In "Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress" Woodruff acknowledges she doesn't always know the right answers, but she describes with ease her parenting relationship with her oldest children and her younger daughter's deafness.
Read an excerpt of her book below.
Chapter FiveThe Jewelry Box
You can tell a woman's whole life story from the possessions in her jewelry box. Like reading a palm, you can trace the points where her life has intersected with memorable events, people, places, and loves. You can mark the consequential and the inconsequential, you can divine a sense of her self and her own self- image, you can spot whimsy, mistakes, milestones, and passages. You can speculate on the essence of her personality, all from what she has accumulated in that box.
The silver twisted snake ring I made at camp, the sophisticated metal charm bracelet with the Chinese fan from a fifth- grade birthday, the serious pearl earrings for college graduation, the silver bangle bracelets I wore on my right arm as a teenager coming of age, bought one summer in Vermont—I treasured all of these, although they had passed from objects of adornment into relics of the past, like a threedimensional scrapbook.
I'd had that jewelry box for as long as I could remember. It had been purchased at a Woolworth's in Albany and had sat on my childhood dresser since my earliest memories. It was, to me, a most elegant thing: a thin veneer of navy blue leather covered the box, with some faux-Roman gold leaf pattern around the borders. On one corner the leather had ripped, revealing a flesh- colored patch, like skin, which I had once tried to color in with a marker.
A brass clasp at the front of the box made a snapping sound when I pressed the buttons on either side to open it. It had been years since I had officially shut it, and the closing mechanism hung straight out, like a tongue. The key had long ago been lost, so each time I packed to move, I wrapped a heavy rubber band around the box to make sure the contents were secure. The jewelry box was a present from my parents, although I've now forgotten why.
From the moment I had my first daughter, from the instant Cathryn was born, I'd harbored a vision of us splayed out on the floor with my jewelry box. I pictured us examining each piece I owned and my describing to her where it had come from, in great detail. I would use the jewelry to explain the stories of my life. I had saved them, in fact, for exactly this purpose.
As children, my two sisters and I had sat on the rug of my grandmother's living room, me cross- legged, my sister Meg on her stomach, legs bent back, chin in her hands. As my grandmother brought her jewelry box down to show us, my sister Nancy clapped her hands eagerly. There was treasure in that box, history and lore. Perhaps there were clues to my grandparents' marriage, the exotic places they had traveled, she a concert pianist and he a violinist, who accompanied her. Their lives had been so viscerally connected to music that in those moments when her fingers touched the piano keys and her eyes closed, it seemed to me that nothing else in the world existed for my grandmother. Not even us.
My grandmother was a mythical figure, not so much a nurturer but one who had been nurtured, like a hothouse plant. She had been raised in Magnolia, Arkansas, and had moved north to study music in college. It was there that she had met my grandfather, a "Yankee" and a musician, who couldn't have been her parents' first choice. In her closet were fur coats and full- length dresses for concert performances. She owned multiple pairs of long white gloves, so wildly out of place in Albany, New York, and her luggage had travel stickers on its side, identifying faraway places in the Orient and Europe. The whole package was so exotic, so unusual, that my sisters and I liked to imagine her journeys around the globe and the adventures she'd had. She loved to pronounce words in French, always drawing them out with her southern accent in a very affected way as she made us repeat them, a practice we loathed but tolerated. Her name was Margaret. No nickname. We called her Nana.
It was in the kitchen, her curling hair falling over one eye in the heat, that her southern roots really emerged. She melted sticks of butter for homemade pound cakes, put salt on watermelon, and boiled up thick okras that looked to us like soups of runny noses. She firmly believed that cooking with bacon grease was the key to mouthwatering food. There were lima beans fat as bumblebees simmered in milk, and buttery- yellow corn bread laced with ham bits. Her cooking connected us to a rich tradition of southern relatives we had only heard about in stories.
As we three sisters lay on the deep- red Oriental carpet, surely procured from some Asian jaunt, not yet into our teen years, we watched as Nana opened her large red lacquered jewelry box. Out of it she pulled ivory bracelets, ropes of beads, and Bakelite bangles. There were large brooches and rings festooned with semiprecious stones, horseshoe- shaped pins inset with tiny seed pearls, ones with leaf patterns—pieces that had been in the family for years.
As she laid the contents out on the rug, we watched the colors swirl in the Persian design and moved the items into piles, coveting the var-ious rings and bracelets, dreaming about being old enough to wear jewelry that for now was bigger than our fists, sophisticated and otherworldly. But the costume pieces in Nana's jewelry box were always the most fun. Jumbled all together in the box's velvet compartments, they represented the flashy flea- market side of life. They were bold colors and statements, items perhaps chosen on vacations by someone who had temporarily abdicated all of life's mundane responsibilities. A swordfish pin called to me. Made from bugle beads and sequins and sewn on a stiff cloth, it looked like something that had been purchased in the 1940s, all glamour and whimsy, designed with a sense of humor. The swordfish's bill was long and pointy, outlined with silver thread.
"I love this pin, Nana," I said, and she winked at me as she placed it back in the box.
"Perhaps someday it will be yours," she said mysteriously. And that Christmas it showed up under the tree with a scribbled note in my grandmother's loopy, flowing handwriting. I wore that swordfish pin the very first time I met my future in- laws. It was at a wedding in Michigan, and I was flying in to stay with Bob at his boyhood home. My roommate Nora and I had agonized over what I should wear to meet his parents. I was the "girl from New York," and I didn't want to arrive in the Midwest looking too slick. Nothing too fussy, too city, or too young. In the end I had selected a red dress in a kind of muted silk, with the giant linebacker shoulder pads that were so popular in the 1980s.
In a burst of individuality, something that would define me as a person with her own sense of self and style, I had impulsively chosen the swordfish pin from my jewelry box at the last minute. I'd pinned it jauntily at an angle on my lapel. Since then, that pin had always been a connection for me to that long- ago night, a reminder of how Bob and I had slow- danced to the band at the reception, how he had proudly introduced me to his parents, his three brothers, and his high school friends, and we'd snuck out under the club's awning to steal a kiss in the cooler air.
I had always pictured my daughter Cathryn fingering the swordfish pin, then picking up a pair of light blue aquamarine studs. "Tell me about these," I imagined Cathryn would say. And I'd remember that those earrings, from Macy's jewelry department when I turned sweet sixteen, had been the first pair of earrings my father had ever given me. Getting my ears pierced was one of those fulcrum passages in life. It seemed, at the time, to be the single most important thing I could do to look older, more sophisticated, maybe even pretty. While most of my friends had already gotten their ears pierced, my mother had decided that her daughters needed to wait until we were sixteen. And on this point, my mother could not be budged. It was the 1970s and hippies were changing the face of fashion, jewelry, and hair in a way that she found fundamentally jarring.
With the world shifting and revolution in the air, with rock 'n' roll, war protesters, civil rights, and busing, even in my traditional household we could sense that there was a sea change taking place out there. Respect was no longer a given, whether for elders, authority figures, or right and wrong; the old rules no longer applied. The carefully ordered white, middle- class world of the 1950s and early '60s was about to undergo a tectonic shift.
"Only ethnic people get their ears pierced," my mother said in an effort to dissuade me, and the comment makes me smile now. In my mother's eyes, real women were obviously expected to wear clip- ons. But all of the other girls in school were "putting holes in their bodies," as she referred to it. There were dangly earrings and hoops, peace signs, even the ubiquitous yellow smiley faces—plus a hundred other designs I couldn't wait to hang from my ears.
On the Saturday following my sixteenth birthday, two of my girlfriends accompanied me to the department store in my Albany suburb of Delmar, where I would join the official ranks of body piercers. Some girls used ice cubes to numb their lobes at home, then pierced them with a needle and a cork, but I was enough of my mother's daughter to be wary of this. I went to the middle- aged woman in the officiallooking white lab coat standing stiffly behind the jewelry counter. I don't remember being nervous. I was only excited. It was like some kind of ritual preceding becoming a woman, and I was willing to suffer any measure of pain for my beauty.
"How does that look?" The makeup- counter employee in the white coat peered at me over her half-glasses, her sky- blue eye shadow so close to me that I could see the creases in the lids. She had drawn two small black dots with felt pen on my earlobes and kept turning my head, using my chin as a handle, to inspect her handiwork. "Fine," I said, too nervous to examine it carefully. The pain was fleeting. What I remember was the look of the two small gold balls gleaming off my ears. I was certain every person I encountered could see them. Years later, after Bob slipped an engagement ring on my finger, I had the same feeling. I felt the shiny newness of the engagement band, the tiny weight of the diamonds, and I was sure that everyone noticed my hands and my ring, gleaming like a beacon. To me, my two tiny specks of gold earrings glimmered on my body like the treasure uncovered at King Tut's tomb. They carried with them the promise that this small act would change my life. It was at home, in the fluorescent light of the bathroom mirror, that I realized with chagrin that my studs hung woefully unequally. On close inspection, one was much lower than the other. My attached earlobes—a recessive genetic trait, as I'd learned in tenth- grade biology—made the inequity even more obvious. To this day, it is the first thing I see when I put on earrings in the mirror. It's the imperfection I spot first, the lopsided inequality that no one else would ever notice unless I pointed it out. I'd had those studs for all those years in my jewelry box. I probably hadn't worn them much after high school, but they were there. A reminder of the day that had inched me ever closer to being the young woman who would leave the nest, go on to college, and begin the next phase of the process of becoming herself.
That is why, when thieves broke into our house in Phoenix one warm, cloudless day, while we were in church, of all places, and the oleander blossoms on the back hedge were in full bloom, I lost not just my jewelry but a part of my living history.
Whoever they were, vagrants or professionals, they knew what they were doing. They entered through the kitchen window and hopped over the sink without disturbing the salt and pepper shakers on the sill. I picture them hurriedly, expertly searching the rooms for small, valuable items they could carry: a video camera containing footage of Mack learning how to ride a bike, an expensive still camera, and my jewelry box, sitting, in a naively trusting way, right on top of my dresser. Because they had no time, I imagine, they simply took the box in its entirety, along with one pillowcase stripped from our bed, an act of utter violation that angered and repelled me for weeks. "Couldn't they have brought their own sack?" I fumed helplessly at Bob. "Don't real robbers carry sacks and wear black eye masks?" I hated the idea that these men had touched my things, roughly opened my drawers and closets, rifled through shirts and undergarments. It was a transgression that was hard to articulate, because although I had not been touched, it made me feel dirty, angry, and victimized.
When I first discovered that the jewelry box was missing, my heart lurched. It wasn't so much that there were valuable pieces or one item I loved above all the others. It was the collective grouping of all of these bits of my life: the pewter owl necklace from my first boyfriend, ugly as sin but endearing; the outdated brooches and rings from Nana; the inexpensive chunky amethyst necklace that had so defined the 1980s as I set out to be a working girl in the big city. I let out a little cry when I realized that the blue box was gone. There was a rectangular space of clean wood around which the dust had collected, an outline of where the box had been. I felt naked, foolish, and momentarily angry for not having had some secret hiding place in which to stash my most beloved items, some special canister fashioned to look like a can of shaving cream or a fire extinguisher. But the truth was that all of my jewelry was valuable, even though collectively the pieces wouldn't have fetched enough at a pawnshop for a good steak dinner. Worse, they were probably lying, at that moment, in a back- alley trash can. The swordfish pin, my little blue studs, and some of Nana's other pieces that had ended up in my jewelry box after she died were all gone. I searched desperately through the backstreets of our Phoenix neighborhood that day, hoping the thieves had picked and chosen, abandoned the bulky box in their retreat. But it was a halfhearted quest; I knew those kinds of discoveries happened only in the movies. So the thieves had severed that connection, the one intended to pass, like a bloodline, from my grandmother to me and then to my daughter. The things Nana had passed on were now lost. The stories I had wanted to tell about my own girlish history—the pearls from my wedding, the opal necklace from a college boyfriend, the tiger's- eye ring set in silver I had made at summer camp—these had vanished. I had wanted to lay them all out on a rug with her, to watch her finger ropes of necklaces or slip bangle bracelets on her own slim wrists and choose a favorite, as I had done. But I had lost the props. Something even more precious was stolen in Phoenix that same year. Something far more valuable than my jewelry, more priceless than the collection of all of the possessions that made up my girlhood. My ability to bear children, which had tied me to the cycles of the moon and to the sisterhood of women, would prove, in its absence, far more meaningful to me than one thousand rare gemstones or a mountain of gleaming gold coins.
After the hysterectomy at age thirty- five, which resulted from losing my third child, a son, I was instantly robbed not only of that little boy's future but my own chance to carry another child and to be a mother one more time. All at once I felt cronelike, barren, and neutered. This part of womanhood was a connection to my daughter and the other women in my life I had imagined I would have until my body wound down later in life. Like the jewelry box, I had given it little day- to- day thought until it was gone. My fertility was simply one more treasure that I took for granted until I no longer had it.
What once had seemed like a monthly inconvenience now hung in my waking mind like the brightest star in the solar system. As I had hoped to do with my jewelry, I wanted to share womanhood with Cathryn, to travel the road through cramps and buying Tampax together. How would I now one day claim that tangible communal connection to my daughter?
When the nurses had first brought Cathryn to me in the hospital, I'd held her little beanlike body and touched her shock of dark hair as we fell asleep together. Gazing at her face and her satisfied eyes searching mine I put my lips to her ear. "I'm going to teach you all the secrets of being a woman," I whispered. I thought of generations of mothers passing down the holiest parts of woman wisdom almost wordlessly. I thought about the connection between mother and daughter, the infinite love and the skeins of dreams. Motherhood had given me magic powers, as if I could mystically see the pain that lay ahead for her, along with her moments of triumph, anticipation, and desire. That day in the hospital, infused with the thrill of creation, I felt sure that I would coach her to navigate her way in the world and to demand from it all that she deserved.
I did go on to be a mother again, and our twin girls were born by a surrogate after a long and interrupted journey that often circled back on itself before we got that phone call with the great news. And one day I also got a new jewelry box—nothing fancy, or too big. Over time, I replaced the stolen items with new and different ones, buying pieces gradually and sometimes in bunches. One summer I bought a dozen earrings just to make up for my loss, but I never again found the trapezoid- shaped turquoise chunks that had stood out from my ears or the silver serpentine earrings that had hung halfway to my shoulders. And I should have known it was inevitable. By the time my own daughter reached the age of ten, she desperately wanted pierced ears, just like most of her friends. My initial pronouncement that she must be sixteen was weakening. My expectations, I was told, were out of sync with the times. Why was I so reluctant to see my daughter pierce her ears when it was all I had wanted at that age? How could I not have taken my own desires as a child and woven them into my perspective as a mother?
On some visceral maternal level, the world of piercings and tattoos, the rebellious artistic expressions of today's youth, terrified me. How had that little infant daughter with the milk- white skin transformed into this young, leggy beauty? I wanted to preserve her, wrap her in a protective cloak to keep her unmarred and pristine for as long as possible. When I finally took Cathryn to the women's holistic clinic with the physician's assistant to pierce her ears, part of me felt as if I were righting a wrong. There would be no beauty- school dropout, no lopsided holes. I would make sure they were even, that she wasn't worried or afraid of the sting. Getting her ears pierced was such a small thing, such a minor step forward on the road to independence, but perhaps I was nervous because it was the first move.
Cathryn was anxious; when she saw the piercing gun, she asked how much it would hurt. For a split second a look of fear flashed over her face, and I thought she might change her mind. Then she squinted and asked if she could hold my hand.
When the first hole was punched, Cathryn looked as surprised and indignant as if I had pinched her unexpectedly. Before the pain could really sink in, the woman with the gun quickly and efficiently pierced the other ear, and then it was done. There was one gleaming gold stud in each ear. Cathryn held the hand mirror, pulling her hair back into a ponytail to better see each side. This small, deliberate gesture made her look older somehow, instantly more mature. At home, I stressed that the new piercings were a privilege and a re-sponsibility and that having them meant she was old enough to care for them herself. She needed to clean them with alcohol and she would have to put athletic tape over each earring when she played soccer, according to school rules. "You'll need to be responsible so they don't get infected," I said. "And that means cleaning up after yourself." Two days after Cathryn's ears were pierced, one of my then fouryear-olds, Nora, came stumbling down the stairs in a panic. "Claire threw up!" she screeched. "She drank some yucky water." Instantly, I knew. As I sprang up the steps, two at a time, I understood that Cathryn had left the rubbing alcohol out and the twins, ever curious, had investigated. Sure enough, Claire was in the bathroom looking miserable and Nora began to chatter about how she had gone to take a sip herself but had known something was wrong. "I warned you!" I turned on Cathryn with wild eyes as I dialed the number for poison control. Her carelessness could have resulted in her sister's hospitalization. It was a teaching moment and the remorse was instant; her eyes filled with tears. For one oddly triumphant, hollow second, all of my nagging, chiding, and warnings seemed to be vindicated. We laugh about it now, the "yucky water," but Cathryn learned a double sense of responsibility that day through the simple act of piercing her ears. Not only was she in charge of herself, but her actions had consequences. She grew up more right then from what happened on the inside than the little gold studs on the outside could ever indicate. Not long ago, I found myself on my bed with my three daughters and my jewelry box. It wasn't at all the box of treasure it had once been. I was missing the detailed history of myself prior to age thirty- four. But as I pulled out costume relics from the 1980s and '90s that had survived in a junk jewelry bathroom drawer, my girls had saucer eyes. There was the bolero leather tie with the clasp made from a cactus postage stamp that had seemed like such a good idea on a business trip to New Mexico. I pulled out strands of big chunky fake gold chains, tarnished and heavy enough to have served as manacles. I gave my daughters my garnet beads and bracelets of green malachite from street vendors in the West Village of Manhattan. The twins oohed and aahed as I offered them the cheap cloisonné bracelets that had survived after Bob's and my first year of marriage in China. I shed these pieces in part so that they could begin their own grown- up jewelry box, their own collection and catalog of themselves. Sooner, much sooner than I wanted to imagine, my little twins would be piercing their ears and joining the cycles of the moon and moving slowly, inexorably toward an independence that would place me in an outer circle, like one of Saturn's rings.
They would make their own choices about lovers and clothing, where to draw the line, and what jewelry to wear. Their bodies would be their own property, and with that would come decisions about tattoos and other piercings, who to let in, who to keep out. Someday soon they themselves would choose what they ate, what vitamins they took, and whether or not they wanted to be parents. And no matter what they chose, and whether or not I agreed with it, I would love them regardless and in spite of themselves.