Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In Awe of the Moment

Twice, I didn’t make it to shul on Rosh Hashana.

The first time, I’d herniated a disc while putting the holiday turkey in the oven. My husband ended up handling the chore himself, taking full credit – with a wink -- for preparing such a tasty and tender bird. A friend stopped by to blow shofar. I nibbled on challah and some dark meat. Otherwise, the holiday passed uneventfully, lower back pain eclipsing my disappointment.

During my second stay-at-home Rosh Hashana, I was pregnant with my eldest and confined to bed rest. For months, I lied flat, too uncomfortable even to read, watching the same loop of shows on the fledgling Food Network, followed by Oprah and the 5 o’clock news. It was all mind-numbing, but I kept my eye on the prize of the baby pickling inside me.

When the holidays approached, however, I naively assumed I’d be able to waddle over to shul. It was the start of the year in which I would become a mother and I couldn’t imagine missing the ritual fanfare. But no begging or cajoling could sway my obstetrician. He permitted me to light candles, and then it was back to the couch.

I spent the days worrying, as I’d done each day of my bed rest, and – for everything, but mostly for the wellbeing of my unborn son -- I beseeched
G-d. But they’re called the Days of Awe with good reason. The moving score, the scenery, the powerful soliloquies, and the costumes – oh, that sea of white kittels on Yom Kippur! – create a powerful sense of drama, helping us get into the spirit. Though I had plenty to fear, I just wasn’t feeling the awe in my living room. I missed the familiar melodies, the hypnotic sway, the rabbi’s message, and most of all, the echo of the shofar blasts in the sanctuary.

So it was an interesting thing this year when, just days before Rosh Hashana, I found myself struggling to get into the High Holiday groove and considered, for the first time, opting out of shul. I’d hit a funk, mostly over everyday challenges that had accrued into a daunting bowlful. I convinced myself that I’d be too distracted during the long service and that it would be wrong to sit there, my mind racing with off-topic thoughts.

As a mom, I still had role-modeling obligations, so I proceeded with my routine, hoping to get in the mood. I rose early to wake my husband for morning selichot. I made sure the boys had clean pants, pressed shirts, and new shoes. I made a brisket and I wrote out two lists: one of blessings for which I’m thankful and a second, which was more of an “All I Want for the New Year” sort of thing. I figured that if I went to shul and if my mind wandered, those lists would keep me anchored.

Meanwhile, G-d, who notices everything, had a plan up His sleeve, a gentle push to get my mind on track. When I lit candles to usher in Rosh Hashana, I reacted the way I did around fire only once before: at a Shabbaton when I was about twelve, mesmerized to distraction by the largest havdalah candle I’d ever seen. This time, I became so entranced by the flames that the hard bits – the ones insisting I couldn’t possibly do the Days of Awe well right now – melted. I couldn’t get to shul fast enough the next morning.

It was there that memories of those two less than spiritual Rosh Hashanas came flooding back to me, like a wagging finger. Perhaps, I thought, it’s because I’d dithered away so much time over the preceding few days when I should’ve been more focused on repentance. Or because an emotional year lay ahead -- a son’s graduation, another’s bar mitzvah – and I should’ve been more cognizant of my blessings. In the end, the reasons didn’t make a difference. What mattered was that I was there.

When the shofar-blowing began, I could not believe I’d actually considered skipping shul. I felt the adrenaline rush in my chest. The opening blessings, like the gun shot at the start of a race, gave me a quick, stark reminder of how lucky I am to have made it around another lap.

As I often do during the shofar blasts, I closed my eyes and cried, a primitive response to their raw, emotional power. I believe that each of us hears what we need to hear in those sounds. To me, they were a call to be present: in that moment and in all the moments to follow. Mostly, though, they were shouting at me to listen to what G-d was trying to tell me all year.

Which, I believe, is this: I don’t have to be reflective all the time, though reflection has its hour, especially during the Days of Awe. But to be successful at this being human thing is to show up in body and spirit, and to savor life in whatever quirky package it arrives.

Sometimes, it means to swallow hard and mine the depths of my tolerance. At others, I know it means to laugh, like when holiday guests – for whom I’ve prepared multiple dishes to accommodate their various dietary requirements -- eat everything else instead, leaving behind an untouched pan of flavorless chicken and unseasoned potatoes. But everything happens for a reason, even if that reason is to ensure that there are no margarine and brown sugar-fueled apple kugels leftover for me to nosh on once they’ve gone home.

Laugh I did ten days later, too, when I arrived in shul on Yom Kippur drenched from head to toe. Though I’d donned a raincoat and boots for the 1.5 mile walk, my outerwear was no match for the downpour.

In the ladies’ room, I joined other women shaking off their wet coats and restoring order to their outfits before heading in to pray. They gasped politely when I asked if they thought I could, in my obviously saturated state, enter the sanctuary. They agreed I could not, consoling me in the face of the obvious, assuring me that I’d soon dry. Still, I savored the camaraderie – we all joked about the storm’s impact on our appearances -- even as I worried about contracting pneumonia.

I was about to give up and head home when another woman arrived. She took one look at me and offered me her pashmina, which she’d brought along because the shul temperature is arctic on Yom Kippur. When I demurred, she insisted. I asked, “What if you need it?” She replied, “We’re both here in the shul. I’ll find you.” Indeed, we were, and although my clothing didn’t dry at all, the shawl and the kindness that came with it kept me anchored where I needed to be.

Here we are, the first days of Sukkot already behind us, the last days fast approaching. But even as we head back into our kitchens for this round, even as we kvetch – with a wink -- about shopping and preparing, even as we wonder where on earth we’ll put another bite of honey cake if we’re to wear our dresses again, I’ll rejoice to have been in the moment for every bit of this long stretch of holidays.

For as long as I can, I’ll cling to the warmth of that pashmina and the flicker of the Rosh Hashana candles. I’ll find ways to keep the echo of the shofar in my ears. After all, there’s a long winter ahead.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Elul Yard Sale

Every fall, I’m drawn to the community-wide garage sale like a fly to honey. You never know what you’ll find at these things, and I love the thrill of the search. They also allow for a bold kind of people watching that wouldn’t be socially acceptable among living creatures. You can stare all you want at the stuff on the tables without being creepy, and there’s an awful lot to learn about folks by examining what they’ve owned and used, but want to unload.

There’s an array of human emotion out there on those tables, too, in the backstories about the outgrown toys, the mismatched silverware, and the silly tchotchkes that sat in cabinets for ages and are now on offer for $1 firm. I often leave with an item just because I want to conjure up an entire tale about it in my head, though the buyer’s remorse is inevitable once the story has been told.

This fall, however, I decided not to go.

If you were to land suddenly in my living room, you’d see that I run a pretty neat shop. Yet my shelves and closets are full, in some cases teeming. Guilt, gravity, and denial account for a large percentage of what is here. For a while, though, I’ve been craving a less cluttered existence and a house that contains only what we need and love. So back in May, I decided to pare down once and for all.

I got started in earnest when the kids finished school, spending countless summer hours combing through our stash. By the end of July, I’d already filled 19 bags of clothing for Lupus, whose truck arrived at 7 a.m. one day to cart it all away. That was easy. Most of it didn’t fit.

Things with sentimental value that we just couldn’t use anymore were harder to part with, though onward I marched. I posted items for free so frequently on the community board that people asked if we were moving. We gave our son’s motorized toy bike to friends with young grandsons, to their utter delight. Someone else claimed our unused stroller for a family in need, while the rest of the first round of clearing out went to our shul, which participated in the town-wide garage sale.

The slow reclaiming of space has been wonderful, as has been stumbling upon some lovely old pieces I won’t be parting with in this process. I found the oddball assortment of Barbie accessories from my childhood (including her Nancy Sinatra boots), a lovely cup and saucer I bought in Vienna, my great aunt’s college ring, and plenty of other little bits I inherited from long-gone relatives I never knew.

I could argue a great case that overseeing this repository is a good thing, not an attachment issue. At some point down the line, someone may be glad I’ve kept what I have. After all, antiques and heirlooms are generally considered fine collectibles and the items from our family are an invaluable link to our past. Still, one of my sons once asked, “Can’t we own anything that wasn’t old first?”

One day, may we please G-d live to 120, the boys will have to make decisions about what they value in this house. It won’t be pretty. I have more than once witnessed the consolidation of a lifetime’s worth of goods. It can be tear-jerking and painful. I’m mindful of that all the time. In fact, that’s part of the inspiration for this whole decluttering business in the first place.

My delightful grandmother was the tchotchke queen. The triage – what stayed, what went, and to whom – was an emotionally fraught process when she moved into an assisted living and then again when she passed away. We each took what was dear to us, but the rest wound up in bags and boxes. In the end, we can’t take it with us to the next world, and no one else has room to take it either.

When my husband’s great aunt was 94, she had me write my name on Post-It notes and place them on the items I wanted after her passing. In her loving yet pragmatic way, she tried to ease the process of dispersing her belongings, so she lived with those yellow papers dotting the shelves of her apartment until she died two years later.

Yes, this business of stuff is tiring on so many levels. I can imagine the cursing under my sons’ collective breath when the time comes to tackle what their father and I have squeezed into this house. I hope I’ll continue this healthy, periodic review of our things. But there’s no way I can toss all of it, and yard sale or not, lovely items find their way in all the time. On the upside, we can’t easily reach the attic, so they won’t find any surprises up there.

As I’m busy cleaning, I can’t help thinking that Elul is a lot like an annual town-wide garage sale. Together as a community, we clear out the clutter in our hearts and minds, laying everything on the table so we can take stock of what we’ve done over the past twelve months. There’s plenty of doer’s remorse, and we wish desperately to return the ugly bits to where they came from in the first place. But there they are, exposed, and we cannot turn back time.

We’re lucky, though, that we do this each year, this taking out of boxes and bins in which we’ve stashed what we don’t want to think about. With it all splayed out in front of us, we can clear the decks, ready to start fresh, hopeful that we won’t make the same mistakes again: the foolish deeds, the words best left unsaid, and the moments we’re not very proud of at all.

But there are also items we’re happy to cling to, and we need to value those, too. Those are the keepers, the ones we want to make a habit of, the collections we want to put away somewhere safe from year to year, the ones that make the cut. The ones we want our children to find when they clear up after we’re gone, delighting in the fact that we didn’t toss everything.

A sweet and healthy New Year to everyone! Shana Tova!

Monday, August 25, 2014

The More Roads We Travel

I was born wanting to go places. My mother reports that I toppled my cardboard bassinet in the newborn nursery while thrashing around. She believed I was trying to break free. I walked too early as well, and had to wear special shoes affixed to a metal rocking plate because my legs were not yet strong enough to carry me.

But I also traveled in the conventional sense with my family. I remember our drive to Florida, specifically drinking orange juice at the state welcome center and throwing up as I stepped off the Mad Tea Cup ride at Disney. I recall the trauma of getting lost once while away, though I’m not sure where we were when it happened, and taking photographs of my feet on the beach in Caesarea during our first trip to Israel.

When I was old enough to travel on my own, I seized any opportunity to explore locales both nearby and far flung. Luckily, my husband shares my sense of adventure. In the early years of our marriage, even when we lived on a shoestring, we still found a way to go places. We occasionally went abroad, but mostly went to off the beaten path spots close to home and checked out as much of our own city as possible.

And then we had children. Their blessed arrival cut nights out down to zero, and we were really fine with that. But we agreed that we would not suppress our wanderlust, no matter how complicated traveling with the boys might get.

We flew together to Croatia to visit family when our eldest was 8 months old. A year later, I made the same trip alone with my son. My back ached as I carried him, his car seat, the diaper bag, my carryon, and my purse onto the tarmac to board our connecting flight from Zurich. Yet I delighted in the experience of being there with him, even as he soiled his diaper just before takeoff to the chagrin of the buttoned-up business man to his left.

In fact, experience has been the point from the beginning. We wanted to pass along our curiosity to our sons, and we believed that travel was the ticket to ensuring that their world view broadened beyond their own four squares. Besides, it gave us an excuse to continue prioritizing what we loved. We went wherever and whenever we could. But when we couldn’t go far away, we took the boys on closer adventures, like the gorges in upstate New York or to a zoo the next state over.

About ten years ago, we happened upon the idea of an annual road trip across the US. A road trip’s flexibility appealed to us as a young family, especially the way it allowed for spontaneous stops along the way. As a new American, my husband wanted to see his adopted homeland and its northern neighbor. To my own shame, I’d been to Albania, but had never been west of Madison, Wisconsin.

The decision launched what has become the defining experience of our family life. We’ve piled into our minivan nearly summer since, with the exception of our trek to Seattle (we flew on expiring miles) and two road trips in tiny cars while visiting relatives in Europe. We’ve gone as far and wide as Vancouver, BC and Maine, Mt. Rushmore and the Green Mountains, Disney and Amarillo, Texas. Our goal is to visit all 50 states and the 10 Canadian provinces (maybe even the territories, too). We’ve made it to 38 and 6, respectively.

Loved ones and acquaintances alike often wonder how we’ve managed with our noisy, messy brood in the car. After all, they’ve seen the boys in action out of the car. Portable DVD players – since replaced by Apple products – always helped, as did rattles, action figures, crayons and activity books when the boys were much younger. We’ve never underestimated the busy potential of a crunchy snack, and we’ve often pleaded with G-d to please, please, please make the boys nap.

We’ve managed potty training, scream-inducing ear infections, precarious car seat escapes, stomach bugs, sibling rivalry, teenage orneriness, and a flat tire on the NJ Turnpike. There have certainly been “Don’t make me stop this car” moments, yet I always say these trips are like childbirth. The gross and the horrible recede from memory once we’ve pulled back into our driveway.

In the days before our recent trip to the Canadian Maritimes, we had to face the hard truth about our minivan. It has given its all for 12 years, but it was no longer up to a ride of several thousand miles. The boys are also growing up and we don’t know how much longer they’ll be able or willing, given their own lives and plans, to come along for two weeks each summer. Perhaps the van’s retirement was a metaphor for the end of an era.

We quickly suppressed such thoughts and accepted that we were either going in my husband’s 5-seater or we weren’t going at all. Wholeheartedly, our three boys, whose legs are far longer than mine, squeezed into the back. Some of the luggage went beneath my feet in the front. It was cramped, but that did not obstruct our view of the wonderful things -- both manmade and created by G-d – we saw along the way.

Like our other trips, this recent journey offered family bonding at its best. The boys may have found a way to wrestle even while stuffed into the back seat, and they got mighty loud. But they enjoyed priceless, uninterrupted togetherness with one another and with their parents. That the trip further fed their curiosity about the world and nurtured their ever-growing sense of adventure are bonuses I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Please, just don’t ask me about the state of the car.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

No Mistakes, Just Experiments

I love the liberating sensation of being out on the wide open highway, especially when I’m driving alone late at night. It’s almost theatrical: streetlamps light the asphalt and memories of old personal dramas take center stage, edging out my usual mental clutter. Right one cue, I start thinking too much, mostly about roads not taken and mistakes I’ve made along the way.

Only the classic rock station – a pleasure I’m denied when my eye-rolling sons are with me -- keeps me from sinking entirely into melancholia. Instead, the songs provide the perfect soul-searching soundtrack and my singing takes me to a younger, unwrinkled place in time.

While on the way home from a wedding a few months ago, I was in the throes of a great song and a slightly embarrassing memory when a garden center billboard jarred me out of my flashback. The sign, which has boasted the same special on arborvitae and lawn statuary for years, offered this to ponder instead:

THERE ARE NO GARDENING MISTAKES. JUST EXPERIMENTS. 

Noooo, I thought at first. But later, I conceded that yes, in gardening, it’s true. I’ve uprooted enough unruly plants to know that gardens give us as many chances to get things right as we’re willing to give ourselves. At that moment, however, I was unable to take the message at face value. Metaphorically, the billboard was wrong.

After all, we’re human. We fill up on mistakes like we’re loading a shopping cart at the market. And in parenting, oy, all the more so! We don’t have the time to cover the moments I wish I could do over with my children. But I’ll mention here only that I’d definitely listen better to what my then young boys were shouting with conviction from the timeout chair and I’d stop myself before offering unsolicited advice to my teens on their summer haircuts.

Our wise sages and holy books teach us to forgive one another our misdeeds. We are enjoined to judge our peers favorably, to always look for the silver lining. Once a year, we spend an entire day recounting our transgressions against G-d and His creations in pursuit of a clean slate. But when we awake the next morning, we are likely to trip over the inability to absolve ourselves.

I forgive my boys quickly, and they forgive me, too, in the miraculous way you do when you love someone unconditionally, and the infractions aren’t terrible. In fact, they don’t even remember that I ignored their timeout rants for the sake of my hearing (and my sanity). I’ve continued to self-flagellate anyway, pounding away at my own heart.

But this summer, everything feels different. I go to sleep each night with hopeful prayers on my lips, only to wake up to news reports of new losses and heightened fear, as if we could ramp up our angst any more. Not even a good song has managed to numb my sadness for long. It seems like an opportune time to quit the concept of foolish regret and throw my energy elsewhere.

I, for one, believe that a garden need not be masterful to be beautiful. Case in point: the $1.60 investment in seed packs I tossed haphazardly into soil containers in May. Despite my lack of careful planning, they have still produced a lovely array of simple flowers bursting with happy colors in pot after pot along our front steps.

And yet, I have learned more, changed more, from the singular packet that produced nothing. I gave it the same watering attention as I did the others. The same sun shone down upon it day in and day out, and yet, it remains a brown jumble of empty soil. Still, I leave it there as a reminder that one dud does not diminish the glory of an entire garden nor the essential goodness of our own well-meaning souls.

It is that row of flower pots that has kept me afloat this summer, enabling me to see something splendid through the fog of my tears. I cannot walk past them without admiring their petals. I pause, too, to thank G-d for the sun and rain that made them blossom so bravely in a world turned on its head.

In this way, I stumbled upon the broader wisdom in that gardening center billboard. Human error is inevitable. Imperfection is an essential part of our fabric. “Experiment” is just code for easing up on ourselves, because our mistakes are not the problem. It is by dwelling on them after we’ve settled our debts that we keep ourselves from moving forward.

Better to spin our missteps into a series of “We tried, now let’s try again” opportunities. Even better, let’s recognize our fallibility as a fount of chances to set things right, to repair the world, or to get as close as we possibly can. Better still, let’s cherish our blessings and pray for peace, and for some peace of mind.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Backyard Legacy

Talk around the cul de sac tipped me off. The former mistress of our home and the former mistress of one of the neighboring split levels were both gardeners of merit, with a little competition running between them, friendly or not I cannot say. Decades earlier, they’d each planted a lilac bush, and the plants grew strikingly close to one another along the property line.

Eventually, one met a natural death, leaving the other to reign in solitary splendor each spring. In time, the two women also left this world, and with them went the possibility of knowing with absolute certainty whose lilac remained. Still, I always believed that we’d inherited it. I alone pruned and watered it, and I never tired of inhaling its intoxicating scent, as if appreciation could lay claim to ownership.

One morning, while sipping my coffee, I noticed two landscapers approach the lilac with shovels in hand. When I realized I was about to witness its execution, I quickly confirmed that I was fully dressed before darting outside to stop them.

The landscapers told me they did not speak English, but my animated gesticulating got the point across. They put down their shovels and pointed behind them. As I strode in that direction, I met my neighbor, who was already on her way to investigate the source of the commotion.

Despite our residential proximity, we did not know one another well and this was a curious encounter in which to become better acquainted. I begged her to let the lilac be. She pleaded with me to let it go so there’d be more room for the children to run and play, a cause I understood completely.



And yet, my heart would not budge. In our microwaveable world, the long-lasting lilac is worth its leaves in gold. Though it is, to be sure, a thing of remarkable beauty, it is also the invaluable payday of patience, faith, and determination. I was thoroughly convinced that, more than space for capture the flag and swing sets and soccer nets, our children needed the lesson of that fifty-something-year-old plant, whether they noticed its existence or not.

Sparing no dramatic detail, I shared with my neighbor the story of its provenance. I waxed on about our predecessors, who planted their gardens soon after this suburban development went up in the mid-1950s and tended them until their bodies gave out.

I suggested that perhaps the men with the shovels could transplant the lilac so that it rested solidly on my property. The move would give her children their grassy swath, while I would continue to tend the lilac, assuming it survived the relocation.

Instead, we somehow reached the wonderful compromise of joint ownership, and decided that it would stay put. The landscapers shrugged and walked back to their truck. Ever since, my neighbor and I have carried on with our separate lives, our shared lilac in the background. The matter has never come up again.

When the aromatic bursts of purple arrive each spring, I prefer to visit them at dawn. No one else is outside but the family of deer that passes through in the early morning. I have the flowers all to myself. I cannot help but wonder how G-d ever thought this gem of a plant up and I stand in awe at His kindness to let it thrive on our simple suburban landscape.

I know that it’s always been about more than the lilac itself and what I want it to mean to my sons. I’d venture that when the women of these houses first embedded their respective plants, they weren’t thinking beyond the lifelong enjoyment of their perennial gardens. But later, as time passed, they likely began to consider their own legacies and what would become of their lilacs down the line.

Inevitably, my neighbor and I will also one day pass our keys to their next owners. I hope that those women and their families will hear the chatter around the cul de sac about their predecessors, neighbors who almost lost the solitary lilac at the confluence of their yards. And I pray that in our names, the new mistresses of what were once our homes will allow no harm to come the lilac’s way.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A City Idyll, in the Heart of the Suburbs

There is truth in the t-shirt adage, Once a Jersey girl, always a Jersey girl, though until recently, I would not have conceded it.

My mother and father, who grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively, fled to the New Jersey suburbs soon after my birth in Manhattan. The lure was typical: home ownership, room to grow, a yard for the children. Most of the families I knew had followed a similar path to our sleepy borough.

My parents brought their marital malaise with them, and I, sensing something, was always just a bit sad. My mother tended her rhubarb and sewed our dresses. My father fixed things around the house and smoked his pipe. To stave off my own brooding, I cooked up precarious adventures that gave them both pause.

After I learned to read, the ever-present stack of library books in my room became my escape hatch. Later on, I began to entwine dreams of Manhattan with the imaginary worlds from those story pages, providing myself with a two-part distraction. We’d often spent Sundays in the city, seeing a Broadway show or going to a museum, but in my adolescence, I suddenly became aware of its magical, limitless, and breathtaking possibilities.

Crossing the George Washington Bridge, I felt my soul lift above my body in expectation. New York had a throbbing pulse I wanted desperately to keep pace with it while we were there. So I fell into the city’s waiting arms with abandon, pledging to flee the suburbs as soon as I could, while befuddling my poor parents, who had made the journey in reverse.

When my best friend and I turned 14, we finally received permission to travel into New York by train, by ourselves. From then on, I came in whenever I could, sometimes with a specific plan and at others, just to tap briefly into the city’s energy. I rarely ventured far from the Public Library, yet I always stayed long enough to believe that the city was where I belonged.

I settled onto the Upper West Side two years after graduating from college, living with a string of roommates in various apartments and later, by myself in a studio. When my husband and I married, we moved into a tiny one-bedroom. We could not stand in the kitchen together if the refrigerator was open, but we had a winding staircase that led to our six feet of rooftop access. If we craned our necks to the side, we could sort of see the river.

We had very little to our names. Still, our Manhattan years were too short-lived. Uprooted by my husband’s residency, we packed our stories and resettled in Queens. I eventually made peace with the move because the F train tethered us to the mainland. Only when work drew us back to the suburbs did I feel like I’d contracted chicken pox a second time. It wasn’t the Garden State’s fault; it was an existence outside the city I dreaded.

Though I commuted in daily, I suffered a withdrawal period nonetheless. It was always too quiet to sleep. Perhaps it was poetic justice for having fought so hard to escape the suburbs in the first place. I missed the corner bodega, too, resenting the drive required to purchase a gallon of milk. But I worried most that I would lose the sense of freedom and wonder the city had instilled in me since my youth.

That was ages ago. We have been back in New Jersey long enough now to know that great stories happen here, too. We’ve embraced our yard, our garden, and our basketball hoop. I’m no longer a commuter, but I’ve also stopped hoarding quarters for the washing machine. Most important, I’ve held onto my fearless city girl voice, while adjusting its volume just slightly for the quieter demands of the suburbs.

Besides, we are thankfully not that far away, because there are days when what I pine for – need, really -- is a good dose of New York. My husband and I even discuss the possibility of retiring there after we’ve finished our carpool tenure, when we might have the time to take advantage of the cultural wonders the city has to offer. Then again, we might stay put. It took us a long while to grow where we were planted, and we aren’t the sort to uproot ourselves easily.

Meanwhile, our sons like Manhattan only in small, specific doses. They love to travel and explore, but ultimately prefer the stillness of the suburbs for the long term. My husband insists that this is not a kind of rebellion on their part, as I first assumed. For them, the city is just another place on the big wide beautiful map of the world. Crossing the George Washington Bridge is no different from crossing any other, and it is surely not an existential exercise on their road to self-discovery.

Or maybe, we have pulled off an amazing feat: raising them in the New Jersey suburbs with a New York state of mind. After all, they know that adventure and magic, if they are willing to look, await them at every corner.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Time Is Theirs

Over the past Memorial Day weekend, we spent a few days with my husband’s cousins near Corning, New York. If you ignore the occasional bear and bat, it is a splendid place and a real breath of fresh air – both literally and figuratively – from the usual pace of our lives.

Since my sons were young, they’ve loved hiking through a creek that runs through an area forest. The water is full of rocks imprinted with fossilized brachiopods. The boys enjoy tracking them down and hauling them up the steep hill back to their cousins’ house.

During this visit’s creek walk, however, the older two stumbled upon a glass Coke bottle from what had been a factory in nearby Elmira. Based on the patent number, they were able to date it to a year between 1939 and 1950.

I must tell you that these two often rib me about my penchant for things old and used. They have sworn that their own homes will feature only modern d├ęcor and no antique tchotchkes whatsoever. Fossils, I guess, will be the exception.

When I inquired as to why, then, they’d bothered schlepping the Coke bottle back from the creek, they conceded that sometimes old is cool. The eldest even buttered me up, telling me that he “must have his mother’s eye for these things.” He spent a good hour researching their find, discovering that it wasn’t going to pay for his college education, just a few slices of pizza.

And so, the boys decided to keep the bottle as a souvenir of an adventure all their own.

To be sure, they had the concept of ownership mastered long ago. Their stuff is sacred and they seek full control over their schedules (basketball before chores). Their way is the right way, right or wrong, and they will crawl into their own space when they feel the need to do so.

What they struggle with is the fact that their mother might possibly want to get in on the game, too. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to convince them that it will not diminish my affection for them, nor is it a poor reflection on my mothering, if I occasionally carve out a little me time. Still, they’ve always been less than accommodating -- I’m their Mom -- and I haven’t been forthright in staking my claim.

But over the course of this recent weekend getaway, by some miracle, everyone was on board with the idea of giving me a few hours to relax by myself. My husband and the cousins took all of the children white water rafting. I didn’t even pretend to protest. I just packed lunches and waved goodbye. To any bystander, it would have been clear this was too good to be true.

They left just after 7 a.m., and I followed soon behind, walking 3.5 miles to the nearest coffee place for a latte. I then drove to the store to pick up drink and snack reinforcements that the boys would need for the evening. I raced through the aisles, also grabbing a few summer camp items, like bug spray and bathing suits, to save myself a shopping trip down the line.

After loading the trunk, I turned the key, but the car stubbornly refused to start. I waited a few moments before trying again. I talked sweetly to it, pleading for compliance. Still nothing. I refused to cry. Instead, I took the keys out of the ignition and walked around the parking lot.

At the dollar store, I picked up a few more camp items and some chip clips shaped like mustaches. I have no explanation for the last purchase other than that I was under duress and not thinking clearly. I returned to the car and tried again to no avail.

A few locals kindly offered to haul out their jumper cables when they noticed me growing moss. I declined, determined to get through this myself, as if I could will the car to start.

Eventually, I caved and called AAA, because the day is only so many hours long and I had relaxing to do. I tried to start the car at periodic intervals until Jesse the Mechanic showed up 70 minutes later. He parked in front of me and asked me to give it another shot. Again nothing. Jesse shrugged. I shrugged.

Then he got out of his truck, sat behind the wheel of my van, and turned the key. Voila! We were up and running. After tossing out a few ideas about what could’ve been the cause (and politely suppressing his opinion on my driving abilities), he jotted down my membership number and sent me on my way.

I was zonked from sitting in the hot car for hours, but I was determined to maximize my few remaining moments of time to myself. I managed to color my hair, do a little writing and read one chapter of the new Joyce Carol Oates novel. Not a complete loss, but when everyone returned home and started telling tales about the day, all I could think was that I’d gotten the short end of the stick.

They saw bald eagles and mergansers and a lovely waterfall. Their arms ached from paddling, but they could lay claim to making their way down the river. They even had a water fight during their break for lunch on the riverbank, and had gathered a day’s worth of inside jokes. On the other hand, I did not have to wear a wetsuit, so let’s call that the silver lining.

I had no one to blame but myself. Of course, the car not starting wasn’t my fault, but what business did I have going to the market for the boys on my day off anyway? I can’t say that my family didn’t give me the freedom; it was I who chose to whittle away at it foolishly. The whole experience sent me a clear message: Don’t complain if you don’t have the guts to follow through.

What I really think, though, is that when it comes to being a mother, sharing is more instinctive than claiming territorial ownership of anything, and that includes time and space. With our busy schedules, moments when we are all together as a family are just as rare a commodity as a quiet moment by myself. The boys are already off in various combinations so frequently without me. I’ll have time to be alone when our nest is empty.

That said, a little peace and quiet is still good for a mother’s soul. But frankly, the walk and the coffee that Sunday morning would’ve been enough. I should’ve joined the gang paddling down the river, the wetsuit notwithstanding.