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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Hooray! The Kids are Home!

“But, it’s MY house!” I said, in a slightly less exasperated tone than I felt.

“That’s what my mother says too!” Heather said, in a slightly more amazed tone than I expected.

This was in response to the “What we don’t get is why WE have to be the ones to change, rather than the other way around” statement that one of the two 25 year-olds voiced while the other one simply thought it.

The daughter’s best friend from high school, who I have known and loved for most of her life, was visiting and I dared to join them at the kitchen table. As they shared a bottle of wine they began commiserating, swapping horror stories about living at home with their completely inflexible, unsympathetic, erratic, mean and volatile mothers. The fathers are fine. It’s just the mothers.

The daughter is home for six weeks. The middle child just moved back home. And the youngest is home from college for the summer. I had been enjoying a clean house, a stocked refrigerator and an uninterrupted work environment for a good stretch of time. I had been living in what you could call an almost empty nest. I say almost, because there always seems to be one coming while another is going. But, I rarely am blessed with having all three home at once for an extended period of time.

As the wine glasses emptied and filled, the lips loosened even more and I found myself defending my actions as well as those of Heather's mother.

“But why should I have to deal with with someone else's long strands of wavy hair twirled around the bristles of MY hairbrush?” I asked, explaining its sudden disappearance from the communal bathroom.

“Oh, please,” the daughter responded, not being able to fathom how sharing a hairbrush could possibly bother me.

My hair is an inch long. Maybe two. My hair hasn't wadded up in a hairbrush, wrapped around a bar of soap or clumped in a shower drain for over 20 years.

“My mom yells at me for stupid stuff like that all the time,” Heather said.

“I never yell,” I said.

The daughter burst out laughing. Heather just smiled. 

“I don’t!” I insisted.

“I remember when we were young, you’d scream at us and I’d get so scared,” Heather confessed.

“Are you kidding?” I asked, completely flabbergasted.

I’ll never deny flipping out at my kids when they were young, but I honestly and truly thought I had successfully hidden that part of my personality from their friends.

Long after Heather was gone and the daughter had retreated with a book to her bedroom where she was running the air conditioning with the window open or eating crackers in bed or drinking too many water bottles or any one of a hundred other offenses for which I chastise her, I found myself in a moment of solitude in front of the living room television.

One boy was in the basement watching Fargo, another was in his room burning a scented candle (another broken house rule), and the spouse had long since retired. The dog was lying peacefully by my feet, waiting in hopes that I would forget I didn't like him and break down and pat his head.

The front door opened and in walked Harrison. Like Heather, I’ve known and loved Harrison for most of his life. It’s always a pleasure to see him in my house, but I was admittedly a bit out of practice. I had almost forgotten the screen door slamming, footsteps pounding, refrigerator opening, refrigerator shutting, dog jumping, late night visits of undocumented and undoorbelled friends.

“What’s your house like these days?” I asked Harrison, knowing that his mother was in the same boat as I, with three out of four of her adult sons home. But she got the added bonus of one of her son's big, unruly dogs to complement the menagerie they already had.

“It’s a zoo,” he admitted.

I felt a little better.

I love my kids, no matter what they think. I love their senses of humor, their passion for what they believe, their philosophical views on the world. And contrary to popular belief, I even love having them home.

It's just that I like things a certain way. I like clean rooms (just close the door, Mom), my toiletries intact (just buy new ones, Mom), the chicken saved for dinner (what's the big deal if I eat it at lunch instead?), the water bottles limited (isn't it better than drinking soda?), the late night escapades restrained (just don't worry, Mom), the laundry basket returned (just use another one), a check on the amount of paper towels used per person per day (but there are 8 rolls in the basement), an occasional "I'm alive" text (what do you think is going to happen?) the bathroom free when I want to take a shower (use the other one), the toothpaste squeezed from the bottom rather than the middle (you've got to be kidding).

"Guess what, Mom!" the middle child said shortly after Harrison left and Kris had come and gone in an inexplicable and better-not-to-know five minute encounter.  "Taryn's coming to stay with us. For eight days!"

"Great!" I answered, meaning it. After all, what's one more?

But, it got me to thinking. No wonder the daughter and Heather were so astonished by my "But, it's MY house!" comment.

They've all known all along what I've just come to realize.

It's NOT my house.

Never has been. Never will be. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Bride, A Buoy, A Backyard and a Bar

“Will all of you witnessing these vows do everything in your power to support Alexandra and Nate in their marriage?” the handsomely personable pastor asked at their wedding last Friday night.

In unison we all responded, “We will!”

Which got me to wondering, how in the world, living worlds apart, am I going to do that? I lost what little power I may have had over the bride when our Friday morning play group dispersed and I could no longer withhold bagels, apple juice or Barbie dolls. But what was I going to do, say no?

Meanwhile, the handsomely personable pastor, who actually knew the beautiful bride, relayed to us the story of Alex’s first triathlon. Having a bit of anxiety about being out in the open seas, Alex wasn’t particularly happy about the swimming part of the event. But, stroke-by-stroke she persevered, keeping her mind on the finish line which was marked by a green buoy. And later, having survived the challenge, she told the handsomely personable pastor how Nate is her green buoy in life. He is her safe place; the one who is always beside her when she’s feeling scared or anxious or unsure. And also the one who is there to have and to hold when she finishes the race.  

This, of course, elicited a collective pull at the heart strings.

It was a one-of-a-kind wedding held at Race & Religious, a venue named for the cross streets on which it has stood for almost 200 years. It was a one-of-a kind evening, with clear skies and low humidity, an anomaly in New Orleans.  And they were a one-of-a-kind couple; he from north of Albany, she from west of Manhattan, who met at Tulane, fell in love, got a dog, moved to Houston and boomeranged back to tie the knot in the place where it all began.

The very nature of New Orleans propagates a Big Easy kind of fun. The live music. The dive bars. The killer cuisine. The southern drawls. The overt overindulgence. So, even if my daughter didn’t live there, I wouldn’t have hesitated to travel the 1,300 miles for Alex’s wedding. Besides, I happen to like the bride; her parents, Dianne and Tom; her sister, Ianthe; and the party they throw every year at Christmas.
The night before the wedding, the mother-of-the-bride’s sister and brother-in-law, who conveniently live in New Orleans, hosted a crawfish boil in their backyard. Something I would never in a million years endeavor to do. Henry and Cecilia have a hip and artsy style about them that perfectly complements their southernly hospitable personalities, setting the tone for a fun-filled, fish-peeling, cross-talking kind of a time. We drank bourbon slushies with the bridesmaids, grinned as the groomsmen recovered from their night-befores, and befriended friends from myriad walks of life. There were the lake house friends; Lisa and John (who kindly didn’t mock my extra-cup-of-ice-on-the-side issues) and their wise and wonderful offspring, the beauteous Becca who I may or may not have previously chatted with on my last food truck stint. There were Dianne’s three sisters and representatives from each of their families who had traveled from places as far as North Dakota. There were the Tulane friends; Blake and Dylan and Elizabeth who won my heart by remembering my name. There was Emily from Teaneck who I hadn’t seen in years and years, and of course, our next door neighbors, Ted and Kerri, part of the original playgroup and the Christmas party elite.

As was expected, we made and retained friends at the wedding and the next day went to ultra-cool Bacchanal – a bar where “food, music and culture collude,” with the amiable Anna and her mother, Michelle. At this one-of-a-kind 9th Ward destination, you enter through a wine store, choose your bottle, grab a plastic bucket, fill it with ice, dunk your bottle in the bucket, pick up some glasses, find a seat in the outdoor courtyard, listen to live music and drink to your heart’s content, knowing that there’s always an Uber just around the bend. That afternoon we consumed copious amounts of wine with Paul and Paula, who serendipitously joined our table and soon became fast Facebook friends with whom we shared life stories and later an Uber to Frenchman Street for a night of jazz.

It’s been a week since the wedding. Nate and Alex are far away on a honeymoon. Their parents have returned to their lives and their bills. The guests are back at home, back at work, back doing what it is we all do. And I guarantee, in the week that has passed, every single one of us has thought about that wedding weekend more than once.

While most of my ruminations tend to revolve around raucous reveries, I gave plenty of sober consideration to the handsomely personable pastor and the promise we made to support Nate and Alex in their marriage.

Which, in turn, brought me back to the buoy.

Perhaps for Emily, her buoy is that baseball-loving boy with the country band name. For Kimmy, it may be the handsome dude she met at another wedding with another cast of characters. For Paula, it may be her namesake, minus the A. For Anna, it may be the one who gave her refuge from the rodents. For Rita, it may be that same ol’ guy she’s been with for 67 years.

But, not everyone has a significant other. And not everyone’s significant other is their buoy.

And so I got to thinking about other kinds of buoys. Maybe Becca’s buoy is her horse and the hurdles they’ve jumped together. Maybe Ianthe’s is the land on which she’s living and tilling. Maybe Molly’s is the inner-city kids she’s teaching. Maybe it’s a dog. Or a job. Or a song. Maybe it’s a Maverick. A bicycle. Or a sculpture. Maybe it’s a sister. Or a garden. Or a God.

And maybe, just maybe, as friends and family gathered together for the very fun #kreweofcostello wedding, we were, each in our own unique way, a little buoy in a big sea of celebration for the bride and groom. To have and to hold from this day forward.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Parenting from the Inside Looking Out

“Are you crazy?” the perfectly coifed blond-haired mother with the Prada sunglasses exclaimed. “You can’t have French fries before you ride!”

The mother gave me a conspiratorial roll of the eyes as the daughter cast her eyes downward.

“I’ll have the Healthy Start, please.”

“Oh, live a little!” I said, causing the mother to grimace. “Have the French fries!”

The daughter, all of ten years-old, peered up at me through her mascaraed lashes and managed a tight smile. She wore the classic tan breeches, black helmet and leather and brass bracelet with the name of her horse inscribed in block letters – BRANDY.

Knowing it was just plain mean to interfere in someone else’s parenting, I said, “How ‘bout you have the yogurt and fruit now. And when you win the blue ribbon, come back for a double dose of French fries.”

The mother gave me a sarcastic smile, grabbed her daughter’s elbow and pivoted.

“Good luck!” I called to the sweet girl’s retreating back.

It was early May and I was working an eleven-day stint on a food truck at the Garden State Horse Show in northwestern New Jersey. My sister Nancy’s best friends from Charleston bought the business last year, and now travel the horse show circuit for the summer season, offering up the likes of grilled shrimp, caprese and marinated steak sandwiches, kale, pasta and quinoa salads, lobster rolls, scrumptious breakfast sandwiches and of course, all the good stuff like hot dogs, French fries, hamburgers and chicken fingers. Nancy and I pop on the truck for a week or two at a time to help our friends, meet a whole new flock of folk, and earn some cold, hard cash.

We particularly like this horse show because there are so many kids around. We love to banter with them, because beneath their Hermes belt buckles, trainers, grooms and mane-braiders, they’re all the same. They're all just kids. Just like ours. 

My sister and I raised five children between us. While we shared similar values and expectations, our day-to-day parenting styles often differed. But now that they’re all (somewhat) grown, we could mix them up, toss them out and the world would be hard-pressed to figure out which ones were coddled, which ones were throttled, which ones rebelled and which ones excelled.

Neither my sister nor I know the first thing about horses or the equestrian world. We could have been in any world in which parents are over, or under-parenting their kids who are over, or under achieving. We wise, old moms watched mothers and fathers struggle with their children, indulge their children and embarrass their children. In oh, so many familiar ways.

“WTF?”  (And, yes, she did say something very close to the F word) the mother hissed through gritted teeth. “You haven’t eaten yet? You have to show in 30 minutes. What were you thinking? Get over there and get something to eat. RIGHT NOW.”

The tear stained pre-teen stepped up to the food truck and ordered herself a Caesar salad.

“Chicken on it?” I asked.

She shook her head no, took the salad and stabbed her fork into the lettuce leaves with a vengeance.

“Did you ever make your kid eat if she didn’t want to?” Sister Nancy asked after the girl and her mother walked away.

“Absolutely!” I admitted. “If they were about to play in a game, for sure. I’d be so afraid they’d pass out or wouldn’t play well. I know I did exactly what that mother did, dozens of times.”

Sister Nancy shook her head.

“Would you make them clean their plates?” she probed further.

“They always cleaned their plates,” I answered. “Because if they didn’t like what I made for dinner, I’d just short-order cook them whatever they would eat.”

“Really?” she said, incredulously. “I always believed if they were hungry enough, they’d eat.”

“But then it becomes your problem when they wake up in the middle of the night starving. Or pass out on the football field,” I countered.

“And exactly how many times did that ever happen?”

“Well, never. Cause I never wanted to risk it.”

She laughed. And, I bristled. Just a bit. Because, even to this day, I still think I did it right. Or, at least, not wrong. Because somehow, half-right, half-wrong, we made it through.

“Cocoa puffs?” the father asked his Little Lord Fauntleroy.

“Swedish fish,” the son responded.

“Okie dokie,” cool Dad said, plopping the container of sugary, gummy candies on the counter. counter.

“Amazing the difference between the mothers and fathers,” Sister Nancy said.

“Oh, my ever-loving spouse would never have let them have candy in the morning,” I said. “It would have been granola or a banana for sure. I'm the one who gave them whatever they wanted to keep them quiet.”

All week long we watched the parents coddle and throttle their children. We watched the kids rebel and the kids excel. We saw the pain on parents’ faces when horses spooked and tossed their little rider into the mud. And we saw the pride when their little equestrian nonchalantly dangled a big blue ribbon from Brandy’s reins.

We loved it when 19 year-old Ines appeared every morning with her middle-school posse, girls who weren’t showing, but had convinced their parents to let them skip school to check out the competition. Or maybe they were flat out cutting school, kind of like we did, back in the day.

“Can I please have chicken fingers and fries?” the six year-old with the gap-filled smile asked at 9:30 in the morning.

“We’re not cooking lunch yet,” Sister Nancy told her. “How about a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich?”

The little girl’s face fell.

“Oh, OK,” Sister Nancy conceded. “I'll make you some chicken fingers. But, only if you tell me what happened to your teeth.”

“The tooth fairy took them!”

“The tooth fairy took them! Did the tooth fairy leave you anything?”

The toothless sweetheart nodded. “Twenty dollars.”

“A tooth?” my sister and I cried in unison.

Cute as a colt, she giggled and handed us a $100 dollar bill for her chicken fingers and fries.

"Enjoy your meal!" Sister Nancy said.

"Enjoy your life!" I added, marveling at how different things look from the inside looking out.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

You Made My Mother's Day

“Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!”

Somewhere between childhood and motherhood, Mother’s Day surpassed even the holiest of holy days. Cashiers at Kohl’s wish random women a Happy Mother’s Day a week in advance. Billboard ads for 1-800-Flowers proclaim the virtues of every mother ever made. Gyms and spas and nail salons hang banners reminding you just what your mother wants most. And even the Mets, despite their ever-escalating aches and pains, appear between innings, extolling the virtues of the mothers who made them.

When I was growing up, my mother was lucky if one of her four daughters even thought to buy her a card. And my father certainly didn’t buy her a present. I can still hear him saying, “She’s not MY mother.”

My dear mother, as I’ve said many times before was, and still is, at 91.5 years-old, a perfect mother. One whom I wish I could emulate, but instead, long ago forgave for not passing on that particular gene. My mother didn’t need recognition, reward or respite.

Unlike her Number Three daughter.

When my three kids were young and needy, my Mother’s Day wish was to escape. And so, I’d go to the movies on Mother's Day. Alone. Where I didn’t have to tie any shoelaces, clean up any messes or referee any fights. Where I could spend an afternoon in the dark with Meg Ryan falling in love in You’ve Got Mail, me falling in love with Kate Hudson in Almost Famous or Renee Zellweger feeling complete with Jerry Maguire. Then I’d head home for a spouse-supplied supper, warm and waiting, on the kitchen table. My mother never had that luxury. She just kept tying, cleaning, refereeing and cooking. Day after day.

Every year for Mother’s Day, my spouse fills my garden with blooming flowers, buys me some objet d’art that I may or may not have left a picture of on the kitchen counter, takes me somewhere springy like the Great Falls of Paterson and surprises me with something magnanimous like a dishwasher after vowing never to replace the one that had died.
I smile at my good fortune, still hearing that old familiar voice, “She’s not MY mother.”

My kids, on the other hand, are deeply immersed in their own lives, just as I was at their age. They’d never forget me, but there's rarely a year when all three bestow gifts upon me. Instead, I'll get something age appropriate from the 21 year-old, and from the other two a heartfelt Facebook post, lovely card or a phone call in which they consciously refrain from sharing their recent trials and tribulations.  

And I don’t need anything more than that. Like my mother before me, I know that my kids love me and that no gift they could ever purchase will elevate their status in my heart. After all, it’s part of the job description. As mothers, we just can’t help but love those little suckers, even when they suck the life out of us.

Today, while praying for my sorry soul, I felt my phone blowing up beside me. But, being the good Christian I am, didn’t sneak a peek at my messages until church was over and I was back inside my car.

There was a message from my friend Madge telling me, as she is wont to do, what a great mother I am. There was a convoluted group text from my friends Karen and Theresa wishing every mother they ever knew, including some whose identities were unbeknownst to me, a Happy Mother’s Day. Another string of texts included Claire, Jean, Jenn and Tracy, reminding me of how very important we were in each other’s lives during those long and laborious Little League days. There was a Facebook post to me and 98 other mothers whom Angelae Wilkerson chose to celebrate. Then, in rapid succession, the messages from Angela Hargraves and Katrina Williams and Heather Wimbush, the mothers whose collective hearts bled together on the bleachers, as we hoped and prayed and dreamed our way through agonies and injuries. And when my Mahjong mamas, Susan and Janice weighed in, it warmed the cockles of my tiles.  

I smiled with each and every message but knew the best were yet to come.

And they came. The messages from the kids. Not my kids. But the kids whose lives I touched. The kids who didn’t have to wish me anything. Who, after all these years still remember the nights when I pretended not to know what was going on in the basement. The days I listened to them as they shared their secrets, voiced their fears and formulated their dreams across the kitchen table. The kids who rode in my car, slept in my house, asked for my help and ate my pasta.  The kids who followed my advice, refused my advice, did the right thing, did the wrong thing and did nothing. And still turned out perfect.

And as I read those messages from Heather and Tanya, Oksana and Taylor, Chris and Taryn, Kris and Koree and lovely Liza, I finally get why Mother’s Day has become the holiest of holy days. As the world gets crazier and crazier, as life gets more and more difficult, as kids get more and more confused, no one can soothe a soul quite like a mother. And sometimes the souls you soothe don’t share your DNA but simply share a small and fleeting time in your life. 

But, their hearts. Their hearts you have forever.