Friday, September 30, 2011

super family fun time

When I was fourteen years old, I grudgingly endured my final family outing. My mother and father had planned a day trip to Chautauqua Lake (somehow my sister escaped the torment via a friend's invitation to do something  fun). It was the tail end of summer - which was the beginning of the off season for events and attractions at the Chautauqua Institution ( a 300 acre historic community in Western New York which provides a summer residence for fine and performing artists). Without the small consolation of people watching the trip became more unbearable. My parents tried to engage me by pointing out the whimsical architecture of the cottages and storefronts nestled within the community. My father tried to break me with humor by standing underneath a sign which read 'Normal' and posing in a very non-normal stance with one hip up, butt out, and face twisted moronically. Because I was forced there against my will, I refused to acknowledge their attention. Instead I chose to sulk in the car for three hours while my parents and younger brother traipsed through the shuttered grounds.

Upon our return home, my mother, having been forced put up with my miserable countenance all day, announced that I was emancipated from family outings henceforth. I vowed aloud that I would never be so inconsiderate or unfair as to force my future teenage children to suffer through family excursions. What was the point? Once a teenager is set on being obstinate, it becomes family bondage not family bonding.

I was so adamant about being a compassionate parent- accepting and respectful of her child's developmentally appropriate need for freedom- I thought I would have been in tune with the subtle signs that my oldest son was outgrowing the fun of family pleasure trips. Our photographs from his final attendance at our annual excursion to the apple farm depicted the truth I could not see in real time. While the photos of his younger brother and sister captured images of children gleefully climbing apple trees and frolicking along the fence line chasing cows in the orchard, the images of First Born Son were a pictorial record of a child in utter torment. His face was drawn tight, eyes squinting to shut out the embarrassment of having to see us and be seen with us. His shoulders were high and stiff, turning his body into a splinter with the intent to prick us if we even stepped one foot into his body buffer zone. "It's too soon," I thought. "He's too young to want to be in any other county than the one where his family is merrymaking." But, he was only a few months younger than I had been when I brooded in the backseat of our car at the Chautauqua Institution-wishing for an assignment to a labor camp to keep from having my family forced upon me.

While we still always extend an invitation to the oldest child, his absence has become customary. With one child missing, we have become a family of six masquerading as a family of five. It felt all wrong at first. But, I will admit that our outings are more congenial without the low hanging cloud of a sullen teenager bearing down on us. And our relationship has become less strained from the decreasing number of battles fought.

Last Saturday, when we made our annual trek to the apple orchard, we lost another one. Henry sheepishly requested that he be allowed to stay behind due to a brewing Fall cold. Normally we would have postponed the trip. He was always such a willing participant who valued tradition and ceremony; we did not want him to feel excluded. I was surprised when he so bravely encouraged us between sickly sniffles to go without him, "I think I'll be fine." He paused thoughtfully, "Do I need to be there in order to eat the apples or drink the apple cider you bring home?" Of course not, dear sick child. "And will you still bring home a bag of their homemade caramel popcorn?" Yes, my most loyal son. "Well, then I definitely don't need to go anymore." Anymore? That was it?

We are now family of six who, while on outings, masquerades as a mother and father with only two, young female children. The sting of losing a second child has been quickly replaced with the exhilaration of dreaming up adventures that can be had with only two girls. Adventures that only require our Subaru sedan which comfortably transports the four of us instead of grumbling along in the SUV which seats 8 and never feels like enough room. Adventures which are less logistically challenging and which require less refereeing. Hooray for family togetherness!

I realize that these brief separations- these moments of freedom and independence we are granting the boys- are only just setting the stage, helping us prepare for the day when they decide to fly the coop. Even then, an invitation to join us for day trips will still be extended. And even then, we will make sure we have a vehicle which carries 6 passengers- just in case they all surprise us one day and take us up on our offer. Maybe we will venture to Chautauqua; and, maybe this time I'll actually experience it from outside of the car.

Monday, September 26, 2011

pick on apples not on people

We are our children's greatest teachers. Our children are sponges- absorbing our beliefs, our values and our perspectives. Their ears hear the thinly guarded meaning behind the tones of our voices. They drink in the words which are spun with either courtesy or laced with ill will toward others. They are open and impressionable; and, that which sticks sometimes stays forever- whether or not we intended for it to be there, and whether or not they truly understand.  This is why I must always remind myself to speak kindly of others, to others,  so that my children may in turn regard others with kindness. This is why I must continually try to paint a world of acceptance for all people- a world where my children will celebrate the uniqueness of each person- a  world where they can thrive on the diversity and differences of their fellow human beings. It is my province to always remind them the of the power of their words- that those spoken with malice, with intent to harm- will nettle and leave scars. But, those words spoken in tones of empathy, compassion, and consideration  may have the power to heal a hurting heart and bring one back from the brink of hopelessness. I must teach them to be just and fair and give them the strength to stand up for those who suffer from the injustices and prejudice of those who choose to live in the shadows of hatred and ignorance. It is a daunting task, especially when your child has been the target of a bully.

The tragic story of Jamey Rodemeyer incites me to lay blame on the young people who tormented him. It saddens me that they will not be held accountable for their actions, their words which drove a young man ( a child the age of my oldest son) to suicide. But, I suspect the lines of blame are tangled and reach back much further than this young generation. I cannot help but wonder what words the children who bullied Jamey Rodemeyer had absorbed at home, what misguided lessons stuck in their tender minds. If their greatest teachers had been more careful with their words might this tragedy have been averted?

Please click here to learn more about the petition asking Senate to Enact an Anti-Bullying Law (Jamey's Law).

Friday, September 23, 2011

not just a game


I am so far off of the athletic spectrum that a blind, one legged turkey could beat me at a foot race down my own street (and he probably wouldn't pee his feathers or pop a knee out of alignment doing so). My comprehension of sports vernacular is woefully nonexistent. And, I could sit through an entire game (or series of games), whether it be baseball, soccer or hockey and never quite figure out what is going on (kind of what my brain does with Math).  This is why I believed that we had reached the major leagues when First Born Son, at 9 years old, was invited, based on what I assumed were his superior soccer skills, to play on our city’s Travel league. Gone would be the days of enduring games where your child was more focused on a bird flying overhead than the ball on the ground. This was big time. We would be travelling (to the suburbs).

But, I was wrong. The soccer ladder doesn’t end at a meager appointment to a Travel roster. There comes a time in a young man’s life when he desires more- further travelling (along the Thruway), more grueling scheduling, more advanced training, more opportunities for stardom, and perhaps the possibility of a college scholarship. This beast is called Premier Soccer.

The Mr. and First Born Son had heard of these leagues, whispered in secret code along the sidelines of the Travel games. They were intrigued. One day, they covertly observed the practice session of a group of elite players in First Born Son’s age bracket. These boys were well oiled machines, indomitable in their precision; sharply intelligent; adroit in their communication with one another on the field; proficient in their handling of the ball. ‘I want to go to there,’ The Mr. said with stars in his eyes. But, as he is a grown man, he encouraged (prodded, rammed and pleaded for) the seed of aspiration to grow within First Born Son. The son obliged his father's persistent, enthusiastic petition by trying out for one of the leagues. Unfortunately during try outs, it was apparent that it was not our young grasshopper’s time yet. He felt dejected (angry at his father for putting him in a position to fail). But, The Mr. had taken to heart the suggestions and recommendations the premier coach offered and pleaded with First Born Son to consider committing to developing his skills over the winter and spring so that he could try out again in the summer. 

 “Why?” I kept asking. “Why is it so important that he make it into this league? It’s just soccer. It’s just a game.”  In my athletically challenged mind, sports were a negligible faction- something which might be included in the Interests or Other Activities section on high school or college applications. I did not know many people ( if any) who had received scholarships to college based on their athletic prowess. The truth was I was worried about his grades suffering. He had always struggled to keep his head above water in school. If we added more responsibility, more commitment, were we not just setting him up for academic failure?

I did not realize the importance of soccer until I watched First Born Son assume the undertaking of training throughout the winter and spring for the sole purpose of trying out for a league in the summer. He focused on developing his talent and maturating his skills. He opened his mind to a new way of looking at soccer, of processing the game, cultivating his abilities and addressing his weaknesses; of caring for his body/ his health; and learning how to coordinate his facilities with those of his teammates. He put in his own time at the park, practicing and seeking out others who shared his passion for the game. His diligence paid off with invitations to join the rosters of not one, but three elite leagues-with requisite commitment levels set much higher than he was accustomed to.

I have always impressed upon my children the importance of academic excellence over many other facets of achievement. But, my view has shifted. Academic achievement is a gateway to many successes; but, it is only one dimensional without the joining of a child’s talents and gifts- whatever they may be. For First Born Son, soccer is complimenting a solid academic program to create a well-rounded student of life. Soccer has become an instrument which aids him to organize and prepare for the rigors of college and a competitive world.  His renewed focus on school learning and achievement and his appreciation for the dedication required to meet and exceed educational standards is concurrent with his concentration on his athletic progression. Once soccer was added to the menu, we blinked and, as if by magic, before us stood a teenager who had become independent in his learning, motivated to accept the challenges of sophomore year. He is passionate about his sport and he knows that there is a lot at stake-he will lose the privilege to play if he does not keep his grades up.

I may be sports challenged, but I have learned enough to know when my son is magnificently living up to his potential on the field, when his decision making skills are sharp and accurate, when his sportsmanship is exemplary. At the same time, I know when he is off his game; when his feet are uncharacteristically clumsy, as if they have never met a ball before in their life; when he miscalculates the opportunity for a shot on net changing the course of a game. I know it's not okay to tell him "Winning isn't everything," even if that is what I believe in my heart. More than all of that, I know when I am watching him what I am really witnessing is a kid come into his own. And, that is pretty exciting. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

dear mother

The night that I was creating my previous post about Princess Commando not wanting to grow up, she wrote me the following letter, unaware that I was already writing about her and considering her concerns about life as a nine year old. I can't help but want to share it because it is so stinking cute. I bring you deep thoughts by Princess Commando:

Friday, September 16, 2011

you will not always want to strangle your siblings

When one (or more) of my children comes to me with exasperation on his/her breath and a promise to sever family ties with a sibling who has been poking them with the vexing stick, I tell them they will not always feel this way. One day, if I have done my job well, they will not all be living under the same roof. Time and space will allow them to flourish into their own unique and compelling personalities. They will learn to cultivate compassion for others, even their siblings.

One day, when they begin to feel the tightening grip of grown- up responsibility and obligation, they will long for the blithe days of their youth. They will softly land in the reverie of the home and family life of their childhood, the holidays and ordinary moments of merriment. Inevitably their siblings will be woven into this anamnesis. And they will find themselves pining for a reunion with their brothers and sisters.

They doubt me each time I tell them how it will be. But, I remember life with my siblings. I remember days of irritation and resentment. I also remember a long period of apathy for one another - coexisting with minimal interest or interaction. We loved each other because our parents told us, "You must!"

It was not until I had my first baby that I understood the true value of my sister, Bug, who is 2 1/2 years younger than me. Nearly every day of the first month of his life, she showed up at my door to hold First Born Son in her arms. Our time was not filled with conversation. It was crocheted with quiet acceptance and appreciation. She gave me the gift of time-for a shower, for a meal. The fact that she understood what I needed without asking made me realize that she truly loved me- that we were beyond the place where our parents forced us into sibling servitude. This was genuine.

Bug moved away when Princess Commando was three years old. My heart broke. And ever since she left, we have been wishing her back. The moon and the stars must have heard us- we must have done something right because next week my sister and her family are moving home for good. Our family will be whole again. And finally we will be able to perform musical numbers such as this:

Happy Friday!

Monday, September 12, 2011

training day

Today marks the first full week of school. With the older children unavailable to amuse my little flower, I have been trying to create experiences for Violet which incorporate education and civic responsibility. I know it is much too premature to think of snow- and I shudder to imagine days of ice and insulated parkas; but, I thought that we should begin her training  for conscientious citizenship during Buffalo winters now. Since we have two All Wheel Drive vehicles, we have never found ourselves stuck in the ruts of a blizzard. But, many of our neighbors are not as fortunate. Even the smallest citizen is useful in exerting the power needed to force cars out of snow banks. But, the power and will to overcome nature's obstacles does not come without prior training. This is why I loaded up her Cozy Coupe with bricks. The Coupe has two lazy wheels which perfectly replicate the experience of being at the mercy of a frazzled driver who has forgotten how to follow directions when you call out from the back bumper, "Turn the wheel right. No, your right." Violet was eager to learn. I told her that I would give her a Goldfish cracker for ever brick she managed to keep in the Coupe at the end of our session (the door does not stay latched and our driveway is terribly bumpy). I think she did okay. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

this is what i remember

Ten years ago, the morning was luminous and rich blue. The faces of the children in First Born Son's kindergarten classroom reflected the radiance of the day- full of promise, beaming with eagerness to learn. We were only one week into the school year. My friend, Amy, who was their kindergarten teacher, generously allowed me to volunteer in her room with Henry in tow (she knew I wasn't ready to cut the cord to my first born yet). I remained in the room while Amy escorted the little learners to their first bathroom break of the morning. Henry studiously engineered a tower of blocks. The classroom phone rang, the principal (my dear Aunt Liz) instructed me to tune the radio to the news. I fumbled through the stations until I found NPR. There was something glaringly wrong- the reporter's voice was unsteady, unprofessional, all too- human. A plane crashed in Manhattan- conflicting reports on which building was hit, no further details.

When I shared the news with Amy, she sent me to the office to watch the live feed on NBC. With Henry on my lap, I tried to make sense of the information, the exact location. And, then, the second plane pierced the second tower. We thought we were watching a replay- but, it was all wrong. The reporters voices were different, frantic. They were reacting to live action. At that moment we knew this was not an accident. Everything in the room was suspended- the clock stopped ticking, our breathing desisted, our blood froze, but our minds kept running: What just happened? Is this real? What does it mean? It was as if the world was opening up, ready to swallow us whole. I remember more teachers calling down to the office or sending their aides to gather information. Many had relatives who were working in the World Trade Center. Was it possible that they escaped unscathed? I remember parents calling- wanting to pick up their kids. Some feared that there would be more attacks around the country- that our close proximity to Niagara Falls made us vulnerable. My Aunt Liz, understood their fears- she would not keep anyone from retrieving their children; but, she also did her best to assure panicked parents that their children were safe. But, how do you go about the rest of the day-keeping the children sheltered from the news when your face is benumbed- twisted into a stunned expression, your mind replaying the horror of what you now understand to be a national tragedy?

I remember, after briefly entertaining the most morbid of thoughts of being separated from my child during an attack, I decided to leave Max with Amy at school. I knew he was in the care of someone who loved him. I drove to my father's house which was four blocks away from school. He hadn't left for work yet. I could read in his eyes the disbelief that must have also been reflected in mine. I can't remember if we even spoke to each other.  We sat on the couch witnessing again and again a tragedy (multiple tragedies) unfolding on television-the weight in our chests anchoring us there. The images on the screen were what I had always imagined the end of the world to look like. I remember feeling very small and helpless like a child-needing the protection and reassurance of her father's presence.  I remember feeling that nothing in those moments made sense. Architecture, industry, glory, life- reduced to rubble and ash.

I remember First Born Son repeatedly asking if the smoke from the buildings was going to come to our house.  I remember wanting to hold onto him and Henry and The Mr. more tightly. I remember going to sleep under the veil of my nation's mourning. I remember feeling heartbroken and angry (but, I wasn't exactly sure who I was angry at). I remember that the days which followed were wrought with endless moments of trying to make sense in a wounded world- trying to understand not only this raw tragedy but others much farther away- those we had so effortlessly closed our eyes to. We hung a flag. We bowed our heads. We wished for peace, protection, for the return of hope and life. We were told to move forward and we did.

I remember the conflicting feelings of Americans- the abject anger versus the desperate desire for unity. I remember my own patriotism challenged by two disparate experiences which occurred on a brief shopping trip. I encountered a blonde, fair skinned middle aged couple who, with disdain, assessed my dark skin and dark hair- features which could be plugged into any of the races Americans were warned to be wary of. The man just shook his head- the woman paused when passing me, crinkling her nose, shaking her head in disgust, baring her teeth and letting the 'tsk tsk' sound slip off her tongue. She believed that I was from a country which had brought torment and pain upon her nation; and, it was well within her right to admonish me.  And then I had an encounter on the other end of the spectrum. I was in a dressing room, trying on pants, when the attendant came in to offer her assistance, "Does anyone need a different size, a different color, a hug, perhaps?"  I remember wondering if this was our changed nation or if this was just the collective guard being let down- our true feelings and perceptions exposed. Whatever it was, it made me return home and stress upon my young children to not judge the appearance of others, to try their best to take the time to understand their fellow citizens regardless of their beliefs; to be open and accepting of the diversity in our country.

My children do not remember the events of 9/11/01. They only know the now. But, I remember that day, a morning which began with such clarity, a day so full of promise.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

And, they're off!

This morning I stood at the front door and watched Henry, his feet planted at the corner of our street in the cool drizzle waiting for his bus. He was the first one to leave. His body was resolutely turned away from home-ears pricked up, anticipating the sounds of the wheels which would lift and carry him away from here. I wanted to reach through the screen door and scoop his distant figure up in my hands and bring him back inside.

On the morning of the first day of school, the ferocious beast of a mother's desire to watch over her children demands, "Oh, please don't go- we'll eat you up-we love you so." But, like Max, in Where the Wild Things Are- my children said, "No." They all woke at the dawn of a new era of maturity. No one (except The Mr.) rolled back under the covers when I came in to stir them. No one grumbled or cursed this day that robbed them of long, carefree hours. They dressed, they nibbled on breakfast, they combed their hair and brushed their teeth, and remembered their lunches- without a reminder from their hovering mother. They were gracious, grateful little impostors- wrapping their arms around me, cooing whispers of "I love you."

First Born Son was the second to leave. While he waited for The Mr. to take him to his shuttle bus, he kept rattling off names of freshman whose parents had asked him to keep an eye on them in the first weeks of school.  Two mothers approached him at the freshman orientation last week-where he was volunteering- and each slipped him $5 to make sure that their young, green teenagers boarded the public transit safely. He is, after all,  a sophomore- seasoned in the rhythm, rhyme and reason of high school. I have never seen him so serious about a task. But, the mothers never introduced him to their children; so, he had no idea who he should be shepherding. He resolved to play herdsman to an entire metro bus filled with students- many of whom are freshmen. "It's so much to remember! I've got to figure out who these kids are. There are too many of them! It's too much pressure! Life would be so much easier without children!"

And now, I hold my breath for the afternoon. If only the mothers who had entrusted him to play transportation caretaker to their children knew that it took him three hours to navigate his way home on the first day of school last year (circumventing our neighborhood numerous times and winding up at a Greyhound Station very nearly ready to board for NYC) because he was too proud to ask for help. Then, they might have sought the services of a less direction impaired student.

The last to leave was my girl. This year marks her first year riding the morning bus. She was boundlessly enthusiastic- and asked if we could stand at the corner 15 minutes early- 'Just in case it comes sooner than it is supposed to.' Today I could almost play the tune of my woefulness on the string that was attached from my heart to hers. She is becoming a young lady- losing her fickle love, open to more patience and understanding, more free with her sweetness. She still enjoys when I summon her with a string of pet names: AnnieBananie SweetiePie SugarCakes Bananaberry Poopernutter AnnaBee LoveyDovey HoneyButt. She is a fourth grader- the upperclassman of her school. This is her last year at the early childhood center she has attended since kindergarten. We will be looking ahead to middle school shortly.

Five more of our neighborhood friends and fellow students joined us at the bus stop. All were freshly scrubbed and pressed. All wide eyed and awake. All ready for a new beginning. And we, parents, stood with our iPhones in hand- squeezing them all together to fit into the frame to capture that first day of school. Another memory of our children stepping away from us. Not a single Timmy or Susie hesitated  when the bus pulled up and it was time to board. But, I felt the collective inhalation of my peers, a silent plea, "Wait!" with arms out stretched. "Wait, we are not ready to let you go yet." But, it was too late. Their smiling, gleeful, young faces swiftly faded from our view as their yellow chariot turned the corner and carried them toward the hallowed halls of elementary school. And, they're off...

And this, ladies and gentlemen, marks my 100th post.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

messy and colorful

Life with kids has been kind of like this:

...messy and colorful.

So here's the messy part:
This week I had been puttering along at my normal pace, going through the motions of my typical routines when this ugly feeling- I'm not sure what to label it, resentment maybe- crept up on me. It burrowed its little weed into my mind and made me acknowledge a part of myself that was rife with discontentment. The Baby had been doling out a heaping dose orneriness. She assaulted me with her acrimonious demeanor (not to mention her toys which were aimed at my head) and a mouth overflowing with drool. I felt my skin try to retreat off of my body when she came at me with wet, stinky, cranky fists- pawing for my undivided attention.  I wanted to bolt- I wanted to be any place than where I was. But, I stayed and allowed frustration to course through me rather than searching my heart for compassion and patience. I employed  the talents of the other children, hunting down loose change to bribe them to watch her while I tried to get house work done or to, god forbid, assemble some loose thoughts to architect a short piece of fiction I was working on. I was disenchanted with my station in life. It was only made worse by the fact that the disenchantment bloomed with it's partner, guilt.
"Pick me up, damn it!"

 I know that the nasty pot had boiled over after having spent Wednesday afternoon at Princess Commando's school's Open House. When Princess Commando and Henry were in 1st and 4th grade respectively, I took on a long- term teaching position in a fourth grade classroom at their school. It was challenging, frustrating at times, but it was, also, very fulfilling.  I loved my students, even the ones who gave me ulcers. And I loved that I was contributing to my family outside of our home. I was working under the guidance of the most wonderfully insightful and compassionate teachers. They had taken me, an outsider, under their wings and helped me figure out the muddle of the assignment I was given. I was growing, with a greater understanding of myself and my abilities in ways I never imagined I needed to grow. More importantly, I was proving to myself that I still had more facets to my being outside of simply being 'mother' which I realized I had become intensely absorbed by.

But, the growth was soon stunted. When I was pregnant with The Baby and subsequently after she was born, I spent very little time on site at the school. I stopped subbing. I didn't have many moments to think about my separation from school as I was overwhelmed by The Baby's needs. But, on Wednesday, after re-connecting with the teachers I worked with, feeling their embrace of acceptance and love again, I realized how much I missed teaching. Realizing how much I missed teaching made me consider the circumstances that kept me from teaching. Inevitably that made me look at The Baby- and not in the glowing, nurturing, grateful, motherly light I should have been. Instead, I felt the unpalatable taste of resentment.

I do not know if it is written somewhere that mothers are not allowed to entertain these feelings. But, I felt the lead vest of guilt buckle over my ribs. I felt that I must have developed some flaw over the past 14 years of parenting which made me deficient in my ability to brush unsavory feelings about motherhood aside. I love The Baby, I know that is true. But, I do not love that my life often feels one dimensional and that that dimension is occupied solely by her shrieking needs. And there are three other children in my house whose needs are often  placed on the back burner. They survive by virtue of the fact that they are far more independent and self sufficient than their youngest sibling. Still, I long to spend quality time alone with each one of them (whether that desire is mutual or not); and my hands, bound by baby business, have kept me from them. This only adds to the messy, ugly feelings.

I should be where that cat is sitting. I miss the days of reading with my girl.

And, here is the colorful part, or the part that does not so much resemble mud:
I'm too tired to tango with resentment. I didn't wrap my hands around it to wring the life out of it- but, I chose acceptance for my current situation and tried to walk forward from there. Fortunately, that dirty, nasty disturbance doesn't root too deeply. It is only dirt, after all. It is easy to wipe away the muck and the mire when I wake up to this flame haired, dancing person:

The orneriness has been temporarily placed on a shelf. But, I am still the one she clings to most. When I leave the room- I am still the only one whose return she beckons with her inconsolable cries. She never lets me out of her sight.

It finally dawned on me that,of course, we are bound to be agitated by one another even if we are dependent on each other. Especially because of that. 'I want you close- close enough for me to push away-but not too far away because I may need you again in a moment.' We do spend every single waking moment together, for crying out loud. It is difficult to maintain that state of enamouredness with someone whom you never ever spend a heartbeat away from- not even to go to the bathroom.  But, yes, I am dependent on her, too.  I rely on her to put me in my place. There are days when I am so set in my ways; but, she's clearly had enough of everything and everyone. And her crystal clear pronunciation of the phrase "All done" gives way an accurate social commentary of her family, "All Dumb!" It's true sometimes we are a bit slow. And I would be all done with us too, if I were in her situation. More than her ability to shed light on our ineptitude, I've come to depend on her to color my world. Because, despite how our days might end, they always begin with this- a smile which shoots a million strands of colored light.