The Last Walk


Max, with the baby, in 2007

I slipped the leash around his neck for the last time. He wagged his tail, hopeful even through his labored breaths that we might be going for a walk. Just 24 hours earlier, Max, our 12-year-old Lab, had been diagnosed with cancer, which had aggressively metastasized. The vet showed me the x-rays, his lungs mottled with white. I started to weep. The big old boy had lost 13 pounds, down to 74. He had a wheeze and a little cough. I was thinking maybe pneumonia.

I wanted us to have the holiday weekend with him; Mr. 70 Percent was due back from Vermont on Sunday, and he needed to see Max one more time. But I couldn’t stand listening to him gasp for breath. He could barely lift his head, let alone get up and greet anyone who came to the door. He had to be suffering. My husband, a cat person until we got a dog, understood. I held the phone receiver up to Max’s ear so he could say goodbye.


Max welcomes his new sister, 2008

Max first came to us via Newark, NJ, where he had been abandoned in a shopping cart. He was about a year old, the vet estimated, and one of his paws bore a big gash closed with stitches that had been left in too long. (We speculated that his owners had ditched him because the veterinary bills got too high.) My friend Archie, northern New Jersey’s patron saint of rescued dogs, called; she knew we had a soft spot for Labs. I was working full-time in New York and 7 months pregnant with our third child–so a dog made perfect sense. But Max was handsome and sweet, housebroken, crate-trained, affectionate and well-mannered. He knew basic commands and never tried to jump on the furniture. It was love at first sight. Our son, then 4, would climb into the crate and lie by his side. When we brought home the new baby, and then 6 years later the new puppy, Max wouldn’t stop wagging his tail.

Max had his shortcomings. He seemed to harbor a personal vendetta against anyone in a uniform bearing packages. His bark was deep and scary and he did not always make visitors feel welcome (though as soon as they crossed the threshhold, they became a part of the pack he would guard with his life.) He didn’t like to be alone, which created some awkward moments. When he was young, anytime Mr. 70 Percent and I started to get romantic, he would come bounding over to the bed, ready to play. If I had all three kids in the tub in our tiny bathroom in New Jersey, he had to squeeze in, too. His gale-force tail could not only topple toddlers but also clear a coffee table of glasses, newspapers, and puzzle pieces. Among the things he has eaten off the kitchen counter: a roasted chicken, half a pizza, a dozen pumpkin muffins, a pound of toffee and a full bag of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate chips. Contrary to what I’d heard, Max tolerated the chocolate just fine.


His last supper, May 25, 2013

The cancer proved a more intransigent foe. On that last day, I made him a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, which he ate half-heartedly. Then my two older children, pale and somber, accompanied me to the vet. Their 10-year-old sister, who had never known life without Max, couldn’t bear to go.

“Do you want to pay now or later?” the nurse asked gently. I handed her my credit card, trying hard not to think about this grim ordeal as a business transaction. I had already nixed burial in the pet cemetery (prices starting as low as $850, plus an additional $350 for the top-of-the-line “high-impact styrene plastic” casket!). And I had no desire to keep Max’s ashes in an urn on my mantle–even if I could afford the $205 “solid wrought bronze urn with decorative filigree,” complete with engraved name and picture frame.


Comforting him until the end

The vet gave Max a muscle relaxant, which made him plop down sleepily on the floor. He was breathing easier. As she administered the lethal injection, we gathered around him, whispering through our tears what a good boy he’d always been. In moments, he was gone; it was shockingly quick and blessedly peaceful. The nurse took a final imprint of his massive paw, which I later noticed came with instructions on how to bake and paint it–kind of like Plaster Funtime.

Max was the only being in my life who never felt conflicted about me. He never found me annoying, disappointing, or embarrassing; he never once rolled his eyes at me, stormed out of the room, or told me to “Stop talking.” He didn’t complain about what I fed him, asked of him, or watched on TV; he liked my music just fine.

So today I feel a little less loved than I did last week. No one will saunter over to my desk and put his head in my lap, just to check in. No one will follow me expectantly around the house, paying close attention to what shoes I put on. When I come home from the store, the only family member who will greet me with gusto is Max’s sister, Riley, who is wandering around in a bit of a  funk. She knows there’ll never be another Max. But if she’s lucky, there will be a new puppy in our future who can again make our family complete.


Max, 2001-2013


Posted in Family life, Parenting, Pets | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

The Packing Wars

images-4If you really want to test your marriage, just pack up your house. You don’t even have to move; simply spend time together determining who has more useless crap. In our case, I think even Mr. 70 Percent would agree that he wins that contest. He is fond of collecting dust magnets like architectural statues and  bronze animals, and cannot throw out–I mean, recycle–any magazine until he’s read it, even if it is from 1994 and all its contents are online. Also he thinks it is important to keep every American Express statement he’s received sincimagese the Reagan administration. Yet that doesn’t stop him from trying to throw out the one box in the attic–amid his 200 filled with National Geographics dating back to 1969–that contains my precious college notebooks. (Hey, I could be called upon at any moment to compare and contrast the Renaissance and the Reformation, or dissect the dinner party scene in To the Lighthouse!)

It was easy enough to overlook such pack-rat tendencies when he was cramming cabinets and overstuffing drawers in the house we thought we’d stay in forever. But now that we’re moving, there’s a new enforcer in town, and she is not going to tolerate one single atlas that still shows the Soviet Union. Since my husband started his new job in January, we have been steadily moving carloads of stuff up to Vermont with him, which provides the dual benefit of outfitting his temporary quarters while reducing the clutter in our house so potential buyers might actually be able to see the hardwood floors. The problem with this arrangement, of course, is that it gives Hector the Collector a convenient alternative to tossing anything out: “I’ll just take it to Vermont!”

Which brings me to how we nearly came to blows over kitchenware. Mr. 70 Percent was standing in the kitchen, staring pensively at two identically-sized spin_prod_721925901pans, one in each hand. They were strange pans, neither frying nor sauce but something in between–wok-shaped, with flat bottoms and handles. I can’t recall ever using one, so I’m not sure how we wound up with two. “Pick one or they both go,” I said in my most menacing Sophie’s Choice voice. He was dithering. “This one has ridges on the bottom… but this one looks newer and has a nicer handle…” I was on the verge of seizing both and hitting him over the head when our 10-year-old stepped in and unwittingly defused the tension. “Geez, Dad,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s a pan! Have your farewell ceremony and get on with it.” And in an instant, my girl had coined the unofficial motto of our move: Have your farewell ceremony and get on with it.

Since then, I have repeated that directive numerous times, for everything from ancient cookbooks and 40-pound encyclopedias to out-of-fashion suspenders and unused athletic shoes. Not that it makes a damn bit of difference. Last weekend, along casio_ctk3000_front_1with the trash, a broken fish tank, and some old Science Fair poster boards, I lugged out to the curb a well-used portable piano keyboard that became obsolete when we got an actual piano four years ago. Mindful of the trash pickers who cruise our neighborhood looking for treasures, I  placed a sticky note on it: STILL WORKS! A few hours later, Mr. 70 Percent and I were hauling more junk out to the street when I noticed the keyboard was gone. “Oh, good!” I said. “Somebody took it.” He looked down sheepishly. “Actually…. it was me,” he confessed. “I put it in the car. For Vermont!” I started to protest, but couldn’t muster the strength. Luckily, he’s working up north all week so I’ve got plenty of time to make a few things disappear. images-2

Posted in Division of Labor, Family life, Marriage, Parenting | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

In Which Mr. 70 Percent Moves Me

GetImageI’ve had a lot to process. Mr. 70 Percent has gone all out and gotten himself a new job. In Vermont. And so our gradual withdrawal from civilization continues. We left the New York area in 2005, beaten down by three kids, years of train commuting, and the inescapable ghosts of 9/11. We landed on the green and cultured north shore of Massachusetts, a quick 30-minute drive from downtown Boston. Sure, we had to make a few adjustments–all that Red Sox paraphernalia!–but overall the transition was quite smooth.

120921-canada-maple-leafNow, for the first time, we will be living not in a city or a suburb, but in a town. With a college! And an independent movie theater AND bookstore–you know, the kind of place I have always fantasized about settling. Only now that it’s become a reality, I don’t actually want to go. Partly that’s because change is hard, and we’re leaving a place I love, and the seasons up there are defined primarily by cold, mud, or big-city leaf peepers. But I’m also worried about the small and remote factor. After all, we are moving to a state whose entire population is almost exactly the same size as Boston’s. A state so small it warrants only three electoral college votes (though in the plus column, it re-elected Obama by the biggest margin of any state in the union). A state without a single Target, Apple store, or Whole Foods (though I’ve been assured that Vermont’s whole-food markets blow the chain away.) When we move, we will need  passports to visit the nearest big city: Montreal. We will live among people invariably described as either “nice” or “really1333524664593_4768306 nice”–a characteristic I consider about as useful in a good friend as “left-handed” or “argyle-sock-wearing.” When we drove around with a realtor just to get a feel for the area, pedestrians on the rural back roads routinely waved at us. “Do you know them?” I asked her. “No,” she replied cheerfully. “Everyone’s just friendly!”

That I find such answers unsettling no doubt says more about me than about Vermont–mainly that I’m fearful that none of those nice, friendly folks will like cranky, cynical me. And that as a solidly middle-aged woman with a peripatetic career and three increasingly independent children, I already feel peripheral enough without moving to the far reaches of New England. Also, that I’m a big, fat baby.

Perhaps I should take a lesson from my children, who accepted the news of our impending move with calm good cheer and a spirit of adventure. For our eldest, who will graduate high school in June, the move coincides 39beautifully with her own next chapter, whatever it may be: college or gap year, west coast or east, U.S. or overseas. Our 14-year-old outdoorsman, always seeking a thrill, sees nothing but promise in the Green Mountains. Only our little one, 10, instantly teared up at the news. Unlike the older two, she doesn’t remember living anywhere else. Through her sniffles, she asked with a smile, “Am I coming, too?” This was a joke: as we have reminded her countless times, that was the question she innocently posed the last time we told her we were moving, back when she was three. Then she mournfully invoked the name of her beloved best friend, and I started bawling. How could we do this to them?

Vermont-FarmI had to recover quickly, though, because my whole family shrewdly began bargaining. The eldest vowed she would attend college in Vermont–if we bought her a horse. “Done,” I said. (It sounded cheaper than the new car I had already considered dangling in front of her.) “It can live on the big farm we’ll get,” my son chimed in, which would also include waterfront access and steep cliffs for rock climbing. “I call the biggest room in the new house,” said the baby, who might have you believe she has spent her childhood  languishing in a tiny shoebox under the stairs. “AND a new puppy, and a trampoline.” Mr. 70 Percent wants the farmhouse on 100 acres, with chickens and a two-story library for all his books. But when you come visit us in Vermont–and I certainly hope you will–I suspect you’ll find us living the way /I/ want: in a cozy house with a wood-burning stove on a manageable lot, close to town and in view of the nice neighbors. Otherwise, I’ll be the raging alcoholic on the side of the road, dressed in hemp and selling hand-crafted goat cheese, waving gleefully at every passing car.


Posted in Family life, Kids, Marriage, Neighbors, Parenting, Pets, Reality check, Teenagers | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

The Lousy Weekend

It was nearing five o’clock on a Friday, and I was looking forward to the weekend: soccer, errands, dinner with friends, the season premiere of Homeland. Then the phone rang. “Mommy?” my daughter said. Her voice sounded shaky. “What happened?” I asked. “I just got in a car accident,” she said. “I’m fine, but….” “Where are you? Do you need me to come down?” She did.

I arrived about the same time as the police. My daughter started to cry as soon as she saw me. She had lost control on a rain-slicked road, striking a parked car and a pickup truck traveling in the other direction. No one was hurt. But her 2004 Chevy Malibu, so proudly purchased a month earlier with her camp counselor earnings, sat crumpled on a bed of shattered glass, front bumper dangling and deflated airbags waving like white flags.

My heart broke for her, even through my irritation. What a waste: of money, of time, of freedom. Yet I felt oddly relieved–because she hadn’t been injured, of course, but also because she had just learned a critical lesson about her own vulnerability and the dangers of a wet road. It would make her a better driver for the rest of her life. Besides, I was secretly pleased that with her car out of commission, she’d be stuck at home with us.

But I didn’t realize just how fortuitous that would turn out to be until the next morning, when my my 10-year-old daughter was getting ready for her soccer game. She called me into the bathroom, where she was putting up her hair. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing at some tiny dark specks in the hair at her temples. I shrugged. “Dirt?”

“But it’s moving,” she said. “And kind of itchy.”

With mounting terror, I looked more closely. Then behind her ears. The nape of her neck. And finally, online, where Google Image confirmed it: we had lice. I groaned. We had almost gotten three kids through elementary school without ever contracting the dreaded parasites! Now we were the family everyone would shun. After a quick chat with the pediatrician, I headed for CVS–the one in the next town–and purchased the Nix “family pack” and a stainless steel nit comb, conveniently located in the “Warts & Lice” aisle.

My daughter, calm and stoic, followed the instructions on the shampoo package and then sat under a light so I could pick the nits out. “I don’t see any more!” I said after a few  minutes. “Maybe we got them all?”

Her big sister wandered over for a look. “There’s one right THERE,” she said. “And there’s another.” I squinted, and even through my +1.50 readers, I could barely make out what looked like a half a poppy seed clinging to a strand of hair. A grain of sand would have dwarfed it. (Reason #127 not to have kids too late in life: you want your vision still sharp when you have to pick lice eggs out of their hair.) If you’ve ever had the misfortune of lice, you will know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, never let your child near another child again! The prospect of finding and removing every last infinitesimal nit seemed utterly daunting, and highly unlikely.

But luckily, I had a secret weapon: an eagle-eyed, and homebound, adoring big sister. So while my husband and I took a break from filling out insurance claims and sterilizing hairbrushes to attend a dinner party, she spent the evening selflessly picking nits out of her little sister’s hair. They had a grand old time, too, listening to music, chatting and giggling as they extracted the little buggers one by one. I don’t know any other 17-year-old who would have tackled such a distasteful task with so much kindness and zeal. For that, she deserves to win the Teenager of the Year award. Especially if the prize is a new car.

Posted in Family life, Kids, Parenting, Reality check, Siblings, Teenagers | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Removing the Names to Protect the Guilty

Apparently I’ve been on a hiatus. In general, if I don’t post for awhile, it probably means one of two things: either someone in my family has done something–possibly involving body art, sexual exploration, illicit substances, and/or the police– that I am absolutely forbidden to blog about, or paid work is taking precedence. Thankfully, in this case, it’s the latter.

But if it were the former, I wouldn’t tell you, now would I? After all, this blog is only as “unvarnished” as I allow it to be. Blogging about loved ones is a sensitive business. Family harmony, of course, is much more important than spilling secrets, venting, or entertaining readers, at least until the six-figure book contract comes through. (Any minute now, I’m sure.) From the beginning I have allowed my husband and children–at least the two older ones–to vet the entries specifically related to them. So far, only one entry has been nixed entirely (it involved “the authorities”) and in a handful of other posts, I have changed a few words or identifying details as requested. That’s it. My theory is that the tales I have to tell are not substantially different from what the kids have been saying about themselves for years on Facebook. Plus, they rather like the attention. (As one of my favorite SNL skits puts it, they’re “Twitter famous,” meaning “not famous.”) My 17-year-old has even threatened to launch an “unvarnished daughter” rebuttal blog to set the record straight.  As for my husband, he’s willing to put up with a lot in the service of the six-figure book deal.

Still, I have been accused of over-sharing. “My kids would kill me if I ever wrote that about them!” people have said to me. Or: “You’re so mean to your husband! Doesn’t he mind being called ‘Mr. 70 Percent’?” (Truth? Not really: he is both exceedingly secure and a very good sport. Plus, the 70 percent figure, which, in case you’ve forgotten, refers to his average rate of completion on household tasks, is definitely rounded up.) But with a few rare exceptions, I have made it a point to avoid using my family members’ names, in an effort to protect their privacy–or more accurately, to make sure it’s not my fault if they don’t get that dream job or acceptance letter in the future. Someone, somewhere down the road–whether it’s an admissions officer at Middlebury, a partner in a New York law firm, or a pair of prospective in-laws–is going to Google them, and the last thing they need to discover is my blog, detailing my son’s boyhood obsession with AirSoft guns or my daughter’s inappropriate  Variety Show dance.

I have been thinking about these boundary issues a lot: part of the “paid work” that has kept me from blogging is, ironically, teaching high school students about blogging and other forms of new media. Now, you may be thinking, as I do daily: “What could someone who still has an IBM Selectric in the attic and who grew up conducting research via card catalogue possibly teach the digital generation about digital media?” The answer is: not much, but also a lot. They may be “digital natives,” as John Palfrey calls them in his book  Born Digital, living, learning, and socializing online with unprecedented ease. But as a “digital settler,” I’ve got perspective. I’ve seen both the old world and the new, and I know what transcends both. And while I certainly understand the increased risks of over-sharing in the Internet age, I also believe that blogging one’s story, even slightly varnished, can make both the blogger and the reader feel less alone–in a way that an old-fashioned, hand-written journal never could.

My students will soon start blogging weekly, and I have every intention of joining them. But if I don’t post for awhile, it probably means that I’ve gotten bogged down in work again. Or possibly that someone in my family has been arrested in a crack house while getting a tattoo.

Posted in Blogging, Parenting, Reality check, Teenagers, Working motherhood | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Vacation from the Kids

I am now three days into the highlight of my summer, the holiday I’ve been eagerly anticipating for months. No, I am not wine-tasting in Napa, beach-combing in the Caribbean, or sight-seeing in Paris. In fact, I’ve never worked harder. I spend 10 hours a day hunched over my computer, taking breaks only to exercise and enjoy quasi-romantic dinners with Mr. Seventy Percent. Yet it feels like the vacation of a lifetime because we are living in a kid-free house! My oldest daughter left in mid-June for  her job as a counselor at a YMCA girls’ camp–the same job at the same camp I held 32 summers ago. Though I miss her, she texts me just as often as she does when she’s sitting in her bedroom upstairs. Then on Sunday, we ditched the two younger ones: the 10-year-old joined her big sister at camp for the third year running, and our 14-year-old Mountain Man flew to Colorado to conquer some 14,000-foot peak with Outward Bound.

It feels like the old days, before we knew how messy and disruptive kids could be. No dirty socks litter the floor, no ketchup-caked plates cover the coffee table. I cannot hear Sponge Bob’s grating laugh blaring from the next room. The cover remains firmly on the toothpaste, and the bathroom counter is free of Band-Aid wrappers. No one is asking me to make grilled cheese, drive them downtown, or help locate a missing sweatshirt/cellphone/pair of goggles. There are no toy guns on the sofa, stuffed animals  in the cupboards, or embarrassing Cosmo covers–“Why Guys Love it When You Bite Your Lip”–on the magazine pile. I can make the chicken curry as spicy as I want. In the grocery store yesterday, I walked right past the Cheez-Its and Oreos; my cart was so full of healthy food that for once I hoped I ran into someone I knew. The only person cluttering up the kitchen counters with loose change, golf tees and crumpled pieces of paper is Mr. Seventy Percent, and he usually needs to be asked only once. When I put something away, it stays put away.

I am trying to savor the days, but the two weeks already seem to be flying by.

And yet … I feel slightly adrift. No one calls, except for the telemarketers, who now suddenly seem friendly. The only person ringing the doorbell is the UPS guy. No one is asking me to make grilled cheese, drive them downtown, or help locate a missing sweatshirt/cellphone/pair of goggles. The dogs still rouse themselves every afternoon around 2:30, in anticipation of the banging door, shrieked greetings and dumped backpacks that usually announce the kids’ arrival home. But no one comes. So they wander over and lay their heads plaintively in my lap. I know how they feel.

I can’t stop thinking that while the calm is a reminder of our newlywed days, it’s also a taste of our empty-nest future. What will happen when they’re gone not just for two weeks, but forever? In a pique of panic, I tell Mr. Seventy Percent, over a crisp Riesling and a plate of extra spicy chicken curry, that I will fulfill his fantasy and learn to play golf when we retire–if he promises to take up bridge. He enthusiastically agrees. And while such a future can never compete with making grilled cheese or picking up dirty socks, I must admit it holds a certain appeal. Especially if he remembers to keep the tees off the counter.

Posted in Family life, Kids, Marriage, Parenting, Pets, Reality check | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Who’s the Winner Now?

It was somewhere around the fourth hour of the softball tournament that I started silently rooting against my daughter’s team. “Swing!” I’d telepathically command the batter as the ball sailed two feet over her head. “Call it a strike,” I begged the ump. It’s not that I dislike softball; both my daughters play, as I did, and I am a devoted and enthusiastic fan at regular season games. Weekend tournaments I find more troubling, though that’s true of almost anything that takes longer than two hours: movies, concerts, meetings, road trips. Even so, I had no problem adjusting my attention span for my older daughter’s division-winning high school varsity season.

But this was a league of third- and fourth-graders, who can hit much better than they can field and who, if my 9-year-old is any guide, are far more interested in scanning the horizon for the ice cream truck than in turning a double play. Or even a single play. Billed as a fun, all-day family affair (an oxymoron if there ever was one), the Round Robin tournament promised a DJ, face paint, and [alcohol-free] tailgating. Starting at 10 a.m., the six teams would play three two-inning games apiece. The four “winning” teams would advance to the semi-finals, whose victors would compete in a four-inning final. The whole thing would wrap up somewhere around 6:00 pm.

Perhaps I am the only spoilsport, and the other parents were actually hoping for runs so they could spend eight hours sitting in the sun on hard metal bleachers. But I doubt it; they’re just better at faking it than I am. Still, I knew to suppress my  groan when our little “Green Dinos” won their first game. The girls immediately bombarded our tailgate tent–whose coordination had involved about 40 “Reply to All” emails bearing information like “I’ll bring napkins”–for Gatorade, watermelon and brownies. It was 11:15.

Plenty of my thinking peers are aware of–and alarmed by–our reputation as overindulgent, hyper-competitive parents. Yet when it comes time for events like the Round Robin tournament, which effectively showcases both traits, no one wants to be the Debbie Downer who says, “This is ridiculous! They’re 9 years old!” Even I am only brave enough to say it in a blog that no one reads.

After the Dinos lost the next two games, I cheered up. I might get the laundry and grocery shopping done after all! But as we gathered in the tailgate tent for lunch (thankfully, someone had had the excellent idea of ordering pizza instead of lugging gas grills and hamburger patties to the field), word came down that one of the teams with two losses would play in the semi-finals; it all depended on the scored-run differentials. I paced around tensely while the coaches and umpires conferred.

Finally, the coach gathered the girls around. “Well, Dinos,” he said, “you played great… but it’s the end of the line for us.” I started to cheer, but quickly converted it into a groan. My daughter came bounding over, sparkly green ribbons flying. “Am I free now?” she asked. It was only 3:15, and one of her good pals was on a different “losing” team. Playdate possibilities suddenly loomed, full of promise. So while the Lemonheads and the Purple People battled it out on the diamond, they spent the rest of the afternoon running through the sprinklers and chasing balls in the yard.

Definitely worth watching in a tournament…

Posted in Family life, Kids, Parenting, Reality check, Sports | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Hoping for a Cavity

I  felt a little surge of joy when the dentist recently reported a cavity in one of my 9-year-old’s molars. That’s because I have long suspected she doesn’t always brush her teeth when I send her into the bathroom each morning and night. Sometimes I think she just turns on the water and lets it run for a minute, so it sounds like she’s diligently scraping away the gummy worm residue. Perhaps I am revealing a major flaw in my child-rearing, but I’m not convinced her older brother and sister brush their teeth with any regularity, either; I recently spent two days sharing a room with my eldest daughter in New York City, where I observed–and she admitted–that when she’s tired, she only tackles them in the morning. I wish she’d get a cavity, too.

It’s not that I want their mouths to resemble my own silver-filled monument to the flouride-free 70s. But it’s about time they faced a consequence for something. Lately I have noticed that my dire warnings–“You’re going to be late!” “You’re going to freeze!” “You’re going to be starving!” “You’re going to get an ‘F’!”–never come to pass, completely undermining my “natural consequences” approach to parenting. Rather than nag, cajole or micromanage, I believe in letting the breakfast-skipper go hungry and the procrastinator take a zero on her lab report, under the theory that it’s the only way they’ll figure out how to manage their lives. But what, exactly, do they learn if a classmate hands over a Luna bar in homeroom or the physics teacher graciously grants an extension? They learn that I’m always wrong! They won’t actually starve or fail. At least the dentist proved me right on one score: you will get a cavity if you don’t brush.

“Still Life With Guitar,” by Pablo Picasso, 1942

Ironically, teachers appear to be the biggest obstacle to my children learning these life lessons. My 8th grade son was recently assigned a poetry project for English class, which involved writing and illustrating a dozen poems in a variety of genres. He had two weeks to complete the project, and I only started bugging him–“You’re not going to finish in time!” “You’re going to get points deducted!”–in the final few days. Even so, he spent the morning it was due frantically concocting lame haikus about household objects, and dashing off sketches to match.  He looked so miserable and disappointed in himself that I refrained from piling on. I figured his grade would be punishment enough. Well, so much for natural consequences: the teacher awarded him an A-. “She called it Picassoesque!” he said proudly.

To be fair, I am not blameless in this cycle of cause-and-no-effect. As a closet enabler, I regularly flout my own policies, unable to bear seeing my children suffer–even if it’s their own damn fault. I have, on more than one occasion, purchased a new sweatshirt for a child who insisted “It’s not cold!” when we left the house, stubbornly ignoring my meteorological foresight. I have definitely shared my sandwich with someone who initially said she didn’t want one. And I have turned back with a child who refused to wear the proper footwear on a hike or bike ride. In fact, more often than not, I’m the one who ultimately suffers the consequences of their actions. At a barbecue last weekend, my little daughter–the one with the cavity–kept eating ice cubes out of a cooler filled with drinks, not to mention, grass, pebbles and all sorts of bacteria from the dozens of hands constantly reaching in. “Stop eating the ice!” I warned her, repeatedly. “It’s dirty. It’s going to make you sick!” Chomping away, she ignored me. And yet, who was beside her the next morning, holding her hair as she bent, ashen-faced, over the toilet bowl? Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than right. But at least she won’t be eating ice from a cooler any time soon.

Posted in Family life, Kids, Parenting, Reality check, School, Teenagers | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Day Like Any Other

I didn’t have high expectations for Mother’s Day. That’s because on Friday, Mr. 70 Percent called and asked, “What do you want to do for Mother’s Day?” I was pleased that he had thought of it two full days ahead. But, as he should well know after 18 and a half years of marriage, what I most want for Mother’s Day (as well as for my birthday) is not to be asked what I want. For once, I just want someone else to take charge of the plan. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” he says in my fantasy. What follows is utterly unimportant. It could be, “Put on your: hiking boots/flip flops/stilettos” (which might first involve going to the mall to buy some). Or, “Get up; it’s time to go… to the museum/out to brunch/sky diving.” (Point of clarification: poker, golf and fly fishing do not count. It has to be something I enjoy.) The Mother’s Day gift lies not in the object or the activity, but in his assumption of the responsibility. I spend the other 363 days of the year planning, arranging, scheduling, rescheduling, organizing, overseeing, managing and coordinating. Is it too much to ask that someone else deal with it two days a year?

Apparently, yes. But luckily, I’m not much for contrivance, and I recognize the folly of forcing your family to appreciate you on a particular day. I much prefer the spontaneous flashes of sweetness my children show, however rare, to the socially-mandated ones. It helps that I spent three years writing greeting cards for Hallmark, where I learned just how manufactured a holiday Mother’s Day is (along with  Grandparents’ Day, Secretary’s Day and Boss’s Day). It was so hard for me to write the treacle that sometimes I had to get the sarcasm out of my system first. In fact, I recently came across a Mother’s Day card for new mothers that I once wrote and presented to the editors as a joke. It shows a scrawny, squawking baby bird in a nest and reads:

Congratulations on adding to the nest
A new member of your family
A baby to regurgitate slimy, raw worms for,
And teach to fly, eventually.
This cuddly, bald bundle of joy
With its beak outstretched to you
Will need you to keep it “under your wing,”
And show it the proper things to do.
It’s your job to teach it just how to fly
And soon it’ll be winging afar.
You’ll probably teach it how to fly into windows
And then how to crap on a car.
So now that you’ve hatched your blessing from heaven
Treat your new life of motherhood with zest.
Because before you can say, “Look out! There’s a cat!”
You’ll be left with an empty nest.

Of course, those words hold a tad more poignancy now, with my oldest child looking at colleges, than they did when I wrote them back in my 20s. I have come to understand that ultimately Mother’s Day is about acknowledging all that goes into being a mother, and this year mine certainly achieved that. I folded the laundry, did the grocery shopping, ran some errands, planted some flowers, sewed on a button, filled out camp forms, and fielded complaints about Hebrew school, exhaustion, and a stuffy nose. I also went out to lunch with my husband, had a drink with a friend, and made the kids do the dinner dishes.

The best thing I received was a fill-in-the-blank booklet my 9-year-old daughter had made at school, along with some sort of glittery ceramic paperweight that might be a heart or an acorn or possibly a shell. It said things like: “My mother loves me best when…” “My mother looks prettiest when…” (“she is just her self,” my little angel wrote, inaccurately.) I learned that my favorite book is The Hunger Games, which I’ve never read, and my favorite meal is not seared scallops or filet mignon with a red-wine reduction but “fruit.” However, she nailed it when she wrote that my favorite outfit is “casule ware.” But the best line of all? “I like being with my mother most when….” We cuddle? We go shopping? She takes me to CocoKeys water park? No. My unvarnished girl had filled in:  “…she’s in a good mood.” The rest of the family readily agreed. Now if only they could figure out how to put me there.

Posted in Family life, Holidays, Kids, Marriage, Parenting, Reality check, Teenagers | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Good Enough for Grandma

Now I understand why my mother always brushed my bangs out of my eyes before we visited my grandmother. There’s something about seeing your parents that makes you turn a critical eye on your own child-rearing, and nothing says “bad parenting” like  bangs in the eyes. Except, perhaps, pajamas during the daytime, long hair on a boy, and total silence, which is pretty much what my children presented to my parents when we arrived in New York City last weekend to celebrate my mother’s 75th birthday.

Normally I am proud–or at least tolerant–of their quirks, but they became less and less appealing the closer we got to New York.  My youngest daughter, who is 9, has a very distinct fashion sense, which runs toward flannel pajama pants, her brother’s ratty, old football t-shirts and deliberately mismatched socks. Most of the time, I find her style immeasurably preferable to the Hollister and Abercrombie her peers are starting to wear. But when I turned around to look at her in the back seat on our way down, all I could see was the stains on her t-shirt. At least when we went to see “Mary Poppins” the next day, she put on a skirt over her PJ shorts, though I had to talk her out of pairing it with the Nike soccer sandals that her big brother recently outgrew. As for my boy, he and some other 8th graders had made a pact not to cut their hair before Memorial Day. Well, the other kids have abandoned their end of the deal, but my son is still holding true. When I suggested he get a haircut “before we see Grandpa,” who likes his grandson to look like a grandson, he scoffed gleefully. “Nope, I like it long!” he said. And, being 14, he likes to deny every parental request he can.

But the icing on the cake was my oldest daughter, 17, who elected to take a vow of silence the very day we left for New York. She wasn’t being sullen, defiant or difficult, but she was trying to make a statement: she was participating in the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s “Day of Silence,” in solidarity with all the teens who feel they can’t express their sexuality. Whenever anyone tried to talk to her, she handed over a little slip of paper that read:

Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I am participating in the Day of Silence (DOS), a national youth movement bringing attention to the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies. My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by anti-LGBT bullying, name-calling and harassment. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward building awareness and making  a commitment to address these injustices.

I totally admired her empathy and conviction. But I still felt annoyed that she couldn’t answer my parents’ questions and had to pantomime what she wanted for dinner. In any case, my father wasn’t buying it. “What about Rachel Maddow?” he said. “She’s certainly not silent about being gay!” “She’s not a student, Dad,” I answered for my daughter.

I suppose it’s natural to want your children to look and act their best when they visit your parents; after all, we’re all still trying to make Mom and Dad proud, aren’t we? But that’s my problem, not theirs. They figured out a long time ago that Grandma and Grandpa will love them no matter what they’re wearing or how quiet they are, and that they can get away with behavior my brother and I never could have. Little surprise, then, that we had an absolutely lovely weekend, and my parents didn’t mention the word “haircut” once.

Posted in Family life, Grandparents, Kids, Parenting, Teenagers, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments