The Ones Who Kept Me Warm

I often wonder if everyone suffers from nostalgia to the same degree that I do.

I don’t know what it is about me and the past. For some reason I have a difficult time letting go of people, places, periods of my life. I don’t like to admit that certain friendships or experiences are over. “Over” just seems so final.

With every transition in my life – from my childhood in upstate New York to Trinity College in Connecticut to my post-graduate life in St. Louis, and finally to Anderson, South Carolina – I left behind people that I had at one point laughed with, confided in, leaned on. High school teammates. College roommates. Colleagues. It wasn’t necessarily anyone’s fault that we eventually lost touch, and let’s face it, who really has room in their life for EVERY person they have ever cared about? It isn’t realistic. In fact, it’s kind of insane.

The thing is, my memories, though they may be slightly rose-colored by nostalgia, are attached to people, and I hate feeling as if they lose some of their joy because the co-stars of those memories are no longer in my life. Memorizing the security code to one of the fraternity houses so we could let ourselves into their kitchen after-hours. Workshopping poems while eating apples from our professor’s orchard. Living in a communist-era dormitory in Prague and learning how to navigate the language, the city, the culture. Singing karaoke. A lot of karaoke. (Because Lord knows it’s no fun to sing “I Would Do Anything for Love” alone.) Teaching on a team in which every other member was old enough to be my parent but none too old to be my friend.

Back in 2006 I was teaching part-time at John Burroughs, an independent school in St. Louis. One of the amazing things about this school was that it included a wilderness campus in the Ozarks, used for team-building as well as for science classes. As a first-year teacher I was sent away on the 7th-grade orientation trip and assigned a small group of 7th-graders to take out on “Solo”.  Students were placed at intervals along a trail in the woods, and they would wait, by themselves (hence the name), for night to fall. After four hours or so in the freezing Ozark night a teacher would collect them and march them to the lodge to be rewarded for their bravery with hot chocolate and a fire. This was a rite of passage at Burroughs, an opportunity for the initiate class to face their fears and, hopefully, find some time to reflect and meditate.

As group leader I could choose whether I wanted to return to camp, checking on my students periodically, or conceal myself in the woods nearby, just in case anyone had a major panic attack. I chose the latter, partly because I wanted to see for myself what these kids were experiencing. I couldn’t imagine being asked to do this at the age of twelve, but as an adult I could see the value in taking on such a challenge. I, too, would go solo.

The dark was bad. The cold was worse. Every so often I checked my watch, sure that it would be time to take the kids back to the lodge, but time didn’t pass the same way in the woods as it did in civilization. So, to survive my own Solo, I made up a game. I would think about people I cared about, some of whom were currently in my life, some with whom I had already lost contact, and they would keep me warm. The friend I worked with at the pizzeria who cooked me his own creations during our shift because I needed “to put some meat on my bones.” The guy in college who I thought might be a love interest but ended up just being really, really nice. I visited him in his hometown once and we ate chicken patties with his dad while watching Jeopardy, then I drove back home without him ever trying anything. I thought about friends who would talk me through my problems until the sun came up. I thought about my sisters, who both went to Boston College and made sure, when I visited, to tell every guy we encountered how old I was: “This is my sister. She’s sixteen.”

It sounds weird, I know- fuzzy memory bubbles radiating light and heat – but I swear to God it worked. I wasn’t shivering anymore; my fingers and toes weren’t going numb. These past friends and acquaintances, many of whom would probably have never guessed they made the list, kept the cold at bay.

I would name all of them if I wasn’t a coward. It’s just that I don’t want to be that weird girl (strange that I still can’t bring myself to write “woman”) who somebody knew five, ten, fifteen years ago who randomly gets in touch and says, “You know what? You mattered to me, even if it was in some tiny, mundane way.” I don’t want to be someone who tries too hard to rekindle friendships that fizzled out long ago. I don’t want to look desperate, overcome by nostalgia, caught up in a past that no longer exists.

I guess the next best thing is to start now, to let there be no question – in my work relationships, my friendships, my family, my marriage – when somebody is making a difference in my life, making it better. Maybe if I take care of that business in the present, I’ll no longer need nostalgia.

So, on that note, if you are reading this, if you have supported this little passion of mine, thank you for being supportive. Thank you for helping me stay warm. You matter. Thank you.

A Distress Call from a Mommy Hostage

Is it just me, or is being a parent eerily similar to being stalked?

Seriously, think about it. The loss of privacy is staggering: in my own home, there is no guarantee that I will be able to use the bathroom, take a shower, get dressed, or sleep without some tiny person barging in and either a) interrogating me about what is taking place, b) attempting to join me, or c) inexplicably crying. There are people pulling my dirty laundry out of my hamper. Wearing my underwear around their necks. Going through my garbage. It’s enough to make a person paranoid.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with an old friend several years ago. We were catching up on each other’s lives, and he had recently moved in with his girlfriend. “How’s that going?” I asked. “It’s okay,” he replied. Then, after a pause, he continued. “It’s just that… she’s always there, you know?” Needless to say, the relationship did not last.

Obviously breaking up with my kids is not an option, nor is reporting their repeated violations of my privacy to the authorities, but I have to admit, nothing makes me grumpier than feeling like I’m being held hostage in my own home by two people whose greatest weapons are their lung capacity and their superhuman ability to resist my will.  Most days I feel like I work my butt off trying to create a scenario in which I will have two minutes to myself. (Oh, and remember how I used to want to stay at home? That notion is more hilarious to me with every passing summer day.)

Here’s the other thing about having no privacy: My children are watching and learning during every second that we spend together. My three-and-a-half-year-old retains EVERYTHING. Anything I do or say may be repeated to friends, teachers, or other acquaintances, and most likely taken completely out of context. No moment of the day is off the table, from putting on my makeup in the morning (“What’s this?” “Mascara.” “Why you wear it?” “To make my eyelashes darker.” “Why?” “Because I just like them that way!”) to every ounce of food or drink I choose to ingest. I find myself sneaking candy to hide it from her rather than deal with explaining why mommy can have half a bag of gummy bears when I wouldn’t think of letting her do the same thing. And if she walks in on me during my attempt, I invariably end up giving her a couple because I look and feel so guilty.

I try to put a positive spin on it by telling myself that my kids’ omnipresence makes me more accountable as a person and a parent. I think, a day will come when they will be independent and won’t want to follow their mom around like ravenous puppy dogs, and when that day comes I’ll miss that feeling of being constantly needed, of having children hanging from my clothes and threatening to pants me every time I’m wearing a garment without a button or drawstring. Or I simply cheer myself up with the notion of waiting ten years and getting revenge, because after a decade of learning how to sneak away from them, I am going to be a boss at sneaking up and embarrassing the crap out of them.

Who Will You Be? (A Parent’s Guessing Game)

When my daughter Maggie was only three or four months old, my husband and I decided that “sassy” was an apt adjective to describe her personality. She didn’t smile easily, viewing all grown-ups other than her parents with unconcealed suspicion. And I know it sounds strange, but even as a baby she seemed to have a sense of humor, carefully watching those around her, picking up on what we thought was funny and then performing with an almost deadpan expression to see what our reactions would be. She wasn’t sweet or cuddly; she didn’t like bows and dresses. She wanted to sit on the couch with a pile of books and take in every page, or spend an hour working on a puzzle that children two or three years older would have found difficult. She was (and is) our smart, sassy little girl.

Within weeks of Cecilia’s birth we could already distinguish differences in temperament. When Ceci woke at night she didn’t cry, but would lay cooing in her crib until I went in to feed her. “She’s such an easy baby,” I marveled. Where Maggie had glowered at or quietly observed well-meaning strangers, Ceci grinned at them. She was such an agreeable child that we soon realized we could use her mood as a tool for diagnosing illness. If Ceci wasn’t happy, off to the doctor we went to get treated for an ear infection or some other ailment. It seemed like sickness was the only thing that could wipe the angelic smile from her face, and often she smiled right through it.

These comparisons between my daughters went on for some time: one smart and sassy, one sweet and easy. I had summed up my children in just a couple of words each – how efficient!

On the eve of her first birthday, though, Ceci is refusing to stay true to the image I have created for her. There is more fussing, more complaining, more throwing of food and drink as she decides that she has preferences and a will of her own. Maggie, meanwhile, has become an open and friendly little girl. She makes friends on the playground and shows her “cowgirl boots” to everyone we pass in the grocery store. These developments remind me that as hard as I try, my children will not allow me to define them.

Let me, however, make something very clear. I do not wish to dictate who my children will one day become. There are parents out there who decide when their child is very small, “She will be a doctor,” or “He will be a football player,” but I assure you, that isn’t me. They could be rodeo clowns or spokesmodels or professional hula hoopers as long as they are happy (and making a living). No, the reason why I constantly attempt to encapsulate who they are and what they’re about is because I’m dying to know more about these incredible little humans who have been gifted to my care.

That’s it – I’m curious. I can’t wait to see if Maggie’s love of music will bring her into theater. It isn’t a stretch to imagine her singing and dancing her heart out in front of a large audience. Will her love of books lead to academic excellence, or will she be one of those readers whose head is in the clouds all day long? Will she be an athlete? A dancer? A martial artist? And at what point do I have to step in and take a role in steering her toward some of these possibilities?

(Clearly all of these questions apply for Cecilia as well, but since her interests at this point are confined to playing with Tupperware, tipping over her dog’s water bowl, and repeatedly putting on necklaces and taking them off, I don’t have as much to go on.)

Each time I learned I was pregnant, my husband and I decided not to find out the gender of the baby. “There are so few surprises in life,” was the line we used to explain our reasoning. To be honest, those two moments when the doctor announced, “It’s a girl!” are probably going to be the least surprising moments of our daughters lives. Every day I get to know them better, but I will never know everything there is to know about them. Some surprises will be welcome, others, I’m sure, less so. But as eager as I am to see what the future holds for my children, I wouldn’t get into a time machine for a glimpse of what’s to come. Not for a million dollars, though I’d be tempted. Because it’s the process that’s important, and I want to be there when it all unfolds. A lifetime of revelation- what’s not to love about that?

My girls, my mysteries. Who will these kiddos be?