On Letting Your Kid Drive Half-Way Across the Country. Alone.

This spring, on the cusp of her 21st birthday, my younger daughter flew from New Jersey to Minneapolis, rented a U-Haul and stretched a little further west—driving a few hours into North Dakota. Then, over the course of the next four days, she worked her way back east, making her last stop along the coast of New Hampshire and then hopping on a bus the next day to Boston and finally, flying home to Newark.

Since her return, my heart has slowly made its way out of my throat and back down into my chest where it belongs.

While my third child was somewhere in Indiana dipping her toes in Lake Michigan, and visiting the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, ND, I spent most of the week she was away refreshing her location on my iPhone, ensuring she was alive by watching the icon I use for her on my phone — a picture of a cartoonish bear I took at Target that reminded me of her — move across the country.

For a while one afternoon, the icon seemed to stall somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin on my phone, indicating where she had been 14 minutes earlier — then 15 — but wouldn’t update to where she was at that moment. I had resolved not to call or text while she was driving her rig — I didn’t want to distract her or let her feel the wind from my hovering beating hard over her curly head from 1,000 miles away — but was overpowered by the mental image I had of her pinned beneath an 18-wheeler.

“HE-L-L-O!” she answered happily when I called, in her best Oprah-like voice, and told me she had pulled over to take a walk through a nature reserve she’d read about the night before. She wanted to stretch her legs a bit before resuming her journey to Kalamazoo for the night. “There’s, like, zero reception here,” she told me, explaining why her location wasn’t updating on my phone.

A few minutes later, she sent me a video from the top of a gorge, which panned down to a waterfall spilling into the stream far below, and then spun around to show me the sun-dappled woods behind her. It was picturesque and serene and a little too deserted for my liking. IMG_3379

While I was happy to hear she wasn’t in a fiery heap on the side of the interstate, I was also concerned that she was about to end up shackled in the back of a serial killer’s van, destined to become the sleeve of his skin suit. “Please text me as soon as you get back in the U-Haul,” I told her, “and lock the doors!”. A little while later, she sent a picture of the truck, parked in a deserted looking lot, which is exactly the kind of scene a location scout would pick for a movie about a young woman’s abduction on her journey across America.

I said a silent prayer to Sacagawea, whose image was plastered across the side of the U-Haul, to help keep my daughter safe as she rolled through the Upper Midwest towards New Hampshire, like Lewis and Clark making their way to the Pacific, except with podcasts and Spotify.

It had all the makings of a great story: my daughter, just home from a semester in Italy, was dead broke and had the opportunity to make a nice chunk of change, while touring her own country for a few days. Even though she’d spent the previous four months exploring Europe — taking a bike tour through Munich and traveling from Florence to Greece on a 30-hour journey akin to Odysseus’, minus the Cyclops — a road trip seemed like a well-timed adventure before beginning her summer internship at a big resort in Pennsylvania. And for a girl from New Jersey, anything west of Pittsburgh seemed pretty exotic

The opportunity to go on this 8-hour-a-day-odyssesy through the upper half of the country and make some money came from right next door. Our neighbor, Liz, is a bookkeeper and one of her clients had asked whether her college-aged son would be interested in the job. When he couldn’t, Liz immediately thought of my daughter and texted me with all the details.

In a nutshell, a New Hampshire-based marketing firm (Liz’s client) was looking to make an impression on some big corporations by hiring someone to hand-deliver to their marketing execs end tables with company logos, crafted by some artisans in North Dakota. The job was to pick up the tables from the workshop and travel back east, making two deliveries (Minneapolis and Ann Arbor), and then transporting the rest of the furniture to New Hampshire, all expenses paid plus a nice check at the end.

What could go wrong?

I was nervous at first, but everything checked out and in the many years that I have known Liz, she has never done anything remotely reckless. She recently spearheaded a campaign in town to encourage more kids to walk and bike to school, and wears a reflective vest when she goes on her early morning runs. I was confident she wasn’t setting my daughter up to be a drug mule.

“She might want to check what’s inside those table legs,” said my friend Dan — who’d worked a dozen years as a prison guard before becoming a personal trainer, and has witnessed horrible things on both ends of the economic spectrum. “It’s just the way I think,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

Around the same time, a good friend was sending her husband to fetch their daughter (my girl’s BF) from college in St. Louis and drive her back to New Jersey in their car, which she’d had for the year. “You better tell her to be careful,” my friend said when I told her of my own daughter’s wacky caper.

And that’s when panic set in.

Truth be told, I am not prone to smothering tendencies as a parent. In fact, sometimes I can be a little too hands off. I keep forgetting to check my 15yo’s grades from last marking period online and still don’t know whether I need to call to check if a parent is home, every time he goes over to a friend’s house. It just seems so aggressive.

I do enjoy some casual stalking though, insisting that all the kids — even ones who don’t live with me anymore — share their locations with me on their iPhones (okay, not the 25yo boy, who thinks all of us stalking each other is weird). 

Aside from the solo aspect of the journey, I was also worried about all of that driving. I get sick when the kids are on long-distance drives, like the 8-hour haul the older two kids had to their college in Virginia. And I hate when any of my kids are flying and insist they text the minute the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac. But I also don’t want my children spending their lives standing still.

If I was going to be completely honest, I think what concerned me the most about the journey — besides all the driving and traveling by herself — was whether other people would think I was an irresponsible parent for allowing her to go.

I didn’t want anyone to think that I was a bad mom. 

When she was little, I used to refer to my third child as “The Boss” because, even at a young age, she was someone who liked to take charge — or at the very least — stand up to her older two siblings. They’d lounge around on beanbag chairs in our basement when they were little, watching Barney and Thomas the Tank Engine videos that ran on a loop, while I pried little scraps of American cheese off the floor upstairs after lunch. One afternoon  my oldest came up crying and holding his cheek, sobbing something about his baby sister, who was probably around 2 at the time. Apparently, tired of being harassed by her oldest brother, The Boss had gotten up off her pink beanbag chair and bit him in the face. And he never bothered her again.

I knew in my heart that my girl, that Boss, could handle a 2,000-mile drive across the country. That she was up to the challenge. But the reaction I got as I told peopleexcitedly at first about the trip, had me questioning whether I should have even told my kid about the job in the first place.

What no one ever tells you when your children are young, when they’re offering advice about whether they should sleep on their back or their side or if you should worry when one bites her brother in the face, is that it never ends. What you never find out until it’s too late, is that you will worry about your child until you take your last breath.

And I think the only way to manage that crushing reality, is to recognize that for the most part, they’ve got it. It might not always go to way you’d like it to go, or the way you try to manipulate outcomes (“Hello, my name is Amy, and I can be a master manipulator.”) but they usually figure it out. I’ve watched a million times as I’ve tried to play the role of the puppeteer that they do what’s best for them when I drop (or, okay, they cut) the strings.

They pick the right colleges and get full-time jobs with 401ks. And if they don’t, it’s valuable information for them to use in the future.

Maybe in the end, it all just comes down to faith.

So, while my inner voice told me it would all be fine, I ratcheted up my hovering, lest anyone think I didn’t care about my daughter. And then I started to lose faith. I stopped listening to my inner voice.

As soon as she drove away in the Uber for her flight to Minneapolis, I became pretty focused on her whereabouts. I immediately started stalking the hell out of her on my phone, which I think charmed her at first and then quickly became very irritating.

Aside from the stalking, I also spent much of the week serving as her travel agent, combing the internet to book rooms and find places for her to eat. And while I tried to find the “best” places for her to go, she really just wanted to get something to eat and lie down.

She ended up at the Mall of America after a long day of driving from North Dakota one day (“I’m so overwhelmed,” she texted when she got inside. “Why didn’t you ever bring us here on vacation?”), and I tracked her location inside the megamall. I could see on my laptop where she was, and tried to guide her to good places for dinner like she was Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible and I was trying to help her find an escape route. I had all of these amazing ideas (I thought) and eventually, she stopped texting and later told me she rode a rollercoaster and grabbed some hibachi at Benihana.

She did her own research each night in her hotel room, which took her to see a giant pink elephant in Wisconsin and ate what she said were “the most amazing” beef tacos (“It’s rated the #1 restaurant in DeForest,” she texted.). One morning, she messaged asking, “Should I go see a forest or the world’s largest six-pack of beer?” which led her for that deserted walk around the woods of Pewits Nest, alongside a stream called Skillet’s Creek in Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin. A place from which I thought she’d surely never escape. 

For a while one afternoon as she approached Chicago, I tried to find places for her to park the U-Haul so she could go visit that giant bean, but in the end, we determined no parking garage could accommodate her rig and that she’d come off looking like aterrorist. Instead, she pulled off at Indiana Dunes State Park and stood in the clear shallow water of Lake Michigan before spending the night in Kalamazoo.

Along the way, she stopped for lunch in Cleveland one day with her roommate from freshman year (even though I was dying for her to go to Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor), and another day had breakfast with one of her best pals who lives in Harrisburg, PA. She stopped for the night to stay at her apartment in State College, PA, to see friends and pick up bedding and stuff for her summer internship at Hershey Park.

Finally, she arrived around 8 p.m. in Portsmouth, NH after a long day of driving from State College, where she finally met the man she’d been driving across the country for who took her to get something to eat before she collapsed at a Hilton Garden Inn for the night. The next morning, she took a bus to Boston and flew home, where she promptly ate some leftover quiche in the frig, snuggled our dog and watched the royal wedding, which had happened earlier that day. 

A week later she packed up our old GMC and drove back to Pennsylvania to start her internship and we joked that the three-hour trip would feel like nothing after her midwestern odyssey.

After a day of orientation, she worked her first 8-4:30 day in housekeeping and when I asked how it went, she told me her feet were killing her.

She was on her way back to the apartment she shared with five other interns and was going to shower and change to meet friends for an early dinner, and then had to run to Wal-Mart to by an all-black sneaker to wear to work the next day.

“Well, how do you feel?” I asked as she pulled into her apartment complex and was about to get out of the car.

“I feel like a legit grown up,” she told me.

And I couldn’t have agreed more.

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Adios, Middle School

If my calculations are correct – and really, feel free to check because I am not known for counting, much less calculating – my youngest child’s last day of 8th grade this week brings our family’s 19 years in our town’s public school system to a close and ends what for me has been a lovely era of my life.

Of course, that’s how I remember it now. It’s easy to feel all gooey about school Halloween parades of days gone by from the comfort of the cozy chair in my office. Back then, I could have done without having to find a parking spot about a mile from the school (#alwayslate) and hauling myself – and whoever I was pushing in the stroller or dragging by their sticky little hand – behind the elementary school to squeeze through the crowd so that our little cherub dressed as a ninja/ghoul/sexy witch could see us as he/she made their way along the parade path.

As you would expect, I am a very different person now as a 50-year-old lady than I was when my oldest started kindergarten in 1998. I was 32 with three little kids at home and kinda excited about letting somebody else take care of at least one of my children for a part of the day. I was getting tired of filling those days with story time at the library and hauling everyone in and out of the car seats in our mini van for a trip to the grocery store. And, I thought, it would be nice to go to the gynecologist without hearing a small voice close to my feet trapped high up in the stirrups saying in horror, “Mom … your fanny” (I did not make that up).

Alas, our town still had half-day kindergarten back then, so it wasn’t until the kids hit first grade that I started to see some relief of the constant mothering. In fact, about 10 years later, and after about 16 years home with children full time, I ended up shipping my fourth off to a full-day program when our town’s half-day situation just wasn’t enough. Let me tell you, that little bus that came and scooped him up every morning and then deposited him home nice and tired in the afternoon probably saved at least two of my older children’s lives.

When the oldest began kindergarten, I think I was about as clueless as he was in the ways of Big Kid School. I had no idea how things worked. I mean, I was still trying to figure out preschool. For instance, I didn’t realize that those pastel-colored flyers that came home in my son’s backpack at the end of each day, tucked between pages of penciled letters and numbers, contained vital information. Back before school websites and CODE RED ALERT texts and emails, moms had to rely on finding and retrieving sheets of paper to find out, say, when to expect Back-to-School-Night.

I learned about my child’s first back to school night while standing one morning at the bus stop when another mom – you know, the kind of mom who somehow made you feel bad about these things – informed me it was later that evening. The same night I had plans to take a train into the city to meet my old work-wife for some fancy fashion thing she’d asked me to, and I cried at the conundrum; the injustice of something standing in between me and a night away from washing squirming little bodies and enjoying conversation about things other than children’s sleeping habits and grisly details about a recent stomach virus.

In the end, I put on a pair of high heels and toddled into the city for a lovely, grown-up evening, but inside I felt like a Bad Mom. Way before it was cool to be a Bad Mom.

And who knows? Maybe it made me an even Better Mom. I certainly never missed another back-to-school night, and with four kids, I had a lot of them.

Of course, I still have four more years of Back-to-School nights when my youngest enters high school in the fall. But there are plenty of things – annual events and activities – that have defined the pattern of the school year around here for as long as I can remember. Some ended when the kids timed out of our elementary school and moved to the middle school in fifth grade, and some have been traditions since our family’s Ice Age. Here are a few:

  • Box Tops: For as long as I can remember, I have religiously clipped little squares off boxes of cereal and Ziploc products to earn the kids’ schools 10-cents-per-square. I even bought toilet paper megapacks at Costco for the bonus 5-Box Top coupon. I’d tuck them in a sandwich bag taped to a side cabinet near my sink in the old house and send them in when the bag got full. In the new house, the Box Tops started in a sandwich bag in our junk drawer and now they seemed to have spilled out and float amongst all the rubberbands, matchbooks and mystery screws. Let me know if you’d like them.
  • Band and chorus concerts: Since 2001, when my oldest was in third grade, spring and holiday music concerts have been a staple in our school calendar. Singing and learning to play an instrument wasn’t even an option for the kids. It’s something I made sure they did, with varying success. My oldest daughter swears she mimicked playing the clarinet throughout middle school, and my younger daughter used her reluctance to play an instrument as an excuse for her near-daily visits to our school nurse during my divorce. After my umpteenth visit to discuss my girl’s agita, the nurse patted my hand and said, “Mom, let go of the flute.” And so I did. But I’ll miss sitting in a darkened gym listening to a bunch of kids play the theme from Star Wars and marveling how the music teachers get them to do that when I can’t even get my own kids to learn what day to put the garbage out. What I won’t miss is the panic that set in the morning of pretty much every concert ever looking for black bottoms and white shirts that fit and weren’t a wrinkled mess.
  • Class trips: Back in the day, every grade piled into a bus and went somewhere over the course of the school year and as a busybody parent who was often and Class Mom for one of my kids, I often got to tag along. Over the years, I went pumpkin picking and visited museums both near (in Newark) and far (Natural History in NYC) and a zoo in The Bronx. We visited sites of historical significance and attended local performances of The Nutcracker. I sat at long tables in museum basements that smelled of old sandwich to eat our bagged lunches and got to know the kids’ teachers and their classmates. Later, I’d do overnight stints with my three older kids to a state park where they performed team-building exercises and square danced in the lodge at night. I rode along on the bus for a few nights in Washington, DC with my daughters and chatted with parents and teachers as we herded our group of teenagers through our nation’s capitol like a litter of kittens through a yarn factory. My most recent chaperoning gig was to Six Flags with our middle school band and really, nothing brings two mothers together like a rollercoaster ride packed amongst a bunch of overheated teenaged boys on a 90-plus degree day in May. I’ll always remember the taste of that freshly-baked cider donut they handed out after picking pumpkins with my daughter’s first grade class, or all the snow that fell the year my younger daughter’s seventh grade class had their three-day outdoor adventure in the woods. How it floated down as we hiked to our various activities, crunching under our boots and added magic to an already special outing. But mostly I’m thankful that all those trips let me get to know so many of the teachers who were an important part of my children’s lives.
  • First day of school: Before we had to worry about maniacs coming into our schools – when parents could just pop through the front door to drop off homework and lunches without undergoing a screening process akin to trying to visit an inmate at Riker’s – parents would gather each year in the multi-purpose room of our elementary school to watch our kids line up with their classmates on the first day of school. They’d form little clusters along the walls with nametags pinned to their crisp polo shirts and sundresses – clutching their new Transformer and Lisa Frank backpacks – to meet their new teachers. At the appointed hour, they’d rise and line up and say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing a few patriotic songs and every year, as I stood packed in the room surrounded by all those little voices, I’d lose it. Nothing makes me choke up like a rousing rendition of “You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag.” Then they’d file out to start their new school year and I’d wipe my eyes and go home and get on with my day, happy to have one less person in my shopping cart.
  • Everything else: Field days, Christmas tree lightings, Memorial Day parades and band performances, Family Fun Night (an oxymoron if ever there was one), Art shows, Book fairs, fruit sales, Rec sports and summer camp, paper report cards (RIP), picture day, bake sales, aforementioned Halloween parade, school dances, our 8th grade graduation ceremony and probably lot of other things I’ve already forgotten.

Now that all four of my kids have graduated, it’s probably time for me to graduate from middle school, as well. I knew it was time, too, when I realized not long ago that I’d become one of those parents who was resistant to change. Who liked things just the way they were. The same ones who annoyed me when I was a young upstart and thought some of our school traditions needed tweaking. Now, some of my beloved traditions are starting to change and I’m glad to be getting out when I am and before I say something I regret on Facebook.

Now, there are probably only a handful of parents left in the school system who remember that sweet first day of school ceremony for the little kids or even paper flyers. Who filled out forms for countless gift wrap and cookie dough fundraisers or manned the sand art room at the dreaded Family Fun Night. We are a dying breed. The Brontosauruses and T-Rexes of our school system.

To all you younger parents I say: take good care of our schools. Go the the art shows and encourage your kids (boys, especially) to sing in the chorus. Volunteer when you can. Get to know the teachers. Even run for the school board. It all seems like such a pain now, but I promise you’ll never regret it. All the concerts and tree lightings and meetings will add up to countless happy memories. At least they did for me, times two (I think I just did algebra).

Everything looks shiny as I look behind me. Everything, that is, except Family Fun Night. That just made me sweat.

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Letting It Go

Two of my kids embarked on very different adventures recently and all I could do was hope that one of them posted a photo or two on social media so that I knew he was still alive. But, this being 2017, if the kids did post anything on social media, it would be on Snapchat – where I’ve been blocked from seeing either’s Snap story – or on their Insta story, where I have also been banned. So basically, I was just hoping for the best for a few days.

While it’s just a weird coincidence that the trips overlapped, I’m beginning to understand that I compensated for not having any control over one of the trips by crazily micromanaging the other. I don’t think my youngest child – a boy who taught himself to tie his own shoes and ride a bike when he determined at a young age that everyone around him was too distracted to step in and help – had received that much attention since the time he fell as a toddler and knocked his tooth back up into his gums. You can always count on blood to get me to sit up and take notice.

My oldest left for an overnight flight to Barcelona for a week’s vacation with a friend, and I didn’t even know what airline they were flying on. I mean, I know he mentioned it at some point, but I was busy trying to memorize other details, like arrival and departure dates and where they were staying. So I guess that fairly major one slipped through my mental cracks. I tried Googling it but didn’t have much luck finding a flight that left Newark bound for Spain at 11 p.m. the night he left.

After about 10 minutes of searching, I realized I was running behind schedule if I was going to prepare the special breakfast I’d promised – a porkroll and egg sandwich – for my 14yo who was leaving early for the iconic 8th grade trip to Washinton, DC for three days.

I’d gone on that same trip with his two older sisters years earlier and had hoped to continue the tradition this year with my baby, my one-last-middle-school-hurrah. Alas, the administration did not feel equally nostalgic about inviting me to come along. In an uncharacteristically organized and prompt manner, I’d sent an email to the principal on the first day of school announcing my desire to chaperone the trip and enumerating my many qualifications. I hit SEND and then sat back and waited for my anointment.

Instead, I got a note from the school secretary about a month later thanking me for my interest but informing me that there just wasn’t enough room to accommodate all of the requests they received.

“Don’t they know who you are?” my 20yo daughter asked in horror when I reported my rejection over glasses of rose.

“Apparently not,” I told her, taking a long sip. “It seems I’ve been running on fumes these last few years and I got passed over.”

Note to younger parents interested in nabbing a future spot as a school trip chaperone: you’re only as good as the last fundraiser you ran. Or race you organized. Or three-years spent on your school board (that was my golden ticket for a number of years).

I’d run into other moms of other 8th grade boys at our local Bilabong store where we all flocked after learning our sons needed to wear collared shirts for touring, and we agreed that boys were so easy to dress. I ended up buying my guy three pairs of shorts and two shirts and honestly, I won’t have to buy him any more clothes until he transitions to longer pants in, like, December.

I brought his bag of new clothes into my room for safekeeping, so the crisp new shorts and shirts with tags wouldn’t get swept up into the detritus littering his floor or, one of his favorite tricks, stuffed into his dirty laundry hamper. Later that night, I laid them all out on my bed and added underwear and socks to create an outfit for each day, which I then showed my son before packing into his suitcase.

“Should I get post it notes?” he asked, obviously getting into having a mom who does things like, pack his suitcase and create outfits for him.

Earlier, we’d gone to pick up some snacks and beauty items for him to take and we unwrapped the zit cream from its package and popped it into his dopp kit along with his deodorant and sunscreen. I could tell he was taking it all a little more seriously than his usual slapdash packing jobs – you should see the crumbled mass of clothing he brought with us for a recent long weekend in Boston – because he was even packing a toothbrush. He didn’t bother to bring one to Boston.

In the meantime, I kept an eye on the clock and considered the best time to text my oldest to give him a speech about safety overseas without coming off as crazy or, worse, that I didn’t have faith in his decision making abilities.

I’d messaged him on Facebook an article I’d seen earlier in the week about what to do in the event you find yourself in a terror attack. Tips like “Don’t use the elevator, take the stairs instead,” and “Don’t play dead.” Useful things like that. But just six months ago, the kids and I had spent a lovely afternoon walking over the London Bridge and poking around nearby Borough Market – eating Scottish quail eggs over greens and crisp Asian dumplings – before we headed to a nearby pub for a pint. The same path terrorists recently took to attack innocent people. Tourists like us.

So of course, I worry.

This isn’t the first time one of my children has traveled to another country solo. Both my girls – who are bookended by their brothers – flew to Europe over spring break with their high school during their respective junior years. This spring break, my younger girl visited Italy as part of a class she was taking in college to study European hospitality. She initially balked at my request that she text from time to time to just let me know she was alive but in the end, we were in constant communication.

I saw her on Instagram sitting with the hills of Tuscany in the distance and she texted photos of amazing meals she was enjoying . Thanks to SnapChat, I also saw her holding one of those giant drinks – you know, the kind that comes with a bunch of straws – late at night surrounded by a bunch of other kids. Apparently, hospitality was alive and well in Tuscany.

I was happy she was having fun but also couldn’t stop thinking about that Amanda Knox documentary I watched on Netflix and tried to slide in texts to her like, “Fun! Don’t leave the bar with a stranger!” and “TTYL! Oh, and pay attention if you wake up and there’s blood all over your bathroom!” I tried to be cool, I threw in some emojis for good measure, but it’s hard as a mom not to worry about your kids getting, like, implicated for murder in a foreign country and shit.

When my older daughter went to Italy during high school, things were pretty chaotic at our house. By then I was divorced and working full time at a relentless job and had four kids in four different schools and – as an added bonus – three teenagers living under my roof. This was probably around the time that the baby took matters into his own hands and learned to do things for himself.

After my daughter left, I realized I had no idea when she was expected to return. I mean, I knew the day – thank God – but not the time the buses would pull back into the high school parking lot. School was closed for the break and I didn’t really know any of the other parents well enough to call up and make a joke about the whole thing. No one who would laugh and be all like, “Been there.”

No, instead I had to call the parents of a boy with whom my daughter had gone to grammar school. The kind of parents that really seems to have their act together. The kind of family that sends all three of its children to Ivy League schools. The dad, who I knew even less well than the mom, answered the phone and had a hard time hiding his dismay when I confessed my sin. “It’s in all the paperwork,” he told me.

“LOL. Paperwork,” I thought, wondering how I could still have in my possession Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons that expired three years earlier and not papers containing vital information for this Italy trip.

The dad gave me the arrival time and then assured me it was accurate as he’d confirmed when his son called the day before. Then it was my turn to hide my surprise that he’d actually heard from his child on the trip. All I got was radio silence and then some some slightly stale biscotti upon my daughter’s return.

I mentioned all this to my friend Dan, how I worried about my oldest navigating a foreign city and whether I’d taught him everything he needed to know to stay safe.

“That’s how we learn,” Dan reminded me, and I thought about my own maiden voyage overseas. How, following a terrible breakup, I enlisted a pal to travel super-low-budget to Europe for 10 days and, having only been on a few jaunts to Florida during high school, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. And that was 100 years before the Internet and cell phones.

We were so clueless, we even got on line as soon as we entered the International Terminal at JFK to have our baggage searched, not realizing it was for people flying to, like, the Gaza Strip or some shit. And I packed an actual suitcase for the multi-city journey, which was sans wheels, and ended up lugging that thing through train stations in Milan and Paris and up and down the cobbled streets of Trastevere and Nice looking for cheap hostels.

My friend and I learned the hard way that beer in Europe was much stronger than the Busch beer we were used to drinking at fraternity parties, and that Italian men were good kissers but terribly persistent (we had to dodge a pair for a few days who’d come back to take us to the beach that we’d drunkenly agreed to visit the night before).

Upon our return to New York, tired and pretty broke, we discovered that the subway back into Manhattan from JFK could get a little dicey, circa 1990, making stops in Bushwick and Bed Stuy. But we survived with nary a scratch (but maybe a few hickies that we tried to cover up with our new Parisian scarves) and learned going forward to always go easy on the Italian beer and – for the love of God – pony up the extra 20 bucks for a cab out of JFK.

I ended up texting my oldest guy after work the night of his departure and reminded him to call so I could wish him a bon voyage. When he called a little while later, he quickly got annoyed and told me he felt like I was judging him, which I probably was. He was leaving for the airport way later than I would ever leave to catch an international flight. (Interestingly, the only time I am never, ever, late is when flying.) But my son sensed my vibe, the one I tend to put out when people aren’t doing things the way I think they should be doing them. I get a tone. For those who love me, it makes them nuts.

But I apologized and asked a bunch of questions and we got back on track. After a few minutes, he told me he was going to finish up eating dinner and get ready to go.

I wanted to say, “Watch out for terrorists,” or “Keep your wits about you” or at the very least, “Can you send me your travel itinerary?” but in the end, just told him to have a great time. And then, because I just couldn’t help myself, asked if he’d just text me when he got to his gate. And maybe again when he landed.

“Mom,” he said, “I’ll text you when I can.”

So I woke up early the next morning and remembered my child was somewhere in the air over the ocean and that’s when I tried to figure out what flight he was on before making breakfast for my other guy. While I was flipping his egg, my phone dinged and I looked down to see a text from my oldest son. “Just landed. Here safe.”

And that was that. I’ve seen daily photos on Instagram and a whole album on Facebook, but haven’t really heard from him again.

In the meantime, I received an all-points bulletin when the 8th graders’ buses departed and my girlfriend got a text from her kid reporting that they’d made it to Maryland.

Ten years ago, when that same boy who is in Barcelona traveled with his 8th grade class to D.C., there was no communication until the buses pulled back into the school’s driveway three days later. There were no CODE RED texts and emails and he certainly didn’t call or text. I don’t even think they were allowed to bring cell phones with them back then.

So maybe I’ve just become conditioned to be able to contact my children at any time of day or night over the last decade. And, thanks to location sharing technology, I can even stalk three out of the four kids to see where they are at any given moment. But the person I really want to keep track of – my wily 14yo – is the hardest to pin down as he’s usually blown through his allotted amount of data about four days into our Verizon billing cycle, rendering him unable to text or be tracked until the 20th of the following month.

And maybe I should be glad for that. Maybe in the end it helps me let go of trying to control and monitor his every move. Give him some latitude to figure things out on his own. Kind of like he’s always done.

I’m thankful I didn’t have the technology available today around when my oldest child was still in the grip of my highly-involved parenting style. Back then, I would have put a chip in him if that was an option. And I think I was so up his butt when he was younger that by the time high school rolled around he spent a good deal of time trying to shake me loose. It wasn’t pretty.

Ten years and three kids through high school and two kids through college later, and I’ve managed to reign in my desire to micromanage my kids’ every move. (Almost.) I’ve learned to have faith in their decision making and, more importantly, to learn from their mistakes. (Pretty much.) I’ve decided it’s much healthier to adopt a “let it go” attitude. (Well, not so much.)

But I have my limits. I still want to know when their plane lands after a long flight or they’ve arrived at their destination following a lengthy drive. I’m not a worrier in general but do fret when they’re in transit. I need to know when they’ve dodged the travel bullet.

I guess everything else is gravy.

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Younger Moms: Don’t Be Too Nice to Your Kids

check out timeTo all my younger mommy friends, I am sorry to report the following: it never ends.

I know. Take a deep breath and let me explain.

When you had your first baby, you managed the terror of what you were about to take on by reassuring yourself that it was merely an 18-year commitment. All you needed to do was keep that little chick alive until the end of high school and then you could release him into the wild and return to more pressing matters, like reading books and your long-neglected husband. You told yourself that some day, that baby would leave for college and that would be the end of that.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Brace yourselves, mommies, because I have some shocking news: THEY. COME. HOME.

A lot of them, anyway. A few do make their own nests after graduation but for the most part, the baby chicks – who are no longer babies and not nearly as cute as they were 18 years earlier – come back to the proverbial roost.

And these now-grown, college-educated children are expecting – nay, demanding – the same services they received in middle school. Like nightly dinners and a well-stocked pantry.

But these grown babies would also like to continue the co-ed lifestyle post-graduation. They get annoyed when you ask them to alert you should they not be returning home after a night out partying. Should they stumble home from said party, they also think nothing of raiding your well-stocked pantry in the wee hours and leaving a trail of Tostito crumbs in their drunken wake. They’d like to have their proverbial cake and scatter its crumbs all over the floor as they eat it, too.

And you think to yourself – not for the first time – as you stand in the middle of your kitchen surveying the carnage, “Why are they still here?”

Didn’t we already have our emotional “Good-Bye and Good-Luck” moment?

Younger mommies, it’s not too late for you to rewrite this all-too-familiar script. There’s still time for you to head off this raw deal in parenting and prevent your little chicks from assuming they are entitled to the many services you’ve provided throughout their lifetimes. Or perhaps, you should rethink providing all those services in the first place. Encourage them to make their own meals and clean up after themselves. Baby steps.

Don’t be too nice to your children, I might suggest.

And I would really like to continue offering this sage advice – like maybe you should consider getting out now and joining the Witness Protection Program — but I’ve got Tostito crumbs that need to be swept.

When I’m not sweeping and making dinners I write about being a mom to grown, and almost grown, kids. Sign up to get all of my latest posts sent right to your inbox by typing your email into the box below. You can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter. 

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On Knowing When to Say When

tree lighting

Knowing when it’s time to move on doesn’t come as easily to some people as it does to others.

I spent most of Sunday packing up my house in preparation for my move about a half-mile away some time next month. Gone now are the hundreds of books that lined the shelves in my den along with my china and crystal and impressive collection of wooden cats. Now that den is lined with a few dozen cardboard boxes, most with the word FRAGILE scrawled urgently across their tops.

As darkness crept in and stole the late afternoon sun and the box I labeled “Weird Stuff I Like” had been taped and stacked (see: wooden cats), I decided a glass of wine would be in order. It would pair nicely, I thought, with the book I’d started reading the day before. I wanted to savor my last moments of solitude for the week before my sons returned from their dad’s.

I quickly threw on a coat and headed into town to grab a bottle of red to enjoy while reading in front of a fire. As I drove down a side street towards the center of town, I noticed a number of cars parked along the side of the road and a line of traffic waiting to get through the light up ahead. It was weird, all those cars, for any day of the week in our little town, much less a late Sunday afternoon. As I moved closer to the intersection I realized what the problem was and that I was about to drive right into the center of our town’s annual tree lighting.


About 10 different thoughts raced through my mind, not the least of which was, “Do you really need a glass of wine right now?” That was quickly followed by, “Duh.” And finally, as I thought about that small-town tradition my children have been a part of for about 15 years into which I was about to collide, I thought, “Oh.”

If my calculations were accurate, it was the first time in all those years that not one of my four children would be singing holiday tunes with the school chorus at the lighting. I had made note of the date in my calendar at the start of the school year and when I reminded my seventh grader the day before about the lighting, he reminded me I had let him quit chorus in September. Oh, right. I had begrudgingly acquiesced after he promised to continue playing in the band. At this stage of my parenting game I know you really need to pick your battles and band won.

So while I was busy kneeling on an old sisal rug wrapping weird wooden cats in newspaper, Santa –as is his wont — roared into town on the back of a fire truck without us.

And it was kind of sad.

I think about – and heck, write about – that kind of stuff a lot lately. How much things are changing around here with children leaving for college and graduating from college, not to mention middle schoolers up and quitting their school choruses and abruptly ending long-standing traditions.

For years at least one of my kids was in either the elementary or middle school chorus, which performs a selection of holiday tunes at the town’s annual tree lighting early each December. They stand on risers in front of our borough hall before a throng of parents holding iPhones high over their heads to record the performance for posterity (a decade earlier, camcorders captured the moment and probably a decade before that everybody just listened to the kids sing).

There were songs celebrating Kwanzaa and the Festival of Lights (always the liveliest in my opinion) and, of course, some standards to sing along with as well. Sometimes the kids performed moves in unison – a snapping of fingers or maybe a fist shake to some “hohohos” – and a few times jingle bells made an appearance for good measure. When the singing was over the mayor would light the big evergreen nearby, Santa would arrive on a firetruck accompanied by every emergency vehicle in town replete with blaring sirens and flashing lights, and then everyone retreated inside borough hall for some cocoa and a visit with Santa.

It was certainly never perfect. Up until recently the town’s sound system was pretty terrible. Unless you were a few feet away from the performers, you couldn’t tell the difference between a “Jingle Bells” or a “Jingle Bell Rock.” Mostly, the parents in back would start to talk and drown out the singing. Then there was the year the tree didn’t light. Or more precisely, it failed to perform at the count of three. But the delay did create some tension and we were all delighted when the colored lights burst to life some 30 seconds later.

When my oldest three were young I’d put them in cute outfits and fix their hair before bundling them up in matching jackets and hats. We even had a furry red Santa cap the kids took turns wearing. I could never get my fourth child excited about wearing that Santa hat and last year he wore a sweatshirt instead of his nice NorthFace jacket and it wasn’t because it was a balmy evening. I was just thankful he didn’t wear shorts.

On the one hand, it was nice to have a stretch of time to make a dent on the packing up of our home, as it seems I am the only one involved in that process. I listened to music while slowly boxing up 13 years of my life and was secretly happy I didn’t have to drop everything to stand on the grass and make small talk and watch the back of some kid sitting on her dad’s shoulders for a half an hour.

But as I stood at the counter of the liquor store, which sits directly across the street from where the ceremony is held, and watched the families begin to disperse, I felt a pang of sadness. Parents and kids walked down the sidewalks in town towards their cars or made their way home on foot under the now-dark sky and I wished I were out there moving among them. I wished I was walking home with my own children and not standing alone in a liquor store listening to the guys who work there laugh about how fast the fire engine raced through town to get Santa to the ceremony on time.

I smiled at some families that I passed on my way back to my car and realized I did not recognize anyone leaving the tree lighting. There was a time I knew pretty much all the kids in town. I knew who their parents and siblings were and where they lived. But they’ve all moved on, it seemed, and a whole new crop of young families have rolled in to take their place.

And my own children, instead of standing on risers singing about how it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, were ensconced on couches watching football or hundreds of miles away at school. They had the nerve to grow up and move on as well.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing for me. It’s something I need to manage a little better, this knowing when to say when. Instead of letting it trip me up and feel sad that certain chapters in my life have come to an end, I need to be grateful that they happened and – as a bonus—are now even sweeter in the hazy way we edit our memories. Even though it was a pain in the ass getting the kids bundled up and out the door on a Sunday afternoon to the lighting each year and that they were all terrified of Santa and often cried when he arrived, I’ve imbued the annual event with some magical holiday glow.

It’s not a terrible way to go through life.

I went home and opened the bottle of wine and turned the knob on the gas fireplace (something I’ll truly miss when we leave) and watched the flames jump to life. I got cozy on my favorite leather chair in that den, surrounded by stacks of boxes and packing equipment, took a sip of wine, opened my book and moved on.

Never fear! Even though I’m moving you can always find me here! Sign up to get all of my latest posts sent right to your inbox by typing your email into the box below. You can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter. 

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Wait. I Thought Breast Was Best.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that all the combined “experts” out there telling us to do this and and not do that are suffering from an extreme case of Jon Snow.

They know nothing. 

I say this because it’s recently come to my attention that when it comes to feeding your baby, breast may not necessarily be best. If I had a dollar for all the feedings I had to endure with an infant latched onto my sore breast, sending pain like my nipples were being electrocuted shooting through my body, then I’d at least be able to buy those cute Frye boots I’ve been eyeing this fall.

Don’t get me wrong — I was a maniac about breastfeeding my four children. And aside from its supposed health benefits — like a reduction in the risk of asthma, ear infections and respiratory issues — it also fit into my plan of being the PERFECT MOTHER. My strategy of doing everything right for my babies and thus raising exceptionally smart, well-adjusted, equally-perfect children who were forever bonded to me.


I am here to report that in the end, my children are no smarter, healthier or better-adjusted than yours. In fact, they turned out much like their mother, which is to say, pretty average. I mean, if you ask my kids they’d tell you that I think I’m all that and a bag of chips and I don’t think that’s a terrible way to go through life. I kind of like myself.  And secretly, I think my children are pretty terrific, too.

But if we were to analyze data and compare my children to those who were bottle fed as babies, I’m pretty sure maybe some in one pool might have suffered from a few more ear infections while scoring higher on IQ tests and vice versa.

In other words, I believe I was sold a bill of goods.

Nursing all four of my kids also helped create the dynamic in which they also became mostly my problem. I’m not saying their dad never got up in the middle of the night with them, but when you’re the primary source of food then the onus is kinda on you to be the one to feed your kid all the time. It also meant that I couldn’t just hand the baby off to its grandma or another willing soul to be fed a bottle when the opportunity arose. I had to go hide in a bedroom while everyone watched football on Thanksgiving or in a locker at the beach to feed my kid.

My youngest sister had a baby recently (I know, I am so lucky) and I’ve yet to see her feed that kid. Every time I’ve been there it’s been our mom feeding him, and — after 8 kids — she knows a thing or two about feeding babies. I was shocked when I had my own baby and he cried all the time (all. the.time.) because I never remembered any of my younger siblings crying (I’m the oldest). Like, ever. In truth, my mom is the master of getting as much formula as possible into a 10-pound vessel so that in about two weeks, that kid is sleeping through the night. My kids took about three or four months to make it to that stage, which sounds like nothing now but when you are up with a pooping crybaby for 90-something nights in a row, you start to think dark thoughts.

And now, it turns out that all that effort I put into shielding my babies from drinking the poisonous formula and instead imbibe on my golden milk; the approximately 400 nights watching QVC at 3 a.m. with an infant nodding off at my breast; the horror of watching my postpartum knockers expand to the size of an exotic dancer’s and become hard as rocks not to mention the smaller, secondary breasts that developed under my armpits from errant milk glands; enduring the pain that must be akin to what it feels like to have someone douse your breasts in gasoline and set them on fire when a newborn latches onto your cracked and scabbed nipples; all of that, apparently, was for nothing because now the experts have determined that the benefits are “modest” at best.

And that is bullshit.

But here’s what I need to remind myself, that there were some nice parts, too. There was something quite soothing about nursing your baby once you got past that totally terrible beginning stage and had nowhere else to be. And when that surge of oxytocin kicked in and that warm feeling radiated throughout my body, that my friends was better than any glass of Kendal Jackson. And there was something pretty cool about looking down at my baby nursing and knowing that I was sustaining her. That my body was producing milk, I mean, that’s crazy and powerful and in the end I wound up with four healthy kids so I should just be grateful.

It also helped me learn how to be an expert multi-tasker who, by the fourth child, could nurse that baby while cooking ground beef for Hamburger Helper for the older kids. (Does anyone see the irony here of insisting on breastfeeding my kids and then feeding them a bowl of sodium?)

But I’m glad I kept the crazy to a minimum and only focused my perfect-mommy mania on the breastfeeding. Making my own baby food and homeschooling were also temptations for a while.

Glad I opted for chicken nuggets and public education because being perfect only gets you so far.

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Me and the Boys

Me and the men in my life.

Me and the men in my life.

About six weeks in, I continue to be amused by the shift in my surroundings. Or, more accurately, life with a big helping of sons versus a life sprinkled with daughters.

I took my two lads – 22 and 12 respectively – to visit their sister at a giant university at a nearby state to see one of their legendary football games.

There was a marching band. Cheerleaders. Dancers. A tumbling mascot. Waving pompoms in the stands and fireworks each time the home team scored. Yes, fireworks exploding off the tops of the two scoreboards flanking the field.

It was pretty epic.

I had downloaded the new Mindy Kaling audiobook to listen to during the over four-hour drive there and that was my first mistake. Because while my little guy – who spent a lot of time surrounded by just women when his older brother was away at school and thus is familiar with and open to the funny lady canon of books we all like to listen to – my oldest son was like, “Absolutely not.”

He somehow missed that feminist boat.

So instead we listened to mutually agreed upon music. Billy Joel’s “Billy the Kid” and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Some Kings of Leon for good measure.

It was a far cry of all the sugar pop tunes my youngest daughter used to play for us on road trips. All that Beyoncé and 1D. One trip we listened to the entire “Frozen” soundtrack twice and belted out dramatic interpretations of “Let It Go” (although my grasp of all the words to the song is lacking I make up for it with plenty of feeling).

We got into State College and grabbed my girl and had a great dinner but the boys balked when we wanted to do a Wal-Mart run and load up on paper products and chips for the next day’s tailgate. “Why do you always need to shop?” they grumbled.

But the real dividing line separating life with women versus life with men came when me and the boys crammed into our Hampton Inn room for the night and the effects of their massive pizza burgers moved through their digestive systems. And I’m not saying we don’t all have to move our bowels and all that (Everyone Poops, you know), it’s just that things got real smelly, real fast. Like, I had to employ the fancy Oribe hair texturizing spray I probably spent over $20 on as a makeshift air freshener to keep the room from smelling like a barn.

And for some reason, dudes can’t share beds. The girls and I would squish into double beds in hotels and make do (well, actually, I make it a point to never share — I am paying after all — but the girls deal) but the boys could not abide and my little guy ended up sleeping on the floor between the beds that first night and we called down for a cot the second evening.

But the next day made it all worth it.

My brother, an alum, made the drive from his new house about 90 minutes away and we got the full tailgating experience, including a spot in the parking lot a stone’s throw away from the stadium. My daughter joined us with a few of her new college pals and we drank cans of beers as my brother manned the grill. We played KanJam and listened to music on a wireless speaker. And about an hour before kickoff we packed up and headed inside to watch the team warm up and then see them come onto the field for the game (cue the fireworks).

After the game (we won) we walked into town and the boys filled up on chicken wings and pizza piled with sausage and sliced jalapenos and you can imagine how that exploded in their digestive systems.

Cue the Oribe spray.

The next day we availed ourselves of the free breakfast situation at the Hampton Inn where I ate a banana slathered with peanut butter and the boys made Belgian waffles topped with sticky syrup and a big dollop of whipped cream with a side bowl of sugary cereal for good measure. Before we headed out, my oldest asked if it was okay if he drove home and reader, it’s been a long time since anyone has driven me anywhere (although recently the kids’ dad drove the car home after we dropped our daughter off at school). It was nice to just sit in the passenger seat and close my eyes. It even took the edge off listening to the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Drake.

The fun thing about all this is that I now know that nothing lasts forever. My time in Manville is just another chapter in my life. I’m sure within the year my oldest boy will move out on his own, only to be replaced by his sister who graduates from college in the spring. Then the estrogen levels will again outweigh all that testosterone that’s flowing around here.

Maybe then I’ll finally get to listen to Mindy Kaling.

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Welcome to Dudeville

The denizens of Dudeville.

The denizens of Dudeville.

Aside from my TV viewing habits – which skew towards zombies and bald methamphetamine dealers – I am a girly-girl.

I like manicures and gossip and shopping. I’m afraid of spiders. I am not adverse to long conversations about the benefits of Keratin treatments and waxing and discovering the latest Ballard Designs catalog in the mail makes my pulse race a teensy bit.

And even though I was married to a guy who played football in college and favored clicking on sporting events whenever he had the remote, and have sat in the bleachers cheering on my four children in a wide variety of games over the years – basketball, soccer, lacrosse – I can’t get a handle on any of the rules. I get the fundamentals – like, you’ve got to get past the guys on the other team and put the ball in the net – but that’s about it. I don’t understand “off sides,” “box out” or what it means to “foul” somebody. And because I’ve figured out how to master complex endeavors like caring for my swimming pool and driving into Manhattan I’m betting this deficiency stems less from stupidity and more from a general lack of interest.

All of this is not to say that one needs a penis to understand and enjoy sports. Plenty of women do. My college girlfriends are enthusiastic fans and even one of my daughters took a liking to football after spending last winter surrounded by big-screen TVs in the bar of the restaurant where she hostessed. She figured out “downs” and “holding” in between seating parties for brunch on Sundays.

The point of all this is that I tend to adhere to gender stereotypes even though I’ve tried to be all Free to Be You and Me with my kids. “Boys, it’s really alright to cry,” and all that.

Wasn’t I lucky, then, to be blessed with not one but two daughters? We all like to shop together and get manicures together and happily eat kale. When my older two kids were away at school and it was just my high school daughter and middle school son left at home, our weekly menus were definitely directed by her self-imposed dietary restrictions. No red meat or pork. No dairy. And absolutely-positively no cheese. Like, don’t even try to sneak one of those ingredients in or it will be met with tears.

Our weekly meals consisted of a lot of ground poultry and Gwyneth Paltrow recipes like Thai Chicken Burgers and sweet potato hash. We even ate kimchi.

But that picky girl flew the roost Saturday for her freshman year at college and now the onus of coming up with meals that adhere to her strict guidelines lays on her university’s food services staff. I’ve hung up that apron for a bit.

Because now I am living in Dudeville.

Now I am the only girl living in a house of boys. My oldest son – who graduated from college in the spring – is living at home with his little brother and even though we’re only about 36 hours into this new arrangement, I can already feel the shift. I can sense the very manly vibe going down around here.

When their sisters lived at home full time, there was definitely a more feminine feel in the house. Belching in my presence was discouraged and if you HAD to pass gas you needed to go outside and cut the tail before you reentered. I didn’t want anyone dragging the fart back into the house with him or her and stinking the joint up.

But now, all bets are off.

I’ve decided to embrace this new manly dynamic and surprised the boys yesterday morning with blueberry pancakes and bacon for breakfast. Later that afternoon we reclined in a darkened movie theater and ate Reese’s Pieces and drank root beer while watching “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and went home to eat paninis and potato chips. My older son explained the intricacies of his pending fantasy football league draft and when he disappeared downstairs to try to snag a worthy running back for his team, his little brother and I watched the new zombie TV show “Fear the Walking Dead” (which I loved). And when he expelled a long string of farts during an especially suspenseful part of the show, I didn’t even tell my son to go outside and cut the tail. I actually laughed when the explosion occurred.

It’s calmer again with just two children at home. It gets hectic when all four are here and vying for my attention. It’s nice to be able to focus on just two and I sense the boys quickly felt the shift as well. They walked arm-in-arm through the parking lot on the way into the movie theater and my oldest guy – who’s not always willing to engage in any lengthy conversation with me – happily discussed fantasy football and the latest John Oliver show while I made our paninis.

As we ate our dinner, we put together a menu of dinners for the upcoming week. Over the next few nights we will be enjoying pork tenderloin, beef stir-fry and pasta with meat sauce.

“We don’t even have to use ground turkey,” I observed while eating a chip.

“Yeah!” said my little guy. “We get to eat REAL meat.”

I fear all this manly fare may take a toll on my figure but am willing to take my chances. It’s the price I have to pay to live happily in Dudeville.

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Everything’s Quiet in My Neighborhood

IMG_2924There was a time when my neighborhood – a cul de sac with about a dozen houses in suburban New Jersey– teemed with life. When we moved here a dozen years ago, we brought with us our three school-aged children and a newborn to add to the mix of kids already living here. As it turned out, there was someone for everyone.

Our house is on the perimeter of a circle that surrounds an island of three houses, and between us we must have had at least 20 kids under the age of 14 when we got here. The people in the house across the street and kind of diagonal from me had three high schoolers when we moved in and I remember thinking then how old those kids seemed. They were the ones you only saw leaving the house to get into a car. They weren’t part of the crew swarming the neighborhood on a warm summer night playing manhunt or riding scooters around the circle to pass the time on a crisp October afternoon.

My oldest son’s best friend lived a few houses away and he also had the three boys living in the cape next door to keep him company. That family also had a guinea pig, named Squeaky, that kept my younger daughter occupied snuggling on their couch for many afternoons.

My girls had a bunch of playmates in their age range as well, and there was one who sported pigtails and missing teeth and always wore some wacky Hanna Andersson-type outfit of mismatched dresses and leggings. She was a little sassy, too, so I started telling people I lived across the street from Punky Brewster. Her parents both worked out of the house and she and her little brother had a string of sitters and a Lithuanian au pair for a few years whose name I could never get a handle on so I simply began referring to her as “Sha-nay-nay. “

As my son got older, our neighborhood became the place for middle school boys to come and ride their skateboards. They’d set up plastic ramps and other pieces of junk in the street on which to grind their boards or catch some air, but mostly they stood around and popped their boards up into their waiting hands and posed in their skinny jeans and black t-shirts.

My daughters spent a lot of time devising different means of getting themselves around the circle and my older girl in particular came up with especially dangerous methods. She’d put on a pair of roller blades and direct her sister to get on a bike and drag her by a jump rope around the block. Once, and only once, she decided to tie the rope to our golden retriever who – thrilled at being released from the house and thrown into the mix of children – promptly charged down the street with her in tow. He quickly went off course, chasing a squirrel up a neighbor’s front lawn, and sent my daughter crashing into the curb and sprawled – scraped and weeping – on the road. A very kind neighbor found her splayed in front of his house and brought her home.

As the years went by, the tenor of the neighborhood changed. The teenagers across the street left for college and my older children became the high school kids on the block. The boys next door moved away but were replaced by a new set of three boys perfectly matched to my youngest son’s age. That crew took over the neighborhood and, depending on the season, could usually be found playing basketball in one of our driveways or soccer and lacrosse on a front lawn. They even assumed the skateboarding mantle and started dragging crap into the street to jump over for hours on end.

As a mother not remotely interested in importing or exporting children for play dates, it was the perfect set up. I’d look outside and see a gaggle of kids playing soccer on a neighboring yard and tell my kid to go outside and join them.

“Go see what the boys are doing,” I’d tell my little guy if I noticed him watching too many episodes of Sponge Bob, and he’d disappear for hours to play with the kids next door. In fact, he and his older sister spent so much time with other families in the neighborhood they started referring to themselves as members of those families.

“Oh, my other mom, you mean?” they’d say all sassy to me, referring to the neighbors’ moms.

At one point my little guy tacked the last names of the two families that lived next door and across the street from us onto his own last name and proclaimed himself “practically” a member of those families since he spent so much time with them.

And for a while that was really true. When I was going through my divorce and returning to work full time, those families became our safety net. They scooped my youngest children up and included them in their fun. They fed them. They drove them to lacrosse practice. They took them away to their ski houses and week-long trips to the beach. It gave me comfort knowing my kids were happy and cared for as I juggled work and wily teenagers and single momhood.

I made some great friends, too.

The first set of boys next door came with a mom who could make a gin martini – on the rocks in a lovely cut crystal glass – like no other. I’d look forward to getting the call on my house phone to come over for cocktail hour, and happily slip away from homework and Hamburger Helper to sit in her den and sip her icy concoction and kvetch for a spell. Her oldest was a few years older than mine and I liked getting her perspective on things. Her been-there-done-that attitude was a nice contrast to my still gooey-eyed approach to parenting. She kept it real.

The family that replaced them also came with a mommy who knew how to make a cocktail. This one’s specialty was tequila and she’d float jalapeno peppers or vanilla beans in mason jars in her freezer, which she then used to create delicious margaritas in glasses rimmed with a sweet and spicy rub. We became friendly after hours of sitting together on the beach and talking about kids and family and life while our boys bobbed in the ocean on boogie boards. Her oldest is the same age as my youngest, and I think her not-yet-jaded take on parenting helped remind this old mom how quickly it all goes by.

Punky’s mom across the street eventually decided the work/life balance was tipping heavily in the wrong direction and left her big job to stay home with her kids. I soon found a friend who also enjoyed reading the newspaper and talking about books and movies and struggled with the monotony of staying home to raise children. We’d have long conversations over many bottles of wine trying to make sense of the paths we’d chosen. Struggling with having given up the balance of power in our homes and freedom in exchange for being there every day for our children when they returned home from school. We’d wonder time and again whether it was all worth it.

In the meantime, we went to spin classes together and took our girls away for weekends of hayrides and pumpkin picking and organized camping trips with our troop as Girls Scout leaders.

But now the cycle is almost complete. The three big kids across the street have all graduated from college and long since moved away. I heard that one is even getting married this year. A few of the other families whose kids grew up with mine also left the neighborhood once their children graduated from high school and in time, we’ll move away too.

I’ve got one college grad who’s living back under my roof and this week both of my daughters leave for college. And the boys next door, who provide a near-constant source of entertainment for my youngest child, left on Saturday for their second of potentially three years living in Hong Kong. They were home for eight weeks this summer and it’s already weird not to see them jumping on the trampoline in my backyard or running across the grass in full lacrosse gear. All those boys bring so much life to our corner of the neighborhood it seems eerily quiet now that they’ve gone.

This morning my youngest daughter and I went across the street at the crack of dawn to say good-bye to Punky, who was on her way to her freshman year at a school about three hours away. The girls had spent a lot of time in the last few days reliving some of their favorite memories of all their years as best pals. They drove south to spend the day in Sea Isle City, NJ where they’d gone with Punky’s extended family every summer for years. They crammed in all of their favorite foods and activities including a trip to the arcade where one year Punky used the tickets she’d hoarded all summer to purchase a baseball hat that read ‘SUPREME’ across its brim.

Yesterday, my daughter disappeared across the street with a Monopoly box tucked under her arm to recreate one of the epic battles they’d wage a few days each summer on the floor of one of our houses.

The only tradition they did not revisit was their annual meeting in the middle of the street on Christmas morning to open each other’s presents, otherwise known as “Christmas in the Street.”

It’s a very intimate relationship that develops when you become close friends with your neighbors. The proximity kind of thrusts you into each other’s lives. You get to know their habits. You overhear arguments. They’re the first people you turn to when you need a box of spaghetti for dinner or a glass of wine to help get you through that spaghetti dinner. They become your emergency contact for school and if you live near each other long enough, emergencies do occur.

But there’s an easiness, a familiarity that exists when you spend all that time together.

So when we walked across the street at 6 a.m. in our pajamas to say good-bye to Punky, it wasn’t really that weird to walk in on the family in their last-minute efforts to get her and all her crap out the door and into the car already packed to the gills with college essentials. We helped carry the last of her stuff outside and stood in the driveway to say good-bye. She looked at me and – just to be a brat – declared she’d miss me most of all and I got teary-eyed thinking how much I’d miss her sassiness. How much I’d miss seeing the two girls siting on the couch watching “Parks and Recreation” after school and I swear, at the time, it made me want to punch them both in the face.

“It’s too early in the morning to cry,” she told us. “I’ll Snapchat myself crying later.”

She and my daughter hugged and whispered things that only they could hear and finally, they all got in their car and drove away and we went home to cry a little more.

In all likelihood, we won’t be living here this time next year. And while it’s hard to leave, I know that the friendships that have developed through proximity will continue no matter where we land. And hopefully we’ll leave in our place a young family to breathe some life back into the neighborhood. Who will join some of the other little kids who’ve settled here over the last couple of years.

I hope they play endless rounds of soccer on the front yard and sped hours lying side-by-side on the trampoline looking up at the clouds in the sky. I hope they wait for each other to walk to school together in the morning and meet up to go trick-or-treating together through the streets of town each year. I hope they get to do all of the things that my children and so many children who’ve lived here before them have gotten to do. And when they grow up and leave for college and jobs and to start families of their own, I hope other young families come here and take their place.

And start the cycle all over again.

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This Is What 12 Smells Like


trampoline watermark

12-year-old’s view of the world.

Yesterday I was sitting at my kitchen table looking at my laptop when my 12yo son came in from playing outside and I was reminded, not for the first time, of the miracle surrounding puberty.

It stinks.

He’d come home from school earlier without much to do. There were no games or practices to get ready for. The school year is winding down so he didn’t have any homework to keep him busy and he hadn’t made any plans with friends to hang out (I have been instructed to no longer use the words “play” or “play date” to describe these events).

But he’s generally pretty good at keeping himself occupied. He’s the kind of kid who can just go outside and kick a soccer ball into a net a million times. Like, he was definitely a giant golden retriever in a previous life who found great joy in endlessly fetching a ball. Over the holidays, when the ground was covered with snow for weeks on end thus preventing said ball kicking, my guy decided to use an indent in our sectional couch as his goal. He’d move the coffee table out of the way before school and just kick the soccer ball into the couch over and over and over again. KA-KUNK. KA-KUNK. The noise didn’t really bother me. I’d stand in the kitchen making a meal or wiping counters and watch him work on his scoring technique. But it drove his older three siblings nuts.

“NICK,” his older brother would scream from his basement lair, “CUT IT OUT.”

His sisters upstairs didn’t care for the repetitive thumping either. One of them stalked down the stairs and grabbed the ball out from under him and returned to her cell while the 12yo just stood and watched the ball disappear upstairs. Then he fished his lacrosse stick out of the mudroom and stood in the back hallway, tossing the rubber ball against the door leading out to the garage. KA-KUNK. KA-KUNK.

When our neighbors relocated to Hong Kong last summer, one of the many wonderful things we acquired temporarily was their trampoline and – for as much as I NEVER wanted a trampoline and have a video of my grown daughters jumping on it in our yard and yelling, “We have a fucking trampoline!” – the thing does keep bored people busy.

So my guy came home from school yesterday and foraged in the pantry to find something to eat other than the raw almonds and Trader Joe’s quinoa and black bean-infused tortilla chips the older children turned their noses up at as they raped and pillaged the pantry all day while the little brother was at school. After nibbling on a handful of turkey jerky – his sadly best option – he made his way outside to jump around.

I sit most days on a chair at the end of my big, pine kitchen table that backs into the curve of a bay window overlooking our backyard. The seat provides the perfect view of the trampoline that takes up the far end of our yard and I love sitting there and watching the kid’s moves.

He ran for a while around the perimeter, taking big, long strides inside the surrounding net and stopped occasionally to throw some punches, a few upper cuts for good measure. He’d hooked his iPhone up to our Spotify account and was pumped up listening to his 12yo jam, songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” (these also happened to be songs he sang at his end-of-the-year chorus concert). I watched as he continued running in circles and eventually he plopped down on his back to rest, staring up at the leaves dangling from branches high above and singing along to Queen.

After a while I stopped stalking the child and resumed work and didn’t really notice when he appeared standing at my side some time later. At this point, he’d been jumping around for a while under the hot afternoon sun and his face was visibly moist, the ends of his shaggy hair soaked with sweat. But I was so preoccupied by what I was doing I didn’t really pay attention to his presence until my nose sounded the alarm.

“WHOA,” I said, turning to look at his sweet, shiny face. “You stink.”

I mean, it wasn’t like I’d never smelled anything like that before, and I’m not even talking about that homeless person I walked by in the Christopher Street subway station one hot July afternoon in 1990. No, I’ve had close encounters of the super-smelly kind with his older siblings when they were in the early stages of puberty. I could always sense a shift — before obvious things like deepening voices and growing breasts provided the visible evidence of change – by the way they smelled, which is best described as “ripe.” Overnight, I’d go from wanting to bury my face in the tops of their heads to inhale their sweetness to getting a whiff of their hair when they walked by and smelling what could only be described as “hair,” and not in a Gee-Your-Hair-Smells-Terrific kinda way.

My favorite “So You Think Your Kid Stinks?” story was the time I ended up in the ladies room during a middle school basketball game and my daughter and her teammates rushed in to use the facilities before the start of the second half. I remember sitting in the stall as they milled around the sinks thinking, “Holy crap, one of these girls totally stinks. What the hell?”

It was like July 1990 all over again.

After the game, our family trundled through the cold school parking lot and piled back into our car and it wasn’t long after the doors had closed and the heater was switched on full blast that I made a horrible discovery: I had given birth to that smelly kid I’d encountered in the ladies room.

So I wasn’t shocked or anything by my little guy’s strong body odor after his trampoline workout. This is not my first puberty rodeo, you know. It was just a reminder of not only the power of hormones but also the effectiveness of Old Spice when used accordingly.

I told him to run upstairs and jump in the shower before he left to have dinner at his dad’s and reminded him, because it seems sometimes certain people need to be reminded, to avail himself of any and all soaps and shampoos lying around the shower stall. “Go nuts,” I instructed.

He took his sweaty self upstairs and I picked up my cell to text his father. “You’re welcome,” I wrote and added the emoji wearing the surgical mask, which is what I wished I’d been wearing a little earlier.

We joked via texts about our baby’s smelliness for a while but honestly, I hope the odor doesn’t go away any time soon. I hope our child still finds pleasure in marching around a trampoline by himself and lying on his back and staring off into space for weeks and months to come. That stinky smell is the warning sign. It indicates that the end of childhood is nigh. It breaks my heart not only because I’ve so enjoyed this child, my last, but also because he’s it. When he turns the corner and bids childhood “adieu,” I will no longer have a legit child of my own. No one will need me any more to hold their hand to cross a street or cut their steak or kiss their knees when they fall.

And, fuck, I used to complain about having to do all that shit for them but now, man, I’d like to go back and punch myself in the throat (to borrow a phrase) because here I am, 20 years later, missing the shit out of Easter eggs and Nickelodeon and having to shampoo little heads every night. I officially would like to eat all my stupid words.

So, keep on smelling my son, I say. I hope you stink all summer long and well into the next school year. Because as long as you do, I still get to be a mom to a kid. I’ll happily drive you and your little knucklehead buddies to the mall to watch “The Avengers” and put up with all of you running around my backyard later whipping sneakers at each other. Whatever it takes to keep you a kid. Before long you’ll be way more interested in finding out where all the cute girls in your grade are going on a Saturday night and walking around town with a backpack full of Keystone Lights.

Growing up can wait.

I will, however, continue to insist you use the deodorant I bought you last week because, dude, no one needs to smell that bad.

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