One Foot (and a Whole Heart) Still in Childhood

 

My youngest son, Evan, is now a freshmen in a local high school.  He was anxious about going because he’d heard the rumors that every rising ninth grader hears: the upper classmen target you; in fact, they will target YOU specifically especially if you are short.

All summer he has been measuring himself against me, having grown about five inches in the last year.  I now look at his chin.  But this doesn’t mean he is tall yet.

The men in our family are average height. . .not short, not tall.  They tend to range between 5’10” and 6”, if you leave out a set of cousins whose Dad was 6’5”.  The man was not a blood uncle, so my sons can forget that gene pool.

My youngest was born an average length and a solid weight of 8 lbs. 4 oz.  But he has been below the curve of average size most of his life.  Some of this is heredity; some the fault of the ADD meds he has had to take which curb his appetite. But no matter what I do to circumvent these effects, my boy is simply built like his Dad in bone-skinny, and me in height-short.

I am certain he will catch up to his peers soon since he is still hovering on the child side of puberty, while many have gone far beyond.  And having taught high school for years, I know a growth spurt when I see one coming on.  I’ve watched countless boys 5 foot and some odd inches leave ninth grade and come back men in the fall of their tenth grade year, or even the eleventh. . .or twelfth.

No big deal.

To me.

But to him, he knows that there are ADULT males at the school: seventeen and eighteen year olds who weigh 250 pounds and roam the halls looking for kids like him to carry around by the hair.    Good thing Evan is witty.  And he tries very hard to hide these superstitions, too, posturing as older and wiser than that.

But here’s the thing that makes my tears well.  My youngest is still the youngest of not just my family, but of his peers in terms of maturity, and I’m watching him struggle with leaving childhood behind.  He shifts between being stoic and manly, and whiny and emotional, between knowing things he shouldn’t yet, or oddly innocent of common knowledge.

A few weeks ago, he did express this fear of these giant upper classmen and their possible hazing of the freshmen.  I comforted him by saying, “That’s mostly rumor and lies.  Seniors and Juniors are far too busy just living their lives, dating, working, applying to colleges.  The tenth graders are the ones to worry about. . .”

“Whaaat?”

“I’m just kidding.  Sort of.”

We smiled, but we both knew it was simply one of those rites of passage he’d have to face, just like the inevitable teasing he and his buddies have gone through as their voices began to squeak and squawk into something deeper. (His is still wavering up and down.)

Then toward the end of the week, I had to get a document notarized.  As we waited for the UPS store to open, he said, “How am I going to handle being an adult?  I hardly know anything.  Like Notary. What the heck is a Notary? There’s so much I don’t know.” He listed a few things from the previous week that were news to him.

I said, “Relax.  No ninth grader knows what a notary is.  I’m sure I didn’t at your age.” And then  I explained their duties.

But he’s right.  There is so much Evan doesn’t know that I or his brother did know at his age.  My youngest, because of his dysgraphia, is not a reader, and readers are filled with information, even if much of it is useless.

“Well, you know how you fix that. .Read more, watch more news, get out of the house and do more stuff. . .” I said, mentioning how he had been attached to the same pajama bottoms day in and out all summer.  “The more you experience. . .the more you know.”

Luckily, this is our son who loves to travel with us, and he does love new experiences, so his fear of being an adult ignoramus is somewhat baseless.  But I knew I was listening to a child face his future as a man who had to “know stuff.”

Then this past weekend. . .after snapchatting or tweeting or whatever young teens are doing now, with a girl who might or might not be his girlfriend. . .he came downstairs and asked if we could watch Harry Potter together.  After thirty minutes of digging, we located our DVD collection.  We hadn’t touched them in probably four years or more.

Tony and I sat with Evan, inside on a sunny Sunday afternoon, while we watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, for the Brits.)  At the moment Harry enters Olivander’s store to get fitted for his wand, my youngest raced upstairs looking for his two wands that we had bought the year Universal opened its version of Diagon Alley.  Again, I had to help poke around to find where the toys were.

And my boy, who just a few days before was yucking it up with me as we viewed a particularly adult version of Key and Peele, spent the rest of The Sorcerer’s Stone watching with a wand in both hand.

Yesterday was Evan’s first day of high school.

And many of you might know, there is a vast mental age gap between middle school and high school.  Students go from being led in a formal and silent line down the hall to the cafeteria, to near autonomy at lunch time.  Their lockers in middle school are usually inside their homerooms and assigned to them.  In high school, they buy them if there are any left over, and rarely see the little closets all year.  He’s moved from a school with 1300 pupils, to one with 3400.  He has more teachers, more subjects, and more strangers in his life than ever before.

He came home exhausted.  We went over his homework, and organized his new notebooks to his teachers’ liking.  I fed him pancakes and bacon, a special breakfast-for-dinner occasion.  He asked to watch Chamber of Secrets, another Harry Potter, this time without the wands.  And my child, beat from getting up at 5 a.m. and navigating pending adulthood, went upstairs to go to bed early.

When I came up to kiss him good night, I found him already sleeping.  But not in his room. . .instead, he was curled up in my bed, on my pillow, soundly out.  How many years has it been since he stopped climbing into our bed at night?

And I can’t tell which made me more weepy: the joy or the pain that both come from watching him cling to his childhood, or from knowing this would be probably one the last few moments I could baby him.

In a few weeks, he won’t even remember how uncomfortable starting high school was.  He will be fine.

 

Where’s the Hair?

Image result for hairy chest caveman

Men’s body hair?   I for one don’t understand where it is disappearing to.  Well, the chin, obviously, since hipsters everywhere are trying to impersonate Rip Van Winkle.

I’m beginning to miss body hair in general.  The other day, my youngest son was glancing over my shoulder while I was poking through a magazine.  On one page was an ad for a hair removal product.  The pretty model held an old photo of herself as a pre-teenager.  Her arm used to be covered in black down.  Not too crazy, just the sort that Italian girls might have sported when I was a kid.

Son said, “EWWW. Yuuuuck.”

“Huh?” I replied, as he pointed to what was grossing him out.  “That hair?  So what?”

And here’s the thing: he says, NOT something about her or other girls, but about himself: “I hope my arms don’t ever get like that.”

Well, my beloved kiddo, they MIGHT!

I was expecting him to say something negative about girls, but apparently very few girls even at his young age have any arm hair any more.  Are their parents shaving it off?  Waxing it?  They are not old enough for laser. . .I think.

I find his reaction so very ironic because when he was an infant, one of his self-soothing gestures was to suck his thumb while he gently yanked and smoothed the hair on my arm. . .or his father’s or his grandparents’.  I mean, my arm hair is  a smattering of blonde, or at the very darkest, light ginger growth, but it is graspable.  Oh, the sweet memories of his nursing, while he played with the little hairs on my wrist.

I’m sure there is some deep Freudian something at the root of his pubescent yuck of a hairy arm on himself.  I’m not sure I want to go there.

But more than likely, it is simply modern culture that is destroying his future self-esteem, should he grow up to be as fuzzy as his grandfathers.  Or Mom.

I know the trend of shearing the body to the skin is nothing new on the female side of the genders.  Years ago when I was divorced and had jumped back into the dating pool, I tried the waxing.  My arms suffering first, which bled,  stopped me from trying the wax in a more hairy, more tender region for sure.  In fact, my arm hair became ingrown, once the somewhat curly bits started filling in, causing a rash the likes of smallpox.

I had to go on a first date on one of the hottest days of the year wearing long sleeves. And of course, the date asked me, why the hell are you dressed like that?

Because YOU IDIOTS have decided hair is gross.

Even farther back in time, before the naked pubic bone trend, while I was teaching in a southern, “traditional” school, meaning a place where the men still saw themselves as the lions of the home, we came to a reading passage in a book which mentioned something about hair on a girl’s legs.

A young man shouted out how disgusting that was.  A young lady next to him said, “Lots of women around the world never shave their legs or their armpits.”

“Not their armpits?!!” he griped.  “That’s just plain dirty!”

“So,” I said,  “Really?  Why don’t you shave your armpits then?  Somehow YOURS are nice and clean? And hers,“ pointing at the girl  ”Are dirty?”

“Well. . .yeah!” said the boy.

I said, “HOW?  Don’t men sweat more?  Don’t they have more hair?  If so, how is it cleaner exactly?”

He started turning red.

I continued, “I think you should stand up now and say to all the ladies in class that you are simply a cleaner human being than they are, but that you could be even cleaner.  And then offer to shave your pits.”  He put his head down on the desk to shut me out and said not another word.

The hypocritical thing is that I did shave my pits then.  And I had no intention of stopping and no intention of men ever doing it.

I’ve accepted that this is just how things are.  So much so that a few weeks ago when everyone was up in arms over Sansa Stark being graphically raped by Bolton in Game of Thrones, and more so when R. R.  George Martin stated this was simply realistic to the time period setting, I couldn’t be bothered to ask, “If you are trying to be realistic to a time period then why is Cersei not covered in leg hair, or worse, why does Cersei have a ‘narrow landing strip’ of hair on her pubis.  Pretty modern. . .”

But the bald woman has become so “normal” I stayed out of that argument on misogyny.  I figured it was the actress herself who wouldn’t be caught dead with hairy legs on T.V..

BUT NOW. . .men are joining the changing trend .  And I don’t like it.

I happen to love a hairy chest, arms and legs on my men.  Whether a tiny smattering in that concave area between the pecs, or a thatch from shoulders to naval and below;  Think 1980s Alec Baldwin or Sean Connery? YUM!

I feel badly for men in general, and my sons specifically, that now they are beginning to suffer the grooming demands of a hair-fearing culture.  Sure, I can see the appeal of a slip-and-slide chest that some women crave.  But the vanity and the procedures behind maintaining such is so unappealing.  If it is natural, okay.  If not, don’t go there, Guys

I also feel badly for the young ladies whose mental picture has been so shaped by their culture that they cannot love a downy chest the way I can.  The Black silk that lines my husband’s stomach.  Tingly nirvana, Women!

And I hate that my children may have ANY itch of self-loathing due to the demands of hair-hating women.  My oldest son whose chest is fuzzy blond does pick and pull at it, and has wondered aloud about shaving it.

I cannot tell him that when I was back in the dating pool years ago after his father and I split, I dated a MUCH younger man. To my shock, the guy groomed his privates and shaved his chest. And even as recently as he had done so, I was completely turned off by the mere stubble on his stomach, and the weird crew cut feel of his pubis.  Of course, I guess men are used to that feel from their wives or girlfriends . . .but I’m not going to discuss that with my son.

Not quite.  I simply said, “Not all women want a naked little boy chest.  Some women prefer MEN.  Keep your hair.”

Come on!  If we can shape people into this current baldy viewpoint, let’s reshape them back to the other.

On Being Licked to Death

A few years ago, I admitted to my husband that had I known we’d have to spend this much time with his Mom, I would never have married him. I think he loved me a little less after that, but I don’t care; I still mean what I said.

My Mom says my irritation is just an in-law dynamic. Should your Mother-in-law or daughter-in-law be perfect you still would find her irritating. I mean Mom can reorganize my spice cupboard without permission, send me sixteen articles about how to parent, nag me about haircuts, and all just washes right off me. I love her that much. But should my MIL bake me a batch of macaroons. . .try to give me a magazine subscription? I’m rubbed raw.

My mother-in-law is sweet, generous, outgoing. . .a woman who gathers friends like lint. She’s NICE, GODDAMNIT. However, also needy, passive-aggressive, and dishonest, she is a stress-inducing conundrum I can’t solve. To make matters worse, she wants to be around me All. The. Time. If it were just that she wanted to spend more time with her son, fine. I’d be happy to send him over every so often. But no, she has to win me over, and no matter how nice I am to her, she knows she hasn’t.

My husband? He doesn’t fully understand my annoyance because their relationship is so profoundly different from mine with her. When he visits her or she visits us, he quickly disengages in some manly way, getting involved in a handyman project, or disappearing into a sports broadcast. She is sensible enough not to bother him then. So she turns to me. . .

Let me begin with an analogy. We recently got a puppy, a sweet submissive female. We already have a grand Alpha Male, a Picardy Shepherd who struts around the house showing off his regal mane. Well, the puppy , being submissive, wants to lick his face. He can’t stand it for more than a second or two. He growls at her, sometimes nips her. This only makes her want to “submit” even more. Now she’s jumping, and licking, pawing and licking, grabbing his face with her paws and licking. He’d probably have to kill her to stop her.

My Mother-in-law is licking me to her death.

My birthday was earlier last month. A few weeks before, my MIL called me late one afternoon. I was napping and didn’t catch the call. Tony came home from work. HIS cellphone rang.  His sister was calling to confront him about how their Mom had been trying to call me, and why haven’t I called her back. See. . . MIL called only once, waited less than an hour and then drew my sister-in-law and husband into a triangle to discuss not only why I am avoiding her callS, but what they are planning to do to me on MY birthday.

MIL wanted to drive over and get me, take me to SIL, and then to Tony’s job site to lunch, a thirty mile tour. SIL thought it would be better to come to me, leave my husband at work, and do lunch from my house. At no time did any of them ask and include me in the plan. I was just the bad guy in the back ground avoiding (supposedly multiple) phone calls.

I handled it by letting them know that I had other plans.   His family thinks birthdays are national holidays. Should we need to do anything else on “their day”, we are committing a family crime, even if it is OUR birthday. His mother pressed on, so Tony decided I was going to her house later in the week for dinner. (We’ll address his decision making issues at another post.) So to make them all happy, I complied.

She wasn’t going to relent.

Driving home after my birthdaty meal, Tony said, “Well. . .don’t you think that was a nice visit? I think it’s more relaxing when it’s just us and her.”

I wish I could blow steam out of my ears for real. I finally said, “I really think you don’t get it. She simply doesn’t treat you the way she treats me.” (His sisters once told me that my MIL had issues with the fact that my husband looks so much like his Dad, my MIL’s long gone ex-husband. Maybe this is why she handles him with more distance.)

“She pretty much leaves you alone or you disappear.” (This time he found that her new satellite radio system needed tweaking.)

“Me, she just can’t fucking leave me be. Everything is complicated. Everything is a push to hear praise or to insert herself. . .” He seems to only know I’m serious when I trot out the F word.

I go on to describe this: Upon arriving she always, ALWAYS tries to kiss me on the lips. I’m fine with the hug. But even the kiss on the cheek seems pushy to me. When did Americans get all lippy? Some men can get away with it. But my MOUTH? That’s reserved for my husband and, for a time, my sons when they were young. Once the boys were uncomfortable, they stopped. But no matter what sort of deflecting I do, head ducking, arm blocking, my MIL is going to land that kiss on my mouth or at least near it if she can. I am not exaggerating. And not a quick peck. A full, lingering smooch.

Why don’t I tell her to stop? Because I once told her something along those lines years ago, and at the next gathering all I heard whenever someone else arrived was a loud repeat of my “directions.” The passive aggressive wench. I don’t need her to yell out to everyone who meets me: Don’t kiss her on the mouth, she hates that. So instead I deflect and hope she will catch on. Eventually.

After arriving, I find a spot on the sofa that is comfortable for me. With my disability, I cannot sit just anywhere. I’m happy where I am. MIL pushed me to try this pillow, that pillow, this chair, that chair. No matter how many times I said that I am fine, she found something else to suggest. Finally, she asked Tony to go upstairs and bring down the chair that. . .Tony told her no. She shut up.

She served Tony some iced tea as I poured myself some water, which is what I always drink. Tap water and ice cubes, perfect. She jokingly asked if I had something against her special water that she filtered and refrigerated just for me so it would be cold. (That’s fine.) I dump out the tap water and reach for the filtered. She then stopped me. . . “Or did you want bottled water?” (No, whatever). “You do. You want the bottled.”  I told her to just give me whatever she wanted to give me. (Jesus! I think in my head.) I finally received a glass of water and returned to my spot on the sofa. Again I get a push to at least use this special pillow that she retrieved from her bedroom. Then when I said,  “No, no, that hurts,” as she was shoving it behind my back against my will, she asked if, maybe, I wouldn’t be able to use that pillow at home. I told her no, but maybe Tony could, throwing her a bone. She set it aside for later.

She began her typical peppering of questions for which she rarely waits any answer before the next query. And her questions always go toward the negative. WHY? Not because she is negative, but because if you answer the personal negative things, then well, she must be close to you; she is in “the know.”

Did my son finally get a job, did my Dad let my Mom come over alone like Mom wants, or did he have to accompany her, is our friend still dating THAT woman?   Tony puttered away in the back ground while I was on the hot seat, not wanting to share any of the answers with her. The information was not her business, and it makes her feel unnecessarily close. If you ever mention a struggle with your boss, it will be a question she asks you forever. . .and she will repeat and twist what you have said. Silence is the best option, but an impossible option.

She served us an appetizer of exactly seven wings to share. . . From this new place she discovered. She went there earlier today to pick them out just for us. Just a little something. . .How are they? (Good.) Really? It wasn’t a lot of trouble, she admitted. She just thought it would be a nice change. What did we think? (Yummy.) Are you sure? Mom did a good thing? (She talks about herself in the third person.) There are some spicy teriyaki, a few lemon pepper, some garlic basil. . .what do you think, a good selection? (Oh, yes. You done good. Really.) A friend of hers suggested the place, and MIL just thought perhaps a quick run over there that afternoon was a good idea. We were worth it. Yummy? Yes, yummy? (Sigh).

I kid you not. Every kindness she performs is met with a neediness that no amount of compliments can fill. I once thanked her eight separates times because she bought me a taco at Taco Bell. Tony has tried to teach me to say thank-you once, and let her just hang there when she asks for more. That’s tough when someone asks you a direct question. I’m still learning.

The worst part was that we all knew that these were probably wings that some neighbor had brought over the night before. She and her local retirees like to gather for drinks, lots of drinks, and a little food. These were some leftovers she served rather than thinking about an hors d’oeuvres, which is fine by me; I don’t care if you serve me peanuts or nothing. My complaint is the lie she tells so she can seek the praise without the work.  I mean: who goes across town to select seven wings for three people?  But we all have to act as if this is exactly what she did just for us.

She realized suddenly that she has some sparkling water. She pushed this on me, though I verbally doubt that what she is showing me is water, and I remind her how satisfied I am with simple water.. The bottle she found looked like artificially sweetened, flavored soda water. And after she happily served me some, that is exactly what it was. Some sort of diet soda, which I hate and she knows this. I try to drink it. (Sigh.)

When she wanted to make “whatever you want” on my birthday, I relented and suggested Linguini with clam sauce. She had made it for me before. I love it, I knew hers was good, and I thought it was cheap and easy. I was wrong.

When I make it, I use two cans of chopped clams, Olive oil, a few cloves of chopped garlic, the juice from the cans, and if I need, milk. I might add lime, or parsley or basil, or parmesan, should I have some on hand. She however met me at the door already telling me that she had been prepping this since yesterday. She bought a special kind of clam (still canned, just much more expensive), bottles of clam juice, the expensive kind of linguini (?), fresh this, fresh that, cream, and, as she explained, “hand shredded artisanal parmesan”. What should have cost her 7 bucks for an entire meal, probably was forty bucks, and I better know it and acknowledge it, by God. She pressed me to follow her, and notice all the stuff she is “trying” this time. Her meal was tasty, but I would have been just as happy with something less complicated and costly.

But My MIL has a reputation for making things so much more complicated than they need to be. Of course, she then offended me by serving me about a half cup, and my husband a mounded 3 or 4 cups. Did I mention how passive aggressive she is? Then later, when my sister-in-law called, MIL again detailed the meal she cooked and asked SIL if she can bring some of “Mama’s special homemade linguini with clam sauce” over to my SIL’s husband. No. “ReallY?” she said, “Well, I guess I can send it home with Tony for his lunch tomorrow. How disappointing.” See, she had already scored with us. She was hoping to score with the other in-law, too, off the same meal. And of course, she did not send any leftovers home with us.

I noticed several books, each with book marks on her coffee table. (She has a tendency to purchase the recommended things, place book marks in them as if she is currently reading all of them, and then never break the spine open, ever.) There was one I was interested in. Here’s how the conversation would go with my Mom or any of my friends.

Me: Are you reading this? Do you like it?

Someone else: Yes. When I finish do you want it?

Or

Someone else: Yes. I’m finished.

Me: Do you mind if I borrow it?

Someone else: no problem.

Then It would go into my purse  to be returned later with a warm thank-you. Instead this is how it goes with my MIL:

Me: Are you reading this? Do you like it?”

MIL: What? That? Oh, are you interested in it? I thought it would be really good too.

Me: Can I borrow it when you finish?

MIL: Um, do you want to read it?

Me: Yes. Are you finished (I mean there is a bookmark half way in it.)

MIL: Do you want the other one, too, look at this one? (Holds up another)

Me: No, no, just this one, I’ll take it when you are finished if you don’t mind.

MIL: I just had heard such good things about it.

Me: Yes, have you started it? Do you want to finish? (I really don’t want her to give it to me if she is actually still reading it.)

MIL: Oh, take it now. Take them all. Here. . .(and then led me to review the books lined on her table and then in the guestroom. I’m encouraged to take any of them.)

MIL: I’m so glad that we can now exchange reading material, that I can give back to you, too. It’s nice that I have some books that you want to read instead of the other way around.

Me: (Thinking) huh? (Awkward).

I guess I have given her books. From the looks of it, my Mom has also given her books. But really, what is going on in my MIL’s mind isn’t about reading. It’s about sharing. It’s about having one more thing inserted in my life where I am obliged to thank her and lean on her. And I still don’t know if she started reading that book or not.

She remembered to ask about my painting, as she always does. Oil painting is something I do to relax, to feel productive and creative. It is personal. But she tries to save jars for me, and then constantly asks me how “her jars” are doing, like they are former pets. Has she been Helping? She demands to know. Uh, sure, I guess.

She found a used canvas for me. I think she did. For all I know she bought it to put up in her house and then suddenly thought, hey, she could give it to me. She buys framed artwork (prints or old office décor) with a compulsion, so it is hard to know. But that’s fine. Free canvases are good. But they aren’t really free. They come with the price that she can now tell everyone how she helps me with my art. She has inserted herself here.

Meanwhile, Tony was still puttering with the radio.

I glanced in a House Beautiful magazine while MIL was in the restroom. I found a roasted carrot recipe I’d like to try. Anyone else, I’d say, “Can I copy this? Or can I tear it out?” End of story.   I told Tony later that I actually considered ripping it out when she wasn’t looking and stashing it quickly in my purse, so I wouldn’t have to go through the inevitable push and pull.

When I asked, she joked about how the recipe was too important, she just had to keep it because of the Tide detergent ad on the back. Haha. Then she ripped it out, placing it in front of Tony’s eyes. “See? This Ad. I have to keep it. Haha.” Then she agreed that I could have it if I invited her over when I cook it, “Promise? Promise?” She wouldn’t hand it to me until I promised.. Then she begged to give me a subscription to that magazine, which I don’t want. I’m not an interior decorator. At all. She dragged out old copies for me to take home, and tried to push ANOTHER subscription on me. . .for a completely different magazine.

Aren’t you tired for me, yet, Readers?

I’m exhausted by now and just want to leave. And on top of all of that, she is always very handsy, especially if she has had cocktails, which she was enjoying that night, hiding in her “tea.” She will rub my shoulders, caress my arm hair. Kiss my cheek again (only because I won’t give her my mouth) or the top of my head when she walks by. Hug me spontaneously with a full bodied approach that is too familiar and sexual for me. Again, she barely touches Tony.

Tony finally stopped puttering. She pushed coffee on us. Dessert. We go through the same complicated dance. Rejecting the cup of coffee is as difficult as getting one.  Tony finally said, “Mom, forget it. We don’t need any coffee.” She then made a big production of giving me my birthday present, a gift card to a store where I like to shop. She spent waaay too much money on me, more than she can afford, denting her limited savings for retirement. I worry. Then she flourishes dramatically when adding a bag of macaroons on top of my present. (They aren’t my favorite, but somewhere she got it in her head that I like them and thus, she bakes them all the time in huge batches. ) I was happy, but again, I had to acknowledge all the hardwork she put into them first, before she actually let go of them.

She gripped them firmly, asking, “Isn’t it nice that I can do this for you now and then?” And though she made it sound like they just came from the oven, there was a freezer burn to them that lingered. I don’t mind that at all. I do mind pretending that they were just made. For me.

Finally, we prepare to leave, and Tony and she did a dance over the weird pillow she wanted me to take. Tony finally realized it was one she currently uses and said, “No. No, you use it, you keep it.” She shut up.

She made a big production of enumerating all the things we are taking with us. Thank-you. Thank-you. Thank-you.

So when driving home, Tony said, “That was relaxing”, I nearly punched him.

Mom tells me it drove her crazy when her own mother-in-law-my Nana- would stand waiting for a pot of water to boil when Mom made spaghetti. “Like I might miss it or something. . .” says, Mom. Or when Nana, while eating a piece of mom’s cooking, would tell Mom how she would teach her to make a pie crust “right” one day, a crust you could chip a tooth on. Maybe Mom is right. In-laws are naturally grating.

I wish, like my shepherd, I was allowed to bite my mother-in-law on the nose.

Thinking of Love: Nonverbally

I recently had an epiphany about romantic, expressive men.  And for a bonus, I also got the elusive relationship closure that so many of us seek.  It was a surprise gift from the universe. . .and my unsuspecting husband, Tony.

On New Year’s Day, I ran into a lover from my deep, dark past.  He, his grown daughter, my husband and I sat for about thirty minutes socializing, very quickly catching up. Meanwhile, Former Lover kept, as they say, making eyes at me.

This was not an affair that had ended well.  But it had ended so long ago, I no longer hurt to see him or speak with him.  We are both plumper, a tad greyer, and definitely more lined, but it felt like we had just seen each other the last week.  We chatted and joked briefly, and then my husband and I climbed into our minivan and sped away.

That was not the closure.  Former Lover had been a man who, met years after I lost my virginity, had actually woken my sex drive.  Our connection, though doomed, was immediate and ridiculously hard to define.

He was a musician and an artist.  No matter what time of day or night, he had some instrument of creation in his hands, a drum stick, a worn nub of charcoal, a guitar, maybe even a teapot.  It was not the Art or the Music that seduced me as is cliche; instead, his sheer joy while lost in his work and play was impossibly attractive. Oh, and he was.  . .is British, for all you Anglophiles out there.  I know, a sexual awakening, creative Brit?  Aren’t they supposed to be uptight and cold?  He wasn’t. Former Lover was prone to saying things about his heart beating faster or not being able to think straight when I was near.  And when words failed him, his body never did.

Much later, a short year into my relationship with my husband,  I was uncomfortable and feeling insecure.  I knew he loved me; he tells me so every day, in those exact words..  But. . .something was missing.  We had more than a few conflicts over the fact that he doesn’t give physical compliments very often.  And if he does, they come across as forced or awkward.  “Uh, well, don’t you look cute. . .”  At first, I just thought he was not verbal.  But, no, he was voted most talkative in his high school.  He can articulate. In fact, he fully compliments my cooking or my intelligence all the time. And one of his greatest assets his how much we talk, late into the night.

I then suspected that maybe, though attached to me, he didn’t really find me sexy or even pretty.  I figured, he was a practical man who had made a practical choice and had married the smart, talkative, nurturer, instead of the empty, distant model.  He would get perturbed, annoyed and then angry with me for voicing these thoughts.  But I periodically have had trouble shaking this sinking feeling.

I said to him, “There have been men in love with me before, a number of them who wanted to marry me. I KNOW what it feels like to have a man want me.”  And this wasn’t it.

I reflected back on the men who had loved me, some of whom I had loved in return.  All of them had been expressive about their love and their desire.  They would tell me how gorgeous my eyes were when they gazed longingly into them.  One man used to sigh into my then long, curly hair and go on and on about how he wanted to one day die in it.  (Not as creepy as it sounds when you are in the middle of being loved.)   One used to tell me I had the most delightful ass on the planet. Another, as I mentioned, described how pit-pattery he felt.  I believed every single word from these men. It was the passion they exuded, the eyes that seemed only for me, that made their musings true.  They openly and verbally reacted to my attempts to look nice when I dressed up, to my natural appearance, and my very smell.

NO, I am not a raving beauty.  But these were men who knew how to make me feel like I was.

And my husband isn’t one of those men.  Yet, that expressive passion I enjoyed from former beaus, even my ex-husband and Former Lover, is how I have always felt about my man. Tony.  He drives me insane with desire: His smarts, his goodness, his love making, his very being.  (To gain a picture, he somewhat resembles Clint Eastwood from the early Dirty Harry days. In fact, I had never found Clint a sex symbol until I fell in love with my husband.)  Whatever this former lover awakened in me, my husband puts to bed in the very best way.  He is the sort of lover every woman wants-gentle at times, considerate, but with just the right amount of manhandling to get his way.  I compliment him all the time.  I’d finally come to believe that inside, My husband feels the same way, when once, frustrated at my insecurities, he shouted, “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Enough Said.

So. . .a few weeks after this reunion, you might suspect how I’d react to receiving an effusive email from Former Lover.  (He knows people who know me.)   In it, he expressed how much he was still feeling toward me, and easily tossed out these words:  “My relationship with you was the most honest, intelligent, intuitive, erotic, and fulfilling of my life.  You got into my psyche more deeply than anyone ever did.”  He went on to express how he wished we had married all those years ago, issues be damned, and gone and lived the last two decades together.  In less than so many words, he was secretly seeing if I was “available.”

Nice to hear 20 years later, eh?  Do you wonder if I was tempted?  He was off to Central America in a few weeks.  I could easily jump on a plane and restart my life all over again.

I was stunned.  Angry a little at the tardy sentiment.  Envious of once again hearing such fine words. Irritated that he thought it appropriate to interfere in my love cocoon.  But also tickled pink. Tickled, tickled, tickled.

Though Former Lover hoped I’d keep all this hush-hush, I immediately told my husband, full transparency.  I was uncertain how he’d take it.

In stride. His first comment: “See, you still got it, Baby.”  Well, hmmm. Okay, yes. After how many gained lines and pounds?  “This guy sees you after 20 years and thinks to himself, ‘I want some more of her. I made a grave mistake all those years ago.’”

I also told my husband how sometime earlier last year I had written an amends to this Former Lover-we both owed one to the other for blowing up quite a lot of our world when we imploded as lovers.  I had tried writing before years before, but now, in Al-Anon and working a 12 step program, I felt the need to do so, with full responsibility. I’d written a heartfelt note, but suddenly my computer frizzed as it can do.  My words of contrition all disappeared.  I saw this as a sign to keep my mouth shut and mind my business.

Tony tells me this:  “Making an amends is for you.  God knows you did so with good intent, and cleared your mind. It doesn’t matter that the guy didn’t receive it. That this guy surfaces only months later, we run into him accidently, and now he is ‘resmitten’ with you, gives you a sense that what had happened years ago was real, true emotions on both sides.  Doesn’t that feel good to know now?”

There’s the closure, especially since I can respond with an amends now.

Here’s the epiphany:  All the men who have loved me in the past have been EXPRESSERS in various ways, artists, writers, musicians, even a stand-up comic.  They dealt daily in the world of sharing what was inside their hearts and souls.  I had veered away from men like Tony-business and math-minded, practical, relatively conservative.  In college, those practical guys had been the ones who seemed too preppy, they peed in the ice machines, and date-raped women in their fraternity houses. (How’s that for a childish generalization.) I stayed away from them.  But somewhere in my middle age, I got sick of the liberally slanted men.  Getting a divorce from my son’s Dad, an artist who had taken over a decade to figure out a career where he could actually contribute money to the household had left me cold.  And all my other boyfriends-even this Former Lover in question- had spent their lives stumbling  along, too, leaving all the heavy lifting to their wives or girlfriends.

Opening my mind, once I was single again, I found this trustworthy, practical, dependable Man, Tony,( . . .and yes, a former frat boy,) who has trouble verbalizing his attraction and his love for me in more words than “I love you, Baby.”

I had sacrificed the oh, so easy sway of big, fat words, for the strength of a solid man’s man.  And I’ve only benefited.

Those loving words in the former lover’s email were very pretty.  But also extremely simple to say, and not do for that guy.  My husband finds it much easier to do than say.  He understands commitment in a way no one else in my world ever has- takes care of his part of our world and then spoons me to sleep.  He also stands in the greeting card aisle for hours, reading all the cards to find one that says what he cannot.

The other night, my oldest son met his Dad for a movie.  After the film, en-route to somewhere else, he had a crappy flat tire on a major highway, and couldn’t get the spare loose.  Whom did he call?  Not his artsy-emotional Dad whom he had just left, but his step-Dad, Tony who quickly gave him directions to wait in the car safely till he got there.

This stoic man is the love of my life; I’m his, and we both know it.

When a Parent Backs Off

I have two sons, with almost eight years between them. On most days, watching us from a secret Big Brother-like camera, our interactions and love are enviable. Some days you might consider calling DEFACs, or whatever family services acronym works near you. Both of my sons are gifted, based on their IQs. Both sons, to varying degrees have ADHD; my youngest, whose ADD is bad enough to warrant meds. also suffers from dysgraphia, the outie to dyslexia’s innie, and a mild memory issue. These keep him locked in special education, rather than soaring in “gifted” classes.

All things school came easily to me. Sure, I whined over the real life value of torturous calculus, but once I stopped weeping, I did it. For my youngest, this is not the case, and it makes it hard for me to relate. The current structures of the American school system frustrate him even more than you could understand. He faces ridiculous tests that, being a teacher myself, I know often cover irrelevant information, or worse the test writers phrase questions in such a way that the original intent of the objective is lost.

(For example, “Objective: students will apply a variety of sentence patterns in their writing.” Resulting Multiple Choice Test Question: “Read the following sentence, then choose the correct pattern that correlates with these sentences” is different from being able to actually create varied sentences. Thus, kids are drilled on recognizing these pattern types. Worse this question carries as much weight as recognizing poor verb usage, because each objective gets a question on the multiple choice test. I think the average American should be able to use verbs, but not label a sentence’s pattern as SVDOIO, right? Do most people even KNOW what I just wrote?)

Besides pointless testing that determines his future, every year my son meets teachers who, because of pay for performance rules that measure their failure rate, seem less interested in breaking his code and reaching him than in covering their asses. From the moment they meet him they begin collecting evidence of why it isn’t their fault he is failing, and send me messages, which go straight into their files: “Your son is very smart but he did not do his work. Your son sat and stared off into space. Your son took an hour to do what took everyone else ten minutes.”. Then they dust off their hands and say to themselves, they’ve done all they can do.

Because there is controversy over the existence of ADHD, some teachers just shrug it off, and gossip among themselves about my parenting, thinking if I just took his video games away, that boy would learn to work. Duh. Why didn’t I think of that?

Apparently, I put my child into the stigma saturated hellhole called Special Ed, because I want him to have more time on his Play Station, playing Destiny. I’m trying to cover up his “poor work ethic” by damaging his reputation with riding “the short bus.”. I prefer him to be called “dumb” by his mainstreamed peers, rather than cracking the whip.

I go through this the first few months every school year until his teachers realize I mean business, and I expect them to do their jobs, explaining, “The fact that he stares off in to space and cannot easily put his words on a page is WHY he is in special Ed. You cannot simply say he isn’t working and then wash your hands of him. That’s like saying about your deaf students, they can’t hear my lessons. You’ll have to solve that at home.” They squirm and get pissed off and often decide to pit themselves against me, sending me little CYA notes almost everyday.

Apparently, in order to allow a child to fail, teachers just have to say, I assigned XYZ, and he didn’t do it.

But here’s the thing about special education. It is supposed to be SPECIAL. If you recognize that my child is “super smart” and YOU are the expert, then you need to figure out how to get knowledge into his head, and then glean evidence that he knows it in some other way.

When we were kids, teachers could do just that: shape a lesson in a special way for a special kid. Can you imagine Annie Sullivan trying to teach Helen Keller in today’s schools? Would she have said, “Ma’am, your child seemed to stare off into space when I assigned that reading passage. She fails because she didn’t complete her work.”. The girl went off to Princeton because she had a woman who cracked her code.

SO, each year, I get riled up; it takes me months to get teachers on board with the whole it is your JOB thing. I understand their frustration; I struggle during his homework time. ( I mean WHY does a kid who can do the word problem in his head have to explain his process in WORDS? Why can’t he just write the answer in numbers? And why does it take my kid two hours, filled with tears and hair loss.) I get the teachers’ frustration But they are his teachers not I. If I were,I could adjust his lessons; if I were, I’d have a special degree in his disability, right?

I was particularly riled up this past week, facing the, “your kid’s lazy” crap from a fresh batch of teachers. I have a number of “Twelve Steppers” in my life who advise me; from an anti-codependent stand point, trying to change his teachers is too controlling of me. I’m supposed to “let go and let God.” I hear, your son is old enough now, he can suffer his own consequences.

I heard the same advice when my oldest was in the ninth grade and not working up to his potential. But what if he flunks? Well, summer school. Well, what if he doesn’t get into a good college because of that! Well, he’ll figure it out on his own.

I yelled, punished, rewarded, all things a parent does to try and get their kid in line. But I eventually took the advice and let go. He got himself through, improving as time went on. He began improving. No, he did not go the Harvard, though he had the IQ. He goes to a community school by choice to save money, and lives at home still, and we have a calm, loving friendship now. The twelve steppers say it is because I backed off.

But I just don’t think that advice will work with my youngest. To say that he has to live with the consequences of his actions assumes he has a choice here. His disability doesn’t allow him many choices. He cannot choose to spell that word right or even notice it is wrong. He cannot choose to ignore the misbehaving kids in the next row (and special Ed classes lump learning and behavior problems together. There are plenty of actions he struggles to ignore.) So does that make me codependent because I am trying to control his education?

Really?

Sorry. I’d rather continue to mother him properly and be labelled a control freak than let him slip through the giant cracks in our education system. Too many of his teachers would be relieved to just ignore him.

Failure is an option: Mom’s Memory


I realized something about motherhood this week, that I think is good for grown children to know.

My Mom was unable to attend our Mother’s Day barbecue, and I missed her. In our call, she reminisced happily about when I was a child: I had gone through a chef stage when I was about 9 or 10, and omelets were my gourmet obsession. Omelets with cheese, omelets with mushrooms. . .with spam or olives or pearl onions or pickles, all definitely (over) spiced. Whatever happened to be in the kitchen that I found inspiring was folded (clumsily) into a pan of half-beaten eggs. I recall distinctly enjoying that feeling of creativity. And I would serve these creations to Mom before she was even awake.

One morning, I mixed one with Spaghettios. I had been so talented and awesome with all the others (as evident in her praise), but this time, though she did her best to hide it, she couldn’t bring herself to eat more than one eensy bite; of course she hurt my feelings.

Somehow this moment is one of her favorite memories: The plate filled with undercooked egg, that stringy white bit that is attached to the yoke, still lying there like a bleached worm, jiggling with runny Spaghettios. It made her want to vomit, yet she laughs about it now.

Yeah. Sure. Hilarious.

But this Mother’s day, I realized something: somehow some mothers seem to remember our failures as fondly as they recall our success. Of course, Mom is very happy I have degrees, a warm, happy home, a good job, healthy, happy children, a good marriage. Yes, she trusts that I will take care of her in her old age, all things a Mom can be proud of. But she joyfully recalls the time I shattered the front window of the Chevy with a stone I was throwing at a kid’s head, or the time I made another neighbor hatefully angry when I took him up on a dare to paint his house with rainbows. How was I to know he wasn’t serious. I was only eleven.

She giggles hysterically about once feeding my oldest child pickles or lemons (because he demanded them, that’s why) before he was old enough to know what they were and that he wouldn’t want them. The faces he made! What about the ridiculous waaay-tooo-old for me high heels I had convinced my grandmother to buy when I was thirteen that I could barely walk in, stumbling about like a cartoon. Or how about the time I didn’t bother to check if I-75 went all the way to Virginia, and ended up driving straight on to Kentucky. I am great with maps, but I was going from memory, arrogant me. So who cares that at eighteen years old, I could navigate myself from one end of the country to the other. The resounding memory for Mom is that I ended up in Kentucky by accident. Oh, she loves that one.

Until this weekend, it irked me that she enjoys rifling through her memory bank for my failures. What is wrong with this woman? Does it make her feel superior? But then, I thought about my own sons. I don’t only love reminiscing about the first time I held them, or any time they have behaved nobly. It was also sweet when my oldest was still only able to crawl; the dryer bell buzzed abruptly while he was nearby. He almost stood up and ran down the hall and into my arms, it frightened him so much. When he was six and pretty disinterested in his soccer team, whenever the ball came his way, he’d squat down like a frog and leap over it, much to the horror of his coaches. My youngest son, when he was five, threw a butter knife at a friend’s sleazy boyfriend, and shattered a window pane. (Like mother, like son). He thinks long and hard about his Christmas gifts, and has given me bracelets that are child-sized, purses the size of Montana. I don’t care. I love telling those stories. Just like my Mom didn’t care that she had to try her very best to swallow a gelatinous mouthful of Spaghettios, oozing raw egg whites.

As her memory is beginning to fail, it matters to me more that she recalls me as I really was, has always loved me as I am. I think more than anything our children’s “misses” expose our true parenting more than their successes. How I handled Graham failing math in the ninth grade, or how I handled Evan’s temper tantrum over his GiGi’s Christmas gift, says more about my parenting than their trophies, their excellent grades, their scores. Children are imperfect, just as we, their parents, are. To pretend they are perfect is to ignore who they fully are. It is with great love and pride that each Mother’s day, my Mom thinks back to herself lying sleepy under covers one morning, my shining face waking her to deliver yet another masterpiece of an omelette.

Ring of Fire: Pepper Avoidance and the Personality

In response the the daily challenge: Ring of Fire:

I can eat anything and not suffer “the ring of fire” (such a gross but fitting euphemism for what spicy food does to some people’s butts.) I adore stuffed jalapenos. I pickle peppers each summer. I cook with scotch bonnets. If I turn down a fiery meal, it is only because the flavor has been lost behind the heat, not because I have whimped out.

See? We link our personalities to pepperdom. In the same way kids challenge each other on how high they can jump their bikes or skateboards before either dying or giving into fear, diners define strength by the depth of heat we can stand. Think of the contests held for pepper sauce, hottest chilis, or even the number of peppers one can consume in one sitting. I recall a story of a man who killed himself in a pepper-eating contest in Texas, where a hole literally burned open his stomach. I keep hoping this is an Urban Myth. (Or in Texas’s case would that be called a Country Yarn?)

Either way, we Americans beat our proverbial hairy chests with the pepper.

My husband’s stomach is actually much more tender than mine. I know this only by observation. He will still eat anything and everything spicy or otherwise without complaint, never acknowledging defeat verbally. We both love a great plate of Pad Kee Mao, (Do not hold the spice) at Atlanta’s Little Bangkok. My hubby proudly out-spices his wife, as he should, being the more powerful male diner of the species.

My tough little Irish Grampa adored spicy food, introduced to it long after he lost his hair. Didn’t matter how much sweat he mopped off his bald head, he was not going to knuckle under to a mere bowl of chili.

My mother-in-law daintily admits that she simply can’t stomach even a little spice. She always gives a feminine flutter of her hand as if she is swishing away a distasteful image in front of us, when she turns down the grilled peppers in fajitas. A dear friend of mine, a southern gentleman so Anglophile, so Shakespearean expert that he almost has an English accent, proudly brags that if even a trace of black pepper, the mildest of our seasonings, touches his lips, he bursts into flames of pain. Raw cinnamon has also been a nasty culprit.

Histrionic, much??

Like some sort of ring-of-fire rite of passage, my sons and father bond over finding the best, tongue-destroying spicy pepper sauce: “Oh, Maaaaaan, You think THAT’s hot. . .waitayoutry THIS one!”

Doesn’t matter that my Dad suffers not the ring of fire, but the ring of Pompeii when he eats certain foods, not just peppers, but onions, potatoes, even apples. But, hey, what sort of man would he be if he feared an apple, let alone a pepper?

So he willingly gobbles up the spiciest food. That would even be anything with the Wai-Wai pepper, a plant cultivated by the indigenous people of Guyana, The Wai-Wai (and also by a botanist friend of mine in North Carolina with the license to grow a few pots of the pepper each year.). The fruit of the Wai-Wai has a heat index far higher than any pepper you can find in any market in America. Just touching the flesh of a freshly cut pepper and then your tongue is unbearable. Even unbearable for me, for my husband, and if my sons and Dad would just be honest, for them. The botanist, however, is a real man; You can use a half teaspoon of the fresh pepper to season super spicy chili, but he can eat it straight without too many tears.

I am sure, given the proper Licensure, the Wai-Wai tribe could become billionaires of this export as people world wide prove their superiority through their Wai-Wai consumption. Restaurants would prosper. So would all the tall tales.

(By the way, I lied. I do suffer when I eat cayenne. My bladder for some reason gets mildly enflamed. But that’s just between us. Don’t tell anyone. I have a powerful reputation to protect, you know.)