pull up a chair

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

Category: firstborn

tracks to my heart

engines of youth

the email slipped in with no more than the ubiquitous ping. it came from my faraway brother, the one with a boy of his own now, a fine little lad rounding the bend toward two.

the email couldn’t have been clearer:

“Hey Babs, we are thinking of getting a train set for milo. I recall you guys had a great Thomas Train set up. If you still have it, would you be open to our borrowing it for couple years?  We would pay all packing and shipping both ways. Saves us buying new.  I totally understand you might not want to let it go. Just wondering.”

in an instant, the snapshots came tumbling: my own firstborn’s second birthday, a summer’s day so hot and sticky he wore just a onesie as we tiptoed down the stairs to see what the birthday fairy had tucked in the living room corner. my heart nearly burst as i handed him the very first box i’d ever gone out and bought for him. it was a box so heavy the little guy couldn’t lift it. he needed his papa and me. inside: an oval of track, wooden track; one ivy-wrapped train station; and a little blue engine named thomas, thomas the tank engine, a train who’d ascend to a starring role in the celluloid loops of one boyhood.

for years and years, the consummate posture in our house was a boy perched in a crouch, his fine little fingers curled over the spine of a train as he moved it this way and that, spinning tale after tale, spewing noise after guttural noise (for that’s what trains do when they speed or they crash). one by one, we collected engines and track and bridges and tunnels. we collected stories, and friendships there on the floor where the tracks morphed from circle to oval to intricate geometries that looped and ducked and rose and forked. back in the day, the little TV by the kitchen table played over and over the tales of the trains of the island of sodor, all told in the lilting tongue of one ringo starr, who to these children was simply mr. conductor, while to his parents he was the rockstar drummer, now curiously cast as trainman. (ringo gave way to george carlin — or maybe it went the other way, carlin to starr — either way, a bizarre bit of telegenics, one that endears both gents forever.)

our sweet boy loved trains more than anything. for years, we rode them cross country, falling asleep to the sway of the bunks as we rolled through the heartland, the hudson river valley, or the rise of the rockies. we drove to where we could watch the lumbering locomotives, switching back and forth on the side tracks in the yard where they were hosed down and polished. we climbed aboard on sundays and rode up and down the “el” line, or around “the loop,” chicago’s train set for grownups.

more than once, our little trainman plopped his head to the pillow and drifted to dreamland clutching one of his engines. he rarely left home without his striped engineer’s cap. and when he was four, and we drove to a farm to fetch a striped six-week-old kitten, our little trainman inserted “choo-choo” as the mewling’s middle name.

one christmas, the very same brother who now wonders if we might send our train set his way stayed up the whole night, sawing and pounding vast planes and chunks of wood, a train table with sawdust-sprinkled landscape, one that stood on four stout legs, and rose to the precise height of one little boy’s waist, for maximum stretch of his train-steering arms. that blessed brother’s all-night labor made for a christmas awakening never to be exceeded.

and then one day, the train table was collecting dust. the trains hadn’t moved one inch in the yard. they were tumbled all in a pile. and, in time, tossed in a bin and tucked at the back of the toy shelf.

for years now, they’ve cowered in the dark. too treasured to be relegated to the attic. too forgotten to see the light of the murky playroom downstairs.

but still that bin holds so many sparks of a boyhood, i can nearly hear its whispers. maybe more than anyone in the house, i’m the one still clutching the tracks and the sweet-faced engines.

but around here we believe in hand-me-downs. and not only because it stretches a dollar. because a hand-me-down is history. is layers of story. of love. is animated even its stillness.

and so, this morning, i will sift through the train bin. i will pluck out thomas, the blue one, and james, who is red. edward, i recall, is the kind engine (and thus, always, my favorite). and toby is a troublemaker. how could you not love the cast of your firstborn’s childhood? how could you not treasure the trains that, often, came to dinner? made lumps in the bed clothes? filled little-boy pockets? spouted faucets of tears if left behind, ever?

that little train man is far from home now, 1000 miles away from the train table that is no longer. he’s all grown, and he told me just last week, with a thrill in his voice, that the window of his senior-year dorm room looks out on a train track that runs through the woods of his leafy new england college.

and just a bit farther north and east, in the little town of south portland, maine, there is a little boy who doesn’t yet go to sleep dreaming of trains. but he will. oh, he will.

as soon as i slap the shipping tape onto the cardboard box that waits in the basement. soon as the nice mailman scoops up the parcel and plops it onto a faraway stoop. soon as sweet milo crouches down in that way that boys do, and curls his fingers just so, round the spine of the train. and, full steam ahead, chugs through a childhood.

bless the tracks and the trains, and the boys who so love them….

what are the treasures from your childhood? or the childhood of someone you love? do you recall bequeathing that treasure to the next keeper of treasure?

loopy days

loopy days bedsheet

for three short weeks — one down, only two to go — there’s a new rhythm in this old house. it goes like this: ’round late morning, i hear a swoosh from up above the kitchen ceiling (that’s the bedsheets being whipped aside); then i hear a thud, followed by a parade of thuds, thud-thud-thud down the stairs. as the thuds round the bend, lope into the kitchen, i look up and see a bed-head. my beloved boy.

he begins his morning forage through the fridge. as he piles tubs and cartons on the countertop, he lets out with a “whadda we got for breakfast, mommo?”

that’s my cue to begin the litany, all within the confines of high-protein, low carbs, healthy, delicious, and filling.

hmm. let me know if you’ve got ideas.

it’s at about this point that the eggs are being cracked, he’s begging for mushrooms, and wants to know if i remembered to get the mozzarella at the market. as i watch egg whites whirl toward the kitchen walls, i leap up from my typing to play at being his sous-chef (though really all i am is the wiper-upper of kitchen splats).

he whips up something grand, something delicious, and always spilling over the sides of his plate.

we mosey back to the table. or, well, he moseys, and i finish up the de-splatting. then we sit, and the loopy days begin. we dive deep. quickly.

waste little time on folderol and fluff. we’ve got a year’s worth of college life to pour over (we’ve been known to take in two years at a gulp, retreading over year before last, if pertinent) , and there’s the year ahead to consider, too.

we loop round and round, drop threads, follow new ones, circle back — hours later — to the thread we’d left behind. it goes like this for half the day.

now, not all college kids go off the way mine has. i’ve heard tales of kids who text many times  a day. i’ve even heard stories about college kids who dial phones. call home. to be fair, that happens here too, but not so very often. and, when it happens, it is sometimes very very late at night.

we seem to have birthed a college kid who takes his college full-throttle. unless it’s dire — and on occasion, it’s been vaguely that — we’re pretty much the side show. oh, there are insistent “love you, mommo”s. and there are (astonishingly), “do you remember where you put my sewing kit?”

mostly, i, um, never ever doubt, not for any longer than five or 10 minutes, that he appreciates my unbroken love and care.

but, really, it’s these sacred hours when he’s home, when the two of us are circling in and out of each other’s footspace and quarter-hour time slots, that we make up for lost time, and seal the deal for the long whitespace ahead.

these hours, the ones where he might sink down low inside a bean bag, while i trod for miles on the treadmill, the ones where i sous to his chef, these are the ones that knit us deep and thick and forever at the heart.

love in every house spills out in idiosyncratic ways. and it changes over time.

at my house now, i am licking up these hours of deep and winding conversation as if the ice cream melted on my cake plate.

i am whispering thanks to the heavens above that, right now, for this short interlude, i can do my typing here, not far from where the thuds patter down the stairs. so that i can weave my sentences in between his stories. so i can be here to catch the loop-de-loops of conversation as they unfurl. in slow time. unhurried time. whip-up-omelettes-while-you’re-talking time.

because i’m long practiced in the art of asking questions, allowing long spells for replies, i find this a part of motherhood to which i take a particular shine. play time on the floor, i flunked. so, too, chutes and ladders and monopoly. i wasn’t bad at crayons and paper. but really.

the deepest glue i know is the one that comes from unfurling the whole of the human heart. the nooks and crannies. crests and high plains.

so it’s what we do here. for three short weeks. in the mid-day hours when no one else is home. and my brain’s at full attention. and my work can wait till dark. for these hours are slipping through my fingers. and i am plumbing the depths of each and every one.

loopy days, i find, are the summer’s sweetest offering.

do you practice the art of the slow-unwinding conversation? the one with someone you love that stops and starts and plumbs the depths for days and days on end? and carries you across long dry deserts of barely enough time to really, really talk?

and because i promised a bit of cerebral uplift, i’ll begin what i’m calling the marginalia department, where i scribble in the margins of whatever page i’m turning, where i recount for you the lines i’ve scored and underscored. 

this week from rebecca solnit’s “the faraway nearby,” a line to chew on for a time:

“Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”

or this….

“Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself.”

i am especially keen on the first, about difficulty school, and the option of learning from it. it’s a thought that carried me to sleep last night…..and it’s a book that came highly recommended by one of my very favorite reader friends…..

never enough…

dispatch from 02139 (in which we’ve returned “home” from our swoop down the eastern seaboard — a grand thanksgiving repast in new york city, in the brownstone at 94th and lex we have come to know and love for its grace (and wild rice salad, and indian corn pudding, and oven-browned brussels sprouts), followed by a zip through the lincoln tunnel to one fair haven, and my tall fellow’s ancestral home, the 1789 gardener’s cottage where, to this day, his heart ticks at its fullest, its soundest)…

i should have mastered this. should have figured this out. should have, should have, should have.

but i haven’t.

not when it comes to saying goodbye, not when the goodbye is to my firstborn, grand thump in my heart, big brother to the little guy, the one who’s been away, off at college for nearly three whole semesters now.

you’d think i could get through it without the preamble rumble down in my belly, without the pounding in my heart, without the tears welling and spilling.

but i haven’t.

each time, i swear, it feels like someone is unplugging a cord that keeps my glow up and glowing. that has something to do with how i breathe. that puts the purr in my heart.

each time, in the hours before, as i start to feel the yanking, the turning and twisting of parts deep inside, as i start to picture the hours and days ahead without him, without the unspooling of conversation that comes, unexpected, as i chop in the kitchen, as i fold laundry, as i tie my shoes and head out for a stroll, i start to see the color draining away.

i start to feel empty all over again.

i think back to the days of villages, when a mother and son would never be farther than a few cottages away, down behind a waist-high stone wall, through an arched timbered doorway, in a room where embers on the hearth burned orange, persimmon and red.

i wonder why, nowadays, mothers and children need live miles and miles, whole ZIP codes, away.

oh, of course, i settle back into my rhythms. get used to plowing through the day without the flash of his million-watt smile. without dinners fueled by his stories. (fact is, i don’t mind, not one little bit, seeing his bunk smooth and unrumpled. don’t miss the volcano of clothes he spills on the bedroom floor.)

we left the boy back in new york city. he’s a man now. my last glimpse of him was under a streetlight at the corner of 94th and lexington avenue. he filled out his shetland sweater, his chest now strikingly, breathtakingly, the shape and size and velocity of my own papa’s. a chest i always loved. a chest that made me feel safe against the world. and now that chest belongs to my son, my sweet boy, my strapping 6-foot-3 chunk of a man.

as i stepped back from his hug, from his long arms, broad shoulders, soft hands, i felt the pull like stretching of dough. i, into the distance. he, into the thick of his life. a whole weekend before him, a weekend with his beloved cousin and aunt, a weekend romping through the best of new york, a new york i’ll never see.

fact is, it’s his life he lives now. whole chapters and verse distant to me. unknown. uncharted.

as it should be. as it’s meant to be.

but that does not make the parting of mother and child one drop easier. not for this mother anyway.

it’s not that i want him tucked by my side. God, no. this is why and how i’ve raised him — to spread his arms wide as wide can be, to wrap in as much and as deep as he can, and then to soar high.

it’s just that along with that soaring comes the fact that mama bird’s back in the nest, or up on some other limb, watching the sky, watching the loop-de-loops. wings on alert, ready to spread, to enfold, in case there’s a fall, a need to harbor, to shelter again.

and that airspace between mother and child, that life space, it just seems to take — every time — getting used to.

i always think, i’ve never my fill of him. never enough of his stories. never enough of his heart. never ever enough.

and then, not long after i’d swallowed my goodbyes, i watched my own tall fellow, the one i married, say goodbye to his mama, down in fair haven, on the jersey shore. and i wondered if she too always feels it. that it’s never enough. that one more breakfast together. one more walk to the river. one more, one more, would finally fill the hole.

but truth is, i think it’s a hole that will never be filled. it’s a wanting that goes un-sated.

it’s a yearning, a hunger, a please-come-back that lies at the heart of deep love. most especially, at the heart and soul of mother love.

who in your life do you never ever get enough of? 

photo way above is my boys, big and little, plotting their flag-football moves in a game against the cousins, played on the lot behind the tall fence at hunter college on new york’s upper east side. i can’t get enough of watching the two of them entwine the whole of their lives…. 

photo below is my firstborn at his ebullient best.

happy blessed season of thanks, and beginning of advent, the season of waiting…..and now i am off to a long day of writing….classes wrap up in the next couple weeks. where did that first semester go???

birthday fairy steps aside

happens every day. all the best of ’em come to that square on the game board called life when they know it’s time to go. hang up the hat. hook the keys on the nail. tiptoe quietly off to the wings.

happened here last night. i swore i heard the swoosh of her wings, the birthday fairy, as she peeked in the window one last time. pressed her delicate pink nose against the glass, blew a kiss, and flew on.

for the first time in 18 years, the blessed balloon-blowing, poster-wielding, crepe-paper-draping fairy of birthdays did not wreak havoc beside the twin bed where my firstborn snoozed. she did not wind ribbons of crinkly crepe round his bedposts and doorknobs, she did not weave and dodge and try to slither out without waking the dozing log of a boy, who year by year got longer and longer, slept more and more soundly.

for the first time since the year he turned 1, she did not romp through the night making merriment.

it was time, she realized, for the big strapping lad to get on with his life without her.

poor thing, she’s probably curled up on some lily pad this lonely morning licking her wounds.

it’s not easy to give up a post you’ve loved, with a boy you long ago tucked tightly under your wing.

oh, if you peeked in his closets you’d find posters counting up every last year. “top 13 reasons you are loved.” “happy 4 we love you.” “why we love you….(continued from ’06)” and on and on it goes. a numerical stair step through childhood. a boy loved beyond words, but not beyond magic markers and poster boards and his very own fairy’s whimsical ways.

all the way to 18, she kept at it. each year needing to schedule her visit later and later, to account for the nocturnal ways of a teen hurdling toward adulthood. she carried him — oh, yes, she did — right through to the ledge, where little boy ways are folded up and tucked into memory boxes, and voting and driving and first sips of scotch slide onto the landscape.

so last night, despite the tugging there at her heart, despite her teetering back and forth, wondering if maybe one last time she might crank up the markers, haul out the rolls of festooning, she thought back over the subtle signs of the last year, the year far away at college, and all the ways she had come to realize, to know through and through, that it was time to honor the grownup in her midst. to let go of what was, and find a whole new way to embrace the whole of him.

so, for the first time, there was no mad-dash scrambling of pens and puns and ways to spell out “i love you” in numbers and words and silly scribblings.

instead, there was a mama who sat down at her typing board, and typed out a letter, every last word of it moistened by the tears that started to fall and would not stop, not till after the two typed pages were paper clipped, folded and slipped into the envelope marked with a hand-drawn red heart.

this time, on the eve of 19, she did not hide behind fairy wings and bright colored markers. nope, she told him the one thing she wanted him to know: that from the beginning till beyond the beyond, she was the one who loved him like nobody’s business. she was the one true place to which he could always turn, no matter what life throws his way. she will forever be the beacon burning on the hill, over the harbor.

then, when dawn broke and the birthday sky brightened, she hopped in the old wagon and drove to the diner with the cheesy hash he so loves. she scooped up a platter to-go, along with a bacon-cheese omelet, and plunked it all down on the bright red birthday plate, the same one she’s set on the table since back on the day he turned 1.

good thing for that sweet old fairy, there is one more lad in this house, snoozing up in his bed. and he is not yet 11.

our fairy, her load might be lessened, but we’re not done with her yet. she’s got miles of markers before she sleeps, miles and miles of markers and streamers and a rare gift of joy that will never ever grow old.

happy, happy birthday, sweet beautiful will. love, your very own fairy.

what are the life markers you’ve had to retire at your house? and what ones do you forever cling to?

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? 

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?

welcome home, college freshman xoxo

* as published in the Chicago Tribune
(here’s a tale you all know, you who come to the table, pull up a chair. i could barely wait last week to see that boy, now asleep in the room up over my head as i type. so i wrote the essay below. it ran in the newspages. but it belongs here, most of all. you see the boy, trying to sleep, and the little one, who could not pull himself away from that bed. he just stood beside his big brother, soaking it in. so did i.

and, now as we all get ready to crank the stoves, set the table, open the door and welcome the ones we love, here is the welcome home essay, just for you. xoxo)

By Barbara Mahany

I’ve been imagining the sound for months: his footsteps.

The house has been hollow without them, the thud I came to know as his as he stumbled out of the bed, the gallop as he loped down the stairs.

I can almost feel the gust of the wind as the front door swings open and in pops that curly haired mop I last buried my nose in on a hot August day when I left him on a leafy college quad, 1,000 miles away.

But any day now — I could tell you the hours and minutes — we are about to fall into the sweetest of homecomings, the freshman in college coming home for the very first time.

It’s a film loop I’ve played in my mind over and over. Since way back before he was gone. It was, in many ways, a salve to the wound that was growing, deepening as the day of his leaving finally arrived. Nearly swallowed me whole, that widening gash.

I’ve long savored the romance of November, when the light turns molasses, the air crisp, and planes fill the sky, the crisscrossing of hearts headed home. But never before had I felt it so deeply.

This year, one of those jets is carrying home my firstborn.

Now, all these months later, I can only imagine the boy who’s more of a man now. Calls home just once a week, Sundays, after 5 p.m. “Circa 1975,” I call it, just like when I was a freshman in college and had to wait for the rates to go down to report in to the folks back home.

It took me the better part of a month to get used to the missing sounds in our house. To not wince each night when I laid down three forks, not four. To not leave on the porch light as I climbed up to bed.

Over the months, I’ve learned to steer clear of particular shelves in the grocery store, because they hold his favorites — the turkey jerky, the sharp cheddar, stuff I used to grab without thinking, his stuff.

Curiously, I haven’t spent much time in his room. Except once, when I tackled the closet, folded every last T-shirt, rolled up loose socks, rubbing my hand over the cloth, absorbing the altered equation, that I was now the mother of a faraway child.

And so, I’m looking forward to when the place at the kitchen table will be ours again, the place where we talked until the wee hours, poring over the landscape of his life, refining the art of listening, asking just the right questions.

I leapt out of bed days ago, scribbled a list of all the foods I wanted to buy, to tuck on the pantry shelves, to pack in the fridge. I flipped open a cookbook to a much splattered page, the recipe for one his favorites. It’s as if the alchemy of the kitchen will fill places that words cannot.

I can barely contain the tingling that comes with knowing that, any day, he’ll be boarding a plane, crossing the sky, putting his hand on the knob on our door.

My beautiful boy, the boy I’ve missed more than I will ever let on, he’s coming home to the house that’s been aching to hear him again.

Barbara Mahany is a Tribune reporter.

(in case my editors want the link to be floating here…)

homecoming

you don’t even have to listen too closely, don’t need to put your ear to the creaky old floorboards, or one of the doors. you can hear this house humming a mile away.

i swear it’s the truth.

i started humming mornings ago, way back on monday, when i leapt from the bed and started to scribble. racked my brain for all of his favorites, went out and got ‘em. drove the old wagon all over town like it was a tank and i was a captain, and we were off on a foraging mission. rustled up every last thing i could think of, straight down to a six-pack of gentlemen’s beer. called up my faraway brother, the one who cooks for a movie star, darn it, and jotted just as he told me. “knocks their socks off,” he said of the beefy rendition, all sesame and soy and ginger. sounds to me like food for a boy who is asking for meat. lots of it.

i had that boy’s room ready back before the workweek began. even scrubbed the seat of the toilet, for heaven’s sake. as if he would notice.

but a mama who feathers the nest, at least in this ol’ nest, is a mama who doesn’t know when to stop. not probably till someone calls out the time, round the middle of tomorrow afternoon, lets me know at long last, it’s time to go to the airport.

oh, lordy.

my firstborn is flying home from college tomorrow. did i remember to say that?

and, honeychil’, it’s a homecoming i’ve been imagining forever and ever.

years back, when the mere mention of children leaving for college sent me into a case of the shakes, i’d soothe myself by pushing the play button. i’d sit back in my mind and watch the frames of a film i played in my head, over and over. it was my kid coming home for the very first time.

holy hallelujah.

it’s all very truman capote, the homecoming loop that plays in my brain. has hints of those old ‘70s TV specials, the hallmark hall of fame, when gloriously-shot family tales would air, and my mama and i, we’d sit with a box of kleenex between us, and let the tears roll.

they’re rollin’, all right.

last night i was bumping along on the rickety “el” train, chicago’s version of the subway, and there was chatter all over the train car, but i was alone in my reverie, imagining that moppy-haired kid, coming through the gate at the airport, feeling my heart leap from my chest, tears pouring, right there on the el car.

it’s been three months, and while 99-percent of my heart is somersaulting forward, there is a wee corner that’s holding back, that’s not utterly sure what this experiment in family reunion will hold.

might be he’ll be less inclined to open his heart in the way that he used to. might be he’ll hold back. might be he won’t like the gingery beef, or the book on his bed, the one i wrote and stitched together for him back when he was headed away, the one he asked me not to send to college, the one he hasn’t yet seen.

i’m old enough now to know that not everything is gauzy, no matter how deeply you want it to be.

and it’s been a lifetime, more or less, since i last laid eyes on his beautiful self. he’s been out on his own, very much so. in ways i cannot possibly know, but believe in, he’s way more of a man now, a thinking, exploring, do-it-myself sort of a man.

as happens whenever life turns a page, we have to find our place in the text. adjust to the new shadings. bend where we need to.

these are all the cautionary thoughts of a mama who’s just a little bit not so sure. not so sure if all these months apart and away might have moved me off to a new plot on his map. one farther from the middle.

but mostly i’m full-steam ahead. just minutes ago, i found myself washing a door jam. as if smudgy gray fingerprints would be something he noticed.

i’ve got shopping to do, still. and sheets to change on his bed. i’ve got a love note to write, to tuck under his pillow.

and all the while i’m humming. we all are.

i wonder if he is?

my dear chair friends, i couldn’t contain my thoughts on this homecoming, and so pounded out a straight-from-the-heart essay on the subject the other morning. the lovely editors at work deemed it newspaper ready, and it’ll run in the sunday paper (which comes out saturday morning, in what’s called the bulldog edition). it’s running in what’s called the perspective section. the place where mostly thinkers dial up thoughts, and pontificate. every once in a while they toss in a weeper. mine is the weeper. and once it lands in the paper, i’m allowed to link to it here. but i’ll also let rip the unedited version here. it’s always interesting to see the parts editors ditch. in my case it’s usually the parts with too much heart. they like to rein me in. which is, i’m certain, as it should be. but the joy of the chair is i needn’t hold back, and mostly i don’t. so this meander is really just hors d’oeuvres. come back for the full plating over the weekend. and thank you so much for following along, the glorious expansion of one mama’s heart as she attempts to send off her firstborn into the world.

do you have a sweet homecoming tale you’d like to tell??

learning long-distance

it is as if someone turned out the lights, left me in a room, and told me to find my way out. only, they littered the path with chairs that were tipped, and piles of clothes, and all sorts of stuff that grabbed at my ankles.

and, before i could grope through the dark, i had to plop myself down in front of a box with dials and knobs and whatchamahoolies and try ever so hard to re-calibrate, to find the fine balance, the delicate line, between that place where the signal’s always been clear, been robust, and the newfound somewhere that i’ve never been before: the place where i mother from afar.

and thank God almighty that this particular gymnastic act–the redefining of my place in the life of my faraway boy–is one that comes with trapeze, the safety net of human understanding and forgiveness, and trying again and again to get it right.

so far, it’s been bumpy. on my end, i mean. i’ve klonked into chairs, tripped over clothes. can’t quite find that fine line where my own brand of embracing meets up with the newfound insistence–his insistence, that is–that the boy live his own life, spread his own wings.

and sometimes it catches me chuckling. (truth be told, sometimes it finds me in tears.)

let’s try a tale from the light-note department (or else i’ll be sniffling again): the other noontime, for instance, on what was for my boy the first day of classes.

as i am wont to do on such an occasion, i felt the magnetic pull of the wide rows of candles, the ones tucked into a cove in any catholic church. the ones guaranteed to yank God by the sleeve, and get his wide-eyed attention. or so i’ve believed forever and ever.

in this case, it was the big downtown cathedral that whispered my name, barely a mile from the place where i type. so i up and departed my typing desk, wandered through the big city, down the leafy side streets, and up through the two-ton doors that harbor the chamber where the cardinal and all of his flocks kneel down to pray.

i looked and looked and could not find the single place in any church that most deeply stirs my soul: the vigil lights, the prayer candles, straight tidy rows of beeswax votives, all queued up beside the offerings box. the place where, with the flick of a match, you strike your intentions and watch the smoke and the prayer rise heavenward.

only there were no candles in the cathedral. none that i could find in any nook or cranny. so i headed to the back where the man in the uniform sat (this is new, a security guard for a gold-washed church). i asked if perhaps they’d done away with old-fashioned vigil lights. he uttered not a word, pointed down the nearby stairs.

in the basement? i thought. in the bowels of the cathedral?

not one to argue, certainly not in a church, i did as instructed (even if the instructions came without words) and down i tiptoed, wary of what i might find there at the bottom.

lo and behold, the shiny stand of candles stood. only they weren’t candles. and there were no matches. this was, after all, the big bad city, and you can’t leave a match unattended. not in the cellar of a church that not long ago suffered a terrible fire.

and so i did what a mama in 2011 would do. i clicked the switch and on popped that battery-operated prayer candle. and, heck, as long as i was going high-tech (and as long as i was alone, down there in the cardinal’s prayer pit), i figured i oughta yank out my blackberry, that squat black box i barely know how to work. i groped till i found the camera icon. then i played along. clicked, and captured the prayer-wafting bulb. long as i was on the high-speed highway, i figured, i might as well send this snapshot off to the boy at the college. and so i did, along with a note that as long as it was tucked in his cellphone, we oughta consider the prayers on active duty.

i laughed as i launched my long-distance prayer light. felt just a wee bit proud of my capacity to bend to circumstances, to adapt. to carry on as i always have. only across area codes, mountain range and ZIP code.

the gulping thing is: the boy was too busy, too deep into college, to let me know that he got it at all. (pretty much, that’s been the case for the whole of the last two weeks. which i’m trying soveryhard to absorb, to roll with, to not let it eat me alive.)

and so i find myself feeling a bit like a schoolgirl, one with a bit of a crush on a boy who’s not paying attention. suddenly, out of the blue, i’m not sure what to say. how often to say it. not inclined to play coy. certainly not with this child i bore, this child i love more than life.

but so downright uncertain. so not wanting to intrude. to ask too much. to bother.

this room that i’m in here, it’s plenty dark. and i find that i’m tripping all over the place.

i am certain, i am, that i’ll find my new rhythm. but right now, right in here, i am learning long-distance. and it is the most uncomfortable patch i’ve known in some time.

it is a truth of life that, as we come round certain bends, we need to re-negotiate even our most heartfelt connections. i had a blurry sense that it might be hard to be so far away from the boy that i love, and i knew his landscape was meant to be one without me. but i hadn’t quite realized there’d be this layer of not knowing how to be, where to be, not wanting to barge in, but not wanting to vanish altogether.

you who’ve been down this road, how did you find your way. you who are along on this journey, do you find it’s a dance for which you’ve got two left feet, as they say? some say it’s as simple as learning how to text. you can send off quick “how you?”s, and get immediate one-word replies. some say it gets better once they come home for a visit and you realize some things never change. but right in here, i feel like i am teetering at the edge of a cliff. and the rumbling in my tummy gives me an ache……

taped, all right

you would have thought it was an instrument for which i needed a license, the way i wielded it, the way i darn-near steamrolled whatever got in my way. stand back, was the only word of caution uttered.

i had my hands on a certified defense weapon, with sticky side.

all it was, was a roll of Scotch brand shipping tape. heavy duty, specified. i made sure i got the strongest one known to humankind.

i’d bought two rolls (can never have too much). weeks ago. had let them idle beside the pile of dorm essentials tucked in the living room corner, the pile i tried to pretend was not there.

i knew that some day soon the hour would come when it was time to turn the flattened cardboard boxes back into three-dimensional pop-up vessels.

when the fallen trees would be called upon to do their duty: to get my firstborn’s college essentials–the memory foam mattress topper, the shower caddy, the over-the-door towel rods, the extra-long twin sheets (monogrammed, thank you)–to the room where they’d be home.

so there i was, alone in the living room, when at last i lifted the gizmo that unfurls the tape. it’s heavy. it’s plastic- handled. it’s got one sharp cutting edge that can rip the dickens out of your mortal flesh.

i started strapping strips of tape. it hit me right away: i liked the feel of all that sticky gooey plastic holding in the contents of my firstborn’s brand-new life. i strapped and strapped. cut nice long slabs of tape. slapped ‘em, sealed ‘em, ran my palms smooth along the not-sticky side.

suddenly i realized i was taping as if there was no tomorrow. i must have used half a roll of tape. on the first box.

then i got to the second. was overcome with need to tuck in one last love note.

hope that strapping 6-foot-something lad doesn’t mind that i grabbed a sheet of construction paper. pink construction paper. and with my favorite zig-zag scissors, i cut out a little pink heart. wrote, in red, “forever my beloved.” or some such words. it’s all a blur now. i was in a fevered, sticky-taped frenzy when i did it.

all i knew was that suddenly i was aswirl in out-of-body incantation. i was taping each and every box as if mere Scotch brand tape could keep my boy from harm. from any harm.

i wasn’t so much taping to keep the boxes from splitting in the UPS truck. i was taping to keep my boy safe on the side of the mountain he’ll climb in freshman orientation. i was taping to give him strength on the all-nighters i know he’ll pull. i was taping to avert the stern glance of some professor who some day might tell my boy a thing or two about the responsibilities of scholarship, should he dare to blow a due date on some 90-page thesis.

i was taping against the heartache that will come if some day he loves someone who doesn’t love him back. i was taping to keep him afloat in all the rivers, in all the boats, that he will row.

and that’s when i realized, once again, that motherprayer is so much more than words. it’s what we do and breathe.

it’s stirring oatmeal on a winter’s morning, it’s using half a roll of tape to seal shut, to protect, a box of sundries for a college dorm room, as if in simple acts of stirring, sealing, we can wrap our children–even when they’re no longer little ones–in a sacred shield of holy light.

impenetrable, we pray. “be safe,” the final words we whisper every time. words that, now, mean so much more than simply, “i love you.” that’s understood, implicit.

“be safe” is poetry, is vessel, for “i would die if you were hurt, were harmed.”

“be safe” is motherprayer for when you send your child, the fruit of your womb quite frankly, off into the world, a world you can’t control, a world that some days, some dark hours, shatters you.

“be safe” is hope and faith boiled down into two short syllables. “be safe” is the last line of defense, the thin membrane on the other side of which prayer and holy angels pick up the load.

and some late-summer afternoons, when the sun slants in the front-room windows, illuminating your task, as you tape and seal five boxes, there are no words.

only the mad wrapping of a mother who will not let harm come to her child—or his memory foam mattress topper.

so help her, God.

and what are the wordless incantations, the rituals you repeat, as you aim to keep the ones you love from harm in any form?

one week from today, our head-off-to-college date. all this week, mamafriends of mine have been shuttling children to the college campuses where they will spend the year. lots of soggy pillow cases, right in here. lots of feeling lost. back at home, that is. pray to God, not in college dorms. as hard as it is for us, may it not be hard, dear God, for our children who are spreading wings and taking flight…..