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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Earning a Degree in Friendship

“Chris and Kris are coming to my graduation,” Max said in a rare phone call a week before we were leaving for California. “Oh, and so are Siddiq and Jamal.”

Though I didn’t grunt a single ugh or uh-oh, I have to be honest. My initial reaction included flashing dollar signs and a little sadness over lost family bonding time. But then I slapped my forehead with an, Uh, duh. What do you expect? He’s his mother’s son, after all. Of course he wants his best friends by his side when he is launched into real life.

It all started on a Teaneck soccer field when the first two met at six years-old. One-by-one, the others joined in, until they became an inseparable force of five. Some of them played football, they all played baseball and basketball and some of them ran track. They each found their sports niche and even when they were no longer teammates, they remained devoted friends throughout their high school years.

Siddiq, Jamal, Chris, Kris and Max at Teaneck High School
They called themselves the Fab Five. We, as parents breathed a sigh of relief that they had found each other – and weren’t hanging with the wrong crowd. Peers envied their closeness. Teachers and coaches honored their friendship. And girlfriends waited in wonder for the day they’d rank higher than one of the guys.
Siddiq, Jamal, Chris, Kris and Max, older and presumably wiser.
When the Fab Five went off to college in different parts of the country, we all wondered if they’d lose their connection. But they continued to group chat just about every day of their lives, sharing their secrets, their joys, their hopes and their fears, just as they always had.

“You super psyched?” a bubbly blond-haired woman asked when I got in the hotel elevator early Friday morning as we headed for the University of Southern California graduation ceremony. 

 “No,” I replied. “I am totally jaded. It’s just a day I have to get through.”

 “Oh, stop!” she giggled, thinking I was kidding.

My spouse had left for campus at the crack of dawn as was suggested on the handy dandy USC Graduation App. Since guests were allowed to save up to two seats, I figured that was my invitation to sleep in and show up at game time. Which I did. Me and the proud Valley Girl Mama.

The minute I saw the sea of students dressed in black gowns adorned with cardinal and gold sashes, I must admit, I  did feel a pang of pride. The ceremony was held right in the center of campus with thousands and thousands of white chairs set up facing the stage, huge Jumbotron screens strategically placed so we wouldn’t miss any of the speakers’ words of wisdom, or their facial expressions, for that matter.

It was lovely not being herded into a stadium for graduation. How nice it was not to have bag restrictions or water bottle denials or dogs sniffing around for bombs or weed or whatever it is they sniff around for. How beautiful the setting was in the perfect California weather, with the red and gold flowers decorating the campus, with thousands of graduates so close you could smell last night's beer on their breath.

As I took my seat next to my spouse beneath the big clock in the center of the crowd, they began announcing the various schools. I got another pang when I looked up and caught the eye of my very own son as he processed into the square.

“Well, at least he didn’t sleep through it,” I snickered.

USC is filled with some of the brightest, most ambitious, creative and innovative (not to mention, richest) students in the world. They come from 128 different nations and the school prides itself on the diversity of its student body. To be sitting right smack in the midst of these brilliant kids who managed to have the time of their lives and still survive such an incredibly competitive four years certainly gave me pause.

But my throat had yet to constrict.

I surprised myself as I hung on every one of Larry Ellison’s words as he delivered a rags to riches, college drop-out to billionaire commencement speech. And, no I didn’t cry when they announced the oldest ever graduate, a 96 year-old man who had finally finished his degree. And I didn’t even blink back a tear when dozens of white doves were released into the bright blue California sky.

I was much too hardened for that.

Max has another class (or two) to finish up this summer, so when he left us at the airport , his ever-academic father said ruefully, “Work hard. Make sure you do well in that Econ course.”

And I said, “Max, make sure you go visit Evan in Detroit this summer.”

As I sat cramped in the over-priced airline seat for our red-eye flight home, I started swiping through the pictures I had taken and thinking about the fun four days we had spent in California with Max and his buddies.   

USC’s school motto is Fight On! It’s screamed at sporting events, waved on flags throughout campus and worn on T-shirts up and down the coast. It never made much of an impact on me until I heard it for the last time.

“Fight On!” the Dean said as he set the students free. “But fight on for something that matters."

I thought about that for a minute wondering what Max will do with his life. He may not develop the next great Uber App or come up with a cure for cancer. He may not ever save a life or solve the national debt. He may not be rich or famous or write the Great American Novel. 

But he'll fight on, I know he will.

Because when I came to the photo with him in his cap and gown, I took a good hard look at his sash. It didn't say Magna Cum Laude or Mork Scholar or Baseball Team Captain. But it said something much more important.

It honored his friends by listing his hometown of Teaneck.

And it honored his family with a Thank You Mom and Pops.

That's when my mascara finally started to smear.

Max will be just fine when he gets out into this big old wonderful world. He will work hard. He will be a success. He will be well-loved.

Because he will always fight on for what matters.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Getting off My High Horse

 “A food truck at a horse show? Do you actually look for crazy things to fill your time?” my friend Jean texted when I told her what I was up against for the weekend.

I don’t really look for these things; they just find me. And when I make the commitment, they always seem like fun and sensible things to do.

“Bring several pairs of shoes, at least one raincoat, lots of layers and tons and tons of Aleve,” were my last-minute instructions.

“Why the multiple shoes?” I asked.

“You're going to be outside. It's supposed to pour rain all weekend. You’ll be on your feet for 12 hours a day and you might want to switch shoes. You know, to prevent blisters and bunions and gangrene and sometimes changing them helps your back, and your knees and your hip – does your hip ache all night long like mine does?” my sister responded.

My sister Nancy loves to abuse her body. Not with excesses of food or alcohol or mind-altering drugs, but with old-fashioned hard work. I, on the other hand, prefer the former. 

As a single mother, Nancy didn't bother to figure out how to balance work with parenting. She just did both 24 hours-a-day. After the kids went to bed, she’d retreat to her dank basement with a 17-inch TV screen in one corner, a sewing machine in the other and work into the wee hours of the morning, stooped over a work table making custom draperies, wedding dresses and pillow shams, stitching, altering, upholstering and mending her way to meeting the mortgage. She didn’t sleep a lot. But she had dinner for her kids every night, paid for their college and managed some fun vacations along the way.

In the later years, she added catering to her repertoire of freelance jobs, and with every escapade she described, none of which sounded the least bit pleasant, my bones creaked and ached in solidarity.

When Nancy moved to Charleston, she took her culinary skills to a homeless shelter, spending long and grueling hours cooking for the masses, most of whom were incapable of appreciating her talents. But, she met Carrie there, a fellow work horse who, along with her husband owned and operated a movie-set catering business.
When Carrie and Peter started a new venture that catered to the horse show circuit, they knew that Nancy would be an asset to their employee stable. And when, in their inaugural year they found themselves at The Garden State Horse Show, my sister suggested that I work with them for a few days. Carrie, thinking she was getting a second Nancy, hired me, sight unseen.

And that’s how I got involved in my food truck weekend. 

Actually, I never set foot in the food truck. That was my sister’s domain. I was relegated to the food tent by the upper show rings, under a huge tent with my own set of friends to make, menus to master and coins to count.

I became immediately mesmerized by the whole horse show business and kept my ears and eyes open as I tried to figure out about muck boots and riding breeches, braided manes and monogrammed blankets, trainers and handlers. I watched as stable hands juggled steaming coffee cups across soggy fields and shook my head as kids showed up at the tent with crumpled hundred-dollar bills, dropping their change and leaving it in the mud as it were a candy wrapper.

I loved the rider's outfits with their tight pants and sueded inseams. Their custom helmets and neckties. Their ribboned-hair and black-gloved hands. They wore leather bracelets with the names of their horses engraved on brass plates.

And the dogs! There were just as many dogs as horses.
Every morning Queen Sophie, a dashing Wheaton Terrier, arrived at the food tent with her own personal nanny to place an order for scrambled eggs. Sophie, we learned, came to the show with three suitcases full of doggie attire. There were Jack Russells hopping over mud puddles, Corgis sloshing through them and regal retrievers sitting shot-gun in golf carts while their drivers drove purposely through them.

It rained. And rained. And rained. But the show, of course, went on. Horses pranced, horses pooped, horses spooked and between it all, humans consumed copious amounts of hot chocolate, chicken fingers and hot dogs, purchasing carrots, apples and peppermints for their horses.  

“Do you have your own horse?” I asked one adorable pre-pubescent equestrian.

“No, I lease mine,” she said sadly.

“How much does that cost?” I asked.

“I think it’s $1000,” she said.

“A year?”

“No, a month.”

Uh, duh.

“But Mummy says it’s okay because Gwendolyn needs the money so she can pay the bills.”

“Maybe you’ll get a horse for your birthday,” I suggested.

“Probably,” she said. “Cause I’ll be thirteen.”

“Yeah,” chimed in another girl. “That’s when I got mine.”

Oh, how I yearned to be of that ilk. If not for a lifetime, just for a while.

But, alas, I was a mere hired hand so just smiled and filled the napkin basket, turning my fascination to the inner workings of the food service industry. I had never seen such a production in action and had never thought to wonder how it all worked. But now I was on the inside looking out and I spent the weekend asking (too many) questions. I wondered when the mobile grills arrived. Where the hot water came from. How inventory was kept. Where extra food was stored. Who drove the (multiple) trucks. All those cook stations and sinks and massive coffee urns and work tables and refrigerator trucks and slicing and dicing and prepping and praying was a phenomenon previously unbeknownst to me.

I was surprised at how easy it was to get up at 5:10 am. How quickly the days went by. And how long I could actually go without peeing when it meant taking a walk down the rain-sodden road to the distant Port-a-Potty. I loved learning how to count change, how to gauge mass consumption and how to avoid waste.

I loved sharing stories with my new friend Andrea and her amazingly hard-working and personable sixteen year-old son, Isaac. I watched in awe as they worked in tandem, flipping burgers, making bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches and preparing the world's tastiest grilled cheeses without ever, not one single time, snapping at each other or anyone else in the tent. I loved how David answered my questions without rolling his eyes and told me twice what I was doing wrong in such a kind way that I thought he must have forgotten explaining it the first time. I loved meeting the grandmother and great-aunt who have worked on the truck since the business began.

And I really, really loved hanging out with Carrie who is brave enough to start a new business, smart enough to make it work, and fun enough to make it fun. I loved finding out that a boss doesn't have to be bossy and that sometimes the fine line between boss and friend is worth blurring.

And I learned there's nothing like working side-by-side a freckle-faced ten year-old boy like Gabe to warm the heart and tickle the funny bone.

When all was said and done, my body was battered, my feet were shrieking, my back was aching. But my mind was smiling. Because what I learned most of all was that even when it's all about horses, it's really all about people.

And these are the ilk of people we should all aspire to be. 

The real. The honest. The hard-working. The loyal. The fun. The friendly. The ones who serve with a smile the ones who were born to be served. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Meddling Mother-in-Laws

“My mother-in-law is coming AGAIN,” our spin instructor quipped at the beginning of class. 

The female-filled room groaned and giggled in response, rolling their eyes as they replayed their own personal horror stories rapidly bubbling to the surface.

Mother-in-laws have been the butt of many a joke and the thorn in many a marriage. They are meddlers, know-it-alls and forces to be reckoned with. Throughout the ages, brides-to-be have been forewarned: No matter how hard you try, you will never be a good enough cook, housekeeper, wife, mother or daughter-in-law. You will never, ever be good enough for your mother-in-law's son.

The first time I met my mother-in-law-to-be could well have been my last. I was invited for dinner in their lovely home outside of Baltimore. While my intended’s family was of similar economic and ethical fortitude, our familial dialogues, demeanor and digressions were at opposite ends of the spectrum.  In my family, there were four vivacious daughters with only five short years from oldest and youngest, raised by a father, the youngest of seven, who learned to talk loudly, grab quickly and speak wittily in order to get what he needed. My spouse-to-be, on the other hand, had one sister who was seven years older than he and was more or less off and gone by his formative years. There was no need to compete for parental attention, sibling rank or a second pork chop.

“I have to tinkle,” I said mid-meal, balling up my napkin and pushing back my chair.

Sally just smiled and said, “You know where to go.”

The widening of my intended’s eyeballs gave me pause, making me wonder if what I had done was a deal breaker. I got to keep the ring but was reprimanded, learning that his family didn’t really talk like that at the dinner table. Perhaps next time I could try a more gentile approach, simply saying, “Excuse me, please.” Or maybe even just trying to hold it until the end of the meal.

“But, but, but…” I stammered. "It was better than saying, 'Gotta take a leak!'"

I never repeated that same faux pas, but through the years I certainly made my share of inappropriate comments, parenting mistakes and unwise wifely decisions. I am not an easy person for a mother-in-law to love.

But, Sally did.

Sally was simply incapable of not loving someone who loved her son, and gave her three grandchildren, no matter how difficult or different that girl might be.  

She lived her life loving and helping people in need. Originally hoping for a life in ministry, her dreams were waylaid by motherhood, leading her to obtain a master’s degree in social work instead. She worked at the Veterans Hospital during the Vietnam War, founded Kidsake, a support group for the children of divorced and separated parents and counseled cancer patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital for 15 years. She cared deeply about the poor, the vulnerable and even people like me.

Sally was a perfect mother. She was kind and gentle and taught her son the importance of letting Dad do it. She taught her son to be a good father, a good husband, a good cook, a good grocery shopper and a good vacuumer.

Sally was filled with light and love and a faith strong enough to keep her afloat through an ugly battle with lung cancer. She wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t angry. She worried more about us than herself.

Appropriately, Sally died on Mother’s Day, which also happened to be my youngest son’s ninth birthday. Keeping in character, she waited until my spouse was home from coaching her grandson's baseball game to take her last breath.

And while I can't help but think of my mother-in-law often, watching the way her spirit has weaved its way into my ever-loving spouse's soul, today, as Mother's Day once again coincides with my youngest son's birthday, she's more on my mind than ever.

I miss her smile. I miss her optimism. I even miss posing for all those pictures as we tried to wrestle the kids into the minivan for our long ride home. Sally was good and kind and patient and had a heart full of love.

I can only hope that when the time comes, I can give my kids' spouses a similar gift and be the kind of non-meddling, fully-accepting, mild-mannered mother-in-law that she was to me. 

All right, all right. I concede. I know I'll never master the mild-mannered part, but hey, two out of three wouldn't be half bad.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

How Moms Make Important Parenting Decisions

Twenty years ago I was about to give birth to my third and final child. Max and Molly had been named way before they were conceived. But this one wasn’t sending us any in vitro suggestions.

We had always liked the name Eric but, being from Pennsylvania, I pronounce it Uric, whereas my spouse says Airic. I feared that poor little Eric’s confusion over the proper pronunciation would lead to future personality disorders, so we scrapped the name.  

It was never our intent to have all our children’s names begin with the same first letter so Milo, Milton and Marvin were all out. Somehow, some way, we came up with Leo. And once it made our top-ten list, my ever-loving spouse would tell people with confidence that Leo was the name we had chosen. I, on the other hemmed and hawed, wondering if it was indeed an appropriate name.

“What do you think of Leo?” I asked everyone from the check-out clerk at CVS to the mail carrier to any stranger on the street who would talk to me and my bulging belly.

“It’s a great name for an old Jewish uncle.”

“Well if you’re naming him after a grandfather or something, it’s OK I guess.”

“Maybe it will be a girl and you can name him Leah.”

In the end, despite much opposition, Leo stuck. And before his first birthday rolled around, a blockbuster film hit the screen that created a superstar out of the handsome and talented Leonardo DiCaprio. And just like that, Leo became a cool name, worthy of soap opera stars and small dogs.

That was just one of the many, many all-consuming parenting decisions I obsessed over.

For many reasons, I decided not to breastfeed my first baby. Or the second. Or the third, for that matter. But the first was the one that was agonizingly difficult. Everything I heard and everyone I talked to confirmed that breastfeeding was the healthier, better choice. After all, didn’t I want to bond with my babies? Twenty-four years later, as I get my daily phone call from the daughter, I have to wonder, had I given her my bosom, would she be calling twice a day?

Then there was the birthing decision. Despite experiencing a perfect first pregnancy, gaining only 12 pounds, I might add, and graduating Lamaze class with honors, when the time came, the daughter refused to come out. After an overnight stay in the hospital and a day of induced labor, my gut had to be sliced open to bring her kicking and screaming into the world.

With the subsequent children came another huge decision. Did I want to try to have a natural birth or schedule a C-section? When push came to shove, I stuck to my guns and picked the birth dates of my next two babies; one on December 27th so we could get the tax deduction. And though I tormented myself wondering if I did the right thing, I have never, not once, regretted not knowing what it feels like to push a baby out of my loins.

Next came the work decision. Should I stay at home with my kids or continue working at CNBC? My mother stayed at home with the four of us and while I've always admired her stamina, I couldn’t quite imagine my life completely surrounded by snotty-nosed kids, even if they were my own. And so I continued to work until two-and-a-half years after the third one was born and I was laid off when our department was eliminated. The decision to stay home at that point was the beginning of our financial ruin, my mental deterioration and a twenty-year question of whether they would have been better off raised by professionals.

Then came two decades of grandiose decisions.  Do I meddle with fate and try to procure the perfect kindergarten, first grader, fourth grade teacher? Do I let my son try out for the All-Star team at the age of five, agree to his shoulder surgery at 15 and then support his decision to give up baseball at 18? Do I send my 14 year-old child to a sleep-away camp in Maine for three weeks in its inaugural season?  Do I allow my middle-school daughter to go to Europe with the overpriced but highly recommended People to People program? 

Do we get a dog? Do we deplete the college fund and move from the only home my kids have ever known into a house across town for an extra bathroom and a basement for their entertaining pleasure? Do I give in on the $129 Nikes? The party bus for the prom? A coveted pair of UGG boots? Do I let my high schoolers stay out past midnight? Go to senior week in Wildwood? Drive 75 miles to Six Flags with a newly-licensed teenager? Do I allow the boys to get their ears pierced? The girl to dye her hair? Any of them to wear low-slung pants, expose too much skin or go to school in questionable clothing? 

Do I encourage the daughter to go to college 500 miles away? Do I allow the son to transfer to a private university clear across the country at more than double the cost of his original, perfectly-fine state school? Do I cut off the cell phone, the car insurance, the occasional Venmo’d cash after they graduate from college?

Every decision, no matter how insignificant in hindsight, clenched at my moral fiber, deprived me of sleep and annoyed the heck out of friends, family and passersby who had to listen to my ranting, justifying and what-if-ing.

Knowing that one teensy-weensy different decision has the power to change the entire course of a child’s life is a daunting realization and not something that is easy to live with. My mother used to say, “You just do what you feel is the right thing to do at that particular point in time.”  

And a dear friend once sent me a card that I now keep framed on my bureau as a constant reminder of how to make the most important parenting decisions. Which of course, is all of them.

“How do you learn to be a mom? asked Pooh.

"You just follow your heart," answered Kanga.