Wednesday, September 21, 2011

First Day of Fall

:: crisp air, clouds mixed with sunshine, and a swift breeze for staying at the playground after school.

:: Jason talking to Jemma's preschool class about healthy teeth, with all the tangents and blurted-out stories and hilarious questions you'd expect.

:: a new Everyday Food, a new O Magazine, and an unscheduled night to sit on the front porch and page through.

:: dinner at Rose's, just me and my girls, and time to talk about reading groups, birds, I Spy, olive oil, multiplication, dance, piano, friends, and food with their curious little selves.

:: a new skirt from a sale rack.

:: girls giggling together over a Halloween catalog after dinner, and little wet heads reading Robert Munsch on the couch after baths.

:: Annie persistently practicing her first piano song with both hands playing different parts.

:: packing the very tired little girls off to bed extra-early, crossing fingers for a happier and more-rested household tomorrow morning, and looking forward to the Modern Family season premiere and the very last of the butter pecan ice cream in the freezer.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Tenth One

We were gathered around the kitchen island, each of our six hands holding a glass of red wine, ready to toast to our annual girls' weekend.

"To the weekend!" I said.  "How many is this?  Eight?  Nine?"

"TEN!" said the group, and I literally could not believe it, though the notes we've jotted down don't lie, and they tell a story of a group of six college friends who gathered in Kentucky in the fall of 2001 to drink Bloody Marys at the horse races, sit in the hot tub, eat chess pie, and stay up way too late at night talking and laughing.  The last one of us had just been married and we'd realized that, with no more weddings in our future, we'd have to travel to see each other for the sole purpose of being together.

Since then, we've stayed up way too late at night annually in lots of cities and states.  We've white-water rafted in West Virginia, shopped in Chicago, spent the day at the beach, hiked in the mountains and the dunes, gone to the spa, eaten fabulous meals out and cooked giant meals in, eaten our weight in addictive cereal mixes, and told a million and one stories.  We're about to welcome the sixteenth child of this group into the world (Annie was the first) and have spent hours talking about baby names, nursing, discipline, laundry, childbirth, time-outs, sleep deprivation, pregnancy, and raising kids.  (I think it's fair to say a good portion of our weekends are currently spent talking about The Children:  How Cute and Hilarious They Are, and The Children:  How They Are Trying to Kill Us.)  And then, because the point of the weekend is partially about escaping the family-focused world we live in every day, we talk about work, exercise, food, wine, make-up, fashion trends, design, books, television, travel, Target, marriage, memories, magazines, how to keep our hair from looking gray, how to get dinner on the table, how to make the big decisions in life.

This year, we kept it pretty low-key.  We stayed at Connie's cottage, took a long walk down the beach on Saturday morning, shopped in Pentwater for the afternoon, and ate a big, late dinner on Saturday night.  There was goat cheese and cherry ice cream, pumpkin butter cake, dill havarti, marcona almonds, bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, salad, guacamole, wine, lambic, coffee, tarts, focaccia, granola, olives, apples, and - of course - the addictive cereal mix that is a requirement every year.  There was one particularly good story told by Gina, one baby name to be discussed, one round of talking about people we used to know in college and Facebook-stalking them.  There was lunch at Brewery Vivant and bookstore browsing and pedicures before heading up north, and there were hugs and promises before going our separate ways yesterday.

There was one spectacular sunset.

There were a lot of fruit flies trying to swim in our wine.

There was a candlelit table with six chairs around it.

And there are six people going about their days today - driving carpool, making phone calls, cooking dinner, seeing patients, kissing children, writing checks - who are just a bit better for the time they spent at this, the tenth weekend.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Dear Annie,

You turned seven on Sunday, though (as usual) we celebrated your birthday all weekend.  On Friday, donuts and cider to school and then the football game with grandparents while Daddy and I went out with friends.  On Saturday, you did the thing you've been waiting to do for well over a year now:  you got your ears pierced.  Jemma, Grandma, Mimi and I were all gathered around to watch you pick out your blue-green studs with such poise and heft yourself up into the chair with calm confidence.  I snapped one last photo of you as you were:

Then you squeezed the heck out of my hands while the earrings went in simultaneously - pop! - and you didn't flinch or cry at all, just smiled shyly when you saw your newly-pierced ears in the mirror.

Afterwards we all went to get pedicures together for a special girls' afternoon.  You and Jemma charmed all the women in the salon.  You chose polish specifically to match your earrings and then were delighted when you got tiny flowers painted on every single toe.

Then, presents in the front yard

and blowing out seven candles on your chocolate cheesecake.

The next morning - the morning that you were officially, finally seven - you looked like this:

And just like that, you're another year older.

I've read a few less-than-encouraging books lately about the challenges of raising happy, healthy girls in our current culture.  Instead of coming away feeling educated and empowered, I've closed those books feeling overwhelmed and confused.  Don't tell girls they're pretty! goes one theory, or they'll base their entire self-worth on their appearance.  And then, in another book, Don't tell kids they're smart! studies show, or they'll actually give up more easily and perform less well in school.  In another chapter:  Don't bother emphasizing honesty; it doesn't have any impact on how honest your kids will grow up to be, and even the "best" kids routinely lie to their parents.  For a week or two there, I felt like nothing was safe to say, like there was just no way we hadn't already messed things up forever.

Then school started and your birthday happened and life became one big flurry of activity, and I was reminded again of what a resilient, competent, persistent, compassionate, and - yes - pretty and smart person you are.  Sometimes I see you do something - take the monkey bars every-other-one, smash a tennis ball across the net, run around the track, play a new piano song perfectly, solve a tough math problem - and I can hardly believe it is you.  You can make your own peanut-butter-and-nutella sandwiches, switch the CD in your player from Suzuki piano to the Justin Bieber your sister gave you for your birthday, sign your name in cursive, do a cartwheel, swim real strokes, twirl spaghetti on a fork, and read yourself to sleep at night.  You are a patient teacher to Jemma, telling her how to spell words she wants to write, reading to her on the hallway floor, chasing down frogs and bugs as a team.  You are a big kid, and we are so proud of you.

I am going to forget about those books and forget about censoring myself around you.  I'm going to think instead of something better I read in another book, The Gift of An Ordinary Day:

"The hardest part of being a parent may be learning to live with the fact that there are so many things that we simply can't control, so much of the journey that is not our doing at all, but rather the work of the gods, the unfolding of destiny, fate.  We give birth to our children, we love and cherish them, but we don't form or own them, any more than we can own the flowers blooming at our doorstep or the land upon which we build our homes and invest our dreams.  We may tend the garden for a while, take our brief turn upon the land, nurture the children delivered into our arms, but in truth we possess none of these things, nor can we write any life story but our own."

So even as I see you blossoming into the big kid you are becoming, I'm remembering that it's you who is doing the hard work of growing up.  And because it's not due to me saying the right things or the wrong things, I'm going to go ahead and keep telling you that you're beautiful, reminding you that you're smart, and telling you to be honest, parenting books be damned.  Looking back at the seven years we've had together and looking forward to the treacherous, wild, messy territory that is still uncharted, I want to say, too, that you're a great kid and I'm so lucky to be your mom.  I tell you that every day.  I'm so glad you were born.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Real Elsewhere: Maddening

"Raising a child is easily the most maddening thing I've ever done.  It is, of course, also the most rewarding thing I've ever done.  The latter gets a lot of attention - frozen in time and assembled neatly in picture albums, scrapbooks, family stories - while the former, nearly as significant in the big, day-to-day scheme of things, is the subject of only ominous public service announcements and scolding looks from strangers, your parents, and your mate.  Everybody gets mad at their kids; nobody likes to talk about it."

-Greg Knauss' essay Peas and Domestic Tranquility in the anthology Things I Learned About My Dad

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mega 80's

There is a band that comes to town every other month or so and plays at a local venue.  They are called Mega 80's, and for $12.50 and a bunch of blue eyeshadow, you can be transported back in time twenty-five years while the (hot) lead singer wears an Atari t-shirt and sings a billion songs in a row without stopping.  Somehow you know the words to all of them without even thinking.  Want to see them?  Here's how to do it right:

Before you go, have your friend Katie come over to do your eye make-up.  Be jealous of her vintage plastic charm necklace.  Wear clothes you found without any trouble at Forever 21.  Feel alarmed that most of the 15-year-old girls shopping at the store were buying the clothes to wear and not for an 80's party.  Bust out the side ponytail.

Photo by Annie
 At the pre-party, pose for photos with your husband and try not to giggle at his eyeliner or his jeans, which are women's size 7/8 and the envy of many other party guests.
The back view?  Even better. 
Thank your hosts, who are a mismatched pair but authentic nonetheless:  a Madonna from her brown-hair period and a homage to an 80's football coach, complete with mullet wig and "Coach Gary" ironed on the back of the shirt.

Take one last photo before hopping in the cab downtown . . .

  . . . and then dance your butt off for four hours straight.

Please note Jason's mouth.
Have a stealth hangover the next day, the kind where your body bings! awake at 6:00 a.m. for no good reason, feels tired but okay, and then falls apart slowly over the next several hours until your stomach is mad, your head is pounding, and you are sweating and struggling to remain vertical in the deli line after you walked to the grocery store.

Start planning when you will do it again, now that you have the outfit and all, because it was the most fun you've had in months.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

(Almost) Ten Years Later

We're coming up on the ten year anniversary of 9/11 and I've seen some writing here and there about it this week - reflections, analysis, the kinds of "I remember where I was" stories that I always thought would only belong to the generation who remembered the assassination of JFK.  (I have also seen some hideous, tacky, "commemorative" t-shirts and what I suppose is meant to be "collectible" gear at Michael's, of all places, and all I could do was groan inwardly and think, Seinfeld-esque, Oh, we're doing this, now?)

Anyway.  I remember where I was.  It was my birthday.  I was at school, teaching second grade.  I lined my kids up, eighteen of them, on the steps outside my classroom and marched them down the many hallways and stairs in the beautiful historic building to their music class, where they got out their recorders and sat obediently on risers before the teacher began.  Then I marched myself back up the many hallways and stairs, probably wearing one of the three pairs of Dansko clogs I wore pretty much every day, and when I walked past Debbie's classroom, it was empty (her kids were probably at art or theatre) and she stood still in the middle of it, staring at the television where the tower was coming down.

The rest of the day was a blur.  We tried to keep the kids from knowing that anything was amiss.  We left our lunch tables to sneak into a classroom and watch the news.  We cried and tried to hide it.  We fielded phone calls and emails from frantic parents, some of whom showed up in the classroom to take their kids home.  We had an emergency staff meeting the moment the last child had gone home at the end of the day, our head of school unable to speak without his voice cracking and the school psychologist prepping us on what to say and do when the kids returned:  what to tell them, how much to say, how many details to include, what to watch for.

What I had then - ten years ago - was a classroom full of second-graders.  What I have now is a second-grader right here in my house, asleep in her bed even now as the sky turns gold and I sit on the front stoop typing.  When I read these 9/11 memoirs and remembrances, I can't help but think how much has changed for me in those intervening ten years.  As surreal as those horrible and uncertain days seem in retrospect, it is even more surreal to me that the me who did not even think to hope yet for children of my own in 2001 would have two little girls ten years later, and would live in a completely unknown house in a completely different city.  I would have a baby on my birthday, on the anniversary of the event.

In the aftermath of the attacks, I remember hearing the sentiment that this was a world (so dark, so evil) into which it might be foolish to bring children.  I never agreed with that.  I remember thinking that there was nothing new under the sun, that there would always be darkness and death and heartbreak but also love and triumph and goodness.  It was never a question of bringing them into the world, but now that they are here, it is a question of how to tell them about the darkness.  It is a question of how to explain the death.  It is a question of how much to shield them from the heartbreak.  It is a question of how to raise them to love, triumph, and contribute to the good.


Jason's uncle passed away early this morning.  I have written before about how relatively untouched our lives have been by tragedy and loss, and even this loss is not really ours.  We are deeply sad, of course, because it is always sad to lose someone who you love and whom you have known for such a long time, but the loss really belongs to Jason's aunt and his cousins, to his uncle's mother and his uncle's many siblings and friends and sisters-in-law and neighbors who saw him regularly.  Which is why I was surprised to find myself tearing up this morning when Jason mouthed the news to me while he was still on the phone with his dad and again tonight at dinner when I explained his death to the girls.  They got quiet over their chicken rice soup.  We've talked all along about how sick he had been and about the battle he'd been fighting and especially lately about how sad Mimi and his family was, but I am not sure we had explicitly told them how it was going to end, once we both knew.  I explained that Jason and I would be going to the funeral and asked them if they had any questions.

"What time was it when he died?" Annie asked.

"I think it was really early in the morning, almost the middle of the night," I said.  I tried to say another sentence about how the nurses gave him special medicine so he wouldn't hurt and how his family was all around him but I had to stop and sit there, my eyes filling with tears.

"So, his heart just stopped working, then?" Annie continued.

I nodded and shrugged, not even totally sure what to tell her, or how much detail to give.

Jemma piped up.  "When people are really, really, really, really, really, really old, they die."

I nodded again.  "Yep, everybody eventually dies."

"Except for God.  And Jesus.  But they're the same person so, huh.  And Mary already died, but she had Jesus, so she had the magic tummy, right?"  Jemma's big eyes looked into mine and I smiled.  This is what people talk about, I thought, when they talk about the wisdom of babes.

Tonight I am remembering a man who took us out to dinner in Ann Arbor when we were much younger and poorer; a man who came to our first house in South Haven and demolished the old rickety deck before helping us build a new one; the man who loved to be outdoors and bonded with Jason over good food and drink; the man who will not get to see his grandchildren, with their big eyes and their many questions and their little hearts that moms everywhere draw and re-draw a slippery line around every day, trying to both shield them from the darkness while also teaching them how to live among it and be the light, shocked anew that the children they used to teach so confidently have been replaced with the ones who have so much to teach them.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

First Day of School

I have more to say - about this former second grade teacher now having an actual second-grader, about how proud I am of these two curious, smart, happy, silly, energetic, kind, creative girls, about what I'm going to do with my Twelve! Hours! a Week! when they're both at school from now on - but today there is only time for these snapshots of the way they were on the morning of September 6, 2011:  on our front steps, tummies full of oatmeal, wearing matching skirts and hugging each other good-bye on such an exciting day.  I didn't cry, but even while I was pressing down on the shutter it felt a little like an out-of-body experience.  I have kids, I thought.  They go to school.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sleepy-headed Ninny

It's what we call Jemma when she does this after four straight days of beach time with neighbors, running, biking, kite-flying, hiking, boogie-boarding, hitting the whiffle ball with a plastic bat a trillion times, reading, coloring in bed with a contraband pen and getting ink on the sheets, shopping for her sister's birthday present, watching Olivia cartoons, whistling, scooting, giggling about the word "nipple," eating peaches and apples and homemade macaroni and cheese, and living it up for one last summer weekend: