Are you there, Judy Blume? It's me, Henriette.
When Henriette was nine years old, she asked her mother why everything seemed to be about love. Songs, movies, books…Like, why not trees? Mum promised her daughter, “One day you’ll know.”
“I don’t know. When you’re 14.”
She couldn’t wait! Adults had all the answers. When she was 14, she’d finally understand the deal about love.
At 10, her father died, and Henriette stopped praying and worshiped at the altar of books instead. Flowers in the Attic, Sweet Valley High, Scruples, Wifey, Forever… Judy Blume was a divine voice teaching her about periods, boobs, sex and love. An anchoring escape throughout a turbulent childhood: her father’s young death from alcoholism, a crap stepfather figure, and a Chronic Kidney Disease diagnosis at age 13.
When Henriette began high school, she counted on falling in love right away! A love that would fill the aching hole inside her heart. After all, that’s what Blume and all her books had promised. A whole new world!
Then she met Ben. Intelligent, intense, and totally cute, and at 14, her world exploded. Suddenly, she was tossed from the steady two-dimensional world of books, to drowning in three-dimensional love. Heart-pounding, dry-mouthed, writing-his-name-over-and-over-on-foolscap, dropping-off-poetry-at-his-door first love.
But Ben liked her back. A lot. So why was she acting like an idiot, when love was all she had ever wanted? Why hadn’t Judy Blume written a book on how not be an idiot when you fall in love? What was wrong with her? And when Ben looked at another girl, Henriette’s frustration grew from jealousy to obsession, to maybe even…an addiction?
Then she went into End Stage Renal Failure. Her kidneys were failing. Blume hadn’t written a book on how to navigate this! But Ben and Henriette’s obsessive romance took off, and despite the thrilling, yet heartbreaking roller coaster ride it continued to be, she never wanted it to end.
Are you there, Judy Blume? It’s Me, Henriette is a broken and sick child’s journey from girl to woman. It’s a fresh and unique exploration of first love. From a present day perspective, Ivanans asks Blume to dissect love with her, and make the discovery that it is not a black and white affair, rather experienced in complicated shades of gray, and made up of choices that impact us Forever…
It explores the profound impact books have on us, and the reason why everything—songs, movies, books— seems to be about love. Perhaps because no one has it figured out.
Not even Judy Blume.
Sneak peeks from my YA memoir!
Chapter Five : 10
The front door slammed shut against a wild winter wind. My mother and godmother appeared in the hallway like apparitions. Crisp air whirled through the house, gripping my shoulders with ghostly fingers. I shivered. It was the forced way my godmother had yelled. The way they removed their coats as if peeling off skin.
“Hi kids!” my godmother chirped. Mum put down her purse. She did not look at us.
She was so fake. So obvious. She wouldn’t stop talking. Mum didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. The fact that they were both here in the middle of the afternoon, told me everything I already knew.
Latchkey kids at ten and eight, my brother and I had been by ourselves all afternoon. We had lived with Mum in this rented bungalow in the north end of Toronto for about two months after my parents decide to separate. Daddy remained behind in the apartment we had lived in as a family.
When they told us they were separating, I had stormed down the long hallway, past the cabinet that displayed the sherry and their wedding china. I’d slammed the door to the room my brother and I shared, throwing myself onto our red wooden bunk bed.
It’s not fair! Now he will be all alone.
Without being told, my brother and I gravitated to the bungalow’s living room. It was almost empty, but for one garden chair and a teak cabinet. A record player claimed the cabinet’s top spot, taking center stage in the cavernous room.
The rest of the furniture remained with Daddy. He lived alone in the apartment with a surrogate family of lamps, tables and chairs, although he didn’t need them. He stayed inside his office with the members of his tribe: From the A/C wall unit that blasted throughout the Canadian winter, to his stamp collection, to the stout brown bottles that never left his side.
The bungalow Mum had rented was empty, barren of history, though not infertile. Its white walls dripped with potential. The living room’s uncluttered floors stretched out like pristine beaches. I’d often sprawl on this wooden strand and bathe in the weak rays of the December sun, pretending I didn’t live here. I found the abundance of space comforting, an airy promise that the room would never belong to us. No black leather couches had been deconstructed into forts. No guinea pigs had trotted across a braided rug squeaking in delight. I wanted no rugs, because that would mean we were staying, and Daddy would be left behind.
My brother and I waited. The silence stifled. I wanted to place the needle on a record, any record, and let the crackles of suspense distract me. To crank the volume as high as I could bear and annihilate the dread burning in my chest.
“Come sit here.” Mum whispered.
Down to the floor, my brother and I floated. Mum sat in the wicker chair, her skirt tucked beneath her, elegant hands folded in her lap. By her feet, we waited.
He was our designated driver. The parent who drove us to school every morning. Twice during the 20-minute ride, he would lean over the dash. With a practiced turn of his hand, he’d bring the gleaming lighter up to the ugly accessory drooping from his crooked smirk. And I would cry,
“No, Daddy! No!”
I’d wind down the window, frantic, and point my nose toward the crack as he took his first drag. Stuffing my scarf up my nose, I inhaled musty cotton as Daddy puffed away, the cigarette wrinkling away its short life. Plumes of smoke filled the car as I coughed and complained. Only when he’d jabbed the butt into the overflowing ashtray, decimating its last flicker of red did I dare remove my scarf.
I didn’t understand. He knew I hated it. Why can’t you just stop?
Daddy always played the radio when we drove. He’d listen to the rugby scores from England where he was raised and the top of the hour news flash. When The Fab Four came over the airwaves, as they so often did in the 70’s, the interior of our car came alive. We would scream out every word to Can’t Buy Me Love or I Wanna Hold Your Hand, wild, off-key.
This was my bright-eyed father. Thrilling companion, compassionate doctor, the person I couldn’t get enough of. His arms would flail around in time. A one-handed, one-fingered driver negotiating the wheel, his steadfast smoke, and the beat. On the drive home, he laid out chocolate milk and a banana for us on the car’s tray tables. Then he would adjust his fortification for the drive home: a full bottle of beer between his legs, and an empty one rolling around on the floor to pee into.
That fall, the movie phenomenon that was Grease had swept the schoolyards. For my October birthday, I’d received the double album. When you opened it up it looked like a scrapbook. Still photos from the movie were laid out upon a Formica counter top. Grease was the word!
I wanted to be like Rizzo who pranced around the Pink Ladies slumber party with her take-no-prisoners strut. She was tough, unlike Sandy who mooned in the backyard over Danny. She just sat there swinging her blond hair around, tossing writing paper into a plastic pool as his smarmy smile rose up from beneath the surface. And oh, how she would cry.
Hopelessly devoted to you…
Why doesn’t she just ask him out? I wondered. She was so dumb. I couldn’t wait to debate all this with Daddy, play him the album. I knew every lyric to every song.
Visiting us in our bungalow, Daddy hovered next to me, unsteady. I placed the album onto the record player, then lowered the needle onto the shiny disc. I chose the fourth track, my favorite track: You’re the One That I Want.
Yoo, hoo, hoo, honey, the one that I want…
My hips popped to the bubbling bass. I couldn’t stand still! “Isn’t it awesome?”
Daddy didn’t move. He stood hunched in the vast space, as if its emptiness was too great a burden for his body to bear. Barely a ten-year-old girl, I dwarfed him. I knew he could hear the music, but he wasn’t moving. He was looking, but his glassy eyes didn’t register me. I whirled around him faster and faster like bathwater circling the drain.
He was drowning inside his baggy polyester shirt, a tie that hung loosely around his neck like a ready noose, and pants slung low like a clown’s. Their faded checkered print was marked with dark stains. Were they chocolate stains from his frequent diabetic sugar crashes? Or feces from the time I passed the bathroom and saw him strain over the toilet? I had scurried away thinking I should help, but not knowing how.
I tried the seventh track, Rizzo’s showstopper: Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee.
If I could just get him to sing, he would smile. I wanted him to smile. I wouldn’t have cared if he had forgotten to put in his dentures. I would have braved the gummy grin that resembled a defective doll no one wants to play with. That smile scared me, but I was always happy to see it, because it surprised me he remembered how.
I get ill from one cigarette…
I held the double album open in my arms, offering it to him as sacrament. This music was my cure-all. Eat from this. Drink from this. Take from this. Take it! Hopelessly devoted to him, this was all I could offer. And I willed him to have all of it.
I stared up at my mother. She looked radiant, sitting tall as a queen in her wicker throne. Yet her shapely legs splayed limp, her cheeks stained a nervous red. She would not meet our eyes. She looked down at her hands, the floor, anywhere but into the souls she would have to destroy.
The three of us continued to hang in a suffocating hush. I wanted her to take our hands, to lay our heads in her lap, to tell us that everything would be OK. I wanted her lies wrapped around me like a thick blanket, so that like Sleeping Beauty, I could fall into a hundred-year sleep and pretend this wasn’t happening. But she sat paralyzed, like a mouse trapped in the corner. Meek. Mute.
“Daddy’s dead, right?” I blurted. It sounded like an accusation.
Mum nodded. My brother burst into tears and fled the room, unable to remain in a space tsunamied with too much history, too soon. I did not cry. My chest burned. It was our fault. Her fault. We had left him alone. It wasn’t fair. I wanted her to go away. I wanted her to stay. I wanted him to come back. I couldn’t stay, but I didn’t want to leave. I stretched out onto my wooden beach and tried to warm myself in the thin light of the dying afternoon sun. I curled onto my side, not feeling the chill in the air, rather comforted by the radioactive burning in my bones.
Officially, it was pneumonia. I knew it was the brown bottles, the cigarettes and the fading light in his eyes.
That night, I lay on the now dismantled bunk bed, tears rolling off my cheeks. I pulled my thumb from my mouth. I lined the two thumbs up, side-by-side. One thumb was healthy and plump, the other shriveled before its time. I had to stop this. Babies sucked their thumbs. I was going to ruin it. Wiping the tears off my chin, I rolled onto my side, and never sucked my thumb again.
Daddy was 38 when he died. His name was Peter. The origin of his name is Greek. It means “rock.” I would grow up to collect rocks, become fascinated with their composition, their hidden layers of color. I cherished them—kept them in shoe boxes, or displayed them on shelves. But I would never think of a rock as something enduring, rather something that sinks rapidly to the bottom of the sea.
Chapter Six: 10 ½
The first time I met him was Christmas Eve. Eleven days after Daddy died from “pneumonia,” which was a lie.
For ten days we were a family of three, but on Christmas Eve, he joined us for dinner at an unvarnished desk as dining room table with matching benches. Suddenly four, we ate red cabbage, caramelized baby potatoes and roast pork with crackling as is the Danish way. Crackling is the fat of the pig cooked to an ooey, gooey crisp. I know it sounds disgusting and politically incorrect, but I can’t tell you how magnificent chomping down on broiled “sticks” carved from the skin of a pig was back in 1978. And given our recent family tragedy, gnawing on hot flesh was immensely satisfying.
Curiously, we took photos. Is that where my memory comes from? Because all I recall about celebrating Christmas a short fortnight after my father’s death was how weird it was that my brother was opening a race car set under a pine tree, and that we were sitting in front of our bungalow’s fireplace sipping drinks.
One shot was of my Mum looking over her shoulder at the camera. She wore a frothy, aqua-colored dress, heavy blue eyeliner accenting red-rimmed eyes. There are two tiny glasses filled with syrupy gold liquid on a table. We kids were allowed to have Coke. Another shot is of me hunched in front of the fire in my favorite dress. My smile is tight, my eyes, uncommitted, as my hair bobs over my favorite dress.
God, I loved that dress. Proudly purchased for one dollar at an yard sale in my school. A rich classmates castoff I discovered on a clothing rack in the corner of the Great Hall. It had a frilly high collar, and a bold floral print—reds, blue and gold. When I wore it I felt like Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose books I was obsessed with.
The Ingalls were forces of nature, conquering the wild elements together, plank by plank, hug by hug. My favorite chapter was Fever and Ague when Pa eats an entire watermelon by himself because Ma is so worried about the girls getting malaria, or whatever disease they think they can contract from a watermelon in 1872. He devours it in one sitting, stuffing himself silly, chuckling like Santa Claus, as its sticky juices dribble down his chin.
I had a crush on Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls Wilder on TV, wanting to be her sister, or friend. Or her. Oh, to possess Half-Pint’s joie de vivre! She was always running through town, flashing her sparkling smile as she persevered against school bullies, especially prissy Nellie Olsen—although I totally coveted her thick blond ringlets. Head cocked, Laura listened with wide eyes to the pearls of wisdom offered wherever she went: school, The General Store or Pa’s lap.
How Lois the Tarantula helped Old Hen.
I am writing a young children's book about overcoming a fear of spiders better later-in-life than never!
My name is Henriette.
I am 49 years old.
I live in Shadow Hills, California with my husband, Kevin.
We have an old basset hound named Wahlter White.
We once knew a tarantula named Lois.
When I was 8 years old, I lived with my mother and father and brother in an apartment in Toronto, Canada.
One day, our mail landed with a thud through the slot.
“Yay!" I cried out, running to the front door. "It's here!"
Our children’s nature magazine had arrived!
I grabbed it, and the pages fell open to the stapled center. To the Featured Creature of the month.
Suddenly, I was staring at two large beady eyes. Very, very, very close up! Behind the eyes were eight thin and hairy legs!
I jumped! A spider!
I screamed and dropped the magazine.