Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cutting the Apron Strings: How's That Supposed to Work, Again?

When I'm willing to be truthful with myself, I have to admit that parenting older children is all about the relevance. My own relevance, that is.

It’s a sad fact of our existence (cue the Lion King “Circle of Life” music) that that as our children age, we become less relevant to them. When they’re little, their entire lives revolve around us, and ours around them as well; in the most real sense, after all, we’re trusted with keeping them alive.

But then something really underhanded transpires: Their grasp on us loosens and they begin inching away, and before long, they’re gone altogether. And we’re left wondering what in the world just happened.

My kids are -- could it be? -- almost 24 and almost 21 now. It’s safe to say that because they’ve constituted the area of my life into which I’ve most totally immersed myself, I’m a little unmoored these days. I’ve really, really enjoyed being their mother, and with a couple of notable hiccups, I think I’ve been pretty good at it. And I know that while my job will never been finished in a figurative sense, I also need to face the fact that each of them could get along just fine without me.

So, you see, as an intellectual individual, I understand how it works. So why is it that I keep grasping?

Let me say this right off the bat: I’m a busy person. I work full-time, and I also maintain what constitutes a full-time freelance-writing business on the side. Most nights, I’m covering events or writing stories. I have a husband whom I love and enjoy spending time with, and we have a high-maintenance dog. So it’s not as though I don’t have a life.

It’s just that the life I have is so different from the one I lived for so long. And I’m not sure what to do with myself if -- emotionally, anyway -- no one needs me anymore.

Here’s what Caroline would say right now: “Mom, stop being dramatic and feeling sorry for yourself.” Well, Caroline, I’m Italian and I’m right-brained, so to some degree, I’m guilty as charged. But I’m truly not trying to immerse myself in pity; I'm trying to determine how all this supposed to work. And I also wonder sometimes if I’m the only person who feels this way.

Some of my friends love having an empty nest. They’re living like college kids, albeit ones with more money. I’m sort of jealous, as I just can’t get into that groove.

The reasons might be as simple as accepting my heritage. It’s stereotypical and demeaning to assume that all Italian mothers emotionally smother their kids … right? If not, I’ll just go with that. (Visit YouTube and watch a few scenes from the movie Moonstruck. That’s my family.) In all seriousness, though, I come from a long line of matriarchal women who like to make sure everyone is well-fed and happy. I’m not much of a cook, but I have the nurturing thing down pat.

I realize that sometime soon, I’ll need to begin making changes. I anticipate both my kids will marry eventually, and I don’t want to scare their spouses; I also don’t want to be an overbearing grandmother who insists on offering unwanted advice. I want to remain close to my kids, but I want them to be able to count on my knowing my boundaries.

I also want to continue to be relevant to them, though. I don’t want to be the old lady who doesn’t matter. I want -- as we all desire in the important areas of our lives, I think - to continue to add value.

In all other areas of life, Mother Nature seems to have it right. As we age, hormones change and help us shift our focus from making babies to raising them; we focus less on the laws of attraction and more on creating stable, sturdy, reliable environments for our kids. That’s not to say that we stop being individuals, but we stop being entirely self-focused and self-centered ones. Why, then, can’t the same fluctuations allow us to love our children not quite so fiercely?

I suppose, to some degree, this will all take care of itself, and it might all be OK; after all, I’m trying to keep a respectful distance from Scott’s decisions about where his life will take him next, and, on an albeit smaller scale,I wasn’t even taken aback when Caroline said she didn’t a ride to the airport because her boyfriend was taking her.

I'm trying to do better. But I'll also promise you this: Wherever my kids go next, and no matter how respectful a distance I’m able to keep, it won’t stop me from fretting over whether they make sure to eat a good meal before they get started.

Hey -- it's all about the baby steps.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Magic in their hands, food in my yard

Food is growing out of my yard. That that can happen has never ceased to amaze me.

For Mother's Day this year, Kevin bought me dirt. And dirt, luckily for him, was just what I wanted. He had tilled part of our yard last summer with the hope of putting a garden in, but ended up getting busy with a few dozen other things. And with my knee pain an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 prior to my surgery, I didn't push it.

But this spring, after healing from this year's health woes and starting to feel pretty darned good, I was ready. So I may have whined just a little, and he surprised me with some beautiful black soil.

And into it, we burrowed some tiny seeds, as well as some starter plants made available to us by a generous neighbor. Growing from seed is really my preference; you have to wait longer, but what a sense of accomplishment.

Kevin texted me at work the other day. "Carrots!" the text said. And today, it was "Peas!" And sure enough, when I got home, I saw what you see in the photo above.

We're growing food. And that thrills me.

Kevin and I both have good jobs. We've never gone hungry. But there's something about knowing you're helping to provide for your family through your two hands and Mother Nature -- something much more satisfying than wheeling a cart around the grocery store.

When my kids were little, I gardened, and they helped me. We harvested potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, enough peas for one dinner (and I burned them!), and enough raspberries to feed the neighborhood. I still remember how thrilled the kids were to stuff the berries into their chubby little faces as we waited on the front porch for the kindergarten bus.

Their chubby little faces -- not so chubby now -- are in their own apartments now. But I know they share the memories.

Gardening also ties me to the more distant past. In the 19-teens, my grandparents -- both sets -- came to this country, like so many, in search of a better opportunity. They brought little but some clothing and meager belongings, yet they had magic in their hands. One of my grandparents died before I was born, and two more passed away the year I turned four. Yet I've seen the pictures and heard the stories, and I'm pretty sure I have a few snapshots in my own head.

My Grandpa Joe's meticulous gardens on Sixth and Jefferson with their straight, straight rows and splashes of color. My Nana's vegetable garden in her back yard that looked out on St. Anthony's school; I remember her hunched over, pulling peppers, in her black house dress and white apron. To me, her house forever held the smell of vine-ripened tomatoes, big as cantaloupes, stewing in olive oil.

Their wealth was in the food that grew from the ground they cultivated. I wish I remembered more about them, but I like to think that as they passed from this world to the next, they whispered something in my ear and slipped a little magic into my hands.

I can't sing, I can't play an instrument, and I can't throw a football. But I can make food grow from my yard. Each time it happens, it amazes me. And this year, I'll try hard not to burn the peas.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The world is so big, and the world is so small.

As I acclimate to being back home after traveling through Europe for the better part of two weeks, two things continue to strike me:

The world is so big. And the world is so small.

The first idea is a pretty simple one to grasp: Our planet is a big place. Despite the degree to which we all believe we’re globally minded, most of us also live our lives within a radius of a few miles. In other words, while I was aware of the existence of Stonehenge, I hadn’t been terribly bothered by the fact that I hadn’t actually seen in real life. But now that I’ve seen it, I know there’s so very much I’m missing.

I’m also newly aware, though, that no matter where I travel, people are really not a whole lot different from one another. I’ll always believe that by and large, people are good – and I saw that theory bolstered time and time again as we traveled through England, Wales and Ireland.

People want to smile and laugh and hug. They want to welcome you. And they want to know that you appreciate the places they call home. And the old adage is true: People may not remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.

I don’t remember the specifics of my conversation with the old men outside a church in Wales, for example, but recall their words about my daughter and the other singers in the choir: how beautiful the “children” were. And how they “sang like the angels.” And how my eyes filled as I grasped the enormity of where I was and how I was feeling at that moment.

And the connections were not solely with the residents of these other countries. They were with some of the students I hadn’t really known prior to this trip, and with some of the adults who shared my “chaperone-but-really-not-a-chaperone” status.

Thousands of miles from home, I connected with Kathi about the joys and challenges of parenting adult children, and with Michele about the similarities in the temperaments of our daughters. I bonded with Anna, who can’t decide whether she should look for a first job far from home, and with Sophie, who missed her mom. And I cried as I listened to several students who, on the last night, stood and talked about what their years in the Drake Choir had meant to them.

And I connected in different ways with my own children. We saw the same sights and heard the same beautiful sounds, and when we look back on the trip in years to come, our frames of reference will be much the same.

Photos can’t do this trip justice; they can’t compare, at least, to the pictures in my own head as I think back over the 12 days I existed in a realm far different from the one in which I usually find myself. The choir members maintained a common blog about the tour, and one student’s comment stays with me: “These are the memories we’ll talk about when we’re in the nursing home.”

Indeed. But I also have a strong suspicion I’ll also find reason to bring them up every day between now and then.

(Photo courtesy of Dave Collier, official tour photographer)