4th of July

The newest citizen in this morning’s 4th of July parade was less than three weeks old; the oldest arrived on the planet over one hundred years ago. The span of years between the tiny, swaddled infant riding in his mother’s arms and the frail old man waving to the crowd from a vintage Chevy was astonishing — a century’s worth of Independence Days come and gone for one, a very first public outing for the other.

The fact that they were both on hand to be honored on this steamy summer day seemed cause enough for holiday spirit. The sight of these two, the innocent babe and the proud centurion, put everything else into perspective: the down-home joy of a small town’s annual celebration, the comfort of tried-and-true traditions, the preciousness of this particular, never-to-be-repeated morning, the inevitable passage of time.

I tried to take it all in: my own parents, cheering on their two youngest grandchildren on their decorated bicycles; my brother and his wife, gamely marching alongside the trikes and training wheels; my husband snapping pictures; the multigenerational crowd gathered along Main Street; the antique tractors, the Shriners in their funny little cars, the kids with water balloons and squirt guns; the bagpipers, boy scouts, and baton twirlers; the fire trucks and vintage cars.

The 4th of July always feels poignant to me, a day when my heart lifts and, at the same time, feels heavy in my chest. It is the too-soon turn of summer, the moment when this brief season suddenly starts to feel over instead of still beginning. We go from one first after another — the first dinner on the porch, the first day it’s still light at nine, the first ripe strawberries, the first hummingbird at the petunias, the first nasturtium blossoms in the garden — to a glimpse of endings. The baby robins leave the nest, the foxgloves drop their blossoms, the furled goldenrod appears alongside the road, the school forms arrive in the mail, the sun sets a little earlier.

I guess I’m greedy. There is never enough summer for my liking, never a long enough day, never an afternoon that fully satisfies my yearning for more. “The strange part about being human,” Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote the other day in a reflection in the New York Times, “is that that ‘life’ so easily comes to mean a quantity of time, an allotment of experience. We note that we are alive, without recognizing that we are, for a time, indomitable organisms sharing a planet with indomitable organisms of every other kind.”

I’ve thought about those words all week. The mystery that delivers us into existence, the luck-of-the-draw allotment of time, the very fact of our own insignificance in the large scheme of things. And yet, because we are indeed human, we do need to invest our time on this earth with meaning. More and more it seems to me that the real meaning is not in the big moments, but in the chain of interconnected small ones, the ones we might miss altogether, so eager are we to get on to the next thing. A parade is a pretty good time to slow down, take a good look around, and remember the blessing of our being here. What we tend to forget, unless we are the awe-struck parents of a newborn, or the venerable holder of the Oldest Citizen cane, is that every moment in life is big.


They grow up.  They leave home.  And then, of course, they come back.  They  return bearing bags of dirty laundry, stray socks, T-shirts you’ve never seen before, strange cords for charging various digital devices.  They are different, in a way you can’t put your finger on.  Taller, yes, but that’s not quite it.  Bigger in some other way; deeper, with knowledge that won’t be shared with you. They are clean shaven (because they know you love that).  They wear their hair short by choice — now that you’re no longer the one saying, “You need a haircut.”  They use words like “fundamentalist” and “metaphorical” and are eager to test your knowledge on constitutional amendments and C.S. Lewis.  They want to know your thoughts about original sin, and whether you can still scan a line of poetry.  They realize that you will be of no help on the paper they have to write analyzing the thematic and rhythmic structure of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”  They are hungry.  Really, really hungry.  You go through a dozen eggs a day, a gallon of orange juice, a gallon of milk.  They spend hours on Facebook.  Their rooms, pristinely vacant these last months, are instantly in shambles.  You are not the least bit tempted to pick their jeans up off the floor.  They want you to watch clips of the Daily Show at midnight, and you do, even though your bedtime lately has been closer to 10:30 than 12. (Well, admit it, you’re often in bed even earlier than that.)  They ask for the car keys, and you’re happy to hand them over.  When you say, “Be home for dinner,” they don’t even protest.  (They appreciate your cooking!)  When they’re running late, they text, to let you know.  Their friends come over. . .and seem genuinely happy to see you — eager to talk, hang around in the kitchen, tell you about their lives as they eat your food. They say “thank you” for the meal and put their dishes into the dishwasher without being asked. You hear the thwack of ping pong balls in the basement, cries of victory, deep laughter.  You don’t tell anyone what time to go to bed, or worry about what they’re doing down there after you’re asleep.  You wake up at four, in a dark and silent house, and allow your thoughts to drift.  The very thing you once took for granted — two boys asleep in their own beds down the hall — has become rare.  You used to think that you would never get “your” life back, the one where you got to choose how to spend your own time, or what to watch on TV, or how loud the music in the car should be.  But of course, it’s been your life all along, and those little boys were always on their way out the door, growing up and growing away from you, even as they were pressing your buttons and driving you nuts and forgetting their homework and not brushing their teeth.  You wonder if you paid enough attention, if you cherished those days enough, if you ever really grasped the fact that your life was always in the process of turning into something else.  You don’t want to be too hard on that younger, more impatient self.  But you are perhaps a little wiser now, more attuned to the moment, how precious it is.  And so you don’t mind being awake, listening to your husband’s gentle breath rising and falling beside you, the dog’s soft snore, the wind tossing the bare branches outside the window.  Everyone is home, glad to be here. You give thanks for that.

Spice of Life

They have a few things in common, my sons.  There were  a couple of  years there when backyard baseball, MLB Showdown, and Magic cards were mutually beloved pastimes.  They both recall the same antipathy toward a certain elementary school Spanish teacher.  They share a passion for music, and sometimes, after dinner, Jack will tune up his guitar and they will play jazz together.  They are big on Jon Stewart  (the two of them will sit at breakfast, the laptop open between them, watching last night’s Daily Show as they eat their cereal).  They love “House,” the Beatles, President Obama, our dog Gracie, pancakes, the Peanut Blaster at Dairy Queen, the state of Maine.  They hold a reverence for tradition, adore their little cousins, and look forward to big family dinners.  At this moment, I’m pretty sure that Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” is the most-played song on both of their iPods.

But the thing that still amazes me most about the two human beings I gave birth to twenty and seventeen years ago is how different they are. It’s as if the God of Parenthood set out to see how wildly diverse he could be within one gene pool — and fully succeeded in the effort to create two opposite-ends of the spectrum guys.  As one of their early babysitters, a sweet young Hungarian girl, once said after a long night of trying to accommodate two utterly different agendas and temperaments, “Take these two little boys, put them in a pot, stir them both together, then you have a reasonable child.”

And yet, for years our family life was all about trying to make things work for both of them.  We shared a house, a life, a schedule, and somehow we needed to get to the baseball games and the piano recitals, come up with one homemade Halloween costume and buy one gross-out scary mask, kiss one boy goodnight before he conked out in his bed and produce a multi-chapter goodnight saga for the other, give up on the idea of hand-me-down clothes in order to allow each to pursue his own particular style.  (You can’t ask the boy who wants to wear bright orange to dress in his older brother’s sage green castoffs.)

It’s easier now.  They’ve grown up, gotten drivers’ licenses, attend different schools in different states, and increasingly live their own lives.  But I do kind of miss the old negotiations and the juggling, not to mention the variety of our days.  Henry and Jack, together, were a spicy mix.  Raising them, living with them, wasn’t always easy but it was always interesting.  Being their parents stretched us, in ways I’m not sure I fully appreciated in the moment, when I was being asked to test out yet another original board game created by Jack, or to attend one more puppet show produced by Henry in the bedroom.  But now, looking back, I realize that the activities they poured their hearts into when they were very young were the precursors of their passions today.

Jack would spend hours painstakingly making masks, inventing playing cards,  drawing whacky animated figures on tiny pieces of paper to make a flip book.  A few weeks ago, he emailed me his first animation project.

Henry conducted symphonies behind closed doors, a chopstick in his hand, his tape player turned as loud as it would go.  He would corral the neighborhood kids to perform in his musical productions, put together notebooks of his favorite show tunes, envision musical revues.  The other night he carried his laptop into my bedroom, to play me a recording of a song he performed last month at a school concert, the only jazz number in an evening of classical music.

I was talking on the phone yesterday with my friend Carole.  Our children, exactly the same age, grew up together.  I remember her Alex at ten, masterminding the construction of a K’Nex ball machine in our playroom.  Today he’s a computer science major at Princeton,  creating a computer game that he intends to sell this summer.  “Isn’t it amazing,” I said, “that our kids are so capable?  That they have totally surpassed us in so many ways, doing exactly the things that, given who they are, we would have expected them to do?”

Carole admitted that, when it comes to math, Alex has been out of her league since he was in eighth grade.  But she knew what I meant.  Our grown children are just coming into themselves, stepping up and finally beginning to realize those ambitions that first took shape years ago, in the long, dream-filled hours of childhood.

I have to say, being a witness to this process of claiming and becoming is turning out to be one of the high points of parenthood.  And since I’m a mom, and this is what moms do, I’m sharing what my boys are up to these days with you. Click here for Henry’s song “Blue Sky” and here  for Jack’s Bubbling Mud animation. And pay attention to the messes your own children are making, and how they spend their time when there’s nothing much to do: you may be catching glimpses of their futures.






Spring break

Every year since our sons were very young, our family has come to Florida for a week of visits with the grandparents and a welcome respite from the back side of winter.

Yesterday morning, we stepped out our back door at 4:30 am, into a torrent of freezing rain, gusting wind, slush.  In darkness, eyes still sleep-sandy, we made our way along the empty, icy roads to the airport — bright lights, security lines, hot Starbucks coffee.

As always, the contrasts of the day astonished me.  It is surreal, to wake up in one familiar place and go to sleep hours later in another.  My parents’ airy, modern home  on a densely populated saltwater canal couldn’t be more different than our own rustic wooden house in New Hampshire.  In the course of one day we exchange dirty snow and still-bare trees for lush green lawn, bougainvillea, and rustling palms; fleeces and boots and gloves for shorts and sunglasses and bare feet.  Drum fish commence their percussive mating call in the water beyond the open bedroom windows, the temperature is a mild sixty-eight degrees, the kitchen fruit bowl overflows with strawberries, avocados, cantaloupe.

There isn’t much to do here — no beach nearby, no cool sights to see or touristy events to attend.  When the boys were little we would treat them to a Little Rascals video, go out for a pancake breaksfast, set up coloring books outdoors, play games of Clue.  A trip to the Dairy Queen or a round of miniature golf might be the focus of the day.  Yet, year after year, we’ve come back, to do pretty much the same things we did the year before — spending a few days with Steve’s parents three hours north of my folks, visiting my aunt and uncle, relaxing with my mom.  Meanwhile, our sons grew up.  Over time, Netflix movies replaced the Little Rascals, video games edged out board games (though Scrabble and Bananagrams have brought us back together around the table), laptops have taken the place of coloring books and crayons. Pancakes and Dairy Queen are still part of the agenda, though they don’t elicit the excitement they once did.

Waking up this morning on the fold-out couch in the den, to the smell of fresh coffee and the low coo of mourning doves,  I was overcome with a sense of the long, slow passage of time.  How much has changed in our lives, even as this one annual ritual has held.  The privilege of being both mother and daughter in this house will come to an end, I know.  The day will arrive when our boys will no longer choose a visit to grandma as a spring-break destination.  My parents, in their seventies, cannot be our hosts forever. There are plenty more changes in store.

And so I am grateful for every morning that we find ourselves here, in any family combination, waking to birdsong and the sound of my mom making coffee in the kitchen.  In recent years, Steve’s father has passed away, and his mother has declined into the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.  My aunt, sick for several years, passed in December.  Our sons, at different schools, have different vacation schedules now, without even a single day of overlap.  The family vacation of old has been transformed this year into a new, staggered arrangement of comings and goings.  Everyone will get here, but not at the same time.  This week, Jack is with us.  Henry will arrive for his own spring break soon after his dad and brother head back north.  For a few days in between boys’ visits,  my mom and I will be all alone together — rarely possible when my two sons were both at home, but a special perk of this new life chapter.

Slowly, I’m learning to accept — no, appreciate — the possibilities of our new reality.  Needed less by my own children these days, I am free to create new, closer relationships with my parents.  At seventeen, the age my son Jack is now, I considered an evening spent home alone with my mom and dad as some kind of social failure on my part.  Now, at fifty-one, it is a rare treat.

Last summer, my feelings were often bruised by the sight of my son pacing the house, cell phone pressed to his ear, trying to make a plan, any plan, that would get him out of the house for the night.  What I should have remembered, of course, is that life is transformation.  The present moment is always in the process of becoming something else, just as our children are always growing and changing, becoming fuller expressions of themselves.  They flee our presence as if pre-programmed to do so, and then they return, in time, by their own volition.  Tonight, the old cribbage board has been taken out of the closet.  As I sit here typing, Jack and Steve are side by side on the couch, shuffling cards, laughing, relaxed, talking in their own peculiar shorthand.  We are three generations here under one roof, not quite a complete family, but content with one another’s company.  Sort of like old times, but different.