Friday, December 7, 2012

The Winning Ticket

In the hours leading up to last week’s mind-blowing Powerball drawing, my boys were busy spending their winnings. Each devised his own specific game plan, but the essentials were more or less the same.

First, we would tithe (our yeshiva tuition dollars at work!).

Then we would head to the mall, where we would be allowed to drop an insane yet pre-determined amount of cash on items we’ve longed desired. For the boys, this would translate almost exclusively into Apple products.

From there, my husband would set off for a party at Brooks Brothers. The boys would stock up on American Eagle, then Game Stop, and finally, Brookstone.

I would get a stack of iTunes gift cards for all of them, a tool chest to organize my husband’s gadgets in the garage, and for myself, a vast quantity of socks in very feminine colors. You see, someone keeps making off with mine. They are never in my drawer when I need them.

Giddy with consumerism, we would leave the mall and head to the bank, where we would establish trust funds for the boys to cover their education. On the way home, we would stop at Starbuck’s. You only live once, so we would splurge on Ventis for everyone. After all, we would be celebrating our winning ticket.

Hopefully, after allowing for yeshiva-tuition increases over time, there would be enough money left to install a second sink (the one of my fantasy) in the kitchen.
Their plans in place, the boys slept blissfully on the night of the drawing and dreamed of their posh new lives. But they awoke to find that the newspaper listed numbers that made someone else obscenely wealthy.

Disappointed but not surprised, everyone went off to school and work and I sat down to write. Staring at the blank screen, I wondered what on earth was wrong with me. I was actually relieved. I honestly had no interest in having my numbers chosen. Life as a lottery winner seemed so complicated to me, with its deluge of attention and demands that would set us apart from real people.

This is not to say that I would mind a little bit of a jackpot, something to cushion our day-to-day existence and make some of our smaller dreams possible. But as my father-in-law used to ask my husband, then a child: What, really, is missing from our lives?

Our family was lucky in the post-Sandy aftermath. Our house was still standing and we were all of sound body. All of us -- even the boys – felt a profound sense of gratitude. But soon after, too quickly I believe, the holiday circulars began to pour into the house and the wanting – compounded by the Powerball’s promise of instant wealth – began in earnest.

Yes, my children know well the word “no,” uttered frequently for many reasons that are not limited to the financial. The boys are not particularly greedy or spoiled. Still, it is human nature to want new things, more things, better things, and sometimes that “no” is met with a turbulent response.

I am a fervent worrier, and I often fret that the clutter of “stuff” – both what the boys have and what they wish they did -- has obscured their view of what matters.

I want them to cherish the value of family, friendship, health and freedom over fancier electronics and cooler sneakers.

I long for them to shorten their wish lists and lengthen their to-do lists, the ones that include kindness to their siblings, generosity to others, and a general willingness to participate more fully in the social contract of family life.

But alas, I can only hope that the message will weave its way into the fabric of who they become as they mature, the version of themselves that will one day make a living and G-d willing, parent our grandchildren. For now, I will just have to do my best to stave the harsh current of the season from flooding the bigger picture.

The first step: The next time the Powerball jackpot hits frenzied levels, I will let the rest of my family play their own numbers, but I will not bother to do so with mine.

My contribution will be limited to bringing in the morning paper, the one that reports unsettling events from around the globe, the one posting the numbers that will give me some reassurance of life as usual.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Keeping an Eye on the Storm

It was the eve of Hurricane Sandy and I was on line at Walmart. My cart was full of bottled water, but I’d also picked up camping-strength rain ponchos, thermal underwear, and a package of little candles for my son’s birthday, which we would mark in the aftermath of the storm.

While waiting, I overheard the store manager caution his staff about security issues. This one will be worse than Irene, he said, foreseeing panicked customers rushing in as the drops began to fall. After all, who wanted to believe this would really happen until it was already upon us?

As my chest heaved with anxiety, my first thought – oddly -- was to dye my hair. I threw a box of Clairol Nice ‘n Easy Natural Black #122 into my cart, figuring it would provide the perfect distraction from the perfect storm. I could simultaneously rid myself of grey while settling my nerves before the power went out.

But its real purpose was to convince me that all predictions of meteorological doom were overshot, that normal was right around the corner from that ominous cloud hovering above us.

In the end, though, I spent the day attending to the real business of preparing for a hurricane: stashing lawn furniture in the garage, securing the shed, bringing the couches up from the basement, and hiding the plastic bins that hold my favorite mementos of the boys in the safest, driest place I could think of.

We filled the bathtub in case we needed water to flush the toilets. We positioned buckets near the sump pump and gas cans near the generator. We lined up flashlights, batteries and radios on the dining room table and a stash of crackers, peanut butter, and water bottles on the kitchen counter. Both cars had tanks full of gas and our cell phones were completely charged.

We were as ready as we could be for a futile battle against nature.

All we could do then was to wait for Sandy to hit. While my husband fielded calls from patients, the boys fixated on the news, staring with fear and disbelief at the Seaside Heights boardwalk – the one we visit every year during Pesach break – which had already disappeared beneath the tide. I gazed out the window at the gradually darkening sky.

Like clockwork, the heavens opened at 6 p.m., and in no time at all, the power clicked off. As if curtains had been drawn, the sky went Natural Black, except for periodic flashes from the arcing power lines. The winds raced around the house, howling at us angrily as we cowered together on the couch in the living room. We turned on the battery-powered lantern and began our rotating shifts to check if water was seeping into the basement.

A sudden crash shook us. Our glorious maple tree had surrendered two massive boughs that slammed against the back of the house. Our barbeque toppled onto the patio, scuttling further along as the wind blew. My husband and our eldest son ran outside to bring it indoors, fearful that it would travel and wreak damage elsewhere. Those thirty vulnerable seconds they were out in the elements left me entirely unhinged.

An emotional haze hovered above us that evening and continued well into the morning. We awoke to the eerie hush of power outages, road closures and downed trees. In the background, generators rumbled and branches snapped, but mostly we heard our own breathing in the cold.

We invited neighbors over to join us for birthday cake. Perhaps too pedantically, we reminded the birthday boy that he’d been blessed to wake up in a house still standing with all of its inhabitants unharmed. He then reminded us that as a teenager, he would like to spend his day slothfully lying about since there was little else to do anyway.
Time, in fact, took on a surreal quality for all of us. Without school or work, we dozed when we dozed and awoke when we awoke, though it was by no means relaxing. We ticked off the hours of daylight during which we could tend to tasks around the house and the days until power would be restored. Still we wonder how many weeks before we return to normal and how long -– months or years -- before the areas hardest hit once again resemble themselves.

For days, I took frequent walks around the neighborhood, gasping at the property damage, the uprooted trees and sidewalks, the broken roofs, the smashed cars, the battered siding. I stopped to chat with those I met on my outings, and we shared stories about lives interrupted. We discussed gas rationing and empty store shelves, but mostly we expressed gratitude for having been spared the worst of it.

When the landscaper arrived to remove the tree branches from our yard, he agreed with me that they represented a miracle. That they hit our house with such great force yet broke nothing – no shattered windows, no structural damage – was uncanny. The tree, too, seems like it will survive the amputation. It is host to the feeder from which we have long fed the neighborhood birds, and my husband is convinced that one kindness led directly to another. At the very least it was blessed luck.

Our youngest invited his best friends to join him in overseeing the tree removal process. They donned safety glasses and gloves, marveled at the whir of the power saw, and reveled in lugging bits of wood onto the truck. For their efforts, they each received a few rounds from the largest branch, souvenirs from the storm and a reminder that Mother Nature is a force to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile, I mourned the branches whose sudden absence spoke to our insignificance in the larger scheme of G-d’s universe.

Thank G-d and PSEG, our power returned. Family and friends who still sat in cold, dark houses came to stay. Once our lights came on, we noticed all the dirt and leaves that had made their way into our rooms, but somehow we did not mind, even in the presence of guests. We just looked around at all we have to be grateful for in this world.

At last, our boys went back to school this morning. Since the traffic lights are not all up and running, the bus will bring them home early, well before dark. Everyone we speak with is tired, in various stages of recovery, and still reeling from the storm. Winter has not yet even begun.

The weather predictions for a nor’easter this week are daunting, further exhausting us. They are telling us to stock up again, warning us to get ready for more. Most of us cannot even fathom the potential impact of another storm. We may not be so lucky this time. For those already displaced, more wind and rain are surely unimaginable.

In the tumult of preparations and the storm’s aftermath, I realized that I never got to color my hair. I remain a natural black with a very natural streak of grey, a swath now larger after the past stressful week and growing even as I write when I consider what lies ahead. It is just as well, though, for the normal I’d hoped that box of Nice n’ Easy would bring will be a long time coming.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Everything Is Shrinking

This year, I swore things would be different.

The week before Rosh Hashana, I made my way to the kosher butcher and stocked up. Though I feared the sticker shock, what I really dreaded was having to wait on those crazy long lines while making idle chit chat. How wonderful it would be, I imagined, to simply shop in my garage freezer when it came time to cook over the course of this festival-filled month.

With carefully constructed menus in hand, I tackled the rest of the legwork in advance, too. Barrels of onions and potatoes and apples stood at the ready in my kitchen. I refilled the flour and sugar bins, and hoarded the few remaining bags of Trader Joe's pareve chocolate chips in my pantry.

Like a marathon runner in the weeks leading up to a big race, I polished my plan until I felt prepared, pumped for the culinary extravaganza that lay ahead.

When the time arrived to begin cooking for the New Year, I donned my favorite lounge wear and an apron, turned up the music, and got to it. First into the oven went the big ticket items, like the turkey breasts and briskets. As they cooked, I tended the stovetop fare, including vats of chicken soup and sweet and sour meatballs.

I monitored settings on appliances throughout the kitchen like a general in a military command center. Bells rang, lights flashed, and timers buzzed. Dishes cooled on every available surface.

Slowly, our menu came to life. It was magical surveying the traditional holiday foods that connected me with both generations of my family and Members of the Tribe around the globe. Their aromas reminded me, in a very tangible way, that I am forging for my boys an edible connection with their heritage.

The oven timer beeped suddenly, snapping me out of my reverie. I set the brisket atop the stove and peeled back the foil in horror. The 6.3 lb. roast that had cost me a mortgage payment had practically disappeared. Only hours earlier it had filled the pan. Now it was nothing more than a cocktail hors d'oeuvre, but no tinsel-wrapped toothpick was going to save me.

This scene repeated itself several times before I finally turned off the oven, sending me into a state of panic. There were so many guests to feed. My boys alone could be counted upon to make a significant dent in each dish. I had no choice but to defrost a twin of every item I'd already cooked.

Before I could say kreplach, my freezer stash of meat was gone. I had depleted in two days what I'd hoped would last the entire month.

Glancing around the kitchen, I noticed that everything else appeared to be shrinking, too, though not by my own hand. The stack of egg cartons was noticeably shorter. The heap of potatoes had also dwindled, all victims of the brothers with voracious appetites. Only the Trader Joe's pareve chocolate chips, concealed in a black plastic bag, remained undepleted.

The boys were metabolizing our food supply faster than a speeding train.

So much for all of my advanced planning. I ran back to the produce market and the supermarket and even to the butcher. I baked and roasted more than I could ever imagine us eating. And yet, as we cleared up after Rosh Hashana, the bounteous meals had shrunk to only a few small containers of leftovers.

Thinking while I washed the dishes, I resolved to take a different approach to the remaining holidays. I decided to tackle them one at a time instead of compulsively over-planning, even if it meant making idle chit-chat on some very long lines. It seemed that there would be no other way to keep up, especially with the eating habits of three insatiable boys.

That night as I scrubbed, my husband measured our middle son, marking his height on the wall in the kitchen adjacent to my cookbook shelf. All of that disappearing food had, thank G-d, been a nourishing blessing. But lo and behold, it had also worked wonders, enabling my boy to grow significantly in just a short while.

Excited to be within an inch of his not very towering mother, he exclaimed, "Mommy, you've shrunk!"

He and his brothers will, G-d willing, continue their climb north. Meanwhile, I will keep cooking -- faster, more often, and in greater quantity than ever before. Though I will appear to be shrinking, I will simply be looking up in wonder at the faces I once gazed down upon longingly.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rounding Up

We are on the threshold of Tishrei, the beginning of a beautiful month of Jewish holidays. It is the New Year, a time for self-reflection and thoughtful resolutions, as well as my seasonal penchant for list-making.

True to human nature, my first list details the blessings I'd like for the coming year, requests that rarely vary: health, gainful employment, happiness, nachas from my boys, and that perennial favorite, fitting into a size 6 pencil skirt.

A second list itemizes what I hope to improve in myself. These are challenges that involve overcoming inveterate personality traits, but I really try to tackle them anyway.

There is a third list, a compilation of the sins I remember committing as well as a few transgressions I suspect I may possibly have committed. I throw those in just in case. Who wants to play games this time of year?

And then there is the fourth: a detailed list, by meal, of what I will be serving to friends and family. Let's face it. We may all be praying and repenting in earnest, but when we have a free moment, we are also thinking about holiday food.

So I am busy planning impressive meals, even if the only thing my children will eat is challah and schnitzel. Hence the onset of exhaustion levels concomitant only with yom tov preparations. As such, I tend to goof in the kitchen here and there under the strain.

Like the time I was so distracted by other tasks that I ignored the oven timer. I ended up overbaking the potato kugel to the point of disintegration, forcing me to toss it along with the pan from which I could not extract it.

For the Shabbes of one three-day yom tov, I zealously added so much barley to the cholent that I was roused in the night by the sacrificial aroma of a burnt offering.

On yet another occasion, I forgot the sugar in our favorite cake, the one I have baked so many times that I no longer (so I thought) need to glance at the recipe. And I have done this, too: oiling the Bundt pan for an apple cake with the garlic-flavored baking spray.

Sometimes I am lucky enough to catch my mistake in time to remake the dish. Other times, however, my gaffe comes to light too late in the game. But I know soon enough what has happened -- oh, I know -- because I catch my dear husband pursing his lips as he chews, too afraid to tell his sleep-deprived, overextended wife that something is terribly, horribly wrong.

Lord help me when it is my children who are the first to make the discovery. Guests tend to be more gracious, hoping to spare me the embarrassment.

When it happens, I try to shrug it off, but I am human and nonetheless turn beet red. And yet, when I am so very exhausted that I haven't the energy even to blush, I begin to laugh a slap-happy sort of laugh. It starts small, then expands to consume all the air in the room. It is genuinely cathartic. Sometimes it ends as a snort.

This year, I girded myself for an entirely new batch of culinary faux pas when I set to cooking. Not wasting any time, I baked enough challah to get us through Simchat Torah. I was so proud to have that big ticket item crossed off my list a full two weeks before the start of the holidays that I brazenly wrapped the loaves and went to bed, planning to stack the freezer early the next day.

Alas, when I returned to the scene, I discovered that I'd braided them all. Not a round challah in sight. I shook my head in disbelief, throwing a one-two punch in my own direction. When was I going to get everything done? How could I have been so off the mark? I crossed off the check next to challah on the menu, sprinkled on a little more self-deprecation, and with a sigh of exasperation, began pulling ingredients out of the cabinet.

Then something inside me made me stop short. Luckily, I'd caught the error of my ways before anyone -- myself included -- had time to taste its bitterness. The shape of the challah really made no difference. What I needed was a do-over on the message I'd sent myself.

So I sat down and neatly rewrote the menu on a clean page, adding ROUND in big letters next to challah. After all, I am as entitled to a clean slate and the sweetness of the season as the next girl.

Sure, I rebaked the challahs, not because I had to, but because I longed to reshape that regrettable moment.

Which leads me to think I should keep a fifth list. This one would track mistakes that at first seem to spell the end of the world but soon lose their edge, thanks to a little faith, some hearty humor, and a bite of what is on list number four.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Driving Lesson

In accordance with our family's summer tradition, we took the boys on a meticulously orchestrated two-week road trip this past August. Because the experience is by design less about our destination and more about the adventures along the way, we are always thrilled to integrate pleasant but unexpected detours into the plan as we go.

Like every family hitting the highway, we happen upon less than desirable digressions as well. While these range from petty annoyances to more problematic inconveniences, they tend to serve up some of the most memorable moments of the trips. Sometimes, they even provide meaningful life lessons that we bring home like souvenirs actually made in the U.S.A.

We felt the full impact of that sentiment just outside Pittsburgh last week as we were preparing to head home.

My husband took the van for a little pre-trip snack while I walked with the boys up the street to a Get Go, a well-equipped convenience store. With the tank full, he soon joined us, parking the car in the lot. The boys hit the bathroom, bought drinks and selected RedBox movies for the ride.

We all moved sluggishly, dreading the return to our scheduled, busy lives. Vacation was over and it was time to go home.

But the car had other plans. It, too, was not quite ready to head back to New Jersey. Like its family, it had little interest in revisiting the days of shuttling to and from school and lessons and practices or wrestling with oversized shopping carts at Costco. Who could have imagined that a Toyota Sienna had feelings?

I took the boys back inside -- out of the heat and away from all those moving cars. We took note of the ironic Get Go tagline: Get In. Get Out. Get Going. My dears, we weren't moving. Under my breath, I uttered a quick prayer that it please, please, please be nothing more expensive or complicated than the battery.

Deep down, though, I understood the van's emotional response to our vacation's end. I shared its eagerness to get back on the open road, to chase the wind and allow the insouciance that travel affords to consume us.

Yes, I called AAA anyway. Meanwhile, my husband ran up the road to a conveniently located AutoZone, from which he returned with battery-powered jumper cables (the very same ones we'd forgotten at home). As my youngest hovered nervously, he set them in place and voila! The car turned over.

Then it died....again. The next attempt produced nothing but a screeching sound that signed the battery's death certificate. I called AAA back to confirm that their roadside assistant had a battery on board.

"Yes, ma'am. Our trucks are always equipped," the agent assured me.

After a not unusual wait of slightly more than an hour, we giggidly greeted the repair man as he parked astride our van. The gas fumes combined with the sweltering heat sent the boys back inside once again for drinks, making themselves comfortable at the little tables in the airconditioned store. One played with his Rubiks cube. The others investigated which snacks were kosher.

I just held my breath, then bought a scratch-off lottery ticket.

The good news was this: It was, in fact, just the battery. The bad news was that AAA trucks are, occasionally, not always so equipped. The repair guy had used the last one on his previous call. But our roadside hero left and returned in a flash. We were set to leave in no time, finally fulfilling the Get Go promise to Get Going.

Our automotive delay left us with the odd sensation of hovering between two states of mind: vacation and reality. Though of the less desirable sort, this unplanned distraction surely had us thinking. We began to wax nostalgic as soon as we left the parking lot, already missing the freedom of the journey while supressing our anxiety about what awaited us at home.

While the boys watched their movies, my husband and I gathered our composure and compiled the lessons learned while packed in a van with the boys for two weeks as we made our way more than halfway across the country.

Here is our list:

Whether at home or on the road, always have in hand what you need to keep your battery -- both the one under the hood of your car and the one that sits somewhere between your heart and your stomach -- charged.

Every break from the every day, be it long or brief, local or remote, is a gift.

Don't leave the wisdom garnered on a journey behind in the hotel room.

Family adventures are limited and priceless, so take too many pictures, especially if your children insist you should not.

Never speed up time. It passes quickly enough without human intervention.

And finally, this pearl: Pay your AAA bill on time.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Clearing House and Mind

With the August sun bearing down upon me, I spent this past week cleaning. I don’t mean your average sweeping and dusting kind of cleaning or your mother-in-law is coming cleaning or even find every crumb pre-Pesach cleaning. I mean scorched earth, take no prisoners, it’s like we’re moving cleaning.

But this particular cleaning cycle was less about dirt and more about the things that have cluttered up my life. The time had come to simplify, to have less and to breathe more. My intention was to empty shelves and closets, finally making the hard decisions about what should stay and what should go. In the process, I’d hoped to clear my mind, too.

Armed with a case of garbage bags and a few cartons, I set to work.

I started with the library in the den. Letting go of books - my beloved books! -- meant determining which ones really mattered to me and which ones did not. They’d long been a happy conglomerate, a collection gathered over the course of a reading life. Staring at the teeming shelves, I felt like a surgeon readying a patient for an amputation.

Some choices were black and white. College textbooks and the skinny paperback on the metric system that I bought at the fifth grade Scholastic book fair, for example, spelled an unemotional goodbye. A hardback edition of Little House in the Big Woods, a gift from the Waldenbooks store manager after a shelf fell on my eight-year-old self, was an unquestionable keeper.

The sports-themed, much-read paperbacks from the boys, so symbolic of these young years of their lives, presented a struggle. In the end, my eldest pointed out that they would be available in digitalized versions for my grandchildren down the line. The boys chose, instead, to cling to their favorite picture books, like Everyone Poops and Pete’s a Pizza. By the time we were done, we had filled two cases.

With a handle on the den, I moved down to the basement. I tossed a stack of shoe boxes after transferring the miscellany of photos they contained into albums. I sold the rocking chair in which I’d rocked my babies, and gave away the foosball table, once a popular novelty that had lately been taking up valuable space. Afghans torn beyond recognition went to needle crafters patient enough to fix them and the “Dora the Explorer” videos to families with working VCRs.

My husband began to fear what he might find at the curb upon his return home each evening.

A friend visiting for the weekend helped me with my own closet. Her message was clear: What is too big, I should hope never to wear again. What is too small will be out of style by the time it fits me. I rehung what remained – not very much indeed – and bagged the rest to give away.

Even the boys got in on the action. We tackled their closets and bookshelves, their toy chests and desks. It was they, in fact, who cheered me on when I decided to send the foosball table packing. In the process, we each became all too aware of how much excess was weighing us down.

The laundry is still daunting, but now there’s less of it. My sons see the empty space where clutter once stood and realize how many more friends they can have over to watch football. And I have reclaimed a carpeted area on which to play Xbox Kinect Soccer with my husband (he always wins) and to watch him play with the boys (they always win).

Throughout the process, we took evening breaks to watch the Olympics. Still, almost magically, our living room filled up with garbage bags designated for the charities coming to collect them. As the pick up deadlines loomed, the score from “Chariots of Fire” began to play in our minds, and before we knew it, our bag tally rivaled the Team U.S.A. medal total.

Decluttering should be an Olympic sport. After all, the process began with pole vaulting over piles of unneeded accessories and turned into a long-distance relay. There was some synchronized swimming, too, as we made our way through the muddy waters. Like a lithe high diver, we took a leap of faith, believing that we would get to the bottom of it all.

Summer is now in the home stretch, the final sprint toward the school year and shorter days. We are off soon for our annual family road trip which, not unlike clearing out a house, is about simplifying, moving forward, and figuring out what really matters. But at least we will, G-d willing, return to a reasonably clean, more manageable house.

If you are interested in receiving daily updates from the field about our family adventures, please email me at mypaperedworld@gmail.com and I will add you to the distribution list for those posts.

Enjoy the rest of your summer.

Friday, July 13, 2012

If You Give a Girl a Checklist

In the early weeks of summer, I found myself fantasizing about all the things I would accomplish in the extra hours these longer days have to offer.

Like a child, I set a mighty weight upon the season’s shoulders, expecting it to hold more promise than its mere two-month cycle could possibly contain. But unlike the learn-to-do-flips-against-the-wall sort of goals of my children, my July-August expectations tend to be of the fix-it-sort-it-organize-it ilk.

Hey, a girl’s entitled to dream…

My bubble burst quickly, though, and I have been forced to accept the harsh fact that a summer day is still a mere twenty-four hour period, just like its fall-winter-spring cousins. I hardly manage to squeeze in my regular work and family obligations, let alone painting the den and rearranging the book shelves.

Despite my best intentions, little distractions that devour time by the mouthful have been popping up all over the place.

For example:

While writing an article, I stumbled upon the word lammergeyer in the dictionary. Eurasian vultures, in case you’re wondering. My eyes continued to play pinball on the page until I happened upon the only slightly more useful lambrequin, which I learned is a sort of valance. What I got out of that little exercise was writer’s block.

I closed the computer and popped outside for a breath of humid air to clear my mind. Scanning the yard, I realized that the pine trees were shedding needles in the brutal heat. I decided to water them, but the hose, I quickly discovered, had a leak and I had to table that plan.
On the way back to the house, I checked out the side garden and noticed that the deer had decimated the flora. Determined to put an end to the all-you-can-eat breakfast, I grabbed a shovel and my gardening gloves from the garage, and set out to conquer the hostas. Once they were gone, I could see that the prairie grass had taken over. I pulled that up, too.

With piles of discarded greenery to gather, I left to fetch garbage bags from the basement. Since the load in the washing machine had finished while I’d lingered outdoors, I scrubbed the dirt from my nails and opened the dryer, which I found full of towels. I folded them and put the wet wash in to dry before grabbing the bags to clean up the mess I’d made in the garden.

Before heading upstairs, I selected a few items from the pantry from which I planned to concoct a reasonable dinner. While dropping them on the kitchen counter, I smelled something funny. My investigation revealed a wet rag of vague provenance among the potatoes in the wicker basket on the floor. In a house of boys, that alone wasn’t enough to raise an eyebrow, but it did require me to empty the basket and sort the tubers, leaving a trail of potato dirt on the kitchen floor.

I swept, of course, and decided to wash the floor, too. I went back to the laundry room to rinse out the mop and empty the bucket in the slop sink, but in the process, managed to soak myself with dirty floor-potato mud water. I tossed my filthy clothes into the washing machine and ran upstairs to get dressed again.

En route, I broke my Golden Rule: Never look in the boys’ rooms while trying to accomplish something else.

There was a silver lining to my misstep, however. I managed to solve the mystery of my missing coffee mugs. After making their beds, sorting their laundry, and discarding a trail of snack wrappers (no, I don’t let them eat in their rooms), I looked up and noticed how nice the place would look if I just added a lambrequin above their windows.

Before I knew it, it was almost time to pick everyone up from camp. The day had come and gone. I looked over my checklist – twice! – but there was nothing I could cross off. Not one item. I’d accomplished nothing.

I sat down on the edge of the bed and took a few deep breaths, grateful that at least my distracted dictionary trolling hadn’t been entirely for naught. While gazing out the window, I could have sworn I saw the afternoon breeze carry my ambitious agenda off into the distance.

So I made myself a cup of iced coffee and tried to come to terms with this Summer of Distraction. After all, I may as well find some way to use those extra hours of daylight.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ice Cream for Dinner

The calendar passed into June when I wasn’t looking, so now I’m busy wrapping teachers’ gifts and ironing labels onto the waistbands of camp shorts at warp speed. Though there are still finals to take and essays to write, summer is about to be crowned king. You can practically wrap your hands around the excitement pulsing through the house.

What I love most about summer is what goes missing. Evening extracurricular activities come to a halt. I can stow my nagging voice that asks if homework is finished, tests have been studied for, permission slips signed. For two whole months, I can just be that cool mom who shouts “Nice shot!” from the kitchen window.

On the other hand, what I dread most about summer is what goes missing. Clearly defined bedtimes become a thing of the past. Schedules, those backbones of structure, suddenly bend and flex. In their absence, the fine line between chaos and order ends up with sunscreen in its eyes.

Still, I know how therapeutic it can be to let a little air out of our extensively programmed bubble, despite the potential to throw our lives into disarray. As the stress of school recedes into memory, the house becomes more disorganized, yet more peaceful. The boys are better rested, too, now that they can slough off sleep naturally, not on the mad dash to the school bus stop.

Like sunflowers, they grow taller as July chases August. Their muscles become more defined, their shoulders broader, from hours in the pool and on the basketball court. They glow, their skin bronzed with youthful exuberance. To my amazement, they also mature, because there is opportunity to dream dreams and imagine the impossible, activities for which exams and practices leave no time.

The older they get, the faster the school years seem to fly. Suddenly, my first grader is finishing his freshman year of high school. My toddler is entering middle school and his baby brother is right behind him. Kiddie pools are history, though water balloons have not been entirely eclipsed by teenage ennui.

For now, my boys are still Boys of Summer. As each new school grade chips away at their youth, the summer hiatus helps them to cling to it a little longer. These hot months compose a sweet, sticky moment that slows down time long enough for them to enjoy the magic and wonder of their days.

I remember the exact instant when that feeling first escaped me, when that last bit of my youthful spirit fled in the night. I initially embraced its absence, naively thinking it a sign of my arrival at independence and adulthood.

Then I woke up one Monday morning at the end of June and realized that nothing had changed while I was sleeping. It was not the first day of a two-month break. Work just picked up where I’d left it the previous Friday. Summer had come, but it no longer intended to transform my day-to-day existence.

Gone were those carefree hours catching fireflies, running barefoot through the sprinkler as the blades of grass tickled the balls of my feet. Responsibility had replaced insouciance, clouding that part of me that secretly longed to chase down the ice cream truck and build a sandcastle. Out of necessity, I soon learned to forget all of the promise that summer once held.

These days I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future, about how my children will do in school and how they will fare in the world. So I struggle to let the summer pass unscathed by my worries. I allow the boys to play basketball until the sun goes down and to stay up late watching movies. I ignore the muddy footprints left behind as the screen door slams again and pay no heed to banisters sticky from melting ice pops.

Unbeknownst to them, the boys exude an aura of freedom, and for me, it is summer’s greatest gift. This time, I intend for their shouts of joy to jar my memory of the magic that can still be a part of my adult, mature, responsible life. Rather than mourn those feelings of wonder that long ago escaped me, I hope to recapture them, like fireflies in a jar at dusk.

I will poke holes in the lid to keep them alive, setting the jar on the counter as I offer the boys ice cream for dinner. And then I will join them.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Band of Brothers

Now that the cheesecake and blintzes are behind us, I started thinking about a few non-dairy matters that came to mind over Shavuot.

While we were reimagining that earth-shaking moment when we stood together beneath Mount Sinai, I began to wonder what it would have been like if I’d actually been there at the original Matan Torah with my crew. The very thought stirred the beginnings of a debilitating headache.

Sadly, my creative imagination cannot control itself, so it carried me back to the desert despite my protestations.

I found myself among an endless sea of men and women swaying in a spiritual trance, their hands reaching heavenward. A palpable energy charged the atmosphere. We were quaking in anticipation. This was a defining moment for us as a people. Nothing would ever be the same.

But I looked down and the bubble burst. None of this seemed to register with my boys. Not a blip of expectation was pulsing through their veins.

Rather than awaiting their birthright with open arms, they were instead indisposed, which is to say they were verbally sparring. At first, I tried to ignore them, keeping my focus on Moshe’s gradual descent from above. Then I pretended the boys belonged to another family, but did not expect to pull that one off for long.

Meanwhile, their high velocity harrumphing towards one another continued. I scanned the crowd, anxious that others were disturbed by the ruckus, but no one seemed to be. Shrinking into myself anyway, I could not help but note that all the other children were silent.

Maternal curiosity being what it is, I listened in to hear what my sons were saying, distracting myself from the scene at the top of the mountain. I was stunned by the wealth of possible ways one can express the fond sentiment “my brother is stupid” in English. I shhed them, but that did no good. They were either ignoring me or simply could not hear over the bolts of lightning.

Oh boy, I thought, steeped in my own embarrassment. They have no shame. It’s not like we were back home in our own tent. Every member of our people – generations past, present and future -- was huddled together with us, and my crew was missing it all. Quickly, I put these considerations by the wayside as the situation deteriorated.

The name-calling had descended into the realm of poking and prodding, while the crowd – luckily – had eyes only for those heavy tablets Moshe was now schlepping down from heaven in our name. For a moment, I was dismayed when I learned that “thou shalt not needle thy brother” had not made it to the Top Ten.

Before I could cry out “I will do and I will listen,” we reached rock bottom over in our corner. The poking and prodding had transformed into full-blown wrestling. I was deeply grateful that the crowd was busy accepting the commandments, leaving me reasonably convinced that we had not been noticed at all. Still, I dipped my head in shame.

Most painful to me, though, was that the boys had squabbled their way through the show of a lifetime. I mourned the fact that so much had come and gone without a moment’s acknowledgment by their quarrelling selves.

Then, suddenly, I caught the eye of another mother in the crowd. She arched her eyebrows at me in solidarity, and I realized she had seen everything. But wait. She began to shrug her shoulders, and with the swoop of her palm presented to me the truth I’d been unable to see before: her children, too, were in the midst of a sibling confrontation.

Huh, I wondered.

It was almost contagious. One by one, mothers began to eye one another, each of us silently saying the same thing. Funny, how we were all blinded by our own children’s antics. Looking around more clearly, I took note that the only perfectly behaved children were the ones who were allowed to bring a DS to the ceremonies.

Turning back to the spiritual scene at hand, I let go of my embarrassment and took it all in, briefly allowing myself to be filled with the power of the awesome moment. Shame, I realized, that I’d let myself be so distracted.

As we began to scatter and head back to our tents, I overheard my boys say to one another, “Guys, wasn’t that cool?” as if they hadn’t been fighting the entire time. As if they’d witnessed anything.

It is possible, I realized, that they’d been paying attention after all, that I’d only magnified their little spat into something dramatically Shakespearean…or biblical.

“Yeah, bro,” I hear them continue. “Let’s go get some ice cream.”

“Later, Mom.”

Later, boys.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The End of a Ritual

When our boys were little, bedtime rituals were a sweet treat I savored at the end of each day. They involved all of the usual – the reading of stories, the singing of lullabies, some snuggling, and plenty of kisses to noses and foreheads and puffy little cheeks.

After the singing, I would ask G-d to grant the boys a few things. First on the list was their father’s metabolism. The next item was my hairline. Last, though surely not least, I would humbly request that all of their challenges be surmountable with minimal angst.

I’d leave their rooms, only to be called back moments later for one more thing, then another: an urgent question that had to be answered, a riveting tale from the playground that could not wait to be told in the morning, or that old standard, a parched throat that desperately required a glass of water.

Then, suddenly, something changed.

My eldest had just returned home exhausted from a late soccer practice. After showering and inhaling a dinner fit for three, he announced that he was heading to bed. On his way up, he turned to me and gave me his lunch order. I promised I’d be right up.

A few minutes later, I poked my head into his room as he was turning off his reading lamp. He rolled over and muttered something I presume was goodnight. I asked if he wanted me to sing, and he replied that no, he was good. I asked about his day, and he croaked out an I’m so tired, mom. I just stood there, staring at the back of his head.

No singing? No tales from the day? Okay, I haven’t exactly tucked him in for years, but what kind of ritual was that? This was the last bastion of his little boy-ness. Everything else about him was solidly young man. I was simply not ready to let this one go.

I managed to sneak a kiss on his temple, even as my heart and my stomach were changing locations within me.

What I needed at that moment was a strong cup of cinnamon tea, so I stumbled down to the kitchen. As the bag steeped, I sat astride a laundry basket of my first-born’s clothing, wondering how we’d jumped so quickly from receiving blankets to all things American Eagle in men’s sizes. I knew only that I’d been made redundant.

Abruptly. Unexpectedly. And, in my book, prematurely.

Wow. It stings, I tell you.

At first, I believed my pink slip had come from out of the blue, but I soon had to face the music playing in my gut. I may be sad. I may be indignant. Even my eldest may have an occasional pang (though he’d never admit it) for his younger self.

But here it is: Bedtime rituals are simply not built to last until the boys leave for college.
While I consider this fact for a spell, I am called from out of the darkness:

Hey, Mom?

My spirits lift. I practically skip up the steps toward his room. For that instant, I am again hopeful.

Do you have any blue ballpoint pens I can take to school tomorrow? I’m all out.

Really? That was it? He’s got to be kidding!

Back I sink, promising to leave a pack for him on the kitchen table, right next to the box of Fruity Pebbles he takes for breakfast.

At least there’s that drop of little boy left in him. For now, anyway, I still need there to be.

(Happy Mother’s Day!)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Our Garden

An explosion of color from the garden.
Spring has delivered another batch of color and sound to our little corner of New Jersey. I awake to the whip of the sprinkler, which silently waters the garden but pings its way loudly across the shingles of the house. Bird songs provide the sound track for my morning coffee as I stare out the window to spot what has blossomed overnight.

If I ignore the high pollen count, these are blissful moments to cherish.

When we moved into this house, it wore a sad pall after more than a decade of neglect. Though I will save the tale of woe and repair for another post, suffice it to say that our friend Jeff lovingly called the place a “dump” upon first inspection.

But it was the state of the large garden that unsettled me most. This house was about to anchor me --- a city girl at heart – right in the thick of suburbia, and I wanted the silver lining: the regal boughs of a glorious maple, the swath of green grass blowing in the summer breeze, and the raucous garden exploding with color.

There were four-foot tall weeds with an endless intestinal network of roots that I tried in vain to yank out of the ground. They resembled a jungle in a Rousseau painting and I spent more than an entire day conquering them. Even now, so many years later, I catch a small one popping up and pounce immediately, lest it get the best of me.

Once I cleared the area, I positioned two burning bushes at either end. They provide a spiritual anchor to the garden, and their bright red leaves in autumn make my heart leap out of my chest. It is shameful, but without seeking expert guidance or solid botanical knowledge, I have added more flowers and greenery over time, foolishly planting what feels right with completely blind faith.

A few years ago, I planted Chinese lanterns because I loved them as a child, but like difficult memories, they have become all-consuming. To that I added spearmint, because I find the aroma breathtaking, and the nana tea I steep with its oily leaves can trick me into thinking I’m sipping it at a cafĂ© in Jerusalem. Alas, the spearmint and the lanterns are stubborn, kindred spirits. Each spring, I am required to wrestle and tame them into submission.

One fall I planted hostas, which settled in during the winter and learned to thrive in our frightful sun while staring down the deer who feast on their lush leaves. Then came lemon balm, because I’d been wooed by its soothing properties, and roses for their scent and their thorns, because I wanted to flash some mojo. Chicks and hens followed, because I needed to show my maternal side, and silver mound, just because its name sounds so tender to me.

Eventually, I dug in with some boxwood because I needed something that didn’t make a statement.

Later I planted the lavender, because my husband spent happy childhood summers on the Istrian coast, where it grows wild. Finally, I stuck in some heather, because the tag said it was South African, which reminded me of my friend Carmel, who would tell me to stop attributing so much meaning to each inch of the garden and just enjoy it.

So I did, and I am. In the wee hours of the morning, I head outdoors to observe in complete silence what nature has wrought on the side of our house where weeds once reigned. The image – a random assortment of plants that might not agree with a skilled gardener -- paints a happy memory. It is that explosion of color, I sought. Though nothing fancy, it makes me a little more grateful for what the suburbs has to offer.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Nutcracker

Everything we cook for Pesach is delicious,
even if it all tastes like matzah.
One of my earliest – and fondest – memories of Pesach is this:

My grandmother, my mother, my sister, and I are sitting around my mother’s kitchen table. There are bags of whole walnuts in a pile at the center, and the broken shells are slowly filling up a large Pyrex bowl. Three of us grip our metal nutcrackers, and one lucky soul – the one whose turn it is to give her knuckles a rest – is cranking the clumsily shelled nut pieces in a hand-turned nut grinder.

It was hard work shelling those nuts, and the process left cuts across our fingers. But we needed them for charoset and nut tortes and ingberlach and all sorts of other holiday confections.

This was the early 1970s, and contrary to my children’s tongue-in-cheek humor, dinosaurs were, in fact, already extinct for some time by then. Still, the Pesach dish soap came only in a bar and we cooked with something called Nyfat, which looked in the jar as I imagine it did in our arteries.

The selection of Pesach mixes was paltry by today’s standards, and we eschewed most of it, with the exception of that delicious crumb cake. Bottles of schav, borscht, macaroons, soup nuts, and jarred gefilte fish floating in a gelatinous sea claimed prime prepared food real estate. It didn’t matter, though, because Mom and Grandma made everything anyway, and each item they concocted was delicious, even if it all tasted like matzah.

The number of available products multiplied with each passing year. Some we tried; others we simply ignored. The arrival of shelled walnuts, however, we embraced as if we’d been redeemed from slavery, even though it stole that time together out from under us. Time wrought other changes in our lives, too, but we never veered from the family seder menu. Farfel stuffing was one of our only constants.

Decades later, as I struggle not to be a dinosaur myself, I quietly make my way down the supermarket aisles in these weeks leading up to Pesach. I appreciate how the teeming shelves have made a cumbersome cooking experience less traumatic for some. For now, I marvel, but never buy, still clinging steadfastly to the concept of making it all myself.

My affection for that moment at the kitchen table, shelling walnuts with the women in my family, has also never waned. When I first made Pesach as a newlywed, I bought my own nutcracker and hand-turned nut grinder because my mom had already long ago parted with hers. I’ve never used either, but I unpack them each year to keep the memory fresh.

For now, I’m off to the races, cleaning and shopping and preparing for the arrival of the big day. Wishing all of you a happy, healthy and memorable holiday – chag kasher v’sameach!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Let the Games Begin

Like wearing white before Memorial Day, thinking about Pesach before Purim is a faux pas best kept under wraps. Any mention of the “P” word while everyone else is packing mishloach manot raises eyebrows at best, and it can set others entirely on edge. But Pesach is where my mind was, even as I was baking hamantaschen.

Now, just days after Purim, that thinking has gone into overdrive. For the moment, the house is still teeming over with nosh from the recent festivities, but I am walking around in a kind of pre-Pesach stupor. The cleaning and the shopping and the spiritual cleansing are off on a mad, three-legged race to the finish line, and I’m cheering them on at the top of my lungs.

Like a whirling dervish, I twirl in an ecstatic housekeeping frenzy that limits writing and crafting time. I thumb through my Pesach recipe binder and begin stocking up on potato starch. Eying cabinets and closets, I plot out a new and improved approach to turning over the kitchen, all the while daydreaming about setting the seder table with my grandmother’s china.

One son rolled his eyes last night and reported that I’d gone into “Pesach Crazy Mode.” The second, my squirrel, offered his irresistible grin as a preemptive apology for the crumbs I am destined to find in the least likely of places. The third asked if it was time for him to burn the chametz.

My sweet husband knows more or less what is going on in my already Pesadik head, so he does the heavy lifting and asks few questions. He has even made his own quiet mark on our preparations, buying new stove hood screens to save me from having to scrub off a year’s worth of grease with acid-based solvents. That, my friends, is love.

Meanwhile, life goes on. I still have to drive carpool and laundry continues to amass at the foot of the washing machine in the basement. But it all plays second fiddle to the bigger, Pesach picture looming on the horizon.

This is my season. Game on.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Do I Want It or Do I Need It?

It’s time for true confessions, so I beseech you not to judge me harshly. I have sink envy. There. I’ve said it.
It’s not as though I have the number of the vasser tregger on speed dial. We do, thank G-d, have indoor plumbing. There are sinks with running water where they need to be – one in each bathroom, one next to the washing machine in the laundry room, and one in the kitchen. And therein, my friends, lies the rub.

For a kosher kitchen, one sink presents a challenge. To turn over from meat to dairy or dairy to meat is like changing stage sets at an opera -- if the first act opened in Venice during Carnivale and the second in Siberia during a winter storm. Constant vigilance is required, lest someone, without thinking, drop a grilled cheese plate into the sink with the roast pan.

Others may pine for jewelry or Caribbean vacations, but I long for that second sink. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean a double sink where my single now resides. I want the big kahuna, a completely separate bowl deep enough to accommodate soup pots I could swim in on a summer’s day.

She doth protest too much, you say, and perhaps you are right. I’ve never actually lived in a house with separate sinks, and I’ve managed to keep my kitchens strictly kosher. Lately, though, I’m finding it more and more frustrating to get by with one. I mean I am daydreaming about being able to clean a chicken in one sink while the mugs from my morning coffee rest in another.

Who fantasizes about sinks?

When visiting friends who’ve recently redone their kitchens, some ooh and aah over the kasherable granite countertops or the Viking wall ovens. They drool as they gaze upon the specialty tiles and the hand-painted backsplashes. But I make a bee-line right for Sink One and Sink Two, staring longingly at them to the point of utter distraction.

They needn’t be fancy or graced with a professional-grade pot washer. No hot water tap is necessary either. Just give me a no-nonsense stainless steel bowl and a faucet.

In desperation, my husband called in the contractor, who said he could make it happen… if I were to compromise my minimal work area, part with the cabinet storing my fleishig pots, and let the equivalent of a few yeshiva registration fees pass from my hands to his.

Thinking about it further, I started to wonder if I sounded like my boys, who need cable television, must have another pair of sneakers, or require those special karate gloves. We always ask, “Do you want it or do you need it?” before considering their requests. I soon began to wonder the same thing about my missing sink.

Are two sinks really too much to ask?

I love our house. It isn’t too big and it isn’t too small. That a pair of sneakers and a sink are the only things my family is missing means that life, thank G-d, is good. And not getting those karate gloves – or the sink -- is a reminder that we probably can do without them in the first place.

When it came down to it, I realized that I just wasn’t prepared to lose my counter space. After all, where else would I store all those drain boards?

But a girl can dream, and while I’m dreaming, why not long for a third sink? One just for pareve…

Monday, February 13, 2012

Please, May I Have a Do-Over?

Decoupage is Queen of the Crafting World and I am her loyal subject.   

It is a happy obsession, one that enables me to rescue the old, the garbage-bound, and the utilitarian and transform them into something colorful that makes me smile. My family knows this is no trifling matter. The long–running joke here cautions you not to sit for too long, lest you find yourself covered in giant paper tea roses.

My boys, who still believe the floor is the best place to store almost anything, possess an uncanny reverence for my art supplies that is generally reserved for their Eli Manning posters. I’d even bet they’d be able to differentiate between Mod Podge and regular white glue in a blindfolded smell test.

My husband, who is well-versed in my preference for glossy over matte varnish, has made many an emergency run to craft shops for me throughout the years of our marriage. He has a sixth sense that enables him to gauge my mood based on what I’m crafting and knows that my studio is my holy of holies. He may visit at any time, but not stash his own tools or medical magazines within its small, beloved confines.

Alas, there are moment s when, gulp, even decoupage cannot save the day and times when I must accept its impracticality. Sharp scissors and cross-country road trips shouldn’t mix, for example, and Mod Podge is a bit messy for watching a movie on the couch in the den. But a crafty girl needs to craft, so she’s got to have options. 

Enter the crochet hook. You see, when I’m not potchke-ing with paper, I’m making afghans. Lots and lots of afghans. Most recently, two for the basement man cave we set up for the Teenager.  Before that, bedcovers for the younger brothers, who – with their very own feet – embellished my work with decorative toe holes. And my favorite, the one that kept me sane on the drive from New Jersey to Mount Rushmore.

Occasionally, my husband will gently remind me that a family needs only so many afghans – at least two per person seems reasonable, no? -- and that our house isn’t that big.  Still, he understands this oddball need of mine to constantly be making something, and pretends not to notice when I begin yet another project. To be fair, I stop for a spell to consider what it is about these crafts that keeps me coming back for more.    
For starters, they both anchor me in one place while I’m awake. They provide fleeting moments of calm, too, little commercial breaks from the action-packed adventure that is life in a household of boys.  For brief interludes, they enable me to shut out the rest of the world, or at least let it in at a smoother, more digestible pace.

When I have to rip out a row of an afghan or recover a mirror because my paper choices feel all wrong, I am reminded to cut myself a little slack. Almost magically, I can make these crafty mistakes disappear – poof - without over-analyzing them or questioning my decisions well into a sleepless night. 

Unlike real life, they are forgiving. They allow for a do-over. And if I don’t catch a misstep, I can cover the evidence with a toe hole in just the right spot, as if nothing was ever wrong in the first place.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Make Way For Ducklings

  • My brother-in-law, Zarko, is the genius behind the design of both my blog and my website.  Sadly, his father, Ilija Jovanovski, passed away suddenly last week.  I decided to take a moment of wordlessness in the blogosphere to honor his memory by delaying this post until now.
    (Thank you Merri, Zarko)

With all the books I’ve read, I should be able to make a more esoteric reference, but Make Way for Ducklings – that classic from my childhood – just gets this whole mommy business like nothing else. All the essentials are there as if it were an illustrated parenting manual, complete with an avuncular traffic officer watching our backs while steering us in the right direction.   

Lucky Mom Mallard has an innate ability to raise fine, upstanding ducklings, and she passes along some solid advice to her non-aquatic counterparts.  Teach your little guys to stick together. Find a nice neighborhood to live in and spend a lot of time hanging out in the park. And most important, let your children have snacks, because snacks are one of life’s greatest pleasures.

With her chest out, she makes her way around the city, leading her crew in an enviably neat row.  Such pride in her waddle! She never doubts herself, and why should she? Her offspring don’t squabble. They listen the first time she says something. They never sass. When challenges do present themselves, she gets back-up from a fine team of Boston policemen.

Over on my side of the river, you’ll hear a lot quacking, but that’s where the similarity ends.  

The seeds of my insecurity were sown while skimming the parenting magazines in the waiting room before my first sonogram fifteen years ago. The bar they set was just too high. Let’s face it. I was never going to look like the glowing celebrity in the designer maternity dress or puree my own organic baby food.

To complicate matters, I drafted my own impossible guidelines. My children would never fight. They’d see eye to eye with their parents, too, even as they approached the dark abyss of adolescence. They would be compliant and easy-going and like every dinner I’d ever place before them. They’d run to do their chores and go to bed in spotless rooms without a peep of protest after diligently completing their homework.   

The reality is that I cannot recall my darling ducklings ever following me in a neat little row. One is always out of line, though the errant one varies, and sometimes they’re all off flying in different directions, poking the nearest sibling with a beak before takeoff.   

From behind the exasperating cloud that obscures maternal confidence, I acknowledge that looking good in that designer maternity dress was more likely than my ever getting this right. On sunnier days, when the view is clearer, I can see that I just have to keep the bar I’ve set for raising my own ducklings a bit more down to earth. 

After all, their spiritedness may well forecast future success and their eagerness to negotiate with me on matters large and small a sign of their ability to swim upstream and think for themselves. By the time they start dating, they will have figured out on their own that shirts are not napkins, and we can always patch up the holes in the walls when they leave for college.

For now, though, I am focusing on what I know I’ve done right. I have taught them to swim and to cross the street safely. I never cower when it comes to watching out for the foxes in the woods or the turtles in the water. What’s more? No matter what lurks beneath, I’m not afraid to stick my beak into the muck at the bottom of the pond to care for them and groom them into menschen.  

As for Mom Mallard, even she allows her ducklings to dine on peanuts – without dining on guilt herself – when fishing yields skimpy results. But she isn’t perfect. If you are blessed with eight children, you probably shouldn’t give them all rhyming names.  And she molts. Need I say more?   

Right now, there are telltale signs that my boys are wrestling upstairs. I put on an apron and my best smile, pretending to hear nothing. I’ll get the blow by blow with laugh track over dinner.

The water’s boiling. In goes the mac and cheese. Right out of the box. 

All’s fair in love and parenting. The trick is to let any expectations of perfection slide off. Like water off a duck.

Quack.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Art of Idling


Learning to let go and see the positive
It is a truth universally acknowledged that on the day I have a long-ago scheduled doctor’s appointment or an important meeting or even once-in-a-blue-moon plans for a social activity that one of my boys will awake with an unpleasant, uncomfortable – though, thank G-d, in no way life-threatening – ailment that will require him to stay home from school.

I will cancel my appointment/meeting/frivolous outing post-haste. I will take him to the doctor and, if necessary, the pharmacy. I will allow him, in between naps and for durations unheard of in healthy times, to watch all the puerile television shows I generally prohibit.

Now imagine a gerbil wearing a sheitel, logging miles on one of those little toy carousels. I spend my average day scampering to and fro, getting a million things done, but very little that leaves me feeling accomplished. There are exceptions, like my teaching and writing, and when I turn on the music and shimmy about with my (real) hair up in a pony, doing my crafty-girl thing.

But with sick children at home, almost nothing happens. Time stops, a challenge for someone like me who remains unskilled in the art of idling. Exasperated, I stare at my must-do list, a mountain of tasks

I fear I’ll never manage to climb.

I do a lot of sighing while ministering to the coughing child on the couch.

Of course, I don’t want to see the boys lying there – miserable, febrile, red-nosed. I want them well for wellness sake, but full confession: I also want them well so that we may all get back on the road at our standard mph. They need to return to school and I need to resume trying to do to everything.

Stuck as we are, I gradually begin to see these sick days not as a hindrance to productivity, but as a chance to let things go and take stock of my blessings. Two of my three are old enough to be mortified by my proximity during a public event, but sick, even they allow me – without rolling their eyes – to stare at them longingly like I did when they were very young.

They doze, and I begin to nest. I steal a moment for some housekeeping – straightening up a cabinet, organizing a shelf – and not begrudgingly. I dare say that I come to cherish what I do get done instead of stressing over what I do not.

The television is back on, so I’ll set a pot of chicken soup to simmer and a batch of challah to rise. Happy smells, these provide the olfactory backdrop to our family life, both on sick days and healthy ones. Hopefully, these memories will eclipse the ones of my running around like a chicken without a head when my boys look back fondly on their childhood.

Alas, what happens when it is I who get bit by the stomach bug or the flu or a terrible cold? There’s no nesting, just resting, and in that challenge I find the wisdom of the oracle: Most must-do list items can wait.

The boys are probably taking their favorite shirts out of the laundry to wear dirty when I’m not looking anyway.

There is an art to letting go, too.