The Gifts We’re Given

IMG_2965In an admirable display of self-restraint, my daughter and I managed to make it two hours into our road trip before opening the giant bag of gummy bears.

It had been a good drive, so far. She left the radio tuned to the Prom Channel, featuring party hits and slow songs from the 80’s and 90’s (XM channel 4, check it out). She endured my stories. At least I think she did, but maybe since my eyes were on the road I just couldn’t see hers rolling.

The songs provided good fodder for conversation. We agreed that my essay for English class declaring “Every Breath You Take” as the best love song ever written was perhaps a bit misguided. I took great pleasure in blowing her mind when I revealed the doofus named Marky Mark rapping awkwardly about good vibrations was none other than mildly cool (but “super old”) actor Mark Wahlberg.

The air was thick with nostalgia as I listened to songs from high school, thinking about how many years have passed in such a short amount of time. Thankfully, the steady stream of candy handed to me by my co-pilot helped blunt the wave of melancholy.

Just as I was about to pop the millionth gummy bear into my mouth, I noticed that it was two-toned.

“Did you just bite two gummy bears in half and reattach them?” I asked my daughter.

She laughed.

“No, I tore them apart and then pushed them together. Ew, did you think you were eating a gummy bear that had been in my mouth? So gross.”

“Oh honey, you wouldn’t believe the things I used to let you feed me.”

I attempted to describe what it’s like to have a cherubic 9-month-old try to feed you a drool-saturated Cheerio from the tray of her high chair. The only thing you can do is smile, open your mouth and say, “mmmmmm, THANK YOU.”

“Why would you ever eat that?”

I explained that I was trying to teach her how to share and be kind, so when she attempted to feed me a Drool-io, I knew it was her way of showing love. It was the best gift she could offer me at the time.

Images of gifts from years past started to flash through my mind like an old slide show. I saw chubby, dimpled hands outstretched with a fistful of just-picked flowers, or more likely, weeds. Strings of beads with MOM in block letters. Handmade cards with scribbled drawings and phonetic spelling. Rocks that were almost heart-shaped if I squinted hard enough. Bird feathers of suspect origin.

Time and again, I accepted with wonder and gratitude whatever small gestures of love were offered to me. Not surprisingly, I’m still doing it fifteen years later, since teenagers have remarkably subtle ways of showing they care.

These days I relish a text with a heart emoji the same way I enthusiastically accepted a soggy Cheerio all those years ago. And since bear hugs are now in short supply, I quietly cheer when an arm gets casually draped over my shoulders for a few brief seconds.

My daughter used to tell me I’m as beautiful as a princess, but now compliments are doled out in the form of her declaring, “If you loaned me that sweater, I’d wear it.” My son no longer asks for a bedtime story, but when he nonchalantly announces he’s going to sleep and could talk for a bit if I wanted to, I race up the stairs and then casually walk into his room like it’s no big deal, all the while knowing that it is definitely a big deal.

It seems the rules of parenting don’t change as the kids get older: pay attention; stay open; be grateful. Just like when they were babies in high chairs, my teens are figuring out how to express affection. The love is still there, it just looks a little different these days.

Happy Mother’s Day, may your weekend be filled with love, in all its forms.

The Universe is Not Subtle

Image-1I realize there are times the universe needs to teach me a lesson, but is it too much to ask that my knock upside the head come from a flyswatter instead of a sledgehammer?

It all started about five years ago when a pair of doves built a nest on a brick ledge by our garage door. The female bird settled into the nest and sat patiently as we marveled at her steely determination to stay put, even as the noisy garage door creaked up and down all day long.

After a few weeks, we noticed two tiny fluffy heads peeking out over the edge of the nest. “The babies are here,” we shouted like a new father to a hospital waiting room. We obsessively watched the two baby birds grow, eventually getting too big for the nest and flying away.

Lucky for us, Mother Nature’s show wasn’t finished and we still had a front row seat for the encore. The mama bird returned to hatch and raise two more pairs of babies that summer. We excitedly pointed out the nest to anyone within shouting distance, even the hyper-efficient UPS guy paused for a moment to take in the scene.

Once the weather started to cool, the third set of babies flew away and the nest sat vacant as the pace of our family life sped up with the return to school, a full schedule of fall sports, the holidays and finally a brand new year.

Just as the kids were getting antsy with spring fever, we were surprised to discover that the bird had returned to spend another summer hatching eggs, feeding her babies and teaching them to fly. At first, we were amazed, but eventually, the sight of a bustling bird’s nest became commonplace.

The third spring, we greeted the mama bird’s return with nothing more than a, “Hey, she’s back.” When friends pulled into our driveway and noticed the birds, our response was a nonchalant, “Oh yeah, they come every year.”

I should have known better than to take for granted the little bits of magic in my life.

It’s as if the shrug of my shoulders set off a chain reaction to teach me a lesson. Something went wrong with the birds. It could have been a neighborhood cat or an errant football, but one day, they were gone.

For a while, I held out hope that the bird would return to try again or that maybe a new bird would take over the nest, but it’s been a few years and it doesn’t seem like we’re getting a do-over. Apparently, this is the lesson I needed to learn, delivered with a much too on-the-nose metaphor: an empty nest.

By the time kids are teenagers, we’ve been around them so much that the magic of family life can feel commonplace. I take for granted the snippets of conversation I overhear while driving carpools. I’m used to having all four of us at the dinner table. I assume my calendar – with every weekend earmarked for a basketball or volleyball tournament — will never change.

But soon a driver’s license will replace the carpools and a dorm room will replace the childhood bedroom. Eventually, my weekends will be wide open and sports-free.

Family life changes, often too quickly, especially if I don’t pause to appreciate it. And just in case I forget, I now have literally an empty nest sitting at the front of my house to remind me day after day to always marvel at the magic.

Crude Mugs and Filth Chicken

Experts say the key to successful parenting is consistency.  And while I’m good about early-ish bedtimes and stubbornly insist on family dinners, I am horrible about consistently enforcing household chores.

I don’t have unrealistic expectations for my kids. The general rule is not to leave an area worse than you found it. This simply means clearing plates, putting dirty clothes in the hamper, and rinsing the gross toothpaste spit down the sink.

Sadly, even this level of maintenance proves challenging for my teenagers. But since I don’t want every interaction I have with them to be a nagging direct order (clean your room, rinse the dishes) I tend to ignore the mess, hoping that as it accumulates, the kids will finally snap into action.

Admittedly, this is a horrible idea. I will never win a game of filth chicken with teenagers since they can tolerate a mind-boggling amount of mess. I always blink first, usually after a paper pile sinkhole eats someone’s homework or a missing shoe causes someone to be late to class.

“It’s impossible to think in this mess,” I mutter to absolutely no one and then sheepishly make a bed, pick a wet towel up off the floor and wrangle musky-smelling clothes back into the hamper using only two fingers.

My inconsistent approach to mess management was making me crazy and my kids entitled, but I think I may have stumbled upon a solution.

Last week, I received a text from my son asking if a new friend could come over after school. I said yes and then peeked into his room just to make sure a family of raccoons hadn’t taken residence in the jumble of sweaty clothes piled in the corner. Ok fine, I also made his bed.

The room was in decent shape by the time my son got home from school. He introduced me to his friend and then the boys headed upstairs to his room. It was only a few minutes before I hear this: “Uh, mom? Were you in my room? You accidentally left your mug in here.”

This wouldn’t have been a big deal except this is the mug:

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I don’t know how to explain the mug’s existence other than to say it was from my brother and sister-in-law, masters of the bizarre gift. I believe my birthday package that year contained the mug, a box of Lee Press-On toenails since I had just lost the nail on my big toe (a tragic story for another time), and a custom-made baseball cap that said “car dancing is my thing.” Every year, the random gifts from those two magically soften the sting of aging.

But this was a lot to explain to my mortified son and his red-faced new friend who, tragically, was probably wondering if I had left the mug behind in a mad rush to the bathroom.

I mumbled something about a crazy younger brother and gag gifts, took the mug from my son, looked at him and said, “I won’t go in your room and accidentally leave stuff behind if you keep it clean.”

He nodded solemnly, we had a deal. Buoyed by this new development, I immediately started making a mental list of things I could leave behind in my daughter’s room. One kid down, one to go.

 

How To Break Your Heart in an Afternoon

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Drag your family to San Francisco’s MOMA for one of your infamous Forced Family Fun Days.

Endure eye rolls from your daughter who is running on two hours of sleep thanks to a slumber party the night before.

Give your son the stink eye as he wanders from gallery to gallery stating loudly, “THAT is not art.”

Gasp as your son mistakes a ledge with a sculpture on it for a bench, and almost sits on the art.

Apologize profusely to the museum security guard.

Snap a photo of your daughter, long legs, waterfall of hair, and realize she is the most radiant piece of art in the room. Feel a lump in your throat as you see her, perhaps for the first time, as the young woman she is becoming instead of the child she once was.

Watch your son masterfully create a photo at the art kiosk and know that, despite complaining, he is enjoying your adventure. Smile as he hands you a printout of his creation for safe keeping. Feel grateful he still trusts you with his treasures.

Convince your kids that the giant rust-colored sculpture on the ground floor is entitled “Cinnamon Roll.” Wander through the spiral labyrinth laughing, losing your family along the way. Remain confident that if you keep going, you all will find a way back to each other. Cross your fingers and hope that’s true forever.

Walk outside and spot the tapas bar that was your old hangout when you lived in the city. Realize that you and your husband started meeting there after work almost 20 years ago. Tell the kids that you’ve changed your lunch plans and lead the way into the restaurant.

Feel a pang of nostalgia when the sangria and patatas bravas are just as good as you remember. Watch your kids adventurously taste everything you order. Feel pride that they like to cook and eat and try new things as much as you do.

Think back 20 years to your old job and your old colleagues who’d gather at the restaurant’s long bar after a long day. Remember the good times you had drinking pitchers of beer while playing darts. Question the wisdom of combining beer and darts.

Remember how much you complained about your job back in the day. Realize that you were lucky to be doing interesting work with great people. Understand that petty annoyances are quickly forgotten while memories of the good times endure.

Acknowledge the same thing is true for parenting.

Forgive the eye rolls, the endless bickering, the declaration that, “I’d rather be shopping.”

Recall how 20 years have passed in the blink of an eye – a blur of exciting days and wasted days and heartbreaking days and joyful days. Fear that the next 20 years will slip away even more quickly. Vow to pay attention, focus on the good, appreciate moments of happiness, write it all down. Smile at the three people you love the most in the world and start planning your next Forced Family Fun Day.

New Favorite Song

He flopped into the car, exhausted and sweaty from a late-night basketball practice. It was the last stretch of my inane day where I seemed to do nothing but chauffeur kids, run errands and burn almost a half tank of gas in the process. Both of us too tired to talk, I flipped through stations on the radio.

The opening riff of a song caught our attention.

“This is my new favorite song,” I confessed, turning it up.

“Me too!”

I smiled and glanced over at him, watching his face as the realization hit: mom and I like the same song. He was trying to figure out if his musical taste was lame or if mine was cool – the only two possible explanations for this newly discovered commonality in our Venn diagram.

Undaunted, I started to sing along, catching only one out of every three words:

Mmm and lied, mmm mmm so bad
La la la vow, never get mad

He laughed, knowing he could do better. Too tired to be self-conscious and protected by 8pm darkness where no one could see in the car windows, he joined in.

I nudged the volume up a bit and added steering wheel drums. He cringed – nothing is more embarrassing than my steering wheel drums — but he kept singing.

There comes a time, in a short life
Turn it around, get a rewrite

The song ended, as did our spontaneous moment of musical bonding.

Anyone who hangs out with me knows that I spend a lot of time grumbling about the pace of life with big kids. They’re old enough to have talents and interests and a desire to pursue them. But they’re not old enough to drive themselves to the never-ending practices and games that take place in far-flung locations at all hours of the day.

It’s insane. But just when I’m ready to crack, life offers a crystalized moment of raw love: a connection over a song while driving home from practice; a good talk after a disappointing loss; a sweaty bear hug after a game-winning shot. It’s all there, tucked into the pockets of quiet within this loud, busy life we’ve created.

There comes a time, in a short life
Turn it around, get a rewrite

 Message received.

I know I’m lucky beyond words. I know this time is short and that in a few years they’ll be independent and I’ll miss all those miles on roads to kids’ activities. I’ve always known these things but sometimes it helps to be reminded. Recharged and refocused, I’m changing my tune… but keeping the steering wheel drum solo.

Payback

A thank you note I should have written 30 years ago…

Dear Mom,

Thank you for all the times you took me shopping, especially back to school shopping.

Thank you for enduring the underage dance clubs masquerading as clothing stores, complete with nonexistent lighting, migraine-inducing music and sales girls who serve as bouncers deciding if you’re cool enough to wear their employer’s clothes.

Thank you for resisting the urge to say things like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe denim overalls (or MC Hammer pants or crop tops) are back in style. I wore those when I was your age.”

Similarly, thank you for not buying yourself a pair of shoes just like the ones I picked out because they really are both cute and comfortable.

Thank you for enduring hours in dressing rooms buried under piles of rejected clothes that needed to be hung up and put back on the racks.

Thank you for not ordering a shot of tequila when we finally took a lunch break.

Thank you for biting your tongue and letting me choose my “signature look” which unsurprisingly, resembled every other kid hoping to fit in at middle school.

I know that after a day of shopping, I would breezily offer a “thanks mom” while shuttling bags of new loot up to my room, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I fully understood the patience, love and emotional energy that went into a day at the stores – I guess they call it retail therapy for a reason.

So today I say thank you — for everything — as well as start my own 30-year countdown until my daughter can do the same.

Let It Go

I didn’t snap until May, which is damn impressive considering the movie and its earworm of a soundtrack had been out for six months.  Despite the fact that my own kids weren’t that enamored with Frozen, the rest of the country was, and so we suffered.  All of us.  Until inspiration struck during a car ride on Mother’s Day.

We weren’t even listening to the Disney Channel or KidzBop or any other station that panders to pint-sized tyrants with horrible taste in music.  And yet, the familiar opening notes of Let It Go started to fill the car.  I groaned.  And then impulsively blurted out:

“Hey kids, here’s a fun fact.  Did you know that this song is really about farting?”

They looked at me, horrified yet curious.  “Just listen,” I told them.

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried!

I heard giggles from the back seat.

Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know!

 Bigger laughs fill the car.  By the time we got to the chorus, they were roaring.

 Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door!

The song finished, cementing another bond within our family: a juvenile, gross inside joke.  I made them promise not to repeat it and made my son pinky swear to keep it together when his teacher plays the Frozen soundtrack during free choice time at school.  They agreed, and considering that I didn’t receive any phone calls from the teachers, I think they kept their word.

I frequently lament the fact that time with my kids has passed way too quickly.  I miss the details about life with little ones: footie pajamas, counting to “eleventeen,” the smell of baby shampoo.  Predictably, I’ve turned into the weird lady at Target who grins way too enthusiastically at anyone under the age of two.

But as much as I miss the baby stage, big kids have their advantages.  Aside from the obvious stuff like not pooping on themselves and knowing how to start the coffee maker for me in the morning, it’s also been fun to give them a glimpse of me as a person, not just me as a mom.

They’re old enough to be able to handle (and perhaps even appreciate) that I have a dry sense of humor and a fondness for the occasional, well-placed curse word.  It’s time for them to understand that I cry shamelessly at all happy, sad and sappy occasions. Especially the sappy occasions.  And they need to know that I will never, ever be a morning person.

It’s kind of a relief to outgrow my role of angelic caretaker and become more of a camp counselor – still in charge but also able to bend the rules occasionally.  I don’t think I’ll ever get over longing for the baby days, but when I’m feeling nostalgic I’ll try and remember that toddlers never would have laughed with me about poor flatulent Elsa encouraging little girls everywhere to just let it go.