Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Mom For All Seasons

Reprinted from "All About Motherhood: A Mom for All Seasons and Other Essays" available at or your favorite online bookstore. Happy Passover, Easter, and Spring to all!

Motherhood isn’t a seasonal thing: it blooms all year.  But the state of being a mother has its seasonal aspects, and the seasons do affect mommies in certain fairly predictable ways, just as we know that the lilacs will blossom in April, and the oak leaves will drop in the fall.
            When I was a newlywed girl (i.e., without children), autumn meant virtually nothing, other than a few snappy new office outfits and a couple of crunchy apples I might pick up in a Manhattan fruit stand.  Winter meant driving in snow, and spring and summer sure looked nice from my office window, but other than on my two-week vacation, I didn’t really experience the seasons in any palpable manner.
            Motherhood changed all that, and suddenly the seasons took on a new, absorbing power.  Summer, for instance, is now everything in a way that it never was before kids.  The sounds of children splashing in water, the movement of small bodies chasing fireflies across the yard, the whirring of cicadas mixed with the crashing of screen doors, and the excited voices of kids helping (and hindering) as we pack for vacation hold new and incomparable places in my heart and memory.  Just simply the question of what to do with kids in the summer lends a vibrancy and urgency hitherto unknown.
            At the end of August, what mother doesn’t feel the finale of summer and the excitement of “back to school” in the very fiber of her bones?   Suddenly, mothers everywhere are talking about backpacks and jeans, sneakers and jumpers, and where to get the best buy on notebooks.  Autumn means getting back into a regular routine; coaxing kids out of bed earlier, darker nights, homework and soccer. Apple picking trips, bright, crisp Saturdays searching for pumpkin patches, Halloween costumes, taking up the trumpet again or the piano; fingers stretching over the keys, hesitant blasts into the cool air.  Autumn with kids is filled with new experiences.  While traditionally leaves fall, greenery fades (okay, let’s be up front about it, things die), kids trot off to school in brand-new clothes, ready to learn all new things in a new class with a new teacher.  What mother doesn’t shiver with the sheer novelty and thrill of it all?
            Then comes winter, a season I used to dread. But hey, here we have the holidays—the lights, presents, pageants, songs, and all the festivities that suddenly take on a new brilliance because they involve our children. Snow isn’t just a clogged road anymore: it’s a snow day, a chance to sled down our hill with the dog chasing at our heels, it’s a reason to go outside and actually frolic! (something I certainly never did in weather below sixty degrees before children).  Suddenly, even winter has its highlights; the crunching sound of boots in the snow, the early nights to bed, the warm baths and soft quilts, the little tongues stretching out to taste a snowflake even though we warn against it!  With kids, winter’s a whole ‘nother ball game.
            Next comes spring. At last, they can ride their bikes after dinner, they can haul out their rollerblades and skates, plant some marigold seeds, hit some homers.  But spring isn’t just the good stuff. For a mom, it’s also the time of dirty, muddy sneakers tracking into the house, the time when it’s absolutely fruitlessly impossible to keep the floors clean, the time when the kids are so wired and hyped by the change in the temperature and the impending end of the school year that they don’t want to finish their homework, and they may be impudent and foul-mouthed.  It’s a time of rain, and general agitation mixed with the relief that spring always brings.
            Then, it’s over, and we begin again.  Naturally, this all goes more swiftly than we imagined, and we can hardly believe it’s summer already, or that summer is ending, or that winter is here. But that’s just the nature of it all, and the nature of motherhood, too.  We can’t believe that our baby is now two, or six. Or…17.
            And then there’s the fact that motherhood has its own inherent seasons; the newborn phase when everything is fresh and wonderful (spring), the autumn (toddler) phase when we’re getting a little annoyed now and then, the winter phase (with older children) when we’re feeling fed up and can’t remember why we ever had kids in the first place, and then the summer when we’ve really matured and grown into our roles, when we just take a deep breath and realize how incredibly, wonderfully lucky we are.
            Yes, the seasons mean more to mothers than perhaps to anyone else.  They not only mark the passing of time and the growth of our children, but they reflect our own growth as women who are mothers. And somehow, when we become mothers, the smell of a dark autumn night, or the sound of a child giggling across the smooth, summer water of a lake, or the sigh of a baby we rock in a sleepy, spring breeze just takes on an entirely different meaning. We’re mothers now, and the seasons have a significance we never before could have known or fathomed.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Importance of Doing Nothing

Note: In honor of upcoming Mother's Day, I'm devoting the next couple of posts to excerpts from my book, "All About Motherhood: A Mom for All Seasons and Other Essays," available at or your favorite online bookstore. Above, Ben on his 20th birthday and myself, still happily doing nothing together though he is indeed a very busy college student now.

If you’re a parent, you’ve certainly read those Richard Scarry books about all those busy people in Busy Town. You know, Lowly Worm, Bananas Gorilla, Huckle Cat and so forth, all running around in circles?  Sometimes, as I’m driving my kids to school in all the morning hustle and hysteria, I think of those books. Yes, these are busy times, and we’re all very busy people.
            These days, it’s fashionable to be busy; it’s not chic to spend the morning doing the same pig puzzle 100 times.  Busy is cool, but frantically busy, absolutely crazed by things to do, is even better, whether you have a “real” job or not.  Surely, all this busyness must be good. Yet something tells me we’re afraid to be unoccupied; we’re just a tad nervous about having time on our hands.  Clearly, idleness doesn’t fit in the computer age.  We don’t want to appear to be too mellow or too lazy; busyness indicates importance and success.  In the sixties, sitting around in a stupor gazing at flowers was perfectly acceptable behavior, but in the new millennium one must be on the go or eyebrows will arch.  Slowness is for slugs.
            So I’ll admit this in a whisper, as if it’s some kind of sin: Recently, my youngest son and I spent an entire morning doing nothing.  On this particular morning, I didn’t make any trips to the grocery store; I didn’t run down to put in laundry or down again to throw clothes in the dryer; I didn’t do any writing, networking or phone-calling; I didn’t make soup or clean the bathroom; I didn’t even wash the breakfast dishes until afternoon.  I did, I’ll confess, make a pot of coffee, but after that I spent the whole morning with my four-year-old, Ben.  We traced our hands and painted pictures; we dragged out all the puzzles we haven’t mastered in months and did each five times; we read books and listened to tapes, we played indoor “hide and seek.” In short, we “hung out.”  We didn’t do much of anything; we just…were.  Yes, we even watched the flowers growing.
            Not once did Ben appear to be bored. Never did he say, “Mom, when do you take me to preschool?” or “Can’t we go play with some kids in the park now?”  He was thrilled, it seemed, to possess my full, undivided attention, to feel that he was not just a distraction that keeps me from more important grown-up pursuits like scrubbing all the floors or making money.  And surprisingly, halfway into the morning, I realized that I was really enjoying this “free” time, too.
            Usually, when I call friends or colleagues, whether they’re parents or not, I get essentially the same answer when I ask, “What have you been doing?”
           “Oh, I’ve been really busy,” is the common response.  Or, “Things have been really hectic.”  Then I get a breathless, longwinded rundown of what the person has been up to: shopping, preparing for birthdays or holidays, taking courses, car pooling, volunteering, meeting deadlines, running the school candy sale, and so on, ad infinitum.  One friend of mine, who always calls me on her cell while on the L.A. Expressway driving home from work, is perpetually “just wrapping up a deal.”  Another, a teacher and mother, is always running from school to church to library meetings.  Sometimes (when she’s forced by laryngitis) she takes a day off.  Usually, however, she pushes herself to the outer limit before she’ll ever take a moment’s rest.
            Perhaps I’m a dreamer.  Okay, I am a dreamer, but I’d like to think that maybe in the future, we’ll learn how to slow down.  I’m not talking about old age here, either.  I’d like to think that even in the days of electronic mail, the Internet, two-income families, and the fax, there still will be times when I might call a friend and ask, “What are you doing?” and he or she would say without remorse, “Absolutely nothing.” Or even better, “I’m just finishing up a morning of building blocks with my two-year-old.”  Just once, I’d like to get a call from my West Coast friend when she’s sitting on her deck, leisurely sipping an iced tea and polishing her toenails, without the roaring backdrop of traffic.  “What are you doing?” I ask.  In my fantasy, she answers, “Zilch.”
            So maybe I’m foolish to admit this, but I’m really not that busy.  Yes, I do have three boys, and each has umpteen activities to be carted to, I do have housework and laundry and writing.  But when Ben looks at me and says, “Mom, help me do this puzzle,” I’m going to drop everything for a moment.
           I’ll be very busy, you see, doing nothing—nothing, that is, in the grown-up sense of the word.
            After all, one day Ben’s going to be too busy for me.  I don’t want to wonder, when that day comes, why I was always so hurried and preoccupied. So at the risk of sounding as if I’m lazy, I propose we all do nothing together with our children…while there’s still time.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Virginia's Oatmeal Cookies

When I was a child growing up in Schenectady, New York, I lived a completely different life, in many ways, than the one I live now. For one thing, there were no computers, cell phones, or  ipods (imagine playing with paper dolls and marbles!).  There were no fax machines or  DVDs. There were no CDs and no GPS’s. But even worse, in my opinion, there were no bagels. There was no hummus, no tabouli, and no baba ganoush. There was no pita, no naan. Computers I could live without today, but I don’t think I could survive without the possibility of pad thai or tom yum soup. Or tofu with black bean sauce.
            But back in the day, I survived on such staples as white bread (OMG), fish sticks (eeuw!), pot roast, cube steak, mashed potatoes, iceberg lettuce, and frozen peas (or, in the summer months, fresh peas from my uncle’s garden). The only “unusual” foods my mom ever served were “Spanish rice” (which consisted of white  “minute” rice, hamburger and tomatoes) and pizza.  Spices used were salt, salt, salt, pepper, and a dash of paprika or nutmeg. Now, don’t get me wrong. My mother was not a bad cook—in fact everything she made (with the exception of her coffee) tasted very good indeed. But my parents’ appetites were unadventurous (in fact, when she did make Spanish rice, my father refused to eat it, preferring instead to make his own concoction of milk, crumbled up crackers and shredded left-over bits of beef served in a cereal bowl). EGAD.
            I’m thrilled to be living in 2011 in the Metropolitan New York area: So many restaurants, so little time. I feel blessed to be able to get miso soup whenever I want, baklava or spanakopita, pasta fagioli or pesto, foods my parents never got to know very well (in their later years, I did try to introduce a few of them). And I’m also happy that, though I’ve tried to emulate my mother’s goodness and kindness as much as possible in my own life, I’ve not followed in her cooking footsteps. I am happy to serve my children chicken Marsala or pasta puttanesca, and I love experimenting with vegetarian dishes of all kinds (the more ginger, turmeric or curry the better).
            But I will say this: My mother made the best apple pie I’ve ever tasted, and her oatmeal cookies were out of this world. They weren’t too sweet, and with a glass of milk they were pure heaven. I’m reprinting her recipe here (with a slight adjustment: I use half whole wheat flour and half white, and all organic ingredients). I served these at a recent gathering and my friends couldn’t eat enough of them!
Virginia’s Oatmeal Cookies
Mix together:
2 cups brown sugar
1 cup melted butter
2 eggs
1 tsp baking soda dissolved in 1/3 cup hot water
2 cups oatmeal
2 cups flour (1 cup or more whole wheat, the rest white)
1 tsp cinnamon
drop onto cookie sheet and bake at 350 for 10 to 12 minutes

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Passing the Torch

Recently, I dropped my best friend’s kid off at Julliard (yes, the Julliard) for an interview  (I live near Manhattan, and it was “no big whoop” to get him there). Without going into details or divulging the secrets of his life, let’s just say that a few weeks later I learned that he was accepted! In the back of my mind, I have a vision of this “child” in his bassinet at the age of less than one week. I also remember giving his parents a collection of Beethoven records when they married; guess those notes seeped in.
A few days after that, I hired a young man to replace our leaking roof. It just so happened that this 22-year-old “kid” and his l9-year-old brother had pretty much grown up in my home. For years they were my own sons’ close friends: I used to help them with their homework after school, feed them popcorn, and watch them play softball. Now these “youngsters” were up on my roof, hammering nails and risking their lives.
Another child—a friend of my son’s—is in banking. He handles my money (or lack thereof).  Another kid—a young lady--is about to join the Peace Corps. Two more are heading off to grad school to study chemistry and math,  two subjects that I would flunk at the seventh-grade level were I to tackle them now.  My own son, about to graduate from college next month, will one day soon be designing real buildings instead of constructing Lego or Lincoln-Log homes.
            It’s kind of weird to watch your friends’ kids age. Most parents realize that their own children are going to grow up, even though we sometimes don’t really like to think about it. Still, we know that our job is to raise our children to become adults. That’s what we’re here for.
            But what about those other kids, the kids we watched line up for nursery school, perform in the Spring musical, or dribble balls on the Rec Center basketball court? We don’t ever really imagine them as grown-up men, or women.
            Until, one day, they are fixing our roofs, managing our finances, or composing the music for films that won’t be produced until we’re in our sixties…or beyond.
            I suppose this could depress me, but for some reason it makes me feel happy, hopeful and proud. Yes, I still have some dreams that I’m chasing and I don’t intend to give them up. But I’m also okay with the fact that a new generation is ready to step up to the plate. And whether they are hammering nails, writing operas, trading stocks, or anything else, I know they will do well. No, better than well. They will be magnificent!
            After all, I know their parents.  And, I trust that all those “kids” we nurtured and loved are ready to carry the torch.