Friday, January 22, 2010

the just-right thing

A toddler chalkboard easel. A size 2 wetsuit. Wooden playclips for building forts. A small trampoline with a handlebar across the side—the children spent hours jumpin on it every winter day, and used it as a “bunk bed” though it’s only eight inches off the floor. They hung by their knees from the handlebar, ignoring the manufacturer’s safety warnings.

Wooden train tracks.

The attic fills with toys-once-dear, artifacts of earlier years of my parenting life, the silken capes, some of them hand-dyed with marigold petals as a kindergarten project. Thick books with cardboard pages, so critical for everyday life—just a few months ago, it seems.

Now our living space fills with musical instruments, a violin, a keyboard, woodwinds of all kinds, ocarinas and pan pipes. The shelves fill with chapter books—never enough to satisfy the hungry readers—and always a few really good books we parents nudge children to try. Someday they will. A few picture books still linger, though they gather dust. My son needs a shelf just for his baseball collections, and my daughter crafts more paper dolls than we can house. Nowadays her paper dolls look more like contemporary teenagers and less like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Our handcrafted cloth dolls might need to be tucked away in tissue paper soon, to protect them from dust and teenage experiments.

My daughter laughed when I showed her the tiny flower-print cap she wore for her first few months, when she had no hair. Newborn pajamas seem impossibly small. She is in middle school now.

As winter sets in I notice the differences between this year and the last: we didn’t visit the playground this fall, too busy with swim lessons and play dates and my teaching schedule. My son still loves to return home at the end of the school day, but gone are the days of building little cities on the floor, and pushing small cars along handmade roads.

I love these kids’ ages, now more than ever. Madeleine crafted tuna salad sandwiches for my dinner, yesterday, because I had schoolwork due. Soon winter will arrive in earnest and Brendan will commandeer the snow shoveling. Twelve years from now my children could be parenting their own babies, and suddenly twelve years doesn’t seem long at all.

Saving these toys happened by accident—I thought I sold the trampoline years ago. A friend offers $20 for the easel and the bottles of tempera paint. A mom at school gives me $10 for the wetsuit. But I scrap the plan to sell the wooden barn, the dollhouse. I can pack away a few boxes and hold them for a decade or maybe more. And tucked in beside the useful toys, I’ll enclose the tiny pajamas and hats, the special dolls. Why? I don’t know. I have two small boxes of my own belongings from childhood—nothing I’d pass on to anyone else, really. I loved my room as a kid, my quilt with the birds embroidered on it, and only a few other things. I kept a teddy bear my friend Cheryl gave me in eighth grade. My son sleeps with it—he asked me one day how old the Teddy is, and when I answered, “your bear is 33,” he paused for a moment and said, “Let’s just say she’s two.” I have a hard time wrapping my head around that many years, too.

I keep the tiny purple and white alarm clock I spied at a store when I was ten years old. I nagged my mother each visit to the store, reminding her there was only one alarm clock like it. I couldn’t find a price tag for it. Then it disappeared from the store shelves and I grieved and pouted. When I found the tiny clock atop of my stack of presents under the Christmas tree, I was like Clara in the Nutcracker, making everyone confirm that the clock was perfect, its ticking was perfect, its alarm bell was perfect. “Three dollars and ninety-five cents,” my mother muttered to my dad. “Maybe we didn’t need to get her all those other things,” my dad quipped over his Christmas cup of coffee. I wound the clock dutifully through high school and college until it stopped ticking.

My little purple and white alarm clock sits on my son’s workbench, now. I keep opening the back to see what I can learn, to “fix” it for another few days, until it stops working again.

Each year I bring out “new” tools from my early adult life: the alarm clock, which the boy might learn to fix. My daughter was delighted to find I have a full set of calligraphy pens and inks, which I set aside for just this time. In the springtime, I will offer them some juggling toys I bought at Pike Place Market, in Seattle, in 1987.

I will choose carefully before packing “the keepers” from my children’s childhoods—we can’t keep much, so it’s best to sort carefully now. The rocking horse my father made, it stays. The travel mattress for toddlers goes, and the nursing pillow. Soon I will make one more pass through the bags of kid art projects, to see which pages offer a snapshot of who they were, when they were smaller, the “alien people” whose bodies were round, and to discover which of the paintings no one can identify any longer.

Keeping mementos is a very odd practice. Can anyone say why we do it? We want our children to know they were loved, I suppose—but they already know that in ways far deeper than a rocking horse would show. We can't keep much, so how do we choose?

Perhaps we keep things to remember who we were, when our children laughed and rocked for hours, singing, how we sang, too and glanced at one another over our coffee cups, happy to have chosen just the right thing, happy for our children to be completely and utterly satisfied.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I keep getting spam on one particular post in my archives. Any idea how to deal with that?

Friday, January 15, 2010

2010, here we are

I generally do not indulge myself in post-holiday depression because I am so often overcome by post-holiday euphoria: my children go back to school, my husband goes back to work, and I get the house to myself once again, the happiest circumstance. Now I can get work done.

Or so it’s been for the past few years. Last January and the January before, I threw my efforts into my graduate work. January 2007, I was applying for grants, freelancing for a magazine, working part-time for my blind friend on the weeks she was home from the hospital.

In May 2007, a friend offered to buy me a laptop so I could work while in grad school. We took my acceptance letter to the Apple store, to get an education discount. I said to my friend, we can return it if I just don’t open it. He pulled out his pocket knife for the UPC symbol on the box, for a rebate of some kind, and the deed was done. I was going to school, or else.

My blind friend entered the hospital for an extended stay, the same month. I was writing a story about her the morning she died in December 2007. Then came January 2008—behind on my reading for the first quarter, I determined I’d not get behind again.

In January 2009, I prepared my critical thesis and kept reading.

In August 2009, I finished grad school and packed my children up for a long road trip, following one travel extravaganza with another. From the passenger seat of the car, I phoned to accept a job offer, teaching a course for first-year students at a nearby college—for one semester. The semester ended in December and I spent the first days of my kids’ Christmas break grading papers.

When I look through my own papers, I find ticket stubs from Santa Fe and Cincinnati, and New Hampshire. My bedside is awash in student papers, literary journals, spiral-bound notebooks, and knitting projects.

We had a lovely Christmas. It snowed at the beginning, and snowed again at the end, and in the middle we stayed home most of the time, cooking, preparing, singing and enjoying our new gifts.

Now they go back to school and jobs and I am not a student anymore, not a teacher this semester. I am freelancing, or I am unemployed, or I am just catching up with myself. I am frustrated that I’ve gotten so little done this week: I’ve attended a school party for my sixth grader, applied for a state grant, organized a list of literary contest dates. I’ve written each day. I’ve begun to clean house and restore order to our lives.

I’ve not made resolutions nor lost 20 pounds. I’ve not cleaned the icons off my desktop. I’ve not won literary awards nor found a well-paid job. I’ve written a few email thank-yous, but not nearly enough for the gifts I’ve been given in the past year.

I will need to shed another skin to enter this new 2010 life of mine. I need to make my own deadlines, like a grown-up, and keep them. I will need to make inquiries for magazine stories.

A friend needs a babysitter for two days next week, at a pre-grad school rate of pay. Her father smiles as he says, “You will sleep well when you are done!” The two-year-old laughs and prances all day, then she naps. When her mother arrived home at the end of the day, the child pointed at me and announced, "Mama! She SINGS!" And so I do. It’s a happy match.

Catch up soon.
The sky looks like snow, and my feet won't get warm. I've been writing more often by pen and paper, but I will return with posts, soon.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

It's been a MONTH since I posted! Forgive me: busy season. I'm just warming up.

Pale blue-and-white striped flannel, floor length. Not too heavy, no real signs of wear. I pulled the crumpled robe from the donation box for the thrift shop. A little blue-and-white striped ruffle around the collar, but nothing too “girly”. I looked out the windows to see if anyone was watching me sort the giant box of cast-off clothing. I slipped one arm in a sleeve, and the other. I tied the belt and smoothed my hands down the front, and did a little dance. The flannel seemed brand new. I walked back into my apartment to the full-length mirror. Perfect.

I’d not owned a bathrobe as a child—bathrobes were Extras, and my brothers grew too fast for my family to buy Extras. Why buy a robe when a hooded sweatshirt makes a passable extra layer? In a pinch, my mother’s ratty terry robe would do for a dash to my bedroom, as long as I brought it back to its assigned hook in the bathroom.

My mother was happy to buy me a giant plush bathrobe, in emerald green, for my first Christmas in college. My dorm room was drafty, I said, and I’d been craving this bear-like robe. The inch-thick pile felt exotic, heavy, satisfying. When I returned to school I flaunted my prize, strutting down the hallway. Dust balls collected around the hem within minutes, and lint, and talcum powder. I couldn’t wash my hands or face while wearing the robe because it was too big and got in my way. So I couldn’t wear it to the bathroom, or from the shower. The cuffs bunched under my wrist when I tried to write at my desk. The robe wasn’t functional for anything but sitting, so I cuddled in the emerald fur robe to read in bed. Each time I moved I left a scattering of emerald fur where I’d been sitting. As a final insult, when I walked the dorm halls in my fabulous robe, my neck ached from the weight of it. On cold nights I threw the robe over my blankets, glad for the heaviness. I packed the behemoth around for another year, unable to part with the idea of coziness and warmth, and then I bequeathed it to someone who admired it, a sad parting from my bathrobe dream. I bought long underwear and dressed in layers, instead.

Years later, my first fulltime job required me to live in a college dorm, a life I relished. As May finals approached, my dorm residents began packing their rooms up to spend the summer at home. A tall box labeled “clothing donations” appeared in the lounge across the hall from my apartment door. Every day the box filled a bit more, until the box overflowed and clothing piled up around it.

Students offered their final goodbyes. My days were filled with meetings and year-end celebrations. No one picked up the box. On the third day, I told myself I was “sorting.” I folded stuff, starting with the pile outside of the box. I paired shoes and tied their strings together. I buttoned shirts. And then I found the robe. After I tried it on, after I saw its perfection in the mirror, I hung it on the back of my bathroom door and stroked it. Then I went back to the thrift shop box, folded all the clothes neatly against the wall, and gleefully found a good pair of jeans in my size, also. One day the stacks of clothing were gone, along with the donation box, and I forgot about it.

When students returned in the fall, I wore my perfect bathrobe to answer a knock at the door. Deb McMahon paused for a moment before speaking. “I gave that bathrobe to be donated to the poor,” she said.

I blushed and stammered, then smiled at my student friend. “How much do you think college residence directors make?” And we laughed, though she looked skeptical. “I donated some of my things to the poor, too, to make up for the robe that was clearly meant for me. But if you want, I’ll find the charity and send a cash donation for the robe.” She agreed the robe was flattering to me. She’d already bought herself another. She decided she could live with my thievery.

Last year I asked my husband for a new robe, a flannel one, for Christmas. The pattern I wanted was out of stock, leaving animal print and lime green polka dot options. On a whim, I pointed to a different ad: a blue chenille robe with giant pink, yellow and green chenille coffee mugs down the front. Warmth, I thought. Coziness. I opened the gift on Christmas and lifted the blue chenille from of the box: heavy. With sadness I tried it on: cute, in a giant-chenille-barn sort of cute. The robe was cute when I was not wearing it. Enormous cuffed sleeves bunched under my wrist when I sat down. And it made my neck ache. Back into the box it went, with its adorable chenille coffee mug designs. I hated to see it go. My worn old blue and white striped robe would need to “do” for one more season.

This year I jumped on the winter clothing catalogs early, chose a flannel robe in a nice pattern, and found a discount coupon. I demanded that Scott order the robe in October, while it was available. On Christmas when I opened the package, I spied the fabric pattern—beautiful. I ripped open the plastic—soft, very soft. And I slipped in one arm, and another, tied the belt. I walked to the mirror to check it out. Perfect. When I wash it, the flannel will become even softer and fluffier, even more “just right.”

Today I carefully fold the blue-and-white-striped flannel robe to put it in the box I’ll take to the thrift shop. The outside collar is torn and frayed. The inside collar stains will not wash out. The belt loops hang by threads and the belt will not flatten. I picked that robe from the giveaway box 20 years ago, half a lifetime ago, on the other side of the continent. I packed that robe for my job in Pennsylvania, where I lived in a drafty farmhouse for the winter. I wore the robe through my newlywed year, and through the years in the unheated summer home. I wore the robe when I nursed babies, and for ten years since. I remember, now, the flannel quilt kit I gave my children for Christmas. The quilt includes four layers of flannel, and this robe might not be fit for the quilt top, but it would make a fine filler. I pull the robe out of the thrift shop box. It simply resists donation. Such a good robe.

I will send something else to the thrift shop in its place.