The new year is barely awake and I’m already cleaning up my messes.

 

As confessions of mothering gaffes go, this one’s not a doozy, but the fact that it happened on the first day of the year makes me a little crazy — so much for fresh starts and clean slates.

Here’s the deal. My friend and her teenage daughter were running out the door on the evening of January 1st to see the R-rated movie Sisters, and invited us to join them. “Yes!” my son shouted, already grabbing his jacket. His younger brother followed.

I never stood a chance. To stop this train from leaving the station would not only put me in the party pooper category with my sons, but would also throw a wrench in my friend’s plan with her daughter. If I’d said I’d heard it was very raunchy and not for kids, she’d have gone inside, googled, and disappointed her daughter. Did I want to ruin their good fun, too?

And there is this: a small part of me wanted to see the movie. I have huge crushes on Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. They are smart and funny and successful and feminists! I harbor a fantasy that we could be friends if only they knew me! (This is patently absurd. I am not funny. I could never keep up.) So I let myself be swayed by the momentum, and my family hurled in the direction of the movie theater, against my gut feeling that this was not going to go well.

Depending which of us you ask, the experience was hilarious or painful. All three kids thought it was funny. Their parents squirmed and groaned with each more outlandish scene of drugs, sex, and debauchery. Worst of all, as the closing credits rolled and the audience stood to leave, I got a hairy appraising eye from a woman in the row in front of us, whose expression said, “So this is the type of lowlife who brings her child to a filthy movie.”

I put my hand on my boys’ heads and said, “Forget everything you just saw.” And then, in a 180-degree reversal, I made a last-ditch effort to find a salvageable thread for this experience and asked, “Or, do you have any questions about anything?” They shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and walked away.

I don’t want to overreact; we did no permanent damage. (In fact, I was probably my youngest son’s age when I saw Animal House, and if anything it was a turnoff. I could discern bad behavior.) Still, I felt it incumbent upon me to put in some corrective, guiding parental words before bedtime, such as, “You know, guys, accidentally overdosing on cocaine would make you dead, not ‘extra funny.’ Just in case that ever comes up.”

Today we completed the fix. We brought them to Star Wars, 3-D Imax, to overwhelm their senses and replace all those unwholesome images of an out-of-hand house party with wholesome scenes of intergalactic shooting, killing, and menace. I’m not sure exactly why that’s better, but I can tell you I received no dirty looks.

My friend felt guilty for suggesting we see Sisters in the first place, but I told her, “This is what memories are made of.” And I think back to the first time I met her, her then-three-year-old son on her hip, now a sophomore in college; her 16-year-old daughter not even a gleam in her eye. It dawns on me that we have reached one more milestone: we have reached an age when our kids are less embarrassed by R-rated movies than we are.

2016 is going to be interesting. I can’t wait to see what unfolds. But I might be looking through fingers over my eyes, cringing in the dark.

Almost, but not quite

I can’t get my sister’s comment out of my head. The one I told you about, that she wished she had noticed the day before her daughters grew taller than her.

Maybe it was the setting in which she said these words — a 19th birthday celebration, the birthday girl-woman’s feet balanced on the tectonic plates of childhood and adulthood, bumping against each other.

Or maybe it was the wide blue ocean behind my sister as she spoke matter of factly about this milestone going unnoticed, that taunted, rolled its eyes and shrugged at this infinitesimal, irrelevant tendency of children to grow up, that impressed her words on me.

Or maybe it’s because, as my friend Monica told me, once they start high school everything speeds up. It’s the last measurable stop before adulthood.

They are rare, these concrete ways of measuring maturity. I know one more:

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Almost, but not quite.

 

 

 

 

Seeing the Big (3-D Mammogram and Ultrasound) Picture

I brought a good book with me to the follow-up mammogram. Follow-up mammograms by definition are more worry-making than regular ones. You are there because something funky was going on, something needed a closer look. (FYI, the book I just had to keep reading was the forthcoming Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson (February 2016).)

I was doing a very good job of not freaking out. I had had a 3-D mammogram for the first time last week, and although my doctor had said they usually necessitate fewer follow ups, this one did. So what? I always think I’m special. So why should my breast tissue be common? Besides, I knew that whatever was or wasn’t there would be there or not there regardless if I freaked out in advance. If there was trouble brewing, I’d do plenty of freaking once I knew.

A nice technician named Fuschia led me to the changing room. It was the first cold Fall day, naturally, but the gown was a soft flannel. Nice touch. The facilities at St. John’s could almost be mistaken for a spa.

Almost, but not quite. She led me to the exam room. Brace yourself. At a follow-up mammogram they really really really squeeze the breast tissue as flat as they can to make sure that whatever they might have seen in the first picture is just breast tissue, or something that cannot be squeezed out of the picture. The spa feeling was gone. (I take that back — I once had a sports massage that was much more painful, and lasted longer).

After the mammogram they did an ultrasound, just to be extra sure. I hadn’t had one since I was pregnant. “Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked. “Everything looks good,” Fuschia replied. The doctor came in and looked, too. They said “see you next year” and I got dressed, paid for parking, and left. I had a day.

Last night my son awoke me with “I had the worst nightmare. You and Dad died.” He climbed into bed and we had the rarest kind of hug: one that he needed.

Here I am, a day later, yesterday’s appointment almost forgotten. And I stop myself, say “Pay attention.” Today could feel quite different. That mammogram could have set me on a different future. So I look at what I normally forget to see: Today, with all its potential for petty aggravations, for mindless running, for holding grudges, is a gift that I do not “deserve.” No day is earned.

Every day is bonus.

Life — even the longest — is too short. Love deeply. Forgive freely. Hug often. Savor mundane details. Play your music loud.

There is something about a grandmother’s love.

I had dinner with my grandmother last night, with my husband and our sons.

It was her birthday. I can’t say her age. It is not allowed. But it doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is I had dinner with my grandmother last night. Here I am, a woman with a husband and a high schooler and a tween, my own half-century mark in the oncoming headlights, and I still get to soak in my grandmother’s love. I am not the 7-year-old girl sewing pink satin overalls for her teddy bear with her grandmother, or the 11-year-old practicing tap dance routines with her grandmother, or the 14-year-old swimming in her grandmother’s pool “performing water ballet” and imploring her to watch my handstands. I am a grown up. But she is still, as ever, her.

There is something about a grandmother’s love, and a grandfather’s. These days I identify mostly as the Mom, the middle generation, so when I think of grandparental love I think of my kids with their grandparents. I think of my parents and my husband’s parents, and the way their faces beam when they play with their grandchildren, and teach them, of the way they comfort and care.

My sister reminded me that for both of us, our vivacious redheaded grandmother is not just a model of positive attitude, but a source of solace when we are blue. I don’t know what her magic is, but I’ve always known I could find some relief on the other end of her telephone line when I needed it. When, at 15, I had just received the ugliest haircut ever, I dialed her number and she said, “Laura, it’s growing even as we speak.” That did the trick. I stopped freaking out, and she was right: it grew. When I felt lonely, without friends, I called her and knew that even her answering machine would tell me, “I really want to talk to you. Please leave a message.” I called back to hear her recorded voice say it again. It’s not just what she says, it’s how she says it. There is something in her voice that reassures, “everything is going to be okay.” She believes it, so I do, too.

There is something about a grandmother’s love. Even today, my sister, cousins and I feel it. On a phone call, I know that after I say, “Hi Grandma, it’s Laura,” I will receive the gift of hearing, “Laaaaaaurrrraaaa!” in response. As if the whole world is brighter because I am in it.

There is something about a grandmother’s love. It tells you: everything you are is enough.

“Happy birthday,” we say, and we each hug her goodnight. “I love you, Grandma.” I hope she knows how much.

 

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The Fabulous Grandma Lilli

 

And the next generation of grandmothers…

Grandma Joyce (aka "Jujee")
Grandma Joyce (aka “Jujee”)

 

Grandma Fran (aka "Nanny")
Grandma Fran (aka “Nanny”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If Mercury’s Retrograde Has You Down, Hold On…

Two women I know who don’t go for hocus-pocus told me recently, “Mercury is in retrograde” to explain a current period of crap-ola in the lives of everyone they know.

The first person mentioned it as a way of forgiving me my forgetting that we had a meeting that morning. Mercury’s retrograde, in that instance, did me a service by creating instant forgiveness and understanding.

The second person mentioned it this morning at the gym. Before you get the wrong idea about me and the gym, let me set the scene. Our gym is the YMCA, small and beloved, a far cry from fancy schmancy. And while my friend is strong and disciplined, I was there for a whopping 15 minutes. Walking on the treadmill. (But at least on an incline, with 3-pound weights in each hand for a little oomph.)

“How are you?” we asked each other. “How’s work, the family, everything?”

“Good,” we responded, but our faces begged for a truth-serum follow up. My “good” in answer to her “how are things” was not a hollow, reflexive attempt to deceive or to be shallow, but a commitment not to dwell on what’s not good, to convince myself that, actually, everything that truly matters is fine, or will be fine. Because it’s got to be.

“Well, you know,” she said, “I don’t believe this stuff but I’ve heard Mercury is in retrograde…” Her face said that whatever havoc Mercury can wreak was present in her life. “But wait until Friday. I’ve heard everything gets better then.”

I don’t actually believe our solar system’s alignment can curse or bless our moods, actions, words. But I can observe this: there seems to be something in the air. People are in a funk. Earth herself is hellaciously moody, storming and burning mad.

I’m doing what I can until Friday. Wearing pink. And a dress. Taking walks. Trying to let the excuse of “Mercury” make my forgiveness more forthcoming, like my friend.

And holding on until Friday. It all gets better then.

Letting Your Kids Get Hurt, and Watching Them Heal, From a Loving Distance

Disclaimer: As I’ve mentioned other places, I opened up to the idea of Torah study only when I realized that you didn’t have to believe it is the literal word of God, or even believe in God, to get something out of it. When I learned that I could consider it a literary gift from generations before me who wrestled with the big, human questions that I wrestle with now, then I could freely read and see what there might be to learn from it. Some weeks my mouth opens and my eyes tear up at how pertinent it is to me.

So…a little bit of Torah and motherhood, coming up.

***

When I told a friend that my two favorite appointments of the week are CardioFunk and Torah study, he responded, “That’s a good balance.” He’s right. Because balance is not about finding a moderate, static, placid lake to float on and stay there; balance is about sometimes riding the biggest wave, pushed by their power and danger, and other times reclining on the beach with a book.

Where dance class is joyful, fast, breathless, soaring and sexy, Torah study is careful, patient, thoughtful, peeling back layers of meaning, an inner adagio. After dance class, I am spent, dopamine-brained, and mellow, wanting nothing but a shower and a nap. After Torah study, I have learned something, if I’m lucky I’ve had a new insight, however small it might be.

 

This week Torah study was, for a mother of teens and a tween, a lesson in launching adolescents into the world. 

We are at the end of the Torah’s tale, before we re-roll the scroll and start again at the beginning. It’s a story we read at the time of year when we are thinking about the kind of person we ought to be, how we have measured up over the past year, how we are going to try to do better.

In the story, Moses tells the Israelites that he’s not going to go with them into the promised land. He knows they’ll be worried to bits about going without him. So, like a good parent, he tells them (in my words) “You can do it on your own. You will be fine. I trust you. And God (or perhaps that true compass in your gut that guides you) will be with you. You can do it without me.”

I think of the baby I saw a few days ago on the verge of sleep, perched on her father’s lap, her head leaning against his chest, and her little hand resting on his arm. Gently, with two fingers her father stroked her cheek, her eyebrow, over and over, until she let go of wakefulness, content and secure.

I wished I could still soothe my kids with just that touch now. But their world has bigger concerns. Friends can become distant — or worse — without explanation. Teachers can unwittingly be harsh. The world can feel unwelcoming. I stand behind them whispering encouragement. “Go for it. You can do it. I trust you. God is inside you. You are so loved. You are so loved.”

I recite a silent prayer for balance, to be more loving and to let them go without me.

I remind myself that life is filled with hurts and with healing, with hard times and coming through hard times, with celebrating the safe passage to a promised land, and all that is gained in the difficult journey: The confidence born of seeing your own resilience. The dawning certitude that others do not define your worth. That your acts, the ways you treat people, define you. 

I stand back in awe as I watch them walk into uncharted territory, into the world’s hurts and its bounty, with courage, forward motion, sometimes sadness, and ultimately with optimism that they will find the promised land they so deserve.

 

 

 

A New Year’s Mash-up: Noticing and The Joy of Dance and Being Among Dancers

I received a beautiful e-mail from my cousin today inspired by the Jewish New Year. My young cousin is brilliant and wise, and if she lets me, I’ll share the whole thing with you later, but for now I was thinking about one thing she wrote about:

Noticing. Noticing new things in the relationships and experiences we have.

I go to dance class most Sundays. Today I noticed something that has been there all along, something that was ignited in the first ballet class my mother signed me up for at three years old, something that at times was lost amidst the despair of not being good enough, but that pumps through my veins and sings in my soul now that I’m old enough not to care about that.

In dance class today, I noticed the keen and pure satisfaction of being in a room of people who feel joy from moving to music in unity, from hitting the correct lines at the right time. I felt the centered-ness of being in a room with pumping music and a room’s-length mirror and that particular kind of wood floor, from feeling I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt the camaraderie of being with people who get that the world can be held in counts of 8. 

There is an unspoken understanding among people who share the remembered pride of earning pointe shoes, in which blisters, calluses and bloody toes were badges of honor. Who, with the same grit and drive ascribed to Friday Night Lights footballers, were teenage ballet warriors wrapping their toes in white tape, stuffed lambs’ wool or (if you were in the know) torn brown paper bags, who wedged their feet into pink satin wrapped wooden boxes. Who wound the ribbons that we had sewn on ourselves around our ankles, and became ballerinas for the next hour and a half.

Dancers share a language, not only of words but of physicality. Of “5, 6, 7, 8″ and “from the top.” Of first position through fifth. Of front, side, back, side, first on the right, then on the left. It is order. It is symmetry.

Some of the joy I feel in dance now comes from a beautiful nostalgia, connecting over time with my younger self. My body’s muscle memory connects today with every dance class and rehearsal I’ve ever had, lying on the floor, stretching right leg toward the wall, left leg extended above me trying to reach my nose. There are things that my body will not forget, even as my mind increasingly vexes me by failing to remember to pick up the laundry, or make a dentist appointment, or ask someone about their ailing mother.

There is joy and comfort in striking the same position as when I was 14, striving for the same goal: a better stretch than last time. I feel the same piercing good hurt at the back of my thigh. I feel the same sweat on my arms, pulling that leg closer to my face, closer, closer, never close enough.

Ballet was my love, but it was obvious I was not destined to be a ballerina. I switched to Jazz because the girls and teachers were nicer. There was less looking at how high the other girls’ legs could lift, how many more turns they could do, how extreme their turnout, how gorgeously defined their arched pointed foot.

When I let go the idea of ever being the best, dance became mine, simply for joy.

In a dance class of adults we are all their for joy: music blasting, a teacher inspiring and teasing; and fellow students who are still striving and stretching; still arching and flattening our backs, still lowering our shoulders and elongating our necks, rolling our hips, spotting and turning, and counting and messing up and practicing and living and trying it again, trying to get it just a little better the next time, and – maybe —  nailing it before times up.

Before we leave, “Genuflect,” our teacher says. “Thank your neighbor for a good class.” We all curtsy, like the prima ballerinas we once dreamed we would be, and for that moment we are. We were not perfect today, not close. We made our mistakes and we kept dancing. We laughed them off and helped each other when we forgot the steps. We pushed ourselves harder than we would have if we were dancing alone. We carried each other.

Wishing you these things this year: being with people who understand and appreciate you without explanation or pretense; joy and health and striving; doing a little of what you love.

Doing Time: Starting School in August

I feel for the kid. It is still summer. Not only the technical “summer ends September 21st” definition of “still summer” but the crucial, cultural “there’s a full-bodied whopping week left in August” definition. High summer. The time to get in a few more days of boogie boarding or sand castle building or nerf wars in pajamas. The time to get bored and possibly even eager for the first day of school to finally arrive. So yes, I feel for the kid when he trudges downstairs this morning, three-quarters asleep with a tortured scowl on his face because today begins the second week of school.

“Yesterday felt like the last day of summer all over again.”

While I feel for all of the kids who headed back to school before the doldrums of summer could hit, I feel mostly for this one, who has proclaimed loudly and consistently his ahborrence of school. Even in the heady, loose days of pre-school, there was something about having to get dressed and leave home and do things all day that vexed his constitution. He does well in school, participates, gets good grades, etc. Maybe it’s all that behaving and rule-following that are the problem? (See, e.g., Calvin & Hobbes, our mutual favorite comic strip.) Elementary school can be a pressure cooker, even under the best circumstances (which, by the way, he has — good teachers, small classes, art and P.E. — The Works.)

He instigated a new tradition, he showed me last week on Day 1. On a blank white paper on his bookshelf, he scratched a tally mark in black ink, an inmate ticking off time served. That’s the spirit.

Off to school we trudged, the first homework project in his hands: a mobile made from a hanger, all about him, including a photo of his family (for love), his grandparents’ dogs (more love), a question mark (for curiosity), a quarter (for charity) (woot woot!), and a Lego figure (for play). It was impressive.

I gotta hand it to the kid, he makes the best of it. When you’re doing time, what choice is there?

A Fleeting Glimpse of Martha’s Vineyard

The seagulls accompanied us to Martha’s Vineyard, flying alongside the ferry as it cut through waters like F-15’s guiding in Air Force One. (Or waiting for dropped potato chips.) Our children did not accompany us. They boycotted the Martha’s Vineyard excursion (and its miles of bike riding) in favor of “rest” at home today (aka watching a Harry Potter Marathon). Knowing they would be in J.K. Rowling’s good care, we acquiesced.

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The last time we left our kids alone watching Harry Potter was 4 years ago. We were at a rented cottage in New Hampshire, and we were only 20 yards away on the dock looking at stars. In the quiet night, we heard blood-curdling screams. We ran to the house, and through tears the kids explained that a giant snake in the movie had leaped out, causing them to jump and knock heads, the source of the screaming.

Much has changed since then. They are now old enough for us to say, “Yes, you may stay home. Here’s money, here’s a map of the 1-mile walk to get food and play mini-golf. We’ll see you in six hours.” This is a happy example of “time passing” — it can be a good thing, a fact I don’t admit to often enough.

In Martha’s Vineyard, we rode bikes six miles along an ocean trail to Edgartown, where we ate lobster and drank local blueberry beer.

There was also this
There was also this, the  “Best Bloody Mary Evah.” A meal in itself.

In addition to lovely food and views, Edgartown was charming, historic, high end, busy, and surprising — I never expected to see a Charles Bukowski poem welcoming shoppers into a preppy store.

Bukowski's reach is far.
Bukowski’s reach is far.

Another fun fact about Edgartown: When I first walked into Edgartown Books, a dozen people were lined up patiently waiting to buy their summer reading from booksellers May and Ann. This was a town to return to.

Busy busy Edgartown Books!
Busy busy Edgartown Books!
May (whose books I hope to be reading in the not-to-distant future) in front of the stairway to Edgartown Books' second story.
May (whose books I hope to be reading in the not-to-distant future) by the stairway to Edgartown Books’ second story.

Then it was time to return. We rode seven miles to the town of Vineyard Haven, and said hello to the good people of Bunch of Grapes Bookstore before rushing to the dock for the five o’clock ferry.

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Booksellers were so busy helping so many customers at Bunch of Grapes, it was impossible to take a photo with them. Good problem.

We queued up with the other cyclists, and sat on the top deck, accompanied back by the seagulls. This time they were hand fed by some passengers.

Made it in the nick of time!
Made it in the nick of time!

During our fleeting visit to Cape Cod, and today Martha’s Vineyard, I am trying to digest these places. I listen and watch, and fill in the blanks with conjecture: there are locals, there are summer people, there are regular weekenders, and there are folks like us — one-off visitors seeking a glimpse of the myth of The Cape, with less than a day to give the Vineyard.

After the ferry delivers us, we return to the rented house in New Seabury and all is well. Harry Potter has commanded the day. Mystery still abounds, there is much still unexplained, and that’s okay. The last installment is coming.

A Little California in Cape Cod

After a weekend of debauchery (the ice cream, carnival rides, birthday kind) in Ocean City, New Jersey, we hit the road for Cape Cod. We had five states to cover, and thought we could do it in about five hours.

First of all, ha. Our trip lasted 8 1/2 hours. (What’s with the traffic? I’m looking at you, New York and Connecticut.)

From the Washington Crossing bridge to the George Washington Bridge.

But what business does anyone have crossing 5 states in 5 hours anyway? After all these years, this state-to-state closeness remains an astonishing fact to a California girl, where five hours in any direction yields one border crossing max.

The traffic had one side benefit. We pulled off I-95 earlier than anticipated in Greenwich, CT, when hunger and other functions called. Lo and behold, another bookstore! I strolled over to Diane’s Books and gifted them a copy of Shelter Us. Hoping they’ll like it and order some.

Diane's Books in Greenwhich, CT was buzzing with readers.
Diane’s Books in Greenwich, CT was abuzz with customers!

Once we arrived on Cape Cod, we got busy. We have four days to see everything but everything. No problem.

Day 1: Bike riding.

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Corner Cycles in Falmouth had sweet bikes, and is only a block away from the converted railway bike trail.

A drawbridge.

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A short ride past ponds, beaches, and cranberry bogs, and is Woods Hole, complete with a drawbridge.

Lobster rolls.

Jimmy's in Woods Hole provided Lobster Roll #1 of the weekend.
Jimmy’s in Woods Hole provided Lobster Roll #1 of the weekend.

More bike riding.
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Verrrrry necessary complimentary coffee.

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Water Wizz Water Park (from The Way Way Back)

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And last but not least, in the town of East Sandwich, Titcomb’s Bookshop, which now has signed copies of Shelter Us joining  many beautiful Cape Cod and Nantucket-themed fiction. Thank you for welcoming this California girl and her California-set story to your unforgettable East Coast shores.
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