I’m writing tonight from gorgeous St. Pete Beach in Florida.
I’m here with my sister, my first true friend. Born only 20 months after me, Liz was something of a twin to me when we were little. As the big sister, I protected her from scary invisible monsters and bossy neighbor kids.
As the little sister, she gave me a sense of power by obeying my every command.
Then we both grew up, and began to lead our different, separate lives. Time passed and we had different paths to follow. We were no longer in touch every day, and no longer held key roles in each others’ lives.
Nevertheless, she has always been there for me, my husband, my children. I hope I’ve done the same for her.
The years have rolled on. We aren’t those two cute almost twin girls with our matching outfits and matching ponytails. We are no longer those two young women in our new marriages.
Now we’re two aging ladies who have been through joys and struggles. We’re gray. We’re not as svelte as we used to be. We’re quirky.
Now we’re just two old nuts.
Liz lost her husband not long ago. He was the absolute love of her life, her other half. He was her partner in everything.
For 23 years, the two of them spent winter vacations on St. Pete Beach, always staying at the same resort motel. They made dozens of friends and thousands of memories. This place became a cherished second home for both of them.
I’m here because Liz needed to come back to this place. She wanted to make some new memories and to regain a little of the happiness she knew here. She needed a side kick, as it were, and I’m lucky enough to be in that role.
So here we are. Swimming in the salty waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Collecting shells, watching the sunsets, drinking wine.
There are some happy ghosts here for Liz, to be sure. But I think that there are also some new laughs.
In the end, we are just two old nuts strolling along the tide line with our very first friend.
When your children are born, all you want for them is…well, everything. You want to protect them from every possible bump, bruise, scratch, insult, injury, sorrow.
As they begin to grow, you realize as a parent that you can’t actually protect them from the world, from life.
But your initial hope remains true. When all is said and done, what you want for your children is happiness.
Every parent has thought it. Every one has said it, “I just want my children to be happy.”
What that means is something different from family to family, and it changes over time.
But in the end, if we can distill our deepest and truest wish for our children, it is this:
“I wish you a life that brings you pleasure. I wish you a job that makes you feel good about yourself. I wish you friends who laugh with you and share your best and worst times. And more than anything, I wish you love.”
We want our children to find their loves. To find someone who brings out the best in them. To find someone who is their own best with our child beside them.
Of course we may not realize it when the kids are small, and we may not say it out loud when they are older, but we also want them to find someone that we can love, too.
As parents, we wish for our children a life of equal parts adventure and predictability. We wish for them to grow and learn and get stronger every day.
When my three children were little, I imagined them eating good food around their own tables. All of them have achieved this. I desperately wanted them to find a community of like minded souls who would support them, challenge them and laugh with them. All three have that, too.
And I wish, most of all, that all of them would find a solid life partner, like mine, who would be there through all of the financial crises, the health issues, the emotional swings and the changing times. I wished each of them a partner who desired them, cared for them, missed them, stored up stories of the day to tell them.
All of mine have also, miraculously, found partners who bring out the best in them, who love them deeply, and who we love as well.
That’s a mother’s best wish. It’s any parent’s best wish.
“I just want my child to be happy.”
We all say it.
We all mean it.
Last weekend, my youngest child, my sweet baby, proposed to his own true love. We were there to share the excitement. She is the one who fills every one of our wishes for our boy.
Sometimes life give us exactly what we want, exactly what we desire.
This was one of those times.
Yay, Tim and Sweens!!!!! You guys make dreams come true, and not only for each other!!!!!
Before he proposed to Sweens, Tim came with me to see my 88 year old Mom. She was married to my Dad for 58 years. They had one of those magical and loving marriages that you only read about. She said to Tim, upon hearing his news, “I wish for you the same kind of relationship that Grampa and I had. We were best friends and we always looked out for each other.”
To every parent out there, I hope you all have happy children. There’s nothing more important, and nothing more gratifying.
I first heard the phrase “Food is Love” from a colleague who was laughing at me gently on the morning of Sept.12, 2001. After the horror of the terrorist attacks in New York, and the long, terrifying night lying awake and watching endlessly repeating news, I had arrived at school with two dozen home made muffins.
I didn’t know what else to do. The world was out of control. I was sad, upset, scared, confused. I didn’t know how to react.
So I cooked.
Food is love. Food is comfort.
Food is family and warmth and security.
I guess that’s why I have raised three kids who are all exceptionally good cooks. My daughter makes the best pizza I have ever eaten. She makes Indian foods, Asian foods, and delicious focaccia.
My two sons are such good cooks that for Christmas I tend to give them ingredients as gifts. They went to college fully prepared to cook for the entire apartment. Now in their mid twenties and in serious long-term relationships, they love to cook for their partners and friends. They grow vegetables, they seek out organic foods, they browse through recipes for inspiration knowing that they will add/change/delete build upon whatever they find.
So I guess it’s no surprise that one of my favorite parts of every day is cooking with my grandchildren.
I get so much pleasure out of those moments when the two kids are seated up on my counter, helping me to mix, chop, stir, mince, sautee and simmer.
OK. Full disclosure and all that: when we’re cooking, I know where they are and I don’t have to chase them. The chaos is contained.
But that isn’t the whole story.
I just love sharing good food with them. I love sharing the history of our family recipes. I love teaching them how to handle foods, how to measure and pour and stir. I love letting them know that spilling is allowed, mistakes are expected and eggshells can add a little crunch to a cake.
Mostly, I love looking at them. I love seeing their big, dark brown eyes gazing into the bowl of dough. I love the way they listen to my every word, even as I realize that they don’t understand it all.
I mean, how many three year old really understand the difference between slicing and mincing the red peppers? How many 19 month old kids know how to crack an egg, crush a clove of garlic, zest a lemon?
My grandchildren do. Or at least they are beginning to.
Someday, when they are living on their own in small, drafty apartments, I hope that they will pull out a pile of ingredients, start to chop, and tell their gathered friends, “My Nonni taught me how to cook before I was old enough to talk.”
I hope that they think of me when they add a dash of crushed red pepper to a pot of soup. I hope they recognize, on some deep level, that they dare to experiment with spices because their Nonni helped them to feel at home in the kitchen.
I hope that they one day they will gaze with devotion at someone at their table and that they will say, “You know that food is love, don’t you?”
When I was a classroom teacher, in a public school, I was constantly reminded of the fact that our structured educational plans were often interfering with the glorious creative chaos of our children.
Now that I am a “Stay at home Nonni”, watching two or three toddlers (depending on the day), my thoughts have changed. Now I have become even more convinced that if we truly want to foster creative thinking in our kids, we adults need to shut up, back off, and be willing to clean up the mess when it’s all done.
Today was the perfect example of this educational philosophy. Today I was home with 18 month old Johnny, who is completely 100% focused on pushing buttons, opening doors and placing items into various containers.
I was doing my best to corral his curiosity and keep him engaged in socially appropriate activities. Those activities are mostly cleaning (he can use a broom and push the dirt into the dustbin and throw it into the trash) and cooking (he can crack an egg, use a garlic press and add flour to a working mixer.)
Meanwhile, three year old Ellie and four year old Ella were engaged in some kind of pretend play in the living room. This play, whatever it was, involved a great deal of shrieking, a lot of dramatic cries, and a “treasure map”(my tossed out mail) that had to be followed in order to save some vague hero from an even more vague bad guy.
While Johnny and I minced onions and stirred our pot of chili, the girls raced around the house. A bridge of pillows was built. A blanket was tossed over two chairs to create a caste. An old cardboard box became a baby’s special bed. And a bookshelf was emptied to make a hidden cave for a fairy.
To be honest, I didn’t really follow all of the action. I was busy trying to make a batch of chili while keeping Johnny from getting into the bathroom plumbing.
But when it was all over, and it was time for me to sit the three kids down for lunch, I realized a lot of learning had taken place while I was busy.
I learned that the kids had figured out that one size had to be smaller than the other if something would fit into something else. They had worked out a truly creative way to merge the stories of two royal sisters (Frozen) with the story of a magical pony (My Little Pony). They didn’t just travel on parallel tracks; they managed to mix the two stories into an entirely new adventure.
While creating all of this magic, the three and four year old girls had managed to cooperate, negotiate, take turns and share their ideas.
All on their own.
This isn’t magic, although I have to admit that seemed like it to me.
It was simply the power of the young, unfettered human mind when it is left alone to do what nature has always intended.
Kids are magic. Kids are our problem solvers.
Kids are everything that we always wish we could be.
This aging educator is learning that the less I try to teach, the more these children learn.
But don’t just believe me. Look at these videos produced by people who are far more educated than me.
It was so many years ago, and it all seems almost like a dream. Even so, I remember all of the sadness, the struggles, the joy. I remember it the way you remember those things that change you at the most minute level of your every cell.
More than three decades ago, when I was a young, healthy woman, Paul and I finally came to the point in our lives when we were ready and eager to start a family. We’d been to college, had our first jobs, gone off to graduate school.
The age of 30 was looming ahead of me, and I was getting anxious about putting off motherhood. After all, I was the oldest daughter in a family of six kids. I considered my own Mom, and her mother before her, to be the epitome of women who were fulfilling their life’s true purpose.
Of course I knew that times were changing, and that women of my generation were expected to have college degrees and jobs and careers. I was delighted by all of that, but I still longed for the chance to become a mother. I had fed and changed and cradled my youngest siblings, and my maternal instincts were incredibly cranked up.
So we put aside the birth control and waited for the miracle. And we waited. And waited some more. My heart became heavier with each passing month, and eventually we realized that we’d need some medical help.
My deepest and dearest wish seemed to be out of my reach.
But at last, at last, at last. Just before my dreaded thirtieth birthday, I conceived. My dream was coming true. Slowly, through those long, anxious months, I began to believe that I would finally hold my own baby.
And it happened. On January 11th, 1986, after more hours than I want to think about, my beautiful girl came into the world. I took one look at her and my heart melted into a pool of motherly smoosh.
THIS was the most gorgeous, most perfect, most lovable and loving human being that had ever been born. I immediately felt badly for every parent who had to learn how to love their inferior children.
I’m not kidding.
I was beyond in love. The smell of her cheek, the darkness of her brown eyes, the shape of those tiny lips…..all of it was completely intoxicating to both Paul and I.
At last, I was a mother. My dream had come true.
Now it is 33 years after that life-changing moment of birth. My beautiful, perfect little baby girl has become a strong, passionate, smart, funny, wonderful woman. She is a fabulous teacher, loved by her students and their parents.
She is a mother of incredible humor, grace, gentleness and love. She is a better mother than I was, and I was pretty damned good. She’s a great cook, a loyal and devoted friend, a supportive colleague. She is a political activist, a well informed and passionate progressive.
She is still a miracle to me. I am still so in love with the beauty of her smile, the shine of her gorgeous hair, the strength that I see in her interactions with her kids.
Happy, happy birthday to the incredible young woman who I still consider to be the most excellent and perfect of dreams come true.
One of the very best parts of spending all day with children is being reminded of the magic that surrounds them. As a past middle aged woman, as a grandmother, I am far removed now from the wondrous days of make believe.
But when I watch the children playing in my house, I am pulled right back into that magical pretend world, whether I’m ready to be there or not.
Today was the perfect example of how children move effortlessly between reality and play.
Today I had my two grandchildren here. Ellie is about three and half, and her brother John in halfway between one and two. They play pretty well together when the game is purely pretend. Ellie will be sitting there for a moment, then she’ll suddenly turn to me and say, “I’m Elsa! You’re Anna.” And off we go into the land of “Frozen.” Johnny will happy jump around and follow us through the house in his relatively undefined role of “Olaf.”
But two days a week our little drama club is pushed up a notch when our friend Ella is here. Ella is a wise, mature four year old. She understands all of the subtle nuances of pretend play.
When Ellie announces that she is “Elsa”, her friend doesn’t even bat an eye. “I’m a kitty”, she will announce. “Elsa has a new kitty.”
Because they are little ones, and because their magic has no need for reality, Ellie might respond by saying, “I’m the kitty’s Mamma!” Elsa will be instantly forgotten, and the magic will simply shift.
It’s so gloriously empowering to watch them at play. As they move from scene to scene, I can almost see the world that they are creating.
“The Momma kitty is sick!” one will wail, “She is at the kitty hospital!” And as the Momma kitty collapses in a dramatic heap, I swear that I can see the pristine white walls of the kitty hospital around her. I feel the anguish as her “baby kitty” runs into the hospital room with a desperate “Miaow!!!!”
I imagine the world around the kids as a series of beautiful chalk drawings, forming miraculously from the words that the girls share. “We are running on the beach!” means that the world around them is filled with the colors of the sand and the sea. “The baby kitty is sleeping in her bed.” makes that world melt and shift and turn itself into a quiet cozy room.
As the children see those magical worlds, they let me see them, too.
I am so grateful to the little ones who share my days. I am so thankful that at the not-so-tender age of 62, I am still able to feel and see the magic.
One of the reasons why I’ve always loved being with children is that they are so honest. They don’t play emotional games. They tell you what they think.
I loved that in my classroom, because I learned pretty quickly that if I just listened, I could let them guide me toward a happier, more cooperative classroom.
As a Mom, I wasn’t always successful, but I tried to listen to what my kids were telling me. I tried to listen when they used words, expressions and actions to tell me “Mom, I love when you make up silly songs!” I tried to listen, and look, and understand, when a terrible tantrum showed me that my child was thinking “Get me out of here! I am confused! I don’t understand!!! It’s too loud, too bright, too happy, too sad…..”
I have always loved the honesty of children.
I remember how happy I was when one of my own kids, after a big argument between us, told me, “What you said wasn’t fair. I’m really mad at you.” It was so incredibly freeing, because I was able to tell him he was right, move past the fight and get to the root of our differences (whatever on earth they were.)
And I remember when I once told my class to let me know if I upset them, and the one little boy who told me, “You’re way to happy all the time.”
I remember the children who told me, “Your eyes make me happy.” and “I love the way you walk.” I love the honesty of children. I trust it.
So of course, I have a story to share about this Christmas with my grandkids.
I am used to the fact that when the big family gathers around, both Ellie and Johnny try to keep their distance from me. I’m the every day caretaker. Not as necessary as Mom and Dad, yet more familiar than those exciting Aunts, Uncles and grandparents from further away.
If I try to play with Johnny, he smiles his sweet smile, but makes sure to point toward his parents. “Mamma”, he says firmly. “Daddy.” I get it. He’s telling me its OK for me to hang around, but I better understand that he’s safe at home with his parents right now, and doesn’t intend to move.
When I reach for Ellie as I come in, she often smiles, waves and moves back out of my grasp. “I’m talking to Aunt Cynthia right now,” she’ll tell me.
I’ve learned to keep my distance and to embrace the adult conversations at these gatherings without the pressure of childcare. Watching Ellie play with the extended family is so sweet. Seeing Johnny in the arms of my siblings or his other grandparents melts my heart completely.
I think the kids associate me with long days away from Mommy and Daddy. I know they love me, but still….I’m like the comfy sofa. Always there, but not particularly exciting.
But this Christmas Eve, I got a much clearer idea of why Ellie has mixed feelings when I arrive at family gatherings. She barely spoke to me during the many hours of eating, drinking, gift giving, laughing, hugging and family revelry.
She danced by me once or twice, but we didn’t really connect.
Finally, though, when everyone had headed home except for a few of us, she threw herself into my arms and kissed me with joy. I was ecstatic to finally have her to myself, and kissed her cheeks and hair.
Leaning back into the curve of my arms, Ellie grinned up at me. “Oh, Nonni! Thank you for having this big party with us! The whole whole world was here at our party!!!!”
I squeezed her tight, telling her how much fun it was for me to be there with her.
Then my sweet girl put one hand on each of my cheeks and smiled right into my eyes.
“Nonni,” she told me earnestly. “You were so good here tonight! You were so so good!”
“I was?” I asked, wondering what she meant.
“Yes! You were so quiet!!! You didn’t talk at all! You were so so good!” She kissed me again in gratitude for my silence.
Really? All she wanted was for me to shut the hell up?
“Uh,” I began, “I did talk to my family….”
“I know!” She crowed joyfully. “But you didn’t talk to me!”
My Dad used to say it that way. My Grampa did, too. And my PapaNonni said, “Buon Natale”. In our house we didn’t say it in English when the whole family was around.
For my whole life, those two words have meant the sharing of good food, of laughter, of presents, of long stories told it two languages.
Buon Natale meant the meal of seven fishes, with shrimp and calamari and especially with octopus cooked by my Sicilian Grampa who pronounced it “boopie.”
The magic of the celebration meant gathering with cousins we saw only two or three times a year. It meant catching up with each other’s news, introducing new boyfriends, new fiances, new babies.
Buon Natale. Every year the location of our family party would rotate between the houses of my mother’s siblings. Some things would change, as people moved and families grew, but many many things stayed the same. The boopie, the calamari, the red Santa hats, the bottles of good Scotch under the tree.
Years have passed for me. Decades have passed now.
So many of those we loved have left us. Grampa, the original boopie chef, has been gone for more than thirty years. Our Nana left us more than ten years ago. We’ve lost my Dad, my sweet, funny brother-in-law, and my hilarious and brilliant Uncle.
But you know what?
We gathered again today. We hugged, and kissed and wished each other Buon Natale. There was wine and good Scotch. There was boopie and shrimp and calamari and calzone. We had ricotta pie and wonderful desserts.
Mostly, though, we had a new generation of little cousins who play together and laugh together only once or twice a year. We had laughs and memories and a few quiet tears.
We had each other. We had tradition and repetition and time to look back and remember that the joy of the season is really about celebrating how lucky we’ve been to have known and loved each other.
I don’t know what the future will bring, or how long traditions should hold.
But I know that my daughter will be hosting her brothers and us on Christmas. And I know that she’ll be cooking boopie.
Way back in time, when Paul and I were mere grad students, I was introduced to a very intriguing concept. It was the end of one grad school year, and one of our friends stated that she and her professor were “decathecting.”
I had no idea of what the term meant, but as a grad student in speech/language pathology, it struck me as uniquely interesting. “Does one cathect?” I wondered. If not, how could one “decathect”?
It turns out that the term made a lot of sense to my husband and his fellow doctoral student in psychology. It meant, as I came to figure out, stepping back and detaching oneself from a relationship that was coming to an end.
Like that feeling that you’d get toward the end of a semester with a great professor and a fabulously supportive group of classmates. “Decathecting” meant that you would decide that nobody in the group was all that great anyway, so you wouldn’t mind leaving them.
Sort of a fancy way of saying, “You can’t fire me! I quit!”
I learned the true meaning of this term when I was teaching. Every June, I had to learn how to say goodbye to a group of kids I had come to love with my whole heart and soul. That meant, of course, that by May 1st, I was starting to think to myself, “These kids are actually kind of annoying.” At the same time, they were thinking, “Karen’s a pretty nice teacher, but we could do better.”
It meant a few weeks of rolling our eyes at each other, barking at each other and generally finding ways to look forward to our parting at the end of the year. We all knew that we were simply trying to protect our own hearts, and that we were sad to be leaving each other. Still, the process seemed to help smooth the way toward the end of our relationship.
I saw how “decathecting” worked when my children were teenagers, too. For the month or so before each one moved out, I found myself thinking, “Go ahead! Move out on your own! I’m tired of you anyway!” And I knew that every one was thinking, “I am so so tired of having my Mom hovering over every single thing I do!”
We parted ways with tears, hugs and a big old sense of relief.
I think today was my day for “decathecting” with my grandkids before Christmas break. I’d probably feel guilty about that except for the fact that its, you know, a real psychological term. And because I know it doesn’t mean that you stop loving the people you really, really need to get a break from.
Our Nonni/grandkids decathecting took place on the last day of school for the kids’ Mommy before Christmas break. Both of them knew that starting tomorrow they’d be able to stay at home with Mom and Dad. Both of them knew that they would be able to nap in their very own beds.
They have both been sick all week, too, so the desire to be home with their parents was even stronger than usual.
So today, both of my beloved grandchildren managed to express this thought to me: Who are you, anyway???? You’re not my Mommy! I don’t wanna nap here! I don’t wanna eat here! I refuse to eat/sleep/relax/readabook/color/drinkmilk/peeonthepotty/liedown/dance/sing/doapuzzle!!!!!!
It was a VERY. LONG. DAY.
I was cooking for a family party tomorrow. A party at which I will NOT be in charge of toddlers. I wanted to concentrate on my calzone instead of worrying about who need more playdoh.
Johnny kept grabbing his jacket and boots and going to the baby gate at the top of our stairs. He’d grab the gate and shake it for all he was worth, shouting, “my mama! my mama!” This went on for hours.
And Ellie, my one true love, spent the day with her braid completely unbraided, growling, “Don’t do my hair! Nonni! My MOMMA will fix my hair!!” and “I am so so tired! I need to sleep!!!” And when I’d suggest that she go to lie down in the very same bed where she has napped for three years, she sobbed, “NO!!!! I am so tired of this bed!!! I need to sleep in my own bed at my own house!!!!”
You get the picture. The theme of the day for the kids was, “We need a break from Nonni! We want to be home with our Mom and Dad!!! Help! Get us out of here!”
The theme of the day for Nonni was, “Two more hours until I can hand you off to your Mom and pour myself a drink! Help! Get these kids out of here!”
We were decathecting.
And it worked for the most part. Until Kate arrived to gather up her little ones and take them home. At that point, of course, Ellie began to sob.
“I don’t want to go!!! Nonni!!!” she sobbed desperately, “Nonni! I need you!!!!” Hurling herself against my legs, she seemed to be terrified of leaving.
Luckily, I know how this works. I hugged her back, kissed her teary cheeks and said in my firmest voice. “I love you. Go HOME.”
I guess we are still cathected on some level. Even so, I am really looking forward to a few days of adult thoughts and interactions.