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Month: May, 2012

the things that moms just know….

the boy with his spoon in the loops mumbled something this morning that sounded like a family of mmm’s had gone out to the carnival, climbed onto the bumper car ride, and rumbled their way through the course.

mmm, mm m mm mmm mmm mm?

“oh,” said i, “you want some orange juice?”

he nodded, then swallowed.

not thinking another thing of it, i opened the fridge, reached for the carton and poured.

he, though, looked up from the page where the sports scores are duly recorded. he had that curious look in his eyes.

and that’s when he did what he so often does; he broke open the ordinary, caused me to stop in my tracks, to pause, to ponder, to pay closer attention.

he said, simply and not simply at all: “i have a question. what are some of the most interesting things that moms just know?”

he fielded the question as if moms were a species unto their own. as if he were there at the zoo, peering in from the far side of the bars, and i was one of the slow meandering mammals, one of those big furry cats, perhaps, pacing purposefully back and forth in my concrete-floor rectangle, looking out at the crowd, plotting somehow, as i always imagine they do, those poor cats, how to break out of that measly four-walled existence.

my little one, the one with the loops back in his spoon, continued on with his morning query: “i mumbled,” he said, “but you knew exactly what i meant,” he explained of the motherly feat that had captured his attention.

“what are some of the really abstract things that you know? the really abstract things that you know about me?”

ah, yes, the mother, Mater omnes sciens, mother all knowing, as the latin scholar would say.

apparently, to the sweet child, it appears that without trying, without elaborate control board and dozens of criss-crossed wires, i mysteriously, and on occasion, pull out my invisible magnifying tool, peer deep into his cerebrum, and divine all sorts of nifty things. say, that it’s breakfast time, he’s been snoring all night in a stuffy little chamber of a room, and he’s developed a thirst for the drink he downs each and every morning, give or take the ones when something more tempting — say, pineapple juice — is there in the fridge. he wants me to pour, voila, a shallow glass of OJ.

to the child, apparently, this appears a motherly trick of pure prestidigitation.

the child, apparently, has no clue that we live and breathe, some of us, to map out the swath of their landscape. they have no clue that as they shovel pasta tubes into their mouth, we are studying their sweet little face, reading between lines, on patrol at all times for sparks that might be smoldering there in the forest. or that we are searching, as they roll through the door after a long day of school, for the slightest telltale flinch, the mere suggestion of a clue that this was a bad day, and we are here, all but tied up in apron strings, the living-breathing emotional-rescue machine.

the child, apparently, has no clue that his entire life long we have been listening, listening intently. we have felt the piercing upon impact of certain words as they simultaneously hit our eardrums, and zing straight to our hearts. they have no clue that we have powers of instant memorization, that we tumble some lines, the occasional shard of a word or words, over and over and over in our minds that don’t cease, don’t know from the pause button.

and thus, whereas we think nothing of reaching for the drink that they drink breakfast after breakfast, or smearing the same old peanut butter onto the bread that he happens to love more than any, there stands a chance, a slim chance, that the child on rare occasion looks up from his daily existence and catches a glimmer of the miracle that is having someone who loves you, someone who knows you so intently, so deeply, that she is able without vowels interrupting the string of consonant sounds, to decipher just what it is you desire.

and, without you even saying a word sometimes, she is able to tiptoe into your bedroom at night, on just the right night, and she knows to slip under the sheets, right beside you, and start making those circles on your forehead, the ones that you love, the ones that make you let down your shoulders, your worries, after a long hard day. and she knows, without you saying a word, just when you need her to ask, “so how was your day, sweetie?” because she might have asked that question a dozen times already, but it’s at bedtime, it’s there in the dark, when the words serve to uncork the deep heart of the matter.

mamas know those things.

they do if they are listening, if they are paying attention. if their own hearts are still enough, if they’ve spent years deep at work practicing the art of those things that mamas do and know and say and understand and feel through and through.

that’s how mamas acquire what to a little boy spooning loops might seem like a list of abstractions. like how a mama knows by the way a boy bites at his lip that he’s just a little bit nervous, or that when he hops a certain way on the ball field it means he is quietly proud of that ball he just caught tight in his mitt, or how she knows — not because it’s abstract so much as highly particular — that he likes his cinnamon sugar sprinkled right up to the edge of the buttered toast, and he doesn’t like the butter in unmelted lumps, thank you.

because, in the end, mothering is all about the particulars.

mothering, at its best, is the art of paying pure attention.

of knowing, for a good long spell of years anyway, the unspoken landscape of the unfolding child. because, after all, we start out this adventure from the very beginning, from before when the words come. so we’ve had years and years of filling in blanks, from reading the particular shrill of a cry, from feeling how the little one kicks his legs against the wall of our womb, and later on watching how he does the same there on the stretched-out blanket.

i like to think it’s my job to be a high-sensory detector. to discern the interior dialogue, the one of his heart, before he’s learned the words to put to that script. if i know to ask the right question, if i can lay out the word choice, the possible phrase, then he can begin to pluck from the choices. he can begin to gain fluency in honoring all the feelings that bottle up inside. i can be his guide in the language of self-expression.

and i can be the one who knows that first thing in the morning, when he needs to race to the bus, a mouthful of OJ is just the drink to sweeten, to douse, his dry little throat.

no miracle there from my perspective. but the miracle is, from his, there is.

and those are just some of the things that mamas just know…..

what are some of the abstract things that you just know about the people you love? and how did you learn them?

of fatted calf and endless tide…

we come to you this week from the bowels of the laundry room, where we’ve been holed up all week long. night and day, day and night, we spin and tumble, then fold and stack and ferry.

a curious creature landed here the other eve, at the start of this fine week. the fatted calf had been procured, the table spread to groaning, in anticipation of the firstborn’s gosh-darn home-returning.

scruffy-bearded man-fellow, he arrived bearing duffle upon duffle of clothes, of hats, of sweats and slippers, last laundered lord knows when. it is apparently a point of pride among the dwellers of a college dorm to see who can go the longest without plunking pocket change down the gullet of voracious college washer. why waste beer money, the soon-to-be-educated seem to reason, when you can go all year without sacrificing coins to suds and rinse a single X-L twin, that flat or fitted cotton shield, thread protectant that bifurcates you and grungy mattress.

when not ensconced in laundry room this merry week, i found myself spilling vials of ink, scribbling grocery lists, making run after run to restock icebox shelves. why, i swore we had a quart of milk, hiding there behind the juice. oh, my, there is no juice. nor bananas, cheese, or eggs.

for months now, i’ve been curiously absent from my well-trod checkout lanes. barely kept up the long-running tete-a-tete with the checkers i adore. they ask, when i do dash through, where have you been, old friend? to which i simply answer: the hungry boy’s in college.

they duly nod. they understand the shorthand.

but, now (break out the hallelujah chorus here), the boy and his bottomless pit have found their way back home. and, as i type, i hear the vacuum-sucking sound of a house being emptied of its larder. holy cow, that kid can eat. and eat. and eat. and eat.

it didn’t take me long — mere minutes, as a matter of fact,  as he wasted little time before cranking the hip-hop tunes to full wagon-rattling volume as we motored to the soccer field to fetch the little bro’, and drivers right and left turned to gawk at the wholly un-suburban rhythms — to realize that the smartest strategy for surviving this summer is to play like i’m an anthropologist, studying this curious phenomenon, the post-freshman progeny.

he hasn’t quite caught on, but the hard truth is i am all but scrawling notes. i stand in pure amazement as i chart the curious behaviors of this just-home-from-college species.

the light burns, night after night, till 3 or 4 in the morn. he is stretched out on his old twin bed, taking in hour upon hour of what he swears is HBO masterpiece. (for this we sent him off to college?)

he stirs round noon (or later), and descends to the so-called cook house. there he begins rustling, peering in the fridge, clearing off the shelves. i’ve seen him down fried-catfish bits, and eggs and cheese and half a baton of kosher salami. i’ve watched whole jugs of juice go gurgling down his throat. i’ve seen bananas by the bunch simply up and vanish. he is, indeed, a boy full of prestidigitation.

when i hear him clanging pots and pans, i put down what i’m doing, and tiptoe on the scene. i stand amid the clanging, a portrait of pure maternal innocence. you’d never guess i was gathering classified intelligence. i make like i’m the sous chef.

ah, but as i fetch the vulcan salt, or shake the cayenne pepper, i ask open-ended questions, and without arching a telltale eyebrow, nor flinching even once, i soak up all his long and winding stories. i nod and murmur at apt punctuation points. i am hard at work charting the landscape of the modern-day quasi-enlightened nearly-19-year-old. my journalistic instincts do come in mighty handy.

i’ve found out, for instance, that he put his AP number skills to great good use: why, instead of laundering said bedsheets, he merely divided the school year into thirds, and applied fractional equation to the changing of his bedding. thus, with two swift flicks of brand-new sheets, he made it through two whole semesters (and a month between) without ever once employing the laundry skills i so ardently instructed on sultry afternoons that long-ago summer before college.

i’ve learned a thing or two about what amounts to higher-ed entertainment. i now know that on a saturday night before the lights go dim, and the bump-and-grind, er, dancing spins, the boys and girls, in separate rooms, partake of dancing warmups. no, they do not practice their plies and arabesques. i’m inclined to think the warmups are rather liquid in nature. he does leave parts of the narrative to my uninhibited imagination, where i duly fill in the blanks.

while it’s all been great good entertainment, i have come to realize that my best tactic here is to take it all with a great good dose of humor. the fact of the matter is that over the course of the last nine months, the boy i left at college is not quite the one who came loping up the sidewalk, all beaming smile and arms spread wide for wrapping round me.

i was, for a day or two, just a wee bit uncertain if and where i — a silver-haired mid-century mama who bumps along in a decades-old swedish wagon — fit into the tabletop jigsaw puzzle of my firstborn’s life. why, i’d sent heartfelt missives all year long, and barely heard a peep in reply. i’d boxed up cookies and turkey jerky and half my heart besides. and for all i knew, they all still idle at the college postal station, unclaimed and, frankly, orphaned.

as is my inclination, i burrowed deep inside, and pondered. i feared the worst. decided he might have no need for the mama who’d been there high and low and every hour in between. maybe he’d make the break clean and swift and sudden. maybe i’d get twirled down the drain, where his laundry suds have yet to go.

but then, in a flash of inspiration (or perhaps the outstretched hand of some patron saint of motherhood), i realized that a load of laughter goes a long way to linking back two hearts.

so now, instead of fretting, churning, turning over worry after worry, i am practicing the art of letting it be. and instead of figuring how to phrase the burning question in my heart — do i matter still? — i am letting the tales unspool, and the peels of great good laughter fill in the empty space between us.

egad: this meander seems possessed. great chunks of it keep disappearing, as if someone’s taking a bite and swallowing whole. i’m not quite sure what’s happening with this grand computer hiccup. but if you read, and found oh 12 paragraphs not there, well then, you witnessed the hiccup. i will now try again. crossing my fingers….

as a practitioner of open-hearted mothering, i’d be among the first to admit the not-so-secret inkling that it takes some readjusting to navigate the landscape of the growing-up child. i’ve not found it simple over the course of this past year to figure out just where i belong in my college boy’s faraway life. all i’ve ever wanted was to be a harbor, a grounding rod for him, and an infinite source of love and understanding. who among you has found that parenting demands redefinition along the way? and what is your secret for keeping the channel always open? 

navigating the landscape of the heart

we come to this job, most of us, barely equipped.

heck, i’d spent one fine summer down the lane, a summer girl of sorts, wrestling three lively kids into a daily schedule that, looking back, was a pure piece of cake. and i did have four brothers, one of whom was young enough that i might have been enlisted in occasional diaper duty. maybe stuffed a bottle in his hungry mouth now and then.

and i did meander my way through nursing school. so that must have accounted for something. and i was the newsroom’s default first-night babysitter, meaning that whenever the brand-new ink-blood parents mustered up the nerve to leave the newborn darling for the very first time, i was always the one employed to hold the fort. keep monsters at bay. and, god willing, greet the nervous newbies at the door with babe in bundle still breathing.

really, when i think about it, that’s all i had on my resume, in the little section labeled “work experience,” the part that should be scrutinized, amount to proof of passage, when you come panting to the double swinging doors marked, “labor & delivery. no pretenders welcome.”

once past that point, the only thing they make you do, really, is huff and puff and, finally, someone yells it’s time to push. so you push through the aptly named ring of fire, and then, like that, they hand you the little darling.

that is when, often, it happens. you hear this head-jangling sound, i’d say it’s a schwoop, like the sound of falling down a cave with the wind hurling against your eardrums. it’s a moment, a deep-body whirl, that swallows you whole, and from there on in, you are in it for ever and ever and ever. amen.

it takes some bumbling in those early days, the ones when they set you loose from the hospital, the ones when you find yourself alone, in an empty kitchen, and there, in a sling-back chair device, one padded in many many blankets, you have a screeching, squawking little bundle, one with very adorable hands and legs, and fingers and toes you are tempted to nibble on.

you might consider, as i did in one rash terrifying moment, returning said bundle to the store. telling the nice shopkeeper that you really had no idea what you were in for, and you’ve decided this really isn’t something you’re cut out for. and besides you need a potty break.

but then those mama hormones must kick in, the ones that indelibly etch that baby’s wholeness into the whole of who we are. and from there on in, we’re tethered, hook, line, and holy-ever-after sinker.

and somehow, from deep within, we begin the navigation of the voyage of our lifetimes.

the one, for me at least, that makes all the rest fall by the wayside.

there has been, from the get-go, not another worry in my life that has mattered as deeply as the ones about my babies. i’ve lost countless hours of sleep — cradling them in the bathroom on frantic fevered nights, tracing the source of lamplight that shone from the crack beneath a bedroom door at 3 or 4 or 5 in the morning, lying motionless under my sheets, frozen in my ruminations about what they have or haven’t done.

but along the way, and time after time, i’ve felt the whoosh of heaven swirl around me, lift me up, and carry me for a ways.

when you commit to love in the way that a mama does — oh, she so deeply does — you come to taste a pure brew of oxygen that fills your lungs and puts flight to the flutter in your heart.

say, when you’re curled up on the couch with a pounding headache, trying to stay out of everyone’s way, and suddenly, a sweet 10-year-old boy, one who’s more inclined to dash up and down a soccer field, puts down his TV clicker and comes to rub circles on your throbbing head. then he goes to get a washcloth, something he’s seen you do a million times. and he makes like he’s the mama, taking care of you.

or, when you are washed in worry about your college kid, and whether he’ll remember to turn in his final paper, he calls you, from a river bank, to let you know he’s finally done it. a mere three minutes before it was due, before he got docked a grade for dilly-dallying. and he calls just because he knows how hard you tried to keep a lid on it, and, at last, out of the mercy of his heart, he is loosening the noose that threatened to squeeze you bloodless.

(full disclosure: i just wrote that sentence hoping it would make it come true; at this moment, i have no clue if the final paper’s on its way toward being done, and it’s due tonight at 1 a.m. and he is, as i type, at a national rowing championship in philly, far far from the professor’s drop box. but my friends tell me it’s not my job to worry about college final exams. all right then, this is the sound of me not worrying…..)

ah, yes, so go the lows and highs of this landscape we mothers learn to navigate by pure and repeated trial and error. our pack list boils down to the merest few essentials: our full-to-the-brim heart, our ever-considering heads, every last muscle in our sometimes aching exhausted bodies. and whatever else we need employ to get the job done.

for the job, at its heart, is as fine as any life work could ever be: love as you would be loved. and love forever after.

happy blessed mother’s day, in whatever form you mother.

there is, right now, the hokiest of commercials on TV. (hallmark, but of course.) its tag line is “tell me,” as in a kaleidoscope of mothers saying out loud what they’d give arm or leg to hear their children tell them. i cry every time i watch it. and i know what i would want my sweet boys to say: that they’ve felt through and through how deeply i love them, the very underpinning of so many sentences etched here…..that’s really all i ask, and the one thing that sometimes escapes me: do they know, will they ever ever know, the depth and the breadth of this rarest brand of loving? what would you want to be told, by whoever it is you love so deeply?

under the wire

at some point, in all my years of imagining, in all my years of trying to wrap my feeble brain around the hard-core notion that my babies would one day grow old enough to pack up their belongings and head off toward so-called higher education, i’m certain i once had visions of pitching a tent just outside the dorm, maybe off in the bushes, where not everyone would notice.

maybe i could rig up a pulley, slide up trays of OJ and tea, from just outside the window. maybe i could doze in the honeysuckle, but be within earshot if the boy ever took sick. or stayed up too late. maybe i could fool everyone into thinking i was just another bushy-haired varmint, burrowed there where the earth met the great gothic wall.

but then, in real time, the boy i love, my firstborn, he up and did leave for college, and i knew well, knew from the very first instant i saw him leap from the car in the deep of night to grab his key from the campus police (where, due to impending hurricane, all keys had been moved), that this was his landscape, this was his place to stretch and grow and discover and deepen. this was his canvas.

and, for the first time in our deeply tethered existence, i didn’t belong.

i remember quite precisely how much that stung, the feeling of being pushed some distance away. oh, i know that’s the way it’s meant to be, but i can’t say that it didn’t take some rubbing of salve to the wound. i clung to the balm that the closer we’d been, the harder the push needed to be.

and i waited it out.

i swallowed hard the day on the phone when he said it might be better if we not make the trip for parents weekend. after all, he reasoned, he’d soon be home for thanksgiving. i’m pretty sure, once we hung up, i sat down and cried. but i didn’t let on. i just prayed without end.

and once he was home, indeed, it was just like the old days — me, laughing so hard at his stories and antics i could barely chop through an onion without fear of surrendering a digit to a sharp and flailing knife. him, curling up in an armchair the very last night he was home, asking if please, could i stay up and talk for a few more hours.

deep in the winter, when i was scraping the pit of my soul, trying to decide if i should leave my long-loved newspaper life, i dangled one dazzling dream in front of my weary eyes: i’d take a trip, all by my lonesome, to visit the boy who i love, to absorb this new world that was his.

that would be my hallelujah valedictory tour: to walk, arms looped elbow-to-elbow, under the tree limbs, through the quad, in the new england town whose night sounds are his now.

but then, abruptly without a paycheck, i convinced myself i couldn’t afford it. couldn’t afford one sweet slice of heaven on earth.

and then, suddenly, it was spring.

for weeks, as the trees turned lacy and green, i was getting reports, eye-witness reports, from all sorts of friends who’d stumbled upon him, friends who’d swung through that new england town as they took their own babies, now juniors in high school, on that modern-day rite of spring, the spring-break college tour, in which you pile as many campuses as you can into your five-day cross-’em-off-the-list itinerary.

why, they’d bumped into him in libraries. shared pizzas with him. taken him out for feasts without end. and with every encounter, came the glowing accounts: how happy he was. how, wherever he went, he was greeted with shouts of great joy. how at ease he appeared, most of all. how he certainly seemed to be thriving.

with every report, my itch grew and grew: i needed my own first-person account. never again, i told myself, could i catch this first year unfolding. it was all slipping swiftly away.

and as i looked at the calendar, i knew i was running out of weekends.

a not-so-secret truth about me is that i am, through and through, a homebody. plane tickets and rental cars, and getting up at wee hours to make flights and drive through parts unknown. these are not a few of my favorite things.

but, more than anything, there is a boy i love. and he is beaming these days.

and, as a mother who was there in the darkest hours, as a mother who held him tight so many nights in the kitchen when the tears wouldn’t stop, as a mother who whispered in his ear time after time that some day it would be a glorious thing to be him, a boy forever wise beyond his years, as that very mother i needed to take this all in for myself.

i needed to trace all his joy — his abundant new landscape — into the contours of my heart.

the so-called reason for this last-minute trip, the one, yes, i’ll be taking tomorrow, is that there is a championship rowing regatta, and his boat — undefeated for the season — is seeded no. 1, meaning that for the very first time in his not-so-athletic life, he stands a chance of (shhhhh…) not being crushed in heartbreaking defeat. and i stand a chance of hollering my lungs out, swatting back tears, there on the shores of lake quingsigamond.

but the real reason i’m waking up at 3 in the morning, tiptoeing out to the cab in the dark, leaving spelled-out instructions for the little one’s 48 hours without me, is as simple as simple can be: all i want is to be there.

all i want is to walk the paths where my firstborn so easily trods. to catch the dappled light on my own face, as it has dappled his all these days, weeks and months. to look into the faces of a sea of kids who know my boy by his name and his joy. to absorb the geography that is his now. i want to smell it, taste it, hear it, touch it, commit it to full-body memory.

it’s the very last day of classes tomorrow. his freshman year ends in less than a week. i am getting there just under the wire.

lucky for me, i’m married to a man whose motto is one i still need to work on: “98 percent of life is just showing up.”

i think he knew, without me saying a word, just how close i’d come to talking myself out of the trip once again. i’d come up with 58 reasons why it made more sense to stay home. but he gently and firmly kept me on course. just this morning i found he’d typed out a whole road map to steer me through what might have been bumps along the way: which concourse i’d need to trek to, how to pick up the rental car, the tricky turns on the road to the college. he even made sure i’m staying at the bed-and-breakfast across the lane from emily dickinson’s house.

and once again i am learning: life is ripest, is sweetest, if you dare to take a front-row seat, and not keep watch from the shadows.

even if it means you slip in right under the wire.

just so you get there, where you can take it all in, body and soul. and forever.

so there you have it: i am past the mid-century mark, and still i must talk myself out of my comfort zone, and into the halls of courage. it’s a funny thing how we all have our stumbling places. what propels your courage? what gets you up the mountains of your life?