When our stepmother, Clarabelle, came into our lives in 1952, she was twenty-eight and had just graduated from college. A beautiful woman with a tiny frame and glowing red hair, she was ready to bring order, even perfection, to our house. But she wasn’t ready to take on three kids, ages twelve, ten, and six.

We were accustomed to a different type of mother, one whose house was a bit of a mess and whose meals were often disasters, but who hunted snakes with us, cooked us Lipton’s noodle soup with blades of grass on top and called it “grass soup,” and could swim from the pier to the dam and back again without resting. When her kidneys began to fail, our mother had driven herself in our family vehicle — a Willy’s Jeep — all the way from southern Illinois to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to see if she could try some new drug or treatment. She was brave, she was fun, she was unique — and she died anyway.

Less than a year later, Dad brought home Clarabelle. She scrubbed; we dirtied. She rearranged our rooms; we transformed them back into smelly messes. She made lovely meals; we gobbled them down as if they were our due. Sometimes, out of the blue (or so it seemed to us), she’d disappear behind the locked door of her bedroom for days, even weeks. She must have come out when we went to school, but when we came home, she was in there again.

One time, Dad took the bedroom door off its hinges to enter, and she screamed as if he were pulling out her nails. I was glad we lived on ten acres of land so none of my friends could hear her. She was embarrassing.

I came to love Clarabelle, but not until after my first child was born. With my son’s birth came the knowledge that mothering is really quite a job. As I struggled to raise a good child, I thought a lot about my stepmother. I considered her youth, and how it must have felt to live under the shadow of our mom. She could never win that contest — not by making the most perfect baked Alaska in the world and bringing it flaming to the table; not by planning a big birthday party for me and my nine favorite friends; not by redecorating my room with curtains that matched my bedspread. No matter what she did, I found something to hate her for — mostly her dark moods.

As an adult, I forgave her these lapses. In my fantasies, I rewrote our story: we all went to therapy and got along perfectly. In reality, I began to enjoy being around her on visits home.

Clarabelle’s death from cancer at thirty-eight — the same age at which my mother had died — was a blow. We were just getting used to each other. She had long before stopped being a door-slammer and a hider, but she was still trying to make things orderly in her house. (It must have been easier without us children.) Cancer was just too messy for her, though.

I was eight months pregnant when I last talked to Clarabelle on the phone. I told her that, if I had a girl, I’d name her Carolyn — after my mom — and give her Clarabelle’s middle name, Grace. She thanked me and said she was honored. I told her I loved her. Her voice breaking, she told me that she loved me, too.

That was as close to perfection as we got.

Ann Garcia
Las Vegas, New Mexico

The ultrasound technician gave me my unborn son’s picture on a small curling square of paper. I stuck it on my refrigerator door, and every time I passed by, I rubbed my pregnant belly. The blurred, almost indecipherable image was, to me, a tiny, perfectly formed face.

Now I hold my twelve-week-old son. He is not the child I imagined. His porcelain skin is pale and mottled. His fat, dimpled arms are laced with delicate stitches at one wrist and fading bruises at the other — reminders of countless IVs and blood draws. From beneath the neck of his hospital T-shirt peeks another line of stitches that stretches the length of his chest. His sweet mouth sucks instinctively on the ventilator tube as he dreams of warm comfort.

Then he awakens and gazes at me as solemnly as he did the moment we first met, before I knew of his congenital heart defect and chromosomal abnormality, before the child of my imagination vanished. And I find myself turning away from that imagined child and embracing my beautiful, perfect son.

Kathryn E. Trump
Groton, Massachusetts

For two years, Nick lived in the next cell over from mine, and for two years, his cellmate Isaac griped: “That bastard Nick. He never stops talking, and he takes a shit for exactly fifteen minutes every morning. I mean, he times himself. And he constantly complains.”

“Some people just have strange habits,” I said.

“You don’t know,” Isaac said.

Nick went back to court in September, and by the time he returned to prison, Isaac had a new cellmate. My cell, however, had an empty bunk. Nick requested it.

I braced myself for Nick’s antics. What would he do? Indeed, after breakfast every morning, he asked me to leave the cell for fifteen minutes so he could take care of business. And he did time himself. No big deal, I thought. But that wasn’t all.

Nick made his bunk with military precision, kept his shoes and shower slides in a straight line under the bed, and organized his footlocker so precisely it looked like the inside of a pocket watch.

One day, he said to me, “David, you’re going to have to keep your clothes neater on your hook. The arm of your jacket touches my head when I sit on my locker and read.”

“If my clothes bother you,” I said, “sit on your bed.”

Every time I hopped onto my upper rack, Nick complained that dust particles floated down onto his mattress. If I didn’t sweep the floor when I came in from the outside, he cried, “Grit everywhere!” He didn’t like where I put my dirty clothes, the way I stacked my books on the floor, or how I hung my towel.

One time I came in off the yard to get my radio. Nick looked up from his book. “Well, don’t that beat all?” he snorted. “I just swept and mopped our floor, and you tracked dirt all over. You could have stomped your boots outside!”

I took a deep breath and said to him, “I did stomp my boots outside. A few little sand particles still stuck, and now they’ve dropped off. I’ll sweep tonight, OK?”

“Oh, right. Tonight. And for the rest of the day, I have to walk on your grit. Do you think I like your messes?”

“That’s not a mess,” I said. “This is a mess.”

I pulled out my bottle of baby powder and deliberately sprinkled it over every surface. Nick’s eyes bulged. It felt wonderful.

David Wood
Bowling Green, Florida

When my brother and I were children, people always complimented my parents on how well-behaved we were. Whenever my mother conducted a Bible study with a potential convert, we sat perfectly still and silent — sometimes for hours, sweating in the summer heat and longing for the fresh air and grass outside.

On Saturdays, my family went preaching door-to-door. We split up, and each of us had a bag to hold our Bibles and the literature we handed out, telling people how Armageddon was coming and all the wicked would be destroyed. Most folks shut their doors in our faces. But we just smiled and told them to have a pleasant day.

Every afternoon, my mother had dinner on the table at 4:30 sharp, because my father expected to sit down and eat the minute he came home from work. Not only did dinner have to be on the table, but it had to be cool enough (but not cold) that it could be eaten right away.

While we ate, our father grilled my brother and me about our day: Did we bring our Bibles to school? Did we tell the other kids about the Truth? What exactly did we say and whom did we say it to? If our answers weren’t good enough, he reminded us of the imminence of Armageddon and handed out whatever punishment he thought we deserved. By our teens, we were given a choice: we could take a beating or receive a month of a lesser punishment. We usually took the month, but one time, with a defiant glare in his eye, my brother chose the beating.

That was the last beating my father ever gave. He died not long thereafter, while we were attending an annual religious convention. He had a heart attack in the hotel room, right in front of us. Terrified, I asked his permission to leave the room, but he said no and ordered me to sit on the edge of the bed. As soon as he lost consciousness, I bolted.

After the ambulance took his body away, my mother told us to get dressed for the last day of the convention. Still in shock, I obeyed. All day, I maintained perfect composure, not even shedding a tear.

Catherine Torelli
Marlborough, New Hampshire

As a young child, I thought that Jesus Christ was perfect — probably the only perfect person who’d ever lived. Nevertheless, I was determined to become perfect myself, to follow a Christ-like path, to be better than everyone else. (Obviously, my determination to follow Jesus’ path far exceeded my understanding of it.)

In my mind, there was only one perfect choice in any situation: Kellogg’s cereals were good; Post’s and General Mills’ were to be avoided at all costs. The New York Mets were the best baseball team; the Yankees embodied everything I disliked. CBS surpassed NBC or ABC, Nike shoes were better than Adidas, and the Beatles and Bob Dylan were the only musicians worth listening to. There was only one “perfect” girl, whom I worshiped from a distance; all others were flawed.

In high school, my obsession intensified. What had been just a personality quirk turned much more serious. It took a nervous breakdown in college to return me to reality. I spent many years learning that perfection doesn’t reside in just one person, action, or thing, but in everyone, every action, and everything.

I now see that imperfection itself is perfect: the irregular strand in the Navajo rug; the misshapen garden vegetable; the unexplained typo that inevitably shows up in the magazine I edit; the misstatement that ends up deepening a conversation. Every part of reality expresses its own perfection, not by meeting anyone else’s standards, but simply by being itself.

Chris Roth
Dexter, Oregon

I had my son by Cesarean section because I was too out of shape to push out a ten-and-a-half-pound baby. I never practiced my breathing or studied childbirth manuals. I’d written “DRUGS” in giant letters on my admittance papers because I was afraid of the pain.

My husband was so abusive that, for the first two years, my infant son and I slept on the couch; I was afraid the 2 A.M. feedings would wake his father. When my son was six months old, my husband announced that he was old enough to be spanked. In an attempt to make my son into a man, my husband bloodied the boy’s lip, shook him, slapped him, and screamed in his little face, all before he was five years old.

I should have left that marriage, but I was afraid I couldn’t make it on my own. I told myself that I was overreacting to the abuse; if only I did better, cooked better, acted better, I reasoned, things would get better. And always, when things were at their worst, my husband would turn on the charm and be on his best behavior.

My son retreated from this hostile world that I had brought him into. He didn’t speak until he was four. When he wanted something, he grunted, screeched, cried, and hit me. I assumed that I deserved this. His father was ashamed — until he realized how much sympathy he received from other people because of it.

I took my son to speech therapists, hearing specialists, and counselors. I tried Ritalin for a week, but cried every time I saw the light in his eyes fade. I let my son watch too much television because it calmed him. I let him eat Happy Meals and yellow-number-five cheese and white bread and bologna. He wore nothing but sweats and T-shirts; other fabrics made him agitated. Worst of all, I put my son in a day care full time because being home alone with him made me feel depressed, lonely, and desperate.

When my son finally began to speak, he spent hours talking to himself in the driveway, staring up at the clouds, as if conversing with the gods. I often wondered what they were talking about.

I enrolled my son in public school a year late because I thought another year of preschool would do him good. Kindergarten was a disaster. All the students wore uniforms, and the buttoned shirts and pants were torture for him. The school wanted to test him, but I insisted on taking him to the university instead. He was sent home with a diagnosis of autism. He was six.

I finally left my husband, having found a new man who was kind and loved my son immediately and unconditionally, the way a dad should. I married this man in a formal ceremony, and my son wore a tuxedo, despite all the buttons. He was excited to be dressed like his new dad.

Our son now goes to a new school, where he’s in a special-education class. He is very good at art, and though he still likes to talk to himself, he does so fluently. He loves history, computer games, cartoons, and his friends from school. We live in a big house at the end of a cul-de-sac, where we grow vegetables and fruit and avoid Happy Meals.

This summer, my son and I were driving somewhere, and I was listening to him talk about a cartoon he had seen. Then he stopped and smiled at me. I asked what was he thinking.

“I was thinking that you are as beautiful as the sparkles on the water on a sunny day, Mom. You’re perfect.”

Sheryl P.
Bremerton, Washington

A few years ago, my mother said of an acquaintance, “I think it’s sad to see what a perfectionist she is. It makes life so difficult for everyone around her.”

I was too stunned to comment. My mother’s own standards of perfection exceed those of anyone else I’ve known. In our house, tidiness was paramount. Nothing was ever out of place. In the linen closet, the stacks of sheets and towels were tri-folded in both directions. The clothes in her closet were grouped by style and color, with equal spaces between the hangers. Beds had to pass a military-type inspection: I used to leave an obvious crease in the middle just to get it over with.

The idea of someone using different techniques from hers was, and still is, incomprehensible to my mother: the only way for the toilet paper to unroll is over the top. She once sent me back to the grocery store to exchange some lemons I’d bought because the grain on the peel was too coarse, an indication the lemons wouldn’t be juicy.

How does one tell an eighty-year-old woman that she is the ultimate perfectionist? I can’t imagine. I wish I could ask her what fears and insecurities drive her to exert such control over her environment.

Then, when my self-righteous indignation clears, I think of her astonishing vocabulary and love of knowledge, despite the fact that she could never attend college. She taught herself cake decorating from magazine articles and made my siblings and me incredible theme cakes for our birthdays, even during the years when she worked full time. It was magical to open the refrigerator door and see the sheets of wax paper lined with exquisite pink rosebuds. Those cakes were a highlight of my childhood.

For my mother’s eightieth birthday, I was determined to repay her with a rose-covered cake. Having taken a cake-decorating class a couple of years ago, I set aside an afternoon for the task and got to work. Two days and three trips to the store later, my kitchen, apron, and face were splattered with powdered sugar and pink icing, and I was contemplating throwing my icing roses into the yard. Why would anyone want to impose that much order on icing?

But I couldn’t give up on this now-symbolic cake. I completed it, and it became the centerpiece at my mother’s birthday bash. I held my breath as she tasted it. She pronounced it wonderful and, better yet, told everyone that I had made it.

Lorraine Plaxico
Black Mountain, North Carolina

My twin brother’s name is Noel. “Brothers since birth!” he announces, delighted with his little joke.

Why is it that, so many times, one twin seems to breeze through life effortlessly, while the other twin — myself, in this case — never gets anything right? Noel was always gentle and supportive as I failed to match his achievements, but my obvious inferiority led to some serious problems as I entered adulthood.

A few years ago I sought the help of a therapist, who revealed to me that Noel’s not half the man I think he is. In fact, he exists only in my mind. I’m schizophrenic.

Nyle G.
North Carolina

When I was fourteen, I was hospitalized for anorexia. On the eating-disorder ward I met Molly, a frail blonde with transparent skin and a faraway look in her eyes. She was in her forties and weighed sixty-five pounds. I had starved my way down to nearly that same weight, but I was shorter and therefore not as emaciated as Molly. Some of my internal organs were, to my dismay, still concealed by a thin layer of flesh.

My family had strong-armed me into the hospital. I was certain that something terrible would happen once I couldn’t stick to my daily regime of starvation and exercise. A small part of me, though, felt as if I had been given a second chance, and I made rather steady progress toward recovery.

Molly, on the other hand, was a professional. She’d been in and out of treatment programs for twenty years. Though normally quiet and kind, she would attack anyone who threatened her way of life. She fought a heated and public battle against the hospital dietician over the number of calories in a serving of five prunes. (Molly won and was allowed to leave one prune on her plate.) During mealtimes, she’d discreetly hold food in her mouth until she could spit it out in her bathroom. She ripped out IVs and concealed a sock filled with pennies under her hospital gown during our morning weigh-in. Once, an observant member of the cleaning staff caught her kicking her legs in bed at night in an attempt to burn more calories.

The other patients and I were scandalized by Molly’s behavior. Many evenings found us — a sad assortment of anorexics and bulimics — gossiping about her latest revolt. We both admired and pitied her in the same breath. She was an unproclaimed hero to the part of us that saw fat where there was skeleton, that demanded perfection, no matter what the cost.

Molly was still in the program when I left a month or so later at a relatively healthy weight and state of mind. The image of this grown woman reduced to a screaming wretch over a solitary prune — her tired eyes bulging, the veins of her neck visibly pulsing with each syllable — stayed with me. It probably did more to cure me than anything else.

Laura Addesi-Carleton
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I used to wonder why my breasts don’t lie quite right on my chest. They tend to wander out to the sides rather than look flawless and bulbous, like the ones on models in magazines. I told myself that one day I was going to have an operation to fix them.

Last September I had a mammogram that “didn’t look quite right.” I vacillated between the tough attitude friends and family knew me for and a secret, raw agony. Alone, I contemplated the future without a part of my body that suddenly seemed just perfect to me.

As I sat in the clinic waiting room awaiting the results of a follow-up mammogram, I watched other women receive little slips of paper officially confirming their health. I concentrated on my book and quietly prayed that one of those nurses would call my name and hand me a little slip of paper, too. I also watched as a woman pulled off her glasses, put her face in her hands, and quietly wept.

Finally, they called my name. The nurse held no slip of life-saving paper. She ushered me into an ultrasound room for a closer look at my breast. I could feel my heart beating all over my body. The nurse quietly ran the ultrasound wand over my chest for a couple of minutes, then said the most beautiful word I’ve ever heard: cyst.

“Cysts, actually,” she explained. “A clump of them.”

I wanted to jump off that table, open the door, and run down the hallway shouting, “I have cysts!” I couldn’t, though. What if that woman who did have cancer was still there, still crying?

Jo Emary
Radcliff, Kentucky

My dad’s side of the family is known for their astonishing good looks. A mix of Cherokee and European ancestry — and a lot of luck — produced a family full of what my grandmother called “lookers.” My father was no exception.

Dad was always critical of others’ appearance. In my case, he said that my ears were too big and stuck out too far. He swore that I would be “such a perfect little girl” if I could just do something about those ears.

When I was eight, he told me that I could have my ears pinned back. Unable to bear my father’s relentless teasing any longer, I quickly agreed to the operation.

I remember being very sick from the anesthesia after the surgery. I spent most of my recovery vomiting. But I was so excited about my new ears that I didn’t care. I wore bandages around my head for the better part of my summer vacation and couldn’t sleep on my side or play outdoors. I could only endure the constant throbbing and wait for the day when the bandages would be removed.

When the big day came, I put on my best outfit and carried a hairbrush with me to the hospital. After the nauseating process of removing the stitches was over, I looked at myself in the mirror and fixed my hair with pride. I couldn’t wait for my father to see my new ears.

When my mom and I pulled into our carport, he came out to see the results.

“Well,” he said, “they’re still big.” And he laughed heartily and told me that he loved me anyway.

It was not much consolation.

Jennifer M. Walden
Alexandria, Virginia

I am never fully satisfied with what I accomplish. Invariably, I ask myself, “Couldn’t it have been better?” This feeling has led to a lifetime of unfinished compositions, paintings, books — even relationships. Knowing the outcome will invariably not measure up, I figure, why bother finishing?

Still, for a while, I pursue these works for their imagined potential. I think, If I changed this section of the song and added another verse, it would be perfect. But once the changes are made, I’m back to figuring out a better way to do it. My constant dissatisfaction has helped me to excel, but at what cost?

For years I’ve made a living as a decorative painter. The end of every job is always the same: the client is excited and happy with the design, but I leave with a headful of ways I could have improved it. Somehow the feeling of success eludes me. Perfection is out there somewhere, just beyond my reach.

I’ve always associated my perfectionism with my German heritage. My father’s ancestors are German immigrant farmers from South Dakota — serious, “correct” people. (Once, a young family member, looking at a photo of his stern-faced ancestors, asked why no one was smiling. “Because,” he was told, “being German is no laughing matter.”) In our family, there was only one right way to do something, only one proper way for things to be.

Lately I’ve been trying to accept things as they are. A friend of mine, who also agonizes over when to stop fussing with a painting and declare it finished, puts it this way: “The slavery of perfection, the freedom of good enough.”

Hans Schumacher
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Throughout each day, commands bubble in the back of my mind. Home from work, I open the garage door. Dust rises from the floor. Remind Phil to sweep garage. Wait: why should it be his job? Avoid traditional sex roles. Closing the car door, I leave fingerprints on the window. Shut door using handle, not window. I enter the house through the laundry room. Vacuum cat hair off washing machine. Sort clothes into separate hampers. Buy new hamper. In the kitchen, I pile the mail on the counter. Sort mail. Remove name from junk mailing lists.

My cats burst through the pet door and run down the hall. Feed cats. Brush cats. Pay more attention to cats. Relax and enjoy life. Follow their example. I walk into the bedroom and sneeze. Wash sheets in hot water to kill dust mites. Blowing my nose, I use the last tissue. I reach into the linen closet for a new box. Organize sheets. Replace stained towels.

I take a shower. Remind Phil to caulk seam between tile and tub. Afterward, I cook dinner. Learn more crockpot recipes. Cut down on carbohydrates. Eat lightly. I sit down to eat. Stay in the moment. Taste your food. The phone rings. Look into removing name from telemarketing lists.

I go to bed early. The clock is ticking. Enjoy life. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Phil snores by my side. Wide awake, I lie in bed. Relax.

Krista Benjamin
Carson City, Nevada

My father’s idea of a perfect existence was to buy nothing from the grocery store. Frozen pizzas and TV dinners were forbidden in our family. We raised steers and slaughtered them. We built a chicken coop and pulled warm eggs from the straw beneath sleeping hens. We milked goats and made cheese. We even raised a hog so that we could have pork chops and bacon. While my father smoked the meat, my mother baked fresh bread and made granola.

When my brother and I came home from school, we went right to work: weeding, picking rocks, bucking hay, and shoveling shit. We hated it. We longed to ride our bikes over to the neighbors’ to play video games, or to sit behind the grocery store in town and throw rocks at bottles. We often worked until dinnertime.

On rainy days, my father would sit out of sight under the eave of the greenhouse and smoke cigarettes. My mother would ask, “Where is your father?” and I would look out across the yard, see a cloud of smoke rising lazily, and say, “I don’t know.”

When my parents divorced, my mother moved to the city — “to be more comfortable,” she said.

The only thing my father makes anymore is wine. Every fall he and I drive east to pick the grapes. Then we crush them, add the yeast, and siphon the juice into barrels. I once asked him why he went to all the trouble when he could buy wine for about the same price.

“It tastes better,” he said smugly.

As we worked outside in the fall sun, pouring juice into large plastic buckets, I thought about the family farm: how I’d hated it and felt it unfair that all my friends got to eat sugar cereal and microwave dinners in front of the TV. But now I think that I was the lucky one, because I could live without the grocery store if I really needed to. Perhaps my father’s notion of perfection wasn’t so far off.

Nick Raykovich
Seattle, Washington

“I would rather have a small perfect diamond than a large flawed one,” my grandmother used to say. She applied this principle to all aspects of her life.

She still lived in the same modest house where she and my grandfather had raised three children. In her many years there, she had remodeled, redecorated, and refined that small house until it looked like a museum: the art on the walls; the ceramics and books on the shelves — even the furniture was sleek and elegant. The neutral colors and the lack of clutter were such a contrast to my own home that I was willing to overlook the constant tension over the possibility that my sister and I might break something.

I loved having dinner at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother would carefully choose a menu, a centerpiece, and a table setting that complemented one another. The meal was formal, with at least two courses, and the salad was served after the main course, European style. Food was carried to the table one plate at a time, each with just the right amount of food, and not a bite more. When it was time to clear the table, we again did it one plate at a time, never by stacking.

My grandmother knew everyone in town. We couldn’t run an errand without stopping to chat with a former co-worker, or a neighbor’s adult daughter, or her son’s grade-school friend. After my grandmother died, my cousin found her daybook, carefully marked not just with people’s birthdays but with anniversaries, vacations, the date a friend’s grandson was returning from abroad. It was always clear to me, within the first few minutes of seeing my grandmother, that she was going through a mental list of events in my life that she needed to catch up on for her records. She never lingered on any one subject long enough to seem truly interested, however.

All who spoke at her funeral praised her active life, the scope of her knowledge, and her ability to entertain and keep a flawless house. Most of all, her eulogizers spoke of how many people she knew and how much her family meant to her. I wanted to jump up and shout, Then why is my father not here? How could she care so much about her family if she hadn’t spoken to her son in ten years? But I knew we were not to talk about such things.

Barbara Frewen
Seattle, Washington

I weigh 340 pounds, 200 pounds over my ideal weight. After my last “successful” diet, I weighed 167. When I married my second husband, I weighed 300 pounds. He thought my body was perfect, and still does. I have begun to think his attraction to me is abnormal.

This is the heaviest I have ever been. I am frightened. I could develop a serious medical problem at any time. I could be in a wheelchair in two years. I am waiting to find out whether my insurance company will pay for an operation that will help me to lose weight.

My husband is not supportive. He says I could die on the operating table. He says he may not find me attractive anymore. He worries the scar may be ugly. He worries other men may look at me if I am thin. He worries I will leave him.

I am planning to leave him. In the future, when I’ve had the surgery — and other surgeries to remove the excess skin and reduce my breasts — I will stand in front of my mirror and at long last see perfection.

Clinton, Iowa

I must have passed Pho Ly’s dingy storefront a thousand times before I noticed it: sandwiched between a Goodwill and a Papa John’s Pizza in a strip mall off Route 1. From the awning hangs a hand-lettered paper sign: Hot Vietnamese Noodle Soup . . . Cheap.

Pho is noodle soup like my grandmother made. It is best on frigid winter afternoons, when the sky is gray and it’s so cold out that your fingers hurt. It’s on such days, after early-morning swim meets, with a dripping nose and icicle-filled hair, that I dash inside Pho Ly’s.

Inside, a murky fish tank and some bamboo-framed portraits are the only décor, and I’m often the only customer. The menu is extensive and intimidating: tripe, brisket, bitter plum soda. I always get the No. 9 — beef noodle soup — and fresh lemonade. After I’ve ordered, I sit and listen to the conversations in a language I don’t understand and stare at the fish swimming in gray water.

When my food comes, the swirls of steam begin to melt my icy hair. Outside Pho Ly’s door, pizza delivery boys sprint by, and honking trucks barrel down Route 1. But inside, the world has stopped. Once I pass beneath Pho Ly’s hand-lettered sign, I enter a place where winter cold is a memory, and my amber-colored soup is perfection.

Christina Stavridis
Atlantic Beach, Florida

My family were expatriates from India. We had been living in Kuwait for more than a decade when Iraq invaded on August 1, 1990. Luckily, we were on summer vacation in England at the time. We waited for six weeks in London, fiercely hoping that the situation would blow over. When it became obvious that it wouldn’t, my father arranged for us to fly back to our hometown outside Calcutta, India.

My grandparents, my great-uncle, my parents, my brother, the new baby, and I were all packed into one small house. The radio and TV were always on for news of the invasion. After each report my parents would look even more strained and worried. My cantankerous great-uncle refused to let me use the phone or change channels on the TV, and he was obnoxious to my guests. My brother and I were sent to a school where the kids wore designer jeans, while we had to make do with whatever our kindly relatives gave us.

During that time, my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. His voice became raspy, and meals were unbearable: everyone at the table would freeze while my grandfather coughed and choked uncontrollably, trying to coax food down his swollen throat.

One Saturday, I felt close to snapping. My great-uncle had chewed me out for occupying the phone for five minutes with my “useless chatter.” My parents’ faces sagged even more than usual. And during lunch, my grandfather coughed so hard he vomited.

I went into a bedroom to calm down and found my eight-month-old baby brother lying in the middle of the bed, an afternoon sunbeam gently warming him. A faint whiff of baby soap lingered in the air. A bright yellow rattle wobbled in his tiny, dimpled hand, and he kicked his chubby legs, banging his heels on the hard mattress. His large, dark eyes stared in wonder at the silly face painted on the rattle, and a joyous babble came from the depths of his belly.

In his excitement, my brother accidentally flung the rattle over his head. I laughed out loud at his comic expression over the disappearance of his toy. Hearing me laugh, he turned and gave me a large, toothless grin. I picked up his soft, warm body and nuzzled the delicate fuzz on his head. For the moment, everything was perfect.

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay
Baltimore, Maryland

My son Alex was born with club feet, a small chin, and no suck or swallow reflex. Instead of resting in a comfortable fetal position, he came out with his back in a great arch, as if he were searching for the stars.

Alex is now nine years old. He uses a wheelchair to get around and is deaf. He has a congenital myopathy, which leaves him with pervasive muscle weakness. He has scoliosis. He has a swallowing disorder. He needs assistance to eat, to get dressed, to brush his teeth, and to get into a chair or onto the toilet or into bed. These things are part of who Alex is. They can never be denied. But there is more.

Alex is fluent in sign language and bemoans the fact that fourth-graders have homework on weekends. He loves science but lags behind in reading, as deaf children often do. Still, he has a deep and abiding love of books, poring over them again and again, refusing to give up. He is a Nintendo junkie, which I sometimes feel guilty about, but since I found out there is now a degree in video-game design, I feel a little better. Alex is gentle with our dogs and cats and looks at them with deep understanding. He does not eat meat because he does not want to kill animals. When he grows up, he wants to be a video-game designer, a veterinarian, and a teacher of sign language.

He argues with me about his bedtime, about homework, and about physical therapy. After a really big argument, we both apologize, and he puts his arms around my neck and plants a wet one on my cheek. He doesn’t let me kiss him in front of other kids anymore, but I’ll still get the occasional spontaneous embrace. He is a clown and a teaser and sometimes laughs so hard he can’t stop. He’s gotten in trouble with the principal for popping wheelies on the bus and refusing to come in from recess on a beautiful autumn day.

He proudly displays his leg and chest braces to his classmates and explains that his bones are not broken; it’s his muscles that are weak. He tells them they must never touch the joystick on his wheelchair. He yells at people who don’t get out of the way in museums and grocery stores. He has never shown a hint of bitterness or jealousy toward more able-bodied children, and he once told me that God signs to him. When I asked him if he felt sad about not walking, he said, “Walking is fine, but I like my wheelchair.”

Alex has a long and difficult life ahead of him, but he takes each new day as it comes. Instead of fighting his nature, he embraces it and is completely comfortable in his own skin. How much more perfect can you get?

Susan Sklaroff-Van Hook
Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania

“See how crooked the stitching is there?” my mother would say. “You can do better.”

Her comments were intended as helpful suggestions, but after hearing of my failure for the twelfth time, I was out of confidence and patience. My attempts at even, delicate stitching around the edges of a red felt pincushion — a first-year 4-H project — did not meet my seamstress mother’s standards of perfection.

My mother started sewing when she was four years old, sneaking up to the old treadle machine while her mother was out milking in the barn. My grandmother feared that my mother would run the sewing-machine needle through her finger, but she never did.

At fifteen, in her home-economics class, my mother chose to make a wool jumper with a scalloped neckline. Her teacher looked dubiously at the pattern; only a talented seamstress, she said, could negotiate the tiny turns needed to make beautiful, even scallops.

My mother wore that dress for two winters.

A few years later, she cut into the creamy satin that was to become her wedding gown: a slender, fitted design with an elaborate neckline. As a child, I thought it the most elegant dress imaginable.

In the sixties and seventies, my mother could fashion any style of clothing I desired. We spent hours in fabric stores, poring over Butterick, Simplicity, and McCall’s patterns, trying to agree on color and texture. She could take a sleeve or waistband from one pattern and join it to another, or let out a skirt so that my not-so-perfect hips could enjoy a perfect fit. Still, I did not fully appreciate having my own tailor until I was married and had to tackle mending for my husband.

One day my mother surprised me with a confession. She said she was sorry for having insisted upon perfection when she tried to teach me to sew. At fifty-five, she had come to realize that her demands had discouraged me and deprived me of the joy sewing had brought her. If she could do it over, she said, she would be less insistent on perfection and let me simply enjoy making something.

She revealed that she herself had never learned to make the precise, tiny hand stitches that her mother had effortlessly put in her quilts. And then Mom showed me her parents’ wedding photo, pointing out the hundreds of tiny, hand-sewn tucks decorating her mother’s dress.

Valerie A. Reimers
Weatherford, Oklahoma

In a job interview, whenever a prospective employer asks what my biggest weakness is, I say it’s my tendency to be a perfectionist.

This, of course, is a lie. If I were to tell the truth, I would have to say that I have a tendency to be late by ten or fifteen minutes, and that occasionally I will sleep through my alarm, or even turn it off and go back to sleep. I would tell the interviewer that I am lazy, that I like to talk to my co-workers and e-mail friends on the job, and that I have trouble keeping my lunch break to a half-hour. I might even mention that sometimes, when I should be working, I am dreaming about how to swindle the boss out of a raise, or that I enjoy complaining to other employees about “how messed up this place is” and how unfairly we are treated.

If in the mood to be totally honest, I would reveal that the closest I have ever come to perfectionism is a neurotic need to put things in order — usually just a matter of rearranging stacks of projects that I should have done weeks ago but that instead sit idle on my desk.

Of course I don’t say any of this. They all figure it out eventually.

Guava Jordan
New York, New York

My husband manages a hospitality house where families can stay while their loved ones are being treated at a local hospital, and we live on-site. One summer, when my children were young, a Muslim family from Saudi Arabia came to stay with us. Their youngest son was sick — so sick that the family had traveled halfway around the world in search of the best medical treatment available. The mother wore traditional clothing and kept her hair covered at all times, but she smiled a lot — which surprises me now when I think of it, knowing the relentless vigil she kept over her youngest child. He was just three when his family came here, the same age as my youngest at the time.

I was raised Catholic, and this mother looked a bit like the Virgin Mary to me: olive skin and dark eyes, with a quiet serenity about her. I’d always been told that Mary was the perfect woman, though I didn’t know what made her perfect. Perhaps that she had never sinned.

The young mother worked hard every day and revealed a great love for her son. The language barrier between us was dense, and our communications were often cryptic. At first we talked through facial expressions and subtle motions of the eyes. Later, when words came, the mother developed an endearing habit of using the phrase “too much” when she meant “as much as possible.” She would say, “I have so many food; please eat too much.”

One day, her son took a drink of milk, fell to the floor, and stopped breathing. She came down the stairs screaming, her head uncovered. No one recognized her at first. The ambulance came, and they went to the hospital, as they had many times before. But this time, the boy died.

There is no sadness that can compare to that of a grieving mother. When she returned, her eyes were vacant and unseeing. She fell on me and let out a wailing, keening sound that left me breathless. Her husband made a move to hush her, but the sound was so sad and perfect, it couldn’t be stopped. I held her in my arms and felt her long hair tied back beneath her head-covering. In her grief, I realized, she was even more like Mary, who cried not just for her son, but for all of us.

The family stayed with us for another week as they prepared to transport the body home. The young mother wore a look of holiness that never left her. She wandered aimlessly, and once she stumbled down the stairs saying, “I need someone. I need someone.” Her husband was stoic and quiet, but she cried often and well, and by week’s end, she had begun to smile again.

When it was time for them to go, she stood at the door, draped in black, her face radiant. She looked down at my youngest son with all the love she had shown for her own boy.

“Kiss him too much for me,” she said.

Nancy C. Seeger
Cleveland, Ohio