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.

Dignity

gnarled tree

 

I’ll be honest: I have never been known for maintaining my dignity during a breakup. Breaking up with my emotionally withholding cheapskate college boyfriend took me about 57 tries and I suspect the breakup with my camp boyfriend has been set to music (with harmonica solo) and sung as a cautionary tale at Opening Campfire every year for those considering relationships with the boys across the lake.

 

I cling, I chase, I disappear, come back, am overcome with tenderness and nostalgia, try briefly to resurrect the original feelings. I make passionate speeches and write long letters and cry –my friends’ eyes bug out of their heads from listening to me process every interaction, every feeling (I have at least 34 feelings about something as simple as Honeycrisp apples; you can imagine how many I experience in a relationship). There is no holding my head high, tossing my hair over my shoulder and letting my happiness and success be my revenge. I let the loss wash over me, knock me down. I roll around in it for several months, burn through a preposterous rebound. Finally I take a long shower, go buy some gorgeous new underwear and high heels, change my hair and perfume and the music I listen to, and it’s over once and for all. Mine is not a pretty breakup method, but it is thorough; when I’m done, I’m done.

 

Turns out I act much the same when I’m breaking up with a house. Yesterday, while I was packing the kitchen, I stared into one of the empty cabinets for a while, trying to remember how I felt when I was moving things into it –before the washing machine flood, before Kyle’s first and only visit here the month before he died, before Caroline’s illness and all of the family fights and misunderstandings that naturally grow out of grief and fear. I suppose I must have felt hope and excitement about this house when I moved in, relief at having returned to my beloved Minnesota, to my friends and family after five years away. Truthfully, I don’t remember –I can’t resurrect those original feelings.

 

There is no holding my head high, tossing my hair over my shoulder and letting my happiness and success be my revenge. I let the loss wash over me, knock me down.

 

People have been asking me if I’m going to miss this house at all when I leave it. Maybe, but not right away. If anything, I imagine I will miss not liking it; for a writer, this friction between oneself and one’s surroundings is a creative blessing, like a grain of sand in an oyster. I worry about the kind of writing I will produce if I get too comfortable.  I can’t imagine missing this house –I blame it for all of the pain I experienced while it was mine. I know that’s not fair or rational but I already told you, I don’t work that hard at being fair during a breakup.

 

Yet I am grateful to this house, I suppose, for being honest with me, even if it hurt. It showed me who I could depend on, who would come over and watch Henry and Lizzie when Caroline had an emergency EEG; who would come over and help me clean my house when I came home to a mess after Kyle’s memorial service; who would make me beautiful, thoughtful surgery-day care packages when Caroline got her tumor removed; who would listen and listen and listen and listen to the same topics I haven’t been able to resolve for YEARS; who would like or comment on every single blog post; who would encourage and lecture and hound me to write; who would walk me, step by step, through the ways in which she would nurture me if she could be with me after Kyle’s death and during Caroline’s illness; who would make me laugh at the parts I didn’t think I could laugh at; who would just love me and love me and love me no matter how many mistakes we both made.

 

I do not love this house, but I love what it has given me: clever, interesting, soulful guests, both real and virtual; a clear understanding of what I need to feel at home, no matter what else is going on in my life; a deeper, more authentic relationship with God; and a stronger, braver, wiser version of myself. I may have spent the last six years clinging, disappearing, making speeches, writing long letters, and crying, but I’m still here, still able to laugh and pray and hope and love my people. There’s plenty of dignity in that.

 

 

Letting Go

Canoe Bay Lake Bridge Summer 2015

 

I have been cherishing an idea lately that I will be allowed to leave this house when I have finally learned what I was sent here to learn. I am still a little bit Catholic in that way –fatalistic. I buried my statue of Saint Joseph in the yard, upside down and facing the house, and prayed to him, the patron saint of happy homes, to please please pretty please help us sell it quickly and find a new house, a more peaceful one where we can be happy and whole.

 

I don’t know if Joseph handles the request himself or if he is just an administrator and God works the actual magic. Whoever it is doesn’t seem to be saying no; the answer feels more like “not yet.” We’ve had plenty of showings –several of them second showings– and one insulting offer, so we should be close, but the whole thing is dragging along in this very Old Testament way. It’s not excruciating so much as tedious, so I don’t feel punished; I feel tested.

 

I’m pretty sure the test is about Letting Go, which is my spiritual Achilles’ heel. I’m an emotional hoarder, storing old injuries and kindnesses in my memory the way some people hang on to old magazines and clothes nobody can wear. My memory is powerful …and sometimes mean. It’s mean to make me remember what has hurt me, but it’s just as mean sometimes to dredge up old indulgences and sympathies and spin them into ideas of lasting friendship or attachment.

 

I’m a big believer in shared history –the longer I know someone, the more I love them. I love them for who they are of course, but I also love them for the story I get to tell myself about our connection. The richer these stories are with understandings, misunderstandings, love, anger, resentment, and forgiveness, the more attached I become to the main characters. I assume this is yet another symptom of my Romanticism, though I am not just talking about lovers; Romantics (at least this Romantic) can put just as much stock in friendship and family connections, if not more.

 

My memory is powerful …and sometimes mean.

 

So I hang on. Tight. I call, I write, I beg to be loved as completely, as fiercely, as desperately as I love my people. I beg with my devotion and my passion, with songs and silence. I know when a friend or cousin or classmate is resisting this, when they want me to let go. It breaks my heart. I feel humiliated by my need and I hang on tighter. I resist rescue by the people who truly value me, I resist reason and acceptance and dignity. I don’t want the story to end. This weakness has made me a rather ineffective fiction writer. It also gets in the way of my writing my own life.

 

The sad fact that everyone except me seems to understand is that I can’t hang on to everyone. There are people from camp and school and even my family who just don’t want to keep the connection in any meaningful way. In some cases it’s not such a big loss –there are people in every life who read like living versions of Algebra textbooks –but a few who have gotten away from me are truly original, insightful, extraordinary people. I want to keep reading, but they don’t value me in the same way …even if some of them used to value me a long time ago.

 

Letting go feels so permanent to me –I worry about that. I am a bridge burner; could I find my way back to someone who called out from the opposite shore? Would I be willing to try?

 

There is a room at Hogwarts Castle (yes, I’m talking about Harry Potter again –just indulge me) called the Room of Requirement, where any student who knows about it may enter and find exactly what s/he needs at that moment –a place to hide, a place to meet, a place to stash something, etc. More than one person can be in there at a time but it can only be used for one purpose at a time.

 

There’s no letting go of that fire –it’s part of me, proof of my capacity for the magic that starts it in the first place.

 

In the final book in the series, one version of the Room of Requirement burned with unquenchable fire. Did all the other purposes for that room burn with it? Was any form of that room still there when the castle was rebuilt? Or is it still burning, never able or willing to let in someone who wants to return to it? When I let go of someone for good, my heart is that Room of Requirement, burned away for that purpose, that relationship. I wish I could ask Dumbledore about the possibility of rebuilding, reopening the room someday, so I wouldn’t be so afraid to let it burn now.

 

It would never be exactly the same, of course — there is no magic to undo a fire like that. The room would have to be different, conjured for a new use. That would be okay. I could live with that. But what if the room’s capacity for magic is diminished by a fire like that? What if it gets weaker? I worry about that for the Room of Requirement and for my own heart. I’m pretty sure I can guess what Dumbledore would say about it: he would say something about second chances. He would say the burning will stop, the room will be restored when you love someone enough to let them back in even when you know –horribly– their capacity to do damage.

 

That may be what Letting Go really means for me –allowing the fire to burn what it will, to hurt, to ruin, to steal my dignity by exposing my attachment to someone who doesn’t feel the same way about me. There’s no letting go of that fire –it’s part of me, proof of my capacity for the magic that starts it in the first place. Letting go does not mean letting go of my People, it does not mean letting go of my wish that those who walk away from me will someday value me enough to return. Letting go means letting go of my fear that I won’t let them. Of course I’ll let them; I love them no matter what. Isn’t that what we’re all sent here to learn?

 

 

Waiting Room

 

Teary Caroline
© 2015 Marta C Drew

I am, despite this public way of telling you about it, a rather private person. I don’t mean that in the sense that I am unwilling to share vulnerable or personal feelings and experiences –obviously, I’m willing to share to the point of emotional exhibitionism. When I say I’m private, I mean that I am deliberate about what I share, how much, in what way, and with whom.  Read my journals and one of us is going to have to permanently move to Iceland. Go through my purse or my closets or my nightstand without my permission and you’re dead to me. I decide.

 

The problem is the waiting room.

 

Before you can enter some of the oldest and largest vaults at Gringotts Bank (the wizarding bank in Harry Potter for those of you who don’t read), you have to pass through a waterfall that clears away any enchantments you may be trying to use to enter the vault under false pretenses. If you have tried to conceal or change your identity, if someone or something else is controlling your behavior, if you have tried to protect yourself in any way from exposure or vulnerability to what could be inside, then it is all washed away. You are just you.

 

The same thing happens to anyone who enters the Children’s West Rehab Center waiting room, only it’s the air swirling around the door as you walk in that breaks all the spells, not a waterfall (which would be impractical and inconsiderate in such a cold climate). You walk in with all of your protective enchantments and it all gets blown away. Everyone sees who you are. Everyone sees what you’re dealing with.

 

If you are a regular, you are dealing with scooters or wheelchairs or companion dogs or leg braces that make your little peanut cry because they hurt. Or you are dealing with tiny little helmets, tiny little glasses, tiny little hearing aids. Your son cries about everything, your daughter can’t properly metabolize food. Your granddaughter has cerebral palsy, your grandson has a heart condition.

 

Now YOU have a heart condition.

 

What do you do? There was a woman once who spent the whole hour she was waiting doing yoga poses and stretches. I rolled my eyes until her son came out after his physical therapy session and I overheard her talking with the therapist about how she could help her son be more successful with eating and drinking. He was at least fifteen years old. There was a homeschooling mama with a church bell ringtone who used the time to drill her older daughter in reading; a tense, germaphobic lady who only allowed her impeccably-dressed children to touch toys she brought with her and sanitized before and after they were handled; a maniacally positive mother who practiced tap dancing and jazz routines with her five-or-six-year-old daughter, who played along but didn’t seem convinced of how much fun she was supposed to be having.

 

You walk in with all of your protective enchantments and it all gets blown away. Everyone sees who you are. Everyone sees what you’re dealing with.

 

But most of us talk. We tell each other what happened to our children, what happened to us, what keeps happening. We tell each other about the doctors who practically bound across the waiting room at Mayo to tell us surgery went well, or about that nurse at Children’s Hospital downtown who would not rest until she found a way to bathe a child without getting the electrodes in her hair wet (an elaborate system of plastic Target bags and rubber bands). We tell each other about the schools and programs we’ve found to make it all easier (horse therapy, art therapy, water therapy, music therapy) and the schools and programs that haven’t figured it out yet. For several months, my dear childhood friend Lindsay, whose son gets therapy from time to time, met me in the waiting room with coffee and we got to have a built-in Mama date every Wednesday afternoon.

 

Of course it’s not just mothers waiting –Thad has been one of my favorite waiting room pals. For at least a year, Caroline’s appointments coincided with his granddaughter’s, so every week, Thad and I talked cooking (he was an old-school gourmand –he made his own sausages and everything), gardening, music, antiques, parenting, traveling, families, weddings, home design, life. Thad is marvelous –I miss him. His daughter-in-law doesn’t drive and he’s retired, so he brought them to the rehab center every single week. Maybe we’ll be on the same schedule again this summer.

 

I wouldn’t say I’m friends with these people in the conventional sense (with the exception of Lindsay) –it’s more like we all operate the various small businesses of the same unethical, sadistic bastard. We all cry about it, we’re all degraded by it, but there’s no choice –we can’t leave; he has too much power and we’ve invested everything.

 

There is no point trying to control what I reveal to my waiting room colleagues –they see everything anyway, just like I see everything about them. We see each other crying and limping and dragging along with our special needs kids as if we have been stricken with the emotional equivalent of each of their physical or neurological afflictions. We have, so privacy is beside the point –it doesn’t protect us from anything except our mutual sympathy and understanding.

 

Maybe that’s why the protective enchantments we rely upon so heavily out in the world don’t work in the waiting room. Maybe our vulnerability is the most powerful enchantment no matter where we are.

 

Restoration

 

At least once a year, I like to trade the brooding isolation of my Upper-Midwestern life for the relaxed togetherness of a Southern one with the Wrights of College Street, our dear friends who live in Macon, Georgia.

 

The South is a deep source of comfort, beauty, and fascination for me: Bluegrass music is bluegrassier, booze is boozier, sultry is sultrier. Cherry blossoms float through the trees, azaleas pink the edges of Georgian lawns, and English ivy drapes itself over houses, trees, ironwork fences. Today, when an old house up the street went on the market, the whole neighborhood trooped up to see it, waving at every car that passed, inviting more neighbors to come along, reciting the history of the house like a catechism.

 

Bridget and I like to sing together –music is an essential element of our friendship– so we sang “Wagon Wheel” and “Make You Feel My Love” while we made vanilla ice cream for root beer floats and pesto for pasta with grilled sausages. Children, husbands, cats, dogs, and neighbors drifted in and out with the pollen as we worked, looking for a towel, a taste of ice cream, a beer. There is always a  feeling here of a collective Southern life, lived by and for everyone at once. Everyone belongs.

 

Cherry blossoms float through the trees, azaleas pink the edges of Georgian lawns, and English ivy drapes itself over houses, trees, ironwork fences.

 

After dinner, root beer floats, and an under-eight kitchen dance party, the children get sorted into sleepover venues (girls here, boys at the neighbors’, then one girl at the neighbors’, then eventually both girls and both boys at the neighbors’).  When the babies are all settled, the five adults leave them to their dreaming and wander out on foot into the starry darkness.

 

The neighbors greet us at their gates or from their porches as we pass. The people two doors down –a chef and her engineer husband –are just back from the Cherry Blossom Festival street party downtown. The chef sniffs the air  –“Who smells like tacos?” She giggles when we tell her no tacos –it’s the garlic from the pesto she’s probably smelling– and launches into a story about her recent job switch:

 

“The owner of that restaurant, she was all –” she screws up her face, kisses the air several times, and smacks her own round bottom. “Not a very nice person. Did you go see that house for sale? You gonna buy it?”

 

We move on. Michael and Greg point out architectural features, local history factoids, and signs of water damage on the historic houses we pass and then we spend about 25 minutes skulking around a foreclosure. Katie tries the windows (locked), Michael turns on the flashlight app on his iPhone and ducks into the crawl space under the front porch. “Oh boy.” Greg joins him to inspect and they spend several happy minutes commenting on the structural integrity of the house. This, apparently, is a common Macon pastime.

 

On the way home, around 11:00 pm, we pass Leslie drinking wine on her porch. “Y’all just gettin’ back? You wanna come in for a nightcap?” We follow her into her kitchen, where she pours wine and fetches beer and speculates about a neighborhood scandal: “It’s weird, isn’t it? It’s just weird. Why is she going over there all the time? What am I supposed to say when people ask me?”

 

“Just say you don’t know, ‘cuz you don’t.” Bridget gives me a secret smile and Leslie drops the subject, opens a container of homemade salsa and a bag of chips. “Oh you like peanuts, don’t you,” she says to Katie, and opens a bag just for her. We crowd around the island in her pretty little kitchen with the black and white checkered floor and cabinets the color of maple syrup and talk about Macon.

 

Quality is not linked to condition when Southerners choose a house to restore; it’s linked to history and endurance.

 

“I tell you what, Macon’s the best-kept secret in the South,” says Greg. I can’t tell if everyone else is aware of raising their glasses. “Took me a couple years to believe house prices down here. Best-kept secret.”

 

“These old houses are worth fighting for. You gonna buy the Buafo house, Michael?” asks Leslie. She looks at me. “He wants to save them all.”

 

Of course he does –to preserve those houses is to preserve the lives lived within them, still flowing through the old halls and rooms like a current.  Quality is not linked to condition when Southerners choose a house to restore; it’s linked to history and endurance. If the roof needs replacing, the second floor has to be reconfigured, and the whole place seems unstable, but it has a gorgeous view and original woodwork, then it’s worth restoring. If the windows are a mess and  there are giant cracks from floor to ceiling but it’s been there for a hundred years and lets in a lot of light, then it’s worth restoring. If it’s kind of dark and lonely-looking but pretty in its way and just needs a little love to be beautiful again, it’s worth restoring.

 

So I’ll keep coming back here –to sing, to cook, to wander around in old houses, to participate in this collective Southern life, to remind myself that I’m always worthy of restoration.

 

 

Forgiveness

Henry and injured Brown Cat

 

My (essentially) sweet, impulsive, emotional, affectionate, pushy, silly Caroline has elevated common sibling torture to an art form. Her performances are startling avant-garde masterpieces, at once spare and imaginative (“boop boop boop boop…Henry, listen to me! Boop boop boop boop boop…”).  Her artistic integrity is evident in each production as she tries to find the places where love and pain intersect.

 

Henry, who was already bitterly disappointed to see that the baby sister we brought home was not a baby elephant like he’d hoped (she felt like one), has not exactly warmed to her in the almost six years since. She has assaulted him, looted for candy in his room with Lizzie (“Dat’s Henny’s chockit,” they said soberly when I busted them shortly after Easter one year, their marshmallowy cheeks bulging with chocolate eggs and M&Ms. “Not yours!”), wrecked his artwork and books and toys.

 

It’s hard. We got him a lock for his room, which protected his things when he wasn’t around to protect them himself, but then one night when he wouldn’t let her in to look at his fish, she tore down the carefully drawn and labeled Egyptian symbols he had posted on the outside of his door. Nothing is safe, nowhere feels safe for him here. I know how he feels –she does it to all of us. We tell him her brain doesn’t work the same as other people’s, that she doesn’t understand how she’s hurting him. It doesn’t change anything  –life with a little sister who had brain surgery is really hard sometimes. Seven nights out of ten he prays for God to help Caroline’s brain catch up to everyone else’s.

 

He looked at us for a moment and I watched his righteous anger recede, gather force and volume as it  transformed, then crash to shore as regret.

 

A couple of nights ago she got a hold of his book of charcoal drawing paper and colored in it. It was a blank sheet –she left his beautiful drawings alone– but all the damage she’s done over the last few years has built up, given him a hair trigger, so he yelled and cried until she was yelling and crying herself, scared and confused about why he was mad at her for coloring on plain paper. She didn’t know.

 

We told him as gently as we could that he had overdone it, that no harm had come to anything important and we could always buy him more paper. We told him we understood why he was mad at her for taking his book but that she had no way of knowing it was any different from the other paper in our house; he should go apologize.  He looked at us for a moment and I watched his righteous anger recede, gather force and volume as it  transformed, then crash to shore as regret. He lay back on the floor, tears dripping onto the carpet. “I feel so horrible,” he said in a broken voice that has rattled around my mama’s heart for all the days since. “I’m the worst brother ever.” He lay there for a few minutes, his twiggy little shoulders shaking, far more devastated by what he had done than by anything that had ever been done to him.

 

A few minutes later he went up and apologized. She pardoned him without hesitation, returned his hug, happily accepted his invitation to watch Shaun the Sheep. But even after she and Lizzie were already heaped on the couch giggling at the goat who eats bricks and drinks out of the toilet, we heard Henry crying at the top of the stairs. We coaxed him down and he curled up on the living room couch with me. “She loves you,” I whispered, “and of course you love her. She makes mistakes, you make mistakes. You forgive her, she forgives you. The only part that’s missing is you forgiving yourself.” I whispered this to both of us in the semi-darkness.

 

“It’s hard,” he choked.

 

“I know, Peanut, but forgiving yourself is really important. Otherwise your mistakes get in the way of you accepting love.”

 

Forgiveness is the only place where love and pain intersect.

Investment Strategies for the Only Child

Bridesmaids 121199

I, like Pebbles Flintstone and Cinderella, am an only child.

 

Everyone thinks only children are spoiled, but it’s not at all true; my parents bathed me in tap water and everything.

 

I do have to concede that I enjoyed some damn good birthdays and Christmases, though being the product of a broken home didn’t hurt in that department, either. I went to camp every summer for a month each time (my friends called it Camp Condo, but a lot of them were those freaks who like to wander around the wilderness carrying canoes on their heads, so you have to take their assessment with a grain of salt). My bedrooms were pretty, my clothes were pretty, and the places my parents took me on vacations were pretty. I regularly attended symphonies and plays and musicals, was encouraged at adult dinner parties to share my ignorant adolescent opinions on a range of subjects, and my parents never called me by the wrong name.

 

I would have willingly sacrificed the material trappings of only childhood (though not the privilege of pontificating at parties) for a couple of siblings.

 

But I was lonely –sometimes I’m still lonely. I had cousins with varying levels of interest in taking on sibling roles, step-siblings with absolutely no interest in taking on those roles, and truly remarkable friends, but if you have siblings (or, I guess, even if you don’t), you know it’s not the same. It’s not the same when you don’t have allies on the playground, it’s not the same when there’s nobody to tell you to stop wearing your original puffy paint sweatshirt creations to school in 10th grade, and it’s not the same when both of your parents lose their spouses from cancer in a year and a half and there’s nobody but you to love them (and yourself) through it.

 

I know plenty of Onlies who didn’t mind their solo gig and even a few baffling weirdos who seemed to love it, but I would have willingly sacrificed the material trappings of only childhood (though not the privilege of pontificating at parties) for a couple of siblings. Obviously, if my parents had only been ABLE to have one child, then I wouldn’t be whining right now (or would at least be whining about something else), but there were no real impediments to their conceiving another child other than the fact that they could barely stand to be in the same room at the same time. So okay, I understand. Anyways, by the time I arrived it was already too late, because I wanted OLDER siblings, not some annoying brat who would take all the attention away from my mediocre clarinet playing and practically inedible homemade éclairs. I know, I know, that’s totally something an only child would say –see what they did to me?

 

My friend Julie has accused me more than once of romanticizing siblings. Not true –why shouldn’t I assume that any big brother of mine would be a lot like Albus Dumbledore (only without the late-adolescence power obsession)? For my fantasy sisters, I’m less fanciful; Cate Blanchett and Nigella Lawson would do just fine. Really, all I’ve ever wanted was a brother who would tell me which of his gorgeous, thoughtful, brilliant friends to date and sisters who would share their amazing clothes and crush my enemies.

 

I have always thought of siblings as a kind of peer relationship insurance policy. It’s expensive, but you’re not denied based on your history of self-destructive, irritating behavior and someone will always make them pay if they try to opt out. Friends, of course, are more like stocks and bonds –the shortest-term ones are the highest risk, and all you can do if the bottom falls out is have a stiff drink and try to absorb the loss. Sisters and brothers can’t throw you away, even if they’re tired of your intensity or your whining or your complete inability to handle violent movies. They know they’re going to have to face you at Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day or at least next summer at the cabin, so they have to keep trying. They HAVE to.

 

I have always thought of siblings as a kind of peer relationship insurance policy.

 

I don’t have insurance; nobody in my life has to put up with my shit. My darling Julie did not have to come over and help me clean my house when I returned home after a weekend away at my cousin Kyle’s memorial service to dead flowers on the counter, laundry everywhere, dishes in the sink.

 

My cousin Jessica did not have to blaze all the way down to Mayo Clinic from Minneapolis to deliver a salad and giant piece of cake to Caroline’s hospital room, where I was stuck alone with my three-year-old, waiting for her to have a massive seizure so we could figure out where it was coming from. My friend Michele did not have to call my favorite bakery (which doesn’t deliver) and talk them into delivering a huge box of pastries (she made sure to buy only the stuff that would last several days) to my house before Caroline’s surgery.

 

My friend Mary does not have to call me every time things go radically south in my life and tell me exactly what she would do, step by step, to take care of me if she were living in Minneapolis. My friend Betsy does not have to sit on the phone with me every Thanksgiving and Christmas, going over the WHOLE menu, telling me the best way to roast asparagus, cook bacon (I can never do it right), or tweak the recipe for her mother’s chocolate cake, which is my perennial birthday cake, to make it exactly right.

None of them have to do anything (that’s not at all an exhaustive list of my phenomenal friends or the beautiful things they’ve done for me, by the way –if you weren’t mentioned this time, you can bet you will be eventually). They don’t have to keep me around, they don’t have to listen to me lecture and cry and long for the jerks who don’t care whether I’m in their lives or not. They just do because they want to, because they love me and they know I love them and usually try give as good as I get.

See? It’s not the same. If I had brothers and sisters, the insurance, they would be expected to take care of me by doing what insurance will usually do for you –the bare minimum. Maybe they would do more, but they could just as easily do only what they were obligated to do, resent it, wear me down, demand proof of my claim. Stocks aren’t like that — choose good strong ones and they’ll always pay because that’s how it’s set up. Once in a while, I’ll invest a lot of energy and heart into a relationship that seems good, strong, promising. But they get busy or bored and drift away, run away, throw me away. It hurts; every time it happens with a friend I really value, I wish I had the insurance. I wish they didn’t have the option to take everything I’ve given them and run. I wish I could MAKE them stay.

But I don’t really. Obligation is not a good insurance policy. I want my investments to value me as much as I value them, to strive always for loyalty and transparency and innovation. When they don’t, I have a stiff drink and absorb the loss. Then I call my stocks and bonds –a good portfolio has always been the best insurance.

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.

House and Home

IMG_6562

 

You hear a lot about what it takes to turn a house into a home; I’m trying to turn my home back into a house. Turns out everyone buying a house these days expects to live in a Pottery Barn catalog.  So says my fashionable, market-savvy, trend-conscious, relentlessly positive real-estate advisory panel (you have to have one or you might as well give up before you start). The idea is to help the potential buyers envision the American-dream-meets-global-glamour lifestyle they will only enjoy if they choose your house. So no personal photos, no installations by your artist uncle who makes sculptures out of garbage. No baby-tooth-jewelry collection.

 

When the young couple tours your house, their expectations warped by evenings watching House Hunters and Property Brothers, you’re supposed to help them dream up a lovely, stylish existence for themselves. You do this by artfully positioning the furniture and accessories they will remember as part of the property but which will not, of course, be sold with the house. Think of the toys advertised during Scooby Doo and Superfriends on Saturday mornings. Only after you opened the box on your birthday or Christmas did you realize how few accessories came with the main thing, how much more you needed to fill in to enjoy the full effect.

 

Luckily, the Millennials have never watched commercials –they’ve all grown up with DVRs– so paradoxically, marketing tricks work particularly well on them. You want her to think this is where she’ll have quiet Winter moments sipping designer coffee by the fire, the children playing quietly nearby with educational wooden toys made by socially responsible companies in Scandinavia or Vermont. The fact that I have had not one quiet moment in the last five years of living here will not be a marketing focus. You want him to think this is the basement office where he’ll make his winning Fantasy football draft picks and/or develop his idea for vitamin-infused beer (go ahead and laugh –it’s gonna be huge).

 

You want her to think this is where she’ll have quiet Winter moments sipping designer coffee by the fire, the children playing quietly nearby with educational wooden toys made by socially responsible companies in Scandinavia or Vermont.

 

Whether or not either of them knows how to cook or bake (probably not –that’s what Trader Joe’s is for), a gourmet kitchen is crucial. Granite on the counter tops, stainless steel appliances, a pantry just large enough for a week’s worth of organic macaroni and cheese and a fridge that can hold plenty of kombucha. Good, good, they say to each other with their eyes behind the realtor’s back. They don’t want to live like that poor, broken couple they saw on HGTV who spent all their renovation money on mini-golf for the basement. Awful — they had had to live with a tacky kitchen for an extra six months while they talked their Boomer parents into another advance on their inheritance. Shudder…moving on.

 

This family room is just right for Superbowl parties and book club meetings. Superfun! What should she wear? Would he, theoretically, be allowed to smoke cigars with his buddies just ONCE in here if the Vikings ever won a Superbowl? No. That’s cool –still a good room.

 

We won’t tell her this, but the living room is where she’ll go to nurse her babies at 4:00 in the morning, snow spinning outside the windows, that feeling of being both essential and invisible, connected and alone filling up her rib cage. We can’t tell him that he needs to come down with her once in a while, lie on the couch with her, say nothing, just be with her so she doesn’t forget herself. There’s no room for that in the marketing brochure.

 

No matter how carefully we stage everything, they may sense somehow that our life here was less Pottery Barn catalog, more medical journal. They won’t know about our little daughter’s seizure disorder and subsequent brain surgery. They won’t know that the small boy who lived in this house blew bubbles for his little sister every night for ten weeks to distract her when she was getting mean steroid shots in her marshmallowy little thighs. They won’t know which room my cousin Kyle stayed in a month before he died and they won’t know my favorite spot for crying about how lonely a kid with special needs can make me feel sometimes. But I’m guessing they’ll sense that we lived a real life here. Good.

 

I will bring with me the hours I have spent snoozing like a cat in front of the gas fireplace, one or more of my children curled against me.

 

There’s no turning this home, where so much life has happened, both good and bad, back into just a house. I’m sure whoever buys this place will sense at least some of the loss, the fear and confusion and all that we did to try and love each other through it. Why hide what we tried to make here? We’re all –both the sellers and the buyers of this world– trying to make something beautiful with garbage, so why hide it? Do we really think they’ll be fooled? Even if they can be tricked into thinking we’re selling them nothing but a pretty, semi-stylish,  HGTV  lifestyle, don’t we want to teach them however we can that there’s nothing especially beautiful about that?

 

I do. I want to sell this house, so I’ll stage it, make it as fashionable and impressive as I can for their Superbowl parties and book club meetings. But if an echo of what our family survived here bounces gently off the freshly painted walls, I’m going to let it. If I’m going to tell the next young family a story about life in this house, then I insist on allowing both light and shadow into it. I insist on artistic integrity.

 

I have done almost everything the realtor and stager have told me to do –painted this and retiled that and moved this piece of furniture to that room and taken down all of the family photos. But we’ve left our mark on this house and it’s left its mark on us. I can’t really de-personalize it; it’s more up to the next owners to re-personalize it. And I can’t change it from a home to a house until I move out of it. Even then, it may take a while to really leave it.

 

That’s fine…it’s all fine. Most of the life I have lived here will come with me. I will bring with me my favorite Christmas Eve with Brian in the year Caroline was diagnosed when we listened to mix tapes we made for each other, drank Bailey’s and vanilla Haagen Dazs milkshakes, and assembled the girls’ play kitchen.  I will bring with me all of the rounds of “I love you more than…” that I’ve played with my Henry before bed at night and I will bring with me the hours I have spent snoozing like a cat in front of the gas fireplace, one or more of my children curled against me. None of that is for sale with the house –they’ll have to fill in what they need to get the full effect.