pull up a chair

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

Tag: mother love

coming home to an empty house and other things that matter…

inviting in sacred

i was dripping from the shower, rubbing the fluffy towel around my ears, when i thought i heard the very last sound you want to hear at 6:15 in the morning: “r-r-r-ring, r-r-r-ring!”

the phone at this dark hour is never the nobel committee calling to say, “you won the prize!”

and i, being of celtic root, always suspect disaster. “oh no, this must be awful,” i muttered with certainty, as i leapt down two steps at a time to grab the phone, to take the blow i knew was coming.

“good morning, good morning,” came the first four words. and, then, my mother’s voice went on to tell me this: “i’ve been worrying.” (no news, there; she and i have a special knack in that department.) “i’ve been thinking about tonight, and i don’t want T coming into an empty house after soccer. i think i should skip your book thing. i would love to be there. but he shouldn’t be alone when he comes home. i should be there to give him dinner, keep him company.”

and in those short few words i heard, once again, love defined by my mother.

“don’t want him coming into an empty house…he shouldn’t be alone.”

i added those few words to the lines already etched across my heart.

the ones that include:

“i always felt the most important job i could do was take care of the family so the rest of you could go out and change the world.”

and: “once your father died, i told God i was dedicating the rest of my life to however God needs me.”

in my mother’s book of life, the litany of love reads like this: clothes pulled from the dryer, folded, stacked and delivered to your bedroom chair; hot dinner, complete with cooked frozen vegetables; houseplants given weekly dose of fluids; children driven — without grumble — to where they need to be; soccer matches attended — even if they’re in kingdom come at 7 in the chilly morning.

my mother, who quietly puffs her chest at the fact that she was the only one of her circle of friends deemed worldly enough and smart enough to date my father (this, by virtue of the fact that she subscribed in 1953 to forbes magazine), is not one to knock you over with pythagorean theorems, or deep analysis of the threat of ISIS on the world stage. she will, however, quote you lines from emily dickinson, or robert browning, till you beg her to stop. and she will recount every feather she’s spotted since daybreak in the boughs outside her window and at her 18 backyard feeders (that’s a tad of an exaggeration, the feeder count, but i told you i have irish roots; embellishment is our mother tongue).

and she will quietly, wordlessly, go about the business of taking care of your house — or mine. because to my mama it is in doing that we love.

it is in wiping dry the dishes i’ve left dripping in the rack. it is in ferrying her little blue plastic cooler to our front door every tuesday, always bringing along a zip-lock bag of this or that, the ingredients for dinner pre-measured at her house, in her kitchen to bring to mine. she’s driven 9.62 miles to mix, to stir, to crank the oven, to set the table, and not forget the salt and pepper shakers. she makes a nice hot meal, circa 1970 — the prime of her cooking years when she had six hungry mouths to feed, not counting her own, of course not counting her own.

my mother is not alone in stitching the tapestry of life with petit point, those fine-grained stitches not grand in scale, not at all, but the very threads that hold us all together, that make our lives just a notch more beautiful, more breathable.

talk to anyone who’s dying. listen in on what they tell you matters most: curling up with a child — and a picture book — pressed against each other’s curves. sitting one minute longer on the edge of the bed while tucking someone in at night. spooning one extra dollop of butter in the mound of mashed potatoes. hearing the click of the front door that signals someone’s home. catching the moonlight drool across the bedclothes.

have you ever heard how hard the dying pray, for just one more round of gathering the tiniest glories of a day?

so, last night, my mama was not in the rows of a charmed bookstore, one with paned windows and oriental rugs and books bursting from the walls. she did not listen to her only daughter read from the pages of her just-published dream-come-true. (she’s not yet been to a reading, so it’s not like she took a pass because she’d already sat there drinking it all in.) no, my mama was home to turn the hall light on. to press her hand to the door handle when a tired fist knocked. she was there to warm up the orange chicken she’d made two nights before. to scoop out peas in butter sauce.

and there she sat, with the boy we all love — so he wouldn’t be alone, while his mama was off reading, and his papa was far away gathering notes for a newspaper story.

my mama stayed home at my house because she knew — without words — that it was the purest form of love that she could ladle out for all of us — not least of all for me, always torn when pulled away from where i, too, know i most belong.

my mama, once again, taught us with so few words that there’s no headline-grabbing heroism in a certain brand of loving. but in the end, the very end, those small acts of utter selfless majesty are the surest holy gospel we could ever know.

and it’s why — to this very day — i understand so deeply that i’m most at home, most solidly rooted, when i too partake of the tender acts of stitching a certain kind of attention into the daily cloth of those i love so truly deeply.

dear mama, you are loved. by all of us whom you so ceaselessly love.

what truths did your mama teach you? 

p.s. as of tuesday this week, october 7, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door is a living-breathing published book. amen to that. 

strong women: a reflection on mothering

mother's day mass

the church i most call home — old st. pat’s in downtown chicago — the one that long ago told my beloved mate and i — he, jewish, and i, catholic — that “it’s the same God. different language. go for it.” and that has blessed and been home to our two boys, raised at the front lines of the jewish-catholic dialogue in a sunday family school that steeps jewish-catholic children in both their faith traditions. that beloved church asked me to step to the altar last night, at the annual mass for mothers, and speak from the heart, to give the meditation after communion. the theme, simply: strong women.

so pull up a pew, and listen in. this is what i said, huddled behind the lectern, tucked alongside a great tall statue of the blessed virgin mary (who i believe kept my knees from shaking, and whom i nearly knocked over with one of my sweeping broken-arm gestures. egad!), with a barricade of trumpeting potted easter lilies rising in a thicket between me and the flock of gorgeous women who filled the pews. with one deep cleansing breath, here goes:

I think maybe I thought it was going to be like babysitting. Only without having to peek out the window to see if the grownups were pulling in the driveway. And without having to race around the house — in the two minutes between the crunch of the tires in the drive and the turn of the key in the back door — hiding evidence of the pillow fight that made the little darlings — oops! — an hour late for bed.

And, maybe I thought, when it was your turn to be the grownup, at least you got to pick the names of the little rascals you’d be watching.

For the next 20 years. And then some.

Nope, no one could have truly clued you in, into this life leap that catapulted you into motherhood. No one could have sounded loudly enough the early warning system. No one could have made you believe, no matter how many times they whispered it in your ear: This will be the hardest wholesale rewiring of who you thought you were in the world. And it will test your every instinct for survival, for faith, for long-distance endurance.

Fact is, you were hardly alone — though you might have felt you were stranded on a godforsaken island — when, in those early days, you were totally flummoxed by the wee swaddled bundle, the one who weighed in at less than a sack of flour, for crying out loud (oh, and, yes, it did that too — cried out loud. Till you were certain the cops would be called, and you’d be revealed as not-ready-for-licensing in the maternal department).

Who would have feigned surprise, if, once or twice — or 100 times a week those first couple weeks — you’d strongly considered returning said bundle to the delivery room that delivered that babe in the first place?

After all, in the deep darkness of those late noisy nights, you’d figured it out, hatched your escape route: Come the next inky twilight, you’d just mosey back to the maternity ward, drop the squawky bundle at the nurse’s station, attach a post-it note that read something along these lines: “So sorry. This is way more than I ordered. You really should find someone better suited to the job. I’m afraid I’ll break/scar/ruin (insert your own disaster verb here) the little sweetheart.”

But then, in the next instant, when those matchstick-sized fingers curled into the fleshy folds of your neck, or clung to your breast as if you were the life raft (which you were), or when you inhaled a whiff of that newborn baby scalp, or marveled at the chubby thigh that was dimpled — and delicious — from the get-go, you surrendered all over again.

You felt that hot streak of mother love rise up from deep down inside, and you knew — even though you had not one clue how — that you were in this for the long haul.

And: There is no turning back.

No turning back from the toughest job you’ll never get fired from. Even when you swear to your best best friend that you really blew it this time.

No turning back from the job that promises to test all the parts of you that you were proud of, and all the other ones you’ve always known you were sorely lacking.

No turning back from the closest you might ever come to knowing what it means to be the first-response rescue squad, to save the gosh-darn day (even if all that means is that you find the lost cellphone just before you toss the dirty jeans into the sudsy washtub). To be the one and only who can soothe sobs, make the hurt go away, quell the queazy tummy.

Here’s a little noticed omission: If you flip through the dictionary, and dawdle in the M’s, you’ll find the definition for Motherhood severely lacking. You’ll find no mention of the resilience that’s required, or the capacity for your heart to triple in size, exponentially, year after year.

You’ll find not a word about the long nights of courage when the little numbers on the thermometer keep rising, and all you can do is walk in circles, draw the bath, climb in and pray.

You’ll read nowhere about the cavernous hours you spend pacing as the minute hand on the clock ticks round and slowly round, until the click at the door — the one you begged the heavens you’d hear before your heart pounded through your chest — the click finally comes.

You won’t see mention of the tossing-turning nights, the ones when you lie awake, playing and replaying the playground scene, the one your little one tearfully spilled into your arms, as you tucked him goodnight and he told you why he can’t go back to school. Ever.

No, motherhood in all its nooks and crannies can hardly be charted for all its dips and inclines, its shadows and, yes, its radiant graces.

To be a mother is to sign on for life. To take your seat in the front row of a love affair — a heart-to-heart entanglement — that unspools from inception, and knows no pause.

Some days, yes, you’ll be the teacher. But, more often, you’ll be the one who’s soaking up lessons you’d otherwise never have had the guts to tackle. And your little person, so often, will be the one who’s spilling wisdom, speaking truth, and doling out humility by the cupful.

Truth is: You thought you were loving to the outer limits of your heart, then, one dark afternoon you’ll never forget, you held your breath for one long hour while the doctor read the CT scan that would tell you if your kid’s spinal cord was severed, and during that hellish 60 minutes you’d already decided, so help you God, that you’d be the one to give him bed baths the rest of his life, and to sit by his pillow reading Hemingway and Twain and Homer and Joyce till the end of time, if that’s what it came to. And when the all’s-clear sign comes, you drop to your knees and swear to God you will never for an instant take for granted the messy kid who cannot, for the life of him, pick up the killer piles off his bedroom floor. And whose beautiful mind is the one piece of him you were not willing to surrender. Not even in your hour of deepest darkness.

And then, too soon, the day will come when you leave that kid on some leafy college quad, or watch her board the flight to boot camp, and your knees will shake, and your heart will feel like its cracking — so much so you’re tempted to drive to the ER, because maybe, you think, this is a real live heart attack, this pain that’s piercing through your chest — and you walk away — more alone than you ever knew you could feel — and you wonder where all the hours went, and if you taught the kid everything you really should have made sure she knew. And did you tell her often enough: I love you, just the way you are.

And you think back over the fevered nights, and the dawns when the retching at the toilet would not end. And the tears spilled over mean words hurled on the playground. And the countless negotiations you endured — bargaining for one more hour before curfew, one more text before lights out, one more bite of broccoli before you’re allowed up from the table.

And you ask yourself — how in the world you did it?

And you take a census of this woman you have grown to be, and you realize who you are is mightier than the fiercest wind, and tenderer than a balmy April’s breeze. You’ve weathered tornadoes of the heart, and sailed on interludes of giggles and long walks squeezing hands.

You’ve stood up to bullies and talked down the coach who tried to cheat your kid. You’ve defended and pleaded and apologized for the wrongs your kid did not intend. You’ve gone woozy when you spied the gash in your kid’s head, and held him down with kisses as they stitched him back together. You’ve melted into tears when the stranger called to thank your kid for sticking up for hers — in front of an entire lunch table, God bless him.

And you’ve gotten up in this blessed beautiful church to tell anyone who’d listen: The holiest job I’ve ever done, the one that soared my heart to heights that I’d have never known, the job that took my broken self and made me whole, it’s the sacred call to mothering.

And it is for the strong of heart. So help us Mother God. Amen.

the boys above, of course, are the boys i so love — a baker’s-dozen years ago almost….

i bring this to the table on one of those days — there are so many, aren’t there? — when it takes every ounce of every strength we didn’t know we have, to be all that we need to be for the children we so love. blessings to all who mother in all and every form…..

quick note: i just changed the title above (used to be “a reflection for mothers”), because i believe in all my heart in the distinction between mothers, a defined set, and mothering, a verb that includes all who mother in all its many many forms. to me mothering means to nurture, to embrace, to scaffold the ones we love, so they can find the wind beneath their wings. men mother. women mother. women of all ages. i’ve seen little girls mother.

so here’s the question: how would you define mothering? 

the view from inside one mama’s heart

brothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

just as i prayed so long ago….

thank God for the prayers that came true…

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

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

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

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???