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Friday, August 29, 2014

Leo Leaves For College

Anyone who knows me, including my own children, has heard me say that I can't wait until the youngest finally leaves for college. Ever since Molly came kicking and screaming into the world 22 years, six months and six days ago, I've been counting the minutes until I get my life back. But those who really know me also know that this is the hardest day of my life. 

Leo was the one I fought for.
Though my spouse and I had once dreamed of having five children, when reality set in, it didn’t seem necessary nor wise to add a third to our brood. After all, we had our boy and our girl. We both had good jobs. They both had their own bedrooms. We had a babysitter who came to our house and took better care of them than I ever could have. But, in my mind, something was missing. It was way too commonplace to have a boy and a girl two years apart living in the suburbs of New York City. I needed a little more excitement. 

My ever-loving spouse, on the other hand, knew my limitations and tried to circumvent the impending chaos, but I dug in deep and won the battle. 

I got my excitement. 

Leo was born when Molly had just turned four years old. And Max was right in the middle. It was not easy, an “I told you so” that my spouse so kindly never threw back in my face. How could he? After all, we had Leo.

I took Leo everywhere when he was little. He could bask in his baby carrier at my feet in a restaurant without uttering a peep. Or maybe it was because by the time I had a third one, I realized no one but me cared if he cried or carried on. I took the longest maternity leave with Leo, knowing for certain he’d be my last.

Leo had a time of terror, when he was, I suppose, learning to assert himself. Once, in front of the Woolley’s, who have the most perfect children in the world, he climbed to the top of the mini-van, sitting stubbornly on the roof until he got what he wanted. At an early baseball practice he threw a glove at Miss Dorene, someone you certainly don’t want to mess around with. But she forgave him and to this day calls him one of the Three Amigos.

But, Leo grew out of it, as they tend to do, and channeled his inner-angst into baseball. 

It’s tough being the youngest. Your entire life is lived in the shadow of two older siblings who, by virtue of age alone, are bigger and smarter. And even if you grow up and pass them in beauty, brawn and brains, they will never, ever let you know it.

Of course, there are also advantages to being the youngest. All through high school, Molly, the oldest, had to be home by 10:30 pm. Leo comes and goes as he pleases. He barreled up the stairs at 3:13 this morning. 

But along with that freedom comes the two years of being an only child when the older siblings are off at college. There is nothing a teenager wants less than to be singly-scrutinized by his parents.

Through the years Leo rarely shared his feelings. He was the silent warrior who didn't bare his soul when it was filled with fear or anxiety, or joy, for that matter. And, so I carried the weight of his emotions for both of us. Whether he was stepping bravely onto the kindergarten bus, battling through a baseball slump or struggling to understand why he didn't get an A on his unconventional essay, I ached for him. I wept for him. I prayed for him.

All three of my children acted differently the summer before they went to college. Molly was as mean as mean could be. So mean, in fact, that I let out a “Wahoo!” as I pulled out of her dorm parking lot after dropping her off four years ago. Max, on the other hand was a fleeting vision that summer. He spent every waking moment with his best buddies and patient girlfriend. And Leo, who hadn't spoken 100 consecutive words to me from adolescence on, finally opened up and let me in.

We have had a lot of talks about a lot of different things. We've talked about who he is and who I was at his age. We've talked about expectations; what people expect of him versus what he expects of himself. We've talked about what he may want to do, and what he knows he doesn't want to do for a living. We talked about friends, and which ones he knows he'll hang on to and which ones will fade away. He shared his hopes, his dreams, his view on life and for the first time in 18 years, I realized I had been holding on to my youngest child, molding him in my mind to be someone he wasn't.

Had he been telling me all along and I just never had the time to listen?

We sat at the kitchen table today and I didn't say anything about packing. From experience, I have learned that it will get done. Instead we talked. Trying to keep my voice from cracking, I told him (and myself) that leaving for college is not sad. It's exciting. It's just the anticipation that's hard. All you can do is think about what you're leaving behind because it's just not in your realm of experience to imagine what living on your own can possibly be like.

Going to college may close the door on childhood, but it opens the door to adulthood, which can be infinitely more fulfilling. As long as you follow your heart.

When I said goodbye to his friend Jordan Ellerbee yesterday, I told him not to worry, that it would be weird and awkward for 24 hours, but after that, the fun begins and your new life starts forming. And when Saul snuck out of the attic bedroom for the third time this week, promising to come sleep over again soon, I laughed.

And it wasn't until they pulled away in the car that I let the tears run down my cheeks.

It's going to be hard saying goodbye to Leo. But I know he's ready. It's time for him to make his mark in the world as Leo, not as Max and Molly's younger brother. Or Jordan and Jaelin's teammate. Or Harrison and Madison's friend. Or his mom and dad's youngest child.

It's time for Leo to be Leo.

And I have to let him go and watch him fly. Just as I did with the other two.

Because after all, that's part of the deal.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

College Departures

It's starting. I’m getting that familiar lump in my throat as my kid’s friends take off for parts unknown. Ruby, the ballerina, went first and farthest. She flew to Oklahoma where she’ll dance her way through college. Then, off went the football players, Mo to Southern Connecticut and Malik to AIC. Maya left for Syracuse yesterday and Jaelin heads to UConn tomorrow.  Leo and the two Jordans are the last to go. Every day from now until Labor Day another child will leave the nest.

A friend of mine is letting go for the first time.

“How do you do it?” she asked. “I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s going to be like.”

Well, I’m no expert, but I am a seasoned letter-goer. It doesn’t make it any easier, but at least I know what to expect.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a he or a she, an only child or a fourth child, an oldest or a youngest, an extrovert or an introvert, an athlete or an artist, a smart one or a dim one, a favorite child or a serial troublemaker. This is how it goes.

The weeks before he/she leaves will be filled with disagreements, arguments and knock-down-drag-out fights, the likes of which you’ve never before encountered. There will be such personality and behavioral changes that you wonder how you'll ever survive the short time you have left together. But, interspersed are moments of heart-wrenching kindnesses that make you wonder how you’ll ever be able to say goodbye.

The night before he/she leaves for college, you plan the Last Supper with the whole family, maybe even the extended family, and she tells you that she’s going to Kayla’s barbeque because it’s her last night ever with her friends. And you let her go because you don’t want her last night ever with her family to be miserable. Besides, you're just serving chopped liver. And when you go to bed at midnight and peek in her room, you see that there is a roomful of packing yet to do. You sigh and close the door knowing you have lost this battle.

And then the morning comes and you load the car for your four-hour, or 24-hour, or forty-minute drive and you make sure you don’t say anything like, “Are you excited?” You speak only when spoken to. And because the earphones are in, and don’t come out, it’s a very quiet ride indeed.

You look for the upperclassmen in khaki shorts and school-colored polo shirts waving you through the maze from which you unload plastic bins filled with rolled-up T-shirts, wheel-less duffel bags toting size 13 shoes and garbage bags holding tangled hangers and everything else that didn’t fit anywhere else. And then there are the super-sized bottles of shampoo, multiple tubes of toothpaste, disposable razors, and two kinds of body wash crammed into the shower caddy that the older brother assured him he’d use, with an aside to the mother, “Just make sure you get him one with swag.”

Somehow, with the help of the father, the siblings, the upperclassmen, the big rolling bins or sheer manpower, you lug everything up the four flights of stairs to the cinder-block dorm room. The roommate is already there and has taken the bed by the window, the closet with a door and the desk that is not missing two drawers. The roommate’s mother is chatty and chipper and is so glad you got there because she has to run so she can catch a younger child’s soccer game. She air-kisses her son goodbye and asks for your phone number.

"I'll text you so we can coordinate care packages for the boys!" she chirps and flutters away.

You talk non-stop to the roommate because your child is not, and finally, the drawers are filled, the clothes are hung and there’s nothing left to do but say goodbye.

You hug your child tight and know you can’t cry because if you start you may never stop.

And then you leave.

You break down in the car and sob uncontrollably for fifteen minutes and wonder how in the world you're going to get through the semester. 

And then you start thinking about your other kids, the pile of work sitting on your desk, the relatives who are coming for the weekend and all the other things you've put to the back of your mind while you've been thinking of nothing else but your child leaving. And your thoughts start turning to what is waiting ahead, not who you’ve left behind.

And that’s how life slowly begins to fill the hole in your heart.

Days later, while cleaning your daughter’s empty room you find in the closet not one, but two, empty vodka bottles (or worse) and your eyebrows actually crinkle because you know that she doesn’t drink, because she told you she doesn't drink. Then you think back to the summer nights with the back door slamming till the wee hours of the morning and wonder what really was going on in your basement while you slept, dismissing all sordid scenarios because, after all, these are the kids you have known and loved and trusted since kindergarten.

He’ll call. He never calls. You’ll be so excited to hear from him that, without a lecture, you send the extra money for brand-new books because he waited too long to buy them used. When you ask if he is enjoying college he’ll say, “Yeah, it’s OK.” And you panic, wondering why he isn’t saying, “I LOVE IT!”

Then your friend shows you Instagram pictures (because she follows your son, but you are not allowed) and it sure looks like he’s having the time of his life.

Before you know it the calls fade to texts and when you ask, “How are your classes?” it will be two days before you get a response.


You have no choice but to believe her because this isn’t high school and there are no alerts from the school warning you that your daughter has failed a test, or cut a class, or never showed up. And you just have to hope you don’t get that dreaded call a month before graduation, “Mom, I’m six credits short.”

And then, just like that, it’s winter break. Your son is home for four full weeks and you can hardly wait to spend time with him. You fill the refrigerator and fluff up his pillows and put his thread-bare stuffed moose on his bed. He is home for exactly fourteen minutes before he rushes out the door. You lie awake waiting for the sound of the back door to slam, but it never does and eventually you fall asleep. In the morning you see a text that says, “Sleeping at Kris’s,” and you wonder how in the world you’re going to make it through the month.

And believe me, he is thinking the very same thing.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The First Family Tattoo

This is the text I got from my daughter. Please note my very restrained, blue-bubbled response.

Molly started on the tattoo kick shortly after she won the pierced ear campaign at age twelve.

“Mom! I’m getting a tattoo,” she announced. But tattoos cost money and require parental permission, so I wasn’t a bit worried. I knew she wasn’t street-smart enough to get around those suburban roadblocks.

But I humored her anyway.

“And what kind of tattoo would you get?”

She shrugged.

“Maybe a butterfly?”

Two years, and countless discussions later, “Mom! I’m getting a tattoo!”

“And what kind of tattoo are you getting this time?”

She shrugged.

“Maybe a peace sign?”

“What happened to the butterfly?” I asked.

“Butterfly? I would NEVER get a butterfly.”

The tattoo conversation was temporarily tabled but at every opportunity through the years, I have let my kids know exactly how I feel about tattoos.

It’s tough living in a world when “all” your peers have tattoos. And many with multiples. Leo's dear friend, Anthony, started with the body art when he was 16, a tattoo in memory of his dearly beloved father. OK. I’m down with that. I liked his father, too.
He has gone on to honor many others on his arms, chest and back, including Jesus and his mother  (Jesus’s, not Anthony’s), his Nana, his high school's motto and God in various forms. Even his good friend Tommy John is given a shout out on his elbow. Anthony, by the grace of God, is not my child and so I can simply admire his tattoos and shake my head.
“So,” I said to my spouse this morning, shoving my iPhone in his face. “Look what Molly sent me.”

“Oh! A fleur-de-lis!”

“It’s a tattoo.”

“Is that her ankle?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Fleur-de-lis are cool,” he said.

“It’s a tattoo. Your daughter has a tattoo.”

He shrugged.

“A tattoo on the ankle is fairly innocuous,” he said.

“Except on a job interview. Or in her wedding dress.”

“Oh, please. Every third woman in my hot yoga class has a tattoo,” he answered.

“And now the boys will get them. You know they will.”

“What boys?”

“Our boys. And you know she’ll never be able to marry anyone who's Jewish.”

“Why’s that?” he asked.

“Because Jew’s hate tattoos.” 

My spouse shook his head and went to church.

When I was young, there was nothing I wanted more than to get my ears pierced. I fought bitterly with my parents over their ridiculous denial of such a benign life pleasure. I used to glue fake pearls to my ears with a dab of nail polish and had a pair of huge silver hoops that lived in my jewelry box anxiously awaiting the day my parents would change their minds.

They never did.

I finally rebelled and got my ears pierced when I was 26 years-old.  I now have hundreds of pairs of earrings. I have pregnant lady earrings that I wore when I was with child. I have Christmas trees, shamrocks, witches, hearts and American flags for holiday wear. I have little girls swinging, Philadelphia street signs, typewriter keys and Scrabble tile earrings. I have one earring that says, “in one ear,” and one earring that says, “out the other.”  I have earrings in all colors, sizes and shapes. I have swirls and stones and peace signs, and yes, fleur-de-lis.

So, I get it.

But, I can, and do, change my earrings every day.

“So, Leo,” I said to my somewhat unconventional eighteen year-old son. “Did you hear Molly got a tattoo?”

“Oh, you know about that?” he asked.

“Yeah, I know about that. And I’m not happy.”

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because I hate tattoos.”

“Why do you hate tattoos? I’m going to get a tattoo.”

“You better not.”

“Why not? I’m 18 years-old.”

I bumbled around and ended up with the answer generations of parents have sworn they never would use and always do.

“Because when I was young…”

“Mom. Times have changed,” he said. “Get over it.”

“But in my day, "good" kids didn't get tattoos…”

“In your day there wasn’t a black president or gay marriage either.”


“Mom. It’s no big deal.”

“But don’t you understand that it’s there forever? What if you go to a job interview and you don’t get hired because of your tattoo?”

“I would never work for someone who wouldn’t hire me just because I had a tattoo.”

“But, what are your grandparents going to think?’

“See, that’s your problem, Mom. You always worry about what everyone else is going to think.”

True that.

And so, I took to my computer and googled the fleur-de-lis.

“Traditionally, it has been used to represent French royalty, and in that sense it is said to signify perfection, light, and life.”  

The fleur-de-lis is all over New Orleans.  And apparently, so is Molly. Molly is in her sixth week of a two-year stint with Teach for America. She loves New Orleans. And I love that she loves it.

“I guess a part of me is jealous that nothing means enough to me to warrant a tattoo,” I confessed to Leo.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t just get any old thing either,” he said.

"And you'd just get something small, right?"

"I wouldn't mind a sleeve, if it looked nice."

I winced.

Last year, my friend Peggy, previously dubbed as the-least-likely-to, suggested that six of us get matching tattoos. We all met the first week of college and have gotten together every single year without fail since we graduated. I gave her my expected “I would NEVER…” response.

But now I’m thinking, maybe nearly 40-years of  friendship is something that's tattoo-worthy after all.

But I can't do that without honoring all the other important people and places in my life. I pictured a sleeve, or two. Faces. Lots of faces. My kids, my spouse, my parents, my sisters, my closest friends, my favorite dog, my house on Woods Road. I could scrawl my wedding date across my back and include the lyrics to my favorite John Prine song.

Or, on second thought, maybe just an innocuous little red heart could cover it all. Including the love I have for my newly-tattooed rebel of a daughter.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Gone but not forgotten

Last night I waited up until 1:30 am for Max to get home safely.

That in itself is nothing remarkable. But the fact that he’s 3,000 miles away puts a different spin on the story.

“Do you miss Max?” my friend Claire asked as we sipped Diet Coke and munched on pretzels at my very quiet kitchen table last evening. Leo was still away on his week-long bender in Aruba, Molly was off teaching history to at-risk fifth graders in New Orleans and Max had flown back to Los Angeles on Saturday under the guise of a good job that started on Monday.

“You know, I’m really good at the whole out of sight, out of mind thing,” I confessed and shoved another pretzel into my mouth.

Max did all my grocery shopping for me this summer. I would rather clean bathrooms than go to the supermarket, so that’s what I would do when he made his twice-weekly run for cases of water, bottles of lemonade, liters of Pepsi One and tubs of shrubbery (as my ever-loving spouse calls my over-priced, pre-washed salad greens). He chose produce and meats with care and always made sure he picked up some chocolate mint chip ice cream along with his vanilla when it was on sale two-for-five-dollars. If he wasn’t sure of one of my many product peculiarities, he’d text a picture and I’d yea or nay it.

Max had an internship in the city this summer and though I peeked in his room every morning, fully expecting to see him curled up under the covers, he never needed a parental push out the door. Max’s friends are fun and personable and clean up most of their empty bottles in the basement. Max’s girlfriend, Oksana, brightens my mood the minute she enters the house. She is happy and kind and helps me set the table. She talks to me when no one else will and understands exactly how I feel about our Marmaduke clone, Griffey.

So, really, what’s to miss?

I hadn’t heard from Max except for an “I’m alive,” text eight hours after his plane landed. In the ensuing days I’d gotten a text or two with a hand-waving emoji or heart. But I hadn’t talked to him, nor did I expect to, any time soon.

And so, when Max called on the house phone last night at 11:45, I was a bit baffled.

“Momma,” he said hesitantly. “I’m in a little bit of trouble." 

“You’re not going to be happy with me.”

I am always amazed at just how quickly and ferociously thoughts can swirl through a mother's head as we wait for the axe to fall. 

These are the words I was sure I would hear next: I can’t go to school this semester due to lack of funds, grades or another unimaginable scenario. But,  I have to stay here because I have a year lease on my over-priced apartment. 

Which led me to: I realized that my over-priced rent is really, really over-priced because I thought the price on the lease I signed was for the four of us to split, not a piece!  

Segueing into: I lost my debit card and all my money is gone and the bank says I can’t get it back because I didn’t notice for three days. 

And finishing off with: I got arrested and have to stay in jail until you post bail and my cellmate murdered his mother.

The good thing about bracing for the worst is that when the truth comes out you can say, “Oh, is that all?” and mean it.

“I borrowed my roommate’s car to go to Target.”

There goes the mind again :  I got a speeding ticket. I ran over a squirrel. I ran over a dog. I ran over a human. I ran out of gas in a really rough neighborhood and three, no four gang members are heading my way. I totaled the car.

“And I lost the car key.”

Oh, is that all?

“I know this is my problem but I'm just asking for your advice," he said. "I really don’t know what I should do.”

It was close to midnight and I was tired and not really sure what he should do either. After all, my mind was still on the bail bondsman.

Max had not yet told his roommate of his dilemma because he knew, because he had been told, that there was no extra key.

Max is not a chronic loser neither in personality nor of possessions, so I kept the obvious lecture and follow-up questions to myself. 

“Call the police,” I suggested. Then I wondered, does he have his driver’s license, registration, insurance card?

My  brain kicked into gear and came up with the obvious solution. Locksmith! He’s in a major city; there’s got to be a 24-hour locksmith. And besides, it’s only 9 pm out there.

“Let me know what happens,” I said.

Fifteen minutes later, Max texted that he had gotten through to the answering service of a locksmith who would be calling him right back. I asked for the name of the company and immediately Googled it.

There were at least a dozen Yelp reviews all ranting about how they had been ripped off by this locksmith. The guy was apparently the biggest crook around, demanding cash and doubling, tripling and even quadrupling his on-phone estimates. 

Is this where you let your six-foot-three, 3000 mile away-from-home, grown man learn a lesson of how to deal with con men in California? Or does the mother in you kick in, knowing what easy prey your poor little all-alone boy is, panicking in a Target parking lot in downtown LA, scared to death that his roommate is never going to speak to him again?

I found a place somewhere in the middle. I Googled and Yelped until I located a locksmith with glowing reviews and passed the number on to Max. It took everything I had not to call myself.

An hour-and-a-half and $195 (his, not mine) later, I got the all clear, I’m home text.

Meanwhile, on another front, Molly e-mailed me from New Orleans.

“Lost my phone last night.”

But that’s another story for another time.

Do I miss my children? 

What's to miss?

They may be gone, but they're never forgotten.