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.

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Always Be My Baby

Eleven-year-old showing off his handiwork.

Eleven-year-old showing off his handiwork.

One morning last week, my 21-year-old son came into the kitchen and asked if I’d help him make a cup of coffee.

Now, if any of you own one of those newfangled Keurig machines, like the one I have, you know that it’s fairly simple to operate. You open the doohickey and stick the plastic K-cup filled with the coffee into the chamber, select the size cup you’d like and press “Brew.”

That’s about it.

But he’s my first baby. He’s the one who benefitted from having a super-young and enthusiastic mommy who was more than happy to lay out his clothes each night for the next day, trim his sandwich crusts and peel his thinly-sliced apples.

Nowadays, I am hard pressed to even buy an apple, much less peel it.

So I suppressed my urge to laugh when he asked for help with the coffee, but when he proceeded to sit down and start to look at his iPhone, I realized he didn’t really want help trying to figure out how to make coffee. He just wanted me to make it for him.

“Okay,” I told him, “you need to walk over to the machine and open it up.”

I walked him through the whole process and, like magic, he was enjoying a hot cup of joe in no time.

A little while later, his 11-year-old brother came into the kitchen and made himself an omelette.

He got out the pan and heated it over a low flame, cracked an egg into a bowl and added a little extra egg whites from a container in the frig, sprayed the pan with Pam and cooked up his breakfast. He doused the entire thing in Frank’s Hot Sauce and sat and watched Drake and Josh and enjoyed his eggs with some hot chocolate he made in the Keurig.

The differences between the first and fourth child never gets old to me. It always amazes me to see how much the younger child has benefitted from neglect. And how much all my hovering stymied my oldest kid’s ability to WANT to do things for himself, which is very different than being actually able to do things for himself. He’s more than capable.

In fact, he showed me that today when I dropped him off to catch the bus that would take him an hour north to start a summer internship. It’s the kind of gig that requires business-casual attire and behaving like a grown up and when he came into the kitchen for breakfast before we left for the bus, it took my breath away to see an adult standing there at the counter pouring a bowl of Reese’s Puffs.

This is not to say that there wasn’t a fair amount of hand holding going on in the week leading up to his first day at work. We went out and bought some big boy clothes, bought his monthly bus pass and did a test run to check out a big commuter lot where he could park all day for free. Reading the bus schedule also proved to be slightly challenging but then again, what does he know? He’s never had to do anything like this before. The younger kids have benefitted their whole lives from their oldest brother’s firsts — from learning to play an instrument to getting into college — he’s paved the way and showed them how things are done.

So it was weird watching him get out of my car this morning and make his way over to the throng of people waiting to board the commuter bus. A part of me wanted to get out and make sure he was getting on the right one, but I resisted the urge and drove away, watching the back of his new jacket slowly recede in my rearview mirror.

He texted me later to tell me he was on the bus and on his way (thumbs-up emoji). “Thank u for ride and everything else mom (lovey and heart emojis),” he wrote. And I knew he really meant that. The two of us may often bump heads but he knows at the end of the day, I’ve got his back.

I know there’s a fine line between being a helicopter parent and simply helping a brother out. I hope I’m doing the latter. And I know that by the time the little guy heads off into the real world 10 years from now, there will probably be less hand holding involved because he’ll have watched his three older siblings go through that rite of passage.

But I’m getting ahead of myself because after this morning, I’m glad I still am the proud owner of a little boy. Someone who will still just wrap his arms around my waist and squeeze for no reason, sing Maroon 5 at the top of his lungs in the shower and occasionally forgets to use shampoo.

Because it goes fast, people. In the blink of an eye you go from handing your kid a Gatorade to a commuter mug and I know people say that kind of stuff all the time and when you’re in the thick of carpooling and chicken nuggets it just seems like it’s never going to end and then some of it does start to wind down and you’re like, “What the fuck?”

You can’t win.

All I know is that I’m looking forward to picking him up from the bus later and hearing about his day over the dinner I’ll make tonight to celebrate his big day. Because he may have graduated from skater duds to khakis and a dress shirt, but he’s still my baby.