My Mom, The Fixer

Throughout my childhood, my mom was The Fixer. You had a problem, yo, she solved it faster than Vanilla Ice, no revolving DJ necessary. The vacuum would start emanating that burned-motor smell, and she would spend the next half-hour sitting on the kitchen floor, vacuum cleaner upside down, with a screwdriver in her hand. She’d take it apart, clean off the gobs of hair wrapped around the rotor, retrieve whatever plastic hair tie had clogged it, reassemble it and finish cleaning the floor. “A clean machine is a happy machine,” she would say.

Put a package on it!

My sister and I liked to draw at the kitchen counter when we were little. Mom would be in the same room, cooking or doing science experiments in the sink or whatever moms do in the background when you’re six years old and self-involved. Ma, the meatloaf! I never know what she’s doing in there.

We’d invariably make a mistake — the cat’s tail was too fat or we left an “r” out of “Merry Christmas.” We always went straight for the markers, never learning from experience to write it in pencil first. We’d wail that our life was over because of this egregious error; now, we would have to start all over, and we just didn’t have it in us to face the blank canvas (manila construction paper)again. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Mom would swoop in with a fix: “Put a present over it!” Thus, our artwork was littered with random, brightly wrapped packages with red bows, smack in the middle of words, trees and cat’s hindquarters to unsubtly cover our mistakes — kind of like a kindergarten version of Japanese Kintsugi.

Mom applied the same technique to our clothing. When holes appeared in the knees of my jeans way before I’d outgrown them, she covered them with the assorted patches she kept in her sewing stuff — rainbows, hearts, flowers (presents). Until that is, I reached sixth grade and patched knees became too horrifyingly uncool for school. She sewed up the holes my sister accidentally cut in the collars of her shirts while trying to rid them of every millimeter of itchy tag full of size designations and washing instructions with a pair of safety scissors. Once, my sister cut a hole in a nightgown my grandmother had made, viciously forcing it to part ways with the detestable bow on its front. Mom fixed that, too.

Put it in a box.

Mom was also a pretty good fixer for teenage hearts that had been shattered into a million-billion pieces causing much weeping to sappy Richard Marx songs. When I broke up with my first serious boyfriend and was wringing my hands over what to do with all of the memorabilia of our relationship that had adorned my room for the entire nine months of our coupling, Mom knew what to do. I didn’t want to look at that shit, but I couldn’t bear to throw it away, so she brought me a box. We put all the precious things — dried flowers, saccharine love notes, mason jar full of deflated balloons (a story for another time) — inside and stashed it in the back of my closet where I would find it several years later and toss it without a second thought.

Break out the lug wrench.

Mom is in her best form when annoying and unpredicted problems arise. She’s good with a flat tire. One year, she changed no less than six of them, each time on her way home from work. My dad accused her of running over nails on purpose, which made perfect sense. I’m sure she was just itching to wrench off lug nuts on the side of the highway in the dark after working ten hours at the hospital where she’d, incidentally, been fixing things all day.

In a crisis, Mom is cool as a little Fonzie. She’s the one you want first on the scene of a car accident and first in line to fix a ruined bridesmaid’s dress an hour before the ceremony. When my sister’s best friend’s mom exited stage left to go live in New Hampshire with her boyfriend, leaving two kids and a hapless ex-husband behind, my mom helped pick up the pieces. She shuttled those kids to and from school, dance classes and soccer. She fed them when necessary. She sprinted down to their house to shut off the malfunctioning burglar alarm all. the. time. Because no one was home and they didn’t want to have to pay the security company for yet another false alarm. “Stay calm now, fall apart later,” was her motto.

Pass down the skills.

My mother is the reason I calmly handled a tire blowout while driving a child-molester-sized van full of day camp kids 65 miles an hour down I35. She is the reason I fix the holes in my adult jeans, though now they show up, relentlessly, in the butt along the back pocket seam where my trunk junk can’t be contained by mere denim. She is why, when my toddler fell and hit his head on the tile so hard he started passing out and throwing up, I didn’t explode in a volcano of dysfunctional hysteria while trying to keep him awake on the way to the ER and instead pressed that rising panic down so I could function for my son.

Luckily, he was okay. Fortunately, I didn’t have to find time to fall apart later because I was so relieved my kiddo wasn’t permanently brain-damaged (though it was a little hard for the doctor to assess since he’d just started walking and moved around like a drunken college student already). It’s a good thing, too, because that kid is ten now, and he’d look pretty funny with a red and green-bowed Christmas package on his head.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. And thanks for always keeping our shit together.

Shelter-in-Place, the Good Stuff

kid drawing chalk art on sidewalkIt’s a learning experience.

When my oldest was asked, as a kindergartener, “What’s something your mom always says?” that was his response. He could’ve said any number of things:

What’s that smell?

Why is this wet?

I JUST cleaned this.

Not ’til I finish my coffee.

Get down. That wasn’t meant to hold your weight.

Or the ubiquitous, Why is there always crap all over the living room?

But my lovely firstborn chose something that makes me sound insightful. I would deliver this “learning experience” adage when he was down on himself for making a mistake, trying to point out that mistakes are how we learn to do something different the next time. I was not born with this wisdom. I, just like my kid, expected perfection of myself the first and every time. It was only later in life I began to tell myself to learn from my screwups and move on.

While all of this sheltering in place isn’t a mistake I’ve made, instead of lamenting what we can’t do, what’s not available, I can look at what I’ve learned from it. 

  1. We do not actually need all the activities we had previously scheduled into our lives.
  2. We are all pretty good at entertaining ourselves (even the oldest, extrovert child) when we have ample opportunity.
  3. While I am fond of baking, given enough free time, I still don’t like to cook.
  4. The people in my neighborhood are awesomely supportive of each other in good times and bad.
  5. Having only each other to play with for quite some time, our kids are now emotionally closer to each other.
  6. I hadn’t lost interest in my hobbies before the pandemic; I’d just lost time and energy enough to want to pursue them.
  7. Jason and I can still do projects together, and even if they are a pain in the ass, we don’t take it out on each other.
  8. Trading books, puzzles and plant cuttings with friends may not be the same as dishing in a bar together, but it’s fun and bonding in a whole different way.

These are the things I want to hang onto longterm. Most of them have to do with protecting free time so that everyone in our family has the opportunity to get bored and think, “what next?”

Some people take “what next?” time and invent things to solve the world’s problems or start new, innovative companies or side hustles. That’s not what I’m after here. I want to maintain the leisure we’ve found during this time of everything shut down — books, movies, gardening, playing. That, to me, is the stuff that makes life worth living. And coronavirus has made me realize, I missed it. What have you learned from the pandemic fallout that you’d like to keep, longterm?

The Doldrums

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Photo by Joanna Szumska on Unsplash

When I was a kid, I wrote a lot of poetry, but this is the first one I’ve done in decades. If you are a poetry buff, a word of warning: this poem follows no rules or structures, because I don’t remember any of them from high school. This has been sitting in my “drafts” folder for months because I was afraid it wasn’t “real poetry.” But if ee cummings can write without any capital letters or punctuation, screw it. Here’s my pome:

The water is calm and still, like glass

The sails are loose

I stand on deck, hand shielding my eyes

I look to the sun

I could paddle us that way

All things bright and sparkly

Or maybe head toward the shade

Where it’s calm and cool

There’s an island

Land is comforting

But there may be cannibalistic natives

I’ve heard rumors

Sometimes I’d like to jump overboard

Swim the cool water

Float on my back

Go in any direction that suits me

Heedless of storms

But there are others on the boat

They would not fare well without me

So I lie on the deck,

In the still waters of the doldrums

This boat’s not going anywhere

Unless I paddle it

I could be content here

Live out my days

Or I could become hardened

Bitter for the want of all the sun

that shade

that island

might have had to offer

When Your Kid Fails…

Little girl in climbing gear stretching out handYou know how sometimes you feel like you are the Best Parent in the World? Yeah, today isn’t one of those days for me.

My oldest decided to try out for the select basketball team in our area. He’s always loved basketball, and he’s pretty good at it. But in the midst of soccer season, he neglected to even pick up a basketball prior to the tryout. I still thought he’d do okay, though.

The day of the tryout, he came to me practically in tears. He said he didn’t want to go; he wasn’t interested in playing basketball anymore. This turned into a long discussion, and we eventually ferreted out that he was worried he wouldn’t be able to perform. On the one hand, it’s good he has Jason and me as parents — Jason understands the psychology of sports, and I (sort of) understand the complexity of Jack’s anxiety. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like I upset him more by discussing all those emotions at one time, and Jason is sometimes at a real loss as to why Jack feels so intensely.

We talked him into going the tryout. And he didn’t do great. The kid I saw on the court was not the one I watched all last season in recreational league. This new kid was reserved, nervous and not giving his best effort. Normally, Jack is pretty competitive. He dives for loose balls and blocks bigger opponents without a second thought.

He didn’t make the team. Worse yet, most of his friends did. Despite his feeling ambivalent about playing for the season, he was crushed. He didn’t make excuses; he realized this was less about his talent and more about attitude and work ethic. My heart hurt for him.

I did my best to comfort him and reminded him to learn from this experience. There will be more tryouts to come. I told him failure is a part of life, and it’s how we grow. In my head, though….

I was berating myself for not signing him up for that basketball clinic earlier in the year. I was angry at myself for not making him eat before the tryout, even though he insisted he didn’t want to. I felt like I failed right along with him. He’s 10, right? I’m supposed to know these things.

When my cooler parenting head prevails, I know this experience was good for him — that it will only make him stronger and smarter in the future. It’s just that as his mom, I have the intense urge to shield him from pain. I finally understand why it made my mom so nervous whenever my sister or I tried out for anything.

We will move on. Odds are, when Jack gets home from school today, he will already be mostly over it. My oldest kiddo is sensitive and emotionally complex like me. He’s also tough, and I like to think he gets that at least partially from me as well.

Maybe it’s good I didn’t make him practice before or make him eat or whatever else I think I could have done to change the outcome. Maybe this lesson, this version of falling down, will teach him how to get back up again. Hey, maybe I learned something too.

When They Were Young

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Baby Days, Crazy Days

When my children were babies and toddlers, people would often tell me, “Cherish these years. They go by too fast.” But, there were many times when I thought they couldn’t go by fast enough. From the day they were each born, I loved my kids unconditionally and with an intensity that overwhelmed me, as if my heart would explode with the hugeness of that love. But, I also struggled.

Not getting enough sleep was hard. Failing at breast feeding was devastating. Not having time to myself and being constantly “on” for my children, the first of whom never did nap regularly, was something I wrestled with constantly. I was, at times, bored with staring at an infant who’d yet to even make eye contact with me, bored with playing  trains for the eleventh hour, bored and defeated by the unimaginable loads of laundry small children produce. Ironically, in addition to needing more alone time, I also craved adult company, as evidenced by my constant chattering at Jason when he got home from work.

There were good times, though. There was the time I watched Jack run and laugh carefree through the wildflowers in the park and wished he’d stay that uninhibited forever. There was the first time he planted a big, wet, sloppy kiss on my cheek. There was toddler Gage, dressed in only a diaper, dancing to techno music in his bouncy way and the thrill of watching each of them take their first, unassisted steps. I’m smiling now, with the memory of these milestone events, but I am relieved children don’t stay toddlers forever.

Now Jack is nine and Gage is six. Time has started to speed up, as they both spend a good portion of their days away at school and then, afterwards, often at their friends’ houses. I promised myself when they were young, I would not tell people with babies to cherish the moment; enough people tell them that. My message to them is this: it is hard when they are little, but it gets easier.

As my kids have gotten more self-sufficient, and it’s no longer necessary for me to follow them around, making sure they don’t maim themselves on sharp corners or walk into traffic, it’s been easier to lose myself in my writing. They go off and play, and I have the time and energy to plot advances for my freelance business. This is good for me, but I have to be mindful not to swing too far the other way – get so caught up in work that I miss the kids’ ever-dwindling childhood. Jack only has two years left before we hit the dreaded middle school years, and I want to invest my time and energy into fostering a close relationship with both of them, so they’ll come to me when they need help. This is why, despite my overachieving, perfectionist brain, I have decided to be okay with taking freelance work as it comes, and not intentionally growing the business like I could. There will be time to grow business later, but I don’t get a second chance at being present for my kids in their formative years. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, would I regret not building a business? Maybe a little, but knowing the tradeoff was being there for Jack and Gage, my first, foremost and most important responsibility, I have no doubts my priorities are in the right place. And that makes every decision, business or otherwise, so much simpler.