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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Countertops or College Tuition?

We were living in a white brick Cape Cod house down the hill from my best friend Claire. On summer days we could hear each other screaming at our kids and the sidewalk that stretched from her house to mine allowed our little ones to run back and forth unsupervised. This first house of ours was directly across the street from a park with a brand new jungle gym and a wading pool and was a stone’s throw away from the Board of Ed building where I spent many a big night out. It had a perfectly planned perennial garden with flowers blooming from spring until September. In the backyard, built into the ivy-covered hill, was a splintery wooden slide that no one but the groundhogs ever used. There was a tiny galley kitchen that opened up into a dining area with big casement windows on three sides. There was a half-finished basement with a big wooden desk that collected clutter. It was a happy little home.

But when my dear, dead uncle bequeathed me a little extra cash, I decided it was high time to re-do the dated kitchen. I talked to a contractor who had all kinds of expensive ideas on how to make it both more efficient and more attractive. I bought into all of it, except for the countertops.

“I want red countertops,” I insisted.

“Nah. You gotta go with the granite.”

“I’ll go granite,” I agreed. “As long as you can get it in red.”

I don’t know how I got red countertops stuck in my head, but I wasn’t budging. We talked for a couple of months during which the plans altered and amplified. I found myself buying into a new bathroom (after all, five of us were sharing one shower and my kids were heading into the years where they would spend inordinate amounts of time behind closed doors), a walk-in closet and a torn-down wall. But in the end, we weren’t getting any additional living space and I finally conceded that to get what I wanted would cost way more money than it was worth.

Though once the seed had been planted, I could no longer see beyond the chaos in my cluttered little house. It was filled to the gills with twelve years of living and I knew the only way to dig ourselves out was to get ourselves out. 

And that’s when I started looking at houses. My ever-sensible spouse said we should just make do and save the money for college. I assured him that we had still had plenty of time to get rich.

I found a perfect split level house near the Little League field. It had absolutely no personality but there were so many floors, we could each have one of our own. It had central air-conditioning and a modern kitchen. I was sold. And my spouse reluctantly conceded, being fully aware that a happy mother meant a happy house.

And then, Kerri Mather, who was one of my very first friends in Teaneck, announced that the house next door to hers was for sale.

“Absolutely not,” I said. “I do not want an old, creaky house.”

She told me they had just refinished all the hardwood floors as well as the three (count ‘em, three) bathrooms and that I should at least check it out.

And because I’m a people-pleaser, I did.

I was greeted by the realtor, Kathleen Wicklund, who also happened to have grown up in the house. I told her I really wasn’t interested but had promised Kerri I’d take a look. I walked into a sun-drenched living room and smack into the perfect place for our piano that no one plays. The floors were shiny and the wood-trimmed windows gorgeous. But, when I went up the stairs they creaked. Loudly. And there was no central air.

Then I saw the huge finished basement with a separate laundry room. And the walk-up attic that would easily fit all three kids and thirty of their friends. There was a covered front porch and plenty of large bedrooms. The house was charming and full of character.

But, just as I was beginning to cave, Kathleen dropped the bomb. They hadn’t redone the kitchen because she and her siblings couldn't bring themselves to demolish the kitchen her mother had loved so much. Well, that’s that, I thought. I'm not buying a creaky, old house with a battered kitchen. After all, his whole thing started over wanting a new kitchen.

But, it was huge, that eat-in kitchen. The walls were painted Carolina blue and a sliding glass door opened onto a good-sized deck overlooking a fully-fenced, double-sized backyard.

In the end, what sealed the deal wasn’t the massive amount of space or extra bathrooms. It wasn’t the brick arch over the driveway or the built-in bookshelves next to the front window where I could put my desk and spy out into the world. It wasn’t the storage eaves in the attic or the friendly neighborhood. It wasn’t the two-car garage that could house all my spouse’s treasures or the built-in bar in the basement.

It was the red countertops in the kitchen.

We've been here eight years and the house is still old and creaky. But it's not quite as loud. I smile as I remember how those squeaking stairs thwarted my children's attempts to sneak in late at night. I hear the side door slamming with random kids running in and out of the basement at all hours of the day and night. I see silhouettes of teenagers asleep on our couches and sitting at our kitchen table eating pasta, planning the prom and writing college essays. My spouse still splits wood in the backyard and builds crackling fires in the living room fireplace on cold winter nights. Griffey still bounds about chasing squirrels over the fence. And I still sit on the front porch and watch the sky lighting up during summer thunderstorms.

Yet, I can't help but wonder, as we face that first payment of the first of many college loans, whether we made the right move. After all, this has been our home for less than half of the child-rearing years and it's quite possible that none of them will ever live here again for any length of time. 

But, on the other hand, they all know that this creaky, old house with red countertops will be always be here to welcome them back. And that it was worth every penny.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Fast is a Relative Term

“Savor every minute!” an elderly woman trilled as she watched us struggling with the car seat straps on our first trip home from the hospital twenty-two years ago. “It goes by so fast.”

It does go by fast, those first few days. Everything is new and exciting with friends and family descending upon you, like it or not. Every feeding is an adventure; every non-droopy diaper is an accomplishment and every burp a triumph.

Newborns, in my experience, worm their way into your heart before they show their true colors. The first few days, all they do is sleep. You feed them, change them, put them back in the bassinet and repeat. There’s nothing to it. But, then inevitably your in-laws leave and your spouse goes back to work and you find yourself all alone with a beet-faced baby crying uncontrollably for hours on end.

But somehow you plod your way through. And then one day you look at your four year-old daughter dangling her newborn brother precariously over her little lap while your two year-old is trying to draw on his head and you wonder, how did I get here this quick?

And that’s when time slows down.

Having three children in four years is not an astounding feat by any means. My mother had four daughters in five years. My friend Margaret had a son and 15 months later, twin daughters. She also had a job with a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute commute. Each way. Every day. People have triplets. Quadruplets. Seven kids. Ten kids. No, I was nothing special. I was just another overwhelmed mother with a job three miles away at which I worked three days a week and two from home.

They were long, slow years.

I have an adorable two year-old great niece named Sophie. When we are blessed with her presence, we are all mesmerized. We watch her every move, marvel at her dimpled smile, laugh at all the funny things she says and does.

“How did you ever get anything done?” my daughter Molly asked at Christmas this year. “You must have just sat there all day long in awe, watching us!”

She was right. I didn’t get anything done. And I did sit there in awe. In awe of what I had become. I went from being a selfish, independent, control freak who always, always put my personal comfort first to a selfish, independent control freak who always, always put my personal comfort first - but with a caveat. I now had kids. And those character traits just don’t mesh with that job title.

But I did the best I could and in those interminable years, I often thought back to that woman at the hospital. “It goes so fast.”

I tried to remember that when I had three kids climbing in and out of grocery carts and three kids screaming to go to the park when I still had a brochure to write and when I had a parent teacher conference when my spouse was out of town and the babysitter got sick. I tried to remember that when I spent an hour cooking up a nice healthy meal that a parenting magazine guaranteed my kids would love and then spent the next hour short-order cooking separate meals for each of them. I tried to remember that at 10 pm when two out of three were still tormenting me. I tried to remember that when I wanted to go walk to the mailbox at the end of the block and had to wait for my spouse to come home. I tried to remember that when they drew on the freshly painted living room walls or let the wild dog out the front door when the mailman was coming up the path. I tried to remember that when they took every single item out of the refrigerator and then moved on to the Tupperware drawer, then the pots and pans. I tried to remember that when my plans got canceled, my career got thwarted, my kids got cocksackie.

I simply couldn’t imagine the day that I would once again walk out the door alone. Without a diaper bag. Without snacks. Without forgetting something. Or someone.

No, I never had time to marvel at the wonders of my kids. I was too busy looking ahead, planning the next step, trying to get through the next week, the next month. Trying to get us all through unscathed.

“It goes so fast.” I certainly didn’t think so.

This morning I went on the Rutgers website to check one more time if maybe they had made a mistake and we’d get a huge financial aid award after all.

We didn’t. But something else happened.

Something caught in my throat as I took time to let it sink in. My baby, who has facial hair, is going to college in the fall.

And now, I want a do-over. I want to be present for my kids. I want to read Owl Babies eighteen times and get fourteen glasses of water and change the subsequent wet sheets without flipping out. I want to wipe those walls and clean up those toys with a smile not caring that I’ll just do it again the next day. And the next. I want to hug Max when the television topples on his head instead of rolling my eyes because it set us back 15 minutes. I want to listen to Molly read me her second-grade story without looking at my watch. I want to hang Leo’s art work on the living room walls. I want one more Christmas pageant. One more Little League game. One more Martin Luther King ceremony.   

I didn’t believe it while I was living it. But I know now, that woman was right.

“It goes so fast.”

I want to find one more Cheerio on the back seat of my car. I want to click one more car seat. I want to go back and enjoy every sticky hand and runny nose and unsolicited hug.

But I can’t.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Good Day to Have Faith

I may be a church-goer, but I’m the first to admit that on the ladder to the Lord, I’m on one of the lower rungs. Growing up, we went to church every week, me and my three sisters poking each other in the front pew at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church while my mother looked straight ahead hoping not to cause a scene. My father joined us on snowy Sundays when the golf course was closed; his main objective was to identify the Church Creeper who consistently passed odoriferous gas.

Once we were out of high school we were never forced to go to church, but it was always expected that we'd go on Easter. Always a little bit of a brown noser, I used to scrape together my college beer money to donate flowers on the altar in memory of my grandmother. I knew when my mother read the bulletin on Easter Sunday, she’d be touched, and in my book, that good deed trumped attending a church service. Once I graduated and lived at home, guilt prevailed so every Easter Eve I’d bitterly cut my night short so I could drag myself out of bed in time for church the next morning.  

One Easter, my spouse-to-be came to visit for the weekend. We woke up bright and early and headed to church to surprise my family. Lo and behold, it was the day the clocks sprang forward and we missed the service.

Once we got engaged, I had to show up at church on a somewhat regular basis for a short period of time in order to be graced by God and charged a little less money for the wedding. We attended marriage classes together and the minister made a memorable reference to “doing it” on the kitchen table.

And then we moved to New Jersey and just kind of never went to church again.

When it was time for Molly to be baptized, we jumped in on a double ceremony with her cousin Harley. Two years later when Max was born, we couldn’t find another way to cheat the system. So, we started looking for a church.

We stumbled upon a little church in Leonia and just like that, I switched from being a life-long Episcopalian to a Presbyterian. I pretended it was as big a deal as switching from a lifetime of Colgate to Aquafresh toothpaste for my spouse, but truthfully I liked the Presbyterian way of doing things: they didn’t kneel to pray, they had communion delivered to the pew and they had lots of pot luck suppers.

For me, the real bonus was the hour of free child care so I morphed back into a constant congregant pretty easily. Our kids went to Sunday School and were shepherds and angels in the annual Christmas pageant. That is until sports overtook their lives and we subscribed to the Tony Hargraves School of “if God wanted them to go to church, he wouldn’t have made them athletes.”

Ten years ago, I was in the hospital for one random surgery or another and our pastor, Debra Given, who I consider as much a friend as a woman of the cloth, came to visit.

“We’re starting a book club!” she announced. “All your favorite people are joining.  Leah, Anne, Ginny, Pamela and Grace and whoever else can make it on Wednesday mornings.”

Now, I had long wanted to join a book club and anxiously awaited the first selection.

However, the e-mail reminder said something about starting our Bible Study group with the Gospel of Mark.

I was baffled. I thought it was a book club.

Then I realized I was high on Vicodin when Debra came to visit and probably heard what I wanted to hear. I didn’t realize that the book club meant THE book.

And so I made up excuses for a month or two. There was no way I was going to let these holy rollers discover that I was a fraud and didn’t know the difference between a disciple and a prophet, a psalm and a proverb, the old testament and the new.

But, for some reason, I went. And kept going.

We’re an irreverent group who painstakingly dissect and discuss different stories, sometimes taking two weeks to cover one paragraph. We share our spiritual secrets and insecurities, our pains and our pasts, our humor and our knowledge (or lack thereof). We doubt, we deny, we discover. And every week, something, no matter how insignificant, sinks in.

Along the line, I became a Sunday School, I taught confirmation class, served on tons of committees and even became a Deacon.

But still, I don’t know God like my friend Angela does (who much to her spiritual chagrin, is married to the aforementioned Tony Hargraves). She feels Jesus in every fiber of her being and I often envy that true and comforting connection.

I’m not very good at praying. I feel bad asking for things. I did pray once that Leo would get a hit in a baseball game. And he did. But the next time I tried, he grounded out twice.

I’ve never prayed for a better spouse. I’ve never prayed that my kids would change. I’ve never prayed for a different family or friends or more accepting in-laws.

Because I don’t need to.

Today in church we prayed for the woman whose house burned to the ground taking two family members with it; we prayed for the family of the 17 year-old boy who died this fall for no reason at all; we prayed for the sick, the sad, the suffering. We prayed for the South Korean families who were holding on to hope that their teenaged child somehow survived the sinking ship. I said a silent prayer for my friend who is battling cancer alongside her teenage son battling his own cancer. For my friend Maurice who is feeling lost without his spouse, for my bosom buddy Chris who is living every day of her life with lung cancer, for Janice who is patiently waiting to gain back her sight. 

When I look at what I’ve got in the wake of those around me, I wonder how it is that I got so lucky.

And as the trumpet sounded and the choir sang and the spring flowers burst forth with color across the front of the church, I felt a sudden surge within my soul. 

Now, since I'm not holy, I can't presume to know where that feeling came from. 

But maybe, just maybe, that's what faith is all about.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It's a Dog's Life

Tuesday was Griffey’s birthday. He turned 28. And he still lives at home.

If the average life of a lab is 12, that means we have roughly 56 more dog years together.

And that is a long, long time.

Griffey was rescued from the streets of Louisiana, or so the story goes. I find it kind of hard to believe because he hates the heat. When the temperature topped out at what ended up being a spring joke of 75 degrees the other day, Griffey was panting in the shade like it was the dog days of August.

We adopted him from a lab rescue place I found on the internet. He was advertised as a medium-energy, young adult dog.  But they make things up.  Like how old and how well trained they are. So we arbitrarily deemed him two years-old, and high, not medium-energy, when we brought him home on Tax Day two years ago.  

Chester, our black lab/chow mix had died a few months earlier and my spouse was tired of walking in the woods in the morning with an empty leash. He wanted a new companion. I didn’t want another dog. Number two child was about to go to college and I felt no need to fill the house with more dependent mammals. But because my spouse has never asked for so much as a hot meal in our marriage, and because I bullied him into having three kids, I conceded.

After all, it was a great way for me to acquire material goods. I bought a new cage and bed and collar and leash. I bought chew toys and dog biscuits and 25 pound bags of Iams dog food. My spouse reminded me that I did the same thing for each of our children causing him to wonder whether I was procreating because I wanted to be a mother or because I wanted more equipment. I’m still searching for the answer.

I met Griffey’s foster mother’s boyfriend in a park in central Connecticut. Now, I’m not a scaredy-cat by any means, though later questioned my own judgment in meeting the boyfriend of someone I didn’t know in a park in a town I didn’t know. But, I didn’t get accosted by anything but a big Marmaduke of a dog bounding into me, paws on my chest, tongue on my face.

When I got Griffey home, I realized why they didn’t want us to see him in a home environment. All 70 pounds of him jumped from red leather couch to wood rocking chair to chartreuse recliner that no one but me is allowed to sit in. He scaled the coffee table; he ran circles around the house and cleared the railing on the deck, dropping to all fours, five feet below.

He chased baseballs like his namesake, Ken Griffey, Jr. and acclimated immediately, as if he had lived with us his entire life. He went for his three-mile walks in the morning, nearly dislocating my spouse’s shoulder as he lunged at rabbits and squirrels and other beasts along the trail in the nearby woods.  

I started taking him for a night time walk. Our backyard is fenced so I considered it a bonus for both of us. We’d go out at 10 pm because the little white fluffy dog down the block passed by an hour earlier and the pit bull went out an hour later.

But, he started whining at me as early as 8 o’clock. He’d sit an inch away from me and every time I’d get up, he’d jump in circles thinking it was time for the walk.

“Don’t let him bother you. He’s just a dog,” my pragmatic spouse would say when I’d get upset.

But, then again, he was always able to just say no to the kids as well.

In these cold winter months, I have trained him instead to go out in the backyard before bed. He gets a biscuit when he does his business. But now he goes outside three or four times a night, sometimes faking the lifting of his leg, just so he gets his just desserts.  

I had to buy new rugs for the living room. We used to have lovely black-bordered rugs that picked up the black accents of our piano. Within an hour, they were covered in yellow dog hair. Our rugs are now tan and hide the hair. I vacuum three times a week and could do it every day, twice a day, but I refuse. I have bought stock in lint rollers for the black yoga pants I wear every day.

Griffey doesn’t go on the furniture anymore. Except for Max’s bed which he believes is his own. We keep a sheet on top of the bed to catch the dog hair and it clogs the laundry room sink every time I wash it. Max’s room has become the overnight guest quarters and Griffey barges right in. He has slept with the likes of my high school friend, Madge; my husband’s ex-girlfriend, Sally; Max’s current girlfriend, Oksana; and our Ugandan friend, Vincent. No one seems to mind.

Griffey barks at raccoons in the backyard. He barks at skunks and has gotten sprayed. Twice. He barks at birds. He barks ferociously at other dogs when he’s walking on a leash. But, he won’t bark at anyone who comes in the house. I hold on to the hope that if someone, who is not one of the kids’ friends looking for a place to rest their spinning head, breaks in, that Griffey will figure out a way to let them know they are not welcome.

Leo leaves for college in a matter of months. I will have a house devoid of dirty cleats. There will be no more toothpaste tubes squeezed in the middle and no more spit on the edges of the sink. The toilet seat will remain down, his room will stay clean. There will be no backpacks, bat bags or sneakers to trip over. I won’t have to cook dinners that sit on the stove for days or drive him two blocks to his friend’s house when his car is in the shop.

But, I will have dog hair to vacuum. For another 56 years.