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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Freeze Frame




As I pull into the driveway, I say to myself, “Don’t forget to change your dentist appointment.” I get out of the car, walk into the kitchen, hang my keys on the hook, check my phone for messages and glare at the dog. Thirty-three seconds have passed. And the call to the dentist is completely forgotten. Sometimes I don’t even remember that there was something I was supposed to remember. But usually, there’s just that nagging feeling that I’m slowly but surely losing my mind. 

And so, I keep little notebooks everywhere. In my car, in my purse, on my desk, in the bathroom. I write down everything I’m supposed to remember –tell Molly to listen to the new Lucinda Williams song, charge my Kindle, tell Max to mail me back my credit card, put out the recycling, send in a freelance assignment, check to see if Leo is still alive. It doesn’t matter what it is – my once flawless memory is an equal opportunity forgetter.

While I was searching my brain for some shocking stories to share, I had a horrific thought. What if, considering the state of my mind, I’ve remembered it all wrong? So following the advice of my friend Laura, who says to hang on to old e-mails, letters and high school diaries, I scrolled through my saved mail and came across this e-mail I had written to an old friend ten-and-a-half years ago.


August 4, 2004
...We're in the midst of those middle years that I love. I wish I could freeze my kids at this age. Molly's 12 and though she has budding bosoms, still will occasionally be seen in public with me. Her eyes have not rolled out of the sockets just yet and she's a very fun kid to be around (when she's not begging for some material item). 
Max (10) and Leo (8) haven't done much more than play baseball since March. Luckily I love the sport and could spend my whole life on the bleachers with the other hags. The father coaches multiple teams (they play rec and all-star ball) so it's a real family event. Molly flirts with the boys and hangs with their sisters. So it all works out well. Unfortunately, like most sports these days, they make it go year-round, so there's always that conflict when hockey, soccer and football come around again. I guess eventually they'll have to choose, but I can't see them having any real vision at their tender ages and so I continue to schlep them from field to field with half-hearted apologies to coaches. 
 I'm in the middle of sprucing up the house after 10 years of letting it slide further and further toward condemnation. I've spent the summer lugging old furniture, newspapers, high school notebooks, broken lamps, 30 year-old leather-making kits, tubeless TVs, wireless stereos, etc. out of the basement with the intent of doing over the "good side" while the three of them are at overnight camp for a week. But everything costs money and the more you do, the more you see that needs to be done...but I'm sure I'm not telling you anything new. We thought of a romantic interlude, but realized once we had multiple children, we had to just put those thoughts aside for another decade.
I "plan" to start working in September, though I'm sure I'll have some new excuses. I'm trying not to be volunteer-of-the-decade anymore and have actually resigned from some of my posts. Leo's going into third grade and I know from the other two, this is the year they start getting humiliated when they see you in the school. I'm going to put my feelers out for some freelance writing work and make some money so I can send my children to the finest of colleges. 
My health ailment this year was a hysterectomy to destroy the cancer cells growing in the uterus. I really dreaded it because I don't have time for that sort of thing, but it ended up being really uneventful. I got out of the hospital on a Friday and was watching Max's baseball game on Saturday -- lugging the basement boxes two weeks later. 
Sisters are all fine. Nancy works on Trading Spaces Kids show which I'm sure your bride watches (at least she MUST watch the regular Trading Spaces, as all good women do). I went to see her on the set down in Baltimore (on the way back from visiting my spouse's mother who has lung cancer...) and it is really quite something. Emily still has the travel agency but also works at a high school teaching math, substitute teaching French and tutoring kids. Susan still works wherever it is she works and lives however it is she lives. She’s healthy, wealthy and wise. Doris is an active widow and just returned from a trip to Nova Scotia with her cousin. She, the aforementioned cousin, the aforementioned cousin's kids (roughly our age) and the four Hunsicker sisters all went on the Queen Mary for a  three-day cruise to nowhere out of New York. It was quite the gala event and we had tons of fun.
Emily takes the nieces and nephews anywhere in the world they want to go when they are 10 years-old. Max has finally decided on Italy. They are going on a bike tour through Tuscany. It's a family-oriented trip with different length rides each day to choose from. It should be good cause there will be other kids on the trip. You know boys aren't the greatest conversationalists sometimes, and poor Emily would take it personally.
Gotta move on as I need to get the kids from camp and scoot Max off to a playoff baseball game…Happy Birthday!
Well, dem the facts all right. Everything's there, just as I remember. The shuffling of sports, the under-working and over-volunteering, the health blips, even the yearly cruise I get to take. But, something's missing. I don't sound frantic. I don't sound fed up. I don't sound like I hate the children I profess to love. 

I'm not sure if August 4, 2004 was one of the good days or if I was just trying to impress my friend with a skewed look into my calm, cool and collected life. Or, maybe, just maybe, there were times when I really enjoyed the chaos. 

Nah. Even I wouldn't forget something like that.


Monday, January 26, 2015

The Awesomeness of Child Rearing



Sophie turned three last week.

She’s my favorite nephew’s daughter and cuter than any kid I’ve ever seen in my life. Including my own.

“How could you stand it?” Molly asked after we spent the day with Sophie in Pennsylvania over the Christmas holiday.  “Didn’t you just sit and stare at us in awe when we were little?”

Oh, Molly. You have no idea.

Every Sunday in church, my spouse and I position ourselves in the pew right behind the Peters family. Jack and Karen are about our age, but because they wed when they were mere youth have been married ten years longer than we have. Thus, their two thirty-something daughters who each have two children of their own compared to my three distant, but still dependent dependents. I watch those four little grandchildren, who run a close second to Sophie in adorability, squirm and squiggle and get whisked out of the sanctuary when the squeals turn to shrieks. As I make peek-a-boo faces at them during the Lord's Prayer my spouse wiggles four fingers which means, “Let’s have a fourth child.”

There was never a part of me that wanted four children. When Leo was born, I knew I had reached my limit. My spouse, so wise in parenting matters, knew I had exceeded my limit two children back. But now that our youngest is eighteen and none of the kids live at home full-time anymore, I have begun to understand the appeal and awe of parenting – as long as it’s through the eyes of a grandparent, or a great-aunt, or an unrelated bystander.

When you have three children in rapid succession, every day is a race to the finish line. The clock ticks interminably slowly toward that blessed hour when the last little angel puts his head down on the pillow. And stays there.

The house is a constant chaotic mess. Three-tired trucks, headless dolls, mismatched shoes and dirt and dust and more dirt are the focal point of the foyer. Portable cages decorate the living room, posing as play pens; books with torn-out pages line the coffee table; half-chewed cheerios and drippy sippy cups find their home under the couch cushions. When the doorbell rings, your heart hardens in horror and you greet your visitor on the front stoop, using a sleeping baby as an excuse for the closed door behind you. 

You muddle your way from meal to meal, movie to movie, fight to fight. You bribe, you threaten, you cry.

You feel constant guilt.

Because you aren’t good enough. Kind enough. Fun enough. Strong enough. Smart enough. You’re never enough.

You want more than anything to work full-time but would never, ever say those words out loud. You pray, on your hands and knees, that your spouse will come home early and witness the witching hour, just once. But, alas, he is the one working his tail off so that you get to stay at home with the kids.

Instead, you hire babysitters and join committees and become PTA president and run sports leagues, just to get a night out. You make play dates and go to museums and zoos and parks and story hours at the library under the guise of culture, but you know it’s really just to tire the tikes out.

You get a dog.

And a mini-van.

And start researching boarding schools.

And eight-week-long sleep-away camps for summer vacation.  

But you can’t afford either the guilt or the cash and so you rent a house at the beach instead. And after 24-hours of sandy diapers, soggy snacks and sunburned shoulders, you swear you will never voluntarily sit on a beach again as long as you live. Unless you have an umbrella drink on one side of your chair and a BFF on the other. 

Which isn’t to say that you don’t take great pride and joy in raising your exceptional children. You keep detailed baby books and meticulous medical records. You write down all the adorable things your precocious daughter says and worry that your sons are simple. You take lots and lots of pictures and read lots and lots of books and make lots and lots of meals filled with vegetables that are never, ever touched.

And somewhere in the midst of it all, they learn to tie their shoes and dress themselves. They pour their own cereal and their own juice, which way too soon becomes soda. They learn to swim and ride a bike and throw a ball. They walk to the bus stop alone. They go on sleepovers. They go to sleep-away camp. But never for longer than a week or two at a time. They join teams and clubs and start choosing their own way in the world. They learn to cook. An egg, then pasta, then brownies. But never broccoli. They learn to drive. And fill out college applications.  

And finally they learn how to live with someone who is not you.

That’s just about the time when you catch your breath and start wishing you could take it all back. You'd be more patient and less selfish. You'd be more loving and less frantic. You'd care more about what your family thinks and less about what the world thinks. 

And for sure, you'd do just what Molly thinks she will do. Sit and stare at your kids in awe. 


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Me? Busy?



“I know you’re insanely busy, but I have a huge favor to ask,” read the text from Jenn, who never asks me for anything. She’s the friend who takes over the cooking at my Christmas party every year when I lose interest about fifteen minutes in.

I owe Jenn more than one huge favor, but still, I cringed.

All she wanted was a ride to pick up a car on Sunday afternoon. The whole trip would take less than an hour.

Now, I will do anything for anyone but I always make sure that anyone knows just how busy I am and inconvenient it is for me to do the anything that I’ve been asked to do.

“Sure, I’ll bring your kid home from baseball practice. But that means Molly will have to wait at cheerleading for twenty minutes while I deposit your little prince at his doorstep. Oh, and they lock the gym so she'll have to stand outside. Alone. And it will be dark by then. And it's in a bad neighborhood.”

“Yes, I’ll help with your kid’s college essay tonight that's due tomorrow. But I have tons of real (meaning paid) work I have to do first, plus a meeting at church and a book I have to finish for my book club tomorrow night that I’m hosting, so I probably won’t get around to it until about 2 am.”

“I’d love to make cookies for the bake sale tomorrow. But, I have to take Leo to the doctor and Max has his SAT tutor and my spouse needs a ride home from work because he forgot he dropped his car off for an oil change and now the place is closed. Leo has a workout with his personal trainer a half-hour away and of course no one else will drive. But, sure. I’ll fit it in somewhere.”

Even after my most passionate diatribes, no one ever said, "That's okay. I didn't realize you had so much going on. I'll see if Donna, who has never done anything for anyone in her whole life and has never seen the inside of the school and does nothing but sit around and watch reality TV with her husband who is equally as unhelpful, will do it this time." 

Not ever. Not once.

When I got Jenn's text this week, my first thought was to respond in my usual way. Sure, I'll do it, but...

And that's when I realized what my buts have become.

"Sure, I'll do it. But I am hosting my book club tomorrow night ."

But, alas, that excuse won't work. The house is already clean (well, clean enough) because all the kids have gone back to school. I already bought the cheese and crackers and don't have to stop for a bottle of wine because I salvaged one from the basement that the aforementioned offspring didn't pilfer. 

"Sure, I'll do it. But I have to go to church and the gym and then watch the Seahawks game." 

Again, not a problem. Because the children are gone I have sleep-filled nights and can get up early enough to spend an entire hour at the gym before church even begins. And because we don't go to a church that requires multiple hours of prayer, there's even time for a nice little lunch of leftovers that, due to the departure of the vultures, is right on the shelf where I left them. All the ducks will fall neatly in their rows allowing me to get Jenn to her destination and back long before the football game begins.  

"Sure, I'll do it. But my check engine light has been on for a week and my tires are bald and I lost my EZ Pass."

Oh, yeah. I can drive the extra car now that there are three (four, counting the scary one in the driveway) cars for two resident drivers.

So, instead, I just responded like I should have to all those hundreds of other favors that came before. 

"Sure, I'll do it. Just tell me what time."

As it ended up, Jenn didn't need the ride after all. But for some reason, that never, ever happened back when I was busy.

I've never been so un-busy in my life.

I'm working. I really am. I have a steady enough stream of freelance work to make sitting at my desk worthwhile and to finance a trip (or two...) with the girls every year. I belong to two writer's groups, a bible study and a book club. I exercise for at least an hour. Every. Single. Day. I sleep eight hours a night. I follow half-a-dozen television shows, catch every televised Pitt and UNC basketball game and try to watch at least one other sporting event a week with my spouse (only because he won't watch The Voice). I entertain myself by writing my blog, thinking about writing screenplays and stopping and starting many new novels. I clean the bathrooms and kitchen once a week, talk to my daughter every afternoon and text one or two sons whenever I feel strong enough for rejection. Thanks to my sister Nancy, I have taken up playing mahjong on the computer. I read two of our four newspapers (the less challenging ones) and whatever book I've downloaded on my kindle at night before bed. I have lunch with Ann and Gail once a month. Dinner out a few times a month.  And I vacuum dog hair. Every Single. Day.

I float from day to day.

But it hasn't always been this way. 

I came across a color-coded schedule I had created five years ago to help get us through a weekend. The weekends were easy because I had my spouse to share in the duties. I probably shredded the weekday schedules in an attempt to forget the agony. 

But I will never forget. 

I have such fond memories of driving in circles. To practice. From practice. To one end of Teaneck. From the other end. To the city. From the city. To faraway cheerleading gyms. To farther away baseball diamonds. To meetings. And more meetings. To two in one night. 

I remember screaming. Loud and often.

I remember my insides shaking and a constant feeling that if I took a breath, I might fall off the balance beam. 

At one point my spouse surreptitiously placed a magnet on our refrigerator with a picture of a 50's housewife that reads, "Stop me before I volunteer again!"

I remember wanting it all to be over so I could just sit in silence and think about no one but myself all day long.

Life is a lot different now that I have no more school meetings to go to. No baseball games to watch. No cheerleading competitions to attend. No award dinners. No football games, soccer games or wrestling matches. No Team Momming to do. No Martin Luther King Jr. assemblies. No Sunday School to teach. No Little League board meetings. No school's closed! phone chain calls. No concession stand shopping, schlepping or selling. No fundraising. No Handy Dandy Trip Packs. No PTA attendance, support or presidency. No homework to check, nagging to do, permission slips to sign. No Back-to-School nights, book fairs or picture days to run. No jaunts to Staples for the third $100 graphing calculator of the year. No frantic trips for forgotten cleats, projects or friends. No bagels to buy. No chicken to fry. No moldy towels to wash. No late-night pick-ups, sports weekends away, basement monitoring to do. Nobody throwing me into a tailspin with a last-minute favor.
 
There's a part of me that misses the good old days. The frenetic pace. The constant chaos. The slamming doors. 

But I'll never admit it. After all, I spent too many years of my life dreaming about the sounds of silence.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Better Never than Late



My father believed that being on time meant being 15 minutes early.  Or 20 or 30, depending on the event. And his mood.

“What time are we leaving?” we learned to ask, even when we knew softball practice was at two o'clock, that it was a five-minute ride and that we couldn’t get on the field until the team practicing before us finished.

When he’d tell us 12:30, we knew there was nothing we could do about it. We just made sure we were ready by 12:15.

As nature will have it, parents’ rules, habits, ways-of-life, quirks, whatever you want to call them, tend to filter down to their offspring. Children were born in our likeness and we want them to be like us. Unfortunately or fortunately, as the case may be, we can't completely control who they become.

In my over-aggressive attempt to win the coveted favorite award, I grew up to be just like my good old dad. Timely. To a fault.

Having three children in rapid succession certainly challenged my timeliness, but I simply factored in an extra hour to everything I had to do.

I don’t think I’ve ever been late for anything in my life.
 
And yes, I realize it's an annoying trait for those with different senses of urgency to have to deal with. After all, I lived my entire childhood up against the clock.

My friend Dianne has an annual Christmas soiree that starts at 7:45. Now, I do understand that party start times are somewhat negotiable and that no one wants to be the first one there, but Dianne’s party is different. It is carefully orchestrated with hors d’oeuvres and desserts that put Martha to shame. I like to honor her efforts by being on time. Plus, I don’t want to miss a single bite. So, for the past 20 years, we have arrived at the party at 7:50. And we are never the first ones there.

This year, when my spouse, who has known and loved me for longer than he cares to admit, was listening to his Rosetta Stone Learn-a-Language (Spanish) tapes at 7:45, my heart started racing.

“You almost ready?” I called down to the basement.

“Give me 15 minutes.”

Fifteen minutes? Was he kidding?

But, in a rare display of holiday cheer, I didn’t say a word and just suffered with my shaking innards until we walked out the door at 8:10 pm.

When I fly, I get to the airport a full two hours in advance, whether I'm departing from a jumbled-up mess like Newark or a manageable mecca like Raleigh/Durham. For movies, I have an arrival standard of ten minutes before the previews start which is a good 20 minutes before show time. Appointments-15 minutes, even though I’ve rarely sat in a waiting room for less than 30.

It is unfathomable to me why anyone would want to be risk being late and a mystery as to how they can quell their anxieties. And so, I feel their anxiety for them.

It can be something as innocuous as Molly saying she’s going out with Heather at seven o'clock.

At 6:45 I’ll start.

“Molly, aren’t you picking up Heather?”

“Yeah.”

Then at 7:10, “Molly, don’t forget Heather.”

“I got it, Mom.”

I bite my tongue at 7:15 and don’t relax until she walks out the door at 7:30.

As long as I'm not part of the plan, I have learned to let my spouse leave when he wants without weighing in on the matter. Though I will occasionally say something like, “Isn’t your train leaving in 40 minutes?”

To which he’ll reply, “I’ve got plenty of time.”

And he does. He never misses a flight, a train or a meeting. I just don’t know how he can live his life so down-to-the-wire. On the other hand, he can't understand why I would ever choose to waste time in a waiting room.

When Leo left for the mall with his friends yesterday afternoon, I let him walk out the door without saying a word. But I texted him soon after.

“Don’t forget to be home by 4:15 for the dentist.”

“Roger that,” he answered, which I took to mean, “OK.”

About 3:45, the palpitations began.

I tried to talk myself down.

It’s a basic cleaning. If he misses it, he’s not going to die. If he misses it, they’re not going to charge me. If he misses it, I don’t have to look the dentist in the eye and apologize. It really has nothing to do with me.

Or does it? No matter how hard I try to shake it, I still believe that my children's improper actions, reactions, or lack of, are a reflection of my parenting.

I still think that every unacknowledged present is met with an adult shaking their head.

"No wonder her kids don't write thank you notes. She spoiled them rotten."

And every missed appointment, tardy-to-class and late pick-up means that I didn't teach them to value someone else's time. Already, the dentist had squeezed Leo in so he could get one more scraping in before returning to his plaque-producing college diet.

I picked up my phone at 3:55.

Maybe I should text him a reminder; it was conceivable that he forgot once he got tangled up with his friends. But then I reasoned that he is 18 years-old and still has a sharp mind. He won't forget something in a matter of two-and-a-half hours. Unless, of course, he wants to.

I refrained. I had told him to be home by 4:15, not 4:00. He still had time. Though by my clock, he was already late.

At 4:10 my phone lit up.

“Going right to the dentist.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, though since his friend had driven, it meant that I had to go out in the freezing cold rain to pick him up after the appointment.

But I couldn't complain. After all, I got what I wanted.

A punctual progeny.