Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Memorial


I visited Chicago a couple of weekends ago, and it was bittersweet. Bittersweet, but less so than when I visited last fall. Because gradually, with the pace of the year that has unfolded behind us in this slow town, I have come to feel a sense of belonging in Worthington, Ohio. Our family has found a new rhythm that works in this new town.

When I was in Chicago, I took a walk down to Lake Michigan. And I walked to the beach where I often took my little boys to swim in polluted water. My heart ached because there were pieces of them left in that sand, pieces of their younger selves. I looked for sea glass to bring home to them to add to their collection that they built from this very beach. Each wave that crashed to the shore erased a little more of their younger selves.

It isn’t Chicago that I miss so much anymore, but that time in our lives. I don’t want it back, but I ache for its passing. I don’t miss this view—a beautiful lake whose polluted water stretches toward skyscrapers on one side and factories on another—but for what happened here, which was nothing much. We splashed in the water while I barked orders for the boys to keep their mouths shut so as not to ingest the water. We scooped sand into buckets. We looked for treasures. I cradle the sea glass in my palm and will my memories into the blue, the green, the creamy white.

Last Monday we took the boys to a Memorial Day parade in our new town. As we were leaving the house, one of Luke’s good friends from school was passing our yard on his bike. He and his mom and sister decided to park their bikes in our yard and walk to the parade with us. Along the way, we met up with our neighbors and their three boys.

That pack of boys sat perched on the curb, jostling one another and joking and dancing when they discovered that they were sitting on an anthill. With ants in their pants, they wiggled and laughed and the sun shone down upon their heads. They unabashedly held hands, still young enough for this little boy gesture of friendship. They cheered for the horses, the fire trucks, the old men dressed in clown costumes.

And I stood behind them, holding my own private memorial. For one day, even next year, perhaps, I will stand in this same place and my heart will ache for this day. When Luke won’t hold hands with anyone anymore or Henry becomes terrified of clowns, I will miss this very spot on the side of the road, not a beautiful vista, but an everyday plot of dirt and pavement and grass and ants that holds a part of my boys’ childhood.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Queen of the Park


Henry likes “pretty” things. Sparkly. Pink and purple. Shiny. Multi-colored and polka dotted. I find this trait quite charming. I let him wear a dress when he was 13 months old and he took a fancy to one in a pile of hand-me-downs. I bought him the polka-dotted flare leggings that he wanted from Target in the fall, and he has worn them at least once a week since.

But Henry also loves to play “like a boy.” He loves to wrestle and swordfight and play heroes and villains and run around the yard. He climbs like a maniac and rides a bike with no training wheels. He covets Luke’s bin of “special” superhero toys.

So I was somewhat taken aback when I returned home from Chicago and I presented him with the Bionicle that I brought him and he rejected it. Yes, these Lego toys are too old for him, what with their weapons and clear emphasis on fighting—not to mention small and easily lost parts—but he is obsessed with Luke’s Bionicles, and so I bought them each one at the Lego store while on my trip. But Henry wanted none of it, and since I had to stop at the grocery store on my way home from the airport, I told him I would give the Bionicle to a bigger boy and he could pick his own present.

I was happy to see that Kroger was having a big closeout on many of their toys, and I directed Henry toward some that I thought he might like (and that were conveniently marked down.) I pointed him to some Lego sets, a game or two, a talking Elmo (I was magnetically drawn toward the $9.99 price tag, down from $45.99). But Henry was not interested in my suggestions. He wanted the furry princess phone. It is pink and covered in sparkles and each button has a coordinating princess who speaks when her button is pushed. It cost the same as the Elmo, so I didn’t say no based on cost. I didn’t say no because it is a huge hunk of plastic electronic junk. No, I refused to buy this toy for Henry because he has had one previously. Yes, that’s right, Henry fell in love with this particular toy last fall when we were visiting my friend Jenny, and—imagine this!—she was all too willing to send it home with us when her daughter wasn’t looking. But after Henry played with it for a few weeks he forgot about it and I was able to sneak it away to donate to the thrift store.

After much discussion and negotiation in the toy aisle, Henry finally settled on the sparkly princess crown and earrings. I suggested many other options, ones that I thought he would play with more, but he was insistent that he needed the crown, and for five bucks I decided it was fine by me.

I find Henry’s love of “pretty” things so sweet and innocent. I also think this trait is a beautiful sign of his own personality, something that he doesn’t get from Luke, he certainly doesn’t get from Craig, and he doesn’t even really get from me (I’m more into cords and clogs than rhinestones and polka dots). But here’s the thing that worries me a bit: I also cling to Henry’s sometimes-unusual taste in clothing and toys because I don’t want to turn into every other person around me in this town. And the reason this worries me is that I don’t want to use my kid as my counter cultural mascot. So I try, I really try, to remain as neutral as possible about these things.

I almost got rid of Henry’s polka dot flares yesterday. I almost sent them to a friend who has a little girl. But Henry saw them sitting in a pile and said, “I want to wear those pants today!” So he did wear them to his gym class at the local community center, and there I heard a woman correcting her grandson who called Henry a boy: “No, I think that is a girl. She’s wearing little girl pants.”

And later, that same day, Henry rode his aqua and purple bike, the Huffy Sea Star that used to be Luke’s, to the park. And a young girl, probably nine years old, said, “Your little girl is so pretty!” So I said, “Oh, he’s a boy, but thanks!”

Once all the other kids left the park, I told Luke, “Now you are the king of the park!” And Henry said, “And I am the queen of the park!”

Oh Henry, my darling queen of the park, may you always wear whatever you like and ride your Sea Star with abandon, the wind in your hair and joy on your face. May you never be the mascot for anything but yourself.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mother's Day


I have been meaning to post about Mother’s Day ever since, well, Mother’s Day. But time got away from me (including a lovely solo trip to Chicago) and now I am finally doing it.

This was the first Mother’s Day that anyone besides me seemed to take much notice. My lovely husband has many, many good qualities—such as being a great fixit man and shedding many an unexpected tear at sappy commercials—but celebrating minor holidays (anything besides Christmas and birthdays) is not one of these.

But Luke was finally excited this year about Mother’s Day. He has been a child slow to empathize with others. I worried a lot when he was younger because he seemed to think only of himself. I know this must be developmentally appropriate for a three year old, but I sometimes thought he seemed unusually self-centered. I remember him running into someone on his scooter and being more worried about the scooter than the person he hit, for example. But finally he seems to sometimes think of others and what might make them happy.

And so leading up to Mothers’ Day, Luke asked me what I might like. He told me he would clean the house. And he hinted that he was making me an extra special gift.

And let me tell you, it is extra special indeed.

At school, Luke filled in and illustrated a book for me. The first page is pre-labeled, “me and my mom,” and Luke drew a lovely picture of me looking strangely like an alien. I am blue and my hair looks remarkably like antennae.

On another page, the book says, “My mom and I go . . .” and Luke filled in, “to the moves.” Above the words, Luke drew a picture of monsters and wrote, “Da ov the ded.” Because, you see, Luke’s fantasy mom, the alien, would take him to a movie called Day of the Dead.

On another page the book says, “My mom and I like to . . .” and Luke wrote, “skatbord.” The alien mother also likes to skateboard with her son.

And yet another page says, “My mom and I read . . .” and Luke wrote “horr.” Now, lest you be concerned that Luke fantasizes about reading books about whores with me, he does not. He does, however, wish that I would read “horror” books with him, whatever those might be in his childish imagination.

I love this book, not only because of the time that Luke took to make it for me, not only for the way that it reveals his interests and demonstrates his writing skills, but because it reminds me of the human trait that is not quite empathy and that I am forever demonstrating myself: projecting ourselves onto others. When I want to do something nice for Craig, I make him a nice meal or bake him something. And he is a man who would eat a pile of beans every night for the rest of his life and be happy. I’m the foodie in our family.

And I am especially guilty of doing this to my children. It is so hard to see them for what they are without seeing myself in them. Part of this is unavoidable. We are wound up in one another in ways that we will never pull apart entirely. And I wouldn’t want us to.

But as Luke grows more and more toward a richer understanding of what it means to love others for what they are, I hope I can, too.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Moment


It is impossible to describe the beauty of some moments in life, especially in the parenting that is my life right now. So much of my day is marked by prodding, discussing, packing, organizing, managing, explaining. But then there are moments of pure joy, moments of mundane life that crystallize into something purely lovely.

A few days ago Luke, Henry and I were driving to the local community center. It was raining outside. The late springtime green was lush in the wetness, even more so against the slate sky. We were listening to a mixed tape that Craig made at least a decade ago.

A song by Modest Mouse came on—I can’t even describe it because I don’t know enough about music, really, but a reviewer described their standard sound as filled with “twisted melodies, dense arrangements and off-kilter lyrics.” I really like Modest Mouse, and Luke has ever since, at age two, he fell in love with the song “Third Planet.” (For those of you who know Modest Mouse, Luke believes that the lyrics say, “I’ve got this thing that I consider my only art, JUMPING people over,” because Craig and I sing it this way really loudly. And those of you who don’t know Modest Mouse can probably guess what JUMPING is standing in for.)

I remember when I was pregnant with Luke and I was riding in the car with some friends and their young children and they were listening to the indie rock band Sebadoh, and I felt sad. I don’t know why, exactly, but it had something to do with my idealized notion of what it should be like to raise children while protecting their innocence.

As I parent, protecting my children’s innocence seems less and less important to me. I don’t want them exposed to things before they are ready, sure, but it has become clear to me that my children are flawed and human and, too, that they have their own interests and tastes. And, when I can, I want to enjoy and celebrate those things. I want to rejoice in their love of indie rock and Japanese animation and superheroes and capoiera and monsters.

So a Modest Mouse song came on, and I said, “I love this song,” and a blissed-out Luke sighed and said, “Yah, me too.” And Henry, sweet, Luke-loving Henry looked to Luke to see what Luke thought and then said, “Me too. I love this song too.” And the energy between us and from the song was beautiful and haunting and the weather outside was lovely and melancholy and we arrived at our destination but not one of us wanted to get out of the car until we listened to every last note of that song. We sat in the car in silence, loving the song and each other, while outside it rained.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Dead Meat


Does anyone else remember the expression, “You are dead meat!” I remember saying this, probably back in elementary school and most likely to one of my little brothers. I don’t think I ever thought about what a horrible thing it was to say. I must not have been a very thoughtful child. Or perhaps I forget my own thoughtfulness.

Luke, though, certainly understands the ramifications of such a statement, for dead meat has been one of his moral conundrums since he was a wee little guy. At age two, Luke became a vegetarian. I don’t now remember how the conversation came about, but the inevitable day came when Luke asked about meat, and learned that “beef” was really a sneaky way of saying “cow,” and so on and so forth. I suspect that most children do not have this conversation with their parents at age two. Henry, meat lover that he is, has never thought to ask where it comes from. But while Henry is physically precocious, Luke is—hmm, how shall I characterize this particular trait?—philosophically precocious.

So, after learning about the origins of meat at age two, Luke became a vegetarian. Granted, he didn’t eat a lot of meat to begin with. He liked hot dogs at the time, though. Craig told me I should just go ahead and let Luke eat hot dogs, that Luke wouldn’t know the difference. That seemed mean to me, though, and so when Luke would ask to buy hot dogs at the store, I would tell him what they contained and ask if he would prefer the ones made of soybeans, which he did. We never really found a brand of soy dogs that we liked, but we both agreed that Trader Joe’s soy corndogs were pretty tasty.

Complicating Luke’s understanding of meat is the fact that we are from Alaska, where many people hunt and fish. His grandpa and his daddy do. I have never personally shot an animal, but I have butchered a moose. I tell Luke that daddy and grandpa only shoot animals they want to eat, and that they feel thankful that the animal gave its life so that we could eat.

Lately, Luke has been more concerned about appearing “cool” to his peers, and more preoccupied with things that I believe he is learning from his classmates. Lately, he has wanted to “play sports.” He asked me to buy him a soccer shirt, and he is now enrolled in a basketball class at our local community center. A few days ago, when one of his friends was over at our house, we were talking about favorite foods. I mentioned something about Luke not eating meat.

“I eat meat,” said Luke. “Tons of meat.”

I can only now think that Luke was trying to seem cool, but I didn’t pick up on this at the time.

“No you don’t, Luke. You only eat beans and nuts and cheese,” I said.

“Mom, I eat tons of meat in my room!” Luke said emphatically.

“Oh. What sorts?” I asked.

“I eat cow and pig and moose and caribou,” he said.

But I can’t think that Luke’s perception of meat has really changed all that much. Yesterday morning, he illustrated and dictated the words for a new page in the Star Wars Book he was writing:

Inside Jaba the Hut’s palace, the unlucky droids saw the slug-like creature, Jaba. “Greetings,” he said in a heavy voice. His minions danced for him while he ate dead meat.