The Things She Missed

Today is January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, the last day of Christmas. It’s also the 26th anniversary of my mother’s death.

And it’s the day my little girl got a letter from none other than Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I have written before, so many times, about my mother’s death. Writing is a way to track my grief, to understand how it has changed me, and how grief itself changes over time.

Grief never dies, but it does change. And as I have grown older, it has taken on a different focus: motherhood has taught my that my mother’s loss was greater than mine.

I lost so much time with her. For years, my life felt like a collection of moments that I didn’t get to share with her. Those moments still come, but now when they come I also feel the pain of the other side of loss. Her side.

Because she lost so much more. She lost time with me and time with my brother. She lost time with the grandchildren she never got to meet. She didn’t get to be there to see me graduate high school, or college, or graduate school. Or to see me get married, or to welcome the births of my babies. She missed milestones and all the little moments in between.

When your parent dies at the age of 42, there is a pretty good chance you will, at some point, think about yourself also dying at a young age. Especially once you are in the same phase of life your parent was in at the time of their death.

I’m in that phase now, and this is what I know: I can’t imagine any loss greater than losing time with my children.

Over the last two weeks, people all over the world have come to know a slice of my beautiful girl’s character and her beautifully unique outlook on life.

But my mother, the person my daughter is named after, missed it all.

I’ve been here, and as far as I know I will still be here for decades to come, watching my girls grow, experiencing the milestones and the moments in between. That is my greatest joy.

Today, my greatest sadness is for my mom, who has missed so much.

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I’m With Her

 

im-with-grandma

If my grandmother were alive, today would have been her 97th birthday.

She’s been on my mind a lot the last few weeks, and not just because I always think of her in October. Whenever we draw close to election day, I remember her.

In 2004, when John Kerry was the D on the top of the ticket, I had election day Grandma duty. She was essentially wheelchair bound, and she had never been able to drive. So I had the job (and, I realize now, the privilege) of taking her to vote.

I remember pushing her awkwardly through the doors of the school where she voted. She had something to say about everyone and everything, because she always did, and she was making me laugh, like she always did.

As we waited, she reminded me repeatedly how she would be voting. I swear I can still hear her voice, with her Jersey City accent and her Baltimore hon –

“Make sure to put me down for the Ds! I always vote D. Those other guys – sheesh! To hell with them, hon.”

She was a low-rider in her wheelchair and disabled enough that she couldn’t stand at the voting machine. When we reached the booth, I had to actually cast her vote for her.

It’s a tremendous responsibility to place another person’s vote, and I knew it. In fact, I think I was more aware of it than she was. As I went through the ballot, I kept asking her, name by name, to tell me who she wanted me to select. She gave me a few specifics, but after a while she got cantankerous – “Does it have a D? Just vote for the D.” She yelled and waved a fist at me when we got to the school board section and I said she’d have to pick a name. (We left that one blank.)

After the final D was checked and her vote was cast, she and I headed back to her assisted living home. Her “I voted” sticker took pride of place on her chest – because she was proud. Really proud. I was with her partly because she refused to vote by absentee ballot. She wanted to be there, even if it meant she was directing someone else to push the buttons for her. And she wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon bragging about it to her friends.

My grandmother wasn’t well-educated. She didn’t approach elections as an intellectual. Her loyalty to the Democratic party wasn’t based in an extensive understanding of economic or social policy. Instead, it was based in her own experiences – of who came through for working class families like hers during the depression (FDR was her gold standard) and who, as far as she was concerned, continued to come through for the little guy over the decades. Grandma was solidly middle class for most of her life, but I don’t think she ever stopped seeing herself as a poor Italian girl with eight siblings from a run-down part of Jersey City.

When I took my her to vote all those years ago, Hillary was barely four years out of the White House – and grandma and I both wanted to see “those other guys” move out too. As luck had it, we lost, and they got a second term. Grandma didn’t live to vote for another president.

Hillary is back, fighting for the White House, and I wish more than almost anything that my grandmother could be here to vote for her. She’d have done it with pride, her “I’m With Her” sticker only slightly less important than her “I voted” sticker.

I also wish I could hear what she’d have to say about Hillary’s opponent – though I have a pretty good idea what it would be.

“This Trump character? Christ. What a shot in the ass.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Search of Los Pingüinos

penguins argentina 2

Photo by Craig Lovell/Corbis

My husband and I have a thing for penguins.  We freaking love them. We love everything about them, from their goofy walk, to their fluffy chicks, to the fact that their poop is pink.

So, when we moved to Argentina in 2002 as part of my grad school program, our biggest travel goal was to visit one of the nesting colonies of Magellanic penguins along its eastern and southern coasts.

baby penguins

I mean, come on. Look at these guys.

We researched all our travel options until we found one that seemed perfect – a three-week bus tour that would take us from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world.

The itinerary was incredible – we would see the Patagonian Desert, the lakes and mountains of Bariloche, Perito Moreno and the surrounding glaciers, and a forest of petrified wood. We would hop in and out of Chile along the way, and cross the Straits of Magellan before reaching Ushuaia. As we traveled back north, we’d stop in Puerto Madryn, to visit Punta Tumbo, one of the world’s largest Magellanic penguin rookeries. It was a dream come true.

But the best laid plans of mice and men do often go awry, and so it was with us and the penguins.

The first sign that our trip might not be the dream we’d hoped it would be came before it even started.

We were at the bus station, waiting at the terminal clearly indicated on our tickets, bags packed and ready to go. The bus never came. Worse, no one working at the bus station knew anything about it ever having been scheduled to come.

But we were 23 and hopeful, so we waited. We waited just long enough to catch the driver from our travel agency frantically searching for us. We had, apparently, gone to the wrong place. He rushed us into his car and drove wildly along a freeway until he pulled up behind a tour bus idling in the shoulder of the road. With traffic speeding past us, he hauled us and our luggage out of the car and onto the bus…

Where we were greeted by 28 pairs of angry, elderly eyes.

Our travel agent had failed to tell us in her rapturous descriptions of our trip that we would be making up the 15th couple of a tour booked by a grandparents’ club from the Buenos Aires provinces – and that the tour was embarking from their town, well outside of the city.

If you ever want to have the full “awkward American” experience, go to any foreign country and walk onto a bus full of elderly people who have been stopped on the side of a road waiting for you. It’s something you’ll never forget.

I would say that the second sign that fate was working against us was the first time our bus broke down, adding an extended visit to a gas station on the edges of the Patagonian Desert to our tour.

But that break down was nothing in comparison what happened some six hours later when the engine caught fire. It was the middle of the night, and we were evacuated to fields of scrub where my husband and I laid bets on who would be the first person to be eaten, Fargo-style.

The third sign we were doomed was when, after being rescued by a replacement bus, we learned that it was haunted. My husband and I called our ghost the Phantom Pooper because it enjoyed regularly clogging the bus toilet – which is something of an inconvenience when you’re traveling for 20-hour stretches in an almost unpopulated desert.

But we were young, and we laughed it all off.

Until the day we learned about the fish restaurant that had been featured on Channel 13.

It came up in a halting conversation with one of the grandmothers. There was this famous fish restaurant in Rawson, just south of Puerto Madryn, she told us, and we would be skipping our stop in Puerto Madryn so we could have lunch there.

Assuming we’d encountered a language barrier, we consulted our tour guide Oswaldo. The penguin trip had been advertised on the brochure – there was no way it could have been canceled and replaced by lunch at a seafood restaurant.

But it had been. The president of the grandparent’s club had seen a news story about this restaurant and as a group they decided that eating there would be more enjoyable than a visit to a major national attraction where you could see penguins and baby seals and maybe even whales.

punta tumbo

This, or lunch at a seafood restaurant. You pick.

My husband and I were crushed. Oswaldo tried to explain it away – there would hardly be any penguins there that time of year, anyway, he said, and this restaurant really was supposed to be very good. Besides, we could take a trip to see another rookery in Ushuaia.

So we bided our time, enjoying and appreciating the stunning, diverse beauty of southern Argentina.

laolao

It is pretty incredible. You should go there. But not with a tour guide named Oswaldo.

glaciar-perito-moreno-barco

Note: These are not my pictures. I can’t find ours. Just like we couldn’t find the penguins.

But when we finally reached Ushuaia, it was all about the penguins.

We arranged the excursion ourselves – a guided boat tour that would sail us around an island inhabited only by penguins.

When we arrived at the dock, we were told that the boat needed repairs. Twenty minutes, they said, and we would be on our way. We waited. And we waited. At four o’clock, the worst was confirmed – the boat was kaput; there would be no tour.

argentina_ushuaia_harbour_penguins_17

Gentoo Penguins of Ushuaia. The ones we didn’t see.

But, Oswaldo assured us after we returned to our hotel, all was not lost. There was one more stop along the way where we could take an excursion to the natural reserve at Cabo Dos Bahias, where we could see all the penguins a person could ever hope to see. He would take care of everything, this time, so there was nothing to worry about.

I think you can see where this is going.

When we reached the town where our last penguin hopes resided, we nagged the hell out of poor Oswaldo. We wanted to see some damn penguins, but it was more than that. It was us against Argentina and we were determined to prevail.

He purchased our tickets for us and said he would order us a cab from a company we could trust.  He promised to meet us in the lobby the next morning, to personally see us off. Everything would be taken care of. There was no way this trip would fall through.

It did. Oswaldo forgot to call the taxi company. He had also forgotten to wake up – until it was just late enough for us to miss the only tour on the only day we would be in a town close enough to visit the Cabo dos Bahia reserve.

It was over. It had been us against Argentina, and Argentina won.

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Cabo Dos Bahias. I should be in this picture.

Later, toward the end of our trip, we visited a small museum of natural history. In this museum, there was an exhibit of penguins. Dead, taxidermied penguins. And as we observed it, one of the grandmothers grasped my arm and exclaimed,

“Look! You finally get to see your penguins after all!”

 

 

 

 

Five Things this 37-Year-Old Mom Is Accepting About Herself

 

My car will always be a disaster

It’s embarrassing but true – my car is a trash can. Or maybe a recycling bin. It’s full of paper – school work dumped out of backpacks, crafts left abandoned under the seats, paper towels from every hurried meal I’ve eaten in the car.

Within my mobile paper mill, you can find hidden every imaginable item associated with little girls. Broken Barbies. Melted crayons. Socks. Stickers, stamps, books, goggles, half-full snack bags, escaped fruit snacks, pipe cleaners, hairbrushes, crowns, doll shoes, roller skates. The last time I emptied the dump that is my car I found a plastic baggie with a pair of underpants in it.

It’s not that I don’t clean my car. I do. Whenever I accidentally take a sip of the days-old tea left in the travel mug I forgot to bring inside, I attack that car like Don Quixote wielding a vacuum hose.

When I’m done, the car looks beautiful and I decide that this time it will stay this way. I will be a clean car person.  I will install bags for trash and bags for toys and crafts and everything else the kids bring into the car. I won’t eat in it anymore. I’ll check it every night to make sure there are no science projects festering in cups and mugs.

I never do. I never will. I am a messy car person. And at least I always know were my travel mugs are.

messycar

This is not actually my car. I swear.

 

I will always be the person who buys her clothes at Target and only enters Nordstrom’s to use the fancy bathroom

As every change of season approaches I decide that this time I will replace all my cheap, stained and tattered clothes with quality items I actually try on before buying. I will have a wardrobe and it will be full of coordinating, timeless pieces. I will select signature colors that enhance my youth and beauty and I will tailor my well-cut jeans so the hems don’t drag on the ground.

I will, in short, outfit myself like the accomplished, confident woman that I am.

And then I go to Target, where the siren call of the clearance racks draws me inexorably into their depths. Twenty minutes later, I will emerge with a cart full of cheap tee shirts and jeans that are three inches too long but were $7.88.

It’s better this way, really. I can’t do anything with food without getting something on myself. Those cheap tee shirts and jeans spend most of their time heaped in a laundry basket, stuck in the no man’s land between the dryer and our dresser drawers. Yoga pants and jeans that don’t keep their shape feel like old friends, and no tailored top could ever replace my Hogwarts tees.

My pooch is my pooch is my pouch

My first daughter gave me a pooch – that little flap of stretched out skin hiding just under the belly button. It shows itself most prominently when my jeans start to slip down or when I’m wearing a seatbelt — just hanging out there like it was invited. A guest that became a permanent resident.

In the time since I had kids, there have been stretches when I was in really good shape – when I thought I might have some chance of reclaiming my flat(ish) stomach. I ran a half marathon. I took classes at the gym with the words turbo and insanity in them. I was fit. And I still had my belly pooch.

This little gut of mine isn’t going anywhere. And I don’t really want it to. My younger daughter revels in its stretchy softness — she says it’s her favorite pillow and rubs it when she’s tired. It’s like a trophy, proof that my body has made people.

Plus, there’s always Spanx.

I will always be the mom who is there, but just barely

I am capable of functioning successfully in the mom world — I manage to get at least one (non-powdered cheese coated) starch, one protein, one fruit/vegetable, and a measure of dairy into my kids’ picky little bellies almost every day. I don’t allow them to watch Sponge Bob every minute of their free time. I am occasionally successful at negotiating moments of temporary peace in their endless hours of bickering.

I get my kids to school on time, I make it to all their events, and I never miss a deadline to register them for the activities they love.  Hell, I’m a vice president of our PTA.

But I’m never the mom who has band-aids in her purse when they fall down, or wipes when they get ice-cream all over themselves at the playground. Any tissues I have are leftover Chick-Fil-A napkins.

I always leave at least one towel behind at the pool and I never remember to bring snacks. I have been known to blow past exists when driving my kids places because I was daydreaming or listening to the news. I almost walked out of a building the other day without one of my kids, and I only have two.

I’m absentminded, and I always will be. My flakiness has been something I’ve lamented about myself for as long as I can remember — and no matter how hard I’ve tried, I’ve never been able to change it.

But I have noticed that my absentmindedness is where my creativity lives. It’s what gives my mind space for the ideas and reflections that bring meaning to my life.  It’s me.

Acceptance is not the same as defeat

I used to see acceptance as another word for defeat. Admitting that there were things about myself I couldn’t change felt like giving up, like admitting I was a failure.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized not every flaw we see in ourselves is actually a flaw — that many of the standards or ideals we hold ourselves up to aren’t important, or even valid.

I understand now that letting go of empty standards for what we should be, and accepting what we are, doesn’t mean we stop striving to be a better person. It means we are no longer wasting our energy in a futile attempt to be something we aren’t. It means we are free to be the best version of who we are.

 

The World Is Too Much

angel of greif

I began writing this post with this sentence: “whenever our society experiences an incident of extreme violence or injustice or an epic failure of leadership, I find myself feeling overwhelmed; my thoughts scramble and collide; eventually they collapse.”

I deleted it, then I rewrote it, and then I decided to reframe it. What I wrote about myself is true, but the context is  inaccurate– it implies that the violence and injustice and incompetence I’m describing are aberrations, that they come in short-lived bursts, bookended by a beginning and an end.

What we are experiencing now – the near-constant gun massacres, the violent mob mentality rooted in hate and fueled by rhetoric, the rapes that go unpunished, the racism that goes unchecked, the total failure of our leaders to lead, the feeling of impending crisis – these are not “incidents.” They are our norm.

And the fact that this turmoil is a defining characteristic of the age in which we live only serves to intensify the chaos of my thoughts and feelings. My anger and frustration and grief and despair and fear struggle for pride of place until my mind becomes exhausted and defeated; stymied by its own excess of activity.

So as much as I wish I could come up with something balanced and meaningful, or at least coherent, to say about Orlando, or gun access reform, or racism, or Republicans, or the fact that Donald Trump’s face keeps popping up in my nightmares, I can’t.

I just can’t. The world is too much.

All I can do is grasp onto the tiny moments, and listen to the whispers of what is good in our lives.

Like a conversation with my five-year-old, in which she told me that she was BORN to make people laugh, and the pride I feel in knowing that she believes her mission in life is to bring others joy.

Or the “I love you more” argument I have every night with my 8-year-old, and the powerful gratitude —  the sense of awe — I feel that despite my mistakes and imperfections as a parent my daughter loves me as fiercely as I love her.

These moments aren’t much. They come in short-lived bursts, bookended by a beginning and an end. But they are everything. They have to be.

 

Babies Don’t Keep

Last week, I had a little breakdown. And by “little breakdown” I mean I was sobbing, heavingly and uncontrollably, in my car in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s. I cried so hard that my contact lens became unstuck from my iris and got lost in the back of my eyeball and I had to dig it out – bawling – then put it back in because I’m half blind and I still had to drive home.

It was one of those crying fits that took complete possession of me. I couldn’t stop the tears, and I could barely hold in the sobs as I drove home.  The only thing that tempered my shuddering wails was my paranoia that I’d be pulled over for driving erratically. And if that had happened, I would have had to explain to an officer of the law that it all started because of a tiny pair of pink underpants.

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Probably the most frequent advice parents of young kids get from parents of older kids is that we should “cherish these moments” with them, when they are small and sweet and need us so much.

I know where those words come from. I can’t look at a mother with a newborn squished up against her chest without yearning to have that experience with my own babies again – even though the newborn days with both my girls were unrelentingly difficult. I already miss the days that have gone by and I know the time will come when I miss the days that seem so difficult now.

Michele Kindercrten

norah cake

I am so overwhelmingly aware of the passage of time that I – a grown woman – had a full-blown crying meltdown in a parking lot because I had just cleaned out my daughter’s preschool cubby for the last time and found a pair of underpants she will never wear again. My baby is starting kindergarten in the fall, and the girl who was in kindergarten just a second ago is moving up to third grade. Everything is going by so fast, and it just keeps getting faster.

easter

halloween

 

I know children grow up and babies don’t keep. I know what I am going to miss.

What I don’t know, and what I need to hear, is that there is something to be treasured in the future.

So if you read this, and you have a child that has grown up, tell me what I have to look forward to. Remind me that each new stage is a beautiful journey, that with the accumulation of time together I will have more, not less, of them when they get older.  

Let us parents of children who are growing up way too quickly know that there will be moments of joy and pride and closeness and beauty that we will want to bottle up and save as much as we wish we could have bottled up the moments that have already passed.

 

 

 

Birthday Joy

Last week I wrote about my youngest turning five. Her birthday has come and gone and I have to say this: I wish I could rekindle within myself the wholehearted joy of a small child on her birthday. There’s really nothing like it.

Except, maybe, for the joy you get as a parent watching your child experience that complete, perfect happiness. It is a vicarious joy, but even so it’s not diluted.

As parents, our minds are usually distracted, by deadlines and finances and leaky roofs; often we lack the ability to experience happiness without our worries niggling behind it. But I’ve noticed there is a sense of deep fulfillment, along with a feeling of powerful gratitude, when we know that we are able to give our children these moments of pure, unmarred joy.

So maybe I wouldn’t trade being 37 for being 5 after all.

In any case, our now-five-year-old had a wonderful birthday. She was excessively adorable —

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But my favorite picture of the day is one of her with her sister —

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an image that sums up the feelings of the sister having the birthday and the sister NOT having the birthday quite as well as this one does.

Guess we can’t give all our kids pure joy all the time.