Posted in College, Mid-Life Mama, Milestone Moments, Round Two, Teens, Twenty-something, What's Next? (18 & beyond)

11 Things We Learned~in a week without the kids

empty nest
One summer a few years back, I stumbled upon a brilliant act of self-love. I arranged for both of our boys to be away from home at the same time.

Our oldest departed early Sunday morning on a road trip with his girlfriend, while our youngest was scheduled to be dropped off at camp that very afternoon.

On the drive over to Waubanog, my husband turned to me with a giddy whisper, asking What do you want to do AFTER…!

I could barely contain my delight and hoped my son wouldn’t see or sense it from the backseat.

Mostly we slept, and went out to eat, and enjoyed lots of summer cocktails.

A week later, we’d also learned some things about ourselves; things we could no longer blame on the kids:

1. We make lots of messes.

2. We use lots of glasses.

3. We depend on their noise, demands, connection & love to direct our days, our emotions, our very thoughts.

4. We’d do well to focus more on our own shit. Inside and out. There’s plenty there.

5. They apparently keep animals away from our gardens.
(Either that or they arranged for the groundhog to eat all the greens so that they wouldn’t have to.)

6. Casey & I still enjoy each others company more than we do anyone else. (Following some initial turbulence.)

7. We can’t wait for them to leave, and when they’re finally gone, we miss them.  (Duh.)

8. We have softer edges without them, but much less dimension.

9. There will always be an Aidan and a Lloyd shaped empty space in our hearts once they’ve grown.
(Sappy, but true. OUCH.)

10. Even without the distraction, disturbance & delight of children, we don’t “get done” what we imagined.

11. Our lives without them will easily out distance the day-to-day we’ve shared as a family.

At the end of that summer, our oldest and his beloved set to repainting his walls. Their youthful abandon spilled out of his room and down the stairs and into the kitchen; as did the palpable presence of endings–he would leave for college that week and they would break up rather than endure a long distance relationship (and I was not to ask about how or if we would see her once he was gone.)

Add to this the juxtaposition of my baby sister’s first born who had just celebrated his first birthday. His milestones seemed to be engaged in some kind of parallel dance with those taking place in my home.

I hold no regrets. I have lived well and loved our years with children; and I am proud to see them spread their wings; though what is also true is that I can barely breathe at the thought of a completely empty house, or imagine one that doesn’t begin and end with camps and semesters and vacations.

When the boys were babies, Casey & I would race up the stairs to be the first to arrive after naptime–to be that holy recipient of their precious waking gaze of delight & devotion.

At the end of that week apart, instead of a set of stairs, it was a steep hill, and the baby was 13 and he was smelly, carrying all of his gear from a week in a tent. Casey wore flip flops. I chose sneakers. I may have pushed him off the path. More than once.

What I’ve learned most from my time with and apart from my children is something I feel a bit embarrassed to share…

A deep & abiding love for myself, and the pleasure of my own company.

Which alas, grew out of my fierce love for them–both in their comings and their goings.

This past week, in another brilliant act of self-love, I sent my husband off on a trip to retrieve our youngest from his time at the shore with his young cousin–who is now 4 years old.

It was a hard decision not to go along. I missed his little sister’s second birthday. I missed spending time with my entire extended family. I missed a beach trip I’ve taken every summer since we moved to the mountains 23 years ago.

But I also felt conflicted about leaving because it was my oldest son’s birthday, and even though he lived three hours away and planned to spend his 21st with his friends instead of coming home, I wanted to be here. Just to the hold the place of home if nothing else.

I also wanted to write. And to find myself. And to hear my own thoughts. Especially as my first born came of age.

After the initial pangs of emptiness, I settled into a delicious morning of word and bird song and green tea.

Cue the phone.

Guess who’s coming home.

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Posted in Fragile Life, Insight, Mid-Life Mama, Milestone Moments, Round Two, Teens

when the end is near…

There was the afternoon
when i slid down the wall
in the hallway
in front of the bookshelf
and dozed there
with a lap full of journals;
until voices lifted my gaze
out the window
toward the hill,
where Aidan,
tall and lanky,
like a teenager,
used a plastic bat
to hit snowballs to his friend.

Unlike his older brother,
Aidan has lulled me,
with his child-like ways,
into the fantasy
that “we”
will always
be.

(Emily was right…
How softly summer shuts, without the creaking of a door.)

Posted in Mid-Life Mama, Milestone Moments, Round Two, Teens

Mommy Graduation

DSCN3500
Mommies graduate too!

Earlier this month I experienced mounting anxiety as my youngest approached graduation; but not because he wasn’t ready.

It was me.

flat,1000x1000,075,fI’ve devoted a lifetime to children, and not just the past 21 years to my boys and their school; but the decade before that to the children in my classroom, and even the decades before that, to my seven younger siblings.

Underneath the separation anxiety is
GRIEF,
and underneath that,
a deeper truth:

I AM READY!

I’ve been ready.

But the readiness doesn’t diminish the loss.
The vacuum.
Where there once was Everything.

hot-airLast night, he graduated.
I graduated.
(From the last of them.)

My baby will leave the hill that shaped our lives together,
and head to town,
to the high school,
where his father teaches.

And me?
How do I feel?
That’s what people ask, expecting
sorrow.

I barely slept.
I tossed and turned and fretted.

It may have been the champagne,
but I kept thinking of bubbles
and all things
that float…
up.

Finally, my mind settled in on
balloons,
and then to a single
hot
air
balloon,

and the way,

SHE RISES,

as she lightens

the
load.

Posted in Mid-Life Mama, Milestone Moments, Round Two, Takes a Village, Teens, Wisdom of Youth

the fading of the kindergarten wall

DSCN2882
Aidan at the bus stop, with his luggage.

3:36 pm. The school bus stops at our driveway, across from the pond, but no one gets off.

Our youngest, 14, has just, this very moment, touched down in Liberia, Costa Rica with his Junior High classmates.

When his older brother made the same trip a handful of years ago, I was a wreck; but he was only 12.

Still, I’ve splintered this entire day checking the status updates of Jet Blue and the posts in our parent Facebook group.

We brought our kids to school last night at 2:30 in the morning, and gathered in the parking lot in front of the bus until everyone arrived. We chatted like it was normal to be there, in the dark, in the middle of the night, hanging out. Someone joked about getting breakfast, and we all felt the pull of longing after a long winter that has protracted itself into spring.

3:00 am
3:00 am

The yellow school bus heading to JFK, manned by their classroom teacher, pulled out, on time, at 3:00 am, and two sets of parents cheered. Not for the kids. But for us. We were heading home childless. For 9 days!

By the time I got in the car though, the emptiness overtook me, and when I crawled back into bed, my mind skipped from thought to thought and wouldn’t let me rest.

Aidan graduates this June. People dismiss elementary school graduations as excessive and unnecessary, but they are truly poignant in our community. This particular rite of passage comes after 12+ years with the same peers before splintering off to a number of different public and private schools in the area. (Our town doesn’t have a high school so the tax dollars are applied to a school of choice.)

The graduation is also distinguished by the school itself. Completing your tenure at Marlboro Elementary is a one of a kind experience–steeped in ritual, initiation, rigor and love.

At the graduation ceremony itself, the students proceed through a canopy of teachers and staff joining hands above them; and then the students take the podium to host the ceremony themselves, even secretly choosing the guest speaker in the months before hand.

Theirs is a combined class of 7th and 8th graders, so it’s the families of the youngers who host the reception afterward; and the next day, these 7th graders return to their classroom, on their own, to greet the upcoming sixth graders.

Prior to the graduation ceremony, other rituals take place:

  • the reading of poetry from their own kindergarten days in the company of the current kindergarten class;
  • the weekly literature tea followed by an annual game of croquet–with students dressed in their finest hats and light colored clothing (a sight rarely seen in these parts);
  • a hands-on tie-tying examination which is a longtime rite of passage at Marlboro Elementary;
  • a private Consortium for graduates and their families where 8th graders step up to the podium in the Town Hall, built in 1822, to share an exemplary personal essay;
  • a portfolio presentation where an individual graduate (assisted by a 7th grade classmate) presents his best work from each of her years at the school to his parents and select teaching staff;
  • a Cabaret, put on by the Junior High, and held in the evening, in the theater at Marlboro College;
  • and my favorite–the last All School Sing–highlighting the favorite songs of the graduates at the final all school gathering.
sadly, the only photo I can find of Aidan and me at All School Sing
sadly, the only photo I can find of Aidan and me at All School Sing–a dancing day

This past Monday, feeling the departure of my son on the horizon, I attended the weekly All School Sing, and sat across the room from the boy who once insisted on sitting on my lap, and then at my feet, and then just a few bodies away.

Now he has his own chair in the outer circle with the adults while his younger peers take a spot inside the circle on the floor.

I look over at my son from time to time to see if he sees me, but his focus is on his peers until one of our favorite songs is sung: Kindergarten Wall.

I imagine that I began punctuating the lines, “CLEAN UP YOUR MESS,” to his older brother long before I began turning toward Aidan with them; and it’s become a family joke; a duel of sorts; particularly as Aidan turns the song back in my direction with his own emphasis of a handful of lines, punctuating the “grownups”:

But lately I’ve been worried as I look around and see
An awful lot of grown-ups acting foolish as can be
Now I know there’s lots of things to know I haven’t mastered yet
But it seems there’s real important stuff that grown-ups soon forget…

I am relieved to see that at 14, Aidan still plays along, even from across the room; although now he does so with his eyes more than his voice. After school, he reminds me that the part directed to adults is a whole section long; and I smile, happy for the connection, with a tinge of loss, knowing that  has already left the messy stage of childhood and had has headed into the foolishness of aging.

The last song sung was another family favorite, one which is always shared at the Sing before the Junior High takes their bi-annual trip abroad:

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Long mistaken as Peter, Paul & Mary’s, my boys and I know to whom this song belongs.

Their sixth grade teacher, a jazz lover, detests John Denver’s crooning, so we make a point to emphasize that this is his song; and David makes a point to leave the room.

Last year, Aidan argued at great lengths with his music teacher about it. She finally conceded in a phone message to our house that evening: “Aidan was right; but Peter, Paul and Mary were the ones to make it famous.”

a classroom, transformed
a classroom, transformed

As we sing, “All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go…” a lump forms in my throat, just as Aidan motions for me to turn toward the back of the room where David is departing.

I smile and simultaneously realize that Aidan and I have sung in this room together since he was a babe in arms. We sang Leaving on Jet Plane to every class since then.

But when that school bus pulls back into the parking lot next week after midnight, there will only be a few All School Sings left between us.

Kindergarten Wall

When I was a little kid not so long ago
I had to learn a lot of stuff I didn’t even know
How to dress myself, tie my shoes, how to jump a rope
How to smile for a picture without looking like a dope
But of all the things I learned my favorite of them all
Was a little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall

CHORUS:

Of all you learn here remember this the best:
Don’t hurt each other and clean up your mess
Take a nap everyday, wash before you eat
Hold hands, stick together, look before you cross the street
And remember the seed in the little paper cup:
First the root goes down and then the plant grows up!

Well, it was first, second, third grade, fourth grade, too
Where I had to learn the big things the big kids do
To add, subtract, and multiply, read and write and play
How to sit in a little uncomfortable desk for nearly half a day
But of all they taught me my favorite of them all
Was the little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall

Chorus

But lately I’ve been worried as I look around and see
An awful lot of grown-ups acting foolish as can be
Now I know there’s lots of things to know I haven’t mastered yet
But it seems there’s real important stuff that grown-ups soon forget
So I’m sure we’d all be better off if we would just recall
That little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall

Chorus

©1988 by John McCutcheon. Published by Appalsongs (ASCAP).

Posted in Borrowed Voices, Insight, Mid-Life Mama, Milestone Moments, Round Two, Teens, What's Next? (18 & beyond)

On Being Mom, by Anna Quindlen

The pensive infant with the swipe of dark bangs and the blackbutton eyes of a Raggedy Andy doll. The placid baby with the yellow ringlets and the high piping voice. The sturdy toddler with the lower lip that curled into an apostrophe above her chin. ALL MY BABIES are gone now.

I say this not in sorrow but in disbelief. I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost-adults, two taller than I am, one closing in fast. Three people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than I like.

Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by themselves. Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible except through the unreliable haze of the past.

Everything in all the books I once pored over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach., T. Berry Brazelton., Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and sleeping through the night and early-childhood education, all grown obsolete.

Along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, they are battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if you flipped the pages dust would rise like memories.

What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations — what they taught me was that they couldn’t really teach me very much at all. Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything. One child responds well to positive reinforcement, another can be managed only with a stern voice and a timeout. One boy is toilet trained at 3, his brother at 2.

When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last arrived, babies were put down on their backs because of research on sudden infant death syndrome. To a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then soothing.

Eventually you must learn to trust yourself. Eventually the research will follow.

I remember 15 years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton’s wonderful books on child development, in which he describes three different sorts of infants: average, quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil for an 18-month-old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was he developmentally delayed, physically challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China. Next year he goes to college. He can talk just fine. He can walk,too.

Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the Remember-When-Mom-Did Hall of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language, mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test, and I responded, What did you get wrong? (She insisted I include that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald’s drive-through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the first two seasons.

What was I thinking?

But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.

Even today I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t, what was me and what was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be.

The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That’s what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts.

It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were.

(On Being Mom, by Anna Quindlen)

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