Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Pink and Purple Vellum

There’s a moment at the end of each day that I live for—when the sky opens up like an envelope and spills out the final pages of the evening in sheets of pink and purple vellum. At some point during this elaborate goodnight, Calm settles over my house with a relieved sigh and everything is blessedly still and quiet.

This is the moment when I see my life as a whole and I can right the pieces of perspective that got knocked over in the last 24 hours. It’s when I pray and listen and see and hear.

By the time twilight beds down and the stars take over, I can sleep renewed with the faith that all will unfold as it should.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

The View From Up There

My 13-year-old son was given his first detention last week. His infraction was being inside the school building after school without permission. It had been raining outside, so he went inside to work on his science homework with a student who knew how to do the science homework. This all seemed very commonsensical to my son. 

But it was against the rules. And rules are rules are rules. And some rules tend to bead up and roll off his palms, landing on the blacktop in hard splats before his fingers ever have the chance to close around them.

I asked my son what his detention would be and he said he would have to … wait for it … stay after school and do his homework.

Methinks it was the moment he grabbed that particular bit of irony by the scruff and held it in front of the principal’s nose for a good, fragrant whiff that his fate was truly and properly sealed.

To be honest, I can’t believe it took him until the end of seventh grade to get detained. This particular son is an out-of-the-box kid constantly charging into the sharp corners and rock-solid walls of a sturdy middle school.

He’s not a rebel, he aims to please. He’s outgoing, personable, inventive, and bright. But he sees the world from the sky, in wide open format, not neatly contained in a rubric. He’s an idea man, cogs spinning, thoughts flying, impulses hurtling, sometimes plummeting. His increasing challenges will be to manage the controls, stay on course, apply the brake every once in a while, and bring it all in for a safe landing. Oh, I have every confidence this child will soar in life. It’s me, I fear, who will require the use of more than a few air-sickness bags while I ride shotgun in what I forecast to be a bumpy trip through the fixed hallways of high school.

For me, the view from up where my son navigates is new, different and a bit scary. Although I guess it shouldn’t be. I married a man whose toes have never once been anchored to the ground or housed inside anything even remotely cube-shaped. I, on the other foot, am just hunky-dory peering out at the world from the inside of a cardboard cut-out window pane. I’m content drawing colorful pictures on the interior, load-bearing walls. I’m happy curled up in a precise 90-degree corner reading a book with minimal conflict and a happy ending. I’m well insulated from loud noises and when necessary, can easily refer to a how-to manual that’s sensibly outlined and tabbed, with a glossary and frequently-asked-questions page. The calendar affixed to the wall orders my day in the same precise way the nuns did during my 13 precise years in Catholic school.

Yes, I am happily ensconced in the box and am not coming out without a good prescription. If I am ever out of my comfort zone you can be sure it’s because I tripped and fell out or someone lured me out with something chocolate and gooey.

Give me a treat and call me Marley, I just realized I’m crate trained.

I think that’s why I admire, and sometimes envy, the very same qualities in my son that guarantee every year I’ll get to know his teachers on a first-name basis. My son is not afraid. He’ll make a decision and make it happen, leaving his detractors bobbing in his wake, their mouths filled with salt water. He’ll argue a point so far into the ground you can almost see China. But after the bursts of the day’s activities have fizzled into cricket calls and chamomile tea, I can vaguely detect the tiniest glow emanating from each of those impressions. I realize he’s just staking his claims in his own, unique and beautiful life. He’s laying the groundwork and mapping a flight plan … from a much broader vantage point than I ever could.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


I pulled back the cardboard flap and glimpsed a small patch of lemon yellow wicker. I knew immediately what it was. I felt lightheaded as the memories overcame me in one big rush of awareness. It was as if a ghost, freed at last from its musty confinement, grabbed my arm and yanked me into a wormhole, spinning me backwards to a time when parents lived forever

That plain, brown box humbly housed all my mother's handbags, perfectly preserved and sleeping comfortably between delicate layers of aging tissue paper. I knew these purses. They were lost friends. I could easily recall in clearest detail every one of them and the evenings they represented, decades before, when I was still a young girl and my mother was Cinderella.

Back then, I’d sit on my parents’ bed and leisurely investigate the contents of that night's designated clutch while my mother arranged herself inside the bold blocks and psychedelic swirls of the 70s or, later on, the sparkling sequins and impressive shoulder pads of the 80s. I’d dab lipstick on the back of my hand and peel off a peppermint from a new roll of Certs as she clipped on glittering earrings and stepped purposefully through a puff of perfume. 

"That way you won't overwhelm the guests with the scent," she'd advise.

Sometimes my mother would let me trip across the room in her high heels, with a floppy hat covering one eye and a dangling purse bumping my shin with every other step.

I’d revel in having my mother all to myself; my brothers finding no interest or joy whatsoever in the process of powder and polish. Absent was the constant commotion that accompanied a house filled with kids. Here there was only Calm, with gentle smiles, relaxed “grown-up” conversation, and a little bit of bibbity-bobbity-boo. The fragrance, colors and piles of pretty things all mounted together to transform this morning’s mother into tonight’s princess.

I ran my fingertips over the various textures tucked inside the box. I remembered vividly the clatter of the bright orange plastic beads and the scratch of the turquoise raffia. I had told my mother to reserve the maroon handbag for Midnight Mass because the rows of crimson-painted, wooden balls looked like cranberries lining up for a garland. All we needed was popcorn, a needle and some thread. 

I had been hesitant to hold, in my clunky, adolescent fingers, the particularly magical creations that gleamed like jewels. A gold one moved like molten lava from palm to palm and a blue metallic mesh design twinkled from cobalt to teal to midnight depending on where the light slid across it. One bag was dressed in nothing but pearls, one after the other ... surely a treasure like this was much more valuable than anything you could hide inside!

I had used the sunny yellow “picnic basket” to carry snacks for backyard luncheons with my friends. One warm afternoon I swung it in big, windmill circles until the dizzy handle finally had enough of my shenanigans and snapped. The streaming wicker arched out of my hand in a soaring bid for flight, only to smack full force into the trunk of a pine tree and fall to the grass with a dull thud. I thought I had destroyed it for good, but here it was, almost 35 years later, waiting patiently for our reunion in a lonely storage unit in the middle of nowhere. It had held up better than I had, the still-broken strap glibly reminding me in my mother's voice to always treat other people’s things with respect and to think before I act.

In January of 2013, I displayed a group of the purses in Boston's Museum of Science Who Collects exhibit. My mother got a kick out of seeing her old "pocketbooks" in a musuem.  And yes, they were displayed directly beneath a collection of vintage “air-sick” bags. She was sitting up in her hospital bed when I showed her the pictures and she exclaimed softly, "Oh, my word." 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sentences and Syllables

I have five new voicemails from my mother. My not-so-smart phone alerts me to this fact with blinking urgency every time I turn it on.

So I leave it off.

My mother left me those messages four weeks before she died, and only a few days before her hands grew too tired to grasp the phone. The same fingers that had once skillfully skated across piano keyboards like an Olympic ice dancer were now too weak to press the giant, illuminated key I had pre-programmed to connect her to her children.

Five new voicemails. Sentences and syllables uttered just for me … mere days before her words dissolved into fragile threads too thin to travel the distance between her lips and the receiver. A few days later her words would disappear altogether. I was with her by then and her eyes told me everything I didn’t want to know.

I had kept my phone with me at all times, resting it on the corner of my desk or on the console in my car. I charged it on my nightstand while I slept and when I woke up, I tucked it in my pocket, purse, or the thick wool socks I perpetually wore to stamp out the New England cold. Still I managed to miss some of her calls. When that happened, I'd call her back immediately, not delaying to play the messages first. More than three months later, the recordings still lie dormant, quietly signaling me like the flash of a firefly on a summer evening.

I know my mother’s voice like I know the color red. It’s bright behind my retinas, and the dominate primary determining the shades in my spectrum. I want to hear my mother speak my name again the same way I want to breathe the sweet spring air after a stagnant, gray winter. But my throat seizes at the thought.

This Sunday would be a good time to listen. Mother’s Day. It seems so logical, beautiful even. But I'm not sure. The finality would be brutal; and finality is a heavily weighted concept I’m still trying to grasp, my own fingers too tired to wrap around its bulk and press its damned pre-programmed key.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sticks and Stones

A writer I follow and respect recently had some spiteful words hurled at her like a clump of mud. She washed it off as best she could but some bits dried and stuck and took more effort to scratch off. I suspect a dull residue remains that will take even longer to fully remove.

Last week I wrote about a particularly mean comment I received. The malice in those words lied in wait, crouched and still, ready to pounce on me the minute I haplessly wandered to the comment section below my post. The attack left me stunned, dizzy and seeing stars. I shook it off and moved on, refusing to give in to the almost seductive power those words had to create doubt and insecurity.

I don’t know why people choose to hurt. I imagine it originates from a need to feel powerful. I do know that few things are more powerful than words, especially when they’re strategically constructed and launched from behind the barricade of a computer screen and the shield of anonymity.

I can’t stop a person from being hurtful if that’s their intent. But I can make sure, to the best of my parental ability, that neither of my children (who are currently polishing off the last of the many, many groceries I bought only yesterday) follow suit.

I taught my sons, from the moment they blew their first raspberry, that name-calling is bad; and they get it. But as teenagers they will joke around, tossing about unkind and useless words like a casual game of catch, not realizing the strength of their arms or the faults in their aim. They don’t understand that somewhere an innocent window is about to get smashed. They don’t grasp the potential damage of their wordplay, especially when it involves social media, where the bulk of their "words" consist of a mere three letters ...  at most ... and no vowels! 

Words can be weapons, permanent in their destruction. But they are not arrows that simply fall dead on the ground if a target is not lined up in front of them like a row of tin cans. Cruel words and ridicule are heat-seeking missiles that tirelessly search out a live, beating heart until they zero in on one. That’s their programmed purpose, their mission, from the moment they are carelessly or carefully launched … online, out in the great wide open, or even quietly in our heads.

Words are a responsibility. Handle with care. Exercise with caution.

And above all, be kind. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

No Toe Seams: Sensory Issues and Socks

My son, at age 7 and in second grade, had a big problem with socks. Like many children that age, he would sometimes hyper-fixate on random, arbitrary matters, mainly, I’m convinced, to test the stamina of his parents. In this case, the matter was socks. Big socks, small socks, short socks, tall socks. Red socks, blue socks, old socks, new socks. It didn’t matter; my son did not like socks. Not even in a box with a fox.

At the crux of the matter was the sensation of the sock. Every sock was too scratchy, stiff or bumpy. And, oh, the drama we had surrounding that awful seam across the toe; “Too lumpy, Mom, too lumpy!”

Few socks felt comfortable in his shoes, where they would bunch up, ride up, or slip down. It was maddening. Every morning was the same; I would call for him to get dressed and come down for breakfast, and he would remain in his bedroom waging a private war with an ever-growing pile of socks. School mornings would end with me screaming for him to just pick a sock, any sock; we’re going to be late! He’d grow increasingly anxious and as the minutes wound down he’d finally slip the best of the bunch onto his feet and trudge miserably down the stairs.

Many mornings ended in tears. Most mornings we missed breakfast and raised our voices. ALL mornings I felt consumed with crushing guilt that, once again, my son began his day in a state of distress. 

As a mother I should handle this better. But what was this? Was it a phase, a test, or something normal to just get through? Worse, was my son showing signs of an actual disorder? Could he have sensory issues? OCD? Was he somewhere on that dreaded spectrum? Maybe he just had his father’s stubbornness.

After much trial and error, I finally found the cure-all sock that passed all his exhaustive standards. These socks were thin, smooth, soft, snug, and had NO TOE SEAMS. It even said so in big words across the package, gladdening my heart because now I knew that “no toe seams” mattered to other people too.

When I showed the socks to my son you would have thought it was Christmas, his birthday and the first day of Red Sox season rolled into one. The package contained six pairs and so we both went to sleep that night knowing we had six happy, stress-free mornings coming our way. I woke up and made pancakes, and we ate them with plenty of time to walk to school.

That night I came to a realization. This problem was fixable—without doctors, tough love, or self-help books. The next morning I bought 100 pair of those magical socks, blissfully paying $187.59 while picturing my World War II veteran grandfather shaking his head at the waste and absurdity of it all.

Together, my son and I emptied his sock drawer and lined up the new socks in five neat rows of ten, with an additional layer on top. My son went to sleep assured that, for the next 100 days, he would have a perfect pair of socks waiting for him in his drawer. Our nights were absent the arguments and stress, and our mornings flowed free and unfettered. He was dressed with time to spare. My blood pressure returned to normal and the screaming came to a halt.

The biggest surprise was that we hadn’t made it through half the socks before the issue disappeared and went by way of most childhood peculiarities—just an embarrassing anecdote to use at their weddings. By pair forty-something, my son started grabbing whatever socks were closest at hand. Dirty? Didn’t matter. His brother’s? Didn’t care. Toe seam? “Mom, that’s silly, who cares about that?”

For a moment, I indulged in that rarest event in all of motherhood: Triumph. I had efficiently and effectively solved this problem with no lasting damage to my son. Nope, my son would not be reporting to some psychologist about how his mother deprived him of sufficient footwear, thus destroying any chance for his future happiness, success, or ability to sustain a healthy relationship.

I know my son could have reached this point without an enormous pile of new socks. And maybe my mother-in-law was right when she said my solution was typical of the parental indulgence that is ruining our society and future generations. But the way I see it, I single-handedly shut down forty-some days of anxiety, worry and angst for both my son and myself. I gifted us with forty-some nights of extra laughs and bedtime stories, and forty-some mornings of order, relaxation, and pancakes. There is a price for happiness after all, and in our case it was $187.59.