Children

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photo credit: Jessica Ackerman

My nephews turned 18 today.  Twins, they are identical in appearance — both handsome, both 6 feet+ tall with shy smiles and long limbs that seem only loosely attached to their rangy frames — but are each definitely their own person.

Knowing my deep desire for children of my own, my brother and sister-in-law were kind enough to let me barge into the hospital and hang around in the moments just before and after William and Holden’s births. During one of the most intense, focused and private events of their lives, David and Jessica tolerated my intrusion and my boundless joy at the prospect of their boys’ arrival.  I can never thank them enough for this act of profound generosity.

William was the first to make his appearance. The exact sequence of events is lost to me now, but shortly after he emerged, someone — a nurse, I think — handed him to me while the rest of the room turned its attention to ushering Holden into the world. From the folds of his hospital receiving blanket, William, this small person only minutes old, looked into my eyes and gave me the deepest shock of my life: I knew him.  It was the shock of recognition.  I can’t explain it.  It may have been nothing more than the familiarity of his features, the mix of his parents’ unique traits, the bits of my brother and our parents that I saw mingled with those of William’s mother and her family.  But it jolted me to the core. It was unexpected and it took my breath away.

I’d read about the biological magic of infant-mother bonding in the moments just after birth. To tell the truth, I had read a lot of books about childbirth and child rearing. It was somewhat of an obsession in those days. When my nephews were born, I was in my late 30’s and firmly believed that one way or another, I, too, would eventually become a parent. I have wondered since if what I felt at that moment looking into William’s blue eyes was similar to the bonding that happens between mother and child. If so, I think I have idea how powerful and utterly true it must be.

In the end, I was to be no one’s parent. Heartbreak, divorce, inattention and disconnection delivered me, inconceivably, into my early 40’s single and without children of my own. I had operated for a long while under the misapprehension that I had all kinds of time. After all, the media was full of stories of glowing women in their late 40’s and even 50’s giving birth to healthy children. I wrestled with the decision of whether or not to do it on my own. Volumes have been written about the joys and difficulties of single parenthood.  I examined my inventory of life skills, my finances, the practicality of doing a good job as a parent while also holding down a full time job, the fantasy of motherhood balanced against the inevitable realities of managing alone.  I consulted my family and closest friends, some of whom were supportive of the idea and some of whom were decidedly not.

Despite the fact that I was partner- and penniless, the drive to know my own offspring, to meet them and love them, was an irrefutable imperative. I decided to go for it, though I will admit, with plenty of apprehension. I began the process by talking with a few close male friends about being sperm donors. A few said they would consider it. Two said yes and then decided against it. Most said they wanted nothing to do with such a plan. In the end it seemed less complicated to find an anonymous donor. I read through profiles of candidates with a sort of dreadful fascination, looking for perfection and hoping that I would be able to spot the Ted Bundys before I settled on anyone. And I started having fertility tests, just to make sure all systems were go.

I thought I was mishearing the doctor on the afternoon she told me my eggs had expired — that I had a less than 1% chance of conceiving.  She suggested I consider becoming a scout leader or soccer coach instead.

International adoption agencies, too, told me I was not qualified — too old, too single, too broke. I thought they had a point.

I think, all things considered, it worked out for the best.  For my potential kids, anyway. It would have been too much. I would have fucked it up. I couldn’t really afford a child. I would have been exhausted and short-tempered and it would have meant compromising any reasonable standards for what acceptable parenting should look like.  I have battled depression my whole life and who wants to pass that along to another generation? I am lucky enough to have a bevy of godchildren, a step daughter who came into my life when she was six (that’s another story) and more recently a grown step son, the children of my dearest friends, and those amazing nephews of mine — the closest things I will ever have to genetic offspring.

The parents of all these young people have been generous enough to allow me to be a full participant in their children’s lives. I’ve been there for all the milestones. I’ve changed diapers and danced colicky babies across the floor in my arms for hours.  I’ve read thousands of picture books and chapter books aloud. I’ve organized birthday parties and shared crayons and washed sticky hands and pried sharp objects from tiny grips. I have heard the earnest practicing of saxophones and pianos. I have rejoiced over good report cards and commiserated over less than stellar ones. I have worked on table manners, played trucks and dress-up, decorated Christmas cookies, and gotten lumpy-throated at christenings and graduations. And I never lost a good night’s sleep over a vomiting child or worrying that any of them might suddenly stop breathing or crash a car. Really, I’ve gotten the better end of the deal.

There is a special privilege in being a close, non-parent adult in a child’s life.  You get to be there without the stunning pressure of knowing that it is your job to keep them alive. It does not require the constant vigilance that I imagine parenting does. You get to go home when you’ve had enough. You have the space to listen without having to manage your own feelings about being their parent. You don’t have to watch your own failings being replicated, or risk the crushing disappointment if they turn out to be thugs or deadbeats or tell you they hate you, that you did a shitty job raising them.

When you are just the auntie or the godparent, they tell you stuff they might not feel free enough to share with their actual parents.  You and they can talk about anything and everything.  I have tried to be a good listener.  What is your favorite color?  What do you want to be when you grow up? How did your game go? What is your favorite subject?  Do you have a girl/boyfriend? Are you being safe? How is your job going? Do you feel truly ready for marriage? All of it.

Still. I miss my own children. I rehearse their names. I imagine their faces. I still ache to know them, to see what they might do, who they might become.  My nephews, now on the home stretch of high school, carry the tiniest bits of biological me on into the future.  Or the bits, anyway, that I share with my brother, their dad. They are by any measure people to be proud of.  They are straight-A students, National Merit Scholars, co-captains of their ice hockey and baseball teams, and they have been accepted at good colleges. They have great friends, are loved by many and give their parents scarcely a moment of grief.

Most delightful of all, they are honest, sincere young men with good brains (which I hope they will continue to use) and hearts full of kindness and sensitivity that will serve them well.  Eighteen years have flown by. I am still in that delivery room, astonished that you can take a thimbleful of this and a little bit of that, mix them together and come out nine months later with a full-fledged human being — or two human beings, as the case may be.  I could not be more proud of them.

My Kin, June 2013 (photo credit: David Murray)

 

Birch Bark & Shoe Laces

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SCAN0249Summer camp in Vermont was the most formative experience of my childhood. Each summer for 8 weeks I came fully alive at Aloha Hive and Aloha Camp. Deep, lasting friendships bloomed like wildflowers, and outdoor skills became second nature. I can still build a blazing fire with damp wood, sail a boat in any kind of weather, find my way in the woods without a trail, and paddle a canoe in a perfectly straight line. And now, 40+ years later, I still count those camp friends among my most dear.

Those months at camp were full of tradition and ritual, all closely linked to the woods and fields, rivers and lakes around us. Special occasions popped-up with some regularity and required on-going creativity.

Parties were part of the regular weekly schedule. Campers were in charge of coming up with the theme and figuring out how to execute the activities. We used what we had in our trunks or what we could employ from the wild for decorations and costumes. Pajamas and raincoats were paired with construction paper, birch bark and yarn for inventive outfits. Gifts were fashioned out of bandanas and thread. We learned to improvise with actual shoestrings. Imaginations flourished; resourcefulness and creativity grew exponentially.

The Pink Room

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A party without a cake is just a meeting.

— Julia Child

SCAN0247Elizabeth (my mother) loves arranging flowers. As I was growing up, she created beautiful centerpieces out of both traditional and non-traditional elements. She was not afraid to experiment.

She took — and still takes — great pleasure in making things look beautiful. I have memories of branches, piles of flowers and fruit spray-painted gold transformed into works of art. For special occasions she used place cards, plates, glassware and napkins as if she were composing a painting.   At friends’ birthday parties, presents wrapped by her were the easiest to spot – they were the ones with the perfect bows and the loveliest matching paper.

At my own birthday parties she went all out. My birthday often falls near Easter, and this provided lots of room for thematic accouterments. There was the cake shaped like a bunny (I still have the instructions she tore from a magazine explaining how to do it). And another party, my friends and I decorated Easter bonnets with millinery flowers and ribbon and lots of glue. That’s me at the head of the table at my 5th birthday party, wearing my newly adorned Easter bonnet.

In our house there was a spare bedroom that the previous owners had painted pink. The ‘Pink Room’ became my mother’s de facto workshop. This was where she kept her scissors and glue, gold spray paint, pink tissue paper, and miles of rickrack and grosgrain ribbon. And whenever access was granted to all of this, I could feel my brain switch on. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that stuff.

It was in the Pink Room that I learned how to iron a sheet and expertly wrap a gift. It was there that I perfected my own bow-tying techniques.

 

Cues

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I come from a tradition of ‘gracious living.’ Mainly, this meant following a lot of rules.

My parents – as had their parents and their parents’ parents – insisted on impeccable table manners: napkins in laps, elbows off the table, no milk cartons on the table, stay at the table until every last pea on your plate is gone, always ask to be excused.

Elizabeth, my mother, liked to entertain and taught me how to set a table with utensils positioned precisely à la Emily Post. (I can still tell you which size spoon or fork goes where.) I learned to always serve on the left and clear on the right – but don’t start clearing until everyone is finished.

When being introduced or departing, we were taught one must look grown-ups in the eye and give them a firm handshake while saying “Very nice to meet you,” or “Thank you very much for the nice time.”

Sunday noontime dinners at my paternal grandparents’ house meant ‘Sunday Best’ attire (party dresses and black patent leather shoes with stubborn buttons that required a hook to fasten), doilies under the coasters under the crystal, and green beans with vinegar.

There was a little button on the underside of the dining room table at my grandfather’s end to summon the help. Meals arrived in courses and one sat through each of them in turn, patiently. If the grown-ups talked too much creating a slow-down, my younger brother would swing his legs back and forth, back and forth. Grandmother actually owned a set of finger bowls handed down from her mother. While I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do with mine, my little brother floated crackers in his and flicked the lemon-scented water at me.

It was on one of those afternoons after Sunday lunch when, as we were standing in my grandparents’ front hall getting ready to leave, I stuck out my hand and said in a loud, brave voice to my formidable, Dutch Reform-churched grandfather, “Thank you very much for the nice time.” There was stunned silence and the clearing of throats while my mortified mother steered me out the front door, tossing off a laugh and explaining that formalities were not for grand parents.

This was one of those moments that sticks with you like a permanent bruise. Confusion and humiliation mixed as a toxic cocktail and nearly felled me. The upside? I started paying closer attention to the social subtleties.