Writing, motherhood, and the curiosities of family life

Mom and Dad in Spain, 1960

Mom and Dad in Spain, 1960

Welcome to my first post, just one in a series about writing, motherhood, and the curiosities of family life.

I’ve been writing since I was about five, though thirty years passed before the first novel came together. Three books have followed that – but it took me a long time to see a thread in my work, which is the breakdown of families.

I’m not sure if I should blame this obsession on my parents, who parted ways, interestingly, around the time I started writing – or if perhaps I should blame it on my oldest sister, who hogged the typewriter long before I could type and churned out melodramatic stories about a man whose wives kept dying.

Later I borrowed greedily from those stories, and took them in all sorts of scandalous directions. The man buried the wives in his backyard, and he had children from all of them. The wives died in every delicious way I could find: they caught horrible diseases or they hurtled over cliffs or they slipped and fell on train tracks in their high-heeled shoes.

Later still – and for hours on end – I would play with my barbies, alone in my room. Often I didn’t want friends to come over and interfere with the storyline, because my barbies got up to all sorts of things that weren’t really suitable for sharing. Ken was a constant philanderer, but it wasn’t his fault. The evil Casey, who wore a tight blonde wig and whose head sat too far down on her neck due to a crack in the plastic, drugged him into submission. Barbie thought he was cheating on her, but technically he wasn’t, because he had no idea what Casey was doing. He was out of it. There was room for a happy ending.

My daughter's self portrait in a birthday hat

My daughter's self portrait in a birthday hat

All of this is a bit worrisome for me now. I have a daughter, age five, whose imagination seems grander yet than mine. Already I’m amazed by where it takes her – and also by her own awareness of it. She’s aching for a brother or sister, which isn’t in the cards. Once we told her that that was the great thing about having an imagination – you could call it up whenever you wanted, and your world expanded. I had several imaginary brothers who were highly preferable to my two sisters at times. They liked me. They carried me around on their shoulders. But our daughter had already moved past that. “I hate imagination!” she shouted, “because imagination always goes away!”

How can you argue with that?

And finally, speaking of barbies, New York Times Magazine ran a piece a while back about a jeweller who uses barbie parts in her work. Ken’s head dangling from earlobes. A brooch made of multiple delicate Barbie arms. A bracelet of lipsticked lips set into silver cups. A necklace of Barbie breasts. Check out Margaux Lange’s site to see Barbie anew.



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8 responses to “Writing, motherhood, and the curiosities of family life

  1. Denise B.

    I could have sworn that woman in the picture was you. You look identical to your mom!

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on writing, motherhood and family life. I have known you for quite a number of years now. I consider you a cheerful, patient and thoughtful person. Therefore, I’m always amazed by the darkness that emerges from your stories. Don’t get me wrong…I like the darkness. I think I have a good load of it myself. I think it shows that you (one) experiences things very deeply.

    I will read your blog with interest

    p.s. If I was around to play Barbie’s with you, we would have had great fashion shows.

  3. Cupcake

    You do look like your mom!! I only cross-dressed Ken and cut Barbie’s hair.

  4. Marilyn

    Great start to your blog. You certainly spent many hours playing with your barbies. What ever happened to that lovely barbie camper you had, complete with chairs and bonfire? Now, what I remember about barbie is the hours I spent sewing wardrobes of clothing. How fiddly it was to put sleeves in coats and sequins on evening gowns!

    For many years I kept Tracy’s fantastical story about the man with many wives, but somehow it got lost. Maybe one of these days it will appear again.

  5. Marilyn

    Did you notice in the above picture that the pot on the little burner is tipped over? Everyday we cooked “pap” …porridge, and this time we took the picture before the pot was filled with milk and oatmeal. It was August, one month after our first anniversary. I bought that sun hat in Italy. Love, Mom

  6. Nancy Jo

    It’s always fun to have a secret – a little part of you that darts out now and then to surprise even the people closest to you.
    Your stories never fail to leave a familiar visceral impression, as I too have experienced the dissolution of my parents marriage.
    Once, when my life-long girlfriend Sandy was particularly angry with me, she fed my Debbie doll (we couldn’t afford Barbie) to her german shepherd who ate off its arm. Ultimately it didn’t effect our relationship – I just got a belated birthday card from Sandy today!
    I love your mother’s hat!

    • kristendenhartog

      Thanks Nancy, I didn’t know of Debbie! I will have to investigate. Maybe she has been made into jewellery too….

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