I don’t mean that romantic kind of love that makes you agree to watch endless basketball games just because the Celtics were wicked good at the time. That love makes you feel as if your soul is melting into another soul, and that you are now the owners of the first mutual love soul ever.
And I don’t mean the kind of love that you give to your dog, because he’s just so incredibly doggie. That love has no strings, no thoughts, no need to measure for reciprocity.
I mean the kind of love that you think will be less intense, but turns out to be enough to pull your heart right out of your soul.
I’m thinking about the love that parents feel for their children. The kind of love that makes us sit up at 2AM, gazing into the eyes of someone who can’t even focus on our faces yet, thinking that we would happily give our own lives to insure that this person would continue breathing.
It’s the love that makes parents buy the food that their children love. The love that makes us choose orange juice with no pulp for a full 25 years, even though we really like the pulpy juice ourselves.
I’m talking about the love that makes us put up paper ghosts and orange blinking lights in October, even though we are in our sixth decade of life.
Love is weird.
Love makes us happy to play in the dirt when our backs hurt. It makes us laugh at “Captain Underpants”, even though we’ve retired from teaching and don’t have to pretend any more.
I’m talking about the kind of love that makes us happy to deal with poopy diapers, and drooling babies, and dropped crumbs. It’s the love that makes us so incredibly happy to finally get to the weekend, when the kids will be at home with Mom and Dad for a couple of days. And it’s the love that makes us irritable on Sunday night, because we can’t wait to get the kids back here into our kitchen.
Love is weird.
Love makes us willing and eager to buy candy googly eyes so we can make cupcakes next week. It makes us happy to order a case of food coloring, thinking of baths and playdough and cookies to come.
It is the love that makes all of the aches and pain, all of the stress and worry, all of the whining and crying simply fade away with one big hug.
Love is weird.
I’m so so happy that I have a chance to feel that ridiculous sappiness every day.
Do you remember when you were in high school? Your entire world consisted of your friends, your classes, your teachers and coaches and maybe, on the outer edge, your parents and siblings.
Everything that occupied your soul and your heart and your mind was contained within the smallest circle around you. You only thought about the people you came in contact with ever day.
In a way, that was a wonderful life. Relationships seemed so deep, perhaps because they were so few.
I know that when I was in high school I thought of myself as very worldly and aware. I read National Geographic every month. I sort of followed the news, because my parents did. I knew who was running for which public office.
But I never stayed awake at night worrying about the Middle East, or the Irish troubles or the cold war.
Nope. I stayed awake at night worrying about if he liked me or if he “LIKED ME” liked me. I worried about who was mad at whom, who was heartbroken this week, who made which team and what I should wear on any given day.
My world was small.
Then I grew up. I went to college and had a career. I had a family and a life in a community. My world expanded so much that I sometimes felt overwhelmed. How to balance the work relationships, the community relationships, the hockey mom connections, the girl scout friends, the family and neighbors….During those busy and crazy years of raising kids, I was also involved in local town politics, and to some extent in state and federal politics, too.
I read a lot. I listened to the news and watched the news and debated the various political points and positions with all of the bright and engaged people in my life at the time.
I learned every day, too. I learned from my colleagues in school, from the mentors I had in education, and from the parents and kids I interacted with every day.
I learned, I grew, I felt myself to be a part of a wide, interesting, challenging world.
My world was big. It knew no limits.
So you can see why I am struggling a little bit now, in my Nonni years. Now my world has shrunk so much that sometimes I wonder if there is a greater universe out there at all.
Now I find that my life, so much like the one I lead back in my teens, is composed uniquely of the people I love and interact with every single day. I don’t really follow local politics anymore, to my shame. I try to read and watch and listen to the political news from my state and from this country.
I’ve always been a follower of international relations, so I do my best to keep up with latest Brexit development.
But the truth is, when I lay myself down to sleep at night, my thoughts now are limited to questions of which toddler will like which art project. I worry about finding nutritious snacks that will pack in some extra calories.
I sometimes wake up at 3 AM thinking about Princess Poppy from Trolls.
My world has closed right in around me.
There are weeks when I honestly don’t leave my property from Monday through Saturday.
And this is where I struggle.
Is it bad that I don’t mind settling in quietly to my small, enclosed, circumscribed life? Am I being a coward when I simply stay in the house with the kids and make soup?
I miss being a part of a team. I miss the ongoing intellectual challenges that I knew as a teacher, and before that as an interpreter. I miss getting to each Friday feeling as if I’ve learned something that I didn’t know on Monday.
But I love shaking off the stress and fear and angst of trying to keep up with all of the needs of those around me. I love huddling in my safe little cocoon of babies and finger paints and preschool art projects.
What I worry about is this:
Am I closing myself off too much? How do I continue to grow and learn and stretch and challenge my mind when my days are filled with rocking and singing to my best beloved little ones?
How do I balance the big old world with my safe and happy little one?
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.
When I had my kids, many years ago, I didn’t have the chance to be a “stay at home Mom.” I had to work. I had to leave them with babysitters or day care staff. Finances and insurance needs made this true.
But back then, I often thought that I would have loved to stay at home. I imagined the art projects, the cookies baking, the stories being read by the fire. It all seemed so idyllic to me.
I was wracked with guilt about leaving my best beloved little ones in the care of other women. I will never forget the time that my little son, barely able to speak, walked through our house on a Saturday, opening closet doors and calling for his sweet day care Momma. “Nella?” He sounded so sad as he opened every door in our house, looking for the woman who cared for him every day. “Nella?”
My heart broke into a zillion pieces, and if I hadn’t known and loved his Nella, I might have strangled her.
Now, at last, after decades as a working woman, now I am that stay at home woman. I am “Nella” to my grandkids and one of their friends.
They love me.
We have fun here. It is a safe, interesting, creative place.
And now, at last, after all these years, I understand why so many stay at home moms of my generation wanted nothing more than to break out and see the real world.
Staying in the same house, the same four rooms, day after day after day after day, serving the same snacks, watching the same movies, playing the same games…….
All of this is incredibly important and supportive for young children.
But it is also incredibly mind numbing for the adults involved.
OK, I know that I am lucky. As in, unbelievably, incredibly blessed to be there every day in the lives of the children I love most on this beautiful earth.
I get it. Yay, me! Yay, Nonni! Go, me!
I go on Amazon at least ten times a week, ordering movies, books, crayons, pains, dress up clothes and musical instruments. I am so happy to be with the kids every day.
You know what? There are definitely days where I look at myself in the mirror and think, “No one has actually looked at me today. I could dye my hair purple, grow a beard, get myself a new nose: Nobody would notice.”
There are days when I realize that I am the giver of string cheese. The wiper of poopy butts. The finder of lost toys.
There are days when I honestly feel like I could be replaced by a nice soft robot.
And this is why I am now the strongest supporter of young parents. Moms, Dads, working or staying at home. These young adults are doing the work that is most important for the survival of our entire species. They are keeping children clean, fed, safe, entertained and engaged.
They are creating the next generations of humans who will keep our species going.
So I am happy to be a part of this most important job. I am.
But I am also acutely aware that there are days when I have not done one single thing that uses my training, my intellectual skills, my knowledge. There are days when the most important thing I have done all day is to put an “Elsa” bandage on a scraped knee.
As I look back on my life, I guess I have to say this. I’m very happy that when I was a young, untested, untried, unproven human, I was not called upon to be a stay at home mom.
Young parents: You have my utmost respect, support and love.
Go, you! Whether you work outside of the home, or stay at home with your kids, YOU are our future. You are the best of all of us.
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!”
Our house is an interesting place these days. I mean, like really, ya know….”interesting’.
We are renovating two bathrooms. That means that we are now tearing apart two out of our two bathrooms.
Ergo: we don’t have any bathroom sinks this week. And we only have one working toilet. The one that is in the hall of our main living area. The one that has (cough, cough), no DOOR.
Now, let me be clear. Our house is about 35 years old. We’ve been here for roughly 28 of those years. We have been in the same bathrooms all this time.
Oh, sure, we’ve painted and put in a couple of new medicine cabinets after the original $3.95 cabinets kind of fell apart. We did a little bit to make things better, but still.
We were bathing in a wicked old tub and a wicked old shower. The drains were…in a word….gross. The bathrooms had those horrific “popcorn” ceilings.
It was PAST TIME to update.
And we are.
We have hired a crew of very skilled men who are ripping things to pieces while adding plaster, paint, a new tub, new shower, new toilets, new vanity. It’s gonna be LOVELY.
In the meantime…..
I am here in my house. With two or three toddlers every day. One is in a diaper, so he’s safe, but the other two? Well….they need a toilet every two hours. Or less.
So I have to call out to the nice worker men, “Can we use the toilet!?” They say “Yes!” and go into another room. Then I take the identified toddler and put her on the pot. I stand in the doorway, since both are suddenly all about “privacy” and we have NO. DOOR. on our bathroom.
Here it is:
This means, of course, that the kids sometimes pee in their pants. It means that the working men have to tell me, “Just a head’s up, gonna use the bathroom!”
And it means that old Nonni here holds it in. All. Day.
Nonni is channeling her inner teacher. But still…..yikes.
It means that when the kids go home and the worker men go home, and Papa hasn’t arrived back from work yet….Nonni rushes right into the incomplete bathroom and finds some relief.
It also means that at 3 AM when Nonni feels the call of nature, she has to stand up, turn on her phone’s light and stand there for a minute. She has to think “Wait. Bathroom. Huh? Bathroom? What bathroom? Oh, yeah in the hall….with no door….in the middle of the freakin’ night…..” Nonni finally gets there, but she is left with a strange feeling of “what the FUCK?” as she climbs back into bed after answering the call of nature.
This is a very strange place to be.
And here we are now. At 6PM. The kids and workers have gone home. I have organized and cleaned the living room and started dinner.
And I look around the house, thinking about Nonni’s needs.
We do have one working toilet (thank you, dear Lord, for the half hour with nobody home except for poor old backed up Nonni!). We have a new floor in our small master bath (Nonni will sing the praises of these worker men for months….) We have smooth walls, with no paint or color….we have no sinks, but we can brush our teeth in the kitchen sink for a couple of more days…..
Nonni is working very very hard to remain calm and serene. She is overlooking the plaster dust, the missing toilets, the lack of bathroom doors. She is trying to embrace her inner camper woman, she is trying to recognize that many people around the world are in much worse shape…..
Nonni is kind of “all done.” I will be thrilled to have new paint, new fixtures, new smooth walls.
But I am ready to have this all done. Nonni is ready, thank you, to have a nice, private place to go to get some relief from nature’s most primitive urges.
I love watching my grandchildren. I love it so much when their Momma drops them off at my house and leaves me in charge. I. Love. That.
I love it for all of the obvious reasons, of course. The kids are cute, sweet, fun. They hug me, they make me laugh, they snuggle up against me and tell me that they love me.
I love feeding them, and washing their sweet little faces after I do. Naturally, I am thrilled when they ask me to read to them or sing to them or snuggle with them. Being Nonni in charge is so fun!
I realize that there is something else going on when I readily, happily, joyfully agree to watch the kids unexpectedly.
Here’s what I realized today, while Ellie and Johnny were dancing around in my living room.
I realized that being Nonni-on-duty makes me feel useful. It makes me feel like I matter.
On summer days when I am at home alone, with no grandchildren to watch and no students to teach and no job to rush to, I find myself feeling pointless. Oh, I have my list of chores, and they are all significant in their own way. “Stain deck,” “Wash siding,” “Call Comcast Again,” Laundry, shopping, gardening, canning summer’s bounty, cleaning closets. They could all be called useful, I guess.
But in my heart, when I am crossing each chore off my list, I am feeling useless. I am feeling that I could so easily be replaced by a local teen or a small business or a better cook.
I can’t help it. When I am at home, with nobody here who needs me, I feel completely pointless.
But bring on those grandkids, baby, and everything changes.
Ellie needs me to pour milk! Johnny needs me to hold him! They look at me, and it is as if the sun has risen and poured its golden light over everything. When they are here, I am not the old teacher lady who was put out to pasture. I’m not the middle aged woman with fibromyalgia and arthritis and whatever else is going on that week.
Nope. When those two beautiful little people are here in my house, I am Nonni. I am the giver of hugs, the reader of books. I am the funny lady who runs up and down the darkened hall with flashlights on, screaming about monsters who chase us. When they are here, I am the one who kisses the bumps, the one who laughs at the jokes.
I am the ONE. The center of their small, protected universe.
When my grandchildren are here, I am Nonni.
I have a purpose. A job. A role to fulfill.
They convince me, with one hug, that I am important to the world around me.