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Category: brothers

apple pie, poker & the afterglow of hardballs to the noggin

these odd chapters somehow always manage to creep up unawares. and so this one.

we were sitting the other eve, forks in mid-lift, i’m certain, when suddenly a skinny pair of sun-browned legs came swishing through the steamy jungle that these days is my secret tangled garden, the one tucked along the side of this old house. not many lopes behind him came another pair of legs, grown-up legs, a mother’s legs. but not his mother’s.

while it took my brain cells a spell or two to shake all this out, it all came tumbling clear once i saw the look of dazed despair on the little one’s face, and the ashen worry on the mama trailing just behind. then i saw the boy holding something to his dust-splattered head, and i needed little explanation to reach the quick conclusion that this was not how the evening had been scripted.

while the little guy stared up at me with those thirsty hazel-brown eyes of his, in that way that kids have of signaling simultaneous distress and “help me, help me, mama! this here’s your job,” the mama trailing behind him began to spill the dots.

there had been a game of stealing bases, and a hardball, one zipping through the air at 35 miles per hour, she figured (and, the mother of three ball-playing boys, she knows these things). that hard-beaned hardball made a beeline straight to my little guy’s forehead, which set him “crumpling” (her word) to the ground, upon which he couldn’t remember my phone number, and kept saying the same thing over and over. oh, and he was dizzy. and he thought he might throw up.

now, mind you, i’d just the week before heard a tale of precisely the same thing, a kid on the side of a ball field taking a bean to the head, how he got rushed to the school nurse, who thought not so much of it, so he went along to his after-school playdate, only to start getting droopy-faced within the hour. that poor kid wound up in emergency brain surgery before the sun set, and now, thank god, is a-okay. though he won’t be playing ball for a long long time. or ever, if his mother has anything to say about it.

so, with that fresh little spectacle shining in my head, i took in the scene with my very own head-bonked boy, and before you can spell “concussion,” i’d speed-dialed our trusty pediatricians, who wasted no time in sending me to the ER we live so conveniently close to. (note to mothers of boys: when house hunting, be sure to clock the door-to-door distance to your nearest friendly emergency room. it comes in handy.)

not-so-long story abbreviated: dear boy didn’t even need a CT scan, though of course they ruled his head bonk a by-the-book concussion. and, worth mention, his big brother did a memorable job playing ambulance driver, clicking on the bright red flashers only to be stuck in traffic behind the north shore’s slowest-ever driver, meandering lazily down the express route to the hospital. and, happy ending taken up a notch, we walked out of that ER into the arms of a thrashing summer’s storm. hallelujah!

but this wouldn’t be a tale worth telling if not for the prescription that came with the bump: no TV, no computers, no reading, no contact sports.


for how long we must endure this, we do not know. we see the concussion doctor monday. so for now, and through the weekend, we’ve turned back the clock and we’re playing like pioneers, minus the covered wagon.

yesterday we filled the day with this list of exotica: two boys — ages 10 and 11, mind you — baked, from scratch, an apple pie. yessiree, they sliced the apples, dumped the sugar, sprinkled cinnamon with vigor. they rolled out the dough, crimped the edge (in remarkably poetic undulations). then, because both share the initials TK, they drew out a lance from the kitchen junk drawer and lanced away at their letters, a cris-cross of hard-edged consonants nearly doing in the pie top.

while the apple pie did its oven dance, they did what bakers do: they tried their hand at texas hold ’em, a poker variation, then moved on to black jack and dominoes. ping pong served as minor interlude, along with a promise from our head-bonked one that he would not, absolutely not, come crashing down on the sharp corner of the table.

later in the evening, yet another little fellow wandered by. he took the bumped one out for ice cream, and, quietly strolling the lanes from there to here, they returned home for a long night of not-oft-seen board games. checkers, monopoly, and the fierce pursuit of plastic real estate.

so goes the old-fashioned, turn-back-the-clock life of the forehead compromised.

and, of course you’ve guessed that the point here is that gifts sometimes come wrapped in odd packages. say, ones with purple-green swirls just under a little boy’s forehead curls.

it is rather a refreshing, if taxing, way to spend a summer’s day, exercising the imagination, steering clear of pursuits that might potentially jar that tender brain of his.

deep inside, i long for just such summer days. for the gift of building tree forts (though at the moment, the fort is grounded, not cleared for take-off). for, perhaps, lying upon a summer’s couch, listening to the words of a mama turning the page of some fine adventure tale. and, pray tell, how about a lemonade stand, peddling from-scratch lemony-sugar potion, at the turn-back price of 5 cents a glass?

sometimes it takes a klonk on the head to get us seeing clearly. and if that’s the moral to the hardball story, well, then, i wish we could have gotten there without the goose egg hatching on my little fellow’s forehead.

how do you dream of spending a summer’s day? one spent the old-fashioned way?

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.

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?

the things that moms just know….

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

mmm, mm m mm mmm mmm mm?

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

he nodded, then swallowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mamas know those things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

of fatted calf and endless tide…

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

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

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

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

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

they duly nod. they understand the shorthand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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?

ebbs and flows

no wonder i turn to the waters rushing in along the sands to take my cues, to absorb the rhythms of the comings and the goings. unceasing, ever, and without apparent tussle, the pools come in and roll back out again.

the lessons always there, amid the geometry and the physics of the mysteries around me.

all i need do is become the student, absorb the holy text and the teaching that it offers.

once again, i have parted with the boy i love so dearly deeply. once again we have bid our goodbyes, whispered prayers for safe keeping and safe flight. we have felt the tears trickle down our cheeks, and our hearts pounding hard against our chests.

i watched my two sweet boys laugh and jive, in that way they do, one last time this morning. before the school bell rang, and it was time for the little one to throw his arms again around his big old brother, to swallow hard, to not pull away.

the little fella didn’t even notice how each one of us, we cried right along.

theirs was first among the litany of goodbyes. and, for the little guy, this was the true goodbye, the one in the sanctuary of the kitchen, all of us circled round him. not the hurried one in the schoolyard, when they’d dropped him off, and he’d try not to let on how much he’d miss the tall kid riding in the front seat.

once they’d headed off, once the door had closed, and the car had pulled away, a father-and-sons hurried ride to middle school, i stood in the quiet of this house, let the silence seep in, wash over me, the ebbs and flows of leaving, of going off.

it was preamble to the parting later in the morning, when the clock struck quarter past 11, and i slipped the keys off the hook. when i grabbed my backpack, felt my heart sink low, helped him with his bags, and loaded up the car one last time.

that boy won’t be home till summer.

but this time, this blessed time, i know that he is pulled by roots now deep, now lasting. he is thick with friends far off. they peppered him with messages for days. when you coming back? we can’t wait to see you. what time’s your plane? when you landing?

he is loved in a place i barely know. he is loved by friends i have never met. he is loved. and that is all that matters.

last night, as i was sleepy-eyed and headed up to bed, he looked at me and asked, “hey, mommo, wanna stay up and chat?”

who says no to the sweetest, finest invitation ever?

i did not say no.

we huddled under blankets — me, under red chenille on the chilly couch. him, under gray flannel on the red-checked armchair across the way.

for a good two hours, he told stories i’ve been waiting months to hear. i sopped up every one, a sponge in red-and-white-striped jammies.

we went to bed, at last, when my eyes were drooping closed. when i could not keep those eyelids up, at full-throttle attention, no matter how i tried.

no mind, though.

it made the leave-taking that much easier, knowing i have stories tucked inside my heart. knowing that i know now the landscape of his life, his loves, his laughs.

this now is the third goodbye, in what will be a lifelong string of such. i am starting to learn the rhythm, the ebb, the flow.

i now know, because i feel it, that somehow the boundaries of my heart have grown. it now encapsulates the many miles between my boy and me. i know that no miles wrench us apart. they just expand the connection.

i only learned that truth by living it, by breathing in and out the ebbs and flows, the comings and the goings.

but i might have understood it, figured it out, perhaps, if i’d wandered to the beach, paid close attention to what was being whispered there, in the rippling of the lake.

if i’d understood sooner that the paradigm was right before my eyes, etched forever in the sodden sands.

if i’d looked to the waters of this wise and ancient earth, if i’d watched how what flows out comes back again.

if i’d trusted what i saw, what the heavens long have known, long have whispered to the ones who listen.

only now, three times back and forth again, do i settle in to the rhythm, to the knowing that my boy, the boy i love so dearly deeply, he is never going off, just away and back again.

it’s a rhythm i can count on.

happy blessed new year, chair people. may the ebbs and flows of your days, your weeks, your months, be gentle and eternal….