pull up a chair

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

Category: off to college

apartment hunting and the hurdle of the three-dot plates

in all the years that we’ve been pulling up chairs, it’s become more than cloudy clear, i’m certain, that i tend to be a nesty girl, a girl who sinks her roots down deep, and doesn’t yank them lightly.

so bear with me while i tell you the tale of why it is i am apartment hunting nowadays, and what in the world three-dot plates have to do with that far-flung adventure.

i suppose the time has come, at last, to let you all in on what had been a secret, but now is seeping out, so it’s not a secret anymore. (i can imagine the pounding in your hearts as you worry where this is going; fear not, no need for worries.)

but let’s begin at the beginning, where most stories do begin, and turn the clock back to a dark december day.

there i was sitting at my typing pad in the newspaper tower, when i heard a ping ring out from the box that was my desk-top computer. i clicked and looked and saw there a missive from my lawful wedded mate.

seems he’d gotten a little email from some folks at a university in cambridge, massachusetts. they were asking him to apply for a fellowship, a journalism fellowship, one that gathers 24 fellows from around the globe, and one that would entail a one-year stint, thus lifting our whole little family out of our cozy chicago life and plopping us onto an unmapped one in cambridge.

kind fellow, decent fellow, my mate, he wrote back right away to say that he was deeply flattered but no thanks; we have a little fellow, a fifth-grade fellow, he explained, who could not be yanked from his life.

as a mere afterthought, this man i married, he sent this all along to me so i could smile and carry on with my otherwise ordinary day. or at least that’s what he thought i’d do.

but i did not.

i shot right back, “whoa, hold your horses there, buster. at least stop and think about it,” i implored. “is this not the manna from heaven that we’ve been praying for? peering skyward day after day, in search of sign of falling crumb?

“let’s at least ask the little guy, see what he has to say,” i begged, all but dropping to my knees.

and so we did: that night at dinner, we asked the 10-year-old lad what he’d think about moving away for just one year, moving, say, to massachusetts, so daddy and mommy might go back to college?

why, that brave old soul, he did not blink, nor flinch. he piped right up: “sounds great. i want to see the world.”

we explained every which way that this would mean he would not be here for sixth grade, nor for soccer on the team he loves, nor for spring baseball, nor friday night skate, his highlight of so many weeks.

no matter what we pitched his way, he batted it all away, stood fast to his determination that it was time to see the world.

so, as i scrubbed the dirty plates that night, it was my turn to come up with excuses why we shouldn’t leave. i wasted no time ticking off a long list of things i could not bear to leave behind: my three-dot plates, for instance. i’ve only four sets, and only scored them after tracking them down at a resale shop, after pining for them for 20 years. they’d been the plates i wanted back when we were getting married, but the architecture critic who would be my mate thought the dots got in the way. in the way of what, i’ve never quite determined. but the dotted plates went the way of the rose-covered bedsheets i’d once admired. one makes compromise when living with a design-steeped fellow, and i long ago realized our peaceful co-existence depended on my occasional surrender to his whims. so these plates, procured a full two decades post betrothal, they are the plates i pluck from the stack whene’er i need a ceramic boost.

and somehow, in that odd way my mind stumbles along, they came to represent the dividing line between the world i’d leave behind, and the one i just might dive into. what if they were cracked and broken while we were away? what if, whilst i was off in pilgrim land, they were accidentally expunged from the cupboard, and, upon return, i’d find myself without the proper spotted saucer to uphold my breakfast toast?

for more than a day or two, i weighed the choices here: go to harvard, play like a pig in mud, taking any class i could stuff into my braincells; or stay here in chicago, in the house i know and love, and eat off three-dot plates till the end of time.

in due time, i realized i was, frankly, an idiot to be debating such obstacles.

i surrendered to the adventure of it all, and cannot over-emphasize how that deep-down sense of grab-it-now-it-might-not-come-again has come to permeate, well, just about everything.

ever since, i’ve been living my days as if each one is a bit of a hallelujah christmas gift, a box wrapped up in shiny paper, with pretty bow and all.

it was, in fact, the rocket-booster oomph behind my thinking it was time to leave behind the newspaper life i had long loved. and right in here, with may and june and summertime swirling deliciously around us, it’s what propels me not to mind spending hours at the kitchen table, or perched on chairs outside, in the dappled light of the pine trees, chewing over a thousand ideas and stories with my college boy, now home for endless days and nights of sweetest-ever summer.

we had no idea, of course, whether embracing the adventure would lead to any sort of happy ending. had no idea, once the long and layered application was turned in, shipped off cambridge way, whether the deciding folks would pick the home-team architecture critic, slot him in the nieman class of journalism fellows for the school year 2012-2013. but, indeed, they did. he is the arts and culture fellow.

so here we are. poring over real estate ads, dialing up massachusetts realtors, searching high and low for a two-bedroom apartment in ZIP code 02138 or 02139. and before we’ve found a place to lay our sleepy heads, we’ve taken care of business and secured a slot on a cambridge soccer team for our little goalie. priorities, after all.

as for this old house we love, we have a beloved friend who will move in, hold down the fort here, watch over the three-dot plates, and the red-and-white checked chair, and the window seat i’ll miss.

and for one extraordinary year, i’ve come to deeply realize, i will make a new nest. i will come to know the rhythms of a new city, an extraordinary city, a city where i have always, always wanted to live. i will sit in classrooms, and stuff my brain with poetry and writing and divinity, and some of america’s great professors. i will tiptoe into the widener library, and deep breathe. i will walk home down cobbled streets, absorb the cacophony of a learned city.

and a week from today, we will board a plane, all four of us in our little adventure troupe, and we will pound the sidewalks, ring doorbells, and peek in cupboards and bathrooms till we find the place that we’ll call home for the next sweet year.

and maybe while away in far-off cambridge, i will stumble into yet another thrift shop, and lying there in stacks, i’ll spy a three-dot plate.

and i will know, through and through, that home is wherever you set the table. pull up a chair. and share your heartfelt stories.

so that’s the news of the week, and, fear not, you’ll all amble along with us on this fine adventure, as the chair will go on, and i’ll impart every week the finest things i’ve learned in all my college lecture halls. congratulations, we’re all going back to college. 

p.s. next week’s trek is merely the apartment-hunting expedition. we don’t pack the wagons and head east till round about early august….

no empty chairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sweet boys, these boys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

season of the mournful cry

it gives you goosebumps when, say, you are meandering down the lane, and suddenly through the leafy canopy above, you hear the song of your heart raining down from the heavens.

what i mean is it’s been happening all week, for a string of weeks. i am out attending to the nooks and crannies of my life, my garden, the here-to-there of chores and errands and putting one foot before the other.

i am likely sifting through the shadows of my heart, my ache, my longing, and there it comes, the piercing. the minor key, the dissonance, the trumpet blasts of geese in Vs, far above the trees.

they punctuate the sky, the gray september sky. they punctuate the flight. and with it, my own mournful song.

this is the season of migration, of winged flight, of thousands of miles of flapping wings, and honking siren’s call.

the snow geese, the canadian geese, turn and return, from cold north woods, to far-off warmer climes.

and as they pass on high, they cry out to me. and i in turn return the call–though silent. my mournful song has no melody, and its verse i keep inside. some sorrows, best kept hushed.

i have always, though, found company, found solace, in the geese’s call. it is but one of the dark notes of autumn that draw me in, that take me to a deeper place, the cove of meditation.

and this autumn in particular it is as if my song, my internal cry, is broadcast from the clouds. the geese cry, they call out, and so i listen, i respond. i reply, stopping in my tracks, taking in their celestial signal.

(i wonder if perhaps the cry of the signal goose is why they call it goosebumps. for that is the thing, the spine-tingling, up-and-down-the-arm-tingling, that happens in an instant when that one long note makes its way down, down, spiraling from above to the inner crevice of my heart.)

i hear the lonely goose, and i understand its story. i embrace the mournful cry.

God’s world is at one with me.

and how blessed are we, we who live beneath the arc of flight, to take in the sorrowful song of the V that etches ’cross the sky.

how blessed are we, when, at oddest hours, just beyond the dawn, or in the cloak of nightfall, we hear the trumpet blast rain down.

i am not one to run and hide from shadow, from sadness. i say bring it on, the whole orchestra of heart sound, the light, the bright, and, yes, the dark. i find particular company in the darkness. i find much to explore there.

and this september, as my heart is stretched and pulled, and i redefine the rhythm, the verse of my everyday, i am at one with the crying goose who flaps across my frame of sky.

i turn and crane my neck. i scan in search of all the pitch-black Vs. i hear before i see.

and when at last i catch the flapping geometry, when i match song to sight, i lock my eyes. i follow that acute angle till the dull edge of my horizon.

it is a call to prayer for me, this mystical stirring from beyond the beyond.

and so i send up holy whispers, and so i wrap myself in the sacred folds of their heavensong.

be safe, mournful geese, as you cross the globe. bless your brave determined flight.

i hear you, papa goose, as you and i together sing in minor key, the sound of love trying to find its way.

a short bit of musing on this crisp cool day, when pumpkins tug on the vine, and cinnamon bubbles on my stove. i am haunted in the best way by the cry of the geese. i find such comfort in their mournful melody. who else has heard their flight song? who else is stirred by the power of migration? who else finds full glory in all the colors of the rainbow, the light, the dark, and shadows in between? who else is trying to find the way, this september?

learning long-distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

suddenly, one

and thus began a new chapter. one boy stayed behind. one boy climbed in the back seat of the car, buried his head in my lap, and silently sobbed.

off and on for 20 minutes.

till the big basketball rose into the sky.

yes, just off the highway, midway between that college goodbye and the airport that would launch three of us home, there stands what might as well have been a holy mirage in the driest desert: the basketball hall of fame, for cryin’ out loud. a shrine with every michael jordan shoe ever worn by that almighty hoopster. a three-layer cake of hoops and balls and courts and baskets.

if you ever need to salve the broken oozing heart of a young boy who lives to romp the courts, be sure to send your other kid to college just down the lane from the b’ball hall of fame.

indeed, the tears dried, the smile slowly crept across his face, not less than 10 minutes after stepping in the sky-high dome. basketball can do that. so too can video clips of MJ turning every imaginable basketball gymnastic impossibility known to man or gods.

but beyond all the baskets and balls, there was something else that stirred. and right away.

it was sudden, the shift i felt deep down inside, once the four of us, became the three of us. once the car door slammed, and it was just the three of us inside, while the fourth — the blessed fourth — ambled off to inhale his college life.

and ever since, all week, i’ve been washed over — again and again — with the knowing that it’s there, this certain something: it’s as if the little one, the one who could not imagine a world without his brother, it’s as if he got a long deep drink of water, and he is now a sturdy-stemmed flower, basking in the garden of his parents’ pure undivided attentions.

i could almost feel the vacuum seal, the way his heart slid deeper into ours. all week, i’ve watched him move with purpose. he has risen, grown, become the big brother in ways i’d not have guessed. he is taking out the trash, putting plates in sinks. he is 10 minutes early for the school bus. he is sitting down and working hard on homework. he is leading prayers at dinner, holding forth at dinner table conversation.

he’s unfurling right before our eyes.

and we, at last, are undivided. for the first time in this child’s life, he is getting us all to himself. and i have suddenly remembered how it is to be the parent of an only child. we had practice.

for eight long years we were once the parents of just one boy. and early on we figured out how to do that geometry. we did it wholeheartedly, with eye toward making our firstborn’s a family that expanded beyond just our walls. but within our walls we paid deep and pure attention to that child’s heart, his mind, his soul.

rather swiftly this week, i was struck: we might be better parents when we are tending only one. we tend to do it rather intensely, rather purposefully, and this was, after all, the paradigm that we first forged. it’s what we once knew by heart. and maybe it’s never lost.

oh, lord, that’s not to say in any way that we’ve left boy no. 1 stranded on the roadside, there in collegeville.

(of course, he couldn’t have seemed more eager to shake us off, to get to the business of making friends, of immersing himself in college life. he even apologized if it seemed he was in a hurry to say goodbye, “it’s just that i’ve waited my whole life to get here,” he told me, and i wholly understood. and never mind that all week, while friends regale me with tales of kids who text, oh, 100 times a day, we’ve received ONE phone call — and that was “mom, do you know where you put the sewing kit? i just popped a button on my shirt and i need to meet my academic adviser in EIGHT minutes?”)

it’s just that the shift here on the homefront is wholly unexpected, wholly rich, and i can think of no greater calling than to reach deep down inside a little someone’s soul and breathe holy purpose into it.

which is how it feels to once again be tending to a blessed child who has long dwelled on the shadowed edges of his big brother’s size 12 footprint.

so while the realization that the older one is gone sinks down deeper, while each and every dawn the missing him grows more, as i awake and count the days since i’ve seen him, i am at the same time finding my way in the hunger i am here to sate in his little brother.

they say God closes one door and opens a window.

my job as mother to a college boy has barely just begun, and i am certain it will fill whatever crate or carton we must fill, but for now, i am discovering the open window that is my blessed little boy. one who will need his mama at his side for, oh, eight sweet years to come.

we never know, no matter how hard we try to imagine, what’s around the holy bend of this blessing we call life.

and around my bend, i’ve wrapped my arms ‘round a little traveler who’s cuddled up close beside me.

bless us all on this journey….

i know there are other mamas and papas out there finding their way along this unknown path. i know there are mamas and papas who are taking their last child off to college, and as one of those mamas said to me this week: “you think it’s hard taking your first to college, try taking your last.”
i can’t imagine.
but the point of this meander, i suppose, is the wholly unexpected gift of deeper purpose i’ve already discovered in mothering my little one. anyone else ever step into the impossible-to-imagine and discover within something wholly blessed?

“…fasten your seat belts…”

for nearly 19 years (i’m certain i started to wonder nearly the moment i found i was pregnant) i have wondered what this day — this very day when we will lock the house one last time, lug bags down the walk, climb in the car, head off to college — i have tried high and low to figure out what it would feel like. to, um, send my firstborn, my lifeblood, my sweetboy, to college.

this is how it feels:

i awoke at 3 in the morning, just lay there, felt a pain in my chest. for once, though, didn’t think it meant i was having a heart attack. i knew what it was. the beginning of yet another labor. no water bag broke. no squeeze around the middle, from upside the legs. but it is labor nonetheless.

next came the hollowness. hollow. hollow. hollow. that’s how my insides felt.

wasn’t long till i tossed my pillow to the ground, climbed out and knelt there. (a girl needs a kneeler at this ripe ol’ age.)

i whispered every benediction, blessing and vesper i could muster, and a few i couldn’t even put to words.

then i got up. ambled straight to the college-bound bedroom, kissed the forehead i found lying there asleep. made a sign of the cross with my thumb, just the way the bishops taught me to do it long, long ago. that boy fluttered open his eyes, “hullo mommy,” he said, smiling, most likely seeing my tears.

for there were tears.

and there will be more.

right now, though, i find i have a long enough list of things that need to be done.

minutes ago, i was called to the college-bound bedroom. a packing crisis was underway, and the boy asked if instead of typing about his going away, i might just give him a hand. a real one. so i got with the program, and helped the boy re-pack a suitcase of breakable things he thinks he’ll just bring on the plane.

too late for a little mini-lesson on why that’s not so wise.

we’ll just add that to the long list of prayers: “dear God, don’t let the tea mugs and the laptop stand and the book ends bang up and shatter into a zillion pieces, not even when they get crushed by the 23 books the boy decided he can’t leave behind.” (never mind the 42 he already sent in a box.)

i’m not sure, though, if i really want that sorry short prayer taking up space on my God list today.

i might bump it off for one of the others.

like, this one:

“dear God, i noticed on the hurricane watch map, how you’ve plotted a course for that oversized whirling dervish now known as IRENE, and i saw how you’ve got the eye of that ’cane, pencilled right over the wee little town where my boy’s going to college. now, God, i don’t think you pull out this trick very often, the one where the hurricane ditches the seashore, heads inland 100 or so miles, straight through the holyoke mountains. so, God, i was wondering if maybe you’d pull out your big pink eraser, and re-do that line, the hurricane-eye line. i really don’t think it belongs over the college dorm where we will be busy ditching raindrops and hurling branches. because, God, in all of my hours of wondering about sending my kid off to college, i never once dreamed up a hurricane. never ever thought that was something i oughta add to my worries. but here you go, God, trumpin’ me in the creativity department. big time. so i’m just askin’, if you’ve got time today, could you please re-do your hurricane map. or maybe just turn it into a frog. a frog would be fine, God. a nice fat frog hopping around college. just asking. you do what you want. me, i’ve got to get back to packin’ my boy for college.”

and so, that big fat prayer now outa the way, i should move on to trembling. for that’s what it feels like inside when your motor is revving, and your nerves are all jangled. because you really don’t get it, don’t get how for 18 whole years your every night and every day is consumed with watch-keeping.

you watched that baby boy breathing, so long ago. made sure you saw the up and down of his chest when, in those rare moments, he took a long afternoon’s nap. why, you were making sure he was alive right there beside you. for you never, not once, put him down in a crib. you were the kind of mama who LIKED having a babe in your arms most of the time, who slept right beside him, who woke up in the night just to drink in the miracle of skin against skin. (no wonder this leave-taking is hard, you poor old mama, it’s wholly against every cell of your wiring.)

not so many years after that, you kept watch whenever you drove in a car, and you could glance in the rear-view mirror, gauge his mood, how his day went. you’ve been tossing an eyeball his way since as long as you could remember.

and now, no matter how hard you try, no matter what sort of magical spectacles you slip on your face, you won’t see what he’s doing, where he is, what sort of smile he wears, or how much his eyes sparkle.

oh, you’ll imagine. and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll dream. you’ll see him bouncing around in your dreams. i know what it is to fall asleep hoping you dream about someone you miss. i did it for years, hoping to dream of my papa.

right now though, i need to imagine him strong and safe and thriving. i need to picture him in his glory hallelujah. the boy is headed straight to where he belongs (minus the hurricane).

i suspect i’ll ride the waves of this labor all weekend long. till the final push. when someone tells me it’s time. time to go now. time to look straight in his eyes one last time, time to open my heart for one last gulp of pure holy child.
i will whisper these words: “be safe. and soar on the winds. God be with you. know that i love you.”

and like that, i will wrench myself away. turn to the little one who will be sobbing by then. i will walk away from one child, hold tight to the other.

for now, though, there’s a long day of packing. and loving. and loving. and boarding a plane, straight for the path of the hurricane.

this is bound to be a drop-off for the record books.

irene, here we come.

fasten your seat belts…..

the photo up above was taken last night, the last night willie slept in this house before college. his little brother wanted him to climb in bed and read him a story. they picked dr. seuss’ “the butter battle book.” i listened in from the stairs, heard willie tell teddy, “i love you very much.” this morning there was a 5-minute hug in the hall. this parting is downright painful for the little one. if you’ve got a spare prayer, whisper one for him.

and there we go: i decided to write my way through this passage, the college send-off. and so i did. bless you for indulging me. and thank you for your patience. i know i am not the first to do this, nor the last. but in my book, it’s all new, it’s all raw, and it begged to be put on paper. so that’s what i did. i’m sure i’ll write at least once about the quiet that comes once we’re home.

for now, thank you, and bless you, all of you who come to this table, and sop up these stories and tears when they’re spilled. i would love to hear the tales of your heart-achingest partings, however they unfolded, whenever they came…

taped, all right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

so help her, God.

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

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

the balm that is the rhythm of routine

i’ve known for years that i was a creature of habit, a girl who liked her days to unfold with familiar rhythm. you might call me a homebody. a nesty girl. or worse.

what i know is that the familiar soothes me. i sink into sublime inner hum when i unlock the door and come back home. when i hear the ticking of the clock i have wound 3,000 times. when my foot hits the one odd floorboard, just to the east of smack-dab middle at the top of the stairs, a creak that tells me i am here in the house that holds me. a creak i know is coming before i ever get there. a creak that sings the song of home.

i like when my car practically steers itself to the grocery. knows the corner where to turn, knows the bumps along the way. i like passing under the heavy limbs of oak and ash and elm along the way; limbs i’d notice were missing if the shadows weren’t there one morning.

i am a girl comforted by the balm that is my everyday routine.

and right in here, where all around me seas are roiling, shifting, shaking, i am soothed hour after hour by the little stitches in the whole cloth of my life.

in the living room, right now, five fat boxes stand in sentry rows. nearly two-thirds filled, they hold the whole of my firstborn’s college life. they’ll be sealed shut soon. a new address — AC # 1056; i’ve already memorized — slapped on front. shipped east. to be unpacked on one wobbly sunday coming soon, when for the last time i will try my hand at putting order to his life. or at least his dorm room.

my little one too is about to take a big step for a not-so-big boy. nearly lost in all the college swirl is the fact that the little one has left behind his “little school,” and is moving on to middle school, a school with many floors, and combination locks. a school where four times as many kids will roam the halls.

all around, the world i know is just about to change.

and i find anchoring, find knowing, in the simple building blocks of my every day, the way each morning i splash my face, slide into rumpled, hem-torn shorts, hip-hop down the stairs, click on the radio to the voices who greet me every morning. the way i make my coffee every day — five scoops coffee, three shakes cinnamon, water cold from the filter.

i find my shoulders wrapped, my back steadied, by that first stroll through the garden. find myself cheered by the pumpkin vine that’s set down roots amid my black-eyed susans. i like that i keep measure of its bold insurrection, the way it’s up and inching through the beds, hellbent on making a kitchen plot of my measly perennials.

i am heartened, too, by the red-cloaked gang of cardinals who chatter and pester me for more seed.

i am soothed knowing that they know they can count on me. i will be there, they must have figured out, like clockwork. i’m a girl they can set their clocks by.

i love knowing all the checkers at the grocery. love knowing them by name, by story. love knowing they know me enough to ask, “is he gone yet?” love knowing that when they see the volume of the grocery bags, they know the answer’s “not quite yet.”

when i think ahead to that spot around the bend that i can’t quite imagine yet — the morning and the days when his absence is first felt, when it’s raw, when the silence is so loud it makes me want to scream — i know already that my soothing, my balm, will come from all the little chores that steady me, that fill me.

i’ll cut stems from the garden, arrange the daisies and the black-eyed susans and the queen anne’s lace. i’ll fold the laundry. fill the pantry shelves.

i’ll try not to wince when i pass up the pack of cookies that he loves, knowing if i bought them they’d sit untouched till thanksgiving, when he comes home for a few short days.

i’ll try not to miss the teetering piles of his T-shirts, socks and gym shorts on the ironing board downstairs. try not to miss that the laundry basket won’t be nearly as heavy anymore.

and when the sting comes, when the salty stream of missing him fills the cuts and scratches on my arms and legs and heart, i will turn once again to the time-worn knowledge of my heart: i’m a girl who hums when i am bound on all sides by the familiar, the tick and tock of home. when my house and garden do their job, and shelter me from the storm that is life simply moving forward…..

for the blessing of home, of garden. for the gift of all these blessings. for the gift of a boy i love so much his absence will be a hole inside my heart. for all of this, i am so deeply grateful.

are you soothed by the familiar? do you find music in the same old sounds inside your house? are you a creature of habit? or do you find glory in the new, the exotic, the not-yet discovered?

roots and wings, unedited

for seven sweet days, we escaped.

i though had my heart set on one thing: savoring the days, the hours, the minutes. every drop of it. i licked my lips of it, let it drip down my chin. didn’t care a whit if it stained the front of my shirt, so sweet was the one last chance to slip away, to stay at the little mirror lake where we have spent sweet summer weeks in the past.

at week’s end, as we locked up the house and pointed the car south, toward home, my firstborn said quietly: “this is my last time coming home.”

what he meant, of course, was this was the last time the homecoming would be back to the place where he’s grown up, where he’s spent his years since the middle of fourth grade, the place that soon won’t be the epicenter of his daily whirl.

while we were motoring home yesterday, the chicago tribune, that newspaper where i type, was running an essay they’d asked me to write, about taking my firstborn to college.

because there is never enough room on the printed page, it had to be trimmed at the last minute. but i never have to trim here, not if i don’t want to. and this time i don’t.

and besides, plenty of you don’t read the tribune, don’t have it slap on your front stoop, come sunday mornings. so for all of you, and for the record, here is the unedited version of “roots and wings,” an essay that ran in the chicago tribune of sunday, august 7, 2011, less than three weeks before my firstborn shipped east for college…..

By Barbara Mahany

I’ve been practicing for months. Practicing what it will be like when, in a few weeks, my firstborn is packed up, flown off and settled into a dorm on a campus on a hill in a town some 1,000 miles from the old house where his stirrings have been the backbeat to my every day.

Just to see what it feels like, I find myself walking past the bedroom that’s hard off the landing on the way up the stairs. I peek in, see the bedclothes unrumpled, just the way he left them.

Sometimes, if I’m drawn in, I take a few steps beyond the door, look around, breathe deep of what it will be like — when the piles on the desk no longer teeter, when the soggy towels aren’t plopped on the floor, when, for months at a time, there’s no trace of him in our midst.

My firstborn, at last, is headed off to college.

And while, for the life of me, I cannot picture this place without him, I know deep down that the whole point of this exercise called parenting is this soon-to-come parting, no matter how hard.

While I might be practicing this new long-distance mothering — imagining what it’ll be like to not see the light shining from under his door at 3 in the morning, to not hear his books thump on the counter when he lopes into the house, to not wake at 5 to stir his oatmeal and send him off with a hug and a kiss — and while I can’t even begin to imagine how it will feel to look into his eyes one last time and walk away there on that leafy New England college quad, I do know that the real work started long ago — and for that there was no practice, only sheer trial by error and hope.

Day after day, hour by hour, bump after bump, for the last 18-plus years, I’ve been getting him ready for this great divide.

I was cradling that lanky baby in my arms, back in our city garden one hot Sunday afternoon, when a wise friend of ours, a priest actually, stood in front of a circle of people we love and told my husband and me that we had but one essential job: Give that child roots and wings.

Roots, so he is forever grounded, solid, deep. Wings, so that some day the wind will catch beneath him, and he will soar.

Roots, I’ve come to learn, are laid down slowly. They’re laid down late at night in kitchens, when the tears come, and the stories from the playground are enough to break your heart, but you stand there like a sponge, taking it all in, soaking up every drop of the hurt, whispering words of unswerving faith.

They’re laid down on long walks where you listen to the boy spill his dreams, and you let out his kite string; you say you believe, and you mean it.

They’re laid down after school at the kitchen counter, when you open wide the refrigerator and let him have at it, while you sop up the dramas of the day, you listen to the questions and the quandaries, and you offer up the scant teaspoons of wisdom you have to offer.

They’re laid down so when you get to this summer — the summer when your kid packs up the boxes, leaves home, steps into the college life of which he’s dreamed, for which he is so very hungry — you can stand back and watch what happens.

What you hope, what you pray for, is that while you’ve been hard at work cultivating those roots, the wings, undetected, began to unfurl.

Oh, sure, you’ve seen starter flights. The road trip in a car packed with 18-year-olds where you stayed home and held your breath. The lightning storm that hit when your kid was out on a boat in a river, and somehow he made it back to shore and stay alive, holed up — in defiance of science and common sense — in a metal boxcar used as a boathouse.

But, so far, the nest he has flown home to was yours, the one you’ve watched with vigilant eyes.

From here on in, the wings and the flights are all his.

–chicago tribune, 2011

so that’s my meander for the week, sorry it’s coming to you a few days later than usual. but i am delighted to type today’s date into the meander box: today is a date i love. it’s my little one’s birthday. and his first foray into the land of double digits. he turned 10 today, my little one. and while his brother gets to work on all those winged expeditions that are on his agenda, the little one’s still home where we can spend plenty of days ahead setting down those deep-set roots. happy birthday little T. we love you madly. xoxoxox

p.s. the photo above is an old-fashioned bowling alley, maybe the oldest in america, that we discovered on our little week away on mackinac island. my boys in silhouette. i love the way the light plays off the monticello blue walls…..

when camper-to-counselor ratio is 1:1

deep down inside, it might be that i’m form-averse. the mounds and piles on my desk, the wee thin lines on those forms that lie there demanding to be filled with endless parades of itty-bitty digits (get one wrong and your claim is denied, your application rejected), they all make me break out in hives.

or maybe it’s that i could not stand the thought of one more season slapping PB onto J just before i stumbled off to bed, brown bag sacks tucked into a long night’s chill in the fridge.

or maybe it’s a long-held opposition to big yellow buses in summer. racing to corners in flip flops and bug spray seems somehow, well, unconstitutional. who needs 8 a.m. pickup when fireflies blink till late in the night?

but really, truly, i think the glimmer of an idea was born one february morning when the weight of the college-bound brother pressed particularly heavy on the heart of the one who’d be left home behind.

and i, mother to both, was left to do something, anything, to somehow untangle this heart-twisting knot.

they say necessity is the mother of invention, but really it’s the squeeze of a child’s heart that jumpstarts a mother to invent, to scramble, to snap-click her fingers and poof up a cloud of pure powdery magic.

what if, were the words out of my mouth, what if we have big-little brother camp, if big brother 1 is the counselor and little brother 2 is the camper? and that’s the whole of the camp?

the idea, unlike most that spew from my brain, was met with immediate, “hey, yeah”s.

within the course of an hour, a theme was struck (town and country, with outings to far-flung netherplaces–or swamps–one day, and downtown to the urban grid the next).

a list was made up, if only in their heads, all the things a boy and his brother might aim to do if given a summer, the keys to the car, and no one else to get in their way (certainly not the mother who would be far from the campgrounds, typing her summer away—at least tuesdays through thursdays, that is).

and so, now three weeks into it, i am here to report that a magical spell has been cast, and the joy of the camp lingers long after the camp bell clangs an end to the camp day.

right away i noticed at dinner how the giggles had grown exponentially. all of a sudden, after so many years and so many school days of traveling in parallel, non-intersecting orbits, they had their own sets of jokes and their own shared secrets of just how they had spent their whole days. (they will not divulge just why the south georgia peanuts baseball coach, who apparently lets loose on an ump in some youtube video, makes them fall off their chairs, from laughing so very hard.)

their itinerary, so far, has been thus: kayaking across a lagoon (with grammy, the intrepid octogenarian, in a boat all her own; not a one of them drowning, thank heaven), baseball catch at the park, hotdogsandfries, a bucket of balls at the golf range (high drama there when the head of the club went flying, a whole 150 yards, along with the ball), friedchicken, squash (the game, not the vegetable, believe it or not, as the big brother attempted to teach the ways of a gentleman sport), burritosandlime-flavoredchips, and that essential of any summer, sunbathing 101 (complete with the fine point of taking off socks to keep from unsightly tan line ringing the ankle).

just last night, as each boy dove into a mound of barbecued wings (the lunchtime hankering delayed till post-baseball dinnertime), i asked about camp, wondered what they had learned as we rolled past the mid-point of their six weeks together.

“how to eat really good food,” piped up the little one, an orange-splattered chicken wing dangling from his lips.

“not like healthy food,” he clarified. “like MAN food,” he said, the emphasis his.

then, because he’s long been known for his tepid tastes at the table, he turned to his brother-slash-counselor, and asked: “here can you taste it? tell me if i’ll like it. you know my taste.”

pretty much, that’s the heart and soul of it. two boys whiling their way through a summer. one knowing the other so well, he can tell what his tastebuds would say. the other, utterly trusting.

it boils down to that little message, re-spun and retold in hundreds and thousands of ways over the course of a june and july.

by august, attention will turn to what’s being stuffed into boxes, labeled and shipped to the holyoke mountains.

by september, what happens today will be just part of the frames that click-click through a little boy’s head as he lays down to sleep, trying to get used to the sound of a house without his big brother’s typing, trying to get used to the dark that’ll come from the room where the light’s always shone.

in a year or 10 or 20, my hunch and my prayer is that those two boys i love with all of my heart, will always look back on the summer of ’11, as the one where they discovered the ins and the outs of each other.

as one taught the other how to pull the oar through the water, and the other taught one how to tell if his wings were too spicy.

it’s a beautiful thing, in the end, when your lazy ol’ mama signs you up for a camp that you’ll carry through all the days of your life: the camp called brotherly love.

the blurry picture up above was snapped as the boys made it home from the wings run, the latest culinary adventure in their summer camp that seems to involve plenty of chowing.

do you have one particular summer you’ll never forget? a brother or sister who showed you the ropes? a camp you’ll hold in your heart forever and ever?