Monthly Archives: May 2014

Hasta La Vista, Baby!

As in any love relationship, there are aspects of the package-deal of having school-aged kids in the house that I will distinctly not miss.  We parents have been mindful not to throw out our babies with their bathwater, long after those babies started bathing themselves (and remember when some of them, fresh out of their showers, doused themselves in enough Axe Body Spray to asphyxiate a large farm animal?  Better than smelling like one, I suppose.)  But there is a substantial amount of bathwater I’m ready to throw out at this point.

Sayonara to dragging a teenager’s slumbering ass out of bed–and in the winter time, it’s still black as pitch when the alarm goes off–while they’re in the fathomless depths of Stage 4 NREM sleep.  I’ve heard of kids who get up early and easily on their own, but I’ve never had one of these, myself.  So anytime a child in this house has had to be somewhere before noon, which of course is every, single school day for the past almost 20 years, it’s been up to me to make sure they’re up. Before they could drive themselves, people would say, “Let them suffer the consequences of missing the bus,” but it was I who would suffer the consequences of chasing that bus through the neighborhoods, or driving that child to school myself, or having them hang around the house all day.  Who do those options punish? The question of who’s really being punished prompted a lot of my over-reaching parenting over the years.  So I picked my battles.  If I had a nickel for every time, every morning, five mornings a week that I called a child’s name down the stairs, I could probably fund a college education with it.  After the initial, up-close-and-personal nuzzling her awake with a kiss (the one moment of the wake-up ritual I will deeply miss), the calling-down-to-her room began,  “Sophie Milstein! Are you up? Please get up!” “Time to get up. Now.” “Do you see what time it is?! You MUST. GET. UP. NOW! I MEAN it!” and so on.  I’m not a morning person myself so I both sympathize and empathize; in this way, I suffer a double-shot of battle fatigue in the mornings. Now I am advising Sophie, if at all possible, to register for afternoon classes for the next four years.

Ciao to all the paperwork that is generated around each, individual school child.  There are Health forms, Emergency Contact forms, Order forms, Athletic forms (O.K. so I could count on one hand the school sports forms I filled out, especially at the high school level) and Classroom Expectation forms/Syllabi that required a parent’s signature. Then there are the Permission Slips, covering all kinds of activities that required parent’s permission, from field trips to sex ed.  And finally, the steady stream of notes to excuse them for tardies, absences and daytime appointments, which I really tried to keep to a minimum (but they don’t put braces on–or take them off–on weekends.)  It always felt like a sinister joke on the school’s behalf that each form is slightly different, even when soliciting the same basic information.  I thought about making an 8.5 X 11 rubber stamp of all pertinent “form” information, but each year, each form, for each child, differs just enough to make this impossible.  Can you imagine the hours of human form-filling time and energy that would be saved through the use of a Universal School Child Information form?  This is another of my brilliant stream-lining ideas that’s occurring to me, like Sophie’s arrival at school most days, too late.

Arrivederci to speaking with school office personnel, though they are some of the unsung heroes of any school’s administrative staff.  What will I do next year with all the extra time I’ll have in the mornings that this year I spent talking to Marge in the senior office?  That woman has shown me more patience, understanding and compassion than members of my own family and she often even remembers to ask about Sophie’s brothers, bless her heart.  There’s a special place in heaven–or better yet, in a hammock on a Caribbean beach somewhere–for these kind souls.

Aloha to being in charge of moving youngsters from here to there.  I mean this in both the physical sense (the brick-and-mortar of childhood, including school, religious school, sports, medical appointments, tutoring, haircuts, music lessons and corresponding performances, etc., etc., etc.) AND the developmental sense.  Remember when the pediatrician wanted to know if your child could pick up a Cheerio off the tray of his or her high chair?  Well, expectations only took off from there.  Now they want to know if a child has picked up a second (or third or fourth) language.  They want to measure if they meet the physical fitness standards we used to think of in terms of sit-ups and the 50-yard dash and are now so comprehensive the program is monitored by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.  We worry about our children’s intellectual, academic, emotional, social, spiritual and moral development, their global awareness and their self-esteem.  We had to teach them to say “no” to drugs and to strangers but “yes” to life.  I sincerely hope my kids continue to develop themselves as decent human beings and productive members of society, but they’re on their own to get themselves from here to there, from this point forward.

Peace-Out to nagging.  Kids are under the grossly misinformed impression that we parents get some kick out of nagging, about topics ranging from not leaving wet towels on the wood furniture to breaking-down semester-long projects into weekly increments, so an assignment that is 90% of their grade does not get started the night before the term ends.  Doing their homework is certainly not our job, but neither is getting THEM to do THEIR homework.  And while we’re at it, I will shed no tears over a home-work free environment, at least for the foreseeable future.  As much as I have been challenged by all this homework, both mine and theirs, I’m not gonna miss it.

Bye-Bye to contacting other parents, for the purposes of making arrangements with them or checking out our kid’s reports.  Though I have met some of the most wonderful people in my life through my kids (some of my best friends are parents, and even parents of my kids’ friends!), I will not miss calls to set up play dates and carpools and, more recently, to check if the parents who are reportedly hosting the co-ed bonfire/hot tubbing/sleepover are going to be home…or even in town.

Farewell.  Now that one I mean literally.  When you guys “dip”, I pray you fare well.  Of course we parents will be here to adore and advise you and marvel at your accomplishments; I have no doubt they will be many and impressive.

And there are goals of my own I hope to achieve  with all the time that is about to be freed up now that I am no longer responsible for all of the above.  I’ve even thought about taking singing lessons.  Then I could sing to you,

Happy trails to you, until we meet again…







Like No (M)Other: In Two Parts

For Mother’s Day, Sophie gave me a 16-ounce Caribou Coffee mug; a squat, bowl-sized, half-white-half-turquoise ceramic mug, with the words,

like no 


stacked in bold letters on the front.  The words face the drinker, if she grasps the handle with her right hand.

The mug is something to have and to hold, but something fragile nonetheless.  I could drop it in the sink and break it like I’ve done with so many other cups and glasses and even a coffee pot, once.  I’m already scared I’ll break this mug.  Anything my children give me becomes–like my love for them–overly-precious.

And like the cup’s design, I live my life half in the darkness and half in the light; half in delight of being their mother, half in de-dark of fear and worry over them.

For Mother’s Day, Sophie didn’t give me what I really wanted–which is more time to have and to hold her–but she gave me what I have refused to give us both; a firm grasp of the fact that it’s time to move on.

Wake up and smell the coffee, (m)other.

The other thing she gave me is a royal blue t-shirt, with the KU Jayhawk cartoon-character and the words, “Kansas Mom” emblazoned across the chest.  What she said when I unwrapped it was,

“I ordered it online from the bookstore!”

What she didn’t say but what I heard even louder and clearer was,

What part of…I’M LEAVING. THIS PART OF OUR LIVES IS OVER…don’t you get??!

But I do get it.  I can count things now.  As soon as numbers are involved, there is a stark, inarguable reality brought into play and I can apply numbers to things now.

For instance, check #6370, made out to Culinary Express, written on May 4, in the amount of $60.00 was the last check for lunch money I will be writing this year or ever again.  I know they have electronic deposit for lunch money–and have for years–but something about hand-writing a check for their lunches has felt more intimate.  An even more intimate, hand-made gesture would have been to actually make their lunches all these years.  I opted for writing the checks.

When the boys were in the school system with Sophie, if they had money left in their lunch accounts at the end of the year, it could roll over into her account.  Here, at the end of the line, I’m calculating carefully.  There’s no younger sibling coming up the ranks to spend this money on the cafeteria food they’ve all complained about but that has sustained them for the roughly 2,160 days of their 12 years of grade school.

I can also count the number of school days left for the senior class.  Two.  Count them, 1-2.

It was my intention to write every school day of this year and for the first half of the year I dutifully honored that intention.  But soon it became clear that in addition to tending to Sophie’s life, I had to breathe “new” life into my old life, as well.

The crowning (to use a good old birthing term) accomplishment of this year, for me, was my graduation from Hamline’s MFA program, just this past weekend.  Like bookends, my graduation last weekend will be mirrored by Sophie’s graduation this coming weekend. Our new chapters are about to commence!

And so, my writing will continue.  My new life is unfolding as is Sophie’s.  There are so many topics I need to return to: Sophie’s and my spring break trip to Paris, my graduate thesis reading, the afternoon I recently spent with the editor of the NYTimes Modern Love column, Daniel Jones, to name a few.  Since academic and employment-oriented writing have taken over so much of my writing time lately, my attention to the emptying of my nest has taken place in my head and my heart; not on the page.

As a result of all this new creative activity, I’m finding myself genuinely excited for both of us and, as has become my habit, I’ll keep writing my way through these transitions.

My sadness and disbelief that this time has come is something I continue to try to get a handle on, but like my coffee cup, I am trying to focus on the half-full aspect of it all.  In my own understanding of “faith”, I am just asking the Universe to continue to fill my life with bright new things as it continues to siphon-off so many of the responsibilities and the abundance that have filled it so far.


In truth, the most painful part of the separation between Sophie and me has already occurred.  I can’t put my finger on exactly when or how it happened–no ripping-off-of-a-Bandaid moment of brief and stinging pain that I can point to–but there was the long and complete period of time I couldn’t let go of her and now suddenly, I have.  There’s no blood because this letting go is mostly internal.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t let go of her and now I can, but rather I couldn’t let go of her and now I am.  There’s a difference.  I couldn’t let go of her and I let go.  Both/and, as they say.

Sometimes it feels so much like she’s already gone that her appearance in the house startles me.

She had everything to do with this separation.  She pushed the door of her leaving open between us, sat on the floor with her back against the proverbial wall and used her sturdy, young legs like milky-white pillars to hold that door open with all her strength.

Sometimes her urge for independence took on the viscousness of an animal caught painfully in a trap; one whose very life depended on breaking free.  I may have to write about that viscousness at some point.  At the time, though, all the thrashing was as much as I could bear.

Sophie did give me something, however, that her brothers boys couldn’t give me, which was reassurance that I was a good mother.  The boys love for me was tempered by defiance.  Or maybe (and I hadn’t considered this until now), their defiance was mellowed by love, like coffee is by cream.  I love them with every ounce of my being and they still resist me in certain respects.

Sophie resists me, too, but she has always allowed me to mother her.  She asks me for things and accepts so much from me.  She asks my opinion, she asks my advice, she asks me to take care of her, to help her and to spend time with her, though lately it’s been me begging for more time.

After so many years of struggle with my beautiful sons, I finally had a daughter who wanted the brand of mothering I had to offer.  And after so many years of needing reassurance that I was able to play the role I always felt I was born to play, I finally had a willing partner in the dance of mother and child.

I read somewhere, recently, that “Love is total acceptance of what is.”  As Sophie’s senior year in high school–as her daily presence in my house and my life– comes to a close, I will work on acceptance of all that is; in all its darkness and all its light.

Because this is a love that is

like no








Bloom Where You’re Planted

French painter Henri Matisse once said, “I don’t paint things. I only paint the difference between things.” What does this mean? Sophie and I saw this quote painted on a canvas and displayed on an easel in the gift shop of the Minneapolis Institute of Art last week.

I took a picture of this canvas (a picture of a picture, essentially) and thought I’d use the quote as a writing prompt in one of the classes I’m teaching at The Loft this summer. I can’t wait to see how the different age groups I’m teaching—9-11 year olds, 12-14 year olds and adults—interpret this cryptic quote. Will there be a difference between the way kids versus adults make meaning of this statement? My favorite thing about being a teacher is the privilege of working (or playing, as it so often feels like) in a hothouse where learning is perpetually blooming.

Sophie and I were at the Art Institute last week for our annual pilgrimage to Art in Bloom, the spring event that features floral interpretations of paintings and sculpture scattered throughout the museum. This 31st year of the event coincided with the special exhibit, Matisse; Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

When I first started going to Art in Bloom, I pushed one or more of my kids between galleries in a stroller. The event traditionally opens on the last Wednesday evening in April and runs through the first weekend in May, but I always try to get there while the flowers are still perky. There’s nothing sadder than an arrangement of brown-tinged and wilting flowers sitting next to a beloved Van Gogh or Monet.

The paintings, themselves, are real things (oil or acrylic on canvas, for instance). But they are also interpretations of real things; people (and lots of naked or partially-clothed people; men, women, children and combinations thereof), landscapes, cityscapes, still lifes, plant life, the sea.

The same can be said about the floral arrangements sprouting around the museum during Art in Bloom; the flowers (and vases and ribbon and many other interpretive artifacts) are real, but they are also interpretations of the artworks. So Art in Bloom features layer upon layer of interpretation, similar to the layers of paint on an artist’s canvas.

It’s occurring to me as I write this, that the companionship of art and flowers during Art in Bloom is a metaphor for parents and children.  Both are works of art in and of themselves, but the flowers are serving to comment on–in playful interaction with–the works of art they are planted by and each bouquet stands on a pedestal of its own.

It’s also occurring to me that interpretation–like imitation–is the sincerest form of flattery.  Interpretation is a form of homage.

My ritual of taking my kids to this highly-interpretive event is a layering of experience on the canvas of our own history. Over the years, I’ve been able to bribe them into going with me using food and the guilty pleasure of skipping a few hours of school for a private field trip to the art museum. Nate’s favorite Vietnamese deli is blocks from the MIA, so he could be enticed with the promise of spring rolls and mock duck banh mi.

This year, I let Sophie choose where we had lunch. She did not choose the Vietnamese deli or the museum cafe, which have been part of this tradition. When we got to the museum, I tried to initiate our ritualistic behavior, accumulated over the years. I insisted we take our traditional picture together outside the museum’s glass-walled entrance. And when I say “insisted”, I mean it. I could feel Sophie’s resistance to my predictable patterns pushing up through the rich, black dirt I’ve been planting us in all these years. Sophie succumbed to my desire for a picture, but insisted on her own interpretation of the snapshot. When she and I started going to this event, almost 18 years ago, there was no such thing as a “selfie”, but now she took one of us, with the large outdoor floral arrangement behind us on the sidewalk.

Once inside with the usual crowds, I unexpectedly released all expectation. I let my need for ritual re-enactment drop like so many rose petals inside the halls of the museum. In a spur-of-the-moment Zen experiment, I decided to relinquish my need to control the flow of the experience, one I have come to cherish–and one that I will have no children at home to bribe into coming with me to, next year–and turn it over to Sophie.

“You get to say where we go. I’m following you.” I told her.  And then I realized this would be a wonderful way to see what she loves in this museum (a place she clearly feels so at home); of seeing what’s made an impression on her.

Stopping at a particularly exquisite floral arrangement, next to an Impressionist painting that’s part of the museum’s permanent collection, I tested not only Sophie’s interpretive skills but also her willingness to play with me,

“So,” I ventured, as I’ve been doing with my kids since they’ve been old enough to talk, “tell me about this one.”

And in the manner through which we’ve become accustomed to teaching and learning from each other, she pointed her long, alabaster, ring-filled fingers to indicate various blossoms,

“This white one is his face, and the red ones are the drapes behind him…”

Hot, silent tears of adoration and nostalgia pooled in the corners of my eyes, and a knot of pride and gratitude slid from my chest into my throat like the knot of a necktie. I stood behind Sophie as she studied the pairing of painting and planting, so she didn’t see my melodramatic reaction to this moment framed in time.  But she showed me what I needed to see, which is that she loves this museum, this art, this beauty, our time together, our rituals, our history and even playing along with–and humoring–me.

The quote, “Bloom where you’re planted.” (attributed to both the Bible and to Mary Engelbreit, of greeting card fame) could be interpreted to mean let go, open up and become the most fully-actualized version of yourself, no matter where in life you happen to be stuck. I have spent this last year in a protracted state of mourning over the impending plucking of my last flower from my carefully-tended garden inside this house.

Sophie will be temporarily replanted in Kansas and I will stay planted here. But do we ever really stay planted, as in unable to move, or is this just another choice we make; another interpretation of the state of our lives and our selves?

In my ongoing Zen experiment of letting go, I am practicing allowing my youngest seedling to ride the wind, hoping she will land in a place where she will flourish.  And in the spirit of growth and flowering, I am looking for the sunniest spot I can find to thrive, myself.

When Matisse says he paints the difference between things, one way of interpreting what he might mean is that he sees the relationship between things; he doesn’t see things in isolation, because nothing–no one–in this world exists alone.  And though we are interdependent, we are also independent.

The term “difference” inescapably implies separateness.  Further wordplay has me considering the fact that I feel the difference between me and my kids most acutely when we are apart  precisely because they are “a part” of me.

The word “difference”, then, is a term of comparison–of interplay–like art and life, or mother and daughter, then and now, here and there.

In juxtaposition, the beauty of each individual element, each subject in the composition, is most fully brought to light.