Remembering My Mother-In-Law

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It’s been two years on the Jewish calendar since I delivered this eulogy.

I met Edith Wingens some twenty-seven years ago. If I said it was love at first sight for either one of us, I’d be lying. After all, I had come to take her son and she was, naturally, wary. I understood that then and being the mother of three sons, I understand it even better now.

But, there we were.

So, when Gary told his mother that I was the one, she said the three words that every young man wants to hear from his mother upon imparting such news, and they were, “Are you sure????”

But Edith was nothing if not an adaptable. And, we found our way. She was a force of nature, a whirling dervish, a person who made an entrance. I am a bit more reserved, laid back, a person who prefers to slip into a room unnoticed. She was a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors and I am slightly more monochromatic. As it turned out we were perfect foils. We didn’t clash but we sometimes collided. Gently.

When Gary and I were first married Edith said, “Helene, let me show you how to iron Gary’s shirts” to which I responded, “let’s show Gary how to iron his own shirts.” Edith replied, “I did NOT send my son to Harvard Law School to learn to iron shirts.” Well, I had also gone to law school and although the comment rankled, I smiled, watched the ironing demonstration with great enthusiasm and took Gary’s shirts to the dry cleaner the next day.

Edith asked me to refer to her as “mom.” I said I would love to but two years later –after Edith realized I hadn’t called her anything in two years– she said, “You don’t need to call me mom, just PLEASE call me something….”

Twenty six years later sitting across from me at my table after I had once again smiled and agreed to something I had no intention of doing, to all of our surprise Edith remarked, “From now on I’m going to be more like Helene. WOW I thought now we’re getting somewhere. “In what way?” I asked. She answered, “Well, when someone asks me to do something I’m going to smile, say yes and then do whatever I want to do.” It had only taken 26 years but I’d finally been snagged.

As the years went by Edith and I found common ground. Frankly, when I was 23 I thought a lot of what she said was foolish but as I aged, a lot of it began to have the ring of truth. And, there is no better common ground than grandchildren.

She began to tell me that I was a good mother, a more patient mother than she’d been and her praise meant a lot to me. I began to understand that having 20 people for dinner, which she did often, was no small feat. I became a better cook. She became freer with her compliments. And, when Edith compliments your food, you know you’ve arrived. I began to appreciate the strength of her character, her optimism, her iron will and her enduring friendships.

Often when I visited her in the hospital or rehab she would insist on proudly telling all who dared enter, “This is my daughter in law.” She would clutch my hand and tell me how happy she was that I had come and how did I know to come just when she needed me to?

One of our last interactions was at rehab. Talking had become difficult for her. We sat, mostly in silence, and then she said, “You have three wonderful sons.” “Yes, and you have a wonderful son also” I quipped. “As good as gold” she answered. But, I would argue better than gold because gold cannot buy the kind of devotion you have shown your parents, Gary. That can only come from the heart. Many sons have done well but you, Gary, surpass them all. From the moment your mother perceived your presence in her womb as a craving for herring you gave your parents such joy, such enormous joy. At the end, you doggedly pursued their comfort and dignity with tremendous compassion even when you were so tired you could barely hold your head up. You felt their pain and did everything in your power to ease it. I can only hope our sons have been watching…

Today, legally I am not a mourner but still I mourn. Edith, Omi, Mom, I will miss you.

As I said, two years have passed since I delivered this eulogy and I miss her.

I really do.

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Cherishing the Moment….Not So Much

get-attachment-4.aspxI’m a huge fan of Anna Quindlen’s writing.  I recently stumbled upon an excerpt from her book, Loud and Clear, which was published in 2004.  I was in the “thick” of child rearing back when I read it the first time and it made me feel guilty for not “treasuring” my children’s youth more.  In the excerpt, Quindlen talks about how much she’s enjoying her adult children, but then she waxes nostalgic about her children’s babyhood regretfully saying,

“But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.”

Well, I’m of a different mind than Quindlen.  I’m just thrilled that that moment has passed.  Does that make me a bad mother? Maybe it does or maybe it just makes me an honest mother.  I’m a better mother to older kids than I was to younger ones.  I found those early years to be physically grueling and endlessly challenging.

And, as for all the things Quindlen doesn’t remember, well, maybe that’s my problem because even with my pathetically poor memory I remember all of those things in living color and with laser sharpness.  Let’s break it down.  I remember what we ate. How could I not? Although, it was barely recognizable as food, I scraped those food-like substances off the floor, the ceiling, the high chair, myself, and my children for years.

I remember what we talked about, the same things over and over and over and over.  Did the kids once in a while say the most penetrating, insightful, adorable stuff?  Of course.  But, in the meantime did they prattle endlessly until I wanted to pull my hair out? You got that straight. Most of all, I remember how they looked as they slept at night because those little bed hogs would often wake us up as they crawled into our bed.  If memory serves, they looked like fully prone starfish as we, their parents perched precariously on the small sliver of bed left to us, and just as an aside, their body temperature was usually upwards of a hundred twenty degrees making the bed more of a steam bath than a bed.

Is it ok to admit that looking at colleges blows away looking at cribs by about a thousand miles? Or that I would choose to grip the sides of the car in abject terror while sitting next to my sixteen year old novice driver rather than watch a two year old take his fiftieth spill from his Big Wheel as he goes up and down the driveway for the millionth time. The former may be hives-inducing but the latter is so excruciatingly mind numbing, as to be physically painful.

Was I in a hurry for them to grow up? Yup. I’ve just never been one of those mothers who wanted to keep her kids young or who wanted to keep them in the moment. And, if I wanted to freeze a moment in time, that moment would be now. Would, I go back to 10, 5 and 1? Not to be young again. Not to be svelte again. Not to be wrinkle-free again. In other words, not for nothing.

Forgive me if I’m just trying to look back without the rose colored glasses.  I can’t remember the good of it (and there was plenty good) without remembering the overwhelming difficulty of it.

I just don’t have a nostalgic bone in my body. And, as I look through old photos searching for a picture to insert with this post, I’m gobsmacked. Those babies of mine. Oh. My. Stars. They were so darn cute!!!!!

Family Vacation-The Paradigm Shift

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We’ve been a family of five for the last twelve years.

Before that we were a “growing” family.  Now we are a ”shrinking” family, of sorts.  I say this with no sadness, just with a sort of wistful realization that it’s happening, and probably later for us than for some of our friends. Our oldest son is a rising college senior and although he has been living away from home, he has always been happy to join us on vacation. This year we planned a short family jaunt to a warm weather destination and our oldest son decided to stay up at school for the week. I don’t want to make this into something it was not. This was not a decision with earth shattering implications, but, as we have always gone away with either all the children or none of them, this was a shift in the paradigm of our normal family vacation.

I brought up the subject of vacationing as a “family of four” with the two children with whom we were vacationing thinking they would warm the cockles of my heart with tales of vacations past and the fun they had with their brother.  I have to say the kids quickly warmed to the topic and they were terrifyingly mercenary. The youngest who is not generally a paragon of enthusiasm really perked up when he realized that he wouldn’t have to sleep on the roll-a-way this time.  “You mean we each get our own bed?” he asked excitedly. And, as we climbed into a regular size taxi with our luggage, the kids noted gleefully how much easier it is to get a cab for four people with luggage than it is to get one for five.

So, that’s how we were doing, but I worried that back in Boston number one son would somehow feel left out or would be desperately concerned for our welfare so I decided to keep him in the loop. When we landed I texted him that we had arrived safely. When I said, “desperately concerned,” perhaps I meant marginally concerned.  A mere thirty-six hours later he replied, “Good, how was your flight?”

I was undeterred in my effort to be inclusive. The next morning while waiting in line to get into the Aquarium at Mandalay Bay I texted him again, “At Mandalay Bay waiting to see sharks.”  This time there was no response at all. On our last day, as we were packing to leave, the cell phone rang.  It was the prodigal son. Ah ha, I thought, he misses us. “Hi dad, I need to use the credit card to charge some stuff. Is it ok?”

After our flight landed, I sent number one son a text that we were safely home.  At least he should know that the money pipeline remained intact. I asked number two son how he felt about vacationing as a “family of four.” “I’m not giving you a quote for your blog,” he sniped, without looking up from his iPhone.  I asked hubby the same question. He said, “You can’t publish what the kids said.” I asked number three son what he thought of our vacation with two kids. “Are we having dinner tonight?” he queried.

No party was thrown. No speeches were made.  No gifts were given.  And, undoubtedly, we will vacation as a family of five again. But, this week for the first time in twenty-one years we made family vacation memories without A.

And, even if no one else was paying attention, I was.  And, I thought it was a moment worthy of note.

If It’s Not One Thing It’s Your Mother

images-3If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.

My relationship with my mother is complicated. Of course it is. She is a product of her childhood, as we all are, and hers really sucked. Big time. She spent her formative years in the Tarnopol ghetto with a front row seat to starvation, cruelty and death. She and her mother escaped from the ghetto right before it was made Judenrein (Jew free) and were hidden in the attic of a barn for a year before being liberated by Russian soldiers. Upon liberation her legs were so atrophied that she had to learn to walk again.

Nowadays, if you have one traumatic experience, you go for years of counseling. But, back then, after the war, you simply carried on.  End of story, or so they thought, but those of us who have been picking up the pieces, know better.

My father gathered mom in and sheltered her in the cocoon of his love. He never pushed her. The boundaries of her comfort zone were narrow and carefully maintained. She took excellent physical care of my brother and me, but emotionally it was a long climb down from that attic and I think she’s still stuck somewhere on one of those downward rungs.

When I was growing up mom had frequent, recurring nightmares about a little girl being chased by the Nazis. Not surprisingly, the little girl in the dream was her. One morning, as I was getting ready to go to school, mom informed me that she had had the dream again but this time when the little girl turned around she realized that the little girl in the dream was me. Recently, while we were driving somewhere mom told my kids that when I was a child she tried not to get attached to me because she was afraid something could happen to me.  She failed in her attempt “not to get attached.”  She didn’t say that.  She didn’t have to. I just know it to be true because she is me and I am her and she and I are bound up in that most complex and timeless dance between mothers and their daughters.

We don’t all get a Hallmark mother.  Some of us get a good enough mother with a great deal of baggage.  If I complained to my father he would beseech me, “ She’s doing the best she can. What do you want from her?”  What indeed?  There are no perfect mothers, just as there are no perfect daughters.  Today, I thank God for the gift of a mother who emerged from her attic prison, bent but not broken, hobbled but not hopeless.

And from one flawed mother to another, I love you, mom.

Happy Mother’s Day.

And So It Begins….

And so it begins, for the third and final time.

Today was my youngest son’s first tutorial for his bar mitzvah. As I wait for him to finish his lesson, I ponder the ways in which it is all so different this third time around. When my oldest son began his bar mitzvah lessons we marked the date of his first lesson on a large paper calendar as if it was some sacrosanct event. In contrast, a half an hour ago my iPhone startled me a bit as an alarm went off reminding me that D had a bar mitzvah lesson. Without that reminder and a nudge from the child himself, this lesson might have been forgotten. And, isn’t that just the way it’s always gone for my sweet, delicious third son.

When I was pregnant with my second child I worried that I wouldn’t be able to love another child as intensely as I loved the first. It turned out that my worry was unwarranted. Each son, in his turn, captured my heart fully and completely. I love each of them with the kind of love that would gladly coopt their pain as my own, and although the depth of my love is no different, I am a different parent to my third child than I was to my first.

The oldest son, of course, got all of the firsts, which has been both his blessing and his burden. I can sense that burden in the seriousness of his character and in the way he worries about all of us. The middle son, with his big personality, divined early on that as neither oldest, nor youngest he needed to declare himself. And, so he has. Loudly.  He has always demanded our attention and we are not likely to forget that he’s in the room. My littlest man is a quiet diplomat who has a gentle soul.  He doesn’t demand attention, or carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, and sometimes I’m afraid he gets a little lost in the shuffle.

His parents are older, wearier, more likely to let things slide but we are also wiser and more weathered. Although, of course, I knew the first time around that a thirteen year old was not a man I truly didn’t realize how long it would take for that chrysalis to turn into a butterfly. I didn’t know that the years before a man emerged from a boy would be filled with such joy, such angst and so much agonizing push/pull. I didn’t know that I was capable of holding my breath for four hours while my son drove to college by himself the first time. And, I didn’t understand that even when they largely resemble men, complete with facial hair and deep voices, inside they are still little boys.

And this is what I think as I sit here listening to the sweet murmur of my baby’s voice. But, I also think that today is a beginning of sorts and a day worthy of blessing and I silently whisper, “Blessed are you God who has preserved me, sustained me and allowed me to arrive at this day and help me God to find the wisdom, patience and fortitude to love and guide this child according to his unique talents and abilities.”

And so it begins, for the third and final time.

Advice To The Daughters I Never Had

If you haven’t read or heard about Susan Patton’s Letter To the Editor in the Daily Princetonian (link below), where have you been?

In her letter, Ms. Patton appeals to the undergraduate women of Princeton, “the daughters” she “never had,” to “Find a husband on campus before they graduate.”   She has been absolutely skewered since writing the piece.  The outsized and outraged reaction caused DP’s website to crash.

There is some truth in what Patton says, if you can wade through the overwhelming amount of self-laudatory crap. But, let’s call this piece what it truly is: a delivery system for good news about Susan Patton.  And, I think that is what most people are objecting to, not necessarily the fundamental idea, but the tone.

Patton begins by giving herself kudos for having maintained her relationship with, “her best friend from freshman year.” She alleges that at the Women and Leadership conference she attended at Princeton, the undergraduate women were avidly interested in how she and her best friend had “sustained a 40 year friendship.” Really?  Is having a long-term friendship fabulous? Definitely.  Is it a subject of rapt fascination for 20 year olds? Um, no. I’m around a fair number of college age kids and I have more than one long-standing friendship.  Not one of the twenty somethings I know, including my own children, has ever expressed a scintilla of interest in how my friends and I sustain our relationships. Sorry, I’m just not buying it.

Then we get to the heart of the matter. Ms. Patton states, “I am the mother of two sons who are both Princetonians.  My older son had the good judgment and great fortune to marry a classmate of his, but he could have married anyone.” Really?   He could have married anyone?  Anyone? I think Patton just wanted to inform the Princeton community that her sons go/went to Princeton and that her older son is married and, better yet, he married a girl who went to Princeton. The younger son’s dating potential is, according to mama, “limitless.” Oy. I hope the younger son has entered the witness protection program. Poor kid.

But, putting Ms. Patton’s self-aggrandizement aside, I think she makes a fair point. I knew people in college who made silly lists of qualities for potential dates, not too short, not too thin/heavy, brown hair/blonde hair and so on.  Susan Patton is correct that college is one of those critical times in life. Don’t make lists that confine you. Look at your classmates with an open mind. Making friends is every bit as important, if not more so, than the classes you take.  And, you never know, your best friend or your life partner or both may be sitting next to you in class.

So, here is what I would tell “the daughters I never had”: College is a fantastic place to meet someone but if you don’t meet “the one” in college don’t panic.  There’s time. Don’t say, “He’s too nice.” Nice boys generally grow up to be nice men and nice men are, well, nice. If a guy is crazy about you, put that in the plus column, bolded and highlighted.  Look for red flags and if you see them, don’t walk, run. Don’t pass up the very good for the perfect because perfect doesn’t exist. Choose someone who makes you laugh because at the end of the day you want to spend a lot of time with someone who makes you laugh. If you can’t stand to be with someone even if they have a 200 IQ or 200 billion dollars, say goodbye. It’s just not worth it.

And, I would tell my mythical daughter the same thing I will tell my real son.  You will meet the right person at the right time.  And, when you meet that person you will know, maybe not immediately, but you will know.

Trust your own judgment. I do.  And, remember dad and I love you.

http://www.dailyprincetonian.com

Mother of Boys

297017_10150979370842484_509040353_nI knew I was going to have daughters.  Until I didn’t.

In 1992 I gave birth to a delightful baby boy, which was a tad shocking because I knew that I was having a girl.  No, no one told me I was having a girl but I just knew; the way a mother intuitively knows these things.  When we visited my ninety year old Eastern European grandmother, she whispered to me in her heavily accented English, “You did the right thing having a boy.” as if it was in my control the whole time.  But, I knew I would have more chances to have my girl.  I was young.  I was arrogant.  I was foolish.

Then life happened.  We had unexplained secondary infertility, several miscarriages, a fetal heartbeat that was there one minute and gone the next and maternity clothes so recently pulled out that needed to be folded and put away.  Beloved friends of ours suffered the neonatal death of a son and a few years later a dear friend called in tears to tell me that she would be delivering a full term still born son the next day.  I heard what life was telling me. I ended up with two more sons, two more fabulous, wonderful sons.   And, life taught me to be grateful, very, very grateful. For a while we told people we had three children, “two boys and a boy.”  “Oh” they said, as if a bit disappointed for us and I bristled.

I love my boys and they love me.  It’s true.  Ask anyone.  But, I’m not going to sugar coat it, my house seethes with testosterone and I get lonely here sometimes.  When “A” was about three I was at the town pool with a group of moms and their kids.   “A” had a pail and was mindlessly scooping pool water into it and dumping it out of the pool.  One of his female playmates was chattering to him while he did this.   At some point she became agitated and started yelling at him,  “I’m talking to you. Talk to me!  Talk to me!”   “A” looked completely befuddled as we moms laughed and commented that relations between the genders never change.

And, that’s the world I live in; largely silent, except for sudden outbreaks of violence between two of the inhabitants.  Have you ever watched National Geographic shows about primates?  It’s eerily similar to what goes on in my house.  The primates here mill around until suddenly and seemingly without warning they are in a heap on the floor apparently vying for some type of alpha supremacy.  As long as there is no bloodletting, I let them be.  Grunting often passes for communication and phone calls last no longer then it takes to get the job done.  Nothing extraneous please.

It’s not the hair, the nails or the make up or even the pretty clothes.  I’m not that kind of girl anyway but sometimes when all four of them (husband included) look at me like I’m speaking Girlish, I long for an ally, someone who also speaks Girlish or at least understands it.

I knew that I was going to have daughters.  Until I didn’t. It should be the worst thing that ever happens to me.

All My Life’s A Circle….

Life is funny in its circularity. Not haha funny but wistful.

My oldest son had a bank CD which was about to roll over so, given the abysmal interest rates, we decided to close it rather than allow it to roll over. We went to the bank this morning.  I was the custodian of the account and it turns out the account was opened in 1998 when my son was just six. As we were closing the account certain things became clear. I no longer needed to be the custodian. It’s his money, as it was always intended to be. I have been removed. Oh, let’s not get melodramatic. I haven’t been removed from his life but in some ways it’s another small rip in the fabric that binds us. It’s a process and we’ve been tearing off that band-aid for a while now. I’m not a sentimental person, but I had a strange lump in my throat at the memory of that adorable six- year-old boy transformed into a twenty one year old man of whom I’m insanely proud. And, it’s all good. It’s as it should be but, even so, it makes me a little sad.

This has dovetailed with my mother asking me to be a joint account holder on several of her bank accounts.  I understand that it’s her way of giving up control. It’s her way of falling back. It’s never been a question of trust but it’s a hard thing to give someone that kind of carte blanche authority over your finances. She needs me more than she ever has. Perhaps life is a series of tightening and loosening of the bonds with the people we love or a constant redefining of our roles as either the caregiver, or the cared for.

And, as I sat at that bank I thought that if life plays out as it normally does the next time my oldest son and I have a joint account it will be because he is accepting responsibility for me and not vice versa.

And that, my friends, is the most terrifying thought of all.

My bio…. (a stay-at-home mom’s response to a request for her bio)

Trying to write a short bio on myself for a committee I wanted to be on opened up a Pandora’s box of issues for me.  It got me to wondering how to define what I’ve done with the last twenty years of my life.  I was born in the early 60s and was blessed to grow up in a home where education was stressed. I went to a fine University and then followed that up with three years of law school.  At that time, the wisdom of the crowd was that a woman could have it all.  I balked at all the traditional women’s career choices such as teaching because “I was better than that.”  Yet, inside I had no doubt that someday I wanted to be a mom.  In fact, from the time I was very little playing dolls with my friends the one thing I was certain of was that I wanted to be a mom.  I guess you could say that being a mom was my passion.

I was blessed to marry young and luckily my husband was on board with the whole children concept.  I had my first son four years after starting work as a lawyer. I soon found that I could not have it all.  Others found a way but I could not and as my father said, “The law will have many masters, your children will have only one mother.” My husband, also a lawyer, worked crazy hours and was earning enough for me to stop working.  It would be a falsehood to say that I was devastated to leave work, but staying home was also an adjustment and never easy.  For a thinking person to watch an infant drool or to keep a toddler from drinking lye eighteen hours a day is probably just a hair worse than waterboarding. I do not look back on those early days with great joy.  Two more sons followed and the insanity of three children left little time to think about personal sacrifice or fulfillment.  I did a lot of volunteer work at the kids’ school, made fantastic friends, built community and made our house a home.  Along the way, I have become a decent cook, a passable hostess, an outstanding chauffeur and an unlicensed pediatrician who rarely needs a tongue depressor to know if a child has strep. In twenty years I have never been bored. Now, with the kids older and more independent I stare at a blank page and think they want to know what I’ve done for the last twenty years. What do I write?

Well, how’s this? For twenty years I’ve “been there.”  I have been there for my husband, my sons, my friends, my parents, my in-laws and my extended family, some more than others. I am not perfect and sometimes I’m not even good but I have tried really hard. Sometimes “being there” is easy.  Sometimes it’s just about spending fun time with people, but sometimes it’s really hard.  I’ve been there to rub my friend’s back at her brother’s burial and just maybe that meant more to her and to me than any brief I would have written or any deal I might have closed as a lawyer.  And, sometimes  “being there” is just what it sounds like, the day in/day out drudgery of “being there.”  I am here every afternoon at 4PM when my slightly anxious sixteen year old calls and asks who’s picking him up? After all these years of hearing the same answer you might think he would be a little less concerned.  I am here every night even though I can barely stand the sound of my own voice when I hear myself saying “please take out your homework” for the hundredth time to my twelve year old. In the end, most of it is about those three boys of mine. Even though I know life is a crapshoot, I am here every day loving them, shaping them, praying that if I stay here they will grow up strong and healthy, loving and capable.  And, I am here because I want to be here.  This is really what I always wanted to do and I don’t have a single regret.

So put that in your bio and smoke it.