Sunday, August 30, 2009

An open letter to a kindergartner

Dear Ittybit,

The summer is scooting by.

I hadn’t been paying attention as most mornings have been encased in a cold crust and me in the desire to stay under the winter covers. The down comforter on my bed has been employed for a fourth season instead of stowed, and there are days I think I could employ another part time.

You never seem to notice the weather. You seem impervious to its grasp. Only when the possibilities of cooling ice cream or warming cocoa are in the offering do you pay it any mind.

But the heat arrived, finally, and with it the breathless realization of humidity and humility: School will start for you and with it comes a whole new life for all of us.

Not that we ever took off mid-week to go berry picking or to climb a hill and peer off its apex, the potential to just get away is monitored now by many someones else … principals and teachers and so forth. The eyes of the state will be fully upon us now that you will have to attend and be counted.

Not that I am particularly worried about Big Brother, although often I think I should be more concerned.

I know you will be brilliant. I know you will rise to any height you might want to reach.

As any mother does, I worry that others won’t understand you or that they’ll hurt your feelings. I worry that you will lose the confidence and the fearlessness you’ve shown to my ever growing amazement.

As most mothers do, I look for comparisons. I measure my untrained observation of you against my untrained observation of others.

I look around at girls your age and, still, you stand out to me. Your wit your perceptions your calm, measured approach to investigating new things all strike me as unique, though I know all mothers must see this in their children. All mothers marvel. It’s what we do.

We also doubt and get defensive. We project our tepid experiences and lie in wait for their return. I am awake late at night wondering about all the things I will not be able to control all the things I should not try to control.

I tell myself that my job is not to fix things for you, but to show you how to fix them for yourself. It is also teaching you how to accept and move on when what is broken seems beyond repair. My mission is to let you attempt lost causes in the hope that you will fix the unfixable: Mission impossible.

I was reminded of all of this as I tried to keep your brother from raiding the cake plates at a birthday party while you girls sat in a circle playing "pass the present."

The object of the game was to pass a gift among you until the music stopped. The girl holding the package would carefully unwrap it, revealing another layer of pretty paper. I listened as the music played and stopped three times. The giggling became quiet and nervous. One girl was saying how she never won anything. Another agreed.

I found myself looking in any direction but where the laughter was keeping time with the tune. I just couldn’t watch.

I didn’t want you to lose. But I didn’t want you to win, either.

That is my dilemma.

What to do?

While in Maine earlier this summer, I had an opportunity to take a surfing lesson for mothers and instead of happily rushing into the water I stood back, angry and indignant. The only reason I felt compelled to do this, I raged, was to prove myself to you, who would be standing in the sand, cheering me on.

It wasn’t proving anything to me.

I have no interest in surfing. I have less interest in balancing on a wave or wearing the seal-like suit that would keep me somewhat warm in the chill of an Atlantic morning. I said I would go through gritted teeth. I’d committed to looking like a fool and envisioned myself chasing a board through the waves.

As I stood by the surfshop counter, looking in any direction but the clerk, I almost didn’t hear her ask for the registration I didn’t have.

Face saved by reservations I didn’t have, but ego bruised with the reservations I did have.

What to do?

I want to calm the waves of this growing storm to remind you that life does seem unfair at times that you will feel the sharp words of others digging into the soft flesh of your innocent chatter. But you will, in turn, undoubtedly plunge your indignation into some poor soul’s inner core, and you will be the guilty party.

But what is life but a series of highs and lows an exploration into the unknown?

And I remind myself that my job isn’t to calm the waves it’s to help you learn to ride them.

Love and reservations,

Sunday, August 23, 2009

'Staycation' has new meaning for mom

We returned from our vacation in Maine one person short.

Despite having numerous conversations with my husband all summer long wherein I pontificated on all the reasons why I thought Ittybit was still too young to be away from us for five days (six nights), when her grandmother suggested all the fun things she had planned for the cousins the following week, my reasons seemed ridiculous.

"Can I stay, mom? Can I?"

How could I say ‘No?’

The decision was made early in our week-long holiday that Ittybit would stay on with her aunt and grandmother. As the week went on the magnitude of her first extended separation eluded me.

But on the last night I could barely sleep.

The what ifs were shouting at me.

What if she gets hurt?

What if she’s afraid?

What if she decides that she wants her mommy … and I’m four hours away?

The answer was always the same: We’ll figure something out.

Isn’t that what it’s all about? Figuring?

The day we left, she was gangly in her grandmother’s arms with her newly sprouting limbs getting ready to take a grab at kindergarten. She waved amid tears as we pulled away.

"I’ll call you in a few minutes," she shouted after us.

We’d decided that she could call us as often as she wanted to hear our voices.

But the phone didn’t ring.

As soon as our car had rounded the corner, and her cousin had called her to help him build some imaginary contraption that was sure to feed the squirrels and relegate the red ants and mosquitoes to their rightful place in the belly of some beneficent bird, she’d forgotten her momentary homesickness.

It wasn’t until her usual bedtime, which coincided with our unlocking of the side door and unceremonious dumping of suitcases and gear onto the laundry room floor, that the phone call, complete with uncontrollable sobbing, came.

"I wanna come home, I wanna come home, I wanna come HOME. Can you come and get me now? How about tomorrow morning? Can you come and get me tomorrow morning? I miss you. I miss daddy. I miss my brother. I miss the dog."

Aw, I thought, she misses the dog! … the senile, old, incontinent dog. She must be overtired.

I was right. Her grandmother called back a short while later to report that it took only one book to transport the weepy child to the Land of Nod.

There was only a small part of my inner voice warning me that leaving her might result in an inopportune eight-hour round trip rescue operation, but mostly it reassured me: she’s my daughter.

I was only a little older than her when I stayed for weeks at a time with friends at their summer cabin. My father always felt bad when I cried … as he was picking me up to take me home.

Now that I am a parent, I know how he felt.

I want her to be confident without me, even though I want her to need me. I want her to have fun but not more than she’d have if I were there. I want her to miss me but not enough to warrant a rescue mission.

It’s a delicate balance, easily toppled by a sudden expulsion of held breath.

Reach Siobhan Connally at

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The first, official test of primary school is for parents

I knew it was coming: The letter that would send me off the deep end.

When it arrived, I could tell by its thickness that the legal-sized envelope contained a brewing storm of discontent.

Even my husband, who normally opens only those things addressed to him that he believes contain payment for services rendered, couldn’t wait until Ittybit got home to tear open the missive and see which Kindergarten teacher she wrangled.

He called me immediately. "Well … Ittybit’s teacher is …" he said over the phone at mid-day. He sounded disappointed after saying the name. "Do you remember her?"

He was hoping she’d get a teacher we knew from the community or one recommended by a friend. But neither of us wanted to be "THAT PARENT," the one with the squeaky wheels, always needing grease.

"I’m sure it will be fine," I said, believing our first born could charm a snake if she needed to. Not that I’d want to make that comparison with respect to a teacher of five-year-olds. Or would I?

When I got home and thumbed through the brightly colored pages filled with welcoming words and informative warnings, it was the light pink sheet with its tiny print that made the hair rise on the back of my neck.

I’d expected that, too.

I have enough friends with school-aged children to know budget cuts have meant parents shell out for all sorts of items that, when they were in school, used to be procured through purchasing departments things such as art paper and tissues, art supplies and in some cases cleaning products and disinfectants.

For years, frazzled families have told me all sorts of stories – using teachers’ names in vain – detailing how they’d nearly driven themselves to the edge of insanity trying to procure all the name-brand supplies, which inflate the over-all price of the Back-to-School shopping spree by 20 to 30 percent, listed on their supply sheets.

I also know that parents who stray from list find the offending brands sent back home with a note of derision.

When the following items:

n Kleenex (no lotion or perfumes)

n Crayola Twistable Crayons

n Crayola Washable Markers

n ZipLoc Gallon-sized bags

n Expo brand dry erase markers

n Elmer’s glue sticks

n Fiskars scissors (blunt)

n and Dixie Cups

were specified on our supply list, I can’t say I was surprised. But I was still disappointed.

"Tell me again," I asked my friend, who is now in her last years of public school procurement, "why do teachers demand Fiskar scissors and Ziploc bags? Why do they want Mead binders and Kleenex brand tissues? Why do they specify Elmer’s glue sticks? I mean, I must have two boxes of generic glue sticks that are probably made by Elmer’s but sold to companies who sell them with a different label anyway …"

She just looked at me with a pained expression and told me the same thing my husband said …

"Oh, you are going to have such a hard time with school, aren’t you?"

I know, I know, I know … I’ve been saying it all along. Ittybit will be brilliant and I will be bucking the norms.

I’m going to be that mother who sends generic tissues and glue and baggies … the one who sends her kid to school with generic glue and no-name dry erase markers, poised for battle.

Now, I understand the arguments that teachers have preferences, that students having the same tools lessens jealousy and other boneheaded (excuse me) reasons for brand uniformity but in public school, where uniforms have been fought tooth and nail, it just seems disingenuous.

Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that teachers are testing parents trying to learn early on which ones will be compliant and which ones are destined to roil the waters.

"Wait until she gets to high school," my friend laughs. "You are going to need a lifejacket."

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Moving at a snail's pace

I found it difficult to look at the "big picture" as we moved our home to a new house.

Whenever you endeavor to do something that has so many parts I think the tendency for the non-planners among us is to just shut down.

For months people with the best of intension and previous experience told me to start packing "now." I knew they were right, but whenever I looked around at the massive amount of stuff we’d accumulated in a decade, I saw all the things that more or less owned me.

Instead of packing in boxes I packed in my mind.

And I purged.

Every now and again I filled my car with things to donate to Goodwill. I dropped them off.

For a little while I felt lighter even though the donation hadn’t made a dent.
But when it finally came time to hunker down and get to the business of moving things, it was just a blind grab and toss.

Project Mayhem.

For a start, we didn’t procure enough boxes. Packing box after box unpacking, repacking. We found ourselves reusing worn cartons marked "Kitchen" for "Bedroom" or "Bath." It didn’t really matter, seeing as how all of it was just being dumped into the closest room to the entrance.

Our stuff has stuff, or so my parents like to tell us.

But relocation isn’t rocket science it’s merely the systematic organizing and schlepping and hauling and re-organizing until one finds a constant (or the set of car keys they lost two Christmases ago).

Perhaps that’s why I found myself wide awake at 4 a.m. trying to bring organization to the kitchen before the rest of the house arose, bringing chaos to the kitchen instead.

I made a pot of coffee and stared up at the cabinets. It strikes me as odd that I – the person who doesn’t really do the cooking – feel compelled to organize the space. As I unwrap the first of the glasses I realize that while the cooking part is creative, the cleaning part is compulsive. If I am to uphold my end of our "You Cook, I’ll Clean" arrangement, I should be able to organize them for easy replacement.

I get to work placing the dishes and the bowls, the cups and the saucers. Mixing bowls will go up there a little to the right. Wine glasses next … and then serving bowls and platters. Coffee is growing cold. I splash in a little more to warm it up. There’s the collection of water bottles and Thermoses to place next, not to mention the odd lot of things we’re keeping but never use. A corner of the cabinet, in view but out of reach seems good for those.

I begin to notice things. The kitchen appears smaller, but it’s holding things we spread over three rooms in our old house. Everything is finding its place something I’ve been longing to say. I know it won’t last. Space seems to have a way of overfilling, but in the early morning light of a brand new day in a new house, sitting back with a cup of coffee and a sense of completion certainly has its perks.

Moving is good. It helps a person sweep away the cobwebs of clutter … It also doesn’t hurt when you hear a familiar jingle of keys as you finally move the tiny fake Christmas tree from the spot it’s been inhabiting year-round.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

One can only be a girl on her way for so long

Whilst driving home from work recently I was forced to realize a truth that is only surprising to me: I am middle-aged.

Oh, this little pest had been flying around for a while. I swatted at it from time to time with the gestating and bearing of children at an age when most of my friends were getting ready to put their own kids in middle school and some *shudder* high school or college.

I thought of myself as an early starter but late bloomer "A Girl On Her Way," to quote the title of a Maia Sharp song and the reason for this inarguable new wisdom.

An interview with the rich-voiced Sharp was airing on National Public Radio as I steered my Civic home … (which are both key signs, I’ve learned, that a woman has reached a certain age: I came to this understanding a few years ago while attending a gathering known far and wide as a "Stitch and Bitch."

The term alone should have cued me in to this new lot in life but it was the husband of the host, after he’d found himself shuffling cars in the driveway, who enlightened me.

When he returned from his chore, he jovially announced that he’d been able to hear an NPR story in its entirety behind the wheels of seven different Hondas).

But I digress.

Sharp was telling me (and thousands of other listeners also somewhere along their evening commutes) that a girl on her way has only has so long before she become a woman who never arrived.

And there I sat, slack jawed, alone in a Honda, listening to NPR – a woman who never arrived.

The years really did go by that quickly.

Promise doesn’t fade so much as it lingers around, seemingly inexhaustible, before it just suddenly disappears.

You tread water waiting for your first "real" job. You get your first promotion. Then a second. Maybe you are named to the post of leadership before you turn 30 … like I was.

And then, perhaps, you get laid off. Financial cuts. Downsizing. Synergy. You adopt whatever catch phrase makes it seems less personal.

Maybe they’ll tell you how horrible you left things, even if you inherited the mess, as a parting gift. Don’t want you getting any ideas about your worth.

For a while you might spend some time thinking you are unemployable. But sooner than later you find yourself employed again. This time you are grateful. Fearful, too. Unwilling to take chances.

You stagnate.

You try new things eventually because you can’t help yourself.

And for a time you are on your way again.

People call you. They ask for things. Things look promising again.

But nothing really catches on. The phone stops ringing the inbox stops flagging for your attention.

Then children come and your interest is renewed. Your voice gains a new resonance. A new meaning transcribes your words and your thoughts. You have another chance.

For a time there are people asking for things.

You are encouraged. But again, same as before, nothing you spark catches fire.

And then one day a song comes on the radio. And the woman singing it, who finally feels she’s arriving at the place she intended, is younger than you.

And you look into the corner of the rearview mirror that you have angled toward your face. Finally you see the truth. Damn vanity.

And you swat dead that fly that was buzzing around you. It hurts. But turns out, it was not as painful as you thought it would be.

You tell yourself: If you had only sought to arrive you might have missed out on all the sights along the way. Maybe one day you will believe it.