The Battle of the Tween

Once I locked my chocolate eyes on the dark round version of my Prima’s, I became filled with certainty of the connection we shared. I cannot forget the long first days, weeks and sleepless nights we shared trying to figure one another out.

She was wild and sweet, with a million distinct and curling dark brown eyelashes I knew by heart by day two.eyelash closeup

She knew me immediately and wanted me, and wanted me to know she was brave and centered and tuned into everything I felt. I knew because I felt everything she did, too.

There was never any emotional pretense between us.

Recently, Prima did something I had been expecting – she grew into a young lady. Or a grown girl. Not sure which, yet, but somewhere in between.

It happened gradually at first and Mr. Bailey and I expressed our nervousness with gentle teasing, whispered conversations and calm anticipation.

Then one morning our baby girl woke up and she was no longer little. At all. She became a pre-teen over night.

I was prepared.

Turns out, my mental preparation was crap. The pre-teen years are an emotional ambush. Mentally prepare all you want – it’s not really going to help you. Once you’ve been summoned to the battlefield you better be wearing emotional body armor and have a damn good backup plan. Or three.

In the wake of one moonrise and set, Prima was completely embarrassed by me, wanted me to disappear, needed my total attention and sage advice and seethed loathing at me.

And that was only the first morning.

Hurtled into the fighting, I felt woefully inadequate. It all seemed familiar and yet so foreign. It all made sense (I had been a pre-teen girl once, too) and it made absolutely no sense at all.

I screwed up my courage and got through the first few skirmishes with only a few minor injuries, with Mr. Bailey running the occasional air cover sortie.

'It's a twelve year old whiskey.' (I want more pocket moneyI'm boredI hate you.)

‘It’s a twelve year old whiskey.’ (I want more pocket moneyI’m boredI hate you.)

Once things seemed to stabilize for Prima, I retreated to my foxhole and completely lost my shit. How was I ever going to get through this? Just what were the rules of engagement? How was I supposed to be equal parts confidante, enemy, friend, mom, sex ed advisor, and understanding listener while avoiding any major, life-changing screw ups? Far from ever considering myself a perfect mom, I sensed the real risk of truly messing up like a looming offensive ground maneuver.

It reminded me of overcoming some of those early parenthood stages – night feedings and toilet training – only to find yourself smack in the middle of more – the biting stage and night terrors!

Parenting Prima hadn’t felt like that in quite awhile. Third, fourth and fifth grades had been pretty happy and smooth. She was confident, independent and fun to be around. And she liked us. She liked me a lot. She even told me once her friends thought I was cool!

But that time was gone.

Feeling the absence of my mom, I reached out to a friend for advice. Sobbing my woes to her over the phone in crackling voice, she heard me out. “What if I don’t get this right?!” I gulped.

“But you will,” she said.

“How? Why?”

“Two things: because your heart is in the right place, and you’re trying to do the right thing and you truly love her. And because you are Judy’s daughter and you learned from the best. You didn’t always think your mom was perfect or that she did right by you, but she set a wonderful example for you, and that’s what you’re doing for Prima. Let all that love guide you.”

Oh. So. That was pretty good advice.

A couple days later, Prima started liking me again – at least in the privacy of our home.

I soaked it in, knowing what a cunning opponent she could be – and snuck into her room that night to count her eyelashes.

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Family Dance Party in a Hopeless Place (Love)

Joyful Dance by Diana Ong, available at art.com

Joyful Dance by Diana Ong, available at art.com

Three years ago my entire family gathered in the wake of my mother’s death for a full family reunion.

That equates to my father, our beloved patriarch, four couples, and eight children, most under the age of 13. It’s a lot of people.

We stayed just two hours from home and rented hotel rooms in the mountain town my family spends a lot of time in.

There was wiffle ball and swimming and meeting up at the hot tub in the evenings. There were hikes and flower collecting and late night movie watching and a couple of very nice meals out.

There was a bit of friction, as there is likely to be when you gather that many related people in one place for several days.

But by far, the highlight of the trip for me was the night we held a talent show.

The talent show was the idea of my then 13-year-old niece, the eldest of the brood. When she first suggested it, I groaned inwardly. In the wake of my mother’s death, just getting everyone together seemed challenging enough. Planning something relatively organized that required all parties (my niece and my ever-eager daughters insisted all must participate) to do perform honestly seemed at worst impossible and at best sickly unpalatable.

And yet.

How do you deny a 13-year-old with an idea to bring her family together? Answer: you don’t.

Hand-drawn fliers were created immediately and distributed by doe-eyed girls eager for a smile and unbridled enthusiasm in return. Prima and my niece amazingly uncovered a clipboard and went around signing people up for the talent show. Like their overachieving parents before them, they were focused on 100% participation.

Soon, instead of reticent retreats, there began to be a bit of a buzz about what everyone was going to do – would my super athlete sis-in-law run a mini boot camp? My youngest nephew had an Adele song prepared. What would I do?

Mid-week, the evening of the talent show arrived and we gathered in the family room of our mountain house to take in the festivities.

Stories were told, songs were song, back-breaking exercises were attempted, and poems recited. We laughed a lot and cried a little, too. It was a thing of relieved, pure beauty. After a year under the afghan of grief, it seemed as if we were all, collectively, able to have fun again.

And then, the best thing happened.joyous dancing on beach

Someone had an iPhone, and someone put on music and a dance party began.

The next thing I know, our broken and rebuilding, hurt and hopeful, soulful and silly herd of a recovering family was dancing like maniacs to the persistent syncopation and perfection of that year’s biggest song.

As Rihanna crooned, “I found love in a hopeless place,” I jumped along with the herd, as high as I could, as long as I could and with as much gusto as I could. I screamed the lyric. My legs burned and my lungs ached. And my soul caught fire. And I sobbed.

For despite the despair of loss, in spite of what our mother’s death had broken in each of us and for all of us, we managed, in all of our neediness and selfishness and willfulness, to find love – and joy, and hope (that bastard) — and we managed to dance.

 

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.

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.)

Image

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.

They’re kids. Not clones.

Parents seem to be endlessly amazed by the fact there are profound differences between their children. I mean, they are truly astonished, right?

It’s a frequent topic of discussion among them, and I am including myself in this circle of inanity.

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 uninterested 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.

Me: So, Secondo, are you excited to go back to school tomorrow?

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?

The Precious

I’m not sure about the original George, but my Mr. Bailey is more of a spender than a saver.

My Mr. Bailey dreams about buying, too, just like George did.

I, on the other hand, am a saver.

I have come to learn neither is better than the other. Especially after more than once egregiously fretting over how to spend a generous gift certificate for so darn long it expired, and rejoicing over money well spent (think: a comfortable home purchased for a reasonable price before the real estate boom – and bust). Thankfully, both Bailey impulses have balanced the other now we’re past the first decade of our union.

Recently a funny thing happened.

Mr. Bailey often shops for the Bailey Building & Loan at Costco. His favorite part of this setup is he racks up business purchases throughout the year, and receives a modest “reward” check at the end of the year.

This year, he spent so much at Costco, he was pleasantly shocked when he received a rewards check in the three-digit range. He immediately was overburdened by the weight of The Check in his pocket. I, on the other hand, was cozily reassured by the impulse to shove it under my pillow for all eternity.

“Great!” I said, anticipating the bursting of his bubble, “Let’s save it for a while!”

Modern Mary considers how long she could save The Check.

He sighed and hung up quickly.

Several days later, he called me back.

“Soooo,” he intoned, drawing out his question in a sugary voice. “I’m at Costco. You know we got that check?”

“Uh-huh,” I answered suspiciously.

“Well, there’s this sound system here.”

I felt something deep in my gut twist. For though I know Mr. Bailey is a spender, I adore him so fervently I find it difficult to deny him the small pleasures in life. He works so hard at the Bailey Building & Loan, at being a dad and being a husband. Pushing past my discomfort, I found my voice.

“Really? I mean, we need to be smart about this. Maybe we should just hang on to The Check a little while longer. Be practical. We may have some rainy days coming and it would be nice to have it in our back pocket.”

Recognizing the wisdom in my buzz kill practically, he dejectedly agreed.

Once salvaged from the clutches of a guilt-inducing quick spend, The Check began to take on a mythical importance in our lives over the next few months.

Every visit to Costco brought new temptations, which Mr. Bailey and I both had to resist.

Modern Mary had to pull Mr. Bailey away from a flat screen TV and a sound system.

“Should The Check yield a new vacuum?” I wondered aloud one day.

“No,” was Mr. Bailey’s abrupt response.

Another: “What about if we get a new flat screen TV to replace the one in the bedroom?” he offered.

“Absolutely not,” I rebutted.

Finally, from me: “How about a new rug for the kitchen?”

Down in flames.

For months, we hemmed, we hawed, and we dreamed about what The Check would yield. Yet, in uncharacteristic-of-us twist, we didn’t spend it.

The Check became our Gollum-like Precious.

We set up rules to protect it.

Mr. Bailey couldn’t spend it without me (frustrating) and he couldn’t lose it (next to impossible). I couldn’t allocate it for something as banal as age-defying face cream and groceries; Mr. Bailey could not blow it on a weighted fitness vest and matching weights set.

Last week we returned to Costco, The Precious in hand.

We had negotiated a settlement. The Check would buy a new set of state-of-the-art pots and pans, which we sorely needed after 10 years of learning how to cook as a family with our original, chipped, handles missing, peeling pots and pans.

It was the perfect blend of practical and splurge and came after we had delayed our gratification admirably.

We approached Costco check out, The Precious and pots and pans in hand.

The clerk looked at The Check, scanned it, and put her eulogy for The Precious like this:

“Wow!” she said, “Somebody loves shopping at Costco!”

Once we got home, we flirted with the idea of buyer’s regret, then Mr. Bailey and I boxed up the old cooking set and replaced it with the shiny, heavy, new skillets and pots and saucepans, soon to be steaming with nourishment for our family, sure to be present at life’s best moments of togetherness and connection.

And we were happy.

Post-Precious bliss in the Bailey house.

Mary ama dormire (Modern Mary loves to sleep)

Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love to sleep.

Whether waking or sleeping, Modern Mary makes sleep a priority. Postcard image by Trish Grantham

It might be in my genes. My father has always been a notorious sleeper. Give him 5 minutes in a comfortable chair, regardless of the hour, and he will give you a nap.

I’m not so much the napping type as I am the sleep-for-10-hours-at-a-time type. I often tell Mr. Bailey, “You know what I’d like to do? Sleep for two weeks.”

In times of stress, I like to head to bed around 9:30 and sleep, preferably, until 8 or 9 a.m.

If you’re a sleeper like me, you know dreams sometimes play a role in the experience.

Since my mom died, my dreams have become rich, offbeat and resonant parts of my nighttime routine.

It seems every suggestion or fear is immediately processed into my subconscious and put into the dream queue.

I’ve had a hard time adjusting to the absence of constant conversations with my siblings, the important conferring, the unity of our family as we fought cancer collectively. I am in the midst of deciphering what our family will be like now that my mother, the spoke, the emotional home of our unit, is gone.

In my midnight dreams, my three brothers and I are in my grandmother’s old house, together, sharing memories, looking around the dining room, theFloridaroom, laughing, when suddenly we hear the new owners arriving home. We all run into the yard, dashing like mad from our nostalgic breaking and entry.

I keep forgetting to put my hair up in rag curls at night!

I’m running blindly, trying to keep track of my brothers, desperate. Where have they gone? I catch flashes of their clothes as I dash down a set of stairs somewhere. We need to stay together, I insist.

Awake, I have fretted about the coming holidays, with their ties to home and family, memories like glittering lights on a twinkle string. They seem to illuminate only sadness without my mom.

At night, my third eye takes me to a future peculiarly reversed. It’s a future in which my father died instead of my mom. There we are in the midst of the holidays without him, all of us gathered where we always do – in my parent’s kitchen, surrounded by friends, family, trying to make sense of the first holiday without him.

In our daylight conversations, Mr. Bailey suggests we do something completely different and take a trip toNew Yorkright before Christmas.

As I lay sleeping, I dream we are stepping out of the airport into aNew York Citydecorated to the hilt with festive lights, swaying in a brisk winter wind. I feel the straps from the luggage I carry (with two kids we always have lots of luggage) dig into my shoulder as we cross a busy street to our hotel. Then we’re walking through a warm hotel, a corridor decorated with trees and ornaments and people milling, all sorts of people, here, and not home, for the holidays. It feels strange, exciting.

When I wake, I tell Mr. Bailey about myNew York dream.

“You are so impressionable,” he says, his eyes twinkling.

The dreams sometimes detract from the restfulness of my sleep, and sometimes enhance it. I wake with a sinking feeling so often it’s become a part of my morning routine. I imagine actually sinking into my bed, being swallowed by it. It’s not unpleasant.

Eventually, when all of the fantasies of slumber have been dislodged by the slanting soft light of morning, I get up. I RSVP for tonight to my sheets, my pillow, my comforter, my dreams.