Time to Enjoy the Gifts that Matter

Christmas Eve with Bob, the kids and the dogs, all under one roof, was the best gift.

Christmas Eve with Bob, the kids and the dogs, all under one roof, was the best gift.

Christmas has come and gone, and it was among the most easygoing holidays that I have remembered in recent years, because we did four things differently.

1. Our family, which includes five adult children and one teenager, decided to do a “secret Santa” instead of scrambling to buy gifts for everyone. That meant each of us was on the hook for one or two reasonably priced gifts for just one other person. Most were ordered online. We exchanged these gifts on Christmas Eve, and followed with a festive dinner and British-style “crackers” that dispensed small trinkets and silly paper crowns, which we wore with unabashed gusto.

2. We skipped writing out Christmas cards, sending out e-cards instead. I think I sent one to everybody, but I may have missed someone and if it was you I apologize. Some might call e-cards tacky and lazy, and yet another sign that technology is like General Sherman for thoughtful customs, and they are probably right. But what was interesting is that in years past we would always get a flood of paper cards about a week after we sent out ours. The flood did not happen this year, so now I know who has us on their B list! And that’s perfectly OK.

3. I baked only one batch each of two types of cookies. Neither required rolled dough or intense decorating involving tweezers or piped-on icing. The dough was just plopped onto a baking sheet, and finished result did not look like a holiday catalog from Williams Sonoma. Lightning didn’t strike. And fortunately, we received many fine-looking cookies as gifts from cooks with more patience and steadier hands. We proudly served these to visitors, and I beamed graciously when complimented.

4. We posted only half the photos to Facebook that we’d normally post, after a very candid conversation with our kids about how a focus on capturing the moment prevents us from enjoying the moment. Next year, I hope to post only one photo, or maybe even none. We don’t need Facebook to show ourselves or others that we are having a great time, but I did include two of the photos here.

Christmas is receding as swiftly as a port viewed from a catamaran, and pretty soon it will be a mere speck on our consciousness before it disappears. Like everyone else, we feel that having our children at home with us was the best gift of the season. Keeping the rest simple helped us do this. It was not easy to avoid falling into the trap of frantic, guilty shopping; of writing out scores of cards and baking dozens of elaborate cookies; of over-sharing on Facebook because “that’s what people do” at Christmas. The result is that the good feelings from the past holiday, the pleasure we had from being together, will linger long after the last of the decorations are put away.

Having all the kids on one sofa: priceless

Having all the kids on one sofa: priceless

Written Out of the Script

Most parents who’ve been tireless school volunteers eventually confront an uncomfortable truth when their child starts high school: their services are no longer required. This is as it should be, since by that time kids are ready to take on more responsibility. Still it’s hard not to feel a little bereft.

This past weekend John was onstage for the first musical production of his high school career,“Bye Bye Birdie,” and for the first time in two years I was not working backstage. Throughout his middle school years I served as a “costume mom,” helping to sew and fit outfits for dozens of preteen actors, then hanging around during dress rehearsals and performances to zip, mend, primp and supervise. We costume moms have dressed workhouse orphans, Scottish thanes, seven brides and seven brothers, various human fauna and flora, and hundreds of other characters. I spent many hours in our spare room, sewing machine and iTunes playlist at the ready, stitching dozens of costumes and hundreds of yards of fabric. We altered prairie dresses from a size 16 to a size 2, and vice versa. We worked with costumes that had been used in so many productions that they were nearly disintegrating, working magic with fusible fabric and thread, like fairy godmothers in sweats.

But by high school the drama troupe is much smaller, tighter and more experienced onstage than the middle schoolers. Their hormones are calming down; they know how to get dressed all by themselves; and they no longer need parents to tell them to behave and keep their hands to themselves. Unlike with middle schoolers, managing them is no longer like herding cats. In fact, they don’t need to be managed at all. As in so many other realms, high schoolers no longer want or need their moms hovering backstage or anywhere else.

And if I think about it, that’s a key reason why I volunteered, along with the official reason of wanting to help out. It was my excuse to hover, to keep an eye on my youngest child — who has always been like an only child because his five siblings are much older – and make sure that he would be okay. While he dabbled in soccer and Scouting, John was always happiest playing with a buddy or two in our family room. We always had to import friends because our neighborhood was so isolated; he had no neighborhood kids to teach him how to roll with the punches and hold his own in a pack. Drama was his first opportunity to work collaboratively and create something with dozens of other kids his age.

In the beginning, I worried about my new thespian. Middle school children have different levels of maturity and precocity, and backstage we saw everything: a seventh grader who couldn’t keep his hands off his “girlfriend,” an eighth grader who stripped down to her pink Victoria’s Secret underwear in front of the boys, pre-teens who already elevated flirting to a fine art. Just a few feet away from them were pre-pubescent kids still hanging on to their soprano voices and Pokemon cards. John seemed to be part of neither world at times; he was happy to retreat silently into a book when he was not onstage. He didn’t flirt, banter or swagger.

Over the past few years we’ve watched our quiet and introspective boy blossom a lot more, both onstage and with his peers. He does not have the swashbuckling presence of a leading man but thrives best in a “character actor” part. He played a Capulet in Romeo & Juliet, a Shark in West Side Story, an old man in Walden, a British policeman in Oliver, the evil henchman Seyton in MacBeth, the preacher in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and a reporter and dad in Bye Bye Birdie. We documented every performance in video; with each production his voice has grown deeper and his presence onstage more imposing. He’s learned to regroup when things don’t go according to the script, and even improvised a brilliant and funny monologue on the spot during comedy night, something I thought only Robin Williams could do. And through drama he has developed friendships with some terrific kids who appreciate his kindness and quirky sense of humor. He is still quiet and introspective, but he is more engaged with others.

So it’s time for mom to exit stage left, knowing that John Barrymore can take it from here. Our role now is to ferry him to and from rehearsals and performances, not to hover and fret backstage. What goes on behind the curtain is now a mystery, but not a scary one.

Field Notes from An Early Thanksgiving

We didn't make the turkey ourselves -- got it prepared from a turkey farm -- and our cousin Joe, an expert carver, did the honors.

We didn’t make the turkey ourselves — got it prepared from a turkey farm — and our cousin Joe, an expert carver, did the honors.

For the past three years we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving on a Saturday in early to mid-November, not on the last Thursday. So today, while the rest of you are perusing recipes for stuffing and pecan pie or figuring the best place to procure a turkey for the big day, we are getting ready to inter the remains of last Saturday’s feast in the freezer. This will be our last day of shredding turkey into chef’s salads, making shepherd’s pie with stuffing and mashed potatoes, and smearing cranberry orange relish onto sandwiches.

Why the out-of-sync Thanksgiving? For one, it’s easier for our guests to get here before the holiday rush. Bob’s parents can get discounted fares from the west coast; my mom and sister, Bob’s cousins and my cousins don’t need to drive on the busiest driving day of the year. His brother Rich from Houston was able to join us this year; brother Tom from Switzerland was here two years ago. And since we are a blended family, an early Thanksgiving eliminates the need for our adult children to endure two belly-busting meals in one day or choose between parents. We can heartily recommend it for anyone who has similar family demographics.

Another great reason for an early feast is that while I love to cook, I am miserable at roasting turkeys…and our local turkey farm, Out Post Farm in Holliston, Massachusetts, will gladly roast a turkey for you on any day except for Thanksgiving. At noon on Saturday we picked up a steaming, aromatic box with a piping hot, stuffed turkey and a quart of gravy. The price is easily three or four times the price of doing it yourself but worth every penny. It saves many hours brining, massaging, pampering and wrestling with a 22-pound fowl, not to mention the blow to the cook’s ego when it inevitably dries out despite these spa treatments. Farming out the turkey to someone whom you can trust removes some of the performance pressure for Thanksgiving, but not all of it.

No doubt some of you who are hosting Thanksgiving on the real day are feeling a little bit of that pressure right now. Thanksgiving to the home cook is what the Nutcracker is to a ballet troupe: a mythic production with high expectations for everything to be perfectly choreographed, gorgeous to look at, lavish in scale, universal in its appeal and seemingly effortless in the execution.

With the memories of the ramp-up to our early Thanksgiving fresh in my mind, here is some advice:

Do as much as you can in advance – Last Thursday was for shopping at our local Wegman’s, which included several bags of pre-trimmed and pre-washed thin green beans. Friday was for making the extra tray of stuffing, cranberry-orange

Our family crowded around three conjoined tables in our dining room.

Our family crowded around three conjoined tables in our dining room.

relish and a make-ahead mashed potato recipe (thanks to my mom and mother-in-law for all that peeling); and for blanching the green beans. The prepared potatoes went into the crockpot on the day of our feast; everything else was put into pans for re-heating in the double oven while the guys went to the turkey farm.

Get help. One friend, a wonderful cook, prepares Thanksgiving for 35 relatives every year, and does everything herself. One year she decided to ask a few guests to bring desserts, and was dismayed that some of them went to a bakery instead of making it themselves. Now she’s back to doing everything. I’ve learned to ask for help — even if it’s asking a non-cook to bring some beer or chips — and when somebody asks if they can bring something, my response is “hell, yes!” This year our party included a store-bought birthday cake in honor of Bob’s brother Rich, a silken homemade chocolate and tofu pie from daughter Rachel and an astoundingly good apple pie that our cousin Judy bought from Costco. My sister Julie brought her famous squash casserole; cousin John brought homemade wine. All were delicious, and my vastly reduced stress level made me realize that giving up a little control is not a bad thing.

Dessert need not be a homemade apple pie, especially if a birthday is involved.  We marked brother-in-law Richard's birthday with  an apple-themed cake instead.

Dessert need not be a homemade apple pie. We marked brother-in-law Richard’s birthday with an Apple-themed cake instead.

Think seriously about disposable dishes and pans. When your feet and legs feel as sodden as gravy-logged stuffing you will be thankful that you don’t need to do dishes.

Expect last-minute kitchen messes. In our case, we discovered that just one quart of gravy wasn’t going to cut it. Our cousin Bhavani, a topnotch personal chef, insisted we make more. That meant dragging out the cast iron skillet, butter, flour, chicken broth and spices to combine with the drippings from our turkey. This upset my well-staged attempts to avoid a mess in the kitchen that day, but Bhavani was so cheerful and enthusiastic as she stirred the roux that I couldn’t help but get caught up in it. Making the gravy was glorious, creative and messy but well worth it. We needed nearly every drop.

Take a walk between dinner and dessert. If the weather permits, it’s a great way to clear your stomach and your head and to enjoy some great conversation undistracted by a plate groaning with food. About a dozen of us took a wonderful three-mile walk at twilight. By our last steps we had created just enough room for a heaping plate of desserts!

Relax and remember it’s not all about you. Sure I felt lots of performance anxiety about hosting Thanksgiving for 20, and I had a few grumpy and harried moments. But sweating out the details a few days ahead, preparing stuff in advance, and farming out some of the work did make a difference, and in the long run people really don’t care if every detail is perfect. Last Saturday, sitting in mismatched chairs around three conjoined tables in our dining room, I could relax enough to truly savor our families and our many blessings. And that is what it’s all about.

So on Thanksgiving, I will raise a glass of wine and a spoonful of matzoh ball soup to home cooks everywhere and their families!

Between dinner and dessert on Thanksgiving is the best time for a long walk!

Between dinner and dessert on Thanksgiving is the best time for a long walk!

The Monsters in My Closet

Ugly, ugly, ugly. Sweats from a store that's synonymous with tacky. Why can't I throw them away?

Sweats from a store that’s synonymous with tacky. Why can’t I throw them away?

November 1 and the wind is howling outside. It’s warm today but if you believe the weather forecast the wind is ushering in some cold temperatures. A perfect time to edit my winter wardrobe with a clear head…because once the cold weather arrives I will put on anything warm without thinking about how it looks.

Dressing for winter is always a bit of a problem. I’m extremely sensitive to cold (especially damp cold, very common here in New England) and need warm and comfortable layers, preferably in natural fibers, to keep me from shivering. I also don’t work outside the home so have no gun to my head to make me look polished every day. A typical day consists of some writing, answering emails and Facebook-trawling at my home computer, keeping up with two dogs, cooking for the guys, doing some chores, taking a walk, running some errands and maybe meeting up with a friend for lunch. Except for the last two occasions, comfort usually wins out over pride.

I have a closet full of nice clothes that I have picked up at boutiques and shops here and in California, where my in-laws live and the clothes have a bit more panache than they do here in New England. They are filmy tops made from manmade fibers (which look terrific but are never warm), snug-fitting jeans that pinch if I sit too long in them or had carbs at breakfast, dressy sweaters (perfect for an afternoon at an art gallery or in a chic part of the city but not for making homemade sauce with meatballs.) I buy them with the best intentions, and look far better when I put them on – usually when the weather is comfortably warm or cool and the humidity is low. Yet on a raw, blustery day with nothing on the agenda I inevitably reach for the shleppiest thing in my closet – loose jeans, drawstring

UM...this isn't glamorous. But it sure is warm.

UM…this isn’t glamorous. But it sure is warm. (Sorry, UMass.)

sweats, once-proud cashmere sweaters that have holes and have gone through the wash, thick Wigwam socks designed for sub-zero camping trips, corduroy pants that cry out for a sweater emblazoned with country geese, shirts from the loungewear department at Target. Even defended from the cold by unglamorous layers of fleece, I still need to brew lots of hot tea to stoke a warming fire from within.

A few days ago we enjoyed a visit from some good friends from the Silicon Valley area, and we were talking about moms from nice neighborhoods who dress to the nines even when they are walking the dog or picking up the kids from school. My friend Renee talked about the mothers at an upscale grade school who dressed like they were on a runway to pick up their offspring. Picking up my own son from school, I am amazed at the number of pubescent girls who wear bare legs and short skirts with their Ugg boots. And I thank God for tinted auto glass.

I also marvel when Bob and I watch the news on TV and see the female weather forecaster dressed in a chic short-sleeved dress, perfect for a summer night out, when she’s predicting sub-freezing temperatures. Bob does not help when he remarks, “She should do the weather in the nude.”

A few years ago I interviewed a boutique owner who always looked fabulous, and she lamented that she wished more northern gals cared as much as the southerners do about how they dressed. Southern women, she pointed out, wear chic Juicy Couture track suits, good jewelry and nice makeup even when they are shopping for groceries. I’d like to introduce one of these Georgia peaches to a nice nor’easter. After that experience she will happily put on a pair of drawstring sweats from Old Navy.

There must be a happy compromise between being chic and being comfortable and warm. I’ve looked around our local mall for answers but can’t envision myself with the word “Pink!” stamped on my butt, or in anything that Kanye would wear with a thick gold chain. Nor do I see myself in anything that is sold next to the camping gear or that would look good with a folk art sweater.

One of my go-to shirts: all cotton, brushed on the inside, warm on the coldest winter days with the right stuff underneath.

One of my go-to shirts: all cotton, brushed on the inside, warm on the coldest winter days with the right stuff underneath.

I do have a few tips that have served me well. One is that if you are only in the car, you need only worry about what you are wearing on the part of your body that can be seen through the window. I have some nice colorful scarves that can be easily draped over those tacky sweats and nobody will ever know. However, this can backfire, as one of my best friends found out. When her daughter got on the school bus without her lunch, my friend pulled a jacket over her short nightshirt, jumped in the car, and sped down the street to a spot where the bus would stop later. Only she didn’t count on a male neighbor recognizing her car and sauntering over for a chat.

Another tip is that the right close-fitting underwear is a fitting armor under those flimsier but more attractive clothes. Maybe that’s what those weather chicks wear; I must ask them some time.

While I have nowhere to go today except for Target, I think I nailed a good compromise: comfortable but close-fitting jeans (thanks to the Lycra gods), a lavender Lucky Jeans waffle-weave top, the pretty necklace that Bob gave me last Christmas. Tomorrow I may not be so lucky.

So in the spirit of true confession, this post includes items I wear when I care most about comfort, most of them very unfashionable. How about you? What do you wear when comfort is the top priority and nobody is looking?

A great scarf makes you look like you have great elan when you are sitting in your car, regardless of what else you are wearing.

A great scarf makes you look like you have great elan when you are sitting in your car, regardless of what else you are wearing.

Once a cashmere sweater develops a hole, you are free to make gravy in it.

Once a cashmere sweater develops a hole, you are free to make gravy in it.

Halloween’s Darkest Hours

Ryan as a clown and Rachel as "Able Baker Charlie" from the Richard Scarry Books, 1989.

Ryan as a clown and Rachel as “Able Baker Charlie” from the Richard Scarry Books, 1989.

It’s dusk on October 31, and for the first time in decades, we won’t be turning on the porch light for trick-or-treaters. It has been years since we had more than a few visitors, and we could have justified bowing out some time during the last millennium. Living on a dark street with no streetlights or sidewalks, we are in forbidden territory for wee princesses, jedis and older ghouls. When a family with three young children still lived next door we knew we’d get at least a few visitors. Alas, they moved to California and we can no longer count on them. And even our kids never trick-or-treated close to home; we always drove them to neighborhoods with sidewalks.

But the most important factor in our decision to close is that our 15-year-old is not doing Halloween this year. Too much homework, a diminished taste for candy, and a long day of school and after-school activities have made John decide to throw in the towel (or the pillowcase). While his friend Zack called a few weeks ago to try to get him interested in prowling a few neighborhoods, John has officially retired from trick or treating. This will be the first time that none of our children has gone trick-or-treating from our home, since all but John are grown and flown.

So the pumpkin went uncarved this year, and I have to say that my hands, with their creeping arthritis, won’t miss scraping out pumpkin guts with an ice cream scoop. I think about all the thought we gave to pumpkins in the past, all the faces we dreamed up, all the candles we lit, all for naught because nobody came. Yes I am relieved but also feeling a little regret.

John as "Batista," a favorite wrestler, 2010.

John as “Batista,” a favorite wrestler, 2010.

Halloween used to be a big deal. I remember dressing my daughter Rachel as a bunny, when she was just a year old, and looking forward to showing her off around the neighborhood, but she fell fast asleep on my shoulder by the second house. At our former home in Pennsylvania, in a densely populated neighborhood, close to 80 trick or treaters would visit each year. When I had more youthful energy I’d make up Halloween party bags with homemade cookies for the kids and set out spiked cider, cheese and crackers, and pumpkin bread for their grateful chaperones. As I look through old photos I see the march of time: from baby bunnies, gypsies and clowns to “Scream” masks, cross-dressers, slashers, wrestlers and pimps. In grade school my daughter Rachel dressed as a football player and son Ryan as a cheerleader. Ten years later Ryan borrowed my longest white coat, added a big hat and trick-or-treated as a pimp. Our son Ben went out one year dressed as a bag of trash, and somewhere we have tape from a camera that doesn’t work anymore that shows a toddler John whacking Ben with a pitchfork that year. Despite a half-hearted clucking about violent-looking costumes I always enjoyed the creativity the kids brought to Halloween.

Jesse and Rachel, around 1987.

Jesse and Rachel, around 1987.

But all six have moved on, and no neighborhood kids have taken their place. So tonight we’ll catch up on all the shows we missed because of the World Series (go Sox!!!) and maybe watch Young Frankenstein again. But we will take one last wistful look at the ghosts of Halloweens past.


Football player and cheerleader, around 1994.

Happy Birthday, Gene-ius!

In 2009, Gene revisited his bachelor pad at the Normandie apartments in Manhattan.

In 2009, Gene revisited his bachelor pad at the Normandie apartments in Manhattan.

A few weeks ago we worried that my father-in-law, Gene, would not be celebrating his 84th birthday today. He was in the hospital, his breathing labored with pneumonia and COPD. Doctors found a blood clot in his leg and other problems. They talked about Gene possibly staying hospitalized for weeks. My mother-in-law Lois was distraught; three of their grandchildren drove long distances to see them and the rest made anxious phone calls and Facebook posts. My husband, Bob, and his three brothers kept in touch constantly and worried about whether this could be it.

But today, Gene is at home, off the oxygen that the doctors said he’d need for weeks, marking his 84th year. He is determined to keep his plans to fly with Lois from California to Boston next month for our early Thanksgiving dinner, a three-year tradition in our family. At last count he had at least 15 Words With Friends games going, and has returned to his daily morning worship at the Squawkbox shrine, following the market as fervently as an old nun fingers a rosary. Lois is back to nagging him about the volume on the TV, so things are really back to normal!

I guess I was not surprised that Gene fought his way back. He has done it before, having beaten lung and colon cancer 17 years ago, another time when we worried that the end was near. The man is a survivor — kept breathing by his lively curiosity, his highly creative and inventive mind, his brash confidence and his unflagging love for his family. And that’s good because we can’t imagine life without him.

His close call motivated me to go through some old photos of Gene and think about his life. The pictures show a mischievous teen who thrived in New York’s mean streets; a

Gene (lower left) had the devil in him already as a teenage boy; can you tell from that smile?

Gene (lower left) had the devil in him already as a teenage boy; can you tell from that smile?

confident rake and businessman (the word “swanky” comes to mind); a family man with four young sons; an 80-year-old looking wistful as he revisited his old haunts. Gene has been all of these, as well as a gifted salesman, an entrepreneur and inventor, an artist at the easel and the computer, a shameless flirt, a teller of outrageously ribald stories and jokes (we’ve had to reprimand him when he goes too far in front of the grandchildren), and a proud agnostic who delights in challenging believers. On the home front, he is father to four sons, grandfather to eight, and a father figure to his beloved daughters-in-law and to other now-grown men whom he and Lois sheltered and encouraged as boys.

Gene talks frankly about his difficult family life, which drove him out of the house to hang out with a rough crowd in the Washington Heights part of Manhattan. They would gather at a stone wall near an athletic field and plan the day’s exploits. When we visited New York with him in 2009 in honor of his 80th, Gene reminisced about swimming in the Hudson River under the George Washington Bridge; something that would probably cause some type of nasty disease ending in “osis” today. But Gene had an artistic streak as well as a wild one; he studied at the Art Institute of New York and showed amazing talent.

Later, as a young businessman at his dad’s company, he’d bring secretaries home to his New York bachelor pad. One of his favorite sketches depicts Lois, his future wife, asleep in his bed looking as peaceful as an angel. Lois successfully ended Gene’s bachelor era; once they married she gave him four sons in six years. Gene’s work in the restaurant equipment business would take his family from New Jersey, to Wyoming, to Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Driven and accomplished, he worked hard, patented many inventions, founded and sold several businesses and made a good living. He and Lois passed on their intelligence, artistic ability and work ethic to their four sons, all of whom have been successful.

Gene as a young rake and businessman.

Gene as a young rake and businessman.

Gene’s remarkable paintings and digital art cover the walls of his California home and his sons’ far-flung residences; his pizza ovens, dough presses and tools can be found in pizza kitchens around the country. Not content to rest on his laurels, Gene continues to come up with new concepts and inventions, including (my favorite) a sponge that would be worn inside the mouth to absorb onion fumes and prevent tears. Lois has had to gently (or not so gently) discourage him from doing a patent search every time he has a new invention, for fear of that the fees will drain their savings. Some of his ideas are frankly crazy…but then again, so were those of some of history’s greatest artists, thinkers and inventors.

To Gene I say: keep coming up with those crazy ideas and keep dreaming. And now that you are back from the brink, take care of yourself and postpone the next one as long as you can. Happy birthday! We love you!

Through the years, Gene's family has been his greatest joy.

Through the years, Gene’s family has been his greatest joy.

The Pleasures of Blooming Late

Our tomato plants look better than ever, after being barren through most of the summer.

Our tomato plants look better than ever, after being barren through most of the summer.

It’s the first week of September, when many plants are already starting to drop their leaves. But believe it or not, things are starting to wake up in our garden.

Our tomato plants, which were leafy but largely barren all through July and August, this morning were heavy with large green fruit. Small clusters of buds are emerging from the tops of our hydrangea branches; each will turn into a showy blue flower if frost doesn’t get to them first. Our potted geraniums and window boxes, which were yellowed and sparse six weeks ago, now look as vigorous as the day we took them home from the greenhouse.

This isn’t supposed to be happening now. The first snap of fall, which is New England’s loveliest season, typically is a signal for all growing things to start winding down. Like the final flourish of a conductor’s baton, those first crisp breezes send a clear message that the show is over. But this summer — when the show was in full swing in most people’s gardens — ours was as disastrous as Spinal Tap’s final tour. It looked tired, ignored and unloved, despite mounds of compost, diligent pruning, deadheading, soil testing, weeding and relentless inspections. Our daffodils came up late, a single bloom for each big cluster of leaves. The hydrangeas, newly planted this year, gave a pretty if not spectacular show in early June then stopped. Some of their leaves developed black spots from my well-intentioned but misguided watering, which caused them to burn out. The geraniums, supposed to be the easiest flowers to grow, still struggled in their pots, while gray mushrooms sprouted around their stems. And our tomatoes, despite being grown in an organic “square foot garden” that was one-third compost, produced pretty flowers that never turned into fruit.

Throughout July and early August, other gardeners enjoyed baskets of ruby-red tomatoes, lush bouquets of basil and trumpet-sized zucchini. One friend’s coneflowers were a blaze of purple, while only five of them emerged in our flower bed. I beat myself up over this, thinking that I was cursed as a gardener or that my soil was cursed. The confidence that possessed me in the Spring — when Bob and I fervently worked the soil, dug holes and sunk dozens of plants and transplants into the nurturing earth – shriveled in the searing July heat.IMG_3369

My brother Dan, who visited a month ago, advised Miracle-Gro. I didn’t think this was necessary because I had used compost and figured that an organic approach would be enough. But soon after I began the chemical interventions, the window boxes and pots began sprouting buds, the leaves grew a deeper green and infant tomatoes were born from the yellow flowers. And the hydrangea, which looked so tired for so long, now are signaling a second coming, more glorious than the first. So I don’t feel so hopeless after all. Now we are just hoping we can harvest the tomatoes and enjoy a spectacular flowery finale before frost shuts it down for good.

I think this experience illustrates the pleasures of blooming late, after everybody else has peaked. Sometimes it’s frustrating to feel dormant when everyone around you seems to be growing and thriving. It can be easy to get mired in depressing thoughts that your time has passed, or even that it may never come because you made too many mistakes. But then something happens that surprises you. Maybe it doesn’t happen organically, like it does for people blessed with youth, good genes, inherited talent or a natural green thumb. Maybe you need a little mental Miracle-Gro to force along what nature has shortchanged. My Indian summer garden reminds me that every season of life brings its flowerings, sometimes when you least expect it.

A Lifetime in Storage

A few things from my grown son Ryan's closet.

A few things from my grown son Ryan’s closet.

When is it the right time to clean out an adult child’s long-unused room, go through years of accumulated possessions and decide what stays and what goes? Do you let your son or daughter make that decision or take matters into your own hands?

I’ve talked to friends who are still waiting for their long-departed 30-year-olds to deal with their stuff left at home. They are afraid that they will make the wrong decision if they do it themselves, incurring their child’s lasting resentment and years on a psychiatrist’s couch. Maybe they secretly hope this accumulated detritus will exert a magnetic field pulling their young adult closer. And I think on some level, parents worry that tossing their child’s moth-eaten stuffed animal, broken action figures, headless Barbies, awkward prom photos or yellowed high school compositions will send a message that it is no longer their child’s home.

I thought about this yesterday when I went through our son Ryan’s stuff. Ryan, now 25 and working in Europe indefinitely, gave us the OK to repurpose his room, which he had not inhabited steadily since 2006. With a few exceptions – his strongbox, three books and his most beloved teddy bear — he left it up to me to decide what stayed and what got tossed or donated.

“I think that anything I really wanted I would have taken with me,” said Ryan from his apartment in the UK, over a FaceTime connection that kept cutting out.

I told him I would pack everything that stayed into a box; offer any unwanted clothes to his brothers and deal with the rest.

That meant I was judge and jury for every artifact from his babyhood through his young adulthood crammed into his closet, drawers, nightstand and two rolling carts in his 11-by-13-foot room. Ryan has always been a relentless weeder, regularly giving away clothes that no longer interested him and tossing toiletries that outlived their usefulness. From his mid-teens he had a thriving eBay account, regularly buying electronics and other items that intrigued him then selling them when he tired of them. This made cleaning out his room even harder, because most of what remained was not trash, but a carefully curated collection of relics, all of them precious to some degree.

A few decisions were easy. I threw away expired vitamins and half-used toiletry bottles, decorated shot glass souvenirs from places he visited long ago. Notebooks from his college business courses got tossed, but not before I gazed at the dizzyingly complex mathematical equations, written in my son’s distinctive hand, and felt proud and amazed that he understood them. Letters from friends that he no longer talked about, photos from the summer camp where he spent six weeks, his old textbooks…all went into the discard or donate piles.

Some things that were saved: the three books he requested, including one that we had given him as a Christmas gift, a photo book with pictures from our former home in Pennsylvania, a tiny porcelain baby shoe engraved with his name, birth date and weight. A book entitled “20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair.” A Spanish/English dictionary that will be saved for Ryan’s younger brother, now in Spanish I. Paperwork for Ryan’s successful attempt to gain Irish citizenship, which paved the way for him to work anywhere in Europe and the tremendous opportunities of his current job. The binoculars left to him by his grandfather. A presentation booklet written by our long-ago babysitter in Pennsylvania, listing the dozens of special times she shared with Ryan and his sister Rachel. A strong box without a key, its contents a mystery.

But other decisions were not so easy. Deedee, the small white teddy bear that was his favorite, was easily a keeper, but what about the lesser stuffed animals? These ursa minors included a purple velveteen bear given to him by my long-ago work colleague; “Poochy,” a tiny bear with an adorable face and a purple sweater; and others that once crowded onto his single bed. Only Poochy made the cut, and I felt regret as I threw the others into the maw of the dark green trash bag, growing heavier by the minute with discarded memories.

I found a big cardboard poster created for Ryan’s high school graduation in the back of his closet. It was filled with photos that I thought I had misplaced long ago, but now realized they were here all along: the photo of him as a one-year-old wearing a seersucker onesie decorated with trains, Ryan dressed as a cheerleader at age 8 for Halloween, a closeup of Ryan as an infant with Rachel, Ryan on the fishing dock in Martha’s Vineyard. The photos – along with the eager acceptance letters from colleges, glowing with praise for Ryan — can be easily stacked and saved, but what about the heartfelt graduation messages scrawled on the cardboard? Likewise, what about the graduation cards that spoke of pride in our son’s accomplishments and confidence in his future? What of the notes from long-ago friends, thanking Ryan for his faith in them and for helping them through a difficult time?

I kept some things and tossed the others, grateful that the trash bag hid them from view, resisting the urge to peek in one more time and stoke my regret. What mattered now was the man Ryan had become, not the things he left behind. The purple velveteen bear, the letters from friends grateful for his friendship, the souvenirs from camp and from places he visited, are all part of who he is now. His future is a strong box without a key, filled with mysteries but secure.

A Summer Family Scrapbook

Simple pleasures, like enjoying ice cream with visiting family members, was a special part of our summer.

Simple pleasures, like enjoying ice cream with visiting family members, was a special part of our summer.

Late summer is always a somewhat melancholy time. The first yellow leaves appear on the trees, like the first stray gunshots in a revolution; the perennials are finishing their halfhearted secondary blooming; the school bus pass arrives, reminding our teen that his carefree summer vacation days will be over soon. We’ve set the date for closing the pool, the site of our stay-cation.

Today I’m feeling a little empty because the last of our summer visitors have departed. Bob’s brothers – Mike and wife Erica, and Tom and wife Linda – left yesterday after visiting for a long weekend from California and Switzerland. Bob’s cousin Joe, who is like a brother to him, and wife Bhavani drove up from Long Island to see everyone. A few weeks earlier two of our grown children, Rachel and Ryan, flew in from Los Angeles and Brighton, England for a week. My mom spent three weeks with us during the hottest part of the summer, enjoying the shaded patio and the air conditioning. My brother Dan visited with his wife Elena and son Tom for the first time in 15 years; my sister Julie drove up from Scranton for a weekend. Other visitors included cousins Nancy and husband Paul from Florida; their daughter Christy, son-in-law Tommy and adorable one-year-old twins;  our nephew Dan and new wife Cat; and cousin John and wife Katharine.

All of these visits from family have made it a memorable summer. Some of you whose families live too close may be tempted to say “so what?” or even to shudder at the thought of so much company. But anyone whose families live too far away to be part of their everyday lives will understand. Bob and I love the Boston area; we have built a life together here, replete with some great friends. We are fortunate that three of our five grown children live within an hour’s drive. But the rest of our families – the ones who were part of our childhood or who endured our early parenting mistakes; who know our secrets, our insecurities and our worst selves but love us anyway — are in different parts of the country and on different continents. As we get older, we yearn to pull them closer. But our lives rush by, and finding time and energy to connect is hard. This summer, fresh after installing our new pool, Bob and I made a full-court press to get more family members out here.

Just before each wave of visitors I usually got a wave of panic. I worried about planning delightful meals, scheduling stimulating activities so our visitors wouldn’t get bored, removing the schmutz on the powder room sink, whether the sheets smelled fresh enough and whether the closets were neat enough. I tend to put too much pressure on myself and irrationally assume that our visitors – even those we love — will be as hard on me as I am on myself. With my own kids I worried about making up for our long separation with endless intimate conversations. I wondered  whether being with them would painfully remind me of how separate our lives have become.

But from the moment each wave of company arrived I realized how silly I was to worry; I just let go and basked in the joy of having them close. We ended up just hanging by the pool or the hot tub, having long talks over very un-gourmet meals, taking walks, going out for ice cream and doing very little else.  In short, the perfect stay-cation.

If I could make a scrapbook of this past summer’s family memories, here is what I’d put in there:

Sharing conversation with my husband's brothers and their wives.

Sharing conversation with my husband’s brothers and their wives.

• Sharing the hot tub with my children Rachel, Ryan and John,  and singing along to a playlist Ryan made of early 90s songs, the soundtrack from our days at our old swim club when Rachel and Ryan were little.

• Watching Bob’s kids Rachel, Jesse and Ben float blissfully on rafts around the pool.

• Playing trivia games with Jesse, John and Jesse’s friends Chris and Kayla.

• Watching our kids’ delight as they towed dogs Gus and Rita around the pool on a raft.

• Seeing Bob relaxed, happy and deep in conversation with his brothers Tom and Mike and cousin Joe over late afternoon beers.

• Walking our dog Gus with John and sisters-in-law Linda and Erica — both beautiful, smart, strong women who are great role models and friends.

• Talking with my cherished sister Julie about our families and the great meals we have known, as we sipped wine out of plastic glasses and dangled our feet into the pool.

• Seeing my mom playing affectionately with our two dogs and surreptitiously slipping Gus half her sandwich — and realizing that she is a closeted dog lover who will never admit it.

• Having long stretches of quality time with my brother Dan, the sibling I see least, and listening to the passionate, intelligent and respectful discussion he had with my son Ryan about God and the universe. Regretting the long spaces between our visits.

• Introducing cousins Nancy and Paul to the joys of Pearl Hotdogs, which made them so happy that they planned to order 10 pounds of them to ship to their home in Florida.

• Watching Christy’s one-year-old son Benjamin take a dive into the pool and seeing her quick recovery of him. Regretting how quickly those years slipped away.

Hurricane Rita Blows In

IMG_3102Don’t let the cuteness fool you. Our second dog, who arrived on Friday, is at eight weeks already an alpha female. The trainer arrives today, and not a moment too soon.

After a delightful 10 months with the very laid-back Gus, our first dog, we made the decision a few months ago to get another dog as a companion for him. Miniature dachshunds are very social creatures and a few people had advised us to get two dogs from the get-go. But as first-time dog owners, we did not want to tax ourselves.

Gus was an easy dog, docile and easily housebroken, loyal and affectionate…all hallmarks of the dachshund breed. In recent months, however, Gus has seemed lonely at times despite getting plenty of love, attention and furtively delivered morsels of people food. He began seeing us as his buddies constantly, often looking up at us with a tennis ball clutched in his jaws and whining sorrowfully. This was starting to happen late at night when Bob and I lay on the couch in our usual “Law and Order”-induced stupor. We felt we were ready for another dog at this point, and luckily the same breeder who gave us Gus had another litter on the way. They were the spawn of Gus’s older brother Kommodore Schutzhund, or “Schutz” for short. The puppies were born on May 5, Cinco de Mayo, and we claimed and named the only girl: Margarita.

From the moment she arrived, her astounding cuteness inspired awe and ahs, and she melted our hearts when she snuggled on our laps, which she loves to do.  However, Rita has another side:  the feisty and combative second child who refuses to play second fiddle. Unlike most females, she has no problem leaning in.

We had been warned that Gus, who has been treated like a prince since we brought him home, might have some trouble sharing his castle with another dog. Their breeder, Tiffany, advised us beforehand to let them share sleeping arrangements and food dishes and work out their conflicts themselves, an essential part of the bonding experience. She assured us that Gus and Rita (who is Gus’s niece) would share a special and playful relationship.

Yet the relationship has been more Punch and Judy than George and Gracie. It has been painful to watch the ritualistic one-upsdogship – which started soon after the initial butt-sniffing ritual, the canine world’s equivalent of a polite handshake. Since Rita arrived she has been hogging the food bowl, chomping down heartily while the more patient Gus waits his turn. If Gus tries to claim a spot at the bowl she nudges him out of the way. Despite being a quarter his size, she has remarkably sharp elbows when it comes to asserting first dibs on the doggie bed. Gus, unused to having to fight for anything, seems to not know what to do.

Rita has also been getting in Gus’s face and picking fights with him. She bares her teeth, assaults Gus’s side with both paws, climbs onto him when he is lying on his back. Her teeth have come dangerously close to Gus’s private parts a few times. Gus, who shows remarkable restraint, tries to turn the tables with a swipe of his stronger paw. Sometimes he just lays on top of Rita, a tired “can’t we get this over with?” look on his face, as she barks like an angered chipmunk.

This is like watching a middle child gleefully taunt the oldest; or a midget wrester trying to take down a Sumo; or the killer bunny attacking the knights in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Yesterday, while our son John was watching the dogs as I ran errands, he called me to tell me he had to put each of them “in solitary” in their crates. He was concerned enough to take action and keep them separated. But advised to do nothing, I merely watch with the morbid fascination reserved for car wrecks along the highway.

Along the perimeter of our back yard is a fence and a three-foot-wide gravel path, where Gus has always enjoyed walking with us. Gus is visibly peeved when Rita accompanies us now. He runs ahead of her, then turns his long dachshund body perpendicular to the path, as if to block her. He body-slams her to the edge of the path before running ahead again. Then the process repeats.

I thought raising more than one dog would be more laid-back than childrearing, which often requires parents to mediate scuffles between their offspring. I was ready to be the coolheaded dog owner who rolled with their punches. Still, it’s hard to see my adorable new pup go right for Gus’s balls in the attack. I asked Tiffany if this was something to be concerned about.

Her answer: “Not at all…Ladies know where it hurts a man.”