Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wrapping Up Christmas

Christmas is over and I’m rethinking everything I did or didn’t do. I'm quite talented at listing my perceived shortcomings: I didn’t bake cookies with my youngest before Christmas. I didn’t take enough pictures of the kids opening presents. I didn’t spend more time with my oldest. I didn’t hang enough decorations and I didn’t get the holiday cards out. My expectations were higher than usual this year because it could be the last time my oldest can help pick out the tree and trim it with us. Who knows when she’ll be home from college next year.

My husband’s bulging discs didn’t add to my festive mood. Between his pain, my worry, and my daughter’s senior year we waited to get our tree and when we did, my oldest had to carry it. Those fabulous college applications still weren’t done and at every holiday gathering they were a topic of conversation. My final grades, which I usually plow through before Christmas, were due Dec. 28 and the pile of final papers distracted me from the piles of presents.

And today, the one churning out applications turns 18. She hopes to celebrate, but may find she spends more time with her computer than with her family or friends. Happy Birthday to her. So while I feel nostalgic for time gone past, I’m also freaking because of those looming deadlines. While I want to coo over her and reminisce, I have to stay away from her room.

Holidays also tend to be a time where I, for one, look back and remember all the ones before – the one when my oldest pulled the Christmas tree down on her two-year-old self while I talked to my sister-in-law on the phone, or the one when my husband and I stayed up late putting together a plastic kitchen, or the ones when Santa showed up and surprised our daughters.

I remember traditions past – the Christmases of my youth which I shared with my cousins on the Vineyard or in New Haven and we discovered Santa by the tree and chased him through the house and up the chimney. Traditions changed and I split Christmas between my parents – the weekend prior with my father in New York or the Berkshires and then Christmas with my mother and stepfather. Those were anxiety provoking.

After I got married and had kids, excitement returned as the kids eagerly waited for Santa to bring presents, and the looks of awe and exclamations of wonder at how he knew what they wanted made the late nights of wrapping and present assembly worth it. Even my mother’s arrival with grandmotherly energy and enthusiasm added Christmas cheer.

As my daughters grew, their words of wonder have been replaced by words of appreciation as they open their gifts. This too makes the late night present wrapping worth it.

I do my best. In the midst of shopping, wrapping, grading and worrying, I made a cake this year and entertained my sister, brother, his finance, and my stepdad for our preChristmas celebration at our house; my oldest had a potluck at our house with 12 kids from a club at school and I made brownies. We went to a Christmas Eve service where my younger daughter sang and we included my older daughter’s boyfriend for Christmas dinner. I squeeze a lot in, but I’m convinced I can squeeze in more. I did make those cookies after Christmas with my younger daughter – perhaps a new tradition? And I did get those grades in, just like those applications will get done. Who knows what other new traditions will begin this time next year. Who knew looking forward can be exciting?

In the meantime, today, I’ll bake another cake, put birthday candles on it, hang some banners, maybe get some New Years cards out, and wrap more presents. In between checking on the application progress, I'll celebrate 18 years of birthdays and Christmases and traditions, and think about expectations met, unmet, and exceeded.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Obsessing on Next Year

When my younger daughter came home from school on Wednesday she asked where her sister was. I looked at her and said, “In Denver?” She knew her sister had left that morning for a high school diversity conference and wouldn’t be back for five days.

“Oh, right,” she said. “I miss her. I just want to talk to her.”
“About what?” 

“I just like talking to her,” she said. “It’s so quiet here. I thought I was the noisy one.”

Even with two dogs, one of which may be pregnant, and the other which barks at anything that moves past our house, and the daughter who likes to laugh and talk nonstop, the energy level was lower.

There hasn’t been any teenage bantering all week. No one is asking for clothing advice, because mine isn’t sought after, it’s my older daughter’s advice that’s desirable. The dogs have only greeted my husband at the door, not my daughter – she hasn’t come home late from rehearsals. I don’t hear her in the bathroom in the mornings listening to music on her laptop, and she doesn’t suddenly appear out of her messy cave of a room to participate in the kitchen conversation.

She won’t be here over the weekend to help decide what movie to watch on TV or at the theater. She won’t be back in time to watch the Patriots with her dad. She won’t be here to argue with us over college applications, which are due all too soon. 

After my younger daughter realized her sister wasn’t going to miraculously appear, she escaped the kitchen for our TV room and her computer where she could video-chat with long distance friends, and didn’t reappear until she and I ate our take-out dinner. (My husband was out as well.)

Is this what our future looks like? Next year? When daughter #1 is no longer in the application mode, but in the gone mode? The quiet I hear at home this week could be permanent. The energy in the house will change. The dynamics will change.

I was the first to leave in my family, although I didn’t last long. I returned after one semester, but even when I left the second time and successfully stayed away, I was still the first of four to go. I didn’t see how the family dynamics shifted – and boy did they shift. Not only did I leave, my mother and stepfather had a baby at the same time. I thought leaving was hard, feeling like the family was continuing on without me, but now I see that being left isn’t so great either.

My husband was the last of four to leave and hated it. He was lonely and didn’t like having no one to deflect his parents’ attention from him. Those left behind have to reshuffle the spaces, filling in the gaps – I might use my older daughter’s room as my sewing room, and take a pottery class with my extra time - and continue on, while the one leaving is forging forward, having adventures, living a life of her own for the first time.

My younger daughter loves attention, and is easily annoyed when she feels her sister is getting more than her. But suddenly having her parents all to herself isn’t looking so good. “She got you alone when she was little and you played with her,” she said about her sister. “I’m going to get you alone when I’m a teenager and I’ll have to do all the chores she used to do.”

As I was preparing for my class Thursday morning in my cubicle, I was surprised to hear my phone ring and excited to see my older daughter’s name appear. She’s fiercely independent and calling when she’s away isn’t her style. She called to share exciting news. She had received her first acceptance to college. She was so happy and relieved. “Now I know I’m going to college next year,” she said, showing the fear I knew she carried.

After the morning call, I decided to stop on the way home with my younger daughter to buy flowers to celebrate. It wasn’t until I was in the car that I realized she was still in Denver. Duh. I forgot too.

I knew she’d get in somewhere, but now, I know she will be going away next year.

When I see my college students milling about after class, or listen to them talk about their lives outside of the classroom, I know I’m watching and listening to my daughter’s future. It’s going to be exciting. I can’t wait to watch – even from a distance.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Time Is Not On My Side

I try to walk around Fresh Pond, the reservoir in West Cambridge, a couple of times a week for my weight, sanity, and heart. Sometimes I go with one of my dogs – the sane one, other times I go with my ipod. On Monday, I got there a half hour earlier than usual. My daughter needed a ride to school and my husband who usually takes her was laid up on the couch after moving it the day before to make our TV room more spacious and inviting, which it is.

When I arrived, the pond was different. A half hour changes things. The dog walkers weren’t out in full force yet. There weren’t many dogs for mine to play with, which was fine, because she was about to go into heat which I sort of forgot until one of the few dogs there, a German Shepherd, sniffed her so much, she put her tail between her legs and sat down. There was a different crowd – more runners and joggers, most of whom I’d never seen before. Maybe because I don’t run or jog.

As we, doggie and I, rounded the last bend to come home, I passed a small, gray-haired man probably in his late 60s - slowly jogging. He waved his hand in the air and said, “This is true wealth.”

I was the only other person near him, so I nodded politely and said, “yeah, it is.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I wondered if he said that to everyone he passed. Was this his mantra for the day? Was this his regular routine?

As I walked past him shaking my head at my dog, I realized he was telling me to take in the woods, the pond, the sky, the sun. And I thought, I can blog about this.

I slowed down for a few minutes. I looked at the pond and the leaves still on the trees. I didn’t get too meditative, but I did realize that my walk up until then was a walk with purpose. I had to get it done, fit it in my day somehow, then move on to the next thing – papers waiting to be corrected, the mortgage bill waiting to be paid, and the long overdue birthday present for my niece, not to mention the overdue library book I needed to return for my daughter. The whole time I was walking, I was thinking about my to-do list.

That odd little man made me stop and contemplate his idea of true wealth for a few minutes. It didn’t last long. I called my dog, strode up the hill to my car and went home where I sat on my lumpy sofa (a different sofa from the one my husband moved) and wished for real wealth that would replace this piece of crap my mother and I pulled from my uncle’s front yard before it went to the dump and re-covered thinking we were so clever.

Green wealth, not the environmental Green, but the green of cash, would come in handy when I balance the checkbook to pay the mortgage or the college application fees, or the bill for my new red cowboy boots. But I can’t shake the image of the little man from my head. Does he know something I don’t? Does he have a simpler, easier life than me? Are his tuition bills paid? Is he independently wealthy?

I’d like to be at one with nature, be at peace with having less, but what’s really missing from my life is time, time to appreciate the wealth he’s talking about. I wish I could walk around Fresh Pond without rushing, without scheduling it into my day, without feeling guilty when I don’t do it – which is more often than I care to admit. But I’m over-committed – I quilt, I volunteer at my daughters’ schools, I’m breeding my dog, I teach, I try to write, and I’m a wife and mother.

Time is my most precious currency. Just that extra half hour earlier in the day changed what I accomplished and what happened to me. I actually got my niece’s birthday present and paid my bills, and met the odd man, but there’s always more to do, like that library book still sitting on my kitchen counter, and never enough time to just be, to just sit, to watch my dogs leap, snarl and run in circles in the gold and brown leaves covering our yard.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

My...I Mean...My daughter's College Search


My daughter is applying to college and I swore I would remain calm. I would be the sane parent. I teach creative nonfiction in college. I’ve been around college students for twenty years. I hear the nightmare stories they tell me of their parents and how they hovered, how they dictated, how they took control. I am their safe haven in a storm. I don’t want to be the crazy mom worrying incessantly about where my daughter is going to go.

I don’t really care where she goes. I just want her to be happy and find the right fit for her. I don’t care if she ends up at my alma mater (where I met her dad), I don’t care if she goes to any of the schools where her relatives went. But I do get frustrated when I want to plan a trip, when I think she should be working on her essay, when I know time is shrinking before she has no free time left and she looks at me with contempt and says, “I don’t like being told what to do”.

I know she doesn’t do it to spite me, but she doesn’t write her essay, she doesn’t plan the trip to California, which is now too expensive to go on, she doesn’t clean her room. And I suddenly become the crazy mom.

From an intellectual perspective, I think the college search is interesting – what fits one student, doesn’t fit another. I find it fascinating to see what schools students are drawn to. I’m intrigued watching my daughter decide she wants a campus school, then no, she wants an urban setting. She wants a small school, but no she wants a bigger school. We thought she would love McGill. Wrong.

I know my daughter is scared, excited, and anxious. She’s not one to share her feelings, so I am left to interpret her behavior. I also know she has so much to look forward to and I think that’s one reason why parents get too involved in the college search - we want our children to maximize the opportunities ahead, so it’s hard not to become overly invested in where they’re going to spend the next four years. At the same time, parents have to let go which we aren’t always good at doing. Our kids have exciting futures ahead while we are looking at…what? Our empty nests? So it’s vicarious excitement. But this isn’t about our lives. It’s the kids’ lives. We need, I need, to learn to guide, not push. Ask, not tell.

I need to learn to be in the backseat and keep my big mouth shut. Easier said than done. I like to talk. I like to hear myself spout my opinions. And I actually do know my daughter and what she might like. I’ve lived with her for almost 18 years. But I have to let her figure it out for herself, as frustrating as that is for me. It’s not about me. She needs to drive.