Warm milk + Chili Dot Com: Perfectly particular palates

Our girls are not picky eaters. They do, however, have discerning palates.

This is particularly true of Prima, who at the age of 5, while being babysat by friends, replied “shu-shi” when asked what her favorite food was. (They were anticipating a response more along the lines of “pizza” or “ice cream,” I think.)need for milk

As a baby, Secondo used to sit in front of a high chair tray full of black beans, avocado and cherry tomatoes cut into halves and quarters. I can still see her chubby little fingers chasing black beans around the tray and shoving them heartily into her bonny little mouth.

At age 6, Prima licked her lips and dubbed our easy homemade chili recipe, “Chili dot com” [“I love when we have chili-dot-com!” she announced, tomato cheeked.] I don’t know where it came from or how she created it, but I immediately fell in love with the moniker and her ingenious way of putting language together.

In a tribute to my mother, who began to wind down her day raising four small children when she poured her evening cup of tea, they both enjoy and drink tea. When Prima is sick, she asks for Britain’s favorite beverage.

“But Mooom,” she’ll whinny, “can I have PG Tips? With cream and two sugars?” This girl knows her tea.pg_tips

For the majority of her life, Secondo has preferred her milk warmed one minute in the microwave. If you pour too little in the cup or only go 45 seconds, she’ll know. Not even worth trying.

Over the years, as they have gotten older, their palates have expanded and contracted. They’ve settle in on some favorites.

Secondo’s major food group is cheese. Cheese crisp, mac and cheese (she prefers Annie’s Organic and not the blue box stuff), girled (not a spelling error) cheese, cheese quesadilla and – the holy grail of her dairy obsession – cheesesticks.

That should be two words but in our household it’s ubiquitous, so it is one.

Cheesesticks are serious business around here.

One brand does not suit all.

Prima prefers the Frigo variety (she lampooned an empty Frigo cheesestick package to our refrigerator as a reminder of what type to buy). And mozzarella only. Once in awhile, she likes to venture out to into sharp cheddar rectangles – but only Sargento, thank you very much. And never, never, ever, ever send a cheesestick in her lunch, even if you pack dry ice to maintain temperature. Without fail it will come back a greasy, flaccid half-melted mess of rejection, and the flustered admonishment, “Moooom, I DON’T like cheesesticks in my lunch.”shushi

None of this is suitable for Secondo’s tastes, however, who prefers Precious cheesesticks – “the ones with the guy on the skateboard on the front.” Bingo. Never yellow nor pepper jack nor provolone nor anything other than mozzarella. Packing them in her lunch is A-OK, however. She’ll eat them here or there or everywhere. Really. I’ve found them half-eaten stuffed between couch cushions or under beds, on bathroom counters and dried up in the playroom – a little dairy trail of her day’s activities.

Despite the annoyance of making an extra stop at another grocery store (of course my local does not carry both types of preferred cheesesticks — welcome to Mommy hell), their preferences please me.

They’ve always been the kind of kids to find something on nearly any menu to enjoy. They’re not limited to hot dogs or nuggets. They eat Japanese, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Mexican (Prima has taken up Mr. Bailey’s Cholula obsession), Middle Eastern with regularity. They like salad. They love clementines and apples and berries. When I bring oranges for soccer game half time, they are genuinely excited.

Of course, left to their own devices, they would eat pizza with sides of breadsticks six nights a week and candy for breakfast each morning, but with a spoonful of our guidance, we’re getting them somewhere tasty, cheesesticks in hand. Dot com.

The Nomination

Prima came home from school the other day looking tentative, bewildered and slightly pleased.

She sat quietly as Secondo chirped about her first-grade day all the way home.Pulling for victory

As they hung their backpacks and ate a snack, Prima told me at school they had done nominations for a class representative for student council.

“Oh?” I said, the distracted mom showing appropriate interest. “Did people vote? Or were they nominated?”

“Nominated,” she replied, pausing awhile. “I was nominated.”

“Really!?” I might have said too brightly.

“Yes, Mom,” she said, telling me who had done so. Per my typical MO, I extolled the virtues of the person who nominated her, emphasizing this small and significant act of kindness in what might turn out to be a disappointing childhood experience.

She agreed it was very nice.

“But, Mom.” Refocusing me, now. “I have to write and give a speech and then everyone votes on one boy and one girl to be on the student council,” her voice quivering ever so slightly when the words “write” and “speech” passed her lips.

These are difficult things for Prima.

“That’s OK!” I cheer-led. “I will help you. You talk and I’ll type it for you.”

But when we sat down at our desk, she locked down, tension bringing her full pink lips into a mash, her smooth brow furrowing. She was on the verge of tears as I suggested ways she might begin. “What about this…” I offered, suggesting some boring version of what I thought she might say.

“No.”

“Well, how about…” I volleyed again.

“Moooommmm! NO.” Yowza. I took a deep breath and waited, brushing away my own irritation.

And she put together the single best campaign speech ever dictated. Like, for reals.

I’ll prove it.

It began with “I can use my ability to talk to the student council members about what fifth grade has to say and what they like. I think that everybody matters in this, not just one fifth-grader.”

It continued with, “If I become the representative, I will respect your ideas and tell them to the student council.”

Good, right?

And in the face of my repressed mamaworry, she gave me the clincher, “And I will always be myself.”

My heart stopped.

“That’s it,” she said, confident that she had expressed herself, the tension gone.

When I could talk without giving away that inside I was melting with pride and gushing with sappy and devoted love and appreciation for her indomitable spirit, I said, “Prima, that’s true. And it’s perfect.”

We practiced and practiced and when she headed out of my circle of love the next morning, she was a bit nervous, but ready.

I could not have been more proud of her than I was in the moment when she dictated the last line. Not even if she had won. Of course, I wanted that for her. Not just because she’s my kid, my piece of heart out roaming the world, my 6-pound 8-ounce baby girl, but mostly because there’s a lot this child struggles to achieve. But struggle she does. She fights. She perseveres. Without fail.

Here’s the thing: when she got in the car after school, she told me she hadn’t won.

I was still proud, and ready to point out all the good that came out of it.

And then she broke out into a huge smile, all pink cheeks and dancing almond eyes and shouted, “Just kidding! I GOT IT!”

And my heart started again.

Harvest

I received an email from my father today. It read, “My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

Attached was a photo of several smallish reddish tomatoes, with only a few scars from growth, photographed in a tangle of thick, sweet tomato leaves and vines.photo

It’s not necessary to write he is very proud of these tomatoes.

Eight months ago, I heard him make rumblings about buying some tomato plants. He mused about it for a while, thinking aloud. Then one day I came to the house and found two large decorative terra cotta pots, once neglected and cracking with hard cores of gray dirt cast inside, filled with fragrant, moist ebony soil and two optimistically leafy plants tucked inside – a tomato and a pepper.

The pots were equally spaced and set on tiles, for proper drainage, on the front patio my parents never, ever used during the 30 years they lived there together – and in the two and a half years since cancer took my mom. I was quizzical.

Soon after, he left town on another of his “if-I-am-moving-my-grief-is-more-bearable” trips and asked me if I came to the house to be sure to water his plants. I came by only once or twice and dutifully and skeptically gave them drinks. I figured the plants would be dead in a month or so, composting victims of his scattered focus, collateral damage of the other distractions of the new life he was jamming awkwardly together.

But they didn’t die.

When he came back from the trip, I mentioned to him he ought to move the pots into the sun.

I figured he would forget.

But the next time I came to the house, they were in the sunshine and had small, white blooms. He was nearly ecstatic with these latest gifts of nature — blooms on the vines!

“Do you think I’ll get tomatoes?” he asked, a kid, asking me to predict the Christmas morning take.

“Well, if you’ve got flowers you’ll probably get tomatoes. That’s what that means,” was my snap-ish, erudite response.

Then he left again, this time recruiting a neighbor to support his campaign.

When he was gone too long and the weather was too hot, she fed them and cooled them and reported back. The tomato and pepper plants hadn’t expired of heat exhaustion. They were thriving.

He asked me about them all the time. Had I been by? How had the tomato plant seemed? Was the soil wet? Were they wilting?

I. Didn’t. Get. It.

Finally, the neighbor sent my dad a text. “We have a tomato.”

The night before a Transatlantic journey home, he wrote to me excitedly, “I can’t wait to see my tomato !!!”

I was miffed. He might also mention his daughter and her family. Enough about the tomatoes!

Maybe it was another goofy stage of his grief process, which is a maze for us all, and presents particular challenges for a child who must observe a beloved parent suddenly and tragically forget themselves, go astray, come back, follow rocky paths, want to die, want to hide, want to go back, pine for happiness, try to disappear, then reappear and need you (only you) and not need anyone at all ever again and need someone who is never, ever coming back again. These are agonizing circular challenges of your loss and their loss and your loss and their loss. Ad infinitum.

But still I puzzled, not seeing anything other than tomatoes. Fruits masquerading as vegetables.

When I got the email today, I glanced at it on my phone without really reading it. I asked him about it. He serenely told me he had invited his neighbor over so they could both be there when they picked the tomatoes. “I was afraid a critter might get them,” he said, his voice bearing all the protectiveness and vulnerability of a new mother.

And something in my heart changed. Dissolved. Clarified.

My father had planted, nurtured, worried over, babied, cooed at, cajoled, fed, and then, finally, brought to life something way more significant than fruits or vegetables.

He had harvested hope. For the first time in three decades, he wrote. (But I think he meant four because my oldest brother is 40.)

After Prima and Secondo were tucked into bed, I crept to my computer and looked again.

“My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

I love you, Dad.

There’s no (imperfect) place like home

As parents, we become poignantly aware of the briefness of childhood. Childhood is fleeting, ephemeral and its residue is comprised of the sweet sunbathed memories of swimming summer days away or bitter, gasp-ridden recollections of teasing, loss, maybe a first foray with death.20130620-120633.jpg

I know much of my role as a parent is to recognize the hyper-speed pace of childhood and do what I can to protect it, envelope it and, personally, to savor it. I work hard to make our home peaceful, loving, fun, as I view this as the hub of childhood experience. Even as I pursue this type of environment, sometimes all I can see are its shortcomings. The wall that needs repainting, the tile that we’ve been pining for the last nine years to replace, the original window in the kitchen that looks out, into the playroom. The lack of polish in the dining room: the weneeds of the place — “Weneed new furniture!” “Weneed new windows!” “Weneed a skylight here!”

Once in awhile my mother-bear-protection mode can make me blind to the sight childhood emotion provides my children.

A couple of months ago, Secondo and I are driving to pick up Prima from soccer practice. It’s nearing twilight of a spring day, the windows are open, the sun is slating at a forgive angle, dousing our town in soft light. Delighting music is playing our car, the breeze through the windows is perfectly warm. And I’m making a mental list of all the latest, most pressing weneeds — comparing our humble abode to the attractive, well-manicured homes I pass.

“Mommy!” Secondo calls, breaking my list-making. “What is the most beautiful house you have ever seen?”

I struggle to grasp my thinking and pull it into the moment. I create a quick catalog of all the places I have lived, all the countries and continents I’ve visited. Family homes, friend’s homes, homes we attended for a party, for a graduation, for a Cinco de Mayo fiesta.

“I don’t know, Secondo, I don’t know if I can think of just one. Homes are so different in different places and different styles. I guess it depends on what style, the place, things like that.”

She smiles, shakes her 5-year-old head of wavy honey-colored tresses. She gazes out the window, unconcerned with my qualified, complicated answer.

“I know mine,” she says. “It’s ours.”

Blammo.

As the ice-pick pierce of her childhood adoration of our imperfect home penetrates my heart and saltwater leaps to my eyes, I smile in spite of myself.
Sometimes, as adults, we see so many scenarios, so many possibilities and potentials, we miss what is, what abides, and what loves and loves and loves simply because it exists, as we made it, in the moment.

Two Years

Yesterday marked two years since my beloved mother’s spirit escaped from the suffering of cancer and joined the spirit of Great Love that fuels all.

 
Two years flew by. Two years crept. I am not the same person I was before. Neither is my Dad, my brothers, sisters, my husband, my children, nieces and nephews. Life is always changing, of course. Change is painful, because it requires us to shift our thoughts, accept harsh realities and rejigger our deeply held expectations (sometimes a bit, sometimes a lot). Evolving is uncomfortable and awkward but it can be miraculous — particularly in hindsight.
 
Life without my mom was once unfathomable to me. Since I can remember, which is very far back, I categorized that concept as impossible. Apparently, I was wrong. Life without my mom’s physical presence is possible. It has occurred. Her spiritual presence persists in my life and makes itself known in myriad ways, and I am thankful for these reminders. Her physical absence still represents a significant vacuum in our lives. (I think I speak for me and all of you reading this, too.) I continue to battle with that beast but I also have come to accept it a bit more. It enrages me, but I have made room for the absence, too.
 
I guess the absence has its purpose. Without it, would I recall the way her lovely (always cool) long fingers gently stroked on my face? Without it, would I hear her voice in my heart, like a song, calling my name, the names of our daughters, my nieces and nephews. Would I remember the way she would angle her head and smile at someone when she was really listening and wanted to show her sincere attention and concern? And then would I find myself doing the same (without consciously knowing it)? Without the absence, would I feel moved to cook her recipes, to read the books left untouched by her bedside, to reread her love notes and cards to me and my family over the years? Would I be able to recognize her smell when I pull on a sweater of hers, freshly taken from a box sealed up with her things? Maybe not. And that would be a true tragedy.
 
So I guess I must construct a truce with the absence.
 
I can definitively tell you that two years of additional life, love, laughter, pain, tears, joy, dancing, weddings, births, apologies, devotion, prayer, meditation, yoga, running, singing, cooking, baking, connection, new friends, enduring friendships, gardening, reading, writing, growing would not have been possible without you. 
 
Without the friends and family of each of us, without the friends of my mothers’ we never even knew, who remember her and carry her with them and who find it in their hearts to carry us, and love us, my Dad, my brothers and I would not be here today.
 
Without the love of family, the love of friends, the self-sacrifice required to hold us up, to accept us as we are (broken and healing, awkward and tentative) we would not have made it to this point. It is a debt of love we owe to the world because you have given us this gift of your love and friendship.
 
Thank you for keeping my mom’s memory with you, in your hearts, in your words, in your prayers. Thank you for loving us where we have been these last two years. 
 

The kid without a team

My very dear readers,

Thank you for your nudges. Thank you for your soft and heartfelt compliments about Modern Mary. Thank you for having faith I would write again, because now I am.

In addition to my lavishly loving readers, I owe the end of this particular block, to another kind of modern parenting challenge. I freely admit, this was a conundrum of my own creation.

Several months ago, minutes after the last whistle of a resoundingly successful first season of soccer by Secondo, Miss Thang promptly informed me she wanted to play again. And, also, when did the next season start. Was it next week? The day after Christmas? When?

Secondo had discovered the lifetime (literally) she’d spent watching her older sister play English football had yielded a rather jolly result – she was good at scoring goals. Indeed, she loved scoring goals.  And not love in a, “Oh, this is so fun, I love everyone, sunshine and rainbows” sort of a way, but in a, “Move or be run over on my way to score another goal, you uncoordinated kindergarten rascal!” sort of (slightly scary) way.

I guess Mr. Bailey and I weren’t the only ones who noticed because at her penultimate game Secondo went on an incredible tear, scoring one goal after another, after another, and her assistant coach threw his hat out on the field in between widespread whoops and clapping. Modern Mary is not particularly a hockey fan, but I respected the gesture. As we walked to the car after that last game, the head coach caught up with us to let us know if (smile) Secondo wanted to play again, he hoped she would be on his team.

The next thing that happened, as it so often does in Modern Mary’s world, was nothing. I knew Secondo wanted to play soccer again. I knew there was a spring season. I knew how to get her registered and what team she wanted to be on. I also knew there was time aplenty to make that all happen.

And then, suddenly, there wasn’t.

In a sweating mad panic, after repeatedly forgetting for a week, after receiving several reminder emails from: the league, the coach, Mr. Bailey, and my fellow Modern mothers; I finally, on the very last day, registered.

Somehow I thought the soccer gods would smile on me, but no such luck.

Prima I managed to weasel in under the gun – but I was point blank horrified to learn Secondo was relegated to the waiting list. And not No. 1 on the waiting list, either. Fat No. 5.

For several days, I practiced deep breathing. I tried magical thinking: Secondo might forget, right? Then: Mom, my friends at school had soccer practice today. When’s mine?

For a couple more days, I rationalized. It’s a numbers game! I’m sure someone – or five – are going to drop out, change their mind, break their leg, move to Alaska. I’m not going to worry about it! Then: Mommy, I will always be your baby, right? I can’t wait for you and Daddy to watch me play soccer again!

That’s when sheer terror set in.

I started emailing people, calling in favors and gathering my crew of Modern Moms to rally their energies to get Secondo on a team. Time was running out on me. Games were beginning in four days, then three, then two. The league was silent.

Finally, I sent a sweat-soaked desperate plea to Secondo’s former coach, confessing my sins, falling on my procrastination sword and begging for him to use any influence he might have, should he be so inclined, to rescue Secondo from the sins of her delinquent mother and put that girl out on the field in shin guards.

Reader, it worked. Coach emailed three times, called and texted me to absolve me with the news he was thrilled to have Secondo join his team.

Relief ensued, as did happy dances and staying up past 10 p.m. to celebrate.

When you win as a Mom after losing and screwing up and feeling lame and sucky, God in heaven, it feels good. Really, really good. I think it must feel a little like kicking a black and white leather ball through the grass, around the pigtails and driving it deep into the net.

Goal!

Birthdays that end in 0

Do you have that person in your life, family or friend, you look up to?

They’re just enough older, prettier, wiser or more with it, than you.

You admire them publicly. Privately you adore them and wish you shared a larger portion of their special brand of magic.Image

For me, that person is my oldest brother, B. He’s turning – well it might be overstepping to say – he’s celebrating a big birthday today. So in between Prima’s strep throat, Secondo’s back-to-school malaise, torturous make-up homework, Mr. Bailey’s job interviews and remodeling our Dusty Rose (Modern Mary’s name for our humble abode) I’ve been meditating on B and how best to mark this big day.

Here’s one of B’s least favorite things to do now that he’s a certain age: talk about himself. (I could remind him here how between the ages of 13 and 18 all he did was talk about himself, his goals and his ambitions, but I won’t. Turns out, being ambitious paid off.) So I figure I can do the talking for him. As a sort of birthday gift from me, he gets words. My words, about him.

B is:

  • Driven
  • Charismatic
  • Ambitious
  • Deeply caring
  • Tenacious
  • Self-deprecating

He’s the guy you call at 2 a.m. in college when a boy breaks your heart. (Thanks, B.)

He’s the one who:

  • Flies in at the last minute
  • Breaks the news
  • Makes the plan
  • Goes for it
  • Leaves no one behind

Here’s what B. won’t do:

  • Let you down
  • Not show up
  • Quit (sometimes when you really want him to.)

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Before you go hitting another blog, rest assured B’s no saint. We’ve had our shouting matches. He’s been wrong about important things. He’s picked fights, stirred up conflict and tried to wring my neck when I was a kid and drew sunglasses on a photo of his girlfriend. (Sorry, B!) I’ve been so pissed at him I once told him to shut up (the ultimate insult in our we-can-always-talk-everything-out-civilly family) and really meant it. He’s also stubborn and persistent in an occasionally irritating way.

But he’s also endlessly optimistic, charming and understanding and a real advocate for anyone who needs an advocate (street kids, homeless, our mom when she was fighting cancer). And he’s always, always, always puts his family first. As the big brother of a big brood, who now has a brood of his own, I’m overjoyed to see all of his herding, shielding, representing first born instincts now at play with his sweet children. B is a great dad and husband, from my vantage point.

B won’t share all about his successes (many). Instead, he’s known in our family circle as a riotous teller of hilarious what-could-go-wrong-next real-life stories that happen to him. Frequently.

B told me earlier this week that one thing he’s learned about getting to an age ending in a 0 is you have to work at lot harder to maintain what you’ve got. I laughed and agreed. (As it turns out, getting the things we want in life doesn’t put us on the Coast setting. Damn!)

But here’s what I think. Getting older is only improving B. And it’s making the lives fortunate enough to be within his sphere, a little bit sweeter as he goes.

Happy Birthday, B.