pull up a chair

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

Tag: mother and son

he gave us a year: this mama will never forget

DSCF1325

the first inkling came a year ago december. it was a bitter cold sunday, and the voice on the line was one that had been making my heart skip since the first time i heard it. the words that followed were these: “mommo, i’ve been thinking. i want to do something meaningful in the year between college and law school, and i can’t think of anything more meaningful than being there for tedd. i think i’ll come home for a year.”

such is the sound of wishes come true. of prayer you hadn’t even put to words, come tumbling true. a mama’s wildest hope.

so, back on a sultry june afternoon, the old black sedan pulled down the alley. out spilled a boy and a thousand some boxes. a childhood bedroom was duly re-ordered. carpet was ditched; floorboards, exposed. old books, the books of a boyhood, were pulled and tossed in a box. college tomes took their place. jobs were procured, the ones that would keep him busy by day. by night, he made his place at the side of the much younger brother, the brother just finding his way into high school, a high school with corridors known to be steep.

DSCF1307for one whole year, a year now gliding toward its close, big brother and little have entwined their hearts a little bit closer. there’ve been late-night runs for grilled cheese. and sartorial counsel unfurled at the bathroom door. there’ve been soccer goals saved in front of the cheering — and very proud — older brother. and shoulder-to-shoulder talks on the couch, in the car, on the all-night airplane ride.

it was into his big brother’s arms that the little one fell the morning our old cat died. the two of them crying, together. one of them wailing, “he was our third brother.” both of them wholly understanding the depth of that truth.

he was here for his brother, yes, but he was here, too, for the whole of us — night after night, as we sat, held hands, and whispered a prayer before picking up forks. not one single dinner for four did i ever take for granted. each one felt sacred. felt numbered.

he was here in this unforgettable year, this year of loss as much as gain. he was here the day we got word that his grandpa had died; that very night, he stood by the side of his papa, both wrapped in their prayer shawls, at synagogue, on the eve of the most solemn day of atonement. he was there, to hold his father’s elbow during the hebrew prayer of mourning. he was there to notice the tear that spilled from his father’s eye. i was too. i saw and felt with my whole soul the presence of father and son standing shoulder-to-shoulder, prayer shawl-to-prayer shawl, in the hour of that father’s deepest grief.

he was here, too, when friend after friend said goodbye before dying, in this year of hard loss. he was here to wrap his arm, and his laughter, around the grieving widower who has spent most every weekend with all of us, sopping up the pieces of his deeply shattered heart.

he was here for me, his old mama. the one who will never tire of long talks at the side of his bed, or chopping in sync at the kitchen counter. i never even minded the piles of laundry, knowing with each pair of boxers i folded that it was a task that wouldn’t last. i considered it something akin to charming to iron old shirts, to track down orphaned socks.

the what’s-next isn’t quite worked out. but the calls are out. the interviews, scheduled. a move will be in the mix. i know that. i’ve always known that.

which is what made this year the most priceless gift i could have imagined. a mother’s gift beyond measure.

it was all a blessing. all wholly unexpected. all counter to cultural norms that these days send kids sailing post college. he came home. he didn’t mind — not so much anyway — the questions from neighbors, the ones who might have looked askance at a kid whose only post-college option appeared to be a return to the roost. we knew otherwise. we knew the whole time.

he’d come home for one reason only: love.

he’d come home for the rare and breathtaking gift of stitching together two hearts. hearts born eight years apart. hearts whose plots on the lifeline had necessarily thrown them into parallel orbits — when one was learning to drive, the other was learning to read. when one was finding his way through a college quad, the other was starting out middle school. but this year — one starting high school, one a man of the world and not too old to remember well the poignant trials of this particular high school — there was much deepening to be done. they could laugh at each other’s jokes. play each other’s silly screen games. bolster each other’s hearts when either one was pummeled. photo

what they grew, over the shifting of seasons, over late nights and not-so-early mornings, was a brotherly love to last a lifetime.

i often flash forward in my mind’s eye, imagine them calling each other in the long years ahead. i imagine their faces, lined with deepening grooves, the ones that come from living. i imagine their manly voices, calling long-distance — just to laugh, simply to celebrate, to be the front line in each other’s rescue squad.

i once feared that the older one — long the only one — would be all alone after we’d gone. i know now, i pray now, that they’ll long have each other’s company — shared stories, shared love, unbreakable bond.

and so, on the brink of that second sunday in may that honors motherhood, i find myself sated. i need no toast points ferried to bed. no violets clumped in a vase. i don’t even need a hand-drawn card. i’ve lived and breathed a year i never expected. in the short story of my life there will always be this one radiant whirl around the sun.

and that’s more than i’d ever have dreamed when someone once showed me the flickering spot on the ultrasound, the one they said was his heart, very much alive. the one that ever since has quickened the pulse of my own. my very own metronome, come home, all in the name of pure love.

happy blessed day of mothering, to all who mother in the infinite ways of that certain brand of loving. to my own mama, and the mother of my heart, the one i was gifted through marriage. may your days be filled with the knowing that the children you birthed simply adore you. and may the memory of the mamas who birthed you, and loved you, fill your hearts on this day of honoring a mama’s rare love.    

what one gift do you wish for, what one unimaginable gift? or have you found it already?

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….

never enough…

dispatch from 02139 (in which we’ve returned “home” from our swoop down the eastern seaboard — a grand thanksgiving repast in new york city, in the brownstone at 94th and lex we have come to know and love for its grace (and wild rice salad, and indian corn pudding, and oven-browned brussels sprouts), followed by a zip through the lincoln tunnel to one fair haven, and my tall fellow’s ancestral home, the 1789 gardener’s cottage where, to this day, his heart ticks at its fullest, its soundest)…

i should have mastered this. should have figured this out. should have, should have, should have.

but i haven’t.

not when it comes to saying goodbye, not when the goodbye is to my firstborn, grand thump in my heart, big brother to the little guy, the one who’s been away, off at college for nearly three whole semesters now.

you’d think i could get through it without the preamble rumble down in my belly, without the pounding in my heart, without the tears welling and spilling.

but i haven’t.

each time, i swear, it feels like someone is unplugging a cord that keeps my glow up and glowing. that has something to do with how i breathe. that puts the purr in my heart.

each time, in the hours before, as i start to feel the yanking, the turning and twisting of parts deep inside, as i start to picture the hours and days ahead without him, without the unspooling of conversation that comes, unexpected, as i chop in the kitchen, as i fold laundry, as i tie my shoes and head out for a stroll, i start to see the color draining away.

i start to feel empty all over again.

i think back to the days of villages, when a mother and son would never be farther than a few cottages away, down behind a waist-high stone wall, through an arched timbered doorway, in a room where embers on the hearth burned orange, persimmon and red.

i wonder why, nowadays, mothers and children need live miles and miles, whole ZIP codes, away.

oh, of course, i settle back into my rhythms. get used to plowing through the day without the flash of his million-watt smile. without dinners fueled by his stories. (fact is, i don’t mind, not one little bit, seeing his bunk smooth and unrumpled. don’t miss the volcano of clothes he spills on the bedroom floor.)

we left the boy back in new york city. he’s a man now. my last glimpse of him was under a streetlight at the corner of 94th and lexington avenue. he filled out his shetland sweater, his chest now strikingly, breathtakingly, the shape and size and velocity of my own papa’s. a chest i always loved. a chest that made me feel safe against the world. and now that chest belongs to my son, my sweet boy, my strapping 6-foot-3 chunk of a man.

as i stepped back from his hug, from his long arms, broad shoulders, soft hands, i felt the pull like stretching of dough. i, into the distance. he, into the thick of his life. a whole weekend before him, a weekend with his beloved cousin and aunt, a weekend romping through the best of new york, a new york i’ll never see.

fact is, it’s his life he lives now. whole chapters and verse distant to me. unknown. uncharted.

as it should be. as it’s meant to be.

but that does not make the parting of mother and child one drop easier. not for this mother anyway.

it’s not that i want him tucked by my side. God, no. this is why and how i’ve raised him — to spread his arms wide as wide can be, to wrap in as much and as deep as he can, and then to soar high.

it’s just that along with that soaring comes the fact that mama bird’s back in the nest, or up on some other limb, watching the sky, watching the loop-de-loops. wings on alert, ready to spread, to enfold, in case there’s a fall, a need to harbor, to shelter again.

and that airspace between mother and child, that life space, it just seems to take — every time — getting used to.

i always think, i’ve never my fill of him. never enough of his stories. never enough of his heart. never ever enough.

and then, not long after i’d swallowed my goodbyes, i watched my own tall fellow, the one i married, say goodbye to his mama, down in fair haven, on the jersey shore. and i wondered if she too always feels it. that it’s never enough. that one more breakfast together. one more walk to the river. one more, one more, would finally fill the hole.

but truth is, i think it’s a hole that will never be filled. it’s a wanting that goes un-sated.

it’s a yearning, a hunger, a please-come-back that lies at the heart of deep love. most especially, at the heart and soul of mother love.

who in your life do you never ever get enough of? 

photo way above is my boys, big and little, plotting their flag-football moves in a game against the cousins, played on the lot behind the tall fence at hunter college on new york’s upper east side. i can’t get enough of watching the two of them entwine the whole of their lives…. 

photo below is my firstborn at his ebullient best.

happy blessed season of thanks, and beginning of advent, the season of waiting…..and now i am off to a long day of writing….classes wrap up in the next couple weeks. where did that first semester go???

humpty dumpty powder and other tricks of motherhood

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

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

sometimes, they’re bumps.

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

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

you need your mama to put you together again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

no wonder he came home sun-browned and skinny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but he made it. he did it.

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

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

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

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

of fatted calf and endless tide…

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

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

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

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

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

they duly nod. they understand the shorthand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

under the wire

at some point, in all my years of imagining, in all my years of trying to wrap my feeble brain around the hard-core notion that my babies would one day grow old enough to pack up their belongings and head off toward so-called higher education, i’m certain i once had visions of pitching a tent just outside the dorm, maybe off in the bushes, where not everyone would notice.

maybe i could rig up a pulley, slide up trays of OJ and tea, from just outside the window. maybe i could doze in the honeysuckle, but be within earshot if the boy ever took sick. or stayed up too late. maybe i could fool everyone into thinking i was just another bushy-haired varmint, burrowed there where the earth met the great gothic wall.

but then, in real time, the boy i love, my firstborn, he up and did leave for college, and i knew well, knew from the very first instant i saw him leap from the car in the deep of night to grab his key from the campus police (where, due to impending hurricane, all keys had been moved), that this was his landscape, this was his place to stretch and grow and discover and deepen. this was his canvas.

and, for the first time in our deeply tethered existence, i didn’t belong.

i remember quite precisely how much that stung, the feeling of being pushed some distance away. oh, i know that’s the way it’s meant to be, but i can’t say that it didn’t take some rubbing of salve to the wound. i clung to the balm that the closer we’d been, the harder the push needed to be.

and i waited it out.

i swallowed hard the day on the phone when he said it might be better if we not make the trip for parents weekend. after all, he reasoned, he’d soon be home for thanksgiving. i’m pretty sure, once we hung up, i sat down and cried. but i didn’t let on. i just prayed without end.

and once he was home, indeed, it was just like the old days — me, laughing so hard at his stories and antics i could barely chop through an onion without fear of surrendering a digit to a sharp and flailing knife. him, curling up in an armchair the very last night he was home, asking if please, could i stay up and talk for a few more hours.

deep in the winter, when i was scraping the pit of my soul, trying to decide if i should leave my long-loved newspaper life, i dangled one dazzling dream in front of my weary eyes: i’d take a trip, all by my lonesome, to visit the boy who i love, to absorb this new world that was his.

that would be my hallelujah valedictory tour: to walk, arms looped elbow-to-elbow, under the tree limbs, through the quad, in the new england town whose night sounds are his now.

but then, abruptly without a paycheck, i convinced myself i couldn’t afford it. couldn’t afford one sweet slice of heaven on earth.

and then, suddenly, it was spring.

for weeks, as the trees turned lacy and green, i was getting reports, eye-witness reports, from all sorts of friends who’d stumbled upon him, friends who’d swung through that new england town as they took their own babies, now juniors in high school, on that modern-day rite of spring, the spring-break college tour, in which you pile as many campuses as you can into your five-day cross-’em-off-the-list itinerary.

why, they’d bumped into him in libraries. shared pizzas with him. taken him out for feasts without end. and with every encounter, came the glowing accounts: how happy he was. how, wherever he went, he was greeted with shouts of great joy. how at ease he appeared, most of all. how he certainly seemed to be thriving.

with every report, my itch grew and grew: i needed my own first-person account. never again, i told myself, could i catch this first year unfolding. it was all slipping swiftly away.

and as i looked at the calendar, i knew i was running out of weekends.

a not-so-secret truth about me is that i am, through and through, a homebody. plane tickets and rental cars, and getting up at wee hours to make flights and drive through parts unknown. these are not a few of my favorite things.

but, more than anything, there is a boy i love. and he is beaming these days.

and, as a mother who was there in the darkest hours, as a mother who held him tight so many nights in the kitchen when the tears wouldn’t stop, as a mother who whispered in his ear time after time that some day it would be a glorious thing to be him, a boy forever wise beyond his years, as that very mother i needed to take this all in for myself.

i needed to trace all his joy — his abundant new landscape — into the contours of my heart.

the so-called reason for this last-minute trip, the one, yes, i’ll be taking tomorrow, is that there is a championship rowing regatta, and his boat — undefeated for the season — is seeded no. 1, meaning that for the very first time in his not-so-athletic life, he stands a chance of (shhhhh…) not being crushed in heartbreaking defeat. and i stand a chance of hollering my lungs out, swatting back tears, there on the shores of lake quingsigamond.

but the real reason i’m waking up at 3 in the morning, tiptoeing out to the cab in the dark, leaving spelled-out instructions for the little one’s 48 hours without me, is as simple as simple can be: all i want is to be there.

all i want is to walk the paths where my firstborn so easily trods. to catch the dappled light on my own face, as it has dappled his all these days, weeks and months. to look into the faces of a sea of kids who know my boy by his name and his joy. to absorb the geography that is his now. i want to smell it, taste it, hear it, touch it, commit it to full-body memory.

it’s the very last day of classes tomorrow. his freshman year ends in less than a week. i am getting there just under the wire.

lucky for me, i’m married to a man whose motto is one i still need to work on: “98 percent of life is just showing up.”

i think he knew, without me saying a word, just how close i’d come to talking myself out of the trip once again. i’d come up with 58 reasons why it made more sense to stay home. but he gently and firmly kept me on course. just this morning i found he’d typed out a whole road map to steer me through what might have been bumps along the way: which concourse i’d need to trek to, how to pick up the rental car, the tricky turns on the road to the college. he even made sure i’m staying at the bed-and-breakfast across the lane from emily dickinson’s house.

and once again i am learning: life is ripest, is sweetest, if you dare to take a front-row seat, and not keep watch from the shadows.

even if it means you slip in right under the wire.

just so you get there, where you can take it all in, body and soul. and forever.

so there you have it: i am past the mid-century mark, and still i must talk myself out of my comfort zone, and into the halls of courage. it’s a funny thing how we all have our stumbling places. what propels your courage? what gets you up the mountains of your life?

the magic of mexican fried steak

it’s not happened often, but every once in a while, a boy runs out of gas. tank drained. big empty. not one ounce left.

and so, you tuck the boy in bed. even when he’s longer than the old twin bed. even when his past-noon* feets dangle over the edge.

you tuck him in and let him sleep and sleep and sleep.

you worry about his weary self. you check on him, from time to time, just as when he was a dimpled little boy. you touch his brow. and when you’re sure he’s in a deep, deep sleep, you kiss him on the stubbled cheek.

while he dreams the morn away, you wend your way to the butcher shop. you browse the steaks, the marbled slabs of muscle. you pluck one that’s on a bone.

you decide that in the hierarchy of mother’s magic potions, you are well beyond the need for oatmeal, you’ve climbed the charts to up where red meat looms. only cure that’s surer is one involving hypodermic needles. and needles make you queazy, so you stick to steak and its soul-restoring powers.

this is wise, because when you dare to rouse the sleeping man-boy, you have arsenal in your defense. you have new york strip to dangle.

why, you’ve seen the circus trainers do the same: dangle steak in front of cats, big cats, cats with killer teeth, to turn them into docile kittens.

not that any boy i know would growl or snarl or bite my head off. but when awaking worn-out, on-empty man-boy, i find a steak is handy.

and so on the edge of bed i sat, whispered words of red meat. i saw the smile spread across his lovely face. i saw the eyelids flutter open.

“if it’s too much,” i said, “we can go with oatmeal.”

ah, no, he answered rather sprightly. “au contraire. quite the opposite.” a steak, he said, was in his dreams.

but not just any steak: a mexican fried steak, was what he had in mind. so, with the click of that magic phone that coughs up all the answers, he typed in spanish words, came up with the abuela’s path to steak perfection, or in this case milanesas empanizada. that is, mexican fried steak.

with one swift leap, he was out of bed and down the stairs. he was talking bread crumbs, garlic, egg bath. red meat. meat so red i swear it moo’d.

we put our little heads together, he and i: grabbed a loaf of challah. swiped off the shelf the dusty mini-processor, a chopping-blending whiz my adopted jewish grandma gave me once upon a time.

we splitzed in bread. we added cloves of garlic. we inhaled. we sighed aloud.

we cooked our way to cure. we shook in cumin, poured in salt, cracked pepper. for good measure we added a little packet of something called “milwaukee avenue steak seasoning,” a smoky rub named for a windy-city thoroughfare where you can’t help but stumble over steaks of every stripe and cut.

“it’ll be chicago mexican fried steak,” declared the sous chef, smiling down on me.

and so, through that alchemy that is the holy work of kitchens, with a little splitzing, the cracking of two eggs, and the bathing of that steak, first in yolky goop and then in silken challah-garlic-cumin-milwaukee crumbs (that sous chef dabbed on quite a blanket there of crumbs), we turned the noontime into one of pure true joy.

we were cooking side-by-side. we were laughing, leaping out of sizzling oil’s way. for that deeply adorned steak, what with its eggy under-garments, and its crumby top-dressing, it was dropped in pool of hot corn oil, and it was turning into resurrection breakfast, served at 12:15 on what would have been a schoolday, restoring life to the once-nearly lifeless.

i never cease to marvel at the powers that rise from stove or oven. how what goes on there truly fills our pores, our weary bones. and most of all the tickers deep inside.

by lunchtime’s end, as the man-boy rubbed the last red drop of beefy juice right off his plate, as he sipped the last of his orange juice, he was joyful once again. he was ready, one more time, to take a lap on the track called life.

i rinsed the plate. i put away the fixings.

and i whispered a thank-you prayer to the abuela who’d led us to the restoration grotto, where miracles come to those who wield the fry pan.

* “past-noon” referring to the size of a foot is a favorite family expression, coined by a state-street shoe salesman who once measured my husband’s size 13s and declared, “oh, you’re past noon,” meaning higher than 12s. we have loved that phrasing ever since. and now two of three boys around here are past noons. and one is approaching as swiftly as he can…

what foods in your arsenal hold the holy cure? for the days when those you love can barely make it from the bed? and why do you think the kitchen is one room that holds such mystic powers??

oh, because we’d never keep a cure from you, here’s abuela’s milanesas de res empanizadas, as translated from the original.

ingredients:
1 / 2 Kilo of beef for breading Steak (that’s just about a pound, people)


2 eggs 
Bread for breading (we used three-day-old challah)


Ground Pepper 
Salt 
Oil
(we added a dash of cumin, two cloves garlic, and a few shakes of milwaukee avenue steak seasoning, a heavenly smoky rub from the spice house in evanston, ill.)

preparation:
for perfection, you want to toss bread, garlic, and seasonings into mini food processor. splitz, or blend, in pulses till the aroma makes your knees wobble, and you consider stuffing fistfuls straight to your mouth, skipping the steak altogether.

Season the steak with salt and pepper. 

(you’ll want two bowls: one for eggs, one for bread crumbs; this is a two-bowl process, although abuela won’t tell you so.)

The eggs are stirred well with a fork, and the steaks are passed in the egg, then go through the bread crumbs and fry very well on both sides. 

Served and garnished with lettuce, tomato slices, onion slices.

you feel better already, now don’t you?

freeze frame

i am holding onto moments, freezing frames, as if compiling a loop of kodacolor film i will hold, rub my thumbs along, raise up to the light, memorize, when he is gone.

i am stopping at the edge of his room, soaking in the tableau–the jumbled socks, the soggy towel–knowing that in half a year, there will be no messy room.

i am driving to his school, climbing stairs, entering the gallery where his art hangs on the wall. i am standing, neck tilted back, looking up, eyes wide, soaking in the art, his words, his name on the label on the wall.

i climb downstairs, take my seat in the dim-lit auditorium, look toward the stage, see the curl of his bass, the slick-down curls of his own head, still wet from the shower after rowing.

i lock my eyes on his silhouette in the darkness, as the stage lights come up from behind, as i study that head that i have held, have known, since the hour when i reached for him, newborn, and took him in my arms.

nearly 18 years i have loved him more than anything, have been a player in the story of his life. have known the scenes, most every one. and now, the ones i enter into, i hold onto in my mind, in my heart, as i commit to memory, yes, but even more to soul, the whole of this chapter of mothering. of being the moon to his orbit, his every day rotation.

i hear the drumbeat in the background. soft at first, muffled, but getting louder by the day. as if the dial’s being turned.

the last this. the senior that. final season.

two months and two weeks till graduation. all around me, high school swirls. he swirls. my firstborn, love of my life.

i pore over each and every frame. take time. stop, in mid-conversation, as he lies, stretched out at the end of a long day, reaches for my popcorn, tells me silly stories. i stop and marvel. take in each syllable, but witness too the quirks and gestures i have known for so very many years. the way he taps his thumb, crosses his leg and kicks his foot.

i marvel at the mere fact that at the end of these long days we can unspool together, i can hear in real time, without phone line or typed email. i can, for a few more short months, take in his life in 3-D, full-plane topography.

and so, as if storing for the future, for the days when he won’t be here, won’t be coming home soon. for the days when i ache to see his shining eyes, when i’ll give anything for a jumbled pair of sweaty socks to be dropped across his room…..

i am gathering the frames, the moments of his wholeness, one facet at a time. i am doing what we do when someone we love is leaving, and we are making room inside our hearts to store the memories, the sense, the wholeness.

i am holding onto time as i feel it slipping through my fingers. i am scaffolding my heart for when it’s aching, and these days are no longer……

the window up above, with the candles and the russian cross, that is one of will’s six photos in the art show. or it’s a part of a photo, taken at a louis sullivan russian orthodox church on chicago’s west side. i sat up in the choir loft as will clicked away in the jewel-box of a church, where sunlight played on golden threads and gold-painted doors.

as i try to wrap my head around this leaving, around this chapter coming to a close, i can’t help but reach for words, to try to shade in the outlines. i know there are those who’ve walked this way, did the letting go settle in slowly? did you keep watch as the time drew nearer? or did it come up from behind and catch you unawares?

long walks and talks that never end

the end of the long hard story that was junior year of almost college is that, well, it ends.

ends any hour now, actually.

already is gliding toward close, is pressure cloud lifting, is window for words.

words, for my sweet boy and i, are the long-tested glue that hold us, cement us, keep our hearts in connection.

that boy and i have spent long long hours, over the years, deep in the forest of words.

we’ve climbed down to the side of a brook, watched the light dapple through leaves. savored the joy, pure delight, the swapping of stories. we’ve hiked into the deep, plenty of times, marveled at the heft of the tree trunks, the length of the shadows, the sound of the silence except for our words. once or twice, we’ve found ourselves lost, at the end of a trail. or so it seemed, as we pushed back the brush, searched for the sliver of clearing that would show us the way.

i don’t remember when, really, the long talking started. i do remember a young boy, maybe four at the time, walking in circles, unspooling his thoughts as i stood there and listened. we lived in a house with a square kitchen island, and that was the mooring, it seemed, around which he strode and he thought.

i remember the stairs, the ones that rose as if floating on air, no backs and no sides, just up. or down, with precipitous drop. i remember sitting there, for hours on end, watching the slant of the sun as it fell on his face. i remember the tears. i remember the stories. i remember the questions.

i remember the nook in his room, the slant of the roof right over our heads. i remember the leaves of the trees, brushing up against glass. how his room was a perch. a loft for high thoughts. i remember playing with blocks and towering stories.

as far back as i can remember, the boy and i have lived with our hearts inside out. little to hide. no words not allowed.

i suppose i set out to be the sort of mother who always had the “open for business” sign on the door. and in our house, the telling of story, the landscape of heart, is most serious business.

junior year, though, got in the way.

oh, the stories we started to tell. but then, oops, we cut ourselves off. knew we couldn’t go round that bend. not with math books and junior themes, faulkner and fdr twiddling their thumbs, up on his desk.

so for the last couple of months, too often, we clamped it. tightened the lid of the jar, lest stories begin. lest we get lost on a miles-long hike back to the woods that we love, the woods of the words.

the one short jaunt we’ve allowed, on all of these nights of late-night study, is our walk in the dark. around the “big block,” we call it. a study break. a bedtime preamble, literally. for me that is. for him, there’ve been too many nights with no bed in sight, but that’s over now, almost.

he can sleep all he wants.

and we can talk all we want.

just last night we went for our walk. and when we got to the very last corner, the one that turns us toward home, he pointed left, away from our house, deeper toward story.

i indulged. we kept turning corners, away from our house, for a good extra half hour.

oh, there were stories to fill every step. right up to the end, right up to the stoop in front of the door.

and oh, it felt fine to be back in the business of endlessly tilling our hearts.

my sweet boy and all of his stories are back. the long year is over, is ended.

all i need now, for the summer ahead, is a thick pair of soles for miles and miles of story.

it is a blessing, i know, to march by the side of a boy of 16–nearly 17–who still finds reason to walk with his mama, talk to his mama. sometimes, in the dark, i take his elbow, to keep from tripping over cracks in the sidewalk. the top of my head comes just to his shoulders. we’re quite a walking pair, little mama and her towering lad. oh, what a gift to take on the darkness with a boy of long stride, and long story.
what’s your preferred mode for soaking up stories with the someones you love?

teaching to see

he rolled out of bed the way he usually does: somersault off the pillow to sprawled on his back at the end of the mattress, head dangling, flopping like some sort of upside-down rag doll, not too far from the ground. a perfect inverted perch, he decided, for keeping watch out the window.

that’s when he called me. “papa is out on the roof. he’s hopping around. i think maybe he’s looking for breakfast.”

papa, for those who’ve not hung in this house maybe so long, is not the little one’s name for the tall guy with tortoise-rimmed glasses. it was not he who was hopping around on the roof, although i too would have come running for that. rather, it was the red bird, papa cardinal, a character here who goes by only one name.

after broadcasting every breath papa was taking, out there on the roof that juts just below the window through which he was watching, the little one reached for the ledge. or maybe i reached there first. the point was, one of us reached for and grabbed the binoculars.

suddenly, the boy hanging there with his curls topsy-turvy, wanted to learn how to look through the little glass circles that, through the wizardry of optics alone, bring the world as close as the end of your nose.

as i tried–it’s clumsier than you would imagine, believe me–to line up the circles, tried to narrow then widen the space in between so it fit the very same space on the face that is his, as he attempted to make it all clear, and not blurry, not too close, not too far, not staring down at the gutter, but trying to get that ol’ bird in his lens, i realized really i was teaching the boy how to see.

how to regard. how to watch. how to take in the world without any words.

how to notice the pinhole there on the side of papa’s small beak. how to study the feathers he fluffs when it’s cold. how to see the ballet of the leaves in the trees as they shudder there in the november wind.

he was, for a while, finding it hard. the bird was nowhere in sight. all he saw were the nail heads there on the shingles.

not quite the subject of choice for intro to looking, a beginner’s class in the fine art of things to do with your eyes.

ah, but once he got papa there in the cross hairs, he didn’t move. didn’t flinch. just froze like a boy with a bird in the palm of his hand. which, almost, it was.

he might still be there now, only the clock nudged us on, the clock and the notion that school had a bell that soon would be ringing.

but, like clockwork, each morning since, he somersaults off the end of the bed, grabs the looking lens from there on the ledge, and begins again to scan the sky, and the trees, and whoever decides to land on the roof.

he’s even tried it at night. though it’s a little bit hard to make out a star with a mere binocular lens. i explained that’s where the telescope comes to the rescue, but that would be the next class in the series, and we’re only just fumbling with this.

last night, drying off from the bath, he explained that really he’d like to see clear to africa. he was hoping perhaps he could raise the lens to his eyes and see faraway.

far, faraway, he explained. he’d like to see maybe a lion or cheetah. and surely a tiger.

“and some day, when i’m 7 or 8,” he informed, “i’m gonna get real binoculars and try to find any sorta kinda nest. so i can look at a fox’s nest, or a bird’s nest, or a squirrel’s nest.

“i would really like it,” he went on, sliding a leg into his red flannel pajamas, “if papa cardinal would just stand there, and didn’t move completely.”

it needn’t be exotic, i’m thinking he knows, for what you see through your lens to be utterly gripping.

i couldn’t be more tickled that he’s taking so deep a fancy to a sense that can take him so far, a sense that will bring more wisdom and glory than he or i or any of us, really, can ever imagine.

to see is to know, is to understand, is to absorb.

to see is to take in, from the thinnest strand of a spider’s web laden with dew to the last dying ember of a star as it streaks through the cosmos, the whole of God’s breath.

and i mean that without the d. although the breadth and the breath aren’t far from the same. but if we consider the whole of creation one deep exhale from the in and the out of something like lungs wholly divine, then really it’s all, well, supremely breathtaking.

and it is not every day that any one of us gets a chance to instruct in using the eyes for all that they’re meant to take in: the way someone fidgets a spoon while making a point at the table. the color of sky as the last beams of the day paint it a pink you’ll never forget. the glint of the moonlight on a pine branch heavy with snow. the gleam in the eye of someone you love.

and, oh, what of the things we can’t teach, the ones we only can pray they learn on their own: how not to miss the twinge of the hurt deep in the heart; the sparkle of love blooming; the look of intent, of paying attention; how to notice a soul draining toward empty.

really so much of it is only just seeing by feeling. it’s braille, after all. so much of the seeing that matters. it comes through the gift of the eyes, but also the touch of the skin and the skip of the heart.

but, alas, in these mornings of teaching to see, i realize i am bound, i am tethered to only the lens bobbing there on the end of the cord that slips over his head.

the rest of the teaching to see i will teach without lenses. i will teach, day after day, for as long as i’m here. i will teach my children to look and look closely.

i will teach them the glory of God is there through the lens. but they must open their hearts, as well as their eyes, to soak in the sights.

it is the often unnoticed to which i must teach them to pay the closest attention.

the five senses, most of the time, come already installed. but not always, and in the absence thereof we notice how much of the world we get or we miss through the eyes and the ears, the palate, the skin and the nose. and even in cases where all senses are up and running, still there is refining and learning sure to be done. if we pay close attention. far as i know, it’s a lifelong dedication. did someone or something teach you, unforgettably, the fine art of seeing, of watching, of looking quite closely? what are some of the fine points of life you’d so miss if not for the grace of your eyes in the first place?

today is the day of the birthday of my sweet cousin julie. and tomorrow, my mother, the one who i realize, so many mornings as i sit to start typing, has informed so much of the way i see through my lenses onto the world. to both, i send the deepest of blessings and prayers for a year just ahead that is filled with great sights. and the knowing, deep in both of their hearts, that you are so loved. happy day of your birth. be full of joy.