How young is too young?

How young is too young?  Or put another way, what is the appropriate age for children to…..fill in the blank. As parents we were always debating these questions. To walk to a friend’s house by themselves; to ride their bike in the neighborhood alone; to cross the street; to see PG-13 movies; to wear make-up or get their ears pierced. So many decisions. There are no hard and fast rules, nor should there be.

My parents were permissive in this regard. I’ve touched on this before on my blog. I saw violent movies when I was quite young. I was allowed to read anything I wanted – I don’t recall ever being told to make a different choice when I went to the library with them or if I picked up a book that my older brother was reading. The only time my reading was limited was when I went to check out The Grapes of Wrath when I was in elementary school and the librarian told me it wasn’t appropriate. I vaguely remember arguing with her briefly before giving up.

Some of those parenting decisions are influenced by where you live and what the norms are in the area. Certainly, growing up in New York City is different than growing up in suburban Albany where my children were raised. Of course, technology has changed things, too. Our kids were in middle school before some of the social media issues started to emerge.

Generally, Gary and I were on the same page with these decisions. We agreed that our children would not have a television or computer in their bedroom (this was before laptops, i-pads or smart phones; they were in high school before that became an issue). We wouldn’t buy Eminem’s CD for Dan (he was ten when the Slim Shady LP came out), no matter how much he begged. We knew he heard the music at friends’ houses, but we wanted to be clear that we weren’t sanctioning it. It wasn’t the language we were concerned about, it was the misogyny and casual treatment of sex and violence.

We may have made some errors in judgment, but at least we made them together! One example of what may have been poor decision-making involved Daniel. Daniel was born with a certain skepticism. He never bought into fairies or magical thinking. He was on to the fact that we left money under his pillow when he lost a tooth; he never went for the idea of a tooth fairy. Though it wasn’t part of our tradition, he never believed in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny either. Out of respect for friends, family and neighbors, we never taught our children that there wasn’t a Santa, we simply told them that we didn’t celebrate those holidays. Unfortunately, Dan came to his own conclusion before some of our friends’ children and he shared his ideas (not to be cruel, he thought they already knew). That led to some awkwardness.

Knowing that his skepticism led him to have a mature sense of humor at a young age, we let him watch a George Carlin HBO Special when he was ten or eleven. I knew the humor would appeal to him and it did. But, I think it was too much too soon. In retrospect, we should have encouraged more innocent comedy. I don’t think it helped Dan’s anxiety level to hear Carlin’s cynicism and biting observations so young, even if we all laughed and appreciated his skewering of the establishment.

Though we were almost always in agreement in our parenting decisions, there was one specific time that Gary and I were not on the same page. We had agreed that we would not pierce Leah’s ears as a baby. We wanted it to be her decision. By the time Leah was eight, she was asking to get earrings. Dan was born skeptical; Leah was born headstrong. She was quite persistent. I explained that she needed to be more mature so that she would follow the instructions for the care of her ear lobes and to be sure that it wasn’t a passing fancy. That explanation bought me some time, but by the time she was ten, she was convinced that she was ready. I thought she probably was; Gary didn’t.

One evening we were at the mall. Leah was nearing 12 at this point and I had been putting her off in terms of the earrings. Dan and Gary went to look for something while Leah and I went in another direction. We agreed to meet up at a certain time. As Leah and I were walking, we passed a kiosk that offered ear piercing. Leah stopped and asked me again. I took a deep breath and made an executive decision that she was mature enough. The woman did it quickly, with a minimum of fuss. Leah handled the pain without much reaction. She was proud of herself and excited.

We met back up with the boys. When Leah showed Gary the small gold posts in her ear lobes, he was furious. I hadn’t expected such an extreme reaction. When Gary is angry, he retreats; his silence is more penetrating than harsh words. At first, he was mad at Leah too, but he let go of that in a reasonable amount of time. Most of his fury was reserved for me. He may not be over it yet (20 years later).

Looking back at it, if that was the worst of our differences in parenting styles, that’s pretty damn good. That isn’t to say we didn’t have other arguments, but at least not about those issues.

It will be interesting to watch the next generation navigate their parenting path.

Siblings

I was visiting with my son, we were debriefing after the successful birthday party for his daughter, who turned one the prior weekend. He mentioned an observation his wife shared after the party. She said she never met siblings who were more different from each other than my brothers. I got a good laugh from that. She is so right.

Her observation came as no surprise, but I realized that I take it for granted. I don’t think about it; it just is a fact of our family life. Hearing her comment, though, gave me pause. It is hard to explain how two such different people grew up in the same house, from the same set of parents, born only 17 months apart. Mark and Steven are about as different as day and night.

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Me and my bros – 2017 – recreating a pose from when we were small and could more comfortably sit like that!

Mark likes to be the center of attention; Steven doesn’t (he certainly doesn’t seek it). Mark is a jokester; Steven enjoys a good laugh, but doesn’t work to get one. I can see Mark’s wheels turning as he figures out a way to tease someone or fit in a humorous story; Steven tends to hang back. Steven gives attention to his appearance, he enjoys wearing stylish shoes and a well cut leather jacket. Mark couldn’t care less – he is pleased if his clothes aren’t stained. Mark is also color-blind; Steven isn’t. Steven is neat and organized; Mark is anything but. Mark is very liberal politically; Steven is a centrist. Other than being about the same height and having the same hairline, they don’t look much alike either. Steve has a dark complexion; Mark is fair-skinned and freckled. I could go on and on. How could they share so much DNA and yet be so different? It is a mystery.

They do share some commonalities. They like sports and are good athletes. Hmmmm. What else? They are dedicated husbands, fathers, brothers and sons (though how they express that dedication is not similar). They are both upstanding citizens – trustworthy and hard-working. Beyond that, it is hard to find adjectives that apply to both. Interestingly, they married sisters! My sister-in-laws are not as dramatically different as my brothers, but enough so that they are a good fit.

It makes me wonder about siblings. I see patterns in the siblings in my extended family and Gary’s, too. Our mothers had an interesting and similar dynamic with their respective sisters. When asked about her childhood, before the war, Paula recalled with warmth and love her father sitting on the edge of the bed she shared with her sister telling them bedtime stories. Sophia, younger by a couple of years, didn’t remember it that way. She insisted that their father directed the story to Paula, Sophia felt neglected. Fifty years after the fact they still disagreed about it. Paula insisted he was entertaining them both; Sophia said no, the stories were for Paula. There is no way to reconcile the difference in perception – they felt what they felt.

It is sad because that perception colored Sophia’s view of the world. Her Holocaust experience added trauma and pain to the baggage she carried. Paula at least had a more positive foundation.

The story of my mother and her sister was not as dramatic, it didn’t play out against the Holocaust, but the theme was similar. If asked to describe the same incident from their childhood, my mother’s version was lighter, more positive. Whether it was because she was extra sensitive or tuned into subtleties, her sister, Simma recalled slights and hurts. They often disagreed about the meaning of the actions of their parents or aunts and uncles. Again, it could be difficult to reconcile their views of the same people.

The pattern isn’t limited to sisters. If you asked Gary and his brother to describe their father, you might think they were depicting two different people.

I wonder how common this is. It would be an interesting experiment: ask siblings to describe their parents and see how much overlap there is in the portrait offered. Maybe the same words would be used, but it might still feel different to each child. I imagine that my brothers and I would agree that our Dad was impatient. But, we each might feel differently about that. It might have rolled off my back because I knew the storm would pass. One brother might have been unnerved by the harsh tone and the other might have been oblivious. It could be that Dad mellowed with age and while I saw his impatience, I may not have experienced the intensity of it. Or maybe as his baby girl, he may have shielded me from the worst expression of his impatience. So many possibilities! Birth order, gender, gaps in age all likely play into it. Is it any wonder that sibling relationships can be so complicated?

Regardless of the differences in perceptions and personalities, my mother and mother-in-law were deeply connected to their sisters; they were not estranged. They argued, but they were present for each other. The message I received growing up was that familial bonds should be valued and respected. Hurts and disappointments could be overcome because you knew you could count on your sibling to be there for you, especially during tough times. You didn’t have to like your brother or sister, that would be a bonus, but you loved them no matter what and they were part of your life forever. Judging by how often families are estranged, not everyone grew up with that message.

I do understand that sometimes relationships are so toxic that they have to be cut. Certainly, where there is abuse, it is appropriate and necessary to dissolve the bond and create a family of choice. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for me or my brothers.

Whatever differences in character traits that exist between my siblings or between them and me, we know with certainty that we can rely on each other. I am grateful for that knowledge.

 

 

Family

I was taking another drive to New Jersey recently. Usually I listen to music, but I have been exploring podcasts. A friend recommended Marc Maron’s WTF, saying he was a good interviewer. He’s also a comedian so I thought there could be some laughs. I enjoy a good interview and laughing so I decided to check it out.  (I agree with my friend; he is a good interviewer and I enjoyed the three podcasts I listened to – it is a long ride!).

Anyway, one of the comments he made got me thinking. He was relaying a story about family vacations. He did not remember them fondly (don’t worry, Mom, I remember ours very warmly). He talked about his family of four sharing one hotel room and in that cramped space they got on each other’s nerves. He mentioned that they didn’t know each other that well. He pointed out that they were probably all too self-absorbed in their day-to-day life and didn’t actually know each other. When they were thrown together in the confines of a single hotel room, it could get unpleasant.

The idea of not really knowing your own family gave me pause. On the one hand, I would have said that we knew each other quite well. We were a close family; we spent a lot of time together. On the other, maybe not…. especially when I was younger. Most of my time with them was as a family unit, and we fell into certain roles. Dad was the disciplinarian. Mom was the one directing our activities. Mark was the instigator, looking to get a rise out of someone, mostly me. Steven was the sphinx, keeping to himself, getting along. I don’t know who I was – sometimes I know I was the whiner, “Mark touched me!” I would cry with great indignation.

I don’t mean to reduce us to one characteristic, but I think there is something to that. We still fall back into those roles.

I remember once when I was a young adult living in Albany, having already started my own family, Dad came to visit alone. He was attending a social studies conference at one of the hotels in the area. He stayed overnight at Gary and my house. It was all fine, but it felt odd. It isn’t that I never spent one-on-one time with my Dad. But that was when I was a kid.  When I was 9 or 10 years old, I would go to watch him play tennis. I would ride with him to Marine Park, where he met his friends and they would play doubles. I would alternate between hitting a tennis ball against a wall and watching them play. On the way home, we’d stop for an egg cream. I remember enjoying those times, they are special memories for me.

I’m sure that was more time than some daughters get with their fathers. Yet, when he visited that time in Albany, it struck me that there was some awkwardness to it. Maybe it was because as an adult it had been years since it had just been us. Maybe we didn’t know each other as adults.

It wasn’t that he disappointed me in any way during that visit, or that it was unpleasant. I became aware, though, that our relationship was inextricably tied to our connection to my mother. I was more accustomed to spending time with them as a couple. It felt a bit weird to relate to him as an individual.

This notion was reinforced, years later, when my Dad died. I became aware that my relationship with my mother was changing. She was likely changing, after 50 years as a partner to Dad she needed to find her own path. I discovered different parts of her personality, as she may have been discovering different aspects of herself. It is hard to disentangle the varied strands – was she changing? Was I? was that who she had always been, but now I saw it?

I also think back on ideas I had about other family members. It’s funny how my understanding of our family has changed over the years. When I was young, I thought we were perfect. Then I went through a phase, not surprisingly, as a teenager, where I hated them (okay, hate is a strong word – they annoyed me profoundly). Then I got to college and realized I was so lucky to have two parents who communicated their love and care clearly, and an extended family that I was deeply connected to. As I grew into adulthood, I saw our family in more nuanced ways. I became aware of tensions that ran beneath the surface – not so much in our immediate family but with aunts and uncles. I realized that things were more complicated than they seem on the surface.

I remain deeply connected to my family. I continue to get to know them. How well do we know each other?  I can’t answer that. I wonder what others experience in their families. Do you know each other?

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part of my family

 

The Fifth Commandment

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. It was a wonderful day for me – I felt loved. Need I say more? Probably not, because that sums it up pretty well. But, I do want to say more (otherwise I wouldn’t have much of a blog post, would I?).

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Part of my mother’s day. I am so lucky!

I came across an essay by Anne Lamott, a writer I like very much, in which she argues for cancelling Mother’s Day. (If you want to read her post, here is a link: here, though if you aren’t on Facebook it might not work.) She made a lot of valid points. It is a day that can be fraught for many reasons: it can be a reminder of the painful loss of a mother or child, it romanticizes motherhood when for most the relationship is not as simple as a Hallmark card, it can be alienating for those struggling with infertility….the list can go on. But all celebrations have a flip side. Birthdays can be reminders of what we haven’t yet accomplished. The holiday season can feel intensely lonely. I think we need to be sensitive to that and reach out to those who may be in pain. We should also emphasize the love, not the consumerism. But we shouldn’t cancel the celebration. Mothers deserve to be celebrated, even the flawed among us (which would be all of us). Most of us are doing our best, which sometimes isn’t enough. And there are some who aren’t doing that, but then I hope we could celebrate those who helped us overcome, who played a nurturing role. A mother, whether they are biological, adopted, or chosen, is worthy of recognition.

After all, it is in the ten commandments. Even if one doesn’t believe in God, or has their doubts, the ten commandments offer some good moral guidance, and the fifth commandment says to honor your father and your mother. I have wondered what that means.

I remember when I was a child being in the room when my dad had an argument with one of my mom’s uncles. Uncle Morris was saying that children owe their parents respect and love. My father, in his forceful way, disagreed. He said children didn’t ask to be born. Parents were obligated, since they brought the child into the world, to care for them, but a child didn’t have to return the favor. Uncle Morris was taken aback. I think I understood, even though I was a child, that somehow this related to my dad’s feelings about his own parents. I’ve written about this before, but I believe my father didn’t feel loved or supported by his parents (at least not in the way he needed to be). To his credit, he, in turn, did his best to make us, his children, feel loved and supported.

What do we owe our parents, if anything? My mother has often told me that she doesn’t want to be a burden. I appreciate her saying that. I make a choice to drive to New Jersey to take her to the doctor in New York City. I choose to call her almost every day. Is that burdensome? Maybe. When I am crawling through midtown traffic to get to the Lincoln Tunnel to take her home from the appointment, it can be onerous. But, it still feels right. I want to do those things. Sometimes I wonder if I can or should do more. We are all pulled in different directions. Balancing it, our relationships, our work, our hobbies, our own health, is a never-ending struggle. I am constantly in conversation with myself about whether I am striking the right balance. It is not a very satisfying conversation because most often I feel like I am coming up short somewhere.

Do you have that conversation with yourself? Any comments on that fifth commandment? – it is a tricky one. Maybe they all are.

Bittersweet

NOTE: I have changed the names out of respect for the privacy of those involved.

April 20th marked twenty years since the tragedy at Columbine High School. It was a watershed moment for many reasons. It is one of those times where I remember exactly where I was as the horror unfolded on live television. We were in the living room of our friends’ home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Memories come flooding back…bittersweet memories.

Memories:  Of flying kites on the beach, where we could count on a stiff wind to make it easy to get the kite to lift off, almost taking our children with it!

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Leah and Daniel on one of our early trips to the Outer Banks circa 1992

Of Daniel assuming the pose of a martial arts master to slay the waves. He also had a penchant for chasing sand pipers. I was so relieved when they flew away beyond the grasp of his small hand.

Of taking Leah and Christine, our friends’ daughter, to the pool – as older girls (four and six) they could swim. They amused themselves in the water for hours.

Of sunny early mornings, before anyone else was awake, sitting on the deck facing the ocean and reading whatever novel I had brought with me. Our time on the Outer Banks was often my only chance to read a book for pleasure and I relished it.

Of walking with some combination of our kids the couple of blocks to the shopping area where there was a donut shop. Breakfast was often coffee and a donut.

Of retreating from the midday sun to the cool of the air-conditioned house for an afternoon nap.

Of Gary, legs coated in sunscreen and sand, building elaborate sand castles with the kids.

Of quickly packing up everything and evacuating ahead of hurricane Hugo – which actually missed the Outer Banks and made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina, but we couldn’t take chances with our children. We drove inland through the night and went to the Martins’ home in Maryland.

When we first went to the Outer Banks in 1989, we rented a house near Duck, we loved the name of the town. Wild horses could still be seen by the roadside. We drove down from Albany, an arduous trip, in our Camry station wagon. It was the first car Gary and I ever bought and we didn’t get air conditioning, thinking we didn’t need it living in upstate New York. Plus, we would save a lot of money, which was still very tight. That was a serious mistake and we paid for it in a myriad of ways, including on those trips. Neither Leah nor Dan appreciated hot air blasting through the open windows as we made our way south on the Jersey Turnpike.

I vividly recall arriving at the rental house that first time. It was a beautiful home – weatherworn shingles, with multiple decks and, of course, the smell of the ocean coupled with the unique scent of the Carolina lowlands. We went inside and I nearly burst into tears. There was a long staircase to get to the main living area. There were glass coffee and end tables. We had a 7 month old (Dan) and Leah was two and a half. A week of keeping Leah and the other kids safe from falling down those stairs, or banging into the glass tables flashed before my eyes. Gary and Evan, his buddy from medical school, ushered me outside while they quickly moved the tables and did as much baby-proofing as possible. I practiced taking deep breaths.

It turned out to be a great week and the beginning of something we would do for more than ten years.

On Tuesday, April 20, 1999 we were a few days into our spring break from school and our friends had, years earlier, bought a house in Whalehead (a newly developed area on the northern edge of Outer Banks). We were fortunate enough to be invited to continue our tradition of vacationing with them.

That afternoon, having spent the morning riding bicycles and playing mini-golf, we were hanging out in the great room on the top floor.  We happened to have the television on, tuned to CNN. We watched as events unfolded in Littleton, Colorado. After leaving it on long enough to understand that it was a school shooting, we turned it off and went about our activities. We didn’t want our children to be distracted or troubled by the images.

I remember being angry – at the gunmen of course, but also at the media coverage. They didn’t know what was happening. They were broadcasting live coverage from a helicopter – but the reporters didn’t understand what they were seeing, so they could only speculate. Like a car wreck, it was hard to look away, fortunately we did, eventually. I remember thinking that the speculation of the reporters seemed reckless.

That tragedy was a watershed moment in many ways. It was my first real understanding of the power and problems caused by the 24/7 news cycle. Since I was a school board member at the time, it represented a major change in the way we thought about school security. And, though it was entirely coincidental, our times going to the Outer Banks were also coming to a close.

Our children were growing up, beginning activities that would take time and commitment. The Martin children were doing the same. We would need to make difficult choices about how to spend our limited vacation time. There were always some stresses and strains between the kids, and in our friends’ marriage, that sometimes interfered with the fun. Those rough patches were outweighed by the laughter and adventures.  But then tragedy truly struck and things were permanently altered.

In April of 2003 the Martin’s oldest son, at age 15, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Gary and I visited them in early August and found them shattered by the devastating prognosis. I came back and spent a week at the end of October, to help with their two youngest children (their oldest daughter had started college), so Evan and Amy could tend to their son. It was beyond painful. He died in January of 2004, just shy of his 16th birthday.

Not only had they lost their son, but their family was irretrievably broken.

While April of 1999 was not our last time vacationing together, we had one or two more trips, it felt like the beginning of the end of something. Somehow the terrible events of that day and the subsequent tragedy for the Martin family are forever linked in my mind.

 

Full Circle

When Leah was born, my first child, I was overwhelmed. Not surprising, most first time moms are. Each time she cried, which seemed often, I would go through the possibilities: hungry? wet diaper? too cold/ too hot? needing to be cuddled? In an effort to bring some order to chaos, I kept a pad where I wrote down how long she slept, how long she nursed, and her diaper production (a nice way of saying her pooping and peeing). Writing it down seemed to help. With time it became more routine, and I relaxed as I learned about my baby.

I noticed that when Dan and Beth had their beautiful baby girl they more or less did the same thing, but they had an app for that! She is now approaching 11 months, they stopped using the app quite a while ago, as they too eased into parenthood.

Both my mother and my father-in-law, 85 and 96 respectively, have faced serious health challenges over recent weeks. My mom had an operation to have a cancerous tumor removed from her left lung (the second time she faced this, 3 years ago she had a cancerous tumor removed from her right lung). My father-in-law had pneumonia. He was hospitalized, fortunately briefly, and seems to be slowly recovering. Pretty miraculous – I don’t think many 96 year olds survive pneumonia. They are both progressing in fits and starts.

My anxiety about their recoveries reminds me of how I felt when Leah was born. A fear of doing the wrong thing, of not knowing what might be helpful, of understanding whether a symptom is serious or not, of not being attentive enough or maybe too focused. You can make yourself crazy.

So, we have come full circle – concerned about those basic bodily functions. Here’s hoping that they continue to work, and that my anxiety lessens as they do.

It is times like these that I wish I was a person of faith, but I don’t feel it. When my dad was seriously ill, and it turned out was approaching the end of his life, I had these same anxieties. Though I don’t believe in God (that’s an essay for another time), I found myself offering up a prayer to the universe: give me strength, give me the wisdom to know what to do and have mercy on my father. I silently repeated those words regularly over the course of the weeks. I don’t know if it helped. I did get through it. I offer that same prayer now. I will see this through, too.

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While Mom was in surgery, I looked out the hospital lounge window and saw this. I appreciated the bit of whimsy in that moment.

Gratitude

My friend Merle, who knows about these things and knows me as well as anyone, suggested I keep a gratitude journal. Not that I am not grateful for the blessings in my life already, but if I wrote, even briefly, each day about positive, joyful moments it might help move the needle from my tendency to dwell in negative spaces. So, with that in mind, and in acknowledgment of International Women’s Day, I want to share this:

I am so grateful for my granddaughter’s soft cheeks, wide blue/gray eyes, and sweet disposition. Gary and I got to spend time with her this past weekend and seeing her discovering the world for the first time, her pleasure in eating, her little legs kicking in the high chair in anticipation of the next spoonful of yogurt, learning to wave and say hi, provides me with sustenance and treasured memories. Hearing her say ‘Nana’ – it is possible it was just babble – but I will choose to think she was addressing me, makes me smile just thinking about it!

I am so grateful for my daughter-in-law who knows how to throw a party like nobody’s business. She made a 30th birthday party for Dan that was thoughtful in every detail, from the activities (ping-pong) to the beverages (favorite beers) to the food (BBQ) and decorations (his likeness on blue cups). Not to mention her gifting us with said granddaughter! She has added to our son’s happiness immeasurably and they are making a life together that is a source of pride, joy and hope.

I am beyond grateful for my daughter! When she enters the room I’m sure I’m smiling ear-to-ear. Her bright eyes, inquisitive and incisive mind, her playfulness and curiosity are infectious. I look forward to every visit, and our chats in between sustain me. She is fierce, determined and is in pursuit of social justice – all things I admire deeply. It doesn’t hurt that she may be my biggest cheerleader.

Finally, I am grateful for my mother. Her spirit is indomitable, even in the face of yet another health challenge. She shows us all how to embrace life, enjoy the beauty that surrounds us in nature, music, books, dance, films, and ideas. Even at 85, she shows no sign of losing that spark. I am thankful to have her as a role model to me, and our family. She may not be perfect, and she can be very hard on herself, but she is always striving to be better, to learn and grow. What more can you ask of a human being?

It is Monday morning and I am facing some challenging times ahead, but I am glad I took Merle’s advice and began the day with a moment of gratitude.