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Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Toilet Bowl

Nearly 50 Thanksgivings ago, Mr. Sommerville, father of my first and finest friend Margaret, organized a friendly football game in front of his house on Woods Road. It was quickly decreed an annual tradition to be ever after known as The Toilet Bowl. Every year The Seat of Power, a white toilet seat attached to the base of a discarded golf trophy, is proudly presented to the game’s MVP, his or her name adhered to the seat for all of eternity. What was once a simple neighborhood game to entertain the kids, or perhaps a ploy to keep us out of the kitchen while our mothers basted the bird, The Toilet Bowl has taken on a life of its own. Friends, lovers and other strangers have all handled the pigskin, cheered on the sidelines, shivered in the snow and shed sweatshirts on the rare 70-degree turkey days. A post-game wrap-up in the form of food always follows. It started as cold cuts and Charlie Chips potato chips at Sommerville's then morphed into chili and chocolate chip cookies at my sister Nancy's house and is now at Schaeffer’s, right where it belongs. It's a final place for friends to gather together on Thanksgiving morning before filtering off to respective family functions.

The Toilet Bowl has endured for decades, surviving the turnover of the neighborhood and the varying degrees of heartbreak we suffered when our idyllic childhoods came screeching to a halt as parents sold our birthrights out from under us. New neighbors, who are not so new anymore, have moved onto Woods Road. And while they may hold the deed to their homes, to us, they'll always be the people who moved into The Sommerville’s House, The Hunsicker’s House, The Gallagher’s House or The Wert’s House. Our childhood memories are strong and happy and it would take far more than a blog to capture their true essence.

There is one house on Woods Road that has stayed the same. Upon leaving this world, Mr. and Mrs. Schaeffer bequeathed their humble abode to their favorite son. In return, he promised to uphold an open door policy, providing all family, friends and neighbors a home base for the rest of their lives.

And so, the Wednesday-Night-Before-Thanksgiving tradition was born. It began simply enough – a few of us twenty-somethings sitting around the Schaeffer’s kitchen table reconnecting and reminiscing as we sipped Rolling Rocks and scarfed down onion dip. Eventually we got jobs. We got married. We had babies. We moved across the country. But on Thanksgiving Eve, we came back, year after year.

Twenty-three years ago, a potential blip by the name of Richard entered the world just a few days before Thanksgiving. No one thought twice about it; we knew the party would go on. After all, this was the Schaeffer's third child and mother Nancy had long ago perfected the fine art of holding a newborn in one arm and serving Pigs-in-a-Blanket in the other, while toddlers nipped at her heels.

More years passed. More of us had children. Some of us brought our kids to the party and let them run amok until they ran out of steam. Some of us were wiser, leaving them at home with our spouses who would single-handedly feed, bathe, dress and transport three of them from North Jersey to Pennsylvania in time for The Toilet Bowl kick-off Thursday morning. And the wisest of us never reproduced at all.

Despite where we were in our lives, the Wednesday-Night-Before-Thanksgiving Party at the Schaeffer’s was an excuse for ten, or twenty or more of us to get together. Over time, more and more friends and neighbors and their offspring have joined the party, blurring the lines between founding fathers and new-found friends.

The kids grew into people. They went to college. They came home from college. They came to the party. They stayed at the party. And somewhere along the line, they trumped as at our own game. They outnumbered us. They out-drank us. They outlasted us.

But they never ousted us.

This year, the 30th annual Wednesday-Night-Before-Thanksgiving Party was perhaps the best of the bunch. My sister Emily and I were a little late arriving. Debby, her college roommate, was joining us for Thanksgiving and her train from New York City was delayed. By the time we got to Schaeffer's about 8:30, the house was already full, the food and spirits flowing. The house was alive with celebration. Jarrett and Hayley had recently gotten engaged. Kit and her family were home from Seattle, though sadly, not for good. From room to room, young to old, there was no disguising that familiar home-for-the-holidays, good-time feeling.

When I was a twenty-something kid, I know I wasn't hanging out with fifty-something parents. Sure, Mrs. Bergman may have slipped us the occasional whiskey and Diet Coke before we went off to The Depot, but it was certainly not the norm. On the rare occasions when I had to socialize with my parents' friends, I'd exchange pleasantries, ending the encounter right after the inevitable "Where are you working now?" question. 

But, these kids are different. They actually seem to enjoy being with us. On Wednesday night they didn't avoid us, rather chatted us up, telling tales of Penn State and St. Lawrence and Temple. They shared stories about their lives in the Air Force, the Army, the music world and the computer world. They told us about their new jobs at MoMA and their not-so-new jobs in speech pathology. They talked to us like they cared what we thought and made us believe we were still just as much fun as we were thirty years ago.

Taylor chose the tunes, swinging us from arm to arm as we belted out She's A Brick House and Dancing Queen and Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Baby. Kyle bailed early, but Will kept our glasses full. And Kelly, my long-time favorite, gave us a glimpse of what the future would hold.

Kelly was the first in the group to become a mother. Naturally, her adorable 16 month-old son attended the party, scooting across the kitchen floor, charming the guests until he grew weary of the shenanigans. And when he was done, he conked out in an empty room upstairs, just as dozens of kids had done dozens of times before.

And so it began, the first of the next generation of fun.

Meanwhile, down on the dance floor, our generation is reaching the top of the food chain. All but the luckiest of us have lost both parents. We're losing hair and replacing hips. Battling demons and conquering diseases. Retiring from jobs we've loved and quitting jobs we've despised. We've lived our lives, running households, building businesses, caring for the sick and traveling the world.

We've learned our lessons the old-fashioned way. We are old and achy enough to know we can no longer fall asleep on the Schaeffer's couch and toast Thanksgiving morning with a hair of the dog that bit us.

But the kids can.

And they will. Until they can't.

And then their kids will.

As for me, I can only hope that 20, 30 or 50 years from now, I'll still be rocking. Maybe I'll be in a chair in the corner holding Jarrett and Hayley's baby's baby. Or stumbling to the kitchen with my walker, searching for that nice young man who gave me a spoonful of chocolate to help wash my peppermint liqueur nightcap down all those years ago. Or maybe I won't even know where I am.

But I'll be there, one way or another.
After all, we got this party started.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My new pastime

My kids are gone.

My life is my own.

And it's simply scandalous the person I've become.

I do things I haven’t done in over twenty years. Like go to the grocery store, or Target, or the gym at three o’clock in the afternoon. For years I stood watch at that forbidden hour, anxiously awaiting the return of my little scholars or perched, ready to pounce when the call came for a ride to practice, or to a friend's house, or to the store to buy new cleats, or worse, to buy supplies for the dreaded semester-end project that had yet to be started and due the following day. Being a stay-at-home working (or non-working, depending on the day, the year, the minute, and who is describing me) mother gave me a lot of freedom, but with it came self-imposed regulations.  I could never in good faith not be home after school, whether or not they were. I could never spend hours catching up with girlfriends on the phone if my kids were home. I could never tell them to fend for themselves and cook their own meals, wash their own clothes, or get their own rides.

Now I can do whatever I want.

Of course I still have my rules. I do laundry on Mondays. But only on Mondays. Once a week. Not once a day. I prepare my spouse’s dinner, painstakingly slicing and dicing the shrubbery he calls supper, whether I am home to sit by his side or not. I go to the grocery store as seldom as possible and am one click away from making Peapod my personal shopper.

I finally belong to a book club in which, much to the chagrin of the ever-erudite Suzanne Broffman, we tend to favor beach reads over classics. I am a member of two writer’s groups and a Wednesday morning Bible study. I go to the movies and the occasional Broadway play with my spouse. I drive alone in my mini-van, traveling up and down the east coast visiting various configurations of friends. I walk my dog. I have a personal trainer (who may build muscle but sadly, can’t control my caloric intake) and I recently joined a pool.

I have somewhat regular freelance jobs and when I don’t, I’m working on my young adult novel under the scrutiny of my new writer’s group led by soon-to-be famous author, Maria Andreu. Since the last kid flew the coop this fall, I’ve traveled to Charleston, Chapel Hill, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia and Ocean City, New Jersey (by bicycle no less). I’ve been to Pennsylvania for dinners with my favorite nephew Harley and his daughter Sophie. We've been to Rutgers several times to watch women's soccer, cheering for Teaneck's Rachel Cole and my second favorite daughter, Jessie Sexton, as they take on the Big 10. And I’m sure it won’t be long before I book another cruise, visit my friend Penny (aka Patty) in south Florida, explore the French Quarter with Molly and tour Hollywood with Max.

I’m hardly wanting for things to keep me busy.

But, as I am wont to do, I have filled my down time with yet another activity.

I watch TV.

When my kids were growing up, I never watched television. I used it solely as a babysitting tool. Once the kids were in bed I spent my time cleaning the house, writing marketing brochures or going to PTA meetings. I have seen only one Seinfeld episode in my life -- the grand finale. I missed all the buzz about Grey’s Anatomy, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Lost, Law and Order and Everybody Loves Raymond. I couldn’t converse, weigh in on characters or comprehend how so many people could spend so much time watching television.

But now I do.

My spouse won’t watch any of my shows with me. He hates the screamer shows filled with musical hopefuls vying for a spot at the top. He loves music. I’m tone deaf. I can’t understand why he walks through the room rolling his eyes. I love these singers. I google them. I tweet about them. I keep a list of their names and predict when they will be ousted, cringing as my favorites are relegated to the ranks of the real world.

Ever since Leo and I binge-watched Friday Night Lights, I’ve been a huge Connie Britton fan. And now Nashville is one of my favorite shows. I love Deacon. I hate Luke. I’m obsessed with Juliette and her back story and forgive all her indiscretions. I woke up this morning thinking about what she will name her baby.

I resisted Scandal for a while, but my daughter, Molly, was relentless. I was afraid my limited knowledge/interest in politics, power and pretense would keep me from understanding what was going on. But despite Olivia Pope’s over-zealous EE-NUN-SEE-A-SHUN, and ten-steps-ahead brain, I found if I just concentrate on everyone’s love interests rather than B613 I can get sucked right in.

I almost gave up on How to Get Away with Murder. There were just too many flashy flashbacks and I didn’t have the wherewithal to try to sort it out in my simple little mind. But with the window opening a little wider every week, I couldn't help but get addicted. Tonight I’ll find out who killed Sam. And it better not be anyone I like.

Parenthood is the sappy sort of story I can’t get enough of. I want to hang out with Amber. Go drinking with Crosby. Eat dinner with Kristina. I root against Joel and Julia getting back together because I hate their sniveling little daughter (I’m one for taking it out on the kids). I worry that Mark will come back and steal Sarah away from Raymond, who, of course, I never knew as Raymond. But if Raymond/ Hank gets back with his wife, that would be OK because I like their kid now that she threw a keg party. And I feel for Drew as he tries to figure out if he should go for the money in getting his degree or follow his heart. I know what I would do, but he's not listening to me.

Then there’s Revenge that I started watching because I had a girl-crush on Emily VanCamp when she was on Brothers and Sisters – the one and only show I watched back in the day. It got a little much for me, but now as I’m faced with the mid-season finales and weeks of no shows, I’m going to watch all the episodes I've missed.

I can’t wait for Girls and Mad Men and Downton Abbey to come back in January. And of course, American Idol, even though much of the world has turned on it. I fill in the gaps by watching college basketball, Jets games and the occasional NBA game with my spouse because it’s important to spend some TV time together even if he dozes off in double overtime.

I do have my limits. I won’t allow myself to get hooked on daytime TV and the house remains silent until 8 pm when I allow myself to turn on the tube.

Sure, I feel a bit of guilt over my new-found obsession. But, hey, my job is done. The house is quiet, the kids are gone, the spouse is fed. I could spend this time reinventing myself, seeking out new volunteer opportunities, finding new clubs to join, speaking publicly on personal parenting imperfections.

Or I could just sit in front of my 19-inch screen and get lost in someone else's life for a change.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Leo Gets Divorced

Fourteen years is a long time. It’s a long time to be married. It’s a long time to be at a job. And it’s a life time when you’re only 18 years old.

This fall, Leo started his fourteenth season of baseball. And yesterday he announced that he was hanging up his cleats.

All of my three kids have played sports at a competitive level since they were five years old. Their ever-loving father and I have been team parents, coaches and supportive spectators through the highs and lows of soccer, wrestling, basketball, football, competitive cheerleading and ice hockey. But none of those sports has consumed and defined us as a family more than baseball.
Leo was our prodigy. He was the one who was going to make it all the way. He was focused, driven and had a beautiful swing. He had a life-sized poster of Ken Griffey, Jr. in his bedroom, a dog named after his favorite player and years of baseball memorabilia given as Christmas presents stowed on various shelves throughout the house.

For thirteen seasons Leo played on the Teaneck Titans, an elite travel baseball team. It was coached by the baseball guru Leon Matthews, assisted by my spouse and run by none other than yours truly. It was a team for kids who wanted to play at the college level and beyond. It wasn’t for the faint of heart, the multi-sport athlete or the kid who wanted to go to summer camp.

When the kids were six and seven years old, we went on our first road trip. We played “up” as we always did, in an 8U tournament near the town in which I was raised. My entire family came to cheer us on. My sister made handmade pillows shaped as Titans baseball caps and left them at the front desk of the hotel for each of the kids to receive at check-in.  We got blown out at that tournament in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. But we also got sucked in.
Coach Leon loved to chide me about my love of Little League and playing at the local level. And despite all the hits and catches and scouts and crowds surrounding the high-profile tournaments the Titans participated in, I never enjoyed anything more than watching my kid play Teaneck Southern Little League and then baseball for Teaneck High School.

But, we weren’t in it for fun, or for my personal enjoyment. We were in it so Leo could play baseball in college, preferably Division 1, and maybe, just maybe, though we would never say it aloud, he’d make it (gulp) to the Show.

Coach Leon devoted his life to trying to make players better. My spouse spent thousands of hours hitting buckets of balls and bucking up the downtrodden in the dugout. And I, well I, poured my heart and soul into that tumultuous team, welcoming new families, placating the old, booking travel, creating the Handy Dandy Trip Pack and running interference more times than I can count. It was a year-round unpaid job that we all did out of the goodness of our hearts.

It took two years and three orthopedists until one finally took Leo seriously, believing that at the tender age of 15, a sore arm could be something other than tendinitis. The hardest day of my life as a baseball mother came when Dr. Jason Baynes delivered the verdict. Leo had a torn labrum that required shoulder surgery. But I had to be upbeat. I had to be strong. I had to tell Leo that he’d be as good as new.

It took a long time, a ton of therapy and the genius of Vinnie Perez to bring him back to speed. He missed two prime-recruiting seasons not being able to throw and in those long and lonely days saw the shape of his future transforming.

But, he didn’t give up, and we didn’t either. I cringed every time I heard him rattling around for an ice pack and eventually crossed the words, “How does your arm feel?” out of my vocabulary. It didn’t do either one of us any good.

Leo was never much of a talker. He just did what he had to do. But in hindsight, I wonder what was going on in his mind. How do you feel as a teenage boy when your mother, your father, your coaches, your friends, your brother and sister have so much faith in you? When they talk about how you love this game more than life itself? When you tally up how much time and energy they've put in to making your dream come true? How do you even begin to know which dreams are yours and which are theirs anymore?
Leo got his Division 1 offer. He was invited to join the Rutgers University baseball team as a recruited walk-on. He didn't get scholarship money, but he got his roster spot. 

I wasn't blindsided. He told me. He'd been telling me for a long, long time. He told me he didn’t have the passion anymore. He wanted to do other things with his life. He wanted to be a normal person. But I didn’t listen. Instead I chalked it up to nerves or lack of confidence and kept pushing him to play his hardest. You never know what will happen in the future. Maybe you'll have a great college career. Maybe I'll be able to brag about you for the next four years. Fall season ended, he played well. He earned his spot. He reached his goal, but his heart was heavy.

So, what do you do with that heavy heart? All you've ever known is baseball. You've never even had a job (except for a three-week winter stint as a delivery boy for Vitales Restaurant; a job secured because the owner is a good friend and former Titan). You've traveled thousands of miles in packed vans, crowded cars and expensive airplanes sleeping in crowded rooms in expensive hotels throughout Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut and Maryland, never seeing any more of the country than a baseball field and the next Golden Corral. You've spent your family vacations on baseball trips. Your social life, as well as that of your parents, revolved around baseball. Yet, you loved it. And so did we. 

But what do you do when one of you stops loving it?

Being a Division 1 athlete has a lot of perks. There’s gear and girls and cliques and clout. It’s walking through campus with your head held high, knowing you’re one of the elite. One of 35 kids who are good enough to play baseball at a university with over 40,000 students. But it’s also an all-consuming commitment. It’s three-hour practices and weight room sessions. It’s mandatory tutoring and study halls, whether you need them or not. You have to either want to make baseball your life’s work or you have to really, really love it.

Fourteen years is a long time to be married to anything. Leo simply fell out of love.

Last night, as I tossed and turned picturing Leo at six, then twelve, then eighteen, always in a baseball uniform, I felt a little piece of my heart break. And I know that if my heart hurts, so does my spouse's, so does Coach K's. So does Coach Leon's. I suspect that every Titan, and every Teaneck teammate Leo has ever played with feels a little something. 

But so, I'm sure, does Leo. You don't do anything for that long without feeling it in your heart. 

And so, in what has eclipsed the hardest day of my life as a baseball mother, I had to be upbeat. I had to be strong. I had to high-five my son for his courage. 

And just when I was about to cry, the weight of the bat was lifted from my shoulders. I realized I don't have to sit clench-fisted on the bleachers making deals with God anymore.

God's got him covered. 

Long may you run Leo. Long may you run. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Marital Bliss

Twenty-five years ago today I woke up on my sister Nancy’s living room floor. Oddly enough, that was where I chose to spend the night before my wedding. When I opened my eyes, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm, knowing that happily ever after was about to begin.

After all, my spouse-to-be and I we had so much in common. We both loved movies, books, bicycling and sports. We came from virtually the same background, though we Episcopalians did tend to look down on the Presbyterians. We both wanted multiple children and had names chosen on our first date. (Unfortunately, Eric was never born because the Philadelphian in me would call him Uric whereas my spouse would call him Airic, causing irreparable confusion for the poor kid. We stuck with Leo instead.) We loved road trips, vacations, eating out, music shows and spending money we didn’t have. I pretended to like the beach and his Poplar Street apartment. But beyond that, our common interests were genuine.

We still like to do the same things. But, time and children have a way of changing the way we do them.

For instance, the movies. Once we had kids we realized we could save a ton of money on babysitters by going to movies alone. I would go in the afternoon, he’d go at night and we’d talk about it the next morning. I’ve spent so many years alone at the movies that I can’t imagine returning to Fifth Row, Right any more than he would take to Top Row, Middle, moving every time a human came within two seats of me.

Fine Dining
I remember for our second anniversary we decided to do something special and cook at home. We went out to eat so often it was getting old. We don’t go to restaurants a whole lot anymore, but I do make sure my spouse is well fed. We have both been on a healthy-eating kick for a couple of years. Obviously I do my fair share of straying, but I do commit to a salad every day for lunch. My spouse has his shrubbery for dinner.

He loves the Farmers Markets. The cheaper the vegetable, the better. And so, he buys zucchini and broccoli and tomatoes and carrots and peppers and mushrooms in bulk. He buys lettuce and spinach that has to be not only rinsed, but painstakingly cleaned, to remove the dirt in which it was grown. Being a dutiful wife, I prepare his salad each and every night with the eight-hours-till-rotten produce he procures. As for me, well I go around the corner to the overpriced Julio’s where they will hand-pick a perfectly ripe cantaloupe for you. My salad fixings are pre-cleaned, pre-cut and my plastic containers of Spring Mix greens are triple washed before I even get them home.

Sleeping Together
Back in the day, I could sleep anywhere – and did. I slept in cars and closets, on kitchen floors and beer-soaked sofas. As long as I was the last at the party, I’d take any spot still open. Today, I can’t sleep anywhere without an open window and a fan blowing on my face. I can’t sleep if I hear anyone (including my spouse) breathing (hence the loud fan), and need a wide array of perfect pillows. My spouse can fall asleep in the middle of a party, the middle of the bed, the middle of a sentence.  

He keeps an outdoor thermometer in the drawer of his bedside table. I pull it out in the summer to validate my claims that I am actually sleeping in a 92-degree un-airconditioned bedroom. In the winter, he's the one checking the mercury noting the frequent dips below 60.

Yet neither one of us has taken over one of the empty bedrooms. Yet.   

Automobile Angst
My father raised my sisters and me to always replace our cars after 50,000 miles. Buying a used car meant we were buying someone else's problems (no exceptions). Conversely, my spouse was trained to never buy a new car, continuously reciting the old depreciation-the-minute-you-drive-it-off-the-lot argument. In the early years of our marriage I used the children’s safety to sway my spouse to my side. I got my new car but am still driving it, 143,000 miles later. I dream of a brand new Lexus  SUV. Or even a Toyota RAV-4. Anything really, as long as it’s new. But, alas, the safety argument isn't as strong as it was with the children. Saying I'm too old to risk breaking down on the side of the road will be met with a rational response akin to: “You just completed an 80-mile bike ride this fall. You’re hardly infirm.”

And the kids, well, we just bought them a brand-new used Acura sedan. It’s got 180,000 miles on it. But I’m not driving it. I’ll keep driving my mini-van until it dies. For me, it's new or nothing. After all, an authoritative father’s voice inside your head is harder to silence that your spouse’s.

Saving the World
I have long ago stopped complaining about the overflowing compost bin on the kitchen counter. Instead, I added an environmentally unfriendly Ziploc plastic bag to its interior and when it is full, out it goes to the back deck. If it sits there for more than two days, it gets relegated to the trash. I tried to embrace the composing, I really did. And once I even took the scraps out to the far recesses of our backyard. I lifted the lid of the big, black compost bin and quickly learned that the half-a-dozen fruit flies in my kitchen were nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the thousands now swarming in my face. I shuddered but completed my mission, not recoiling until a groundhog trotted right across my left foot. I tried. I really did. 

Watching TV
While we are both self-professed television haters, the truth is, we actually do watch a lot of TV now that the kids are gone. My spouse watches back episodes of House of Cards, lots of sports and movies. I go for Nashville and Scandal and the reality music programs that he calls my Screamer Shows. We have a 40-inch TV in the basement where we can watch from La-Z-Boy recliners. Yet we both silently fight for the “good” seat in the living room – the chair that I have to pile with pillows to save my back, the chair that is two feet away from the 19-inch TV screen. On the rare occasion when we watch the same show – say, the World Series, a UNC basketball game or the Breaking Bad finale, I take to the corner of the red couch that should have been replaced five years ago, he sits in the good chair and we angle the TV so neither of us has a decent view. It's an odd existence, our television watching habits.

Leisure Time
This summer I went on a cruise with my friend, Penny (aka Patty). There’s nothing I like better than living in the lap of luxury, pretending to be way richer than I’ll ever be. My spouse, on the other hand, chose to vacation in Guatemala doing manual labor -- building a bottle school as part of a mission trip. He also rode his bicycle across Iowa, sleeping in a two-man tent for a week straight. To each his own.

On the eve of my 25th wedding anniversary, at the tender age of 22, my daughter declared that she was certain she’d never find true love.

“I mean, how do you even know?” she asked. “How do you know who is worth pursuing and who isn’t?”

I’m no expert, having been in love exactly once in my life. But that once has lasted a good long time. And so, I tell her what my mother had always told me. When you find the right person, you will know. There’s no secret and so set credentials that will give you a clue. You just have to follow your heart. 

My spouse and I may not have a walk-down-the-street-holding-hands kind of marriage. We are both independent and head-strong and set in our ways. But we always, always love, support, encourage, applaud and yes, put up with each other. 

You will know, Molly. You will know.