I miss my mom. She’s been gone almost 10 years. I miss her voice; I miss how she took care of me, even from miles away. And I miss what we never had: shared time with my children, her granddaughters. She never met them. She never even knew that I ended up marrying that nice guy who grew up down the street, the one I painted houses with, the one who drove me home from work one time. Dave says he walked me to the door and met my mother that day, but I don’t remember.
I don’t remember a lot, especially about when I was my girls’ ages. I cannot count the number of times something has come up as I’ve raised these kids, and I’ve wanted to ask my mom some question: Did I want to do everything first but finish my dessert last, like Lexi? Did my front teeth take a long time to grow in, like Caroline’s? When I was little, did I plan my birthday parties months in advance, down to the details of how many fairies and butterflies would be on my red cake with rainbow sprinkles? Did I even go through a fairy phase?
I am blessed to have had her for as long as I did; I know this.
I took Lexi to one of her first swim lessons at Riva Swim Center last week. There was a mom there with her mother, and as they stood around the pool, watching the little girl in Lexi’s class, I caught myself leaning in trying to listen, wondering what conversation I’d be having if my mom were there with me.
I would have asked about my first swim lesson. Did parents dote as much as they do now? A handful of mothers stood or sat near the wall watching their kids kick water as if the children were actually walking on top of the water. Cameras and camcorders and cell phones were poised like Michael Phelps was about to unload on the 200m fly. Moms grinned and waved, eyes wide, reaching their long arms, free styling in the air, blowing make-believe bubbles. They were, I will say, actively engaged.
And I was right there with them. Lexi wore her new goggles, which she kept flipping around and fooling with. I was so worried they weren’t fitting comfortably; I considered jumping in to help. After every stint with Mark-the-instructor in the pool, she’d scootch herself onto the edge, adjust her swim suit straps, then knock around a bit with her goggles before looking over at me, her eyes magnified and a bit mushed. She’d give a nod then a thumbs-up, a miniature Maverick in Top Gun.
Right back atcha, Lexi. In a half hour, I’d say we exchanged about 23 nods and thumbs-up. We were like a pair of dolphins in some insane Sea World act, mimicking each other, lifting our bottled noses into the air, again and again and again: “You’re great!” “No, you’re great!” “No, you’re great!” “No, you’re great!”
If my mom had been there, I would have asked, did you hover like a helicopter? Because I don’t remember that. It seemed like you were more normal than I am. I know you worried. You were fully aware that bad things happened to good people. You knew the risks of parenting. But you didn’t try too hard to control things. You watched from the wall, keeping a healthy distance. You probably didn’t do a ton of thumbs-upping— but I always knew that you were there.
Lexi loves the water. She has spent so much time hacking around in the pool during the last few summers, that she’s developed some habits Mr. Mark may need duct tape to fix. But when Lexi sits on the edge and Mark in his booming voice asks, “Who wants to go first?” her hand flies. He looks at me and smiles. Then looks back at her: “I didn’t even tell you what you were doing yet!”
Lexi greets the water like it’s a dear friend she hasn’t seen in ages; she runs to and hugs it all at once—part jump, part dive, part love. She splashes in then raises her head quickly, water lifting around her, legs and arms moving, happiness everywhere. Mark settles her, gets her to put her face down, her legs straight, her toes pointed. He booms, “Swim to the edge!” and she does…with her face up, her legs dangling, and her arms running. He looks back at me again and smiles, “She’ll get there!” while Lexi scootches herself up onto the edge, waiting eagerly for her next turn.
I believe she’s already there. She is fearless, and she is having so much fun. I want to live like Lexi swims.
Dear Mom, I really hope you’re catching some of this.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Most of us secure the details of the day we were born early on. We hear the story and repeat it enough that we’re pretty confident about the specifics, even though we weren’t taking notes at the time. No shock to my siblings, I always thought my birth was an important one. I was a c-section baby. My mom was on bed-rest for weeks. I was a month early. Someone in the storytelling said that my mom stood up the moment she got the “okay” from the doctor, and that I was born immediately after. I pictured her placing her feet on the ground as the ambulance arrived for the escort. It all ran pretty smoothly in my mind. Paula, Dan, and Matt had unimaginable fun at our neighbor Lucy’s house, staying up late eating green noodles, while Mom and Dad welcomed their new little and lovable bundle on the 1st of April. Paula, the adoring big sister, thought it was a joke and that she really had another brother.
What I have come to understand is that no matter how smoothly things may run, c-sections are uncomfortable. The green of Lucy’s noodles was spinach-inspired, and what so captivated me about them was the pool of butter and parmesan in which they swam. As for Paula, the novelty of having a little sister has long since worn off.
The couch I’m lying on is sprinkled with sliced almonds. The monitor beats and bleeps, practically dancing on the kitchen counter as Lexi voices little interest in sleeping, and the mommy moments continue past the PBS special I was meaning to watch, past the book I’m dying to finish. Dave’s hair is graying but his eyes still laugh as he rolls them at me from the brown chair: “What is up with this kid?” I was up with her, in her room, for much too long, and now all of the parenting books I’ve ever read glare at me from the bookcase: “What were you thinking?” I hear them say.
But, when Lexi was napping earlier that day, Caroline and I curled on the couch, listening to stories on cd. Caroline in her light blue ballerina dress, worn and washed so often, its tulle tutu a lot less puffy than it once was, its sheer overdress shredded with holes. A straw purse fell from her shoulder. Over that, sprung pink fairy wings; and somehow simultaneously over and under the wings, wrapped a practical green cardigan she’s just learned to button. Her hot pink tiara sat low like a visor, its sides secured with masking tape. She wore a sullied pair of pink tights and sparkly shoes having long since lost their luster, one pink and one red. She, my little fairy bag-lady, and I, as far from down-and-out as we could possibly be, resting together.
So tonight I spent equal time with Lexi, resting with her on the bed in her room, when really I should have given her the kiss and the hug and left her to fall asleep on her own. She was telling me all about her pink doggy, and how he can stay with us on the tow-blow (pillow), and she stretched beside me, her blue eyes approving as I closed mine tight then opened them wide. She lifted her head slightly saying “Shtopp, Mommy” but I knew she wanted me to peek-a-boo a bit longer. She left her pillow to share mine, and I thought how beautiful she is and how she and her sister do something to my heart—fill it; I guess it’s that simple. Simple enough to go from empty to full. Simple enough to dampen the sounds of a heart that once echoed and ticked like a motoring clock, with the soft, certainty of love for these busy little girls who’ve taken me over.
As we crossed the walking bridge towards Mom’s hospital room, Dad told me they called me “Baby Grand” after I was born, because c-section babies were not cheap. I loved it—I’m the kid who plays the piano—how perfect. How did I not know this before? And he told me, as the hospital doors opened for us, about the idiot nurse who said something about not hearing the baby’s heartbeat as they were wheeling my mother in for surgery. She came out of the operation convinced I was dead. But my dad told her, no, what must have happened, the doctor said, was they were registering only one heartbeat because my mom’s heart and mine were beating at the same time.
I grabbed that image and tucked it away as we tapped on her hospital door.
Our visits were not long. I don’t remember if that was for her benefit or ours. As Dad and I walked out that day, I told her I loved her, and she said, “I love you both.” Then just as loudly, though in a movie scene I would have imagined this second part as a whisper only she could hear, she said, “You’ll never know how much.”
Dear Mom, I know now.
It’s been many nights now that I’ve gone to bed worrying about the flu and what effect it could have on my little girls if they should get sick with it. Unsettled doesn’t quite describe how I’ve been feeling, especially at night. (I can get dark when it’s dark outside.) I woke up the other morning mildly refreshed. The light was breaking through our bedroom blinds, and with that came a brighter outlook, but I’d had a dream about disease, and I just couldn’t completely shake it off. Dave had had a dream, as well. A “nightmare” he called it—that the Phillies were down by 7 in the bottom of the 1st during Game One of the World Series.
And there it is: The basic difference between Dave and me. I worry. I imagine the worst and wallow in it. Dave does have serious concerns (not that Phillies versus Yankees isn’t serious!), and he of course loves our kids and thinks about them as much as I do, but he doesn’t allow himself to go down the hideous roads. He stops and turns around, back to the busy places, populated by friends and family, activity and positivity.
I’ve been an over-thinker all of my life; that gene came directly from my mom. My dad is the optimist—feet planted firmly in the clouds, he says. I’ve tried often during these last few years to imagine my mom and dad as young parents. They obviously had different approaches and concerns than we do. They laid babes on their tummies not their backs. They wrapped them in cloth diapers. I’m sure there were issues to debate and products to buy, but it just seems like today there is so much out there to trip us up as new parents: milk vs. formula, work vs. stay-at-home, vaccines, mercury, bpa-free, advanced degrees in car seat installation.
I didn’t even have a baby yet, when Dave and I took a forty-five minute trip to Great Beginnings in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in order to buy, among other things, a … chair. We walked into the store, new initiates into a secret club, one I never before imagined existed. There were pregnant women everywhere, some with presumed husbands by their sides, some aiming scanning guns at strollers, cribs and matching bumpers. I wondered, Did I really just drive an hour for—not a “rocking chair,” but— a “glider”? At the same time, everything around me looked so . . . little, so . . . pastel, so darn cute (everything I could identify, that is).
Shopping for a glider was akin to test-driving cars, and believe me, it was the right thing to be doing while I was eight months pregnant. It was a testament to each rocker how comfortable it was, how smoothly it handled, and how its foundation didn’t instantaneously collapse under my weight. I could get up from each chair, too, which felt miraculous at the time. We went with blue and white, and that blue and white glider and I spent quality time together during the girls’ first months. I remember sitting in the chair, often at 4 a.m., nursing a baby while looking outside the window. All the neighbors’ homes were dark. I was sleepy, and though everyone in the world was, in fact, sleeping, I was okay with that. I felt a bit lonely, but at peace, and strangely safe there with a new little life in my arms. Not a lot of questions or worries swirled around in my head at that hour or stage. It was all I could do at the time, to sit on a rocker at 4 am.
Lexi’s now two and Caroline, three. The glider is now a spot for reading while snuggling. It is something for the girls to fight over, giggle on, and hide under. And just the other day, for Caroline it became a “thinking chair.” I was trying to persuade her to get off of the rocker, find her princess underwear and put on, well, anything, so we could go down for breakfast when she said, “Just a minute, Mom, I need to think about something.” I was in Lexi’s room, wishing for a spare jaws-of-life so I could extricate “Pink Doggie” from her grasp long enough to put her strong little arms through her shirt sleeves.
Caroline said, “Mom? How do tattoos go away?” We’d gone to a fireman-themed birthday party the previous weekend, and both girls still had remnants of a red truck stamped on their right hands. I explained that her tattoo rubbed off and then went into a short vocabulary lesson comparing “permanent” to “impermanent,” and she seemed satisfied with the answer. “Mom? How does water move?” I went with the ice-atop-mountains approach, mentioning the word “gravity” just for kicks, wondering if what I had said was confusing or even wrong, but she gave me that one as well. “Mom, I’m going to think some more.”
Lexi has an old man laugh, like she’s been smoking for years, a sputtering engine. I had finished wrestling her into a clean diaper and outfit, and I had her in prime tickling position when Caroline asked from the other room, “Mom? How do we talk?” Little sister chuckled at me from her purple pillowed perspective.
So it seems Caroline and I have entered a new phase. There’s a give and take that wasn’t there before, as I await her next question more and more eagerly, not even attempting to guess what will come next, but rather, taking life in from her funny little perspective. Though I will never know all of the answers, I am now going to be asked all of the questions. Every single one of them.
These days I do have the opportunity to sleep about eight hours a night. But, worries and questions branch and multiply like a family tree, now that the girls are getting older. It’s not just about feeding them every four hours; it’s about raising them. It’s about squashing bad manners, teaching concern for others. It’s about using good grammar, nurturing interests, providing safety, getting outside. And the irony is, as opposed to my teaching days, I’ve got nary a lesson planned. Each day in the classroom, I knew what I was doing. Each day in the home seems off-the-cuff and improvised. I ask big questions wanting big answers: How do I get my kids vaccinated if there’s no vaccine? When will I go back to work, and what will I do? Is Caroline sometimes shy because I’m overprotective? Do I give Lexi enough attention? Can I, please, keep them safe, forever?
The Phillies are down three games to one in the World Series. All I can do is watch them play. But it feels like the right thing to be doing, wine glass in hand, lucky blanket wrapped around my perennially cold feet. Though I have the opportunity to sleep eight hours a night, I’ve been depriving myself of it during the last few weeks, not because of parenting concerns swirling around in my head, but because of baseball. It’s been nice to shift focus. I still have questions and concerns as I sit there in front of the television—“Shane looks tense. Did Ryan touch the bag? How clutch is Jason Werth? (But why the facial hair?) Did that really just happen?” I am Caroline, blurting out what’s on my mind, commenting on the here and now—on what is right in front of me.
There may not be a lot I can do to save the Phillies, but I think I’ll have Dave bring down the glider tonight for Game 5. That chair’s brought us nothing but good fortune since we brought it home. I’ll just toss a red throw over it (to cover up the blue and white) and hope for the best.
Thursday, June 11
Caroline is in her pajamas on her bed, crawling at me with a lovely little grin on her face. She’s cupped her right hand and attached it to the side of her mouth, and she’s coming in towards my left ear for the whisper, “Tomorrow, Mommy…we can go to the pool. If you’re a good girl. And then we can get ice cream.” She is so sincere. Her warm breath puffs and tickles my ear, but my whole body reacts, like she’s blessing me, curing me. I close my eyes—this is the first time Caroline has whispered in my ear. Afterwards, I sit on the rocking chair, telling her the story she wants to hear; then I wait, as I do sometimes, watching her fall asleep.
I can’t get out of the rocking chair; I’m tired. Mr. Potato head’s arm lies under Caroline’s hamper unattached to his body—he’s a casualty in her colorfully cluttered room, like Oz’s wicked witch beneath the fallen house. Nobody’s safe when my little munchkins are running around, but they’re both asleep now, and it’s quiet. I’ve noticed that toddlers are noisy. While I’d like to say that their noise is like music, there’s actually a lot of whining, crying, and shrieking going on in and around my head these days, and it can be tiresome and loud. Carol Gilligan writes about girls in the school years needing to find their voices. I’ll have to cross that bridge, but for now my girls have theirs intact, often at high volume. So I sit and think about the day: what made me laugh, what didn’t, what I got around to doing, what I didn’t, what I probably won’t get around to doing tomorrow.
Then there’s Krista. She learned she had a slow growing tumor in her brain, just after delivering her first child, Anna Mae. I see Krista in the neighborhood. In fact, our kitchen window looks out at her front door. I think of her in the morning when I drink my coffee; I think of her at night when I close the curtains on the day, heading to sleep with the bold assumption that I’ll be waking up, doing it all over again the next day. And I’m thinking of her now as I sit in the rocker.
She’s going in tomorrow for brain surgery. She could die, or she could live, and there’s much that could happen in between. I picture her tonight in her house—the same as mine—in her child’s bedroom, sitting on a rocking chair, watching her baby fall asleep. Would this be the last time? How does she allow herself to think that way? How does she avoid it? And how do I as a bystander, a passerby, do more than pray and wish deeply that Krista will be here for Anna Mae when Anna Mae first learns to whisper in an ear?
Wednesday, June 17
Krista has survived surgery and grueling post-surgery complications. 70% of her tumor is now gone. She will learn in some time what that means for the long term, but she’ll be home with her daughter by the end of the week. Anna Mae, bring on the noise!
Krista, welcome home. May that first whisper be yours.
Mother’s Day. This isn’t my first as a mom, but it is the first when my oldest daughter can actually say, “Mommy.” She can also say “Oh My God Kingee, do you need a haircut!” and she can tell her dad that she’s not “digging” the song he’s singing. It is what I say and not necessarily what I do, these days, as Caroline makes our language her own. She grabs words and phrases like candy—with parental perseverance, she’ll accept table manners just as voraciously—and most of the time, I love it. I love hearing myself interpreted in a musical little lilting voice. She rolls the “r” (something I could never do) in “Caroline,” Italian flair. “Baracuda” (Dave taught her that one) rings from her mouth like it’s a kind of perfume, not a toothy fish.
There are car rides, however. There are missteps and moments when I forget that her eyes are on me, and when I say eyes, I mean globally big and blue, and when I imagine all that those eyes see, I envision raptors atop mountains scouting prey. This girl is watching … and listening. Will some future Caroline wistfully reminisce: “My mother used to say, ‘Get off the road, you Jackass!’”?
What will Caroline and Lexi remember about me? Will I envelop them in catch-phrases; will I sit them down for lectures? Will stuff just come out and stick? Should I be developing some teaching strategy, as the little magnets form minds? What am I doing?
My own mother was not a motto-mom. She may have doubted her ability as sage, but I like to think that she knew her style and her audience. I probably wasn’t going to listen. Though I do remember, when I was in junior high and convinced that everyone was better, brighter, and prettier than I, Mom did assure me that Susie Slatkin put her pants on just like everybody else. My mother also had this tip for relieving tension: shape out the alphabet with your head when you’re showering. I attempted the ABC’s of stress relief just the other day, wrenching my neck in the process. Water cooled and decreased in pressure down my back as I stood rigidly, waiting for the pain to pass. Of all that my mom and I had shared through the years, why on earth had I remembered that little nugget? Had she ever walked me through exactly how she raised four kids, lost weight after pregnancy, managed to be the smartest woman I’d ever met? I wish I’d listened.
Without my prompting the other day Caroline jumped on the footstool in her bedroom, screaming “Rockstar!” then jumped down with a “Ta Da!” She once put smiley stickers on top of her Little People’s heads, saying they all had to wear hats because it was too sunny. Recently she held out dripping fingers as she was bathing: “Here’s a rain forest, Mommy,” she said, pouring the water into my hand. I figure, if at age two she’s already interested in music, sun protection, and the environment, then I’m doing okay.
When my mom was sick with cancer, I had this aching desire to ask her for final advice, wisdom that would stay with me forever, guiding me towards a not-yet-materialized loving husband, aptly-nurtured future kids, and a good life. I had this brief but powerful feeling that maybe she would say something to me that I’d be able to keep, to mark down on delicate paper with a thin-tipped caligraphy pen—those go-to words that would get me through. I knew then that I was being silly because that had never been her way. She had been showing me her way for 34 years. By then, I had sense and I had love. I had strength enough, even, to say good bye to her.
I know that (post-language acquisition stage!) Caroline and Lex will hear what I do so much louder than what I say. They will see what I do with color and clarity, and they will remember, not all, but pieces of me, just as I remember my mother—the pink of her pedicure; our shared penchant for the scent of a flowering gardenia; the sound of her stifled laughter when my brothers’ misbehaved.
I imagine I’ll not impose words to live by—I hope my daughters just spend their time living. And I hope that what I give is so soaked and saturated into them, that when I’m gone, they won’t be able to separate themselves from the memories of me. I hope they remember the feel of their mother’s hug, the sound of her singing voice, and the wave of her fingers as she stands on her porch watching them leave after a visit. Just as I remember my mom, I hope my girls will remember me: not all that we say (because how could that be possible?), but the familiar way we sit across from each other at the kitchen table, dipping spoons into our coffees, content in the talking.