“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”Gilda Radner

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Seventh Birthday, Eighteen Years, Cool Enough.

Today we took Joey and Noah to the Toronto Science Center (oh, wait it's Canadian: Centre) for Joey's birthday. I won't lie to you. I didn't want to go. Road trips used to be one of my favorite things, but now that I have children I spell ROAD TRIP a-n-x-i-e-t-y. I have daymares about collisions and sudden choking spasms and car sickness and...well, anything that could possibly go wrong.

But Joe really wanted to do it. We've never taken the kids to Canada, or anywhere at all really, and Joey is a bit of a scientist ("when I grow up, Mom, I want to be a scientist with NO girlfriend!"), so I went along with the plan.

It was simple enough, really. Leave early in the morning, get to Toronto around 10 or 11, museum it up, have some food somewhere fun, come home. The first part of the day was great. Joey and I were even selected to go on stage during a science show and assist the presenter. The audience loved me. I mean, us. This is the second time in my life I've been picked to go on stage. It usually happens because I have this thing where I really don't want to be picked (which is weird, right? because it really seems like it would be my niche), and then the presenters think I'll be more entertaining. What with my reluctance and all.

Anyway, all that was a super good time. But then, I started running low on Purell and I was starving and the day was waning, and ultimately, it was just time to go home. The kids were exhausted and so was I, and so we hit the Canadian road. Unfortunately, it was at the height of traffic. We found ourselves lodged in a traffic pack from Toronto almost to Niagara Falls, and then again on the bridge to the US.

Here's the thing. (As Noah would say.) I've said before and I'll say again that being married is one of the hardest things in the world. I love my husband. I've loved him a L-O-O-O-N-G time. Joey actually in the car (because there was nothing but time to chat about the most annoying and mundane topics, from wedgies to Mommy and Daddy's historical relationship), "So how long HAVE you been in love?" There are actually many answers to this question, but Joe and I stick with this one: "We started dating nine years ago, but we've been friends for eighteen." Eighteen years. Eighteen years! Half of them together.

And let me tell you, it is not easy to like someone every day for nine years. Joe is annoying! I know I wax on quite a bit about how wonderful and magical he is, because one of the things this blog is about is counting my blessings and reminding myself of the positive. But for REAL? I knew Joe was annoying about five minutes after I met. For crying out loud, he wore his KEYS on his BELT loop. Who does that? And--UGH!--he swung them around in wide circles when he walked. And he chews too loudly. And he laughs too loudly. And pretty much, if you look up "LOUD" in the dictionary there will be a grainy, black and white photo of Joe there next to it with a caption that reads: NEVER TAKE HIM TO THE MOVIES.

During our insanely long Canadian car ride, it happened that Noah fell asleep. He had been overtired and cranky and I was relieved he was finally getting some rest. He was snoring softly in the back seat when suddenly Joe yelled out, "ARGH!" or something equally stupid and unnecessary. Noah jumped and opened his eyes grumpily. That was it for peace and quiet, I'll tell you.

But things didn't get really bad until we were almost back in the US. Having just broken free of the suffocating traffic, I felt air return to my lungs and relief drip from my hair. Suddenly, I saw a sign. A literal sign. A total game-changer. It said, "Queenston Lewiston Bridge, 2 KM." Now first of all, I have to say that the fact that we Americans don't do the metric system makes me feel ridiculously foolish when traveling out of the country. I feel so...so moronic (and I think I look it, too) when it becomes public knowledge that I don't know the metric system. For example, in the middle of the museum was a fun interactive science setup that measured out three meters, and I unthinkingly blurted, "What's that? Nine feet?" You might say I imagined it, but I swear every Canadian in the room turned and glared at me. And I thought, "I know. You're totally right. I don't even know what our system is CALLED."

Anyway, there was this sign about the Queenston Lewiston Bridge, and in my anxious haste to get home I blurted, "Queenston Lewiston! Let's take that!" Instead of the Peace Bridge, which Joe had been planning on. I hate being a blurter. Are you a blurter? If you are, I'm really sorry. I get you. I feel your pain. There's just no excuse for us.

Joe blurted back, "WHAT?!" and switched off the radio. I slapped both hands over my mouth.

"Never mind," I said, removing my hands and waving them all around, like it would erase the echo of my blurty voice from the air.

"No!" Joe said. "You said it! I heard you! Why did you say that! Queenston Lewiston! Why not the Peace Bridge? What do you know?!"

I began to sweat. This is the sort of choice a driver will throw on you, because it's the sort of choice that never has a good answer. No matter what you ever pick, it never works out. If I insisted Joe take the Queenston Lewiston Bridge, there would be some sort of massive delay and it would be all my fault. But if I said nothing and we took the Peace Bridge as planned, there would be a massive delay and I'd be mad. And we'd been in the car a long time and my bladder was well beyond full and it was crying.

"Well?!" demanded Joe.

"Nope," I said. "I didn't say anything. Forget it. Shhh. Peace Bridge. That's what you feel comfortable with. You're the driver. Go with that."

Joe vigorously slapped the steering wheel with one hand. "No! You think there's something wrong with the Peace Bridge?"

"No," I said. "Do that. The Peace Bridge. Yes."

"But you said Queenston Lewiston."

At this point, the exit for Queenston Lewiston was about to jump up and bite us.

"I didn't say anything."

"Fine! We'll take Queenston Lewiston!" He veered into the left lane and took the exit before I could blink. "And if it goes wrong, well, YOU picked it."

GAH! I was horrified. That was a lot of weight to carry, considering the day I'd had. Road trips and science museums and being called on stage. Who could tolerate all of it?

THEN. As we followed the bend leading up to the Bridge, guess what? Oh, yes. Of course. Inevitable. Stopped traffic a half mile long.

The sun was beating in the windows. The boys were awake and playing some loud game that involved them saying "Poop" and "Toilet" a lot, but had nothing to do with a bathroom break. Joe had alternative rock blaring, which sometimes I like but other times, like now, makes me feel like hammers are banging on the inside of my forehead. This, combined with the poop game in the back seat, combined with Joe's intermittent singing, combined with three hours on the sunny side of the car, made me feel a little...piqued.

"What lane should I get in?" Joe asked.

"Oh, no," I said, shaking my head. "You can't get me to fall for that. I'm not picking."

"Just pick."

"No. I picked the bridge, remember?"

"This lane? Or the one on the right?"

"Not picking," I said, holding strong. Then, for good measure, I added, "Stay in this lane."

"I think the one on the right, but I'm staying here," he said. "You picked it."

Crossing my arms and staring out the window for the next while, I tried to tune out the music and the kids and the Joe. I saw a girl with a filthy car whose windshield wipers were frozen in time across her windshield. Like Miss Havisham had gotten ahold of it. I saw a super young couple in a car with the steering wheel on the right side. It wasn't a mail truck. It was a little white sedan. The guy's hair looked like a brown mop and he had HUGE eyebrows. Later on, they'd get pulled over by the border patrol. There was a van full of Amish people (something that perplexes me; I saw Witness and there were NO vans). A driver with his foot hanging out his window. ("How is THAT comfortable?" asked Joe.) Two RVs, both who had their own personal border officers come out to them in line to be searched.

But the wait was too long. I couldn't stare in silence forever. In the backseat, Noah was making gorilla noises and Joey was doing ridiculous movie impressions of a movie he's never even seen. His impressions were based on Joe's impressions from an earlier conversation. Nirvana was droning on and on and on. Joe was chewing his gum and muttering, "Shoulda switched lanes twenty minutes ago."

As our car rolled painfully slowly up into the next slot, only a few cars away from the big border patrol inquisition, I turned in my seat and faced the boys sharply.

"There can be no silliness when we get up to the toll booth. There will be police waiting there to take you away if they think you're acting weird. So just...Be. Cool."

Both boys immediately stilled. Not a lot can intimidate them, but they are both equally freaked out by the police. And by being taken away. Silence fell into the car at long last.

I was about to give Joe a smug look, when I saw him smooth back the sides of his hair, Fonzy style, with one hand. Then he licked his pinky and index finger before using them to smooth out his eyebrows.

He faced me, all smirk and twinkle, and said, "Am I cool enough?"

I burst out laughing. Eighteen years, annoying as hell, and he still makes me laugh.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

About A Boy

Today is Joey's last day being six years old. I think it's because he is my firstborn, but everything about him continues to surprise me. Every year, I love the age that he is more than the last, but this year I am starting to realize how fast it is all going. Somehow, for me, SEVEN is some sort of magic number that means Joey is completely not a baby anymore. His legs are long and gangly, he has no baby butt left--in fact, he is so skinny he has no butt at all! He has the face of a boy who is growing too fast for his mom to catch up.

I know that on people's birthdays I always write about a special memory of them, but with Joey there are just too many things. He is every little bit of good that God could squeeze from Joe and me. He is magic and sparkle and just pure good. He is the child I always imagined myself having: that perfect image I conjured up when I was little and playing house and saying, "And my baby will be sweet and smart and good and everyone else will love him, too."

I had my first round of kidney stones when I was seven months pregnant. Joe rushed me to the hospital, and all I could do was pray and pray, "Please let Baby Joey be okay." Two months later, I was in labor for thirty-six hours. Thirty-six! Seven years ago right now, my OB was sitting in a chair next to my hospital bed saying, "Shit or get off the pot, Mary Pat!" because I'd been on pitocin for twelve and half hours already and Joey just wasn't budging. (Yes. A doctor actually said those words to me. BTW.) He wouldn't be born for another twenty-four, in which time I would have two epidurals and have flipped off a nurse. For REAL. And when he finally was born, he held his breath for a full minute...the longest minute of my life...before letting out such a scream. Everyone cheered. My beautiful little boy.

He was colicky--brutally so--until he was three months old. He had horrible acid reflux, spitting up all  violent and projectile all day long. He cried so much back then that I had to use fake names when I called the pediatrician. I remember standing in the doctor's office once, crying myself, and telling the doctor, "I'm not a good mother. He's never going to be happy." It's completely ridiculous in retrospect, but those first months felt neverending to me. And I had no concept, no gauge, to comprehend the temporary-ness of it all. The doctor had said to me, "Give him time. Once he can sit up, around six months, he'll feel much better."

She was right, of course, as experts tend to be. (How annoying.) At six months, Joey became the smiley-est, happiest boy. He still had reflux, he still HAS reflux now, my poor little puker, but he has been completely happy since he was six months old. Now he is six years old, and tomorrow he will be seven. This is just rambling, I know, and I thank you for even reading this far.

It's just that I never imagined in my whole life how much I could love. I knew it objectively, as in, "Yes I'll love my husband and my children and rainbows and sunshine and tra la la!" But to imagine the depth of feeling I would have...it just wasn't possible. It is a love far greater than myself, far greater than anything earthly even. To know without a doubt that I would lay down and die for this tiny person--who is not so tiny anymore--without hesitation or thought.

Before I continue rambling, I'll just compose a list of what I love best about Joey right now. In the moment, I think I'll always remember these things, but then again, I know I won't. Moments are too fleeting, and he changes so often that I could never expect to keep track of it all. So here is my list of why my boy is wonderful:

1. He is reading, really, not just pretending, The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien.

2. His huge green eyes, the greenest eyes I've ever seen in my life.

3. His maniacal giggle at inappropriate jokes, especially anything to do with boobs (although he'd never say that word out loud.)

4. The way he watches out for his little brother.

5. The way he watches out for me...insanely, he worries about me. About my feelings, my health, if I'm having a bad day, if he can make it better.

6. That he's getting to be pretty decent at baseball.

7. His artwork.

8. His stories. He is a writer. Should I laugh or cry? And he's good, too.

9. His hugs. They can make everything bad go away. Shouldn't he say that about me, not the other way around?

10. The way he sees good in the people he loves, even when they are at their worst.

11. The way he expects everyone to be as good and innocent as he is. That will go away sooner than later, and I hate that for him. It will hurt us both.

12. He is a great dancer.

13. He is a daydreamer. It takes him FOREVER to walk from the car into school, because he actually stops to watch the clouds.

14. No matter how bad any day is, he starts fresh as soon as he can. He doesn't hold on to the negative, but looks for the good in everything.

15. That if I have to be somewhere else at bedtime, he calls me up in the middle of the night and says, "Can you just do your usual bedtime stuff? I missed you tonight. Only you can make it special."

I know he isn't perfect. Nobody is. But he's as damn close as any human being will ever get.

Happy Birthday, Joey!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Force Is Strong...

When I was a teenager and my mother spoke to me earnestly, it was to say, "When you're good, you're so good. But when you're bad, you're awful." Joey has not inherited this from me. Or Joe, for that matter. Joey is filled with two things: goodness and ants. The goodness motivates him and is seen in all his deliberate actions. The ants, well, they give him a serious case of the fidgets and wiggles. Always. The kid can't sit still. When we eat dinner, he stands at the table. It's just better that way (but it was entertaining for all when he flipped over, feet over head, out of his chair...you know, just spontaneously).

Noah, on the other hand, shares my quality of extremes. He snuggles like he's made of Play-doh, molding perfectly into you and resting his fuzzy blond head in the crook under your chin. He gives beautifully wonderful little kisses, and says lovely things to you if the mood strikes him. Like, "You're just the best Mom. Don't ever leave me." But then, most days, it's more likely that you'll see his more demonic side. "You are a BAD MOMMY. I want you to GO AWAY. FOREVER!!!" This is usually accompanied by some really attractive kicking and screaming. Sometimes on both our parts.

Yesterday, Noah was having an uglier day. I can't remember what exactly precipitated it, but I do know that he was having a good, healthy yell in the hall by the stairs. I sat down on the bottom step in front of him, using my calm Change-The-World voice, and said, "Noah, use your words. What do you need right now? What will help you get it? Not yelling. Not being mean."

Noah paused momentarily, as though deciding whether or not I could be right, and then leaned right in my face to give me a holler (not a "holla!" which I don't fully understand, anyway). When he did so, he tripped, mouth still open, and accidentally bit the bridge of my nose. It hurt so bad, I saw stars and my eyes watered. Not saying anything, but maybe gasping from the shock of it, I got up and walked away. 

I went into my bathroom to see if there was any visible damage. When, I did, Big Joe must have realized something had happened. I heard him say to Noah, "Why is Mommy in the bathroom?"

And Noah, bold as anything, said, "I bit Mommy!" He wasn't proud, but I think he thought if he said it loudly, then it might lessen his chances of being in trouble. 

I could hear Joe's heavy silence from the bathroom. And then, "You bit your Mommy? Noah! That is very, very bad!"

While Joe handled that end of things and the pain in my nose lessened, I decided to have some fun.

I closed the door, and pulled out my makeup case. My nose looked fine, but Noah needed a consequence for this. One that would definitely bring out his more sensitive side. I took up my favorite eyeshadow for going out: a nice, rich purple. Using my finger, I streaked it across the bridge of my nose. It was so obviously fake, but Noah would never know that. Working up my most serious face, I opened the door and went out to see my son.

Joe was crouched in front of Noah, looking stern. He glanced up at me briefly as I stood there, and then  did a dramatic double take. His eyes rounded in panic for a split second before they registered what I'd done, and then he stood abruptly. His shoulders shaking, he turned away from us and said, his voice barely controlled, "Noah! Look what you did to Mommy!"

Noah was frozen. The horror at my grotesqueness was plain on his face, but he refused to give in to it. "What?" he said, his voice shaking slightly. "I don't see anything."

Joe whirled around, now in control of the laughter (though I noticed he wouldn't look directly at me). "Noah! Look at Mommy's face! You did that!"

Noah just stood still, looking at the floor. Every few seconds, he'd sneak a glance at me and look away again.

"Noah," I said, "we were supposed to go to Target together. What will people think when they see my face like this?" Indeed, I was thinking that very thing. They'd probably think, "What got into THAT girl with her makeup??"

Noah looked up then, his chin trembling. "I don't think it's a good idea to go to Target." And the floodgates opened. Giant tears fell from his eyes. "I'm so sorry I did that to you, Mommy!" he wailed.

I dropped down to my knees in front of him and pulled him close, rubbing his back. "You didn't mean it," I acknowledged. "But why did it happen?"

He whispered, "Because I was angry and yelling. But I'm just so, so sorry." He pulled back and looked in my eyes. "Will it get better?"

I smiled at his goodness, because how could you not? It's always there, beneath all the trouble and fuss he makes. "I think it will get better, but not right away. Maybe I can put some makeup on and cover it up, though."

Just then, little Joey came running into the room, all energy and goodness and ants. "Hey, Mom! Mom, I--"

He paused, dead in his tracks, gaping at my face.

"OH MY GOD!" he cried. "Your face! You look AWFUL! Oh, God, Noah, what did you do to our Mom?!"

This made me want to laugh all over again, but I held on. "I think I can cover it with makeup," I reassured him.

Joey recovered himself. "That's good. Because if other people saw you like that, they would probably all want purple bruises on THEIR noses. That's how beautiful you are."

The way I see it, my kids are both like fictional characters. Noah is Anakin Skywalker, forever tempted by the dark side, but filled with passion and anger. Joey? Joey is Wilbur from Charlotte's Web.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Memory Lane: How the Worst Day Became Awesome

Who do you call on the worst day of your life? These days, I call person after person, crying out when they pick up, "I'm having a crisis!" and I'm met with an even-toned, "I'm on the other line. I'll have to call you back." It might be my mom, my sister...even Joe. It's like they know me or something.

But in a true emergency, I call Joe. Always. Somehow, he has the most calming effect on me. Something in the reasonableness of his voice, in the fact that I can hear, through the phone lines, the way his eyes are twinkling at me, and that maybe--probably--he is trying not to smile at my pain. And if can smile at me, everything will be okay.

On the worst day of my life, which wasn't today (or last week, or last year--it was years and years ago now), I sat in my parents' kitchen. The lights were dimmed; dinner had been over for a couple of hours. In the next room was the sound of the TV, blaring at top volume. My dad insists he can't hear it otherwise, but if he's in the kitchen reading the paper and you have the volume on a whisper, he hollers, "Turn down that noise!"

My mother was seated at the kitchen table across from me, a cup of coffee in front of her. She was staring at me. I think she was waiting for me to crack into a million pieces and fall to the floor, and at least she'd be able to vacuum me up, and then she'd be useful. But for now, all she could do was stare.

On the worst day of my life, I probably didn't look the greatest.

She leaned forward suddenly, closing the gap between us. Her eyes were round and intense as she said, "Now don't be mad."

Of all the ways for your moral support to start a sentence on the worst day of your life, that's probably not the one you'd choose.

"What Mom."

"Well, I was just thinking," and her eyes darted away here, so I knew it was going to be a doozy, "did you think about maybe calling Joe Bielecki? You know, just to--"

"I emailed him an hour ago," I interrupted.

She froze, her eyes still earnest, and we held the stare for about ten more seconds before we both started laughing hysterically. True hysterical laughter, with gasping and bellyaches and burned calories. The idea of contacting Joe Bielecki--someone I hadn't spoken to, had avoided, for a long time--was so absurd, and yet both my mother and I had both known he was The someone to find on the worst day of my life.

"Did he respond?" she asked when we were finally calm.

I shrugged a shoulder. "I just emailed him an hour ago. Probably not."

"Should you check?"

I rolled my eyes. But I knew she wouldn't relent until I did it, so I said nothing more and got up from the table. In the next room, her desktop computer sat sleeping, all starry and cosmic. I plopped down in front of it and wiggled the mouse until it woke up. My email window was still open, and I punched in my password.

One New Message.

For a moment, my heart was swinging back and forth on my uvula like an out-of-control monkey. Then it dropped down into my stomach and waited for me to click "Open."

All breath was gone from my lungs.

Good to hear from you, kid. Here's my cell number. Call me.

I was given momentary pause by the use of his first and middle initials. Was that something he was doing now? His new nickname used by friends who had not abandoned him? I felt my heart root itself in my stomach as I considered this. Perhaps so much time had passed, I didn't even know his name anymore, and Joe Bielecki was not the answer.

But what had he said? Call me.

I poked my head out into the kitchen. My mother had not moved from the table. She looked sort of funny, sitting there all alone with her coffee and her eyes all big and round. Maybe she was still waiting to vacuum me up.

"Well?" she asked.

"He wants me to call him."

"Now?" she said.

I looked at the clock. It wasn't quite eight o'clock. We were young. We were hip. Eight o'clock would be nothing for him. I mean, the email didn't say, "Call me immediately, I've died without you," but it also didn't say, "Wait three days and then call me," which is sometimes considered a rule, but then--

"Call him." The command in my mother's voice could not be messed with. As I jumped and began the search for the cordless phone, I considered the irony of my own mother, the Judester, practically forcing me to call a boy when my entire adolescence was spent hearing her drone over and over, "Girls don't call boys! They let the boys call them! If he REALLY likes you..."

I found the phone, and left the kitchen.

"Hey, wait!" she shrieked behind me. But I was nervous enough. I couldn't have my mother hanging on my every word while I made what was sure to be an awkward phone call. I tried to think how many years it had been since I'd deliberately sought Joe out. Four? Almost five? I wasn't sure. I didn't think it mattered. Call me.

I looked at the Post-It note on which I'd hastily scribbled Joe's number. Carefully, I punched in each digit and waited for the ring.

I lost my breath. Not my nerve, but the ability to breathe.

"This is Joe."

I swallowed. Not spit. Inopportune as ever, air re-entered my body and I swallowed that. I choked.

"Um, hi, Joe," I said. I'm so smooth. "It's Mary Pat."

The change in Joe's voice was immediate. "Hey, kid!" he said, and I knew, instantly, he'd meant, Call me as soon as you can. I was glad I did.

After some quick, and much needed, catching up, Joe asked if I could hang out that night. I looked at myself in the mirror. Frizzy bun. No makeup. Crisis clothes: ratty tee shirt and pajama pants. Nice.

"Of course, that'd be great!" I said.

"Well, I'm leaving work in about ten minutes. Can you give me the address of your apartment and I'll be there in forty-five?"

My eyes widened. Of course. My apartment. What lame-o says, "Oh, hey, pick me up at my mom and dad's?" when they've been living on their own for a year? Well, I usually did, but still. Not now.

"Sure, I can swing that!" I said.

"Good," he said. "And Mary Pat?"


"I'm glad you called."

The smile filled my body before it hit my face, and all I could say before we hung up was, "Me, too."

But there was no time to lose! Forty-five minutes?! And at my apartment--across town?? I raced down the stairs. Oh, good God. My parents were in WORRY mode. It was the worst day of my life, remember? This would be tricky.

"I gotta go!" I said, breezing past my mom in the kitchen. My father was now leaning against the counter beside her, probably discussing me and the worst day of my life. When I rushed through--because confidence and speed are key--he stopped leaning and stood up straight.

"Well, now wait a minute," he said in a voice that completely ignored my confidence and speed. I stopped short, and tried not to tap my foot. My dad's not a fan of that.

"Where are you going?" asked my mom, thoroughly bewildered. "What happened on the phone?"

"She was on the phone?" asked my dad.

"Yes, with Joe Bielecki."

"With Joe Bielecki?" repeated my father.

"Yes, with Joe Bielecki," she answered. No one was being snappish or sarcastic. This was a serious exchange between them. My mother looked at me with concern. "Did something happen on the phone?"

"With Joe Bielecki?" my father added.

I rolled my eyes. "We're going out. I have to go home and change."

My parents' eyes widened. "You're going...out? WHERE?"

But there was just too little time. I threw my arms out to the sides and said, "I don't know! He asked me to go out. I want to. I just had the worst day of my life, and a really nice guy wants to go out. I'm going!"

My father said, "But--"

But I interrupted with, "Bye!"

It was winter. The roads had been slushy, but had iced over in the frigidness of the night. I wanted to make my car fly, but annoyingly, I had to drive carefully. I looked at the clock on the dashboard. How much time had I wasted with my parents? Five minutes. Five minutes!

I reached my apartment building, fumbling with my keys as I skated up the front walk. Through the doors, up the stairs, down the hall, and at my door. Fumbled with the keys some more. I could hear my mother's voice on the answering machine inside. "Your father and I are a little worried...." She hung up before I turned the key in the lock. Opened the door, flew inside, into the bedroom, dug through my clothes. Panic! Horror! Everything had that, "I live alone and can't take of myself" wrinkled look. I finally found a purple sweater and a pair of jeans I hated. But they were clean. I pulled them on. I really did hate them. My brother, insanely, had gone shopping with me once and, to speed things along, had said they looked, "Good. I don't know, good," when I'd come out of the dressing room. I rued that day and rued the jeans, too, but I realized there was nothing for it. Plus, didn't they always say guys didn't even notice stuff like jeans?

Into the bathroom, I threw on some makeup. I took my hair out of its bun and shook it. Not too bad. It had been done, earlier that day, in its usual style, but, well, you know. Worst day of my life, blah, blah, blah.

And, just as I had time to dig out my favorite perfume, my signature perfume from high school, the one that had been discontinued and whose numbered squirts forced me to rank all life events on a scale of use-it-or-lose-it importance, my doorbell buzzed.

Joe Bielecki was at my door.

I gave my useless hair one last shake, sprayed the perfume not once but twice, and went to the buzzer to open the main door downstairs. I heard it swing open and then slam shut. I stepped to my apartment door, flung it open, and went into the hall.

Joe's face crested the stairs as he made his way up. First his eyes, then his smile, and then his arms opening wide for a hug.

"Hey, there, beautiful," he said as he brought me in close for a bear hug. And then...complete calm. As he let me go he said, "You smell like you."

Inside, I had nothing to serve. I had no food or beverages in the apartment, and didn't trust the tapwater. Or the cleanliness of my dishes. Instead, Joe (seemingly unfazed by the lack of served eats) sat on my couch as we talked about everything we'd missed in the last four, maybe five years. He asked about the worst day of my life. I told him. He said, "I'm meeting some friends out. Someone we know is in a band. Would you like to come?"

Only in your twenties does that sort of thing happen. I look back now and think, it was nine-thirty at night and there was still more fun to be had? The insanity of it all.

"I look terrible," I said, glancing down at my jeans. Joe couldn't know how angry they were making me.

"Nobody will notice," he promised. "We're accountants. We're dorks." I laughed at this and grabbed my coat.

Off into the night we went, driving past the city of Buffalo, all lit up and sparkly. We had to stop because Joe was driving with a friend--who ended up being a girl named Lisa, and it occurred to me this might be a date and I was totally crashing, me and the worst day of my life--and reached our destination (let's call it a "pub," because it sounds nicer) shortly afterward.

Inside, the air was smokey because that sort of thing was still allowed back then. The band playing, the one Joe said he knew, featured a leather-pants wearing lead singer, which I found intriguing. Leather pants? In Buffalo? It seemed so...so...out of place. But there the fellow was, rocking hard in leather pants. The audience, a fair turnout, I thought, was hooting and applauding in a noisy pub way. While Joe went to get us beers, his friend/date Lisa leaned against a pool table near the back and gave me a huge, winning smile. Was she his date? I didn't know. I didn't know if I should like her, either. I mean, why was she smiling at me? Who smiles at the girl that her date brought along? That's not even...what? There's not a word for it.

But then she started talking to me, this Lisa, and besides having a big, friendly smile, she was nice. Like, super cool, even for an accountant. I glanced around, wondering where Joe was. I found myself wanting to be this Lisa's friend, and if this was Joe's date, I felt like there might be a rule against it.

Suddenly, Lisa interrupted my thoughts by saying, "I'm going to run to the ladies' room."

"Okay!" I said, relieved. And then, glancing at the dingy door that held a sign reading, "Dames," I added, "Good luck."

I took this chance to find Joe at the bar. He was leaning against it, all suave and cool and "I get drinks for my two dates" in his leather jacket. When did he become this cool? Accountants are dorky my ass. Joe Bielecki looked anything but dorky right now.

He smiled, kind of dazzling, when he saw me approach. I tried to swallow air again and felt my cheeks get hot as I came to stand beside him.

"What's up?" he asked.

"Is Lisa your date?" I blurted. Joe's eyes widened. "Because I'd feel really--"

"No," he interrupted, his smile turning to a smirk. "No, I didn't bring you along on my date." He looked at me pointedly.

I opened my mouth to say something more, but then thought better of it. Yeah. There was really nothing left to say once he put it like that.

I glanced back at the leather pants singer, who was shaking his head violently up and down in time to the drums. How did he not get a headache? I looked back at the bathroom where Lisa was emerging, now officially a "Dame," I supposed. I looked at Joe, and found him staring intently at me. More intense than my mom at the kitchen table.

"What?" I asked, lifting a hand to my hair.

"What-what?" he asked playfully.

I sighed. "Do I look okay?" I asked. The bartender handed Joe three beers, one of which--Labatt Blue--Joe gave to me. I looked at the beer instead of at Joe, deciding that maybe someday I'd strangle my brother with my awful, awful jeans.

When I looked up, Joe had leaned close to my face. I sucked in breath, surprised.

"No," he said gravely. "You look awful. You look so bad, I'm embarrassed to be seen with you."

I felt every fear inside rise up to my cheeks, which were burning in horror. Was it fixable? Was it my hair? A giant booger? My JEANS, for the love of God??

Joe leaned closer still, a smile in his eyes and forming at his mouth. He whispered fiercely, "You. Are. Beautiful."

He moved to go give Lisa her beer then, and left me standing alone. I marveled at the Labatt Blue in my hand, wondering how I hadn't dropped it, wondering how a person could affect my respiratory system this way, and wondering how on earth the worst day of my life just became...awesome.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On Confidence (And Thieving Seagulls)

My mother is the kind of person who can walk into a situation and ask for something--maybe something absurdly unreasonable, maybe not--and people think nothing of it. Instead, they drop what they are doing and get her what she wants. It's a confidence thing, I know. I don't have it.

But periodically, I find it fly out of me all unexpected. It happened this morning, the morning of Joey's last day of first grade. It was an early dismissal, but somehow I got it into my head that I should pick him up earlier. There have been a lot of events at his school where the parents who can, do. I always mess up and miss the chance, even being an at-home mom. Joey always came off the bus those days, sad and forlorn, reporting, "Just four kids had to stay all day, Mom. And I was one."

I attended the morning's awards assembly, and some children flocked to their parents afterward and it seemed they would be taken home. I thought to myself, "I've done this right." But then I couldn't find Joey at all, and I realized that his class hadn't come. The whole darn thing had only been grades 2 and up, and I'd just wasted an hour. Feeling...lost, as I often do in these Joey's-School Situations, I gathered up my Noah and went home.

But at home, I still felt lost. I'd been there, and I hadn't taken Joey. It was all so silly, and I knew it. Did I want to pick him up early or not? Truly, no one would care. I once turned down a routine hemoglobin test for Joey at the pediatrician. He'd had it once before and it had been a disaster. A huge and bloody disaster, and in the end, unnecessary. When they presumed to do it a second time the next year, I felt this surge come up inside me out of nowhere, and I blurted, "We're not having that done today." The nurse looked at me in alarm, and I knew I had done something Judy-ish. But I stayed strong. I hardened my face and my voice and I said, "We had a bad experience, and we're signing off on that." The surge, still roiling inside me, seemed to scream at my subconscious, "It's your child. You know what is right."

It's that way, though less extreme, when it comes to other things, and I felt it today about picking Joey up from school. I called the school (inconveniently, Noah had chosen that moment to fire up the karaoke machine and sing some indiscriminate rock song) and said simply, "I'm going to be in the neighborhood in a few minutes. Would it be all right to pick Joey up now?" As it's the last day of school with a ten o'clock dismissal, it sounded reasonable (and Judy-ish) even to me. I was surprised by my own voice speaking the words, and even more surprised when the secretary responded, "Of course. That would be fine."

There was much to celebrate after that. My moment of audacity, though just plain normalcy for most, as well as Joey having a great report card, and of course, the first day of summer vacation. When Joey suggested we all go to the zoo, I agreed.

It didn't go well. It's the end of the school year for everyone (obviously), and many schools had decided to take field trips. We were surrounded by swarms of small children in brightly colored matching tee shirts, all sticky and be-candied and completely NOT listening to their grownups. The day was sweltering hot, making the crowds and zoo-ey smells twice as unbearable. I began to feel claustrophobic and panicky, my confident moment of the morning long behind me.

Joey suggested we get some lunch at the zoo's "Beastro," and I agreed solely because I think its name is clever. But then while we were eating our burgers at the lovely umbrella table, a fat seagull landed on top of our food and flapped its disease-y feathers in Joey's face. I screamed, and Joey screamed, and a table full of older people beside us turned to me slowly in annoyance and frowned. It would have been a great moment to be like my mother, to say something commanding and inarguable, but I just sat there, heart still pounding from the attack of the maniacal seagull. Really, what I was thinking was, "Did you not just see the bird that tried to steal our food from our hands and mouths?"

I looked at Joey, who had hopped off his seat and was now shaking his fist threateningly at the now-retreated bird (who just looked so smug on the nearby Beastro rooftop), and then at Noah.

Noah, who had not screamed, was still holding his burger in his hand, his feet swinging merrily from his too-tall chair.

"Well that was weird!" he said cheerfully.

The old people's faces softened and they nodded at Noah's sage remark and turned back to their lunches. Apparently, some people don't have to grow into this kind of confidence. Apparently, some just are confident. (And some seagulls are, too.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Do You Believe In Magic

The age difference between my siblings and myself isn't the biggest, six and four years, but when I was a kid it may as well have been a whole lifetime. They seemed impossibly older than me, and I believed I would never catch up to them. I was left out of a lot of things because of this, which may explain a lot of my, you know, "quirks," but I especially felt left behind on Saturdays and Sundays when my mother and older sister would take their weekly shopping trips without me. I can understand as a mother myself that my mother probably spent all day, all week with me and wanted to a) make it up to my sister and b) get away from me, but all I could focus on was the latter and remained mystified by the WHY behind it. Seriously. Why would ANYONE need time away from me? I'm so wonderful.

I found a lot of ways to not let this bother me over the years. Playing checkers by myself, throwing a baseball in the air and catching it--one man catch is SO lonely, and then, ultimately through books and writing. I eventually reached a point where I loved to curl up under a blanket with a book, or sit down before an unoccupied, un-fought-for computer and create my own world where mothers and sisters never left anyone behind.

But sometimes, it was different.

Sometimes, my dad would come trotting down the stairs in what he calls his "ball cap," or would lean in the doorway, and say to me, "I have to go out. Are you okay alone?" I always felt like what he was REALLY saying was, "Will you come with me?" It may or may not have been the case, but I believed what I believed, so I'd turn off the computer or put my book down spine-up and say, "Actually, can I come?" And he'd tip his head to one side, smile a little, and say, "You want to?"

I never really knew what to say to him in the car. All together, my family adds up to yelling, wittiness, relentless teasing, and more yelling, and no one's ever really spared from anyone else's sparky jibes. But when we were all together, it was my brother on one side of my dad and my sister on the other, and me next to my mom: always. Pauly always seemed to know exactly what my dad was interested in, and Jane seemed, well, to just know everything. On my own, I was acutely aware of the possibility that I was just different enough from my siblings to not have anything else valuable to say.

My father would turn on the radio, oldies mostly, ones that I knew every word to and most people had probably never heard before. How many kids know every Four Seasons song, every Beach Boys song, everything by Connie Francis, and which girl bands Phil Specter represented, all before the age of ten? We'd break the silence by singing along together. During commercials or the switching of the tapes (no CDs or iPods back then), Dad would talk to me.

"That song was always playing at the diner I'd go to in high school," he might say. "It was right down the road, but I always drove." He'd wink and add, "Too hip to walk."

Or he'd point out something really cool, like the way the light was hitting the trees over the horizon. "Look at that," he'd say. "It looks like gold, doesn't it?" And always with this small smile that let you know he really did appreciate what he was thinking of, and he knew that I would, too.

My dad can start singing a song based on the last word of any sentence. He can come up with a perfect song that suits the theme in any given moment. He's a really cool dancer. When I was little and had "Father-Daughter Dances," my dad could lift me up and twirl me. Dancing With the Stars? What-EV. My dad could rock their socks off. He can walk faster than ANYBODY, in dress shoes, carrying a heavy briefcase. He drives pretty fast, too. When he taught me to drive he said, "Come on now, Mar, be in control. Put your fingers on the wheel, never your palms. Your palms make the car move with your emotions. Your fingers will keep you in control."  He knows every car, every make, every year, and can give you either a special memory or a list of relevant facts about them without looking it up. He can plant anything and make it grow. He has the world's biggest vocabulary ("You better make up with Mom soon, because this situation is becoming gangrenous.") He can scare the hell out of you when you're totally guilty, or make you feel like a million bucks with the only kind of compliment he gives: a genuine one.

When my mom and sister went shopping, when my older brother made me crazy or made me cry, when my day has been the worst and so completely bad that I walk around with eyes that are so filled with held-back tears I look like a pipe about to burst, there is one person who will always, always see the best in me, or the best in that moment. And he'll say it (or sing it) in just the right way to make me--impossibly--smile. I know I'm the youngest, and I know I'm called "Daddy's Girl," but I also know I can count on my Dad. Always.

Happy Father's Day.

Grandpa and Grandson, the magic goes on. <3

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fox Glove FIASCO

It's taken me a few days to muster up the energy to write this. As you may or may not know, I have a lifelong fear of death by poison. I used to stand and watch my mother cook at the stove every night to be sure she wasn't throwing anything questionable into the mix. Sometimes, I'd make her taste it first. It might sound weird, like, why would my kind and loving mother poison her husband and three kids, but trust me. She'd said enough times, "I wish I could just run away and live by myself!"

Summer is my favorite time of year, and always has been. Aside from being totally addicted to the sun and warm weather (and say all you like about Buffalo; our summers can be amazing), I completely love the ease of life that summer brings. Flip flops, super casual clothes, messy ponytails...somehow "messy" becomes "breezy." I love it! Gone are the battles with ninety layers of clothes and coats, and the tug-of-war battle between mother and child over the donning of boots. Good God, the boots! Do everyone's children lay on the ground like rag dolls when it's time to throw on the galoshes?

Anyway, summer has come early this year, which I take as positive affirmation of me not working. A few mornings ago, Noah and I spent a couple hours in the garden. He's a great helper. Seriously. He stands next to me, all into it, with a cup of "food" for the plants, and dumps it carefully into all the holes I dig before we carefully place in the "baby" flowers. So adorable. But it was crazy hot out, so Noah said, "Let's go swimming at Grandma's, Mom." Good idea.

Here's another great thing about summer, though I suspect this one is unique to me. We don't have our own pool, but we DO live across the street from my mom (such a sweet deal--you should be jealous) and SHE has a pool. Not only that, but she's completely awesome. All around. When you have babies, she supplies the crib, playpen, swing, toys, and--GET THIS--buys diapers, wipes, and baby food for you. So you never have to pack a bag. And when your kids are older? She houses your sunscreen, swimsuits, towels, AND a change of clothes (that last one you have to be crafty about--she gets a little testy about "unnecessary" clothes laying around). So when Noah said, "Let's go swimming," all we had to do was climb in the car and drive across the street.

Yes, we're that lazy.

Anyway, it was so hot that we were not relieved by the temporary air conditioning in the car or in my mom's house. We jumped into the pool as soon as we were changed, reveling in the cool water. I paddled around thinking, "I have the best life in the world." And I do.

But it almost ended right then and there!

My father, landscaper extraordinaire, has beautiful plants and flowers growing with gusto all around his pool. His most recent addition are these tall, stalky flowers called "Foxglove." They'e beautiful and colorful and HUGE (and perennials, any gardener's favorite thing), but they are deadly poisonous. I didn't think much of this when he first warned me about it. I thought, "Well what do you think, I run around eating flowers for fun?"

But as I was swimming, guess what floated right by my head? Yup. A lone foxglove bud. Lovely and purple--so bright I actually thought it must be one of the kids' toys fallen in. When I saw what it was for real, I splashed away. Gah! I'm going to die!

Before you go rolling your eyes, let me tell you what ELSE happened. I know my own penchant for jumping to extreme conclusions, so I calmly asked Noah to please get out of the pool. (He wasn't happy.) Then I calmly phoned the first person I call in any crisis. My sister.

That was my first mistake.

"I am working!" she snapped, and hung up on me.


Next, I called my mother. Like me, she understands the true meaning of "emergency."

"Let me just look it up online," she said. I could hear her smiling, but I ignored it. Noah was hopping from foot to foot, all betoweled and adorable.

"Okay, got it," she said. I could hear her mouse click-clicking away, and could hear her reading silently. (You know what I mean.)

"'Foxglove is beautiful, but deadly,'" she read aloud. She read silently some more, and then, "Oh. Well....oh."

"What?" I said, immediately terrified.

"Um, well, just don't go back in the pool." She paused. "Well, maybe it's fine."


"Let me just call a nursery," she said. Her voice was annoyingly placid, like she was suggesting maybe she was about to make a call asking for conversions from the metric system. She hung up abruptly and I stood there, dripping in my towel, staring at the phone, and waiting for death.

Seconds later, the phone rang.


"It's only deadly if ingested," she said without preamble.

We hung up. Feeling slightly better, I called Joe and quickly updated him on The Foxglove Situation. Like my mother, he quickly Googled it. He, too, began by saying it was probably nothing, and then his voice changed into something new and different after reading the information online.

"Well," he said, and I sensed a logical explanation coming, "we have to assume this isn't the first time this plant has blown into the pool. Right?"

I thought about that. My dad planted it last year. Maybe even the year before. How weird would it be for it to have only lost a bud just this ONE time?

"I don't think we have to assume that at all," I said stubbornly.

"Well, let's say we do," Joe said. "And let's point out that we've been swimming in that water regularly, and none of us has died yet. And let's also point out that the amount of poison in that one tiny flower is probably pretty diluted by the time it reaches your body. IF it even does."

Ugh. Logical people.

"I don't think--" I began.

"Okay, how about this?" he interrupted. "I love Noah more than anything, right?"

"Yes," I said grudgingly, knowing full well where he was going.

"Well, I say it's probably safe to let him swim, and we both know I would not do ANYTHING to put his life in danger."


So I let Noah swim. But later that day, after Joey was done with school and the three of us were back at my mom's and swimming again, guess what? THREE foxglove buds were floating. NOW WHAT????

I didn't want to call my mom or sister again (especially not my sister, who was so angry she posted about it on Facebook), so I just called Joe.

Joey overheard, and immediately began wailing that he was going to die. Was he going to die? He was going to die, wasn't he??

Joe reassured me by saying, "Listen, I AM at work. I can't talk foxglove with you right now."

I hung up the phone, feeling flustered and frustrated. Joey was hopping around going, "The poison is on my foot! I know it!"

Suddenly, Noah's face was right in mine. I looked over at him and he leaned even closer. "Mom," he said loudly but with a gravity that made me think he was about to list all the symptoms of foxglove poisoning because he had contracted it, "this is IMPORTANT!"



The foxglove plant, for your reference. BEWARE.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

When Your Room Is In Order, Your Life Is In Order

So, when Joe was working in Pittsburgh, I think I got a little overzealous in home management. I think I overcompensated so much that now that he is back, I'm not really sure what to do with him. It seems like every room I walk into has a Joe explosion of some kind. A massive, toppling pile of mail (I've posted about this issue in the past) that no one can touch, lest the world end. A massive, toppling pile of pants. Seriously: hang them up! I would, but he says, "No, no, they're there for a reason." Okay...? The pile of shoes, which knows no bounds. What man needs so many shoes? I thought it was women who went shoe crazy? And of course Joe wears a size 13, so it's not just a pile of shoes. It's a pile of clown shoes that haunt me in my nightmares, chasing me through the house all clompy and muddy and angry.

I shouldn't be surprised that this morning I woke up with a headache. I'm a terribly disorganized person by nature, but it's really important for me to combat it. It was my mother who first noticed the way it affects my personality and mood. I was in my teens when she said, "You've been in a funk. Go clean your room." I was a teenager, so of course I ignored her. But the larger the mess in my room became, the funkier I became. I forgot my homework at school, I got snarky with my family, I couldn't find matching socks. Eventually, I had to give in. I cleaned my room. Lo and behold, I became calmer and more in control of all my other actions, just because my "home base" had been put into order. My mom noticed immediately--she's always way on top of how right she is. She nodded in satisfaction and announced, "When your room is in order, your life is in order."

This mantra has followed me through my entire life, and to my chagrin, has expanded to incorporate the many facets that make up adulthood. When I began working, the larger the pile of papers on my desk grew, the more anxious and forgetful I became. When I had my own apartment, I found myself just leaving all the time. I never wanted to be home, looking at the mountains of papers and mail and dirty dishes I'd accumulated. And I hated doing laundry and/or taking out the garbage, so I started eating at my mom's (so as not to MAKE any garbage or dirty dishes) and buying new underwear. Like, weekly. But suddenly, I felt homeless. I didn't live with my parents anymore, so I never felt settled when I was there. And I sure as heck didn't feel settled in the monstrosity that my apartment had become. So...I had to clean. Majorly.

The messes followed me into my first house with Joe, our second house, children's bedrooms and laundry. Basically, any time a new mess or new place for a mess existed, I found myself slipping back into the old funk. Avoidance, anxiety, aggravation, madness. I once had to be thrown through my kitchen window by my brother because I'd managed to lock myself out of the house. "Oh, anyone can make that mistake," you say. Yes. But I made it because I was feeling scattered and a mess. When I landed in the kitchen sink, my brother calling, "Okay, then?!" up from the patio, I was in a heap of pots and pans from dinner the night before, and I knew I had to make a change.

So lately, I've been forgetting things--even whole conversations I've had with Joe or my sister--and losing things and basically undoing all the fabulous order I'd created while Joe was gone. This morning, there were two empty juice boxes on the coffee table, a few stray toys, and, of course, a pile of mail. My head was hurting and I flopped down onto the couch, on top of a throw blanket that did NOT look casual and lovely. It just added to the general feeling of disarray I already had.

Noah said, "What's wrong, Mommy?"

"Mommy's house is. A. Mess," I told him. I had my arm thrown over my eyes and everything.

"How come?"

"Because Daddy has a lot of STUFF," I said. "And you know what?"


"Grandma Judy always told me, 'if your room is in order, your life is in order.' And our house in NOT in order! I'm going to have to do something about this. When things are a mess, Mommy just feels crazy."

Noah was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, "Well this ISN'T Grandma's house. This is a Bielecki house, and she can't make us clean anything! So just relax, Mom. The mess is okay."

Oh, little man. I so admire the black and white of your world. I'm also jealous that you have a mommy who cleans up after you so you think cleaning is just...optional.