My Mother’s Fabulous Future Funeral

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I wrote this piece to audition for the Listen To Your Mother event in Minneapolis.     I was not cast in the show (and I may try again next year) but in honor of my mom on Mother’s Day.  Here it is: 

So-my dad died 15 years ago.  My brother and I gave the eulogy.  I was like the unknown indie band opening act and he was the big headliner you paid big money for. We got very good reviews and then tag teamed at our Grandma’s funeral 18 months later. And because I’m probably a really bad person, because of 15 years ago…ever since my dad died…and I stood up there in my stupid, rayon Ann Taylor dress…I’ve been thinking about my mother’s funeral.  Note: My mother is very much alive and well and for that I am grateful.  (below in France…yes we have matching scarves)

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I know.  That sounds terrible.  But you can’t have a parent die and not ponder/stress/panic/fear/plan for the other one if you are fortunate enough to have the other one.  I think it’s natural. Maybe?   Or maybe I am a crazy person and this is my darkest side. I mean, I haven’t created a funeral vision board or anything.  Yet.

So, my mom is a fancy person.  Like fancy.  Put together. Chic.  She looked good when we went camping.  Her bandana matched her Dr. Scholl’s sandals.  Also, she was wearing Dr. Scholl’s went we went camping.  Who does that? She has an ample collection of coats.  She has a coat for particular types of snow.  I’m not kidding.  If you need a sharp looking coat for a dry dusting of snow, it’s in her closet.  There might be two in that category.  When she was wheeled into heart surgery seven years ago at Mayo Clinic, the medical staff commented on her beautiful nails.  Her nails were perfect-for surgery.

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So I’m picturing a show stopping church service. Something in a traditional space.  Beautiful.  Stained glass windows.   Strong architectural elements.  Warm wood tone pews.  The flowers. Stunners. But unexpected.  Maybe orchids. Maybe trailing.  Maybe fushcia.  My mom delights in the smallest of details.  She finds joy in tiny slivers of beauty.

I will wear something that would do her proud.  Appropriate but not dour.  Maybe navy.  Tailored to fit. My mother’s most important fashion advice is that fit is everything.  Maybe a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress.   With a wedge heel.  My mother likes the classics. Honestly, I’m a little stressed about the outfit because she won’t be there to help me with shoe choice.  She knows these things and I don’t know these things.

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She has already weighed in on a few things that are important regarding her funeral. My mother and I have been to way too many funerals.  Man, we have been on the funeral circuit lately.  Once, many years ago we were at a funeral for an elderly relative and it was an open casket.  The woman had a very stark white root line and wore an ill-fitting pale mauve suit. My mother peered over the casket and gave me a knowing look and said, “Just so you know…” She raises her eyebrows.   I know.  “I got you.  No weird suit.  No weird colors. Not one gray hair.  I won’t let you down.” She has since decided on cremation. Maybe she does not trust me.  For what do I know of funeral fashion.

And my mom really wants Debussy’s piece Clair de Lune played at her funeral. She has mentioned it numerous times. She loves that piece of music.  If you can’t think of it offhand, it’s at the end of the movie Ocean’s 11.  Final scene where they reflect on what they have done. It goes, “da da, da da da….”  So, I’ve been thinking…I should totally play that on the piano at her funeral.  Like…that would be a such a tribute.  That I learned that specific piece to honor her and could play it perfectly, wearing my tasteful navy dress, orchids on the baby grand.  Did I mention the baby grand?  She would be so pleased.  She really would love it.

Three problems.

One-she won’t be there to witness how amazing it would be. She won’t see it and be proud and tell me how extraordinary her funeral was.  She will not know that I have executed the BEST and most SPECIAL parental funeral EVER.  There will be no Instagram post from her of her funeral. (to quote one of my daughter’s friends-‘Bruh, your GRANDMA has an Instagram?”)

Second issue is…am I really going to be in the right state of mind to PERFORM at my mother’s funeral?  I’m going to be orphaned.  An old orphan, but an orphan nonetheless. I have spent some time thinking about the orphan thing.  I do not like it.  It nauseates me.  And the other problem—is the big problem.  A really big problem.

I do not play the piano.

At all. Not one note.

And that begs the question…where do I even come up with these harebrained ideas?  Why in the hell would I even think I could learn Clair de Lune on the piano in 3 days time while grieving the loss of my sweet mom and then perform it perfectly at her funeral? I’m going to be in the damn fetal position.

I need to own my crazy ideas.  My unrealistic plans.  Yet…

I think it’s possible.  And some may call it instinct.  Or personality. Or God. Or self-confidence.  But in my case, it’s because of her.  My mother.  This is HER doing.  The little voice in my head that tells me that I could do it, I can handle it, I can face it, I can master it, I can find it, I can survive it, I can make it, I can work through it, I can and I will.

All her.  She started it.  It’s her voice until it becomes my voice.

She has painstakingly paved a foundation of gritty determination in me.  And oh, how I have needed it.  It has been her greatest gift to me.  She has absolute unwavering, unshakeable, unfathomable conviction in her children.  It makes no logical sense.  We have failed her.  We have screwed up.  We have made mistakes.  We have been dumb.  We have pushed back so hard we could knock her down.  We have given her every indication that we probably can’t do it.  We are people who should not do certain things.

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This woman, my mother.  She does not buy it.  She believes in me so fervently that I believe.

And this, in my opinion, is the purest distillation of motherhood.  To be the person who hopes and prays and dreams and fights and believes so sincerely against all the odds-that you raise an adult who can withstand every storm internal or external.

Personally, I love Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No.1 in G Major. I really need to let my kids know.  Man, that is going to be a son of a bitch to learn. Because none of my kids play the cello.  But I bet they could. My God, they would be brilliant at it.

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Table for one: Join the club

I’ve been thinking about loneliness lately.   I am not lonely.  Or alone.  Nearly ever. The last time I can remember feeling lonely was in college. It was junior year. 1992.  Folks, that is a long time ago.  And the ironic thing is that I was not alone.  I was surrounded by people.  People who I loved.  People who loved me.  Living with my sweet,  gentle, long-suffering roommate/best friend.  I think I felt misunderstood. I was likely depressed. I felt isolated from others. Left behind. And quite full of self-pity.  It passed. Tip: If feeling lonely at 20 years old AND assigned to read The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day AND then choose to fill other hours watching Oprah (often about weight loss or family estrangement) -You will feel worse.

Being alone has never been a negative for me.   I know that some people hate it.  I relish eating lunch alone.  Coffee out somewhere by myself.  Lunch alone. I see movies alone.  That is certain bliss.  I can choose the movie, the time, eat my popcorn without passing it, think my own thoughts and nobody interrupts to talk to me.  (I know I’m so selfish)  I enjoy a long drive alone.  I enjoy a few quiet hours in the house when the dog is at the groomers.  I think this means that although I fall squarely in the middle of the extraversion/introversion scale…I need introverted time.  But also…I’m very spoiled because I have options if I want people.  I have the people. They are everywhere underfoot.  My people are very loud people.

We volunteer as a family at a housing complex a few miles from our house.  We do odd jobs like cleaning windows and moving furniture, flipping mattresses, hanging art and boxing up holiday decorations for residents.  And then we also make and serve them lunch.  This is my favorite part.  That crew loves a good lunch.  I love to try to serve a good lunch.  I am always struck, every single time, how lonely people seem.  They are desperate for connection with others, with us.  They are excited to see us and see our children.  They just want to watch and talk to my children.  What classes are they taking? Do they LOVE school?  (they are begging my children to lie to them)  Do they like to fish? Do they play football?  They love our stories about pedestrian things.  They ask where we bought our spinach leaves and where I got the recipe for the egg bake.  They want to know if I know that HyVee will cut whole fruit for only a $1. I did not!  Many of the residents are elderly.  Most live alone.  Some are good at joining in.  Some are not as comfortable doing so.  There is a cool table.  I kid you not.  There is a cool table at the senior housing complex.

But when we leave, and this may all be in my head, I feel a lift in the mood.  The energy is good.  They have had a meal together.  Literally broken bread together-some of it gluten free.  They have had camaraderie.  A laugh. If someone is under the weather, someone brings up a plate.  They discuss the new changes at the building, the weather, politics.  They have heard a new story from outside the four walls of their apartment and shared a story of their own. (below a 2015 photo of dessert service)

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We all end up there, if we are lucky.  Living more on our own and with more strangers than family. Such is the cycle of life.  Some people seem better cut out for it than others.

I wonder how much craving a sense of belonging contributes to the strife in our crazy world.  Humans so desperate to belong that they will belong to the wrong things.  Young kids who don’t stand up for a classmate who is bullied.  Teenaged girls who get drawn into a rumor mill out of fear they too will be cast out of the group. All the hurt and vitriol when the student athlete doesn’t make the top team.  Neighbors who don’t include “that family” at the BBQ.  An employee who goes against personal ethics because coworkers expect them to protect the company.  Groups united by hate against something/anything/anyone because being united in rage is more important than being civil, moral, compassionate.  Is membership more of a survival skill than empathy?  It was MLK day two days ago.  I think he might openly weep at how few strides we have made.  If I read too many news stories, I think we are sliding backward if not standing still as a society.

Last week I dropped off my middle schooler at school in the morning.  There were groupings of kids standing around outside.  Girls with matching hair and matching backpacks and matching everything.  Boys playing basketball.  Kids at the curb on their phones.  My son had his backpack, his ski bag, his skis, and 3 other things in his hand.  He awkwardly hauled it out of the car, banging his bag on the side of my car.  A lot of the kids were watching as he got out of the car and I was thinking how lonely middle school can be.  I imagine there were lonely kids on that curb standing in a group but not invited to a birthday party.  Left out of the group text. Not included at the lunch table.  If loneliness was ever a mental construct , surely that age group has nearly perfected it.  Lonely plus narcissistic is a deadly combo.  As he shut the car door and juggled all of his things I heard someone yell, “JACK!”  Then another, “Jack!  with a wave.  He smiled.  And it made me smile.  And I held back any tears since Jack really needs me to ‘calm down’ these days.  Someone was happy to see him.  Someone called out.

Is that all it takes to not feel alone?

We need to have someone call out our name.

We need to call out to one another with a wave.

We look like a normal family. Kind of.

Long before Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and all other filtered projections of our most perfect and curated selves there was the annual holiday letter.  Letters full of updates and accolades, achievements and vacations and job promotions.  Somewhere along the way this morphed into photo cards.  I LOVE holiday cards.  LOVE.  Love sending, love receiving.  I like seeing the families morph.  I like seeing the clever frames and banners and card styles and shapes and colors.  Shoutout to anyone who pays extra for scalloped edges.  They.look.amazing.  And I really, really like the weird ones we get and we get them almost every single year. Weird cards RULE.

One year I got a Christmas letter from a family member.  I am related to this person. The entire letter was about the deep and somber symbolism of the candy cane.  It was long and detailed.  According to this letter, the white of the candy cane represents the purity of Christ and the red represents the blood of lamb who was slain. (Insert surprised and barf emoji here) Uh…what?  Needless to say, I needed a very long break from candy canes and those relatives.

I had a friend who was divorced and got remarried.  A wedding photo was their holiday card.  But her name was the same.  I didn’t get it.  Did she keep her name?  Did he take her name?  I ended up having to place a phone call.  She married someone with the same last name the second time.  What are the odds? Note: Super convenient if you already have Pottery Barn monogrammed towels.

One year we got one from a colleague that worked with my husband.  It was a photo of a man and a woman on a horse.  They were on a beach.  It was signed: (I’m using aliases for their own protection) Tom, Linda and Gwen.  There were only two people in the photo.  Was it Tom and Linda?  Was it Tom and Gwen?  Why two female names?  Do they have a daughter not pictured?  Is the horse named Gwen?  Did they name their horse?  Is Linda more of a horse name? Why do you have a horse featured in your holiday card?  It remains a mystery.

I have a friend who has referred to the annual holiday card family photo shoot as “The Worst Day of The Year”.  He is a boisterous happy-go-lucky type so if it can take him out, it is certainly capable of making any of us crazy.

For years I have obsessed with the holiday photo card.  It’s a sickness.  Mainly because it is a complex multi-step process during a busy time of year and I am in charge of all the steps because I am the only one who cares WAAAAAAY too much about the result. The setting, the outfits, screaming at the people to get ready, hiring the photographer, the scheduling, the editing, the ordering, the addressing, the culling of the addresses from 23 places, the mailing, et cetera et cetera.  I do it to myself because I do like having a family photo from each year but in retrospect-none of them are what they appear and some years, I may have sent the wrong one.

I was going to send this in 2003.  I thought it would be funny because this year it felt like we were perpetually desperate for sleep and the kids were perpetually awake that year.  But I thought I looked like hell and I didn’t like the drool all over the baby onesie. My husband feels he has “fat face” in this picture.  Should have sent it.  I still think it’s funny.  Look at that tough guy look with the power fist on a 2 month old.

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I always loved this picture but I didn’t use it for the card because the wind got into her hair and the baby pant leg crept up over his chunky leg and his diaper was way past slightly wet.  Now I think…Ahhhhh… we look young.  Babies having babies in that photo.

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Couldn’t use this for the card because I thought we looked “too sweaty”. And again the boy wasn’t looking directly at the camera.  It looks like us.  We were chasing young children while sweating.  …And we were just a simple family of four…

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This year I yelled at my son because he was eating pretzels in the car making his shirt a mess.  What kind of lunatic dresses kids this age in white?  Later in the day he slipped on a rock and stepped INTO a pool of water filling his shoe. (Mud on right pant leg) I thought it was complicated getting them both to pose and stay clean until…

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Now…I did use one from this group of photos…but not this one because the boy is AGAIN not looking at the camera and the baby looks squished and I look so tired which I was because of well…all of them in the photo.  I literally have zero recollection of these photos being taken.  The whole day is lost. Oh hell…the following year is missing from my hard drive. I guess thank God I have the photo.  That’s a nine mile stare and a cry for help expression on my face.

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I didn’t use this one because I didn’t like the way two of them had on shoes and one didn’t.  And my daughter had a weird spot on the knee of her jeans.  What on earth??? Who cares?  Now I can’t pick up any of them like that.  They can nearly pick me up!

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I should have sent this one that year.  There was a lot of me begging and pleading for everything to JUST SMILE NORMAL.  All we did was wait for the baby to join us that day and that entire year.  He was not having it.  And I’m smiling but I was seriously irritated.  Hurry up kid.  We have a photo shoot with a paid photographer right.NOW.

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I was mad.  At that face???  HOW?  How was that even possible?

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So I used this one.  This is my favorite holiday card that I have ever sent.  EVER. More than five people asked me if I photoshopped it.  Uh…No.  I had to physically wrestle/bribe/beg him to get him to just wear that shirt. He insisted he put it over the shirt he was already wearing.  I had used up all my energy trying to just get people dressed. Not photoshopped.  But…from the same day the one below…

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THIS captures more about the family dynamic. The domination of a large personality packed into a tiny person.

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This is very close to the one I did use.  More than one person asked me where we got the “cute vintage car with the tree” for the photo.  In the driveway.  Our driveway.  That was just my husband’s car.  He didn’t know he was being vintage cute.  Also…that’s our tree that we cut down that day.  Do people borrow cars and trees for their holiday card?

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Ok. I used this one.  I wanted a real snowball fight photo so we had a real snowball fight.  However, I specifically and LOUDLY told them to not aim for faces or someone would cry and then we wouldn’t have any photos.  As you can see, they listened so well.  You can also see that my daughter was struck in the back of the head as well.  We went home tired, wet and cold.  But it did make for a good photo.  Also, I spent an hour on the phone with the printer so they would move the text box. Because I’m crazy.

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I didn’t use this one because our legs looked weird to me and the wild man’s shirt wasn’t showing and it said, “Silent Nights are Boring”.  I like this photo though…because 30 seconds after it was taken…we broke the hammock completely and all fell screaming onto the ground. Max weight limit on that hammock < Our family.

Note: The photo I did use had full frontal dog nudity.  There was a dog penis in our holiday card that year.  For.real.

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Last year.  I sent a collage of imperfect shots because I.was.tired.  I did not include the ones where 2/3 of the kids turned and bent over to feature their butts.  Because we are classy.

This year…a panicked text message to a dear friend that it was snowing.  Big flakes in November.  We throw clothes on and race to the docks.  She takes this photo on my phone.

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I wanted it in height order because I am moving down the line and the kids are moving up.  Now…I look taller than my daughter but her knees are bent and my hair stands up.  Everyone looking the correct direction.  Even the puppy.  Good work. We look like a normal family.

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Here we are 5 minutes later.  Older brother throws younger brother’s frisbee into the water.  Cue innocent sister laughing.  Cue mom and dad screaming at kid to go retrieve frisbee.  Yeah…we know it’s cold.  Next time, don’t be an idiot and throw something in the  lake.

So…Long after I’m gone and only the photos remain…I hope my children realize, our real lives, family life-the very best of it was all in the outtakes.

You can’t take it with you-But it appears I’m going to try

Have you ever read the book by Tim O’Brien ,”The Things They Carried”, about the Vietnam war?  Great book.  Completely unrelated to this blog post.  But for some reason whenever I am amidst the piles and piles and PILES of things to sort through and I feel overwhelmed, I think I should write an autobiography called “The Things She Saved”.

I’m a saver.  Keeper of memories.  Storer of crap.  Collector of random objects important to people who are no longer on earth.  Holder of things other people intend to claim. I’m not going to make it onto the Hoarders show but I can and do save things for an unreasonable amount of time (forever) and (considering the dire storage situation in our house) an unreasonable amount of things.

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I am drawn to magazines like this.  I love them.  I like books and blogs and articles and Instagram feeds and all sorts of information on organizing.  But I am not organized.  People seem to think that I am.  I don’t know what gives them that impression.  I have been “getting organized” for decades and have finally come to grips with…if you are getting organized you can still find your own stuff and somewhat function.  If you actually ARE organized-someone can find it when you die.  Sorry kids.  I will never get there.  (side note: Just read a long article about Swedish death cleaning…riveting. Too bad I’m mostly Danish)  And for all my reading about decluttering…

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Yep.  So embarrassing.  I took the photo and then recycled it.  Promise.

I have boxes and bins and baskets full of crap.  And I always mean to let go of it but then I start to look through it and then I fall in love with keeping it all over again.  But I am getting better.  Truly.  I got rid of 50 books last year.  Nobody even noticed which gives you a window into the scope of my problem.  But I’m always looking for a system.  A “once and for all solution”.

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Have you seen/read that little gem?  It’s depressing and shaming and impossible.  I hope she has triplets some day.  Call me Marie after the triplets.  I can’t wait to see how and where you will neatly stack the sippy cups and diapers and toys and then later the sporting goods and school paper avalanche and electronics and cords.  My GOD the cords. You won’t be emptying out your purse each night.  Your sunglasses won’t be honored and ‘getting their rest’.  You will be clinging to your sanity by a thread.  You will eat questionable food from the bottom of your Birkin bag which will be right there in a crumpled Ziploc next to your bent sunglasses.  I tried her little system.  I made it through pants.  I tried on all my pants.  Got rid of over half.  woo.hoo.  And shouldn’t this only be an E-book?  Because now I’m storing that thing too.  Also-I don’t have the right pants for certain occasions now. I have got some feelings about Marie.

I have all sorts of reasons for saving things.  Thinking I might need it again.  Thinking someone else might get use out of it…someday.  (True crazy story…I’ve saved holiday cards because I have considered if someone had their house burn to the ground…I would still have their card and they would be so happy when I delivered their holiday card from 2009.  WHAT!??  Why trust Shutterfly when you have me on your card list? And a lot of the cards I have saved…the COUPLE has broken up.  I don’t think they are going to want that card.)  Other saving rationale includes-Guilt I spent money on it.  Guilt someone else spent money on it.  Guilt someone else wanted me to have it even if I didn’t want it in the first place.  Guilt that I actually need the thing but it is a piece of crap so not useful but I don’t have a decent one so I save it until it can be replaced but then it never gets replaced.  Sentimental reasons.  Ooh.  That’s the one.  There. That’s the one that gets me.  The feeling like the object holds the memory for me.  I fear I will forget if I don’t have the object.  Which is only slightly ridiculous because I come across things now and again and it brings back all the stories.  It works!!! T-shirts from high school.  Programs from shows I saw as a child.  Figurines that belonged to my Grandma.  A wool shirt my dad wore in high school.  In high school. In the 60’s.  Officially vintage and only 45 or so years away from being an antique.  So touching right? Then again…I also have my kids first haircuts.  I oddly also am storing my brother’s first lock of hair that was cut off.  And I have teeth.  I have my kids’ teeth.  What I’m saying is I have hair and human teeth in random places in my house.  So basically I’m a sociopath.

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Here is Junk Drawer #1.  1 of 2.  I spy a hotel key card that never got returned.  By the way…great hotel in Midtown Manhattan.  A backup to the backups pair of glasses-because a prescription from 15 years ago is so handy.  A tooth box with a few visible teeth.  A Dora the Explorer PC game for a computer that is no longer used. A junior ranger patch from Yellowstone National Park. A restaurant gift card to a restaurant that went under financially.  A peppermint Chapstick that burned his lips when my child tried it. A $5 bill.  Canadian.  Pokemon cards. Staples.  Erasers. A tear off tab to a life insurance policy my grandmother bought in the 70’s. Jewelry. A bronzer. I’ve never used bronzer. See? See how fun it is.  Every day is a scavenger hunt. The problem is everyday is a scavenger hunt.

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Oh…remember Blockbuster?  They were militant about you having your card when you rented movies. Until they started closing their doors…5 years ago.

The problem is I have always been like this.  I saved rocks. Cards. Tiny mementos from vending machines. Gifts from friends. Costume jewelry. Movie stubs. Notes from 6th grade. Notes from 11th grade.  All the flyers I had tacked up on my wall freshman year of college. Shells from beach walks from vacations in the 80’s kept in a green and black canvas Snoopy tote.  Do I still have them? I’m so glad you asked.

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Once I took a writing class and the assignment was to write about what was in the garage.  One woman wrote about a picture that hung above her bed for years.  It turns out it was a Van Gogh sketch that was pilfered during WWII and brought across enemy lines.  And years later, she found it in a box in her garage.  This really made an impression on me.  WHO has an actual Van Gogh IN THE GARAGE!!! I don’t.  I do however have sporting goods of every ilk for sports that nobody in this house participates in any longer.  So…

So I am on a mission.  Fall cleaning.  I already went through the garage.  And now onto the interior.  I’m finally fed up with living in a thrift store.  30 bags in 30 days.  Join me if you like.  Or don’t.  I’m too disorganized to start a national movement.   I’m starting with easy broad categories because I am a professional.  Clothes that I haven’t worn in FIVE years. Objects with no FUNCTION.  Toys that are BROKEN-(also known as garbage). Shit that belongs to other people.

I know I will never be organized.  I’m an abstract random.  I likely have ADD.  And I clutch things for good and bad reasons. I’ll never have an alphabetized spice rack. I have a friend with an actual alphabetized spice rack.  I just found that out and I still like her because she has a lot of other good qualities.  I’ll never have dozens of open spots on the bookshelf, or the basement shelf or any shelf.  And I’m really looking forward to finding and then selling the 3 Picasso pieces that have somehow slipped my mind.  And I likely will leave my family members with the burden of unnecessary crap.  I give full permission and my blessing to have a massive bonfire after I’m dead.

It was a busy week in our house.  The girl got her braces off and the dog got neutered. So I guess the theme of the week is “Let Us Let Go Of What No Longer Serves Us”.  Who is excited!!!???

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You Say It’s My Birthday

*The following is simply the way I remember it.  Memory is faulty.  If you remember it differently we will have to agree to disagree.

I just celebrated my 46th birthday.  I’m now closer to 50 than to 40. I have lived longer than Jesus and Princess Diana longer than Elvis and River Phoenix but I’m not even halfway to Betty White.  So, I’m really focusing on Betty.

My birthday has always coincided with back to school chaos which was fun when I was a child.  New shoes. Old friends. Mom buys me Sassoon jeans. It’s not quite as much fun when the day opens with your own kid blaming you for ‘nearly missing the bus’ because they were not awakened at the perfect time.  Alert: Concierge parenting services are no longer available here starting on Monday. I’m 46 for pete’s sake.  I need my beauty sleep.

This is my birthday in 1974 in my graphic lion dress.  I’m not clear why there are 19 candles on the cake when I was 3 but I am clear why they held my hand so that I wouldn’t fall face first into a 3rd degree facial burn. Polyester can also be quite unforgiving with open flames.
In elementary school, I associated my birthday with friends coming home on the bus with me, our little legs in terry Izod shorts sticking in the high humidity to the green vinyl seats on the school bus.  Home parties with favorite foods and games and favorite friends and Pepsi served in crystal glasses.

This is 1978.  I’m in my yellow gingham “Jenny” dress.  Nice feature to have your name embroidered on your clothes in case your friends forget who you are. (In later years I would force my brother to wear that dress and march him around in it.  I called it playing “Fashion”. He was a very good sport but a hopelessly clumsy runway model.)

 

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This is a few years later.  The 80’s.  We had english muffin pizzas and someone gave me an ice cream cone puzzle.  Look at those fashion icons.  I’m in front wearing my “crayon shirt”.  Nothing will catapult you to popularity quite like wearing school supply graphics on your clothing.

Then there were some years of stress with birthdays.  Who to invite.  Who not to.  Would my dance theater friends blend with my school friends. Did I have to invite so-in-so just because I went to her party?  Someone was mad at me, should I include them? The middle school birthdays are a blur as the middle school years are a blur.

High school.  My very best high school birthday was junior year. 16.  My grandma made me a bouquet of sugar cubes tied with pastel ribbons for a “sweet 16”.  I’ll never forget the time and care she put into making that.  I had spent the previous summer at The School of Cleveland Ballet and was eager to see my friends again.  My friend Eric picked me up in his sporty car and we were going out to dinner.  Very decadent. I dressed up in my “I spent my summer with artsy people” grey and white striped floor length skirt and long grey t-shirt knotted to the side. We went to TGIF’s and several other friends were there to surprise me.  It was a happy shock. I deeply regretted wearing my weird skirt.  Friday’s was not yet ready for the avant-garde apparel. God I loved that skirt.

College.  Freshman year my birthday happened less than a week after arrival.  It felt weird and sad being in this unfamiliar place on my birthday away from my family.  I had exactly one friend on campus.  Paul.  We had known each other forever but he was dealing with his own adjustment…and everyone else around me was new.  But then my entire corridor of 7th floor Mohn made me signs and cards and brought chocolates and made a huge deal out of it.  Near strangers. I was floored.  Unbelievable.  It was going to be ok.  These were good people. Later, a few of them would be in my wedding party.   Later still, one of the sign makers would be my very first phone call when my dad died.  And Paul, even amidst his own swirl of the new normal stopped by and gave me a white t-shirt and black cotton cardigan from the Gap.  In a box with tissue paper. And it was wrapped with a ribbon.  I cried.  I wore those shirts until they were threadbare.  Senior year I turned 21.  I was the last to turn 21.  Many of my friends were abroad studying in other countries.  Two friends set aside the fact that they didn’t know each other and took me out to a bar called the Rueb that is closing this month after 50 years.  One friend was Paul. The other was Tam.  Tam ordered a Japanese import beer and Paul ordered a tap beer.  They both disapproved of the other order but kept it to themselves. I didn’t know what to order.  They gained consensus on assuring me I would love numerous long island iced teas. 21!  Woohooooooooo!   I had exactly one that gave me a blinding headache and then I went to bed VERY early for a 21st birthday.

The pre-children years.  Dinners out. Parties. Cards and coffees and phone calls with singing voicemails.  One year my husband surprised me at a local restaurant with friends at a long banquet table on an outdoor patio.  The weather was perfect. The mood was perfect. It was so much fun.  My husband pointed and said, “Look!!!  I found Tam.  I FOUND HER!  I even FOUND TAM!”  It was quite a feat.  I mean she was just in Minneapolis but this was before Facebook and Google and somehow he found her digging through my mysteriously curated address book.

The kid years.  The first year we had a baby we went on a boat ride while my parents watched the 5 week old.  It was 50 degrees.  We had cocoa on the boat and wore fleece jackets and had to cut the boat ride short because I was nursing.  I bolted from the car into my house screaming, “GIVE ME THE BABY-MY BOOBS ARE EXPLODING!”  Memorable.

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This was 40.  Family over for dinner.  The glasses do not help facial symmetry.  Look at that glorious cake.
Years of sweet cards from the kids. Trying to behave themselves and keep the sibling punching to a minimum because “It’s Mom’s birthday.” Punching resumes September 9th.   Take a picture with Mom.  Sit still for just ONE photo.  It’s her birthday.  Just do it.

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Good takeout on my birthdays. Well wishes.  Phone calls. Facebook love.  Emails. Texts with emoji’s. Tiny nieces and nephews singing on my voicemail.  Some birthdays spent at curriculum night or dance carpool or both.  Some with breakfasts out to celebrate my birthday AND the kids going to back to school.  Below is year 42.

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And now 46. It’s easy to think that there is nothing new on the horizon for birthdays the older you get.  But expect the unexpected.  I had a delectable coffee and french croissant with my Mom.  I got my hair cut and colored from my dear friend Patty.  She mercifully squeezed me in last minute so I didn’t have to turn 46 AND have grey hair.   I got surprise presents on my doorstep.  A friend of 39 years sent me flowers.  I went home to assemble egg bakes for 50 people for Saturday when my friend came over with some sporting equipment for my youngest son.  We were discussing how it would have be fun to go the U2 concert.  While we lamented and I whisked eggs, my husband bought tickets, sent the email link and pretty much made the decision for us because we are both professional procrastinators.  I got to see U2.  Finally.  Bought my very first concert t-shirt at age 46.  Finally.  Did something spontaneous.  Finally.   I felt 16 again because I knew every song.  Bono…he still has it at 57.  It would have been a different experience at 16 since Bono seemed so much older then and I wouldn’t have had my miniature gin and tonic because…well illegal PLUS $10.  $10?

And this…

I took my puppy on a short walk in the afternoon.  A woman in a small car stopped and jumped out, leaving the car running.  She said, “Oooooh.  I don’t believe I’ve met this little guy yet!.”  She hands me her business card.  She is cooing to my dog.  She says, “Well, he’s cute.  But that fur?  It will get matted if you aren’t careful.”  I look at her card.  I am defensive.  I say, “He’s just a puppy.” I am defensive about my dog’s unruly fur.  She says, “I do IN-home grooming. I come to you.  I groom a TON of neighborhood dogs. So let me know.”  I’m not feeling it.  She criticized my puppy on my birthday.  20 seconds before she hops into her car, she turns and says, “Just so you know…I do it ALL.  Everything. I groom, do their teeth, the ears, trim their nails.  I do it all in your home.  I even do the anal cavity.  What I’m saying is, I will come to YOUR OWN HOME and do the anal cavity if that’s what you are looking for.

Then she sped away.   And I’m speechless on my birthday.
So-The important memories and people remain important. I am still in contact with everyone mentioned above.   A birthday wish is never wasted.  I am overflowing with gratitude and love for all the people in my little world.  People are so good.  My birthday means I’m aging but I’m getting more grateful and more focused.  I don’t have the luxury of wasting time but have the gift of knowing how fleeting it is.  And I celebrate just being here to make another trip around the glorious sun.

Don’t give up middle aged people. You never know…you may just get an offer this year on your special day that you just never EVER expected or never knew existed.

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This Old(er) House

I read that in the Nancy Meyers films (It’s Complicated, Somethings Gotta Give, The Holiday, Father of the Bride, etc.) that she feels that the homes themselves become main characters.  I feel exactly this way about my house.  I know it’s silly because my house is neither grand nor unique nor historic but it is where all the most important plot twists unfolded for me and my main characters.  Let me tell the story of how we bought this house…

One weekend in 1997, my husband and I got into an argument over something really stupid.  I can’t remember what it was about but it’s a very safe bet it was very stupid.   He came into the room holding the newspaper and said, “Let’s go look at this house I found.”  I said, “I don’t even want to live HERE with you right now.”  He said (sigh), “Just get in the car.  Let’s go look.”  I got in the car and crossed my arms.  I was determined to hate everything.  We drove out to the western suburbs and looked at the listing.  4 bedrooms.  Two way wood burning fireplace.  1 acre lot. Above ground pool.  Octagonal library with a ladder.  We loved it. We jumped up and down.  Argument forgotten.   Then we invited all of our parents out to see it and they collectively killed all of our house dreams.

Seriously.  None of them thought it was a good house for us.  There were concerns we couldn’t afford it.  (The bank thought we could and we had confidence in the bank)  There were concerns about the size of the lawn. (We thought mowing sounded fun)  There were concerns about the pool and the miles of redwood decking that surrounded it. (We liked the decking- decking is pretty and pools are super cool when you don’t have one) There were concerns about the cosmetic changes we mentioned we wanted to make. (How much could a few hundred changes possibly cost?)  Oh…and this.  They all seemed to agree that we weren’t “maintenance people”.  What??? We owned a townhouse and we painted rooms and changed the air filter regularly and my husband had changed a microwave fuse himself (while I watched encouragingly).  Sure we took naps EVERY Saturday and Sunday but we could become DIY/handy/maintenance people if we wanted.  They didn’t even know us.

We left there depressed and offended.  So in my infinite 26-year-old wisdom, I thought we should buy it and we get the pool, the library, the land and the satisfaction of sticking it to all of our parents proving them wrong. My husband, who is less prone to revenge purchases than I am, took a different approach. He thought we should look at 3 more houses in the area in the exact same price range to prove to them that this house was a great idea and a great deal and by far the very best of the four.  I was on board.  Now we would have research to back up our spite purchase. They’d be sorry.  But they weren’t.

We bought house #2.  We walked in and I made a beeline to the view out the bay window and couldn’t contain myself.

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Then my husband wanted to “talk her down” on the asking price but I dry heaved into the toilet and sobbed and begged him to “PAY HER WHAT SHE WANTS, THAT HOUSE IS OURS I CAN JUST FEEL IT’S THE ONE”.    Much to his dismay, as a sales guy and as a man…we did just that.

So we purchased this house in February of 1998.  It was built in 1988 so it seemed fairly new. It was so large. I remember thinking it was so much space, I would likely lose a future child here and I probably would have to yell loudly just to find my husband in our suburban castle.  The reality now is that I feel like we are all on top of each other 24/7 and we all own way too much crap to fit in this house and I can hear someone clip their fingernails two floors away.  It’s not large or new and the hideous oak vanity in the kid bathroom stuffed with both superhero bath toys and Smashbox eyeshadow palettes is proof of that.

In the marketing materials, this house was portrayed as a ‘charming doll house on a picturesque lake’.  This turns out to be code for quirky, poorly constructed house with zero storage, paper thin walls and a pathetic basement laundry hovel on a picturesque lake.

It’s okay though…because I freaking love this house.  Love.

Over the years we have looked at hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other houses on the market.  Houses with mud rooms.  Houses in cul de sacs. Houses with laundry rooms that you could turn all.the.way.around.360 degrees.   Houses with less square footage and better layouts and more square footage and higher ceilings and windows that open correctly.  Houses with insulation.  Houses that are 2 million dollars out of our price range.  Then I typically find 24-73 flaws in each and every one.  We have always felt that if we moved we would just be trading the devil we know for the devil we don’t since every home has issues. Every single one.

We have had some crazy stuff happen at this address.  We are in the woods and on a tiny lake.  Before we moved here, a movie was filmed on the lake behind our house.  Sometimes when I’m out there freezing to death playing boot hockey, I like to think that Natalie Portman and Matt Dillon both froze their asses off in the same spot.  We had an epic carpenter ant infestation.  (had to replace two large windows) We had a spectacular nest of 13 red squirrels in the rafters of the porch . (Dad and husband + case of beer+ 2 BB guns and all but one was removed.  I shot the last one myself from inside the kitchen. Dropped him like a sharpshooter.)  There was a time that a raccoon was trapped in the garage and had a panic attack which caused him to knock every single thing off of every single shelf.  There was the chipmunk that ran into the basement when the babysitter was here. The rogue moose on the lawn that a neighbor tried to convince me was a deer.  Lady…I know the difference between a MOOSE and a DEER.  The year the beavers built a sizeable lodge and therefore mowed down all the trees on the edge of the yard. The hundreds of dollars and hours we have spent trying to stop the voles from building a subway system under our grass.  The red fox. The red fox that was foaming at the mouth.  The time I caught an opossum on the deck licking the grill tools.  (There was some talk about sanitizing them in boiling water and they ‘would be fine’.  No-they’ll never be fine. I’ll never be fine. Garbage.  Bye tools and disgusting opossum saliva.) The wild turkeys. The coyotes.  My favorite great blue herons stalking the spring frogs.   The theme here seems to be us enjoying nature while keeping nature at bay.

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So…it turns out we are not maintenance people.  Our parents knew us.  We hate it.  We like naps better.  But we do the best we can.  We have had some things remodeled.  We have left some things be.  We have made some concessions.  We gutted the kitchen when I was pregnant with baby #2, also the year my dad passed away and I had a 2 year old.  I don’t recommend that.  We spent a bundle on a new roof and flashing because apparently the builders thought rain coming in the house was optional.  We got a new front door.  We have painted and repainted and painted again.

But the best things that have happened here are the human stories.  The stories that have unfurled within these four walls.  The memories made.  The changing cast of characters and all of their small and large experiences.  This house is where we brought home each of our three tiny babies.  This is where the crib was put up and taken down 3 times and in two different rooms.  This is where all three of my children took their very first steps.  This is the house that my dad and brother painted one summer laughing and laughing. This is where part of my dad’s cancerous tumor (he called “the alien”) fell out of his leg.  My grandma sang in Swedish holding my infant daughter in the rocker on this porch.  My mom played badminton on this lawn with her grandchildren. These are sacred places for me now.


This is where great celebrations and great tragedies and showers and parties and fun holidays and so-so holidays have been shared with friends and family.  Our sweet dog Grover was buried in this yard. He slept in that corner. He curled on that couch.  This is where the average family dinners and the special introductions to future family members has occurred.  This house is where long standing traditions have been kept and new ones have been started.  This is where the kids have played and grown and read and  crafted and slept and had their friends over.  Sleepovers with 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 kids happened in this basement.  This is where the family photos were taken.  This is where we baked the cookies and made the popcorn balls and grilled homemade pizza and had game nights and movie nights and bonfire nights and Halloweens and ice skating parties and trampoline games and basketball games and fireworks.

Here. Here. Here. Here. Here.

I have now lived here longer than any other place. In February, we paid off this house.  This old house.  We made our final payment exactly 19 years to the day we moved in because I like ceremony.   I have come to realize that it is not common or popular to pay off your house these days.  This is because it is not common nor popular to stay.  Stay.  But we had been working toward this day diligently as we plan to stay right here.  Forever.

I’ve hugged and kissed and held hands and laughed and cried with all of my favorite characters in this house.  And as it grows older and falls apart all around me…it just becomes better. More important. More appreciated.

It’s my favorite place of all time.

Parents of Teenagers: You need a hug

(an edited version of this essay now appears on http://www.grownandflown.com)

About 14 years ago, I sat in a church service with my husband and tiny  daughter.

My mind settled on the family in front of us.  Two parents and three teenagers. I have thought about this family so many times over the years and even more often recently.  It was the early service.The teenagers were awake but looked rumpled. Two boys and a girl.  And I looked at them with envy.  That woman, the mother, she had done it.  She survived (it appeared) 17 years of raising children at least.  I had just barely begun.  And she got three teenagers at church sitting with their parents on time.  One of them had their head on her shoulder!  She did something right.  They looked like the perfect family. How did she do it?

Now I am moving into that stage.  I have two teenagers and an eight year old.  (Yes, we do teach family planning courses for couples who enjoy weird challenges and intricate school schedules and carpool planning that would make your head spin. Contact me for details)

Let me tell you something.  I had no idea about the teen years.  None.  This is some PhD level crap to deal with and I have a 4th grade level of preparation.  I am stunned and overwhelmed by the twists and turns of parenting teenagers.  This is hard work.  DIFFICULT.  Mental Jedi level parenting.  Nearly all of the stereotypes have really become true to one extent or another and I just didn’t want to believe it. All of that was surely not going to happen in this family. Pfffft.

They are moody. The moods.  Wow.  It feels like hugging some cacti over here. Lately I feel the need to announce that I might hug them.  It goes like this. Hey, it will be ok.  I’m going to move toward you now.  I’m going to hug you.  It’s happening.  I’m your mother and since I birthed you I feel you owe me this much.  Feel free to stand there woodenly and hold your breath until it’s over.  But make no mistake.  I am going to hug you…3,2,1.  

It’s hard not to take things personally when they are so crabby.  It’s a combination of their random malaise and my lack of sympathy that causes the rift.  I mean, sometimes their day- to-day lives are akin to what I associate with the afterlife.  Pick ME up in sub zero temps in a warm car within 34 seconds of my activity ending.  Hand me a cocoa.  Heaven.  Force ME to go to bed at a reasonable hour in fresh sheets in a clean room.  Heaven. Wash my clothes. Invite my friends over. Make me breakfast. Make my friends breakfast.  Leave me alone when I’m on a Netflix binge. Give me cash from time to time.  Ask me how my day was and soothe me when it wasn’t a good one. Heaven, heaven, heaven. And yet, I sometimes still get the large moods all up in my face.

They are self-focused.  They stand at the epicenter of their very own universe.  If I had a dollar for every time “It’s not all about YOU” was uttered in this house (by us parents) I’d have enough to actually visit the epicenter of the universe and fly first class.   The narcissism works against them.  I try to point out that literally nobody else notices their hair/skin/scowl/braces/pants/test grade/shoes/mistake/social gaffe because all THOSE people are self-obsessed too.  They don’t believe me.

They do stupid things.  Their friends do stupid things. They all are doing stupid things together.  (I’ll choose not to elaborate…wherever your mind is running off to right now-it likely happening with my kids, your kids and/or the kids they know or it will or it already has)  And they think nobody will know about some of these bad choices and parents will never find out which is just so painfully naive.  Newsflash: Everyone will know (faster and wider spread with the assistance of social media) and all parents find out everything eventually.  Whether we find out within minutes of the event or on our deathbed…we find out.  We parents are just one generation older who already did all the stupid things or were with other people while they did them.  Hellooooo. We invented and perfected stupid just like our parents did before us. Duh.

They think I am yelling if I ask them something or tell them something.   Example:  Could you please bring these dirty clothes to the basement so I can wash them?  This is met with large sighs, hunchback body language, eye rolls, a chorus of “I KNOW!!!!” and this…”You don’t have to yell at me!”  Um-what?  I wasn’t yelling.  Why would I add to the din of this house with yelling?  When I yell, you will know.  I could blow the roof off with the yelling. Do not test me.  You know not what I am capable of with yelling.


They act like typical teenagers.  They play their music.  Loudly. Early in the morning.  I  have some negative feelings toward Lil Uzi Vert at the moment.  Will he be the Prince of their generation? Nope. No he will not. And yet I suffer through him now.  They watch tv. Some of it is absolute crap. They know things about the Kardashians. Makes me want to cry. My son recently answered a geography bee test question correctly.  He learned the answer by watching 324 episodes of Modern Family.  I’m so proud.  They leave water bottles everywhere.  They argue with me for sport. They leave food wrappers on the floor of their rooms.  They fling their shoes in every corner-and sometimes they reek. They embarrass me sometimes.  I embarrass them sometimes.  We are in a cycle of mutual inadvertent embarrassment.  They get mad when I take their photo.  (see above) They eat all day.  A meal schedule means nothing to them.  A sleep schedule means nothing to them.  I’m awake when they are asleep.  They are awake when I am asleep.  They change their minds on a whim.  Their phones are an appendage.  They move chargers around the house and then lie about not moving the chargers.  They wear earbuds around and then act surprised when they can’t hear us.  They glom onto a ‘catch phrase’ and can’t stop.  If my son doesn’t stop saying the word ‘savage’ soon…I’m going to attack him ferociously.

Their friends are everything. This I remember well. It’s hard to shine a light on the fact that some of these friendships will be lifelong.  They might have a friend now that would walk through fire for them.  They will see them through good and bad and they will have their back and it will be unfathomable how life could continue without one another. Other friendships are all drama and destructive and exhausting and an avalanche of negative bull$h*t and when they finally figure it out and walk away, it will be like removing an anvil from their neck.  And sometimes as a teenager, you can’t figure out which friend fits into which category and it might take years to gather enough evidence to sort it out.

They think I “just don’t understand.”  And I don’t.  I don’t understand all of their experience and I really wouldn’t want to.  I remember the teen years but it this ain’t your mother’s teen years. I think it is worse.

My 15 year old often puts in 16 hour days.  She isn’t running a Fortune 500 Company…just going to high school.  On December 15th she was at school by 7:30am.  She had something before school during ‘zero hour’.  She had 6 classes (complete with tests/lecture/notes/presentations) and then went straight to dance team prep for a jazz meet.  She danced her time slot at 7:10.  Then she ran down the hall, changed into her orchestra dress and jumped into her spot in the concert orchestra (rocking some serious eye shadow and fake lashes) to play the violin at 7:43.  (We are now at 12+ hours spent in that building) Then she ran back and changed back into her warm ups to cheer on her team in their dances and be present for awards.  Then she hauled 50 pounds of cookie dough (music fundraiser), dance team bag, costumes, school backpack, etc. into the car to head home.  Home at 10pm.  Then she ripped out her bun form and hairnet and peeled off her false eyelashes at the kitchen table and ate something and finally sat down to start START on a few hours of homework.


OH MY GOD.  Who can live like this?  The teenagers.  They live like this.  A lot of them.

I’ll tell you, the modern teenager has full days but sometimes I wonder how much living they are doing.  They are on some sort of high speed treadmill and it’s nearly impossible to step off of it. The intensity level of school, activities, friends is relentless.  When they say “I don’t have time” they actually mean it.  They run out of hours in their day-often.  In some ways, it’s no wonder they shut down and lose civility once they get home.  This is the last bastion of relaxation.  Home.  Where people love you but then nag you about picking up your wet towel.

Needless to say, I have had to adjust my expectations.  A lot.  It is not my carefree adolescence of the 80’s.  They can’t just complete their homework on the bus or skip it all together (like I did).  They don’t have 45 minutes daily to devote to outfit selection and hair prep (like I did).  They can’t bomb 3 tests and make up the points with cute extra credit or daily work (like I did). The pressure they feel is product heavy and process light.  Achieve, achieve, achieve.  There are posters at our local high school boasting that it has been ranked “One of the most challenging high schools in America.”  Maybe that inspires?  It only depresses me and I don’t even have to go to school there.  Teenagers are under a lot of stress.  I had stress in high school…92% of it was self-inflicted.  I wasn’t bombarded by a competitive results focused message from my parents, my friends, my extra curricular,  my school district, my phone.  The pressure is taking a toll on their mental health.  How could it not?  It has somehow become my job to be the counterweight to ALL OF THAT and foster a “do enough” approach.  I never thought that would be my role.  I never thought I would want them to achieve less and work on cultivating more joy.  I thought I would be cracking the whip.  But the world is already set on whipping them.  They need encouragement.  They need a freaking break.

And this stage isn’t all bad.  They are fun.  So much fun.  And funny. Oh my God…funny! I enjoy their stories and they read better than any screenplay or novel.  I can’t even tell the stories here or they’ll never speak to me again. (I asked)  I should get a Finsta.  I could tell all my secrets there.  But I wouldn’t.  All that can be screenshot and saved-and it is.  I can talk to them now about the big things and be straightforward and they get it.  In some ways, I can be more myself than I could when they were little.  Occasionally they do their own laundry and cook their own food.  I love watching them learn.  Sometimes minor miracles happen and they load the dishwasher or help a neighbor or play with their little brother or make a positive but tough choice without input or without a death threat from me.  And sometimes they show glimmers of the adults they will soon become and it gives me great hope and energizes me to last through the day.

I think about that family in church.  Maybe one of the kids had to be dragged out of bed to make it on time.  Maybe one had been grounded for a week and slept in the clothes they were wearing. Maybe one was there of his own free will but was about to pick an epic fight on the ride home. Maybe all three of them had headphones in the entire ride to and from.   Maybe that mother was just sitting there for one quiet hour like I do now and think…

-Well (*sigh)…at least we are here.