August 2012

I’m up very early again. All morning, I write to various people on e-mail, get up to sort out a trip to the grocery store, find myself eating breakfast in the dining room with a kitchen counter full of dirty dishes, glasses mostly, a small plate or bowl or two, as the kids have mostly been away this week and I’ve been gone a lot, too.

As I collect the dishes in the sink, dump out the cold soapy water I had run last time I thought I’d take on this task, run hot water to make suds, I find myself face-to-face with my son’s plant and with two more like it, succulents we collected from a friend, one blooming ridiculously long flowering stems which tangle in the faucet and reach up to the sky through the leaves of an aging bamboo to the screen keeping us all in. My boys’ collection of plants like these are on his desk in college. I write an e-mail note to the giver of these gifts to let him know, do the rounds of the house to find any dishes that haven’t been returned, remind myself at the sink before I do that my boy’s room is empty, no plants, no glasses, no chips, no him.  On my way to check his younger brother’s room I am startled to find myself instead at his door, opening it automatically, not wanting to go in. I move on to check his brother’s room, and unlike on most days, there isn’t a mug beside his bed, either, or a bowl of microwaved food drying and congealed. There is only his bed, left empty when he went to his dad’s last night after babysitting and orthodontia on this side of town and a brief stop here in between.

My gal’s lunch box and water bottle are here for me to empty and wash, now she’s gone, too, but first I’ll write briefly, if I can, about the moment that called me here. I was washing the dishes, in front of the plants, taking pictures even, to send one to our friend as evidence of the spreading of his good will, of the mystery of how we each affect the other and the world, while listening to Bob Dylan, chosen for me by the Genius of itunes, who even him or herself, took time to figure out the selection of the day this morning, hesitating more than usual, I thought, for a computer, a machine. For a minute I had thought my own hesitation and ambivalence might have been catching, but then I remembered, that isn’t possible, for a machine to sense and share my emotions, though as I listen to Bob, I wonder if that’s true.

In the moment of washing dishes at my sink, amongst all the other thoughts and images and sensations, I was back at graduation and the moment where I could not speak for the tears that choked my throat, halted to catch my breath in my remembering aloud of a day this winter or spring when one of my graduating girls had washed her last dishes, had carefully prepared a table full of glasses of water, filled one by one at the sink and carried on a metal tray, one by one, girl stepping away from the sink, off of a stool to the floor, walking across the room to the table, where she placed each glass of water one by one, until the table was set for what appeared to be a party. After that day, my girl stopped washing dishes with me in the afternoon and began to play. The party was set and she was ready to attend, surrounded by the ones she loved and was getting to know. Off to kindergarten she goes, after a detour to LA with her mom and a bunch of young moms and their kids in a reunion of some sort, and here I stand at the sink full of suds, wondering what sort of party awaits.

Today as I’m washing the breakfast dishes, two girls are in the kitchen drawing and working puzzles. They are about to graduate to kindergarten, have been together a long time. One says to the other, “Where is your mom from? Is your mom from Columbia?”

“No,” replies the second.


“My mom was born in Cuba,” she answers.

“Oh, my mom is from Vermont!”


“Yes, Vermont is really nice, but they don’t have any playgrounds there.”


“Nope. And no driers either, I think. All the people put their clothes outside on drying racks.”

And her friend goes on to tell about her neighbor in Miami this summer who also hangs his clothes outside. “He takes them off the drying rack and into his house when they dry. In and out, in and out. He has so many clothes.”

I wonder at the world opening up to these girls, at the realizations that will come with twenty or so kindergarten classmates in their new schools, in public schools much bigger than our day care, worlds where children’s lives are so much different from even those of these two fives, descended from Vermonters and Cubans. How easy it is for us all to come to conclusions about the other, how easy to find differences and commonalities amongst our neighbors and ourselves: those who have playgrounds and those who don’t, those who have driers and those who hang their clothes outside, those who have mothers whose lives growing up were so different from those we live today. I wonder as I write this if I’ll have these conversations in my new life at SVS, how working in a wider age mix and larger group will change my view of the fives, who in our day care are on their way to school and who at SVS are the babies in the mix.

Tomorrow is graduation. The yard and day care are in preparation. Tuesday our new day care friends will arrive. Gradually over the next three weeks our school age friends will join their larger groups, whether school or home school center, and I will join mine, Sudbury Valley, where I hope to be part of conversations as interesting as those I have right here. I wish the same for all our kids entering a larger world, whether preschool, school, home school group, or college. Let us all have our worlds and our minds enlarged by those we encounter every day, whether we are doing dishes, drawing, working puzzles, or talking. If we pay attention, my bet is that we will.

As I’m on a boy who’s gone tear, I decide to write again, this time not about my boy, but about the deliciousness he’s left behind..

This morning, before doing more chores, I decide to do some cooking. The kitchen is cool. My kids are here. Guests are coming for dinner, old friends we haven’t seen in too long. I make muffins from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, recipe my mother used to use. This time I add blackberries from our garden, frozen by me before our vacation, picked by my daughter for her older brother, one of two going away gifts, this one he couldn’t finish the bowl was so big, the harvest so abundant, so we’ll enjoy some today, the other cup later. While the muffins are baking, I decide to prepare the chicken, three small packages I had intended for a small dinner for my meat eating boy and me, or my beau and me, summer too hot and busy for cooking chicken, I’ll cook all three packages today. Last time I remember cooking chicken was for my boy’s graduation party. I made so much then I filled the biggest pot as it was marinating in this rub. Today I cut some in chunks for kebabs like on that day, marinade some split breasts, bone in, as that is what I’ve got.

Here is the recipe for the rub. There is a salsa down below I haven’t made, because the ingredients require a trip to the store, not on today’s agenda of being with friends and kids and doing chores around the house. Enjoy the chicken. If you have blackberries in your yard, I bet Betty Crocker’s got a muffin recipe on line for you to try:)

James’ Chicken Rub/Marinade:

1 table spoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Half teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Half teaspoon ground cumin
Quarter teaspoon black pepper
One and one half pounds chicken breast boneless

Basically mix it all together and stir the chicken cubes in.

You can increase the recipe depending on how much chicken you want to cook.

The salsa recipe is:
Quarter cup red onion diced
Two cups diced nectarines or peaches or mango
Half cup diced red pepper
Two tablespoons cilantro
One and half tablespoons lime juice
Two teaspoons minced jalapeño pepper
Quarter teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Half. Up diced avocado

This morning I wake up earlyish in a quiet house. My younger two will likely sleep a few more hours. I have chores to do I was too tired to do last night, involving my not-so-great fax/copy/scan/print machine, which mainly prints and copies and today needs to do some of that and hopefully scan or fax, the wrapping up of my financial records for this phase of life as I’ve known it, sole proprietor of the West Family Day Care, self-employed, preparing for the transition to work for someone else (SVS), hiring more help to run the day care, shifting here to a larger balance of administration than care for children, there to who knows, novice everything, with benefits and a small salary and a long drive, trying again to figure out my fair share of college expenses in this new life.

But as I wake up that is not where my mind goes. Instead it goes to the movie I saw with my two youngest last night, no more waiting for a good night for all three kids to go, so we go on our own to see Moonrise Kingdom, which I have seen once without them, with my beau, and I love it again, as does the audience. My mind also travels this morning to the phone call I made to my son at college, mid-chores, tossing clothes into the washer while the grill heated up to cook the two small pieces of steak for me and my middle son, the two remaining carnivores, as my daughter was off swimming and eating her vegetarian dinner with friends. I called my boy at college, somewhat reluctantly, not wanting to interfere or to create the impression I lack confidence in his ability to succeed, but to see how he was doing.

When I asked him what he was up to, if this was a good time, which I must have known it wouldn’t be, really, or I wouldn’t have called in the midst of all the other things I was doing, he said he was talking to people, which made our conversation about that brief, and which made me exceedingly happy. My boy is talking to people. This is what I remember.

When I wrote the last piece on Ben’s going off to college, a college friend who subscribes to this blog, who has children of her own, two boys and a girl all a bit younger than my two boys and a girl, asked me lots of questions in response. There were so many thoughts and questions I didn’t take time to respond. This morning those questions are on my mind. What was it like when I went to college? What do I remember from the days before I left? From the time just after I arrived? What am I feeling now? What was I feeling then? What must it have been like for my mother and for the family I left behind?

This morning I time travel. First I imagine Ben engaged in conversation with the other kids at RPI and I am grateful to President Shirley (Ann?) Jackson, who spoke at a reception for families after we said good-bye to our sons and daughters, to our young people, the terms I remember her using in her speech, whereas I had asked Ben and his gal just before we left if I should call them girls and boys or women and men, and neither knew. I’m grateful to Ms. Jackson for making space for conversation, for sending my boy off hiking and canoeing on his first day away from home, for giving him space for a pickup game of frisbee and an evening game of “ball”, which in his case involves a basket, for allowing him to chose a room in The Quad, where two doubles share a bathroom in between and a small hall with two more doubles, and the two sets of rooms on the first floor where my boy lives are divided by a small kitchen with an oven that must have been there when I was born, two microwaves from two different eras so far apart my middle son thinks the second microwave must be there because the other is so old. I’m grateful to Ms. Jackson for shaking the hand of each incoming student this week, for sending the group down to the edge of the river for a welcome ceremony and a “controlled party” so I can imagine my boy there at sunset and beyond, mingling in a crowd of freshman finding their new way. I’m grateful to the folks at RPI who called and e-mailed over the last month since my boy was at the first orientation, who made me feel my boy was not just a number in this new place where I was counting pennies to send him and days before he’d leave, but a real person with real potential, real gifts, uniqueness worth getting to know and foster and develop, as I hope Ms. Jackson and her crew intend to do.

It means a great deal to me to know my boy will be seen, to know he’ll make friends, to know he’ll belong, to know he’ll bring himself along, scholar, athlete, hiker, friend, thinker, crier, lover, boy and man.

I imagined yesterday as I spread my papers on the dining room table to do my work that I might turn my boy’s bedroom into a temporary office. This was the first I had considered an alternate use for his room other than taking on a teenage boarder. The thought was liberating. The plan didn’t involve giving my boy the boot, only giving myself some temporary space, an office for myself in a thirteen room house where I hadn’t had one since before my kids were born, ironically, it was then covered in clown wallpaper which we painted while expecting Ben, and perhaps no desk, a room I barely used and which eventually became other things, first my son’s room, then my ex’s office, then my son’s bedroom. Now the room is quiet, and as my college friend asked me why, I’ll tell you. The door is closed because of the cats, who love to pee on beds. All our bedrooms are closed off for this reason, and if the doors get open accidentally, the cats sneak in and wreak their havoc, which I’m sure my son, in his newly arranged, very tidy, according to the conversation with him on Wednesday which his brother shared as we cut our steak and ate our beets and potatoes and tomato and avocado salad alone on the porch for dinner last night when I told him I had called Ben and that he was “talking to people.” We imagined our Ben in his one room life, and I imagined the ease he might find in searching only there for his cell phone or wallet when they were hard to find, rather than searching two houses, mine thirteen rooms split between day care and home, his dad’s half as many or so in Cambridge, a twenty or more minute drive. How nice to simplify, to have that one room, that one roommate, that one bathroom, that one group of folks to get to know, all starting out at that one college in that one town in that one state, all new and on their own.

Which is what I thought about this morning when I woke up, prompted by the image of my boy talking with people and by my friend’s questions. I have an image of siting in the grass with a boy who became my first college beau and crying. The grass was atop the college bookstore, which was buried underground. It was afternoon or evening and we’d been talking when I must have missed my home, in some way felt overwhelmed by this new life. I didn’t call home, I cried with my new friend. I remember also lying in my extra long twin bed with that boy’s arms around me, holding me close in my flannel nightgown, a chaste but warm connection between two young Catholics that ended shortly after, for reasons I can’t remember, but may have been that we were better friends than lovers, which is what we remained for all that year and the following three, still are if facebook counts. Which is a story on the milder end of the memories that my friend’s questions triggered. Lots of private stuff comes up when I wonder on those early years of becoming an adult.

I remember my brother, ten years younger, as such a small boy I could hardly believe at seventeen I was leaving my life with him, who I had looked after, whose diaper I had changed, whose comfort I had taken on, and still do occasionally when things get rough.

I remember my sister, two years younger, who had been my partner in nearly all things, and how the moving on must have felt to her is hard to know, but her version of it was that it was very hard. Two years later, she showed up at Cornell, two years after that she joined the sorority I had joined to connect with our cousin, who was a Sister, which worked well enough, and to meet boys, which didn’t really work at all, though I did meet them in other ways.

Thirteen years later our brother arrived at Cornell, a transfer from Morrisville, to that very large campus from the much smaller one. Cornell for us was intergenerational, the state school attended by my dad’s brother, our Uncle Paul, by his children, who went on to become a veterinarian and to work in Washington in public health, by my sister, my brother, and me. This spring, I may take the kids to my twenty fifth college reunion, if all goes well, along with our housemates in Ashfield, one who lived next door to me freshman year, with me two of the three following years, and her husband, roommate to that first boyfriend who helped me find my way in those first weeks at school.

We stood around the kitchen in Ashfield telling stories and laughing last Saturday night. All the kids and Dave and Laura and I were there. At one point their youngest said, You sure have a lot of stories. This morning I remember all the hours we spent talking to one another during college, all the time together when some times no adult on campus seemed to know we existed. The place was so huge, most classes so large, the advising so loose, that the only adults who really knew me or my work were the writing instructors and a math teacher in a small section where I struggled to focus at all, went mainly to see him, one of those college crushes my first roommate and I shared, a man/boy featured in many of the stories that make us laugh the hardest when that roommate and Laura and I get together, a threesome that stuck together all four years and is still connected all these years later, now we’ve been workers, mothers, wives, middle agers for awhile.

No more for now. Time traveling is time consuming and other ventures call. The stories are mainly interesting to me, anyhow, or at least that’s what I imagine. What I’m hoping is that my own boy is collecting and sharing stories as he’s “talking with people” and that some of them, at least, will make connections, and if all goes well, some of those stories will make it to his kids, and a few will come back to me.

There are juggling pins in the kitchen, left behind. Also a black t-shirt with a character whose name I can’t remember from a Miyazaki film. The dishes and food scattered around the house are not his, but were left by his brother and sister and me. The door to his bedroom is closed and will remain that way, except when I open it to get something off the printer, or if I allow the cleaners to come tomorrow and tidy up the mess he left behind. For months I left the maroon shirt with the flowers from his graduation hanging out of the pocket in a pile in my room, the other bunch of flowers in a small vase my mother brought from Ireland on the kitchen table, then the kitchen counter. I think he took the shirt. The vase is on the kitchen windowsill.

The plants he asked me to water when he was away are on his desk in the state of New York. All his favorite clothes are in the wardrobe beside that desk. The five or so pairs of shoes and boots he requested this spring and summer in a burst of athletic and possibly romantic pursuit are there, too, as are the brand new sheets and mattress pad we bought to suit the very thin extra long twin mattress of his bed, and the well-loved queen sized duvet and cover, duvet I found at the Goodwill when his dad got his first apartment and the kids needed beds and bedding, cover most likely bought by his dad or one of our women friends who helped set up his new place.

He called last night when I was in an appiontment. I picked up anyway, spoke only a few minutes, suggested he call his dad and brother and sister, who were together while I was out. I couldn’t quite believe it was him, and that he sounded so like him, so happy and at ease in his new home. On the way home from his dad’s my younger son, now  the man of our house, told me about Alfred Hitchcock and Film Noir, and how one secret to good film in this director’s mind was to use dialogue only when it contradicts what the images show, for example, only have the character say, I’m so happy when the tears are flowing down her cheeks. The tears flowing down my cheeks after that call could have been the illustration to that line. Same deal just now.

The cats are here, tiptoeing around the kitchen. The living room is still covered in plastic. My son, now departed for college, let me know that if he were staying, the plastic would have to go. I agreed, but told him I was waiting for the transition to be over, in hopes that the stress of all the changes in the house was causing the most recent spate of rug and furniture soiling. Who knows? It could have also been the fleas that wouldn’t go away, the smell of the ex’s cats on the kids’ stuff, the laughing late at night around the kitchen table when all the kids were here. In any case, I walk by the plastic on my way downstairs to do the dishes and I think that soon I’ll take it off, that soon the transition will be complete, but then I think, not yet, summer is still here, shifts are still shifting, plastic covered furniture is still protecting my early morning sanity, keeping me from discovering a soiled cushion on my way downstairs to work.

The other two are here, both sleeping. The day care is running without me downstairs today and tomorrow while we have some fun and while I work on other things, financial, administrative, organizational, laundry, dishes, tidy, cat care, looking after myself and those closest in my circle now the biggest boy is off and on his way.

Here is the lovely poem from today’s Writers’ Almanac. I read it three times, I loved it so much. Love comes in many forms. Find some today, the closest thing to a miracle in this life.



by Katrina Vandenberg

That summer in the west I walked sunrise
to dusk, narrow twisted highways without shoulders,
low stone walls on both sides. Hedgerows
of fuchsia hemmed me in, the tropical plant
now wild, centuries after nobles imported it
for their gardens. I was unafraid,
did not cross to the outsides of curves, did not
look behind me for what might be coming.
For weeks in counties Kerry and Cork, I walked
through the red blooms the Irish call
the Tears of God, blazing from the brush
like lanterns. Who would have thought
a warm current touching the shore
of that stone-cold country could make
lemon trees, bananas, and palms not just take,
but thrive? Wild as the jungles they came from,
where boas flexed around their trunks —
like my other brushes with miracles,
the men who love you back, how they come
to you, gorgeous and invasive, improbable,
hemming you in. And you walk that road
blazing, some days not even afraid to die.

“Fuchsia” by Katrina Vandenberg, from The Alphabet Not Unlike the World. © Milkweed Editions, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

We got home just past 9 pm last night. We left just before 10 am, had meant to leave at 9, then turned around 20 minutes down the road, having forgotten the bike. We nearly forgot my middle guy’s laptop on the sidewalk, where it was resting in a bag while I did a last minute run to the bank for cash to deposit in my boy’s new college account. Fortunately, we did not and we made it to college just in time to gather keys, to unpack, to set up the bank account, to take a few quick photos, to hug briefly, and to say good-bye until who knows when, leaving not a speck of extra time for lunch or coffee or a leisurely walk on campus, as my boy arrived at 4:02 or so for his 4:00 orientation meeting just outside his dorm.

Afterwards, my younger two and I attended the family reception in the fancy new campus theater. There was food. The president spoke. We exchanged contact information with the parents of Ben’s roommate, who’ll be driving back home to Florida this week, not expecting to return until graduation. Then we were on our way home in a van with one less kid in it, no bike strapped to the back, no cardboard box of succulents riding high atop the duffel bag on the back seat, held in place by a vintage external frame pack handed down from the Texas great granddad, sure to be the oldest pack there my son predicts, should he be amongst the members of the RPI outing club hiking the Adirondacks. He lined up the succulents at the back of his desk beside the window and his bed. I took a picture to hold that image in my mind, as well as one of his bed with the new orange sheet and rocketship pillow cases and the old familiar duvet from his dad’s.

The house is quieter, no doubt will be tidier. I wasn’t expecting to feel anything in particular, am not even sure yet what I feel, except that I cried a little when we hugged good-bye, cried yesterday morning as I folded laundry in my dining room surrounded by all my kids and my son’s gal as they made and ate breakfast and talked and I thought again of Thomas the Tank and Leonard Cohen sang some sad song from my itunes, and again on the way home as my middle guy played the cheap harmonica his brother had played on the way there, my older guy just blowing through the holes to music on the cd player, my younger guy playing Amazing Grace and You are My Sunshine well enough to make me cry, and finally at bedtime, lights out, daughter sound asleep, middle guy no doubt still up with his computer down below, no brother there on that floor to keep him company, to wake up today, to leave crumbs on the counter or fried egg in the pan, no girlfriend to stand beside him as he asks her what she’d like for breakfast and offers to make her whatever it is, as soon as she decides. It won’t be that kind of day today.

Instead I’ll be up shortly, wash the rest of yesterday’s breakfast dishes, clean out the littler boxes, get ready for the day care day, where we’ll welcome yet another round of kids into my home and have another glorious summer day with them. Then tomorrow two of our incoming toddlers and their moms will meet our day care kids and teachers at the park while I go to Cape Cod with my two younger kids to meet up with teens and parents who’ve been getting together a few times a year since our kids connected online and since we have fun in person, too. Friday and the weekend are still open, next week is in the works. The following week is the first week of new kids in the day care, that Friday my first staff meeting at SVS, the following week my kids and I head back to school and before too long, we’ll see our Ben again, either for Columbus Day Weekend when we are all invited to a wedding and he has Monday off, or for Family Weekend two weeks later, for which we have yet to make a plan.

I am super tired this morning. Adrenaline must have gotten me through the last few days and now my body and brain would like to crash, but can’t. Must move along and see what next, imagine what Ben is up to, make plans for myself and the other two, and the day care world downstairs.

I woke up in the fives. Somehow it’s seven. Yesterday my friend reminded me to write about this once in a lifetime experience of sending my first child to school. Yesterday my son surprised me by packing all of his belongings into the van before I finished work. We spent the evening in our favorite Japanese restaurant, shopping for yet another pair of shoes, and some flip flops and a basketball for the boy, flip flops for the other boy, because the second pair was half off, socks for my gal, and ping pong paddles for boy number two, who played every day after wind camp on some tables at the school. We figure we can rig a big table here with a net and have some fun once our oldest guy moves out. You need to have something to look forward to when you say good-bye to a boy headed off to college. Why not ping pong?

When we got home we were all tired out. We had been laughing over dinner about Ben’s love of Thomas the Tank when he was young and so we watched episodes of the first tv show he ever loved. He danced to the theme song. His girlfriend laughed at his pleasure. His brother tried to remember the episodes, was highly amused that George Carlin and Ringo Starr were listed as the voices. His sister, who missed the Thomas phase, as she is six years younger, kept wanting me to say which trains the boys had in their collection. Thomas, Percy, Henry, Ben and Bill, Edward (maybe), James, Duck. I remembered them all. Most are still living in the day care down below, may be loved by the new guy whose mom I corresponded with, whose worries for her own son entering day care were some of the first things I thought about when I read her e-mail this morning just past six. Time flies. I could remember watching each episode of Thomas with my boy. He remembered all the dilemmas, all the scary parts, all the characters, all the resolutions. I couldn’t help wondering on that. He and his dad had loved the trains. His dad loved to build the complicated tracks, so we ended up with lots of switches, elevated track, and loads and loads of curves and straights. I loved to make my boy happy, so bought trains and track on sale at lots of toy stores going out of business as Toys R Us took over, then probably the internet, though there was no Wikipedia in our lives as there is now, which my middle guy checked immediately after watching, to figure out what Ringo Starr had done to keep Thomas alive.

Shortly we’re off. Showers, dishes, last few items to check off, bank, gas, on the road. Drop off is from 10 to 3, then there is a family something or other in the evening, if we stay. No decision yet as to whether the gal friend will come along. Good-byes are hard. Somehow, I keep thinking, Today is the day that the lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. I’m sure I’ll cry, but for now, I’ve never seen my boy more alive, and I am proud near to bursting he’s on this path. Off I go to get myself ready and rally the troops while downstairs in the day care the teachers and kids will be welcoming two new babies to day care whose parents are wondering how their lives in day care will go. Makes me feel old on one hand, as that was me starting this day care seventeen years ago for Ben. On the other hand, in many ways, I still feel like a kid. Climbing up the rickety ladder onto the garage roof to clean the siding this weekend, jumping off the diving board into Ashfield Lake, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I trembled. I needed reassurance from the kids. Then I was ok. I nearly fell off the roof because I was walking backwards scrubbing, not looking behind, but my friends called up to me to be careful, and I caught myself and kept on laughing as I scrubbed.

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