Friday, November 19, 2010

Crossing over

My oldest crossing over from elementary to middle school
For the second time that day, I stood in my driveway watching one of my boys cross Main Street. My middle son was waiting at the crosswalk for someone – anyone – to stop so he could walk his bike across. It was late afternoon and he was going to ride the half mile to the elementary school where he would meet a friend and his mom, and they would all ride back together. I watched as cars sped past him and one of them whipped around the corner onto our street. I felt like shouting at the guy to slow down, but I just looked at him. Okay, maybe I gave him the angry eyebrows. The speed limit on our street is 25 m.p.h., but it’s the rare driver who actually sticks to the limit, though the cones we put out while waiting for the morning school bus do give some people pause.

The first time was at the earlier end of that day. My oldest had come bombing back into the house, slightly breathless, “Mom, I think I missed the bus!”

I was standing at the kitchen counter making his brothers’ lunches. One brother was in the bathtub; the other was sitting at the kitchen table, undressed, agonizing loudly over his homework. I turned and squinted at the clock in the dining room. It was 7:48 a.m.

“You’re still here?” I have been instructed not to “stalk” my son at the bus stop, which is right at the end of our very short driveway, thus my surprise. “You must have.”


“Well, you better start walking.”

“I don’t want to be late.”

“You won’t be. You have 12 minutes.” Technically middle school doesn’t start until 8:08 a.m. according to the handbook, but apparently those eight minutes between their 8:00 a.m. release from wherever it is they assemble after getting off the bus and homeroom are important.

He turned abruptly and walked back out. “Okay, bye,” he tossed over his shoulder without looking back. He must have realized that even if I were willing to rally both of his elementary-school aged brothers into the car, he would get there sooner if he walked.

I followed him out and stood on the steps as he crossed the street briskly.

“You could always flag down another bus – they’re all going to the same place…” but I knew he wouldn’t. I doubted he would consider that “cool” or even “normal.”

He raised his hand to wave (dismissing the suggestion, confirming the ‘goodbye,’ or both?), as he race-walked quickly down the block to Main Street.

“Bye, honey.” I stood in the driveway and watched as he crossed over safely and disappeared from my sight (still not looking back), consoling myself that of course I’d receive a phone call if he didn’t show up in homeroom. This was the first time he’d ever walked to school by himself.

That afternoon, as my middle son finally negotiated Main Street in one piece, he turned back to give me the thumbs up. I waved at him. How did he know I’d be watching? I wondered. And how long would it be before he – like his brother – didn’t look back?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

To everything there is a season

I was sad when football ended. The first week after our last game, I felt empty. We had three extra hours on Tuesday and Thursday to…not get ready for football, not play football, and not talk about football on the way home from football. I don’t remember what we did.

Basketball is underway, we’re already talking about baseball, and my oldest will be trying winter lacrosse this year. So there are other sports, and other seasons to look forward to. My older two currently want to be MLB players when they grow up so we actually don’t put away the baseball gear at all. It sits on our porch year round (and this winter, I’ll have to make sure the gloves don’t spend the season in the back yard buried in snow).

But there’s something about football. It’s not just something special for the kids, but also special for the parents and fans. The boys have a brotherhood like I have yet not seen in other sports. My kids have learned a new language, which I don’t understand: “wishbone 33-blast,” “jumbo wing right 38 power sweep,” and the like pepper the conversations I hear in the back of the car on the way to and from practice.

Both of my older boys became much more disciplined (doing all they could to be on time for practice, making sure their uniforms made it to the laundry, studying the playbook) and “manly” (able to endure a two hour practice with full pads in 90-degree heat, needing to use antiperspirant).

I remembered the day when we picked up our gear and the boys had no idea how to attach their chin straps, and I had no clue where to put all their pads – in the pants or the girdle. What’s a girdle? I wondered to myself, but found out soon enough at the sporting goods store. I asked a lot of questions. Veteran football parents told me how to wash the equipment (or not), and what kind of extra accessories we might need (spare mouthguards, personal chinstraps, OxyClean and Febreze). By the end of the season, we could get those pads stuffed in under ten minutes. No one wanted my help with their chest pads, shirt, or anything at all (in public anyway). No one wanted me to even get out of the car at practice anymore, as long as I was waiting at the shed at 7:30. Sometimes I stayed at the whole practice and watched from a distnce; and sometimes my youngest and I would go have special time together, shopping or eating dinner by ourselves.

There were times when kids got hurt. Time stood still as everyone took a knee. The field and the fans became quiet except for the continuous buzz of the sibling club who shared their snacks, stuffed animals, and Silly Bandz as they did at every game. We knew that the bond the kids had with each other enabled them to feel the same pain that their teammate did, just as the bond we parents shared had us standing in the shoes of the mom and dad as they flanked the paramedics caring for their sons.

Ultimately the boys would be fine: I imagined when the news reached us, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Boys who were injured still came to the games even when they couldn’t play; still very much a part of the team.

We had final get togethers at the coaches’ houses. The kids all ran around playing football. The parents stood around a bonfire (slightly reminiscent of football afterparties when I was in high school) and talked about the season. When it was time to go, we bid each other farewell with “see you tomorrow at the basketball jamboree,” or “see you at baseball.”
To everything there is a season. ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1 KJV

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

School daze

Going back to school can be humbling. Never mind lunch in the middle school cafeteria with my oldest and six of his friends or playing “pin the spider on the web” with 40 or so sometimes-reluctant-to-be-blindfolded-and-spun-in-circles kindergartners at their Halloween party – last week I went in for 4th grade recess duty.

Normally this means I’d hang out with them and remind them of playground rules (which no doubt they know better than me to begin with), but since it was raining, the kids had indoor recess in their classrooms. The teachers took their breaks while aides watched the classes, and they didn’t really need me in the room, though my son’s teacher told me I was welcome to stay in the class if I thought my son would like it.

“No, that’s okay, I am sure he’s just happy that I’m nearby. Do you need me to do anything else…?”

And that is how I became acquainted with the school copier. After conferring with the teacher across the hall, it was decided that they needed 4 x 30 booklets of six pages, collated and stapled and could we double side some of the pages, but not these two pages…

I must have looked blank because my son’s teacher said, “Never mind, that’s too complicated. You can do the whole thing single sided.”

So, I went into the copy room to make the originals from the teacher workbook, but then spaced on whether the booklets were supposed to be four pages or six pages…

I stepped out of the copy room, and fortunately ran into the across the hall teacher. Not only did she set me straight, “You are right, it’s six,” but also she helped me figure out how to program the machine to go from six to four pages by double siding two of them.

I said, “Oh, great! So, I can just press that green button again to repeat the sequence for the other three batches, right?”

“Yes,” she assured me, and left to escort her class to lunch.

I admired how the machine chugged along, and how fast it was. And how the papers came out the other side stapled into tiny stacks, until…

…the copier jammed.
Oh, no! I thought about the potential waste of paper, the big mess, having to start all over, other people potentially waiting to use the copier, and realized how hot it was in that room.

Okay, don’t panic. The LED screen on the machine was coaching me on what to do.

I followed the instructions, opening door A, and panel B, and pulling out this tray, and unlocking that. I ended up on my knees in front of the machine. Please God, let this work…

…eventually I pulled out two or three jammed pieces of paper. I realized that the paper tray was nearly empty and refilled it. And presto, everything began working again. I babysat the rest of the batch to make sure the pages weren’t off. They weren’t. That machine is smart!

But then it beeped at me again. It was out of staples. God help me, I thought. Where in the world are the staples, and even if I could find them, where do they go?

I sighed and took off my hoodie. It sure was hot in there. Then I poked around the copy room for a bit and noticed that there were several staplers on the table behind me – of course! I can staple the old fashioned way. I pressed buttons to continue this batch without staples.

For the final two batches, I had to figure out how to reprogram the whole job because the machine wouldn’t accept the pre-programmed “collated/stapled” request with no staples.

I glanced at the clock. I had a 1:30 conference call to discuss (confidential work things that I can’t write about here), and there I was trying to outwit a copier.

It took me a very long time, but I emerged from the room triumphant, with my four stacks of booklets, my hoodie slung over my shoulder…and a note to let the teacher know the machine needed staples. I walked quickly back to my home office and made it just in time for my meeting, grateful that for the previous 45 minutes -- despite being humbled by the detour from my comfort zone (my copier at home is one with my fax machine and scanner) -- all I had to worry about was making copies.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fruit smiles

“Oh! Look what I found!” I said, forcing my enthusiasm just a little. I pulled a package of Fruit Smiles out of my pocket. We were on our way out of the school gym where my oldest was having basketball practice.

Truthfully, I hadn’t just found them – I realized they were in there this morning when I put the coat on for the first time in God-knows-how-long (I remember wearing it to a Red Sox game in 2009 but not since).

My youngest son perked up a little.

I examined the package to make sure they weren’t expired or anything. “Would you like them, honey?”

“Okay, Mommy,” he said as he took his thumb out of his mouth.

We were standing outside the car in the drizzle.

I opened the package and squeezed one of them. Yup, still soft. “Here you go.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“You’re welcome, lovey.”

I continued, “You’re not feeling so great about yourself, are you.”

“No,” he answered in a small voice.

I opened the car door and helped him climb in.

He had gotten into some trouble at extended day today, and we’d had to stay a little later than planned when the director needed to speak to me about it. My older two both had basketball practice at 6:00 p.m., and they were in two separate gyms in adjacent towns. Our schedule was tightly orchestrated where one boy would be early, and one would be pushing the threshold and we really didn’t have time for any variance. The discussion with the director threw things off, and my older two had been terse with him. I counted on their support to enforce that what he did to get in trouble was wrong, but defended him when they tried to blame their tardiness on him.

To my middle son I’d said, “You’re not late. You won’t be late. You’ll be ten minutes early. Stop obsessing! Slow down!”

To my oldest, “I’m sorry. It was important for me to have that discussion. I already told your coach and so-and-so’s dad that we might be late. Yes, I have to go in with your brother, I haven’t met his coach yet! It’s a minute past the last time you asked me what time it was. No, I can’t drive any faster – it’s raining!”

I started the car. “Can I hold your fruit snacks while you buckle up?”

“No,” he sighed. “I can do it.”

I told him, “Honey, we all make mistakes. I wasn’t feeling too great about the way I handled a couple of things at work today…”

“Really, mom? Did you get in trouble?”

“Well, no…hang on a second, I have to make this left turn…I was just worrying about some situations where I thought I could have been more considerate…one was because I was in a hurry to finish something…”

And I had been beating myself up over it, probably a lot like my son was doing.

“Honey, God still loves us, even when we mess up. I still love you – no matter what. Just try not to do that again, okay?”

“Okay, mom.”

We drove along in companionable silence for a while, on the way back to my middle son’s practice, since he’d be done in about 20 minutes. Then we’d all retrace our route to pick up my oldest, since his practice was a half an hour longer than his brother’s – fortunately, otherwise I’d be juggling on the back end, too. I thought about my job, and how if I hadn’t been worrying so much about things, I likely would have left earlier to pick the kids up to begin with, and if I had done that, I could have had the discussion with the director earlier, my kids would have had their clothes to change into earlier, we wouldn’t have been rushing around, it’s all my fault, loser parent, blah blah blah…

My son -- thankfully -- interrupted my thoughts. “Hey, Mom, do you want the last yellow one?”

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Alone in the pew

“Can we sit up in the balcony, Mom?” I had been sitting in our church pew for a good five minutes after choir practice, waiting for the kids to come up from Sunday School.

I must have looked a little hesitant, because he continued, “we’re old enough!”

“I know you are…” And what was it our pastor had just been saying about friendship and fellowship? My kids just wanted to sit with their friends.

“C’mon, mom!”

“Okay, honey. But if there’s any trouble up there, you’ll be back down here next time.”

When we first started attending this church, my sons were five, four, and three months. We sat in the balcony the first few times, maybe the first month or two. On our debut at the church, my older two were dressed up like Incredible Hulk and SpiderMan (it was two months before Halloween) with noisy little cowboy boots that made the stairs creak as they clomped up and down them. “I’m thirsty,” “I have to go to the bathroom,” “Can I get crayons?” The day that my middle son was sick to his stomach and hurled all over the balcony (the one positive aspect is that that section is uncarpeted) was the day that I decided, that was it. We could not sit up there anymore. It was too noisy, too distracting, for them and all the others who frequently turned around to look at us.

“Oh, kids, Mommy didn’t realize, but you have to be eight years old to sit up in the balcony…we’re gonna need to find different seats downstairs.” I asked the pastor to back me up on this.

I figured the best place to sit would be right up front, and we’ve sat in the second row in front of the lectern for the last five years. That way if anyone was looking at us, I surely wouldn’t know about it.

More than two years ago when my oldest turned eight, he announced, “I’m old enough now, so I’m going to sit in the balcony.”

“Okay, honey,” I’d said.

He did it once, and realized it wasn’t so fun to sit alone up there. There was no way I’d let my middle son up there with him, since he was only six at the time, and not only would that be “not fair,” but also, I didn’t think he was mature enough then. So, for two more years, we all sat together, except when my youngest went off to sit with his “big friends.”

“Why does he always sit with them,” my middle son had asked one time.

“Because they’re nice to him.” It’s the phenomenon where older kids are able to be nice to other kids’ younger siblings, but not their own (if they even have any).

Today there was no trouble at all. My younger two came forward for the children’s sermon, and after that my youngest went back with his big friends and my middle son sat with me until it was time for communion, and then he sat in front of me with the kids who had come back from bell choir practice (and did his very best to remain reverent, despite all the other squirming, poking, and bread ball rolling in the pew, one of the deaconesses kindly assured me). My oldest remained in the balcony for the entire service.

It felt weird not to have to wrestle with someone, hush anyone, or insist someone get up off the floor and out from under that pew right now. (“No, I don’t care if the ministry dog is on the floor. You are not a dog.”) I thought about whether I should insist that we all sit together as a family, but realized that the whole congregation is, indeed, our church family.

I want my kids to have friends at church, and I want them to enjoy being at church. So, as long as there’s “no trouble up there,” I’ll let them sit wherever they want.

Children of the corn

“And Heavenly Father, thank you that we got out of the corn maze…”

Amen, I said only to myself, because my middle son wasn’t done with the dinner prayer.

“Yeah, and that we got our coins!” my youngest chimed in.

“It’s not your turn!” my oldest scolded.

“Boys!” I gave them both the eye.

We’d spent a rough couple of hours in a corn maze today.

My oldest was in a hurry and the rest of us had to keep admonishing him to slow down. He and his Cub Scout den mates had only just that morning gotten “lost” in the woods because they’d gone too far ahead of the den leader and parents. I wondered, what’s the rush? – There were plenty of fun things to do inside the corn maze, like basketball, mini golf, giant puzzles, and quizzes. And besides, the quicker we got out, the higher the cost per minute. I’d had to whip out the plastic to pony up the entrance fee, and no, we were absolutely not buying any souvenirs.

Their arguments over whose turn it was to lead the way and who was being pokey where interspersed with, “You’re kidding me!” when we reached another dead end or “We’re never gonna get out of here” or “My legs are so tired they won’t move anymore!” or “All I wanna do is get that gold coin…”

Anytime someone leaves the maze, they can bang a gong at the exit. The sound of that gong did not go unnoticed by my kids, who initially were inspired (“They did it, so can we!”), then antagonized (“How come those people figured it out and we can’t?"), and then suspicious (“They must’ve cheated!”).

God help me, I’d said to myself numerous times. There were even a few times when I imagined myself charging through corn stalks like a madwoman, farfaraway from my kids. However, the fine for damaging the maze was stiff, as I repeatedly reminded my youngest, who was trudging along with his hand out tugging on stalks as we passed.

Frequently the kids just plowed ahead. They were looking for “the scorpion bridge,” one of many bridges in the maze that you could either go under or over, punching a circle or making an imprint on the field guide each time. My middle son was convinced it led to the way out.

I cringed as we bypassed paths with no consideration. “Boys, this is an option…” but once we passed it by, we may never figure out how to get back to it. I am sure we walked in circles countless times because we ended up at the same familiar landmarks repeatedly, as noted in our guide. We were fairly certain that route waschanged dynamically by moving sawhorses from time to time to mix things up. One of my older two was fairly certain that the guides were watching us and moving the sawhorses just to throw us off.

“No, honey, I am sure it’s nothing personal,” I assured him.

When the complaining got to be too much, and my oldest had asked me what time it was for the umpteenth time (we had to make it back to town for his basketball jamboree), I asked them, “Should we give up and ask the guides how to get out?”

My youngest was on board, “Yes! I just want the gold coin…”

“But honey, everyone gets the gold coin eventually. Is it going to mean as much if we don’t solve the maze by ourselves?”

My older two could see my point, but my youngest confirmed, he just wanted the coin. I refused to carry him because I was already schlepping almost everything in my backpack, except for one of my older boys’ sweatshirts which I insisted he tie around his waist.

We carried on. I bristled every time I heard the “You’re kidding me!,” “We’re never gonna get out of here,” and “My legs…” chorus.

Finally I’d had it and just in time spotted a potential way out, “Look! Emergency exit! Is this an emergency?”

My youngest looked at me imploringly.

My middle son didn’t want to give up. “Let’s just ask for a clue to the scorpion bridge…”

Relieved, I agreed, “Good plan!” And my youngest appeared shored up with new hope.

We got our clue and it included going through a “do not enter” path. Would we be okay with that, the guide wanted to know. “If you say it’s okay, then it’s okay, right boys?”

They agreed that we could ‘break the rule’ if we had permission.

So, in a matter of moments, we were leaving the maze, banging the gong, and collecting our gold coins. We went our separate ways in the courtyard. My youngest went into the bouncy house, my older two went into the gift shop to look, because I reminded them that I was absolutely not buying any souvenirs, and I walked at my own pace and alone through a stone labyrinth.

On the way home in the car, we debriefed.

“That was hard and sometimes frustrating, wasn’t it, boys?”

“Yeah…” my middle son answered. My oldest already had his nose in his book.

“Well, kind of like life, you don’t always know what’s coming around the next corner.”

“Yeah, I guess…”

“Well, I’m just happy I got my gold coin!” my youngest piped up.

“Honey, what do you think is more important, the gold coin, or the accomplishment?” I thought about how on his soccer team everyone got a medal for participation. I suppose at age 4 that’s a good thing, but the world doesn’t work that way forever.

“The accomplishment,” my oldest said. Apparently he was listening.

“What if there was no gold coin, would you still feel good about the accomplishment?”

“Yeah,” my middle son said. “I’d have a gold coin inside.”

“It’s okay to ask for help when you’re stuck, you know.”

“Okay, mom.”

They were mostly quiet for the ride home, no doubt worn out from the combination of yard work I’d enforced prior to our excursion (my oldest had done his the afternoon before) and traipsing in circles through three miles of corn stalks for two hours.

In the silence, I was alone with my thoughts. How many times in life does it seem that we are walking in circles? How many times do we look back and wish we had taken another path, one that may no longer be available to us? How many times do we actually ask for help?

But no one will see it

I set up the nativity in the back yard again this year. In the past it has been out front near the fire hydrant that is on our property, and...