The Path Taken Together

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“We are now arriving in Rugby.  Rugby, North Dakota,” announced the conductor over the loudspeaker.  “For those of you who don’t already know, Rugby is the geographical center of North America.”  My two adult dinner companions and I looked at each other and smiled as the youngest of our party, six-year-old Thing2, absorbed the information.  It was the first time he had been silent since we had been seated with the Boy Scout troop leader and den mother.  

The train may not have reached the geographical center of North America at its appointed hour, but the dining car staff was a model of down-to-the-minute efficiency.  Feeding 400 people in two hours required military precision and, as in our case, sometimes seating strangers together to ensure every booth was used to its fullest potential.  

I had seen the Boy Scout troop board the train earlier in the day.  We had just reached the border of North Dakota when the uniformed flotilla of teenagers marched past us and then forgotten about them – a tribute to their chaperones’ ability to keep a dozen boys in line for hours on end – until the seating hostess put me and Thing2 together with their leaders.  

Twelve years of living in a very small town has not undone my urban-cultivated and media-nurtured policy  of never talking to strangers.  However, for Thing2′ – born and bred in the country – strangers don’t exist.  As soon as we sat down he began chattering with our companions, asking about their badges and where they were going.  

Sociability had been his hallmark for the past two days of our cross country train trip, and it kept him happily busy as he played with other children and introduced himself to friendly passengers in the observation car.  He showed neighboring passengers the pictures he was taking and cooed at babies.  He chatted with a friendly Amish woman about her dress (which he found beautiful).   And, as he got to know people from all walks of life, so did I. 

Now, as we sat with our companions from the midwest, I thought of the pundits and pollsters who love to claim that Americans are completely at odds with each other – divided by region and class.  Listening to the troop leader talk about changes in North Dakota topography and things that were high in the minds of his neighbors, I was reminded that there were probably more shared values on that train than insurmountable, opposing ideologies.

We may have had different boarding points and destinations, but we were on the same journey.

The Family That Plays Together

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The diet is mine.  Fitness is a bit of a family affair – or at least it’s a team effort as far as my life coach and son, six-year-old SuperDude (he really does have super powers), is concerned.  Trailing me on my morning runs up and down the driveway and around the parking circle, his endless chatter and questions distract me from any aches or exhaustion.

We walked and ran this road a few years ago when I was on my last diet.  Pound after pound, SuperDude chased me around my makeshift track, hugged me, and greeted the morning sun with me as we Downward Dogged and Mountain Posed our way through the summer.

He’s older now, but while wisdom threatens to peel some of the fantasies from his vision, his primary power is stronger than ever.  Even as I sit down to write and draw, he’s at the video cabinet finding the perfect routine for tomorrow morning.  And in the morning he’ll cajole and pull me off the couch.  He’s half my size and his chirping and chattering will be powerful enough remind me once again that every gram of muscle I rend from my own fat is not converted just for my own sake.

Magic Pills, Ills, and Long Forgotten Cures

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As I’m lying down with my little one for his bedtime snuggle, I’m realizing that I haven’t retreated to the fantasy world that gets me through depressions lately.  At first I though it was the magic pill I’ve been taking, but I think something better is happening.

When I first started taking the pills, I tried to get in and I couldn’t.  Something was blocking the door.  It wasn’t me, it was the pill.  But in the last few weeks I’ve begun taking care of my physical health, and while that switch took a herculean effort to move to the on position, it’s like watching a compact fluorescent’s power grow as it absorbs powers.  At first it’s only little successes, but then a sense of physical well being takes over, charging the mercury until all the rooms in my head are bright, and my vision is clear.

Now running about a mile or mile 1/2 a day, hoping to get up to three so I can run with my sister in August, I’m starting to feel the effect of a natural magic pill.  As I was lying next to my beautiful sleeping boy, I noticed I still couldn’t get into the room, but for the first time in a long time, I didn’t need or want to.  Some of that need may have been quashed by pharma, but it’s nice to know that at least some of that lack of desire may be my own doing.

Hungry

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The same storm systems that spawned numerous twisters out west few weeks ago, brought unusually violent spring weather to southwestern Vermont last week. Six-year-old- Thing2 and I were just pulling out of the supermarket parking lot last Sunday when one of them hit. I’ve had enough near-death experiences to know that this was not one, but it was life-changing it its own way.

I should be too old to be nervous during storms. However, having spent 20 minutes two years ago waiting out a waterspout-turned-tornado while all the adults in the family leaned against a set of massive sliding glass doors to keep the wind from popping them off their tracks and flinging them into the room at my parents’ house in Michigan and then watching funnel clouds form to the north of I80/90 in Indiana last year, I will admit that I am afraid of thunderstorms. And last Sunday’s was a big one.

Just as we were turning out of the parking lot, we were surrounded by pink light and a deafening boom. My arm hair was standing straight up, and I decided to look for someplace to wait out the storm with my youngest child. We drove a few blocks, looking for a substantial building with a parking spot near a door. The lightning was frequent and spectacular, and bye the time we pulled into a fast-food place, my nerves had all but killed my latest diet.

My cell phone heralded our entrance into the restaurant by suddenly emitting a loud warning signal and severe, immediate weather alert. A few other phones began emitting the same alert (the company’s support rep would later tell me that this was part of their service). The warnings seemed superfluous and late at first, but as I read the company’s alert text, it became clear the storm was getting worse.

Thing2 usually carries his superhero persona (SuperDude) with him – costumed or not. As the wind whipped harder, however, the adults around us discussed the ferocity of the storm. The restaurant staff momentarily forgot their ‘posts’ and began chattering loudly with each other and the customers, and, noticing the nervous faces, SuperDude became a six-year-old for the moment.

I actually dread these moments. There are plenty of times when my job description entails soothing his fears – big and small, real or imagined. Usually, I enjoy the cuddling and the bonding. When I’m also scared, keeping Thing2 from feeling the fear is tough. It’s hard because I’m hoping he doesn’t figur out I’m telling him to not do what I’m doing (shaking in my boots), but it’s also hard because it’s the reminder that I’m the one for both of us to lean on and to show him the way.

At that moment the only thing to do was listen for more warnings and keep occupied. I ordered us some food, hoping carbs and a cheap, plastic toy would distract us both. The restaurant managers were wrangling the staff back to their posts now, and we sat down to eat.

Another alert sounded a flash-flood warning. Outside I suddenly noticed cars negotiating bumper-deep water and wondered if we should have found refuge elsewhere. The manager confirmed my doubts a few minutes later in an unexpected way.

The wind was subsiding. The lightning was not, however, and I was a little surprised to see two young employees heading for the door. I thought they were headed home, but the manager called out to them to leave their radios on the table with her. They complied and, rolling up their pants, went outside to clear the parking lot drains, jumping occasionally as lightning cracked nearby.

Had my twelve-year-old been with me, the sight of a manager prioritizing the safety of electronics over her more-easily replaced employees to ensure that a foot of water wouldn’t impede the sale of french fries for five minutes would have been an opportunity for (yet another) object lesson about the importance of studying. Instead it was an object lesson for me. My momentary appall at the complete disregard two human beings’ safety quickly shrank into shame, turning bitter the french fry I was eating.

Any comfort derived from the salt-and-carb salve was gone. I knew I financed this sort of thing everyday. I just don’t see it up close and personal. I waited for Thing2 to finish his meal. When the storm subsided enough we left, and, even though I’d eaten a full day’s calories, I felt empty. I knew, however, that I would only find whant I needed at home. I also knew that I could not keep coming back to that place on the GPS or in my own heart that helps my own apathy flourish.

The Path Twice Taken

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It’s been almost seven years since the Big Guy wheeled me to the door of the hospital and went to get the car.  With a carefully swaddled bundle in my arms, I waited, but we weren’t alone.  The hospital staff was watching over us, but I had another more trustworthy companion waiting on me and the newest member of the family.  

Only three days earlier, when I’d looked at Jack, my then tow-headed boy, I has still seen the baby I had nursed and cuddled.  As he stood beside me, however, hovering over his new brother and checking to make sure I wasn’t getting too much draft, I realized he was firmly into the next phase.  Only then, as I sat near the hospital entrance, glancing at my new baby and then at my very protective and increasingly capable first born did it hit me that we were about to start the journey of taking a completely dependent life form from diapers to door-holding all over again.

It was a journey full of phases.  Some were longer and more arduous than others, but we loved every one of them.  I loved the nursing (once we got the hang of it) and the toothless smile.  I loved the tiny arms that wrapped around my neck, and I was already loving watching him discover the world outside our yard.

This would be the last time I traveled this path.  I was still fairly busy negotiating the next steps with Jack.  At the back of my brain, however, I made a promise to myself to not let the confidence gained over the last six years of parenting translate into indifference to the joy that the upcoming phases with Thing2 would bring.  

Trying to keep that promise has been challenging when we’re busy or swamped with bills.  For the most part both, though, the Big Guy and I have been lucky enough to see and mark the special moments.  We’ve seen the first smile and step, and we’ve been treated to the antics and theatrics.  And we’ve both repeatedly commented that it’s all going too fast.

A few weeks ago I went to a family reunion.  Cousins and cousins-once-removed all brought children to the event.  The ages ran the gamut from nine months to 19 years old.  Some of the cousins met for the first time that weekend, but any shyness was trampled under the feet of toddlers chasing teenagers around the yard.  

The nine-month-old belonged to the daughter of one of my cousins and was the perfect age for the grown ups to play with.  The child’s aunts and grandparents and cousins were only too happy to hold and cuddle her so that the young mother could take a break.   

On the last night of the reunion, the youngest cousin was hungry and fussy after a day of sight-seeing, and, when her mother went to fetch a bottle, I offered to help.

“Will she come to me?” I asked hopefully.  The ten-year-old holding her was looking less enchanted as her whimpers threatened to escalate, and he nodded at me.  I scooped the baby out of his arms, settling her into mine and began to rock on my feet, mentally traveling that time when I was able to solve all my boys’ problems with milk and a snuggle.  

She settled somewhat.  Her mom handed me the bottle.  She sucked the nipple into her mouth and began to drink.  Her eyes became slits, occasionally widening to make sure I was still holding the bottle, until, sated, she gave into sleep.  For a brief minute, I thought, I would love to do this all over again.

As if on cue, Thing2 emerged from the basement where the older children were watching movies.  He watched me with the baby for a minute before wrapping his arms around my waist.  At first I thought he might be jealous or having memories of that era when he rarely left my arms.  Then he looked up at me.

“Mom, can I help with the baby?” he asked.  I looked down at him.  In that moment, I took another time trip, but this time it was to that moment in the hospital lobby.  Thing2, a superhero who always rescues me from my darker thoughts, now helped me mark a new special moment where I noticed he has slipped out of the baby/little kid phase and become part of a wider world, and I smiled at him.

“No, thanks, Buddy,” I answered and asked him if he could announce to the downstairs that it was time for the big kids to eat.  He smiled, instantly forgetting the sleeping baby two feet away as he ran to the basement door and shouted to the other kids to wash hands.  I handed the somehow still-sleeping baby back to her mother and went to get a plate together for my fussier eater and continue our journey.

 

 

  

Boys Will be Boys

Car show

My idea of a hot car is one that goes from zero to sixty – degrees – in under fifteen minutes.  Even when I plunk down my two dollars for a twenty million dollar fantasy, a dream car is usually last on the list.  My automotive apathy, however, met its match when I married a classic car junkie.  

Not content to merely thumb through car magazines, the Big Guy lives for car shows.  He’s successfully passed his love of all things automotive on to our two boys which means any car show or antique car museum in a 60 mile radius shows up on our weekend to do list.  That’s why it’s hardly surprising that we’ve found ourselves speeding down route 22 in New York in the driving rain on what would normally be a lazy Sunday afternoon.  

The rain should stop.  This antique car show is at the studio and mansion of the man who sculpted the Lincoln memorial.  Despite the rain and the fact that my fantasy to do list still doesn’t include finding another car show, I’m looking forward to the afternoon.  It’s not the gourmet lunch or the elegant display of painstakingly restored cars that will make the day for me, however.

As with past shows – elegant or rustic – I know I’ll be focused, not on the cars but on the boys.  My day will be spent snapping one photo after another as the Big Guy hoists six-year-old Thing2 up to examine the brass lights on a shiny Model T.  I’ll try to surreptitiously capture twelve-year-old Thing1’s lanky form bending over to study a curvy dashboard through the window of an antique Mercedes.  And, at some point in the day, when they’ve dropped their guards and their games and the three of them are smiling, comparing notes and fantasies, I’ll make another, permanently mental image of my three boys being boys on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Heroes Begin at Home

A long fuse

When our twelve-year-old, Thing1, was about four, he began begging us for a baby brother.  He didn’t want more playdates with other boys, and he definitely didn’t want a baby sister.  Fortunately, we were able to deliver on his request two year later, and, even though we couldn’t take credit for Thing2’s gender, Thing1 was perfectly happy to go along with our contention that Thing2 was the big present that Christmas.

Thing1 took his big-brother responsibilities very seriously.  He read to Thing1and held his hand on the jungle gyms.  He made sure that I didn’t pick any outfits or Halloween costumes that violated the boy code of ‘not-too-cute’.  It didn’t take Thing2 long to decide that his older brother was a hero.  Six years later, Thing1 is learning that no good deed goes unpunished.

The two of them share the same wants these days, and the perfect harmony that characterized their early years together goes off key with increasing frequency.  They still share a bunk room, and, for a time, I thought the close proximity was the primary cause of their constantly overlapping material desires.  But the other night, as the Big Guy and I orchestrated the circus that is homework hour at our house, it became apparent that it does’t always take the opposing forces that lead to conflict don’t have to be equal in size or determination.

The increased expectations and volume of homework this year drove Thing1 to study at the desk we put in his room two years ago.  Thing2, however, still needs more supervision if we want his 20 minutes of homework done before eight o’clock at night, and we’ve designated the kitchen table as his study space.  Anything can draw our happily distractible six-year-old away from his studies, and, if we don’t keep a close eye on him, we know we’ll find him in the bunk room pestering his older brother.

Last week I had a chance to watch this ballet once more.  This time, however, a different angle made it seem like a completely new production.  Thing2 had just been restored to his chair after bouncing around the house, showing us his afternoon artwork.  Thing1 had the door to their room closed.  Hoping a little music would help Thing2 concentrate, I hit play on If I Fell, one of his favorite Beatles’ songs.

My plan backfired immediately.  Thing2 began singing, revealing that he wanted to sing Beatles at the school talent show.  The love song ended, but instead of bending his head to his work, Thing2 hopped off the chair and ran to the bunkroom, calling to his brother through the door to let him know about the talent show plans.

“Leave me alone,” Thing1 yelled through the door.  “I’m trying to work!”  I ordered Thing2 back to his seat and opened the door to let Thing1 know yelling at his brother should be reserved for actual crimes.  He came out to defend his reaction and, after we discussed the right tone to use with his parents, Thing1 trudged back to his desk.  Thing2, watched the exchange and hopped up again as soon as his brother began his retreat.  It was like watching a match chasing a long fuse.

I got up to pull my first-grader back to his homework before a fight broke out, but when I got to the door of the bunk room, Thing2 was hanging on the back of his brother’s chair, arms wrapped tightly around Thing1’s neck, consoling him while revealing his talent show plans.  Thing1, still miffed, was trying to write while ignoring the stranglehold, but then I saw him pat his baby brother’s hand.  At that moment I knew he also realized that this wasn’t pestering.  It was worship.  Sometimes it hurts, but even when he’s trying to find breathing space, Thing1 seems to understand that being someone’s hero is not just a responsibility; it’s a gift.

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