Wednesday, April 29, 2009


My children stole my stuffed animals last night.

As a little girl, there were several things I didn't do: I didn't play dress up. I didn't play with dolls. I didn't try on my mother's make-up. I didn't brush my hair.

And there were several things I did do: I climbed trees. I ran barefoot on gravel driveways until callouses formed on my soles. I traded my mother's pearl ring for a slightly used coloring book. I had the ugliest darn stuffed animals a toy company ever came up with.

Their names were Babe, Daisy, and Cindy.

Babe was a blue ox, as in Paul Bunyan's ox. He abandoned me a long time ago. Work to do in the great beyond, I suppose.

Daisy is a purple mouse whose head, precariously attached to her skinny neck, is nearly as big as her body. She wears a pink tux vest with pink felt buttons, and is missing her right eye. Her fur is matted beyond redemption, and she is days away from losing her black pom-pom nose. Also, as of this morning, three of her six whiskers are melted from getting too close to the fireplace, and she doesn't look very happy about it.

Cindy is a ratty, brown bear about a foot tall. She has a metal box inside her that leads me to believe she spoke or sang at some point. Or has been storing important CIA information the agents have forgotten about for decades.

Ivan and Emma hung out with me in my room last night before bedtime and rediscovered Daisy and Cindy, who were resting more or less comfortably in a wood box by my bed, lying atop a stack of books I've been meaning to read. Emma promptly adopted Cindy and took her to her room. Cindy slept in a doll crib, as Emma was aware of her fragile nature and didn't want her to end up with any missing limbs come morning.

Ivan adopted Daisy. Only he's renamed him Fluffy. "But her name is Daisy," I said. "No," he answered patiently. "His name is Fluffy." I tried again: "When I was a little girl, I called her Daisy." He said, "No. Mom..." then took a deep breath "you were already a little girl. Now Fluffy is mine."

I have a picture my father took of me when I was about Emma's age. I'm asleep in bed, the lights on, a book on my chest, Daisy wrapped up in one arm and Cindy in the other. They look much younger in the photo. We all did.

I never spent a lot of time imagining what life would be like for me when I grew up. I didn't dream about having a husband or children--at least not until I was in high school. I didn't imagine what sort of job I would have, where I would live, who my friends would be.

And I certainly never imagined some day Daisy and Cindy would wind up in my own children's arms.

Years ago, my parents gave each of their children a photo album full of old pictures of us as kids. Each album was personalized, some photos the same as those of a sibling, others unique to our own books. And the front page in each album held an individual photo with a caption beneath it. My photo was of me at about Ivan's age, screaming and crying and writhing around as my older sister Sandy tried to contain me. The caption read: "Bobbie after being told she would be a mother some day." The picture made me smile; the caption made me cry. Not because it was true but because it was so completely untrue. I thought, seeing what he had written, "My father doesn't know me at all. He doesn't know how much I love being a parent." And I also thought, "Really? Is that how I come across? As someone whose role as a mother makes her look on the verge of a breakdown?" Neither option brought me much comfort.

So I removed the caption and threw it away later, never telling either of my parents.

The truth is, I do struggle with being a mother at times. I'm not a natural. Sharing my time, my space, my body with a child . . . it's hard. But while it's hard, it's also my greatest source of happiness, having these four little (and becoming not-so-little) people to love like this. It's a job much better than any I could have imagined as a kid, lying there with carnival-prize ugly stuffed animals in my arms.

Stuffed animals I will gladly hand over to my own kids now and even let them rename without further argument. Like Ivan said, I already had my turn as a little girl. I wouldn't go back there for the world. I have the world right here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Forces of nature

Before I was married, I lived near home (not at home) and also near my older brother, his wife, and their (at the time) 4 kids. I used to babysit their eldest two, though perhaps not regularly, at least often enough that I felt close to them, felt like a good aunt. Until I had to punish them for bad behavior. Even using that word--punish--in relation to my nephews, who are now in their 20s, makes me cringe. And by punishment, I mean time-outs. Nothing physical, nothing drastic, no yelling, just: "You know you shouldn't have done that. Go have a seat on the sofa."

And those time-outs never lasted more than 30 seconds because I couldn't bear to see them so little and so sad sitting there like that, tears in their big eyes, waiting for me to tell them they were good and could get down and play some more.

I was so sure I was going to be the softest, easiest, wimpiest mom ever. Ev. Er.

I was wrong. I found quite quickly that it's much easier to punish your own children than someone else's. I rarely had to punish my oldest. All Ron or I had to do was look at Simon as though we were disappointed and even at age 2 he would break down crying. He wouldn't do anything without asking us first. He still doesn't, which is an entirely separate issue now that he's 12 and he really doesn't need to call us while we're out to dinner in order to ask if he can eat an apple. But for those early years, parenting him was a breeze.

The 3 we've had since them? Not such a breeze. In fact, when Ivan started to walk and talk and cause his own brand of issues in our family, I realized God was, if not punishing, well then at least chastising me for a little thing called smugness. I had been so sure up until 4 years ago that I was a great parent who knew how to keep her children in line anywhere anytime, and that all those parents out there with seemingly out-of-control kids really only needed some tips from me on how to bring them under control. I never offered advice, but I thought they should be asking me.

Ha. And ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

My kids are who they are in spite of, not because of, me. And nothing is going to turn Ivan into a child who cries when I look at him wrong. Nothing is going to turn him into a child who thinks to ask me before he helps himself to an apple--and then takes one bite and throws it in the garbage, insisting that wasn't what he wanted to eat after all as he reaches for leftover Easter candy. (I retrieved the apple, by the way, washed it, and gave it to another child.)

I'm not the wimpiest mom ever. I do try to keep Ivan in line, particularly when we're out in public and I know there are other smug mothers around me, ones exactly like I was before I was, um, schooled. But I have also come to love all the uncontrolled energy that makes him who he is. I was pregnant with him during Hurricane Ivan (which is not how we came up with his name, by the way), and I prefer to associate him with a force of nature than with Ivan the Terrible.

I had a dream a couple of months ago that Owen, my almost-10-year-old, had done something so awful that I knew he would never be able to forgive himself for it. And I ached for him in that dream, knowing that nothing I said or did was going to help him. It was one of the worst and realest dreams I've ever had. As a parent, I believe that's what my role is: not to punish my children but to make sure they don't make the kind of mistakes that will prevent them from being happy, from loving themselves, from forgiving themselves. I can't control hurricanes or floods or volcanoes or thunderstorms or monsoons or tornadoes. I can only board up the windows, make sure the sump pump is working, and that we always have milk in the fridge and cereal in the cupboard.

This morning Ivan growled at me as I put him in the car. That's his thing these days: growling. I told him he needed to be nice to me. He said, "Is your heart filled up, Mommy?" Lately, when he hugs me, he holds on and on, his arms and legs wrapped around me, until I say, "Thank you, Ivan. That really filled my heart up." So I answered, "Well, it's not quite as filled up as I'd like it to be." So he grabbed me around the neck and after a few seconds, he said, "Now is it filled?" I said, "Yes." And he said, "Okay. Now a little bit more." And he held on some more.

I was a couple of minutes late getting him to school. And it was worth the delay to be filled up today. He's not perfectly behaved, none of my children are nor will they ever be. But every one of them is perfect. And about that, I feel absolutely entitled to my smugness.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Beauty supplies

February 09, 2009
Originally uploaded by JonathanMathias
Owen and I took an ambulance ride (no flashing lights, much to Owen's disappointment) to the Children's Hospital two days ago, transferring from our local hospital's ER where Owen had been put on IV antibiotics for a potential infection. He's fine. He's home. As a matter of fact, he's back at school for the first time since his surgery a week and a half ago.

But his hospitalization isn't the topic of today's post. Let's get back to that ambulance ride.

Because we were heading downtown right smack dab in the middle of rush hour, the ambulance driver opted for city streets. What should have taken 40 minutes took us an hour and a half. Not fun even under the best of circumstances. Had it been a real emergency and not merely a transport, the sirens and lights would have helped us get through much more quickly, of course. Instead, I got a tour of some of the less, uh, . . . palatable? scenic? pleasant? . . . parts of Chicago.

Chicago, as well as other large cities, has flashing blue lights that indicate the presence of police surveillance cameras. Most people (likely with due cause) associate the lights with being in a dangerous area. If it weren't dangerous, why would the cameras need to be there, right? Perhaps the police are trying to deter criminals or assure residents and those passing through that they're watching and that, in fact, this particular block might be safer than the one two streets down that doesn't have a flashing blue light.

One of the flashing lights we passed on our lovely drive was right outside a McDonald's. McDonald's! A symbol of American wealth and poverty all at once. Wealth: We're too busy with our busy busy lives and busy busy jobs to buy "real" food. We need it now and we need it fast. Poverty: You're not likely to see women in Prada or men in Brooks Brothers stopping by for a Filet-O-Fish. At least I've never seen either.

The idea of a restaurant I only go to when my kids are with me being marked as a dangerous area disturbed me, made me a little sad, a little angry.

Even sadder, though, was a sign on one of the stores on this same block: "Beauty Supplies: Cigarettes and Wigs."

And by sad, I mean funny in a very sad way. Cigarettes and wigs are considered beauty supplies? In that order? Note the sign wasn't for "Beauty Supplies, Cigarettes, and Wigs." Nope, the cigarettes and wigs were a subset of the beauty supplies. Is life so hard in this neighborhood that cigarettes make the women more beautiful? The wigs, I understand. That shop was one of four on the block selling them. But cigarettes? Really? I've seen plenty of people smoking, and in my experience, they don't make someone more attractive. Not by a long shot. Unless you're talking James Dean, of course.

That hour and a half ambulance ride is the first time I've felt like I was in a foreign country since leaving the Middle East last May. I was reminded of a quote a friend of mine shared with me a few weeks ago from "My Dinner with Andre":

"Tell me, why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to be able to perceive one moment of reality? I mean... I mean, is Mount Everest more 'real' than New York? I mean, isn't New York 'real'? I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out! I mean... I mean, isn't there just as much 'reality' to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest?"

Just a few blocks past this neighborhood, we entered what was obviously a well-to-do area with remodeled brownstones and nicely manicured grass along the curbs and trees in bloom and women in blond bobs and business suits. Maybe the bobs were wigs. Maybe they'd just finished smoking a cigarette in their Mercedes before getting out. Maybe they even had a crumpled-up wrapper from a Big Mac on the floorboard. But I doubt it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

And when she was good . . .

My daughter will be seven in just a few weeks. We spent an hour after dinner tonight driving around the neighborhood, dropping off invitations to her girlfriends for her Birthday/Doll Tea Party. At seven, I was about as girlie as Dennis the Menace, but Emma is the real deal: dress-up clothes, makeup (the cheap, play kind that floats away on a breeze within moments of being applied), hugs and kisses to all of her friends each time she sees them, and a love of anything that purrs, giggles, or sparkles.

Since she was two years old and threw across the room the shoes I was trying to put on her--and then pointed to the ones she wanted to wear--I have had a hard time relating to Emma. I have loved her, clothed her, fed her, laughed with her, cried with her, but rarely related to her.

On one particular visit to my mother's house, Mom chastised me for how unfairly I treated Emma. She said I was too hard on her--harder than I was on the boys. I said, "But you just don't know, Mom. She's never satisfied. Ever. I can spend 24 hours with her and she'll cry because I didn't come up with another hour in the day. I can buy her a new spring wardrobe and she'll complain I didn't buy her that tube of Disney Princesses toothpaste as well. I can let her stay up to watch a movie on Friday and she'll argue on Saturday that she wishes I'd let her watch something else instead." Mom just shook her head: "I feel bad for her is all."

I crawled into bed next to Emma that night and cried, wondering if Mom was right. I was afraid I was blowing my chance to be close to the only daughter I will ever have.

And then when morning came, Emma pushed and I reacted.

And so it's gone for several years.

Yet recently, really since having moved here to Chicago and seen her blossom in all of these new friendships she has formed, I've come to adore her more than ever because I'm looking at her differently. I'm not trying to relate to her anymore or expecting to see myself in her at any point. And in observing this little wonder of mine without worrying about understanding her, I can simply be in awe of her, amazed by how much joy she manages to contain without completely bursting at the seams. I watch her skip out the door to school and race back in afterward, all apple-faced and smiling, and I literally hope to God I can recall those moments for the rest of my life.

These last few days with a child recovering too slowly from a surgery that has so far caused more pain than it's eradicated, I have needed little Emma's joy more than I realized I ever would.

And right now, I'm the one who could use another hour tacked onto the 24 I've been given. In this, at least--in the very real craving I have for her and for all of my children--I'll never be satisfied either. So perhaps Emma and I can, after all, relate to each other a bit.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Healthy, wealthy, and stupid

After seven years of being misdiagnosed, my nearly 10-year-old son had surgery two days ago and is home now recovering--while not happily at least optimistically. Hooray for all the wonderful doctors out there who helped us figure this out over the last couple of months. As for you other doctors who dismissed my doubts that this was what you thought it was for all those years? My letters to you are in the mail.

And when he got up this morning, my older son, Simon, said his throat hurt. A peak inside showed white spots, a sure sign of strep to this mother who has seen more than her fair share of it in this household. But would the doctor prescribe anything over the phone? No, he would not. "But I have a child home recovering from surgery," I said. "I'm sure it's strep throat." "Well, can you have a neighbor come over?" asked the nurse.

So two hours later with a toddler in tow, Simon and I ended up at the doctor's office, Owen home alone with a neighbor's phone number in his hand. After half an hour of waiting, we got back to the examination room, where Simon promptly threw up all over the nurse, the exam table, the floor, and, oh, a bit in the trashcan as well. The PA came in (the doctor who'd said "no" didn't have any openings!), looked in his throat, and said, "Yep. I think it's strep." She printed out a prescription and we were on our way. SO glad I showed up for that, because I sure couldn't have looked in his throat . . . like . . . that . . . Hm. Seems to me I did.

I then called Simon's piano studio to ask if we could reschedule his lesson today, figuring they would rather he not show up and infect everyone there with strep throat. Apparently, my reasoning skills differ vastly from theirs. We can cancel, certainly, but then we lose his lesson fee, which I paid at the beginning of the month. "We keep our prices reasonable so it's not a big deal for you to miss a lesson." Not a big deal? Since when did someone else get to decide what amount of money I consider a big deal? And how is it wrong for it to be a big deal to me but not to him? "No," I said. "He won't be missing the lesson. He'll be there. With strep throat." And then the guy hung up on me (yes, hung up--not "thank you, goodbye," but "click") and turned to his coworker to complain about what a *)&*# I was. I'm imagining that last part, of course, but based on the way "Ma'am" started coming out 4 seconds into our conversation, he sure didn't hang up to say, "Gee. Y'know, that charming and very calm woman on the phone just now made a lot of sense. Perhaps we should change our policy a bit to reflect reason. I wonder what other pearls of wisdom she has to offer up to us. I think I should apologize when she comes in today."

So starting in May, Simon gets to take his piano lessons at home, from me, for free. His teacher, a sweet kid at the studio, has been good at encouraging Simon to challenge himself. But by kid, I mean I've played the piano longer than he's been alive. Actually, come to think of it, I've played the piano--as in the number of hours I have literally sat on the bench and played--longer than he's been alive. Oh my gosh. That's not even an exagerration. Just thinking about it makes me think I need to go find some BenGay for my back.

I don't like coming across as a *$#)&, by the way. Truly, I don't. I'm a nice person who thinks primarily nice thoughts and wishes the world well on most occasions. But when I know I'm the reasonable one and the person I'm speaking with isn't only unreasonable but is so sure he is reasonable that he can't see I'm being nice by not screaming his stupidity at him, then I feel a little . . . miffed.

But Owen is healthy today. In pain, yes, but healthy. And a healthy child goes a long way toward helping you deal with the stupidity in the world.

Now about those pre-paid hip-hop lessons he's going to miss these next couple of weeks.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Today in history...

Today is Ron's birthday, so happy birthday, hon. Better and better every year.

As long as I was considering the date, I thought I'd look into what other momentous events (and, yes, my husband's birthday is momentous) occurred on this day in history.

On April 6, 1896, the modern Olympics began in Athens. (By way of interruption, because that's what I do: I interrupt myself constantly but continue to try not to interrupt others--although I suppose interrupting your reading is an interruption, except that it's my writing you're reading, so even an interruption is a continuation of said writing and therefore not an interruption at all. Where was I? Oh, yes, seeing April 6, 1896, written like that makes me wonder why we here in the US were so stubborn as to decide we had to differ from the British and, I'm thinking, everyone else in the world by not simply writing 6 April 1896 and thereby doing away with extraneous punctuation: two wasted commas every time.)

My question was therefore: Why and when were they (the Olympics) ever abolished in the first place.

I'll get to the why in a second, but the when is 393 A.D. The by whom (even if I didn't ask) is Theodosius I.

As for the why . . . It's all about religion, of course (the nudity had nothing to do with it, by the way).

The Olympics had been around since 776 B.C. as a pagan celebration, a means of honoring the gods and dedicated to Zeus. When Rome conquered Greece, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Theodosius I took it upon himself to ban a 1000-year-old tradition.

Theodosius I is also known for a little something called the Nicene Creed--the revised version, not the original as put forth by Constantine in 325. The Nicene Creed is most well known for establishing the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy. The Nicaea council was called in reaction to a man named Arius who said that although Jesus was divine, he was created by God and therefore there was a time he did not exist. I have no interest in arguing the doctrine, as I'm well aware my own religious beliefs are rather baffling as well. I simply find it fascinating that a doctrine as vital to most of Christianity as the Trinity came about because the emperor and roughly 300 (of 1800 invited) bishops opposed one man's creed. Arius and the two bishops who still supported him at the end of the debate were exiled and excommunicated for their unwillingness to agree with the council's majority vote.

Also on their agenda was the determination of the date for celebrating Easter. Christians originally relied on the Jewish calendar and the timing of the Passover to determine the date of Easter. But the council decided the Jewish calendar was too disorganized. The result after much argument--and four or five more centuries--is what we have now: Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. Much clearer, huh?

Not much in politics has changed over the last millennium or so when you really think about it. Maybe it's best just not.

I think I preferred thinking the Olympics were banned because nude pole-vaulting just became too dangerous and it took us 1500 years to realize clothed athletes were a good idea.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


I spent the afternoon and evening going through my grandmother's journals again, this time focusing on the ones she kept in the nursing home, beginning four years after her stroke. The first steno pad, which was all her journals were by then, started with her personal history. Three pages in, I decided I couldn't keep these to myself. So I've started typing them up and will give bound copies to my mother, my siblings, and my cousins for Christmas.

Then about 40 pages in, I called my mother to share a few stories with her. Mom adored my grandmother, her mother-in-law, in a way I don't believe most mother-in-laws are adored. Several times during our conversation, Mom said, "Y'know. I just was so lucky . . ."

I thought I was 7 when Grandma had her stroke. But I found out today I was just a few weeks away from turning 6. The difference for me isn't that significant, but it was for Grandma. That was another year or so of being confined to a wheelchair. A woman who thrived on physical labor and on taking care of others spent the last 12 years of her life having to ask other people to help her to bed, help her get dressed, help her to the bathroom. How did she do it?

I want to share a story about her that wasn't in her journal. Mom shared it with me tonight.

When Grandma was the matron for a women's retirement home I mentioned in an earlier post, one of her many responsibilities was to prepare every meal. She received an allowance for the meals, would walk to the local grocery store, do her shopping, and then take a cab back to the home. After 7 years, she retired at age 67. The staff threw a farewell dinner for her, after which my grandmother stood up and said, looking at the residents, "Ladies, have you ever gone hungry here?" They answered no. "Have you been happy with your meals? Always felt like you were well fed?" They answered yes. She then handed over a $1200 check and said, "Here is the money I saved you over the last 7 years here."

Can you imagine how much better a state we would be living in today if people could just, for crying outloud, care a little about integrity again? Grandma was an amazing woman. But I suspect she wasn't so unusual for her time. Her brothers fought in WWI, two of her sons in WWII. She knew about putting your life and liberty on the line for correct principles, about standing for something--for ANYthing--and about sacrificing. Her neighbors who planted Victory gardens knew. Her friends who lost "sweethearts" in the war knew. Her mother, a widower whose husband had died 4 months before Grandma was born and who spent WWI volunteering in every way she could, knew. When Grandma handed over that check, she didn't think she was going above and beyond. She didn't think at all. She just did it.

And, yes, it was just a check. It wasn't her life. It wasn't "her" anything. It was theirs. It was the home's the women's. And she knew that.

There are three definitions for integrity. One is an adherence to moral and ethical principles, of doing what's right when no one is looking. The second is the state of being whole, complete. The third is the state of being perfect, unimpaired.

Until today, I didn't fully understand how the first definition was related to the second and third. The first describes a human action for good or bad. The second and third describe "things": governments, a crime scene, a scientific experiment.

But the second and third also describe my grandmother because she possessed the first. She wasn't perfect. I know that. She knew that. But she had integrity and showed it in so many ways throughout her life. So when the time came that she, from the world's perspective, was no longer whole and was impaired, she still believed she was complete. Therefore, having others help her wasn't demeaning. It wasn't humiliating. It wasn't life crushing. It was simply another stage of her life that she would--and did--find a way through.

That's how she did it: with integrity.

This, to me, is the true blessing of living a life of moral character. We get to be whole.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Guilt reading

My mother and sister recently recommended a book that's gotten great reviews all over the place. So I checked it out of our local library and started reading it a month ago. I'm on about page 50. In fact, I had to renew it because I had made so little progress.

I think it's a good book. At least I think I think that. I haven't really read enough to say for sure. The narrator is charming. The concept is great. There's mystery and intrigue. (Really, what's the difference between mystery and intrigue? They always show up together and I'm pretty sure they're the same thing.) And I would imagine it's on a reading group list or two out there.

But I just cannot for the life of me get into it.

After college, I went on a serious "serious" rampage. I rented foreign movies until our video store ran out of ones I hadn't seen. (For the record, Gerard Depardieu will forever be my favorite foreign-film star, although I haven't completely forgiven him for "My Father the Hero.") I read a lot of the classics that even my English major never required me to read. In short, I tried my darnedest to be an intellectual.

Confession: I'm not. I'm not an intellectual. Most reading-group books bore me. I can't sit still through symphonies. PBS documentaries are almost always a form of torture for me. I hyperventilate at old news reels. The ballet suffocates me. If you string together too many 4- to 5-syllable words at once, my eyes are going to glaze over. I'll never break eye contact, but I can't promise I'll be "there."

*long heavy sigh*

I feel much better now. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

So I'm going to return that book to the library and let someone else benefit from it. I'm sure I'll go back to it at some point, because I'm sure it's good for me, just like broccoli and brown rice are good for me. I might not love them, but I'll eat them. But between meals involving either of them, I'm going to have to indulge in crusty white bread and sharp cheddar cheese and any blend of peanut butter and chocolate.

Tonight's reading? Something along the lines of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. And I won't feel bad about it. Confession is good for the soul.