Posts Tagged ‘kids’

What it Means to Be a Mom

May 16, 2013

Untitled-1The quintessential highs and lows of being a parent and the flux of emotions that a mother may experience with regard to her children tend to happen over months, weeks, even days. Until you have a teenager. Then, they tend to occur by the hour.

SHAME


As Doug and I came in from dinner at La Campagnola, at exactly 6:58pm, I saw my son Julien in the dark, waiting by the door to be let in. I quickly apologized for not being home on time to let him in, although he usually gets in a little after seven on a Tuesday, so I didn’t think I’d be late. He smiled and said, “That’s OK, Mom.” And yet,  I still felt bad for not being home. “Were you waiting long?”

“Twenty minutes!” he said, with so much emphasis as if twenty minutes were actually 20 days. Ugh. I hugged him and apologized again. After we were inside, I quickly turned to him and said, “Where’s your brother?”

He replied, “I don’t know.”

FEAR

“Well, what do you mean you don’t know where Dani is? It’s seven at night. Wasn’t he over your dad’s with you?” I am divorced and practically remarried, and on Tuesdays my kids go to their father’s until seven. At seven, on the dot, they return home to me. Every week.

“No, he never came home.”

My head grew hot. It was seven at night. That doesn’t make sense.

Usually, Dani comes home on the late bus at 4:30pm and comes here. Now that he’s older, he doesn’t even go to his father’s on Tuesdays.

“Well, did he tell your dad where he was?”

“Yes, he called around 3:30 and let him know he had to do something with the camera club, after school.”

That made me feel slightly better. And yet, that usually meant he would be taking the late bus home. He’s never stayed at school past 4:30, save during soccer season. Despite the fact that he’s been a Freshman for a few months, I still sometimes feel like I have no idea what’s going on. I scurried and made a few calls. I called Dani’s cell and it rang and rang, then went to voicemail. I texted. Twice. “Where the heck are you?” I called their father and asked him to tell me exactly what Dani had said when he spoke to him. Just that he was with the camera club for something happening after school. Well, how long after school? I wanted details and no one could give them to me. And then, I called Dani’s cell again, only this time, it went immediately to voicemail. As if someone turned off the phone, or it went dead.

My stomach took a plunge, and yet, I was trying not to panic simply based on technology. Cell phones fail from time to time. Right? But, oh, the stock we set in them.

“Come on, Julien, we’re going to the school.

It was not like Dani to not contact me or text me or simply not let me know where he was. And yet, it was Dani. He was prone to forgetfulness. I tried to stay calm and not over-react but a mother sometimes can’t help herself. She needs to know where her kids are at all times. Hell, in the span of two months the news reported nothing other than children being abducted.  While I drove, I had Julien search through his list of contacts. Anyone who Dani might be hanging out with. Julien diligently put in a few calls, sent a few text, but no one responded.

Once at the school, we walked through the halls of Shawnee, stopping people along the way. “Excuse me, is there any camera club event going on?” The response was inevitably, “Not that I know of. Are you looking for someone?”

“Yes, my son.”

I always feel so pathetic when I say that. Like I’ve lost my keys, or my purse. Like I can’t keep track of my things. And then, the mommy-guilt kicks in, and the negative self-talk takes over…What mother loses her kid? A bad mother, that’s who. I should have paid more attention to who he was hanging around with. I don’t even know the names or phone numbers of any of his friends. What an idiot I am.

After about ten minutes of self-degrading and worry, the logical brain takes over. I decide that maybe the camera club is filming or taking pictures of another event. There’s several going on. It’s just a matter of which one. I eventually make my way to an event in the auditorium. A pinning ceremony. I scan the crowd, searching for that young person who is essentially an extension of myself. When you cannot find your child, lost in a crowd, it’s as if you’ve lost a limb.  Lo and behold, there he is behind a video camera propped on a tripod, filming a couple of giddily happy girls on a stage receiving their pins. His techie friends are dispersed around him. I exhale at that moment of instinctual recognition of my child; he is safe and good and alive—it’s the kind of moment that changes a mother’s chemistry, like breastfeeding. At the very moment the infant latches on there’s a hormonal flood within the mother, a wash of oxytocin, which tells her, “this is pure pleasure,” despite the cracked and bleeding nipples. Ah, bonding.

I wanted to kill him.

ANGER

Julien and I walked down to the front row, and sat right behind where he was working. I zoomed in on the back of his head like a hawk about to dive for her prey, a scowl on my face. I could sense his uneasiness. He knew I was angry as hell. I whispered, “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been worried sick. Why on earth didn’t you call me?” In secret I was thinking, Boys! How can they be so insensitive? So in their own world that they never in a million years realize that they have the power to rip your heart to shreds.

“But, I did contact you. I sent you a text!” he said, pleading.

I reached into my pocket and looked at my phone. Nothing.

“Nothing.” I said.

He quickly pulled out his and showed me the text he wrote, slightly redeeming himself. There it was, at 3:30 p.m. It had never been sent from within the auditorium.

RESIGNATION

“Look, enough with the texts, OK. You need to talk to me and I need to hear your voice. You can’t just assume I’ve got your message…” Secretly, I’m thinking, You owe me that much, don’t you think? And then, kids are so damn selfish. I’m going to go on Facebook and make a blanket statement that people should not EVER have them if they want to keep their sanity. I remember my father saying this to me and I never quite understood what he meant. I do now.

CALM

We drove home quietly. After an hour of decompression, and me doing the usual meditative ritual of going onto the computer and reading mindless posts, trying to get my sanity back, Dani came upstairs, almost as if nothing had happened.

“Hey, mom, did you see this video that’s going around now? Oh my God, You’ll love it.”

“I don’t know, show me.”

He sat on my lap. Yes, my almost 15-year-old son who weighs more than 150 pounds at 5’8″ still sits on my lap, much like I did with my own grandfather well into my 20’s, even when he’d yell, “You’re going to break my legs! Get off of me.” It runs in our family. This is how we love.

He put the youtube video “To This Day” on, and we watched. It’s about bullying. I had seen it before, but I sat still, and watched it again. It’s one of those videos that has gone viral and every time you see it, you can’t help but tear up.

When it was over he moved across the room and sat opposite me and said how much he loved this video. His eyes were red and wet with tears. It wasn’t often that I saw him cry anymore, like he used to, when he was little.

“Maybe because you were bullied as a child, ” I said, and my heart ached a little remembering some of the horrible things kids did to him because he was different. Chasing him on their bikes, threatening to beat him up, hitting him, laughing at him. In seventh grade he came to me once, when I asked him why he never hangs out with anyone anymore and said, “I have no friends, mom. None. No one likes me.” A mother is paralyzed when she hears this kind of stuff. How is it possible that your kid has no friends? Don’t others see what you see? How can I make it better, you think. How can I make people love him.

You can’t. You can only love your child and by virtue of that love, you can give him strength.

“Who me?” he said.  “Nah. I never cared about people making fun of me. I never believed them. I like myself too much.”

He smiled.

We sat there for a minute. I guess he was right. He never really cared if kids picked on him. Or if he had no friends. He always let stuff roll right off of him. He had a rich imagination that could keep him busy for hours. I always envied him for that. I always depended too much on the opinions of others for my self-worth. I was proud that he did not make the same mistake I did.

“Well, something in this video must have touched you,” I said, not needing to point out that his eyes were as wet as mine.

I thought for sure he would say the usual, that he felt sorry for kids that had to go through a life of bullying. I, myself, was bullied as a kid too. Spit balls in the hair, called a dog, tripped, kicked, spit on. The whole shebang. I had told the story to both my kids many times, and how it strengthened me and made the person I am today. Whether they were listening or not, wasn’t exactly the point. It was in the telling. In hoping to give my kids the necessary tools to deal with whatever came their way. In fact, in the video, there’s a segment about a girl who was bullied as a kid and grows up to be a woman who doesn’t believe in herself and still thinks she’s ugly because of a mark on her face. And yet, despite having kids of her own, who love her, she is insecure.

LOVE

I turned to Dani, “What do you think it was that touched you so much, then?”

“I guess,” he said, his eyes growing a little redder, “I loved the part most when they say, ‘..and they’ll never understand that she’s raising two kids whose definition of the word beauty begins with “mom.'”

Mom. A word that means beauty. How could it be? How could it not be? I guess he was listening.

I hugged him tightly, and told him I loved him. He smiled, said he loved me too, and off he went. Back into his world of being a boy.

If you haven’t already, watch the video.

 

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

March 13, 2011

I’m hiding out in my bedroom with the door locked, pretending I don’t know anyone’s home. I don’t want anyone to bother me or tell me what to do. I just want to play my records and write in my journal. More than anything, I don’t want anyone to make me study for that test on Friday. Oh, but wait. That’s not me. That’s my son. I’m not the one in 7th grade. I’m not the one getting D’s in Math and Science, or having grumpy teachers send notes home telling me I better get my act together. I’m a grown woman. I’m the mother of two. Or am I? I’m starting to have doubts.

I remember well. I graduated high school back in the 80’s and when I did, I threw off my cap and gown and said, screw this shit. Thank God I never have to go back. I went on to college, then grad school, met someone, got married and had kids. I struggled and I overcame adversity. And when I had my very first, tiny little bundle of joy, I promised that things would be different. That he would not have to suffer through what I did when I was a kid. That he would never know the horrors of looking down the gaping mouth of a screaming teacher, telling him to “wise up.”

But sadly, that was a crackpot notion. I was promising to stop a runaway train with my bare hands. A feat that simply cannot be done.  Kids have to go through their own personal struggles and no one can protect them after a certain age. Lesson learned.

Or not.

My sixth grader brought home a D. So, I sit with him night after night after night trying to get him to understand how to multiply and divide fractions. But I’ve forgotten myself. How do I multiply fractions? I haven’t done it in years. The frustration of not getting it returns.

  1. Simplify the fractions if not in lowest terms.
  2. Multiply the numerators of the fractions to get the new numerator.
  3. Multiply the denominators of the fractions to get the new denominator.

I send him back to school on test day, sure that he will get an A. I wait. I wonder. I pace the halls. I Freudian slip and say, “I wonder what I got?”  But he returns with another D, and I’m crushed. How was that possible? The both of us went over this a million times. So, I do what any desperate parent does who lives vicariously through her kids: I yell at him and take away his video games. Maybe, by accident, it just slips out, I even berate him for not being able to understand the material. The guilt-laden words, “C’mon, what were you thinking?” make their way from deep inside my stomach, up my throat and out my mouth.

To top it off, I get the dreaded letter sent home about his performance. He’s not paying attention in class; he’s fooling around with his friends; he needs to be more respectful to his teachers; he needs to stop drawing cartoons in his notebook; this is his third detention in six months; if his behavior and his grades don’t improve he will likely be kept back.

Sure, it’s his behavior under scrutiny and they’re his grades. But really, they’re mine. It’s me back in middle school, floundering around, doggy-paddling to stay afloat. I was a rotten student. And every bad grade he comes home with is a blazing reminder of my own poor performance back in the day. Every detention he gets, it’s me who sits with the shame. And every parent-teacher conference or note sent home is not about his behavior, but mine. Of course, you could say this is narcissism at its finest. Whatever happens to others becomes internalized and thus, happens to me. The apple is the tree. It’s all about me, me, me. Yet, my children are an extension of me. There’s an interconnectedness there that cannot easily be disconnected.  And so, I empathize with their plight, particularly when I too have lived through the same. Isn’t it called compassion? At least that’s what I tell myself it’s called.

In fact, I sat through one of his conferences just recently and listened to all of teachers say the same thing. And I’m sure I heard it this way: you need to stop fooling around, Tracy. School is no joke. It’s time to get serious. And as I sat in my little 7th grade chair, so low to the ground, like a shrinking violet, with my knees knocking under the desk, I could feel my heart pound and my face get hot with humiliation for not being a better student.

It’s not just me. My sister-in-law is about to register her son for Kindergarten, but she’s in a panic. Once he gets on that bus, all by himself, she said, she can’t protect him. She was a shy kid too. She knows how rough it will be to take that twenty-minute ride to school, knowing no one, and having no one to hide behind or talk to.

Another friend of mine watches in horror as her teenage kids get into trouble, oftentimes with the law. “I was so bad when I was a kid,” she told me. “And now I’m watching my sons get into the same kind of mess.”

The wheel goes around for everyone. And yet, there’s a reason we as parents must shoulder our kids’ burdens. Isn’t it too much to ask a shy five-year-old to handle a bus ride by himself? Isn’t it too much to expect a seventh grader to perform flawlessly in every subject when, like his mother, he is a dreamer too?

I so often believe it is.

And so, is the lesson learned here to hold on for dear life? To live through things again and again until you get it right? Even at the expense of others? Or does the girl with zero confidence who is still holding on for dear life, need to let go of the death grip she has on her son who, by no conscious choice of his own,  reminds her everday of her own past failures? Perhaps the lesson is to remember  how rotten it felt to not be believed in or, to not be loved above all else, despite your limitations. Lessons, lessons, lessons. They are learned at all ages, And perhaps I need to let go. Not of my son, but me. I need to forgive the girl who made so many mistakes and lazed around the house without an ambitious bone in her body or a shred of self-motivation. I need to let go of that wasted time that I often foolishly think I’ll ever get back. Humans! The only animal on the planet capable of so many deep-rooted pschyological weirdness. Alas,  I did bloom. I was a late bloomer. And as Sharon Olds says, “anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.” But, in the end, it’s not about me. It’s about him. It’s about the tree shaking the apple off its limb and letting it roll where it chooses. It’s about saying: I may be suffering right along with you. You’re not alone. But you’re free. You are your own person. And I love you unconditionally. 

Tremolo

January 25, 2011

Listening to the hallowed thump of my father’s fingers on the wood, the tiny squeak of the tuning pegs pulling tension on the strings, my two brothers and I gazed like giddy, perfect Buddhas into the hollow bodies of our parents’ Martin guitars from our spot on the floor at their feet.

And we watched their fingers strum and pick—the steel and the nylon—as they fumbled with their capos, and belted out the pages, one soprano, one alto, of torn sheet music with their throats.

John Denver, Jerry Jeff, Emmy Lou, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Paxton, Kris Kristofferson, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band…

These folky jam sessions where my father sang into my mothers eyes and struggled to reach those higher notes never lasted all that long. The moments before someone was first to put down his or her guitar, to grab a cigarette, sounded best. The last notes hung sweetly like a tremolo, something mysterious and dark hovering overhead, a lumpy fog of calamitous death.

And it held us in place, for fear the slightest of our movements be the cause of this end. Except our voices, which rose above each plucked string along the fret, and danced, and knew we had no choice but to let go.

Teenage Angst: know thyself

October 1, 2010

Friday morning and the tweenage angst is in full force. My one son yelled at me for not letting him bike to school in a downpour; the other whined about not wanting to go to school at all.

“I hate school,” he said.

“Well, how come just yesterday you were pumping iron in the garage at seven in the morning, putting on loads of deodorant and couldn’t get out the door fast enough?”

“That’s different. That’s for a girl who happens to be at school. Everything else is just nonsense.”

“Oh, I see.”

Anyway, at least they are attempting to know themselves. As for me…I seemed to be pretty confused at their age, as these poems attest. I don’t think I need to get too analytical with them. It’s safe to say that they are pure embarrassment.

1. (c. 1984)

Y’know I was just thinking
Bout what I believe
Kinda hippy, peace, love
Put on earth for me to receive

This world I don’t find easy
But I’m doing the best I can
God, you know I don’t belong here
This generation I can’t undertand

Feels like I’m in the dark
A misfit in the light
Honey, everybody knows I’d be better off
Just coming out at night

These days aren’t mine
It’s hard to believe in peace
In a world full of hate
My world long ago ceased.

2. (c. 1984)

This one is a little deeper, and more philosophical …

Finding yourself
Is like going on a trip.
You just travel,
Not knowing where you’re going
But somehow you just end up there.

3. (c. 1986)

This one seems to be profoundly existential and probing. And yet, teacher’s comments were discouraging: “This needs work,”  (to put it lightly). I guess I was grateful that the other poems, which presumably were turned in with this one, didn’t have the same comment on them and thus, were works of genius.

If I Never

To die.
To never breathe again
If I never drank from the rivers of peace
Never smiled at the trees
Or drew my expressions
Painted them onto my canvass
if I never felt the beauty of the sky
Never felt the heat or cold
If I never got out of bed and did
the stuff that I usually do
If I never…
I wouldn’t be.

The Visit

April 23, 2010


She takes the hour’s drive down to Long Beach Island, the kids in tow, under a sky dark with storm clouds and rain. Kate’s twelve-year old son Daniel, sitting in the front seat, for the first time. That grown-up inner-voice of hers playing by the rules denied him the privilege of sitting in the front seat until he’d hit the 90-pound-weight restriction and the legal age of twelve. Until today, she refused him a tradition that she herself experienced almost from infancy—not for any other reason but birth order. The 70’s. No seatbelts. Brothers bouncing around in the hatchback of a 72′ Ford Pinto, or sprawled out lying on their backs in the roomy Hornet, staring up at the telephone wires that looked like some poor soul’s flatline on an EKG. Her father flicking cigarette ashes out the window that flew back in and around the inside of the car, into their faces and hair like party glitter. Holding onto a tumbler of something or other in one hand, the steering wheel in the other. And Kate, bopping forward, dancing in the passenger’s seat, her hand perpetually affixed to the radio dial, her radio dial, as if it were a lifeline to a normal existence. Copacobana or Boogie Oogie Oogie, playing like a tiny orchestra inside a black box despite her father’s endless orders to turn it down, or for that matter, turn it off. That’s not even music.

“I’ve waited my whole life to sit up here,” Daniel tells his mother, with his arm out the window, coursing the waves of sixty-mile-an-hour winds as they cruise down a desolate 532, replete with Pgymy Pines and white sandy trails that lead deep into the forest. Kate laughs and pats his arm which is hovering over the dash. Julien is perched contentedly in the back, in his booster, strapped down, locked in, tapping his fingers on the tinted glass of the minivan.

“Your whole life, huh?”

He smiles at her. He knows it’s silly to talk about a whole life at this age. He’s just starting to put things into perspective. To maybe feel old enough to know how young he really is.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye explore the new area around him. The glove compartment. He opens it, shuffles through papers. Closes it. He puts the window up, then down. He locks the door. He unlocks it. He puts his feet up on the dashboard.

“When I was your age, my father used to take us down the shore, down these back roads, through the Pinelands, every summer. Sometimes he was drunk. Sometimes not. But Grandma would yell at him and say, ‘I need a break,’ and so he would throw me and Uncle Mike and Uncle Tim in the car and he’d take us down here. I was always the one who got to sit up front.” His eyes light up like he shares some special rite of firstborns with his mother.

Kate points to a displaced hill in the distance that is possibly the only hill in southern New Jersey. “There it is,” she says. “The end of the world.”

Her boys are used to this. It is yet another tradition she keeps intact. They fly over the hill screaming, “It’s the end of the world,” they say their goodbyes, their it was nice to know yous and then suddenly, when the car touches bottom over the other side, they act shocked that they survived. It’s all a part of the trip and a simple but clever trick to keep children from dying of complete boredom.

“Do you remember Grandpaw?” Kate asks.

Daniel says “vaguely,” and Julien says no, but that he thinks about him. In reality they remember little.  How he used to sit them in his wheelbarrow and cart them all around the yard. Or take them to the hayloft and build forts for them.  Or when his eyes filled with tear the day Kate put his first grandson in his arms. He said to her, “It’s like you’re giving me a second chance to do it right. To be a good father.”

“Well, Juli, you were only three when you last saw him, honey.”

And then he stretches with restlessness and monotony. She forgot to pack his coloring book and DS. He asks, “Do we have to go down here and do this? I want to go home.”

Daniel chimes in, “Yeah, what’s the point. It’s not like we’re going to actually see him, see him.”

“True dat,” Kate says, forgiving herself a slip of bad, contemporary slang despite being forty. “But it’s called ‘a visit’ just the same.”

She drives on forgetting the sadness, the anger, the wreckage of her life for the sake of this visit. The drugs. The drinking. The weirdos and loan sharks of the 70’s and 80’s that came to her front door looking for her father, threatening her mother with warnings that she and her brothers could go missing if he didn’t pay his debts. She tries to forget the nights she heard her mother whimpering alone in her room at four in the morning because her father hadn’t come home and hadn’t called. She tries to forget all those art exhibits and chorus concerts of hers where she looked out over the audience for that man, but never saw him. Not once. Nor ever did he come to where she sat on the living room sofa, brooding over the sad fact that Rex Smith or Lief Garrett were only actors and would probably never date her. Never did her father come to console her or put his arm around her and say, but I love you.

They get to the bridge from 72, open all the windows and fly over the Causway. The smell of bay muck and dead fish rise up from the water on salty currents of wet air. When they hit Peahala Park or Brant Beach, she never really knew when one town ends and another begins, all the street names change to states. California, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. They turn left on Nebraska.

When Kate’s dad was seventeen this was his beach. He knew this island like a clammer knows how to dig for little necks with his toes. He lived, during the summers, on Cape Cod Avenue, but life-guarded on Nebraska. And him and Jimmy, Johnny and Josh smoked Winstons and chased after girls who rented rooms in Chalfont for the summer. They drove down the boulevard in Johnny’s or maybe Jimmy’s ’63 Chevy Nova, writing songs to those girls and promising to marry them.

When he was nineteen he formed a band called the Wharf Rats and got a gig playing guitar and singing nightly at the Jolly Pound Boat in Bay Village with Jimmy and a blond named Mary. When Kate was a kid she could buy vintage postcards of her father singing with the Wharf Rats in one of the antique shops on the island. But the Jolly Pound Boat isn’t there anymore, nor is the antique shop.

When he was twenty-one he fell in love with Kate’s mother and had babies and stayed in New Jersey. He did this instead of becoming famous like Jimmy, who, in the fall that following summer, stuck to the plan and went out to Hollywood and joined the Dirt Band, which became an instant success. He didn’t become rich either, like Josh, who inherited his father’s real estate empire and flew off to India and married a sixteen-year-old Hindu princess. He just was. And that, I guess, wasn’t good enough.

By the time Kate could remember, he’d already begun drinking gin and tonics and selling copy machines, and sometimes even kiting checks when business was slow (because he had a family of five to support). And on days when her mother couldn’t take it anymore, he’d fly Kate and her brothers down to Nebraska Avenue, to the jetty, where, at low tide, there was an enclave among the rocks and there they’d set up camp for a couple hours with a blanket to protect us from the wind.They would all fit in this spot that Kate’s father called “The Thinking Spot,” and mostly, the kids let him sit there and stare out toward the Atlantic and think by himself while they crushed shells on the rocks or looked for starfish. And he wouldn’t move and sometimes he’d lower his head in his hands, and while he never said anything, they all knew he was suffering. But more than anything, no matter what conscious hurdles he was jumping, Kate told herself that she was loved.

At least that’s how she wishes to remember it.

Kate takes her sons up onto the beach, and says, “We’re here to see Grandpaw.” But the beach is empty and dark and cold for April. Daniel rolls his eyes. Perhaps he’s too young to appreciate the implied spirituality. Julien half-believes he might see a ghost.

“OK,” Julien says. “There’s no one here. Let’s go.”

It’s high tide and they can’t reach The Thinking Spot, so Kate stands at the precipice of the jetty and much like her father, she look out toward the waves, crashing onto the smooth black rocks with a somewhat melancholy expression on her face. “He’s here, boys. He’s all around us. Let me pay my respects,” she says. The little one scurries around in the sand. Daniel, on the other hand, stands by her side.

“Translation, please?” he says.

“Translation,” she say. “When you love someone and they die, you still love them. That love never goes away. It just changes. And instead of actually seeing the person again, which, obviously, you cannot do, you go to the place where he or she was buried—or in this case, where Grandpaw’s ashes were sprinkled—and you visit. And you remember. And you celebrate all the happiness he or she brought to your life.”

There’s a storm coming up from the south end of the island and the sky rumbles in the distance. There’s not much time, so Kate scoops up a handful of white sand and says her hellos or goodbyes or whatever you say to the dead. I miss you. I love you. I forgive you.

She takes the boys to grab lunch at a little place called The Bayside Diner. It’s the only place open during off-season. They laugh, they plan their summer vacation. They talk about how they’ve all outgrown the kiddie rides at Fantasy Island. And then they head home. There’s something eerie and deserted about the island in winter and early spring. Something that makes you glad the winter is only temporary.

They are quiet for a while as they head West on 72, back towards their town. Kate imagines their brains working to grasp the concept of loving someone who is dead, and possibly even wondering how it is that they can make it over the end of the world, die and then come back to life a dozen times during the course of year.

Daniel’s hand courses over the cool dashboard. He looks at the buttons on the console. And then, it suddenly occurs to him, right as Kate makes the left turn back towards Chatsworth, that the radio exists and that he can actually turn it on. How or why he comes to this realization so late in the day, Kate wonders, is one of the mysteries of who he is. But there it is. He turns the dial on the radio to 102.5, to the sound of Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, Justin Bierber and the Black Eyed Peas; his music. And just like a time-lapse photograph of the opening of a flower in spring, the meaning of freedom crawls across his face and transforms his expression from curious distraction to beaming recognition. A coming of age moment unfolding in the front seat of the Honda Odyssey. Kate knows the radio, from here on out, no longer belongs to her.

“You can even turn it up,” she says, as they dance in their seats down the last of the empty roads to a song that holds no memories, but feels good just the same.

Dust balls

August 25, 2009

So. I’m invited to this woman’s house over in one of those new, treeless McMansion developments. Her name is Gisa, and as she explains, it’s short for the Germanic Gisela meaning “to pledge” (why I even mention this will make sense later). The development, like all suburban upper-class new construction sprawl is a development I’ve passed many times before, but never felt privileged enough to enter—us middle class types know well enough to stay out of cul-de-sacs called things such as “The Sanctuary,” or “Le Grande,” figuring membership cards are required in order to lurk around. But, her son and my son go to preschool together and as she wanted her little Merlin to grow up with “the people, ” for whatever reason, she denied him a private education.  I’d be in the parking lot of the school waiting for the closing bell and Gisa would always pull up with minutes to spare in this hideously grotesque conversion van with like, 20 doors on it. She never wore makeup and just moved here from Germany. I thought, yes! My kind of friend. Surely we have lots in common. So, she invites me over one afternoon. And as a mother who is incessantly looking for ways to occupy her kid, let alone herself, I took her up on the offer. Besides, I thought, it might be nice to bring a pie or something. If that conversion van is any indication of her newly acquired “status,” in this country, a pie will certainly be appreciated.

So, we head out, one Tuesday afternoon, me and my son, in my 2003 mini-van, driving a bit farther than our town’s comfort zone. According to my printed-out Mapquest directions (I don’t have a GPS) it’s the next left. I pull onto her street and one by one the houses get bigger and bigger and as they do, me and my mini-van seem to get smaller and smaller. Huge houses, then mansions, then estates. Her house is, of course, one of the biggest. I’m intimidated by the size let alone the two front doors. I didn’t know houses had two front doors. After about ten strenuous minutes of hoping that some previously learned, front-door etiquette comes back to me I end up choosing the door on the right. This one leads to the mud room for people who might have dirt on their feet (that’s us). We say our hellos and I hand her the pie, which she casually places atop the laundry machine and quickly redirects our small talk back to the fact that we need to take off our shoes.

A few awkward moments later, we go in. And even though I’m catching site of a three-story high cathedral ceiling, a fireplace with Texas longhorns above the mantle and not one living room but four, all I keep thinking of is the atrocity that I’m wearing sweatpants. My favorite line from Seinfeld re-runs streams through my brain when Jerry tells George that “wearing sweatpants in public is like telling the world you’ve given up.”

Oh well, I think. At least they’re not gathered with elastic at the ankles.

So as Gisa leads me around, from room to room, I secretly feel like a third class citizen from coach peeking into first class. But suddenly, I notice what I’d like to believe is a personality tick—Gisa, as it turns out, is hyper-neurotic about dust. In instances like these, you can only hope for such an obvious shortcoming. “See? See? Do you see the dust?” she says to me in her thick German accent upon entering each expanse of a room. Her finger courses over blond wood table tops. But there’s no dust. Literally. It’s as if there’s a plastic bubble free of all pathogens encircling the house and all its immune deficient inhabitants. I’ve never seen a cleaner place.

I think of my home. My little rancher. I have dust balls bigger than Arizona tumbleweeds. They roll around my floor like city trash caught up in a wind pocket, attacking me and my socks and my kids. I have the massive lint ball that hovers between the laundry room and the kitchen. There’s the clump of my husband’s chest hair under the baseboard heater in the bathroom. And there’s the ever-present motionless entity of dust and Fruit Loops that, fortunately, live under the sofa in the living room and cannot be detected by the untrained eye.

No, I say. I don’t see the dust.

As we make our way back to the kitchen, hovering over her granite bar and cherry wood cabinetry, I come to the bitter conclusion that this woman and I have nothing in common except maybe the van. I think: this is how envy gets a hold of people. This is what the Christians warn about, coveting thy neighbor’s goods. This is not “keeping up with the Joneses” because you’re not even one of them. Maybe you clean for them. But you’re certainly not a Jones.

I think how it takes massive amounts of confidence to be content within your own life when you are confronted with so much luxury and wealth. And despite the fact that every appliance in her house was shipped over from Germany, all her furniture too, that she’s got a sunken tub in the master bedroom with Andalusian tile and a fireplace the size of my living room, four walk-in closets, and a bathroom in all five bedrooms…despite all that, I think of my little life and I wonder how I can still feel quite proud of what I’ve got.

Very possibly, I think, it’s because I’ve got nothing. As a child growing up, we had nothing. My family came from nothing. My grandparents before them came from nothing. For generations we affectionately and proudly described ourselves as “peasant stock,” vindicating the obvious deficiency of worldly goods. Instead, we assigned value to immaterial things– our voices, our musical talents, our minds, our creativity, our humor and our closeness as a family. Those were the things that really mattered. Not all the “stuff.” Even my unconventional religious upbringing– a combination of Buddhism, Christianity and Native American spirituality–taught me the importance of giving up all but a few necessities in order that we may not be deceived by unconsciously clinging to worldly possessions. So, it is at these moments, when I am faced with such abundance, that I recall the worth and value in that which cannot be seen, touched, shipped overseas or purchased with a Visa card.

Gisa and I notice how well the kids are getting along. And aside from the occasional assault upon the children she makes to not touch the white walls, she seems happy that Merlin has found a friend. I want to say that I imagine it’s quite lonely for the little guy being so far from him native country and family. I even want to tell her that her obsessive-compulsive fear of dust is merely a manifestation of Freudian guilt for having too much stuff. But I hold off. I don’t want to seem contemptuous.

“How about we come to your place later this afternoon? You can show me your house,” she says. And I choke on my Chai tea latte she just whipped up for me on her espresso maker from Norway.

I have a pizza box still sitting on the counter from the weekend, month-old oatmeal ground into the Berber, and the lingering smell of a diaper that was discarded three diapers ago is possibly still wafting out of the family room. I imagine little Merlin playing some middle-class version of blocks at my house, rolling around, as kids do, on the floor. It would take eons to pick the dustballs off his Karl Lagerfeld designer toddler wear.

“Well,” I manage to say, “I’ve been having problems with my Audi (I don’t have one). I simply must get it into the shop. And, to be quite honest,” I add, as I clear my throat, “my cleaning lady took the month off (don’t have one of those either). The place is a little messy.”

So much for pride in peasant stock.

She tries to be laid back about the fact that I might have a messy house. “You don’t have to clean on my account,” she says, but she flinches and quickly adds, “another time might be better.” Her name in German doesn’t so much mean “to” pledge, I think, as it means to keep a bottle of Pledge handy under any circumstance.

I coolly agree.

We head back into the mud room to put on our shoes and say our goodbyes. Tonight, she says, she and her husband will take a stroll through “their woods” (three acres worth). He’s a triathlon. An Ironman. A glass designer by day. Oh. I say. How nice. I’m headed over to Wal-Mart to buy a pizza cutter. Mine mysteriously disappeared (could have been the dust ball in the kitchen). We don’t have much more to say. Finally, she asks me, “you work out?” I know she’s referring to my sweatpants.