By Wendy Rhein
I guess he’s been mulling it over for a couple of months. Or maybe it is the start of a new school year with new classmates getting to know one another through family pictures created with the Crayola 24 pack. Or the fact that today was a school open house with moms and dads invited to stop by and participate in the lessons on noise pollution and water cycles. Moms AND dads. Whatever the reason, Nate chose tonight to write his first letter to his father.
I sat in his room, putting long sleeved shirts in the dresser, pulling out short sleeved ones, finally surrendering to the onset of Fall, while he took a shower. He’s a talker, my elder son, and he likes to talk through his day while in the shower. I could hear him creating a narrative and a smile crept across my face, my little creative writer coming up with a new story in the shower. How sweet. And then he yelled to me.
“Hey Mom, I’m gonna write a letter to my dad.”
Not missing a beat, I replied, “That sounds great. When do you want to do that?”
He sat at the kitchen table, the site of many a tearful quarrel over spelling words and punctuation, and he began to compose a letter to the father he does not know. I sat with him and stayed quiet unless asked to help spell a word. I fought the urge to make suggestions, to read over his shoulder. No, this has to be his and all his. His words, his relationship, if there will be one. I sat, and I watched my 7-year-old, with his still damp hair askew and his football flannel pajamas, bent over his letter, carefully writing each line that may bring this mystery man into his world. Maybe.
Nate’s letter ended up covering the front and back of a standard white piece of paper. He introduced himself. He shared a secret with his dad, that he has a crush on a girl in his class. He ended it with a PS – please respond Dad. Together we put the letter and his second grade class picture in an envelope and addressed it. I don’t even know if his father is still at the address that I have, and I told Nate that this is the only address I have so we’ll give it a try.
“Because the door is always open, right Mom?”
“Yes love, because that door is always open. If you want to contact him, I will do my best to help.”
I owe him that much. I owe both of my sons the connection of fathers and family. I look at my boys, both of whom have or will have questions about where they come from. For Sam, he will surely want to know more about his biological mother – does he look like her? Is his father tall like he is? Where did his smile come from? For Nate, he knows half of his heritage. He knows that he looks like me when he smiles but that his hair is more like his dad’s. He asks where his long legs come from (me) and where his love of building and creating comes from. Today he asked why we never married. My two sons and their divergent yet similar paths – both with questions about their nature and those people who are ever-present shadows in their minds and mine. I owe them all the explanations and truths that I can muster. And today, it starts with a letter.
By Wendy Rhein
The crisp days of fall are my favorite ones of the year. More than any other season I channel my youth in the fall months. Friday night high school football games, sitting on surprisingly cold metal bleachers behind the marching band. Raking leaves. The feeling of breaking the rules by being out after dark when in reality we were coming home earlier than we had in the long days of summer. The waning days of the year before the insanity and chaos of the holidays is a time for reflection and memory for me, almost a time of preparation. Some folks look to Lent for that. I have college football season.
Every fall now, we go apple picking. Last Sunday we left the house early, hoping to beat the crowds of urbanites like ourselves bonding with their inner fantasy farmer. The drive was beautiful, a blissfully short highway drive followed by hilly but fast two lane roads, and then several miles of dirt roads and horse barns. My boys were singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” at the top of their little lungs for the last 5 miles, which made me proud to pass on the quirky family love of John Denver. (Oh don’t tell me you don’t remember the words.) It was a perfect start to the day – clear weather, just inching into warm but still cool enough t o justify long sleeved shirts and hot cider in a Styrofoam cup. Perfect.
The boys bounded out of the car. We’ve now visited this same farm for three Septembers. The memories were so clear for me. Remember the first year when Sam was so little that I could put him in the picking bucket while I pushed the wheelbarrow up the hills into the orchard? He fell asleep in the sun surrounded by apple trees.
And last year, when Nathan was so frustrated that he couldn’t get the wheelbarrow up the hill by himself, his twiggy arms hoisting the wooden handles up to neck height, just to lift it off the ground. This year he went right to the stack of them, picked one out and pushed it up the long hill on his own, only looking back to smile at me.
We picked 28 pounds of apples in about45 minutes. Nathan believes in speed picking. I was more casual about it, taking the time to look at each apple on the tree, finding the ones I thought would be the most succulent, trying to imagine the sweet tang that comes with a tree-ripened apple. We filled our bucket and headed back to the hay and old tire playground for a few minutes of real kid time before caramel apples and cider were added to the treasure trove and we headed back to the car. Both kids fell asleep in about 7 minutes and I was left to spend a full 30 minutes of quiet time. Thirty minutes to reflect on how much they’ve grown. How much we’ve changed as a family in the last 3 seasons. To dream about what we could be like in another turning of the calendar. My Fall Lent has begun, my Ash Wednesday is apple picking. The season is here.
By Wendy Rhein
In my household there are very few “bad” words. The normal ones that some folks and the FCC would include don’t even make my list. Most of those are collectively known as “Mom’s driving words” and are relegated to the car. I however take my list from the ones my parents used when we were coming up.
I’ve added a couple, like “gay” for anything derogatory or the ever present – though I cannot understand its trans-generational appeal – “retarded.” My sons hear me talk about why these words are truly hurtful, soul-dulling words. At seven, Nate understands. When he hears others say one of them he gasps and points with such drama you would think a coup d’état was afoot. He reacts the same way when someone has eaten the last brownie but painstakingly covered the empty pan with foil and left it on the counter. Ahem…
This week, I’ve decided I am adding a word to the lexicon of evil. FAIR. Fair is hitting my list.
There is no such thing as fair. Nothing is fair, nothing ever will be fair. Things are or they are not, but absolute, unchallenged, all-inclusive equity simply does not exist. And I am sick to death of trying to correct the practical ‘not fairs’ like “it isn’t fair that this boy in my class has a summer house AND a winter cabin!” or “it is only fair if both Sam and me get the exact same vitamin shape every single day.” Not to mention the absurd not fairs like “it isn’t fair that Spiderman can shoot webs and I can’t” and “hey no fair that you got up before me.” Really? To whom is that not fair?
My real issue with fair is not the annoying statements or my inane need to address each of them with comments about what you DO have and CAN do, or my core need to instill a radical level of gratitude in a 2- and 7-year-old whose brains may simply not be ready. My real issue is that I think that labeling things, people, actions, as fair or not is a way to separate oneself from others. It is a way to keep some folks out of the circle and some in. It is a way for kids especially to point out difference and for adults to perpetuate a sense of not having or not being something that they put outside of their own control. Basically it puts a word to self pity or self aggrandizing or the inability to create change. All of which I refuse to buy into. And more importantly, I refuse, flat out refuse, to let my sons buy into. Something you want? Is it really that important and if so, what are you willing and able to do to have it? Want to be something? Figure out a way to make it happen. See an inequity? What can you do to fix it? Don’t just slap a word on it and throw up your hands to the universe and pout.
When I respond with these comments and questions to statements like the one for multiple homes or for web-spinning skills, we create conversations about the real or lack of importance of these things. Most of the time our discussion ends with a sense that that thing or process is really not that important in the scheme of our lives as a family or Nate’s place in the world. I want him to find another way to articulate what he envies or fantasizes about without labeling it with the judgment-heavy “fair.” That doesn’t get us anywhere. There is nowhere to go from that label except to the awfully lonely land of “us and them.”
So I’m taking a stand. FAIR is a word that hurts and damages. It is going on the list. Express your desires and need for inclusion in other words because that one doesn’t help any of us be better. And we can be so much better.
By Wendy Rhein
Sometimes I catch myself with my mouth hanging open. I remind myself to close my jaw, take a breath. I seem to think that if I get quiet then the shocking, absurd, or insane thing I’ve just said will evaporate in a comic book quote bubble and we can all, especially me, pretend that I really didn’t just say that.
The things I find myself saying before 8am on any given day. These are the words that stun even me. Here is a recent sampling of things I’ve said to my kids, and meant them all.
“Put the lizard down. Now. Wait – NOT ON MY BED!”
“Yes I put the baked brie with pears and crackers in your Star Wars lunchbox. Right next to the juicebox.”
“Stop pulling on each other’s nipples!”
“For God’s sake, you have to wear pants to school. Your penis can enjoy the cool breeze later!”
“Your brother’s head is not suitable for ‘show and tell’ even if your teacher said you can bring in anything that fits in your backpack.”
“You can’t eat oatmeal in the shower.”
“Why is there a muffin in MY shower?”
“Why is your backpack oozing something green? Never mind, just don’t get it on the car.”
“No you can’t have a playdate with Melia and Sasha Obama this week. The Secret Service hasn’t bomb-checked our apartment yet.”
What is astonishing to me is that I meant every single word I said at the time. It is only after these perfectly logical statements left my mouth did “what the hell?” follow. I wonder if my son has started keeping a list of his own of all the crazy stuff his mother says. We could compare notes someday.
By Wendy Rhein
These are the women I knew when I was carefree, though I may not have known it at the time. Pre-mortgages, pre-spouses, pre-children, we lived lives as single, career-minded, and curious young women in New York where almost anything felt possible if we wanted it badly enough. We went to the theater in the middle of the week. We saw concerts at the foot of the World Trade Center and watched the July 4th fireworks from Roosevelt Island. We edged our way to the front of the rope line at Christmas concerts at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, shoulder to shoulder with the nuns, our heads held high. These were the women who called each other at 1am after bad dates and good dates, fights with boyfriends and bosses, the best days and the lonely days.
These are the women.
And now, 15 years later, as many of us that can meet up for a week’s vacation, sharing a 3-bedroom condo in a little village, meals, walks, and many bottles of wine. And ice cream. There is always ice cream. Not everyone can come every year but we try. Spouses may join for a few days but generally, it is the women who come and stay. We women, and our children. This year that meant five kids under the age of 7. They range from 16 months to 7, four boys and one brave girl. We break them down into groups: small for the under 2s, medium for ages 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 and then the large child at age 7. We love to plan and we plan for weeks (months) in advance for meals and nap schedules and respect each other’s need to alter the schedules as children’s needs and our own shift. We balance who wants to do what during the day and gift each other the precious maternal commodity of alone time. This year I did the big grocery run about 320 miles into my 329 mile journey, kids in tow. We insist on treating ourselves to wonderful homemade tapas and farm fresh foods, balanced now with a lot of yogurt cups and honey-nut cheerios. We help each other unload, not always by carrying bags and strollers but by corralling children who have sat for too long to contain their excitement any longer. We laugh. A lot. We sometimes cry. We reveal our fears to one another in a way that honors our trust and friendship because we don’t do that easily.
These are the women.
After more than a decade of moves, marriages, children, crises, career sidesteps and leaps, these are the women who now talk about our aging parents, our parenting challenges, our own health, and our own longing for an elusive balance between fulfilling careers and fulfilled families. Maintaining friendships across miles in difficult. Making friends, new friends, good friends, after a certain age seems almost as difficult. I have found that many of the friendships are compartmentalized – because our kids know each other, because we work together – and they don’t always feel lasting and grounding. But holding on to old friends, and allowing space and acceptance for the changes in our lives and all the new little people that come with us like ducklings in a row, is the real test of friendship in your sandwich years. It takes time and commitment and effort. It takes forgiving unanswered emails and knowing that the painful honesties shared are meant in love. It takes some Herculian efforts to talk on the phone when little people are tugging at your clothes, your hair, your breasts. It takes saying “I’ll call you back” and doing it, even if that call comes at 7am from a taxi on the way to the airport. It takes. But what these friendships give, after years and years, is so much more.
By: Wendy Rhein
Something about late July sparks the urge to preserve. Preserve time with family and friends, the slower pace of our evenings without homework, even the warmth of a late day sun. But I can’t hold those things about summer, saving them for a mid winter’s day when I step barefooted into a pile of melting slush fallen off a boot or have to rummage through a book bag at midnight looking for tomorrow’s permission slip. I can’t preserve the ease and pace of summer but I can preserve the food.
You would think that all the fruit in the world was dying out, what with my urge to create jar upon jar of cherry, peach, nectarine, and plum goodness. We’re very lucky to live near some wonderful farmer’s markets and I take full advantage of them. A well stocked farmer’s market is my Disney. I lecture my boys each Sunday morning: if you behave, and promise not to ruin my market experience by running off with the whole plate of samples or whining about when we can leave, you can have ANYTHING you ask for. I have no qualms about bribing them with organic, fresh, local produce and baked goods. Beats a bag of Doritos any day.
This week’s bounty of multi-colored plums and sweet cherries became jam on Sunday afternoon. It started like this:
Hand pitting cherries is a sensual experience, but you may want to use gloves. The juice stains make you look like you’ve been changing oil on a Harley for a few years.
I lost count of how many pitted cherries made 2 cups. About this many:
I added 6 quartered and pitted plums. Some red, some purple, some yellow. All beautiful. And then a cup of sugar. No pectin, but a 1/4c water.
Over medium heat, let the fruit come to a soft boil and stir frequently to keep the fruit from sticking and the juices moving. After the fruit starts to break down, I add a teaspoon of allspice for an earthy, exotic tang that matches the gorgeous magenta color that is developing in the pot. Let the fruit cook down as it continues to have a soft, lava-esque, globby boil, maybe 20-25 minutes. Once it sticks to the spoon, you can turn it off and let it cool slightly. Pour the contents into prepared canning jars (this is a good canning primer if you need one) and boil them to seal.
And when it is all said and done, I have this:
Time consuming, I know, but what an incredible result. There is something fulfilling about making my own food in this day and age. At a very base and basic level, knowing that I’ve captured something fresh and whole for my family to enjoy in the cold months ahead. The time in the kitchen feeds my soul, and soul-feeding time as a single mom is something that is hard to come by and often harder to justify. I allow myself this time because I know we all benefit in the end.
Up next, peach butter!
By: Wendy Rhein
My little family’s universe is going through its own planet shifts. It may not be the full solar eclipse or Venus transitioning the sun, but we are all facing something new and uncertain. Every one of the four of us is going through some personal ending or beginning, a transition or a change. in the end, they will all be good but the getting there experience is different for each of us.
My mother is traveling alone for the first time in several years this week. She’s been looking forward to the cross country trip to see her first grandchild graduate high school. In helping her prepare over the last few days I have seen a new hesitancy in her that doesn’t surprise me but does sadden me. How will she get through security? She can’t stand that long. (We arranged for a wheelchair to meet her at the ticketing door to take her to the gate.) She was concerned about how her bag would get into the overhead since she can’t lift things over her head. (Don’t worry, people will help you.) Will they take her medications at security if they are liquids? Why does she have to put her coveted Joy perfume in a plastic bag? (A cane-walking pharmacy, I sent her off with print outs of the scripts from her doctors just in case security thinks she’s a drug runner.) The questions went on. She left me with her favorite ring, ‘just in case,’ and reminded me that she wants to be cremated. I told her if she dies in a fiery plane crash she will likely already be cremated. She didn’t find this funny.
My mom was the one who was always up for an adventure. It took her five years to save for a trip to Europe when we were kids but she did it and our family of 6 spent 28 days touring five countries. She has taken more 12+ hour road trips than I ever have. But she could trust her body then. She could trust her mind and her own abilities. Time and pain have taken that away.
Nathan has four more days of school and he’s exhausted. There are so many endings and celebrations that our schedule and patterns are all out of whack. I was highly unpopular last night for dragging him and his brother out of a still in progress event at 8:00 on a school night. They were wrecked and needed to sleep, even if they didn’t think so. There have been three melt downs this week. Seven-year-old meltdowns are about as fun as a two-year-old temper tantrum, but with longer kicking legs and a greater damage pattern. I’ve seen both this week and have created a list of key elements of success for each. I’m going to make score cards today and rate the next ones like the Olympic judge from East Germany.
Sam seems to be feeding on everyone’s angst and excitement. He is going through his own transitions at daycare with new teachers which are manifesting in clinging and hiding behind my legs. I don’t blame him – these are new people to me too and I’m clinging to him as hard as he clings to me. Will they take good enough care of my baby? I recently talked to a colleague who was bemoaning the need to find new daycare for her 3-year-old because she found out the teacher had been locking him in a closet when he wouldn’t nap during the day. Every parent’s nightmare story, right? I trust the care providers for Sam but this is the stuff of daycare legend. It is hard to not think about it.
As for me, change is always good. Even when the process is painful or long, it ends the way it is supposed to end and that’s got to be good. There are things afoot personally and professionally and I remind myself 1,706 times a day that it will all come out the way it is supposed to. I can’t control most of it. Besides, I am the safety net for everyone else’s transitions in my family. I reassure, I fix, I provide, I hug and hold. I set the rules and I allow all of us to break them. As the net, I can’t fray and crumble, no matter how stretched (or stressed) out I become. It is all for the good. It has to be.
By: Wendy Rhein
I have a confession. I have a fantasy that is occupying more and more of my time. It is tantalizing to distraction and I’m fantasizing about making the fantasy reality.
Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Come with me.
There is an old wood slat barn down the pebbled path, perfect for a cow or two, some sheep and goats. Maybe even a pig. The rolling land has a vineyard on one side and an olive grove on the other. And in the middle is me, shoulders back, confident, the natural wave in my hair flowing (all of the grey is gone too, by the way), with a basket of dirt-clinging vegetables resting on one hip and a baby on the other. I’m happy. I’m relaxed. My kids are running barefoot through the olive grove. There are no car alarms going off, no toy-stealing and no one slamming doors down the hall.
Can’t you feel your blood pressure dropping just LOOKING at this?
In my waking/tied to the desk hours, I sometimes close my eyes and go to this happy place but increasingly I’m frustrated when I open my eyes after the phone/email/blackberry/cell phone pings. It isn’t refreshing anymore. I wonder what it would take to make the dream a reality. Could I really uproot my family and move to a pastoral village? That’s easy: absolutely. No problem. Sell our belongings, pack some bags, promise my elder son that he’ll make new friends and off we’d go. Sounds a little cold I suppose but the prospect of that kind of adventure and way of life sends me over the edge of compassion for my kids and into “mama says now” mode. But the rest of the fantasy, that’s the hard part. Finding the right property. Discovering how to make money in this new environment. The logistics of living as an ex-pat. Schools. Language.
Damn I hate when reality gets in my way. But it has to be possible. I know scores of people who have made the literal leap over the Pond for a different way of life.
This could be in the cards for us and I’ve gone as far as discussing it with my mother. She’d pack tomorrow if I let her. Her request is that I promise to not relocate us to Africa, and that since she would fully expect to die wherever we go so she would like that place to have decent medical care so she can get the good drugs in the end. Fair enough.
So, if anyone is looking for a permanent caretaker for their European second home, or you know someone who needs some help on a vineyard or a small B&B, give me a call. You’ll be amazed at how fast I can pack.
The murder of Trayvon Martin has consumed the media and many a mind these last few weeks. The death of a child is always a tragedy but this one has taken on a larger grief because of its racial foundation, its avoidability, and its shocking reminder that the death of a young black man at the hand of a person who believes himself to be an authority is not new. Not by a long shot.
I am a white woman raising two young black men. I’m well aware of that. I’ve been accused of being overly aware of it. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that that they just don’t see race, or that race isn’t a factor anymore.
(That’s just not true. And it bothers me when people claim to not see race because it is an intrinsic part of identity and pride. Don’t negate my sons’ race by saying you don’t see it. Celebrate it. Welcome it. Cherish the fact that difference exists everywhere you find it.)
There is this thing called the Code. I’ve been told about the Code. I’ve asked scores of not-so-sensitive questions about the Code and how to share it with my sons someday. I am incredibly grateful to the men who have been willing to talk to me openly and honestly about what to say and how, acknowledging my limitations. I could have left this alone until they are older, ignored it until absolutely necessary because that certainly would be less confrontational for me. But I want to be prepared. I want them to be prepared. And I admit to a level of shame about the need for the existence of the Code that I need to deal with too.
Generations of African American families have sat around thousands of kitchen tables and shared this sad reality with their sons. One day, my dear child, you will scare someone just because you are a young black man. They will question your presence in their neighborhood, at their school, late at night at a traffic stop. Pay very close attention to your environment, to your surroundings. If you feel uncomfortable, pay attention to that and leave. Over time you will develop a sixth sense about these things, I’ve been told. Be respectful when you are stopped by a police officer even when you have no idea why. Don’t be submissive but don’t challenge. Find respect in humility and self preservation. And please know that not all white people will be like this, you have a wide and loving group of examples that prove otherwise. Don’t let these indignities make you angry or hateful because that’s not who you are. Be aware that others fear and judge based on their issues; it has both nothing and everything to do with you.
My boys are too young, thank God, for this discussion but I know it is coming. It is hard for me on many levels. I see the internal battle between teaching them to be wary and questioning and creating distrust and bitterness. I want them to live in a world that is full of love and creativity and purpose, not labels and misconceptions and genuine danger. How do I balance raising them to be self confident and powerful young men while also telling them to be careful about going to a Stop n Shop after a football game? How can I tell them to be who they inherently are and yet plant this insidious seed of self-limitation and self loathing?
I wish I could say that I’m shocked and surprised that a 17-year-old black man who tried to shield himself from the night’s rain with a hooded sweatshirt was gunned down in his neighborhood. Instead, I’m shocked and surprised by the shock and surprise of so many others. This is the reality for many black male teens. For those who say they don’t see race, please understand that others’ experiences are not yours and we need to acknowledge that racial reactions still exist, whether in high profile situations like Trayvon’s or the more subtle indignities faced by black men daily. I don’t know how so many of these parents have talked to their sons over the years without erupting in rage over the very fact that we still have to have this conversation. I don’t know how I will.
By: Wendy Rhein
Regardless of how many times someone says “change is inevitable” it can still catch you off guard. Sam started a new daycare last week and it has been a big change for all of us – though ironically the biggest impact is not on Sam, or on me. The most changed and confronted is my mother.
My mother lives with us and has been a primary caregiver for Sam for a year. He has been in part-time daycare but has now transitioned to full time care out of the home. It was an easy decision on my part – he needs the socialization and the activity. The hard part was conveying that to my mother without pointing out her growing limitations.
She takes it personally that she is aging and that her body is failing her. Frankly, she’s pissed. And when she’s pissed, she cries. So in the discussions about moving Sam to daycare full time there were many, many tears. She is sad that she can’t keep up with him and that she can’t be what he needs. She’s sad that she’s not what I need her to be as a caretaker. She can’t believe the costs involved and what that means for me. And at the root of it, she’s outraged that her body prohibits her from keeping her youngest grandchild engaged, busy, and safe. She is scared of taking him to the store because he wants to race ahead and she can’t catch him. She’s nervous about him running away in a parking lot or staging a 2-year-old sit-in when she can longer pick him up. Over the last few months on the days she’s had him, they have stayed in more which meant she was exhausted from trying to entertain and contain the unending energy of a toddler. Many days she would go to bed soon after I came home from work. Whether it was for rest or to avoid the noise of little kids I can’t be sure.
For a while now, I’ve been told that I cannot point out her limitations or remind her of her age. I have endured some wrath over stating the obvious. I bite my tongue when I see she can’t reach the top shelf of a cabinet because she can’t raise her arm straight over her head. And I will go along behind her to move the dishes that made it out of the dishwasher onto the counter and put them in the back of the lower cabinets when I know she can’t bend over and stretch at the same time. She says thank you for those bits of help but we don’t talk about the causes and she sees this as us working together. But her inability to care for Sam in the way she wanted to, the way she thought I wanted her to, has been the limit she didn’t want to grasp.
Over the last two weeks she has stopped some of the crying and recognizes that this is what is best for him. She is also coming to terms with her own guilt over feeling relieved – an unnecessary guilt as most guilt is – that her burden is lessened. I remind her that this frees her up to do the things she talks about wanting to do. In my mind I say the excuses are removed now. Get out there. DO something.
The irony for me is that she’s the one who acts abandoned, not Sam. Sam has this incredible sense of trust that when I drop him off to a new place with new adults and lots of new children, his lunch box in hand and his blanket in a bag, that all is well. He smiles and runs in, knowing in his heart that I’m coming back for him. I think my mother sees us all run out the door in the morning, bags and lunch boxes in hand, and wonders if we’re coming back or if we will continue to move beyond her. A cycle of parenthood repeating itself.
My fear now is that she will continue to isolate. Continue to spend most of her days at home but now without any human interaction from 8:00 – 3:45. Being alone will only further age her, not that I’m allowed to say that out loud. She needs to be more social, she needs to be more physically active and have a schedule.
I gave it a week before I signed her up for the Re-Elect Obama campaign as a local volunteer.
They’ve already called.