way any mother would—any mother who assumed she was alone, and safe, and in no danger at all of crushing the one great mystery of her daughter’s seven-and-a-half-year life.

“Mommy!” came a voice from behind me. It was firm. And desperate.

“Aaaahhh!” I screamed, also firm and desperate, and a little bit scared-out-of-my-cords. I immediately recognized the voice as Blair’s. My body instinctively whipped around to face her as I held the top of the container in front of my chest like a shield.

“Mommy!” she said again, pointing at the plastic bin. “How did Santa’s paper get in there?”
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The New Rules for Love, Sex and Marriage

What exactly counts as an affair today? Cheating wives, husbands and the new rules of marriage.

There was no way around it—this totally crossed the line:

A drunk, married dad-of-two was spied canoodling with a random woman in the middle of a bar, in the middle of town.

Our town.

Where he lives.

Who would be that stupid?

That seemed to be the general consensus as the story made the rounds the following morning at the ball fields. In fact, that was how the news officially got to me. (Not that I didn’t hear about it again, the next day, from one person who saw it firsthand and then, in the days to come, from two other people who’d also gotten wind of it and whispered to me, with hands covering their lips as if there might be surveillance equipment on the playground, “Did you hear about that dad at that bar?”) A friend of mine was at the field, innocently sitting in her bag-chair and watching her child play, when she overheard some Gladys Kravitz-type talking about it, loudly, in great detail, using specific locations. And body parts. And names. She texted me immediately.

Turns out she knew the guy, and she assured me that if she pointed him out at the pool or the annual town luau, I’d recognize him—this married dad who allegedly had his arms wrapped around a woman who wasn’t his wife, talking way too close, her hand rubbing his back. All of this in front of people he knew but was apparently too tanked to realize were there, watching him like he was a car wreck.

As the overheard details at the ball field spilled (there may or may not have been slow-dancing), my friend heard someone else casually shush Gladys, reprimanding her jokingly: “Keep your voice down!” Gladys wasn’t having any of it. “If you’re going to do that in a bar in the middle of town,” she replied, “then you deserve to be talked about in the middle of town!”

Word.

The stickiest part, though, was this—my friend, who knew who this guy was? She also knew his wife. Not well. But well enough.

“Are you going to tell her?” I texted.

“No way!” she texted back.

I mulled this for a second. “Don’t you feel like you should?” I texted.

Five minutes passed, and no return text. Then five more minutes. I began to wonder: Did she think I was overreacting? Because in my opinion, that dude had totally and unequivocally crossed the line. Unless maybe he just crossed my line. Maybe my friend had a different line.

Finally, my phone beeped. A text.

“There is no way I’m getting involved!”

A pause. Another beep: “He’s a pig.”

Aren’t Kids Supposed to Be Off for the Summer?

Summer activities for kids are out of control. Photo by Clint Blowers.

A year ago last winter, I woke up at 3:30 in the morning for the third night in a row, in the midst of a full-blown panic attack. I could barely breathe.

“This is crazy,” I whispered as if I didn’t want to wake up my husband, even though I totally wanted to wake up my husband. It seemed only fair that Thad share this moment with me—the two of us, panic-attacking in unison as all couples should when tormented by one of the most frustrating responsibilities of rearing children: The Scheduling of Summer.

I’d been poring over our options for about a week already. It had taken me almost seven months—starting, approximately, at the end of last summer—to compile a manila folder stuffed with potential activities for those now-unscheduled 6.5 hours on each of the 57.5 weekdays of summer fun we had to fill for our girls, Blair, seven, and Drew, five. I’d clipped art studio ads from the free township paper, pulled tags from fliers in coffee shops about sailing lessons on the Cooper River, googled “YMCA” and “Arden” and “Adventure Aquarium” and “science camps in South Jersey” and, eventually, “Why in the name of all things holy are there no camps during the last two weeks in August?”

I swiftly narrowed down the choices based on three factors: fun, cost, and distance from home, since I work full-time there, writing in my basement. We had a baby girl, too, who’d be nine months when school let out on June 16th, but she was easy; we’d keep her at the sitter we loved, where she already went every day, expecting to do no more than nap and eat. But the other two? They had to be somewhere.

I puzzled together two possible agendas and wrote them, side by side, on a yellow legal pad, which I stared at a lot, periodically moving it from one surface in my house to another, as if the best choice might be more likely to reveal itself on the dining room table than on the Formica.

Plan A: Two weeks at the school district’s summer camp (I’d heard it was boring, but it was cheap), then a week visiting my parents in Erie, Pennsylvania then a week of “Stage Teenies” acting camp, then school camp for two more weeks (did I mention it was cheap?), then back to Erie for a week by the lake and another at a zoo camp (“Dynamic Dinos!”), then a week in Cape May, then two weeks at the Markeim Arts Center’s camp and, then, mercifully, back to school. All for the low, low cost of $2,211.20.

Plan B merely swapped in three weeks at the International Sports Centre camp, just 3.5 miles away in Cherry Hill (Giant indoor playground! Roller rink! Weekly swim-club trips! Free nylon backpacks!) … all for a higher total cost of $2,533.60. It seemed worth it. (Having someone else teach your kids to roller-skate? Priceless.) But this total was $150.80 more per kid than what most affluent families—which we very much were not—paid to occupy their kids in the summer, or so reported an American Express survey about the $16 billion Americans spend on summer kid-care. “The summer camp” now practically occupies its own economic sector. (One of my friends almost crashed her car when she saw a billboard in Marlton for a soccer camp … for 18-month-olds. “They can barely walk!” she screamed, to no one.)

“Why are you so freaked out?” Thad yawned through the darkness of our room, staying as close as possible to his edge of the bed, as if concerned that I might start to flail.

“We have to fill out all the forms! We have to pay the fees!” I whispered at him, almost starting to flail.

“Isn’t it early to be worrying about this?” he asked, stuttering as the sentence came out of his mouth, since he knew it would likely release The Kraken.

Early? Are you kidding me? It’s late! Disney Week at the acting camp filled up two days after registration opened last year. And if we don’t pay in full by Friday, we’ll lose the Early Bird discount. Plus, in order to be eligible for the last two weeks in August at the Sports Centre, both kids need to be enrolled there for at least 10 days beforehand. And I think I saw a Groupon for Markeim, but it might have expired already. I mean … we are running out of time!

It was March 3rd.

Thad fell back asleep instantly, the way husbands can. But I lay awake, calculating the hits to our checking account, wondering if I’d be able to refrain from throwing the kids out a window when they began complaining that they didn’t want to go to camp. But, mostly, I was hating.

All that free time. All those long days. All that living that was supposed to be so easy.

I hated it.

Summer.

Freakin’ summer.

Bad Neighbors, Nasty Notes and the Death of Idyllic Suburban Life

One of our neighbors put a nasty note on the car of someone who was visiting our house.

I could not believe it.

So I did what any other wronged neighbor lady would do: I repeated the news, over and over, to everyone I ran into—my husband on the couch, my friend picking up her son at karate, my mother on FaceTime, my Bosu ball instructor, the altos in my church choir, and my husband, again, when his alarm went off in the morning, waking me up and causing me to shout the first thing that popped into my head: “One of our neighbors put a nasty note on the car of someone who was visiting our HOUSE!”

This was not your typical under-the-wiper-note, the kind you scrawl in a fit of parking-lot rage on that damp Starbucks napkin you find under the floor mat and then feel bad about later. No, this note took effort. And thought. And evilness.

Actually, it wasn’t even a note at all, but a ticket. A parking ticket. A fake parking ticket, printed from a website called youparklikeanasshole.com (because there is a website called youparklikeanass ole.com). There were various violations that the ticket-giver could check off, like “Too close to my driveway” and “That’s a compact?” The one X-ed on this ticket—a ticket that one of our neighbors put on the car of someone who was visiting our house—was this: “Two spots, one car.”

Let’s be clear here: We live in the suburbs. There are no “spots” on our street. There are no lines. There are no meters. There is just curb. And asphalt. And, apparently, there are people who park perfectly reasonably and legally and non-crookedly on said asphalt, next to said curb, but are, nonetheless, assholes. (In this case, said assholes also live in said neighborhood and were invited by us to come to a holiday cookie party during the time of year when there is supposed to be said goodwill to all.)

But that wasn’t the worst part. In addition to the various checkable offenses on the ticket, there was a blank line for write-in infractions. The ticket-giver, perhaps worried that he or she hadn’t been entirely clear, decided to add this: “You must think you’re royalty.”

“They basically called Andrea a royal asshole,” I summarized for my hu­sband, Thad, who was already talking about installing surveillance equipment.

Fortunately, Andrea, a fellow kindergarten mom, was less concerned about the name-calling than the critique. Post-soiree, upon arriving home with her 14 dozen cookies and her “asshole” ticket, she downed a glass of pinot while desperately defending herself to her husband: “I’m a really good parker! I used to live in Fishtown.”

But Thad and I were shocked. Already, this note broke all kinds of rules. Like the Golden one. And one of the Commandments … from God. But it also broke that unspoken rule of suburban neighborliness. Wasn’t this precisely why we’d moved from 13th and Pine to a South Jersey ’hood? So we could walk our kids to school in a town where we know everyone’s name, where we wave to each other as we pull out of our driveways, where we bring each other dinner when we’re sick and have cookie parties and book clubs and township parades and never, ever put nasty notes on each other’s cars?

Thad and I stood at our front door and surveyed the nine other houses on our street. All of the inhabitants had been in our home at one time or another. They’d hung out on our back porch. They’d drunk beer with us. They’d eaten my linguini salad. Which one of you did this? Which ONE?

But there was an even more important issue we had to figure out—what were we going to do about it?

Did This Delran Woman Fake Cancer?

On the day Lisa DiGiovanni found out her sister was going to start hospice care, she couldn’t stop thinking: I am such a jerk.

It’d been an emotional nine months. In February 2011, Lisa’s younger sister, Lori Stilley, had told family and friends that she’d been diagnosed with bladder cancer. Less than two weeks later, she revealed it had spread into the surrounding tissue, earning the dire diagnosis of “Stage III.” By the end of May, she told everyone that despite chemo and radiation, the cancer had reached “end stage.” “I have fully processed the notion that I am ‘terminal,’” Lori wrote on Facebook, where she’d eloquently journaled the details of her illness. Once she stopped treatments, the doctors expected “it would probably be a matter of weeks.”

Lori was 39, divorced and out of work. She had no health insurance. And she was also a single mom. Kylie was 11. Jack was just five.

Lisa was beside herself, worrying about what would happen to her niece and nephew when their mother died. She would wake up in the middle of the night, sobbing about how unfair it was. She hadn’t always had a great relationship with her sister over the years. But the realization that she was going to lose her only sibling made Lisa forget all that.

I don’t want to have any regrets, she thought. None at all. She organized a t-shirt fund-raiser for “Proud Members of Lori’s Team,” raising more than $3,000 for Lori; planned a dream wedding for Lori and her fiancé in just nine days; helped organize a beef-and-beer to benefit Lori’s kids, which raised another $5,200.

Hundreds of people rallied to help. They gave cash and gift cards, threw fund-raisers at local bars. They arrived at Lori’s South Jersey home in Delran with enough groceries to stock the pantry. (One woman brought dinner every Thursday for months.) Soon, Lori had 360 people following her on her “Team Lori Rocks” Facebook page.

“People were living it with Lori,” Lisa says now, sitting in her dining room in Gibbsboro. She pulls out a thick folder, stuffed with the emails, the bank statements, the letters, all of those Facebook posts do­cumenting the past year. “People were saying, ‘That’s what my mom went through.’ It was kind of cathartic for them … to be able to help.”

Except.

Lori’s story didn’t always add up. Why, for instance, did she insist on going to her chemo treatments at Cooper Hospital alone? Why wasn’t her hair falling out? Why didn’t she look … sick?

“Who would lie about having cancer?” Lisa’s husband Mike would say when Lisa dared pose such queries. She couldn’t stop wondering, though: What did it mean? That maybe … Lori … didn’t … ?

Lisa couldn’t say it out loud. What if she was wrong? Believing her sister was dying from cancer was actually more bearable than the alternative. Whenever something came up that made her doubt the severity of Lori’s i­llness—whenever something didn’t quite track—the story would take a devastating turn.

Like on October 28, 2011, almost nine months after the whole ordeal had begun, when Lori posted to Facebook: “Starting the morphine drip mid next week.” Oh my God, Lisa thought. How could I have questioned her? My sister is starting hospice. My sister is about to die.

I am such a jerk.

>>UPDATE: Lori Stilley plead guilty to charges of third-degree theft by deception in May 2013. Click here to read more.

Is This Nuts? More Couples Living Together After Divorce

As more couples get divorced, more people are living with their ex-wife or ex-husband despite their separation.

“They split up.”

“They split up?”

My friend and I were sitting side by side on folding canvas chairs, both wrapped in fleece, both clutching steaming cups of coffee at a way-too-early Saturday soccer game last fall. As seems to be required in such circumstances, we were chirping about people we knew. When I brought up a couple whose daughter played soccer with our girls last season, my soccer pal casually stated, “They split up,” as if revealing that said mutual friend had purchased a new pair of clogs.

“What are you talking about?” I said, too loudly.

“You didn’t know?” Soccer Pal asked, so incredulous that I momentarily wondered if the news had been posted on the township Facebook page: “There was a burglary on Virginia Avenue. Kristen and Bill split up. Leaf pickup starts on Friday the 3rd.”

I’d just seen them together at Dunkin’ Donuts, all of them, including the four kids. I recalled jolly laughter and the aura of bona fide togetherness-ness. Kristen and Bill were always together. At games. At the pool. At the block party. It wasn’t like Kristen and I were BFFs, but her cell number was programmed into my phone. We texted.

When I thought about it, though, I remembered I’d heard a few months back that it wasn’t exactly paradise in their beige colonial. Bill had been in and out of work. Kristen was holding down two jobs to bring home extra cash. Someone had mentioned that there were always a lot of beer bottles in their recycling bin, which I assumed was a good sign—that once the kids went to bed, they sat on the couch like we did, drinking pale ales and catching up on Homeland.

A few days after soccer, I saw Kristen in the deli at Wegmans and beelined my cart over to hers.

“I just heard about you and Bill,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, it’s been about six months.”

“Really? I had no idea,” I said. Six months?

“I’m not surprised you didn’t notice,” she said. “We’re separated. Totally. But Bill’s always around. He sleeps over at least three nights a week.”

“He sleeps over?” I repeated.

“On the couch,” she clarified. “But he takes the kids to school, the whole thing. It kind of … I don’t know … it kind of works. It’s better. For the kids. I didn’t want to uproot them. It’s their house. I’m not sure when he’ll officially move out. Or if he’ll officially move out.”

I didn’t want to be meddlesome and ask the obvious question: If you split but you don’t actually split, isn’t that the equivalent of, um, marriage? Instead, I blurted out a far less invasive query: “Are you dating?”

“A little.”

“Is he?”

“Maybe. I’m not quite sure.”

“Wow,” I said, nodding my head as if their arrangement was totally ordinary, as if I’d had the very same conversation with three other moms in the bakery aisle minutes before. I couldn’t help thinking that Kristen and Bill had to be the healthiest, most progressive, most selfless parents on the face of this earth.

Either that, or they were total nut-jobs.

 

Whenever I imagine my divorce—and I imagine my divorce roughly once a week, typically when I find a beer glass soaking in the sink again, as if beer glasses need to soak and can’t, for the love of God, just be placed directly into the dishwasher—it does not look like Kristen’s at all.

My divorce is normal. Thad moves into a nearby apartment. He takes the kids every Wednesday and every other weekend. We alternate holidays. No one periodically sleeps on the other person’s couch.

“How do you imagine our divorce?” I asked him one weekend as we drove to visit some college friends. I was pretty certain that Thad, too, imagined our divorce roughly once a week, typically after I found a beer glass soaking in the sink and proceeded to lecture him for 45 minutes on how I have to do everything. Turns out his fantasy divorce is pretty much the same as mine. I explained Kristen and Bill’s setup.

“But they’re always together,” he remarked.

“That’s exactly what I said.”

He didn’t say anything for a long time. So long, in fact, that I started to worry. Was he weighing the possibilities? Couch a few nights a week and getting to have sex with other women vs. every night in the California king with Mrs. I’m Too Tired And WTF About The Beer Glasses?

“I’m not sure I get it,” he said finally. “You might not be technically married, but you still have to deal with all the stupid little sucky stuff about being married. You’re still getting irritated about the direction of the toilet paper or eating the last piece of pizza or whatever. But there’s no payoff.”

He was talking about sex, but I pretended he was talking about those special married-people moments, like the side-hugs we give each other when we witness one of our children doing something nice, like almost punching a sibling but deciding at the last minute not to. We side-hug a lot. So I felt rather confident that the only time Thad would ever sleep on the couch was when I was bedridden with the flu and throwing up in a bucket.

The next day, full of marital confidence, I stood on the school playground for pickup and, as seems to be required in such circumstances, chatted about what was going on around town. One mom mentioned her neighbor, who was apparently living with her ex-husband full-time because they couldn’t afford separate households.

“In the same bedroom?” someone asked.

“No way. But their son keeps asking them why they never hold hands. He’s so confused.”

“That’s weird.”

“You know what’s weird?” I countered. “I know a couple doing that, too.” Then I revealed the nuts and bolts of The Curious Case of Kristen and Bill, minus the names “Kristen-and-Bill,” in case anyone knew them. I didn’t want to be that mom.

“My cousin’s story is better than that,” another mom cooed, as if we weren’t talking about people, but about who got the better scratch-off coupon in that week’s mailer from Kohl’s. Her story was better: The couple also divorced and stayed in the same Cherry Hill house, but when the dad started dating a friend of theirs, the mom got upset and set him up with one of her friends.

What?!” everyone screeched like hyenas. This was getting good.

Another friend whispered about a couple who split and their kids kept living in the house while they alternated weeks; a similar story involved switching off months. A couple out in Wayne did the same thing, but bought a small studio apartment nearby where each parent stayed on his or her off-time. Then there was the dad who moved out but came over every morning before the kids woke up to cook them breakfast.

The breakfast thing stopped me. It actually sounded … rather … nice. To have someone swoop in and take care of a meal, then swoop away? To spread out in the entire bed and still have a pseudo-live-in homework helper? And laundry-doer? And snot-wiper? To have hours, even days, of space? Of alone-time? Just thinking the word “alone” freaked me out a bit, not because I couldn’t imagine it, but because I could.

The following week, as I tried to determine if our town had a Weird Divorce Cluster, I casually mentioned to a friend at yoga about Kristen and Bill. She volleyed right back—a separated couple she knew who sent a joint Christmas card, complete with a Sears Family Portrait of all of them. Another friend knew a recent Villanova divorcée who hosted her ex-husband—and his new girlfriend—for Rosh Hashanah because, she said, “The kids should be able to look across the table at a holiday meal and see their whole family.”

I didn’t understand. Everyone I knew—everyone—seemed to know someone who was involved in some kind of unbroken breakup. Is this what divorce looks like now? Like the couple in Abington who, two and a half years ago, announced to their friends and neighbors that hubby was moving out? Fast-forward to now: They’re still living in the same house.

“People think he’s too cheap to pay support and she’s too lazy to get a job,” sniped the friend who told me the Abington couple’s tale over coffee. Each parent takes responsibility for their two daughters a few nights a week and every other weekend. On the dad’s off-weekends, he stays at his girlfriend’s house and the mom’s boyfriend moves in. On the mom’s weekends off, the dad’s girlfriend sleeps over. During the holidays, the four of them would be at the same neighborhood parties together. And back at the neighborhood block party in the summer.

“My kids know their kids. They don’t really think anything of it,” my friend explained. But she figured it had to be confounding for the little girls when, last winter, their parents—just the mom and the dad—took them skiing at Camelback. “When I saw the mom later,” my friend said, “I had to ask: ‘Was your boyfriend okay with that?’”

I asked Randi Rubin, a divorce attorney in Center City and on the Main Line, about all of this. Turns out she now sees these setups all the time. Call it the Divorce Halfway House. “It’s much more common,” she says. “People don’t have the means in this economy to live separately, and it usually doesn’t hurt the kids as long as everyone stays civil.”

But dating was often why couples got into the mix in the first place. At a cookout last year, my friend Amy (wife of Joe, mother of three) shared the gooey details of her friend’s situation. Married couple, separated. Still living together. Husband dating another wo­man, who is also separated but living with her ex. Wife dating like a sorority girl.

“Can you imagine?” she asked me.

“No, I can’t, actually.”

“I mean,” she went on, “doesn’t it sound … great?”

Great?

“Think about it. You get to have sex all you want with whomever you want. You get to have the family fire burning at home. Of course, as soon as Joe started dating, I’d lose my shit. I’d probably kill him, but … ” She trailed off dreamily, then strolled away.

Wait, I Have to Buy a Gift for the School Janitor?!

At first, I couldn’t figure out why our neighbor’s daughter was carrying so many bags. She was walking to school with my kindergartner, Blair, and me, as she did almost every day. But today was special. It was the day before the holiday break, a half-day, no less, that would be filled with nothing but jingle-belling and nondenominational word searches and the donning and strutting of various gay apparel.

As we approached the corner, the girl reached out to hand one of her bags to Emma the Crossing Guard.

“Happy holidays!” the girl exclaimed, all joyous and merry.

“Thank you, hon,” Emma the Crossing Guard replied, all joyous and merry, and handed the neighbor girl a candy cane. Emma then handed a candy cane to Blair and—as if it couldn’t get worse—one to my younger daughter, Drew, whom I was pushing in a stroller.

The fact that I didn’t say out loud what was pulsing in my head was a bona fide Christmas miracle: “Oh, shit.”

I thought I’d done a pretty good job for my first foray into elementary-school holiday gift-giving. At that very moment, in Blair’s pink-striped backpack, were two bigger-than-her-head loaves of banana bread—one for her teacher, and one for the teacher’s aide. Blair had helped me bake them. Kind of. I measured out the flour, she dumped it in. I measured the sugar, she dumped it in. I measured the buttermilk, she zombie-walked toward Dora Saves the Snow Princess on TV. Before Blair went to bed, I made her sign little gift cards. I wrapped the loaves in tin foil, then in crisp white dish towels with red reindeers on them that I’d bought at Pottery Barn in February for 75 percent off.

Homemade. Useful. Festive. Cheap.

Not once, not even in a passing daydream on the elliptical, had it ever occurred to me that I should be making banana bread for Emma the Crossing Guard, or for Becky (or was it Betty?) the Other Crossing Guard. What about the art teacher? The gym teacher? What about the janitor?

There wasn’t much time before the 12:30 dismissal bell to make it right with the crossing guards, even though I wasn’t exactly clear on what “it” was. Still, I jogged over to the daycare to drop off Drew (along with the 10-for-$10 small bottles of holiday-smelling lotion—“Sugar Plum,” “Gingerbread House,” “Sap”—that I’d bought at Jo-Ann Fabric and individually wrapped in flouncy red tissue paper for the whole staff). Then I ran home and preheated the oven to 350 degrees.

The last banana in the basket looked more like a charred cat leg than fruit, but these were desperate times. I poured the batter into two small bread pans and, as it baked, tore through the attic in search of those plastic snowman gift bags my mom gave me approximately 13 years ago, “just in case.” At 12:15, I posted a frantic query on Facebook: “Emergency! The Crossing Guard at the corner of Center and Melrose … Becky or Betty?” A mom down the street responded seconds later—“Becky.” Check. If I said I didn’t write the cards with my left hand to make it look like they’d been written by a five-year-old, I’d be lying.

I picked up Blair with the bags of loaf hidden in my purse, waiting until we were out of the crosshairs of other parents before I pulled them out, placed them in her mittened hands, and whispered, “Give these to the crossing guards.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because … ” I said, then stopped, reviewing the events of the morning and feeling pretty certain I’d just emerged on the other side of a psychotic break. “You know, I’m really not sure.”

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