Friday, October 2, 2015

The Sukkah and the Unicycle

Soon after my husband and son #2 spent the day putting up our sukkah, I turned to my youngest and asked for his help with the decorating. His reply was one of the craziest excuses I’ve ever heard, and that’s saying a lot. The boy has cooked up a few doozies in his day.

“I can’t. I have to build a unicycle,” he said, half listening to me because he was busy making plans.

Though I should have known better, I assumed he was pulling my leg. I mumbled thank you very much without bothering to suppress my sarcasm and went off to hang the decorations alone. But the distinct buzz of power tools, followed by the smell of smoke, interrupted my draping of faux greenery around our little hut. Wonder Woman-like, I flew down off the ladder in search of the source.

I found the garage door wide open, my son kneeling on the driveway while he dismantled his old, broken bicycle with his father’s Dremel.

“What are you doing?” I asked in the way I do when I’m not sure I want to know.

“I told you. I’m building a unicycle.”

“Oh, yeah. That.”

“Believe in me, Ma,” he said, giving me his signature earnest look.

Of course I do, and I reminded him as much. Because this wasn’t the first encounter of its kind, I was also able to maintain calm, gently cautioning him to do his best to keep out of the ER. He grinned, pointing to his safety glasses before sending me back to the sukkah, where I thought less about the decorations I was duct-taping to the walls and more about my son’s sense of purpose. I admit, too, I was happy he wasn’t playing games on the computer.

For him, there will be only the success or failure to transform his defunct bicycle into a functional unicycle. He will likely not recognize the inherent meaning in the process or the bravery at the heart of creative gumption, or even the risk to his self-confidence. I, however, have witnessed all of those things and it’s been remarkable to see the elbow grease he’s devoted to this challenge nonetheless. If he succeeds, I’ll cheer the loudest. If he fails, I’ll console him with complete attention, but failure will not diminish the value in his mother’s eyes of the undertaking itself, nor will it convince me to order a unicycle for him from Amazon, because that is miles away from the point.

There is cause for optimism in his progress. He labored for hours the first day, until black grease stained all the creases on his hands. Though he has caved to occasional moments of frustration since, rubbing his brow in fear of defeat, he has found the courage to keep at it with new wisdom from YouTube and tools borrowed from our friends. He’s now in the home stretch, with plans to bring the almost-unicycle to a friend who owns an auto body shop, where he will weld the final bits together under the owner’s supervision. Until it’s done, we will not know the verdict, but I will join him in believing until the last moment. After all, both the sukkah and his unicycle are constructs of faith, requiring us to notice the complicated nuances and the wonder in the simplest of things.

We have a hurricane coming, so I stole peeks through the slats of our sukkah’s roof as often as I could today, when there were still pockets of dry on a calm, but wet day. Against the darkening sky, I listed what worries me, and what I fear in the world: the disappointments, the possibilities for disaster, the dangers we cannot see. As the slimmest rays of light beamed their way in, I was reminded, too, of what can go right, of how each of us can shine our own way, and of how much of life is devastatingly beautiful.

And I thought to myself: You know what? Putting up a sukkah every fall may be among the highlights of our year, but once in a lifetime, everyone should build a unicycle.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

In the Driveway of Childhood

It’s funny what makes me cry. This week’s trigger was a stack of neatly folded polo shirts. And a travel iron. The travel iron really did me in.

My son kept looking up from the clothing labels with his name on them, offering me his warm, quirky smile before telling me to stop being weird. That no other mothers get like this, that none of them cries when their children leave for a year in Israel.

I texted the mother of a friend of his, and asked her how the packing was coming, and how she herself was holding up. The response was what I expected: She’s sobbing in her cubicle at work. Her officemates are concerned.

I got a text from a friend cautioning me about the scene at the airport, with moms bawling and fathers blessing the offspring who won’t be at the Shabbos table with them for a year. That made me cry even more.

My son finally said I should do what I’ve got to do, and left me to my tears.

While we were shopping, ticking off the last items on his packing list, I caught a glimpse of him when he didn’t notice. I thought of the driveway at the house we lived in when we relocated to Massachusetts during the year I was in the third grade. It was the second to last one on the block of a growing development, after which were only grassy fields and dirt road. We faced a beautiful, tree-shaded lake and picked wild blueberries from the bushes that grew among the birch woods filling our half-acre backyard. But what I remember most is the driveway.

In my eight-year-old mind, its stretch of blacktop went on forever, inclining up from the curb before turning like a bent elbow, levelling off as it approached the garage. I found paradise racing my bicycle around its expanse in fair weather and sledding down its long hill in the winter. When we returned to New Jersey, the driveway of my memory dwarfed – in both length and gravitas -- the one at our new house.

I drove to the Massachusetts house decades later on a whim. It looked exactly as I remembered it, though the development carried on as far as my eye could see. What struck me, though, was the ordinariness of the driveway. It wasn’t particular lengthy or steep, its curve equally unimpressive. But the reality did not diminish how much pleasure I took in the extraordinariness I saw in it as a child, though I had a good laugh at the trick time and perspective had played on me.

Apparently, they play the same one on mothers. I am looking at my son, now old enough and responsible enough to spend a year abroad without me, yet what I see is an infant so small he surely just arrived in the world.

I rarely think of the hard moments that have come since his birth, the unpleasantries that once appeared outsized enough to consume me, but have since faded into brief anecdotes, either humorous or harrowing. Watching him pack, I’m not thinking about his croup or his meningitis scare or the day he escaped from his car seat while we were driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, or the time he refused to get into it outside the La-z-Boy store and we sat in the parking lot for over an hour until he screamed himself to sleep on the curb, or the early teenage years, every minute of them.

I list my parenting regrets in my head, then brush them off because they are a waste of time without the possibility of time travel. Grateful that our battles have been minor ones, I decide most of them come down to me having been too strict about things I now know don’t really matter. Yet there’s something I recall so vividly, it remains unaltered by time and perspective. It’s a what-if-I’d-done-things-differently too loud to ignore.

On maternity leave after a full trimester on bed rest, I couldn’t wait to get out of the house at night when my husband returned home from his pediatric residency shifts every 72 hours. I’d throw a winter coat over my pajamas, hand my first-born to his father, and head out to the two nearby establishments open late at night: a CVS, where I’d buy a Diet Dr. Pepper, and the laundromat, the only warm place with a bench to sit on while I cleared my head.

In retrospect, it sounds pathetic, possibility a bit nuts, but those nighttime outings taught me a lot about myself. As much as I love my children, I realized early on that I need time to breathe by myself, to find space beyond career and home and parenting in order to survive. When I returned to work, however, guilt consumed me and I forgot all about oxygen. Nothing to regret, but something to rectify.

As we weigh my son’s duffels to ensure they do not exceed 50 lbs., I’m thinking it’s time to weigh what I should do next. As he spreads his wings, I’m ready to do the same, to open myself up to long-forgotten possibilities while I continue to raise the two ducks still at home, and to envision what my life will look like when they, too, leave the driveway of their childhood behind.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Solace of a Library

The brick-faced library of my childhood takes up a lot of room in my memory.

It’s mostly because of the books, but it isn’t only because of the books. As a girl, I was always on the lookout for the solace of hiding places and found it nestled among the titles on the library shelves. More than once, the library saved me from sinking into self-pity, the enormous blue globe in its lobby spinning with the possibility of better things to come.

Though I went on to log untold hours in the libraries at university and graduate school, I never took comfort in them the way I did in the library growing up. And it was with guilt, as if I were betraying a lover, that I left the library behind as an adult, becoming a serial buyer of books instead.

I did make a brief return to library life when my sons were little. We would sit together cross-legged on the children’s room floor, reading until our toes tingled and it was time for dinner. Yet, as soon as they aged out of story hour, our visits turned into hasty pop-ins in search of a title they required for school and nothing more.

Once, I considered showing the boys the library I remembered, but courage failed me in the end. I feared the view through my adult eyes would tarnish the nostalgic vision of my youth. I worried, too, that my sons would shrug, unimpressed, and mumble, “It’s just a library,” wounding me in a way they would not understand.

This summer, we hardly speak the same language. My eldest is preparing to leave the nest, my middle is asserting his adolescence, and my youngest is regrouping after a rough year of school by building electronic devices I can’t pronounce. The emotional charge of this trifecta has drained me spiritually and physically, choking my ability to get much of anything done. I meet deadlines by keeping bat hours, writing late into the night. My days, however, are spent adrift in thought, with little to show for my exhaustion.

At first, I cleaned my way through the house as a distraction. I decluttered closets in an attempt to clear my mind. For a brief spell, I even kept ahead of the laundry curve.

But as a person who measures her value by how much she produces in a given day, I was at a loss. Housekeeping did not fill the void. No matter how hard I tried to adjust, to love what is, I fell into a funk. When my husband, not unkindly, told me to get over it, it dawned on me that the library might once again offer salvation.

I began visiting several mornings a week, planting myself at a table with a pile of books, and returning in the evenings with my laptop to write. These visits carved out purposeful islands of time, and I knew they were working their magic because the laundry was piling up and I didn’t care. I crocheted something for the first time all summer, wrote a bit, weeded the backyard garden, and to my husband’s delight, smiled.

Our library isn’t the library of my memory, and I’m no longer looking for a place to hide. Like I did when I was young, though, I keep coming back for the books. But not only for the books, because on the shelves, among the graphic novels and the trade fiction, I have tracked down a part of myself that had been missing for a while.

Turns out you can go home again. The library will be waiting.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Much Ado about a Door

I never expected that our front door would ever matter much to our boys.

Until recently, they ignored it entirely. Even several years ago, when we gave it sudden flair by dressing it in a lovely red called “Claret” and adding bling with a doorknocker I’d picked up on a trip to Budapest, they hardly noticed.

As for the door itself, we once would’ve gambled that the heavy wooden panel – installed in 1957 when the house was built – would outlast us here. But the past winter was harsh and the door lost much of its functionality to the elements. For starters, the door became difficult to open. Cold air, however, rushed in unimpeded through large cracks in the inset panels. Others might’ve replaced it without a thought, but we decided, stubbornly, to take up the challenge of fixing the door instead.

My husband, donning his macho man-about-the-house work clothes, wood-filled and spackled. I selected a deep green shade of paint hailed by designers in the stack of decor magazines on our coffee table. Our door was going to make a statement.

Alas, my selection was better in theory, or perhaps on bigger, fancier houses, or maybe just on those glossy magazine pages. It was bad enough that the paint went on like molasses, but the dark shade highlighted every drip, which then reflected off the glass of the storm door. I tried to ignore these little details. But day after day, the boys told us that the color also gave the slightly creepy illusion that the door was always open and I had to agree with their assessment.

My husband, not wanting to repaint, insisted he liked it, and that it didn’t matter to him what the boys thought of it since they aren’t interested in our opinion of their haircuts. Still, all three of our sons commented on the door’s putrid shade several times a day, and eventually wore their poor father down. I bought a new color, left the can near the front door, and that was that.

The problem was we could not get away with painting directly over the green, which had dried tacky to the touch. Besides, the paint was now so thick the door wouldn’t open at all. We needed to sand back to the original layer – three coats down by our best estimate – before we could do anything. It would take a lot of work, but talk of heat guns and power tools inspired the boys to volunteer. In the end, though, it was my eldest with time on his hands who put in the bulk of the elbow grease.

Wearing a ventilation mask, he used the heat gun to strip layers of paint, one after the next for a total of six – six!!! Patiently, he sanded and primed, taking periodic breaks during which his siblings briefly took up the work. I’m delighted to report that one week later, the door now sports a lovely shade of blue and a new duck-shaped doorknocker. Like wrinkles, vintage nicks and pings give the door character.

That we rescued the door is its own reward, but it also seems to be a kind of repayment for its many years of service – protecting us, and separating our public and private lives. It has witnessed so much of our family history in this house, watching our comings and goings, greeting our guests, and seeing us off to work, school, and everything in between. Now that it’s fixed, it has returned to the business of keeping out the elements as well.

A door is more than a way in and out. It marks time, too, recording not just the past and the present, but also, G-d willing, what lies ahead: the future in which we will continue to raise the boys behind its protective wooden panels, and one day, build a magical palace here for our grandchildren. And as my husband likes to say, we pray this will be the door that will keep us warm when we grow old and wrinkly like two dried up raisins, which probably sounds cuter in Croatian.

The door is a part of who we are. Replacing it was never really an option.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Of Pomp and Circumstance

Each June, the same sweet scene plays out in nursery schools across the country.

To the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” or something more festive, little girls and boys find their spots in dollhouse chairs at the front of their classroom. The audience beams as the children perform a repertoire of songs from the school year and the teacher speaks about the class’ mastery of shapes and scissor skills. The program concludes with the awarding of diplomas, after which the children smile for pictures and doff their mortarboards, a move they’ve rehearsed for weeks.

It’s the kind of ceremony designed to pull parental heartstrings. Though our knees stiffen in the same tiny chairs occupied by our offspring, we do not complain, for we are enjoying the performance too much to notice. We may even cry a few tears, a mix of happy emotion and awe at the hasty passage of time. After all, just yesterday these preschoolers still slept in a crib.

I remember the first graduation I attended for my eldest when he moved up from the two-year-old class to the two-and-a-half-year class at his preschool, a slight progression which nonetheless merited paper caps with tassels and a collation buffet of juice and cupcakes. Though part of me wanted to believe the whole enterprise was silly, the teacher snagged me with an adorable invitation I could not refuse. I dressed my son in a fancy outfit, a button-down shirt with shorts and suspenders. In my memory, he appears preciously grown up, though in the photos he looks more like an extra in The Sound of Music.

That event and the preschool graduations that followed were schmaltzy, but you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone in attendance at any of them who didn’t love every minute. What I know now, which I did not grasp then, was the fact that those graduations were far more than the photo-op floorshows they appeared to be. They had a deeper layer of meaning humming beneath the surface, one I didn’t recognize until many years later, when my eldest son’s high school graduation date stared at me from the calendar.

Preschool graduations are practice runs for all the ones that come after, not for the children, but for the mommies and daddies and grandparents and guardians in the room. They glimmer like crystal balls, giving us a glimpse into a future when the pomp and circumstances will be big and real, testing our parental mettle for the day when we have to let our children move on, not into the next classroom, but out the front door and into the world.

At the graduation this coming Sunday, I expect to be a sobbing mess, which is why I’m writing this now. But please don’t mistake my emotions for sorrow. I know it’s all a blessing. Moments like this make it easier to forget the bumps we hit along the way, the challenges we presently face, and the worries about future unknowns. As my son, who towers a full head above me, embarks on the next leg of his journey, we as his parents step into uncharted waters, too. I pray that we will all have the wherewithal to steady our ships.

Our children may be ours, but they never belong to us. We must love them and raise them to belong to themselves, and when the time comes, we must let them go, our eyes never losing sight of them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bird Watching

Somewhere along the way, we became bird people.

We don’t have chicken coops in the yard, though that’s something I think about often, maybe for when we’re empty nesters. What we do have is multiple bird feeders outside the kitchen window, enabling us to watch the avian comings and goings the way we once viewed television.

The enterprise began when my youngest expressed an interest in birds. As his fixation waned, my husband adopted the hobby. Now he begins his day by looking at the feeders, asking, “Where are my little birds?” He even believes that our large maple tree survived Hurricane Sandy more or less in tact because it is from its limbs that we feed our feathered-friends.

Though I was the last to get on our bird wagon, I have come to love them, too. I watch them as I brew my morning coffee, smiling at them as we take our breakfast together. After years of patience, I exulted in the arrival, at last, of our first goldfinch this month.

The varieties and their diverse coloration paint our view, and in little bursts, the sky comes to life as the birds fly hither and thither, in groups or on solo flights. My eyes light up when they scatter throughout the maple tree like holiday ornaments on the branches, and I adore listening to the woodpecker, whose sounds remind me of click-clacking knitting needles.

Mostly, though, I learn from their instincts. I harbor deep-seated frustration with the squirrels, those furry rodent gymnasts who circumvent the baffle and hang upside down on the feeder, stealing from someone else’s plate. But when that happens, the birds patiently wait on the ground beneath, eating what falls as the squirrels, who lack table manners, drop their scraps below.

The birds are resourceful, too. They build fine homes without the benefit of a Home Depot, spinning twigs and branches and dried up ivy spindles into a comfortable penthouse in which to hatch their offspring. There’s something truly magical in watching them feed their newborns, dropping the bits they’ve scavenged into the babies’ open beaks, their heads tilted back in anticipation.

On the other end of the lifecycle, my husband has had to give more than one bird a heartfelt burial over the years. But we’ve also found nests in our trees, and once, when we still lived in an apartment building, in a planter on our terrace. We had the privilege to do the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird after consulting with our local rabbi, and the process represented a powerful yet wrenching moment of separation for me at a time when our boys were still quite young.

As it happens, we also have plenty of bird tchotchkes throughout the house, including ceramic ones – one for each member of our family – that dangle from the chandelier. The acquisitions began after my mother-in-law passed away. She used to call my husband “her little bird,” and I buy a new one each year on her yahrzeit as a way to honor her. It took my husband a good while to notice, but they are gathering in number, and I do worry that over time our house might come to look like the avian wing in a natural history museum.

Still, there’s nothing like the view outdoors, of the birds in their natural habitat. It’s reassuring on a winter morning, when everything’s painted white and only bare-limbed trees stand tall, to spot a cardinal appear out of nowhere to grab a bite from the feeder, and then again in spring, when the birds return in large number, and we cannot keep the feeders full for long.

I enjoy their music and their grace, but mostly, I admire their determination and sense of purpose, and the gentle way they sail through the air, and the fact that they can fly at all.

And some days, after I’ve fed my own offspring and straightened up our nest, I want nothing more than to take flight with them, looking down on the blessings below.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Life in Lists

A friend lost her father a few months ago. She and I met through our sons, who have been friends for years, and became better acquainted while logging hours in the Little League bleachers. Our lives intersect, but when she suffered that loss, I realized I didn’t know her that well. We’d never had a heart to heart, spent much time together socially, or discussed our families, so I did not know what to expect when I went to pay a shiva call.

During the visit, she talked about her father in a way that deeply touched me. She admired how, to the best of his ability, he’d kept at the life he wanted to live despite the multiple medical derailments he faced in the years before his death. She even discovered a list of professional to-dos scribbled on a magazine by his bedside table in the rehab facility.

For days, I could not get our conversation out of my mind. I later sent her a note to tell her how it had affected me. I hoped that the warmth of paternal tenderness she felt would continue to embrace her as she mourned him. I also shared the fact that my own father had long ago distanced himself from me, and how that wound had left behind a scar that periodically rubs at me, like an old sports injury before a storm.

Her reply has stuck with me since. She told me that there are things in my life she wishes for, though the specifics did not matter. It was the big picture she painted for which I’m grateful.

Neither of us had written from a place of envy. We did not begrudge one another anything. As our thoughts crossed through the ether in that moment, we simply laid out on the table what we were each missing, staring together at the raw open space in front of us.

We are all human, no matter how hard we try to be otherwise. Which means that sometimes, we want more than, or other than, what we have. Our circumstances are what they are, the way G-d mapped them out for us. Some of us embrace our lot. Some of us struggle to accept it. Some of us simply acknowledge what is and isn’t there.

But our longings, like any other emotion, are an inextricable part of who we are. In a way, these absences are what make us whole, motivating us to plod on in order to fill in as much of the emptiness as we can. They push us to succeed professionally, to be better spouses, parents, children, and friends, while encouraging us to find meaning in our encounters with the world around us.

During that shiva call, my friend told me about her father’s remarkable professional accomplishments, and the wisdom he shared with his colleagues and with the wider scientific community. I was impressed, but I’d never be able to scratch at the surface of his research with any degree of comprehension.

I have, however, grasped on tight to the power in the to-dos he jotted down on the magazine at his bedside table. So poignant, I thought, as if his keeping a running list would keep him going, too, as if list-making were the very essence of being human.

I certainly make a lot of them. They are on notepads and torn-open envelopes all over our house, and I know I am not alone. They impose genuine organization and a comforting though false sense of control.

More than that, though, lists – the ones we write and the ones we store in our minds -- are how we chart our daily lives, and how we keep track of our failures and successes. They help us sort our hopes, plans, and secrets. They are also the tally of wounds, regrets, and loves that we scribble on our hearts.

Once, I saw those lists as mountains to scale. The more I crossed off, the more I added, and time always seemed to be running away from me. Since that shiva call, I have managed to view them for what they are: reminders of a full agenda of plans and goals both large (finish my book) and small (buy laundry detergent on the way home from work).

What I check off and what I don’t may one day define who I was and who I was not. For now, though, they are what keep me going.