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Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Missing Link



People pop into my mind at the most inexplicable times. I might pick up a bottle of lemonade at the grocery store and think of Betsy Barker. Together we created many, many concoctions at West Virginia University, but I’m pretty sure none of them were based on lemonade.  I may be crossing the George Washington Bridge when I start chortling to myself remembering how I used to call Beth Snow “Barfy.” She guided me through my courtship with my eventual spouse, but we never once barfed about it. I can be riding my bicycle up in Rockland County and Jeff Simmons tugs at my heart. Once, while seated in a booth across from him at a Pizza Hut I jumped up and started dancing in the aisle. But I promise you, we never rode bicycles together.

It’s hard work keeping in touch with people when they’re no longer in your day-to-day life. I thought it would get easier as the kids got older and I had more time to myself. But things like Mahjong and book clubs, writers groups and Pampered Chef parties, monthly getaways and yearly cruises (not to mention time killers like work and basic housekeeping) get in the way, crowding out the what-was for the here-and-now.

Why and when old friends resurface is an enigma to me. And when they do, I make a mental note to track them down. But my mental notes aren’t as sharp as they used to be and more often than not, my old friends retreat to the far recesses of my memory before I even get to send an e-mail.

And so, I've started writing my friends' names down. I have sticky notes on my desk. Voice reminders in my phone. Scraps of paper in my pocketbook.

“Linda’s kid – going to college.”

“Ask Susan about Papa.”

“Bob birthday.”

“Message Maggie.”
 
Last weekend was Maggie’s memorial service. I met her many moons ago when my kids first started school. The bus stop was up the hill and she lived around the corner and we met in the middle to bid our children farewell every morning. I was in total awe of Maggie because not only was she the first PTA president I ever met, but she also had the bus stop moved to a safer location. Something I never, ever would have thought I had the power to do. Back then, I was working part-time at CNBC and she was working full-time as a homemaker, in every good sense of the word. On the days I wasn’t working, we wore our sneakers to the bus stop and after waving goodbye to our offspring, headed for the high school track.

As we walked we talked about our worries and wishes, our political views and spiritual beliefs, our physical shortcomings and our mental defects. We shared our deepest secrets, flinging our closets wide open to let the skeletons out. We knew each other's extended family members without having met them and recognized our respective demons that kept us from being whole. There wasn’t a whole lot we didn’t know about each other, yet our conversations were often as circular as the track we trekked. We were both headstrong in our own ways and often had to agree to disagree and just keep walking.

One thing we disagreed on was Maggie’s move to Montville. When she made her mind up to leave, I knew there was no dissuading her. And so, instead of defending Teaneck’s honor, I started suggesting surrounding towns with great school systems and lower taxes, resigned to the inevitable.

Montville is a mere 25 miles from Teaneck. But, as I suspected it would, it made all the difference in our friendship. At first we visited back and forth. I envied her big and beautiful and ultra-modern house. And she still came to Teaneck for an occasional visit. But things were never the same once we weren’t in each other's everyday life.

We talked on the phone a lot at first and then e-mail became our source of communication. E-mail turned into Facebook messaging and eventually we were keeping in touch only sporadically.

At the time of Maggie's death, I hadn’t talked to her electronically, or otherwise, in well over a year. We perused each other’s Facebook pages and clicked little “likes” or commented on silly things, but I hadn’t had any one-on-one with her in a long, long time. I hadn’t seen her in at least five, maybe closer to ten years.

Yet, because I knew her very well for a long time, I felt compelled to speak when friends started sharing their sentiments at her memorial service.

I didn’t say anything particularly profound. I talked about how much she adored her two boys and touched upon the little life lessons I learned from Maggie. She taught me that even the pickiest eaters will eat, and eat well, when they're hungry. I used to mock her mercilessly for having a full dinner ready for her kids when they got off the bus at 3 pm. When I finally tried it myself, I realized it was a surefire way to get kids to eat their vegetables.

And I told of how Maggie retired after her one-year stint as PTA president while I went on to over-volunteer for way too many years. Maggie tried to stop me, she really did. But I didn’t listen and I didn’t learn until it was too late that it was infinitely more important to spend time raising your own children than every other kid in town.

It wasn’t until I was driving home reflecting on all the heartfelt stories that I shed my first tear. I truly believe that Maggie is in a better place, but couldn’t help but feel sad for her kids and her husband and for all the friends and family who loved her. But, mostly I was sad for myself for all I had missed.

Maggie made me realize the importance of keeping in touch. In person. You can text and e-mail and like Instagram photos and write all the little Facebook comments you want, but there’s no substitute for face-to-face friendship.

We all make our hollow declarations, "I miss you! Let's get together soon!" thinking some time soon we will. And we mean to. We really do. But sometimes time runs out.

In honor of my old friend Maggie, I'm collecting all my little post-its and hand-scribbled notes and making some face-to-face plans. 

So, Chris Kirk, get ready. I’m coming to see you.  

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Tangled Up With Sophie

 


“You’re the evil mother,” Sophie said, pointing to me.

“How did you know?” I wondered aloud.

She looked at me quizzically and gave my sister Emily the role of the good mother.

“You are the Floating Lights Guy,” she said to her father. “And I’m Rapunzel.”

Sophie, Harley and Emily had all recently seen Tangled. I had not. The last Disney movie I saw was The Lion King. It was my first-born’s first trip to the movie theater and I thought I wanted to be a part of that milestone. From that day forward my ever-loving spouse was on movie duty. He actually enjoyed spending time with the children. Plus, he thought the animation was quite clever.

Last weekend I went to Pennsylvania to have dinner with my favorite nephew, Harley, and my favorite grand-niece, Sophie, who were crashing temporarily at the house of my favorite sister, Emily.

When I arrived, Harley was inside trying to get three-and-a-half year-old Sophie to snooze.

“We had a big day,” Emily explained. “First we went to the church fair and then to the pool.”

We sat outside on the flagstone patio and I launched into one of my long-winded stories that encompassed many weeks, many characters and many convoluted plot twists . I barely nodded when Harley appeared, so intent was I to finish my story before the attention would all be on Sophie.

I finished the story, a tale too complicated to even be blogged about and Sophie emerged, cranky and clingy.

“She wouldn’t let me put sunscreen on her face. She’s probably sunburned,” Emily said.

"Oh, please," I said, thinking of my teenaged self, prone on my friend Mary Anne’s macadam driveway, adding aluminum foil for a little more reflection, all in hopes of tanning my very pale and freckled skin. It wasn’t until I was a good 40 years-old that I started getting tan at all. I had finally burned off the first layer of skin, leaving the tan-able epidermis. Back when it mattered, I burned like a lobster and blistered like a marathoner.

“Maybe she’s hungry,” Emily suggested as Sophie burrowed her nose into her father’s neck and complained of a stomach ache.

“I hope she’s not getting sick,” Harley countered, touching his lips to her forehead to check for a fever.

I refrained from saying, "Sophie, I came so far to see you. Aren't you going to play with me?" 

I didn't poke her or tease her. I left her alone. 

And sure enough, a few Ritz crackers and a glass of milk with a fun-colored straw later, Sophie was up and running.

Off we went to the Lucky Well in Ambler where we grown-ups pigged out on pulled pork and ribs while Sophie, far less gluttonous, had to be urged to take “one more bite” of her chicken fingers and crispy apple slices.

After dinner we hit Rita’s for water ice. Sophie had mango. I didn’t know what a mango was until I was fifty. And I know none of my kids ever tasted it while living under my roof. I had an ice cream cone. Chocolate. Of course.

We sat in a little park next to a church right on the main drag to eat our treats. Sophie declared that the wall we were perched upon was too dirty so we had to move to a wrought iron bench.

I didn't complain about my aching knees.

And I never once told her not to spill her water ice.

But still, I was cast in the role of the Evil Mother in the movie I had never seen.

Kids are very perceptive creatures. As my children can certainly attest, I oozed evil. I didn’t need any tips from Walt Disney.

My kids never had a popsicle, ever, in my house. They were forbidden cones at Dairy Queen and only allowed mini Blizzards with lids. They never knew there was such a thing as purple grape juice. They thought it was always white. They were double-bibbed until they went to middle school. They couldn’t run around barefoot or swim in their skivvies. They had strict bedtimes and stricter wake-up hours. They knew to go to their father for breakfast. Their Evil Mother didn't go on duty until 9.

I worried constantly about what people thought of me. I felt judged every minute of every day. Were my kids smart enough? Clean enough? Pleasant enough? I felt every cringe and every rolled eye from every eyewitness of every random tantrum. And I yelled. All. The. Time. 

“How can anyone yell at a kid?” my son Leo commented this summer, after witnessing a mother flipping out on her offspring. I’m sure I made a comment like “I would have beaten that kid silly,” knowing that I wouldn’t have (see my dissertation on beating my children.).

“Little kids aren’t even humans yet,” he reasoned. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye and wondered if maybe, hopefully, he had forgotten all the times I yelled at him, expecting him to be a human way before he was old enough.

I tried not to yell in public, but boy did I yell at home. When we were in public there were just a lot of empty threats through gritted teeth.

“If you don’t talk to your relatives at Thanksgiving dinner, I’m taking away your iPhone.”

That was last year.

I really had no excuse. By the time I reproduced I had traveled, worked and played to my heart's content. I was ready for a family and my kids had a father who was more hands-on than I was. My children were planned and evenly spaced. I worked part time when they were born and later, worked from home. And still, it wasn't easy.

Harley is a 23 year-old with a three-and-a-half year-old daughter. He spends every other weekend and every Wednesday night solo with Sophie. He didn't plan to be a father and had a whole lot of other things he thought he'd be doing in his twenties. But he is the most patient parent I know. He is fun and funny and does something I had a lot of trouble doing. He always puts his child first. 

And, I guess that’s why he gets to play the fun and handsome leading man, Flynn Rider. Or, as Sophie calls him, the Floating Lights Guy. I googled the character, I really did, to find out what kind of guy she thinks her father is.

"Flynn Rider is an adventurer. A risk-taker. An explorer. He has so many overwhelmingly amazing qualities that we can’t even begin to list them all." 

And, I also learned that he was "blackmailed" by Rapunzel into taking her to see the kingdom's floating lights for her eighteenth birthday. 

That's when I laughed my Evil Mother laugh. Because Harley has no idea the extent of the blackmail he's going to have to endure with that sweet, smiling little girl of his.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

ReEntry



A long, long time ago, back when my kids were six, four and two years-old, thirteen of us “girls” Had a Ball in the Bahamas. We went to an all-inclusive resort for a week to celebrate our 40th birthdays. Five years later, seven of us did a repeat and Made Mischief in Mexico.

We didn’t all go to college together, though that was our common connection. The trips had the same core group with a few variances –we threw in a high school friend or two, a guitar-playing Spanish-speaking friend of a twin sister and a long-lost wanderluster from California.

And while having a ball and making mischief certainly had different connotations in our 40s than they did in our 20s, suffice it to say that we managed to make some pretty fine memories. A couple of the swinging singles in the group left campus and had a two-day blast-from-the-past type of adventure. Thanks to the free flowing fruity umbrella drinks, those of us left behind never even thought to be the least bit concerned. Kind of like in college.

And when the week was done, we packed our bags, hugged each other tight and headed home to face ReEntry as boldly as we could.

Poor Sue made a spectacle of herself as she returned to the suburban sprawl she called home, just outside of Atlanta. Her seven year-old twins, ten year-old daughter, hairy beast and hard-working husband couldn’t wait to see her again. But, in a last-ditch attempt to prolong the perfect vacation, Sue imbibed a bit on the plane. By the time she reached her lovely home in the crux of a cul-de-sac, she found herself with arms splayed across the front door jamb, hyperventilating and screaming something to the effect of, “Save Me! I’m not ready for ReEntry!!!”

And while her friend and neighbor who witnessed the scene, and those of us who later learned of her calamitous homecoming, knew she was half-kidding, her reaction gave us all a good laugh about a very real and bittersweet thing called ReEntry.

There are entire programs set up for ReEntry. It’s Google-able. The  Bureau of Justice defines ReEntry as the transition of offenders from prisons or jails back into the community. But can’t the reverse also be true? Going from a community of friendship back into the prison of life?

I jest, of course, for anyone who has known me for a nano-second or read but half a blog, knows that my life is far from a prison. I am one of the lucky ones who married a man who not only “allows” me to travel freely with my friends but actually encourages it. Most of my buddies have equally loving spouses who are equally happy to have their homes to themselves for a week or a weekend, whatever the case may be. We all live good lives surrounded by good people.

So, what is it that makes ReEntry so darn hard?

We haven’t all managed to steal away again to a Caribbean Island as a group in over a decade. But, last month seven of us got together at the aforementioned twins', vacation house on the coast of Maine. Betsy and Pam's place is big and rustic with creaky chairs, linoleum floors, paper-thin walls and a huge front porch overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.



Our lives have changed considerably since college. Two of us no longer drink cocktails, though every one of us still enjoys Happy Hour. One of us has had a liver transplant, two have had breast cancer, one has had more back and knee surgeries than we can count. We’ve gained and lost and gained hundreds of pounds, we’ve told and retold hundreds of stories and we’ve shared and savored hundreds of heartbreaks and happy days.

Two of the seven live south of the Mason-Dixon line, two live in Red Sox territory and three of us are somewhere in between. Only one of us married a man we met in college and we got rid of him pretty quick. We’re now all in committed relationships with really good men who nurture our souls and liven our spirits.

There are seventeen children between us, only one of us with the foresight not to reproduce. Some of our kids have gone places and done things we wish they never had. And some have gone places and done things we wish we had had the fortitude or finances to do. But regardless, they are all productive members of society who alternately frighten and thrill us by the mere knowledge that they share our genes.

We spent the better part of a week (coming and going in shifts) reminiscing about life 35-plus years ago. We laughed at our failing memories. How could some of us remember that fateful night at the A&P in such detail while another couldn’t remember the last name of the love of her college life? As we ate fresh-steamed lobster we reminisced about our college diet - Kraft macaroni and cheese – ten cents a box, and still less than a dollar a meal if we added tuna.

We climbed on the rocks in Prouts Neck and marveled at the vista from the same vantage point that inspired Homer Winslow over 100 years ago. We sat on the beach, shopped in Portland and took long walks in pairs to get a word in edgewise. We cooked, we cleaned, we slept with the ocean breeze blowing through the wide open windows.

We teased each other for our limps and limitations and for the ever-increasing use of the word, “what?” We gave names to each other, defining the chatterboxes as “verbal processors,” and the difficult ones as simply OCD. We talked until our throats were raw and laughed until our stomachs were sore.

And then we went home.

Not one of us returned to a tantrumming toddler, an abusive spouse, an untrained puppy or a cyclonic house. And yet, ReEntry was still just has hard as it had always been.

Perhaps it’s because there is something so freeing about being with the friends who built the stories in your storied past. The people with whom you connected so strongly that it's virtually impossible to ever completely disconnect. The friends who know and love you because of your flaws, not in spite of them.

As we said our goodbyes and left our happy days in Maine to reenter our various stages of happy lives, we all found ourselves thumbing furiously through the plethora of photos on our phones, sharing shots on Facebook, as we searched for a glimpse of the girls we used to be.

And there we were. Crinkled and wrinkled with crow's feet and laugh lines, proving that we could re-define ReEntry any way we wanted. And for us, it's a round-trip ticket. Anywhere. Anytime.