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Category: little one

humpty dumpty powder and other tricks of motherhood

humpty dumpty had a great fall…all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put humpty together again….

indeed, and thank goodness, not all the falls that befall our little ones are great ones.

sometimes, they’re bumps.

sometimes brought on by being brave in the woods. sometimes by being brave in the woods for two long weeks you thought might never end. sometimes, they’re stirred by spending the night in a tent on the side of a sand dune, on a night when the thunder and lightning would not cease, when hail pummeled the tent flaps, when the counselors at 3 a.m. shooshed you onto the bus for safekeeping, while they struggled to stake down the flipped-over tents, and all you could manage was to pray for dawn’s first light, and a cure for the ache in your belly.

and so, when you get to the end of that shell-shaking spell in the woods, when your mama pulls up to the dried meadow at the edge of camp, and you leap out of your flip-flops to throw yourself into her arms, you need your mama to reach deep into her bag of mama tricks and pull out the humpty dumpty powder.

you need your mama to put you together again.

that’s what mamas do best. that’s job no. 1 in the old mama bible.

oh, sure we birth those babes back at the launch. but from then on in, it’s our supreme holy calling to be there for bee stings and dog bites and nights without end in the woods.

and it is indeed how i am spending these hours, ever since i picked up my brave little camper there in the woods.

didn’t take long, not more than a minute, to see that this hadn’t quite been a picnic, no mere frolic on the shores of torch lake. and it wasn’t simply the stench coming from his toes, there in the back of the homeward-bound rescue mobile.

there were clues, the sort a mama can read without prompt, that the boy sound asleep for most of the car ride, straight through michigan and half indiana, had utterly and completely tapped out his stay-strong tank.

heck, he’d survived on PB&J for the better part of 13 lunches and 13 dinners. even the night of the all-camp banquet, when ribs and baked alaska highlight the menu, the boy i love filled up on “four ears of corn and candy.” his words, exactly.

no wonder he came home sun-browned and skinny.

so, besides the bottle of bleach and the buckets for multiple pre-soaks (half the loam of the woods came home stuck in our little dude’s socks), we have pulled out all stops here on the home-team recovery squad.

we’ve showered him with kisses, and filled the bathtub with bubbles. we’ve cooked up cherry-filled pancakes, drizzled cherry syrup over slabs of turkey bacon, concocted “torch lake sunrises,” an orange-juice-and-cherry-concentrate breakfast mocktail.

we’ve squeezed triple-antibiotic ointment into oozing blisters on the sides of both feet. we’ve fluffed a pillow, unfurled a blanket and rubbed itty-bitty circles there where the headache pounded.

but the best cure of all was the big brother who’d once roamed the same woods, downed the same baked alaska. he knew the camp songs, the lore, the legend. he got the kid laughing again.

come dinner time, we let the little guy order up a feast of favorites: from-scratch mac-‘n’-cheese, ditto the applesauce, corn on the cob (minus the candy, his mama insisted), all washed down with cherry pie ala mode.

in no time, we suspect, our little camper oughta be back to his usual mostly-unflappable self.

but one of the breath-taking truths of motherhood is that you’ve got a rare, front-row seat on the naked work of growing up and learning to be brave.

i’ll never forget that kid standing at the window, just two weeks ago, the night before we left him at camp. he was staring up to the starlit dome, and, even there in the dark, you could read the prayers spill off his lips, and the way he wrapped it all up with a sign of the cross, and a tip of his palm to the heavens, just like the ballplayers do. he was beside himself with worry, he told us. could not imagine going two weeks without seeing a glimpse of us.

but he made it. he did it.

and that’s what i keep whispering in his ear.

“you did it, sweetheart. you did the very thing you thought you couldn’t.”

and if, for the next coupla days, we need to stoke you with buckets of cherries, and lavish you with kisses, we’ll get you steady on your feet. because we’ve seen you, backlit by the night sky, in your hour of near-despair, and we’ve felt our own lungs swell, at the depth of your courage: you took to the woods, little one, and you found your way home, shaken but not cracked.

tell me your tales of profiles in courage you’ve witnessed up close and personal. humpty dumpty powder not needed.

prayer for a camper

dear mother God of woods and tangled roots, of see-through lakes, and dawn’s first light, of moonbeams drooling on the meadow grass, and birdsong waking up the day,

i have delivered to you my precious child, my tender heart, brave heart. he is yours now, for two whole weeks, yours to hold, to guide along the trails in deepest darkest night, yours to wrap your arms around in those shaky moments just before the sleep comes, when thoughts drift home, when home feels faraway and hollow fills the void.

he is yours now as he leaps off the dock into soft-bottomed sandy swimming hole. he is yours as he climbs the ropes and buckles onto that shiver-me-timber woodsy trick, the zip line. he is yours as he climbs endless dunes and jumps for dear life. hold those ankles straight, dear mother watcher God. keep those bones from cracking into twos. keep bees away, and while you’re at it, please shoosh the darn mosquitoes. ditto poison ivy.

perhaps, too, you could drift down into the dingy cabin — he’s in no. 6, in case that helps — and tap him lightly on the shoulder, whisper in his ear: “don’t forget the sunscreen. slather on the OFF!” and when he loses things, say, the water bottle, or the flashlight, maybe just maybe you could guide his searching little hand to the very secret spot where said essentials are playing hide-n-seek.

dear mother God of star-lit dome, of lake breeze, of rustling in the cottonwoods, you now tend my first-time camper, you hold him to your moss-carpeted bosom. i pray you open up the woods to him, reveal to him the mysteries of your quiet ways, your crashing-booming majesty.

for two short weeks, we’ve unplugged him just for you. he’s all yours now. he has drawn in a deep cleansing breath, shaken off his deep-woods worries, and surrendered to all the glories you have to offer him.

tap his tender heart. unspool for him the depth of confidence that’s buried deep down where he doesn’t always know it dwells. allow him to emerge from these woods, from these weeks along that crystal lake, from romping with the troupes of boys and abiding by generations-old rules of woodsmen’s games, knowing just a bit more solidly how much he has to carry into this blessed world.

if so inclined, please be there when the hour comes, at last, for him to light his torch, and lift it high — to illuminate not merely his way, but, as well, the twisting paths of all of those who walk beside him.

hold him tight, dear mother God, when he needs a squeeze, and be the wind beneath his wings when he glances down and sees that he is soaring, gliding where the eagles glide.

oh, and one last thing while i’m on my knees here begging: see if, just once or twice, you can make him reach for the milk jug  — instead of glow-in-the-dark “bug juice,” a vat of red dye no. 2 — when it’s time to fill his lunchtime glass.

that’s pretty much the whole of it from here on the home front, where i’ve nothing left to do, but turn to you, and trust with all my heart.

thank you mama God, God of dappled afternoon light, God of pit-a-pat of summer rain, God who wraps the campers in her arms, and holds them safe and blessed ever after.

so begins my two-week vigil, my prayer for my little one’s safe keeping. it wasn’t a trip without tears, wasn’t one that did not demand an oversized butterfly net to catch the wayward worries. but once there, along torch lake in northern michigan, he allowed the pure pine-woods air to fill his lungs, and animate his every step. he found particular joy in discovering his big brother’s name painted onto a plaque that hangs not far from his cabin, a place he’ll pass morning, noon, and night as he passes to the dining hall, and lakeside campfire. i like to think it’s a bit of a woodsy patron saint, keeping watch on the little one. right in here, we’ll take all the eyes we can muster. be safe, brave camper. but even more: be joy-filled.

little one leaving

since the deep dark night, 10 years and 10 months ago, when my longtime beloved obstetrician, the one who’d been sitting beside me chatting away the hours like a girlfriend at a slumber party — albeit with one of us increasingly squeezed around the middle, as one of us was deep in labor, about to birth a long-awaited, much-prayed-for babe at the ripe old age of nearly 45 — ever since she, the OB goddess, leapt from her leaning-on-the-bed place, thrust her arms through the sleeves of her backwards surgical gown, whipped on the superwoman goggles, and looked straight into my eyeballs — as the monitor slowed its beeping and the wiggly line lost its deep dips and rises, as the blinking numbers dropped from way high over 100 to down toward the crucial century mark — ever since she spelled out in no uncertain terms: “here’s the plan. you’re going to push this baby out in two swift pushes. got that?”

and i swallowed hard, knowing deep inside just how much she meant business, serious business, as i read the monitors and all but said aloud, “i am not losing this dream now; no way, we’ve come too far. it is not slipping through my fingers now.”

as i reached around me for all the angels, saints and glory-be’s there in that darkened room, where just a single shaft of spotlight shone down on the still-empty stage, ever since that night, when i did as told, and finally, blessedly, miraculously, heard that baby’s cry, i swear half my every heartbeat belongs to the one i’ve long called my “little one.”

and i am leaving him, day after tomorrow, in the woods.

all week we’ve been piling up old t-shirts, fairly ratty shorts, towels that won’t mind a stint inside a musty dingy cabin. any hour now, we’ll begin to load it all into the giant duffle bag the little one’s big brother carried to the same camp in the same woods four summers in a row, long long ago, it seems.

as a matter of fact, when i climbed to the attic the other afternoon, and hauled that duffle down, we unzipped it and found inside the very letter that the then-five-year-old little one had dictated to his big faraway brother.

it read, in part: “we kind of miss you. i’m kinda having fun with mom and dad. i hope you don’t get ‘flied’ away by an eagle. i hope you don’t get scared by a sloth. i hope you don’t get hit by thunder when it’s raining.”

i was standing out back, airing out the duffle, reading aloud the letter once again to the big brother to whom it was written, when the little one — the long-ago letter writer himself — came scurrying up the walk, in from a ballgame in the alley. he laughed at his five-year-old word choices. but i tell you it was a poetic passing of the north woods torch that could not have been more aptly scripted.

he took the folded white sheet of paper, and held it tight. i saw his imagination begin to count the possibilities of those impending woods: the eagle, the sloth, the thunder claps. i saw his lips curl up in smile.

then we got to work digging through the rest of the duffel, pulling out squished ping pong balls, a ping pong paddle, a shrunken bar of five-year-old soap, old band-aids. it all served as inventory, accompanied by big brother dialogue, a sort of show-‘n’-tell, a talking guidebook to sleep-away camp in the deep dark woods.

as seems to be happening so often around here these days, i am scratching my head, glancing in the rear-view mirror, asking, how’d we get here so suddenly? wasn’t that little guy the one sleeping in the car seat behind me, as we drove home without the big guy, having left him behind for the very first time? how in the world could it be that my baby, my boy who quivered at the thought of the fourth-grade outdoor ed trip (a three-night, four-day trek that had him worried for months and months in advance), how could it be that he, out of the blue, decided that, just like his big hero of a brother, he was going to camp hayo-went-ha the summer after fifth grade ends.

so here we are.

to tell the truth, i think he might be just as curious about this odd twist of travel tales as i am. most of the week, he’s been too full to finish even half a waffle at breakfast, a whopper case of butterflies having moved in and occupied the tummy real estate. he is wandering up to me, out of nowhere it seems, throwing his arms around my middle and declaring, “i love you.” and that’s not all: then he plants a kiss, lips to cheek, and holds it till i all but melt.

hmm. the deep dark woods must do that to a first-time camper.

we’ll fall asleep tonight, he and i, with curly heads aswirl with woodsy dreams. in the morning, we load the car, point north and drive.

i cannot begin to imagine just how empty i will feel when we drop him there and — after tromping to his cabin, tucking in his sheets, reminding him two or three or 10 times to use the toothpaste and sunscreen — his papa and i, both brushing back tears, swallowing harder than in a long long while, slide back into our little southbound black sedan. without him. driving 356 miles. without him. without him in the little carseat he once filled out. without him, now nearly 4-feet-11-inches long, chattering the whole way home. without him.

it’ll be 14 days and counting down.

but i can’t begin the countdown. not yet anyway. we’ve still to pack the duffle. still to quell the butterflies — his and mine. and then the prayers begin. “holy garden angels, please keep him safe.” my moonbeam baby, born in shaft of midnight light. the other half of every heartbeat. from now till the end of time.

because a mama’s gotta do what a mama’s gotta do, i was up nearly the whole night last night, typing a magazine story. so i am bleary eyed here. and will post a dispatch upon return. this here is pretty much a space holder, till the real story flows. along with tears. plenty of tears. of that i have no doubt. i am leaving my little one. in the woods. 356.58 miles away from home sweet home.

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?

how you say?

the index card, it turns out, is a benevolent slip of paper. scratch that; make it “essential.” the index card, goshdarnit, is wholly and utterly, upside down and sideways, an essential slip of paper.

singular or plural, the card — all alone, or in a stack — is not merely one hot commodity at our house this week.

it is, they are, three days into this experiment in trans-atlantic comradeship, our deeply-held lifeline, our saving grace, the very bridge between blank stares, jet-lagged silence, flat-out confusion, and bumbled attempts at groping for the missing word.

were it not for those blank-faced 3-by-5’s, we might still be standing by the fridge, the cold air swooshing out, trying to figure out if our little german friend was asking for the milk (Milch) or the juice (Saft). or, perhaps, all he wants is one shiny red apple (glänzender roter Apfel).

see how tangled this might make you?

for months now, ever since the german teacher sent home a note asking if anyone had a spare bedroom, or an extra place at the table, for a little german friend, our new-to-german fifth grader, a boy who just this school year found himself without a brother in the house, has been counting down the days, till his occasional penpal arrived from Deutschland.

and arrive he did the other afternoon, as that great blue-and-golden bird, the lufthansa 747 glided onto the runway, and unfurled our little friend.

he marched through customs, backpack on his slender shoulders, through the swinging doors and straight into our hearts, my little one’s and mine.

he is blond and sweet and oh-so-shy. he is not so certain of his english words, and we are nearly clueless when it comes to german. he giggles and his cheeks turn pink as i try to figure out the words, try hard to use the sounds that he uses when he says what’s what — time and time and time again.

so no wonder, then, that i have grown quite fond of my ever-dwindling stack of index cards, and pen and sticky tape.

before i’ve even bumped into a noun, i am grabbing for my card and pen, scribbling english, and awaiting its german twin.

thus, two tongue-tied boys and i, we’ve turned this house into a veritable post-it board, with white cards dangling from every surface, candlestick and knob. we’ve slapped a name on everything from OJ carton (remember now, that’s the Saft) to the morning’s newspaper (Zeitung).

it is a bit clumsy, of course, and makes for conversation interruptus. but, all in all, it works. and we are getting along, if not smoothly, well then beautifully and bumpily.

it is quite a gift (one that’s landed in our laps), we’ve swiftly discovered, to open up our house to a little lad from far away. it stretches the human heart in ways this world so deeply needs.

i shouldn’t be surprised to find that, yet again, my mama-hen instincts have kicked into high overdrive. i lie awake at night worrying about the little fellow. listening hard for any peep. i dash to the grocery store to fill the bins with everything i’ve figured out he likes (yes, salami, chocolate, and apples; no, to ham, bananas, raisins). and i ask him endlessly if he is tired (müde), hungry (hungrig), and Gut geschlafen (did he sleep well)?

i am, after two nearly sleepless nights, considering a simple cure for all the world’s ills: what if we left it to the mothers to construct a paradigm for peace?

what if we all reached our chubby hands into some global hat, and plucked out the names of other mother’s children? what if we took them in, for a week or two at a time, and felt the thump in our hearts as we worried over them, as we fed them, and smoothed their sheets?

what if we all struggled to not only learn each other’s words, but also to see the world through each other’s eyes? what if, deep in the dark of night, we heard a child whimper, a child who was not our own? what if we tore off our bedsheets and stumbled to where that sound came from, and pulled someone else’s sleepy child’s head into our own tender ample arms?

what if we loved each other’s children as if they were our own?

might that not glue this shattered globe back into the solid whole that it was meant to be?

i am thinking much about that as i stumble my way through these 10 clumsily translated days.

my little one has found a friend, one who doesn’t speak in paragraphs or even sentences at a time. but one who does speak the universal language of the soccer ball and smile.

and i’ve found, i do believe, an ancient and timeless truth: love a child, any child, and the keys to heaven belong to you.

even if that needs be scribbled on a humble index card —  liebe ein Kind, jedes Kind, und die Schlüssel zum Himmel gehöre zu dir.

have you ever found yourself feeling tender of the heart toward someone else’s holy blessed child?

the gift that is my counting-down boy

“it’s advent,” he said with a twinkle.

“24 days,” he said two seconds later, not sure that i’d netted his drift.

finally, i found my way along his breadcrumb trail of hints.

“it’ll be up when you get home,” i shot right back, suddenly relieved that we’d awakened to a chandelier dangling by a mere two wires, a heavy chandelier, mind you. an antique of brass and blue-and-white porcelain, one you wouldn’t want crashing to the floor. but because the darn thing was dangling in such a dangerous way, and because there was no contraption we could contrapt to girdle it in place while we waited for the handy shock-and-wires man, i had to stay home all day, typing from my writing room.

which is a long and winding way to say: while he was off at school, and i was home cobbling stories amid chandelier-crash patrol, i tiptoed to the basement, to the box marked “early christmas,” and grabbed the string of red-plaid pockets, the one that every year since he remembers i’ve filled with little chocolates, peppermints and hints of the christmastide to come.

it’s the counting-down string, and he is not too old to count the days to christmas. nor to not want the house the way it’s always been.

and as i tiptoed up the stairs, i filled my heart and lungs with the deepest, purest knowing of just how much i’m blessed, soaked through and through, with the gift of a child who is still little boy enough to want to have that bit of magic dangling at the window. who wants to reach his little hand in there and pull out a surprise.

in these days and months since he’s been home alone, the one little someone among the trees of taller people, he has reminded me again and again just how deep a miracle he is.

oh, not simply that he’s here among us, long after the doctors told me “never.” not that i am nearly 55, and he is merely 10.

no, the real gift of my little bundle of purely answered prayer is that he is rare in the most delicious way.
“pure butter,” i just wrote of him to my beloved portland sister.

he’s a kid who halfway through dinner hops up from his chair and shimmies on the bench beside me. and when i ask (as mamas are wont to do), “why’d you just get up,” he melts me with his answer: “i wanted to sit next to you.”

now don’t think that he’s some mama’s boy. because he’s not. he’s this way with his papa, his grandma, and his big faraway brother.

more than once last week i found him sprawled across his brother’s lap, taking in a rough-and-tumble football game.

doesn’t matter that he’s fierce on a soccer field, or dribbling down a court. his essence, the one i’ve watched since he was born in a shaft of midnight light, is pure molasses gold.

he was the baby who wanted to be nestled, always, right against my chest, to absorb the lullaby of my quickly-ticking heart.

and somehow, some amazing somehow, he’s never lost that deep magnetic pull.

any minute now, i’ll be tossing on my coat and hopping on the train because, at 10 years old, he still wants me on his field trip. could not wait to tell me he saw my name on the chaperone list. could not wait to tell me i got to spend a whole cold and chilly day walking through the outdoor german market.

it is these sparks of innocence, his unfiltered exuberance, his lack of hurry in the growing-up department, that is the gift i hold in my palms as if a fragile robin’s egg.

as a mama, i straddle quite a canyon, the one that finds me taking in the college tales, and the worries that come with it, while with the other foot i am firmly planted in the giggles and the charms of fifth grade.

one night i might watch the little one smear on a slick of underarm deodorant before he tumbles into bed (“i like to smell something good when i first wake up,” he explains, as if anyone should know that), but next morning he’ll ask if i can help him cut his waffles.

it is this blessed holy middle place–not yet big and tough and smelling like a goat, still blithe enough to not mind holding tight my hand as we tiptoe through the night–that makes me whisper my unending thanks.

i am holding each and every frame, savoring the pure undiluted joy of this second round of life that came tumbling from the heavens.

bless you, my counting-down boy.

we all have gifts aplenty. as we count the days toward the longest night, and towards the holy christmas story, what might we find in your red-plaid pocket if you were to pull out but one magic parcel this fine december day?

mama’s got a tough, tough job, and someone’s gotta help

when i was a kid, my dad was larry tate, the buttoned-up business half of the ad-biz duo on “bewitched,” that 60s (or was it the 70s?) sit-com starring samantha.

well, he wasn’t really ol’ larry. but that’s how i had to explain it, whenever i said my dad was an ad man, and the follow-up question was always: “is he darrin stephens or larry tate?” darrin was the creative dude, the one who married the nose-twitching daffy-hearted witch. larry–and, yup, my dad–was the one who kept the creative types in line. but, at least in the case of my dad, that didn’t mean he was so buttoned-up.

my dad loved nothing more than a great laugh.

if there’s one sound i can still hear, it’s the sound of his big booming guffaw, breaking the air in a room, filling the space between walls, flicking the switch in my heart, making it glow.

i LOVED that my dad was an ad man. fact is, i loved everything about my papa. but knowing he rode downtown on the train, carried that briefcase filled with top-secret memos to clients like betty crocker, mcdonald’s, even the folks who made play-doh, well, that made me feel like i was plugged into the nerve center of our times.

heck, my dad brought home a plain cardboard box, marked X, and it was a test sample of hamburger helper. we were some of the first kids in america to spoon that glop in our mouths. and we lived to give him a thumbs up or thumbs down.

the stories at our dinner table would swirl with stuff that mattered to kids growing up in suburbia in the hair-raising 60s, and the dick-nixon 70s.

we knew the ins and outs of big macs, and all about all the sugar-coated cereals packing the grocery-store shelves.

pop tarts? we had ’em early, had ’em often.

we didn’t screech on the taste-testing brakes when we crossed over the sharp lines of whatever “the clients” had fobbed on the market.

why, it was our job, our patrimonial duty, to invade enemy territory. we were the spies, me in my pig tails, my brothers in freckles and iron-on patches on knees.

we guzzled whatever the ’60s and ’70s offered. we didn’t much mind (although, for the life of me, i was deadset against hamburger helper and its ilk from the get-go, not yet appreciating the ease of dumping, stirring and filling the tums of five hungry kids).

which, in a round-about way, brings me back to the latest episode in the tale of the boys we call our double-bylines, meaning the poor little fellows (one, now not-so-little) who get to grow up in a house with a dad and a mom in the news biz.

which, on rather regular occasions, means i lope home from the office with a satchel stuffed with curiosities and delights and general conversational stimulants.

like this week, when it was my job to corral the best cookies in the land. or at least among readers of the newspaper where i type three days a week.

yup, it was the annual tribune holiday cookie contest, and someone had to be in charge of getting those cookies into the great gothic tower that is the tribune. and someone had to rustle up the 16 judges, put out the paper plates, the cups of water, the pens and the score sheets.

that someone was me.

and so, when the long hard day of nibbling and scoring was over, i asked if — please! — i might be allowed to haul home just one plate of each one of the 11 finalist cookies, so my own personal judging panel could convene.

and that’s where the sugar-saturated plate up above comes in.

that was homework for my fine little boy who’s pretty much convinced that sweets is one of the food groups. if not the most essential of the lot.

just after dinner (yup, we actually held off till after the protein and veggies; give us brownie points for that, please), we lined up the contest with great ceremonial pomp.

just like back in the tribune test kitchen, i set out cups of water, pens for each judge, and the nibbling began.

in fact, i knew full well that this was yet another one of my ploys to exercise that boy’s descriptive ways. i swooned when he launched in on the first, a glimmery snowflake of a cookie, which he described thusly: “it looks like a snowflake has just fallen with sugar and sparkles dancing on it.”

or, of a chocolate-swirled marshmallowy number: “it looks like a collage of butterflies.”

find me a full-fledged tribune judge who dished out such poetry. and this from my boy who has tussled with words in his day.

while he nibbled and spun his sugary stanzas, his papa chewed and scribbled in silence. in the end, once the last crumb was licked off the plate, we wound up with a three-way tie for first prize.

but for me, the very blue ribbon i pinned on the day was the glorious fact that, for little more than my train ride into the city, i could bring home a piece of the world far beyond our little town’s walls.

in the same way that once upon a time my daddy’s job made me feel like i had a window onto something big, something exciting, i hope my sweet boy feels just a tad more engaged with the wheels of the ever-cranking universe.

i hope that while i’m the one with the measly paycheck, he’s the one who catches the magic. who sees the power of words. who tastes the thrill of civic engagement, even when it’s just a cookie contest.

if he listens–and i’ve reason to think that he does–there’s not a page from my day job that doesn’t somehow rub off him. if not in ink, then surely in stories, in laughter. and sometimes, come the start of november, in cookies that make for fine poems.

when you were growing up did someone in your house have a job that made you look at the world in a particular way? it’s a curious marvelous thing, not oft considered perhaps, how all the ways the grownups lead their lives, are all a part of the education of the little ones who grow up so closely, thoughtfully watching. it adds a dimension of meaning to the every day. and makes that ol’ trainride not nearly so onerous. tell us how you learned to look at the world?

no empty chairs

this is what it looks like at my house at the breakfast table, on the mornings when the chairs are filled. and the bench, too, lined up with little bottoms, squeezed in, squirming in the ways that little boys do.

this is what it looks like when the early-morning whispers wake me, when a bedroom’s filled with little boys, sleepy-eyed boys, boys who can’t help but look little in their waking-up moments, boys who by day are practicing being big. one of them even sports a cell phone. they all use it, communal cell.

they are little boys and they have come to inhabit not only my house, but my heart.

ever since the big one moved on to college, the little one seems to have decided that this is a sharing house, a house where more is better, more is most.

and so, come friday nights, or saturdays, little boys with sleeping bags and pillows (and the occasional cell phone) come stumbling in the door, tumble up the stairs. they play and run and giggle. much giggling.

they are shy, some of them. and polite, all of them. heart-piercingly so. they’ve not read the journals mourning the demise of innocence. they still blush, some of them, when i call them, “sweetie.”

but it’s okay. i’ve not been scolded, not yet anyway, for calling those little boys all sorts of oozy names.

those boys, in ones or twos or threes — and once, so help me God, a four — they animate this house, they lull me off to sleep with their whispers past the midnight hour, and they stir me in the morn when i hear the pillows rumble way before i expect to hear a sound.

a bedroom filled with little boys is a beautiful thing. is a thing i thought i’d never see.

when you’re the mother of two boys who span as many years as mine, you’ve not grown accustomed to the rolling, sprawling, tumbling of double-decker boys. you mostly watch them spin in passing orbits.

so this little one, this little one who springs to life when with his buddies, he seems to have ordered up the very prescription for all our hollowed-out hearts.

he skipped no beats in dialing up that first slumber fest, the first week beyond the college drop-off. nearly every weekend since, this house has doubled or tripled its population of boys.

and i could not purr more contentedly. i could not cluck more cluckily.

best of all is when the morning comes. and i get to mother henning, all right. i crack eggs. pour milk. add dashes of vanilla and cinnamon. i slide bacon in the oven (for we learned that roasted turkey bacon, sprinkled with a dash of brown sugar, maybe rosemary, vulcan salt when the college kid comes back, is not only splatter-free but perfect to the tooth).

i set that table with a vengeance. just like in the old days, before the college boy was gone. i slap down forks, knives, spoons. in multiples. i line up glasses. set out jugs of juice.

and then the footsteps come. less a pitter-patter than a galump down the stairs. and there they are, the sleepy-eyed, pink-cheeked little boys, lined up by the cookstove. taking what i offer. always saying thank you.

sweet boys, these boys.

that’s when the old maple table springs to life. it is crowded, along each edge. arms are grabbing, passing, oops, sometimes spilling. but no worries here.

i know, through and through, that a house where food is good, is plentiful, is a house to which the gaggle will return.
and i want those boys to grow up here. i want to be a seamless part of their unfolding before my very eyes.

i want them to think of me as that nice lady who looks them in the eye, who can’t help but love them. who knows their favorite cookie. who knows who drinks milk and who does not.

i believe with all my heart that mothering extends far beyond the womb, far beyond any particular connection to any particular womb.

mothering is just another name for a certain brand of love. in my book, the most resilient love. the deepest, purest, most unbreakable love there ever was.

mothers don’t give up on their young. they wring their hands, they wrack their brains. but they get up the next morning and they ply it all again.

over the years i’ve heard tales of grown-up folk who found the mothering they needed at someone else’s house. of the certain pair of ears who listened in a way that no one did at home. who loved without sting. who set another place at the table, no matter how late the hour, how empty the fridge.

i know, because i’ve watched one crew grow up, head off to college, that once in a while even the greatest, finest, smartest kids can stumble into tight places and not quite know the way out.

i’ve been the mama who at 2 a.m. drove a car full of kids where they needed to be, to get there safely, no questions asked. no scolding, thank you.

i’ve lived to hear that that middle-of-the-night ride was the single thing that made one kid realize you can grow up without the need to hide the truth, tell lies. and ever since, he’s been a new kind of kid. a kid who still pulls up a stool at my kitchen counter, who still tells me stories he might not tell at home.

and now, with this little gaggle underfoot, still not big enough to cross a busy street without a grownup worrying, still not savvy enough to call a girl and not spit out laughing, i’ve got another chance, another round of kids to love as if my own.

i might not have birthed the 13 or six or even three i longed to mother, but my little one has fixed all that.

he fills my kitchen table most weekend mornings. and i have every intention of being mama to them all. i start now with french toast, and loads of maple syrup.

soon enough, i hope, i pray, i’ll be the house they run to, when there’s no one else to listen.

in my book, there oughta be a nobel prize for mothering. and we’d all win. all of us, and i know throngs, who have discovered deep inside that the one pure hope for civilization, for humankind, is to raise our young–the ones we birth, the ones we don’t–with every reason to believe there will be kindness, and honesty, and undying love just around the corner. the one where some big-hearted mama is just waiting to make it all all right.

who was the big mama in your life? the one who loved you unconditionally, who loved you through and through. (and always threw an extra cookie on your cookie plate…)

sometimes we forget the power of a hug

it was last friday night, i am nearly certain, when my little one, who sometimes is a prophet, climbed into our bed. he wanted snuggles, he said.

and then, as he was wrapped from both sides by arms that have held him since the shaft of light in the middle of the night shone that long-ago hot august vigil on his slippery, pink, eight-whopping pounds, he spoke the words that have blanketed me all week:

“i like when you hug me. i feel like the whole world is around me, and i feel like nothing could ever hurt me.”

i know that’s what he said, because as he spoke those words in that pure-hearted voice of a boy who doesn’t censure a syllable, the words–a mere two dozen, swiftly chosen, unfiltered words–pried open my heart, whirled to that place where they will forever live, and i let out a sigh.

it’s not every night you find yourself wrapped around poetry.

“i like when you hug me. i feel like the whole world is around me, and i feel like nothing could ever hurt me.”

i am certain those are the words he spoke because i wasn’t about to leave anything to chance, there in the dark. or to the soft spots in my memory.

i asked for the phone (yes, in the dark). i dialed my number at work. and i recited the words into the phone, knowing i’d etched them into the digital memory that is my work voicemail.

that sweet little boy didn’t know—nor did any one of us–how powerful those words would forever ring, especially as they came just 12 hours before a madman lifted a gun called a glock (a name that sends shivers down my spine, the sound of cold-blooded crime locked in its clipped hard-edged consonants), and sprayed bullets into a crowd, into the heart–yes, the heart–of a 9-year-old child.

“i like when you hug me. i feel like the whole world is around me, and i feel like nothing could hurt me.”

so we hold our breath and pray.

so we wish.

so we fool ourselves every time we wrap our arms around the ones we love.

as if it’s a shield that cannot be shattered. as if impenetrable walls are forever wrapped around the ones we love, the vulnerable ones, the ones who do not–do not–have rhyme or reason to be taken away.

lord have mercy.

my little boy’s words, now a refrain that i tumble round my brain, like some succulent fruit whose juice i cannot get enough of, his words are what we pray for.

his words are what we need to remember.

isn’t that the prayer at the heart of all our comings and goings?

“i like when you hug me. i feel like the whole world is around me, and i feel like nothing could hurt me.”

we are, sadly, old enough and battered enough to understand the limits of those words, a child’s words, to run our fingers along the sharp-edge where our prayers fall off, and pure chance reigns.

but the words are worth remembering: it’s our place in the world, our place by the gift of being grownups, to wrap our arms around our children, around all those we love, the ones whose breath we depend on, the ones whose stirrings matter.

it is all our children ask of us, in the end, to be their shields from the darkness, to chase away the ghosts and goblins, the creaks in the hall in the thick of the night, the ones that scare them to no end.

they lean their little bodies into us, into our soft chests. they ask for so little: wrap me, make me feel safe, shoosh away the monsters.

and while there might always be madmen, and madwomen, who steal the light, who shatter the morning’s hope, our jobs do not cease.

our arms are forever needed, and the hearts that beat in the middle:

“i like when you hug me. i feel like the whole world is around me, and i feel like nothing could hurt me.”

make it your job to hug the ones you love today.

even when they don’t put words to it; the little prophet reminded me the other night in the darkness.

who did you hug this week? how did the heartbreaking news of the week toss and turn in the shards of your heart?

as promised last week, when i feel the rumblings of something to say, i will put fingers to home keys. i will write as long as what’s here doesn’t feel too lean. and bless all of you who took the time to let me know you are out there….i can’t give up on a place where civility and deep thinking and heart have always reigned. bless this place in the world, and my prayer is that we can take it beyond.
i found myself this week making it my personal mission to add extra doses of decency and kindness. i looked more people in the eye, other riders on the el; i said thank you in a deeper way to those who unfolded kindnesses, large or small. i can’t turn around a nation’s civility (or lack thereof) but i can make sure i act with wholehearted dignity and grace. at every turn.
how bout you?

hero of the woods

in perhaps the bravest move of his nine short years, my little one took to the woods this week. for three days and two nights.

which, to him, felt like forever. or at least that’s how it felt going in, how it’s felt for the last three years. ever since he first heard whisper of this fourth-grade ritual, called outdoor ed.

now, the little one that we love around here, he’s not such an adventurous boy. he prefers his own bed to any bed in all the land. likes to be surrounded, at least upon nightfall and wake-up time, with those he knows and loves.

he has stumbled through a trio of sleepovers in recent months, all in training for the big adventure in the woods.

at long last, december 1 arrived. as dawn peeked through the windows, as the sky shed its indigo nightclothes, pulled on rosy-fingered trousers, from the ankles up to the knees up to the hips, the boy awoke. eyes fluttered. tummy did too.

he showered, dressed in layers, sat down to oatmeal. he was spooning quietly when i looked up and saw his big hazel-brown eyes begin to moisten. then the cheeks wobbled. and, well, the bowl of porridge was soon saltier and wetter than when i’d plopped it from the pot.

kisses from all sides–from mama, papa, and big tall brother–got him o’er the hump. then, bravely, he slung on his duffle bag, zippered up his coat, and stepped out into the frigid morning air.

soon as he and i and the old wagon pulled up to the schoolhouse, we saw the caravan of buses. big buses. open-mouthed buses. buses idling at the curb.

he walked tall, that little one. slid his bag into the bus’s mouth. accepted one swift kiss, and was off.

just like that, i was alone.

motored home, stepped inside an eery quiet empty house.

it’s been that way all week: eery. quiet. empty.

will this be what it feels like next year when the tall boy is off at college? will i live to know how quiet it will be when even the little one is gone?

quiet is among the tonics in my medicine chest. it does me good. soothes me. settles me. brings me back to whole, instead of frazzled, torn, ragged at the edges.

quiet is the door through which i slip into sacred places. it’s when i hear the whisper of the Divine. it’s when my angels talk to me.

even now as i type i am surrounded by a chorus of quiet. so quiet i can hear the gurgling of the chili-sauce-brown-sugar-red-wine-cloves-and-bay-leaves bubbling away in the pan of brisket. so quiet i can count the ticking of the clock. can hear the muffled chirp of the sparrows out the window.

but this week, the lack of footsteps from the room above… the gloves that never moved from the basket by the door… the bed pillow that sat plumped all week…

it was a hollow sort of quiet.

it was a quiet that stirred me in a lonely way. a quiet that made me wonder how that little one was faring. was he feeling lumps and tumbles in his tummy as he lay down to sleep? was he looking up into the same starry canvas that i was, as i wandered home one night, late from work, late from the train, and wished upon a star that it would twinkle down on him? did he know that i was holding him in my heart at every turn all week?

did he remember that i’d whispered in his ear: “dig deep, sweetheart, you can do it. remember, you’re the egg that wouldn’t take no for an answer. you are the blessed child the doctors said we’d never have, but here you are, determined, triumphant.”

it’s friday now. he’s made it. two nights, three days. the call from the woods never came, the one that might have come had he crumbled.

(oh, by the way, after one sleepless night, night before last, the phone did ring, shook us from the bed, at 5:50 a.m. i swore it was the school nurse, calling to say he’d gotten the flu that’s sweeping through this town, or the principal, saying ‘this boy has a bad case of the homesick blues.’ ’twas neither. it was WGN, the radio station in town, calling to see if the little one’s papa would talk on the radio at 6:15 A.M. ((note the not-oft-employed capital letters there, signaling my complete dismay that they would think to call before even the sun was up for work)). oy.)

it’s friday now, and the brisket’s in the oven, as promised to the little one. streamers are strung, a spider’s web of triumph, this way and that up-and-down-and-sideways through the front hall. posters, welcome-home signs, you-made-it signs, line the walls and doorways.

he’s my hero of the woods, and it’s a hero’s welcome.

when, for three years, you’ve been worried sick, but still you fling the bag over your shoulder, feed it to the bus, and march into school, wobbly but undaunted, you deserve a marching band. and latkes. and a mama’s arms who won’t want to let you go, once they’re wrapped again around the little boy with all the courage. who, sure as sure can be, grew up mightily this week.

dear God of the bliss-filled quiet, thank you thank you for watching over that tender heart. and bringing him through the woods.

have you had adventures that scared the behoozies out of you before you left? but then, somehow, you mustered up the courage to make it through the woods?