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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Just Go Ahead and Buy the Reefer

When we moved to a new and improved house across town eleven-and-a-half years ago, I pulled off the great refrigerator caper. I bequeathed the old and cruddy reefer to the new owner of the old and cruddy house. I then relinquished the side-by-side refrigerator that came with the new house out to the garage and purchased a new, white freezer-on-the-top (which was still somewhat fashionably acceptable) to reside in my new red-countered kitchen.

I didn’t want an old and cruddy refrigerator in my new house. Nor did I want a side-by-side refrigerator in my new house. I pictured multiple pans of lasagna that wouldn’t fit, pre-prepped party hors d’oeuvres that would teeter askewly and deep corn pots filled with whatever I might fill them with that would never, ever fit in the narrow shelves of a side-by-side. I rationalized that having an outdoor refrigerator would be a huge boon for something somewhere down the road.

However, the real reason behind the refrigerator swap was that more than anything, I wanted an ice maker. But, feeling somewhat unworthy of such an extravagance, I bought the cheapest model I could find.

And, as they say. You get what you pay for.

It didn’t take long for my favorite feature to die, leaving me to fill eight, yes eight, ice cube trays every single day. And, while I am admittedly prone to embellishment, those who know me can vouch for the authenticity of that icy statement.

My anger and guilt kept me from putting another red cent into my poor purchase and soon found myself taking on do-it-yourself projects such as repairing the cracked vegetable drawer with red duct tape and jimmying the door-shelves so that ketchup and sweet gherkin bottles would no longer slip through the bent metal guardrails and crash to the floor. I regularly rotated produce from the back of the refrigerator to keep it from freezing which left us with exactly half the cooling space we paid for. Finally, last year, something somewhere inside broke and the freezer began filling with water. That promptly turned into ice. That had to be hacked away with a sharp object. That went flying in shards to the floor, causing puddles and problems I was no longer willing to live with.

And, so for months, I researched refrigerators. I renewed my online subscription to Consumer Reports. I went from Home Depot to Lowe’s to PC Richard and back again. I measured and remeasured. I debated top freezer, bottom freezer, French door, four-door and the good, old side-by-side models.

But instead of making a purchase, I just kept picking away at the ice in the freezer. Emptying the bowl in the back of the refrigerator where, when I didn’t hack in a timely fashion, water drip, drip, dripped until it overflowed into the cold-cuts and on downward into the fruit drawer. Month after month.

Then one day I snapped. I drove to Lowe’s, pointed at a big, stainless steel, built-in icemakered, bottom door freezer and said, “I’ll take it.”

And from the moment I plopped the credit card on the counter, I started backpedaling in my brain.

I fretted about it not fitting in the space I had measured eighteen times. I fussed about the price. I fumed about having to be held captive, not knowing if I would be at the beginning, middle or end of the four-hour delivery window. But most of all, I wasn't sure I could live without my memorabilia that adorned the refrigerator door.

I sighed as I took down a slew of Santostefano pictures; Katelyn and Heather’s first communion/last time in church photo, Christmas cards with dead dogs, Heather’s high school graduation picture. And Brian’s. But where was Kate’s? I smiled seeing the Landers kids, happy at the beach, year after year. I looked at Lana and grinned, remembering the fun I had with her mama at her age. I chuckled at Matt Woolley, flanked by his ever-smiling twin sisters, Jan and Claire. I marveled at how young the Preschel boys looked and how proud the Sextons were in that 2014 on-to-college and out-of-college card. I put away Brandon Wimbush’s high school graduation picture knowing there will be a whole lot more of him to come as he quarterbacks his way into the NFL.

I put aside Save-the-Dates for Alex and Nate, Sonia and Phil and Joe and Julie Claire, reliving those ultra fun weddings. I took down the invitation to my mother’s 90th birthday party, the picture of three-year-old Olivia pumping her little legs on a swing and a 2015 Mets’ schedule. I welled up looking at two of Ginny Brown’s business cards I had pilfered from her photo show and shook my head as I removed the college acceptance letter to a school no one attended.

I grinned at my many refrigerator magnets:
  • Good writing is true writing.
  • Setting a good example for children takes all the fun out of life.
  • Friendship is when people know all about you but like you anyway.
  • She liked to stir things up.
  • Stop me before I volunteer again.
  • If you don’t grow up by middle age, you don’t have to.
  • I wish I were an only child.
  • God bless this empty nest.

I took down the funeral cards. Jason Mejia, Saresh Varky, Chuckles Malone, Taki, Phil Apreda, Sal Formisano and the miniature wedding photo of the Kieliszek’s.  I re-read the newspaper articles about Chris Jones' basketball season at Pitt, Milan Johnson making buckets at Teaneck High and Anthony Apreda bearing his Tommy John scar at Bergen Catholic, back in the days when he stayed at a school for more than one year.

I removed Koree’s postcard, an abstract drawing of a basketball court, asking Leo to consider transferring to his Connecticut prep school. The picture of Ruby Mather jumping for joy in all her Sugar Plum glory. The torn paper that read Tanya loves Mrs. Betsy in one corner and Taylor loves her more in the other. And the note the daughter wrote before returning to college in 2011: Family -- In times of trouble, ask yourselves, What Would Tim Tebow Do?

I set aside the pictures of Amadou, Jordan, Saul and Jaelin decked out in goofy garb. Jamal Williams’ baby picture. The polaroid of the lovely Taryn McDonald. Mike Apreda and Kamal Kendricks’ business cards. Alec DeMattheis’ baseball card and Oksana’s birthday card. I noted how young Coach Fernando and Coach Tom looked holding onto that Teaneck Southern backstop. How handsome Jordan Ellerbee and Danny Pinto looked in their graduation pictures. I wondered where my picture of the female Apreda was and remembered how happy I was when Tanya Sanchez finally brought me hers and placed it front and center.

I love my new stainless steel refrigerator. I no longer worry about what will freeze, what will wilt and how many jars will tumble out. And I feel genuine joy every morning when I’m greeted by an over-abundance of freshly-made ice cubes.

I chastise myself for not biting the bullet and buying the new reefer years ago. But I also realize that sometimes you just can't enjoy a brighter future until you're willing to part with the past. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

My Proudest Mothering Moment

Like every other mother out there, I’ve had many a moment of absolute, unadulterated pride. Of course, I’ve had equal moments of horror, panic, embarrassment and yes, shame. But, sometimes it’s better to keep those moments to ourselves.

I’ve been proud as a peacock as my three children graduated from pre-school, then elementary school, then middle school, then high school and then two-thirds of them from college. I’ve delighted in the daughter earning her Master’s degree while working a full-time job.  

I’ve beamed as my sons hit home runs, struck out batters, threw touchdown passes and hit buzzer beaters. I’ve had my heart swell when the daughter landed her back handspring and brought home hard-earned cheerleading trophies.

I’ve smiled at report cards and through teacher conferences. I’ve been delighted by awards and college acceptances and choices of careers. I’ve relished their collective senses of independence, adventure and humor.

And I’ve been oh so happy when they’ve written unsolicited thank you notes.

But, my proudest mothering moment didn’t come until just last week, in my twenty-fifth year of parenting.

Not surprisingly, considering my self-centered nature, my proudest had nothing to do with a kid’s accomplishment or kind action or contribution to society. Rather, it was a moment that measured how far I, as a mother, had finally come.

I sent my kid to college without me.

Full disclosure. That kid who went to college without me is a senior. That kid who went to college without me is the last in line of three, all of whom have come and gone on their own many times.

The daughter moved to New Orleans four years ago without the help of her mother, who happened to be on a cruise that week. And that same mother didn’t see the middle son’s final resting place in Los Angeles until graduation weekend. But those were logistic rather than voluntary rights of refusal.

I’ve certainly done my share of making beds, wiping window sills, stocking refrigerators and scrubbing toilets. Not to mention purchasing furniture, appliances, toilet paper and cleaning products that for some reason never have to be replenished.

And I had every intention of doing it for this one.

“I think it’s better if you don’t go to Leo’s new place,” the middle son warned after helping his younger brother do the heavy lifting from a lovely complex a mile from campus to a first-floor apartment in a battered house right in the heart of Collegeville, USA.

“That bad?” I asked.

The middle son didn’t answer.

And, so I picture my poor, dear son meeting mice on the way to the urine-stenched bathroom in the middle of the night, stubbing his toe on broken floorboards along the way. I see him swatting roaches off the kitchen counter as he warms his hands over the oven burner on winter nights as the wind whips through the broken panes of uncurtained windows. I see him huddled in a corner of the living room, laptop on his lap, plugged into an over extended extension cord trying desperately to finish a fifteen-page philosophy paper while his roommates catch up on Game of Thrones.

I see piles and piles of clothes on the floor that never make it into a bureau, because not only is there no closet, there’s no room in the bedroom for anything but two beds. One for him. And one for a roommate. 

I visualize the couch they picked up for $40. And see the stuffing oozing out of its burn holes. I hear the squeaky springs. And I smell the college cocktail – that sweet scent of stale beer and empty Chinese food containers.

I imagined myself tackling that apartment, tucking in my son’s sheets and fluffing his pillows. Folding his bath towels and washing out his Brita pitcher. I envisioned multiple trips to Target for under-the-bed storage bins and over-the-door hooks. Washing kitchen towels and scraping last year’s eggs from cast iron pans. Lysoling the refrigerator and mopping unidentified sticky substances off the floor.

And then, I talked myself off the ledge by reminding myself of my summer sublet with my friend Ann. The sublet that came with a cat. And a cat food bowl filled with maggots. I thought about the Shippensburg flophouse where Betsy and Betsy and Sue and Sue lived. We decorated the walls with Rolling Stone magazine covers and lived through the winter with no heat in the upstairs bedrooms. I remembered the two-story apartment in West Virginia where I lived with Fran, Linda, Kevin and a bunch of canines. It was furnished with furniture older than all of us put together, had no shower, but was stumbling distance from the bar.

I laughed at myself, knowing that Leo’s roommates’ mothers would never let their kids live, let alone pay for, an uninhabitable hovel. And that reality rarely resembles what we are seeing in our mind's eye.

So I did something that is oh so hard for me to do.

I let it go.

Because, in a moment of clarity, I realized that no matter what I do or don’t do on move-in day, I can’t control what happens on day two, or day twenty-two.

And so, I hugged my six-foot baby boy goodbye in the driveway and sent him on his way to fend for himself. 

Just like a good mother should.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Fine Art of Letting Go

“Mom,” the middle child said patiently. “You either throw it away now, or I throw it away in 40 years.”

The first thing that came to mind was, Oh, what a sweet optimist I have raised. The next thought was Oh, what a heartless soul I have raised.

Max is the child I call on to help me with the household drudgery that I can’t seem to bring myself to do. He does the grocery shopping. He cuts the lawn. He organizes kitchen cabinets. He walks the dog. And he cleans out the basement.

We have lived in our “new” house for almost 12 years now, having moved from a cute little Cape Cod on the other side of town.

There was a lot of fun crammed into that little house on Broad Street. We had a Fisher Price tool bench. A make-believe kitchen. A plethora of plastic food. An army of soldiers. A lot, a lot of Legos. Toy cars and more toy cars. And of course, the requisite Little Tikes orange and yellow cozy coupe. Every toy fire truck ever made.  A bevy of books.  Costumes and coloring books. Magic markers and building blocks. Stacking rings and wooden trains. 53 million stuffed animals. Musical instruments and soccer balls, wiffle balls and beach balls. A yellow metal construction truck and matching crane. A personalized rocking horse and Barbie dolls. Lots and lots of Barbie dolls. Transformers and Power Rangers. A Buzz Lightyear and a Tamagotchi. A multitude of VHS movies and cassette tapes filled with Raffi singing silly kid songs. Games. Board games and card games. Electronic games and educational games. And lots of random playing pieces, action figures, tiddly winks and Lincoln Logs in plastic shoe boxes all over the house. All over the house.

Yes, there was a lot of fun crammed into that little house on Broad Street. But that fun came at a cost. It was a house filled with clutter and chaos. And never a second of calm. We lived directly across the quiet street from a playground, making our house a highly desirable toddler destination. But, the mothers of those toddlers, they knew never, ever to come to my house unannounced. Once, just once, my playgroup friends Anne and Kerri did just that. And they still talk about the look of horror on my face as I stood with them on the doorstop floundering over excuses for why they couldn’t enter the house.  

When, gambling on winning the lottery between then and now, we depleted the college fund and moved to a bigger house across town, I crossed the first big something off my bucket list.

I got a dumpster.

My friend Claire, who had also long coveted a dumpster, came and helped me sort out treasures from trash. Having a strong aversion to inanimate objects, she was ruthless.  

“You can’t throw that out!” I screeched, grabbing the little straw box with the pink and blue flowers out of the to-go pile. “I got that on my high school trip to Nassau!”

She rolled her eyes and held up a Phillies’ ticket from 1980.

“That was the year they won the World Series!” I cried.


“I can name every single player on that team!” I protested.

“Take a picture of it.”

I reluctantly let the ticket flicker into the pile with the legless kitchen chair and two-wheeled tricycle.

I was bullied into disposing of 49 pieces of Tupperware, 36 of which had no lids. I was allowed to keep no more than five tote bags, of which I had 28. I could keep wedding presents as long as I had used them in the last ten years and only if I could identify who they were from. Little did Claire know that when I kept running upstairs, I was checking my wedding present list that was tucked on a shelf next to my computer.  

When all was said and done, I still moved way more than I should have to our new house. But the house was bigger, had a huge garage and eaves in the attic where I could store boxes and boxes of all-important items that, for the record, remain in the same boxes, in the same attic, 12 years later.

As I pulled out of the Broad Street driveway for the final time, minivan loaded down with breakables and can't-bear-to-part-with objects pulled out of the dumpster when Claire wasn’t looking, I vowed, in a Scarlett O’Hara moment of earnestness, that I would never, ever live in that kind of chaos again.

And I haven’t. I hired a cleaning professional who kept the new house clean until I couldn’t stand the night-before, pre-cleaning pressure and sent her packing. I now have cobwebs and dog hair decorating corners of my living room, but if someone stops by unannounced, they are always allowed inside.

But the basement. The big basement with the La-Z-Boy recliners and the big TV and the 50s-style bar across one end, slowly but surely became a dumping ground. It became loaded down with baseball bats, coolers, musty luggage, broken printers, CDs, unused computers, sports trophies, half-filled water bottles, fully-empty liquor bottles, ragged sheets, ragged rags, rolled up rugs, unrolled wrapping paper, boxes and boxes of china and silver and drinking glasses, dozens of platters and serving bowls, a sofa bed that I refuse to pay to dispose of, and of course, the three-legged chairs. Plural.

I don’t hang out in the basement because it gives me agita. And I don’t clean the basement because it’s too overwhelming. So, when Max took on the project last week, I felt a mix of fear and freedom.

“Mom,” he said. “This has got to go!”

“Absolutely not!” I cried as I pulled the tarnished-beyond-recognition napkin ring out of the to-go pile. “That was my napkin ring when I was growing up.”

Max rolled his eyes.

“You have never in my lifetime used a napkin ring.”

“I’m going to start,” I said, snatching it from him.

“Vase,” he said. “You have thirty of them. Pick five to keep.”

My eyes bulged.

“OK. Ten. No more than that.”

And in the end, because I’m the mother, I won. Boxes and boxes of never-seen-the-light-of-day china and silver and no! You can’t get rid of that – that was Aunt Mary’s trinkets made their way up to the attic.

Before the garbage went out, I rooted through the bag, letting the cleatless football cleats and the unstrung youth baseball gloves go. But, I pulled out the dog bowl that had held Chester’s (the dog that’s been dead for seven years) last meal. And everything else went up to the attic.

“Mom,” Max said. “I’m just going to throw it all out in 40 years when you die.”

And, I know he will.

I just have to hope that as I bow out of this world, forty years hence, and my kids use their meager inheritance to get a dumpster, that they forgive me for being a memory mongrel and trying to immortalize mortality. 

And that, as they toss all those boxes and boxes of inanimate objects, that I'll be looking down (or up, as the case may be) with a smile, knowing that I've finally learned the lesson of life. That I'll have, at long last, come to terms with what I've known all along.

It's not about the things that are stashed in attics or in boxes in basements. It's the memories that are stored in hearts. That's what's going to keep you alive. 

Forever and ever. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

How to Say Goodbye to Your College Kids

It was hardly a big surprise. Rather, a playing out of the natural progression of life. A rite of passage. A milestone we had known was coming for 18 years. Yet, nothing I had read in magazines, scrolled through on Facebook or heard from been-there-done-that parents could have prepared me for the way I felt when I bid the first of my three children farewell, seven short years ago.

My spouse and I drove the daughter 500 miles south to the college of her dreams in the old minivan, which wasn’t quite as old then, overloaded with plastic containers filled with brand-spanking new everything. We followed all the rules of freshman move-in day, parking in the 30-minute only circular driveway, waiting patiently for the laboriously slow elevators to ding open in the lobby, and eyeing parents and their kids smiling through gritted teeth as they tried to make that last time together pleasantly memorable.

The daughter’s room, which she shared with a blond-haired, blue-eyed North Carolinian named Crystal, was just this side of disgusting. It was not the clean, modern dorm we toured at orientation, nor did it resemble the online version of itself. The building was high-rise motel style with balconies serving as walkways rather than interior halls where I had envisioned the daughter stopping to visit newfound friends as she made her evening walk to the common commode.

We lingered. We helped the daughter unpack. We painstakingly hung her belongings on pink slimline hangers behind a curtain that covered a soon-to-become messy closet. We smoothed the sheets and fluffed the pillows. We gushed over how nice the room looked and how many friendly people we had met in our trips up and down on the elevator.

And then, it was time to go.

The daughter walked us to our car. I hugged her. She hugged me back. I got in the old minivan and watched her in the rearview mirror until she turned and walked back into the dorm. All alone. 

And then I let it all out.

“Whoo hoo!” I screamed and fist-punched the air.

When my middle child transferred to a school 3,000 miles away his sophomore year, I flew with him to Los Angeles. We bought a new round of new possessions because it was cheaper, or at the very least, easier, than UPS-ing the year-old bedding, TV, fan, and other dorm room basics. Besides, he reasoned. You can use it for Leo next year.

I set him up in his very nice apartment of a dorm which housed transfer and international students. His roommate was Jiang, call me Joe, from Beijing. He didn’t speak much English, but he seemed like a real nice guy.

I spent three days in California with Max which was probably a day-and-a-half too long. I projected everything that was swirling around in my muddled mind right into his, despite keeping my mouth shut. For the most part. Would he ever find a normal friend amongst these eggheads and future Steven Spielbergs? Would he find his niche? Would he pass his calculus class? Would he join an intramurals team? Would he find a family to feed him on Thanksgiving? (Because that was the rule, you go that far, we’re not flying you back and forth. And we didn’t, that first year. But, of course, ever after, we did.)

And then, it was time to go.

He walked me to the car. I hugged him. He hugged me back. I got in the Hyundai rental car and watched him through the rear view mirror until he left the parking garage.  All alone.   

And then I let it all out.

I wept like a baby. Heaving, from-the-heart, gut-wrenching, years-in-the-making sobs.

When my youngest chose a college 45 minutes away, I worried that he wasn’t going far enough. That he would never have a friend who wasn’t born and raised in New Jersey. That he would rely on his Teaneck friends too much. And that if he had gone to a Division III school, playing on the baseball team wouldn’t be as all-consuming.

My spouse and I helped him set up his room with the bedding Max had left behind the year before. We plugged the goose neck lamp into a dead plug and immediately called maintenance, knowing he’d never succeed if he didn’t sit at that desk with that very lamp shining knowledge into his brain. We made small talk with the roommate’s parents. We maintained our smiles.

And then, it was time to go.

He didn’t walk us to the car. I hugged him. He hugged me back. And then we walked ourselves down the long hallway to the elevator. All alone. 

And then I kept it all in. 

The empty, what-do-I-do-now, hole in my soul.

Each and every one of my three kids truly believes they are the favorite. And, they all have been for fleeting moments in their lives. Though they were each my favorite as I said goodbye to them at their respective college campuses, they provoked very different and unexpected feelings when they left.

Since sending the daughter off into the cold, cruel world seven Augusts ago, a lot has transpired. The two college graduates both had happy experiences, made good friends and now have respectable jobs in which they are required to get up, get dressed and work hard every single day. The youngest is about to start his senior year and assures us that he, too, will have earned his stripes come May.

I’ve said those August goodbyes over ten times now and every year it’s a little bit different. Sometimes I simply can’t wait to get their junk out of the house. To get the toilet seat back down. To have no back door banging at 2 am. To have a refrigerator full of food. And sometimes I get sad, knowing how much I’ll miss the company. The conversation. The constant stream of people in and out of the house, banging aforementioned back door.

And no matter how hard I try to harden my shell and put on that stiff upper lip, when I say goodbye to my kids, a piece of me goes with them. I look at them and wonder where the time went. How they became the young adults that they are. And how I ever survived all those years of motherhood. I hold my tongue so I don’t insinuate my strong opinions into their headstrong heads. I hold my breath hoping they’ll make the most out of their lives. But most of all, I hold my heart, knowing that through it all, there’s one thing I can count on.

They’ll be back. 

Maybe not when I want them. Maybe not when I expect them. Maybe not when I need them. But they'll be back.

They’ll always, always be back.