Sunday, May 31, 2009

An open letter to the graduate

Dear Ittybit,

Your last "Special Day" at the Marilla Cuthbert School for Unspeakably Charming Children snuck up on me.

It was the last day in which one of your parents **points to self** showed up bearing healthy snacks that none of your friends would touch with a ten-foot pole.

It was the last day I'd have a chance to slip the photos I'd taken throughout the school year into the bags of your classmates. Photographs tucked in envelopes that you dutifully sealed with "Love" in a color representing their name ... Blue for Billy ... Magenta for Madeline ... Silver for Sierra.

It was the last day in which one of your ever-patient teachers would tilt their heads and cluck in my direction ... as I so obviously hanged the paintings in the wrong place or as I read books when I should have been helping kids put on their smocks so they could paint.

It would be the last time I’d hear their chittering as I broke some other rule ... such as talking to you when you were in line instead of making sure you were all as quiet as church mice.

It's been more than three years since you first walked through the doors of this cooperative preschool ... the very one I went to when I was your age ... the very one I lived above when I was a young adult.

You already know those stories, you say, rolling your eyes and looking upward when I try to retell them.

You also know numbers and the difference between upper and lower case. You can spell you name and recite your phone number. And every day you come home with a new letter and all the words you learned that begin with that letter.

Both of us have learned a great deal these last three years.

In addition to writing your name and remembering your numbers, you've learned to cut with scissors, recognize letters and understand about cause and effect, as it applies to so many things.

On the last Special Day I was finally proficient in hanging the paintings to dry, and collecting all the crafts so that parents wouldn't have to search. I easily did the chores that needed doing ... cleaning paintbrushes, wiping tables, vacuuming floors and taking out the trash.

I didn't even mess up snack time.

"O" was the letter of your last special day.

I brought the things we'd agreed on: Oranges and Oyster crackers and Olives (though you were quite sure no one would eat them). I also brought orange smoothies, blended at home the night before.

You helped. We blended oranges, pineapples, papayas, mangos and bananas with ice and orange juice, squeezing in the juice of a lime for good measure.

When we tested it you gave it your highest praise: "The most delicious of deliciousities I ever had in my whole entire world or worlds."

I beamed. And then I set the blender up for a second time ... this time adding kale to the mix and a plan to call the new creation "Oscar Isn't Such a Grouch After All Smoothie."

But as the kids' luck would have it, the blender broke.

And then your father gave me his patented eyebrow arch: "Kale? Really?"

"Yes, Kale. ... I just wanted to see Ms. Cuthberts' eyes roll back in her head one last time."

I didn't need a green smoothie to do that, all I had to do was put out the green tractor trikes in the play yard.

"In the wrong place again, mom. In the wrong place again."


Look out Kindergarten, ready or not here I come.



Sunday, May 24, 2009

Thrill seeking, one tot ride at a time

Hoffman's Playland.

I promised Ittybit we’d go.

Blessing? Curse? I know many-a-parent (and grandparent) who are trying to avoid that particular stretch of Route 9 for at least another month now that the rides have come to life for the season. But I promised.

The Champ’s been here before -- a few times during the past two seasons to be exact -- but he was of an age in which he was neither interested nor conscious enough to notice the candy-color amusements and the tiny tots lining up to ride.

It's possible we could have eked through our afternoon outing without the boy's involvement. He fell fast asleep on the 30-minute commute and his temperament beforehand indicated he needed the shut-eye.

There was also a satisfying breeze that, with all four windows open half way, cooled the car nicely. The Dad was more than happy to wait with the boy and practice his ability to sleep in a reclined bucket seat whilst I braved the tortures of the big-kid rides.

I agreed to make our first ride the Tilt-a-Whirl, vividly remembering the gastric upset from last year's excursion, but theorizing a full stomach back then may have been a contributing factor. It had been hours since I'd eaten, perhaps I'd be safe.

I was wrong.

Oy, motion sickness, how cruelly you've crept up on me in my old age.

I fought my way past her other favorites -- the parachute ride, the cautions for which we read AFTER asking papa, the heart patient, to accompany her the first year we visited; The tiny roller coaster, which jerks so violently in its turns that I always feel in jeopardy of falling out; and the Scrambler, the name alone is enough to explain why I walked past saying NO! NO! NO! -- to the car.

"Your father will have to go on those rides with you, Ittybit. I just can't do it."

In the parking lot, we stood for a second watching the boys snooze. And then I pounded on the window.

"Can you go with her? She wants to ride the Scrambler. I. Just. Can't."

"Gee. Thanks a lot," he said peeling himself out from behind the steering wheel and taking her hand.

As I sat in the car with the snoozing toddler, I could see her Dad's head and shoulders snapping backwards as the cars whipped around. She's too small to be visible from my vantage.

I will the boy to wake up. "You don't want to miss this," I whisper over and over. "Playland ... Playland ... Playland."

I didn't want to miss it either.


One eye opens, and then the other.

Still groggy from sleep, he’s still rubbing his eyes as I’m whisking him around the park, looking for his sister.

We find them near the boats, which is perfect as there is no finer first ride you can take than those boats floating around in a mechanical river.

I'm a giddy. Poised with a camera ... ready to take a picture from the same vantage my father took one of my sister and me.

Together they sit. He scowls. She rings the bell. He scowls some more. She rings the bell louder. He starts to cry. She stops ringing the bell to comfort him.

When the ride stops, I lift him out as Ittybit scrambles out next, translating his sobs.

"He's not a fan of the boats, Mom. Not enough aventure. ... He's a high flyer, I think."

As he smiled and waved his way through a plane ride a few minutes later, she proved her point.

My kids are thrill-seekers unlike their old mom.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Our Mary ...

Mary died.

She was the last of the "Great Aunts" on my mother’s side. My grandmother's baby sister.

She would have been 96 on Thursday, a long life by most standards. Nonetheless, the night my mother said she'd gone, the words tumbled over each other, preventing me from sleep.

Mary. Died.

Loveable Mary.

Stylish Mary.

Mary, who family lore puts kicking her knickers into the Hudson River once they’d lost their elastic and dropped to the pavement of the Green Island Bridge as she and a beau were walking across. Her grace, it is said, made him none the wiser.

Mary, who, despite a gentle demeanor and slender calves, was herself a brick house beneath tendrils of ivy.

Mary who’d lived through wonderful luck and terrible loss with the same cheerful grace -- a woman who was always "as truthful as kindness allowed" -- was gone.

If anyone could, we all thought, Mary would live forever.

I have many memories of Mary; many more than I have of my own grandmother, who died when I was a child: Her voice, her smile, her devil-may-care but the angels-will-call demeanor. A glint in her eye that was proof she enjoyed the world and the people in it.

I also remember the things that surrounded her: photographs of family members above the fireplace; magnets on the fridge holding up paper milestones from loved ones far-flung; the candy kisses on the coffee table, help yourself; the sodas in the pink ice box, sadly replaced when it couldn’t be fixed; the tea kettle on her pink, push-button stove. ...

Pink was her color. I wanted it to be my color, even as I robotically wore black.

Most memorable for me, however, was one night nearly 20 years ago when my mother phoned to ask if I would get Aunt Mary from the hospital and stay with her the night.

She'd had an "episode" and was alright, but shouldn't be left alone.

Such a request no one had ever made of me, nor would they have had they any other choice. No one else was available.

Great Aunt Mary had been having these episodes of stroke-like effects; and they scared her. She didn’t want to be alone.

I was scared, too. What if something happened to her in the night? What would I do?

When I arrived at the hospital she was waiting, dressed in a robe and slippers. The moment I saw her my fear evaporated. Though noticeably tired, she was the same charming person I’d always known her to be, ready with a laugh and a smile and an "I’m so glad you’re here ... I really hope it wasn’t an inconvenience."

It was the first time in my life when I felt not only needed, but trusted, too.

How could such need ever be an inconvenience?

It was just a single moment in time. A minute. A second. Insignificant.

Many years later she attended my wedding; she held my first child in her arms on the golden swivel chair; she met my second child in photographs after she’d moved away to live with her daughters.

After that I saw her only in photographs.

Her smile hadn't changed.

As news of her final days traveled back home, however, I remembered that night so long ago that I slept in her spare bedroom.

"There will never be another like Mary," I thought then. "I am lucky to have known you," I think now.

Goodnight, Great Aunt Mary.

Sleep well.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

It's Mother's Day .... If you need me, I'll be napping

It’s been quite a while since the fledgling (and wholly imaginary) organization “People for Less Unrest in Marriage,” has called upon me to speak on its behalf.

I just wish it didn’t have to be so early in the morning.

What time is it, anyway? Yawwwwn.

No matter. Here I am, on Mother’s Day, representing PLUM when I should be inspecting the insides of my eyelids all because I found myself awake at some ungodly hour, looking at the clock on the bedside table and wondering a thousand insignificant questions: Wasn’t I supposed to be sleeping right now? Isn’t that what that person who takes up a sliver of the bed I hog (and whose laundry I often separate from the dirty diapers before washing) told me would happen? Why is this toddler toddling up to me with a full diaper? And why is his shirt soggy to the shoulders? Is that the fireplace lighter he has in his hands?

Too many questions for one groggy mommy, for sure.

Yes, it was just another Sunday morning. However, since my husband was home from being “on the road” and vanquishing art emergencies (or whatever it is he does when his iPhone buzzes, sending him and his trusty Sprinter Van away any give weekend day to deal with a enormous sculpture’s problematic placement) I had planned to sleep in.

In fact, I do recall that the guy (whose clothes I often fold before jamming on a shelf or stuffing into a drawer) had promised to take the kids to breakfast, or to the park, or some other place outside of the house so such a feat of motherly negligence could be realized.

Those of you who are moms realize that no matter when your kids get up any sleep YOU get after 8 a.m. is gravy. I, however, hold out hope for a noon rising. Not today.

After I snatch the lighter out of the boy’s hands and wrestled him into a fresh diaper and dry t-shirt, I meander out into the living room to find the man wrapped in a blanket like a cocoon watching Sunday morning television.

“Sorry. ... I feel sick," he groans pitifully. "I have the chills.”

"I hope it’s not the Swine Flu,” I grumble, remembering the days I used to bid him good travels by saying I hoped his plane didn’t crash.

“Don’t say such a thing,” he protests in response.

“Well I do ... hope it’s NOT the swine flu. I hope it’s just allergies and not some antibiotic-resistant flesh-eating super bug inhabiting your nasal cavity. ... Hey, did you make coffee?”

See, I’m not bitter. We at the People for Less Unrest in Marriage realize that sometimes the waves of our best intentions are dashed on the rocks of some opportunistic microbe lurking on some fine art gallery door knob, and there’s just nothing anyone can do about it ... not even if they immersed themselves in vats of hand sanitizer.

Yet, if he were “The Mom” the virus’ effects would be beaten into submission by sheer willpower and a single shot of well-aimed Lysol. Someone, after all, has got to get the kids’ lunches made, or get them to school, or wipe up that spill someone else (and I’m not pointing fingers) made when he was making himself a cup of tea.

It’s really not a big deal. Making my own cup of coffee and corralling tiny soldiers bent on seeding the dining room with toy landmines, isn’t the same arduous task when you’re not running late for work or trying to get to dance class.

Sunday is more laid back. It’s a day in which we might even be thinking about the estimable concept of forgiveness.

“Mom? I’m sorry I let The Champ flush dad’s boxer shorts down the toilet. I didn’t want to get them out by myself. It’s kind of gross.”

“That’s OK, honey. He won’t miss them. Your dad mentioned he was getting low on underwear. I needed to buy him some new ones anyway.”

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Your life follows wherever you move

"It smells a little like the Bronx zoo in here," said the friend as he was walking up the stairs, sandwiched between me and the man who would become my husband.

From my position as lead guide I smiled and laughed, but in my thoughts I was so violently crossing him off our Christmas card list I think I may have ripped the bit of gray matter where his words had been indelibly written.

Our home has always been, shall we say, primitive. Even the people who sold it to us said they knew it was time to move on when their kids started referring to it as "The Dump."

It is, after all, a barn made habitable for humans by generations of either semi-skilled or completely untalented craftsmen ... all of whom had pets.

The offending odor detected by our honest friend wafted up from the carpet on the main stairs. Up until his pronouncement we'd been ignoring it by mouth breathing and opening windows to let it dissipate. There was so much to do before it would feel like home, ripping out entryway carpeting wasn't a priority.

Of course, the stench might have come from the rotting sub-floor under the bathroom carpet ... also deemed less of a priority than the kitchen, which was almost as closet-sized as the loo.

"Don't think about what's under there ... Don't think about what's under there ... Don'tthinkaboutwhat'sunderthere" became my mantra every time I stood at the tiny sink.

Slowly and steadily, hopefully, goes a life. And so too, it seems, does the work of making pretty the place you live that life.
There were walls to reconfigure, closets to built, a kitchen to remodel and so many things we'd never even considered that nearly sent us, as a couple, off to separate apartments. "How are we going to renovate the bathroom if there's only one bathroom?" became the Catch-22.

That was so many years ago. … Before we decided to get married. … Before we envisioned kids.

But as flawed as it was -- as crusty and haphazard -- we loved this place. We agonized and fought bitterly over changes. Should we open this up? Should we close that down? What about windows here? Skylights?

And then the kids came. A beloved dog left us and became entombed in the "garden." We finally managed to finish the hardwoods and change out the repugnant bathroom floor. Real walls replaced plywood safety measures. Molding.

I couldn't imagine ever leaving. We were so close to getting the master bathroom of our dreams. (Granted, I am the type of person who dreams I've gone to the Post Office to mail letters, but that's not really important to the story.) A home has memories that can be more valuable than masonry.

And then the opportunity presented itself ... as opportunities always present themselves: in murky, cloying ways that can be just as easily perceived as bad omens ... but we ignore them. Or rather the man that I love ignores. Rewards, he feels, sometimes involve risks ... calculated risks.

So we jump. Thinking we've secured a safety net at least so how bad can it be?

This time will be different. We’ll do all the work that needs doing first. We won’t live amid sheetrock dust and unfinished floors. It will be a real house with three bedrooms and three bathrooms and a choice of three rooms to make the playroom.

Good things can come in threes, too. (Or so I tell myself.)

We plunge ahead.

Yet when we open the door to this new life we find our old one right there waiting for us.

"It smells a little like the Bronx Zoo in here."