Time is an Asterisk: Reflections on UnMommy-ing

I’m smack in the middling place.  Middle America, middle class, middle age.  I wear size middle.  Lately I’ve come to realize I’m mid-cliche.  I’m moving from cliche mommy to cliche mother of a college kid.

In my normally clouded life view, I am still young and vibrant, my life stretching endlessly ahead.  And then I see the mothers of elementary school children and realize that they CANNOT RELATE TO ME, as I am the mother of a senior in high school.  I’m baffled, because I fully relate to them.  After all, my son was 10 just a few months ago (93 months, but let’s not dwell on numbers, shall we?).  When those moments of clarity strike, sharp reality blinds my (I recently learned) cataract-ladened eyes and I squint at my wrinkling and spotted hands with wonder.  David Byrne’s voice flits through my head …  HOW DID I GET HERE?

I took my son to visit some universities this fall, as he considers the next phase of his life.  I spent years of my young adulthood at two of the schools, and they felt foreign and welcoming all at the same time.  I found myself walking past the dorms and dilapidated student houses, feeling that I should be back there with the students, filling a weekend with house parties, football and trips to the library.  Somewhere, close enough to touch, I am still that college girl.  The one who loves to dance and do tequila shots.  The one who hasn’t a clue what her life will become and dances anyway.

I watch my son, as he absorbs this new world, and I am conflicted.  Part of me is the toddler’s mom, who wants to keep him safe from the dangers that I know are there. Part of me is the serious, let’s-not-lose-sight-of-education, this-is-not-about-the-parties mom.  I know that soon I will become the college kid’s mom.  The one he rolls his eyes over when I send him 10 texts in a row because I haven’t heard from him in a week.  The mom who takes him and his roommate to dinner and then leaves, thank you very much. But part of me is also his friend, who wants him to experience college the way it should be.  I want him to love to dance (hopefully he doesn’t love shots too much …) and who hasn’t a clue what his life will become and dances anyway.  I want him to explore and question and fall in love, to have a professor nudge him toward an interest he never even considered.

This is the process of unmommy-ing.  We hear a lot about empty nest syndrome, but this is pre-empty nest.  This is anticipating what the next phase will be, letting go of the roles that we each have played and learning new ones.  This is hoping that we’ve taught him what he needs to know, because time is short.  Soon he will know it all (and then, hopefully, at around age 25, he’ll realize he doesn’t know as much as he thought he did).

The other night, he told me about some incident at school.  Later, when I’d crawled in bed, I panicked a little — had I ever shown him what to do in that circumstance?  Did I need to tell him now?  Never occurred to me …  I made my way to his room and sat on his bed and told him what I thought he needed to hear.  He smiled in a somewhat strange way and said, “Seriously?  Why are you telling me this?  Mom, don’t you think I figured that out already?  Geesh, this is awkward.  Can I just say, I’m so glad we never had the sex talk.”  And then I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh.  What is he telling me?  Maybe I need to have a sex talk with him … I mean, what should I say?  Is he expecting something profound?  He did have health class, right”?

Let it go, I tell myself.  We are in the middle.

Look where my hand was
Time isn’t holding up
Time is an asterisk
Same as it ever was…

Columbine Memories

flower-603873_1280Sixteen years ago tomorrow, the school shootings at Columbine sent tremors through our nation.  At a relatively quiet suburban high school outside of Denver, two boys armed themselves with homemade bombs and semi-automatic rifles, walked down the halls and lived out their extensively planned terrorist attack, murdering twelve students and one teacher, and injuring many more before killing themselves.

My son was a toddler at the time.  He and I had gone home to meet a locksmith at our home in central Denver when I learned of the deadly standoff.  I picked him up and held him close, trying to work out just how to raise him up in a world where he could go to school on a day like any other and be randomly killed by a class mate.

A couple of years later, as my husband and I got ready for work, we watched as our normally friendly morning TV showed us planes crashing into the Twin Towers a half a continent away.  By then, we had moved, ironically, to the suburbs just a mile or so from Columbine High School.  Again, I looked at my curly-headed boy and thought how different his world would be from ours.

He would never know a world where mass school shootings were unimaginable, or where holy war was some esoteric concept discussed in classrooms as something that happened somewhere far, far away.  His world is where attempted shoe bombings make us expose our feet as we pass through intense security before flying to our vacation destinations.  Where a backpack left unattended on a busy sidewalk is something to be feared.  Where the debate around the rights of the individual versus the safety of the masses makes it feasible for our government to monitor personal communications.

Our society learned a lot from Columbine.  We learned that warning signs and threats from young people cannot be ignored.  We learned that years of bullying may push a child to the brink and we have to try to stop it.  We learned that we can never forget but we must carry on.  Columbine High School was repaired and healed after the attack.  Its teachers and students returned and found their way through the scars, unified as only co-survivors can be.  Now, almost a full generation later, I’m sure its hallways are like those of virtually any other high school across the country.  It has carried on, in-part, to honor the lives cheated by the incomprehensible actions of two.

No matter how much we learned, though, the sad truth is that we couldn’t prevent mass shootings from happening at other schools across the country.

I’m reminded of the adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Parents have feared for their children’s future world for thousands of years. As long as man has existed, people have done horrible things.  They have waged war in the name of ideals and principals, they have murdered both family and strangers for no apparent reason.  They have abused and taken from our land and the people on it.

If I had the chance, I might tell my younger self clutching her child that for all the horribleness bubbling up around her, there is still life.  There is still good.  There is still a curly-headed boy who cannot live from a place of fear.  While she must teach him about the dangers around him, she and the boy’s father must also help him learn to embrace the world around him, to love, to go and do and experience.

The other day, that curly-headed kid (who now towers above me) and I were confronted by a woman on the escalator at the mall.  “What beautiful hair you have!  And your son is beautiful, too!”  She beamed at us from a couple of steps up.  I noticed something moving in the clear tote she carried.  A small rat was perched upon some cloths.  “Oh, my,” I blurted, “Who do you have there?”  She happily told us what great pets rats are, so smart and all.  We nodded, having known this from pets of years past.  As we approached the top, she waved and told us to “Have a blessed day!”

The kid and I couldn’t help but smile as we made our way past the shoe department.  “What a great way to go through life,” he said. I agreed and we decided that we should give more complements to random strangers, bringing more smiles to more people. Maybe without the rodent in tow.  But still.

Bad things happen.  Good things happen.  Sometimes the difference we can make is to notice something good and say it out loud.  Live life.  Embrace.

Visiting

My grandfather died in his mid-70’s quite suddenly.  It was June of 1978, just before their 50th wedding anniversary.  My grandmother was lost without him.  She hadn’t driven in years, she didn’t pay the bills or oversee their investments.   Mom stepped in to help that summer and we spent a lot of time with Grandma at her home in central Michigan.  I was a gangly 10 year-old, looking more like a boy than a girl.   My siblings were mostly grown.  Much of the time, it was just the three of us:  Grandma, Mom and me.

Grandma and Mom dug through closets and boxes and papers, while I mostly hid my nose in a book.  We ate chicken, salads and the homemade cookies she kept in her freezer.  She decided to lose weight and joined Weight Watchers.  In support of her efforts, a new yogurt machine turned out white goo.  She would spoon in some jam, turning it into nasty fruit-flavored slime that we would eat with air-popped popcorn in front of her black and white TV.  We went to town for lunch at the slanted-floor diner and sometimes drove all the way to Graying for groceries.

While we did a lot of touristy things to get Grandma out of the house, “visiting” was our most common pastime that summer.  “Visit” could be a noun, a verb or an adjective, with a special emphasis on the “t” in “Visiting.”  We would go Visiting, or we could be on a Visiting trip.  Every so often people would stop by for a Visit. Sometimes they called ahead to let Grandma know that they were coming.  Sometimes they just showed up, car tires crunching up the driveway, stopping on their way from somewhere to somewhere.  I would be introduced to Cousin Somebody, and then we would sit in the screened-in porch, drinking tea, while they talked about their trips, the weather, my grandpa’s passing, and family members’ comings and goings.

Sometimes we spent an entire day driving miles from home to home, Visiting.  To keep my Grandma occupied, we went up to my father’s family cabin in the Upper Peninsula several times.  Inevitably, the trip included a stop at a distant cousin’s or family friend’s house for a Visit.   We returned to our home in the Detroit suburbs, and took Grandma Visiting the relatives who lived in that area.  I can’t tell you how many “davenports” I sat on, waiting for the end of the Visit.  If I was lucky, it was a glider and I could push it back and forth in the August heat, creaking in concert with the drone of cicadas.  If I was really lucky, our host served rhubarb pie.

I sort of wish Visiting was still a thing people did.  It seemed a kind of homestead soil, grounding people together, lives intertwined with shared stories.  The connections were mysterious to my 10 year-old self.  These vaguely familiar people whose houses held threadbare furniture, unique smells and pictures of those I had never known.  Stories of cousins killed in the hay fields, uncles taken ill at a young age, or great grandfathers who lived into their 90’s.

Visiting.

Memories of Christmas Past (Weird But True)

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What memories can your Ghost of Christmas Past dredge up?  During my driving time lately I’ve been pulling up some of mine from long ago.  Maybe I’m trying to make myself feel better for not filling out Aunt Pat’s Christmas Memories book for the last 20 years.  In any event, most of my recollections are pretty good ones.  Some are just odd.

As a child, I hated going to see Santa.  I liked the idea of Santa, the whole bringing me presents thing seemed like a good deal.  But he knew if I was sleeping or awake, and if I’d been bad or good?  And he came down our chimney and left presents in our house while we slept?  That was kind of creepy.  Then, after standing in line FOREVER, I was told to go and sit on his lap.  Seriously?  Stalker and B&E Santa?  This was way before political correctness, but somewhere in the back of my mind I just knew this was not right.

Nevertheless, come Christmas Eve, I was SO EXCITED FOR HIM TO COME that I could barely stand it.  Fortunately, my family had a tradition of going to the Greenfield Village and/or Henry Ford Museum (depending on how cold it was) on Christmas Eve before heading to my Grandparent’s house for dinner.  It was a great way to get a child’s mind off of things for a little while.  My grandmother was step-mother to my dad and things at their house were always just a little bit stiff, shall we say.  We would gather with aunts and uncles and cousins and have dinner.   We were not allowed until later to venture into the living room, which was where the tree and the presents were, and really where all of the  action would happen.  We couldn’t touch ANYTHING (or at least I couldn’t, at the time I was the youngest and I suspect I was under an extremely watchful mother’s eye) because things in there could break, like those multi-colored glass grapes in the centerpiece bowl on the coffee table.  <sigh>  The drive home was long and one year the snow flew at the headlights so thick we could barely see.  As my dad drove slowly, white-knuckeled I’m sure, I sat wide awake on my mother’s lap, searching through the snow for Santa’s sled somewhere up there in the sky.  (Ah, yes, those were the days, when children bounced around from front seat to back, happily unencumbered and unconcerned about car seats and crash tests.)

Christmas mornings, I, the youngest, dutifully woke everyone before the sun came up.  My brother loved me for this, I’m sure.  It was the one time of the year when Dad took home movies of us.  Horrifically bright white lights flooded our little family room, sending off an astonishing amount of heat as we held up our treasures with giant smiles.  My retinas never recovered.

The reason for the season was always alive in our house, and the Christmas story was told and retold.  I was infatuated with the nativity scene, in particular Mary adoringly looking down at Baby Jesus.  So, I would grab a blanket and drape it over my head.  I knelt (because Mary is always kneeling, right?) on the family room floor and looked lovingly at my baby doll, wrapped tightly in “swaddling clothes,” a/k/a a towel.  That was it.  Nothing else.  After a few minutes, my knees would hurt and I’d go back to being a cowboy (or maybe it was a horse, I recall a lot of clomping around on hands and knees, naying from time to time).

As I got older, Christmases got a little weirder.   One year, my mother decided to buy fluffy white “snow” to spread on the tree.  We backed up to ensure even coverage and realized it looked like a giant spider had cocooned the whole thing in its web, ornaments and all.  My brother’s tarantula, Charlotte, had recently molted and he placed her abandoned exoskeleton gently on top.  The Addam’s Family had nothing on us.

We were lucky we didn’t burn the house down with our dried out “live” trees.  By Christmas morning, needles showered down onto the carpet as we slid the presents out to open them.  To address this problem, my mother and I decided to buy a “living” tree one year.  As an added bonus, we could plant it in the yard come spring.  The little tree did well enough through Christmas, but we kept it inside a little too long and didn’t think to water it once we moved it to the deck.  Yet another life cut short.

My mother the science teacher collected eggs from the quails her class had hatched, tucking them into the shelves of our fridge for a couple of months.  She then served them, deviled, with our Christmas dinner of Cornish hens.  Delicacies, I know, but none of my friends’ moms did stuff like that.

And so it is.  Oddities, snippets, bits and pieces of time shared.  Many of my memories are glommed together experiences from several years.  Like all that time spent snuggled on the couch watching the Grinch (with his little dog Max, wonderful thing), Charlie Brown, Rudolf and A Year Without a Santa Claus:  “I’m mister heat miser, I’m mister snow . . .”  The shows were on just once, so if you missed them you’d have to wait until next yearThe Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come never failed to scare the pants off me.

The Road to Hell Is Paved with Unsent Greeting Cards

Several years ago . . .  scratch that.  At least a decade ago, I stopped sending Christmas cards.  I didn’t mean to stop sending them forever, but it seems to have turned out that way.  Life got in the way.  I was busy commuting, working, raising a child and avoiding the grocery store.  I bought the cards that year and they stayed right there in their neat little boxes.  Every year since, at some point I experience a flash of guilt.  Usually it’s when I start getting cards in the mail from all of those people who are so kind as to send us pictures of their beautiful families, smiling, and wishing us a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year!  You know who you are. Nevertheless, the cards remain in their neat little boxes up in our attic.

Our attic is full of guilt-inducing good intentions.  In addition to unsent greeting cards, it is stacked with boxes of jumbled up photos from before iPhones and iPhoto and iHaveDigitalPicturesOfEverythingOnMyHardDrive.  My child’s babyhood is in there.  I really should put them into some sort of order and then into albums or the Poor Thing will never be able to prove he existed before we got our first digital camera in 2004.  There are books boxed up for our move four years ago that I can’t throw away, because we don’t throw out perfectly good books and so I should sort them for donation to someone.  And then there are bins of old electronics, cables, wires, software discs and manuals that I can’t pitch because they would be bad to put in our landfill so they should be recycled but who has time to figure out where to take them for recycling???  And I have no idea what to do with the pile of (sometimes) beautiful memories that is my son’s artwork from elementary school.  I can’t just throw them away, can I?

As the boxes of things that I really should do something about co-mingle with my pangs of guilt over failing to send out Christmas cards (and birthday cards and correspondence of any kind, really), the damning flames of anxiety are licking at my heels.  And so, my Dear Ones, please accept my heart-felt apology for the the years and years of failure to send a picture of our decorated tree, the cat, my son and our smiling faces to you.  Please know that I have thought of each of you every year and sent you good wishes via ESP as I guiltily failed to send you a card.  However, the odds are that my burdened heart will not change my errant ways, so please don’t judge too harshly when no card appears in your mailbox this year.


Wouldn’t This Have Been a Cute Card 9 Years Ago?

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Happy Birthday, Dad!

Swims in the lake

Walks in the woods

Worried footsteps down the stairs

Throwing little Riley in the pool

Deep love for family, Mom, God

Books, books and more books

Go Blue

Love you!

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A Week at the Cottage

Last week, we traveled to Michigan to gather with my family members to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday. My parents spend half of the year, including the summer months, at a cottage in northern Michigan. The cabin holds lifetimes of memories, stories told and retold, expanded upon with little additions, much like the cabin has been.

My grandfather built the original tiny cottage for his wife as she was dying of cancer at a very young age. My father spent time here as an adolescent, helping to build it with his father and uncles, hauling water up from the lake, running around with other boys vacationing with their families, and getting into trouble. Years later, he brought my mother to see the cabin and she fell in love with it. Eventually, every summer, my mother, brother, sister and I stayed at the cabin from early July through Labor Day. My father would join us when he could get away from work. As kids, our days were long and unencumbered. We slept late, wandered through the woods, hunted turtles, swam in the lake, made fudge and played games late into the evenings.

Over the years, my siblings and I have returned to the cabin with our families, to form new memories. It is rare that any of us are there at the same time, so this past week when most of us were able to gather for at least a few days, inevitably the stories, pictures and home movies came out. As I listened to my family reminisce, I realized that our memories are as varied as we are. Even the experiences we shared as a family are remembered from our unique viewpoints. What the cabin is for me is not the same as what it is for my sister or my nephew. Nevertheless, we all share the common bond of that place.

As I walked down to the beach on our last night at the cabin, I smiled to see an old friend who has been there long before my grandfather’s time: a large, white birch tree near the water. This tree was my special place as a child. I would sit on its crooked base and watch the boaters and fishermen on the water. As I touch its beautiful white bark, I consider that it had been there when my father collected water from the lake for his mother to use, and years later when my brother proudly put in his rowboat, earned by working for a man on the other side of the lake. It was there when my father and a much younger me launched our canoe to paddle back into the lagoon, and later, when my sister’s girls played on the beach. More recently, the tree marked our dock as we headed home across the water after my son learned to water ski. This week, it quietly observed my great nephew’s first cast of a fishing line. I don’t know how long that tree will continue to stand on its eroding shore. I hope it lives long enough for my grandchildren to sit in its crook.

And so, I share with you my reflections from the week. Make memories where you can. Envelop your family in them and breathe their piney scent whenever you have a moment to reflect. Share the stories, and add a piece here and there. Roast a marshmallow, make a s’more and lick the chocolate off your fingers while telling a ghost story or two. When the next generation comes along, if they’re lucky like I am, they will feel part of a shared special place that their children will also grow to love.

 

Originally published on July 20, 2014 in The Vail Daily.

 

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