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Category: back from college

footsteps straight to my heart

willie diploma wall

four years ago, it was the sound of his footsteps i knew i would miss more than nearly anything.

the thud of his footfall onto the floor of the room up above, the footfall that signaled to me, down below, that the boy i love had clomped out of bed, or trundled down the stairs, that he soon would be rounding the bend, showing his face, his radiant face, at the old kitchen door.

his footsteps are back.

and my heart couldn’t be more tickled, delighted, dancing its own little jig.

the thud of the footfall is one of those percussive refrains woven into the rhythms of this old house, of any old house, and it’s a sound you might take for granted — it belongs with the particular click of the doorknob, or the way the car door slams off in the distance, and your heart knows before you know that someone you love is now home. you might take it for granted until suddenly, without forethought, it’s silenced, it’s absent. until all you hear is the hollow emptiness of no more footsteps — or door clicks, or car door slamming in the not-so-far distance.

it’s a quiet that crushes you. the unspoken sonic abyss of the someone who’s gone.

and now, with the thuds and the clomps and the rushing of water from the tap in his bathroom once again punctuating the soundtrack of this old house, i find my old heart quickening, picking up its rhythm, pounding just a wee bit harder, as once again — in that way that happens to mothers — i wrap my whole self — body and mind and heart and soul — around this interlude of pure wonder and blessing.

indeed, it’s way more chaotic around here than just one week ago, when this old house contained only three peoples plus a crotchety cat. and the lumbering fellow we’ve added to the equation, once he and his papa pulled down the alley, unloaded the mountains of boxes and lamps and speakers and papers, he’s set this old house percolating once again with his particular cacophonies. yes, there was a hammer pounding a wee bit late into the night. and the avalanche of stuff hauled out of his room and into the upstairs hall, it could tangle you into a knot, and snuff out your breath if you happened to trip and tumble deep down in its clutches.

but a bit of a miracle’s unfolding. i’d call it the answer to a prayer, except that i never dared to pray for it.

the boy i love, the boy who graduated in a cloud of glories at his college on the hill, he moved back to chicago thinking he’d rent a studio apartment, try to pay rent while teaching in an inner-city classroom, before he heads back off to law school and PhD school, before he spends a life trying to right wrongs and carving out justice. but then, as he pulled his duffle bags and moving boxes back into his boyhood room, as he perused the websites of apartment listings, as he realized the rent for a space not much bigger than his room at the bend in the stairs might be tough to afford, he started to rearrange his thinking — and his old room that bore the totems of middle and high school and selves long past.

he pulled posters off DSCF1241the wall, peeled campaign stickers off his closet door. took down the little boy bulletin board i’d bought the day we moved into this old house. he cleared his book shelves of boyhood favorites, took down the hobbit and twain and j.k. rowling; slid in hobbes and kant and aristotle. hung his hard-won college diploma just above his old desk, the desk where he calculated his way through fifth-grade math, and where he typed his junior theme. he must have measured the proximity between the door of his old room and that of his little brother, the one he says he came home to be close to.

he’s decided to stay.

he’s perched his french press coffee pot next to my gurgling electric one. he’s added his paltry few spices onto the shelf next to mine. he’s plugged in his speakers, and asked if we could pull up the old navy carpet so he can stride on the birds-eye maple that’s too long been shrouded. he’s decided, for now, that home will be in the place with a room all his own, and a sprawling kitchen just down the stairs (the commercial-grade six-burner cookstove and his mother’s built-in grocery service might have helped tip the scales in the refueling department).

for now, he’s sticking nearby.

for now, he and i are sitting down to breakfast, lunch and dinner. we’re taking long walks. we’re holding our breath — together  — as he puts muscle to hammer and tries to sink nails into plaster. we’re sitting out in the summer porch, listening to night sounds. we’re backfilling all of the stories that hadn’t had time to be told.

sure, my days are topsy-turvy. and this house feels certain to burst. and the washing machine moans from over-exertion.

but for four long years i could only wish for such chaos. i didn’t dare to hope that the day would come that we’d once again breathe the same air, inhale the same sounds, delight in shared and unscripted hilarities, ones unfolding in real time, and in the same time zone.

i’m practically giddy at the truth that this kid is wise enough, and tender enough of heart, to buck the prevailing post-graduation currents, to simply and humbly move back home, for the sheer gift of deepening the bonds with his little brother, and his grandmother who is now 84, and who every tuesday of his growing up years devoted her days and attentions to him. he is seizing the days before they are gone.

he didn’t take a job in DC, didn’t post himself in the heart of manhattan. all that might come. but for now, he’s taking a pause, taking time for what matters.

back in december he told me that he was looking to do the most meaningful work in the years between college and law school, “and, honestly, mommo,” he said, via long distance, “i can’t think of anything more meaningful than being there for tedd,” his little kid brother, now on the cusp of going off to high school.

as poignant as anything this week, and pulsing too very near the surface, is my knowledge — keen knowledge — that not too many miles away i have a very dear and deeply beloved friend who is in a hospital, suffering unimaginable devastations, and she might be robbed of the chance to whirl in this very dear thing, in her children’s sweet presence, in days that tumble lazily one to the next. please God, i beg, down on my knees, let my beautiful friend and her most blessed children share in this, the holiest dance.

for me — a girl who preaches deep-breathing the blessing of each and every framed moment of time — the unanticipated gift, the knowledge that we might grab a few years we’d not known were coming our way, this feels to me like the gift of a lifetime, this sweet holy homecoming.

and it comes with its very own soundtrack: the sound of a particular footfall, sinking deep and deeper into my heart.

bless you, sweet will, and welcome back home.

DSCF1243

worry not about the tomes slid off the boyhood book shelf, they are safe and sound with me, and will soon find a home on yet another shelf, one of the many that line the walls of this old house. a prayer request: for my beautiful friend in the hospital, for gentle soft hours to come her way.

and a question: what are the sounds of your heart’s dearest soundtrack, the ones that tell you someone you love is heading toward home? or the ones that make your heart tick as mighty as ever could be?

as if a dream…

as if a dream

the last flicker of red tail light just faded from the alley. i’d pressed my cheek as close to the glass as i could press — short of stepping out into the near frozen morning — straining to see the last dab of red glow fading away.

and, like that, poof, he’s gone.

my little christmas dream, my wish come true, has come to its hollow end. the boy i love is headed back to the college on the faraway hill, where, alone in his dorm room, the light through the window will burn. the green slope between red-brick dorms, one after another all in a square, it will be empty, will echo with the whisper of the few faint footsteps. the kid i love is among the one or two in the college who’ve been granted permission to type straight through the new year.

so christmas here was cut short, cut short by a very long thesis due in two short weeks — or, as i count it, 17 days, six hours and 19 minutes.

christmas this year was condensed. distilled to its short sweet essence.

which, in many ways, made it all the more delectable, all of it tumbled one delicious moment atop another. until last night, as i was clearing the christmas feast dishes, and the lurch in my belly made itself known. he’s leaving again, i remembered. before the dark of the dawn fades, he will be gone, i remembered.

so this morning, i did what mothers too often do: i watched the light fade away, into the too-far distance.

we wait, some sweet homecoming moments, for the light to come in through the distance. and then, on the other end of the dizzying spell of squeezing a hand that’s grown far bigger than ours, and bending low for a kiss to the brow of the sleeping man who’s back in his old twin bed, on the other end of shoulder pressed against shoulder at the cookstove, or plopping on the edge of each other’s bed for one or two thoughts shared in the dark, there comes the hour when the light pulls away, into the darkness again.

and so, in the space in between, we immerse ourselves deep in the holiest way to live: at full and piercing attention. stripping away the parts of ourselves that might otherwise get in our way — the part of ourself that, say, might prefer to do things a particular way; the part of ourself that normally flinches when butter and oil are splattered all over the cookstove (and the wall and the floor), but not this hour when it’s the college kid plying his craft of brussels sprouts bathed in a sizzling skillet of garlic and fat upon fat; the part of ourself that hadn’t planned on going to church on the far end of a one-hour traffic jam, but once we got there, well, i found myself awash in tears at the joy spread across the kid’s face as he remembered the church where he’d once made his first holy communion.

so it goes, when there’s only so much time — and you’re graced with the knowledge that, soon as it begins, it’s tumbling toward the close. you shrug off all the little things that don’t matter. you set your divining rod onto high alert. and you whirl through the short spell — the too-short spell — of 63 hours and change (including sleep time) and you inhale as if through a double-wide straw.

which, from time to time, is a very fine way to practice the art of being alive. as if the edges of your consciousness were bordered with a high-voltage fence. where, if you drifted into unconsciousness, into not paying-attention, a wee little zap to the noggin would jostle you back into full-throttle live-in-the-moment.

i remember how, in the days just before our wedding, a wise someone whispered to me a trick i’ve tried to ply ever since, even though the original instruction was only meant to pertain to the bride’s walk down the aisle: freeze frame the moment, the wise person intoned. take snapshots in your head, all along the way. that way you’ll never forget it.

and so, i attempt to pull that old trick from my toolkit whenever the occasion demands. as it did this christmas. as it did this very short spell when all i wanted was the one thing i found under the tree: both my boys, and their papa, nestled shoulder to shoulder for unbroken hours.

the little guy practically couldn’t let go. we were hunkered down watching a movie, and there were the little one’s arms, draped wholly across his big brother’s chest. loping down a city sidewalk, the big one flopped his very long arm down and around the little one’s cap-covered curly-haired head.

the two of them stayed up late all three nights. i drifted to sleep hearing their hilarity rise up the stairs, around the bend, and into my bed. last night i woke up long enough to hear a line i promised myself i’d memorize, but then, darn it, i woke up and couldn’t quite remember. all i know is it was something about, “you’re the best brother that ever there was.”

which, really, is all i need to remember, to know.

i wished for one thing for christmas. i wished for one thing my whole life long: that through trial and error, and stumble and fall, and mistake after blunder, i might over time figure out how to live and breathe love in a way that was purely contagious, that spread like a rash.

i wished for a womb of love, long long ago. i prayed that the boy i was about to birth would always, always know that love was his beginning and middle and end. i’ve lived and breathed to untangle wires, sandpaper rough spots; to make what unfolds in this house a pure bath of tender-hearted, full-throttle kindness. with a fat dollop of joy.

and this christmas i watched it unfold, one slow frame at a time.

i’ve got the whole roll tucked in my heart.

happy blessed boxing day, and how was your very own christmas?

willie ala brussels sproutsmr. firstborn, ala splattering brussels sprouts, ala christmas feast….

 

loopy days

loopy days bedsheet

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

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

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

hmm. let me know if you’ve got ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or this….

“Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself.”

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

the view from inside one mama’s heart

brothers

i know.  i said i’d take a turn north, explore the cerebrum instead of the vessel that pumps down in the chest. but, so happens, a prodigal child is circling back to his homestead this weekend, for three short weeks, for what might prove to be the last and longest time.

i hadn’t quite realized how hollow this old house feels without him. the first year he went off to college, it was all new. i hadn’t quite grasped that it was the new normal; it still felt like a blip, an oddity. i could hum along and pretend that one day soon it would be back to the way it had always been.

the second year of college, none of us were here. we were tucked in that third-floor aerie that hardly knew him. that felt small enough and tight enough not to miss him quite so much. and besides, he was only two hours away.

now, now that we’re back in the old house with the room at the bend in the stairs, his room, the room he grew up in, the one where he learned to shave, first slid into a tuxedo, the one where he typed his college essays, where his desk lamp stayed burning till too late in the night, too early in the morning, truth be told, i feel the emptiness. this old house feels baggy, like we’ve gone down in size, and the jeans on our hips are sagging, sliding clear to our knees.

it’s quiet. too quiet sometimes. oh, don’t get me wrong. i wrap myself in silence like a soft-knitted afghan. quiet and silence allow thoughts to percolate, ideas to bubble up and thicken, gain depth and nuance, not unlike a balsamic glaze, or a mound of caramelized onion.

but that prize — the silence so rich you can count the tick of the clock — comes at the cost of not hearing the laughter. not standing at the cutting board, come late afternoon, with tears rolling down my cheeks. and not because i’m chopping an onion; because the lanky kid who just strolled in the door is recounting his day, is telling me tales animated in one of the 5,000 accents he’s mastered, an around-the-world whirl from one little mouth. it’s the uncanniest gift, his knack for assembling a whole host of characters, spilling them forth, one tale, one voice, at a time.

there is nothing so sweet as a belly ache that comes from your kid doubling you over in side-splitting, air-gasping guffaws.

that kid is coming home. that kid will fill this old house, once again, with the clomp of his feet, the sound of the shower that drones on for what seems like an hour. i’ll hear the sound of his pawing through the pantry, in search of whatever will fill that bottomless belly. but most of all, i’ll hear the sound of that voice i could pluck from the middle of grand central station, that voice i can hear in my dreams.

i’ll hear the particular way he calls me “mommo!” a collection of soft consonants and one open-mouthed vowel that buckles my knees, kickstarts my heart.

even better than all of that, though, are the sounds that will come from the two who are brothers.

i realize more than ever that eight years apart is a lifetime. one is off, navigating the steep slopes of college. the other is back home, after a long year away, trying to find his way through the forest of middle school. miles and miles lie between them. most of the year, they are no more than apostrophes in each other’s stories. they intersect barely. trade two syllable texts, on occasion.

but, in the rare few weeks they inhabit the very same house, they will be everything i always prayed for: each other’s guidepost and lighthouse. they’ll curl in the beanbags, side by side, down in the basement. they’ll motor off in the old station wagon that now has no fan, no AC or heat. but it does have good tunes, they tell me. and they’ll turn them up loudly. i might even find the little one sprawled on the big one’s twin bed.

there is much catching up to do. the big kid’s learning lessons at considerable pace. the little one is starting to ask much deeper questions, questions best answered not by your mama, but by the very big brother who, in your estimation, knows all there is to know.

in plenty of ways, the two couldn’t be any more different. or at least it had always seemed that way. if i’d had two ovaries, i would have sworn one came from the left and one from the right. but, fact is, i only had one, so they both popped from the same cubic inch of real estate.

and maybe that’s why — deep down — the two of them understand the most essential brotherly truth: they’ve got each other’s backs. they are each other’s deepest allies, and fiercest defenders. it’s the truth that propelled all my prayers, in those long fallow years when month after month brought the sound of my heart shattering.

and so, as the drumbeat quickens, as the march on the calendar moves toward sunday at 5:07 p.m., central standard time, so too does the pace of my pulse. i’ll move into full mama mode as the hours unfold. i’ll do my usual dance: zip around the yard with clippers, tuck stems in a fat old vase and plop it next to his pillow. i’ll cook up a storm. polish the bathroom mirror, change the sheets, vacuum the rug. make like a long-lost traveler is returning to civilization.

if i stop to consider the calendar, if i realize that this really might be his last long stint under this roof, i might park myself at the door of his room, and stop the clock.

nah, on second thought, i wouldn’t want that. i love every inch and ounce of this growing of kids. i love the intricate layers of conversation, as it deepens and deepens, year after year. i love getting the phone calls from far, far away, hearing the stories, the life that he leads that so exceeds the bounds of mine at his age.

i love that he’ll always have us to come home to. and that his room at the bend in the stairs will echo forever the sounds of his bumbling years. the years when he was finding his way, the years when he did that under my watch.

more than ever, i thank the heavens that i’ve the little guy, too. that one more time i can reach out a hand, and help a traveler up the side of very steep hills. this old house would be so very hollow without him.

and for three weeks, three too-swift weeks, this old house will be filled with two boys, and their very big hearts, sloshing and spilling with laughter and stories and, sure as can be, some very fine wisdoms passed from brother to brother….

just as i prayed so long ago….

thank God for the prayers that came true…

the picture above was snapped the night before the big one left for college. he read a pile of books to the little one that night, as the little one didn’t want to turn out the light, didn’t want the morning to come. 

so many mornings have come and gone since then. so many more about to come…..

did you have a big or little sibling who took your hand and guided you through the world? or did you find your pathfinders beyond the bounds of the family you were born into??

home. amid a host of tugs and pulls and squeaks from far corners.

moving boxes...

dispatch from 60091 (in which, except for invasion of colonies of critters with matchstick-sized legs, i attempt to nest in solitude, with a few elephant-sized distractions…)

i’ve waited 18 months for this. to have unpacked the mountain of moving boxes. to have tiptoed room-to-room, inhaling the musty scent of home. to be tucked up against my old maple table, with the morning sun draped across the slabs. my old chipped coffee mug at the ready, inches from the keyboard.

i’ve waited for the tick and tock of our grandpa’s clock. to hear the morning song of birds, my birds, my flocks, rising up and rolling in from the jungle that is my overgrown garden. i’ve waited and waited.

to be home, and going nowhere.

alas, it hasn’t exactly been a week of lolligagging and tossing back bonbons in a tub of bubbles.

the night before i zipped the last of the home-bound suitcases, back in 02139, i got word — make that, news flash — from my hilarious friend who spent the year here holding down the fort. she’d ducked into the wee bathroom off my writing room (the old garage, long ago turned into maid’s quarters, how apt that i now dwell there…), and there, dozing atop a feather bed of nibbled toilet paper bits, a nice fat chipmunk. only it wasn’t sleeping. it was, um, dead. and had chosen a basket filled with toilet paper rolls to be his final resting place.

she spared me pix of the kerplunked critter, and instead sent me a dramatic close-up of just how adept chipmunks are at making bedclothes out of the tissue paper with a purpose.

i considered myself fair-warned.

which is why, once half across the country, once the cat, the boy, the three fat suitcases and i were greeted at the baggage depot by my fair mama and ferried home, i tiptoed with trepidation into that wee room. i scanned for paw prints, wee paw prints, everywhere a furry thing might scamper. i scanned, too, for the caraway-seed-sized deposits they always leave behind.

i found them.

abundantly.

piled high and thick atop the baby blankets i had so neatly folded and tucked into a basket back in the corner. must have seemed the perfect lullaby land for all the baby chipmunks (and judging from the pile, there was a bumper crop of baby chipmunks). i did not scream. i merely long-jumped from the room, slammed the door, and decided to deal with it in the morning.

long story, short: $500 later, my new best friend joe, the jesus-believing critter control apostle, arrived on the scene, armed with coyote urine, ammonia crystals and wheelbarrows of cement. not a poison to be found, bless his benevolent heart. just some serious deterrents for re-entry to the chipmunks’ underground metropolis, the one they dug in vast array beneath the concrete slab upon which the old garage was built.

that’s the story of the first-floor critters. upstairs, in all the drawers where soaps and cottonballs were stored (note the past tense), another branch of the Rodentia family (the ones with long skinny tails and appetite, apparently, for european scrubs) had made themselves quite at home. why, it was a veritable carnival of critters, all with matchstick legs and the itty-bittiest pit-a-pats the world has ever known. they’d run amok undetected for lord knows how many months. (they don’t exactly blow trumpets announcing their arrival.)

and, oh, they served as such a rousing welcome committee. (i was roused, all right!)

but all that, truly, fades in the narrative arc of this long week.

the heart of the matter is that one long dark night this week i sat alone in my long-awaited bed fielding phone calls from my firstborn who was spending the night in an ER 1,000 miles away, getting IV painkillers pumped into his veins (neck and head pains, all tied back to a broken neck in the eighth grade, when he somersaulted over his handlebars swerving from — get this — a chipmunk who’d dashed across his bike trail).

and that’s only the half of it. my little one, the brave one who boarded a plane to germany a mere 48 hours after whirling in the door, a trip he’d long awaited, a trip for which he’d spent the year studying with his german tutor, he’d gotten sick as a dog on the flight across the atlantic, and 24 hours after de-boarding the plane was still upchucking in his new german bathroom. i was getting emails from the teacher, updating me on just what shade of green he was sporting, hour by hour.

when you are 11, and 4,538 miles from home, and you’ve been tummy-rumbling in volcanic proportions for a good 36 hours, you really truly desperately deeply through-and-through want one of two things: a.) to catch the next plane home, or b.) to have your mama sky-dive from the clouds.

thus, you do what any thinking person would do: you pick up the phone, and dial in your request.

and your mother, on the far side of the globe, hearing the whimper in your voice, imagining just how wretched it must feel to have wretched straight across the ocean, she kicks into high mama gear: she drops to her knees, points eyes heavenward, and unfurls the litanies of prayer reserved for just such moments.

she smacks herself upside the head for letting such a little guy go in the first place. she calls on angels, saints, random trumpet players, anyone and anything who might come charging to the rescue, to barrel up the hill and storm the ramparts.

she tries everything she can humanly think of. she pounds out “this i believe” treatises, reminding the little fellow just how brave he is, and just how valiantly he has conquered a host of uphill battles: the sleepover on wrigley field, the two-week summer camp in the deep dark mosquito-infested woods of michigan, the whole dang city of cambridge, massachusetts. heck, he even weathered a whomping case of scarlet fever and pneumonia when he was just a wee young thing.

the boy can do it.

he is, i often remind him, the egg that wouldn’t take no for an answer. while all the other eggs could not make it out of the roundhouse and chug up the mountain, that little guy was the one egg who made the climb, who was born in a shaft of pure white light at 3:22 one hot august morning, to a mother who defied logic and medical tomes, clocking into the maternity ward at 44 years, eight months and five days old.

on the off-chance that my sweet boy is tucked under the puffy covers in munster, reading these words from glowing screen, i have five words and a comma for you: you can do it, sweetie.

i love you higher than the moon and wider than the oceans. you have angels, saints, mamas, papas, grandmas and grandpas, uncles, aunts and a big brother all pulling for you. we’ll make sure you are pumped up with dramamine for the swift ride home. and we’ll be waiting at the airport with double-time hearts and wide-open arms. we’ll pull you to our thumping hearts, and keep you home all summer. we’ll even ply you with fresh-squeezed lemonade and oatmeal-raisin cookies. we’ll let you stay up late and sleep till lunchtime, if that’s the way you like it. we’ll whip up a welcome home parade, and make you grand marshal and chief potentate. i won’t even make you pluck your dirty socks off the floor. (not for the first hour, anyway….)

you will have triumphed over the latest in your long litany of championship makers. you are some boy, you glorious sweet soul, you who always says, “yes! i want to see the world!”

it’s right before your eyes. take it in, sweetheart. then hurry home. so we can all chase chipmunks hither and yon and all around the garden, one big happy reunited family. home sweet home, at last. oh, sweet lord, at last.

so that’s the news from the homecoming committee. shoulda known that you can’t go away for 10 long months and not expect a bump or grind upon return. 

question of the week: what words of wisdom would you impart to a wee lad far from home, and weathering a whopper case of travel bugs…..

love letter to the cobbled city by the bend in the river charles…

river walk

dispatch from 02139 (final edition)…

the parabola of time has caught up with me. it’s the morning i couldn’t imagine. the end of the year i could hardly wrap my head around, long long ago when word of it first flickered across my imagination, when i knew i couldn’t say no, but could not figure how i’d say yes.

i turn back into a pumpkin in precisely 23 hours and 49 minutes (as of the moment i typed that calculation), when the big jet plane huffs and puffs and in a somersault of gravity defiance and aeronautical wonder hoists its belly off the runway, pointing toward sky, toward home.

home.

trouble is, i’m leaving a place that’s come to feel like home. when i lope round the bend onto franklin, just past petsi’s pie bakery & cafe, when i spot the curlicues of victorian frou-frou that bedeck our triple-decker at 608, i start fumbling for my keys. i know there’s a place up there, the aerie, where the breeze blows through, where the walls of books whisper sweet somethings in my ear.

true, i am headed home to a place that knows the secret hiding coves of my heart, to the muscled city that dares to rise up from the prairie along the great lake’s ruffled edge, to the creaky stairs of my old house, to my rambling roses now blooming in a tussle all along the white picket fence.

i’m headed home to the place where the walls are covered in black-and-white snaps of people we love, the people who came before us. to the place where two rooms at the top of the stairs are chambers that forever hold the frames of childhood that loop for both of my boys. i’m headed home, oddly enough, to the hand-me-down jug of the jolly quaker oats fellow my papa brought home from work a long, long time ago, and for reasons that could never be charted is way more priceless than old pottery has reason to be.

home is equal parts hodgepodge and heart. it’s quirky and lumpen. it creaks and it groans. sometimes you have to bang on the hot-water spigot just to get it to dribble. home soothes us nonetheless, kneads the knots out of our worn-down spirit at the end of the day.

and that’s what i’m coming home to: the real-deal, deep-soother rendition of that place where we lay down and breathe.

but before i zip the last of my bags, before i slip the key in the door one last time, turn and blow a kiss, i need to riffle through my cantabrigian* memory box one last time, pull out a few of the blessings i’ll never forget, won’t leave behind.

if there’s one frame that will forever spring to mind, it’ll be that meandering walk down by the charles river (the one pictured above), under the london plane trees, past the boat houses that hug the banks, dowagers of the past. it’s the walk that carried me, countless dawns, to my stone-walled monastery, where the monks always welcomed, and the votive candles patiently awaited the matchstick that lit them aflicker. mile after mile, week after week, we’d take to that path, the tall one, the professor, and i. it became our early-morning ritual, mostly on weekends, when we’d have a rare chance to catch up on what each other might have been up to in the long spaces between.

i’ll miss my kaleidoscope of neighbors here on franklin street: white-haired nan, of the caribbean-painted cottage, nan who fell in love with a civil rights compatriot, and wept fresh tears on my stoop just last night, as she clutched a framed photo of the pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed gentleman she lost to cancer nearly two years ago, after 40-some years of marriage. nan, who found in cambridge a place where, back in the ’60s, no one looked twice at a white-skinned woman arm-in-arm with the black-skinned love of her life.

i’ll miss sarah, sarah who looks as if she’s just come in from blueberry picking in maine or, truer still, stepped off the pages of a children’s storybook with her sun-kissed hair and faintest freckles and that twinkle that never leaves her eye. sarah who came to the door with a tinfoil-wrapped platter of chocolate-chunk cookies on the day we arrived, and again last night, on the eve of departure. “bookends,” she called them. she is just that sort of across-the-way neighbor. and i will love her till the end of time.

and i’ll miss jane, eighty-something jane, who was born in a double-decker down the block, and has never left, spending her days leaning up against the cyclone fence or shuffling in bedroom slippers and top-knotted headscarf up and down the cobbled slopes of franklin and putnam and bay, the rectangle that defines her life’s landscape.

i’ll miss the harvard book store, and the coop, and the sun-drenched cambridge public library, my holy trinity of literary haunts, where books come curated by brilliant minds who know just which words will swoop deep into a reader’s heart and stir for a good long while.

i’ll miss the polyglot stew that rises up from the round-the-world crowds in harvard square, and the letters from the cambridge public schools that always come translated in at least 10 languages on the backside of every page. because here, in the 02138s and 9s, no one assumes english is the first language.

i’ll miss the intellectual bunsen burner that is 02139 and 02138, the zone the new york times proclaimed “the most opinionated ZIP code in america,” where ideas are the coin of the realm, and the shabbier the khakis, the holey-er the button-down, the better.

i’ll miss the body parts of cambridge that come pierced, stapled, studded, stretched and permanently inked in tattoos that know no end. i’ll miss the leggings in rainbow colors that peek out from underneath shorts that barely stretch across bums. i’ll miss the most eloquent cardboard pleas from the homeless folk who station themselves all along mass avenue.

i’ll miss the eastern seaboard, and the magic in the mist that coaxes rhododendrons and roses and dogwood and lilac to grow to proportions i never knew possible.

i’ll miss the breads of massachusetts and maine, just up the road. “when pigs fly” is my bakery of choice, and don’t be surprised if i lug home a suitcase packed to the brim with raisin-studded whole-grain goodness.

i’ll miss cambridge from dawn till starlight. i’ll miss cambridge when, plonked on an old wicker chair on my summer porch, i look up and catch the moon rising. i’ll know that a mere 1,000 miles away, that same sliver moon shines down on the charles, and the cobbled lanes that rise up from its banks to the hill i called home.

it’s a holy place, the place that opens your heart, that teaches you lessons. most of all the one where you find out that one simple “yes” made it all possible.

bless you, 02139.

quaker oat man

*cantabrigian: a quirky latin-derivative adjective for all things harvardian or cambridge, englandian. took me most of the year to pick up on it, so i’m passing it along, providing the shortcut for you.

so that’s it, chair people. cinderella’s ball is winding down. only cinders by the hearth, come morning. though i couldn’t be more twitterpated at the thought of swooping through the clouds to touch down in sweet home chicago. forgive the cambridge-centric year; twas a promise to mamas who wanted in on every drop. or at least the week’s highlights. we’ll be back to musings from the home front soon as i unpack the 27 boxes now motoring along the massachusetts turnpike. can’t believe i’ll next type from my old pine desk, but tis true.

from the bottom of my heart, bless you and thank you for the solace, the comfort, the wisdom you brought to me here at the table, where each friday i plugged in, and felt zapped with all your goodness. blessings. and love, the chair lady.

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? 

welcome home, college freshman xoxo

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

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

By Barbara Mahany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara Mahany is a Tribune reporter.

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

homecoming

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

i swear it’s the truth.

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

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

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

oh, lordy.

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

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

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

holy hallelujah.

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

they’re rollin’, all right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

i wonder if he is?

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

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