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Category: mother and son

we always pause for seaweed: on savoring a day, another year

seaweed salad

maybe it’s because he’s about to leave. maybe it’s because the moving van is scheduled, the boxes piling in a room upstairs.

maybe, though, it’s simply that he wanted to be here, to be among us. an arc of days stitched with all those things he loves.

and so we paused. turned off all the things that ping and beep. clipped roses from the garden. tucked stems in vases. made cards, wrote letters. awaited word from inbound trains.

the birthday boy was coming home, and we were slowing time. we were holding up the hours, sinking deep into the pure and simple gift of being side-by-side.

love is like that. love needs little embellishment. time — hours upon hours stacked together, in one fell swoop — that’s plenty. that’s priceless.

once or twice i heard a whisper from somewhere just beyond my shoulder, or deep inside my head: “he’s turning 24, for heaven’s sake. the clock on this has well run out.” but then i heard another voice, the voice of my heart, and i surrendered. wholly. that voice is the one that will always, always win for me. it said: “doesn’t matter to me how old he is. savoring the day with him will always be the dearest gift of my whole life.”

and so it was. i plucked him from the train, we grabbed a sack of sushi and seaweed salad. always seaweed salad on the first full day of summer, because long ago, in 1993, on the eve of his birth, an obstetrician i loved determined that seaweed applied in particular ways precipitated labor. got things opening, as it were.

we’ve celebrated seaweed ever since.

birthday eve dinner

birthday eve seaweed + sushi

we must have sat for hours at that after-soccer feast, night before last. i know the moon and stars were out before we got up from the table, before we moved deeper into birthday countdown.

there is nothing so fine as falling asleep in a house where every bed is filled. where the sounds of doors closing, sheets being thrown off, odd faucets shushing in unfamiliar rhythms, is lullaby to sleep.

nor is there much finer than tiptoeing down the stairs in the morning, setting the birthday table. opening cards and letters that make you weep as one brother tells the other that he will always be his hero. you can hear the clock ticking toward the day the birthday boy moves away. and so, you hold time, you hold all that fills these hours, as fully and preciously as you know how. you glide through a day savoring. sinking wholly into what’s before you, all around you. you know that soon the distance once again will come. the miles and miles between you. the necessity of phone line. the certainty that law school and life will make these sorts of days just that much more out of reach.

by nightfall, savoring had pulled me in so deeply that i was on a stool reaching to a shelf in the hall closet. i hauled down the old, old, vintage video recorder. i started popping in old tapes. i was mesmerized. i watched my firstborn on his first birthday, not yet walking, barely saying words. i watched my firstborn on his second birthday, all skinny legs and long arms, reaching for a train. calling the train by name. informing all who listened — and we all always listened, believe me — all there was to know about each and every train.

willie yawntalk about binge watching. i could play and replay those tapes from now till law school graduation, i suppose. i ached that i hadn’t been a more committed recorder of the hours. wished i’d spent even one slice of time silently positioning the lens on one ordinary day in the life of that blessed child — not simply the cacophony of a birthday celebration, when so much noise got in the way. wishing perhaps that i could leap back in time, live it once again. inhale more wholly this time the miracle of being mother to this blessed child, who has taken my breath away since the day he was born. and who now, on the cusp of his departure, his moving east, 1,000 miles from where i spend my days, still takes my breath away, still puts the pit-a-pat in my heart that once beat in time with his.

willie shoulder

love you, beautiful will. bless you, today, tomorrow, ever…

an unabashed love note to be sure. i will never run out of words, trying to capture this particular love. it’s the moment that struck me most this week. he leaves any hour now, to catch a train to new mexico, then a plane to martha’s vineyard, then we will all pile in the red wagon and follow the moving van to connecticut, where he’ll move in to his new address. and we’ll drive home, just the three of us, leaving him behind to absorb the law. i’m thinking this move out east will be the one from which there’ll never be a return to the heartland. we’ve trod this ground before, when he went off to college, and i had to learn long-distance. i will do so again. and maybe some day, we’ll be the ones who move — closer to his every day, and the every day of his little brother. i know plenty of you live far from the ones you love. i know distance isn’t measured only in miles. and i’m blessed (beyond measure) that there is no distance in our hearts. 

and with seaweed salad in mind, what are the quirky ways you mark birthdays at your house? 

 

boxing up the bookshelf

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this is an early draft of a meandering i wrote in the fall of 2016, one that became an essay, Boyhood on a Shelf, that ran, blessedly, in the new york times book review on april 9, 2017. it’s escaped in draft form a couple times already (only for a flash of a moment before i nabbed it and lassoed it back here, where it’s been dawdling), and this time, i’m letting it go because the idea of curating a collection of timeless children’s books is one i believe in, and because i’d love to hear what titles you’d include in such a library. 

one by one, i ran my index finger along the spines of the books. one by one, i remembered. one by one, i slipped the books off the shelf and into the hollow moving box, the books of a boyhood slipping away.

the titles — the hobbit, tom sawyer, the cricket in times square, my father’s dragon, the tales of narnia, a boxed set, harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone, the phantom tollbooth — one by one, each sent a volt of varied wattage.

the american boy’s handy book, for instance, daniel beard’s 1882 instructional for boyhood, “a state of natural savagery,” with its directions on how to build a pine-branch house or a birch-bark canoe, with its instructions on fishing for fresh-water clams, constructing a miniature boomerang or a wooden water telescope, or simply extolling the novelties in soap bubbles, it began to wobble my knees. i remembered the day i’d first spied the centennial edition at a beloved bookshop and carried it home, intent on giving my boy the most old-fashioned life of adventure, and a sure guide to survival as well.

my father’s dragon, the mid-20th-century trilogy of dragon stories from ruth stiles gannett, it had me in tears. as soon as the pillowy pad of my fingertip rubbed against its worn-smooth spine, i was flung back in time, wedged bum-to-bum on the bedsheets, snug against my then-beginning-to-read firstborn in his four-poster bed. turning pages, taking turns turning the pages, his eager fingers pinching the page’s corner, my lazy hand patiently waiting. the bedtimes when words began to take form, when pen-and-ink illustrations were seared into memory, collective memory, his and mine, at once distinct and enmeshed. the bedtimes that colored so many dreams, storybook dreams.

i couldn’t bear to let them all go, so deeply ingrained they were with a life i had loved, a life passage now being tucked in a box, transported miles away, and slid onto a grown man’s bookshelf, alongside tomes on law and philosophy and literature, subjects he now trades in, now is schooled in, subjects that now plot his trajectory.

and as much as i ached to ease them off the shelf, i was heartened to know — deeply — that they mattered to him. that he wouldn’t be home, wouldn’t feel home, till his books — his whole lifetime of books — were tucked on the new shelves in the new place he calls home.

that’s what the books of a childhood, of a boyhood, do: they forever bind us. and, ever after, they take us back, separate and together. they return us to long-ago, to once upon a time.

of all the playthings of my children’s childhood, it’s the books where we shared the most time. trains, my firstborn played with often alone, me off in a corner, occasionally lending a guttural chug or a choo or a whistle, or, later, when he was old enough to imagine all by himself, i’d be down the stairs and around a few bends, rattling around in the kitchen.

but the books, the books were where we nestled, where we sank in deep together. the books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together.

and so, the pages of the books — the pictures, the covers, the crinkled dog-eared edges — those are the relics, sacred relics of the years when i was keeping my promise to open his heart, to infuse the beautiful, the gentle, the wise. and the books were my guideposts, my road marks.

the books of my little boys’ beginnings, they were the holy scripture that whispered the lessons i prayed they would learn: ferdinand, the gentle bull? be kind. be not afraid to march to your own music. harry potter? believe in magic. the tales of narnia? defend what is good. tom sawyer? roam and roam widely. and never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.

no wonder, of all the stacks of clothes, the contents of a desk drawer, and all the other shelves of books, the only one that made me wince, the only one i thought i wouldn’t be able to pack away, to let go, to watch glide out the door and into the glimmering downtown tower that now is home to my firstborn, the only one that stopped me in my tracks was the shelf of my firstborn’s boyhood.

not one to sulk for too too long — only after brushing away the tears i kept to myself — i hatched a plan: as one taketh away, so one receives. as i slapped the long serpentine wrap of packing tape across the top of the book box, i promised myself i’d build a new library, one built on the blueprints of children’s librarians who’ve culled lists of the best of the best. the new york public library’s 100 great children’s books. my little town’s own librarians’ roster of classic picture books, and classic novels, grades 2 through 5, and 5 through 8.

i’d make it my mission, my task of enchantment, to map the quaintest of used book shops. i’d scour the shelves for a particular roster of titles. and, one by one, i’d re-build a collection, a curated collection of children’s books that stand the test of time and, most of all, heart.

in the hours of my heart’s tugging, when the boy i love was moving away for good and likely forever, the one balm i knew to apply was the balm of the bookshelf, the balm of construction, of building, amid the act of dismantling, of packing up and moving away.

it’s not an assignment that comes with a deadline. it took years — and the accumulated wisdom of countless bibliophiles who, over those years, slipped titles into my hands with a knowing nod, or the question, “have you seen this one?” — to build that shelf in the first place.

and it will take years, and the deep joy of engagement, to build the one i’ll bequeath to both my boys, and whoever might be the next little readers to come toddling along.

what titles would you be sure to include if you were building the essential children’s bookshelf?img_8290

that one brave thing (an update)…

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illustration by Antony Huchette, for the New York Times Book Review

just a quick middle-of-the-week update from the courage department…

not so very long ago, i wrote here about trying very, very hard to be brave.

these are some of the words that tumbled straight from my truth-telling heart:

i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

…i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

here’s what happened the day i took a deep breath, and mustered all my courage:

Boyhood on a Shelf, April 9, 2017, New York Times Book Review, page 13.

thank you, and thank you, dear mother courage.

i’ll be back, as always, friday morning. it’ll be hushed because, for me, it’s Good Friday, that day of sacred silence from noon till three bells, the hours of the Crucifixion.

delighted to hear if your courage took you to any heights of which you’d only dreamed….

 

pulled by heart

lunch

the hour hand had just nudged itself past 5. the tableau out the window was black-on-black. the bedsheets, warm, toasty warm. the soft folds of the flannel, pulled snug against my shoulders, invited one last episode of sleep. all i wanted was one more hour. but then i remembered.

the light down the hall was already splintered through the crack under the door. the soft bells of an alarm were faintly chiming. the whoosh of the shower broke the pre-dawn hush of a house just beginning to rouse. i knew my firstborn was up and getting dressed. i knew he’d soon be barreling into the morning’s bitter cold. the headlights of his little black car would shine down the alley, turn toward the city, to the west side, to the streets where just a week ago a bullet pierced the window of the pre-K classroom in the school where he teaches. the bullet shattered glass. sailed across the room, ramrodded a metal pipe, ricocheted. hit no one. thank God. but the cluster of little 4-year-olds, who by the grace of God had been clustered at that instant on the far side of the classroom, away from the bank of sidewalk-level windows, they heard the blast, the ping, and at last the thud of the bullet dropping to the classroom’s hard tile floor. deadly sounds. sounds that shouldn’t be heard in a pre-K classroom. or any classroom anywhere.

a week ago, at 2:46 p.m., i got this text from my firstborn:

There’s been a shooting outside school. We are in lockdown, but I am okay, so are my students. Do not call, I don’t want there to be any noise in my room.

a mother’s heart all but stops when she reads those words.

it would be another hour till he called, till i heard the rush of air i knew as his voice. it was over now, he told me.

the children had all been shepherded into the hands of parents. or grandparents. or some adult who’d get them home. he, too, was headed home, he told me. shaken, so shaken by the news of what happened in the pre-K. shaken by the holes in the metal screen and the pane of glass. shaken by the glass that shattered in what looked like a cobweb of shards. shaken by the long hour’s lockdown, not knowing the whole time — as he tried to keep his sixth graders quiet — whether the shooter was inside or out of the building. shaken by footsteps that ran down the hall, toward his classroom, where the door had been locked. shaken by the news that a mother who’d come to school early to take home her young child had stepped out the school’s front door into the direct line of two men with guns chasing down the sidewalk, shooting. the mother threw her little one to the sidewalk, then threw herself — hard — on top. she waited, she’d told a teacher, lay stone still, not knowing if she’d be hit. fully expecting the thud of a bullet to her back. or worse.

monday, my kid came home with word that 46 kids of 180 kids hadn’t come to school that day. parents kept them home. they’re not used to bullets piercing classroom windows. not even on the west side of chicago. he said, too, that the only two white kids in the school, kids whose parents teach there, they’d been pulled. “a social experiment they weren’t willing to risk any longer,” was how he put it.

and then he said, “mom, if i tell you something, promise not to freak out.”

ooo-kay.

“there’s apparently a turf war in the neighborhood, and (school) is in the middle of it.”

and so as you hear those words, as they barely begin to settle onto your eardrums, onto your heart, you somersault into prayer. your every inhale breathes in prayer. your exhale begins the next, an endless loop of prayer after prayer.

you settle yourself down, slowly. over the course of hours, as you turn round and round the heartache, the insanity of it all, as you sift through the shards, examine from all angles. imagine the worst. consider the kids who call those streets home. who can’t leave.

you pray mightily.

and then, yesterday on the front page of the newspaper, there was a story with eery echoes. it was a story that happened last friday, just five hours after the bullet shattered the window of my kid’s school. it happened three miles due south. a bullet — out of nowhere — pierced the driver’s side window of a parked car where a young 25-year-old woman was sitting, talking on her cellphone to her dad in san diego. suddenly, he told the reporters who had called him, she started to say her head hurt, her head hurt. then the phone went dead. the dad in san diego couldn’t figure out what happened. frantic, he called his daughter’s boyfriend, who called her roommate, who ran out onto the street and down the block where she found the woman slumped, near dead. the woman died from a bullet that “came out of nowhere;” two men chasing down the street with guns. the stray bullet — a bullet not meant for her — killed her.

as i sat there reading the news story, tracing the lines that connected her story to the one i knew from my own kid’s school — same day, same short span of hours, same damn  scenario, guns and chasing and flying bullets — i shuddered at the tragedy, shuddered for the father who now told the story, who now tried to explain how — as she sat in her car on her quiet street on her way home from a job where she’d just gotten a promotion, in a city she loved and had moved to after college — he was now burying his daughter, “the only one in her preschool class who could read, a straight-A high school student, a magna cum laude college graduate,” the father told the reporters.

and so this morning, knowing my kid was getting dressed to go back to the school where the pre-K window is now covered in plywood, while they wait for new glass to come, while they all pray for calm in the streets, i yanked back the sheets, and i planted my wobbly feet on the cold wood floor of my bedroom. i shuffled down the stairs, and i opened the fridge. i piled turkey on slabs of bread. i tossed in an apple. i poured a tall to-go cup of coffee.

not for one minute could i send my kid out into the cold, back to school, back to streets where a gang war wages, and not do the feeble things a mama does: i slathered mustard on bread, i folded slices of deli turkey, i tucked it all in the little brown bag he uses day after day. i prayed the whole while. i prayed mightily.

when he tumbled down the stairs, and saw me standing there with my mustard knife in hand, he looked surprised. “mommo, what are you doing here?”

just packing lunch, was all i said. he knows me well, my kid of 22 years. he knew without me saying so that that sandwich was super-packed. stacked with prayer upon prayer. besides the turkey.

as i closed the door behind him, as i told him i loved him, called out,”be safe,” i traced a sign of the cross onto the back of his thick winter coat. it’s all i could do.

it’s the truth of motherhood, or one of them anyway: we’re armed with so very little. especially when up against a world of flying, piercing, life-taking bullets.

yet we don’t abandon our station: we rise before the dawn, we shuffle down the stairs, we do what little we can. we pack a lunch, with a motherlode of prayer.

we are pulled by heart out of slumber. we are pulled by heart into prayer. deep into prayer.

what will we do? what can we do? is there any way out of this insanity that spills blood on the front seats of cars, on front porches, and playgrounds, and too many sidewalks and streets in this city?

tables turned…

ice puppet

since tuesday, i’ve had a fever. i’ve been achy all over, and moving slow as slow can be and still qualify as movement.

i’ve even taken to my mattress a couple afternoons, which — around here — is unheard of. but the most amazing thing unfolded one of those afternoons, the first one when i was stretched out and aching and hotter than hot. a young lad came to my bedside and insisted he was the fever fixer. he had a plan, he said, and he set out to execute.

from down the stairs and around the bend, i heard the klunk of ice cubes being procured. i heard the linen closet squeaking open. i heard the old metal tray being pulled from where we store those sorts of things. and then i heard the hobbling sound of my sweet boy — the one with one leg in a brace and one arm in a cast — i heard him climbing the stairs.

he appeared at my bedside on that hot july afternoon bearing a tray that held a dripping wet washcloth, a cup of ice chips and an apple tucked pertly in a white souffle cup. before i could say a word, he slipped his cast-less hand into the puppet of a washcloth, one of those terry-towel hand puppets meant to make bath time for little ones a theater of suds.

this particular washcloth, the one that was always his favorite, happens to be a hippo. so my bedside attendant stretched wide the hippo’s mouth, grabbed two cubes of ice, and proceeded to anoint my forehead in this icy, dripping bath. next, he reached for my wrists, and up and down my arms and legs. “you’ll be okay,” were the only words he whispered the whole long while. over and over, he repeated: “you’ll be okay,” as if the words alone were incantations, as if a prayer aloud.

a few minutes into this anointing of the sick, i finally mustered the breath to ask: “who taught you this?”

his answer: “you.”

i felt a tear roll down my cheek. it’s true, yes, that a wet washcloth applied to fevered brow has long been wielded here for curative effect. and ice chips in a cup, often dripped with honey, has long been an apothecary staple in this old house. but never in my life have i been as gentle, as determined, as tender as that boy was to me. the tenderness he learned from his papa. of that i’m certain. i, too, am learning tenderness — all these years later — from my sweet boy’s papa. it’s a lesson without end.

while the icy rinse didn’t make the fever go away, it decidedly worked wonders. for days now, my sweet boy has attended me with his hippo and his ice cubes. i asked him amid one of the icy rubdowns if he’d ever thought of being a doctor or a nurse, because he certainly had the healer’s touch. nope, said he, explaining, “i don’t like blood, and i’m not good at science.”

the marvel here is that we often think the long nights we’ve spent on bathroom floors with a retching or a fevered child, the midnight hours when we’re the ones knocking ice cubes from the freezer, we think of those, sometimes, as invisible hours, times that heed no notice. what we might not realize is that in that transactional moment, when ice practically sizzles on a fevered brow, when a kid who’s so sick he can barely open his droopy lids lets us slip an ice chip to his tongue, what we’re doing is so much more than knocking back a fever. we are quietly, and without folderol, teaching something sacred to the essence of being human. maybe fevers and flus were invented for the simple purpose of one someone being invited to try to heal another.

the marvel here — the reminder that came in dripping ice cubes this week — is that there is a life-and-death curriculum unfurling here in the quiet of our humdrum little lives. our whole life long we are teaching and learning that most magnificent of golden rules: love as you would be loved.

not a minute is wasted. not a lesson lost. little folk and big folk alike are paying attention, our hearts attuned to those gifts, those moments, that lift us, inch by inch, to a higher plane. we love, and so we are loved in kind.

i remembered this week that i am ever teaching, and lessons are ever being learned, even when i don’t think a single soul notices, nor pays attention. so i’d best try to live as tenderly, as full of heart, as my sweet child is teaching me to be.

that kid and his ice cubes, they more than did their job. in fact, they melted me. and my fever, too.

what lessons in kindness and tenderness have molded you, stretched you, carried you to a higher, sweeter plane?

final push

final push. will bam

it’s the promise i made, long long ago. the deepest surest promise i ever made.

before he was even a bump in my belly, before anyone in the world knew he was there. in the moment i first knew, i tumbled out these words: dear God, let me wrap this blessed life in a cocoon of pure, unbroken love. let me be the shield. let this child know only undiluted full-force light.

it wouldn’t be long till i found out how porous that cocoon might be. i couldn’t keep the 105-degree fevers from spiking. couldn’t even take away the sting of the shots he got at 2-months-old, when the nurse turned to me and icily offered: “what are you all nervous for?”

i surely couldn’t keep the chipmunk from darting before his bike’s front wheel on that autumn afternoon when he hurled across the handle bars, and landed in an unconscious heap on the side of the woodsy trail. couldn’t keep the bone from cracking in his neck, on that october day when he was all alone and all of 13. couldn’t keep the bone from cracking straight across his thigh just 10 months after that. nor stop the crushing commentary from the camp counselor who saw his staggered gait as reason for ridicule.

in the nearly 22 and a half years since i whispered that promise (i’d whispered it a full nine months before he was born), i’ve not veered, not lost my most determined grip.

there are rare few promises you make in life that define you. my promise to my firstborn was one.

and now, at the end of his senior year of college, in the final hours before he turns in the more than 150 pages he’s been typing, editing, eating-drinking-sleeping, i am once again putting muscle to my words. his senior thesis, a compendium of deep thinking and determined scholarship, will soon be walked into a white new england house, one with columns stretched across its porch. it’s the poli sci department, and the thesis, a probing examination of the intersection — and entanglement — of law and religion, is due in just five days. at 3 p.m., eastern time. (not that i’m watching the clock.)

i’ll not be breathing much this weekend. the thousand miles between us will, once again, have collapsed into the paper-thin space between two hearts that once beat just micrometers apart.

i’ve realized (because i tend to think that way) this might be the final push of all the school years — from preschool when i nervously watched him try to make a friend in the blocks corner, to third grade when he carried off to school the landmark chicago stadium he’d struggled to build out of cardboard, poster paint and glue (lots and lots of glue), to the junior year of high school with its tension-building, sleep-disrupting 20-page AP-english theme (oh, that seems so innocently succinct, now looking back from the distance of 150-plus footnoted pages), to the long-distance breath-holding as every college semester’s close brought with it a slate of deadlines and exams and will-he-make-it doubts, to now, the mountain climb of all type-written mountain climbs.

and so i’ll enter this final round of breath-holding, of leaping every time the phone rings, of literally falling asleep and awaking with that boy’s welfare on my mind, with all the mama-dedication it deserves.

the truest truth is that as i’ve reached out my hand to guide my boy up steep climbs, through narrow passageways, i’m the one who’s found my way. he’s plunged me into life in ways that, until he came along, i might have skirted. if i’ve lived my life one drop more deeply, more authentically, it’s because he was at my side. he was asking me — without words — to be the best of who i might be. to not flinch. to not be afraid. or even if i was, to walk forward anyway.

that’s what mamas do, after all. that’s the unspoken pact. it’s at the front line of whatever life hurls our child’s way, where we are truly put to the test. it doesn’t mean we’ll keep at bay the brokenness. it doesn’t mean we’ll stanch the tears. it means we’ll wear it all, as if our own. it means we’ll be there on the phone whispering, “i believe” till the cows come home. it means that when we’re dead asleep and the phone jangles us awake, we’ll take the call, shudder off the somnolence and stay on the line till daylight erases darkness.

in this latest round, it means we’ll read and re-read, check for misplaced commas, look up “constitution” in the world book encyclopedia, grasping to understand this free-exercise clause that seems to be absorbing so much of our kid’s attention.

if that’s what it takes. whatever it takes.

day after day, year upon year.

this is the one job for which there’s no check-out clock. our hours on the factory floor do not end.

oh, we might get long spells of reprieve, when all is humming along as you’d hope it would. but then, duty calls. stakes are high, and the fire bell clangs. so you leap into the nearest phone booth, and you whip on your mama cape. you toe the line. you’ve made a vow, and you’re sticking to it. you’re here for the long haul, and the long haul is now.

so much is stitched into every single saga. unspoken volumes. volumes that swell your heart. volumes that teach and re-teach just what it means to love as you would be loved.

it’s holy gospel, this mothering as mountain climb. he’s nearly there, the kid i love. i can see the summit, and so can he. i’ve one last weekend to stay the course. to promise him he’ll make it, and to let out a holy roar when, at last, he does.

bam will hand in hand

that’s me and my sweet boy, walking hand in hand, a long, long time ago. i nearly melt studying the snapshots, the one just above, and the one up high where you can practically feel my straining to implant some sort of mama inoculation on his irish-jewish cheek. it’s what we aim to do, aim most mightily: to embrace, protect, infuse with all that’s good, infuse with the best of what we’ve got and all we didn’t even know we had to offer. 

do you have a tale to tell about someone loving you across the finish line, no matter what the line? 

and happy blessed birthday to two of my life’s dearest oldest friends who today and tomorrow tack on another year. love you, divine miss M, and sweet sweet paula, angel of my dreams….

turning 21: a mother was born

willie baby with kiss

nothing had ever — has ever — so deeply captured my attention. you can see it in the gaze above, the eyes locked between mother and child. you can see it in the parted lips, my lips, can almost hear the gushing in of breath, of pure and utter undiluted amazement.

deep down, i think, i never really believed it would happen. had so little faith in my body — in the flesh and bones that made me who my vessel was — i gasped when they handed me that bundle. i so distinctly remember drinking in his eyes, whispering, “hullo, my sweet, so here i am, and here you are, answer to my deepest prayers, my dreams come true beginning now.” and then, before i could stop myself, i zeroed in on the thighs. the thighs i am blessed to report were duly “pudged,” rolls of flesh and perfect fat, a fat so deliciously dimpled it nearly melted me off the birthing bed.

i’d been afraid i might grow a baby without the requisite fat. in fact, i doubted my capacities as birthing chamber all along. in one long weekend, after an early set of ultrasounds, i convinced myself my baby had no brain. all you could see inside the skull was black space, blank black space. oh my god, i thought, they’ve not yet broken it to me, but i think my baby might be missing his brain. i even called a radiologist friend — on a sunday — to find out if he’d confirm my fear.

he confirmed it not.

and in fact, on the sultry start-of-summer tuesday when at last that babe was born, he was a whopping eight pounds, nine ounces — a good chunk of that birthweight duly tucked in the cranial cavity, where in the years since he’s proven how undeniably that brain was where it needed to be, doing precisely what it was wired to do.

my beautiful beautiful boy turns 21 on sunday, and while my letter to him will be deeply private, the one i’m writing here is the one in which i proclaim to anyone who pulls up a chair how very deeply his birth birthed the depths of me, allowed at last the core of who i dreamed i could be, who i prayed i could be, to begin to take form, to emerge in light and shadow, to rise from the gauzy netherworld, to be defined in sharp outline and tender spots, and to be forming still.

it just might be most every blessed mother’s story: we stumble upon the best that we can be, sometimes, when living, breathing, squawking, ever-hungry babe is cradled in our arms. our trembling arms, to be sure. our arms that grow stronger, surer, over all the sagas and the chapters and the countless hours of two lives entwined.

when i think back over the 21 years that he and i have been essential factors in each other’s equations, i stand in wide-eyed wonder. i bow down low in deepest gratitude. i wince at my mistakes, moments i’d give anything to do over. and i marvel at the times when i stepped to the edge of the precipice, mustered all my courage, and leapt — that eternal life-saving instinct nestled deep in every mother’s heart, the one that propels us to put form to whatever is the holy vow we take when we’re first told that life stirs within.

it’s unbreakable, the mother bond. it defines our days, puts order to our must-get-done list, sets us off to the ends of the earth, if need be, in search of the essential whatchamahoojie — be that the medical specialist who can peer inside a child’s shattered bone or merely the USB cable that’s gone missing from his laptop at the very hour the paper must be printed and turned in for a full semester’s credit.

and it keeps us awake, long night after long night.

we learn, once motherhood comes upon us, just how long we can go without so much as a spoonful of cereal (it took me a couple weeks to figure out how to inhale breakfast with a baby wailing in the infant seat), and how many consecutive nights we can curl up on the bathroom floor cradling a fevered child or one who’s upchucking till the wee wee hours.

when necessary, we discover we can make the scariest of phone calls, can dial up the mother of the slumber-party bully, can look the teacher in the eye and say, i’m sorry, i don’t think you understand my kid. we can even will our knees not to buckle when the ER doctors start tossing around words like “airlift” and “cervical fracture,” and “severed spinal cord.” we can make promises to God — ones we swear we’ll keep — when, for longer pauses than we ever thought we could endure, we’re begging to be spared a kid who can’t flinch a muscle from his neck down to his fingers and his toes.

in rare sweet moments, we find out how it feels to catch the wind and soar. we turn and see the kid we love dashing down the block to hand a crunched-up dollar bill to the homeless guy he knows by name. we nearly fall in the river as the kid who couldn’t catch a fly ball now rows mightily across the finish line. we read the words his college professors send to us in emails that knock us off our chairs, and leave one of us brushing away the streams of tears.

we hope, we dream, we pray. we reach down deep, deeper than we ever reached before. we listen till the birds of dawn begin to sing, if that’s what it takes some long dark hollow nights.

we find our voice along the years. we exercise our heart. we wrack our brains. we love, and love some more.

and suddenly 21 years have happened. countless picture frames loop before our eyes. words and stories bubble up and fill page upon page. our hearts are 21 times the size they used to be — at least.

we have paid most exquisite attention, to each and every breath and utterance all along the way. we’ve driven ourselves nearly mad. we’ve cared beyond reason. in fact, there’s little room for the rational when it comes to this particular brand of love story.

we were handed a treasure. we owe it to the treasure. we owe it to the bequeathers of the treasure.

i, for certain, was handed the treasure of my life. june 22, 1993. the day the best of me was born.

a work very much in progress. the best work in all my oeuvre.

i love you, sweet will, with all my heart and all my soul and everything that dwells between.

chair people, thanks for indulging me in this morning’s labor of truest deepest love. i found the photo above — my sweet boy’s forehead stamped with a “stork kiss” from my beloved obstetrician, who made it a habit of smearing on bright red lipstick to mark her babies shortly after birth — while working on a little picture project. i’ve been compiling a little something for my sweet boy’s birthday and this frame floated to the top.

feel free to tell what birthed the best of you along the way….

never enough will

 

prodigal people

prodigal people

when your sweet boy is flying through night, is up in the clouds, winging his way to you, you can’t sleep too soundly. you toss and tumble, and peek open an eye to check on the clock.

you follow him, one flight to the next, berlin to amsterdam, amsterdam, home. 12:40, 2:40, 5:40….all in the ayems, of course. waiting, just waiting, for the scheduled landing at 2:10 p.m.

while he does his half of the task — sits strapped in the seat trying not to splatter his midnight breakfast — you do yours: you haul out the pots and the pans, you indulge in the making of prodigal feast.

there are apples to chop and to simmer. there is cinnamon to sprinkle in dashes. there’s that ol’ mac-‘n’-cheese, the one from page 200 of the may 1995 gourmet magazine, the one you first made when your firstborn turned two, and the one that — ever since — has been family shorthand for comfort hauled from the oven.

because your heart is thumping at john philip sousa proportions, you haul out the red “you are special today” plate. you run about the yard with your clippers, tucking hydrangea (the first of the summer) next to his bed (as if he’ll be awake enough to notice), plunging stems of rambling roses and catmint into an old cracked pitcher you’ve hauled out from hiding.

at last, you leap in the shiny black pick-up mobile (that’s pick-up as in boy from airport), and you note that it’s near out of gas. you make un-anticipated pit stop at nearest gasoline pump, then you motor on your way, arriving at said airport a good hour early. (but considering a week ago, you would have walked to germany to fetch the suffering child, this hour is nothing. and besides it gives you a chance to inhale the tears and the squeals and the long-lost embraces that come with the world’s second-busiest international terminal).

you stare so intently at the swinging double doors, the chute that spits out bleary-eyed, jet-lagged world travelers, you practically will your child to up and appear. as that first hour drags into the start of the second, you suddenly look up and there, curlier than ever, slump shouldered from all that he’s weathered since last you waved him goodbye, there is your sweet little boy, not yet a dozen years on this planet, and now bearing a much-stamped state-department-issued U.S. passport.

you cannot contain it. you yelp: “there he is!” as if everyone in the throng might care about your particular pronoun. and before you can note the collective raised eyebrows, you’ve leapt around the black sash that attempts to keep order there in the exiting-passenger chute.

so sweet is this holy reunion, your boy traveler doesn’t even flinch when you throw your arms tight round his shoulders and backpack. but the nice lady in the uniform does command you to move it along. so you do. and you stand there marveling at how gorgeous he is, how his soul feels like it’s deepened, it’s triumphed.

for it did triumph. that kid, who was sick for five days, who came to know far too many german toilettes, he found it deep within to muscle his way to the finish line. the line where, with your trembling hand squeezing his, he now stood.

you didn’t tarry, there in the airport. you shared hugs goodbye with two surrogate mamas (both of whom you’ll scribble onto your eternally-grateful list for the rest of your days), then you zipped to the car, began dialing essential persons — papa, big brother, anyone who happened to be breathlessly waiting by the phone for word of the traveler’s arrival.

and, at last, after 11 long months, and another two weeks plus a day, you brought the boy home to where he deeply, truly belongs.

he relished every step of the path to the door, through the overgrown greens and the weeds that threaten to cut you off at the knees. he called for his cat, the cat who leapt from the old wicker chair, and promptly rubbed fur against ankle.

he kerplumped into the couch. he soaked up the sights through his sleepiest eyes. then, halfway through mac ‘n’ cheese, he keeled over onto the bench by the old maple table. that’s when he begged for a bubbly bath, and his old old bed.

and that’s where i climbed in beside him, into the 100-year-old bed that once was my grandma’s. i curled my legs around his, and whispered a kite-string of prayer into his soft little ear. by the time i whispered the second “thank you, dear God,” he was off in that place where the dreams come, and he stayed there till six the next morning.

he’s still sleeping it off, all of it, but when he’s awake it’s utterly perfectly clear how he’s grown. deep down, deep inside where the stretching and growing unfolds, he’s a boy who’s mastered an obstacle course.

just two weeks ago he was sending home emails saying he couldn’t possibly make it, would not survive there in a faraway place, upchucking every few hours, alone in a house with few words of english. and we typed back a niagara falls of you-can-do-it declarations. it’s all we could do, since the state department isn’t so keen on issuing on-the-spot passports for mamas whose children are ailing from tummy flu.

there are times, i’ve discovered, when the wisest thing a mama can do is hold her breath, and believe. and pass on sparks of that faith — in whatever form she can send ’em — to a faraway child, who is out doing the hard work of childhood, discovering all the nooks and crannies of vigor and stamina nestled deep down inside. the figuring out that you’re stronger than you think you are. that you can do what you might have thought impossible.

and even when that mama’s heart is nearly skipping its beats, she’s giving that child the best she can give: the hard-won sense of mastery, sure-footed steadiness, that there is no mountain too steep for him to climb. that the summit is there, that lung-filling vista, for the kid who figures it out: put one hiking boot in front of the other, step, climb, step, steadying as you go. you’ll make it to the top. and, once there, you can always tuck that triumph snug in your pocket, for the next time you run into a climb up the sharp side of an incline.

***

one by one, my boys are trickling home. this old house is filling again, with the hums and the rhythms that make it purr. the blue-willow cookie plate, the one that shines from under the cake dome, it’s filled again. the fridge is stocked with milk in all percents — 0, 2 and 100-percent whole. the oven’s been cranked. the shower is steamy, is dripping.

there’s only one bed that’s un-stirred (so i plop the cat there to make it look used). and as much as i loved this old house all to myself, i discovered i love it more when it’s humming with people whose noises i know by heart.

my prodigal people are back. and i long for the missing one now more than ever, knowing we’ll not really be whole till he’s here.

i’m struck by a sense — sometimes softly, sometimes with a wallop — that it seems we’ve leapt a chapter or two since last we were huddled here at the old maple table.

i can almost hear the page that’s been turned, as the life of this family moves forward. and the sound of little feets on the floorboard, they’re fading. where’d the years go? oh, how i love this old house that remembers. that once knew the sounds of suckling, and little boy birthdays. and now is home to a world-traveler come home to catch up on sleep…..

post-script: i know. i said i would stay mum for awhile. but….well, i found a friday morning without typing a bit of an odd fit. and there were a few things that rumbled around this week, so tap-tap-tap, fingers to keyboard. i’ll try to rest easy in knowing that if you don’t care to click here, you certainly won’t. and i’ll console myself with the knowing that a writer needs to write if she cares to keep her verbs sharp and sharper, and i’ve teachers under my belt who admonish: daily, daily, you must do it daily. 

it’s a workday around here, as the professor is back to his life as a newspaper critic, and his first critique is spewing from the typewriter on deadline today. my world traveler is snoozing upstairs, and there’s a long day of writing ahead for me.

hope your fourth was lovely. and blanketed by a nightsky exploding with colors and sizzles and booms.

and now for a question: what were the chapters of your life that tested your deep-down i-can-do-it-ness? how’d you figure out that the best you could do was put one foot in front of the next, and sooner or later, you’d get where you needed, learning a few key lessons along the way?

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…..

over the river, through the woods, and off to storybook land…

images

dispatch en route to 05091 (in which the little black mobile swoops by a snow-covered campus quad, picks up a firstborn child and dashes away to snowier vermont for a short sweet spell of make-believe and pinch-me…)

once upon a time, there must have been a curly-haired lass whose prized position was little legs dangling over the edge of the armchair, storybook sprawled wide across her lap.

i imagine her big gray-blue eyes dancing. i imagine the gleam as she pored over the page. i imagine, most of all, the faraway look that must have set in, as her heart soared away to never-never land.

this little girl, you see, was a storybook dreamer. always was, always will be.

charmed by the intricacies of early-on picture books (surely tasha tudor framed many a dream), lulled by tales set in english walled gardens, abandoned castles, thatched-roof cottages and little cabins in big woods, she stumbled hard — and from the beginning — into that indescribable realm called the world of the imagination.

she found out that, plonked on a fat armchair, or tucked under the bedcovers, or curled up under the swishing strands of the weeping willow beside her bubbling brook, she could set sail to faraway places, weave long and winding stories that continued, chapter after chapter, night after night — for years, sometimes.

once, on a winter’s day she still remembers, she spent hours behind her locked bedroom door, hunched on the hardwood floor between the patchwork-covered twin beds, just beneath the paned windows that looked out through the trees and into the thick of the woods.

for nearly the whole of that day, she worked. put colored pencils to paper, scrawled a table of contents, prettified the fat first letter of each and every chapter. and, when all was just as she wanted it to be, she proudly penned her name onto the cover, just below her chapter-book title. “the adventures of joHo, by barbara ann theresa mahany,” she wrote, aiming for that authorial stretch that comes from employing all available monikers.

and so it’s ever been.

that little girl grew up. her blah-brown locks are now silvery with streaks of snow (how’s that for storybook stretch?). but quick as you can say “rumplestiltskin,” she can switch on the magic loop, and sail away on a pea green pod to the place where stories grow, and imagination sprinkles every garden bed.

and so it is that as we pack for a weekend’s jaunt to the woodstock inn in snowy vermont, i am beside myself with what bambi long ago called “twitterpation.”

soon as i saw that snap up above, the storybook inn with the glowing windows spread all across its face, soon as i got a whiff of that white picket fence, and read about teatime at four in the library, i started dreaming of four-poster beds, and threadbare oriental rugs. i heard the crackle of the fireplace, and spent a few delicious minutes chewing on the choice of which fat books to lug along with my lanz flannel nightgown and my holey haflinger boiled-wool slippers.

i imagine we’ll take long walks in the snow, through the sleepy vermont woods. and, if the moment is right, is sublimely sacred, i’ll take the hand of one of my boys. all three — tall, taller, and not-yet-tall — are signed up for the adventure. it feels like something of a miracle within the miracle, to be motoring up the back roads, leaving behind this cobbled city, stopping to grab the college kid in emily dickinson’s amherst before wending our way to woodstock.

but so it is. in this year of living sumptuously, this might be the sumptuousest (to make up a word, for the moment deserves its own home-grown vocabulary). we’re not a little clan who gets to take vacations terribly often (the price of being newsrakers in a dying industry), so each and every one is a sweet bit of miracle.

and this one, more than most.

it’s spring break for three of us — the two now entrenched at veritas U, and the one up amherst way. the little one’s spring break is not till april, so, alas, we’ve been here driving him back and forth to school through ice and snow all week. but at the crack of dawn tomorrow, i’m calling that school and reporting the child absent. and then we’re packing up the road food, stuffing ourselves into the woodstock-mobile, and heading out on massachusetts state highway 2.

all my life i’ve wanted to set a foot in vermont, a state of mind that brings to mind dappled cows bedecked in daisy chains. and covered bridges coursing over gurgling rivers. and woods aglow with lefty politics. my kinda state, i’m telling you.

it might be the epicenter of storybook landscapes, so off we go to fill my head with picture frames to last a lifetime. and for two full days, i’ll be bookended by my deeply beloved boys.

i can’t imagine — hard as i tax my storybook brain — a dreamier way to spend a gilt-edged chapter tucked amid these  blessed holy days.

are you a storybook soul? and if you could pick one storybook place to tuck away for a sweet short spell, where might it be, and why?