“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

Friday, June 28, 2013

Stay Gold

Today is my oldest child's eighth birthday. Like any mother, I remember the day he was born with perfect clarity. I can attribute each aspect of how his birth went to some part of his personality, and recall the very instant I felt that first rush of love when he was placed in my arms.

Around the time that Joey turned two, I was enjoying all the cool new things he was doing and, especially, saying. Joey was an early talker, and by the time we hit the tremendous twos (he didn't become terrible until he was three and had a baby brother), everything out of his mouth was hilarious and clever and wonderful, of course. I frequently shared "Joey Stories" at work, so much so that when I run into former students out in the world, they say things like, "I don't remember your name, but I remember you had a son named Joey."

One particular time, a colleague was listening with appropriate interest, smiling, chuckling, and nodding at all the right moments (FYI, if you don't like my Joey stories, don't feed me with feigned interest like that). When I finished the story, he shared some of the wisdom he'd gained from raising his own children, grown already by that point. He said, "This is the time that's really the best. From two to about eight."

It was meant to be light-hearted advice, I know, but it stuck in my head ever since. That number, that age, "Eight," like a looming threshold to doom or something. I've loved Joey through each milestone, always marveling, again, like any mother, at how special and unique and amazing my child is. I do like to bolster my opinion with little bits of what seems like sound proof to me, like I'm a teacher and have been exposed to hundreds of kids in my career. Or that I babysat a lot growing up, or that I'm just so naturally right about most things. But in the end, it comes to down to this. Joey is my first experience with all things mom. Even now that I have Noah and baby Max on the way, everything that happens as Joey grows is unchartered territory. And now we are venturing into what I've imagined to be scary, stormy waters until, I'm told, he's pretty much a grownup.

Now that I've arrived here at the Big 8, I find it's like most things I've approached with dread. Childbirth, kidney surgery, failure...the thing about it all is that once it's happening, you're just sort of thrust into it without any other option, so...you just do it. It's not even like failing is an option, it's more just this inherent push to move ahead and get through it. So you do. And with Joey being this child who's leaving behind his babyhood completely, entering this phase in his life where he's become too old for a lot of the things in the toy aisle but too young for much else...I find that more than anything, he's still, well, himself. And that plastering an age or a number on that doesn't really change the person I've known for a small lifetime.

There are things. There is an awkwardness to him that never existed when he was "too little to know better." Things that were once funny or cute aren't anymore. Things that Noah gets attention for don't work for Joey, and he struggles with how to fit into various situations. I think that's keenest difference: the appearance of struggle in his life. And perhaps this is what my friend meant all those years ago. Not that turning eight marked a period that would render my life as a horror film, but that this is where life's real challenges will begin to show themselves.

School will become more about studying, preparation, and work. Friends will start making choices that are unfathomable, or merely different, to Joey. He will have to make choices that will have consequences. Not big ones like he'll have as an adult, but things that will definitely impact him tomorrow, or in a week.

Every day when he leaves for school, I tell him the same thing. "Try your hardest and be nice to everyone." It sounds generic, but it's come down to what I myself value the most in other people. Do you strive to make things a little better every day? Do you give every situation your best effort? And, to me, the most important thing of all, do you treat others, regardless of their situation, with the utmost kindness and respect? That is what I want for my children. To work at success, because it's not a gift, and to be kind, loving people.

There have already been days where Joey has met small challenges with these things, which seem so straightforward and easy. He comes home and says, "But Mom, I did say all the right things, I was nice, but so-and-so still...." and then he shakily recounts an event that occurred outside our script for how other people should be and act based on our own choices.

I can't tell Joey, or my other kids for that matter, that these moments hurt me, too. That the advice that I give them, the things that I teach them, won't always work and that it kills me when some little shit on the baseball team or on the bus messes with the system, with the business of just being nice. Because kids are kids, and that means that for a percentage of time (some greater than others), they really are little shits. It makes me, as a mother, want to pummel them, but I can't. Even if it were morally acceptable and not illegal, it still wouldn't be okay.

Because by this time, it's no longer my job to fight all their battles.

I can't save the day every time. I can't make it better with Band-Aids or popsicles or a hug and a kiss. I'm not the only opinion, the only person who matters to them anymore. I may be able to help. I may able to remind Joey that sometimes the world sucks, but he'll always have one crazy, overzealous fan in his corner, cheering her head off and chanting his name. Even when he messes up. Even when no one else gets it.

But it won't always be enough. I think that's what my friend meant about turning eight. And it doesn't even happen over night...it's slow. It's unexpected. There'll be one bad day, and then things will be fine for awhile. But it will always come up again, and as he grows up, it will be harder and more complicated, because that's what life is. I can only hope that the things I do and say on the sidelines will be enough to help him figure it all out, and hopefully, if I'm any good at it, with a little less pain than I had when I went through it. Because that's another thing we mothers want. We want to just keep that pain as far from our children as we can, and every tiny victory matters, no matter the outcome of the previous or the next situation.

When I look at Joey now, I'm reminded of a book I've always loved teaching to my eighth grade classes. In SE Hinton's The Outsiders, we see kids with problems and issues and interactions we all pray our own children will never encounter, but they probably will, on some or every level. At the end of the story, without giving too much away (because if you haven't read it, you should), one character, Johnny, has met repeated challenges and now faces the world with the eyes of someone a little too broken by it all. His friend Ponyboy cites a Robert Frost poem, quoting the line, "Nothing gold can stay." But Johnny sees Ponyboy as a person who still believes there is good, a person who is still a little bit shiny despite the muck and mire of the world. Johnny urges him, "Stay gold, Ponyboy."

This, in the end, is what I want for Joey. For despite his weirdness, his craziness, his faults...his heart is so unfailingly good. I don't think we can say that about many people, not even all children. So to Joey, on his eighth birthday, I say, I love you, my baby. And stay gold. Always, no matter what...I want you to just stay gold.

No matter how big you grow, you will always look like this to me. <3 p="">

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Panic Room

When you're married, there are days when you run out of fingers to count the ways the other person annoys you. There are also times, however, when a heavenly light shines down on him from above and opera music sings in your ears because you realize you're just that lucky to have found the right person for you.

This morning I woke in a panic because of a terrible dream I'd had. I won't get into too many details, but it was one of those vivid ones that feels like it's lasted for hours. I will say that in it, myself and my fictional dream family were being stalked and attacked by a vicious man and woman team who hoped to ultimately bury us alive.

Some people dream about rainbows and unicorns, I think.

Anyway, when I woke up, I ran up the stairs to check on my children.

"What's wrong?" Noah asked. He was already awake, but thoroughly confused by my sudden onslaught of tight hugs and hundreds of kisses.

"I just had a bad dream," I said. "I just wanted to see you."

He didn't look reassured or pleased. He looked completely bothered.

Anyway, it was too early for anyone to be out of bed, so I went back downstairs where I found my husband awake. Apparently, my antics had awakened the whole house.

"I had a bad dream," I said, pulling the covers back up to my chin, and from there I proceeded to relate each terrifying second of the story that had played out in my subconscious.

"That sounds really cool," he commented. "You should write that down."

Ugh. That's not the moment where angels sang. No heavenly lights yet.

"The thing is," I went on, "I've decided we should have a panic room."


I never expected him to agree so quickly. I really thought the costs of such a project would be an immediate deterrent. What does it even involve? Lots of steel, I imagine. Locks that work even in the event of a power outage.

Still, Joe's fast support was a big deal. Buoyed, my plan began to take shape in my mind. "We could build it upstairs off the baby's room."

"How would it get air?"

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe a window? Or a vent?"

"Seems flawed. A point of weakness."

I ignored him. "But then if it's upstairs, and there's a nuclear bomb, the whole thing would be wiped out. Maybe it should be in the basement."


"With a secret trapdoor from our bedroom down into the room."

"Don't stop there!" he said, his face becoming animated. I could tell my excitement for safety had become contagious. "We should install a fire pole from the boys' room all the way down into the panic room. No time wasted!"

"Oh, no!" I cried. "How would we get the baby down? I'm already down here! I'd have to run upstairs and somehow manage to slide down the pole with the baby?"

Joe waved this away. "Nobody gets to use the panic room unless they can slide down the pole themselves."

I whirled to look at him in horror. Before I could speak, he gave me a pointed look and said, "Right. Because that's where the conversation got ridiculous."

Cue angels.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Because My Dad Can Dance

My father came from a family of four boys and one girl. His sister is the youngest, and in my current situation, I can see how it was that my grandmother ended up with five children, the very last one in pigtails and bows.

I didn't know my grandmother long, in the scheme of things. She died when I was ten, and though it was monumental in my life for a long time--my first experience with loss and death--it has now faded to something fuzzy, surrounded by the haze of an old memory. I can tell you she made the best turkey sandwiches ever, and equally good chicken wings. She smoked, and rocked in a rocking chair with her eyes closed while singing. The chair always creaked. Creaking rocking chairs are a haunting sound for me, because in those days when the memory of Grandma was monumental, I believed she was haunting me, too.

Another thing I know is that she made my father, and presumably his brothers though it's my understanding that Grandma wasn't always necessarily known for fairness, take ballroom dancing lessons. I think this is pretty much the greatest thing I've ever heard. I've always meant to do this with my own boys--still plan to, in fact--because there's a loud, undeniable truth about men. The ones who can dance are really cool. Playing an instrument is pretty great, too.

My dad played the accordion.

Anyway, the other day my mom and I were chatting on the phone and happened to come to this exact topic. "Grandma made Dad take dancing lessons," my mother told me, as if this was news I hadn't been told a thousand times over the course of my life, each and every time the word "dancing" was mentioned in my father's presence.

"Yeah, Ma, I know," I said. Then I smiled. "I think it's cool. I think boys should know how to dance. And you know what? At all the Father-Daughter dances, my dad was always the best dancer."

"What?" my mom asked. "Dad?"

"Yeah! He twirled me and threw me in the air. He had all the moves." And in my memory, though it's probably made up, I brought up the image of crowds forming around us, clapping to the beat of the music, while I matched my dad step for step.

"Wow," was my mom's response. "You really love him."

I made a face in surprise. It was such an odd thing to say for a lot of reasons. First of all, why wasn't she wholeheartedly agreeing that Dad is groovy? Secondly, it was sort of a "duh" moment. Of course I really love my dad.

I mean, there's the fact that he gets a sort of scary shade of angry when he's yelling, where this one particular vein pops out of his forehead and you find yourself mentally reciting every prayer you were ever taught. There's the fact that when I had to work for him as a teenager, first as his "cleaning" girl (because I really just "cleaned"--I never actually did anything effective, to Dad's everlasting dismay) and then later as a night-time secretary, he fired me every single day. Every day. I'm not kidding. I'm not going to say I wasn't a royal pain, but who fires his own daughter? Especially his favorite daughter? My dad, that's who.

And don't even get me started on how unreasonably strict he was about going out with my friends in high school. One night a weekend. No exceptions. The other night was dedicated to "family time." I usually spent this night in my room with the door closed since all my dad ever watched on TV was the history and discovery channels and who wants to watch animals mating with their father on Saturday night? Call me immature all you want. It was UNcomfortable.

But there are so many things, bigger things, that will never get hazy in my memory, and that matter so much more. They make those other, more annoying things the funny stories we tell around the table after dinner, sitting with this guy who loves to laugh. He taught me to tie my shoes (two loops, not one), how to swim, how to waterski, and how to drive. He took me to bookstores every weekend and let me pick as many books as I wanted and never, ever said no. "I'll never mind spending money on books for you," he said once after I'd thanked him. "I just love to see you read." It is a moment among thousands that is branded inside me, one that has not only made me the person I am but the mother I am, too. Because I say the same thing to Joey, too. He flies through books like I did, done before the day is over, already eager for the next story. And I tell him, like my dad did to me, "Of course you can have another book." And we don't like to lend them out or give them away. We keep them all, even once we've run out of room. Not because we're being selfish, but because each and every one matters.

My children believe, like I did, that the sun hisses when it touches Lake Erie on cricket-filled summer nights when the sand is cool and the lake is quiet. Because of my dad. They think I'm the coolest because I can throw, catch, and hit a baseball. That I like the sound of a car's engine when it accelerates. That rain smells clean. And that sometimes, the very best thing is to just be still and let the world go on around you in all of its magic and wonder.

Because that's my dad. He's the magic.

There are things that I get from my mom. Undeniably, I am most like her. But I find that most of those things are part of my nature, and that so much of what I've had to learn, what I've had to change, what I've come to expect from others...it's all based on things my dad has taught me.

So, I guess my mom is right. I do really love him.

Happy Father's Day to all the wonderful dads out there.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Too Manly For Mom

Since Joey has a summer birthday, it's right around this time of June that I get a nice little note from his teacher suggesting when he can celebrate his day in school before vacation starts. I'll never forget kindergarten, when birthday after birthday of his friends passed, and one day he came home all morose and dejected and said, "I guess I just don't get to have a birthday at school."

Personally, I think summer birthdays are the greatest. There are so many options for celebrating. So many nice, outdoor options. But I do remember that excited feeling I used to have to bring in my shirt box filled with cupcakes each October, to hear the whole class sing my name, to receive a birthday bookmark from my teacher. And maybe a Now-and-Later. (Remember those?)

(Although, my mom always did what my sister and I have come to call "Judying It Up" when it came to school birthdays. That is to say, she always tried to find the simpler way. Rather than just make cupcakes, she tried to buy something that seemed way cooler to save herself any work. In second grade she sent a big, sloppy, melty cake from the grocery store, and as my teacher attempted to cut and serve it to the class--with a spoon, as I recall, because someone failed to send appropriate plastic cutlery--she glared at me and said, "Please tell your mother to NEVER do this again." In third grade, for a limited time, Oreo made these giant version of their cookies. Each one was like six inches in diameter. My mom sent in three boxes for my class of 28, thinking that they were packaged in tens. They were packaged in eights, and it became an embarrassing and pathetic plight to encourage any student to surrender their cookie for the sake of someone else, which no one wanted to do. Plus I didn't get to go on an excursion through the school offering my treats to administrators and past teachers. Thanks, Mom, for building my character like that.)

Today, Joey presented me with his teacher note, suggesting which days might work to celebrate Joey's birthday.

"Which day would you prefer?" I asked him.

He shrugged. "Friday. Friday's my favorite day."

"Okay,"I said. "Do you want cupcakes, cookies, or what?"

"Cookies!" he said excitedly.

I smiled at him, just excited for his excitement. I can't believe that he's turning eight years old. I can't believe that I've been a mom for eight years. It's crazy to think about. It's crazy to think that eight years ago, God actually believed I could handle the responsibility of an infant. But alas. Before me sat a beautiful almost-third grader, hair already turning crispy blond for the summer, green eyes aglow with something special that has not been hurt by the world yet. I love this child.

"Joey," I said suddenly. "Is this one of those events where the parents come in? Do you want me to be there for the big par-tay?"

Joey whirled around to look at me in horror. "NO! No, parents don't come!"

What now? It wasn't the words. It was the immediateness of the answer. It was the tone. What's up, beautiful, unaffected eight-year-old? Are you...perhaps...a little affected after all?

"Uh, Joey? It sounds a little like you don't want me to come in. Are you, like, too cool for your mom? Do you think I might embarrass you? Are you too manly for my presence?"

No pause. "Basically." I felt a distinct, unspoken Thanks for understanding.

I'll tell you what. Eight years of being a mom hasn't made me an idiot.

"Okay," I said, trying to keep my voice casual. "It's just that, you know, for Noah's birthday I came in and read a story to the class and brought in an album of all his baby pictures for everyone to look at, so--"


Monday, June 3, 2013

Red Gatorade

One of my larger personality flaws is that I have a terrible intolerance for being made to feel like I'm somehow less than others. This has a broad range of situations it can affect, and while you may generously tell me, "Oh, everyone has that issue!" I'm quite sure I take it to a whole new level. For example, when I was registering for my baby shower eight years ago, I asked the salesman at the baby-stuff store whether they had a stroller with an adjustable handle. They make these now, but they didn't then. I was terribly troubled by the idea that when my baby was in the stroller, he wouldn't be able to see me.

"OH," said the salesman, as if he was about to tell me the most unfortunate news. "We do have one, but it's VERY expensive."

So there I was, having my own personal Pretty Woman moment. I could feel my heart start to race and my face get all hot and hands all sweaty as I prepared to shout, "I'll take FIVE!"

Luckily, I was with my sister who knows all the signs of such disasters, and she firmly grasped my shoulders to steer me away, all the while listening to my huffy rage over the nerve of that salesman. I mean, really! How does he know I'm not Mrs. Moneybags, ready to dole out whatever it takes to be sure my baby can see me from the walks I probably wouldn't take him on?

Anyway. Today I had another one of those moments while I was on the phone with my sister and Noah appeared before me with a drenched polo shirt. "Mommy," he said, "I spilled my drink."

Normally, I don't get very upset about spills because of all the things that can happen, they really are among the most harmless. But this was red Gatorade.

"Did it spill on to the rug, or just you?"

"Oh," he said casually, "I don't know."

I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder as I grabbed towels and carpet stain remover and dashed into the family room.

"Oh! It really is everywhere!" I relayed to my sister.

"Is it red Gatorade?" she asked. "Why would you buy red Gatorade?"

It's a fair enough question, and the answer starts off simple. Because Noah has a lot of upset-stomach problems and Gatorade makes it better and he best likes the fruit punch flavor. But what irked me was my sister's tone. The question that began with the words, "Why would you..."

Not only was I gritting my teeth in preparation for what was surely going to be a know-it-all lecture from my know-it-all big sister, but I was also recalling a recent ruffling of my feathers at Wegmans. It was a rare shopping trip where I had to bring both of my children, which means I was trying to make it last the least amount of time possible. (If you're wondering, the fabulous Wegmans grocery stores do offer a convenient little childcare service which I promptly walk right past because that's entirely too germy for my crazy.)

As I was placing some Gatorade in my cart, a random man stopped me and said, "Excuse me, ma'am. That's awfully sugary for your children." Whoa now. Stepping on the Mommy Toes. He continued, "These kinds over here don't have sugar."

Once again, my face grew hot and my hands were sweaty and my heart began to race as I said calmly, "Actually, those drinks have artificial sweeteners, which is a chemical I'd prefer to not give my children. But thank you."

When we walked away, I remember Joey commenting, "Wow, Mom, you were really nice to that guy!" I love his moral support.

This means, though, that when my sister was seeming like she might go criticizing my Gatorade choices, I became a little sensitive.

Instead becoming critical, however, she said, "Because they actually make clear Gatorade."

What??? Out loud, I said, "What???"

I have to be honest, though. The real reason I was so annoyed is because a few days ago, Noah said, "Mom, can I have some Gatorade while I watch TV?" and I'd said, "Sure!" and filled a cup and brought it into him.

He'd frowned at the cup and then at me. "Mom, this doesn't have a top. I'd like my cup to have a top because I don't want to spill."

My response? My cheerful response? "Oh, honey, I'm sure you won't spill!"

Then yesterday, Joe caught me bringing both boys Gatorade in the family room with lidless cups.

"Mar," he'd said to me, "are you sure it's a good idea to give them red Gatorade with no tops?"

And I'd said confidently, "Of course! I do this all the time!" I was more than confident, too. I was also offended that he was questioning my choice.

Because, you see, I couldn't possibly be wrong.

And then, well, today happened. So mostly, I wasn't mad at my sister, or at the guy from my Wegmans, or Joe, or Noah. I was mad at me. Two notes to self: 1) Lids on cups are a good idea. 2) Buy the clear Gatorade.

And if that guy was trying to be helpful, why didn't he point me in the direction of the colorless beverages?? Jerk. Actually, you know what? I am mad at the Wegmans guy. All that meddling and he didn't even tell me the useful information. I blame him.