I Was Perfect, And Other Lies My Father Believed

Image uploaded from iOS (27)My earliest memory involves my dad.

In the memory, I am standing outside of my house in Cleveland, Ohio, on our lawn. I’m hurt and petulant about a dust-up with my across-the-street neighbor that ended in mutual bite marks.

My father gently encourages me to mend the fence when my playmate offers me an orange creamsicle as a peace offering.

I remember his kind assurances, and warm arm around my waist.

I refuse the peace offering – as my mouth waters and I imagine the golden creamy taste in my mouth.

But my father does not push me. He does not laugh, either.

He just accepts my stand and, probably, smiles sweetly.

* * * *

My dad recently told a dear friend of mine, in a conversation they were having about parenting, that he always thought I was a perfect child.

I was not a perfect child.

But I tried very hard to be.

I tried very hard to be sweet and quiet and peace-loving and encouraging and diligent and a great student and a good athlete. I was persistent and dedicated about my role in my family and I even gave thoughtful effort to holding my own space in my family. I wanted my presence and perspective as the only girl to be seen, to be understood, and to impact the men around me.

I did mess all that up at times, of course: Mostly by being very emotional and too tender and by allowing my temper to get the best of me.

I did bad things, too. Normal stuff and mild stuff. Stuff that made my Dad mad, and things he had to come to the rescue on.

Yet, some 22 years since my most rebellious times, my dad still holds to the idea I was perfect.

* * * *

It’s a miracle of life that when you have children, you have had no experience being a parent and you have no idea what you are doing.

The miracle part is that you do it anyway. You manage to learn on the job, and become better and better at it.

Even though I had great parents myself, the idea of becoming a parent terrified me.

Until I held 6 pounds and 8 ounces of my firstborn daughter in my arms, I was really, really scared of being a parent. Always slow to make a decision, it was the biggest, most irreversible thing I had ever done.

My husband didn’t seem a lick scared.

If he was, he never let on.

Even before our baby girl was born, his parenting energy was all confidence and excitement.

He has been the best father since before that day, and from that day, on.

Whenever I have been at a loss for what to do as the official source of parental guidance for these incredible humans entrusted to us, I tune into his instinct, into his love for them, and dive into his insight and huge heart, to determine the way.

In the last few years, I’ve witnessed such a beautiful evolution in his parenting of our children. He’s gone from the protective and possessive father of young children to a dad as comfortable joking with them as he is laying down the law on the things that matter.

In return, they have an abundant tenderness for him, and a trust in his love and strength that melts my heart and reminds me deeply of how I feel about my own father.

Isn’t that something? Another surprise gift of parenting.

The gift that sometimes, the halcyon, never-ending chain of love that began in the hearts of two lovers, two parents, can pass down in the love of a father to a child, who grows nurtured by perfect love, and one day finds love of her own, with a husband, a whole man, and then has a child, who is loved and adored as she was – in a way her father once did.

There are not many cycles in life that illustrate as much complete and pure beauty, as much smoothly realized potential as that.

This is the highest blessing of fatherhood. This is the fruit of men who dare to show the gentle and powerful among them, alike, the strongest and most vulnerable versions of themselves.

Advertisements

Life & Death in a Movie Theater: What Beauty & the Beast Shook Loose In Me

In 1991, I turned thirteen.

I was well past cartoon years and yet when Beauty & the Beast hit the theaters, I saw it and fell absolutely in love with it. I’m not exactly sure why. I wasn’t then and am not now obsessed with Disney.

This is going to sound silly, but at the time it was pretty groundbreaking that the heroine of the Beauty & the Beast story was a brunette. I think it was Disney’s first animated major heroine since Snow White to sport dark locks. And Belle was a bookworm, and she was brainy and a little weird and creative (I could relate), and she refused to marry the most obviously available and interested guy. Instead, she fell for the tall, mysterious, desperate beast, who was gruff but well-educated and rich, and hidden away unjustly by a curse meant to teach him a lesson (oh, the dark romance of it!).

Also, he had an amazing library.

So, wow. It got me.

It got me to the extent that that Christmas, my older brother bought me a copy of the storybook. Remember, now, I’m 13. A freshman in high school, and desperately crushing on one of his friends who was a senior and who spent loads of time at our house but who never asked me out, despite hints and hours of flirting and acres of pining.

In the storybook inscription, my brother in all his 16 year-old-wisdom wrote that he thought I was too young to be pursuing love, and that most often it doesn’t work out anyway. But that sometimes it does, like in the case of he and his girlfriend. Barf. And that if it ever didn’t work out for me I could read the storybook and be comforted. It was sweet.

The 40-year-old me thinks it’s all rather interesting.

In fact, I can’t get the whole Beauty & the Beast thing out of my mind.

It’s just a weird loop.

The night after the latest Disney version of Beauty & the Beast came out, I took my two daughters, one of whom is now 13, to see Disney’s latest rendition of Beauty & the Beast in the theater.

Since my girls had put on a production of the show at their theater this year, they were positively giddy over it. They’d been counting down the days until the premier for weeks. They’d been asking when we would go. They had been swapping stories about how much they missed their production, how the Hollywood actors would play the characters, how it would all come across.

We bought Reese’s Pieces and gummy worms at the drugstore before we went. We shared an extra large popcorn and got to the theater in plenty of time to get properly settled.

As the movie started, I looked down the aisle at my daughters’ screen silvery faces. Their glee, their pleasure at being immersed in the story, the moment they leaned together to whisper a something to one another instantly sparked a river of joy in me.

Time slowed, I heard my breath in my brain and felt my heart beating in my mouth. It shook something loose in me.

And I saw something. A flicker.

I am a mother of two daughters. One of who is as old now as I was when I first saw this movie. How is this possible?

It was more than a bit stunning.

But it wasn’t just the passage of time that threw me.

It’s the fact that I am still the same person — but not at all — as when I was that 13-year-old girl watching Beauty & the Beast the first time.

I remember being 13 because I remember pining after my brother’s good friend and waiting for him to ask me to the homecoming dance, which he never did. I remember wondering why. I also remember my best friend. How we started high school together and took almost all the same classes and felt so stressed and overwhelmed and made all the same friends and how we tried out for the basketball team together. I remember being 13 because I remember loving Beauty & the Beast and relating to Belle, and memorizing all the words to all the songs.

The 13-year-old me had high hopes for love, but no vision at all that 27 years later, I would be married to my own version of “Beast” for 15 years and sitting in a movie theater with a 13 year-old of my own.

And yet, there I sat, the very same person. Or not.

I’ve been reading Deepak Chopra’s The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life for the last few weeks.

The last chapter I read was entitled, Death Makes Life Possible. It reads, “Each of us is dying every day, and the moment known as death is really just an extension of this process. … The person you are today isn’t the same person you were when you were ten years old. Certainly your body has changed completely from that of the ten-year-old. None of your molecules in your cells are the same, and neither is your mind. … In essence, the ten-year-old you once were is dead. … The reason that life seems continuous is that you have memories and desires that tie you to the past, but these too are ever-shifting. … You are dying at every moment so that you can keep creating yourself.”

I love this concept, because it feels so real and right to me.

Life is death. Death is life.

We are all dying and being born anew at every moment. Literally and figuratively.

And it’s in the moments when a talisman from the past becomes part of the present again that time seems to slow down.

Flickering.

In that space, we are suddenly an observer to the surreal passing of these two selves, reflections in opposing mirrors, a momentary glimpse of a face in a car traveling in an opposite direction, with perhaps just time enough for half a wave of recognition.

In that space, we are given a disappearing glance down the hallway of our lives/deaths, of the moments of joyous rebirth and of devouring mourning, the decay of past selves and the vibrant aliveness of living now.

All in a moment, sitting in the movie theater, as I stared at my 13-year-old, a perfect profile in flickers of silver light.

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.

Pretty, Peas: 3 Kid Summer Survival Strategies

Our version of Bedford Falls enjoys beautiful, long and mild springs. Here spring fever is an alluring bedfellow and we bask in it.

But then our spring tires of us, becomes crabby and transforms into a vengeful summer.

Summer here is h-o-t.

For our grown up residents who tend to be tucked into climate controlled offices, our main coping strategy is complaining about said heat. This works pretty well, as our preheating oven is always a reliable topic of discussion and allows for a mutually agreed upon and non-threatening airing of collective grievances.

But my children have different strategies for summer survival. These techniques may be bewildering, but they are also endearing and so delightfully creative they are very worth sharing.Summer time brings out the creativity in kids.

Strategy 1: Denial (aka ‘Heat, what heat?’)

From an early age, Prima and Secondo were masters of denial, particularly when it came to things they simply did not care to do. Think: helping to clean up the Legos strewn all over the playroom floor, brush their teeth, do their math homework and comb their knotty bird’s nest hair. This strategy is mainly manifested in temporary and selective hearing impairment.

However, when it comes to sweat season, they employ it in a new way: “Mom, it’s not too hot, let’s go swimming!” “Mom, it’s not too hot, let’s pile in the car and drive across town to the mall!”

Modern Mary typically believes it is, actually, too hot, as walking into the mall my Havianas melt sickly onto the asphalt. Furthermore, I have somewhat limited interest in sitting in triple-digit heat while they cavort for hours in double-digit warm pool water.

Modern Mary in all her summer glory. Not.

Modern Mary in all her summer glory. Not.

And yet. This is a effective strategy as it plays on that sweet spot for all kids — mother’s guilt — to help them achieve just what it is they want.

Strategy 2: The Freezer (aka ‘My personal air conditioner’)

If you are a parent with a freezer you have walked into your kitchen during warm weather only to find your child either: wedged halfway in and halfway out of the freezer, curled up next to the door or: standing with the door swung wide enough to welcome a herd of elephants, their face jammed between frozen corn and fish sticks, breathing in the cool.

I certainly have.

When loudly and resoundingly scolded, both my little darlings have turned to look at me with looks of complete bewilderment. Then their rosebud lips form the words, “But, I’m hot” in such a duh-implied-matter-of-fact tone it makes me dizzy.

But being as good at consistent scolding as Mr. Bailey and I are, Secondo has come up with a more agreeable approach to freezer (aka personal AC unit) management.

She recently walked into the kitchen with the tired, pale pink and slowly disintegrating blanket she’s had since she was a baby (its name, in case you were wondering is “Pretty”) and proceeded to shove it into the freezer, slam the door shut and walk out.

Sitting at the counter during this display, I turned to Mr. Bailey and inquired.

“Oh,” he said, without lifting his eyes from his phone, “she puts her Pretty in the freezer now. Then she takes it out and cuddles with it. She says it helps cool her down. It’s kind of brilliant, actually.”

I had to smile, impressed. And award big points for creativity.

It surely saves energy.

Freezers before electricity. This would not compute for Prima + Secondo, babes of the 21st century.

Plus, it never fails to bust my guts when I open the freezer to defrost a salmon filet and find a lonely baby blanket shoved between the Popsicles and chicken breasts.

Strategy 3: Can we freeze it?

In addition to the Pretty (which doesn’t actually freeze), Prima and Secondo spend the summer months conducting any number of experiments loosely titled, “Can we freeze it?”

Half eaten sundaes, oranges, mangos, melon, chocolate milk, strawberries crushed in milk, melted ice cream, and nearly finished smoothies are the usual suspects. But they’ve also been known to freeze glasses of water, trays of water, cookie sheets of water, spoons of water, soda pop, water bottles, tea pots of water, orange juice, lemonade, iced tea, snow from last winter once half defrosted, and mysterious liquid concoctions of their own devising.

I discover most of these experiments as murky puddles slowly but stubbornly sinking into the wood of our butcher block island.

But it makes a hot July day cooped up in the house go by, so there’s that upside.

(By the way, their fave frozen item is and will always be frozen green grapes. If you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out.)

Whatever their strategy, their adaptable and creative minds inspire me to endure the last month of summer with hopeful aplomb.

And reach past the Pretty for the peas.

 

 

 

20140731-205532-75332186.jpg

Forever summer memories

 

Sometimes I feel I’m marking the passage of time in summers.

Secondo basks in a mountain valley

Secondo basks in the glory of  a mountain valley in summer.

Prima and Secondo have birthdays at the beginning of summer and so the hourglass makes its annual revolution just as summer starts.

The long days cause us to linger a little longer over dinners, baseball games and family times.

We see each other a lot more. The kids are home, or at day camps, having new adventures with a lot to share about at night. We get to go on vacation together at least once. Friends are out of town, so while we socialize a fair bit, we also seem to circle the wagons and look to one another for entertainment. Every summer for the last few, I read books out loud to the whole family – Harry Potter or Pippi Longstocking or Anne of Green Gables or some other precious tome containing enough escapist magic to change all of our lives just a little.

Plenty of time to goof off during summer.

There’s plenty of time to goof off during summer.

Each summer, the girls seem to discover (either independently or with my steering) a classic television family. Two years ago, it was the Brady Bunch, thanks to a friend who loaned them the complete box set she’d been given for Christmas. It immediately piqued their curiosity when she bestowed it upon them in its green shag carpet box for safe summer keeping before they went out of town.

Within a day – they were obsessed with Cindy, Bobby, Peter, Jan, Marcia, Greg, Alice and Mr. and Mrs. Brady. Like byline-starved investigative reporters, they questioning me about it: Did I know how cute Cindy was? What about her curls? Did I think Secondo looked like Cindy? (They did.) Had I seen the one when they get Tiger? When they broke the lamp? What was up with Mrs. Brady’s hair? Was that actually a popular hairstyle at one point?

When they worked their way up to the double-episode trip to the Grand Canyon, I stopped BB locked in jailwhat I was doing and watched it with them. They were fascinated, riveted. Secondo clutched my hand as Bobby and Cindy weathered the night lost in the canyon and hid her eyes with the mean old Western man locked them in the dusty ghost town jail.

The Grand Canyon is now firmly planted on their places to visit.

Last summer, thanks to an impulse purchase at Target, they discovered I Love Lucy.

We were spending a few days at our mountain house and they were bored beyond all activity: having roamed through the forest, collected pine cones, taken three bike rides and the dog for a walk at least twice. And it was only 10 a.m.

I found the Lucy box set shoved into the TV console and peeled the plastic on that baby hoping I could get them to sit through one show before we had lunch. They were uber-skeptical. Why was it in black and white? What was it about? Did they have to?lucyandethel

Ladies and gentleman, if it’s been awhile since you’ve observed the magic that is Lucille Ball – it’s time to take another look.

My (at the time) 10- and 6-year-old responded accordingly: rolling on the ground laughing, watching for hours on end, talking non-stop about Lucy and Desi and Ethel and Fred, playing Lucy, mimicking her expressions – all summer long.

Invariably, these discoveries and adventures we share remind me of my summers as a child. Most memories involve my three brothers – particularly my youngest brother, who was only a year younger than me. Most memories include swimming in the pool, watching Dukes of Hazard, eating our favorite lunch of micro-cheese (Kraft cheese sandwiches on Roman Meal bread zapped in the microwave for 30 seconds) and then swimming until we were so waterlogged our wrinkled toes looked about to shrivel up entirely. Or traveling to Ohio to spend summers with my grandparents, hiking through the forest and along the creek with Gramps and walking to Arby’s for lunch, or visiting the rose garden at the park and dancing in the gazebo while imagining I was Liesel in Sound of Music.

Each summer, my mother heart – the fortress that carefully stows and stokes the fire of longing for the highest and best for each child, for each precious happy moment, and radiates those yearnings out to God or the universe – hopes together the summer discoveries and the camps, the new friends and the old, the books we read and the museums we visit, the baseball games and the spontaneous trips to Dairy Queen and the jaunts to the mountains and the long drives to the beach, Prima and Secondo will harvest memories of summer to warm them throughout their lives – and that they’ll laugh a little along the way, too.

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.

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.