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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Month: June, 2011

“my childhood is over.”

when he was not even 2, he looked up through the skylight as i tucked in the covers, soft by his shoulders. “mommy,” he wondered aloud, “who puts God to bed?”

when he was 3, he looked up from the kitchen table, and asked, “mommy, what is facetious?”

i’ve been side-by-side with this questioning child for 18 years now. i’ve gotten used to the way words unspool from his mouth, from his mind, from that heart deep inside.

but that doesn’t mean i’ve stopped catching my breath, feeling the air stopped in its tracks, when some of the thoughts come.

and so it was, the other night, sitting at dinner alongside a pond in chicago’s lincoln park, that great front yard of the city, looking south on the muscled shoulders of steel and glass that scrape the sky.

we were feasting, had sipped the watermelon, basil and gin cocktail (i don’t drink gin, but this had to do with a newspaper assignment, and that boy beside me, he sure didn’t mind). had scooped the very last drop of asparagus puree from our plate, and duck rillettes from a charcuterie slab.

the little one and his papa had gone off to visit the so-called powder room, when my brand-new 18-year-old took in one of his sighs, the kind where the smile begins with the first uptake of air, and the eyes start to glisten, and i pretty much know that what’s coming next will enchant me.

“you know,” he began, “this is the first time in my life a whole phase of my life has ended. my childhood is over. it’s not like you can reach back into any of the moments and shift it around. it was what it was. and even if i don’t remember one moment, or the one after that, the experience of that moment is all there, is a part of who i am.”

then he just smiled.

or i think so. for my eyes were veiled in a scrim of tears, that holy blessed water that anoints so many moments of life. sanctifies. signals, my heart has been touched here. is pounding. is spilling. cannot be contained.

“my childhood is over.”

i tumbled the words in my head, in my mouth, so many dew drops of wisdom packed in each one, so rich was the taste on my tongue.

“my childhood is over.”

and so it is.

and that, perhaps, is the crux of why 18 matters. not that he can now buy cigarettes; which you know he wouldn’t. not that he can vote, which he can and he will. oh, will he. and not, as he remembered to tell us when ticking off the new-found legalities, that he can now buy playboy magazine. which i would bet he won’t do. (and which prompted the little one to ask, loudly, “what’s playboy?” to which we all shooshed him quite emphatically, as fears raced through our heads that he’d be tossing that just-discovered word around on the fifth-grade playground.)

“my childhood is over.”

the words kept tumbling through my head, and suddenly so many scenes pop-pop-popped.

the summer camps at the zoo, and the planetarium, and that great hall of midwestern pluck and twang, the old town school of folk music.

the little boy in the NASA astronaut suit. the little boy in the blue-striped engineer’s cap. the boy on the baseball team in hyde park; the boy standing in the T-ball outfield, turned away from the pitcher’s mound, pointing toward the sky, hollering, “look, there’s venus.”

the boy sitting on the roof of the playhouse on the playground at lab school, watching–not playing in–the schoolyard games. the big move to the 10-mile-away town where all is leafy, is mown, is too-often manicured, leaving behind the pop and the whir of the city he loved. the el rides, back. the boy who would not leave his city. a boy forever enchanted with urban grid, and thoreau’s wilderness.

the tearful nights in the kitchen. the angst of all-nighters. the company he found in the pages of nabokov and faulkner and emerson. the arc of limitations he tested, wrapping his palms ’round the oars, rowing his heart out, not looking back.

it was all the quilt of his childhood. his childhood stitches now pulled through the cloth, now set.

it was what it was.

forever will be.

and i couldn’t help but think of how very wholly i had poured myself into the work of being his mother, of all the hours and brain cells and blood cells it took. the signing up for this camp or that. the filling out form after form. the driving him long ways, and jam-packed ways, at all hours. the praying. the worrying. the peering in through the classroom door to see that all was well.

mothers do that, knowing or not. we set out to be our child’s field guide and companion. we arrange and re-arrange. we call people we don’t know, speak words that don’t come easy sometimes. we listen 24 hours a day. we carry our children wherever we go, even when the miles between us are many.

even when they’re 18. and beyond.

but for that whole first chapter, the one whose last page has just turned, i was fully awake, fully on board.

i gave that boy the best that i had. i’d made him that promise. so help me God, i did not run away, not on the nights when i had no answers, not on the mornings when worry consumed me. not when, for the 9 millionth time, i walked in his room and witnessed what happens when a cyclone blows through.

i was, forever will be, the mother who plays in his childhood scenes. who will endlessly loop. i’m the one off to the left in so many frames. i am, more than anything, the one who is beaming.

the fact of the matter is this: the greatest gift i’ve ever known is the gift of being that boy’s mother. i have learned volumes. fallen umpteen times. scratched the depths of my soul, so help me God.

i have preached and promised and pleaded. i’ve stirred and baked and spooned in whatever was needed, oatmeal to amoxicillin, i’ve served ’em all.

it’s what we do when we discover our deepest calling is the call to mother a child.

that childhood is over. and my tasks there are laid to rest.

but that boy is riding today, in a car full of 18-year-olds, to a faraway city in the belly of michigan. there’s an interstate between here and there, and 18-wheel rigs that whiz by, hellbent on getting wherever they go in a hurry.

it’s time to let the boy go. his childhood is over. but don’t think for a minute that this day will be easy. his father is tied up in knots. i’m the one soothing, saying, he’ll be fine, when deep in my head i picture terrible things.

my last words as he strode out the door, that strapping tall boy with the duffle slung over his rock-hard shoulder: “come home safe, or i’ll kill you.”

dear Lord, hear my prayer.

the murky picture above is not so murky in my mind. it’s my two boys, after dinner, with the chicago skyline rising up over their shoulders. fireworks were exploding from behind those mounding rainclouds, and at first we thought it was red lightning, making for an unforgettable step into the night, as we left the north pond cafe, where we’d savored an unforgettable feast, an unforgettable marking of age. my camera didn’t do what i wanted, but i love the image anyway. it’s the way memory fades, yellows around the edges.

please forgive my tendency lately to write here as if i am tracking time, the close of my firstborn’s childhood, as he put it. one of the gifts of writing is that it serves as glue, to stick snapshots to the pages of your life, so you capture it, hold it. these stories are for down the road as much as for today. they are for me to read and re-read some day; they are for my boys to tuck in their boxes from childhood. in writing of life’s passage, i hope that each and every one of you finds a spark of your such passage, or the passage of someone you love. a blog is an odd-duck of a thing. a blog of four and a half years, odder still, perhaps.

these are but swatches of my heart. and if they spark something in you, my prayers are answered. do tell: when you hear the words, “my childhood is over. it was what it was….” what sparks to your mind? what are the scenes from your own childhood that have lasted through all the years?

rose-petaled dreams

like all the dreamy-eyed notions in my life, i trace it back to tasha tudor’s enchanted pages in “the secret garden,” or to mrs. gutting’s greenhouse, the one where once upon a sticky cincinnati afternoon, she served me orange juice from a sweaty glass pitcher and pepperidge farm chessman cookies, all amid her potted red geraniums.

every some-day dreamer, when but a child, should be handed two such essentials: a copy of “the secret garden,” tied up in satin bow. and a someone who’s a dash of magic, a someone from another time. a someone who wears broad-brimmed hats and skirts to hide her knobby knees. a someone who leaps from an overstuffed arm chair to the bookshelves groaning behind her, to pull just the tome, and turn to just the page, running her calloused, garden-stained index finger down the lines of type, until she comes to just the words she will now recite aloud.

oh, wait, i’ve taken off on my reverie but not told you what it is i’ve dreamed of all my whole life long.

why, it’s rambling roses. roses that climb and twirl and dip and reach each morning for the moon. roses that make a nesting place for blue birds and persimmon-bellied robins. roses to get lost in. roses with names that charm me, names like mrs. dudley cross, prosperity, and lady waterlow.

as long as i’ve been a girl with curls, and storybook dreams tucked deep inside, i’ve been a girl who has plotted the picture frames of my life.

i’ve imagined gray shingled cottages, worn from salt and sea winds. i’ve pictured a kitchen plot, a potager as it’s so finely called, just outside my kitchen door, where thyme and sweet peas ramble. i’ve pictured a cherry tree, where bluebirds sing. and of course a garden path, a winding one, a bluestone one, that curls and carries me from cottage garden in the front to tucked-away whispery spot beyond.

and all along the way on that path, climbing up and over and around, there are roses by the dozens. old roses. roses of a certain vintage. antique roses, even. when it comes to roses, age counts. no new-fangled hybrids, bred to dash disease, bloom without perfume, not for me, no thanks.

i take my roses rambly, unkempt, with a mind of their own.

(i suppose one might find parallels between old grower and old growth there, but we’ll move right along rather than get locked in that floribunda-psychoanalysis.)

anyway, it’s been a long time coming, this faint attempt at the rose-petaled existence of which i’ve ever dreamed. problem is (or at least a portion of the problem), i seem to have propensity for picking houses with old trees, big trees. and one thing a rose will not have, thank you, is shadow. roses love the limelight, the sunlight, the basking on the beach that is a rose’s bed.

i’ve got one or three who don’t seem to have read that rule book. they grow in shade anyway. climb up the screen of the summer porch. poke their hot-pink heads out from under the arbor vitae branches, where at best it’s dappled light just before the sun drops low. oh, they’re stubborn ones. grow and bloom despite it all.

but out front, along the picket fence–the white picket fence, as if i need to point that out, don’t they come in just one hue?–i’ve tucked in a few–okay, six–roses that i’m counting on to do their rosy bramble.

i want roses like the ones i once passed for miles, on the stone walls that meander across block island, that step-back-in-time a ferry ride away from that wisp of a state, rhode island, where salt air and centuries have faded the roses’ petals to a tissue-paper pink i’ll not forget. nor will time erase one other snapshot in my head: the way they paid no mind to passing years. they just kept rambling, climbing, mounding, blooming. giving forth their poetry to all who stopped to notice.

i want roses that don’t stand tall. i want them loopy, bent and making way for bloom in all the oddest places.
i want roses that make me laugh, so determined are their gnarly branches, so unwilling to succumb to bricks or fence post, so intent on reaching sky. sticking necks out. making bold proclamation: i am rose, and i am punctuating the summer’s day with all the colors in my paintbox.

i want roses that make me drop to my knees, so filled with sacred message, with wisdom, that i can’t not walk past without a moment’s veneration, a moment’s study. soaking up the truth, the lesson, that the wily breath-taking beauty holds for me.

have you ever seen a rose that looks as if someone pulled out a watercolor brush, and dabbed a rim of lipstick red just along the petal’s edge? and how the throat casts sunshine glow, and the petals are the color of buttermilk, or an antique hanky, one you found in the drawer when your grandma died, and you were gathering up a few small things to carry home, to keep beside you, so on any given monday you might stumble upon them, and feel her there beside you, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the laundry room?

anyway, my old and not-so-old roses have been at work this week, while i’ve been working too. i’d not realized their time had come. but then i tiptoed out to get the newspaper, down at the curb, where the nice man tosses it at dawn, the nearly obsolete man, the last one, perhaps, to toss the curled-up paper on the reader’s curb.

i had just turned from scooping up the papers (we double our obsolescence, and subscribe to two), and i couldn’t help but be bowled over by the dots of pink and lipstick, the blush of butter running into dab of peach, the puckered lips that are a rose about to bloom.

there, rambling, climbing, reaching for the stars and moon and morning sun, were the roses i’d been waiting for nearly all my days and years.

it appears they’ve gotten on without me, just the way i take my roses. but now that i see their nodding gentle heads, their bashful show of perseverance, i feel obliged to tend to them today. to head out with tray of drinks for all. to offer talcum powder baths if that might be the thing that cures their holey leaves, as i do notice some bug is feasting on them too. has gotten to them first, while i carried on at my keyboard.

at long last, it’s that stretch of june where the roses bloom, take centerstage. for years and years, they’ve been off in the wings in all my dreams. and, as if by magic, with not nearly enough sunshine or attention, they’ve tiptoed in, to a place where i can’t miss their star turn. nor be too grateful for their willingness to grace me, ever after.

do you have old roses, old anything, that set you spiraling in reverie? a patch of magic in your yard that makes you swoon? did you grow up dreaming of a certain sort of garden path? what sparked your dreams? who sparked your dreams? did you have a mrs. gutting (pronounced good-ing, which, oh, she was, a librarian and gardener who lived in a real-life castle, one with secret stairs and turrets, one with lower gardens, and up the hill, the greenhouse tucked back behind the kitchen, where the pepperidge farm cookies never seemed to end)? (pssst, a hint to my mama, perhaps you’ll write to us of your mrs. gutting memories, you who were drawn to her as if water to a cactus, you who found your own brand of magic not in your most upholstered house, but across the way, in the castle where books and poetry and garden beds ruled the day….)
i’ll leave it there. happy blessed june, nearly summer solstice, nearly my firstborn’s 18th birthday. nearly father’s day. they do pack it in in june, now don’t they?

a sigh like no other

i feel it from deep down inside my lungs. from the bottom of my rapid-beating heart. from the tips of all my limbs. i think i even feel it from my bum.

the sigh of not just summer’s launch, but a sigh that’s never been.

here we are, the clock ticking toward the holy hour when the school bell will last clang, when my fourth grader will leave his little school, the high schooler already no longer a high schooler.

these are the first few hours of pure summer oxygen. when all the cares, at last, are gone. when the summer lies ahead, no need to rush from bed in mornings, no need to turn out lights at 9 or even 10 at night. no need, gosh darn it, to stir and cook and put square meals on plates. we can choose, if we want, to slice a watermelon and call it dinner.

summer is the season of so many choices.

and this summer, this holy blessed summer, is the summer in which i can chart–as if a meteorologist tracking storms or humidity–the pressure lifting like a swiftly-rising puffy cloud, the pressure evaporated, gone.

no college essays due. no dabbling with the SAT study guide. no memorizing state capitals and abbreviations. (it’s darn-near comic, often here, having two boys with feet so far apart, one in elementary world and the other all the way to college.)

and this holy blessed summer, i don’t even have to worry about the bus for camp racing by before we’re ready. camp at our house this summer consists of a company of two: one’s the counselor, one’s the camper.

my college-bound boy will spend the summer days, or at least my work days, on adventures with his little bro. they’ve picked a town-and-country theme (or at least the older one picked it, the little one isn’t big on any theme that’s absent a ball and ballfield). the big boy will teach the little one all the things a boy should know: how to bait a fish hook, how to use a compass, how to travel on the “el” train. he’ll teach him how to cook a hot dog on a stick. and, perhaps, how to bench press, oh, 30 pounds.

i had no forms to fill out for this summer. no tetanus shots come due.

i might as well toss all alarm clocks. and wrist watches while we’re at it.

we are running without rigors of where to be when.

we are, for the first and perhaps the last time, this summer exploring what it means to be without a long list of must-get-dones.

we are letting brothers be brothers. we are letting boys be boys.

we are, so help me, going barefoot. making ice cream. picking berries. watching clouds go passing by.

we’ve earned this respite from the madness. and i am claiming every ounce of it.

so many saturday mornings we’ve been jarred awake by alarms telling us, in no uncertain terms, that we must be dressed, be out the door.

i’ve whispered, sighed, moaned, “this is crazy, this is no way to live.” as i’ve watched myself mad-dash from here to there to everywhere.

and this is the summer when the billboard in my head reads one simple word: SAVOR.

savor slumped shoulders, the load finally slid off, the back-tightening worries, gone.

savor screen door slapping. savor breeze blowing through the porch. savor fireflies. savor whispers on the front stoop till the moon is high above.

savor being together with both boys, the heartbeats of my life, my loves.

savor oars swooshing through the water. savor sand between the toes. savor tomatoes sliced and salted. savor peach juice dripping down my chin.

savor all it took to get us here. savor that we’ve made it. savor two boys who both consider it a blessing to spend the summer bumming ‘round together.

savor nights without homework, and mornings without racing, rushing, panting, shrieking.

savor every blessed drop.

it’s time to sigh the deepest sigh. it won’t last forever.

and just how do you plan to spend your summer’s vacation? what’s on your wish list of summer joys?

my little one (up above) asked last night if he got “special breakfast” since it was the last day of school. why, of course. out came the red “you are special today” plate, and the turkey bacon and the pancakes with sliced peaches and maple syrup. that little guy is playing in the little league world series this weekend. game one’s tonight, unless the rains don’t stop. games two and three come saturday and sunday, all three played out in an idyllic little ballpark here in town, a place that’s a throwback in time, with dugouts and a flagpole and a snack shack where hot dogs are $1.25, and rice krispie treats are just a quarter, and brownies too, all made by a woman with her hair twisted in a bun atop her head, a woman named bonnie who hovers over the place as if a mother hen. it’s a place with an old-time scoreboard just like the one at wrigley field, with tin numbered squares, carted out beyond the cyclone fence by little kids pulling a red radio flyer wagon, who try inning after inning to keep track of all the runs. not a bad way to start the summer, playing it like a scene from some old-fashioned movie, kids on a playlot, slugging, sliding, pitching, catching for the world series trophy. we got lucky this year, and my little slugger found himself on a team with true all-stars, the kinda kids whose names will be whispered around town for years to come. we are going along for the ride. and some ride it is…..some start to summer, indeed.

the power of replay

in the picture show that’s been spooling through my head these months, these weeks, these past few days, i find myself looping forth and back.

from birth, to backyard sacraments (the morn we laid to rest the baby bird, before that the afternoon in our city garden when we blessed our newborn babe), to long hours after midnight, as i lay awake and worried.

i’ve remembered sounds — the swishing of the screen door on the old-world bakery where we used to stroll for an oatmeal-raisin cookie bigger than my little one’s pudgy hand.

and i’ve remembered breath-taking moments — the early morn in bed when his papa and i stumbled on what would be his name, the name that to me, then and now, sparked the picture of a tall, honest prairie boy, which in many ways he has become.

or this: the golden-lit noon when the call came from a stranger, she’d found my boy, limp, bloodied, mumbling, on a bike path in the woods.

they’ve all come tumbling, frame after frame, sight and sound and swirl.

as we near the marker labeled graduation, i find this time affords that rare chance to riffle through the picture box i carry where i go, the one inside my head. i pick up frames, i examine once again. i lay them in a row. and shuffle them through time.

it’s what we do, we humans who are gifted with a heart and with capacity for replay, rewind, fast forward.

life moves swiftly when we’re not watching — and even when we are. and suddenly we find ourselves at a so-called seam in what is, through knots and stitches, becoming someone’s patchwork quilt, the story of a life that we know so very well, that we hold as if our own.

these benchmarks, these stitched-together places, this is where we pause, and slip into double time, meaning we live in the moment on one plane, and in the inner plane we live on whatever speed we choose, as we so naturally fall into the sifting, stitching, marveling that got us all to here.

it’s why, as a civilization, we mark all sorts of time, of episodes, of chapters. from year to year of sun, or month to month of moon, we grab hold of any chance, it seems, to measure who we are, and how we’ve grown, as we pass the mile marks along the way: birth. birthday. end of every school year. holy anniversary.

we seem to want, to need, to play it back again. to spiral back and forth in time and space, if only in our minds and hearts, as we press into our souls the whole of who we love, and watch anew from every angle.

i know the time-trick well. i’ve been watching, playing, for awhile, these past few months and weeks.

only now, with days to go, the tempo’s picking up, the hours of sleep are dwindling, i am hard at work sorting through the picture show that is the life i’ve loved so deeply dearly: my firstborn’s years at home, my firstborn’s school years, his growing up years, his baby years and toddler years, his going-off-to-school years.

the ones i’ve known so intimately. the ones i alone recite, in the incantation of motherhood, the shadows and the light that got us here.

the tickets now are tucked in the slot where all the mail is kept. the white dinner jacket will soon hang in the upstairs closet. the grandparents should be walking in the door any minute now.

the time has come.

and i’ve milked the richness from the marrow. i have played and replayed so many scenes. i’ve stockpiled all it took to get here.

and when, on sunday eve, i look down on that flowing river of white gowns and white dinner jackets, i will more than likely be awash in joyful tears, satisfied tears, knowing tears.

i will have gathered up the frames, one by one, of the whole of this boy’s life with mine. and i will whisper holy thanks for the riches deep inside that this picture show has brought. the looping story that will never ever end.

i must bow on bended knee, and open wide the prayers inside my heart, to thank the Lord on High, who brought me long ago my deepest dearest hope: to be the mother to a child who would forever be my teacher.

and now, if you care to let it spill, what’s the picture show playing in the house that you call home?

that’s my firstborn, up above, on his first day of kindergarten, outside the gothic castle that is the laboratory schools of the university of chicago. that’s his best chumley from those sweet sweet days and years, more like brother and sister those two, and her mama, my beloved motherfriend, the rarest of gifts she was and is. they’ll both be here on sunday morn as we mark the moment with a family brunch.
it is just those snapshots that have filled me up so very much in recent days, as i hold each to the light. and marvel.