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.
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.
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.
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.
- Deeply caring
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.)
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.
Secondo and I are walking hand-in-hand across a snowy parking lot. Her chubby 5-year-old hands echoed by the puffy brown and pink coat she’s wearing, hood flung back, wide-open to the blue sky.
“I believe in God,” she announces as we weave through the icy spots, the dirty snow, the salt and grime of the lot. “And I believe in Santa Claus.”
I smile broadly.
“Do you?” I say through my grin. “OK.”
A day earlier, Mr. Bailey had pointed out to me that Secondo was in a stage of discernment and wonder. What she is learning in her first year in formal school and comes home in delightful and confusing, definitive and doubtful ways. It’s a glory to witness.
I caught her the other day walking around the house with the illustrated children’s Bible my mother gave me as a kid. She was pretending to read each story as she flipped through the pictures. She disappeared, then reappeared, saying, “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” in the tone of voice reserved for questions like, “why do we sleep at night?”
Then, one night as I was tucking her into bed, “God is invisible,” she told me, very matter-of-fact, then suddenly a bit angry, “WHY?”
At five, she is now aware of the larger world around her, even as she struggles to define it in a meaningful and ordered way. She knows the bliss of having her teacher point to her as an example of appropriate behavior – and the embarrassment of having her classroom card turned from green to yellow for pushing in line. Yet, she postpones her tears of hurt until she’s away from school, ensconced in our car, sobbing, “I was going to get only green all year long!” Secondo basks in the warmth of loving friends’ attention, flinging her arms wide and singing at her Thanksgiving performance of “Any Turkey Can Tango” or “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” on Christmas Eve. Yet, she’s also run headlong into a shower of hurtled sand, thrown hard in her face by someone she assumed liked her. She even knows the embarrassment of having a recess accident.
For weeks, at night when I tucked her in, she told me she was dizzy and couldn’t fall asleep. I gave her a comforting placebo of lavender cream that took away the dizziness. Even as she doubted the efficacy of this little invention, she insisted I apply it religiously at the same time, each night, waking from a dead sleep if she’d dozed off in the car, to ask for her “dizzy cream.” Then suddenly one morning she sauntered into our room and announced she didn’t need it anymore, her dizziness was cured.
On the day before Thanksgiving as Mr. Bailey prepared the turkey to take a long briny bath, she walked into the kitchen and stopped as she caught sight of the dimpled white fowl sitting on the counter. “Who killed that?” she deadpanned.
She’s exploring the poles of human experience – the agony of the yellow card, the ecstasy of Christmas morning and well, the mysterious muddle of faith, death and life for which none of us have answers.
Even better than this journey of hers, is the opportunity for Mr. Bailey and I to watch the world swirl around her tiny frame, as she strides boldly into each new day, and then settle softly every now and then.
I was just going to write a post that started out: “I am at the library.”
The post would have gone on to tell you all about how much you can learn about a person by
finding out where their favorite places are. The library has always been a refuge of mine. Not necessarily this library, although it’s history in my life is rich, but any library, anywhere. And every library at every university I attended and every city I have lived in. The library to me is nearly church.
A few weeks ago, as I was walking out of the library with Prima, I told her, “Prima, no matter what you are going through in your life, no matter what you need, you can always go to the library.” I squeezed her hand extra tight when I said it, hoping to create a physical reminder of this gospel. I hope she holds that idea somewhere inside her heart forever.
But back to my post.
The post would have told you about my childhood, when my three brothers and I spent the early summers after we moved to Bedford Falls and did not know many people, driving in our powder blue Pontiac station wagon to wherever the public library’s Bookmobile was
stopping that day. Many lived miles from the main branch of the library at that point, so our growing city had settled on the Bookmobile as a suitable replacement to the brick and mortar.
I have vague images of the heat, our four little bodies sticking to the blue leather seats, windows down, wearing our mid-80s short running shorts, with the white stripes down the side, and our Snoopy T-shirts.
We would arrive at the Bookmobile, books clutched in dirty paws, and rush over. The big step up into the Bookmobile required a double-handed grab on the silver handles and a hoist from behind, willingly delivered with extra viciousness by one of my brothers.
And there was Dorcus. She was the Bookmobile lady and probably one of the first friends my Mom made in our new city. My mom made friends with everyone. That was just who
she was. Of course she was on a first-name basis with Dorcus, and reprimanded us when we giggled at her name, sharing some sobering detail about her life, like how much Dorcus loved her grandchildren or that, did we realize, Dorcus’ husband had just had surgery.
The four of us would scatter around the Bookmobile, pulling out new books, returning old ones, leafing through illustrations to select more. My mom would talk to Dorcus, and get recommendations for the next book or 12 that deserved to land on her nightstand. I remember being amazed my mother could read those thick-as-Bibles books in just a week or two and then return them to Dorcus for a full discussion and request for another recommendation. To me it was a sign of ultimate grown-up lady-ness.
The Bookmobile was a refuge from the hot summer days, a way to unwind our constantly kid-wound minds, an old friend, and always a place that had the magical effect of bringing peace to our mother, who found herself in an unfamiliar city, surrounded by four young children only 6 years apart in age and a husband who constantly traveled.
They eventually did build a library branch closer to us and so the Bookmobile went away, as did Dorcus. (I know my mother kept in touch with her for awhile, once she moved to a proper librarian position. I remember my mom walking right up to the main desk and asking if Dorcus was there, which as a teenager was so supremely embarrassing.) Sometimes after school if my mom was delayed, she would call Mrs. Phoenix the chain-smoking, rod-thin and mean secretary and have her relay the message that the four of us should walk over to the library, and she would pick us up there. Mom knew we would be safe there, find distraction and comfort. We would play and get shushed, get lost in the stacks, panic and find each other in relief, and read stuff we knew we shouldn’t. It was all so thrilling.
My mother is gone now, but the library is still here. This place, above many others, seems to calm my spirit as it captures her essence in its cool quiet and the reassurance of all of those books, all knowledge and insight, and fun and adventure at my fingertips, an orderly anchor for my chaotic Modern Mary life. It feels like my mother’s embrace. It reads like her forgiving, commonsense caring approach to navigating life and relationships. It’s less heartbreaking and more heartwarming.
I was thinking all of this as I walked through those sliding glass doors from the warm day and was enveloped by the cool, bookish library smell. I was missing my mom so much the hole in my chest was gaping open a bit.
As I walked by the charity shop the library volunteers run, where they sell retired books, the first volume my eyes laid themselves on called out to me its title, “Wherever you are, my love will find you.”
So then, I decided to write about that.
Parents seem to be endlessly amazed by the fact there are profound differences between their children. I mean, they are truly astonished, right?
When one pauses to consider: given the innumerable DNA coupling, all the random genetic match-ups, do you really think each little human being you push out of your body will be an exact duplicate of the one before? If not in appearance than in attitude, interests and propensity to like Elmo better than Dora? It defies logic.
Yet. We seem to be continually astounded by the fact our children are all not carbon copies. Shock that the oldest is quiet and obedient while the middle child is loud and outrageous. Surprise that the middle child will party all night long if not forcibly put to bed while the youngest brushes his teeth, looks at books quietly and then comes to kiss you goodnight all on his own.
So, what is it about the difference between siblings that is endlessly entertaining to us as parents? You got me.
I, by all means, am not immune. I too find silly entertainment by the personality differences between Prima and Secondo.
Of course, there’s a “for example” that comes to mind.
Prima has always loved school. Since the days when we guiltily used the working-parent lexicon, calling daycare as “school,” until now, well into the elementary school years, Prima goes to school smiling, happily. She’s the kid in the class the teacher always loves. The go-to gal in the classroom, the nice kid every parent compliments. (I know this factually because: Her birthday is over the summer. This past summer, the phone rang on her special day. My mouth hung open as I heard two years worth of teachers on the line, wishing my first born a happy birthday. She was over the moon excited to get the call, but not too surprised. It’s clearly a love-love situation.)
Along came Secondo. She has more or less enjoyed school, except when she threw raging fits for six months every morning while getting dropped off for nursery school. Oh, and, ummm, preschool, too.
Whereas at drop she would cling to me, fussing, at pick-up, she would take another tack. Secondo would primly walk passed me when I came to pick her up, all her friends dashing to give her hugs on her way out the door. I apologized and cajoled, but she was decidedly aloof. Her Pre-K buddies would call out to her, voices thick with a futile desire to gain her approval and love, “Bye, Secondo! See you tomorrow! You’re my best friend!” with nary a response from her. To be fair, sometimes she would respond with sighs, and eye rolls and perfunctory embraces. She didn’t want me to believe for one second she was backing off of her earlier position, that preschool was something she was fundamentally un-interested in, all evidence to the contrary.
Now Secondo is in kindergarten, and I am enthused. They are both at the same school, on the same schedule. The girls look so sappily adorable walking in and out of school together, my heart races with mom-adoration to see them go and when I pull up to pick them up. Happy Mommy wants for kiddos now to be happy. Please.
The first day of school, playing happy Supermom, I had their after schools snacks ready and waiting when they walked in. We unloaded backpacks and washed lunchboxes as we chatted and they munched.
I asked a million questions. Prima provided her usual ample information, in a rush, sharing everything she could think of. Getting relatively little from Secondo, I tried a more nuanced approach.
Me: Secondo, was there anything interesting about kindergarten?
Her: Well. [Fixing her gaze on me steadily. Pause.] There’s no toys in kindergarten. That’s interesting. [Pause] And, HORRIBLE!
Not making this up.
It’s early in the school year and as Mr. Bailey always likes to remind me, transition times are the hardest.
“She’ll get into it,” he reassured me. Fast forward to a very recent Sunday night meal.
Her: [Looking at me dully, she cocks her head to the right.] Sitting around? Writing Cs ALL DAY? Does that sound like fun to you?
She’s five years old. As she says this to me, she’s sitting there in pigtails, sipping milk.
As I often do, I admonish – “Secondo!” then hide my face behind my napkin and dissolve into eye-watering silent laughter. Mr. Bailey does the same.
But, here’s the trickiest part of it – she’s right. Writing Cs all day sounds like a stage of hell even as a writer, I would rather not journey. This child makes one heck of a powerful argument. Who could resist being amazed by that?
When I was a younger woman, I used to relish the time in a relationship when I collected my paramour’s scar stories. I would lightly trace the scars on hands, feet, arms, legs and coyly inquire where they had come from, how they were acquired.
Those physical scars always seemed to lead to a discussion ripe with the knowledge I was really after – what their emotional scars were and where they hid. As a naïve, infatuated young adult, these were scars I mistakenly thought I could help heal.
Of course, I know all of Mr. Bailey’s scars now. Being a bit clumsy, he’s got a number of them. When we were first married, they all represented adventures or amusing stories he had before me. Now, a good number of the scars represent shared memories – a gash on his wrist a week before our second Christmas together, slightly raised bumps across his broad knuckles from accidentally punching a hole in our ceiling, celebrating our team winning a trip to the Super Bowl.
After so much in-utero anxiety about their health, the first time they laid my pink and perfect babies in my arms, I cried over their unblemished skin, tears I hoped would bless and protect them from any harm.
I remember the moment Prima received the cut that is now a straight, slim two-inch scar on the front of her left hand. I think of that moment every time I catch sight of the scar.
But what really keeps me up at night is the mental gymnastics I do pondering where and how Prima’s and Secondo’s emotional scars will bloom. As any good parent does, I contemplate my role in creating them, which, let’s be honest, always pertains.
Prima and Secondo have already experienced the death of two grandparents, before the
age of 10. A grandfather before Secondo was born, so the scars carried there belong to Mr. Bailey and I; a grandmother just a year ago. For a year, they only rarely spoke of her keen love for her granddaughters, her sparkling smile, the way she made them feel better when they were sick and handwrote thank you notes praising them for small kindnesses they had offered her. But since that year has slipped by in a confusing fog, they’ve begun to ask me to tell them stories, and to explain again why they lost her.
They’ve also lost a teacher, two great-grandparents, and two great uncles, in some cases, quite suddenly.
So I am aware of those scars and try my mother-bear best to prevent smaller losses – friends or routines or cherished playthings – from causing further damage.
Recently, Prima came home from school in an absolute fervor. The band teacher had visited the classroom and she was now on fire to join the band and play the trumpet. Having paid for guitar lessons over the summer that seemed to go well but resulted in a distain for practicing and an interest in a thousand other activities, we were less than enthusiastic. Then we took a look at the costs, and the other activities she was already committed to, we decided to postpone the band for another day.
Prima was completely devastated. There were tears, gnashing of teeth, casting of stones, spasmodic jumping up and down and sad faces for days. Her big brown eyes became orbs of betrayal when she expertly cast them upon us, welling.
I calculated how deep this cut would be. I worried it would result in a lifelong scar. I hoped the band scar might be treated with the happy moments we were also providing: birthday parties! Soccer games! Specialized tutoring! A study hall with her teacher while the other kids were at band! Not so much.
But then, the tide of tears seemed to stem and Prima once again found her happy place. She’s a pleasant child by nature, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Several days later, I was tucking her and Secondo into their bunk beds. We said our nightly prayer and then I asked each child to tell me who they wanted to pray for. Prima mentioned family and friends, then paused.
“I also want to pray for all of the children who want to do band but their parents won’t let them,” she intoned, reverently.
The dim night light shielded my shocked face as I managed to choke out, “OK. Secondo! Who do you want to pray for?”
So, chalk up another scar. It’s clearly not the first, and certainly not the last.
But maybe, (I can dream) it might be the worst for a little awhile.