Seeing is Believing

Posted: January 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Discoveries, Friends and Strangers, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting | 4 Comments »

I don’t believe in heaven or the afterlife or reincarnation, but I do believe in old blue Volvos.

My mom used to drive one. One of those boxy four-door sedans circa 1980-something. The ancient green one she had before that—that I learned to drive on—only had an AM radio. Talk about a character building experience for a teenager. Name any Carpenters, Elton John, or Neil Sedaka song and I can likely recite each line flawlessly. I was a girl before my time, I tell you.

Or at least, out of step with the times.

Anyway, when I first moved to San Francisco, I was surprised to see so many old cars on the road. Vintage Dodge Darts and ancient Volkswagon Beetles with original paint perfectly intact aren’t uncommon in these parts. Cars that would’ve been devoured by the Midwestern or East Coast road salt decades ago just keep chuggin’ along here.

So it’s not unusual for me to come across old blue Volvos. Ones exactly like the one my mom usedta drive.

I’ll be pushing the double-stroller frantically down the street, late for Kate’s ballet class, and I’ll turn a corner and there’s Mom’s car. Parked outside some house like she’s inside having a cup of tea and a game of Scrabble. Or I’ll come upon a yard sale, pull over, and I’ll see I’ve double-parked right behind her. When I open the door for the girls to pile out, I half expect to see Mom’s gray-haired noggin bent over a stack of used books, or rummaging through a box of table linens.

Just this Sunday, Mark and I were coercing the kids to trudge two more blocks to our car. They were fried from a visit to the farmer’s market. Too much sun and dancing in front of the band. It was like some impossible against-all-odds trek over the Alps to make it 50 more yards to the parking lot. I’d nearly given up, was about to sit down on the sidewalk and tell Mark, “Go on ahead without me.” And then I saw Mom’s car parked up ahead.

And I kinda smirked. Although Mark had no idea what I was doing, I actually ran up a half-block and took a picture of it with my cell phone. Then I circled back to herd us forward, having tapped into some energy reserves I wasn’t aware I had.

Have I gone mad? Or, from beyond the grave, is my mother strategically parking her car in places I’ll pass by? Is this her sly eccentric way of showing me she’s still somehow around? Still keeping tabs on me?

Because if so, I am TOTALLY picking up on it. Message received, Mom!

This realization is, of course, thrilling and relieving. What I didn’t mention about the fact that I don’t think my mom is an angel hanging out on a cloud with her dead sisters and all our past dogs, is that it’d be so much nicer if I actually DID believe that. I would LOVE to feel confident that she’s somehow seen my children. That she admired the apple pie I made on Christmas day (her recipe). That she’s cheering me on when the daily doldrums of mothering set in.

I’d be frankly kinda psyched if my belief—that the end of life is really the cold dark end—isn’t really altogether true.

Now, lest you think I’m alone at all this, I have a friend—a terrifically intelligent and thoughtful woman—who believes her dead Mama comes to her in the form of a raven. You know, she’ll see a few birds on her front lawn or gathered on a telephone wire and sometimes get this inkling, this sense, of her mother’s presence.

Which I think is awesome. (In fact, whenever I see a raven now I think it’s her mom too.) What can I say? One gal’s old blue Volvo is another gal’s big black bird.

What’s funny is I read this Motherboard story about how to let go of your kids as they grow up—how not to be a smother mother. I love the concept of giving your kids “roots and wings.” Roots so they know where their home is, and wings to set them free in the world. I really hope I can get that balance right with Kate and Paige.

But at the same time here I am—fully grown with kids of my own—and thinking that even though my mom’s not even alive, she’s still somehow mothering me in some cosmic car parking way. Maybe I could use a little smothering of my own.

I’ve already confessed my fandom of the sappy-excellent show Parenthood. So in a recent episode the parents of a five-year-old have to tell their daughter that a hurt bird they’ve been taking care of died. The Mom and Dad strategize about how to break the news, how to gently introduce the hard reality of death to their sweet innocent. When they finally talk to the twerp, the mom caves when she sees her daughter getting sad, and blurts out that the bird “is in heaven now—with Grandma!” Which had not been the plan for their little talk.

I super don’t like that mom character on the show. But on this one topic, man, I can feel her pain.

Because, I’m truly saddened to report, sweet little Freezey, Room 2′s pet frog who stayed with us during Winter Break, died last week. (Side note: I’d like to clearly state that this happened when he was back in the classroom. Not on our watch.)

Kate was pretty sad about it, but I was crushed. She laid the news on me on our way to pick up Paige from school. She was all casual—no warning, no “Are you sitting down?” (even though I obviously was, because I was driving).

I was heartbroken. We loved that little damn frog!

I wanted to tell Kate that Freezey was swimming around in a divine froggy pond in the sky. That he was re-united with his former tank-mate Cutie Pie. And that they were happy and free and could eat all the stinky food pellets they wanted. Hell, I wanted to tell MYSELF that. But instead I handed Kate a couple pretzels and made her promise not to tell Paigey.

On Monday, while shopping for stuff for Paige’s b-day party invites, I wandered over a couple blocks to the pet store. I mean, the mother of all snake, frog, and other crawly-creature types store. It’s where the Room 2 teachers got Freezey. And even though they were clear—no more classroom pets this year—I’d gotten to thinking. Wondering about the viability of a new McClusky family friend.

So this place. It’s like everyone who works there has face piercings and huge tattoos and is scary knowledgeable about the animals. Like the geeky ultra-smart weirdos that work in the labs on those TV crime shows.

I browsed frogs. Admired cute spotted newts. Got full-body shudders from a sunny-yellow boa that apparently had a big dinner the night before. And finally I screwed up the courage to ask one of the goth-girl employees about what a tank would cost, how much maintenance was needed, yadda, yadda, yadda.

And as I got in the car and drove off I questioned my motives. Buying a pet doesn’t bring Freezey back. Would the girls groove on having an amphibian sibling? Or would its novelty eventually fade, like some expensive toy that gets shoved to the back of the closet—an expensive toy whose tank water you have to change, and who you have to feed live worms…

At a stop sign, I dug around in my purse for my cell phone, and looked down to hit Mark’s work number. A blast from a car horn made me look up. In my rear view mirror a bearded man waved his arms in a “you gonna go, or aren’t you?” gesture.

He wasn’t in a blue Volvo, which was a shame, since I was looking for a sign.

Am I gonna go? Well, sir, that remains to be seen.


Making a List, Checking it Twice

Posted: December 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Holidays, Kindergarten, Misc Neuroses, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Scary Stuff | 4 Comments »

I was a little late to the game this year, but last week I finally put in my order for our Christmas cards. All 265 of them.

When did I become this person?

I mean, how could it be that we send out so many cards? It’s not like this was something my mother ever did. She had an aging trove of Christmas cards stashed away in the bottom drawer of her roll-top desk. (The same desk I use today.) Cards with cardinals and pine cones on them, and sometimes an old-school dusting of glitter. And she’d send out maybe nine or so each year, and write personal notes in each one.

She was far from gussying us up in velvet headbands and fair isle sweaters for holiday photo cards. (Like I do—sometimes at gunpoint—with my girls.)

And in her crusty New England way, she found it tacky for people to send holiday cards to local folks they see all the time.

Well, clearly she’s never met my dry cleaner.

Okay, so I only wish I was kidding about sending our dry cleaner a card. It’s actually the first year they are on Our List. The thing is, they’re just a few blocks from us—the sweetest Chinese family you’d ever want to meet—and they do that thing where they display all their customers’ cards in the store. It’s so darn neighborly. For years we’ve been looking at our friends’ kids pictures under the glass on the counter. Hell, this year we’re getting in on the action too.

Along with sending a card to our pediatrician who also showcases them, but in a much more taped-to-the-walls shucks-we-love-our-patients kinda way. Every winter when I’m in the office for some inevitable kiddie illness I scan to see if our card got good placement.

I know. Pathetic, right?

But kinda true. Even though I know some secretary is just taping them all up like a zombie in no particular order, and getting paper cuts and complaining under her breath that it’s not part of her job description. Still, I want to feel like my kids aren’t hidden behind a pile of back issues of Highlights magazine.

My from womb-to-tomb friend from home, who I’ll call Adeline, well, her parents had a hard-core Christmas card system. When I was at their kitchen table once around the holidays I noticed a long list of names. There were check marks by some of them. Turns out that if Adeline’s parents didn’t get a card from someone they’d sent one too, that person got cut from their list next year.

Seemed kinda harsh to me at the time. But really, that might be a good way for me to whittle down my list a bit.

Anyway, about the cards. I insist on sending ones with pics of the girls. I love seeing my far-flung friends’ kids who I rarely get to lay eyes on. And even though Mom would call me gauche, I even send cards to our neighbors who live RIGHT NEXT DOOR. (And yes, I send them through the mail. So sue me.)

I have the good fortune of having an amazingly crazily talented photographer amongst my nearest and dearest amigas. And even though my brain tells me I should not constantly hit her up to take pics of my kids—even though I know I should respect some sort of separation of church and state in our friendship—I just. Can’t. Help. Myself.

So despite how madly busy and in-demand she’s been, and despite how she even kinda sorta outright told me she wasn’t doing holiday card shoots this year—and despite the fact that I know she hadn’t even had time to take pics of HER OWN KIDS—despite all that, well, I showed up at her house with the girls. With their hair all neat and combed. And their Christmas dresses. And even a wreath to use in the background in case she didn’t have any decorations up yet.

When did I become this person?

And if that weren’t already obnoxious enough, I then had to plead and beg and whine and bribe to get Kate to take off her paint-splattered school clothes and put on the dreamy Christmas-in-Norway dress I bought for her. It was hot, it was itchy, it was miserable, she complained.

But I was blinded by my vision. She would wear that dress, damn it. We would take the picture.

And you know? She did. And Mary, bless her heart, took the picture. And I likely alienated both my daughters and my friend. But damn, did I get a cute photo.

You’ll see. You’re probably getting a card from us.

My holiday mania knows no boundaries. Or decorum. Last week, like some lunatic mother hopped up on spiked eggnog, I approached the two kindergarten teachers on the front steps of Kate’s school. In the swirling chaos of afternoon pick-up I huddled them together and asked, demanded, interrogated them: Why in all that is fun and good and festive, is there no holiday pageant or party or play at the school? No musical medley? No special assembly? No small child wearing a poorly-adhered white cotton-ball beard who charmingly forgets his lines to the delight of all the adults?

The thing is, I think I KNOW why. Though those poor parent-pecked teachers don’t make the policies, I think the reason no one’s makin’ merry ’round Kate’s school is in our Northern Californian politically correct overdrive, there’s some fierce anxiety about not representing every possible religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, hair color, shoe size, and holiday.

Of course, the nice scared-of-me teachers did not tell me this. While likely beckoning to security to have me dragged away, they kindly informed me that there actually IS an event. A small celebration that no one needs to dress or bake for. Parents don’t even attend.

And the event is for—get this—Festivus! Yes, my child’s school is borrowing from a time-honored Seinfeldian tradition and celebrating the for-the-rest-of-us holiday. I wonder if they’ll be incorporating the traditional Airing of Grievances. Or the Feats of Strength in which the host is wrestled to the ground and the celebration isn’t over until he’s successfully been pinned.

Maybe, if the kids are lucky, they’ll also get to not decorate the Festivus pole. (It’s traditionally left bare.)

Actually, the teachers explained that in their interpretation of the anti-holiday, the kids will go from classroom to classroom where multiple craft projects will be set up.

Who knows, maybe they’ll do a Jell-o shot in each room too, like some college dorm party.

Well, what can I do? Is there a small part of me that thinks a school’s homage to Seinfeld is funny? Sure. I mean, I had a crush on George Costanza just like the next gal. But this Festivus work-around still doesn’t satisfy my need to gather as a community and get into the spirit. I guess I’ll just have to loiter around some Catholic school pageants to get my fix of Gloria In Excelsis Deo.

In other holiday happenings, I have managed to show some restraint. For years I’ve spearheaded day-long nap-robbing family field trips to scenic far-off Christmas tree farms. We’d spend $120 to chop down runty picked-over trees, buy hot chocolate for the kids even though it was 68 degrees, and inevitably someone would barf on the drive home. But this year I’ve tossed my Norman Rockwell tree-fetching fantasies aside. On Saturday we went to—wait for it!—Home Depot for our tree.

It was close by and convenient. The tree was $35. And it’s hands-down our biggest and best-looking tree yet.

This was a breakthrough for me.

Mark was thrilled.

And while I’m on a roll, I might as well brag that I’m also NOT taking my children to sit on Santa’s lap. Nope, not this year, or possibly EVER AGAIN. (Unless of course they beg for it.)

I have a friend who lines up wonderful pictures of her kids with Santa along the top of her piano. She’s had them taken every year, and I’m so deeply jealous of the freakin’ consistency and tradition and keepsake-ness of it all.

But my kids fear the man in red. One year when Kate was about 14 months, I waited in an endless Santa line with a Mama friend and her son. I’d just finished telling her how I’d weaned Kate. And then, when we finally stepped into the tool-shed-like roofed Santa nook, Kate took one look at Santa, then clutched me in a full-bore panic. She started balling, screaming and pumping her fist open and closed, signing for “milk.”

So we detoured to a red velvet-ish settee surrounded by poinsettias, where I caved on the she’s-finally-weaned thing I’d just gone on and on to my friend about.

Eventually Kate was willing to have her pic taken, but only if she stayed on MY lap. I kind of held her over towards Santa, and leaned back so they could crop me out. It’s a wonder my bare boobie wasn’t in the picture too. (Now THAT would have made a memorable card.)

Anyway, to punish me, Kate puked all over me in the Safeway parking lot later that day. To such an extent that I drove home in my bra.

Good times.

And, undeterred, I actually tried AGAIN the next year. And lo! I got a really cute pic of Kate. And the rental mall Santa even had all his teeth!

But the year after that she lost her Santa shit again. So last year I finally decided to do what mothers are supposed to—protect their kids from un-due trauma. I laid to rest my dream of a piano lined with darling Santa pics through the years.

In fact, we don’t even own a piano. So that makes it easier too.

I mean, I can’t be the only Mama who wrangles with an irrational desire to do up Christmas in all its perfection, can I? Even when it means traumatizing my children, their teachers, and my photographer friends?

How many of you are planning to drag your unwilling kids by their ears to sit on Santa’s lap? It appears some other Mamas are discussing this on Motherboard. (God bless the Internets for always proving you’re not alone.)

I may have cut corners on our tree selection process and visits to Santa. But my Christmas spirit is unwavering. I have every intention of keeping in close contact with that jolly old soul.

And to make sure that happens, I’ve added Old Saint Nick to my Christmas card list.


Hit the Road, Angel of Death

Posted: November 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Daddio, Doctors, Earthquakes, Extended Family, Friends and Strangers, Kindergarten, Little Rhody, Milestones, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Parenting, Preschool, Scary Stuff, Sisters | No Comments »

When I left Paigey’s preschool one morning a couple weeks ago, I noticed a klatch of women—other Mamas from the school—standing on the lawn. They were dabbing at the corners of their eyes with Kleenex.

It was clear something happened to someone at the school. And somehow I knew it was about a pregnancy.

In the crosswalk I caught up with a woman I knew. A mother of one of Paigey’s classmates. Tugging at her elbow, I implored without greeting her, “Okay, so what happened?”

And damn damn damn my intuition. I was right. A mom from the school whose due date was that very day, had a kicking healthy baby just the day before. But when she went to the hospital that morning, she found out that her baby had died.

So sickeningly sad. Someone said later it was strangled by its own umbilical chord. What brutal live-giveth-and-taketh-away irony.

“Oh God, oh God,” I said, wrapping my arms around my stomach on the sidewalk. “Do you know her name?” Because, as it turned out, I know a pregnant woman—someone I’ve worked with and like a great deal—whose son goes to the preschool. From her Facebook posts, I was pretty sure her due date was that day.

It turned out it was NOT my friend. That in that tiny school there were actually two women with the same due date. And although it didn’t diminish the tragedy of the whole thing, I still felt like I’d dodged a kind of bullet. If only by association.

Do you ever go through phases where your computer monitor fizzles and goes black, your car’s transmission gives out, and you drop your cell phone in the toilet? All in the same week? It’s as if there’s some mechanical technological curse on you. If you touch it, it will cease to function—invariably days after its warranty expired.

I feel like I’m currently in that mode, but with people.

Not long ago my sweet Uncle Adolph (no relation to the Nazi) passed away. It was his time. I mean, he was very old, and had been wrangling with Alzheimer’s. But those things make it no easier to grapple with the fact that someone who you knew is suddenly just not here any more.

Uncle Adolph was married to one of my mom’s favorite sisters, Scottie. I think her real name was Sophie, but I never once heard her called that. The two of them were known as “Scottie and Ade.” How much does that rock?

They lived in a small house on a big piece of land on the outskirts of mom’s home town. And what I remember of him is this: Uncle Adolph had a huge garden. In his day job, he was something else. A custodian of some sort, I think. But in his heart, he was a gardener.

We’d pick things from his garden in the evenings, right before dinnertime. He called cucumbers ‘cukes’ which was weird and cool to me. He didn’t talk much, but he’d wipe dirt off a big yellow squash or an eggplant or a strawberry and say, “Now THAT’S a good one,” then hand it to me.

We lived two hours away, so I didn’t see him often or know him very well. But it always felt special being welcomed as an insider into his garden world.

In fact, whenever I conjure a vegetable garden in my mind’s eye I see Uncle Adolph’s garden. I think of him most of the time I’m chopping up cukes too.

Early last week I got a sister-wide email. The four of us mass communicate this way sometimes. But the contents of this one were a bummer. Dad’s long-time neighbor and best friend Eddie had died. A man in his mid-80s, who you’d have sworn wasn’t a day over 65.

Dad and Eddie did projects. Built birdhouses, step-stools for grandchildren, and did all the standard house maintenance stuff. Eddie had a few years on my father, but was vivacious as all get out, and handy as hell. Dad would ask Eddie to help him do something like bring the AC units from the garage to the upstairs bedrooms. And I can’t say this for sure, but I picture Dad acting in more of a ‘supervisory’ role, while Eddie did the actual (and proverbial) heavy lifting. It wouldn’t be weird to see Eddie dangling from a tree in dad’s yard, sawing off a rotting branch.

Regardless of who did what, or whose tools they used, there was no score-keeping between those two. They were a good team.

Eddie’s wife passed away a couple months ago. He was understandably sad, but hanging in. Back to his projects and puttering, and eating occasional dinners at Dad’s. But then, per my sister’s email, the lights were on in the house when they shouldn’t have been, or something like that, which made Dad concerned. Especially when Eddie didn’t answer the phone.

So Dad let himself in with his key, and found his dear friend sitting slumped over the dinner table. Quietly, suddenly, gone.

Eddie will be sorely missed.

I spent a long time hiding death from Kate. Even if I was doing something like throwing away brown neglected house plants, if she asked me why I was doing it I’d avoid saying they “died.” Silly, I know, but I feared the domino effect of her busy mind. If a plant could die, then couldn’t a person? And if a person could die, then didn’t that mean me or her Dad—or other people she loves—could? Or even her?

I felt utterly unequipped to navigate those conversations. I hate thinking about all that stuff myself. So why not extend her innocence for as long as possible?

Around that time I came across an old book of mine that Kate nearly-instantly love love loved. Oh, and me too. It’s called Koko’s Kitten, and it’s about that gorilla, Koko, who learned to communicate using sign language. And if that wasn’t cute enough, she also became friends with a kitten.

Big tough gorilla. Wee wittle kitten. Lots of pictures of them snuggling. Name one thing better.

I read the book dozens of times to Kate, always avoiding the part where the kitty cat, All Ball, gets killed. Yes, this amazing story of cross-species friendship takes a sudden tragic turn when All Ball gets offed by a car. A brutal plot twist even for us grown-ups. Thankfully, with a pre-literate toddler it’s fairly easy to bluff your way through the sad parts.

I guess one of the reasons I hid death from Kate for so long has to do with my own childhood experience of coming to understand death. I remember it so clearly. I was in the car with my mom, driving by Almacs grocery store, and I suddenly pieced together the fact that “old people die” and my grandmother (Mom’s mom) was old.

I was sobbing. Struck with panic over the unfairness of it. Heartbroken by the thought of Bopchi being gone.

My mother, ever the realist, responded to my fearful questions by saying something like, “Well, yes, she probably will die soon.”

Note: This did not make me feel better.

This is why, after the devastation in Haiti, when Kate nervously asked if we have earthquakes in San Francisco, I paused for a beat then said, “Noooooooo. Earthquakes HERE? Never happen.”

But Kate’s a world-weary kindergartener now. Today’s five-year-olds seem like the third-graders of my youth. Which is to say, she’s hip to death. Our friends’ pets have died. Kate knows my mom died before she was born. And, thanks to my NPR habit, she’s heard on the car radio about soldiers, bomb victims, and others dying. (Try as I do, turning down the volume after something unsavory is broadcast never seems to work.)

Sometimes weighty news like the death of her great grandpa barely registers with Kate. I’ve actually wanted her to feel sadder. (Guess I’ve come a long from the days of throwing out house plants that “weren’t happy anymore.”) Then Kate surprises me by sobbing on her bed and drawing ‘I Miss You’ cards for a neighborhood cat we barely knew.

It must be her way of regulating only what she can manage to process. I should have trusted Nature to have built into her something that helps her do that.

As for me, the day of the sad drop-off at Paige’s school I saw my still-prego friend Margot at afternoon pick-up. I was so thrilled, so very relieved to see her in her healthy baby-filled state, I nearly took a running leap to straddle her belly in a full-body hug.

But I was even happier to hear that nearly two weeks after she was scheduled to make her appearance, her cute-as-the-dickens long-lashed baby girl was born. Hooray! Mother and baby are all aglow and love-drenched and healthy (if not a bit frustrated by all the waiting).

Take that, Angel of Death.

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Locked and Loaded for Thanksgiving

Posted: November 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Drink, Extended Family, Food, Holidays, Housewife Superhero, Husbandry, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Sisters | 2 Comments »

My mother got headaches on holidays. The kind that required to her to be alone in her darkened bedroom. A room that she entered after shouting, “A little bit of appreciation would be nice!” then slamming her door.

Truth be told, I’m not sure this holiday ‘tradition’ took place on a truly regular basis, like the arrival of eggnog at grocery stores. But it did go down a few times for sure. Which in my tattered memory qualifies as something.

Of course, back then, my three sisters and I thought she was a drama queen. We rolled our eyes, called her nasty names (under our breath), and phoned friends to bemoan our misery. But now, as a Mama myself, I’m not so sure my mother was the offending party.

When I think of my mom at the holidays, I see her rolling out these Italian fruit cookies she used to make. More often than not, this was a late-night project. It took up all the counter space and the kitchen table. The cookies are super time-intensive and the dough’s delicate and tricky to work with—so much so that even now as a graduate of cooking school, I’ve shied away from ever attempting them.

But us kids loved them. They’d become tradition. So even if it meant finding time to bake at 10PM—and even though they were her ex-husband’s family recipe—Mom made them. Never fail. Every year.

Like many of the things she poured time and energy into—making pine cone wreaths, going to a farm for real hay for our manger, nurturing Christmas cacti year-round and baking cranberry bread on Christmas morning—all these things we all just took as traditions. Hardly considering how Mom toiled to maintain them.

What I’d pay now to be a fly on the wall back then. There were four of us girls, one of her. What was it we did to set off her tirades? Lazed about in our Lanz granny gowns, refusing to even let the dog out, when she’d woken up at 5AM to start the bird? Moaned about going with her to Christmas Mass? Or complained that the cocktail sauce for the shrimp was too spicy—or worse—was a new recipe we weren’t used to?

Embarrassingly entitled behavior, I know. But all totally feasible scenarios.

From where I stand now—a Mama who’s decorated and baked and shopped and wrapped ‘til all hours of the night—I can’t help but think that the odds were Mom’s tantrums were legit.

Too bad it’s too late to tell her I feel her pain.

When Paige was in a crappy sleep cycle a while back, waking up sometimes five times a night, I was also dragging my ass up at 6AM for boot camp. I was a zombie. Some days when Paigey napped, I’d crawl into my own bed. But Kate doesn’t have the ‘constitution’ for naps. (The gal’s natural pace is hopped-up like a speed fiend’s, and I have no one but myself to blame.) So to ensure Katie-Pie was well occupied, I’d plop her in front of the boob tube. I felt guilty, but I also felt so very very sleepy.

A couple weeks later, Kate and Mark were talking in the kitchen. “You know, Mom’s tired all the time,” Kate reported. “I always watch TV during the day so she can sleep.”

Whaaaat?!” I cried from the next room, tripping over myself to bust in on their convo and rectify my reputation. “I did that TWICE!” I said to Mark. “Okay, maybe three times… Back when Paigey kept on waking up at night.”

Then, turning to Kate like we were sisters in a spat, I sneered, “It wasn’t ALL THE TIME.”

I think Mark knew Kate was stretching the truth to con him into turning on TV. “Hey, it’s cool man! We roll like this all the time when you’re at work!” But maybe, like my memories of my mom’s holiday headaches, Kate saw a small pattern in my behavior and blew it up to be much bigger in her mind.

Whole families can have collective distortions of how things went down. Don’t you think? Stories are told and retold and embroidered along the way, and before you know it that famous playground scuffle William got into in third grade involved seven other kids and a pit bull. And he stole a police car after to get away.

I wonder if that’s the case with Mark’s family and their tales of talking politics around the turkey table. From the lore I’ve heard, there were some holidays that got pretty ugly. Folks fired up with a wee bit o’ holiday cheer duking it out over differing political opinions. I mean, far as I can tell there were never fisticuffs. But maybe a turkey drumstick or two got chucked across the table. At least, it’s fun for me to imagine that.

Were their political imbroglios ever really THAT bad? I can’t picture Mark’s mild-mannered Midwestern family bickering over Hilary’s foreign policy. I’m fairly apolitical, so I can’t even see doing that myself. Just like how I don’t get how a football team losing can put someone in a bad mood all day.

In my family accusations are flung, people storm around, and doors get slammed. But that’s just ’cause we’re Italian. It’s built into us. Moments later we’re all back at the table tucking into slabs of pie like nothing happened.

Anyway, all I know is, at some point prior to my indoctrination at Mark’s family holidays, an edict was set forth to suspend all political discourse. Forevermore.

But, you plug up one hole and eventually water spurts forth from another, right? Try as you will, there’s no way to ensure that a big extended family—with differing ages, political views, and opinions on how the stuffing should be cooked—can gather at the holidays with utter serenity. Even if you cook all your side dishes ahead of time, and avoid dinner-table talk on legalizing marijuana, healthcare reform, and failed family investments, something’s gotta give, right?

A recent Motherboard story I read gives the best reality-based holiday advice. Listen, your mother is going to be critical of what you cook no matter what, so just brace for it, honey. And when your brother-in-law acts all tweaky and insecure about something, GIVE INTO HIS SHIT. Toss out some crap that shocks and soothes him with how understanding and supportive you are.

I just LOVE that. Instead of willing it all to go away, step right into it.

Thanksgiving is always with Mark’s family. It rotates between being at his Mom’s house and her siblings’. This year we’re in North Carolina, which is fab, though frankly we could be in [insert some crappy place here] and it wouldn’t make a difference. Wherever we are we all end up just hanging out in the house anyway. Totally by choice.

Everyone’s even got their own foam coozy with their name on it. How rad is THAT? The bar’s open all day and the food don’t stop coming. This year there are even two—count ‘em TWO—newborns we can babble at and whose heads we can smell. And I just KNOW the cousins from Kentucky will bring some truly excellent bourbon. [Nudge, nudge.]

What’s not to love?

The Milller Family Thanksgiving is nothing like the holidays at my house used to be. (They actually watch FOOTBALL. And sometimes even play it!) But ten years in I can’t imagine spending Turkey Day any other way. Is it too meta to be thankful for Thanksgiving itself?

Well, who cares, damn it. I am.

A few years ago one of Mark’s relatives made a request to omit the nuts in the Chex party mix. This person lobbied that everyone in the family just picked around them anyway. A year or so later, the little pretzels were also removed. (I know, right? One of the best parts!) I joked—after a couple bourbon and Cokes, mind you—that the next year they’d be setting out empty bowls.

“What are these?” folks’d ask.

“Oh, the Chex party mix!” the host would reply. “The recipe that everyone likes.”

So, no political banter. And eventually I fear, no Chex mix.

We will get there! We will achieve celebration perfection!

If anyone’s bound to throw a wrench it in the well-oiled Miller Thanksgiving machine, I fear it’ll be me, or one of my kids. (Our wild Italian genes can’t be held down.) So I’m just bracing for Kate to start lecturing her cousin that daddies should be able to marry daddies. Or ranting about BP’s management of the oil spill. (Kate LOVED that damn spill and still goes on about how “some birds died, you know” and “Uncle John plugged it up.”)

At the same time I can picture Paige spitting out a brussel sprout, screaming, “ME NO YIKE DIS!” then spilling my red wine all over the white linen tablecloth.

Should this take place, I offer this up to our hostess, Aunt Ann, in advance: Talk a deep breath and a swig of chardonnay and remember that you’ve got a back-up plan: There’s a dark bedroom and a headache—either real or well-acted—that’s waiting for you.

Trust me on this. I’ve learned from the best.


Dear Mom

Posted: September 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Extended Family, Firsts, Kindergarten, Milestones, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Preschool | 19 Comments »

Dear Mom:

So Kate started Kindergarten last week, and Paigey started preschool yesterday. And I’m dying to talk to you about it. Damn it.

Anyway, maybe through the Cyberspheric Alternate Plane Afterlife Postal System (CAPAPS), this letter will make it to you, wherever you are.

Not to be harsh, but the truth is that with you gone for more than five years, I’ve gotten used to having birthdays, Mother’s Days—even Christmases—without you. A sad fact.

It’s not that I don’t miss you. It’s not at ALL that. I’ve just kinda gotten used to you not being here. Resigned myself to the fact that you never met my girls.

But then one morning last week Mark and I were standing on a playground watching Kate line up with her new classmates, her sparkle-heart backpack nearly the size of her, and I was struck with such a cutting pang of Mamaness. My own Mamaness.

My little baby Kate was suddenly such a big kid. Which made me such a grown-up Mom. Which, in turn, made me want my mommy.

Mark and I were all teary as Kate-o trooped in with her class. She, of course, was smug and confident. Locked and loaded. Ready. She didn’t look back at us once.

Afterward I was trying to think of what it was that made me well up, because in the steel-willed way I no doubt got from you, I’ve always secretly looked down on the preschool parking lot criers. The weak women who can’t deal with their kid going off to school.

Butch up, ladies! Kids grow up. And school is fun.

The closest I got in my emotional deconstruction was the realization that my teariness came from being proud of Kate. How confident and funny and creative and wild and sassy she is. And sure, how much I love her.

But I give myself little credit for her dazzling Kate-ness. It’s like these kids are born and are already, well, who they are going to be. Did you think that? I mean, you had twice the daughters I do, so your sampling is far more scientifically valid than mine.

Anyway, Kate’s been LOVING her school. She’s all algow about it. She sometimes shares parts of her day, but a lot of it she seems to guard as this special thing that she just wants to ruminate on and enjoy herself. (Which obstructs my obsessive smother-mother tendency to want to know. Every. Single. Detail.)

But God, I was kind of a basket case in kindergarten, right? I remember crying and crying for you, and all the other kids were totally chill and happy to be there. Not to make excuses, but I think it sucked knowing that you were right across the street. All the kids who lived further away didn’t have the ease I did of imagining themselves back home with their mamas. From the playground I could sometimes even see you outside gardening.

How long DID I keep up the tears?

As I sit here now, on my sunny porch (on a white wicker chair you’d totally approve of), I’m bracing myself for becoming The Parking Lot Crier next week when Paige’s preschool really kicks in. Yesterday and today they required that one parent stay with their kid. We all took staggered breaks away (I’m on one now) so the teachers could see which kids really crater.

I’m kinda doubting whether it makes sense to have Paige in preschool now. Makes sense for me, that is. I mean, she’s my dumpling! She’s my sidekick. She really IS my baby. And aside from the ghastliness of missing her, with her not home I really should be doing something useful with my time. Like weaving our clothes, or spackling the tub, or assembling photo albums for each child starting with their conceptions. Or hey—here’s an idea—making some money!

Right now I could list three-hundred reasons why Paige should wait another year for preschool. But I know she is ready and happy and will love it. And I can’t let my own shit—sorry, issues—get in the way of her good time.

YOU were always so good about not letting your emotions interfere with what we did. You led the Dry-Eyed Mom Brigade at school drop-offs. You didn’t flinch when I went  to college 14 hours away (12 hours if speeding). And I was the last kid to leave the nest. You never guilted me about coming home when I’d get the chance to be adopted by rich friend’s families for fabulous vacations.

So what I’d really like to know now is, was it that you were really cool with it all? Was the stiff upper lip no act? Or were you just the dutiful Mama bird, nudging me out of the nest ’cause otherwise I’d never fly?

If you could please send me some sort of sign to indicate the answers to these questions, I’d really appreciate it.

Anyway, as we pulled up in front of the house yesterday, after Day 1 of preschool, Paige announced, “Me no need you, Mama. Me big girl now.”

Did you hear me wail from whatever cloud it is you live on these days? Did you hear my car nearly take out the front shrubs as I tearily tried to park? Did you hear me walk around to Paige’s car seat and say, “Now YOU hear ME, Missy. I’m 43 years old and I still need my Mama!”?

Then I sat down on the curb and cried.

Anyway, if you could ever swing by for a visit, I’ve already planned out the day we’ll have. It just consists of us sitting around my house, drinking tea, and watching Kate and Paige play. And me asking you every two minutes, “Aren’t they great? Aren’t they so cute? Aren’t they just the best?”

I might also have you tackle some tough clothing stains I’ve been wrangling with. So don’t wear anything fancy.

Love you, Mama.


The Bristol Two-Step

Posted: February 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Daddio, Eating Out, Food, Kate's Friends, Little Rhody, Miss Kate, Mom, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Travel | 1 Comment »

We were in the library, so I decided to let out a blood-curdling scream.

I’d been chatting with the librarian. There are two gray-haired ones who still serve there—at my hometown bibliotheque—since back when I was a kid. I’d mentioned that to one of them once, thinking we might have a nice moment. Instead she looked at me like she’d sucked a lemon.

But yesterday I took a chance and mentioned to Kate as we were checking out books, “The woman who is helping us was the librarian when I was a girl.” And, thankfully, she looked up and smiled.

And then we did the Who Are You? Bristol Two-Step. Which is to say she asked me what my name was and who my parents are. And when I told her she said, “Oh sure” then listed off the names of all the streets we ever lived on in town. “Now your mom was on Hope for a long time, then she moved to Beach, right?”

“Your mother,” she said, hunched over the desk leaning towards me. “Her and my friend Dottie DeRosa, those two were out in their gardens at the very first signs of spring. We’d say the ground is still frozen, but there’s Vicki out there gardening.”

I admit my awareness of the girls’ whereabouts had faltered a bit. I was drawn in by the kindly gray-haired librarian. I wanted to hear more funny little stories about my mom. But before I could coax more out of her, I looked up to see Paige step into the empty elevator, and the door start to close.

PAAAAAAAAAAAIGE!” I bellowed, as I did a sideways-flying Superman-type lunge for the door. I wedged my hand in without a second to spare. Blessedly the door lurched back open. Paige was standing inside smiling, as I skidded into her like home base.

After that wake-the-dead Mama shriek, those librarians should have no trouble remembering me the next time I drop in.

At dinner last night, at my favorite chicken parm place, a couple walked in and sat at the table next to us. Some sort of comment on Paigey’s ability to pack away the pasta ensued. Then my father held out his hand towards the man, but squinted by way of saying he didn’t remember his name. Cue the Bristol Two-Step.

“Oh yes,” my father said, hearing the guy owns the photo shop in town. “You live on Court Street! My cousin Jimmy Rennetti used to own that house.”

There have to be a million annoying things about the lack of anonymity living in a small town. But this absurd form of interconnectedness is so extreme, is such a weird form of sport, it’s brilliantly entertaining. At least for someone who only lives it for a week or two every year. Despite the fact that I’ve been away for so long, I love that I still have enough hometown equity to play a fair game myself.

At the end of our meal a little girl wandered over to say hi to Kate, her mom trailing behind her. Kate, demonically excited to be in possession of a piece of take-out chocolate cake, was disinterested in the girl’s attention. So I tried to jump-start their conversation.

“Are you in kindergarten, honey? Where do you go to school?”

When she responded “Rockwell,” my own K through third-grade alma mater, I nearly squealed with glee. I forget sometimes when I’m in Rhode Island, and get excited to see someone wearing a RISD sweatshirt. Or I’ll be driving along, then perk up at the sight of an Ocean State license plate.

Proof of my spaciness perhaps. But also that I’m more used to home being a place where I’m not. My default setting is that any Rhode Islandisms I come across must be far-flung artifacts that’ve managed to make their way West. Like me.

At any rate, Kate’s would-be friend didn’t find my enthusiasm about Rockwell far-fetched. “Did you have Miss Sousa too?” she asked, wide-eyed.

Aw, honey. The thing is, I probably did have a Miss Sousa, but a very different one than yours.

There’s a strong tug of temptation to run around and see a ton of people while I’m here, to schedule non-stop things to do. Instead I’m trying to melt into the scenery. I’ve already handed over highlighting my hair to a chap in Newport who did a bang-up job for—get this—$50! And aside from a grandparent-sponsored jaunt to the toy store for Valentine’s Day, and dinner out for Dad’s birthday, the only plans we have are to go to story time at the library.

We’re meeting Kate’s new friend there. Which is great since I never got a chance to ask her what street she lives on, or who her teachers were at preschool.

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I Love You, I Love You Not…

Posted: December 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Blogging, California, City Livin', Friends and Strangers, Holidays, Husbandry, Kate's Friends, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting | 2 Comments »

There’s been a cold snap here. Gray skies, biting winds. The children of the Bay Area have insufficiently-warm outerwear, and their parents are all thin-blooded wimps. During the day when we might normally be at the park, or on the front porch, or cruising around the neighborhood on bikes, or strollers, or the red wagon, we’ve been stuck inside, hiding from the cold.

I’ve loved it.

The girls and I have spent such sweet happy afternoons snugged up indoors. We’ve cooked elaborate feasts with wooden toy food, conducted tea parties with real cinnamon-laden victuals, and read countless books about Christmas. It’s been so freeing knowing that getting out of the house just isn’t an option. Usually once Paige wakes from her nap I’m on a madwoman’s mission to get everyone’s shoes on and diapers changed and bike helmets secured. Channeling my mother I bellow the rallying cry, “It’s a beautiful sunny day! Let’s get out of this house!” I’m a self-professed fresh air fetishist.

But lately we’ve been padding around in slippers. Assembling puzzles. Doing projects with Popsicle sticks. Digging to the back of the closet and finding long-neglected toys that the girls delight in reacquainting themselves with. And a couple times this sugar-stingy Mama has even thrown caution to the wind and whipped up a pot of hot chocolate.

All that plus streaming Pandora Christmas carols. Now this is living!

During one of these happy floor-dwelling moments, when Dr. Kate and I were injecting Paige with some pretend inoculation or other, I thought about our warm weather life. I dug up the following post, which I’d written last year (for pay!) for a wine company blog. The blog—which several woman across the country were hired to contribute to—sadly never emerged beyond the marketing firm’s conference rooms.

Aside from the contrast it shows to our current indoor existences at Camp McClusky, the post brought to life how mercurial my love for this city is. One minute I can’t imagine living anywhere else, and the next I’m calling Mark at his office to announce we are packing up and moving to a small town. Somewhere. Anywhere. Just not HERE.

I’m like a dramatic child lying in the grass plucking daisy petals. “I love you. I love you not….” The only difference being I’m not talking about a youthful crush, something it’s okay to be fickle about. In this case it’s where my husband, daughters and I live. My “I love you not” episodes have the ability to rock other people’s worlds much more intensely.

But today? This morning I’m still reveling in a lovely neighborhood party from last night. This afternoon the Mama Posse is taking our older kids to San Fran to see The Velveteen Rabbit, and there are cookies to bake before then.  I’m filled to the gills with the holiday spirit.

I’ve got love for all people, all places. Even Oakland.

So, despite the fact that our front porch has just been functioning as a pass-through these days, this old never-posted post still captures my current emotional reading on our little corner of the world.

The View from the Front Porch

This is the story about a woman in a strange city, with a new baby, and how a bottle of wine saved her. Or as it were, saved me.

But before we get to the wine, let me back up a bit.

At the time I was managing a complex jumble of major life changes. Like some guy in a lumberjack contest running to keep his balance on a log so he won’t fall in the water.

I was so busy wrangling with it all that I didn’t fully realize how much of it there was, until a few different friends commented on my excess of Major Life Stressors. Most people, they all said, could only handle two of those doozies at once. But there I was exceeding that quota. As if I had any choice.

And while I’m at it, what up with that whole “two big life stressors” urban-legend-like theory? It seems like one of those Ann Landers quizzes that circulated in high school. (You know, the one where your final score revealed if you were a slut or not?) In this case I picture it as being an actual list of Life’s Hugest Stress Triggers with checkboxes next to them. And the smart mortals only check two at a time.

Aaaaanyway, where was I? Exceeding my stress quota. Okay, so what I had going on was having just moved to a new city—just over the bridge from where I’d lived for 12 years, but still. Devoid of local friends and the ever-presence of my lived-just-five-blocks-away sister. It felt like worlds away. I feared I’d be offering monetary incentives to get our city friends to ever visit.

Other stressors: I’d taken an indefinite hiatus from my maniacal love-hate time-sucking career. I was mourning my mother’s recent death. And I just had my first baby.

Oh, and did I mention I’m not really one for change?

I handled it all swimmingly. Which is to say I nearly refused to conduct commerce in Oakland, driving to San Francisco with my dry cleaning and sometimes even to grocery shop. I seethed every time my sister asked about traffic before deciding to come by. And I rejected the social value of neighbors as friends since, well, they lived in Oakland. They were Oakland people and I, well, I was from San Francisco. And likely just passing through.

But thank God for sidewalks. Where our new neighbors imposed their friendliness upon us despite my cynicism and Urban Girl guard being up. A friendly wave from the lady across the street when I grabbed the morning paper drove me back in the house ranting, “What’s up with her? Does she stand there all day waiting to pounce on people with her chirpy hellos?”

I was resistant. But even I can be worn down.

Because when you are tired, and smattered in spit-up, and have already called your husband’s office seven times by noon desperate for adult conversation, even the freaky old neighbor ladies and their little yapping rat dogs start seeming kinda nice.

Oddly, the women my age—especially the mothers—I held further at bay. With their older children, I considered them to be professionals at the mom thing, where I felt like a newbie, a maternal imposter.

It wasn’t until one evening when a random sidewalk chat stretched out, and seemed silly to continue just standing there, that I invited one of those moms to take a seat on my front porch. And like some bad movie montage, where the calendar pages flip to show time passage, eventually we’d see each other, sit longer, chat more, pass off outgrown kid clothes, and watch as the hip-held babies interacted. It wasn’t until one evening—both bushed from grueling kid-tending and diving deeper into some conversation or other, that I offered up a glass of wine.

“Well,” she said, performing an etiquette dance that’d do her mother proud, “I don’t want to put you to any trouble… Do you have anything that’s open?”

“Yes!” I yelped, over-eagerly, thrilled by the prospect of an impromptu happy hour, a new friend to talk to while the babies lolled contentedly on a blanket by our feet. “I have something we opened last night,” I said, trying to tone down the mania in my voice. “No problem at all.”

At which point I went into the house, grabbed a bottle of chard from the fridge, opened it, dumped a bit in the sink, grabbed two glasses, and waltzed back out to the porch.

Sometimes you don’t know which cork it is that you should hold onto—which bottle of wine will mark something worthy of a saved-cork tribute. In retrospect I wish I had that one now.

It’s three years and another baby later. I can’t count the number of front porch hangouts I’ve hosted on the fly—or with much-anticipated planning—since that first one.

Nor can I count the number of times that after calling Mark to lament that maybe this wasn’t working (this me staying home with the kids thing), maybe I needed to go back to work, get the girls a nanny—that he’d come home a few hours later, to find me commandeering the front lawn sprinkler for a gaggle of sopping screaming kids. And Jennifer, and maybe Bob from down the block who works from home, or really any number of other stopped-by-on-their-way-past neighbors would be on the lawn or perched by the porch table, which was loaded with a hodge-podge of kid and adult-friendly snacks, sippy cups, and a bottle of unapologetically opened-just-for-the-occasion wine.

And here Mark walks into the scene, expecting to find me pouting inside, resentfully changing a diaper or playing my fourth game of Chutes and Ladders, but instead I’m half-soaked and laughing, on a totally different plane from the frustration and self-pity of just hours before. But, sweetheart that he is, he never calls me on it. He just greets the gang, goes in the house, drops his lap top bag and grabs a wine glass for himself.

Thank you thank you Universe for getting me past that hard lonely sad first chunk of time here. Thank you neighbors for not giving up on me. Thank you dear daughters for coming along on the ride where I figured out that being a mother doesn’t mean leaving all of person I used to be behind—that I can be responsible and grown-up and still have some fun.

To my beautiful family, my great city, and my groovy little street of friends—I raise my glass to you.

I think I finally feel like I’m from Oakland.


Glass Half Full

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: California, Drink, Husbandry, Little Rhody, Mom | 1 Comment »

In our house love is measured in ounces. Between Mark and me at least.

Our unexceptionally-appointed kitchen has one of those do-hickies in the refrigerator door that dispenses filtered water, ice cubes, and—well, I don’t mean to brag here but—crushed ice too.

It makes me feel like royalty.

Growing up I lived in a lovely house in a beautiful seaside town. I went to an excellent school, and my dad had a good job. We had a Black Labrador, and my mom took painting classes and did lots of gardening. You could call it an entitled life.

But it was New England. Which is to say the richest man in town drove a battered ancient Volvo, everyone we knew set their thermostats to bone-chilling temps in the winter, and my mother didn’t subscribe to a single magazine. She read old back issues our neighbors passed on to her.

It wasn’t until the late-80s that my sisters and I, home for a holiday and desperate to check our apartment answering machines, went to the Apex in Pawtucket to buy Mom a touch-tone phone. Had we never done this, and were she alive today, I’ve no doubt she’d still be dragging her finger along that rotary dial, and swearing every time it slipped and she’d have to start all over again.

When I started going to school in Providence, I got a taste of life beyond the crusty Yankee world. Not that my city friends weren’t New Englanders too. But some of them were, well, new school.

I had to mask my amazement when, while making packets of Swiss Miss cocoa at Diane Prescott’s house—a structure that amazed me in its unapologetic immensity and modernity (not to mention that her mom drove a brand-new bright orange Pacer)—all we needed to do was turn the knob on a tap at the side of their kitchen sink. Amazingly, the spigot produced boiling water, instantly. It was so handy, so indulgent, I felt simultaneously dazzled and dismayed by it. Nothing should be so easy.

Of course, I never let on any of this to Diane. Though I’m sure she did wonder why, at age nine, I was perpetually desperate for a cup of tea.

But now I’m a Californian. Someone who has had regularly-scheduled massage appointments every six weeks, like haircuts. Someone who—before having kids at least—filled empty spots in the weekends by having Asian immigrants slough dry skin off my feet and scrape dirt from my toenails. I’m no longer amazed (or scandalized) when I walk onto someone’s deck and see a hot tub.

I don’t see any of these changes in me as indicators that I’ve struck it rich. In fact, I’d guess Mark and I have less money that our parents did when we were kids. It’s just that here, on the Left Coast, personal indulgences are not poo-pooed. They’re actually encouraged; signs that you’re taking care of yourself, not acting hedonistic.

When my mother visited San Francisco, sometimes between Scrabble games and her scouring my coffee pot I’d suggest that we go get mani-pedis. But she never had any desire to try one. In fact, she seemed turned off by the idea. Like her take on restaurants—”If you’ve got a kitchen and know how to cook, why would you go out?”—she was unshakeable in her views.

Our rental-house refrigerator’s water and ice dispenser is like some weird time-and-place machine. More than once when someone comes over for the first time, I’ve commented on it as I get them water. “We never had one of these when I was a kid,” I say, pressing the glass against up against the fridge door. “I feel spoiled rotten that I have one now.”

I’m laughing when I say it, but I’m really only half-kidding.

The downside to our water dispenser? It’s painfully slow. (Was Diane Prescott’s like that too? I can’t imagine it was.) To fill even a rocks-sized glass takes something like a minute, maybe two. That might not sound like long, but it feels like dog minutes. I’ve missed the better part of brilliant stories our dinner-party guests have told while I was slavishly refilling their glasses. And after packing snacks, changing diapers, and putting on coats—trying desperately to get out the door—I’ll realize I need water for the girls. My momentum screeches to a halt as I press each sippy cup against the door and wait, my blood pressure spiking.

Sometimes when this becomes unbearable I pivot to the sink to slosh water in the cups. Relief! But inevitably I envision the presence of microscopic water-borne carcinogens. I picture myself polluting my babies’ pure bodies. The burden of that guilt is sometimes worse than tacking another five minutes of lateness onto wherever it is we’re already supposed to be.

In the evenings when the girls are in bed, Mark and I convene on the couch. It’s where we exhale after punching the clock for the day. And like a game of chicken, one of us eventually gets up for something—to pee, to flip the laundry, to get ice cream—and asks, usually without thinking, “Can I get you anything?” It’s only when the response is, “Sure. Water would be great,” that we realize what we’ve done.

I joke that our water dispenser should also serve Ritalin. I can’t imagine anyone, even with a normal attention span (unlike my hummingbird-fast one), not finding the process painful. In fact, Mark tends to just use the tap these days. But every once and a while he’ll come back to me and hand me a pint-glass that’s filled nearly to the top. “This,” he’ll say proudly, “Is how much I love you.”

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My Good Egg

Posted: October 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Housewife Fashion Tips, Husbandry, Miss Kate, Mom, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Sleep, Travel | 4 Comments »

I’ve not always been the best bed mate.

Mark may not often admit that, the dear, unless you catch him on a morning when I’ve had what he refers to with restraint as “a particularly active night’s sleep.”

You see, he’s a light-as-a-feather sleeper. And I could slumber heavily alongside a train track. I’m a deep deep sleeper who’s also on the move, stretching, flopping over then back like a fish, pedaling an imaginary bike, or curling fetally into what Mark calls my “comma position.”

I do sleep as a high-impact sport.

Mornings, the volume of my hair snarl and the intensity of Mark’s bloodshot eyes are the indicators of  just how fervidly I’ve thrashed through the night. Usually without ever pulling out of my corpse-like slumber.

I am not a night-time tinkler. (In fact, I hold mortals who speak of “getting up at night to pee” in mild to moderate disdain.) Before kids became part of our traveling show, I’d fall asleep on planes prior to take-off, and be nudged awake before landing by flight attendants insisting I “return my seat to the full upright position.” At the dramatic height of a movie or TV show, I could suddenly nod my head, let my jaw hang lax, and conk out cold.

Sleep is my super power.

Of course, I’ve been pregnant twice too. So Mark’s also suffered through months of me engaged in nighttime aerobics, but wielding a large inner baby and scads of assorted pillows I’d pack around myself like I was some fragile teapot being sent through the mail.

I suddenly discovered what it was like to wake up in the night, uncomfortable with a hip that seemed it was being crushed in a vice. Add to that, I was having to pee. (Me!) My pillows were my desperate effort to defend my long-cherished run of failure-proof sleep. They were my mental and physical support. Like a full-body nighttime bra.

Yet even they failed me. Because whenever I rolled over I’d need to reconfigure the innumerable group of them on the new side.

As if that weren’t bad enough, once I’d finally get settled the skin on the soles of my feet would feel dry. (My own personal crazy-lady pregnancy thing.) So I’d reach to my bedside table for lotion, sweeping my glasses to the floor, clanging my glass of water, and ultimately, upsetting my strategic pillow array. Waah!

Poor Mark. A frat boy after a night celebrating his 21st birthday couldn’t sleep through that.

Often, understandably, Mark would give up and schlep to the couch. And as long as his pillow and blanket were gone by daybreak, so friends or house cleaners wouldn’t question the health of our marriage, I was admittedly happy to be alone. Doing snow angels in the sheets with my immense baby-filled body. Not worrying about moving too much and keeping Mark up, I’d fall asleep nearly instantly.

Alas, it’s likely Mark’s days of pregnancy-induced couch sleeping are over. (Sniff!). But this week I’ve had a cold. I NEVER get sick. My take on colds is akin to the mortal weakness of night peeing.

And Mark’s been so horribly busy at work. At night he gets to crawl into bed with me sniffling, snorfling, coughing, and worst—doing the Bruno triple throat clear. From my lump on the left sife of the bed I radiate germs and self-pity like rays from the sun. And my already unsexy cadre of nighttime attire has bottomed out with the cold-weather return of my flannel Lanz of Salzburg granny gown.

Let’s just say I’m no Betty Draper.

But through it all Mark’s been the attentive tough-love nurse. “Have you even taken zinc? Or Vitamin C?” he’ll ask, then sigh, trundle off, and return with a handful of pills and a tall glass of water.

This morning he delivered a cold pill and some decongestant or other before I even got out of bed. I mean, at least that’s what he SAID he was giving me.

But seriously, if you haven’t met my husband, let me tell you. He’s a good egg.

When the girls were wee babes and I was getting up a lot at night to nurse, since Mark holds the title of World Featherweight Sleeper, he’d be up too. In fact, he’d be the one shaking me to consciousness when the monitor was blaring baby cries and crackling static at Volume 11, right at my ear.

“Uh, honey? Kristen? The baby is up.” And I’d've been on such another stratosphere of deep sleep I’d walk heavy-legged and dull-faced down the hall towards the crying.

But when I got back into bed, without fail, he’d have fluffed my pillows.

I know it seems like a small thing. But it was such a sweet act of I-wish-I-had-boobies-and-could-help-out-more kindness. If I weren’t so damn tired, I’d have taken his face in my hands, planted a big smooch on his forehead, and blubbered happy words of appreciation.

Turns out having one’s head drift down into two perfectly fluffed pillows is an exceptional simple pleasure. Especially when you’re months into no more than three or four hours of sleep at a stretch.

And another thing about that man, because I’m on a roll now. When he’s cooking? And cutting up carrots for something? He chops off a little nubbin of one and brings it over to me wherever I am. You know, like where I’m setting the table, or digging in the bottom of the closet for my other clog.

I don’t even remember how it is that I told him about this, but the reason he does it is it’s something my mother would do. She spent 70% of my childhood cutting up raw vegetables to set in front of me. Or handing me a piece of celery off the cutting board, before dumping the rest into a pot.

Speaking of her, I had that phone thing happen today. The thing people talk about when someone close to them dies—still getting the impulse to pick up the phone and call the person, then having the realization that you can’t.

Google really should work on that.

Anyway, what’s weird is that it’s been ages, like, over five years, since mom and I have had one of our meandering, sometimes only mildly-interesting daily phone calls. So I’ve been over that phone call habit for a while now. Or so I thought, at least.

But earlier tonight, after Kate’s dance performance and before dinnertime, I was tired. I’d been on Mama duty all day, with a ragged voice, goopy cough, mounting headache, and two young unsympathetic charges. I was summoning my last bits of patience and energy to get a bare-bones frozen ravioli and salad dinner on the table.

I was cutting up carrots to steam—’cause it turns out my mother’s veggie-pushing got passed down in the genes—and as I turned on the oven to warm some bread, it started. Not that I thought I wanted to call her per se. It’s more that this string of thoughts about feeling worn out, and the girls arguing over books in the other room, and it starting to get really cold at night here now that it’s fall—this series of thoughts I was running through in my head were things that were somehow sort of customized for her. The kinds of things I’d be telling my mother if I could.

And then that one part of your brain that can be sitting back when another part is doing something else, it prompted me with the thought, “Hey, seems like you want to be calling your mother right now.”

Which had the potential to take me to the brink of feeling far worse about the state of things than I already felt. I mean, feeling sick and tired is one thing. But the dead mother trump emotional card always beats out everything else.

But blessedly, before I could even go there, the lock on the door clicked in that barely audible way it does when Mark comes home. And Kate sprang off the couch with an amped-up need to tell a story, and Paige, from her spot on the floor stretched out her arms for her tragic pick-me-up-you-don’t-KNOW-how-much i-missed-you act.

In a snap, that little door click redistributed all the energy in the house. And when the door swung open, it was like all the thoughts swirling around in my head got sucked outside in the back draft.

Sometimes that man has just got perfect timing.


The Presents of Greatness

Posted: September 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Doctors, Eating Out, Miss Kate, Mom, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Shopping | 2 Comments »

When I got home from school the afternoon of my 16th birthday, my mother was lying in bed and couldn’t move.

Now, the thing with my mother was she was a procrastinatory goddess. You never wanted to visit her and leave your prescription medicine. She’d tell you she’d mail it to you, and she’d have every good intention to, but ultimately weeks’d go by before you saw those pills again. And by then, your blood pressure, your acne, hell, a pregnancy even—whatever it was you were trying to ward off—would’ve gotten an excellent shot at entrenching itself in you.

So, on the morning of May 10, 1983, the 16th anniversary of my nativity, my mother woke up, ushered me off to school, and set out for her tennis game, utterly unprepared for my birthday. During doubles that day with “the girls” (a term she used even when they were long into granny-hood), she fell down. Landed on her elbow. And apparently gave it a substantial whack.

I assume it had to hurt. But this was a woman who left everything to the last minute. After tennis she’d have time to go to Ma Goetzinger’s, a cute boutique one town over, where she figured she’d find some little number or other that’d appeal to my fashion-frenzied teen self. She might also be able to swing by another shop or two, and round out her gifts for my sweet sixteen.

But there was, she decided, no time to see a doctor.

Well, by 3:30, or whatever time it was I got home from school that day, Mom’s elbow had had enough of being made a low priority. She’d hopped on her bed for a small rest when she got home, and in the calm of her quiet room, with the birthday whirlwind behind her, her body’s urgent pleas for attention finally got through.

The pain at that point was so great, she couldn’t even move.

I don’t really remember what happened next. How we got her up and to the medical center, or maybe to one of our small-town doctors’ home offices. But it turned out the arm was broken. She’d cracked or chipped or fractured some part of the elbow. An injury that was grave enough to warrant the doc, who we likely knew (whose wife was likely at the tennis game), to give her a good “What-the-hell-were-you-thinking-to-not-get-here-sooner?” lecture.

I assure you, I never expressed greater appreciation for birthday presents than I did that day.

Even in my ego-maniacal teen haze, I was struck with a jolt of insight into the greatness of a mother’s love. And her desire to make her child’s birthday just perfect.

Oh and you can bet I delivered my own “Geez-Mom-you-didn’t-hafta-do-that” lecture, managing upward as it were. After all, a daughter’s got love to give too.

But somehow, like those things do, that episode, that painful act of maternal sacrifice, faded into the backdrop of life. Never alluded to or held over my head, and only springing to my mind this morning as I lay in bed tickling the girls, awash in my own feelings of giddy love and gratitude for my daughters.

On Wednesday night, I went downstairs to the guest room closet to take stock of Kate’s birthday loot. And it turned out, that with all the shopping, or wrapping, or storing of gifts that I’d done on behalf of grandparents and other far-flung folk, I realized there wasn’t much for Kate that was from Mark and me. This discovery, of course, taking place late on the eve of her birthday.

So when she was in school that day, after Paige’s play group, I scrambled to a toy store. A mother ravaged with guilt that it’d taken until THE ACTUAL BIRTHDAY to get something. A woman incredulous that the Procrastination Gene she’d spent a lifetime denying, had somehow manifested itself in her, on the sly.

We found some little thing or other. A toy I’d say was from Paige to Kate. And by pure kismet I saw a billboard proclaiming the imminent arrival of Disney on Ice. The kind of branded, overpriced spectacle that makes the inner Waldorf mom in me shudder. But a perfect last-minute addition to Kate’s paltry set of parent-given gifts.

So there! I was done. With ten minutes to spare before fetching the birthday girl from school. I loaded Paige into the car, content that it’d all come together after all.

It wasn’t ’til later that evening, when Mark was back from his work trip and we were preparing to head to Kate’s favorite dinner haunt, that I noticed the stroller wasn’t in the back of the car.

I mentally retraced my steps.

Was it on the front porch? Had I left it outside Jen’s after play group? Or, in my haste to declare myself the ever-ready mother, did I smugly deposit both Paige and the birthday gifts in the car, then drive off leaving the stroller on the sidewalk?

Why yes, that’s exactly what I’d done.

As we headed to Filippo’s, pushing our unwieldy (but gratefully existent) double stroller, I asked myself, “How long does it take for an abandoned MacLaren stroller to biodegrade?”

Ah well, it’s good to have these humbling moments that prove I don’t really have my shit together after all. Right?

That said, I’ll have you know I’ve already purchased two (yes, 2) Christmas presents. So there.