Mourning at Mary Poppins Returns

My father died in January 2018. I still miss him badly and keenly feel his absence. I’ve never mourned anyone as much as Dad, and I’m learning things about the grief process that I previously didn’t fully understand.

Last Christmas a friend and I went to see Mary Poppins Returns. As the opening credits rolled, I began to cry. My parents separated in early 1966. That summer, on a scorching, humid New York City day, Dad took me to see the original Mary Poppins. I’d already seen it four times, no doubt at least a couple of times with him. But we had to get out of the one-hundred-five-degree heat, and there were few affordable places to take a sweaty six-year-old.

Mary Poppins
The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

I always thought of my father sitting through that movie for the umpteenth time as a valiant act of fatherhood. So when the credits for Mary Poppins Returns began and the music swelled, all I could think of was Dad and that day. It moved me to tears. I have countless happy memories of my father, and they make me mourn his passing, knowing my memories are all I have left. Despite my sadness, I’m always grateful that this warm, funny, loving man was my father.


attractive-1867127_1280After my father died without warning, I often found myself crying suddenly. I cried while buying a cookie at a charity bake sale for a nurse who died in Iraq. I got choked up recalling how my high school class stood when our classmate who had cerebral palsy graduated, and became teary as I read about a homeless woman who died on the streets of New York City. At first I was embarrassed and perplexed by the waterworks. Over time I began to accept the unexpected crying as part of my grief process. We can’t always control our grief. Optimally we experience grief as it presents itself, feel it fully, and then let it subside until the next time it surfaces


This blog is dedicated to the memory of my father, Stephen Charnas.

During my childhood, members of my family periodically observed my father laughing quietly to himself. My stepmother would usually comment, “You’re thinking of something funny, aren’t you?” And sure enough, Dad had been mulling over a humorous idea and made himself laugh. I always admired Dad’s ability to create solitary, unrestrained enjoyment.


I don’t share Dad’s gift for laugh-out-loud self-amusement, but I am able to entertain myself by playing with language. I savor using familiar words in new ways. Recently the word confederates has been on my mind and occasionally popping out of my mouth. Everyone knows what the word means in relationship to the Civil War. They were the guys in gray from the South who lost. But I’ve been using another meaning of the word—allies or partners. Confederates is such a rich, warm word. I’m grateful for my love of English. I spend much of my free time reading or watching TV. My ability to entertain myself with language makes the down time easier.

Rest in Peace – Stephen Charnas

It’s taken a few days for reality to sink in: My beautiful, funny, brilliant, loving father, Stephen Charnas, died shortly after midnight on Wednesday, January 31. I and the rest of my family are deeply saddened, as well as profoundly grateful to have had him in our lives. Today it seems as though the earth should stop rotating for just a moment to aknowledge his departure. Everything is the same but nothing feels the same. He was a great father.00000342

An Unexpected Benefit of Bad Parenting

This blog was first published on the HuffPost Blog on 11/09/2017

My mother had some well-intentioned but grossly misguided ideas about parenting, among them her notions about how to take care of her sick adolescents. Charles, my only sibling, is a year and a half older than me. As young children, we often came down with the same illnesses. Charles had an extra bed in his room during my early elementary school years. In the mid 1960s, our grandparents bought a color television, a newly available luxury, and gave their old large black-and-white TV to my mother. Mom had a medium-sized set in her bedroom, and the living room was too formal for a TV, so the old black-and-white TV went into Charles’ room. When we were ill, Mom allowed me to camp out with him, and we’d watch television as we recuperated, often helping ourselves to the boysenberry ice cream in the freezer. We never seemed to fight when we were suffering through a cold or flu together.

We moved to California in 1970 when I was ten, and Charles’ new bedroom didn’t have an extra bed or a TV in it. In California I recuperated from illness alone in my room. At the onset of puberty, I began to get frequent and severe respiratory illnesses. I never watched television when I was sick during my adolescence. Instead I had a stereo in my room, and I would often fall asleep during the day with my headphones on, listening to Cat Stevens and James Taylor.


When I was in my early twenties, Mom told me she believed she’d allowed Charles and me to have too much fun when we were young and sick. She didn’t want illness to be attractive to us, and as a result, when we were older she developed a completely hands-off style. I assume she called our doctor, because medications were delivered from the pharmacy, but I don’t recall her ever taking care of us in any other way. We got out of bed to feed ourselves breakfast and lunch, and went back to the kitchen at dinnertime to retrieve whatever the housekeeper had cooked for the evening, which we ate alone in bed. I had the London Flu in 1973 when it was a national epidemic. San Mateo County where we lived had the highest mortality rate in the United States from that flu. During this illness, my stepfather brought me dinner on a tray once, the sole demonstration of parental concern.

One time Mom ordered three types of cough medicine and presented them to me, failing to give me dosage instructions. I took all of them at once, not knowing any better. No wonder I fell asleep listening to Sweet Baby James and Peace Train. Several days into my cough-syrup haze, Mom realized my mistake and became enraged, as if I’d purposely overdosed myself into a stupor. I missed so much high school due to constant illness that on a report card one teacher praised my skills at catching up.


At nineteen I began to have episodes of illness caused by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and I’ve been sick much of my adult life. With the notable exception of help from one boyfriend and the care I received during a twenty-four-hour bug when visiting my father and stepmother, I’ve always taken care of myself. I never expect anyone to help me when I’m sick, and except when recovering from outpatient surgeries, I rarely accept offers of assistance.

Mom’s assessment of the time Charles and I spent recovering from illness was not accurate. The camaraderie I felt when we were ill together as small children was a gift, and it provided me with happy memories of us watching reruns of I Love Lucy and Perry Mason, when there would otherwise only be memories of coughs and clogged noses. My mother’s desire to make sickness unattractive was unnecessary and based on an erroneous belief. Although it wasn’t her intention, Mom succeeded in making me resilient and self-reliant when ill. These traits have proved invaluable. I know I’ll be fine on my own no matter how sick I become. Illness has caused many other miseries, but I’m never concerned about how I’ll take care of myself. I’ve been doing it since I was thirteen.


I’m fifty-seven as I write this, and there’s no point in being upset about bad parenting that took place four decades ago. Soon I’ll have my first inpatient hospitalization to remove my spleen. I’m worried about various aspects of this surgery, but not at all about how I’ll recover alone as I heal. And for this unexpected result of an abysmally poor parenting choice, I’m grateful.

21st Century Parenting: New, Better, More

Both friends expressed the same lament: “There’s just so much stuff.” Friend X was seven months pregnant with her first child. Friend Y, visiting from New York City, introduced me to her four-month-old son. X lives in a three-bedroom house but worried that she didn’t have sufficient space for the massive amount of baby equipment needed to raise an infant. She stated that she has a beautiful antique changing table but might not be able to use it because it doesn’t accommodate the electrical cord for a “wipey warmer.”

The what?” I inquired. I’d never heard of a wipey warmer. Friend X explained, in great detail, that infants lose up to one degree of body heat during diaper changing. This loss of heat was presented as dire for babies, but it could be successfully avoided by warming the baby wipes used to clean their tiny bottoms.

To be fair, I don’t have children and cannot draw from personal experience. I might not fully appreciate the demands of parenthood. My friends began to have children in the 1990s when I lived in Boston. Each winter the temperature dipped below zero, and news warnings were issued to avoid being outdoors for more than ten minutes—otherwise citizens risked frostbite. None of my friends in New England used wipey warmers. Nevertheless, their offspring appeared to thrive. I couldn’t understand why a lovely antique changing table might be jettisoned to protect a baby from the cold in southern California. But Friend X insisted—baby required a wipey warmer to safeguard her health.


Friend Y represented a more laid-back version of motherhood. She lives in a small apartment and reported that loved ones overwhelmed her with baby equipment, half of which she and her spouse gave away. She announced without apology, “We’re minimalists.” I shared my incredulity about the wipey warmer with Y, and she agreed that it might not be necessary.

Modern American society is designed for people to constantly need newer, better, stuff. And more of it. I have a great Mac computer, which I purchased in 2008. Usually I don’t care about electronics, but I love this computer. However, when I call Apple Support for technical assistance, the support staff must pass me on to a supervisor, because my Mac is now considered “vintage” and is beyond the ability of the front-line staff to assist. This expensive component of my home office was designed to be obsolete in roughly five years. Similarly, I kept my Android phone for four years until it was unable to support the apps I needed. My new iPhone, which retails at over eight hundred dollars, will be outdated within three years.

Amazon offers over a dozen varieties of “wipe warmers,” currently ranging in price from $19.76 to  $35.89. The warmers have baby friendly names, like Munchkin Warm Glow Wipe Warmer and Lil’ Jumbl Wipe Warmer Dispenser. My office mate, with whom I discussed the products, commented that “Lil’ Jumbl” sounded like a rapper name. Product descriptions of the warmers state they decrease the discomfort of cold (non-warmed) wipes, resulting in happier, less fussy babies. Safeguards against the dangers of exposure were not mentioned.


I kept a television I purchased in 1987 until it no longer functioned in 2014. I don’t need newer, bigger equipment in my life. With few exceptions, most notably shoes, I constantly downsize. The less stuff the better. So I’m completely flabbergasted that in the course of one generation, the wipey warmer has now become an essential piece of baby equipment. It’s possible that my instincts are misguided, and wipey warmers are a modern breakthrough, saving twenty-first-century infants from the discomfort and hazards of temperature instability.

If wipey warmers had been available when I considered having children, I’m certain I wouldn’t have listed one on my baby registry. Instead my infant would have lived without the soothing effects of an electrically warmed baby wipe. I don’t want new or better. I crave simplicity. I hope Friend X keeps her antique changing table. It would be a shame to park it in the garage because of incompatibility with a wipey warmer.


A friend once told me this wonderful story. Her three-year-old son came home feeling defeated after a rough day in preschool. In response, his mother asked him, “If you could do anything you wanted to right now, what would it be?” The little boy answered, “Make banana bread.” So they went to the supermarket, bought the ingredients, and made banana bread. My friend believed that being elbow deep mushing the ingredients by hand and then enjoying the final results lifted her son’s mood.quark-bread-514890__180

When I’m having a bad day, I often ask myself the same question: If I could do anything at all, what would it be? (As an adult, I exclude activities that I can’t afford or that will make me gain weight.) Sometimes taking a moment to ask myself this question is useful. If it’s practical, I set aside any matter that can wait and simply try to take care of myself. I’ve said it before: everything important gets done eventually anyway.

Phantom Child: Mourning Motherhood

This blog was published on the HuffPost Blog on June 29, 2016.

My uncle urged me to write a novel. His suggestion was an attempt to help me conquer a recent, brief episode of depression. He meant well, but as I explained to him, I have a narrow literary skill set that does not include creating fiction. I rarely feel depressed, so we were both at a loss as to how I should deal with my current emotions. The last time I’d been this blue had been after my father’s placement in an assisted living facility for worsening Alzheimer’s disease.

The most recent depression came on suddenly after completing a year of whirlwind activity centered around publicizing my first book, followed immediately by six months of revising my second one. I took only a few days off from these ventures. With the second book edited, suddenly my literary life didn’t require as much focus. Old issues came bubbling to the surface— primarily, the dwindling down of my family, with no children of my own to fill the void.teddy-bear-524251__180

I decided not to have children twenty years ago after becoming acutely ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, now called Systemic Exertional Intolerance Disease. I’d longed to be a mother since my teens. After two years of dating my future husband, I broke up with him for nine months because he didn’t want a child. We resumed our romance only after he changed his mind. I’d been sick since I was nineteen. Until my mid-thirties, I managed my health problems without major disruption to my life. But by the end of the first year of marriage, my health had taken a serious downturn, and I wasn’t improving. I missed weeks of work and could barely function at home.

I will always be grateful to my former husband for keeping his word about having a child and allowing me to make the decision to give up this dream. Quietly and repeatedly, he asked how I could raise a child when I struggled to take care of myself. Eventually I realized he was right.

Once I made the decision, I knew immediately it was the correct thing to do—not just for us, but also for our phantom offspring, the one I’d imagined for two decades. Many disabled and chronically ill people choose to raise children and do it well. But I would not have been one of those people. I was too ill. I knew my husband wouldn’t be able to make up for my deficits, nor did I have local family who could assist or adequate financial resources to pay for help with housework or emergency childcare. I’d fantasized about a child for twenty years and was attached to my imaginary offspring. I didn’t want to bring a baby into the world knowing I couldn’t give her or him what they needed. So my phantom child remained just that—a phantom, a wish, and an unborn spirit.


At twenty-four I thought my birth control had failed me. Although pro-choice, I never considered having an abortion. In 1984 you couldn’t pee on a stick to find out if you were pregnant. It took two weeks to learn I’d had a false alarm. I felt neither relief nor happiness at the news. That was the closest I ever came to having a child. I often imagine how old that person would be now had the results been different, and I wonder what kind of life he or she might have led.

As my friend’s children leave for college or start their post-college lives, I miss having a child more than I thought I would. I naively believed that the decision I made twenty years ago would be less painful with time. Instead the loss has its own life, just as a child might have. I feel the absence more and more as my father slowly declines, and whenever I am not kept busy with my literary life. I realize now this feeling will probably wax and wane for the rest of my life. And as I grow older, I’ll have to continue to learn how to be at peace with it. I feel the approbation of my phantom child, thanking me for making such a sad, hard choice.


This is my latest HuffPost blog.

My mother died thirty years ago this week, eight days after her forty-ninth birthday, and she’s been on my mind as the anniversary of her death approaches. Mom’s cause of death was probably avoidable. Her will stated she didn’t want an autopsy, but because she died at home and had not been under the care of a doctor, the law required she have one. Her autopsy revealed her primary cause of death as pneumonia.

Mom feared hospitals for reasons she never disclosed. She’d had a couple knee surgeries, and perhaps her hospitalizations after the operations traumatized her. About six months prior to her death, my brother and I discussed her frail health, which included diabetes, small airway disease, a bad back and knee, a bladder issue, and other ailments too numerous to list. I told him she would rather die at home if living meant a hospitalization. I had no idea then how prophetic this statement would be.

In addition to her other medical conditions, Mom was so fat she had to recalibrate her doctor’s scale to accurately weigh herself. Her morbid obesity required the family to purchase an extra large coffin, but even then the undertaker needed to remove the padding to fit her inside. During the last four years of Mom’s life, she spent most of her time in bed, her housekeeper bringing her food during the day, and her husband providing meals on nights and weekends in a classic co-dependent / addict pattern. She had a history of depressive episodes as well as periods of high energy and extreme productivity when she barely slept. As a mental health provider, I’m convinced she suffered from untreated bipolar disorder. In the last years of her life, Mom had a friend with that illness, and she recognized the friend’s symptoms in herself. She told me she thought she might be bipolar but died before seeking the mental health care that might have stabilized her. Had she survived, she might have been an excellent candidate for gastric bypass surgery, a procedure with the potential to significantly improve her quality of life. Instead, the day after her forty-ninth birthday, she began to spike high fevers, and, refusing to see a doctor or go to an emergency room, she died a week later.cementerio-948048_960_720

Long ago I adjusted to life without a mother. For most of the last thirty years, the majority of my friends’ mothers were living and most still are. Being motherless set me apart, especially in my twenties and thirties. I occasionally have met individuals who also lost their mothers in early adulthood. These people and I usually experienced a bond created by our loss, and the understanding we received from each other was soothing. I felt less alone.

Mom’s wit, charm, and intellect have remained vibrant for me over the years, while the pain of her manic, irrational rages faded long ago. While she was alive, Mom’s illnesses and fears curtailed most of her aspirations. As the anniversary of her death approaches, I’ve felt an aching sadness for her unfulfilled life.

Mom was often a great friend. Sometimes she fell out with friends, old and new, in high drama, but she remained close to many of them and enjoyed friendships going back to her adolescence. Her friends saw and valued the best in her—they’ve told me so. I take heart that at least three close friends and I remember with deep affection her finer qualities. These friends are now in their seventies or early eighties, and Mom remains vivid for them too. As I reflect on her sudden death and our decades without her, I’m comforted that she remains an important influence not only for me but also for these women. Through them I realize she has grown old with us after all.