Archive | May, 2013

Mom Solo

30 May

An evening of solo parenting, presented in three acts.

Got a traveling spouse? Or maybe one of you habitually works late? Or there’s only one of you on an all-the-time basis! Regardless of how you ended up there, it’s just you facing down the kid dinner hour, weeknight ablutions, and tuck in. This one’s for you.

Act 1: Feed heathen children.

I want to provide a homemade sit-down evening meal because apparently it makes children smart, and I am relying on these ones to support me in my dotage. But there’s only one adult eating, so I don’t want to make ambitious food that only I will appreciate. But I want there to be vegetables, because their presence on a dinner plate soothes my troubled parenting soul. “I did a lot of things wrong today, but at least I served vegetables.” But the vegetables need to be cunningly integrated in such a way that they get eaten without anyone noticing too much, because I have no stomach, heh, for a dinner battle, and nothing provokes a dinner battle in our household like a pile of unadulterated steamed kale.

I make some kind of simple, inoffensive pasta/frittata/soup/roasted/grilled dinner while the children loll in front of PBS Kids. Because oftentimes the best kitchen help is to find something quiet for the “helpers” to do outside of the kitchen.

So now the food that I’ve cobbled together with my own hands and my own goddamned expensive organic groceries is hot, it’s all served up, and I’m starving. I call the kids to dinner, reminding them to wash their hands. First, the storm of whining. Then, the footrace to the bathroom. The tripping, the crying, the high-pitched recriminations. I pour a glass of wine and take a long swallow.

The meal begins. “So, kids, let’s do Best and Worst parts of our day.”

9yo: “The best part of my day is I learned what the F word is.”

NAIVE ME (pretty sure she thinks it’s “feta cheese”): “Oh?”

9yo: “Yes. The F word is ‘Fuck.’”

6yo: “What?”

Me: “WHAT?”

9yo (smiling proudly, and wickedly): “Yes. It’s fuck. Annie told me on the bus.”

Me: “Fine. Well. What’s it mean?”

6yo: “Wait, what IS it, what did she SAY?”

9yo: “I don’t know.”

Me (triumphantly): “Then don’t say it. Never use a word unless you’re sure you know what you’re saying.”


9yo: “Well, what does it mean?!”

Me: “I’m not telling.”

Nailed it.

Act 2: Cleanse heathen children.

I’ve limped through the meal–”Mom, no offense, but this doesn’t taste as good as last time. What did you do?”–and now it’s time to attempt to get the piano practiced and the showers taken while I simultaneously do the dishes. It’s a tricky maneuver, but one that will yield blessed free time when I finally descend from the goodnight kisses. I fix in my mind an image of myself reclining on the couch, enjoying another glass of wine and a little light Facebooking, and I forge ahead. First, the storm of whining. Then, the footrace to the piano. The tripping, the crying, the high-pitched recriminations. With less patience than before I march in and growl and glower until things are on track. There is discordant plunking, there is steamy showering, the dishwasher is loaded, I’m working on the pasta pot. We’re only running 20 minutes behind schedule. The couch, the wine, it’s so close I can almost taste it. And that’s when the call echoes down the stairs.

“Moo-ooom? Can you come here? I forgot to tell you something.”

The something is that her head has been itchy again, which leads to a hurried investigation under the strong bathroom light, and a discovery of nits. RIGHT at bedtime. ALWAYS RIGHT AT FUCKING BEDTIME. MY HUSBAND HAS NOT BEEN HOME TO HELP A SINGLE FUCKING TIME THIS WHOLE FUCKING SCHOOL YEAR WHEN I FOUND A BUNCH OF NITS RIGHT AT FUCKING BEDTIME. (She didn’t learn fuck from me, I swear!)

Everybody cries. Everybody yells. Everybody gets combed and lathered with Cetaphil and blown dry like some horrible assembly line in a factory that makes nightmares (see this post for more info, sob.) It’s now an hour past bedtime. My knees are sore, my back is sore, my throat is sore from yelling. The kids are droopy and pouty and they look like miniature mad scientists with their stiff, bristly Cetaphil heads. Thank god it’s time for

Act 3: Tuck in heathen children.

“No books tonight, it’s too late. Just get into bed, please, I have a lot of laundry to do.”

First, the storm of whining, but one look at my face cuts it short. Finally, finally, good night kisses. Finally, finally, snapping out the bedside lights. Sitting in the dark next to my daughter, I pat her back and wish her a peaceful rest. And that’s when she sits up in bed and says, “I FORGOT TO DO MY SCIENCE HOMEWORK.”

The End. Seriously, let it end. Do days when you’re solo parenting have more hours in them, or what? Fuck.

Make that a double pink wine.

Make that a double pink wine.

Bunny Love

23 May

If it’s late spring it must be time again to get the farm box, and you know what that means: TURNIPS. Oh turnips, so grubby, so acidic, so darned turnipy. I’m a passionate vegetable lover and I barely tolerate them, to say nothing of those in my household who are less enthusiastic about side dishes anyway, i.e. everyone else. I had managed to use up the greens from our first couple of farm shares, but the bulbs were rattling around in the crisper getting ever less appealing. So I did what any social media junkie would do: I asked Twitter for advice. “Hive mind! I have a turnip emergency. Do you eat them? Do you LIKE them? If so, how do you prepare them? Help! HELP!” I got pretty standard suggestions–mash them with heavy cream and butter, roast them with salt and pepper, etc. One of my commenters joked, “Do you have a grandmother to call for advice? Turnips are grandmother food.” A difficult thing about grief is the way it can sneak up on you. I found myself tearing up over Twitter, because in that moment, a moment that took me by surprise because I’d never said it to myself just that way, I realized anew that I don’t have a grandmother to call anymore.

I never knew my mom’s mother, as she died before my parents were married, but this time last year I was singing at the sweet family funeral of my dad’s mother. Bunny was born in 1920, and she lived a long, productive, beautiful life. She served as an officer in the WAVES during World War II, and she was an art major, cattle farmer, sheep midwife, ardent conservationist recognized for her service, devoted gardener, crack tennis player, mother to eight healthy, happy boys, and grandmother to 23 adoring grandchildren, of whom I am the eldest.

“Grandmother” conjures up the stereotype of a powdery old lady with time on her hands to spoil you. Bunny was an original. The farmhouse we visited frequently to see her was loud with boisterous dogs and stained red with Virginia clay. There were no fresh-baked cookies–the snacks at her house ran to dried apricots, with Wheat Thins for special occasions. She made a mean avocado and grapefruit salad, one I have tried endlessly to replicate, and can’t get quite right. She was brisk and cheerful and busy; I don’t remember her sitting down except to eat until she was well into her 80’s. She was also still driving to deliver Meals on Wheels in her 80’s. We used to tease that if she’d just stay home long enough someone might bring her a meal. She would swing by our birthday parties in her tennis whites, off to meet up with her foursome of ladies at the club. She didn’t often catch a performance of one of my school plays, as she and my grandfather were generally “in Ireland that weekend,” or something similar. In one of my favorite pictures of her, she’s fly fishing in waders and lipstick.

Growing up, holidays and family dinners were a crush of festive faces. Bunny never failed to give a squeeze and affectionate kiss, but there were flowers to arrange and people to feed and dishes to wash. I didn’t spend much time alone with her until I moved back to my hometown as a parent myself. That July it was just pregnant me and my two year old daughter in the new house, as my husband stayed behind for an extra month getting things organized. After a few weeks of sheltering from the scorching heat with a bored toddler and a huge belly, I confided in Bunny once when she buzzed by between errands that I was having a rough transition.

“Oh deary, I’m sure you are,” she said. “I remember it was a hard time when we moved from New York to the farmhouse in Virginia. We had 5 boys under the age of 10, and Steve, the youngest, was just 3 weeks old, and there was no electricity.”

“Oh my goodness,” I gasped, shamed and awed. “How in the world did you live through that?”

“I have no idea,” she twinkled. “It was so horrible I’ve forgotten the details.”

Once the kids were in school and I had a couple of mornings free each week, I volunteered to help her with a project. She was coming up on 90 years old, and she felt the pressure to put her papers and pictures into some kind of order so the family could make sense of things after her death. We worked through the jumble, sorting it into accordion folders marked by decade, just the two of us for a few hours a week, side by side in her quiet basement. We’d each enjoy a cup of the weak coffee she drank, thinned with skim milk. I loved to look over and see her absorbed in an old letter–a love letter from my grandfather, or a long college missive from her only son to proceed her in death. She’d read aloud passages from her diaries, like the one in which she described the birth of their fifth son–how the quiet time in the hospital with just the new baby and her husband was the first time in months they’d been able to talk, how she hoped that one day they might be blessed with a girl (spoiler alert, diary: wasn’t gonna happen.) I’d ask about an old picture, and she’d exclaim over how much she loved the suit she’d been wearing, how she’d had another one made the same but in rose, where she’d gotten her earrings, how they were heavy and uncomfortable (she always wore clip on, never pierced her ears.) I asked her about a snapshot from a beach vacation with friends when she would have been in her 70’s–the ladies are laughing into the camera, their arms draped around each other. Bunny went through each face, “She’s died of cancer, she has Alzheimer’s, she died the year after this photo was taken…” Bunny buried a lot of friends, but it’s a testament to her lovableness and zest for life that she was always making new ones.

I also got to witness small everyday moments in my grandparents’ marriage, going strong in its seventh decade. Bunny went to the gym 3 times a week, (AT 90), and her PT recommended rowing as a good core-strengthening exercise. My grandfather is an avid sculler, and had an erg for home use. She asked him to teach her how to use it, and I watched as he patiently, cheerfully walked her through the machine step by careful step. He’s a long-winded explainer, but she never rushed him, just listened respectfully. She wasn’t great with technology, but he didn’t condescend to her. I was struck by how polite they were to each other. After a farm and sons and two careers and countless joys and sorrows, their graciousness remained intact.

When Bunny was diagnosed with lung cancer, they thought she might have as long as a year, but it was over within a few months. In her final weeks she was laid up in a soft nest of pillows on a hospital bed in the retirement facility clinic, her twinkle muted but still in evidence. She was paid a steady stream of loving calls, and she turned to each visitor, even if she’d already seen you that day, even if she wasn’t feeling that hot, and clasped both of your hands, smiled into your eyes, and thanked you so much for being there. She made sure to say the things in her heart to each person, inhibitions falling away as time grew short. I saw her almost every day in her last weeks, and she never once failed to tell me that she was proud of me, that she thought my children were so special, that I was a great mom (and that she wasn’t sure she would have been a great mom to a girl, which amused me in its ridiculousness.) As her discomfort increased and her sickness deepened, she was purified by the pain, stripped to her essential self. I spent a night by her bed tending to her–I’m so glad I had that chance, as she died 2 nights later. She woke every hour or so, restless, uncomfortable. As she emerged into consciousness she would first ask, “Where is Jim? Is he all right?” After I assured her he was being looked after she would ask if it was morning yet, to gauge whether she’d made it through another night. Then she’d motion for a spoonful of ice, nibble it down and murmur, “Ah, bliss, bliss,” as the water cooled her throat. I’d apply a little lip balm, and she’d smack her lips appreciatively, then sigh as I smoothed her hair back. Once, she reached out, swept a piece of my bangs out of my eyes, and said softly, “You are so beautiful.” As the day dawned she asked me to raise the curtains and crank open the window. The fresh breeze blew against her skin and she closed her eyes and smiled. When she opened them again, she said, “Another day. It’s a wonder.” She paused, and then, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad, even when we don’t want to.”

They weren’t technically her last words, but they are ones I will always remember.

On the occasion of her engagement.

On the occasion of her engagement.

How she looked when I was a kid.

How she looked when I was a kid.

The picture that ran with her obituary.

The picture that ran with her obituary.

“Fun” Run

15 May

I’ve never felt like a particularly athletic person. I played sports growing up, including girl’s soccer from age 6 to age 14, and yet I’m not actually sporty. To this day, when I manage to catch a frisbee or kick a ball to my intended recipient I feel surprised and pleased. Well, lookee who didn’t trip! Look who’s a good l’il catcher!

I was content to be an adult who strolled lengthily and did intermittent yoga for the good of my back. A paddle-ball-but-only-at-the-beach kind of adult. But then, and I feel like this sentence appears at some point in every blog post I write, I had children. I was a dedicated and enthusiastic pregnant eater, and I gained 60 pounds with each pregnancy. Even though I nursed for over a year after each baby, I did not get back to my pre-baby weight, and damn you celebrity lady mags for suggesting that it’s just that easy. I hovered about 15 pounds up, at the threshold where you can’t justify buying new clothes because the stuff you have sort of fits, but you are uncomfortable all day long, and you have to un-button and un-zip your jeans after not just dinner, but lunch. Hell, breakfast. And actually there’s only the one pair of jeans you can get into in the first place.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. It appeared that actual exercise needed to be undertaken. So, even though the last time I had run a mile all at once on purpose was about 20 years before, I signed up for the Charlottesville Women’s 4-Miler Training Program. I took it slow jog by slow jog over a 4 month period with the help of the encouraging trainers. Crossing the 4-Miler finish line in September of that year could not have been a prouder moment for me. I ran! I ran FOUR MILES! BONUS: I was back in all of my pairs of jeans (except for the aspirational ones I bought in San Francisco, whatever, they don’t count.)

Since that successful first time, I’ve signed up to do the 4-Miler every year. First, for sentimental reasons, as a gesture to myself of how meaningful the experience of going from couch potato to running spud (SORRY) was to me. And second, because it’s a fantastic all-woman race raising funds for breast cancer research, and it’s just a lot of fun to run. And last September’s race was especially exciting for me, because my daughter was finally old enough, at 8, to officially sign up, train for, and run it with me!

I am, of course, concerned that both of my kids have good relationships with their bodies. Around here our party line is that if you eat sensibly and exercise regularly, whatever your body looks like is the way it should look. We hike together, eat family dinners, eschew Doritos, etc. But can I just say I’m more concerned about the way my daughter feels about her body than I am about my son? Getting her started early with running seemed like a good way to foster a feeling that she’s strong and capable. Plus, running is easy, all you really need is a pair of shoes and a spare half hour–I wanted her to see exercise as relatively simple to integrate into your routine.

Training for the race together was an adventure, sometimes in the literal sense. She struggled with some of the common GI issues runners can encounter, and we now know the location of every public bathroom within a 3 mile radius of our house. We ran/walked up the side of a foggy mountain in San Francisco. I got us lost in Acadia Park in Maine and we ended up running 4.5 miles when we were supposed to be running 2. Through it all, we, or more frequently she, talked about every single thing under the sun–that little head is full of the craziest, boringest, funniest thoughts!

The training was pure pleasure for me, but it had nothing on the transcendent joy of race day with my petite athlete. The huge crowd of women made her nervous, so she held tightly to my hand as we tried to find space to establish a comfortable pace. She ran every step of the course, four whole miles, a distance she’d only managed twice before the race. Her form of self-encouragement being smack talk, she kept up a continuous commentary: “They call this a hill? We’ve run up a MOUNTAIN, this is nothing!…This doesn’t feel like four miles, it’s so CINCHY!…I feel FANTASTIC!” When we came to the final 1/3 mile and could see the finish line, she shook her hand free of mine and said, “Let’s KICK IT!” and took off. We crossed in her best time ever, and I turned to her with tears in my eyes.

“That was so amazing!” I said. “Aren’t you PROUD of yourself?”

And she replied, “If by proud, you mean happy I NEVER have to do that again!!!”

Oh. Hmmm.

So here it is the next May, time to start training for this year’s race. I’ve casually floated running it together again a couple of times over the course of the year and always been shot down–”No way, I really don’t want to, I didn’t like it” etc. I thought maybe her attitude would soften over time, but no such luck. So I faced a dilemma. Ideally, this would be an activity she enjoys as much as I do. If I force her to exercise she will associate it with me, when the whole point is for it to seem like something it’s easy and fun to choose for herself. It’s her body, it’s her time and effort, it’s her decision, and she’s not into it. I should back off.

But, uh, the following is a transcript of the conversation we had on Mother’s Day.

Me: “So, the 4 Miler training starts soon.”

Her: “I don’t want to do it again, Mom. No way.”

Me: “Well, let’s talk about it, ok? It may be that we can work out some kind of deal, because I really want to do it with you again.”

Her: “Deal? Like what?”

Me: “I don’t know, I’m open to suggestions.”

Her: “How about the deal is you pay me 20,000 dollars to do it.”

Me: “Well, I don’t have 20,000 dollars, but how about I pay you 20?”

Her: “Really? You’ll PAY me?”

Me: “Yes. Yes, I will. If you train with me all summer and run the race again in September, I will give you 20 dollars.”

Her: “IT’S A DEAL.”

And that, folks, is grade A excellent fucking parenting.

That face totally says, "I'll thank you for this someday." Or it says, "20 bucks or bust."

That little face totally says, “I’ll thank you for this someday.” Or it says, “20 bucks or bust.”

This Old Hag

7 May

The most debilitating acting prop I’ve ever been assigned was a hand mirror. And I say this as someone who once spent 14 evenings climbing a rickety ladder to perch on a scaffold the width of a 2×4 while carrying a lit candle. Stage lights are famously bright and revealing, but I don’t generally have to study myself at close range while standing under them. For this show I not only had to stare at my face in the mirror on a well lit stage, I had to do so during a 10 minute freeze. No acting to distract me–my only job was to keep still. My eyes were free to roam critically over the caked-on foundation and blush, noting the way it magnified my pores and seeped into the cracks and crevices in my skin. Sometimes I’d be in danger of missing my cue, so absorbed was I in thoughts like, “I need more sleep, look at those carpet bags under my eyes. Is there an angle from which I DON’T have a double chin? Put me and Jabba the Hut in a neck wrinkles contest, and I would win. What does Botox actually DO again…?” This last thought even though I’ve always considered a Botoxed face to be an actor’s worst folly–why would you hamper the range of one of your most important instruments? Not to mention that the nicest comment I got about this particular performance was in praise of my “funny facial expressions.” But in those long moments confronting my harshly lit aging visage, all I could do was mourn the crag-free dewiness of youth.

What beautiful wrinkles you have, my dear! (Photo courtesy the talented Greg Harris.)

What beautiful wrinkles you have, my dear!
(Photo courtesy the talented Greg Harris.)

And as long as we’re cataloging bodily decay, let’s talk about my pooch. Why not? I know you’re all looking at it through the internet, pondering it, wondering if I might be pregnant again (ADVANCED MATERNAL AGE.) I know this because I get asked if I’m pregnant frequently enough that I’m no longer able to make a light-hearted joke in return. People, readers, read this, make a note. If a woman has not just said to you, “I’m so thrilled to be expecting again!” don’t make any assumptions, and keep your questions on mute. It’s been particularly crushing how often I’ve had to convey this social nicety to my six year old son, whose affectionate handsiness often compels him to palpitate the pooch. He kneads it, pokes it, hugs on it, kisses me there. He says, “Mama, is there another little baby inside that belly?” He reaches under my shirt so he can stroke the soft, saggy skin over my stretched out bellybutton. Shudder. The worst part being that I know he is trying to love on, not annoy, me. BUT IT IS SO ANNOYING. I’ve spoken to him sharply so often that the other day as he was resting his cheek against the pooch, kind of bouncing against it, I was juuust about to say something to him when he interrupted, “Mama, stop. I love how soft and comfortable you are here. It’s perfect for hugging.” Which… Was one way to shut me down, that’s for sure. Out of the mouths of people who still look like babes.

Now THAT'S a pregnant lady.

Now THAT’S a pregnant lady.

I’m thinking about my grandmother a lot these days, as the one year anniversary of her death at 92 is coming up next week. She was one of the most beautiful old ladies in the world, and I say this completely objectively. She wore her soft, shining gray hair in a perfect pageboy held back with combs, such a flattering, classic style. She turned up at even the most mundane of events in a snappy coordinating outfit layered with an assortment of her gorgeous, formal jewelry. Her inner sweetness and grace radiated out through a twinkling, contagious smile. When you’re an old lady, you’re free to wear purple, but what I’d most like is to look like my grandmother. But I can remember her saying to me sometime around her 90th birthday, “I look in the mirror and feel startled at what I see. Who is that wrinkled old woman? Inside I still feel 23!”

She only got more beautiful with age.

She only got more beautiful with age.

I know how lucky I am to have gotten to age to this point. That the crags in my face are there in part because of how deeply and frequently I have smiled; that my busted pooch carried two healthy children to term. I am so much more interested in what’s going on inside my head than what it looks like on the outside, truly. I’m doing my utmost to raise my daughter with little emphasis on her “prettiness.” But I struggle to stop shaming myself for the perfectly natural process of getting, and looking, older. I don’t want to struggle with it, I’m embarrassed to be struggling with it, but I do. And by writing about it, by putting this mental tangle on display, I hope to diminish the power the thoughts have when they’re rattling around in my head raising a cacophonous din. The next time someone hands me a hand mirror, I want to remember that it inspired me to flex my mental muscles and write something true.

Sandwich Generation

1 May

You know that touching sequence in the movie Sleepless in Seattle when Tom Hanks’ character is trying to help his young son remember his mom? One of the images he shares is, “She could peel an apple in one long, curly strip. The whole apple.” And a generation of women started practicing with their paring knives. Because that sounds like pretty much the most badass kitchen skill ever.

I’m still working on my mastery of apple peeling, because it was lower priority for me than tidy apple coring. I can picture sitting at the table after lunch watching my dad pop a perfect c-shaped section out of the center of each apple slice, (it’s especially easy to summon this memory since he still feeds me lunch most Saturdays, thanks Dad.) The ease and assurance with which he handled the sharp paring knife awed and intimidated. I felt all thumbs in the kitchen until I was well into my 20s–it seemed unlikely to me that I would ever be so dextrous.

And then I had children. I was married for about 5 years before the kids came along, and my home cooking was slowly improving during that time. I made especially large strides during the year I was at home “working on a novel,” aka surfing recipe pages and dreaming about dinner. I finally abandoned the writing life pretense altogether when I got pregnant, and just outright concentrated on feeding my face. Eating for two and all that.

Pre-baby we were relatively healthy eaters, save the occasional box of Lucky Charms and nightly pregnancy pint of Ben & Jerry’s Mint Chocolate Cookie ice cream, but once my little girl was on solids I really stepped up my game. Her eating and sleeping were objects of obsessive focus, to the point where I would note down each day the duration of her naps and the number of fruits and vegetables she consumed. (The best thing that ever happened to my firstborn was a sibling. We both needed me to be distracted by keeping another person besides her alive.) And when you’re feeding someone with an ever-changing number of teeth, you chop up a hell of a lot of fruit. Knife skills, managed.

I was contemplating my hard-earned knife aptitude the other morning while I prepared school lunches under the watchful eye of my now third grader. As I sliced apples she said, “Please make sure to get EVERY BIT of the center out!” And while I was annoyed at being bossed around, (“Jeeves, CORE NEATLY!”), I felt secret sympathy for her. I hate the texture of apple core–even one little scrap mars the slice. Which is why I was totally on it, back up 9 year old.

And then I thought about it again at lunchtime as I cored apple slices for the lunch of my sweet, ailing grandfather. I set a plate of thinly sliced apples and wedges of cheese in front of him and he whistled in appreciation, “Boy, does this look nice.” It was a day of lunch prep, a day when, excuse me but, I truly earned my “sandwich generation” stripes.

No matter that inside I still feel like an aimless, bumbling pretend adult, it strikes me that anymore I do have some grown-up person bonafides. I can crank out a Thanksgiving dinner. I can sit down in February and plan our entire summer camp/vacation schedule. I can, (slowly, painfully, but accurately), read a map. I can’t keep my temper while I’m assisting with math homework, but someday I’ll get there. And maybe that will also be the day I master peeling a whole apple in one long, curly strip.

This person should not supervise youngsters. She can't even tie a tie.

This person should not supervise youngsters. She can’t even tie a tie.