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Friday, February 28, 2014

Give Peace a Chance

“Are you some secret world peace activist, or just a throwback hippie?” a friend asked when she came to my house for the first time.

I had no idea what she was talking about until she pointed out the glut of peace signs all over the place.

Guests are greeted by a hand-painted ceramic tile hanging in my foyer that reads, “May 
All That Enter Know Peace.” Above my stove in the kitchen is a big, wooden peace sign. On my red leather couch is a black peace sign throw pillow. Hanging on my garden fence is a battered tin peace sign I ordered from a mail-order catalog. I wear an Alex and Ani bracelet with a peace sign charm. Through the years my friends have given me many peace sign presents. I’ve gotten a set of coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, a wooden box for my bureau, earrings, charms, rings and even a peace sign scarf that warms my neck when I take my power walk on these frigid February mornings.

Still, I got a chuckle out of my friend’s comment realizing that what we portray is so often the total opposite of who we are.

Much to my ever-loving spouse's Master's-in-Middle-Eastern-History chagrin, I could no more pick out Afghanistan on an unmarked map than I could tell you what they’re all worked up about in Ukraine. And as far as achieving hippie-dom, well, having grown up in  the 70s, I did my share of trying, but the closest I got was Galax Virginia for a weekend folk festival.

World peace is not what I pray for, though I’m known for flashing a peace sign to strangers who cut me off in cars, to friends as a greeting and to the teenagers I find sleeping in my basement in the morning.

I have always created my own turmoil. I make mountains out of molehills and always imagine the worst scenario first. I take on more tasks than I can possibly handle and complain when I don’t have time to breathe. Why stop at two kids when I can quadruple the chaos with three? Why settle for PTA president when I can join the Little League board and teach Sunday School as well? Why steer my children toward once-a-week student council meetings when two-a-day (times three) athletic commitments would do?   
Every year child rearing got harder. My parenting standards got higher. My kids got busier. The more out of control my life became, the more control I craved. I started counting the years until I could move into a retirement community with the security of knowing that every Wednesday night at 7 would be Bingo in the Blue Room and I wouldn’t have to miss it because I was at a parent-teacher conference, or a baseball game, or both.  I felt like I was in a war zone every day of my life.

I didn’t intentionally start collecting peace signs. They just kind of found me. Maybe they came as a gentle reminder for me to seek a sense of calm. To let things go. To listen before lashing out. To learn to say no. To hold fast to the hope that peace will come.

The peace has come. It always does. 

With only one self-sufficient high school senior living at home, there isn’t much left for me to do. The bathtub almost fell through the kitchen ceiling this week and as the bathroom gets repaired, my topsy-turvy house is covered with a fine film of dust and workmen greeting me as I emerge from my bedroom door in the morning. Something like that would have put me over the edge in my heyday, but today, I barely flinch.

I didn’t do a great job of keeping a peaceful household. I fussed and fretted. I flipped and faltered. But we all made it through. While I can’t change the past and I can’t erase the battle scars, there’s always hope for the future. And so, I fluff up my peace sign pillows with an old familiar tune flowing through my soul:

Let there be peace on earth

And let it begin with me.

Sometimes you just have to hum it till it happens.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Wake me up when it's all over

I am selfish and spoiled when it comes to my sleep. But, I’m also a rule-follower, so it’s not entirely my fault. Whenever whoever it is who makes these things up declared that we all need eight hours of sleep, I obeyed. I have never been sleep deprived in my life.

Even when I had newborns I was able to manipulate a good night’s sleep. Having read that bottle-fed babies could go four hours between meals, it made perfect sense not to breastfeed. We got the babies on a nice little schedule and they all slept through the night in a matter of weeks. While they were in training, my ever-loving spouse would kiss me goodnight right before the 10 pm feeding, I’d wake up for the 2 am, and be back snoozing within an hour. Then, because he has always been an early riser who does not have stringent sleep requirements, he did the 6 am, allowing me to crawl out of bed in time for the 10 am feeding.

And then as my kids (and I) aged, I got another bright idea. My spouse has always worked long hours (someone has to), and was rarely home for dinner. In order for him to get the quality time with the kids he deserved, he could be completely in charge of the mornings. This worked out well for me because not only do I need my sleep, but I have an aversion to starting the day with kidlike behaviors and their ever-lacking senses of urgency.

“I know they were my favorite yesterday, but I don’t like homemade pancakes anymore.”

“I only need seven minutes to get up, dressed and out of the house.”

“Where’s my backpack?”

“Can’t find my math book and if I don’t have it I’ll get a(nother) zero.”

For some reason, they don’t even start those kinds of conversations with their father.

And so, for the past many, many years, I lay in bed until I hear the last one leave the house, even if it means getting 8 ½ hours of sleep.

It’s not that I have to go to bed early. I can hoot with the owls all night as long as I can adjust my morning around it. Ask me to pick you up at JFK airport at 2 am and I’m there.  But, I won’t meet the red-eye in the morning, simply because it would mean going to bed way too early to get my eight hours in.

Yes, I’m spoiled. But trust me; it’s better for all of us this way.

When my spouse travels, I always get up in the morning. But, I also get myself all riled up knowing I have to wake to the screech of an alarm clock rather than to the comforting sound of the front door slamming. I toss and turn most of the night, counting the minutes, then the hours of sleep I’m missing.

Knowing my aversion to mandatory morning duty, my high school senior, Leo, assured me it wasn’t necessary for me to get up this week when his father is out of town. He’s way too kind to say it, but I know the lack of breakfast Q & A with his mother is not something he’s been losing sleep over. After giving it about 30 seconds’ thought, I concurred.

So, last night I stayed up late and watched DVR’d episodes of Downton Abbey and Girls, having succumbed to the Olympics for the last couple of weeks. It was well after midnight when I took to my bed with The Goldfinch. I read for a good 45 minutes then drifted anxiety-less into dreamland.  I would sleep until I woke up and we’d all survive.

This morning I woke up at 7. I never wake up at 7.

I got out of bed and peeked into Leo’s room. He was up.

I went downstairs. He was pouring a bowl of cereal.

“Mom, I told you, you didn’t have to get up,” he said.

“I know. I know, I just had to get up early because the guy is coming to fix the bathroom,” I said. “Want me to make biscuits?”

“If you want.”

As I stirred the batter of the Bisquick biscuits that my youngest son loves so much, my mind fast-forwarded six months. I got to thinking that with all the kids gone, I could get a job working the graveyard shift. I could go off to work after my spouse goes to bed and sleep all day long. I could throw away my alarm clock. And, I could throw away the guilt I’ve harbored over my selfish sleep habits all these years.

Because, as I look into the eyes of that confident, scruffy facial-haired young man and see a little boy with a sagging diaper and a thumb in his mouth, I know that my selfish sleep habits haven’t hurt a soul.

As he grabbed his backpack and his car keys and said, "See ya, Mom," I thought, if only for a minute, that I wouldn't mind having six more years, instead of six more months, to sleep through breakfast.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Missing Max

I am a memory miser. Sitting on my desk is a little ceramic dog with a spinning head that I bought for $1.95 in a Pocono gift shop, reminding me of my days at Camp Hagan. I have a hideous ring-sized straw box I purchased, or pilfered, in Nassau on my senior high school class trip. I have a faded home-made valentine above my desk from my sister Nancy that reads, “We must learn to waste time with those we love.” My friend Madge sent me blue-beaded earrings from Israel when I finally got my ears pierced in my mid-twenties. Rusty and dusty, they still have a place in my jewelry box. And, I still have the note from my long-gone father stating that I was missed most of all.

I am one of four daughters. We have always been very close, both in age and kinship. We all went away to college and we all came home, though one sister lived briefly in Germany, one in Richmond and another in Dallas. They now all live within a few miles of where we grew up, and I did too, until I got married and moved a mere 100 turnpike miles away. But, I know the note was written long before that, and most probably was written when three of the four of us were away at college.  

Today, on her 22nd birthday, I will think of my daughter all day long. I’ll talk to her later, once she’s recovered from last night’s Molly Gras party. I saw her last weekend when my sister and I went to visit her in North Carolina and I won’t see her again until her college graduation in May. But, in the four years she’s been away at school, I believe there have been two days I haven’t heard from her in one form or another. And that’s only because she was on a sorority retreat and they weren’t allowed to use their phones.  We are in continuous contact. She calls, we text, we send e-mails. I told her I better not hear from her when she is in Jamaica for spring break because I don’t want to pay for the Rum Runner-induced international text charges. She may live 500 miles away, but I feel like I am totally connected to my daughter. And that is why today, I don’t miss Molly the most.

Leo, the youngest, still lives with me, even though he spends hours holed up in the basement watching House of Cards under the guise of doing homework, in his bedroom listening to rap songs through over-sized headphones, or at one gym or another working out for the upcoming baseball season. Sometimes he comes home from school at lunch time if he needs money and we have a three or four sentence conversation. He has his own car and comes and goes at will. He cooks his own eggs and follows his own schedule. I experience varying degrees of his physical presence every single day, so today, I don’t miss Leo the most.

Max in the middle is in college in California. Though it’s a faraway place to be, the plane ride is actually shorter than the drive to North Carolina. I flew out with him when he started at USC in August and met his roommate Xiang from China. The first half of the first semester, I heard from him almost every day. There were so many texts and phone calls I was afraid he wasn’t having any fun. His father was pleased that Max talked so much about his school work but I fretted when he lamented that he still hadn’t found anyone like his boys from Teaneck. And then it happened, as it always does. Max found his niche and now is so busy working, socializing and sometimes studying that a quick phone call takes more time than he has to give. I know he’s alive because unlike the other two, he actually lets me follow him on Twitter. And, I know he thinks of me because he retweets my blogs.

I was my father’s Max. I knew my family loved me. They knew I loved them back. But I didn’t keep in touch every day. Or every week. And I still don’t. My parents gave us the extraordinary gift of stepping back and letting go.

I want my kids to live their lives as freely as I did. I want them to be happy and productive and have lots of fun, whether that be in North Carolina or New Orleans, New Brunswick or Southern California. And I want them to do it all without any guilt strings tugging from home.

So, today, I’ll call Molly and wish her a happy birthday. But, I’m not going to call Max. Instead, I’ll leave him with a little note that he can keep until his children go off to college. Because today, I miss Max the most.

And that's something all of us need to hear, every now and then.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Spanking and Our Gang


I grew up in the Spanking Era. When kids did something wrong, they got a walloping. No one gave it a second thought and no one called the police on their parents.

My father spanked me. Not for infractions like a C on a report card or a messy room. I’d get spanked for being disrespectful or mouthing off, but never, ever without a warning.

“If you say one more word…”

And of course, I always did.

Once I had kids, spanking was so totally out of vogue, I didn’t even have to make a conscious choice not to do it. It was in the same vein as not using a car seat. It just wasn’t done.

Instead, we adopted parenting practices designed to raise self-esteem. We try reasoning with toddlers in the midst of full-blown tantrums and sequestering naughty children in time outs. And if all else fails, we go to family counseling.

Molly was four years-old when Leo was born, with Max in the middle. Simple math suggests that three kids spaced equally over four years will create chaos. The kind of chaos that doesn’t let up until they are 22, 20 and 18, all residing in different states.

When I was living the seven, five and three year-old equation, I was still trying to prove my worth as a productive stay-at-home working mother. One day, I was writing a particularly challenging brochure for a company I knew virtually nothing about. I was waiting for information from my boss’s boss, an enigma of a woman to whom I had never spoken.

I warned my kids that I’d be getting a very important call and that they had to be really, really good or I’d lose my job and they’d never eat again. I promised them we’d go to the park the second I was finished but they had to please, please, please be very, very quiet.

The phone rang at the precise moment that A Bug’s Life completed its second loop.

I gave Molly my finest evil eye glare and mouthed, “You’re in charge!”

I fled the basement, phone to my ear, trying not to sound winded as I climbed the two flights to my bedroom.

No sooner had I locked the door, when Leo, the three year-old, started.

“Mom! Mom! Moooooommmmmmm!” his screams got closer and closer. I grabbed a pillow to muffle the mouthpiece of the phone, lifting it only for my short, but intelligent-sounding responses.

Then came the knocking. Knock! Knock! Knock! on my bedroom door.

“Mom! Let me in!” he whined.

I crawled to the far side of the room.

Then came the banging. Bang! Bang! Bang! on my bedroom door.

“Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom!” he screeched.

Then came the kicking. Kick! Kick! Kick! on my bedroom door.

I darted into my closet and pulled the door shut. The boss’s boss kept talking and talking.

“OPEN THE DOOR!” Leo screamed.

“Great, thanks! I think I have all I need now!” I said, ending the call as cheerfully as I could, knowing I hadn’t retained a single word that was spoken.

I flung open the door and poor, slumped-against-the-door, thumb-in-his-mouth, tear-stained Leo toppled into the room. 

“I’m hungry,” he said.

I cursed him silently (or maybe not so silently) and headed down the stairs into a way too quiet living room.

My eye went immediately to the ecru-colored wall, newly decorated with red crayon. Nothing fancy, just a single red stripe.

Then came the screaming from the playroom.

“Gimme back my fire truck!” Max whined.

“No, you gimme my book first!” Molly whined back.

Clunk. Scream. Cry.


The two of them bolted into the living room, forgetting all about their desecration of the wall. They were hitting and screaming and pulling hair and pushing each other and now Leo was crying again because he was still so, so hungry and I kept thinking about the brochure I had to write and how I’d never get another job and how their father wouldn’t be home for hours and how was I going to get the crayon off the wall and why couldn’t my children be like Susan Landers’ children and I had never been so mad in my whole live-long life.

And that’s when I decided it was time for an old-fashioned paddling.

I grabbed a wooden spoon from the kitchen and charged back into the living room, steam coming out of my ears, daggers blazing from my eyes, rage coursing through my veins.

I snagged Molly by the shirt and dragged her to the couch. I flipped her face down over my knee, holding her tight as she squirmed and squealed.

I raised the wooden spoon.

And that’s when Max and Leo burst into uncontrollable, full-bellied laughter.

“Me next!” Max screamed.

“No, Me! Me!” begged Leo, jumping up and down.

Well, the years have passed and somehow we survived many, many more wooden spoon-worthy days.  The brochures got written, the graffiti faded and the tantrums subsided. And, amazingly we made it through without a single spanking.

But it wasn't for a lack of trying.