Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On Reading Books and Reading Boys

I’ve been hiding behind the pages of a book since I first learned to read. Even now, when I’m well-ensconced in middle age, I turn to books for escape and comfort, peace and quiet, and a way to avoid things I don’t want to do. Some days, books even provide the oxygen I need to breathe, and they only expect me to care for their spines in return.

Books also give me a choice: to be myself, or if I’d rather, to be someone else. I get as close as possible to acting in a way I never would, to engaging in conversations I’ll never have, and to nibbling on forbidden fruit without the consequences. For the duration of their pages, it’s as if I exist in an alternate universe, where I live a life not my own. But books can only bring us near an actual experience. They cannot escort us across the border.

I think on some level, I always knew it was an opiate I sought on the shelves of the public library, but I had no name for it until I learned the word vicarious in middle school. The teacher wrote it in chalk on the blackboard and lights went off in my head. Vicarious made sudden sense of my world.

If only my sons were books I could read. A series in three volumes, all annotated.

So much of their thinking and doing is a mystery to me, though I do understand a lot of it after all these years of mothering them. We are programmed in unique code, and according to Jewish law, obligated in different ways. Sometimes, we speak our own dialects. In the thick of those discussions and disagreements, I wish I could step into their sneakers and be who they are, just long enough to figure out how to get things right with them more often.

Nothing else could bridge the divide in full, a reality I grasped during my older boys’ bar mitzvahs. A hollow knob, the tiniest bit of emptiness, began floating around inside me as my sons read from the open Torah. It did not diminish my joy or my pride in them, but it reminded me that no matter how closely I stood to the mechitzah, I was only watching from the bleachers.

Now that my youngest is about to put on tefillin for the first time, I sense the knob moving around again. I needlepointed the bag in which this almost-man will store them. I’ll watch with amazement and gratitude when he wraps himself in the straps. And yet, I’ll be an onlooker living the moment vicariously, a tourist who can get only so close to the cordon around the exhibit. This part of him and of his brothers will remain elusive.

I could ask the boys what it’s like for them to place the bayit (box) on their heads and be bound by the yoke of heaven. I can inquire how it feels to connect with G-d in such a physical way each morning. But I’ll only get what I usually get when I ask my teenagers these sort of probing questions, if I get a response at all: “Oh, I don’t know, Ma.”

I plan to try anyway, because a vicarious moment, when it is actually happening to someone for whom we’d step in front of a moving train, can be fulfilling enough. I’m their mother after all. I’m bound to intuit correctly some of the time. And if I get stuck, I’ll imagine that I’m holding a wise and beautiful story, and at least my heart will understand what I’m reading.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Very Loud Quiet

I’ve noticed lately that a lot of my parenting time is spent, as it has been over the years, thinking about what drives me crazy, and I’ve been working out whether that’s an entirely bad thing.

When my boys were small, their simplest actions made me smile. The way they offered to share a chewed-on teething biscuit or how they’d run to me when I arrived to get them from nursery school. I never minded the poop or the spit-up or the waking up at all hours. Or even the smell of Balmex. They were part of the package of unconditional love.

And yet, as they got older, I developed expectations, and therein lies the source of my troubles.

It was clear early on that my sons were not the fastidious types when it came to household chores, no matter how often I sang the Barney “Clean Up” song. Even in adolescence, they leave a mess in their wake, despite my repeated exhortations to pick up after themselves.

I fear what their future roommates will think of them and what my future daughters-in-law will think of me. I’m forced to cling to the thread of optimism offered by more experienced parents, who assure me that the boys will mature out of this era of sloth and that they are really not unique among their peers.

For now, their towels pile up on the bathroom floor. Their clean laundry gets mixed in with the dirty because that’s easier than putting it away. And my favorite infraction: If a teaspoon of milk remains in the bottle, you have technically not finished it, which means the next guy has to remember (but doesn’t) to tell Mom, who does the food shopping but does not have telepathy.

This litany of complaints ran through my mind last week as I cleaned the house for Shabbos. My eldest was in the shower, blaring the Bluetooth waterproof speaker we got the boys last Chanukah. He had been using some other gadget to play music from his iPhone, positioned precariously on the back of the toilet. We knew it was only a matter of time before that ended badly.

His playlist is an eclectic mix of current music, and he listens to it at a volume that essentially pipes it throughout the house. I get it. I remain a music-loving teenager at heart.

On that particular afternoon, though, the music was slightly louder than usual when my husband came home from work. In a rare moment of forgetfulness about the pop bands of his own youth, he called out to the teenager, asking him to lower that “terrible” song, which wasn’t terrible, just, well, youthful.

Generally, I’m the one who forgets they’re still kids. My husband is the cooler parent who would serve them ice cream for dinner every night. Yet I suddenly turned into the laid-back mama and he turned into a serious father sitcom version of himself.

“Let him be,” I said. “Next year when he’s away in yeshiva in Israel, we will miss every sound he makes.” We shrugged, laughed, and let the music play on.

I had a vision of our empty nest. There’s time yet, years even, until that’s a full reality, but the idea of it made me sweat.

As a result, I’m trying to turn a blind eye to the mess and to our home’s imperfections. It does look fine most of the time. Not ready for a photo shoot, but fine. The boys will tell you that I’m the only one who would notice dirty socks on a bookshelf anyway. This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped cleaning -- I’ve got to stay ahead of the curve – but we’re arguing about dirt a lot less.

These days, when I get in the car, I turn on a station that plays the music I hear night after night from the shower instead of my usual playlist. Because I have through osmosis memorized some of the lyrics, I sing along as I drive to the bus stop to pick up the boys. They are mortified when they pile in and notice that I’m listening to the songs of their generation, more so that I know the words.

They click off the radio.

I turn it back on.

There’s only so much quiet a mother can take.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Wisdom in Falling Leaves

As a little girl, fall was always my favorite season. I loved that the trees looked like enormous red and yellow lollipops and that the air tasted of cinnamon. When the leaves turned brittle and fell to the ground, I walked back and forth over mounds of them, just to hear their comforting rustle beneath my feet.

I still like fall best, though what I now treasure most about it is its unwillingness to waste time. Fall knows exactly what it must do and gets on with it. It’s a period of transition. It’s about endings. But it is mostly about those leaves and our fragility. I can’t help but wonder whether the trees process the loss as they strip their color, whether they mourn what once was, whether they ache with the melancholy wrought by the shorter days.

For six years of falls, in the weeks before frost blanketed the grass, I walked with my youngest son to school. Each morning, we stopped in a nearby field to pick through the patches of lingering summer clover. We looked every day until we found a rare four-leaf specimen, the sign of a lucky year ahead. Later, we pressed our find into an album, labeling the date, and discussed how, when it comes to grades, you have to work hard for your luck.

The ritual helped him adjust to the new school year, but I knew that the autumn would come when he’d be too old or too embarrassed to sit on the grass with his mother. I clung like a barnacle to his willingness for as long as it remained within reach.

When he moved on to middle school last year, I started driving him in the mornings and we had to search for our clover on a Sunday instead. By this fall, however, he was already focused on other activities. He’d outgrown clover-picking altogether, quietly moving on to adolescence during this season of transitions. Our ritual ended without a sound, just as the leaves began to drop silently from the trees.

Still, we talk all the time, and for that I consider myself blessed. Lately, we’ve spoken about how there are things that may never make sense in our curious world, how there is love and hidden wisdom behind G-d’s plan, and how none of these facts excuse a seventh grader from doing his homework.

It takes nothing more than reading the news each day to fully grasp how little we understand of the Big Picture. On the morning of the Har Nof massacre, I shared the painful story with my son when he stumbled down to breakfast. His reaction was blunt and full of sadness. “How the heck do you expect me to go to school and pretend that everything is normal when it clearly isn’t?”

“Because that’s what we have to do,” I told him.

I never try to hide my tears from my boys, though I do have to fight the inclination to curl up into a ball. I want more than anything to help them see the good in a world whose light seems to dim with the passing days. After all, life goes on, even as we mourn, even as we try to comfort those facing irrevocable losses, even as we pray for G-d’s justice.

There is a profound intelligence to the unfolding of the seasons. Spring emerges hopefully from the chill of winter, hesitating from bud to blossom. It melds with summer before drying up on its way into fall, where we are reminded of the fact that all life is fragile. But this autumn, more than ever, we need not look at the falling leaves to know.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fear of Flying

For 13 years, I flew like a bird. I did so with such frequency that I earned platinum status with my favorite airline, and I delighted in the perks, like an annual courtesy upgrade to business class and preferential boarding. I enjoyed venturing from place to place and seeing the world. I especially loved wearing those free socks during the flight.

I’m vertically challenged, but I never felt cramped, even in steerage class. I only minded the occasional neighbor who smelled of vodka. Sure, I spent hours delayed in airports, mostly because of the weather. But really, who minds waiting while they de-ice the wings of your plane?

It was my particular career in the nonprofit sector that obliged me to globetrot and I both needed and wanted to work. My travels took me across Central and Eastern Europe mostly, beginning in the early post-Communist era. Locals would tell me without irony that my ubiquitous smile singled me out as a foreigner, but I couldn’t help myself.

Each place I visited offered a smorgasbord of adventure. I listened to conversations in languages I didn’t understand as if at a concert. I decoded native culture by observing the footwear, the supermarket shelves, and the demeanor of hotel desk clerks. I rose well before my earliest meetings to explore each city, and never felt bolder, freer, or more at peace than I did on those trips.

I also found meaning in what I did, which in great part involved visiting elderly Holocaust survivors in their homes. I gathered heart-wrenching stories too plentiful to count and amassed a stash of crocheted doilies, because the folks we visited often refused to let a guest who’d traveled so far leave empty-handed. They pulled their handmade creations out of bureaus, even off the arms of their sofas, pressing them into my hands.

I met them in their community kosher canteens as well, and in their wonderful company, I first sampled hot fleishig borscht and varenikhes. The latter were a bite of Gan Eden, dough filled with meat and flavors of the past. Once, when I waxed poetic to one of the cooks, she packed me a jarful for the road. Still today, if I close my eyes, I can taste them, though I never succeeded in replicating their magic at home.

But nothing lasts forever. Outside forces gradually eroded my love affair with work travel. The first chip in the veneer occurred during a winter road trip across the bumpy Romanian countryside in an ancient, unheated Lada, a journey that had never before bothered me. This time, though, I was pregnant with my eldest and quite morning sick. I turned monstrous shades of green.

With the arrival of our boys, being able to come and go required increasingly complicated choreography. Friends and neighbors pitched in, and I reciprocated in kind. Grandparents helped out, too, filling in the hours when the daycare was closed and my husband was at work. Still, it took an enormous leap of faith to step onto a plane, knowing how easily the entire childcare support system could collapse.

I endured a percussive throbbing of guilt in my brain during long flights, while the search for child-friendly souvenirs consumed any rare free time abroad. Work travel, once beloved, began to represent an unbreachable distance from my boys. I was too torn to carry on, so I drew my working mother line in the sand. I negotiated for an on-land writing-centric position and began the slow and steady end to my career as I knew it.

For a long while after, I had brief flickers of nostalgia that caught me off guard. I’d made myself fully available to my family on these shores, but I feared for the wellbeing of my open-minded global outlook and for my sense of wonder and curiosity, which, if left unfed for too long, might all wither.

Then came September 11. I was pregnant with my youngest, unable to get back to the suburbs that evening from the city. I wasn’t in Albania, yet I was still light years away when I needed most to be home. The world I longed to explore each corner of had become meaner and scarier. There was also my new fear of flying. For a brief period of time, I wished I didn’t have to leave the house.

Just as the US stood ready to invade Iraq in 2003, I had the opportunity to join a weeklong professional development program in Argentina. Here was my chance to visit a country I wanted to see, to step again into the wider working world, all while putting my wings back into the sky. But I imagined wartime airport closings keeping me in Buenos Aires for months. I decided not to go. Was this rational? Of course not. Then again, so much of mothering defies reason.

Time passed. I eventually agreed to family vacations that necessitated air travel, including one that used the last of my globetrotting frequent flyer miles. That gave me a wonderful sense of closure, while conquering – for the most part, anyway – my fear of flying.

At some point, I asked my eldest, the only one I suspected might remember, if it was rough for him those years when I traveled for work. He looked at me puzzled, and asked, “You did?”

This past week, I went to Virginia to address an amazing group of Jewish women, all activists in their buzzing community. It was to be a one-day jaunt, and my husband convinced me to go. Everyone – friends, family, even my children – all said not to worry, the boys are older now. I did not board the plane easily, but I enjoyed every moment of the event, especially the warm reception, the post-speech hugs, the sisterhood, and an early morning coffee with old friends.

And then, kapow.

I turned on my phone to find a curious text from a friend. Every fear I’d suppressed in agreeing to travel far from home washed over me again. I called my husband, who delayed telling me that our youngest had fallen between two sets of bleachers at school, possibly breaking his knee. “You weren’t supposed to know yet.” Our wise child had begged the nurse not to call his mother. My husband, who was already on his way to work, turned around and picked him up instead.

I sat in the airport, awaiting my return flight, delayed by foul weather, the lack of a plane, the lack of a pilot, and finally, the absence of a crew. It gave me plenty of time to beat myself up for not being home. I tried to find souvenirs for the boys, though there was nothing really. In the end, while ordering my second latte, I purchased a Charlotte, NC “Here You Are” mug at Starbucks. For some reason, I told the barista it was a guilt gift.

I didn’t present it with enthusiasm, but the boys questioned why I needed to buy them anything at all if I was gone only one day. They aren’t little anymore, they reminded me. I tried to explain how hard it was to have failed them by putting my career and myself first for 25 hours, by not being the one to pick my wounded son up from the nurse that morning.

In his inimitable way, my eldest told me get over it, and I knew he was right because it didn’t feel like a slap at all. It was said with the kindness and understanding of a boy on the cusp of adulthood, a son giving me license to be myself. A son who next asked if I thought my presentation had gone well.

I made myself a large coffee in that Starbucks cup the next morning. Because Here You Are isn’t a mug series or a city. It’s peace of mind.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In Awe of the Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Elul Yard Sale

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

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

This fall, however, I decided not to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

The More Roads We Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

No Mistakes, Just Experiments

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Backyard Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A City Idyll, in the Heart of the Suburbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Time Is Theirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Getting Hooked

I grew up surrounded by women who made magic with two sticks and some wool. It was clear to me that it was a G-d given talent, this ability to craft something from almost nothing with a rhythmic flick of the wrists. It awed me to watch them work, and it didn’t hurt that I often benefitted from the output.

In fact, I still cling (with guilt, with love) to a cable sweater my grandmother knit for me late in her life. Believing she could do anything, I selected an ambitious pattern that was too much for her arthritic hands. Though she agreed to the undertaking out of affection for me, she cursed her enfeebled dexterity, the pattern, and me for not choosing something simpler until the blasted thing was done.

Years earlier, she -- along with her sisters, her friends, her neighbors and occasionally, my mother -- would race ahead at full throttle through skein after skein, a word I prided myself on knowing at a young age. The stitches emerged from their nimble hands and transformed into full garments with such ease that I naively believed the process was a simple one.

The same presumptuousness fueled my attempt to pirouette after watching a ballet segment on PBS as a young girl. Just a simple spin! Anyone can do that, I said to myself before falling promptly to the floor. Yet to knitting I felt genetically entitled. I was convinced that all I’d need was a lesson or two before I could whip up a cardigan in a flash. After all, everyone I knew could do it, even if no one thought to teach me and I foolishly never asked.

This same group of women also crocheted, albeit less often. I preferred the click-clack melody of knitting, but the silent one-hook motion still intrigued me. I particularly loved watching miscellaneous scraps of wool metamorphose into afghans bursting with colors that matched only within granny squares. Alas, I never learned to crochet either.

Eventually, sleep away camp set things right. We’d idle on our bunk porches during free time with the swarming mosquitoes and the humidity. Some girls talked or scribbled letters home. I wrote silly poems. One day, I looked up and noticed a tall girl named Leah and her friends busy on the porch opposite mine. They were crocheting kippot. When I inquired, they told me they made them for their brothers and fathers, sometimes for a boy they thought was cute.

Beyond the realm of yarmulke-making observant Jewish girls, knitting and crocheting did not then enjoy the same hipster chic they do today. They were the avocation most often though not exclusively of women of a certain age, conjuring up images of grandmas in housecoats. Regardless, I was an old soul. If making kippot was my way in to the club, I was game.

Leah patiently showed me the ropes, handing me a teensy tiny metal hook and a spool of cotton thread. I learned what a dugma (pattern) was and how to work a name – in English or in Hebrew -- into a design. She taught me how to fold the crocheted circle into quarters and measure it against my knuckles to determine whether the dimensions were large enough for a man’s head.

Before summer’s end, I’d perfected crocheting kippot, but from the very beginning, it was much more than a craft or a skill. The process soothed me, lifted me out of a rainy-day funk, and offered me the smallest sense of control in a world in which we have absolutely none. More important, it gave me the savvy to make something usable and lovely from the simplest of items and provided me with an internal home base for times when things get rocky.

(That it also put me, decades later, in the category of women who do cool things was quite an added bonus.)

With growing confidence, I moved past the tiny needle and thread to thicker wool and bigger projects: scarves, stuffed animals, hats, and later, afghans. I have since whipped up countless blankets for newborns and newlyweds. I even crocheted a uterus for a friend who had to let her biological one go and a fake beard for my son’s Purim costume.

Sadly, I could never take on sweaters, which involve way too much measuring for my right-sided brain. And though I made the kippot for our entire wedding party twenty years ago, my middle-aged eyes now struggle with the thin thread and tiny needle required to crochet a new kippah for my husband.

I think about that moment when I saw those girls in camp crocheting together on the porch, how it invited conversation. Now, when I crochet in public, I find it has the same effect as walking a puppy in the park. It has inspired commentary, compliments and nostalgia. Mostly, though, it offers a pretty distraction for others when the magazine selection is paltry at the doctor’s office.

Likewise, I still love watching others knit. I enjoy the action like I’m at a play, tapping my feet to the rhythmic sound of their needles. Occasionally, too, I wonder whether I’d have ended up a knitter if Leah had been knitting mittens that summer, though I doubt it. I took a beginner’s class at the local high school a few years ago. I learned to make a scarf out of Fun Fur, but did not fall madly, deeply in love.

So I’ll stick with what I know best and what I enjoy most, and I’ll crochet. One day, the rest of me will catch up to my old soul. I’ll be ready, hook in hand.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


There’s a lone pile of dirty snow on the street in front of our house. I want desperately for it to melt, but each morning it is still there and I fear it might linger until summer. Nevertheless, spring has officially sprung on the calendar and memories of Purim are nearly two weeks old. Stubborn snow mounds or not, Pesach is on its way.

That means it’s time to play games in the kitchen. There’s the scavenger hunt, for starters. I troll the pantry for ingredients, matching them in combinations that would never occur to me any other time of the year. In a round of hide and seek, I camouflage the remaining package of protein beneath the last sheets of puffed pastry from the back of the freezer. Sometimes, a mystery sauce – the final spoons from jars of condiments in the refrigerator door – accompanies it.

This entire kitchen charade at first seems silly, but I believe it is a strategic and meaningful step en route to the holiday. On the one hand, it winks at us; on the other, it reaches a level not far removed from ritual observance. The process itself – of searching, of doing more with less, of figuring out what is essential -- gets everyone, knowingly or unknowingly, into the mood.

It means that ice cream served on the last of the sugar cones can pass for dinner. It isn’t my first choice, but it brings the boys in on the game for the moment, making them mind less that they have to empty their closets and backpacks. At the same time, I get to feel, for a short while, that they are still my little boys, not towering teens whose lives intersect with my own less and less with the passing days.

The truth is that I love every moment of getting ready: the cleaning, the shopping, the list making, even the fretting that it may not get done in time. I’d be exaggerating if I claimed to feel the actual approach of our Exodus from Egypt. But I do powerfully sense something huge hanging in the air, as if our physical and spiritual preparations were the commercials stirring expectations in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.

Daydreaming, I imagine that we are there already: the countertops lined, the stove covered with foil like a space ship. A surprisingly pleasing bouquet of Windex and frying onions fills the house. Every surface is as clean as it will ever be, every object in its rightful place. It’s as if my surroundings have taken a hot shower, rendering them refreshingly chometz-free.

In the meantime, though, I’m still assessing what remains and what’s left to be done. I pack the unopened carbs and drop them off at the food pantry. I also make a mental note never to send my husband to Costco on an empty stomach.

As I contrive in the kitchen and sweep through the house, I’m also busy pondering G-d’s Big Plan. Though my relationship with Him generally pivots on awe and gratitude, I find that I’m enormously thankful this time of year for the way He enables me to drag myself out of the mire and move forward in the right direction.

For example, just the other day, I found 7 Devil Dog wrappers (as well as a kippah, basketball shorts, lollipop sticks, a phone charger, orphaned socks, dust bunnies the size of topiaries, and a penny) beneath the basement love seat. The tendency to confront my boys for being slovenly began to brew inside me.

Instead, He let me wander off to the time I happened upon a petrified peanut butter sandwich while cleaning the garage in the weeks before chag. It had been left there on the morning we were leaving for summer vacation and then entirely forgotten. Another year, I discovered pretzels in the towel closet, hidden just in case someone – I won’t say who -- got hungry in the night.

I laughed so hard while remembering that I had to catch my breath. The boys were then so young, and though I was surely frustrated by the discoveries, I found the innocence of their actions delicious; they were, after all, wrought completely without malice.

I also took a moment to laugh at myself – a loud, unbridled guffaw-- redirecting my impatience with my no longer small children who certainly know how to clear up after themselves. Just as I was about to take them to task for the sedimentary build-up beneath the couch, I’m pretty sure I heard Him telling me, in that booming voice I presume He saves for important talks with the likes of me:
Serves you right! You’re the one who chose not to move the couch all year. Don’t get annoyed with the boys for their manners when you should be embarrassed by your housekeeping…
Well, touché!

It will all get done. No sense in arguing our way there. How’s that for liberating?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My World by a Hair

Though my hair is standard Jewish girl hair – curly, kinky, unruly and black – it is has always been my crowning glory.

It ran long and straight until the fourth grade, when my mother cut it on the eve of a car trip to Florida. She was not going to fight with my knotty locks in hotel rooms along the Interstate. The result was that in all of our vacation photos, I’m the one who looks like a badly drawn Dorothy Hamill.

As it grew back, it began to wind into soft curls, dotted here and there with spots of frizz. But I was short, and never thin. My feet were always too big for the rest of me. Yet my hair, despite its eccentricities, was dark enough, almost blue-black, to make me feel special.

There were bad haircuts – very, very bad cuts – along the way. In high school, I agreed to be a model for my favorite childhood babysitter, who’d become a hair stylist. Unfortunately, it was at a time when extremely short cuts were fashionable. Photographic evidence exists, so I cannot deny what my sons, laughing themselves into hiccups, observed: I looked like a boy.

Marriage led to mixed feelings about hair covering. Hats, at first, were fun, until they became cumbersome, especially on windy days. I moved on to berets and later bandanas and finally a sheitel. I began to wear it most of the time because what I wanted, above all, was to have hair. The sheitel makes me feel prettier in the way high heels make me feel thinner. It isn’t true, but the illusion works wonders on my psyche.

Several years ago, after placing the wig on its Styrofoam head, I noticed a grey streak peeking out along my part. Over time, that rebel strand reproduced until I had a full blown stripe, a solid white line dividing two lanes on an asphalt highway. A few well-meaning friends told me not to fret; after all, they said, I cover it anyway. But my hair was, in my eyes, my best feature. I needed to eye myself in the mirror without flinching.

Nearly in tears, I went straight to the hairdresser. She slathered on stinky globs of dye that made my scalp itch for days. Still, I sat impatiently flipping through magazines while it worked its magic, waiting for it to restore my youth. I thought about those elegant women who look so magnificent in their silver manes. I resolved that one day, I, too, would allow my head to turn completely white – graciously, proudly, without regret. For the time being, though, I wasn’t going down without a fight. I left the salon glad for my decision.

The only problem was that I lacked the patience to sit there for an hour every 3-4 weeks while the color set. I went a few times before I threw in the towel and began dying it myself at home instead. It was, first of all, decidedly less expensive that way. But more to the point, I could vacuum the carpets while my roots drank the elixir of youth.

I found a brand that was a bit more natural – at least it smelled better – and I made a habit of doing it almost regularly. And though I cannot say I felt like a new woman when I rinsed it out, I definitely congratulated myself for having made the effort. Here and there, I’d wonder at what point I’d be ready to go completely grey. The answer was always that I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

Besides, I only had that stripe to contend with anyway. A full head of beautiful white hair was long off on the horizon.

That is until a few days ago, when my husband and I sat side by side on the couch in our living room, strategizing about the upcoming weekend, during which each of us would need to be in fifteen places at once (well, we wouldn’t, but the boys would). When I bent forward to pick something up off the carpet, he uttered two words he likely wishes he could swallow whole: “Oh no!”

“What?” I asked with a twinge of panic in my voice.

“The back of your head has so much grey.” He offered his response gently, knowing how I’d take the news.

I thought of the famous story from the hagada about Rabbi Elazar. He’s only 18, but transforms overnight to appear as if he’s 70, full white beard and all.

In contrast, my reality crept up on me slowly, like a hunter staking out his prey. Though my story will never make it into the canon of Jewish literature, I relate to the shock Rabbi Elazar must have felt when he discovered that his youthful appearance had been snatched from him in the dead of night.

It is true that I was about a week overdue on my coloring schedule, but I was quite certain that this grey patch was a new arrival. My husband assured me that my hair remains lovely. He said I probably just missed a spot the last time I colored it. Sweet of him, but unlikely. I follow the instructions for full coverage to a tee.

Initially, I thought I should just accept that I’m now just a bit closer to giving in to that glorious silver crown I’ve admired on other women. I also considered reading my newest greys as a sign of wisdom and accomplishment, the trophies of a full, busy, and meaningful life. I try to tell myself not to fret, that it’s on the back of my head beyond my range of vision and that I cover it anyway.

But I know it is there. And I’m not ready to surrender. This weekend, I’m going to hunt that grey down and color it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Rolling Back the Angst

When things get me down, so much so that I begin to wonder why I thought I could pull off this parenting gig in the first place, I go to Walmart. No, I’m not a fan of the store, for all the reasons people who don’t like Walmart don’t like Walmart. Yet it has become an inexorable part of my landscape as each of my sons has entered the Wild West of adolescence.

It happens that we live in a small town, so there aren’t many late-night options. Among the only 24-hour establishments are a convenience store, a Rite Aid and a crowded kosher Dunkin Donuts, where you have to squeeze between lounging Rutgers students and their MacBooks. None of these places offers enough space for thoughtful lingering and everything else closes between 9 and10 p.m.

Alas, I find myself in desperate need of a hideout at precisely the hour when there’s nowhere to go.

The excitement, on nights when it happens, starts to bubble a bit earlier. Everyone has come home from school tired and ravenous, with plenty of studying ahead. A younger sibling annoys an older one by asking for the ketchup. Someone’s stewing over a missed free throw. Another’s frustrated, having left his Spanish homework in his locker, and a third can’t believe we’re out of apple cider and whitening toothpaste.

Over these and other matters of all shapes and sizes, the boys might transform from mild-mannered Dr. Jekylls into excitable Mr. Hydes as the evening unfolds. It can be just one testosterone-fueled adolescent volcano, or when I’m really lucky, all three erupt at once. They begin to speak in tongues. Nothing they say makes any sense.

Why are they are so out of sorts? Well, they’re teenage boys, and I’m convinced they themselves would be hard pressed to articulate a reason. It’s easy to get sucked in, to fall into the trap of responding to them when their barbs fly, rather than focusing on how utterly ridiculous – and in the alternate universe of adolescence, normal - they sound.

In the beginning, I fought back, a losing battle if I ever saw one. I had no idea what I was up against. Then, I figured out that I simply needed to get some air in order to be able to hold my tongue long enough for the Hulk-moments to pass.

And so, in search of refuge at 10:35 p.m., I established my Walmart ritual for those nights when the not so tough need to get going. The store, despite its flaws, meets my basic criteria: open ‘til midnight, nearby, sells drinks, relatively clean bathroom.

By the time I arrive, the greeters have all gone home to bed. No one notices me as I troll the aisles, though I wonder, during stretches when I’m there night after night, if someone will assume I’m on staff or charge me rent. Then, for weeks – sometimes months -- at a time, I won’t need to go there at all.

At first, the idea perplexed my family. I didn’t tell them where I was headed, but they found me out by activating the “Find My iPhone” app. I’ve since wandered the aisles so frequently that I can tell you the exact layout of the store.

I know they carry a 2’ toilet paper holder shaped like a standing bear and flip-flips year round. They sell several brands of sriracha, the complete DVD set of Hogan’s Heroes, glow-in-the-dark hunting gloves, and curiously, the widest assortment of air freshener scents I’ve ever whiffed.

I have no more affection for the store than I did before, but I have come to appreciate the $5 CD bin in particular. Through the music of the ‘70s and ‘80s, I stroll down memory lane to my own adolescence, thinking about how I sang my way through whatever possessed me at that age. Once again, Kansas, Bon Jovi, Donna Summer and Linda Ronstadt are helping me through teenage angst -- not mine, but that of my sons.

Once I’ve restored my equilibrium, or the manager announces that the store is closing, I head home. I turn on “You’re No Good” and belt out the lyrics, hoping to G-d no one I know sees me singing down the road. Actually, by that hour, I’m not even sure I care.

By the time I reach the front door, I’ve sung all of the hurt and frustration out of my system, confident that giving everyone breathing room was the best course of action. Whatever was gnawing at the boys – the pressures or hormones that caused them to transform into alien beings that resembled them – has, for now, dissipated, too.

I find them asleep, or lulling in that pleasant state just before it. Sometimes, an awake one will offer a soft I’m sorry, or ask if I’d bought Fruity Pebbles. A sleeping one won’t swat my hand away when I brush the bangs from his brow.

Praising the power of an old song to heal, I remember how good it feels to forgive and forget and head to bed.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Keeping My Eyes on the Road

In winters long gone, my boys would see the first flakes fall and dart outside immediately. It took the older two much longer to get out there this week when the snow began and it amazed me once again how far we’ve come from when they were little. That thought led to a dangerous avalanche of memories, but I kept coming back to the night my oldest jumped out of his crib.

It was the evening of our move to New Jersey. We set up our son’s room first, figuring that with him safely in his crib, we could begin to unpack. But as soon as we put him to bed, we collapsed onto the couch from exhaustion. We awoke to see him staring at us with his dark, deer-like eyes and a grin reflecting enormous pride. Look at what I did! He was in a bed with a safety railing by his next nap.

This tiny person then still completely dependent upon us for absolutely everything was already his own man. I saw clearly that one day, in a future far, far away, when my hair would be streaked with white and I would bemoan the impact of gravity on my torso, he’d strike a similar pose to the one he’d struck that evening and ask for the car keys.

Years later, after he and his brothers learned to swim, I experienced a similar twist in my gut. Watching them ride off without training wheels onto the horizon (okay, just the next street) only intensified the sensation. They were all wondrous milestones that enabled them to edge farther and farther away. Though each gave me pause, I understood that this was how things were meant to be.

The boys’ continued advance towards self-sufficiency has shaken loose one by one the pieces that have long made me feel so needed. But as each new bit hits the ground, I’m not as startled as I was in the beginning. It took me a while, but I know that their growing independence is slowly revealing the parts of me I’d almost forgotten about, making me relevant – once again to myself and to my children in different ways than before.

I am admittedly the sentimental type. I tend to make a fuss about things like the first day of middle school or a first shave. The boys would say I do so to a fault, for everyone reaches these and other such milestones. But I’ve been around long enough to know that this isn’t entirely true, and I sense how painful the mourning for what doesn’t happen can be.

Two years ago, for our middle son’s twelfth birthday, I surprised him during school recess with a huge box of cupcakes. He played it cool – couldn’t look too excited in front of his friends, couldn’t allow himself to look too happy in front of me – but I saw his lips fight to stay level.

On the way out, someone in the office asked me if I didn’t consider him too old for birthday parties. More forcefully than I’d planned, I said that we are only too old when we reach 120. It was the last year of his minority, a year before his bar mitzvah. How else could I teach him, at his age, to treasure the days ahead?

This constant awareness that time is passing and that I am helpless to stop it enables me to breathe as the years quickly come and go. I once believed that I wanted to lead an exciting, spontaneous life. Now I cherish the quiet nights when we are all together as a family, and I am most grateful when things simply proceed exactly according to plan.

Seemingly out of nowhere, I am organizing a third bar mitzvah as my youngest son approaches manhood, while trying to figure out new directions for myself. I camouflage the grey streaks on my head, and I won’t tread into a discussion about the toll of age on the female form. But it occurs to me that I’m happy and grateful for it all, and that I wouldn’t want the story of my life to unfold in any other way – not slower, not differently, though perhaps with less gravitational pull.

Over the recent yeshiva break week, I took my oldest, the one of crib-hurdling fame, for his written driver’s test. The man grading it at the driving school said to him, “Hey kid, nice test!” It won’t be long before he’s asking for the car keys. I won’t gasp or cry when he does, but I cannot promise I won’t celebrate that things are the way they are.