Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Seasons of Renewal

I once dated a man who was very nice, very smart and very kind. But I knew it would never work out between us as soon as he told me his favorite season was spring. Actually, that's not true. That wasn't a deal breaker. But when I said my favorite season was autumn and he declared that he hated autumn--the season of mildew and everything dying--I crossed him off my list.

Perhaps he was too literal, a soul who reveled in the promise of new life each year, of blooming beauty and a fresh start. Who of us doesn't enjoy spring? Even as an allergy sufferer, at the end of a long, cold, dark winter, I would rather see pollen pushers poking their heads up through the soil than more swirling snow. As I thought about it further--the coming summer, sunny days and warm weather, beach visits and bike rides--I realized that spring really did signal the beginning of my favorite type of events.

This is a reflection, I imagine, of my lack of long-term vision. Yes, autumn is the prelude to winter, with its shorter days, colder nights, driveway shoveling and high heating bills. But I choose instead to make the most of my short-sightedness in this case. Cooler weather means a new school year and all the promise that it brings. It's the intro to a season of soups and stews, pies and cookies, all the baking that it's too hot to do in the summer. Fuzzy sweaters and soft corduroy pants come out of storage, and comforters are thrown across the beds. Cuddling under blankets with popcorn and hot chocolate with mini marshmallows is a favorite pastime with the kids, especially with all the school holidays that come in autumn. The fireplace can get a good cleaning, and the woodpile gets re-stacked with pine cones and cinnamon sticks. Let the hunkering down begin.

I suppose autumn is, for me, a sort of nesting period. In spring and summer, we open windows and increase our outings, enroll in camps and tasks that keep us out, away from each other and always on the move. So in autumn, when the cool air and school responsibilities bring us back together, back to home, it's a bit like preparing for the birth of a new baby. The house is made ready, the pantry is stocked and the windows pulled closed.

To me, autumn is the preparation for family togetherness. Soon Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons will call the rest of our extended family together. When they do, we will renew ourselves in each others' company, with all of the comforts and warmth of good food and the richness of each season's meaning. And by the middle of winter, we will be refreshed, ready to face the coldest months again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

You Can Do It. I Can't Help.

One of the many lessons I am learning as a parent is how to give up control. Of course, it starts as soon as the baby is born, when you relinquish every measurable, intentional movement you routinely make in life and give yourself over to this new and mysterious being. Had a tough day and need a good night's sleep? That's nice, but I'm hungry. Get up and feed me. Need to run to the grocery store and pick up something for dinner? Oh well, it's going to have to wait until after my nap. Feel like getting away for a romantic weekend at a B&B? Wait a few years until you're comfortable leaving me with a babysitter overnight. Want to kick back, read the paper and have a "veg out" day? Sorry, I'm in constant need of intellectual and emotional stimulation. It took me a couple of months, but I finally realized that once you have kids, your activity meter must forever stay in the "on" position, like it or not.

Maybe that's just me, but I feel like my kids are little sponges that I must forever be feeding, in some form or other, to keep them alive and thriving. Not that I want to become one of those parents who completely over schedules their children just so they can get into the "right" college. But when I see an opening, I grab it.

For example, Benjamin, who is soon to be six, has recently shown us that musical taste knows no minimum age, and is apparently genetic. Whereas Jacob and I enjoy the tunes of Mozart and the score from The Sound of Music, Ben can frequently be seen playing air guitar and tapping his feet to the music of The Who, or running to turn up Welcome To The Machine by Pink Floyd when it comes on the radio. The kid clearly has rock 'n' roll in his blood, and he didn't get it from me. But such a distinct interest! And at such a young age! How can I let this go untouched?

At my suggestion, my parents have bought Ben a guitar for his birthday. (Fortunately, he's too young to read my blog just yet, so I'm not spoiling the surprise). And while Jacob recently started piano lessons, and I have been helping him with finger placement, hand positioning and rhythm, it is because I can. Nine years of piano lessons left me with a residue of musical knowledge and appreciation, if no lasting skill. But the guitar? A complete mystery to me. A bunch of little grids and dots on the page, even the music looks strange. So Ben has the interest, and now the instrument. In the immortal words of Bloat from Finding Nemo, "Now what?"

I'm trying not to fret about it, pun completely intended, but I want to maximize the novelty of his new instrument. I want to give him some skills and knowledge so that he can start to take advantage of his interest and explore his musical abilities. Part of me feels that lessons are not really the way to go. He's so young, and hasn't said outright, "I want to learn how to play the guitar." But at the same time, I can't help him. I don't know how to show him basic chords or melodies. Heck, I don't even know if he's a lefty yet (good thing we didn't go for the electric guitar). So seeing the interest and acting on it is all I can do right now.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Too much structure and guidance might have just the opposite effect. Maybe if I just give him the tuned guitar and let him explore it on his own, his interest and curiosity will grow. Maybe it will raise questions and desires in him that hovering and instruction would not. Ben is a hands-on kind of learner, and this is a perfect opportunity to let him do just that.

Maybe, just maybe, my not helping him will be the best help I can give him.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Filling In the Blanks

I am not much of a picture taker which, sadly, will mean that there will be no play-by-play sequence of photos or videos of my sons' young lives when they are grown. To compound things, I am like most parents in my inability to mentally retain details long after they have become irrelevant to my life (how many ounces of formula per bottle? What should the bath temperature be? At what weight and age do we adjust the car seats?).

Somehow, though, this acceptance of letting little details slip away has expanded to the rest of my brain. So when people ask me how old my children were when they got their first teeth or took their first steps, and what their first words were, I have to excuse myself and head for the ladies' room. To say I don't remember would be the same as admitting these things are too unimportant for their mother--their mother!--to remember. What kind of mother does that make me?

I am currently reading a book that involves an older teen who is shot while volunteering for a homeless shelter where his aunt is employed. The teen is an all-around star: soft spoken but bright, compassionate and sincere, helpful and kind. Essentially, he embodies all those things we dream our children will one day be. This enhances the tragedy of the story when he is lying comatose in a hospital bed, family and friends drifting in and out endlessly to sit with him amidst the beeps and whirrs of machines keeping him alive.

As his mother, and later his aunt, sit with him, they whisper stories in his ear. "Remember when we went skiing and you beat me in a race down the bunny hill, even though it was only your second time on skis ever?" "Remember that time when your dog was a puppy and we fed him so many Oreos that he puked all over the new rug your mom had just bought, and we cleaned it up so fast and well that she never found out?" That kind of stuff. It's a great method for providing some otherwise unrelated backstory of the lives of the characters, and I couldn't help smiling at the level of details in each reminiscence, and the pictures that the words created.

How many of those stories do have in my head from my sons' lives? I began to ask myself. Granted, it was 11:30 at night and my sons have had merely a fraction of the years and experiences of the boy in the story. But still. As I lay there trying to remember funny, silly, strange, sad stories in my boys' lives, I was all but brought to tears when I realized how few I could come up with. What is a Teflon brained mother to do?

I write. My saving grace has been that since the children were born, I have been writing about them on some sort of blog. It is where I make sense of and revel in their experiences and growth, and record what each of these experiences has done to me. More than just helping me remember as I read through the hundreds of posts and pages, the words help me relive all of the moments--both magical and mundane--that have made up my children's short lives. Moved to laughter, cringes and tears, I see them growing up again and again on these pages.

I tell myself this is better than snapshots: those albums with scattered pictures of this celebration or that holiday show us who was there, but not what they were feeling. What happened to make Jacob look so solemn at his first birthday party? Why does Benjamin have that big bump on his head in this Halloween picture? These are things neither my memory nor a moment-in-time photograph can answer.

Recording history is important. We are all shaped by our experiences, and being able to refer back to them is both necessary (lest we repeat our mistakes) and enlightening. Someday, maybe even my sons will be interested in reading their mother's version of their life stories.

So no, I may not be able to tell you Benjamin's first word or where we were when he said it. I might not recall exactly how old Jacob was when he began using sign language, or the first book he read by himself. But when the party is over and everyone has gone home, I can go look these things up if I really want to. And chances are, even after I find the answer I'm looking for, I will "live" out the rest of the year that it happened, enjoying the ride of early parenthood again and again through words. And though the details of their little faces and limbs may be fuzzy in my mind, the shapes of their growing spirits and personalities are illuminated.