Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How to Stop Grieving Your Kids' Childhoods

I found some Legos in a closet a couple of weeks ago. We're integrating households and it seems all T and I have done for the past three or four months is clean out closets and put items out at the curb.  A little over a year ago, my firstborn, at sixteen and with a newly-minted driver's license, decided quite abruptly (or so it seemed to me) that she wanted to live full-time with her father and stepmother. Cleaning out her room took me six months to work up to--her brother had been squatting there for quite some time and I realized I needed to get past the hand-me-down phase--and one evening when I was alone in the house with the dog and the cat I took a box of tissues in there and sorted through the closet.

She'd taken all she wanted. What was left were items from phases of her childhood she had discarded like a hermit crab with shells she'd outgrown.  Soccer trophies, an American Girl Doll, and a homemade bulletin board with photos from her sixth-grade science trip, which included photos of her with a dolphin. There were former favorite t-shirts she'd outgrown, and essays she'd written in elementary school. At this point, I felt rather tossed upon this particular pile, so the exercise took pretty much the whole stash of Kleenex.

My beloved has many wonderful qualities, among them good taste in furniture, or at least compatible with mine, and fortunately for him I don't have a passion for chintz. We've had no When Harry Met Sally wagon-wheel table moments, and he's helped me manage a transition towards living as a couple and letting go of our house as a shrine to my kids' childhood, though he always checks before we throw. The man organizes my utility closet and my garage. Sometimes I can't quite believe my luck.

This transition must be hard for every parent contemplating an empty nest, but I grieve it particularly because my children have been living between two homes for the better part of a decade. Every favored stuffed animal or once-coveted piece of plastic I unearth reminds me I've been saying goodbye to my kids every other Monday for as long as they can remember. What did they have at their other house? Early on, they decided to leave things in each of their homes.  How did they feel when they came back to half-familiar surroundings every week? 

We put the family heirloom girly bed in the storage shed and T moved a nice California King from his San Francisco house into the boy's room; the child sleeps like the dead and he and his friends enjoy the new, big couch and the larger television now in the family room. On weekends when they are all hanging around, we have our kitchen and civilized living room where we can eat and read and stand sentry until the boys, relishing their own space, finally come in to forage for more food and water. 

As for the Legos and bulletin boards, the very few things that are particularly memorable to me have gone in boxes, no doubt to be moved around in my households of the future until the kids have to pack me off the nursing home. If the kids left the rest without a look back, it means they won't miss it later. I personally have a box of school awards and yearbooks that mean not a thing to me, but I will keep them because packing them up made my parents cry.

In the end, it's just stuff.  Until recently, I thought of myself as a keen thrower, but this latest stage has given me an understanding of wanting to hold onto the past. Then I remember the peanut butter-smeared outfits, the innumerable soccer games, the grocery store meltdowns, the focus on avoiding broken limbs at the playground and the parking lot, and it all makes me exhausted and I'm amazed all involved lived through it. Now all we have to consider is driving, college sex, drinking, drugs and post-education employment.  No wonder I am nostalgic.

These days, I see our daughter fairly often, but even though she lives blocks away it feels like she's already gone off to college, which she's planning to do next fall. She blows in and out without notice, full of news and excited about her future, working and studying and getting ready for her new adventure. I miss seeing her every other week, but now delight in every moment of her company. In some ways, we may be closer than if we had to live in the same house. Her brother is gearing up for high school and we love it when he and his posse descend upon us.

Our family was blessed in the early years with a wonderful caregiver whose kids were nearly out of school by the time she started watching ours after school.  She is among the most devoted mothers I know. One day she said to me, "I'd do it all over again." In the middle of the fray, I know I looked at her like she was crazy.  A few weeks ago, her comments came back to me as I felt the pull of nostalgia. Would I do it all over, even with what I know now? There are new adventures ahead for them and for me. I'll just keep the sweet moments in my heart.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Some twenty years ago I worked with a young man whose determination to be right about everything overtook every conversation we had.  It was annoying and revealed the sin of a genuine lack of curiousity, but he was bright and handled a lot of technical issues well, so generally we got along.  One day the conversation turned to reading, and he said he only read business books.  I offered that one of the greatest pleasures in life is a good novel or memoir.  "Why would I waste my time on just reading a story?" He stated more than asked this.  You, I thought, are truly a lost cause.

I once heard (or more likely read) the best way to get to know someone you meet at a dinner party is to ask them to tell you about the last time they fell in love.  It's not something I have tried, but I do believe almost everyone is interesting in some way, and I never tire of hearing the personal narrative of years unfolding. I suppose I learned this from my mother, who draws people out and remembers the most astounding details, even years later, about people she has known or even met just once. 

The best memoirs aren't vulgar tell-all stories, but they do offer up the details, the reasons behind questionable decision-making, the run straight off the cliff, the particular wrong turns taken in those lives not of those who follow convention, but those of the ones we want to read about. 

..maybe it was the monkfish liver, the trippa Milanese, the marrow bones--he lightly scratched me from the shoulder to the wrist, one long, slow light scratch with his fingernail the long distance of the tender back part of my arm and I, electrified, turned around to finally take a look at this guy whom I had barely registered until now.  It was ballsy and accurate, that scratch; two qualities I find particularly appealing.


--Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones and Butter. 

David Isay is the creator of StoryCorps, one of the most compelling spots on NPR.  He's been at it for ten years, recording conversations between people who are connected in profound ways.  I'd say he has my dream job, except that if I did his work I would probably never stop crying.  A husband tells his wife about being the only survivor of a disastrous shipwreck on Lake Huron.  Two women who have been best friends for three decades talk about what they mean to one another.  The connection and discovery of her authentic self by an 80 year-old woman through her deep bond with her grandson is another recording. 

When asked in a recent interview whether the kinds of stories he was hearing had changed over the past ten years, Isay was categorical: absolutely not.  When asked about their lives, he said, people talk about love, about death, about meaning.  I hope that the world has knocked the corners off my once-young friend's certainty and he now has enough humility to understand that our stories are what give shape to our lives. The themes are universal, but the details make us unique. They are what make us human.