When your birthday and Mother’s Day are always in the same week, it messes with your head a little

Yesterday one of my sisters sent me an early birthday e-mail that said “enjoy your last year of being the only sibling under 50.” Let’s just let that one sink in for a minute on this Mother’s Day. I have a lot of siblings (think Stephen Colbert) and my life has been punctuated by the rewards and trials of being the youngest in a large family (mostly rewards). Because I am the end of the line and my mother worried a  lot about being an older parent with a young child (every time she left town she would say, “Now, if I die…”), I do measure annually  how old I was when my mother was the age I am turning this year. If I were my mother, I would have an 8 year old right now. How lovely to have a sweet little second grader right now. How exhausting. I have three children and this is the first year I do not have to attend a spring concert and I am overcome with joy.  Mom, thank you for the science fairs and Christmas concerts and Girl Scout flying up ceremonies. And I want you to know that I totally forgive you for not coming to my junior high volleyball and softball games.  Most of the time I didn’t even want to be there myself so I didn’t exactly stew about this for 30 years but really, thank you for all of the stuff you actually made it to because no parent could possibly be prepared for the purgatory that is some school events – and then multiply the times you have to sit through it it by 10. You never know when one is going to count and give you that incredible moment, though, so I will be there for every one that I can get to that’s left for me. So thanks to my siblings for breaking Mom in on some fronts and making her paranoid on others and for reminding me that being the youngest is just as much of a mixed bag as it ever was. I love you all.

Look! Here is the hill I am almost over!

Raising a Cup

Eighteen years ago my mother was here with me, welcoming our first child, a girl.  Mom stood on our deck, smoking cigarettes and commenting on the spectacular display of autumn leaves.  “That,” she said, nodding toward a large, bright red sugar maple, “will be her tree, because it will always be beautiful on her birthday.”  And for 16 years, it was, casting lovely pink  light into her bedroom on sunny autumn mornings.  It is both satisfying and sad to know how much of the world we shared in those heady, confusing days of new parenthood is gone.  I look at it now as the cusp between being a child and becoming a mother, feeling only now, with my girl 18, that the transformation is nearly (though never, I guess) complete.

We are renovating our bathrooms, the last rooms untouched since those weeks she spent here, and it was recalling her blowing smoke out of the downstairs bath window (please don’t smoke in the house, Mom) that prompted me to think of all that has changed since then.  Little by little we have made the place our own, replacing the carpets, the floors, the kitchen, the boiler, the air conditioning, the roof, the deck and many of the trees (the sugar maple fell victim to a spring storm downdraft that sliced it clean in half).  Nursing a broken foot, I am forced to slow down and note the changes to life, inside and out, as I walk gingerly down the street and up the lawn after getting the newspaper, just as she did.

She used to tell a story from that visit, in which she and my husband stood at the kitchen window viewing some small pine trees scattered around the back yard.  They talked about how it would be so nice to have a little row of them lined up outside of that window.  A couple of hours later she came bustling upstairs to my room where I was nursing the baby, to report that my husband had gone out that very moment and moved all the trees to create the row of tiny pines outside the window, where they remain today, almost as tall as the house now.  She couldn’t get over it, “He just went out and DID it!!  Just like that!!”  It was a defining moment for her, and for us, as we have benefitted from – and been dumbstruck by – countless permutations of my husband’s thought-it-up-and-did-it moments.

She did that for me, and for many others, pointing out things in life that we weren’t really noticing but maybe should be.  She wasn’t always right but she made me think, made me BE in my life in a way that is still hard to do without her, eight years after she died.  But she has her ways of appearing, of reminding, of inhabiting the lives of her children and grandchildren.  A day does not go by that I don’t tell a story about her, say something just like her, or wear something that makes me think of her.  I wear her rings, I have her gray hair, I have glasses that are too big for my face,  and I’m pretty sure I am buying her sweaters. So, while the outside looks more and more like Mom, inside I am less lost in her shadow than I have ever been.  Life has thrown us different curves, and we have handled them differently, if with the same kind of determination. 

This week I pulled out a china cup and saucer  for my coffee like the ones she used to use to replace my usual white diner mug, partly to reduce the amount of coffee I drink (which is a Mom story for another time) but also because when I see it from across the kitchen, I can pretend for a second that she is just around the corner – or more likely, in the bathroom (I painted it her favorite color, periwinkle) having a smoke.

Revisionist Parenting

When I was nineteen I had a major crush on a boy I met at a summer job in Michigan. He was smart, sweet, earnest, funny and boyishly hadsome. We were inseparable for much of the summer but did not exchange so much as a kiss – it was fun; I thought it had potential. At the end of the summer we cooked up a plan to visit my family in Missouri before returning to our respective colleges. I knew my mother would like him, and she did. The feeling was mutual, I guess, because on the first evening at our house he said to me, ” When I met you I thought you were such a unique person, but now I realize that you are really just like your mother.”  I should have known at that moment that the romance was doomed; he entered the seminary the following year.

Fast forward twenty-seven years. My husband sits down in front of the family computer situated at the desk that I use, and looks at me and says, “Look at the way you have all of your notes and photos up on this wall and all of your papers here – you are your Mom.”   He is smiling – he loved my Mom. “I think you do it on purpose.”

Well, I didn’t; I don’t. I make rolls like she did on purpose, I speak truth to power like she did on purpose, I try to make my home welcoming like she did on purpose. But as my hair goes grayer and the questions from my children get thornier I find it maddening for it to be so hard to lift myself out of her ruts in my road – she did not overtly impose her ways on me and there are so many ways in which our paths greatly diverge.  I know we have faced the challenges on our lives in fundamentally different ways.   And yet, her influence is an incredibly strong default mechanism. It can make me frustrated, because in the years since her death I have begun to understand how she crafted the myth of herself by selectively sharing information with her children. But I also can empathize with why people do that – there are so many conversations that people will do anything to avoid. Parenthood doesn’t have a full disclosure clause, and the line between honesty and too much information is constantly shifting. When you share you risk two responses:  “Why did you tell me this?” and “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”  I have been through this with my own children over the most minor events already, and perhaps I do share too much.  One person’s enlightenment is another’s burden, one person’s honesty is another’s pain.  You never know.

I witnessed enough drama in my Mom’s life to know that, as her youngest, I missed plenty. I wasn’t very good at letting those moments I did know about fade; I have a penchant for rehashing events in hope of prying out more details, reasons, answers. I keep looking for a version of the truth that I can live with, knowing full well that my ability to live comfortably with any truth changes from day to day.  What is acceptable in one moment is decidedly lacking in the next.  Sixteen years ago, I spent weeks camped out in my living room with my Mom, quizzing her about her life while we waited for my overdue baby to arrive. We covered a lot of ground, but I noticed gaps in her memory that I attributed to advancing age. It doesn’t really matter what she kept to herself, it is that she made that choice – repeatedly – that caught me off guard as the details emerged in later years after her death. He legendary candor was not what I thought and some of the things and people she put faith in were, to my mind, not worthy of her devotion.  She didn’t owe me full disclosure, but some examples she tried to set have not entirely stood the test of time, either, because she obfuscated.

But these things are true of all parents, all families.  For when we tell a story we are telling our own version, and that, by design or not, means that anyone else who was there as there may or may not agree.  We have a large family – something as simple as a Thanksgiving Dinner in 1975 can come off as Rashomon on steroids.  And I know that, quite often, there are plenty of good reasons to let sleeping dogs lie.  And so I struggle to calibrate what memories are rightfully mine, what traits I truly own, how I can understand what it is to write honestly knowing that truth in memory is only our own version of the facts at a particular moment in time.

I will always love and admire my mother, and there are many ways that I am glad to be like her.  Still, even in the throes of middle age, it is difficult to know where she ends and I begin, and I am reminded of what she said in the weeks before her death.  “You’re going to be forty,” she said as she spoke of her terminal illness, “this is a good time for me to go.  It will be a liberating experience.  When your parents are gone you are truly free to make your own choices.  I never really felt like a grownup until both of my parents were gone.  It’s a good thing.”  Now, I think I know what she meant.

Distracted Eccentric

There aren’t any sidewalks in our area of town – people walk on the side of the road, and because New England roads are ridiculously narrow, I usually get a good look at the pedestrians I try not to hit.  One person in particular catches my eye more often than others.  G. wears a baseball cap and a windbreaker with a logo on it, a weathered look to go with his smile and nod as I drive by.  His graying hair curls out from under the cap, a little longish, his mustache, too, a little full.  When I first knew him fifteen years ago G. had a fresh from the barber haircut and clipped mustache, starched button down shirts, blazer and a late model Volvo.

G. is not a victim of hard times, but then again maybe he is.   He is a respected professional who surrendered his license for ethics violations – hubris and nemesis as writ in the early 21st century.  I am nosy; I read the public file on the case.  He was never indicted so it is impossible to say for certain whether he was guilty of poor judgment or something worse, but he made decisions that permitted illegal, sometimes dangerous activities.  It didn’t surprise me completely; he had always seemed bizarrely flip and distant.  He gave strangely vague answers to specific questions:  “What time should the kids be home?” “Whenever you get tired of them just send them back.”  Things like that.  It rankled me enough to tell my own children that they could only go to his home to play if his wife was there.  He didn’t come off as creepy, just as a distracted eccentric.

His sartorial evolution from professional class to working class reminds me that no life has a steady upward trajectory.  I empathize with him even though I am fairly sure he is oblivious to what anyone has ever thought about him.  His peaks and valleys are plain to see, but we all have them and we all try to spin them or hide them in one way or another as best we can.  Some people have the luxury of keeping their travails private, but like G., we cannot – we have a child with a disability, and in order to get him what he needs, we need to tell people more than we want to about our challenges.  It is maddening to have to sit across the table month after month and ask people to lower, raise and rework expectations for a mercurial child; to know that they think you can do better but that they are reluctant to do anything differently on their end.  They probably think I am a distracted eccentric.  The expression of fear mixed with pity is enough to send you to bed for a week.

But G. didn’t go to bed and neither have I.  He found something else to do with his life, and so have I.  Sometimes it means fielding looks from people who will never understand, but sometimes it also means wearing more comfortable clothes.

Magic Pebble

We used to read William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble every night.  It’s the story of Sylvester Duncan, a young donkey that finds a magic red pebble, and, faced with a fierce lion on his way home, Sylvester panics and turns himself into a rock.  His frantic parents look all over for him, but give up in despair after a month of searching.  They are reunited a year later when his parents lay out a picnic on the rock that is Sylvester, and happen to find the red pebble and put it on the rock.  Sylvester wishes successfully to be himself again and they all go on happily with their lives, saving the pebble for a time when they may need something more than to be together as a family.

Whenever I read this story to our children, I find myself identifying with various characters in the story.  On some days, I am the mother and W. is Sylvester, hidden in the stone of autism, wanting to get out but locked in the by the spell of the pebble.  We are Mr. and Mrs. Duncan, haplessly eating lunch on the rock, wondering how we can possibly go on with our lives when the fate of our son is such a complete mystery to us.  On some nights, the story in my head ended there, with W. still trapped inside the rock.

There are more dramatic versions.  There’s the Harry Potter version where Sylvester the Dobby rock starts hurling itself around, crashing into people and things, a possessed bludger that no petrifying spell can stop.  The wayward rock eventually wears itself out, but only after leaving most of the Duncans’ town of Oatsdale beaten and bewildered.  Mr. and Mrs. Duncan split a bottle of dandelion wine and dream of summer on the beach.

Occasionally, I am Sylvester, trapped inside the rock, wondering how I got there and wanting only to sleep to forget how I got myself into such a spot.  The world moves around me, the people and seasons come and go but because I am a rock and I don’t look like myself no one knows I am there.  I am inches from the magic pebble that will set me free, but I am helpless to touch it or even be sure that it is there.  My parents are gone.  I cannot be rescued the way Sylvester was; there is no one to rejoice over my return so perhaps it doesn’t matter whether I am a rock or not.  But just as I warm to my mid-life crisis, I am touched by my magic pebble – it is W., reaching with two fingers to push up the sides of my mouth to make me smile.  And it is M., with a smooch that could bring the hardest granite to life.  And A., too, working her own magic just by reading her own book on the floor next to us.

And there are magic pebble days, days in which someone or something brings our beloved W. back to us.  On these days the story ends just as it should; the boy I see and the person he is inside are one and the same and we inhabit the same world.  The magic is the love we share, in his friends, in the water and sand of the beach, and in the people who work so hard to make the world understandable to him and to make him understandable to us.  These are the best days of all, and as the years go by there are more and more of them, and that is a miracle I don’t need a book to help me understand.

John Updike has taken over my life

What to make of middle aged silences?

It seems that more and more of the conversations we do have are mere circles around the ones we should have. We have built strong and study scaffolding around each other in a sincere effort to support on another, noting our foibles and weaknesses. It is a respectful but tense silence, at least on my side, for I harbor a fear that I am going about things all wrong without a forum in which to sift through the contents my fertile and overactive imagination.

Some would say that that is what therapists are for, and in the wee hours and I lay worrying about the course of my life I think this might be true. But my time with therapists has been explaining rather than learning; and so far I have never left an appointment knowing once ounce more than when I walked in – all I have done is clarify my own position with myself. That is useful but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Friends are better if you can find them and make time for them.

Writing is even better.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time convincing myself that I am not an angry person, but there is no question that I am driven more strongly and specifically by anger than anything, even love. Perhaps it is time to embrace it, harness it, turn it into something practical. I have waited long enough for the moment when these things will come out, and if process the old things maybe it will improve my ability to cope with the present.

I know that this is in some ways the opposite of what I have learned with cognitive behavioral therapy, but I think there is room for both approaches. Mere acceptance of all things past is not possible for me, but accepting that those moments are over and that I cannot carry or assign blame for them seems like the right thing to do. And allowing myself to be paralyzed in the present because of the past is absolutely something that I need to overcome, and that is what brings me to the keyboard today.

How much of the past am I injecting into today’s silences, and hoq much am I projecting my own worries into other’s quiet? Plenty. But let me also add that women, for the most part, are faced with the questions of middle age head on and from the inside out. You can actually hear the doors slamming inside your own body and that is a process that screams for attention. The shifting tides of hormones require that we look at our choices and come to peace with them.

Men, on the other hand, have an entirely different set of circumstances. They harbor the illusion that they have the option to start over, that they can rend and discard the fabric of their lives and begin again. Women only think in terms of a new weave, of mending and patching, of adding new yarn and fabric. Of course there are new beginnings for both sexes, but this process that begins in your 40s is so much more concrete for women because the impetus comes from within; you can change or implode or explode. For men, it is all external. From the male perspective – and this is a sweeping generalization, to be sure – women, by all evidence, are going insane, the children are no longer cute and adoring, and the job market is narrowing. Retirement is no longer what parents do. They are trapped, and so they set about acquiring as much stuff as possible to show that they are, by some measure, successful. This is often in direct contradiction with the women’s desire to simplify their lives as they become overwhelmed with the job of caring for the stuff their husbands and kids are bringing home. But with the arrival of each new toy the women harbor a hope that this proves that he is not preparing to start over; that the convertible is fine so long as the only girl in the passenger seat is your teen aged daughter.

And then, like sunshine breaking through clouds, there are moments of surprise, where one of us makes an observation that reaches the other in an unexpected way. Like the man devoted to punk rock sharing a moment of opera that he heard on the radio. This man who never showed interest in that art form but who has a keen appreciation for excellence in any shape, has an understanding of the unique gifts that people are blessed with and can make something extraordinary. These are the moments that tell me I am in the right place, that those flashes of beauty, devotion, and revelation will find me no matter how far out to sea it feels like I am. That is where the person transcends gender and souls speak, and we recall and know what it is to fall in love more deeply than ever.

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between deference and giving in. Deference is more noble, more willingly practiced; giving in is done indulgently sometime grudgingly, it indicates that your idea was better but that you don’t want to fight or have already conceded defeat. Witnessing children duke it out shows that we learn giving in long before we learn deference; some people clearly never learn it at all, and they are the ones that keep score. So I am learning how to make those distinctions and chronicle things with blame and giving and sniping; I want the subjects of my stories to be treated with deference and still be true – to couch the sometimes chronic pain in terms that have no hint of score settling but really of story telling – I want people who are textured and earthy with ragged edges and inconsistencies and bad grammar. I will fight the urge to put gauze over the lens. With every short story I read I see the beauty in this economy of detail, and know that I will have to write a lot to pare it all down into something compact, tasty; weighty and still digestible.

I don’t even read much Updike – too flinty masculine New England for me, but the world he paints is so recognizable it almost hurts. Not almost – it does hurt, physically. I think all I can muster at this moment is my despair that the writing life is not one that I can survive within or survive without. I suspect I cannot chronicle this life, birth these stories without unimaginable pain. And yet the weight of the pregnancy is becoming unbearable, and I know that in time something good will happen if I will only allow it.

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