Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Time Is Theirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.