Credo II (Morningside After Dark edit)

Three times a year — once in January, once in February, and once in April– a sympathetic and broad-minded crowd gathers in the basement of Morningside Church in Edina for a night of stories and songs on a particular theme. The event is free (donations to the church are always appreciated but not required) and always both life-and-spirit-affirming. 

Last night, I did my third MADark reading. I’m always honored to be included, but last night felt particularly special somehow. Anyway, here is the essay I read, a version of “Credo” I edited for last night’s theme: Growing Pains.

 

Lizzie on Henry's shoulder

 

First and most of all, I’m for love –the kind you need and want from the people who give it best.

 

I stand for Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. I am against mocking people for believing in God and I am against mocking people for not believing in God.

 

I believe in deep quiet, loons, and swimming with horses, which I tried once at Camp Lake Hubert the summer I was 15– it felt like flying. I believe in an Afterlife … not harps and fluffy white clouds so much as a clarity, an understanding, a lifting of all the veils that make us think our stubborn, self-destructive thoughts. I am for a Heaven that reconciles my vision and God’s, a big explanation, God saying “this is why and this is why and this is why.”

 

I’m for Grandma Betty, who kept rosaries in her desk and fed me soft, pillowy doughnuts rolled in sugar on Sunday mornings after Mass. I’m for the tiny, Technicolor strawberries she grew in her garden, which I picked and brought to my dad and grandpa in a metal pail, one by one.

 

I am for Grandpa Skluzacek, whose pickup truck smelled of wood shavings, tobacco, and the fish he caught alone in secret lakes and I am for Grandpa Thacher, who took me to get stitches on my chin when I was 4 and told everyone how brave I was when I wasn’t.

 

Camp Lake Hubert

 

I am pro-cabin, pro-camp, pro-canoe. I’m pro-Constance, who meets me at the back fence now and then to exchange lemons, eggs, sour cherries, solidarity. I’m for the teary girl I saw at the elementary school last October, willing herself down the hall. I was her once. I am pro-aloneness, anti-loneliness.

 

I am in favor of the simple, peaceful Lonsdale cemetery where my dad and other members of my family are buried, but against all the reasons it’s full. I am in favor of tough old ladies and soft old men and I am all in for Minnesota. I believe in flannel sheets, down comforters with the windows cracked, the romance of a December wedding. I would relive mine a thousand times if I could … I probably have.

 

Yes to my dad and stepmom, who honored me by dying when I was right there in the room and yes to my mom and stepdad, who spared me that sorrow. No to a crystal ball, though I badly want one. No because I would use it irresponsibly.

 

I swear by birthday cake for breakfast and I swear by my mom, who taught herself the Club Med line dance with a tape she bought at the gift shop and practiced in our living room until it was perfect. I am passionately pro-nerd.

 

43rd birthday cake for Brian 2015

 

No to mealy apples, no to fake vanilla, and no to both phone and in-person solicitation. Yes to bread, GramBea’s rice pudding, lake swimming, being up late at night. Yes to wilderness and protecting it.

 

I believe in the peonies my dad grew and brought to my house in vases each spring; the Eames chair where I sat in his lap when I was five, watching Little House on the Prairie on Monday nights; I believe in the bronze stars and purple heart he brought back from Viet Nam. I believe in anyone brave enough and wise enough to choose tenderness.

 

I’m for the brilliant nurse who helped me bathe my toddler at Children’s Hospital when she had wires glued to her scalp and I’m for the brilliant neurosurgeon who performed her brain surgery at Mayo when she was three years old. I’m against staying in the hospital with your child alone – don’t do it.

 

Sweet Brian and Carolinbe post EEG

 

I am for raising yourself as you raise your kids, I am for Dad, who worked at my high school and would make a convincing camel face for anyone who asked and I am for Mom, who called me Lamby and Lovebug right up until she died when I was 41.

 

Yes to GramBea playing piano out on her four-season porch as I was coming in from school, yes to the beautiful connection between my children, which is what I have always hoped for. Yes to the way my dad and his sister would laugh together in a kind of harmony and yes to letting your kids see you cry. No to anyone who makes you feel like you’re crazy for feeling too much.

 

Yes to reminding people they are not alone – including myself. Yes to growing up together, to people who are afraid but keep trying anyway.

 

Yes to you, my friends from long ago and far away and yes to you, my friends from always. Yes to everyone who is here now and yes to those who couldn’t stick around for one reason or another.

 

I stand for you.
I stand for me.
I am for you and me.

 

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Stardom

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A confession: I have always believed I have to be a star.

 

To be clear, I don’t mean I am destined to be a star; just that I am supposed to be one. Stardom feels like a responsibility, a debt I owe my parents, teachers, classmates, and anyone else who sees me as a writer who hasn’t done anything legitimate with her talent yet. It’s also a kind of unspoken, unwritten contract I entered into with my attorney mother when I decided to stay home with my kids instead of pursuing a Career-with-a-Capital-C:

 

She would allow me to choose this path, which she did not respect because she believed it made me dependent on my husband and because she considered it beneath the dignity of intelligent, modern women. In return, I would keep writing while I changed diapers and did the laundry and kept fevers down and made dinner. I would keep practicing and eventually, when my children were studying at their respectable colleges, looking gorgeous and being unimaginably charming (the least I could do if I wasn’t going to accomplish anything else in the years they were home with me), I would emerge from my drab domestic chrysalis in a shimmering caftan, expensive bifocals dangling on a golden chain around my neck, and rocket to the top of every list that mattered to her.

 

At some point, I must have agreed to this, I must have signed that contract. It might have been when I was 20, the day I told my mother I wanted to stay home with babies and bake lovely cakes and muffins and make quilts. We were in her kitchen and she gripped the counter, leaning forward with her shoulders up around her jaw, which couldn’t find the right position. “Okaaaaaayyyy,” she half-sang, half muttered to her gorgeous fingernails, which she still manicured herself each Sunday night while she watched Masterpiece Theater. She couldn’t relate to this.

 

Don’t be too hard on her. I was two and she was 35 when she started law school in 1974. There were few other women in her class and even fewer with young children. She had been a 5th-grade teacher for 11 years before having me and spent another year or so afterwards earning a Master’s degree in Pyschology from the University of Minnesota. She used to tell me that Watergate saved her from the punishing boredom of being home with a newborn. What can I say? It’s a good thing she didn’t want to write greeting cards.

 

She was a Grinnell graduate, a Wyonegonic camp counselor, and an Edina teacher. She played flute and sang beautifully, never met a kid she couldn’t somehow charm and discipline at the same time, and had an organizational system for everything. She was the first female partner at her enormous downtown law firm, which she eventually left to start her own practice. She wore power suits with shoulder pads, mentored young lawyers, held season tickets to the Guthrie Theater and the Minnesota Orchestra. She did the Sunday crossword and dabbled in Sudoku, sat on hospital credentialing boards, and knew the Minneapolis skyway system like the back of her hand. She was already the star she wanted me to be.

 

I am so proud of her. I have never aspired to what my mom dreamed for me, but I love what she dreamed for herself and reached for and achieved. I still brag about her all the time, but she’s gone now and the contract is null and void. I’m off the hook, I don’t have to succeed her way, so what next? What am I going to dream for myself?

 

I do want to write and publish a book in my lifetime, though I don’t know what kind. It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s useful to anyone who reads it. I want it to be the kind of book someone can melt into and maybe hide out in for a while. I don’t need critical acclaim or celebrity …or at least I’m trying not to need those things, which feel like part of the old contract.

 

Staying at home with my babies was a good decision for me, it turns out … not because kids always need their mothers at home –you will never hear this attorney’s daughter say something that reductive—but because I love being at home.  My work is a natural extension of who I am. I have tweaked the original vision: I expanded my baking repertoire beyond the original cakes and muffins and replaced the quilt-making, which involves too much geometry for me, with knitting, which is a better waiting room skill.

 

I am living the life I dreamed for myself, just like my mom did. Of course there are mistakes and detours and whatnot, but I love what I do and I’m proud of my work. Isn’t that dignified? Isn’t that intelligent? Isn’t that modern, even if my name isn’t on a paycheck? (It should be).

 

I think my mom saw my decision to be a hausfrau as a kind of betrayal, a refusal to acknowledge what she had to go through to achieve what she did in the ’70s and ’80s, but I absolutely acknowledge that and I am so grateful. Watching her bravely go to work when the “respectable mothers” were at home is precisely what has given me the courage to stay home when the “respectable women” go to work. The point of our striving for equality should never be what kind of work we do, the point should be fighting for the choice and granting each other the space, the respect to make that choice, even if we don’t understand it.

 

I will keep one part of the original contract: I will keep writing, though I write for my own reasons now. I write to reassure, to be a voice in the dark, not for approval or recognition. I will send these letters or essays or whatever they are out to You in hopes that they are useful, maybe a place to rest for a minute and let yourself off the hook.

 

And I will send them out to my brilliant, brave, inspiring mother, gone for almost four years now, in hopes that these reflections reach her through increasing time and space, through the darkness and silence that always seems to exist between two stars.

 

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The Thumbsucking Witch

Little Marta Easter 1977

 

Well, hello and happy new year, my dear friend …

 

You probably never did this, but when I was a little girl, I sucked my thumb. Long after other kids had quit, I was still doing it. Losing patience, my mom tried painting my thumbs with some gross-tasting liquid to make me stop. Instead, I sucked my poisoned thumbs and wept with indignation. She put me on incentive programs, offered me prizes, rolled her eyes, issued dire warnings about other kids not wanting to be friends with me, but it was all in vain. I was an only child and prone to tears – I wasn’t about to surrender my only reliable source of comfort for a Barbie doll or some vague threat of social isolation.

 

So my mother told me about the Thumbsucking Witch.

 

The Thumbsucking Witch was supposed to be nice, but every child knows there’s no such thing as a nice witch.  Witches are mean, fairies are nice. Elementary stuff, but Mom insisted the Thumbsucking Witch was good-natured. When she caught me sucking my thumb, she would give me a friendly little pinch and I would remember to stop.

 

A witch who pinched me just at the moment I had achieved a temporary and uneasy peace? This was my mother’s idea of “good-natured” and “friendly?” What, then, qualified as evil? These were the kinds of questions that kept me sucking my thumb.

 

According to my mother, I couldn’t see the Thumbsucking Witch but she could see me. Was she invisible or just hiding in the room somewhere? Could she see me when I was in the bathroom? The closet? Was anywhere safe? Was she ever NOT watching me?

 

I believe both the Cold War and my mother’s fascination with James Bond spy movies provide relevant context for my surveillance paranoia.

 

I believed in the Thumbsucking Witch. I didn’t believe she was nice – I was no Pollyanna—but I believed she existed and followed me everywhere, waiting for me to screw up so she could punish me. This, by the way, is a pretty typical GenX origin story.

 

Anyway, I met her. I met the Thumbsucking Witch late one night when I couldn’t sleep. She poked her head and torso through my window, wearing standard-issue pointy black hat and billowing black robes, though no wand — curious.  Nothing about her was friendly. She stayed for about half an hour, shaming and reprimanding me for my disgusting, babyish habit. Again and again I would bring my thumb to my lips and then force it back down under the covers, delirious with fear and longing.

 

When the witch flew away, having first extracted my trembling promise to quit sucking my thumb and threatening to return if I didn’t, I climbed down from my playhouse bed and ran to my parents’ room. I had been right the whole time; the Thumbsucking Witch was not nice. How dare my mother lie to me about something so fundamental? How dare she?

 

Mom was unimpressed with my hysterics. “Marta, the Thumbsucking Witch isn’t real. I made her up so you would stop sucking your thumb. You must have just had a bad dream.”

 

I would have none of it. “She was in my window, she was MEAN and she scared me.” I can only imagine what this scene must have been like for my mother, who had a Master’s degree in psychology and had just graduated from law school. How to counsel such an irrational client?

 

My mother was not the type to indulge drama and sent me back to bed, bawling I’m sure, afraid to suck my thumb and yet needing it to calm down. I wanted to believe that my mother was telling the truth, that the Thumbsucking Witch was just a character she had made up to get me to quit a bad habit — it made sense — but I had seen the Thumbsucking Witch. I had heard her.  I knew she had visited my room and frightened me. Didn’t I?

 

How is a five-year-old supposed to reconcile the rational truth with her perceived experience? How is a 45-year-old supposed to do that?

 

So odd, the things that cross your mind as you listen to the news.

 

I hope you’re well and happy, ready for whatever comes next. I, for one, am wishing for a dull,  quiet year, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to get one. Never mind … we have each other.

 

In love and solidarity,
Marta

Eulogy

My mom died from lung cancer (no, she wasn’t a smoker) in March of this year. Yesterday, we all gathered at the Minneapolis Club downtown to express our love and respect at her memorial service. It was beautiful — perfect, really– and I know my mom would have loved it. I delivered a eulogy for her (somehow without tears, though I lost my place a couple of times).  For those of you who couldn’t be there and have asked to read it, here it is …

 

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The wisest mothers — and mine was absolutely among them– know that our ultimate purpose is to teach our children not to need us. To know and love us, yes, to respect us, absolutely, but not need. Carol Thacher was not the kind of mama who ever wanted to hear her daughter say “I would be lost without you.” She made sure I would never be.

 

So you may be surprised to hear me say that the hardest part of losing my mom has been losing her protection.  If you knew her for at least five minutes, then you know hers was not a nervous, fluttery kind of maternal protection. It was way better than that — more generous because it made both of us strong, not just her.  She was not here to shield me from the world, she was here to get me ready for it.  There were  a few times when my mom stepped in to fight a battle for which she didn’t believe I was ready, but that was rare. For the most part, her protection came in the form of empowerment –coaching me towards independence, sharing her community, and showing me how to experience motherhood within the context of womanhood.

 

I did not come home to milk and cookies after school, unless I was at my grandma’s. If I wanted cookies — and I ALWAYS want cookies– I was going to have to learn to bake them myself. So I did. My mom loved to talk about me as a 5th or 6th-grader, home alone after school with the television and stereo both blaring, teaching myself by trial and significant error how to follow recipes. In her office downtown, she would take a call from a client about a lease she was negotiating, then a call from me.

 

“Um, Mom? Sorry to bother you, but my recipe calls for corn syrup and all we have is corn oil. I can use that instead, right?”

 

Then a call from another client seeking her counsel about a tenant dispute, then another from me, apologizing for the egg white that dripped into the silverware drawer. She giggled at the juxtaposition and answered everyone’s questions. She didn’t tell me to stop baking and she didn’t rush home to take over — she let me make my messy mistakes, trusting that I would ultimately work it out. 

 

She was not here to shield me from the world, she was here to get me ready for it.

 

I know there were — and maybe still are– people who felt sorry for me because she wasn’t home with me after school, but I love what I learned to do on my own. And I love my mom for giving me the space and the trust to do it. I love her for sending me to Camp Lake Hubert for a month every summer, where I found my best self, and I love her for teaching me how to rescue myself instead of doing it for me.  She rolled her eyes on my behalf when someone was thoughtless or petty, but then came the smile, the slow nod. “I know you can handle this, Lamby.” So I did — sometimes well, sometimes not. It didn’t matter. The point was that she believed I could and expected me to try. That is still the point now.

 

There was plenty of time alone in the house, yes, but I was never alone in the world.  From the beginning, she surrounded both of us with powerful nurturers, thoughtful teachers, creative problem-solvers, wise counselors –to raise us both, through childhood and beyond. She shared everyone : her big, loving, musical, complicated family; her devoted, brilliant, meddlesome friends, her accomplished, formidable, deliberate professional network.  I was welcomed and loved in your homes; GramBea’s rice pudding is still my ultimate comfort food and I wouldn’t DREAM of any other birthday cake besides a Sue Burritt’s World-Famous.  Some of you graciously consented to interview me after college when there was still a chance I might turn out to be employable.  A few of you even bravely tried to teach me math.

 

There you were, every time. And here you still are. You’re checking on me, inviting me to the theater with you, walking me through the estate stuff, helping me plan today. You get credit for that, absolutely, but so does my mom. For me, your comfort and aid always were and still are an extension of my mom’s comfort and aid. If she trusted you, I trust you, almost without exception. My mom died, yes, but I am not motherless. I have you, if you’ll have me. The best mothering happens in community and communities don’t die unless we let them. This is not to say that we all have to go to each other’s birthday parties — though you really should invite me because I make excellent birthday cakes now. What I’m saying is that all of us who loved her are torches lit from the same fire. We’re related in this singular way, she brought us together,  so whenever we’re together, I  feel her taking care of me.

 

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She was my mother,  always. She was clear about that from the beginning. In junior high and high school, when describing one’s mother as a best friend was in vogue , my mother would have none of it.  “There are elements of friendship in our relationship, but I am your mother, not your friend. You will have all kinds of friends throughout your life, but only one mother.” At the time I resented it, because I  understood it was my job to resent EVERYTHING she said and I took that job very seriously, but it was a loving distinction, one she never abandoned. When Steve, my stepdad, was dying from melanoma thirteen years ago, I told her she should lean on me.

 

“I am a grown woman now and I have experience with this disease,” I told her. “Just let me help you.”

 

“No,” she said. “I am your mother. You lean on ME. I don’t lean on you.”

 

I was frustrated — and not a little bit insulted– but she understood her purpose better than most, I think. Her job was to prepare me for life as a modern woman — whatever that meant then, whatever that would come to mean.  She couldn’t do that if I related to her as a peer.  Peers are the people who have gone no further than we have. She had gone much further. She was never my peer. She was my mentor, teaching by example the most essential and difficult lesson of my adult life: remembering to grow myself along with my family. For her, motherhood happened within womanhood, not the other way around.

 

She could have built her life inside of mine, engineering my every experience in terms of her own latent ambitions, but then we both would have turned out small.

 

Her great gift to me was allowing me to know her as a woman, the one she had been growing into all her life, long before I  arrived. She loved music, James Bond movies, raunchy humor, singing along with Handel’s Messiah on Christmas morning, giving advice, finding the most efficient way to do anything and everything, her career, her friends, and travel (though not packing for it). She hated gravity and woodpeckers and being inconvenienced and losing her husband. She had a wicked little computer solitaire habit, she was disciplined, competitive as hell, and threw giant tantrums when she broke a nail but was a rock in an actual crisis. Because she was a loving mother, she shared her life with me. Because she was a strong, wise woman, she never handed it over. She would do anything for me except dissolve into me. Mom, I thank you deeply and sincerely for that — not only because I got to know you as a real person, but also because I got to see what all of your hard lessons about independence and growth were for: they were for learning to live my life on my own terms.  I’m not quite there yet, but I understand.

 

My mom built an enormous, delicious, satisfying life for herself, full of the people, work, music,  theater, travel, and  causes she loved. Why shouldn’t she?  She could have built her life inside of mine, engineering my every experience in terms of her own latent ambitions, but then we both would have turned out small.  By living her own life, by pursuing what was meaningful to her, she taught me how to do it too, to be a grown woman.  I don’t always feel like one — nothing has ever made me feel more like a child than losing my mom. But I know I can figure it out and I know I am not alone. I have a big, beautiful life to live — different from hers but just as satisfying. I have a family to raise and a self to raise with them. I will not ever be lost without her. Because I am not without her — she made sure of that, too.

 

Carol & Marta 1977

 

Begging the Question

 

Last Day at Eden Lake
© 2015 Marta C Drew

 

We do all of the laundry. Imagine if the Alps, the Himalayas, and the Rockies were all connected and made out of inside-out sweatshirts, Pixar jammies, and tiny Hello Kitty panties. That’s most of our laundry rooms on most days.

 

We cook. We spend hours, days, weeks, months, YEARS collecting recipes, then shop for the obscure ingredients, then defend what we spent on them, then prepare the meal, then –most of the time –clean up. This is what we hear if the meal is phenomenal:

 

“Good dinner Honey.”

 

Then someone farts, then someone burps, then everyone talks about how AWESOME that was, how they can’t BELIEVE how CRAZY EXCELLENT that fart-and-burp combo was. AMAZING. This is what we hear if the meal was damn good:

 

“It’s okay, but not really my favorite.” This from our nine-year-old son, who tells us in the voice he will one day use to break up with unstable girlfriends.

 

Just use the education, the talent, the imagination, style and mind-blowing sexiness that got you here, on this bathroom floor with this pee and these gloves (I hope) and this toilet, and get it done.

 

We keep the house clean while our people work (harder than they’re ever willing to work at anything else) to keep the place looking like a low-budget zoo habitat. Why is that sticky? What kind of crumbs are those? What is that weird smell? Best not to ask. Just use the education, the talent, the imagination, style and mind-blowing sexiness that got you here, on this bathroom floor with this pee and these gloves (I hope) and this toilet, and get it done.

 

We civilize:

“That is a sofa, not a jungle gym. Please refrain from jumping on it.”

“If my cooking makes you feel like you have to throw up, please do so in the bathroom. Thank you.”

“I’d rather not see that far into you.”

“I’m afraid you’ll find that fart jokes, like houseguests and fish, start to grow old after about day three.”

“Etiquette dictates that you should not finish your dinner before the person who cooked it for you has begun.”

“The world is not your petting zoo …there are some things and people we need not touch to enjoy.”

“Try not to eat anything you found in your nose.”

“You are not the center of the universe. That position is held by the sun …the exquisitely silent sun.”

 

This is not an exhaustive list.

 

We grow people. First we grow them inside of us, then push them out (I don’t want to talk about it) and grow them on the outside. Some of us breastfeed, some of us formula feed, some of us do both. Either way, we’re up several times a night feeding/diapering/burping/checking to make sure they’re breathing.

 

As they grow, we read article after article about the scientific link between child nutrition and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between childhood depression and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between child stupidity and our shitty mothering. We make our own baby food with fruits and vegetables we grew ourselves (lots of spare time in this job) from heirloom organic seeds we found in the Sundance catalog for $700.00 per envelope. We harvest the vegetables, put them through a food mill, a food processor, a strainer, and finally into a ceramic personalized bowl that seemed like a great idea when we were pregnant. From there, our stupid baby (our fault) throws the whole mess on the floor.

 

Then we cry and give them a dusty jar of Gerbers, which they devour as if Chef Thomas Keller made it himself.

 

We agonize over the right friends, the right schools, the right combination of athletics and artistic enrichment. We read to them, make sure they do their homework, sign them up for camp. We douse them in sunscreen and bugspray only to find out in August that everyone else knew in June that the brand of sunscreen we use is full of potent carcinogens. Then we self-flagellate.

 

As they grow, we read article after article about the scientific link between child nutrition and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between childhood depression and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between child stupidity and our shitty mothering.

 

We check daily for lice, rashes, viruses, depression, tumors, drug abuse, seizures, eating disorders, anxiety, and whatever else is going around. We volunteer at school (but not too much), we get involved with sports (but not too much), we show up at every poetry reading, tipi-making event, book club, swim meet, hockey game, glockenspiel recital, and gallery opening to cheer and take a thousand digital photos, which we immediately put into custom photo books for the grandparents. We forget to order one for ourselves.

 

When they’re sick or injured –whether it’s bad or not– we read and sing and carry them, though they’re much too big to be carried and we’ll need months of chiropractic work afterwards, for what feels like miles through schools, across fields, malls, museums, hospitals until they feel better, falling asleep in our shaking arms. We hold them down for immunizations or IV inserts or basic dental work. We crawl in bed with them at 3:30 am to scratch their backs while they cough so hard they almost throw up. We tell them for the thousand-and-tenth time that they’re safe and cozy in their beds; the “funder” won’t hurt them.

 

We do all of this –or most of it– gladly, grateful for the experience, for the infinite expansion of our hearts and minds. But it does beg the question:

 

Why, whywhywhy, WHY, when people ask us if we work, do we keep saying no?

 

Drewlets together Easter 2010

 

Mothering and Other Team Sports

Caroline

 

Mothering is a ludicrous bid for power at the best of times; in August, it gets twisted. Yesterday, Caroline screamed from the top of the stairs for 45 straight minutes because Henry wouldn’t go outside with her. By the end of it, I was curled up in an air-raid position on the dining room floor, crying and yelling at God to fucking help me with her.

 

Then Julie called, reminding me that these kinds of scenes often come right before big developmental leaps and even making me giggle a little bit through my tears, so I know God listens (even when I say “fucking” when I’m asking Him for help). That’s a comfort. Still, there was more screaming after that –joyful screaming, indignant screaming, maniacal screaming, I’m-eating-pancakes-for-dinner-and-I-just-totally-love-pancakes! screaming.

 

They broke my spirit, so today I might take them bra shopping with me. I don’t even need new bras, I just want revenge. See what I’m saying?

 

We’re supposed to help each other, we’re supposed to keep passing the baton.

 

Counting today, there are eight full days and one half-day left with all three kids; three full days and three half-days with just two; another two half-days with just one; three and a half days in Saint Louis without any of them. Then school starts and maybe some of my hair will grow back.

 

Look, I love my babies. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t care how many times they begged for sugar or why they were all screaming (“we’re pretending there’s a storm, Mama”) or when I would be able to pass the baton to other adults with education and experience and new ideas. I’m all out of them at the moment. Confessing that is extremely hard for a proud Mama like me, but that’s precisely why I’m confessing it: it’s hard for all of us and it shouldn’t be. We’re supposed to help each other, we’re supposed to keep passing the baton.

 

Did you see the Olympic freestyle relay where Michael Phelps won his nineteenth medal? He won it because he’s a phenomenal athlete, but he also won it because the other three phenomenal athletes swimming with him –Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens, and Conor Dwyer– gave him a big, gorgeous lead. By the time he got in the water, it was his to lose. Truthfully, I have never been one for team sports, group projects, or collaborations of any kind. I like working alone in most cases, being in charge of my own destiny.

 

But motherhood is about being in charge of someone else’s destiny, so letting others give us a big lead makes all kinds of sense. I know so many mamas in my generation –me included– who feel like we’re failing if we can’t solve everything ourselves, do it all to the nth degree. Meals have to be from scratch, made from locally-grown, organic superfoods we grew from heirloom seeds in our urban gardens. Children must be brilliant, empathetic, creative problem-solvers, enriched with music and chess and at least one sport each season. Our homes must be models of beauty and system, cleaned with natural products that smell like obscure flowers and herbs. Fashion is effortless, age-appropriate, stylish but not slavishly trendy. Makeup is natural during the day, smoky at night. Sex is at least twice a week.

 

Just talking about it makes me angry and tired and I happen to like a lot of these activities (wink wink, nudge nudge). Nobody can pull off every part of this. Nobody was ever supposed to. Even if it were possible (it’s NOT –don’t try), there are these little people we’re raising, not to mention the big ones we see in the mirror every morning and the even bigger ones who sleep on the other side of the bed. There are friends who are drowning in cancer or divorce or depression or all three, aging parents who are suddenly alone, need us more. There are politics to pay attention to, crumbling finances, mold in the basement, a lecherous boss, an incompetent one. There is an ideal we keep missing, a persistent loneliness, a low-grade fever of anger and helplessness, the fear of always falling short.

 

Jordyn Wieber was heartbroken when she didn’t qualify for the Olympic women’s individual gymnastics competition, but did you see her with her team when they won the first American team gold since 1996? Winning alone would be incredible, I’m sure, but winning together is beautiful. I’m tuned in to that these days, the idea of winning together. I have a daughter with special needs and two other particularly sensitive children. I’m not going to qualify on my own. For a while now, I’ve been heartbroken about that, but I keep watching, over and over again, the way all of these Olympians encouraged each other, comforted each other, celebrated each other. I want that. I have seventeen days to give us a big, gorgeous lead.

Self Preservation

 

Marta b&w apple orchard 2006

 

“The best thing a mother can teach her children is how to need her as little as possible,” I like to tell an imaginary television camera in the car after dropping Lizzie off at preschool. “I am a mother, yes, but also a woman, a person, a soul worth growing for its own sake. If I lose sight of that, I will have failed both myself and my children.” I picture myself saying it to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, and to Barbara Walters (she’d LOVE it) on 20/20. I will wear my hair down, dress beautifully but not ostentatiously, and listen as much as I speak (this last part would most likely be the hardest to pull off).

 

Then someone honks at me –the light has turned green. I have to stop fantasizing so I don’t start mowing down old people on the sidewalk with my sexy minivan.

 

Regardless of whether I ever get the opportunity to say it on camera, I have always believed we women must nurture our original selves as we are raising our children, if for no other reason than because mothering demands nothing less than a whole, enlightened, educated, talented, healthy, flexible woman. Still, having as much as possible to give our families shouldn’t be the only reason for preserving and growing our essential selves . We should be our own reason.

 

If I do my job well, my children will gradually leave me. First they will stop asking me to get them brefgast and Cheery-lows and pisketti. Then they will stop coming to me when the mean stister called the nother stister Cookie Face (they find this SO insulting) or when someone can’t find his Lego Harry Potter’s microscopic hand and wand. Next they’ll start turning to their friends when they have a secret or an idea. Or when they need feedback about whether something is cool or not (even at the height of my powers, I would never be able to help them with that). Eventually, I won’t see them for weeks at a time as they hole up in their rooms listening to mopey music and/or writing poems to boys or girls who don’t know they exist. They’ll go off to college or on tour with their basement bands, calling only to tell me he’s changed his major to celebrity portrait painting or that she needs more tattoo money.

 

Having as much as possible to give our families shouldn’t be the only reason for preserving and growing our essential selves . We should be our own reason.

 

This is all as it should be, but then what will happen to me? Will I be able to find myself under all the layers of anxiety, impatience, indignity, and confusion pressing on my tender psyche over the years? Will  I have raised a good, strong self at the same time? Will I ever be able to think about anything else besides what or who might hurt my babies? Once I have the freedom to do whatever I want, will I know what it is?

 

This weekend, the Drewlets all left for two days and two nights on sleepovers with the grandparents so Brian and I could work on home projects. I returned to my quiet, empty house after the last round of forgot-to-give-you-this minivan deliveries and felt relief, yes, but also a low-grade, buzzing uneasiness –the kind I get when I’m sitting in a movie and am suddenly unsure whether I unhooked my iPod and locked my car. I THINK I took care of everything but I’m not SURE I took care of everything.

 

Would Henry get enough sleep at his grandparents’ house to recover from his tiny man-cold (the one that had him moaning and keening like a Sicilian widow the night before) so he’d be healthy enough for his swim meet on Saturday?  Would he be as scared as last time? Would Lizzie refuse (again) to eat her dinner and get hypoglycemic in the middle of the night? Did I remember to warn my dad about that? Would Caroline stay in her little bed at my mom’s house all night? Or would she start wandering at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning like she did last winter, maybe get hurt in the big dark house and not be found until morning?

 

A rich imagination is a great gift for a writer and a horrible curse for a mother. My memory is the same way. You may say my fears are irrational. You may be right. But I have a picture in my mind of Henry in the back seat of my car before a swim meet last winter, tears in his other-worldly eyes, trying to take deep breaths, get on top of his nerves, be brave enough to at least go inside and change into his suit. I have a picture in my mind of my Lizzie, sweaty and shaking at 11:00 at night as we tried to feed her a granola bar and get her to tell us who I was, who Brian was.

 

I have so many pictures in my mind of my vulnerable Caroline that I don’t even know which one to mention here. In my memory, she always has electrode glue in her hair and is crying “all done that part!” as the nurses try a second time to get the IV in. If I am a pathological worrier, I am forgiven. You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve had to do over the last five years to get my kids, safe and whole, to now, to Grandma and Grandpa’s houses this weekend. Unless you have little people in your care. Then you would believe it — and have probably lived it.

 

My Empty Nest Preview Weekend reassured me I’m still mostly here, mostly reconcilable with my original self.

 

I worry about me, too. Am I going to be okay or am I permanently damaged by the particularly intense mothering I’ve had to do? Can my original self and my modern self get along? I felt almost awkward being alone with myself on Friday night, like I was hosting for the weekend a cousin I had been close to in childhood but now barely knew. What did she like to do? How should I entertain her? Would she be willing to eat Cap’n Crunch? (I hoped so, because there wasn’t much else in the pantry.)

 

What would she think about the obscure reality shows Brian and I like to watch these days, like Storage Wars and BBQ Pitmasters? Would she judge me? SHOULDN’T she judge me? Would she be able to pee without a panel of tiny commentators standing in the bathroom with her? Would walking through a greenhouse or garden center make her feel instantly contented and hopeful like it used to or would it take more than that? What would it take? Was she still likely to skip meals if she was really into some creative or organizational project? I knew her so well back then, but who was she now? How would we pass the time? Would she lecture me about getting some exercise?

 

Well yeah, she lectured me a little bit (my original self loves to lecture –we have that in common). It turned out that my modern self, the soul I’ve been trying when I can to grow and nurture alongside my children, is mostly compatible with my original self. The me I believed I had abandoned in the Children’s Hospital ICU in 2008 was still there.

 

I saw her at about 1:30 on Sunday afternoon when I realized I’d been so intent on cleaning out the laundry room that I had eaten almost nothing. We walked through Bachman’s together in search of houseplants, my original self and I, our heart slowing down and filling up; it didn’t take any more than that to restore either one of us. Relief. Yes, of course the Original Marta was willing to eat Cap’n Crunch –I needn’t have worried about that one– and was most impressed with Modern Marta for thinking to eat it at night with ice-cold whole milk, which is way more delicious and superhealthy than ice cream. Peeing without an audience went just fine for us too, thank you for asking.

 

Begonias August 2011

 

My Empty Nest Preview Weekend reassured me I’m still mostly here, mostly reconcilable with my original self. I’ve been taking better care of her than I thought –let’s hope the same is true for my kids. She was disappointed to see that I was buying faux-plants, which she considered tacky and unworthy of our green thumb. I explained the house is dark, we need some shots of green, I bought convincing ones, and we could never keep real English ivies or ferns alive in the winter anyway. She couldn’t argue with that.

 

My modern self woke up at 5:45 on Saturday morning, freaked out about whether Lizzie had fallen out of bed or Caroline had wandered out of her room. The old me reassured the new me that they were definitely all safe, everything was fine, I was fine, and we should go back to sleep. I was glad she was there.

 

The woman I used to be, before the tumors and broken hearts and vulnerability of my maternal experience, is still around. She’s still the same in essentials, but she’s grown, of course, into this modern self I have now. They’re both me. I’m wholly me –the woman and the mother. I still don’t believe my children are the only reason I’m here; I haven’t changed my mind about that. I’m supposed to remember the other interests and relationships that fasten me to this beautiful, mysterious place and develop them so I don’t start needing my children more just when they have finally begun to need me less.

 

I am supposed to write and garden and bake and sing and return to camp whenever I can and stay close to the friends and sisters and brothers who will let me. And I will, because I am a person, a woman, a soul worth growing for its own sake.

 

Yet the soul I’ve grown is a mother’s soul, blooming most fully and miraculously on bathroom floors and hospital beds, in dark hallways and parking lots.  The self I have worked so hard to preserve is first and most essentially a maternal self. There is a woman within the mother and a mother within the woman, nurturing each other, needing each other.

 

If You Build It

Christmas Croissants 2014
© 2015 Marta C Drew

 

I have all kinds of cozy spots in my house, perfect for sipping wine (yes, in the middle of the day) with my girlfriends while the kids play (silently –so silently) nearby. There’s a sofa in the living room for heart-to-hearts about aging parents, the intensity of the early-childhood years, or how hard it is to find a decent pair of jeans for less than $200.00. The sectional in the family room is just LONGING to host stupid-tv and/or Jane Austen movie pajama parties.

 

I make gorgeous popcorn on my stovetop (European butter and sea salt are a given), my scone recipe is superb, my soups are quite good, and I boast a truly excellent collection of coffee table books and soft throws. Throw pillows? Please. You can’t imagine how many throw pillows …so many throw pillows that it takes my husband 20 minutes to throw them all on the floor, rolling his eyes and muttering the whole time, before he can sit down (that’s how you know there are almost enough).

 

No big deal if your little peanut or lamby or chickadee spills or poops or pees or throws up or starts levitating –nothing we haven’t seen here before. I have juice boxes and granola bars and cheddar bunnies and apples and pears and macaroni & cheese. I have extra diapers, a high chair, a swing, a Pack n’ Play, baby gates, baby toys, baby books, baby clothes (for boys or girls) in every size. I have a weather radio, Kids’ Tylenol, Advil, allergy medicine, vitamins, calcium, diaper cream, antibiotic ointment, Eucerin, Aquaphor, and 40 bazillion Band-Aids. I have sleds, ice-skates, roller blades, bikes, helmets, sidewalk chalk, Play-doh, washable markers, washable crayons, beads for the over-threes, wooden blocks for the under-threes, Disney movies (I know where to fast-forward if your babies are sensitive); Sesame Street, Curious George, and Clifford are already recorded on our DVR. I have built a family-friendly theme-park-meets-impenetrable-fortress-meets-panic room over here.

 

I have built it, but nobody is coming.

 

Before you write me off as some sad, friendless lump, please listen to me when I tell you I have no shortage of truly excellent girlfriends. They’re funny, they’re smart, they’re universally beautiful and interesting and talented. On the few occasions when we’re able to get together, the whole date from beginning to end is marvelous fun.

 

There’s laundry and scrubbing sinks and toilets and tubs and volunteering –don’t forget the volunteering; you don’t want everyone to think you’re over there doing nothing.

 

WHEN we can get together. It’s rare. There’s swimming and skiing and hockey and horseback riding and piano and sometimes work and family game night and family birthday parties and violin and chess and architecture camp and Harry Potter camp and canoe simulations and CPR training and competitive dance and artisanal bread baking and calligraphy and glass-blowing and extreme tennis and picking up this child for a dentist appointment and dropping that one off at a birthday party and stopping by Mother’s place because there’s something going on with the dog and cleaning out the laundry room and cleaning out the basement and bringing someone a pan of lasagna because she just found out she has breast cancer. There’s laundry and scrubbing sinks and toilets and tubs and volunteering –don’t forget the volunteering; you don’t want everyone to think you’re over there doing nothing.

 

Even if we’re actually able to carve out some free morning once in a while, or an evening when we’re not sitting in the bleachers at some pool or hockey rink or gym, we need some time to stare at the walls, try and focus for a minute, reclaim who we used to be, at least catch up on who’s running for President this time.

 

Maybe we’ll get on the phone for a while with a girlfriend and that will feel a little bit better, make us giggle a little bit about something her daughter said or feel less alone about the laundry. But we’re still alone most of the time, either with or without the kids or the husband or the aging parents. That’s unnatural; women are supposed to do this job together  –we’ve just become too evolved and civilized to remember that.

 

Here’s what I want –it’s not a lot: I want one three-hour segment of time per week –morning, noon, or night– when one or more girlfriends come over, with or without children, to kvetch and/or drink tea/wine/hard liquor and/or make fun of Donald Trump/people I can’t name here/the Kardashians with me. Or be totally quiet. Or cry. Or whimper. Or laugh really really hard, possibly until someone pees (your secret is always safe with me and I have plenty of under-$200-jeans you can borrow). They can bring their laundry to fold or we can make chocolate sauce for our kids’ teachers or cut out pandas from construction paper. Or nothing. I don’t care. I just don’t want to do this job alone.

Guru

 

GramBea at Rosses July 4 2009

 

“I have a low tolerance for chaos,” I complained to GramBea this morning on the phone.

 

“I know, so do I,” she said.

 

GramBea raised five children (the youngest were twins) while my Grandpa, a Captain in the Navy, was off at sea for months at a time. She knows chaos. She is also  is the source of all the most consistently reliable  parenting advice. For example, she told me last year that sometimes the most nourishing meal a parent can have is a glass of alcohol and an aspirin. Amen.

 

I have also passed on to countless friends and acquaintances her trick for sleeping in on weekends when you have young children: “Grandpa and I would just sprinkle Cheerios in the twins’ cribs before we went to bed,” she said. “It kept them busy and fed while we slept in a little longer.”

Why haven’t the baby food manufacturers caught on to that idea?

 

I knew she would understand when I told her I’m feeling starved for peace and quiet. “You know what you can do, Marta, for a little bit of quiet?  Just stop what you’re doing all of a sudden and say ‘what’s that? Do you hear that? Listen!’ It works. It will only buy you about five seconds, but at least it’s five seconds of quiet.” Small victories, got it. I wrote it down.

 

She told me last year that sometimes the most nourishing meal a parent can have is a glass of alcohol and an aspirin. Amen.

 

The most essential element of my parenting philosophy comes from GramBea. When Henry was about two, I called her from Cleveland, feeling overwhelmed. “How do you get it all done?” I wailed. “How do you cook balanced meals and keep a clean and beautiful house and raise children?”

 

“You don’t,” she said. “Some of it will have to wait. Sometimes you will not be able to pull off a great dinner, sometimes you will not finish the laundry, sometimes the house will get dusty. It can all wait. Your job is to spend time with your babies, to grow them and listen to them and enjoy them. That’s the only thing that can’t wait.”

 

You should know that GramBea has always kept a beautiful house –I spent the night there at least once a week when I was growing up (I could take the bus to her house after school). The lighting was soft and glowy, meals were nourishing and delicious (minimal sugar and fat –I still don’t know how she pulled that off), her home was beautiful in an effortless, comfortable kind of way. Many times I would come in after school to hear her practicing piano out on the four-season porch. The sheets were crisp and fresh in Spring and Summer, soft and warm in Fall and Winter.

 

You think I’m romanticizing Grandma’s house, but you can ask anyone in our big family –it’s all true. GramBea is a gifted nester and a practical nurturer. So if she tells me it’s okay to let the laundry go for a little while or serve eggs and hot cereal for a few nights (“watch the salt and sugar, though, Sweetie”) then I listen to her for the same reason I’d listen if Beyonce or Jennifer Lopez told me it was okay to let hair and makeup go for a day or two. Order and beauty matter to GramBea –they just don’t matter as much as kids do.

 

Which is why she’s still the first person I want to call on a Saturday morning.