City living, Family, Food

A Certain Accommodation


My mother just stayed with us for 11 days, at our invitation. She is a gracious guest and has acclimated to our hippie ways. She has come to not mind and even enjoy (she claims) some of the differences in our households.

It wasn’t always this way. When I lived downtown, her arrival was always accompanied by a storm cloud of regret, about the traffic on the expressway, the challenges of driving cross town, the impossibilities of parking. “Why do you have to live in the city?” was the question, either implied or blurted.

The fact that I had no cable in my bachlorette flat only complicated the matter. “How do you know what the weather is?” she wanted to know.

“I, um, look outside the window or open the door.” (Or call the weather hotline–pre smartphone–or watch the local news, with rabbit ears balanced for passable reception.)

Questions followed her out of the bathroom: “Why does your toothpaste taste funny?”

“I dunno. Ask Tom. From Maine.”

I’ve been there myself, in college, fresh from her tidy household, visiting friends in off campus apartments hastily mopped with Dr. Bonner’s, smelling vaguely of beer and Christmas and patchouli. (And freedom.) Who can forget their first encounter with handmade soap in the shower, the surprising tingle and sting of peppermint oil on your genitals? Good morning!

Mom is a good sport, and of course her horizons have broadened as everyone else’s have since the 90s. She’s opened her mind to lots of things, some because of me, some despite me, most in ways and for reasons completely unrelated to me. It’s all good.

She is always sure to bring a good book along for her visits now, as we watch so little TV. She says she doesn’t miss it when she is here, though we encourage her to flip on the TV anytime she likes. Even without cable, we get a good 8 or 9 stations. But she relishes the quiet. We’re not so Amish as she thinks. The stereo is often on, more for music than NPR when she’s in residence.

And we accommodate too. There’s bottled salad dressing in the fridge, no fat yogurt, diet soda that my husband also enjoys on her visits. She graciously tries my braised greens, though she prefers a spinach salad. She can pronounce quinoa, though she’d rather have rice.

More importantly, we’ve learned not to challenge each other or over read. Just because I choose obscure root vegetables and whole grains I never knew as a kid, doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy a tuna noodle casserole. I am not too uppity to remember where I came from, nor am I a snob. I love cheesy broccoli and other unsophisticated dishes of yore.

My mother’s signature dish has changed with the times. She wowed us so profoundly with her stuffed acorn squash some years ago. Now whenever she visits and wants to bring dinner, we beg for it. She makes mine with meatless sausage and doesn’t even cringe or smirk anymore when her mouth forms those words.

(In appreciation, I promise I won’t ask her to try seaweed or eat Indian food.)

Mom came around on my city living even before I left my downtown walk-up, over a decade ago. On a shady bench in Rittenhouse Square in the 90s, as she munched on a scone from Metropolitan Bakery and watched dogs and children parade past, she admitted she saw the city’s charms. She could understand why I wanted to live here.

That weekend we shared a meal at a favorite Italian BYOB in the neighborhood. She ordered the stuffed squid in saffron broth and turned to watch my jaw drop as she handed her menu back to our server. “Don’t look so shocked. I’m not as parochial as you think I am.”

We’ve since left the urban core for a leafy neighborhood with sidewalks, trees and more ample (parallel) parking. She’s relieved to avoid the city traffic here and to have a guest room all her own, albeit with the same futon couch/bed that’s been with me since I was in my 20s.

I’ve grown up in these years. We have a bed frame for our box spring. Our papasan chair is long gone, replaced with a comfortable leather (sorry) club chair. The remaining second hand furniture is mixed with just enough Crate and Barrel and original art to create the illusion of an intentional aesthetic.

Randy and I were nested comfortably by the time our son came along. After an unexpected cesarean section, mom stayed with us for over a week here. She was an angel of mercy, cooking vegetarian meals, keeping the laundry going in our weird little front-loading machine, running the steps when I couldn’t, and caring for me and her new grandson. For my part, I watched Dancing With the Stars with her, and even for a week or two after she left. It was a tender time.

Having a child has demanded a new, more profound round of accommodation. I have more plastic in my household than I’d ever imagined. We still favor wood, organic, hand-me down. But we graciously accept well intentioned gifts. And the little guy has his own demands, for Cars and Thomas and all that branded crap I swore I’d never buy.

He calls me on my old hippie habits too. I’m still prone to let yellow mellow on the night shift, but he scolds me in the morning, flushing the potty with contempt.

As for my mom, we meet in the middle, I suppose. I try to accommodate, though she is more adaptive than someone her age should be. She tries my bok choy, and I stock the diet Pepsi. She empties the dishwasher, cooks comfort food, and shoos us out on badly needed date nights. Now that’s worth grilling some burgers for!

City living, Family, Winter

Snow Day Craftiness


It’s a little like The Shining, I tell my mother. She’s in Florida for the week, and we are on our weekly snow day, the first of two in a row this week, the fifth in a month of heavy snow and ice storms. This is before the thunder snowstorm starts.

Swearing off the hysteria of local TV news, I’ve elected to get my updates from social media instead. Everyone seems to have power, and apparently all of my friends are closet pastry chefs, eager to photograph their creations. They make more beautiful cookies than we do. Some of the heart-shaped ones belong on magazine covers. It’s scary outside, but the world is rose colored on Facebook. It’s like Martha Stewart hijacked my news feed.

I am tempted to post the art project Robin improvised from the contents of our under sink cabinet (above). He was in the bathroom for a long time, wasn’t he?

Oh, he made valentine cardImages too, some downright precious ones. I was so pleased with myself for remembering to stock up for his classmates. The one time I don’t blow off this vital Pre-K ritual is the V-Day when School Is Cancelled Due To Inclement Weather. F-ing figures.

I’m snowbound at home with 10 homemade, hand-decorated and cut hearts taped to the coolest heart-shaped plastic straws to give as gifts. (You know, the kind that are all curled up and trap stagnant water in them that grows bacteria. The kind you would neeeeever let your kid drink milk from and would be unwise to reuse more than a couple times, even for water?)

The boys made cookies, but they are too embarrassing to photograph: curiously hard M&M studded peanut butter lumps, inexplicably gluten free. The dough was so unwieldy, they didn’t even get a dozen, so none to share with neighbors.


On the day before this 12-inch snow dump, I’d stocked up at the craft store. Pipe cleaner hearts are on the list for later, along with bear mask making and a big glass of prosecco. (Adults only.) Previous favorite snow day pairings include safety trampoline and Afropop. And my personal favorite, Pixar and a growler. (Child optional.)

We are all a little insane here, but getting better at managing all this unwanted free time. Randy’s home and we are fighting for work shifts on the computer. I stagger a 3.5 hour work session with shoveling and his internet conference call with the state. An angel neighbor takes Robin for a play date, but we are both too busy to even consider romance.

I guess with all the zigging and zagging, we are not so sick of each other yet, even on this second snow day in a row. No one is homicidal. The lights have stayed on. We’ve shoveled snow with and for friends. Out front there are swelling snowmen two storms old, a few inches taller than when we went to bed last night. It is all starting to feel normal.

When a thunderous crash startled my reading yesterday, I was relieved to realize it was merely the thunder they had predicted with our second round of snow. Not another gutter-breaking rooftop snow slide. Just thunder and lightening. Funny times when this realization calms you.

pipe cleaner heartsValentine’s dinner is Indian take out. Though we should have had time to cook today, Randy got out for a run and I passed time hanging out with neighbors, watching Robin and his friends climb the freakishly tall mounds of snow piled into our tiny front gardens. When I caught Robin licking the snow off of a neighbor’s car, I knew it was time to head in for dinner. Prosecco and sag paneer. Belgian chocolates for dessert. (You know, the kind you grab with some reticence from the stack of orphaned gourmet food near the check out line at TJ Maxx.)

A happy holiday indeed.

Family, Human technology

Phone Free Sunday: The Ultimate Impulse Control

20131110-210604.jpgParenting a four year old is all about teaching impulse control.

I am patiently explaining to my son over a board game that he cannot scan all the cards to find the one that allows him to rocket his game piece ahead. This is Candy Land and there are rules here. He needs to draw cards blindly, and in order. He seems to be getting it when my phone buzzes with a text message from a friend, and I immediately pick it up to respond.

Smart phone. Dumb parent. With this much information and distraction at our fingertips, who can resist?

For a long time, Randy and I tried to ignore our phones from 6-8pm on work nights, but we quickly forgot ourselves. First came minor trespasses, like a check of weather or some Pandora on the dock. But as work bled into home life, we found ourselves answering e-mails after dinner or getting a quick RSVP off to a neglected friend.

No, Robin, you cannot get up from the table until you are excused. Now let me check Facebook quickly while you doddle over your broccoli.

In response to a recent and unexpected bout of bad behavior, we took a moment for reflection and revisited our own ground rules, priorities and bad examples. Life steers off the tracks periodically. We use these little bottom-out moments as a chance to reboot our parenting, and occasionally our personhood.

Our new idea this time? Phone Free Sundays. It is our family day after all. Why not strip away the distractions? We may place or receive a call, or even check the weather or hours for the museum or orchard or restaurant we plan to visit together. But otherwise, no texting, no social media, no e-mail, no web surfing.

skyWe feel a little bit Amish at first, and the day stretches out before us with a big sky sort of expansiveness. In practice, there is plenty to fill our time, and not the cleaning and errand running we reserve for Saturdays. There are art projects to conquer and meals to prepare. Plans to hatch and songs to sing. Bubbles to blow and train cars to push. Gardens to weed and trails to hike.

We have never been TV people, but I miss my little screen. It has become a sad sort of default for me. When I want to veg out, it is where I go now, sometimes instead of book. One night, too restless and zonked to read, I find myself watching snippets of Louis CK on youtube. He rants persuasively. You will never watch those videos of the moments you missed with your kids, he tells me. You shoot them to share on Facebook, but you aren’t actually there, living them.

Inspired, I turn off my phone. I actually power off the damn thing. I have the same feeling I got on those first screen-free Sunday evenings, after Robin was in bed and the house was quiet. Like a disembodied soul, unconnected. Randy went digital a couple years ago, so I am unequipped to read his books now, and too busy to get to the library for some paper ones.

Later, as insomnia hits, I resist the temptation to fire up the laptop and scratch the shell of this essay into my journal instead. You know, the paper kind. I think of all the ways my phone has made me dumb and dull. I can’t spell anymore, and my typing has gone to hell; auto correct has made me lazy. I don’t need to remember anything or search my knowledge banks to recall information when I have the worldwide web in my pocket. I am doomed to early onset dementia, preceded—I can only hope—by a good decade or two of bad spelling.

Still I am a lot better off than most. I am young enough to embrace the technology but old enough to have grown up without it. I understand boundaries and don’t hit up Zillow to see what my friends paid for their houses, or interrupt an intimate conversation to fact check on my phone. I have basic competencies that many 20-somethings lack. I can read a map, for instance. And calculate a restaurant tip in my head.

I can listen.

I want to raise Robin with this discipline, with these skills and sensitivities.

So I pledge to never put family life on hold, or even on vibrate. Instagram can wait. The only image I want to see is my son on his balance bike, following my direction to come in for supper, though he really wants to do another lap in the alley.


The Final Days

These final days before a death are as fraught as the days before a birth. It is all so much more trying on those loved ones surrounding the life in question. I’ve been part of a powerful circle of family, people who love my grandmother and are with her in these last hours.

Or I was…20131110-141728.jpg

Somehow she is still living, a week later. Sleeping and relatively pain free, requiring little medication and with pretty strong vitals. Do I stay? Do I go? I am writing this from a recliner in my living room. At some point I had to leave, to return to work, to routines.

We held vigil before Robin’s birth. I waited for labor to begin, paced the creaky wood floors night after night. He was a week late. I walked the neighborhood to stay sane and help him drop. I abandoned my post at work because I couldn’t focus with all the nerves and anticipation.

My mother was on call across the state, ready to jump in her car and drive to me at the first contraction. It is the not knowing that challenges us all. You cannot schedule a life’s beginning or end, but so much must happen around it. It is hardest on those surrounding it, the family who will mourn or welcome the soul that crosses the great divide.

That passing, in or out of life, is natural. It takes care of itself somehow. It works on its own timetable. But it leaves so much uncertainty for the spectators.

In my grandmother’s case, I see things clearly. It is a strange thing, anticipating a death. And a death without tragedy is a rare gift. It is sad she is dying, of course. I have shed many tears and will miss her terribly. But she is 93, has had an amazing life, and is revered by all who know her. It is the best possible way to die.

I feel guilty when the kind aids in her senior living complex express their sympathy. Surely there are people who need it more. This is sad, but it is a natural and good passing. And hospice is a slow and merciful end, death’s rough equivalent of a home birth. The lack of tragedy in this slow departure allows me the luxury of philosophy.

Death happens slowly but surely, with its own protocol. It is like Apgar in reverse, this quiet cataloging of the physical signs of dying: the pulling back of the earlobes, the mottling of skin, the changes in her nail beds.

And this strange dance with death. I have seen her dip and rally over the many hours I spent at her bedside. We felt sure Monday was the day. My cousins rushed over. We encouraged Grandma to hang on for my aunt and uncle’s arrival, for the end of their long drive to her.

Listening to her breathing, we heard disturbingly long pauses. Then a reassuring rise in her chest. We hung on each breath as the pauses grew longer. I told my mother I felt like I should be timing them, like contractions.

But my aunt and uncle arrived. And somehow she rallied. Her vitals, taken a couple hours later, were stronger than they had been in days. The nurse speculated that she relaxed when she knew her son was there.

We all know she was aware of their planned arrival: a body letting go. Relax. Breathe.

Are we in the Braxton Hicks of death? Is this false labor? Or the long and painful work of dying. Labor is long, messy, uneven. Its duration is unpredictable. Why wouldn’t dying work the same way?

It is abstract to me now. I sleepwalk through a couple work days and my weekend of mundane household chores. I am six hours away. Not knowing when the time will come, my thoughts are totally consumed with my grandmother. My cell phone is in my pocket, the ringer on and cranked up.

I have no idea how long this will take. I have no idea when. I need to save my time for after.

My heart is heavy and my thoughts are with my mother. I cannot wait to go to her when it is all over, to hold her and help her heal. To say my final goodbye to Grandma.


From Cradle to Grave

My grandmother looks so small. When I see her in the hospital bed the hospice service has moved into her room, my impulse it to climb in next to her. I spoon her and stroke her back as she goes on sleeping her deep, drugged sleep. She has lost so much weight, and her body is failing. I am startled by her fragility.

As we enter this life, so we depart it. Like the first days after my son was born, everything is more sharply defined now, more laden with meaning and metaphor. Every small kindness shown me is magnified. My Grandmother is on her death bed. I see her body changing, her constant sleep, the agitation we fumble to sooth.

I curl up with her in bed as I did with my own infant son, in awe of the life still in her body, the precariousness of it, the small miracle that her heart still beats at age 93, that her lungs work, though they are full of fluid.

We never co-slept with Robin. I always felt he was too fragile, I was too full of fear. And I shift around carefully, not wanting to jostle Grandma’s oxygen tube. I will pass my night watch in the recliner next to her, dozing if I can but vigilant for any change in her breathing, any sense of pain or discomfort, any departure.

Like Robin within days of birth, I watch intently for the rise and fall of her chest, for evidence of breathing. But it is not SIDS I fear; it is the inevitable. When I am unsure, I place my hand gently on her side. I am reassured by the movement, by her warmth.

The smells in the room are as pungent as in a nursery, though different. Her eyelids are so swollen, her eyes hardly ever open. Like a newborn, I don’t think she can see clearly when they do. The sound is of the oxygen machine, not the sound machine. But its hum soothes me somehow.

This night is sacred. I was relieved when my mother agreed to go home and let me sleep here. She spent last night with Grandma and only slept an hour. Nurses were in and out. Grandma was agitated as different pain medications were administered. And all of this was new. Hospice had only been set up that very afternoon, and in such a rush, the bed arrived before the papers had been signed.

I feel so happy to be trusted, to have this quiet closeness with my grandmother, to share this intimacy. I get more from it than my mother realizes when she thanks me for taking the shift. I will never get this time back. I have never had such a deep sense that this was where I needed to be–at least not since Robin’s infancy.

It was so hard for me to leave Robin when he was so young, so tiny and fragile. But at a certain point I realized my mother needed the time with him as much as I needed the relief of him. I was up over long nights, feeding him every hour or two. I needed to step away as badly as she needed to come in and hold him, to have time alone with him while I rested.

Yes, I do hope my mother will sleep well tonight, or at least rest and recharge. It could be another day or two before my grandmother passes, and mom needs her strength. But more than anything, I feel grateful for this time.

I know to expect disruptions overnight. Staff will be in to administer medication and check vitals. I remember the drill from my first days as a mom, recuperating in the hospital from my C-section. Like clockwork, every time I started to rest, a resident or nurse or doc of some sort was entering to check me or the baby. Robin resisted as Grandma does, a low groan of discomfort coming out of her deep slumber as the nurses struggle to turn her body.

In the place of midwives and doulas, there are hospice nurses and social workers. So much thought and planning is put into the beginning of a life, but rarely is the end of life so well orchestrated. Thankfully there are these angels on the other side of it, helping facilitate a graceful exit from this world.

We all move steadily from cradle to grave, but in this case it seems to be handled more gracefully on the back end somehow. Good night, Grandma. I love you. I hope you slip peacefully away soon. But not on my watch.


93 Going on 3

meeting great grandmaIt was startling to see my grandmother in a wheelchair, and more shocking to see her in what felt like a hospital. Just a couple weeks earlier, she was independently ambling down the halls of her senior apartment complex.

But a minor medical condition landed her in the hospital for an overnight, where doctors assessed her dementia too severe for her to return home. A week later she moved to skilled nursing care. There, I realized the wheelchair was a convenience for staff, who shuttled elders in large groups to activities and meals. Though most could walk, the wheelchairs simplified things.

Exactly like Robin, my 3 and a half year old. Our outings often start with the stroller debate. He can plainly walk, but his energy may give out, or he may simply refuse. I can’t carry him home. As our kids age out of strollers, my friends and I deliberate regularly. Robin is as tall as a kindergartener, so I endure judgmental stares as I push him.

My mother feels the weight of judgment as she manages my grandmother’s care. It has gotten more challenging these last 3 years, as grandma’s memory has fallen away and bouts of disorientation have crept in. My mother’s daily presence has allowed her to live independently. Aside from errand running and outings, my mom drives over at a moment’s notice to fix a crisis: a misplaced hearing aid, mixed up meds or a TV remote control mess.

These crises carry the same urgency that precedes my son’s melt-downs. She rushes in and works hard to sooth. Now, when my grandma fixates on wanting to return home and spirals down, my mother distracts her. It’s right out of the toddler parenting handbook. She is as exhausted as I am at the end of the day. “I can’t reason with her,” she says.

“Tell me about it,” I answer. We are two weary caretakers.

In the dining hall, my mom converses with another visitor. She too lingers with her mother over meals. “This really is a good place,” the woman tells my mother.

“Oh, I know,” my mom answers. “The staff here really cares about the residents. I see it every day.”

It sounds like discussions I have with colleagues and friends about my son’s daycare. “It is a fantastic program,” I tell them. I believe it, but still feel the need to convince myself each time I say it.

It isn’t guilt, per se. My mother bristles at the word. A good and faithful daughter, she has served my grandmother better than anyone and is rightfully at peace. Likewise, I know I am a good mother. But in each moment I am not with Robin, each time I imagine a stranger helping him on the toilet or settling him into a chair to eat, I cringe a little. I know the discomfort is similar for her.

My mother visits the nursing home twice a day. I encourage her to step back and let Grandma settle in. Good-byes are the hardest. I remember those tender mornings when I returned to work. Robin cried when I dropped him at school. I calmly kissed him and walked out the door. In the parked car outside, I fell apart.

But he settled into his own routines, friendships and the structured activities meant to stimulate him. Grandma has regular physical and occupational therapy. Though there is no circle time, there are regular sing-alongs in the activity hall, its walls lined with art projects that could have been executed by pre-schoolers—Easter forms embellished with crayon and marker, collages with colorful bits of tissue paper.

Robin has shared a special connection with his great Grandma Tillie since she held him as a baby. Something came alive in her. He stared into her face with a strange calm, a deep sort of recognition. In my grandmother’s delusions, she expresses panic about the baby she is supposed to be watching.

It was clear after her breaks with reality in the hospital that Grandma needed fulltime care. I remind my mother she has done the right thing, just as I convinced myself a few years ago. I quickly realized I could not be a stay-at-home mom. It would be bad for me, for Robin, for our relationship. My mother too knows that she could not be a full-time caregiver. Aside from the staircases in her house, there is the more basic truth that living together would strain their relationship. In my grandmother’s lucid moments over the years, she has strongly agreed.

My grandmother’s ability to reason comes and goes like a child’s. She is sharp and empathetic in certain moments. “Pat, you can’t be here every day. You need to have a life of your own too.” Then she panics when left alone. My mom feels she can’t leave her, just as I am feeling freer to leave my son. Robin and Grandma Tillie are passing in this moment, overlapping. Before long, Robin will be fully reasonable and my grandmother will slip into something more primitive. I don’t know what I will say to my mother then.