Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blinded by the Light

 A few days before Christmas, The Today Show aired a filler parenting segment titled, A Parent's Guide to the Holidays from their ongoing series Parenting Tips for Those Who Have Been Parenting Under A Rock or Parenting for Those Who Cannot Think for Themselves. Matt Lauer interviewed a panel of experts consisting of a magazine editor from a popular family magazine, a lifestyle expert, and some fat guy (I am not being insulting here, this is how he introduced himself) who wrote a book with a self- deprecating title. The theme was At What Age is it Acceptable to _____________? At what age is it acceptable to let your teenager get drunk with you on New Year's Eve? At what age is it acceptable to pull the rug out from under your unsuspecting child's feet and let them know the truth about that jolly visitor from the North Pole? And, here is my favorite, at what age is it acceptable to stop taking family pictures? The answer was a resounding: when it ceases to be enjoyable. Hmmm, are we there yet? Thank goodness for the wisdom that The Today Show bestows upon me because I honestly thought, as you may remember from my previous posts on the subject, that family photos were an acceptable form of child abuse and torture.

In our family, we extend the tribulation to visiting relatives. See Exhibit A below. This is a sketch of my  sister, her husband and my two lovely nephews who were visiting from Las Vegas. They had only been in Buffalo for 24 hours and the boys were still on Vegas (Begas, as my 2 year old nephew, G calls it) time. My sister had not gotten any sleep the night before from trying to settle the boys. They were out of sorts from having missed their naps. Yet, it was imperative to my family to catch a shining Christmas Eve moment with all four of them. Look at how the little one, my nephew Lu, is fighting and giving up at the same time as he tries to contort his body and become dead weight in his mother's arms. Most of the 200 photos captured G, in his Michael Cera haircut, with his head down, clawing his way out of his father's grip.

I wanted a portrait of  H, my Dad, and me. "Ooh, ooh! Let me!" offered First Born Son enthusiastically. Like a kitten sidetracked by a ball of tinsel, First Born Son was mesmerized by the camera flash. Or, he was spellbound by a novel way to annoy me. He started giggling sadistically at the outcome of his picture taking, a series of images with our heads cut off, our mouths distorted as we pleaded, "Stop! Stop! I'm going blind!" Our eyes uneven and squinty. I tried to push through the blinding light which singed all of my senses; and, I pawed helplessly, hopelessly at him trying to recover my camera. But, he contined to dance around just outside of my grasp. I was so disoriented, but I thought I heard him singing, "That's what you get! That's what you get! For all of those years, doing us wrong with your camera lens!"

These are the kinds of photos you get when you hand your camera to a teenager who is out for revenge.

On the final day of my sister's visit, we gathered the kids together. There are six grandkids. If I thought that trying to get a photo of four kids was difficult, six kids is impossible. The Baby was one hour past done. G was too rambunctious from eating a dinner of cookies, with more cookies, and some fudge. H was antagonizing First Born Son by showing him affection. And Princess Commando shouted out through the clicking and snapping of 4 cameras with flashes on, "Ugh! The paparazzi!!"

If six kids is impossible, then eleven people and Simba is just plain silly. But, we did it anyway.

And, because, we like to learn things on our own time and the definition of "enjoyable" is subjective, we'll probably do it again next year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Army Crawler and The Drunken Sailor

Vivi and Lu did not know what to make of one another in their first encounter in five months. That is the equivalent of five grown-up years to an infant. They went through the typical stages: blank staring, indifference, acceptance, etc. And, then, they went on the lam. Lu was like a lightening bolt, army crawling across the hardwood floor. And, Vivi, in a show of camaraderie, crawled beside him on her hands and knees, despite having mastered the gait of a drunken sailor earlier in the week. Only one of them made it to the gate which separated the dining room and kitchen and hindered the passage to ultimate freedom. Vivi had the advantage as the terrain was familiar. Lu was sidetracked by the lure of unprotected outlets and electrical cords. Vivi delighted in her cousin's fetish for dangerous play things. They vowed that during Lu's next visit to Buffalo they would bribe the dog to chew through the wooden safety gate and carry them on her back down the short flight of stairs, and through the single wooden door, out to the backyard.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Everybody Dance Now

Pre- Christmas (chaos) Party with the Neighborhood Kids. It was truly all a blur.

Ahhhh. The day after Christmas is like loosening the button on your waistband after overindulging in a holiday feast. Relief and room to breathe a little more freely. Christmas is over. And, it was successful. There was joy, love, happiness, family, homemade lasagna.  The children did not receive coal or, as my father likes to tease, bags of dirt. But, in the 3 weeks prior to the arrival of the merry holiday,  my gut had felt disordered and heavy with lead. I was doubled over in pain for days. I knew that I was anxious about everything falling into place-not just the holiday business( buying last minute gifts, wrapping them, making cookies and preparing for the kids’ pre-Christmas (chaos) Party at our house on Thursday, etc) but the business of The Mr. finally coming to a critical decision about the future of his employment contract with “The Bank.”  I felt out of balance which only perpetuated the anxiety- fretting that I would not be able to complete the tasks I needed to carry out to regain a sense of order.  I was shamefully snappish and short with my family but, also, incredibly apologetic.  “It’s all right,” The Mr. would reply gently. “I know that you don’t handle (long pause) …well, life very well.” And he patted me tenderly on the shoulder and walked away. As soon as I realized that I wasn’t dying from some tragic abdominal disease and that my mind was wreaking havoc on the rest of my body, things began to fall into place.

The recap of last week begins with cookies. The Sunday before Christmas, The Mr. was kind enough to gather all of the supplies I needed to make cookies for our family and also for the neighborhood children (8 in addition to my four) who would be celebrating the last day of school before winter break with Princess Commando. It is the first year that I cheated- buying pre-made logs of dough and canned frosting. I rolled out and baked the cookies on Tuesday while The Baby napped. It is no easy feat to prepare any meal in our kitchen as we have no counter space and we are using an old wooden desk as a table (which is, also, catching the overflow of kitchen staples from the cupboards). I was relieved, to say the least, that the cookies baked up exceptionally. My anxiety began to diminish. First Born Son and Princess Commando helped me frost the cookies after school on Wednesday- while the air was filled with Christmas carols and standards pumped from a playlist (9 hours long) on our MP3 player. I realized I hadn’t pulled enough bowls to mix the frosting and food coloring; so, I asked Princess Commando to gather 3 more. We finished our frosting and the cookies looked perfectly whimsical. I stood back, surveyed our work, and let out a sigh of relief that at least one task could be crossed off the list. And, for the first time, I felt as if the season was something to truly enjoy. When the Peanuts gang began to sing, "Christmas time is here..." it didn't feel like they were taunting me.

And then I went into the kitchen, opened the dishwasher, and realized that where there had been 3 dirty bowls- the rack was empty. Sh#@!!!! Princess Commando had mistakenly taken the dirty bowls and we had been mixing frosting in them. "But this morning you told me the dishwasher was clean!" she cried. I broke down. All I could think about was a parent at school that I met once who was a germaphobe and would not  let her child consume anything at school parties because she worried everything was contaminated by unwashed hands. If somehow it leaked (and with children who choose to be honest when it is least appropriate- it was bound to leak) that we served dirty cookies than maybe my neighbors would never allow their children to play with our kids again. So, I threw out the cookies. My mother rolled her motherly eyes in exasperation at my story (well, more at me than the story) and chastised me plenty for being wasteful. In hindsight, I agree that it was. But, while I don’t mind if my children eat cookies off our sullied, dog licked kitchen floor, or ones that have been frosted from unsanitary bowls, I just can’t stomach the idea of our guests eating frosting that may have been mixed with the saliva (I’ve seen how the kids lick their cereal bowls clean) of my children. I still had dough left over in the refrigerator. I made 3 dozen more cookies burning one dozen in the process. The cookies cooled, we frosted, again, but this time with clean bowls. And we had splendid, wonderful, fantastic cookies.

In other preparations for the children’s party and for a visit from my sister and her family, I had scrubbed and polished the house until it sparkled and glistened and smelled of Murphy’s Oil Soap and other lemony freshness. I gave myself a moment on Thursday afternoon to take it all in. I actually sat down for 20 minutes while The Baby napped; and, I smiled at the invigorating glow and warmth that emanated from our rooms. Really, I was bracing myself for the tornado that would sweep through at three o’clock. My mother would be there to help but a little bit later than I expected as my sister and her family arrived in the wee hours of the morning from Las Vegas and needed Mom’s car for transportation to and from my father’s house where they were staying. During The Baby's second nap, I prepared the table with carrots and dip, the cookie plate (which also consisted of chocolate covered pretzel rods, and melted marshmallow and cornflake treats dyed green and shaped into trees), crackers, juice boxes, peppermint candy canes. I waited on the porch for the rumble and grunt of Princess Commando's bus as it pulled up to the corner. The joy of the season tickled the air as Princess Commando gleefully bounded through the snow toward the house and Ms. L, the bus aide, shouted down the street “Merry Christmas!”

In honor of Princess Commando’s first party where she was to play hostess, I forced her into an adorable lilac colored knit dress which had dainty little white and cranberry flowers painted on it. She wore striped stockings on her legs. She had only two minutes to put her school things away before, J, the boy who professed his love to her before Halloween- walked up the steps to our house, his little sister M in tow and their Mama right behind. When J saw Princess Commando in the doorway- oh his face!- his little -blushing –cannot- contain- my joy at being able to spend time with you grin- made everything worth while. They were instantly riled up and started chasing each other around the house. His mother who is from Boston kept warning, "I'm gonna be wicked mad if you don't behave." In the midst of their little love chase, everyone else poured in. This is an 8 and under crowd. I didn’t have anything planned for them. I figured that they always took care of themselves when they had gathered in the past. I could just sit back and watch. The Mamas even asked if they needed to stay. I happily and confidently shooed them away. “We’ll be fine. It will be great.” 

My wonderful mother entertained The Baby while I ushered the children to the table. After all of our cookie trials, no one even wanted cookies. They only wanted candy canes! With so many little boys- fueled by the promise of Christmas, the last day of school, and the sugary candy canes- the living room was bursting with energy which needed a little reigning in ( I saw someone start to do cartwheels up the walls). My mother suggested that I read a Christmas story. The children obliged as I temporarily settled them to the couch and about my feet as I read The Red Ranger Came Calling by Berkeley Breathed, my most favorite Christmas story. It takes place during the Depression era and is about a prickly little boy, doubtful of the existence of Santa Claus, and transformed by a fateful meeting and the surprise realization of an unlikely Christmas wish. If you haven't read it, please do. When we were finished, all of the children's eyes were wide with both belief and disbelief at the snapshot of proof that the story provides. It was magical!

And then there was more magic, as my sister and my nephews, Gus (2 years old) and Lu (7 months old and inches taller than The Baby) arrived in the middle of the children's impromptu dance party. The look of bewilderment on my sister's face was priceless. The photo above is a fair representation of what my sister walked into. It was a whirly- twirly blur. There were boys jumping off the arms of the couch. Some were hiding in the tree. There was a tickle attack going on. Someone started singing C&C Music Factory's "Everybody Dance Now. " What decade are we in and how does a 6 year old know that song? I had run out of clean drinking glasses so I had to give little M (on the couch) a pink, plastic wine glass to sip her juice from. It looks like she is "getting her drink on." It was a little crazy. But, at the end of the party, all the children exclaimed that they had a wonderful time. And, when I went to clean up the table, I found that all of the cookies had been devoured. During the dance party, they must have burned off a million calories and needed to refuel. When they all left, I found myself feeling so fortunate- to have been able to move into a neighborhood with such exquisitely entertaining little children whom my children love dearly. I feel that we have a holiday tradition in the making. Next time, in lieu of Christmas lights, I will hang a disco ball.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Piano Lessons

The hours between 5:00 pm and 7:30 pm are always a blur. During that time, there is a mad scramble to tackle dinner. I bribe one of the older children to wrangle The Baby while I face the unruly components which will comprise our meal. I chop vegetables with such urgency as if they might escape me if I don’t dice them fast enough. I swear at the olive oil which hisses and stings my hands as I attempt to attend to the chicken which is sautéing in it. I try to temper the pot which is boiling over with pasta. We feed the baby who is not content to be contained in her high chair; I deflect complaints and scowls of the children who are not pleased with what is offered on their plates; we wolf down the meal; try to catch up with the kids; and The Mr. and I clean up after the plates and argue with the children about the importance of good hygiene (you would think that they were little witches the way they are so adverse to taking a bath or shower). Then we settle the baby into bed (that entails multiple steps as well) and complete various other tasks. Last night The Mr. and I were sidetracked with additional chores- it was garbage night, a toilet was clogged (will they ever learn to courtesy flush?!), The Mr.’s dress/ work clothes needed to be laundered (I don’t trust myself to do it. Too many single red socks have breached the loads and turned our whites to pinks). So Princess Commando and H took on the duty of keeping after The Baby while we tied up our loose ends. All they needed to do was let her roam around the living room and steer her away from electrical outlets and cords which are her favorite play things.

 The children’s most beloved pastime, especially after dinner, is noise making-lots and lots of ear piercing, inhuman sounds. Last night, they gave The Baby a piano lesson which created a novel din in the house. Princess Commando took the low notes, H was somewhere in the middle, and The Baby took the high notes. Somehow, though, through the cacophony of three separate musical movements, a sweet song seeped through. They had managed to find the same rhythm- to clumsily pluck and plunk in a collaborative tempo.  H had perched The Baby on the piano bench. She was so proud of herself to be up high- delighting in the cause and effect of pressing the keys and bringing forth sound. She earnestly followed H’s direction as he knelt beside her on the floor.

She is about the same age as each of her siblings were when they first discovered the large, wooden noise box. I have pictures of each of them- standing on tiptoes, fingers stretched to the limits to reach the keys.
H at about 18 months old at our old house

Princess Commando 2 years Old
I have always valued having instruments in the house. I grew up with the piano and I eventually took up guitar. My grandfather is an accomplished pianist. Watching him play when I was a child, I always marveled at how his hands glided across the keys with such ease, creating a sound as smooth as silk. His talent for transposing music to suit musicians or vocalists who might accompany him is nothing short of amazing. I wish I had inherited that gift. Even now, as he is somewhat taken with Alzheimer’s, finding the tune, caressing the melody from the keys is so natural to him.
My Papa on Thanksgiving Day at my mother's house.

The piano in our possession came with our first house. They belonged to my step-father (the house and the piano). It was a little rusty sounding back then (13 years ago). But, it is hopelessly out of tune now. Time has also loosened the tops of some of the keys exposing the hardened glue that once held them in place. My grandfather, upon noticing its very sad condition, brought me a box of key veneers years ago. But, other priorities kept me from tending to repairing the keyboard. I used to play the piano daily despite its ill sound. But, I haven't had much inclination to play since we moved to our new home. It has always been my intention to provide the children with piano lessons. It is my firm belief that all children should learn to play at least one instrument. It is an outlet, a release, an expression which offers balance when life is askew. But, alas, money has always been allocated for other needs. And the absence of real live music in the house- no matter how square or clunky it comes out-  has been added to my list of regrets. But we are coming upon a new year and I am hopeful that there will be plenty of opportunities for music. In the very least, I am determined to have the piano tuned and its keys restored. In the meantime, I will have to settle for the sweet, tinny sounds of my little trio- Princess Commando, H and The Baby.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Only, I Didn't Say Fudge

Ain't No Half Steppin on My Snow!

I have not been able to write in a while because I cannot get my thoughts together. Visions of sugar plums keep occupying the small space left in my brain that isn’t observed by holiday anxiety, the maintenance of children’s schedules and fulfillment of their needs, the lists of things to do and the list of things that won’t get done for a very long time. So, the best I can offer is randomness.

We live in Buffalo, NY. We have a negative reputation for miserable, snow burdened winters. Really, it’s not that bad. Aside from the frigid snowstorm in the middle of the night while we dashed off to the hospital to birth The Baby on January 28th- there hasn’t been a notable snowfall around the metro area for years. We did have a freak snowstorm in October 2006- which was dubbed Arborgeddon because of its widespread destruction of trees in the city and surrounding suburbs. The two “snow days” we’ve had thus far this school year held nary a flake to the ground in North Buffalo. Our south towns got hammered (we draw a large portion of our students from South Buffalo; so, the school closings were due to transportation issues for that area). This week we were finally awarded what I consider our first real snowfall of the season. Beautiful, fluffy flakes marched down in bands, blanketing the sheet of ice on the streets- making a gorgeous but treacherous scene.  But, I have no motivation to escape the confines of my home to partake in the wonders outdoors.

I have a hopeless need to hibernate this time of year. I am happy to enjoy the view from inside. Fortunately, the children- who adore winter weather- are old enough to not need my looming supervision. I can superintend from the front windows-occasionally admonishing them when they venture too close to the street or pelt each other too enthusiastically with snow balls.  Anyway, the gloomier the weather, the heavier the snow, the icier the streets, it is all the better for the guilt that nags at me for not participating in the season’s hibernal offerings. I have very little faith in our weatherman (my hair is more adept at predicting changes in the weather than he is). But, when he drolly says, “It’s a cold one. If you don’t need to go out, stay indoors!” I follow his advice.

My moments of bad conscience stir again when I realize that the baby has been trapped indoors with me for days without a spark of new, external stimulation. But, I think being sequestered in our home hasn’t done too much damage because she has used the time to develop a new skill- taking drunken unassisted steps. She can run agilely along the furniture and walls with just a fingertip’s contact for support. When she is impelled to let go, she continues to run a few steps until she crashes into furniture or the Christmas tree. She’s not content to walk, she needs to run. Ain’t no half steppin for my kid (I realized today that she takes just enough steps to tap out that gem of a lyric from Heatwave. Now the song is stuck in my head). And, soon enough, she will be like the Gingerbread baby, taunting, “Run, run as fast as you can…” And, by that point, she may have worn me down just enough that I will let her keep running over the river and through the woods until that sly fox comes into view. Then I’ll intervene.

And speaking of intervening and more guilt, H in a last ditch effort to defend himself against First Born Son’s obnoxious, relentless teasing at dinner last night, told his brother to “Fudge off!” Only he, of course, didn’t say fudge. I am the worst offender of the F bomb. I grew up in a no swearing household. I was always respectful with my tone and my choice of words- even in moments of excruciating pain or anger. Something happened when I had children. In order to quell the moments of overwhelming anxiety or deep frustration in parenting, I would let loose an expletive or three. It was a release that kept me feeling grounded so that I would not lose my mind in those moments. I realize that it is terribly wrong. I’ve tried- I’ve really, really tried to stop- to exchange the unsavory words for others. But, nothing feels as good to say. And nothing feels so awful to hear coming out of your 11 year old’s mouth. My dinner literally turned in my stomach. But, I did not react. The Mr. took care of that. The gentle, mild mannered, non-cussing Mr. snapped, “That is not acceptable! It is not ok even if your mother does it.” I lowered my head in shame. If I had any money to my name, I would certainly put a quarter in a jar each time I unleashed an ugly word. I could create a healthy college savings fund for the children by my cussing alone. But, alas, my piggy bank is bare, so, I must settle for a New Year’s Resolution- to will myself to bury those words and set a good example. The Baby is absorbing things at a rapid rate. If the F bomb sounds disgusting coming from an 11 year old, it can only kill innocent kittens and puppies if it passes a baby’s lips. 

And, one final note relating to fudge, I will be up to my elbows in cookie baking and, yes, fudge making next week preparing for a little Christmas party I promised Princess Commando we would host for the neighborhood kids next Thursday after school. It’s too bad I don’t have a clue how to set up our video camera. If I did you would be able to watch live streaming video of true three o’clock craziness. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Holiday Greeting Card

The children were filled
 with both apprehension and glee
when they discovered their 'star'
glowing brightly on the tree.

I finally finished our holiday card. It didn't quite turn out the way I wanted it to. It's difficult with The Baby to find any time to sit and illustrate. This was done during stolen moments. And, here are some holiday cards from Christmases Past. As mentioned in earlier posts, the illustration in my blog header is our Christmas card from 2006. I wish I could find my earliest cards from way back when there were only two children ruling the house.

Christmas 2007

Christmas 2008 Front (This was inspired by a photograph I took, capturing a rare moment where all three of them were snuggling in Princess Commando's bed. The boys were drawn to her room because she had been hooked up, temporarily, with a TV while she was bed ridden with a long bout of pneumonia.).

The interior of the card:

Christmas 2009. I was very pregnant with The Baby. She was sapping all of my creative energy- to, you know, grow and stuff. This was designed in a last minute burst of energy (then I hibernated for the next 6 weeks). I employed the help of our pets.

The interior of this one read:
On Oscar! On Ruby!
On Mitsy! And Mooshie!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Bring the joy and happiness of the season to all! 

Sadly, Oscar (our Australian Shepherd) passed away this summer. His sled pulling days are over:-( It's too bad because I could have really used his playful willingness and strength to pull The Baby through the snow this winter.

As we move onward through this holiday season and as 2010 draws to a close, I send you all my best wishes for peace, joy, health, happiness, friendship, love and success through out the season and the New Year.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

14 Years

Truly, my illustrations do not do his handsomeness any justice.

Fourteen years ago today, I became a mother. By the soft, natural light of early morning, we welcomed First Born Son, Max. I was surrounded by The Mr., my mother and my best friend, R whose enlivened faces had only moments earlier encouraged me to power on just a little further so that I may meet him. They were the first to see that my boy had, of all physical attributes, a full head of red hair. It was a playful, unexpected twist as I always imagined my children to take on what I thought were my dominant qualities, dark hair and skin.

Much has been written about the profound moment of holding your child for the first time- the feeling of holding your heart in your hands. I felt all that: relief, accomplishment, gratitude, awe and weight. I was amazed at how substantial my 8lb 9oz tightly swaddled bundle felt when I held him in my arms the first time. He felt like an anchor; but, it was not in the way of a burden. He was the ballast which flooded me with a sense of security. His two dark eyes peered out from the bindings of his warm flannel hospital blanket and cap with a sense of knowing and acceptance. “You seem like fine parents. We’re going to get along famously.” It just felt right. He was who he was supposed to be, as was I. Son. Mother.

Max was the ideal baby. He slept well, ate well, and rolled with any changes we imposed upon him. Fourteen years later (aside from his lack of willingness to eat well balanced meals), not much has changed. The list of glowing adjectives to describe him could flow like beautiful ribbons through the streets of Buffalo, NY.  Some of the most fitting are: bright, forgiving, patient, engaging, entertaining, thoughtful, benevolent, amiable, athletic; and on and on flow the ribbons. He is among other things-First born. Oldest son. Oldest brother. Mr. Chatterbox- Mr. Social. Handsome. He always has the eye of the older girls at school. They swarm around him and look out for him. Empathetic (except for when it comes to his younger brother). Max is the hesitant one. He says "NO" all the way to the "first time"- but after the first try- he masters the skill and enjoys the experience fully- putting his all into it- always sad to see the end (the end of his first professional acting experience, the end of the soccer season, the end of the school year). As a child in this family, he has set the bar high. And, luckily his siblings look up to him (whether they will admit to it or not) because they follow (whether they will admit it or not) his goodness, his strength, his thoughtfulness, his quiet courage, his endurance, his humor, his love of his family. I couldn't have imagined a better first. Yes, he is still teenager-ish and I’ve highlighted his antics in previous posts. But, honestly the list of disagreeable idiosyncrasies is not very noteworthy.

Fourteen years ago, he was the greatest early Christmas gift I could have ever received. He is the gift that keeps on giving. Happy Birthday, Max! 

Here is the birthday card I made for him. In a world filled with drones and droids, his uniqueness shines.