Friday, May 28, 2010

Love and Mothers

I had meant to post this on Mother's Day, but I was traveling. In fact, my mother was with me, having just helped to support me through something awful. This blog is for her.

One night, my husband and I lay beside each other in conjugal bliss with a book of Rumi’s poetry between us. We were discussing love and how to describe it. We each had been thinking about the bonds of love between parent and child in addition to that holy bond between spouses. How does one truly articulate love? Difficult to define and express, efforts have been made for love to be explained, questioned, pondered, answered, and spoken through the written and verbal word, through acts of physical intimacy, demonstrated in gestures of sacrifice and service, painted, photographed, sculpted, and even shouted from the couch on Oprah. But really, in the quiet moments at this writer’s desk, what is love and how can I really tell someone exactly how and how much I love? I cannot pour it into a glass and measure it. I cannot buy it. I cannot put it in a box, gift it, and say: Here is this love. All of it.

Lately, I have thought in particular about my mother. I want her to know how I feel about her. It is impossible to capture precisely, this love. Simply said, it is too big, too profound. In a recent and beautiful letter, my mom described the loss of several friends and her gratitude to still be alive and well and sharing her life with us: her daughters, my dad, her friends. I was moved to tears both reading her lovely words and penning more back to her. My love for her runs as intensely as romantic impulse, deeply as protective instinct, and joyfully as the wagging tail of a happy dog. I so love her. Does she know how? I think she does, in her own way of words and gestures, because we are both mothers.

My mother made sure my childhood would be as free from pain as possible. Having been unprotected from certain hardships, she sacrificed aspects of her adulthood to guarantee my own secure entry into the grown up realm. For the painful end of my first marriage, she sometimes blames herself for the reasons parents do—if only she had said, if only she had showed me, if only she had prevented this from happening. She considers my children her own and thinks about them constantly. She sets quiet examples of incredible work and success. I think she is the first woman in both my maternal and paternal families to earn a master’s degree, and to do what she does for a living. She made it possible for me to get my own degrees by setting that example. When my babies were born, she was there. She bundled them and stayed up all night with those precious newborns so my then-husband and I could sleep. When holidays came, she sacrificed her own time so we would not have far to travel with children. She came to us.

On my recent visit home, my parents showed me baby pictures that had survived Katrina. Because of so much lost, these photos were a particular jewel. I only had one image of myself as a baby—until now. The best image in this newfound collection, the most touching, was my mother sleeping beside me. I was less than six months old. Curled toward her, my forehead pressed to her breast, she cupped my body in the bend of her own. Light from the window poured in—clean, pale, ethereal, soft. The stillness in the photo, the very peace of the shared nap could be felt nearly 37 years later. It is the most beautiful picture of my mother I have ever seen. The preciousness of that photo spoke volumes of love, past and present. It is just a glimpse though, of the sacrifice made, the words spoken, the tenderness exchanged.

There is no love like mother-love. It is a cycle repeated timelessly, endlessly within one relationship, and passed down to other generations. I can only truly honor her love by living well, loving my own children, and when the time comes to care for her in old age, accepting the responsibility with grace and gratitude.

Love to you always, Mom. Love.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

There's One Near You, Too

In every neighborhood, there is at least one person who is deemed the local eccentric. He or she is harmless, but questionable. Observations of this person’s behavior are reported and discussed with amusement at parties, bus stops, and impromptu front lawn gatherings. Recently, a businessman who lives a block away stopped me for conversation only to stop mid-sentence and gawk at a passing runner. Mind you, this was no ordinary runner. This is a man that runs like Phoebe from Friends. Watch a glimpse of an episode here if you have never seen this:

Our neighborhood athlete tops this. In his mid sixties, he runs, arms and limbs akimbo, often with an orange knit winter cap sitting crookedly atop his head (how does it stay on?) so that the bulk of the hat flops to one side. He runs and walks, runs and walks for hours and miles. I have seen him all over our neighborhood, at great distances, and at all hours of the day. We have spoken once or twice, politeness in passing, but obviously something is not quite right here.

“What do you think is wrong with him?” asked my neighbor.

“He’s nuts,” I said flatly.

“But it’s a physical thing, really,” he mused.

“Trust me. It’s all connected. He ain’t right, as we say here in the South.”

We watched the man flail and flop down the block for another minute. He stopped running, walked in a circle for a minute, changed directions abruptly, and ran helter skelter out of sight.

“We talked once,” said my neighbor.

“Yeah? What’d he say?”

“That he likes to watch the women as he runs.”

Enough said.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Preserving the Magic: the Tooth Fairy

Tragically, the Tooth Fairy failed to perform her duty the other night. My daughter came to me tearfully the following morning to convey her vast disappointment. By the afternoon, the fairy herself had rectified the situation in a rather surprising manner and left for her client not just the requisite dollar, but a carefully written apology and a rather stunning gift: two bee sculptures dangling from the ceiling. The bees are spectacular, both fairly large (one the size of a football), brightly painted, and quite whimsical. My daughter’s face was priceless when she read the letter, which had been taped to her shut bedroom door, then entered her room to see the bees. This evening at dinner, my daughter announced that she simply could not hold a grudge against the fairy due to the events that delayed her the night before.

Below is a copy of the letter. We hope to follow this with photographs of the bees at some point.

My Dearest,

Please forgive me for failing to visit last night. I certainly understand if you do find my behavior most egregious. The most horrible thing happened on my way to your humble home in Malvern Gardens. I do hope you forgive me upon learning these frightful circumstances, as they stopped me from fulfilling duties as your beloved Tooth Fairy.

There were approximately ten children who fell asleep before you did last night, whose pillows concealed waiting teeth and lovely notes, and whose parents had indeed followed the appropriate instructions for summoning me. The skies had been thankfully clear thus far, and there were no atmospheric disturbances whatsoever. I was singing along, flitting down the grand avenue that leads to your flower-flanked cottage, when lo and behold! I came across a most nefarious family of savage bees. Bees, as you know, love sweet things and flowers, and are therefore a terrible threat to tooth fairies because of our naturally sugary scent and our lovely flower-blossom flying gowns. This is why we tend to work at night; bees sleep under the starry skies, as do children.

For some reason—the bees were out. There may have been some kind of Malvern Association Bee Keeping Meeting or maybe it was the Gala for the Historic Preservation of Bee Society, as there are such things. Two most ill-tempered bees refused to allow me to pass and gave me a terrible fright. They chased me down Monument Avenue toward that bizarre sculpture of Arthur Ashe (Is he raising his racket to swing at children? Or bees?) and I ran right into that racket. I sprained an armpit and damaged the lower set of wings that function as ailerons for flight. I could not make it home at all and was terribly distressed and discombobulated. Fortunately, one of the Malvern Rabbit Association chief officers found me floundering about, carried me home, and put me to bed.

This morning I awoke, sore and distraught. It seems as though in my troubled state, I had forgotten your precious, and likely, final lost tooth. The first thing after Natoonka Flower Tea, I found the naughty bees, summoned my most challenging magical powers, and banished the bees from Malvern Gardens forever. They have now been turned into charming floating sculpture that can hurt no one. Here they are for you as a symbol of my victory over malice and my unrelenting efforts to provide magic and mystery for children everywhere.

Most affectionately,

Queespisia June Petalis

Senior Level Tooth Fairy

Malvern Station 10-A

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Things They Left Behind

The shed in the backyard costumes itself as a play cottage complete with little windows, window boxes, and neat trim. I wish it were a play cottage for the children sometimes, but most days, I would prefer it to be a garage, large enough for two cars plus room for decent storage. Last Friday, in desperation to be able to painlessly extract the lawnmower and other tools, I began to tackle the disorganization hidden in this otherwise pleasant little structure. What I found inside amused me greatly.

Not just our things are in that shed. The previous residents, from whom we rent, left behind an inordinate amount of tools and handy items. They have no interest in reclaiming any of it, by the way. As I sorted through our belongings, I began to see that the shed had originally been quite tidy. The homeowners may have saved everything, but they designated a place for each thing. Each shelf, nail, and hook claimed some item—some usable, some outdated—all clues to the family who had lived here.

There was a tin with Greek writing; a plastic folding mirror, the cover stamped with the words American Woman; every doorknob, latch, and lock that belonged to the house when it was purchased from the family that originally built this place; wiring that had been removed from the house, ends spliced apart, waiting for reuse; a beaded chain that held at least 100 miniature keys; old phones of all kinds; and worn out men’s’ shoes. Grocery bags found in the shed held dates of that store’s anniversary in 2001. Hidden on high shelves were empty boxes from small appliances that have long since been absent from their hold. I found a small piece of wood, which had been drilled with a multitude of holes. About every other hole held a fat screw. Why? There were gloves that were like cotton paddles instead of with individual finger pockets. I still don’t know what one does with those. I also found a rather extensive selection of pick axes. The best find was a pair of glass wine bottles that the child of the house had painted herself back before she moved with her father and grandparents to Greece. She had drawn and filled with rainbows of hearts on the green glass, her childhood captured in a now foreign-to-her continent.

The things we leave behind are more interesting to others than ourselves. They raise questions and bring with it a degree of responsibility, too. I kept what was valuable or useful, left those things where they were found just in case, and threw out the dilapidated and decrepit. Certain things went to Goodwill. Our own tools went back neatly in place, too, but the unnecessary marks of former lives were removed forever, like the welcome sign to my husband’s last married home or curtain rods from the rooms of children now grown. The shed will need to be examined again, sooner than later, but this time, not by me. My husband can go through and sort more of his past from his present, and place order in a more refined sense from among olive jars of nuts and bolts and the frightening axe collection. He can stand in wonder at the world left behind by the former family. I wonder what will intrigue him the most.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bearing Fruit

The backyard is laden with fruit and herbs. My neighbor, a rather eccentric bloke in his sixties, had been gardening just two houses over. He pulled cherries from the tree, ate them straight from the branches, and spit seeds thoughtfully onto the waiting earth. In his slow, soft drawl, he told me to go get myself a good duck breast and make a cherry sauce for it. He meandered through the garden and showed me peaches that should have been sprayed in winter to prevent infestation. He talked about how to prune the fig tree. His hands, crusted and dusted throughout with black loam, proffered samples of the growing fruit. He chastised me a bit for not taking more advantage of what was growing and asked if he could return to pick our fruit—more telling than asking, really. As he squinted into the sun, he adjusted the brim of his hat and warned that birds would soon discover the ripe cherries and then the plums that grew nearby.

I had been pruning trees out of practicality and desperation. Tired of ducking heavy branches on my way to take out the garbage, I had removed branches, dead and live alike, fruitful and barren, and heaved the pile into the alley. My neighbor pawed through the remnants for more cherries, told me he would help himself to this, too, thank you very much. He tipped his hat, and ambled, in his time-be-damned manner, back down toward his home.

I retreated to the shelter of the fruit trees. As I stretched up into the branches for another taste of early summer, I suddenly felt gloriously happy to be exactly where I was. Such a wonderful city, so rich in history, and my home, an oasis in the middle of it all. The fruit trees are just the cherry on top. They are a reminder of all the things in my life that are blossoming and bearing goodness.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Change in Behavior?

The rabbit has begun to socialize with us—freely and without hesitation. He has actually become friendly. I cannot imagine what has induced this new behavior. During the day, I leave the door open to the laundry room and he can now see me work as the dog naps at my feet. Perhaps, this constant company comforts him. Whatever has softened his approach and significantly reduced his sarcasm, we are all continuing to encourage the rabbit in this positive, new direction. He even now puts his paws on the door frame to his cage and pokes his head out for petting. This is definitely a kinder, happier rabbit.

I wish people were as malleable as pets.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What Women Really Want... At Least This One

Last Christmas, my husband asked me what I wanted. I did not even have to think.

“An umbrella,” I said.

“No, really. What do you really want?” he pressed.

“An umbrella. Mine just broke. I would also like long sleeve pajamas and a pair of slippers.” He thought this was really funny, but I am a practical person. I find receiving extravagant gifts to be somewhat embarrassing. I really prefer what I really need, and only on occasion might think of something I actually want for the sake of wanting. This year, for my birthday, I identified a want.

“I would like a houseplant for my birthday, please.”

I realize a lot of women ask for jewelry. But for me, the houseplant represents something greater.

“Any particular kind of plant?” asked my husband. I told him, no, that he would see the right thing and know. I suggested maybe something that bloomed once in a while—it would give me something to anticipate. Something that grows, something that represents life. Nothing comforts a room like a thriving potted plant.

For the last year, I have had no houseplants. The ones I moved here last year from out of state became infested with flies and we had to put them outside where they did not survive. After that, we traveled so frequently for my children’s visits with their father, that I wanted one less thing to worry about when we were gone. We still have travel, but there is a greater degree of predictability to it. I can plan now. I can put roots down. I wanted that to be reflected in something else with roots.

On my birthday morning, my son announced he wanted to give me a tree. I followed him downstairs. There, before the piano, stretching tall in an angled loom of light, was a glorious and gracious large pot of ivy on a trellis. My children had helped choose the plant and were excitedly dancing around it. It is as tall as my daughter. The ivy reminds me of the vines that crawled on brick walls in New Orleans. It is as hardy and sustaining as we are. The gift is generous, thoughtful, and beautiful. I felt peace wash over me as I fingered the leaves.

Peace, security, and a sense of home—just what I really wanted.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Another Birthday, Another Co-Pay

I spoke too soon.

Yesterday afternoon, I told my mother that so far I had enjoyed quite a wonderful emergency-free day. For years, on or right around my birthday, I have been facing some kind of crisis: moving, learning my once-upon-a time-husband has been fired (again), the emergency room… just to name a few. My mother quickly counseled that the day was not over yet.

“It’s 5 PM,” I said, “What could possibly go wrong?”

Fast forward two and half-hours. We had company for birthday dinner, the table was loaded with plates and steaming platters, and my (current) husband stood over broken shards of pottery. There was blood seeping from two fingers. There were spots of blood on the floor. I followed him to the sink, grabbed a cotton towel, and announced the need for a visit to the emergency room.

He wasn’t having it. He wanted to eat his dinner first. He taped closed the cuts on his bloody fingers and sat down over steak. The bandaid was visibly saturated.

“Well,” I said, “I did say I preferred my meat a little bloody.”

Watching him cut his food with his sliced fingers made me queasy, and I was antsy to get his hand treated. When the meal was over, company agreed to stay with our little people so we could attend the local quick-clinic.

“Stay,” encouraged my spouse.

“Are you crazy? If I had cut my hand open you would not allow me to drive alone to the doctor. I’m going.”

“Really,” he said, “you don’t have to go.”

I cannot remember my exact words, but they involved the grand revelation that under no circumstances was a man who tried to cut his fingers off going alone to the doctor while I sat eating cake at home, and nothing he could say was going to change my mind. I was in the car, engine cranked, before he could even fumble for his wallet.

At the doctor’s, my husband sat on the patient bed (what does one call those things?) with his legs dangling over the sides. I thought of my children. He held his hand out to the physician’s assistant.

“Texas chainsaw massacre,” I said.

At one point, I turned to the PA and told her my husband needed a lollipop for being a good boy. She offered a sticker, but we weren’t done yet. He still had to prove himself. She soaked his hand in a solution of hydrogen peroxide, checked his wounds, taped them shut again, and we waited for the doctor.

In minutes, the doctor came, pulled the curtain closed behind him and stared seriously at us through his little gold rimmed glasses. His last name was mostly consonants. I think he had called the Russians before entering our room. News may have traveled that a man in his fifties wanted a sticker, and he was here to investigate. I sat with my husband as we cracked joke after joke and barely got a curl out of one side of the doctor’s mouth. When he left, I told my husband that I certainly thought his bravery had earned him a sticker, not that his doctor would think so at all, and to look on the bright side… we just had a date without having to pay a sitter.

My husband survived my birthday night with cut fingers, a tetanus shot, but no stitches. He was warned to do nothing with his hand for a few days—no water, no real activity of any kind (baby, what else might that hinder?) and I escorted my lovable patient back out to the car and opened his door for him.

On the way home, he leaned to me and said, “I am so glad I could make your birthday complete.”

Yes, you did, sweetheart. It will long live in memory.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tiny Man Talks

I have written previously about conversations with my daughter. I finally have managed to capture certain discussions with my son, who is nearly four. Below is his latest attempt to delay bedtime.

“Mommy, dere’s a bug on my bed.”

“No, son, there’s no bug on your bed.”

“Dere’s a bug IN my bed… in da covers.”

“No, son, there’s no bug in your covers.”

“Dere’s a bug under my bed. It flew up into the sky.”

“Tiny Man, go to bed.”

His stalling tactics are brilliant. Since we moved to another state, I have had a hard time getting him to talk on the phone or web camera to his father, who lives 8.5 hours away. We used to bribe him. It stopped being effective this past fall.

“Tiny! Daddy is on web cam,” called out his sister one day.

“No, no talk right now,” he answered as he looked at a Martha Stewart Living magazine, the Halloween edition.

“Daddy says he has a shark! Come see the shark.”

Tiny Man turned a page sharply, slapped it down, and sang out without even looking up, “Not workinnngg!”

Aside from dancing naked at bath time, we are having a particularly hard time motivating our little boy to cooperate with this same specific thing again—talking on the phone.

“It’s time to talk to your father,” I said this week and began directing him to the stairs where his sister was on the phone.

“No. I no want to.”

“It’s time. Go talk.”

“My tummy hoits.”

“No, it doesn’t. You’re fine. Your father is waiting,” I said again as I picked him up and carried him up the stairs. “Just say hi, so he hears your voice, and then you can go play.”

“I fink it’s time to brushy teef!”

“No, son.”

“Hey—dere’s dis time, and my dad, he holdy me.”

“Here we go, Tiny Man. Daddy is on the phone.”

“Noooooooooo.” Within seconds of my putting my son down, he weaseled out of my arms and scampered down the hall.

You know those expressions-- nailing jello to a wall or herding cats. Yes, exactly.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society charms you to read ceaselessly all the way to its lovely and reluctant end. Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France, slipped off the pages; it permeated my thoughts with salty air and the rushing of tall grass. I became one of the characters, tea cup perched on knees, attending readings that the literary society held each fortnight during the German occupation of the islands in World War II.

To say Guernsey Literary is a light read would be a bit of a misnomer. Easy reading yes, but marked throughout with reminders of the humanity’s darkness. This curious book was a delightful escape that somehow drew parallels to my own hardship and newly made road to recovery. The story of the book unfolds in the form of correspondence to or from the protagonist, Juliet, who discusses her research of the German occupation, her romances, and friendships. She captures loss and healing as beautifully as she paints images of one character’s memory of purple, red, and gold skies. She easily portrays how books became entwined with lives—helping neighbors bond with each other, lift spirits during wartime, and raise their intellectual engagement.

Co-written by Annie Barrows and her aunt Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a book about hope. Post-war Europe in the rebuilding years will touch on many readers who have lost or experienced the kind of tragedy that leaves a shadow in the corners of the mind. The idyllic island setting, with its coasts, fields, cottages, and simple people, are reminders of beauty gained through hardship.

Selfishly, I fear lending this book. You will have to purchase your own copy!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Love Wins

Love wins, as does truth and goodness and all the other virtues that shed light on what can be an ordinary and troubled world.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Joy of Sex Education

Sex education can be a dicey topic with young people. I think these discussions embarrass most parents, but I would rather my daughter learn from our talks than from what she hears at school. I have been operating on a blunt, but simple need-to-know basis.

A few years ago, my daughter wanted to know exactly how horses made babies. After all, we were around them all the time. I explained in general terms, but it was not enough. Not being able to understand my daughter’s exact informational gap, I did what the twenty-first century mother does—I googled it. We found a few helpful pictures of horses in action, so to speak, maybe a video, and my daughter finally announced that she grasped the concept. She went upstairs to play only to return 20 minutes later with two beautifully drawn, colored, and cut paper doll horses—one of whom was endowed with a spectacular penis.

“It’s like this,” she said unblinking. “They graze on all fours like this, then the stallion wants to make a baby, and he gets on two legs and climbs on the mare like this.” She rotated the stallion paper doll to the perfect reproductive angle and slid him toward the unsuspecting mare. The stallion’s extended shaft slid behind the mare’s tale.

“See?” she asked proudly. I was dumbfounded.

“Well,” I stammered. “That’s just… perfect.” She left the horses on the table and I put them somewhere for safekeeping. I am just waiting for her teenage years; the paper dolls are perfect blackmail material.

The tab A-slot B discussions did not end there. She eventually applied that knowledge to human reproduction. I was taking her and her little brother to the park when she asked again and we had a recap.

“Oh, gross! You and Daddy did that?”

“Well, sweetheart, it was necessary to produce you and your brother,” I said.

“You mean you had to do it TWICE?”

I laughed so hard I had to pull the car over to the side of the road.

This year, the discussion once again became a hot topic. Since she is ten, I provided more detail. She just did not understand the whole erection thing and I really did not feel like using that word just yet. We ended up having to illuminate that concept as well.

“When a man climbs on a woman, how does his thing go in there?” she asked.

“Well, he gets all excited and aroused. Blood flow starts going. His part gets stiff so it can go in the woman.”

“I just don’t understand. I mean it hangs down. How does it get in there? Does it have problems getting in? How does it know where to go?”

“Trust me, sweetheart,” I said, “it always knows where to go.”

“Well, why does a man get aroused?”

“He sees the woman. He sees her face. He sees her body. He wants to touch her, be near her. The whole act is based on love, really.”

“He gets excited when he looks at her??”

“Trust me. It doesn’t take a whole lot.”

I can’t wait to see the paper dolls she might make as a result of this last chat.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

More Conversation with the Ten Year Old

This discussion came at 7:30 AM before school this week.

Daughter: What kind of weather are we having today?

Me: Same as yesterday.

Daughter: Well, what should I wear?

Me: Same as yesterday—what did you wear? Blue jeans and a sweater?

Daughter: Well, is it going to be cold?

Me: It is going to be in the 60’s, like it was yesterday. You’ll need blue jeans and a sweater.

Daughter: Well, what is the high going to be?

Me: Look at me. It is going to be cool. You will need a sweater, but you will warm up when you play outside. I do not know what the high is going to be. I do not know the exact temperature other than the fact that right now, it feels crisp outside.

Daughter: Can I wear capris? I wore capris yesterday.

Me: You need to go to your room like a big girl and get dressed in whatever will be comfortable. Now, please go so I can finish getting ready.

Moments later…

Daughter: Hey, I just have this—

Me: If it is about the weather or about what to wear, you need to stop, turn around, and go to your room to solve this problem. I already told you everything you need to know.

Daughter: No, it’s about this time, and it was yesterday, and it was kind of cool out, and I was wearing capris, and I was wondering--

Me: Nope. Stop right there. Go to your room.

I shut and locked the door, at which point my husband referred to the previous blog posting about riding the bike and started to laugh.

"I know," I said, "This is why I write everything down. The material is just too good."

John Ritter, who wrote and acted in the sitcom Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, got all his ideas by writing down everything his own teenager said to him. She would have meltdowns in her room; he’d stand by the closed door with a notebook and document. Truth is always juicier than fiction, and he knew it.

Just wait till I post our discussion about sex. It was classic.