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.

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.

Should We Part With Family Relics?

dadshirt

My Dad’s old flannel shirt, which I’ve kept but never worn.

On Monday the New York Times published a column from a Baby Boomer who was conflicted over whether to part with a mink coat that had once been her mother’s. It sent me upstairs to look at two of my own family relics, which I don’t use but hold onto for totally different reasons. I’m sure all of you have one or more of these!

The columnist wrote that the mink reminded her of how beautiful her mother looked wearing it, the considerable financial sacrifice her dad made to buy it, and the pride he felt when saw his wife. As she savored these memories, the daughter also fretted that she wasn’t tall enough to wear the coat with aplomb, and about the ethics of wearing fur in the first place. While she decided to donate it, she still felt guilty.

Many of the commenters talked about what they would have done (many would have kept the mink, even if it meant altering it into a jacket or blanket), their own family mementos and how they struggled with the decision to keep them or get rid of them.

After I read this I went upstairs to look at two of my own unused family treasures. One is my father’s old L.L. Bean flannel shirt, which we bought him for Christmas at least 20 years ago. I’ve never worn it but it hangs in our closet. He died 15 years ago this month, but looking at it reminds me of him. It is un-showy, sensible and comfortable…everything he was. The shirt was soft enough to cuddle a grandchild against and practical enough to wear for the many work projects that he undertook at our house. He wore that shirt or something similar when he taught me how to put up dry wall; when we took walks together with my mom and my children; and when he gave us common-sense advice, which was often.

The second relic is something I haven’t worn for more than 30 years. It’s a platinum cross, encrusted with diamonds, that once hung on a platinum chain around my grandmother’s neck. While the crucifix is a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice, this particular one reminds me of a woman who never sacrificed. My grandmother was not a good mother; my own mom and her brothers were often left alone while she gathered with friends to play card games laced with smoke and profanity. She never combed my mom’s hair; fortunately a goodhearted neighbor would often give he

This cross, usually a symbol of Christian sacrifice, but not in this case.

This cross, usually a symbol of Christian sacrifice, but not in this case.

r a bath and make her presentable. Strident and cutting, my grandmother would browbeat her family…especially my grandfather, a goodhearted man who loved whiskey and song (often at the same time). Sometimes my mom had to skip school because she did not have shoes, but my grandmother still wore that diamond-studded symbol of Christian sacrifice. As my mom grew older and went off to work in Manhattan, she dutifully turned over most of her paycheck to my grandmother. But every day my mom would visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral, kneel in front of a big cross and pray for a man who would understand her family. This cross listened. Eventually a man who liked flannel shirts would rescue her.

In raising her own four kids, mom used her own mother like a photographic negative — imprinting us with the love, care and attention she never had herself. The cross, once my grandmother passed it on to her, stayed in mom’s jewelry box.

Eventually the diamond cross found its way to me and while I’ve kept it I can’t bear what it symbolizes – misplaced values and miserable mothering. But long ago my Aunt Theresa, my dad’s sister and a woman who truly combines both style and common sense — as well as a delicious touch of moxie — had some good advice about the cross. “Why don’t you wear it as a lesson?,” she asked.

That advice has probably kept me from giving the cross away or selling it. Looking at the cross, and at my dad’s shirt, reminds me of what’s most important. It’s easier to figure it out with the shirt, once worn by a man who was never selfish.  The cross perhaps has to be seen a different way: a symbol not of sacrifice, but of transcendence and forgiveness.

Do any of you have any family relics that you don’t use but can’t part with?

Do Grown Children Break Your Heart More?

Thank God most of us won't suffer like Mildred Pierce, but parents of grown children still feel heartache and uncertainly when the kids face difficult times.

Thank God most of us won’t suffer like Mildred Pierce, but parents of grown children still feel heartache and uncertainly when the kids face difficult times.

Today I read a wonderfully written essay in The New York Times by Susan Engel, a lecturer at Williams College, entitled “When They’re Grown, the Real Pain Begins,” about the heartache and uncertainty of parenting adult children. Engel describes how badly she felt when her 20-something son went through a series of setbacks, including a serious injury, a breakup with his girlfriend and losing his job.

“I too had been through a tough year,” she wrote, briefly describing her own struggles. “But all of that was mild compared to the agony of watching my handsome, vigorous son kicked to the ground. I didn’t know how to help him, and I didn’t know how to handle my own nearly unbearable feeling of pain.”

In retrospect, Engel writes, raising small children was easier. “As long as you hugged them a lot and made good food, things seemed to be, for the most part, OK,” she says. “You could fix many problems, and distract them from others…All of that changes when they are grown.” Engel felt she was alone until she started hearing from other baby-boomer parents who felt as helpless and as heartsick as she when their own grown children faced adversity.

The opinion piece struck a chord with me. As the parents and stepparents to five young adults – all thriving, thank God — we too struggle with how much we should help them when they hit a rough spot. Around us we see many of our peers faced with decisions about whether to help pay their children’s college loans when they lose their jobs; whether to make a phone call on their behalf, or offer to do research to help them make a decision; whether to say what they really think about the sketchy girlfriend or boyfriend.  They feel bereft when their kids don’t call; when their 20- or 30-somethings are less than forthcoming about how they feel or what is going on in their lives.

As we watch our adult children make their way in the world, many boomer parents worry about their setbacks and missteps with the same anxiety they once felt about sharp edges, strangers, new drivers licenses and college partying. The hard-wired instincts to step in and offer advice and support are not easily disabled, no matter how old they get. (Ask any of us in our 50s who are still getting advice from parents in their 80s…and bristling when it happens!)

Part of this, I think, is the need to be needed when our children have out-grown our parenting.  We feel competent and strong when we feel we’ve really helped them.  But is it really helpful?  Or is it like scratching an itch that won’t get better until we leave it alone?

Most of us walk a thin line between letting our children figure things out for themselves and saving them from themselves. And sometimes the best thing to do is to stifle our instinct to solve their problems, and to tell them: “You’re a smart kid…I know you’ll figure it out.”

The comments to Engel’s column were as intriguing as the essay itself, and showed how polarized both young adults and their parents are about this issue. A few felt that Engel was wrong to air her son’s problems in the New York Times. One grandmother advised her to “keep your mouth shut and your arms open.” One 20-something wrote that he really wants sympathetic listening rather than advice from his parents. And another young adult provided this script: “Mom,when I tell you what’s wrong, I don’t want you to tell me how to fix it, and I don’t want you to tell me it’s not as bad as I think. I just want your sympathy.” YES!

I would love to hear from parents of young adults, and the young adults themselves, on this topic. Parents: have you ever struggled with how much to help your grown children, or have you found an approach that works? And young adult children: how can your well-meaning parents help you the most?

The Kids Are Alright In London

Three of our six children are partying in London today. They booked this vacation in December because the dates worked for all of them, totally unaware that the Queen’s 60th jubilee would be going on during their visit. But what a party to crash!

For the past two days I’ve been watching the pageantry on TV and feeling so glad they are a part of it. I can picture them wandering around that stately and vibrant city – which we visited in April – amongst the fluttering British flags, goofy souvenir hats, overflowing pubs and revelers wearing masks of the Royal Family. My daughter Rachel, 27, is finally taking her first trip out of North America, after years of taking simpler vacations while she studies and works fulltime. My son Ryan, 24, lives in London, nine time zones away from his sister’s California apartment. Completing the trio is Bob’s son Jesse, their stepbrother, who’s on his second trip to Europe but his first to London. Within a few days they will join Bob’s daughter Rachel (yes, we have two Rachels) in Switzerland.

London is home to many distinctively named pubs. One of Jesse’s favorites.

Once we got the text that they landed safety, we were careful not to annoy them about keeping in touch. From our plush throne in the family room we watched the jubilee celebration on CNN and scanned the hundreds of thousands of faces along the Thames, looking for three familiar ones. We were thrilled when Jesse sent a message with a photo of the Queen’s royal barge, taken from Vauxhall Bridge, their vantage point for the jubilee celebration. I Google-mapped Vauxhall Bridge right away and shared the excitement vicariously for just a moment. I lurked on their Facebook pages to check for posts and pix, and my heart jumped a few minutes ago when I finally was rewarded. What other parent of grown kids still hovers like this?

Can’t help wondering if they are managing to stay dry, if their passports are in a safe place, if they’ve stowed their pounds and pence deep enough in their pockets. I hope they’ve learned the London subway and can remember the address of the hotel after the pubs close.

My kids, who live nine time zones apart, are enjoying being together in the world’s greatest city.

Worries aside, the fact that our children are vacationing together brings us profound joy. Fourteen years ago, after Bob and I married, I relocated to Boston with Rachel and Ryan, my kids from my first marriage. It was a vulnerable time for Bob’s kids and mine. Each family was used to having their parent all to themselves. But on our very first day here, Jesse insisted that my kids join him and his friends on a trip to the rope swing, a popular youth hangout on the banks of a nearby reservoir. It would be their first adventure in their new home, and Jesse was sensitive enough to know they needed one. The ensuing decade when we became a family was an adventure too, and there were times when we were not at our best. But with time, love and patience it did happen.

So now our amazing young adults are enjoying their latest great adventure — a continent away from the first one, as siblings and great friends, making their own way without us.

Farewell to the Mom-Mobile

After 13 years of driving my practical van, there’s a new vehicle in my life. It’s a sleek sedan with a racy profile and metallic gray paint. A protrusion on the back of the roof looks like a small shark fin. The Michelin tires flash more chrome than rubber. Its technology system, which has a two-inch-thick manual that is too daunting to read, is so sophisticated that the car can practically drive itself. Its rear seats are heated. Despite a few nods to practicality – including a very roomy trunk — it is a sexy car.

Bob and I kept the 1999 Toyota van that once served as the “mom-mobile,” for trips to Lowe’s and in case one of our grown children needs it to move to a new apartment. But the old black warhorse, with numerous scratches and 186,000 miles under its belt, no longer has the pampered spot in our garage. The sexy car is parked in that spot now, and the unglamorous van is parked outside the house, next to the garage window, peering in like a jilted accountant spying forlornly on his ex and her personal trainer.

I don’t drive the van much any more – just enough to keep its battery turning over – but every so often I look through its windows, or sit in it and breathe in the old-car scent and the memories. When we brought home the van I was 44, newly remarried and newly relocated, with a blending family and a bonus baby. We brought John, now 13, to the apple orchard in the van when he was just a year old, running around the orchard with a half-eaten apple in each hand. The van brought our son Ben on his paper route during icy afternoons. Its front seat served as a psychologist’s couch during the years before the kids could drive themselves, when they’d (very) occasionally share their worries and ask our advice.

That car survived a rear-ender on a cold January night, when I had picked up my daughter Rachel and her friend from basketball practice and I foolishly changed lanes without signaling. Its rubber bumper still shows the bash from a parking lot hit-and-run in State College, PA. Our grown sons took the van to the Outer Banks six years ago, stopping at numerous souvenir shops selling hams and Confederate flags along the way, while we drove ahead in the sedan. Beach sand from Cape Cod to North Carolina still dwells deep in its battered car mats. Crumbs from a cookie baked in 2005; sliding doors sticky from spilled Juicy-Juice; stains on the gray velour seats from a preteen with motion sickness…they are all still there; badges of valor on a vehicle that did its job, year in and year out.

When I drive the van now my hand goes to the wrong place when I shift from park to reverse to drive. I feel a twinge of impatience when the van doesn’t accelerate as fast as I expect. The new car is fast becoming the regular car.

Old cars always make me feel wistful and a little melancholy. Every unloved car in the junkyard once made someone’s heart quicken. After a year or two new cars stop exciting us, and after a decade they become a problem, until we need to do the math to decide whether the cost of maintaining them is worth it.

But for now, the old van is our retired hero…no longer in active duty, but still venerated and appreciated. Its 186,000 miles are a symbol of how far we’ve come.

The Mom-Mobile's replacement.