Parents Day

You’d think I would be used to it by now, the simple fact that my children have grown up.  Yet time after time the bittersweet truth hits me again, in some new and unexpected way.  A memory surfaces, vivid and fresh as this morning’s sunrise–Henry at twelve, wearing a too-big Hawaiin shirt and a pair of cool sunglasses, playing Steely Dan’s “Time Out of Mind” on the piano; or Jack, fourteen and all intensity and focus, as he reaches down to turn up his amp for a guitar solo on “Autumn Leaves.”  And in a flash my eyes fill with tears and my heart swells up, as I realize how far we’ve already traveled from those moments. Life rushes forward. Except for those rare and precious circumstances when it affords us, instead, the poignant pleasure of circling back — back to a place we’ve been before, a place that’s stayed the same even while we ourselves have changed and grown and moved on.

Nine years ago Saturday, Steve and Jack and I drove into the woods of western Maine for our first Parents Day at Camp Encore/Coda.  We took our seats in the dimness of an old post-and-beam barn on the shores of a quiet pond, and watched our son Henry play jazz keyboards for the first time in his life.  The song was Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.”  He took a little solo, glanced out to where we sat in the audience, and flashed us a grin.

Music camp had been my idea, not his. Three weeks earlier, we’d delivered our boy into the hands of a couple of friendly college students, who promised him a fine time in Starfish cabin.  And then we hugged him good-bye and left him there, shy and frightened, with a nervous stomach ache and a black trunk full of carefully labeled shorts and tee-shirts, pre-addressed and stamped envelopes for letters home, bug spray and sweatshirts and music books.  As we pulled out onto the dirt road beyond the parking lot, I realized that my own stomach felt kind of queasy.  And I wondered if, in my desire to expand our son’s world and build his confidence, I’d perhaps pushed a little too hard and a little too soon.  It wasn’t until we returned and saw him standing on the corner of the Old Music Hall stage, holding his own in a jazz band comprised of a bunch of other eleven-year-old kids, a look of pure joy on his face, that I knew for sure:  painful as it had been to insist that our boy leave home for the first time in his life, the journey now belonged to him.

Jump forward nine years.  It is Saturday, and I am in the audience at Parent’s Day again.  My son is a senior counselor, with piano students of his own to teach, a jazz workshop to lead, concerts to perform and camp musicals to play.  The memories come rushing back as I sit in the old barn — all the years we have returned to this camp that both of our sons came, in their own turn, to love.  All the times we’ve gone through the very same ritual, arriving at the gate early on a mid-summer morning, parking the car in a freshly mown field,  following the signs into camp, eyes peeled for one of our boys.  How strange, and perfectly wonderful it always was, to sit in a shed in the deep woods of Maine, listening to children and teenagers and adults all making music together.  A handful of young string musicians performing the Brandenburg concertos with exquisite nuance.  A group of kids in shorts and t-shirts, intently focused on their conductor as they sing Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”  in pure six-part harmony. A big band comprised of musicians whose average age is fourteen, swinging through intricate jazz arrangements with the panache and creativity of pros.

It’s been four years since Henry’s last sumer here, when he spent seven weeks working his tail off as a CIT.  Three years since Jack played lead guitar in the Zappa Rock Band. Camp vanished all too quickly in life’s rearview mirror, another part of childhood that had been lived and loved and left behind.  And so, part of what gives rise to so much emotion on this particular morning is my own sharp awareness of time passing. It is not exactly jealousy I feel, as I watch a new generation of parents greeting their children, exclaiming over summer tans, growth spurts, and shaggy hair.  I had my turn.  And yet I am overcome, as I walk up the familiar path and hear the sound of a solitary violin being tuned in a practice cabin, both with gratitude for this unexpected homecoming and, at the same time, with a profound, heart-breaking sense of how much is already over.

My challenge now — as it seems to be every day this summer — is to release my hold on what was, so that I can be grateful and at peace with what is.  How well I remember the acute, visceral joy of these reunions.  But there is a different joy awaiting me here now, if I can only allow myself to feel it.  Not the joy of bringing a much-missed child home at the end of the weekend, but rather the joy of being a mother who has done her job, and is now being offered an opportunity to catch a glimpse of her grown-up son doing his.

 

 

Logistics

I promised Henry that if he took a job working as a counselor and pianist at a remote music camp this summer, we would figure out some way to get him to the orthodontist every month.  This despite the fact that he has one day off a week, the day off happens to be Sunday, and we live three and a half hours away from  Sweden, Maine, where he is senior counselor to a cabin full of fourteen-year-old aspiring musicians.

And the fact is, it did take a full sixteen hours to drive to Maine last week, pick up Henry, drive to a dock on the shores of Lake Winnepesaukee, meet the kindly orthodontist who was willing to see my son right on his boat, drive back to Maine, drop Henry off in the woods,  turn around and drive home.

I assured Jack that if he wanted to accept an invitation to be an apprentice to a brilliant physical trainer this summer, we’d figure out a way to make it work.  This despite the fact that his program runs from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Thursday, and we live two hours away from the studio in downtown Boston where Jack is getting a crash course in anatomy, body work, Chinese meridians, flexibility, resistance stretching, and personality types.

And yes, making it work has meant house-sitting for three weeks in our old neighborhood, and then scrambling among friends to find unused beds and spare keys, parking permits and welcome mats. But the thing I realized this morning, as I awoke on a sway-backed pull-out couch in a friend’s borrowed Harvard Square apartment, is that I will never again be called upon to perform the jobs I’m doing these days–acting as chauffeur and room mate to my two sons.  The braces will come off at last.  We will break down and get another car.  Apartments will be sublet for summer jobs.  The kids will find their own way.

In fact, both of them are really doing that already.  All I’m providing here is a helping hand, easing the logistics in enterprises that are very much their own doing.  I guess that’s why, despite a few inconveniences,  I feel grateful to be needed, and why I am treasuring every moment of this unusually rootless summer.  Why a lobster roll on the dock and a few hours with Henry in the car was reward enough for the long drive to Maine and back.  Why every game of Bananagrams or early morning conversation or stroll through Harvard Square with Jack feels special.  Why I don’t mind at all the fact that I am living out of an L. L. Bean bag in Cambridge this week, instead of at home in my own house.

Soon enough, this summer will end.  The only thing I know for sure about next summer is that it will be different.  And so I say “yes” to really long drives, to strange beds, and to doing what ever it takes to make things work for right now.

Otherwise

We bike seven and a half miles up the road from our house, past hay fields and horses and silent, collapsing barns.  It is my favorite route from home, a long, lovely panorama of wild gardens,  moss-covered stone walls, old country houses set low to the ground, rolling pastures and sun-dappled woods.  The morning air is patchy, stunningly hot in the clear stretches, deliciously cool in the greeny darkness of shade, the trees arching over the road like a canopy as we sail along beneath, single file, each keeping our own counsel.  At the end of the road and the top of the steepest hill:  breakfast.  Blueberry pancakes with maple syrup and wonderful coffee.  Summer food, served outdoors. The picnic table with its broad green umbrella; the New York Times, sticky with syrup; old friends sitting across from us, telling the stories that always make us laugh.  The voluptuous apricot day lilies with their pale yellow throats and lobed anthers, each ruffled bloom as sensual as a centerfold.

Sated, we ride through town to the pond, park the bikes, peel off shorts and sweaty tee shirts, swim out.  Dark deep water, the silvered reflection of clouds on the still surface, the rim of trees along the far shore.   Floating on my back, suspended in stillness with my face turned to the sun, I know exactly where I am:  awake to this one moment of pure awareness.  Inhabiting the impeccable, ephemeral present.

Later, by the white light of the computer, I read a friend’s email. This time, her chemo isn’t working.

All night I lie awake in bed, staring at a shadow on the ceiling and thinking about miracles.  Who gets one? I wonder. And in the morning, I take books from the shelf, in search of a poem I read years ago, foretelling the future.

 

Otherwise

 

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise.  I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

 

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candsticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

 

                   –Jane Kenyon

 

Fireworks

I dug the fire pit out in our yard five years ago, the week we moved into the old red cottage on our New Hampshire hilltop.

It was sweltering hot, and no one was happy. The tiny, uninsulated upstairs bedrooms were unbearable.   We plugged fans into every available 1923 wall outlet, then crossed our fingers and prayed we wouldn’t blow out the ancient wiring.  But it didn’t help; the effect was more convection oven than cross breeze.

Desperation inspired us to have our first party in our new house–we needed something to distract us from the mold, the carpenter ants, the bats, the heat, the sleepless nights, and our overwhelming sense of buyer’s remorse.  It didn’t make much sense to sit around in the small airless house; the view across the field to the mountains was the real draw anyway.  And so I picked a spot out there, dug a little clearing and rimmed it with rocks, and stacked a few logs in the center.

That night there were just a handful of us–Steve and the boys and me, three of our friends–sitting by the fire, watching the sparks spiral up into the darkness as fireflies danced through the tall grass beyond.  It was nothing short of magical, a peaceful moment of deliverance after a long, sweaty, terrible week when every member of my family wished nothing more than to roll back the clock, do it all over again, and stay put — in our old suburban life in our familiar, comfortable, well-ventilated house.

What I remember most clearly about sitting by the fire that early summer night was the feeling–well, perhaps it was really just more of a hope–that at long last we were taking the first step into what we would come to love in our NEW life.  Surely, I believed then, we would have many more such evenings –  bonfires on the hilltop, easy, impromptu parties, countless reasons to gather our friends together to share food and laughter and to celebrate life’s simple pleasures.  In short order that summer, we pulled together a solstice party, a Father’s Day brunch, a birthday, a cookout on the 4th of July, a few pre-theatre suppers in honor of our new proximity to the summer stock playhouse a mile up the road, various other spontaneous get-togethers.

And then, reality set in.  Summer came to an end, cold weather arrived, and we began the long, exhausting, and expensive project of moving out of the cottage, tearing it down, designing a new house, getting it built, choosing paint and fixtures, moving again, unpacking, settling in.  It all took so much longer than we ever imagined it would.  Meanwhile, the kids grew up and life got complicated.  The party we meant to have when the house was finally finished, months later than anticipated, never happened.  I think we were just too wiped out to think about one more project.

Five years passed before we had another party on that hilltop, Steve’s 60th birthday last June.  I was so out of practice that I planned and obsessed for weeks, wondering where people would sit, how many bottles of wine to buy and how many chairs to borrow, whether we should rearrange all the furniture, rent a table, get a new grill.  It rained for days before, it rained on the day of, and it rained for a week after. That night, people stood up to eat.  We squeezed into the kitchen, clustered in the living room, managed to have a fine time despite the weather.  But the idea of heading outside, or trying to get a fire going, never entered my mind.

This year, the Fourth of July fireworks were scheduled for Monday night, at the high school just down the hill and across the valley from us–which means that the best view in town is from our hilltop.  It’s been months since we’ve had more than four people at our dinner table, and more than a year since that rainy birthday celebration.  The fire pit that I was certain would be the center of countless memorable gatherings hasn’t been used, not even once, since our very first summer here, when it seemed– for a few weeks anyway– to be at the very center of our life.

Clearly, it was time.  So, last week I fired off a few e-mails and made a few calls:  Come over for a potluck dinner and fireworks.  It used to be that such an invitation would always include the line “Bring the kids.”  These days, of course, the kids drive themselves and whether they’ll actually show up is by no means a given.

But the word went out, and I wrote a to-do list, went food shopping, and hoped for a crowd.  Jack and a friend spent a sweaty couple of hours digging out the old, overgrown fire pit, making it bigger and better than ever.  They laid an ambitious fire, stacked enough wood for a long night of revelry, and arranged all the benches and chairs we have into a semicircle.  They set up the badminton net, at my insistence.  Just in case.

And as it happened, we lucked out.  Teenagers, parents, old friends and new ones–they all came.  The table filled with food–salads and watermelon and pasta. Steaks and chicken and hamburgers and hot dogs arrived for the grill.  Coolers were carried in to the kitchen and deposited.  “Thank you,” Jack said to me in passing, “for having some normal food here.”  (He meant the Coke and ginger ale and corn chips and bottled salsa that I usually refuse to buy. But at a certain point, well, what you really want is for everyone present to feel happy and well fed.)

There was a  moment, a kind of Mrs. Dalloway moment, when I just stopped, stock still, and looked around at the loveliness of the scene.  The men were in the kitchen, drinking beer.  The women were outside, chatting.  The boys were juggling–a skill they all learned together in sixth and seventh grade and suddenly, spontaneously, decided to revive at ages seventeen and eighteen.  Clubs flew through the air. A fiercely competitive badminton game was in progress.  A group of girls sat at the picnic table, deep in conversation.  Just a few minutes later, of course, this evanescent bubble would pop and vanish forever.  Steve would carry the first platters in from the grill, the teenagers would troop in to fill their plates, and one tableau would transform itself into another, and another after that.  Dinner served and eaten, talk and laughter, dishes loaded into the dishwasher, cake sliced onto paper plates, darkness falling.

Jack touched a match to the fire. The fireworks lit up the sky.  We passed the bug spray around and sprawled out across the grass.  Marshmallows were set aflame, s’mores made and devoured.  The last time we did this, my children were still children.  I don’t know why we waited so long to find our way back here, to this ritual we created, loved, and yet abandoned all too easily — for what?  Lack of time?  Lack of energy?  Lack of belief in the enduring magic of a campfire and friends with whom to share it?

Today, I promise myself this:    More time for fun.  More intergenerational parties, before it’s too late and the younger generation is up and out and gone for good.  More fires outside, more s’mores, more reasons to celebrate the joy of being alive, of raising children to young adulthood, of spending time with those young adults–who, after all, are still learning from us, each and every day, what it means to live a good life.

Hello, good-bye

There were lots of ribbons and bows.  But it wasn’t about the gifts.  It was about the pure, untrammeled beauty of a little girl celebrating her first birthday,  just waking up to the pleasures of pink party hats, presents to open, a spoonful of ice cream, a bite of cake.  We gathered round the living room, cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, neighbors and friends, snapping photos and marveling:  just a year ago, Angelique arrived in our midst; today she is an essential member of the family, this powerful pint-sized personality exquisitely packaged and growing up before our eyes.  On the verge of walking, tossing her new red ball, laughing at her three-year-old big brother Gabriel, reveling in her moment.  Brief as my tiny niece’s time on earth has been, it’s hard to even remember what the world was like before she was in it.

Then: my husband’s buzzing cell phone, a relentless caller, Steve finally giving in, disappearing down the hall, returning with news to whisper in my ear.  A car crash, an eighteen-year-old girl dead.

Two weeks ago, Steve gave the graduation speech at High Mowing, Henry’s alma mater.  Huddled under umbrellas, our family watched as the soaked, exuberant seniors tossed their caps in the air, whooped, and hugged one another before turning to receive congratulations from the crowd.

How quickly a moment turns upon itself, from joy to grief, from light to dark, from life to death.  How to hold, on the bright summer afternoon of a child’s first birthday, the sudden, senseless death of another child, just coming into her young adulthood?

You put an arm around your own seventeen-year-old son, pull him close, and give silent thanks for his life.  You say a private, wordless prayer for a family devastated by loss.  You see in your mind’s eye a photograph of a lovely girl with long brown hair, laughing as she danced with her classmates around the May Pole.  You try to understand how it is that such a girl, with all her life to live before her, could so suddenly be gone.  You carry forks and plates out to the porch,  hug your dad, and watch your kid brother, now a father of two, cook the burgers on the grill.  You smile when your sister-in-law sweeps her beautiful children into her arms and kisses their round, fat cheeks, and you choose to spare her the day’s dose of grief.

All week, I’ve been wondering: how are we meant to do this?  How can we learn to carry both the preciousness of life and the inevitability of death in our hearts at the same time?  At the end of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” Emily, who has died in childbirth, is given the opportunity to return to earth and live one day of her life over again.  She deliberately chooses an ordinary day, her twelfth birthday — a day of eggs and bacon cooking, sunflowers in the garden, a postcard album from the boy next door, something on the table wrapped in yellow paper that once belonged to her grandmother.  To Emily, now an outsider looking in at the life she once took for granted, every minute detail of this long-since forgotten day is cause for delight and heartbreak.  So clearly does she see the fleeting, ineffable beauty of what is.  So urgent is her wish for connection, meaning, recognition.  But her distracted mother — rushing around to get breakfast on the table and her children hustled off to school — is oblivious.  Gently, appealing to her mother to wake up and really see her, Emily implores, “Just for a moment now we’re all together–Mama, just for a moment, let’s be happy.  Let’s look at one another.”

I have read this soliloquy so many times over the years — never without tears in my eyes — that I pretty much know it by heart.  And yet, again and again, I have to remind myself:  Just for a moment now, we’re all here.  Just for a moment, let’s be happy.  Let’s look at each other.

And so on Sunday afternoon, with a  heart full of sadness and confusion and gratitude all mixed up together, I did the best I could.  I looked at our big extended family — my brother and sister-in-law and all her folks; my petite, feisty niece and my earnest, easy-going nephew, my own dear parents, my husband of twenty-two years, our six-foot-tall son.  When Henry called in from his summer job in Maine, we passed the phone around.  Three-year-old Gabriel ate the first hamburger of his life.  Angelique tolerated her party hat. Plates were filled, food eaten, pink frosted cupcakes handed out to all takers.

“Oh earth,” Emily cries when she can bear the poignance of her visit no longer, “you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you!” Turning to the wise, omniscient Stage Manager, she asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?”

“No,” he says quietly.  And then, “Saints and poets maybe–they do some.”

How I aspire to be one of those poets.  To allow myself to know the ache of sadness, but to remember as well that life offers us good reason in each and every day to be lovestruck. To learn to see by learning to write. To “realize life,” as Emily would say, by truly inhabiting every moment that’s granted me, without ever holding on too tight to what’s already passing, changing, turning into some new, endlessly surprising present.

Mary Oliver is surely our patron saint and poet both.  Reading her words, I get a sense of what it might mean to let experience flow freely through an open heart, suffused with the tenderness of true compassion.

 

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

 

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go

 

Happy first birthday dear Angelique.  Peace be with you dear Abby.  And the world spins on.