Tree Hugging

TreeOne of my more embarrassing college relationships involved a boy who wrecked my car, while borrowing it to stalk his ex-girlfriend.

He was older, having already left one school under dramatic circumstances. We met in a creative writing class and I liked his romantic backstory, his problems with alcohol, his divorce. I was 19, maybe 20, years old, five feet tall and 100 pounds, small boned with short hair and an endless appetite for attention and drama. He described me as a pixie, a sprite, a wood nymph. I liked this image of myself. I liked the idea of being a wood nymph held safe by a dangerous, solid tree of a man.

One fall night, when his own car was still operational, we took a stoned drive through a park I’d never been been to before. He liked to drive with the heat on and the windows down. It’s wasteful, but try it just once, you’ll see. We parked and took a walk making up stories about the trees in which the trees were fully verbal characters, bound to the ground. We kissed, leaning against a tree for support. “You are a wood nymph,” he whispered into my hair. “I like kissing you here in your element.” As laughably stupid as it sounds now, I’m sure that at the time it sounded very romantic to us both. Drunk on kisses, romance, and actual alcohol I broke free from him and ran through the park hugging trees.

It was the first time I had ever hugged a tree. The next time was in my late 20s in Muir Woods. I worked for a start up that made video games, and we were taken to San Francisco for a launch party. I was a professional writer, on a project that involved launch parties! I was on a glamorous trip, staying at the Ritz! Overcome by the size and beauty of the Redwoods, the excitement of the trip, the thrill of feeling like I was actually successful, the stress of trying to be cool for an entire long weekend, I leaned my head against a redwood and started to cry. “Marta, what are you doing?” someone asked. “You know me, I’m just a hippie tree hugger,” I laughed, ineffectively wrapping my arms around the giant.

That was it for my tree hugging, until recently. A few weeks ago we learned that a large tree in front of our house would be taken down. It is the third tree we’ve lost since we moved in 14 years ago, the last of the trees that was here when we bought the house. It was my son’s favorite. Once, in kindergarten, he asked if he could just stay home “and watch the trees wiggle,” meaning this tree. As much as I wanted to let him do so, I sent him to school.

My son is a hugger. He hugs me, he hugs his friends, he hugs the dog, he hugs his sister, no matter how much she objects, he hugs the tree. Two nights ago, when the no parking signs made it clear the day was close he asked me if I wanted to come outside and hug the tree goodbye. So we did. We hugged the tree, and took a branch, and gathered some leaves. It was his first day of middle school and we were both doing our best to hold it together.

Today, while he was at his third day of middle school, workers came and took down the tree.

If you had told me in my teens or twenties how brief that time would be, I would not have believed it. It seemed to stretch on forever, an endless searching for people to love me, a search for myself. It’s a cliche, but it was not until I had my own children that I began to see how quickly time goes. Trees are supposed to live for hundreds of years. It does not seem too much to ask that one tree could follow my boy on the brief journey from birth to elementary school to middle school and high school, to his own stupid college romances, and eventually his own children.

I never liked the children’s book The Giving Tree. The self sacrificing female tree, the boy who keeps taking and taking and gets away with it …  it all cuts a little too close to home for a girl who would loan her car to a guy so he could follow someone else. But today I guess I feel it. Trees have sheltered me throughout my life and I have hugged them three times.

It is my reminder that nothing is permanent, not even the trees.


Posted in Family Life | Tagged , | Leave a comment

End of Season

grafiti on cabin wallIt happens at every camp, every year. With tools stolen from woodworking or arts and crafts children scratch and scribble their names on bunks, shelves, cabin walls, anywhere they can. The camps try and prevent it, they threaten that any and all graffiti will be photographed and sent to parents with a bill for damages. They make camp-sanctioned plaques that everyone in the cabin signs. The plaques have inside jokes and decorations and the camp hopes it will keep the children from trying to make their mark, but children will always try and make their mark. They scribble and scratch through very camp session, looking for the hidden spot that will let their name stand the test of time.

Some imagine that one day a future camper will come along and wonder about them. The future camper will feel a close connection to this mysterious name. One boy carves his name imagining himself 30 years in the future showing his son the hidden relic. He hopes that by leaving his mark, and showing his child how he did it, where he lived, he will have provided the guidance his own father has not. A girl practices her autograph, confident that one day a young girl will sleep here and be amazed that she is in the same spot that once housed the famous actress/model/champion horseback rider/wife of the rock star.

Others scribble furiously, desperate to mark and maim the place that has marked them. If their name stands that means they will have survived the stolen underwear thrown on the rafters, the mysteriously-always-wet bathroom floor, the endless bug bites, the slight shift to the right at circle time that forces the scribbler to push just a little too hard to break into the group. One day in a performance review her well-meaning boss will bring up her tendency to push too hard, to lecture when simply asking would have sufficed, to always make her presence felt. Neither of them will know where this tendency came from, never guessing it started here, under a scratchy wool blanket, stolen awl in hand.

Some write their names to kill time, waiting for their roommates to sleep. Only in the quiet can they safely bring the image of the waterfront counselor, still dressed in a damp swimsuit with a white t-shirt and the barest of shorts thrown over it, sneaking a cigarette behind the mess hall, to the forefront of their mind. They have held the precious image in the background all day. It would be too much to think of the tall blonde shivering slightly and jingling her anklet with every exhale with the creaking mattress noises of others’ fantasies, and so they write and wait for others to drift off to their satisfied sleep.

Some doodle without purpose. They have already developed a casual, cheerful indifference to the world around them. They will continue to carelessly mark the world letting their dirty socks and half-formed opinions litter other people’s pristine floors, leaving their names scrawled carelessly on hearts and walls.

And then summer is over. The scribblers, happy, furious, sad, and indifferent go home. Some go home to happier lives full of friends who have never seen them naked, friends who do not find it funny to try and spill their bug juice at every meal. Some go home to fighting parents and vindictive teachers, to bullies who are not impressed by their ability with a canoe. They dare not scribble on walls at school, instead during math class they silently finger the lanyard hidden in their pocket.  The maintenance crew will come and seek out the names, scrubbing and spackling them away wherever possible. Early next summer a new group will come, looking to see if their name survived, wondering if they will ever make a mark.



Posted in Random Stories | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Last Night

Last night my 11-year-old hit a baseball. It wasn’t a home run, he was out at first, but he hit the ball. It’s been a struggle for him since he left t-ball for kid pitch. He loves sports, he loves baseball, he wants so badly to be good at it, but he’s also an anxious kid, a kid afraid of getting hit by the ball. Even now that he’s not as afraid of being hit, his muscle memory still tells him that when a ball is coming towards you, you should get out of the way.

He knows more about baseball, about the rules, about strategy, about the history, than a lot of adults, but he does not know how to make himself stay in the batter’s box. There have been games that have left him in tears of frustration. Last night he hit the ball and advanced runners. I was not there.

I was watching my 13-year-old and her Girl Scout Troop welcome a group of 11-year-old girls to middle school. She and her friends planned the evening. They shared tips no adults could ever tell these girls about how to get along in middle school. “Always have an extra pencil you can loan someone, but don’t keep your pencils in a clear bag or everyone will want them.” “If you don’t want to go outside after lunch, just go to the bathroom and then go back in and sit with new kids.”

She helped plan the event, but originally didn’t have a speaking role. In her second year of taking a Speech, Drama, and Debate class, she still does not really like the speaking part. Then she discovered she was the only one who could talk about Instagram, and one of the scouts who was supposed to talk about lunch couldn’t make it, so she rose to the task and stayed in the batter’s box and hit the ball, too.

Last night, an ocean away, children were being terrorized. It is easy to imagine my own children there, at a pop concert. Maybe I would have taken them, miserable about the idea of listening to the music, giddy at the idea of watching my children enjoy themselves, knowing that this was a step, a stage of growing up that I got to observe. Or maybe one of them would have been asked by a friend and the friend’s parent to go. Maybe they would have been one of the young teens left stranded in a hotel lobby, waiting for a parent to find them, waiting for a parent to explain.

I know that other things happened last night to other children. I know children around the world, children close to home were hungry and scared. I know children struggled with fear, and baseball, and an abusive parent, and homework, and war, and entering middle school, and illness, and gossip, and terror.

As parents we hold all of these children as close to us as possible. There are times when it hurts too much to look at the children of the world. There are times when it hurts too much to look at our own.

Last night children rejoiced. Last night children were killed.

Posted in Family Life | Tagged | Leave a comment

Unexpected Lessons

It’s not a popular statement in “mommy groups” where we’re all supposed to agree that parenting is SO HARD ALL THE TIME but, I’ve occasionally said that the hardest part of being my daughter’s mother was her birth. It was ridiculously, life-threateningly, hard. It was not made easier when she spent the first two days of her life in the NICU, but from then on, it’s actually been pretty smooth sailing.

I mean, there were, and are, issues, concerns, worries. Her early shyness and clinginess were extreme enough to seek out evaluations and earn a diagnosis of “poor proprioception.” She has very flat feet and one leg is slightly shorter than the other, so there were corrective arches for a while. Oh, and she’s a horrible speller. I mean, really, really bad at spelling. But mainly, she’s  a great kid and she’s healthy. Her father and brother are asthmatic and prone to colds, flus, coughs, not her. She’s rarely sick, but when she is, it’s kind of brutal.

Two days before her bat mitzvah she got sick. It was brutal.

One of the things that makes my daughter such a delight, and such a mystery to me, is that she’s a hard worker. I am not a hard worker. If I like something, I’ll do it, but if I don’t, if it’s too hard or too boring, like math, I generally just don’t do it. This isn’t a personality trait that I’m necessarily proud of, but it is something I accept about myself. My daughter is different. She doesn’t have to like or not like something, if she has to do it, she works at it. If it’s something she wants and likes, she works really, really, really hard. If it’s something she doesn’t care about, she just works really hard.

She worked really hard on her bat mitzvah. Some days, she worked really, really, really hard, but mainly, she worked really hard. My daughter is also an Irish dancer. Her bat mitzvah came right in the middle of Irish dance season and she worked really, really, really hard at dance. Her bat mitzvah was in the morning, she had a dance performance that afternoon.

She was perfectly prepared for both. She prepped and practiced and then, she woke up the day before with no voice, a slight fever, and coughing.

The day of her bat mitzvah she woke up at 6:00 am, ready to go. By the time she was ready to start at 10:00 am, she was still ready to go. About 20 minutes in, she started to cough. She sat down and began chugging water in a desperate attempt to keep her throat coated. She made it through her torah portion and her haftorah, and then, she really, really had to pee. She did what any logical person in need of a bathroom would do and raced through her d’var torah. Her beautifully written, somewhat subversive and sassy d’var torah. A d’var torah that questioned the very validity of her torah portion, not to mention threw a little shade at everyone who had bought a new dress for the occasion (including her mother). It was a piece de resistance, that was supposed to let her show everyone what she really thought, and no one heard a word, or rather, people heard a few words, very, very quickly.

She read it so quickly that the congregation burst in to spontaneous laughter/applause when she was done.

Things did not go as planned. She was a little embarrassed, but she recovered, and despite being sick, she went on to dance later in the day. She was tired, she was still sick, but she loves to dance, and her group was expecting her.

Once when she was little my daughter said, “I am not a person who does things well.” She meant she wasn’t one of those people who can naturally do things like cartwheels. My daughter is smart and beautiful, she’s kind and caring, but she doesn’t have that one thing that she’s always just been naturally good at. She is a hard worker. In the end of course, hard workers tend to do better in life than natural talents. Natural talents have a tendency to be afraid to make mistakes, to be unwilling to try new things, to refuse to listen to other people, to get a  little too caught up in their natural talent. But natural talents are glamorous and talked about, hard-workers tend to get overlooked.

Her father and I are not natural talents either, and we know how it feels. We had hoped that her bat mitzvah would give her a boost of confidence. We knew how hard she would work and that because of that work she would be beautifully prepared. We thought that meant she would do a beautiful job and be able to take the memory of that with her always. We thought maybe she would see this as something she was “good at.”

Instead, she was beautifully prepared, and through no fault of her own, she did not do a fantastic job. She did a good job, she did a fantastic job considering … but not the fantastic job she was prepared to do.

One week later, she is still sick and missing part of her voice. Her father is still sick and now, so am I. This morning I was dragging. I had to go to work, she had four performances and school today, her brother had to be taken care of.  “I don’t know how I’ll get through the day,” I said.

“Mom, if I could get through my bat mitzvah, you can get through today,” she answered.

Just like that, my daughter proved once again why being her mother is so easy. She writes her own lesson plans, she finds her own teachable moments.

Did she learn the lesson that hard work always pays off? No, because as much as we all pretend it’s the case, that lesson is just not true. Instead, she learned a better lesson, a true lesson. Sometimes, life sucks. Sometimes things are not fair. Sometimes, through no fault of your own, things are much, much harder than they should be. But you can survive it.

If you can survive your bat mitzvah with a fever, a cold, no voice and really, really having to pee, you can survive anything. If you can get what needs doing done and still have enough in you to go on and dance a jig, you can not only survive, you can thrive.


Posted in Family Life | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Heroes and Valentines

Most 21st century parents are big on “consequences.” We talk about the consequences of actions, we try and outdo each other to make sure we are allowing are children to suffer the natural consequences of their actions (don’t ever, ever bring a middle school child or older a forgotten lunch or be prepared to forever walk a walk of shame). Sometimes we just throw the word out there as a stand in for “vague and horrible punishment,” as in, “If you don’t put down the phone and put on your shoes now there will be consequences.”

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to truly know the consequences of an action.

I’ve taken a temporary job that requires me to be in an office every day. It’s the first time in over a decade that I’ve gone in to an office every day, as opposed to on occasion. What are the consequences of that? Will my house fall apart in a month, or will my kids suddenly become more independent and confident? Will the extra money reduce some stress, or will I spend it all on paying for a sitter and buying meals? Will the consequence of taking this job be a recommitment to working from home, or the desire to get another in-office job?

The other day I was on an EL that switched to run express. Apparently, one man on the train didn’t hear the announcement and decided to force open the doors and jump out at a station. The consequence of his action was further delays. Who knows who was late to work or missed a phone call because of his decision. But, who knows what this man made it to by jumping off the train.

Yesterday, on Valentine’s Day, on the commute home, a man yelled for someone to hold the doors for him. There’s an argument to be made that during rush hour especially you should never do this. Trains come regularly, and if every train was held for one minute the whole system would get horribly off schedule. But a young man held the door for him.

From the second the man entered the car, we all knew holding the door was either a colossal error or the beginnings of a great story. “WHEW!” He yelled, “I am 50 years old, I can not be running for trains like this anymore. That is too much.”

The rest of the car was quiet, still waiting to learn the consequence of the man holding the door. Would we be entertained? Asked for money? Verbally assaulted? Was there going to be a fight? It was all still unclear.

“Alright, then, it’s Valentine’s Day, so I’m gonna do you all a favor. I’m gonna sing a song and you can take it home tonight and sing it to your honey and they’re gonna love it.” At this point, less-experienced commuters might have written off the potential for violence, but the rest of us knew it was still anyone’s guess.

“Everyone wants a hero. My name ain’t Superman, but I’m going to be your hero, I want to be your hero,” he sang. “There, now isn’t that beautiful, take it home, your girl is gonna love it.” Suddenly, the young man who had held the door for him started rapping the lyrics back to him while his friends laughed. “Hmm, now, that’s interesting Young Turk, but I don’t know about the rap. I don’t think that’s the way to get a girl. They want romance, they want the song.”

“Whatever,” said the young man and he and his friends got off the train.

“You, know it’s Valentine’s Day,” the singer continued. I just want to remind everyone on here to call your mama and tell her happy Valentine’s Day. I’m gonna do it now, ok. I’ll put her on speaker phone.” He then proceeded to take out his cell phone.

“Hi Baby!”
“Mama, happy Valentine’s Day. I’m on the train and you’re on speaker phone and I just wanted to tell you happy Valentine’s Day and remind everyone else to call their mothers.”
“Well, that’s sweet honey, yes, every0ne surely should call their mamas and say happy Valentine’s Day.”
“OK, Mama, I gotta get off the train now, love you.”

We were all quiet. I didn’t know the woman sitting across from me, but she looked like someone I should know. We were about the same age, same hair, she was reading a book from the Oak Park library and wearing red tights with hearts. She had been reading her book for most of the trip, occasionally looking up at the singer, and then at me to share a conspiratorial “This is kind of fun,” smile. I looked down at my own book and then heard her, “Hi Mom, Happy Valentine’s Day.” I looked up and we both cracked up. “So, I’m on the train and there was this guy and he said everyone should call their moms and now the girl across from me is laughing hysterically at me.”

“He got you,” I said.
“He really did,” she answered.

She got off the phone with her mom and went back to her book. When she got off the train at the stop before me we exchanged Happy Valentine’s Days.

My son and I generally share a long snuggle before bedtime. We talk about the day and decompress. Sometimes he gets a little sad as all the energy of the day leaves his body. “I want to laugh more,” he told me.

So I told him the story of my train ride home.

He laughed so loud his rarely-seen-at-bedtime-13-year-old-sister came in to find out what was up. He made me repeat the story. She laughed, and then they both went to bed.

I don’t care what the physicists say, it is not true that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Sometimes the consequence is better than you could expect.


Posted in Random Stories | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Two Days in the Life

Yesterday was a bad day to be a work from home freelancer. I have two projects due at the end of the week. But, before I knew that I’d have two projects with the same deadline, I made an appointment to go see a caterer about my daughter’s bat mitzvah brunch. This was the time that worked with my husband’s schedule, and he is heading out of town today, and so we kept the appointment.

It was lovely to sit in the restaurant and eat breakfast with my husband and talk to the owner about the event, but oh I had stuff to do.

I came home to do a conference call, and while others were talking I put myself on mute and wrapped my son’s birthday presents for that night. Then, I had to go back out to pick up hostess and new baby presents for my husband to bring on his business trip, because he is also going to have dinner with family while he’s there. Oh, and by the way, his business trip is actually a job interview, out of town, which is something we are forced to consider because my job is oh so flexible and oh so transportable. (Also, friends, don’t get too distracted by that and start texting me asking if we’re moving, as of now, we aren’t.)

On the way out to pick up the presents I noticed that someone had mysteriously left a bag of dog poop on my back porch. When I came back from the errands, I spent 30 minutes talking to the police about why someone might have walked in to my backyard and up my steps in order to leave me dog poop.

Then, I had to put in laundry, because someone is leaving town. Then I wrote one fifth of the project before my son came home. There was homework to deal with, and that turned in to tears, because it was his birthday, and no one should have to do math on their birthday. Then there was hockey to take him to, and by the time I was home from that, my daughter was home, more homework and more nudging, and more laundry, walking the dog, and approximately one fifth more of one project. Sushi was finally decided on as the birthday dinner, and I went and picked it up. At 10:30 I went to bed, having accomplished almost nothing.

Today was a good day to be a freelancer working from home. Today I had an appointment downtown, across the street from the Art Institute. So after my appointment I wandered in to the museum just as they were opening. I went to the Thorne Miniature rooms and stood in front of my favorite rooms, imagining myself appropriately dressed to live in them. I went to the paperweights and stared. I went to see Renoir’s Two Sisters on the Terrace, known in my family as “my painting,” because as a child I had a Madame Alexander doll of the younger sister (in my world, her name is Lynn Jane, and yes, I still have her). My kids each also have a painting, but I did not visit theirs. Instead, I went to a gallery I have never been to, then I went to see the Chagall windows. I went to the member’s lounge and had a cup of not-very-good coffee, but I had a cup of coffee and THEN I went and ate lunch at the cafe. On the way out, I went to visit Ganesh and Buddha.

I came home and there was no dog poop on my porch. I finished part of a project, I walked the dog, and my son came home. We did homework and I worked some more. I wrote something as a favor to a friend, I called another caterer about the evening party. I’m writing this, and then I will work a little more. My doorbell keeps ringing as children from the block come in for something my daughter has planned. Eventually, I will need to go find out what it is. When I go to bed tonight I probably will not have accomplished any more than I did yesterday.

Some days, this always at work, always at home, always doing everything feels like an unfair burden. Some days it feels like an unfair privilege. You never know what will happen in a day.


Posted in Family Life | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sick Day

Some of my favorite memories from childhood are from sick days. I don’t mean the older, hold a heating pad up to the thermometer so that you can skip school and get stoned sick days. What I loved were the younger sick days, when I was actually sick. Those days when my mom wheeled the small black and white tv on the cart in to my room and I spent the day dozing and watching game shows and soap operas I was too young to understand. Sometimes I would wander in to the kitchen, opening cabinets and looking for secret stashes of candy. Sometimes I would sneak in to my parents’ or my sister’s room and rifle through dresser drawers looking for diaries or proof that I was adopted.

When I was very young, my parents took me to work with them when I was sick. At my father’s office there was a separate lab office not in the same building as his regular office. When we got too bored he and I would go over there and I would spin in an old wooden spinning chair, climb up on gigantic, green metal stool to play with a huge green adding machine and make paper bracelets for the skeleton. When I went to work with my mom I would sit in the back of her classroom and draw pictures, and hide under an afghan in her office to read. Those days were fun, but they didn’t have the freedom of being slightly older and staying home sick.

Once, when I was in second or third grade and my mom thought I was asleep she slipped in to my room and left me a pitcher of 7up and a note to call her at work if I needed anything. Then she bent over the bed and put a cool hand on my forehead.

When my daughter started school I wanted to be able to recreate those feelings of love and comfort and freedom for her and I was fairly lax on what was required to stay home from school sick. Then, in second grade she had a particularly bad teacher and the sick days got a little out of hand and we had to institute a “no vomit, blood, or fever, go to school” rule. By the time she was in 5th grade, she was the world’s most responsible child and grew agitated at the idea of missing school.

She has relaxed slightly over the past two years, helped in part by the fact that she can do most of her classwork online. So, she is home sick today. She has been fighting a stuffy nose, sore throat, possible fever for days and together we decided that it would be best for her to stay in bed and lick it once and for all.

I work from home. There will be no rifling through drawers and cabinets for her, and I know better than to try and sneak into her room while she sleeps. But her father just helped her with her math homework and later maybe I can make her a smoothie and if I’m lucky, she may let me feel her forehead with the back of my hand.

Posted in Family Life | Tagged , | Leave a comment