Monday, November 30, 2015

Faith Without A Label

Yesterday my son asked me what religion we are. I experienced an initial pang of guilt (I was raised Catholic, after all) that he felt we needed to belong to a particular religious group, for why else would he have asked? But then I told him I was raised Catholic and Dad was raised Jewish, but we don't practice any one religion by, say, going to church or synagogue each week. Instead, we live by the most important things each of those religions taught us: kindness, patience, love and acceptance. We acknowledge that there is something bigger out there--a spirit, god or deity--than just us here on Earth and it connects us all to each other. This made him smile.

Of course this has been an ongoing discussion in our children's lives. My husband and I talked about it before we were married. How would we raise the children? What would we teach them? What about rituals and services and milestones like Bar Mitzvahs and Communion? Neither of us had gone to services for years, though I do still enjoy the beauty of church choirs, and not just at Christmas time. We tried Unitarianism, which embraced the ideas we shared and seemed the perfect answer. But we are not ones for ritual, and once we moved, attending services each week some 20 minutes away, especially with babies in tow, quickly fell out of favor.

The news from around the world today is so fraught with fear, violence, tension and hate, often in the name of a god, that the thought of sending my children out into such a climate breaks my heart. I worry that they will be afraid to travel and learn about other cultures and lands. But at the same time, I worry that they *won't* be afraid to travel and learn about other cultures and lands and that, while doing so, they will be harmed. It's a sad and scary time to be a parent, a student, alive. It's hard not to worry all the time.

But there's one thing I don't worry about. Despite my children having no "category" in which to place themselves when asked what religion they are, I'm proud of the young men they've become. They are kind and accepting of everyone. They step in when someone is being bullied. They are willing to look at themselves and their behavior when I tell them they have wronged each other or behaved disrespectfully, discuss it with me and then apologize. Sometimes, I don't even need to step in: more and more, they communicate with each other and work out such issues themselves.

I've decided that the only way to let go as a parent is to consider how much better the world is with our children in it. We must appreciate their gifts, have faith in the lessons we've taught them and then send them out into the world, not despite the state it's in, but because of it. They are our hope for a better future, and they will brighten the world with what they've learned, religious label or not.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Love Of The Past

When I was an ignorant teenager, not only did I not know I was ignorant but as a result, I failed to appreciate many things in my life. One of these was my first high school boyfriend. When I think of him now, sharpened through the lens of hindsight, I see a sweet, thoughtful, artistic gentleman. He brought me a single red rose every time he came to pick me up. He wrote me love letters on parchment paper and illustrated them with cliffs and castles, creating magical worlds for my imaginative mind and heart.

But I was so wrapped up in personal insecurity and fear of the world at large that, as much as he had to offer, I couldn't see beyond my own pitiful self to relate to him. I can't even remember sending him a single letter. When he finally broke up with me, via letter, every point he made about why he couldn't stay with me was valid and true. And seeing the truth about my ignorant self printed before me was too painful to bear, let alone read over and try to learn from. I threw out the letter and all the ones that had preceded it.

Ah, regret, how are you today? Always abysmal to see you.

Fast forward thirty-some-odd years. I'm now the proud mother of a sweet, thoughtful, artistic gentleman. He has a girlfriend, but he laments rarely getting to see her as they live a town apart. Though they speak on the phone, text and Skype with each other, these methods of communication lack the intimacy they can share when they're together. So I suggested Jacob write her a letter.

I gave him some nice stationery and an envelope. I told him of my long ago letter writer, his penmanship and drawings, which I can still see in my mind's eye.

"There's no limit to what you can write," I told him.

This was several days ago. Since then, he's been thinking, drafting and, until late last night, writing. This morning I mailed the letter, neatly addressed with a purposely placed, upside-down stamp.

Whatever may come for the young couple, I hope the letter's recipient values it for the novelty it is, even more so today than in my pre-email and cellphone teen years. I hope she will keep the letter (and any future missives) until she is older and wiser. Then I hope she will re-read them and recall with fondness their youth, innocence and intimacy. But most of all, I hope she will appreciate the rare and unique gift she received: a ticket to travel back to a sweeter time and place whenever she wants, one she can forever hold in her hands.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Raising Husbands Who Get It

Sometimes I think about my future daughters-in-law. True, it's early, but I already feel a responsibility toward them to raise men who will make their lives as my sons' wives happy, fun and (dare I say it) easier.

To this end, I've realized I can't always be the taskmaster. Sometimes I need to just be a woman. That is, I need to be able to read--and react--to a really good book. And I need to do it without worrying about what my sons think.

Son: "Mom? Are you OK?"

Me: *sniff* "I'm fine."

Son: "Why are you crying?"

Me: *shakes head* "I just... I just finished a book."

Son: "Um, and you don't know what to read next?"

Me: "No, the characters. She thought she could save him, but he... they..." *leaves room for more tissues*

Of course, the same goes for movies. If I'm sitting down to a non-Pixar movie and there's a love story involved, sit and watch beside me at your own risk. Soggy popcorn will likely be involved.

My mom never cried in front of us when I was growing up (though not because we didn't give her good reason). So I was well into my thirties before I would let anyone else see me cry, likely because it was just something I'd never seen done. I presume it was the same way in my husband's house when he was growing up, as he tends to roll his eyes and shake his head when I cry at books or movies. But I want the women my sons date to be comfortable getting weepy and emotional without my sons getting freaked out. Better they should learn now that this is something women just do, and that it has nothing to do with them.

They say death, sex and money are the topics that don't get explored in polite conversation. I'd go so far as to say that showing emotion also falls into that category, and I'm doing my part to change this.

To best help them understand the feeling, I have repeatedly viewed Hachi: A Dog's Tale and had them watch it with me. It's not hard. Richard Gere is very easy on the eyes. The movie is based on the true story of a college professor's bond with the abandoned dog he takes into his home. It's about love and friendship, loyalty and loss, just like any good book or movie, and it always makes the kids cry.

So to my sons' future girlfriends and wives,  know that I'm thinking of you and doing all I can on your behalf, at least as far as this is concerned.

You're welcome.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

When Being Unremarkable Means Everything

The other day, a friend commented to me about the high school principal's back-to-school assembly to students this year.

"Wasn't it amazing what he did?" she asked.

Since she has daughters in high school and I have a son, it became clear to me that my kid rarely shares anything that goes on at school while hers share everything. I told her I had no idea what she was talking about.

"He basically 'came out' to the student body and shared his story about growing up gay and how difficult it was for him. He had a conversation with the kids, talked about how he was bullied and went to school in fear, and then made it clear that this kind of behavior would absolutely not be tolerated in the school he was running."

"He came out? But I thought everyone already knew he was gay," I said.

"Yes, but he made it a point to say so himself and then open up a dialogue about respect with the students."

"That is completely awesome."

"And I think I know why he did it," she said.

I was pretty sure I knew why too. We turned to each other and said the girl's name. Then we nodded in agreement.

I'll call the girl Mary for the purposes of this post. Mary is a transgender student who was born a boy, who I'll call John. She's an awesome kid from a great family, and has known my son since they were both in second grade. They've remained friends through the years and often attended after-school events together. I was driving Mary home one day early last year and the kids were talking about relationships, boyfriends and girlfriends. Mary said she'd been in a relationship but was newly single.

"Oh, I'm sorry. That's never fun," I said to her (this was when she was still John).

"It's OK. He wasn't very nice anyway," he replied.

"By the way, Mom, John's gay," my son said from the backseat.

"Well," I paused, trying to think of what relevance this had on the conversation, "that doesn't make it hurt any less," I offered.

There were parties and gatherings throughout the rest of the year that my son was invited to and Mary (as John) was often there. Toward the end of the year though, my son told me John was now Mary. She was a she and I should refer to her as such, and by her new name.

"Okeedoke," I said. And so I did.

This was not really surprising to me, but I was very happy that Mary was comfortable enough with her friends, herself and especially with me to be sharing the information so openly.

The news of what the principal did made me proud. Both that Mary is cared about enough in her school community to be protected from any potential ill-will, and that this message is being sent both to the student body and the families in town.

I was surprised, though, that my son hadn't mentioned the principal's speech to me. Even if he doesn't want to share the details of his school and social life with me, this felt like kind of a big deal.

"Jacob, did you go to the back-to-school assembly?"


"How was it?"

"Fine. The same as every year."

"Oh. So the principal has this conversation about being gay and telling students to be tolerant every year?"

"No, that was new."

"Well, Ms. Smith and I think it was great, and that he probably did it because of Mary. Why didn't you tell me about it?"

"I don't know," he shrugged. "It didn't seem like that big a deal."

Mary's identity change is old news to my son. She's still the same friend whose company he's enjoyed for almost ten years. The principal is the same principal my son's had for the past two years. And respect and tolerance is something he's been taught since he was a toddler.

When I read the news, I worry over the future of the world and how the younger generation will handle the weight of all that's wrong in it today. To my son, these events at school are no big deal. That, to me, means everything. Most importantly, it gives me hope.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Vacation's End

In order to vacation with the grandparents, we schedule our summer trip for the end of August. This usually brings us back home several days before Labor Day and gives us plenty of time for last minute, back-to-school prep. This year, however, school started before Labor Day. We arrived home from a nine-day vacation with one day to prepare.

I wasn't too worried. My middle schooler's backpack had been filled with all he needed before we'd even left for the beach. But the high school teachers hadn't posted until after we were gone. Upon our return, we pulled together a list of supplies my high schooler needed and targeted two stores: Staples and A.C. Moore. The middle schooler wasn't interested in going shopping for things that weren't for him, so he stayed home to play with the neighborhood kids for a couple of hours while his brother and I ran around and checked items off our list.

The best way I can describe going from a week of no cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning, dog-walking, etc. to a day of driving around running errands, standing in lines, washing clothes and figuring out dinner is a hockey stop. You know, when ice hockey players are gliding along with smooth, effortless strokes and suddenly whip 90 degrees to the side, coming to a sudden stop and sending ice shards flying up into the air? That. That was my Tuesday.

I had grabbed an ice coffee while we were out though, determined to get the job done, even if I needed a little caffeine to boot me back into "mom mode." It seemed to be working, too, until I was in the grocery store and my cell phone rang.


"Yes, Ben?"

"We have a problem."

"What kind of problem? Are you hurt?"

"No, but you know that blue bucket in the laundry room?"


"Well, we filled it with water for our water guns and were carrying it outside..."

*swallow* "Yes?"

"And when we got to the front door, the handle broke..."

*face palm* "Of course it did."

"...and the water went all over the tiles and carpet and those little rugs..."

I was going to explain where the mop was and decided it would take too long.

"Ben? In the bench by the door are a bunch of beach towels. Put those around to soak up all the water. I'll be home in fifteen minutes."

"OK, thanks Mom! Bye!"

And just like that, summer vacation was officially over.

This year, we'll be dealing with college essay workshops, PSATs and driver's permits. Somehow, I don't think I'll have a problem with any of it.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Letters From Camp

Shortly after I blogged about taking my youngest to sleep away camp for the first time, I went out to check the mailbox. Ben had been gone three days. One of the things I'd packed for him were stamped, addressed envelopes that he could use to write home. I'd given him three, one for each week that he'd be away.

Yesterday, all three arrived.

I'm guessing he wrote the first one minutes after we left him on Sunday afternoon, just in case we hadn't fully understood what his tears and desperate tone really meant. Knowing how his week had gone before camp, I assumed he woke at 5 am on Monday and likely wrote the second one when he couldn't go back to sleep. And allowing two days for mail to go from MA to NY, I figure he wrote the third one after breakfast on Monday and put them all into the mail slot.

The first one made me sad, but I understood where it was coming from. The second one had me worried because Ben NEVER skips a meal unless he's physically ill. Thankfully, the third one had me laughing out loud and put my mind at ease. He would be fine.

Dear Mom,

I know this is early, but I don't like it here. I want to come home!! Please. I'm begging you. I may sound desperate, but that's because I am. Please. I love you. 

Ben :(
Dear Mom,

Listen, I hate (yes, HATE) it here. I didn't eat last night, I was really scared and I want to come home. I was crying the entire day. Please. 1 day is enough. I need you. I love you. 

Ben :( :(
Dear Mom, (sorry, Dad)

Day 2. It's gotten better, but I really don't like it here. If you do make me stay (dear god, please, no) I need more envelopes. I love you. Stay in touch. 

LOVE Ben xoxo
And I admit to doing a proud, nerdy mom dance when I realized that all of his grammar and punctuation were correct, because come on. If he was that careful, how upset could he really be? 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


I am not a mush, one of those overly sentimental people who feel everything deeply and weep easily at any situation that's joyous or sad. Yes, I cry at weddings, but the bad stuff rarely gets to me.

This past weekend, we dropped my youngest off at sleep away camp for the first time in his life. Before now, the longest he'd been away from us was one night, for a sleepover at his best friend's house next door. We knew this would be a good experience for him. He's twelve, and would greatly benefit from a taste of independence in a fun, safe environment. We've been talking to him about it for months, showing him pictures of the camp, explaining what they do there, what the schedule is like, what the activities will be and more. His friend from next door went last year for the first time and, after an adjustment period of a few days, loved it. He couldn't wait to go back this year and was thrilled Ben was coming along.

Ben knew they'd be in different bunks, as they are in different grades at school. He knew it was a couple of hours' drive from home, and that it would be a three-week stint instead of two. Because of his age, the two-week stay for first-timers was not an option. He was fine with that. He was excited.

The week before we were to leave for camp, Ben started having anxiety. He became clingy, texting me during the day from day camp to tell me he loved me, he missed me, he wanted to come home. Even though I would pick him up at five o'clock each day, it wasn't enough. He didn't want to go to day camp anymore. He didn't want to go to sleep away. He didn't want to leave my side.

We talked about it, about the unknown aspect and his fears, and did our best to alleviate them. He began having stomach pains at night and trouble falling asleep. He started having nightmares. So we had him talk to his friend next door, a pep-talk of sorts, and he got excited again.

It took longer to get to camp than it should have (Mom read the directions wrong). We toured the campus and saw Ben's friend and had lunch and helped him unpack his things. But when it came time to say goodbye, there were still tears. I'd expected this, and we'd spoken to the nurses, the counselors in his bunk and the director about it. When Ben begged us not to leave him, to take him home where he felt "safe", it took all my strength to hug him and tell him he'd have a great time, and then walk away.

I knew there would be an adjustment period for Ben. What I didn't anticipate was how much *I* would struggle. In the days since dropping him off, I tear up at everything. Croissants are on sale at the supermarket; Ben and I love to get those as special treats for ourselves. *sniff* My husband made roast chicken for dinner, Ben's favorite. *sniff* The song on the radio in the car was made into a Minecraft song, and I'd heard that version first, before the mainstream version, thanks to Ben. *sniff, sniff* And thanks to a week of conditioning before he left, I've been waking up each night at 4:30 am, inexplicably. Unable to fall back to sleep, I lie awake and think of Ben, wondering if he's also awake and missing us, if he's still sad, or angry at me for making him stay, miserable and despondent even while plotting a way to get home. And I cry.

The night after he left, I made dinner, one of Ben's least favorite dishes. As I chopped vegetables and began combining ingredients for sauce, I thought of him and my eyes began to well. I added some soy sauce into a bowl, and the ingredients separated into a smiley face (photo above). My first instinct was to show it to Ben. My next was to take a picture of it, for surely, this was a sign.

My neighbor told me that if the camp hasn't called, it means Ben's doing fine. His brother wrote him a letter. I shipped him a package yesterday, full of things I think he'll enjoy, and he'll receive it tomorrow. I've been keeping busy working, cleaning, scheduling events, and it's helped. I'm not tearing up at every turn, and I've even stopped thinking about him every ten minutes. I also haven't needed to call the camp to see how he's doing, which means I'm going to be fine.

I knew Ben would learn a lot about himself, about what he's capable of, by leaving us for a while. What I didn't know was that I would do the same. So I'm really looking forward to swapping stories with him about it when he gets home.

In 16 days and 21 hours.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

It's Not Me: It's You

My twelve-year-old and fourteen-year-old are no longer on speaking terms with each other. That is, my son and my dog.

Within the last few weeks, it seems something has shifted in our dog's brain; he now views Ben as a threat. It started when I came home with both boys from camp one afternoon. Bailey was in the den downstairs, and I unlocked the door and held it open for the boys to enter. Ben went first, said hello to Bailey, and reached out his hand to pet him. Bailey growled, then snapped, missed and snapped again, catching Ben's finger and drawing blood. I hustled the boys outside and around to the back door and left Bailey downstairs.

Maybe we startled him? Maybe we woke him up? Maybe it was too dark and he didn't actually hear us come in (his hearing is failing), saw a hand in his face and reacted? We tried to apply human logic to a dog--a dog we've owned for over seven years--to grasp what had changed. How else to calm our son who feels that suddenly, inexplicably, our dog no longer loves him?

For the next couple of weeks, the two tenuously circled each other like barely tolerant roommates. Bailey seemed fine when Alpha Dog Dad was around, and that put the rest of us at ease. Over the weekend, with his older brother away at camp, Ben gently fed snacks to Bailey from his hand with no ill effects or ill will on either side. Things seemed to have returned to normal.

But today, Ben and I went out for a little over an hour. When we returned, I opened the door into the den and entered first, holding the door open for Ben, who hung back. Bailey was there, lying on the rug with his eyes open. I said hello to him and stood waiting for him to stand up. He didn't react right away, so I addressed him again. That's when he popped his head up and began to growl, then bark, at Ben.

Ben was still standing outside the screen door, so I shut it. Bailey approached the screen and was barking and growling fiercely now, so I told Ben to take off his sweatshirt hood. He did, but it didn't help. To Bailey, he was a giant, thug-like being wielding a bat.

I sent Ben to the back door and left Bailey downstairs.

Alpha Dog Dad and I have been discussing this a lot recently. We've done research, spoken with the vet at Bailey's thorough wellness check up last week, and tried to calm both Ben and Bailey. But now we're unsure. We've read about canine cognitive dysfunction, the signs and symptoms and why they occur. But what the experts don't tell us is how to coexist with a family member who now makes another family member feel threatened. I can only imagine what it must be like for people whose loved ones are suffering from Alzheimer's. Cognitive dysfunction unties the things that fasten us to each other. It steals not just memory, but relationships, history, leaving everyone involved unmoored.

For now, we'll keep the two separated. As much as it saddens me, I don't want to force a closeness that would make either (or both) of them uneasy. Until we know more, all we can do is try to prevent any additional painful episodes.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Teenager, A Sex Tape, A Conversation

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Last week, my fifteen-year-old son was invited to make a sex tape. He was really excited about it, so I signed the release form. But before you get CPS on the phone, let me explain.

In May, Jacob won an essay contest for the Best Teen Date in our county for 2015. The contest was sponsored by a teen outreach program aimed at enriching the lives of teenagers, educating them and helping them to make healthy choices. As a result of the contest, Jacob met the heads of the program to receive the award.

May was also Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. The organization that had sponsored the contest was making a short film talking with teens about their views on teen pregnancy. Since we live near the filming location, they contacted Jacob and asked if he'd be interested in being in the film. I figured he'd won Best Date contest, so surely he must have thoughts about this topic, right?

After I gave him the OK to make the tape (the head of the program's last name is Coppola--what could possibly go wrong?), it occurred to me that my son and I had never actually discussed his views about teen pregnancy. Oh sure, we'd had talks about relationships, respect, protection, maturity, communication and all the other important aspects of teen dating. Maybe I thought that, because of those conversations, teen pregnancy wouldn't become an issue. Or maybe I just didn't want to go there.

It was way too much to discuss via text, so I waited until he got home and brought it up in the car on the way to the movie shoot, doing my best to be casual about it.

Me: "So, for this movie, it sounds like they're going to ask you about your thoughts on teen pregnancy. What exactly are your thoughts on the topic?"

Jacob: "Well, I think if the couple has done their research and discussed all the aspects of what's involved and want to do it, I support it."


I don't know if my tongue actually bled while I bit down on it, but I wouldn't have been surprised because it took all my strength not to scream out, "ARE YOU INSANE?!"

Now don't get me wrong. I appreciate the fact that he understands the importance of research, communication and weighing all the risks before making any big decision. And I told him that. But this is not about picking a college or buying a car. It was clear to me that he was neglecting to consider a few majorly important factors in this situation, such as the fact that a baby, unlike a car or a college, is a lifelong commitment. And teens are minors. And still in school. And unemployable. And... well, you get my point.

Before I opened my mouth, I took a deep breath, because I also understood what a big deal it was that he was even willing to have this conversation with me. I knew I had to think fast about how to get my points/fears across without lecturing like a health teacher. I decided the best way was to ask questions. What other options would you have? What if the girl was afraid to tell her parents? Who else could you talk to? How would you support the baby? How would you stay in school? What about college? If you didn't stay in school, what kind of jobs could you expect to get? What about health insurance? And on and on.

We got to the filming location before long and there were two lovely teenage girls there. Once we were introduced and Dr. Coppola arrived, I got the signal from Jacob that I was dismissed. I was disappointed that I didn't get to watch the filming and hear the discussion (admittedly, I'm probably the only mother on earth who wants to see the sex tape her son made). But at least I knew I'd given Jacob a lot to think about.

He did say that if he ever found himself in a such a situation, he knew he could come talk to me. I just hope, now that we've had this little chat, he'll never need to.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Raising Humans

Before I had kids, I never thought much about being a mother. Sure, I presumed I'd have a family one day, but that vague notion was as detailed as it got. Until I became pregnant. Then the tomboy in me kicked in.

I grew up in a neighborhood that was mostly boys. I had one brother, and our three male cousins lived next door. When I was young, I saw us all as equals--kids who liked bikes, bugs, fishing and baseball. And at that age, I was right.

But when I became a teenager, everything changed. I was nothing like other girls. They wore makeup and flirted with boys and smoked and drank and knew things. I didn't know anything, especially about boys. Sure, I could put a worm on a hook for a boy or throw a football around with them, but that other stuff? Pfft. Clueless. Whoever passed out the "How To Be A Girl" manual definitely missed my mailbox.

So when I became pregnant, I realized that I desperately wanted to mother boys. Only boys. In fact, the idea of raising a girl was so foreign to me that I was in a bit of a panic. I'm the type of person who learns from experience. I didn't even know how to be a girl. How could I be successful in raising one? Even in my twenties, all my best friends were male. When I sat down to consider what skills I had to raise a girl, I came up with bupkis. I was completely ill-prepared for the task.

I got lucky and had sons. But I have friends who have both daughters and sons, and they tell me they are the opposite of me: completely comfortable raising their daughters and in foreign territory with their sons. Of course I can understand exactly what they mean. But I started thinking about what kind of mother I am that makes me more suited to raising boys over girls, and the only thing I felt strongly about was that I'm comfortable with who I am and confident in my convictions as an adult.

So? you might say. That doesn't sound gender-specific at all. And you'd be right. In fact, if anything I'm more girly now than I was when I was younger. I hate bugs and video games and sports (well, OK, not hockey). I love flowers and pretty shoes and sappy, romantic movies that make me cry and dressing up. These are not exactly traits I share with my boys. And when they want to go camping, I tell them to go talk to their father.

But here's what I figured out: I'm not my sons' friend, so it's OK if I don't share certain interests with them. I love them with all my heart and I'm here to teach them how to be confident, capable, respectable and self-sufficient. But I also want them to be compassionate, fair, tender and thoughtful. And the best way to do that is to teach by example. I set standards for their behavior and I live by those standards myself. I'm not hypocritical and I'm always willing to listen to their side of the argument. Don't those parenting skills cover both genders? I think so.

All this tells me is that I would probably have done alright raising a girl. Sure, I might have had to call in the experts for some things. But the stuff that matters? I've got that down. The rest, they'll figure out on their own just like I did. I'm not teaching them how to be men and I wouldn't have to teach a girl how to be a woman. That's biology and it will happen regardless of what type of parent I am. I'm raising humans. Sure, it would be nice to have someone to help me do my hair and nails and watch weepy movies with once in a while. But as long as my kids grow up to be respectful of others and their world, and they build lives that they're proud of, I'm OK watching chick flicks alone.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Puppy Inside

Today, I'm pretty sure I saw my dog longing for his lost youth. It's happened before, in encounters with younger, more vibrant dogs who want to jump, wrestle and play. These dogs always intrigue Bailey, but he's almost fifteen, so they also give him pause. It's as if he's thinking, "Man, I'd love to but I know I'd throw my back out."

Today, a neighbor dog who lives up the street came running through a nearby yard just as we finished our morning walk. Nash is about two or three years old, a mutt with insatiable energy who's always up for a game, a run or a belly rub.

I heard Nash before I spotted him. He came down through the trees, and I thought at first that perhaps he was a deer. Bailey's hearing has significantly diminished in the last year or two, but when we were half way up our driveway, he saw Nash and turned. To say he was riveted would be a gross understatement. Nash ran like a racehorse, down the street and back. He bounded into the woods and out again, approached Bailey with a 'hello' sniff, then crouched as if ready to wrestle. He wasn't even breathing heavily.

For a moment, Bailey went through the motions. He crouched as best as he could with his arthritic hips. His tail went up as if ready to have a go-round with Nash. He never took his eyes off the dog.

But when no play actually ensued, Nash grew bored and ran off down the street again, a flash of black and tan who'd be gone if you blinked. He stopped momentarily to smell the wet leaves, then heard his owner calling from up the block and took off back through the trees and up the hill.

When Bailey and I reached our deck and I told him to go around back as he always does, he stood and looked at me. I motioned for him to go on, thinking perhaps he hadn't heard me. But then he turned and looked across the street for a long moment, to the spot where Nash had just been running to and fro.  He let out a heavy breath, then loped up the deck toward the door and the bed that awaited him inside.

I'm starting to think Bailey is like the rest of us. As we feel the effects of aging come on bit by bit, we learn to adjust and live with them. We buy reading glasses, ask people to repeat themselves, turn up the volume on the television. This all works fine until we find ourselves somewhere with a younger bunch: those who can eat richer food, dance more freely, drink more wine. Then we sigh and hold hands, glad we're not alone, but a little sad for what we no longer have.

So I'm giving Bailey some extra love today. A bit of gravy in his bowl, lots of scratches and coos and calling him my puppy, the one I love most, my best boy. I don't even know if he can hear me. But in this warm, familiar setting he's known for years, I'll try to ease his heart. I can't give him back what he's lost. But I hope our love is enough to make up for it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Penny Pinched is A Penny Saved

I used to think I had one kid who was a reader and one who was a non-reader. My oldest, like me, has always been content to sit beside a pile of books for hours if left to himself. From the time he was a toddler, he'd sit devouring story after story, regardless of subject. He's gotten more discerning as he's aged, but reading is still a favorite pastime. In contrast, my younger son loved to be read *to* when he was little. Once he learned to read, though, he'd only be caught with a book if it was a homework assignment. Even then, reading seemed like a chore.

But I recently learned something about Ben and books. It's not that he doesn't like books; he's  just more selective of what he's willing to spend time reading. If it's funny, he's hooked. If the topic is one he loves, that's a definite selling point. And if he loves the subject *and* the book is funny? Good luck getting him to the dinner table. 

To help us get to this point, I've been taking my kids to the library since they were infants. First it was for the mommy-and-baby programs. When they got older, there were kids' programs, then teen clubs. But no matter how I got them there, we'd always, always bring home books. It's how we explored lots of different genres, authors and topics without forcing dad to build more bookshelves or breaking the bank. When it comes to books, a library card is a kid's first credit card. You want to take out ten books? No problem! You too? Just put it on the card.

This weekend, I glimpsed how this philosophy may have backfired, at least with Ben. I'm the type of person who will hear about a book, borrow it from the library and, if I love it and know I'll re-read it over and over, buy my own copy. Ben, however, seems to have a greater love of saving money than of owning great books. He recently discovered a series at the library. He read and laughed through the first two books, but the third wasn't available. Since he has accumulated several gift cards for, I suggested he buy all three books, as well as the next series by the same author, on the same topic. That way he could read them all, then read them again and again whenever he wanted. 

"But Mom, I can get them for free at the library."

"Yes, but if you use your gift cards and buy them, you can re-read them all whenever you want."

"I know but... I don't think I want to do that." 

He couldn't quite articulate his struggle. Did he love the books? Yes. Does he have plenty of gift cards? Yes. So what's the problem?

Ben loves money, even representations of money. Gift cards, coins from other countries, pretend credit cards, he loves it all. In fact, I think he loves it so much that to exchange it for something else, even if it's books that he know he'll enjoy, is just too hard.

At first I felt bad that he wasn't taking advantage of this opportunity to own some books he'd really love. But then I realized, that's what *I* like to do. The kid has a sense for the value of money, and a great understanding of the benefits of the public library. Considering both will take him far in life, I didn't push him to buy the books. It's his money and his decision on how to spend it. I've done my job and taught him these lessons. So why contradict myself when he's happy?

I couldn't think of a good reason either. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Parting Is So Sweet. (Sorry)

When my kids were little, I couldn't imagine life without them. Sure, I could (and often did) imagine going to the bathroom without them, but those were more temporary breaks that all mothers of young ones need from time to time.

But now that they are getting older, I actually can (and often do) imagine life without them. At least, daily life. And I admit I kind of like it. But now I'm starting to wonder if I should keep that to myself.

This week, a few friends' kids went away on trips and their parents mentioned how much they missed them. And here I sat, not musing about where my son is and what he's doing, but excited to be spring cleaning and making piles of things to donate. I admit I felt a bit down when I passed his empty room around bedtime, but it passed when I went downstairs and gazed longingly at the piles of stuff I want to get rid of but can't until the kids are gone.

Is this just a gosh-this-endless-winter-is-almost-over-I-feel-like-simplifying fantasy? I admit for weeks I've had a need for open windows and springtime air, light, warmth and a clutter-free home. After being trapped in the house with kids for days on end, week after week throughout the last few months, sunshine and quiet and time with my honey are at the top of my must-have list now. So when my oldest left for an educational tour abroad and my youngest headed for a day-long outing with friends, was it just cabin fever that made me do a happy dance? For six whole hours, I pretended we were empty nesters and IT FELT GREAT.

Don't get me wrong. I love my kids and I love spending time with them. But being an individual myself, with passions and drive and goals, I really, really like not having to think about their needs sometimes. Remember when you could eat a bowl of cereal for dinner if you wanted because you were working on a chapter or some edits and you just didn't want to stop and cook? I miss that. Remember when you could stay up until two or three a.m. to finish a great book because you didn't have to get up in the morning and drive someone somewhere or pack their lunch or make sure they ate breakfast and brushed their teeth? I miss that too.

I miss being an individual. Not that I miss it more than I love my kids. But when I get a glimpse of a life that is my own, it's a great reminder to keep encouraging my kids to build lives that are their own, to pursue their passions and figure out what they want. When they go off on adventures and are comfortable exploring the world, they are trying out their wings while at the same time looking forward to coming home and telling us all about it. It means we're doing our job as parents, and that they see themselves as individuals too, separate from us. It also shows me they're confident in making decisions without me standing there "in case they need me" as I did when they were younger.

I owe this budding independence to my husband, one of a family of three boys. I was drawn to his self-sufficient nature. But for years I also fought him as he insisted I back off and stop doing everything for the kids. I knew they needed to learn how to do things themselves, but it had also been my job for so long, I didn't know how to stop doing it. But I did. I let go, consciously, little by little, and they stepped up. Not only did it teach them how to do for themselves, it reminded me how great it is to watch them learn to do things without me.

Of course it proved my husband was right. Not that I'd ever tell him so. Well, maybe I will when the kids are grown and gone. Then, I won't just tell him, I'll thank him.

Monday, March 23, 2015

How Writing Saved Me

I go into every new venture with a sunny outlook. Change is good, learning opportunities even better. Of course, there will always be challenges; that's how we grow. But I don't fear change.

I sort of backed into writing as a career choice. Over the years, I'd worked jobs ranging from administrative to retail, customer service to tech support, and gained something from each experience. But I didn't love any of them.

So I welcomed motherhood as yet another positive change. While I was on maternity leave, a dear friend suggested I start a blog on his computer server. This was over fifteen years ago, when "blog" was a relatively new and unknown term.

"But what will I write about?" I asked. After all, I was home with a newborn, rocking and singing and feeding him all day, doing laundry and catching cat naps while he slept. There wasn't much of interest going on.

"Write about motherhood," he said. This from a single, techie guy who knew about as much about mothering as I did at that point.

"Well," I reasoned, "my parents are the only ones who'll read it anyway. I guess I'll write about my baby and how he's growing."

And so it began. I wrote every day, and it quickly came to feel like a personal success amid the constant drudgery and sleep-deprivation. Like a shower but more satisfying. My far-flung parents, as first-time grandparents, thrilled at the daily news, and I admit it made me a more attentive mother. I had to really think about what to write each day. Then something strange happened: I began to write not just what Jacob was learning about his world, but what I was learning about myself.

Fast forward six years. Our house now held a grade-schooler and a special needs toddler who confounded me at every turn. He didn't sleep. He hardly ate. He cried all the time. He just never seemed happy, no matter what I did. The only thing that kept me from crying all the time too, was writing.

I wrote to puzzle out what was happening, what I was doing and what I would try instead. I wrote about how hard it was every day, all day long. I wrote about feeling like a terrible mother who was failing my child, and about how much I loved him, even though I had yet to understand him. And when I finally realized I couldn't meet the challenge of understanding him, I switched gears. My new challenge to myself was to find the humor in each mystifying situation.

So as he grew, I laughed. I wrote about the things he did and what was funny about them because, of all the reactions I could have, I decided that was the best. No tears. Instead, laughing made life tolerable, manageable. As I got stronger, so did my writing. Ben gave me more material for my blog over the first five years of his life than I'd had in all the decades I'd lived before that. The challenges kept me writing, and the writing helped me cope.

Now that my boys are older, I use writing to set goals for myself. Articles, blog posts and, this year, a novel. With all it's helped me survive and accomplish over the years, writing is the best job I've had alongside my other, more important job of being a mom. It's evolved as I have, and helped me create a tangible record of my relationships with my sons.

But above all, writing was something I could count on during all the years when nothing was certain. Because I never knew what to expect, I relied on writing. And in the end, writing is what saved me.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Winter of My Discontent

Anyone who knows me knows I hate winter. Not all of it--I'm not ready to give it up completely, yet. I love the first snow, the muffled walks with the dog, spying small animal tracks in the dusting on the ground, the smoky smell of the neighbor's wood burning stove. What wears me out is the bitter, incessant wind, single-digit temperatures and extended views of nothing but white, gray and brown. I start to miss green.

This year, December really wasn't too bad. Cold, but manageable. Some snow, but nothing back-breaking. We decided to renovate our master bathroom and the contractor gutted it in early January. Around that time, I seem to recall commenting about how it looked like it would be a much better winter than I'd expected. Out loud. What was I thinking?

What followed were several long weekends at home with my family and a seemingly six-week-long February filled with single-digit temps, double-digit-below-zero wind chills and lots of cabin fever. You'd think the long weekends with the family would have saved my sanity, but you'd be wrong. They were brought on by snow storms that rolled in every three to four days, causing more school closures than I can remember since they started kindergarten. Their first Monday in school this year didn't happen until mid-February because they'd had snow day closings every Friday and Monday since 2015 began. They've burned through their allotment for the year along with three vacation days in April and May. We've shoveled so much snow that there's no place left to put any more. And there are still three weeks left of winter.

The storms also caused problems on the roadways and made travel tricky. Because my contractor comes up county from about 45 minutes away, we didn't see much of him those weeks either. We're now on week eight since we started, and the bathroom still isn't finished.

Rather than curse the friends who escaped to warmer climates for the mid-winter break, I instead let myself linger over their photos of clear pools, white sandy beaches and suntanned shoulders. I bought fresh flowers from the supermarket and put a cream colored tablecloth on the table. When a skunk sprayed somewhere beneath our deck, I burned lilac- and lily-scented candles in every room of the house because it was still five degrees out and I couldn't open the windows. I hoped in vain that they would hide the stench and also give the illusion of spring.

Every eave of our house is sporting icicles, some as big as my twelve-year-old. When they began to sprout inside the kitchen door and drip onto the tile floor, I laid down a beach towel to catch the water. "Think summer!" I told myself as I replaced the soaking wet one with a dry one the next day.

When the furnace started to sputter and sleet ticked on the window panes, I started to worry. If I keep the green, flowered drapes closed and turn up the heat, I can usually forget it's still, unendingly, relentlessly winter outside. But if the heat goes out, I can't take a hot shower and the indoor temp drops into the low fifties, I know winter has forced its way into my house, my life and my consciousness in a way that I can no longer escape.

There are only a few more weeks until spring. We are in the home stretch. Beginning this weekend, the days will be lighter longer and the sun will start to feel warm again. I think I'm going to make it through, and I have no intention of stating all the good things about this winter that I've actually been thankful for, because you don't have to hit me over the head with a brick more than once.

But I have a few choice words for the groundhog when I see him, and am still open to invitations from any of my friends in warmer climates. I'll even bake something before I come. At least it will make the house warmer before I go.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Tell Me What's Wrong. Now Tell Me Again.

It all started with a bloody Christmas Eve.

At least that's when it seems to have started. Bailey, our thirteen-and-a-half-year-old dog hasn't been himself for a while. But because our pets can't tell us when something is wrong, we have to be open to the clues. Kind of like with babies. And while we knew Bailey's hips were bothering him and that he could no longer climb stairs, it never occurred to us that he might be in constant, chronic pain.

On Christmas Eve, we had a party. All family, with a bunch of kids. The kids were playing downstairs and the adults were upstairs. Because one of the adults is allergic to dogs, we left Bailey downstairs with his bed so he could rest and not beg or make people sneeze. Well, the kids got kind of loud. And Bailey started barking. And we figured it was because he wanted to come upstairs and be with the adults, yet couldn't climb the stairs. But we left him down there because allergies. Bad move.

The barking eventually stopped and not long after, my niece came upstairs to tell us that Bailey was "biting everyone." I'm proud to say that she is a terrific storyteller, something I greatly admire about her. But this comment was different and called for some investigation.

"Biting everyone? What are you talking about?" I said and started down the stairs.

Aside from my husband and my brother-in-law, my dad is one of Bailey's three favorite men. I hadn't seen my dad go down earlier, but if I had, I would have assumed that the dog stopped barking because he was happy to see my dad. What I found instead was my dad with a bloody hand, my cousin the RN asking him questions and my husband comforting Bailey, who was cowering and trembling in the corner.

Thankfully, after bandages and hugs were given out, the remainder of the party was uneventful. Though he avoided my dad, Bailey came upstairs and laid down by my brother-in-law for the rest of the evening.

In January we had some construction work begin in the house. These contractors were here a couple of years ago and remembered Bailey. He is usually a great watch dog--he growls and barks, and once he sniffs your hand, he backs off but watches you carefully. Well this time, when hands were offered, Bailey snapped at them. Thinking this was unusual, but not unheard of, I comforted him and let the guys go about their work.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I was walking Bailey and we saw my neighbor from next door. We started talking and he, too, extended his hand to the dog, who snapped again. Now I just tell people not to offer their hand as he is very touchy and sensitive in his old age.

But when I relayed this information to a friend, she wondered aloud whether Bailey was in pain.

"He doesn't act like it," I said. "I mean, he eats all his food, is always excited and bouncy to go for a walk and wags his tail and likes to play with us."

On further thought, though, I realized Bailey does lay in bed and just moan at us sometimes. Usually it's when we're eating dinner or close to the time for his walk, so I presumed he was just asking us for food or to go out earlier than scheduled.

Last night, my brother-in-law came for dinner. It was the first time Bailey had seen him since Christmas Eve, and we expected him to get waggy and happy as he always does. But when my brother-in-law extended his hand to say hello, Bailey growled and bared his teeth. He also avoided any contact with him all night.

This morning I called the vet to make an appointment for Bailey.

It's never easy to read the signs our pets are trying to send us. Yes, different barks mean different things, just as different cries from a baby mean different things. But Bailey is clearly not himself, and it is finally apparent to me that it's not something that is going to go away on its own.

I'm hoping the cause is treatable. We'd all like him to feel better, like his old self again. I admit I feel guilty for not having put the signs together sooner. Maybe I just didn't want to admit to myself something could be really wrong. Bailey always puts on a brave and playful face for us. But I don't want his world to shrink to his immediate family, and I don't want him to suffer any more than he already has. I just hope the vet will understand whatever message Bailey's been trying to send. That will be the first step toward figuring out what comes next.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Old Lessons Made New

I remember as a girl watching my mom iron my dad's police uniform shirts. Like hanging clothes on the clothesline and making pots of soup and stew, this is one of those memories that always takes me back to childhood. And though she did it pretty regularly, Mom never gave me lessons, and it never occurred to me to ask. It was just one of those things moms did.

Fast forward to my twenties, when I moved out of my parents' house and into an apartment I shared with a friend. This experience of going out on my own and suddenly being responsible for, well, everything that had to do with my own survival was the most feet-to-the-fire education I'd ever had. I didn't know how to cook. I didn't know how to budget or shop for groceries. In fact, I had pretty much no housekeeping skills to speak of, but I was lucky: my roommate did. And he was a great and patient teacher. He was the one who taught me how to iron a collared shirt, fold a fitted sheet and figure out which pot or pan to use in the kitchen. In retrospect, it's easy to see how important it was to know these things, but when I was young, Mom did them all and, in my mind, always would.

Those lessons from decades came flooding back to me this morning when my fifteen-year-old asked me to teach him how to iron the shirt of his scout uniform. I admit I haven't ironed since leaving the corporate world fourteen years ago (my husband's office is casual dress) and I hoped I'd remember how to do it. Not surprisingly, once I set up the ironing board, heated the iron, laid out the shirt and began pushing the iron back and forth, like Tillie Olsen, my mind was filled with thoughts, ideas and emotion. But before long, Jacob was eager to take over, and I reluctantly let him. No doubt he felt the same sense of autonomy and independence, mixed with the thrill of learning something new, that I did all those years ago.

They say that with age comes wisdom, but I think it's more than just aging that wisens us. The older we get, the more our lives change and the more we are forced to learn new things, become resourceful and solve problems on our own. Though I know Jacob could have Googled "how to iron a shirt" and watched a video of the process on YouTube if he was living on his own and needed to learn, I'm glad I had the opportunity to teach him. And I hope when he goes out on his own, his memories of adolescence will include those of his dad and grandfather teaching him how to cook, and of his mom teaching him how to iron and do his own laundry. It may not make him eager to do these drudge-filled jobs, but hopefully it will give him something to think--and maybe smile--about while he's doing them.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


My twelve-year-old is growing his hair out again. Both boys go through this periodically; part of it is, I think, a desire to be like the other boys in school who have long hair. Another part of it is, I'm sure, laziness. They just don't want to be bothered getting a haircut. Usually, it gets so long that they can't manage to make it look "right" or it's still wet when they have to go out into the cold to catch the bus. That's when they'll concede that maybe it's time for a trim.

Because he is still young and fresh-faced, when Ben's hair gets long, all of my friends (who knew me as a child) say, "he could be your clone!" or "oh wow, no mistaking whose kid he is!". This week, I'm getting that a lot. And I don't mind at all because, as I say, he is young and fresh-faced, two attributes none of us fully appreciate until we lose them. When I look at Ben, I see my younger self.

Today, going through some old pictures, I found a photo of Ben with long hair from another grow-out period. But for the first time, I tried to picture him with facial hair. And I kinda hated it. Not because it made me recall my East-European roots, the ones that vexed me as a teenager because I was hairier than my brother. I hated it because for a moment, I was forcing myself to fast-forward to a time when he will no longer be my sweet, cuddly baby, the one with porcelain skin and pink cheeks. And that time is not so far off.

I also realized that I do not always appreciate the beauty and wonder of youth that my kids are, fleetingly, wrapped in right now. Like my own early years, theirs will be gone very soon. Before I know it, they will move away and begin their own lives and I will be left with pictures and regret as I shake my head and wonder where it all went. This line of thinking also forced me to consider that if they're getting older, it means I am too.

None of us like to consider our own mortality, and seeing my childhood self in my kids makes it easy to keep feeling young. But as much as I want to help my kids discover and realize their dreams, I am reminded today that it's also important to strive toward achieving my own. After all, I've got a lot less time to work on it than my kids do. So often, I think, "when the kids are grown in a few years, I'll really be able to get a lot of writing done," or "when they move out, then I can really focus on my goals." But who says I'll still be able and inspired by then? Just as anything is possible for my kids' futures, the same is true for my own, though not in that carefree, ready-to-take-the-world-by-storm way.

While it's an easy excuse to dream about a day down the road when I'll have all the time in the world, before I know it, that time will be here. I can, and plan to, get a lot of writing done between now and then. Besides, if there's any justice in the world, when that time does arrive, it will be split between writing and playing with grandchildren. Fresh-faced, beautiful grandchildren who look a lot like my sons.

Just not for at least ten years, I hope.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Reveling in the Journey

My family loves weekends. Partly because we don't have to get up early, run out the door and work all day, but partly because most of the time, we don't plan anything for weekends. They're our downtime days, an opportunity to be together and do something spur of the moment if we feel like it, or not.

Sometimes I worry that we are wasting these opportunities. Friends post pictures of ski trips, Broadway shows they've gone to see, art museum jaunts and the like. And usually all we do is sit around and read, draw, play board games, watch movies or football and maybe go out to eat.

In this goal-obsessed world, where my kids are under constant pressure in school and sports, I really want them to have down time. Yes, it's important to set goals and have dreams. But we also need time to dream them. I'm a writer, which means my family will often find me staring off into space, thinking about a character or possible plot for a story, maybe working out a tricky scene in my mind. All they see is that glazed, half-tired look on my face, but it is in these moments, or in the quiet minutes after waking up, just before everything gets going for the day, that I do a lot of my most important work.

After two years of working on a novel, I finally got it polished enough that I felt ready to send out query letters to agents today. It is both exciting and nerve-wracking, this process, even as I take the next step in the journey of bringing my book to the rest of the world. I have a dear friend who has been supporting me in this project since I began, and when I told her about the query letters going out, she wanted to celebrate.

"Not yet," I told her. "I have friends who got agents but were never able to sell their books. Let's wait a bit."

She was having none of it.

"NO! That's not the point! The point is the journey--we need to celebrate this part of the journey. We don't know where it will go, but we do know where you have been. And that, my friend, is what we need to celebrate!"

She is right, of course. And it got me thinking about my kids, toiling away on their journey toward college and whatever will come after. I am always harping on about how they need to study hard, keep their grades up if they want to stay in this club or on that team, how much those things will help them when they are looking at colleges in a couple of years. They need to be planning for the future. But now I wonder if I am taking away their joy of being in those clubs and having those team experiences because I am focusing on the goal of the journey rather than the journey itself.

In the big scheme of things, it's all a journey. When my boys look back on these short years at home, in proportion to how many more years they'll live away from us, will they feel deprived when they think of all the shows, trips or events we didn't plan or take or see? Or will they remember these mundane days of lounging happily? Will they breathe a little more deeply at the memory of relaxing in pajamas at home with their family, cooking up the dreams they will hopefully achieve once they do leave home and head out on their own?

I can't really say, but I hope they'll recall these do-nothing days with a smile, that they'll one day appreciate the importance of resting in the midst of all the rushing. And I hope they'll continue to give themselves down time to think about their journeys, and maybe play a game of Monopoly with their own kids when they do. Yes, it's important to make the most of our time. But sometimes, that means leaving time empty so life can seep into it, filling us with the wonder and pleasure of now.