Park here! We dare you.

parkingI live in a neighborhood with trees, gardens and parks. I can’t buy a cup of coffee or a loaf of bread without running into someone I know. Sometimes it’s a bit like Mayberry here in the –119. It takes the candor of a kindergartener to snap me out of my mirth.

“That guy did a really bad job parking.” My six-year-old neighbor announces this at full volume, as we unload the car we have pulled in neatly in front of the white one she’s pointing to. I bite my lip to contain hysterical laughter. I know she didn’t hear our conversation because the windows were closed; the observation is completely true and completely hers—said without malice, simply observed and noted. This is life in the city.

“Yeah, you’re kind of right,” I tell her. “But it’s not nice to say it. I am sure that driver did the best he could.” (My ass! His whole front end is sticking out into the street at such a sharp angle that parallel parking in front of him was a minor challenge.) It must be a visitor, someone who shuttles between driveways and parking lots. Or maybe a Roman? The park job was laughable enough that the sidewalk hopscotch brigade was gossiping. You know you’re a crappy parallel parker when 5 and 6 years olds laugh at you. From the mouths of babes…

We have no garage, so on-street parking is a way of life, a daily routine as unremarkable as toast and coffee. I don’t feel we grouse about parking like others do. We only drag chairs and trash cans into the street to guard parking spaces when we’ve shoveled out a spot in heavy snow. Otherwise we quietly jockey for a space on the block like everyone else. Or so I thought.

I was startled the first time I heard Robin, age 3, grumbling as he parked his Matchbox cars and vans. “Well, I guess this is the best I can do,” he muttered to no one as he swiped a red convertible up alongside a curb in the 2D city of his play rug. Then the black conversion van with the flames painted on its sides chimed in. “See if we can get closer.” It continued this way until supper, each car circling and complaining about the spot they finally procured.

Robin throws bizarre fits sometimes, tantrums for the most unlikely and unfixable things. After we dragged him to a couple open houses one weekend, he became fixated on having a garage. I don’t even remember if either of the homes we walked through had one. But his cry was undeniable. “Mommy, I want a garage! I want a garage! I want a garage RIGHT now! We neeeeeeed a garage!” He repeated it in hysterics as if he were asking for a cookie or something from a gift shop.

Who is this child? And is he baiting us for a move to the burbs?

In the meantime, if you drive over to visit us, consider yourself warned. Mayberry may have had parking lots. But this is the city. If you park poorly on our block, the kiddos will call you on it.

Mother of the Year (brought to you by Bush’s Best)

milkWhy yes, yes I did just squeeze chocolate milk from my son’s drink box into my coffee. Yes, he is drinking chocolate milk for breakfast. We, um, ran out of milk yesterday. Not just skim milk or 2%, but all of it. Out completely. I somehow managed to take my son to the zoo, cook dinner for the next three nights, turn out two loads of laundry and race off to a work function. But I completely failed to remember we were out of milk.

Oh, it gets worse. In the pantry, I’ve scared up a couple drink boxes of organic milk that inexplicably require no refrigeration. The chocolate ones are a treat we restock regularly. The white one must have been leftover from Super Storm Sandy, back when I laid in non-perishables. A relic of the days when I was an attentive mother. Apparently, those do have an eventual expiration. Thank God I tried to pilfer milk from the Robin’s cup first, and noticed the white milk tumbling out in chunks. It is enough to make me vegan.

Has it really come to this?

Last week was a big end-of-year potluck at Robin’s Preschool. I have coordinated the last two class potlucks, so I was almost relieved to have a conflict for this one. Still I was able to swing a work-at-home day so I could at least catch the Preschool Show before slipping off to an evening computer class. I could kiss my boys, see Robin’s turn in the Orange Room skit and pass off the family dish.

beansI brought baked beans. Not homemade. Not even organic. At 4:45 that day, I opened two large cans of Bush’s beans and dumped them into a covered dish just before powering down the laptop and driving up to school to meet the family for the 5pm show. Two pounds of canned goods from the Acme. A heaping Corningware dish of processed food, one of Robin’s favorites.

In the last three years I have carted crock pots of homemade veggie chili to school, sent fresh baked apple muffins for birthdays–sweetened with honey, not sugar. I’ve made my grandma’s halushka for a family heritage lunch and turned out a small vegan batch for a classmate with dietary restrictions. I’ve carved cantaloupes and frosted sugar cookies to share, steamed epic amounts of broccoli that rendered the car interior noxious on the short drive to school. I’ve lost countless markers and plastic serving spoons in the process.

I chuckled to myself at a potluck a couple years back when a parent who had signed up to bring macaroni and cheese walked in with a crock full of Kraft. But you know what? It went! The bowl was picked clean while my homemade hummus crusted over on a table nearby.

I’d like to say it was this sort of pragmatism that motivated me. But really, I am just lazy and willing to surrender to LCD eating now and then. Beans please the masses, as evidenced by the nearly empty bowl I found waiting for me in the kitchen when I returned from class. As I scraped the leftovers into a container and lifted the spoon to lick it, I was horrified to notice the chunks of meat. Apparently in my haste, I didn’t even have the decency to read the label and select vegetarian beans.

Call me Mother of the Year.

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.

Hello, Facebook. I am finally here.

IMG_0827How do I find myself using Facebook for the first time only now, at the age of 40? I’ve resisted this long not because I am antisocial but because I value my friends and wish to share details of my life selectively and intentionally, without a hint of the narcissism I fear fuels so much social media. Why start now?

A new smart phone greases the gears, and encroaching midlife inspires me to try something new. Now I find myself reluctantly scrolling through head shots like a casting agent. As an introvert, this feels wrong. I have close friendships, one on one or in small circles. I am shy, just like my young son.

It is only in raising him that my social circles have expanded: the neighborhood crew, the playgroup moms, teachers and parents of school friends. Add to that the close friends, colleagues, family and long distance friends, and we are into serious numbers. In the actual world, that is. I struggle to keep up with these people, and have always felt Facebook was a superficial time suck. I’d rather spend my time chatting over coffee.

Now I try to recreate these groupings on line. I hope to fly under the radar of casual school acquaintances, creepy ex-boyfriends and work clients, so I initiate my account using the last name of my husband, a name I never took and have never used in any other context. I also link the account to an old e-mail address and crank up the security settings.

Then the humiliation begins: Sending friend requests to other grown adults, most of whom have been using this technology for 5 or more years and have built enormous networks. I have 13 friends out of the gate and already my feed overwhelms me. All encourage me with positive comments on every family photo I upload. So I cast a wider net. Asking for friendship so overtly is unseemly.

Blank slate. I start slowly, as I might send invitations for a party: my closest neighbors and colleagues, dear and scattered friends from school, the few family members on this network. I only friend one person in each couple I know to avoid overlap. I have no ambitions of a triple digit friend list. I want to keep this meaningful.

As I follow my feed, I get a better idea. I begin to curate my network. I add colorful spouses. The earthy Quaker neighbor who will share inspirational quotes. The office vegan who will spike my feed with activist updates. And the arty architect down the street, who will surely share cool photos and invitations. I look to friends abroad: New Zealand, Germany, Israel and Italy, check. That should be good for global perspective.

My old techie boyfriend answers my friend request in real time chat. (Yikes! This thing is fully loaded.) My husband hates Facebook for its shallowness, but I post a comment on his page anyway: “Pssst, I love you.” Two people like it. (They can see that?) It is a bit like learning to drive in a crowded parking lot.

Still learning to use my phone’s touch screen, I accidentally send friend requests to a couple total strangers. One accepts immediately and her sardonic feminist posts populate my feed. I laugh so hard I almost wake my son. Yes, I am pulled over on a roadside doing this while he naps in his car seat. But it is only on my laptop at home that I can figure out how to unfriend her. (Is that rude?)

Many of my friend requests are ignored, possibly because of confusion over my alias. Or my profile picture, in which I wear a sloppy headscarf and fat wrap-around shades and am hugging my son in his rainbow wig. I try my best to not take these implicit rejections personally.

It is thrilling, though, this rush of connection and reconnection. But as I look at the pages of my true companions, I start to feel a little abashed by my low friend count. I want quality, not quantity, and I am pretty unfindable. There are some outliers, acquaintances with whom I’d like to connect, for social or professional purposes. I cannot comfortably approach them until I’ve reached at least 80 or 90 friends.  (Won’t I look desperate, like I am investing too much in my friend request?)

My son pulls me away from my phone, from my new obsession. (But Becky is messaging from London! And Mary Jane just realized it is me!) This is me, Andrea K—–, with 65 friends in Facebook and one eager little boy tugging my hand to go outside and play.

At night his bedtime stall tactics are of the “I need something” variety. I need water. I need blankets. And as he settles into a bed well padded with plush animals, he tells me “I need more friends.” I pitch another teddy bear and sock monkey into the pile. Me too, honey. Me too.