Tuesday, December 9, 2014

It's Creepy but We've Learned to Love It

This year, I caved. We have one of those creepy and weird  Elf things.

All the Grape's friends have had personal stuffed elves for years. I figured we'd missed the window when we failed to jump on the bandwagon shelf during the preschool years.

But then the Grape stopped buying my assertions that Santa's tiny agents of espionage were:
a) everywhere,
b) all the time, and
c) way too fast for children's eyes.

He told me he "didn't care if Santa's elves could see and hear him or not."

R. and I had to take drastic action to re-assert control over the deteriorating situation.

Our Elf appeared, swinging from a chandelier in the Grape's room, while we visited relatives in Connecticut over Thanksgiving.

"Magic!" the Grape gasped, before declaring the thing scary.

He tearfully demanded it be banished from his room.

I excused myself to the bathroom for a brief moment of near hyper ventilation.

I know dozens, if not hundreds, of little kids. I've heard precisely zero reports of objections to the appearance of an Elf on the Shelf.

Our Elf held its ground, as did R. and I.

I paid fifteen bucks for that thing. Besides, R. and I had high hopes its presence would inspire angelic behavior.

There was no way we were going to allow the Grape to put the kibosh on the game. At least not at the get go.

Then another worry struck.

Is my five-year-old  gullible enough to believe the Elf (from which, in our haste to exit the house in the predawn hours of Thanksgiving, we'd neglected to remove the tags) has powers?

Yes and no.

The Grape absolutely believes in Santa.

As for his silly little stuffed helper: I can't figure out if the Grape believes, wants to believe because his friends do (or pretend to), or whether he wants to hedge his bets, on the time honored theory that Those Who Believe Will Get More.

Whatever the reason, he seems to have faith in a cheaply made-in-China toy that stirs lust in the eyes of Lucy the Cat and Lila the Dog alike.

Due to this sky-high level of four-legged interest, our Elf prefers a little altitude.

If R. and I leave him below six feet, he'll be shredded in seconds, his magic demolished in a drool soaked trail of red felt and white poly-fill.

He'd stand a better chance in the blender than between Lila's teeth.

The other issue with our newest holiday tradition is that R. and I stink at remembering to move the elf.

And whoever started this thing decreed, Thou shalt move thy Elf every night to keep alive its magic.

(For the uninitiated, the story goes that the Elf magically flies home to relay the behavior report and any new wishes to Santa every night. He's supposed to return to clock in for the morning shift before his charge wakes.)

So far we are ten days in.

On the fourth night, I woke in a cold sweat at 2 a.m. yelling, "We need to move the elf!"

R. and I have each nearly broken our necks at least once, whilst jamming downstairs ahead of the Grape, in order to relocate the thing before dawn.

Because of our negligence, the Elf scoots back and forth along the top of the kitchen cabinets a lot.

The Grape thinks it's because he can see the entire downstairs from up there. Whatever you say, kid.

The Grape wants to believe, and despite my past disdain for the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon, I've realized it's all good.

Childhood is short enough. If some of the magic of the holidays comes in the form of a flimsy, mass produced, smirking plaything, we'll take it.

As long as we can keep it out of the dog's jaws.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Dinner with the Family: Barolo, Opera, Pasta and Arranged Marriage

Three nights ago, a routine Saturday family dinner party around my brother's table: Opera floating from the speakers, Barolo flowing freely, the children eating fat tubes of ziti off their fingers, and my dad holding forth on which individuals in our acquaintance pool "could benefit from being sent back to the Old Country for arranged marriage."

My sister-in-law, flailing baby on her hip, five heaping plates of food balanced on her right arm (in a move that could secure her employment in almost any restaurant in the world) agreed with Dad, and dared me with her eyes to jump in with some feminist objection.

None here. I was laughing along with everyone else at the sheer joy of discussing such an un-p.c. concept.

Let's be clear: Dad was not talking about fixing up teenagers before they got up to their own ideas regarding romance.

He meant consenting adults.

The kind who have extreme difficulty navigating the dating waters, the type who fall apart emotionally after every date that ends without a marriage proposal, the ones who tell their troubles to virtual strangers at the gym, sobbing and spluttering snot on the elliptical trainer, because they cannot hold in the grief.

The kind who want nothing more in this life than the security of married coupledom, but who seem unable to get there without a little help. The individuals who have spent decades weeping in therapy. Who need to get off the couch and just get on with it. The ones who have exhausted the potential fix ups in their own circles.

The kind who turn forty without ever having sex.

I thought such folks were the stuff of urban legend, but my relatives swiftly set me straight on that point.

What are these souls, the ones the Victorians called spinsters, supposed to do in the age of Internet dating? Because if these women are getting their hearts broken by Match dates, Tinder will shred whatever remains of their dignity to smithereens.

Would it be so bad to bring back the elderly village matchmakers? At least they wouldn't prey on women's hopes for ungodly sums of money, like some personal dating services.

The tradition certainly persisted in post WWII Italy, Greece and Armenia—the countries to which Dad suggested shipping these acquaintances for advice from elderly aunts and uncles.

The matchmaking tradition is also alive and well in some Jewish communities, as well as in India (where I know social class has a lot to do with whether the woman can, or is old enough, to consent).

Probably lots of other places too, but I can only speak to the hill towns of the Southern Mediterranean.

Dad started listing people we knew who had successful arranged marriages. "It's great for some people!" (Someone steered the topic elsewhere before Dad started listing all the "love"matches in our circle that ended in divorce.)

My mother kept pace as Dad warmed to his topic. She pointed out which examples are now dead.

I certainly recall, as late as the 1970s, talk of cousins of various degrees of removal flying home to Italy to find Holy Matrimony. That practice has all but vanished, as the potential old country wife pool have found careers and (rightly) balked at ironing and cooking all day.

I'd be lying if I said it didn't rankle me (a little) that my male second and third cousins set off in search of wives, like conquering knights, bearing new riches from the new world, while the women apparently require shipping and handling. But really, what's the harm, if all parties consent?

We ate our dinner before it became clear whether Dad would offer to broker any trans-Atlantic matchmaking.

The subject was dismissed as he held up a bite of food and asked, "Can this be Thanksgiving? I think these meatballs have turkey in them."

My sister-in-law confirmed the presence of the suspect fowl.

Dad shot a glance at my still splinted dominant hand, and added, sotto voce, "Since Mari can't cook."

Nobody in earshot objected. My brother poured more wine. We clinked glasses and said, "Happy Thanksgiving."

A few chairs down, R. sat and wondered how a thirteenth generation Connecticut Yankee managed to drop into this tableau, with its retro solutions to timeless problems. That and whether my dad was serious about the Thanksgiving remark.

It's never been our holiday.

Though I have come to own it since the Grape arrived.

While Dad despises turkey, a meat about which I'm ambivalent, he loves what I've done with the rest of the meal, if I may be so bold as to say so myself. But since I'm a cripple this fall, I'm not whipping up artichokes and oysters and squash with south Asian undertones and three kinds of stuffing and various pies.

This Thanksgiving I can bow my head, and be grateful that neither my sister nor I were mentioned as a candidates for arranged marriage in the Old Country.

Monday, November 17, 2014

All the Grape Wants for Christmas is a Little Sister

This is the second year in a row the Grape (age five) wants to ask Santa for a little sister.

It's always a little sister.

Even last year, I think he intuited that a younger brother could constitute some kind of direct and unwelcome competition.

Last year I told him Santa doesn't traffic in human children.

He seemed okay with that answer.

This year he's not buying it, and he's so insistent, he's making me cry.

"But why?" he wants to know.

I've explained more than once that Mamma's belly is broken. He accepted that response until last week. More than once, I've heard him explain his status as an only child to his friends in these terms.

But I knew he'd eventually do more math.

"But you had me," the Grape said Friday, on the way home from swimming lessons.

"I did, but I had lots of very big problems. The doctors—many doctors—and Mamma agreed that Mamma's belly shouldn't make any more babies."

The pregnancy and its aftermath were so bad, that I knew, from about month five, that I would never go through that again.

I never pictured myself as an only child kind of mother, but if a second meant another ordeal like the first, I was going to be grateful for my one healthy kid and call my family complete.

For years, I was content with my decision, not least because it was based on the advice of multiple doctors.

The Grape folded his arms over his chest. "Get another opinion. That's what you did with your hand."

He paused to think. "And that's when your hand started getting better. Look. You can even drive now."

I turned and gaped at him, smugly strapped in his car seat, clutching a juice box, brimming with confidence.

He yowled at me to watch the road.

He's not wrong. I've got a new hand doctor, who issued a smaller, tighter fitting brace, along with a shot of cortisone. My hand does feel a whole lot better.

A surgery exists today, a procedure that did not exist five or six years ago, that could fix my major medical issue with pregnancy—the one that triggered everything else that went wrong.

Unsurprisingly, one of the handful of doctors doing the procedure is here in Boston.

I'm not going to go into an analysis of my medical records—I know lots of writers do, in painstaking clinical detail. That's fine, but that level of sharing doesn't feel right for me.

My basic conundrum boils down to this: Even if I have the surgery, I am likely out of "time," which is a euphemism used by endocrinologists to mean "good eggs."

In this I'm no different from tens of thousands of women in their early forties.

I'm a terrible sleeper, but I don't lie awake at night wondering why I waited so long.

I waited so long because my mind was made up. No more hellish, dangerous pregnancies. Period.

What keeps me up is that suddenly the entire game changed.

For me, it probably changed too late.

Either way, the Grape isn't getting what he really wants from Santa.

Not this year.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Invisible Identity Crisis

Many of my mom friends and I found ourselves with kids in school full time for the first time this fall.

Trigger massive identity crises.

Compound with the old trope that a woman turns forty and becomes invisible.

It's true. I'm 41. When I walk around the hood with Julian and/or Lila the Dog, dozens of neighbors say hello, stop to chat.

If I leave the house solo, I might as well be wearing some king of magic invisibility cloak. I can slip past the very same neighbors, totally under the radar.

Once in a while someone will actually do a double take, and say, "Oh! It's you. I didn't recognize you without your entourage."

Female friends of similar age report near identical experiences.

Sometimes, if I'm in a hurry, it's not so bad. But usually it's demoralizing.

Some of my friends experienced a back-to-school season panic along the lines of: "Oh my God, I need to get back into the career I ignored for ten years." MUCH easier said than done.

Others wander around looking shell-shocked by the sudden block of unstructured time during daylight hours, and throw themselves into charities and cooking and re-decorating their homes.

A couple of women I know were smart enough to see the problem coming, and nimble enough to react. They had so called "luxury babies," infants they never originally planned on, but decided they wanted as their little ones grew past preschool age.

There's a plus side of full time kindergarten for me: more time to write, which I'm putting to good use.

And still. I can't help lying awake at night and thinking BIG midlife crisis type thoughts.

Should I have another baby (if that ship hasn't sailed)?

I know I should have contemplated a second kid sooner, but I've spent five years with some version of medically induced PTSD from the hellacious pregnancy and aftermath that produced the Grape.

And honestly, until right before he turned five, I was content. One happy, healthy child is more than many people have, and I am grateful every day. Maybe he was my one good egg. Maybe the fact that I almost died should give me pause (it does).

Or should I get new boobs? Nothing crazy. Tasteful C's.

Or is the fact that I'm contemplating the new baby versus new boobs question in the same breath an indication that what I really should do is have a glass of wine, book a nice beach holiday somewhere, and get a grip?

Do I get points for self awareness? I mean, at least I recognize a midlife crisis when I have one. That should count for something.

Oh, yeah. Happy Halloween, all!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Adventures in Busing

The wackiest thing about kindergarten so far? The school bus. Hands down.

The Grape LOVES riding the bus, so much so that his angst about starting a new school almost evaporated when he heard there would be a yellow school bus involved. This is unsurprising. I think the Grape's first full sentence might have been, "This is bus," in reference to this toy (for which I still have a back up or two stashed in the closet under the stairs):

I'd heard buzz over the summer that the bus takes a few weeks to shake out its glitches. But we were eager. So the morning of the first full day of school, we arrived at the bus stop and waited with eight other kids and moms. The appointed moment passed. No bus. Across town in Beacon Hill, the school day started. No bus.

The kids had a blast racing up and down the block and pelting acorns at passing cars on Columbus Avenue—evidently a time honored bus stop tradition, with which I am not going to interfere, because I'd like to be friends with these women.

One of the moms offered to drive the whole gang. She piled nine kids and all their lunches and backpacks into her SUV.

Me (crouching to his level and invoking calm but cheerful tone): This nice mommy (whom I very vaguely know from the dog park) is going to drive you all to school, and then this nice sixth grade girl is going to walk you to your classroom, okay?

Grape: Okay.

I'll say this about the Grape. He can be a major fusspot, but he's a great traveler, and I guess the school commute falls under the umbrella of travel.

So off he went in the clown car of kids.

I walked him to and from school for a few days. The following Monday, the Grape begged to try again. The bus showed up. The system worked.

As we moms smiled and waved at the bus bumping away, I started to think it's sort of strange to send a five-year-old off on the roads with some random public employee.

Especially one who freely admitted to getting lost on the day of the clown car episode.

"I think his name is Warner. Or maybe Werner," one of the moms said.

"Is that his first or last name?" someone asked.

Shrugs all around.

"I like that he wears a bow tie," someone else said.

And that was it. He may not know the city too well, but he brings it, fashion-wise, so we are going with it.

As the week wore on, the morning party grew to a dozen and then maybe fifteen kids. The Grape loves it.

Every afternoon, I take Lila the Dog and stake out the bus, which spews the kids out outside Charlie's. Or what used to be, and perhaps will be again, Charlie's. All went smoothly for weeks. One afternoon, the troop of kids marches off.

No Grape.

Heart misses beat.

Lila and I climb onto bus to find the Grape and his little School Bus Girlfriend trying to reassemble the Grape's belongings into his empty backpack.

He has unpacked his lunch box all over the seat, taken the lids off three pieces of tupperware,  lost his jacket under the seat, lost his drink bottle and library book entirely, and (apparently) attempted to hang up at least a dozen crumpled drawings for display. He is, for some unknowable reason, in the process of removing his shoes.

Also School Bus Girlfriend is making a huge mess with graham crackers, which I decide to ignore.

Meanwhile Lila (eighty pounds of dog), crazed with the excitement of actually boarding the bus, tries her best to stand on her head, jump on the seats, hoover up the graham cracker detritus, and generally turn herself inside out, while I hold her leash in the hand with the cast and try to reassemble the Grape's belongings with my left hand.

This is one of those procedures, like having blood drawn, that may only take a couple of minutes, but feels as if it lags on forever.

I finally manage to usher my kid and his dog and maybe eighty percent of his stuff off the bus.

I apologize profusely to the driver, who looks really put upon, but says nothing, because Werner/Warner is a man of few words. The Grape says he doesn't speak English, but I'm not sure that's correct.

I make a mental note to double Werner/Warner's holiday tip.

The next day, the schedule changes without notice. Lila and I see the flashing lights on Columbus from the southwest corridor, a full fifteen minutes early. We set a sprint record down Holyoke Street and greet a sobbing Grape.

His original School Bus Girlfriend, apparently enraged by a rival, has clocked him hard enough to leave a bruise. To the Grape's great credit, he didn't whack her back, but I suspect this is only because he's smart enough to know that she is way taller and must have twenty-plus pounds on him.

Sobbing Grape and I wait with a few kids spewed out with nobody to greet them, because, you know, nobody told us the schedule had changed. Lila and I were close because of dumb luck.

After handing off his friends, I call the school and freak out, which I immediately regret, because like every other mom, I live in terror of what they decide to write in the Permanent Record.

Head of School calls me back and assures me they are dealing with this matter and explaining to all the little savages (my word, not hers) that the school rules regarding treatment of classmates apply on the bus. As if it never occurred to anyone to mention that before.

Nobody complains about the lack of warning on the schedule change, because the kids get home fifteen minutes earlier, which is nice.

The next afternoon, the bus tracker app (yes, there's an app for that) shows the bus at one of the remote lots at Logan Airport.

Not encouraging.

Someone calls the school and informs us the bus broke down and the children have been packed onto a back up bus, which arrives promptly, but "smells like the men's room at Penn Station," according to one of the second grade boys.

In good news, the Grape and School Bus Girlfriend have made up. Or out. Evidently she tried (a second time) to French kiss him, and did succeed this time, in getting her tongue past his loose tooth.

Tuesday morning, our devoted Werner/Warner encounters a road closure somewhere between the South End and Beacon Hill. The bus makes a detour.  He ends up crossing the river and driving the children around Cambridge. By some accounts, they drive in circles behind MIT, but at least one girl claims they traveled as far afield as the Harvard Yard.

The children report that two of the older girls navigated Werner/Warner back to Beacon Hill, where they disembarked thirty to forty-five minutes late for school, depending on whose account you believe.

That night at dinner, I once again ask the Grape if he wants me to start walking him to and from school.

He looks at me as if I've lost my mind. "I love the bus, Mamma."

(Side note: If anyone knows the right amount to tip the bus driver at the holidays, send me a message. I'm thinking a nice bottle of scotch is not the way to go.)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Parenting Advice from Strangers/Childless: Like Sex Advice from Celibate Clergy?

Years ago when I was pregnant, my mother tried to teach me to respond to complete strangers who offered unsolicited advice with, "I have an OB. I don't need any advice. Thank you."

She said that statement had a nicer ring than my go to, which at the time was, "Fuck yourself."

On one occasion I got creative, and told an unusually intrusive and obnoxious stranger in a pedicure chair what she should stick in her privates. Mom wasn't proud, but she laughed. That tale is here.

I foolishly thought the advice from random busy bodies would stop once we emerged from the pregnancy/new infant stage. Wrong.

A close friend of mine (incidentally one of the best moms I know, the kind who glows with happiness while four kids climb all over her, and makes running a big household look easy) lets her early and middle elementary aged children climb trees.

Not the outside of the Hancock Tower.


She's given up on counting the number of strangers, some nearly apoplectic, who come running up to alert her that her children are, indeed, up in trees, and who refuse to accept that as their mother, she's okay with this. She smiles sagely, thanks them for their concern, and watches her little monkeys climb higher.

Back in the dark ages, my mom let us run and play, not only in trees, but in the woods.

One day, when I was five and my brother was two, we took it upon ourselves to walk a path through the woods behind our house to visit neighbors who had just moved in. We rang the doorbell, introduced ourselves, and asked for a snack. My mom had no idea where we'd gone until we reported that Mrs. S was nice, and she gave us cookies and made us lemonade.

Her reaction: dial up Mrs. S on the old school rotary phone and apologize for the intrusion.

Back then, we passed for precocious. These days, my mom would probably end up on the nightly news. The village has gotten mighty paranoid.

I think every mother I know has started to walk away from a tantrum throwing toddler—the tried and true "I'm leaving now. Bye."—which in my experience has about a fifty to sixty per cent success rate in eliciting the desired behavior. Most of the time passersby smile knowingly.

Not always. The girlfriend who allows the tree climbing once walked fifty feet ahead of her screaming four-year-old on the sidewalk in the middle of the day and got a screaming lecture from a middle aged man that she was giving her child "permanent abandonment issues."

That time, she couldn't resist. She told him something along the lines of, "If you want to give me parenting advice, I'm going to give you some weight loss tips." (Apparently he was quite fat.)

A childless friend suggested the other day, that maybe the Grape needs more boundaries. (The Grape had picked up my phone without asking.) I snapped back that this friend has no business telling me how to raise my child.

I'm happy to discuss most subjects and most of my beliefs with friends, but I don't take mothering advice from the childless.

I view it on par with getting advice on improving one's sex life from a celibate priest.

That said, I get that it takes a village. I am grateful every day to be blessed with dozens of great women friends who have fallen down the Mommyland rabbit hole with me. I'm grateful for the moms at the playground, because we all keep an eye on each other's kids.

I'm grateful I have a mom I can call for advice when I'm out of ideas.

I'm grateful to live in a city where the emergency services show up in under two minutes when I call 911 because my baby is seizing.

But, for better or worse, I've started to view my day-to-day village as more of a sorority.

Nothing makes my blood boil like some previously unknown person holding forth on his or her "parenting philosophy" without invitation.

Pro tip to new-ish parent at park: Lecturing the moms who have known each other and each other's kids for years, about how you, a complete stranger, think we're disciplining our kids wrong does not get you and your kid invited to indoor play dates with wine and treats during the dead of winter.

I can see you believe you're being helpful. You're not. You're being a sanctimonious twit.

And by the way, while you're telling me how important it is never to raise one's voice, your kid is whacking someone in the face with a stick.

I don't have all the answers. Like my mom friends, I do the best I can. I know the Grape and I are lucky. Still, some days with a five-year-old are frustrating. Other moments are filled with such joy and wonder I want to freeze them forever.

Kind of like the above mentioned pedicure/colonoscopy incident.

And to prove I'm actually not all cranky this morning, I offer this moment from August:

I wish I could freeze that afternoon forever. Even though a stranger told me not to let him sit on the rocks (while I was four feet away).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Needs Improvement

"We need to talk," R. said to me upon his arrival home from work last night.

Never good words.

He swallowed hard, heaved a put upon sigh. "We need to figure out a way to get through the morning shuffle without behaving like we belong on the Jerry Springer show."

I nodded.

"I'm embarrassed to see the neighbors," he said. "Maybe we should go around and apologize."

I shook my head doubtfully. "An apology includes an implicit suggestion that it won't happen again."

I think at this point he walked upstairs to change.

"We could send everyone booze at the holidays," I yelled upstairs hopefully. "Or something from Harry and  David."

"If you can't get this under control, we are going to have to move to the suburbs."

Of course his complaint has merit.

First, I'd like to take this moment to apologize publicly to any mothers with whom I worked in an office during my single days.

I had no idea. I am so sorry for ever rolling my eyes or wondering what the big deal was with getting a five-year-old dressed, fed, teeth brushed, shoes on, and out the door at some appointed time. Or wondering why you showed up with wet hair or looking hung over, when you weren't going out and tying one on after work.

The Grape is just like his mom in three ways: he has what one might politely call a Latin temperament, he slumps in the afternoon and gets a maddening second wind at bedtime, and he likes to lounge in the mornings.

In his perfect world, he'd play with Legos for an hour, take another forty-five minutes to an hour to eat, and then get on with the day.

In my perfect world, I'd let him do that, and spend the time reading and sucking down coffee. In a perfect world, he'd go to bed before 7:30.

In the real world, I can put him in bed by then, but he won't fall asleep before nine anyway.

In the real world, we also need to leave for the school bus stop by 7:45 a.m.

(Aside: Why is school so damned early? Because the issue isn't going to school. The Grape LOVES school. The issue is the start time.)

Every morning this week, I dragged the Grape's reluctant, bawling, sobbing, begging, protesting form down from the top bunk by 7:15, my chest heavy with mom guilt because my kid wasn't sleeping enough. I couldn't bring myself to rouse him earlier, but a half hour pushes our luck in terms of leaving the house with any semblance of order or calm.

Every morning this week, I pleaded, begged, bribed, cajoled, threatened and ultimately yelled like an escapee from a lunatic asylum, about every step. Take off pajamas. Put on clothes. Eat. Eat. Eat. Please, for the love of God, eat one bite of Cheerios. Good. Now eat another. Please. Please. You will lose your Legos and/or play dates for the week if you don't eat another bite right now. I mean it. Right now. Brush teeth. Brush hair. Repeat threats in shriller voice. Find shoes. Put on shoes.

The Grape yells right back. I'll say this for him, the kid has a will of steel and he can give as good as he gets.

Thursday and Friday mornings were extra special.

We left the house at a jog at 7:48, the Grape wailing in such a way that might provoke a new neighbor to call the police, and screaming that I was hurting his arm by pulling him along, me in tears because I was "that mom" who sends her child to school on an empty stomach, and Lila the Dog straining on her leash, doing her canine best to pretend not to know us.

This needs improvement.