me at W’s age

I am remembering the Thanksgiving I was W’s age (18). I was in my 2nd year of college, too far away to drive home for the weekend. Instead I made the much shorter trip to Philadelphia, to the apartment of a sweet acquaintance (C, the best friend of the sister of my boyfriend, who went to the same university my boyfriend did). She had offered me her studio apartment for the long weekend while she was out of town. The plan was that I would go there on Wednesday, spend a quiet Thanksgiving by myself, and then on Friday my boyfriend would come back to town from his family’s home and I would cook him dinner and we would spend the rest of the weekend together.

The apartment was tiny and adorable, a few stories up in an old brownstone on a well-traveled street. The  kitchen was in a closet, the bathroom had a claw-foot tub with a puzzlingly clingy shower curtain, and there were  three tall sunny windows overlooking the mostly-leafless trees at the sidewalk edge. Wednesday I settled in, learned which keys fit which locks and how to unfold the couch into a bed, located the nearest store and bought groceries. That night I learned how it felt to be all alone in a grownup apartment in a grownup building on a street which felt as if everyone else had gone home to somewhere far away. I listened to C’s albums and fell in love with Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. Thursday was even quieter. I’m sure I had books; I don’t remember C having a TV. I didn’t go out – just listened to Alice’s Restaurant on WMMR and replayed all of C’s albums, feeling at once grownup and very very alone. I pictured the family gatherings at my parents’ house and at my boyfriend’s parents’ big city apartment. I could almost smell the warm scents of the Thanksgiving-day kitchens and hear the voices and laughter of family members drifting in from another room. Thursday was a long day.

Friday I set up the folding card table (C’s apartment was too small to have it up permanently), found a table cloth and nice dishes for two place settings, and put together two salads (fresh greens with tiny bits of carrot, diced tomato, mushrooms). I wasn’t a very experienced cook at 18 but I probably marinated the steaks in something. Those were for Boyfriend; he loved steak. I put dinner rolls in a basket on the table with the salads and set about cleaning and slicing potatoes for homemade French fries (which I had never made but figured how hard could they be?).  Boyfriend arrived, I was overjoyed, and grownup homemaker-type bustling ensued, including the pouring of two cold glasses of milk. Boyfriend also liked milk. At some point I turned on the burner under the pan of oil in which I intended to cook the fries. The steaks went in the oven.  Here’s where my ignorance becomes obvious.

Me: I don’t know why the oil isn’t getting hot. It’s been on for a while. The burner looks hot. Oil bubbles when it boils, right?  Why is it not bubbling?

BF: Maybe throw in a fry and see if it start cooking.    [I throw in a fry. Pooffffff!  It bursts into flame.]

Me: What do we do for a grease fire? I don’t think we’re supposed to put water on it.

BF: I think I heard that you can use milk for a grease fire.    [I take one of the glasses of milk and pour some into the flaming pan. Booooooom!!  The  flames explode outward. Boyfriend and I leap backwards, crash into the table, knocking it over, breaking all the dishes, and scattering salad and milk across the tiny apartment.  One of us calls 911.]

BF: Don’t tell anyone this was my idea, okay?   [He said that a lot.  I’ve kept this particular secret for over 30 years now. It’s time to go public.]

The firefighters came and had the blaze out in about 30 seconds but the apartment was a wreck and there was no eating THAT dinner. Turns out there were enough neighbors still around to be worried that we were trying to burn down the building. The next day I made Boyfriend help me scrub down the walls with the hope that the smoke and soot would come off with enough effort. It did not. I dragged boyfriend and another friend who had come back to town early   around Philadelphia looking for paint stores, determined that C would not come home to a blown up burned out smoky wreck of an apartment and that she would not have to forfeit a damage deposit on account of us being stupid enough to pour a glass of milk onto a raging grease fire. I had enough money for a few gallons of paint.  We spent the rest of the weekend repainting her apartment and airing it out with cold November air.  I cleaned up the kicked over shards of dinner dishes and salad, wishing I had enough money to replace all the broken, blackened and otherwise totally ruined stuff. A couple of months later I did send her some replacement pans and plates and bowls, all filled with homemade chocolate chip cookies. I still feel bad that her act of generosity literally blew up in her (well, my) face.

Anyway, I did not mean for this post to be about how I blew up Thanksgiving.  I meant it to be about how it feels to be alone and far from home and family in a brand new and very grownup situation.  Turns out it feels weird, good, bad, and difficult all at once.

Tonight I am thankful for the family who took W in this weekend  when he was too far to come home for Thanksgiving.  I am thankful for the friends who took me in here today  recognizing that this would be a very lonely time for me if no one made me get in the car and join them for the afternoon.  I am thankful for delicious food and I am thankful that no one kicked over the table before we could eat it. I am grateful for a warm whole unburned house and I am grateful that there are so many kind and generous people in the world.

Happy day of thanks to you all.

I have been worrying (not a lot but some) that W will be bored out of his skull when he comes home for winter break. He will be trading days full of interesting classes with heavy workloads, several-hour shifts at his job in the school’s Annual Fund office, evenings and weekends with a wacky and varied group of friends, and his new addiction to foosball    for a quiet sunny house, his mother, and two adoring cats.

Yesterday we were email chatting and he confessed to feeling ‘world weary.’   He was tired and overloaded, his cough was back, and he had called in sick to work and to the teacher of his one Thursday class. I wrote, “If you were home I would make you a nest on the couch and bring you blankets, hot soup, and kitties.”

He replied, “I know you would. I am jealous of my old life.  I was a lucky bastard.”

I knew it was a comment born of his tiredness and his need of pampering. I knew it didn’t reflect any real desire to be anywhere else pursuing any other path than the one he has chosen. I felt sad that he was unwell and exhausted …. and I felt good that, however fleetingly, he was thinking of his ealier life with me as ‘the good old days.’

Earlier this week in an email conversation with D, a friend from my youth  who is recovering from a heart attack, he was telling me of the difficulty of adjusting his life, his diet, his very personality to a new way of being. He lamented this ‘rusting’ of our bodies that brings unwelcome new rules and limitations as we age.

The old days seem so effortless, looking back from this distance. In our teenage years, D and I and a big bunch of friends used to gather in the parking lot of our employer after closing the place for the night. We brought Frisbees, blasted music from our car stereos, and tried to see who could throw the farthest, who could most spectacularly chase down a far-flung disc, and who could do the fanciest most complex catch of a close throw. We ran at full speed, never thinking of injury.  We leapt and twisted and stretched and threw, and our bodies uncomplainingly did whatever we asked and didn’t punish us later. Those were definitely good old days. Of course for me and my friends, they were also sometimes the bad old days. Parents fought and sometimes divorced, heartbreak lurked around every corner, and teen angst became intense self-loathing. Some of us self-medicated to dangerous degrees. A few didn’t survive to adulthood.

This morning I read the blog of another friend. In it he expressed a hope/wish/prayer that next election season would be kinder, less full of rancor and the snarky words of people believing they know more than others. I agree with him wholeheartedly … and yet I am one of the people he was talking about.  I DO often believe that I know more than people who express opinions which differ significantly from mine. I responded to my friend’s blog with a musing question: Was life better before I became interested in politics? A lot of relationships were easier for me then, but were those better days?  And was I doing my share of citizenship work, back when I didn’t know anything about the issues?

I don’t know the answers to those questions and I don’t know if I ever will or if that matters. I don’t know if the politics-less years were better than these more recent political ones for me. Life is different now. Things have changed. I have changed. My friend D and his world have changed; now his wife and daughter watch him anxiously to assure themselves that he is really okay. W’s world has changed; he has many more obligations and opportunities and choices and people clamoring for his attention. My world has changed; ‘home’ has become quieter and cooler and rattlier and the rest of life looms outside, pressing in more obviously and insistently than before. Old things rust and we have to decide whether to try to sand and oil them in an attempt to make them new again, to replace them with new things, or just to let them go.

Today I’m thinking that to ask which times were better or worse  is to miss the point. There are good things and bad things at every step in our lives. Some of the bad things we have to deal with; to try to ignore them would be irresponsible or foolhardy. My new goal will have to be to not lose sight of good things past and present. I know good people, I have a warm house equipped with 2 furry critters who love to crawl onto my lap and nap, purring. I have a job I love and a son whose company I cherish. I have books and music and interesting things to do.  I too am a lucky bastard. Always have been, probably always will be. No matter what happens.

Did you ever find  after a tense or scary event  that you had been clenching your hands into tight little fist balls?  And then when you tried to unclench it really hurt?

I think I need to unclench  and it ain’t gonna be pretty.  This past week I realized just how constricted my life has become … how small my world is. It first struck me as I was talking to someone about finally getting my passport renewed. It struck harder later, as I was explaining to someone else that my unwillingness to fly is no longer all about fear of flight, it’s also about fear of FWF – flying while fat. In my mind I see myself going to the airport, already scared about leaving terra firma and desperately needing some kind of medication to quiet THAT, and then having the airline clerk(s) treat me as less than a full person, and yet somehow more than a full person, necessitating the purchase of a second ticket for the other half of my fat self. That would be humiliating and awful enough. Even worse, the scene always ends with me being dragged away screaming and cursing by TSA officials  to spend the rest of my life in a dank anonymous cell somewhere, never able to use my new passport which wouldn’t be possible anyway on account of me being on a universal no-fly list.

Sorry. Got carried away with my neuroses. Perhaps I also need medication when NOT trying to fly.

If anyone had asked me when W was a tiny ball of a baby  if I had a bucket list of things I really wanted to do with him before he grew up, one item I would have listed is ‘Explore Europe with him,’ showing him all the places he has read about in the history books he so loves.  He’s gone now and we’ve never done that. His first view of the Eiffel Tower and the Waterloo battlefield and the Acropolis will probably be with someone else.  We’ve never flown anywhere together.

We HAVE driven all over much of the US from Utah to South Carolina and Boston to Florida. Also to Canada twice. When childless I drove everywhere by myself without a worry. Then I was blessed with my little bundle of boy and from that point on  my major goal was to keep him alive and safe and screw him up as little as possible. Suddenly driving seemed much more dangerous, as the possibility of wrecks and car-malfunction strandings loomed menacingly over us. I drove anyway but the carefree fun was gone. Still, I’d buckle my little guy into his child safety seat in the center of the backseat and surround him with all the necessities (snacks, drinks, book bag, toy bag, blankie, pillow, sweatshirt, kiddie road maps, kiddie shades), turn on music or recorded stories, and off we’d go. W told me years later that he sometimes cracked open the back window just enough to toss out one of his tiny plastic toy soldiers without me noticing. Their mission was to scout and report back to him.

Those trips were pretty wonderful: a dinosaur tour through Utah and Colorado with my sis and her daughters, a drive to marshy Point Pelee (on Lake Erie in Ontario) with my mom, and conference trips to St. Louis, San Antonio, Boston, Chicago and Montreal. In the cities we would use our hotel as the starting point and each evening choose a different direction to walk, exploring and eventually having dinner before heading back to our room.

W is a wonderful travel companion. He’s a good navigator, funny,  helpful, interested in exploring, and not picky about food. He loves meeting people and talking to them and he likes learning new things and discussing it all later. I’m a little jealous of his future travel companions as they are in for a treat. He has unfolded beautifully over his 18 years, unfurling from a little ball of life wrapped tightly in a favorite blankie to a young man whose height stretches beyond mine and whose horizons are limitless. His world is opening wide and, unlike his mama, he seems not to find that painful at all.

I think I’ve let myself get old and my world get small  way too soon. Have passport, will unclench. Don’t mind the noise, please; that will just be me shrieking in (temporary) pain.  It’ll be better when I get to Europe…. and certainly quieter for you.

  I detest roller coasters. The first (and only) time I went on a big one I was 14 or 15 and felt certain I was going to die. We inched clacking up the first big hill, came over the top and there was nothing below. As my car dropped over the edge into the abyss I opened my mouth to scream, not in pleasure or enjoyment but in terror, and maybe to make some noise that would mark the end of my life in this world (I wasn’t particularly concerned about what would happen when I/we hit the ground at a million miles per hour because I knew my heart would stop long before that point.).  No scream would come out; instead I rode, whipping around sharp curves, up and down violent hills, open mouth issuing staccato  “Ah!  Ah!  Ah!” sounds, harsh, forced, and totally unsatisfactory for proclaiming ‘I was here, however briefly!’

I have a similar dislike for emotional roller coasters, so the past few weeks have not been particularly enjoyable here. I did get a paper written and submitted for consideration by a journal, which is important and kept me busy and involved for quite a while – a good thing when trying to avoid drops into nothingness. Now, however, there is nothing of substance between me and the hill drop. I’m thinking desperately, trying to conjure something to get me through the weekend. Maybe a long walk in the mountains? A drive to the shore? Window-shopping somewhere fun?

W has brilliantly weathered several important firsts at his end: his first illness, his first close-up view of alcohol poisoning, his first birthday away from home. A week or two ago he came down with a bad cold. His voice dropped an octave, he couldn’t stop coughing, he was dizzy, and he sounded as if someone had held him down and stuffed his nose full of wet wipes. As I sat helpless at home, fruitlessly searching the web for health food stores and/or restaurants that would deliver hot chicken soup and cold remedies, his friends rallied ’round, providing him with EmergenC and ginger crystals for hot tea, checking on him when they hadn’t seen him out in a while, and making sure he had what he needed. He got himself to the student health center for cough medicine, slept and ate well, and … got better. Without me.

One night he sensed something amiss on his floor…. some commotion in the dorm bathroom across from his room. He checked to see if he could help. A young man had alcohol poisoning. The students summoned the RAs, the RAs summoned medics and the boy was taken to the hospital. He’s fine now, W reports, and actually thanked W for spending a couple of hours comforting his friend who had felt terribly guilty for encouraging him to drink. I think the whole experience was eye-opening for W, as much of college has been.  And he weathered that just fine without me.

His birthday – his 18th! – arrived and I had again been online for hours, searching for places that would allow me to pay for dinner for W and his friends by either buying a gift certificate for him over the phone or giving them my credit card number. Turns out he and his friends had already made plans. I told W if he bought them dinner, I’d send him a check to cover it all. They went to a local Thai place, had a great time, and W really enjoyed his birthday ….  say it with me, now  … without me.

All these firsts, and he’s managing wonderfully. He’s doing exactly what I had hoped he would be able to do out on his own: building relationships, making his own decisions, taking good care of himself and others, and enjoying life. All the things I wanted for him!  I feel proud and comfortable in his abililties and very happy for him.

At the same time I feel lonely on days when I don’t have a plan or a distraction. I’m an introvert – don’t care to mingle or chat or go out much unless it’s with someone I already know and enjoy. W is doing much better than I am in that regard; he does what he is supposed to be doing, and does it well.  Now it’s my turn to show some awareness of what *I’M* supposed to be doing.  I need a plan.

After the big roller coaster near death experience, my friends who had enjoyed it immensely  teased and teased me. They badgered me to go on it with them again but I wouldn’t. I DID go on the great splattery log flume ride, repeatedly, and enjoyed that a lot, and I eventually discovered that I could go over into the kiddie ride area and enjoy the Scooby-Doo (the coaster for little kids). That was the perfect amount of thrill for me. My friends laughed at me and I laughed at myself too. But I did NOT go back on that monstrous clacking ride from hell. I knew what I needed, and that was not it.

Now I just need to figure out how to handle this different type of coaster.

 

 

Busy few days. Mailed my first package to W today; it contained clothing to replace the things his pen ruined in the washer…  Plus sunglasses (always important) and homemade milk chocolate peanut butter fudge (crucial). I love the idea of W receiving that cardboard carton I packed so carefully, smoothing packing tape all around its girth lengthwise AND widthwise so that the box wouldn’t break open. I meticulously covered every part of the address in clear tape so that even in a rainstorm it could find its way to my boy. I can see him hefting it, feeling the weighty proof that someone from home is thinking of him. I confess, I kissed the box in the car on the way to the post office.  Just a hand-kiss pat…  I’m not weird.

W’s doing really well! We’ve talked a few more times on the phone. He’s keeping up with his class work and liking his work/study job. He’s been invited to join a campus slam poetry group and last night he tried out for an improv group. He would love both of those things, I know! I get the sense that his life is incredibly rich now with opportunities, pleasurable activities, and friendship. Picturing this warms my hard little heart to the tips of its stoney little cockles. Apologies to however many words and metaphors I just butchered.

He told me at one point early on that he’d feared he might have missed an important bonding activity with some of his new friends  but that it had turned out okay anyway. I love that he recognizes the importance of things like bonding time. And friends. I love that he thinks about this stuff.

I have been occupied with more mundane activities. Teaching, writing tests, committee meetings, cleaning up cat puke … the usual. At the end of the summer before he left for college I had W bring in all the books from all the boxes we still had in the garage. We had brought about 40 boxes of books from our last home when we moved four years ago  and had only unpacked about half of them. I had W empty the boxes and line the books up, spines up, on the floor in the hallway leading from the garage to the living room. And, you know, around the corner, past the treadmill and the piano, around another corner, past the front door and the front windows. And along the dining room wall of course. And … piled on and around the coffee table. Thank heavens W took a few more to his room.  ANYway, they’ve been sitting there for a few weeks now. I thought I’d go through them pretty quickly, dividing into ‘keep’ and ‘give away’ piles and then actually putting away the keepers and loading the others into the car, but no. And now the abandoned and not-really-as-decorative-as-you-might-think books have become the favorite puking places for the old cat with the sensitive tummy. That too is not nearly so decorative as you might think.

Tomorrow morning W finds out whether he’s got a call-back to the improv group.

Friday he will receive my fudge-and-clothing-and-love-laden package.

My obvious next important task? Protect the books from future feline gastric upheavals.

It’s been strange week … busy and sometimes unreal-seeming but over all good.

From a couple of phone calls and emails I know that things are going well for W – that he is loving most of his classes enough to make up for the one with the teacher who seems hell bent on scaring them all away. The demands on his time are mounting but he seems to be handling them as well as could be expected.

There were a few days there where he made no contact and I found myself in a small freakout. I say ‘small’ because even though it was an unreasonable and, okay, quite silly progression of thoughts running through my head on ‘repeat,’  I was aware that they were quite silly thoughts and was simultaneously thinking them and laughing at myself for thinking them. They went something like this, “Oh my gosh, is he okay? Of course he’s okay. He’s W and he’s a careful and extremely capable person. Besides, someone there would have let me know if he wasn’t okay. Oh my gosh, has he forgotten his mother? After 18 years, is our relationship at an end? Of course it’s not. He loves me and even when lots of other people occupy his time and his interests, he won’t stop loving his mother. Oh my gosh, is he in love already? Obsessed with someone?  In total lust? Wow – that would totally explain this dearth of contact… Oh my gosh, has he been having sex with someone for, like, DAYS??  THAT would TOtally explain this dearth of contact! … OH MY GOSH, WHY DID I NOT SEND A SUITCASE FULL OF CONDOMS??!!”

So, as you can see, I like to include a healthy dash of crazy in even my good weeks. And it has been a good week. I’ve enjoyed my friends and colleagues and my students were interested enough to keep good discussions going throughout each class. Well, not my stats students, but that’s because 95% of them are paralyzed in the presence of numbers and mathematical symbols. I’ll get them out of that.

Last night was one of those nights where my brain just WOULD NOT shut off, even in sleep. Non-stop dreams, fractured and unrestful and seemingly unconnected. All night. This morning I opened my eyes intending to come out and write about them but of course now the details are gone. All I remember is that it was about work, W at college, friends, work, family, W at college, work, and my 2 feet insisting upon going their own ways. One of them – the right one, I think – was particularly set upon doing his own thing. Yes, my right foot is apparently male.

Task for today:  Corral my restless brain enough to get some work done. Engage my feet in cooperative acts.

the young cat gives up

From W’s email update last night:

“Yesterday was really nice! Karaoke was a TON of fun. Lots of singing and dancing. I got up thrice [Yes. My son used the word thrice. I can’t explain it.]   with a large group: Twist and Shout, Rolling in the Deep, and Love Story (by Taylor Swift). I had a great meeting with my Orientation Leaders today, we had a good discussion about [required summer reading book], etc. etc. The Talent Show went REALLY well tonight. I did my best reading of [3 of his poems] yet. I was also introduced as a celebrity by the OL mcees who actually read quotes from my posts in FB.”

In my total “it’s always all about us” world, I wait for someone from the college to call me and say, “We have never before met such an amazing young person! He is undoubtedly going to rule the world very soon! Thank you so much for sharing his wonderfulness with us!” Then I laugh at myself for my out-sized pride and self/child-absorption. I do know that other parents probably have the same fantasies about their own children. I laugh at them too. THEY are delusional. I wait for the phone to ring.

W’s college started trying to create a family of the incoming freshman from the moment they were admitted. The college set up a closed Facebook group and invited the newly-admitted students to join and get to know each other and ask questions of older students and staff. From the start W loved this group and participated enthusiastically, ‘meeting’ and ‘talking with’ people, establishing inside jokes and anticipating their meeting in person, in the months up to his actual college start. Apparently people noticed his enthusiasm. Now he has no time for online stuff because he is so busy interacting with his new college ‘family’!   I imagine that if/when he is homesick at all, he is homesick for an occasional bit of peace and quiet. And maybe his kitties.

I am miles and miles away in our old quieter life, but it’s just mine now. Today I have been working from home, preparing to go back to campus to teach (tomorrow).  Yesterday – Labor Day – I had a lovely late lunch out with a friend. We talked a lot about families. Neither of us is from this area and so both see the importance of fashioning family from friends. She has done so in the decades she has lived in this area. I hope she will be part of the family I am making for this new stage of my life.

Later, at home, I checked Facebook where I have an extended set of friends I love like family. In response to a post I had made on some social issue, one of my nephews had written “How can you and [one of my sisters] even be related?”  I imagined him shaking his head and laughing as he typed, recognizing that my sister and I were on opposite sides on that particular social issue. LIfe, friendship and family used to be so much less complicated – so much easier – before I began to get interested in political and social issues.

In the past few years issues have gotten in the way of relationships and I’m not sure what to do about that. I’m not sure what I want to do about it. I don’t take a position on all issues, and I have no desire to be partisan; I just want to stand up for what seems right. I also want to speak out against what seems wrong. I don’t want or need all my family and friends to agree with me on everything, and I don’t want them all to be alike or all to be like me, but I want to be able to trust and respect them, and this is much harder for me when they stand up for something I think is terribly wrong.

All this is causing me to spend a lot of time evaluating the nature of family and friendship and the roles I want both to play in my life. As those ideas shift, so will my relationships with a lot of people. Some relationships have fallen already. I want to do this family-building thing right and have a life full of people who enrich it. People who feel that my presence enriches their lives too. I don’t want to hurt anyone and I don’t want to lie or hide parts of my self. At the same time, I want to be fair and open-hearted. I am not there yet. I was told years ago that as a child reaches each new stage in her/his life, her/his parents will be forced to revisit their own issues from that stage. Children and parents go through parallel growth processes separately yet together. Sure enough, W is at college gathering a new family around him, facing new challenges and unfamiliar issues and unexpected decisions, and I am at home doing the same.

Here’s something I’m told is an old Irish blessing to help us on our way:

May those who love us  love us,

and those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts,

and if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles

so we’ll know them by their limping.